Film review Thor: Ragnarok

Thor: Ragnarok

Directed by Taika Waititi

Starring Chis Hemsworth, Cate Blanchett, Tom Hiddleston

Certificate 12A

Back in 2011, when Kenneth Branagh was making Thor, I was keen to see how he would tackle one of Marvel’s best loved comics characters.

The result was a solid blockbuster; a little talky in places, but the movie really came alive when the eponymous character arrived on Earth, fell for boffin Jane Foster and tackled a generic robot destroyer.

It rightly made stars of Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston, and paved the way for terrific sequel Thor: The Dark World. Another great mix of fantasy and comedy with Hemsworth and Hiddleston stealing the show again.

Wisely Marvel gave the saga a rest for four years while prepping more helpings of Captain America and Avengers.

So now we catch up with the god of thunder in a movie which throws out the rulebook and starts afresh. There’s no Jane Foster, sexy sidekick Darcy or seasoned boffin Erik Selvig. Most of Thor’s allies are also removed in favour of assorted monsters. This owes more of a debt to Guardians of the Galaxy than the previous Thor movies, and the style change may be deliberate as Marvel preps its biggest film, the two-part Avengers: Infinity War, which will see just about every member of the MCU involved in a smack down with the galactic godfather, Thanos.

Hiring Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows) as director was a stroke of genius. He brings an irreverent tone to the saga which is irresistible. At one point when the brilliant Jeff Goldblum is doing his eccentric bonkers routine as intergalactic villain Grandmaster, I’m laughing so hard I miss about five gags.

Getting rid of Natalie Portman was also a good move. Great actress, but I found her bland in the series. Newcomer Tessa Thompson is a terrific heroine. Smart, funny and lends the saga much needed femininity amid the testosterone. Cate Blanchett also has a great time as the antagonist, and even though her by-the-numbers dispatching of countless Asgardian troops is okay, it’s her bitchy comments that prove more effective. She chews whole chunks of scenery like a ravenous lioness.

And Hemsworth reminds us why he’s far more than just a gobsmacking six pack and set of biceps. His comic skills are excellent. Seeing improv so funny in a film this epic is a welcome breath of fresh air.

There are times when it feels like a couple of other movies. A bit of Lord of the Rings here, Warcraft there. But there’s also plenty of the usual Marvel staples: fight scenes; boss monster; dogfights in funky fighter craft and a lot more. It’s all expertly done and rounds out a great year for comic book movies with Spider-Man Homecoming and Guardians of the Galaxy: vol 2 fine additions to Marvel’s cinematic universe.

Obviously the presence of Hulk and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) is a major selling point (in a storyline inspired by the comic Planet Hulk), but Taika Waititi’s rocky gladiator Korg steals many of the best scenes. Again, his improv is often side-splitting.

And as usual, stay through those closing credits for an extra scene or two which should keep fans intrigued over Thor’s future. Even if you’re not a fan, there are so many gags here, it’s guaranteed to brighten the bleakest autumnal day.

Good luck topping this Justice League. You’re going to need it.

8/10

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Ghost in the Shell (2017) Movie Review

Starring Scarlett Johansson, Juliette Binoche, Takeshi Kitano

Directed by Rupert Sanders

In the mid-1990s, I was caught in the blast of the anime explosion caused by Akira. That stunning sci-fi saga opened the floodgates for a wealth of dazzling, weird, eye-popping animated films from Japan, and I bought a fair few of them. None were as good as Akira, but as an aspiring comic book artist, they provided no end of inspiration. 


However, many were missing a certain something. Then along came Ghost in the Shell, a film based on Masamune Shirow’s comic which was beautifully designed and featured a mix of international creative talent that helped bridge the gap between east and west. It was a hybrid anime that could appeal to a wider audience, was a feast for the eyes and that soundtrack was unforgettable. 


Like all fans of the genre, I waited as a live action version of Akira repeatedly went into production and then stalled, while a Ghost in the Shell movie was also mooted. 

And when Scarlett Johansson signed up for the lead role in the latter, I got a little dizzy. One of the biggest actresses in the world headlining one of my favourite anime adaptations? It was too good to be true. 


And the good news is, GITS (as nobody is calling it) is remarkably effective. It retains the weirdness of the original, the visually stunning designs, and Scarlett nails the Major’s robotic sex appeal. She dominates every frame she’s in, from the faithful opening shots of her creation, when her human brain (ghost) is lowered into her robot body (shell), to the excellent finale. 

Though not a carbon copy of the anime, it takes the best elements and enhances them. The iconic opening free fall skyscraper attack is terrific, as is the mystery at the heart of the drama. 

One of my favourite moments from the original was the heroine’s battle with a spider tank – a great surprise. Here there is none of that as a bad guy flags it up early. 


Purists could spend hours comparing the two movies, but I’m not going to be that nerdy. 

Unlike many Hollywood sci-fi sagas which are all style and no substance, this is a fine melange of classic themes, most importantly what it means to be human in a world increasingly obsessed with technology. 

It also manages to retain the heroine’s sense of humanity as bits are removed from her.  

In the RoboCop remake, the hero was stripped down to little more than a head and lungs at one point. It looked awful, so thankfully there’s enough of Scarlett here to ensure I buy that she’s not just copied and pasted onto the marvellous mechanical contraption. 

The smart thing about the story is it’s a police procedural thriller that just happens to involve robots and cyber-enhanced characters. So it has an appeal for those who normally steer clear of such sci-fi stories. 

In the original film the finale took the story in such a direction that the Major would have to be played by a young girl for the sequel. Obviously as this is intended to launch a franchise, that finale is tweaked, and though it feels like the end of Spider-Man with its rousing voice over speech, I’m just delighted that GITS works as well as it does. And it’s great to hear the original theme over the closing minutes. 

For this fan, GITS2 cannot come soon enough. 

8/10

Captain America – Civil War review

Marvel don’t seem to want unique directors any more. They want plate spinners, helmers who can keep keep multiple storylines going while dazzling audiences with a wealth of computer enhanced effects. The major plus point with Captain America: Civil War is that the Russo brothers manage to keep two dozen plates spinning at one time while avoiding the usual Marvel pitfall – hero faces off against boss monster/villain. In this case half a dozen heroes face off against more MCU favourites. 

  
The big problem is it’s hard to care about Cap’s plight – defending his buddy, Bucky Barnes – when the latter is so vanilla. Sebastian Stan could have been played by an animated action figure for all the empathy I felt for him. The bromance between the two is uninvolving. Thankfully, Chris Evans and Robert Downey jnr share more chemistry. Enough to carry the movie forward as their personal differences spark, sometimes literally. 

With old favourites Black Widow, Hawkeye, Vision, Scarlet Witch and Ant-Man back for more, they attempt to steal the limelight from series newcomers Spider-Man and Black Panther. 

It ticks over, lurching from one action set piece to another, peaking with the 17 minute airport battle and finishing with a more personal showdown. 

It’s fun, good value for money and more appealing than The Winter Soldier. 

  
Let’s hope that now they’ve got their personal differences ironed out, the team can reassemble for the two part Infinity War as more buildings are levelled and a few thousand computer graphics jockeys earn their keep with the pending cast iron money spinners. 

The Jungle Book (2016) Review

Everyone loves the cartoon version of Kipling’s most famous tome. It was a 1960s classic with lush animation and some great songs. We didn’t really need a new version, though Disney seems determined to revamp its classics with a live action spin and 21st century effects. 

  
Sadly Jon Favreau’s new, live action version of Disney’s take on The Jungle Book is a massive let down. I spent half the film trying to stay awake and the rest of the movie trying to make out what was going on. 

One of the problems is its so dark, visually and tonally; it looks like it was shot with a night time Instagram filter. 

Okay, purists might argue that the original was equally dark, but this is just murky. 

The vocal cast is excellent, from Ben Kingsley (Bagheera) to Bill Murray (Baloo), but Christopher Walken is mis-cast as the Godfather-like King Louie. 

Idris Elba, Disney’s current go-to guy when it comes to vocalising creatures with authority (after Zootroplis), is excellent as always; his one-eyed Shere Khan spot on as the big bad, while Scarlett Johansson does a good job as the sinuous, seductive snake Kaa. 

  
Alas, Neel Sethi’s Mowgli is a bit of a let down also, lacking that magic quality. 

I’d like to see it again without an army of kids running to and from the loo, and with a better print where I knew what was what. 

It comes alive in the closing credits, with some fabulously inventive work, but obviously too late in the game. 

Let’s hope Andy Serkis’s pending take on the Rudyard Kipling classic is more on the money.  

Hail, Caesar! – Review

  
I was nodding off half way through the latest movie from the Coen brothers. “It’s not you, it’s me” I thought. A late night. “The film is possibly better than this”. I remember falling asleep in their 2002 offering The Man Who Wasn’t There, but blamed that on jetlag as I was watching it in Florida. But the fact a trio of pensioners walked out half way through made me realise it was them, not me. 

It’s bursting with great actors. George Clooney is terrific as movie star Baird Whitlock, fronting the eponymous biblical epic; Channing Tatum is splendid as Burt Gurney, a thespian in an On the Town style musical; Tilda Swinton superb in dual roles as Thora and Thessaly Thacker, twin sisters and rival gossip columnists, while Scarlett Johansson excellent as DeeAnna Moran, an Esther Williams-type starlet with a smart mouth. Then there’s Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix, the head of production at Capitol Pictures and troubleshooter who is constantly in meetings or fixing problems. 

  
Hollywood, 2016. 

When Whitlock is drugged and abducted by a team called The Future, we expect the usual kidnap cliches. But this being a Coen brothers movie, nothing is as it seems. 

As the comedy drama plays out, and reaches its conclusion, there was a huge feeling of “Is that it?” when the closing credits rolled. The audience sat in stunned silence as the realisation that there was nothing more

Yes, it’s entertaining and often hilarious, especially a scene with director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) and Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), a nice but dumb cowboy who has to adapt to a period costume drama. But while the A list stars were obviously lining up to appear, it’s a shame the story isn’t strong enough for their talents. 

It looks beautiful and of the time, while the score is pleasantly forgettable. 

However, given the siblings’ previous hits such as The Big Lebowski and No Country for Old Men, this, to quote a mate is ’Fail, Caesar!’

30 Shades of Great: THE films of 2014

So that was 2014, a year when a comedy compromised the free world, when a tree and a raccoon stole millions of hearts, and when Gilliam, Scorsese, Godzilla and Jack Ryan returned to cinemas, but what, you may yawn, was THE film of the past 12 months?

30: Dallas Buyers Club: Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto’s Midnight Cowboy for the selfie generation. Deserving of awards aplenty.

29: Pompeii: Enjoyable swords and sandals saga, with an uber hammy Kiefer Sutherland. Paul WS Anderson‘s best film in years, which, given the calibre of his Resident Evil movies, probably isn’t saying much.

28: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit A JEEP of a thriller – just enough essential parts to get from A to C.

27: Gone Girl: David Fincher‘s workable who and whydunit marred by a weak third act.

26: The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Too many villains, but Garfield and Stone were more electric than Dr Manhattan clone Electro.

25: The Maze Runner: Enjoyably dark YA dystopian fantasy. Lord of the Flies style.

24: The Raid 2: Overlong, but epic stunts.

23: X-Men: Days of Future Past Bryan Singer and more of his levitating shenanigans. The Quicksilver scene was masterful.

22: Frank: Michael Fassbender‘s sublime turn in this version of Jon Ronson‘s loosely fact-based yarn. Surreal, affecting and brilliant.

21: Edge of Tomorrow: Refreshing Groundhog Day-style sci-fi adventure let down by a generic finale. Tom Cruise playing against type in the first act was a welcome change.

20: Captain America: The Winter Soldier: Enjoyably paranoid superhero epic let down by a generic finale.

19 Divergent: Enjoyably dark YA dystopian fantasy Hunger Games style.

18: Noah: Bonkers visionary epic with some great money shots.

17: American Hustle: Over hyped, but a powerhouse perf from Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro’s best turn in ages.

16: Locke: Car-centric drama with Tom Hardy on top form. Writer director Steven Knight confirming his status as one of Blighty’s best creative forces.

15: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: Bleak but stunning sequel. Andy Serkis delivers another Oscar worthy mo-cap turn.

14: The Lego Movie: The first of two hilarious offerings from Lord and Miller – the saviours of American comedy movies.

13: 22 Jump Street: The second from Lord and Miller – gloriously stupid.

12: How To Train Your Dragon 2: Moving, epic, entertaining fantasy animation at its finest. Toothless soared. Again.

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Photo: Roger Crow

11: Interstellar: Chris Nolan’s mash up of 2001, The Right Stuff and AI. Pure cinematic spectacle.

The final countdown…

10: The Knife That Killed Me: Wonderfully inventive hard-hitting British drama. Kes meets Sin City.

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Image: Green Screen Productions

9: Godzilla: From its redacted opening titles to its final apocalyptic showdown, this was a masterful epic reminiscent of classic Spielberg.

8: The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies: Peter Jackson redeemed himself after the pointlessly lengthy first two Hobbits with a rewarding finale.

7: Nightcrawler: A powerhouse turn from Jake Gyllenhaal made this a Taxi Driver for the rolling news generation.

6: The Grand Budapest Hotel: Wes Anderson‘s masterpiece was well worth checking out. Rafe Fiennes – comic genius. Who knew?

Hang on, it’s almost over…

5: Her: Joaquin Phoenix and Spike Jonze‘s love letter to sentient OS systems. Here’s another letter: A

4: The Wolf of Wall Street: Scorsese and DiCaprio firing on all cylinders. The funniest comedy drama of the year.

3: Paddington: Achingly sweet family entertainment at its finest. The film Paddington Bear deserved, and more.

2: Under the Skin: Haunting, mesmerising sci-fi shocker. Scarlett Johansson utterly compelling as she was in Lucy.

My number one of 2014. The highest grossing film about a talking tree and his mates since the Ents in Lord of the Rings. Buff Chris Pratt, sexier than ever Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, a duck called Howard… we are Groot. Marvel‘s biggest gamble paid off dividends.

1: Guardians of the Galaxy:The most enjoyable ensemble sci-fi fantasy adventure since Star Wars. Witty, thrilling, bold and a great soundtrack. Aptly for a Galaxy-related movie, several stars were born.

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Photo: Roger Crow

Captain America – the weak link in marvel’s movie chain

Captain America is back on the big screen, and as a lifelong fan I couldn’t be happier.

Well actually I could, but we’ll come to that in a minute.

Cap has always been one of the most troubled superheroes to adapt for live action movies, and one key reason is that semi-stupid costume.

Pirate boots, the stars and stripes threads and that winged mask work in comics, but when adapted for TV and film, the result is usually disappointing.

I should know. I sat through both of Reb Brown’s 1979 TV movies, and the horrible 1990 travesty in which Matt Salinger rarely donned the iconic suit.

Fans had a long wait until director Joe Johnston’s hit-and-miss Captain America: The First Avenger in 2011. It had a lot going for it, including terrific turns from Hugo Weaving as arch enemy Red Skull; the ever-reliable Stanley Tucci (as the obligatory doomed ally scientist), and Hayley Atwell as Steve Rogers’ feisty love interest Peggy Carter (now rumoured to be starring in her own spin-off TV series).

One key problem, aside from that awful headgear, was the fact the weaker Rogers (a masterpiece of CG magic) was more interesting than the generic beefed-up super soldier he became.

Great heroes are defined by how they deal with their weaknesses, whether it’s Iron Man’s heart shrapnel or Superman’s Kryptonite. Captain America doesn’t seem to have an Achilles heel, apart from the fact he’s a de-thawed popsicle coming to terms with 21st-century life.

Hardly life-or-death stuff is it?

“Had The Winter Soldier been made 40 years ago, I reckon co-star Robert Redford would have been the perfect choice to play Steve Rogers. And now I’ve mentioned it, doesn’t Evans seem a little lacklustre by comparison?”

Cap’s real movie test was of course Avengers Assemble, Joss Whedon’s superb 2012 blockbuster which beautifully juggled several iconic Marvel heroes and assorted villains.

Alas, as much as I like Chris Evans’ patriotic hero, it was stretching things to believe his beefy alter ego could command uber Alpha males Iron Man, Thor and Hawkeye, let alone verdant muscle mountain the Hulk.

Yes, I will believe a scientist can turn into a green giant in the Marvel universe, but not that they would follow a generic blond himbo into battle.

Had The Winter Soldier been made 40 years ago, I reckon co-star Robert Redford would have been the perfect choice to play Steve Rogers. And now I’ve mentioned it, doesn’t Evans seem a little lacklustre by comparison?

Sorry Chris, you were the best thing about the dire Fantastic Four films, but you just haven’t got the chops to carry movies of this size.

Which may be why Marvel bosses have filled The Winter Soldier with classier distractions, like Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, Redford’s SHIELD VIP Alexander Pierce, and Cap’s long-time comics sidekick, The Falcon (Anthony Mackie).

Like the 1992-1997 Batman movies, there’s always the danger with comic book-inspired sequels of the hero being a supporting character in his own film, so a few alarm bells are already ringing (though perhaps not as loudly as the box office tills will be in the coming days).

Griping aside, in a year laden with superhero flicks, I am thrilled at the prospect of 2014’s first blockbuster. I also hope directors Joe and Anthony Russo have given comics fans the Captain America film we finally deserve and not just a thinly veiled preamble to next year’s crowd-pleaser Avengers: Age of Ultron.

And yes, I have started counting the days to that sequel.

Roger Crow is a film and TV journalist. His greatest birthday present of the 1970s was a Captain America action figure. It may also be the reason he now spends far too much money on Marvel merchandise.

Captain America: the Winter Soldier Review

Given the advanced reviews for Captain America: the Winter Soldier, I expected it was going to be one of the best Marvel films so far.
Maybe because I had just sat through Martin Scorsese’s three-hour epic The Wolf of Wall Street, or maybe because the premiere was at midnight, but the sequel didn’t grab me as much as I wanted it to.

It certainly ticks all the boxes when it comes to epic set pieces and impressive visuals. Alas, after a while I tired of the blurry hand-to-hand combat, and was a little bored during the third act, which felt too much like the deafening heli-carrier battle from Avengers Assemble.
(My spellcheck aptly changed that to ‘headache’ carrier.)

Okay, there is much to admire about Joe and Anthony Russo’s film. The shadowy Three Days of the Condor/Jason Bourne style-plot marked a welcome change for a superhero epic.
But the sight of Robert Redford, with that extraordinary hair, giving a rather lacklustre performance, left me colder than Christmas.

Chris Evans is good, not great as Steve Rogers; Scarlett Johannson sexier than ever asNatasha Romanov, and Samuel L Jackson on good form as Nick Fury, as usual.
(Fans of SLJ’s work will spot a nice little in-joke during a graveyard scene).

There are also good support turns from Jenny Agutter and Colbie Smulders, but it’s just a pity that Neighbours veteran Alan Dale pops up and spoils any tension as a World Council member.

I did get a frisson of excitement like a child on Christmas morning when Steve and Nickentered a hangar with heli-carriers, but for me there were none of those moments like in the first film when I was moved as selfless Steve threw himself on a grenade.

In a previous blog, I said the problem with Capt America is partly down to Chris Evans. He hasn’t got the acting chops to carry a film of the scale, but having seen the film the key problem is the fact that Cap is just not that great a hero. A little too goody goody for my tastes, and although he acts as a great foil for warriors like Iron Man and Thor, as the star of his own show he is a little disappointing.

One great addition to the Marvel universe is Anthony Mackie’s Falcon. As a fan of the Capt America comics, it was great to see this iconic supporting character finally given his big screen chance.
Admittedly, some of his aerial action scenes tended to grate a little after a while, but Mackieis a great actor and I wouldn’t mind seeing him in the upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron or the inevitable Cap 3.

Stay tuned for the inevitable credits teaser for one of the next big Marvel films and some rather cool closing titles.
It’s certainly not the worst film you’ll see all year, but it could have been so much better.

Under the Skin The Review

How much exposition do you need in a film? Those clunky scenes when characters discuss plot, stitching Scene A to Scene B? Obviously film is a visual medium, so in theory nobody needs say anything.

In Under the Skin, director Jonathan Glazer decides less is definitely more, keeping dialogue to a minimum as Scarlett Johansson’s alluring alien arrives in Scotland and begins patrolling the streets for men.

In short, it’s Species with A-levels.

There are bound to be comparisons with Nic Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, the last time an intelligent, erotic, surreal study of an alien’s arrival on Earth made such an impact. That was almost 40 years ago.
Since then we’ve had plenty of alien visitor movies, but many were teen-friendly offerings designed to make pots of cash or satires such as Brother From Another Planet and Morons From Outer Space.
Glazer had spent a decade developing the movie, distilling the source novel down to its purest form. And the result is disturbing, mesmerising and unforgettable.

Johansson is terrific in one of the boldest roles of her career. Initially a predatory, blank avatar unaffected by empathy, her visitor merely exists to trap men and use them.
’Why’ would be spoilerific.
How she does it is part Hellraiser; asking guys back to her dingy house where they are understandably seduced, and then live to regret it.

Through it all the soundtrack throbs and pulses. The camera largely taking a back seat as we watch the visitor watching the locals, searching for her next target.
It’s as voyeuristic as Rear Window or Blue Velvet, and just as compelling.

Arguably the best scene involves a loner with “nice hands”, as affecting as anything you’ve seen all year. It’s at this point Johansson’s lethal ET starts to gain a degree of humanity.
Yes, I could describe more of the plot, who the nice handed character is, and lots more, but better to let the movie wash over you.

UTS is a haunting, waking dream of a movie. It may have made a modest impact at the cinema, grossing a couple of million dollars in the States alone, but given the limited number of screens it played on, and the arty sensibilities, there’s perhaps little wonder.

Like all cult films, it will prove far more indelible than tent pole movies which dominate the opening weekend box office then vanish without a trace.
Hopefully we won’t have to wait another decade for Glazer’s follow up. He’s too great a talent to languish in whatever limbo space ScarJo’s alien was born from.

Lucy – The Review

It’s 20 years since I’ve seen a Luc Besson film as enjoyable as Lucy.
The French movie mogul created two of my favourite films in Leon and Nikita, but in the years since then his output has been erratic to say the least.

I loved The Fifth Element, despite the fact it was ruined by Chris Tucker, while his take on Joan of Arc was flawed but intriguing.
The rest barely made a dent on my memory, though his Transporter and Taken productions were okay.
But with Lucy – a mix of Trancendence, The Matrix and Limitless, he’s hit the jackpot.

Scarlett Johansson has already featured in two of my favourite movies of the year – Her and Under the Skin – and here she is on top form as the eponymous American forced into a lethal courier deal by her scumbag boyfriend.

Kidnapped and implanted with a synthetic drug, she’s beaten up and there’s no surprise when this mule is kicked, the drug bag bursts and Lucy trips into super heroine territory.

Morgan Freeman does his effortless mentor thing as the professor who provides the exposition needed to colour in Lucy’s rocky ride from sexy overseas protagonist to brain fizzing, light popping, energy sapping goddess. Operating at 100 per cent of her brain power, it’s inevitable this is not going to end well.

Yes, we’ve been here before with Phenomenon and the aforementioned Limitless, but while both suffered from damp squib endings, Lucy is a gloriously over the top sci fi epic which is a thrill ride, especially in D box.

Besson is a movie maestro when he wants to be. I’m thrilled to see him back on form.