Notes On A Film: Ant-Man

Ant-Man movie poster

If you are even slightly pop-culture literate, you’ll know that Ant-Man was going to be directed by Edgar Wright, from a script by him and Joe Cornish; it was a project that Wright had been developing for several years, only to leave at almost the last minute due to ‘creative differences’, to be replaced by the less stylistic Peyton Reed, and with a script polish by star Paul Rudd and Adam McKay (who has written and directed many funny films with Will Ferrell). The question of ‘What if Edgar Wright had directed Ant-Man?’ hovers over the film – like a winged ant, perhaps? – but it doesn’t detract from the solidly entertaining product that has been made in his absence (he and Cornish still get a writing credit, suggesting the bulk of the film was based on their original script).

The most impressive aspect of this film is that it demonstrates the ability of the Marvel studio to consistently create entertaining films starring properties from the comic books that jump between genres and provide a satisfying movie. Ant-Man has never been a successful character – despite being one of the original Marvel heroes from the 1960’s Kirby-and-Lee explosion (there’s a nice nod towards Ant-Man’s original book, Tales To Astonish, incorporated into dialogue early on in the film) and one of the original Avengers, Ant-Man never had his own series, and his main attribute (Hank Pym created Ultron) has been passed off to Tony Stark in the MCU (thankfully, the MCU has ignored the other main attribute, the spousal abuse, because that would have been terrible and it’s not something the comic books should continue with). These factors mean that the cinematic Ant-Man has a clean slate, but it also means that there is no (urgh) franchise awareness, beyond that of Marvel studios itself.

The success of this film is that it does what other successful Marvel films have done: take an established film genre and put a superhero twist on it. Captan America: Winter Soldier was a conspiracy thriller; Guardians of the Galaxy was a space opera; Ant-Man is a heist caper. After a brief flashback to 1989, when an airbrushed Michael Douglas (as Hank Pym) quits SHIELD (cameos for Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter and John Slattery as Howard Stark) because of the misappropriation of his Pym particles, the story returns to the present. Scott Lang (Rudd) is released from prison for his burglary (not theft – he didn’t use force) of money from corporations and giving it back to the people the corporations stole from. He can’t get a permanent job because of his prison record, and he needs a regular income so that he can pay alimony to his ex-wife so he can see his daughter Cassie on a regular basis again. Therefore, he turns to his former cellmate, Luis (an hilarious turn from Michael Peña, who steals scenes with his fast-talking shtick, particularly where he’s relating a story and the camera flashes to a montage of the events, with all the other characters in the montages speaking in the same voice-over as Peña provides), who has a tip for a simple breaking and entering job.

Meanwhile, Pym has been invited to his company’s headquarters, where his former protégé, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), announces that he has discovered Pym’s old research and successfully recreated the shrinking formula, which he will sell in the form of a suit, the Yellowjacket, to the highest bidder who wants a tiny army. His daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), still works at the company – despite a rift between her and her father due to the death of her mother (the real story for which isn’t revealed until later in the film), she knows that Pym particles in the hands of a dangerous man will be catastrophic, and is trying to help her father. Hank wants to steal the formula and destroy the Yellowjacket – what he needs is a certain kind of thief …

Promotional image from Ant-Man

What follows is a fun initiation into a crazy world, as Lang steals the suit (because Pym wanted him to), then Pym and Hope train him to fight as the Ant-Man, learn to use the size-changing powers he’ll need, control the ants as his helpers, and discover the hero within by infiltrating the heavily guarded corporate headquarters and stopping Cross. The shrinking scenes might have been more dazzling in the hands of Wright, but Reed does a good job of making them visually entertaining – having the ability to shrink and revert in an instant is a dynamic visual, used for wonder at the small scale and for laughs at the reversion. Rudd is perfect as the everyman trying to do his best for his daughter, with some lines that sound so Rudd-like, you can’t imagine anyone else saying them (it helps being a co-writer). With McKay on board, the film is very funny – I’m sure it was funny in Wright and Cornish’s script, but I think McKay’s time on Saturday Night Live and with Ferrell are responsible for a lot of the big laughs. There is emotional content as well, with the parallels between fathers and daughters.

The casting, another area Marvel excels in, is perfect across the board – Douglas is in fine form as Pym, spouting scientific gobbledegook one minute and one-liners the next, and seems to be having a grand time in the role; Lilly is good as his daughter who can take care of herself; even Abby Ryder Fortson as Cassie is a delight. Stoll is suitably threatening as the use-and-dispose villain (another part of the Marvel approach), but proceedings are softened by Rudd’s grounded charm and Peña’s scene stealing. Add to this the connections to the Marvel universe (a cameo from a new Avenger that I’m guessing wasn’t part of Wright and Cornish’s script), a mention of the Avengers’ destructive antics, the obligatory Stan Lee appearance, a throwaway line about a ‘guy who can climb on walls’, and two scenes after the film has ended, one a coda to the movie (with Hope saying, ‘About damn time’) and the other a teaser for the next Marvel movie, and you have another polished package from the studio that can’t do wrong at the moment. Fun, funny, entertaining, exciting, occasionally dramatic, visually spectacular – when a finale involves a cut between the shrinking world and the real world where the size doesn’t have the impact you think it would, and you laugh out loud at the sight of a massive Thomas the Tank Engine, you know you’ve been Marvelled.

Rating: DAVE

[Explanation of my updated film rating system]

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Notes On A Film – Avengers: Age Of Ultron

Avengers: Age of Ultron

I felt sorry for Joss Whedon, the successful, talented, smart, funny, creatively satisfied man. A little bit. Not only did he have to follow up his own success by writing and directing the sequel to the third largest grossing film so far, but he also had to contend with the myriad of other factors involved in making a blockbuster film with a huge cast with huge stars that is also a lynchpin for the Marvel cinematic universe, the entertainment behemoth that has completely changed the way franchise films operate. And he also has to make a really good film in its own right. That’s a lot of pressure.

I needn’t have worried – Whedon is incredibly gifted, driven, capable man and he has proved it again with Avengers: Age Of Ultron. This is a film that gives everyone in its vast cast some quality moments, provides spectacle and action, finds time for character moments, introduces major new characters to the Avengers roster, and a new villain who is a serious threat (and highly entertaining as well), sets up bits for future Marvel films (a mention for Wakanda, setting up business for the next Thor film, not to mention the Infinity War stuff), and still finds time to be funny and quippy and jokey in that special Whedon fashion. In the words of Scott Kurtz’s PVP strip: Joss Whedon is our master now.

The film starts with a bang, as the Avengers chase down Baron Strucker in Sokovia (a non-specific European nation) to locate the sceptre used by Loki, in a great tracking scene to show the team in action and their abilities in sync, with a lovely slow-mo shot that’s the equivalent of a splash page of the team that made me smile like a loon. This opening section also introduces the superpowered twins, Pietro and Wanda, natives of Sokovia who want to make a difference and who hate Tony Stark and the Avengers – Wanda uses her ability to manipulate minds to affect Tony in the castle, showing him a vision that preys on his fears as a protector of the world. This is what causes him to use the artificial intelligence in the scepter’s gem to complete his Ultron global defense program without telling the rest of the Avengers (apart from Bruce Banner, who has reservations). After a celebration party in the Avengers’ headquarters (which is a great scene, with lots of people and lots of great dialogue and a brilliant scene of the other Avengers trying to lift Mjolnir [the look on Thor’s face when Captain America starts trying to lift it is priceless]), Ultron reveals himself and his desire to bring ‘peace in our time’ by eliminating humanity; he steals the sceptre, he recruits the twins, and steals some vibranium from Ulysses Klaue (a lovely performance from Andy Serkis – one word: ‘cuttlefish’) to upgrade his body before things get worse …

I really loved this film. It had everything I want from a superhero comic-book action movie. It has the interconnectivity of the Marvel universe, with appearances from the Falcon, War Machine, Dr Selvig, Maria Hill, Nick Fury, plus some nice cameos from other characters. It has great action scenes (such as the Hulkbuster versus the Hulk scene) that work within the context of the movie, but it also finds time to dwell on the characters – there’s nice depth for Hawkeye, back story for Black Widow and the development of her relationship with Bruce Banner, and the fleshing out of Pietro and Wanda. There is a good villain with a specific purpose in Ultron, wonderfully voiced by James Spader, who is the demented version of Tony Stark. (Ultron wasn’t what I expected – a different voice style, a different mentality – but it was all the better for it.) And the film is really funny – Whedon fills it with great quips, in the great tradition of comic books, but which work in the context of a film.

Whedon has a done a marvellous (pardon the pun) job – he handles the huge cast with a deftness and lightness of touch that belies how tough it is. He uses misdirection to surprise us, he uses emotion to power the story and the characters (when Hawkeye tells someone, ‘If you go outside, you’re an Avenger’, it brought a lump to my throat), he understands and communicates his understanding of the essence of what it means to be an Avenger, and the use of Mjolnir to prove worthiness is a brilliant moment. If I have to mention something to partially negate all this praise, I found the visualisation of the Vision a little strange – the comic-book version I’m used to has very smooth facial features, more synthetic and less human, whereas this is obviously the wonderful Paul Bethany with some things on his face. I guess I’ll get used to it the more I watch it (and I will be rewatching it plenty), but it seemed less genuine than the rest of the other Avengers.

There’s been a lot of bemoaning the overload of superhero comic book movies and the large slate of films with dates announced well in advance. But, seriously, if action-blockbuster comic-book movies are going to be of this quality, this entertaining, this fun, this enjoyable – where’s the problem?

Rating: DAVE

[Explanation of my updated film rating system]

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Notes On A Film: Guardians Of The Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy promotional image

[Note to self: moving house, filling it with flat-pack furniture and getting kittens really get in the way of blogging. Apologies for tardiness.]

I don’t know if it was because of the cinema I was in (my first visit to Peckhamplex, the independent multiplex located in Peckham, obviously) or it was the film itself, but Guardians Of The Galaxy was the first film I’ve watched in a cinema in a long while where people spontaneously applauded at the end. I think that’s a pretty good indicator of how enjoyable Guardians Of The Galaxy is, how crowd-pleasing it is, how entertaining it is. It’s the most fun you will have in the cinema this year.

After an Earth-set prologue that shows Peter Quill being abducted by an alien spaceship on the day his mother dies in hospital, the film jumps ahead 26 years later to an adult Quill (Chris Pratt), calling himself ‘Star-Lord’, on an abandoned alien planet snatching an orb from a temple ruin (while dancing to Awesome Mix Tape on his miraculously working Walkman). And the film never stops from then on, throwing you into the middle of events with just enough information so that you know what’s going on but without labouring the point. (Compare this with The Avengers, which had four films to introduce the group, and people knew who the major characters were beforehand – only a small band of comic book readers knew this team introduced back in 2006 in Marvel comics. Director and co-writer James Gunn packs the film with story, characters, different worlds, jokes, action and fun.)

We are introduced to our other protagonists: Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the adopted daughter of Thanos, who was raised as an assassin after Thanos killed her world; Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a genetically modified, cybernetically enhanced raccoon; Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), a sentient tree with a limited vocabulary; and Drax (Dave Bautista), a hyper-muscled green man with red markings who doesn’t understand metaphors. After meeting in and escaping from prison, they try to sell the orb to the Collector (Benicio Del Toro), but they discover its true nature and things go even more wrong, when Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) and another adopted daughter of Thanos, Nebula (Karen Gillan), turn up to get the orb for world-destroying reasons.

The main selling point in this film is fun: it is goofy, crazy, offbeat, outrageous (the joke about black light and Jackson Pollock) but with a warmth that captivates. The film channels a lot of films (Star Wars [particularly the cross-cutting between the focal points of the climactic action scenes], Serenity, Star Trek) and has a B-movie charm that harkens back to films from 30 years ago, but it still exists in its own universe that you want to visit again and again (the news of the sequel before the film arrived in cinemas seemed overconfident, but it’s heart-warming to know that there is more on the way – ‘The Guardians of the Galaxy will return’ was a welcome sight, just before the joyous CGI dance to I Want You Back by the Jackson 5 leaves you smiling from ear to ear).

Pratt is great as Quill, charismatic, comedic, swaggering but also moving; Saldana is solid as usual, Cooper gets all the sass as the sarcastic and aggressive racoon, Diesel manages his best performance with a range in intonation for his catchphrase, and even former wrestler Bautista doesn’t embarrass himself. What’s strange is the heavyweight bit-players: Oscar winner Del Toro is barely in it; Oscar-nominated Glenn Close as Nova Prime has very few lines; Oscar-nominated John C Reilly has a few more scenes; Oscar-nominated Djimon Hounsou is barely noticeable as Korath, top henchman to Ronan. How did Gunn get these people into a sci-fi comic book adventure with no pedigree? Ronan is a fairly one-note villain but it’s difficult to have great villains all the time; I thought Gillan was very good as Nebula and she should have had more screen time, if only to justify shaving her hair off for the part.

A few in-jokes (the Dark Elf in the Collector’s collection, the space dog, the post-credit sting), a brilliant soundtrack, great banter, some moments of sublime beauty (Groot releasing the luminous pollen), using a reference to ‘hero’ Kevin Bacon – Guardians Of The Galaxy will knock your socks off with its charm. There is some cheesiness to the comic book nature of the ending but you won’t care because the film will have totally endeared you that you go with it. The film takes itself seriously but also knows when to mock itself. It’s got lots of little things that could niggle (the Walkman is a technical impossibility, the joke about metaphor-missing Drax is ignored later on, the silliness of the Nova Corps defensive net) but you completely let it go because you will be enjoying it too much to care. Guardians Of The Galaxy shows that Marvel can make a comic book sci-fi action comedy film with unknown characters into a genuinely great blockbuster.

Rating: DAVE

[Explanation of my updated film rating system]

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Notes On A Film – X-Men: Days Of Future Past

(I saw this film on opening weekend, so this is very late but real life has intruded: we are in the process of trying to buy and sell a house, so at least I have a decent excuse.)

I still feel I have to pinch myself sometimes – I’ve been a comic book fan for a while now, but despite The Avengers being one of the most profitable films of recent history, I find it incredible that we’ve got really good films being made that are based on superhero comic books from my youth. Case in point: this film uses two issues of The Uncanny X-Men from 1981 (written by Chris Claremont and drawn by John Byrne, it’s one of those times that ‘classic’ actually applies) as the basis for an exciting, thrilling, emotional sci-fi action film that is as satisfying as the best blockbusters out there (with three Academy Award winners and four nominees in the cast). What a world we live in …

I didn’t read the storyline back then; it took me a while to get my hands on it: I was expecting it to be reprinted in Classic X-Men (which was reproducing the stories from Giant-Size X-Men #1 onwards, in addition to new material written by Chris Claremont and illustrated by John Bolton), only for the series to jump issues #141 and #142 and continue as if Days Of Future Past hadn’t happened. I finally picked up a reprint that collected the two issues, and was able to read the story that has defined and influenced almost the entirety of the X-Men line of comic books ever since. I never thought it would be turned into a film. Shows you what I know …

The film uses the central idea of the books: the future is bleak for mutants, kept in concentration camps guarded by Sentinels, so the X-Men decide to go back to the past and stop the inciting incident that would lead to this ‘darkest timeline’. Instead of the assassination of Senator Robert Kelly (well, he’d already been used in The X-Men), the film comes up with the murder of Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), creator of the Sentinels, by Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) in 1973, which led to the full-scale development of the Sentinel programme. Instead of Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) swapping her psyche with her younger self, the film uses Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) – this makes sense on a star level, because Jackman is the bigger (biggest?) name and doesn’t have to be played by another actor in the different time period, but also on a story level with the explanation that Logan’s healing ability is the only way to survive the process.

The future part is set up well: the bleak concentration camps, the looming Sentinels, some future X-Men (Pryde, Iceman, Warpath, Blink, Sunspot, Colossus) being killed by Sentinels before discovering Pryde has worked out how to phase her consciousness a few days back in the past and warn her group. They meet up with Prof. Xavier (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Ian McKellen), Storm (Halle Berry) and Wolverine to explain this; this leads to the plan to send Wolverine’s consciousness to the distant past, enlist the aid of the younger Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to prevent Mystique from accomplishing her mission. (I’ve read some reviewers write that the film’s plot is too complicated – how complicated is that? If you can’t understand something as simple as that, you shouldn’t be reviewing films in the national press.)

Obviously, things aren’t straightforward: Xavier, after the events of X-Men: First Class, is drinking heavily and using a serum created by Beast (Nicholas Hoult) that allows him to walk but removes his telepathy; Magneto is in a non-metallic prison cell beneath the Pentagon for his alleged role in the assassination of President Kennedy; and Wolverine is not the best diplomat. Wolverine must convince Xavier and break Magneto out, which will require the help of Peter Maximoff, a mutant super speedster. Then, things get complicated in 1973, while the future X-Men have to hold off a Sentinel attack to give Wolverine in 1973 enough time to succeed and eradicate the dystopian future …

I really enjoyed this film – it’s a welcome return to the quality levels set by X-Men 2, after the disappointments of the third X-Men film (about which we do not speak), the two Wolverine films and X-Men: First Class. It’s also a really good adaptation of the source material, capturing the essence of the tale while standing on its own as a film. This is particularly difficult to do because it has to bring together two sets of X-Men and contend with the hideous mess that is the X-Men movie chronology. Not only does the film succeed, but it also effectively solves the Gordian knot that is the movie timeline with an Alexandrian slice so that the films you didn’t like now don’t exist. Admittedly, it has to sidestep important plot points – Why is Xavier still alive? Where did Kitty Pryde’s time travel powers come from? – in order to get the ball rolling, but it’s easy to forgive when it’s all so enjoyable.

The film achieves this with some excellent action pieces, particularly the Quicksilver set-piece during the Magneto breakout – you can ignore the fact that he’s listening to his anachronistic Walkman while running at superspeed and therefore can’t hear anything because it’s such an exhilarating display of his powers, done with wit and pizzazz and a fantastic visual flair. Of course, it means that they have to remove Quicksilver from the story immediately after or he’d be able to solve all problems in the rest of the movie, but the humour (a perfectly judged clip from the original series Star Trek about time travel) and characterisation cover this up (even if they did the same joke as in Shanghai Noon, having someone say the James Brown lyric ‘I don’t know karate. But I know crazy’).

The action is good but it’s not all action – there is a lot of talk in the middle section – but that’s because the filmmakers remember that it’s about the characters first, and that the action defines the characters when it does come. Singer has created a film that has clarity, levity, energy, and understanding of the characters and the concept – it’s not just about what’s cool (although there is lots of cool stuff in it), it’s about making things work in the dynamics of a story with people who are engaging. Some people get to engage more than others – Stewart, McKellen, Berry, Page effectively have extended cameos (talking of which, a big geek smile jumped to my face when Chris Claremont and Len Wein briefly turned up as congressmen) – and the film is mainly about the young Xavier and Magneto, with some emphasis on Lawrence’s Mystique, so it’s mostly McAvoy and Fassbender who get the focus, but they’re both great actors so that’s not too much of a problem. McAvoy is good as a good man trying not to care; Fassbender excels as an imperious Magneto; Jackman is extremely comfortable as Logan, holding it all together. Dinklage isn’t given enough to do, which is a shame, but at least he got some scenes in the film.

The film works nicely as finale – there is closure and some happiness for mutants, something you don’t expect if you’ve spent a long time reading comic books, even though you know that this can never be the end for the franchise. I loved the coda, with unexpected cameos, in much the same way that I loved the ending given to the character of Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Rises – it indicated a genuine love for the X-Men and the characters in the team. As a long-time X-Men fan, I walked out of the cinema a very happy man.

Rating: DAVE

[Explanation of my updated film rating system]

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Notes On A Film – Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Let’s start with the summary – Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the best second film of the Marvel studio films so far. It is better than Iron Man 2, obviously, and even better than Thor: Dark World. It manages the trick of bringing out what worked well in the comic books (in this case, the modern espionage/conspiracy style of the recent Ed Brubaker/Steve Epting run) with what works best in film, namely massive action mixed with good acting and snappy dialogue.

The story is a good, modern-day conspiracy thriller, contrasting the post-Snowden whistleblowing world of the NSA spying on us with the 1940s mind-set of Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), who believes in a world of freedom and purer reasons for fighting. The thrust of the narrative is based on Operation: Insight – SHIELD has three helicarriers that will have the ability to target terrorists before they do anything and eliminate them. Rogers, who works for SHIELD, is not happy, as would be expected, questioning Fury’s decisions; when Fury discovers something that unnerves him and asks for a delay in the operation, his life is targeted by a group pretending to be police and a certain bionic-armed masked villain of the subtitle. When top SHIELD official, friend of Fury and member of the World Security Council, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), confronts Rogers about meeting Fury and Rogers doesn’t comply, Pierce orders SHIELD to take him down. Rogers becomes a fugitive with the Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson), and turns to recently befriended Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) for help, a vet now offering counselling to combatants with post-traumatic stress disorder but who is a former paratrooper with more to offer – and together they discover a huge conspiracy at the heart of SHIELD …

One of the great things that this film does is showing Captain America as a badass. The fight scenes are really good with great choreography that display his unique fighting style (at the end, the film thanks Kieron Dwyer, which I thought was nice because I always thought he did a great job of drawing Cap’s style of fighting) and which were something new and dynamic – the infusion of Eastern cinema has forced Hollywood to up its game and do something different, and it shows here.

The action in general is great – there are great set pieces all along: the film starts with Cap, the Widow and SHIELD agents rescuing a SHIELD ship that has been taken by pirates (led by Batroc, who still uses savate and manages to look great); there is the murder attempt on Fury; the chase of our three heroes by the Winter Soldier and colleagues; the helicarrier action hinted at in the trailer. The film is over two hours long but it never drags and is an impressive action blockbuster debut from Anthony and Joe Russo, two directors better known for their creative input on Arrested Development and Community. Also because of the Russo brothers, the film is funny – there is sharp banter between Cap and Widow and Falcon (with Mackie getting the lion’s share) and snappy lines.

(A nice shout-out for Community fans: Danny Pudi has a cameo, as does Aaron Himelstein, who played the debate guy from City College.)

The film manages well with the characters in general. The Falcon worked really well, making a slightly goofy-looking character in the comic books look good and a nice updating of the character’s story; Mackie is really good, interacting well with Evans, and it’s great to see the first African American superhero finally on the screens. Black Widow continues work well in the Marvel cinematic universe and Johannson does a great job, mixing sass with vulnerability and action (the film also offers other strong female characters in Maria Hill and Agent 13, so that’s another plus for the film). Evans also does well with Rogers in what is a tough role as the boy scout of the Marvel books.

As a Marvel fan, I loved the references: Stephen Strange is name-checked, which was great; they made Batroc cool; one of the villainous characters is Brock Rumlow, who is Crossbones in the comic books; a well-played Stan Lee cameo; the way the story used elements from Secret War (by Bendis/Dell’Otto), the start of Secret Warriors and the Winter Soldier storyline (although not a Russian agent in the film, because we like the Russians now, but at least they still included a connection to the Black Widow); a lovely mid-credit teaser for Avengers: Age Of Ultron, and a coda scene that comes straight from the Brubaker/Epting comic book.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a very entertaining piece of Marvel superhero action with interesting characters, an interesting plot and great action. Although the final third is less complex and has to have a small band of heroes destroy a massive conspiracy in an action scene, it still does it with skill and verve. The writers and directors have signed on for the third film, which would presumably have Cap and the Falcon hunting the Winter Soldier (that’s not really a spoiler, is it?), but the end of the film also has ramifications for the Marvel cinematic universe and Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, and I can’t wait to see more.

Rating: DAVE

[Explanation of my updated film rating system]

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Notes On A Film – Thor: The Dark World

Do comic book sequels suffer from the problem that the origin story for superheroes is always the most interesting? This is the not necessarily unwanted problem that Marvel Studios now have, after the success of developing the films leading up to The Avengers and beyond. Iron Man 3 tried to close the circle for Tony Stark, but what to do with Thor 2?

First, the prologue exposition dump – the Dark Elves of Svartalfheim, led by Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), trying to destroy the universe during a convergence of the Nine Realms long ago using the power of the Aether, stopped by Odin’s father Bor and the armies of Asgard, and believed to have been all killed but actually sacrificed by Malekith so that he can wait in a suspended animation with the small remaining number until such time that they can do it all again. Meanwhile, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is imprisoned in Asgard for his crimes in The Avengers, still oozing charisma as Anthony Hopkins barks at him (and everyone else) as Odin.

The film sees Thor (Chris Hemsworth, still good as Thor – sincere in an otherwise ludicrous character, playing the honesty of the character with dignity although allowing humour to come through) after the events of The Avengers, returning order to the Nine Realms with the help of the armies of Asgard and a very big hammer. He’s more mature and pines for Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who is trying to forget Thor by going on a date with Chris O’Dowd in the Oxo Tower but not doing a good job, and Thor only goes to see her in person when she gets into trouble by accidentally becoming the physical host for the MacGuffin, I’m sorry, I mean the Aether, which reawakens Malekith and his quest to destroy the universe. This leads to Thor bringing Jane back to Asgard, which leads to Malekith attacking Asgard, and then to Thor having to turn to Loki to help him save the universe …

The final act is set in London’s Greenwich, which looks good on screen, but I was happiest that it was set in a grey London – no attempt to pretty things up with sunshine, which would have been the most fantastical element of the film. It also allows for the best gag in the film, when Thor is deposited on the platform on the Jubilee line of Charing Cross and has to ask someone if he can get to Greenwich from there (London pedant alert: Charing Cross is no longer on the Jubilee line and it certainly wouldn’t be ‘three stops’ to get to Greenwich from there). The humour punctuates the third act quite unexpectedly – the subtitle of ‘The Dark World’ is quite apt with all the death and grimness in the first half of the film – but there are some much needed laughs, such as Stan Lee’s cameo and the antics of Stellan Skarsgard’s Erik Selvig (although there’s a great laugh from an unexpected cameo earlier in the film). This is an unusual approach considering that Thor is fighting to save the Nine Realms, but it works well and demonstrates the successful balancing act the film achieves.

For the most part, this is an enjoyable piece of blockbuster spectacle, mixing sci-fi and fantasy trappings to create an entertaining superhero film. It certainly looks impressive (well, it did in 2D – do I even have to mention that I watch these films in 2D any more?) – the epic quality of the battle in the prologue, the earthiness of the early fight on one of the Nine Realms, the grandeur of Asgard, the spectacle of the Dark Elves’ assault on Odin’s palace, the beauty of the funeral after the attack – and it doesn’t hang around, telling the story in less than two hours in an entertaining fashion, and provides humour within the darkness.

However, the film isn’t without flaws. Allegedly, Natalie Portman had to be convinced to come back for the sequel, but she doesn’t get a lot to do to convince her it was worthwhile – she accidentally becomes the host for the Aether, which gets her into the plot, but then she’s mostly damsel in distress until the third act. The treatment and use of women in their films is something that still confounds Marvel. Jaimie Alexander’s Sif is barely in this film, Rene Russo’s Frigga is given much more to do but suffers from other female-related action story problems, and Jane, who is supposed to be an intelligent scientist, is a weak character in this film. It’s still mostly a boy’s story, with the emphasis on the relationship between Thor and Loki, which is admittedly an interesting one (I don’t think anyone’s complaining that they went back and shot additional Loki scenes to increase the entertainment provided by the excellent Hiddleston), although it means that the supporting cast as a whole is playing second fiddle (the Warriors Three are little more than extended cameos in the jailbreak of Loki, although Idris Elba’s Heimdall gets a nice action piece when Malekith attacks Asgard).

The other issue in this film is the memorability of the main villain. The Marvel films have generally been good at making the bad guys interesting: Loki in Thor and The Avengers, the Red Skull in Captain America, the various villains in the Iron Man films (even if I don’t particularly like Mickey Rourke in Iron Man 2). Malekith is not interesting – he’s somebody who wants to end the universe, and that’s as much character as he’s given, which is a shame for someone with Eccleston’s talents; he at least provides good haughtiness and grandeur to an otherwise bland destroyer of worlds.

However, Marvel still does best what nobody else does: creating the shared universe of the comic books in the movie universe and setting up future films. There is a nice set-up for what will presumably be the third Thor film, and there are two credit stings – one mid-credits (which I won’t spoil but will say that the tone and feel of it jarred with the rest of the film – director Alan Taylor wasn’t responsible for it because it is the connection to the Guardians of the Galaxy film and thus directed by its director James Gunn, which makes me wonder how he will achieve that very specific tone that will be needed to make Guardians of the Galaxy work – and will have non-Marvel fans heading to the Google machine) and one right at the very end, to reward those people who stay through the near 10 minutes of credits. I enjoy what Marvel is doing, even if the individual films aren’t all brilliant. Still, Thor: The Dark World is a diverting piece of cinematic superhero entertainment, if not as good as The Avengers or Thor.

Rating: DVD

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Notes On A Film – Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa

The fact that I am writing some notes on an Alan Partridge film is thing of happiness in itself. From starting out on radio in On The Hour, then his own chat show on radio (Knowing Me, Knowing You … With Alan Partridge), then moving to television in The Day Today, then his own chat show (a TV version of his radio show), before two series of his own misery-com, I’m Alan Partridge (before Ricky Gervais became famous with The Office), there was always the possibility of a movie. The long gap between the TV shows and the return on the Fosters-sponsored online show (Mid Morning Matters) made the possibility dimmer; the curse of British TV shows being turned into terrible films also hung in the air to block the dream. The first show to beat that curse, to my mind, was The Thick Of ItIn The Loop was a great film in its own right, and it had an Alan Partridge connection in Armando Iannucci (he’s a co-writer of this film), so there was hope for Alan. Now that we’ve finally got the film, it was worth the wait and managed to retain the essence of Alan on the big screen.

The story is fairly straightforward: the digital radio station in Norwich where Alan (Steve Coogan) works, North Norfolk Digital, has been taken over by a conglomerate, which is rebranding the station as Shape; in doing so, they fire DJ Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney), with Alan ensuring that Farrell is fired instead of Alan in a meeting with the new boss. At the launch party at the station for the rebranding, Farrell returns and holds members of the station hostage; the only person he will communicate with is Alan, who he mistakenly thinks of as his friend. So the scene is set for Alan to be at the centre of a hostage situation that is raising his media profile once more.

The film works because it is still Alan Partridge in all his horrible glory but in a film that deserves to be treated cinematically – it’s a fine balance but it treads it well. The important thing is that it is funny – there would be no point otherwise. In this, Coogan is fantastic: he is fantastic as Partridge, bringing to the screen those hilarious small details (the way he walks towards what he thinks is the disco, the facial expressions he makes when in times of trouble, the exquisite delivery of typical Alan lines) that makes Alan such a horribly funny character. There is no finer example of this than in the opening credit sequence: Alan is driving to work, with the camera focused on him as he mimes along to Roachford’s Cuddly Toy. It’s a masterclass in why Alan is funny, as he mimes with gusto to the song, emoting and swinging along, only stopping during the bridge of the song to shout at the driver in the next lane that they’ve got their fog lamps on. It’s brilliant stuff and sets the tone perfectly.

The film is also filled with great lines, and not just Alan’s brilliantly odd sign-offs from songs (‘You can keep Jesus Christ. That was Neil Diamond… truly the King of the Jews’, ‘That was soft rock cocaine enthusiasts, Fleetwood Mac’), as well as great jokes (not all of them work – the bit with Alan losing his trousers is cheap in comparison with other jokes). It also manages to find space for long-running characters, such as Simon Greenall’s Geordie idiot-loser, Michael, and Felicity Montagu’s long-suffering PA, Lynn; there’s even room for a call back to Alan’s dream sequences. If there is a slight fault to the film, it’s in the lack of scale due to the direction: Declan Lowey is an accomplished director of great comedy on television, notably Father Ted, and he does great work to bring out the comedy here, but he doesn’t have the full vision to make the film quite big enough on the silver screen. Compare this with the other very funny British comedy of the summer, The World’s End, which is similarly set in small British locations but, with Edgar Wright directing, has a huge visual scale that justifies the need for film. It’s only a minor complaint, because the film is consistently laugh-out-loud funny the entire way through – it’s a lean 90 minutes of great comedy mixed with action, which doesn’t fall into the trap of sending the character on holiday to turn it into a film, and is a cinematic demonstration worthy of Coogan’s comedy skills.

Rating: DAVE

[Explanation of my updated film rating system]

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Notes On A Film: The Wolverine

I’m beginning to worry that I keep coming across as a grumpy old fan when reviewing geek-related movies, because lately I seem to be unsatisfied with the results of loose adaptations of existing work, particularly comic books. The Wolverine is very loosely adapted from the mini-series Wolverine, by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller, and it is a mostly enjoyable piece of cinematic entertainment until the disappointing climax of the film, which leaves you with a feeling of discontentment after all the hard work. If it weren’t for the credits teaser scene (20th Century Fox steal the idea from Marvel Entertainment of lining up the next movie at the end of the previous one), you’d leave the cinema slightly disgruntled.
 
The Wolverine (which I saw in 2D, as it was filmed, and not in the 3D conversion, which I avoided) works well when it is doing two things with the central character: keeping him street level, and basing the action in Japan. It does this for most of the running time, which is why the finale feels so disjointed, when it ignores the gritty tone of the majority of the film and goes for CGI and a lame female villain in an ill-fitting and unnecessary green cat suit. It starts out with Logan (Hugh Jackman, who feels very comfortable in the role after so many outings, and displaying the packed muscle of the character that I envisage when I read the books, instead of the super-ripped and super-pumped version of the misfire of Wolverine: Origins) saving a Japanese officer who freed him from his solitary confinement in a POW camp at Nagasaki as the atomic bomb is dropped – it’s a bold opener, but done well. After this flashback, we find Logan in the Canadian mountains, all long hair and beard, who is haunted by visions of Jean Grey after he had to kill her at the end of X-Men: Last Stand. He is avoiding humanity and has vowed not to kill again, but he is dragged back to civilisation due to the incompetency of a thoughtless hunter against a grizzly bear. He is stopped from killing by Yukio, who works for Yashida, the man Logan saved in Nagasaki – Yashida is dying and wants to see Logan one more time, in Japan.
 
In Japan, Logan is taken to the ancestral home and sees that Yashida became a very successful businessman since Logan saved him, although it is now being run by his son, Shingen. Logan meets Yashida senior when he is with his grand-daughter, Mariko, stirring a connection within him – he stops her from jumping off a cliff after she has an argument with her father. Yashida is desperately trying to stay alive, introducing Logan to the doctor keeping him alive (Svetlana Khodchenkova), and offers Logan a bargain: Yashida can take Logan’s healing factor from him so that Logan can die after a normal and full life and Yashida can stay alive. Logan refuses because he thinks that nobody should have his curse; when he dreams that night, Jean Grey morphs into the form of the doctor, who may or may not have done something to Logan. When he wakes from the dream, he hears commotion outside: Yashida has died.
 
The funeral the next day sees the development of the plot and the best action sequence of the film: Yakuza disguised as monks at the temple try to kidnap Mariko and Logan goes to the rescue, only to discover that his healing factor is not working and the wounds aren’t healing. Director James Mangold isn’t the greatest director of action (if you’ve seen the lamentable Knight And Day, which is also directed, then you have my sympathy), but he does a fair job of putting Logan in the middle of Tokyo with a horde of Yakuza to fight, and Yukio and Mariko demonstrate that they are more than capable of looking after themselves. Also joining the battle is Kenuichio Harada, the head of the Black Clan, the ninjas who look after the Yashida clan, who is adept with a bow and arrow.
 
[Comic book geekiness alert: in the comic books, Harada is the Silver Samurai, who is a mutant with the ability to focus his chi into his sword, and was the half-brother of Mariko; here he is the head ninja with no powers and was a former beau of Mariko. It’s nice to have nods to the comic books – the connection with Viper, the doctor looking after Yashida, references the original stories that had the Silver Samurai and the Viper as allies – but it seems to miss the point if they are going to create new characters with different powers and characterisation. Couldn’t they just create new characters?]
 
Logan and Mariko escape on the bullet train (there is a silly action set piece on the moving train) and end up hiding in a love hotel (which is amusing, and I really want to go to the Martian Explorer suite they use in the film) before hiding out in Nagasaki and becoming closer … It’s a strange mix of the established Wolverine lore and the creation of the same lore in the films: Wolverine had a connection with Japan when he first met Mariko, having been there before and able to read and speak Japanese, which helped to develop the theme of Logan being a ronin, a masterless samurai, with ideas of honour and duty and being a better man; here, he has no connection with Japan, no concept of the notions which are foisted on him about being a masterless samurai, and thus misses the point of why Wolverine and Japan are such a good combination.
 
The inability to grasp the reasons behind Logan’s connection to Japan means that the film-makers aren’t able to make the best out of the source material. For example, why does Yukio have an ability to see the future? There is no reason for it, there is no plot function behind it, it doesn’t develop her as a character (she is also different from the comic book character, although she is equally bad-ass) and seems vestigial in the film. Why is Viper like a non-plant version of Poison Ivy, with her ability to generate toxins that are poisonous to others but not herself? Does the plot require her character to be like that, instead of being a human being with brains to create toxins and antidotes? Why does she suddenly develop, at the end of the film, the urge to wear an ill-fitting green cat suit when she’s in villain mode, other than the fact that the film-makers think that the bad guy should be in a special suit? This is particularly egregious when it contradicts the essence of the film (and the bits that work the best): taking Wolverine away from the superhero stuff and making it street level. He doesn’t put on a costume (unless you call the black suit, black shirt and black tie he wears for the funeral a costume, and he does look very cool in it), he is vulnerable to pain, he is fighting Yakuza on the street, yet they bring it back to supervillains in costumes. They even tease a big fight with lots of ninjas in the grounds of what becomes the villain’s lair, only for it to peter out and end up with Logan being captured – that’s not what we want when Logan meets a horde of ninja.
 
It’s a shame that the film turns boringly formulaic and feels the need to have a super-powered adversary for Logan at the end, which steals the imagery of the Silver Samurai and makes it far too literal and over the top, and turn it into something that doesn’t fit with the rest of the film. There are some nice things to enjoy here, and it’s certainly an improvement over Wolverine: Origins, although that’s not difficult; it’s more evidence that Marvel films that are not under the watchful eye of the brain trust are not making the best of the characters’ silver-screen adventures and don’t deserve the properties they picked up cheap in the 1990s.
 
Rating: DVD
 

[Explanation of my updated film rating system]

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Notes On A Film: The World’s End

I wish I could have seen The World’s End without any prior knowledge, if just for the scene in which the film completely changes direction. It’s a great scene – set in a pub toilet – that is both unexpected and hilarious, but that giddy feeling that rippled through me would have been magnified exponentially if I didn’t know what the film’s twist was. Not that I could have seen the film without knowing – the adverts on buses, let alone the trailer, made it blatant what was going on – but a man can dream. Which is part of what this film is actually about – the nostalgic power of ‘What if?’ and potential and expectations versus reality and life. But, I should hasten to add, much funnier than I make it sound.

The World’s End is funny – this is a proper comedy, with jokes, throwbacks, in-jokes, slapstick, smutty phrasing (‘she had a wide-on’), in addition to the great pub brawls and other action that punctuate the films. As in Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz, this is a tightly scripted film that sets up its beats in the early stages (in this film, a prologue voiced by Gary [Simon Pegg] relives the pub crawl of five 18 year olds, film in classic Edgar Wright whip-pan, flash-cut style, and you can see/hear how things will unfold through the film, even down to tiny details), and which also is a film which mixes comedic interaction of characters with another film genre. It is a fitting finale for the ‘Cornetto Trilogy’, and expands on the themes of friendship and responsibility that were a strong part of Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz.

Twenty years after the first attempt to complete the Newton Haven Golden Mile pub crawl, Gary has got the old gang back together to try it again: Nick Frost, Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman and Eddie Marsan, who have all moved on with their lives, with proper jobs far from Newton Haven. Gary thinks that he is a returning hero, but Newton Haven is not what it was – the pubs are typically identikit of a lot of modern British pubs – and there is something else going on that is even more troubling …

I really enjoyed this film – it’s a great feeling to be laughing out loud in a cinema and being entertained (although I think that my girlfriend and I were the only people who were getting all the jokes and references). It’s hilarious and thrilling and occasionally thoughtful, when it is lamenting the ‘Starbucking’ of small towns, or contemplating the concept of nostalgia and the contrast between what we remembered/overemphasised in our memories and change that occurs in us, the people we knew and the places we came from. You could almost see it as an essay on the perhaps guilt of creators whose work has fetishized and references culture from their youth and get to make a living as adults still wallowing in these same things and make-believe, but that could be just me.

The film keeps Pegg and Frost’s relationship as central but changes the dynamic from the previous two films: Pegg was the everyman then the straight man in Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz, respectively, but here he is the one on the edge, unlikable but with all the best jokes; Frost was funny man and buffoon in the previous film, but here he’s a lawyer and recovering alcoholic with unresolved issues with Pegg’s character. As usual, the film manages to squeeze in loads of British faces (David Bradley, Reece Shearsmith, Nicholas Burns, Darren Boyd, Michael Smiley, Bill Nighy, plus cameos from Mark Heap, Julia Deakin, Rafe Spall, and Steve Oram and Alice Lowe from Sightseers), most of whom have appeared in previous Wright/Pegg collaborations; it also manages like Hot Fuzz to include a former Bond in the shape of Pierce Brosnan in a minor role – if the guys make another film together many years down the road, will they get Daniel Craig to appear in it? The film also has a cracking soundtrack, with a host of tunes from 20 years ago to make us nostalgic for those Madchester days (Soup Dragons, Primal Scream, Blur, Pulp, Happy Mondays, The Stone Roses).

If the film has a slight weakness, it’s that it is all about the boys – Rosamund Pike is the main female character but she doesn’t get a lot of screen time – which makes me wonder what a film created by the original Spaced triumvirate of Pegg, Wright and Jessica Hynes would be like. However, this is a very minor quibble from a long-time fan of these people.

This is a very good film. It is a carefully structured piece, very British in its sense of humour, referencing and science fiction, which mixes action with humour and genuinely funny dialogue plus genuine character moments. It also has the courage to take its premise through to its ultimate conclusion, which is surprising and brave, while still having a sense of humour – Pegg shouting ‘Fuck off, you lamp’ as part of the climactic scene is indicative of this. The boys have created a perfect accompaniment to the earlier two films: Wright directs delightfully from his and Pegg’s great script, and I look forward to watching the trilogy over and over again.

Rating: DAVE

[Explanation of my updated film rating system]

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Notes On A Film: Iron Man 3

Some ridiculously belated thoughts on Iron Man 3 (or Iron Man Three, as it was titled on the BBFC certificate at the start of the film), two whole months after watching it (in 2D, because I don’t do 3D unless I have to, and I very rarely have to) because I couldn’t quite coalesce my responses to it (unless you count my tweet on the evening after I saw it). Not that this will necessarily read like a coherent, reasoned assessment of my feelings about a movie (I’m really selling this, aren’t I?), but carefully constructed prose is not the USP of this blog …

SPOILERS

Let’s start positive, otherwise this might sound like a disgruntled fan who hates anything new (which isn’t true because I’ve never been a big fan of Iron Man and don’t care about his archvillains or staying true to the comics). This film is a lot of fun because Shane Black has co-written and directed a Shane Black film that happens to be a big Marvel blockbuster. I was very happy when I heard he was going to be back with Robert Downey Jr because I loved their previous collaboration, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, with which this film shares a lot of DNA. The film starts with Downey Jr narrating in a jumbled, knowing fashion, much like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Similarly, this film is packed with great one-liners and snappy dialogue, mostly Downey Jr spitting out the zingy bon mots in his effortless style, but also in the ‘buddy cop’ section of Stark and Rhodes, or in the off-kilter relationship between Stark and the young kid he befriends. I’m guessing that a lot of this was Black, based on his previous work, but co-writer Drew Pearce must have had an input: the reference to Croydon is hilarious for a British audience, and Ben Kingsley shouting ‘Ole, ole, ole, ole!’ when Liverpool score a goal in the football match he’s watching on TV is one of the most hilarious reactions I’ve seen. I also liked the fact that this film, set after The Avengers, demonstrates the impact on Stark by having him suffer post-traumatic stress disorder from fighting aliens, nearly dying and saving the world; it works really well for the character and places the film within the Marvel universe (which, for the most part, is noticeable by its absence – no SHIELD, no Avengers [apart from the post-credit gag], no set-ups for other films).

However, for the most part, the film feels like a character study on someone who looks and sounds like Tony Stark but doesn’t really feel like him. I know that the emphasis of the film is on the man – separating him from all his armour and tools, and demonstrating the resilience and heroicness – but it does so in a way that counteracts the central idea of Stark’s statement: I’m Iron Man. Ignoring the fact that the entire film doesn’t happen if the small army of Iron Men had done its job at the start of the film when Stark’s home is attacked and defended him, it also ignores plot logic to put Stark in a situation where he has to rely on himself to save the day, but without showing how it is possible. Tony Stark is an engineering genius, who can do things mechanically that separate him from mere mortals; he is not a superhuman with the fighting skills of someone like Captain America, which happens several times in the film. When attacked by people powered by the Extremis virus (who are superpowered, faster than normal and can recover from injury), he is able to do things physically that the character has never displayed before. When he infiltrates the lair of the Mandarin with homemade Tasers, he is able to take down professional bodyguards with fight skills he doesn’t have (practising boxing with Happy Hogan in Iron Man 2 doesn’t count). When he is in the suit, he’s a superhero who can win these fights, but not when he’s out of the suit – that’s the point of the suit.

I enjoyed the general plotting, taking the idea of Extremis from the comics (for which Warren Ellis gets a ‘thank you’ credit, along with other Marvel creators) and fusing it with a character who uses the Mandarin concept (Kingsley is great, both as the Mandarin and as the failed actor who is portraying him for Aldrich Killian, played competently by Guy Pearce) for evil purposes, even if the evil purposes amount to not much more than a James Bond-style villain’s plot. There are some good set pieces, although the final big fight scene is a little messy, with lots of generic Extremis-powered henchmen fighting empty Iron Men suits. It’s just that I wasn’t satisfied with the film as a whole.

The film tries to have its cake and eat it by having more action for Pepper Potts (the Oscar-winning Gwyneth Paltrow, let’s not forget) but at the same time making her the damsel in distress; I liked that she put on the suit (I had hoped she would get the Rescue suit from the comic) and saved Stark, even saving the day at the end of the film in a ‘deus ex machina’ moment because she has been injected with the Extremis virus, but they still had her captured and tortured by the villain so the hero has to come and save her. Rebecca Hall was wasted as Dr Maya Hansen, described as a ‘strong female character’, but whose main job is to be shot by Killian at an appropriate juncture. The worst part for me was the epilogue scene (after Stark has blown up ALL HIS ARMOURS, just to put on a firework display for his girlfriend instead of saving them for the next time there’s an alien invasion), where a magic wand is waved and Pepper is cured of the Extremis virus and Tony Stark has the shrapnel near his heart surgically removed all in the course of a minute, and everything is all right again and there are no problems any more. I felt quite insulted by that flimsy pushing of the reset button to return things to normal, no explanations, no effort, just a voiceover by Downey Jr.

It feels weird that this film has been the most successful of the bunch, but a lot of that is down to Downey Jr’s charm and the knock-on effect of being an unofficial sequel to The Avengers. As I tweeted, I put the overall enjoyability of the films as IM>IM3>>IM2, but it would seem the world disagrees. This film had a lot in it to enjoy, but the reaching for some sort of closure for a trilogy in case Downey Jr didn’t want to do any more Iron Man films rings hollow, and is one of several things that meant I left the cinema with qualms instead of the warm glow of being entertained.

Rating: DVD

[Explanation of my updated film rating system]

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