The BFG (2016, Steven Spielberg)

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An orphan called Sophie is kidnapped by a benign giant who takes her to a strange land. He won’t let her go home because he can’t risk people finding out about giants, so she comes up with a plan…

Seen before? No. But Roald Dahl’s 1982 novel was probably my favourite book when I was a child.

Best performance: Penelope Wilton is fun as the Queen. It’s never actually specified that she’s Elizabeth II, but that’s certainly who she looks like.

Best scene/moment/sequence: Being a Steven Spielberg movie, there are plenty of great images and visual gags – especially when the BFG is creeping around London in the middle of the night. He has to hide in plain sight to avoid passers-by.

Review: Spielberg has made children’s films before, of course. The best of them – ET, The Adventures of Tintin – are for kids of all ages. But The BFG is more like 1991’s Hook: aimed squarely at a very young audience. There’s whimsy and fart gags, but the film misses the ‘real life’, wit, and sense of danger that make ET so effective. We start in an arch, fantasy-land London of cobbled streets, bumbling drunks and an orphanage that doesn’t notice when one of its girls goes missing. It’s possibly the 1980s (there’s a gag about ‘Ronnie and Nancy’). The action then moves to a magical realm and huge stretches of the film are two-handed scenes. Aside from brief appearances by some other giants, Sophie and the BFG are the only characters in the first 74 minutes… The film seriously drags. Not a huge amount happens, and given the difference in their sizes you soon get very bored of shots of Sophie actress Ruby Barnhill looking up and shouting her dialogue. It’s a huge relief when the action returns to London. Sophie’s plan for helping her new friend is to give the Queen a dream that will make her predisposed to giants, so we then get a childish but lively sequence at Buckingham Palace. As well as Penelope Wilton, this section also features Rebecca Hall and Rafe Spall, two good actors gamely playing cardboard characters in return for a chance to work with Steven Spielberg. The BFG himself is a marvellous creation, played charmingly by Mark Rylance via motion-caption technology. But overall this was a chore to sit through.

Four snozzcumbers out of 10

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016, Gareth Edwards)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The evil Galactic Empire is building a planet-killing weapon, so the Rebel Alliance sends a young woman called Jyn Erso to talk to her father: the man who designed it…

WHICH VERSION? There’s only one. The on-screen title is simply Rogue One.

GOOD GUYS:

* Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is a young woman who can handle herself in a fight and has an independent spirit. As a child she saw her father arrested and her mother killed, so went on the run. Now, 15 years later, she’s a prisoner of the Empire. She’s soon rescued by the Rebel Alliance, who convince her to find her estranged father. He designed the Death Star, an enormous space station capable of destroying entire planets, and they want to know its weaknesses. Joining forces with a Rebel captain and a few others, Jyn eventually tracks down her dad on the planet Eadu, but he’s then killed in front of her. Helpfully, she’d earlier seen a message he pre-recorded which explains how the Death Star can be destroyed. So Jyn tries to rally the pessimistic Rebels: she pitches that they steal the station’s blueprints from a heavily guarded Imperial planet. When the Rebel bosses say no, she goes anyway with her newly formed gang, giving some rousing motivational speeches along the way… Sadly, Jyn is a character who’s very difficult to care about. Actress Felicity Jones is one-note, remorselessly dour and barely shows any emotion other than frustration. This might be relevant for a woman who’s living a harsh life, but it hardly makes for engaging viewing. Compare her with Luke and Leia from the original Star Wars or Rey and Finn from The Force Awakens, characters full of vim and verve and energy and charisma and likeability. They feel so much more alive because they attack each scene full on and have dynamic emotional journeys. They also drive their own stories: they have desires and goals, and we experience their adventures with them. Jyn, meanwhile, takes about half the film to show *any* fight. It’s only after her father dies that she starts being pro-active; before then, she simply gets dragged along by circumstances outside of her control. The character nominally carries the whole story, yet coupled with a boringly introverted performance, her early passiveness means there’s a big, blank hole where our heroine should be.

* Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) used to work for the Empire as an engineer. At the start of the film he’s hiding on a farm with wife Lyra and daughter Jyn, but the Empire soon come looking. They coerce him into finishing work on the Death Star, a project he once headed before feeling guilty about, you know, building a WMD. So, because he knows they’ll go ahead with or without him, he deliberately adds a design flaw into the blueprints then sends word to the Rebels that they can destroy it. (Yes, that’s right: the narrative thrust of this film is based on explaining away a plot hole from the original Star Wars movie. Ever wonder why the Empire’s most important weapon self-destructs after a laser bolt is fired down a small exhaust port? Now you can find out!) The character doesn’t actually appear that much – just the prologue, a hologram message, a quick flashback, and his death scene – but Mikkelsen is good value and implies a lot with little screentime.

* Lyra Erso (Valene Kane) is Jyn’s mother. She’s killed by the bad guys early on.

* Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) is a Rebel who helps the young Jyn escape in the prologue scene. He then raises her (off-screen) before a parting of the ways. When he returns to the story – as a stepping stone on Jyn’s quest to find her dad – he’s in a bad way. He has mechanical legs and wheezes into an oxygen mask at regular intervals; he’s also broken from the Rebel Alliance and gone solo (and a bit loopy). It’s been rumoured that Gerrera was originally going to have a much bigger role in the story, but reshoots watered his contribution down. He certainly feels like an underdeveloped character who’s more of a diversion than a vital bit of storytelling. Whitaker opts for an irritating, raspy-voiced performance. (The character previously appeared in the animated TV show Star Wars: The Clone Wars, where he was voiced by Andrew Kishino.)

* Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) rescues Jyn from the Empire and takes her to a Rebel Alliance powwow to discuss the crisis. He’s a no-nonsense soldier who’s willing to kill an ally for the greater good. He then leads the mission to track down Galen – but unbeknown to Jyn, he’s been ordered to murder her father not rescue him. He later helps Jyn steal the Death Star plans. This theft involves playing a Crystal Maze skill game where he has to operate a mechanical arm in a giant multi-stack archive. Andor is the film’s Han Solo equivalent, though – like Jyn – is a relentlessly sombre character. The actor plays every scene, every moment, with the same level of energy. “You seem awfully tense all of a sudden,” Jyn says to him at one point. It’s an odd comment to make given that his behaviour and demeanour haven’t changed one iota since she met him. There’s no charm in the performance, no charisma, no irony, no fun.

* Tivik (Daniel Mays) is a nervous Rebel informant who doesn’t last very long: Luna executes him rather than risk him giving them away to some Stormtroopers.

* Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) is an Imperial pilot who defects to the Rebels, bringing with him a message from Galen that explains all about the Death Star’s in-built weakness. He’s initially held by Saw Gererra, who treats him like an ISIS hostage (and exposes him to a slobbering monster with tentacles that can shred his mind; thankfully for Bodhi, it leaves him compos mentis). After Gererra is killed, Bodhi joins the missions to find Galen and steal the blueprints. He also gets to name the film when he improvises a call sign for the team: rogue one. It’s a fun, jittery performance from Ahmed. It deserves more focus.

* K-2SO (voice and mo-cap performance by Alan Tudyk) is Andor’s sidekick, a former Imperial droid who’s been reprogrammed by the Rebels. He’s humanoid but about eight feet tall and very strong; his specialty is strategic analysis; and he says what he thinks. In a film populated by po-faced characters, K-2SO sticks out like a hilariously sore thumb with his deadpan humour and comedy timing. A CG creation, he’s voiced by Alan Tudyk with an English-ish accent. The actor has form for this kind of work – he also played a likeable android in 2004 film I, Robot.

* A number of Rebels attend an executive meeting at their Yavin IV base – ie, the one seen in the original Star Wars movie. Ooh, look, there’s the guy with a white beard who gives the briefing in the 1977 film (he’s been recast, of course). Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly) and Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits) crop up too and are cutely played by the actors who played them in the early 2000s Star Wars prequels. It’s a neat way to connect that trilogy with this new phase of movies.

* Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) is a blind mystic who Jyn and Andor meet on the planet Jedha. He seems drawn to Jyn, helps her evade some Stormtroopers, then joins the gang. He has a mantra (“I am one with the Force and the Force is with me”) and is very handy in a punch-up or gunfight. He also says he’s one of the guardians of the Whills, which is an obscure reference to early drafts of the original Star Wars script. The character is an interesting addition to the team, giving this muscular war movie a nice dose of mysticism and ambiguity.

* Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) is Chirrut’s mate, a dryly funny mercenary who carries around a huge backpack like he’s a Ghostbuster. He also joins the gang.

* C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Jimmy Vee) share a throwaway cameo. It’s there solely to maintain the characters’ record of appearing in every Star Wars film. They play no role in the story.

* Gold Leader (Angus MacInnes) and Red Leader (Drewe Henley) are fighter pilots seen when the Rebels attack Scarif, the planet that contains the Imperial archive. The footage of these characters was actually filmed during the 1976 shoot for the first Star Wars movie. New backgrounds have been added to shots intended for that film’s climax. It’s a fun, subtle way of reinforcing that we’re in the same time period as the original trilogy. Drewe Henley coincidentally died while Rogue One was being filmed.

* Princess Leia (Ingvild Deila; voiced by an archive clip of Carrie Fisher) only appears in the final few seconds of the film and takes possession of the stolen Death Star plans on behalf of the Rebels. Because the scene is set literally minutes before the opening moments of the original Star Wars, Leia needed to look as she looked in that film. Therefore, CGI has been used to recreate a 19-year-old Carrie Fisher’s face and superimpose it onto a body double. It’s emblematic of Rogue One’s biggest problem: it’s so desperately eager to make references and connections to previous films that it doesn’t stop to consider that less is sometimes more. The moment smacks of over-explaining a joke or underlining the subtext, and Leia suddenly cropping up, having only been obliquely referred to, is pretty meaningless in the context of this story. (Admittedly, the overwhelming majority of viewers will still know who she is – but she’s played no role in Rogue One’s story at all.) Also, while the CG work is an astonishing achievement, it’s a tad unnerving too. The character’s baby-fat face glistens like she’s had plastic surgery, and the fact Fisher died while this film was on general release only adds to the sense that this well-intentioned idea should have been shelved.

BAD GUYS:

* Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) is the Imperial officer in charge of the Death Star construction. He forces Galen to work for him, then later demonstrates the station’s capabilities by destroying the city of Jedha. But Krennic is royally pissed off when his colleague Tarkin takes all the credit for the project’s success. So he kills his engineers, including Galen, out of spite. He’s a terrifically nasty character, who snarls his way through the movie. Mendelsohn is very watchable.

* Governor Tarkin (Guy Henry) is the officer in charge of the Imperial forces, reporting directly to the unseen Emperor. He clashes with Krennic and, in a rather strange decision, chooses to destroy his own archive *after* the Death Star plans have been stolen. (Hope they had everything else backed up.) Obviously, the character was one of the main baddies of the original Star Wars, so – as with Princess Leia – CG technology has been used to recreate how he looked in 1977. Holby City actor Guy Henry played the role on set, mimicking the late Peter Cushing’s voice and posture very entertainingly. Then a digital reconstruction of Cushing’s head has been superimposed onto his body in post-production. This kind of thing has been done before in the Terminator series and a recent X-Men film, but never for a character with so much dialogue and so nuanced a performance. It’s a really brave attempt at something genuinely ground-breaking (and something that will presumably now be done more and more in these kinds of films). But because it’s only 95-per-cent photorealistic – it’s the lip-sync that lets the side down – you do question whether they’d have been better off just having Guy Henry play the full role.

* Darth Vader (Spencer Wilding and Daniel Naprous; voiced by James Earl Jones) is the Emperor’s hatchet man. He lives on the planet Mustafar (last seen in Revenge of the Sith) – and when we first meet him he’s out of his famous battle suit and submerged in a tank. He’s summoned Krennic to a meeting to make sure he knows that the Emperor wants results. At first, the scene appears to be little more than a fan-pleasing cameo – it ratchets up the pressure on Krennic a bit, but could be deleted with no damage to the story – then you realise it’s also seeding the character for his role in the climax (see Best Action Sequence below)…

BEST ACTION SEQUENCE: The final few minutes of the film knock your socks off. For its third act, Rogue One becomes a full-on action movie and the intensity levels rise significantly. The Death Star plans have been stolen and the Rebels are attempting to flee the archive with them. However, Darth Vader is on their tail. He boards the Rebel ship and savagely, relentlessly cuts soldiers down with his lightsaber and Force powers: it’s a violent, intense sequence. The plans are finally smuggled on board another ship – which of course we recognise from the opening scene of Star Wars – and it flies away, Vader watching on… Run Rogue One and Star Wars back to back and the action flows across the two movies brilliantly.

BEST COMEDY MOMENT: K-2SO gets more funny lines than the rest of the script put together (and by some distance). A random gag: “I’ll be there for you,” he says to Jyn at one point. “Cassian said I had to.”

MUSIC: Not being part of the main Star Wars series, Rogue One doesn’t feel obligated to have a score by house composer John Williams. In his place comes Michael Giacchino (Lost, Jurassic World, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the Star Trek reboots). He provides some very John Williams-ish incidental music, which quotes and echoes the original trilogy a fair bit. The main theme is a bit underwhelming, but generally the music is very effective.

PERSONAL CONNECTION: I first saw Rogue One on Thursday 15 December 2016 at the Everyman Baker Street in London. I went with my pal Fraser Dickson and it was a significant day for us both. We’d just completed the final ever issue of All About Soap, a magazine we’d worked on for the previous 10 years.

REVIEW: This movie has a significantly different tone from the original Star Wars films or 2015’s series relaunch, The Force Awakens. It’s a tougher, harsher, less fun world populated by earnest characters dealing in life-and-death situations, and the swashbuckling zip of those earlier movies has gone missing. So has a sense of joy. Rogue One has regularly been called a war movie, so it was never going to be a laugh-a-minute. But that doesn’t mean everything has to be humourless or that the lead characters have to be so bland. Compare Rogue One with, for example, Aliens (1986). Both are science-fiction war movies, but Aliens is full of vibrancy and attitude and gallows humour and characters who grow and develop and who you care about. In contrast, Rogue One is disappointingly one-dimensional. The second half of the film is exciting and engaging, but before we reach the assault on the Imperial archive there’s over an hour of scenes where our heroes achieve little and learn even less. The story happens to them, rather than them being in control of events. Jyn is captured by the Rebels, blackmailed into going on a mission, stumbles across Saw Gererra by accident, can’t save her father… She’s not so much a character as a piece on a chess board, being moved around simply to keep the game going. (The reason the second half of the plot is more entertaining is because Jyn and Andor *decide to do things*.) Perhaps it would work better if those heroes were more interesting people, but the leads lack any personality beyond being moody and sullen. Some of the secondary characters fare better, especially the droll K-2SO and the twinkle-smiled Churrit, but they get little screen time in comparison. Another huge issue is the movie’s dogged obsession with other films. Rogue One is the cinematic equivalent of a tie-in novel, where providing cheeky in-jokes and dropping hints for fans is more important than telling a decent story. The connections to other Star Wars films (especially the 1977 original) soon mount up: a prop bottle full of blue milk, a pointless cameo for the bully who squares up to Luke Skywalker in the first film, a hologram of Jabba the Hutt’s dancing girl, an oblique mention of Obi-Wan Kenobi, a pointless appearance for C-3PO and R2-D2, repeated shots and sets and lines… Some people have criticised The Force Awakens for aping the earlier Star Wars films, but that movie was reusing themes and motifs, not shamelessly nodding and winking to the audience. And as well as specific postmodern nods, Rogue One is also hamstrung by being as prequel-y as a prequel can be. The plot is as much dictated by what needs to be in place for the ‘next’ film as it is by character choices – more, in fact. We can’t see the Death Star destroy a planet because the weapon’s use in Star Wars is its first ever, so here it just levels cities. The story’s heroes have to all die because otherwise literal-minded viewers would ask why they’re not in the 1977 movie. Tarkin has to take over running the Death Star so he’s there for the next film. It’s far from organic or breezy drama. But despite all that, there is a lot to admire in this movie. It’s never boring and has a real polish to its visuals. There’s a fantastic fidelity to the design work of the original Star Wars and also numerous striking images along the way: the barren, windswept planet seen in the prologue, an enormous collapsed statue of a Jedi in a desert, the apocalyptic finale. CGI is used with great discretion. The action scenes are often busy and well staged. The sound design is excellent. And the cast is the most culturally diverse yet in the Star Wars series. It’s just a shame it doesn’t have more heart.

Seven Kyber crystals out of 10

Doctor Strange (2016, Scott Derrickson)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

After neurosurgeon Dr Stephen Strange is badly injured in a car crash, he loses the full use of his hands. Feeling that Western medicine has failed him, he seeks guidance from the Ancient One, an expert in mystic arts….

The lead character of this film is an arrogant, rich genius with a goatie beard who’s played by Sherlock Holmes. His demeanour is marked by lots of sarcasm and showing off, but he then suffers a trauma that makes him question his place in the world. After a period of training and experimentation, he decides to dress up and fight evil… While Doctor Strange is not exactly a remake of 2008’s Iron Man, the similarities are remarkable. One huge difference, however, is that this movie turns its back on the plausible science of Tony Stark’s world. In its place comes full-on weirdness. At the start of the story, Dr Stephen Strange (a reliable Benedict Cumberbatch) is working in a New York hospital. He’s good at his job, swaps banter with his colleagues, and flirts with ex-girlfriend Christine Palmer (an underused Rachel McAdams, who was coincidentally in Robert Downey Jr’s Sherlock movies). It’s a thoroughly modern feel, full of ER procedures, pop-culture references and even a long walk-and-talk shot in a corridor. But Strange’s life turns upside down when his hands, so vital to his work, are badly damaged in an accident. (Eagle-eyed viewers – and people looking for things to mention in blog posts – will spot a ‘hand’ motif in this film. There are many close-ups of hands, lots of actors use hand gestures, and at one point Stephen even hallucinates about hands growing out of hands growing out of hands.) Desolate and depressed, scientific Stephen surprises himself by seeking help from mystics in Katmandu. At their mountain retreat, he meets the explains-everything-earnestly Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the never-cracks-a-smile Wong (Benedict Wong) and their boss, the not-Asian-like-in-the-comics Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). Strange begins to learn about astral planes and mirror dimensions and shaping reality and sacred texts and time loops and sling rings and sorcerers of antiquities and Eyes of Agamotto and planet-defending ‘Sanctums’ in New York, London and Hong Kong. It’s a daunting assault of mumbo-jumbo, for both Stephen and the viewer. At one point during his training, Strange is passed a piece of paper with the word ‘shamballa’ on it. He reasonably asks if it’s a mantra, but Mordo replies that it’s the wi-fi password. A good gag, sure, but a bit sniffy considering how much mysticism Stephen has recently been exposed to. In fact, Mordo is generally a bit annoying: his only role in the story is to have a grave enough expression on his face that we’ll accept what he’s saying as important. Librarian Wong is more fun, and there’s a likable run of gags between him and Strange. Meanwhile, the Ancient One is a very powerful Celtic mystic/wizard/priest type who can harness energy, cast spells and control time and space. Swinton is good value, but her casting drew accusations of Hollywood whitewashing. (Arguing that sticking to the comic book’s vision of a male Asian teacher would be too close to a Fu Manchu cliché, director Scott Derrickson conceded that casting a white actress still wasn’t ideal. “What I did was the lesser of two evils,” he said, “but it is still an evil.”) Strange learns from her quickly and soon uses a magical portal to travel to New York, where he defeats Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former pupil of the Ancient One who wants to summon an interdimensional entity called Dormammu. (Are you keeping up with all this? I had to take notes.) Our hero gets help from a self-aware cloak that floats around of its own volition like it’s Orko from the He-Man cartoon. Quite why this cloth-with-personality does this is not entirely clear – unless you’ve read the comics, one suspects – but then again not a lot is entirely clear with this film. It’s a world far removed from logic and reason and science. This may be a deliberate contrast with the medical jargon and Manhattan lofts of Stephen’s earlier life, but you get the sense that the script is using it as an excuse not to justify things properly. Compare with Star Wars, in which Ben Kenobi has one line about the Force – “It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together” – and we all get it instantly. Doctor Strange, however, bombards us with made-up rituals and silly names. It’s difficult to understand (or care) about what’s happening. After the Ancient One is killed, for example, Strange and Mordo chase Kaecilius to Hong Kong. He’s destroying its Sanctum because he wants… um, Dormammu to take over? Is that right? Admittedly, this action climax has a fun twist on the usual superhero formula. We still get Marvel’s obsession with urban carnage, but Stephen and Mordo actually turn up too late. The area has *already* been levelled by Kaecilius. So Stephen rewinds time to put everything back the way it was: a fun, visually interesting idea. Conversely, while the film’s earlier action/fight scenes play in real time, they do plenty of peculiar things with space: city streets bend beneath characters’ feet, architecture melds and changes before their eyes. It’s all very impressive (unless you’ve seen the Christopher Nolan film Inception), as are the psychedelic sequences when Stephen uses his new powers. But overall this is a simplistic movie that’s been made superficially complicated by lots of empty razzmatazz.

Six men on a bus out of 10

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Captain America: Civil War (2016, Anthony and Joe Russo)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The Avengers are torn apart when their two leaders disagree over whether the group should sign a document that would limit their authority…

Not so much a movie as a balloon debate, Captain America: Civil War features a plethora of characters wanting our attention. Unlike The First Avenger (2011) and The Winter Soldier (2014), this third ‘solo’ outing for Steve Rogers is basically an Avengers film in disguise and has a bloated cast to match…
* A short prologue set in 1991 shows us Bucky Barnes aka the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) during his time as a brainwashed Soviet assassin. (We know it’s 1991 because of a big, fat, Futura-font caption. This device occurs throughout the film, usually telling us which city we’re in.) Cut to the modern day, and Bucky is going about his life, wearing a baseball cap and buying fruit in an eastern European market, when a creepy guy called Helmut Zemo (Daniel Bruhl from Inglourious Basterds) frames him as a terrorist. Zemo’s doing this in order to draw the Avengers to the secret base in Russia from where the Winter Soldier programme was run. He wants revenge on them, you see, for what happened a couple of movies ago.
* The psychic Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) is now part of the Avengers team after temporarily siding with the bad guy in Age of Ultron (2015). And she kicks this film’s plot off when she accidentally kills some civilians while the gang are chasing a villain in Nigeria. Why this bothers Wanda and her friends more than previous times they’ve caused carnage is not clear. But then comes outside pressure: US Secretary of State General Ross (William Hurt, returning to the series for the first time since 2008) insists on UN checks-and-balances for the Avengers; the press start to question their legal authority; and team leader Tony is guilt-tripped by the mother of a friendly-fire victim. These films have often shown a ridiculous disregard for collateral damage. Characters seem to blithely accept innocent deaths and massive destruction of property, so this feels like the producers trying to right that wrong. Significantly, the same year’s Batman/Superman crossover contained similar ideas: time had clearly come for the superhero genre to address the elephant in the room. But despite feeling horrendous guilt for what she’s done, Wanda still objects to Tony being overprotective. Brat.
* Meanwhile, Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans) ain’t playing ball. He doesn’t like the idea of politicians being in charge of the Avengers and thinks they should remain self-governed. It’s a brave bit of storytelling, which basically casts the film’s nominal lead character as a villain. But it’s also a real head-scratcher. Steve is a man who voluntarily signed up to fight fascism despite being a weakling weighing 98 pounds. Now he wants to live without the law? Hmm…
* Fellow Avenger Natasha Romanoff (Scarlet Johansson) is another surprise. She’s previously shown a healthy disrespect for authority and even once walked out of a Senate hearing. But now she’s all for adhering to government oversight. There’s some unconvincing dialogue to explain her change-of-tune.
* In the resulting argument about what to do, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) sides with old pal Steve for no reason other than Steve is his pal. (Bear in mind that Sam was a test pilot in the US Air Force. And now he thinks a chain of command is a bad idea. Does that sound plausible?)
* Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) is the leading voice advocating that the team sign the Sokovia Accord, a document that would limit their powers and give the UN jurisdiction. Um, that’d be Tony Stark the independent, dictatorial, billionaire businessman, then? (Incidentally, his argument doesn’t stop him later illegally smuggling a teenager out of New York City and into Germany…) So here is the film’s central conflict. The civil war of the title is the two opposing factors led by Steve and Tony. It makes you wonder why the movie’s not called Captain America vs Iron Man…
* Also in the mix is Vision (Paul Bettany), the powerful entity created in Avengers: Age of Ultron who now dresses like a Kennedy brother having a day off. He’s on Tony’s side of the divide, presumably because his personality is based on Tony’s old AI computer.
* James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes (Don Cheadle) sides with old pal Tony. Being a colonel in the Air Force, this one actually makes sense.
* A new character being introduced in this film is T’Challa aka Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman). When we first meet him, he’s the son of the king of fictional country Wakanda. After his dad is killed in an explosion, T’Challa seeks revenge on the man he thinks is responsible: Bucky. To do this, he dresses up like a panther. He presumably just happened to have the all-black cat-suit lying around in case he needed it. In recent years we’ve all grown tired of superhero origin stories, but this character goes too far in the other direction – he’s introduced with such little effort it’s difficult to care about him. Because the now-brainwash-free Bucky is a member of Steve’s gang, this automatically puts T’Challa in Tony’s camp during the conflict.
* When Steve and his colleagues refuse to sign the Accord and go rogue, Secretary Ross gives Tony 36 hours to bring them into line. So what does Tony do? Does he use the vast resources of his multinational corporation? Ask for help from the UN or the US military? No, he spends at least half of his allotted time travelling to America so he can recruit an untested teenager from Queens who’s been beating up muggers. The introduction of Peter Parker aka Spider-Man (Tom Holland) is one of the film’s sillier elements, which highlights the fact that preparing the ground for sequels now seems more important than telling a good story. It must be said that Holland is decent in the role and it’s also nice to skip the character’s origin story (which has been filmed twice in recent years). But the only reason the character is in this film is to promote an upcoming solo movie. His involvement in this plot makes little sense. Peter has a hotter-than-usual Aunt May (Marisa Tomei).
* Clint Barton aka Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) doesn’t appear until the 80-minute mark, then joins Steve’s team. For some reason.
* The movie gets a good boost of comic energy when Scott Lang aka Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) shows up. He’s just pleased to be involved and is star-struck by Steve and Wanda (“I know you too, you’re great.”). During the massive, 12-character showdown between the two camps at an airport, Scott tries out a new trick: rather than shrinking down to a few millimetres high, he massively increases in size. Ant-Man becomes Giant-Man.
* Also involved in the story is Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), Steve’s friend from the last Cap film, while Martin Freeman shows up with a phoney American accent as a dodgy civil servant. But there’s no sign of Thor, Bruce Banner, Pepper Potts or Nick Fury.
As indicated, how the superheroes fall into the two camps feels anything but character-driven. A cynic might suggest that the sides have been artificially balanced – each team has a famous Avenger (Steve/Tony), a famous Avenger’s best friend from the US Air Force who’s played by a black actor (Sam/Rhodey), a character of dubious motives (Bucky/T’Challa), a woman from eastern Europe dressed in an outfit that accentuates her breasts (Wanda/Natasha), a newbie who feels like a real person rather than superhero (Scott/Peter) and an ancillary character who’s easy to forget about (Clint/Vision). It’s almost like a committee have cast the parts depending on how cool the line-ups will look while fighting each other. It’s certainly far from engaging storytelling. This is a shame, as there are things to enjoy here. The cast is entertaining, while the fights and chases are often energetic and weighty. But this is barely a film. It feels more like a season of television that’s been compiled into a highlights reel. We get the big story beats and lots of action scenes. The whole thing rattles along with some fun and style. But we’ve lost the ebb and flow of a well-structured movie.

Six FedEx delivery guys out of 10

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Suicide Squad (2016, David Ayer)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Due to the existence of powerful ‘meta-humans’, a team of reprobates is assembled to combat them if something goes wrong…

Good guys: Well, there aren’t any, really. The ‘heroes’ of the story are Task Force X, a ragbag team of prisoners who have committed a variety of crimes but are offered shorter sentences if they help the government. (We know they’re bad guys because they keep telling us they are.) Two of the group shine noticeably brighter than anyone else in the film: Deadshot and Harley Quinn. The former’s real name is Floyd Lawton and he’s played by Will Smith. An assassin with preternatural marksmanship, he also has an 11-year-old daughter (which manipulatively tells us that he can’t be entirely evil). Smith, as always, knows what he’s doing and the character has a fair amount of sarcasm and swagger. Meanwhile, Harley Quinn – real name Harleen Quinzel – is played by Margot Robbie. She’s a former psychiatrist who was turned loopy after sessions with master criminal The Joker. They fell in love and went on a crime spree, including murdering Batman’s friend Robin. Interestingly, rather than debuting in a comic book, Harley Quinn was created in the early 90s for the TV show Batman: The Animated Series. She’s a punky, crazy, flirtatious, immature, gleeful cheerleader type with peroxide hair, a crop top and a baseball bat. Robbie is ace, bringing bags of energy and danger. It’s no surprise that a solo movie for the character has been rumoured recently. (A more responsible blogger might also discuss the troubling subtext of an ostentatiously sexy character who talks and dresses like a little girl. But let’s ignore that and return to being sniffy about Suicide Squad…) Elsewhere, Task Force X’s other members are all desperately dull. Army Special Forces Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) is the leader, though he himself has no super powers or anything. George ‘Digger’ Harkness aka Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) is a tough, uncouth Australian who – wait for it – uses a boomerang to kill people. Chato Santana aka El Diablo (Jay Hernandez) is a former gang member who can generate and withstand fire; he has lots of tats and, admittedly, a bit of a backstory. Waylon Jones aka Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) is a man who’s been mutated into a humanoid crocodile. He has no personality. Neither does Tatsu Yamashiro aka Katana (Karen Fukuhara), a martial-arts expert who has a big sword, nor Christopher Weiss aka Slipknot (Adam Beach), a guy who can climb anything. Both join the team later than everyone else with precious little fanfare or consequence. Slightly more interestingly, Ben Affleck reprises his Batman from the previous film in this series. He appears briefly in flashbacks but chooses not to take part in the potentially world-destroying main story. Does his jurisdiction only extend to the Gotham-and-Metropolis area? The Flash (Ezra Miller) also cameos from the previous film.

Bad guys: The antagonist of the story is the Enchantress, a 6,373-year-old, mystical, evil, extra-dimensional entity who has inhabited the body of archaeologist June Moon. Both characters are played by Cara Delevinge. It’s tempting to assume that her contributions were trimmed down in editing – the characters don’t appear much in the finished film and when they do it feels like we’re cutting around a weak actress (or at least a miscast one). The Enchantress wants revenge for something or other and plans to kill everyone or whatever. (If you think that last sentence was sloppy, it still tops how much thought the filmmakers put into the character.) A more heavily featured villain is Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), the government official who assembles Task Force X yet has shadowy motives. Additionally, Jared Leto plays The Joker Who Inevitably Disappoints Because He’s The One Who Comes After Heath Ledger. The character has been repurposed as a gold-toothed, tattooed, hip-hop gangster, but he’s not especially interesting or important.

Best bits:
* The first 21 minutes of the movie form a whip-crack-fast opening act that introduces us to all the main characters, uses fun flashbacks, features cameos from Batman and the Flash, sets up the concept of the squad, and contains both humour and decent visual effects. The sequence rocks with energy, and it’s great fun. It’s like watching a hyper version of Hustle or Ocean’s Eleven. We get quickly cut montages, on-screen captions, treated footage, famous songs used as score, dislocating editing and trippy sound effects – there’s a flamboyance and a freedom. The rest of the film simply can’t compete.
* Deadshot pulls a gun on a prison guard. “If this man shoots me,” the guard tells a colleague, “I want you to kill him. And I want you to go clear my browser history.”
* Harley Quinn beating people up to the sound of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid.
* The montage of the squad tooling up for a mission is cut dead when Harley realises that every man close by is perving at her.
* A nice twist: the squad has been fighting to get to a room… then discover it contains their boss, Waller, who soon kills her co-workers so they don’t learn her nefarious plan. “I like her,” deadpans Killer Croc in his one moment of individuality in the whole film.
* The ending: the Joker breaking Harley out of prison. Hashtag sequel set-up
* A mid-credits scene that teases the forthcoming Justice League movie: Bruce Wayne getting some information from Waller.

Review: This film is a spin-off from the dreadful Man of Steel (2013) and the even more dreadfuller Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016); the series of movies is known as the DC Extended Universe. But as we start, there’s a nice surprise. It seems that Suicide Squad has turned its back on the dreary house style. Instead, the tone is fun and refreshingly dangerous. The opening 20 minutes are full of attitude, spikiness, threat and dark comedy. Even the studio logos that start the film are tinted in neon purples and greens. This pop-art sensibility reminds you of Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995) or Gotham (2014 onwards), two theatrically styled TV shows also inspired by the same comics as Suicide Squad. Sadly, all that is quickly forgotten and the movie morphs into a drab, lifeless, voice-less franchise film. The longer it goes on, in fact, the worse it gets. Writer/director David Ayer reportedly wrote the script in six weeks and it has the tell-tale signs of being rushed. (Clearly a lot of work has gone into the set-up. The middle act and climax, though, reek of that’ll-do desperation.) The story descends into utter garbage and the second half of the film is really, really appalling. When you can follow what’s happening it’s impossible to care about any of it. Suicide Squad is also another case of the DC Extended Universe mechanically copying something the Marvel series of superhero films did first… yet failing to understand why it worked. This is DC’s equivalent of Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) – both films have an irreverent tone and feature a team of misfits. Guardians, however, also had wit, style and characterisation. This is just a mess. The story is confused, the characters ridiculous, the humour often terrible, the action boring. However, based on the strength of the opening 20 minutes and its general punky attitude, let’s give the film a generous score…

Five workplace romances out of 10

Star Trek Beyond (2016, Justin Lin)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The USS Enterprise is destroyed during a rescue mission gone wrong, leaving its crew stranded on a planet with a man intent on revenge…

For the first time in a Star Trek film, the famous mission-statement narration is provided by more than one character. The seven chief crewmembers get a bit each: “Space, the final frontier [Kirk]. These are the voyage of the starship [Spock] Enterprise. Its continuing mission [Scotty]: to explore strange new worlds [McCoy]; to seek out new life [Sulu] and new civilisations [Chekov]; to boldly go where no one has gone before [Uhura].”

Regulars: Three years into the Enterprise’s five-year mission of exploration, Captain James Kirk (Chris Pine) is feeling restless. So much so, in fact, that he considers applying for a vice-admiral’s position. But there’s at least one last mission to complete when the Enterprise heads off to rescue people stranded in a nebula. It’s actually a trap, and the ship is destroyed when it crashes on a planet called Altamid. The crew is then split into fractured groups – Kirk, for example, is paired with Chekov (Anton Yelchin) and they rumble a traitor in the camp… Meanwhile, Spock (Zachary Quinto) has been shaken by the news that his older self – the elderly Spock who travelled back in time two films ago – has died. After the crash, Spock and Dr McCoy (Karl Urban) form an odd-couple double act whose bickering hides a deep respect. Spock is injured and tells Bones that he wants to leave the Enterprise crew to continue Old Spock’s work in rebuilding the Vulcan race… Scotty gets a lot of screen time, is the focus of a vital subplot, has plenty of comedy moments, is the only crewmember specifically named in Kirk’s introductory voiceover, and forms a touching relationship with the film’s major non-villain guest star. Completely coincidentally, actor Simon Pegg co-wrote the script… Uhura (Zoe Saldana) splits up with boyfriend Spock, while Sulu (John Cho) is revealed to be in a same-sex relationship – both are captured by bad guy Krall, but manage to send a distress signal and work out the villain’s plan.

Guests: Sofia Boutella plays the spunky Jaylah, an alien scavenger who’s been living on Altamid. She’s a big success – it’s a likeable performance and Jaylah is confident and strong but not boringly flawless. (Her name is a pun on Jennifer Lawrence, the actress used by the writers as a model for the character.) The main bad guy is initially presented as an alien called Krall, then revealed to be a mutated human who was once Starfleet officer Captain Edison – he’s played by Idris Elba with good physical presence and attitude. Lydia Wilson plays Kalara, one of Krall’s agents who pretends to be a victim. All her dialogue has to be translated by a machine so we hear her native language and English at the same time.

Best bits:
* The cold open: a comedic mini-mission showing Kirk negotiating with some aliens. There’s a good gag when we realise they’re only dog-sized.
* The early montage telling us that ennui has gripped Kirk, who’s bored after 966 days in deep space. “Things have started to feel a little episodic,” he says. Geddit? Like a TV show!
* The Escher-like architecture of Yorktown, a planet-sized space station with unusual gravity patterns.
* Spock learns that Ambassador Spock has died: a touching way to acknowledge the death of actor Leonard Nimoy.
* Kirk and Spock both say they have something they need to talk about… but that it’ll wait till later. They know how movie scripts work!
* The Enterprise is attacked by thousands of tiny spacecraft that act like a swarm, causing huge damage. It’s the start of a long, exciting and well-staged action run that’s full of character and plotting. The Enterprise crashes and is practically destroyed (as it was in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek: Generations – ie, we lose an Enterprise in roughly a quarter of these films).
* “Abandon ship, Mr Sulu.”
* Scotty’s escape pod comes to rest on the edge of a cliff.
* Krall can speak English!
* Spock and McCoy’s bickering: “Cut the horseshit!” “Doctor, I fail to see how excrement of any kind bears relevance on our situation.” Bones then pulls the old trick of asking a distracting question just before painfully cauterising Spock’s wound.
* Scotty finds a communicator, but the flip bit flops off when he tries to use it.
* Jaylah’s neat trick of generating holograms of herself during a fight with bad guys.
* The revelation that Jaylah’s ‘house’ is an age-old Starfleet ship, the USS Franklin.
* Krall takes… life power or essence or something from Federation prisoners. A process that hurts them. A lot.
* Spock and Bones movingly discuss Old Spock’s death. The conversation ends with Spock laughing; Bones assumes he’s delirious.
* We briefly see a 100-year-old video of the Franklin crew. Wonder if that’ll be important later…
* Spock and Bones are surrounded by bad guys. “Well, at least I won’t die alone,” says Bones – just as, behind him, Spock is being beamed to safety.
* The reveal of where Kirk hid the MacGuffin.
* Kirk on a motorbike, which just happened to be lying around on the Franklin.
* Kirk jumping through the air *whilst being beamed* so he can grab Jaylar’s hand.
* Spock begins a long, detailed explanation of his plan. “Skip to the end,” interrupts Kirk. The joke is a deliberate quotation from Spaced, the superior Channel 4 sitcom Simon Pegg co-wrote and starred in.
* The crew need to jam the swarm’s communications, so decide on a loud, distracting UHF signal. Scotty knows just the thing: Sabotage by the Beastie Boys. (As well as meaning a kickass song is in the movie, it’s also a callback to the 2009 film.)
* Turns out that video is important: Uhura watches the whole thing and realises Krall was once a Federation captain. We then see his century-old logs, where he helpfully fills in backstory and descends into madness.
* Spock goes through Old Spock’s possessions. We see a photograph of the Enterprise crew in middle age: it’s a publicity snap from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, so features the original actors. As well as a bit of meta fun, it’s also a nice reminder that this series is an alternate timeline, not a remake.
* The final shot: a ‘speeded-up’ CGI image of the Enterprise being rebuilt.

TV tie-in: A month before this film’s release, Anton Yechin died at the age of 27. Producer JJ Abrams soon confirmed that the actor’s character won’t be recast, so it seems Star Trek Beyond marks the last appearance of Pavel Chekov. He was first introduced in the original TV series, in a second-season episode called Amok Time, and was played for 27 years by Walter Koenig… In Amok Time, Spock must return to Vulcan – it’s the franchise’s first ever visit there – to take part in a bizarre mating ritual.

Review: It doesn’t exactly start with a bang. The first 64 seconds of this movie consist of a plethora of production-company logos, then there’s no big action beat to kick things off. But once the plot gears up there’s a huge amount to enjoy. Unlike the first two films in this timeline, Star Trek Beyond is a one-off, self-contained story, and the result is confident, polished and very enjoyable. It was a worry when, after those first two reboot movies, director JJ Abrams ducked out in favour of making Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Thankfully, replacement Justin Lin hits the ground running. He’d spent the previous few years making crass-but-fun Fast & Furious sequels, and as you’d expect from that CV this film’s stunts, chases and fights are well staged and thrilling. But there’s also plenty of soul and subtext. The regular characters retain their easy chemistry and are fun to hang out with, while the storytelling is very impressive. You can sense the layers of the onion being peeled back at pleasingly paced intervals – the villain ends up being much more interesting than we first assume; Kalara’s story has a couple of fake turns before we find out the truth; and plenty of ideas and plot points are set up then paid off in interesting ways. A good example is Spock giving Uhura a necklace. At first it’s solely a character beat, a way of dramatising that he still cares about her. Later the jewellery’s material allows him to track her down, so has a plot function… then comedy is generated from the other characters’ reaction to Spock’s ability to stalk his ex-girlfriend. That’s smart, economic movie writing, doing a lot in a short time. Maybe only the action climax disappoints a bit. It’s based on some gravity-based exposition that just comes off as nonsense, while the odd decision is made not to have Krall de-evolve back to normal. If you’ve cast Idris Elba, a handsome and charismatic man, wouldn’t you want to free him of all his prosthetics for the final showdown?

Eight incomprehensible cosmic anomalies that could wipe us out in an instant out of 10.

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

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Written, directed and produced by Joel and Ethan

Eddie Mannix, a fixer at a 1950s Hollywood film studio, must contend with a star who’s been kidnapped by communists, another who’s fallen pregnant, and another who can’t act…

Seen before? No.

Best performance: Tilda Swinton plays two roles. Twin sisters Thora and Thessaly Thacker are both journalists, and are based not that loosely on real-life gossip columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. The gag is that they always appear in quick succession, confusing whoever they’re trying to get information from, and Swinton’s having fun with the characters’ clipped voices and supreme confidence.

Coen regulars (running total of appearances): George Clooney (4) assays another Coen-brothers idiot. Frances McDormand (8) has a tiny yet comical cameo as an editor. Fred Melamed (2) was also in A Serious Man. Josh Brolin (3), Tilda Swinton (2) and Scarlett Johansson (2) appear again.

Best bit: We see a number of scenes from fictional movies being shot at the studios – a Biblical epic, a Gene Kelly-style musical, an Esther Williams-style swimming film, a Western, a stuffy drawing-room drama… They’re all entertaining in a behind-the-curtain way, with the musical being the best. Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) is a song-and-dance man who’s playing a sailor in his latest movie. The sequence we see being shot is an elaborately choreographed number called No Dames, which has some dazzling dancing and subversive lyrics.

Review: It’s not awful, but there’s a relentless sense with this film that it’s not as good as it should be. It’s a sketch show rather than a wholly satisfying movie, and like most sketch shows is very hit and miss. The Acorn Antiques-style fictional movies, for example, are tremendous fun, while there are a number of classy and funny performances – not least from Ralph Fiennes, who nearly steals the entire film as uptight-yet-polite English director Laurence Laurentz. But the story is so lightweight and scattergun. Threads seem to get picked up then dropped on a whim, while Scarlett Johansson’s subplot is beyond cursory. The film meanders and never seems to rise above a mildly interesting second gear. There’s also, sadly, a smugness about the proceedings. It’s a funny film, but nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is.

Six Soviet submarines out of 10

Red Dwarf XI (2016)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Written and directed by Doug Naylor. Broadcast on Dave.

Regulars: No changes for a third batch of episodes running, so we have Lister, Rimmer, the Cat and Kryten. Kochanski and Holly aren’t even mentioned.

Episode 1: Twentica (22 September 2016): The crew encounter a gang of Expenoids – robots who have stolen some sci-fi gadget or other – and follow them through a wormhole that takes them to 1950s Earth. However, the Expenoids have changed history so technology is strictly regulated… This story suffers from a problem that blights a lot of Red Dwarf episodes: the plot requires so much heavy lifting that early on it’s a bit clunky. However, once we reach the underground speakeasy the comedy flows much better. The central idea of a society stuck in the 1920s is fun and visually interesting, while there are good gags about science being taboo. There’s also a successful running joke about hackneyed old clichés. An okay opener.
Observations: Red Dwarf itself doesn’t appear until a coda scene. Starbug is featured, now with a new cockpit. In fact, in this series the cockpit is the only Starbug interior we ever see. Kevin Eldon plays 4 of 27, the lead Expenoid. Lucie Pohl gets most of the best dialogue as sassy, quick-talking moll Harmony. Rebecca Blackstone (who played a computer in series 10) cameos here as a flapper called Big Bang Beryl. Among the scientists mentioned in dialogue are Pythagoras (570 BC-c495 BC), Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), Joseph Lister (1827-1912), Thomas Edison (1847-1931), Albert Einstein (1879-1955) and Edwin Hubble (1889-1953).
Best gag: A cop sarcastically asks Harmony, “How dense do you think I am?” Harmony: “You really wanna know? Just divide your mass by your volume.”

Episode 2: Samsara (29 September 2016): The crew encounter an escape pod containing the remains of two people, which leads them to a ‘karma drive’… There are a few laughs, especially because comedy is being mined from the regulars’ stock characteristics. (It’s going over old ground, but is still amusing.) The plot, however, is another convoluted sci-fi idea that never really takes flight. It needs too much explaining. Directorially speaking, the flashback scenes are busy and alive, and there are some nice crossfades between the two time zones.
Observations: We start with a decidedly old-fashioned Lister-and-Rimmer bickering scene. There are three guest characters in the flashbacks – played by Dan Tetsell, Maggie Service and Eddie Bagayawa – but sadly none of them impresses. The technology seen in 1991 episode Justice is mentioned.
Best gag: Trapped in a room without light, Lister suggests the Cat should be able to see in the dark because he evolved from felines. The Cat, showing remarkable logic, points out that that means Lister should be able to swing from trees.

Episode 3: Give & Take (6 October 2016): The crew encounter a space station, where Lister’s kidneys are seemingly stolen… This has a nice sci-fi plot playing with the circularity of time-travel. There’s also some good comedy for Rimmer and the Cat, while the Snacky robot is funny. The episode also looks more like a movie than a sitcom commissioned by a Freeview channel.
Observations: Starbug features again. It’s the second episode running where the crew find skeltons and try to deduce how they died.
Best gag: The Cat: “So let me get this straight. I give you one of my kidneys. What do I get?” Lister: “A hole. Where your kidney used to be.”

Episode 4: Officer Rimmer (13 October 2016): The crew encounter a deep-space explorer ship, on board which is an artificial officer who promotes Rimmer before expiring… A generally funny episode, showcasing (yet again) Chris Barrie’s talents. It’s quintessential Red Dwarf, really: Rimmer being twatty and the others getting frustrated with him. We get all the same old humour about him being ruthless and arrogant and deluded and ambitious without the slightest bit of justification, but it generates enough chuckles. There’s a strange lurch later on into a horror pastiche, with a monster like something out of John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982).
Observations: Starbug features again. Stephen Critchlow guests as Captain Herring, a man who’s been generated by a 3D printer and has had his face printed on the top of his head. Despite this, he’s apparently able to give Rimmer a field promotion to first lieutenant. Chris Barrie has a hoot playing lots of 3D-printed versions of Rimmer, and in fact previous multi-Arnold episodes (Me2, Rimmerworld) are alluded to. We also hear a Musaz version of the Rimmer song from series seven’s Blue.
Best gag: The convoluted joke about how every bored Scouser in a call centre is actually a clone of Lister.

Episode 5: Krysis (20 October 2016): The crew encounter… Well, actually, this week they *seek out* the crashed Nova 3, a sister ship to the one Kryten once served with, because Kryten is going through a midlife crisis. There they find Butler, a skilled, intelligent mechanoid, who rubs Kryten up the wrong way… Good fun.
Observations: The episode begins with another refreshingly old-fashioned scene of Lister and Rimmer bickering in a bunkroom. Dominic Coleman is great value as the smarmy mechanoid, Butler. Starbug features again.
Best gag: The crew end up speaking to the personification of the universe, who realises he’s halfway through his life. “No wonder I’m not as hot as I once was. No wonder I’m expanding exponentially.”

Episode 6: Can of Worms (27 October 2016): The crew *have already* encountered a space station and salvaged a personality-altering machine, then the Cat gets nervous when Starbug approaches a tribe of virgin-killing GELFs… A good climax with plenty of laughs if not as much focus as you’d like.
Observations: We get a scene spoofing Aliens (1986), complete with head cameras and motion sensors. Series three’s Polymorph is also being referenced, of course (again). Dominique Moore plays a polymorph posing as Ankita, a female version of the Cat. She’s oddly in just two brief scenes – surely there’s a whole episode in that idea. This is the first Cat-centric episode of Red Dwarf since… well, ever. In fact, this episode has some vague similarities to Identity Within, a Cat-heavy script written for series seven but never made for budget reasons.
Best gag: The naïve Cat’s boast about the sex he’s just had – being inexperienced, he hasn’t twigged that tentacles and egg-laying are not usually involved.

Best episode: Officer Rimmer. Worst episode: Samsara.

Review: What’s first apparent is that the episodes have an amazing sheen to them. It seems there was more money to be spent than in series 10 (perhaps because of the involvement of production company Baby Cow?). We get more location filming than last time, more sets, more special effects, more everything. Red Dwarf has often aimed for a movie-quality look, but if anything this series goes too far in that direction. The moody smoke and film-noir lighting in Twentica, for example, mean you often can’t see people’s faces properly – surely a basic principle of comedy. The show’s colour pallet has also shifted from the rich reds of series 10 to a dogged reliance on blue. Sets, costumes, locations, props – the colour blue is bloody everywhere. It’s apt, I suppose: the previous batch of episodes were warm and domestic, so having red everywhere worked; this series is cold and outer-spacey and more about sci-fi ideas than character comedy, so the blue fits the tone. It’s probably missing the point to criticise Red Dwarf for being obsessed with science, but this series often seems more interested in spelling out convoluted concepts and referencing theories than telling jokes. A large chunk of Kryten’s dialogue is simply regurgitating detailed knowiedge of every technology or scientific concept the gang encounter. Maybe the problem is heightened by the running order, which puts the big sci-fi-heavy episodes up front, and leaves the character-based stories until the second half. But there are laughs to be had, and the cast are good company. There’s even a new running gag based on Rimmer citing his long-winded rank (“I am Stand-in Acting Senior Commanding Officer Arnold J Rimmer of the mining ship Red Dwarf,” and so on). But it’s probably significant that there’s no ‘establishing of the premise’: this series is being made for long-time fans, especially those who apply for studio-recording tickets and applaud references to old episodes.

Seven knighthoods out of 10

Live at the Hollywood Bowl (2016)

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Title: When released in May 1977, this LP was called The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl. It was the group’s first official live album and consisted of tracks taped at two gigs in 1964/65. When remixed, remastered and rereleased in 2016 – to tie in with a documentary film called The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – it was given a slightly different title. It’s that later version I’ve used for this review.

Cover: A photo of the boys in casual suits and sunglasses. George looks a bit bored.

Best song: She’s a Woman cuts and swings just as much as the version released in November 1964 as the B-side to I Feel Fine. Ringo Starr’s enjoying himself with a few extra drums tricks, Paul McCartney belts out the vocal with energy, and the rocky coda (which is understated on the studio cut) is hammered home. Paul once described the Beatles as being just a good little rock’n’roll band – it’s effortlessly cool performances like this where you most see what he meant.

Honourable mentions:
* Dizzy, Miss Lizzy is introduced by John Lennon: “We’d like to do a song now that’s from an album of ours… An LP… Album…” (Listen to just a few recordings of the Beatles playing live in America and you’ll get used to John and Paul never knowing which term to use.) This 12-bar track pounds away and betters the studio version for intensity.
* Ticket to Ride – or as Paul introduces it, A Ticket to Ride – has a couple of fumbles. John sounds off-mic to begin with, for example, but it still jingles and jangles.
* Can’t Buy Me Love was knocking on a bit, having been released 17 months before this 1965 performance. The last third of the take features a pleasing shuffle rhythm for a short while, though Paul’s voice sounds strained.
* Things We Said Today is preceded by George Harrison saying, “We’d like to carry on now…” – another phrase heard often at Beatles gigs. He also tells the audience that he thinks the song is on the “newest album over here” – ie, Something New, which had been released the previous month. (He was right.) The performance features some mucked-up backing vocals around the 0.58 point, which Paul audibly smirks about, then the track kicks into an entertaining higher gear.
* A Hard Day’s Night, John tells the crowd, is from the group’s first film: “…the one we made in black and white. We’ve only made two…” He then puts on a Scottish accent to introduce the track. Once the music starts, John and Paul often sound knackered on vocals!
* Help! is also introduced by John: “We’d like to do another film song now but from a different film because we’ve done two. It’s also our latest record over here. That means it’s a new single.” Sadly, George’s guitar doesn’t punch through as much as on the studio version. John also runs out of puff after two minutes and almost gives up singing.
* All My Loving rocks brilliantly. Paul introduces it by saying, “We’d like to carry on with a song which was on our first Capitol album…” – ie, the US-only release Meet the Beatles! (1964).
* She Loves You is great. With his tongue in his cheek, John calls this song an oldie. “Some of you older people might remember it,” he quips. “It’s from last year.”
* Long Tall Sally ends the album, as it often concluded Beatles gigs. Before launching into his Little Richard impression, Paul asks if people have enjoyed themselves. The crowd answers with an even louder sustained scream than usual. Sadly George’s guitar solo is virtually inaudible in the mix. Paul also does some silly improvising on the high notes of his bass. But the climax is good fun.

Worst song: Boys is sung by Ringo. He gave it a go, at least.

Alternate versions: Four tracks have been added to the album for its 2016 reissue: You Can’t Do That, I Want To Hold Your Hand, Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby, and Baby’s in Black.

Review: The first Beatles concert taped for a potential live album was their 23 August 1964 appearance at the Hollywood Bowl, an open-air venue built in 1922. However, the sound of 17,000 screaming fans almost masked the music, so two more attempts were made the following year. Sadly the tapes of the band’s gigs at the same venue on 29 and 30 August 1965 were equally poor and the project was shelved. Bootlegs slipped out over the years but it wasn’t until 1977, when a rival company planned to release some live Beatles material from their Hamburg days, that the Hollywood Bowl recordings were finally released on vinyl. Then, nearly 40 years later, Giles Martin remixed and digitally restored the album for this rerelease, which reduces the crowd noise and allows us to hear the Beatles in their pomp. The bass levels are good and the performances exciting. As a record of gods among men, it does the job.

Eight lips I am missing out of 10

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016, Zack Snyder)

batman-v-superman-trinity

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Eighteen months after Superman was revealed to the world, two local businessmen – secret vigilante Bruce Wayne and power-hungry Lex Luthor – independently decide to do something about him…

Good guys: This is a direct sequel to 2013’s Man of Steel, so returning from that film are Clark Kent/Superman (Henry Cavill), Lois Lane (Amy Adams), Perry White (Laurence Fishburne), Martha Kent (Diane Lane) and, in a dream sequence, Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner). None of the actors is terrible, but the characters are so hollow they don’t get much to play. The headline newcomer is, of course, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck). He’s been fighting crime in Gotham City for 20 years, we’re told, though no one seems to have heard of his alter ego. The soulful and sombre Affleck is the one true success of the movie and the actor skillfully implies a complex life beyond the scripted scenes. At one point, Bruce bumps into and flirts with Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), who’s over a hundred years old despite looking about 30. She’s a shadowy (ie, underwritten) presence in the story. The character is essentially just an in-film trailer for 2017’s Wonder Woman movie. We barely see her for the first 110 minutes then she takes part in the action climax. Gadot’s performance is certainly bland, but the material’s not there anyway. It’s a classic example of a movie thinking the way to make a female character strong is to have her be perfect, unflappable and never in any peril.

Bad guys: Jesse Eisenberg over-acts his wig off as an irritating and childish Lex Luthor. It feels like an actor who knows the script is garbage so is trying to lever it off the page. Lex has a very thin female PA who gets neither a personality nor much dialogue. We see the corpse of Man of Steel’s General Zod a few times. (Thankfully it’s been well preserved in the year and a half since he died.)

Other guys: Bruce’s friend/assistant is the droll Alfred (Jeremy Irons). Holly Hunter plays a Democratic Senator from Kentucky, June Finch, who’s heading up the investigation into Superman’s activities. Harry Lennix reprises his Man of Steel role as a whistle-blowing politician. The Walking Dead’s Lauren Cohan plays Bruce’s mum in flashbacks.

Best bits:
* The big action sequence near the start of the film. Cleverly, we begin in the timeframe of Man of Steel and see Superman and Zod’s city-bashing battle from a new point of view. Bruce Wayne leaps from a helicopter, jumps into a 4×4 and careers through Metropolis as skyscrapers fall around him. Once he’s out of the car, there’s a terrific shot of him running into a cloud of debris dust…
* Lois Lane and Perry White’s minor bickering over what sort of airline ticket she can buy for a story. (A very rare moment of naturalism, this.)
* Clark Kent meets Bruce Wayne. It’s a frosty chat at a cocktail party (“Daily Planet?” asks Bruce. “Do I own that one?”). Diana saunters past, dressed in red so she’ll pop out against the other partygoers, and there’s a nice touch when Clark can hear Bruce’s hidden earbud.
* During a post-apocalyptic dream sequence (FUCK KNOWS WHAT’S GOING ON HERE), there’s an impressive 53-second long take as a goggles-and-long-coat-wearing Batman fights dozens of bad guys.
* During a scene at the docks, we see a sign for Nicholson Terminal & Dock Company – surely a reference to Jack Nicholson and a much better Batman film.
* The build-up of tension before the explosion at the Senate hearing.
* Bruce finds a secret file on Diana. It contains a photograph of her taken in 1918 – ie, during events that will be seen in next year’s Wonder Woman movie. Star Trek actor Chris Pine is stood next to her.
* Lex pushes Lois off a skyscraper. (Add this to the list of people who fall from a great height in superhero films: Lois in Superman: The Movie and Superman IV, Gus in Superman III, the Joker in Batman, Selina in Batman Returns, Nygma’s boss in Batman Forever, Rachel in The Dark Knight, airplane passengers in Iron Man 3, Pepper Potts in Iron Man 3…)
* Batman sees the Kryptonian mutant ogre-type monster: “Oh, shit…”
* Wonder Woman shows up in her costume. Superman: “Is she with you?” Batman: “I thought she was with you.”

Review: After an opening flashback telling us – for the fourth time in eight Batman films – how Bruce Wayne was orphaned, we’re into a terrific action sequence. As the climactic fight from Man of Steel plays out above him, Bruce looks on in horror and it feels like this sequel is critiquing the earlier film’s disaster porn. In a sequence full of 9/11 imagery, Superman and Zod are bringing down skyscrapers, levelling city blocks and killing thousands of people… while new character Bruce Wayne is on the ground saving innocent lives. It seems like a comment on the shallowness of Man of Steel. It also smartly and economically sets up the Batman/Superman antagonism. However… All that work is soon wasted. A theme of vigilantism bubbles away, but never goes anywhere, while the action-heavy second half is just as guilty as Man of Steel for revelling in meaningless violence. Not only that but this film’s attempts at answering the critics of Man of Steel are laughable. As carnage begins in the city, there’s a woeful line of dialogue heard in a TV news report – “Thankfully the workday is over and the downtown core is nearly empty…” It’s petty sarcasm on the part of the filmmakers, like a child putting the least amount of effort possible into a chore. Just as risible is the ‘Martha moment’. The script spends *two hours* setting up an argument between Superman and Batman. Then every inch of that storytelling is made instantly irrelevant because the characters realise they have mothers with the same name. Seriously?! That’s your character arc?! So Bruce doesn’t care about all those deaths any more? He’s best friends with Superman now? And that’s just the most ridiculous of many flaws with the plotting… Mercenaries use branded bullets that will identify who they are… Someone in a collapsing building needs to be told to evacuate… It’s not clear if the public know who Batman is… A hotshot reporter has never heard of prominent industrialist Bruce Wayne… The US government holds an inquiry into an incident that happened in Kenya… Lex knows how to use an alien space ship to create a Middle Earth ogre… It’s a hopelessly muddled plot: all effect, no cause. And sadly there are plenty of other problems. For example, both Superman and Batman routinely *kill people*. This betrayal of the characters’ established myths is all the more saddening because Batman v Superman is part of a multi-film franchise akin to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, the film fails to grasp why that series has been so successful. Marvel built its shared universe carefully and gradually, and gave each hero moments to shine before merging the storylines in interesting ways. This movie, though, feels like it has YouTube ads popping up at regular intervals: a dream sequence features a nonsensical cameo from the Flash; we see CCTV footage of obscure characters who are getting solo movies soon; and the final scenes are more about sequels than closure. But the worst thing about this travesty of a blockbuster is Zack Snyder. Almost every aspect of the film – scripting, acting, staging, design – is poorly directed. There’s a tiresome reliance on slow-motion for emphasis, a gloomy, grimy look to every action scene, a cigarette-stained colour palette, meaningless camera moves, an astonishing absence of wit, an adolescent view of the world, an ADHD attitude to character, and a bloated running time. We’re living through an era of superhero blockbusters. Some are good. Some are bad. This is ugly.

Two buckets of piss out of 10