Avengers: Secret Wars – Why I Hate Halloween (2017, Micah Gunnell)

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An occasional series where I watch and review works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: Initially known as Avengers Assemble before some season-specific rebrands, this animated show for children is a spin-off from the phenomenally successful series of Marvel movies. It uses many of the MCU’s characters and puts them in very similar situations, though the TV show forms its own fictional continuity. Beginning on Disney XD in 2013, there have so far been five seasons totalling 126 episodes. This episode – a kind of Halloween special – was first broadcast on 8 October 2017 during season four, which formed a story arc called Secret Wars. However, the events actually take place during season three (Ultron Revolution). We begin on 31 October in an unspecified year (modern day) at an underground base in Manhattan. Events then move to a safe house in Rutland, Vermont (codenamed, ironically, the beach house).

Faithful to the novel? No, it just uses the title character. As the episode begins, the Avengers – Hulk, Captain America, Hawkeye, Thor, Iron Man – are invading a secret base under New York City which is a home for the fascist cult Hydra. They find a scientist called Whitney Frost, who has been experimenting with vampires in order to create super-soldiers for Hydra’s evil plans, but when the vamps – animalistic creatures more like humanoid dogs than anything else – attack, Hawkeye takes Frost to a safe house. They’re soon attacked by Hydra goons, and then someone knocks on the door. No one appears on the CCTV camera aimed at the porch, but when Frost opens the door standing there is Dracula (voiced by Corey Burton). He’s an arrogant, silky-voiced, tall, well-built man with light-blue skin and white hair. The character had actually been a recurring bad guy in this show’s first season. He wants to punish Frost for meddling in the affairs of the vampires: ‘She must be chastised.’ The heroic Hawkeye protects her.

Best performance: Whitney Frost is voiced by Wynn Everett, the actress who played a different version of the same character in the superior live-action TV show Agent Carter. Nice touch.

Best bit: When Hawkeye smugly points out that Dracula can’t enter the safe house unless he’s invited, Dracula simply orders his vampire hordes to tear the house down.

Review: Unlike the parent film series, this episode gives a lot of screentime – and some personality – to the character of Hawkeye. Frost calls him the ‘weakest’ Avenger a couple of times, a gag that reflects how the character in the movies has failed to pop in the same way as his colleagues, but it works in context here as this episode is all about him stepping up and doing his job well. It’s action heavy and nuance light, but fast-paced and enjoyably flippant.

Six back-up quivers out of 10

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Ten Things I Love About Blade Runner 2049 (2017, Denis Villeneuve)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner is an intoxicating neo-noir mystery story, a masterpiece of art direction and cinematography, and one of the best examples of science-fiction in any medium. It also, however, feels like a self-contained piece of work – a glimpse into a world that is all the more fascinating because we only spend two hours there.

So producing a sequel 35 years later was something of a risk. Scott himself has recently directed two follow-ups to his other sci-fi classic, Alien (1979), and both fell a very long way short of that movie’s seductive terror. Thankfully, Blade Runner 2049 is *at least* the equal of the 1982 antecedent. Made with an understanding of the original’s power but also with a distinct voice by director Denis Villeneuve, it’s a big film, a difficult film at times, but an engrossing and hugely rewarding experience.

There are a multitude of reasons why it’s quite so wonderful. Here are just 10…

1. Connections
A sequel can do several things. It can go down the James Bond route of presenting another adventure involving the same character/s; essentially a new self-contained story. Or it can be more like the films in the Godfather or Star Wars series, which are discrete units but also work to develop an ongoing narrative. In other cases, ‘sequels’ actually have precious little to do with their originator – see Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982), which takes place in a different continuity, or The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006), which presents a whole new cast. But the latest Blade Runner film goes down its own path. It’s set 30 years after the events of the original movie and focuses on new characters. But its storyline is inexorably linked to the first movie; it could not exist without it. It is a sequel, there’s no denying that. But it might be more useful to think of 2049 as a companion piece to Ridley Scott’s film; an extension; a development. It’s not just the literal narrative that’s being picked up and run with. It’s also the themes.

2. K
The story’s lead character is a replicant (a human-like synthetic lifeform) played by Ryan Gosling. The actor has recently developed a brand of impressively impassive acting that says nothing and everything all at the same time. He glides through this film, outwardly not emoting much or reacting very demonstrably to anything. But Gosling, whose wonderful deadpannery can also be enjoyed in great films such as Drive (2011) and The Nice Guys (2016), has grown into one of the best *movie actors* of recent years. Knowing his face will be enormous when viewed on a cinema screen, he’s able to convey curiosity, anger, frustration, excitement and especially melancholy with remarkable restraint… The slight rise of an eyebrow, an adjustment of the mouth: these moments always tell you exactly what his character is thinking and feeling. Like Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard in the first Blade Runner, KD6-3.7 – K for short – is an LA cop who tracks down and deals with renegade replicants. (We still don’t get told why they’re called Blade Runners.) When he stumbles across some bones buried under a tree, however, he discovers a volatile secret: replicants can procreate. Knowing this information could cause widespread panic and unbalance society, his boss Lt Joshi orders K to find the child and ‘retire’ it – in other words, kill it. K’s gumshoe storyline also leads him to remember details from his own childhood, and he starts to wonder if *he* is the missing child…

3. Pace
In 1930, the average length of an individual shot in an American film was about 12 seconds. By the start of the 21st century, this had decreased to just 2.5 seconds. Coupled with the increased running times of movies in recent years, and that can mean an awful lot of shots. (Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of King Kong, for example, has over 3,000 of them. It’s a decent film, but no one would disagree with the notion that a few trims would help.) Many people point to the influence of television, music videos and services like YouTube as the reason for this increase in cutting speed. The idea is that we’re all losing the ability to pay attention. But there’s actually no evidence for this. Studies have shown a steady decrease in shot length across the decades, irrespective of other media. (It’s probably more down to the development of user-friendly technology in editing rooms.) However, in an era of non-stop cutting and a fear that audiences will get bored if you linger on one image for too long, Blade Runner 2049 is pointedly slooooow. It’s more deliberate than your average blockbuster and it *takes its time*. The rhythm of the storytelling feels old-fashioned – joyfully so – and allows the plot, the characters and the world to just *be*, to exist and develop. The film seduces you, grips you, and doesn’t let go. It’s lyrical, cerebral and beautiful. If most sci-fi films are rock songs, this is a symphony.

4. Joi
K leads an empty life, alone in a small apartment in a seedy building full of thugs. His one source of solace comes from an ersatz girlfriend – an artificial-intelligence hologram called Joi, played by Ana de Armas. It’s fair to say that this film has come in for some criticism around the character, given that she’s essentially a spin on the ‘sex robot’ cliché. She’s a mother/lover totem who switches from domestic goddess to flirty girl in the flick of a hologrammatic beam; she’s artificial and has been programmed to serve and ‘love’ anyone who buys her. But does this miss the point? The central theme of the Blade Runner films is ‘What is life?’ (The novel that the original movie was based on, after all, was called Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) Here, a pointedly provocative character is being dramatised so we can question what it means to be alive. K is ‘artificial’ too, after all: he’s a replicant. But he’s capable of emotion and independence and sentience. We don’t question his right to life or to be treated with respect. We accept him as a character worth investing in. Why is Joi any different? At several points in the film, she seems to make complex and human-like decisions out of genuine love – she even sacrifices herself to save K. We later see a giant, 3D advertisement for her model and it presents a crasser, more sexualised version. ‘Our’ Joi had broken away from this cliché and become a unique personality. Doesn’t that make her ‘alive’? Joi has been programmed, yes, and has pre-set parameters that control her actions and ‘feelings’. But how is that any different from a human being? Our personalities and psychologies are shaped by natural characteristics, our upbringing, our surroundings and a host of other factors outside of our control. It doesn’t stop us being us.

5. Visuals
Cinema is imagery. If it were just people talking, it would be a radio play. And Blade Runner 2049 understands the beauty and power of visual images better than any other Hollywood movie of recent years. Just like in the 1982 original, both the physical world and the cinematography are *achingly* wonderful. Production designer Dennis Gassner and director of photography Roger Deakins (who both have Coen brother and Bond movies on their CV) create something that feels 360-degree real, 100-per-cent immersive, 3D vivid. It’s a logical development of the neo-noir LA we saw in Ridley Scott’s original – there are still cluttered streets and smoggy atmospheres and dramatic skyscrapers and neon adverts and dangerous shadows. But 2049 also moves the world on: America is now more Brutalist than Deco; more straight than curved; more scathing than seductive; more stark than sleazy. (Tellingly, director Denis Villeneuve’s keyword when trying to convey the film’s tone to colleagues was ‘brutality’.) There’s also still the Japanese influence we saw in 1982 (the bad guy’s lair is based on Kiyomizu-dera, an ancient temple in Kyoto), while several scenes take place away from urban sprawl: on a desolate farm, in sandblasted ruins. Each location has its own identity – a cold and sterile police station, the ethereal, golden offices of the Wallace Corporation, a cyberpunky brothel alley, an industrial factory, the faded, entropic ruins of Las Vegas – but they all feel part of the same whole and they all contribute to telling the story. There’s also a constant sense of size and scale: Blade Runner 2049 takes place in an enormous, wide-angle fictional world. Deakins rightly won an Oscar and a Bafta for his work on this film; Gassner was nominated at both ceremonies. The craft and skill involved in producing something so wonderful beggars belief.

6. Luv
If there’s perhaps one blemish on this film it’s the lead antagonist. For the character of Niander Wallace, an eccentric, blind businessman who runs LA’s most powerful conglomerate, Villeneuve initially hoped to cast David Bowie. ‘He embodied the Blade Runner spirit,’ the director said. But then Bowie died. It would have been an interesting piece of casting, given the associations the actor would have brought from other roles and his career in general. Sadly, Jared Leto – an acquired taste of an actor – is a poor second choice. The character has a plan to steal the bones that K has discovered, because he wants to learn how replicants can conceive and then use this to expand his business empire. But Leto plays Wallace in such an affected and theatrical way, especially in a perverse scene when he kills a naked replicant, that the character teeters on the edge of silliness. He doesn’t fit with the movie’s mood or world. Thankfully, much more watchable is Wallace’s second-in-command, Luv, played with icy control by Sylvia Hoeks. She’s essentially the film’s ‘heavy’, who acts as Wallace’s proxy because he’s too important/lazy/scared to leave the sanctity of his palatial building. Luv carries out his orders and kills mercilessly when needed.

7. Music
The first Blade Runner movie has a famously good score, so 2049 had a lot to live up to. Much like the look of the film, Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer’s incidental music manages to both honour what came before *and* push things forward. The score begins with ominous, reverb-heavy noises that echo Vangelis’s music from the first film, but this is no empty copy. Zimmer has become Hollywood’s premier composer over the last 25 years or so, known for music that feels enormous but which still has telling emotional weight. His work with Wallfisch on Blade Runner 2049 is no different.

8. Names
K’s boss at the police station is Lt Joshi, played with intelligence by Robin Wright, and she’s one of several characters in Blade Runner 2049 with an intriguing name. In Japanese, for example, jōshi with a long ‘o’ sound (上司) means boss while joshi with a short ‘o’ (女子) means female. Elsewhere, K’s single-letter moniker is a nod to Philip K Dick, the man who wrote the story on which the original Blade Runner movie was based. Niander Wallace’s name is a pun on Homo Neandertalensis, a now-extinct species of humans (suggesting he is destined to be superseded by replicants). Ana Stelline (played by Carla Juri) is an enigmatic woman who designs complex fake memories for replicants, and has a name that refers to anastellin (a natural substance that suppresses tumour growth and metastasis – ie, she keeps things alive). The implication of Luv’s name when said out loud is obvious… but if you don’t understand why Joi’s name has that spelling, ask your older brother.

9. Deckard
In recent years, Harrison Ford has been reprising the roles that won him such a venerated place in genre cinema history. In 2008, he got out his archaeologist’s hat and whip for a fourth time in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Seven years later, he returned to the Star Wars universe to give Han Solo one last Kessel Run round the block. Then he completed the hat-trick of heroes in 2017’s Blade Runner 2049… Rick Deckard doesn’t appear on screen until after 100 minutes, and for anyone who’s seen the poster or DVD cover and knows he’s on his way, this delay gives his return to the two-film narrative a huge amount of significance and weight. A trail of clues has led K to the post-apocalyptic ruins of Las Vegas, where he encounters his Blade Runner predecessor. ‘You mightn’t happen to have a piece of cheese about you?’ asks Deckard. It’s a quotation from Treasure Island, a book about a young man on a dangerous, revelatory quest for an enormous prize. The line is said by Ben Gunn, a pirate who has been stranded alone for a long time – in much the same way as the isolated and bitter Deckard. After a punch-up that plays out against the gleefully absurd background of a stop-start hologrammatic Elvis Presley concert – another masterpiece of lighting from Roger Deakins – the two cops discuss the case. Ford is sombre, soulful, sanguine; there are decades of anguish carved into his granite face. (Commendably, this film maintains the original Blade Runner’s ambiguity over whether Deckard is himself a replicant. Evidence weighs towards yes, but it’s not conclusive.)

10. Rachel
As well as Deckard, two other characters from the original movie have presences in Blade Runner 2049. Edward James Olmos returns for a one-scene cameo as Gaff, the prissy detective with a fondness for the multi-lingo Cityspeak. K visits him in a retirement home when he’s trying to track down Deckard. It’s a scene that could have been cut: precious little information is learnt and it’s largely a geek-pleasing moment (Gaff even does some origami – tick!). Much more significant is the reappearance of Deckard’s late lover – the replicant Rachel. She’s died in the decades since the first film, but makes a haunting cameo when Wallace taunts Deckard by presenting him with a facsimile of his lost love. In the finest use of computer-generated imagery yet seen in any film, the character appears exactly as she did in the original Blade Runner. Sean Young, who played Rachel in 1982, advised body double Loren Peta how to move and stand, then the latter’s face was replaced digitally. This kind of thing has been done a few times recently, most notably in the Star Wars spin-off Rogue One (2016). But Blade Runner 2049 exceeds anything done in that film or elsewhere. It’s a stunning moment, full of awe and wonder. If Blade Runner 2049 is about anything – and actually, it’s about a lot of things – then it’s a movie built on memories. K questions his own recollections, searches for his real history, and tries to create new memories with Joi. Ana specifically designs artificial memories for other people. Deckard, meanwhile, is haunted by the past – and Wallace knows that. The latter takes the former prisoner because he needs to know what happened to his and Rachel’s child. He taunts Deckard by playing him an audio recording of his first meeting with Rachel, then offers an incentive to talk… ‘An angel, made again,’ says Wallace as a millimetre-perfect recreation of Rachel sashays into the room. ‘Did you miss me?’ she says, totally believable. ‘Don’t you love me?’ Deckard is stunned by being confronted by something so beautiful, that he loves so much, but that he thought long gone and that has been made anew. So are we.

Ten wooden horses out 10

Tales of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Crypt of Dracula (Sebastian Montes, 27 September 2017)

 

Dracula

An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: Transylvania, year 1300. A cliffhanger ending is set near Castle Frankenstein, Germany in 1818.

Faithful to the novel? Originating in a 1984 comic book, the intelligent, man-size, crime-fighting turtles Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael and Michelangelo were soon spun-off into a series of cartoons, a film franchise, computer games and plenty of kiddie-baiting merchandise. The Crypt of Dracula is the 15th instalment from the fifth and final season of the third different animated TV adaptation. At the beginning of the episode, as part of an ongoing storyline, the turtles and their time-travelling friend Renet arrive in Transylvania via a time portal. It’s the year 1300 and they’re on the trail of a bad guy called Savanti Romero who wants to destroy the future. In order to help their quest, Renet uses her magic staff to provide the turtles with new clothes and weapons, which are anachronistically 19th-century-looking and very steampunky. (Leonardo namechecks the 2004 film Van Helsing.) Renet tells them they must find and defeat Count Dracula, lord of the vampires, before Savanti recruits him to his cause. This leads them to Dracula’s castle…

Best performance: Vlad Dracula has a Bela Lugosi accent and cape, and can turn into a flock of bats. He’s voiced by Chris Sarandon who gets into the campy spirit of the thing.

Best bit: All the usual clichés appear: a spooky castle, werewolves, an abandoned village, locals with a cursed secret. There’s also – incongruously – the headless horseman of the Sleepy Hollow story. But, as fun as all the Gothicana is, the best thing about the episode is actually the marvellous, pop-art title sequence.

 

Review: This CGI animation is obviously essentially childish, but there’s also enough spooky and sometimes downright macabre stuff going on to keep the interest. For example, Raphael is bitten by Dracula and starts to turn into a vampire. We see his woozy point of view; we see his fangs grow and his eyes light up.

Seven time sceptres out of 10

The Post (2017, Steven Spielberg)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Washington, 1971. Just as the owner of a major newspaper is attempting to float the parent company on the stock exchange, its editor wants to publish hugely controversial material…

Seen before? No.

Best performance: Tom Hanks (here playing legendary Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee) is very watchable as always. But it’s difficult to look past Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham. Graham was the publisher of the Washington Post, an unusual position for a woman in the early 1970s; her father had built up the company’s legacy and she’d inherited her job after the suicide of her husband. So in The Post she’s a woman with a weight on her shoulders. The way Streep plays Graham’s development from someone who nervously fumbles a board meeting to someone who takes brave and bold decisions is wonderful.

Best scene/moment/sequence: The movie is encroaching onto some sacred cinematic ground. In several ways, The Post could be considered a prequel to Alan J Pakula’s masterful thriller All the President’s Men (1976). It’s set soon before the Watergate scandal dramatised in All the President’s Men, features some of the same characters – Ben Bradlee is a big presence in both films – and the two newsroom sets are uncannily similar. The connection is made obvious in the final scene of The Post, which Rogue Onestyle leads directly into the opening of the earlier film. And as in All the President’s Men, the sequences in The Post that feature journalists working on their stories are thrilling. Whether they can – whether they should – publish the expose is the central question of the film and, even if you know the real history, it never loses its jeopardy.

Review: A mid-range Spielberg film is still a thing to behold. It’s doubtful that, in years to come, The Post will top any polls or be remembered as one of the director’s best. But it’s still an immaculate, impressive and incredibly engaging piece of filmmaking. Rushed into cinemas to capitalise on our current obsession with ‘fake news’, the movie concerns the Pentagon Papers. In 1967, US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara commissioned a study of America’s role in the Vietnam War. He intended it for academic posterity rather than political analysis but it contained some incendiary conclusions, not least that successive Presidents had continued the carnage even though they knew an American victory would never come. The Post tells the story of how the report was leaked and published. The movie ticks all the usual boxes for a film about journalists cracking a massive story, but it ticks them with such a rich, stylish flourish that you don’t mind that things are often predictable and occasionally a bit schmaltzy. The well-cast ensemble is led by Hanks and Streep but contains numerous good performances. The attention to period detail is fantastic. And the script never assumes the audience needs hand-holding. Actually, it’s not just the presence of Bradley Whitford and Sarah Paulson in secondary roles that makes this film remind you of Aaron Sorkin. His TV shows, such as The West Wing and The Newsroom, lived and breathed by scenes of clever and principled people arguing about important issues, and that’s what The Post is all about too.

Nine linotype machines out of 10

Thor: Ragnarok (2017, Taika Waititi)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Captured and imprisoned on an alien word, Thor is forced to fight an old friend in gladiatorial combat. But back home on Asgard, his evil sister has taken control…

Despite cynics claiming that all superhero films take themselves too seriously, there’s been comedy in the Marvel Cinematic Universe series since day one. The Iron Man strand has given the world lots of droll sarcasm from Robert Downey Jr. Ant-Man and its star Paul Rudd often have tongues placed firmly in cheeks. Even the muscular thriller Captain America: The Winter Soldier uses gallows humour alongside its high-octane plotting. But even so, there was still something very significant about 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy.

As much an out-and-out comedy as a sci-fi adventure film, Guardians was very funny indeed. There were actual gags as well as playfulness, satire and self-deprecation. It was a risk, but it earned a huge amount of money and reviews were great. Coupled with the similar success of the likewise light-hearted superhero film Deadpool, and Marvel Studios knew they were onto a winner. Guardians soon got a sequel, but its influence also extended to another floor of the MCU skyscraper.

There had been two previous Thor films. Neither was without merit, but both suffered from a lack of distinction. The character’s debut movie, 2011’s Thor, hardly rewrote the rule book. Its sequel, 2013’s Thor: The Dark World, was the closest the MCU’s got to being actively boring. But for the third movie, there were big changes. It’d be underselling it to say Thor: Ragnarok is influenced by Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s more a shameless copy. Jokes are never far away from any scene. The film constantly pokes fun at itself and the genre as a whole. The colour scheme has switched from The Dark World’s grim, earthy dirge to an explosion of bright, bold, pop-art colours. And old music is used as score.

Inside five minutes, for example, there’s a confrontation between Thor (Chris Hemsworth, who knows how to handle comedy) and a mystical, all-powerful entity. It’s a moment seen often in genre films, yet here it’s played entirely for laughs. Then, as the action kicks in, so does the heavy-metal chugging of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song (1970). As the film develops, we get pop-culture references, slapstick, insults, a cameo from Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange, another confident turn from Tom Hiddleston as Loki, and even guest appearances from Matt Damon, Chris Hemsworth’s brother Liam and Sam Neill as actors playing Loki, Thor and their father in a play loaded with in-jokes for attentive viewers.

It’s fun. Bags of fun. Enormous fun. A lot of the credit must go to director Taika Waititi, who also voices a very funny secondary character (‘I tried to start a revolution but didn’t print enough pamphlets so hardly anyone turned up.’). It would be very easy for a film like this – where the cast are clearly having a ball and where the writers are running free of the usual shackles – to descend into self-indulgent nonsense. Thor: Ragnarok teeters on the edge a few times, but Waititi always keeps it upright.

Having said that, long-term MCU fans do have to let a few things go. This film bears such little tonal relationship to Thor’s previous outings that it may as well be a spoof. Humour is no bad thing in a multi-million-dollar franchise blockbuster, but here it can sometimes feel flippant (a problem that the Iron Man and Guardians of the Galaxy movies have always sidestepped). When Jeff Goldblum shows up and gives the most Jeff Goldblummy performance in the history of Jeff Goldblummary, it’s certainly entertaining. But it doesn’t exactly help with the suspension of disbelief.

Because, buried under all the silliness, there is actually a plot going on. On a far-off planet, Thor is captured by a sometimes drunk bounty hunter with a secret heritage called Scrapper 142 (Tessa Thompson, very good). He’s sold into slavery, forced to have his Nordic locks cut off, and must fight as a gladiator in an intergalactic amphitheatre. His opponent? As revealed in the film’s gleeful trailers, it’s Hulk! Thor’s trepidation instantly dissolves as he sees his old pal (‘We know each other! He’s a friend from work!’) but the two superheroes are forced to brawl for the paying audience. Eventually Hulk calms down and, for the first time in two years, reverts into Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo, always good value). Then Thor gets word that home planet Asgard is under threat, so he and Bruce – the latter wearing a Duran Duran T-shirt – escape with the help of Scrapper 142 and Loki. The quartet form a team, jokingly self-named the Revengers.

Meanwhile, Hela – the goddess of death and Thor’s never-before-mentioned sister – is taking over Asgard, killing millions and waging war on the universe. She’s played by Cate Blanchet, who gamely wears a skin-tight costume and black eyeliner as she rants and raves and pontificates. The actress also has a Lord of the Rings reunion with Karl Urban, who here plays a cockney wide-boy Asgardian who unwillingly becomes her sidekick. But, as talented and entertaining as the pair are, their section of the story never really takes flight. The relentless comedy works against the story here: with the script constantly undercutting her pomposity, it’s too difficult to take Hela seriously.

In fact, the whole Asgardian section of the story feels unnecessary. Thor, Bruce Banner and co having breezy, riotous adventures in a colourful, sci-fi setting – all scored by 1980s-ish electronica and 1970s rock music – would be even more enjoyable without it.

Eight hairdressers out of 10

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017, Rian Johnson)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

While Rey attempts to convince Luke Skywalker to return from his exile, her friends in the Resistance are being pursued by the First Order…

WHICH VERSION? There’s only one. The on-screen title is Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi.

GOOD GUYS:

* Commander Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is still the Resistance’s most dashing pilot. As the story begins, he squares up against the evil First Order fleet – on his own, just one small fighter ship against city-sized cruisers. It’s a gutsy delaying tactic, but after he’s bought enough time for his colleagues to escape he can’t resist hammering home the advantage and leading a full-scale assault. While the bulk of the Resistance gets away, they suffer many loses – and Poe is blamed. He’s demoted by his superior, Leia, and then kept out of the loop, which angers him when he believes a new battle plan will lead to the Resistance’s destruction. So he agrees to an idea cooked up by his pal Finn and new character Rose, then relieves Vice Admiral Holdo of command…

* Droid BB-8 is by Poe’s side during the early space battle, then accompanies Finn and Rose on their mission.

* General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) is still in charge of the Resistance. During a space battle, though, the hull of her cruiser is hit and she’s sucked out into space… but because she’s awesome and has vaguely defined Force powers she’s able to survive and fly across space back to the ship. (How much you like this Mary Poppins-ish moment will probably depend on your age, your level of cynicism and how much joy you have left in your soul.) The character then spends a long while recovering. Later, once the Resistance have reached a safe planet and are holed up in a fortified base, Leia’s surprised to see her brother walk in. Leia and Luke share an extremely touching scene together before he leaves to confront Kylo Ren… Very sadly, Carrie Fisher died not long after filming The Last Jedi. The Force will *always* be with her.

* C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) features in a few scenes, interacting with Leia, Poe and Luke, but doesn’t contribute anything beyond nostalgia.

* Finn (John Boyega) is unconscious to begin with, after his injury at the end of the previous film. When he awakens his first thought is, ‘Where’s Rey?’ Later, he decides to leave and find his friend, but is caught in the act by a Resistance engineer called Rose. The two of them bond and come up with a plan to disrupt the First Order’s ability to track the Resistance fleet. However – and here’s where it starts to get convoluted – in order to sneak aboard a First Order ship and do some sabotage, they need a master codebreaker. So with Poe’s sanction, they leave the fleet, travel several parsecs across space, and visit a casino in a city called Canto Bight to find a guy recommended by Finn’s friend Maz . The casino section is the film’s biggest flaw: it’s frivolous, throwaway and – with its Art Deco stylings, naff gags, simplistic politics and crummy CGI – an unwelcome reminder of the Star Wars prequels. (It does, however, contain an elaborate tracking shot that’s a reference to the 1927 film Wings, which pleased this film-geek blogger.) After much titting about, Finn and Rose don’t find Maz’s mate, but do stumble across another codebreaker called DJ who agrees to help them. Later, while the Resistance are defending their base on a planet with a crust of red salt, Finn leads a mission to destroy the First Order’s biggest gun.

* Having found Luke at the end of The Force Awakens, Rey (Daisy Ridley) refuses to leave his remote island. She wants him to come and help the Resistance; they need the resurgence of the Jedi order to defeat the First Order. Luke is initially grumpy and says he’s not interested, but Rey perseveres. In part, it’s because she recognises the island from her dreams. Soon, a teacher-pupil relationship develops, though he’s not impressed by her understanding of the Force (“It’s a power that Jedi have that allows them to control people and make things float.”). It’s clear, though, that Rey has huge, untamed power… and seems unconsciously drawn to the dark side. She also begins to have psychic conversations with the First Order’s Kylo Ren, who is Leia’s son and Luke’s former pupil. (The conversations are really well staged and played. The two actors are filmed on their respective sets and simply cut together as if they were talking to each other.) One night, Rey’s drawn to a murky cave where she experiences a nightmarish hallucination – she sees multiple versions of herself and is given a tantalising glimpse of her long-lost parents. Soon after, she leaves to find Kylo and turn him back from the dark side. But he wants her to join him in villainy. He also draws out a truth she’s always instinctively known: her parents were no one special and simply abandoned her. Rey resists the temptation to become evil and escapes…

* Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has been found. Following on directly from the monumentally wonderful cliffhanger ending to The Force Awakens, Rey reverentially passes him his old lightsaber… which he then just dismissively tosses away! (Great gag. Great mission statement.) Luke’s in a bad way, wracked with guilt for his failure to help his student Ben Solo aka Kylo Ren. He’s living a basic, prehistoric-like existence on a rocky outcrop, sharing it with a strange mixture of creatures, and initially doesn’t want to listen to Rey. He finally agrees to teach her in the ways of the Jedi, but she leaves when she comes to believe that Luke tried to murder Kylo. Later, Luke apparently shows up on the Resistance’s planet. But he’s not really there: he’s projecting his body across space using his Force powers. He squares off against the entire First Order battalion, then Kylo in person – all as a stalling tactic to allow his friends to escape. The enormous effort proves too much and, back on his island, the real Luke fades away from existence. The last thing he sees before he dies are twin suns in the sky… With his greying beard, shaggy hair and cantankerous maturity, this is a career-best performance from Hamill, who in this series has believably progressed from a naïve, young upstart to a wise yet grizzled elder statesman.

* Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo, taking over the role from Peter Mayhew) accompanied Rey to Luke’s island, so the two old pals now meet. Briefly. Chewy then spends his time hanging around on the Millennium Falcon.

* R2-D2 (Jimmy Vee) is aboard the Millennium Falcon, so Luke sees him when he explores the ship. He tells the droid that he’s not coming back and nothing will change his mind. So R2 replays the famous hologram message of Princess Leia recorded more than 30 years previously. “That was a cheap move,” says Luke wryly.

* Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) takes over running the Resistance when Leia is incapacitated. As with most Laura Dern characters, she has a folksy quality, but she’s a steely military leader. She also has purple hair. Holdo doesn’t seem to like Poe very much, especially when he questions her odd tactical decisions. It’s eventually revealed that she knows what she’s doing, her actions will save the Resistance, and she’s willing to sacrifice her life for the greater good. Quite why she kept this plan to herself is another matter.

* Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) is a young woman who works for the Resistance as an engineer. When we meet her, she’s mourning her sister Paige (Veronica Ngo), who was killed in a battle with the First Order. Then she rumbles Finn in the act of running away and electrocutes him. When Finn reveals that the First Order can now track the Resistance through hyperspace, Rose suggests a plan to scupper this ability – and the pair head off to the casino city. Later, on the planet with the Resistance base, she saves Finn’s life because she loves him… Rose is a great addition to the regular cast and it’s a good, likeable performance. Rather astonishingly, while publicising this movie, Kelly Marie Tran became the first Asian woman to ever appear on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine.

* Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) returns from The Force Awakens in a cameo. Finn and Poe phone her up to ask for some advice and she talks to them while in the middle of a gun fight.

* Yoda (Frank Oz) appears as a ghost when Luke’s at a low ebb and offers him some kind, good-natured guidance. In a move that makes a geek’s heart sing, the character is back to being a puppet after his drift to CGI in the early noughties.

BAD GUYS:

* Among several First Order officers and lackeys are characters played by Vyvyan from The Young Ones, Lysa Arryn from Game of Thrones and Finchy from The Office.

* General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) is still in operational command of the First Order and is still a prick.

* Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) is not happy when the Resistance escape his clutches and takes his anger out on Hux. We finally see him for real – as opposed to a hologrammatic projection – when we visit his throne room. So we can now confirm that he’s a disfigured alien who’s about six feet tall. He still doesn’t make much impression, though.

* Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is a changed man. He’s still evil; he’s still kneeling before Snoke. But you can see the doubt in his eyes caused by his encounters with Rey in the previous film. The two characters also start to talk to each other via a psychic connection, which affects each in interesting ways. We’re told conflicting versions of what happened years previously between Kylo and Luke – that Kylo rebelled and murdered his fellow students, or that Luke grew paranoid and decided to kill Kylo before he grew too powerful. The truth lies somewhere in the middle and there’s a wonderful emotional depth to the whole storyline. After killing Supreme Leader Snoke, Kylo takes his place at the head of the First Order… Driver is again absolutely fantastic in this role, turning what could be a cartoon villain into the most complex character in the movie.

* DJ (Benicio del Toro) is a master codebreaker who Finn and Rose are conveniently imprisoned with just as they’re looking for a master codebreaker. A louche scoundrel with an odd speech impediment, the character is clearly shifty so it’s not the biggest shock in Star Wars history when he betrays his new friends for a stash of cash. Del Toro is a bit irritating.

* Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) returns from The Force Awakens and has a fight with her old nemesis Finn. During which, her metallic helmet is cracked open and we see a terrified look in her eye before she dies.

BEST ACTION SEQUENCE: Kylo takes Rey to see Snoke in his theatrically designed throne room. A massive open space with a shiny floor and blood-red walls, it looks like the set of a dream sequence from a 1950s Hollywood musical. Snoke taunts Rey but also arrogantly ridicules Kylo, who snaps and murders his master. Kylo and Rey then team up to take on Snoke’s bodyguards in a beautifully choreographed and wonderfully filmed fight that’s full of invention and excitement and violence.

BEST COMEDY MOMENT: The humour isn’t always successful in this film and a handful of gags fall flat. But there are still many chucklesome moments. There’s Poe speaking to Hux over a radio and pretending not to recognise his voice… Finn stumbling around in a space suit that’s leaking fluid everywhere… Rey saying she’s from nowhere, Luke replying that ‘no one is from nowhere’, Rey telling him she’s from Jakku, and Luke deadpanning, ‘All right, that is pretty much nowhere’… Chewbacca and the cute little porgs… Luke ridiculing Rey’s naivety about the Force… BB-8 mimicking a First Order droid… But the best laugh comes after Kylo has ordered every weapon in the First Order arsenal to fire at Luke Skywalker. Miraculously, Luke seems to survive the battery intact. The way Mark Hamill then archly flicks away some dust from his shoulder may very well be the greatest ‘fuck you’ in cinema history.

MUSIC: It’s by John Williams so of course it’s *superb*.

PERSONAL CONNECTION: My first viewing of The Last Jedi was at the Everyman Baker Street cinema in London on 19 December 2017. I went with my great friend and former colleague Fraser Dickson; going to that cinema to see a new Star Wars movie has become an annual tradition for us.

REVIEW: In one half of this film some characters are doggedly chased by the bad guys, while in the other half the young lead travels off to a mysterious planet to learn about the Force from a grumpy old Jedi. This bifurcated storytelling was used so well in The Empire Strikes Back, of course, but here it’s more of a problem. And that’s a big shame because in many, many ways The Last Jedi is *wonderful*. All the scenes featuring Rey, Luke and/or Kylo are knock-it-out-of-the-park successful… The main series characters – Rey, Poe and Finn – now feel just as integral to Star Wars as Luke, Leia and Han, which really is an astonishing achievement… There are plenty of cute echoes of previous Star Wars situations, but the film is also bold enough to push the mythology into dramatically interesting territory (Luke has flaws, Rey’s heritage is just a red herring, the villain is sympathetic)… The crosscutting between scenes and subplots is fluid and pacey… The action sequences are exactly what you’d want from this type of movie: exciting, meaningful, inventive and easy to follow… The look of the film is marvellous, both in the art of the design and the craft of its realisation… The sound mix is staggeringly impressive… However, the half of the story that focuses on Poe, Finn and the others has several issues. Frankly, after an exciting opening, it starts to feel like vamping; like ‘stuff’ to pad out the running time. The plot is built around a chase sequence and the threat is that the First Order will catch up with the Resistance. But it’s not a chase where characters are sprinting or racing at full speed. It’s played more like ocean liners chugging along through space, which doesn’t exactly help with the tension. It’s also a chase where a pair of characters can pop off on a separate, self-contained and rather silly subplot for *hours*. And while they’re gone, there’s a naff bit of superficial drama back at the fleet. There’s no reason why Holdo doesn’t reveal her plan to Poe (or we viewers), other than to set up a reveal when we find out what it is. It’s artificial and unsatisfying. But, as irksome as they are, these gripes shouldn’t distract from how entertaining the rest of The Last Jedi is. It’s not as good as The Force Awakens – very few things in life are – but it’s still a movie to cherish.

Nine and a half beards that are grey when Luke is real but darker when he’s a Force projection and I’ve genuinely only just spotted that on my third viewing of the film out of 10

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017, Matt Reeves)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Where, when and what: It’s 15 years since the events of the series reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). So therefore we’re a few years into the ape/human conflict that started in its sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) – let’s say it’s now the late 2020s. The events take place in a post-apocalyptic North America. Under threat from the approaching human forces, the apes decide to relocate to a desert. But when a US Army colonel infiltrates the camp and kills the wife and son of the ape leader Caesar, Caesar heads off to seek revenge…

Humans: There are remarkably few human characters in the story. The unnamed US Army colonel is played by Woody Harrelson, who’s clearly taking a lot of inspiration from Marlon Brando’s similar character in 1979’s Apocalypse Now. Also, on their trek to hunt down the colonel, Caesar and co encounter a young, mute girl (Amiah Miller). They look after her and call her Nova; the name is a reference to the 1968 Apes movie.

Apes: As with the previous films, the CGI apes are an absolute marvel. You soon forget that they’re anything other than physical, textured, *alive* characters. After the opening scene, we cut to Caesar (again played via mo-cap technology by Andy Serkis) and from now on, we see events through ape eyes. It’s a brave decision, especially as few apes can talk and even fewer speak in proper sentences. (You get very used to reading subtitles.) Caesar has a command staff, including the soulful Maurice (Karin Konoval), and a family who are soon killed by the colonel. There are also apes who are working for the humans, acting as scouts and spies, who are disparagingly referred to as donkeys (a pun on Donkey Kong?). But the simian who makes the biggest impact in this film is a chimp called Bad Ape (Steve Zahn). Caesar and co find him hiding out in an abandoned zoo. He’s mostly a comic-relief character, but a comic-relief character with plenty of heart and childlike innocence. It’s a tremendously watchable performance.

Review: We start in the point of view of human survivors as a troop of soldier stealthily creep through woodland. One has ‘Monkey killer’ graffitied on his helmet, another ‘Endangered species’. To the sound of Michael Giacchino’s droning score and woodland noises, we follow them handheld as they approach a group of apes. It’s a marvellously atmospheric sequence, which then explodes into an intense battle scene. But after this opening, the movie takes a number of surprising turns. For a start, as mentioned, this is the apes’ story and we’re experiencing events with them. The humans are the aggressive, unreasonable bad guys, which is a switch from the more measured storytelling in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Another surprise is how sedate the film is: after the initial bursts of action and crisis, we’re into lengthy travelogue sequences in some remarkably beautiful landscapes. There are forests, waterfalls, beaches, scrubland; the weather ranges from sun to blizzards. In fact, this ‘war’ movie often feels more like an old-school Western as Caesar and others ride their horses across country on a heartfelt mission. Significantly, the locations all feel real and big and vivid. They suit the story, which is soulful and engaging – and also not afraid to take its time and soak up the atmosphere. This narrative debt need to be paid off in the second half of the movie, but sadly War for the Planet of the Apes starts to drag once the characters reach the colonel’s compound.

Seven eyes (almost human) out of 10

Justice League (2017, Zack Snyder)

justice-league

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

For this review of Justice League, the fifth film in the DC Extended Universe series of superhero movies, I’m going to do something different. Rather than watch the movie, scribble a few notes, do some research and then type up a blog post at a later date, I’m going to write it as the DVD plays. I’ll note down observations as they occur to me. Aside from correcting typos, I won’t do any retrospective changes. Here goes…

The first scene is iPhone footage of Superman chatting to some kids. I now remember that he died in the previous mash-up film, 2016’s beyond turgid Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Oh, we’ve now cut to the present day and there’s a discarded newspaper with the headline ‘Superman is dead’. Given that Henry Cavill, who plays Superman, is front and centre on the DVD cover, I’m gonna guess that the character’s Jesus metaphor will extend to a resurrection.

Now a criminal is fighting Batman on a roof. It’s dark and there’s steam everywhere, a visual palette that makes me wish I were watching the Tim Burton Batman. Or Gotham. Have you seen Gotham? The TV show? It’s *amazing* – it’s the best-looking show on television, so beautifully shot and designed, and the characters are all brilliantly macabre and theatrical.

Oh, shit. My mind wandered already. Back to the film. Now Batman is fighting some strange, buzzy, giant-insect thing. His butler, Alfred, is back at HQ and looking at screens like he’s Chloe in 24. He says he has ‘Luthor’s notes’, which are full of a repeating pattern of three boxes. On other screens, there are photos of four characters, including Wonder Woman.

A song has started: a quirky, Scandinavian-sounding woman sings over a piano as we see music-video-style shots of the world mourning Superman. Poor Lois Lane lies in a double bed all alone. Clark Kent’s mum moves out of her house. A newspaper front page links the made-up-for-a-film death of Superman to the real-life deaths of David Bowie and Prince. ‘Did they return to their planet?’ it asks crassly.

CRIME! In slow motion, some twat kicks over a crate of oranges outside a shop. It seems the world is a worse place now that Superman’s gone!

Joss Whedon’s name is in the writing credits. (I knew it would be. He was brought in to tweak the script then took over directing the film when Zack Synder had to leave for personal reasons.) This is reassuring. I bet the humour will work really well…

Now we’re in London. We swoop past the Shard! Tower Bridge has a huge black flag with Superman’s S logo on it! There’s St Paul’s Cathedral! A well-dressed gang break into a building and it’s a well-staged sequence. The music’s fun, the shots are bold. Oh, now it’s got a bit silly: Wonder Woman is across the street. In full cosplay outfit. Standing on top of the Lady Justice statue on the Old Bailey. How did she get up there? WHY is she up there? Now she’s suddenly inside the building, using her lasso of truth to find out that the men are terrorists.

Oh, fuck off, Hollywood. A British criminal committing a crime in the bloody City of London has just said ‘four city blocks’ are about to be destroyed. Not everyone talks like an American!

Wonder Woman to the rescue. She beats everyone up. She dodges bullets. She pushes a hostage out of the way of a speeding bullet. She throws the bomb so high in the air it smashes through the ceiling and explodes in mid-air. What a load of laws-of-physics-flaunting horseshit.

Now Bruce Wayne is in… Iceland, I guess? He’s in a town looking for a ‘stranger’ who brings fish when the locals are hungry. The one guy who answers in English is on the DVD cover. He’s Aquaman. Bruce tells Aquaman that he’s building an alliance to defend the world (and presumably reckons that some bloke he’s never met will be more useful than the private army Bruce could easily afford to fund).

Later, on Bruce’s private jet, he’s discussing the plot (if you can call it that) with Alfred. Jeremy Irons is bringing new meaning to the phrase phoning it in. Alfred has been researching another potential recruit: Barry Allen of Central City. He’s ‘completely off the grid’ but they also know he regularly visits his father in prison. How is that completely off the grid, then? There’s also mention of another guy – Victor Stone, genius IQ, football scholar… and dead. Er, why are they interested, then?

When Alfred mentions Diana (aka Wonder Woman), Bruce bristles. He fancies her. Of course he does. Now Alfred’s made a smarmy reference to a better Batman film by sarcastically mentioning ‘exploding wind-up penguins’. Oh, piss off.

The storytelling in this movie is absolutely atrocious. Information is just dropped into scenes with no context or justification or finesse or meaning or impact on character.

Here’s a bit of humour. Barry Allen can move so fast it’s imperceptible. Kinda like Quicksilver in the X-Men films. Now I wish I were watching X-Men: Days of Future Past instead of this. In his first scene Barry draws glasses and a moustache on a bully’s face. Sides. Splitting.

With Barry introduced, we move onto the next member of the team: Victor. He’s part-man, part-machine, and clearly not-dead. He was injured in an accident and his scientist father rebuilt him (as you do). He seems to have a chip on his shoulder. (A microchip, am I right, guys?!)

Jesus, where are we now? This film has ADHD. We’re cutting around all over the shop. Oh, I see – we’re on Diana’s home island with the Amazons. They have a magical box (no sniggering at the back), which is ‘awakening’. It glows, it explodes. They point arrows at it. Then a huge, hulking CGI creature arrives via a portal or something. ‘Steppenwolf,’ says one of the bland Amazons. Cheers, love! Saves me looking up his name on Wikipedia. He’s been searching for the box. Lots of the alien insect creatures follow through the portal and we’re into one of those CG-heavy action scenes that makes you think filmmakers are now deliberately aping computer games in an attempt to please Millennials. The Amazon leader does a runner with the box but Steppenwolf gets his motor running and heads out on the highway. He chases and steals the box.

‘We have to light the ancient warning fire,’ she says once Steppenwolf has left.

‘The fire has not burned for 5000 years,’ replies another bland Amazon. ‘Men won’t know what it means.’

‘Men won’t. She will.’

I’m now reminded of The Lord of the Rings’ wonderful warning-fires sequence. It’d be wrong to switch off this garbage and watch that instead, wouldn’t it?

Cut to Diana at her day job in a museum. The sound on the nearby telly magically rises and a hysterical BBC news reporter blathers on about a fire somewhere in the world. Diana knows what this means…

And now we’re with Lois Lane at the Daily Planet in Metropolis. Amy Adams must have the worst agent in Hollywood. She was really good in Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can, then couldn’t get another job for love nor money. Now she’s trapped in this DC contract and is given perfunctory, badly written scenes like this one where she and Clark’s mum fail the Bechdel test.

Diana’s come to visit Bruce. She’s just made a passing reference to the Chris Pine character from her solo film, and I now wish I were watching that instead. Or any other Chris Pine movie. I love the Star Treks he’s in. Yes, all three of them. And Unstoppable is an amazing film. It’s essentially one 90-minute action scene but is also great fun and-

Fuck! Got distracted again. Diana is now telling Bruce who Steppenwolf is. Via grimy, CGI flashbacks. To cut an underdeveloped story short he’s a powerful bad guy who wants the Mother Boxes, three mystical cubes that contain nebulous but enormous power. There’s a common problem with these kinds of films: they misunderstand how a MacGuffin works. (I’ve paused the DVD while I make this point.) A MacGuffin – the term was popularised by Alfred Hitchcock – is an object or idea in a story that motivates the characters but is essentially unimportant to the viewer. In a heist movie, it’s the money in the vault. In a Indiana Jones film, it’s the ancient relic. But in many superhero films the MacGuffin is so ridiculously bizarre or maddeningly vague you stop caring that the characters care. A MacGuffin shouldn’t need explaining. *Because it’s not important.* In Reservoir Dogs, there isn’t a big long sequence exploring why a gang of criminals want to steal some jewels; we just understand that they’re valuable. It’s how the MacGuffin affects the characters that counts. In Justice League, the Mother Boxes have no psychological impact on our characters at all.

Press play. Bloody hell, I’m only half an hour in. I need to stop commenting on everything I think of.

Diana says that, thousands of years ago, various races – Amazons, men, gods – came together to form an alliance to defeat Steppenwolf. The Mother Boxes were then split up to hide them. “One was entrusted to the Amazons,” says Diana in voiceover. “One to the Atlanteans… The box of men was buried in secret.” This script REALLY has a hard-on for The Lord of the Rings, doesn’t it?

Bruce and Diana’s recruitment scheme continues. Bruce finds Barry in an abandoned building – it’s now clear that Barry is this film’s comic relief. His dialogue feels like it’s from a different movie; it’s more like the tone in Marvel’s Ant-Man or Guardians of the Galaxy. Some of it’s amusing, but it’s mostly tiresome. It’s far from breezy wit. This comedy feels plastered on top of someone else’s script. (Rumour has it extensive reshoots were ordered to make the film funnier.)

Meanwhile, Diana seeks out Victor. He knows that she’s Wonder Woman and that Bruce is Batman. How? Fuck knows. And also meanwhile, Aquaman swims down to the bottom of the ocean. One of the boxes is there and bad guys arrive to steal it. How did they know it was there? Fuck knows.

Now, I’m not a comic-book fan. I love movies based on them, but actual comic books themselves? Nope, not for me. So I may be very wide off the mark here. But it strikes me that one of the reasons this storytelling doesn’t work is that aping a comic book too closely. Scenes are short. Information is summarised succinctly and then we move on. Emotion and humour are faded up and down like sound effects rather than feeling integral to the characters and situations. Seemingly important characters pop up with no explanation then vanish from the story just as quickly. There’s no movie-like development, growth, progression or pacing.

I’m banging on now. Let’s cover the next few scenes with just one-line comments. JK Simmons has turned up as Detective Jim Gordon. There’s a shameless shot of Gal Gadot’s arse. Steppenwolf has taken hostages including Victor’s dad, who’s played by Miles Dyson from Terminator 2. (I now wish I were watching Terminator 2. But I always wish that.) Batman, Wonder Woman, Victor (aka Cyborg, I think) and Barry (aka The Flash) save the hostages with relative ease. They don’t break a sweat. I bet the CGI team had to pull a few all-nighters, though. Oh, and Aquaman shows up. He helps by controlling water or something.

Right, so now Steppenwolf has two of the Mother Boxes but needs the third – the one entrusted to men. And Victor has that one. It had ended up at the lab where Vic’s dad works. Ooh, here’s a bit of inter-team drama. Bruce wants to use the Mother Box to revive Superman from the dead. (Barry mentions Pet Semetary – good gag.) Diana says it’s a bad idea and rows with Bruce. He cruelly – but accurately – calls her out for spending a century doing bugger all to help innocent people. At least the scenes are *about* something now, but we’re also into that slow middle phase of a superhero movie where people in the cinema start going for a wee.

Barry and Victor dig up Clark Kent’s body, then the whole team go to the alien ship from Man of Steel and, thanks to some bullshit science, resurrect him. But Superman is pissed: with his shirt off to please certain fans, he fights his former colleagues. He’s especially angry at Batman. Ungrateful twat. But he calms down when Lois Lane appears on the scene and the pair leave together. But – oh no! – Steppenwolf has sneaked in and stolen the third Mother Box! Cripes! He has them all now! Which is bad!

Diana’s not too concerned, though. ‘So we find them,’ she says. ‘If the boxes are even close to each other, there is going to be some kind of energy surge.’ Seriously, that’s a line of dialogue she actually says. I know the global geek concensus is that Diana Prince is a marvellous character and a great role model for women of all ages and that Gal Gadot is a goddess of imperishable magnificence and all that. But I’m really bored of the character being flawless. Her enjoyable solo film gave her a bit of depth, but in these crossover events she has to the perfectly beautiful, unflappable know-it-all who can do anything. Surely characters are only interesting if they have to overcome things.

Next we get another lame attempt at comedy when Batman nervously asks Aquaman if he talks to fish. “The water does the talking,” says Aquaman like that means something.

So, let’s be clear. The worst, most powerful villain in the history of villains now has all three of the plot devices he needs to destroy the whole world. So do the Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, the Flash and Cyborg leap into action? No, they skulk around and discuss their feelings. Meanwhile, Superman is being cheered up by Lois – the scene is meant to be touching, but once you twig that this is the footage where Henry Cavill’s moustache has been digitally removed because he’d grown one for another film, you just can’t stop staring at his rubbery top lip.

We’re approaching the climax now (I hope). Our team are aboard a huge, technologically advanced cargo plane, heading for a nuclear power plant in northern Russia. The plane reminds me of the equivalent craft in the Avengers movies, and I now wish I were watching those films instead. Justice League makes the weakest of that series (Thor: The Dark World?) seem positively masterful. At its worst, the Marvel series always has a basic storytelling competency that’s woefully absent here.

Right, the home straight now. A big long action sequence that feels depressingly artificial. As is often the case with these kinds of third acts, there’s no heft or consequence to anything. No real threat or suspense. It’s just actors and stunt performers matted into CGI. Our characters fight the bad guys. There are occasional gags involving Barry. Jeremy Irons radios in with exposition. Superman shows up, looking all smug. (The music quotes the John Williams theme from 1978 – nice touch!)

But they win, obviously. We then get the usual wrap-up scenes that point the way to more sequels. Oh, and there’s a tiny, one-shot scene filmed outside the British Museum.

Well, we’re near the end now, so can I sum up Justice League?

It was awful. Really crummy. I suppose it was slightly less awful than Batman v Superman. It was certainly more colourful to look at, lighter in tone, quite a bit shorter and slightly less boring. But it was still a dreadful movie.

Three snack holes out of 10

Oh, I forgot there’d be post-credits scenes. The first one’s quite funny: a dick-measuring contest between Superman and the Flash over who can run faster. Then, after a further 387 minutes of credits, Lex Luthor returns. Oh good.

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017, Jon Watts)

SPIDER-MAN™: HOMECOMING

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

New York teenager Peter Parker, aka Spider-Man, is disappointed not to be a fully fledged member of the Avengers. But he then stumbles across a gang trading in dangerous alien technology…

In the opening scene of this slick and vibrant movie, the villain’s entire motivation is justified in one smart, underplayed line of dialogue. It’s the immediate aftermath of 2012’s Avengers Assemble, and a blue-collar crew of workmen led by Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) are clearing up the mess left by that film’s climactic battle. But then a woman (Tyne Daly) turns up and says a new agency will take over and the crew are out of work. Toomes argues that he has a contract, but the woman won’t budge. “Come on,” he pleads. “Look, I bought trucks for this job…”

In a single beat, we get this guy. We understand his grievance. He’s been wronged and wants revenge. When a superhero script defines its villain so elegantly and so economically, you know you’re in for some good storytelling. Eight years later, Toomes and his crew are running an underground operation in salvaging, repurposing and trading in alien tech. Toomes has even built himself a mechanical pair of wings: “Business is good,” he says as he swoops into the workshop.

Meanwhile, teenager Peter Parker (a fantastic Tom Holland) is flying to Germany. We’re in the timeframe of Captain America: Civil War, the 2016 film that introduced this version of Spider-Man, and see Peter’s contribution to that movie via videos he shot on his smartphone. It’s a neat and fun way of recapping the story so far. However, two months after being co-opted by the Avengers, Peter is feeling ignored by Tony Stark and the others. He’s back to being a student in New York who fights minor crime in his spare time. So, instead of a superhero film, Homecoming mostly feels more like an 80s teen comedy. Peter’s school halls could be out of Pretty in Pink, though this school is a more diverse, working-class place than the WASPy, privileged Illinois of John Hughes’s world. Peter has a nerdy best pal called Ned (Jacob Batalon); fancies a girl called Liz (Laura Harrier); is bullied by a lad called Flash (Tony Revolori); and also knows MJ, an enigmatic girl who wants to keep to herself (Zendaya). The fact these five characters match up to the quintet from The Breakfast Club can’t be a coincidence. The bully even jokes that Peter has an imaginary girlfriend in Canada, a la The Breakfast Club’s Brian.

Peter is also trying to hide the fact that he’s YouTube sensation Spider-Man. Ned finds out by accident, but Peter’s guardian – Aunt May (an effortless Marisa Tormei) – is still in the dark. Peter then happens to see Toomes’s crew selling advanced weaponry on the black market, which leads to some fun action sequences (and a laugh-out-loud Ferris Bueller reference). It’s very enjoyable stuff: light on its feet, with freedom and playfulness. Every scene, in fact, has a sense of humour. This film hits the sweet-spot of taking itself just seriously enough. It also looks great, with bold colours for the teens’ world and a down-and-dirty, bodged-together vibe for Toomes and his gang.

If Spider-Man: Homecoming has a flaw, ironically it comes in the shape of the MCU’s brightest star. After his cameo in the Civil War recap, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) re-joins the story after 36 minutes. He acts as Peter’s kinda-mentor, though he wants to stop him getting too involved in large-scale crime-fighting. Despite this, he gives the lad a super-duper, hi-tech, all-singing, all-dancing Spider-Man suit that comes with a never-ending array of weapons and features and a sexy-voiced, female AI programme (Jennifer Connolly, a star of the pre-MCU film Hulk). In other words, we get another version of Iron Man. It’s not only repetitious but it jars with the film’s otherwise homespun charm. Peter works best as an underdog, a teenager using his wits, rather than someone being dragged along by cyberpunk technology.

But what is a huge success is Michael Keaton as Toomes. The actor obviously has superhero form (for this reviewer’s money, he’s still the best Batman), but here he turns his hand to supervillainy. Stand aside, Loki: Adrian Toomes is the best played, most interesting, most entertaining bad guy in this entire series. Like all modern genre films, Spider-Man: Homecoming is full of blockbuster action sequences and flashy CGI. It cost $175million to make. And yet the greatest special effect in the whole movie is Toomes staring at Peter in a rear-view mirror…

As we enter the third act, Peter plucks up the courage to invite Liz to their school’s homecoming. She agrees and, after some nervy prep with Aunt May’s help, he goes to Liz’s house to collect her. But her dad answers the door. And her dad is Toomes. As a plot twist, it falls neatly into the ‘well, I shoulda seen that one coming’ camp. It raises the stakes and leads to a fantastically edgy scene as Toomes drives his daughter and Peter to the party. Then it goes up a further gear after Liz gets out of the car: Toomes warns Peter, who he’s worked out is Spider-Man, to stay away from his business. And it’s chilling, like something from a Mafia movie.

A teenager being nervous because he’s taking a hot senior out on a date but then realising that her dad is the super-criminal he’s been hunting for? As a scene it’s pretty fantastic on its own merits, but it also encapsulates this movie as a whole. Homecoming is an excellent mash-up of the superhero format with teen-comedy conventions. Both elements feel equally important. A hoot.

Nine men leaning out of their window out of 10

Screenshot 2017-12-27 15.35.19

 

Red Dwarf XII (2017)

RedDwarfXII

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Written and directed by Doug Naylor. Broadcast on Dave.

Regulars: This is the fourth series of Red Dwarf in a row with just the fab four ­– Lister, Rimmer, the Cat and Kryten – though a couple of old regulars make guest appearances.

Episode 1: Cured (12 October 2017): The crew of Red Dwarf stumble across a moonbase where a scientist has resurrected famous evil people but cured them of being evil… A not-bad series opener. The plot doesn’t hang together, but there are some good laughs along the way. Ryan Gage is very funny as an upbeat and friendly Hitler who has a smiley face on his sleeve rather than a swastika, while the woofer at the end – the Cat bluffing that he’s betraying the others – is set up nicely by an opening scene of the guys playing poker.
Observations: Four people have been recreated via DNA sequencing: sadistic warlord Vlad the Impaler (1431-1477), Soviet despot Joseph Stalin (1878-1953), Roman empress consort Messalina (c17/20-48) and Nazi twat Adolf Hitler (1889-1945). We’re told about a fifth – media baron Rupert Murdoch (born 1931) – but apparently he’s not responding to treatment. Starbug is featured.
Best gag: The Cat says he thought Hitler died playing golf. Rimmer explains that, no, he was in a bunker in Berlin. “He poisoned his partner and shot himself.” “Golf can do that to you.”

Episode 2: Siliconia (19 October 2017): The crew of Red Dwarf are captured by a space freighter populated by revolutionary mechanoids… An episode based on the idea that Kryten puts up with a lot of shit from the others, which doesn’t especially fly. It’s not helped by some cheap-looking robot masks for the revolutionaries. Then Lister, Rimmer and the Cat’s consciousnesses are downloaded into mechanoids, so Craig Charles, Chris Barrie and Danny John-Jules have to also put on Kryten-like masks and body suits. They get funny stuff to say – especially Barrie, who uses his mimicry skills to copy Robert Llewellyn’s voice – but the characters look too different and the performances don’t pop through the latex.
Observations: Kryten has an odd line of dialogue about Lister’s guitar that sounds like an unnoticed fluff or a rewrite that went wrong: “It’s almost to the day that it got flushed into space.” Starbug is seen again. Late on, James Buckley (The Inbetweeners, Rock & Chips) shows up for a tiny role as a working-class mechanoid. His scenes are all on location and shot in a way that suggests he wasn’t there at the same time as the regular cast.
Best gag: Kryten is busy ironing but gets constantly interrupted by messages appearing a screen – first from the Cat, then Rimmer, then Lister. Then we see that the latter is actually in the same room as Kryten. And wants Kryten to fetch a beer from a fridge that’s within Lister’s reach.

Episode 3: Timewave (26 October 2017): The crew are struck by a ‘timewave’, which brings them into contact with a spaceship from 24th-century Earth. On the ship, criticism has been outlawed… It’s a fun episode if not that plausible. The central idea (that people who criticise get high on criticising) might be a pop at internet forums and morons who write over-long, pretentious blog posts about Red Dwarf’s strengths and weaknesses.
Observations: Starbug is featured. The Om Song from series three is mentioned. Amrita Acharia plays a waitress who doesn’t care that she’s shit at her job because no one’s going to criticise her. Johnny Vegas shows up as a dressed-all-in-pink ‘crit cop’. He arrests the crew and puts them in a cell with another offender (Joe Sims) who, when we first see him, wears a mask and straight jacket a la Silence of the Lambs. (His crime? Tutting.) The episode has vague visual echoes of The Happiness Patrol, a 1988 Doctor Who serial.
Best gag: Rimmer likes the no-criticism law: “They’re on to something. Take me: back in the day I misrepaired a drive plate and killed over a thousand people. Now, in our culture, that sort of thing is really frowned upon. But here, you just move on.”

Episode 4: Mechocracy (2 November 2017): Lister accidentally downloads a virus into Red Dwarf’s mainframe, so as a precaution the crew prepare to evacuate. But the self-aware vending machines object to being left behind… A bottle episode, entirely set on Red Dwarf and featuring no guest characters other than voiceover roles. Enjoyable stuff. Successful gags include a decent set-up/punchline about Kryten manipulating Rimmer; a scene where Lister, Rimmer and the Cat have a long, irrelevant conversation while an emergency alarm is going off in the background; and a runner about the Cat needing reading glasses. Halfway through the episode, the storyline takes a left turn as an election for a new Red Dwarf leader is held: Rimmer and Kryten go head to head in scenes that spoof UK and US politics.
Observations: Doug Naylor’s obsession with vending machines, a motif that has recurred throughout this show since day one, gets another airing. Clips from 90s episodes are used in the election adverts, while the events of 80s episodes The End and Kryten are referenced. There’s then yet another, much larger callback to old continuity as Talkie Toaster (still voiced by David Ross) makes his first appearance since 1991. The scene is a bit of an embarrassment: old gags and camera angles are simply trotted out rote in an attempt to please long-term fans.
Best gag: Rimmer wants to demote Lister as a punishment but Lister is already the lowest rank possible, so he promotes him in order to demote him again. However, after his promotion, Lister points out that he’s now Rimmer’s equal and can’t be demoted.

Episode 5: M-Corp (9 November 2017): Lister is blighted by a perception filter that means he’s no longer able to see objects that are not approved by M-Corp, the ship’s conglomerate owners… The comedy about things and people being invisible or inaudible to Lister gets some good laughs, even if the surrounding plotline makes very little sense.
Observations: Lister hits a significant birthday (implied to be 50). Helen George from Call The Midwife guests as M-Corp’s spokesperson who reels off dialogue in a serene voice. The plot’s climax sees Lister’s personality regress to how he was when he was 23 – and the final scene deliberately repeats dialogue and blocking from Red Dwarf’s first ever episode.
Best gag: A medical computer asks Lister if he wants to know his predicted date of death. Before Lister can answer, Rimmer leans forward and mimics Lister’s accent: “Yes please, man!” (The computer says Lister will die at the age of 63.)

Episode 6: Skipper (16 November 2017): An anomaly penetrates the universe, causing a giant lesion in the space-time continuum. As a result, any decision results in the option not taken coming to pass. Then Rimmer uses the lesion to travel to various alternative realities… The storyline is another one of those sci-fi gimmicks that doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. And the second half becomes something of a fanwank explosion as Rimmer visits different realities and old characters get cameoes.
Observations: The episode features yet more continuity references – Rimmer’s three brothers are mentioned; Norman Lovett makes his first appearance as Holly since 1999, likewise Mac McDonald as Captain Hollister; the famous ‘Everyone’s dead, Dave’ routine from Red Dwarf’s first episode is liberally paraphrased. Danny John-Jules gets to play Rat in one of the alternate realities: a man-sized rodent who evolved in place of the Cat.
Best gag: Rimmer quantum skips into a new reality and meets a refined, upper-class Lister. “Are you different from my Lister?” asks Rimmer. “A guy who cleans his teeth and pees in the toilet simultaneously even though the basin and the toilet are in different rooms?”

Best episode: Mechocracy. Worst episode: Skipper.

Review: After its decade off, Red Dwarf has now been on TV channel Dave for eight years, four series and 21 episodes. It’s settled into a pattern of wacky, sci-fi exploits, and the show’s initial gimmick – that these characters are stranded in deep space – has been forgotten about. Lister, Rimmer, the Cat and Kryten are now routinely bumping into people from earth. Despite this ‘opening up’ of the format, series 12 suffers from repeating ideas: there are two consecutive episodes about Red Dwarf’s computers causing problems, for example, while two are about the rights of non-organic life forms. The show has also lost some of its bite. Lister and the Cat still ridicule Rimmer; he in turn still shows disdain for them. But it’s all noticeably chummier than the BBC years. The characters have reached middle age and calmed down, and so has the tone. It’s still funny and likeable, but nothing in this series matches Red Dwarf at its best. Perhaps the aging process also accounts for the show’s obsession with its own history – most people get nostalgic as they get older. Sadly, series 12 can’t resist making smug callbacks to old episodes, old characters, old sets, old jokes, old incidental music, old scenes… The bigger references are accompanied by whoops, cheers and applause from the studio audience, which sounds stacked with Red Dwarf die-hards.

Seven nice cups of char out of 10