Friday, 30 May 2014

Maleficent (2014)


Maleficent, according to Disney execs and the cast of this fairytale, gives us the backstory of Sleeping Beauty’s villain and takes us to the heart of what makes her maleficent. While this is partly true, the house of eternal happiness has also taken the opportunity to turn an old Beauty on its head somewhat, and give us a tale unlike anything we’ve known.

Focusing on the titular character, Maleficent takes us on a journey of the Moors and recounts how a once magical land - that was once home to an innocent winged fairy - is threatened by the ambitious King Stefan, ruler of the human kingdom. Wanting to avenge a wrongdoing, Maleficent casts a familiar spell on his baby daughter, Aurora, which causes the King and Maleficent to regret the day the curse was born.

Starring Angelina Jolie as the villainess, this Disney fantasy soars when she’s on screen. In a role made for her, Jolie is spellbinding and shines in almost every scene she’s in. Elle fanning is also well cast as the innocent Sleeping Beauty. She and Jolie have a great chemistry and their scenes are pleasing to watch. Less successful, however, is the pairing of Jolie and Sharlto Copley, who plays the King and the love interest. Superb in District 9, Copley, sadly, is no match for Jolie and it’s oddly evident at first sight. 

Altogether the film is a mixed bag, but generally falters - or we are less forgiving - when Jolie’s not on screen. It also appears as though the producers have simply relied on Jolie's charisma alone to power a movie that is otherwise mediocre and quite incoherent. We’d still recommend it, though, because, in addition to possessing a great lead actress, it’s also visually magnificent.

3.5/5

FG

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)


Fourteen years after the first X-Men movie hit our screens, original director Brian Singer is back at the helm (to the delight of comic-book fans), and seemingly eager to get this franchise firmly back on track in the only way he and the writing team know how: a 1970s trip back to the future. Sounds groovy, right? But the real question is, does Singer succeed in getting us to dance to his new tune?

Seventh in the X-Men movie line, Days of Future Past introduces us to a world years from now (2023 to be exact), in which robots called Sentinels are wiping out every mutant in sight. In order to stop their impending extinction, fan favourite Wolverine must go back in time - to a world of roll-necks, bell-bottoms and flower prints - to try to rewrite the future so that humanity (in all its forms), can continue to flourish under the watchful eye of Professor X. Tough job, but Wolvie is clawing for it.

As the almighty Sentinels and mutants go head-to-head en route for the final showdown, it’s evident early on that we’re in for a tale of two halves featuring cast members old and new. Having heard the plans for an all-star, packed shindig, I did wonder how Singer would manage to juggle so many balls. X-Men: First Class boasted a rejuvenated cast and was a resounding success that breathed much-needed life back into a dwindling franchise, while adventures after X2 relied too heavily on Wolverine, neglected other key players, and suffered with subpar screenplays. What Singer has opted for here, then, is a sequel and a prequel, wheeling out the Seniors, led by Patrick Stewart, for the future dilemma, and calling upon the First Class (and Wolverine), controlled by James McAvoy's Xavier, to ultimately sort it. Unsurprisingly, Singer handles it all beautifully - like John Travolta under a glitter ball, jive talkin’ and stayin’ alive.

Apart from Wolverine who’s busy bridging the gap (with the aid of Kitty Pryde), the other character in full focus is Mystique, played by Jennifer Lawrence. Since her first outing in a lighter shade of blue, Lawrence has won an Oscar, been nominated for another, and taken centre stage as the heroine in The Hunger Games trilogy, so it’s no wonder a lot of the weight of this instalment was thrown onto her shoulders. I must confess that Rebecca Romijn is my favourite of the two blue ladies (dude, where’s her cameo?), but Lawrence handles all the ass-kicking action sequences with aplomb, and is a worthy young and impressionable predecessor.

Alongside Mystique - actually trying to stop her from killing the villain (Peter Dinklage, of Games of Thrones fame) - we also have Nicholas Hoult, reprising his role as Beast, McAvoy (who starts off proceedings in a real funk), and Michael Fassbender, who excels as mini-Magneto. More time with Ian McKellen and Stewart would have been nice. Little attention is paid to the newer X-Men of the future, and the two minutes spent with Halle Berry’s Storm are two minutes too much; their combined screen time could have been given to these two great Brits.

Additionally, while it’s important to set the scene and emphasise what’s at stake, the flashbacks to the apocalyptic future eventually do start to annoy and distract, and only end up accentuating the kinks in the Seniors’ armour. 

But, overall, these faults do not stop Days of Future Past from being another Singer success. With fantastic set-pieces (shout out in particular to Evan Peters’s Quicksilver), a stellar cast, and a strong script, this is a magnificent number seven, and right up there with X2.

4/5

(for Fortean Times)

FG

Friday, 16 May 2014

Godzilla (2014)


After the success of his first feature film (Monsters), which saw an alien invasion throughout the American border, Gareth Edwards is back with a bigger budget, and an even bigger monster.

Since the 1954 version, the big screen has seen numerous adaptations of the giant Japanese monster, and since then, the story hasn’t changed much: Godzilla is still cruising around town feeding off of the planet’s radiation, while the rest of the world, including scientists Brian Cranston, Sally Hawkins, and Ken Watanabe, try to figure out a way to tame the beast, and a couple of other Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms (M.U.T.O.s).

With a budget that eclipses that of Monsters ($160 million compared to a modest $200,000), this film only feels slightly more cinematic than Edwards’ first. This is not to say that it wasn’t money well spent; on the contrary, it actually feels very much like a Gareth Edwards movie, which is quite an achievement considering it’s only his second film.

What impressed me the most in Monsters was the cinematography and how a landscape could look so beautiful in ruins. As an ex-cat once wrote of Monsters, “he’s made something that looks like what a National Geographic alien invasion film might look like.” And the same is true here. This is a battlefield I’d visit if it existed. While buildings tumble, humans scramble to safety, and creatures fight in the night sky, Edwards' camera remains calm and graceful in order to capture the perfect mood. He does, however, appear to want to knock Hans Zimmer off his podium with an overly dramatic score at times, but sound is muted where it's really necessary, and he lets the M.U.T.O.s do the talking - and some more dancing. He really does seem to be in his comfort zone here.

Less successful, however, is his character development. Still riding high from his Breaking Bad days (and perhaps, like Edwards, still not wanting to put down the boiler suits and gas masks just yet), Cranston provides great, reminiscent entertainment for a while (accompanied by on-screen wife Juliette Binoche), but as soon as the parents leave the party and leave the kids (son Ford, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and his wife, played by Elizabeth Olsen) to their own devices, one starts to feel like he/she should have left with them, as these two young stars fare less well on their own

Taylor-Johnson brings the blue eyes and the beef (he’s been working out!), but, sadly, his presence doesn’t command that much attention, and his character isn’t all that interesting. Equally, Olsen, who is a Fohnhouse favourite, has left the indie road and crossed over to the big-budget highway with an underdeveloped, stereotypical mother/nurse role. This wouldn’t be too bad if Edwards had decided to spend more time on the striking creatures he has created (the movie is called Godzilla after all), but instead he has gone for a human-character driven story, when the humans in the main act have little to offer. 

Fortunately, though, all the action does build up to a worthy fight sequence between M.U.T.O.s, but, if not for these scenes, this would have been a disaster movie with no titular god-like creature in sight, as Godzilla spends an awful lot of time with his head buried in the ocean (maybe he's camera shy!). Thankfully, though, as I said, the movie does redeem itself by the end, and we’re left with an enjoyable blockbuster, teaching us not to mess with the natural order, and to just let nature do its thing. Like that’s ever going to happen!

3.5/5

FG

Monday, 5 May 2014

Bomber's Moon

Image: Park Theatre

In the last month or so I have been to the Park Theatre three times, each time to see a radically different production. The Park Theatre is a relatively new venue close to Finsbury Park Station and has two performing spaces. In addition there is a bistro-type cafĂ©-restaurant that serves interesting and competitively priced food.
The play in the Park200 space at present is William Ivory’s Bomber’s Moon. The play is a two person production, starring James Bolam – well known for his long career on television and stage – and Steve John Shepherd, who is (for me at least) a newcomer. The play is centred on the relationship between Jimmy (James Bolam), who is a curmudgeonly, sick pensioner in a care home, and his new carer, David. They seem to get off on the wrong foot, but a relationship of friendship between the two develops. As Jimmy comes closer to his end – a sensation which he describes as strange, knowing that one has little time left – he has flashbacks to his time as a rear gunner on operations in a Lancaster Bomber. He tells David about the fears that these men in the airforce experienced and talks also of his friends and the ways in which they used to amuse themselves in between missions. Jimmy obviously resents the aging process. Eventually he tells David of his lucky survival when his plane crashes on a mission. Both men have their own secrets and want in some ways to keep face. When the two men argue, Jimmy has a heart attack and is taken to hospital. David’s life begins to unravel even further in a surprising way.
The twist in the tale comes close to the end – but this is no place for a spoiler!
James Bolam is a consummate actor whose sense of comic timing is used to great effect here. Here, Bolam is also able to use that grumpy bastard persona at which he is so good, and he uses it to great effect. Shepherd is by no means eclipsed by Bolam’s extremely good performance. To act with an actor of Bolam’s experience must be daunting, especially when Bolam can hold the stage as he does, speaking at times very quietly. The audience warms to the old gunner and has a great deal of sympathy for him, but it took longer for me to warm to the David character. The scenery is interestingly put together and the sound and lighting were exceptionally well done. Since the audience sits on 3 sides of the ‘stage’ area, it cannot be the easiest space to play, but I congratulate the cast and the production team, as well as the director, on this wonderful production. While I am of an age that was used as a child to meeting World War II (and World War I) veterans, who were friends and contemporaries of my parents (and grandparents), I noted that quite a few of the audience were relatively young – and this can only be a good thing, that younger people are coming to venues of this type that are still prepared to put on productions that are not necessarily the Theatreland mainstream plays. That being said, I think this play would hold up well in a bigger venue.
All in all, this is a play that I would recommend highly and, as I said above, I would congratulate the entire team on the production of a play that made for a gripping evening’s theatre.
5/5
Maria Way