The Mummy

Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) is a US soldier-of-fortune (as in, spends more time looting treasure in Iraq than fighting insurgents), until he accidentally uncovers the prison-tomb of the ancient Egyptian Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), and frees her undead soul. Cursed as her ‘Chosen’, Nick’s only hope of both personal and global salvation lies with archaeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis) and the resources of her enigmatic employer – Dr Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe).

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Look, there’s an elephant in the room here. In fact, it’s not an elephant in a room at all, but a bull in a china shop. It’s this incessant, ham-fisted agenda that every major film studio is attempting these days to have its own Avengers moment. All of Hollywood wants to replicate that superhero ‘shared universe’ formula, and we can’t exactly blame them. The Avengers was a phenomenal feat in film history. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is now the most successful film franchise of all time. The story so far with other studios, however, is not so rosy. An aborted Spider-Man movie-verse at Sony. Warner Bros has taken four films to finally have a knockout on its hands with a DC universe, whilst at the same time half-heartedly setting up a Godzilla/King Kong crossover. Now, Universal Studios wades into these waters with plans for its own ‘Monsters Cinematic Universe’ (or ‘Dark Universe), drawing upon its back-catalogue of iconic movie monsters (think Frankenstein, Dracula, Creature from the Black Lagoon, etc.). Isn’t all this focusing too much, however, on a studio’s long-term plans and neglecting the film itself? Absolutely. Now if only someone had told the filmmakers that!

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An awkward mashup of the classic Hammer Horror, the adventurous spirit of the 90s Brendan Fraser blockbusters, AND laying the groundwork for some kind of League of Extraordinary Gentleman ensemble film, The Mummy is a mess. Forget the atmosphere and psychological chills that made 1932 a classic. It’s all about the jump-scares now, and the film doesn’t even make much effort to set these up properly half the time, whilst its sense of humour is no less sporadic and hit-and-miss. Ahmanet herself and all her demonic doings amount to little more than an Egyptian-themed retooling of your average Pirates of the Caribbean curse, despite Boutella’s indisputably committed performance that makes you kind of wish she had played Enchantress instead of Cara Delevigne in last year’s Suicide Squad (it wouldn’t have saved it, but it might have sprinkled something a little finer).

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Tom Cruise seems to simply be on an ego trip, an excuse to show him going toe-to-toe with gods and monsters instead of his usual fare of criminals, secret agents and terrorists. Either that, or this entire film is his audition tape for Nathan Drake in the upcoming Uncharted film adaptation (please don’t). Crowe as the infamously dual-sided doctor, whilst himself underwhelming, nevertheless strangely provides for perhaps the film’s more interesting ingredients. So much so that it begs the thought that this ‘Dark Universe’ might actually have the most potential (outside of the superhero market).

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Say what you will of the Fraser films, they were at least proudly silly adventure stories with dashes of horror and a relentless commitment to fun at the cinema. Cruise offers a lacking alternative, fundamentally indecisive about its own nature, which ultimately leaves next-to-no impression at all.

Quality: 2/5

Entertainment: 2.5/5

Final Score: 2.5/5

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Wonder Woman

Diana, princess of the Amazons – a race of immortal warrior women created to protect humanity by Zeus himself – has trained her whole life to become the greatest fighter of her people. When US pilot Steve Trevor crash lands on the shores of Themyscira in 1918, the hidden island paradise of the Amazons, she learns of the Great War that has been raging across the world and sets out to bring an end to the fighting the only way she knows how: by destroying the god of war himself, Ares.

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It’s easy to just describe Wonder Woman as a midpoint between Captain America: The First Avenger, for its period setting, and the mythological roots and sprinkled fish-out-of-water humour of Thor. A fair enough description, if all you’re really looking at are the aesthetics. Wonder Woman, taken in its entirety, is perhaps one of the most unique and awe-inspiring films to have ever come out of the comic book genre. Rarely has a film of its kind demonstrated such an unyielding commitment to substantiating the hero’s journey, and such defiantly patient storytelling in a bazaar of relentlessly quick-fire, breakneck-speed blockbusters. This is a film that breaks the spell of cinematic bloodlust and craving for carnage that has beset this genre for so long (not that Wonder Woman is without its exceptional action set-pieces), and brings the focus back down to earth, to a person who just wants to help people however possible. Director Patty Jenkins has hit it out of the park.

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Gal Gadot has now entrenched herself as the definitive Wonder Woman of our time. Her performance is nothing short of sensational, embodying not only every aspect of Diana’s personality but every step of her maturing process to a flawless degree. Diana is woman, and warrior, and both define her just as much as each other without compensation or compromise. Her relationships with her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and aunt/mentor General Antiope (Robin Wright) are especially integral in establishing this balance. Arguably more so than most origin stories, Wonder Woman lives or dies on the calibre of its star performer, and so this film truly belongs go Gadot. Chris Pine also is on standout form as the daring and honourable Steve Trevor, charismatic as ever but here imbued with a quiet, war-weary cynicism for his fellow man that clashes with his fundamental faith in humanity. If performance-wise the film belongs to Gadot, then character-wise the film almost belongs to Steve for precisely this conviction that provides the film’s fundamental lesson: that between love and war, there’s trust. (A think-piece by the Nerdist’s Alicia Lutes explores this more fully that’s well worth a read).

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What criticisms can be made of Wonder Woman are largely nit-picky: at times, the film can feel somewhat overly weighted-down, so determined to ‘get it right’ that it perhaps overspends time and energy on what really should be minor considerations, an overlong boat scene meant to establish Diana and Steve’s dynamic when alone for example. Also in that regard, perhaps too often dialogue veers into excessive explaining territory, rather than letting performances and actions speak for themselves (a pitfall of the film’s climax especially). The only shortcoming of the film’s spectacular action sequences (truly unleashing the power of Wonder Woman) is a mild overindulgence of slow-motion that can likely be blamed on Zack Snyder’s input, and a case can be made for somewhat subpar CGI in these instances. The greatest misstep of all? An attempt at sleight-of-hand with Ares’ earthly identity that falls short of a ‘twist’, but still delivers a memorable payoff.

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Context, so often, is everything. What we make of something depends almost always on not just the thing itself alone, but on ourselves at the point in time we experience it. The brightest, funniest, warmest film in the world cannot guarantee that someone watching it on a dark, terrible, cold day will laugh or smile. To say that Wonder Woman arrives with an abundance of context is to say the least. Stuttered, intensely divisive efforts to establish a shared cinematic universe of DC’s most iconic superheroes. An ongoing international wave of feminism, acting as both umbrella and lightning rod for a plethora of social issues, met with both enthusiastic support and evermore combative opposition.

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Should any of this remotely impact the Wonder Woman watching experience, when so many superhero origin films have come and gone in baggage-free luxury? Absolutely not. But like Diana herself discovers upon leaving Themyscira’s waters, the world is not what it should be. Nevertheless, she persists, and the result is a superhero film that earns its place in the league of Richard Donner’s Superman and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. From the moment Diana steps out into No Man’s Land, to a final shot that we can hope will serve as a rallying symbol for cinema of the future, Wonder Woman sheds all considerations of its context, and in doing so becomes timeless.

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Quality: 4.5/5

Entertainment: 4/5

Final Score: 4.5/5

Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge (Dead Men Tell No Tales)

The tide has never turned so against Captain Jack (Johnny Depp). With no ship, a bare bones crew (the ‘a few men short’ kind, not the seabed-marching undead kind), and by his own unwitting actions are the infamous pirate-hunter Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) and his crew of wraiths released from their unearthly prison. His only hope lies with finding the fabled Trident of Poseidon, the source of ultimate power over the sea, a relic also sought after by not only horologist Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), but the son of Jack’s old pirate comrade Will – Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites).

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Let’s parlay for a moment to get the question out that quite literally everyone is asking regarding this film: how on earth did we ever get from a theme park ride to a five-film franchise spawned by that ride? How is it possible for ten minutes of sitting in a boat watching animatronic figures firing cannons and drinking rum to fuel roughly eleven hours of cinema to date? Disney, you truly are the magic kingdom. Take that how you will, but with Pirates 5 it’s a reality the film constantly struggles to escape from. Like a broken compass or a sword without a wielder, there really is no purpose to its being, and yet what surprises most about the film is just how double-edged a sword it turns out to be. What makes for the largest crack in its hull is also, curiously, what keeps it afloat – its sense of resignation.

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Effectively a remix of Pirates 1 and 2, with occasional lashings of 3, Pirates 5 cherry-picks the strongest ingredients of its predecessors and blends them into a concoction which, whilst by no means surpassing or even equalling its ancestry, at least makes for a satisfying and memorable experience. Somewhat worryingly, it’s when the film tries to throw in something of entirely its own ingenuity that things get either weird or tedious. An irrelevant and random wedding ceremony. A pointless Paul McCartney cameo. Steering away from the series’ more melodramatic leanings and favouring a course of rapid-fire wit, the onus for carrying it all ends up resting once again with its characterisations, to varying effect.

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Depp’s Sparrow, who’s eccentricities belying a cunning and daring miscreant we all fell in love with, now seems to have been largely consumed by his own idiosyncrasies. From Han Solo to Jar Jar Binks, saved only by the occasional, faintly recognizable trace of former charismatic glory. Geoffrey Rush, conversely, is perhaps the franchise’s ultimate unsung hero for his relentlessly enthusiastic performances as Jack’s intermittent ally and enemy Hector Barbossa, and his presence here doesn’t disappoint for a second. Javier Bardem delivers a solid antagonist to the proceedings, but Salazar as a basic concept is so anchored to recycled Pirates villainy – half-Rush’s Barbossa debut, half-Bill Nighy’s Davy Jones – that he remains a shadow within the shadows of his precursors. Thwaites and Scodelario, almost shamelessly pushed on the audience as Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley 2.0, make for lacklustre companions. Scodelario’s Carina is at least a decent attempt at a more than two-dimensional character, but between the script’s faux feminism and a general overreliance on expository dialogue, both she and Henry tend to fade into the background amidst their fellow cast members.

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For all its flotsam and jetsam however, there’s no denying that Pirates 5 manages to capture something of an echo of what made the original such a success and so endearing to fans. It’s straightforward, visually impressive, decently paced with a series-high sense of humour and boasting several standout set-pieces, but above all there’s a certain heart to these seafaring tales that it at least pays honest tribute to. It’s been an oddity of the Pirates franchise from the very beginning: taking characters that aren’t necessarily all that interesting or substantial, and working just hard enough to make you feel a little something for them by the end. With the future of this franchise uncertain, Pirates 5 works as an adequate and fond farewell to the Caribbean and all its curses and cutthroats, like a short story or epilogue that revisits a familiar world and its inhabitants years later. At least, better it end like this than continue charting a course into undead franchise waters.

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Quality: 3/5

Entertainment: 3/5

Final Score: 3/5

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Captain America: Civil War

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“We are all people trying to do the right thing”. Not the most soundbite-y statement on record, but in this instance it wasn’t superheroes Steve Rogers or Tony Stark who said it, but the very real FBI Director James Comey. Speaking recently amidst the agency’s intense federal court battle against Apple Inc. over a ‘master key’ for circumventing data encryption, the Director made sure to air a few other such sound-bites; “there are no absolutes in American life…there are costs to this new world”. He was right. And he was wrong. It was a case that caught the world’s attention, a seminal moment and a hot-button issue for our time, Fight Night: Round One – National Security vs. Personal Privacy. Marvel Studios’ latest epic may not be the most qualified to wade into such politically stormy waters, but that doesn’t stop it from deliberately, intelligently engaging with this conversation, and treating it as the serious issue that it is. It’s #TeamCap vs. #TeamIronMan. Hero versus hero. Friend against friend. “We are all people trying to do the right thing”. ‘Captain America: Civil War’ has the brains and the balls to ask, “…are we?”

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The Avengers have protected the world for four years, but every battle has left death and devastation in its wake. After a disastrous battle in Nigeria, the United Nations moves to impose a system of oversight against Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. With Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) leading those willing to comply, and Captain America (Chris Evans) championing their right to operate freely, the team descends into all-out war, a war that only intensifies with the re-emergence of the latter’s old war buddy-turned-brainwashed assassin (Sebastian Stan)

There simply isn’t another way of saying this; this film is Marvel’s ‘The Dark Knight’. This unprecedented franchise that was born back in 2008 with ‘Iron Man’, found its feet with ‘The Avengers’ in 2012, and has since been navigating its own sense of adolescence, has now truly reached adulthood. If superhero films were outlawed tomorrow (perish the thought), then the genre could not ask for a finer last hurrah. How is it that good? What makes this one so special, what sets it above cinema’s relentless plethora of live-action comic books? Because at its heart is the very same issue over which Apple Inc. and the FBI locked horns, the same question that has raged throughout our post-9/11 world: when liberty and justice come into conflict, how can the triumph of one not be dangerously detrimental to the other? The film masterfully balances both sides of the argument, carefully fleshing out every one of its extensive cast of characters and what motivates them to choose the side that they do, guaranteeing that whichever side you may root for going into the film, you will have changed your mind at least once by the end.

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The Marvel Cinematic Universe has always specialized in great character development, and here and now all that carefully crafted characterization pays off enormously. There’s a reason a lot of people have taken to calling this ‘Avengers 2.5’, considering the sheer number of heroes entering the fray (Thor and Hulk being the only exceptions), not to mention the seismic debut of two instant heavyweights: Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), and Spider-Man (Tom Holland), both of whom steal so many scenes that any self-respecting crime-fighter would get on their case. Quite literally every single character has at least one moment of substance. Be they a partisan devotee like War Machine (Don Cheadle) or Falcon (Anthony Mackie), a wavering wildcard like Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) or just having their friend’s back like Spidey or Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), no one is even remotely surplus to requirement, and not one performance lets the side down. Even the film’s background antagonist, the mysterious and manipulative Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl), somewhat breaks Marvel’s pattern of lacklustre villains, although his manipulations themselves at times are a little glossed over and more scattered plot contrivances than anything else.

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For all its spectacle, star power and subtext though, make no mistake. This is unequivocally a ‘Captain America’ story, an identity it earns and retains by never losing focus on what drives everything: Rogers’ relationships with friend-turned-enemy Tony Stark, and old friend-turned-enemy-turned-friend-again Bucky Barnes. The chemistry here is second-to-none, and it shows with every plea to the other’s senses and every punch thrown. But as much as they all clearly want to build bridges, the widening ideological gulf outpaces them, and their fighting is all the more bitter because of it. Deserving of special mention is Robert Downey Jr., who delivers easily the best performance of his Iron Man career, possibly of his acting career full stop. The MCU has never shied away from giving its heroes deep character flaws, and Downey Jr. continues to prove there is no wannabe do-gooder more flawed than Iron Man.

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‘Civil War’ is the MCU at its best, its brightest, its darkest, its most gloriously fun and its most arrestingly serious. Frankly, it’s a struggle to even process the fact that a film like this can even exist, that it works as well as it does, and that it can resonate so profoundly with the state of our world today. Iron Man may have started this whole thing off, but Captain America has become the real heart of this grand story, a story that here draws to a close, for now. It’s not just a spectacularly entertaining kickoff to the blockbuster season, it’s an incredibly important piece of cinema, a film I think we all genuinely need right now. The number of people these days fretting that the world is spinning out of control, countries split down the middle over referendums and elections, elites too numerous to mention flagrantly enjoying zero accountability for their actions. In fifty years time, this film will be looked back on as one of the stories most telling of our times, unable to proffer solutions, but placing a reassuring hand on the shoulder saying simply ‘you’re not alone’.

Quality: 4.5/5

Entertainment: 5/5

Final Score: 5/5

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Florence Foster Jenkins

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Lovely. Just lovely. There’s scarcely any other word that so singularly sums up watching Stephen Frear’s latest foray into biographical storytelling, ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’. With past works such as ‘The Queen’ and ‘Philomena’ giving him a sound tract record for portraying arresting human interest, who could have been better qualified to translate the story of the eponymous New York heiress and her opera singing aspirations? The whole ‘catch’ of this film is predicated on the fact that Ms Jenkins (Meryl Streep) is an objectively appalling singer, a fact that escapes no one but herself and in no small part thanks to the protective censorship of her doting husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant). So easily could this have been an unimaginative running gag, the butt of a joke with little-to-no variety and on near-constant repeat throughout the film’s 1hr 45min running time. In fact, admittedly the humour in Streep’s howling can indeed wear a little thin at times, but the film refuses to sink to any indulgences of cynicism at her efforts, choosing rather to capture this unique contrast between passion and prowess centre stage, eloquently posing that key dilemma to each of its characters in their own way. Frears honours the real Ms Jenkins by depicting her as a beacon of personal pride, complicated but ultimately enviable for her sheer conviction, a woman who has bet it all on her heart’s desire. “People may say I can’t sing…but no one can ever say I didn’t sing”. By the time the credits roll, you will wholeheartedly agree with her.

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Is it a perfect film? No, and it may not even be a great one. The subplot of Bayfield’s mistress (Rebecca Ferguson) ultimately feels somewhat lacking in relevance to Ms Jenkins’ story besides the occasional plot contrivance. It is noteworthy however that in depicting an act of infidelity in the story, the film somehow makes it work as a meaningful illustration of Bayfield’s ultimate devotion to his wife. As near-relentlessly charming and endearing as the film may be however, it lacks a moment of particular resonance, a standout sequence that especially impacts the audience, and so the overall experience can feel somewhat watered down a little from what it otherwise could have been. Aside from those points, this is certainly a movie-going experience that is at least refreshing at this time of year, when cinemas are swamped with superhero epics, raunchy comedies and frenetic animated features for children. Simon Helberg (The Big Bang Theory) is a revelation as Jenkins’ pianist Cosmé McMoon and even Hugh Grant brings his A-game, and of course Meryl Streep herself remains an impeccable actor who continues to frustrate critics as they search for evermore imaginatively worded praise. ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’ may not be spectacular, but it would have been dishonest to attempt at spectacle, and the result is a sincere, sweet cinematic story about the triumph of passion over proficiency. One for a nice little family outing.

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Quality: 4/5

Entertainment: 3/5

Final Score: 3.5/5

 

 

The Jungle Book

Let’s face it, as much as Walt Disney’s original remains a relentless classic, I don’t think anyone today can really qualify it as a particularly great film, and certainly not a good adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s collection of stories. It’s a grand old time certainly, and remains a good experience for any first time viewer, but leaves little incentive to revisit. Well, director Jon Favreau (Iron Man) has taken it upon himself to do just that, returning to both the animation icon and the original text to mine the magic of their respective imaginations, and the result is now here. In this age of Disney ‘reintroducing’ its most highly recognized properties, can ‘The Jungle Book’ tell a truly wild story?

Yes. Yes it can, and it does, relentlessly.

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Mowgli, a ‘man-cub’ raised by wolves in the dense Indian jungle, finds himself targeted by the feared Bengal tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba). Rather than see the pack that nurtured him divide over his fate, Mowgli sets out with the company of Bagheera the black panther (Sir Ben Kingsley) to find a sense of belonging elsewhere that will be safer for all. But no matter where the boy goes or whom he meets, including Baloo the bear (Bill Murray), Shere Khan will stop at nothing until Mowgli is dead.

Jungle_Book_2016_33This is not the same jungle you may remember, you may be starting to realize. It’s very familiar to be sure, with its colours and characters and colourful characters, but in translating the old story into cinema’s most realistic rendition yet, Favreau captures not just the magic and mayhem of past forays into this wilderness, but the mystery and menace that has always underlined Kipling’s creation. Just the very design of the environments in this film is spectacular, from Kaa the Snake’s (Scarlett Johansson) murky nest high in the trees to King Louie’s ruined temple home, everything a viscerally visual feast and all of it a testament to the potential of computer-generated world building. Frankly, it’s remarkable so much of the film can feel as warm and endearing and persistently family-friendly as it does given the engagement with a much more grounded and gritty view of jungle life. Dark, but not bleak, colourful but not cartoony, this may not be quite the same jungle anymore but it’s certainly a far richer and more engaging one.

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For all its tantalising environments and effects however, this film was always going to live or die on its characters. Here, above everything else, is where this film really hits it out of the park, a triumph it owes in equal measure to the aptitude of its cast members and the brilliance of the visual effects which bring these characters to remarkable photorealistic life.

It’s probably safe to assume that Baloo is and always has been Bill Murray’s spirit animal, so naturally does it feel to hear his voice come out of that oversized snout. To be fair, pretty much all of the animals (characters or background) are blown up a few sizes and the result is doubly effective, giving us a clear look at their incredible detail whilst subtly capturing a sense of a child’s perspective, to whom all such birds and beasts may feel somewhat giant, especially in such situations as Mowgli finds himself. Kingsley too is an exceptionally fitting voice for Bagheera, arguably adding greater emotional depth than Sebastian Cabot ever did, and the film certainly affords more opportunities for action and heroism than he was previously known for. Likewise, Christopher Walken as King Louie the ‘Gigantopithecus’ (since orang-utans aren’t actually native to India) was a brilliant casting decision, although you may be surprised just how much he tones down his distinctively peculiar intonations in favour of conveying a very real threat to Mowgli and co.

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Gone also is the slippery charm of Kaa the ‘Sounds Suspiciously like Winnie the Pooh’ serpent, in its place the sufficiently sultry hiss of Scarlett Johansson’s predator, and with the bonus of an added subplot centring on Mowgli’s wolf comes the talents of Lupita N’yongo as Raksha. I never thought a wolf could pack an emotional punch. But when it comes to determining the real show-stealer here, no one can top Idris Elba and his astounding performance as the malevolent, malicious Bengal tiger. No more of George Sanders as just a Bond villain in fur and stripes, this film lets Shere Khan be a true beast in every sense of the word, and Elba brings to the game such a powerful sense of the tiger’s rage, its relentlessness, all barely contained beneath a veneer of a cold and calculating mind. The film does little in general to shy away from the brutality and danger of life in the jungle. Shere Khan is that peril incarnate, and his threat almost single-handedly drives the entirety of the film. I’ll be the first to admit that beforehand I thought Benedict Cumberbatch would be the obvious choice after his turn as J.R.R Tolkien’s gold-hoarding dragon. Now I know I could not have been more wrong.

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And last but absolutely not least is Mowgli himself, Neel Suthi making his feature film debut at just ten years old. This kid I guarantee you will be on rising star lists everywhere over the next couple of years. He. Is. Mowgli. In fact, even that is a bit of a disservice to him as the original Mowgli was to be fair little more than a whine factory, and ironically enough never felt like the main character in his own film. With Suthi in the role, this is the best onscreen Mowgli yet. His is a far more heroic Mowgli than we’re accustomed to, one with an acute sense of responsibility for his actions, who actually listens to his peers and elders without immediately jumping into a petulant strop, though before you may think the film has portrayed him as unrealistically capable beyond his years, Suthi is just as competent at conveying that wide-eyed wonder of a child out in the wide world. His is a Mowgli to truly root for, a Mowgli with genuine emotional depth, a hero with problems but more importantly a resolve to overcome them. Walt Disney himself, who died during the production of the original animation, could not have created a finer role model for younger audiences.

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Is the film perfect? No, like most films. Ironically, as well suited as Bill Murray is to Baloo, strangely enough his performance seems to lack some of the palpable energy that made the character as kinetic as it was under Phil Harris, and that’s including the film’s somewhat shameless flirtation with that iconic tune about the good life he leads. At least that one has a sense of purpose and a place within the broader goings on of the film, unlike another musical moment that enjoys next to no setup, has no purpose outside of fan service, and ultimately detracts from the scene in general. And if there is anything negative to be said about Suthi in the role of Mowgli, it can be entirely confined to the sentiment that as enthusiastic as his efforts are, singing may not be in his future.

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Aside from these minor issues however, Favreau’s ‘The Jungle Book’ is a pure delight. At a running time of 1hr 45mins, the story never feels at all bloated and the pacing keeps things going at just the right speed. What changes have been made from the animated version will vary in noticeability depending on your own familiarity, but not one of these changes impacts negatively on the production, indeed they often mark substantial improvements or inspired alternative ideas. The elephant patrol of Colonel Hathi may be missing for instance, but don’t worry. The film uses that particular herd in an especially memorable and outright beautiful manner. If anything, whilst Shere Khan embodies the danger of the jungle, the elephants are its majesty.

We all love the original for the cabaret extravaganza it is, but at long last we have an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s fantastically imaginative landscape that feels sincere, faithful, fun and above all in this day and age it feels worthwhile. We’re seeing a lot of remakes and sequels and reboots these days and whilst the scarcity of originality in the film industry remains an issue, it’s films like this that remind us of the potential every film has to at least have a refreshing and different take on its subject, even if the subject has been done before.

Quality: 4/5

Entertainment: 4/5

 

Final Score: 4/5

Patchman

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Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens

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30 years on from the fall of the Galactic Empire, the galaxy is once again embroiled in conflict. Luke Skywalker has disappeared, a fascist military power known as The First Order seeks galactic conquest and the destruction of the New Republic, with the Resistance being all that stands in its way. When Resistance fighter Poe Dameron is captured by the maniacal First Order warrior Kylo Ren, his astro droid BB-8 must find safe passage back to General Leia Organa, a search that draws together scavenger Rey, former-Stormtrooper Finn, and an old smuggler and his Wookie companion.

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It was at this year’s Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim, California, that fans were dealt the ultimate nostalgic sucker punch, the first full-length trailer for ‘The Force Awakens’ closing with a sight not seen since 1983; Han Solo and Chewbacca side by side, the old scoundrel declaring with a palpable sense of relief; “Chewie…we’re home”. It was all any fan needed to hear, and their faith has been well and truly rewarded. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a mighty feat, in one fell swoop restoring the franchise to the heights of it’s glory years, a love letter to the fans of old and a warm and welcoming invitation to first time visitors to that galaxy far, far away. Its characters are no less enthralling than those who debuted back in 1977, and the film in many ways even surpasses the original in their characterizations especially. The whole thing is truly a delight from start to finish, an emotional rollercoaster (for want of a better cliché), and just a wonderful cinematic experience with all the ingredients right on the mark. It brings a smile to my face just thinking and writing about it.

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I could just end there, couldn’t I? It’s clear I love the film, singing its praises like 95% of Rotten Tomatoes’ citations. Basically, I’ve communicated everything you wanted to know, and decreed by implication if it’s worth your money. However, I am in fact not going to end there, because whilst that may be my honest opinion, my final verdict requires a little bit more discussion.

When you’re wandering the horizon-less stretches of the internet sometime, hopping from place to place, taking in your usual diet of funny videos, editorials on current affairs and so on, and if like yours truly you have an interest in film and the role it plays in society, I encourage you to seek out a personality by the name of ‘The Nostalgia Critic’. Perhaps I’ll do a more substantial and comprehensive piece on him some other time, but in brief the man has become something of an online celebrity since his 2007 debut, his brand of entertainment distinctive for quite literally critiquing (read: frequently ripping to shreds) the nostalgia of as many ‘gems’ of film and TV of our upbringing as he can dig up. In more recent years, he has shifted his character away from pure comedic value, and has been flexing an undeniably insightful and articulate intellect, and in his latest review of 2004’s ‘Christmas with the Kranks’, he had this to say:

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We’re not who we were. We change. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, but we all change. This movie doesn’t want us to change. They try to shame those who do things their own way”.

Whilst there is a bit of extra context surrounding his closing speech, it being a reflection on his own career as well as berating the film in question, the Critic’s point has no small degree of poignancy when looking around at the landscape of popular culture today. Nostalgia is arguably at an all time high. Designer fashions hearken back to decades gone by, Hollywood obsessively replicates anything it considers an esteemed part of it’s own glory days, and don’t even get me started on the desperate clinging-on-to-the-90s mania that is Buzzfeed and all it’s ‘quizzes’. American sociologist Kathleen Shaputis once labelled Millennials as the ‘Peter Pan generation’, and is it any wonder? We are a generation so consumed with retrospection, so daunted by the prospect of ‘tomorrow’, that sometimes we may lose sight of the merits of today.

I say all this because it seems there are certain recurring issues and underlying themes in what negativity I have exposed myself to prior to writing, all of which I can understand the basis of, and in some places admittedly I can get behind if I’m being entirely objective. This is, after all, not only one of the biggest franchises in cinema history, but arguably the most important. This is the franchise that practically invented nostalgia at the movies, the story that to this day holds the greatest plot twist in film history, the mythology that has been a part of the bedrock of global popular culture for almost forty years. Have the stakes for the success of any film ever been higher, especially after those dark days of the prequels that make all fans shudder like wizards hearing the name Voldemort?

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Let’s begin with our heroes. It’s hard to say much about Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron that hasn’t already been acclaimed tenfold. If Luke and Han had been blended into one person as they fended off TIE Fighters, Poe Dameron would be our man. The cool, confident, charming but heart-of-gold fighter pilot Isaac clearly has the time of his life in the role, a nice change of demeanour given the intensity of past performances in ‘Ex Machina’ and ‘Inside Llewellyn Davis’. Add to all this the fraternal bond he and Finn establish together, and his endearing rapport with new droid on the block BB-8, the adventures of one man and his droid would make a fine spinoff for any sci-fi franchise. With Finn (John Boyega), so named by Poe for his stormtrooper number, we have a central character truly unlike anyone we have ever had in the Star Wars saga. Afraid, but not truly a coward, quick-witted and clever but lacking in real confidence, taken from his family and trained to kill without question but with a core moral compass that really sets everything in motion, Finn is easily one of the film’s greatest breaths of fresh air, an imperfect innocent, Star Lord without the smooth talk, an almost anti-hero/audience surrogate. Finn does exactly what any of us would probably do in his situation, and Boyega’s comic timing is quite simply perfect, his delivery just as flawless as his American accent. There’s an added significance in my view to his characterization, but I’ll get back to that shortly.

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More than anyone however, the centre stage spotlight falls squarely on Jakku scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), the journey clearly at the heart of not only this film, but also this whole new era. The basics to her are familiar enough in Star Wars lore, the orphaned desert-dweller with eyes to the skies, but really that’s where the likeness ends. Rey from the get-go is a go-getter, a self-sufficient, strong and resourceful woman the likes of whom cinema really needs to see more in its lead roles. And when I say strong, I’m not talking the depressingly stereotypical Hollywood idea of the ‘strong’ woman, which usually means over-the-top kick-ass, feisty, sassy, everything-that-a-male-character-does-but-with-breasts kind. I mean actually strong, as in a complex, layered, three-dimensional character with a lot more to her than meets the eye, and which at no point sacrifices any sense of femininity. Rey is a grounded survivor on a barren world, but whose tiniest moments point to an underlying wide-eyed child with a passion for space travel and adventure, and when adventure finally does come knocking she springs into action, courageous, headstrong, demonstrating exemplary piloting skills, seemingly able to reverse-engineer anything she puts her mind to, and lo and behold we have possibly the greatest protagonist a new age of Star Wars could have possibly asked for. The journey that then unfolds for her over the course of the film becomes a wonder in and of itself, pointing not only to mysteries of the past but promising a new hope for the future of this franchise.

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Star Wars has always been about two things at its heart; the championing of the unlikely hero, from Luke’s humble beginnings to Han’s change of heart to Anakin being slave-born, and the preciousness of friendship and collaboration. 1977 created something historic and special with the trinity of Luke, Han and Leia, and their impact is still there in Episode VII. Carrie Fisher’s very presence as Resistance leader General Leia is the warmth and loving embrace this film extends to its long-time fans that they have been waiting for. To see Harrison Ford striding around the Falcon once again will put a big stupid grin on anyone’s face, and indeed this is Han Solo’s greatest personal story since The Empire Strikes Back. As for Luke, there is very little to say that needs saying about seeing Mark Hamill and his prosthetic hand again other than his presence may go down as one of the greats. Dameron would be the obvious choice for main hero in any film, but this is not any film. Finn would have made a fun and different take on the Star Wars hero-type, but is there anyone who believes ‘The Force Awakens’ doesn’t and shouldn’t truly and ultimately belong to Rey? At long last, we have a worthy successor to their legacy, three new faces to define both what a hero can be and look like in our world today.

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Over on the Dark Side, the film only becomes more compelling a piece to discuss, and almost entirely down to one man – Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). A leading figure amongst The First Order, and a fanatical and unbalanced devotee of the late Darth Vader, Kylo Ren is a very different threat to the galaxy than we have seen from originals and prequels alike. Some commenters have hailed the intensity and volatility he brings to the character, and lament how suited to the role of Anakin he could have been. Indeed, if there’s anyone we can remotely compare him, to it’s Darth Vader pre-sinister asthma suit. Kylo Ren is an unpredictable foe precisely because it is established he himself may not know necessarily what he wants, and his outbursts throughout the film point to the constant self-torture he inflicts on his soul. Criticisers have leapt on him as nothing but a wannabe Vader who pales in comparison and the film itself should be mocked for having such a weak villain, but I would urge anyone with that view to re-examine. It is not a slipup in the film’s creativity and execution that Kylo Ren be received as a wannabe Dark Lord, it is the whole point. He seeks to emulate the fallen Sith Lord whilst simultaneously being self-conscious at just how hard he must try to, a twisted individual who at his core is struggling with confusion over his calling in life, a calling we understand to have been corrupted by the new phantom menace that is Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis, bringing his signature motion capture work to create Snoke’s vaguely alien physiology). A sense of fraternal enmity between the dark warrior and First Order General Hux (Dohmnall Gleeson, perhaps hamming up the imperiousness just a bit too much) further fuels Kylo’s vicious approach to things, again something we haven’t really seen in the saga before, but it’s a viciousness he is abetted in carrying out with the assistance of Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), perhaps an underrepresented character on this occasion but in all likelihood set to become the new Boba Fett as this trilogy continues.

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The story seems to be rapidly becoming something of a divisive element for fans, though less so for average audiences. To say all the beats are there from the original is somehow both an understatement and strangely beside the point, yet also entirely relevant. We open with a star destroyer, our villainous black-clad leader striding out ahead of marching storm-troopers, a droid being entrusted with data vital to the future of galactic events, our desert-raised hero, a daring escape aboard the Millennium Falcon, an even more daring mission to the villains’ supermassive planet-destroying base, everything is varnished with an unapologetic familiarity and it’s understandable that some decry the film as nothing but a rehash of the 1977 saga starter…and yet, once again, such detractors in my view seem to be neglecting the bigger picture and consequently missing the point. And here, most of all, is where we get to the real heart and soul of things, not just this film alone, but also this 37-year-old saga and the audience it has cultivated.

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What Star Wars became all those years ago was something truly extraordinary. Never before had a single piece of cinema captured the imaginations of so wide-ranging and widespread an audience. Never had a film generated such mania as this outlandish story in 1977, and the trilogy that grew out of it only continued to draw people’s love and adulation for it’s spectacle, it’s drama, the struggles and triumphs of its characters. It had an exemplary beginning, a perfect continuation and a great conclusion. How could something like that ever be truly replicated? Lightning doesn’t strike twice, Genie has left the bottle. George Lucas himself tried and failed (spectacularly) to recapture the magic of his creation. The only hope for Star Wars thereafter lay in fan-fiction, and so was kept alive accordingly. Indeed, such a many-headed beast did Star Wars ultimately become, and so internalized was the original canon, that anyone attempting to continue the story would be to some extent doomed to the label of ‘fan fiction’, and already ‘The Force Awakens’ is being dismissed by the more ‘hard-core’ fans as just that, fan fiction (partly due in all likelihood to fan-base resentment at the de-canonizing of all subsequent creative works that expanded the Star Wars universe post-Return of the Jedi). Whatever they expected a worthy successor to the originals would look like, be like, feel like, I’m sure I don’t know, but I’m also sure they don’t know themselves. What ‘The Force Awakens’ gets so right, from the very start, is it doesn’t try to replicate what came before it. It simply uses elements we have so heavily familiarized ourselves with to welcome us back to the world created back in 1977, and then uses those elements to grow it’s own story, it’s own ideas. By the time credits roll, it’s not a successful replication of the original magic we have witnessed, but an evolution of it. This film is a swansong to the generations that were there at the beginning, and a passing down of the torch (or indeed, lightsaber) to the next lot. It encourages us to look ahead to tomorrow, as Rey does, and not to fixate on ‘glories’ gone by, as Kylo does. It’s not a goodbye to the old ways, but it is a declaration of moving on.

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This is the beginning of a new kind of Star Wars, one that has adapted to the world we live in for real today. Because of this, it fundamentally cannot be a duplicate of 1977, even though when walking into the cinema to see kids running around as Sith and Jedi, adults sporting appropriate t-shirts and a stormtrooper posing for photos, it felt like I’d travelled back to that seminal time. Lionizing the original as this flawless cornerstone of cinema is just ludicrous, it was not a perfect film (I distinctly remember showing A New Hope to my first girlfriend only for her to ask me at the end “so…what was that film actually about in the end?”). Likewise, ‘The Force Awakens’ has its share of flaws: the nostalgic callbacks are at times a little surplus to requirement, parts of the climax that echo the original feel somewhat lacking in urgency in order to focus on more personal confrontations, and what at least I understand was intended to be a supremely pivotal moment and a turning point for this new era in the galaxy is strangely lacking in resonance throughout the rest of the film. Additionally, it can be argued that in adapting to the modern blockbuster landscape the franchise is now leaning towards an emphasis on the overall narrative and away from a sense of standalone stories, with a number of plot points left unresolved here which are clearly building towards more long-term payoffs. I completely appreciate and welcome this approach, but the fact remains this style does take away a little from watching these films as individual films.

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Sometimes we obsess over things when we don’t need to. Other times we try something new when we probably should have left good enough alone. But in-between one foot in the past and one in the future lies what matters most. The choices we make now are what always has and always will define who we are”.

The Nostalgia Critic had that to say also, and even if he’s never heard of the guy, it’s a sentiment that J.J. Abrams has clearly understood in his execution of this film. With this film, he has re-mythologized the Jedi and the Force, restoring the idea of them to those ‘luminous beings’ Yoda once spoke of. He has revitalized the saga’s sense of adventure, and evolved it’s understanding on the nature of evil. A new beginning. A new generation. A New Hope.

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Quality: 4/5

Entertainment: 5/5

Averaged Out: 4.5/5

P.S. If you don’t completely and utterly fall in love with BB-8 then you have no business having any emotions whatsoever.