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Hustlers (2019)
7/10
Engaging enough, but really little more than #MeToo fodder
11 February 2020
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

Destiny (Constance Wu) is a young woman, who has turned to the world of erotic dancing to get herself by. She falls under the wing of Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), a strong, feisty mother hen dancer, who shows her the ropes and increases her confidence. Flash forward a few years later to 2008, and the financial crash has taken it's impact on the two women, along with fellow strippers Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Diamond (Cardi B.) To get themselves back on track, they hatch an elaborate plot to fleece the Wall Street bankers who used to frequent the club they worked at out of lots of money.

Despite the rave reviews, Hustlers, female (of course) director Lorene Scafaria's second feature length feature, passed me by on it's release in theatres. Indeed, the five star reviews were flying out of everywhere, and there was even talk of lead star J Lo getting an Oscar nomination?!??! But still, I just didn't feel compelled to venture out to my local cinema to see it there, so it must have been a subconscious thing. Maybe the bombardment of feminist, male weary undertones in modern pop culture made me feel it might be being hyped up to be something it's not, but now I have seen it, I find the result just something blindly in the middle.

Scafaria has taken a group of lead characters, who are essentially pretty morally dubious characters, and attempted to make them into female Robin Hood types, with their prey portrayed as the horrible WS fat cats who deserve what they get, however they steal from the rich and give to themselves, so they're hardly that laudable. As a female director, Scafaria might have been able to put her female cast more at ease, and get more natural, authentically effeminate performances from them. In the lead role, Lopez (the apparent Oscar contender!) possibly does give one of her strongest, most commanding performances, but she's still a mediocre, very average actress, who's better at singing. If anyone steals the show, it's relative newcomer Wu as the innocent newcomer, who has to toughen up quickly.

While the story (which, like many others, is all the more unbelievable because it's based on a true one!) is engaging enough, and just about manages to keep you intrigued for the considerable running time, despite the rave reviews it's ultimately just a serviceable, middle of the road film that won't stay in your memory that long afterwards. ***
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9/10
Eastwood applies his usual adept touch to this searing true life drama
7 February 2020
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

In 1986, while working as a campus security guard, Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) has his first encounter with aspiring attorney Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), and despite some initial hostility, the unlikely pair bond over a love of arcade games. Ten years later, and Richard has his law enforcement badge, and is now working security at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, but is still out of shape, and living with his mother Bobi (Kathy Bates.) When he tries to clear the area when a suspect package is discovered, after the device detonates, he finds himself going from being regarded as a hero, to being the chief suspect, after errant journalist Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) and headstrong FBI agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) conspire to put him in the frame, causing him to reunite with his old friend Bryant for the legal battle of his life.

In recent years, Clint Eastwood has made a habit of documenting these instances of real life having more dramatic potential than fiction, from the American Sniper Kyle Lord, to Sully the airline pilot who saved all the lives, which have more of a wow factor to those on this side of the pond less familiar with the stories. Of all of them, his latest, RJ, is the one I have found the most engaging and emotionally investing, although maybe for personal reasons.

Despite being a more conservative director, Eastwood has, perhaps unwittingly, placed himself as an unlikely social justice champion, in highlighting the case of the gentle natured, unassuming Richard Jewell, exposing how those we see as different we also see as less. The cynical, manipulative institutions of the media and law enforcement shamefully proved in this damning real life case how someone like Richard Jewell could serve as a perfect scapegoat. A thirty three year old, childless, obese man, living at home with his mother, with his simple minded, cookies and cream view of the world, unable to really stand up for himself away from his security work and his guns. Nobody's romanticised version of what anyone would look up to be, and unwittingly at the mercy of those with less innocent ideals. I found an uncomfortable parallel with myself in him that gave it all a more personal touch.

Boosted by reliably sturdy performances, from Rockwell as the dedicated, determined lawyer fighting on his friend's behalf, to Wilde as the callous journalist wrecking a man's life, and of course from Walter Hauser as the righteous but humble Jewell, and assured direction from the now eighty nine year old Eastwood, it's a shockingly revealing depiction of just what not fitting the grain can get you. ****
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Uncut Gems (2019)
4/10
Will either be to your taste, or two and a quarter hours of torture
6 February 2020
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) is a small time New York hustler, caught up in a whirlwind of small time hoodlums, wannabe gangstas and a mountain of debt. Some glimmer of hope appears to surface in the shape of some diamonds from Ethiopia he has got his hands on, which he appears to have a buyer for. While he navigates his personal life, including his volatile wife, slightly more understanding mistress, and his teenage son, when his deal with the diamonds appears to go sideways, he finds himself plunged headlong into an escalating crisis that won't end well.

Adam Sandler is something of a Marmite comedic actor, who has a pretty love or hate effect with audiences. Personally, he's always gone over my head, and I can't even recall seeing one of his films (even arguably his most popular and well known, The Wedding Singer) with him in the lead. Indeed, the only one that springs to mind is Anger Management, where he co starred opposite the legendary Jack Nicholson (on whose part much more of the laughs were generated than Sandler!) But here he is, cast against type and reinvented, in this unconventional crime drama from the Safdie Brothers.

In one long, continuous take, we are thrust into the world of Howard Ratner, with the Safdies aiming to create the impression of being in his skin as he navigates this world of outwardly friendly people, who constantly turn hostile at the merest perceived provocation, trapping us in a vortex of relentless aggressiveness and excessive bad language, that becomes a bit overwhelming. Sandler has to convey this persona, because his character either himself naturally has this temperament or has to adopt it to survive, but there's a goofiness about him that really makes it hard to take him seriously, however hard he tries. Add to this a thin, sketchy plot that doesn't have enough about it to sustain a two hour fifteen minute running time, and the result is quite a heavy misfire.

The Safdie Brothers have attempted an early Tarantino style unique approach to the crime genre, albeit with a much bigger budget and a bigger name star. Maybe it went over my head, maybe I need to see it again, but for me, it just didn't really work. Although, unlike with other mediocre efforts, I can see why others might disagree with me. **
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Bombshell (2019)
9/10
Interesting, dynamic drama
30 January 2020
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

In the run up to the presidential elections of 2016, Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) lands herself in hot water by putting a compromising question to presidential nominee Trump. Meanwhile, fellow established female presenter Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) has found herself moved out of the prime time slot after being the first to go public with accusations of misconduct by network CEO Roger Ailes (John Lithgow.) And finally, promising new upstart Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie) becomes the latest young woman to learn the hard way how you get ahead at the news station. Together, these three women came together to take down Ailes and his toxic culture.

In liberal circles (and in pretty much any other place where good taste is valued) Fox News is rightly sneered at with contempt. Even on this side of the pond, the vulgarity and tackiness behind the brand is blatantly obvious, not to mention it's clear political bias towards the right. The American version of The Sun newspaper, basically. And so any film, in the present progressive climate, that aims to shine a bad light on the organisation can only be held in high regard. Even better if it taps into the 'female empowerment' movement doing the rounds at present. But Jay Roach's Bombshell proves to be more than engaging in it's own right.

Ailes proved one of the first (deserved) high profile casualties of the MeToo movement, which came to attest the power of it's being. Women collectively coming together and speaking out about their experiences at the hands of powerful, influential men, and the misconduct rife at the heart of major institutions, opened everyone's eyes to what must have been going on for years but was never spoken about. Current hot property Robbie and established older heads Kidman and Theron deliver strong performances along with a (bulked up) Lithgow.

Even if there is a slight tonal inconsistency, veering from a slick, stylish 'talking to the camera' drama, to a searing, pull no punches one, it's still an engaging, dynamic and relevant film that is well worth seeing. ****
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Aquaman (2018)
4/10
Visually striking, but little else to hold your attention
27 January 2020
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) is a half man, half aquarian warrior, who has been raised on Earth, and uses his special abilities to fight for justice. His latest escapades have seen him rescue an underwater boat from a group of vicious hijackers, one of whom is now eager for revenge. Meanwhile, in his underwater second home, tensions are brewing between rival kings Orm (Patrick Wilson) and Nereus (Dolph Lundgren), plunging him into a desperate inter-world battle, alongside the beautiful Mera (Amber Heard), to discover his true self.

Suspension of disbelief is sometimes something you must be willing to engage with any regular movie, but with superhero movies, it's always something of a foregone conclusion, naturally with the inevitable fantasy element that is attached to the story. But, even by these standards, Aquaman, one of the most recent additions to the staple, rather pushes the boundaries. Opening in 1985, Nicole Kidman, as a mermaid, leaps out of the water by some guys house and comes into his life, living as a couple and raising a son (without, it seems, raising any eyebrows or contravening any marriage laws.) But this brief spark of incredulity serves as a sweetener for the lengthy vapidness that is to follow.

Jason Momoa was a guy I'd never heard of before this film, and who on the back of it, it would seem, suddenly garnered the star power to charge £95 for his autograph at Comic Con. He certainly has the physical frame to fit the title role, and within the constraints of it, pulls off the grunting, edgy, wise-cracking tough guy in a perfectly serviceable manner, but nothing more than is required. The support cast is littered with big names, from Dafoe, Heard, Wilson, Kidman, and Lundgren making a pleasing big screen return in a none fighting role, all of whom are pretty much equally perfunctory.

The film's big saving grace is it's magnificent visual spectacle, with some amazing CGI capturing a wonderous underwater kingdom, along with some snazzy costume design and amazing action. But it's at least twenty minutes too long and over indulgent, with a threadbare, unengaging story and empty, soulless performances. And that renders all that pretty meaningless. **
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7/10
More of the same, if you can cast your mind that far back
20 January 2020
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

Detectives Lowrey (Will Smith) and Burnett (Martin Lawrence) have entered middle age, but are still on the force, chasing the mean streets of Miami and keeping the people safe (or as safe as you can, recklessly driving high performance sports cars at top speeds down busy roads in the opening credits!) But their relative calm is shattered when Lowrey is brutally gunned down and left for dead. Surviving the ordeal with his friend by his side, Lowrey heads out on a quest for vengeance, but the truth behind the attack may be more than he could have imagined.

For such an apparently successful franchise, the Bad Boys film series has been just about the most sporadic I can ever remember. The first sequel was a massive surprise, arriving eight years after the original graced our screens, and now the third film in the series has arrived, a massive twenty five years after the first one. The phrase 'make hay while the sun shines' doesn't seem to have registered in the makers minds, seemingly confident of the apparent enduring appeal the series will have, although it's apparently had an impressive opening weekend and a fourth film is now in the works (that I'm guessing we'll see in about 2050!)

It's careful to deliver all the goods the audience is expecting, and so is wisely crammed full of fast paced, explosive action, slow, moody views of the Miami sideline, cool, slo-mo shots of the stars sliding their jackets on and the wise-cracking banter between the pair. It's testament to the lead stars that they can seemingly switch their on-screen chemistry back on like a tap, last on screen together seventeen years ago but laying it on like it's just been a day. Despite a darker, grittier edge to the plot, there's still loads of effective, funny humour on screen to take the edge off, as well as an admittedly clever, unexpected plot twist at the end.

It's surprisingly better than the first sequel, despite sharing it's suffocating over-indulgence and at times uncomfortable blur between the heroes and the villains. Still, one hopes this really is the end, and we don't really have 'Bad Boys for Life.' The thought of a senior citizen Marcus and Lowrey, with zimmer frames and hearing aids (but still with their foul mouths!) coming at us in quarter of a century's time is too much. ***
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1917 (2019)
10/10
Mendes truly hits the nail on the head with this wartime thriller
14 January 2020
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

April, 1917. World War One is drawing to a close, but the odds are no less tense. In the trenches, on the Western Front, Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) are stationed, serving in their unit. Blake finds himself summoned to General Erinmore (Colin Firth) who asks him to choose someone to accompany him on a mission to stop another unit, which includes his brother, from launching an attack, which will benefit the Germans. Selecting Schofield for a seemingly easy mission, the pair find themselves thrust into a terrifying battle for survival.

Here, as we are, in the early part of the twenty first century, living in turbulent and unpredictable times, where no one can be certain what will happen or what's around the corner, many of us will carry on our lives, sparing nowhere near as much thought as we should for the terrible sacrifices and hardships that were suffered for us to have the life we have today. And so, renowned director Sam Mendes transports us back over a century, when these events were in full swing, and sweeps us up right in the heart of the horrors of the battlefield, with a unique and trailblazing style that absorbs you in ways you can't imagine.

So, yes, more on that ground breaking style. Mendes shoots his feature in one long, continuous take for the duration of the feature, keeping us in the heart of the travails of our lead protagonists, and their inner conflicts, struggles and demons as they embark on their dangerous and uncertain mission. They amble on, stomaching the horrors of the battlefield with as much humour and resilience as they can, their relative calm punctuated by the sudden, cruel loud blast of a mortar shell or elaborately hidden enemy device. Newcomers (or, at least, relative newcomers) Chapman and MacKay in the leads deliver their roles with conviction and power, with solid support from established older co stars such as Firth and Daniel Mays.

An accomplished, seasoned (and still fairly young) director applies his talent and professionalism and has delivered one of the most surprising, absorbing and breath taking films of modern times, as well as a brilliant testament to the horrors suffered to give us our freedom. With any justice, it'll sweep the Oscars. *****
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First Man (2018)
9/10
Well made, assuredly handled biopic
13 January 2020
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

In the 1960s, NASA is preparing one of the most audacious exercises in the history of time, the first manned space mission to the moon, on the Apollo 11 spacecraft. Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), one of the candidates up for selection, is still recovering from a traumatic personal tragedy, but displays an aptitude and ability that sets him far apart from the other test pilots putting themselves forward. As he prepares to take the lead in an endeavour that will push the boundaries of what was thought possible further than ever before, he must contend with the inner dynamics of NASA, the social upheaval of the time and his own conflicts in his personal life.

I often wonder if the present generation would feel more inspired to aspire to greatness and really dedicate themselves to what was possible if some great, magnificent event were to occur that opened their eyes to what can be achieved with determination and dedication. Instead of pandering to be on the next vacuous reality TV show or going on some demonstration about largely perceived racism or climate crisis, something like the moon landing could motivate them, something that still stirs the pool of wonder today, with various people even claiming that they were faked.

The actual moon landing itself is fascinating enough, but Armstrong the man behind it is also has dynamic potential for the story , a studious and slightly nerdy man who developed the personality to command the mission to the moon. Gosling's physical resemblance to the man helps no end, and his performance is thankfully assured and convincing. Reuniting with La La Land director Damien Chazelle (making his second feature film), their respective roles within the production combine to produce something markedly different from their last outing.

In the end, it's just not exceptional enough to truly linger in the memory, but it's involving, well acted and examines a fascinating real life character/event that were two parts of one of the defining moments of our age. ****
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9/10
Thorough, affecting remake with a shattering ending
8 January 2020
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

Singer Ally (Lady Gaga) struggles to get by in life, working behind the scenes in a restaurant. But she gets a lucky break one night when famous country singer Jack (Bradley Cooper) and his entourage roll by a bar she's drinking in, and the pair hit it off. Forming a relationship, Ally is supported in chasing her dream as a recording artist by Jack, and becomes a star in her own right. But Jack is plagued by demons, struggling with a drink problem that plunges them both into a tumultuous journey of love and despair.

There was, it would seem, a love drama from the late 70s/early 80s entitled A Star is Born, which established star Bradley Cooper has decided to remake as his acting/directing debut. While he felt confident enough to do this as an actor, we have co star Lady Gaga, apparently feeling confident enough to make her acting debut, but conversely, in a film about singing, having more experience of this than Cooper, who's playing a country singer. So we have a film with two diametrically opposed co stars trying something new. The result is a surprisingly affecting, thoroughly examined tale that will leave an impression for a while.

Cooper leaves no stone unturned fleshing out the development and subsequent dynamics of the relationship between the main antagonists, and, despite their considerable age difference, manages to create a convincing couple. They say behind every strong (or apparently strong) man is a strong woman, and the film is a testament to that, with Cooper as the crumbling, destructive guy, raging with inner turmoil with demons from his past, and Gaga, effective in her debut performance, as the girl who is more attracted to his faults than his virtues, desperate to save him and save him from falling down. It's an affecting tale, thoroughly examined in minute detail by Cooper in his debut directorial project.

There's a little bit too much of the f word (how true that is to real life characters like this, I don't know) and it doesn't always sail a totally steady course, but it's still a highly worthwhile drama, with an earth shattering, gut wrenchingly unexpected ending that leaves you with a solid emotional punch. ****
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4/10
Ambitious but misfiring sci-fi drama
30 December 2019
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

In 1988, Detective Locke (Boyd Holbrook) walks the beat, with a heavily pregnant wife at home. But he is about to plunged into something beyond his wildest comprehension, when he and his partner Maddox (Bokeem Woodbine) are called to the scene of several grisly deaths, where the victims have brutally died in seemingly unfathomable circumstances. Locke closes in on the suspect, Rya (Cleopatra Coleman) who appears to meet her death on a railway line. But nine years later, a series of copycat murders crop up, and Rya once again seems to be behind them, driving Locke in a desperation to get to a truth that will shake him to the very core.

We're presently living in the most politically and socially tumultuous of times in quite a while, where the extremes of both sides of the divide are at each other's throats in a way that many of us will not have experienced in our lifetimes. There is a real fear from many of what the future holds, and how everything panning out now will come to bear on it. And so In the Shadow of the Moon, a Netflix production directed by Jim Mickle, is certainly quite timely and relevant. Unfortunately, while intriguing and fairly original, it's all too far fetched and increasingly nonsensical to work.

Once the original concept of the story has played out, it manifests into a tale of one man and his obsession to get to the bottom of a case over a number of years and progressions in his life, but this was done to better effect in David Fincher's 2007 film Zodiac, about a real life murderer. When the end revelation does come by, it presents a moral quandary about the killer's motivations that has divided opinion among reviewers, and there is a clever and genuinely surprising twist at the end of it, but it's a real struggle to get there.

Ultimately, this is a uniquely beautiful film, that ultimately gets weighed down by it's own disconnect from reality. **
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6 Underground (2019)
2/10
Mindless, meaningless hokum
23 December 2019
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

A tech billionaire (Ryan Reynolds) fakes his own death, in order to live anonymously and fight the forces of evil. Renaming himself One, he recruits various individuals from around the world, to join his organisation, and live as he does, with numerical numbers to each of their names, applying their various skills in his quest to rid the world of horrible people. Rovach Alimov (Lior Raz) is a brutal dictator in the Middle East, who has become the teams latest target. But everything is not as it seems.

Michael Bay is a director with a style as distinctive as any established Hollywood hack. Slo mo action scenes, sweeping visuals and stylised, brutal violence have come to define his films. Truth be told, the man has always been better suited to directing video games than movies, which require more of a solid foundation to make them succeed, such as strong writing, good dialogue and effective characterisation. 6 Underground opens in the heat of a close up car chase, frenetically moving along while characters bark dialogue to the screen, and ending with the death of one of them. But since we've established as much of an emotional connection with them as the others, it's a bit moot.

Bay's films have never been known for their L.A. Confidential style, labyrinth plots, but this is truly the flimsiest excuse for a plot I've ever known, further compounded by Bay engaging in some Bad Boys II style over indulgence, stretching at over two and a half hours, which the plot isn't strong enough to sustain. It wouldn't be so bad if there was an engaging story with characters you cared for, but it's just not the case. In the lead role, Reynolds applies his edgy, wise cracking style to the proceedings, but is not enough to lift it on his own, while a strong supporting cast including Melanie Laurent, Ben Hardy and Corey Hawkins is wasted.

It thinks it's funny, it thinks it's slick, but, it's just crap. *
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The Irishman (2019)
9/10
Scorsese's most ambitious project, if not quite a masterpiece
4 December 2019
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Morning * Monday Morning

In 1950s America, Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) is trying to get by, providing for his family as a delivery driver. However, when a containment of meat goes missing from one of his deliveries, he is hauled before the court on suspicion of stealing. A union lawyer gets him off, and Jimmy is taken to meet Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), head of the Bufalino crime family, who control the unions. Bufalino has heard of his service record in Italy, and thinks Frank has what it takes to be a great hitman, which he takes to like a duck to water. When he is introduced to union supremo Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), it is the beginning of a deadly alliance throughout the years, of murder, corruption and betrayal.

The Irishman may be the most eagerly anticipated film of the year, Martin Scorsese's mammoth reunion of himself, Goodfellas stelwarts De Niro and Pesci, and De Niro's long time counterpart (for want of a better word) Pacino, in a no less than three and a half hour long adaptation of Charles Brandt's novel I Heard You Paint Houses. It's testament to what an arduous struggle it's been to make, that it was originally meant to be released years ago, but various issues put obstacles in the way, and now it has premiered on Netflix, before a theatrical release for those more inclined to see it that way. The result is a hugely admirable and rewarding experience, that stops a few shades sort of electrifying to be a masterpiece.

Determined to cater to the loyal fanbase, and recast the big name stars everyone's loved and grown up with over the years, Scorsese has placed messieurs De Niro and Pacino in the lead roles again, despite their advanced ages, and so to make things look more realistic, a lot has been made of the 'de-aging' application applied to the stars, in a ground breaking move designed to keep everyone happy. While the grey hairs and face lines are removed from De Niro, it's a sad truth that early on in the role, he still looks too old for it, struggling to convince as a man with a young family just starting out, simply on account of, well, his age (sadly.) While this threatens to sully things early on, after a while you're thoroughly absorbed in the story, and his performance is no less committed, matched by Pacino, in bombastic, powered up mode as the real life Hoffa, whose disappearance this applies some very interpretive speculation to.

It doesn't really have exactly the right amount of dynamism and magnetism it needs to keep your attention for such a long length, but it never bores you, or makes you lose interest either, a spectacular accomplishment in itself for a film that is one of the few to rival Lawrence of Arabia in length, or, indeed, De Niro and Scorsese's 1984 epic Once Upon a Time in America (which I've never seen!) ****
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Cold Call (2019– )
4/10
A wasted opportunity
3 December 2019
Warning: Spoilers
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

June Clarke (Sally Lindsay) is a hard working carer, who's hoping to buy her own house, and help her daughter Hana (Taj Atwal) out. But then she falls prey to a telephone 'cold caller', who fleeces her of all her money. She runs into Des (Daniel Ryan), an old school friend, at a therapy group for victims of scams. He knows how to go about tracking down fraudsters, and together him and June discover the man behind her scamming is Kirk Wiley (Paul Higgins), a wealthy client of hers, setting her on a dangerous path.

In an age where most theft is increasingly done over the phone and online, the modern day phenomenon of the 'cold caller' is certainly ripe for dramatic license, with all of us often reminded to keep personal details safe and to be aware of suspicious sounding calls and e-mails. There are plenty of real life recollections of such events on numourous consumer watchdog programmes, and it certainly could have produced some emotive real life drama. Instead, we've got this ridiculously over the top suspense thriller.

Despite a promising opening, with Lindsay well cast in the lead role, it descends into a nonsensically far fetched affair, deviating from any sort of believable real life sequence of events, into a crazy scenario involving gangsters and some mysterious old man, like in one of those old spy thrillers. By the end, June's gone from being an ordinary, everyday person, to someone who's taken a life without any sort of trauma, and then happily flies off on a holiday, and with a real life lead character that unbelievable, how can you take to anything else?

I'm not sure what the makers of this had in mind, or the direction they were trying to take it in, but it's a wasted chance to shine a light on something that affects many people today. **
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The Good Liar (2019)
9/10
Pleasantly surprising thriller
28 November 2019
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

Betty McLeish (Helen Mirren) is a widowed lady, looking for companionship. She registers with an online dating site, and meets up with Roy Courtnay (Ian McKellen) who draws her in with his charm and wit. It all seems amiable enough, but Betty's son Stephen (Russell Tovay) isn't convinced, and does some digging around to get some dirt on Roy. His suspicions are justified, however, as Roy is in fact a conman, eager to swindle Betty out of a large fortune. But as events unfold, it builds to a shocking revelation, where everything is not as it seems.

Living, as we are, in the WOKE age, with 'the patriarchy' being challenged, and a recent slew of flops, including Terminator: Dark Fate and even the new Charlie's Angels film, being blamed on a feminist agenda being shoved down our throats, there is another, slightly less militant minority group that seem to be having their day more on this side of the pond, that of the older, more mature actors. With this, and last year's King of Thieves (which, in fairness, was depicting a real life event!) we clearly have directors that have the confidence to showcase older performers in an industry that worships at the altar of youth. Here, two stalwart, big name older actors are handled by an older director, in the shape of Bill Condon, who allows things to slowly unravel, in contrast to the torrent of fast cuts and frenetic editing we're used to today. The result is one of the most effective and pleasantly surprising films I've seen in ages.

Condon develops an effective air of mystery and intrigue, before delivering a shattering final revelation, a genuinely surprising twist that you won't see coming, and which he's cleverly set in 2009, ten years before the film's been released, to make the timeline's add up. Performance's wise, McKellen opens with his trademark genteel, softly spoken act, before unnervingly transforming into the far from gentleman crook, who mutters 'f' and 'c' words with casual disdain. Mirren, meanwhile, matches him like for like as an outwardly affable older lady, who underneath will stomach no bullsh!t.

It's a reflection of the times that it's taken a film about two older people to produce one of the most gripping and enjoyable films I've seen in a while, something that could have been a bland Sunday afternoon affair, turned into something far more gritty and dynamic. ****
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9/10
Stirring musical biopic, accessible to Queen fans or not
27 November 2019
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

As a young man whose family emigrated from Tasmania, living in 1970s England, Freddie Mercury (Remi Malek) struggled to find his place in society, or get any kind of acceptance. But he had a magnifying persona that couldn't be shaken off, and was destined for greatness. Together with fellow musicians Brian May (Gwilym Lee), John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) and Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), he formed Queen, a rock band that would set the benchmark for others to follow. Defying convention, Mercury and his band enjoyed fantastic success that has resonated to this day, even whilst his personal life descended into anarchy and despair, before his tragic early death from AIDs.

As a member of the 'millennial' generation (but just barely!), it's a sad fact that most of the bands and music that set the standard for what was to follow, and have stood the test of time today, were about before my time, and so I couldn't experience first hand the massive cultural impact they had when they first emerged. It's sadly the truth that most of what we've experienced was gathering the crumbs from under the table of what went before. I've always been aware of Queen, and never disliked any of their music, but they were never able to play a big part of my formative years. But this stirring biopic from Bryan Singer (mostly known for making X-Men films!) magnifies their musical genius and innovation into something that makes everything else feel redundant.

It's telling that it all feels like less of a biopic of Queen the band, than of Freddie Mercury the individual, with May et al only getting brief screen time in the background. It was his life, and all too soon death, that gave Queen that magnifying allure, in a time before twenty four hour celebrity culture (and STD awareness only just breaking through.) Despite his obviously wild excesses, it's commendable of Singer that he's managed to portray them in a restrained way, giving the film a more encompassing 12 certificate. And all the more good that Malek's lead performance is so mesmerising, drawing you in like a magnet.

Geniuses cure medicines, invent devices, and write ground-breaking music, and Freddie Mercury was definitely one such tortured soul who did just that. If you weren't able to grow up with Queen, then this incredible dramatization of their lives will at least give you the experience. ****
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The Accident (2019)
7/10
Underwhelming TV drama
24 November 2019
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

In a small Welsh village, a group of delinquent children trespass into a construction site, only for a gas canister to explode, killing several of them, and severely injuring Leona (Jade Croot), the daughter of Polly (Sarah Lancashire.) As the town mourns the tragedy, attention shifts to who to blame, in the shape of the corporation who set up the site, represented by Harriett Paulsen (Sidse Babett Knudsen.) As Polly gets determined to fight for justice, spurred on by claims investigator Phillip (Adrian Scarborough), her world is tested to the limit, especially her marriage to husband Iwan (Mark Lewis Jones), who's involved with the company at the heart of the accident.

Writer Jack Thorne, the man behind the excellent The Virtues and National Treasure, said in a (promotional?) interview for The Accident that he was trying to shine a light on how the working class are trampled all over after a big accident, in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower tragedy. That incident, however, is one of a number of instances (most notably, the Hillsborough tragedy) that are referenced in this four part production. However, it pales in comparison to TV and NT, examples of what the guy is capable of producing when he puts his mind to it.

The setup has potential, and it's reliably well acted by TV stalwart Lancashire, and Croot as her hormonal daughter, with strong support from Lewis as the husband/father figure. However, none of the unfortunate kids feel developed or fleshed out enough to really get under their skin, or care about them in the way that you're supposed to. There's just not enough of an emotional impact to it all, despite the heavy subject matter, and any connection to Grenfell fails to translate that much.

While Thorne hasn't made a complete hash of it (as many have said!), he has sold himself and his (evident!) talents quite short. ***
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Top Boy (2011– )
4/10
Hard hitting, relentlessly bleak crime drama
20 November 2019
Warning: Spoilers
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

SEASON THREE (FROM THE CHANNEL 4 SERIES)

SEASON ONE (ON NETFLIX)

Dushane (Ashley Walters) has moved away from London to go and live in Jamaica. But he finds himself plunged back into his old life when his cousin is taken hostage by some corrupt cops and the local, Mr. Big drugs baron, who demands he return to London and oversee a drugs shipment he intends to engineer over there. Reuniting with his old friend Sully (Kane Robinson), who's just been released from prison, he finds his old manor over-taken by new kid on the block Jamie (Michael Ward) and his gang.

Six years is quite a long time to leave a gap between the last season of a show, making a new one and expecting it to stay implanted in everyone's consciousness, especially for such an apparently popular series. I certainly had no interest in giving Top Boy a go when it first aired (all the way back in 2011, it seems), or the second series in 2013, as I was pretty tired of all the 'gangsta' dramas going about, with all the 'yoof' talk and ghetto slang that may as well be a foreign bloody language as far as I'm concerned (speaking as a 35 year old white man!) But I didn't have Netflix back then, and now it's my bible, and they have chosen to inexplicably revive it in this year 2019, when I seem to be more open to suggestion. So, without knowing the background/story of any of the characters, I've dived in headfirst with this season. The results are depressingly unsurprising.

An up and coming black female comedian (who obviously hasn't broken through yet!) recently did an article in The Independent newspaper, lambasting shows like Top Boy for perpetuating such a negative stereotype of young black men, and, like me, was perplexed as to why they'd choose to bring it back after so long. She also recounted how, as a black Briton, she'd never known anyone involved in gun crime, and how it wasn't as common as people had been lead to expect. Obviously, though, it does exist, and this certainly highlights, pulling no punches, the dark, gritty reality of this subculture, and full marks to it for getting this right. It's hard to believe anybody could be caught up in a world this relentlessly bleak and dangerous, though, especially in an advanced nation like this, and I just shake my head at how anybody could end up living a life so lawless as this.

In between all the gritty toughness, it tries to be topical and relevant, honing in on recent media talking points, including the Hostile Environment policy, county lines drug dealing, and drones being used to smuggle contraband into jails. It's all just a lot of excessive bombardment of such an unpleasant lifestyle, not helped by Netflix's typically over indulgent amount of episodes. **
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Joker (2019)
9/10
Takes the Joker origin story, and puts a completely different slant on it
18 November 2019
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

Gotham City, 1981. A place in the grip of a sanitation workers strike, leaving bags of waste piled high in the streets. A place where the divide between rich and poor is cutting through the hearts and minds of the people. In the midst of this madness, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) struggles to live. An introverted, eccentric character who struggles to survive in the world. He's on various different forms of medication, and has a condition which causes an involuntary, loud, hysteric laugh to emanate from his mouth. However, after a devastating encounter with a group of bullies on the subway, he is plunged into a shattering series of events where his existence will come to have more meaning than he could have imagined.

When the Batman TV series originally aired in the 1960's, there were an entire cavalcade of villains who graced the screen on a weekly basis, but since the character's inception, none of them have ever had quite the hold on the cultural consciousness as the Joker. Easily the most intriguing, ambiguous, and startling neer do well, with a dark charisma that draws you in more. In this, what may be the most successful film of the year, director Todd Phillips reimagines the character's origins, and provides a totally different slant on them, diverting away from the comic-book narrative, and instead using the character as a template for a searing character study, serving as a wider examination of society as a whole.

Just as the lead character is framed in a different spotlight, so are some other characters from his background in the DC comics universe. While Thomas Wayne (here portrayed with a dour, judgemental undertone by Brett Cullen) has been depicted before as a millionaire with a heart of gold, investing his fortune to helping those from a more disadvantaged background, here we see him as a selfish, heartless tycoon, who looks down on those less successful than him. This casts an iffier slant on the motivations of the man who kills him, and young Bruce, who goes on to become Batman. It is in this way that Phillips skilfully demonstrates that good and evil/right and wrong may not always be as straightforward as they seem, and circumstances can dictate things.

Arthur is a marginalised, misunderstood loner, unable to form regular, normal relationships with others, who can only get that connection from others by serving as a freak show to an audience, thus his attempts to break through as a stand up comedian, and his determination to appear on The Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, in another of these roles that don't naturally suit him, but which he tries his best) Show, which ends up serving as a shocking springboard for him to gain admiration spreading a populist message.

Many might feel comic book characters have been done to death, but Phillips has here delivered something truly original and compelling, a thought provoking examination of nature or nurture that will turn everyone on their heads, and has established Phoenix as a bona fide, big name star.****
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9/10
Reliably thought provoking stuff from Ken Loach
11 November 2019
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

Before the 2008 financial crash, Ricky (Kris Hitchen) and Abbie Turner (Debbie Honeywood) had saved up to buy their own property, but ever since have been living in rented accommodation, with their kids, Seb (Rhys Stone) and Lisa Jane (Katie Proctor.) Ricky takes the bold move to try and establish some independence again, and moves into the self employed market, working as a courier for a parcel company. However, he has actually entered the gig economy, with no guaranteed work, penalties if he misses days and a 'tracker' marking his every move. With Abbie in similarly precarious employment as a carer, their family life and well-being begins to disintegrate.

Although now in the winter of his life and career, and thus least personally affected by the modern day trials and tribulations faced by those of this generation, it's very telling that it is once again the now 83 year old director Ken Loach who has been galvanized into shining a spotlight on the scourge of the current trend of zero hours contracts and the uncertainty and unsustainability they bring. It's hard to believe that a more personal, impassioned cry couldn't come from a younger, more maturing director, but then, maybe there just is no-one to rival the authentic, affecting touch he brings.

Loach once again saturates his film with a gritty, raw realism, that very unforgivingly zooms in on his characters, and the rough, real world they inhabit. There's an odd spark of comic relief from the characters, sharing some coarse humour that reflects the lives they lead, but otherwise it's very much a film to inform and raise awareness, rather than entertain, and so it will struggle to find acceptance from a mainstream audience, much like Loach's previous I, Daniel Blake (and probably every other film he's made), who just want to chew their popcorn and lap up the latest Avengers film.

This is an unflinching depiction of a real life family, the sort of people you might see at work every day, facing a present day crisis that is affecting millions. As some other reviewers have noted, at times it seems like the main character is facing a relentless barrage of bad luck that stretches believability, but then Loach can only focus on one protagonist, and so must cram in everything he needs to. It's still admirable (and, as I say, telling) that he still appears to be the only one who wants to try and shine a light on this kind of thing. ****
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Doctor Sleep (2019)
9/10
Very impressive adaptation of King's sequel to The Shining
3 November 2019
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

Over thirty years after the events at The Overlook Hotel, Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) is now a grown man, with various issues in his life as a result of the trauma he experienced as a child. However, he still possesses his 'shining' ability, and that may come in handy, when he connects with Abra Stone (Kyleigh Curran), a young girl who has become chillingly aware of the existence of a group called The True Knot, lead by the evil Rose the Hat (Rebecca Furguson), who prey on the steam of children who shine. Together, she and Danny must stop their evil once and for all.

Thirty five years after the release of his novel The Shining, the pressure must have finally got to Stephen King, and after enormous pressure from his fans, in 2013 he released the novella Doctor Sleep, which I finally got round to reading earlier this year. After being impressed, it was all the better that this new filmic adaptation would arrive so soon afterwards, and that the hype would be so rewarding after a slew of modern King works that didn't fit the grade. Indeed, I can safely say Doctor Sleep is the most satisfying adaptation I have experienced in a very long time.

It's a pleasant, and not so surprising surprise, that this arrives under the direction of Mike Flanagan, who was behind Netflix's equally impressive adaptation of King's other novel Gerald's Game. His most pleasing achievement is to deliver a strikingly faithful adaptation of the novel, staying true to the events in there and not leaving anything out. He allows the beauty of King's storytelling to naturally get under your skin, using a 'heartbeat' sound to signpost the scary, ominous moments, such as 'The Baseball Boy' scene (a scene as distressing and unpleasant onscreen as in the novel), much more effective than the overwhelming jump scares and constant loud thrashing about that marred It Chapter Two. He also has an eye for casting, and McGregor fits perfectly into the lead role, delivering an effective performance, along with the young Curran as Abra, and Ferguson, whose Rose the Hat will now make a perfect new costume at next years Halloween parties.

Just as the fans of the novel demanded a follow up, so did the fans of the original film version, and in the finale in The Overlook Hotel, Flanagan seems to cater for them, abandoning the original story arc to allow for some subtle references to the 1980 Stanley Kubrick classic. This creates a kind of cut and shut feel to it, but doesn't spoil the experience overall.

It's rare to get a King transition to screen that is this successful, and that should be pleasing in itself, an original and classy sequel, focusing on themes of being a persecuted minority and, a familiar trope King explored with It, how the seemingly innocent and friendly can be so callous and deceitful. ****
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We Die Young (2019)
4/10
VD fails to climb back up
28 October 2019
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

Lucas (Elijah Rodriguez) is a fourteen year old boy, trapped in the gang life of MS13, in a rough neighbourhood on the outskirts of Washington D.C. He sells drugs to Daniel (Jean Claude Van Damme), a former soldier who speaks through a recorder after losing his voice while on a mission in Afghanistan, and now needs drugs to numb the pain. Lucas is determined his younger brother, Miguel (Nicholas Sean Johnny) will not get sucked into this world too, setting him on a collision course with the other members, and into a relationship with Daniel that will change their lives forever.

Despite being more of a Seagal man, I'm also partial to a bit of Van Damme from time to time, and sometimes you just need to check out his latest movie, which turns out to be this offering from writer/director Lior Geller. I say his latest movie, although despite being plastered on the front cover, he's more of a co star in the proceedings, with the main narrative focused on the struggle of the young brothers. That said, it's nice to see him appearing in something not coated in so much of the dark moodiness that's defined his films of the last ten years or so, with a brighter, bouncier feel despite the dark tone of the story.

It's clear that VD is trying to make a more drama oriented offering here, rather than focusing on being as much of an 'action star', and for those who complain about his thick Belgian accent, it might be a relief to see him in a film where he doesn't speak. But it's an unstructured mess, with no definable beginning, middle and end, and as such leaves you caring little for the story or any of the characters in it. VD is still a credible action star, and so you do hope there might be another Expendables 2 type project that could lift him out of these direct to DVD non-entities forever. **
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9/10
Riveting modern day real life thriller
23 October 2019
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

In 2003, Katherine Gun (Keira Knightley), an employee of GCHQ, came across sensitive information suggesting America was putting pressure on the British government to gather spurious information to justify the invasion of Iraq. Already a fierce opponent of any military intervention, Katherine found herself compelled to act, and leaked information of this news to The Observer newspaper. When she was forced to reveal herself as the leaker, Katherine was plunged into a devastating spiral of events that threatened to rip her life apart.

It's a depressing moment when things you can remember happening very clearly at a fully developed point in your life have suddenly happened a very long time ago, and now have some kind of historical context to them. Even though the invasion of Iraq happened sixteen years ago, when I was a much younger man, considering the course of time that modern films can still engagingly cover, it's a pretty recent thing, and definitely one that there's still loads of interest in. And director Gavin Hood has seized upon that with this dramatization of a 'whistle blower' who was instrumental in exposing how corrupt the whole thing was.

Despite a pretty slow and dull beginning, that makes it feel more suited to a Sunday afternoon TV drama than a big screen affair, it gradually develops into something more riveting and compelling, really delving into all the juicy background corruption that went on behind our backs in the build-up to that war. Hood saturates the whole thing in a blurry, drained out camera style that allows for no respite from all the dramatic events unfolding. Knightley is reliably strong and commanding in the lead role, as a courageous young woman who pays a terrible price for confronting the powers that be, with stellar support from the likes of Matthew Goode, Ralph Fiennes, Matt Smith and Adam Bakri.

This is the sort of adult, mature filmmaking people don't have so much time for these days, and will no doubt be out of theatres in no time, a shame since director Hood has delivered an impressive film, which, while not quite matching the nail biting tension of his previous military thriller Eye in the Sky, is still a shattering, uncomfortable indictment of how the state will persecute anyone who goes against it's wishes. ****
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Fractured (I) (2019)
9/10
Pleasantly surprising suspense thriller
22 October 2019
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

Ray Monroe (Sam Worthington) is a recovering alcoholic, on a road trip with his wife Joanne (Lily Rabe) and young daughter Peri (Lucy Capri.) After stopping by the roadside to get some charger batteries, Peri is involved in a serious fall, and is rushed to the nearest A/E. Upon checking her in, Ray waits with Joanne in the waiting area, only to awaken from a sleep with Joanne missing, and no recollection by the hospital that Peri was ever admitted, plunging Ray into a nightmarish rollercoaster of events where everything is not as it seems.

In a day and age where most of the original ideas seem to have dried up like a draught in Africa, it's surprising original, effective, new ideas aren't recycled more often, especially since, as all the films which spun off from the Die Hard concept proved, you can still take an idea that's been done before and make a good thing out of it. 1997's Breakdown was one such idea, that never really got explored much more, but which director Brad Anderson seems to have set the template from with this decent, worthwhile little thriller.

Anderson saturates his project throughout with dark, gloomy lighting, which suits the eerie, forboding tone he's trying to create. A hospital, especially a remote one on the outskirts of town, is a naturally unsettling place to set a dark suspense thriller such as this, and Anderson works it to great effect. Worthington has a strong presence in the lead, and his growing paranoia is magnetising to watch. The film is genuinely suspenseful, leaving you honestly unsure how events will pan out, and on the edge of your seat to find out how.

Anyone who liked the film Breakdown will have a good time with this pleasantly surprising Netflix offering, an effective thriller that leaves us with a curiously ambiguous ending. ****
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Unbelievable (2019)
9/10
Harrowing true life tale, a strong show all round
19 October 2019
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Morning * Monday Morning

In 2008, Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever), a troubled teen who'd spent a childhood growing up in foster homes, reported a sexual assault to local cops. However, her fractured account of events lead to them being unable to have a credible case to go on, leading to her being charged with filing a false report, which destroyed her life. Detective Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever) learns of some other women who've reported similar rapes, and after getting in touch with Detective Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette) finds the attacker may be operating across state lines to avoid detection.

If filmmakers are becoming increasingly bereft of original ideas, they can always turn to real life for inspiration, often of the less rosy and uplifting kind, such as this dramatization of the harrowing real life ordeal of several women, and in particular a young girl who no one believed and had no one to turn to. As downbeat as the content is, it perversely makes for the most dynamic, gripping viewing, especially if it's credibly written and engagingly performed, and luckily all involved with this production come off marvellously.

As someone who burst onto the scene as the cheery, bouncy Muriel in Muriel's Wedding, Toni Collette is now a long way from that cheery persona, and here is nothing less than magnetizing as a hard faced, no nonsense detective on the hunt for her prey, with strong support from Wever as her equally bullsh!t averse partner, two strong, dynamic female leads in a film showcasing strong females. With that in mind, the standout performance has to be mentioned, in the shape of Dever as the tragic young woman, grinded down after her ordeal and an already hard life by an incompetent system that was meant to protect her.

You like to believe some things can't happen in this tough old world, that some people can't be so alone, that a system can't be so useless and untrustworthy, that there aren't things in place to keep you protected, but more often than not, sadly, people find out the hard way they are. This production solidly depicts one such terrible example. ****
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The Lion King (2019)
4/10
An interesting take, but just a bland copy of the original
16 October 2019
STAR RATING: ***** Saturday Night **** Friday Night *** Friday Morning ** Sunday Night * Monday Morning

As the son of Mustafa (voiced by James Earl Jones), the 'Lion King', the young Simba (voiced by JD McCreary) is destined to take over from him and rule the animal kingdom upon his death, much to the chagrin of his evil uncle Scar (voiced by Chiwetel Ejiofor), who engineers a plot to murder Mustafa, convince Simba he is responsible and banish him away as he falsely ascends the throne. During his time in the wilderness, Simba grows into an adult lion and must return to Pride Rock to confront Scar, who's allowed his villainous cohorts the Hyenas to take over.

Although the original Lion King is a Disney classic I hold fond memories of from my childhood, I've taken my time getting round to watching this 'live action reboot' (of which Disney seem to be making their stock in trade at the moment) on the grounds that I wasn't awfully keen on sharing my viewing experience with loads of rowdy kids, and so waited until it had been out a while. Although it felt odd as a grown adult watching a load of talking animals, I tried to put aside my cynicism, and was rewarded with a scene for scene remake, minus the magic.

With the exception of James Earl Jones returning as Mustafa, the characters are all voiced by different actors from the original cast, none of whom have the same inflection in their voice that made all of them so memorable before. This isn't helped by the live action animals not having the ability to use their expressions like they did in the animated film. The success of David Attenborough's Planet Earth series shows how fascinating people find real life nature, and so transferring the film into a live action setting was certainly an idea with potential, but none of it is explored here.

This is Disney's special way of marking the 25th anniversary of the release of the original film, but while it's visually impressive, it still just amounts to the original film, scene for scene, with a third of the heart and Seth Rogen doing a characteristically crass turn as a farting Pumbaa. Stay at home and watch that instead. **
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