Thursday, 28 April 2016

Captain America: Civil War (or why Civil War is better than Batman vs Superman)

(M) ★★★★

Director: Anthony & Joe Russo.

Cast: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Emily VanCamp, Tom Holland, Frank Grillo, William Hurt, Daniel Brühl.

"Wait - are we running to something or away from something?"
BEING the nerd that I am, it’s difficult to assess this, the 13th entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), without comparing it to Batman vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice, the second film in the DC Cinematic Universe (DCCU).

(It’s also difficult to write this review without going overboard on the acronyms – do I really have to write out Batman vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice and Captain America: Civil War, or can we get by with BvS and CA:CW?)

Both films deal with similar ideas – in a world where superheroes exist, who keeps the superheroes in check? It’s the very question at the centre of the greatest superhero graphic novel of all time, Alan Moore’s Watchmen – “who watches the watchmen?”. How would the world function with so much power in the hands of so few people? And how would you minimise the collateral damage if those few people started throwing their weight around?

Both films also focus on a large number of super-powered characters, introducing new ones and revisiting old favourites. Both films also take great pride in pitting the heroes against each other – that’s the raison d’etre of BvS and CA:CW.

The thing about comparing these two films – and this is the point where the DC fans on Twitter will start calling me a paid-off Marvel shill – is that CA:CW does all of the above really well. BvS, by comparison, does almost all of the above poorly.

CA:CW centres on the fallout from some of the previous MCU films (a working knowledge of the MCU is helpful but not necessarily essential). The mismatched bunch of heroes known as The Avengers has been gallivanting around the globe avenging, but unfortunately innocent civilians have been getting in the crossfire.

The UN, personified by General Ross (Hurt, last seen in the MCU in The Incredible Hulk), presents The Avengers with an ultimatum – sign up as UN-sanctioned superheroes and do as you're told, or don’t. Unfortunately the “don’t” means you will likely be regarded as a vigilante and potentially a criminal.

Tony Stark AKA Iron Man (Downey Jr) is confronted by the repercussions of his actions and decides to sign on. Steve Rogers AKA Captain America (Evans) is still haunted by the deception of his previous bosses (as seen in Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and feels The Avengers work best independent of governmental meddlings. This sets up a super-powered schism that is not likely to end well.

There are other factors in play, such as the loose threads of what happened to The Winter Soldier (Stan) and the arrival of Black Panther (Boseman), but mainly this is about building up to Captain America and Iron Man duking it out, as was the case with Batman and Superman in BvS.

CA:CW builds to that punch-up in a smart, measured way. The heroes discuss the problem, express their ideological viewpoints in a balanced manner, but continually fail to agree, with the stakes getting higher and higher until they reach the metaphorical equivalent of pistols at dawn. In other words, it’s pretty much the opposite of the illogical and awkward set-up that led Batman and Superman to go tete-a-tete in BvS, where the film had to actively work to avoid its two heroes from having a sensible conversation as it would have quickly resolved all the issues that supposedly underpinned the story, making the much-anticipated titular fight redundant.

Furthermore, CA:CW’s approach raises the stakes. Batman and Superman could have easily sorted things out by talking, but instead made them both come off as irrational macho idiots when they finally fought (although, to be fair, it is a good fight). Meanwhile, most of the 12 (yep, a whole dozen) heroes who battle it out in CA:CW have legitimate arguments for believing what they believe, and thus they are fighting for a cause or a truth they hold dear. This is not fighting for the sake of fighting because it says that’s what has to happen on the movie poster – this is action driven by characters, and narrative compelled by decisions, choices and ideas. In other words, the big battle makes sense in the scope of the story and is an inevitable outcome.

And where BvS struggled to incorporate Wonder Woman (who could be edited out of the film with little impact on the story) and its other numerous cameos (which could have been cut even more easily), CA:CW breezes through its role call of caped crusaders like it’s no big deal. It introduces Spider-man and Black Panther with easy, natural dialogues (although to be fair Spider-man’s introduction is a little forced) and gives them reasons to take part in proceedings. It also handles its 10 other characters comfortably – they contribute to the narrative, set-pieces, themes, discussion, and humour of the film (on that last point I should point out I have no issue with the ‘dark’ tone of BvS). Every character is far more than a gratuitous easter egg thrown in to merely spruik the next movies – they are pieces in the story’s puzzle.

But that’s enough of the nerd fight. On it’s own CA:CW is another fine addition to the MCU. It combines the usual humourous banter and the life-on-the-line drama, with the climax providing a real sense that the MCU will be irrevocably changed after the credits roll.

It’s getting harder for these intertwined films to stand alone, but CA:CW works hard to be watchable without requiring homework, while also rewarding the dedicated followers of the MCU and the comics they’re loosely based on. For example, newcomers will quickly figure what Ant-Man is all about, while the return customers will revel in Captain America throwing back to his first film by saying “I can do this all day” – a line that, in context, says a lot about the character.

Speaking of the comics, this Civil War is very different to the Civil War of its source material, but carries on Marvel’s ability to cherry pick ideas from its pages successfully to create something new that still feels true to the source in some way. The scope of this film is smaller than the Civil War of the comics, but the directors and MCU brains trust have made the Civil War idea work in the MCU.

The Russos have kept some of the conspiracy thriller tone they used in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but married it with action sequences edited like a modern war movie. At times it borders on the blizzard editing that is far too prominent in current actioners, but mostly it stays on the right side of watchable.

The cast is uniformly great. If it hasn’t been said enough already, let’s say it again – Marvel have cast their movies impeccably. We can’t imagine anyone other than Downey Jr and Evans as Iron Man or Captain America, but ditto for everyone else. Rudd confirms he was a great choice for Scott Lang aka Ant-Man, Paul Bettany’s Vision is a weirdly wonderful creation, and so far it seems like the casting directors have outdone themselves yet again with their new Spider-Man.

I feel sorry for DC fans. Marvel continues to hit it out of the park with its movies. They made an Ant-Man movie and one with a talking raccoon in it for chrissake, but DC can’t even get Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman to work well in a movie together.

Now, where do I collect my Marvel shill cheque?

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Eddie The Eagle

(PG) ★★★½

Director: Dexter Fletcher.

Cast: Taron Egerton, Hugh Jackman, Jo Hartley, Keith Allen, Iris Berben, Tim McInnerny, Jim Broadbent, Christopher Walken.

"I thought I told you to shave those sideburns!"
IS it possible to do a sports movie that isn’t completely overflowing with clichés?

Probably not. Cinematic sport can’t exist without the underdogs, the redemptions, the montages, and the impossible dreams becoming realities. These components (minus the montages) typically make up the real stories we love to find in actual sports – tales of triumphing against the odds, of coming from nowhere and ending up somewhere, of surprising the doubters and naysayers.

This film about Eddie The Eagle certainly doesn’t shy away from the sporting clichés. The true story of British ski jumper Eddie Edwards is resplendent with them, but just for good measure, the filmmakers have thrown in a heap of made-up ones as well.

In fact, don’t expect much truth at all in this biopic. What it gets right though is the spirit of Eddie’s endeavour and heart and goodwill that generated, which the film replicates.

Egerton plays Edwards, the plasterer who became the star of the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics thanks to his sheer enthusiasm rather than his sporting prowess.

Edwards is portrayed as a single-minded individual whose only desire is to be an Olympian. After being cut from the downhill ski team by a snooty official (McInnerny), Edwards switches to ski jumping as there are no other Brits taking part in the event, making qualifying easier.

He’s helped along the way by washed-up ski jumper Bronson Peary (Jackman), a boozy American booted from the sport for his rebellious ways.

Peary is a good example of the film’s love of a good cliché – he’s an entirely invented character that adds a whole new bunch of tropes to the story on top of Eddie’s own no-hoper-does-good exploits.

With so many typical turns, the film survives almost on heart alone. Egerton does a fantastic job of winning our sympathies, gurning away with great sincerity as he smashes and bashes his way towards his dream, but amid the fictionalisation is an almost unbelievable true story of how one man effectively gatecrashed the Olympics. That seed at the centre of the film helps win you over and build up an immense amount of goodwill for the character.

It would be easy to mess up a film like this but the narrative is played out unfussily, the tone is kept light, and the whole enterprise has a vibe about it that matches Eddie’s can-do attitude and everpresent smile. Sure, it’s corny but it’s genuinely heartwarming.

Director Dexter Fletcher gets good mileage out of his ‘80s-style onscreen titles and an excellent ‘80s replica soundtrack, largely penned by Take That’s Gary Barlow, which helps capture the era perfectly.

It’s closest cousin is undoubtedly Cool Runnings, and while it won’t endure like its Jamaican relative, Eddie The Eagle is an enjoyable Olympic underdog tale that’s hard to hate.

Friday, 8 April 2016

The Jungle Book (2016)

(PG) ★★★★

Director: Jon Favreau.

Cast: Neel Sethi, (voices of) Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong'o, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Walken.

"Soft kitty, warm kitty, potential child-eating kitty."
NOT that long ago in cinematic history, special effects reached a point where it became possible to put anything you could imagine on screen and have it look real – like, really real.

The dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, the ape of Peter Jackson's King Kong, the tiger in Life Of Pi, the worlds (and Jar Jar Binks) of the Star Wars prequels, the entirety of Avatar – for better or worse, the advent of computer animation meant photo-realistic digital creations that could sit smoothly alongside real world people and environments were just a million or so mouse-clicks away.

In hindsight, the aforementioned movies and their CG animals and settings (throw the simians of Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes in there too) point directly to Favreau’s live-action version of Disney’s The Jungle Book. This film seems like an inevitability; as though the technology was being developed just so we could one day see a life-like take on Mowgli’s story without the spectre of animal cruelty hanging over it.

It’s a perfect mesh of subject matter and special effects, not unlike Life Of Pi and Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes – two stories that benefited from tech wizardry finally catching up with the potentials of visual storytelling.

Favreau’s film owes more of a debt to Disney’s 1967 cartoon than Rudyard Kipling’s original tales, but is an intriguing mix of the two, while also striking out on its own occasionally with the narrative to find new directions. It follows Mowgli (Sethi), the “man cub” raised in the jungle by wolves, as he struggles to escape from the evil tiger Shere Khan (Elba) and return to civilisation with the aid of Baloo the bear (Murray) and Bagheera the panther (Kingsley).

The darker tone of Kipling’s work, which Walt Disney deliberately steered his version away from, is here in places, but so are a couple of the 1967 songs from The Sherman Brothers and Terry Gilkyson. As such, the movie moves in and out of the light and shade, but be warned that this may scare the pants off the younger kids – Shere Khan is a wonderfully malicious villain and some animals die (although in a bloodless, mostly off-screen fashion).

It’s the light-and-shade combo that is the biggest sticking point with the movie. Its photo-realism and occasional animal-on-animal violence sits awkwardly at times alongside, say, a giant ape voiced by Christopher Walken singing a song (yes, that really happens in the film).

There are also moments when The Jungle Book looks a bit like a computer game - CGI still has its limitations - but by-and-large it is a beauty to behold. The animals are amazing, as are the largely animated environments. Sethi, probably the only tangible thing in most of the scenes, rarely seems out of place alongside his digital counterparts.

The cast is generally impressive. Finding a Mowgli was apparently quite a challenge, but newcomer Sethi does a good job. There are a few Jake “Ani Skywalker” Lloyd-like moments, but they’re mostly forgivable.

Kingsley is a good match for Bagheera, while Elba is an even better one for Shere Khan – Elba drops menace into syllables like Dr Dre drops beats (ie. with ease), and it’s a frighteningly good voice performance. Murray has fun with his role although he runs dangerously close to letting Bill Murray trample over the top of Baloo the bear. Similarly, it’s impossible to separate Walken’s voice from Walken, even when it’s coming out of an animated Gigantopithecus. Walken plays King Louie like a mob boss and it’s kinda fun, but also kinda distracting.

Generally speaking, this re-imagining of The Jungle Book is impressive. It has a sense of wonder and spectacle to it often lacking in big blockbusters, genuinely offering up a visual feast we have not partaken of before, which is all the more impressive when you consider how many times this ‘book’ has been told.

But importantly, Favreau hasn’t lost sight of the heart and emotion at the centre of this story amidst the CG wizardry bringing it to life. This is still the moving tale of a boy struggling to find his place in the world, torn between his nurture and his nature, and all the positives and negatives that each side brings.