Captain America: Civil War (2016)

★★★★★

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Captain America Civil War PosterDirectors: Anthony and Joe Russo

Release Date: April 29th, 2016 (UK); May 6th, 2016 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science fiction

Starring: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Sebastian Stan, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie

Cards on the table: I’m a massive Captain America fan. Film series and character, but especially character. In The First Avenger, Steve Rogers is puny. A frail, ailing body with great aspirations and an admirable mantra. So he becomes a super solider and fights for his country against the Nazis. It’s great. By the time The Winter Soldier rolls around, Rogers is doing laps of the Capitol building in the year 2013. From the confident patriot, he’s now the unsettled defender of American freedom in a truly globalist world. It turns out Hydra has infected SHIELD; Rogers’ reliance on authority takes a hit. He still fights for freedom, but against whom?

Fast forward to Captain America: Civil War. His corporate distrust has never been more palpable — Rogers, once a willing propaganda figure for the USA, is now thoroughly anti-government. Which poses something of a problem given a guilt-ridden Tony Stark (he funds the projects of MIT students as it “helps ease his conscience”) has aligned himself with a legal arrangement drawn up by the United Nations to help govern superhero affairs. It’s why this incarnation of Stark, completely different from the incarnation relayed by Robert Downey Jr. in the first Iron Man movie, is so interesting. Just like Rogers, Stark has flipped, but in the opposite direction: no longer the rebel, now a willing integrator. And we sympathise with that penchant for integration as much as we do Rogers’ disassociation.

The aforementioned Sokovia Accords are developed in harmony by a conglomerate of nations following the Avengers’ role in the destruction of various cities across the globe. Spearheaded by the UN, the Accords split the protagonists evenly down the middle with Rogers heading up the ‘out’ gang and Stark the ‘in’. From the moment sides are established, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely serve up viable sparring justifications: Rogers fears the new world and its new politics, and believes each superhero should be accountable for his or her own actions. Stark regrets the path his actions have paved, that in shaping a team of valiant world-defenders he has also bred deadly foes like Ultron.

Markus and McFeely have been with Captain America from the beginning and they’ve done the character justice on the page, though kudos also ought to go to those who have helped shape Iron Man. You really feel the weight of history behind each persona and both actors use that pre-established weight with considered aplomb — the first glance between Rogers and Stark in Civil War is momentary, fleeting, and yet the definitive visual symbol for what is to come (spoiler: a disagreement or two). It occurs during a crisis meeting where the film tests our moral mettle via a slideshow showing Avengers-induced decimation, a meeting notable not only because it sets the fragmentation touchpaper alight, but also because it represents the bureaucracy in Stark’s argument.

We see more of that bureaucracy later: when the returning General Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) cuts a mission deadline from 72 to 36 hours, for instance, and also during a key UN conference. “Victory at the expense of the innocent is no victory at all,” states Wakandan leader T’Chaka (John Kani) at said meeting. These are significant words in any circumstance, but coming off the back of Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky — its premise based on powerful people juggling a young girl’s life before a potentially deadly terrorist strike — they resonate with significantly more gravitas. They place Rogers in a predicament that is ethically unusual for a blockbuster hero, especially one built upon a foundation of untainted righteousness: in arguing for free will, Rogers is by proxy defending the notion that some may die on the road to ultimate freedom.

There are grey tendencies in both camps that serve to ripen the narrative core. The ultimatum posed to the Avengers that they must sign the Accords or retire comes across as too heavy-handed, autocratic almost, while Rogers’ stubbornness suggests an insurmountable ideological purity that is perhaps blinding him from the harsh realities of modern geopolitics. The density of the fractured dynamic between those involved, especially between the lead duo, is endlessly compelling and fairly new to the genre I think, at least to the extent depicted here — you could argue X-Men: First Class tackled something similar, though even then Magneto’s presence shepherded a noticeable cloud of villainy.

Previous Marvel movies have been chastised for their lack of proper stakes, for their inability to suspend our disbelief when it comes to decisive matters such as estrangement or death. The nature of announcing franchise instalments years in advance has undoubtedly tainted the element of surprise (chances are Thor will make it past the end credits of Film Two when he’s on the call sheet for Film Three). Which makes Civil War all the more impressive. There are stakes this time, genuine gut-punchers centred on the solidity of relationships between various characters with whom we’ve spent the better part of a decade. If you don’t get that sense of clout from seeing such personal combustion, the frequent use of bold text to outline numerous city names ought to induce a big-time aura.

And despite all the bickering, there remains a wonderfully light touch; a vitality, a hilarity. At times the action is brutish — an apartment ambush involving Cap and Bucky (Sebastian Stan) borrows tepidly from the more crunching style seen in both Daredevil and Jessica Jones. It’s also fantastical: a monumental airport duel between the two teams almost certainly trounces all that has come before in terms of Marvel silver screen choreography. It’s at this point Ant-Man comes to the fore, Paul Rudd stealing scene after scene atop a wave of witty quips. We have seen him before but this is Ant-Man’s introduction to large scale superheroism and it is perfectly handled. Tom Holland’s Spider-Man is another positive, a bit immature, a bit overawed, a total do-gooder.

Though it may become ground zero for those looking to pull off their own future balancing act when it comes to handling personnel in an action environment, the airport clash only amounts to around one-fifth of Civil War’s runtime. The filmmakers manage to carve out meaningful narrative space for all their recruits throughout the piece in a way that does not indicate last minute hot-shotting. Black Panther gets a solid run-out, played with brooding authority by Chadwick Boseman who affords the newbie an air of instant importance. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow returns in a role that requires as much emotional interaction as it does ass-kicking.

Having landed the daunting task of sorting out so many moving parts — different enemies, different friends, different allegiances — the Russo brothers succeed by matching those variables to the many moving moralities on display. I haven’t even mentioned Paul Bettany’s Vision, Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch, or Anthony Mackie’s Falcon. Nor have I brought up Daniel Brühl’s scheming villain Helmut Zemo, who might be a tad underserved but then it isn’t really about the baddie on this occasion. This is a formidable cast all in good form. Even Marisa Tomei sneaks in a playful jab clarifying aunts come in all shapes and sizes (take that internet).

Anyone who has any inkling of how blockbuster cinema works will likely recognise what they perceive to be a predictable arc unfolding. But the directing duo and their filmmaking collaborators work hard to induce genuine unpredictability, be it through character decision-making or surprising story reveals. Again the Russo brothers mix hard-boiled geopolitics with a palooza of popcorn-crunching proportions, and again they succeed. In trilogy terms, the Captain America series is by far the best the genre has cooked up to date (Nolan’s Dark Knight films are as much superhero movies as they are love stories) and Civil War is an ideal way to Cap it all off.

Captain America: Civil War - Chris Evans

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

★★★

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice PosterDirector: Zack Snyder

Release Date: March 25th, 2016 (UK & US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Fantasy

Starring: Henry Cavill, Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Amy Adams

It’s not ideal when Warner Bros’ DC-Extended-Universe-launching Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice opens with the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents, something we’ve seen a million times. And when shortly thereafter a bat levitation sequence greets the screen, you start to wonder how much hassle it’d be to squeeze past the people in your row while heading for the exit. Fortunately, it transpires the bat levitation horror is part of a dream sequence and, fortunately, better things start to happen. Wonder Woman shows up, for one. Also known as Diana Prince, she is fuelled by a magnificent grunge-rock theme, her steely identity reinforced by Gal Gadot’s very believable sense of authority.

Conversely, authority is what Lex Luthor lacks, and this quality trade-off sums the movie up — as good as it is bad. In simple terms, the film revolves around Luthor’s war manifesto: he wants Batman and Superman to destroy each other so he can rule the world, or something. Luthor is an oddball played with typical eccentricity by Jesse Eisenberg, a blend of James Franco’s Harry Osborn and a young Steve Jobs, but madder. Violin strings squawk whenever he appears, rambling about this and that, rarely making sense and never really cementing himself in any sort of cohesive way. He fulfils the usual big-corp-honcho-posing-as-a-philanthropist remit, unavoidable given the nature of adapting iconic comic book characters, but nonetheless tired by this point.

Eisenberg does try to mask Luthor’s commonality: there’s hardly a moment when the actor isn’t sparking vocal idiosyncrasies and, if you’ll excuse the faint praise, this at least gives the character a strange watchability. Luthor suffers from a lack of focus because there are so many moving parts, too many for writers Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer to mould legibly. See, character-wise, those present aren’t the only ones afforded set-up time. A Joker reference nods towards the upcoming Suicide Squad film. We see other future players too, though I would be remiss to give away the game in a review. Such a scattergraph approach attests to the film’s overarching problem — unbridled messiness. This is as much a franchise player as any Marvel jaunt, perhaps even more so since Snyder has to colour the narratives of so many bare pawns.

The mess extends beyond personnel; some moments appear hastily written, including an exchange right at the beginning where Wayne orders an employee to evacuate everyone from a building on a collision course with Superman and General Zod (surely everyone would have already scampered). It’s a return to the conclusion of Man of Steel but from Wayne’s ground zero perspective. Sure enough, the building tumbles — a Bruce Wayne building — and we have our central conceit: Wayne blames Superman for the destruction and, like Luthor, wants to end the Kryptonian’s apparent clumsiness. Yet the dust cloud that forms following said collapse ushers in a more interesting discussion than anything levied by the Bat of Gotham versus Son of Krypton action-fest. It’s a physical manifestation of the domestic terror that has threatened urban centres with impetus since 9/11, a theme the film runs with for an hour, swapping 9/11 for Metropolis duel.

There’s anger too, primarily on the Bat front. Christopher Nolan’s Batman had a streak of grounded and gritty reality, whereas this Snyder incarnation abides by something more militant: the steely armour, the bulked up costume, the egregious surveillance, his branding of enemies. And while Nolan’s version felt less ‘idealistic superhero’ and more ‘corruption crusader’, a man truly immersed in his surroundings, the version Affleck portrays here has only a single broad stroke to work with. Affleck hasn’t had the time to embed his version of the character into the prospective DC landscape, therefore it is difficult to understand his psyche and run with his arc. We only really see him for what he is: a vigilante with weapons and a bone to pick.

It is worth noting Batman does carry some allure and Affleck is good in the role. Henry Cavill is too, though his protagonist is significantly less interesting. The key idea surrounding his Superman threatens intrigue — he is the alien, the immigrant, the other targeted by Batman (the homegrown defender, the familiar in an unfamiliar world) because of his undemocratic power. Few comic book characters are more symbolic than Clark Kent’s alter ego, but he exists at a time when people cannot stand for anything because “it’s not 1938”. Moral righteousness has no place in this tainted wasteland and some don’t trust Superman, nor his upstanding mantra, for that reason. Anti-alien rallies cosy up with real life immigration debates, a comparison that gains further traction when we see Mexican Day of the Dead revellers side with their saviour.

But as a standalone character, he isn’t all that compelling. It’s probably a personal thing but I don’t quite see much attraction in an almost indestructible hero. We watch as Superman saves civilians from floods and fires and you wonder why anybody would hold a grudge against the guy — he is almost too good, too successful. And for someone who spends his spare time in a newsroom, it still boggles the mind that none of his colleagues are able to connect the Kent-Super dots. Lois also feels like a bit of a fifth wheel; she gets some reporting gigs and Amy Adams is fine, but there isn’t anything new going on. Her relationship with Kent advances little, for instance — she still believes in him and he still loves her.

Despite a promising first act, Snyder falls foul of his Man of Steel misdemeanours and throws caution to the CG wind via the film’s inevitable big battle (which, by the way, is sold on a falsehood). The physical saga feels bloated and is tough to engage with as you don’t yet believe in those doing the punching. Whereas the opening hour soars visually across scorching desert locales and through symbolic shots of Batman watching over his city, the second half of the movie gorges on disorienting and choppy action, both dimly lit and loudly enacted. It’s probably not as bad as the Man of Steel disaster but only because Wonder Woman is around on this occasion.

“So what does a rock have to do with homeland security?” asks Holly Hunter’s Kentucky Senator June Finch early on. Well, the film does devolve into a clash with a large Golem-like creature, where concrete buildings again suffer and gravelly terrain floods urban zones. And sure, that type of thing regularly happens in Marvel land, but Marvel land is also home to a multitude of richly-imbued characters. There is this idea sewn throughout Batman v Superman that power and goodness cannot coexist. The film has a lot of surface power and it’s no better than quite good, though there are artefacts worth salvaging.

Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice - Henry Cavill

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros.

London Has Fallen (2016)

★★

London Has Fallen PosterDirector: Babak Najafi

Release Date: March 3rd, 2016 (UK); March 4th, 2016 (US)

Genre: Action; Crime; Thriller

Starring: Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart

“Vengeance must always be profound and absolute,” sneers a baddie at the beginning of Babak Najafi’s London Has Fallen, sequel to Olympus Has Fallen. That movie wasn’t particularly good, though it still holds superiority over its younger British sibling, which is a pretty damning indictment of Najafi’s effort. As it transpires, vengeance is neither profound nor absolute. What is absolute is London Has Fallen’s failure to assert any sort of moral vigour, and boy does it try hard. This is a film that begins with an American-led drone strike — the strike lands somewhere in the Middle East and kills a bunch innocent civilians — and then concludes with a lot of western brouhaha. Gerard Butler’s pretty good, mind you.

An early morning jog unhealthily recants Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and London Has Fallen never really recovers. Why we find Special Agent Mike Banning (Butler) out jogging is a mystery anyway — this is a guy with an unpainted nursery room awaiting his handiwork at home. Banning is expecting a child with his wife, played by Radha Mitchell, whose limited screen time only marginally lags behind that awarded to both Angela Bassett and Charlotte Riley. The lack of time for the latter is a real shame given Riley’s sparky attitude imbues the piece with some much-needed freshness late on.

Ah yes: the nursery. We watch as Banning does a bit of home décor, all the while hoping upon hope he won’t get called away from his family to serve President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart). And why should he be called? It’s not as if Banning is the President’s most trusted right-hand man. Only, he is, though not for long: Banning has his resignation letter typed and ready to send. Finally he will be free to live a comfortable life with his wife and future child. It’ll be grea– wait, hold on. The British Prime Minister just died. Big funeral. All heads of state invited. Damn, so close.

And so we voyage across the pond, fingers crossed that the day will run smoothly. Of course, it turns out the Russian President can’t be bothered showing up because, y’know, Putin joke. Neither David Cameron nor Vladimir Putin are mentioned by name — the British PM is instead referred to as James Wilson, though the Russian President receives no such treatment. Prohibitive legalities taken into consideration, this random-name-generator approach infects proceedings with an early dose of second-handedness that the film really could do without. Elsewhere, it’s a case of broad strokes: the Italian PM is depicted as frisky, the French leader as fashionably late.

In fairness, nobody is buying a ticket to see a screenwriting masterclass, but even the basic story formulation feels lazy. When it isn’t flip-flopping between watery thematic substance and vaguely racist punchlines, we get to sit through Secret Service meetings during which potential terrorist plots are dismissed far too easily. And absolutely everything is telegraphed: ominous brassy horns sound out as Banning details the President’s route through London, foreshadowing trouble with as much subtlety as a jumbo jet taking off. Then there’s the godmother conversation that reveals whose death is pending. This sort of blatancy leaves us with no dramatic handle to cling on to.

There are a few decent things afoot. The London setting works as a familiar backdrop and it’s enjoyable seeing the characters race around the city. One shot especially stands out: as an air raid siren booms, the camera pans back from ground level towards the sky, its focus fully on Banning and Asher as they navigate ghost streets. Props should go to cinematographer Ed Wild and director Najafi for this brief juncture of inspiration. And when the piece refuses to take itself seriously, there is mild fun to be had (including one or two well-conceived action sequences). Rather than ill-judged attempts at joining the political conversation, London Has Fallen should embrace its silliness more. White House Down managed its limitations well, opting for nuttiness over seriousness with some success, and this ought to have following suit.

We do see visual prowess, then, but ultimately there is no escaping the absurd special effects. A river blast looks like something out of a video game cutscene. A bridge collapses in Final Destination style (not London Bridge, oddly). And it doesn’t seem to be a case of hokey-on-purpose, but rather just poor visual integration. There is a disconnect between scene-setting shots, which take on a grainy quality hinting at realism, and silly-looking explosions. On a side note: at one point events fly stateside, to Washington, D.C. and to a White House that looks in tiptop shape following its destruction in Olympus Has Fallen. Somewhere, a plasterer deserves one heck of a raise.

London Has Fallen unmasks the US President as damn competent with a weapon and then reckons it can contribute to the debate over the perils of modern warfare. The entire saga is far too flippant to get away with any of it: not the nervy and misguided faux-justification of terrorism via wheelchair reveal, nor its self-forgiving attitude towards unethical war. American Sniper suffered from a jingoistic eyesore and this evokes a similar blindness — it really doesn’t have a moral leg to stand on. If anything, you leave the cinema severely disliking everybody. Apart from Gerard Butler obviously. Have you seen him batter Jimmy Fallon with a giant hand?

London Has Fallen - Gerard Butler & Aaron Eckhart

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Gramercy Pictures, Lionsgate

Grimsby (2016)

★★

Grimsby PosterDirector: Louis Leterrier

Release Date: February 24th, 2016 (UK); March 11th, 2016 (US)

Genre: Action; Comedy

Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Strong

Should you walk into a screening of this latest Sacha Baron Cohen flick not knowing what exactly to expect, you’ll be brought up to speed almost immediately. The first thing we see is a sweaty, mouthy sex scene between Cohen and Rebel Wilson, and here’s the kicker: it takes place atop a mattress in a furniture store. Thankfully Cohen, playing Grimsby goof Nobby Butcher, chooses to purchase said mattress having already christened it. We watch him wheel the thing home using an abandoned shopping trolley; he’s docked out in an England strip and is sporting a 90s britpop hairdo. Meanwhile, Blur’s “Parklife” blares in the background.

It gets much grosser than an in-store romp, though Louis Leterrier’s Grimsby never matches the unfiltered rowdiness of Borat, Cohen’s pinnacle comedic achievement. The film tries — you’ll know it when you see it — but the actor, once a laudable harbinger of satirical bite (and he may be still), is suffocated by a plethora of unoriginal sexual antics. Obvious targets are set up to be shot down: Bill Cosby, blandly, and Donald Trump, more amusingly. Smarter quips are less prevalent, though there is at least one (“Chilcott was dismissed for good reason,” claims an agency insider). It doesn’t want to be that sort of film, which is fine, but the invention isn’t there to justify a simple 90-minute yuck-fest.

An opening Call of Duty action sequence makes use of Leterrier’s background in the genre (The Transporter, The Incredible Hulk): we take the viewpoint of Mark Strong’s Sebastian as he leaps onto vehicles and sends enemies flying with a barrage of roundhouse kicks. The violent obstacle course suitably concludes just as “Directed by Louis Leterrier” hits the screen. Sebastian is an MI6 agent and also Nobby’s brother, though the two haven’t been together since their childhood separation. Inevitably, their reunion sees the latter interrupt the former during a mission, resulting in the shooting of an ill, wheelchair-bound youngster and the escape of Sebastian’s actual target. And so, the brothers find themselves on the run.

In tandem with Cohen’s screenplay — co-written with long-time partner Peter Baynham and Wreck-It Ralph story moulder Phil Johnston — Leterrier attempts to infuse proceedings with that Edgar Wright sense of snap and whizz. It doesn’t work. Partly because the centrepiece jokes are based around sequences that overstay their welcome, thus any built-up momentum succumbs to comedic culling. But the use of flashbacks is also a great hindrance: we see the brothers as annoying kids, loud, sweary and arrogant. Not exactly the sympathetic formula required to make us feel for them when they are split up via fostering.

“Cigarettes & Alcohol” is the soundtrack to the film’s best scene: Nobby, having ditched the football jersey, dons his brother’s spy gear (including a black turtleneck jumper) and saunters forth in slow motion with enough Liam Gallagher swagger to match his Liam Gallagher mod mullet and sideburns combo. It is funny because you can feel a similar sort of pay-off building from the moment Leterrier intercuts Northern English football culture with britpop tunes and britpop attire. And it works because you believe in Cohen’s false big-headedness. He is fairly good as Nobby, it’s just that Nobby isn’t a particularly intriguing character.

The return of Barkhad Abdi to the silver screen is a welcome one, even though his role (drug runner) demands very little from a former Academy Award nominee. Booze comedian Johnny Vegas and Royle Family mainstay Ricky Tomlinson have fleeting supporting roles as two of Grimsby’s football-loving troupe: set during the 2016 World Cup, if ever there was something within the narrative to exemplify the film’s lack of reality or relevance, it would be the England national football team’s success. On the female side of things, Isla Fisher plays a helpful MI6 agent stuck behind mobile phones and computer screens while Penélope Cruz, well, has another portfolio credit.

Fans of Cohen might still enjoy this tamer-in-execution offering so long as they enter not expecting the piercing offence prevalent in earlier outings. Grimsby is basically just Johnny English Reborn, the not-so-good one, but with cruder jokes. There is a working class versus establishment thing going on, I think, but both sides are so plainly drawn nothing new or interesting sees the light of day. This is no Kingsman, which struck the correct balance between heightened impact and genre appreciation. Having said all of that, I did learn of Grimsby and Chernobyl’s twin city relationship. Wait, that was a joke?

Grimsby - Mark Strong & Sasha Baron Cohen

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Columbia Pictures

Deadpool (2016)

★★★

Deadpool PosterDirector: Tim Miller

Release Date: February 10th, 2016 (UK); February 12th, 2016 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Comedy

Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin, Ed Skrein

When you strip away the humour, the action and the madcap characters, Ryan Reynolds’ decade-long pet project is a standard revenge tale. Reynolds plays Wade Wilson, a cocky mercenary who becomes the seemingly invincible — and significantly cockier — Deadpool following an immoral experiment designed to cure his cancer. To make matters worse, Ajax (Ed Skrein, honouring his Britishness through elongated pauses and exaggerated vowels), the man who dished out said experimentation, now has it in for Wilson’s on/off lover, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). What we’ve got then is an unethical Robin Hood whose payback meter is on the brink of breaking point. Quite straightforward really.

Justly, a slow motion opening sequence ushers in the prevailing two-fingered mood. Rather than the names of the actors involved, we’re graced with the generic roles they will be playing: “A gratuitous cameo, a British villain, a hot chick.” Such blanket roles form part of an assault on the genre, supported by profanity-laden wisecracks. That’s all Deadpool is really, one giant gag. The jokes are self-referential to no end, and many of them aren’t even jokes — invoking names like McAvoy and Stewart, for instance, doesn’t take that much effort. A Detroit quip suggests smarter thoughts are at play, but they seem drowned out by an unflappable need to guffaw at anything genital-related.

Yet on the visual side of things, the film exceeds its own humorous expectations. Laughter might be hard to come by verbally, but visually director Tim Miller has crafted a goldmine: from an early shot of Deadpool popping his head out of the window of an overturned vehicle to arguably the movie’s funniest moment, a joke based around a mask. The latter works because Miller and cinematographer Ken Seng are careful in its construction, opting to tease us by positioning their camera at a certain angle. Another effective shot sees Wilson journey to his torture destination aboard a stretcher, creepily reimagining a similar scene in Jacob’s Ladder.

Perhaps the greatest flaw in Deadpool isn’t anything to do with the film itself, but its retrospectively overcooked marketing campaign. If you consider not just the punchlines but also the build up to those punchlines, there are probably around 30 or 40 minutes of Deadpool that anyone who has seen the trailers (which is everyone) will be familiar with. This means the jokes land with less oomph in the cinema, if any oomph at all — you could argue the best jokes are those that generate a laugh irrespective of how they are heard, which isn’t the case here. Here, repetition sucks the life out of would-be key moments, such as the opening vehicular mayhem or the standoff between Deadpool’s crew and Ajax’s gang.

By railing against the typical genre trappings, you would expect the film to at least offer something different upon nearing its conclusion. There is a joke about International Women’s Day that takes issue with uneven gender roles — a problem not completely eradicated on the superhero movie front — after which I found myself anticipating Deadpool’s response, for the film to maybe lead the way in making a statement. But it never does. Of the three main females on-screen, one is a wordless brute (Gina Carano), another is a moody teenager (Brianna Hildebrand), and the third is a prostitute (Morena Baccarin). And they remain as such: at no point do we see any of them deviate from their characters’ genericisms.

That was quite a lot of negativity, but Deadpool is undoubtedly an enjoyable twist on the genre and a piece that boasts its fair share of genuinely entertaining moments. The action is vigorous, any pulling of punches outlawed. It is a fairly brutal adaptation that certainly earns its stateside R rating; as violence goes, this has more in common with Marvel’s Daredevil than anything from the studio’s recent cinematic portfolio. A word too for an inventive closing credits sequence that implores you stick around, which is just as well given the post-credits scene is also cracking, an homage to one of cinema’s very best anti-authority comedy outings.

The movie wouldn’t be half as good without Ryan Reynolds, who looks and sounds like he is having a blast in spandex, his condescending voice a perfect match for the provocatively annoying character. The actor’s kid-in-a-candy-shop exuberance pollutes the air and spreads throughout the audience. It is a testament to Reynolds’ physical abilities that he manages to evoke Deadpool’s unique personality despite spending most of the flick beneath a mask. Mutant Wilson, by the way, looks like a terrifying cross between Freddy Kruger and the monstrous figure from Sunshine, so the mask is definitely a good call.

I’ll be the first to hold my hands up: in a packed screening room, my mellower reactions were consistently drowned out by uproarious laughter. This is a film that many have anticipated for a long time and it appears to have pleased the vast majority. There is clearly a desire to reflect the source material, which is admirable if a tad foolhardy. Maybe it’s the rebellious streak, or perhaps the cathartic undoing of distinctly poorer previous superhero incarnations (see X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Green Lantern). Thanks to Ryan Reynolds, at least Deadpool offers something a bit different.

Deadpool - Ryan Reynolds

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): 20th Century Fox

Southpaw (2015)

★★★

Southpaw PosterDirector: Antoine Fuqua

Release Date: July 24th, 2015 (UK & US)

Genre: Action; Drama; Sport

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, Forest Whitaker

The fact that Southpaw struggles to hurdle the proverbial style over substance dilemma is perhaps not particularly surprising given its director Antoine Fuqua recently doused the silver screen with The Equalizer and Olympus Has Fallen. Having said that, Fuqua was also the man behind Training Day back in 2001, and had he borrowed more of that movie’s mettle, the filmmaker might have been onto a winner with this otherwise fairly conventional sports drama.

“Billy Hope” is a classic boxing name, the sort given to someone destined to surmount typical obstacles. True to form, Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an underdog: orphaned at a young age, odds stacked against him from the get-go, we meet Hope right before he is about to box for the World Light Heavyweight Title in Madison Square Garden. He wins. And that’s fine; boxing movies tend to be underdog movies for a reason — in real life, the sport is all about rising above adversity and showing heart, so it is right cinema should reflect that.

But when dazzling shots of New York City find significant screen time, something feels off. Commercialism is in the air and it rears its rich head more often than it ought to. Sure, this idealist aura fits when Hope is champion and resultantly wrapped up in his material world — he and his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams), a fellow orphan, live in a plush home with their adolescent daughter — but as soon as the fighter loses everything, materiality should no longer be his goal. For a while, it isn’t.

After Hope’s victory, the film is dead-set on convincing us that boxers never truly win. From subtle hints at memory loss, to his wife’s misgivings about him competing again, to the actions of another title contender, the darker side of boxing is emphasised. Of course, tragedy is bound to strike and when it does it’s really quite heartbreakingly played by the people involved. Those who have seen the trailer will know what happens — I’ll avoid the particulars, though it is easy to work out. The abrupt nature of the tragedy suggests it is merely a narrative device designed to propel Hope’s story forward, and although there is truth to that line of thought, it does also introduce compelling themes such as fatherhood with greater heft.

The legal resolution to the tragedy is poorly realised; the consequences seem lazily construed (harsh punishments are dealt to innocent parties, whereas the guilty gang appear to get away scot-free). Left wallowing in despair, Hope turns again to boxing rather than his equally distraught daughter, and then to drink and violence when the fighting does not pan out. His once loyal promoter (50 Cent) drops him without any incline of regret because, after all, “it’s just business”. Here, Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter’s screenplay highlights the ruthless side of the sport, the corporate face that wholly goes against boxing’s brotherly backbone.

Gyllenhaal channels Anthony Quinn in Requiem for a Heavyweight, muttering and growling through helpings of dialogue. We watch him navigate home life with busted ribs and a busted face, and the actor sells the agony with so much realism you wonder whether he literally took a beating for his craft. The typical boxer stereotypes are enforced: Hope can’t really spell, nor is he a great public speaker outside the world of boxing, but at least we get a chance to see these anxieties play out. In truth he isn’t an especially well written character, erratic, for example, in moments of should-be clarity — an introductory conversation between he and maturing gym owner Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker) combusts out of nowhere.

I’m not entirely sure how Whitaker meant to portray Tick; he flirts between calm and crazed a little too enthusiastically. Oona Laurence ably pulls off Hope’s book smart daughter. She has lovely poise and avoids the potentially suffocating Grating Child Actor trap. This is the Gyllenhaal show though. He manages to terrify and reflect instability, yet still garner our complete sympathy. Indeed it is a transformative performance, but the muscular physicality is almost irrelevant. His heavy face, his anguished voice, his bowed eyes — these are the traits that actually engage us.

But as unoriginal training montages begin to arrive, coaxed on by Eminem, the overly produced aura makes a comeback. I think the film gets too caught up in reaching an idealistic end point: it needs to better separate the grit and the glam (it does for a while and works as a result), because the glam is poison and we do not want our reformed anti-hero seeking out poison. Million Dollar Baby is an example of a film that brilliantly subverts the recognisable model. Fuqua, it seems, can’t quite help chasing another false dream.

We do see an apt balance of grit and glam inside the ring. Fights are HBO presentations, and broadcasting mainstays Jim Lampley and Roy Jones, Jr. provide commentary. Wide shots positively feed the authentic televisual nature of the matches (as opposed to lingering on the boxers’ faces, common in Rocky and Raging Bull, those films likely limited by their technical capabilities). The fight choreography even evokes reality: head and body clinches are plentiful, and a blood-sweat concoction violently sprays at the behest of punches. One particularly intuitive camera movement vaults backwards over the top rope after a brutal uppercut.

Apart from that, there is nothing new going on here. Fuqua directs on familiar ground, navigating efficiently through the usual peaks and troughs before landing where all boxing movies land. His lead actor elevates the material, but even he needs more support from those around him (main villain Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez) is woefully wafer-thin). Southpaw was probably never going to be a true contender, but thanks to Jake Gyllenhaal, Billy Hope is at least somebody.

Southpaw - Jake Gyllenhaal

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): The Weinstein Company

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

★★★★★

Star Wars The Force Awakens PosterDirector: J.J. Abrams

Release Date: December 17th, 2015 (UK); December 18th, 2015 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Fantasy

Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver

If the mark of a great movie lies in its ability to permanently tattoo a grin across the face of its viewer, Star Wars: The Force Awakens might just be one of the best movies ever made. I couldn’t help but smile profusely throughout J.J. Abrams’ stunning series revitaliser, so much so that by the time the credits began to roll (following arguably the best closing shot the saga has produced to date) my jaw felt like it had been tagged by a fiery lightsaber.

We’re drafted straight into the chaos of war, and we see said chaos unfold from the perspective of both sides. Led by the evil Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), stormtroopers invade a small village looking for information on the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), and the one-sided battle that ensues relays a tangible energy missing from those ill-fated prequels. The scene shifts thereafter to Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger rappelling down an airy, desolate craft hoping to find extraneous junk she can later trade for food. Much like Skywalker in A New Hope, we meet Rey draped in white dusty robes — they’ve turned greyish — on a scorching desert planet (Jakku).

Conversely, Ren’s First Order starship is chrome-like and glossy. When we promptly cut back to the vessel it evokes a sense of austereness, of strictly implemented structure, as if fear has been drilled into the crew by Ren and like-minded baddie General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). By fervently switching between light and dark the film sets out its moral compass and highlights some truly wonderful sound design: the swoosh of lightsabers, the echoes of a vast ship. Ren is a terrific villain, full of dangerous complexity. Whereas Darth Vader would check his true emotion at the sliding door and favour an apathetic exterior, Adam Driver grants Ren an unpredictability that only serves to compound his menace.

Finn (John Boyega) is the link bad and good, having escaped the former only to find himself caught up in latter. We have moved away from the post-Cold War machine landscape into a more sinister, dehumanised age — stormtroopers are no longer artificial clones, but actual human beings, and Finn doesn’t want any part of the cruel conformity. He meets Rey on Jakku towards the beginning, at which point Abrams opts to stick with the pair, relying on their camaraderie and bustling chemistry. She is isolated yet wily and proficient; he functions through a humorous backbone likely installed as a defence mechanism against his shady past.

Ridley sparkles with vibrancy and Boyega is instantly likeable; together, they click into gear like a pristine Millennium Falcon. At times, you feel like you’re watching a buddy road trip venture, only here the sputtering cars have been replaced by sky-scoping jets. At one point both Rey and Finn repeat, “I can do this. I can do this,” perhaps speaking on behalf of their director who absolutely has ‘done it’. An information-touting droid named BB-8 trundles alongside the pair, spluttering hilarities. Oscar Isaac gushes charisma as Poe Dameron, premier fighter pilot for the self-descriptive Resistance, but he doesn’t feature nearly enough (nor does Gwendoline Christie’s First Order baddie Captain Phasma, who’ll likely see more screen time in the extended edition Blu-ray).

The Force Awakens wouldn’t be a proper franchise sequel without some crowd-pleasing throwback nods and while these moments are smirk-inducing for those in the know, they also bear just enough subtlety to avoid alienating those taking part for the first time. The snappy one-liners are genuinely funny and this shouldn’t be undervalued; indeed, the fact that many of the gags are rich in Star Wars mythology affords them greater validation. Marvel films, by comparison, employ a similar comedy format and although the jokes are often funny, they don’t quite have the same vitality.

A Kraken-esque battle scene inside a ship unfolds like something out of Doctor Who, only louder and bolder and much, much more expensive. Abrams’ film invokes the same melodramatic filling championed by the original trilogy: characters say mad things with a serious tone and pull it off. This is particularly true of Domhnall Gleeson, who offloads some terrific thespian yabber — 1977 wants its patter back — the best of which manifests during a maniacal speech straight out of Saruman’s playbook. But the outing is a playful fantasy at heart, a grandiose adventure, and everyone knows that. When some sentences creak, and some do, it’s just part of the charm.

That certainly doesn’t mean screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and J.J. Abrams (they redrafted an earlier Michael Arndt script) avoid hefty solemnity. There are instances of genuinely shocking gravitas, moments bolstered by Dan Mindel’s sweeping cinematography. The landscapes that unfold before our eyes feel authentic, primarily because they often are. Fight scenes boast substance too and the action is easy to comprehend, therefore the stakes are raised. John Williams’ score, as if it really needs saying, is as wondrous as ever.

Speaking of revamped classics, a few familiar faces join in on the fun. Harrison Ford’s grouchiness totally fits his older Han Solo, the rogue still fond of heart-warming cynicism. Carrie Fisher doesn’t have an awful lot to do as Leia, now a General, but her presence fuels the film’s emotional weight. Crucially, and this is true of the various other returnees, the duo serve the story: seeing our heroes back together in such a familiar environment is meaningful. It also ages the world in the best way possible — we know it is the same place as before, but we don’t know what fresh mysteries lie beyond the next star.

The beauty of The Force Awakens is that it addresses the nostalgic needs of the many while simultaneously ushering in a contemporary set of filmic variables ripe for fresh storytelling. It’s not just about waiting impatiently for the old guard to reappear; the new faces are a delight. I say four stars for a truly fantastic motion picture romp, and one more to J.J. Abrams for his frankly ballsy decision to take on the hopes of a cine-nation and successfully rekindle that highly sought after magic. We really appreciate it.

Star Wars The Force Awakens - Boyega & Ridley

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures