Film Review: Beauty and the Beast

I have mixed feelings about the current trend Disney have for live action remakes of their animated movies. While The Jungle Book worked for me, I was less fussed on Cinderella and Maleficent, and the fact that a live action Dumbo is on the way fills me with dread, although as I am soon to marry a Disney addict I have resigned myself to my fate. Taking on one of the studios best efforts was a big gamble, but thankfully this one pays off.

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The story is simple enough, a vain and selfish Prince (Dan Stevens) refuses to help an old woman shelter from the rain but it turns out she is actually a powerful enchantress. She curses him by turning him into a beast, and he will remain a monster until he learns to love and wins the love of another. The enchantress also curses all the residents of the castle turning them into objects related to their jobs, which seems a bit harsh and if the Beast doesn’t succeed in finding a love before the last petal falls from a magic rose they will become inanimate objects for good and he will remain a beast for ever.

Years later we meet Belle (Emma Watson), an intelligent and free spirited young woman who lives in the nearest town. The locals aren’t too sure about her, regarding her love of reading and individuality as peculiar, nonetheless her beauty has caught the attention of Gaston (Luke Evans), the local hero who is a vain, self centred braggart. She spurns his advances and dreams of there being more to life. Her father, Maurice (Kevin Kline), is a maker of clockwork machines and leaves to sell them at market, however, on the road back he is waylaid and finds a mysterious, crumbling castle. He attempts to take a rose for his daughter but is imprisoned.

Belle sets off to find him, and arrives at the castle, where concerned for her father’s health she volunteers to take his place. Maurice’s claims are dismissed in town, although Gaston sees an opportunity to exploit the situation.

Meanwhile, at the castle Belle befriends the Beast’s cursed servants and slowly begins to discover there is more to the Beast. Similarly, her presence serves to quell his anger and he begins to care for his hostage. Their relationship, encouraged by the servants strengthens but Belle misses her father and when she becomes aware of his troubles is upset. The Beast allows her to leave.

Will Belle be able to save her father? Will she return to the castle? What will Gaston do when he discovers the existence of the beast? And will the curse ever be broken?

This remake works for same reasons that the updated version of The Jungle Book did, by honouring the original through the use of certain aspects, but by giving characters a different spin and adding new touches. Characters like Maurice, Gaston and his sidekick La Fou (Josh Gad) are given more background and are slightly more complex.

Maurice is the best example, with Kevin Kline moving away from the clownish, mad-inventor of the animated version to create a sadder figure. Belle’s mother is long deceased at the start and his grief is evident throughout, and the backstory adds more emotion to the tale. Also, his character here rings truer with the clever, independent young woman he has raised.

But despite this the main strength is the magical, charming romance at the centre and here credit goes to the leads. Emma Watson is perfectly cast as Belle, and does a great job of making her a likeable, strong character. Belle is a great heroine, free thinking and brave, she nobly sacrifices herself for her father and faces the Beast fearlessly. Throughout she shows strength, intelligence and kindness.

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Belle: A great heroine

She handles the singing wonderfully, and is utterly charming throughout. Similarly Dan Stevens’ vocal work as the beautifully realised Beast is expressive enough for it to work, conveying the feelings that develop between them.

The central romance unfolds at a decent pace, and the film benefits from giving the Beast more backstory beyond that he was just a bit of a wanker. It also explains why the rest of the castle don’t hate him, feeling partly responsible for failing in to raise him to be a good man.

One thing the film does well is quickly cover up some of the plot holes from the original, like the fact that the town seem oblivious to the giant castle mere miles away, with the enchantress having cast a spell for them to forget all about it and the people are there. This also means there is a nice touch of when the mob storms the castle some feel deja vu and one of the villagers always has a sense of having lost something, it being revealed it is the loved ones he had at the castle…

These changes are well done and mostly serve to make the film play better as a live action piece as a straight adaptation might have suffered in translation. But there are plenty of moments that are retained, notably in costume and music. The ballroom scene in the original is an iconic scene and was groundbreaking for the time, and it helps that the castle is just as beautiful here and that the dance scene is one of the most moving moments in the film. The song remains an absolute wonder, and the scene is magical, prompting one small child in the cinema to actually cheer and applaud at the end.

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Other scenes are translated to varying degrees of success, the swagger of “Gaston” is a standout here, especially as fresh jokes are added and Josh Gad is brilliant as Le Fou. Luke Evans as well impresses, capturing the strutting, arrogant character wonderfully even though he isn’t roughly the size of a barge. While Evans is reliable as ever, I left the film suspecting that Dwayne Johnson would have been brilliant for the part, especially if he channeled the charismatic arrogance of his wrestling days.

However, for me “Be Our Guest” didn’t match the original, and Ewan McGregor’s Lumiere wasn’t half as charming as Jerry Orbach’s and the character design for him and Ian McKellen’s Cogsworth were made a bit too “realistic” and a lot less endearing or friendly looking than their animated counterparts.

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The old ones were a lot friendlier looking, I’m just saying

Similarly Mrs Potts isn’t quite as cute as her old self, but is voiced by the ever excellent Emma Thompson, who takes over from Angela Lansbury and does a stellar job.

But these are minor quibbles and the movie does well in bringing new things to the table. There is a new musical number, performed by the Beast that is genuinely moving and as I mentioned earlier the characters and some story aspects are changed. The fact that the servants are becoming increasingly inanimate is a heartbreaking touch, with them all moving towards losing their humanity. In fact a sequence where they are transformed is an emotional gut punch that had my eyes a little watery.

Before it’s release a lot was made of the fact that Le Fou was being turned into a gay character. The fact is that Josh Gad’s character is far more complicated than the original and his sexuality is only a part of that. Le Fou is loyal and clearly in love with Gaston, but it is suggested that the two have been together a long time, having served together in an unspecified war. Le Fou’s admiration for his friend is clear, but what is a nice addition is the fact that he is not just a dimwit who goes along with everything. His conscience starts to peak through, and there are moments when he acts as a calming, soothing presence for Gaston, staying his hand.

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Le Fou tries to calm Gaston

As Gaston’s obsession with Belle grows and he reveals his true, selfish nature Le Fou realises he has made a mistake and tries to make it right. It’s nice that a secondary character, largely a buffoon is given a bit more depth and Gad is consistently amusing.

All in all this is a very successful film which tells a familiar story in an utterly charming way, beautiful to look at and entirely engaging. I was sucked in early on and utterly captivated, in much the way that six year old Chris was back in 1992. In fact, I’d say this packs more of an emotional punch than the original.

It’s a delight from start to finish, with the familiar and the new combining to make a film which is great in it’s own right. MWF loved it as well, so hardcore Disney fans can rest assured that it doesn’t let the house of mouse down.

Verdict: A wonderful, magical experience which uses the animated version as a jumping off point to go in new directions and add greater depth. Moving, amusing and utterly, marvelously charming. 8.5/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Film Review: Kong: Skull Island

I love the original King Kong, ever since I picked up a cheap VHS copy. While dated, it told a simple story  very effectively and movingly. I’ve always been a sucker for stop-motion effects. I’ve never seen the ’70s remake but I remember being psyched when Peter Jackson released his, although this was ollowed by crushing disappointment as a wealth of CGI and Jack Black couldn’t cover the fact that it was bloated and boring.

One of the things that I always loved was the mysterious Skull Island that Kong calls home until he’s stolen away to New York. The island is home to other monsters, and you always wonder where Kong came from. Was he part of a giant ape race? Or a singular freak of nature?

This movie focuses on the island and gives Kong a fresh backstory. It’s not a retread of the original, and a new approach to the character, which I think is the way to go.

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The movie kicks off in 1944 when two pilots crash on the same beach, one Japanese and one American. They try to kill each other and chase each other through the jungle, until their fight is interrupted by the arrival of a massive ape.

We then jump almost thirty years forward to 1973, and two representatives of an organisation called Monarch are trying to get support for a mission to an uncharted island. The senior official, Randa (John Goodman) is fearful for the organisation’s future and wants to get the mission set up before the Vietnam War ends. However, the senator dismisses his theories of “monsters” and only agrees when Randa’s assistant Brooks (Corey Hawkins) points out that as they know little of the island there is no telling what is there and that if they hesitate the Russians might beat them to it.

Randa requests a military escort and is provided with the Sky Devils, a helicopter squadron about to ship back from the war. Headed by Colonel Packard (Samuel L Jackson) they will fly the scientists to the island which is surrounded by a perpetual storm. Also recruited is James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) a former SAS Captain noted for his skill in jungle survival and expertise in uncharted territory.

Rounding off the group is photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) a photojournalist who clashes with Packard who blames the media for negatively effecting support for the war back home.

They arrive at the island where the scientists plan to use explosions to map the geologic nature of the island, which turns out to be hollow beneath the bedrock. Unfortunately the explosions anger Kong, a giant ape who attacks the choppers and brings all of them down, scattering the survivors across the island.

Conrad leads Weaver, Brooks and a handful of others through the jungle seeking the rendezvous point. Meanwhile, Packard leads the majority of his men and Randa towards one of the isolated pilots, Chapman (Toby Kebbell). Packard gets the full story from Randa, who holds to the “hollow earth” theory that there are pockets beneath the earth’s surface where monsters dwell.

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Packard wants some answers

Intent on revenge Packard aims to reach Chapman’s chopper and use the weapons and explosives to kill Kong.

Conrad’s group run into the local tribespeople and are introduced to Hank Marlow (John C Reilly), the American pilot who crashed there at the beginning. He has been taken in by the locals and explains that he befriended the Japanese pilot who was killed by another monster years earlier. Marlow explains that the native population worship Kong as a king or god, as he protects them from what he dubs Skull Crawlers, vicious beasts that try to eat them. Kong’s race have long held this role, but as the last of his kind the locals are fearful that when Kong dies the Skull Crawlers (henceforth known as SCs) will run wild, having nothing to fear. The explosives dropped by the group will have roused some of the beasts, although they suspect that “the big one” will remain underground.

Marlow shows the group his boat, made from debris of the fighter planes and other vehicles that have crashed at the island. They head for the rendezvous but find Packard, who insists they head on for Chapman. The group are attacked by a SC, and after suffering heavy losses manage to kill it. When Packard’s plan is revealed Marlow objects, supported by Weaver, who Packard draws his gun on. Conrad cools the situation and leads the civilians to the boat, however, he decides he needs to stop Packard and with Weaver and Marlow returns.

Packard’s men attack Kong and while many of the men are killed, Kong is injured. Then the Big SC arrives. Kong battles it, but is weakened and the nasty chases the humans. Conrad, Weaver, Marlow and the surviving members of the Sky Devils make for the boat but following Conrad’s instructions Brooks has left at dawn. Attempting to escape on foot they use their meagre weapons on the BSC but their weapons don’t seem up to the task.

Does the battered Kong have the strength to bring it down? If he can’t what happens to the survivors and the monsters?

Okay, here’s the thing I really loved this movie which delivers pretty much from the jump. The 1944 prologue was a nice touch and the character of Marlow provides a neat way to provide exposition and Reilly’s performance as the slightly unhinged survivor is charming and entertaining, stealing most scenes he’s in. Reilly should be praised for balancing humour with genuine emotion, with the frazzled, lonely man talking about what might await for him at home being quite touching and tying into the film’s theme of whether soldiers can ever truly come back from war.

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Reilly in scene stealing form

This is touched on in Conrad, Hiddleston’s calm and collected action hero, who is recruited by Randa who observes that men go to war in search of something, and Conrad’s continuing presence in Vietnam suggests he is yet to find whatever that is.

It’s most evident in Jackson’s powerful performance as the vengeance seeking Packard. During his first meeting with Weaver where he blames the media for effecting support and moral for the war in Vietnam, she asks him incredulously if he is blaming them for losing the war. His response that the war wasn’t lost, instead “abandoned” shows an insight into his psyche and his dogged pursuit of a fight with Kong shows that he is not ready to come home yet.

Jackson is always watchable and here he is on fine form as the tightly wound soldier who slowly unravels and becomes obsessed. He’s mesmerising on screen.

Tom Hiddleston is pretty good as an action hero, even if he does look a little clean cut and smooth for an SAS officer who spends time alone in the jungle saving POWs. That being said, his quiet performance is well done and he has moments where he charms. He also handles the action sequences like a boss.

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Hiddleston and Larson in action

But it’s hard not to feel bad for Brie Larson who while capable enough has an underwritten role as the photojournalist accompanying the mission.

The period setting works wonders for me as it handily explains how Skull Island has remained undiscovered until the movie and means the humans have older, less sophisticated weapons for their fights. It also means that the movie has a belting soundtrack of ‘Nam era songs (Bowie, Black Sabbath and Creedence Clearwater Revival), and borrows heavily from the imagery of that war- fires engulfing jungle, helicopters flying low and the look of the soldiers. The film looks fantastic and the mash up of Nam movie iconography and giant monsters works for me, unsurprisingly.

The monsters here are fantastic, as is all of the island. The native tribe and their walled village is well done as is their temple to Kong, replacing the African style tribe of the original with a more Asian vibe fitting the Pacific setting. The island location is beautiful, with mountains, dense jungle and panoramic views of the landscape being worth the extra IMAX charge alone.

This is only the second movie I’ve seen in IMAX (the other being Doctor Strange) and it is proving to be worth the money, and vastly superior to normal 3D. This is the kind of epic movie that warrants the big screen and enhanced visuals, and it delivers throughout, both in the titanic smackdowns and in the scenes on the groud amongst the trees.

The movie succeeds where the Jackson movie stumbled by putting Skull Island front and centre and we get to see plenty of the island’s nature. Alongside Kong and the SCs we also get supersized versions of spiders and water buffalo, a reference to giant ants and some seriously vicious pterodactyl style critters. The island is set up as a dangerous place to be and the action sequence are uniformly well executed throughout.

It’s a relentless thrill ride and has some solid performances, and a sense of fun to proceedings, making it considerably more enjoyable than the most recent Godzilla movie, which this will apparently cross over with. Hopefully the monster mash will lean more towards this, which is more fun and has better human characters. The romance between Hiddleston and Larson’s characters might be underdeveloped, but aside from this the major players hold the attention and the director knows that this is secondary to letting Kong do his thing.

I’ve always preferred Kong to Godzilla because his ape features are more expressive and that in every incarnation he has moments of gentleness. The backstory here of him as the island’s top dog and protector is a nice touch and I felt it delivered.

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Hail to the king

A big, action packed blockbuster, this is gorgeous to look at, filled with nice moments and just plain fun. It might lack the emotional punch of the original, but it’s still kept me involved throughout.

Verdict: The ’70s setting is a nice touch, the cast do well with what they get and the movie knows that it’s main strength is Kong and lets him cut loose. Hugely entertaining. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Film Review: Logan

The cinematic X-Men universe has been a mixed bag, with some of the movies doing quite well (see Deadpool and Days of Future Past), while others were plain awful (X-Men: Origins: Wolverine and X-Men: The Last Stand). The movies have struggled to get the tone right and have also created a convoluted and contradictory timeline, it’s time for a reboot and where better to end it than with the driving force and most consistent part of the series- Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine.

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Since the first X-movie only Jackman has popped the claws as the Canadian mutant and while he’s often been in lacklustre movies he’s managed to do the character justice. Now, he is finally given the kind of swansong the character, and his efforts, deserve.

Set in 2029 we find Logan in dark times, working as a chauffeur and living out in the Mexican desert looking after Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who has destructive seizures and seems to be in the early stages of dementia as he enters his nineties. Logan and Caliban (Stephen Merchant), an albino mutant who burns easily in sunlight, keep Xavier drugged to dampen his powers. Logan’s healing powers have slowed, meaning he limps and carries severals scars. He hopes to save money to buy a boat and sail away with Charles so that his seizures can’t hurt anyone.

The other X-Men are revealed to be dead and mutant kind has died out, with no new mutants having been born in decades. While on a job Logan is approached by a Mexican nurse Gabriella (Elizabeth Rodriguez) who asks for his help as she is being chased by shady figures. Logan refuses to engage with her and leaves. One of these, the cybernetically enhanced bounty hunter Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) who works for the Transigen corporation. Logan denies all knowledge and Pierce tells him to call him if he hears anything.

Logan is called to another job but it turns out to be Gabriella who has arranged it, she offers him $50,000 to take her and her daughter, Laura (Dafne Keen) to North Dakota and a safe place known as Eden. The money will be enough for the boat and Logan reluctantly agrees, however when he returns he finds Gabriella murdered. Returning to Mexico he discovers that Laura has stowed away in the boot of his limo and Pierce arrives shortly after. Xavier claims to communicate with her and says they must keep her safe.

Logan is subdued by Pierce’s men, but Laura then reveals that she too has adamantium claws, similar to him and kills many of the men. Logan, Laura and Charles escape and head for North Dakota with Pierce in pursuit, using Caliban and his mutant tracking powers to continue the hunt.

A message left by Gabriella reveals that Transigen bred new mutants, using DNA they had on file in order to develop super soldiers, of which Laura is one of the X-23 programme. However, upon discovering that Transigen had decided to abandon the project due to the fact the kids were hard to control she and several other nurses helped the kids escape before they were “put down”.

Will the jaded Logan be able to form a bond with Laura? Can they make it to North Dakota, and if they do will the promised safety exist or merely be revealed as a dream? And what have Transigen created to replace Laura and her peers, and will Logan be able to defeat this new threat in his weakened state?

I have to say I really enjoyed this movie, which felt like a solid conclusion to the series and a good place to leave this version of Logan. However, I appreciate that it won’t be for everyone and the downbeat, bleak future wasn’t appreciated by MWF and the friend we saw it with. For me, it worked and I liked the way it slowly revealed the fate of the other mutants and the reasons for their extinction.

Rated 15 here in the UK this is by far the darkest and most brutal film in the series, and the first time that Wolverine’s berserker side has really been shown. Previous fights have always been rather bloodless and tame, but this kicks off with a brawl where Logan takes on a gang of criminals in a fast, vicious encounter. It’s good that after suggestions of his dark side we finally get to see it on show here. Otherwise it’s all just a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing, as is the case in Doctor Who where they repeatedly tease that he was a badass during the Time War only to never deliver on this.

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Logan in action

It is hard work in places and Logan is a lot more bitter and jaded than his last outing which makes sense, we left him during the cheerful altered present of Days of Future Past, surrounded by friends at the Xavier School, so it stands to reason that years down the line, with his friends gone he would have reverted to his angry, cynical ways. There’s a suggestion that the X-Men didn’t go out in glory and there’s definite tension between Logan and Xavier, and when it’s finally revealed what happened it’s a gut punch of a twist.

The whole road trip is a tough journey, with tragedy and violence dogging the trio across the US, and the stakes feel higher than in any previous movie.

It’s here I have to give a lot of praise to Patrick Stewart, who does a sensational job as the ageing, shattered Xavier. His performance is genuinely moving, almost heart breaking as he captures the sense of a man long dependent on his mind who is now losing it slowly. His crankiness and vitriol is a world away from the dignified, compassionate leader of the past, but there are glimpses of this throughout, especially when Laura arrives and he sees the opportunity to aid her and do the right thing. It’s quite nice to see that the relationship between the two has changed and shifted, and that there’s some closure between then.

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Charles Xavier, a broken man

But this is Jackman’s movie and he excels again as Logan, capturing all the different aspects of the character- the brooding loner, the reluctant hero, the savage and even the man trying to do better. Coughing, limping and stiff it’s a shock to see the most robust of the X-Men in such a state, and yet it works.

The rest of the cast do their jobs extremely well, with props going to newcomer Keen who captures the almost feral detachment of Laura and who slowly gets the audience to feel for her while avoiding any child actor cliches or excesses. Her relationship with Logan develops slowly and at times unsentimentally, and it’s interesting to watch as she slowly tries to form a bond with someone for the first time while he tries to pull away due to the fact that he’s lost so many people.

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Laura and Logan, both put through the wringer

The villains are well done, especially Richard E. Grant as a slimy, manipulative scientist behind the experiments.

The bleak future world is wonderfully executed, with machines replacing human workers, a gigantic wall at the Mexican-US border and a sense that corporations are running the show now. The reason for the absence of mutants is revealed in quite a clever way, and the quest to safety is tense as throughout it’s never certain what awaits the group when I get there.

The final sequence, a mad dash for safety and Logan unleashing his berserker side against Pierce’s men and the latest Transigen experiment X-24 is bruising, vicious and intense. The ending is emotionally raw and well played, and a fitting finale for the series.

As a series the X-movies have often stumbled, but it’s good to see that they stride out on a high, a well executed and solid movie. It’s the most grown up of the series, and not just because of the blood and swearing, it feels like the story of a grown man still struggling with who he is and what his purpose in the world is. Jackman shows again why he was brilliantly cast as Wolverine and leaves big shoes to fill in the inevitable reboot.

Although it is a shame we won’t get to see Jackman’s Wolverine team up/fight Ryan Reynolds’ Deadpool.

Verdict: Dark, brooding and bleak this is the most grown up and emotional of the franchise. Jackman and Stewart excel playing aging, failing versions of their characters dealing with loss and change. The plot is solid and moves along well with a few nice twists along the way. Finally a film that delivers after a series which often botched its potential. 9/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Film Review: The Lego Batman Movie

I was a massive fan of The Lego Movie and one of the many good things about it was the treatment of Batman (Will Arnett), who they transformed into a cocky, self absorbed show off. When it was announced that he’d be getting a solo run out, it instantly joined the list of movies I was looking forward to and yesterday MWF and I went along with a friend to check it out.

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The film kicks off with the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) leading a team of Gotham’s villains in a daring attempt to seize control of the city by threatening with a gigantic bomb. Unfortunately for the Clown Prince of Crime, Batman arrives just in time and makes short work of his associates. As the duo face off the Joker is hurt to discover that Batman doesn’t regard him as special or his archenemy, announcing he doesn’t care.

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Tears of a Clown

Batman saves the day and all is good, however, it is revealed that when he returns to Wayne Manor he is lonely and bored. His trusty butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) is concerned that he has no life beyond Batman, but he refuses to acknowledge this. Bruce—0s0A\\\ attends the retirement party of Jim Gordon, where his replacement is to be announced. The replacement is Jim’s daughter, Barbara (Rosario Dawson), who Bruce is attracted to. Distracted by Barbara’s beauty Bruce agrees to adopt nerdy orphan Dick Grayson (Michael Cera).

Barbara announces a bold new plan for Gotham and her desire for Batman to work with the police, and highlighting that despite his efforts Gotham is still the worst city for crime. Joker and Co. attack but Joker then surrenders, much to the suspicion of Batman and Barbara. Joker and the other villains are imprisoned, and the city celebrates.

With nothing to do Batman is bored and sad, resisting Alfred’s urging to spend time with Dick and act as his father figure. Batman continues to spy on Joker and decides that the only way to be safe is to send Joker to the Phantom Zone, where the universe’s worst villains are imprisoned. Recruiting Dick as his sidekick, and giving him an old colourful costume the duo steal a device to send people to the Phantom Zone from Superman (Channing Tatum), who Batman discovers is throwing a party for all the superheroes that he was not invited to.

They send Joker to the Phantom Zone, but Barbara imprisons them. Unfortunately, this has played into the Joker’s plans and he breaks out with several other villains to get revenge on Batman and Gotham.

Batman reluctantly agrees to allow Barbara, Dick and Alfred to help him, but can they triumph and can he resist his urge to go it alone? And will he be able to admit to himself that his insistence on working alone comes from his fear of losing people again?

This is an incredibly daft and fun movie which works because of the central character, with Batman continuing to be a swaggering, boastful jerk who has to face up to his failings and feelings. It’s a big twist on the traditional way the Dark Knight is portrayed and the egomaniac is hugely entertaining, especially when he is repeatedly outwitted or out of his depth.

This happens often with Barbara who is a clever, confident woman who has his number from the jump and provides sensible advice he routinely ignores. As the movie unfolds he is forced to accept that teamwork is key and slowly acknowledges the help the others provide him with.

The other supporting players work well, especially the irritatingly cheery Dick Grayson who slowly breaks down Batman’s stern exterior.

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The Dynamic Duo

The storyline of the Joker’s rejection and his relationship with Batman is quite well done, playing it as almost a warped romance, with Joker believing it was a deeper connection and Batman brushing it off saying that he “likes to fight around”. The Joker’s plan is pretty clever and allows a whole host of cameos from different villains in the final act, with King Kong, Voldemort, Daleks, Gremlins and the Wicked Witch of the West among others.

The action is fact paced and largely comical, with characters making the sounds of the guns they use and the Lego world allowing for inventive chaos. Batman, as a master builder, continues to build massive, crazy contraptions and visually it is stunning.

It’s also a delight for geeks as it’s rammed with little gags and references. The beginning and end poke fun at the seriousness of some superhero movies, and there are nods to the many different incarnations of the characters (including a brief clip of Adam West in action). The Joker’s posse includes a host of Gotham’s villains including lesser, dafter enemies and there are nods to the comic book conventions, especially how inept the Gotham police are and one hostage’s relaxed response to being confronted by the Joker. It’s quite clever and funny, but I did wonder how well it would play for kids as a lot of it is very ironic and pokes fun at the character and the world.

Plot wise it’s quite straight forward, and the issues of teamwork, family and Batman accepting help from others and letting people in hardly groundbreaking. It’s not quite as good as The Lego Movie in terms of sheer manic energy, but it’s still a very solid comedy adventure and keeps moving at a decent pace. But it feels like this is a good place to leave the block Batman, as any more would overplay the joke.

Verdict: Consistently funny and loaded with injokes, this is an extremely entertaining movie. Daft in places it, it works well as a fast paced romp. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


My Favourite Films #42: Serenity

In the early ’00s there was a horrible affliction that devastated the geek community. Like a vampire, the infected would be unable to stop themselves from passing it on and forcing others to endure their curse. And, to mix my monsters, like zombies it was often the ones you loved that you hurt. You’d resist, but finally the curse would out and you’d pass it on with one simple sentence:

“Have you seen this show, Firefly? It’s amazing!”

And you’d hand over your box set and see them fall as you had. But what’s worse than a fall?
A fall from a great height.

And so the show would raise them up, lifting them with the cool space western vibe. Higher as they embraced the charming, likeable characters and still higher through the witty, exciting writing.

BANG!

Fourteen episodes and you crash back down. Mid season. Mid story. Plot lines left dangling unfinished, questions unanswered. The most persistent nagging at you: What happens next?

Online complaining, love one and petitions alerted Fox that there was a market. DVD sales climbed.

And so Joss Whedon got a second chance. Serenity would fly again.

But would a standalone movie really satisfy the fans. Would it work? Could it avoid being a disappointment?
You bet your ass it could.

Picking up sometime after the show we find roguish smuggler Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) leading his small crew on the outer reaches of space aboard the eponymous ship. 

Mal during a job

The young, frazzled genius River (Summer Glau) still struggles with the effects of government experimentation and her brother Simon (Sean Maher) tries to find a way to help her and work out what they did to her.
After a close call with the savage, mindless Reavers, Simon decides it’s time for them to leave. Mal agrees despite the protestations of some of his crew, particularly Kaylee (Jewel Staite), the engineer smitten with Simon. However, their plan to drop her off is abandoned after something triggers River to become a ruthless, skilled fighter. The only clue is that she uttered the word “Miranda” before her rampage.

Meanwhile, a shadowy government Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is hunting for River who carries important secrets in her damaged mind. He seeks out Inara (Morena Baccarin), the “companion” who previously travelled aboard Serenity. He uses her to send a message to Mal and set a trap. Mal, despite knowing it to be a trap goes in anyway and they narrowly escape after a fight with the Operative.

Using the few clues they have the group set off to work out what River knows. On the way they find out more about what was done to her and discover the dark origins of the Reavers.

I remember going into this movie with nervous excitement and being reassured very early on as it nails the tone of the show. As a fan of the show I don’t know how it would play to newcomers to the world, but I think it fills in the gaps quite quickly and deftly. And I think the writing, which is sharp and witty would win people over and engage them with an involving plot.

Of course, some of it works more for fans. When two characters but the farm it’s bound to hit harder to those who’ve known them longer. One in particular, the sudden, shocking demise of slacker pilot Wash (Alan Tudyk) was a gut blow for me and several friends who had loved the show, and the character.

The death comes out of nowhere and leaves you reeling, and the impact it has on the other characters is keenly felt. In a later scene where his devastated widow Zoe (Gina Torres) rushes into battle and is injured left me with a sinking feeling we were headed for Dirty Dozen/Magnificent Seven territory where the bodies would pile up and only a couple would make it.

This last stand against the Reavers is wonderfully tense and well done, with Whedon injecting little character moments into the build up (Zoe’s devastation and loss of hope, Simon and Kaylee expressing their feelings for each other) and there’s a laugh when Zoe talks to the brutish Jayne (Adam Baldwin) about strategy.

Jayne: Can’t be thinking on revenge if we’re gonna get through this.

Zoe: Do you really think any of us are going to get through this?

Jayne: (slightly nervous)…I might.

The returning cast slip into their old roles with ease and for fans it’s a comforting and satisfying end to the story (although if they want to do more I wouldn’t complain).

It’s massively entertaining and I loved it.

And of course it gave Nathan Fillion a chance to pull on his old Browncoat again. No actor seems to have loved a project more than Fillion who complained about the cancellation and still seems sore about it. 

It’s easy to see why, Mal is a great role and a perfect fit for Fillion’s easy charisma. He gets to play the big damn hero who has a softer, less confident side underneath the swagger. Mal’s like Han Solo’s geekier little brother, someone who’s not quite as cool as they’d like to be and often caught off balance, but managing to make it through due to luck, skill and determination.

Smarter than he makes out, kinder than he wishes and quietly noble Mal is the heart of the film and a great hero. He can handle himself in a fight, but knows when to run, and keeps going against the odds to do what’s right. Fillion’s charisma, humour and enthusiasm shines through making him a supremely likeable protagonist.

Hands down one of the most entertaining sci-fi movies of the 21st century.
Gorram it, I’m gonna watch the series again.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Disney Classics #7: The Three Caballeros

The second film of the “wilderness period” struggles as it feels far too close to it’s predecessor. Like Saludos Amigos this is based in South America, episodic and features Donald Duck.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have watched them so close together but I had no idea how similar they would be. Similar, but with the earlier film being superior.

The problem here is that they rely too much on mixing live action and cartoon and in some places this looks a bit creaky. Also the Donald Duck parts are the weakest mainly concerning Donald running around chasing women.

Some of these sequences are flat it trippy as he and his companions Jose Carioca and Panchito Pistoles (a red rooster from Mexico) jump through the pages of books about the continent. Donald chasing after real human women is a bit weird and you wonder what Daisy must have thought. While played for laughs it feels drawn out and starts leaning into sex pest territory.

Luckily some of the other sections work quite well. The music is quality and the different folk dances are quite good. But the real winners are the animated shorts which are rather charming. The first about a penguin who dreams of escaping to warmer climes is funny and well done with a “grass is always greener” ending.

The other is a goofy but entertaining story about a young boy who finds a flying donkey who he buddies up with and uses to win a race. The whole thing is narrated by the boy as a grown man, exasperated by his youthful stupidity and there’s a nice breaking if the fourth wall. It helps that the donkey is cute and likeable.

It’s okay, but drags in places and hasn’t aged well. There’s also a sense of trying to cover old ground. The animated shorts work but you wonder if they wouldn’t have been better as stand alone shorts.
Not without it’s charms but a weak effort.

Disney Score: 4/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Disney Classics #6: Saludos Amigos

It wasn’t until I got with MWF and saw her complete, chronological collection of the Disney Classics that I realised that my impression of the series was out of whack. I always thought there was this long Golden Age and then the shaky 70s-80s era before the Silver Age of the nineties and onwards. It turns out this isn’t the case.

The first five Disney films (see earlier posts in this series) mark the Golden Age of big, much loved and familiar hits. Then there’s this period of lesser known films before Disney emerges from the wilderness with the twelfth movie Cinderella which kick-starts the Silver Age which lasts until the early ’80s.

What’s a shame is that this film, the first of the wilderness years is actually quite a charming piece.

But it is easy to see why it hasn’t endured as much as the others. The travelogue style feels a little dated as does the South America it represents. For later audiences seeing the film open with the artists boarding a plane and some stock footage might spark memories of dull educational films. Like Fantasia it feels like a gamble and something which you can’t imagine the studio trying now.

The documentary parts are done quite well and there’s affection and respect in how they treat the local cultures even if it is brief and simplified. But they mainly serve as a frame on which to hang the different animated sections.

The star here is Donald Duck, who I’ve always preferred to Mickey (who was always too squeaky clean, and Donald’s temper makes him more relatable). Donald plays the hapless tourist who has to deal with the dangerous conditions at Lake Titicaca and a temperamental llama. This sequence is quite fun and well done, especially a dangerous rope bridge crossing.

Donald reappears in the final sequence, a musical number where he dances to samba music with Jose Carioca, a green parrot from Brazil, who introduces him to various parts of South American culture. The scene is quite cool with a catchy, cheerful soundtrack and the birds interacting with the artist’s paintbrush which is pretty cool.

The other sections are a slapstick piece about Argentinian gauchos featuring Goofy which is daft fun.

There’s also a short about a young plane trying to cross the Andes which has enough peril to keep you hooked and is rather sweet.

Due to the way it’s set up it’s not the most cinematic of films and it feels more like a TV special. But it’s entertaining enough and manages to educate while still feeling fun and keeping the momentum going. 

It lacks the level of artistry of Fantasia or the narrative drive of the other films and so while it’s charming enough it doesn’t stick with you in the same way, and it does seem dated in places.

That being said, I was glad I watched it and enjoyed it while I did, but it’s definitely a lesser entry.

Disney Score: 5/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Film Review: Moana

Disney have been in fine form the last few years and their latest continues that trend being a delightful, charming adventure which even raised MWF’s spirits during a weekend she was suffering with “man flu”.

The story follows Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) the daughter of the chief of a small Polynesian island. Despite her father trying to guide her towards her responsibilities as future chief, she is bewitched by the sea and longs to explore it, despite the tribal law of never leaving the safety of the reef. When the fish supplies start to dwindle and the coconut harvest is rotten the island is in trouble. 

Mama’s grandmother (Rachel House) shows her a hidden cave where Moana discovers the ships used by the tribe when they had roamed the seas generations before, but stopped as monsters and storms claimed their ships. These monsters were the result of Te Fiti, an island goddess and bringer of life having her heart stolen by the demigod Maui. The heart was lost but found it’s way to Moana as a small child as the ocean had chosen her to help restore the heart.

Moana sets out to find Maui and get him to return the heart and stop the darkness which threatens her island. However, she has little experience at sea and discovers that Maui (Dwayne Johnson) is a self centred braggart who is powerless without the hook which carries his divine abilities.

She convinces him to aid her by playing on his ego and need to be the hero and they set off to find his hook so that they can complete their mission. On the way they must face a giant, treasure hoarding crab and coconut pirates.

Can they return the heart? Or will the powerful lava god that defeated Maui before be too much for him again? And when things get hard can she count on the selfish demigod?
What I love about this film is that the heroine and her quest is genuinely captivating and Moana is a strong, believable protagonist. She is driven and determined, but also fallible and doubts herself. Out of her depth she nonetheless shows grit and resourcefulness and pushes onwards. 

This all stems from a sense of duty to her people, and her responsible attitude means that she is at odds with Maui from the get go. Maui, voiced with easy charisma and overblown swagger by Dwayne Johnson steals the show somewhat thanks to his showy posturing. It’s a testament to Johnson that even removed from the physicality that made him famous his natural charisma still shines through. 

His moving tattoos are a nice touch and he is developed over the course of the film, developing nicely into the hero he proclaims himself to be at the start.

His first song “You’re Welcome” is a boastful delight and his moving tattoos, depicting his past deeds are a nice touch, especially his bickering relationship with one of them. He’s a hugely memorable character and his unwilling partnership with Moana is handled well. 

They spark off each other and his repeated attempts to ditch her are quite amusing. Their developing affection is done well, feeling natural and never clunky, and they play off each other well with her quiet determination contrasting nicely with his loud bravado.

The supporting cast don’t have much to do, although the character of Gramma Tala is very amusing and loveable. Confessing to be the village’s “crazy old lady” she is the only person who encourages and understands Moana’s desire to leave the island and guides her quest. Despite filling the “wise elder” role she is a fun presence and some of the scenes between her and her granddaughter really hit home emotionally.

Gramma Tala captures the warmth that is at the heart of this film, and which comes jumping from the screen. I was utterly charmed and loved every second.

The film looks gorgeous and the characters are designed beautifully and there is plenty of visual humour from Moana’s pet chicken and Maui’s tattoos, and plenty in a clever, charming script. 

It’s laugh out loud funny, gripping and filled with wonderful characters. It’s not the best Disney film ever, but it’s pretty damn high on the list.

Verdict: Simply amazing. Fun, fast paced and full of character, this is a great family movie with a great heroine and a scene stealing Dwayne Johnson. Disney knock this one out of the park and produce another superb movie. 9/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Film Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them (Includes spoilers)

WARNING! Here be spoilers!

I wasn’t overly keen on going to see this, but MWF is a massive fan of the Harry Potter films. My scepticism was born out of the fact that I wasn’t overly fussed on the earlier series and that knowing they planned five films based on one slim book made me think I was in for lots of padding as a money making exercise.

Thankfully I was proven wrong.

Set in the New York of 1926 this deals with Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) a British wizard who has traveled the world collecting and studying magical creatures. Many of which he keeps in his charmed suitcase.

Arriving in America he encounters a magical society very different from that which exists in Britain. The major difference is that American wizards have no interaction with muggles, or No-Majs as their known in the States. While distracted by an anti-witchcraft preacher Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) his suitcase becomes mixed up with that of No-Maj Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), and one of the critters gets loose. Newt recaptures it but before he can wipe Kowalski’s memory the man flees and Newt is arrested by Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston). 
However it turns out that Kowalski still has the wrong case and Tina is a disgraced Auror (magic cop) and nobody listens to her. She and Newt go to find Kowalski, who has already met some of the other beasts, three of whom have escaped. Kowalski is injured and in an attempt to hide him from the authorities they take him to Tina’s flat which she shares with her more cheerful, mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), who Kowalski takes a shine to.

Meanwhile, Barebone and her adopted children continue to spread anti-magic propaganda although her son Credence (Ezra Miller) is working with Graves (Colin Farrell) a high-ranking Auror who promises to rescue him from his abusive home if he helps him find a magical child who is in danger.

A magical beast kills a prominent No-Maj and Newt is blamed, despite him identifying the real killer as an Obscurus a rare energy formed when a witch or wizard represses their magic creating a dark, lethal force which they have no control over and eventually kills them. 

At this point it’s revealed that Graves is dodgy which comes as no real surprise as he’s played by Colin Farrell. 

I can’t believe he turned out to be a wrong ‘un, said nobody

He has been playing Credence and thinks the Obscurus is tied to his adopted sister, but it turns out it’s actually Credence and the Obscurus is stronger than any of them suspected.
Can Newt and friends save the boy? Or will he be lured to the dark side by Graves? What will become of Kowalski when it’s all over?

The plot is simple enough and well done, but the real strength here are the characters. In the Harry Potter films the problems for me were that in the early films the kid performers are weak (Grint would remain shaky throughout) and the characters annoying. Seriously at most points at least one of what Potterheads call “the Golden Trio” are being a bit of a twerp.

Here all four heroes are well performed and likeable enough, and special mention should go to Sudol and Fogler who make their characters immensely likeable and craft a downright adorable fledgling romance.

Adorable- Queenie and Kowalski hit it off

Having Kowalski at the centre for much of the film is a great touch as the wonder is seen through his eyes and his delight his infectious. It’s his wide eyed joy and acceptance of what he sees which wins you over to him, and shows that in some ways he’s already ahead of wizarding characters in terms of his attitude towards magical creatures.
He also forms a good duo with Newt, ably portrayed by Redmayne who manages to inject just the right amount of eccentricity into the role. Newt’s genuine attachment to his animal charges is affecting and his conservationist style outlook won me over pretty damn quick.

Also a big plus are strong female heroines, with Queenie starting out as a seemingly ditzy blonde who steps up when needed and Tina as a slightly neurotic but noble figure who wants to help others and who shows a flexibility that the wizarding government lacks.

The overall tone is nailed just right with some very funny moments and quite a bit of whimsy, but just enough peril to keep you gripped. Towards the end the film delivers an emotional knockout which I found genuinely moving and I left eagerly awaiting more in the series.

As expected the effects are great, and the magical creatures on display are glorious, with each given a personality of their own.

Some of the Fantastic Beasts

All in all I found this a very fun and entertaining film, with solid characters and a decent plot. The performances are great across the board (even Johnny Depp’s brief appearance is well done, lacking his usual OTT touches) and I was utterly charmed by this glorious movie. For my money it might actually surpass the Harry Potter movies.

Verdict: Incredibly well done this movie has enough warmth and charm to avoid seeming like a needless cash in. The main characters are all extremely engaging and the story, while predictable in places, is gripping enough. I went in sceptical and came out eager for more. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Disney Classics #5: Bambi

This is a Disney movie largely remembered for the death of one character and the fact it has made generations of children cry.

The shooting of Bambi’s mother is the film’s most famous moment and I won’t lie, it’s done remarkably well with the death happening off camera and Bambi only realising what’s happened after the fact. His dad breaks the news to him in a rather blunt manner “your mother can’t be with you anymore”. Dude, soften the blow a little.

And devastated Bambi’s reaction gives the heartstrings a massive yank.

The whole movie is a pretty decent “life of animals” tale, starting with Bambi’s birth and following the eponymous deer to adulthood. Sure some of it is sentimental and softened, but there’s still a dark edge, mainly from man but there are acknowledgements that nature is rough.

Bambi has to fight when another stag steps to his girl, in a sequence which is shot in a stark, dramatic style which makes it so different from the rest of the movie.

The real villain here is man, who after killing Bambi’s mum then run through the woods guns blazing and then start a fire. Mankind does not come off well in this movie, and some of it is harsh. One bleak scene involved some birds cowering in the undergrowth before one cracks under pressure and takes flight, we then see her body hit the deck. It’s not quite at the grim level of The Animals of Farthing Wood, but it’s got a whole lot more edge than I remember.

Heck, Bambi kills a bunch of dogs after causing a rock slide on to them. It might be a softened version of the natural world, but it doesn’t completely ignore the fact that nature can be brutal.

The circle of life is completed when Bambi becomes a dad himself, which follows a sequence where our hero and his friends become “twitterpated” which is basically  Disney slang for overcome with lust. Seriously, there is some visual innuendo going on here which had clearly flown way over my head when I first saw this movie.

Character wise it’s a little flat and the songs aren’t particularly great, but it’s episodic style works and it keeps moving. Also it handles the shifts in tone quite well and is genuinely moving in places. Also it’s very pretty to look at.

Disney Score: 6/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.