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Monday, 24 April 2017

Tramps, Sandy Wexler, Sand Castle: Your Week In Film (April 24-30)

Young guns: Sand Castle is yet another film about the Iraq War

Home entertainment highs and lows for the coming seven days, with this week's focus firmly on Netflix UK. All films mentioned are available to stream now...

Does the word 'tramp' mean something very different in the US to here in the UK? I only ask because the two splendidly gorgeous young leads in indie dramedy Tramps (Netflix UK) WWW look nothing at all like the bearded, booze-swilling gentlemen of the road I fondly remember from my youth. In fact, if you're thinking of streaming Adam Leon's film in full expectation of spending 90 minutes in the company of barely coherent old geezers shouting obscenities at passers-by, while wrestling to keep up their trousers, then this probably isn't for you.

Instead, it sees wannabe chef Danny (Callum Turner) become embroiled in low-level illegality when his jailbird brother gets him wrapped up in a scheme involving the theft of a briefcase. Danny - a sweet kid unused to finding himself on the wrong side of the law - screws up the plan and loses the case. Turning to standoffish getaway driver Ellie (Grace Van Patten) for help, the pair are soon hunting the missing object in the moneyed suburbs of New York, where her initial iciness slowly gives way to something else...

The leads are both utterly charming as is the entire production. Van Patten is especially good and Ellie - up from Pittsburgh and hoping to earn enough cash to start afresh - is beautifully written. She's a young woman who has been through some bad times (although it is never made explicit exactly what) and finds people hard to trust. She isn't sure how to take Danny because, unlike the other men in her life, he is precisely as he seems - just a nice kid trying to make his way in the world but not having much luck. The respect and warmth he shows her are totally disarming, and although she initially tries to keep him at arm's length (she just wants her money for the getaway job), it soon becomes clear the pair have a connection. Indeed, Van Patten and Turner have an easy chemistry together that would put much bigger stars in much bigger films to shame.

Comedian Mike Birbiglia doesn't even come close to stealing the film but his supporting role as Scott, quite possibly the most hopeless criminal in New York, is a joy. He's a bumbling man-child who'd struggle to take candy from a baby. In fact, I loved the way writer/director Leon treats criminality here - a low-level game for incompetents, and a million miles away from the likes of Goodfellas or The King Of New York. There's a kind of bathos at work here. You keep expecting moments of threat or violence to materialise but they never do because the film simply isn't about that. The criminal 'masterminds' behind the briefcase heist are more likely to voice their disapproval with an exasperated sigh or panicked insult, and such a seemingly counterintuitive move is genuinely refreshing and frequently damn funny.

The streaming service apparently paid $2million for the film, a deal that reportedly had Leon literally sobbing with joy at the news. I really hope Tramps finds an audience somewhere amidst Netflix's intimidating tsumani of content because it fully deserves to.

Grace and favour: Van Patten is brilliant in Tramps

The appearance of a new Adam Sandler film usually thrills me about as much as finding a lump on my testicle might, but Sandy Wexler (Netflix UK) WW - a romantic comedy of sorts - is rather more endearing than the likes of The Cobbler and The Ridiculous 6. Set in ' 90s Hollywood, Sandler plays the titular Wexler, an eccentric talent manager with a reputation for being economical with the truth. His client list is made up of the usual collection of oddballs and losers, including an incompetent daredevil and a creepy ventriloquist, but when Wexler discovers singer/songwriter Courtney Clarke (Jennifer Hudson, who surely deserves better than this), his fortunes look set to improve as her career soon goes stellar. Not only is she his meal ticket but Wexler is besotted with her.

There are a fair few genuinely amusing moments (mostly sight gags, truth be told) and it's rare to see a mixed race romance front and centre in a movie pitching so hard for the mainstream, but mostly it consists of Sandler putting on a nails-down-a-blackboard Jerry Lewis voice and stealing ideas from Woody Allen's vastly superior Broadway Danny Rose. Steven Brill's film (written by Sandler) just about gets over the line, though, thanks to an old-fashioned corniness it wears like a badge of honour (it's what's inside that counts!) and a feelgood finale - Wexler singing There's No Business Like Show Business, in a room full of Hollywood B-listers - that would normally bring me out in pustules. Maybe I was just in a good mood when I saw it.

The only way is Wexler: Adam Sandler woos Jennifer Hudson

Until they have something original or interesting to say about the Iraq War, maybe filmmakers should seriously consider leaving well enough alone for a bit. Sand Castle (Netflix) W is a sumptuous-looking affair, with an eye-catching cast (Nicholas Hoult, Henry Cavill, Glen Powell), but serves up the same menu of tone-deaf, patriotic tosh we've already suffered in the likes of American Sniper and The Hurt Locker.

Hoult is Matt Ocre, a young Private who only joined the army to earn money so he could eventually go to college. Then 9/11 happened and, midway through 2003, he finds himself on the frontline in Iraq. Desperate for a way out, he deliberately injures his hand but, along with the rest of his platoon, is nevertheless sent to help repair a broken water system in a remote village riddled with ruthless insurgents. The ruined water system is clearly meant to represent Iraq in microcosm - only by working together can the US army and locals fix the pipes (damaged in the first place by American bombs) so they can all move forward together to a happy-clappy Halliburton future.

Of course, Sand Castle chooses to miss out one rather crucial piece of information - Iraq was a sovereign nation subject to (possibly) illegal invasion and occupation by an aggressive foreign power. Yes, the insurgents employ barbaric methods to try and drive the US forces out of their country and punish those who collaborate with them, but so did just about every resistance movement in history (do you think the French resistance just told off collaborators?). At times Sand Castle is like watching a World War II movie from Germany's point of view.

Director Fernando Coimbra occasionally threatens to offer up some critique of the war or understanding of the country Iraq was before the American invasion, but such notions quickly dissipate as we swiftly return to our all-too-familiar tale of courage, duty, and tedious willy waving. In fact, Sand Castle is one of the most overbearingly male films I've seen in ages - the only women in it are Iraqi and permitted a choice of two characteristics: stern or wailing in grief. I can't fault its acting or direction but there's an ugliness here that left a very nasty taste in my mouth.

Flop gun: Nicholas Hoult plays Private Matt Ocre

I'd wrongly assumed How I Spent My Summer Vacation (aka Get The Gringo) was a previously-unreleased Mel Gibson movie, one of those new fangled 'Netflix Originals'. But it turns out the Adrian Grünberg directed action comedy is actually from 2012, back when Gibbo was still on the Hollywood naughty step and therefore probably sneaked into select cinemas in brown paper bags under cover of darkness.

It starts off quite promisingly - Gibson's character (whose real name we never discover) has been arrested by Mexican police for ripping off some rich gangster to the tune of several million dollars and thrown into one of the country's more unpleasant jails. It turns out the prison is like a mini city, with men, women and children all under one vast roof, complete with all sorts of infrastructure such as a school and a bustling market. This early stuff is the most interesting as Gibson explores his new surroundings and gets into a variety of entertaining scrapes and punch-ups.

Unfortunately, a plot soon rears its ugly head, involving a nasty bad guy, a cute kid and a liver transplant. Proceedings go swiftly south from there and reach their nadir when Gibson pretends to be Clint Eastwood in a phone conversation to secure a meeting with someone on the outside world he has to kill. It's all good trashy fun, I suppose, but one positive thing about Gibson's past indiscretions being forgiven by the La La Land cognoscenti is that he no longer has to make movies like this to pay the bills.

Cruel Summer: Mel Gibson gets banged up in Mexico

Previously recommended
1. Predestination (Tonight, 9pm, Film4)
2. Attack The Block (Friday, 12.10, Channel 4)
3. Sausage Party (Saturday, 1.05pm and 9.30pm, Sky Cinema Premiere)
4. Queen Of Earth (Sunday, 10.10am and 6.15pm, Sky Cinema Premiere)
5. Drive (Sunday, 11pm, BBC2)

What I shall watching this week: A British cinema double bill, with trips to see The Sense Of An Ending and Their Finest.

Ratings guide
WWWW - Wonderful
WWW - Worthwhile
WW - Watchable
W - Woeful

Monday, 17 April 2017

Beset by off-screen hostility, sci-fi blockbuster Ghost In The Shell is an odd mix of awful and awesome

Ghost world: Rupert Sanders' film has been attacked for 'white-washing'

Due to the Easter bank holiday, Your Week In Film is skipping a week, please accept this review in its place. NB: The review contains major (or should that be Major?) spoilers - see the movie and come back once you have...

Ghost In The Shell
Director: Rupert Sanders
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Juliette Binoche, 'Beat' Takeshi Kitano
Running time: 1hr 47mins

Ghost In The Shell
isn't a "guilty pleasure" - it isn't cheesy or one of those 'so bad its good' movies - but I'll admit a certain unease about enjoying it as much as I did. An intermittently terrific blockbuster, Rupert Sanders' film is nevertheless hobbled by a couple of major problems, its "white-washing" of the original Japanese manga and anime being easily the most egregious.

Scarlett Johansson's casting in the lead role has been a bone of contention since it was announced a couple of years ago but that's only one item on the smorgasbord of insensitivity on show here. Johansson is Major Mira Killian, the first human to have her brain successfully implanted and integrated into a powerful and durable robotic body by a shady company, called Hanka Robotics, in a near-future Japan, where human and AI are increasingly interchangeable.

Future shock: Ghost's production design is its strongest feature

Recruited as an agent into an anti-terrorist government team called Section 9, she is soon on the trail of an endlessly resourceful bad-guy hacker known only as Kuze. But Major starts to experience 'flashbacks' (initially dismissed as glitches in her programming) and comes to realise that the personal backstory and memories she's been fed by her 'designer' Doctor Ouélet (Juliette Binoche) are not really hers. In fact, she isn't a refugee left for dead by terrorists in an attack on a boat at all, but a Japanese political activist, named Motoko Kusanagi, who has been seized and carved up on the orders of Hanka CEO, Mr Cutter (Peter Ferdinando).

If this version of Ghost is about anything, it's the suppression of self and identity, and like Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, how abhorrent and unnatural such a thing truly is. That's a perfectly good theme for a science fiction film to tackle and has lots of possibilities for plot, characterisation and conflict. Unfortunately, when part of the story mix is that your protagonist has had her racial identity erased, you need to tread very lightly indeed. The film's producers fail to do so and casting the popular white lady from The Avengers franchise instead of a Japanese actress a bit more like the character in the original story is only the start.

Geisha assassin: The restaurant battle is one of Ghost's best scenes

Director Sanders and his team want to have their cake and eat it, hoping that if they make the film "a bit Japanese" then no one will notice the outrageous liberties they are taking elsewhere. Yes, Ghost is set in Japan, and there are some geisha robots and a bit of Japanese dialogue here and there and, oh look, there's the legendary 'Beat' Takeshi Kitano (Sonatine). But, the much loved actor/writer/director aside, Japanese characters are pretty much invisible throughout, and with only a few visual tweaks this could have been a near-future Los Angeles or New York. In fact, I completely forgot Section 9's sole Japanese field agent (Chin Han's Togusa) was even in the film until he cropped up for a second time towards the end.

The film's apologists (and, by the end of this review, I will have surely become one of them) have pointed out that the Major in the original manga or anime didn't look like a typical Japanese woman but both works were in Japanese, took place in Japan, and were entirely populated by Japanese characters. I get that Sanders and his team were perhaps trying to portray a truly multicultural future society, and that would be fine if films were made in a vacuum, in which real-world problems and sensitivities were irrelevant. But we don't and they aren't.

The Beat goes on: Takeshi Kitano is one of few Japanese cast members

It perhaps wouldn't be so bad if anything about Major's personality, demeanour, or even the language she speaks, changed after she regains the memories of her original Japanese self. But she's still precisely the same character as she is at the beginning, even though we're told she was once a political dissident who hated the increasing integration of human and machine. So, why does she carry on working for Section 9, then? It isn't so much a plot hole as a vast canyon through which you could drive a herd of stegosaur.

More easily forgivable is an 'identity crisis/everything you know is wrong' plot that lends the film an overfamiliar, even formulaic, tone. Ghost really does contain a lot of stuff we've seen before in the likes of Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall and Robocop, Denis Villeneuve's Enemy, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, The Wachowskis' The Matrix, the Jason Bourne films, plus lesser-known sci-fi treats such as Vincenzo Natali's Cypher. You could probably make your own list of entirely different films, TV shows, novels, and comic-books with similar themes because there's an awful lot of it out there. In fact, I don't really understand why they didn't just go with the story from Shirow Masamune's original manga - an artificial intelligence known as the Puppet Master takes up residence in Major's brain - which was rather more interesting and could easily have been adapted for the screen.

The eyes have it: Section 9 operative Batou (Pilou Asbæk)

So, what are we left with? Surprisingly, quite a bit that's very good. Even if you can't get past the casting and the overused plot, the movie's mind-boggling production design makes Ghost worth seeing at least in 2D (I don't do 3D so can't speak to that version). The visuals might not have the gritty texture of Blade Runner - a sci-fi world which made you feel its dirt under your fingernails and the pungent aroma of its food market in your nostrils - but stun all the same. Monstrous advertising holograms tower over a beautifully realised cyberpunk dystopia, living billboards that seem almost threatening in the way they dominate the city scape like weird, sponsored kaiju. You could say it all looks like a glorified video game (or a Luc Besson daydream) but that doesn't detract from the sheer audaciousness of a design that nods to the original anime whilst doing something entirely its own.

This is not so much an adaptation of Mamoru Oshii's 1995 film or Masamune's original manga, but more a radical remix. It takes ideas from both sources but simplifies and streamlines them for a multiplex audience. For all the anime's brilliance, there are moments when it judders to a halt as our protagonists stop to have a chat about self, consciousness, and the merging of human and AI. This is quicker, sleeker and, at times, all the better for it. It lovingly lifts shots and scenes from the 1995 film, throwing them into the mix complete with different contexts and interpretations. I was particularly struck by Major's one-sided punch-up with a Kuze-possessed refuse collector in the shallow waters surrounding the city, and her iconic drop down the side of a skyscraper at the start as she swings into action for the first time. Thrilling stuff, handsomely recreated from the original sources.

One thing that did amuse me was the clear nod to The Matrix in the restaurant shoot-out set-piece early in the film. Major battles some gun-wielding nasties plus a hacked geisha robot and I fully expected it to go full 'bullet time' at any moment, which would have only been fair as the Wachowskis' 1999 sci-fi spectacular was clearly influenced by Oshii and Masamune's work. It was almost as if Sanders was calling in an old debt.

I, Robot: Scarlett Johansson is Major Mira Killian

If, gun to head, you absolutely have to cast a Caucasian woman in the lead role, Johansson is the perfect choice. She's an old hand at slightly off-kilter sci-fi films - Lucy, Her, and Jonathan Glazer's magnificent Under The Skin - and is totally at home here as a result. Her Major only looks entirely at ease when she's in the middle of a shoot-out or a punch-up - elsewhere she's stiff, maladroit (just check out the way she walks) and uncomfortable in her own skin (which, of course, isn't hers at all). In perhaps the film's most touching scene we see Major explore the face of a human prostitute, tracing the contours of something that is alien and familiar to her all at once. It's a moment of nuance, of double-edged subtlety, in a film that could use a little more of it.

Ghost is a real curate's egg, then - awful and awesome in roughly equal measure. Its faults are frustrating, but the stuff that works is extremely impressive. As is the way with things now, Major ends the film transformed into some kind of superhero (complete with moody rooftop action pose and Batman-style soliloquy), no doubt in anticipation of a franchise that, considering the film's poor box office, will almost certainly never happen. Bearing in mind the controversy and ill will Ghost has attracted, maybe that's not such a bad thing.

Rating: WWW

Ghost In The Shell is in UK cinemas now
Ratings guide
WWWW - Wonderful
WWW - Worthwhile
WW - Watchable
W - Woeful

Monday, 10 April 2017

Rogue One, The Void, Neruda, and The Discovery: Your week in film (April 10-16)

Suicide squad: Jyn Erso and her team take on the Empire

UK home entertainment thrills and spills for the coming seven days. All films available now, unless otherwise stated...

Calling Rogue One (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WWW my favourite Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back is a lot like calling Barack Obama my favourite US president since JFK - it sounds like faint praise because I really didn't care for any of the ones in between very much.

But Gareth Edwards' sci-fi heist flick is actually a clever, compelling prequel to George Lucas's original 1977 film, with posh Brit Felicity Jones (The Theory Of Everything) smartly cast as Jyn Erso, a head-strong young renegade with a grudge against the Empire, joining a suicide mission to steal plans for the Death Star from under the noses of Darth Vader and Co.

The franchise's cultural ubiquity annoys the life out of me for the most part but even a Skywalker-sceptic knows intriguing characters when he sees them. Erso's a proper old-school sci-fi heroine - resourceful, brave, loyal, feisty, smart. If I was a 10-year-old girl, my room would be a shrine to her. And, as someone who comes out in hives at the very mention of C-3PO, I found the amusingly rough and ready K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) a real tonic. Add a blind Jedi warrior (Donnie Yen), his mercenary companion (Jiang Wen), plus Riz Ahmed's pilot defector and Diego Luna's Rebel captain, and you have a Dirty (Half) Dozen worth rooting for.

Star Wars has always been about more than spaceship battles and exotic aliens. Self sacrifice for the greater good and familial strife are motifs that loom large in the cannon, and you get both in abundance here, especially when it transpires Jyn's long-lost father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen, in another rather underwritten role) has been forced into working for the Empire on its monstrous Death Star programme. 

I could have done without Peter Cushing's CGI resurrection as the first film's Grand Moff Tarkin (a horrible, unconvincing misstep), but Rogue One is pretty close to cracking otherwise. It even holds its nerve to deliver an ending that is at first satisfyingly bleak, then thrillingly uplifting, as it segues seamlessly into the beginning of the very first Star Wars movie. It's been called "pointless" and "self-referential" by some, but "lost tales" that fill in continuity gaps are a staple of any fictional universe. Perhaps not essential, then, but pretty close.

Mission Impossible: Steal the plans to the Death Star 

I've given up trying to understand Netflix. Films pop up like weeds on a lawn - you know they're coming but have no idea when, where, or what variety you're going to get. Now the streaming service has introduced this new thumbs up/thumbs down ratings system, which informs me some sappy Jennifer Aniston comedy, called Mother's Day, is a 98% match for me. Go home, Netflix, and this time lay off the meth.

Sometimes, though, either through dumb luck or endless scrolling of obscure lists named things like 'Edgy US comedies featuring a goat, a blancmange and a fight scene in a toilet', I turn up a gem, and The Discovery WWW½ certainly fits that category. Snapped up by Netflix during this year's Sundance Film Festival, it's a sci-fi love story set in a world in which scientist Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford) has proved beyond doubt that the afterlife exists. However, this knowledge has had terrible consequences. Hoping for a better life on the 'other side', millions of people worldwide have committed suicide.

Despite the mounting death toll, Harbor (whose wife killed herself a couple of years before his big discovery), has continued his research into the phenomenon and, ensconced in a vast mansion populated by a cultish community of suicide survivors, believes he has even found a way to record what happens to the deceased once they pass over. Stepping into this bizarre scenario is Harbor's son Will (Jason Segal), who has saved the life of a troubled young woman (Rooney Mara) and brought her to the mansion to convalesce.

Directed and co-written by Charlie McDowell (son of Malcolm), this is a smart and effecting piece of work that successfully merges lots of different genres and ideas. You can see its SF roots in movies like Another Earth, Triangle, and even glossy '90s potboiler Flatliners, but it's also a love story, a melodrama, and a mystery, with moments of pure black comedy thrown into the mix for good measure. In other hands, it would probably be an unholy mess but McDowell gives it real pace, despite its frequent melancholy, and delivers a canny twist at the end. The cast - which also includes Jesse Plemons and Riley Keough - are top-drawer, none more so than former sitcom stalwart Segal who, after this and 2015's The End Of The Tour, has proved himself a very fine dramatic actor indeed. It's a definite thumbs-up and 98% match for me.

Suicide solution: Sci-fi love story The Discovery

I'd rather hoped The Void (VOD now, DVD and Blu-ray 24 April) WW would be rubbish so I could accuse it of being deVOID of ideas and suggest you aVOID it like the plague. But, actually, it isn't at all bad, albeit made up of lots of bits and pieces from elsewhere, including the fiction of HP Lovecraft, and films such as Hellraiser, The Thing, and Assault On Precinct 13. Written and directed by Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski, it sees a diverse group of characters - including a small-town cop (Aaron Poole) and his estranged doctor wife (Kathleen Munroe) - holed up in a hospital laid siege by a group of knife-wielding cultists. Things are even more dangerous within the hospital itself as monstrous creatures from another dimension are using a portal in the building's basement to cross over and possess people in our plane of existence. It's breathless, barmy stuff, full of gross-out chills and a couple of neatly delivered twists. I usually prefer my modern horror movies a little subtler (The Witch, It Follows) but there's something about The Void's gore-filled exuberance that I rather enjoyed.

Enter The Void: Exuberant tentacle horror

For the first time since 2012's No, Chilean director Pablo Larrain delves into his home country's painful past in Neruda (cinemas and Curzon Home Cinema) WWW. It tells the story of titular Marxist poet/politician Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco), who became an enemy of the state in the years immediately after WWII, when communism was banned, its adherents routinely rounded up and imprisoned. Far from a full biopic, it concentrates on the years 1948 and '49 when Neruda was on the run from the Chilean authorities, flitting from one safe house to another, before attempting to cross the border into Argentina.  

But this is no overly-reverential, sombre reading of the poet's life during this time, as Larrain adds a cat-and-mouse element to proceedings in the form of Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal), an oafish police officer, only a hop, skip and a jump away from Inspector Clouseau, who is determined to put Neruda behind bars. Peluchonneau not only gets roughly equal screen time with the titular character but also provides voiceover narration too. It at first appears to be as much his story as it is Neruda's but the policeman's true role is revealed towards the end in a masterful scene with the poet's wife, Delia (Mercedes Morán), as Larrain merges truth and fiction, and the rest of the film veers off at a bizarre but brilliant tangent.

Larrain has become a very interesting filmmaker who never does what you expect. I found his most recent film, Jackie, a cold, distancing affair at times but appreciated both its craft and desire to do something very different with subject matter (the Kennedy assassination) that has been picked over many times on the big screen and elsewhere. This is a much warmer, far more playful piece of work, that dwells as much on Neruda's poetry and politics as it does upon his contradictions and eccentricities. It also boasts superb central turns from Gnecco and Bernal, who also appeared together in the aforementioned and well worth checking out, No.

Poetry in motion: Pablo Larrain's Neruda

Previously recommended...
1. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (Tonight, 11.35pm, Film4)
2. The Brand New Testament (Sky Cinema Premiere/NOW TV, from Wednesday)
3. Selma (Good Friday, 9pm, BBC2)
4. The Neon Demon (Netflix UK, from Saturday)
5. The Babadook (Netflix UK, from Saturday)

What I shall be watching this week: A trip into London beckons to see feminist cannibal horror flick, Raw. And to finally catch Free Fire.

Ratings guide
WWWW - Wonderful
WWW - Worthwhile
WW - Watchable
W - Woeful

Monday, 3 April 2017

Snowden, Allied, and Ghost In The Shell: Your Week In Film (April 3-9)

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang: Pitt and Cotillard team up in Allied

Film picks for the next seven days on DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD...

"This is not about terrorism - terrorism is the excuse. This is about economic and social control - and the only thing you're really protecting is the supremacy of your government." So says Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the titular NSA whistleblower, in Snowden (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WWW, laying out in the starkest terms imaginable what America's secret services had been up to post-9/11 and the flimsy justifications for their actions.

I suspect your enjoyment of the film will depend on whether you believe Edward Snowden is a hero or a traitor. As someone firmly in the former camp, I found Oliver Stone's film mostly gripping and not a little scary (yes, even now, when the revelations have been public knowledge for four years). The overreach, arrogance and anti-democratic impulses of the American government as depicted here are astounding, and Stone gives us some truly jaw-dropping moments. My favourite (if such things can be categorised as such) is when Rhys Ifans, unnervingly brilliant as senior spook Corbin O’Brian, informs Snowden that his girlfriend is definitely not cheating on him. He knows this because her email is being monitored. Ifans delivers the news over a video link, his head massive on the screen as it towers over our protagonist. An obvious allusion to Nineteen Eighty-Four's Big Brother but an extremely powerful one.

During the film's UK theatrical release, towards the end of last year, critics seemed to go out of their way to unfavourably compare it to Laura Poitras's excellent documentary, Citizenfour, but I fail to see how the two films are in competition. In fact, they make perfect companion pieces. Poitras's film captures a cataclysmic moment in time - when Snowden (holed up in a Hong Kong hotel room) released, initially via The Guardian website, documents he had stolen from the NSA proving they had been spying on innocent people and foreign governments all over the world. Snowden, on the other hand, is about the bigger picture - how the titular character went from Ayn Rand-loving conservative to Obama-supporting liberal, and his up and down relationship with girlfriend Lindsay (Shailene Woodley). It fills in a lot of the blanks that Citizenfour isn't really interested in and offers up a fuller portrait of the man himself.

Biography slips into hagiography towards the end and I could have done without the liberal love-in featuring former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger and the real Ed Snowden in its final scenes. That said, I probably saw 50 films better than Snowden last year but I'm not sure any of them were as important.

Hero or traitor?: Oliver Stone's case for the defence

More secrets in Allied (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WW½, which starts off as a rollicking, old-fashioned World War II adventure set in Morocco, and then gets a bit bogged down as it relocates to London and turns into a slightly less nimble mystery-cum-melodrama. Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard are secret agents, teaming up in Casablanca to assassinate the German ambassador. As is the way with these things, they fall in love and, long story short, end up married with a baby together in London. But their romantic idyll is soon torpedoed when Pitt is handed the onerous task of investigating if Cotillard is, in reality, a Nazi who, some years before, assumed the identity of a French resistance fighter. Despite the jarring change of pace, director Robert Zemeckis (Back To The Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit) keeps the suspense simmering and delivers a genuine gut-punch of an ending.

In truth, Cotillard and Pitt don't have a lot of chemistry (Bogie and Bacall they are not) and the idea of either of them living in a quaint London terrace together is faintly absurd, but such matters are forgivable, especially in light of a first half which boasts a couple of cracking set-pieces, including the assassination itself. In fact, had it appeared in a movie with a little more 'street cred', I suspect the sight of Cotillard in a posh frock blasting Nazis with a shotgun would be considered truly iconic.

Spy hard: Good set-pieces, little chemistry

The best thing about Moana (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WWW isn't the feisty titular character (played with gusto by Auli'i Cravalho), Dwayne Johnson as arrogant demigod Maui, its rousing theme song, How Far I'll Go, nor even the beautifully animated volcano demon who provides its central big bad. Nope, it's the gang of sentient coconuts, called Kakamora, that turn up in pirate ships about halfway through to menace Moana and Maui, then disappear again as quickly as they came. The Kakamora are brilliant, bonkers creations - like little anarchist refugees from Michael Bentine's Potty Time or demonic toddlers enjoying the biggest sugar rush of their lives.

No messing, this is some genuinely weird shit - if David Lynch put sentient coconut pirates with arms and legs and crazy skull faces in one of his films he'd be hailed a genius (again) but because it's in a Disney animation the whole deranged three-minute interlude passes without comment. I want more of the Kakamora - either in their own film or a TV series - do it now, Disney. Do. It. Now.

In the heart of the sea: Disney's magical Moana

Which leads us to animation of a very different kind. You may remember, a few weeks back, me raving in this column about a South Korean zombie movie, called Train To Busan. Seoul Station (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WWW is that film's animated prequel by the same director, Yeon Sang-ho, and whilst not a patch on its live action sibling, is nevertheless a pretty wild ride in its own right.

Set in and around the South Korean capital's titular transport hub, it starts off with the usual undead shenanigans - a homeless man with a terrible neck wound dies in a subway, before reanimating as a slavering zombie and attacking anyone it can lay its hands on. The infection spreads and soon you have a full-blown mini-apocalypse on the cards as the police and army move in.

Sang-ho's film focuses on three characters - a former prostitute, her boyfriend and her father. The latter pair are trying to locate the former as the world goes to hell around them. Sang-ho keeps the action localised and claustrophobic, cleverly uses zombies as a metaphor for the plight of South Korea's dispossessed, and serves up a very nicely worked twist that, for once, you really won't see coming. It doesn't have quite the same breathless velocity as Busan and its rampaging undead aren't nearly as disturbing, but it still bites big bloody chunks out of most other zombie fiction out there at the moment.


Dead rising: Zombies on the rampage in Seoul Station

More animation? Oh, go on then. In an understandable bid to cash in on the mostly terrific live-action version, starring Scarlett Johansson, the original Ghost In The Shell (DVD and Blu-ray) WWW½ anime has recently been re-released and is available for a budget price (I saw the BR in HMV for £8). Mamoru Oshii's 1995 film is a superior - and incredibly influential - slice of cyberpunk that spends as much time exploring notions of identity, memory and consciousness as it does on exciting action set-pieces. It was fun watching the original Ghost again to see which beautifully animated shots and scenes had been lifted and lovingly reproduced in Rupert Sanders' blockbuster (a fair few), which is more a radical remix of the original material than a straight adaptation. Both are well worth checking out though.

Ghost world: The original anime is worth Shelling out for

What I shall be watching this week: I really need to find somewhere showing Ben Wheatley's Free Fire.

Ratings guide
WWWW - Wonderful
WWW - Worthwhile
WW - Watchable
W - Woeful

Saturday, 1 April 2017

I Can't Believe It's Not Alien! Life is a passable sci-fi creature feature with some serious originality issues

Alienated: Life owes Ridley Scott a big debt

This review contains minor spoilers...

Life
Director: David Espinoza
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds
Running time: 1hr 43mins

"Alien on the International Space Station" isn't the greatest elevator pitch in Hollywood history but that's nevertheless what you get here. In fact, Life's similarities to Ridley Scott's 1979 sci-fi masterpiece loom so large that I'm surprised its poster tag-line didn't read: "In space no one can hear you talk about just how much this resembles Alien... and The Thing a bit, too".

Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds and Rebecca Ferguson are among members of a six-strong ISS crew charged with capturing an off-course space probe that has been collecting soil samples from Mars. The probe duly grabbed, British biologist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) discovers a single-cell organism in one of the samples. Initially dormant, Hugh uses his expertise to wake the creature and even interact with it. But Calvin - as the Martian is dubbed - turns nasty, starts to grow bigger and smarter, and escapes the lab to wreak havoc throughout the rest of the ship. The crew are ruthlessly picked off one by one for food, as Calvin continues to grow, and the survivors soon realise they may have to sacrifice themselves and the ISS itself to stop the Martian reaching Earth.

This kind of caper succeeds or fails on the scariness of its creature, but Calvin is a rather unimpressive beast - a sort of floating jellyfish thing that looks more like a refugee from a sushi restaurant than a true cinematic horror. I know Gyllenhaal and Reynolds don't come cheap these days but, on a budget only slightly under $60million, surely the monstrous Martian should be more impressive than it is? If you haven't got enough cash, you fall back on good, old-fashioned ingenuity - Scott made one of the most terrifying movies of all-time with a bloke in an alien suit (you could even see its zip in some shots!), a bit of dry ice and a couple of bravura set-pieces. He also made the most of his spaceship's ill-lit, claustrophobic corridors and used his creature sparingly to build suspense. We see altogether too much of Calvin and what we see is hardly the stuff of 3am cold sweats. Director Espinoza also nicks Scott's idea of having his creature violate its victims by climbing inside of them through their mouths but, again, it has nothing like the wince-inducing impact of Alien's face-huggers.

Mars attacks: The crew of the ISS fight for their lives

Aforementioned biologist Derry is the most interesting character in Life but is discarded too quickly. He's paraplegic, which immediately makes his experience of being in space totally different from everyone else's but, apart from a short scene in which he receives physio, that is never particularly explored. Because of the muscle atrophy that occurs in zero-gravity atmospheres, how did he come to be accepted for the mission? What happened to confine him to a wheelchair in the first place? I think they missed a trick in not making him the central character, not just because a disabled lead is incredibly rare (non-existent?) in this kind of movie but also because it would be a genuinely different way of tackling fairly tired material. As well as ravenous space monster Calvin, he would be presented with obstacles an able-bodied person would have little trouble negotiating, adding a potentially intriguing extra layer to the action. It is Derry's mistake that sets off the chain of events for Calvin's escape but he is denied the chance to put it right. He's a brilliant man but a flawed one and certainly a lot more engaging than Gyllenhaal's weirdly depressive doctor, Ryan Reynolds being Ryan Reynolds in the guise of an engineer, or Ferguson's resourceful but dull quarantine officer.

Towards the end the plot falls prey to one of my least favourite movie tropes - the one where something seemingly extraneous, perhaps introduced earlier in the film, turns out to include information or a phrase that inspires a cunning plan in our protagonist's head. You know the sort of thing: the characters have been talking about the ingredients of a breakfast cereal in one scene and then, later, our hero pauses and mumbles to himself, "Niacinamide? Of course!", before running off to make a great big bomb out of Sugar Puffs. This time it's the old children's book - Goodnight Moon - that screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have provide the required spark of genius, and if my eyes had rolled any further back into my head they'd have popped out of my ears.

Life does come together reasonably well in the final half-hour as Gyllenhaal and Ferguson make a last-ditch attempt to keep Calvin from reaching Earth. The movie's ending is also satisfyingly and surprisingly dark. Unfortunately, the improvement comes too late to fully excuse the preceding hour or so.

Rating: WW

Life is in UK cinemas now...

Ratings guide
WWWW - Wonderful
WWW - Worthwhile
WW - Watchable
W - Woeful

Monday, 27 March 2017

Paterson, All This Panic, and Little Boxes: Your Week In Film (March 27-April 2)

The big sleep: Paterson celebrates the ordinary and everyday

What's worth watching on DVD, Blu-ray, VOD and TV in the next seven days...

Nothing much happens in Paterson (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WW½ and that is entirely the point. Jim Jarsmuch's film is about living an ordinary life and being perfectly content within it. Paterson (Adam Driver) lives in his namesake, Paterson, a small city in New Jersey - and couldn't be more of the place if he tried. He's a bus driver by day, during which time he writes poetry about life's mundanities (in a further 'coincidence', his favourite poet is William Carlos Williams, who just happened to pen an epic poem called Paterson). He also walks his dog, Marvin, hangs out with Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), his kooky wife, and sinks a beer or two at his local watering hole. Laura urges him to make copies of his poems or try to get them published but Paterson resists. Every day is pretty much the same, but our titular character finds joy in this routine existence.

Despite the film's celebration of the ordinary, there's the occasional bit of oddness to be discovered in its nooks and crannies. I wondered at first if Laura was a figment of his imagination as we never actually see her interact with anyone else in the entire film (no friends, no family), other than Paterson himself. She doesn't work, instead remaining at home during the day and throwing herself into all sorts of creative projects, including setting up a cupcake business and learning the guitar so she can become a country and western singer. Her constant effervescence is a pain in the arse, to be honest with you. Theirs is a weird relationship. In the week we spend with Paterson and Laura, they don't seem to have a sex life and are apart a lot, yet there's nothing to suggest their marital bond is weak. Perhaps they are simply so at ease with each other, grand romantic gestures and frequent lovemaking are no longer required to keep their relationship stable.

Unfortunately, once you see how the film is set up - every new day repeats like the verses of a poem or a song, with only a few events different - you soon tire of it. Even an incongruous incident with a gun in Paterson's local pub fails to inject any real drama, and its best moments come not when Driver's character is interacting with Laura or his friends in the bar, but with his fellow wordsmiths - a young female poet and a rapper, both of whom he meets on the street. Rejoicing in the mundane might start off as the film's strength but, as in real life, you soon realise there's only so much of the same-old, same-old you can handle.

Endless poetry: Adam Driver is the titular Paterson

I've quite lost count of the number of films striving to capture the sheer joy and horror of being a teenage girl that have popped up in the last few years - everything from Girlhood to Pariah, from The Diary Of A Teenage Girl to The Edge Of Seventeen. Jenny Gage's powerful and fascinating documentary All This Panic (cinemas and VOD) WWW is certainly a fine addition to the list. 

Exploring the lives of seven Brooklyn teens over a three-year period, Gage is granted extraordinary access. We see these soon-to-be adults at their best and more frequently their worst, as familial strife, relationship trouble and good old fashioned teenage angst threaten to overwhelm them. Her subjects are all sympathetic, even when their behaviour isn't, a situation personified by wild-child Ginger, a rather entitled wannabe actress who swerves college to follow her chosen career path, but who seems reticent to lower herself to actually auditioning for anything or even taking a few classes. Ginger's a force of nature - as petulant as a toddler but, in her own way, wise well beyond her years. I suspect she'll be just fine.

Her best friend is Lena, although the pair snipe at each other continually. Lena could not be more different - at the start of the film she wears a prominent brace on her teeth and is clearly uncomfortable in her own skin. Her family is disintegrating around her because of her father's mental health issues. Off to university, this should be the most exciting time of her life, but she's preoccupied with where she's going to live and having enough money to keep her head above water. The list goes on - Olivia, Dusty, Sage, Delia and Ivy. I really hope Gage gives us a follow-up film in a few years' time.

Teenage rampage: Jenny Gage's All This Panic

Rob Meyer's Little Boxes (VOD) WW½, is an intriguing culture-clash dramedy that explores race and class in the American suburbs. It sees a bourgeois family - black dad, white mum, mixed-race son - quitting multiracial Brooklyn for a sleepy, predominantly white town on the other side of the US - and should be applauded for having the balls to tackle the big issues, even if its conclusions are not especially profound.

Suffice to say, the move to the West Coast doesn't go smoothly as their belongings fail to turn up on time, their lovely new house has a serious mold problem, and they realise adapting to their new lives isn't going to be quite as easy as they'd hoped. But here's the interesting thing: instead of presenting a parade of stereotypical racists to be confronted and knocked down, the film pins some of the blame for their predicament on our protagonists themselves - not their attitudes to race as such but the airs and graces they've brought with them from New York.

One of the reasons their belongings are taking so long to arrive is because husband/father Mack (Nelsan Ellis - unrecognisable from his role as Lafayette in True Blood) has been calling the haulage company non-stop and has landed the poor blue-collar schmuck driving the removal truck across country in trouble with his boss. Furthermore, the author and jazz lover kind of struts about his newly-adopted home like he owns it, headphones permanently clamped over his ears, seemingly horrified every time someone new speaks to him. In fact, the only person he is interested in engaging with is the local bookshop owner but then only to see if it stocks his one and only novel. It isn't that Mack doesn't encounter racism - he certainly does and it's revolting - but he pretty much looks down on his square new neighbours from the start.

Mack's wife Gina (the excellent Melanie Lynskey), a newly-installed professor at the local college, isn't a lot more sympathetic, revealing, in an unguarded drunken moment, how much she misses her life back home, before adding, "My New York friends are so talented", the caustic implication being that her new gal pals simply aren't in the same league.

In fact, the only member of the family who seems to be having fun (at least initially) is naive 12-year-old Clark (Armani Jackson), who quickly falls under the spell of two young white girls - Julie (Miranda McKeon) and her gloriously dreadful friend Ambrosia (Oona Laurence). They compete for his affections by performing libidinous dance routines to loud rap music in front of him. But, unbeknownst to Clarke, it's his 'blackness' they are more interested in than anything else, like he's some kind of exotic creature visiting from a far-off land.

We've seen the whole 'nastiness bubbling under the surface of polite society' trope before and I'm not sure Little Boxes has anything new to offer on that score. Harbouring assumptions about people and their lives based on race, class, coolness or intelligence is pretty unpleasant and we should all just give each other a chance seems to be its message. In which case: well, duh. 

One false move: Tempers are frayed in Little Boxes

With Ben Wheatley's latest movie, Free Fire, landing in cinemas from Friday, Film4 is showing a season of the acclaimed British director's previous work this week (although, puzzlingly, not Down Terrace, his excellent feature debut from 2009). It all kicks off with High-Rise (Wednesday, 9pm) WW, Wheatley's so-so adaptation of JG Ballard's classic dystopian novel starring Tom Hiddleston, before things improve with Sightseers (Thursday, 11pm) WWWW, Kill List (Friday, 11.05pm) WWW, and A Field In England (early hours of Sunday, 12.20am) WWW. You can also check out a Free Fire Interview Special at various times over the coming week (starting this evening at 8.50pm), featuring Wheatley, as well as the new crime movie's stars, Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy, Sharlto Copley and Michael Smiley.

What I shall be watching this week: I'm off to the cinema to see Life, aka I Can't Believe It's Not Alien.

Ratings guide
WWWW - Wonderful
WWW - Worthwhile
WW - Watchable
W - Woeful

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Kong: Skull Island - The Rough & The Smooth

Going ape: King Kong's back and appears to be in Apocalypse Now

Now everyone has had the chance to see Kong: Skull Island, here's my review. Please note, it contains big spoilers and goes on a bit...

Kong: Skull Island
Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L Jackson
Running time: 1 hour 58 mins

It's 1973, Richard Nixon is in the White House and the Vietnam War has just ended. Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) - representatives of a top-secret organisation called Monarch - persuade the US government to fund an expedition to Skull Island, a mysterious, uncharted land mass in the Pacific Ocean. Accompanied by 'Nam vet Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L Jackson), former SAS tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), pacifist photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), and battalions of soldiers and scientists, they drop explosive charges all over the island purportedly to help map the place but secretly to flush out something 'interesting'. However, they get rather more than they bargained for as, disturbed by the wanton destruction of his home, Kong - a 100-foot ape - attacks the fleet of helicopters in which they'd travelled to the island, killing almost everyone on board.


Split into two groups, following Kong's attack - one led by Packard, the other by Conrad - they trek through dense jungle and other inhospitable terrain, encountering a variety of giant creatures along the way, including Kong's arch-enemies the skullcrawlers. Conrad's group also stumbles across Hank Marlow (John C Reilly), a US airman who has been stranded on the island since being shot down during World War II. Marlow has spent the last 29 years living with a tribe native to the island - the Iwis - and he reveals how Kong is not only their god but the last of his kind after the skullcrawlers killed the rest of his family.

The survivors plan to escape Skull Island and, thanks to the ingenuity of Marlow and a long-dead Japanese pilot shot down at the same time he was, have the means. But Packard is going nowhere - not until he's gained revenge on Kong for the deaths of his men...


Life of Reilly: John C is downed WWII airman Hank Marlow

THE ROUGH

1. I tried - and mostly succeeded - to remain spoiler free for the movie, which meant I had no idea there was a post-credits scene, and managed to miss it the first time I saw the film. These tacked-on-at-the-end bits have become a real pain. After I've sat through a movie, all I want to do is get out of the cinema as soon as possible, not remain in my seat for another 10 minutes while loads of other people rumble past and over me on their way to the exit. I know moviegoers who like to stick around for the credits because they think it's polite to check out all those who worked on the film. But I've already shown my appreciation for those people's efforts, by buying a ticket to see their work up on the screen. Maybe cinema managers could put a little sign on the door as you enter that says: "Please note: This movie has a post-credits scene - remain in your seat to the very end."

2. There are, perhaps, far too many characters, and quite a few of them aren't fleshed out nearly as much as they should be. This is forgivable with some of the supporting players but rather less so when it comes to the film's stars. Tom Hiddleston's Conrad, is posh, English, tough and, erm, that's about it, while John Goodman's monster hunter gets one good line (see below), delivers a whole lot of exposition, and is then eaten. Brie Larson's anti-war photojournalist Mason Weaver isn't a lot better served and I suspect discussions about her character might have gone something like this...

STUDIO EXECUTIVE: So, Brie's character... what's she like?
WRITER: She wears a tight-fitting grey vest that shows off her ample bosom.
STUDIO EXECUTIVE: I see... and is this tight-fitting grey vest ever... wet?
WRITER: Sure, once or twice.
STUDIO EXECUTIVE: Cool - this is gold. And does she ever run about in this tight-fitting grey vest?
WRITER: Yeah.
STUDIO EXECUTIVE: Kid, you're a frickin' genius. Add another 10 bucks to whatever we're paying you.


Vest in show: Brie Larson is photojournalist Mason Weaver

3. On the subject of under-utilised characters, there were times I actually forgot Corey Hawkins' seismologist Houston Brooks and Tian Jing's biologist San Lin were even in the film. It was as if they were only included so they could pop up again in the post-credits sequence as agents of Monarch without audiences wondering who the heck they were.

4. As the US army choppers fly through thick cloud and violent storms to reach Skull Island, Jackson gets to deliver one of his trademark blood 'n' thunder speeches - it's meant to be the story of Icarus, I think. Unfortunately, I could hardly hear a single word of it over the helicopter blades and rumbles of thunder.

5. Cognisant of the criticism 2014's Godzilla deservedly received for showing too little of the monster, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts clearly decided to go in the completely opposite direction. Not only was Kong front and centre in all the trailers but, even if you'd been able to avoid them, he appears in the first five minutes of the film, looming up out of the jungle gloom as a far younger Hank Marlow and his Japanese enemy fight to the death. A little more mystery might have been appreciated.


A monster calls: John Goodman is Monarch agent, Bill Randa

6. So how does Skull Island work as an ecosystem exactly? There are a lot of normal-sized creatures (birds and suchlike), but also Kong and the skullcrawlers (great name for a band). We also see a huge spider, a massive water buffalo, a colossal octopus, and a giant stick insect thing. But only one of each. Reilly's character tells us there are also giant ants and, in one scene, we see a triceratops' skull. Dinosaurs, monsters and regular animals, all living on an island together; some in abundance, some seemingly one of a kind. What gives?

7. Disappointingly, The Dickies' You Drive Me Ape (You Big Gorilla) is nowhere to be found on the movie's soundtrack. Setting it in 1973 is no excuse.

Punk monkeys: The Dickies going ape

THE SMOOTH

1. The sound of old-fashioned fighter planes and their rat-a-tat guns in the film's excellent pre-credits scene - suddenly I was seven years old again and picturing Kong standing atop the Empire State Building. A very evocative opening.

2. I love the idea that someone thought, "You know what a new King Kong movie needs more than anything else? To be a bit more like Apocalypse Now." And that seemingly mad idea works like a charm here. The snazzy IMAX poster at the top of this review and the fact Skull Island was filmed in Vietnam are really just the tip of the iceberg, Francis Ford Coppola's '70s classic was clearly a big influence on great swathes of the film - the choppers, the evocative rock soundtrack (Black Sabbath, Jefferson Airplane, Creedence Clearwater Revival), the jungle, the napalm, the big, blazing sun, even the fact Hiddleston's character - Conrad - is clearly named after Joseph Conrad upon whose Heart Of DarknessApocalypse Now is based. And, of course, Packard has gone full Colonel Kurtz crazy by the end of the film.


Gorilla marketing: The official Skull Island trailer


3. “Washington will never be as screwed up as it is now,” deadpans Goodman in an amusingly ironic line at the beginning of the film. Not all of the dialogue sparkles but, every now and again, the film's screenwriting team serve up a real zinger.

4. The look of searing hatred and defiance Jackson shoots the giant ape after the creature has wiped out most of his soldiers in the film's bravura 'Choppers v Kong' battle. Few actors can bring that sort of presence or intensity to bear. In fact, Jackson is the best thing about Kong: Skull Island, his character Preston Packard comfortably its most complicated and compelling player. He's a man clearly defined by conflict and visibly unhappy at the end of the war ("We didn't lose the war, we abandoned it"). Genuinely reticent to return to the States, the chance to beat Kong (after losing to a rather different sort of Cong) is, for him, manna from heaven.

Pulp friction: Samuel L Jackson is vengeful 'Nam vet Packard

5. Reilly's stranded - and slightly crazy - World War II airman Marlow runs Jackson very close in the film's MVP stakes. The fact he's been stuck on the island for 29 years makes him a genuinely sympathetic, even heroic, character (his wife and son don't know if he's alive or dead), but the fact he knows nothing of 1973's 'modern world' is frequently well utilised for light relief. His bemused reaction to hearing David Bowie for the first time is a particular highlight, and you feel like punching the air when he gets a well deserved, emotionally upbeat ending.

6. The human tribe that lives on Skull Island - the Iwis - are refreshingly dull. Lesser filmmakers than Vogt-Roberts (who cut his teeth in TV and with indie hit The Kings Of Summer) would have had Riley's character 'Americanise' them. They'd have been playing baseball, tooting away on improvised jazz instruments, and the whole thing would have been oh-so-cute and thoroughly cringe-making. I really like the fact they are pretty much as Marlow had found them decades before - unknowable, strange and just a little bit threatening.

7. Kong's monstrous foes on the island are christened 'skullcrawlers' by Reilly's character ("Cause it sounds neat"). The revolting creatures - part-crocodile, part-snake, all total bastard - are truly the stuff of nightmares and I hope we see them again.

8. Visual effects have become so ridiculously good in the last couple of years (the likes of The Jungle Book and The BFG seem to have pushed everyone to up their game), that we're now rather blasé about them. But the effects artists deserve a big shout out here because their work is flawless. Not just in the action-packed battle scenes but in smaller ways too. I was particularly struck by the soulfulness of Kong's eyes - you could not just see but feel the pain and sadness in them.

Open wide: Skull Island's skullcrawlers are the stuff of nightmares 

9. Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack's 1933 King Kong didn't just thrill me as a kid, it was perhaps the first film that managed to break my heart too. As well as being genuinely upset by the movie's brutal climax, for the first time in my life, I'd glimpsed injustice. I really didn't like the way it felt. And the guy at the end of the movie had it wrong. It wasn't "beauty that killed the beast", it was greedy, nasty, savage human beings. Although director Vogt-Roberts can't match the original's emotional gut-punch (Kong wins and lives this time), when Packard announces his plan to kill the giant ape, that sense of injustice came flooding back. "Blimey," I thought to myself, "This bloke really gets it!" 

10. As much as I object to after-credits scenes, at least this one is worth the wait. Firstly because it finally gives Corey Hawkins (as seismologist Houston Brooks) and Tian Jing (as biologist San Lin) something to do but mainly for the line "Kong is not the only king...", and that final spine-shuddering roar. Wow.

Wild thing: Kong battles monsters and men on Skull Island

11. Skull Island is an awful lot better than Legendary's first Monsterverse movie, Gareth Edwards' dismal Godzilla. It's so good, in fact, I'm now very much looking forward to 2019's Godzilla: King Of Monsters and the following year's Kong v Godzilla. At this point, I feel I should mention a 'difficult' Romanian arthouse film, lest you think I've taken leave of my senses. Cristian Mungiu's Beyond The Hills. There you go...

Result: Rough 7 Smooth 11 - it's a comfortable win for a thoroughly enjoyable, albeit imperfect, blockbuster.