Money Monster – Film Review

You would be forgiven if Jodie Foster’s directorial career had so far passed you by. Her previous efforts Little Man Tate, Home for the Holidays and blackly comic The Beaver were all professionally crafted but lacked the commanding voice of a seasoned filmmaker. Even the latter film, which saw a resurgent Mel Gibson communicating with a beaver hand puppet, turned out to be a relatively straightforward affair. It’s therefore promising that her fourth film, the sweaty, tense and entertaining siege thriller Money Monster, finally sees her tackle a subject with a little meat on its bones – even if results are still decidedly mixed.

George Clooney stars as Lee Gates, the cocksure, Jim Cramer-like host of a cable money show, whose live broadcast is hijacked by a desperate gunman (Jack O’Connell) who lost everything when one of Gates’ stock tips crashed. Julia Roberts’ cool-headed director tries to keep the situation from spiralling out of controlling while her team dig deeper into what really happened.

Although he never quite convinces as a bombastic showman – attempting to rap will do that to any middle aged man – Clooney absolutely nails Gates’ transformation from smug, self-absorbed financial guru to petrified has-been as he realises how pointless and empty his life has become. He also rekindles some of that Oceans Eleven chemistry with Roberts, who plays his long-suffering director, despite the two mostly communicating via earpiece.

This is O’Connell’s movie, however. Possessing the earnest desperation and raging intensity of Al Pacino’s Dog Day Afternoon character, Sonny (that film being a key touchstone here), O’Connell is instantly empathetic as the broke and broken Kyle, proving he’s as comfortable with an American accent as he is with his own East Midlands twang.

Throughout Foster sticks close to siege thriller formula with her efficient direction, picking the right moments to ratchet up the tension with sharp, snappy camerawork. And once we’ve overcome a sluggish opening act, which dwells far too long on unnecessary pre-show preamble, you’ll be chewing on your fingernails until the credits roll.

Yet it lacks the necessary satirical bite to leave a lasting impression. Like The Big Short, The Wolf of Wall Street and Margin Call, Money Monster is driven by anger towards the financial system and the unscrupulous money men who ensured its collapse in 2008. But whereas those films had plenty to say about the string of cockups which led to that fiscal omnishambles, this movie merely parrots arguments we’ve heard before.

While Foster briefly attempts to explore society’s indifference to other peoples’ suffering, she lacks to gumption to follow through. And it’s this lack of narrative chutzpah which makes Money Monster a sound investment, but one that’s unlikely to set the market racing.

Runtime: 98 mins; Genre: Thriller; Released: 27 May 2016;

Director: Jodie Foster; Writers: Jamie Linden, Alan DiFiore, Jim Kouf;

Cast: George Clooney, Jack O’Connell, Julia Roberts, Dominic West

Click here to watch the trailer for Money Monster

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X-Men: Apocalypse – Film Review

“At least we can all agree, the third one is always the worst,” quips Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey after sneaking away from the X-Academy to see Return of the Jedi with her fellow gifted youngsters. Sadly, the same can be said of X-Men: Apocalypse. It’s not quite up there with The Last Stand in terms of lacklustre X-Men trilogy closers, but it lacks the periodic verve of First Class and Days of Future Past, burying some otherwise strong performances and resonant themes under a bloated cast and a barrage of weightless action.

Apocalypse kicks off with a brisk opening sequence set in 3600 BC where our titular villain, here known as En Sabah Nur, attempts to take over the body of an Egyptian slave who looks remarkably similar to Oscar Isaac. Rebels arrive to thwart the ceremony, burying our baddie beneath a collapsed pyramid for thousands of years. He awakes during the “horror show” of 1983 and sets about recruiting his four horsemen to aid his plan to cleanse the world of weakling humans – everyone’s got to have a hobby.

It’s 10 years after the events of Days and since then the existence of mutants has become a fact of everyday life. James McAvoy’s school of gifted youngsters is finally up and running, Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique is a reclusive hero who spends her down time rescuing mistreated mutants from underground fights, and Michael Fassbender’s Magneto is attempting to live a normal life with his new family in Poland. That is until Apocalypse’s re-appearance forces them to rejoin the world once again.

From the outset it’s clear returning director Bryan Singer is not lacking in ambition. The sets are extraordinarily detailed, from the exquisitely decadent ancient Egyptian pyramids to the sharply designed 80s backdrop – someone has had a lot of fun letting their imaginations run wild. The special effects, too, are technically impressive, particularly the shots of the world’s landmarks being disintegrated into colourful dust clouds.

But while Singer may have succeeded in creating a global scale to match anything we’ve seen in Days or Captain America: Civil War, he forgets to inject the personal stakes necessary to give the apocalyptic spectacle some much needed weight. As a result, the world-levelling carnage feels strangely empty, a vacuous blur of CGI destruction that dazzles the eyes but fails to engage the brain.

In terms of narrative, Apocalypse struggles to balance all of its globe-hopping plot strands into a coherent whole and would likely have benefitted from a truncated cast. McAvoy, Lawrence and Fassbender slip effortlessly back into their roles as elder mutant statesmen, the latter’s Magneto being given an especially heartbreaking (and bitterly tragic) emotional arc.

The new class, too, are appealing additions. Jodi Smit-McPhee has heaps of fun as a Bamfing Nightcrawler, Tye Sheridan is a far more complex and engaging Cyclops than James Marsden could ever muster, and Game of Thrones’ Turner brings all the requisite angst and sophistication to a frighteningly powerful Jean Grey.

But with such a sprawling cast, some characters are inevitably shortchanged. The three non-Magneto horseman are the worst effected, with Storm, Angel and Psylocke being shoved into the background almost as swiftly as they are recruited, with nowhere near enough time given for them to develop any recognisable character traits.

Apocalypse is similarly in desperate need of fleshing out. Isaac does his level best to instil a little gravitas in his ancient mutant, but buried as he is under masses of prosthetics and impressive armour, he struggles to convince of the baddie’s motivation and powers. His abilities remain spectacularly undefined and it’s never quite clear why he needs his four horsemen to complete his mission (except that even genocidal maniacs need friends).

When his catastrophic plans eventually come to fruition, the action again lacks urgency. Taking place in an oddly underpopulated world, there’s little recognition of the consequences involved in destroying the human race, making it hard to appreciate the enormity of the stakes. It’s almost feels as if the end of the world barely matters to the characters involved.

X-Men: Apocalypse fails to match the intelligent themes and slick style of its predecessors, getting bogged down in introducing too many indistinguishable new faces instead of focusing more on its impeccably cast core ensemble. Yet there are more than enough charming character moments from the new class to suggest that, far from running out of steam, the future is bright for this mutant franchise.

Runtime: 144 mins; Genre: Superhero; Released: 20 May 2016;

Director: Bryan Singer; Writer: Simon Kinberg;

Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac

Click here to watch a trailer for X-Men: Apocalypse

Bad Neighbours 2: Sorority Rising – Film Review

The original Bad Neighbours was a surprise hit in 2014, hiding a whip smart script behind a cavalcade of gross gags and disreputable behaviour. Seth Rogen and Zac Efron had a sword fight with dildos. Rose Byrne and Rogen had a great bit involving heavily swollen and lactating breasts. That all sounds pretty appalling in retrospect. It was funny at the time.
Unfortunately, time has not been so kind to this most routing of follow-ups, where a decent story and some amusing set-pieces have been heavily diluted by the same old sequel product.
In Bad Neighbours Rogen and Byrne played Mac and Kelly Radner, new parents battling a neighbouring frat house led by freewheeling party animal Teddy (Efron). This time Chloe Grace Moretz’s newly established sorority has moved in next door to cause a ruckus that threatens the sale of the Radner’s home. The law of sequels dictates that they join forces with a still-listless Teddy to take down the new neighbours before their buyers pull out of the deal.
Though the execution is at times ill-considered, the script once again tackles some smart ideas about feminism and the objectification of women in frat culture. What’s missing, though, is any kind of cutting edge to its humour. A recurring bit about the Rander’s two-year-old daughter playing with a dildo never quite hits the mark, while Billy Eichnar’s amusing cameo as an unhinged real estate agent is sorely underused. The rest is just a basic re-hash of the first movie’s greatest hits – yes, the airbags rear their heads yet again – only this time the jokes are older and a lot less fun. Perhaps it’s not just the characters who need to move on.
Runtime: 92 mins; Genre: Comedy; Released: 6 May 2016;
Director: Nicholas Stoller; Writer: Nicholas Stoller;
Cast: Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne, Zac Efron, Chloe Grace Moretz
Click here to watch the trailer for Bad Neighbours 2: Sorority Rising

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Theatre Review

On the surface the Brixton East theatre may not look much like a place of wonders, with its shabby walls and concrete floors, but through the sheer imagination of Matthew McPherson’s intimate yet lively production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, this unassuming theatre tucked away on Barrington Road is transformed into a place of delightful dreams.

The play begins in a rudimentary fashion befitting its modest venue, as a live band plays folksy tunes from a pallet stage while the cast mingles among the crowd. It feels almost as if the audience has merely stumbled upon a dress rehearsal rather than a fully-fledged performance. But in keeping with a production that revels in keeping its spectators guessing, expectations are swiftly flipped on their heads as a band of fairy children lures the audience upstairs to a cosy loft that has been transformed into a magical forest. Complete with swinging ropes and incandescent fairy lights, it’s looks like the treehouse of every 10-year-old’s dreams. In fact, McPherson makes excellent use of the limited space throughout, creating a carnival atmosphere through the use of live music and setting the action in amongst the crowd.

This stripped back approach allows the performers to take centre stage and fully express themselves. Louise Williams’ fairy queen Titania has real depth – enchanting and ethereal but with melancholic undertones – while her fairy servants have the perfect air of feral whimsy. Amy Ambrose’s Helena is also a delight, coming over as a cross between Miranda Hart and Rebel Wilson – all fumbling limbs but with a dose of filthy humour as she lusts after Razak Osman’s Demetrius. But by far the biggest laughs come via Shakespeare’s rude mechanicals – the artisan performers who are rehearsing the entirely inappropriate tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe to celebrate the nuptials of Theseus and Hippolyta. This play within a play is blissfully funny and performed with distinction, gusto and real craft. Nathan Wright’s excellent Bottom dies with all the ridiculous flourish of an amateur actor enjoying his moment in the limelight.

The performance is not entirely faultless, of course. The are a few too many wardrobe malfunctions, at times the dialogue sounds garbled and hurried, and the ending feels abrupt and rushed. Yet this is still a remarkable production, brimming with intimacy and spectacle, and showcasing the wonders that can be achieved with a small budget and a very big imagination.

Captain America: Civil War – Film Review

Everything has been building to this moment. Ever since the Avengers first assembled four years ago the superhero team has been frequently rattled by mistrust, petty squabbles and scraps so explosive they make your typical family fallouts seem like a prayer meeting. And in Captain America: Civil War all that pent up tension finally comes to a head as two of Marvel’s mightiest heroes go toe-to-toe in a bid to decide the future of the team.

That it arrives little over a month after DC’s own clash of titans failed to land a knockout blow must make its success that much sweeter. Raising the emotional stakes to match its epic scale and boasting the bravery to explore thought-provoking themes, this is the superhero dust-up we’ve all been waiting for.

Acting as a follow-up to both The Winter Soldier and Avengers: Age of Ultron, as well as introducing a host of new heroes to Marvel’s ever-expanding universe, the movie has a lot on its plate. Yet it never feels overstuffed in the way which derailed last year’s Avengers follow-up, largely because directors Joe and Anthony Russo play a superb balancing act to ensure every character receives their own unique motivation and emotional arc.

So here Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) wrestles with the consequences of her immense power; Vision (Paul Bettany) frets over his burgeoning humanity; Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) finds herself torn between her friend and her sense for self-preservation; and supposed retiree Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is once again dragged away from his family and into the fight.

Such attention to character also elevates new recruits Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spiderman (Tom Holland) above the status of mere fan-pleasing cameos. Boseman’s Wakandan king, in particular, is given a pivotal role in the fight as a personal tragedy thrusts him onto the tail of the Winter Solider (Sebastian Stan). Meanwhile, Holland almost steals the show as Queen’s fast-talking web-slinger, his joyous introduction raising hopes that Spiderman: Homecoming will offer something fresher than yet another re-tread of Peter Parker’s teenage years.

This balancing act would be much more challenging if the plot was not so disarmingly simple. After yet another mission results in the unintended loss of innocent lives, political pressure mounts on the Avengers to adopt a system of accountability. The result is the so-called Sokovia Accord, which would force the team to work under the authority of the United Nations. Consumed by guilt of his Ultron faux-pas, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) firmly supports the oversight, arguing the team needs to accept limitations. On the other side, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) sharply rejects the proposal, fearing government authorities simply cannot be trusted to do the right thing.

Whereas Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice was perhaps too muddled in its exploration of its opposing sides, here the various arguments are more elegantly handled. We fully understand why Stark is in favour of tighter controls, yet we can also see why Roger’s would distrust post-war politicians. And while Stark may be reckless in his determination to neutralise Bucky Barnes after he is framed for a terrorist plot, Roger’s defence of his war-time buddy is questionable at best: Bucky may be his friend, but he’s also a cold-hearted assassin – surely it’s right to keep him under lock and key?

This fracturing partnership between Iron Man and Captain America is the wrenching heart of the movie. Evans gives his best performance yet as the first avenger, pushing his character to new depths as he finally completes his transformation from patriotic company man to rogue insurgent. Downey Jr, too, adds a previously unseen dimension to Stark’s character, replacing the playboy shenanigans with a more sombre mood that befits his traumatic experiences over the last eight years.

These highly-charged emotional stakes ensure that when the final three-way showdown between Bucky, Stark and Rogers finally arrives, it’s as emotionally devastating as it is physically punishing, with every blow packing the weight of their shared history.

By focusing on the personal stakes rather than a grand supervillain scheme – Daniel Bruhl’s arch manipulator is, perhaps disappointingly, a forgettable figure – the Russos have found a way to sidestep Marvel’s troubles with formulaic third acts. For too long the MCU has been over-reliant on city smashing aerial battles and shaky big bads, but the Russos’ stripped back approach, which boasts the tight choreography of a Greengrass Bourne, negates the need for such bombastic scale whilst proving equally, if not even more, powerful.

Civil War is everything Batman vs Superman – and, indeed, Age of Ultron – wanted to be and more. Combining slick action beats with the smarts of a bold, engaging thriller, this is one superhero showdown that was well worth the wait.

Click here to watch a trailer for Captain America: Civil War