Penguins of Madagascar (2014)

Penguins of MadagascarSick of the sound of “I Like To Move It”, Skipper (Tom McGrath), Kowalski (Chris Miller), Rico (Conrad Vernon) and Private (Christopher Knights) load up the circus’ canon and launch themselves far out of earshot. At Fort Knox, where the penguins hope to celebrate Private’s birthday with a few packets of Cheesey Dibbles, a discontinued product banned everywhere else for its unhealthy ingredients, they are kidnapped by Dave (John Malkovich), an octopus from their days at Central Park Zoo who holds penguin-kind responsible for repeatedly stealing his thunder by drawing attention away from his own enclosure. They are rescued in Venice by North Wind, an elite inter-species task-force lead by [Classified] (Benedict Cumberbatch) who have learnt of Dave’s plans: to use a special “Medusa” serum to harvest the penguins’ cuteness. Unwilling to work together, however, the two teams soon find themselves competing for the upper hand, paw or flipper.

It is often said that Skipper, Kowalski, Rico and Private are the best thing about DreamWorks Animation’s Madagascar franchise, and while that might do the rest of the ensemble something of a disservice it is certainly true that their surreal shenanigans are always a pleasure to watch — whether executing Operation Tourist Trap in Africa with little more than an egg or escaping Captain Chantel Dubois and the rest of Monaco’s pest control department aboard a monkey-powered plane. Anyone who’s seen their Nickelodeon television series knows that they are quite capable of going it alone (albeit with the occasional helping hand), and with DreamWorks Animation bringing the film’s release forward to bolster a disappointing 2014 and better compete with Paddington and Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb they are undoubtedly banking on the brand’s enduring popularity.

The good news is that the penguins are as entertaining as ever — McGrath, Miller, Vernon and Knights (reinstated after having been recast for the television series) getting at least as many laughs as starry new additions Benedict Cumberbatch — who, bizarrely, can’t seem to pronounce the word penguins — and John Malkovich. McGrath in particular is a gifted voice artist, up there with the esteemed likes of John Ratzenberger and Patrick Warburton. From their anarchic Antarctic introduction through to their Stateside showdown with Dave the penguins maintain a gag-rate and consistency that is almost unknown in the comedy genre. The series is known for slapstick and surrealism but Penguins of Madagascar once again shows that DreamWorks can do satire as well as anyone, as Werner Herzog proves in his cameo as a documentary filmmaker. Malkovich, meanwhile, steals the show as Dave, who, like the studio’s own Megamind, is almost completely useless as a villain — failing at first impressions as he establishes a sound-free video link with North Wind. He also has the funniest running gag, giving his minions orders that make them sound like famous actors: “John, hurt them”, “Kevin, bake on, we’re still going to need that victory cake” — that sort of thing.

As much fun as the film is, however, it’s even flimsier than usual. The Madagascar franchise was fuelled — however superfluously — by the animals’ desire to get back home, and despite its geographical diversions and narrative detours it at least felt as though the characters were progressing from one farce to the next. There is almost no shape to Penguins of Madagascar, and even while you’re laughing it’s hard not to question if there was any real need for a spin-off beyond an attempt to balance the books. Set-pieces in Venice and Shanghai (initially mistaken for Dublin, Ireland) continue to escalate but without ever seeming to achieve anything, while ultimately North Wind serve no purpose whatsoever. The finale, meanwhile, is absurd even by the series’ standards, and keeps contradicting itself. The film justified its trip to Fort Knox by establishing that it was the only place left on Earth where the penguins could get Cheesey Dibbles, only for them to be readily available in a random New York mini-mart when they’re required to stop Dave. It’s not until an admittedly inspired mid-credits scene that the status-quo is finally re-established and the plot resolved in time for 2018’s Madagascar 4.

There is no denying that Penguins of Madagascar is one of the funniest films of the year — at least on a par with ‘proper’ comedies like 22 Jump Street and What We Do In The Shadows — only it manages to reduce you to tears of laughter while also being sweet-natured and suitable for the entire family.

3.5-Stars

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August: Osage County (2014)

August Osage CountyHaving hired a young Native American woman (Misty Upham) to help out around the house — completely against the wishes of his domineering wife — Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) suddenly disappears from their lives. In his absence, the Weston children return to Oklahoma to better support Violet (Meryl Streep), who is fighting mouth cancer with a veritable buffet of prescription pills and alcohol. First to arrive is Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), Violet’s youngest daughter, along with sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) the latter’s husband Charlie (Chris Cooper). Barbara (Julia Roberts) arrives a short time after, as news arrives of Beverly’s whereabouts, with her own husband, Bill (Ewan McGregor), and 14-year-old daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin).

Adapted from the award-winning play of the same name by playwright Tracy Letts himself, August: Osage County was optioned by George Clooney and Harvey Weinstein, and directed by John Wells. The film has already attracted some Oscar buzz, with Meryl Streep nominated for Best Actress and Julia Roberts in contention for Best Supporting Actress. Needless to say this is not a film to be taken lightly, and while the craft and form are indeed impressive, August: Osage County is also a film of great power and emotional resonance — not always a given in the run-up to awards season.

Admittedly, this isn’t exactly clear from the film’s trailer, which gives the impression that the film is just two hours of deplorable people arguing over dinner. Violet is a monstrous creation, and audiences are by and large invited to hate her, but the film — just like the relationships represented within it — are much too complex to accurately portray in two and a half minutes. As much as you might dislike Violet, disagree with everything she says and detest all that she stands for, it is difficult  — nigh impossible — to not feel at least some sympathy for Streep. The actress wears a look of fear throughout, and while the character may get her just desserts it’s not nearly as satisfying to watch as you might expect.

As great as Streep is, however, the supporting performances are often even better. Julia Roberts is put through the wringer with a character who is expected to be everything to everyone. She is resented by almost everyone she comes into contact with — her unfaithful husband, her rebellious daughter, her manipulative mother, her put-upon little sister — despite clearly trying her best. The scenes between Roberts and Streep are electric, and the realisation that they might be more alike than either would care to admit takes an obvious toll on both. Even more impressive is Julianne Nicholson as Ivy, who, despite being lumbered with the most unlikely and melodramatic arc, comes off as the most honest and sympathetic of the lot. You feel almost protective of her, and yet utterly helpless at the same time.

While a few scenes lend themselves to film — in particular a car-side confrontation between Barbara and Violet — the story does seem occasionally constrained by its theatrical roots. Despite being three stories high the family homestead feels incredibly claustrophobic, and while this adds to the oppressive atmosphere it begins to feel a little forced, particularly in the last act, like horror characters who run up the stairs when they should have disappeared out the door. The film is also overcrowded, with Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliet Lewis and Dermot Mulroney making almost no impression in their handful of scenes, despite the occasional importance of their characters to what passes as the film’s plot. Even Breslin struggles, though she gets more to do than most.

In many ways August: Osage County is shameless Oscar-bait; take away the stand-out performances and there would be little left of note — no eye-catching special effect, no toe-tapping musical numbers, barely even a plot. But as a family drama, starring Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts and Julianne Nicholson, it is a remarkable piece of work. The Weston household is the perfect microcosm of Letts’ Osage County: inhospitable, and yet still home to so many. Pack for awards season and you’ll be fine.

4-Stars

12 Years A Slave (2013)

12 Years A SlaveSoloman Northup (Chiwitel Ejiofor) is a free man. In 1841 that’s far from a given, and though he earns a healthy living as a skilled carpenter and revered fiddle player many other negroes across America are being whipped for minor misdemeanors and cotton-picking for pittance. When he is deceived by two businessmen into touring with a travelling circus, and plied with alcohol to the point of inebriation, Northup wakes to find himself chained to the floor of an anonymous basement. He is taken to New Orleans, given a new name and sold into slavery — first to sympathetic plantation owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and then to vindictive planter Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).

What happened to Soloman Northup was heinous. To be abducted, assimilated and beaten into submission for any reason is inexcusable, and to do it for reasons of skin colour is equally unforgivable. It’s been one hundred and fifty years since slavery was abolished, and to modern eyes it is clear that slavery and racism are inherently wrong.  Unfortunately, and despite all of its good points, 12 Years A Slave doesn’t have much more to say on the matter than just that. Both have been recently dealt with in Lincoln, Django Unchained and Cloud Atlas, and next to them Steve McQueen’s latest feels strangely insubstantial; unambitious, even. While the esteemed director may provoke a response, he never promotes conversation, or does anything to invite his audience to actively engage.

That hasn’t stopped it from earning rave reviews and being tipped for just about every award going, and while it may become rather repetitive in its rhetoric there is no denying that the film is very well made indeed. There are a number of stand-out sequences, as striking and provocative as anything in the director’s previous film, Shame — the most memorable of which involves Soloman, hung from a tree but not quite hanging, struggling for breath while the rest of the plantation carries on with their duties. It’s an important scene, because it demonstrates race-free psychological internalisation, without pointing the finger in one, and only one direction. We also see Soloman, in flashback as a man of privileged standing, failing to assist a slave in need of help. While impassioned, the film never once places blame.

The performances, too, are worthy of mention. Ejiofor is outstanding as Northup, and the actor makes full use of what is possibly his most complex and conflicted character to date. He had previously impressed in supporting roles — from Serenity to Children Of Men — but here he makes the transition to leading man with charisma to spare. Fassbender is arguably even more electric as slave-driver Epps: he’s a nasty piece of work, and while the actor’s accent might once more slip as often as it sticks it is hardly worth mentioning when the character is guilty of so much more. Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o is mesmerising too, bringing almost crushing vulnerability to her role as a mother robbed of her children. It’s difficult not to like Brad Pitt most of all, however, as Bass, who is — aside from the sympathetic Northup — the film’s only likeable character, and — though largely by default — the film’s only outright hero.

12 Years A Slave is a difficult, challenging watch, and though its intentions — and indeed much of its execution — may well be worthy of recognition, the film just doesn’t hold up to the same scrutiny as McQueen’s other films. Northup’s story is an astonishing one, and undoubtedly deserves to be told, but McQueen’s attempts to adapt Northup’s own memoir haven’t produced a film as remarkable as the real-life events it is based on; despite its source material, it’s episodic, plodding and strangely undramatic. This is 2 Hours A Slave, though to be fair to those involved it feels more like three.

3.5-Stars

The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug (2013)

The Hobbit The Desolation Of SmaugDurin’s Day approaches, and if Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) and company are to reclaim the kingdom of Erebor from Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) they are going to have to pick up the pace. They acquire ponies from a sympathetic skin-changer called Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt) and continue west to Lake-town, a settlement of men which sits in the shadow of the Lonely Mountain. Their journey is not without incident, however, and along the way they encounter orcs, giant spiders and the Wood-elves of Mirkwood. They receive a cold welcome from the Elvenking, Thranduil (Pee Pace), and are temporarily incarcerated, but eventually resume their quest with Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), Chief of the Guards, and Legolas (all cheer for Orlando Bloom), The Elven Prince of Mirkwood, in tow.

Even before you consider the distracting nature of the higher frame rate, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was a very difficult film to enjoy: the pace was glacial, the tone veered wildly from one extreme to another, and the CGI-heavy action scenes had no weight to them whatsoever. Happily, The Desolation Of Smaug is an entirely different story. The second film in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy is a real romp, and one that fills its almost three-hour running time with interesting supporting characters, Easter eggs for fans of The Lord Of The Rings series and spectacular special effects where its predecessor had only inter-changeable dwarves and lots and lots of walking.

Following a flashback to Gandalf and Thorin’s first meeting, back in The Prancing Pony, which serves to reintroduce the conflict and stakes with almost alarming narrative economy, the film then picks up where the first left off with Bilbo and co. leaving the Carrock on their way to The Lonely Mountain. With Azog (Manu Bennett) and his orc legion hot on their heels, the group barely slows down as they race from one disaster to another: first, they run into Beorn the skin-changer, then they encounter a swarm of giant spiders, and then they’re imprisoned by elves. In the time it took them just to leave Hobbiton in An Unexpected Journey they’ve this time crossed half of Middle Earth. And there’s still the small issue of a fire-breathing dragon to deal with.

As exciting as the rest of the film is — and it really is exciting: the escape from Mirkwood, in which the dwarves ride the rapids in a series of increasingly battered and arrow-ridden barrels, is one of the most outstanding set pieces of the year — it’s Smaug that will have everyone talking. When an adaptation of The Hobbit was first announced, undoubtedly one of the biggest challenges faced by Jackson and his team was selling a talking dragon to an audience which had previously praised The Lord Of The Rings for its earthy realism. Happily, however, Cumberbatch’s voice-work, coupled with WETA’s astonishing final render, bring the character to life in a way that is as beautiful as it is genuinely frightening. Obviously, it also helps that Martin Freeman finally feels like Bilbo Baggins.

Whereas The Office actor struggled to carry An Unexpected Journey, his gurning performance jarring horribly with the seriousness with which everyone else approached the task at hand, here he feels considerably more ingrained in the action. Perhaps it’s the fact that he finally gets his hands (and face) dirty, and the scene in which he mercilessly stabs a young spider to death for daring to stand between him and his precious is alarming in its intensity. By the time he enter’s Smaug’s lair the characterisation is complete, and the sequence works in a way that his confrontation with Gollum sadly did not. Another explanation might be that he has slightly less to do this time around; newcomers Mikael Persbrandt, Evangeline Lilly and Luke Evans (as Bard the Bowman) help to lessen the load, and the film benefits enormously.

The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug is as good as any of The Lord Of The Rings movies, the stakes feeling more real and immediate and the characters feeling more alive and compelling than they did in the last film. Part of this is due to the return of more familiar faces (and one giant burning eye), but it is also the result of Jackson stepping out from the Rings‘ shadow — straight into Smaug’s.

4-Stars

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

Star Trek Into DarknessDemoted after an attempt to save an alien race results in the U.S.S. Enterprise breaking the Prime Directive, James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) finds himself playing First Officer to Christopher Pike’s (Bruce Greenwood) newly reinstated Captain. When Starfleet headquarters is attacked by a rogue officer called John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), The Enterprise is given the responsibility of tracking the terrorist to an uninhabited region of the Klingon homeworld and destroying him with a payload of special, long-range photon torpedoes. When Spock’s (Zachary Quinto) unease convinces the Captain to capture rather than kill Harrison, however, the very future of the Federation is thrown into jeopardy. Read more of this post

War Horse (2012)

Based on the hugely successful play, War Horse tells the story of Joey, an unfortunately named horse, sold into military service at the outbreak of World War One, and his adventures and relationships with numerous owners throughout the course of the war. Which is where the film’s problems start, because with the focus on a horse and with a succession of human protagonists dipping in and out of the story as Joey comes through, it often feels much more like we’re watching a succession of episodes of a TV series in the vein of Lassie or Old Yeller, rather than a coherent movie.

In fact, the comparison with dog-based TV series is somewhat unfair, because while dogs, kangaroos and even dolphins have a range of easily recognisable expressions, horses are the animal kingdom’s equivelent of Keanu Reeves. Where we’ve had equine protagonists previously, our connection has been fostered through the people with whom they interact. The lack of consistent human company in War Horse – even our ‘lead’ actor (Jeremy “Trench Foot” Irvine as Albert Narracott) is only in about half of the film – makes it almost impossible to connect with anything on screen.

To be fair to War Horse, while the movie as a whole is difficult to engage with, there are some sequences that do work quite well. In particular, a rendezvous between a British and a German soldier in No-Man’s Land is solidly entertaining, as is a sequence featuring a young French girl and her elderly grandfather, but these work because of the humour that runs through them. Something seriously lacking from the remainder of the film.

Indeed, for the most part, War Horse is so po-faced and sincere that it feels almost rude to enjoy it. As a result of this, sequences that should be thrilling, like a cavalry charge into a German camp, are simply dull – although, this does lead to the most interesting shot in the film, as riderless horses charge into the fores. Again, this isn’t helped by the lack of engagement with the characters. At the point in the film the charge occurs, we have spent so little time with the riders that their success or failure is about as important to the audience as the colour of the tiles in the cinema toilet.

Compounding the film’s problems is a terrifically clumsy script. Because every twenty minutes or so we are introduced to an entirely new set of characters, a huge proportion of the dialogue is used to explain who they are, and how they relate to one another. Admittedly it could have been far worse, but it often sucks the momentum out of the movie, and frequently causes otherwise decent performances to fall flat. Again, something not helped by the film’s forced sincerity.

In spite of all this, War Horse isn’t a terrible film. It’s not even a bad one, it’s simply forgettable. About a decade ago, Steven Spielberg created Band of Brothers. Ten years before that, Richard Curtis was responsible for one of the most entertaining and poignant depictions of trench warfare with Blackadder Goes Forth. The fact that they phoned in this waste of time is utterly disappointing.

Reviewed by @Montimer.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

Er…

Well…

So, yeah.

I’m sorry. I really am. And not just in a ‘you walked in to me, but I’ll apologise anyway…since you’re not going to…to fill this awkward silence’ kind of way, either. I’m genuinely, earnestly sorry, and I really, truly hope that you can forgive me, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It wasn’t you, it was almost definitely me.

You see, I was going to read the book upon which you were based. I really was. But then stuff just sort of came up, and kept coming up until one day I walked into the bookshop – all distracted, like – and accidentally bought Bill Bryson’s Home by mistake. It was very good, but it wasn’t you. I was unprepared, you see. I’d watched the loosely related episode of Star Trek: Voyager ten years ago and thought I’d be fine. But I was wrong.

I thought you seemed amiable enough, don’t get me wrong; I mean, you were very pretty and suitably respectable, and I thought your impression of Gary Oldman was impeccable. However, while you had the cigarette smoking and suit-wearing down to an absolute t, you sort of lost me ten minutes into our time together. I realise you were trying to be brief, to be your own beast, to impart the most essential information while leaving out the bits that could be skipped, but I just couldn’t follow your logic. I didn’t feel part of the conversation.

I want to give you another chance though, if you’re willing to have me? I’ll go away and read the book; after all, I’ve only got about three chapters left of the one I’m currently reading, Christopher Brookmyre’s Not The End Of The World. You know, it’s really rather good. And then I’m all yours. I know we got off to a bad start – I was so fidgety and you were just talking so fast – but I do want to get to know you. Everyone else speaks so highly of you, they really do, and I genuinely wish I could see you through their approving eyes.

So I’m sorry that I thought you were uninteresting. I’m sorry that I thought you were confusing. I’m sorry that I thought you completely wasted about half of your amazing cast. I can’t wait to see where you came from, Tinker (can I call you Tinker?), how much you’ve changed; and for you to then prove me wrong.