Life (2017)

The perils of space exploration have long been a handy starting point for moviemakers. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien and Gravity have all successfully tapped into our fears of what dangers lurk beyond Earth’s orbit. Daniel Espinosa’s Life, a claustrophobic thriller about a team of astronauts who make first contact with extraterrestrial life, might not do anything we haven’t seen before but it’s an accomplished effort all the same. Serving up plenty of Zero-G scares, it’s a well-crafted and gripping adventure that never quite finds its own unique voice.

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The plot apes all the familiar lines of the trapped-in-space genre. In a bravura opening sequence which unfolds in one, seemingly unbroken tracking shot, the crew of the International Space Station intercept a research pod from Mars carrying the planet’s first signs of life. The single-cell organism, christened Calvin – yet more proof of why the public should never be allowed to name things, initially charms the crew with its remarkable biology. But as Calvin rapidly evolves beyond control, it becomes clear this alien visitor is far more advanced than its human hosts. And it’s not particularly friendly, either.

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Espinosa wastes little time getting down to the messy business of offing his starry cast members. Whereas its closest influence, Ridley Scott’s Alien, spent close to an hour setting the scene before its titular monster burst out of John Hurt’s chest cavity, Life is barely half-an-hour old when its extraterrestrial guest takes a nasty liking to one of the crew’s hands.

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That might be perfect for those with tiny attention spans, but it’s not quite as effective for characterisation. Having populated the ISS with the obligatory motley crew, screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (Zombieland) give everyone just enough definition to pick them out in the melee for survival. Ariyon Bakare is a giddy microbiologist; Rebecca Ferguson is a cautious quarantine officer; Hiroyuki Sanada’s flight engineer is an expectant father; Ryan Reynolds’ mechanic is the class clown; Jake Gyllenhaal plays a misanthropic doctor; and they’re all led by Olga Dihovichnaya’s stern Russian commander. Espinosa rarely pauses long enough to develop these characters further, and it’s down to the stars’ natural charisma that they’re just likeable enough for us to hold our collective breath every time they tussle with Calvin.

And it’s when the title monster is on screen that Life is at it’s dizzying best. Part Solaris’ sentient planet and part shape-shifting alien from John Carpenter’s The Thing, Calvin rapidly grows in intelligence as well as size, allowing it to easily evade capture and thwart the crew’s attempts to shoot it into deep space. The disturbing creation also possesses super-strength, capable of crushing bone or liquifying vital organs, which affords Espinosa plenty of opportunities to indulge in a spot of gruesome zero gravity body horror. It might not have the brains or originality of its influences, but as a schlocky space horror movie, Life ticks all the boxes.

Runtime: 103 mins; Genre: Sci-fi/Horror; Released: 24 March 2017;

Director: Daniel Espinosa; Screenwriters: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick;

Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, Rebecca Ferguson, Ariyon Bakare

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Beauty and the Beast – Film Review

These live-action reimaginings keep on coming. Alice in Wonderland, Maleficent, Cinderella and The Jungle Book all banked hefty returns, so it’s unsurprising Disney would want to keep plundering its animated back-catalogue for more box office gold. But those tasked with adapting Beauty and the Beast must have felt a sense of foreboding. After all, it’s one thing to remake a cartoon released before the Second World War, and another entirely to update a Best Picture-nominee for which many parents will still hold fond memories. One misstep and the filmmakers can expect an angry mob barging down their doors.

Happily, fans of the original will have no need for pitchforks or flaming torches. In the very capable hands of director Bill Condon (the man who brought us Oscar-winning musicals Dreamgirls and Chicago), Beauty and the Beast is a lavish, exquisitely detailed, sweepingly whimsical adventure that honours its source material without being slavish to its vaunted reputation.

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Unlike Snow White and the Huntsman, which foolishly retooled its classic tale to feature more swords and moody glances, Condon leaves the plot largely untouched. After her father (Kevin Kline) is captured for stealing a rose, ambitious bookworm Belle (Emma Watson) agrees to take his place as a prisoner in an enchanted castle where she meets, and gradually falls in love with the Beast (Dan Stevens), a vain prince cursed with eternal bad-looks after refusing hospitality to a sorceress.

The success of this entire endeavour rests on the casting of the two leads, and Condon nails his choices. Watson is sweetly beguiling as Belle, bursting onto the scene to challenge her provincial town’s backward way of thinking during the movie’s opening number. Naturally, her character’s been given a feminist update, gaining a desire to teach young girls to read – much to the chagrin of the town elders – and a knack for invention that serves her well as she tries to escape the castle. Let’s not get too excited though – she still falls way short of Frozen’s Anna and Elsa. For all her talk of not being a princess, Belle’s problems are still largely solved by her choice of male suitor and wearing pretty dresses. Thankfully, there’s just enough steel in Watson’s gutsy performance to make it work.

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As for the Beast, Stevens is possibly even more impressive. Stomping around the grounds of his decaying home with giant horns and a reverberating growl, Stevens is effortlessly convincing as a ferocious monster. What’s even better is that Stevens never looses sight of the wounded, soulful man hidden beneath the fuzz, which helps to make his gradual softening that much more believable. The CGI used to transform him into a hirsute monster might not always live up to expectations, but Stevens is superb throughout.

It’s the supporting cast who get to have the most fun, though. Luke Evans throws everything into his performance as agonisingly vain war hero Gaston, Peacock-strutting around the screen with his chest puffed out, pausing only to wink at his reflection in every available surface; meanwhile, a stellar voice cast are having a ball as the castle’s anthropomorphised crockery. There’s Ewan McGregor’s garrulous candelabra Lumiere, Ian McKellan’s crotchety clock Cogsworth, Emma Thompson’s mumsy teapot Mrs Potts and Nathan Mack’s plucky teacup Chip, along with the new addition of Stanley Tucci’s harpsichord Maestro Cadenza.

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Their enthusiastically camp performances lend themselves perfectly to the bombastic Broadway tone of the piece. The sets are ornately designed and intricately detailed, yet they retain a stagey feel that creates a fresh theatrical energy to the film’s big musical numbers. The ballroom scene always has its charms but the standout sequence by far is the Be My Guest dinner set-piece, which plays like a trippy throwback to Golden Age musicals with its broad scope and whimsical invention. An extended runtime also allows for the addition of a couple of new numbers which will stick in your ear just as much as the originals – high praise indeed considering the near universal praise Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s 1991 score received.

If there is a blunder to be found, it’s in Josh Gad’s misguided portrayal of Gaston’s loyal ego-booster, Le Fou. You might recall Condon made a rather large song and dance about the character having a “gay moment” in the film, which caused a hate storm big enough to see the film banned in Russia. Yet, it turns out to be a lot of fuss about nothing. Gad’s Le Fou is played as a creepy, clingy acolyte who briefly dances with a man. If that’s truly intended to be a representation of the gay community, it’s mildly offensive, and raises the question of why Condon bothered drawing attention to the performance at all.

Still, those who feared this new take wouldn’t come close to the animated original will be pleasantly surprised. Condon has enlivened this age-old tale with gusto and flair, crafting a lavish, enchanting, unashamedly heart-warming musical that will please new fans and old sceptics alike.

Runtime: 129 mins; Genre: Musical; Released: 17 March 2017;

Director: Bill Condon; Screenwriters: Steven Chbosky, Evan Spiliotopoulos;

Stars: Dan Stevens, Emma Watson, Luke Evans, Josh Gad

Iron Fist – TV Review

Be honest: you’d forgotten all about Iron Fist, right? The final recruit to Netflix’s ambitious Defenders team-up had already been bumped to the back of the line after Luke Cage was the breakout star of Jessica Jones and there was truly very little excitement surrounding this belated small screen outing for the little known comic book hero. That feeling is reflected in the series itself which is entirely forgettable from the bland opening credits – think Daredevil but with less blood-soaked Hell’s Kitchen and more inky oriental hand waving. Iron Fist shares all of the flaws of its predecessors but crucially lacks the authentic vision and compelling characters that made Netflix’s previous superhero efforts so watchable.

For the many who are unfamiliar with the comic books, here’s the rub: Danny Rand is the heir to a billionaire family whose parents die when their private jet crashes into the Himalayas. Danny is the only survivor of the crash, pulled from the wreckage by warrior monks who transport him to K’un-Lun, a mythical city which exists in an alternate dimension, where he is trained to become a fierce fighter. Fifteen years later, Danny returns to New York to reclaim his family’s company and fulfil his destiny as the Iron Fist, a legendary figure who can punch really hard… sometimes.

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If that sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve seen this smug-rich-guy-returns-from-Asia-with-superpowers storyline play out countless times before, most recently in Marvel’s Doctor Strange. But Iron Fist can’t boast the same mind-bending visuals that made that Benedict Cumberbatch-starring vehicle such an entertaining ride.

In fact, the show has nothing to offer that we haven’t seen before. The action is slow, clumsy and lacks the brutal tension of Daredevil’s bloody punch-ups. Not one of the dull, by-the-numbers characters manage to make a lasting impression. The plot lacks depth, originality and momentum, staggering along without incident as we wait for something… anything to happen. It can’t even muster a convincing villain for Rand to come up against, instead lumbering us with a tedious power struggle between the newly-returned billionaire and Ward Meachum (Tom Pelphrey), the Patrick Bateman-lookalike who has taken control of Rand’s company in his absence.

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Perhaps such boardroom battles could be compelling if Rand was anything more likeable than a spoiled frat boy. Quite why Finn Jones chose to play Rand as an arrogant, self-aggrandising, tastelessly immature know-it-all is a mystery only he can answer. Perhaps he was just trying to draw attention away from claims his casting was another example of the media whitewashing Asian culture, which, one incident where Rand whitesplains kung-fu to Jessica Henwick’s Japanese-American dojo master aside, prove to be unfounded. At one point Rand, after being shown kindness by a homeless man who brings him food and offers him clothing, laughs to himself and smirks: “I guess people think we’re quite alike.” He really is a “living weapon”.

It’s disappointing because there are shades to Rand that are intriguing. He’s clearly suffered a very traumatising childhood, not just from the plane crash but also from the ritual bullying at the hands of a young Meachum, and the culture shock of returning to New York after 15 years must surely be overwhelming. Yet showrunner Scott Buck never explores these feelings, preferring to pad his scripts with countless flashbacks to the plane crash and forcing Finn to repeatedly yell “I’m Danny Rand” in the hope someone will actually believe him this time.

In short, it’s a wasted opportunity. Free from the pressures of audience anticipation, Iron Fist could’ve cast an Asian lead, or at the very least tapped into the pulpy 70s Kung Fu movies that the original comics tried to rip-off, to create something more uplifting and magical compared to the gritty, urban tone of its predecessors. But Buck never stamps an original personality on this plodding piece, succeeding only in creating a superhero show that will test the patience of even the most committed Marvel fan. So much for saving the best until last.

Logan – Film Review

Hugh Jackman’s final outing as Wolverine opens in familiar fashion: a ripped and raging Logan, adamantium claws protruding from clenched fists with an iconic ‘snikt’, ready to reluctantly dispense some stabby justice to a bunch of human hoodlums. Cut to: the former X-Man getting stomped into the dirt by his aggressors after a few wild swings prove worryingly ineffective.

If that sounds like an unexpected take on the hirsute hero we all know and love, well that’s entirely the point. Logan is a gnarled and bloody middle finger to what director James Mangold notoriously described as the “gravity-defying, city-destroying, CGI fuckathons” that have dominated the superhero genre for the past decade. Swapping meaningless spectacle for visceral action and a surprisingly human story, this is a superhero movie that gleefully defies convention.

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Tonally it’s pitched somewhere between The Wrestler and Shane, with an important character even poignantly aping the latter’s “there’s no livin’ in the killin’” speech at one point. There’s certainly not much livin’ where Logan is concerned. We find him in a ravaged near future, a battered and bloodied shadow of his former self, scraping a living as a limo driver before returning to the remote makeshift home he shares with Caliban (Stephen Merchant in non-funny mode), who cares for a frail and infirm Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart).

It’s a shock to see Wolverine in such a weakened condition. Bloodshot eyes, greying hair and a body tattooed with the scars of previous battles point to the declining effectiveness of his healing powers and the poisonous effects of the adamantium that is slowly killing him. Jackman, as ever, is on imperious form in his final and most challenging performance, subtly playing the hopeless bitterness of a man who’s forced to confront his violent past and the grim reality of his legacy without losing any of the ferocious intensity that still flickers behind Logan’s bespectacled eyes.

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As watchable as Jackman is in this state, though, it’s not too long before he’s dragged back into the fray by the arrival of a mysterious woman who seeks his help with Laura (Dafne Keen), a gifted child as feral as she is tiny who might just be the first mutant born in more than quarter of a century. Circumstances, namely Boyd Holbrook’s Reavers, a team of cybernetically enhanced former soldiers, force Logan to make like a Trump-fearing Clinton voter by fleeing towards the Canadian border with Laura and Xavier in tow.

Transforming Logan into a gritty road movie proves to be a masterstroke, forcing Logan, Xavier and Laura to confront each other and allowing for their dysfunctional family dynamic to play out with an intimacy that’s entirely unexpected in a blockbuster of this scale. Xavier, played with a mix of weary confusion and profound profanity by Stewart, acts as Logan’s conscience, still trying to steer him onto the right path after all these years; meanwhile, Laura, the scowling force of nature that is newcomer Keen, gives him a glimpse of the life he has so often deprived himself as he suddenly becomes responsible for preparing an innocent child for a dangerous world. It’s no surprise the film’s meatiest scenes come when these three fine performers are sharing the screen together.

The action is just as stripped-back and brutal as the drama. If reports of Jackman taking a pay-cut to guarantee the film’s R-Rating are true, this is his reward. Gory fight scenes see characters chopped up with ruthless abandon as Wolverine finally has the opportunity to go full berserker. Baddies are beheaded, shredded to bloody pieces by a tornado of splinters, and, in one memorable scene, stabbed through the chin until the tip of Logan’s claw pops out the top of the victims head, all the while racking up a body count that would make Deadpool blanche.

If this really is to be Jackman’s final outing in the claws and mutton chops, Logan is a high note for the mutant fighter to finish on. Delivering all the hardcore Wolverine action fans could desire without skimping on the nuanced character drama, Logan elevates the superhero genre to new heights and guarantees Jackman’s status as one of the great cinema superheroes.

Runtime: 137 mins; Genre: Superhero; Released: 3 March 2017;

Director: James Mangold; Writers: James Mangold, Scott Frank, Michael Green;

Stars: Hugh Jackman, Dafne Keen, Patrick Stewart, Boyd Holbrook