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52. Thor: Ragnarok – This Just In (#179)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, This Just In is a subset of The 250 podcast, looking at notable new arrivals on the list of the 250 best movies of all-time, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, Taiki Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok.

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Non-Review Review: Doctor Strange

Some Marvel films succeed by pushing against the house style to provide a clear and unique artistic sensibility, like Iron Man III and Guardians of the Galaxy, films that are undeniably informed by the stylistic sensibilities of their directors as much (if not more than) the concerns of the shared universe. Those films are never distinctive enough to compare to the work done by Tim Burton or Christopher Nolan, but they stand out from the rest of the Marvel production slate for their willingness to tell a different story in a different style.

Some Marvel films suffer from their adherence to the production company’s house style. Just about anything interesting was smothered out of Thor: The Dark World, which frequently seemed to have been written and edited by a computer algorithm designed to amplify the well-received elements of the first film and graft them on to a familiar structure. Even some of the relatively strong films on the slate are not immune, with Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War unable to follow their bolder ideas to conclusion.

It's a kind of magic...

It’s a kind of magic…

However, there are also films that succeed through their understanding of the studio’s house style and sensibilities, working firmly within the structures and boundaries of what might be termed “the Marvel Cinematic Method.” These films do not just acknowledge the expectations imposed upon these blockbusters, they play towards them. In doing so, they embrace the stability and consistency that such a tried-and-tested approach affords, affording the production team the opportunity to craft enjoyable adventures starring likable actors doing fun things.

The original Thor is perhaps the best example of this approach. Often underrated and overlooked in assessments of Marvel’s cinematic output, Thor ranks among the very best of the company’s feature film slate by virtue of its willingness to embrace the stock superhero story at the heart of the script and focus upon making its cast likeable and its plot moving. There is a solid argument to be made that Thor is the purest solo superhero movie produced in quite some time, dating back to Richard Donner’s Superman. No irony or deconstruction in sight. Just simplicity.

Hair today...

Hair today…

Doctor Strange wisely opts for a similar approach. There are very few surprises to be found in the plotting and structuring of the film. The movie unfolds almost exactly as the audience expects. All the pieces are there, and they are assembled with the reliability of the very expensive watch that the title character chooses to carry around as a memento. The arrogant lead character humbled by tragedy. The nihilistic opponent who embraces the end of all things. The romantic co-lead. The stoic supporting character immune to our hero’s charm. The fallen mentor.

Doctor Strange is not particularly interested in subverting or twisting these stock elements. Instead, it focuses on honing them to a fine point, executing them with the help of a spectacular cast and a knowing grin. More than that, the relative simplicity of the plot framework allows director Scott Derrickson to hang some really impressive choreography and set pieces. The Marvel films have been (fairly) criticised for a certain textural “sameness”, and so the visual and aural stylings of Doctor Strange come as a breath of fresh air.

Strange fascination.

Strange fascination.

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Non-Review Review: Zootropolis (aka Zootopia)

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2016.

Zootropolis is a solidly entertaining family film that strains under the weight of its core premise.

There is a great idea in here, a detective film set in an anthropomorphised world featuring a rabbit and fox who must team up to solve a number of mysterious disappearances. Along the way, writers Jared Bush and Phil Johnston fashion the story into an allegory rich with social commentary about race and class issues in American cities. It helps that the script is light on its feet and packed with enough fast gags that it breezes along without ever getting stuck in the same place for too long.

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However, this becomes a problem in and of itself. There is a sense that Zootropolis struggles to do too much in the space afforded to it. The plot covers quite a lot of ground as our plucky heroes embark on their investigation, including extended (and overt) riffs on pop culture standards like The Godfather and Breaking Bad. There are points at which it feels like Zootropolis might be a much stronger film if it slowed down a bit, instead of hopping from one set-up to the next in the style of its rabbit protagonist.

Zootropolis largely works, but it never comes together in the way that the best Disney outings do. There are points at which Zootropolis feels more like a turducken than a chimera.

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Non-Review Review: The Good Dinosaur

It may have been too much to hope for two classic Pixar films in the space of a single calendar year.

The Good Dinosaur is generally quite solid, but it lacks the sense of narrative craft and emotional weight that marks the very best of Pixar’s output. As with Brave before it, there is a sense that The Good Dinosaur would have made for a fairly middling entry in the larger Disney canon. In terms of ranking the studio’s output, “the good Dinosaur” is perhaps a fairly apt label for the project. It is light-hearted and fun, but lacking any distinct sense of substance and identity.

Bad human! Bad!

Bad human! Bad!

The best thing about The Good Dinosaur is its core concept. At the heart of the story is a rather ingenious narrative hook. What if the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs… missed? What if that hunk of rock that came hurdling through space had come in at an angle just a couple of degrees off course? What if it were simply a shooting star passing through the sky one night rather than a full stop marking the end of the Cretaceous period or the Mesozoic era? That is a wonderful jumping-off point for an adventure, and The Good Dinosaur never quite measures up to that.

The Good Dinosaur is ultimately a buddy comedy road trip adventure about a young child who finds himself stranded far from home with an unlikely travelling companion. The result is an occasionally enjoyable, if not entirely satisfying, film.

I am dino, hear me roar!

I am dino, hear me roar!

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Non-Review Review: Inside Out

Inside Out represents a glorious return to form for Pixar.

After several years of sequels and middling films, Inside Out feels like a breath of fresh air. Films like Cars 2 and Monsters University were very much safe bets for the company, a way to leverage return from existing (and well-loved) properties. Inside Out is something altogether stranger and more high-concept. It feels like the studio is getting back in touch with its original aesthetic. It is a concept that initially seems quite complex and esoteric, but quickly reveals itself to be a simple emotional fairytale.

Memories are made of this...

Memories are made of this…

Wall-E might have been a half-silent science-fiction film, but it was also a very effective love story. Up might have been a wacky adventure about a flying house, but it was also an insightful meditation on grief and loss. Finding Nemo was populated with colourful fish, but it was also about the experience of watching a child venture into the world. Pixar established and developed a reputation as a studio that could produce films that were accessible and exciting to children, but also packed a more weighty and substantial punch for the parents in the audience.

Inside Out is perhaps the most high of Pixar’s concepts, but it ultimately boils down a very organic and instinctive story meditating on the studio’s core themes of emotional development and family metaphors.

An emotional journey...

An emotional journey…

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Non-Review Review: Avengers – Age of Ultron

Avengers: Age of Ultron is a hot mess.

It is fun, witty and fast-moving. However, it is also disjointed, uneven and awkward. Age of Ultron is a big and bombastic summer blockbuster, but it feels like Marvel learned very little from The Avengers. Rather than simply taking what worked in the first film, it often seems like Age of Ultron doubles down on every part of its predecessor. There’s more action, there’s higher stakes, there’s bigger conflict, there’s more Tony, there’s even less of an idea what to do with Thor, there’s more continuity.

"Hey, at least I beat the Terminator prequel to cinemas, right?"

“Hey, at least I beat the Terminator prequel to cinemas, right?”

“More” seems to the be the word here. Age of Ultron is bigger than its predecessor in just about every way. The film boasts an ensemble so large that it threatens to collapse under its own weight – a fact perhaps wryly acknowledged by the genocidal robot’s evil plan at the climax. While it is nice to have more diversity in the cast – The Avengers are no longer a bunch of white guys and their token female colleague – it does seem like Age of Ultron strains and groans under all that Joss Whedon and Marvel heap upon it.

Bigger is not always better.

You know, "pull Thor's hammer" is probably not a family friendly party game...

You know, “pull Thor’s hammer” is probably not a family friendly party game…

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Non-Review Review: Cinderella (2015)

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2015.

Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella is probably the safest and most down-the-middle live action remake of a classic Disney cartoon. It is not as heavily stylised or esoteric as Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, but it is also not as deeply flawed as Maleficent. If anything, Cinderella suffers from a lack of its own identity or energy. It is a well-made and functional film that avoids any truly significant problems, but it also lacks any real edge that might help it stand out.

Cinderella looks lovely. Dante Ferretti’s production design and Sandy Powell’s costume designs are breathtakingly beautiful. Branagh’s direction is clean and crispy, avoiding excessive clutter and trusting the story to tell itself. The cast are great – with Cate Blanchett and Helena Bonham Carter doing wonderful work. Even the script does exactly what it needs to do, walking the line between traditional and self-aware with considerable grace. Cinderella does pretty much everything that you would expect a live action adaptation to do.

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At the same time, it lacks any real sense of cinematic ambition. It is nowhere near as iconoclastic as Alice in Wonderland or as ambitious as Maleficent. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – Alice in Wonderland attracted a lot of criticism for playing more as a Tim Burton movie than an Alice in Wonderland film, while Maleficent tripped over itself in its attempts to re-write the classing story of Sleeping Beauty as a feminist parable. Cinderella‘s problems are much less severe, but its accomplishments are also less noteworthy.

The result is probably the most solid and reliable live adaptation of a classic Disney cartoon, albeit one that never seems to have any real ambition or verve.

cinderella

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