Suicide Squad

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Earlier in 2016, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice began the assembly of a super team, but before Justice League arrives, DC offers Suicide Squad, a colourful collection of nefarious folks including Deadshot (Will Smith), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), Diablo (Jay Hernandez) and Boomerang (Jai Courtney). Assembled by shadowy government agent Amanda Waller (a supremely supercilious Viola Davis) and led by crack commando Colonel Rick Flag (Scott Derrickson), these misanthropic personalities are typical fare for writer-director David Ayer, whose previous films Fury, Street Kings and Harsh Times featured violent men doing violent work. Suicide Squad lacks the savagery of those films, the supposed ruthlessness of the super villains largely toned down, while the meandering plot repeatedly introduces characters and replays events unnecessarily, and the various pop songs associated with particular characters are more distracting that engaging. Worse, the charismatic and potentially terrifying Joker (Jared Leto) is sidelined and feels like an intrusion from another film, and might have been better left for a future instalment.

Ayer redeems himself with some stylistic set pieces, the Squad hurling bullets, mallet, flames, boomerangs and bodies with elegant brutality. Central to these and probably the best thing in the film is Deadshot, a smart combination of wisecracking humour and deadly precision, and the character with the most relatable arc. Smith and Ayer make a virtue of the clichéd character traits to create a wounded but unquestionably badass antihero. Smith could have been in Independence Day: Resurgence this year, and based on the evidence, he made a wise decision.

The BFG

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Roald Dahl and Steven Spielberg are significant parts of many childhoods. Both artists use an exquisite method of storytelling that captures that most elusive of elements – true wonder. It is, therefore, perhaps surprising that Spielberg has not directed an adaptation of a Dahl novel until now, but it was the worth the wait as The BFG delivers exactly what could be expected of this dream combination. From the lovingly crafted streets of London to the intricate maze of the Big Friendly Giant’s (Mark Rylance) home and workshop, Spielberg and production designers Rick Carter and Robert Stromberg place the viewer in the position of the enchanting Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) as she learns about giants, Giant Country and dreams. DOP Janusz Kaminsky lenses the film in soft hues, while capturing two bravura sequences in single shots. These set pieces convey wonder and thrills both as spectacle and experience, while screenwriter Melissa Mathison imbues the Buckingham Palace sequences with Queen Elizabeth II (Penelope Wilton) with laugh out loud comedy moments. Performance capture and digital effects bring the BFG to startling life, Rylance’s performance one of charming innocence which rivals that of Sophie. This guileless innocence and childlike charm are the greatest strengths of the film, even if at times it is thematically insubstantial. Reminiscent in its finest moments of Spielberg and Mathison’s precious collaboration, E. T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, The BFG confirms Spielberg’s place as Hollywood’s enduring crafter of cinematic dreams, and the timelessness of Dahl’s beautiful storytelling.

Finding Dory

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Pixar’s follow-up to their 2003 ocean odyssey Finding Nemo fulfills several functions of a sequel. It reunites the central characters of Dory (Ellen Degeneres), Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Hayden Rolence) for another wacky adventure; it expands the fictional world with new environments, characters and situations; it explains Dory’s backstory that was never explored in the original. As a result, Finding Dory fleshes (fishes?) out the overall mythos, introducing the utterly adorable infant Dory (Sloane Murray) and her short term memory loss, as well as the events that led to her meeting Marlin and the events of Finding Nemo. One year after those events, Dory remembers something and sets off to find her family, with Marlin and Nemo along for the tide (sorry). The great strength of Andrew Stanton and Angus MacLane’s follow-up is that it is not simply another oceanic search, as the majority of the action takes place at a Marine Life Institute. This environment constitutes a wonderfully diverse obstacle course for our finned friends, as they travel from sea to tank to pool to pipe, with the odd bucket and drinking vessel along the way. Familiar faces reappear such as Mr Ray (Bob Peterson) and Crush (Andrew Stanton), while the institute features a wonderful cavalcade of new characters, including Destiny the myopic whale shark (Kaitlin Olson), Bailey the beluga (Ty Burrell) who fears his echolocation, Fluke (Idris Elba) and Rudder (Dominic West) the rock-jealous sea lions. Much as Dory proved to be the star of Finding Nemo, the breakout star of Finding Dory is Hank the traumatised octopus (Ed O’Neill) (or as Dory points out, septopus). Hank’s changing form creates many of the film’s funniest moments, the relationship between him and Dory growing through the trials and tribulations that they encounter. These trials are sometimes intense and distressing, but Stanton and MacLane never overplay the drama, balancing heart-wrenching instances with many laugh out loud moments. While it may not reach the depths of Pixar’s best, Finding Dory still offers gallons of intelligent fun.

Star Trek Beyond

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I have a confession to make: I was trepidatious about Star Trek Beyond because of director Justin Lin’s back catalogue. As Lin has previously directed four Fast and Furious films, I anticipated that Star Trek Beyond would offer fury and speed at the expense of concept and exploration. To my delight, Lin’s film turned out to be more sedate and measured than the previous entries in the Star Trek universe directed by J. J. Abrams, paying attention to the tedium of space travel after several years in space, as Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) laments in his log. Not that Star Trek Beyond is lacking in exhilarating action set pieces and some breathtaking moments. A particular highlight is the gorgeously designed space station Yorktown, effectively a planet designed inside out with multiple planes radiating out from a central core, each with their own gravitational axes. Yorktown is illustrative of the film as a whole, a beautifully designed and cogent world with a clear identity, to a greater extent than Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness. Whereas the Abrams-directed films struggled to incorporate elements of the original Star Trek while also being fresh and new, Star Trek Beyond strikes just the right balance of tradition and innovation. The film offers the flash and shine of new Trek with affection and warmth for this 50 year-old franchise. Much of this warmth can be credited to the script of Simon Pegg and Doug Jung, while Pegg along with the rest of the cast now fit comfortably into their characters. Despite being released in year of Star Trek’s 50th anniversary, Star Trek Beyond is not overloaded with importance. There are references to earlier films such as The Search for Spock and Generations, as well as TV series including Enterprise, but these are well integrated into the drama. Similarly, the film includes a hearty but not overplayed message in the vein of Trek moralising. An annoying trend in contemporary blockbusters is the tendency to overplay their hand, getting bigger to the extent of being bloated (yes, Age of Ultron and Batman V Superman, I mean you). For all the epic grandeur of the final frontier, Star Trek Beyond goes the other way, being sleeker, more intimate and all the more satisfying for it.

Ghostbusters

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Ghostbusters is funny, boisterous, exuberant and in places spectacular. It features comedy, action and respect for its audience. The four protagonists, Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig), Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) and Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) are warm, rounded and have a variety of motivations, including knowledge, creativity and belonging. And while Paul Feig’s remake pays homage to the legacy of the franchise (including some sly cameos by original cast members), it also stakes its own territory with verve and aplomb. While it is far from perfect, it is a perfectly entertaining way to spend a couple of hours.

The misogynistic trolling that preceded this film highlights the need for major blockbusters with female leads whose gender is not an issue. Four men busting the paranormal causes no controversy; therefore neither should four women. The problems with the film can be laid squarely at the feet of co-writer/director Paul Feig. Feig has great comic skills in terms of slapstick set pieces – the Ghostbusters trying out new equipment is a highlight – as well as wacky character banter such as the idiocy of the team’s secretary Kevin (Chris Hemsworth). Feig is less confident with large-scale action sequences, which other directors such as Joss Whedon and Shane Black tackle with grandeur while still maintaining a comedic edge. The finale of Ghostbusters is probably its weakest movement, as all hell literally breaks loose and the film veers unevenly between action and comedy. This can leave the viewer yearning for the sharpness of the inter-character moments when the film is at its most laugh out loud funny.

Feig’s weaknesses aside, his approach to mainstream filmmaking is to be applauded. Over the course of his career, closely tied to the rise of Melissa McCarthy, Feig has taken several genres and stocked them with female characters. His most accomplished film, Bridesmaids, is a romantic comedy, long associated with female audiences. However, entries in this genre often focus as much if not more on the male characters, whereas Bridesmaids focuses squarely on the women with the men very peripheral. The Heat is a buddy cop comedy, which would typically centre on male characters, as would the genre of Spy, but Feig demonstrates that these narratives work just as well with women. The success of these Feig/McCarthy collaborations demonstrates the commercial viability of mainstream movies with women as central characters, and Ghostbusters continues this trend. Now if a majority of studio executives would accept this empirical reality, wouldn’t that be a positive step towards equality?

Macbeth

fd061c_34611e09e62b47b4bfe1fc5dbbf6c487~mv2Intense. Stunning. Mesmerising. Shocking. Brutal. These are among the adjectives applicable to Arrows and Traps’ production of Macbeth, which completed its run at the New Wimbledon Studio Theatre on 9 July. Director Ross McGregor interweaves Shakespeare’s verse and prose with eerie and evocative music, enthralling choreography and stage combat, and a relatively small cast that create a distinct and clearly demarcated group of characters. As the central sinners, David Paisley and Cornelia Baumann convey Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s inner and outer torment, their simmering sexuality twisting into self-loathing and fatalism. Other casting choices are striking, as Duncan and Banquo are recast as women, Jean Apps and Becky Black, respectively, lending these characters an unusual but compelling edge. In the roles of Lennox and the Porter, Pearce Sampson imbues each character with motivation and furor. As the three witches, Elle Banstead-Salim, Olivia Stott and Monique Williams are equal parts alluring and arresting, Banstead-Salim also heartbreaking as Lady Macduff, a role beefed up considerably in this production. This is McGregor’s great strength – daring to go way beyond what Shakespeare’s text offers, especially with the inclusion of anachronistic music and some truly surreal and disturbing sequences of dance drama. As a character, Macbeth dares to go outside his moral beliefs and is ultimately damned. As a production, this Macbeth dares to go where others might not tread, and is an unreserved triumph.

Macbeth plays for one night at the Globe Theatre on 22 July, and comes very highly recommended.

Mid-Year Review

By the Beard of Kubrick, we’re already half way through by the year! 2016 seems to be disappearing faster than good sense and decency in the UK electorate. But the movies keep coming thick and fast, and like a good critic, I need to rank them in my arbitrary and completely subjective fashion.

As we’re six months through the year (and I do a top 12 overall), I rank my top six films so far, based on the cited date for UK general release (so don’t go telling me ‘That film came out last year!’). Therefore, with much aplomb (which you can provide yourself), here are my top six films of the first half of 2016:

1. Room (15 January 2016)

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A sublime, magnificent, heartwarming, heartbreaking tale of the terrible and the wonderful.

 

2. Zootropolis (25 March 2016)

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A brilliantly inventive, hilariously zany, poignant and intelligent anthropomorphic comedy.

 

3. Eye in the Sky (15 April 2016)

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A tense, nerve-shredding thriller of surveillance, globalization, military, political and ethical conundrums.

 

4. Spotlight (29 January 2016)

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An absorbing, compelling journalism thriller about community, tradition and responsibility.

 

5. The Big Short (22 January 2016)

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An equal parts hilarious and horrifying tale of economic, intellectual and moral bankruptcy.

 

6. The Revenant (15 January 2016)

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An immersive, ethereal yet tactile portrait of survival, nature and revenge.

That’s a pretty good bunch, so if any of these don’t make it into the Top Twelve at the end of the year, 2016 will have been a very impressive year indeed.

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