Film Review – Jason Bourne

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Back by popular demand, apparently. Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass swore they wouldn’t return to the Bourne franchise, and yet audience enthusiasm eventually made them think twice. Jason Bourne, the fourth in this lucrative amnesiac assassin series loosely based on Robert Ludlum’s novels (not counting 2012’s tepid Damon free spinoff The Bourne Legacy), doesn’t really contribute anything new. Yet even though all the plot elements are essentially reworked from previous films, the result is a solidly entertaining, well-acted and directed spy thriller.

Admittedly, attempts have been made to bring the Bourne series up to date by including social media guru Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed), who is in bed with the CIA under the directorship of Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones). Dewey wants a cyber back door into Kalloor’s new social media project Deep Dream, despite Kalloor’s insistence that users have total privacy. Elsewhere Greek austerity riots are used as a backdrop to Bourne’s (Damon) initial meetup with Nicky (Julia Stiles), who has uncovered yet another sinister black ops programme, along with further nuggets of information about Bourne’s past. Yet despite this, the suspense is considerably less nerve-shredding this time, mainly because of a pervading been-there, done-that, looked-through-the-telescopic-sight vibe. One friend of mine quipped that he played Bourne lingo bingo whilst watching this (“Living off the grid”, “Activate the asset”, “Bring him in or tie it off”, “You have no idea who you’re dealing with!” and so on).

All that said, Greengrass directs the efficient thrills with his usual shakycam flair, and like other films in the series makes good use of real locations – principally Athens, Berlin, London and Las Vegas. Performances are all good (including Alicia Vikander who has a key role as Heather Lee, Dewey’s sympathetic but ambitious deputy), and as ever John Powell’s driving score works well, as does the familiar blast of Moby’s Extreme Ways (in yet another remix) over the end credits.

In short, Jason Bourne isn’t in the same league as the earlier films (The Bourne Ultimatum remains the high point), but it is an enjoyable, well-made thriller that ticks the appropriate boxes.

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Film Review – Star Trek Beyond

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Better than Into Darkness but not quite as good as the one before that would summarise my verdict on Star Trek Beyond. Of course, here I am speaking of the rebooted Trek universe post JJ Abrams’s ingenious timeline resetting reboot, not of the Shatner epics of yesteryear. For the record, Wrath of Khan is still the best Star Trek film.

What we have here however is a fun, whizz-bang space adventure that feels more like an extended episode of the original TV series. This is no bad thing, as there does seem to be a determined, back-to-basics vibe. The plot opens with both Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) having a self-questioning phase three years into the Enterprise’s five year mission. Both are considering leaving Starfleet, but have not yet had the courage to inform the other of their doubts. All of this goes on hold as they dock at an impressively designed, no-up-or-down-in-space star base to be given a rescue assignment in an uncharted area of space. This leads to a confrontation with new villain Krall (Idris Elba), and the crew stranded on a planet in various separate factions, most memorably with Spock and Dr McCoy (Karl Urban) bantering in a way that frequently raises chuckles.

There’s plenty of action too, though the plot feels a little muddled at times. Frankly Idris Elba is rather wasted since Krall’s villainy seems a little Tab-A-fits-into-Slot-B. Elsewhere the leads are good, particularly Urban and Quinto, and although the rest of returning cast don’t get much of a look in (give or take Simon Pegg’s Scotty), it’s always fun to see the likes of Zoe Saldana, John Cho and (sadly) the late Anton Yelchin as Uhuru, Sulu and Chekov respectively. Sofia Boutella is quite fun too, as Jaylah, an alien who helps Kirk and co in their plight.

Director Justin Lin (best known for his work on Fast and Furious movies) is a steady hand at the helm. Visual effects are good, especially in the afore-mentioned star base sequences, and there’s even a curious message about unity that will feel either timely or propagandistic, depending on your views on Brexit. It’s certainly not destined for classic status, but Star Trek Beyond is a solidly entertaining movie with plenty for the eye and ear. Fans could do a lot worse.

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Film Review – The BFG

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Roald Dahl’s The BFG was a landmark childhood read for me, so any adaptation has a lot of expectation. Previously adapted as an OK animated TV feature, now Steven Spielberg has flexed his considerable cinematic muscles to put his spin on the source material, and I am pleased to report that the result is an overwhelming success. Not only is The BFG true to the spirit of Dahl, but it is also a deeply resonant continuation of themes Spielberg has been preoccupied with his entire career. Oh, and it’s a really, really first rate piece of entertainment for all the family, bringing a wonderful book to vivid life on the big screen.

The story begins in London 1982, whereby young Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) is kidnapped from a rather Dickensian orphanage by a mysterious giant, after she glimpses him in the middle of the night. Despite this frightening (and brilliantly atmospheric) opening, the giant is soon revealed to be far from malevolent. In fact, he is known as the Big Friendly Giant. Unfortunately the other giants in his realm are child-chomping lunatics who also bully the BFG for his aversion to eating “human beans”. Over time, Sophie and the BFG form a close bond. He reveals his secret dream-related work, whilst she in turn comes up with a plan to save the children of the world from the other giants.

Newcomer Ruby Barnhill is note perfect as Sophie. However, it is Mark Rylance who impresses most from the cast. He is absolutely superb in his motion capture performance as the BFG. Although this was a role that could easily have been played massively over-the-top, Rylance is nuanced and at times understated and subtle, despite the laughs and thrills on display. Penelope Wilton also impresses as Queen Elizabeth II, and there are good supporting parts for Rafe Spall and Rebecca Hall.

Spielberg’s usual production crew are present and correct, including cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, editor Michael Kahn, and of course composer John Williams, who contributes a lovely music score. Yet for me the late, great Melissa Mathison is particularly deserving of praise, as adapting Dahl is a fiendishly tricky business. She is one of my screenwriting heroes since she also wrote The Black Stallion and E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. Speaking of E.T., the spirit of that film very much haunts this one, not only because of the Mathison connection but because of the themes contained herein, with Sophie and the BFG forming a bond similar to Elliot and E.T. It also seems poetically apt that the novel was originally released in 1982, the year E.T. was released. Very appropriately, The BFG is dedicated to Mathison, who died of cancer last year.

Regarding the setting, Spielberg and Mathison allude to it very cleverly by showing old stamps on letters, era specific toys, or more amusingly in a moment when the Queen calls “Nancy” and asks her to “wake up Ronnie”. It always feels redundant to praise the sheer brilliance of Spielberg’s direction, but here he evokes wonder in a way that reminds us his incredible eye for memorable images remains unsurpassed. Take for example the clever way he foreshadows Sophie’s abduction by having her look into a dolls house; or shots of the BFG leaping over motorways, hiding in London streets and jumping across rocky pinnacles. And that’s without even mentioning the genuinely magical scene where Spielberg has the BFG and Sophie leap into the mirror-like watery surface that transports them into an upside down world of colourful floating dreams.

Arguably, Spielberg himself is the BFG, a bringer of dreams. It’s easy to see why he would be attracted to a story like this. He would also have been attracted by the orphan angle since virtually every film he has ever made is about broken families in some way (it could be argued most of his films are a reaction to his parent’s divorce). The BFG has plenty of bizarre thrills and laughs (especially the notorious whizzpopping flatulence jokes, which had the children in the screening I attended in hysterical laughter), but ultimately it is the quieter, more melancholy moments that give the story its magical power. This is, above all, a story about the power of dreams – a power that it seems only children can access easily. I therefore pay Spielberg the highest possible compliment when I say this film made me feel seven years old again.

Astonishingly (at least to me), this film has not done well at the box office in America. Yes, the film does skew towards younger children, and yes, as other reviews have noted, the pace is leisurely in the mid-section, faithfully taking time to include Dahl’s delightful, language mangling dialogue, but to me it is a tragedy if parents no longer feel a wonderful story like this is something their children would enjoy. I can only hope the film will do much better internationally, as it certainly deserves to.

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Film Review – Ghostbusters (2016)

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A lot of idiotic, misogynist outcry appeared online from fanboy types when Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters reboot was announced as an all-female affair. In response to this, an equally idiotic feminist outcry demanded people see this film as some kind of political act. I on the other hand care about one thing only: is it a good film?

The answer is yes, for the most part. The new Ghostbusters does not top the 1984 original by any means, but it is a generally enjoyable watch, frequently very funny, despite an overblown final act. The plot beats are very similar, though this time two of the ghostbusting quartet, Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) and Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) have a childhood friendship backstory that spurred their enthusiasm for the paranormal. They are joined by slightly crazed nuclear engineer Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), and subway worker Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), going into business together in much the same way as the original all-male cast. Oh, and Thor himself, good old Chris Hemsworth, has a rather amusing role as inept receptionist Kevin.

Although overlong, the script is sharp, knowingly including jokes about the afore-mentioned online outcry. For me the film works best away from the ghostbusting sequences, particularly during the regulation confrontations with bureaucrats and politicians who want to keep this whole ghostbusting thing hushed up. Andy Garcia in particular is a treat, especially when angered that he has been compared to the mayor from Jaws. There are also some fun cameos from surviving cast members of the original film, and yes, Raymond Parker Jr’s legendary hit gets played, both in its original form and in various remixes and cover versions, all to good effect.

Inevitably, the finale degenerates into CGI overload. Because audiences are now so familiar with these kinds of images, the effect is far less eye-popping than the cruder though more memorable visuals of the 1984 movie. This Ghostbusters also lacks the rough edges of its predecessor, particularly it’s scarier moments and the some of the how-the-heck-did-they-get-that-in-a-PG sexual innuendo (Side note: the original Ghostbusters has since had its PG certificate revoked in the UK).

All that said, it is an entertaining watch and certainly not the dreadful mess some have claimed it to be.

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Film Review – K-Shop

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Dan Pringle’s low-budget directorial debut K-Shop is a grisly but gripping Sweeney Todd inspired horror satire with plenty of bite. Upfront warnings for 18 certificate extremely strong language and gruesome violence are warranted, but if this is your cup of tea you’re in for an agreeably nasty treat. If you can’t see it the cinema (the release is limited), it is also available to download as of the 22nd July.

Salah (Ziad Abaza) is studying whilst helping his father run a Bournemouth kebab shop. When his father dies as a result of an attack by binge-drinking louts, Salah is left to run the shop alone. One night, after an abusive and violent customer too many, he fights back and… Well let’s just say he ultimately decides to go Sweeney Todd on his tormentors, leading to some interesting new kebab ingredients.

Abaza is very good in the lead, and the supporting cast also do well. Scot Williams is particularly compelling as an ex-reality TV contestant-cum nightclub owner/drug dealer/sex pest, with whom Salah eventually is drawn into a confrontation. Pringle makes good musical choices, and also builds suspense in a number of set pieces, adeptly disguising his budgetary limitations. The prosthetics in particular spare us nothing, and are satisfyingly unpleasant.

It doesn’t all work. A peculiar romantic subplot is underdeveloped and there are one or two other script problems, but on the whole K-Shop delivers the gory goods, both as a darkly nasty comedy and as a horror film. Although the satire is hardly subtle, it is effective, and certainly exposes of one of Britain’s darker sides with chilling credibility. Friday nights in town centres can be very frightening places, and that is where K-Shop derives its dark power.

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Film Review – The Neon Demon

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Saying The Neon Demon will not be for everyone is a statement so absurdly obvious as to be redundant. Nicolas Winding Refn’s films have been hugely divisive, but this more than any of his works to date will drive a love/hate wedge between viewing factions. On top of that, warnings for 18-certificate, Daily Mail-baiting content are also warranted upfront for extremely gruesome violence, swearing, and some very shocking I-can’t-believe-they-went-there sexual content. The faint of heart and easily offended need not apply.

Still with me? Great, because actually I confess I really liked The Neon Demon. The plot, such as it is, concerns sixteen year old model Jessie (Elle Fanning), who arrives in LA to try and launch her modelling career. She is promptly hired by an agency and told to “always say you’re nineteen” having faked a parental consent signature. The pace is deliberate and stately, with every frame artfully designed and calculated with auteur precision, and at this point the viewer expects a cynical satire on the superficiality of the fashion industry, or a Faustian tale. The modelling world depicted herein is an occult secret society to which one must sell one’s soul. Beauty, as one character says, is not everything. It’s the only thing.

However, The Neon Demon then takes a very surreal turn, leading to an absolutely deranged, barmy, blood-soaked finale that refuses to do moral heavy lifting on the part of the viewer. It will shock and repel, certainly. And it will also infuriate. But sometimes cinema is meant to do that, even if the immediate purpose isn’t obvious. It can be taken at face value, certainly, but it is there is an ambiguity which extends even into the end credits, offering multiple interpretations. What exactly has taken place? Are we seeing delusion? If so whose? Is it reality? Fantasy? A bit of both?

Performances are certainly good, not just from Fanning but also Abbey Lee, Bella Heathcote and especially Jena Malone (who I’ve been a big fan of ever since Donnie Darko). An against-type Keanu Reeves deserves a special mention too, playing a sleazy sex predator motel owner. As a director Refn firmly stamps his own signature on the film, but also borrows from multiple sources. There are shades of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, Aronofsky’s Black Swan and most obviously 1970s Italian giallo horror movies, such as Dario Argento’s Suspiria or The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Visually the film is a meticulous kaleidoscope of sterile infinity curves, kissed, smashed and scrawled on mirrors, occult prisms, unflinchingly cruel, humiliating shoots (in which photographers behave like serial killers), and an endless supply of girls wilfully subjecting themselves to a mercilessly voyeuristic cattle parade. Even when the film veers into deliberate exploitation, it scarcely feels as though it is being done for titillation purposes.

Twisted, perverse and gleefully depraved, The Neon Demon is a brilliantly repugnant, deliriously nasty film which is unforgettable for good or bad reasons, depending on who you are. Extreme caution recommended (the cinema ticket seller couldn’t resist advising me that the film was “seriously f***ed up”), but if you share my sensibilities, it is definitely recommended.

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Film Review – Love & Friendship

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Expect a nomination for Kate Beckinsale at next year’s Oscars for her performance as the deliciously manipulative Lady Susan Vernon in Love & Friendship, Whit Stillman’s superb adaptation of a Jane Austen short story. In fact, expect nominations for Whitman too, as this is quite possibly his finest film to date.

Whilst residing at various relative’s homes to cover her living costs, recently widowed Lady Susan hatches a scheme to wed her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) to wealthy but hilariously imbecilic Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett). At the same time she wraps the young Reginald DeCourcey (Xavier Samuel) around her finger, toying with his affections whilst carrying on an affair with the married Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O’Mearain). Along the way she explains her plans to her friend and confidant Alicia Johnson (Chloe Segivny) whose boorish husband (Stephen Fry) is, alas, “too old to be governable, too young to die”.

Love & Friendship is an absolute delight; a witty gem of a film that delights in the cynical and surprisingly racy machinations of Austen’s text. Stillman proves the perfect director to helm this film, adding his own unique dry, observational sensibilities that recall the heyday of his earlier work in films like The Last Days of Disco and Metropolitan (the latter contains a very amusing Austen reference, incidentally). Whitman’s direction is spare, economical and idiosyncratic, with wry instances of characters being introduced by onscreen text, along with other text when letters or verse are being read out at key moments.

Eschewing the overt romanticism of Austen’s other work, Love & Friendship has a subtlety, sophistication and incisive bite which actually reminds one more of Oscar Wilde. The supporting cast are excellent, the cinematography first rate, and did I mention how funny this film is? Its trim 90 minutes contain more laughs than many an alleged comedy.

In short, Love & Friendship comes very highly recommended.

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Film Review – Tale of Tales

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Fairy tales are cruel, and director Matteo Garrone’s surreal and twisted Tale of Tales is no exception. Furthermore, this is an emphatically “grown-up” fairy tale so not one for the children, in case there was any confusion. Upfront warnings for sexual content and gruesome occurrences are hereby given.

Based on 17th Century Italian folk tales compiled by poet by Giambattista Basile, the plot, as the title suggests, is something of an anthology. It begins with a barren Queen making a deal with a sinister, disproportionately limbed figure for a child. He advises her to eat the heart of a sea monster, but that it must first be cooked by a virgin. This plot thread and others gradually play out, including one about a King’s obsession with a flea, another about his spoilt daughter, and yet another about a drunken, promiscuous King (a different one) whose lust brings about an amusingly dark and ultimately horrific tale of mistaken identity.

This highly peculiar mixture of black comedy, misguided romantic yearning, sexual obsession, madness and horror in a fantasy context is never boring, even if it doesn’t quite gel into a coherent whole. Garrone is clearly influenced by the likes of Terry Gilliam, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and definitely Guillermo Del Toro, but his film is nonetheless unique in its own way, reminding the viewer that fantasy stories don’t always revolve around wars or political games over who sits on the throne.

The cast – which includes Salma Hayek, John C Reilly, Toby Jones, Vincent Cassel, Shirley Henderson, Christian and Jonah Lees, Bebe Cave, Hayley Carmichael and Stacy Martin – all do very well. The film is visually stunning, making good use of locations and visual effects, and Alexandre Desplat contributes a fine music score.

“Be careful what you wish for” appears to be the overall moral, in specific relation to marriage, having children and also longing to be young again. The result is a fantastically strange and offbeat affair which, whilst definitely not for everyone, appealed to me a great deal.

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How important is it to describe physical surroundings?

Following my post from last week on describing the physical attributes of characters, here’s another hoary old question that crops up on a regular basis. How important is it to describe physical surroundings?

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This is tough, because there really is no good answer. Sometimes you don’t need the insane levels of detail you get in, say, The Lord of the Rings, where practically every leaf and twig are described during certain passages. In that particular novel, it all works (at least for me), because it gives the thing such a vibrant, three-dimensional atmosphere in which all senses are heightened in the mind of the reader. However, that much description in a fast-paced page-turning thriller would be inappropriate, and deeply dull.

There are certain classic novels where I actually get very frustrated with the industrial quantities of description. For example Moby Dick, in its unabridged form, contains loads of additional asides about whaling and descriptions that frankly hold up the (brilliant) plot.

Then again, during other novels, I sometimes feel dismayed at a lack of information or description.

For me, when considering how much description to include, I try to consider a number of factors.

  1. In epic fantasy or science fiction, a lot of description is sometimes necessary to fire the imagination to its fullest, immersing the reader in that world.
  2. Anything that causes the reader to stop reading really should be cut or rewritten into simpler form. Sometimes a house is simply a house, a garden simply a garden. Not every setting needs to be described in pages of detail.
  3. Choice of words is obviously a massive factor. Adjectives and so on need to be carefully considered.
  4. Not all the senses necessarily need to be stimulated at once, but it is good to have at least a couple really well heightened in a good descriptive passage.
  5. Description that tells the reader what to think is generally to be avoided. I’ll admit as a writer I am sometimes guilty of ignoring my own advice, but it isn’t always advisable to tell the reader what to feel about a given place. Calling a forest “sinister” for example, is perhaps better conveyed by describing the kinds of tree contained therein. Perhaps they have gnarled, twisted branches, they block out the light, etc. Then the reader immediately has a picture and therefore a sense of how to feel without being told.

Ultimately taste also plays a part in the above. Some really think The Lord of the Rings should have been more thoroughly edited but I disagree. In my own work, I hope I strike a decent balance between vivid description and not overegging the pudding, but doubtless there will be times, perhaps many times, where I fall short of this ideal.

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How important is it to describe characters physically?

How important is it to describe physical attributes of characters in a novel? Difficult question really.

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Sometimes the information can feel incidental, and other times integral. More often I tend to find, especially when introducing a character, their bearing is more important; how they walk, whether they are menacing, duck-footed, slouching, confident, awkward, smiling, dispassionate and so on. I also find how they dress to provide hints of character – one which grants the reader an ability to make their own first impressions, ideally without being told what to think by the author.

Physical attributes can be important too, especially if they prove integral to the plot, but often it is best to leave such description to a minimum, so the reader can imagine themselves as the protagonist – or so they can be attracted to them. I once read a comment remarking that no-one could ever act a fully satisfactory version of Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe as he is the reader, or, if the reader happens to be female, Marlowe looks like her ideal man. Obviously that comment doesn’t allow for all sexual preferences but you get the idea. Sometimes it is better to leave the physical characteristics of a character in the mind of the reader.

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