Inferno Review

The Dan Brown Robert Langdon series is one of the best-selling collections of novels in the world. And with most bestseller books, it got turned into a film. The Da Vinci Code came out ten years ago (yes, really that long ago!) and Angels And Demons came out in 2009. Now, ten/seven years later, a new chapter in the film series, Inferno.

Inferno stars Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, Omar Sy, Irrfan Khan and Ben Foster and is directed by Ron Howard. The film follows once again Robert Langdon (Hanks) who is in race against time to stop a deadly virus from being released into the world, with the only clues being hidden in famous works of art all over Europe.

I was actually looking forward to Inferno. I’m not a Dan Brown fan, but the trailers got me interested. And for a time I was relatively enjoying myself. The film is set in Florence, but swiftly moves to Venice and Istanbul. We get several sweeping shots of the cities and Langdon and his accomplice Sienna (played by Felicity Jones) run around the tourist hotspots and talk about the architecture and paintings. While sometimes it sounds like Hanks and Jones are reading from “The Encyclopaedia Of Modern Art”, it was like a mini-holiday in the cinema. Apart from those little bits of the art, history and lovely settings, it really is bad.

While the screenplay is not written by Dan Brown, you can feel his influence all over the film. It’s not really a plot, but just lots and lots of melodramatic nonsense. Each scene adds more and more nonsense on top of the previous nonsense, then adds twenty billion twists and several flashbacks, and in the end it becomes a lot less interesting or compelling. Brown really has a contempt for his audience, the characters explain to each other in lengthy detail how certain plot contrivances happen, but then the films show the scene, again and again, even if it wasn’t integral to the plot. Inferno has no time for people wanting to infer anything other than what it wanted.

Tom Hanks does his usual “super-dad” role, although this time he’s read up on his European history and art. Every important place he visits, he gives a little Wikipedia summary of when it was built, who built it, what the paintings on the roof mean, what hand the painter used, where The Ark Of The Covenant is buried, and how many secret passages the palace/cathedral/museum has. Felicity Jones follows him from place to place, giving off a blank, wide-eyed stare, seemingly have lost all of her emotions before the film began. Ben Foster is the main villain of the piece but despite being one of the most charismatic actors around he has less than ten minutes of screen time.

Inferno started out really good. I really enjoyed myself for the first half, full of art and history and interesting puzzles and clues. But the rest of the writing, from the Shyamalan-worthy twists to the vaguely defined characters and motives, it made me shake my head in disbelief and laugh out loud on several occasions. If you are a fan of the other Dan Brown films then it could be fun, but for others, it’s probably a bit too silly for anything other than ironic hilarity.

Score: 4/10 The beautiful settings can’t save an already botched script.

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War On Everyone Review

One of my all-time favourite films is Calvary, a dark black comedy about a priest in Ireland who is sent death threats by a particularly broken parishioner. The film was written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, so when I heard about his new film, War On Everyone, I was pretty excited. Does it hold up with his other works?

War On Everyone stars Michael Pena, Alexander Skarsgård, Theo James and Tessa Thompson and is written and directed by John Michael McDonagh. The film follows Bob (Pena) and Terry (Skarsgård), a pair of corrupt cops who blackmail every criminal they come across. But one day they threaten the wrong criminal (James) and things turn sinister.

The opening scene of the film is Bob and Terry chasing a drug dealer dressed as a mime artist. Bob turns to Terry and asks “If you hit a mime does it make a sound?” before running him over with their car. That’s the sort of humour that War On Everyone has. It’s vulgar, callous and abrasive, but that’s its charm and had me nearly in stitches at places. All the characters are despicable, even the two leads who we are rooting for. Within the first couple of minutes you’ll know whether you’ll either enjoy the film or walk out due to disgust. The jokes ease up as we go through, replaced with dance numbers (set to an excellent endless playlist of Glen Campbell) and outrageous gun and fist fights bordering on slapstick, but they are always there in the film’s hip pocket if time comes for a punchy quip.

While the film is set in the modern day, it has an affinity with the look and sounds of the 1970s. Bob and Terry’s car is a classic, wheel-spinning, drifting muscle car, the collars are wide and the hair is bad, the aforementioned ever-present musical accompaniment of Campbell and the colour palette is garish, it all adds up to a film that has a great feel about it. It’s reminiscent of things like The French Connection and Dirty Harry, which is magnified by our heroes acting more like violent thugs than actual cops.

Michael Pena and Alexander Skarsgård are great as the duo of slightly bad cops. Pena is a great screen presence and ever charismatic, whether it be having deep, introspective talks with his wife or throwing out one-liners completely deadpan. Skarsgård is doing his usual boring, brooding role, but it’s just so funny watching this tower of a man strut around in a sharp suit, dishing out his own odd brand of justice.

The problems though are two-fold. First off, while the script is bitingly funny, the story is non-existent. I managed to figure out it was something to do with bank robberies and the porn industry, but not much else. It’s hardly a plot, more just a succession of scenes. We have many parts dedicated to the main bad guy and his minions, but they are not as interesting our main duo and ultimately, a lot less funny. Every time the film would cut to them, I got a little bored, just waiting for the film to head back to Pena and Skarsgård. Secondly, even though the film is only 97 minutes, it feels incredibly long. Again, there are a few too many moments that aren’t as funny or compelling as others. I am really hoping for a sequel though. To see these characters again would be a blast, hopefully they can sort out a good story for next time.

In the end, War On Everyone is a great romping ride. While it’s comedy will turn off many potential viewers for being so on-the-nose and cutting, this one is definitely going to be a cult classic. I just wish that it held together a bit more.

Score: 7/10 Deplorable, irresponsible and offensive, but damn if it isn’t funny.

The Girl On The Train Review

When I first saw the trailer for The Girl On The Train, my friend said it looked like Gone Girl-lite. I have yet to see the smash hit thriller (it seems everyone I know is amazed I haven’t seen it), but I got the idea he was making. One film is successful so everyone copies it. But I always try to go in with an open mind (even you Angry Birds), so let’s see if The Girl On The Train can stand apart.

The Girl On The Train stars Emily Blunt, Haley Bennett, Justin Theroux and Luke Evans and is directed by Tate Taylor. The film follows Rachel (Blunt), who watches the same woman (Bennett) out the train window everyday to work. One day, the girl disappears, so Rachel starts a search to find out what happened.

I’ll start by saying that The Girl On The Train is a film built on its revelations. I’ll try to keep spoilers to a minimum but some might slip by. If you prefer not to have any spoilers then I strongly urge you to just skip to the final paragraph for an overview.

You can tell this film is aiming for the Oscars. Emily Blunt as main character Rachel is definitely a shoe-in for the Best Actress nomination this year. Rachel is alone, a severe alcoholic, and mentally unstable. She’s just as confused as we are as she is trying to piece together the disappearance of the woman she is following, but also her movements that night, a four hour window where she cannot remember anything. The rest of the cast are alright, Haley Bennett is better here than her small role in Hardcore Henry, even if she is still reduced to an emotionless sex robot. Justin Theroux and Luke Evans play their usual roles, with only a few scenes later on that allow them to show their range.

The film’s structure also plays around with time and places, to tie into with Rachel’s downward spiral in psychosis. It’s not the first film to add narrative harmony to its characters, but here it’s done good enough. It falls down when the film starts jumping about in time, showing several flashbacks to fill out the characters. The film will jump back for five minutes before coming back to the present day, but without telling the audience that we are back to the main story. You eventually get back into the swing of it, but it’s still confusing and brings to film to a halt.

The film is slow build, it’s nearly three quarters of an hour before the woman disappears, but once the thriller part of the film starts going, it becomes insanely good. Sadly the Girl On The Train, like many thrillers, can’t pull off the ending. The ending and certain character reveals are signposted throughout, but it still felt rather lazy and cheap. It gets to the point that we know more about the disappearance than Rachel does, which leaves us tapping our foot waiting for her to catch up to us.

This ties in with the last problem, the film is way too long. It’s stretching at two hours, and is filled with needless padding. Sure, some of it is vaguely entertaining padding, but the film beats us over the head with Rachel’s drinking problem and destroyed relationships until it’s just in a repetitive bore.

In the end, The Girl On The Train is an alright thriller. It’s doesn’t reach the heights of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (which is the staple for the dark, sexually-charged psycho-thrillers) but it just good enough.

Score: 6/10 A great middle but a poor ending.

The Girl With All The Gifts Review

During the early 2010s, the zombie craze was huge. While zombies had been a part of entertainment all the way back from the 1950s (mainly through George Romero), as soon as The Walking Dead came out, along with things such as Call Of Duty‘s Zombie mode and others, the zombie craze blew up. Now, a few years after the buzz has died, a new zombie film.

The Girl With All The Gifts stars Sennia Nanua, Gemma Arterton, Paddy Considine and Glenn Close and is directed by Colm McCarthy. Set in the near future after a zombie outbreak, a young girl called Melanie (Nanua) finds out she is immune to their infections.

Most zombie films deal with the immediate aftermath of the outbreak. Even films such as 28 Days Later, a corner stone of the new zombie films, are set during the initial breakout of whatever creates the monsters. Here, it is a few years after the disease first struck, meaning there has been some developments. Bases are set up that house the half-breed human/zombies, anti-zombie drugs are rationed and the mutation is ever evolving in the towns and cities, now overgrown with fauna and flora. It’s a set-up that apart from Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, I can’t think of many films that have explored it, but is brought to life wonderfully through the film. It’s got hints of John Wnydham’s Day Of The Triffids, with the abandoned cities and oppresive atmosphere, just this time with zombies instead of plants.

The cast are good in their respective roles. Paddy Considine and Glenn Close, who are both part of the military detail that is working towards a cure, have clear arcs and motives. None of them are reduced to silly stereotypes or have odd reveals, they react like real characters, with emotion and thoughts, rather than what the script needs them to do. Gemma Arterton is alright as teacher Helen, but nothing really standout. The best though is young Sennia Nanua as Melanie, the titular character, who has the bloodlust of a zombie but can regulate it and appear like a human girl. Through the film she moves from eager youngster, reading books and writing stories, before having to grow up and become a vital member of the survivors. Her full range of emotions and states, including when she goes into full-on zombie mode are incredibly good for an actress as young and untested as her (this is her second production, and first feature film).

The film has a relatively low budget (£4 million), but it works to the films favour. The stripped-back effect of the films creates a better world. This isn’t a big-budget Hollywood zombie film like World War Z or even a American-style satire like Dawn of The Dead. It feels more like a real-world event rather than a staged film, without zombies running left and right. The zombies are to be feared rather than fought. The biggest set-pieces hardly involve fighting the monsters but rather tip-toeing past them and hoping that they don’t sniff you out.

There is only one real action scene, just after the first half an hour. At the beginning, I wasn’t really sure where the film was going, it’s slow paced and focussing more on characters than giving us a creature feature. But once we are lead out of the underground facility where the first act is confined to, out into the open, we get a glorious raging battle between soldiers and zombies. The entire scene is done in one long take, spanning a few minutes and involving well over a hundred extras. The work and effort to create it must have been astounding, and is worthy of praise.

In the end, The Girl With All The Gifts is an interesting addition to the zombie canon. For those waiting on a The Last of Us film to come out, go watch The Girl With All The Gifts while you can. It’s the closest you’ll come to getting it.

Score: 7/10 A refreshing blend of horror and science-fiction.

The Magnificent Seven Review

I guess Westerns are back. With the surprise hits of Slow West and Salvation back in 2015, and the utterly amazing Bone Tomahawk earlier this year, Westerns are getting both commercial and critical acclaim (let’s just all forget The Lone Ranger, yeah?) And now for one of the most high-profile Westerns ever created, now remade.

The Magnificent Seven stars Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo and Martin Sensmeier and is directed by Antoine Fuqua, The story follows a bounty hunter (Washington) who wrangles up a posse to protect a town from a dastardly industrialist (Peter Sarsgaard).

The director, Antoine Fuqua, is the man behind films such as Training Day, Tear of The Sun and The Equalizer. Gritty “guy movies” about competent bad-asses who give and receive gruelling punishments while also being actually good films rather than silly pabulum like the Taken sequels or anything by the director Luc Besson. And with The Magnificent Seven, he’s continuing his trend of macho-action blockbusters without much fail.

The actors are well cast. Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt are doing roles they could do in their sleep, smaller roles for veteran actors such as Ethan Hawke and Vincent D’Onofrio and a breakout action female role for Haley Bennet. The best though are Byung-hun Lee as assassin Billy and Martin Sensmeier as Red Harvest, a Comanche warrior. Both are relative newcomers (Lee is a star in Asia but not Hollywood) but they are perfect in their roles as ultra-capable killers and are seemingly born to be action stars. Look out for these two later on in Hollywood.

The action is explosive and bloody, but Fuqua is a master at capturing the gunfights, which play out more like opera or music, with a great rhythm to the hits and bullets. The sound design is good, you can feel the weight behind the bullets, instead of just sound effects. The first skirmish is split evenly, with each character showing off their abilities. This where the previously mentioned Lee and Sensmeier shine, with their respective weapons of knives and bows. The second and final fight takes up the last half an hour and while it make become a little repetitive after a while, the final five minutes, when our heroes are beaten down and battered, is a high point of emotion-driven action.

There are also tense standoffs, in saloons and deserted streets near the beginning, and again, they are shot very well. You can feel the rhythm of the shots building up, as the film draw close to a shootout. It’s not a slow-burn tension of say, Anthropoid. It’s much more geared towards a popcorn entertainment, but it’s still created well.

The story is a little clichéd, with nothing really standing out or subverting trends in scriptwriting. The scriptwriter is Nic Pizzolatto, the creator behind True Detective. Despite that excellently written former work, M7 comes nowhere close to it. There aren’t many stand-out lines and the plot points feel like 101 scriptwriting. There are obligatory break-up/make-up sections and back-stories to characters that feel tacked on/aren’t explored. One of the main characters has a personal connection to the villain, and if we had learnt about it earlier it could have injected the third act with some human drama about sacrificing innocents for revenge. But no, it’s done away with in a few lines, sloppily added in just because it was on a generic story checklist.

In the end, The Magnificent Seven is a well-done popcorn earner. The little generic traits and standard story conventions are easy to point out, but the action and the actors are what make it a highlight. It doesn’t stand with Seven Samurai (the story M7 was based on) but it probably stand there with the original.

Score: 7/10 Not magnificent, but solid entertainment.

Blair Witch Review

People seem to forget it nowadays but when The Blair Witch Project came out, it was a cultural landmark. Nothing else like it had been created before, and it then ushered in the “found-footage” trope that has been prevalent in the early part of the 2000s. Some people loved it, some hated it. Myself, probably in the middle (although it has been a while since seeing it). Twenty years on, does the new Blair Witch carry on the legacy?

Blair Witch stars James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Brandon Scott and Corbin Reid and is directed by Adam Wingard. the film follows the brother of Heather from the first film (McCune) who collects a set of friends and a documentary filmmaker to venture into the woods to see if they can find his sister.

In the original, it’s widely known that the cast were just coming into their careers and were genuinely scared of their surroundings. The new cast feel like they are more acting rather that reacting to the things around them, making it feel a little more staged. It follows a more conventional style of filmmaking with stock characters (promiscuous girl, wacky black guy, weird locals), giving us tropes we recognise so we can focus more on the woods and action rather than them.

The film is set up like a found footage movie, but updated to modern times. Drones, little headpiece cameras and an all-matter of gizmos such as GPS and walkie-talkies are brought in, which is an interesting addition. These people are actually going into the forest to look for something, not messing about with a camera. Little bits of the equipment get used here and there, but to no great effect other than some new visuals. The first half of the film is all shaking cameras and no real coherency, which eventually started to give me a migraine. It does calm down in the second half, so it’s half redeemed. When the original was made, the marketing convinced so many people that the film was real, that we were watching the last known recording of the three filmmakers. Now that we know that it was all basically fabricated, the sequel was a bit of a non-starter. We know it’s fake, we know it’s made-up, and no amount of people holding cameras or devices is going to convince me otherwise. It is basically a beat-for-beat remake of the original, but without the clever marketing.

Sadly, the spectre of most horror films nowadays, the jump scare, it used to full effect. Most of the time it’s not even anything remotely frightening, just loud camera glitches or microphone pops, which really get irritating after a while. After getting jump-scared by two of her friends, the main female lead says “Can people please stop doing that!”, almost reading the audience members minds. Again, the second act brings it together, with an excellent mix of some Cronenberg-style body horror, a genuinely tense “hearing-monster-walk-around-you” set-piece, a little glimpse of what could be a witch and an ending with a reveal which is novel and interesting. Good horror should leave it open-ended, and the second half does deliver. We even see what those stickmen are eventually used for, and it’s clever and fun.

Looking back at the whole of the Blair Witch, you can almost see the twenty years of horror that it’s tried to keep up with. You obviously get the nods to the original, but also little flashes of things like the VHS series and The Descent. The new stuff it brings to the table is superb and lends a lot of richness to the lore of the Blair Witch, but the basic retread will put of people who didn’t like the first one. If you hated the original, you will hate this, but if like me you were impartial or liked the original, you might get a kick out of it.

Score: 5/10 An abysmal first act leads into a slightly stronger ending.

Anthropoid Review

Thank the film reels that summer is over. I must be sounding like a stuck record, but I’m genuinely happy that I don’t have to sit through any rubbish blockbusters or jokeless comedies for a while. Now the films will be Oscarbait, so even if some will be asinine art installations, we will get some absolute gems as compensation. And now, the opening act.

Anthropoid stars Cillian Murphy, Jamie Dornan, Toby Jones and Charlotte Le Bon and is directed by Sean Ellis. The story follows the true story of two Czech Resistance members (Murphy and Dornan) during the Second World War, as they attempt to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the “Butcher Of Prague”.

The set-up of the film really intrigued me. So many war films seem to only focus on the European Theatre of WW2, and then restricting that down to D-Day and onwards. There are so many other battles, such as the attacks in Asia or Eastern Europe that many films don’t focus on (That’s why I intensely liked The Railway Man for focussing on the former). The Czech Resistance is an unexplored time period, so it would bring something fresh to the film.

The actors are excellent in their roles. Jamie Dornan, who is probably most known for his leading role in Fifty Shades Of Grey shows that he isn’t just a set of abs, with a character that is in the position of never being in a combat zone, and having to come to terms with the knowledge he may have to kill to survive. Cillian Murphy does his usual vacated role, a man who is a little too into being able to murder anyone who gets in his way. Both actors, as well as the rest of the cast sport Czech accents, which while sometimes are a little hard to understand, fit into the world and give it a nice sense of believability. This is heightened by the occupying Nazi’s all speaking German, so we, just like the main characters, are lost when talking to the occupiers.

The film is mainly the planning of the assassination attempt and the aftermath, with the assassination mainly being, at most, five minutes of the film. For those wanting an action-heavy WW2 film, this is not it. The film relies more on the tense atmosphere, the sneaking around, passing slips of paper under the cover of darkness knowing any moment the army might crash through the door. It’s excellent at creating that environment, knowing when to release or heighten the tension. The assassination scene is a highlight of the film, with an almost montage effect, splitting between the various members of the hit squad, waiting for their time to strike.

The film is lent more to the slow-build crowd, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t action segments. The assassination sequence, as well as the finale, are great recent example of how to do shaky camera well. Grenades are going off, gunfire is peppering the scenery, and the camera conveys it without being obnoxious. The final fight hits a watermark of emotion-driven drama, as we realise the limited ammunition the characters have and the unending waves of Nazi troops camped outside their safe house. It’s similar to films like Calvary or 300 (without the weird goatmen), where you realise that our protagonists might not make it out of the story in one piece.

The one part I wasn’t invested in however, was a small romance plot near the beginning. To solidify their cover stories, Murphy and Dornan start to date two Czech girls, allowing them to walk around Prague without the Nazi’s questioning them. The romance plot is not fleshed out, with Dornan and Murphy seemingly falling in love in mere minutes. The romance is meant to grow over a few months, but the time scale in the film makes it seem much sooner. It’s probably to fit the film under two hours, but it bugged me a little.

With Anthropoid, Oscar Season is off to a flying start. This is one to see, just so you can be smug to all your friends when it gets nominated.

Score: 9/10 A tense and stark reminder of the sacrifices of war.

Hell Or High Water Review

Sicario was one of the highlights of last year. A dark, twisting film about an extra-legal team from the FBI trying to shut down the drug cartels in Mexico. So when writer of Sicario, Taylor Sheridan, name came up in the pre-release buzz around Hell Or High Water, my interested picked up. Are we in for another grim treat?

Hell Or High Water stars Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham and is directed by David Mackenzie. The film follows a pair of bank-robbing brothers (Pine and Foster) who after several daring heists are chased by a determined aging Texas Ranger (Bridges).

The three leads are tremendous, a sure reason to go see Hell or Water. Just like other great suspense heist films such as Heat, we see both sides of the law, seeing their wins and losses, with us rooting for both cop and criminal. Jeff Bridges does his usual “too old for this” schtick. He even says that this is his last case (an all too common trope), but he is still an interesting character. Chris Pine and Ben Foster work well together as brothers Toby and Tanner, they have a good back-and-forth, whether it be during the getaway or back home on the ranch. Pine sheds his usual douchy persona and brings a layered character, trying to provide for his family doing something that might get him killed. Ben Foster starts off as the wackier older brother, but thankfully adds more nuance to his performance rather than the played out lunatic bank-robber formula. All three sport Texan accents, which sometimes are hard to understand.

While the film is supposed to be in West Texas, it was actually filmed in New Mexico. Even so, the scenery is beautiful. Much like Sicario before it, Hell Or High Water has may long. wide shots of the never-ending landscapes and stunning setting suns. The film also makes use of the urban environments, little one-street towns and retro diners, leaving a sense of places that simply got lost in time. It gives both a feeling of modern day but also timelessness. If you swapped out the 4x4s for horses and the automatic rifles for revolvers, you would have yourself an old-fashioned Western.

The film is over 100 minutes, but none of it felt like it was dragging or padding out the run-time. The extended bank sequences, using long sweeping takes rather than conventional editing keep the excitement up as the brothers go from bank-to-bank. The film also masters the art of the “ticking-time-bomb”, having something dangerous (in this case a bank robbery) in the background, while the other characters are talking with each other, oblivious to what is happening behind them. These dual approaches to the story keep it moving rather than the slower methods or predictability of previous heist films. The plot might become apparent to more savvy watchers, but the story behind why the brothers are bank-robbing will keep you invested until the finale, with raging gun battles and car chases suiting the more action-oriented fans.

The action is rather sporadic, but it is explosive and brutal. Guns are used more for intimidation, but when bullets start flying they leave blood and brains splattered. It isn’t glorified, again, similar to Sicario, it’s more sickening than fun.

The film is completed by country music, blaring both out of the radio and as part of the soundtrack, created by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. While country may not be to my taste, it fits the film’s setting perfectly, once again creating that atmosphere of young and old merging together.

I was holding Hell Or High Water to a high standard with the list of names attached, but it easily delivered. With tense and dramatic heist sequences, beautiful scenery and supreme acting from the three leads, this is one to go and see.

Score: 9/10 They don’t make many like this anymore.

Ben-Hur Review

They remade Ben-Hur? Sure, why not? With all the other bloody films being remade let’s just do whatever film studios still have the rights to. Disclaimer; I haven’t seen the original (apart from the chariot sequence), but it is usually seen as one of the biggest films of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Let’s see though, maybe the remake could be good.

Ben-Hur stars Jack Huston, Morgan Freeman, Toby Kebbell, and Nazanin Bonaidi and is directed by Timur Bekmambetov. Based on the book from 1880, the film follows Judah Ben-Hur (Huston) who is betrayed by his Roman Soldier brother (Kebbell) and forced into slavery during the time of Jesus Christ.

I’ll start with what I did like. The film is split between several built sets and real-life wilderness. While it is very easy to spot the former I really enjoyed the latter. Near the beginning we see a montage of Ben-Hur’s adoptive brother Messala’s army career with him fighting in Germania and Gaul through wheat-fields and falling snow. It reminded me of the opening of Gladiator, but sadly it is only in the film for a limited amount of time. I also mostly enjoyed the chariot sequence. While it can’t hold a candle to the original (famous for the alarmingly high amount of injuries and near-death experiences on set) the destruction throughout has a nice crunch to it.

I’m also glad that a lot of the horse and chariot racing was done for real. Sure, horses being tripped and riders being thrown off or trampled are computer generated, but there are many scenes where Ben-Hur is learning to tilt his chariot onto one wheel or another where he jumps onto runaway horses, and it is all done for real. Director Timur Bekmambetov stated he wanted to not rely on CGI unless it was heavily needed so I applaud him for using it correctly rather than splashing out.

That’s not to say it hasn’t been used and quite terribly. During Ben-Hur’s time as a galley slave, rowing ships for the Roman Navy, he looks out the portholes and sees some truly awful looking ships. The previously mentioned chariot sequence (when it isn’t the real riders) is full of rubbery looking models unfit for the early 2000s. It is a little sad when something goes from real-life stunts to bad stand-ins.

The acting is mixed pot as well. Most of the cast is English or American (odd, since the film is meant to be set in Jerusalem). Jack Huston plays Judah Ben-Hur as a gruff, wooden character, breathing every other word like Kristen Stewart used to do back in Twilight. Toby Kebbell isn’t as charismatic as he was in Warcraft earlier this year (he was honestly the best part of that film), but his character is meant to be a nigh-emotionless killer so I’ll let it pass. The person I was most confused by was Morgan Freeman. While he is really good in the film I was pulled out the experience by his inclusion. Everyone else is either relatively unknown or coming into their careers so to have this huge actor in the film creates a divide. Bekmamtebov said he wanted the film to be global hence his inclusion of Freeman. Alright, I’ll let it go. Morgan Freeman does draw in the crowds since remaking a classic film is not usually a winner of box offices (the film is reportedly making a loss of $120 million).

The bit I found both unintentionally hilarious and odd was the inclusion of Jesus Christ. Jesus is in the original story (the subtitle is A Tale Of The Christ), but in the 1959 version he’s usually off-screen, a higher presence that is alluded to but never truly shown. There is a line in the updated version which basically is, “This Jesus fellow is rather great, he’s just wonderful.” I’m all for including whatever you want in a film, but it was just so funny how the line was presented in the film, it felt really out of place. That being said, Rodrigo Santoro, the actor who plays Jesus (who also played Xerxes from 300 and Karl from Love Actually, interesting fact), is actually giving a good performance and an interesting addition to the film.

In the end Ben-Hur wasn’t as bad as I was thinking it was going to be. Its an odd mix of Gladiator, Passion Of The Christ, and Ben-Hur, but sadly with nothing really standout to warrant it being remade.

Score: 5/10 There are better movies to spend two and half hours with.

Kubo And The Two Strings Review

For all of the shoddy sequels and comic book movies this year, animation has been on point. With Disney’s excellent The Jungle Book and Zootropolis, Studio Ghibli’s final film, When Marine Was There, and the incredible Anomalisa, 2016 is looking up in terms of animation. And now, a new one, Kubo And The Two Strings.

Kubo And The Two Strings stars Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes and Rooney Mara and is directed by Travis Knight. The film follows Kubo (Parkinson), a young boy who must find a set of magical armour bequeathed to him by his samurai father, while being chased by evil forces.

The animation is some of the best of this year, which is really saying a lot. Laika, the team behind Kubo, is the same team that made ParaNorman and Coraline, two recent greats for animation buffs. The level of detail and the production design is part of the reason to go see Kubo right away. The incredibly smooth stop-motion animation, along with the 3D printed faces turns even the small down time in between the big action set pieces into a jaw dropping display of craftsmanship, you completely forget the massive human effort it took to create something so magical. One of the first big fights in the film includes what is apparently the largest stop-motion character ever animated. Be sure to stick around during the credits, which includes a “see how we did this” behind the scenes moment that shows how ridiculous the task must have been.

Kubo is heavily influenced by Japanese folklore. While the story is a grab bag of several different legends and tales, it’s more in the mood rather than the plot. Little wisps of fog coat lakes, half forgotten statues to Shinto and Buddhist religions are throughout the land, it does a good job of creating a world, and not just a succession of places in a line. The music helps settle us into the world, with the strings of Kubo’s guitar, along with flutes and chimes constantly coming and going from the film, highlighting some scenes as being instant favourites of the year so far. The plot though is very by the numbers. A little boy finding magical armour and defeating dark gods, it’s a story that’s been told before (mainly Legend Of Zelda). The story has a few twists that might be easy to figure out for the older viewers, especially reveals about Kubo’s companions Monkey and Beetle, but overall it’s more a dressing than the central point.

Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey are excellent as Kubo’s friend Monkey and Beetle respectively. Theron is doing her usual badass performance, with McConaughey playing a bit against type as the rather slow-minded Beetle. Ralph Fiennes does his sinister charm in a small role as Raiden, and Rooney Mara, playing dual roles as a pair of evil witches is remarkably menacing for how little she is on-screen. Art Parkinson though as Kubo is who deserves the high praise. Most notable as Rickon Stark from Game Of Thrones, the young actor carries the majority of the first act mainly by himself.

I always feel that when animation goes dark, due to it being animated, it adds to the scariness. Kubo And The Two Strings is rated PG for “mild fantasy violence and scary scenes”. The scary scenes are mainly supplied by Rooney Mara’s excellent twin sisters (who never actually get names), who appear at night in a swirl of black smoke. Their black robes and their constantly smiling facemasks add a genuine deal of creepiness to the film, and leave a distinct impression that will be remembered long after it’s finished.

In short, Kubo And The Strings is one of the best of the year and one that will be enjoyed both by young and old. Go see it now while it’s still in cinemas, then go push it on all your friends. You will not be disappointed.

Score: 10/10 Genuinely awe-inspiring.