Ghostbusters (2016)

★★★

Advertisements

Ghostbusters PosterDirector: Paul Feig

Release Date: July 11th, 2016 (UK); July 15th, 2016 (US)

Genre: Comedy; Fantasy; Science fiction

Starring: Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon

You might use the term “whipping boy” to describe someone who is unfairly or unevenly hammered for the flaws of someone or something else. That political leader who bears the brunt of the blame for a vote gone awry. The footballer whose defensive error gives away the second goal in a 5-0 defeat. You get where this is going. Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters has been, for quite some time now, cinema’s highest-profile whipping girl. And for what? Because it’s a reboot of a cult classic? See Jurassic World. Because it’s the product of a big studio using an established brand to cultivate cash? See just about every summer blockbuster for the past decade. Or because it subs four leading men for four leading women? Ah. Bingo.

Well the four women are funny and, shock-horror, the film is funny too. It’s also in the same ballpark quality-wise as its predecessor, a movie apparently moulded in the hands of God himself (of course God is a guy, pfft). Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters was a fun flick with charismatic players and a popcorn plot. A lot like Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters, in fact. Neither is worth the buzz that surrounds it: Reitman’s Ghostbusters is far from the greatest comedy of 1980s, let alone all time, and Feig’s effort is far from the end of masculinity, let alone cinema.

This incarnation follows Erin Gilbert, Abby Yates, Jillian Holtzmann, and Patty Tolan — Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones — an academic, two scientific minds, and a general knowledge buff who collectively band together to defend the streets of New York City from insurgent ghosts. The ghosts’ sudden arrival has everything to do with spiritmonger Rowan North (Neil Casey), whose barmy devices pave a paranormal path to the real world. Though that hardly matters. What matters is the re-establishment of the ghostbusters, that they are legitimised both within and outwith the narrative, and that we get some laughs along the way.

And there are some laughs, often at the expense of the male characters in the piece. Chris Hemsworth, for instance, plays a dumb blonde receptionist, a role that has historically been reserved for the token female in big budget cinema. Spoiler alert: Bill Murray shows up as the film’s biggest sceptic. He doesn’t believe in ghosts, and by proxy, he doesn’t believe in these ghostbusting women. Even the male tour guide we see at the beginning is utterly afraid of bumps in the night, so much so that he has one of those juvenile ‘accidents’. I can’t recall one strong male character, and guess what? That’s sort of the point. That is the joke. The film does not set out to demonise men (#notallmen) but rather to pithily tear down the cultural and filmic stereotypes prevalent in cinema.

You could argue this approach is overplayed and that it perhaps gets in the way of other would-be satirical adages. For example, the ghostbusters find themselves not only battling their paranormal opposites, but also the non-believers. YouTube trolls bear the brunt of a quip or two: “Ain’t no bitches gon’ hunt no ghosts,” reads one comment. And still, they do. Maybe co-writers Katie Dippold and Feig’s stereotype-smashing could have even gone a tad further, but this is standard comedy fare after all. Besides, Hemsworth’s dopey Kevin — the longest-running and most vociferous of the stereotype gags — is worth his screen time. He wears glasses without frames and has a cat called Mike Hat (phonetics). Hemsworth plays the idiocy straight; Kevin is a cardboard cutout coloured with heightened irony, and it works as well as any other strand of amusement.

The remaining amusement is served up by our key quartet. You initially pin Wiig as the reluctant one of the group, her attire academic and her exterior distant, but that reluctance quickly evaporates. Wiig, perennially brilliant at being awkward and standoffish, gets to be awkward and standoffish before gelling with the gang. That Gilbert so suddenly abandons her academia in favour of beliefs she has repressed for many years does suggest a sense of rushed characterisation, but it at least affords Wiig the opportunity to exercise her versatility. Speaking of gelling with the gang, Jones’ Patty is treated as an equal instantly — it hardly matters that she has no scientific experience, only that she has valid local knowledge and a desire to rid the city of ghosts. Crucially, the performers season a believable camaraderie.

The action is run-of-the-mill. The visuals, expectedly lively (it all goes a bit weird during a Godzilla meets Avengers final act, particularly when Feig invokes 2001: A Space Odyssey. Theodore Shapiro’s score is fun and bombastic and nods admiringly towards its predecessor. And the costume design matches that bombast, effectively reflecting the variable personalities of our four leads — especially the goggles-wearing Holtzmann, McKinnon’s wide eyes purveying excited madness. The story itself isn’t especially laudable, a criticism that has been thrown at many a recent franchise reboot. In a lot of ways Ghostbusters is vintage Feig, cultivating a light atmosphere with steady technical facets and the occasional barb. It is not as volatile as Bridesmaids, and thus not as good, emphasised by McCarthy’s less-brazen approach.

But Ghostbusters is fine. It’s a solid reboot, not narratively groundbreaking but funny enough (listen out for a terrific Jaws gag). It isn’t mistake-free: for whatever reason, there is a disorienting Ozzy Osbourne cameo and the human villain is a barely-realised two-dimensional prospect. However, Feig’s Ghostbusters is not going to taint whatever legacy the original has mustered, but will instead encourage a new generation of fans. It’s frothy, not vindictive. It’s another big studio reboot in an era of big studio reboots that people will either love or hate, and as they decide the world will keep spinning. Relax.

Ghostbusters - Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon & Leslie Jones

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Columbia Pictures

Warcraft (2016)

★★★

Warcraft PosterDirector: Duncan Jones

Release Date: May 30th, 2016 (UK); June 10th, 2016 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Fantasy

Starring: Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, Toby Kebbell, Dominic Cooper

It has become the norm: independent filmmakers, fresh off a critical and commercial doozy, cast as the head of a cinematic juggernaut. Colin Trevorrow went from Safety Not Guaranteed to Jurassic World. Gareth Edwards, Monsters to Godzilla and now Star Wars. And here’s Duncan Jones, a director with science fiction sensibilities and a penchant for creating smart stories, now perched atop the film version of arguably the biggest online role-playing game in the world. Warcraft has been years in the making (10, in fact, but at least three under the tutelage of Jones) and you can see that effort on-screen. You can also see and feel the director’s touch, his love of nuance and, as was the case in both Moon and Source Code, his heralding of complex characters.

Sure, Warcraft isn’t the most original fantasy movie ever made, and sure, there are some significant problems. But Jones brings a maturity that would have likely been missing had a less crafty filmmaker been in charge. Thank goodness too, because that maturity affords viewers the opportunity to engage with those on-screen. Those being: Sir Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel), a charismatic warrior charged with defending the world of Azeroth when a Horde of rampaging orcs appear via gigantic portal. One of the orcs is Durotan (Toby Kebbell) whose wife is heavily pregnant with their child and whose conscience defies the evil antics of leader Gul’dan (Daniel Wu). Essentially, the latter wants to sap the life from humans and use that energy to further power the aforementioned portal, paving the way for an unstoppable orc army.

It’s a lot to take in, especially when you consider the legion of other characters I haven’t yet mentioned: half-orc half-human Garona (Paula Patton), Guardian mage Medivh (Ben Foster), young apprentice Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer), and King Llane Wrynn (Dominic Cooper). There are more still, and you can see the mythology’s depth throughout the opening half hour as Jones and co-writer Charles Leavitt introduce each chess piece. What this means is a period of bamboozlement for us uninformed lot — early scenes are stitched together like multicoloured patchwork, at first confusing and a bit tough to get one’s head around. But to Jones and Leavitt’s credit, events become easier to follow when the individual story strands merge to create a cohesive whole.

In light of the ongoing refugee crisis, you might draw conclusions from the movie’s explicit imagery depicting the movement of populations. But there doesn’t seem to me to be any political point-scoring going on. Quite the opposite given we see good and bad on both sides, something reflected often in the real world though not necessarily promoted by Hollywood. Humans and orcs are treated equally: Jones opens on Durotan and his wife Draka (Anna Galvin) having a laugh and joke about their appearance. It’s made clear that these gargantuan creatures endure the same frailties and hold the same grudges as we do. Some of the orcs are evil, not because they’re orcs but because they’re evil and because they champion power-hungry agendas. Others like Orgrim Doomhammer (Robert Kazinsky) are more subtly shaded, though the reasons why are best left to the movie.

Of course, the human characters are ultimately the most sympathetic — fitting, given they are on the defensive throughout — and you get caught up in their plight. This is mainly down to the work of Fimmel as Lothar, a thoroughly effective protagonist with a magnificent weary war face, and Patton, whose sturdy Garona acts as a genetic bridge between the two races. Their interactions initially point towards a conventional destination but, again, the filmmakers explore a credibly different route. Lothar has been cast as the movie’s Aragorn and there are similarities between the two, however it is Cooper’s King Llane who really dons that crown: like Return of the King Aragorn, he values loyalty and manifests as an amiable ruler at a time where figures of power in real life are not so amiable (“War with us will solve nothing”).

Warcraft does struggle to evade the shadow of Peter Jackon’s trilogy, especially in an aesthetic sense. An extended fight sequence around halfway through might as well be a deleted scene from the franchise, set in a dark ashen gravel-scape resembling Mordor (there’s even an enormous fiery mountain in the background). Look out for an Isengard-esque construction shot, and listen out for a “for Frodo” declaration. Perhaps the comparisons are unfair but everyone who goes to see Warcraft will have seen The Lord of the Rings in some form and the similarities are tough to shake. Having said that, the visuals are generally impressive; minute details differentiate the orcs and make the individual CG characters stand out — a particularly evil baddie sports wolf skull shoulder pads and a pitch black beard. Kebbell, it should be noted, puts in another commendable motion-capture performance.

Paul Hirsch’s editing style occasionally jars as one scene fades to the next but there are fun visual snippets for fans of the game, including an aerial shot that jumps from town to town showing the damage done by a rampaging orc army. And I should point out a spot of superb editing towards the end: Hirsch flirts between two separate inter-species battles, highlighting the need for civilisations to solve their own issues before causing problems elsewhere. Flawed, somewhat parochial systems of hierarchy — Khadgar’s struggles as a young mage; the slave state we see Garona in when she first appears — would have benefited from deeper analysis had more time been available.

The film is bookended by two “Warcraft” title cards, the first of which arrives bearing a summer popcorn aura. Big, brassy letters. A booming score. Jones’ movie opens with that event cinema feel and almost capitalises thereafter. Even though it doesn’t quite reach the lofty heights set by the superior fantasy blockbusters of yesteryear, Warcraft wins favour in its attempt to establish captivating, varied characters (the feature passes the Bechdel test during a conversation between Garona and Ruth Negga’s Lady Taria). It’s three stars but three very good stars, and a very enjoyable, surprisingly engaging, two hours at the cinema.

Warcraft - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

★★

X-Men: Apocalypse PosterDirector: Bryan Singer

Release Date: May 18th, 2016 (UK); May 27th, 2016 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Fantasy

Starring: James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, Sophie Turner, Oscar Isaac

It’s fitting that X-Men: Apocalypse should arrive on the heels of Captain America: Civil War, though not for the most flattering reason. Since Marvel Studios launched its Cinematic Universe back in 2008, the studio has carved out quite the mountainous niche for itself. From Iron Man onwards, the films under the MCU banner have followed a fairly compact narrative structure: stories with potentially world-ending consequences told atop a spine of levity. Civil War is the clearest, most effective representation of that structure we’ve had thus far, its serious themes of accountability and government distrust lightened via bouts of humour. While other outings have had some success, the Russo brothers’ tonal balancing act in Civil War is as close to faultless as the MCU might ever see.

Back, then, to X-Men: Apocalypse, a feature that strives to have more in common with this Marvel prerogative than its own pre-established mantra. Bryan Singer’s film, penned by Simon Kinberg (they last worked together on Days of Future Past), is probably the funniest X-Men instalment to date, bearing a commendable number of snappy one-liners and some less commendable instances of accidental amusement. But elements of its story are also deeply serious and the filmmakers struggle to marry this seriousness with the humour, at times to the movie’s downfall. The issue is not that Singer and Kinberg want to make us laugh, it’s that the filmmakers’ deployment of humour is grossly misplaced. More on that later.

It’s pretty much your bog-standard superhero showdown: a big bad (En Sabah Nur, played by an Oscar Isaac struggling valiantly against the character’s broad strokes) rises from the dust and ruin of a fallen ancient empire to wreak havoc upon the 1980s, and it’s up to the good mutants (led by Charles Xavier, played by James McAvoy) to stop him. En route to worldwide recalibration — an odd sequence sees Nur decry the weakness of humankind and our technologies via television montage — the super-mutant recruits a handful of powerful followers, one of whom is Magneto (Michael Fassbender), plucked from a covert life in Poland with his wife and daughter. There are a bunch of others involved but that’s about the gist.

Unsurprisingly, most of the others are mutants and again we see a few treated unfairly, like freak attractions. We are introduced to Angel (Ben Hardy) in the midst of a one-sided cage fight and reintroduced to Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as his next opponent. Scott Summers’ (Tye Sheridan) unearthed Cyclops ability sets him apart in high school and primes him for bullying — lots of characters are either new or feel new because they haven’t had the chance to shine before, not that many get a chance to shine here. This demonisation of mutants, a class/race theme the X-Men series has sought to investigate more intensely in the past, is why Erik Lehnsherr wants to keep his true identity a secret from fellow co-workers and the authorities.

Lehnsherr is by far the most interesting character, not least because he’s the sort of intellectual powerhouse who can back up an Icarus and Daedalus reference (careful) with actual menace. While the excellent work carried out by the likes of Kinberg in previous outings has afforded Lehnsherr intrigue, it’s really Fassbender who has instilled authority and ethical contention into the character. A terrific moment in Apocalypse sees Lehnsherr have his peaceful family life unmasked through preventing the death of a co-worker, and Fassbender’s expression of subtle anguish as Lehnsherr realises his veiled existence is about to be torn apart is wonderfully judged. I won’t give anything else away about the catalyst that sends Lehnsherr over the edge other than noting its compelling moral dichotomy.

It’s fair to say this instalment is less concerned with class warfare undercurrents than before (Days of Future Past pitted human against mutant with more complex personal tension). Humour takes precedence in moments that otherwise would be weighty, most notably during a scene where Lehnsherr, Magneto tendencies in full flow, interrupts his own heartbreaking diatribe about loss and tragedy with a cheap made-for-laughs F-bomb. There are also unintentionally funny lines, such as Moira MacTaggert’s (Rose Byrne) revelation that Nur’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse might have fed religion and not vice versa (“The Bible got it from him”). Another hokily hilarious moment: an 80s hard rock guitar riff playing over a brooding shot of Nur.

Elsewhere we see a throughline about sacrificing oneself for the greater good, or bad. The film’s prologue — almost a National Treasure spin-off short — depicts the reinvigoration of an ageing Nur and those putting it all on the line to ensure his rebirth. Later, Charles offers himself up in a mental battle like any hero worth his or her weight in righteousness would do. Beneath these two opposing leaders are fractured souls: all four Horsemen are broken before teaming with Nur, for instance, while Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) feels the brunt of inner turmoil on the good side. Turner offers promise as the mind manipulator, a well-balanced mixture of Sansa Stark’s newfound steel and a teenager’s self-doubt, but the material doesn’t serve her well: “You’re not the biggest freak in the school now,” Grey laments to Summers as if reading from page one of How to Create School Stereotypes.

Summers fares little better, moping and angry in one scene then cockily orchestrating a mall trip the next. Their arc factors in burgeoning love, another trope explored under various guises with varying success. For Grey and Summers it’s about the immaturity of youth and finding common ground in how they are each unable to fully grasp their powers. Charles is whipped into an awkward frenzy when he reacquaints with Moira, she unaware of their previously held bond, he having erased it from her memory in First Class. The most effective relationship (or lack thereof), though, is also the most nuanced: shared by Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) and Hank (Nicholas Hoult), at least there is some historical clout behind it.

Newton Thomas Sigel delivers scintillating shots from above as nuclear rockets shoot skyward, images that brilliantly denote the scope of Nur’s plan. It’s a shame such scope falls by the wayside during a climactic battle scene that devolves into a disengaging CG stramash, something the MCU has also struggled with. It’s clear the filmmakers are visually better than their final act, especially when you factor in another superb Quicksilver (Evan Peters) sequence from earlier in the movie. Again it is one of the best scenes, vibrant and witty and full of style and flair. Peters’ version of the character is an alacritous gem, free of the cynicism incumbent upon other mutants who have spent so much time fighting wars. He really ought to be a banner act.

McAvoy’s hair is more glorious than ever in preparation for the balding we all know is coming, and that aesthetic prerequisite is indicative of the film in a general sense. There is a lot of surface promise going on, a bunch of mild chuckles and some solid acting endeavour, but when it comes down to thematic development there is a sense of inevitability. You can see how all the pieces are going to fit and that hasn’t always been the case with X-Men. I did find the two and a half hours enjoyable enough, but then this is a movie that had Oscar Isaac and Michael Fassbender standing next to one another reciting baloney, both limited by bad tone management. That’s almost unforgivable.

X-Men: Apocalypse - Rockets

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright: 20th Century Fox

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.

Cinderella (2015)

★★★

Cinderella PosterDirector: Kenneth Branagh

Release Date: March 13, 2015 (US); March 27th, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Family; Fantasy

Starring: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden

From the larger-than-life comic book strands of Thor to the slick, considered action of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Kenneth Branagh’s latest outing reflects the director’s willingness to venture down varied paths. Cinderella is certainly more in line with his traditional genre work — Shakespeare and classic novel adaptations — but it also shares the same vibrancy as Branagh’s recent outings. It does not rely heavily on the originality of any specific component; this is as competently classic as you are going to get. Rather, Cinderella works as a fairly fruitful whole.

We all know the story and the film knows we all know the story. Screenwriter Chris Weitz quickly disposes of the origin formalities with a sickly-sweet preamble starring Hayley Atwell and Ben Chaplin as mum and dad, the former filling in any narrative gaps via voice-over (and perhaps underused in retrospect). Mum dies — even on her deathbed, Atwell’s mother looks a brush of hair away from being ready to attack the day — and dad tragically follows suit, leaving not-yet-Cinder-Ella at the mercy of her bullying stepfamily. “Have courage and be kind” is the motto by which she must adhere, and adhere she does.

Since the fairy tale’s ins and outs are common knowledge, you expect to see something new from this Branagh-led incarnation, or at the very least something old told exceedingly well. It is more of the latter, if not entirely either. The screenplay typically weaves class and identity into the story: Prince Charming (Richard Madden) wishes to sell his own personality and not his superfluous value to Cinderella (Lily James), while Cinderella has no obvious desire to wed royalty, only to wed the kind apprentice she just met in the forest. Meanwhile, necessary excess — the grand carriage, the stunning gowns, the sheer beauty — is combated by Branagh and co. through emphasising other factors: courage, kindness, honesty, and humour.

Cinderella is so morally upstanding she opts to live her life in the company of insensitive rogues simply to uphold a promise made to her parents, to honour their memory through the upkeep of their residence. Lily James plays the fairy tale stalwart with such commitment and invitation; only a cast iron soul would find her demeanour off-putting. Cinderella is at times naive to the point of ridicule, but you always believe in her good nature regardless. And there is a commendable individuality to the lady-in-waiting: she seems in control, even when her fate is essentially dungeon-dwelling, control embodied by the not-so-subtle power she has over the prince (via love) and the more subtle power she has over her stepfamily (via her love for the prince).

Speaking of whom, Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) and Drisella (Sophie McShera) make a suitably nasty counterweight. “She too had known grief, but she wore it wonderfully well,” we hear of Tremaine, Blanchett evoking a devious allure while robed in blacks and dark turquoises. The trio usher a culture of gambling and partying into Cinderella’s civilised household upon arrival, antics mirroring their deceptive tendencies. Along with Grainger and McShera’s proverbial stepsisters, Blanchett could have easily arrived for shooting directly from the set of A Series of Unfortunate Events. Like Jim Carrey, she chews the scenery, hams it up and more with success.

Her understudies are perhaps too cartoonish though they do provide occasional comic relief. Richard Madden has a better time of it and does very well in what could have been a tough role. You might expect a pristine rich boy to promote aggravation through smugness even unintentionally so, but Madden is far from that as Prince Charming, down-to-earth and somewhat — somewhat — relatable. And if not, he is definitely likeable. And also named Kit, coincidentally (Nonso Anozie shows up, another Game of Thrones connection). Conversely, some characters are not quite as assured in delivery. Stellan Skarsgård’s Grand Duke, for instance, bends morally without warning.

Patrick Doyle provides a score that sways from the bombast of brass to light, frothy strings. It matches the allure of the story’s royal ball, which in and of itself takes on even greater aplomb than is perhaps expected. The sequence wears the extravagance of Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby, beckoned forth by fireworks and golden décor. Haris Zambarloukos’ camera loves Cinderella, as it should, and shows her in sparkling form even when she is doing the washing or ash-strewn from stoking fires.

In the end it does amount to something pretty conventional, but Branagh ensures a consistent level of quality is maintained in spite of the narrative’s recognisable outlay. This is a piece very much aware of its fairy tale heartbeat and it values said heartbeat accordingly. Sure, some of the conversations characters share are on the saccharine side and the thematic rituals are a bit too broad, but Cinderella is a thoroughly well-made and enjoyable live action expedition.

Cinderella - Lily James

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios Motion 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

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