Film review – Captain Fantastic (Matt Ross, 2016)

Captain Fantastic is not the latest in the never-ending chain of Marbel superhero films. Nor is it a profile of former Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard, who is fantastic for about half of Liverpool and few others.

No, despite the title, Captain Fantastic is the directorial debut full-length feature from Matt Ross, better known as Gavin Belson from Silicon Valley. Beyond the superficial veneer of a twee, heartwarming, quirky indie flick, there is something a little more substantial and special at work here.

Viggo Mortensen takes the lead role as Ben Cash, a father raising six children as an only parent after his wife is hospitalised with bipolar disease. Nurturing them off-grid in a sort of wilderness commune, he is forced to bring them back into society when he receives the news that his wife has committed suicide. The journey to New Mexico for the funeral forces him to re-evaluate his choices in bring up his children, exposing them all to a world they have shunned.

Many of the greatest films to grace our screens have us questioning are inner-most philosophies. Whilst this isn’t likely to be considered an all time great, it does push the right buttons in its ability to be thought-provoking. The six children are for the most part absolutely happy, well educated, physically fit individuals that seem to have had no ill-effects from the unique brand of homeschooling afforded by their father Ben. The portrayal from them is so convincing that I was left seething when their families began to interfere and bring them back into “normality”. 

One thing that was very evident was the chemistry between the six children and Mortensen. George MacKay takes centre stage as eldest child Bo on the brink of leaving for college but struggling to find the best way to tell a father to whom he is completely devoted. Samantha Isler and Annalise Basso are great as the inseperable pair Kielyr and Vespyr. Charlie Shotwell,  Nicholas Hamilton and Shree Crooks all have extremely bright futures in the industry, the latter of the three having a charismatic charm that brought an element of hilarity to everything she said.

It is this sense of comradery and unbreakable dedication that is essential to the success of the film and without it we’d be left with nothing. Thankfully it’s here in abundance.

The music from Alex Somers (Sigor Ros producer) plays into the mood perfectly, reflecting the subtle charm of the visuals on screen. It’s non-offensive but beautifully balanced.

A must-see, feel-great film.

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Film review – Deadpool (Tim Miller, 2016)

Deadpool may be many things. Some call it a superhero film. Some will call it an action film. Some will call it a romance. Some will call it a comedy. It may be all of these things, but one thing it doesn’t do is take itself seriously.

Deadpool has opened with the largest first weekend takings of an R-rated movie ever ($132.7m). Both the taking and the rating are well deserved. Where its superhero counterparts have sanitised the violence portrayed, Deadpool plays to it. There are beheadings. There are dead human carcasses splattered at high speed into road signs. There is terrible, offensive and graphic language. The violence is non-stop. There’s even more after the opening scene. Later, we visit a strip club. Indeed, there’s a sex montage that lasts about five minutes and is played for laughs. Nothing is off-limits.

It never loses its sense of humour, and at the centre of this achievement is Ryan Reynolds who proves that he’s the right guy for the job after all. We have seen Reynolds’s take on Deadpool once before, albeit in what is generally regarded to be a butchered take on the comic book character. His first appearance as the chatty bad ass was in 2008’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine, in which he was inexplicably not able to talk once he became Weapon XI / Deadpool. It was seen at the time as a missed opportunity by fanboys of the comics, though in hindsight it is hard to pin the blame on Reynolds. What else could he do with a silent character, especially acting alongside will.i.am?

This time around he is actively encouraged to pastiche other superhero films. Several times the fourth wall is broken to humorous effect, usually to take a poke at the previous Marvel films, the messy timeline involved in the X-Men franchise, Hugh Jackman himself and, most frequently, that underwhelming Origins film.

It’s refreshing to see a superhero film not taking itself very seriously. It was also great to see a director – a first-time director at that – given the ammo to do exactly what he wants with a film and not be told to fit it into a larger universe. We can only wonder if Ant-Man could have been this good if Edgar Wright was allowed to finish it.

Tim Miller has directed one short film prior to Deadpool. It was an animated short film from 2004 called Gopher Broke. You can view it here:

Supporting Cast

One of my favourite X-Men characters as a child was Collossus (Stefan Kapicic). Here he is given yet another outing on the big screen in a CGI creation that is well realised visually if not in terms of characterisation. He is present as one of Deadpool’s sidekicks solely for comic relief rather than to provide any real threat, and as a result it’s difficult to see him having any room to manoeuvre in future X-Men films.

The other sidekick character making up the lead trio is Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand). An emo-styled young mutant, she at least has some potentially useful strength. However, she is also on the receiving end of some great one-liners from Deadpool and doesn’t offer much to suggest she might ever become a fan favourite.

deadpoolcolossus

These two supporting X-Men were clearly only ever seen as a bit of background built around the requirement for a subplot in the final battle sequence. A joke is made at one point about the studio not being able to afford any more X-Men. There is doubtless some truth in this.

Elsewhere, the supporting cast also includes the annoyingly evil Ed Skrein, who does a good job of making the fairly generic character Ajax quite dislikable. Morena Baccarin is well cast as the romantic interest, though it’s a shame we saw yet another an initially headstrong female character dissolve into a damsel in distress. Hopefully she will be given more prominence if a sequel is made – if they stick to the comic books she will become the mutant Copycat.

Conclusion

It is a very good film, almost a great film. It’s brash, it’s offensive and it’s graphic. It’s almost like a superhero film from an alternate reality, where the primary goal isn’t to sell action figures and lunchboxes. Its failings are more than made up for by how refreshing it was to see a completely different take on the genre.

If nothing else, at least now we can say a film has done justice to the Deadpool franchise.

Deadpool is out now at cinemas globally.

Film review – Ant-Man (Peyton Reed, 2015)

The problem that many British viewers of this film will have when viewing this film is a pining for what could have been. Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish had for a long time both been attached to the film, the former as director and both as co-writers. Both are extremely well-known amongst the geeks of Britain and the fact they were teaming up was an absolute dream. Edgar Wright proved what he could do when given the freedom of the source material when he directed the excellent Scott Pilgrim vs The World in 2010. Whilst the Ant-Man series wasn’t as well known as the likes of X-Men and Spiderman, in the right hands it had the potential to be a great film.

Phenomenal powers, itty bitty living space.

Phenomenal powers, itty bitty living space.

However, it slowly became apparent that Marvel had a different idea of the direction it should take. In an interview with Mike Ryan of the Huffington Post, Edgar Wright said “It is pretty standalone in the way we’re linking it to the others. I like to make it standalone because I think the premise of it needs time. I want to put the crazy premise of it into a real world, which is why I think Iron Man really works because it’s a relatively simple universe; it’s relatable.” Clearly Marvel wanted the film to be set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the compromises required to slot it in with Thor, Iron Man and the clan didn’t sit well with Wright and Cornish. With not long to go before release date – 420 days to be precise – the pair (along with director of photography Bill Pope) co-announced with Marvel Studios that they were leaving the project, citing “differences in their vision of the film”.

So what are we left with? Well, Peyton Reed has come on board as emergency director. His previous work has been pretty much exclusively romantic comedies (Down With Love, The Break-Up) and the impression is that he was brought in to do what the studio needed rather than drive his own vision of the narrative. Ironically that makes him a kind of yes man. [1]

What’s really frustrating is that the script has some very Wright/Cornish-esque humour in there. One of the large scale fights near the climax of the film happens around a Thomas the Tank Engine toy train track. Anyone familiar with Joe Cornish’s route to fame in the 90s will see the likelihood that this was one from him. Or maybe Peyton Reed is a big fan of Series 2, Episode 18 of the original Thomas the Tank Engine series “Thomas Comes To Breakfast”, which first aired in the UK in October 1986.

The one saving grace of the film is Paul Rudd doing and excellent job as Scott Lang, the thief-turned-hero who wants to make up for lost time with his daughter. His humour and sharp wit make the journey through the film entirely pleasurable. He is a great comedic actor and the film has benefited from his presence on the rewriting team.

However, for all the good that is done by some great work in the cast (Michael Peña is hilarious throughout), we keep getting reminders that this is two films woven into one. The worst moment of the film comes when there’s an oblique reference to The Avengers, which sticks out like a sore thumb. Just as we are forgetting about it, Falcon arrives on the scene. Yes that’s right, Anthony Mackie has his very own cameo role in everyone’s eleventh-favourite Avenger (12th if you include Ant-Man, 13th if you include Nick Fury… who knows where by the time Civil War is released). It’s so pointless and so clearly an afterthought that it not only doesn’t help fit it in with the Marvel Cinematic Universe but rather actually just causes a detrimental effect on the absorbing world that was almost being created in this film.

It’s a shame that we will never see that Wright/Cornish film that never was. It must be said that it was unlikely to ever see the light of day without some serious compromises, but as two huge fans of Marvel comic books that was never going to happen. Instead we’re left with a reasonable film with some rewarding moments, which never really gets going because it is so disjointed.

Ant-Man is out at cinemas globally now.

[1] Yes I went there.

Films I’m Excited About (Summer 2015)

2015 looks set to be a huge summer for visiting the cinema. I’ve already been blown away several times at the high standard I’ve seen (Birdman, The Tales of Princess Kaguya, Whiplash and The Theory of Everything are all very special films, and Avengers: Age of Ultron blew me away too). Looking forwards, there’s plenty more to be excited about. Here’s some of the film’s I’ve got in my diary.

German Concentration Camps – A Factual Survey

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Probably the most historically important film of the decade.

A British documentary film covering the exploration of the Nazi concentration camps. Fourteen locations were visited in Poland, Austria and Germany. The purpose of this film was that it would be shown to all the freed prisoners leaving the concentration camps and sites of atrocity after the fall of the Third Reich. Unfortunately there were delays in production and by 1946 it was deemed to be inappropriate and the footage was shelved.

Thankfully the footage has been finished off and there have been some screenings schedules around the UK (which can be found here). I can’t wait to see this historically important and inevitably moving film.

Jurassic World

Is this going to be the return to form we've been waiting for?

Is this going to be the return to form we’ve been waiting for?

I’m sorry. We’re all thinking it. The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Jurassic Park III were both utter dross. The first in the series was, in my opinion, one of the greatest films ever made. In the action genre it should be held up as a sepcimen of near perfection – its relentless and frequent peaks and troughs take you on an exhausting adrenaline rollercoaster as soon as things start to go wrong. It was also a hugely significant film in terms of advancing special effects. Since the sequels thus far have been huge let downs, the announcement of a new franchise reboot was met with groans across the internet and beyond. Then the trailer dropped and hope was restored. So far there doesn’t seem to be anything to quash the hope.

The release date is set for 10th June. The world is waiting!

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

I can't wait for fourth film in the franchise to be released.

I can’t wait for fourth film in the franchise to be released.

I’m a big Star Wars fan. I’m not the kind of person who knows the facts inside-out, certainly not on the same level as some people I know, but the original films are just absolutely fantastic action sci-fi films. It’s a shame that Episodes I-III were so dreadful. I do believe there is one good film to be found within their bloated running times. They just got them wrong.

The Star Wars community groaned when Disney bought the rights to Star Wars, but I immediately knew it would be a positive move. Disney know how to make a great live-action action film. The first three Pirates of the Caribbean films were actually not as bad as people have remembered them (our memories may be tarnished by the lackluster fourth installment). John Carter was actually far better than the first twenty minutes suggested. The Tron reboot wasn’t bad either. With a captive audience ready to give the new films a chance and no George Lucas around to mess things up, we’re set to finally be rewarded with a film worthy of the originals.

Terminator: Genisys

I do hope Arnie says "I told you I'd be back" just one more time.

I do hope Arnie says “I told you I’d be back” just one more time.

I don’t think this will be the return to form as the two franchise reboots above, but it will be good fun to see how it turns out. Since his retirement from politics, Schwarzenegger hasn’t really done any films that fully stand up to his releases in the late 80s and early 90s. I hope this is the one that shows us he’s still got it and with Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones favourite Daenerys Targaryen) on board we should have something to keep us entertained for a couple of hours.

Ant-Man

Films like this are in short supply.

Films like this are in short supply.

Paul Rudd, Marvel Cinematic Universe, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish. It’s Ant-Man. It has been a troubled creation process, but I still think this is going to find the balance of comedy and action that was sadly missing from The Green Hornet, the last superhero film that went down the comedy route. I’m hoping it’s successful enough to see him included in future MCU films. I guess time will tell.

The Nerd Uprising

Back in the 80s and 90s, The Nerd was easy to spot. He (for it was almost always a he) was invariably skin and bones, very much into maths and computers, could probably code at least a rudimentary game on his BBC, had glasses and possibly long hair. He was single. He had acne. He was Screech from Saved by the Bell.

 

This was a great time to be a screenwriter of anything that needed to stereotype a nerd into the story. The stereotype was probably quite realistic, and there were so few nerds around it didn’t really matter if you upset them.

 

In the intervening years, however, having a home computer has gone from nothing to being the norm. It would be unusual to find someone under the age of 70 without access to some kind of computer at home. Computer literacy isn’t just a niche skill but a requirement of life.

 

At the same time there has been a prominent increase in the popularity of comic book characters, mainly through the string of highly successful superhero films. This led to a greater increase in comics and graphic novels themselves as people sought out the source material of their screen idols.

Finally, the popularity of video games has grown exponentially, with a different game and platform to suit everyone’s needs, from the experienced MMORPG gamer to those that want to play Kwazy Kupcakes whilst sat on the toilet. Whether we like it or not, almost everyone is a gamer of some kind. Indeed, the biggest market for video games is adult women, thanks in part to the likes of Farmville and Candy Crush Saga. [1]

The point is that everything we associated with nerds from 30 years ago is now a given of everyday life for the majority of people. More and more on nights out, especially with people I don’t really know very well, I’m confident that if conversation dries up I can strike up a conversation about the latest Marvel Studios film, or a big new video game, or some kind of off-mainstream television series. This is becoming my fall-back conversation far more than, say, ten years ago, when I would invariably go to football or another kind of mainstream sport. Just yesterday I was with some work colleagues, most of which I didn’t know, and we chatted for over an hour about the new Daredevil series (which I’m yet to see), Avengers: Age of Ultron, the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the new Mario Kart DLC. Sport wasn’t mentioned once and I don’t think it would have been welcome if it had been.

So, there’s plenty of growth in the nerd-themed markets to come over the next few years and I’m sure the various industries are planning ahead to make money out of them. Maybe Revenge of the Nerds will be remade in a few years as Revenge of the Jocks. Who knows?

[1] Women over 18 made up a 36% share of all video gamers compared to men over 18, who make up 35%. The above comment is only half-true too. Whilst Farmville and Candy Crush Saga have surely helped the over 50s category, I don’t see it being a large contributing factor to the 18-30s at all. I just don’t know many people in that age range playing these kinds of games – male or female – but I do know plenty of young and experienced female gamers who wouldn’t think anything of picking up the latest 1stperson shooter, a genre traditionally associated with male gamers. One of the big wins for this is the de-fragmentation of the market. Making a game specifically designed for men or women is soon going to be a thing of the past because the lines have become so blurred and you simply can’t stereotype gaming preferences by gender any more.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (Joss Whedon, 2015)

The latest film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) sees the ever-growing cast of superheroes pitted against Ultron, the villainous result of an experiment in peacekeeping by Tony Stark and Bruce Banner that goes catastrophically wrong. Bringing back almost all the huge stars from the previous films (Gwyneth Paltrow and Natalie Portman were the only notable omissions), we see a number of dynamic storylines interwoven intelligently with some hugely impressive action sequences and set pieces delivering an answer to the age old question “What does a $250m film-making budget buy you these days?”. Quite a lot actually.

The opening sequence, set in the frosty hills of Sokovia, a fictional Eastern-European country, was one of the best opening action sequences I’ve ever seen, slowly re-introducing our familiar heroes one at a time whilst setting up the plot for the rest of the film, along with two of the main enemies they would encounter: Pietro and Wanda Maximoff (Quicksilver and Scarlett Witch respectively). It had enough elements to feel like we hadn’t seen it before and had an over-arching purpose so the spectacle didn’t feel gratuitous.

There has been a concerted effort this time to give more depth to the main characters that are yet to have their own standalone films. Clint Barton / Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is arguably the central character this time around. He is portrayed as the emotional glue that holds the rest of the team together and he finally gets the opportunity to prove how integral he is. It’s a nice touch as he is perhaps the least super of our superheroes, though I must say the manner in which they introduce a backstory for him is a little clumsy. There’s probably not enough depth to the character to warrant a stand-alone film so this is a great substitute.

Elsewhere Bruce Banner / Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson) have a blossoming romance, and we get to see a softer side to both characters that hadn’t been shown before. The intimacy reminded me a little of the now-much-underrated Peter Jackson version of King Kong, with Naomi Watts’s Ann Darrow playing off against Andy Serkis’s ape to a never-before-seen level of motion and facial expression capturing. It made me really keen to see a standalone film exploring their relationship more, though how that would fit into the grander scheme of planned films I’m not sure.

It was nice that Andy Serkis got a cameo appearance as Ulysses Klaw, along with many other recognisable stars (I’d put Samuel L. Jackson, Paul Bettany, Don Cheadle and Anthony Mackie in this category due to their limited screen time). His accent fell somewhere between East London, Eastern European and the required South African, though he’ll get chance to further develop that in Black Panther in 2018 [1].

Johannesburg is just one of many recognisable cities from around the globe that shows up in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Another such city is Seoul in South Korea. Interestingly, the Korean government reportedly paid Marvel Studios £2.4m for Seoul to be portrayed in a positive light for tourism purposes. I don’t think this is a problem really. It was just nice that London didn’t get blown up. Again.

I’ve seen a lot of huge blockbuster films fall flat in recent years. Any of the Transformers sequels, The Dark Knight Rises, Pacific Rim, Real Steel. More often than not, they just aren’t amazing films. Marvel, however, get it right time and time again. With a wave of films being announced to take us up to the end of the decade, the test will come not in successfully releasing a film like Avengers: Age of Ultron, a film destined for success. Rather, the true test will come with a film like Ant Man, due for release later this year. It’s a film everyone thinks will be a huge flop. If they can pull that one off and make it successful, then they truly do have the Midas touch.

Avengers: Age of Ultron is in UK cinemas now and globally over the next month. [2] [3]

[1] Ulysses Klaw is the main enemy of Black Panther, for which there is a MCU film set for release in 2018. Chadwick Boseman is set to star in the lead role.

[2] There is only one post-credit sequence this time around, which appears about halfway through. There is nothing at the end after the credits so you don’t need to wait. Howard the Duck does not appear.

[3] I went to see this film with fellow WordPress blogger Jordana Makin, who has a blog titled “Ahoy Small Fry“. Check it out, it’s pretty cool.

Big Hero 6 (Don Hall and Chris Williams, 2014)

As the first Disney-animated motion picture based on Marvel IP, Big Hero 6 was always going to be carefully scrutinised by both extremes of the target audience. At one end you have the die-hard Marvel comics fans, keen to see their beloved heroes done justice on the big screen. At the other end you’ve got fans of Walt Disney Studios, worried that hot on the heels of Frozen, Tangled and Princess and the Frog, Big Hero 6 might not be for them [1].

For the uninitiated (you mean you never read the comics!?), the story focuses on 12-year-old parentless robotics genius Hiro, who is being looked after by his aunt, along with his older brother and sort-of-guardian Tadashi, who also studies robotics at the local university. When further tragedy strikes through the death of his brother, he is left to pick up the pieces with the help of his brother’s greatest work – healthcare-robot Baymax. Banding together with Tadashi’s fellow student friends, Hiro goes on an adventure of vengeance and self-development as he finds taking matters into your own hands can lead to some shocking revelations.

IMG_0420

So the first thing to clarify is that the Big Hero 6 comics were never very popular. Very few people had heard of them before the film was announced, sparking a huge clamber across the internet to find the comics, read them, then form an opinion on why Disney was going to ruin them. They weren’t completely unknown, but they were nowhere near as popular as, say, Spider-man or X-Men. It was interesting to see the negative reaction the series got when it was announced. It’s amazing how many experts on everything we see now that people can form their arguments in one window whilst Google is open in another. I was one of the people who bought post-announcement – I managed to pick up all five of the 2008 comics and I read straight away (the original three-part series was by then already prohibitively expensive, much like the five-parter is now). They were obviously aimed at children, but were reasonably fun and easy to read. I thought they were a good choice for Disney to tackle, with plenty of characters and merchandising opportunities.

Secondly, I don’t know if you’ve seen any of the recent Marvel Animation films, but they are by-and-large terrible. I picked up the Ultimate Avengers steelbook about a year ago and watched one of the films, but couldn’t get through the second. The animation is really poor and the voice acting is clumsy and difficult to listen to. So if you’re a Marvel fanboy and want to square on an animated film that doesn’t do your source material justice, you should start there.

Finally, the recent films have been very successful, and I’m sure Frozen’s enduring popularity caused a delay to the release of Big Hero 6. I mean, it’s now on the West End in sing-along form! They just play the film on loop there all day. It has been out for 18 months! Princess and the Frog and Tangled were very successful too. But so was Wreck It Ralph, and that definitely wasn’t aimed at the female market. Neither was Bolt (directed by Chris Williams, by the way). Nor were half of the Pixar releases. Or, say, How to Train Your Dragon or Despicable Me. What I’m saying is – who knows what is going to capture the imagination of the children. Probably the main thing to go for is a great storyline, great characters and some top-drawer visuals. You get all three in abundance here.

I think the animation is the really mind-blowing element of a film that scores highly across the board. It’s fast-paced without ever feeling like it’s trying to lose you in action. The detail given to the plethora of uniquely designed characters is notable, too, and this serves to make each character feel worthy of your investment. If they’re going to spend that long making Hiro’s hair look so awesome, he must deserve a bit of attention on an emotional level too.

The storyline, to be fair, isn’t particularly original. I didn’t feel it was too detrimental overall. Its target audience is definitely under 12 years of age, and it was pitched perfectly.

There was, of course, a post-credits sequence that gave us some juicy details and opened the door to a sequel. I really hope this becomes a reality. I’m sure there are plenty more storylines to be told about these characters yet.

Big Hero 6 is out in cinemas in the UK now, and it has also just this week been released on Blu-ray and DVD in USA. If you’re quick and keen, you could buy the 3D Blu-ray steelbook from Zavvi.

[1] Anatomy of an unprofessional reviewer – I’ve deliberately put in several sweeping and largely incorrect statements in the first paragraph to allow me to argue against them later in the review. Oh how clever I am.