Monday, 12 December 2016

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Five years after Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, the eighth and final Harry Potter film, hit the big screen, we return to JK Rowling’s magical world of witchcraft and wizardry with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Although set in the same universe as the Potter franchise, Fantastic Beasts is set in 1920s New York, some 70 years before Harry defeated Voldemort at the battle of Hogwarts. Hogwarts-expellee, New Scamander, arrives at the beginning of the film in Manhattan with a suitcase full of magical beasts who do not want to stay cooped up for long. Unfortunately, tensions between the magical and non-magical world are rising high with the looming threat of Grindelwald and anything that poses a risk of exposing the magical community is unwelcome in New York. The first of potentially five movies, this looks to be the beginning of a fantastical new franchise.  

Directed by David Yates (who brought us the four last -and best- Harry Potter movies) and written by JK Rowling herself, Fantastic Beasts has very cleverly and successfully created a world and a story that feel both familiar and completely new at the same time. Whilst we are presented with a new protagonist, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a new set of characters, a new city and a new magical authority, this film isn’t completely devoid of links to Harry’s story. Newt is the author of Hogwarts textbook, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (hence the film’s name) and we also hear such familiar names as Albus Dumbledore, Hogwarts and Gellert Grindelwald being bandied about. Yates’ familiar handprint is on this film in the look of the beasts, the movement of the wands and the feel of the magic. Yet the new setting and different, grown-up protagonists, together with the completely fresh and new story prevent us as an audience feeling like we’ve seen it all before.
Yates has done an amazing job of turning Watford, London into 1920’s New York. The setting of this film feels not only real but, what’s more, it feels alive. Yates achieves this most notably in two ways. Firstly, in the incredible attention to detail presented in Fantastic Beasts. Everything you are looking at is deliberate and almost every scene has something magical and wonderful tucked away in the background for those who are looking carefully: from the mouse memos to the sky-ceiling in the MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States of America) building.   

Secondly, Yates brings the world to life with the almost constant movement of the camera. As No-Maj (or Muggle, as we call them in the UK) Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) explores the TARDIS-like world full of fantastic beasts inside New Scamander’s briefcase, we explore with him, the camera roaming around like an inquisitive visitor.   

Of course, no franchise would be complete without a great lead. Eddie Redmayne perfectly encapsulates what Newt should be: socially-awkward, shy, kind and full of wonder and empathy. Redmayne has demonstrated in recent years what an amazing actor he is (nominated two years in a row for the best actor Oscar and winning the award for The Theory of Everything). In this film, as he did when portraying Stephen Hawking, he demonstrates what an amazingly physical actor he is, altering his entire physicality for the role. Most noticeable perhaps is the way he moves his face when speaking with members of his own race, never looking them directly in the eye and demonstrating a discomfort that disappears when he interacts with his beasts. Perhaps more subtle however is the very deliberate way he walks, the manner in which he moves his legs and feet with each step. If you pay attention, you will see that he widens his toes when stepping to minimise noise, as one would when approaching a wild animal. 

This movie isn’t carried by Redmayne alone however. Each member of the central supporting cast is very watchable and has a strong screen presence. Accompanying Newt as he rescues his beasts are Dan Fogler as Kowalski and Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol as witch sisters, Tina and Queenie. Each of these actors lights up the screen with their warming presence – as one would want in what is essentially a children’s film- and Fogler and Waterston in particular have the amazing ability to portray complex thoughts and feelings through simple facial movements. 

Setting a darker tone in Fantastic Beasts are the formidable villains: Samantha Morton as second Salemer and wannabe witch-hunter, Mary Lou, and dodgy MACUSA official, Mr Graves, played by the charismatic Colin Farrell. Both of these well-established British actors will send chills down your spine, commanding your attention each time they are on screen.

But what is the best thing about this film? Well, unless you have some cruel friends who’ve spoilt it for you or you’ve spent too much time searching “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” on the internet, you will have no idea where this film is going or how it will end. That is something the original Potter films could never never do (for those of us sane persons who had read the books).
I greatly enjoyed Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and cannot wait to see where J.K. Rowling takes us with this new franchise. Now who wants to buy me a niffler?

Monday, 27 June 2016

How much I love Studio Ghibli

Studio Ghibli Museum, Mitaka, Japan

I just watched the new feature film by Studio Ghibli, When Marnie Was There, a beautiful film, both visually and in the story that it tells. This wonderful movie reminded me just how much I love Studio Ghibli, the greatest animation studio in film today as far as I am concerned and it made me want to write about how much I love their films.

Based on Joan G. Robinson's book of the same name, When Marnie Was There follows the life of 12 year old Anna during a summer trip to stay with family by the sea. Anna is an introverted, lonely child who suffers from Asthma and her foster mother thinks the sea air will do her good. Whilst staying with her family, Anna meets the mysterious Marnie, who lives in a mansion by the water. The mansion appears at times to be desolate and abandoned and at times to be bustling with life and fancy parties. Anna's uncle tells her the building is haunted. Is Marnie a ghost? Is she a figment of Anna's imagination? Or is she in fact another lonely little girl in need of a friend. Whatever she is, she brings Anna out of her shell.

This is a truly moving film, stunningly depicted through Studio Ghibli's unique hand-drawn style. The visuals are stunning and so clearly lovingly and painstakingly done to ensure that every scene is full of life and soul. Anna and Marnie's relationship is uplifting and heartbreaking at the same time. Of all of Ghibli's films that I have seen, I think that this delves deepest into the emotions and humanity of its characters. I would recommend it to anyone! When Marnie Was There proves that the film-makers at Studio Ghibli still have wonderful and amazing things to offer us and makes their financial difficulties all the more worrying.

If you aren't too familiar yet with Studio Ghibli's work, they have made many stunning films. I would recommend starting with the Oscar-winning Spirited Away, as well as the magical Howl's Moving Castle and the powerful Princess Mononoke. If you're wondering where their logo comes from, it shows Totoro from the beautiful My Neighbour Totoro, a brilliant children's film that all ages can enjoy. And if you're ever so lucky to go to Tokyo, I recommend a trip to the Studio Ghibli Museum in Mitaka (above), a weird and wonderful museum.


Sunday, 22 May 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse

 X-Men: Apocalypse is a fun, action-packed super-hero film and I'm not sure why all the reviews have been so sniffy. No, it's not perfect! It's not as good as X-Men, X-Men 2, First Class or Days of Future Past, which are all very good super hero movies. That said, it's better than X-Men 3 (granted, that's not too difficult) and, in my opinion, both the Wolverine films.

Apocalypse is set in the 80s and follows the younger versions of the X-Men after the events of Days of Future Past.  Charles Xavier's (James McAvoy) School for Gifted Youngsters has been growing and has a number of new (but not unknown) additions, including Jean Gray (Sophie Turner) and Scott Summers aka Cyclops (Tye Sheridan). And of course there are the old familiar faces, Professor X, Hank McCoy aka Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Raven aka Mystique (the wonderful Jennifer Lawrence), bringing together the next generation of mutants.

The new threat to Xavier's team of X-Men comes from Oscar Isaac's Apocalypse. An ancient mutant deity who has been resting in a tomb in Egypt for a couple of thousand years and who has now been awoken to take his place as the ruler of a new and better world. Apocalypse (as his name suggests) is always accompanied by four loyal horsemen and this time around that includes including Ororo Munroe aka Storm (Alexandra Shipp) and a recently bereaved Eric Lehnsherr aka Magneto (Michael Fassbender).  The new generation of X-Men must work together to defeat Apocalypse  and stop him from destroying the world as we know it to "build a better one".

X-Men: Apocalypse definitely isn't without its flaws.  After all the time travel and re-writing of the X-Men story-line in Days of Future Past, it is inherently a bit confusing. Considering that First Class (the first outing for McAvoy and Fassbender's X-Men) was set during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, some of our heroes have aged incredibly and unrealistically well (except Mystique of course, whose powers mean she ages very slowly).  I will also concede that the script can be very corny at times, but then, this is a super hero movie. It's about selfless individuals battling evil and risking their lives. When aren't these films a little bit corny? Don't we all remember Gary Oldman's final speech in The Dark Knight?

I do believe that the positives in this film sharply outweigh the negatives. To start with, what a cast! Finding actors who could hold a candle to Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Rebecca Romijn and Halle Berry is no small feat. McAvoy, Fassbender and Lawrence are on form as always, although I do feel that there could have been more blue Mystique and more of her kicking ass with her awesome gymnastic skills. There is more of the amazing Evan Peters' Quicksilver in this film, who felt so under-used in Days of Future Past. Sophie Turner does a good job as the new Jean Grey and I look forward to seeing a bit more of the new Storm and Cyclops. As for Apocalypse… OK, I love Oscar Isaac, but perhaps he wasn't the most exciting villain. Isaac does a good job of being creepy and evil, but at the end of the day, Apocalypse doesn't really do much in this film.

There are some very cool effects and fight scenes in this film. As in Days of Future Past, one of the most visually impressive moments in the film is the scene in which Quicksilver gets to show off his speedy skills when saving the students of Xavier's academy from an explosion. Not quite as captivating as the scene in the Pentagon's kitchen in Days of Future Past but still pretty amazing. The final battle between Apocalypse and his horsemen and the X-Men provides a good display of all the cool powers at play, with Xavier, Magneto, Cyclops, Storm, Quicksilver, Jean Grey, Angel, Nightcrawler and of course, Apocalypse, battling it out for the fate of the world. That said and as above, I was a bit disappointed by the fact that Mystique, clearly one of if not the most competent fighter, did very little in the final battle.

This year's main superhero movies all seem to be receiving the same criticism: too much plot and too many characters. While I find this to be a totally justified critique of Batman v Superman, I did not agree that this applied to Captain America: Civil War, nor do I find it to be a very fair assessment of X-Men. There is a lot going on in Apocalypse but it is not that hard to follow. New characters are introduced in a way that supports the current story and the film moved at a quick pace, with no scenes that felt gratuitous. So all in all, X-Men: Apocalypse was an enjoyable super hero movie and after all, isn't that the point? To have some fun and see some cool effects.

Monday, 28 March 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

I wasn't as excited about Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice as most people who know me would probably have expected me to be. I think this is largely down to me getting older and not getting excited about upcoming films the way I used to. I do also think however that it was partly due to the fact that I didn't love 2013's Man of Steel, I'm not really a big Zak Snyder fan and, at least initially, I wasn't keen on the casting of Ben Affleck as Batman.

Gradually, as the release date approached, I became slightly more excited. In retrospect I think this was exactly the right amount of excitement for this film because Batman v Superman turned out to be a good, but not great, superhero film, worthy of moderate but not significant excitement. That said, I do not consider the film and its cast have been given the credit they are due.

Batman v Superman is 2 hours 31 long, in other words, long but not long for a superhero movie. The movie managed to keep me entertained for the whole of those 2 and a half hours and there were a variety of well-choreographed action sequences and cool special effects. Unlike many films of that length, there weren't any long periods where nothing happened, although that positive actually leads on to what I would say is the biggest negative of the film (which I will discuss later).

Probably the most interesting aspect of this film is the political element. The movie borrows many of its ideas from its source material, Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns which culminates in a battle between Superman and Batman. The reason for the conflict in Zak Snyder's film (and in the graphic novel to a similar extent) is the question, how can powerful vigilantes be allowed to run free in a modern democracy and in particular, the view that each of our two superheroes has of the other. Bruce fears Clark because he could destroy the entire planet just like that if he wanted to. Clark disapproves of Bruce's aggressive and merciless approach to the criminals he apprehends. The film cleverly manages to develop and justify these seemingly hypocritical attitudes of our two leads.

There are a decent number of action sequences in this film which can't be said for all superhero movies (*cough cough* Iron Man and Captain America). The eponymous showdown between the Bat of Gotham and the son of Krypton is pretty cool. I even found myself believing that Batman could stand a slim chance of beating Superman (OK, well, not being killed immediately by him).

That said (spoiler alert if you haven't seen all the trailers), when we come to the big battle between Batman and Superman and the real monster of the piece, what ensues feels very generic and familiar. The creature itself looks like someone has tried to merge the face of Michael Shannon's General Zod onto the cave troll from the Lord of the Rings. It's pure fisticuffs, eye lasers and lassoes with nothing particularly new or inventive.

It's not just the final battle that felt familiar either. Many of the scenes involving Bruce Wayne (especially the flashbacks to his tragic past) felt like Zak Snyder had watched Batman Begins and then re-shot it scene for scene except with Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Lauren Cohan as Thomas and Martha Wayne. 

The biggest weakness for Dawn of Justice was for me its haphazard editing and the way the film seemed to jump too quickly from scene to scene, often without any apparent segway. Particularly early on in the movie, there is a lot of cutting back and forth between different characters and settings. Very few scenes last for more than a couple of minutes. On top of this, there are a lot of dream sequences that appear at first to be real and, rather than having the dramatic effect sought, just served to confuse me and my film-viewing companion.

Although Batman v Superman had a number of issues, I think many of its critics are going to have to accept they have "egg on their face" because Ben Affleck as Batman was really good in this new superhero flick. Zak Snyder is no fan of subtlety and many of the scenes with Clark and Lois felt over-dramatic and a tad camp (not that that is completely out of place in this kind of film) but I thought Ben Affleck captured well the tortured, disillusioned character of Bruce Wayne in a very understated way, using the acting skills that made him so good in Gone Girl.

I did genuinely enjoy the movie and not only the political story and Ben Affleck as Batman. Henry Cavill essentially is Superman, Jesse Eisenberg is a decent Lex Luther and Gal Gadot is pretty cool in the few scenes we see of her as Wonder Woman. I have moderately high hopes now for the Justice League film.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016



The Merc with a Mouth has finally got his own feature-length film. Deadpool has been a long time in the making. Ryan Reynolds has been waiting to do a proper Deadpool movie since before 2009's X-Men Origins: Wolverine in which Reynolds first played the quick-mouthed anti-hero. X-Men Origins was less than well received and, whilst Reynolds showed  glimpses of a potentially strong performance as Wade Wilson, the film-makers for some reason decided to take away Deadpool's deadliest weapon: his mouth. 6 years later, Deadpool has been eagerly anticipated by nerds everywhere. After all this time, can it possibly live up to the hype?

For me the answer is a pretty strong "yes".

In a time where it seems like a new superhero movie is coming out every month, where the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) and DC are battling it out to be the darkest, edgiest superhero franchise and where, on top of all that, Sony and Fox keep churning out films starring the Marvel heroes that they managed to bag before MCU got hold of them, it’s not so easy to produce a film starring spandex-clad warriors that feels fresh. Whilst it is perhaps "not as anarchic as it thinks it is" (to steal a phrase from Mark Kermode), Deadpool probably succeeds better than any other superhero movie (apart from Kick Ass if you count that) at giving us something different.

I'm sure you'll have heard already that Deadpool is not your average superhero.  The film-makers keep telling us this, critics keep telling us this and, in fact, the eponymous hero tells us himself on a number of occasions throughout Deadpool.  This is a superhero film that from start to finish throws epic gore and foul language at us, to the extent that one questions why it only has a 15 rating. The most odd (and most talked about) feature of this film however is the amount to which it breaks the fourth wall (i.e. winks at the audience). If you can't imagine how this works, think of anything you've seen Kevin Spacey in (OK, so maybe just American Beauty and House of Cards).

There are multiple references to Ryan Reynolds' career and the not-so-great success of his previous superhero outing, The Green Lantern. There are also, more unusually, multiple references to Hugh Jackman. I'm not so sure how much the latter counts as breaking the fourth wall but it didn't half make me laugh! Some people will inevitably find the film's constant referencing to its lead actor, limited budget and its place within the superhero movie universe incredibly annoying. I however think it worked very well and enjoyed a bit of a change. One of the moments that most made me laugh was a point in the film where I started to question a particularly contrived meet-up between Deadpool and the two X-Men we see in the film and, before I could finish my critical thought, Deadpool himself basically says "gosh, that's a bit contrived".

There are jokes aplenty in this film, not just in the fourth-wall breaking and this is a film which, if it makes you laugh once, it will keep you laughing from start to finish. Literally, the opening and closed credits are crammed with humour. And this is where the casting becomes so genius. Comedies are really where Ryan Reynolds comes into his own (Two Guys and a Girl, anyone?) and his sense of humour has always been highly sarcastic and childish. If you then take into account his face and body, Reynolds really was born to play this part. On top of that, you have Wade Wilson's best friend and geeky sidekick, played by T J Miller, who is one of my favourite comedic actors at the moment.

This film is far from perfect, don't get me wrong. There are some awesome action sequences (see car chase which is cleverly interspersed throughout the movie), but the film falls into the same trap that the first Captain America and all of the Iron-Man films fell into in that the final fight, the big finale, is a bit dull and generic. This may be partly due to the fact that the film's villain (evil bald British guy) is also a bit generic. Although to be fair, we are warned about this in the opening credits which name him as "A British Villain".

Another problem (if you can really call it that) with Deadpool is it's just not as "outside the box" as it likes to think it is. Wade's main goal is to get his life back on track so that he can get his gorgeous girlfriend back. The movie begins with an origin story and ends with the aforementioned battle between good and evil, Wade Wilson v the British Villain. And whilst Wade may be a bit of an anti-hero, at the end of the day he only kills and maims bad guys. He's clearly not a bad guy himself or Professor X wouldn't keep trying to recruit him.

Yes, Deadpool is not perhaps the daring, rebellious movie it was set up to be and there are some points where improvements could be made, but all in all, this is a very funny, very entertaining film with a great lead actor and I eagerly anticipate Deadpool 2!

P.s. I just have to mention the bit with the hand. Love it! You'll know what I mean when you watch the film.