Bastille Day

From director James Watkins is a foray into the action genre with Bastille Day. His past work has been primarily in horror, with acclaimed hits Eden Lake and Woman in Black.

Set in Paris a con man, Michael (Richard Madden), steals a bag belonging to Zoe (Charlotte Le Bon) which unknowingly to him contains a bomb. When the device detonates in the city centre CIA agent Sean Briar (Idris Elba) is put in charge of tracking Michael down.

Idris Elba and Richard Madden play off against each other very well, Elba as the super serious Briar and Madden as the immature conman have great chemistry together. Elba is blessed with a natural charisma that makes him easy to watch even when armed with the most underwritten of characters. Whilst Richard Madden holds his own as an entertaining pickpocket, with a few humorous moments. Neither of the pair completely master the American accents, but we’re also not in Dick Van Dyke territory so it doesn’t become too off putting. The action is suitably slick and steadily directed, though there are a lot of rapid cuts which threaten to break the cohesion of the action. The camera does remain steady though allowing most of the fight scenes to remain coherent. The style seems evocative of the Bourne Ultimatum and Taken, without ever excelling beyond either of these modern action favourites. The pickpocketing scenes are presented stylishly and are entertaining, especially compared to something like Focus from last year that made Will Smith’s thief seem somehow super-powered. However despite being superior in these circumstances Bastille Day constantly seems to be an imitation of other popular features released in the past few years without ever developing into something more unique. Setting the movie in Paris against the backdrop of the current tensions following the terrorist attacks is a weird choice for a film that seemingly doesn’t want to delve into such a highly divisive issue. The conflicted atmosphere of the cities multicultural classes is extorted by the films plot, but is never explored beyond the simplistic. Kelly Reilly is wasted as one of Briar’s co-workers; in a part that could have been portrayed by a box with the words “unimportant character” written on it. To have such a talented performer like Kelly Reilly in such a pointless role is mind boggling. Whilst Anatol Yusef (of Boardwalk Empire fame) is Briar’s superior, the one who likes to do things by the book and hates Briar for being such a loose cannon. Yusef is little more than a cliché obstacle whose main service to the narrative is to recite expositional backstory on other characters.

As a whole Bastille Day is little more than a run of the mill actioner, with nods to Taken, Focus and even Die Hard it struggles to find its own path. Elba and Madden do a fine job together, but there isn’t much too either of their characters worth thinking about. If you’re a fan of action then this may be something worth checking out, but be aware that there isn’t anything revolutionary about this Bastille Day.

2/5 Stars

Review by Alexander Halsall

The Jungle Book

The classic Rudyard Kipling Jungle Book stories have had a long, rippling, effect on literature and on screen. A lot of people, like me, have happy memories of sitting down and watching an old VHS tape of the 1967 Disney classic animation. Remakes and reboots have been a controversial issue, over the last decade especially, however I’ve always believed that with the right approach and methodology no filmic concept should be dismissed out of hand, and there is always potential in rediscovery.

Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is a man-cub raised by Raksha (Lupita N’yongo) among a wolf-pack led by Akela (Giancarlo Esposito). He was brought to the wolves as a baby by the Black Panther Bagheera (Sir Ben Kingsley) who has since served as a guardian to the boy. During a water truce between the animals of the jungle the fierce tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) threatens Mowgli’s life. To keep him safe Bagheera agrees to escort Mowgli to a nearby man village. Along the way Mowgli must deal with a multitude of other jungle creatures such as the snake Kaa (Scarlet Johansen), Gigantopithecus King Louie (Christopher Walken) and the free loving bear Baloo (Bill Murray).

Director Jon Favreau, DOP Bill Pope and the numerous talented visual artists responsible for the design of the film should be applauded for the fantastic world they have managed to create. Crafting a completely digital living jungle is breath taking enough but populating it with the amount of fantastically detailed environments and animals they have done is truly astounding. Neel Sethi is the only live action actor to appear in the film; however you immediately forget this thanks to the brilliant CGI The Jungle Book uses to conjure these creatures to being. Their lips sync perfectly with their speech and the movement whether crawling, walking, running or leaping is phenomenally realistic. The best work is that of the villainous Shere Khan, portrayed with brilliant menace by Idris Elba, whose beautiful design juxtaposes with his aggression and ruthlessness. Neel Sethi, in his first ever acting role, does an excellent job as Mowgli. Considering he spent the entire film shoot on a green screen reacting to pretend animals he delivers a touching and heartfelt performance that matches up to the prolific ensemble. Everybody in the cast delivers, but Bill Murray’s Baloo steals every scene he’s in. One of the most popular and beloved Disney creations of all time the role of Baloo was always going to be a difficult task but Murray’s combination of humour and heartfelt, and his relaxed, yet somehow powerful, line delivery have succeeded in bringing the character out of his animated ‘hibernation’ and back on the big screen to be loved all over again by young and old. The music is both nostalgically pleasing and impossibly triumphant, and how can anyone not like Christopher Walken as a giant monkey singing one of the jazziest songs of all time. There are a few narrative issues, problems with making the structure of the film work to be a successful collaboration of both Kipling’s story and the previous animated feature. But I’m not sure too many people are going to care thanks to the joyous romp that the film manages to be.

In the end it is a delight to report that The Jungle Book is a visual masterpiece, a fond nostalgia trip and one of the best films of the year so far rolled into one. Knowing that Warner Brothers also have a live action adaptation planned for release in 2018, directed by Andy Serkis, they’re going to have their work cut out as the bar has been set pretty darn high, and I highly recommend a trip to the jungle as an (undeserved smirk) ‘Bear-necessity’.

4/5 stars

Review by Alexander Halsall

The Huntsman: Winter’s War

I don’t believe sequels/prequels in and of themselves are bad things. If there is a worthwhile story to be told and the motivation behind a film’s creation is driven primarily from a desire to create something of value rather than simply using a recognisable property to make some easy money then why should a film be devalued because it is a continuation, or a re-imagining. However when a film does feel unwarranted, and offers a minimal appropriation for its own existence, it is rather natural to become somewhat frustrated at the lackadaisical attitude of film making on display. With that in mind let’s take a look at The Huntsmen: Winter’s War.

Taking place before the events of Snow White and The Huntsmen Freya (Emily Blunt), sister of Ravenna (Charlize Theron), has given birth to a child. When the baby is killed by its father Freya’s dormant ice powers burst forth and she kidnaps children from their families in order to build an army. Two of these children, Eric (Chris Hemsworth) and Sara (Jessica Chastain), fall in love (Which Freya has forbidden) which leads them to rebel against her rule.

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The films overly convoluted narrative structure makes it a strenuous and confusing viewing. It serves as both a prequel, and a sequel, to Snow White and the Huntsmen but feels unimpressively stitched together. It never finds a unique voice of its own, whilst being riddled with cliché, and incoherent storytelling.  The addition of Emily Blunt as Freya seems like an attempt to appeal to the massive Frozen fan base to see a grittier live action interpretation of the character of Elsa, one whose motivations seem ridiculous and implausible. I’ve never seen Emily Blunt seem so lethargic and lifeless. As a fantastic actress it has taken some truly exhaustively dour writing to dull her remarkable talents, but dulled she is. Charlize Theron doesn’t chew the scenery, but delves into a three course meal of performance excess, whilst Jessica Chastain is wasted completely as the shallowly characterised Sara. Hemsworth has a lot of charm and charisma, but even he wears thin as the film concludes. The comical support of Nick Frost, Rob Brydon and Sheridan Smith as a group of dwarves are pretty hit and miss, though Smith is unarguably the stand out ensemble performer. Winter’s War is the directorial debut of visual effects artist Cedric Nicolas-Troyan (Who worked on the previous film) and unsurprisingly some of the interesting visual designs are the films strongest aspect, such as Ravenna’s magic mirror and Freya’s ice owl.

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Winter’s War is a poorly constructed time sink. A handful of nicely assorted special effects and a couple of astutely choreographed fight scenes aside there isn’t anything of merit or substance. If you were a fan of the first film and are searching for more detail and backstory regarding the characters then this may have some interest for you, however the incoherence of the narrative and the competency of the execution may leave you in want. Again sequels/prequels are not negative things in of themselves, and there are numerous examples to prove this. The Huntsmen: Winters War is not one of these though, and hopefully we will see the talented cast and crew of this feature embark on a project more deserving of their time in the future.

 

Zack Snyder – Top 5 Films

On account of the release of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice I thought I’d crack out a top 5 list in Zack Snyder’s honour.

5# Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole (2010)

Legend of the Guardians

So this film lacked in narrative, story, and originality. But in terms of pure visual depth it may be Snyder’s most impressive film. A must for fans of computer animation as over 500 artists and animators poured their heart and soul into creating a spectacularly immersive world well worth drooling over.

Fun Fact: Legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins consulted on the ‘look’ of the film.

4# Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

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Again there are issues, but the style and tone are consistent, and Ben Affleck takes to the role remarkably well. It’s an improvement on Man of Steel and contains enough boisterous energy and pure volume that there is bound to be something to like for everyone, perhaps plenty to dislike as well though.

Fun Fact: Jena Malone (Hunger Games Franchise) was cast as Barbara Gordon, but her scenes were cut.

3# Dawn of the Dead (2004)

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Remaking a horror classic, it’s been done plenty of times, but not often with such success. It’s intense, bloody and moves at a frantic pace. Despite a last act that fails to match up it was an impressive debut that was unique from Romero’s 1978 original. Sarah Polley and Ving Rhames impressed as a couple of the survivors in the post-apocalyptic film.

Fun Fact: George A. Romero watched the remake and confessed to enjoying the first 20 minutes, the rest of it not so much.

2# Watchmen (2009)

Watchmen

Considered impossible to bring to the screen by many previous directors attached to the project but this was an exciting attempt. Bringing the pages of Alan Moore’s graphic novel to life Snyder utilised a remarkable visual palette at times. Again it is not perfect, tangling up at the midway point. But it fails in attempting to achieve greater things, and is a worthy adaptation.

Fun Fact:  Jeffrey Dean Morgan originally turned down the role of the Comedian when he saw he was killed off on page 3 of the script. His agent told him to continue reading as he reappeared in flashbacks.

1# 300 (2007)

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A simple story, but brilliantly executed. Snyder first displayed his enthusiasm for adapting graphic novels with this retelling of the battle of Thermopylae. It’s about as historically accurate as Muppet’s in Space, but it’s themes and motifs are resonant, and the images are striking and seismic. Snyder’s never been a concise storyteller, and I think 300’s simpler structure allows Snyder to focus on flourishing his more dynamic visual tricks without sacrificing narrative structure.

Fun Fact: Michael Fassbender’s feature film debut.

This list was wrangled and coerced to exist by Alexander Halsall

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

*Warning – Mild spoiler alert (Nothing that wasn’t in the trailer though)

Having sat back and watched this film get savaged upon release by critics, and succeed exponentially at the box office, I finally had the opportunity to see one of this year’s most anticipated releases. Directed by Man of Steel helmsman Zack Snyder the film chronicles the ideological battle between two of the most famous superheroes in the world, Batman and Superman.

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It’s been 18 months since the events of Man of Steel when Superman (Henry Cavill) pretty much totalled Metropolis in his fight against General Zod. Turns out Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) was there that day, and horrified by the destruction of Superman’s altercation with his fellow alien Batman has made it his mission to find and “immobolize” this threat.

Superman has always been a difficult character to translate to screen. His earnest morality makes him troublesome to adapt to complex storylines, especially in a realistic setting such as Snyder’s Metropolis. Cavill does his best to create a compelling character but I don’t feel the script gives him much to work with and his arc seems repetitive and dull. He never seems to develop, and his characterisation is caught between his morality and Snyder’s attempts to create a grittier Superman, resulting in an unclear blandness. On the other hand Affleck’s portrayal of Bruce Wayne as a paranoid, grief stricken man on the edge is much more decisive and interesting. Snyder’s tenacious, visceral; imagery seems to mesh better with Batman’s naturally darker inclinations. This moulded with Affleck’s Batman, who seems like he has worn the mask for so long it has clouded his morality and corrupted his judgement, is one of the films strongest aspects. I wouldn’t call him the definitive Batman, yet, as Keaton, Bale and Conroy have all delivered interesting portrayals of the character in the past, but it’s a very strong start. Jeremy Irons is effortlessly brilliant as Alfred, however his screen time is unjustly limited, while Jesse Eisenberg’s in full scenery feasting mode as a megalomaniacal Lex Luthor. Unlike some I wasn’t as irritated by Eisenberg’s performance and I felt his motivations were one of the clearer threads in an otherwise tangled narrative. Amy Adam’s doesn’t have an opportunity to do much as Lois Lane, again not her fault, whilst Gal Gadot’s small role as Wonder Woman was understandably enigmatic, but I am interested in seeing her in a starring role next year.

Superman

The film’s opening two acts are quite strong, with the occasional foible, but things start to unravel following a rather underwhelming brawl between the two eponymous superheroes. The last act is a bloated mess, rather than a satisfying resolution. Superman’s ultimate weakness in the film isn’t kryptonite but just being boring. The film has to cobble together some giant creature (Yes I know he’s Doomsday) for Superman to have an opponent who can match him, whilst Batman stands behind a wall shooting an occasional grenade like a renegade member of the Gotham SWAT team. The films best action sequence? It’s not Batman v Superman, or the Doomsday fight. It’s when Batman takes on a group of about thirty men in a warehouse. It’s visceral, brilliantly choreographed, and one of the best directed sequences of the film. The character feels vulnerable, the hits feel real, and if Superman took on thirty guys in a warehouse it would be incredibly boring because he could do it without trying.

The film has an impressive style, and I think there are some promising signs in the future for the DC cinematic universe, but Batman v Superman does lack clarity and vision. The ideological battle of the two leads is discarded in favour of shoe horning in a CGI knock off of a LOTR cave troll for Superman, and Wonder Woman to duke it out with, whilst Batman occasionally swoops by on a grappling hook. The final act is a let-down, and may be why the film has received a generally negative reception, but the work up to that point was nicely constructed and investing enough to keep me interested for the future of the Justice League.

*** out of *****

Review summoned to being by Alexander Halsall

Eddie the Eagle

Following the success of his two previous efforts, Wild Bill and Sunshine on Leith, Dexter Fletcher directs this “feel good” biopic of notorious British ski jumper Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards, with Matthew Vaughn producing.

Eddie Edwards (Taron Egerton) is a young man who has spent his entire life dreaming to be an Olympian. Having eventually settled on competing at downhill skiing in the Winter Olympics he is turned down by the British Olympic Association, but discovers he could have a chance of making it as a ski jumper instead. Along the way he meets former ski jumping athlete Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman) and despite initially rocky beginning forms a partnership in attempting to fulfil his Olympic ambitions.

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First off Egerton and Jackman have a lot of chemistry together, and their scenes have a succinct, enjoyable rhythm both comically and in the films more dramatic moments. I was impressed with Egerton’s performance as Eddie, and felt he accomplished ably within his role in the film. Whilst Jackman is an experienced and charismatic screen veteran on point and at times enjoyable and humorous. However, yes I’m sorry there is a however, pretty much everything else about Eddie the Eagle felt somewhat underwhelming. I understand the presence of cliché and formula within filmmaking and that when used effectively they can create a narrative structure within which a film can build upon and develop into something unique to itself, but an over allowance of such can create a sense of uninspiring familiarity.

No one should have any business not enjoying a film about a man called Eddie the Eagle, an underdog, rising above his comrades by fighting for his right to be an Olympian, to be recognised for his attributes. Personally I love that kind of stuff, sign me up. Rocky? I love it. The Karate Kid? Must have seen it fifty times. Rudy? Tear jerking stuff. Eddie the Eagle? It comes across as shallow and formulaic. Like a check list of things needed to make a film about a sporting underdog. The real issue underlining this, well, have you heard of a film called Cool Runnings? I’m quite the fan. When I saw the poster I assumed Hugh Jackman was going to be the North American former pro who disgraced his own coach and now lives an introverted existence haunted by the guilt of what he did in the past, a bit like John Candy in Cool Runnings. Turns out I was right; though Candy was Canadian I suppose. What Cool Runnings had was an absurdist premise that was universally laughable. The challenge seemed greater, the film was funnier, and the execution was tearfully gratifying. It’s ideological consensus about the Olympics being an advent not of success in victory, but in teamwork, sportsmanship, and the struggles of competing itself were inspiring in 1993 and are still sort of now, twenty three years later, with Eddie the Eagle. Cool Runnings wasn’t without cliché or familiarity, but between the structure that these clichés created were interesting characters, great writing, and a swaggering reggae energy that gave the film a unique voice. Something Eddie the Eagle lacks.

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Eddie the Eagle isn’t dislikeable. It lands a couple of steady emotional punches, but it doesn’t swing with anything you wouldn’t expect. Perhaps it’s fitting that a biopic about Eddie the Eagle should be a likeable underachievement. It sticks the landing and gets on the board, but does little else. If you haven’t seen Cool Runnings then it could be worth checking out. Or even better just watch Cool Runnings and, like me, you’ll be singing songs about the Jamaican bobsled team.

** out of *****

Review cobbled together by Alexander Halsall