22 Jump Street (2014)

22 Jump StreetWhen their undercover sting operation is foiled by an octopus, Morton Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Greg Jenko (Channing Tatum) are swiftly reassigned to Jump Street by Deputy Chief Hardy (Nick Offerman), where they are once again answerable to Captain Dickson (Ice Cube). This time, however, they are sent to college, though the specifics of their assignment are much and such the same: they must identify the individual supplying WHYPHY to the student body, a drug which has already claimed one life on campus.

A meta-sequel to their meta-reboot, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s 22 Jump Street continues in the vein of its predecessor, subverting the traditional buddy cop movie format while also taking swipes at everything from sequels in general to the film’s own plot holes. Nothing is safe, with veiled references to Ice Cube’s rapper persona, Tatum’s extant filmography and even The Benny Hill Show making sure that there is at least one decent gag in the film for just about everyone.

21 Jump Street was the film that first made audiences re-evaluate Channing Tatum, with later 2012 releases Magic Mike and Haywire helping to recast the actor as a serious dramatic talent with excellent comic timing. He’s arguably even funnier in the sequel, particularly in scenes where he’s required to improvise (something that his character at least is absolutely terrible at) or show any intellectual capabilities whatsoever. His constant confusion of words and phrases (WHYPHY/WiFi; homophobe/homophone) are a constant delight.

Hill and Ice Cube are great too, particularly when Schmidt starts dating Dickson’s daughter, Maya (Amber Stevens), leading to a stand-out showdown in the Captain’s cube of ice. It’s relative newcomer Jillian Bell as Maya’s roommate, Mercedes, however, who ultimately steals the show. While it would be a spoiler to reveal the character’s true role within the narrative, her early antagonism with Schmidt is a real treat, as she immediately calls him out on account of his apparent old age. One particular skirmish may well go down as the funniest of the year, though Dickson vs. the buffet cart gives it some pretty tough competition.

That said, it’s not quite as funny as the first film, and a number of refrains fall particularly flat. The partners once again find themselves dosing on the drug they are supposed to be removing from circulation, and though the effects are explored in a different way it just doesn’t have the same impact. While perhaps less likely to make you laugh out loud than the first film, the satire this time around is often much cleverer than you might expect. A running gag involving the project’s out-of-control budget will at least have you smiling, while a novel use of the end credits ups the laughs quotient considerably.

It’s not entirely clear whether this franchise has anywhere left to go, but thanks to the talents of its directors and stars this sequel is a worthy follow-up to 2012’s original. It’s certainly far better than anyone could reasonable expect for what is after all the sequel to a rebooted TV show.

3.5-Stars

How To Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

HTTYD2It’s been five years since the denizens of Berk finally welcomed dragons into their midsts, ending a war that had raged for generations. Since then, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and Toothless have continued to explore the viking world, discovering new species and acting as ambassadors for human-dragon relations. After an encounter with a trapper named Eret (Kit Harrington), however, Hiccup is ordered by Stoic The Vast (Gerard Butler) to cease his activities and assist in safeguarding Berk against possible invaders — namely Eret’s master, Drago (Djimon Hounsou), with whom the chieftain has history. Confident of his outreach programme, Hiccup flees from Stoic only to end up in the company of his mother, Valka (Cate Blanchet), who he had long presumed dead. While Hiccup reconnects with his estranged parent, old classmates Astrid (America Ferrera), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) and Tuffnut (T. J. Miller) set out in search of their missing friend.

When How To Train Your Dragon was released in 2010 it took the box office by storm and audiences by surprise. DreamWorks had long been overshadowed by Pixar, and yet here was a film with as much heart, wit and spectacle as anything its rival had to offer. It promised a new dawn for DreamWorks Animation, with directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders enlisting the likes of Guillermo del Toro, Roger Deakin and John Powell to produce the studio’s first undisputed masterpiece. While it’s true that How To Train Your Dragon 2 doesn’t quite reach the same heights as its predecessor, it’s still ambitious enough to impress in its own right.

A more serious film than the first, How to Train Your Dragon 2 has aged its characters by half a decade and introduced an external threat that was much less pronounced the last time around. Older, wiser and rather more confident than before, Hiccup has begun to shed his awkward, adolescent angst to become something of a hero-figure. His relationship with Stoic has inevitably changed, and with the return of his mother it soon changes again. He may have lost a leg at the end of the first movie, but it didn’t seem to dampen his spirits or weaken his resolve. This time, however, his decisions may continue to have a cost but it’s the people around him that suffer the consequences, upping the stakes and giving the character a real sense of weight and responsibility.

That’s not to say that the film isn’t funny, just that the jokes don’t come quite as thick and fast as before. Hiccup and Toothless’ interactions continue to be a source of wit and warmth, as they work – often simultaneously — on both their synchronicity and independence. Gobber (Craig Ferguson), meanwhile, continues to entertain with his assortment of replacement limbs, while Ruffnut earns arguably the biggest laughs of all with her feelings for Eret — much to the chagrin of both Snotlout and Fishlegs, who have by now given up on finding favour with Astrid and refocused their attention at Tuffnut’s twin. As before, the dragons are almost as engaging as their riders, and there is often so much going on in the background that you suspect repeated viewings may be once again necessary to enjoy every gag.

It’s the film’s villain that lets it down. While Hiccup’s mother is a welcome addition to the cast (though Blanchet’s Scottish accent could do with a bit of work), the other newcomers are nowhere near as memorable. Whereas every character in the first film felt fleshed out and integral to the plot, Harrington’s rogue never really coheres (even despite Ruffnut’s affections for him) while the big bad never feels like that much of a threat. Previously the conflict came from Hiccup’s strained relationship with his father, and next to that the antagonism he shares with Drago feels tenuous and beside the point. How To Train Your Dragon 2 just doesn’t feel as sharp or as streamlined as the first; Hiccup’s narration feels clunky and unnecessary as he introduces every viking and his dragon; the dragon races feel like a hangover from the spin-off TV series; and the happy ending doesn’t feel deserved after what is otherwise a pointedly traumatic third act.

How To Train Your Dragon 2 is still incredibly entertaining. The animation is even more astonishing than before, the flight scenes are just as stirring and though not quite as uplifting John Powell’s score is still a delight. It’s just a shame that in pushing for something bigger and broader DeBlois has lost track of the finer details that made the original such an unmitigated and unexpected success.

4-Stars

Snowpiercer (EIFF 2014)

SnowpiercerIt’s been seventeen years since the world froze over, the disastrous results of humanity’s vain attempts to reverse global warming, and the last surviving humans are confined to a self-sufficient, self-sustaining bullet train that circles the planet once every twelve months. The intervening years have seen a class system emerge aboard the train, with Curtis (Chris Evans) and his fellow refugees — nominally lead by Gilliam (John Hurt) — relegated to the rear compartments and Wilford (Ed Harris) entombed in the re-enforced engine. It’s Mason’s (Tilda Swinton) job to liaise between the two, but her unwelcome visits have only served to stoke the flames of rebellion.

For Bong Joon-Ho’s latest — an English-language adaptation of French graphic novel Le Transperceneige – the road to release has been a turbulent one. Having successfully fought the Weinstein Company for final cut, it’s the director’s vision that finally arrived in the UK this month via the 68th Edinburgh International Film Festival. It’s hard to imagine what a shorter version might look like, for Snowpiercer packs so much into its 126-minute running time that to remove anything at all would be to change the film considerably.

The first section of the movie is — bar a brief prologue establishing the premise — set entirely within the confines of the lattermost section of the train. It’s a dark and unforgiving place, where the inhabitants live in poverty, dine exclusively on gelatinous protein bars and line up under duress for regular inspections, where their numbers are counted, their children abducted and any signs of dissent quashed without mercy. For Curtis, the only reasons to hope are Gilliam, cryptic messages ostensibly sent from the front and the unbreakable promise of revolt.

The plan is for a mob of men to force their way to the brig, where they will find and free the man responsible for designing the train’s security systems. In theory, with his help they can proceed unimpeded all the way to the engine. Their target, Namgoong Minsoo (Song Kang-ho), however, has his own ideas, and takes the opportunity to free his daughter (Go Ah-Sung) and demand payment in drugs for his help opening the doors. Together with Edgar (Jamie Bell), Tanya (Octavia Spencer) and Grey (Luke Pasqualino), Curtins pushes on, meeting resistance of his own as Mason mirco-manages line after line of defense.

As horrific as the earlier scenes are, with characters being beaten and tortured for the trivialest of slights, it’s only once the rebels leave the tail section and their plight is shown in the harsh light of day that the true extent of their suffering becomes apparent. Snowpiercer is a dystopian sci-fi in the vein of The Matrix Reloaded, but it is also a darkly comic satire with a lot to say about the human condition. The absurd juxtaposition of Tilda Swinton’s distinctly Aardman-esque spokesperson, Alison Pill’s psychotic primary school teacher and Ed Harris’ fine-dining ruler is incredibly unsettling, and watching Evans move incredulously from carriage to carriage is as harrowing as it is heartbreaking.

Evans gives quite possibly the performance of his career, impressing throughout but really coming into his own for the final act, where a series of increasingly gut-wrenching revelations bring into question everything he thinks he knows about the train, and everything we think we know about him. Swinton is also on top form as Mason, instilling surprising complexity into a character that could quite easily have become caricatured. Few other actors get as much to do, but they each have their moments; Octavia Spencer when she learns that cigarettes aren’t as extinct as she’d been lead to believe, Bell when the revolution is jeopradised by an ill-timed inspection and Go when she first shows signs of prescience.

There are problems, however, and you do suspect that even this director’s cut is not the complete incarnation of the story. Luke Pasqualino’s character just appears out of nowhere, others are written out surprisingly early on and there are occasional gaps in the narrative that seem too glaring to have been overlooked by accident. Also problematic is the scenario itself, which doesn’t stand up to the simplest of scrutinies. Admittedly, there are numerous carriages that we don’t see, but for a supposedly strained civilisations life aboard the train is not as streamlined or austere as you would expect. The distribution of the carriages is strange and counter-intuitive, while there don’t seem to be anywhere near enough residential rooms for the on board population. Oh, and the less said about the ending the better.

For the most part, however, Snowpiercer is as great as they say. It’s a full-bodied sci-fi that’s as laughably absurd as it is hauntingly familiar. Still no word of a nationwide release, but Snowpiercer is not to be missed when it finally arrives in the UK.

4-Stars

 

Belle (2014)

BelleWell aware that the Royal Navy is no place for a young girl, Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) leaves his daughter in the care of his uncle, one William Murray (Tom Wilkinson), the Lord Chief Justice. Unlike her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), who also resides at the Murray’s Kenwood House estate, Dido Belle Lindsay (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is of mixed-race. While behind closed doors she may be a fully-fledged member of the family, in public she faces many of the same prejudices as any other non-white individual. Particularly affronted by her presence are the Ashfords, Lady Ashford (Miranda Richardson) and eldest son James (Tom Felton) especially, who practically balk every time they set eyes on her. However, when it is revealed that Belle in fact boasts a substantially larger dowry than Elizabeth, younger brother Oliver Ashford (James Norton) puts his prejudices aside long enough to ask for her hand in marriage. Belle’s own affections lie with John Davinier (Sam Reid), however, an aspiring and unusually liberal lawyer with a vested interest in the Gregson v. Gilbert case, over which Lord Mansfield is presiding.

Inspired by a portrait which today hangs at Scone Palace in Perthshire, Belle tells the extraordinary true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, who, in a unique example of 18th Century equality, is featured as predominantly as Lady Elizabeth Murray. What makes the story even more remarkable, however, is the role that Belle appears to have played in her great uncle’s career and in the politics of her time. Mansfield presided over two landmark cases, the latter of which is dramatised here. The Zong massacre, as it’s become known, concerned the killing of over a hundred African slaves, for which the owners had the gall to file an insurance claim, seeking compensation for the perceived loss of property. While the owners insisted that their actions were unavoidable, Dido and Davinier had evidence that the tragedy could have been averted.

Slavery is still very much a hot topic, not just in cinema thanks to 12 Years A Slave but in the real world too — where despite being illegal the world over there are still millions of slaves working today. While the film might pay lip-service to abolitionism and racial equality, however, it never really tackles the subject head-on. After all, protestation would be far too unbecoming of this pretty but ultimately quite petty little period picture, which spends much of its running time flittling between mama and papa, dealing with the same class wars that pervade almost all historical fiction, particularly when the focus is British gentry. The slave trade seems a long way off when you’re frolicking in the grounds with young socialites, and even when Dido is inevitably subject to racism as well as sexism it is hard to relate her individual struggle with that of those lost at sea. Everything is so polite, poised and proper that injustice seems rude rather than wrong.

Newcomer Mbatha-Raw impresses on a pantomime level, alternating didactically between confusion and concern, for she is rarely required to do more than purse her lips and furrow her brow. Misan Sagay’s script sounds authentic enough but seems to hinder the performances of anyone left to grapple with it. As is typical of most costume dramas there is a distinct discrepancy between language and expression in general; dialogue is stripped of nuance while actors are left rambling on long after the moment has passed and their convictions waned. Every character emotes, but very few manage to engage emotionally, which has disastrous consequences for poor Matthew Goode, who almost immediately sets the bar for stilted delivery, and for Tom Felton, who keeps vaulting it. Given how triumphant or devastating the climax should be (depending on which way Lord Mansfield rules and whether he gives Belle his blessing) it really is unforgivable just how anticlimactic it actually feels.

Dido Belle Lindsay is a historical curiosity, and if nothing else the film should be enough to convince you to seek out the portrait and learn more about a truly remarkable woman.  As a drama, however, Belle isn’t particularly special at all. It’s cold, tedious and impenetrable; it’s a strangely exclusive film that somewhat ironically preaches understanding and acceptance.

2-stars (1)

The Young And Prodigious T. S. Spivet (2014)

The Young And Prodigious T S SpivetThings haven’t been the same in the Spivet household since Layton (Jakob Davies) died. Sure, his older sister (Niamh Wilson) still wants to be Miss America, his mother (Helena Bonham Carter) still obsesses over insects and his father (Callum Keith Rennie) is still a cowboy out of time, but for young T. S. (Kyle Catlett) the tragedy still casts an incredibly large shadow. When T. S. — now 10 years old — receives a call from the Smithsonian Museum informing him that he has won their esteemed Baird prize for his work on perpetual motion he is at first reluctant to accept, but after some thought decides to leave a note for his family and set off alone on a journey that will take him from Montana to Washington DC.

Based on Reif Larsen’s 2009 bestseller The Selected Works Of T. S. Spivet, a book which defied convention by containing almost as many supplementary maps and annotations as plotted paragraphs, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s latest marks the director’s first English-language feature since Alien Resurrection. Tonally, and in just about every other sense too, the film bears a much greater resemblance to Jeunet’s more resent French works, including the almost universally adored Amélie. Quirky, colourful and surreal, The Young And Prodigious T. S. Spivet is everything audiences have come to expect from the auteur.

As ever, it’s writer, director, producer Jeunet’s eccentric approach to characterisation that sets his film apart from Hollywood’s rather more homogenised attempts at coming-of-age drama. Even the deliciously dark A Series Of Unfortunate Events ultimately failed to break the mould for bonkers but not too bleak bildungsroman. T. S. is a gifted but troubled soul, and though he may be prone to flights of fancy and borderline Autistic asides there is real guilt, grief and regret at the character’s heart. Newcomer Catlett carries it off beautifully, and unlike most child actors he sells the character’s weaknesses with as much success as his innocent pluck.

T.S. Spivet is full of great characters — from Bonham-Carter’s tiger monk beetle-obsessed Dr. Claire to T. S.’s insecure science teacher, who dismisses his pupil’s homework assignments only to be shown that they’ve been erstwhile published in respected scientific journals — but they are sadly squandered on a scattering of half-realised scenes. Although it is in fact adapted from one book, The Young And Prodigious T. S. Spivet feels as though it has been carelessly assembled from episodes taken from across a series, for the various subplots are often awkward and disjointed, refusing to come together in any satisfying way. The ending is particularly disappointing, as T.S.’s issues are finally aired and put to rest — not with his family by his side, but on a televised chat show orchestrated and overseen by Judy Davis’ conniving Jibsen.

The Young And Prodigious T. S. Spivet looks great (particularly in 3D), goes to some pretty dark places (there is a reason T. S. feels responsible for his brother’s death) and boasts some fine performances (if you don’t remember Wilson from the Saw series then you will from this) but despite its many strengths the lacklustre narrative means that it ultimately disappoints. While idiosyncrasy in a character can be cute, when it comes to narrative shape and structure sometimes it pays to be a little more conventional.

3-Stars

 

 

Grace Of Monaco (2014)

Grace of MonacoBack in 1961 Grace Kelly (Nicole Kidman) was taking her first shaky steps on the road to becoming Princess Grace of Monaco. While her new husband, Prince Rainier (Tim Roth), wages a war of words over taxes with French president Charles Des Gaulles (Andre Penvern), Grace is approached by her old friend, Alfred Hitchcock (Roger Ashton-Griffiths ), who wants her to star in his new picture, Marnie. Torn between returning to Hollywood and her duties as princess, Grace seeks guidance from Father Francis Tucker (Frank Langella), Count Fernando D’Ailieres (Derek Jacobi) and PR guru Rupert Allen (Milo Ventimiglia) in the hope of winning the respect of her subjects and making the most of what might well be the greatest role of her career.

Thanks to The Diana Effect, by which every biopic since Oliver Hirschbiegel’s account of Princess Diana’s final few years appears at least twice as accomplished than it actually is, it was possible to watch Mandela: The Long Walk To Freedom and see something almost noble and inteligent. Even with Hirschbiegel in mind, however, Grace Of Monaco still makes for irredeemably grim viewing, and may even come out of the comparison looking worse for it. Whereas Diana was laughable, maddening and cheesy beyond belief, Olivier Dahan’s Grace Of Monaco is blandly beige, stiflingly sincere and almost completely lifeless.

Nevertheless, the similarities are striking, at least to begin with. Both films star celebrated Australian actresses playing much-loved European royalty, yet neither film seems to have that much faith in their abilities; like Diana, Grace Of Monaco opens with a shot of the back of its namesake’s head, a shot which becomes a sequence and ultimately lasts for a string of increasingly strained scenes. Little do you know, but by the time the director has built up the courage to deal with his star head on the most successful part of the film is long over, and from this point on it will only get progressively worse. At least from behind it was possible to imagine that you were watching Grace Kelly.

It would be impossible to comprehensively list Dahan’s film’s failings, but the following examples may give you a distinct flavour. In addition to Kidman, who is decades too old and much too innocuous for the role, Dahan has also miscast Roger Ashton-Griffiths as Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Lindsay as a French aristocrat and Tim Roth as the film’s romantic lead. This is a movie in which the supposedly real car journeys look as fake as the film-within-a-film ones featured earlier, where Grace Kelly — one of the greatest screen actresses in Hollywood history — is taught to look surprised by Last Tango In Halifax‘s Derek Jacobi, and which spends much of its running time in extreme close-up for no apparent reason, only serving to emphasise the dearth of similarity.

If the film has a loose grip of its heroine (Nicole — never Grace — says family is everything, yet you barely see her children) then it has an even weaker grasp of its historical setting. Grace seems completely unconcerned with the local politics (“Oh, but colonialism is so last century”) but wonders why her subjects treat her with as much apathy. She’s far more concerned with Marnie, the script that has been personally delivered to her by Alfred Hitchcock. Unfortunately, neither is much of a story (Monaco never did go to war, while Tippi Hedren ultimately won the role of Marnie), and the would-be plight of the overprivelaged Monacans and their uninterested Princess struggles to elicit any real sympathy.

At one point towards the end of the film, shortly before Grace single-handedly averts war by delivering muffins to soldiers, throwing a big ball and learning to look sad, she and Prince Rainier talk dismissively of Monaco’s “silly old throne”. It’s quite possibly the worst scene of the year, though in a film that gives it so much competition it’s almost impossible to be sure. When even the characters are questioning the point of it all you can’t help but feel that they’re wasting their own time as well as everyone else’s.

1-Star

 

May 2014 – Flattered grin, followed by a dashful half smile

Having had to cut down on films last month in order to complete the West Highland Way, I returned to the cinema with a vengeance in May in order to catch up on everything I’d missed.

I caught Next Goal Wins, Frank, The Wind Rises and The Two Faces Of January at the first press day of the month, enjoying the first two before having my patience tested by the others. This was followed a fortnight later by Godzilla, Postman Pat: The Movie, Fading Gigolo, Venus In Fur and Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return, none of which made a particularly large impression.

I also saw Bad Neighbours, the latest and in my opinion best comedy from Nicholas Stoller, X-Men: Days Of Future Past, a film which defied all expectations by being really rather great, and Maleficent, which was almost as disappointing as X-Men was surprising. I should have a review of A Million Days To Die In The West online in the next few days.

Meanwhile, having written a chronological ordering of the extant X-Men movies in the months prior to its release, I took the opportunity after having finally watched Days Of Future Past to re-evaluate the franchise as a whole.

Now, however, it’s all eyes on June, with the Edinburgh International Film Festival set to begin anew on the 18th of next month. I hope to see some of you there.

Film of the month: X-Men: Days Of Future Past 3D

 

Jimmy’s Hall (2014)

Jimmys HallTen years after Jimmy Gralton (Barry Ward) left Ireland to start a new life in the US he returned home to help his elderly mother (Eileen Henry) on the family farm. Not everyone is happy to see him, however, and old rivalries reassert themselves when he reopens his old music hall to serve the residents of the village. While the church and local government conspire to close it down once and for all, afraid that it might threaten their theological and political hold on the townsfolk, Jimmy reconnects with his childhood sweetheart Oonagh (Simone Kirby), who is now married with children.

The film opens with archive footage of 1930s New York, intercut with a short introductory slideshow for audience members perhaps unfamiliar with the historical context of Southern Ireland (though for all its talk of Communism, Catholicism and Los Angelesisation the story is surprisingly simplistic and unspecific — this isn’t really a film about Ireland at all). We then cut to County Leitrim, where Jimmy is arriving by horse and cart. What follows is a lengthy, languorous introduction to the characters and country life, filling us in on the hall’s troubled past and setting up the various conflicts which the narrative will eventually address. It’s all pretty nuts and bolts stuff, then, with precious little in the way of style or substance.

Jimmy’s hall isn’t much to look at, but we’re told that it means a great deal to the community; after all, thanks to those four walls the local youth no longer have to dance in the street. It’s location is controversial, for reasons that it’s not really worth getting into, and the structure’s future is in question, thanks to Jim Norton’s puritanical Father Sheridan. Not exactly high stakes stuff, is it? The low rumble of Godzilla laying waste to San Francisco or Wolverine battling Sentinels in the neighbouring screens will likely be more than enough to draw your attention away from the latest peaceful protest outside the gates of the town hall. There is only so much time you can willingly spend watching a man watching other people dance.

Admittedly, being boring is Jimmy’s Hall‘s only real crime, for it’s otherwise reasonably well directed, nicely shot and sensitively acted. Ward is competent enough in the leading role, and it’s easy to sympathise with his struggles against local conservatism and corruption. It’s the supporting cast who really shine, however, begging the question of why Jimmy was singled out as the lead. It’s their hall as much as his, and either Kirby or Aisling Francoisi (as a young girl beaten for her secular beliefs) would have made far more compelling focal point for the movie. Arguably the film’s most interesting relationship is that between Father Sheridan and Andrew Scott’s Father Seamus, who are united in faith but divided by generation. Sadly, their difference of opinion goes largely unexplored.

Jimmy’s Hall is based on a play which is itself based on true events — Jimmy Gralton is to this day the only Irish national to have ever been deported from Ireland. As far as historical footnotes go it’s reasonably diverting, but not even Ken Loach can turn it into a dramatic and dynamic feature film. Maybe there are some stories which can safely stay untold.

2-stars

Edge Of Tomorrow (2014)

Edge Of TomorrowFollowing a devastating meteor strike, an alien parasite has invaded Earth and made short work of the human race. Major William Cage (Tom Cruise), a media officer for the military, is summoned by his superior (Brendan Gleeson) and informed that he is to follow the last regiments into battle. Unwilling to comply, Cage attempts to blackmail him, but this quickly backfires as he is branded a deserter, demoted to private and left to deploy with everyone else. Five minutes into battle, however, his regiment is overwhelmed and William Cage is killed, only for him to wake up hours earlier ready to live the day again. Through innumerable repetitions of D-day, Cage learns that the aliens have the ability to time-travel — which explains the speed with which they have overwhelmed humanity — and that by inadvertently killing an ‘Alpha’ he has inherited that ability. Seeking tutelage from Full Metal Bitch, Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), a soldier familiar with the phenomenon, Cage learns to control his newfound power and plots to use it against the enemy.

Based on Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s novel, All You Need Is Kill, but subsequently renamed Edge of Tomorrow for its theatrical release, Doug Liman’s latest film is a melting pot of influences and a hodgepodge of homages to other, often better movies. Take the time-travel mechanics from Groundhog Day, the creature classifications from Starship Troopers and the creature designs from Grabbers and you have Edge Of Tomorrow, not so much a derivation as a two-hour-long sense of deja vu. You’ve got the grass-roots perspective from Battle: Los Angeles, the aesthetic of The Matrix (the real world sections, anyway) and the foghorn cues from Hans Zimmer’s Inception OST. Some have suggested that Edge of Tomorrow is really a video game movie at heart — that the resets aren’t anything to do with time-travel but rather a return to the last save point as in most platformers — but really that’s ascribing it an originality that it simply doesn’t have.

What is remarkable about Edge Of Tomorrow, however, are the characters that inhabit it. As with The Bourne Identity, Mr and Mrs Smith and even Jumper, Liman has used cliché and contrivance to establish a familiar world only to have his audience view it through rather less familiar eyes. Jason Bourne wasn’t your typical secret agent, the Smith’s were more than just spies and David Rice wasn’t predisposed to use his superpowers for the betterment of mankind. Similarly, Cage isn’t your usual grunt, but instead a cowardly officer who — given the chance — would sooner betray his country than defend it. As character arcs go it is perhaps not the subtlest, but Cruise nevertheless succeeds in making it compelling. It’s Blunt who really shines, however, as someone who once had great power, has been shaped by it, but now must watch powerlessly as someone else seizes her destiny. She too is painted in relatively broad strokes — from Full Metal Bitch to sensitive love interest in the space of a day — but it’s just enough to set Edge Of Tomorrow apart from the norm.

While it’s easy enough to invest in the characters, the plot is somewhat harder to crack. The alien invaders are shown to be incredibly effective killers — with or without the upper-hand afforded them by time-travel — but you get very little sense of how they actually operate. These things bury under-ground, roll over-ground, can swim, and are able to fire projectiles; on the off-chance that their enemies manage to defy the odds and win the ‘Brain’ can simply reset time, having learnt their strategy and reformulated their tactics accordingly. Cage, and before him Vrataski, inherited this ability when they killed an Alpha, though the latter ultimately lost it when it — whatever it might be — left her bloodstream. It’s not entirely clear how she knows this (surely the only way to be sure would be to die and then not wake up again) or how it then entered Cage’s bloodstream (we only see the Alpha’s blood spatter his face), you just have to take the script’s word for it. The biggest problem is the ending, however — “How can they possible get out of this one?”, you might find yourself asking, after the fact, because thanks to scrappy editing and incomprehensible plotting it’s likely that you’ll never be quite sure of that either.

Edge Of Tomorrow is perfectly good fun, with some colourful characters and a time travel device that Liman gets a few good laughs out of. Expect any more than that, however, and you are bound to be disappointed. The film makes about as much sense as its title — either of them.

3-Stars

Maleficent (2014)

MaleficentWhen Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) falls for Stefan (Sharlto Copley), it seems that the human and fairy realms might finally exist together in harmony. Unfortunately, Stefan is corrupted by the power promised to him by King Henry, and severs Maleficent’s wings in order to prove himself worthy of the throne. Maleficent craves revenge, and curses Stefan’s firstborn daughter to eternal sleep on her sixteenth birthday. Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) is hidden away by the new king, entrusted to a trio of good fairies (Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple) who promise to protect her until the curse has lifted. They prove incapable of raising the child, however, and Maleficent begins to take pity on her. Together with her raven sidekick (Sam Riley), Maleficent watches over the child, even befriending her when she comes of age. Even she if unable to lift the spell, however, having only included a single loophole: true love’s kiss. For this she must employ the help of Prince Philip (Brenton Thwaites), who met Aurora only hours before the curse took effect.

Though not without its old-fashioned charms, Sleeping Beauty was never one of Walt Disney’s best fairy tale films. The likes of Snow White, Cinderella and Ariel have enchanted little girls for decades, whereas Princess Aurora hasn’t had quite the same enduring appeal. Now, especially, with the likes of Tangled and Frozen telling audiences to be strong and independent, the story of a sleeping sixteen-year-old waiting to be saved by true love’s first kiss seems not just quaint but backwards. With Disney revisiting its classics for a series of live-action remakes the time seemed right for a 21st Century makeover, doing for Aurora what Alice in Wonderland and Snow White and the Huntsman had done for her peers. Maleficent had always been the most interesting character in Sleeping Beauty, and the studio’s decision to focus on the villain with Angelina Jolie in the leading role was met with intrigue and excitement.

The problem, however, was that neither Alice in Wonderland nor Snow White and the Huntsman were any good. Disney seemed unable to distance itself from its own source material, and rather than brave new imaginings what audiences received instead were hollow retreads of past glories. Big-name casts, impressive special effects and epic final battles were no substitute for the timeless magic of the earlier films, and Maleficent does almost nothing to buck this trend. The truth is that Shrek (DreamWorks) and Enchanted (developed outwith the studio before being bought by Disney) did more to shake up the traditional princess formula than any of these film-specific remakes, with the latter in particular already providing a modern update of the character in the form of Susan Sarandon’s despicable Queen Narissa. Rather than redefine Maleficient, Robert Stromberg’s film undermines her.

There was great potential for a deliciously dark comedy chronicling the ultimately doomed attempts of Maleficent to exact her revenge on King Stefan and his daughter (think Catwoman in Batman Returns or Winifred Sanderson in Disney’s own Hocus Pocus) — and there are occasional glimpses of it in Jolie’s occasionally remarkable performance. Her initial disdain for children and reaction to Aurora mistaking her for a fairy godmother are indeed smirk-worthy, but for the most part the actress is wasted on drab dialogue and repetitive scenes of shadowy sulking, which is a shame because she at least looks the part. The film robs her of her villainy, and by extension her place in the narrative; we are told through endless voiceover that Maleficent really isn’t so bad, and that she in fact regrets cursing the girl almost from the moment she does it. She then spends the rest of the movie nurturing the princess, trying to save her from her own curse. If Sleeping Beauty denied Aurora her agency, this film does the same for Maleficent.

As a result Maleficent doesn’t have a story to tell — no momentum, no stakes. Not that that has stopped Stromberg, who somehow manages to fill 97 minutes with…well, filler. The film takes place over approximately thirty years; for some reason we are introduced to Maleficent in her own childhood, decades before the original story started, in order to watch Maleficent fall in and out of love. You’ve already lost patience with it by the time Aurora is born, and even then it’s sixteen years before the curse kicks into effect and the drama really begins. Ostensibly a children’s film, audiences spend most of their time watching adults sulk; yet the film is far too immature and innocent to appeal to parents. When the story finally shifts to young lovers-at-first-sight Elle Fanning and Brenton Thwaites it is almost at its end, and both are quickly sidelined once more so that Jolie can have her final showdown with Sharlto Copley’s King Stefan.

Considering this is a project that has been in development since at least 2011, Maleficent is an incoherent mess. I don’t know who the continuity advisor was, or if the film even had one, but at times it’s almost impossible to understand what’s going on. Aurora is swept between the human and fairy worlds for apparently no reason, Maleficent switches costumes almost with every edit and Prince Philip disappears and reappears as if at random. What is Maleficent trying to do? Who is this movie for? What on earth is going on? If the filmmakers don’t know after three years of development, how do they expect viewers to work it out in 97 minutes — however long they seem to last. One thing’s for certain: it’s not just Aurora who Maleficent will have regretfully put to sleep.

2-stars

 

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