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An entertaining ride, if nothing else

Posted : 1 year ago on 18 November 2017 01:06 (A review of Justice League)

Spoiler Warning: It is difficult to fully discuss and evaluate Justice League without divulging what some may consider to be spoilers, at least while the movie is a new release. A spoiler warning is therefore in effect.

The good news is that 2017's Justice League is not the downright disaster that many of us were anticipating, given the considerable behind-the-scenes reshuffling and the slipshod quality of its immediate predecessor, 2016's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It is a bit of a mess, the narrative is too simplistic, and it's not a home run by any stretch, but it's also not altogether unappealing either, as Zack Snyder - and Joss Whedon - avoid the gloomy self-seriousness which has thus far characterised the DC Extended Universe. The action sequences are rousing, and there are enough goosebump-inducing moments of pure big-screen coolness that audiences will expect to see within an expensive blockbuster entitled Justice League. But what's missing is all the connective tissue - the movie plays out like a highlight reel, with the bare minimum of explication and character beats. Forget about any sort of thematic undercurrents or emotional resonance; fast-paced spectacle is the order of the day.

With Superman (Henry Cavill) now dead, the Earth has become vulnerable to diabolical forces. A god-like being known as Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) rises in the aftermath, planning to use three powerful Mother Boxes to rule the universe, aided by an army of vicious Parademons. Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) seeks to amass a team of heroes to defend the world, with Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) warning him of the potentially devastating effects of Steppenwolf's plan. Using all available information at his disposal, Wayne tracks down Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller) and Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher), hoping to unite them and prevent Steppenwolf from eradicating humankind. But even their combined superpowers may not be enough, prompting the newly-formed Justice League to explore the potential to bring Superman into the fight before it's too late.

Even though Snyder is the sole credited director on the project, The Avengers helmer Whedon was recruited to oversee extensive rewrites and reshoots late into post-production, and received a co-writer credit for his efforts. Evidently, Whedon's job was to lighten the tone, bringing a more pronounced sense of humour to the production whilst retaining Snyder's proclivity for brutal, explosive action sequences. Previous DCEU movies have been criticised for lack of humour, with Batman v Superman in particular emerging as dour beyond belief, and Justice League endeavours to course-correct the franchise, with jokes and laughs scattered throughout. Though certain moments do work (such as an amusing aside during which Aquaman sits on the Lasso of Truth), other gags just come across as forced (see the awkward joking around after the climactic action sequence). Indeed, don't expect Whedon's best work, especially given that he didn't have a great deal of time to hone the best possible script. In addition, Justice League is completely hollow, with nothing in the way of poignant emotion. There is a contrived aside in which a family get the spotlight and are rescued during the climax, but it feels too perfunctory and makes no impact.

It's evident that Warner Bros. only really cared about two things whilst trying to salvage Justice League in the editing room: keeping it at two hours in length (narrative coherence be damned), and carving out at least a workable movie that's jam-packed with colourful action scenes. It's also evident that Justice League was initially intended to be more in line with Batman v Superman from a tonal standpoint before the studio got Whedon involved. (It's not hard to see why Whedon probably didn't want a directorial credit on the finished movie.) A new trailer was seemingly released every couple of hours, and therefore a lot of footage seen in the marketing materials did not make it to the finished movie. Indeed, it appears that Warner Bros. chose to deliberately excise any plot details that may have initially existed to set up future storylines - case in point: it seems that Steppenwolf's plan could be a precursor to something more significant, like Darkseid who was initially rumoured to be part of the movie and was ostensibly set up in Dawn of Justice, but the storyline as it is seems deliberately standalone in case the studio nominates a different direction in the future. (The post-credits scene does imply another direction entirely.) Hell, Justice League doesn't even provide any payoff to the time-travelling Flash, or to Batman's nightmares from Batman v Superman.

Despite being hidden in the majority of the marketing materials, of course Superman makes his return here, but the Man of Steel's resurrection is one of the biggest missed opportunities of the movie. Rather than taking a page from the "Death of Superman" arc (which would make sense, given that he fought Doomsday in Dawn of Justice), Justice League finds the heroes using the Mother Box's powers to bring Superman back from the dead, and the resultant action set-piece of a confused Kal-El running amok is seriously awkward. In addition, the subplot feels too throwaway when it should be more significant, further demonstrating that squeezing so much material into one two-hour movie was a bad idea. It would have been more interesting to see Superman don the iconic black suit and battle the rest of the Justice League for real. Maybe this was actually explored in an earlier cut, and perhaps there was more to this subplot before the studio took a hatchet to the movie to keep it under two hours sans credits. Whatever the case, it feels like Justice League is rushing through plot points in order for the franchise at large to move on. The film was initially intended to be split into two parts, and there's certainly enough material for two motion pictures to cover.

When Justice League gets into an agreeable groove, it works like gangbusters, providing plenty of lively action as the superheroes throw down against Steppenwolf and his Parademons. If nothing else, Justice League gets the characters right for the most part (more on that later), with perhaps the most definitive big-screen portrayal of the Caped Crusader to date (the costumes are dead on). Shot on 35mm film by cinematographer Fabian Wagner (Game of Thrones), the movie is actually presented in an expanded 1.85:1 aspect ratio, meaning that there's more to absorb in every frame of the movie. However, the cartoonish CGI is admittedly squiffy from time to time, lacking in tangibility. The digital removal of Cavill's moustache looks amateurish at best, while the digitally-created Steppenwolf often resembles something from a video-game cut-scene. Some sequences are enormously impressive, to be sure, but there's no consistency, which can probably be attributed to the reshoots and the rushed schedule to meet the longstanding, predetermined release date. For a major motion picture this expensive (a staggering $300 million before promotional costs, reportedly), it's disheartening to behold such sloppiness. On a more positive note, bringing in composer Danny Elfman (to replace Junkie XL) proves to be one of the most welcome creative decisions of the entire production, as his score is more on the playful side as opposed to downright serious. Elfman even incorporates some notes from his 1989 Batman theme to nice effect.

Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman have been properly introduced in the DCEU at this point, but Justice League is tasked with introducing Aquaman, Cyborg and The Flash to the franchise (their previous tiny cameos don't count), giving the movie plenty of baggage to work through. There's just no getting around the fact that these heroes deserved their own solo flicks prior to Justice League, just as the standalone Wonder Woman should have been released prior to Batman v Superman. As for the thespians themselves, it's...mostly good news. Affleck continues to impress as this older interpretation of Batman, and Gadot is still a charismatic treat. It's certainly a real thrill to see Gadot back in action as Wonder Woman so soon after the release of her solo feature. However, Miller is a terrible Flash, playing the hero as a whiny, irritating, weightless Millennial stereotype, while Fisher doesn't have much screen presence, though that could likely be attributed to the lack of a meaty introduction. Momoa is fine, some cheesy dialogue aside, and Cavill is welcomely more upbeat here as Superman. Hinds does what he can with the material, but Steppenwolf is still a bit of a dud villain. Nevertheless, it is commendable that Snyder and co. elected to use a villain who hasn't previously featured in a live-action movie.

When Justice League works, it really works, providing breathtaking visual delights throughout, ensuring that the target audience will walk away happy. It's an entertaining ride, if nothing else. But since we don't yet know all of the primary characters intimately enough, the film is not as gratifying as it could have been. In addition, the movie is undeniably pared-down to the bare essentials - basically, anything that isn't a joke, a character striking a dramatic pose for marketing materials, or a big action scene...didn't make it to the final cut. Extended cuts have become somewhat customary for the DCEU, as both Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad received beefed-up editions on home video, and it would certainly be intriguing to see what could be done with Justice League with more story development and character interaction. Even more promising, though, is the prospect of a sequel, with (hopefully) a more carefully-written screenplay and a better fleshed-out team.


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A spine-tingling modern horror movie

Posted : 1 year ago on 15 November 2017 04:35 (A review of Annabelle: Creation)

2017's Annabelle: Creation is a prequel to a prequel that wasn't any good in the first place, and the very idea of this particular movie seems like the worst kind of Saw or Paranormal Activity-esque money-grab, with Warner Bros. trying to build their own Conjuring cinematic universe. And yet, in spite of all the baggage, Creation is a damn good little horror movie, exceeding all reasonable expectations. The ace in the hole here is director David F. Sandberg, late of 2016's Lights Out, who again demonstrates his deft hand with spine-tingling horror, guiding the movie above the ordinary. Indeed, even though Creation was penned by returning scribe Gary Dauberman, it's Sandberg's compelling direction, smooth pacing, and hair-raising use of sound and imagery which catapults this one to unexpected success. It's worth watching, especially given that decent modern horror flicks are so few and far between.

Twelve years after toymaker Samuel (Anthony LaPaglia) and his wife Esther Mullins (Miranda Otto) lose their daughter Bee (Samara Lee) in a tragic car accident, the grieving parents choose to provide shelter for a group of young, orphaned girls. Overseen by Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman), the girls quickly take to the sizeable farmhouse property, playing games and enjoying the outdoors. The youngest of the children, Linda (Lulu Wilson) and the polio-stricken Janice (Talitha Bateman), mostly stick together, praying that they will someday be adopted by a good family together. Bee's bedroom is off-limits and remains locked at all times, but Janice simply can't help herself one night when she finds a key that opens the door. However, Janice's actions unwittingly release something evil living within one of Samuel's dolls, and the occupants of the house are subsequently terrorised by dark forces, plunging them all into a sinister nightmare.

Although the first Annabelle was intended to reveal the origins of the creepy doll seen in 2013's The Conjuring, Creation goes back in time even further, showing how it was manufactured and how a demonic spirit came to possess it. And to the credit of screenwriter Dauberman, the concept makes sense and the narrative manages to neatly tie into its 2014 predecessor, for better or for worse. It's a standard set-up filled with genre clichés, to be sure, and it mostly amounts to an excuse for a string of scary set-pieces, but the execution is a cut above the norm. After all, if any of the characters do silly things, it's easier to overlook it and forgive them because they're just kids. But above all, Dauberman and Sandberg evidently understand that the purpose of this type of movie is to cram as many taut set-pieces as possible into the 110-minute runtime while ensuring that the primary characters are compelling enough for us to care about, even if they're not fully three-dimensional. Sandberg really milks all the scary stuff for all that it's worth, and there are even some commendably unexpected plot turns. However, there is a clumsy-as-hell scene to tease the next Conjuring spin-off, The Nun, which feels awkwardly shoehorned-in. (It's actually surprising that Warner Bros. didn't choose to retroactively connect Lights Out to the Conjuring universe, really.)

Sandberg established his strong horror credentials with the bone-chilling Lights Out, which was actually produced by The Conjuring architect James Wan. It's easy to see why Wan and the studio felt comfortable handing Creation to the newcomer, who's a wise replacement for Annabelle helmer John R. Leonetti. Without the burden of any PG-13 constraints, Sandberg is free to use all the tools at his disposal to create an unnerving and sinister movie, and he doesn't use the R rating as an excuse to go all-out with mindless gore. The director makes wise use of every square inch of the Mullins' vast farmhouse, where evil can strike from above or below at any given time, and even the most predictable of moments (of course Janice's stair lift will malfunction at the most inopportune time) are still effective and riveting. All hell breaks loose in the final act, but Sandberg can still build dread with stillness, initially taking things slowly - the mere presence of the Annabelle doll in the background, or the littlest sound effect is enough to send chills down your spine. Creation may have jump scares, but it's not entirely built around them, making the picture feel old-fashioned in all the right ways, even though Sandberg doesn't exactly colour outside the lines. Less successful, however, are certain digitally-enhanced moments which are too obvious and phoney, but at least these scenes are few and far between. With Sandberg reportedly set to helm the DC movie Shazam that Warner Bros. still claims to be making, let's hope that he still has a few more solid horrors up his sleeve for the future.

Backed by a modest $15 million budget, Annabelle: Creation is slick and stylish, with its 1950s setting adding to the creepiness of the material. Sandberg and director of photography Maxime Alexandre (The Hills Have Eyes) eschew needless shaky-cam, relying on a routine of dynamic but smooth handheld compositions to heighten the sense of immediacy. Further chills are provided by the hair-raising original score courtesy of Benjamin Wallfisch (Lights Out), which thankfully doesn't feel too overbearing. Furthermore, it's tricky to locate good child actors, but Bateman and Wilson manage to carry the story extraordinarily well, which is no small feat. Both girls are thoroughly sympathetic and exhibit terrific chemistry, making them believable as best friends. The two are also able to navigate a range of complex emotions, and, miraculously, they aren't at all grating. Also of note is Sigman, who emanates real warmth as Sister Charlotte, while LaPaglia and Otto are effective in their relatively small but nevertheless pivotal roles.

With Annabelle: Creation, there is promise that these Conjuring spin-offs will have more worth than 2014's Annabelle initially implied - in the right hands, these minor side projects can deliver the type of chilling, nail-biting horror delights that genre fans crave. In addition, with 2016's Ouija: Origin of Evil and now Annabelle: Creation, a bizarre trend seems to be appearing wherein prequels to subpar horror movies are all-round superior and more worthwhile. (Coincidentally, the movies also share young Lulu Wilson.) The movie isn't at all revolutionary, and it won't exactly get under your skin or stay with you for days after viewing, but it's competently-constructed and doesn't take its audience for fools. At least there's one Annabelle movie that approaches the quality of Wan's original Conjuring.


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Endearing schlock

Posted : 1 year, 1 month ago on 3 November 2017 03:23 (A review of Cat's Eye (1985))

Celebrated horror author Stephen King has written many novels that have been adapted for the big screen, but he has also penned over two-hundred short stories, a number of which have been compiled into book collections. Following in the shadow of the horror anthology Creepshow, 1985's Cat's Eye is a 94-minute collection of three Stephen King short stories - the first two of which were previously published in the "Night Shift" collection, while the third is an original tale written by King directly for the big screen. The stories all involve different characters, but are linked by the appearance of a special tabby cat, while Drew Barrymore also appears in multiple roles throughout. Directed by Lewis Teague, Cat's Eye may not be especially scary or creepy, but it does have its tense moments and the stories are backed by creative concepts.

In New York City, Dick Morrison (James Woods) is desperate to quit smoking, and signs up to a smoking prevention course overseen by the unscrupulous Vinny Donatti (Alan King). But the company employs unconventional methods to help clients kick their smoking habit, including intimidation and torture. Donatti's associates begin spying on Morrison around the clock, and one little slip-up will be met with dire consequences. A tomcat is being held by Quitters Inc., and once it escapes, it rides the Staten Island Ferry across to Atlantic City where he's taken in by crime boss Cressner (Kenneth McMillan). Cressner orders the kidnapping of former tennis pro Johnny Norris (Robert Hays), who's involved with Cressner's wife and plans to leave town with her. Cressner blackmails Norris, forcing him to walk around the narrow ledge of his high-rise penthouse apartment in exchange for his freedom. If Norris refuses, he will be arrested for the drugs that have been planted in his car. The tabby cat manages to escape again, hopping aboard a freight train to North Carolina where he's adopted by young Amanda (Barrymore), who affectionately names him "General." While Amanda is instantly enamoured with the stray cat, her mother (Patricia Kalember) is more reluctant. However, a nasty troll lives in Amanda's wall that's intent on stealing her breath as she sleeps, and General could be the only one able to protect her.

With King having written the screenplay for Cat's Eye, there are several references to his other works - both the Saint Bernard dog from Cujo and the car from Christine are given cameos, while The Dead Zone plays on television at one point, and a character is seen reading the novel Pet Sematary. As previously stated, the picture is not as frightening as King's reputation might suggest - it's certainly less bloody than the likes of Creepshow or the 1983 movie adaptation of Cujo, which was also directed by Teague. All the segments feel more like Twilight Zone stories, really. Since this is an anthology and each tale only runs for roughly half an hour each, the movie is kept fresh and interesting throughout, and there's no filler in each of the segments. To be sure, it's more rewarding to see a feature-length story with more room to breathe, and with sufficient time for the characters to become rich and three-dimensional, but Cat's Eye is still entertaining all the same, even if it doesn't reach the dizzying heights of King's best motion pictures.

Those expecting white-knuckle horror are going to be disappointed, but the second story - "The Ledge" - is noticeably intense. The extended sequence of Norris outside on the narrow ledge is armrest-clenching at times, though it's still not exactly "horror." Meanwhile, the first segment - "Quitters Inc." - introduces themes of paranoia to nice effect, and the final story - "General" - plays out more along the lines of Gremlins. Indeed, "General" is an overly silly horror romp, but the final showdown between the troll and the cat is both exciting and fun. Admittedly, not all of the special effects shots throughout Cat's Eye stand up to contemporary scrutiny, with some noticeably shoddy blue-screen and compositing effects, but for the most part the illusion holds up well enough. The movie also features an idiosyncratically cheesy '80s synth score courtesy of Alan Silvestri (Predator, Back to the Future), which definitely dates the movie to a certain degree, enjoyable though it may be.

On its own terms, Cat's Eye is a fun enough cult curiosity, especially given King's involvement and the selection of actors filling out the ensemble. Woods submits a particularly solid performance, while Barrymore is just right as an endearing little girl. Hell, even the central tabby cat is convincing - in fact, the cat's near-misses with several cars beg the question about animal protection standards for 1980s filmmaking. Cat's Eye is not must-see by any stretch, and I wish it was scarier, but it's endearing schlock nevertheless.


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Another goofy, funny, action-packed Batman flick

Posted : 1 year, 1 month ago on 2 November 2017 04:14 (A review of Batman vs. Two-Face (2017))

To say the least, 2016's Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders was a pleasant departure from the dour, gritty depiction of the Caped Crusader introduced by Christopher Nolan. A throwback to the light-hearted 1960s Batman television show, Return of the Caped Crusaders was a well-received success, and now less than a year later, we have the equally-enjoyable sequel, Batman vs. Two-Face. Overseen by the same creative team, it's another funny, action-packed Batman adventure that's faithful to the source, with hilariously convoluted Batman one-liners, situation-specific Robin exclamations, and goofy action scenes. Much like its predecessor, Batman vs. Two-Face does threaten to run out of steam at times, and it's not as great as it had the potential to be, but it's nevertheless an enjoyable sit.

When a laboratory accident goes awry, District Attorney Harvey Dent (William Shatner) is left with a horribly scarred face and a menacing alter-ego, re-christening himself as Two-Face as he terrorises Gotham City with a string of crimes. Bruce Wayne/Batman (Adam West) and Dick Grayson/Robin (Burt Ward) are thankfully able to thwart the dastardly foe, however, and Dent is given treatment to reconstruct his face and hopefully restore his sanity. But before long, the likes of King Tut (Wally Wingert) and Bookworm (Jeff Bergman) begin a spree of crime, and a theme of duality runs through said criminal activities, leading the Dynamic Duo to suspect that Two-Face has returned.

Although Two-Face never featured in the television show, science fiction author Harlan Ellison did pen a treatment for an episode that was ultimately never produced, serving as the inspiration for Batman vs. Two-Face. Written by returning scribes James Tucker and Michael Jelenic, the movie provides an appropriate new origin story for Dent's dark half, and is surprisingly focused on its titular villain while the likes of The Penguin (William Salyers), The Riddler (Wingert) and The Joker (Bergman) are pushed into the background. The movie even brings in additional characters such as Hugo Strange (Jim Ward) and Mr. Freeze, among others, while Batman's relationship with Catwoman (Julie Newmar) is further developed. Wisely, there is something of a detective element to the story, with Dent maintaining his innocence upon Two-Face's return. (Admittedly, it is a tad odd that Bruce and Dent do discuss having a longstanding friendship, but he was never mentioned in the original series or movie.) Batman vs. Two-Face is actually a bit more dramatic than what has come before, which certainly makes for a more interesting flick, but it does lack some of the wit of its immediate predecessor. Nevertheless, it still delivers some big laughs and enjoys basking in the spirit of '60s Batman, even if pacing is not always sure-footed.

There are ample visual gags throughout Batman vs. Two-Face, including the hilarious image of the Dynamic Duo walking down a building, and it's fun to see big action scenes that could never have occurred on the original series due to budgetary constraints. Much like Return of the Caped Crusaders, the animation is elementary and rough around the edges owing to the low-budget, crying out for more personality and style. It's suitably colourful, but detail is exceedingly basic and movement lacks fluidity, sadly reflecting the straight-to-video nature of the endeavour. Plus, beyond the fun recreation of the chintzy Batcave and Bruce's mansion, the movie makes heavy use of unremarkable animation backgrounds. For a project of such significance, it's unfortunate that the animation is unable to fully serve the actors involved. With that said, though, there is appreciable style to the visual depiction of Two-Face, whose face is often obscured by shadows. Meanwhile, the music (credited to Kristopher Carter, Michael McCuistion and Lolita Ritmanis) does sound cheap at times, but the recreation of the original theme is still top-notch, adding another layer of flavour. Indeed, it's hard to avoid smirking like a child when the theme starts to play.

How fitting it is that Batman vs. Two-Face denotes West's final motion picture performance before his tragic passing, and we must be thankful that he was given the opportunity to play this iconic role again. West's performance may not be anything grand, but he still slips back into the proverbial Batsuit with ease, nailing the comedic delivery and demonstrating once again that he's note-perfect for this "campy" interpretation of the Caped Crusader. Nobody can straight-face absurd one-liners quite like West. Meanwhile, Ward is reliably energetic and still sounds remarkably youthful, but it is Shatner who steals the show, proving himself to be a genuinely excellent voice actor and a perfect pick for the role beyond his obvious ties to 1960s television. Shatner is able to carve out two distinct voices, playing Dent straight while Two-Face is mean, growly and intimidating. Less successful, however, is Newmar - her age is still reflected in her voice to a distracting degree, lacking the spark of seductive sexiness associated with the role. Again, she's a fun novelty, but her performance is stiff. The movie makes another fun call-back to the television show by bringing in Lee Meriwether for a minor role, and the resulting in-joke is incredibly clever. For those unaware, Meriwether replaced Newmar as Catwoman for 1966's Batman: The Movie.

There has been discussion about whether or not this animated series will continue without West, but the notion of replacing him is a terrible idea. Granted, impressionists were hired to recreate the voices of deceased actors from the television show, but it simply wouldn't be the same without West himself. It is evident that this was not intended to be the end, as Dr. Harleen Quinzel (Sirena Irwin) - soon to become Harley Quinn - is given a minor introduction.

Batman vs. Two-Face is unfortunately burdened with the baggage of being West's final movie, and those expecting something more substantial may feel disappointed since the movie was not designed to be anything more than a fun action-adventure. Thankfully, it delivers as such, and it's an endearing if imperfect send-off to our beloved Bright Knight. The end credits actually conclude with a tribute to West, reading "Rest Well, Bright Knight." It's a poignant gut-punch to footnote the movie, and certainly left this reviewer shedding a tear. We are fortunate to have been given Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders and its sequel before West passed away, and his death even sadder knowing that further instalments were in the works, and that possibilities were endless. In spite of their shortcomings, these feature-length tributes to '60s Batman remain both funny and entertaining.


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A funny, reverent tribute to 1960s Batman

Posted : 1 year, 1 month ago on 1 November 2017 06:29 (A review of Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders (2016))

Almost paradoxically, Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders is by far and away the best and most enjoyable Batman movie of 2016, not that it has much in the way of competition. Yes, this feature-length homage to the campy 1960s Batman TV show is effortlessly better than both the monstrously-budgeted disappointment of Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice as well as the animated misfire of Batman: The Killing Joke. (Forget about Batman: Bad Blood, if anybody actually remembers it.) Produced outside of the DC Universe Animated Original Movies series, Return of the Caped Crusaders plays out like a direct sequel to 1966's Batman: The Movie, distinguishing itself by presenting a goofy, tongue-in-cheek interpretation of the Dark Knight, and the approach pays off. It's clear that everybody involved in Return of the Caped Crusaders holds tremendous affection for the old show, and this reverence is palpable in most every frame of this riotously funny, fun romp.

Whenever Gotham City is under threat, the task of saving the day falls to the reliable Dynamic Duo of Bruce Wayne/Batman (Adam West) and Dick Grayson/Robin (Burt Ward). Much to the dismay of the two crime-fighters, their main four nemeses - The Riddler (Wally Wingert), The Joker (Jeff Bergman), The Penguin (William Salyers) and Catwoman (Julie Newmar) - have joined forces to steal the Replicator Ray, which is capable of duplicating anybody it targets. But even though Batman and Robin manage to retrieve the weapon, Catwoman slips Batman a chemical which turns him into a selfish, power-hungry jerk. Before long, Batman starts to use the Replicator Ray on himself to take over Gotham City, leaving Robin to find a way to reverse both the effects of the chemical and the duplicative properties of the Ray.

Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders has a ball embracing the pure absurdity which defined the television show and subsequent feature film expansion, from the hilariously convoluted way that the Dynamic Duo deduce The Riddler's puzzles, to Robin's situation-specific exclamations ("Holy trench warfare!") and Batman's habitual need to impart life lessons no matter how urgent the situation. Furthermore, the animators faithfully recreate the 1960s Batcave in all its campy glory, and all of the items in Batman's seemingly endless arsenal carry titles preceded by the word "Bat" - including a Bat-Rocket. The vibe of '60s Batman is captured almost effortlessly, from the iconic theme music to the character designs, and of course the use of goofy captions throughout sequences of fisticuffs whenever a punch or kick is thrown ("Oomph!," "Kapow!"). The animation format allows for a greater scope that was simply never possible on a 1960s budget, but the production never loses sight of its origins. Those desiring a darker or even a more bombastic interpretation of the source should probably look elsewhere.

Despite running a comparatively scant 75 minutes, Return of the Caped Crusaders does feel a bit long in the tooth after a while, as it starts to run out of gas during its second act in particular. The jokes are certainly amusing when they hit, particularly throughout the brilliantly-paced opening half-hour or so, but the flick probably could have done with more gags and/or zany diversions, or at least some trimming. Additionally, despite the spot-on recreation of the Batcave, the rest of the sets look overly bog-standard for the most part, and rarely does the production generate the impression that it takes place in the 1960s. This is likely a reflection of the budget limitations, but a bit more style and colour to the surrounds would not have gone astray. Still, Return of the Caped Crusaders gets more right than wrong, though it almost goes without saying that this is a fan-service type of movie, and those familiar with the original show will get the most out of it. It's unclear just how well the movie will play to the uninitiated.

Voice acting across the board is highly spirited and full of energy for the most part, which is no small feat in the animation realm where even the most talented actors can sound uninterested and lifeless. West's voice is easily the most distinctive, and there would be no point continuing the legacy of 1960s Batman without the veteran performer reprising his role. There's so much effortless spark and charm to West's performance here, taking to the animated format without missing a beat. (He has spent many years playing an exaggerated version of himself on Family Guy, after all.) Meanwhile, Ward's age is reflected in his voice, but this actually makes his performance all the more amusing, adding another layer of metatextual humour. What matters is that Ward's energy never falters, and his interplay with West is every bit as lively and amusing as it should be. However, Newmar is not quite as successful in this respect; her advanced age also comes through in her voice, which has changed so much that she doesn't sound anything like her original Catwoman. It's certainly an interesting novelty to have Newmar in the cast, but her performance is stiff and flat. Luckily, the sound-alikes portraying The Penguin, The Riddler and The Joker hit their marks terrifically.

For all of its tongue-in-cheek gags and corny dialogue, it never feels as if Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders is mocking the source material - rather, it provides a timely, affectionate throwback to a simpler era for the Caped Crusader. Indeed, it should play very well for those who are sick of dark, grim Batman movies, and it's undeniably refreshing to see this jovial side to the character for the first time in decades. A sequel is in the works, entitled Batman vs. Two-Face, which features William Shatner as Two-Face. At this point, the prospect of a sequel is more exciting than any other Batman feature in development. Go figure.


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A hit-and-miss historical curiosity

Posted : 1 year, 1 month ago on 1 November 2017 06:22 (A review of Air America (1990))

Adapted from the 1978 non-fiction novel of the same name by journalist Christopher Robbins, Air America strives to be both an anti-war political drama as well as an action-comedy, but it never quite comes together in any meaningful way. The film was helmed by director Roger Spottiswoode, who cut his teeth editing Sam Peckinpah movies (including Straw Dogs) and went on to direct the James Bond adventure Tomorrow Never Dies. Unfortunately, the director struggles with tone throughout Air America - Spottiswoode and co. visibly strived to recreate the success of other military comedies like 1987's Good Morning, Vietnam, but the film lacks the spark of wittiness and personality to achieve this, even though it's certainly a handsomely-mounted action-adventure.

After losing his pilot license as a result of a low-flying stunt, Billy (Robert Downey Jr.) finds a chance to redeem himself by joining the "Air America" team in Laos during the Vietnam War. A covert operation overseen by the CIA, Air America pilots are tasked with delivering supplies, weapons and drugs to the area, while the American government denies any involvement with such endeavours. Taking to the bumpy skies, Billy is paired up with ace pilot Gene Ryack (Mel Gibson), who has a plan for his retirement: buy a cache of illegal weaponry from his brother-in-law, and sell it to the highest bidder. However, Billy grows weary of the criminal activities with which he is now involved, subsequently clashing with Gene. Meanwhile, United States Senator Davenport (Lane Smith) arrives in Laos for a "fact-finding" mission to investigate drug-running rumours. The CIA leaders of Air America rendezvous with the Senator, aiming to deceive him and hide Air America's illegal activities.

Since Air America was produced by Carolco Pictures and carried a hefty $35 million price-tag, it's certainly pretty to look at, making great use of the marvellous Thai locations and featuring competent photography courtesy of master cinematographer Roger Deakins. It's refreshing to see practical effects and real planes being used on-screen as well, and the action beats and aerial gymnastics do manage to temporarily raise the pulse. You certainly cannot fault the production values, as Air America looks professionally-produced right across the board. Nevertheless, it does run too long at about 110 minutes, and though the story is clear enough, the movie meanders as there's not much life between the plot points. There is a pleasant plot detour in which Billy meets Gene's family and gets to see his humble home, but there simply isn't enough personality on-screen, and Spottiswoode is incapable of creating genuine narrative momentum. With the story playing out robotically, and with Spottiswoode's hit-and-miss pacing, there's not much replay value and the whole thing is both forgettable and humdrum.

It's evident that screenwriters John Eskow and Richard Rush, as well as director Spottiswoode took their cues from M*A*S*H, as there are satirical jabs and goofy jokes throughout, including a Buddhist monk blessing the airplanes and someone offering Juicy Fruit to Billy after a plane crash. However, many of the jokes either fall flat or fail to register due to the lack of actual wit - not even Bill Murray or Robin Williams could have done much with the material. On the upside, the soundtrack is littered with an array of classic songs, including "Gimme Shelter" by The Rolling Stones which is apparently contractually obligated to appear in every Vietnam War-era motion picture ever produced. In addition, Gibson still manages to emanate plenty of charisma, and he plays his role with an agreeable masculine swagger. Downey, meanwhile, was in his early days here, and he certainly tries his hardest whilst playing opposite such a big star, doing what he can with the mediocre material. Even when the movie is at its most stilted, Downey and Gibson are still watchable at least.

Air America is not overly memorable, and despite its attempt to convey a weighty anti-war message as it tells this true-life story, it's too disposable to make enough of an impact. Still, it is able to come to life in fits and starts thanks to the inherent charm of its two leads and the agreeable soundtrack. Plus, it's hard not to be impressed with the technical construction of the picture, especially with Deakins' cinematography. As a minor chronicle of the CIA's clandestine weapon and drug trafficking in the Vietnam War, it's at least worth a watch, but otherwise it will only be perceived as something of a historical curiosity since it features Martin Riggs and the future Iron Man. Perhaps a superior movie about the same topic will materialise sometime in the future.


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Bona fide science fiction classic

Posted : 1 year, 1 month ago on 15 October 2017 07:00 (A review of Blade Runner)

Ridley Scott's Blade Runner is for a very specific type of film-watcher, which is to say that it is definitely not for all tastes. Despite the presence of a few thrilling action beats, this adaptation of Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is more concerned with audio-visual immersion, esoteric cerebral expression and thematic density. Even though it flopped at the box office upon its theatrical release in 1982, Blade Runner developed into one of the most influential sci-fi movies in history, and has amassed an enormous cult following. Its reputation speaks for itself, really. Scott's vision for this universe is wholly unique, crafting a neo-noir detective story with a lot on its mind. Blade Runner outright rejects mainstream sensibilities, playing out more like an art-house film than a blockbuster, and radically diverging from the likes of Star Wars or Flash Gordon. As a result, this is very much a "love it or hate it" affair - in fact, it took this reviewer multiple viewings over several years to warm up to it, but the determination paid off; now it just keeps getting better and better.

In a dystopic future, the Tyrell Corporation have developed synthetic human beings known as replicants to be used on off-world colonies for slave labour. Replicants can be dangerous, however, and after an attempted revolt, they are declared illegal on Earth. To combat the threat, special police squads known as Blade Runner Units were formed; specialised officers who are expressly assigned to "retire" (i.e. kill) replicants on sight. In the year 2019, four renegade replicants illegally travel to Earth hoping to blend into society and potentially extend their four-year lifespan. A retired LAPD Blade Runner, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is called back to duty by his former supervisor, Bryant (M. Emmett Walsh), for the sole purpose of killing the four replicants in question: Roy (Rutger Hauer), Pris (Daryl Hannah), Leon (Brion James), and Zhora (Joanna Cassidy). However, the mission is complicated when Deckard meets Rachael (Sean Young), an experimental replicant working alongside Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel) with implanted memories who believes she is human. Deckard finds himself falling for Rachael, compelling him to question the mission, especially when Bryant orders him to kill her as well.

With a script credited to Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples, Blade Runner may seem deceptively simple on the surface, but it's imbued with philosophical underpinnings, existential questions about humanity, commentary on overpopulation and environmental degradation, as well as religious and animal motifs. For the most part, too, such material is built into the fabric of the narrative rather than relying on extensive dialogue to get its point across, and as a result it doesn't feel as preachy or as pretentious as it might have been in lesser hands. Even though the movie does threaten to crush under the weight of its own self-importance during the late "tears in the rain" monologue, it's nevertheless a powerful scene. There is violence, and the visuals are stunning to observe of course, but each element exists to serve the narrative, never coming across gratuitous or empty. Blade Runner is also a feature which demands your fullest attention, lest you get hopelessly lost.

Scott exudes undeniable authority over every frame, never letting the movie out of his control, allowing the proceedings to play out at a deliberate pace which may alienate viewers without the patience required to see it through. However, this is not to say that haters are uncultured swine - if you dislike Blade Runner, the movie is simply not for you, and that's a reasonable reaction. To be fair, the pacing can be sluggish and slow-moving, and Scott keeps you at arm's length as the movie comes up short in terms of dramatic resonance. Indeed, the characters are superficial, with Deckard particularly lacking in significant development. Excised scenes and voiceovers do provide more insight into the blade runner's background, but it's evident that Scott ultimately chose to eschew character development whilst finding the movie in post-production, and as a result your mileage will vary. In addition, the storyline is admittedly threadbare; though Deckard's assignment is complicated due to a variety of factors, the trajectory itself is a tad meandering, in need of a bit more drive. I do not doubt that these intrinsic flaws are all part of Scott's vision, as Blade Runner is more about the pure experience than character exploration or dense plotting, but it nevertheless lessens the movie to a certain extent in the eyes of this reviewer.

Los Angeles is depicted here as a dark, dense metropolis filled with advertisements and bathed in perpetual rainfall, painting a scarily believable image of the future. Even though there is paid product placement, the advertisements function as a form of societal satire and reflection - after all, advertisement oversaturation already occurs. From top to bottom, the visual design of Blade Runner is awe-inspiring; Scott and his team of collaborators worked to create their own unique futuristic vision bursting with aesthetic beauty, flawlessly brought to life through old-school model shots, matte paintings and extensive set work. The world is intricately designed, with so much detail in every nook and cranny to absorb, and it feels lived-in to boot. It's not just impressive for its time - it's still impressive today. Indeed, the grand illusion throughout Blade Runner still stands up to contemporary scrutiny, allowing the movie to remain timeless. Admittedly, certain shots look a bit rough around the edges due to the technology of the era, but the use of practical effects arguably stand up better than obvious-looking computer-generated imagery. The meticulous sound design also further serves to bring vivid life to this retro-futuristic world.

Director of photography Jordan Cronenweth (who was actually suffering from ill health during the shoot) bathes Blade Runner in mystique and neon beauty, creating a masterful visual palette bolstered by exquisite lighting, doing justice to the incredible production design and ensuring that the film still looks impressive decades later. The crowning touch is the achingly beautiful, ethereal original synth score by Greek composer Vangelis. The soundtrack is iconic, further separating the movie from many if its sci-fi contemporaries, and giving it a distinct sound that perfectly complements the striking visual design.

Ford is at the top of his game here, bringing his trademark charm to the material, and carving out a distinct role that's noticeably different to his work in Star Wars. Ford was actually quite unhappy during the production, as he had issues with both Scott and his co-star Sean Young, but none of this comes across on screen - the thespian still submits a nuanced, engaging performance, and you can believe it when Deckard starts wrestling with his conscious as he falls for Rachael. Although much fuss has been made over the years about whether or not Deckard is a replicant, this aspect ultimately feels like an afterthought that was added on the fly, and it's doubtful this was even Scott's intention from the very outset. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating talking point, and the ambiguity (intentional or not) recontextualises the narrative at large. Luckily, Ford is surrounded by an able ensemble, with the likes of Edward James Olmos making a strong impression as another blade runner, and Walsh who's note-perfect as Deckard's no-nonsense supervisor. Young is effectively understated, while Hauer oozes menace and comes across as a genuine threat. This isn't exactly an actor's movie, but the ensemble cast all hit their intended marks, and there isn't a weak link among them.

As of 2017, five different cuts of Blade Runner exist. The studio executives did not approve of Scott's original vision in 1982, leading to a compromised theatrical cut with a "happy" ending, humdrum voiceover, and other alterations not condoned by the director. Some fans may prefer the theatrical cut, but the voiceover never works as Ford's delivery is lifeless (a direct result of the actor disagreeing with the narration in the first place) and it takes the audience for fools, over-explaining too much. Other editions of the film include the workprint, an international cut, and a 1992 director's cut which Scott was still not entirely happy with, since he was short on time and a team of editors just worked from his notes. The only version for which Scott held total artistic and editorial control over was the 2007 Final Cut, which stands as the definitive representation of the filmmaker's vision. Scott even chose to tidy up several visual effects shots, and filmed new footage with actress Joanna Cassidy to replace an obvious stunt-woman in a pivotal scene. Indeed, the Final Cut is arguably the best edition available, though fans and connoisseurs are welcome to disagree. Luckily, unlike the original Star Wars trilogy, all five cuts of the movie are freely available to view in high quality, allowing you to pick your preference.

It's not hard to find viewers who either feel lukewarm towards Blade Runner or actively dislike it, especially those who studied it in school, but it's impossible to deny the movie's impact on cinema and on popular culture at large. Visually enthralling and permeated with haunting lyricism, this is so much more than just another simple science fiction or action-adventure flick, and there are more layers to the movie to unravel with each new viewing. Considering the endless issues which legendarily plagued the production, and all the squabbling between Scott and the studio execs, it's a miracle that the movie turned out to be this great - and it's even more miraculous that we were granted Scott's final cut twenty-five years later. Blade Runner is a bona fide genre classic which will still be revered in another few decades. Once you see it, you will never forget it.


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Fun, old-school action-comedy

Posted : 1 year, 2 months ago on 10 October 2017 06:57 (A review of The Hitman's Bodyguard)

The Hitman's Bodyguard capably delivers on its promise to provide a slick, fun action-comedy featuring two talented performers doing what they do best - nothing more, nothing less. It might not be especially great from a discerning critical standpoint, but the laughs hit hard for the most part and the action scenes are genuinely thrilling, which has to count for something. Produced for a rather modest $30 million, it's competently-constructed and moves at an agreeable pace, but don't expect much in the way of creativity or originality. Nevertheless, for those of you who enjoy a good old-fashioned, old-school actioner, The Hitman's Bodyguard should scratch that itch.

Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds) was the top bodyguard in his industry for a brief moment in time, but the assassination of a high-profile client instantly dethrones him, and, in the aftermath, he also loses his girlfriend, an Interpol agent named Amelia (Elodie Young). With his reputation in tatters, Michael is left accepting lousy jobs as he endeavours to build himself back up. Meanwhile, Amelia finds herself in a grim situation when she becomes stuck with notorious assassin Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson), who is due to testify at the International Criminal Court in The Hague against ruthless Russian leader Vladislav Dukhovich (Gary Oldman). With a string of enforcers and corrupt law enforcement officials seeking to kill Darius, Amelia tasks Michael with safely transporting the hitman across the Netherlands, and ensure that he gets to court on time. Despite deep-seated feelings of hostility towards each other based on previous encounters, Darius and Michael are forced to put aside their differences to complete the mission as a horde of hired guns aggressively come after them.

Written by Tom O'Connor, The Hitman's Bodyguard is a standard-order mishmash of the likes of 48 Hrs. and Midnight Run, with a dash of Rush Hour for good measure. There is lots of fun to be had as Michael tries his hardest to be a proper bodyguard, adhering to his rulebook by the letter, while Darius uses his various tricks to escape custody and consequently put the mission in jeopardy. The movie certainly runs too long at nearly two hours, but at least the runtime means that no plot elements or character relationships feel short-changed. Nevertheless, more energy would have benefitted the flick, as it does feel its length from time to time. Admittedly, too, The Hitman's Bodyguard doesn't contain much in the way of innovation; it lacks a spin to distinguish it from similar endeavours. Considering the talents of Jackson and Reynolds, there was certainly room to satirise and subvert the mismatched buddy action-comedy subgenre (especially given the brilliant official poster which sends up 1992's The Bodyguard), but The Hitman's Bodyguard is content to be just another generic outing teeming with shootouts and chases. Whether or not that's good enough is entirely up to you.

At the helm of The Hitman's Bodyguard is Australian filmmaker Patrick Hughes, late of the outstanding Red Hill and 2014's less impressive The Expendables 3. Say what you will about his limp Expendables instalment, but the director did at least show promise in the creation of the action sequences, and he does much better here. Action is frequent throughout, and Hughes acquits himself well, staging brutal, bloody mayhem with welcome verve, showing what he's capable of with the freedom of an R rating. Although the set-pieces are frenetically shot and edited, this amplifies the sense of excitement, and it's still easy to make out what's happening. The standout has to be a chase through the streets and canals of Amsterdam involving cars, a boat, and a motorbike - the stunt-work is a treat, and the set-piece itself is worthy of a James Bond film. To be sure, there's not much of a feeling that the (anti)heroes are in real danger, but it's still fun to watch Michael and Darius dispatching masses of nameless goons as they battle their way through the Netherlands. On that note, it's fortunate that The Hitman's Bodyguard is not set in nondescript Eastern European locations like many of Millennium Films' recent output (Boyka: Undisputed IV) - with its Netherlands setting, there's lots of eye-catching scenery and the flick is endowed with a unique flavour. If there are any shortcomings in the movie's glossy technical presentation, it's the occasional moments of shonky green screening and CGI backgrounds, but that's par for the course with this studio.

It's apparent that a fair few of the laughs were likely improvised by the actors, but what matters is that The Hitman's Bodyguard is frequently amusing, and left this reviewer in fits of laughter. Even though Reynolds is tasked to play the straight man to Jackson's more frenzied Darius, the Deadpool actor does get the chance to flex his comedic muscles on several occasions, and he has this particular shtick down to a fine art. However, unsurprisingly, it's Jackson who walks away with the movie. Given the freedom to swear up a storm as per his usual modus operandi, Jackson is firmly in his element here, clearly having a fun time playing this skilful, incredibly arrogant assassin. Hayek is also put to good use as Darius's hot-headed bride, scoring plenty of laughs and stealing every scene in which she features (even in a sequence entirely bereft of dialogue that makes brilliant use of Lionel Ritchie's "Hello"). Meanwhile, Oldman can do this type of villain role in his sleep (Air Force One), and the seasoned actor appears to be one of the only cast members to take the material seriously. He's a fine villain as always, adding a touch of gravitas to the proceedings.

If The Hitman's Bodyguard was produced sometime in the 1990s (starring Jackson and, say, Bruce Willis), it would probably be considered a minor cult action title and might have even been better-received by critics. In 2017, it's not exactly relevant, but for the right audience it's a pleasant alternative within a summer season full of expensive studio blockbusters. If The Hitman's Bodyguard carried a safer PG-13 rating, it would likely have felt too painfully generic and vanilla, but with an R rating allowing for punchier one-liners, colourful bantering and blood sprays, the movie does its job better than perhaps it should. Be warned, though, that it is quite violent at times, and some critics have even complained that it's too bloody for a comedy, so a strong stomach is recommended and it's not for everyone. Nevertheless, I cannot deny that the movie worked for me. It's a fun time. Note that there is an outtake at the end of the credits - and it's funny, so stick around for it.


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Amazing sequel, and a breathtaking original sci-fi

Posted : 1 year, 2 months ago on 9 October 2017 03:09 (A review of Blade Runner 2049)

It took thirty-five years, but Ridley Scott's highly-acclaimed 1982 box office flop Blade Runner has finally spawned a sequel. At once, Blade Runner 2049 is the follow-up that Scott's science fiction classic deserved, and it's also better than it had any right to be, standing alongside the likes of Aliens, Mad Max: Fury Road and The Godfather: Part II as one of cinema's all-time greatest sequels. Bolstered by outstanding technical specs, smart writing and immaculate acting right across the board, 2049 is a breathtaking extension of Blade Runner, overseen by visionary French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve who proves to be an ideal successor to Scott. Written by Michael Green (Logan) and Hampton Fancher, the story of 2049 is intrinsically tied to Scott's movie in ways that cannot be spoiled, but it also confidently stands alone. Be warned, however, that this is not an action-heavy mainstream sci-fi film, à la Star Wars - in keeping with its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 is for a specific type of filmgoer, demanding patience as it plays out at its own pace. It's essentially the most expensive art-house movie ever made. And if you dislike Blade Runner, it's probably best that you sit this one out.

Set three decades after the events of the first movie, Officer K (Ryan Gosling) works as a blade runner for the LAPD, tasked with tracking down and "retiring" the artificial beings known as replicants that have grown out of control or obsolete. Led to a farm overseen by rogue replicant Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), K discovers skeletal remains pointing to a thought-impossible anomaly. K's superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), sends him to investigate, hoping to clear up the situation as quickly as possible. But the discovery attracts the attention of Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), who is responsible for the new generation of replicants after the Tyrell Corporation went out of business. Hoping that the discovery can benefit his company, Wallace sends his enforcer, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), to follow K, making the blade runner's investigation all the more perilous. In addition, K finds himself searching for former blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), who disappeared many years prior.

Like Scott's film, Blade Runner 2049 is a noir-ish detective story first and foremost, deepening the details of this vivid futuristic world as K pursues leads and clues, grappling with the gravity of his shocking discovery. Built upon a core of intriguing ideas and themes, the story - hatched by original Blade Runner scribe Fancher - avoids simply rehashing its predecessor and creates a more pronounced narrative trajectory, ensuring that it never meanders despite a meaty running time. Clocking in at a staggering 163 minutes, 2049 is packed with story and subplots, but not a single piece feels inessential. Even a cameo appearance featuring Edward James Olmos reprising his role as Gaff might seem like simple fan service, but it serves to make the movie feel more complete. Furthermore, unlike the original film, 2049 is imbued with emotion to supplement the spectacle - in particular, the final scene is heart-wrenching. K feels like a fully-realised character despite the coldness of this world, and shares an intimate relationship with his responsive holographic companion Joi (Ana de Armas), whose presence is announced with notes from "Peter and the Wolf." Even though both are merely artificial intelligence, this aspect of the story is unexpectedly poignant, highlighting that Joi can only satisfy K on a superficial level since nothing can quite replicate the raw intensity of human interaction despite insane technological advancements.

With movies such as Sicario and last year's Arrival under his belt, only Villeneuve could have successfully pulled off a Blade Runner sequel, as he's one of the only modern-day filmmakers able to handle the complexity and density required for such an endeavour. In fact, it's seriously doubtful that even Scott himself would be able to so much as match Villeneuve's directorial brilliance or confident sense of pacing. It would have been easy enough to create a more action-oriented sequel for easier mainstream consumption, and to an extent that might have been enjoyable, but Villeneuve is more interested in a purer form of cinematic poetry, providing the perfect alternative in an overcrowded cinematic marketplace dominated by superhero movies. Blade Runner 2049 does its best to replicate the viewing experience of Scott's original movie, with patient pacing and a proclivity for scenes filled with silent, lingering study, but this isn't just an unnecessary homage - Villeneuve deepens and develops this hellish world, revealing that San Diego has become a trash dump and there is more to learn about replicants. Luckily, too, the minor bursts of action are brutal and enormously effective. In particular, a climactic battle is one of the most nail-biting sequences of the year, and it exists without cheapening the material in any way.

From a visual standpoint, Blade Runner 2049 is unequivocally flawless, emerging as one of the most aesthetically unique and distinctive science fiction movies of the 21st Century. From top to bottom, the set design represents an organic extension of the original movie, preserving the futuristic, Tokyo-esque vision of Los Angeles filled with industrial-looking buildings, flying cars and gigantic advertisements, while the metropolis is bathed in perpetual darkness and rain. 2049 was lensed by cinematographer Roger Deakins, who has been nominated for many Oscars and previously collaborated with Villeneuve on Prisoners and Sicario. Deakins is the best cinematographer in the business bar none, and with Blade Runner 2049, he again demonstrates his astonishing talents for composition and lighting. It's doubtful that anybody else could have made this follow-up look so thoroughly eye-catching in every single shot. Perhaps shooting on 35mm (and 65mm) film stock could have brought the visual aesthetic even closer to the original movie, but this is just nitpicking.

Blade Runner 2049's special effects deserve the highest of praises; Villeneuve's vision is flawlessly brought to life, making astute use of the monstrous budget. There is no obvious CGI to speak of - every visual element looks tangible and real, ensuring that nothing will look dated a few decades down the track. There is a brief cameo by a character from the original film who is made to look precisely the same as they did in 1982, and the illusion is seamless. Digital de-aging is nothing new thanks to Marvel, but this is next level - it's overwhelmingly convincing. Composers Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch were actually brought onto the project at the last minute, but the resulting original score is a huge asset, reminiscent of Vangelis's iconic synth-based music from the original movie, perfectly complementing the breathtaking visuals. The soundtrack also contains songs by Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra, which enhances the picture's flavour. However, at times, the score does lack the distinctive presence of Vangelis's work, particularly during sweeping shots of the city, but that presumably comes down to the style that Villeneuve was aiming for. Again, this is nitpicking.

Gosling may not seem like an obvious choice for this sort of motion picture, but it seems we've been underestimating the actor, who truly brings his A game and then some. The actor doesn't say a great deal, but subtle facial expressions convey a lot; Gosling is perpetually committed to the role and not a single moment feels contrived. Just as impressive is Ford, reprising his role as Rick Deckard. Ford's presence is certainly minimised compared to what the marketing implies, but the story itself is so spellbinding on its own merits that you're never left yearning for his arrival during the first two-thirds of the movie. When he does show up, Ford delivers the performance of his career, bringing honest-to-goodness emotion and plenty of attitude to the role that he played thirty-five years ago. The good news doesn't stop there - Villeneuve also coaxes top-flight performances from the likes of Sylvia Hoeks, Jared Leto, Robin Wright and, particularly, Ana de Armas. Blade Runner 2049 may be a stunning visual feast, but thespian achievements are equally impressive.

Perhaps Blade Runner didn't need a sequel due to the nature of its narrative and the ambiguity that Scott was aiming for, but Blade Runner 2049 continues the story in a logical way without diminishing the impact of the motion picture which started it all. In addition, Villeneuve builds upon the original movie's thought-provoking themes, with existential questions about humanity and the power of memories. And even though it's a longer movie, 2049 arguably surpasses its revered predecessor due to its understated emotional and dramatic resonance, and more sure-handed pacing. To be sure, not everyone will take to 2049, just as certain viewers did not take to Blade Runner back in 1982, but the movie works like gangbusters if you have the patience to appreciate it. This is not just an amazing sequel; it's also an outstanding original sci-fi and another winning directorial effort for Villeneuve. Blade Runner 2049 is the purest and most rewarding cinematic experience of the year.


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Goofy, insanely fun spy satire

Posted : 1 year, 2 months ago on 29 September 2017 10:06 (A review of Kingsman: The Golden Circle)

Disclaimer: It's tough to review Kingsman: The Golden Circle without divulging what some may consider to be spoilers. Even though the details in question were spoiled in the trailers, a spoiler warning is nevertheless in place.

Even though sequels have materialised for two of Matthew Vaughn's previous motion pictures, 2017's Kingsman: The Golden Circle denotes the first time that the filmmaker has returned to personally direct a follow-up to one of his own movies. A bold but distinctly organic-feeling sequel to 2015's Kingsman: The Secret Service, The Golden Circle is a goofy, enjoyable return to this world of post-modernist spy movie satire masterminded by comic-book writer Mark Millar. It's filled with flashy gadgets, bawdy humour, energetic ultraviolence, and an array of Oscar-winning actors in supporting roles - and Vaughn's directorial confidence undeniably bolsters the material. In short, fans of the first movie are sure to find some worth in this insanely fun follow-up, but it won't change your mind if you disliked the original surprise hit.

Now comfortable in his role as a world-saving secret agent, Eggsy Unwin (Taron Egerton) also endeavours to have a private life outside of his work, maintaining a relationship with Princess Tilde (Hanna Alström). But when the Kingsman are mysteriously destroyed in a coordinated attack, only Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong) are left alive. Following their doomsday protocol, the pair are led to America where they meet with their U.S. counterpart, the Statesman. Run by Champagne (Jeff Bridges), the Statesman offer much-needed assistance to Eggsy and Merlin, with agents Whiskey (Pedro Pascal), Ginger Ale (Halle Berry) and Tequila (Channing Tatum) reporting for duty. In addition, Eggsy is reunited with his presumed-dead mentor, Harry (Colin Firth), who now suffers from amnesia. Evidence behind the Kingsman's destruction points to Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore), the deranged leader of a major drug cartel who grows tired of hiding in the jungles of Cambodia to oversee her operation. Lacing her products with a highly lethal toxin for which only she holds the antidote, Poppy holds the whole world hostage, seeking to force the immediate legalisation of all drugs.

The Golden Circle is a full meal, dealing with the destruction of the Kingsman, settling in with the Statesman, Harry's ostensibly hopeless amnesia, Poppy's intricate scheme, and many other plot machinations, earning its beefy 140-minute runtime which is certainly excessive for a spy film. Its predecessor was long enough at 129 minutes, but this is even longer. Indeed, The Golden Circle is plotted much like a Roger Moore James Bond film - that is, it gets caught up in tangents that ultimately feel superfluous, taking too long to get to the story's final destination. In particular, there is a mildly amusing but definitely overlong subplot that only serves to satirise the clichéd old spy trope in which the hero must seduce the villain's girlfriend - it's dead weight despite a few funny moments. Nevertheless, the movie benefits from a goofy sense of humour, and Elton John is even included, playing himself. John may not be much of an actor, but he's a total hoot here, and the singer gets in on the action.

There was a palpable father/son bond between Eggsy and Harry in the original film, and this is furthered in The Golden Circle - the film initially deals with how Eggsy deals with the loss of a father figure, but with Harry's amnesia, the script visibly evokes dealing with dementia and Alzheimer's. It's surprisingly poignant, adding an emotional undercurrent to the mayhem, even if the movie can't really find anything new to do with Eggsy or the other characters. Still, The Golden Circle does enough to advance the franchise at large to prevent it from feeling too meaningless in the grand scheme of things. In addition, Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman again manage to find time for acerbic socio-political satire between the broader gags. Hell, the President of the United States (Bruce Greenwood) actually sees Poppy's scheme as an ideal way to win the war on drugs once and for all. Plus, Poppy's Cambodian headquarters - an ancient temple remodelled into a nostalgia-tribute to 1950s America - represents a sly visual commentary on American-style colonialism that really deserves more credit.

Nobody can stage action quite like Vaughn, and he has a ball here, going absolutely bonkers in the major action sequences which easily surpass anything seen in the last 007 movie, the limp Spectre. The action starts early, opening with a dazzling fight scene inside a car set to Prince's "Let's Go Crazy," and the sense of creativity scarcely wanes. Whereas the original movie hit a high bar with the astonishing church shootout at the end of its second act, The Golden Circle saves the best for last. The extended assault on Poppy's jungle HQ is a total gas, combining thrilling fisticuffs with ultraviolent gunplay, backed by a selection of Elton John hits which really tops it all off. There are a fair few catchy tunes throughout, even making terrific use of "Word Up" by The BossHoss, amplifying the sense of goofy fun. And best of all, the set-pieces aren't cut to ribbons - Vaughn uses his trademark swirling tracking shots, allowing you to see and enjoy every frame of the mayhem without struggling to figure out what's going on. Vaughn retains his proclivity for enhancing the action with obvious CGI, but this is part of his comic-book style, and it distinguishes the film from many of its contemporaries. What matters is that The Golden Circle is genuinely thrilling throughout its action set-pieces, serving up more of what you loved about the first movie.

Moore is hugely appealing and eminently watchable as Poppy, projecting a buoyant, optimistic attitude while something more sinister bubbles underneath. She's a treat. Egerton can do this type of material in his sleep now, and he remains a charismatic hero, while Strong provides excellent support. Firth was the surprise standout of the original movie, reinventing himself as an agile action hero despite being in his 50s, and his return here is very welcome. Although some may feel that his survival comes across as cheap and unrealistic, can you really complain too much when Firth is this much fun? Besides, the movie is one big cartoon, who really cares about realism? In spite of what the marketing would have you believe, Tatum and Bridges have very little presence in the movie, amounting to extended cameos which will presumably lead into another sequel or even a spin-off. Pascal gets the lion's share of the screen-time here, effortlessly pulling off a wonderfully cartoonish American cowboy archetype, and sharing more than a passing resemblance to Burt Reynolds with his moustache, while the movie makes good use of Berry as well. Also keep a look out for Bruce Greenwood and Emily Watson as the President and his Chief of Staff, respectively.

Although Kingsman: The Golden Circle falls short of its gleefully left-field predecessor, it is a worthy follow-up in spite of its overlong runtime and scripting shortcomings. The movie plays smoother on repeat viewings and doesn't fall apart in hindsight, as silly as it may be. There is still enough inspiration in the action and comedy to ensure that another instalment remains an exciting prospect.


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