FILM: Away (2019, Gints Zilbalodis)

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Animated fantasy-adventure Away is distributed in UK cinemas by Bilibaba, following its premiere at the 2019 Animafest Zagreb in Croatia. A teenage boy wakes up on a mysterious island where, in a stunning oasis, he befriends a small bird. Guarding the oasis is a dark, mysterious and enormous creature who can drain life forces. The boy and the bird escape the oasis on a motorcycle, after discovering a map that shows them how to get off the island, but the dark creature follows them. Will they escape to safety?

PROS

  • The hand-drawn animation gives a unique, painterly quality to every frame, with every frame exquisitely crafted and absolutely stunning to behold, emphasising that computer animation is not the genre’s be-all and end-all.
  • A charming, well-paced narrative split into four Chapters, which celebrate the magnificent beauty and wonders of nature, and the importance of friendship, all while having a rather exciting sense of adventure.
  • There is not a single word of dialogue, rather we understand what is happening from the on-screen narrative and the characters’ expressions during its arc, proving that a compelling narrative can be crafted with zero dialogue.
  • A wonderful score which is just the right accompaniment to such a stunning celebration of nature’s beauty, while the tempo reflects (and even conveys) perfectly the emotions of the boy and the bird.

CONS

  • The film is only 75 minutes long and you are ultimately left wanting more, particularly given that the narrative does end quite abruptly.

VERDICT: 9/10

PREVIEW: September 2020

Following a month which saw a fair amount of new content, I intend to get the same done in September. I will review as much as I can, including new cinema releases (it feels nice to be typing that after four months earlier this year of cinema closures). I do not know for certain what will be playing in UK cinemas (other than Bill and Ted Face the Music), as scarcely anything is being given advanced promotion on cinema websites (I guess they are just playing it safe, particularly after Disney pulled Mulan from cinema release schedules altogether).

Whatever happens, there will be a lot of content published in September, so keep your eyes peeled! Thank you as always for visiting this blog. As always, I wish you Happy Reading, but most of all wish for you and your loved ones to stay healthy and safe during these…erm…interesting times!

FILM: The New Mutants (2020, Josh Boone)

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Superhero-horror film The New Mutants is the thirteenth and final film in the wider Fox-era X-Men franchise, and is distributed by 20th Century Studios. I know, it is finally out, it just took four release date postponements, cancelled reshoots and Disney buying Fox.

Native American teenager Dani Moonstar (Blu Hunt) is knocked out by an unseen entity during the destruction of her reservation. She awakens in an abandoned hospital, where Dr. Reyes (Alice Braga) reveals to her that she is a mutant and must stay in the hospital until she can learn to use her powers safely or a cure is found. Dani soon meets four other teenagers there who are in the same boat, and who each have past traumas which they are struggling to overcome, but the more time they spend together mulling everything over, the more they realise that Reyes may have a far more sinister intention for them than she appears to or claims to.

PROS

  • An atmospheric film, thanks to the cold visual quality of Peter Deming’s cinematography, his excellent use of low-lighting and shadows, and his use of close-ups keeps the focus on how characters react to horrific situations.
  • A good ensemble cast bring the film to life, the five youngsters conveying well the fears, insecurities, vulnerabilities and uncertainties of their characters, and developing a good dynamic with each other on screen.
  • For a film with a $67 million budget, the CGI used to create the mutants’ powers is surprisingly effective and crafts them with detail and believability, while there are also some excellent practical effects and vivid injury details.

CONS

  • The film feels very constrained by its 94 minutes runtime (including end credits), with a number of scenes being quite rushed, robbing much of the mystery of suspense, while several scenes prove to be quite predictable, and the final revelations and ending to Reyes’s character arc are anticlimactic.
  • In a number of scenes, the screenwriters touch upon truly horrific things but either do not go into any depth or imply rather than show, and it simply feels like they are trying to play it safe.
  • While there is some good CGI, there is also some poor CGI, particularly in some latter scenes which are quite CGI-heavy.

VERDICT: 6/10

ADDITIONAL THOUGHT: it is definitely not one of the best films in the wider Fox-era X-Men franchise, but The New Mutants is a much better way to end a 20-year-long era of superhero filmmaking than X-Men: Dark Phoenix was.

FILM: Trolls World Tour (2020, Walt Dohrn)

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Jukebox musical-comedy sequel Trolls World Tour is the 38th cinematic release from DreamWorks Animation. Barb (Rachel Bloom), Queen of the Hard Rock Trolls, is attacking other tribes and stealing their magical guitar strings, with the aim of eradicating all other music genres. Queen Poppy of the Pop Trolls (Anna Kendrick) sets off on an adventure with Branch (Justin Timberlake) and Biggie (James Corden) to stop her. However, despite being warned otherwise, Poppy naively continues to believe that she can persuade Barb to stop with the power of friendship.

PROS

  • The animation boasts a lot of background detail and a good level of texture, which can be found especially in the incredibly useful hair of the Trolls.
  • The film is fast-paced (made more so by Anna Kendrick, Rachel Bloom and Justin Timberlake’s energetic voice performances), while there is a good message for kids at the end about how it is okay to be different.

CONS

  • The narrative is predominantly a series of uninspired and half-hearted incidents which exist to link together remixes of various pre-existing songs, the first 70 minutes feeling like little more than a series of animated music videos.
  • There is a dull subplot concerning Cooper (Ron Funches), which is used for a revelation which ultimately did not need it, and ultimately exists to pad out the runtime.
  • The film breaks the first rule of family entertainment by treating child viewers as unintelligent through the one-sided characters, lack of substantial narrative and often groan-worthy gags.
  • While the animation is detailed, it is incredibly garish and has an overabundance of bright colours thrown together, making for quite an ugly eyesore of a film.
  • Poor utilisation of a number of voice talents, including Mary J. Blige, Sam Rockwell, Kenan Thompson and Christopher Mintz-Plasse.

VERDICT: 4/10

LITERATURE: Never Say Die (Anthony Horowitz, 2017)

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British spy-thriller novel Never Say Die is the tenth in the main Alex Rider series, the eleventh in the wider franchise, and was published by Walker Books. Two months after the devastating events in Egypt, Alex receives a mysterious email which gives him reason to believe that Jack Starbright might still be alive. Desperate to find her, he returns to Egypt, to the place which caused him the most trauma. However, his investigation leads him to the Grimaldi twins (ex-Scorpia men who are amongst the most dangerous criminals in the world), who have a mysterious operation planned which involves a stolen military helicopter. Can Alex stop them and find Jack?

PROS

  • Alex Rider’s character is consistent with and logically developed from the previous novels, as Anthony Horowitz depicts him as wishing that he could live the normal life of a teenager and not miss school, as having developed almost an addiction to danger, and as having been left emotionally scarred by the horrific events of previous novels.
  • Like with all of his novels where the characters go to locations away from home, or where real-life organisations are incorporated into the narrative, Anthony Horowitz’s level of thorough research comes through in his incredibly descriptive writing.
  • Anthony Horowitz crafts suspense magnificently in his nuanced penning of life-or-death situations, split-second decision-making, and the increasingly high stakes that Alex faces and the incredibly difficult obstacles which he must overcome.

CONS

  • Scorpia Rising gave the series a logical conclusion with the loose ends tied up, and it is impossible to read this novel without the overwhelming feeling of it being an unnecessary revival, rather than a logical continuation of the series.
  • The aforementioned point stems from the fact that the reason for bringing Alex back into espionage feels (at best) contrived, the puzzle completion presents a twist that would a soap opera writer stunned, and the novel ends in a slightly contrived manner which sets up a sequel.
  • The Grimaldi twins are quite underwhelming antagonists and feel like something out of a cartoon series, while their plan feels uninspired, especially when compared to those of the antagonists in previous Alex Rider novels.
  • Some moments in which Alex takes on an antagonistic force are a little too farcical, while the final climactic action scene is somewhat heavy-handed and feels like something from a Hollywood blockbuster.
  • Continuity errors that Alex Rider fans will easily spot, such as Wolf’s true identity, Jack’s nationality and Sabina Pleasure’s age.

VERDICT: 4/10

VIDEO GAME: Spider-Man (2018, Insomniac Games)

Spider-Man, a superhero in a blue and red suit and mask with a large white symbol on his chest, swings on a strand of webbing towards the viewer. The words "Spider-Man" are written in white text behind him.

Superhero-action game Spider-Man was published for PS4 by Sony Interactive Entertainment. Superhuman crime-lord Mister Negative (Stephen Oyoung) orchestrates a plot to seize control of New York’s criminal underworld. Spider-Man (Yuri Lowenthal) learns that he is planning to release a deadly virus, and must stop him in order to save the city, all the while (in his civilian life as Peter Parker) dealing with a variety of personal problems and facing challenges in his work as Dr. Octavius’s (William Salyers) assistant.

PROS

  • The main storyline is highly compelling to play as it ultimately character-driven, making Spider-Man and Mister Negative alike multilayered characters with backstories and personalities, who go through well-realised character arcs that are developed wonderfully through the excellently written cut scenes.
  • The Spider-Man in the main storyline are a perfect blend of action and combat, investigative work and puzzle-solving, and stopping henchmen through stealth tactics that are intricately and wonderfully executed. They are intense, exciting and everything a superhero fan could ask for.
  • The Peter Parker missions in the main storyline offer compelling puzzles and challenges, and also get the player more invested in the character by fleshing out his character and implementing his relationships with Dr. Octavius, Aunt May (Nancy Linari) and Mary-Jane Watson (Laura Bailey).
  • The enormous open world New York City has beautifully rendered graphics that are absolutely gorgeous to look at, and bring stunning detail to the enormous buildings and urban landscapes. Navigating it means web-swinging between the buildings and wall-crawling, which is simply a tonne of fun to do, and which the gamer can do for ages without getting bored.
  • There are many side missions and extra challenges for the player to complete, which contain Easter Eggs to other Spider-Man stories and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, are ultimately necessary to unlock and upgrade suits and gadgets, make it a lot easier to gain the skill points needed to unlock more skills, and do a wonderful job of implementing the open world’s environment.
  • Excellent voice performances that are rich in passion and emotion from Yuri Lowenthal, Stephen Oyoung, Nancy Linari, Laura Bailey, Nadji Jeter and William Salyer; while Darin De Paul has excellent comic delivery as J. Jonah Jameson, who runs a rather witty Spider-Man conspiracy theory podcast.

NITPICKS

  • Like with all big open world games there are some very tiny glitches, although the most obvious (and hilarious one) is when (as Spider-Man you land on the pavement and civilians 15-20 feet away fall to the ground.

VERDICT: 10/10

FILM: Tenet (2020, Christopher Nolan)

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Science-fiction/thriller Tenet is distributed by Warner Bros. A CIA operative (John David Washington) is recruited by a mysterious organisation to participate in a global assignment which unfolds beyond real time. His mission is to prevent Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) – a Russian oligarch with precognitive abilities – from starting World War III, and to stop Sator will require him to master “time inversion”. However, matters are made more complicated when he befriends Sator’s downtrodden wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), and risks letting his emotions get the better of him.

PROS

  • Christopher Nolan once again proves his versatility as a director, whose handling of epic scale action is as deft as his handling of more intimate character-drama, and his nuance is seen in the fact that every background extra clearly knows what they need to do, and he also implements small details wonderfully.
  • Christopher Nolan’s direction is best seen in a wonderfully choreographed fight scene in reverse, which was achieved through Nolan’s direction and John David Washington and the stuntman he fights with, who take on the physically demanding task of playing a fight backwards.
  • This film is a true testament to the fact that CGI is not the be-all and end-all of visual effects, as the entire film is crafted using breathtaking practical effects and wonderfully choreographed stunt work, emphasising Christopher Nolan’s status as a filmmaker who pushes the boundaries of what is possible to achieve.
  • Christopher Nolan’s screenplay beautifully blends intense thriller, detailed and intriguing science-fiction, and emotional character-drama. It is easily one of his most complex to date, rich in small details, which he trusts viewers to pick up on and complete the puzzle with, never resorting to excessive exposition.
  • John David Washington and Robert Pattinson are compelling, charismatic leads who really throw themselves into the film physically, while Kenneth Branagh gives a very cold turn as Sator, and Elizabeth Debicki brings wonderfully raw emotion to Kat and has excellent chemistry with Washington.
  • Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema once again proves to be perfect for a Christopher Nolan film, as he just as skillfully frames enormous scenes of epic scale with long shots as he uses close-ups to explore characters’ emotions and make hand-to-hand fight scenes that bit more intense.
  • Jennifer Lame does an excellent job editing the fight sequences to make them fast-paced, gritty and intense, while she uses some excellent cuts in a number of scenes to emphasise how specific moments are viewed from two different time perspectives.

CONS

  • The first two-thirds of the film feel quite disjointed at times as many scenes end quite abruptly and do not transition very smoothly into the next.
  • There are some clear attempts at humour here and there throughout Tenet, most of which fall flat due to feeling contrived and out-of-place.

VERDICT: 9/10

FILM: The Hangover: Part II (2011, Todd Phillips)

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Comedy sequel The Hangover: Part II is distributed by Warner Bros. Stu (Ed Helms), Phil (Bradley Cooper), Alan (Zach Galifianakis) and Doug (Justin Bartha) fly to Thailand for Stu’s wedding. Following the Vegas incident from the first film, Stu opts for a subdued pre-wedding brunch. However, things do not go according to plan and the Wolf Pack wake up horrendously hungover in Bangkok, with no memories of the night before. If that were not bad enough though, they also soon realise that Stu’s teenage future brother-in-law – Teddy (Mason Lee) – is missing.

PROS

  • Ed Helms, Bradley Cooper and Zach Galifianakis perform with enthusiasm and their excellent chemistry with each other ultimately carries the film.
  • The film is fast-paced with real energy, which makes several scenes with notable screenwriting flaws more engaging than they otherwise would be.

CONS

  • The narrative is ultimately a half-hearted rehash of the original which can never recapture its magic due to being so unoriginal and predictable.
  • The humour just is not funny as it is unoriginal and far louder and cruder than in the first film, with the sexual humour especially going way too far.
  • Over-emphasis on the worst traits of the Wolf Pack, while Chow’s (Ken Jeong) presence is far too irritating, and Doug’s noticeable absence feels contrived.
  • Director/co-writer Todd Phillips is insensitive in his over-reliance on negative stereotypes and callous nod to the Vietnam War in the credits’ photo montage.

VERDICT: 4/10

FILM: Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014, Michael Bay)

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Distributed by Paramount, Transformers: Age of Extinction is the fourth film in the live-action science-fiction franchise. Set four years after the Battle of Chicago, Optimus (Peter Cullen) and the Autobots are in hiding as they have been deemed a threat to humanity by the US government. Hunting them down are man-made Transformers, inspired by the Decepticons, and headed up by sadistic CIA Agent Attinger (Kelsey Grammer). So when the Autobots come into the lives of mechanic Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) and his family, they must go on the run. They start planning to take down the new all powerful Decepticons, which will require the help of the Dinobots, now believed long-extinct.

CONS

  • This is the longest Transformers film at 165 minutes, yet the narrative just goes from one massive lights and CGI robot fight to another with little plot or substance in between.
  • There is a real sense of franchise fatigue due to the overabundance of robots and CGI, and it simply feels like director Michael Bay is trying to distract viewers from the enormously flawed screenplay.
  • The human story takes a backseat next to the robot fights, but the human story is tiresome and tedious as so much of it is Cade arguing with his rebellious daughter (Nicola Peltz) and her older boyfriend (Jack Reynor).
  • Appalling characterisation, with screenwriter Ehren Kruger having spent more time researching teen relationship by-laws than fleshing out the humans, several new Autobots are simply racist stereotypes, and the Dinobots do not appear until the final 15 minutes, which will not appease Transformers fans.
  • An appalling cast, with Jack Reynor and Nicola Peltz giving wooden turns and having no chemistry with each other, or with Mark Wahlberg, while Kelsey Grammer, Stanley Tucci and Sophia Miles give career-worst performances.

PROS

  • Despite it being used in over-abundance, the CGI is used very well to give scale to the robots, and give lots of intricate detail to their physical bodies and their transformations from robot to car and vice-versa.

VERDICT: 1/10

TELEVISION: Houdini (2014)

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American biopic Houdini is a two-part miniseries which originally aired on the History Channel. It tells the real-life rags-to-riches story of Harry Houdini (Adrien Brody), depicting his career (his time with the circus, and his roles as a magician, an escape artist, a secret agent and an actor), and exploring his marriage to Bess (Kristen Connolly), and his close bond with his mother (Eszter Ónodi), as well as his hate for and disbelief in spiritualists and psychics.

PROS

  • An altogether enjoyable narrative, with a good sense of mystery revolving around Houdini’s tricks and a lot of warmth in his relationship with his mother.
  • An excellent lead in Adrien Brody, who is well supported by Kristen Connolly and Eszter Ónodi, with whom he has good chemistry, while Evan Jones brings a great sense of wisdom to Jim (Houdini’s assistant and technician).
  • Perfectly positioned close-ups and well-timed tracking shots explore the intricacies and depths of Houdini’s tricks in remarkable, intricate detail, while period authenticity is enhanced by the production and costume designs.

CONS

  • Houdini’s life is better suited to a long-running series, as the narrative feels highly rushed and constrained by the miniseries runtime, into which too much is crammed, while Houdini’s work for MI5 lacks the required suspense.
  • With so much (at times heavy-handed) focus on shows and spectacles, a number of supporting characters (particularly those linked to MI5) receive little characterisation and their performers get no chance to shine.

VERDICT: 6/10