"If a fire causes a stampede to the unmarked exits, it'll have been well worth it for those who survive."
Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender)
Whether Jobs himself would agree, well... That's another argument.
"If a fire causes a stampede to the unmarked exits, it'll have been well worth it for those who survive."
Can a great man be a good man? The quote above - just one of a litany of zingers from master wordsmith Aaron Sorkin - should give you a clear indication of the kind of guy Steve Jobs is purported to be. And there is an abundance of evidence to support the notion that Jobs was a deeply cold and unsympathetic man in real life. Yet thanks to Sorkin, director Danny Boyle and a performance from a note-perfect ensemble cast, further shades of depth and colour to this most complex of individuals are brushed in with skill and precision - leaving the audience with an early frontrunner for the awards season fast approaching.
Structured as a three-act play, Steve Jobs finds the eponymous co-founder of Apple at three key product launches in his history - the Macintosh in 1984, the doomed NeXT cube in '88 and the game-changing iMac of 1998. Boyle's master of his craft manages to elevate what could have been little more than a stagey scenario of people talking in and around, well, stages, into a slick and emotion-fueled gaze into human relationships - or the lack of them. Fused with Sorkin's dialogue (surely a genre all of its own), Boyle's style is dynamic but unoppressive, allowing both the cast and the emotions to soar. It would also be very difficult to pick a more worthwhile cast than the likes of Kate Winslett, Seth Rogan, Michael Stuhlbarg and Jeff Daniels - all operating at the peak of their abilities. But the main acting plaudits must surely land at the feet of Michael Fassbender - easily one of the most exciting actors to grace the silver screen. A perfect example of the Oliver Stone School of Casting (Nixon showed us you don't need to be a Doppelganger, just convey the character correctly), Fassbender never misses a step in penetrating just deep enough into Jobs' soul without losing the cold, calculating persona that seemed to imprint on all around him. If there were any minor flaws, at a push there is a slight "reverting-to-form" from Sorkin with the father-daughter dynamic - clearly designed to help the audience connect to the legend. It was a trick that was used before in Sorkin's The Social Network - another distant and manipulative tech legend biopic. But it would be a gross injustice to dwell on this detail, as Steve Jobs is a masterly crafted work that showcases the profound abilities of everyone involved.
Whether Jobs himself would agree, well... That's another argument.
"It's all a matter of perspective..."
Finally... All the pieces are back in place. Thanks to the end of a looooooooong period of legal wrangles and litigations, EON Productions have the rights back for perhaps James Bond's most nefarious group of nemeses. Sam Mendes' second stint in the Bond director hotseat brings Bond round back to the formula that was established in the Connery era, expanded into self-parody during the time of Moore, largely forgotten by the days of Dalton and struggling to find a footing during the Brosnan revival. Thanks to a slick re-interpretation of the Britsh spy's legacy and a drip-drip approach when filtering in the famous ingredients, Craig's Bond has now come full circle into the canon. And while this adherence to the old formula has taken the edge of Craig's unpredictability in the role, this is still a thrilling and enjoyable trip to the flix.
The film picks up after Skyfall with Bond on a personal vendetta during the Day of the Dead festivities in Mexico City. The opening action set piece sets the tone well, with Bond fighting in and around an out-of-control helicopter (reminding one of the last time Bond was seen grappling with a SPECTRE head honcho in For Your Eyes Only) over the heads of thousands of spectators. Further digging into his past reveals a connection that will lead him to the organization that (we are told to keep continuity) has been behind all the crimes 007 has faced to this point. Mendes and the scriptwriters are clear in their intent in bringing in the moments that Bond fans have enjoyed ever since Sean Connery uttered the immortal introduction at the baccarat table in Dr. No. The film makers spin these familiar moments into something fresh and dynamic - the classic SPECTRE meeting (and the fact that just turning up can mean a painful death) is perhaps the most successful scene in the movie. The villainous torture scene, the classic fight with a henchman (Dave Bautista's Mr. Hynx, sadly used sporadically), gadget-laden car chase - all these moments are whipped into the mix to create the most old-fashioned film thus far in the Craig era. The only side effect to this is that the sense of surprise and tension is weakened by the use of the familiar. The women are given short thrift too (Monica Belucci is dropped into a couple of scenes merely to bed Bond and give him the info required to move to the next glamourous location) and a weasel-like government agent intent on bringing Orwell's 1984 to life feels a little like an afterthought (casting Andrew Scott - a man most familiar to audiences as Moriarty in Sherlock - may aid the loss of any suspense with his character). Yet once again, Craig shows just how astute the producers were when they cast him as Britain's last line of defence. And the film is almost stolen from under him by Christophe Waltz's nefarious overlord, managing to keep inevitability at bay (particularly when it comes to his infamous identity). Mix in the dream team of Fiennes, Whishaw and Harris as the MI6 stalwarts in London and you have another exciting adventure in SPECTRE.
Oh, and Sam Smith's ballad is one of the strongest Bond songs in years... I don't care what anyone else says!
"People keep asking me if I'm back and I haven't really had an answer... But yeah, I'm thinking I'm back!"
Keanu Reeves is 50 years old, people... FIFTY years old! Regardless of where you stand on the man as an actor (Reeves is one of a handful of actors that can split the audience into either Love- or Hate-them... Kevin Costner is another), there is no denying the man has aged gracefully. Swarthy good looks and a natural on screen charisma are strong tools in Keanu's belt, but recently the films he has appeared in have struggled to really utilize him to their advantage. With the exception of his own directorial début Man of Tai Chi (an underrated gem that is a mark of true Hong Kong action cinema), Reeves' recent back catalogue has been, quite frankly, a letdown. Thank the Gods of Action Movies for debutante directors Chad Stahelski and (an un-credited) David Leitch - two seasoned stunt and fight co-ordinators - who bring Reeves back into the fold with one of the sleekest, razor-sharp and Goddamn coolest action movies in recent memory.
Economy of narrative is always preferable for a hard-nosed thriller such as this - and here the plot is as lean as they come. When young Russian thug Josef (Alfie Allen) and his gang break into a house, beat up the owner, murder his dog and steal his prized classic sports car, little do they realize the scale of the shit-storm that is about to descend upon them. For not only has the victim's wife recently died from illness and not only was the puppy the last gift he ever received from her, but that the victim is none other than John Wick (Keanu Reeves) - a former assassin and associate of Iosef's ganglord father Viggo (Michael Nvqvist), who angrily informs his idiot boy that this is the man who "you would send to kill the fuckin' Bogeyman"... And now he is pissed. You couldn't have a better moniker than Wick for this guy - a compacted powder-keg that has just had the fuse lit. And Reeves is perfect casting in a film as tailored to him as a Savile Row suit. He captures the lonely heartbreak of a man who has just lost everything in his life that meant something. From the video of his wife that he plays on his phone to the tiny moments with Daisy the puppy, Stahelski & Leitch* give John Wick enough emotional heft to allow the audience to side with this lethal killing machine, then sit back and let the bullets and fists do the talking. They have also built up a nice company of actors to fill this world too - Nvqvist is a blast as the gangster desperately hoping to diffuse our hero by any means necessary, Allen makes a great sniveling punk who really should take heed of his father's concerns, Adrienne Palicki has a lot of fun as a rival assassin looking to take advantage of the tidy price tag on John Wick's head and we have some great cameos from the likes of Willem Dafoe, Ian McShane, John Leguizamo and Clarke Peters to name a few.
Writer Derek Kolstad (whose only previous works are a couple of Dolph Lundgren DTV action flicks) shows a deft hand at scripting hard-boiled dialogue and building a believable world of hotels for hitmen and the Rules of the Trade that you break at your peril. The directors build on this strong foundation by using smart, simple camera shots and techniques that always allow the action to speak for itself. Stahelski was Reeves' stunt double on the second Matrix movie and shows supreme confidence in Keanu's physical abilities - confidence that is rewarded many times over. It feels like a real breath of fresh air when an action star is allowed to demonstrate their natural prowess without the aid of camera and CGI trickery - here, everything is done in-camera with skill and precision. Not since the first Taken movie have we seen action so stripped down and visceral. And the biggest one-up this movie has over Liam Neeson's exploits is that while the directors may relish the violent carnage on screen, they do so with an unmistakable knowing wink in their eyes. One particular highlight for singling out must be a barnstorming set piece in a nightclub, where Wick zeroes in on his prey like a hawk. This whole set-up is ridiculous and they know it - Wick reloading his gun mid-execution is a fine example of this. And they wear their influences like badges of honor - the film has all the style and manners of a John Woo Hong Kong bullet ballet whilst deep in its core runs a stark isolation that is pure Walter Hill modern Western (one of Hill's regulars David Michael Kelly even has a plum role as the clean-up man of choice for hitmen). And best of all is that all of this is kept at a brisk 101 minutes running time - in my humble opinion, the perfect length for any movie. John Wick has taken its time in crossing the Atlantic (the US release was back in October last year), but for us UK action fans it has most certainly been worth the wait...
(* Sounds like an awesome 70's cop show!)
A 100% pure genre masterpiece, John Wick see Keanu Reeves return in style to the action hero role that defined him for a whole generation. Slick, efficient and powerful in its design, it is hardly a surprise to hear that a sequel is already in the works. Already one of the best films of 2015 - and if you want to argue otherwise, you can take it up with John... Personally, I'd advise against it!
"You Ready, white boy?! Pepper spray, bitch - Prison School is in session!"
There is no getting away from it... Here is a missed opportunity. Teaming motormouth comic-du-jour Kevin Hart with frat-boy legend Will Ferrell should have been comedy alchemy. Pair them up with writer Etan Cohen (he of Tropic Thunder and Idiocracy fame) making his directorial début and a prime topic for satire - the ever-growing divide between the Haves and Have-nots - and the result should have provided with one of the best comedies in years. Sadly, the result is a hit-and-miss affair that largely substitutes humor for thinly veiled homophobic and racist "jokes". It is not with a few charms, but you have to wade through an excess of underlying hate-laced gags to get there.
The film's premise is a pretty nice one too. With only 30 days before he must report to the San Quentin on charges of fraud, millionaire James King (Ferrell) hires Darnell Lewis (Hart), the guy who valets his car, to train him up in order to survive 10 years in the big house. Thanks to a little race-related misunderstanding, King believes Lewis has been to jail and is the perfect guy to teach him about life inside. And Lewis is happy to go along with it, as the money King will pay him will allow him to move his family out of the ghetto and give his daughter the best start in life. We even get a great opening, with Cohen cutting nicely between the unattainable realms of the wealthy and the everyday drudge of the working classes. Yet the moment we see Will Ferrell's unevenly-shaped posterior grinding up against a window in the throes of upper-class fornication, the audience will be quick to realize that Trading Places this will not be. After this we get a near-constant stream of jokes that mostly center around the ideas that all white people think black people have been locked up (a detail not helped by nearly every other black character other than Hart walking around gang colors) and that the most important lesson for incarceration survival is knowing how to fellate your fellow prisoner. Considering how well Cohen skewered Hollywood attitudes on race relations in Tropic Thunder, this really is a disappointing letdown. He also tacks on a lazy scapegoat subplot that is poorly thought out and plays like an afterthought in the editing process.
(See how I tacked on the mention of it to the end of that paragraph? Kinda feels like that!)
Yet every so often we get a sign of the film that this all could have been. There is some real chemistry between Ferrell and Hart, whose differing approaches to comedy gel much better than expected. It works in enough occasions to hope that they get to work again on something more substantial very soon. The conversion of King's house into a makeshift prison has some nice touches, with the tennis court turned into the Yard and King's "cell" interred in the large reception hall. And while a skit about the differing gangs in the Yard becomes more labored as it progresses, the simulation of a prison riot was easily the most laugh-out-loud sequence in the movie. But best of all is one of the smaller moments in the film, where Darnell befriends T.J. Jagodowski's lonely barfly Chris at a local gay haunt. Here is a character that feels believable and real in a sea of homophobic clichés around him. Darnell may not like the unwanted attention at first, but a funny video call with Chris captures a natural bonhomie and a real sense of feeling. The fact that Cohen chooses to cut this great sequence with a crass attempt by Ferrell to learn how to suck cock in a restroom cubicle (Veep's Matt Walsh is wasted in a nothing role as Ferrell's unlucky... I want to say Victim?) tells you just how misjudged large swathes of this movie is. And this is the real crime here - with components as good as the ones we have here, Get Hard really should have been more than a lame double entendre.
Limp and flaccid when it should be sharp and cutting, Get Hard is a somewhat disappointing union between Will Ferrell & Kevin Hart. There's some moments of inspired work scattered here and there, but Etan Cohen's directorial début is more jailhouse bitch than king of the yard. Here's hoping Ferrell and Hart get to work on something better soon.
"Manners... Maketh... Man."
What on Earth has got into Mr. Darcy? When one thinks of debonair charm-maestro Colin Firth, the image conjured up is usually that of the aloof but dashing English gentlemen whose hackles would only be raised by a poor performance at Lords (the Home of Cricket) or by a glass of single malt being rudely poured over ice. And when one thinks of him in a scrap, one tends to recall the clumsy posh-boy fracas with Hugh Grant in Bridget Jones' Diary. After seeing Kingsman however, it would make the most evangelical Christian think twice about accosting him in a public place. Director Mathew Vaughn as re-teamed with Kick-Ass creator Mark Millar and old screenwriting partner Jane Goldman for another slice of manic mayhem. This time they have stirred in a few of those classic spy-movie tropes to create a frequently entertaining action comedy that tips its hat to 007 and his kind in its sophisticated styling, while at the same time injecting an overdose of ADD-fueled energy and verve of the modern action movie.
When one of their agents is killed on a mission to rescue a kidnapped professor, elite British secret agency the Kingsmen task each of their members to elect a new recruit. For seasoned spy Harry Hart (Firth), this presents an opportunity to right a wrong from his past. His choice - Eggsy (Taron Egerton), an intelligent but aimless youth whose father saved Harry's life many years ago. As Eggsy and his fellow recruits are put through their paces, Harry and the Kingsmen look into the dealings of internet billionaire Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) and uncover a sinister plot that could destroy the world as we know it... Even from the plot description, you can tell there is no room for street-level "realism" borne out of the, er, Bourne franchise. Here we have high-living, gadget-laden excess paraded like James Bond's effete cousin. The Kingsman front is a Savile Row tailors with sharp suits, bowlers and brollies owing a nice tip of the hat to John Steed from The Avengers (that's the cult British 60s TV show, not the Marvel Super-team for my US friends). Vaughan and Goldman lace the upper-class trapping with some simplistic detail to keep suspension of disbelief at bay as much as possible (hello, bullet proof bespoke tailoring!), but this is clearly a film based more on style than substance - and for the large part, it succeeds. Cast-wise, the film boasts 2 particularly strong leads. Firth needs little introduction in the gentlemen stakes, but it is in the action sequences that he unexpectedly shines. Demonstrating a natural flair for the eclectic Victorian martial art of Bartitsu (favored by Sherlock Holmes among others), audiences will whoop and holler as Our Man Firth flings beer-breath hoodie thugs and prejudiced bible bashers left, right and centre in all manners of hard-hitting fisticuffs. Newcomer Egerton is also a real find, bringing both a youthful verve and natural swagger as the streetwise Eggsy - we should expect a lot more from this talented young actor.
Given such a potent team-up such as this - the upper-class gentleman spy and the young working-class wastrel - it is such a shame that the film works hard to keep these to apart for most of the proceedings. There is a nice degree of screen chemistry between Firth and Egerton, but the moment they start building up a bit of screen time, Harry is off investigating a lead whilst Eggsy is back in super-spy training with Mark Strong's Q-like Merlin. This is underlined even further with the rather sketchy characterizations of practically everyone else in the movie. Fellow newcomer Sophie Cookson barely registers as Eggsy's trainee associate Roxy, while Strong and Michael Caine can only get so much mileage out of the few scenes they feature in. But perhaps the biggest letdown is with the villains. Jackson's lisping cellphone mogul with a crippling fear of violence feels like an afterthought during one of the final script revisions. The fact that his "blade-runner" henchwoman Gazelle, played by dancer Sofia Boutella, feels more rounded (or should that be pointed?) is a crime in itself. But with a big megalomaniacal plot that is ripped right from the annals of Ian Fleming, one can't help feeling a little disappointed when said megalomaniacs are less defined than even the lowliest enforcer from the 007 canon. Vaughn is also guilty of allowing the physicality of his comic-book camera whizzes to jar alongside the sophisticated mise-en-scene of the more "gentlemanly" scenes. The slo-mo acrobatics of Egerton and Boutella at the end could have been torn from the pages of the graphic novel, but the films loses a little momentum and excitement because of them. Oh, and an anal sex gag at the end of the film will leave a nasty taste in the mouth (ahem!) for some viewers. But if the film's ingredients do not always add up to a gloriously cohesive whole, there is still briefcase-loads more style, wit and verve than you will find in most Hollywood capers these days. And that is something we Brits can be very proud of.
Like mixing the finer qualities of a Vesper Martini with the irreverent fun of a Jaegerbomb, Kingsman: The Secret Service wears its spy film influences on its impeccably tailored sleeve whilst simultaneously reveling in blood-spurting ultra-violence. Colin Firth and Taron Egerton prove a formidable double-act (when they are allowed to be) and Mathew Vaughn adds another high-velocity action caper to his back-catalogue. With a little more characterization and a little less Ritalin next time, a potentially phenomenal new spy series could be in the offering here.
Is anyone else noticing a particularly interesting trend occurring in the movies at present? Time and again the latest spate of teen and adult-targeted movies have struggled to make a particular impact at a direct experience level. We are currently waist-deep in Awards season, so of course we are rightly praising the cream of the crop that Hollywood (mostly) has provided. Yet when I look back at the past year at the cinema, the films that have had the biggest impact for me have been those that seem primarily targeted at the "family friendly" market. OK, Disney has had a big year (Frozen merchandise still packs out the shop windows - Let It Go already, guys!) but the real highlights for me have been The Lego Movie - right up there in terms of invention, excitement and comic timing (don't even get me started on the snub it's received from Oscar!) - and Paddington - one of the most downright enjoyable trips to the cinema since, well, The Lego Movie. Praise the Gods of Cinema, therefore, that another homegrown hero makes it to the big screen and marks a glorious success for the family movie market in 2015. Because have no doubt about it, national treasures Aardman have taken some very big risks here.
Since his first appearance alongside stop-motion icons Wallace and Gromit in their 1995 adventure A Close Shave (and practically stealing the short film from under his co-stars' finely shaped noses), Shaun the Sheep has become an international megastar, with 130 seven-minute adventures at present being shown in 180 countries. The crafty leader of the Mossy Bottom Farm flock (try saying THAT quickly 10 times in a row!) is a cultural phenomenon with live shows, merchandise - even a theme park arriving later in the year. But the near-silent format that structures the TV episodes poses a big gamble for directors Richard Starzak and Mark Burton. But true to the spirit of the show, they stick to their guns - and show us exactly how perfectly a glance, and expression, a mumble can convey the right emotion. The plot is simplicity itself - Shaun and the gang tire of the same daily routine on the farm, so he devises a plan to break out and have a day off. But when the Farmer is lost in the big city with no clue as to who he is, it is up to Shaun and the flock, alongside long-suffering sheepdog Blitzer, to venture into the imposing metropolis and rescue him. The adventures that follow perfectly underline the cinematic genius that works at the heart of Aardman - the slapstick is perfectly timed, the characterization in flawless, the pop-culture references (from the Beatles to Cape Fear, via Silence of the Lambs) are witty and subtle. There's a truly hissable villain in Omit Djalili's animal containment warden Trumper, whose thoroughly-earned comeuppance will inspire a hearty cheer from everyone. But above all, it is 100% downright fantastic - and how many films can truly say that?
Shaun The Sheep Movie is another 24-carat smash from leading animators Aardman - a small story with a big heart, filled with adventure and comedy in generous measures. Make no mistake - if the rest of 2015's movie releases are even half as good as this, we are in for a fantastic year at the cinema!
"Mother, I am leading men. And I am giving America... Hope."
The story of John Eleuthère du Pont, a member of the mighty du Pont weapons empire, and the Schultz brothers, perhaps the greatest Olympic wrestling champion brother team, is a dark spot on America's sporting history. Bennett Miller's latest dip into the world of American sporting mavericks is a distinct tonal shift from his earlier Moneyball, but is also one of the most compelling and unsettling films to come out of Hollywood for quite some time. Detailing the rise and fall of one rich man's desire to lead the American Wrestling team to Olympic glory, at the heart of this uncompromising fable is three standout performances from three very different types of American actor - the matinee idol (Channing Tatum), the comedian (Steve Carell) and the Method man (Mark Ruffalo). Such diverse characteristics for an ensemble - but each performance is pure film alchemy. Ruffalo is always masterful in his work and his paternal & loving Dave Schultz is the closest in spirit to the audience's viewpoint as he enters this bizarre scenario. Carell is almost unrecognizable under the prosthetic nose and squinting eyes as du Pont, but his transformative performance is laced with unknown threat and paranoid confusion, banishing away all memories of Brick Tamland for the film's duration. And then there is Tatum - arguably the standout of the group, whose isolated and vulnerable "lunk" Mark searching for acceptance and recognition is the film's real emotional core.
Miller and his writers shade every scene with palpable unease and a veritable sense of dread. What does this strange rich guy really want to achieve with his plans for the wrestling team? Maternal acceptance, paternal longing, the need for glory... Miller and his crew weave each strand of these themes into the film, leaving the audience to interpret whatever they can from this tragic true story. Some have criticized the film for suggesting unmerited homo-erotic undertones to proceedings (the real Mark Schultz included), but that would be to debase events. The overwhelming need for connection is the film's message - a sensation that everyone has felt at some stage in life. And despite the odd bum note (the loss of Tatum during the final act is truly felt, for example) Miller and his team have crafted a masterful American modern sports drama - one that will stay with you long after you leave the auditorium.
One of the most powerful films about sport ever made, Bennett Miller's Foxcatcher is a masterpiece of acting, writing and direction. Carell, Tatum and Ruffalo all hit career-best levels of intensity and skill in a film that pins you into submission from beginning to end.
"Shave off that pathetic goatee. Get some surgery. Sixty's the New Thirty, motherfucker!"
Mr. Michael Keaton, welcome back to the big time, Sir!
Perhaps that is a little unfair - Keaton has been providing solid output on the sidelines for quite some time, working with the likes of Will Ferrell (The Other Guys) and Tom Hanks (Toy Story 3). But there is no doubt that Keaton has not hit the heights of his Tim Burton-directed stints as troubled vigilante Batman for a while. Well his agents are certainly ironing their shirts and pressing their suits in anticipation of all the big scripts that should start pouring through their mailboxes... And deservedly so. For Keaton is a revelation in director Alejandro González Iñárritu's jet-black comedy-drama about a washed-up, former Hollywood megastar searching for meaning to his life by putting on a vanity project on Broadway, with all the farcical and psychological implications one can imagine this side of Noises Off! Not that Keaton is alone in attracting superlatives - Edward Norton has arguably never been better as Method-craving prima donna stage actor Mike Shiner, consistently battling Keaton's Riggan Thomas in a hilarious dick-measuring contest of talent and ability. Emma Stone proves again why she is the most exciting young actress of her generation, while supporting actors (players?) Zach Galafianakis, Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough add rich threads to the film's tapestry.
Iñárritu has really hit his stride here. Babel was a bit of a slog for many viewers - constant wallowing in life's misery get boring quickly - but it is so refreshing to see this immensely talented helmer hit his funny bone. His cinematic mastery helps what could have been a stagey, flat production soar from all corners of the screen - with Emmanuel Lubezki's camera whirling around on stage and backstage, seemingly in one single take (a master stroke for anyone looking to adapt any stageplay for the future!). A perfect visual blending of the mundane and the surreal keep the audience on tenterhooks, never in complete assurance that what is playing out is for real or just in Riggan's head. And Iñárritu & his co-writers inject some genuine pathos amongst all the on-stage erections and late-night streetwalks in your underwear - every character and conversation is wonderfully nuanced and pained by life's troubles. Yes, yes we get it, actors are struggling to find their place on this Earth - nothing that hasn't been said before. And for sure, it is easy to see the parallels between Riggan and Keaton in real life - the shadow of the Dark Knight was long and black over Keaton's subsequent career. But there is no getting away from it, as Lindsay Duncan's bitter theatre critic points out - the unexpected virtue of ignorance is something to behold indeed.
Funny, moving, audacious, original - all this and more from director Iñárritu and his magnificent ensemble. And Michael Keaton is about to soar again... Sixty really could be the New Thirty.
"Please look after this bear... Thank you."
When BBC cameraman Michael Bond put pen to paper and began writing stories about a small bear from "darkest" Peru, he could never have imagined how his life would change. Today, Bond's Paddington stories have sold more than 35 million copies worldwide and have been translated into over 40 different languages. For me, the terrific Ivor Wood 1970s TV adaptations are a glorious part of my young childhood memories. Now a big screen adventure has finally arrived after years in development. Early word was a little worrying, with last minute casting changes and mild ratings controversy. But we really had nothing to worry about - Paddington is a loving and thrilling adventure that deserves to be seen on the biggest screen you can find.
When a devastating earthquake destroys their home, the elderly Aunt Lucy sends her mischievous nephew to London - a place that they have only heard about from the effete British Explorer that discovered them and taught them the joys of British culture (mostly talking about the weather and dining a particular orange preserve). Despite finding England not quite the welcoming destination he was promised, he soon works his way in to the home and, eventually, the hearts of the dysfunctional Brown family - who help him try to track down the Explorer. But danger lurks around the corner, particularly in the form of the local taxidermist Millicent...
Director Paul King is a self-titled Paddington aficionado and on this evidence there is no safer pair of hands for such a beloved children's property. He fully invests in the character, wisely keeping him front and centre of the whole film (something Michael Bay could have considered when adapting another of my childhood favorites!). And key to the film's success lies in Paddington himself. Our hero is wonderfully realized by CG wizards Framestore and animatronics guru Nick Dudman - a real example of how far and how effective great FX work can offer today's cinema. Not for one moment do you feel that Paddington is anything but the accident-prone but loveable little grizzly from Bond's stories. And then there is Ben Whishaw as Paddington himself. Credit to Colin Firth, who stepped aside when it became clear during production that his voice did not fit the role, but Whishaw conveys the perfect balance between naivety and good nature that puts the final glorious touches to one of the best characters in recent fiction.
King's second great trick is keeping the film's target audience as the entire family... No condescending tone for the kids and plenty of absurd humor for the adults - King and his scriptwriters (which include an unaccredited Emma Thompson) have worked up a treat. And then there is the supporting human cast. Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins superbly lead the way as the Brown parents and are ably supported by Peter Capaldi, Julie Walters and Jim Broadbent. In her best role in years, Nicole Kidman sports a credible English accent and savagely knocks Cruella De Vil off the podium as the new bad girl on the block as she endeavors to add our furry hero to her collection in the Natural History Museum.
It is also to the film makers' credit that the film takes plenty of risks as the story unfolds. Opening with a funny and affectionate poke at the old back-and-white Pathé Newsreels of yesteryear, we are then hit with a devastating earthquake that evokes emotions not felt since the loss of Mufasa and Bambi's mother. Paddington's first experiences of Merry Old England are enough to shame anyone thinking of voting UKIP (yes, perhaps he is an illegal immigrant - but woe betide Farage and his cronies if they even attempt to lay a hand on our intrepid hero!) and his adventures in the Capital are a near-perfect blend of slapstick and farce (Bonneville's ridiculously controversial cross-dressing scene is a wonderful example of that noble British pastime of transvestitism). In fact, it is almost impossible to note any misstep in the entire proceedings. And for that reason, Paddington is the perfect movie for this time of year. Do yourself a favor - get to the cinema and see it!
Not just one of the best British movies this year, but one of the BEST movies this year, Paddington is a note-perfect translation of Michael Bond's stories. A wonderful blend of comedy, danger and adventure that will have you reaching for the nearest marmalade sandwich and demanding a sequel!
"Nothing goes over my head! My reflexes are too fast; I'd catch it."
For all intent and purpose, Marvel's latest Phase II film Guardians of the Galaxy is a bit of a gamble for the comic book behemoths - an intergalactic action comedy that is neither a sequel nor a superhero movie, with two of the central characters being a cocky talking raccoon and a tree. Not the easiest sell to start with, admittedly. Yet despite the more colorful trappings and ingredients at work, director James Gunn has fashioned a rip-roaring and enjoyable adventure that slides easily into the Marvel mold. Parks and Recreation's Chris Pratt gamely steps up to the plate as intergalactic scavenger Peter Quill (or Star-Lord, as only he likes to call himself), who finds himself in the company of killers, bounty hunters and inter-planetary warlords when he obtains a mysterious orb from a derelict planet. Aligning himself with Gamora, an assassin with ulterior motives (Zoë Saldana), cocky raccoon Rocket (Bradley Cooper) & his loyal bodyguard Groot (Vin Diesel) and a vengeful warrior Drax (Dave Bautista), Quill soon finds himself and his team the only ones willing and able to stand up against the deadly might of Ronan The Accuser (Lee Pace) to save the entire galaxy...
Gunn has fashioned his bonkers plot into Marvel's very own Star Wars, with lovable rogues, feisty alien babes and animal sidekicks filling the screen. Pratt is a likeable lead and he makes the cross to the big screen with charm and gusto. Cooper and Diesel make their (vocal) marks with their unusual double act and Saldana makes an unlikable character both deadly and desirable. But it is former WWE star Bautista that makes the biggest impression - his Drax is a man plagued by pain (caused by the death of his family at the hands of Ronan) and totally lost on irony (his race take everything literally!). Bautista has subtle comedic chops as well as brute strength, both of which he displays with expert precision. There is some strong support from the likes of Glenn Close, John C. Reilly, Benicio Del Toro and Peter Serefinowicz as the goodies, as well as Josh Brolin and Karen Gillen on the Dark Side. What a shame then that Ronan The Accuser is a rather by-the-numbers villain, with the talented Pace given little opportunity to display his malice.
Sadly Pace is not the only one reined in - director Gunn certainly handles the CGI-coated razzmatazz with great skill and finesse, but his risqué quirks that were utilized fully on his creature feature Slither and especially his jet-black superhero satire Super are noticeable by their absence. Considering Gunn's background in Troma, one had hoped for more off-the-wall storytelling and dark humor. The joke-rate in the film is high, but when he tries to add any Troma-lite jape, it feels disjointed and out of place. But this is not Gunn's fault. The blame must lay at the feet of the studio itself. Marvel has always prided itself on picking left-field choices to sit in the director chair for their big movies - Jon Favreau, Kenneth Brannagh and the Russo brothers had very little experience of event movie making in their back-catalogue. Yet all have been able to make their mark successfully, especially in terms of box office. But the Marvel formula is starting to show signs of strain - the plot threads of searching for a Macguffin, assembling a team, in-fighting that causes them to lose hope, before re-uniting in one epic showdown against the antagonist with big bangs and computer generated chutzpah. It is arguable that this stringent adherence to this winning formula is what is holding these diverse creative back a little. Still, Gunn has fashioned a thoroughly entertaining space caper that who'll bring a whole new audience to another team in the Marvel universe - and when the formula has proved yet again that it brings in the big numbers, who am I to say that Marvel should change it?
Guardians of the Galaxy is another success story for the almighty Marvel Studios - a bold, brassy comedy adventure that excites and entertains in equal measure. A strong ensemble of characters and big computer-enhanced action sequences combine to entertaining effect. But the signs of strain are showing to the narrative structure and some key changes to the characterization & plotting would have helped James Gunn's space opera to soar into the stratosphere.
"What is filmmaking but groping in the dark?" - Alexander Payne