Friday, 17 November 2017

Justice League


Rating: 2/5

After what seems like an eternity of hype and expectation, Zack Snyder's Justice League, the latest chapter in the DC Extended Universe, has finally arrived to challenge the Avengers' dominance in the superhero super-group stakes.

DC's previous offerings have, at best, been a mixed bag. The Snyder-directed Man of Steel carried producer Christopher Nolan's scrubbed sheen, though it went unloved, for all its beauty and weighty themes. Last year's entries, Suicide Squad and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, did little to garnish a franchise in need of some pep. The former was a mess, deeply unlikable and smugly (read: wrongly) convinced of its own brilliance. The latter (which also featured Snyder at the helm) was loud and bold, though a glowering tone rendered it a dull, uninspiring watch.

Only Wonder Woman can be judged an undisputed success. Patty Jenkins succeeded where Snyder and Suicide Squad's David Ayer fell down: She and star Gal Gadot turned out a fun product. It ably balanced action and comedy, injecting it all with a healthy dose of female empowerment.

Like its Marvel rival, whose next ensemble piece arrives in May, Justice League deploys a coterie of do-gooders, some well known, others less so, to battle (as ever) a threat of world-ending proportions, namely Ciarán Hinds's arch villain, Steppenwolf, whose dastardly plot involves invading and ransacking Earth in order to locate a trio of powerful devices named Mother Boxes. Aided by an army of demonic bugs, his ultimate goal, such as it is, involves conjoining the three cubes, thus bringing on a dystopian hellscape to rival Brexit.

Leading the fight is Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), still mourning Superman's (Henry Cavill) act of self-sacrifice at the conclusion of Dawn of Justice and determined to gather together crusaders for the purpose of countering Steppenwolf, whose hordes feed on the creeping anarchy induced by Kal-El's departure. 

Quite how he is aware of the impending apocalypse is somewhat unclear, but with "I'm rich" being his essential superpower, that superior knowledge is simply accepted. 

Nonetheless, alongside Gadot's Amazon princess, Wayne recruits seafaring badass Aquaman (Jason Momoa, set for his own movie in 2018), bio-mechanical genius Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and the Flash (Ezra Miller), whose sarcasm and geeky charm are matched by an ability to move as quickly as the lightning that powers him.



Together they make for an impressive crew, each boasting a particular set of skills. Unfortunately, however, Justice League lacks the harmony so inherent to the Avengers franchise, which benefits, it has to be said, merely from getting there first. Outside of the positives brought to bear by the troupe's interplay and a welcome charge of humour, Snyder's work is ultimately an empty vessel, a mere exercise in world-building. 

To its credit, this is not a movie lacking colourful personalities. Wonder Woman remains the best thing on screen and her one-person-war-machine is provided ample room to breathe. Gadot's exquisite appearance continues to garner laughs, but obvious athleticism and power, married with a glare that surely defines righteous certitude, are the keys to her allure.

Elsewhere, Miller and Momoa bring impressive comedy chops to bear: the younger man mixes geeky and awkward without ever becoming an irritant; Momoa's cynical, sarcastic take on things is just as welcome – one gag involving Wonder Woman's Lasso of Truth is brilliantly executed. 

Unfortunately for Batman and Cyborg, the results are less favourable. While Fisher embraces his tortured soul, convincing to an extent as the brains of the operation, his backstory is bland and confusing, he never feels truly heroic. 

Affleck, too, is largely forgettable. In spite of that lantern jaw and matinee idol visage, his Wayne is little more than a pale, if expensive, imitation of Christian Bale's iconic Dark Knight. This is an older, jaded, less athletic Batman by design, far removed from the lean bleakness of Nolan's peerless triptych, but Affleck just looks bored. 

Plot wise, Justice League fails to present anything new. Multiple (not to mention disparate) supporting characters from throughout the DC ecosystem crowd into the two-hour running time. Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane) pine for the departed Superman; urbane Alfred Pennyworth (Jeremy Irons) puts his feet up and keeps Batman straight; even the Amazons of Themyscira pop up, providing the backdrop for one early, utterly unhinged chase scene involving Steppenwolf and Connie Nielsen's Queen Hippolyta.

Few of them add a great deal. In attempting to fashion a broader mythology, Snyder, alongside screenwriters Chris Terrio and Marvel stalwart Joss Whedon, is too quick to step away from the dynamics of his central band. He crowds them with extraneous exposition, attempting to pass it off as crucial context. Aquaman's backstory is blink-and-miss-it brief and the Flash is trying to get his old man out of the joint. Or something. 

The most rounded characterisation is afforded to Superman, reanimated to lend a crucial hand, with Clark Kent's appreciation for the human spirit doing just enough to sustain a sense of emotional resonance. 

That said, it's little wonder there's so much chaff, given the slight core narrative. Steppenwolf has grim designs for humanity, though his plans are realised so easily, one wonders why he waited millennia to pull the trigger on them. Ultimately, he is a forgettable adversary, a pound-shop stand-in for James Spader's Ultron in the second Avengers instalment. 

On the one hand, there is no doubting the visual delights on display and Snyder ably draws a distinction in tone between the worlds of Gotham and Metropolis. He also piles on the action, blitzing the screen with destruction and mayhem.

Yet, slick effects are surely now taken as read. A diverting shtick in its own right, the trope that sees big things exploding in style is as common as comic book adaptations themselves. More is needed. Unfortunately, it's not to be found here. 



Monday, 6 November 2017

Murder on the Orient Express


Rating: 3/5

In the annals of cinematic moustaches, a number have truly stood out. John Neville’s whiskers decorated The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, while Daniel Day Lewis rode his towards fortune, lunacy and an Oscar for There Will Be Blood. Clarke Gable (Gone with the Wind) and Sam Elliot (The Big Lebowski) both made solid plays for posterity, of course, and anything Tom Selleck has ever appeared in is largely remembered for the hair sprouting from his upper lip.

It is possible, however, that the bar has been reset with the arrival of Sir Kenneth Branagh’s Hercule Poirot, the Belgian sleuth conjured from the imagination of mystery maven Agatha Christie. Played with particular élan by David Suchet during his 70-episode run on ITV, Poirot’s latest big-screen outing, Murder on the Orient Express, is garnished by a moustache of quite magnificent scope, vigour and daring. Like a mighty grey wave rippling across his face, this effort can't be undersold. 

Poirot’s appearance is, fortunately, far from the film’s only distinguishing mark. This is a pleasingly rendered slow-burning thriller, which benefits as much from its regard for vintage Hollywood tropes as it does from the sure hand at the controls. Both director and star, Branagh’s gifts in the two disciplines are on show as he marshals a cast bristling with star power, becalming them in snow drifts and creeping suspicion. 

Orient Express is the first Poirot feature since 1988 and the fourth adaptation of this particular tale. In it, the world-famous detective, finds himself travelling at short notice on the titular locomotive with a coterie of colourful characters: including corrupt art dealer Ratchett (Johnny Depp); Ratchett's flunkey, MacQueen (Josh Gad), and valet, Masterman (Derek Jacobi); Teutonic academic Hardman (Willem Dafoe); fading siren Mrs Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer); sober missionary Estravados (Penélope Cruz); haughty aristocrat Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench); watchful governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley); fragile Russian count Andrenyi (Ukrainian ballet dancer Sergei Polunin); and black English doctor Arbuthnot (Broadway fixture Leslie Odom Jr.).

When one of the passengers approaches Poirot to engage the great man as a bodyguard, he refuses, only to see an inexplicable murder, and an avalanche in the Yugoslavian mountains, waylay the Express. Having been begged for help by his friend, the service’s dissolute overseer, Bouc (Tom Bateman), Poirot resolves to divine the facts.


In style, Orient Express boasts reassuring confidence and while its plot is well worn, Branagh imbues his picture with fresh impetus. He remains a superb film-maker, as comfortable with mega-budget mainstream fare (ThorJack Ryan: Shadow RecruitCinderella) as he is staging Shakespeare.

He revels in the 1930s milieu envisioned by Christie and moulds a world laced with intrigue and elegance. The sets make bold statements of old-world luxury and class, paeans to the art deco sensibilities of a lost, gilded age. 

The framing is just as accomplished. One early exterior tracking shot watches Poirot as he progresses through the carriages, avoiding, entertaining and observing his fellow travellers as he goes. Later, with only the actors’ voices and body language to convey horror or surprise, the discovery of an unseen corpse is viewed entirely from above in the narrow confines of a plush gangway. Before the end, when the identity of the malefactor slides into view, Poirot is confronted by a line-up of suspects seated before him, arranged as if in a tableau, the last supper of truth and justice.  

As with Cinderella, regular Branagh collaborator Haris Zambarloukos’s cinematography soars. From its rich colour scheme – dazzling flourishes and sunsets meld with warm, oak-panelled hues and wintry shades – to an occasionally epic sense of scale, Orient Express’s complex riddle is painted on a genuinely beautiful canvas. As compelling as the central quandary might be, the glorious vistas of Jerusalem, Istanbul and Europe’s eastern reaches, remind us of the silver screen’s ability to transport its viewers to destinations far beyond their own borders.

In the lead, Branagh is impossible to dislike. His iteration of Poirot constitutes a man of depth and contradictions. So extreme a perfectionist that he would rather two shoes be soiled by manure than one alone, his faintly comic air is propped up by unbending politeness and natty sartorial grace. This urbane, worldly multi-linguist spends his time giggling at the musings of Dickens and flitting between continental destinations, savouring local culture along the way. It's the stuff of Brexiteer nightmares.

However, beneath that serene veneer lie nerves of steel and unimpeachable morals, attributes that come increasingly to the fore in the latter stages, as the initially frivolous atmosphere gives way to something darker. Poirot’s razor-edged intellect is stretched to breaking point in pursuit of answers that lie somewhere in the dusting of clues sprinkled throughout but it is his soul, and the idea of himself, that ultimately requires attention. 

Far from flawless, Orient Express arguably ends to soon and even imposes a vacuous, clumsy lost romance on its hero. The latter element is particularly silly, reducing Poirot to someone who seeks guidance from old photographs of people none of us know. The cast, too, sees its individual arcs unevenly served. Not one person is weak, indeed most are as watchable as one would imagine (Jacobi, in particular, excels) but a lean running time and dense narrative leave little room for memorable moments. 

Nevertheless, there is a great deal here to savour. Be it the stunning backdrops or the powerful final reveal, these strands utterly fail to disappoint. In truth, with Branagh as conductor, this train keeps to the right track.

This review was also published on Culture Northern Ireland.


Wednesday, 6 September 2017

It


Rating: 4/5

Stephen King's bottomless well of horror tomes has thrown up some brilliant adaptations. The Shining, Carrie, Misery and The Mist stand out as exemplary tributes to a résumé that also regrettably provided the foundations for the likes of Dreamcatcher and Children of the Corn, turkeys barely worth a mention.

It is arguable, however, that the great writer's most iconic novel has yet to make its way to the cinema screen. It's live action debut came in 1990, of course, but this was restricted to television, the Tim Curry-starring two-part event playing out over the course of consecutive nights on ABC. The miniseries transfixed audiences and schooled a fresh generation in the twisted wonders of King's imagination.


Now, in 2017, a fully fledged filmic update is long overdue, a perfect antidote to another King reworking, the recent and execrable The Dark Tower.


Helmer Andrés Muschietti's debut feature was feral-child creeper Mama, a picture that was seen less than it deserved, and, once again, he succeeds admirably in deploying the chilling atmosphere that enlivened the latter project. In truth, It is an engaging and triumphant take on a signature work, one replete with equal parts terror, humour and ambition, and likely to amuse as often as it induces palpable discomfort. 


King's tale still freezes the blood. In 1980s Derry, Maine, a band of friends is terrorised by a malevolent presence that has long stalked their town. Taking whichever form is most likely to terrify its victims, the spirit's go-to manifestation is that of Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård), an undoubted leader in fanning the flames of global coulrophobia. 


With his staring eyes, tufts of orange hair, twisted grin and Renaissance-era wardrobe, Skarsgård's portrayal is stunning, 
if not downright odd, a wicked, cruel, occasionally hilarious emissary of evil that will harry the rest of fitful sleepers everywhere. Muschietti empowers his villain with more than just the ill intent of a watchful demon. Pennywise stalks and roams, charges and mutilates, with wild abandon. The director, in a nod to the era of the source material's publication, even sends him scuttling manically towards the veering camera – features leering, claws snatching – as in the genre flicks of yesteryear. 

Around Pennywise swirls the vivid visual palette conjured by Oldboy cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung. Arresting, heart-stopping images and settings abound against a bucolic small-town backdrop. From the murk of Derry's decrepit sewers, and the creaking manor house serving as the clown's base of operations, to the jets of blood streaming from a plug hole to drench a menstruating teenage girl, ambience is not in short supply. In an early scene, a chained warehouse door strains against the hopeless, screaming people burning within, their hands clawing at the blue sky beyond. Even the dull bowels of a public library (far removed from the Gothic glee of Ghostbusters) are laced with menace. And then, of course, there are the balloons, floating ruby calling cards to signal Pennywise's arrival. 



This is powerful stuff, no doubt, and with an unnerving, gruesome opening sequence, It states its intentions without delay. Muschietti may not flinch from confronting the violence of King's creation but his film never attempts to coast by on scares alone. Instead, an affecting coming-of-age story it all together. That strand is perhaps the strongest on show. 

In a town peopled by a seldom-seen adult population of bullies, idiots and grieving parents, the gang at the movie's core proves itself the only force capable of tackling the omnipotent corruption. Christening themselves the Losers' Club, the teens form a motley crew. Wisecracking Richie (Stranger Things star Finn Wolfhard – magnificent) is joined by skittish Stan (Wyatt Oleff), hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), flinty Mike (Chosen Jacobs) and the sensitive, perceptive Ben (an outstanding Jeremy Ray Taylor), the butt of some superb New Kids on the Block gags. 

The group is rounded out by its notional leader, Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), a stuttering but courageous soul grieving the disappearance of his kid brother, and Beverly (Sophia Lillis), whose dysfunction stems as much from her poverty as it does from the whiff of perversion emanating from her father's clammy attentions.

The rapid-fire, foul-mouthed interplay between them all is a delight, underpinned by loyalty and a noble sense of duty to their fraternity. They account for much of It's comedy, Wolfhard gobbling most of the best lines, though there exists significant elegance in their adolescent development, in a loss of innocence and the grim erosion of childhood certainties. 

For every metal-scored rock fight with the local ruffians, a moment of tenderness between the Losers is never far away. They may squabble and belittle but when peril closes in and devil-jesters need tackling, they coalesce to counter the fear upon which Pennywise feasts. Their presence channels E.T. (easily flung bicycles are the only mode of transport worth anything), The Goonies and, obviously, another of King's great yarns, Stand By Me, without ever feeling derivative. 

If criticisms are to be levelled at Muschietti, then they could probably centre on a lack of freshness in the crucial frights. Little new arrives to excite, with the usual tropes appearing in all the usual places. That said, given how much of the chunky running time is dedicated to referencing the late 80s (witness the passing allusions to Gremlins, Lethal Weapon 2 and Batman) the familiarity of execution may well be somewhat deliberate.

King's epic original took in the Club's adult moves to eradicate its powdered nemesis and those events are bound for a planned sequel. The bonds formed here will be tested, that much is certain. In the meantime, sweet dreams. 




Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Atomic Blonde


Rating: 3/5

As relations between the United States and Russia remain at an especially weird level of passive aggression, films set against the backdrop of the Cold War are, all of a sudden, oh so topical again. 

With a title winking at the world-ending dimension of that particular contretemps, Atomic Blonde (an adaptation of the 2012 graphic novel The Coldest City) arrives in theatres sporting an evocative period setting and delirious, ultra-stylish action. The solo directorial debut of John Wick's David Leitch, this is an ambitious, though largely incomprehensible, slice of adrenaline-laced cinema that survives on the talents of its star, Charlize Theron. 


She plays British agent Lorraine Broughton, a gimlet-eyed intelligence operative dispatched to Berlin, as the Soviet state was breathing its last, following the murder of a colleague by the KGB and the loss of a valuable spy list. Allied with the MI6 station chief, David Percival (James McAvoy), she must recover the data and execute those behind the slaying of her compatriot. Relayed via flashback as she briefs her superiors (Toby Jones and John Goodman) on the details of the mission, Broughton –  battered, bruised, devouring cigarettes – makes for a compelling narrator.


As with John Wick, Leitch (a former stuntman) unfurls a cacophony of brutal, yet beautiful, set pieces. From a technical standpoint, it is often an exhilarating vision. The relentlessness of the latter comes to the fore in a series of sequences that rely more on physicality than gun porn. Theron, channelling the glory of Mad Max: Fury Road, rather than the post-Oscar depths of Aeon Flux, seems the perfect totem for this mayhem. Tall and lithe, hidden beneath of mop of platinum hair, oozing an air of genuine menace, she scraps and brawls her way through a plot which is as light on exposition as it is heavy on intrigue. 

Whether it's decimating German cops or culling goons in a beautifully staged hotel-based firefight, Broughton's lethal capabilities are stunning. One late scene involving Eddie Marsan's Stasi defector and a gang of Russian heavies is absolutely astonishing, captured in a single shot and taking in an elevator, a staircase, a cluttered apartment and, finally, a car chase. 

Leitch holds nothing in reserve, flinging Theron around with wild abandon, pitting her against male belligerents granting her no quarter. Indeed, it isn't long before one pities these men, assailed, as they are, by their opponent's penchant for fighting like a caged animal and turning, Jason Bourne-like, ordinary household items into deadly tools. 



Its visual attributes are just as impressive. John Wick cinematographer Jonathan Sela brings the same palette to bear, all rich hues and neon lighting. Berlin serves as an wondrous backdrop, its gaudy post-modern suites, elegant cafés and subversive underground raves all dominated by that iconic wall, pockmarked, graffitied and ready to fall. A soundtrack replete with synth-heavy 80s pop gilds the experience.

From a narrative standpoint, however, the movie falls someway short of matching its visceral thrills. Leitch and screenwriter Kurt Johnstad are aiming to deliver a smart Euro thriller and while the picture does not lack intellect, its story is something of a mess, gratuitously deceptive and reliant on wintry chicanery, as well as the standard tropes of the genre: trust no one; watch your back; always look cool. That Broughton herself may be an unreliable messenger should feel more precarious than it actually does and even a final, inevitable twist fails to provide clarity.

Fortunately, the strength of the spectacle and Theron's kinetic performance are sufficient to overcome these distractions. Whatever its failings, Atomic Blonde packs a tremendous punch, its brawn, not brains, coming out on top. 




Monday, 10 July 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes


Rating: 5/5

While it is easy to become jaded at the current turgid state of mega-budget movies, one offering has stood out for some time now as a beacon in the haze of mediocre franchises and focus group-produced blockbusters.

The rebooted Planet of the Apes canon does not draw its acclaim from the relative inadequacies of rivals. No, its greatness is inherent and since film one – Rupert Wyatt's tremendous Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – first hit screens in 2011, there have been few to match a series that has grown stronger with each new instalment.

Similarly, the arrival three years later of the Matt Reeves-directed follow-up, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, garnered critical praise and audience devotion, its bold themes of family, peace and human frailty, not to mention some truly spectacular action, setting it apart from competitors.

In returning with the third chapter, War for the Planet of the Apes, Reeves ratchets up proceedings to deliver a bold and brilliantly imagined sci-fi epic that builds on the foundations already laid. Anchored by more than one stellar performance, War completes the not insignificant task of outdoing its accomplished predecessors.

Andy Serkis's ability to inhabit and guide digital beings stopped being a gimmick back around the time Gollum started speaking to himself but as Caesar, the hyper intelligent (now almost completely fluent) and totemic chimpanzee at the centre of the entire trilogy, the actor betters any of his previous work. Caesar is no mere expensive avatar born in the Weta hive mind. He is, rather, a fully evolved protagonist, photoreal and blessed by Serkis with depths and motivations absent in many a flesh-and-blood character. 

His is the crucial tale, commencing as a platoon of hardened human warriors glide through a serene rainforest to attack the apes' arboreal hideout, their commander (Woody Harrelson) directing them from afar in humankind's desperate efforts to blot out their nemeses following the dystopian conflict set off at the end of Rise.   

Later, as Harrelson himself comes calling, bearing only 'The Colonel' as a handle, Caesar's fate spirals and, haunted by visions of dead friend Koba (Toby Kebbell), the raged-filled bonobo he put to the sword as film two concluded, he sets off on a path apart from that of the primates he leads. 

From a technical standpoint, War is an astonishing feat. If Reeves prefers not to revel in the brilliance of his picture, its merits are no less obvious. This is a story revolving around a group of CG apes that never once seems as if it is riffing on the wizardry required to bring such a cast to life. It is no stretch to conclude that these look and move like the real thing, with every single detail, from their matted, sodden and snow-sprinkled fur to their squat and shuffling movements, rendered in agonising detail. Sorrow, fear and contentment inhabit their eyes. It is truly stunning work. 



For all of the above prowess, however, War is defined, like any other film, by the quality of its characters and how they interact with one another. In this regard, it soars. Serkis's magnificent turn aside, there are other achievements to savour. Karin Konoval has always imbued orangutan Maurice with a gentle sagacity but the relationships here with both Caesar and war orphan Nova (Amiah Miller) feels especially poignant. For her part, Miller is outstanding, an ethereal young mute representing a crucial strand in Apes's larger universe. 

Steve Zahn, too, pops up as Bad Ape, the sweetly innocent (not to mention welcome) comic relief. Even Red (Ty Olsson), a former follower of Koba and now a collaborating enforcer for the bellicose homo sapiens (a 'Donkey', to use the term awarded to all such quislings), is rewarded with a poignant arc. 

This modern series continues the anthological approach to its humans that has seen a changing line-up of antagonists and protagonists intersect the apes' evolution (think Jason Clarke, James Franco and Gary Oldman). Harrelson is undoubtedly the most dastardly, though his development is handled with deftness. Messiah-cum-warlord in the early stages, he glares and glowers, and channels Brando's Kurtz more than once (not the only Apocalypse Now reference). That said, his denouement is, surprisingly, the strongest indicator yet as to how this narrative fits into that made famous by Charlton Heston and the Simian Flu – the pandemic at the crux of the present Apes mythos – hangs in the air, cleverly brought forward as its own villain.

When a middle section located in Harrelson's hellish, frozen prison camp begins to drag, Reeves pitches up with an escape sequence that will amuse and compel in equal measures. Just as well judged is the director's decision to row back so deliberately from the kind of loud extended set piece that worked so well in Rise's final reel. Yes, there is devastation aplenty, much of it brutal, but instead of going for spectacle, War's aim is something much more delicate. 

"Apes together: Strong," goes Caesar's double-fisted mantra. It seems terribly hard to argue.  


Thursday, 8 June 2017

My Cousin Rachel


Rating: 3/5

Daphne du Maurier’s bleak novel, My Cousin Rachel, receives only its second cinematic adaptation since its 1951 publication, this 2017 retread serving as a long overdue update of a particularly enigmatic work. 

Directed by the ever reliable Roger Michell, the film features a stylish cast, elegant photography and an atmosphere of mystery that goes some way to making this a genuinely affecting slice of period noir. A week after Wonder Woman's noisy release, My Cousin Rachel is a fable of female power anchored firmly within themes of erotic desire and deep-seated male fear of the fairer gender.  

Set in the environs of coastal Cornwall, this centres not on its title character (Rachel Weisz) but on Sam Claflin's Philip Ashley, vigorous young master of a stately manor and orphaned ward of his beloved cousin, Ambrose (also Claflin).

When Ambrose dies during his convalescence in Florence, his widow, Rachel, ends up at Philip's door, beautiful, ghostly and entirely inscrutable. Given that in the cousins' correspondence Ambrose cast doubts on Rachel's intentions towards him, Philip is convinced that she hastened his death, a stance that soon softens when the grieving wife bewitches him.

The question of whether or not Rachel is a murderess
 – "Did she? Didn't she?" – comes and goes with Philip's mood, initially smitten, then possessive and, finally, again, suspicious. It drives the narrative, never far from the surface, Rachel's unknowable motivations always seeming to sit awkwardly with Philip's fumbling, entitled attempts to secure domestic bliss. 


At the core of the tale, Weisz inhabits her role with aplomb. Undoubtedly the most complex character on show, Rachel's primary countenance is one of refinement. She is delicate and grounded, funny and undemanding, yet Weisz manages to convey an instability beneath it all, a sense of oddball unpredictability. Her endgame constitutes an ambiguous strand and it is to the credit of both Michell and his leading lady that this should feel so unsettling. As Rachel cheerily concocts continental tisanes, viewed by the locals with barely contained bafflement, hints of danger nibble at the outer edge of this story. 

Claflin, on the other hand, fares less well. He carries off the haughty heir with minimal effort but misses in adding the layers necessary to compete with Weisz's enchantress. In painting Philip as the sort of breech-sporting youth unused to even the mere presence of women, Claflin comes off as smug, almost petulant. Where callowness is required, stupidity is the prevailing mood as he makes moves to sign over his fortune to a stranger. 

As far as the supporting cast is concerned, proceedings are consistently garlanded by the always excellent Iain Glen. He offers refinement and loyalty as Philip's wealthy godfather-cum-guardian, at first charmed, then watchful and perturbed by the developing situation. 
Simon Russell Beale, meanwhile, is wonderfully restrained in the role of the family solicitor, undemonstrative but upright, whose language ("That's my job, to stickle.") delights. Holliday Grainger, too, stands out, alongside Weisz, as Philip's would-be paramour. Her calm wisdom is at odds with his puppy-like devotion to the new lodger, though, refreshingly, neither woman is pitched as a rival of the other. 

If there exists a major sticking point, then it is in tone and setting. From Rebecca to the unerringly creepy Jamaica Inn, du Maurier's stories are grey and forbidding  hers is an oeuvre thick with ambience. It is puzzling, therefore, that Michell chooses to trade in those tropes for the rural idyll of Thomas Hardy. Instead of crashing waves and isolated moors, verdant pastures and forests ripe with bluebells flood the screen. Gorgeous as they are, such elements undermine the kernel of darkness so inherent to the du Maurier résumé.

More is the pity, for My Cousin Rachel is, on the surface, an accomplished picture. With a script delivering intense, occasionally earthy dialogue and no little style, Michell's film would have excelled if it had only focused on the tenets that made the source material soar. 

Friday, 2 June 2017

Wonder Woman


Rating: 3/5

As a competing counterweight to Marvel's limitless deluge of multi-platformed superhero derring-do, comic house DC's Extended Universe (an exercise in aping its rival's targeted, overarching mythology) has not fared well since birth.

Suicide Squad was a disaster and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice barely felt much better. Man of Steel, released in 2013, granted Superman new life, but, for all its style and grit, audiences were uninspired by a film that descended into convention. 

Interestingly, then, the latest step in the DC campaign arrives in a much more elegant form. Wonder Woman might seem like a campy antidote to the muscular glowering of all that has gone before, but, under the guidance of Monster director Patty Jenkins, this period tale occasionally succeeds where its predecessors have largely failed.

This is not Wonder Woman's first blockbuster appearance, of course. A major name in DC's stable, she appeared in Dawn of Justice and will fill out the cast of the upcoming Justice League, a riposte to the Avengers franchise – a signal that, regardless of the missteps, this is a movement in it for the long haul. By hiring a female director with indie sensibilities, however, mother studio Warner Bros has embraced a fresh approach, one that pays off more than it fails.

The set-up is vintage comic book lore. Diana (Gal Gadot) is the Amazon princess and scion of Olympus who spends her days on the mythical Themyscira, training under the watchful eye of her warrior aunt, Antiope (Robin Wright), and learning the details of her heritage at the knee of Queen of the Amazons Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), her mother.  

When an American pilot, Chris Pine's Steve Trevor, crash lands on the tropical paradise, Diana is quickly drawn into the Great War due to her belief that the Amazons' mortal enemy, bellicose god Ares, is behind the chaos. 



In the central role, Gadot is a believable demi-god-cum-moral-crusader. Jenkins places much of the movie's hefty action on her shoulders, a choice that proves wise given the leading lady's charisma. As with the other denizens of the all-female Themyscira, Diana exudes power and athleticism. Such is her presence that when the impressive action beats arrive, her skill in battle comes as no surprise. 

Gadot also possesses a sly funny streak. Her earnestness remains a gag throughout and the flirty interplay with Pine – reining in, though not abandoning, his engaging Captain Kirk shtick to good effect – serves as a major asset. Traditional roles are subverted by Diana being the stoic hero, Steve the smitten sidekick. Even Gadot's looks are mined for mirth, her exquisite beauty acting as a genuinely amusing object of fascination and distraction in grim wartime London.

When Diana is on screen, Wonder Woman is a satisfying, big-budget, unplug-your-brain blockbuster that recovers some of the mojo DC has lost over recent years. One central sequence sees her assault enemy lines on the Western Front, battering through hapless opponents, swatting away hails of bullets. Shot through with smoke, dirt and chaos, it is undoubtedly the film's most exhilarating set piece and as she reduces a church to smithereens, Diana is less the glamorous siren than a devastating weapon of war. 

Her dialogue is unlikely to bother the Academy but Gadot enjoys enough good material to imbue her character with steel-cored belief in right and wrong. When her naive beliefs about the nature of man start to fall away, Diana's sadness is clear. Just as welcome is her intolerance of patriarchy and the amusing fish-out-of-water experiences that fuel the early going are mostly centred on the tensions between Diana and the strictures of the era.

Wonder Woman's faults claw back a great deal of the progress, unfortunately. Those elements outside the Diana-Steve dynamic are dull at best. Two exposition-heavy sections, at the beginning and at the end, smack of laziness, even if the first is set against the backdrop of a stunningly visualised rendering of the Amazons' mythological roots. Danny Huston, meanwhile, careens around as a devilish German general trapped in the wrong conflict and hopped up on vials of blue magic. His dastardly plans have something to do with poisoned gas and his accomplice, Doctor Maru (Elena Anaya), is little more than a cartoon goblin. 

A band of supporting players, including Ewen Bremner as a shot-shy Scottish sniper, verge on irritating, the weak attempts at backstories ringing very hollow indeed. Just as trying is the rubbery CGI-enhanced slo-mo that Jenkins insists on deploying every time fisticuffs are called for. Initially striking, the method is still flying around the screen by the time the bombastic finale arrives. That ending, ripped straight from almost every superhero chronicle of the last decade, feels generic, in spite of the moments of intimate emotional resonance poking through. 

That said, there exists sufficient quality here to save this latest DC offering from ignominy. Themes of female empowerment abound, of course, but they are as genuine as they are timely, more than a mere nod to the liberal-minded. Comic book adaptations lost their freshness many years ago, but Jenkins has made a sound fist of forging something new.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Alien: Covenant


Rating: 3/5

When Ridley Scott returned to the Alien mythology in 2012, he came armed with Prometheus, a beautiful, bold and often bewildering sci-fi blockbuster that felt far removed from the chapter that launched a wildly successful franchise. Alien was a trend-setter, of course, magnificent in its own lean and menacing way; Prometheus posed bigger questions, expensively assembled and wondrous to look at. 

Scott and his team were initially coy about the relationship between Prometheus and the wider canon, referring to shared DNA and obvious overlaps. Once the film opened, however, those doubts were cast aside. Prometheus may have trained its focus on other aspects of that universe – namely the mysterious Engineers and their part in the creation of both humankind and the iconic xenomorphs – but its ultimate trajectory was clear. 

There can be no pretence now. Alien: Covenant is every inch a descendant of its forebear. Yes, it is in effect a sequel to Prometheus, boasting the big-world milieu and direct timeline, but a grimy sense of dread, the weathered cosiness of its central crew and the spectre of that titular killer all appear strikingly familiar. Some of the series' enviable tension may well be lost in the opening up of time and place, but it nevertheless satisfies in scope and ambition.

It begins not with the standard motif of space explorers hurtling through the vastness of the cosmos (that will come later) but the sort of exquisite futuristic minimalism that underscored much of the Prometheus aesthetic. Flashing back to a day long before those of that picture, Michael Fassbender's watchful, quietly subversive android, David, fresh and still pliant, conjures Wagner on a piano in a blanched salon and discusses the meaning of existence with sire Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), the industrialist whose presence hovers in the background of the entire Alien landscape.

Cutting from there to the confines of the Covenant  a starship (featuring Alien's onboard computer, Mother) transporting over 3000 hyper-sleeping souls and human embryos, along with the team of spouses responsible for its passage, to the virgin colony of Origae-6 – Scott anchors his narrative in recognisable surroundings. 

When a random energy surge damages the ship, its awakened crew, which includes Walter, an updated model of David, must make repairs. In doing so, a faint communication is detected, the broken strains of John Denver's Take Me Home, Country Roads drawing the Covenant to a nearby planet.

As he did with Prometheus, Scott introduces a desolate and Earth-like destination, all mighty valleys and mountain lakes, where obvious danger lurks from the moment the visitors touch down. He finds new ways to play on the icky fears that have always marked these films: infection, infestation, penetration, purging. Malevolent spores quickly invade ears and nasal canals; gestating fiends tear out of torsos and vomit from mouths with equal swiftness. As a means of revisiting the more recognisable aspects of the mythos, the director succeeds. Indeed, at its best, the franchise weaves a fabric comprising arresting savagery and an atmosphere of nightmarish terror. Early on, such a mix is never lacking. 



A middle section is slightly less assured, yet cannot be wholly faulted for crafting a grander tale. David resurfaces, his previous chronological contribution being alongside Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) at the end of Prometheus. Last seen shooting off for the homeworld of the Engineers, the pair reached their destination, though Covenant's weighty screenplay (penned by John Logan and Dante Harper) leaves a number of questions hanging, even as it explains the events between the two movies, as well as the genesis of the ravenous xenomorphs. 

In its latter stages, Covenant is surefooted enough to combine classic tropes (the alien bursting from its terrible womb; the adult form hunting in scarlet-lit corridors) and updated elements (one sequence involving a flying cargo lift is impressive, as is the scale of the Engineers' ghostly metropolis). The creature itself feels refreshed also, a sleek CG-rendered update on the shadow-cloaked original, complete with a point-of-view framing device straight from the mind of the beast. Where animatronics and men in suits once seemed to stunt the visualisation of the alien's full physical capabilities – though the same cannot be said of its terrifying impact – this present iteration is a thrilling, marauding apex predator.

As far as its prey is concerned, the cast offers a mixed bag. In the role of terraformer Daniels, Katherine Waterston excels in conveying a woman who is much more than Ripley lite. Carrying a heavy burden, she is the voice of caution in a leadership pairing with Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup), a devotee of religion who confuses risk and faith. While the price he pays for switching destinations is steep, the resonance of his fate fails to land. 

He and his fellow travellers are largely drawn in broad strokes, with only Danny McBride's wisecracking pilot, Tennessee, escaping those limitations. McBride is more familiar to audiences as the boorish alpha idiot in any number of modern comedies but he turns in a layered performance here and places a lid on his goofy sensibilities. It is a display that should not be ignored. 

The show, however, ultimately belongs to Fassbender. David retains his ability to unsettle and it is a testament to Fassbender's ability as an actor that he can paint in so contrasting a fashion two characters sporting identical physical traits. David, fixating on creation and fond of quoting Byron, exhibits a human-like personality replete with curiosity but lacking even a hint of empathy. Walter is a gentler article, a straight shooter whose fondness for Daniels could be mistaken for love in any other context. Beautiful moments flickering between them throughout are distilled in the dying moments and put to darker use, arguably the most profound emotional moment in a film that does not shy away from the ties that bind.  

If there is an obvious flaw it is that Covenant opts for contemplation over hallmark ferocity. The onslaughts that characterised Alien and Aliens never arrive, shoved aside to placate Scott's desire for world building. That which emerges is worthy of a place in the pantheon, no doubt, but opportunities for greatness will need to wait for the scheduled next instalment.