It's been nearly 30 years since the last live-action Tarzan movie, and yet it still feels too soon for another remake. Thankfully, this is actually a sequel (perhaps it should have been titled Tarzan Returns), and along with a first-rate cast, this movie has a surprisingly beefy script that hints at a much more high-brow adventure epic. But clearly the studio preferred to make a mindless bit of blockbuster action.
After leaving the jungle, Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard) has settled into life in damp 1880s England as the Earl of Greystoke with his American wife Jane (Margot Robbie). Meanwhile, deep in the Congo, Belgian diplomat Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) has made a deal with Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou), who has a personal grudge against Tarzan. Planning to hand over Tarzan in exchange for diamonds, Leon lures Tarzan back to Africa, accompanied by Jane and the American explorer George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), who suspects that the slave trade hasn't ended. On arrival, Leon pounces, and Tarzan must revert to the instincts he learned from the gorillas who raised him, while calling on help from old friends.
The plot is actually quite compelling, sparking lots of whooshing action (including plenty of vine-swinging) while grappling with some bigger themes involving colonialism and racism, plus more personal issues of identity and responsibility. The actors pack their scenes with textures that touch on these ideas, while also providing a spark of wit. With his impossibly sculpted physique, Skarsgard looks rather too gym-fit for the role, but he gives Tarzan a soulfulness that makes him likeable. He also develops some steamy chemistry with Robbie, who shines in her role as a feisty woman happy to return to the village where she was raised. The best scene in the film is when she has dinner with Waltz' sneering villain, gleefully swapping innuendo. And even with the action and gunplay, this is Jackson's deepest role in years.
Continue reading: The Legend Of Tarzan Review
The thing that makes this Disney live-action remake so wonderful is the same thing that might put off some audience members: it's a pure fairy tale. This time, the studio has resisted the snarky, post-modern spin that threatened to turn previous live-action remakes (Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent) into pointless Lord of the Rings-style action epics. Instead, this is a genuinely beautiful, surgingly romantic, exquisitely made fantasy.
With only a few minor tweaks, this is the classic story of Ella (Lily James), whose widowed father (Ben Chaplin) marries Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett). She arrives with her two spoiled daughters Drizella and Anastasia (Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger), and when she is also widowed, Ella ends up running the household just to keep things from falling apart. But Lady Tremaine and her daughters taunt her with the nickname "Cinderella" and treat her like a slave, refusing to let her attend the ball thrown by the Crown Prince (Richard Madden). He had met Ella before, and is hoping to see her at the ball, but she only gets a chance to go when her fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) turns up with some magic to make that happen. And after dancing with the Prince all night, her sudden disappearance sends him on a desperate quest involving a single glass slipper.
To spice things up, screenwriter Chris Weitz has included a conspiratorial sideplot in which the increasingly wicked stepmother plots with a royal advisor (Stellan Skarsgard) to thwart the Prince's wishes. But otherwise, the film hews closely to both Charles Perrault's 1697 folktale and Disney's 1950 animated classic. This includes lavish sets and costumes that continually take the breath away, giving the characters the same silhouettes as their cartoon counterparts. And within this extravagant design work, the actors are able to create surprisingly textured characters. James' Ella isn't a simple farm girl in need of a man. Madden's Prince is looking for real love. And Blanchett's riveting Lady Tremaine is eerily sympathetic even in her darkest moments.
Continue reading: Cinderella Review
While this comedy-drama is sometimes wilfully absurd, it's also exhilarating cinema, telling its story with conflicting amounts of warm emotion and prickly abrasiveness. Irish filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson (What Richard Did) is known for keeping his audience on its toes, shifting moods and navigating sharp plot turns. And while it takes a while to get into the rhythms of this movie, it ultimately wins us over entirely.
Loosely based on the true story of English musician Chris Sievey (aka Frank Sidebottom), the film centres on the art-punk band Soronprfbs, which is fronted by Frank (Michael Fassbender), who wears a gigantic papier-mache head both on and off stage. While touring in Britain, he recruits the nerdy aspiring musician Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) to join the band for a gig in Ireland and then stick around to write and record the next album. This means that Jon must figure out how to relate to the bandmates, all of whom seem to have serious issues. Frank's girlfriend is the freaky noisemaker Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and there's also hapless manager Don (Scoot McNairy) and opinionated but aloof musicians Baraque and Nana (Francois Civil and Carla Azar).
Abrahamson lets the film play out in the same utterly bonkers style as Soronprfbs' chaotic songs: veering from subtle harmony to soaring emotion to pure chaos. And through it all there's a remarkably resonant centre as we take this journey alongside Jon, who is played by Gleeson like the obnoxious little brother we can't help but love. Meanwhile, Fassbender delivers a remarkably soulful performance from within that big head, using his voice and body to add layers of intriguing depth. And Gyllenhaal continually surprises by undermining her intensely scary character with unexpected expressions of raw feeling.
Continue reading: Frank Review
There's nothing very original in this spy thriller, but director Branagh gives the film a weighty sense of importance that at least makes it feel important. He can't make up for the flimsy plot or cliched characters, but he can coax shaded performances from the cast to grab our interest. And while the action is never as coherent as a Bourne movie, it at least has a sense of gravitas about it.
For yet another reboot of the Tom Clancy franchise, we go back earlier to follow Jack Ryan (Pine) as he is inspired by the 9/11 attacks to leave his financial studies and join the Marines. Shot down over Afghanistan, he undergoes a gruelling recovery and is recruited by CIA operative Harper (Costner) to work undercover on Wall Street, monitoring terrorist fund movements. A decade later his girlfriend Catherine (Knightley) has no idea what his real job is, so when she surprises him on a business trip to Moscow she ends up in the middle of an operation to investigate shady Russian businessman Cherevin (Branagh), who's behind some sort of imminent global attack.
The film's brisk pace focusses on Jack's motivations all the way through, so we understand his earnest desire to serve his country. Although we can't quite figure out how he developed all these he-man skills working behind a desk in a bank. Not only is he adept at firearms and hand-to-hand combat, but he can ride a motorcycle like a stuntman! Fortunately, Pine's everyman persona makes him easy to identify with and bodes well for future franchise instalments. Opposite him, Costner is marvellously lean and cool, Branagh has terrific lip-less menace and Knightley does her best in the standard underdeveloped female role.
Continue reading: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit Review
It's gotten to the point where the quality of the films don't really matter: Now I feel like I'm committed to the whole Harry Potter series. I've reviewed the first five now, so by golly, I'm going to stick it out and finish the lot... even though I still can't bring myself to read any of the books. As always, consider yourself warned that I don't know the intricate backstory developed over thousands of pages in J.K. Rowling's writing. And really, I'm happy to keep it that way.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix continues in the tradition of following another year at the Hogwarts School of Wizardry, where Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) has faced nothing but grueling struggle after grueling struggle. His most recent year (Goblet of Fire) saw a friend get killed by his nemesis, the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), who's gaining more power every day and giving Harry severe nightmares. With few exceptions, his friends have largely abandoned him, and the new term comes with even more headaches in the form of Dolores Umbridge (the perfect Imelda Staunton), sent from the Ministry of Magic to teach the defense from the dark arts class and eventually taking over the school as an iron-fisted, fun-crushing bureaucrat.
After much pottering about (ha ha!), the film finally finds its groove as Umbridge goes too far, refusing to teach magic in the classroom, instead preferring to rely on theoretical knowledge so the students can pass their year-end standardized tests. With Voldemort approaching (this guy is always just around the corner), Harry becomes more nervous that he will be unable to defend himself, finally recruiting a handful of students to his cause to teach them what he knows about magical combat. Together they prepare for the day when they know they'll have to use those skills. (In case you haven't seen any of the first four movies, rest assured it isn't far off: This end-of-movie showdown between Harry and the forces of evil has almost become a cliché that pans out every single time.)
Continue reading: Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix Review
The story's been around for 400 years. Othello (Lawrence Fishburne) is a Moorish general in the Italian army, and he is the victim of constant prejudice. Desdemona (Irene Jacob) is his Italian lover, and when the pair secretly marry, Othello finds himself the victim of a fiendish plot by his servant Iago (Kenneth Branagh). Iago's motives are also magnified by the presence of young Cassio (Nathaniel Parker), who serves as Othello's right-hand man despite Iago's longer term of service.
Continue reading: Othello Review
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