Clowns have never scared me. Unnerved, sure. Weirded out, wouldn’t you be. But terrified? Not so much. After all, they’re little more than a person dressed in a suit, designed to entertain and thrill you. Right? But then came the news that Warner Bros had decided to bring their crazed-killer-clown adaptation IT (1990) into the 21st century. And with it came a series of creepy (and allegedly unrelated) sightings of such creatures across the world. And suddenly clowns stopped representing a fun night out at the circus or rodeo and instead became psychotic killers lurking in bushes. Perhaps after Stephen King’s original novel they always had been. What is interesting though, is that the studio’s remake could have so easily played into this melodrama and cliché. That clowns are evil and that’s all there is to them. But these red-nosed, white-faced, devilishly-smiling creatures aren’t the only thing to fear and IT (2017) wisely knows it. Sometimes, what makes us most afraid, is fear itself.
Based on King’s work, and given the seal of approval from the author himself, the movie follows a rag-tag group of teens as they investigate a spate of mysterious disappearances in their sleepy Maine town. A year after Bill’s (Jaeden Lieberher) little brother Georgie vanishes while out playing, he and his ‘Loser Club’ friends start witnessing haunting visions. From blood-soaked bathrooms to pus-filled lepers, each play on the children’s worst fears. And soon they start culminating in the appearance of Pennywise, a malevolent clown (Bill Skarsgard). Not your average circus performer, this monster is determined to wreak havoc, using a red balloon, well-timed music and a set of nasty teeth to do the job. Scared, yet determined to get to the bottom of it, the team start connecting the dots the adults refuse to see, leading them deep into Derry’s history and sewer systems to find the heart of the beast itself.
Part horror, part coming-of-age tale, the film dances around both for most of its two-hour runtime. But director Andy Muschietti has a steady hand and throws us just enough of both to keep us intrigued. A close-up of Pennywise’s face here, a dramatic build-up there and just enough gore sprinkled between the moments of childhood innocence. His biggest success though is making us care for the seven-strong main cast, each getting almost enough screen-time and bonding moments to make them individuals. Even if Stan is reduced to little more than the Jewish boy preparing for his Bat Mitzvah and Ben is represented as the formulaic new kid who spends his time in the library. The child actors show talent and wisdom beyond their years though, led by an impressive performance from Jaeden Lieberher. But two standouts work hard to upstage him, in Finn Wolfhard’s foul-mouthed, comic-relief character Ritchie, and the dazzlingly-innocent yet terrifically tomboyish performance of Sophia Lillis’ Beverley.
And while killer-clowns sound like the most cliched of all horror tropes, IT’s fiendish villain is a breath of fresh air. Skarsgard delivers a phenomenal and all-encompassing turn, so deeply and richly conceived it’s hard to see any humanity in the character at all. It’s not Tim Curry’s iconic version, I’ll give you that, but it’s a scintillating vision nonetheless. Sadly, it is let down by Muschietti, who spends too much time establishing the character rather than delving into the film’s darker fear – that parents are the true fiends. He hints at it when we see abusive fathers controlling their daughters or pushing their sons to breaking point, but it is never at the forefront. And its such a let down, because fear is a contagion that is made worse when we can’t explain or confront it. And for all the dread, uncertainty and mystical forces Pennywise conjures up, he can be overcome. Trusted adults exploiting their power and pretending the terror isn’t real, is a whole lot harder to beat.
The movie’s strongest element therefore, is its focus on the theme of fear. For starters, each child’s horror is hinted at long before it is used against them. For Beverley, coming into womanhood and having her first period, blood plays a big part in her terror. While Eddie, raised by a mother in constant fear of his health, the thing that frightens him is sickness. Mike, the outcast unable to deal with death, is forced to relive such a demise time and time again, just as Stanley, who has no tangible female figure in his life, is unable to get past a creepy portrait of a woman hanging in his father’s office. And then there is Bill, plagued by his brother’s disappearance and unable to let him go. But the most frightening part of what Pennywise represents is the fear of the unknown. A killer clown that appears from nowhere, doesn’t discriminate and most importantly – is never named. Fear of fear itself is what drives the film forward and keeps us glued to our seats. Because if we can’t understand it, how can we hope to beat it?
With King’s mammoth novel spanning more than 27 years and more than 1,000 pages, the question of splitting the film was, for once, a legitimate no-brainer. Unlike Twilight (2008), The Hunger Games (2012) or The Hobbit films (2012 – 2014), in this case making two films from one book will finally prove not just a box office hit, but also one the critics can’t slam. Provided it has the same level of fun and friendship delivered in act one. Because who doesn’t like watching a group of misfit kids throw rocks at bullies while an eighties soundtrack blares behind them.?Or see them whack the crap out of a clown using metal poles, baseball bats and chains? It just ups the ante when they become adults. The only thing I’m hoping for is that the giant spider from the novel doesn't make its way into the antagonist’s manifestations second time round. Because that would truly be terrifying.
Rating: 4 Red Balloons out of 5
Spider-Man: Homecoming Review - Peter Parker finds his feet and some fun as he swings into the Marvel universe
I’m going to get it out there right now. Transparency is important after all. I have never been a fan of Spider-Man. Yes, when I first fell into the land of superheroes and comics, I guess you could say I was indifferent to the idea of a guy in tights swinging across New York City and taking up the name of an insect that thousands of people around the world fear. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that spiders in Australia aren’t something to be proud of – they're gigantic, pains in the ass, which scare the crap out of you by their size and deadliness. Or perhaps it stems from the god-awful original movies starring Tobey Maguire, you know – the ones where he dances and you find yourself staring into a void you feel you’ll never get out of. But when Sony and Marvel announced they had got their act together to share rights to the character, something started to change. I found myself following the film’s updates and poring over its recent developments. I was there championing Tom Holland on behind a computer screen when he was announced on the shortlist, and I was there scrunching my face up in trepidation when they announced Jon Watts as the director. And somehow, along the way and without my knowledge, I had become a fan of the character. And can I just say, after watching this film, I am really glad I did.
Despite having one of the most convoluted posters in recent history, Spider-Man: Homecoming’s (2017) plot – mercifully – is far easier to follow. After his scene-stealing introduction in Captain America: Civil War (2016), 15-year-old Peter Parker is back in Queens and hankering for some action. Unfortunately for him, Team Stark is just as eager to keep the training wheels on – quite literally at times – suggesting he instead remain a “friendly, neighbourhood Spider-Man”. You know, the kind that steers old ladies in the right direction and foils dastardly bike thieves, all before enjoying a well-deserved churro. But what would a Spider-Man movie be without a little action right? So, it’s not long before Peter's Spidey-senses start tingling and he lands right in the middle of some Vulture-sized trouble. After being laid-off his job collecting alien-tech in the aftermath of the battle of New York, the bird in question – Mr Adrien Toombes – has decided to take things into his own hands. Stealing and refurbishing powerful weapons he then sells them on to the highest buyer in back alleys and bushes. But when Peter gets in the way of his ability to do that – and thus provide for his family – great power and great responsibility is the last thing on everyone’s minds.
Now, if there is one fault to Marvel’s ever-expanding cinematic universe, it is their reliance on the age-old formula of a troubled protagonist who can too easily prove himself the hero. Life is hard, and pretty crappy at times, so most people escaping to the cinema want to see their hero’s struggle a bit before they come out on top. Refreshingly, that is where Spider-Man: Homecoming succeeds, as Holland’s incarnation falls flat on his face just as many times as he triumphs. This time around he’s the dorky kid who must run across a golf course because there’s nowhere to shoot his webbing. He’s the guy who swings in to save the day but doesn’t quite know how to announce his presence to the villains. And he’s the guy that reduces a ferry to scrap metal instead of saving the day. He’s relatable and – God bless him – so very redeemable. Just like the audiences sitting in darkened theatres, he gets scared occasionally.
But Peter is also the sort of guy who knows how wrong it is to bring out his suit just to impress a girl at a party. Who understands how important it is to surround yourself with friends who truly care – trust me when I say, everyone needs a “guy in the chair”. And it’s this morality that is interwoven not just into Holland’s take on the character, but into the very fabric of the film. It’s there every time his AI assistant Karen – voiced by the wonderful new addition Jennifer Connelly – asks whether he would like to turn on ‘instant kill’. Or every time he realises that just because Aunt May is a strong independent women doesn’t mean she worries any less. That being said, the movie also finds a good balance by laying on the laughs. Whether it’s Peter’s disillusioned teachers or his lack of patience at being locked in a room. Maybe he can learn a thing or two from his Avenging idols after all…
Casting for this film was a great accomplishment by Marvel. Holland is hands down the best pick, and he’s been proving it ever since his masterful turn in The Impossible (2012). Then there’s Peter’s best friend Ned, to which Jacob Batalon brings perfect comedic timing. In just his second feature film he is already garnering fans and making you wonder where his star will reach. For all the mentions of Zendaya in the film’s marketing her character Michelle is downplayed heavily, but a casual reference come the films end ensures she will be back in future instalments and hopefully with a meatier role. Villain-wise Michael Keaton is cutting and interesting in his portrayal of Vulture, while Tony Revolori adds nuance to school bully Flash. Then there are the familiar faces, with Robert Downey Jr – slash – Iron Man (let’s face it they’re practically the same person now) phoning it in for most of the movie – believe me when I say that actually adds something to the piece though. Stan Lee gets a good run too, as does a mystery cameo, which will bring a smile to your face and have you digging through the DVD’s special features to see more.
One of the most interesting dynamics I enjoyed about Spider-Man: Homecoming is how heavily it leaned on the idea of Peter becoming the next Tony Stark. Not like Doctor Strange (2016), which delivered a blow-by-blow recreation of Iron Man’s first solo outing (i.e. Rich and entitled bad boy gets injured, learns heroic ways and returns to save the day). But more in a passing of the torch sort of way. He’s there to save Peter when he gets in over his head and to lecture him into realising he shouldn’t want to be ‘like him’ but be a ‘better him’. There is even the Artificial Intelligence who provides him snarky comments and helpful support. Above all though, there is the closing moments of the film, which while not as grand as Tony’s ‘I am Iron Man’ speech, certainly bring up something reminiscent. Not everyone may know Peter Parker’s secret-identity, but the wonderful thing about the Marvel Universe is that it really makes it a family affair.
Rating: 4 Spidey-Jumps out of 5
Ever since it was released back in the nineties, Disney’s tale as old as time has enraptured the hearts and minds of little girls everywhere. Sure, it’s no Moana (2016), pushing the feminist theory that women can be leaders without a man by their side. And its soundtrack never quite hit the same viral level that Frozen’s (2013) epically overplayed track Let It Go did. But for everyone who grew up with Beauty and the Beast (1991), it was not just a classic romance, but an enduring piece that made us believe everyone, regardless of looks or personality, could one day find the thing we crave so dearly - love. So, with the legacy of those children’s hearts and souls on the line, it’s safe to say that there was a lot riding on how well the studio pulled off their live-action version of the film, over 25 years later. For me, a girl who unabashedly knows every line to the ensemble act Be Our Guest, it was also about whether it could reclaim some sense of the magic the film brought to my childhood. The magic I’ve lost as I’ve grown up. And damn, if it didn’t turn out to be so much more I had planned.
The 2017 live-action update is a larger-than-life piece, pitched as a scene-by-scene remake of the original. We begin with the Prince’s prologue, detailing his narcissistic tendencies and cold heart. Turning away an old hag because of her appearance, he and his court of onlookers are left aghast when she transforms into an enchantress, cursing everyone inside the castle. Back in town years later, our pretty protagonist is dreaming of adventure, while shirking the brutish Gaston and his eager advances. After her beloved father goes missing while headed to market, Belle sets out to find him, trading places with the artist after he is captured and leaving her life in the hands of a hardened creature. As she gets to know the transformed inhabitants of the castle, including fan favourites Lumiere, Cogsworth, Mrs Potts, Chip and Plumette, as well as new characters like Cadenza, she discovers there may be more to her new world than she first believed. Bonding with the Beast over their love of books, the pair’s connection blossoms into a romance, as they visit Paris through the pages of a bewitched novel. When Belle’s father falls into trouble again, thanks to Gaston’s dastardly ways, the Beast sets her free and she runs to his rescue once more. But as the villagers learn of the terrifying monster so close to their town’s walls, they lead an uprising, which ends in a showdown between man and monster, and finally, the much-awaited expression of love between Beauty and Beast.
Many critics have claimed the biggest failing of the film is that it does little to update the original’s story. What was once a tale of a feminist girl singing about a world outside marriage but settling for a Prince is still, in essence, the same thing. There are no great revelations about Belle transforming into a 21st century woman. No actual adventures in the great wide somewhere. About the closest we come is a throwaway line to our beauty’s headstrong nature. But I have to argue that this is not a flaw. Like I mentioned earlier, this isn’t Frozen or Moana. It’s not even Mulan (1998) or Pocahontas (1995). Part of feminism is accepting that some women can be strong and independent while still wanting love to define them. What’s important is that it’s a choice, a decision the woman gets to make. And for all the Stockholm talk, some of it justified, some of it not, Belle makes her decision after she is given the freedom to do so. After she has fled the walls of her ‘prison’ and after she has every opportunity to leave her relationship as merely a friendship. Disney is all about the happily ever after’s, and sometimes, we must accept, the happily ever after’s involve love. Belle is an educated and fearless woman. She is a dreamer and an inventor. She is someone little girls should look up to, not just because she wears a gorgeous golden gown and dances under a starry sky. But because she knows what she wants and chooses not to settle.
The casting is exceptional, taking two-dimensional characters and realising them in human form. Luke Evans and Josh Gad are a dynamic duo as Gaston and LeFou, riffing off each other and providing most of the comedy for the film. Evans’ strong tenor resounds in his solo numbers, as does his physique when he impressively lifts two cast members mid-song. In this version, he even receives a back story to help explain his violent demeanour. Gad meanwhile, turns in a stellar performance in a role he was born to play. What was a snivelly, downtrodden servant becomes a misunderstood, compassionate and redeeming character, who might finally get his own happily ever after by the time the credits roll. Watson is gorgeous as ever as our leading lady, inhabiting the wonder and awe of her original counterpart perfectly, while balancing it with her own grace and intellect. About the worst one can say about her is that she seems somewhat disinterested as the film begins. Too timid. Too indifferent. But just like the prince, by journey’s end her Belle has morphed into the person she truly deserves to be. Speaking of the beast, I’ll admit, it did take a while for me to warm to Dan Steven’s portrayal. Perhaps it was his jarring representation in the prologue, or the fact he was a CGI monster for 95 per cent of the film. But by the time his long-overdue solo song comes along in Act Three, there was not a dry eye in the house, or a heart left in one piece.
The film is not without its faults for sure, and to claim it had none would be an injustice to all the things it did right. The fact they are so few and far between is what sets it apart from other productions. Visually it is a juggernaut, everything from the Swarovski encrusted gowns to the jowls of the beast beautifully created and envisioned on screen. Among this though, the newly designed Mrs Potts stands out as a sub-par construction. Not just because her new ceramic side-face appears slightly disconcerting, but also because Emma Thompson’s voice never quite reaches the great heights Angela Lansbury’s did. Similarly, while the songs are expertly crafted in the new film, adding something to their originals rather than detracting from them, one in particular comes across as far too overblown. Be Our Guest was an intrinsically feel-good moment of the original animated feature, but in its recreation it becomes nothing more than a stunted, jumpy production aiming high and falling low. Had they chosen to run the song from start to finish it could have been saved, but by allowing multiple beats for the music to swell and soar and the Fantasia (1940) elements to take place, it impedes the rhythm and detracts from the wonder.
The real question fans want answered before they fork out their hard-earned cash for yet another Disney remake, is whether the film ever truly become the glorious spectacle it promised the world it would be. Or whether it is just another bastardised version like Alice in Wonderland (2010) or Maleficent (2014). The answer is a joyous yes, full of fluttering butterflies, mysticism and grace. The animated original has long been heralded as a ‘classic’, making it hard to believe any film could even come close. But here we are, with a transporting piece, full of flourishes and lacking in gimmick. It’s pure, unadulterated fun, toned up for the nineties babies who are now in their mid-to-late twenties, but still charming enough to win over a new generation of little girls and boys. It’s fresh, unforced and unequivocally grand. It really is a tale as old as time, a song as old as rhyme. It’s a beauty and a beast.
Rating: 4.5 Roses out of 5
Ever since the King of the Apes first appeared on the silver screen in 1933 he has been both a terrifying presence and one that has defined cinematic history. The tyrannosaurus may have a memorable roar, but Kong’s chest pounding is just as intimidating. His latest incarnation, in Jordan Vogt-Roberts Kong: Skull Island (2017), falls short of both these ideas though, delivering the biggest modern-day incarnation of the menacing monster but one that manages little with all his might. He’s got the chest-pounding down-pat. He’s got the growl. He’s even got that glimmer in his eye for the busty blonde. But he just doesn’t have that something special, that something incredible. That something that brings the film above a glorified and formulaic Apocalypse Now style (1979) re-telling. Complete with orange hues, helicopter homage and a napalm fireball.
Opening with the crash-landing of a World War II fighter pilot and his enemy combatant, it isn’t that long before we get our first glimpse of the title ape, as the behemoth stuns the duo amidst their clifftop battle-to-the-death. Just as the adrenaline hits though we find ourselves flung forward in time to Washington circa 1973, were we meet a research team made up of Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins), who are looking for someone to bankroll their plight to find some mythical animals ‘that were here long before us’. Bullshitting their way on the back of another mission the pair also manage to secure some military backing in the form of pissed-off Vietnam vet Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), his troupe of threadbare men and a chiselled renegade SAS tracker named James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston). No mission would be complete though without someone to document proceedings (or more accurately some stereotypical female role), with Brie Larson’s antiwar photographer Mason Weaver helping round out the unlikely bunch. Bonding over seventies rock and flying off into a literal electrical storm-laden sunset is just the beginning of their adventure together though, with the crashes, creatures and character-deaths coming thick and fast over the remaining hour and a half runtime.
Visually the movie is a step above Peter Jackson’s 2005 effort, punching above the weight of a cliché storyline and adding some true razzle dazzle. While Andy Serkis’ motion-capture creature may have had far more emotion in his grizzly jowls, the action moments here don’t simply aim to be bigger and better, but deliver something refreshingly intense. When the helicopters go down, audiences cringe at the impact and when the monsters attack, they bring a real sense of weight with them. The ecosystem is more detailed than previous filmic incarnations too, giving birth to razor-beaked pterodactyls, bark-encrusted stick insects, a much-too-large spider, some domineering water buffalo, and the real villains of the piece – some reptilian snake dinosaurs that look terrifying up-front and plain preposterous from the back. In an age of psychedelic superhero films and expansive spacey sci-fi’s, it is a real feat to feel something so very new here on our own earthy shores.
On the acting front, the cast certainly work well together, having clearly got to know each other throughout the months spent filming in exotic and isolated locations. Within the title figures Hiddleston feels the most strangely miscast though, brought in as the muscle, smarts and all round hero archetype. But in trying to fill so many shoes, he fails to fit even one. Not only does his posh accent feel jagged in the jungle setting, but with so much time devoted to the ensemble, we never really get to know his character outside of a throwaway line to his father. Nevertheless, he’s killer eye-candy, his blue t-shirt clinging to him in all the right places to satisfy those who tuned in solely to see him finally headline an action-adventure. In contrast, after her award-winning turn in captive-drama Room (2015) Larson has the hippy vibe down-pat, bringing a real effervescence and spark to the photo-journo. After showing off her comedic chops and badass ‘take no shit’ attitude here, she is bound to please in her upcoming turn as Captain Marvel. Samuel L. Jackson, usually a champion of pretty much any role he’s given, puts in his most unlikable bastard performance in quite some time. And frankly, it’s just plain bad. Maybe it’s the writing – after all he is playing a military team leader who tries to take down an animal simply because he thinks he’s higher up on the intelligence scale. Or maybe it’s because it doesn’t feel any different to the hundreds of villains he’s played before.
Despite being a creature feature at heart, there is a strange political undercurrent to Kong: Skull Island. One so brief one could be mistaken for thinking it’s not there at all. It comes as John Goodman’s Randa steps out of a car at the Capitol, claiming ‘Mark my words, there’ll never be a more screwed-up time in Washington!’ Meant as a reference to its seventies setting - where America’s presence in the unpopular Vietnam War and the upcoming Watergate scandal are full force – of course, it comes off as a tongue-in-cheek dig at President Trump’s turn in office. And for all the sly smiles and quiet chuckles it brings to the face of businessman’s opposition (myself included), it just seems incredibly unnecessary. It’s not just politics that find its way into Kong; Skull Island though, with racial stereotypes also prevailing. It may be set in the seventies, but there is something to be said for a modern story that projects a black antagonist against two white protagonists, at times almost comparing him to the ape himself. Such storyline frailties are never fully acknowledged, but are pushed to the back of the audience’s mind to make way for a killer soundtrack. If Kong himself could be represented by music, it would no doubt be the sweet tunes of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Bad Moon Rising or the late David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust. And not since Star Trek Beyond’s (2016) epic Sabotage scene has music been better matched to a scene than it does when the crew’s helicopters get smacked down by the mighty beast to the hype of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid.
If I had to pick a ‘best bit’ concerning Kong: Skull Island, besides the hilarious and heart-warming performance from John C. Reilly and the cult classic soundtrack, it would be that the action sticks to Kong’s home turf. Not once do we see him scaling a skyscraper or simplified to the horrendous line ‘twas beauty that killed the beast’. Instead, he is a badass that wrecks helicopters with no apologies and munches on live calamari like there is no tomorrow. He is an animal: wild, full of rage and without the hints of humanity previous films have given him. When he does get a glimmer of a soul it is well-earned and brief, exactly the way it should be. While at times it feels like the film is overreaching purely for its future instalments, anyone who knows anything about Legendary Pictures pursuit of the perfect monster movie universe, knows that eventually the giant gorilla will face off against Godzilla himself. Something heavily hinted at in the ever-more-common post-credits scene. So, although it may never rise above its b-movie status, Kong: Skull Island is a fun popcorn flick that aims low and delivers. Especially if you’re all about that sequel.
Rating: 3 Growling Gorillas out of 5
The Western is a hard genre to conquer. Not only does it come with standards set by Eastwood, but today’s political correct society threatens its very core, reminding us that violence begets violence and that it is never the answer to life’s problems. That being said, it is also a genre that won’t die. From Joel and Ethan Coen’s atmospheric actioner True Grit (2010) to Tarantino’s grisly and comical Django Unchained (2012) the dry dirt and grime of the West continues to be front and centre in cinema even in the 21st Century. Antoine Fuqua’s latest attempt The Magnificent Seven (2016) is another such piece, paying homage to its predecessors as a loud, bullish and brutal remake of the 1960’s classic, which itself is a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954). Although it never quite lives up to its title, falling more under the banner of The Moderate Seven or The Meandering Seven, it does deliver some semblance of humanity, even if it amounts to nothing more than a stylish but forgetful posse piece.
Set in 1879, the film follows the trials and tribulations of Rose Creek, a small town situated nearby a literal goldmine run by the heavy-handed and egotistical industrialist Bartholomew Bogue. Looking to expand his business and take the townspeople’s land, Bogue murders and menaces his way to the top of the hierarchical chain, appearing as an unstoppable force to all but Emma Cullen, a proud widow seeking righteousness but willing to settle for revenge. Recruiting the brooding and mysterious Sam Chisolm, the duo go about securing a band of misfit mercenaries to fight for their just cause. From Joshua Faraday to Goodnight Robicheaux, normal names are as few and far between as the talent in the townspeople they set about training to fight. The story culminates, of course, with the big showdown, full of TNT, Gatling guns and sombre scores. The intense, bloody battle bears little weight though, with all the emotional investment sucked out in favour of pyrotechnics and a high body count.
The Western genre is bred deep in The Magnificent Seven, from the wide open spaces to the simple townsfolk and hardworking horses. We might never actually see a tumbleweed blow through town, but we never stop thinking that it might happen. Despite its numerous flaws, Fuqua cannot be punished for emulating the greats of old though, bringing a widescreen element to the western and invoking that old time feel through a series of saturated colours. It’s no Blazing Saddles (1974) or The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966), but dammit if it doesn’t work hard to ensure it lives up to their legacy. What lets it down is its dependence on violence. Where it was used to shock and silence audiences of yore, nowadays it is so ingrained in our filmic culture, most audience members don’t even bat an eyelid let alone wonder where all the blood is when so many lives are lost.
A blockbuster cast round out the title team, including Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo and Martin Sensmeier. Entrusted with the seemingly impossible task of tackling characters once inhabited by Hollywood heavyweights like Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen, the most refreshing part of the new crew is that they meet the ethnic standards so often called upon in cinema. While Washington is a stoic and immovable force, his reason for joining the fight revealed in a standout monologue, it is Pratt who is the heart of the film, full of quips, one-liners and self-sacrificing notions that steal the show. The rest remain figures in the background however, defined by their killing skills and given little emotional depth. Similarly, Stellan Skarsgaard’s Bogue falls well flat of Eli Wallach’s terrifying and taut performance, full of selfish bravado and one-dimensional development.
The most touching moment in The Magnificent Seven though, comes not from what we see on screen, but what we hear behind the action. The film was the 158th and final soundtrack score from acclaimed composer James Horner, killed last year in a tragic plane crash and alongside the input from his long-time co-collaborator Simon Franglen, it is a resounding and momentous beat, echoing its predecessor even if not redefining it. Similarly, while the story may lose motivation and morality, the commitment to aesthetic saves it, cinematographer Mauro Fiore delivering some interesting and idealistic shots when not pounding the gunfire home. Perhaps the best example is the moment Chisolm is silhouetted on horseback against the blue-black sky, a frontiersman through and through.
Like any remake the real question regarding The Magnificent Seven is why. Why do we need it? Why is now the right time? Why should we spend our hard-earned money on it over everything else? Sadly, after slugging my way through its two-hour run-time, I still don’t quite have an answer. Despite its best efforts, The Magnificent Seven never quite gets its spurs spinning, instead a cumbersome cash-grab that leaves audiences feeling just a little empty. But thanks to its appealing performances and ability to stay true to its roots it’s not a complete write-off either. Revolutionary may not be in its vocabulary, but charismatic, clichéd and charming make the cut, ensuring that even if it doesn’t live up to its predecessors, it deserves to be mentioned among them.
Rating: 2.5 Cowboys out of 5
Now this is the law of the jungle, as old and as true as the sky. And the wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the wolf that shall break it must die. As the creeper that girdles the tree-trunk, the law runneth forward and back. For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack. That is the poetic and endearing lesson Disney’s new live-action jaunt The Jungle Book (2016) teaches us. It is not, however, the only lesson one may be lucky enough to learn by the end of the one-hour-and-forty-five minute sprawling CGI fest.
Re-imagining the 1967 animated classic, Jon Favreau’s story follows the tried and tested tale of Mowgli the man-cub, played by Newcomer Neel Sethi who owns the screen as the only live action performer. Raised by Raksha and Akela as part of their wolf pack, the young boy is forced to leave his wild Indian home when fearsome tiger Shere Khan threatens his way of life. Under the guidance of grandfather-esque panther Bagheera the man-cub sets off, meeting many a familiar face along the way. There’s Baloo the bear, a gender-swapped Kaa, and the monstrous Gigantopithecus King Louie. In the end though, despite his long-winded travels, Mowgli’s is a journey of self-discovery, facing not only the inevitable show-down to prove whether man or beast will rise victorious, but whether man and beast are really that different.
Visually the film is untouchable, with its grand scope and intricate attention to detail heralded by only a handful of other epics, such as James Cameron’s Avatar (2009). Blades of grass flicker, animals scamper, and water rushes through reeds with such believability you’d swear that you could simply reach out and touch it. Despite its April release date it would be a crime not to see the film nominated for a special effects gong come the 2017 Awards season. Interestingly, such visuals prove once and for all that you can create wondrous life-like portrayals without using animals, with director Jon Favreau receiving the PETA’s innovation in film award for not harming (or using) any animals during production.
The film also heralds a wonderful balance of homage towards the beloved animated original, while reiterating that, like Mowgli, the new film too must tread its own path. New twists and turns lie around every corner, from the incredible renditions of ‘The Bare Necessities’ and ‘I Wanna Be Like You’ to changes to the story involving characters such as Akela and Shere Khan. This is a more adult version, certainly, having drawn on tones from Apocalypse Now (1979). But it does not neglect its classic Disney routes either, with a strong link to The Lion King (1993) thanks to a thundering wildebeest stampede, a fallen father, a special ‘gathering’ rock, and a villainous feline with facial disfigurements. And as if you needed further proof, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment from the final fight scene, a Meerkat even rises onto its haunches beside a boar.
The core of the film though comes from the morals it instils within us, old and young alike. To respect our parents, whether they be our biological bearers or not. To value the friendships we form, no matter what obscure forms they come in. To protect the environment. To stand up for what we believe in. To not fall to greed, expectations, or trickery. Simply, to be ourselves. In this day and age it’s near impossible for a remake can outdo its predecessor, but with a focus on honour that’s exactly what The Jungle Book achieves.
Boasting a stellar ensemble cast of three Oscar’s winners and one nominee, the animals burst to life as characters and not simply plot devices. Bill Murray’s Baloo is a lovable larrikin that may not be the best rendered creature, but is one of the most memorable. Praise must also be heaped on Sir Ben Kingsley’s Bagheera, who channels every fed-up parent who's ever rolled their eyes at their mischievous child. On the more disappointing end are the one-dimensional villains, such as Idris Elba’s Shere Khan. While you cannot fault his menacing appearance, and thundersome deep British brogue, he is never fully fleshed out to the truly terrifying beast he could have been. Kaa the slippery and seductive snake also marks a fantastic equality change from the 1967 original male persona to Scarlett Johansson’s husky tones. However it’s a shame that she feels so seriously underused.
It is hard to find fault with a film so finely tuned. You could say that it’s 'just another remake'. You could say that some of the fight scenes are too darkly lit to enjoy the tension and action. You could even say that there are moments were the plot drags a little. But, if after twenty minutes you can only come up with three examples, then maybe it really is just a good, old-fashioned family flick. So, if you do yourself the pleasure of watching the film, take note of the book in the closing credits. It’s the same one that opened the 1967 animated film, and which intriguingly never closed it. Here, it finally receives its last hoorah, acknowledging how the story of a young boy who unites the jungle can really transcend time.
Rating: 4 Protective Bagheeras out of 5
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