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Posts Tagged ‘fantasy’

I’m not really one for New Year resolutions – I usually end up with the same ones, along the lines of ‘get more sleep’ and ‘do more productive stuff’ – but it does seem an appropriate time to break a long-held resolution, something which is probably more of a surprise to me than anyone else. I occasionally make a big fuss about how open-minded I am, and how I’ll go and see nearly anything at the cinema, but astute readers will probably have noticed that there are a few high-profile franchises which I refuse to touch with a ten foot pole, magic free ticket card or not. When it comes to the live-action Transformers movie franchise, which has been befouling multiplexes worldwide for over a decade now, this is simply because I had such an utterly appalling experience watching the first one that I vowed not to bother with any of the others, something I have stuck to with unusual (for me) firmness.

And yet now I find myself about to write about Travis Knight’s Bumblebee, a prequel/spin-off type offshoot of the Transformers series. How come? What happened? Well, to cut a short story even shorter, the trailer looked genuinely fun and charming, and – this second fact may explain the first – Michael Bay has vacated the director’s chair. Collecting critics’ pithy lines about Bay and the Transformers films has been a bit of a hobby of mine for some years now – I particularly enjoyed Vern’s observation that watching the first movie is a bit like climbing into a tumble dryer which is then pushed down a hill, not to mention Peter Bradshaw’s insight that one of the sequels (I forget which) is essentially ‘a machine for turning your brain into soup’. Nevertheless, these films seemed to be critic-proof for years, and the fact that Bay has been forced from his dreadful throne of power is probably just due to the fact that the 2017 movie was sort of a flop, as gargantuan bombastic effects movies go, only making about six times the GDP of a small country at the box office. So, following Transformers: The Last Knight, we now have the first Knight Transformers (do you see what I did there?), and I have to say… well, where was this guy in 2007?

The movie gets underway on the machine planet Cybertron, where the heroic Autobots are taking a right pasting from the evil Decepticons. (The whys and wherefores of this conflict are not gone into; this isn’t that sort of film, although that probably goes without saying.) Stentorian Autobot leader Optimus Prime packs a bold young Autobot scout (he who will become known as Bumblebee) off to Earth in the year 1987 in order that the planet can be used as a refuge by the rest of their faction. However, Bumblebee is tracked and ends up taking the Transformer war to Earth with him, earning the hostility of a secret US government agency in the process. Having fended off his initial pursuers, a mute and amnesiac Bumblebee lapses into whatever the equivalent of a coma is for a giant robot that can turn into a car.

At this point we switch focus to the story of Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld, who’s been picking good scripts lately), a teenage girl living in California and having to cope with annoying family members, a terrible job, unresolved issues from the premature death of her beloved father, and so on. A glimmer of hope appears when she discovers a rusty old yellow VW beetle in a local scrapyard, and is allowed to take it home and try to get it running again. Yup, you are ahead of me: Charlie takes the discovery that her new ride is actually a sentient multi-form extra-terrestrial warrior remarkably well, and she and Bumblebee soon form a close bond. Which is probably for the best, as it transpires that a couple of Decepticons have detected Bumblebee’s presence on Earth and have arrived to hunt him down, with the help of the authorities…

I feel that at this point I should just clarify that my issue with the Bay Transformers films has nothing to do with the inherent absurdity of the concept. I have nothing against absurdity as a story element; many of the Marvel movies are pretty absurd, but they’re still probably my favourite current blockbuster franchise (it almost scarcely needs mentioning that the Transformers once ostensibly shared a universe with the Marvel characters, even teaming up with Spider-Man, without it feeling at all forced or tonally inconsistent). We have to bear in mind that the whole canon of Transformers fiction is basically a marketing device to shift toy robots that turn into cars or planes (or vice versa) and so it is almost inevitably going to be a bit silly. No, my issue with the Bay films is with their empty, pointless bombast, their sheer over-excitability, their shallow objectification of both human and machine, and their interminable running-times.

Knight has managed to avoid all of these things and come up with a film that is genuinely charming and likeable, and seems unlikely to inflict long-term cerebral damage on even the most enthusiastic viewer. Much of this is to the credit of Hailee Steinfeld, who essentially carries most of the movie once the prologue is out of the way – nobody else gives a substantial performance, but then nobody else really needs to, for Steinfeld gives the film warmth and heart. (John Cena plasy the chief government agent, but honestly doesn’t make much of an impression.) The whole story strand about how accidental involvement in an extra-terrestrial war helps Charlie process her personal issues is a bit clunky, and the film has some of the most spurious foreshadowing I can recall in a serious movie, but somehow this just adds to the fun.

So does the 80s setting, although I get the sense this isn’t really genuine nostalgia aimed at or made by people who actually remember the mid 80s, but more a sort of tick-list of pop culture icons from the period – ALF, Mr T, and so on. It virtually constitutes an acknowledgement that the Transformers themselves were another 80s fad as far as many people are concerned. As I say, while this element of the movie is fun, it’s also quite superficial and not thought-through – for me, the most impossible-to-believe thing in the movie was not the existence of shape-shifting alien cars but the suggestion that the same person would own a Motorhead T-shirt but also have both The Smiths and Rick Astley in their tape collection. (Maybe the tribes run differently in California.)

I have to say that part of the reason I was so unimpressed by the first Bay Transformers was because I didn’t recognise either the tone or the characters from the Transformers stories I remembered from back in the middle of the 1980s – it was all very dark, very violent, very grungy. One of the genuine pleasures of this film was being able to recognise many characters in their original form (I believe these are known as G1 Transformers) – sitting in a cinema going ‘It’s Optimus Prime! It’s Ironhide! It’s Cliffjumper! It’s Starscream! It’s Soundwave! It’s Shockwave!’ isn’t the most high-brow kind of entertainment, but entertaining it still is. The rest of the story doesn’t take itself too seriously, either – at one point one of the characters openly observes that it’s just possible aliens calling themselves Decepticons may not be entirely trustworthy – and I don’t think there’s much here to inflame the sensibilities of most reasonable-minded parents looking for something to show their children (Bumblebee is fairly unusual for a big studio franchise movie these days, in that it only has a PG certificate in the UK).

All this said, this is still a fairly goofy and obvious movie about a girl who makes friends with an alien robot car, albeit one with a lot of charm and a very enjoyable atmosphere. It’s not going to change the lives of anyone in the audience, probably, and it may indeed be that I’m predisposed to praise this one slightly more than it warrants, simply because it’s so unlike the Bay movies. But nevertheless: an extremely likeable movie; hopefully from now on all Transformers films will be like this.

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Christmas! It’s a time for family, for sharing, for massive over-indulgence, for lying around in stupefied torpor. What it’s never been before, in my family at least, is a time for enjoying the latest cinematic offerings, mainly due to all the over-indulgence and stupefied torpidity I just mentioned. Still, one thing about family (mine, at least) is their capacity to change and surprise you, and so it proved this year. It turned out that there were not one but two films on release that my small young relatives were quite keen to see, and it was really just a question of who got roped into going to see what and when.

Now, it transpired that Young Niece was particularly interested in seeing Rob Marshall’s Mary Poppins Returns. As I believe I may have mentioned before, catching this particular movie was right there on my list of things to do this Christmas season: very near the bottom, somewhere between transcribing the Queen’s speech and then translating it into Basque and volunteering to have an elective laparotomy, so I ducked out of this one. My Significant Other was very happy to accompany her, along with various other senior members of the tribe. Significant Other drew my attention to the fact that, back in the dim and distant echoes of history, I did occasionally indulge in the odd guest post about films I hadn’t personally seen myself, and dropped some loaded hints that it might be a nice idea to revive this tradition for the Poppins movie. She and Young Niece seemed quite keen on this idea and I found I couldn’t in all good conscience turn them down. So here we go, for the first time in ages I will attempt to post a review of a film which I haven’t actually seen.

I have, of course, seen the original 1964 Mary Poppins, a film which used to be just a fondly-remembered family favourite and near-fixture of the festive TV schedules, but which Disney – particularly since the release of Saving Mr Banks in 2013, perhaps – have worked hard to reposition as some kind of iconic, epochal classic of popular cinema. Disney, whose consolidation of their already iron grip on popular box office has started to cause some consternation even amongst those who like much of their output, have also hit upon a lucrative thing in the shape of retooling and reimagining many of their classic old films – a couple of years ago we had the new CGI version of The Jungle Book, due to be followed in 2019 by freshly computerised remakes of Dumbo and The Lion King. All this considered, the appearance of a Poppins sequel only 54 years after the original – the gap is a bit on the long side, I think you’ll agree – is really not as surprising as it first appears.

The details of the plot, at least, are fairly easy to glean from the trailers and a quick visit to Wikipedia: the Banks children from the first film have grown up and  turned into Emily Mortimer and Ben Whishaw. Whishaw now has children of his own, although his wife has died (a fairly ruthless swipe of the scriptwriter’s pen); in time-honoured fashion, the now-grown children have become rather stressed and joyless drones, in grave peril of forgetting about The Important Things In Life. The fact that the bank is threatening to foreclose on their home and throw them all out into the street probably isn’t helping much. What better time for someone to dust off an old kite which has been lying about the place and summon, not entirely unlike the Woman in Black, the supernatural dominatrix Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt), to sort everything out?

Well, in my case I suspect it would have taken a snootful of pethidine to make this particular load of sugar go down, but Young Niece did seem quite impressed when they came out, as did Significant Other. I asked them to provide a few further details, firstly about what they thought of the film in general. (I should probably mention that Young Niece is a talkative ten years of age while English is not Significant Other’s first language.)

‘It was really good, imaginative and creative – it made a real picture in your mind of reality and it introduced the magic. I think it had sort of the same story as the first one with modern and exciting elements – though I think the first one was more exciting, set in the olden times.

‘It was really clever with the director, how he took the old story and turned it into a new story… the actors played it like they were in the moment. Emily Blunt played Mary Poppins really well – she stepped into Julie Andrew’s shoes. She was really sharp but also a lot of fun.’

Anything else to add about Emily Blunt? (Personally, I’m hoping this film doesn’t mark the point at which we lose Blunt to the clutches of bland global megastardom.) ‘When Mary Poppins arrived she was a little bit bossy, but after the fabulous bath everybody loved her.’ (I believe the ‘fabulous bath’ may be a reference to a big special effects set-piece sequence.)

‘Emily Blunt put a lot of character in… she changed the accent in her voice during some of the songs. It’s a little difficult to be the nanny and also the big showgirl.’ (The only other performers to be singled out for a mention were Angela Lansbury – who seems to mainly be present to encourage my father in his tendency to get the original film mixed up with Bedknobs and Broomsticks – and Meryl Streep, whose appearance as Cousin Topsy drew praise – ‘she looked different, which was good.’)

Thoughts on production values? ‘The costumes were very colourful and looked the part – the lamp-lighters were wearing clothes like they would wear… not so colourful.’ (As an aside, nice to see my niece is so aware of the class divide at such a tender age.) ‘The animation was absolutely fabulous, especially the way they did the lamp-lighters and Mary Poppins on the kite. It was just amazing and it looked really real and joyful.’

Any favourite moments? ‘The best bit was when they were working together to turn time back to get the share certificate.’ (I should probably explain the concept of a plot spoiler to her in a bit more detail, now I think on it.) They also enjoyed ‘the stunt with bikes and the gymnastics, how they got up Big Ben… there were some amazing stunts and acrobatics.’

My suspicion was that this would be another film about getting in touch with your inner child and reconnecting with joy and all the usual waffle like that, so I asked them what they thought the message of the film really was. ‘Nothing is impossible,’ was the answer both of them gave, quite independently, which must mean something I expect. In an attempt to include all the generations of the family, I asked our venerable patriarch the same question and he came back with ‘Money isn’t everything’, which is an interesting moral for a film with a budget of $130 million.

So there you go, a little lighter on the piercing insight than usual, and indeed the pithy one-liners, but you can’t have everything, especially considering I was in the theatre next door enjoying an entirely different film while they were taking all this in. They all seemed to come out smiling, anyway, and I expect that if you enjoyed the original film you’ll probably enjoy this one too. Personally I think I would still much rather feed the birds, fly a kite, or chim-chiminee my chim-chim-cherees than go anywhere near it, but everyone is different, aren’t they? Anyway…

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As I believe I have said, it feels like we’re having an embarrassment of riches when it comes to big studio movies at the moment – for the past three years, the other studios have clearly been running scared of the power of Disney’s fully armed and operational stellar conflict franchise, but with them having opted to take a break this December, everyone else seems to be crashing in – there’s a DC superhero movie, a Transformers movie, a sequel to a well-loved family favourite, various animated films for tinier audiences, and so on. Joining a crowded marketplace is Mortal Engines, not directed by Peter Jackson even though his name is all over the publicity. This film has nothing to do with Stanislaw Lem, by the way, but it’s an adaptation of a well-regarded YA novel by Philip Reeve.

I have to say the initial omens do not seem to be great for Mortal Engines, if only because this is a lavish fantasy film with a budget somewhere north of $100 million, and it’s ended up showing only twice a day in a very small auditorium in Oxford city centre’s most mainstream multiplex. I went to see it on the evening of the first day of release, and only eight people were there, including myself. These are not the kinds of numbers that bust blocks.

The film itself is a piece of big-budget steampunk actually directed by Christian Rivers, set many centuries after a brief but devastating war using quantum bombs toppled civilisation as we know it. In the aftermath, the various surviving towns and cities ‘mobilised’ themselves (according to the opening voice-over), which basically involved sticking caterpillar tracks, balloon tyres, and little scuttly legs under them. Now these ‘traction cities’ roam around all over the map, and a peculiar ecosystem of municipal Darwinism has evolved, with the larger cities acting as predators, hunting down, gobbling up and assimilating the smaller ones.

Much of the action is set in London, which is now a multi-tiered juggernaut topped by St Paul’s Cathedral, rumbling across mainland Europe devouring any civilised settlement in its path. Noteworthy citizens of the city include zealously visionary engineer Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), non-threatening young historian Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), and Valentine’s daughter Kate (Leila George – to be honest, this character is a bit less crucial than the others in plot terms, but I feel obliged to mention her simply because George is such a remarkably pretty young woman – yes, my shallowness runs deep). As the film opens, London is pursuing a small German mining town, aboard which is the mysterious Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), a scarred young woman who is passionate and empathetic but also feisty and resourceful (so there’s a few more boxes ticked, if nothing else).

After a lengthy chase, the German town is dragged into the bowels of London to be disassembled and melted down, its population forced to join that of the larger city. Things take an unexpected turn when Hester, on coming face-to-face with Valentine, coldly tries to murder him: it seems she’s been trying to get onto London for months, for this sole purpose. When Tom stops her attempt at assassination, she lets slip a few facts about Valentine’s shady past before fleeing the city – and as Tom now knows too much, Valentine kicks him out as well. The duo, who initially hate each other in a way that only characters scheduled to end up together are capable of, are forced to wander the wasteland while Valentine proceeds with his evil plan (yes, of course he’s got an evil plan, as flagged up by some fairly clumsy exposition near the start of the film)…

The first thing I must say about Mortal Engines is that you are never in any doubt about exactly where all the money has gone: this is an extremely lavish-looking movie with some tremendous production designs and art direction. The only problem is that it often feels just a bit too obviously designed and directed – this is one of those movies that feels like it’s taking place in its own bubble world. Not that it’s necessarily completely original, of course – the idea of a city on wheels trundling inexorably across the landscape dates back at least to Christopher Priest’s brilliant 1974 novel Inverted World, while you could argue that the whole premise of this film owes something to that of James Blish’s Cities in Flight stories. Personally, I couldn’t help thinking of the Crimson Permanent Assurance from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life – but then again, a lot of steampunk films get me thinking of Terry Gilliam and Brazil.

No disrespect to Christian Rivers, who oversees a big and complex film quite competently, but I couldn’t help thinking that Mortal Engines would have been a lot more interesting (not to mention better) if it had had someone like Terry Gilliam in charge of it. As I said, the film opens with a city pursuing a small town across the landscape, but the film seems to have no awareness of its own absurdity – it’s all played absolutely straight, with a kind of earnestness that will probably strike a chord with the teenage audience it seems to be aimed at, but which most of the rest of us will most likely find a bit wearisome. There’s obviously potential here for some kind of subtext about the nature of modern society and some low-key social satire, but it’s one that the film eschews almost entirely in favour of its tale of attractive young people on missions of great import.

The plot of the movie is very undistinguished, broadly speaking: for quite a long time it’s not really clear who the good guy is, who the bad guy is, what they all want, what the stakes are, and so on. When this does come into focus it turns out to be nothing particularly interesting or innovative – this is one of those films that feels like it was written in accordance with a spreadsheet or a tick-list. Here’s the strong-willed young heroine, here’s the love interest, here’s some exposition, here’s an unconvincing romance. Here comes someone from Asia in a significant supporting role (on this occasion it is the South Korean singer Jihae) so they can sell the film in that market, here comes a painstakingly diverse bunch of minor characters who it’s quite easy to dress up as, if that’s the kind of thing that floats your boat… the script hits all its marks (hardly ever with particular deftness), but it’s almost totally lacking in quirkiness, wit, or any kind of genuine humour. The most interesting part of the film concerns Hester’s back-story and relationship with a kind of clockwork zombie played by Stephen Lang – more of this would have been better, but as it is it just feels like an odd tangent the film briefly wanders off on.

In the end it resolves with a big action sequence and various scenes which anyone feeling the absence of a stellar conflict movie this Christmas will probably find quite reassuring. But even at this point, I was finding myself looking at my watch and wondering which bus home I was going to catch – Mortal Engines is a big, good-looking film, but as a narrative it just didn’t engage with me at all on any but the most superficial of levels. Great world-building, particularly aesthetically, but the actual story is a lot less interesting than I would have thought possible, given the premise of the movie. I think it will struggle to find an audience in a crowded marketplace.

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I’m not going to beat around the bush – I’m just going to come straight out and tell you this. Julie Andrews, movie legend, international treasure, beloved (it would seem) of millions, has decided to lend her talents to her first live-action movie in nearly ten years. Now, if you had told me this a couple of days ago, I would have said ‘Ha ha! Secret cameo! But of course. It was inevitable,’ in the full and certain knowledge of which film she was coming out of (semi-)retirement for. But I was wrong. She is not in the movie you would expect her to be in. Instead, Julie Andrews is playing a giant kaiju-esque sea monster living in a mystical subterranean ocean in James Wan’s Aquaman. This is one of those facts that causes me to wonder if I am having some kind of psychological episode, or at the very least have eaten the wrong kind of cheese.

On the other hand, it does give you a general sense of the kind of tenor of Aquaman, which is in no way the film I would have expected a year or so ago. With Marvel Studios cheerfully pumping out three films a year on a regular basis, it feels – perhaps unfairly – a little surprising that their rivals at Warner Brothers/DC should basically have taken most of 2018 off, as we’ve seen nothing from them since last November’s could-have-been-much-worse Justice League. On the other hand, the DC movie line has routinely been met with such eviscerating reviews (I put my hand up unashamedly) and use of words like ‘omni-crisis’ that it’s entirely understandable they should take a breather, listen to what people are saying, and rethink what they’ve been doing. Aquaman is definitely a change of gear.

Thirty-odd years ago, lonely lighthouse keeper Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison) is startled to find a woman (Nicole Kidman) in an outlandish outfit washed up during a storm. After  a bumpy start (she eats his goldfish and sticks a trident through the TV while Stingray is showing – clearly not a Gerry Anderson fan) romance blossoms between the two of them. It turns out she is Atlanna, queen of Atlantis, in self-imposed exile to avoid an arranged marriage. The pair of them end up having a kid, before her past resurfaces (sorry) and she is forced to leave them both and return to the underwater world.

The child is named Arthur and grows up to become the definition of a strapping lad (Jason Momoa), who leads a fairly carefree life when not appearing in other movies as ‘the metahuman known as the Aquaman’ (note the addition of the definite article – which I don’t recall ever seeing applied to the comics version of the character – in an attempt to somehow make him seem more mature and portentous), as he can swim at incredible speeds, breathe water, and talk to fish (historically the source of some embarrassment to writers of Aquaman), in addition being very big and tough.

The movie has been practically dancing along so far, but at this point the plot kicks in, which is fair enough – but as much of the exposition is delivered by Dolph Lundgren, with CGI magenta hair, while riding on a prehistoric sea monster, I was rather distracted and not in the best state to take it all in. Basically it goes a little something like this: Arthur’s younger half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) is intent on uniting the various splintered kingdoms of Atlantis and having himself declared Ocean Master. His plan to achieve this is to provoke a war between the people of the ocean and those living on the surface. Already King Nereus of Xebel (Lundgren) has signed up.

However, Nereus’ daughter Mera (Amber Heard) and Orm’s vizier Vulko (Willem Dafoe) recognise a mad scheme when they hear one and have a plan to stop it. This involves persuading Arthur to press his claim to the throne of Atlantis and go off on an epic quest to retrieve the magic trident which is one of the symbols of power in the sunken city. Orm, naturally, is not pleased when he learns of all this, and despatches a high-tech pirate calling himself Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) to stop them…

Now, I became aware of Aquaman at a fairly young age, along with most of the other core DC characters. At this point he was still a fairly nondescript chap in an orange shirt whose signature ability (talking to fish) didn’t really match up to running at the speed of light, having an invisible plane, or being able to shoot heat rays out of your eyes. Various attempts to make Aquaman a bit more interesting as a character ensued over the years, with the most effective (if you ask me) being the one done by Peter David (credited on this movie) in the middle 1990s – this would be the version of Aquaman with the attitude, the beard, the gladiator vest and the hook replacing one of his hands. Do I detect the influence of the David Aquaman on this movie? Well, Momoa obviously has the beard and the attitude, so maybe, although ultimately they go back to the orange shirt costume, and don’t bother with the hook (someone did point out it would make it difficult for Aquaman to go to the bathroom, although I’ve never been able to work out how the sanitation in Atlantis would function anyway).

Momoa basically plays Aquaman (or Ah-quaman, as some of the people here pronounce it) as a not-especially-bright bro, a take on the character which works in this context even if it’s not particularly authentic to the comics. It’s a perfectly good, charismatic performance, although I suspect the best he can hope for is a Chris Hemsworth level of stardom, where people will flock to see him only if he’s playing one particular role. Perhaps I’m damning with faint praise, for Momoa does do the heavy lifting when it comes to carrying what’s a big, hefty movie.

Anyone expecting the kind of industrial gloom of something touched by the hand of Zach Snyder will be in for a big surprise, for there is a very different sensibility at work here: this is a light, fun fantasy epic, somewhat influenced by a bunch of other recent blockbusters (and not just ones from Marvel Studios), with its own very distinct aesthetic – there are garishly-coloured vistas throughout, and all manner of unlikely CGI critters (including, and we mustn’t forget this, Julie Andrews). Perhaps they are overcompensating somewhat, for the grim-and-gloomy of the earlier films has been replaced by a tone which is often as camp as Christmas (shrewd choice of release date, guys), sometimes absurdly so, with a rainbow-hued fluorescent colour-scheme.

In the end, popcorn fun results, thanks to a script which hangs together well and doesn’t worry about too many other DC references (there’s an attempted HP Lovecraft in-joke at one point, but they seem to have chosen the wrong book). The film has an interesting, eclectic cast who do good work, on the whole – personally, I can’t believe I’ve turned up to see a major Hollywood release featuring Dolph Lundgren two weeks in a row. His appearance here isn’t as good as the one in Creed II, but could we nevertheless be seeing the start of a Lundgrenaissance? Fingers crossed. I’m not entirely sure what Black Manta contributes to the movie beyond a major second-act action sequence, but then again the character is saddled with an especially silly costume design.

Aquaman is such a change of pace for the DC movies series that I’m genuinely curious to hear what fans of these films make of it – apparently there were a lot of complaints that Joss Whedon’s cut of Justice League was just too entertaining and faithful to the comics, and that Snyder’s depressing and misconceived vision should be respected and preserved. We’re off into a whole new world of camp nonsense with this film, and on its own terms it works just fine – I imagine it will do rather well for itself, although this does seem like an unusually crowded Christmas for aspiring blockbusters (in the absence of a stellar conflict movie, everyone seems to be piling in). I’m not sure if this approach will work for any other characters in the DC stable, but then again maybe the trick will be to not worry about the consistency of tone which has been such a mixed blessing for the Marvel films. I don’t think Aquaman has quite the same quality as Wonder Woman, but it’s still a very enjoyable piece of silliness, much better than any of the other recent DC films – fingers crossed they can keep this standard up in future.

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Ah, the nights are drawing in, there is a crispness to the air, and somewhere in the distance I can hear the sound of a safe pair of hands printing money. It must be time for another pre-Christmas brand extension for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, aka The Conjuring Cash-Cow of J.K. Rowling. This time around it’s Fabulous Pests: The Grimy Gimblebonk, directed, almost inevitably, by David Yates [note to self: don’t forget to check movie name is are right before posting review]. Oddly enough, when I asked for a ticket for Fabulous Pests 2 at the sweetshop which masquerades as the larger local branch of the Odeon, the minion looked at me blankly and gave me a ticket for Bohemian Rhapsody, and I had a tricky time with some irritated Queen fans for a bit. Cinema staff these days, eh? Tch.

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Here is what I was able to make out with regard to the plot, which is (of course) the work of J.K. Rowling, a woman whose vocabulary seems to include many Latin words but apparently not ‘restraint’ or ‘editor’: having been forced to abandon his Colin Farrell disguise at the end of the previous film, evil wizard Gimblebonk (Johnny Depp, who is both unexpectedly restrained and not especially grimy) busts out of magical prison and sets about his dastardly plan. Exactly what this is would constitute a spoiler if I had any idea what it was, but it appears to involve doing something absolutely ghastly in one of the three (yup, three) further films we can expect in this part of the franchise.

It all revolves around a lad named Credence (Ezra Miller), who has an obscure but significant pedigree. He was actually believed dead at the end of the previous outing, but there has been a Credence revival in the mean time [note to self – think of a way to cram the words ‘clear water’ into that last sentence or the joke falls a bit flat]. Now he is searching for his origins and nearly everyone else is searching for him.

As well as the minions of the malevolent Gimblebonk, the lad is being looked for by Newt Scamperer (Eddie Redmayne), who as before is basically a cross between Tristan Farnon, Ged the Archmage, and Rain Man [some of the cultural references perhaps a bit obscure there? Hmmm]. He is doing this not because he is working as the agent of celebrated wizard and teacher Waldo Dimbledink (Jude Law), but because a girl he has a bit of a pash for (Katherine Waterston) is also on the case.

So off they all go to Paris, eventually, and soon the air is zinging with magic spells and extravagant sorcery in the way that only a $200 million budget can enable. Numerous subplots intertwine, supposedly adorable CGI beasties crawl, flutter, and bound about the place, and various secrets are revealed – although what was really going on in the shared past of Gimblebonk and Dimbledink is not much more than alluded to, presumably so real-world bigots won’t complain about the depiction of made-up ones.

It is quite easy to be glib and cynical about this particular franchise, as you can perhaps tell. No doubt the producers would respond to this sort of killjoyism by pointing to the $814 million made by the previous film, which certainly suggests that there is still a demand for stories set in this particular fictional universe, but I wonder – certainly, I know some people have given Grimy Gimblebonk as rapturous a reception as anyone  could hope for (‘absolutely brilliant’ was the considered opinion of one maths professor of my acquaintance), but the two Potterheads I share an office with were much less impressed.

This is probably rather ironic, as you really do need to be one of the faithful to follow all the ins and outs of this film. I’ve read all the Harry Potter books, as well as seeing the movies, and I saw the previous Pests film too (although that was a couple of years ago). But while I was still able to follow the general movement of this particular story without too much difficulty, I think it does demand too much from casual viewers – it makes a certain sort of sense that one character is apparently known as an Obscurial or an Obscurus, because exactly what all of it means is far from completely clear. Someone may or may not be related to someone else, this character may have a secret past with that one, and in the end it turns out that someone is the long-lost relative of somebody else. The irony comes from the fact that some of these revelations, specifically the ones tying the film in to the (chronologically later) Harry Potter stories, have been met with bared fangs by the staunchest Potterheads, as J.K. appears to be rewriting the continuity of her own universe, something they feel she is not allowed to do (and let’s not even get into the fuss arising from her attempt to fill-in the back-story of Lord Voldemort’s pet snake).

The problem is that, if you’re not a Rowling superfan, not much of the story here really feels like it matters – there’s a lot of imagination on display here, both in the tale and its telling, and the film is always visually polished and frequently quite well-played (Jude Law is particularly good). But it does often feel like you’re peering into a private world, without ever being told why you should actually care about it.

There’s also the problem that, for a film concerning itself with (all right, all right) the crimes of Johnny Depp’s character, he doesn’t really do very much in this film beyond lurk about menacingly and occasionally make a speech: this film is clearly largely an exercise in setting up future episodes. It is actually slightly annoying, then, to have to report that those films show potential to be distinctly interesting. J.K. Rowling’s liberal credentials are well known (though she’s clearly not progressive enough for some of her more rabid fans), and there are obvious parallels to be drawn between her villain here – he’s not so much a magical realist as a magical populist, intent on whipping up his followers with an ideology based on fear and division – and certain present-day real-world figures. But more interesting still is a moment in which some of the darkness and horror of the real world breaks through into what often still feels like a quaint and whimsical setting, the children’s-book origins of which remain obvious – the characters get a vision of what awaits the world in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and the implication is that future films will deal with this in more detail.

Nevertheless, part of me remains fairly certain that the perceived need to make these films as bland as possible for box-office purposes (rumour has it that J.K. is down to her last £600 million) will triumph, and the future instalments will end up as aesthetically pleasing but dramatically inert as this one. This is not a bad film, in many ways: it has a lot of imagination and is never actually dull to watch. However, it seems calculated to either bemuse or annoy the vast majority of audiences, in part because it spends too much time complicating its story, but not nearly enough explaining why anyone should care about it.

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‘Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose hanging out in a semi-mythic patch of vegetation with CGI versions of well-loved children’s characters while a major international corporation trots out some rather hackneyed platitudes about getting your work-life balance right…’

I know I should keep an open mind, but as the prospect of viewing Marc Forster’s Christopher Robin approached, I was gripped by an ineluctable sense that I was, in some way, entering the abyss. I mean, we’ve been here before this year, haven’t we? Classic children’s story… post-Paddington CGI-live action update… big-name voice cast… In short, the spectre of Peter Rabbit loomed. An unwelcome level of further confusion was provided by the fact that only last year Domhnall Gleeson, one of that unhappy band who made up the human cast of the Rabbit movie, was to be seen playing A. A. Milne (creator, I should not need to mention, of the Winnie-the-Pooh books) in a British film entitled Goodbye Christopher Robin.

Well, anyway, no Domhnall Gleeson in this one, just a lot of Ewan McGregor. Though not quite from the start: there is a prologue restaging the closing moments of The House at Pooh Corner, one of the most profoundly moving episodes in the entirety of children’s literature. The young Christopher Robin bids a sad adieu to his childhood friends: Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Tigger and the rest (there is something slightly odd about the fact that some of the animal characters resemble animated soft toys, while others are more photorealistic). Christopher Robin and Pooh swear eternal friendship, before he departs: off to boarding school and a more grown-up world.

Eventually he grows up into McGregor, who gets married (to Hayley Atwell), fights in the Second World War, goes into business, and eventually finds himself the efficiency manager of a luggage company managed by a worthless and contemptible money-grubbing toff in a suit (Mark Gatiss, in a hairpiece so startling it almost looks computer-animated itself). The adult Christopher Robin is a bit of a workaholic, a joyless drone obsessed with the nine-to-five grind who is, needless to say, in dire peril of losing touch with the Important Things in Life. Things come to a head when he is obliged to cancel a family trip to the country by the need to come up with brutal, heartless cuts at the office: Christopher Robin is in danger of becoming a lost soul, but can anything save him?

You may very well be ahead of me on this one. It seems that the unhappiness of Christopher Robin’s life has some sort of metaphysical resonance in the fantastical realm of the Hundred Acre Wood, causing things there to be less thoroughly agreeable than usual, and this motivates Pooh Bear (inasmuch as Pooh can ever really be said to be motivated to do anything) to go in search of Christopher Robin and seek his assistance. Perhaps having to help the toys and animals is just the help he himself needs…

As I said, the trailer for Christopher Robin (a slightly odd choice of title, presumably there is some legal reason why they can’t use the Winnie-the-Pooh brand name in the title) looked worrisomely like another visit to the horrendous cultural wasteland of the Rabbit movie, right down to the climactic scenes in which the CGI characters find themselves out of their comfort zones on a trip to London. I was aware there was a possibility I might find myself spending another 104 minutes doing the Rabbit face. But like a Vietnam veteran finding himself irresistibly drawn to reenlist for another tour of duty, I went along anyway. And it is with enormous pleasure and relief that I can report that Christopher Robin is approximately 239 times better than Peter Rabbit.

It doesn’t feel like a vicious, cynical parody of the original stories, for one thing; it makes almost no attempt to be contemporary or have any kind of attitude, for another (a few aspects of the film’s post-war setting don’t quite ring true, but you would have to be a churl to make a big deal out of this). The gentle, amiable, slightly melancholic tone of the Milne stories survives very much intact – although, this being a major Disney production, we are still saddled with a Pooh who speaks with an American accent, while the characters resemble the animated Disney versions at least as much as Ernest Shepherd’s timeless illustrations (people are suggesting this is why the film is not being released in China: apparently the government has an issue with suggestions that there is any resemblance between Disney’s Winnie-the-Pooh and President Xi).

Although, if we’re talking Disney, there is obviously something just a little bit Toy Story about the premise of Christopher Robin – it’s central to the plot that, rather than being imaginary friends to Christopher Robin, Pooh and the others have some kind of odd, objective existence of their own. They are on some level ‘real’. Naturally the film never goes into this in too much detail, but it does kind of add to the slightly bleak nature of the story: abandoned toys left to wander pointlessly in their pocket universe once their owner starts to grow up… it could almost be the premise for a particularly disturbing horror movie, with the embittered, maddened toys breaking through into the real world to take revenge on the man who has forsaken them.

This is not that movie, however. This one is gentle and sweet and genuinely very funny in places, and it’s quite well-written, catching the tone of Milne even when some very un-Milne-like events are in progress (at one point Winnie-the-Pooh and the others turn up at a board meeting of the luggage company). It is also rather well played by all the human performers, particularly McGregor who basically has to carry most of the movie himself. You might hope for more from some of the better-known voice artists (Peter Capaldi as Rabbit and Toby Jones as Owl don’t get much to do), but it makes sense for the film to focus on the most famous characters.

In short, I rather enjoyed Christopher Robin – it is a rather predictable film, by any measure, and the lavishly-realised post-war England it is set in is every bit as much a fantasy world as the Hundred Acre Wood, but it has a laid-back, gentle cosiness which I found really rather appealing, even if the theme – a bittersweet meditation on what it means to grow up – may be more resonant with adults than children. But maybe this is just another sign of how woefully out of touch I am with modern tastes: the Rabbit movie has racked up $350 million at the global box office, making a sequel grimly inevitably, while Christopher Robin is languishing by comparison, with less than a third of that total. Well, maybe we really do get the movies we deserve – but if so, I had no idea we had become quite so troubled as a society. Not a happy thought, but Christopher Robin is a film which will probably stand a good chance of cheering up anyone with a soul.

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Even in our experience-intensive modern world, it turns out that people can go through their lives without ever having one of those normal, routine experiences that most of us take for granted. I’ve never ridden a bike, for example (well, to be honest there are many physical-type pursuits which are completely alien to me, mostly due to my total lack of coordination); I know other people who have never had a curry or flown on a plane. Nevertheless, the film-following contingent where I work were surprised to discover that in our midst was someone with a startling secret that they eventually decided to disclose. ‘I have never seen a Marvel Comics movie,’ our colleague announced.

I know, hard to believe, isn’t it? Well, we are a compassionate bunch and rallied round, providing advice and flow-charts about how best to rectify this, which films to watch first, and which ones to possibly skip (tougher than you’d think to decide on this stuff: personally, and I know this is controversial, I think Iron Man 3 is one of the studio’s most entertaining films, but it’s hardly essential to the ongoing meta-plot). It almost goes without saying that when the next Marvel film came around – and , let’s face it, it’s not like the wait is ever a particularly long one, even when the UK release gets delayed, as has been the case here – we took our colleague along to see it. ‘I can’t believe I’m finally going to see my first Marvel film!’ whispered our friend as the lights went down. There was much clasping of shoulders and smiling; we may actually have shared a moment, swept away on a tide of heady anticipation and self-regarding smugness.

The film in question was Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man and the Wasp, the follow-up to the same director’s Ant-Man from 2015. Of course, much water has flowed under Marvel’s bridge since then, which the film does a decent job of attempting to accommodate. As things get underway, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd, who also co-wrote the film) is coming to the end of a lengthy stretch of house arrest, as a result of his role in smashing up that airport towards the end of Captain America: Civil War. He is estranged from his former mentor Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Pym’s daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), who are on the run from the authorities for providing him with the Ant-Man suit in the first place.

But Hank and Hope are not just quietly hiding: Scott’s visit to the quantum realm of the micro-universe at the end of the first film has given them hope that Hank’s wife Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) may still be alive down there somewhere, and having been working on a plan to rescue her. It turns out that in order to do this, they need Scott’s help, and so he is quietly extracted from house arrest and whisked off to assist.

However, it turns out that many people are aware of the potential value of Pym’s shrinking technology and keen to get their hands on it, which will inevitably complicate proceedings quite considerably. Around to help or possibly hinder the trio are Scott’s old cell-mate Luis (Michael Pena), criminal and restauranteur Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), Pym’s old associate Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne), and an unstable young woman known as Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) – she’s not really evil, just going through a phase. Luckily Hank has provided Hope with her own (somewhat more capable) suit, and she has taken up her mother’s mantle as the Wasp…

Ant-Man and the Wasp is Marvel Studios’ twentieth film, although strictly speaking it should probably be the nineteenth: attentive readers may be wondering just how the plot outlined above meshes with the state of affairs pertaining at the end of Infinity War, the previous film in the series. Well, suffice to say that Marvel have got a little bit creative with the chronology of their films, and all is explained before the end of the credits (one can only hope that Ant-Man actually appears in the Infinity War follow-up). Possibly more important is another aspect of the relationship between Infinity War and Ant-Man and the Wasp – to my mind, the first film rather benefited from being released immediately after one of the studio’s less accomplished and purely entertaining films (Age of Ultron), for its breezy lightness was a refreshing contrast. Infinity War, on the other hand, is a great summation of what Marvel have achieved over the last ten years, and surely Ant-Man and the Wasp runs the risk of seeming just a bit small-time and disposable in comparison?

Well, to some extent this is true, at least – there are only a handful of characters with your actual superpowers in this film, as opposed to a couple of dozen (Fishburne does not actually get to appear as Goliath, who’s one of those characters most notable for the circumstances of their death anyway). And, like the first film, this is as close to being a pure comedy as anything that Marvel has released – although, to my mind, the films have generally been getting lighter over the last few years.

In many ways this one put me in mind of Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2, in that the key change behind the scenes is that different writers are responsible for the script. My main problem with the second Guardians film was that it didn’t feel particularly well-structured or cohesive as a story, and the same is really true here. The film kind of plays out as an extended farce or sitcom, with Scott more than once having to rush home to fool the FBI into thinking he hasn’t breached the terms of his house arrest – it’s much more about overcoming obstacles and minor antagonists than actually defeating a villain. Ghost (quite well-played by John-Kamen) isn’t actually malevolent as such, and may even strike some viewers as being somewhat sympathetic.

Certainly it’s not quite the radical development of the first film that the title might suggest: the movie still feels very much focused on Scott, although the Wasp does get some good action sequences. You might just as accurately call it Ant-Man, the Wasp, and the Wasp’s Dad (who was the first Ant-Man), because Douglas is doing good work in a prominent role. On the other hand, though, there’s a kind of conceptual progression here, building on ideas only touched on in the first film. The film’s plot may be a little underpowered and lacking in focus, but what keeps it very watchable and entertaining is the way in which the concept of things being grown and shrunk to the wrong size is explored. There’s a delightfully fantastical quality to it, particularly in the closing chase, with people, vehicles and even buildings undergoing rapid changes in scale at a frantic pace. And, of course, the film’s more comedic moments are solidly written and performed by people who are simply very good at that sort of thing. A lot of people in Marvel movies have been trying to be funny recently, but none of them are quite as good as Paul Rudd, if you ask me: one can only hope the studio makes more use of him in this respect (the campaign starts now: put Ant-Man in the Avengers!).

So, in the end, is this one of the essential keystone movies in Marvel’s project? No, absolutely not. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t an entertaining and very inventive addition to the MCU canon. I’m not quite sure where they can take these characters next, should a third movie prove forthcoming, but for the time being this is a fun, accessible, undemanding film that most people will probably enjoy.

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