Wednesday 28 May 2014

Maleficent review

Maleficent (PG, 97 mins)
Director: Robert Stromberg
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Disney re-imagines its own Sleeping Beauty story with this flipside told from the point of view of supposed villain, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie, who does just fine as a demon-witch with a soft side). A clunky start introduces us to warring kingdoms, one where Maleficent is a young fairy living contentedly, the other a land of greedy humans out for power. She turns dark after being betrayed by the future king and curses his baby daughter, Aurora (who grows into Elle Fanning) to fall into an eternal sleep on her 16th birthday. With a lot of frippery needed to pad out a wandering midsection that’s a mess of half-baked developments with nowhere really to go, this demonstrates that origin stories are largely a waste of time. The surrogate mother relationship between Maleficent and Aurora has some value though, and represents the film’s strongest card, even if it has rather had its thunder stolen by Frozen in that regard. It mostly looks great, with lavish castles and decent battles, though it’s too often smothered in dodgy CG creatures and the Scottish accents are honking.

Tuesday 27 May 2014

Edge of Tomorrow review

Edge of Tomorrow (12A/PG-13, 113 mins)
Director: Doug Liman
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

An early summer movie season that’s been fairly strong so far continues to tick along nicely with Edge of Tomorrow, a smart and fun sci-fi thriller which demonstrates that Tom Cruise is still one of the best in the business.

Even though this is a summer blockbuster that may have a premise like an episode of Star Trek, and even though it nods to most of the sci-fi action of the last 30 years, it still comes across as fairly original. It’s based on a novel called All You Need Is Kill and for all that it seems to be in the vein of Starship Troopers, the clear and unexpected touchstone is Groundhog Day.

News footage opens the film to fill us in on the backstory, which at first comes across as the kind of thing we’ve seen umpteen times before: an alien invasion has left earth on the brink of destruction and our forces are gearing up for one last make or break battle.

During this prologue we’ve been quietly introduced to Major William Cage (Cruise). In a nice twist, he’s not a hero but a media relations guy, prized more for his recruitment skills than his soldiering. But his superior (Brendan Gleeson) has plans to send him into the fray anyway during a low key start where he has to come to terms with being sent to the front line with no training and no clue.

The real hero is Rita (Emily Blunt), known as the Angel of Verdun since a successful mission against the aliens. Most of Europe has been destroyed and taken over, so the plan is for a Normandy landings-style incursion into France to take the fight to the enemy. These so-called Mimics are brilliantly designed many-tentacled beasties that recall the sentinels in The Matrix, scary, fast-moving and very hard to kill.

Saving Private Ryan is evoked as they drop onto the beaches of France to take on the aliens, only for everyone, including Cage and Rita, to be very quickly slaughtered. But here’s where the unique selling point of Edge of Tomorrow comes into play, as Cage wakes up to find himself at the start of the previous day. That day then plays out exactly as it did before, only he knows everything that’s going to happen because he’s already lived through it even if no one else has.

Day after day he sets out on the mission and day after he dies, unable to make much progress or save Rita. But finally something clicks on one of the days, and Rita tells Cage to come and find her when he, as it were, gets back to yesterday. She trains him how to better fight the Mimics, while he tells her what will happen tomorrow so they can survive for as long as possible.

That may sound like a complicated bit of shenanigans, but one of the key strengths here is that it’s all very clear to follow. Like a video game, Cage gets a bit further each time, learning from his mistakes and dying and restarting dozens, possibly hundreds of times until he gets it right.

It’s the very definition of repetitive action, with the beach landing and fight playing out over and over, but it’s far from a problem because we always get something a bit different. And it changes up as it progresses, taking us beyond the beach to the places their mission needs to go if it’s ever to succeed. There’s also room for some cheeky laughs in amongst all the dying, born out of Cage knowing the future and often at the expense of Bill Paxton’s hardnosed sergeant.

Blunt is convincing as a badass but no one sells this sort of thing like Cruise, who combines undimmed star power with the utmost sincerity so that we’re with him all the way no matter how preposterous the setup may be. His transformation into an action star may have come at the expense of more interesting dramatic roles but, even at the age of 51, all you need is Cruise.

Tuesday 20 May 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past review

X-Men: Days of Future Past (12A/PG-13, 131 mins)
Director: Bryan Singer
★ ★ ★ ★

For those not yet tired of mutant superhero action, here then is the seventh movie set in the X-Men universe. Some have been great, some have been misfires, but the series was shaken up a couple of years ago by X-Men: First Class, which showed us younger versions of the well-worn characters as they were in the 1960s.

Days of Future Past is a sequel to that prequel, and is being sold on the fact that it brings both casts together, so we get Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy as original and young Charles Xavier, and ditto Ian McKellen and Michael Fassbender as Erik/Magneto. The one constant has been Logan aka Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), because he doesn’t age.

It begins in the future following a devastating war, where the few remaining mutants are on the run from Sentinels, massive almost unstoppable machines that are threatening to wipe them out entirely. As Stewart asks in voiceover, is this future set or can it be changed?

The X-Men believe it can be changed and so come up with a plan to send Logan (or his consciousness at any rate) back to the 1970s to stop the chain of events that led to the creation of the Sentinels. In a nutshell this means stopping Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing the scientist (Peter Dinklage) who initiates the programme.

But of course it turns out to be a lot more complicated than that, leading to difficult decisions for many of the X-Men. This is a film that’s always more interested in its characters than its action, and that has to be thanks to its director. Bryan Singer hasn’t directed any of the films since X-Men 2 in 2003, but he shows why he was the right choice to return with a guiding hand, grounding it in the choices made by its protagonists while also being in complete command of the sprawling narrative.

The set pieces aren’t just elaborate displays of special effects and action, but driven by character and plot while moving the story forward at the same time. Generally the films end up turning into the Wolverine show, which as the original trilogy and two Wolverine spin-offs have demonstrated, can get a bit dull after a while. But this is the Mystique show, and everything depends on her.

An early sequence where the lightning-fast Quicksilver helps break Magneto out of the Pentagon is gloriously inventive and thrillingly executed. And it doesn’t skimp on humour either, offering good laughs without descending into camp.

There are a couple of niggles, generally to do with plot points that might find you asking “why?” a couple of times. If you attempted to draw a line through the chronology of the previous films, you’d probably find the timeline has been a bit squiffy anyway, so as with all time travel movies it might be best to just not worry about it. And Stewart, McKellen and co in the future end up getting a bit sidelined.

But there’s real-time danger and darkness linking the future and the past, and the stakes are massive. And thanks to the numerous highpoints and an ending that could possibly be described as perfect, in most regards this is as good as superhero movies get.

Tuesday 13 May 2014

Godzilla review

Godzilla (12A/PG-13, 123 mins)
Director: Gareth Edwards
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Director Gareth Edwards caused something of a splash with his no-budget sci-fi from a few years back, Monsters, albeit as much because of its cost than it actually being especially good.

The film’s reception and Edwards’ way with, well, monsters, was instrumental in landing him the gig for this mega-budget updating of a series that’s been a fixture of Japanese moviemaking for 60 years now.

A ropey Hollywood effort from 1998 was as much an excuse for director Roland Emmerich to blow up bits of New York in the style of his Independence Day as it was a remotely successful Godzilla movie, and is best quietly forgotten. But just a year on from Pacific Rim, whether audiences have the appetite for another monster mash remains to be seen.

Tonally this is very sober stuff compared to the cheesiness of the 1998 version, but it remains true to the origins of Godzilla, an allegorical product of post-Hiroshima disquiet and the thirst for nuclear testing in the 1950s.

We kick off in the Philippines in 1999 where scientists played by Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins discover enormous fossils underground. Meanwhile in Japan, Joe (Bryan Cranston) is an engineer at a nuclear plant which is experiencing tremors. Everyone thinks earthquake, but as Joe’s wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) dies in the resulting meltdown, he believes something else is afoot.

Fifteen years on from this their son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is in the navy, and has just returned to his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and son in San Francisco. Joe is still in Japan, living like a crackpot and trying to expose the cover up and prove it wasn’t a natural disaster.

This is all part of a lengthy setup that ends up taking up more screen time than it merits because it never really pays off down the line. It’s just one of a checklist of flaws to be ticked off that explain why this is a movie with a debit column bigger than its credits. It offers a commendable centre but little momentum, but the upshot of all the preamble is the release of a pair of insect-like creatures called Muto that feed on radiation.

Like on Monsters, Edwards certainly has empathy for them, which is fine, but it does rather come at the expense of being interested in the humans. For all the effort to add poignancy and emotional depth, there are no interesting characters to speak of.

It also thoroughly wastes a very respectable cast. Watanabe and Hawkins disappear into the background after a while with nothing to do but deliver clunky exposition. Cranston just yells a lot and Olsen barely registers as a presence. We spend most of the time with Taylor-Johnson, as he and the military chase the Muto across the Pacific.

But then all that groundwork is abandoned anyway for monsters fighting, because obviously in a film called Godzilla, you need some Godzilla. The enormous dinosaur-like creature is awakened from the depths and could end up being mankind’s only hope against the Muto.

A blockbuster shouldn’t live and die by the special effects, but in many ways that’s often as much as Godzilla has going for it, alongside a number of exquisitely composed and atmospheric shots. The visuals are astonishing, whether it’s the creatures tearing down entire cities or a tsunami devastating Honolulu.

The first big sighting is just about worth the wait and the one thing Edwards certainly manages to get right are the reveals. As Godzilla or the Muto appear from out of smoke or out of the sky to maul each other or a skyscraper, he’s able to deliver a handful of truly jaw-dropping sequences. Godzilla is huge and really quite unsettling as a presence, and in one or two moments the film touches on being a proper horror, posing genuine danger from these massive Lovecraftian beasties.

And yet it’s often to be found skimping on the action, cutting out early from the scraps and only showing us the aftermath rather than the main event. As a result the first two-thirds consist of an awful lot of teasing, although it could be argued that an all-out assault would be exhausting in a Transformers sort of way.

A little lightness of touch might have worked wonders too. It’s an entirely humourless affair, which makes you question the point of having something as silly as two hours of monsters hitting each other when it doesn’t try to make you smile once.

Enjoy the thrill of the few times when Godzilla lets rip with all his might, but mayhem isn’t really enough if you're not having fun with it.