Review in Brief: A Cure for Wellness (2016/17)

A CURE FOR WELLNESS is clean and cold, calculated and stylish horror. It’s about time we had a psychological scarer about that oft-heard euphemism “Going to Switzerland”. I think it’s aiming to be a scathing critique of non-stop modern work habits and the impact this has on your health (that’s not to say it’s necessarily a good idea to check in to an archaic sanatorium on a Swiss mountainside). There’s shades of the Gothic and the folkloric, elemental underpinnings and creepy contradictions and certainly the creeping dread of films like THE WICKER MAN. It should be credited for how effectively sound and music are used to build a sense of unease as well. Most critics’ ire has been reserved for three film’s final act, and that’s fair. The final 20 minutes or so of this 140 minute horror-thriller is messy, schizophrenic and squanders the revelations that have been teased for over two hours. The world-building, the atmosphere and the increasingly icky scares (if you fear eels and/or brutal dentists then look away) are all firmly in director Gore Verbinski’s wheelhouse; if only the whole affair was tightened up and thought through fully, we might have been looking at a classic rather than a curiosity. SSP

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Review: Okja (2017)

I’ve loved the work of South Korean genre-manipulator Bong Joon-ho since university. Criminally, we never got his last film SNOWPIERCER in the UK (at least not officially), so the fact that his latest, OKJA, has gone straight to Netflix is a real boon, a leap forward in film democratisation, whatever Cannes Film Festival says. Bong hasn’t lost his distinctive black sense of humour. Asking your granddaughter “Which of your parents do you miss the most?” by their graveside. Cops and animal activists slipping all over polished floors as they attempt ineffectual battle with each other. An activist taking his beliefs to the extreme and swearing off all foods. It ain’t subtle. Okja doesn’t have subtext so much as text. The meat industry is bad, the people and produce of other countries is exploited by the USA, maybe if we go know animals we wouldn’t want to eat them. And then there’s whatever Jake Gyllenhaal was doing. Bong doesn’t present us with a solution, but seems to present the problems at hand with a bit of a helpless shrug. It’s pretty entertaining, with good work from Paul Dano and young Ahn Seo-Hyun, but you won’t be as compelled when the story leaves South Korea for the film’s messier second half, no matter how cute the pig-hippo-dog of the title is. SSP

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Review in Brief: The First Film (2015)

Boast time: I’ve met David Wilkinson. He gave  a guest lecture on film distribution while I was studying Film at university. As a fellow Yorkshireman, I wanted him to be right about the first film being produced in this great Northern English county by French expat Louis Le Prince. The investigation he undertakes, the evidence he compiles and the argument he delivers is convincing, if not definitive. For me, more exciting than the story of THE FIRST FILM is the story of the first reverse-shot, but I suppose that wouldn’t be such a catchy title. Wilkinson is an engaging presenter telling a story personal to him and very keen to steer any discussion towards his side of the argument. A few more differing opinions wouldn’t have gone amiss, but I get why the final film is how it is: this could be Leeds’ time to shine, and the possibility that a Yorkshire city was at the cutting edge of a new art form shouldn’t be dismissed as ridiculous. Wilkinson’s feature documentary’ focus might be narrow, but it comes from a good place, a desire to tell an obscure story and to artistically big up your home town. SSP 

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Review: Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

spiderman homecoming

Do any spiders get acrophobia?: Columbia Pictures/Marvel Studios

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING is a case of too many cooks. This isn’t surprising considering this is a joint venture between Marvel (who provide the universe the film inhabits, plus that stamp of quality) and Sony (who retain the characters and the profits). Marvel clearly thought this one-sided deal was worth it if it meant their plans for the future of their cinematic universe required fewer lawyers. What we end up with though, is a film with undeniable highlights, but which is trying to be two very different things.

After proving himself pretty useful fighting alongside the Avengers, Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) goes back to school and eagerly anticipates his next team mission. But when the next big world-saving moment is not forthcoming, tough love superhero mentor Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) advises Peter to remain a friendly neighbourhood hero a while longer, just as a threat closer to home reveals itself…

Homecoming seems primarily concerned with being an Avengers side-story, and as such it’s a mixed bag. The “Battle of New York” from the first AVENGERS film gives the alien tech-salvaging villains their motivation, but often gets in the way of what should matter more: Peter Parker. As a high school movie it’s far more successful: light, breezy, funny and good-natured, but again you wish more time would be dedicated to Peter’s everyday as a secretly remarkable teen rather than his desire to become a full-fledged Avenger. Director Jon Watts does small-scale well, he’s good at digging into character, but I don’t know whether he’s really an action director. The fiery jet crash at the end of the film is quite impressive, and there’s a funny FERRIS BUELLER-riffing chase through suburbia, but elsewhere it’s a little action-by-numbers.

For those looking there are nods to the comics in background details and name-dropping, even some playful ripping at the Wall-Crawler’s previous incarnations. I’m not a fan of the new gadget-laden spider-suit, then again it does allows for some decent gags as Peter tries to work out what does what. The new design of the Vulture, on the other hand, is very cool indeed – steam-punky sharp edges, deadly and firmly grounded in this world’s reality.

Tom Holland was born for this role, with earnesty, an appealing groundedness as Peter and an eager spring in his step as Spidey. His chemistry with best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) is charming, the latter given most of the film’s best lines (when he discovers Peter’s secret, the first question on his mind is, bafflingly, “Do you lay eggs?”). The quality of the rest of the young cast is admirable, though not many leave a particularly lasting impression other than unusual outcast Michelle (Zendaya). Michael Keaton takes the working-class reinterpretation of Adrian Toomes/The Vulture and runs with it: he’s tough, he’s scary and he makes sense. For years the cleanup crew for superhero battle sites have remained tantalisingly off-screen, but scavenging for profit here gives the villains their whole reason for being (like a vulture, get it?).

Let’s talk about Robert Downey Jr’s glorified cameo. Because that’s what it is. Chris Evans is in the film about as much as Downey, and Captain America only appears in “stay in school kids” videos (because of course the School Board would use Cap as propaganda). I’m actually pleased he’s not in it a lot, because the Stark-Parker relationship doesn’t really work, unlike Spidey’s dynamic with pretty much everyone else in the film, even the villains.

If you haven’t seen the previous Marvel movies, you will be completely lost. This is not a Spider-Man movie you can just jump aboard. Whereas CIVIL WAR effectively and neatly truncated Spidey’s origin in a single dialogue scene, overall I feel retroactively making this character fit into this universe has made Homecoming unwieldy. Like the last couple of movies, it’s stuck with setting up future events rather than making the story at hand the best it can be. When it’s in the moment, it’s a breath of fresh air, but when it’s more interested in what is to come several films down the line it gets tiresome. SSP

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Review in Brief: John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)

JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 loses some of the original’s freshness, but it retains a tonne of entertainment value. The action scenes are inventive and bloody, of particular note a glossy ENTER THE DRAGON homage (yes, it’s a homage, not a lift: Enter the Dragon doesn’t get rights to mirrored hall fight scenes for perpetuity) and an almost casual silenced gun fight that quite literally goes over the heads of an oblivious crowd. Delving further into the world of assassins doesn’t hold up to, well, any scrutiny, though it does gift us with the pleasing sight of the assassins’ switchboard staffed by prim 40s secretaries with innocuous arm tattoos. Hokum as the mythology is, some of the bit players (notably Ian McShane and Peter Serafinowicz) look like they’re having a hell of a lot of fun explaining it all. It’s a ridiculously good-looking film too, all neon and shadows and a striking bathhouse assassination scene working out neater and more strangely beautiful than you might expect. If only more polish had been applied to the script and the lead performance, because Keanu Reeves is out-acted by his suit. SSP

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Review in Brief: Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (2016)

At least the first one had momentum. RESIDENT EVIL: THE FINAL CHAPTER represents a tired franchise thankfully put to bed (until the reboot). The competent action is made far less enjoyable by Paul WS Anderson’s usual janky editing and tendency to rip off Guy Ritchie. The script doesn’t even have the decency to entertainingly bad, it’s just completely uninspired and too much of it amounts to goodie Milla Jovovich and baddie Iain Glen snarling “damn you” at each other. The returning characters are asuninteresting  as ever and the new ones don’t really leave a mark, other than Doc (Eoin Macken), who’s cool because he fights zombies with a nail gun. There’s a big twist as well, which is staggeringly easy to guess if you pay attention to the stuff from the previous movies they’re recapping at the beginning. It’s dumb even by the standards of this series, with the undead – walking corpses – shown to give off heat signatures and Alice repeatedly abandoning her teammates or making the same mistakes she has done previously in retreads of earlier films’ action scenes. Yes, they do the laser corridor for a third time, because of course they do. SSP

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Review: Baby Driver (2017)

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What do you mean, you don’t like my playlist?: Working Title Films/Big Talk Productions

BABY DRIVER isn’t just Edgar Wright’s long-awaited return to work after being stung by a big studio. Wright’s first American film also represents his coming of age as a filmmaker. Maturity on film isn’t just about going darker or toning down your stylistic flourishes (he did both these things with THE WORLD’S END to unsatisfactory results), it’s about going deeper into character and theme and refining everything that has come before. The thing about sitting on a project for 20 years is that you’ve had plenty of time to rehearse every beat and make sure it hits.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) has a gift: as long as he has the right track playing in his damaged ears, he can make a car do anything. This talent is exploited by criminal mastermind “Doc” (Kevin Spacey) on a series of dangerous heists, and Baby goes along with it with the assurance that soon his debt will be paid. But when that day comes and Doc goes back on his word, Baby has a choice to make, a choice that may put his loved ones in harm’s way.

Not since the first GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY has a soundtrack been used so effectively to drive story and character. I think this is what most people wanted SUICIDE SQUAD to be from that first “Bohemian Rhapsody” trailer: dynamic action progressing, building, lulling, and building all over again in time to a stonking music selection. It’s not just track selection for the sake of it, the shape and structure of the whole story is inseparable from the music. The musical highlight for me is definitely a chaotic second act shootout into a foot chase set to the appropriately mad and lengthy “Hocus Pocus” by Focus.

The opening bank robbery getaway is an action masterclass, a pulse-quickening rush where you see Baby does almost supernatural things with his car. The execution of these elaborate sequences is faultless, the stunt work eye-popping, but what makes them really sing is Wright’s peppering of sight gags in and amongst it all. This might not be broadly speaking a comedy like his other work, but the humour and lightness of touch is still there if you’re looking for it. From song lyrics appearing on wall to characters bickering on the job and even a swift reprise of “er…the first one” from SPACED, Wright provides plenty of fuel for mirth.

It’s all Baby’s-eye-view, a (relatively) innocent outlook on crime. We generally find ourselves staying in the car with him as the heist happens offscreen. The debate about how far just being an accessory to crime can go is front-and-centre and our hero (mostly) refuses to cross that line. This is a real star-making turn from Elgort, and you’ll fall in love with Baby from the very first scene as he does a car seat bop along to “Bellbottoms” as his gang does crime over the road. If we weren’t invested in Baby’s story and that of his significant others – new flame Debora (Lily James) and foster dad Joseph (CJ Jones) – the film couldn’t work no matter what spectacle was on offer. We really want them to get through all this OK, highly unlikely as it is they will all be unscathed. Elsewhere supporting players can be a little thinly sketched, though Spacey’s condescending put-downs are fun (pointing out to Jamie Foxx’s Bats that it wouldn’t take a murder victim long to spell out his name on a ouija board) and John Hamm threatens to steal the show wholesale in the film’s final stretch as “Buddy”, the friendly face of psychopathy.

Baby Driver will likely end up being the feelgood film of the year and with such pleasing energy and boundless creativity on display I reckon it’s going to be a keeper. A moral gangster fairy tale about doing the right thing, or doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, it’s satisfying to see in Baby a lead character with an uncomplicated view of the complicated world he finds himself part of. Edgar Wright’s return was well worth the wait, and its great to see such a talented filmmaker not only get his groove back, but evolve as well. SSP

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TV Review in Brief: American Gods Season 1 (2017)

The Brian Fuller-fronted adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s neo-fantasy epic AMERICAN GODS for me is a great take on this material. It vividly recreates many of the weird and wonderful moments from the first stretch of the book, but the series’ greatest strengths come from deviations it takes from the text. Contemporary political and religious commentary comes via African god Anansi (Orlando Jones) and a whole load of Jesuses. But it is with Laura Moon (Emily Browning) and Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) that the show plays its strongest hand. They were both interesting but under-utilised characters on the page, but they become a fascinating reluctant double-act on screen: the giant leprechaun and the dead-wife. Their origins are tweaked, their backstories greatly fleshed out and focus shifted and humour or pathos added to their every scene. Browning is undoubtedly the series MVP and the two episodes she leads are definite highlights. Here’s hoping future seasons will bring the other characters such depth to go with the striking visuals and mad ideas. SSP

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12 for Twelve: The Best of the Twelfth Doctor

Series 10 may well be the best DOCTOR WHO series finale of the revived series. It’s certainly one of the darkest stories in the show’s history and a high point for writer Steven Moffat. Now Peter Capaldi’s time as the spiky twelfth incarnation of the time-travelling adventurer draws to an end, here’s my pick of his twelve must-see episodes.

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Would sir like to see the back?: BBC

DEEP BREATH (2014) The Capaldi years started with this cracker, an episode that explored the pain and distress of undergoing Time Lord regeneration better than any other. Life may go on, but after his latest transformation the Doctor is left with PSD and Clara (Jenna Coleman) is completely unable to recognise her friend. More of my thoughts on this episode here.

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He looks cross (sorry): BBC

ROBOT OF SHERWOOD (2014) Did exactly what it said on the tin, much like Tom Baker story ROBOTS OF DEATH. Mark Gatiss has a lot of fun with the genre shakeup, but kept things pretty simple. It’s  your classic campy Errol Flynn-esque Robin Hood story with sci-fi gubbins behind the scenes and the Doctor in an ongoing spoon-measuring contest (watch the episode) with Monsieur Hood (Tom Riley). The Crusader-shaped automatons are really cool and Ben Miller is a pleasing, pantomime-y Sheriff of Nottingham.

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Hug?: BBC

MUMMY ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2014) It’s polished and tense and features one of the most chillingly realised Who monsters of recent years. Only the victim can see their very slow, but relentless fate approaching and in a clever gimmick, only the audience can see time counting down for each unfortunate. The Doctor and Clara dress for the occasion and Who superfan Frank Skinner is a likeable guest star, though I do wonder why it had to be Mummy on the Orient Express In Spaaace…

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Hands up, who can tell me where I parked?: BBC

THE MAGICIAN’S APPRENTICE (2015) If Moffat’s tenure as Doctor Who showrunner became known for one thing (aside from nearly-always reversing death) it was retconning the Doctor’s relationship with his enemies. The Master was once a mate, the Ice Warriors just wanted a home, and genocidal madman and Dalek creator Davros (Julian Bleach)? Why, he was just misunderstood. Or was he? Moffat keeps you guessing, opening with a beautiful moral dilemma for the Doctor, throwing in Michelle Gomez’s Missy for good measure and becoming a weird chamber piece by the story’s end.

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Nope, you’ve frozen again: BBC

THE ZYGON INVASION (2015) Truly meets the story potential of a shapeshifting foe that wasn’t quite met with the last Zygon episode, THE DAY OF THE DOCTOR. It’s quite a bleak story for Who, questioning what would happen if we had no real hope of beating our alien invaders and how or if we could process them appearing as doppelgängers of our loved ones. It’s a damning critique of military action over diplomacy and throws in a fair few plot sidesteps and morally grey probing for good measure.

HEAVEN SENT (By Steven Moffat)

In a glass cage of emotion: BBC

HEAVEN SENT (2015) It’s the Peter Capaldi show! Not since Malcolm Tucker told that poor civil servant to “Come the f*** in or f*** the f*** off in THE THICK OF IT has the actor given such a fine performance. Pretty much a single-hander, the Doctor is forced to go all GROUNDHOG DAY, trapped alone for eons and tearing himself physically and psychologically apart through guilt, paranoia and punching a really thick wall.

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Will the Doctor and his partner please take to the floor…: BBC

THE HUSBANDS OF RIVER SONG (2015) It might be undemanding, but a bit of romance and a lot of fun sometimes goes a long way. It’s only one of two good Christmas Whos (the other is A CHRISTMAS CAROL, mostly for Michael Gambon) and ends up a very enjoyable romp/chase adventure. It gave us a familiar but fresh relationship dynamic between the Doctor and River Song (Alex Kingston), plus it introduced a great soon-to-be-regular character in Nardole (Matt Lucas).

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Towel?: BBC

THE PILOT (2017) The emotional punch of Series 10 was there from the start, as the Doctor becomes a semi-reluctant teacher to Bill (Pearl Mackie) and the latter falls for a star-traversing water parasite (last seen in David Tennant’s THE WATERS OF MARS) which is piloting a rather attractive girl who catches Bill’s eye. The effects are sparing but striking and elements would come back round tear-jerkingly by the end of the series.

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This is my “I’m not going to let my house kill you”  face: BBC

KNOCK KNOCK (2017) Why hasn’t David Suchet been in Doctor Who before? As the Landlord, he is greasily sinister and has plans for the students renting his big old house. A good old haunted house chiller that a little against the grain, the Doctor, Bill and her housemates do some SCOOBY DOO sleuthing before a really moving and human denouement. CG alien termites aside, it’s not a showy episode, but it’s an effective one.

doctor who eom

More tea, vicar?: BBC

EMPRESS OF MARS (2017) The Ice Warriors are the most under-used great Who villain. Who better than Mark Gatiss to bring them back (again)? A squad of plummy British soldiers are swept to Mars by a stranded Ice Warrior then have to go all ZULU as they face an “upright crocodile” hoard with their reawakened queen at their head. Against these imperialist invading aliens…the Ice Warriors have quite a fight on their hands.

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The 1960s called, they want their costumes back: BBC

WORLD ENOUGH AND TIME (2017) The nifty science concept of black hole time dilation separating the Doctor and Bill on opposite ends of a colossal spaceship makes this story’s ticking clock even more ominous than usual. We then get an eerie and poignant origin for the Cybermen, with a Cyber-hospital filled with partially converted victim-patients and the eventual return of the much creepier original Mondasian Cybermen and a surprise guest spoiled by the Beeb’s publicity department.

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This is the weirdest Mexican standoff…: BBC

THE DOCTOR FALLS (2017) Series 10’s finale gave us psychodrama in Bill’s existential crisis as a newly-converted Cyberman, a pleasing meeting between two Masters and Nardole getting to be a hero. I was a little disappointed Michelle Gomez’s performance as Missy became so dialled-down, probably to better contrast against John Simm’s impish Master. It’s a real tear-jerker of an episode with a moving mediation on death and what would be a poetic end to the whole show of the BBC were so inclined. SSP

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Review in Brief: A United Kingdom (2016)

There’s not a whole lot wrong with A UNITED KINGDOM, but at the same time there’s also very little to set the world on fire. You can imagine it becoming a firm favourite for cosy Sunday afternoon viewing in years to come. David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike are both charming and the story, of a Botswanan Prince falling for a white Englishwoman during wartime, could be a fascinating one, but I don’t think this is the best version that could be told. I understand why director Amma Asante (an obvious talent) went for the emotional angle, and Seretse and Ruth’s relationship and the many hurdles they overcome are diverting enough, but the diplomatic incident the affair caused could have been explored in more detail and the antagonists made less cartoony. More context for the time, the politics and the world in general to underlying the big emotions on show wouldn’t have gone amiss, either. SSP

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