In the Heart of the Sea (2015)

In the Heart of the SeaHerman Melville (Ben Whishaw) has become preoccupied with the story of the Essex, and, convinced that the only way to rid himself of his latest obsession is to commit it to the page, travels to Nantucket where he has arranged to speak with the only surviving crewmember. Reluctantly, Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) recalls his experiences as a cabin boy (Tom Holland) under novice captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and his rather more experienced first officer, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth). Fast foes, the pair are determined to be rid of one another as quickly as possible, and in their haste steer the Essex into unfamiliar waters after hearing tales of a bounty of sperm whales in the remote Offshore Grounds. In so doing, however, they ignore another rumour, of an enormous white whale intent on destroying any ship that crosses its pod.

Prior to the release of the first trailer, buzz for In the Heart of the Sea was relatively positive. Ron Howard had just made Rush with Chris Hemsworth, a compelling sports drama with a charismatic lead, and had put together an impressive cast for their next film together, the story behind one of the greatest American novels ever written. The trailer changed everything, however, as discussion soon turned to the famous white whale, and how poorly rendered it appeared in the various effects shots that dominated the footage. For while Melville’s novel might have been a treatise on race, religion and revenge, in which the whale is as much metaphor as monster, Howard’s adaptation seemed to be positioning itself as a disaster cum survival movie in the blockbuster, in which the whale attacks were the main draw. The only problem? It didn’t look as though anyone involved had ever seen a whale before. Had Moby Dick already sunk its own adaptation?

It might come as something of a surprise, then, but In the Heart of the Sea isn’t nearly as bad as it looks. It’s no classic — nor is it even another Rush — but there is more going on than anyone had any real reason to expect. For one, the narrative device employing Herman and Nickerson is not only a more substantial part of the movie, it is also one of the most memorable. There is never any threat that the story won’t be told — history tells us otherwise, as does the poster for the film — but it makes for engaging drama nonetheless. With Michelle Fairley providing support as Thomas’ wife, the trio quickly build an uncanny rapport that foregrounds their subplot against the rather more more straightforward main narrative. Hemsworth is compelling as ever, but his characterisation — and his conflict with Pollard — is so by the numbers and predictable as to nullify any perceptible dramatic tension. There is a slightly unreal aesthetic to the film, and whether or not the performances are meant to ape that quality, their rivalry does feel a little cartoonish at times.

In context, meanwhile, the whale doesn’t look any more realistic, nor do the pods of regular-sized sperm whales that feature throughout, but Howard finds other ways of provoking a visceral reaction. The film doesn’t shy away from the butchery and barbarism of the whaling industry, and there are a number of shots demonstrating both the hunting and harvesting of these animals that really gets beneath the skin, no pun intended, and leads to some pretty interesting places. (When it is revealled that oil can now be extracted straight from the planet, you really fear for our poor little world.) Tom Holland is exceptional throughout as the young Nickerson, but never better than when forced into the carcass of a freshly harpooned whale and told to extract the more hard to reach pockets of oil from its depths. It’s an upsetting scene, and Thomas’ own tumult is plain to see. That is to say, then, that the whale’s retribution feels perfectly justified, leaving the real horror to come from the survivors’ own treatment of one another. Life of Pi and Unbroken didn’t shy away from desperation, but even within the boundaries of its 12A rating In the Heart of the Sea really makes you question not just the value of survival, but the very essence of humanity.

Not swashbuckling enough to compete with Star Wars, and not substantial enough to convince as any sort of counterpoint, it’s unclear exactly which audience Howard is fishing for. Like Blackhat, another of Hemsworth’s 2015 efforts that suffered a similar issue, however, it might yet make its bounty back on DVD. By the power of Thor — and Spider-man, too — if nothing else.

3-Stars

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Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015)

Star Wars[Spoiler Alert] Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is missing, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) have deserted, leaving the fate of the galaxy in the hands of the New Republic and its Resistance, now lead by Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). When her star pilot (Oscar Isaac) is captured by the First Order, the new face of the Galactic Empire, he entrusts vital information concerning Skywalker’s whereabouts to a droid who is left on the planet of Jakku. There it seeks assistance from Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger who, along with reformed Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), agrees to return it to the Resistance, steeling a ride aboard an abandoned Millennium Falcon and narrowly escaping the clutches of General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). The First Order have other plans for the Resistance, however, mostly involving a new weapon that makes the Death Star look like a Jedi training ball. [Spoiler Alert]

When the first of George Lucas’ prequel films was released in 1999 it was met with widespread disdain, with most criticising the fact that the film was too different from the original trilogy. What was once a story about rebellion was now a treatise on trade law; where once the galaxy had felt lived-in and battle-damaged it now sparkled and shone; while what in childhood had once inspired wonderment and awe now seemed to adult eyes childish and insipid. Nobody seemed to notice the similarities: this was once again the story of an inexperienced Jedi, plucked from obscurity on a distant desert planet and thrust into the midst of an apparently eternal struggle between good and evil. For this consistency, for his single-minded determination to make films that served the ongoing franchise he had conceived rather than the fanbase that had adopted it, he was met with ridicule and contempt, and was ultimately forced to relinquish control of his creation. Because in this day and age, even in cinema, it appears the customer is always right.

Disney bought Lucasfilm for $4 billion, and gave J. J. Abrams the job of rejuvenating the franchise, or rather redeeming it in the eyes of the most vocal members of its audience. He had previous experience, having recently restored Star Trek to perceived relevancy with his 2009 reboot, so his appointment was welcomed by many, even as Star Trek‘s own fanbase criticised him for taking too much of a revisionist approach to their beloved continuity. Whether as a reaction to this, or because of his own self-professed love for the original trilogy, Abrams soon sought to reassure fans that Star Wars: The Force Awakens would be a continuation of the saga made by the fans for the fans, even as he avoided referring to it as Episode VII and thus risk placing it in the wider, prequel-recognising series (though this subtitle was thankfully reinstated for the theatrical release). In keeping with this populist approach, stars Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher were re-signed, while all involved took every opportunity to satisfy fans that the less illustrious elements of the galaxy far, far away — the Gungans, Ewoks and midichlorians of Lucas’ world — would not appear. Whether it made sense within the story for them to or not.

The result is a film that bears a closer resemblance to A New Hope than even The Phantom Menace (there’s no pod-racing or choral choirs to distinguish The Force Awakens). Lucas often spoke of the poetry of his Star Wars saga, of a story that echoed down the generations, and there is an undeniable symmetry to the original and prequel trilogies. With Lucas gone, however, disharmony has crept in, and there’s an element of confusion to this latest stanza, the discord of an imperfect rhyme. The Force Awakens features familiar worlds with unfamiliar names, recognisable characters with unrecognisable faces, and traditional themes refracted in non-traditional ways. It’s uncanny at times, particularly where the returning characters are concerned. Like pastiche, like pantomime, there is a celebratory, self-congratulatory quality to The Force Awakens that feels out of place in a universe used to such high stakes, of galaxy-obliterating super-weapons and fatal family feuds. Everyone seems too happy, too eager to please, with past conflicts forgotten in favour of an out-of-place comfort. Even the perennially pessimistic C-3PO seems uncharacteristically content, as if scared to upset the film’s fervent following and therefore risk expulsion from future instalments. After all, who would want to be the next Jar Jar Binks?

None of this is to suggest that The Force Awakens isn’t enjoyable, because it undoubtedly is, or that is doesn’t take any risks, because it does. The film is fast, frenetic fun, J. J.  Abrams ensuring that the pace doesn’t let up long enough for the plot holes to register, while his decision to cast trained actors instead of matinee idols pays dividends in the work of the key newcomers, who break the blockbuster mould in a number of refreshing ways, even if their talents rather outshine those of the established cast. Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Oscar Isaac are all terrific actors, the best (and most diverse) the series has ever seen, but they’re somewhat hamstrung by characters who don’t make a whole lot of sense. Their backstories and motivations are either concealed or contrived, so that Rey keeps alluding to a childhood trauma that is never elucidated on and Finn is left to make decisions completely at odds with everything we know about his background. Abrams just doesn’t have the same flair for iconography that Lucas did, and has made a career out of playing with other people’s creations. Jedi has become a recognised religion, while the ships, worlds and even jargon of Star Wars transcend not just the series but cinema itself. Even the prequels registered and resonated with the public consciousness, with their battle droids, padawan learners and Order 66 entering the wider lexicon. Nothing invented specifically for Abrams’ film makes quite the same impression — except perhaps BB-8.

At times The Force Awakens feels more like fan-service than film-making, and come film’s end it’s questionable whether Abrams’ has added anything new to the Star Wars mythology. It’s strange, therefore, that he should have been so wary of spoilers getting out in the first place. As with Star Trek, he pre-empted this not just with heightened security but with misinformation, so that he wasn’t just mollifying audiences but misleading them. That’s not all it has in common with Star Trek (and, for that matter, Star Trek Into Darkness), for only in its last few moments does Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens promise anything resembling a new direction, by which time everyone’s too relieved to criticise such an unsatisfying ending. The Force may have awoken, but to what end is not yet clear.

3-Stars

Snoopy and Charlie Brown – The Peanuts Movie (2015)

SnoopyWhen a new, red-haired girl joins his class, Charlie Brown (Noah Schnapp) is determined that she should see him for the good, kind-hearted person he is, rather than the hopeless clutz his classmates believe him to be. After seeking council from Lucy (Hadley Belle Miller), Charlie comes to the conclusion that confidence is key, and throws himself into a number of new hobbies in the hope that one of them might impress the new girl. Charlie’s crush rubs off on Snoopy (Bill Melendez), his beagle, who conjured up a love interest of his own using an old typewriter salvaged from his master’s school. Together with Woodstock, he embarks on an imagined adventure to free Fifi (Kristin Chenoweth) from the clutches of a evil pilot.

It’s been a strange year for animation — both DreamWorks and Pixar have disappointed over the last twelve months, the former with Home and the latter with The Good Dinosaur — leaving the genre to be ruled by other, less illustrious studios. Inside Out was good fun, and garnered some very enthusiastic reviews, but 2015’s best animations have come from rather more surprising sources. The Ireland-based Cartoon Saloon gave us Song of the Sea, Paramount Animation gave us The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water, and now Blue Sky — you heard that right, Blue Sky — has given us Snoopy and Charlie Brown: The Peanuts Movie, a computer-generated revamp of the familiar characters immortalised in Charles M. Schulz’ comic strips.

Perhaps inevitably, the film is preceded by an uninspiring Ice Age short (as I said, Blue Sky), in which Scrat, having finished rearranging the tectonic plates, heads out into space to play pool with the other planets (really). It’s the studio at its worst, and doesn’t exactly bode well for what is to follow. After all, it wasn’t that long that another classic cartoon character — Postman Pat — was given the Hollywood treatment, which resulted in not only one of the worst movies of 2014, but one of the most misjudged adaptations of all time. Not that it’s easy to make a dated character relevant to new audiences, but thankfully director Steve Martino knows better than to pit Charlie Brown against an army of robot doppelgangers. There is a talent show, admittedly, but it’s not judged by Simon Cowbell.

No, The Peanuts Movie opts for a more honest approach, clearly realising that although popular culture may have changed considerably since Charlie Brown’s heyday in the 50s, the things children want from it really hasn’t. Children’s cinema is full of lovable losers, many of whom have likely been inspired by Charlie Brown, and it’s the character’s insecurities that form the focus of the resultant film. Unlike other CGI animations preoccupied with pushing the envelope or pandering to parents, Martino’s has aimed his squarely at a younger audience, who are unlikely to be interested in realism or innuendo. That said, Blue Sky have done a tremendous job of translating the original artwork to the big screen, and whether it’s the dirt-cloud shadowing Pig-Pen or the imagined adventures of Snoopy and Woodstock in their ongoing antagonism with the Red Baron, the animation — and its 3D conversion — are beautifully rendered.

The story might never match the animation in terms of sophistication, but there is a simplicity and sweetness to it that is just irresistible. Charlie Brown might have surprised himself, but Blue Sky have surely surprised us all.

3-Stars

The Good Dinosaur (2015)

The Good Dinosaur66 million years ago an asteroid missed the earth, and its dinosaur inhabitants lived happily ever after. The End. Some time later, on an a remote outpost somewhere in America, three Apatosaurus are born to a family of farmers. The youngest, named Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), is smaller than his siblings, and struggles with his assorted duties, the most recent of which involves guarding the family’s food stores from a pesky hominid (Jack Bright) who keeps helping himself to their corn. When Arlo and Spot (as the former comes to call him) are washed hundreds of miles downriver by floodwater, they must join forces if they are going to make their way back home in time for first snow, and survive encounters with various other dinosaurs looking to fill their stomachs before winter sets in.

Pixar have, by and large, always known which questions to ask of their audience. What do your toys get up to when you’re not around? Why are there monsters under your bed? What exactly is going on inside your head? Obviously, these creative quandaries feed the imagination of young children who don’t know any better, but they are also intuitive and insightful enough to inspire those who really should. At their simplest, the premise of every Pixar film makes sense to children young and old on a level unspoiled by sense or reason. For these are questions that have been asked by all, at one point or another in their lives, whether yesterday or yesteryear. Their latest, The Good Dinosaur, has such a hook — What if the dinosaurs didn’t die out? — but unlike the rest of their set-ups, this one lacks a satisfying answer. Worse than that, it’s not even coherent.

Like the asteroid seen bypassing the planet in its opening moments, The Good Dinosaur is pretty wide of the mark. When you consider the success Pixar has had spit-balling ideas about fish, rats and old people it is quite simply inconceivable that they’d hit a creative wall here, with dinosaurs, and think of nothing better to do than cast them in a western…for some reason. There was that scene in The Lost World: Jurassic Park that saw a pack of velociraptors chase Jeff Goldblum through a cornfield, but generally speaking dinosaurs and farming don’t exactly go hand in hand. That the film conspires to have sauropods plough fields to collect corn, which is then stored in a totemic silo that could not possibly have been built by quadrupeds is just the first in a long line of creative decisions that leave you wondering if you’re watching the latest Blue Sky animation by mistake, or maybe a prehistoric prequel to the studio’s much-maligned Cars series. After all, if dinosaurs can learn to sow and harvest crops, then what’s stopping them from evolving wheels and a thresher? Heck, Tyrannosaur’s can even gallop now.

Director Peter Sohn has clearly gone to great pains to replicate the American northwest setting, to the point that the animation borders on being photorealistic, but rather than show his characters the same reverence he has gone in the opposite direction. Arlo is unmistakably a dinosaur, but the resemblance isn’t much stronger than that of a balloon animal to an actual animal. It’s not just that he’s not particularly visually interesting either; scratch beneath the surface and the whole character just deflates into nothing. Has Pixar ever produced a less compelling protagonist? Not since A Bug’s Life has a main character appeared so anonymous — and that was a film about ants! This is all the more remarkable given how many traits Arlo has in common with Rex, the studio’s only other dinosaur character to date, and one of its best loved. It’s hard to remain focused on someone so plain when there is such depth and detail in the background, and Arlo’s motivations (he wants to put his stamp on the aforementioned silo, but first he has to earn it) are so completely uninvolving that you really do find yourself admiring the river’s keenly observed currents instead.

The Good Dinosaur is not without its moments, most of which can be attributed to the character of Spot (or traced back to an all too fleeting appearance from Forrest Woodbush, a Styracosaurus with serious squad goalsvoiced by Sohn himself), but for the most part it fails even to register as entertainment — more a handsome screensaver with a crude cartoon photoshopped onto it. It might not be Pixar’s worst film, but it is certainly their least enjoyable, and not just for the adult contingent left feeling betrayed by a studio that usually caters to all; after the multi-monster melee that closed Jurassic World it’s hard to imagine anyone but the youngest, most unassuming children getting excited about a C-list dinosaur who’s afraid of bloody birds. Even the name is underwhelming: since when did Pixar settle for good?

2-stars

 

SPECTRE (2015)

SpectrePosthumously ordered to Mexico by the previous M (Judi Dench) to kill Marco Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona), James Bond (Daniel Craig) uncovers a secret organisation that connects Quantum and the deceased cyberterrorist Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem). He infiltrates a meeting of SPECTRE in Rome, following a tip-off from Sciarra’s widow (Monica Bellucci), where he is introduced to the group’s leader, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz). Henchman Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista) is dispatched to take care of Bond, stalking him all the way to Austria — to the workplace of Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), who 007 has promised to protect in exchange for Oberhauser’s location. With Bond AWOL, and both Q (Ben Whishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) suspected of aiding and abetting his illicit investigations, M (Ralph Fiennes) finds himself in conflict with C (Andrew Scott), who wants to disband the 00 programme as part of a controversial reform of the secret service that will see MI5 and MI6 merged to form a Joint Intelligence Service.

The James Bond film series is a mess, and always has been. Spanning over fifty years and twenty-four movies it has seen the lead role re-cast, the creative team replaced, and the narrative revised so often that James Bond now exists more as an icon than a character. It is this iconography that holds the series together, so that a Bond movie is as identifiable for containing a Bond girl and a Bond villain as it is for featuring Bond himself – heck, the main character has to introduce himself at the outset of every movie just so that the audience knows who is on this particular occasion supposed to be playing him. This formula has produced a number of memorable adventures, but the repetitiveness has made it predictable and over time this has rendered it rote. There is no character development, no narrative progression, no end in sight, just an apparently endless succession of explosions and innuendo that can sometimes stimulate but can rarely satisfy.

It is for this reason that Sam Mendes’ Skyfall — EON’s twenty-third production — was such a success, both critically and commercially. Tasked with celebrating fifty years of Bond, Mendes was really the first director to sit down and think about who the character is or where the series might be going. Even the fact that he was ostensibly operating in a rebooted timeline barely two films old couldn’t stop him from producing the most engaging and comprehensive Bond movie in decades — one that was both emotionally resonant and culturally significant. Skyfall simultaneously operated both within and outwith the series’ established continuity, referencing previous adventures while reinstating fan favourite characters who were nevertheless unknown to Bond. This allowed Mendes to comment on or even slyly mock established tropes while also hitting all of the usual marks. It was at once a standalone adventure and a distillation of everything the series stood for; in many ways it was the definitive Bond movie, and may either have been used to bring one of cinemas longest running sagas to a triumphant conclusion or stand it in good stead to see out the rest of the century.

Obviously, there was little chance that Sony was going to retire one of its most celebrated and lucrative tentpoles, and the existence of SPECTRE shows that of the two options it was going to go with the latter. To the film’s credit, it approaches the idea that James Bond has to adapt to survive head on: Andrew Scott’s character explicitly questions the relevance and validity of the 00 programme in the 21st Century, and spearheads a Joint Intelligence Programme that favours surveillance over espionage. Unfortunately, however, it stops at lip-service, and rather than reach for new horizons the film — as its name suggests — resurrects an organisation that hasn’t been seen onscreen since 1971 to concern itself with instead. Mendes, who after much convincing agreed to return for SPECTRE, is clearly aware of his film’s shortcomings, but having killed M off at the end of Skyfall he is no longer able to refocus attention away from narrative inconsistencies and onto the characters. He overcompensates, contriving to retcon a shared history between Bond and his latest antagonist, but it is neither as convincing or as compelling as the relationship he once had with M. Realistically speaking SPECTRE may only be as incomprehensible as half the other films in the series (it’s certainly as stylish), but after Skyfall it feels all the more inconsequential.

In an age of shared universes and multimedia storytelling, Bond really is beginning to show his age. Like Skyfall, SPECTRE may continue to mirror and directly reference past events (though a fight on a train and a video tape labelled Vespa barely registers as fan-service at a time where Marvel is cross-pollinating between sub-franchises and Fox is commissioning films with the express intention of reinstating some semblance of continuity) but it doesn’t have the same focus or sense of purpose as its predecessor — it confuses matters when it should be clarifying them. Rather than use Skyfall as a jumping off point for new adventures or dynamics, SPECTRE feels more like an epilogue, an after-party, or perhaps just a hangover. The franchise hasn’t been renewed, it’s outstayed its welcome. The suitably stand-out Day of the Dead sequence might have been more than a prelude; it may have been a premonition.

2-stars

The Walk (2015)

The WalkIn 1973, wire walker Phileppe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) seems content to entertain the Parisian public in exchange for small change and the occasional hard-boiled sweet. When a chance broken tooth lands him in a dentist’s waiting room, however, he becomes fixated on New York’s World Trade Centre after seeing the Twin Tower’s featured in a magazine article. Determined to walk between the towers, Petit turns to veteran circus performer Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley) in order to learn the finer details of knot-tying and rope-rigging. He also recruits girlfriend Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) and photographer Jean-Louis (Clément Sibomy) as accomplices, and shortly after a dry-run at Notre Dame flies the three of them out to America so that they might begin plotting the “coup” in earnest. The plan: to rig a cable at 1350 feet so that he might tightrope between the two tallest buildings on Earth.

Over the last fourteen years audiences have become so used to contemporary films and other fiction being referred to as post-9/11 that there will inevitably be some who are surprised to discover that there was a time before the Twin Towers had even been built. Perhaps counter-intuitively, so iconic and well-integrated were the structures, you only have to look back just over forty years — to 1973, when they were first opened. The same year, that is, that Robert Zemeckis’ story — and, for that matter, the real-life story of Philippe Petit — actually begins. We meet him in Paris where he is performing for passers-by, juggling at first and later traversing a tight-rope tied between two lampposts, but it isn’t long before he sets his sights on something much, much bigger — the original Mission: Impossible.

On the surface, The Walk has a lot going for it. It is, after all, a tremendous true story, and one that has only really been explored once before on film, in James Marsh’s 2008 documentary, Man on Wire. Both films focus on the heist elements of the story, chronicling what was very much a crime, but only The Walk has Zemeckis calling the shots. Only his second live-action movie since Cast Away, the Back to the Future creator reasserts himself by combining his genius for physical performance with his understanding of stereoscopy, perfected over the course of his four-film flirtation with motion-capture animation. Throw in Joseph Gordon-Levitt, one of the most interesting and ambidextrous actors working today, and it should come as no surprise that the film’s climax — in which Petit walks, unaided save for a metal cable and balancing pole, between the towers, no less than six times — is one of the most simultaneously breathtaking and breathless scenes of the year.

Unfortunately, the build-up leaves rather a lot to be desired. It has been reported that not only did Gordon-Levitt learn to walk the high-wire in eight days (thanks, it must be said, to Petit’s personal tuition) but he also became fluent in French. Both are obviously impressive feats, and each duly demonstrates the actor’s obvious dedication to his craft, but while the former fact results in a more credible performance the latter sadly does not. Instead of putting what he has learned into practice, Gordon-Levitt is only ever really required to speak English with a vaguely French accent. His clumsy narration doesn’t just open the film, however, but returns at regular intervals to undermine it throughout, often spoken directly to the camera while Gordon-Levitt straddles an equally unconvincing Statue of Liberty. It’s a horribly misjudged framing device that hamstrings the film from the get-go. Evidently, the film isn’t just a tribute to Petit’s talents but to the Twin Towers themselves, and 1970s New York is painstakingly recreated from the ground up. France, however, doesn’t enjoy quite the same verisimilitude, and the scenes set across the pond feel comparatively specious and superficial. The soundtrack jars, too.

The Walk is undoubtedly the main event — worthy, perhaps, of the price of admission on its own — but it’s a shame that more couldn’t be done with the character of Petit or the other important figures in his life. Zemeckis has rather conspicuously cast French (and French Canadian) actors in his film, in small supporting roles, but although Clément Sibomy and Charlotte Le Bon do ultimately manage to impress it is despite the material they have been given rather than because of it. The Walk is a spectacle, teased from the very beginning, whereas the journey to the towers could have made a more satisfying movie. Like Petit, Zemeckis should have taken things one step at a time.

3-Stars

Pan (2015)

PanSeemingly abandoned by his mother in infancy, Peter (Levi Miller) is raised in a London orphanage by Mother Barnabas (Kathy Burke), alongside best friend Nibs (Lewis MacDougall). One night during an air-raid, a group of pirates descend on the boys’ dormitory and begin to abduct children. Nibs escapes, but Peter, along with a number of his fellow boarders, are taken to Neverland, where they are forced into slave labour by pirate leader Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman). Peter befriends Hook (Garrett Hedlund), a veteran miner, and when Peter discovers that he is able to fly for some reason they mount an escape to the jungle, where they join forces with Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara), a native who recognises him from an ancient prophecy foretelling of a boy named Pan — because Peter has a pan flute pendant, natch — who will defeat the pirates and thus save the endangered Fairy Kingdom from extinction at their hands.

J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up (or Peter and Wendy, as the original fairy tale is perhaps best known), was such a simple story, and one that has been retold innumerable times in the years since, most notably on screen in Disney’s 1953 animation and P. J. Hogan’s 2003’s live-action adaptation. The details are always the same — Peter’s antagonism with Captain Hook, his budding romance with Wendy, and their tumultuous relationship with Tinkerbell — but they are drastically different works, the former focusing on comedy and adventure while the latter made more of the melodrama and subtext. The latest cinematic incarnation of the story — from Atonement director Joe Wright — is much more of a departure, for better and worse…mostly worse. It’s not even as good as Hook.

A prequel concerning Peter’s first exposure to Neverland, Pan opens with newcomer Miller pining for the mother he never knew, something of a novelty for a character famous for his irreverent arrogance. Many of these inversions are intentional, to allow for some semblance of character development — the prologue makes this clear by announcing that “sometimes friends begin as enemies, and enemies begin as friends” — but rather than help you better understand the story as Tiger Lily’s narration asserts these changes only serve to confuse, if not confound, fans of the original work. As in Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland, or Sam Raimi’s Oz The Great And The Powerful, Wright’s film wants to distinguish itself from what came before, and succeeds, but for all of the wrong reasons. We’re back to pointless prophesies, misconceived mythologies and senseless set pieces as yet another auteur falls foul of formula. Peter is no longer simply the boy who wouldn’t grow up; he is the Chosen One, Fairy Prince and heir to the Fairy Kingdom. Because of course he is.

Pan‘s all over the place, plagued by overwrought performances, a nonsense narrative and incomprehensible special effects. It’s entirely possible that this naffness is intentional; that it is a throwback to some golden age of fantasy, only seen through the harsh half-light of 3D glasses rather than the rose-tinted spectacles needed for the necessary nostalgic veneer. I imagine it’s like watching Willow on Blu-ray. The script is just as hard on the ears as the spectacle is on the eyes, with every attempt to subvert expectation jarring horribly. At one point Hugh Jackman’s Blackbeard muses on “boys who are lost” and it’s hard not to recall other, equally excruciating attempts made by reboots to paraphrase the original film — The Amazing Spider-man‘s dogged refusal to reuse the line “with great power comes great responsibility”, for instance. Poor Rooney Mara, meanwhile, gets perhaps the worst dialogue of all, forced to effuse about “the Pan” in her role as expositor. Incidentally, much has been made of the supposed whitewashing of Tiger Lily, and honestly it’s hard to buy Wright’s claims that he is simply trying to create a “very international and multi-racial” world when the only named ethnic characters are cast as a traitorous fool, a village elder and martial artist. Needless to say, it’s a career low for Hedlund too, and he made Eragon.

Pan, then, is an unmitigated disaster. Lavishly overproduced, needlessly dense and utterly ridiculous, it’s hard to determine who exactly this movie is for — except, perhaps, for quality-blind audiences thirty years from now who are as nostalgic for the run-off of the twenty-tens as audiences today are for literally anything released in the eighties. Case in point: There is a grandstanding rendition of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as Peter enters Blackbeard’s arena that doesn’t just seem inappropriate or out of place, but downright embarrassing.

1-Star

A Walk In The Woods (2015)

A Walk In The WoodsAsked in an interview why he has never written about the US, travel writer Bill Bryson (Robert Redford) is unable to answer. He hasn’t written anything recently, instead spending his time attending funerals with wife Catherine (Emma Thompson) and strolling through the woods near his New Hampshire home. On one such walk he happens across the Appalachian Trail, and adamant that he has one last adventure in him decides to walk the full length of it from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine, a distance of 2,200 miles. Understandably concerned that her elderly husband might be eaten by bears or swallowed by a ravine, Catherine insists that he travel with someone else, though it doesn’t come as much reassurance when that person is revealed to be Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte), an alcoholic ex-convict who previously inconvenienced Bryson as a young man in Europe.

A vaguely fictionalised account of A Walk In The Woods, the real Bill Bryson’s 1998 memoir — beloved by many — about walking sections of the AT, Ken Kwapis’ film attempts to find drama in what was originally just description, albeit eloquent, engaging and effervescent description in the Bryson style. This necessitates a clarification of motivation, increased characterisation of Catherine, and various attempts at foreshadowing, all of which result in a much larger opening salvo that attempts to establish some sort of narrative trajectory — something that was willfully missing from Bryson’s original manuscript, particularly towards the end. By far the most apparent change from the book, however, is Bryson’s age, increased here from fortysomething to sixtysomething, so that producer Robert Redford (79) could realistically star in the lead role. First announced in 2005, the supporting character of Katz had to be recast after the death of progenitor Paul Newman in 2008, prompting Nick Nolte to be hired in his place. 

This particular amendment works perfectly well (though the inclusion of Nick Offerman as a sales clerk does make you wonder why they didn’t just use him for Bryson, instead), with writers Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman getting plenty of mileage out of the character’s age, whereas in reality his biggest obstacle had been his weight. Redford is perfectly fine in the role, if a little unremarkable, whereas it’s Nolte who feels like the better fit as Katz. He looks like he’s been genuinely living off of Little Debbie’s for years, so unhealthy does he seem in every single shot, while his raspy delivery seems to come straight off the page. Katz squeezes off of the plane fully formed, stumbling through the airport door and striding straight for the vending machine in the arrivals area. Inevitably, he gets many of the best lines (though sadly he never gets to say “flung”), not least a launderette-set seduction of Waynesboro’s Beulah, expertly intercut with Bryson’s ill-fated attempt to reach K-Mart across a busy highway to genuinely great comic effect. Also well cast is Mary Ellen, the hapless but hateful thru-hiker who the companions meet along the way, with Kristen Schaal perfectly capturing her intolerable ways without ever once cleaning her Eustachian tubes.

The reason that Bryson is ultimately shortchanged by the adaptation is Kwapis’ tendency towards broad comedy over acerbic wit. Undoubtedly informed by his two decades living and working in England, as well has his travels across Europe and Australia, Bryson’s wry sarcasm is what gives his books the edge over more emotionally earnest travelogues, recently seen adapted for the big screen in the form of Tracks and Wild (both of which were better films), not to mention Eat, Prey, Love (which wasn’t). The comedy in A Walk In The Woods feels much more typically American, decidedly cruder and somewhat less sophisticated, as when Bryson and Katz take on a pair of bears while wearing their tents or fall into a creek or down a cliff — events that never happened in the book. The more scathing lines that are lifted from the text fall rather flat, delivered in part or without the necessary dryness or derisiveness, Redford imitating sarcasm rather than embracing it, while many of Bryson’s observations are lost in translation — like his description of newlyweds Donna and Darren. His relationship with Catherine is also mishandled in an attempt to introduce marital drama where there wasn’t any to begin with, though the fact that it is directly responsible for Mary Steenburgen having a larger role as innkeeper Jeannie (“Mother, let go of the man’s hand”) is undoubtedly a welcome one.

Fans of Bryson will be familiar with his favourite words, two of which seem to be ‘amiable’ and ‘agreeable’, judging by their preponderance in his published works. Both could be used to describe A Walk In The Woods, which is undeniably amusing without ever quite capturing what made the original anecdotes — or for that matter the Appalachian Trail itself — so memorable. The title was meant to be ironic, but this really does feel like just a walk in some woods.

2-stars

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (2015)

The Scorch TrialsFollowing their last-ditch escape from the maze, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and his fellow Gladers are flown to a halfway house by saviour Mr. Janson (Aidan Gillen) while they await their turn for onward transportation to a safe haven. It turns out that their’s wasn’t the only maze being operated by WCKD — the sinister World in Catastrophe: Killzone Department pulling the strings — who are looking for a cure for the Flare virus, at any cost, and upon their arrival at Janson’s facility they are introduced to their fellow survivors, including Aris (Jacob Lofland), a quiet boy previously saved from a Glade of girls. Suspicious of Mr. Janson, and conscious of WCKD’s continued and potentially uninterrupted threat, Thomas enlists Aris to help him and his friends escape once more, ultimately leading Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), Minho (Ki Hong Lee), Teresa Agnes (Kaya Scodelario), Frypan (Dexter Darden) and Winston (Alexander Flores) out into the “Scorch”, an inhospitable wasteland surrounding the complex, where they meet Brenda (Rosa Salazar) and Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito) on their way to the hills.

And it all started out so simply! 2014’s The Maze Runner was a wonderfully straightforward movie; while The Hunger Games and Divergent wasted no time in introducing their corrupt governments and convoluted conflicts to audiences (to drastically different levels of success, it must be said), Wes Ball’s adaptation of James Dashner’s Young Adult novel hardly took any explaining at all, and was all the more compelling for it: there were some boys in a maze; a girl showed up with an ominous message; the boys needed to get out of the maze. Instead of endless exposition Ball packed his movie with uncomplicated characters, kinetic action and sensational set pieces; it moved at such a breakneck speed that it was easy to overlook the film’s few preposterous attempts at world-building: namely, that WCKD sounded more like an alcopop than an evil organisation and the astonishing implication that a solar flare caused a zombie outbreak. It even had a bit of depth; if The Hunger Games was a meditation on media and Divergent was — and let’s be generous here — a precis on personality, then The Maze Runner scrutinised science. After all, and as you may remember, the boy’s were revealed to be little more than lab rats by the end of the first film — experimented on by WCKD as the organisation searched for a cure.

For the sequel, however, this simplicity has been lost. Its protagonists now free from the maze — in many ways the series’ defining feature — it’s a narrative scramble (if not all-out shambles) to find something else for them to do. The Maze Runner was great because it didn’t spend half of its running time setting up future instalments that, given the hit to miss ration of YA adaptations, audiences were never likely to even see; now that we’re onto episode two, however, there’s little sense of a narrative trajectory or coherent through line as a result. Who is Thomas? What does he want?  What does he have to do in order to achieve it? These are all simple questions that the film has a worryingly hard time trying to answer, instead spouting the same “Chosen One” rhetoric that makes all of these movies sound the same. To begin with the film flirts with the idea that he has simply been released into a much larger maze — a labyrinth of corridors and ventilation shafts — but before long they are running free in the dessert and the original film is little more than a distant memory. Instead of battling Greivers — deadly robotic spiders designed to patrol the maze, for some reason — the children find themselves battling zombies — or Cranks, as the film calls them, for another — none of which has any real precedent in the series to date. There was no sense of drought, for instance, in the Glade, with its lush grasses and regular rainfall, while Thomas’ young age makes his prior employment by WCKD somewhat hard to swallow.

That said, as preposterous and ultimately perfunctory as Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials might seem, the franchise remains more engaging than most. If anything Ball’s sequel picks up the pace, with nary a moment passing in which the Gladers aren’t running to somewhere or from something. There’s a real energy to these scenes that propels the film even in the absence of plot, and the frantic camera movements work alongside the spirited cast to produce sequences of real dynamo and drama. One such scene, in which Thomas and company are searching an abandoned shopping centre for clothes and power, is genuinely tense and thrilling, while a later, loosely connected scene is as visceral and brutal as anything the genre has yet to offer. The Scorch Trials is a lot more muscular than the competition, which has a tendency towards the introspective and philosophical. It would be chauvinistic to attribute this to the gender of the protagonist, however; it’s simply that with no memories or obvious motivation there is only so much for Thomas to muse on. The Scorch Trials isn’t all surface, though, it must be said, as the film begins to develop its stance on scientific experimentation. Wasted in the first movie, Kaya Scodelario is finally given something to do, and while Thomas is busy running away from zombies, lightening and Aidain Gillen, Teresa is bravely facing a crisis of conscience: is it still OK for the rats to revolt if the experiment is saving human lives?

Naturally, The Scorch Trials ends on a cliffhanger, setting up the next film in the series — The Death Cure, natch — in its dying minutes. Whether you can be tempted back for another, well, whatever this is, is one thing, but while The Scorch Trials comes may come no closer to explaining the point of this series it does succeed in entertaining for another couple of hours — which is more than could be said for the second Divergent, or Percy Jackson, or Twilight. It’s even a half-descent zombie movie, apart from the bit where they came from the sun.

3-Stars

Fantastic Four (2015)

Fantastic FourHaving developed a prototype matter transportation device throughout high school with the help of fellow student Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), Reed Richards (Miles Teller) is approached at a science fair by the director of the esteemed Baxter Foundation, Professor Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey), and his daughter, Sue (Kate Mara). Now based in New York, Reed works alongside Sue, her brother Johnny (Michael B Jordan) and Franklin’s previous protege Victor (Toby Kebbell) to perfect the technology. But when the facility’s supervisor, Dr. Allen (Tim Blake Nelson), announces plans to hand the device over to NASA for the first human trials, Reed reaches out to Ben and goes behind Franklin’s back to insure that it’ll be their names that go down in history as the first human explorers to visit an alternate dimension. While using the Quantum Gate, however, Victor becomes stranded on Planet Zero and Reed, Sue, Johnny and Ben begin to exhibit strange new abilities.

It should have been so simple. Like most superhero origin stories, the Fantastic Four’s can be easily pared down to its basic premise: a ‘family’ of scientists become celebrity superheroes after they are exposed to cosmic rays. Unfortunately, this iteration of the comic book plot was used previously in Tim Story’s 2005 film, a shortlived series that never quite found favour with fans due to its family-friendly tone and confused casting decisions. In a misguided attempt to learn from their mistakes, 20th Century Fox thus decided to tweak the formula to facilitate a darker edge, drawing on elements from alternate versions of the characters, much in the way that Sony had done previously (and, with hindsight, disastrously) with The Amazing Spider-man. Inevitably, 2015’s Fantastic Four suffers from many of the same weaknesses as Sony’s film: in purposefully and pointedly sidestepping many of the property’s most iconic touchstones the film not only feels derivative, but needlessly convoluted. Far from being appeased, the fans are freshly outraged.

For Fantastic Four, however, the problems go deeper than that. The original films may not be as beloved as Sam Raimi’s Spider-man trilogy, but they at least stood out from the crowd. Since X-Men (or Blade, if you’re being fastidious), the superhero genre has exploded to the point that super-powered protagonists have infiltrated every other genre, too. This has made it much harder for new characters and budding franchises to distinguish themselves, but with the recent trend towards grit and realism that has seen Batman rebranded a vigilante and Marvel’s shared universe introduced through the relatively credible prism of Iron Man, Story’s unabashedly primary coloured take on Fantastic Four was surprisingly refreshing. The hiring of Josh Trank, director of 2012 stand-out Chronicle, should have enabled the series to re-imagine itself without compromising that novelty value, but a combination of studio interference, directorial irreverence and a vocal fanbase have rendered the film woefully unremarkable and profoundly compromised. The last act in particular could easily be confused with Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel, so muted is the colour palette and meaningless the special effects. Like Snyder’s film, Trank’s appears almost embarrassed by its subject matter, doggedly refusing to kowtow to the comic books before conceding in a red-faced whisper near the end. Hearing “Fantastic Four” for the first time isn’t exciting, it’s excruciating.

The impressive thing about Trank’s previous film, his directorial debut, was that even though it was a science-fiction movie it felt authentic and believable. Considering how convincing the teenage characters were in Chronicle, and how rooted their actions seemed in insecurity and emotion, it is genuinely astonishing just how laughable Fantastic Four‘s attempts at characterisation actually are. Miles Teller (28) and Jamie Bell (29) are woefully miscast as high schoolers (and they are undeniably high schoolers when we first meet them), and if anything the incongruity only increases as the film goes on. Much has been made of Jessica Alba’s casting as Sue Storm in Story’s films, and Mara undoubtedly does a better job here of portraying the celebrated scientist, but every other of Trank’s casting choices is inferior to their predecessors — particularly Bell, who doesn’t seem anywhere near as exuberant as Michael Chiklis at being cast in the role of Ben Grimm, and who promptly vanishes the moment the character goes CGI. Even the effects seem subordinate: both The Thing and Doctor Doom look like pale imitations of their former selves, the former lacking any real weight or personality while the latter is almost unrecognisable as a revisionist Doom, albeit one who plucks a cape out of nowhere just in time for the final showdown — a senseless demo-reel for the video game tie-in that only serves to further confuse exactly what the villain’s powers and motivations might actually be.

Nothing about Trank’s Fantastic Four works: it’s boring, incoherent and preposterous — a terrible mess that wastes not just the talents of everyone involved but the efforts of those who have gone before. Whatever Story’s films might have been, at least they were entertaining.

1.5-Stars