The Mountain Between Us

The Mountain Between Us

Starring Kate Winslet, Idris Elba, Dermot Mulroney

Director Hany Abu-Assad

Certificate 12A

You won’t find the TOAM acronym in any film book as it’s a genre I’ve just made up. ’Trapped on a mountain’ movies range from the obscure, such as And I Alone Survived, a TV movie I (alone) sat through once, to more well known offerings like Alive, Everest, The Edge, and truly stunning docudrama Touching the Void.

Now, added to that lot is The Mountain Between Us, the new movie starring Kate Winslet and Idris Elba.

He’s a London neurosurgeon desperate to get to an operation. She’s a bride desperate to get to her wedding. Trouble is their flight’s been cancelled so they charter a light aircraft with amiable old pilot Beau Bridges, who assures them it’ll be just another job and doesn’t file a flight report.

Alarm bells would start ringing if there was no hint of what happens from the trailers. So inevitably the travellers crash with the pilot’s adorable dog and the scene is set for obligatory scenes of survival, recovery, going for help, facing vertiginous peril on cliff sides, and ravenous wildlife.

Injury-wise, Kate’s in a right state, but thankfully Idris is on hand to patch her up.

For the most part they are Kirk and Spock types. She’s ready to act on impulse. He’s the logical one who does everything by the book. Together they form an uneasy alliance and inevitably fall in love. Little wonder. It’s Idris Elba after all, one of cinema’s most charismatic leading men who even blinks in the sort of way that makes fans weak at the knees.

Kate is great as ever, though a tad stagey. I half expect her to waft her hands and say “gather” after more dramatic scenes.

I’m glad only she adopts an American accent. Elba’s is perfectly fine but vocally at least, the more distance he puts between this and dire fantasy yawn fest The Dark Tower the better.

The whole thing is well constructed; the British Columbia vistas look fabulous; the dog steals every scene he’s in, and though formulaic, I’m never bored.

The finale builds to a satisfying conclusion and while it might not be the most memorable film of the year, the TV movie-worthy plot with top drawer cast ensures I’m left with a warm, fuzzy feeling by the time the credits roll.

Try and see it on the big screen for those epic landscapes, but failing that, it’s perfect for curling up on the sofa with a duvet and box of chocs when it’s released for home consumption.

Either way, it’s 103 engaging minutes of escapism which is well worth a look.

7/10

My vlog review

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Blade Runner 2049 – Spoiler free review

Blade Runner 2049 review

Starring Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas

Directed by Denis Villeneuve

Certificate 15

Photo: Columbia/Alcon/Scott Free

How do you follow one of the biggest cult films of all time? When tackling a sequel to Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece about an android detector hunting near perfect replicants, the answer was leave well alone. The story had been told. The box office returns had been hugely disappointing, but over the years it made its money back via re-releases and assorted cuts.

Then, around five years ago, the rights were up for grabs, and it looked like Ridley would direct. But while he was busy with Alien Covenant, Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (maker of stunning trio Prisoners, Sicario and Arrival) was wisely hired to tell the next chapter in the saga of Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford).

Photo: Columbia/Alcon/Scott Free

Ryan Gosling is superb as Officer K, a Blade Runner retiring (killing) more replicants while reporting to Robin Wright’s police chief Lieutenant Joshi. But it’s not long before he’s investigating a riddle wrapped in an enigma after an opening showdown with Dave Bautista’s formidable antagonist.

That’s the thing with this movie. It’s so full of spoilers that I daren’t reveal too much about anyone or anything for fear of giving the game away.

So as K embarks on his mission, blind replicant creator Wallace (Jared Leto) makes his moves like expert chess player Tyrell from film one (who he’s clearly modelled on).

Photo: Columbia/Alcon/Scott Free

The rest of the cast is excellent, from Ana de Armas and Sylvia Hoeks, to Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Lennie James and Bautista. Nobody gives a bad performance and master lensman Roger Deakins creates some of the most beautiful images you’ll see this decade.

Photo: Columbia/Alcon/Scott Free

Unlike The Dark Tower, which shed a bright spotlight on its nods to Stephen King’s other work, references to the original Blade Runner and author Philip K Dick are far more subtle. A pot boiling on a stove might be just that, as could a wasp on a hand, or they could be integral references to Deckard’s interrogation of Rachael in the original.

The audio references are also a treat for obsessives like me. A familiar electronic hum here, a nostalgic whir there. And then there’s the soundtrack. Topping Vangelis’s masterful original score was futile, but Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s booming chords and notes offer a flavour of its predecessor without them sounding like a tribute band.

Photo: Columbia/Alcon/Scott Free

There are at least two great cameos, one created with CGI which slips into the realms of uncanny valley.

There are times when the whole thing reminds me of Tron Legacy, another relatively recent sequel to a cult eighties classic. The difference here is a great story which twists and turns brilliantly. An obvious development early on becomes more complex as things develop. Thankfully I feel one step behind the storytellers instead of 10 steps ahead.

And the finale when it arrives after two and a half hours is near perfect. Or it would have been if the cinemaoger on our row hadn’t ruined the moment with his lit up phone. To be fair he had popped down to tell the staff to turn the lights off after five minutes of a semi-ruined intro, and the couple behind me who decided to talk through the next 10 minutes were polite enough to shut up for the rest of the movie once I asked them.

Photo: Columbia/Alcon/Scott Free

This won’t be for all tastes. The movie really takes its time, the polar opposite of popcorn tentpole movies which aim for the lowest common denominator. Those vistas are superb, with huge electronic billboards (including references to a French car company and the long defunct Pan Am).

Like the original, the mood is also spot on. It has a smoky, late night jazz feel which sets up proposed sequels without feeling contrived. The second act could have been tighter, but that ending, like the original, is a terrific, poetic closing chapter to a bigger story. I just hope I don’t have to wait another 35 years to see it.

8/10

My vlog review

Universal v Disney – Variations on a Theme Park

Travel – Orlando, Florida

Another autumn holiday beckons, and once more than magnetic pull of Florida sees my partner Rachel and I heading for the sunshine state.

After flying into Miami and spending a few days at Fort Lauderdale to see a David Cook gig, we head to Orlando and our obligatory pilgrimage to the theme parks.

First up is Universal Studios, a place that never ceases to amaze me. Unlike some Brits who have been coming here since the early 1990s, I made my first visit in 2002, and enjoyed many trips since, either covering the launch of The Simpsons Ride in 2008, or just for pleasure.

Universal; photo: Roger Crow

Of course the beauty of being a repeat visitor is knowing which rides and attractions to experience and which to steer clear of.

Dinner, or rather brunch at Finnigan’s Irish bar is terrific. We get there at opening time, 11am, so there’s time to enjoy The Blues Brothers show outside while scoffing fish sandwiches.

That gives us time to plan our day: tick the map of attractions that are ’musts, maybes and avoids’ as we’ve done them before.

In the ’musts’ is Skull Island: Reign of Kong, which I’ve been looking forward to since our last visit in 2015.

Thanks to Express Passes, we are on in no time. Dense jungle and skulls on poles line the queuing area, and once we’re inside the ride zone, there’s the usual 3D glasses to collect before boarding trucks that take us off on the perilous journey.

With 3D films playing on both sides of the vehicle, that all important immersive experience soon kicks in as cinema’s greatest ape tackles dinosaurs and lethal beasts, while terrified and thrilled holiday makers make a series of interesting screams and yelps. Me included.

Universal: Photo: Roger Crow

It’s five years since I experienced a similar Kong ride at Universal in California, so it seems the company have taken elements of that, and merged it with new scenes from the enjoyable Kong: Skull Island movie. Or maybe it’s all new. I do know it’s a terrific experience and well worth the trip. As are most of the attractions at Universal, especially the new improved Spider-Man ride. Again thanks to Express Passes, we walk straight on, so if your time is limited (and whose isn’t on holiday?), it’s worth spending the extra money.

Rachel and I also experience the thrilling but truly bizarre Race Through New York with Jimmy Fallon, in which the talk show host takes punters from his studio in the Big Apple off through a breakneck ride through the streets. Fallon’s a huge name in the States, but his comedy shtick loses a bit in translation, especially his woeful teenage girl character which the locals love, but I find hugely annoying.

All parks need at least one must-see attraction, and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is Universal’s. I’ve seen the place grow from stage one at the start of the decade to the gobsmacking experience it is now. In 2015 it blew my mind that Potter covers two parks, and that a replica of King’s Cross Station had been created. That experience is obviously a less gobsmacking when you know what’s coming, but it still amazes me the scale of the experience.

I’m not a Potter fan, but full marks to the team who created one of the greater park attractions ever seen.

As it’s autumn, or fall, the traditional Hallowe’en Horror Nights means the park becomes something a lot darker after the regulars go home. We’ve done it in the past and it’s an extraordinary experience, so if adrenaline-fuelled attractions are your thing, it’s definitely worth a look.

But what of the competition? Well, if you do nothing else in Florida, I’d recommend…

Pandora at Disney’s Animal Kingdom

Pandora – Flight of Passage vlog review by Roger Crow

Years ago, news arrived that Disney and James Cameron were planning a theme park experience based on his blockbuster. I was thrilled, but lost interest when nothing happened and assumed the gap between the 2009 film meant it would never see the light of day.

But Disney and Cameron never do things by halves, and finally walking round Pandora, I realise why it took so long to create. Cameron’s lethal planet is now a lot more friendly at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando. And it really was worth the wait.

The thought of a two-and-a-half hour queue to experience Flight of Passage (riding on a banshee, aka a dragon that looks like it’s burst from a Roger Dean 1970s album cover) did fill me with dread, but the wait is so entertaining, it’s never boring. Watching cascading waterfalls from huge ’floating’ rocks, or soaking up the exotic scenery is a treat for the senses.

And after the winding queue takes us inside Na’avi caves and into a lab, we get to see one of the huge floating blue bodies that our brain syncs with for the ride. (I think my avatar has trouble finding my mind, it’s so blown by the experience).

For newcomers, It helps if you’ve seen the film, but is not essential.

Eventually I settle into what looks like a glorified motorcycle ride, but what unfolds after that is a stunning flight through the skies of Pandora, swooping, diving, soaring through that exotic landscape. It’s everything I hoped for in 2009, and a thousand times more.

In short: Pandora is an incredible experience.

Pandora at Disney’s Animal Kingdom; footage: Roger Crow

It’s proof of what can be achieved with one person’s fertile imagination; millions of dollars, and an army of experts, both on the design and construction side, that manage to create this behemoth of an attraction.

I was an enormous fan of Cameron’s 2009 fantasy blockbuster, like many others who helped turn it into the most lucrative film ever made. And it had to be. As the most expensive movie in history, it was a huge gamble for 20th Century Fox, but Cameron has long been one of the most reliable filmmakers in Hollywood, since The Terminator turned him into a superstar filmmaker back in 1984. By the time he made Terminator 2: 3-D, a thrilling park attraction at Universal Studios just around the corner, Cameron had raised the bar for theme park attractions so high, many suffered vertigo trying to match it.

But that was years ago, and in the time since, Universal created the aforementioned Harry Potter attraction that literally took my breath away in 2015 when I first experienced it in its finished form.

Just when you think that can never be topped, Disney and Cameron has created the largest, most stunning attraction ever seen.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom; footage: Roger Crow

Inbetween rides, Rachel enjoys the best vegetarian dining experience she’s had in a theme park. My reinvented burger in a bun, a ’pod’ of doughy ’bread’ filled with minced beef, is a nice change from the ubiquitous burger and fries you get in most parks.

Having recharged our batteries, we set off to queue for the Na’vi River Journey, in which we travel through the bioluminescent forest of Pandora. After a 50-minute wait, we board our vessels and set sail. This is a less full-on experience both in queuing and the trip itself, so I’d recommend doing that first if you want to get a taste of the Avatar experience and then get blown away by the Flight of Passage ride.

Pandora at Disney’s Animal Kingdom; photo: Roger Crow

We only have a day at Animal Kingdom, one of my favourite of the many Disney parks, but Pandora aside, it’s never dull. Though my favourite other attraction, the tigers in the Asia section, are busy raising young, the sight of monkeys leaping from branch to branch is forever fun and awe-inspiring.

Obviously there’s plenty to see and do at the other parks, so there’s little chance of the ankle-biters getting bored. Epcot especially is a terrific experience, not least because of the annual Food and Wine experience in which you wander round the world showcase sampling food and drink from different vendors. We didn’t get a chance this time but will no doubt be back in a couple of years.

:: With thanks to Universal and Disney for their help with this article.

Film review – Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Starring Taron Egerton, Julianne Moore and Colin Firth

Certificate 15

There are so many belly laughs in Kingsman: The Golden Circle, it’s hard to know where to begin. Many of them involve the incredible returning cast, including Taron Egerton, Mark Strong and Colin Firth, and many involve a kidnapped rock legend.

After having been shot in the first Kingsman: The Secret Service, one of my favourite films of recent years, Firth is back as Harry, the gentleman spy who is a shadow of his former self.

Egerton’s Eggsy is still juggling dual lives as a chavvy John Steed-style character, while trying to keep his girlfriend, Princess Tilde (Hanna Alstrom), sweet from film one. Yes, the damsel in distress who came out with the most left field line of any heroine in a spy caper over the past decade.

While James Bond is all mature innuendo, Kingsman is his often foul mouthed, yet charming little brother, who cuts to the chase; a 007 for the channel-hopping generation.

It’s clear from the outset that director/co-writer Matthew Vaughn is ramping everything up with a bigger budget and more outlandish set pieces.

(I get the feeling co-writer Jane Goldman probably had a lot of input from husband Jonathan Ross).

Julianne Moore is terrific as Poppy, the insane antagonist who holds the world to ransom via a virus which leaves victims looking like they’ve been drawn on with a blue Biro. (Pity poor Keith Allen who bows out early in one of several gross out scenes).

Poppy has set up base in the jungle, residing in a strange arena of an archetypal US diner and shops inspired by Grease and American Graffiti.

As her plan becomes apparent and the Kingsmen are wiped out in sudden attacks, Eggsy and Merlin (Strong) discover a US branch of their organisation called Statesmen. It sets the scene for much stateside fun as our heroes gather enough intelligence and resources to go and beat Poppy.

While Channing Tatum, Halle Berry and Jeff Bridges have a ball, the secret ingredient in Vaughn’s special sauciness is Elton John. Yes, really.

When I heard he was making an appearance, I thought it was going to be one of those embarrassing cameos. The fact Elton provides several of the biggest laughs of the movie is astonishing.

Action scenes involving robot dogs could have been tiresome, but the choreography is superb. All slow mo, balletic gun fire and weird cutting like film one. The whole thing is so fast and frenetic, you don’t stop for a minute to realise how ridiculous it all is. Well, maybe I did at the film stopped half way through due to a technical hitch, which gave the five year old kids present a chance to scream and shout even more than they did throughout the rest of the movie. (I watched it in an Orlando theatre, which seems a lot more relaxed about letting little kids into 15 certificate movies).

With a terrific score by Henry Jackman and Matthew Margeson, and some brilliantly inventive scenes, Kingsman: The Golden Circle isn’t the best film of the year, but it is one of the funniest, and occasionally most touching, mainly during a scene with Firth, Strong and Egerton in a padded cell.

I’ll happily go and see it again, hopefully without the tech problems or chorus of toddlers, and hope we don’t have to wait too long for a third movie.

Mr Bond. You have a lot to live up to.

8/10

Wind River – Film Review

Wind River

Directed by Taylor Sheridan

Starring Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Gil Birmingham

Certificate 15

I know three things about Wind River before I settle into my comfy cinema seat. It was scripted by Taylor Sheridan, who penned Sicario and Hell or High Water (two of my favourite films of recent years), and stars one of my favourite actors, Jeremy Renner.

Everything else is, aptly, a mystery.

As the movie opens, and I’m treated to vast snowy vistas at the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, we meet US Fish and Wildlife Service agent Cory Lambert (Renner).

It reminds me of why I love cinema. You just don’t get that same emotional impact on TV or (obviously) on your phone.

And that wintry American landscape is a key character in this beautifully told, brutal, intelligent thriller based on a true story.

Lambert has a tragic past, a Native American Indian ex-wife and son. While hunting vicious wildlife he happens upon the body of a frozen woman with bare feet.

Enter ill prepared FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen, Renner’s co-star in the Avengers/Captain America movies).

She’s obviously in over her head and needs Cory’s skills as a hunter who knows the area and the locals. Assisted by the wonderfully deadpan Ben (Graham Greene – Dances with Wolves), the story takes its time offering pieces of the jigsaw which slowly slot into place.

It’s not a film that feels in a rush, and director Sheridan keeps the attention throughout.

Yes, there are action scenes, and a lot of footage of Renner on a snowmobile, which keeps the energy up when it could start to flag.

The most important thing here is the performances and the dynamic between Renner and Olsen. Obviously they gelled in the Marvel movies, but while she’s all wide-eyed inquisitive and wet behind the ears, his face is a relief map of experience and buried pain. He’s cut from the same cloth of iconic heroes of old like Steve McQueen and Harrison Ford in his prime.

Not sure about Nick Cave’s soundtrack, which sounds like a drunk had stumbled into the recording studio when no one was looking, but it does add a spiritual element to the movie mirroring the Native American theme.

I’d quite happily watch this again as a double bill with Hell or High Water. Sheridan has a knack for crafting great thrillers with compelling characters, and if there’s any justice, Renner should get an Oscar and BAFTA nomination for his turn. It’s one of his best performances since The Hurt Locker.

Laced with humour to alleviate the tension, it ticks over beautifully with well realised characters and a breadcrumb trail that leads me and the audience further into the mystery.

The movie closes with a chilling statistic about the fact the FBI does not have statistics on missing Native American women, whose numbers remain unknown. It could be preachy but isn’t.

The fact I stay through most of the closing credits is testament to how good the film is.

Some critics have called it one of the best films of the year. I’d have to agree.

8/10

It (2017) Movie Review

It (2017)

Directed by Andy Muschietti

Starring Bill Skarsgard, Sophia Lillis, Jaeden Lieberher

It’s 30 years to the month since I first read It, Stephen King’s 1100 page epic about a bunch of kids terrorised by an evil force.

Though overlong, and filled with some unnecessary scenes that outstay their welcome, the core of the story was compelling.

King took his time breathing life into his eclectic characters, and due to the length of the book, I didn’t so much read it as inhabit that world.

Decades after Tim Curry’s superb turn as the evil clown Pennyswise in a pretty good TV movie, we finally have the big screen version.

I’d expected a disaster, especially seen a few weeks after the car crash that was The Dark Tower adaptation.

So it’s a relief to report that not only is It (2017) one of the best King adaptations so far, it’s also one of the best horror films of the year.

Blessed by a terrific cast of young actors, including standout turns from Finn Wolfhard (that kid from Stranger Things) and Sophia Lillis (in a star-making turn) as Beverly, just about the only likeable female character in the movie, It sucks you in from the achingly sad pre-credits sequence.

Reading the novel in 1987, I didn’t empathise much with the young character who introduces us to the demonic Pennywise, but age changes a lot.

I will him not to go near that storm drain, and to just carry on running and live a happy life, but that would be a pretty short and very different film.

Of course the star of the show is Pennywise, a stunning performance from Bill Skarsgard. Playing it with a mix of mischief and malevolence, his drooling, grinning, leering character is the most memorable screen villain since Heath Ledger’s Joker in 2008.

There’s so many jump scares in the movie, and plenty of laughs too, the tone is just right. A laugh here, a scream there.

However, the format is also a little annoying. Every young character once they’re alone suffers visions and hallucinations, so there’s not much of a surprise when monsters jump out. Thankfully it’s also very weird in places. Once the kids find the obligatory haunted house (art directed to within an inch of its life), the scene is set for a thrilling showdown.

Secondary characters such as the inevitable young thugs who terrorises our heroes are also well cast. Whether coincidence or intentional, the lead villain has that air of the psycho Sid from Toy Story, while the shadow of other King adaptations looms large over the movie. The main influence is Stand By Me, and there are also nods to Carrie and The Shining, but without being the obvious Easter eggs displayed through The Dark Tower.

Of course compressing 1100 plus pages into two plus hours of screen time means something is going to get jettisoned, and with the door left open for a sequel – or the rest of the actual novel – it means both fans of the source novel and newcomers shouldn’t feel short changed.

Wisely updated to the late 1980s, though it still feels like it’s set in the 1950s or 1960s, this is one of those movies that will easily makes its budget back and may even become the most lucrative King adaptation so far. It will give some nightmares, and make others spill their popcorn.

What more do you need from a successful horror movie?

8/10

To see my video review: https://youtu.be/fKxx3CIolSs

Alien Covenant review

Alien Covenant review

Starring Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Danny McBride

Directed by Ridley Scott

Certificate 15

There was a time I would have been at the midnight premiere of a new Alien movie, I was so obsessed with the series. But in 2012 I sat through the inaugural IMAX 3-D screening of Prometheus, and still felt sick by the time I got to bed around 4AM.

During subsequent screenings, I realised what a weak film it was; an A-list cast and crew dealing with a Z-list script. Those hoping for answers to the xenomorphs’ origins were given more questions than answers.

So by the time Alien Covenant, the second prequel in Ridley Scott’s franchise came along, I gave it a week before watching.

The reviews have not been good. Savaged by most critics, and berated by many fans of the saga, I go in with low expectations.

Surprisingly, the first half hour is not that bad. The crew of the eponymous spacecraft, a colonisation ship on its way to land on an Earth-type planet seven years away, are awoken after a near-fatal incident with some galactic anomaly, and while repairing the ship, an electronic ghost from a nearby planet is recorded onto one of the crew’s helmets.

So it’s essentially a remake of Alien up to this point, only the crew are awoken for a different reason, and they intercept a different sort of SOS.

Landing on the neighbouring world in the hope it might be a better alternative to their original destination, they soon live to regret it.

Only Daniels (Katherine Waterston) seems to have a degree of intelligence. She wonders why they are endangering their mission by checking out a world that didn’t show up on any of their scans.

Their rubbish captain Oram (Billy Crudup) overrules her, launches an away team, and thanks to savage spores, soon ensures one of the crew is literally as spineless as him.

The second act plays like an old episode of a Star Trek: The Next Generation in which Data met evil brother Lore. In this case, robot Walter meets fellow synthetic David (survivor of Prometheus).

There’s a recorder lesson between the “brothers” that goes on so long, I had flashbacks to junior school music lessons.

Most of the time it looks great. This is a Ridley Scott film, so that’s a given, though some of the alien CG effects are a bit ropey.

Sadly the saga has become so obsessed with analysing its own history both on and off screen, we have reached the point where there are two robots named after the producers (David Giler and Walter Hill), and a heroine called Daniels, probably named after the original writer (Dan O’Bannon).

But the meta problem is not the biggest issue. It’s the intelligence, or the crew’s lack of it.

This is a crew so stupid, there’s no question of quarantine at a crucial moment or immediately wondering why wheat is on an alien planet.

There’s also a point where a couple are attacked in a shower. Not a spoiler, as that’s given away in the trailer.

And if you seen the trailer, chances are you’ve seen about as much as you need to regarding their back story, or lack of it.

The dipping toy bird, making a welcome return to the franchise for the first time since 1979’s original Alien, has more of a back story.

Thankfully the finale is as dark as Life, the year’s better alien-on-a-spaceship movie. Some clever editing and a Prestige-style plot device means there’s an ’is he or isn’t he?’ moment that keeps you guessing until the end.

Alien Covenant is not the disaster I’d feared. It’s slightly better than Prometheus, but a very poor cousin to Alien and Aliens. Newcomers to the saga may enjoy it, and given the finale I’m intrigued to see how things connect between the prequels and Alien. Let’s just hope a smarter script is green-lit for (the chronological) episode three.

6/10

My video review Alien Covenant

The Hitman’s Bodyguard – Film Review

 

My video review      The Hitman’s Bodyguard

Starring Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L Jackson, Gary Oldman

Directed by Patrick Hughes

Certificate 15

From the trailer, everything about this movie yelled ’uninspired’. But with a couple of hours to kill, I settled in and expected the worst.

Ryan Reynolds is Michael Bryce, the “triple A-rated” bodyguard who does everything by the book, and during a prologue we see why he is so good at his job.

But when a VIP client is assassinated, our hero is suddenly downgraded.

Cut to scenes of Gary Oldman as an Eastern European dictator awaiting trial. The only man who can bring him down is hitman Darius Kincaid (Samuel L Jackson), and while being transported from Manchester under armed guard, the attack we know is inevitable arrives with such full-on force, it soon becomes clear this is not the knockabout comedy I’d expected. In fact it’s one of those rare things: an action comedy that is both thrilling and hilarious.

(Full marks to Tom O’Connor – not that one – for a great script).

Obviously Reynolds is called in to help Jackson when he winds up on the run, and the scene is set for a good 90 minutes of relentless action and comedy during the 118min running time.

It’s a mash up of Midnight Run and countless other buddy comedy thrillers, with the two leads sparking like a couple of faulty generators. It’s the sort of thing that could have been done 30 years ago with Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy, so there’s nothing new in the premise, but the execution is everything. It boasts some stunning action scenes, witty editing and great supporting characters. Richard E Grant as a pill-popping white collar type has a glorified cameo, while Salma Hayek chews every scene she’s in with the relish of a starving lioness.

And Gary Oldman gives a terrific performance as the obligatory bad guy, like an older version of his generic terrorist from Air Force One 20 years ago.

A strange thing happens half way through when Reynolds is abducted and tortured by bad guys. I actually started to feel something for the characters. Inevitably Sam rescues him, and in the midst of chaos and carnage in Amsterdam, that rare bromance magic many films aim for but rarely achieve actually kicks in.

Okay, there’s far too many Oedipal expletives from Sam as usual, playing his role like Pulp Fiction’s Julius with Tourette’s, but the banter between him and Reynolds is up there with classic offering such as White Men Can’t Jump or Grosse Pointe Blank.

And as a reminder, Sam is 68 and still able to carry off action scenes like a man half his age.

Though 20 minutes too long with one too many action scenes, this is one of those movies that guarantees value for money. Just when you think it’s all over, there’s an often hilarious brutal fight scene in A DIY store, and then another fight scene, and another.

I was exhausted by the closing titles but glad I made the effort. The advert promised little but for once all the best bits aren’t in the trailer.

Take a bow Patrick Hughes. You’ve directed one of the best action comedies of the year.

8/10

The Dark Tower – Film Review

The Dark Tower

Starring Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor

Certificate 12A

Directed by Nicolaj Arcel

In 1990 I remember listening to the first audiobook of The Dark Tower, Stephen King’s much talked about epic. Part Western, part Lord of the Rings-style fantasy, it had caught the attention of Hollywood, like so many of his tomes do, and like many sprawling fantasies, it languished in development hell. For decades.

Fans of chilling movie masterpiece The Mist will have seen a nod to TDT at the start of that film. One cross reference in a movie that good is fine. It’s a sly nod and moves on fast.

In the first few minutes of The Dark Tower we have nods to Cujo, Christine, and later The Shining, It, 1408 and The Shawshank Redemption. Fans will no doubt spot a lot more. As a King addict who devoured many of his best works in the 1980s, I was pretty bored. ’Yes, we get it!’ I mentally yelled at the screen, wondering how long it would be until our young hero wound up with a girl called ’Carrie’, who lives in a ’dead zone’ and has trouble with her ’Cell’ phone after taking her cat ’Tommyknockers’ to the ’pet semetary’.

The plot is more The Dark Crystal than The Dark Tower as abducted kids from Earth are strapped into chairs on another world and used to power some laser in the hope of destroying the eponymous construct.

Said building is the thing that stops evil man in black Walter (Matthew McConaughey) from becoming all powerful. Or something.

My Dark Tower vlog

We don’t get much of a look at the Tower, which is a shame, as I’d be more fascinated by it than Jake (Tom Taylor), the generic kid who is haunted by bad dreams and sketches with perfect clarity everything that is going to happen in the next hour or so. It’s like Richard Dreyfuss making models of Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters, only a lot less subtle.

The kids’ guardians are concerned about the lad when his obsessions become more intense. So when a couple of so-called experts turn up to carry him off for psychological examination, there’s no surprise that his folks (a soccer mom and a gruff stepdad) side with two creepy strangers rather than the troubled lad. They’re that stupid.

Thankfully our young hero has perfectly sketched an old house in New York that someone online recognises, so after a breathless chase, he winds up there, and is transported to the other world.

Jake crosses paths with Roland (Idris Elba), the Gunslinger whose skills with revolvers are the stuff of magic. He shoots with his mind and his heart rather than his eyes. I should know it verbatim the amount of times we have to sit through the same speech, first via Roland and his dad (24 veteran Dennis Haysbert) and then again and again before it’s reused in the third act.

Threading his way from world to world and scene to scene is McConaughey, who has the intensity of a man wondering whether to have chicken or fish for dinner. He’s a magnificent actor when the occasion demands in projects such as True Detective, but here his skills are sold short by the humdrum script.

“Stop breathing”, he tells random characters, and they do. They just drop dead. No tension. No reaction. Just lives snuffed out of existence. We care so little about them that there’s no sense of loss. If Elba weren’t so magnetic, McConaughey would have been the character I rooted for most.

The movie is part of an enormous universe with no doubt more complex characters and interesting locations. If so, just a shame so few of them made it into the first part of a multi-platform saga; a TV series is due next year.

One of the problems is the lack of humour. Even when Roland winds up in New York and there’s a chance to experience the sort of fish-out-of-water fun that made a ’Crocodile’ Dundee so enjoyable, the filmmakers stick to a path so earnest, there’s little wonder Idris looks so pained at times. All good movies need levity and there’s a Grand Canyon-sized hole where any gags could have been.

By the finale, things get more interesting with Elba proving why he can keep the most leaden project afloat. An epic shootout with humdrum bad guys is the film’s most interesting moment.

Eventually the movie reaches a conclusion and easily the dullest closing scene of any motion picture in recent years. It features a closed door and a suggestion of magical things beyond it. (The last five minutes feels like a TV movie pilot setting up a telly saga).

It’s as if producer (and original director) Ron Howard was so busy trying to salvage the young Han Solo movie, he signed off on the film, sight unseen. A shame as this could have been something special. Alas, the kid in it is pretty bland, the script annoyingly predictable and the tone is so by-the-numbers that there’s little wonder it’s such a let down.

A towering disappointment.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets review

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Directed by Luc Besson
Starring Cara Delevigne, Dane DeHaan, Clive Owen
Certificate 12A

Arguably the most expensive indie movie ever made, Luc Besson’s latest may as well be called The 10th Element; it’s twice as eye-popping as his 1997 Bruce Willis blockbuster, and twice as barking.
While America persists in strip-mining every Marvel and DC comic for the next big movie, France’s rich history of graphic novels has largely been untapped. The work of Metal Hurlant geniuses Moebius and Druillet would make a dozen stunning movies, but it seems only Besson has the financial clout to make it happen thanks to all those Transporter and Taken movies. And with Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, we get a hint of what could have been.
It’s 137 minutes of stunning visuals, incredible ideas and a great cast wading through the treacle of an overly complex plot.
We open with a terrific prologue set to Space Oddity in which the international space station receives many upgrades over the years, transforming into the drifting planet. Some valuable exposition sets the scene for the glorious array of creatures and settings that follow.

Cut to an idyllic world where a race of androgynous Avatar-style pearl farmers exist in a state of bliss. And where there’s an idyllic race at the start of a fantasy film, you can bet it’s only a matter of minutes until disaster occurs.
Just before one of their race is killed, she sends out a message into the universe, which is picked up by Valerian, intergalactic agent.

He and sexy colleague/on-off girlfriend Laureline are soon off on a mission to an alien planet where a mysterious item has to be retrieved from a virtual market.

So we have one lot of alien landscapes to contend with before being plunged into a VR world. This gives Besson and his army of effects technicians a chance to show off their skills. Some of them impressive, others a bit Blake’s Seven on a budget.

My video review
It’s reminiscent of a dozen episodes of Doctor Who or Hellboy as our heroes retrieve item and stage a daring escape.
As the protagonists piece together fragments of the puzzle, the idyllic aliens invade the eponymous space station, kidnap VIP military type Commander Arun Filitt (Clive Owen) and scarper.


What follows is an exhausting adventure which for the most part is a lot of fun.
Ethan Hawke outstays his glorified cameo as a seedy space cowboy/club owner, and shape-shifter Rihanna gets to show off with a Cabaret-inspired stage routine that goes on far too long. As does a segment involving an alien king and Laureline’s fitting for a new dress.

Anything goes in VATCOATP. It’s one of those movies where the Chuckle brothers could turn up breakdancing to the work of Plastic Bertrand and it wouldn’t seem out of place. Or music genius Herbie Hancock would have a cameo as an official. (The latter actually does happen).

Besson has packed his movie with so many cool, weird, extraordinary characters that it’s a tribute to Dane and Cara’s screen presence that they are not overshadowed by it all. Okay, they won’t win any Baftas for Best Actor/Actress, but they are far from the bland double act I’d feared. Cara’s eyebrows alone are as mesmerising as the spacesuit which makes her look like a walking action figure. And yes, I’ll quite happily buy one along with assorted others.

Slated by many critics and a costly flop at the box office, this is one of those movies that will attract a cult following on TV in the months and years to come. It’s too big a film to process in one sitting, and while not all of it works, Besson deserves full marks for delivering an often breathtaking spectacle.


As Marvel and Transformers fatigue set in a while ago, it’s good to see one of cinema’s most daring auteurs has the spaceballs to put his money where his mouth is and dare to fail on a galactic scale.
It’s an epic flop for now, and 20 minutes too long, but like Jupiter Ascending, it’s also one of those waking dream experiences best seen on the big screen at least once before most of its effect is lost forever on TV.
7/10

My video review