Justice League – Film Review

It’s difficult to overstate just how much the DCEU needed Wonder Woman. After the dour and mean-spirited Batman V Superman and the full-metal racket of Suicide Squad, Gal Gadot’s virtuous Themysciran warrior was a Wonder-ful leap forward for the franchise, finally placing an endearing superhero at the heart of an entertaining movie that was as witty and inventive and it was groundbreaking.

If the success of Diana Prince’s first solo-outing offered the chance for the DCEU to shift gears, it’s one Justice League fails to take. Visually ugly, boring and repetitive, this souped-up superhero team-up is a return to the murky aesthetic, sketchy characters and chaotic action that have continuously dogged the series since its conception.

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Tonally, the movie is all over the place, clumsily attempting to stitch together it’s disparate elements into an uninspiring whole. This is most noticeable during a labourious opening act which swings wildly between a grim and gritty Gotham, the shimmering lands of Themyscira and the submerged ruins of Atlantis as Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) grumpily tries to recruit a mis-mash of meta humans and ancient gods to his nebulous cause.

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It’s several months after the ‘death’ of Superman and the absence of the son of Krypton has encouraged exiled God Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) and his army of buzzing Parademons to invade Earth in search of three cosmic MacGuffin boxes that, when combined, posses the power to destroy the universe. Realising that a seven foot supernatural warrior with a magic axe might pose more of a threat than a bunch exploding wind-up penguins, Batman assembles a ramshackle band of super-beings to help him defeat Darkseid’s right-hand man and prevent the world from becoming an apocalyptic wasteland.

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Such a hackneyed plot holds few surprises, essentially following the tiresomely typical beats of a team-up movie – even the idea of an alien baddie invading Earth to unite a trio of cosmic trinkets is ripped straight from The Avengers. Perhaps that’s why the movie is in such an almighty rush to get down to business. Coming in at a trim two hours, it’s a brisk, breezy adventure – further leavened by an abundance of knowing gags, no doubt penned by Joss Whedon, who replaced director Zack Snyder after a family tragedy and here receives a writing credit.

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Yet this leaves very little time to get to know our new heroes and to dig down into the team dynamics. Like every other movie in the DCEU, Justice League is so eager to catch up with its Marvel rival that it assumes our connection with its characters rather than earning our affections. As a result, the planned emotional beats fail to pay off and the entire story descends into an underwhelming mess of ropey visual effects and lunkheaded plot developments – culminating an overblown finale featuring giant purple tentacle-things, flying zombie insects and a CGI monstrosity so sloppily developed it’ll make you yearn for the heady days of Doomsday and Superman playing computer-rendered whack-a-mole.

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Even so, there’s great fun to be had, particularly in scenes of the League together, bickering and bonding in a rapid-fire exchange of quips, and the cast play off each other extraordinarily well in the circumstances. Ezra Miller is the highlight as a whip-witted and overzealous The Flash, while Gadot once again radiates gravitas as Wonder Woman. Ray Fisher perhaps needs more fleshing out as the brooding Cyborg, though his digitised Frankenstein arch holds promise. Of the new recruits, Aquaman is by far the worst served, Jason Mamoa reduced to bellowing stock-jock phrases like ‘Oh yeah’ and ‘My man’, as if he’s a drunken frat boy rather than the heir to an ancient kingdom.

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If Batman feels like an after thought to the team, that’s hardly the fault of Affleck, who brings an enjoyable gruffness that works well with his elder statesman interpretation of the Caped Crusader. The problem is that Batman is simply not suited to the role of inspirational leader to a team of superheroes – a point the movie tries to address, to unsatisfying effect – and his physical handicaps when compared to the rest of the team understandably see him left behind during many of the action scenes.

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Justice League is undoubtedly brighter and funnier than any DCEU movie to date. But it remains lumbered with the same flaws that have been dragging the franchise down from the beginning – namely a loose grip of its tone, haphazard plotting and a collection of unengaging heroes who fail to live up to their billing. As long as these problems persist, there’s no danger of the DCEU usurping the big red behemoth as ruler of the multiverse.

Runtime: 120 mins (approx)
Director: Zack Snyder
Screenwriters: Chris Terrio, Joss Whedon
Stars: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Ray Fisher

 

 

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Wonder Woman – Film Review

We’re all agreed Gail Gadot’s Wonder Woman was the best thing about DC’s dour and dispiriting man-spat Dawn of Justice. Amid all the grim soul searching, moody visuals and bludgeoning SFX work, Gadot’s Amazonian goddess strode into view like an ass-kicking, lasso-whipping electric cello riff in human form to brighten up the darkest of hours for DC’s faltering superhero universe. It’s little wonder there’s been so much excitement and goodwill surrounding Diana Prince’s first solo outing. And we haven’t even mentioned the fact that it’s the first female-led (and, with Monster’s Patty Jenkins behind the camera, female-directed) superhero movie.

Feminist triumphs aside, though, Wonder Woman feels like a missed opportunity. While it’s undoubtedly the best movie of the DCEU thus far, brightening the tone and demonstrating a stronger handle on its core characters, it’s still plagued by many of the issues that have held previous DC movies back: over earnestness, mind-numbing action, and a slogging origin story that’s framed around a messy, wildly preposterous plot.

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Having already been introduced as an experienced, battle hardened warrior in the present day, Wonder winds the clock back to Diana’s picturesque childhood on Themyscira, the hidden island of the Amazons. This tribe of athletic, gold-plated female warriors live in a bubble, protected from the corruption of man, as they prepare for the prophesised return of Ares, the Greek god who plans to wage an endless war to destroy humanity. And then Chris Pine’s charismatic American spy washes up on shore, bringing with him a flotilla of German soldiers, and tells of a horrifying war raging in the outside world. After one of the most bizarre action sequences of modern times – a slow-mo beachfront battle between pirouetting women and gun-totting men – Diana decides to defy her mother’s wishes, stealing her trademark sword, shield and lasso before setting sail for the world of men to stop the war once and for all.

As Diana, Gadot is extraordinary. Dawn of Justice proved she has the youthful athleticism to stand toe-to-toe with Henry Cavill’s Superman and Ben Affleck’s pumped-up Caped Crusader, but Wonder gives her a chance to explore the nuances of an impulsive, idealistic young warrior who has a disarming belief in doing the right thing. Gadot infuses Diana’s sweet innocence with a ferocious defiance that helps to keep the more hokey moments in the script from sounding too goofy. She’s funny, too, especially during the fish-out-of-water scenes in a civilised London where she attempts to tackle a revolving door armed with a shield and sword.

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Using World War I as the backdrop for a highly-stylised action movie might make some people uncomfortable. Yet it allows Jenkins and screenwriter Allan Heinberg to explore themes of feminism, oppression and the evil that men inflict upon each other. It also neatly sidesteps the issue of needing to find a villain capable of facing-off against a near-indestructible warrior created by Zeus, by making Diana’s unshakable belief in the power of good the thing that’s tested rather than her physical prowess. Jenkins sensitively captures the devastation of the conflict, bringing a grim tangibility to scenes of wounded soldiers and bloodied refugees trudging though the mud and charred remains of their former lives.

With so many positives here, it’s a shame the movie is hobbled by a clunking, sloppy script. Like Thor, this is supposed to be a story about a naive demigod coming to terms with the harsh realities of the world. Instead, much of the focus is on a clumsy love story between Diana and Pine’s Steve Trevor. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of romance, but its use here only serves to sideline Diana for much of her own movie. With no experience of the modern world, she’s largely useless once we’ve left Themyscira, which means Steve steps into the valiant hero role, leading the mission to stop the war and making the noble sacrifice that saves the world. Diana is essentially his MPDG, using her optimistic innocence to undercut his early cynicism so that he can find his inner hero. It’s hardly a fair dynamic, especially when you consider she has the power to break him like a twig.

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It’s also poorly structured, spending far too much time milling around Themyscira and period-era London despite events there having very little to do with the actual plot – which involves stopping Elena Anaya’s intriguing but underused German scientist and Danny Houston’s military chief using a deadly gas to prevent the armistice agreement. That leaves no time to explore Diana’s world view, which goes unchallenged for much of the movie, as we rush towards yet another weightless, overblown finale where two CGI beings levitate at each other. Wonder Woman might be a Diana Prince-sized leap in the right direction for the DCEU, but it still has a lot to ground to make up if it wants to match the sparkling triumphs of its Marvel peers.

Runtime: 141 mins

Director: Patty Jenkins

Scriptwriter: Allan Heinberg

Stars: Gail Gadot, Chris Pine, David Thewlis, Elena Anaya, Danny Houston

Doctor Who: The Pilot – TV Review

The wait is over. After a Doctor Who-less 2016 (minus the now obligatory Christmas special), proper weekly adventures with our favourite curmudgeonly Time Lord have returned.

The fact that the first episode of series 10 is called The Pilot should not be overlooked. Perhaps worried by the show’s slight dip in the ratings during series 9, Steven Moffat has taken the departure of Jenna Colman’s Clara as an opportunity to press the reset button on the 54-year-old show. Exploring afresh the key concepts and joys of Doctor Who, The Pilot is a fun, if unremarkable, re-introduction to the madcap world of a hero who travels through time in a police box and uses a special screwdriver to fix the universe.

Clearly, this episode has its eyes firmly on attracting new fans to the series, which means a lot of time is taken up with explaining how the Tardis works and just exactly who is this hoody-wearing, electric guitar-rocking man who calls himself the Doctor. For long-term fans, that might sound like a lot of raking over old ground, but there are still a few pleasing callbacks and interesting tidbits (we finally learn the location of the Tardis loos, for example) to make it a worthwhile watch.

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The newest element is of course the arrival of the Doctor’s new companion, Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie). Introduced as a lunchlady working in the Bristol University cafeteria, there’s something immediately endearing about Bill. She curious and adventurous, sneaking into lectures at the university even though she isn’t a student, and a hopeless romantic, clumsily infatuated with a student called Heather and forever searching for a connection to the mother she never knew. While some have complained of being put-off by Bill’s lack of Who knowledge and constant questions, her ordinariness is part of her charm. She feels like a new fan of the show, excited, overwhelmed and completely in awe of this boundless new world she’s stumbled upon.

With so much of the focus on Bill’s induction into all things Time Lord, there’s very little room for the actual plot in this opening episode, which is one of the weaker series openers of recent years. New director Lawrence Gough works hard to inject some energetic flair into the visuals, with some strong CGI effects and plenty Sherlock-inspired whooshing camera work as a multitude of images surge across the screen. Sadly, The Pilot also shares some of Sherlock’s biggest narrative flaws.

Moffat once again demonstrates his knack for transforming ordinary things into frightening monsters, this time turning his imaginative eye to puddles. The sudden appearance of a pool of water is what first attracts the attention of the Doctor and his new companion. It hasn’t rained for days and yet the puddle never seems to dry out, even as the weeks and months pass, and when anyone stares into it they can’t help but be unsettled by their own reflection, even if there not quite sure why. Things get even more terrifying when the puddle decides to go all Terminator 2 on the Doctor and Bill, leading to scenes of a watery figure rising up out of plug holes in pursuit of its enemies.

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But while the episode is not short of scares, it’s incredibly light of momentum and impact. Part of problem is that story feels very disjointed, inheriting Sherlock’s scattershot story structure by constantly surging forward in time with endless montages and short scenes that never allow the themes and ideas of the story to gain a foothold.

The impact is most keenly felt with the supporting characters. The much-hyped Daleks are barely worth a mention. Rather than being the primary villain, as you’d expect, their inclusion here is inconsequential to the main plot and feels like nothing more than a fan-pleasing afterthought. Stephanie Hyam’s Heather also feels like wasted opportunity. The literally starry-eyed object of Bill’s affections, Heather initially seems like just another MPDG enticing Bill to seek adventure, only for nascent relationship to be scuppered when she’s dragged into the puddle to become a vessel for its watery fury. The entire episode hinges on romantic connection between these two characters but it’s not given enough time to develop. Consequently, what’s intended to be heart-wrenching finale turns out to be nothing more than a soggy mess.

And then there’s Nardole, the Doctor’s other new recruit. Plenty of fans questioned Matt Lucas’ promotion to series regular and there’s very little here to suggests he’ll break out of his comedy butler routine anytime soon.

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Given this is such a companion-centric story, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Peter Capaldi’s the Doctor doesn’t get much of an opportunity to shine. It’s fun to see the Doctor lark around as a bonkers university lecturer, a role we’re likely to return to given he’s yet to discover the secrets behind the mysterious vault hidden below campus, but here he’s really only required to spout sci-fi mumbo-jumbo to a confused Bill.

More encouragingly, there are already signs of a sparky Doctor/companion dynamic burgeoning between Capaldi and Mackie. As Nardole helpfully points out, there’s some good banter between the two and, more importantly, by the episode’s end Bill has already started to challenge the Doctor by reminding him of his humanity when he attempts to wipe her memory. It’s vital that the companion provides a humanising counterweight to the Doctor’s alien behaviour, and it’s promising to see that Bill already has the measure of her new friend.

The Pilot, then, is an encouraging, if unspectacular start to series 10. While it doesn’t offer the grand spectacle of previous series openers and feels disappointingly light on strong villains and supporting characters, it’s a spry and effective introduction to the Doctor’s new companion. And you never know, it might just welcome a whole new set of fans to the wonderfully strange world of Doctor Who.

The first trailer for Star Wars: The Last Jedi is finally here

We’ve waited. And waited. And waited a little bit more… but the first trailer for Star Wars: The Last Jedi is finally upon us. And it’s certainly doesn’t disappoint.
Officially unveiled at today’s Last Jedi panel at Celebration Orlando, the new trailer offers our first glimpses into the continuation of Rey, Finn and Poe’s journey, picking up immediately after the events of The Force Awakens.
There’s a lot to take in here, even in the short snippets of footage we get to glimpse. There definitely appears to be dark times ahead for the Resistance. Their bases are under attack, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is on the warpath and what looks to be an almighty space battle looming on the horizon.
Daisy Ridley’s Rey, meanwhile, is continuing her Jedi training with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) – though Luke’s ominous words don’t hold much hope for the future of Force-weilding warriors. “I only know one truth,” he intones. “It’s time for the Jedi to end.” At least we finally know what the movie’s title is referring to.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is written and directed by Looper’s Rian Johnson and will be with us in December.

Ghost in the Shell – Film Review

Hollywood’s never-ending quest to crack anime has been plagued by setbacks. Dragonball: Evolution bombed at the box office in 2009, Battle Angel Alita suffered numerous false starts before Robert Rodriguez dragged it over the finish line, and a long-gestating adaptation of 1988’s landmark sci-fi Akira remains unmade.

It’s a similar story for Ghost in the Shell, based on Masamune Shirow’s Japanese manga series, which languished in development purgatory for more than a decade only to be pummelled with complaints of white-washing as soon as its cast was announced. The final result is unlikely to win over its dissenters, neither is it likely to usher a new era of anime adaptions. An utterly spectacular visual masterpiece it might be, but this cold and emotionless sci-fi actioner lacks an engaging ghost to go with its slick and stylish shell.

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Scarlett Johansson plays Major, a human brain cut and pasted into a synthetic cyborg after her original fleshy avatar was ravaged in a shipwreck. Or so she’s told. A year later Major is ensconced within Section 9, a shadowy government task force devoted to thwarting cyber terrorism in a near-future world where everyone has some kind of tech crafted onto their bodies and personal data is stolen not from a person’s Facebook profile but by hacking into their brains.

The source material is almost three decades old but its subject matter feels as timely as ever, raising dark questions about the nature of identity and privacy in a society dominated by technology. It’s clear, too, that director Rupert Sanders had ambitions of turning it into this generation’s Blade Runner, even if the clunky and perfunctory script lacks the depth or nuance to meaningfully explore such weighty themes.

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Instead, we end up with a conveyor belt of tightly choreographed, cool-looking action sequences – an opening heist in a geisha restaurant plays like the warped offspring of The Shinning and The Matrix – held together by a bland, predictable plot that fails to justify the hype.

Thank the stars, then, that Ghost in the Shell is such a staggeringly beautiful movie to watch. Sanders had already proved his gift for immersive world-building – his similarly hollow debut, Snow White and the Huntsman, was at least great to look at – and he cements that reputation here with some mightily impressive design work.

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The nameless, pan-Asian metropolis which Major calls home is a richly detailed tech-topia where giant holographic fish weave between high-rises and where every inhabitant sports some kind of cyber enhancement. Such fantastical imagery can become bewildering but Sanders wisely grounds the futuristic visuals with some gritty realism, erecting gloomy, colourless tenement buildings which disappear into the smog that hangs over the city with unnerving permanence.

Much of the conversation surrounding the movie has focused on the choice of Johansson to play a traditionally Japanese role, and the filmmakers at least attempt to find a narrative explanation for her casting by depicting Major as a woman whose personality doesn’t fit her body. While it would’ve been progressive to cast an Asian in the role, there’s no denying Johansson has an impressive knack for playing such alienated figures. She not only kicks ass with the grace and efficiency of a merciless killer, but also possess an otherworldly quality that feels like a perfect fit for Major. Throughout, her movements are stiff and disjoined, almost as if her body is permanently out of sync with her brain, no matter how many mind-altering drugs she’s prescribed by Juliette Binoche’s conflicted doctor.

Yet, her fundamental lack of personality proves to be the movie’s biggest flaw. Major is so disconnected from the world around her that it’s an almost impossible challenge to engage with her story. With no emotional arc to connect to, it’s unsurprising that Major’s final showdown with Michael Pitt’s crudely underdeveloped terrorist falls flat. Not to worry, though: a gun-toting spider robot swiftly rampages into shot to distract us from how disappointingly weightless this confrontation feels.

It’s a sequence that pretty much sums up Ghost in the Shell: a bold, visually mesmerising sci-fi action movie without a compelling narrative to go with it. A glossy shell without a fully-formed ghost, you might say.

Runtime: 107 mins; Genre: Sci-fi; Released: 30 March 2017;

Director: Rupert Sanders; Screenwriters: Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, Ehren Kruger;

Stars: Scarlett Johansson, Michael Pitt, Juliette Binoche, Takeshi Kitano

Star Wars: Rogue One has more behind the scenes changes

The Incredibles’ Michael Giacchino has replaced Alexandre Desplat as the composer of Star Wars: Rogue One, in the latest round of behind the scenes changes for the space opera spin-off.

Earlier this year the production reconvened to shoot additional scenes for the movie, with Tony Gilroy tagging along to assist (or oversee, as some reports suggested) director Gareth Edwards work, prompting rumours Disney was unhappy about the shape of the story.

It appears those reshoots are behind the latest reshuffle with the last minute schedule change leaving Desplat unavailable to work on the movie, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

That has allowed Giacchino to step into breach, and he has some mighty big shoes to fill. We’re not just talking about Desplat, who is a very successful composer in his own right. By stepping into the role, Giacchino becomes the first composer to score a Star Wars movie who isn’t named John Williams.

That’s right, Giacchino has to live-up to the expectations set by one of the greatest composers of all time and do so for one of the biggest franchises in cinematic history. No pressure, fella.

To be fair, the man has a pretty impressive CV of his own. Giacchino has already worked on Zootopia and Star Trek Beyond this year (he’s actually scored all the films in the rebooted franchise), and has the Benedict Cumberbatch-starring Doctor Strange to come later this year.

Star Wars: Rogue One arrives in cinemas on December 16. But you already knew that, right?

Marvel’s Luke Cage Gets a Poster

We’ve had Daredevil and we’ve had Jessica Jones, now its almost time for Luke Cage centre stage as Netflix races towards in long-awaited The Defenders series. In anticipation for his arrival, the streaming service has unveiled a shiny new poster of the man himself.

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With all those bullet holes puckering his t-shirt, it’s no wonder Mike Colter’s Cage looks more stern and uncompromising than ever before – we already know from the teaser that he’s about sick of always having to buy new clothes.

Following the collapse of his relationship with Jessica Jones, Marvel’s Luke Cage will detail the evolution of its titular tough guy as relocates to Harlem. Having been endowed with super strength and unbreakable skin after a failed science experiment, Cage is pulled out of the shadows to fight a battle for the heart of his city – forcing him to confront a past he had tried to bury.

Colter will be joined by Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple, who has already made her bow in Daredevil, as well as Simone Missick’s Misty Knight, Alfre Woodward’s Mariah Dillard, Theo Rossi’s Shades and Frank Whaley’s Rafael Scarfe. Mahershala Ali will play the series’ big bad Cornell Cottonmouth Stokes.

Next in queue at Netflix, after Luke Cage, will be Marvel’s Iron Fist, followed by the eight-episode Marvel’s The Defenders team-up event, both of which are expected to arrive next year.

Marvel’s Luke Cage lands on Netflix in its entirety on 30 September.

Watch the trailer below: