Monday, 30 May 2016

Alice Through The Looking Glass (2016) (Review)


Alice Through The Looking Glass poses a very similar scenario to last month's The Huntsman: Winters War; it is the sequel to a commercially successful if critically indifferent original film that was seemingly done and dusted with the first release. The lukewarm response to the first film saw its North American release, in which it went up against the blue mutants in X-Men: Apocalypse, blunder, sending it on a downward trajectory as previously seen with the Huntsman. Still, what about the film itself? Is it any good? How does it live up to the pretty low standard set by the original and the dizzying heights and mysticalness of the source material?

Following her adventures back in England, a magical looking glass takes Alice (Mia Wasikowska) back into Underland and discovers that the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) is acting madder than usual; he wants to learn the truth about his family's supposed death. With the help of her friends and the hinderance of her foes, Alice races through time before it catches up with her and it is too late to save the Hatter. If you are starting to think that the plot sounds nothing like the book, you are absolutely right and it seems like a concoction to plot lines and generic inspirations thrown together so Alice has tumble into Wonderland on another adventure.

In a nutshell, Alice Through The Looking Glass is an improvement on Alice in Wonderland without actually qualifying as good. It's a phrase I have seen repeated throughout reviews but one that I wholly understand having watched the film. It's more of the same again, with a few altered nuances, but does have a slightly firmer grip on the world it wants to present to us. And that world is a vibrant, effervescent and vivacious land that is popping with colour and CGI extravaganza. Ironically, similarly to the previously-mentioned Apocalypse, it is rather clear the money has been split between the A-List cast and expensive visuals. Some of the landscapes are quite breathtaking and the production design elements are enchanting. I really give props to the film for creating a visually exquisite film - but that doesn't really help the film overcome its sticky patches.

The narrative is a scattershot of plot points and pieces that rarely feels cohesive, mainly due to the time travel nature of the film. Whilst it is an excellent concept - the personification of time; is time a good thing or a bad thing, time running out - it doesn't come close to being executed efficiently. Set pieces feel very disjointed and everything seems to be thrown together in the last moments to work towards a conclusion that feels temporarily permanent (I assume Disney were hedging their bets in the hope that Looking Glass worked up to be half the success Wonderland was). It is this issue with the structure that gives the impression that the plot is merely an inconvenient extra in the way of bringing us back into the colourful land of Wonderland.

Classic tales do not come as wondrous at this; the book is bursting at the seems with memorable characters, so it really is a shame that they are not explored in such awe. The cast are good, if nothing more, with the unfortunate idea in mind that some overplay their characters. Helena Bonham Carter is the undeniable standout as the Queen of Hearts, barmy and bonkers but never feeling overstretched, despite this being such an easy thing to slip into. Depp is surprisingly underused but sometimes feels artificial under the aesthetics. Interestingly enough, he is more engaging and joyous as the past-Hatter than he is the present-Hatter, whether by coincidence or with a purpose in showing his deteriorating state; otherwise it feels like he doesn't want to be there, unfortunately (a lot like most of the audience..). Wasikowska as Alice is convincing, if not as commanding as you would want from an essentially female-led summer blockbuster. New addition to the cast Sacha Baron Cohen is intriguing as the personification of time and a stronger presence that I thought he would be. The late Alan Rickman is always a domineering present but used sparingly, while Matt Lucas is entertaining at The Tweedles. Most are good, if not great.

Don't get me wrong, if you want an entertaining film, by all means try Alice Through The Looking Glass. It certainly isn't for everyone but it might fill some time of the day. But you arguably want more from a film that using it to just pass some time. It considers some very interest and intriguing ideas (the personification of time) that are lost in the time travelling aspect of the film, as does most of the narrative cohesion and tightness. Visual spellbound cannot distract from the flaws of the film but can tide you over just enough to find something enjoyable in this jumbled adventure.

Summary: Alice Through The Looking Glass is better than the original without necessarily being great, as the visual spectacle is not always enough to disguise the narrative scattershot that otherwise hinders this second adventure into Wonderland.

Highlight: Visually, this is a great film

(REVISED - 6/10)
(ORIGINAL - 6.5/10)

Friday, 20 May 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse (3D) (2016) (Review)


Apocalypse is the third entry into the revived X-Men franchise and ninth overall, following on from the acclaimed Days of Future Past (2014) and First Class (2011). It is also the fourth entry into the superhero pool this year (which has received opposing levels of success, from Deadpool, the spectacular Civil War and the bitterly disappointing Dawn of Justice) - but how does it stand up against its superhero competitors, especially considering the mix of positive-negative reviews it has seen from critics so far? James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult are just some of those returning for their respective third outing, along with an abundance of new additions including Oscar Issac, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner and Kodi Smit-McPhee.

Ten years after Days of Future Past, the X-Men are attempting to put the past events behind them: Eric (Fassbender) is living low with his wife and daughter; Charles (McAvoy) continues running Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, helped by Hank (Hoult); and Raven (Lawrence) is rescuing oppressed and enslaved mutants across the world. When the ancient cyber-mutant Apocalypse (Issac) awakens and plans to take over the world, he recruits the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to help his mission, forcing the X-Men to rally together to defend the world from total destruction.

Our A-List oldies bring their all for the third instalment, taking their characters into new depths that we have never seen them in before, despite the tropes and formulaic structure of the narrative. Fassbender gives arguably his best performance in the franchise, with a genuinely powerful and moving performance that demonstrates Magneto's fragile state beyond his steely demeanour. McAvoy is allowed to explore new avenues as Professor X and the reintroduction of Rose Bryne's Moira MacTagger. Meanwhile, Jennifer Lawrence (the reason behind my investment in the franchise) continues to be engaging as Mystique, rallying the troops and becoming the unconventional lead of the new mutants, following her previous world-saving turn in Future Past; she's an absolute joy again, even if she does feature more as Raven than Mystique. The three leads have genuine chemistry and make the events they face even more credible, even if they are vastly underused - particularly Lawrence and McAvoy. Evan Peters is an absolute scene-stealer as Quicksilver once again, bringing the humour the film needs in the sense-shattering destruction, while newbies Sheridan, Turn and Smit-McPhee are promising as the new generation of mutants. Isaac is commendable as the titular villain, particularly when considering the restrictions of all the armour and prosthetics, if not totally satisfying. More on the Horsemen later...

Maybe its the era these films are set in (Apocalypse is set in 1983), but X-Men is often labelled with the term 'outdated'. One thing that certainly is not outdated, however, is the astounding special effects. More than most others, this entry is very much fuelled by the destruction created, supported by some incredible effects, including Quicksilver's slow motion sequence, the final climax no-holds-bar act or the opening title sequence (which is particularly terrific and absorbing in 3D). Continually of a high standard, it is worth every penny of the ticket price and it is very clear where the budget has been spent (between the visuals and the mostly stellar cast). A personal highlight is the beauty of very opening scene, with such attention to detail in the ancient Egypt setting and excellent cinematography to highlight the beauty of the backdrop. The striking 80s setting allows the film to differentiate itself from other superhero films, which is a strength of the franchise; it really feels unique and lively. 

It's a great and enjoyable film but certainly not without its faults. One issue is that the Four Horsemen are total undeveloped, minus some intriguing work on Magneto's character. Excellent talent is wasted on one dimensional characters that feel very superficial and unnecessary to the story. For example, I don't think the talented Ben Hardy (Archangel) says a number of lines even approaching double digits - his motivations are unclear with no backstory whatsoever, making the whole villain team-up seem redundant. And that's not saying that I wanted them to add in the story, because the film was already 30 minutes over-bloated. The final climatic fight scene, while impressive, borders on utterly exhausting, never relenting and sometimes missing important character beats in the final act that would show some consistency. The overall problem is that the X-Men franchise is good at a lot of thing, just not necessarily at the right time and when it matters. It has two strong acts with really flashes of excellence but really missteps the final act where it should all count.

Maybe it was the high-standard set by Days of Future Past, but Apocalypse was strikingly underwhelming. That's not to say it wasn't enjoyable in some aspects - it strikes a middle ground, in terms of the quality of the two big superhero films of the year (Civil War and Dawn of Justice) but is a victim of its own previous success. The main cast are as impressive as ever with new mutants making the idea of future instalments somewhat exciting (that is, if Lawrence, Fassbender, McAvoy and Hoult step down as I suspect them to) which is matched and intensified with impressive visuals. It offers very little new to the genre and I do wish it took more risks, but one should avoid penalising the film for its previous victories (although, I do admit that I made that mistake, as I have previously discussed). It still is, after all, one of the most unique and individual superhero franchises in the genre, unmistakably X-Men with its coups and accomplishments.

Summary: X-Men: Apocalypse may not be as good as the franchise highpoint, but it is still an entertaining superhero film with an excellent main cast and impressive special effects, managing to feel different and unique in the often overstuffed superhero genre.

Highlight: Lawrence and Fassbender are noticeably impressive as Mystique and Magneto, as is Evan Peters (I'm almost hoping for a Quicksilver spin-off).

(REVISED: 6.5/10)
Original rating - 7.5/10



Thursday, 5 May 2016

The Jungle Book (3D) (2016) (Review)


A live-action Jungle Book? Never going to work, I thought. Something just did not sit right with the idea of recreating luscious jungle landscapes and the anthropomorphic characters that we know and love from the 1976 animated Walt Disney classic and Rudyard Kipling's eponymous collective works. I recall little about either of those, as The Jungle Book never really grabbed my attention in either of its formats. Imagine then, to my pleasant surprise, when the rejuvenated release set out the gate with incredible reviews and reception, as well as a startling box office opening weekend (which it has only maintained from then onwards). I had to check the film out for myself and see the bare necessities of the picture for myself...

The live-action/CGI tells the story of Mowgli (Neel Sethi), an orphaned human boy who grows up in the animals as his guardians in their kingdom. When his safety is threatened by Shere Khan (Idris Elba), Mowgli must embark on a journey of self-discovery to discover his place in the world, whilst meeting an abundance of animals on his adventure that help protect him from the danger that search for him so desperately. Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Lupita Nyong'o, Scarlett Johnasson and Christopher Walken help personify the animals in this film with their voice talents, to varying levels of success (but more on that later).

Visually, this is one of the most compelling and enthralling films I have ever had the pleasure to see on the big screen. With the added 3D element, the breaktaking jungle landscape comes alive in each and every single frame, with such lusciousness and marvel that it is difficult to comprehend that it is filmed entirely on a greenscreen soundstage in LA, not in the Indian jungles it is set. The definition of a cinematic experience, this is a film that must be seen to be appreciated, and on the largest screen possible. 3D brings you in closer to the action but I imagine that it is just as striking and extraordinary without this element. Director Jon Favreau does an astounding job throughout the film, paying such incredible attention to detail; it is these little things and characteristics that truly elevate The Jungle Book into something of an unbelievable treat, a vision to the eyes and a spectacle to behold.

Neel Sethi, pretty much the only physically-seen aspect of the film, is a towering and remarkable revelation, especially when considering that everything he is reacting to is green screen. Not only does he actually resemble the character of Mowgli, but he also brings the heart, humour and warmth needed for the character to stand out, truly embodying the mancub. He more than capably stands up against the voice talents of the A-List cast and is an absolute star in the making; child actors rarely come this convincing, last seen by Jacob Tremblay in Room. Quite honestly, he is an early contender for next year's Best Actor Oscar. The rest of the cast is pretty convincing: Scarlett Johansson somewhat diffused my fear of snakes as Kaa, personifying the traits of the character and very convincing as the hypnotiser, while Bill Murray is warm and affable as Baloo, Ben Kingsley powerful and almost benevolent as Bagheera and Lupitya Nyong'o nurturing and compelling Raksha. Idris Elba never fully convinces as antagonist Shere Khan until the final scene but manages to win audiences around in just enough time to be called a success. These anthropomorphic characters are very much brought to life through these voices and generally very plausible.

In some ways, the film never quite realises its full potential as an allegory for society and hierarchy. A lot of parallels exist within the film that could be pushed further as an underlying message, but this is never fully realised and reached. That said, this is a family film after all which could be complicated by the addition of these themes and ideas, beyond what general audiences are looking for in a Disney blockbuster. Furthermore, we run into a few structural issues in the middle as we prepare for the final climax but nothing that cannot be looked past in the sheer thrill of the proceedings.

This compelling retelling of the Disney classic arguably exceeds the original in more ways that one; a visual treat grounded by realism (when considered talking animals, I guess) with an impressive cast and cinematic experience that deserves all the success and goodwill it is getting from critics and audiences. Inclusion of the original's song is an excellent little touch and exactly the sort of attention to detail previously discussed. This four-quadrant blockbuster should continue Walt Disney's impressive track record this year right throughout the summer and could very easily attack that $1 billion barrier come the end of its run. Deservingly so, The Jungle Book continues the successful venture of Disney by reviving some of their most classic films and tales into live-action releases and if they are half the success The Jungle Book is, we are in for some real treats with the likes of Dumbo, The Lion King and others. Congratulations to everyone on this film for truly defying and crushing expectations.

✬☆
(8.5/10)

Summary: The Jungle Book is a rare achievement in that it develops on the original's 'bare neccessities' whilst breathing new life through the astounding visual world created by director Jon Favreau and further supported by impressive performances. 

Highlight: The visual world created is second to none and should really be scooping up some awards next Oscar season.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Captain America: Civil War (2016) (Review)


Marvel Cinematic Universe launched Phase Three of its superhero world in the form of Captain America: Civil War, the third instalment of the Captain America strand that parades as Avengers 2.5, following last year's arguably disappointing Avengers: Age of Ultron. This, however, is the Avengers film that Age of Ultron so desperately wanted to be, and quite frankly, should have been. Captain America might be the namesake, but the plethora of superheroes in the mix is astounding - Iron Man, Black Widow, Winter Soldier, Falcon, War Machine, Hawkeye, Vision, Scarlett Witch and Ant-Man (to name just a few), as well as debut appearances from the newly rejuvenated Spider-Man, battle it out in Civil War, marking a new wave of releases from the film studio giants. If this is an indication of future films, Marvel may be about to embark on their hottest streak to date.

Distrust of the superhero community hits fever pitch after a mission goes haywire and many end up dead. The United Nations prepares the Sokovia Accords - an international governing body that restricts, monitors and polices the ever-expanding superhero population - which splits the Avengers into two extreme sides. New loyalties form, lead by Tony Stark/Iron Man (whose guilt over the creation of Ultron leads to his agreement in the body) and Steve Rogers/Captain America (disconcerted by the government's agenda and agrees with the ideological freedom of America and the superheroes, disagreeing with the proposition). With the heroes broken in two and the two leaders stuck between good and bad, right and wrong and their own personal issues, a civil war begins that pits the strongest against each other, resulting in grave consequences for the future of the Avengers.

Whilst the literal future of the Avengers is in jeopardy, figuratively they are better than they have ever been. Civil War is populated with an abundance of characters, plot threads and focuses, yet directors Anthony and Joe Russo manage to keep everything tight and balanced. The fear with a film of this scale is that everything comes crashing down around it, yet the film simultaneously manages to juggle some impressively large elements, whilst expanding on others, introducing new ones and keeping everything in sync as they do it. Despite the sheer number of characters displayed here, each of them has motivation and conviction to support their decisions and actions, grounded and poised with humility and modesty; they might be superheroes but you understand them, what they want and who they are. This human element is grandly influenced by the sensational actors and actresses involved; Chris Evans adds more life to the titular character than we have seen before, whilst Robert Downey Jnr gives a genuinely captivating performance as Tony 'Iron Man' Stark - satirical, emotional and determined, often all at the same time. Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow (who remains my favourite Avenger and the one in desperate need of a standalone film) remains as impressive and consistent as we have previously seen while the rest of the player are pretty astounding too. 

Thematically, this is the most powerful Marvel have ever dared to be and their bravery is profound, offering brawn and brains in one giant blockbuster success that should inspire others to do the same. Some complex and intricate ideas and tones are explored throughout the film, all of which are handled in a way that engages an audience, questioning their own conscience and morality, offering verisimilitude despite the fantastical elements. Perfectly counteracted is of course the action scenes. which Marvel typically do with such stellar might and accomplishment - no change here then. Each fight sequence feels stylistically different and original, unique to the last and bold in its execution. Storming against each other at the airport as the two sides go head to head, the evenly-matched ideals interact with strength and believability, using their own personal powers to their advantages and it really is intriguing to view how these wholly good people interact when faced with good, rather than downright evil. It adds a new layer to their fight and characters, whilst maintaining a comedic edge that is needed as the film prepares to go darker than it had before. That final fight, on a far more persona level, raises the stakes considerably, exemplified through stunning visuals, cinematography, iconography and parallels. With these scenes, Marcel greatly shakes up the formula, which many - myself included - began to worry was becoming stale. This revitalisation could not come soon enough and Civil War is a better film because of it.

An array of phenomanal elements do not always take a way from some of the small, niggling errors, sometimes even spotlighting them more: the first action scene in the market is disconcerting on a number of occasions, editing with action so choppy and turbulent that one must question whether they have come down with a case of vertigo. Thankful, this is only seen during this one instance but it takes a while for you to regain your feet after this. One non-spectacualr special effect sticks out like an eyesore towards the beginning of the film but I can quickly forgive and forget that. I am slightly less so on the irritating 'if only they said this sooner' element that causes the big debacle, but when it results in a film so stunningly tightly and choreographed as this, then I accept it as a win on the audience's behalf. These niggles are minor complaints that only come up when compared to the grandeur and quality of these rest of the film, but issues nonetheless.

That said, Captain America: Civil War is bold, innovative and altogether refreshing. Impressively switching between character-driven dialogue development, all-to-the-wall action scenes and a depth to a war and conflict that others could only dream of (looking at you, Batman vs Superman), Civil War is impressive because of what is at stake and what we know lies ahead. It wins by building to this point thirteen episodes into its Universe run and offering more for the audience to invest themselves in - there is no winners, or losers, or good people or bad people as such, just individuals with different approaches, opinions and emotions and Civil War wins by accepting each of these and exploring them in thought-provoking and progressive ways. I genuinely do not know where this Avengers unit is going next and as long as Marvel do not hit the reset and send everything back to being peachy keen, they will have myself and many others beside them for the journey.

(REVISED - 9.5/10)
(ORIGINAL - 9/10)

Summary: Captain America: Civil War is Marvel at its peak, offering a plethora of interesting characters, all of whom are superbly portrayed, bolstered by an engaging and coherent narrative. In short, Civil War is a breath of fresh air in the superhero genre.

Notes:

Instead of the typical highlight section here, I am going to make a few notes that I didn't fit in the review, but I want to get your own feelings and opinion towards.

  • I am not entirely sold on Spider-Man just yet. Whether I am still bitter of Andrew Garfield - the absolute highlight of the Amazing Spider-Man outing - being dropped so insouciantly that I cannot quite accept Tom Holland yet. He certainly makes an impression, it is just not quite the right one yet.
  • Black Panther is promising and something that genuinely took me by surprise when he took the mask off. Looking back, I should have seen it coming, but alas...
  • My eyes filled with tears as we said goodbye to Agent Carter on screen. I then started crying when I realised we wouldn't likely be seeing a third season of Agent Carter. So no more Agent Carter, period. Emotional for a lover of strong female characters like myself.
  • May I be so bold as to say that Iron Man is better without having this standalone films too? He feels more magnetic, humorous and engaging when appearing in the Avengers films than he ever did in the Iron Man trilogy. Maybe, then, I should reconsider my need for that Black Widow franchise...
  • I think I need more of an explanation about PP than we were given...