The Revenant: Blood, Simple.

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In 1850, Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote of nature as ‘red in tooth and claw’, and he hadn’t even seen ‘The Revenant’. Fresh from lampooning actors in ‘Birdman’, director Alejandro González Iñárritu has put aside satire for savages in a deceptively simple exploration of violence, pain and survival. Will it win big this awards season? As surely as ursine defecation in the boscage.

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Spectre: Neither Shakes Nor Stirs

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This review contains minor spoilers.

Twenty twelve was a ruddy good year for us Brits. Her Maj the Queen celebrated 60 years of wrist-waving, we hosted a big Sports Day, and we were treated to arguably the best James Bond film ever in Skyfall. Sam Mendes’ first foray into the iconic franchise was brave enough to combine classic Bond camp (Bassey-esque song! Javier Bardem’s hair! Komodo dragons!) with a Freudian emotional core. Turning Judi Dench’s M into a Tennyson-quoting Bond girl/surrogate mother was a stroke of plotting genius which, along with the largely London-set action, created a Bond film that was surprisingly introspective, fitting into cool Britannia sentiment as snugly as an MI5 agent in an Aston Martin.

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Age of Ultron: Pinocchio, But More Wooden

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Weirdly, while watching this latest Marvel box-office guzzler, I thought of Tina Turner. Few would put Tina on the pedestal of Earth’s mightiest thinkers, but as I watched another guy in a metal suit punch another robot into another crumbling building, I couldn’t help returning to the wailed adage with which she introduces Mad Max 3: we don’t need another hero.

Marvel Studios show no signs of getting this message, and have recently announced that they plan to keep the gormless masses enticed by superhero films into the next decade. Adding DC’s Justice League output into the mix, it looks like we are going to have at least three big superhero films per year for the next five years. Judging on how unengaging and predictable this latest iteration is, that time might turn out to be more exhausting than ten rounds with the Hulk.

Occasionally Marvel creates something which has integrity and originality, as seen with the first Avengers, The Winter Soldier and last year’s surprise hit, Guardians of the Galaxy, but as this cinematic world has become more gargantuan, it has become a muddled and aggressively-corporate franchise. Age of Ultron is everything you would expect a sequel to be; it is essentially a genetically-mutated version of its predecessor. It is bigger, louder and darker, but it is incredible that a film so full of ‘stuff’ leaves its audience with little more than a ringing in the ears.

The ‘stuff’ in question regards artificial intelligence and the future protection of the world, but don’t bother asking anyone to explain the nuances of the narrative. We start big, with a team assault on an Eastern European castle to retrieve Loki’s magic sceptre, and in truth this is a thrilling, witty sequence which expertly reintroduces us to the super team and some new adversaries. MacGuffin acquired, Tony Stark (a character now welded to the body of Robert Downey Jr) starts work on a sentient robot force that will one day make the Avengers programme obsolete. A few concerned looks, some science talk and a montage later, everything goes tits up and AI badass Ultron (voiced by James Spader) is born, a psychotic, evil mirror of Iron Man determined to destroy the world because… Well you see he… There’s this… Erm… Nah, you got me.

There is great potential for Ultron to be a terrifying villain, and director Joss Whedon draws out lots of good parallels with Frankenstein and Pinocchio. Ultron’s ditty of choice is ‘I’ve Got No Strings’ from Disney’s version of the latter tale, and there are moments where he demonstrates daddy issues with Stark that would give Bruce Wayne nightmares. James Spader’s voice work is sarcastic and occasionally very funny, much like Loki in the previous film, but his lack of motive reduces any fear factor. Furthermore, you see far too much of him, and it might have been interesting to continue the Pinocchio vibes and have Ultron as more of a puppet-master, lurking in the shadows.

Ultron is helped in much of the film by the Maximoff twins, Pietro and Wanda (“he’s fast, she’s weird”), who are so astoundingly Eastern European that they wear Hummel casual-wear. Aaron Taylor-Johnson moves so fast that he barely makes a mark on the film, but Elizabeth Olsen fares better with some impressive finger-twiddling and a comedy accent (the film is so full of them that it resembles a Carry On in parts). These new characters have a bungled back story involving a Stark-approved bomb that apparently gives them a motive, but it’s all rushed through in order to get back to the total levelling of cities.

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The obscurity of Ultron’s plan is not helped by the fact that much of the film appears of have been written by Basil Exposition. At his best, Whedon writes zippy dialogue between the Avengers, and this is seen in a dick-swinging episode where the male heroes attempt to lift Thor’s hammer (the gag is continued later to great effect). But too often the script slips into discussion of ‘neurones’, ‘matrices’ and ‘vibranium’, which is totally alienating and, put simply, makes much of the film rather dull.

It’s not just the writing which makes it difficult to keep up – the pacing and structure are remarkably poor. Clearly there is a lot to get through here, but lots of important details are washed over in favour of smashing, fighting or advertising. Despite the importance placed on action here, the second act bizarrely becomes an Abercrombie advert, in which everyone puts on a checked shirt and chops wood. No, really. Here Whedon is struggling to tell a standalone Avengers story while also being pressured into introducing the next phase of Marvel films. Ultron travels to Africa to set up Black Panther; Thor takes his top off in a cave to set up his next film, while the post-credits sting ties everything to Guardians of the Galaxy. The first thing to end up on the cutting room floor is motivation for actions, and we see the characters travel from South Africa to London to Oslo to Seoul to the fictional state of Sokovia with no real indication of why they are doing this.

Well, the trip to Korea is easy enough to explain, as is the casting of Claudia Kim as Dr Helen Cho. Among all the Gilette razors and Audi convertibles, it is now common to include Asian actors in minor roles and Asian locations, in order to sell more tickets in the exploding Eastern market. This is all very cynical of me, but I find these moments totally disorientating, and they are in fact a hindrance to the development of narrative clarity and pathos. As well as this, Whedon tries hard to incorporate a conveyor belt of characters from the last decade of Marvel cinema. Just when you think you’ve worked out what the hell is going on, you’ve got to deal with Black Iron Man, Black Eye Patch Man and Black Bird Man. I am being irreverent, but there is certainly something important to say about Marvel’s flurry of pointless roles played by minority actors. Here, Dr Cho and Co do nothing more than tick a BAME box, and it seems as though you can only be in the Avengers if you’re white, male, or you’ve got big tits.

In a way Whedon’s Frankenstein comparisons permeate the world outside of this film; he and Marvel have created a monster in this never-ending franchise, and torches and pitchforks ain’t gonna be much good against intergalactic gemstones.

Kingsman: Royally Irreverent

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Imagine the surprise you might get if 007 sauntered into a Monte Carlo bar, leant deftly on the counter, gave that smoky glare to some bodyconned broad, and then, in a broad Wigan accent exclaimed: “‘Ere, love, get us a WKD and some hog rind will yis?” This shock is pretty much what you get with Matthew Vaughn’s tribute to the spy game, Kingsman: The Secret Service, which borrows heavily from Bond and many other things to leave the Martini well and truly shaken.

But what did you expect from the man who gave us a tweenage C-Bomber and an Irish Magneto? Here Vaughn has dropped the seriousness and reality of Bourne and recent Bond, instead opting for an endlessly intriguing, sometimes offensively subversive genre-flick which might already be in the running for the most entertaining film of the year.

We follow the Kingsmen, a super secret intelligence agency which is so under the radar that they haven’t heard of employment equality regulations. Yes, the Kingsmen are certainly a throwback; an army of white, horn-rimmed, Savile Row-suited men from a time when going to Oxbridge was a realistic first step to becoming a spy, instead of the inevitable gap between school and consultancy. They are, indeed, so out of touch that they take their code-names from Arthurian legend.

Looking forward into a future where ‘bespoke’ is more likely to refer to a London burger than to a tailored suit is Harry Hart (Colin Firth), a sophisticated Kingsman who handily comes with some plot-driving baggage. After he is unable to save the life of a fellow agent, Harry takes on the challenge of mentoring his old partner’s tearaway son, Eggsy (Taron Egerton, all innits and bruvs). While this will help heal emotional wounds, the recruitment of rudeboy Eggsy is a big faaaaack off to the establishment.

In Egerton, Vaughn has found a fantastic and unlikely leading man. His performance in no way mirrors the 2D, aggressive street kids found in the early work of Noel Clarke; instead he has true warmth and charisma to carry this film. Even when he only seems to be saving the world for a bit of bum fun with a Swedish princess (yes, really), it’s hard not to root for the kid.

Of course, all this has been done before in the guise of Men In Black or The Mask of Zorro. Much of the film is taken up with Eggsy’s test to be accepted into the Kingsmen, where he must duke it out with the Rufuses and Digbys of the world. While this segment is hugely entertaining, including underwater puzzles, parachute jumps and a particularly adorable pug, it is a complete re-hash of Will Smith and his chipped shoulder, which we saw almost twenty years ago.

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That said, Kingsman appears to delight in riffing on and subverting what has come before. In one particularly knowing scene, Harry has a discussion with techno-genius and villain Richmond Valentine (a lisping Samuel L. Jackson) about how they prefer the silliness of the old Bond films. Elsewhere, there are jokes about monologuing and pointlessly extravagant deaths, and even two new takes on Rosa Klebb’s dagger shoe. The first is a more lethal but recognisable blade; the second manifests itself in Gazelle, the most dangerous thing on no-legs since Oscar Pistorius. (I am also convinced that there is a VERY niche reference to You Only Live Twice, in a moment where Valentine mishears the word ‘locks’ for ‘lox’, the American name for smoked salmon. Bond geeks will know this as a clue which momentarily flummoxed Sean Connery in one of the more racist Bond entries.)

The film doesn’t really undo its bow tie until the bonkers final act, and while Vaughn is in danger of throwing too much stuff at the wall as we approach the climax, the final hour or so is nothing if not stupidly exciting. From an exhilarating mêlée in a Bible Belt church to the head-exploding final scenes, some audiences will find the video-game violence too much. As Vaughn plays around with his own version of New Year’s Eve fireworks (taking something from V For Vendetta) these prudish types may be squirming in their seats, longing to nestle in the comfort and security of Connery’s chest hair.

There is plenty to admire here, and it is refreshing to see a mainstream film which is comfortable to do its own thing and make its own rules. It is difficult to maintain this fizziness for the duration of the film, and indeed, not all of it works. Jackson’s villain has some nice touches (his aversion to blood is used to great comic effect) but his plan is just plain odd. The film never keeps still long enough for you to scrutinise his motives and decisions, but he certainly does not come across as threatening. In fact, the most dangerous thing about him is his insistence on wearing a cap indoors, something which would no doubt disgust the sartorially intricate Kingsmen.

In many ways, Kingsman is an exercise in style over substance, expertly polished like the Oxfords of Harry Hart. But honestly, when the suit’s from Savile Row, one really could not care less.

The Inbetweeners 2: Gross Outback

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The morning after the night Simon’s ball bag popped out at the charity fashion show is etched on my memory like ‘I Love Carly D’Amato’ on a suburban driveway. Not only do I remember sharing the OMG, water cooler moment with my fellow filthy-minded sixth formers, but I also recall the tacit understanding between both students AND teachers that we had all seen a testicle on telly last night, and we would never be the same again.

This was the universal appeal of The Inbetweeners. Despite being set firmly in the noughties, a world of instant messaging sound-tracked by The Wombats, people up and down the country, of all ages, saw themselves in the four unlikely lads. While creating a new socialect (‘fwend’, ‘clunge’, ‘bus wanker’), the show drew comedy out of commonality: your first car; passing exams; getting wasted because of boredom; unrequited love. It was, in effect, the right show at the right time. Grange Hill and Byker Grove dealt with ‘real’ issues, but were never representative of how teenagers can be lovable fuckwits.

Inevitably, The Inbetweeners ran out of steam in its final third season. Jay would say something about copulation, Will would make a sarcastic comment, Neil would grin idiotically and Simon would tell everybody to ‘Fuck off’ with unrivalled exasperation. It was still wholly honest, but a little predictable, and the writing did not allow for the necessary emotional development that is needed by all great series.

This lack of momentum was hardly fixed in the first film three years ago, which, although it had its moments of tittering, looked amateurish and closer to Hollyoaks than Hollywood. But of course, it became the most financially successful British comedy ever and a sequel was inevitable, even though the cast are pushing 30. The early signs were worrying, with late promotion and laugh-free trailers, but The Inbetweeners 2 is an occasionally mature, frequently side-splitting, often disgusting curtain call for Rudge Park Comp’s most famous alumni.

After their disastrous trip to Malia, there was talk of the quartet being good New Labour hangovers and wasting their time at uneh, but unsurprisingly only Simon (Joe Thomas) and Will (Simon Bird) made it. Even more unsurprisingly, they both hate it: Simon cannot shake off his hoodie-destroying girlfriend, and Will is getting bullied because he doesn’t understand life. Village idiot Neil (Blake Harrison) is plodding along in a bank, where he boasts that he is the cleverest non-Asian in the group. During a sad evening at the pub in Bristol (energised only by the sight of Neil’s drooping bollocks), the trio receive an email from Jay (James Buckley), who claims to be living like Tony Montana in a Cribs mansion, surrounded by silicone honeyz who use fellatio as his alarm clock. Enticed by the thought of girls being down under, and with no explanation of how they get time off uneh/work or how they get the funds for a short-notice flight to Sydney, the boys head to Oz, presumably via the Swelling Prick Road.

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Those expecting a 90 minute music video will obviously be disappointed, as Jay’s bullshitting ability is magnified by the change in time zone and the boys actually have to sleep in a tent in Jay’s uncle’s garden. Fortunately, a chance meeting with Will’s old school friend propels our heroes into the Australian experience. Where the first film parodied the raucous inebriation of Brits abroad, this attempts to lampoon the Gap Yah generation, the moneyed and pretentious youths who convince themselves that they are ‘travelling’ rather than on holiday. In a short time, writers/directors Damon Beesley and Iain Morris explore awkward hostel sex, dreadlocked white people with double-barrelled names, camp fires and superficial discussions about ‘closed-mindedness’. In one moment of extraordinary clarity, Jay looks at the fire and questions: “Why is there always some cunt with a guitar?”

This send-up is a constant chundering of excellence, inducing big laughs and cringing. Will’s school friend Katie is the kind of girl whose Facebook profile picture depicts her cuddling a mass of Africans, and she vaguely harps on about ‘spirituality’ like it’s as simple as scratching your bum. Oh, and she greets people by kissing them ON THE MOUTH. Beesley and Morris do well to make you hate her, thus intensifying the tragedy of Will’s infatuation with her.

By far the stand-out comedic moments take the flirtations with gross-out comedy seen in the TV series and cranks them up to FML. A day at the water park seems like a fun chance to see some babes in bikinis, but instead Neil’s IBS gives a modern, terrifying twist to the ‘log’ flume. I haven’t wanted to simultaneously laugh and vomit in the cinema so much since Borat and Azamat Bagatov had a naked wrestle. Elsewhere, if you like gags about pissing on faces, urine for a treat. In fact, I can’t remember a comedy that so liberally showed the flaccid phallus, a motif which reaches a horrible climax (steady…) in a credits scene in Thailand.

Certainly, these set pieces are far more successful than any jokes in the script, but thankfully the writing has left some space for moments of true heart and quiet reflection. There is great tension between the boys at various points, but this is never melodramatic and doesn’t bog down the comedy. Instead, scenes of forgiveness are swift and poignant; totally reflective of the ungrudging forgetfulness of teenage boys. Like the series, we are treated to a few important moments with Jay’s bullish father, the reason behind Jay’s deep self-loathing. In a disgustingly touching moment, Jay wonders whether his dad should have just spunked on his mum’s arse instead of impregnating her. You’d cry if you weren’t so disturbed.

As expected, the film cannot sustain what it does well for the entire running time. Some comedic strands completely fall flat, including Jay’s idiot of an uncle and Neil’s odd encounter with a dolphin. This adds unnecessary minutes to the finished product and makes the bizarre, Beckettian final act almost unbearable to watch. Even then, the Happy Days homage is too neatly wrapped up, and it seems that the arid wasteland of the outback dries up the laughs in the end. For sure, be it at the water park or knee deep in clunge, life for the Inbetweeners is much better down where its wetter.

Guardians of the Galaxy: They’rrrrre Groot!

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This review contains minor spoilers.

In one of the final shots of Star Wars, we see the droids, Luke, Chewie, Leia and Han lined up on a stage, proudly puffing out their chests after being honoured for blowing up the Death Star. On the surface it is a simple scene of triumph, tying up the loose ends and letting us know that, after all, the good guys will walk away with the medals. But it is important to remember that two hours ago, the audience couldn’t tell a Wookie from a Womp Rat, and now we are whooping (and crying) for the success of the Rebel Alliance. To achieve this depth of characterisation in a short time is an incredible feat, particularly in today’s blockbuster climate where spectacle comes before relationships.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel’s new frontier into space operatics, takes all the great lessons about narrative, pacing and character learnt from George Lucas and invigorates them with new colour and a twenty first century irony; this is Fnar Wars, a meta-cinematic, shamelessly exciting and often hilarious take on the increasingly predictable superhero genre. It speaks volumes that about halfway though the film, director James Gunn plays around with his own Star Wars identity parade. The Guardians walk towards the camera in slow motion, but there are no beaming faces and proud posture here; instead, one member is scratching his rodent balls, while another yawns, seemingly bored with saving the world.

So who exactly are these Guardians? Well, originally they ain’t that heroic, and are thrown together through chance rather than a shared desire to protect alien-kind. First we meet Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), an Earth-born petty crook with delusions of grandeur (he’d rather be called Star Lord, which I’m sure is a Bowie alter-ego). He was abducted by aliens in the 1980s, and and has taken much of that culture into other universes: his spaceship is lined with Troll Dolls, he references Indiana Jones and he is totally protective over his cassette walkman and mixtape, from which a lot of the film’s soundtrack comes. In an opening ripped from Raiders of the Lost Ark, Quill struts around a cave to funk music, using a space critter as a microphone, before nicking a powerful MacGuffiny orb.

It’s this orb that brings Quill together with the other Guardians. Genetically modified warrior Gamora (Zoe Saldana) wants the orb for her own financial gain, while bounty hunting duo Rocket (a talking raccoon-ish creature voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (a vocab-limited walking tree voiced by Vin Diesel) want the price attached to Quill’s head. In a vibrant four-way metropolis brawl, the quartet are arrested and thus begin their friendship, with room too for aspergic brick shithouse Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista). Even describing the Guardians feels like Homer Simpson’s film pitch about a time-travelling talking pie, but Gunn has a clear vision here and is just asking you to roll with it, however much of a space oddity it is.

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Despite its strangeness, it is difficult to think of a film since the first J.J. Abrams Star Trek which is as consistently impressive. This is partly down to the joyfully anarchic tone, which finds room for childish bickering, soul music and dance-offs amid prison breaks and intergalactic dogfights. What’s more, Gunn allows his characters to breathe, never sacrificing characterisation for explosions. As mentioned, these are not heroes, and come with believable, engaging baggage. Quill’s eternal cockiness and Drax’s concrete exterior cannot hide the regret they feel over losing family members, Gamora has some (admittedly quite bungled) sister issues, while Rocket and Groot have moments of frightening violence which challenges how cuddly they seem.

This makes Guardians quite a morally difficult work, as Gunn is asking us to root for a team of sociopaths who leave a massive body count in their wake, and this is partly solved with some exploration of ‘the greater good’. It helps, also, that there is a tenderness between the group, seen in Drax’s warped protectiveness over Gamora, and Groot’s auto-function to save Rocket from danger at all costs. There are essays to be written about every member of the Guardians, and curiously, most of the writing on Rocket and Groot has already been penned in GCSE work on Of Mice and Men. In the short, organised genius of Rocket and the large, dim yet loving Groot we have a space age interpretation of George and Lennie, a comparison that reaches a tear-jerking climax in the final scenes.

If there is one thing detracting from the sheer entertainment of Guardians, it’s the shoddily underwritten villains. Lee Pace as Ronan the Accuser is terribly miscast, perpetually frowning like a grounded teenager and moving awkwardly in black robes that don’t quite seem to fit. Elsewhere, Karen Gillan doesn’t break past scowling bitch face and Djimon Hounsou doesn’t seem to know what planet he is on. The outlaw behaviour of the Guardians might be slightly more acceptable if the were fighting against a threat that made them look saintly, but aside from some fabulous accusing, the antagonists here are more Ivan Ooze than Darth Vader.

This is, however, a minor quibble. The success of Guardians rests on the carefully explored camaraderie of the team, and the trust Marvel have in Gunn’s relaxed tone. As the closing moments play out to ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ and the Jackson 5, it’s impossible to feel anything other than total ecstasy, while looking up the practicalities of keeping raccoons at pets.

Review of the Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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Oh my god, it’s back. All this time… They finally really did it. Those maniacs! They used ‘of the’ twice in another movie title! Ah, damn you! Damn you all to hell!

In fact, there are fewer people giving this movie its full title than there are calling for Tim Burton’s return to the franchise. Thankfully, the wordiness of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes doesn’t detract from the fact that this is a superbly made if occasionally predicable tale of goodies against baddies which will make you truly proud to be a primate.

Set ten winters (Orang-utan for ‘ten years’) after the Planet of the Apes rose, we find ourselves in a post-apocalyptic San Francisco. It’s not a good year to be a Bay City Roller; after Godzilla ravaged San Fran last month, it now finds itself with its population ravaged due to Simian Flu, contracted from the genetically modified apes in the first film. Those who are immune to the virus hole up under the megaphoned guidance of Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), but they are quickly running out of fuel. Across the bridge lives a colony of apes, led by Caesar (Andy Serkis), who have built a wooden fortress reminiscent of the native island in Peter Jackson’s King Kong: the torches, stone pits and angular branches make this a threatening place, even though the apes are at peace.

There is mistrust between the humans and apes, but no hostility until Everyman Malcolm (a serviceable Jason Clarke) ventures into the forest in order to fix a dam that will bring power back to the city. He and his rag-tag team of two dimensional grunts don’t wish to be a pain; just get in, do a job and leave without aggravating chimps to throw their shit at them, and diplomatic Caesar, remembering his past with James Franco, is happy to ignore his sceptic followers and oblige the outsiders. Bizarre really, that a Hollywood blockbuster could centre on a faulty dam, but the simplicity of this plot point allows director Matt Reeves to explore poignant moments of trust, family and revenge without getting bogged down in narrative.

It might surprise audiences that there is not much here to surprise. Naturally, tensions between the apes and the humans are never wholly alleviated, as Oldman’s crew back in Frisco are preparing for war while Malcolm attempts at peace, and this is where the film has the feel of a history play. In effect, Serkis as Caesar is very significantly playing the role of the Roman Emperor; he must think of the greater good, the safety and future of his clan, and also consider relations with other groups, all while surrounded by flatterers and dissenters. Thanks to the motion-capture performances, you can really see Serkis making metaphorical chess moves in Caesar’s head, weighing up the delicate politics of his situation and acting accordingly. Caesar is not merely a clever chimp: he expresses all the qualities of a top general who will soon be in control of the human race.

As mentioned, not all apes are hailing Caesar, and this film has its own Brutus in the form of bananas bonobo Koba (Toby Kebbell), who had a bad experience with humans in a lab and certainly doesn’t want to be anything like you-ooh-ooh. The apes have developed sign language and a crude (although grammatically perfect) form of English, but they are strongest in their understanding of tragic themes: forgiveness; loyalty; revenge. It is around these poignant ideas that Caesar and Koba face off. First, the bonobo is the reluctant disciple, then the rogue revolutionary, and eventually a murderous tyrant. He even gets his own version of a back-stabbing scene. If that’s not a Shakespearean character arc then I don’t know what is. In his utter disregard of peace and mistrust in anything human, Koba is a truly terrifying movie villain, often acting with chillingly spontaneous aggression. Fans of the World Cup have probably already seen Koba in action during half time of Argentina-Holland (no, not Adrian Chiles): he was the ape larking around with a machine gun before coldly killing two human henchman. Parents, quite rightly, complained that this was too violent for the half time show, and it doesn’t even come close to the limit of Koba’s inhumanity.

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As with the previous film, this is not about apes vs humans, but rather apes vs apes and humans vs humans. Part of the reason why the film is so engaging for its two hour plus running time is because you never quite know with whom to side, particularly with the original 1968 version in mind. Neither Caesar nor Malcolm are  interested in bloodshed, but they realise that peace between species is unlikely; Dreyfus and Koba both have the fire-power for war, but ultimately have the same concern as everyone else – the survival of their own. At times this is an unnervingly problematic political thriller which questions hierarchy and family, and all characters must learn that sticking by your kind can have devastating results.

Although I am talking up the film like Elizabethan theatre, it should be noted that Shakespeare never gave an insane bonobo double machine-guns and put him on a tank. Reeves has orchestrated the action perfectly here, building up to a riotous assault on the San Francisco base (Helm’s Deep, but with orcs replaced by apes)  and simian slam atop a tower. In the former fight Reeves keeps his camera firmly fixed on the top of the tank, as tramcars and gorillas go up in flames around it. This is the kind of stylistic mark of a director who is comfortable with massive set-pieces. Yes, there is crashing and banging and falling cranes and crumbling buildings, but you always know what is going on with the the duelling duo, Caesar and Koba, whose final meeting has all the lost, brotherly trust of Mufasa and Scar.

If there is one (very small) let-down, it is that the writing of the human characters is not strong enough to compete with the apes. The technology used means that Caesar and his clan can express so much without words (the final shot is testament to this) and fortunately the primates are not undersold in the way that the humans are. It is made clear that both Malcolm and his second wife Ellie (Keri Russell, better off mute as in 1968) have suffered loss at the hands of Simian Flu, but they are fleeting remarks that never quite have any coherence with the rest of the film. Elsewhere, Malcolm’s son Alexander draws his feelings, and Dreyfus has an incongruous moment where he cries at the sight of an iPad.

Aside from this emotional mismatch between species, this is a superb addition to the Apes canon. You must get your stinking paws on a ticket, you damn dirty reader!

How To Train Your Dragon 2: Hot, Hot, Cold.

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This review contains minor spoilers.

If there was one film that set fire to Dreamworks’ animation competition with Pixar, it was How To Train Your Dragon. Released in the same year as the overly-nostalgic and saccharine Toy Story 3HTTYD proved that you could create a PG that was as high on laughs as it was on soul, while also challenging and surprising its audience. Any film for children that ends with an amputation is sending a pretty clear message; this is not the patronising fluff you have come to expect from modern cinema.

Hiccup may have lost a leg last time round, but thankfully he and pet dragon Toothless haven’t lost their mojo for this second outing. The strength of this franchise lies in the man’s-best-friend relationship of Hiccup and Toothless, and as long as this remains the central focus, the Dragon films will be head and reptilian neck and shoulders and wings above anything else. Everyone’s favourite dragon here remains the best silent movie star since Wall-E, saying it best when he says nothing at all. While this central relationship is fantastic, the change in scale surrounding the duo sometimes feels a little forced, and this sequel doesn’t quite have the charming simplicity of the original.

First, something must be said about the vocal work. Too often in animation big stars are drafted in for transparent commercial reasons, but here the characters come before the names. Jay Baruchel is still playing Hiccup with all the sarcastic swagger you would expect from a twentysomething dragon master, while Gerard Butler as his father Stoic provides both booming Scotch battle cries and warm, tender moments with estranged wife Valka, who lilts around the Anglo-Scottish border courtesy of Cate Blanchett. Elsewhere, laughs come from Jonah Hill and Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s wooing of Ruffnet (Kristen Wiig), in a strange Viking version of their Superbad days. Part of the reason that these characters work is because the writing is superb; Hiccup and his dragon rider friends speak with the self-aware irony of unemployed post-graduates.

In the showing I attended, the audience was full of people the same age as Hiccup, and certainly they are facing similar problems. Early on in the film, Hiccup is told by his father of his impending leadership responsibilities on Berk. Riding around on a dragon all day might seem like the best way to spend your time, but eventually you have to come inside, log on, grind out and face the reality of the working world, even if you are chief of a small island.

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As if predicted by the gods of signposting, Hiccup soon has to prove himself as a valuable leader when a group of dragon hunters led by the shadily-named Drago Bludvist (who clearly had no choice in life but to be a maniac) threaten to capture all the dragons and create some kind of army so that they can, you guessed it, take over the world. Such a scheme provides wondrous animation and one of the strongest aspects of the film is the rendering of dragons in flight. This is not just about dodging, dipping, ducking, diving and dodging, but also the way in which the dragons interact with their environment (and what an environment it is). The designers have captured rocky wastelands and bountiful forests with some inspiration from late Zelda games, and they take great delight in having dragons creep through mountains, skim across oceans and pause for reflection amid thick cloud formations. In one particularly beautiful moment, Hiccup and Toothless encounter Valka in the sky, and almost dance around one another with an elegance that shows true pride in design and character.

There is plenty of outstanding stuff here that will have audiences punching the air in glee or wiping away a solitary tear. The reunion of Stoic and Valka is delicately expressed through an old folk song and dance, which has equal measures of joyousness and regret, while Hiccup and Toothless’s relationship is tested in the shocking culmination of a second act dragon battle. Unfortunately, the film is never as good as its second act, and certain key issues are washed over in a fight, one fears, against running times and the BBFC. After moments of true maturity, the final act seems rushed and a little bit flimsy, as you realise that Drago’s evil name doesn’t necessarily make him a natural with world-domination planning.

In truth, poorly written villains seem to be endemic in Hollywood, and often come across as an afterthought. The first Dragon film benefited from having no big bad, as relationships could flourish, but here Drago distracts from other new characters and never really convinces. There is some bungled flashback stuff about his history with Stoic, but his motive is not clear or engaging. Villains work best when they have no motive at all (The Joker) or when their objective is entirely personal, built on revenge (Silva in Skyfall). In the end, despite being in control of a mahoosive Alpha Dragon (which is also not sufficiently explained), Drago Bludvist is nothing more than a silly name. There is also another debate to be had about the casting of Djimon Hounsou; Drago is a Viking, and seems to hail from Russia, almost Mongolia (he looks like a Hun), but is voiced by a black-African actor with a black-African accent. Recently the debate has reopened about black or Latino actors voicing either villains or comedy sidekicks, while the white actors are almost always the heroes. While I’m not sure the ears of children are so attuned to equating accent with race, it’s clearly a pattern that needs some scrutiny.

There is no doubt that HTTYD2 is one of the most accomplished films of the year, but I only wish that more had been done to linger on some of its more poignant moments, instead of overstuffing the plot and ushering the audience towards the uninspired climax. It frequently soars, but it never quite ignites.

Godzilla: Needs More Roar

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This review contains minor spoilers

Plenty of films have misleading titles: The Silence of the Lambs isn’t about mute ovines; while Space Jam goes nowhere near the territory of intergalactic conserves. One film that you would not expect to fall into this confusing category is Godzilla, but Gareth Edwards’ stomp into the big, big, BIG time is an ill-conceived muddle which relegates its USP (read: giant dinosaur) to a supporting role.

If the enigmatic trailers were to shed any light on Edwards’ murky cityscapes, we might have assumed that this reboot were about two things: Bryan Cranston and a massive lizard. Bizarrely, it appears to focus on neither of these, instead adding multiple, non-Godzilla monsters and pinning the heart of the film on the thick neck of Aaron Taylor-Johnson.

It all starts well enough, with a top secret opening credits scene which attempts to return Godzilla to his roots in the bombing of Hiroshima. Turns out all the nuclear bomb testing that happened post-1945 weren’t tests at all, but attempts to kill something radioactive under the ocean. Skip to a few years later, and we meet Cranston’s Joe Brody, who suffers personal tragedy when the nuclear power plant at which he works collapses because of a suspected earthquake. The scene is harrowing, not only because of Joe’s loss, but because of the semi-intentional echoes to the Fukushima disaster in 2011. Edwards does well to find some modern context for Godzilla in these early scenes, just as J.J. Abrams experimented with metaphors for 9/11 in Cloverfield.

With his high-intensity conspiracy theorising, Cranston would have been an excellent focus for the human element of the story, but Edwards soon turns his attention to Joe’s son. Ford Brody (AT-J) has such a dull macho name it should come as no surprise that he has all the charisma of a newt, mumbling and bomb-disposing his way through the film while his worried wife (Elizabeth Olsen) tries to un-glue a telephone from her ear. Edwards was praised for the human drama of Monsters, but here it is unengaging, filled with stereotypes: the maxim-sprouting Japanese scientist; the efficient admiral. The boring homo sapiens make you long for some monsters to do some monstering, and this is where our mate Gojira should smash his way into the action, but Edwards has other ideas.

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It turns out that the critter causing all that trouble at the plant isn’t Godzilla, but a Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism (MUTO for short), which is basically a huge prehistoric moth. For some reason a couple of MUTOs are about to make a pilgrimage to the Bay Area, causing absolutely no threat to human beings whatsoever (they are attracted to radioactivity, not human flesh). You might associate monster movies with running, screaming and Hank Azaria getting caught between reptilian toes, but there is none of that here, and instead the humans are bystanders, responding to a threat that doesn’t actually seem like it’s going to cause them too much trouble. The monsters knock a few buildings down, but it’s almost accidental, a mere hazard of being so darn big. The result of this lack of focus means that we side with neither the humans nor the monsters, making the whole thing a forgettable conveyor belt of dark, misty encounters with poorly designed beasties.

So where does all this leave Best Supporting Gojira? Well, for reasons no more enlightening than ‘because he wants to’, he swims to San Fran to take down the MUTOs, thus becoming an oddly sympathetic good guy, all sad facial expressions and googly eyes. Unlike the MUTOs, he is decently designed (almost ursine), and there are a few nice shots which express his total humongous-ness, but it is in his screeching, echoing roar that he is most impressive. The best film characters can have a massive effect without too much screen time, so the problem here isn’t the amount of minutes Gojira gets, it’s what Edwards does with him when he does appear. He is certainly imposing, but he’s not scary, and the monster mash climax is reminiscent of the silly endings to Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, albeit played with utmost solemnity. The attempt to return Godzilla to serious moodiness is commendable, but there needs to be threat, danger, and doom, instead of the sense that we are watching a spectacle in which we have no part.

Some will find Edwards’ teasing, cutaway style exciting, but to me it displays inexperience with something of this scale. After the carnage, Godzilla, now the hero of San Francisco, wades back into the Pacific, exhausted, battered, and slightly embarrassed that his 350-foot frame struggled to make more than a toe print on his own franchise.