Review in Brief: Teen Titans Go! To the Movies (2018)

Sometimes there is a place to laugh at really loud and long farts and murdering Bruce Wayne’s parents by time travel. TEEN TITANS GO! TO THE MOVIES is that place. I’m a bit old for the show the film spins off from, but any fans of superhero movies (unless you think dark and moody is the only way to go, you’ll be the but of most of the jokes) should titter at some of the gags, geeky references and unapologetic silliness. For all the plot devices thrown in, this is essentially a series of linked skits, but it’s no less enjoyable for it. It’s bright, joyous and mischievous, the antidote to so many overly serious comic book adaptations over the last decade. Kids will love it, and parents, especially superhero fans, will find a lot in to like too, though they might not thank Robin (Scott Menville) for what he asks his audience to do just before the credits. SSP

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Review: Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

mary poppins returns

What have you two tired adults done with Jane and Michael?: Disney/Lucamar Productions

Like everyone who’s reviewed this what I’m going to ask is (brace yourself) is MARY POPPINS RETURNS practically perfect in every way? Not quite, but its strengths far outweigh its weaknesses and its style and intentions are quite admirable. The original is one of the most pivotal films of my childhood and this this a thoroughly in-keeping and worthy continuation of the same world and characters.

Twenty years after first wishing for a nanny from the sky, Jane and Michael Banks (Emily Mortimer and Ben Whishaw) now adults with responsibilities, worries and tragedy in their lives once again find themselves in need of their magical guardian’s help. Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) comes back to a very different Banks household looking at an uncertain future.

So let’s get the important bit out of the way: Emily Blunt is very good. She is, as many have pointed out, posher that Julie Andrews (except for one alarming music hall number where she comes over all Cockney) but she’s got the same mischievous glint in her eye and even arguably a little more of a melancholy undercurrent to her take on the character.

Filling out the adult cast (the three kids are cute and appropriately wide-eyed), Lin-Manuel Miranda is the best possible player to get in to lead the more technically complex song-and-dance numbers as lamplighter Jack and has a seemingly bottomless well of warm charisma to spare. It is Ben Whishaw though who acts everyone else off the screen, funnily enough much like David Thomlinson in the original: both bare the brunt of the dramatic heavy lifting and undergo a transformation as the story is told, though Michael has much more understandable reasons to be less indulging of his children than his father did. Jane does unfortunately feel under-served by the script and Mortimer is given little to do beyond hints at a future romance and token gestures to her inheriting her mother’s passion for campaigning.

The songs are pretty good: very hummable, nice orchestration and a layered musical and lyrical build accompanying some spectacular musical numbers. My favourite by quite a way was the bathtub/ocean extravaganza “Can You Imagine That?” closely followed by the “Let’s Go Fly a Kite”-riffing “Nowhere to Go But Up”. It’s also got not one but two songs dealing quite explicitly with grief, which was unexpected. I will say that Meryl Streep’s song (and scene) is just awful and she’s clearly only there as another eccentric “cousin” of Mary to try out another accent and to add prestige to the poster.

In a world of unnecessary CG-animated remakes this film is now the only place we can find traditional hand-drawn Disney animation in a new release. As much as I enjoyed the new takes on THE JUNGLE BOOK and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and appreciated TANGLED and ZOOPIA on their own terms, I’ve missed this. It’s even the slightly jerky, scruffy outlined but completely alive animation the studio were using in the 60s, which is a treat for fans of that era.

Aside from the wealth of imaginative visuals and ambitious mounting of the musical numbers, I wouldn’t say there are too many surprises in store(the cameos were spoiled by the marketing). You can see pretty clearly the story’s trajectory, along with inciting incidents and jeopardy to come from the off. But it’s such a cozy, well-meaning £150 musical blockbuster that you’ll hardly care.

I’m not sure what children will make of it, whether parents are still showing them the original or if whole families are being dragged along at the behest of misty-eyed adults. I watched Mary Poppins Returns with my parents, but they’ve been showing me the Julie Andrews/Dick Van Dyke one ever since I was able to gawp at a screen. Nostalgia is a powerful tool, but a certain level of craft and affection for the material helps as well. SSP

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Review in Brief: Leave No Trace (2018)

LEAVE NO TRACE is a small story with big themes and emotions. Nothing quite matches the film’s first act with father and daughter living in the wilderness, surviving, getting on but not really communicating before we’re hit with the stark contrast between the tranquility of nature and the excess noise of civilisation. Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) is young enough to adjust to a new life, being curious and optimistic by nature, whereas her dad Will will always be a damaged and vulnerable man who will never feel safe among others again. Who are we to judge what is the right way to live? The look of utter bafflement on Will’s face as he is tested by psychological profiling programme (which very quickly leaps to asking if he’s dong it “for The Prophet”) says it all really. The final act feels less organic and relies on a few too many coincidences, but the film remains a showcase for director Debra Granik and her talented actors. SSP

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Review: Bumblebee (2018)

bumblebee.jpg

Never gonna give you up… : Allspark Pictures/Bay Films

Finally, a decent TRANSFORMERS movie. Was that really so hard? Something you should know about me is that I’m a Transformers guy, that next to STAR WARS it’s the franchise of my childhood (one day I’ll post my BEAST WARS retrospective…). I’ve never done a full-length review of any of the previous movies on this blog because, frankly, there wasn’t enough to talk about. BUMBLEBEE cost about half what the previous two Michael Bay joints did, and it’s at least twice as good. They get the basics right for a start, always asking, why should we care about what happens to these characters?

Grieving for her dearly departed dad and drifting through life, teen Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) stumbles across Transformer hero Bumblebee hiding in a scrapyard. The pair form a bond quickly, but before long are being pursued by enemies both human and alien.

They definitely hired based on the eyes for this one. Who better to befriend the Transformer with the biggest eyes than the young actor with the most expressive eyes in Hollywood? Charlie and Bee’s relationship is simply charming. Their relationship being a tactile one makes a big difference as well; Steinfeld was presumably always acting to the air or to a ball on a stick, but she’s always physically connecting with her big yellow robot bud and Bee saying everything he needs to in response all without the speech he has lost. Rarely after their initial meeting are they not sharing the same shot and interacting, which goes a big way toward selling both the effect and their bond-at-first-sight. It’s also refreshing to see the tag-along for the adventure not forced straight into the role of the love interest. There’s chemistry certainly, but as Charlie says gently to Memo (Jorge Lindeborg Jr) towards the end, “We’re not there yet”.

The robo-brawling is still big and loud but isn’t it nice to always be able to tell what is going on? It’s great to see the momentum of transformation being used in fights with a strong sense of space too, giving them weight and avoiding the two indistinct-special-effects -fighting-each-other problem. There’s also only three Transformers with a major part to play in the movie; one goodie and two baddies, which is enough really.

I’ve never really understood why the Transformers still need to transform on their home planet Cybertron. Wasn’t the whole point to be Robots in Disguise to blend in among the humans and more easily traverse Earth? Also having John Cena (I didn’t know they made military uniforms in his size…) point out that the baddies have very obviously evil bad guy names doesn’t make the stupidity of the film’s American government any easier to swallow.

Not only are the period details very 80s, but so is the style of the film at large. It’s a sun-dappled teen coming-of-age movie with well-meaning but annoying parents, hissable authority figures and cheery musical montages, of course. It’s a bit John Hughes, a bit Spielberg and a bit Zemeckis basically. It’s this sameness that holds the film back a bit to be honest. Yes, it’s different to the other Transformers movies, but it’s so similar to so many other genre movies from 30 years ago, which probably knowingly is when the story is set. Still, if a formula works, it works.

We may have seen many of the beats and this shape of story before, but it is the emotional resonance and the character relationships that make Bumblebee border on special. I had a tear in my eye at the end of this film about this awkward girl and her robot bestie who turns into a car, and nothing Michael Bay has ever done really made me feel anything. Travis Knight’s (KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS) live-action debut cements his position as a storyteller gifted in both presentation and human connection (or humanoid robot, or humanoid animal representations of your parents….). SSP

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Review in Brief: Happy New Year, Colin Burstead (2018)

The only implausible thing about Ben Wheatley’s latest jet-black dramedy is that any family would willingly submit to everyone being in the same location at the same time for anything other than a wedding or a funeral. We are sent drifting through this massive house, catching snippets of overlapping, interrupted conversations, the tail ends of arguments and bad blood aplenty bubbling to the surface. The semi-improvised or improvisation embellished script along with some particularly fraught moments helps the whole thing come across as real, and perhaps suggests COLIN BURSTEAD as an interesting double feature with Thomas Vinterberg’s FESTEN (you’d watch this one second as its if not more cheerful, certainly funnier). Everyone’s on their game and play off each other in a believably petty fashion, but Ben Wheatley’s lucky charm Neil Maskell (KILL LIST), Hayley Squires (I, DANIEL BLAKE) and the ever-reliable, and unusually vulnerable-feeling Charles Dance are undoubted highlights. SSP

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Review: Aquaman (2018)

aquaman

Insert fish pun here: DC Entertainment/Warner Bros

How do you make the oft-mocked “silly” member of the Justice League work? You embrace the more out-there elements of the mythology and combine it with tried-and-tested tropes of the day. Someone’s been watching GAME OF THRONES intently. And HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON. And JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS. And a whole host of others. Admittedly, it’s an attractive genre smorgasbord that’s served up, grab-bag that it is.

Arthur Curry (Jason Mamoa), the son of a human lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison) and an Atlantean queen (Nicole Kidman) reluctantly returns home to reclaim his birthright, not before battling his devious half-brother (Patrick Wilson) and reclaiming a powerful artifact.

Straight out of the dock they dismiss the events of JUSTICE LEAGUE almost entirely with a disinterested shrug of Arthur’s massive tattooed shoulders. It’s probably for the best that director James Wan and his writers started from scratch with their story and had Aquaman operate in his own self-contained world.

I got a distinct STAR WARS Prequel Trilogy vibe from pretty early on. It’s not so much the convoluted fantasy political machinations (of which there are plenty) but more the feeling that, if the technology had been available, George Lucas would have made the Gungan capital city Otah Gunga look as bright and busy as Atlantis does here. It’s a really good-looking film but there’s almost too much visual information to process at once in some shots. The smaller-scale battles work a little better because of this; you’ll remember more of King Orm (Wilson) fending off a submarine attack on an Atlantean diplomatic meeting than you will the later full-on war between about five different armies and their chosen sub-aquatic mounts because your brain doesn’t go into shutdown.

After ANT-MAN AND THE WASP‘s almost-there de-ageing, the Aquaman team seem to have taken a step backwards. Yes, we’re back in the smooth-all-flaws-out-of-the-face school of making someone look 20 years younger. And the actors they try this on, it’s ridiculous – Willem Dafoe and Temuera Morrison were always craggy! It’s a good job they’re all good actors giving solid performances or this might  be more distracting. All the wet hair effects are very nice though.

There’s a fair smattering of funny moments, both intentional and unintentional, I think. Yes it’s amusing that Arthur isn’t the sharpest forked weapon in the treasure chest (Mamoa plays good-natured dumbness well) and a fair amount of more capable people have to help him get to where he needs to be. But the neon stat sheet for Arthur and Orm that pops up before their duel for the benefit of the arena audience is an…interesting choice that’ll either make or break the film for you.

King Orm is admittedly the stronger of the film’s two antagonists; cruel, egotistical, permanently slicked like an authoritarian barracuda (never does he look more angry than when he is thrown on land and his hair bounces back to boyish golden curls). Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is pretty dull with a predictable vengeance arc, and pretty ineffective opponent for the big guy with the trident.

I’m so pleased they got Aquaman riding a seahorse, kicking ass. Nobody kicks quite as much ass as Amber Heard’s Mera though, demonstrating her aquakenesis to a variety of creative and deadly effects. Speaking of Mera, for much of the plot she’s far more useful and level-headed than her bulging Bro-seidon, yet she has to defer to him because it’s a Chosen One / Divine Right of Kings story. They even ask at one point, “What could be better than a king?” Even underwater civilisations completely and utterly removed from humanity apparently don’t value female rulers as highly, which is depressing.

Aquaman doesn’t quite make landfall with this standard origin story weighed down by plot flotsam. But it’s got enough visual dazzle, momentum and enjoyable performances to make it worth a quick dip. By the way, I don’t think I got enough sea creature jokes in this review. SSP

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Review in Brief: Mandy (2018)

When I saw them use the old Universal logo just because I already really liked this movie. Then when they finally presented us with the MANDY title card more than halfway though the thing I liked it even more. Writer-director Panos Cosmatos does a fine impression of David Lynch directing a Clive Barker script – all the leather fetishists, gore, disdain for plot and ambiguously supernatural elements you could possibly want. It takes place in “The Shadow Mountains, 1983 AD”. In Prog Rock font. Everyone’s got these creepy, unreadable shark eyes, except for Nicolas Cage who uses his for unhinged staring into space. I’ve never seen shot transitions like this, so hallucinatory, so nauseating and hypnotic. Cage does laps around the stages of grief in spectacular fashion in his pants. He escapes from barbed wire restraints at one point so the next time they nail him to the floor. It’s brilliantly bonkers. SSP

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Review in Brief: Tomb Raider (2018)

The quest for the great, even good video game movie (as opposed to a few decent examples of movies about video gaming) continues. The latest TOMB RAIDER is unengaging, lifeless and features a depressing amount of obviously fake jungle sets. At one point someone actually shouts “Quick! Check the other prayer wheels!”. It’s the new Tom Hanks exclaiming “I need to find a library!”. Lara (Alicia Vikander) is a massive disappointment even at the character conception stage: refusing to touch a fortune she hasn’t earned but still wanting the free and easy hipster life and with daddy issues as her only real trait beyond tenacity. All the more interesting characters either disappear for over half the film (Daniel Wu’s rusty captain Lu Ren) or are built up for a hypothetical sequel (Kristen Scott Thomas’s Machiavellian CEO Ana Miller). The film even stops dead to promise a more interesting adventure next time rather than wrapping up this story properly. SSP

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Looking Back and Looking Forward: 2018, Part 2

Before I get down to looking at the very best and the very worst films of 2018 (Part 1 of this list can be found here) I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a couple more that weren’t necessarily my favourites but stood out from the pack.

Honourable Mentions:

infinity war

Marvel

The Miraculous One: AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR Marvel pulled off their 10 year gambit. All that setup, the knowing references, the leaving something for next time and the post credit stings that have hamstrung lesser studio imitators resulted in a thematically evocative and emotionally devastating epic. Surely they can’t do it again next year? They might, and don’t call me Shirley. Full review here.

mandy

SpectreVision

The Beautifully Demented One: MANDY I never knew just how much I wanted to see Nicolas Cage downing a bottle of vodka and screaming in his tighty whiteys. It’s probably the most sedate scene in this sanguine-soaked fever dream full of prog-rock trappings, portentous monologues and borderline-fetishy violence. Review in Brief to follow.

blackkklansman

Blumhouse

The One That Matters Now: BLACKKKLANSMAN Whatever your opinion on Spike Lee, when he’s got the biggest, most relevant contemporary topic to get really and justifiably livid at, he shines. It’s ferocious, uncompromising and mischievous – the kick up the arse 2018 needed. John David Washington and Adam Driver need recognition come awards season. Full review here.

Best of 2018:

widows

See-Saw Films

5. WIDOWS Never underestimate anybody, but know that relying on underestimation can only take you so far. The only Steve McQueen film likely to prompt voluntary repeat viewings is completely captivating, flawlessly performed and gearing up to shake up the status quo. Full review here.

they-shall-not-grow-old-movie-poster

Trustees of IWM

4. THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD Get a copy into every museum and every school. Make sure these men and their stories are not forgotten in another 100 years. Peter Jackson has made something more than a documentary to mark an anniversary, but something remarkable and soulful, an artifact with an emphasis on the “art”. Full review here.

shoplifters

Fuji Television Network

3. SHOPLIFTERS Family is family, and that’s the key theme of most of my favourite films this year. This is sedate and naturalistic and beautiful, leading with emotion but backing it up with some pretty cutting social commentary and great acting from veterans and newcomers alike. I challenge you to not feel a tear on your cheek in its final moments. Full review here.

spiderverse

Sony

2. SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE What an absolute joy from start to finish. It just gets the character so completely and presents a new and ambitious story in dazzlingly animated fashion. It made my heart race, it overwhelmed my senses, it made me guffaw – it was the most fun I’ve had at the cinema this year. Full review here.

private life

Netflix

1. PRIVATE LIFE Some films just connect, even if you can’t directly relate to the experiences on screen. I’m not a parent, am unlikely to be any time soon but this funny, honest and unglamorous little film brought it all home to me, grabbed hold of my heart and wouldn’t let go. The quietly beautiful humanity of the script and Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti’s tender performances made it truly special. Full review here.

Worst of 2018:

extinction

Netflix

5. EXTINCTION Netflix have had a good year but a couple of stinkers as well to keep them humble. This sci-fi wastes good ideas and drains Michael Peña of any charisma. If you think the story’s going to some interesting places from the setup, you’re wrong: it’s taking a far duller path than you can imagine. Review in Brief here.

happytime murders

Henson Alternative

4. THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS Sometimes your enticing premise just doesn’t pay off. You can hire all the talented production designers and performers – both with and without felt characters to operate – that you like. Sometimes all your hard work is let down by a crude, first-draft script. Sometimes you should just watch MEET THE FEEBLES again. Full review here.

Venom-Poster-New_1200_1703_81_s

Sony

3. VENOM I can’t say I didn’t have some fun here, but it was all accidental. I’d suggest you just watch one of what I’m sure are many Tom Hardy supercuts on YouTube then use what remains of the two hours you could have wasted on this elsewhere. It’s tonally wonky, retrograde in its action and edited to near incomprehension. Full review here.

Cloverfield_paradox_poster

Netflix

2. THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX Look again at number 5 and imagine you’ve just dropped something heavy on your foot as well. An interesting cast wasted, plot strands dropped at random and zero reason for this to be a CLOVERFIELD film except for cynical brand recognition.  Review in Brief here.

crimes of grindelwald

Warner Bros

1. FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD This could have just been overblown, messy (which it actually is) but harmless (which it actually isn’t). Instead we’ve ended up with JK Rowling and David Yates presenting us with a blockbuster that not only trips up over itself to throw in twist after twist but also proclaims Wizard Hitler is preferable to actual Hitler. Of course he is, because wizard Hitler isn’t real! Full review here.

Let me know your thoughts on my thoughts, how did our best and worst movie experiences of 2018 compare? Happy New Year, here’s hoping for a better one! SSP

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Review in Brief: Thoroughbreds (2017/18)

THOROUGHBREDS is made in its script. It’s deliciously dark and full of wittily pragmatic musings on humanity like “I have a perfectly healthy brain, it just doesn’t contain feelings”, and “The sawdust smells fantastic, but you’re still in a hamster cage”. Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy both play twisted human beings, two troubled teens gearing up to do something horrific, but they’re beguiling, even sympathetic in their reasoning for committing monstrous acts. Their strength of character and confidence in the screenplay shines through in the number of scenes where the camera just sits back and lets the scene play out in a single take, coming across as improvised but presumably heavily choreographed. Your heart breaks all the more for Anton Yelchin’s early passing seeing the ease in which he brings depth to a character who could easily be another one-note stoner. Thoroughbreds is an entertainingly warped character piece and an attention-grabbing calling card for writer-director Cory Finley. SSP

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