MOVIE REVIEW - The Emoji Movie

Tony Leondis' kid-flick tries to turn text-message punctuation into a colorful adventure.

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Here's what you tell yourself when you accept an assignment to review a cartoon about emoji: "Remember what you thought when you heard about The Lego Movie? That it was the most shameless bit of advertising-as-entertainment you could imagine, the nadir of Hollywood's intellectual-property dependence, and couldn't possibly be worth seeing? Remember how incredibly wrong you were?"

You were wrong then. Given the right combination of inspiration, intelligence and gifted artists, any dumb thing can be turned into an enjoyable film. But Tony Leondis' The Emoji Movie, a very, very dumb thing, comes nowhere near that magic combination. It is fast and colorful enough to attract young kids, but offers nearly nothing to their parents. If only this smartphone-centric dud, so happy to hawk real-world apps to its audience, could have done the same in its release strategy — coming out via Snapchat, where it would vanish shortly after arrival. But even that wouldn't be fast enough.

The project's first hurdle is imagining how an emoji icon, which by definition represents only one emotional state (or object), can be a character capable of experiencing a story. Its solution is incoherent. We're told both that "the pressure's always on" for the face-emoji residents of Textopolis to keep their expressions convincing — smiley or smirking, angry or puzzled — and that they have no choice: That weeping guy keeps gushing tears even when he wins the lottery; he's just programmed that way.

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The exception is Gene (voiced by T.J. Miller), a youngster preparing to take over for his old man as the face of Meh. (Who could play the elder embodiment of Blah other than Steven Wright?) We learn that free-spirited Gene, thanks to some glitch, is capable of infinite facial expressions. He has a hard time being deadpan on cue.

His first time on the job, in fact, he fails. In the film's weirdly unconvincing vision of how emojis make their way from a phone's inner universe to its screen when the user selects them, the whole process breaks down if one of the actors can't sit still for a face scan. Gene wrecks the app's game show-like stage, and eventually, the program's supervisor (Smiler, a ruthless but always-smiling woman voiced by Maya Rudolph) targets him for deletion, sending a team of mean-looking antivirus bots off to get him.

With the help of a high-five icon (James Corden, taking his position as the story's font of unrelenting enthusiasm very seriously), Gene sets out to find a hacker who can reprogram him and eliminate unwanted facial expressions. Jailbreak (Anna Faris) says they need to escape the phone entirely to do this, getting past a tricky firewall and out onto The Cloud.

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Getting there affords the filmmakers plenty of opportunities for product placement. The characters spend several minutes stuck in Candy Crush (gags about Hi-5's sweet tooth go on about five times longer than they should); they nearly die in a Dance Dance Revolution-style challenge game. At best, these episodes are limp set pieces; at worst, they sound like they were written by ad agencies. When our heroes need to ride streams of music from one place to another, one coos, "Whoa — this is Spotify?!"; when Jailbreak leads Gene into Dropbox, their pursuers can't follow them inside because "this app is secure."

The dialogue is even lamer when the pic's three scribes depict the life of Alex, the high-school kid who owns the phone Gene inhabits. When Alex wonders what to text the girl he has a crush on, his pal scowls "words aren't cool" — in a Manhattan preview where critics were outnumbered by ordinary moviegoers, nearly all of the laughter was directed at this sort of line, where three grown men try and fail to convincingly imagine how kids talk. Hell, they can't even come up with fresh-smelling one-liners about the movie's resident poop icon. (Amusingly, the closing credits identify this slumming actor as "Sir Patrick Stewart.")

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Leondis and company don't get much mileage out of the vast variety of emojis they might use for sight gags, but they do well enough with the slapstick adventure of Gene's quest from home to the cloud. If not always imaginative or digestible, the look of the settings and characters should keep kids awake for 86 minutes; and if the trick that eventually saves the day makes very little sense to critical moviegoers, at least it's cutely frantic eye candy. Even so, few adults in the theater will have a hard time maintaining the flatline, unimpressed expression Gene has such difficulty with.

MOVIE REVIEW - Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan's new film follows soldiers from Belgium, the British Empire, Canada and France as they're surrounded by the German army and evacuated during the eponymous World War II battle.

Dunkirk is an impressionist masterpiece. These are not the first words you expect to see applied to a giant-budgeted summer entertainment made by one of the industry's most dependably commercial big-name directors. But this is a war film like few others, one that may employ a large and expensive canvas but that conveys the whole through isolated, brilliantly realized, often private moments more than via sheer spectacle, although that is here, too. Somber, grim and as resolute in its creative confidence as the British are in this ultimate historical narrative of having one's back to the wall, this is the film that Christopher Nolan earned the right to make thanks to his abundant contributions to Warner Bros. with his Dark Knight trilogy. He's made the most of it.

With multiple Winston Churchill/darkest-hour films hovering about these days, the story of England's resolve in the face of Nazi aggression three quarters of a century ago is once again common currency. Nostalgia for effective leadership and a Britain that no longer exists doubtless play a part in this, but, for all its emotional potency, this film doesn't trade in cheap sentiments, stiff-upper-lip cliches or conventional battle-film tropes. It's about resolve, determination and survival on the ground, on the water and in the air. When one of the soldiers finally makes it back home after a harrowing journey, he's greeted with a, “Well done.” “All we did was survive,” comes the reply. “That's enough,” says the soldier, who, almost miraculously, will live to fight another day.

Using a risky, even radical narrative structure that splits the storytelling into three intercut chronologies of different duration, Dunkirk dramatizes the calamitous climax of the attempt by the British Expeditionary Force to help French, Belgian and Canadian forces stem the Germans' stunningly swift sweep through France in the spring of 1940. Some 400,000 mostly British soldiers ended up on the beaches of Dunkirk, in northern France, desperate for a way to make it across the 26 miles of the English Channel — so near, practically close enough to see, and yet so far.

There are essential practical and logistical matters that need to be understood — that the shallow waters prevent the arrival of large ships and that English owners of “little ships” were encouraged to make the crossing to help rescue as many soldiers as possible. Still, the sight of so many men waiting in endless queues hoping to be picked up makes it all seems like a true mission impossible.

Nolan, who wrote the script himself, presents the brutal truth of the situation with lashing, pitiless directness. The first scene has several English soldiers being shot at as they run through city streets, and all are cut down except one. Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) makes it to the beach, where he finds countless thousands of other soldiers already lined up waiting for transport; the arbitrariness of who lives and dies is established at once. One of Nolan's bold decisions is to never even show a Nazi; we see the result of the enemy's aggression, especially from the air, but not once is a villain, or a swastika, offered up to function as a target for the viewer's own aggressive emotion.

Tommy shortly teams up on the beach with two other soldiers, Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and Alex (Harry Styles), and the three finesse a plan to get out on the mole, a long narrow pier where boats can tie up under the supervision of naval Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh), the closest thing to an even-handed type on view here, and his army counterpart, Col. Winnant (James D'Arcy).

With naval vessels largely useless, the only real effort the English military can muster is air power, represented here by three Spitfire fighter planes sent to bring down as many Luftwaffe bombers and fighters as they can. The ace flier is played by Tom Hardy, whose face is once again largely hidden behind a mask (as in Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises as well as in the more recent Mad Max: Fury Road). The aerial sequences are brilliantly and excitingly filmed, and Nolan has made a special point of showing how difficult it was to line up a moving target and score a hit.

The third major narrative thread involves the brave effort of a middle-aged civilian sailor, Dawson (Mark Rylance), and his teenaged-son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) to sail their small private yacht across the Channel to bring home whomever they can. They're joined at the last moment by a friend of Peter's, George (Barry Keoghan, who made quite an impression in Cannes this year as a loathsome teen in The Killing of a Sacred Deer), a greenhorn who has no idea what he's in for, especially after they take on the shell-shocked lone survivor of a sunken ship (Cillian Murphy).

Nolan's daring gambit, which only comes into focus with time, is to intercut these three related but distinct narratives, each of which has its own time frame and duration: The general evacuation went on for nine days (during which the Germans held back from delivering the coup de grace, for reasons that are still debated), Dawson's crossing of the Channel occupies just one day and the air battle probably lasts, in real time, little more than an hour. Yet all these actions are combined as if they are happening simultaneously, a strategy that ultimately works to emphasize that what we are seeing is a highly selective representation of the whole, both in number of participants and time span.

Dunkirk also vividly contrasts the hugely different ways in which the soldiers experienced the same event. On the beach are tens of thousands of men standing in queues waiting for passage, sitting ducks for any sort of aggression the enemy might exert; above them are solitary pilots roving the brilliantly clear skies for enemy aircraft, engaging in aerial duels and, in one breathless scene, ditching in the Channel; several of the soldiers spend excruciating time hiding in the hull of a capsized boat as random bullets persist in blasting through the metal; and a Red Cross hospital boat is sunk in the harbor, creating massive panic. The hundreds of thousands of soldiers are at once all in this vast struggle together and quite on their own to respond as each moment demands.

All of Nolan's films are intensely visual, but it's fair to say that Dunkirk is especially so, given the sparseness, and strict functionality, of the dialogue. This is not a war film of inspirational speeches, digressions about loved ones back home or hopes for the future. No, it's all about the here and now and matters at hand under conditions that demand both endless waiting and split-second responses. Hardy probably has a half-dozen lines in the whole picture and, given his mask, does most of his acting with his eyes, something at which he's become very good indeed. Quite properly, though, no one stands out in the large cast; as required, everyone just does his job.

Although the film is deeply moving at unexpected moments, it's not due to any manufactured sentimentality or false heroics. Bursts of emotion here explode like depth charges, at times and for reasons that will no doubt vary from viewer to viewer. There's never a sense of Nolan — unlike, say Spielberg — manipulating the drama in order to play the viewer's heartstrings. Nor is there anything resembling a John Williams score to stir the emotional pot.

Quite the contrary, in fact. In what has to be one of the most adventurous of his countless soundtracks, Hans Zimmer enormously strengthens the film with a work that equally incorporates both sound and music to extraordinary effect. Mostly it's effectively in the background, reinforcing the action as a proper score is meant to do. But at times it bursts forth on its own to shattering effect. On initial experience it registers as an amazing piece of work that would require repeated exposure to analyze just how it has been conceived and applied to the narrative drama.

Similar levels of top-marks work have been turned in across the board here, notably by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, whose second consecutive feature with Nolan was shot on a combination of Imax and 65mm film to stunning effect with a boxy aspect ratio; the format certainly plays a significant role in one's almost instantaneous immersion in the world of the film. Production designer Nathan Crowley, costume designer Jeffrey Kurland and the visual and special effects teams have also made major contributions to the film's thoroughly authentic feel. Editor Lee Smith has helped the director tell the tale in a brisk 106 minutes, making this Nolan's shortest film since his small, homemade 1998 first feature, Following.

A decimation of the British at Dunkirk would almost certainly have resulted in the U.K.'s capitulation to Hitler and no American involvement in the European war. So the climax of the film, as beautiful as it is thanks to the visually stunning presentation of Hardy's character's fate, is more like the beginning of the real war. Even here, however, Nolan has figured out how to counter convention by having an excerpt from Churchill's famed “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech of June 4, 1940, heard, not as intoned by the great orator himself, but by an ordinary soldier in very ordinary tones.

In Dunkirk, Nolan has gotten everything just right.

Comic Con 2017

HUGE ANNOUNCEMENTS MADE AT COMIC CON 2017 LAST NIGHT

Last night's Comic Con in San Diego revealed some massive hits for the next year. When it comes to geeking up on what TV series and films are going to be a must on your 'to watch' list, San Diego Comic Con is the place to be. And last night's event proved why in many ways.

One of the biggies goes to the trailer for Stranger Things Season 2, which was so new that even the cast of the 80's supernatural show hadn't seen it themselves. After smashing into everyone's living rooms with the young and spritely team giving us chills of nostalgia in a way films like Stand By Me do, the first series of Stranger Things blew us all away with a thrilling story and incredible 80's coolness. And as well as introducing several new characters into the mix in the new trailer, do we get a glimpse of Eleven's return?

Set in a dystopian future where the only place unexplored is your own VR world, Ready Player One is set to be a big-hitter for 2018 from the master himself, Steven Spielberg, and is an adaptation of Ernest Cline's novel of the same name, and it seems the author's book has been made into a blockbuster. Wade Owen-Watts, played by Tye Sheridan, stars as the lead character of this sci-fi film.

Marvel smashed out some biggies, with Thor: Ragnarok and The DefendersThe Defenders will land on Netflix and will feature sci-fi legend Sigourney Weaver as the villain.

Thor: Ragnarok has sees a big name for the villain, with Cate Blanchett having to put up with the dread of Loki's bants.

Set roughly ten years before the events of the original Star Trek series, Star Trek: Discovery explores the cold war. Without a doubt Star Trek: Discovery will be one of the big series and is set to land in September 2017. 

And don't worry guys, Ben Affleck has confirmed he ain't going anywhere...

MOVIE REVIEW - Despicable Me 3

Gru and the Minions are back in the third installment of Illumination’s popular franchise.

Repeating a formula that worked like gangbusters in the last installment, which became the most profitable film in Universal history, Despicable Me 3 offers up more of the same: more Gru — actually Gru times two if you count his twin brother, Dru; more Minions (though thankfully less than in their own exhausting 2015 spinoff); more Looney Tunes-esque sight gags; more pop-culture references, with an emphasis on the 1980s this time; and more catchy Pharrell Williams songs on the soundtrack.

It’s an if-it-ain’t-broke-then-don’t-fix-it approach that works just fine if you’re simply looking to take another ride on the rollercoaster, with Steve Carell and Kristen Wiig returning to voice a pair of lovey-dovey superspy parents out to rid the world of evil yet again. Indeed, the original film’s enticing premise, about a bad guy who can’t help turning good, has been somewhat forgotten, even if series creator Pierre Coffin (working here with Kyle Balda and co-director Eric Guillon) tries to insert a bit of pathos and family matters into the action. Otherwise, this rather clever, breakneck-paced cartoon gives fans exactly what they want: Like the new nemesis voiced by Trey Parker, it shoots multiple machine-gun bursts of bubblegum at the audience, asking them to chew and enjoy. Expect them to do so when the film hits theaters June 30.

When we last left Gru (Carell) and Lucy (Wiig), they had forged a happy home with the three girls (Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Gaier, Nev Scharrel) the big bad softee wound up with in the first movie. When this one starts, their livelihood is quickly threatened when their Anti-Villain League’s new boss (Jenny Slate) fires the couple after they fail to apprehend an arch villain named Balthazar Bratt (Parker) — a former ‘80s child TV star who has gone all Diff'rent Strokes and turned to a life of crime.

The opening reel offers up a slew of Tex Avery-style stunts, music cues ranging from Michael Jackson to Van Halen to A-ha, and enough of the Minions to keep the kids happy. There’s a lot thrown at the screen at once, yet Carell and Wiig manage to anchor the action with characters that can seem both outlandish and emotionally real, trying to keep their couple afloat amid the chaos that surrounds them.

Coffin and his fellow directors — working with returning scribes Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio — keep several balls in the air at once, kicking off the second act by introducing Dru (Carell again, though with a less pronounced Slavic accent), a long-lost twin brother who seems to be everything Gru isn’t, all the way down to a swath of blond hair that Donald Trump could only dream of implanting. But things are not necessarily what they seem, and the brotherly love turns into something else as we learn more about Gru’s family history, including a brief cameo from his mother (Julie Andrews), who looks like she’s caught in a pool scene from a softcore Italian porno.

There are plenty of other outlandish jokes here, such as a French character that's a spitting image of Gerard Depardieu, a rather outré depiction of a fictional European island (whose inhabitants include lots of cheese-eating kids, a bunch of drunks and a somewhat offensively rendered woman with major facial hair) and, in what may be the film’s piece de resistance, two laugh-out-loud Minion sketches: one that may be a direct reference to the song-and-dance number in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, and a prison sequence scored to Pharrell’s hit “Freedom.”

The filmmakers seem to be having a blast, sometimes at our expense but most of the time in a lively and bonkers enough way that forces you to clap along (to quote Pharrell’s hit from the last movie). With a running time of only 96 minutes, not including credits for all 550 crew members, the pacing is so fast that there’s barely room to breathe — although Coffin puts just enough emphasis on Gru’s “issues” and just enough throwaway gags (cue up another Minion) to keep the movie grounded.

Things of course wind up leading to a big-bang final battle where the notion of Hollywood excess literally comes home to roost. One could perhaps see such an ending as a form of industry self-mockery in the way that, say, the Lego movies like to poke fun at their own existence. But the Despicable Me franchise, which has grossed $1.5 billion and counting thus far, hardly needs to look deep into its soul for further meaning. It has its recipe perfectly down pat by now, and with further installments likely on the horizon, it only asks that we laugh with it all the way to the bank.

 

MOVIE REVIEW - Alien : Covenant

Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston and Billy Crudup lead the ensemble of Ridley Scott's second installment in the 'Alien' prequel series.

There's life in the old bugger yet. And, as always, plenty of death. After the Alien series looked as though it had hit the rocks creatively (not for the first time) with the last entry, Prometheus, five years ago, savvy old master Ridley Scott has resuscitated it, and then some, with Alien: Covenant, the most satisfying entry in the six-films-and-counting franchise since the first two. Gripping through its full two hours and spiked with some real surprises, this beautifully made sci-fi thriller will immeasurably boost fan interest in the run of prequels which Scott has recently said will consist of at least two more films until the action catches up to the 1979 original. This Fox release is a lock for major early summer box-office worldwide. Is there a director who has ever been artistically committed to a franchise as long as Scott has to the Alien series? None comes to mind (Steven Spielberg made his first Indiana Jones adventure, Raiders of the Lost Ark, in 1981, two years after Alien was released). It's a matter of record that Scott will turn 80 later this year, and Clint Eastwood will be 87 when he starts his new film; from the evidence on the screen, 80 may well be the new 50 where some top helmers are concerned, especially those who, like Scott and Eastwood, make a new film almost every year.

There's life in the old bugger yet. And, as always, plenty of death. After the Alien series looked as though it had hit the rocks creatively (not for the first time) with the last entry, Prometheus, five years ago, savvy old master Ridley Scott has resuscitated it, and then some, with Alien: Covenant, the most satisfying entry in the six-films-and-counting franchise since the first two.

Gripping through its full two hours and spiked with some real surprises, this beautifully made sci-fi thriller will immeasurably boost fan interest in the run of prequels which Scott has recently said will consist of at least two more films until the action catches up to the 1979 original. This Fox release is a lock for major early summer box-office worldwide.

Is there a director who has ever been artistically committed to a franchise as long as Scott has to the Alien series? None comes to mind (Steven Spielberg made his first Indiana Jones adventure, Raiders of the Lost Ark, in 1981, two years after Alien was released). It's a matter of record that Scott will turn 80 later this year, and Clint Eastwood will be 87 when he starts his new film; from the evidence on the screen, 80 may well be the new 50 where some top helmers are concerned, especially those who, like Scott and Eastwood, make a new film almost every year.

It also helped to recruit a couple of very good writers, John Logan and Dante Harper, to dig the series out of its hole. No matter that these aliens have been around far longer than most of the viewers who will see this film opening weekend have been alive; this entry feels vital, freshly thought out and keen to keep us on our toes right up to the concluding scene, which leaves the audience with such a great reveal that it makes you want to see the next installment tomorrow. The elegantly spare opening, in which a “synthetic,” Walter (Michael Fassbender), engages his “father” (an uncredited Guy Pearce) in a pointedly philosophical conversation, simply and effectively frames the thrust of the film's central interest in human life's origins and its prospects for survival. Casual viewers may assume that Walter is the same character Fassbender played in Prometheus. But, no, Walter, who sports an American, not British, accent, is an updated version of that all-purpose butler, factotum and technical wizard — a far friendlier iteration of the know-it-all computer Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey. And as in 2001, Alien: Covenant involves a long outer space voyage during which the 2,000 human passengers, along with 1,140 embryos, will linger in a deep-freeze sleep for several years while the humanoid plays watchdog. The giant ship, called Covenant, is headed for a very distant planet, Origae-6, which is considered a promising new home for humanity to settle. For this reason, not only the slumbering immigrants, but the crew, too, are composed of prospective parents meant to propagate and establish a new homeland for homo sapiens. This couples-only orientation lends a fresh feel to this group of space travelers, and definitely cranks up the emotional distress quotient as partners start splitting open and giving birth to the wrong kind of offspring. When a space storm hits and damages the ship's giant wind sails, the first to perish is the ship's captain (James Franco, seen ever-so-briefly), which devastates his mate Daniels (Katherine Waterston), assigned to oversee terraforming on humankind's new planet.

It also helped to recruit a couple of very good writers, John Logan and Dante Harper, to dig the series out of its hole. No matter that these aliens have been around far longer than most of the viewers who will see this film opening weekend have been alive; this entry feels vital, freshly thought out and keen to keep us on our toes right up to the concluding scene, which leaves the audience with such a great reveal that it makes you want to see the next installment tomorrow.

The elegantly spare opening, in which a “synthetic,” Walter (Michael Fassbender), engages his “father” (an uncredited Guy Pearce) in a pointedly philosophical conversation, simply and effectively frames the thrust of the film's central interest in human life's origins and its prospects for survival. Casual viewers may assume that Walter is the same character Fassbender played in Prometheus. But, no, Walter, who sports an American, not British, accent, is an updated version of that all-purpose butler, factotum and technical wizard — a far friendlier iteration of the know-it-all computer Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

And as in 2001, Alien: Covenant involves a long outer space voyage during which the 2,000 human passengers, along with 1,140 embryos, will linger in a deep-freeze sleep for several years while the humanoid plays watchdog. The giant ship, called Covenant, is headed for a very distant planet, Origae-6, which is considered a promising new home for humanity to settle. For this reason, not only the slumbering immigrants, but the crew, too, are composed of prospective parents meant to propagate and establish a new homeland for homo sapiens.

This couples-only orientation lends a fresh feel to this group of space travelers, and definitely cranks up the emotional distress quotient as partners start splitting open and giving birth to the wrong kind of offspring. When a space storm hits and damages the ship's giant wind sails, the first to perish is the ship's captain (James Franco, seen ever-so-briefly), which devastates his mate Daniels (Katherine Waterston), assigned to oversee terraforming on humankind's new planet.

This accident promotes second-in-command Christopher (Billy Crudup) to run the show, but he's portrayed from the outset as uncertain and lacking in confidence; more than that, he's a “person of faith,” which puts him at great philosophical odds with most of the others. Unfortunately, once this element is introduced, the writers don't do much with it, so it feels like a missed opportunity to engage in some pithy religion vs. science debate. Worse, the character's overriding weakness as a man won't go over too well with faith-based audiences. Not only that, but when the crew discovers a nearby “hidden planet” that seems potentially compatible to human life, it's Christopher who makes the fateful decision to land there rather than to continue with their seven-year-long voyage. Farris (Amy Seimetz), the flier wife of the Covenant's main pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride), goes down for a peek and it looks pretty darn good, just like New Zealand, in fact, where half the world wants to move to right now. But as inviting as are the beautiful landscapes, mountains and lakes, there's trouble lurking in the magnificent flora and fauna and, given the particulars of this bloody franchise, it doesn't take long for humans to fall ill and start bursting with nasty and ferocious critters they never imagined could spring from their innards. This is not the sort of propagation the earthlings had in mind when they set off. In a brilliant stroke, the voyagers also encounter David, Walter's double, the very same “synthetic” who co-starred in Prometheus. Distinguishable from his supposedly new and improved relative by virtue of his long hair and British accent, this lone survivor of the previous voyage, who lives among the ruins of a great civilization wiped out by the aliens, gives Fassbender the delicious opportunity of a double performance. The actor makes the most of it, subtly delineating two nearly identical characters as they enact a contest for dominance, the details of which touch in clear but unpretentious ways on the notion of playing God. What goes down between the two remains uncertain right up to the fabulously diabolical twist ending.

This accident promotes second-in-command Christopher (Billy Crudup) to run the show, but he's portrayed from the outset as uncertain and lacking in confidence; more than that, he's a “person of faith,” which puts him at great philosophical odds with most of the others. Unfortunately, once this element is introduced, the writers don't do much with it, so it feels like a missed opportunity to engage in some pithy religion vs. science debate. Worse, the character's overriding weakness as a man won't go over too well with faith-based audiences.

Not only that, but when the crew discovers a nearby “hidden planet” that seems potentially compatible to human life, it's Christopher who makes the fateful decision to land there rather than to continue with their seven-year-long voyage. Farris (Amy Seimetz), the flier wife of the Covenant's main pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride), goes down for a peek and it looks pretty darn good, just like New Zealand, in fact, where half the world wants to move to right now.

But as inviting as are the beautiful landscapes, mountains and lakes, there's trouble lurking in the magnificent flora and fauna and, given the particulars of this bloody franchise, it doesn't take long for humans to fall ill and start bursting with nasty and ferocious critters they never imagined could spring from their innards. This is not the sort of propagation the earthlings had in mind when they set off.

In a brilliant stroke, the voyagers also encounter David, Walter's double, the very same “synthetic” who co-starred in Prometheus. Distinguishable from his supposedly new and improved relative by virtue of his long hair and British accent, this lone survivor of the previous voyage, who lives among the ruins of a great civilization wiped out by the aliens, gives Fassbender the delicious opportunity of a double performance. The actor makes the most of it, subtly delineating two nearly identical characters as they enact a contest for dominance, the details of which touch in clear but unpretentious ways on the notion of playing God. What goes down between the two remains uncertain right up to the fabulously diabolical twist ending.

Scott and the writers have achieved an outstanding balance in Alien: Covenant among numerous different elements: Intelligent speculation and textbook sci-fi presumptions, startlingly inventive action and audience-pleasing old standbys, philosophical considerations and inescapable genre conventions, intense visual splendor and gore at its most grisly. The drama flows gorgeously and, unlike in many other franchises in which entries keep getting longer every time out, this one is served up without an ounce of fat. It provides all the tension and action the mainstream audience could want, along with a good deal more. Stylistically, the film is a thing of cool beauty, with superb effects and a lovely score. Creatively, it's a major reset on a level with the series' best.

Scott and the writers have achieved an outstanding balance in Alien: Covenant among numerous different elements: Intelligent speculation and textbook sci-fi presumptions, startlingly inventive action and audience-pleasing old standbys, philosophical considerations and inescapable genre conventions, intense visual splendor and gore at its most grisly. The drama flows gorgeously and, unlike in many other franchises in which entries keep getting longer every time out, this one is served up without an ounce of fat. It provides all the tension and action the mainstream audience could want, along with a good deal more.

Stylistically, the film is a thing of cool beauty, with superb effects and a lovely score. Creatively, it's a major reset on a level with the series' best.

MOVIE REVIEW - Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

James Gunn's sequel to the 2014 Marvel hit brings the gang — including Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana and the voices of Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper — back together for more.

When a disarmingly wacky and amusing B-team of Marvel characters parachuted in three summers ago and made off with a worldwide haul of $771 million, the fifth biggest of any Marvel production, Guardians of the Galaxy resembled a makeshift expansion sports franchise that somehow played above its own level all year long and snuck into the World Series. But the second season brings this team back to reality, if not to planet Earth, and while the stadiums will remain packed, the results on the field are not nearly so pretty for this manic and sometimes grating continuation of a scattershot narrative, in which the survival of the universe is treated far more glibly than its knotty superhero daddy issues.

In 2014, writer-director James Gunn emerged out of Troma-land — that is, virtually nowhere — to inject some unexpected irreverence and mangy humor into the customary Marvel format; it was as if a prankster had slipped onto the premises and pinpricked the hot air out of some bloating franchises that were approaching retirement age. In the highly controlled realm of Marvel, where nothing happens by accident, Gunn came off like a court jester who had been officially sanctioned to prove that royalty could tolerate a few jibes made at its own expense.

However, warning signs turn up early on in Vol. 2 that things are not quite as they were the first time around. The factor that most distinguished the original Guardians from its stablemates was its goofball collection of misfit characters: figures who might never have been candidates to carry a franchise alone but who, together, made up an appealing team.

Alas, most of these maverick mercenaries prove rather less charming the second time around; they're like bickering family now and not in an amusing way. For starters, some of the characters who, at first exposure, were ingratiating in part because of their rough edges have now turned downright ornery and are not much fun to be around. First and foremost of these is Zoe Saldana's green-skinned assassin Gamora, whose every line now seems barked out in an elevated state of annoyance. Part of her problem is that her equally badass sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) has returned and not only tries to harm her, but also brings up their unpleasant family history. But even before this, Gamora is in a rotten mood, ostensibly for having to babysit so many loony colleagues. 

Then there's Rocket the cybernetically enhanced raccoon (voiced once again by Bradley Cooper), whose ill-tempered wisecracks have curdled in inverse proportion to the growth of his ego. Impatient and far too taken with his own abilities, he's prematurely become a genuine curmudgeon annoyed by everyone and everything. Or maybe stardom's just gone to his head.

At the bottom of the food chain is Baby Groot. His famously three-words-capable forebear having sacrificed himself in Vol. 1, the baby is a literal splinter of the original and spends most of his time observing things warily with big ink-pool eyes. Vin Diesel is back to provide vocals for this critter, but you'd be hard-pressed to identify the speaker just from hearing him, and if the actor spent more than an hour in studio recording his stuff it was too long. Nice payday.

As far as the original crew is concerned, this leaves just two guys. Evidently forbidden by contract ever to appear with a shirt on, Dave Bautista's Drax has more to do this time around in that he's given increased opportunities to burst out laughing at events as they transpire; would that the audience had as many occasions for it. All the same, the muscle man wrestler generates more mirth and goodwill than anyone else does and seems genuinely glad to be on board for the journey, wherever it takes them.

But burrowed in somewhere among the more or less random space battles, showdowns, shoot-outs, personal fights and hair-breadth encounters with instant oblivion, which are mostly staged in a visually elaborate but manically suspense-free manner, is the opportunity for Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) to get to know his father (Kurt Russell). The latter, simply known as Ego but whose full name is the even more memorable Ego the Living Planet, is an ambiguous figure birthed by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby over a half-century ago. Although there is doubtless more to this mysterious character than initially meets the eye, he cuts a largely benign figure here as he begins to part the clouds of uncertainty of heritage and mission that have plagued his son, aka Star-Lord. The scenes between the well-cast Russell and Pratt are the best in the film, the one occasion Gunn calms down a bit to stage meaningful exchanges.

One semi-amusing new character is another youngster raised by Ego who goes by the name of Mantis (Pom Klementieff), an innocent young thing with thick black eyelashes and two antenna emanating from her forehead; her hesitant, uncertain ways with the guardians are played for mild comic relief, which nicely offsets the more rambunctious behavior of the others.

Aside from the malevolence emanating from Nebula and her golden-skinned colleagues, opposition, such as it is, comes from the Ravagers, a crude bunch of ragtag biker types so lame that one of their own, the blue-skinned Yondu (Michael Rooker), has turncoated to the good guys. But threatening to lend new weight to the baddies' cause is a mysterious stranger by the name of Stakar Ogord, who strides through a handful of shots, weapon in hand and very short of words. Given that he's impersonated by Sylvester Stallone, he can only be presumed to play a more important role in Vol. 3, as he does zilch here.

The heavy, elaborate action is both plentiful and rote; in their geometric design and execution, the special effects feel exceedingly computer-generated. Unlike, say, the best space battles in the Star Wars series, the frantic ballistic parrying here often makes the viewer feel as if trapped inside a pinball machine. The attitude toward all the violence and mayhem is mostly good-humored, casual and tossed off, which provokes a few good laughs and chuckles, and writer-director Gunn gets away with a lot of lame stuff simply by moving on quickly to the next gag or explosion. As before, his bluffly cynical, good-times attitude supplies a devil-may-care feel to the proceedings that's quite appealing to audiences. But Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 plays like a second ride on a roller coaster that was a real kick the first time around but feels very been-there/done-that now.

MOVIE REVIEW - The Boss Baby

An energized Alec Baldwin is comically commanding in this animated confection from DreamWorks.

An energized Alec Baldwin is comically commanding in this animated confection from DreamWorks.

Words like "inventive" and "inspired" are very rarely applied to the parade of cookie-cutter animated features that pass through the multiplex each year, but The Boss Baby proves a refreshing exception.

Based on the 36-page picture book by Marla Frazee and featuring the pitch-perfect voice of Alec Baldwin as a onesie suit-wearing, corporate-minded blessed arrival, this DreamWorks Animation effort is a delightful blend of clever and tender that's certain to tickle audiences of all ages and stages.

Although the setup might have suggested otherwise, with the depiction of a newborn assembly line that resembled the schematic for last year’s Storks, the scenario breaks from convention with its introduction to seven-year-old Tim Templeton (voiced by Miles Bakshi): an only child with an overactive imagination who’s convinced that he and his parents (Jimmy Kimmel and Lisa Kudrow) form an ideal family unit.

But mom and dad have other ideas, and one day bring home a little brother for Tim — albeit one in full business attire who totes a briefcase and speaks (when the adults aren’t within earshot) with Mr. Baldwin’s commanding yet cordial tones. It turns out he’s a tot on a mission, dispatched by Babycorp headquarters to prevent an adorable puppy product launch by arch-rival Puppyco that threatens to divert parental affection away from drooling diaper-wearers the world over.

Despite their mutual distrust, Tim and The Boss Baby (tellingly, he hasn’t been given a name, at least in the eyes of his displeased big brother) must form a reluctant alliance in order to engage in some highly classified industrial espionage, leading to a clever plot resolution that thoughtfully ties up any loose ends.

Of course, the concept of infants with not so infantile voices is nothing new (see: Stewie on Family Guy, the Look Who’s Talking movies), but in the capable hands of director Tom McGrath (co-director of the three Madagascar movies) and screenwriter Michael McCullers (Mike Myers’ collaborator on the second and third Austin Powers pictures), The Boss Baby has an agenda all its own.

And it’s one that delivers the entertaining goods while addressing universal truths about family bonds and the fertile, limitless boundaries of a child’s imagination that, like those emotional touchstones in the Toy Story films, feel honest and organic to the storytelling. Even the obligatory bodily function jokes are tastefully executed.

While Baldwin, who seems to have cornered the market when it comes to playing conceited man-babies, handily crawls away with the picture (it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role), he gets solid backup from his fellow voice cast. They include Steve Buscemi as a former Babycorp exec harboring a serious grudge; Tobey Maguire, handling narration as Tim’s older self; and James McGrath (the director’s nephew) as Wizzie, Tim’s amusingly theatrical, Gandalf-like, talking wizard alarm clock.

Visually, there’s a retro look and feel to the animation that plays affectionate homage to Looney Tunes legends Chuck Jones, Tex Avery and Friz Freleng, while simultaneously drawing upon new wrinkles in computer animation that allow the action to follow the lead of Tim’s vivid fantasy life.

Editor's note....LOL

Editor's note....LOL

Those nostalgic underpinnings are also nicely incorporated into the appropriately bubbly score by Hans Zimmer and frequent collaborator Steve Mazzaro.

MOVIE REVIEW - The Fate of the Furious

Charlize Theron plays a superhacker who turns Vin Diesel against his 'Fast' crew in F. Gary Gray's franchise debut.

After his surprisingly fun remake of The Italian Job in 2003, whose most memorable sequence revolved around a scene-stealing Mini Cooper, F. Gary Gray would seem to have been a no-brainer to direct a Fast and Furious installment — especially once Vin Diesel and his thrill-seeking clan segued from mere street racing to heists and other forms of high-speed mayhem.

But careers make left turns (in this case, a misfiring sequel to Get Shorty), and it took the success of Straight Outta Compton to get Gray in, well, the driver's seat of this eighth installment of the stupendously successful cars-and-guns action franchise. The result isn't as big a gear-shift as some fans expected in the wake of original castmember Paul Walker's death. In fact, it recycles plot-twisting devices from earlier chapters and keeps action firmly in the street-hoods-save-the-world neighborhood entered a couple of years ago. Fate delivers exactly what fans have come to expect, for better and for worse, and it would be a shock to see it disappoint producers at the box office.

After being forced to rejigger the last picture mid-production when Walker died, the filmmakers let him rest in peace here. His character is mentioned only twice: once, in a line that cements his retirement to idyllic family life, and later, in a predictable sentimental touch suggesting he'll always be part of the gang in spirit.

With due respect to the actor, who is clearly missed by his colleagues in real life, it isn't as if the Furious franchise is hurting for dramatis personae: When Dwayne Johnson came aboard in the fifth film, things started to feel crowded. Then came Jason Statham, then Kurt Russell, and now we have a villain played by Gray's Italian Job star Charlize Theron. Somebody get Bruce Willis on the horn, and we'll have ourselves a proper movie for Episode 9.

Is it bloated? Damn straight. And even at well over two hours, Fate can barely find anything worth doing for Russell, a onetime onscreen badass who here functions as a sunglass-wearing expository device. The script actually has him say at one point that he feels obligated to "check in on you from time to time." The words "...so I can earn this easy paycheck," presumably, were left on the cutting-room floor.

Theron, on the other hand, carries plenty of weight in the story; she appears, however, to have little fun doing it. Her supervillain, a genius hacker known as Cipher, sneaks up on Vin Diesel's Dominic Toretto in the middle of his Cuban honeymoon with Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and assures him he is about to go to work for her. Dom scoffs, in that one-note macho way of his, until Cipher hands him a phone whose screen we cannot see. Soon Dom is "going rogue," stealing a very powerful EMP device from his buddies (who have just rescued it from evildoers at the behest of Dwayne Johnson's lawman Luke Hobbs) and delivering it to Cipher. Though scenes between Dom and Cipher give him ample opportunity to register his anger at being forced into her service, when he crosses paths with his old friends, Dom says nothing and keeps his big jaw clenched, appearing to have flipped loyalties overnight.

Yes, Furious scribe Chris Morgan used this device just two movies ago, when Letty returned from the dead as an amnesiac doing the bidding of some other villain, going so far as to shoot Dom before she eventually got her memory back and married the big lug. But let's forgive the self-plagiarism, because pushing Dom to the bad-guy side for a while briefly solves the Furious saga's biggest storytelling difficulty: convincing us there is a universe in which Diesel is more fun to watch than Johnson. Johnson had to sit out most of Furious 7 while his character recuperated from grievous wounds in a hospital; here, he leads Letty and company as they cope with Dom's defection and try to keep him from acquiring even more weapons of mass destruction.

Relieved of this burden, viewers will happily go along with any other baloney churned up in Morgan's thick-witted script. Sure: That EMP can wipe out all the electronics on a fortified military base without disrupting the video display sitting right beside it. Yeah: Dom can somehow arrange a sensitive meeting with a powerful figure while living as Cipher's prisoner. Why not: The driver of a car who needs to communicate with supposed foes in other cars can just shout and have his instructions understood dozens of yards away, over the noise of zillion-horsepower engines and oncoming missiles. (Not to mention the submarine in hot pursuit behind them.)

There are no stunts here to top, or even to approach, the last film's skyscraper-to-skyscraper jumps, and it must be said that some feats — like driving a car up the ramp of an aircraft that hasn't bothered to land first — have come to feel rote. So let's focus on moments of pleasure: chief among them, a long scene in which Hobbs escapes from prison (don't ask) alongside his mortal enemy Deckard Shaw (Statham), the former Hulking out against guards and inmates alike while the latter practices his parkour. Or the few small moments early on when Tyrese Gibson gets to tweak his too-serious castmates with a throwaway quip. "What this series needs is more Tyrese," you might say to yourself during the pic's middle hour or so. But then you see the actor being pulled around a frozen Russian lake, screaming in panic as he clings to the ripped-off door of an orange Lamborghini, and you say, "This was not what I meant by 'more Tyrese.'"

For a long time, it seems that the movie's wittiest moment will be a blink-and-miss-it gag involving a car's rear-view camera warning system. Then, toward the end, comes an extended sequence involving (no spoilers here) extreme violence, a wholly innocent bystander, an unexpectedly considerate brute and ear-protection devices. For a few minutes, Fate of the Furious might be funny even for someone who has never cracked a smile at one of Diesel's self-satisfied line readings. It seems unwise to count on more such moments in future installments. But in a franchise whose increasingly ridiculous action set pieces beg variations on the cliche "jump the shark," a detour into undisguised action comedy might be fruitful.

MOVIE REVIEW - Ghost in the Shell

Scarlett Johansson stars as a cybernetic superhero in director Rupert Sanders' live-action update of the Japanimation classic by Mamoru Oshii. If the "ghost" of anime classic Ghost in the Shell refers to the soul looming inside of its killer female cyborg, then this live-action reboot from director Rupert Sanders really only leaves us the shell: a heavily computer-generated enterprise with more body than brains, more visuals than ideas, as if the original movie’s hard drive had been wiped clean of all that was dark, poetic and mystifying. Not that it’s easy to follow in the footsteps of Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 Japanimation masterpiece, which remains a cornerstone of the genre and sits somewhere between Blade Runner and The Matrix, but Sanders and his team have clearly opted for a sleek, watered-down version that eschews much of the first film’s A.I. existentialism for a futuristic shooter that never digs deep enough. Abetted by a few cool set-pieces and a gun-toting Scarlett Johansson, this Paramount release will see strong box-office returns before disappearing from most of our minds. The movie already met with some criticism two years ago when Johansson was cast as the part-robot, part-human Terminatrix known as Major, whereas the character in Oshii’s movie and Masamune Shirow’s manga series was Asian. Such whitewashing is becoming more and more controversial for Hollywood studios trying to woo a burgeoning fan and financial base in the East, and nearly all the principal players here are Caucasian, save for a memorable “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, who manages to steal most of his scenes without ever getting up from his desk chair. But the real issue in Ghost in the Shell may have less to do with whitewashing than with brainwashing, as it often feels like the screenwriters (Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger) chose to jettison the more thought-provoking, cryptic aspects of their source material in favor of a streamlined actioner that jumps from one fight to another without much contemplation

Scarlett Johansson stars as a cybernetic superhero in director Rupert Sanders' live-action update of the Japanimation classic by Mamoru Oshii.

If the "ghost" of anime classic Ghost in the Shell refers to the soul looming inside of its killer female cyborg, then this live-action reboot from director Rupert Sanders really only leaves us the shell: a heavily computer-generated enterprise with more body than brains, more visuals than ideas, as if the original movie’s hard drive had been wiped clean of all that was dark, poetic and mystifying.

Not that it’s easy to follow in the footsteps of Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 Japanimation masterpiece, which remains a cornerstone of the genre and sits somewhere between Blade Runner and The Matrix, but Sanders and his team have clearly opted for a sleek, watered-down version that eschews much of the first film’s A.I. existentialism for a futuristic shooter that never digs deep enough. Abetted by a few cool set-pieces and a gun-toting Scarlett Johansson, this Paramount release will see strong box-office returns before disappearing from most of our minds.

The movie already met with some criticism two years ago when Johansson was cast as the part-robot, part-human Terminatrix known as Major, whereas the character in Oshii’s movie and Masamune Shirow’s manga series was Asian. Such whitewashing is becoming more and more controversial for Hollywood studios trying to woo a burgeoning fan and financial base in the East, and nearly all the principal players here are Caucasian, save for a memorable “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, who manages to steal most of his scenes without ever getting up from his desk chair.

But the real issue in Ghost in the Shell may have less to do with whitewashing than with brainwashing, as it often feels like the screenwriters (Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger) chose to jettison the more thought-provoking, cryptic aspects of their source material in favor of a streamlined actioner that jumps from one fight to another without much contemplation

The original film managed to be both violent and philosophical, putting the viewer in an uneasy place and pushing us to ponder the future of humanity in an increasingly computerized world — a world that would have a huge influence on the Wachowskis' magnum opus, all the way down to the cable ports in the back of each character’s head. Here we get a taste of that ambience, but it feels more like a backdrop than the crux of the story, which boils down to yet another good vs. evil scenario where no mystery is left unsolved and conflicts are tied up in an all-too Hollywood way. Things start off somewhat promisingly when, in an opening that recalls the credit sequence of both the Oshii film and the HBO series Westworld — if you’re looking for a smart contemporary take on the robot genre, look no further — we see a human brain transplanted into the state-of-the-art body of Major. A year later, she has become a ruthless fighting machine at the hands of the Section 9 security department and its stoical boss, Aramaki (Kitano, speaking in Japanese when he speaks at all). Major’s job is to track down cyber terrorists alongside her badass partner Batou (Danish actor Pilou Asbaek, who was already Johansson's occasional sidekick in Lucy), the two of them cruising a city that looks like Tokyo swallowed a bottle of growth hormones and went on a shopping spree at Best Buy. Every space is covered in giant LCD screens and hologram projections, while human beings are enhanced with synthetic body parts or other improvements that make them all look slightly artificial — and that includes all of their hairstyles. (Kitano somehow manages to remain convincing while wearing what looks like an anvil covered with cotton balls on his head.)

The original film managed to be both violent and philosophical, putting the viewer in an uneasy place and pushing us to ponder the future of humanity in an increasingly computerized world — a world that would have a huge influence on the Wachowskis' magnum opus, all the way down to the cable ports in the back of each character’s head. Here we get a taste of that ambience, but it feels more like a backdrop than the crux of the story, which boils down to yet another good vs. evil scenario where no mystery is left unsolved and conflicts are tied up in an all-too Hollywood way.

Things start off somewhat promisingly when, in an opening that recalls the credit sequence of both the Oshii film and the HBO series Westworld — if you’re looking for a smart contemporary take on the robot genre, look no further — we see a human brain transplanted into the state-of-the-art body of Major. A year later, she has become a ruthless fighting machine at the hands of the Section 9 security department and its stoical boss, Aramaki (Kitano, speaking in Japanese when he speaks at all).

Major’s job is to track down cyber terrorists alongside her badass partner Batou (Danish actor Pilou Asbaek, who was already Johansson's occasional sidekick in Lucy), the two of them cruising a city that looks like Tokyo swallowed a bottle of growth hormones and went on a shopping spree at Best Buy. Every space is covered in giant LCD screens and hologram projections, while human beings are enhanced with synthetic body parts or other improvements that make them all look slightly artificial — and that includes all of their hairstyles. (Kitano somehow manages to remain convincing while wearing what looks like an anvil covered with cotton balls on his head.)

The entire place is ruled by the nefarious Hanka Corporation and its leader, Cutter (Peter Ferdinando), who built Major as a prototype war tool and is hoping to cash in on his product. But there’s a new hacker in town named Kuze (Michael Pitt, in a Kylo Ren cape and voice) who is screwing with both Hanka’s plans and Major’s mind, giving her memory glitches that are tougher and tougher for her supervising scientist (Juliette Binoche, doing her best) to control. Even if you haven’t seen the anime version, it’s not hard to predict where things are headed, though Major’s quest for self-discovery provides some surprises. But they are often mired by the routine action and plotting, with Sanders dishing out two memorable sequences — one involving a geisha-bot from hell, the other Hanka’s underground wired lair — amid the kind of run-and-gun stuff we’ve seen before. That would all be acceptable if Ghost in the Shell led someplace profound, but the film merely treads in shallow waters and, by swapping the original ending for what can only be described as a lame sellout, eradicates whatever made it interesting in the first place. Sanders does showcase some of the visual flair seen in Snow White and the Huntsman, with impressive visual-effects shots of broken glass, rain pellets and other falling debris, and a moody color palette effectively captured by DP Jess Hall (Transcendence). In an amalgam of her roles in Her, Lucy and Under the Skin, Johansson toes the line between ass-kicking action and a distant unearthliness that often feels, well, robotic. It’s not her best performance, though it’s hard to do much in such a slick and lifeless movie. Perhaps Ghost in the Shell needed to be more human after all.

The entire place is ruled by the nefarious Hanka Corporation and its leader, Cutter (Peter Ferdinando), who built Major as a prototype war tool and is hoping to cash in on his product. But there’s a new hacker in town named Kuze (Michael Pitt, in a Kylo Ren cape and voice) who is screwing with both Hanka’s plans and Major’s mind, giving her memory glitches that are tougher and tougher for her supervising scientist (Juliette Binoche, doing her best) to control.

Even if you haven’t seen the anime version, it’s not hard to predict where things are headed, though Major’s quest for self-discovery provides some surprises. But they are often mired by the routine action and plotting, with Sanders dishing out two memorable sequences — one involving a geisha-bot from hell, the other Hanka’s underground wired lair — amid the kind of run-and-gun stuff we’ve seen before. That would all be acceptable if Ghost in the Shell led someplace profound, but the film merely treads in shallow waters and, by swapping the original ending for what can only be described as a lame sellout, eradicates whatever made it interesting in the first place.

Sanders does showcase some of the visual flair seen in Snow White and the Huntsman, with impressive visual-effects shots of broken glass, rain pellets and other falling debris, and a moody color palette effectively captured by DP Jess Hall (Transcendence). In an amalgam of her roles in HerLucy and Under the Skin, Johansson toes the line between ass-kicking action and a distant unearthliness that often feels, well, robotic. It’s not her best performance, though it’s hard to do much in such a slick and lifeless movie. Perhaps Ghost in the Shell needed to be more human after all.

Stoke Your Fires Returns

Bethan Shuff // 24th March

The Stoke Your Fires film festival took a short break last year, but is back this week in conjunction with BFI, B-Arts and Stoke Film Theatre. The festival is running on March 22 and 25, and April 3, with a number of film showings over a few different venues.

One of the festival hosts, Martin Gooding said, ‘We’re dipping our toes back in to the water this year with a small selection of films, before hopefully, a full return in 2018.’

This year the films include locally produced films, ‘Out of the Ashes’ which is about the rise of Afghanistan Cricket, and a film that Martin is showing called ‘Chester P for Mayor’ which is a documentary about one of the founding fathers of UK Hip Hop and his exploration into the housing crisis in cities.

Martin said that this year the selection of films have ‘ taken a slightly different, bottoms up, approach to programming by choosing topics that may engage groups that wouldn’t traditionally engage with a film festival.’

We Are Not Defeated – A Tribute to Brenda Proctor, was the first film to be shown on Wednesday, March 22 at Stoke Film Theatre at Staffordshire University. A documentary produced by Brenda, and The North Staff’s Miners’ Wives Action Group in 1994, as well as a film of Brenda talking to a packed audience at King’s Hall in 1984.

On Saturday, March 25, ‘Out of the Ashes’ will be shown at Stoke Film Theatre at 3pm, and ‘Chester P for Mayor’ is to be shown at the YMCA at 7pm. The tickets are £5 each of £3.50 for concessions. Then on Monday, April 3 a selection of local cinema will be shown at London Road Ale House, Stoke from 7:30pm. The entry to this event is free and includes discussions and film making advice.

Head down to one of the many locations this Saturday, or April 3 to catch a great, cultural movie – you may be inspired to make your own!

Beauty and the Beast

REBEL Editorial || March 24th

Emma Watson and Dan Stevens star in a tale as old as 26 years, maybe more, in Disney's live-action remake of the 1991 animated hit.

A rococo confection featuring fiendishly intricate production values, a bravura, coloratura-rich musical score and whizz-pop state-of-the-art effects, Disney's latest iteration of the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast is more than just eye candy. It's a Michelin-triple-starred master class in patisserie skills that transforms the cinematic equivalent of a sugar rush into a kind of crystal-meth-like narcotic high that lasts about two hours. Only once viewers have come down and digested it all might they feel like the whole experience was actually a little bland, lacking in depth and so effervescent as to be almost instantly forgettable.

Paradoxically, despite all the palpable budget spend on fancy computer effects, it's the cheaper, old-school, real-world bits — like the big ensemble dance sequences or the moments when the actors interact directly with each other rather than with greenscreen illusions — that pack the biggest wallops.

Nevertheless, this live-action-meets-CGI musical directed by Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn) should hit the sweet spot with audiences worldwide. Adding bonus in box-office terms, its early spring release leaves it relatively few competitors, apart from Kong: Skull Island and Power Rangers on either side of its opening weekend.

Indeed, all credit should be due to Disney for canny planning on a meta level, one of the trademarks of its success over the years. This remake of the company's 1991 animated hit tracks closely to the earlier version's plot and story beats, includes revamps of all the old songs and arrives just in time to exploit generational nostalgia — to lure viewers who loved the last version as kids and are just becoming parents themselves. Since the 1960s, Disney has been re-releasing in roughly 25-year intervals their classic animated features, either theatrically or on home entertainment platforms. Now that all the old films are out there in the public domain, live-action remakes are the best way to keep the story brands alive, starting with Maleficent in 2014, Cinderella in 2015 and now this.

In terms of how it approaches storytelling, this exercise is less about revisionism and "villain" rehabilitation, a la Maleficent, than it is about refining the core BATB story (originally written by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740) for a modern audience. Arguably, it owes as much to director Kenneth Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz's take on the girl with the glass slippers as it does to the 1991 cartoon Beast directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, working with a screenplay by Linda Woolverton. Not content to gild the lily with a couple more songs and some bling, Condon and his fellow filmmakers decorate their flower with all kinds of extras, Easter eggs and borderline excessive adornment, especially when it comes to adding in backstories.


For starters, where the 1991 version began with a stained-glass-window-style tableau, simple and to the point, to tell the origin story of the Beast, here we get a whole pre-title sequence, with scores of background artists and white ball gowns galore to introduce the proud prince (Dan Stevens from Downton Abbey, more seen than heard throughout). Within minutes, he's cursed by a passing enchantress who (in a smart nod to Villeneuve and Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont's 1756 version of the story) comes back into the plot later on. Likewise, just as the 2015 take on Cinderella went into the heroine's relationship with her mean but also misunderstood stepmother (played by Cate Blanchett), here the running time is considerably increased by a subplot exploring how the relationship between Belle (Emma Watson) and her father (Kevin Kline) is strained by the fact that he's never explained why her mother isn't around.

Elsewhere, various supporting characters are fleshed out and filled in. The most felicitous example is what's been done with LeFou (Josh Gad), the buddy of the story's main villain, Gaston (Luke Evans). Where in the 1991 take on the material he was just a portly goofball sidekick, here he gets to be the most obviously gay character to appear in a Disney film, a man hopelessly in unrequited love with his straight best friend. ("He doesn't deserve you," someone tells him at one point, a big old wink to the older members of the audience.) Rabid red-state homophobes may be incandescent with fury to see how things end up for him in the finale.

Purists and prudes may bridle at the tinkering with basic elements here, which is sort of absurd, given that fairy tales are always changed and adapted by each new telling, but mostly these additions supply welcome warmth and humanity. The film's weakest link is the look of the digital characters. While the effects deployed to render the Beast and his various enchanted servants — Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), Cogsworth (Condon regular Ian McKellen), Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson) — are marvels in terms of texture, especially as their digital fur, brass or ceramic surfaces react to the environment around them, the faces are too often stiff and lacking in expression.

For example, amusing though McGregor's French accent may be — and never before has candelabra capered so daintily onscreen, especially during the rousing, Busby Berkeley-inspired rendition of "Be Our Guest" — this version has nothing on the winking wryness of the 2-D drawn figure in the 1991 version, with his strong jaw and subtle angularities. Although he gradually pulls himself out of the Uncanny Valley as the film goes on, the Beast is even more of a disappointment, far too stiff and imperious in the early reels. The animation here is less convincing than the actor Jean Marais was under a ton of fake fur and theatrical makeup in Jean Cocteau's 1946 version of the story, which is clearly a key influence here in terms of character and production design.

At least that latter element is immaculate, overseen by designer Sarah Greenwood, working once again with costume designer Jacqueline Durran. This dream team has collaborated many times before on films for Joe Wright such as Pride & Prejudice, Anna Karenina and Atonement, and between them, they have a particular knack for finding a balance between historicism and contemporary style. The Beast's castle, even if much of it was digitally rendered, is a glowering-glittery blend of Baroque and Gothic elements, all dusty gilt, curlicues and gargoyles. (Surely, YouTube geeks obsessed with how all the Disney film worlds are connected will spot visual references here to Trousdale and Wise's The Hunchback of Notre Dame.)

Maybe it's just the presence of Watson (who's OK, but not great), but there may be an intentional touch of Hogwarts, too, in the impossible, M.C. Escher-like staircases that also evoke the gloom of Frankenstein's laboratory — a realm that played such a key part in Condon's breakthrough work, Gods and Monsters, another story about a gay man (McKellen) in love with a straight guy and lovable "freaks."

Condon also brings his experience to the table for the big musical numbers, which are among the best bits of the film, especially "Gaston," the LeFou-led tribute to our boastful villain (containing the immortal line "I use antlers in all of my decorating") that adds punch to the first part of the film. Filmed refreshingly straight, in a series of wide, stable shots that eschew the fidgety editing of most pop videos in favor of an old-fashioned, MGM-style proscenium space, it's a delicious moment, traditional in all the right ways. That said, it's hard not to wonder how much of the singing throughout really is entirely the work of the actors credited in the final roll and how much was refined by Auto-Tune-style software (or even ghost singers, like in the old days when the late Marni Nixon sang for Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, among others). It's easier to believe in talking teacups than in the notion that this really is Dan Stevens' singing voice.

Kong: Skull Island

REBEL Editorial || March 21st

Mix King Kong with The Lost World, spike it with a bracing dash of Apocalypse Now and you've got Kong: Skull Island, in which Warner Bros. finally gets the effects-driven fantasy adventure formula right again after numerous misfires. This highly entertaining return of one of the cinema's most enduring giant beasts moves like crazy — the film feels more like 90 minutes than two hours — and achieves an ideal balance between wild action, throwaway humor, genre refreshment and, perhaps most impressively, a nonchalant awareness of its own modest importance in the bigger scheme of things; unlike most modern franchise blockbusters, it doesn't try to pummel you into submission.

Leagues better than Peter Jackson's bloated, three-hour King Kong of 2005, this one looks poised for strong returns and potential sequels co-starring hinted-at monsters from movie lore.

It may have seemed like a stretch to entrust this giant project to a director whose career hitherto consisted of one small, kid-centric Sundance film, the 2013 The Kings of Summer. But it was Jordan Vogt-Roberts who had the crucial inspiration to set this Kong redo in 1973, specifically at the moment the United States pulled out of Vietnam, a decision that nourishes nearly every aspect of the film. Certainly the specter of Col. Kurtz looms over the perilous journey undertaken by this tale's small band of mostly military explorers into unknown tropical territory, but what awaits them is a whole lot bigger and scarier than Marlon Brando.

Smartly operating under the theory that exposition in this sort of thing should quickly be dispatched in order to get to the good stuff, the director, screenwriters Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly and story creator John Gatins have made Skull Island and its environs into a storm-enshrouded location in the Pacific Ocean that has never been charted or found. As the war ends, old-time secret op Bill Randa (John Goodman) convinces the Nixon Administration to back a small expedition to try to find and map the place “where God didn't finish the creation, a place where myth and science meet,” as Randa alluringly puts it. Goodman gets several of the writers' best lines, including one designed to reference Vietnam but that will register with modern viewers: “Mark my word, there'll never be a more screwed-up time in Washington.”

A crew is ferried by about a dozen choppers that penetrate the dense fog and rain to find what Skull Island has to offer. Among the key members are Samuel Jackson's bitter Lt. Colonel Packard, who's pissed that the U.S. didn't finish the job in 'Nam and brings with him his team of “Sky Devils” with quick trigger fingers; Tom Hiddleston's Capt. Conrad, a sleek SAS black-ops vet now at loose ends; Brie Larson as combat photographer Mason Weaver; and Corey Hawkins as a bookish biologist, all of whom have their own agendas to pursue in a land unknown to man.

Unknown, that is, except to one man, Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a pilot who crashed there during World War II and has lived peaceably among a few silent natives ever since. Looking like an old hippie with his tattered uniform and untended beard, Marlow has somehow survived through the years with his humor and good will intact, and Reilly's warmly funny performance becomes the heart of the film; he could have been just comic relief in an old coot Walter Brennan-style turn but, in stressing the character's generous acceptance of his strange fate, the actor makes the man embraceably multidimensional and accessible. (One of the Chicagoan's first questions of his visitors, along with who won World War II, is whether the Cubs have won anything yet.)


In the end, though, it's not the characters the audiences will have come to see, but the monsters, and the film doesn't stint in supplying them. This Kong, who makes his entrance a well-timed half hour in, is far bigger than any before him, about 100 feet tall. Still, he faces fierce competition on the island from, among others, some toothsome lizards who happily take advantage of the change in diet offered by the new human visitors.

As before, Kong himself is portrayed as fearsome but also observant and sensitive. The tragic element to his character is carried over from previous incarnations; he's the last of his species, and the bones of his family are strewn about the ground. Unfortunately, he's got a new enemy in Packard, who is determined to settle his unfinished business in Vietnam by taking out Kong, as if that would somehow right the balance.

Its numbers steadily decreasing as it goes, the expedition struggles against rugged terrain and a nasty environment to make it to the far side of the island, where they're due to be picked up in three days. Mason snaps away at all the freakish wonders to provide photographic evidence, while Capt. Conrad, the nominal handsome male lead, really doesn't engage in many heroics, perhaps the better to allow Hiddleston's neatly styled hair to remain perfectly in place throughout. And despite his helping Mason out of a jam or two, the expected romantic sparks remain unlit, which may be a sign not only of the times, but of the director's relentless determination to avoid cliches and eliminate the “boring parts,” as kids used to call the inevitably bland love scenes in such films.

Instead, there is considerable emotional investment to be made in Reilly's character, who is no doubt not named Marlow for nothing. Despite his decades of deprivation, he's the best-adjusted character on hand, his relaxed acceptance of his odd destiny becoming palpably moving at times, a reaction never sought or expected in this sort of film. At least as far as the humans are concerned, Reilly steals the pic.

That said, Vogt-Roberts and his collaborators make sure to take care of business where it really counts, which is in the invention and excitement of the monster scenes. Fully realistic creatures are now nothing new, but the filmmakers, notably led by visual effects supervisors Stephen Rosenbaum and Jeff White, have engineered scenes of bestial combat that are not only hyper-credible but shot through with unexpected, and often gruesomely funny, moves. The digital zoo is colorful indeed, from a towering spider to a giant water buffalo and an all-embracing octopus, making it clear that Kong has his hands full of worthy opponents on a regular basis. It's no wonder the old guy seems world-weary.

All the requisite elements are served up here in ideal proportion, and the time just flies by, which can rarely be said for films of this nature, which, in a trend arguably started by Peter Jackson, have for years now tended to be heavy, lumbering and overlong. A post-end credits bit suggests that Warner Bros. already has some famous opponents lined up for Kong's heavyweight belt, beginning perhaps with Rodan. Whoever undertakes any follow-ups will have a high bar to clear.

Logan

REBEL Editorial || 

Seventeen years after X-Men made him a movie star, Hugh Jackman ends his run as Wolverine - at least for now - with a neo-Western road trip through the heartland.

As its title suggests, Logan strips away the superhero bells and whistles, cast-of-thousands spectacle and labyrinthine twists of the X-Men franchise to focus on its most tormented mutant, aka Wolverine. Seamlessly melding Marvel mythology with Western mythology, James Mangold has crafted an affectingly stripped-down stand-alone feature, one that draws its strength from Hugh Jackman’s nuanced turn as a reluctant, all but dissipated hero. That he rises to the occasion when a child is placed in his care is the stuff of a well-worn narrative template, yet it finds a fair level of urgency in this telling.

For fans who are intimately versed in the franchise’s playbook (and the comic-book source material), this chapter should prove emotionally satisfying. For those who can’t recite the plotlines of all nine of the preceding X-Men films, the new feature’s noirish, end-of-an-era vibe is an involving hook. Muscular box-office action awaits the Fox release as it makes its way around the globe following its Berlin premiere.

In his final turn in one of the defining roles of his career (although, given the plasticity of the Marvel Universe, never say never to resurrections), Jackman is essentially an ex-X-Man. The year is 2029, and superhuman mutants are about to join tigers on the extinction list. As far as anyone knows, there have been no mutant births in a quarter-century, and those few who remain live in an abandoned smelting plant on the outskirts of El Paso. It’s the sort of industrial wasteland that instantly spells dystopia. Yet like all the elements of Francois Audouy’s production design, which include an Oklahoma City casino and a Great Plains farmhouse, the corroded edge-of-nowhere compound is evocative but not scene-stealing.

Those remaining few mutants number precisely three. X-Men leader Charles (a superb Patrick Stewart) is now a nonagenarian whose legendary telepathic powers are not always within his control; as with many a mere mortal, his geriatric brain doesn’t function as it once did, and the result is seizures of bone-rattling intensity for those around him. Tending to his care are Logan, now a hard-drinking limo driver whose unearthly aptitude for self-healing is on the wane, and Caliban (Stephen Merchant), an albino mutant with tracking abilities who handles domestic chores for the trio while sheltering himself from the daylight.

The lives of this last-of-their-kind collective are by no means easy or serene, but they can at least count on a certain routine. Then a young girl with a ferocious gaze, Laura (Dafne Keen), arrives on their rusty doorstep, along with a wad of cash and the desperate final request of her caretaker, Gabriela (Elizabeth Rodriguez, of Orange Is the New Black), that Logan get her to Canada ASAP. For reasons that a smartphone video makes clear, Canada would be a safe haven for a child who has more in common with Logan than he’d care to admit — a connection that Charles perceives even before she reveals her Wolverine-like metallic claws and puts them to lethal use.

Laura is being hunted by X-Men adversary Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) and his paramilitary cyborg Reavers on behalf of Dr. Rice (Richard E. Grant), who heads Transigen, the nefarious bioengineering program that created her. National borders are a key factor in this story, not only because of the asylum that Canada represents. In the tradition of Big Pharma corporate villainy, Rice has evaded American legal oversight and conducted his experiments on Laura and countless other children, and the women who bore them, in Mexico.  

While Caliban is taken hostage, Logan, Laura and Charles hightail it out of El Paso, no easy feat when the Reavers are closing in on all sides and your escape vehicle is a boat-size limousine (another instance of excellent design work). With nods to Unforgiven and explicit references to Shane — and extended sequences of brutal violence involving those adamantium-blade claws — this newly formed trio’s trip from the Texas desert to the Dakotas taps into notions of middle America, both geographic and psychic.

There’s poignancy and humour, none of it overstated, when they have to play normal during an encounter with a ranch family (Eriq La Salle, Elise Neal and Quincy Fouse). Charles, at his most clear-eyed and openhearted, is the catalyst throughout the sequence, which begins with his telepathic calming of spooked horses after an accident on the highway, a scene as lyrical as it is charged with emotion.

That scene echoes moments throughout the film that dramatise how much easier it can be to take care of others than oneself, and how the one can lead to the other. Though the screenplay — written by Scott Frank, Mangold and Michael Green — doesn’t avoid formula or sentimentality as it proceeds, it makes its themes matter through attention to the intensifying bonds within the central surrogate family.

Director of photography John Mathieson’s camerawork is keenly attuned to the story’s emotional textures, as is the fine score by Marco Beltrami, which incorporates brief churns of horror amid the melodic elegance. Throughout the film, Mathieson gives each frame a comics-based graphic impact, broody rather than cartoonish. (Another accomplished cinematographer, Phedon Papamichael, handled some of the additional unit work.)

Stewart is effortlessly compelling as a man whose attentiveness to the world around him runs deep, even as his own tethers to it are fraying. Keen, in her first big-screen role, makes the mostly silent Laura both kinetic and inwardly coiled, a quick-study observer of a world long denied her. And when called upon to give a vintage movie reference new resonance, she pulls it off with poetic vulnerability.

Even as the film’s energy drains in the later going, much like Logan’s healing powers, and long after the fight scenes have lapsed into overkill, Jackman makes his superhero the real deal. The actor, who reportedly conceived the basic thrust of the story, takes the ever-conflicted Logan/Wolverine to full-blooded depths, and the result is a far more cohesive and gripping film than his previous collaboration with Mangold, 2013’s The Wolverine.

It’s not just the valedictory aspect of the story. And only time will tell if we ever again see a Jackman-portrayed Wolverine. But with his limp, his scraggly beard and his reading glasses, this middle-aged version, caught between his humanity and the engineering that makes him an instrument of destruction, is the hero we need him to be. Ultimately, it’s not just Laura’s predicament that he understands, but his own.

The Founder

REBEL Editorial || March 1st

Michael Keaton has used his jittery intensity to play sympathetic villains in the past, in films such as Beetlejuice and Desperate Measures, but he's never been as odious as he is in director John Lee Hancock's The Founder. Keaton's Ray Kroc is an aw-shucks avatar of American capitalism, the kind of guy who will reach out to shake your hand and then rip your arm right out of its socket.

As the film opens in 1954, Kroc is a balding, Dale Carnegie-worshipping small-time operator still searching for the magic gizmo or idea that will make him rich. He finds it in a family-owned hamburger stand in San Bernadino, California, where brothers Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman) have essentially invented the fast-food industry. Kroc convinces the reluctant brothers to let him franchise their business, though the differences in their values signals trouble from the start: Kroc is enamored of the brothers' wholesome-sounding name, streamlined menu, and “Spee-dee” system of assembling and serving food, but he's blind to the importance of the high-quality ingredients they see as one of their main draws.

Though nominally in charge, the brothers quickly lose their power as Kroc builds a business empire of his own around the McDonald's brand, ignoring Mac and Dick's orders whenever he finds them inconvenient. When Kroc proposes that McDonald's can save money by making milkshakes with water and a powdered mix instead of ice cream and milk, the brothers are horrified. Dick barks at Kroc, “We are not interested in a milkshake that contains no milk!” At which point Kroc sends the mix to every McDonald's franchise.
 

The Founder leaves open important questions, like whether Kroc was even responsible for the towering success of the chain he stole from the brothers and then claimed to have founded. Were his relentless salesmanship, his gift for branding, and the methods he developed of controlling and standardising his franchises responsible for the chain's triumph? Or was Kroc's financial manager, Harry J. Sonneborn (B.J. Novak), the real brains behind the business? According to the film, Kroc was barely breaking even until Sonneborn convinced him that he should be in the real estate business, not the burger business, shifting his focus to owning the land the franchises are built on.

If we're not sure how he got there, though, Keaton leaves no question as to how Kroc reacted to his gargantuan success. The actor narrows his eyes and clips his speech to show Kroc growing more confident as he grows rich, shedding what little consideration or humility he once had as his ego swells along with his bank account. In one chilling scene, he erupts at Mac McDonald, telling him he's too nice to succeed in business. Business, he says, leaning into his speakerphone with venomous intensity, is “dog eat dog, rat eat rat. If my competitor was drowning, I'd go over and put a hose right in his mouth.” It's a powerful performance marooned in a wishy-washy story.

The rest of the cast is as accomplished as Keaton, but the script hobbles them, continually making the same few points in slightly different ways. Offerman's signature mix of barely contained outrage and disdain make Dick a noble if doomed hero, but his repeated showdowns with Kroc on the phone become a bit repetitive. Laura Dern, as Ray's neglected first wife, has little to do other than gaze bleakly out from various shadowy locations, while Patrick Wilson, as an admirer of Kroc's who becomes one of his franchisers only to have Kroc steal his wife, Joan (Linda Cardellini), out from under his nose, keeps smiling bravely while giving Joan and Kroc the side eye. Joan remains a cipher, first appearing as the ultimate piece of arm candy, then giving Kroc one of his best cost-cutting ideas (that milkshake mix) before basically vanishing from the film, leaving audiences without a clue as to what her marriage was like or whether she continued to help out with the business.

The story of a former laughingstock turned business mogul who used patriotic hokum and outright lies to create a myth around himself and his business is prototypically American, and the McDonald brothers' losing battle could be seen as a stirring early bugle call to the now-widespread campaign against the empty calories and corporate homogenisation that have become synonymous with fast food. But these are conclusions we're left to draw for ourselves in The Founder, a film that fails to connect the dots.

Hacksaw Ridge

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REBEL Editorial || February 25th

Ten years have passed along with much uncomfortable tabloid scrutiny since Mel Gibson's last film as director, Apocalypto. Back in the saddle with Hacksaw Ridge, he once again proves himself a muscular storyteller who knows exactly how to raise a pulse, heighten emotion and build intensity to explosive peaks. Themes of courage, patriotism, faith and unwavering adherence to personal beliefs have been a constant through Gibson's directing projects, as has a fascination with bloodshed and gore. Those qualities serve this powerful true story of heroism without violence extremely well, overcoming its occasional cliched battle-movie tropes to provide stirring drama.

Whether the Lionsgate release, opening Nov. 4 in the U.S., can come close to the popular appeal of a recent war movie like American Sniper will be interesting to watch, since Hacksaw Ridge examines the experiences of a World War II American soldier who served his country by saving rather than taking lives. In a fully inhabited performance, Andrew Garfield plays Desmond Doss, the first conscientious objector to receive the Congressional Medal of Honour, after he remained behind when his battalion was forced to pull out the during a tricky stage of the 1945 Battle of Okinawa, single-handedly carrying 75 wounded men to safety.

American playwright-screenwriter Robert Schenkkan, who chronicled the theatre of war in this same region in HBO’s 2010 drama series The Pacific, penned the script with Australian TV writer Andrew Knight. The movie doesn't always tread gently as it underscores the anomaly of a self-sacrificing pacifist in an environment where bravery is more often measured according to the number of enemy kills notched on a soldier's gun belt. But Gibson and his screenwriters bring unquestionable conviction and sincerity to a story that honours a different and no less noble brand of valour.

Born and raised in Virginia in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Desmond is introduced as a scrappy kid who knocks his brother out cold in a fight, almost causing serious injury. That episode serves as a cautionary lesson, and he grows up with deeply etched moral codes, a devoted Seventh-day Adventist. Desmond's father Tom (Hugo Weaving) is a mean, abusive drunk, irreversibly scarred by his time in the First World War, and the loss of the buddies with whom he enlisted. When Tom turns his anger on the boys' mother, Bertha (Rachel Griffiths), Desmond grabs hold of a pistol and steps in to stop him. Thereafter, he swears never to touch a gun again.

In these early scenes Desmond also meets pretty Lynchburg Hospital nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), declaring almost instantly that he's going to marry her. At the same time, the uneducated young man develops an interest in medicine, after his quick thinking at an accident scene saves a boy's life.

Defying their father's wishes, Desmond's brother Hal (Nathaniel Buzolic) enlists to fight after the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, and Desmond follows soon after. But training camp proves tough for him when he insists on his constitutional right to serve strictly as a medic, refusing to comply with mandatory rifle training. That confounds Captain Glover (Sam Worthington), who instructs Desmond's immediate commanding officer, Sgt. Howell (Vince Vaughn), to make life hell for the young soldier, aiming to squeeze him out of the Army. His fellow soldiers interpret Desmond’s principles as cowardice, generating aggressive hostility, especially from tough-guy Smitty (Luke Bracey).

These scenes wade into familiar territory, with Vaughn's character recalling countless overbearing screen drill sergeants who break in their men with mocking humiliation and physical punishment, while Worthington's characterisation doesn't go much beyond gimlet-eyed appraisal and gravel-voiced disdain. But Garfield gives Desmond an ironclad will, refusing to be swayed from his determination to serve on his own terms — even insisting on his right to observe the Sabbath.

Military hearing scenes to determine if Desmond's offences are grounds for court-martial are pretty much pro forma for the genre, with a little too much Statement Dialogue, though the intervention of Tom on his son's behalf, and the loving support of Dorothy from the sidelines, fuel the film's tightening emotional hold.

The action then explodes into gut-wrenching combat in the riveting second half, after Desmond's battalion ships out to the Pacific. The rocky escarpment that gives the movie its title vaguely recalls the landscapes Desmond scrambled over as a boy. If the troop can take the strategic Japanese stronghold, they can take Okinawa.

While anyone with a passing knowledge of WWII history will already know the outcome, the depiction here of the shattering reality of war is dizzying in its sustained visceral impact, barely allowing time to identify casualties in a whirl of panic, pain and split-second decisions. The devastation is already extensive and the ground strewn with bloody corpses by the time Glover and Howell consolidate the remaining troops for a renewed assault. Gibson's robust skill as a conductor of large-scale conflict — which goes back to Braveheart — is as sharp as ever. But amidst the chaos, he takes time to register key moments in which even Desmond's harshest persecutors are forced to reverse their low opinion of him.

Garfield's fiercely driven performance through this extended passage makes this a deeply moving portrait of fearless, selfless heroism. He goes back, again and again, to administer morphine shots and retrieve the wounded, muttering a mantra-like prayer, "God, please help me get one more." Depending how you feel about The Passion of the Christ, it might be easy to be cynical about Gibson's emphasis on religion, from the tenacity with which Desmond clutches Dorothy's Bible to the images of baptism and ascension amid so much death. But Garfield's Desmond is every bit as human as he is holy, his suffering that of a man, not a saint. The extremely graphic nature of the violence onscreen makes his steadfast nonviolence all the more affecting.

Cinematographer Simon Duggan, editor John Gilbert and visual effects supervisor Chris Godfrey show great skill at combining the murky near-blindness of a combat scene, ripped apart by grenade blasts, bullets and flames, with jolts of chilling lucidity. Moments in which the screen becomes a canvas of human destruction, splashed in red, have an awful beauty that's something to behold.

The big orchestral score by Rupert Gregson-Williams also serves to keep the climactic action surging forward. Gibson has never been a director with much use for understatement, and he's in his element with the furious bluster of battle. But there's no denying the effectiveness of the drama, or the resonant emotional notes as men like Glover, Howell and Smitty see Desmond through new eyes. And it's hard not to read their humility as intertwined with Gibson's own efforts toward rehabilitation after his widely chronicled personal struggles with rage.

The movie was filmed in Australia, which explains the cast's strong local contingent, all of them convincingly playing American. Veterans Weaving and Griffiths bring troubled depths to their careworn characters, while Palmer makes what could have been just another decorative sweetheart role into a woman whose goodness, strength and loyalty make her a perfect match for Desmond. Also from the Oz casting pool, Richard Roxburgh shows up briefly as a military shrink, while Bracey's imposing physical presence and charismatic appeal command attention whenever he's onscreen.

But the film's firm anchor, its moral compass and its considerable heart is Garfield, inhabiting his front line position as both character and performer with extraordinary fortitude and grace.

HyperNormalisation

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Sean Dissington || November 1st

Adam Curtis has a habit of bringing us visions that we fear are there.

In HyperNormalisation he presents us with a collage of history, narrative and his explanations of what has happened, drawing our attention to the divergence of the 'known truth' and what he asserts really happened – often illustrating his assertions with media coverage contemporary to the event.

Like much of Curtis' work, it is fascinating, enthralling and deeply unsettling. The role of narrative in modern life cannot be understated – from the refugees who 'take our jobs', the 'weapons of mass destruction' that Bush and Blair saved us from to the mythical £350 million per week that UKIP and Boris Johnson were going to shower us with. Narrative brings us simplicity, it brings us the world in a format that we can comprehend, in bite-sized chunks that make sense to us. Curtis presents us with a view of the world that isn't compatible with our modern narrative of good and evil – and like Alice, once through the looking glass it's impossible to forget what you've been told. Curtis brings us a vision of the world where even the conspiracies are fake and the complexity of the world is such that it is utterly impossible to describe. The world that Curtis tells us about is deeply cynical, is one where power balances are impossibly weighted against the masses, and where ruthlessness and protectionism reign. Terrifyingly, I suspect it's all true.

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How do we know what is true? We know what we are told, through news media, opinion pieces, friends and the internet. All this information is served up to us as fact, it requires no thinking or questioning. From the disabled person who is a benefit-cheat to the 16 year old Syrian who looks 29; our opinions are increasingly manufactured, only for us to download them as accepted reality.

In his (just shy) of three hour documentary Curtis takes us on a whirlwind tour, from ‘that time the banks seized New York’ to Donald Trump, the acceptance of the loss of politics in much of everyday life and the resignation of the former protesting classes to the new post-political age. He confronts the movement of the political left to view the world through the lenses of art and increasingly irony as a coping mechanism and he takes us into cyberspace and shows us how a retreat to cyberspace is perhaps the last conquering of our free will as intelligent virtual automaton allow us to bathe in self-made echo chambers.

He tells us about a computer named Aladdin that can predict the future with an accuracy that is frightening, and that increasingly optimism is gone from modern life, shining light on the malleability of truth.

HyperNormalisation isn't an easy programme to watch, it is depressing at times, and leaves you exhausted the first time you get to the end. In spite of this, I urge you to watch it, to immerse yourself in the visuals and sounds that are the hallmark of Curtis’ work and step through the looking glass, take the blue pill and question. Everything. 

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What's Out This Week

28 October 2016

Boo! A Madea Halloween (2016)

Into the Inferno (2016 Documentary) (internet)

Train to Busan (2016)

Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World (2016 Documentary)

Ethel & Ernest (2016)

Burn Burn Burn (2015)

Starfish (2016)

JSA: Joint Security Area (2000) (London East Asia Film Festival)

After Love (2016)

Let's Be Evil (2016)

The Comedian's Guide to Survival (2016)

Attack of the Lederhosenzombies (2016)

Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise (2015 Documentary)

Nessun Dorma (2016) (London East Asia Film Festival)

Demi (2016) (Internet release)

Nine (2016)

NG83 When We Were B Boys (2016 Documentary)

RED by James Hogan (2016 Documentary)

 

29 October 2016

Thirst (2009) (London East Asia Film Festival)

Karaoke Crazies (2016) (London East Asia Film Festival)

The Laundryman (2015) (London East Asia Film Festival)

 

30 October 2016

Michael Moore in TrumpLand (2016 Documentary) (TV premiere)

I'm a Cyborg (2006) (London East Asia Film Festival)

Three (2016) (London East Asia Film Festival)

Fox Trap (2016)

Pekak (2015) (London East Asia Film Festival)

Bangkok Nites (2016) (London East Asia Film Festival)

Spidarlings (2016) (London)

The Beast of Bodmin Moor (2016)

De Lan (2015) (London East Asia Film Festival)

Hillcorn Park (2016)

Bitter Sweet Seoul (2014 Documentary) (London East Asia Film Festival)

Kelly is for Warrior (2016 Documentary)

 

31 October 2016

Supersonic (2016 Documentary) (DVD premiere)

Tickled (2016 Documentary) (internet)

Funhouse Massacre (2015) (DVD premiere)

Beverly Hills Christmas (2015) (DVD premiere)

Slasher House 2 (2016) (internet)

The Basement (2016)

The Darkest Dawn (2016) (video premiere)

60 Seconds to Die (2016)

12 Nights with the Grulems (2016)

The Clowns Are Coming (2016) (internet)

The Mansion (2016)

60 Seconds 2 Die: 60 Seconds to Die 2 (2016)

Tarot (2016)

The Small Woman in Grey (2016) (limited)

Allusion (2016) (London)

 

1 November 2016

The Light Between Oceans (2016)

The 12 Slays of Christmas (2016)

Crossing Over (2016)

Good to Be Back (2016)

Journey (2016)

Independent Dreams (2016)

 

2 November 2016

Gregory Porter: Don't Forget Your Music (2016 Documentary) (London) (premiere)

 

3 November 2016

You've Been Trumped Too (2016 Documentary)

This Is Jayde: The One Hit Wonder (2016)

What's Out This Week

21 October 2016

Keeping Up with the Joneses (2016)

Trolls (2016)

The Handmaiden (2016) (London East Asia Film Festival)

Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV (2016) (Scotland Loves Anime) (Edinburgh)

Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)

Queen of Katwe (2016)

I, Daniel Blake (2016)

Ozzy (2016)

Phantom Boy (2015)

Sonita (2015 Documentary)

On the Other Side (2016) (Cambridge Film Festival)

Harmony (2015) (Scotland Loves Anime) (Edinburgh)

Kizumonogatari II: Nekketsu-hen (2016) (Scotland Loves Anime) (Edinburgh)

In Pursuit of Silence (2015 Documentary)

Kizumonogatari Part 1: Tekketsu (2016) (Scotland Loves Anime) (Edinburgh)

Pamilya Ordinaryo (2016) (London East Asia Film Festival)

Accel World: Infinite Burst (2016) (Scotland Loves Anime) (Edinburgh)

 

22 October 2016

Your Name (2016) (Scotland Loves Anime) (Edinburgh)

A Silent Voice (2016) (Scotland Loves Anime) (Edinburgh)

Redline (2009) (Scotland Loves Anime) (Edinburgh)

Wrong Side Raju (2016)

Worst Woman (2016) (London East Asia Film Festival)

Momotaro, Sacred Sailors (1945) (Scotland Loves Anime) (Edinburgh)

 

23 October 2016

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006) (Scotland Loves Anime) (Edinburgh)

Tunnel (2016) (London East Asia Film Festival)

Creepy (2016) (London East Asia Film Festival)

Girls und Panzer the Movie (2015) (Scotland Loves Anime) (Edinburgh)

Persona 3 the Movie: #1 Spring of Birth (2013) (Scotland Loves Anime) (Edinburgh)

Curtain Call (2016) (London East Asia Film Festival)

 

24 October 2016

Mythica: The Necromancer (2015) (DVD premiere)

Harmonium (2016) (London East Asia Film Festival)

Aloys (2016) (Blu-ray & DVD)

Street (2015) (DVD premiere)

Gosanja: Dae-dong-yeo Ji-do (2016) (London East Asia Film Festival)

Arcadia (2016)

Wise Guys (2016 Documentary)

 

25 October 2016

Doctor Strange (2016)

Max Steel (2016)

Boyz n the Hood (1991) (re-release)

Numb (2015) (Cambridge Film Festival)

Strangers Within (2016) (limited)

A Yellow Bird (2016) (London East Asia Film Festival)

Polar (2016)

 

26 October 2016

By the Time It Gets Dark (2016) (London East Asia Film Festival)

The World of Us (2016) (London East Asia Film Festival)

 

27 October 2016

Gehenna: Where Death Lives (2016) (Bram Stoker International Film Festival)

Ice Guardians (2016 Documentary) (Cardiff, Wales)

Spirits' Homecoming (2016) (London East Asia Film Festival)

Hee (2015) (London East Asia Film Festival)

What's Out This Week

14 October 2016

Storks (2016)

American Honey (2016)

Inferno (2016)

Nocturnal Animals (2016) (London Film Festival)

Trespass Against Us (2016) (London Film Festival)

Your Name (2016) (London Film Festival)

The Innocents (2016) (London Film Festival)

It's Only the End of the World (2016) (London Film Festival)

Don't Think Twice (2016) (London Film Festival)

Neruda (2016) (London Film Festival)

Aquarius (2016) (London Film Festival)

Kate Plays Christine (2016 Documentary)

Lady Macbeth (2016) (London Film Festival)

Belladonna of Sadness (1973) (Scotland Loves Anime) (Glasgow)

Lake Bodom (2016) (London Film Festival)

Callback (2016) (London Film Festival)

Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang (2016 Documentary)

Women Who Kill (2016) (London Film Festival)

The Space in Between: Marina Abramovic and Brazil (2016 Documentary) (London Film Festival)

The Ghoul (2016) (London Film Festival)

Scarred Hearts (2016) (London Film Festival)

By the Time It Gets Dark (2016) (London Film Festival)

The Man from Mo'Wax (2016 Documentary) (London Film Festival)

Coffee and Blood (2016)

The Wedding Ring (2016) (London Film Festival)

Love Stalk (2016)

 

15 October 2016

Snowden (2016) (London Film Festival)

Phantasm (1979) (digitally restored version) (4K version) (London Film Festival)

Dog Eat Dog (2016) (London Film Festival)

My Little Pony: Equestria Girls - Legend of Everfree (2016) (TV premiere)

The Salesman (2016) (London Film Festival)

Chi-Raq (2015) (London Film Festival)

The Void (2016) (London Film Festival)

On the Milky Road (2016) (London Film Festival)

Phantom Boy (2015) (Helsinki International Film Festival)

Nocturama (2016) (London Film Festival)

Staying Vertical (2016) (London Film Festival)

The Woman Who Left (2016) (London Film Festival)

Miles (2016) (Iris Prize Festival)

Ethel & Ernest (2016) (London Film Festival)

Kizumonogatari Part 1: Tekketsu (2016) (Scotland Loves Anime) (Glasgow)

Kizumonogatari II: Nekketsu-hen (2016) (Scotland Loves Anime) (Glasgow)

Tu Hai Mera Sunday (2016) (London Film Festival)

Born in Flames (1983) (London Film Festival)

Hema Hema: Sing Me a Song While I Wait (2016) (London Film Festival)

Louis & Luca - The Big Cheese Race (2015) (London Film Festival)

The Lives of Thérèse (2016 Documentary) (London Film Festival)

'76 (2016) (London Film Festival)

SHOT the Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock (2016 Documentary) (London Film Festival)

La noche (2016) (London Film Festival)

Momotaro, Sacred Sailors (1945) (Scotland Loves Anime) (Glasgow)

Patient (2015 Documentary) (London Film Festival)

 

16 October 2016

Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV (2016) (Scotland Loves Anime) (Glasgow)

Free Fire (2016) (London Film Festival)

Don't Kill It (2016) (Nottingham) (Mayhem Film Festival)

Creepy (2016) (Mayhem Film Festival)

The Anthem of the Heart (2015) (Scotland Loves Anime) (Glasgow)

Zip and Zap and the Captain's Island (2016) (London Film Festival)

Tôi thay hoa vàng trên co xanh (2015) (London Film Festival)

David (2015) (Scottish Mental Health Arts & Film Festival)

 

17 October 2016

Stigmata (1999) (Blu-ray & DVD)

The Place Promised in Our Early Days (2004) (Scotland Loves Anime) (Edinburgh)

Twilight's Last Gleaming (1977) (Blu-ray & DVD)

Kill Box (2016) (DVD premiere)

Living with the Dead (2015) (Aberdeen Film Festival)

 

18 October 2016

The Garden of Words (2013) (Scotland Loves Anime) (Edinburgh)

One Crazy Thing (2016)

The Scissoring: Bloodlines (2016)

Sow the Wind (2016 Documentary)

 

19 October 2016

Belladonna of Sadness (1973) (Scotland Loves Anime) (Edinburgh)

Hatton Garden the Heist (2016)

 

20 October 2016

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016)

Princess Arete (2001) (Scotland Loves Anime) (Edinburgh)

Gridiron Premiere

Crewe's American Football Team Get Touch Down On The Big Screen

Monique da Silva || October 4th

Gridiron UK is a heart-warming yet laugh out loud independent Sports Comedy film. Filmed in the summer of 2012 in Crewe the film definitely has a lot of character. The beautiful thing about this film is that it is evident how much blood sweat and tears has gone into it. From attending the Premiere last night it is unmistakable how much this film and its story means to everyone involved – all the way from local community members to its cast and crew. It’s been a long time coming but by god it was definitely worth it. The film was written, produced and directed by Gary Delaney, who not only was the driving force throughout but is also the man behind the story and the original founder of the Crewe Railroaders, bringing his own story to life. The film has been ten years in the making. Once the first draft of the screenplay was finished it then took a few years to get it into production and a further 4 years to get it finished and released. They do say some things are worth waiting for; this film is definitely one of those things.

As I arrived at the Lyceum Theatre in Crewe the very welcoming Gary Delaney himself was there to greet me. The whole evening had a real sense of community, something which unfortunately seems hard to come by these days. Taking a step back with a glass of wine, it was quite amazing to just spectate as floods of people arrived. Not only did we have cast and crew attending, but also Crewe community members, local businesses and sponsors but also original members of the Crewe Railroaders and their families. The whole event had such camaraderie to it. Andrew Harwood-Mills (Sean) stated ‘I have appeared in a number of films and on thing that makes it a worthwhile career is the people who you work with.’ It was clear that everyone involved had a great time working together. The film also stars Dorsey Levens (Coach James) Green Bay Packers Hall of Famer and Superbowl winner, who flew in from America for the premiere.

Once everyone had arrived and shortly before getting ushered to our seats rumours where that Anthony Quinlan (Emmerdale and Hollyoaks) may not make the premiere due to traffic. Like any happy ending Quinlan (Cadillac) indeed does arrive and is greeted by an ecstatic Delaney. Delaney thanks Quinlan for attending to which Quinlan responds “I really wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”

We are ushered to our seats; where a proud Delaney gets on stage and says a few words. The reception received as he stepped on stage was incredible; there was an overwhelming air of respect and love for this man. This truly was a passion project for everyone involved but especially for Delaney.

The story follows Derek (Michael Dixon) who is a working class dreamer from Crewe. He is ambitious and determined but unfortunately has a long stream of failed business ventures and attempts behind him. Strong-minded to show the world he can succeed at something he decides to start an American Football team. With everything to lose, he is blinded in his quest to succeed. Gridiron UK manages to have it all; it has laughter and emotion all in perfect measure. It is a true and honest British comedy containing trials and tribulations and the most relatable of characters which you can’t help but fall in love with. It has a sense of social realism depicting real working class struggles. This is all paired perfectly with the catchy soundtrack; some of which actually comes from ex NFL offensive Lineman Kyle Turley who has four tracks in the film. I laughed a lot and even shed a tear towards the end. It truly was a great film which combined with the evenings events made me realise just how special this film is. The relationships between the characters are something to admire and aspire to. The friendship between Derek (Michael Dixon) and Sean (Andrew Harwood-Mills) is hilarious yet heart-warming, they impulsively insult each other but deep-down have the utmost love for each other. It is a wonderful underdog story which plays on misfortunes, downfalls and some deceit but above all friendship, love and perseverance. It is clear that the cast really did put their all into their rolls.

Once the film credits rolled up we were asked to remain seated for a short presentation. Delaney and Levens then proceeded to ask original members of the Crewe Railroaders on stage and presented them with the shirts from the film that corresponded to their original playing numbers. It was the perfect ending to an already pretty perfect evening and a wonderful finishing touch.

Gridiron UK is thoroughly entertaining and manages to linger with you for some time after. Definitely worth a watch.