Warcraft (2016)

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Duncan Jones directs Toby Kebbell, Travis Fimmel and Ben Foster in this Orcs versus Human epic… but with orcs versus orcs and human versus human subplots… plus some occasional dwarves. 

Who remembers Willow? Hands up. It wasn’t great was it? Keep your hands up. Not perfect. But fuck me, it was fun. There were jokes, stunts, fantasy elements you marvelled at when they fleetingly appeared in betwixt the swordplay and hobbit banter. Big budget fantasy films should stop trying to be Lord of the Rings and start trying to be more like Willow. Why? Because Lord of the Rings was based on a literary classic, beloved by many and crafted over decades by a genius (Tolkein or Jackson, take your pick)… while Willow was scribbled on the back of a fag packet by people who wanted to make a Star Wars with a lot less time consuming miniature work and more Val Kilmer. You try to match a classic when your source material is a derivative video game and you are going to come off looking like a bit of a divvy, whereas if you tried to match Warwick and the gang… You’ve got my drift already? Okey dokey, you can put your hands down now. Lesson hopefully learnt. Warcraft isn’t enjoyable. It confuses crowded narratives with scope, clangy and slashy movement with action. Only one midway battle at a failed negotiation in a chasm engages, everything else is just a well-costumed rumble featuring humans whose names you haven’t learnt. A bit of star power was really necessary here, not just for box office, nor even to piss away into the charisma vacuum, but to just have some recognisable facial landmarks in the proceedings. A Sam Rockwell here or a Jake Gyllenhaal there (the usually exciting director Jones has these phone numbers) would fill in for the lack of backstory and wisps of invested personality. A good likeable star does a lot of heavy lifting when you don’t have time to give your avatars any human dimensions. The sky is blank, bereft of much needed twinkle, and proceedings only become marginally more involving in the Orc camp. They at least have doubts, believable relationships and clear motivations. Warcraft would have been a better first chapter if the filmmakers just focussed on the realistically achieved Orcs’ politics, dilemmas and struggles. Introduce the humans in a sequel where they’d have a bit more room to breathe and come to life. Or better yet watch Willow, and not bother with this borer at all.

3

Gods of Egypt (2016)

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Alex Proyas directs Gerard Butler, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Brenton Thwaites in this adventure battle between honky Egyptian gods.

Part of a “Why do I do this to myself?” double fantasy bill with Warcraft yesterday afternoon, I walked into this with low expectations but the hope that one, or the other, would exceed their collective awful reputations. There’s actually some epic, almost surreal, production design and some OK action here dotted about a plotless wander. Not enough to stop adult me from having a little nap before the last battle but I’d bet a less jaded, juvenile me would have at least walked out looking forward to circling the action figures in my Argos catalogue after. This actually feels like a big budget remake of forgotten 80s toyline schilling cartoon serial; see Visionaries: Knights of the Magical Light, Ulysses 31 or MASK. And if an 11 year old me had gone to this then I’d probably have found more currency in the constant cliches and cleavage on display. Butler, still terrible but the best of bad bunch of performances ranging from worryingly senile to wonkliy one take worthy, seems to have rubbed his porky pig in Bisto… Which won’t help those accusations of whitewashing. So daftly awful that the Scottish, Swedes, Aussies and whatever nationality Thwaites is should right now be protesting and boycotting so their collective race are never again associated with such golden showers. If you can judge a film by how many loners carrying two stuffed bags for life came in late to a matinee screening,  then Gods of Egypt is a “six seperate rattling mentals” barnstormer.

4

The Conjuring 2 (2016)

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James Wan directs Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson and Frances O’Connor in this London set sequel following real life Catholic “ghostbusters” Ed and Lorraine Warren saving another working class family from a diabolical haunting. 

Nitpickers beware! You will see the problems first, front and centre, when settling into this effective genre sequel.  1) a creaky, cliched opening, 2) actors of various nationalities trying on “sausage era” Grange Hill accents for size and being swamped by them, 3) the incongruous CGI Crooked Man… UGH! Who signed off on that in the final edit? 4) anachronisms on the soundtrack and the telly 5) the kid with a speech impediment, obsessed with biscuits whose bully can do a better fake stutter than the poor tyke cast. These wobbles aside, this proved a great date night for a pair of horror aficionados. The 2 hour length makes the film feel appropriately like an exhausting epic for our heroes and if you are gripped by the constantly ratcheted sense of dread, which I was, then the pay off contains some of the best action storytelling in a finale for years. The nun sequences are genuinely intense – both the painting scene and the Bill Wilkins reveal involving “it” will be held up as high watermarks in big screen scares. Vera Farmiga adds a rare touch of acting class to the proceedings (as always – I’m annoyed with myself I never got into Bates Motel), while Patrick Wilson is still an enigma to me – managing to be both vanilla and creepy, bland yet mysterious in pretty much every role he’s in (I can’t pigeon hole his appeal or success, can anyone?). The faith subtext was nicely handled even for my lapsed agnostic sensibilities and it’s just winning to have a blockbuster series centred on a mature, loving married couple rather than more chosen one kids or Megan Fox or “stars” who can’t open a movie without a cowl or cape. I’ll repeat there are niggling problems throughout and this style of scare storytelling is starting to already show its age and needs a shake up… but there are also those previously stated moments of brilliance too. James Wan grows more assured and masterful in the genre every sequel and spin off he sets to. As a piece of horror entertainment it’s well above par in term of quality and I’d happily see The Warrens become a summer fixture over Deadpools, Turtles and orcs. And – for all my grumbling about unfortunate  forger’s notes in the recreation of a 1977 London council house -the Woolworths Christmas decorations, wooden telly, British Rail train carriages, wasteland gardens with iron swing sets, and especially the toys and the clothes, all feel spot on to my similar , poltergeist free, early childhood.

7

Life of Crime (2014)

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Daniel Schechter directs John Hawkes, Jennifer Aniston and Tim Robbins in this adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Switch which features early incarnations of Jackie Brown’s key players.

Colourful and well cast, but doesn’t get the rhythm of the distinctive dialogue or plotting right. Once we settle into ransom demands the pleasing early gush of hairboiled zest just slows to a trickle through. As an unofficial prequel to QT’s superior Leonard adaptation, Jackie Brown, is where most of the value lies…How close will it line up so you can pop Pam Grier and Robert Foster on straight after and not feel disorientated? (Hey, I don’t know what goes about in your head but this is the exact stuff that keeps me awake at night.) The loveable Hawkes makes a really decent fist of a sweeter, more clued-up, pre-long stretch Robert DeNiro’s Louis Gara, Mos Def can’t hold a candle to Samuel L Jackson and Isla Fisher is an anachronism as conniving surfer chick Melanie. Still gorgeous in bikinis and Christmas jumpers but her age is starting to show, so casting Fisher as a younger version of an in her prime Bridget Fonda feels like when Dalton replaced Moore but with all of Bond’s history still lingering. You probably won’t mind the paradox quite so much, and the filmmakers probably were just happy to have another bankable comedic talent join the roster. I really can’t believe I’m moaning, over multiple sentences, about Isla Fisher being in a movie, either!

5

Film of the Week: Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

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George Miller directs Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron and Nicholas Holt in this non stop chase through the maddest evolutionary leap in his long abandoned movie landscape. 

Just perfection. The action is adrenalin fuelled mentalism, the overriding attitude is “no fool ever dared this before”. Sure the scale loses something on the small screen but you can focus on the marvellous – yet admirably sexless – chemistry between Tom Hardy’s near feral Max (I love his grunting, cautious delivery) and Theron’s unstoppable hero instead. Often wordless so as to let the multicolour visuals override, Miller let’s the action do the talking. Action! Action! Action! But don’t let you think that this has nothing to say. There are enough barbed reflections of our own society’s ills and concerns in this apocalyptic horror show that you can hang just about any reading onto the characters and their survival. Pretty much the best action film / sci film since the Alien series heyday adding an increased British comic book aesthetic to its pre-existing Aussie world’s already potent palette. What a lovely day!

10

Perrier’s Bounty (2010)

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Ian Fitzgibbon directs Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson and Jodie Whitaker in this Irish crime farce.

This kind of tosh that you can watch post pub and still be disappointed – even though you can join it halfway and know exactly where you are (despite all the characters and their seperated plots), or fall asleep at the same point and not feel you’ve missed any surprises before the credits. The kind of tosh that became funded ten a penny after Lock, Stock and this feels like the tenth one made on the final greenlit penny – London stands poorly in for Dublin as a location whenever passable and even then when not (nit picky but sometime you really can’t see the mange for the nits). The kind of tosh that wastes Brendan Gleeson, Cillian Murphy and Liam Cunningham in undemanding one dimensional roles they have all done better in various point in their careers. No laughs come, no shocks, just the rote. Only the narration by a gloating, mysterious figure (Death? God? Gab Byrne?) feels like a ghost from a marginally more ambitious film.

2

Jack Reacher (2012)

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Christopher McQuarrie directs Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike and Werner Herzog in this pulpy detective thriller based on a best selling series.

As a bit of undemanding entertainment Jack Reacher passes the time nicely enough but both tries I’ve given it I just wanted to like it more than I did. Moment by moment it is difficult to fault which makes this review feel begrudging. The action is cartoonishly OTT as Cruise problem solves and slams himself out of various set pieces with grin inducing ease – his take on Reacher is part Sherlock Holmes, part Jean Claude Van Damme in Hard Target, part Lynx advert hero. Nothing wrong with that. The plot and mystery are both involving and throwaway – an airport novel writ large. Giving Pike the chance to do her thinking man’s totty schtick, while Robert Duvall, Richard Jenkins, Jai Courtney and ice cold nasty from another world Herzog also shine very much doesn’t hurt the “classy” factor either. It just never all gels. Not nearly as smart or as hard boiled as McQuarrie’s work on recent classics like The Usual Suspects or Way of the Gun nor as fantastically as cool a use of Cruise and a tentpole budget as Rogue Nation – you leave Jack Reacher feeling adequately serviced rather than impressed. Hopefully everything will be blended smoother in the sequel as the components are all leftover here for an enjoyable mid scale, middle aged action franchise.

6

 

White Dog (1982)

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Samuel Fuller directs Kristy McNichol, Paul Winfield and Burl Ives in this parable about a stray dog programmed to attack black people.

Controversially dumped in America when Paramount were threatened with boycotts due to racist content, here we have a film blatantly critical of racist attitudes that clearly became a scapegoat in changing times. I first heard about White Dog in an Empire article “50 Five Star Movies You’ve Never Seen” which also included the brilliant Fail Safe (if anyone has a stack of mid nineties back issues to hand please post this list online as it it is unfindable currently). I’m still getting into Fuller as a director and can see what he is trying to achieve here but the film has dated in every way except its progressive attitudes. The horror elements that make up the first half now seem cheesy and weak. Until Winfield and Ives’ duo of dangerous animal trainers turn up midway through the performances are correspondingly ropey too. Once they start risking life and limb to reprogram the dog’s hateful conditioning it becomes a far better film. One that is filled with curiously subversive moments – not least of which the one when Winfield performs a salacious striptease to the dog to flaunt his black skin. A B-movie then that still has a powerful message but probably needs a few more decades before being discovered so that its tonally shifting mix can be excused by future viewers as “a product of its time”. Currently what is experimental and what is lurid filmmaking jar awfully to someone well versed in 80s genre cinema. Finally, and maybe most importantly, the dog acting is excellent so whether cliched or didactic the scenes are all emotionally involving.

6

Ali (2001)

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Michael Mann directs Will Smith, Jamie Foxx and Jon Voight in this powerful look at 10 key years in the boxing icon’s life.

Watched for obvious reasons in a double bill with When We Were Kings this week but really I need none to put on Mann’s mutely received epic. Take the obvious body size issues out of the equation and I marvel at Will Smith’s casting against type here. Casting against type? “Smith as Ali” is perfect casting on paper but Mann focuses on the uncertain, nervous real man behind the cool and boisterous public persona which stretches Smith well out his comfort zone. The movie works as a celebration of his life but it’s one that demands political context and grindingly delivers. One that lurches into effective near constant paranoia as pretty much everyone but Ali’s cornermen plot around him to use or restrict his unparalleled significance in black America. One that adds and makes the audience share what a slog his training, stances and need to rely on unreliable power structure (American democracy, corrupt promoters, the fickle Nation of Islam) proved to be – long, arduous joyless takes are often the order of the day and for good reason. Uncertain! Demanding! Paranoid! Slog! Hardly what audiences wanting to see the Fresh Prince rap at press conferences, win historical fights and stick it to the man were hoping for – though that is included too. Once you recalibrate in your own head that this is an examination of a man rather than an ode to a hero there is so much bravura filmmaking on display it is hard to find fault with this overlooked modern classic. The opening montage mixing training, doubts, a Sam Cooke performance and Ali’s childhood all building to his first significant win – just wow! The fights put you in the ring in a way no director ever managed before – The Fighter, Warrior and Creed owe Mann an unrepyable debt. And then you have both Smith and Jon Voigt delivering career best acting, captured often in intrusive extreme close up. An exhaustive slice of cinematic brilliance.

9

 

 

When We Were Kings (1997)

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Leon Gast directs Muhammed Ali, George Foreman and James Brown in this fly on the wall documentary following the boxers, promoters, press and musicians trapped in Zaire waiting for a delayed championship bout to be fought.

A vibrant collage of the seventies black American entertainment scene transposed to exotic surroundings with some frankly magical boxing and live music footage taking centre stage. Just lots of fun as various icons alternatively print their own legends direct to camera or laze in hotel lobbies together, none less so than the captivating Ali. Perhaps only the old white men writerly types of Norman Mailer and George Plimptom “talking head”ing retrospectively suck out some of the magic. Their yen to author the narrative when the assembled footage sings it own beautiful tune makes for annoying interludes.

8