Black Mirror series 5 review

Another year, another bleak foray into the existential dread of the nature of the human condition. Although, this time, things seem a little different. Perhaps showrunner Charlie Brooker has discovered inner peace, or at least a substance based substitute, because Black Mirror series five is perhaps the franchise’s most optimistic and bright outing yet.

Continuing on Netflix following six expectedly dark episodes and one bizarre and disappointing AR experiment that Bandersnatched expectations and threw them down the loo, series five provides a comparatively conservative three episodes. The viewing order is seemingly random, so I’ll briefly break each down in the order I was shown; Striking Vipers, Smithereens, and finally Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too.

Reflecting on the three as a whole, there are two major differences when compared to previous series. Firstly; less of a reliance on future technology for narrative devices. Unlike the memory chips, cookies, and robot dogs of past series’, this edition could almost be considered contemporary. Facebook (sorry, Smithereens) and VR games are the targets of Brooker’s cutting ire instead. Of course, there is some tech that goes beyond the realm of current possibility, mainly within Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too, but instead of being horrifying and dread inducing, it’s just a bit too silly to believe. That said, this is the same series that tried to sell us on a prison-torture theme park, so make of that what you will.

That leads me nicely onto difference number two; tone. Historically, and especially during its initial Channel Four run, Black Mirror has taken an almost laughably bleak view of modern / future life via desperately depressing scripts. Horrifically dark twist endings would flirt with almost absurdist finales that would make even the grimmest Twilight Zone epilogue look like an episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark. Not so in series five. While only one of the three endings could be considered ‘happy,’ another is certainly optimistic, and the final one is ambiguous, but admittedly, more traditionally ‘Brookerish’.

Striking Vipers 

Striking Vipers is about two dudes shagging as Street Fighter characters while telling themselves that ‘it’s not cheating’ (life hack fellas – if you’re hiding it from them, it’s cheating). Alright, so there’s more to it than that. The question of sexuality is probably the most underdeveloped aspect, and LGBTQ+ viewers will likely be disappointed to see how glossed over this conversation is, as it essentially amounts to ‘no homo.’ The VR concept is novel, and I’m always game for a conversation that encourages video games to be viewed as an art form worthy of intellectual discussion (as well as scantily clad fighters with fire punches), but the social commentary just doesn’t hit the mark here.

It should go without saying that all three episodes are shot real nicely, maintaining the washed out Black Mirror colour palette that gives the series its own identity. Performance wise, it was lovely to see nobody’s favourite Avenger Anthony Mackie show off some proper acting chops. He’s great, and I’d love to see him in more things. Overall, Striking Vipers is a beautifully filmed episode with great moments, but an ultimately undercooked script.

***

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Smithereens 

So this is the best one, without question. The commentary about the out of control state of social media, as well as how damn effective it is at keeping your personal data, to the point where it does a better job than the police, is terrifyingly on point. Andrew Scott is absolutely sublime here. He brings a genuine frustration that is so absolute, so severe, yet mathematical in nature. You don’t know what he’ll do next, and his performance combined with the tight script will have you on pins for the sixty five minute run time.

Other performances are equally excellent. I particularly enjoyed Topher Grace as a would-be Mark Zuckerberg, Billy Bauer. What could’ve easily been a one note villain becomes a sympathetic and almost likeable pawn of his own making, which was a great twist. One tiny gripe; the woman playing the lead British Police Officer was just…not good or convincing? Did no one pick up on this? Her intonation was all over the place, and the direction wasn’t strong enough to iron this element out. Luckily every other actor puts in the work and the result is a tense, brutal episode, that, while ultimately ambiguous, comes the closest to the quintessential shock and suspense that only Black Mirror can deliver.

*****

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Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too

Yikes. At the polar opposite of Smithereens comes Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too. Not only the weakest in the series, but a contender for worst Black Mirror thing, ever. It’s between this and Bandersnatch, because boy, this one was a tough slog.

There’s a great script in here somewhere. If the focus had been on Ashley O (Miley Cyrus), and the toxic relationship with her (hilariously) evil Aunt, we could’ve had some ace commentary about the music industry, corporate greed, and the breakdown of strained family relationships. Instead, we focus on two plucky sisters who learn the value of sisterhood via a talking, swearing Hannah Montana doll. It’s a mess. The Ashley doll is bafflingly played for comedy and the result is a haphazard, tonally inconsistent romp that ends (perhaps appropriately considering the lead) with a finale ripped straight from a Disney Channel movie.

That said, the performances delivered, cinematography choices, and editing are all on point. Miley Cyrus gives a surprisingly subdued, genuine performance that lets you empathise with Ashley’s situation. It’s just a shame that this well developed characterisation ultimately devolves into Pizza Delivery costumes / generic baddies / rat robots / doll road trip / crashing a virtual pop concert / forming a punk super group. Don’t hate me for spoilers, I’ve saved you an hour of your life.

**

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Overall, Black Mirror series five is the very definition of a mixed bag. Smithereens is instant classic and one of my personal favourites, with its realistic commentary that doesn’t veer off into absurdism, grounded by an exceptional lead performance from Scott. Then Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too is essentially well filmed trash that not only jumps the shark but proceeds to come back on a hoverboard, slaps the shark in the face, call its mum a dirty word, then jump over it all over again. Striking Vipers sits somewhere in the middle of the scale of badness, but the muddled script and message make me lean towards it being on the worse end.

I do, however, prefer the small episode release model though as it allows me to appreciate each episode properly and thoroughly. With series four, I find myself forgetting the specifics, as well as episode names, so I’m game for tighter series’ moving forward.

If history is anything to go by, one thing is for sure; Mr. Brooker pays attention to what people say. The main complaint on the twittersphere has been the lighter tone, so if his Netflix overloads allow it, I’d expect the inevitable season six to pile on the macabre scripts to make up for what could in hindsight be a breath of levity before we properly dive into the pits of despair.

★★★

Rocketman (2019) review

If the last ten years were the age of the superhero film, perhaps we’re moving into the era of the music biopic. Rocketman follows the tumultuous and often difficult life of Reginald Dwight, better known as the most famous British solo artist of all time, Sir Elton John. While liberties are undoubtedly taken with the truth for the sake of a compelling narrative structure, the heart is in the right place.  And boy does this film have heart to spare. This, combined with innovative camera work and a stunning soundtrack, make Rocketman something really special.

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Biopics can have a tendency to be a little formulaic, predictable. They flirt with both the drama and documentary genres, steering clear of anything creatively bold, filmmaking wise. In a refreshing twist, however, this film is as flamboyant and brave as the man himself. Combining the drama and musical genres is nothing short of genius and the bombastic broadway dance numbers that take a 180 turn into formalist filmmaking are as exciting as they are frequent. All of the cast are able to have a stab at re-vamped classics alongside the bafflingly excellent Taron Egerton, which keeps things varied. These formalist elements extend to bizarre trip sequences that manipulate time and space to evoke the feeling of a drug addled mind, while concurrently taking us on a masterful musical voyage.

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The cast is wonderful. Egerton leads the charge as a truly believable and unapologetically angry Elton, hitting every emotional beat with an electricity that strikes you through the screen. Richard Madden may as well be twirling his non existent moustache for how evil he plays manager John Reid, but his initial suave charm just about makes it work. Slightly more questionable is Bryce Dallas Howard as John’s mother, who not only doesn’t seem to age, but also acts a little too ditzy, so when the big emotional confrontation comes in the third act, it falls a tad flat.

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Overall though, Rocketman is phenomenal. The soundtrack provides beautiful re-orchestrations of so many hits, performed incredibly by the shockingly amazing at-singing Egerton. The writing is spot on, hitting the key beats of John’s life while not shying away from his demons. The dialogue is both witty and appropriately dramatic, yet it somehow feels organic and real. Finally, and most wonderfully, is the brilliant cinematography, editing and sound design. This is a technically fantastic film, bearing a strong resemblance to the innovative shots and transitions of La La Land, which is certainly no bad thing. Don’t let the sun go down on this incredible flick, and make sure you come back for several viewings.

★★★★

Pirates of the Carribean: Salazar’s Revenge (2017) review

The Pirates of the Caribbean series is so rich in nostalgia for me that, much like a recovering alcoholic, every time I have a bad experience with it, I inevitably have to go back for more. ‘The Curse of the Black Pearl’ remains a modern classic in the adventure genre and is still in my top ten favourite films. However, the decreasing quality of each subsequent overblown and over the top sequel became apparent as early as ‘Dead Man’s Chest.’ That was what I thought up until I saw this film, that is. 2011’s ‘On Stranger Tides’, the fourth movie in the franchise hit a low point of mediocrity that was a far cry from the already problematic, overstuffed and clunky mess that were Gore Verbinski’s ‘At World’s End’. However, ‘Salazar’s Revenge’ breathes new undead life into the franchise with a few (though not many) new ideas, some genuinely good character beats and above all, a spectacle worthy of a Marvel film; this film looks gorgeous.

As a long time fan, the re-introduction of Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom, regardless of the brevity of their appearances, is great to see. Newcomers Kaya Scodelario and Brenton Thwaites are actually welcome additions to the mythos, feeling suitably fleshed out and realised, not succumbing to the very real danger of becoming the ‘obligatory love interest characters’ and instead being the driving force for the plot. The decision to put less focus on Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow (we’ll get to him) is a wise one, with lessons somewhat being learnt from ‘On Stranger Tides.’ The plot feels much more organic this time and despite featuring elements almost entirely derived from previous instalments, manages to feel fresh and capture a sense of adventure and scale not felt in the series for quite a while. Whilst the macguffin of Poseidon’s trident is fairly cheap, it works as a goal for all of our characters to work towards.landscape-1488452253-pirates-of-the-caribbean-poster

I would also be remiss not to mention Javier Bardem’s titular Captain Salazar, who along with the always fantastic Geoffrey Rush, gives the most convincing performance as a sinister ghost sailor, ably aided by some pretty convincing and cool ‘underwater’ CGI effects. As alluded to previously, the films main strength is its remarkable visuals and spectacle, with every scene being a feast for the eyes. Though it slightly saddens me to think back to a time where a simple sword fight was enough for these films, I must admit that seeing an entire bank being dragged half way through a town is an impressive feat of effects, if nothing else.

While the film has the honour of being the shortest of the series, it’s paced rather oddly, with the action being thrust at the audience at breakneck speed only to be stopped by some random ‘humorous’ scenes.  Examples include Jack being thrown into an (actually pretty sexist when you think about it) arranged marriage with an over the top repulsive woman. Scenes like this I’m sure were intended for comedy, but unlike the razor sharp writing and wit of ‘Curse of the Black Pearl’, they come off as childish and unnecessary, damaging the tone of the film significantly. It starts off with a grittier approach and shows a down on his luck Jack, drunker and seemingly madder than ever losing everything. This should be the springboard for a redemption arc that makes us triumphantly roar by the time he gets the Black Pearl back in the third act, but sadly, it’s all played for laughs. And most of the time, they’re just not very funny, it’s sad to say. Pirates-5-Geek-Ireland

And speaking of things that aren’t funny, this leads me to Captain Jack Sparrow. Oh Jack, what did they do to you? What was once one of the most interesting, mysterious and compelling characters in recent blockbuster history has become an absolute joke. I don’t know whether to blame the writing, the direction, Depp’s performance or a mixture of all three, but Jack Sparrow was easily the absolute least compelling aspect of the whole film. Even ‘On Stranger Tides’, where Depp’s performance was getting into pantomime territory, kept the integrity of the character intact. The scene where Barbossa tells him he lost the Pearl to Blackbeard and Jack totally loses it, shows that his character still means something; he still has goals, a purpose and isn’t a total idiot. In this film, he’s just there for laughs. And again, most of them aren’t funny. They’re childish and stupid. It pains me to write this as I love Jack Sparrow in the first three, heck, even four films. This was like a parody; it was like Scary Movie deciding to throw in someone doing a bad Jack Sparrow impression. Good Lord, if you’re doing a Pirates 6 (which with the box office performance they obviously will) please, please give Jack some credibility back and turn him back into the witty, clever pirate that we once knew. Not this insane pantomime dame owing more to Carry on Pirates than Captain Jack Sparrow. The one and only redeeming aspect was a brilliant flashback scene showing young Jack in his prime. If we had seen more of the young, confident Jack, played as a competent and credible pirate albeit with a humorous manner, as we saw in the other films, the picture could’ve been much stronger. landscape-1488467243-pirates-of-the-caribbean-jack-sparrow-young-johnny-depp

All in all, I liked ‘Salazar’s Revenge.’ I may be bias for my own personal love of the series and in particular the characters of Will, Elizabeth and especially Barbossa, but with the (admittedly huge) exception of Jack, the film worked for me. The three new main characters were engaging, well acted and well written and the execution of the plot, while sloppy and childish in places, generally came together well. The film ends on a triumphant note with it’s excellent third act being the clear highlight. If Depp hadn’t been playing an escaped lunatic dressed as a pirate instead of Jack Sparrow it might have even been close to the level of ‘Curse of the Black Pearl.’ As it stands, it isn’t. But it’s still worth a watch  if you’re a fan of adventure films. Oh, and Hans Zimmer’s score is fantastic as usual. Most of it is reoccurring motifs from the previous films, but they’re all used well and it’s great to hear action themes used for Will and Elizabeth being cleverly utilized as a ‘Turner motif’ for their son Henry.

★★

Wait…

Wait, what? What’s this post credits sce…

What?!

CAN NOBODY STAY DEAD IN THIS DAMN PIRATES UNIVERSE

Stranger Things 2 (2017) review

Following an incredibly successful and critically acclaimed first season is not an easy feat. Fan and critical expectation is high, as are the stakes to try and capture the same magic that made your initial creation so well loved. Evolution is also important; you can’t just re-tread the same beats from the previous season. Change is important for both character and plot to move the story forward in a logical, but fresh way. What I’m trying to say, is that it’s very difficult to keep momentum going and create a second season as strong is the first. Stranger Things 2, in my opinion, is not only as strong as the first season, but exceeds it.

Very rarely do I get so connected to a cast of characters on my screen that I actually feel like they’re legitimate, real people going through fantastical and horrific experiences. Stranger Things 2 builds on their characters in a way I never thought possible and manages to deliver emotional gut punches multiple times throughout the season with the Duffer Brother’s masterful knowledge of how real people act and react to trials and tribulations. Development and change is a risk managed wonderfully; as an example, if you’d told me at the end of season one that Steve Harrington would be my favourite character by the end of the sequel season, I’d offer a snort of derision. Many characters here have wonderful arcs that help them progress as people and at the core of this is the relationship between fan favourite characters Eleven and Jim Hopper. These two absolutely steal the show for me this time around and their evolving father-daughter relationship reaches a moment of absolute poignancy in the final episode that I’m not ashamed to admit had me wiping tears from my crusty, cynical eyes. Also strong is Noah Schnapp, who gets much more screen time this season as Will and is able to show off some serious acting chops. His facial expressions provide some of the most disturbing moments we’ve seen yet, but you also just feel for the kid and his family so much and truly root for Will to get through it.

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Another difficult aspect of a second season is introducing new faces into an already well loved and established cast. Delightfully, the four new main characters of this season are woven in carefully and with slick precision. Sadie Sink’s ‘Mad Max’ is a welcome addition to the ever growing cast of talented younger actors and her psychotic brother Billy presents a great foil to now antihero and all around good guy, Steve. Sean Austin also joins as Joyce’s boyfriend Bob and instantly oozes likeability. He’s goofy, warm and the antithesis of Hopper, who seems to be being built up as her ultimate love interest. If there’s one character who suffers this time around, it’s previous male lead Mike, played by Finn Wolfhard. Wolfhard’s performance remains strong and you feel all the raw pain associated with the death of a loved one, but without Eleven, he’s mostly a damp squib. He doesn’t do much until the final two episodes and plot driven moment are largely handed over to Lucas and Dustin. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s certainly great to see two great characters take more screen time, it just means Mike is slightly short changed as a payoff.

While the characters may be all change, what haven’t changed are the fantastic tone, the creepy atmosphere and the brilliantly woven homages to classic 80’s media. If the first season owed its horrific imagery to James Cameron’s ‘Aliens’, then ‘Stranger Things 2’ owes its shocking and disturbing moments to ‘The Exorcist.’ The horror is amplified this time; the feral, animalistic and survivalist instincts of the Demigorgan gone and instead replaced by the overbearing and unknown presence of The Mind Flayer. The idea of this creature being more methodical rather than just being driven by instinct, coupled with the complete lack of information of what exactly it is and what it wants, creates a much more terrifying foe for the gang to tackle. One that it doesn’t seem likely will be leaving the fictional town of Hawkins alone any time soon. The stakes have been well and truly raised so it will be interesting to see the continued expansion of the unknown lore of ‘The Upside Down’ in future seasons.

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The show also continues to be a love letter to films and pop culture of the 80’s. The fact that the show is able to blend different elements of such vastly different source materials is a credit to the different directors working on it. There are countless references, but the pieces that came to mind while I binged it over a week included ‘Halloween’, ‘The Exorcist’, ‘Flight of the Navigator’, ‘Aliens’, ‘Close Encounters’, ‘The Wizard’ and even ‘The Last of us’ video game. The gorgeous synth soundtrack could be pulled straight from a Sega Megadrive game and the 80’s songs used to support key moments work really well. The use of ‘Ghostbusters’ is particularly fun and is a great example of the wonderful humour and childhood nostalgia that blends so surprisingly well with the darker elements.

I have only one complaint and it’s one that the internet has been pretty unanimous about, so I don’t mean to beat a dead horse. It really bothered me while watching, however, so I must mention it. There are some bad choices in terms of episodic structure. The opening scene presents a group of new characters including a tease of a connection to Eleven that isn’t followed up until the now infamous episode seven, ‘Lost Sister.’ While the episode is dull and the characters even more so (bar the always excellent Eleven), it could’ve been forgiven easier had it been placed within the first few episodes. Episode six ends on a huge cliff-hanger and it’s a strange move to then completely ignore that for  what is essentially a single character episode, with the rest of the cast entirely absent. I’m sure that this is meant to be foreshadowing some season three content, but to have it as the pre title sequence in episode one and then place it in this way was an odd choice that didn’t pay off. I hope not to see more of Eight or the other gang members in the future; they do not work for this show.

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Despite this, ‘Stranger Things 2’ is wonderful on the whole. It builds on already rich and developed characters and makes them pop out of the screen with realism. The nostalgia, themes, tone, atmosphere, soundtrack and writing all blend together to create one of my favourite pieces of television in a long time. It does exactly what a sequel should do and builds on its source material while adding in new elements (nearly) seamlessly. I wanted to give this another 10/10, but sadly, ‘Lost sister’ was a real weak point and acts as a blackhead on an otherwise beautiful face.

9/10

And now we have to wait HOW long for season 3?

Oh God.

Incredibles 2 (2018) review

Nostalgia is a powerful thing, especially when it comes to beloved Pixar classics from our youth. The Incredibles returned this summer to bombastic 1950’s style fanfare, a whole fourteen years after the ‘incredible’ (ha) smash hit directed by Brad Bird, way back in 2004. The result is an altogether safe sequel that doesn’t take many risks, but satisfies with compelling action scenes, a relatively quick pace and some fun satire of gender roles and superhero media that make for an enjoyable, if run of the mill sequel.

One might assume that the introduction of a time gap of fourteen years would be a no brainer to incorporate into the narrative for a change of pace and a different approach story wise. One would, however, be wrong. The time jump is purely for our dimension only, as for the Parr family, mere seconds have passed since the thrilling cliffhanger conclusion of the first film. What follows however, is a decent progression of the narrative that does manage to successfully drive the story into new directions, but unfortunately, many of those directions are ‘incredibly’ (I’ll stop soon I promise) predictable. I don’t think anyone is going to have too many issues working out who the ‘surprise’ villain is, for example. However, as a member of the nostalgia infested horde, moaning orgasmically for the latest Pixar sequel like a walker craving brains, I must remind my ‘revertigo’ infested brethren that this is in fact, a film meant for children. As a film for the kids, it entirely works and will be satisfying. It may not succeed as a totally compelling follow up, but still provides enough meat for fans of the original to enjoy and more than enough for their spawn to sink their millennial teeth into.

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Director Brad Bird brings a trademark wit to the film and its humour is its greatest asset. Many of the jokes had me chuckling in self reference, particularly those that make a mockery of humanities greatest atrocity: maths.  Parents around me also audibly (to my extreme annoyance) voiced acknowledgment and approval of the stress of being a single house parent. This combined with the reintroduction of baby Jack Jack’s newfound powers, make for some truly hilarious scenes, so kudos for that. If the first ‘Incredibles’ is about a mid life crisis and escaping the mediocrity of the working world, then ‘The Incredibles 2’ is about acknowledging the difficulties of juggling work and family and how exhausting it can be. This is where the film truly shines; ironically, I found watching the ‘B storyline’ of the powered family just live their lives to be far more engaging (and admittedly, hilarious) than the antics of Elastigirl in the ‘A storyline’. The performances are all largely solid too, though Bob Odenkirk is largely just being Bob Odenkirk and I was surprisingly underwhelmed by Brad Bird himself as fan favourite, Edna Mode, who sadly seemed inappropriately shoehorned in for some disappointingly dull fan service.

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What isn’t disappointing though, is Michael Giacchino’s phenomenal score. Perfectly blending elements of Bond, Batman and hell, even a bit of Austin Powers, the score is sensational. Many themes are, naturally, reused from the first instalment, but this only cranked up my nostalgia dial up to eleven and had me beaming like a cheshire cat in some of the climactic fight scenes. Though what is good music without good animation? ‘The Incredibles 2’ need not concern itself with that question, as it has both. The CGI models of the original have only been slightly tweaked and still look recognisable and slick. The approach is clean but stylistic, with a strange but awesome kind of idealised American utopia vibe to it, where every building is pristine and huge, with sharp, jagged edges. This, in juxtaposition with the comparatively simple character models, gives the skylines their own personality and gives the film a unique and frankly, cool look. It was like walking into an simple, expressionist, 1950s painting with a New Orleans jazz band playing in the background; I loved it.

In review, ‘The Incredibles 2’ is a solid film, though not quite on ‘Parr’ (sorry) with the original. The story is basic, but still compelling and funny and the action is spot on (Bird does more with Elastigirl’s powers than any Fantastic 4 film has ever dared to with Mr. Fantastic.) While I find the lack of use of the time jump to be a misstep, what is produced instead is still wholly entertaining and enjoyable and I’m blogging about the movie I saw, not the movie I had planned out in my mind. While I won’t say it was absolutely worth the fourteen year wait, it is clear that the team behind this took their time to create a sequel worth seeing. The ending also leaves the door open for further adventures with a more expansive world, so perhaps the ‘Incredi-verse’ I was hoping for could be coming with a third instalment. If it keeps to this level of well written jokes and amazing, animated action, it would be most welcome.

★★★★

Wonder Boys (2000) review

Wonder Boys is a charming and likeable comedy-drama with an all-star cast that examines the pressures to replicate success after a killer hit and how we can find ourselves resting on our laurels in all aspects of our lives. It unfortunately panned at the box office (twice!) but from a critical point of view, it’s an absolute delight. It takes an irreverent and amused approach to the career of both a university lecturer and a writer and paints an exaggerated picture of what that world consists of (weed smoking, party attending, dog shooting etc) pulling it all together for a close, intimate story that leaves the audience feeling good, but not at the cost of cheapening the established drama.

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Michael Douglas gives perhaps the performance of his lifetime in the lead role, with supporting actors Robert Downey Jr, Tobey Maguire and Katie Holmes all giving stellar performances. Despite excessive character development for Douglas and Maguire’s characters, the supporting cast sometimes come off a little shallow. You’d be forgiven for thinking that Holmes’ character, Hannah, exists purely as a hurdle for Douglas to overcome and is presented as a little bit of a stereotypical, horny university student who fancies her lecturer for his brains. Similarly, many of the female roles here do seem designed to act as character development for their male counterparts. This is the only real critique of the film I have and, to be fair, it stems more from the source material, rather than this adaptation.

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From a filmmaking point of view however, everything is perfectly executed. The pace moves along nicely and trims the fat of some of the less important scenes of the novel that have little purpose other than to show the lead character’s own lack of direction. The soundtrack is beautifully eclectic and uses the directors own favourite artist, Bob Dylan, to emphasise some of the film’s most emotionally charged moments, or in some cases, the calm directly after these moments. Finally, the cinematography is equally excellent. The cold winter setting allows for some beautiful shots in the snow that give the film an almost fantasy or folklore tale. As the antics of the characters get more outrageous and the stakes get higher and higher, the cinematography matches this and quick editing techniques are used throughout to give the film a really unique, art house style feel.

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In review, I completely fell in love with ‘Wonder Boys.’ The acting from Michael Douglas is simply flawless. Both Tobey Maguire and Robert Downey Jr are excellent in their respective roles and appropriately convey the emotions both outlandish and subtle that their characters are going through. The narrative is simply wonderful despite slightly side-lining most of the females, even relegating one to a completely unseen character! Nevertheless, it’s a true and honest tale of a person regaining direction in their life and putting aside their issues, excuses and procrastinations to truly prioritise what matters.

★★★★

 

Falling Down (1993) review

‘Falling Down’ is a thriller starring Michael Douglas and Robert Duvall and directed by Joel Schumacher. It revolves around Douglas’ character, William Foster, credited as ‘D-FENS’ for reasons that become clear once you’ve watched the picture, as the archetypical ‘angry white male’ in the process of a dangerous mental breakdown, climaxing after years of pent up rage at society, consumerism and the government. The film has strong social and political messages throughout, showing Schumacher and writer Ebbe Roe’s own problems with 90’s America that also paints a depressingly allegorical world to the one we see today with Trump’s presidency. In particular, Schumacher’s homosexuality and the prejudice he received can be clearly seen allegorically in the scene in the gun store.

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‘Falling Down’ is a genius piece of cinema where every element of the picture is in service to either driving the tone, narrative or message forward and it does so with masterful efficiency. The opening shot for example, gives us the sense of discomfort and annoyance that Foster is feeling, before we even know what kind of man he is and what he’ll be doing. It immediately gets the audience on board with the protagonist with masterful quick paced editing, close up shots and uncomfortable music choices (wonderfully scored by James Newton Howard) to invest us. This is then subverted when we discover what an unstable, angry, ignorant and bitter man our protagonist really is and leaves us our own bitter taste for supporting him. That said, we can find our own sense of embarrassing euphoria when he commits an act that puts an unpleasant member of society in their place, despite how questionable his actions are. We hate Foster for the pain he causes his wife and family, but simultaneously celebrate it when he calls out all of the things wrong with society, be it a deceptively marketed burger, or the riches afforded to a superficial career path like a plastic surgeon.

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Thankfully, we have the sensational Robert Duvall to keep us grounded, whose performance is wonderful and warm. In the repulsive presentation of the dystopia that is L.A, Duvall, as well as his police partner, Foster’s wife and daughter, present the few shreds of mortality in this otherwise polluted landscape. This an incredibly well devised picture that has meaning behind every shot and can be analysed to death. In terms of the acting, it’s sensational. Michael Douglas is captivating and hypnotic as Foster, presenting an often-monotone face that explodes into rage fuelled monologues and a sardonic sense of humour that makes you feel guilty for laughing. The supporting cast is good, but many characters, especially those in the police station are one note stereotypes, present only to further show the degenerative nature of the city that has already been hammered home many times. I see the intention, but more grounded supporting characters could’ve given a slightly more realistic tone, potentially making the actions of Foster hit even harder.

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Overall, ‘Falling Down’ is a masterpiece of cinema. It’s not exactly a ‘stick it on for a nice Sunday afternoon’ kind of film and the ending hits hard, but in terms of translating the messages and meaning presented to the audience via acting, cinematography, music and editing, it hits the mark every time. It’s powerful and will have you debating a multitude of social issues after watching it. My main question was, how the hell did Schumacher craft such a masterpiece of cinema and simultaneously be responsible for the travesties of cinema that are ‘Batman Forever’ and ‘Batman and Robin’? Truly one of life’s mysteries.

★★★★★

 

The Lego Batman movie (2017) review

As a 24-year-old man-child, I love Lego. I also love Batman and am a massive fan of almost all interpretations, yes, I can even tolerate ‘Batfleck’. Thus, I was excited to see what the team behind the surprisingly deep and hilarious ‘Lego Movie’ could do with the caped crusader. I was not disappointed. I haven’t laughed so hard at a film in a long time and whether you’re a long time Batman fan like me, or a casual viewer, there is plenty of enjoyment to be found for kids and adults alike in this clever, fast paced adventure-comedy.

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This movie loves to bask in self-referential humour at the expense of both properties, pulling off almost all of its jokes seamlessly. Jokes about being made of Lego, satire of wider pop culture and most amazingly of all; in jokes relating to Batman’s history on the big screen. In no world should a Batman movie with both the serious, gritty Tom Hardy interpretation of Bane and the shark repellent bat spray from the 60’s be allowed to exist. And yet ‘The Lego Batman movie’ makes it happen by creating an atmosphere that is driven purely by fun and sheer escapism. In a genius move, it also reinvigorates a tired, traditional Batman plot involving the inability to accept support and translate it in a way that is far more emotionally affective than most prior interpretations on the big screen (I’m looking at you, Joel Schumacher).

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The voice cast is extensive, eclectic and random but totally works for this kind of film. There are far too many to name, but clear frontrunners are Will Arnett, who hilariously and overtly parodies the Christian Bale style voice, a common criticism of the newer versions of the Dark Knight. I also never knew how much I needed Michael Cera as Robin. The dude is just side splittingly hilarious in every scene he’s in. Zach Galifianakis is passable as the Joker, but doesn’t give quite the large enough presence to play the crown prince of crime, coming off a little too subdued. ‘Subdued’ is not a word I ever thought I’d use to describe Zach Galifianakis. The wider supporting cast is also tremendous, though I’m hasty to comment on anything due to it drifting into spoiler territory. Just remember how many franchises Lego have available to them and imagine the most insane plot. It’s probably not as mental, yet hilarious, as this movie’s.

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Though it worked within the context of the picture, the soundtrack isn’t to my taste and mainly consists of cheesy current pop songs, or cheesy covers of older pop songs. However, they are consistent with the equally cheesy and ridiculous tone of the movie, so the soundtrack gets a pass. As a Bat-fan, I would’ve liked some orchestral allusions to the work of Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer or Shirley Walker as well as the iconic 1966 tv show theme, though I’m probably just being greedy at this point.

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In review, ‘The Lego Batman movie’ achieves what it sets out to do in spades. It’s a celebration of the entire history of the caped crusader acknowledging even the most obscure elements of the Dark Knight’s past. It perfectly satirises the darker renaissance of the post-Burton world, while also paying tribute to it. Perhaps the funniest film of last year, it relies on a sharp wit, a bright, colourful visual style that is a feast to the eyes and a brilliant use of the various intellectual properties available to Lego. It’s highly recommended to viewers of any age, but in particular to long time Batman fans who aren’t above poking fun at the sillier elements of their favourite hero.

★★★★

 

Castlevania (2017- present) series one and two review

It’s a rarity indeed to find a video game adaption that’s not only faithful to its source material, but creates wholly compelling television in it’s own right. Based on the long running gothic horror game series of the same name, ‘Castlevania’ loosely follows the events of the third game, ‘Castlevania 3: Dracula’s Curse.’ The first series is as mere four episodes long, with the mercifully second doubling that. This allows for a more compelling series that has the luxury of being able to take its time more and thus bites back much stronger.

Taking an anime inspired visual style, the action is fast, bloody and wonderfully gory, as horror should be. Inspiration is clearly taken from fellow vampiric anime like ‘Hellsing,’ but many elements will make game fans squeal with nerdy glee as they’re ripped directly from the game cart of the NES. It’s suitably graphic and uses its hardcore 18+ rating to the fullest to show some savage kills and horrific moments.

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Being based on an 8 bit game from the dark ages of Nintendo means that many liberties have to be taken with characters. It’s difficult to find motivations in a collection of brown pixels. Fortunately, the writing is watertight and presents protagonists Trevor, Sypha and Alucard as engaging and amusing, while still keeping them credible and badass. Series two introduces as few new faces too and the extra four episodes give these new characters time to breathe and make a (bite) mark in their own right. Renowned sexy dwarf, Richard Armitage is fantastic as fan favourite Trevor Belmont, transforming a literally two dimensional character into a hilarious, down on his luck, drunk who must rediscover his will to defeat evil. However, it’s Dracula himself who steals the show, being equal parts terrifying as he is empathetic and shockingly relatable. Particularly when juxtaposed with the merciless and unforgivable actions of the Church here, Dracula’s character becomes as grey as his vampiric skin. We somehow end up feeling for him, despite the whole ‘human genocide’ thing.

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Tonally, it’s clearly written by people who understand the appeal of the source material and know what the target audience want. There is a bit of an unfortunate anti religious message that runs through, with the Bishop and his men becoming absurdly evil, contrasting with the more rounded main characters. This can be overlooked though, as the tone manages to accurately convey the horrific moments while simultaneously balancing a dark, sardonic wit.

A criticism by fans of the first series was the mismanagement of one of the games greatest assets: the fantastic soundtracks. This is fixed in series two however, with a scene born to please fans that uses the track ‘Bloody Tears’ from ‘Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest.’ In general, the music is subdued, but works where it counts. Many scenes however take the atmospheric approach by utilising what we don’t hear and allowing for the character’s dialogue to take centre stage.

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In conclusion, ‘Castlevania’ is a frighteningly good Netflix original that breaks the curse. Not of Dracula, mind, but of poor video game adaptations. The character writing, voice cast, gratuitously bloody action, wonderful hand drawn animation and moments written by fans for fans, make this a really enjoyable series for gamers. After a criminally short first series, a further eight episodes sorts out the overly rapid pace of last year and allows more development time. Series two leaves us in a pretty radical place, so with the recently confirmed third series on the way, I can’t wait to see where we end up in 2019. One things for sure, ‘Dracula’s Curse,’ has only just begun.

8/10

 

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