Review: Logan

Not that it’s had stellar competition lately, but Logan is the best X-Men film yet – it’s just a shame it took 17 years for Hugh Jackman to sink his claws into the character like this.

Logan/Wolverine (Jackman) is one of only a few mutants left in 2029, and his healing powers are failing. Working as a chauffeur to make ends meet, he lives in Mexico with a frail and brain-damaged Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) alongside fellow mutant ‘sniffer’ Caliban (Stephen Merchant). When Logan is approached to look after the mysterious Laura (Dafne Keen), he finds himself thrown into a bigger situation, pursued by scientist Zander Rice (Richard E. Grant), enforcer Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) and plenty of expendable goons.

The movie slowly and surely develops outward, giving every character an arc or defined set of motivations. In other words, beyond the more recent X-Men films First Class and Days of Future Past, this is one of the only movies given room to breathe, and characters some development. Wolverine has been an ever-present since 2000’s X-Men, and Jackman’s worked hard to make the character work as Logan suffers again and again (sometimes we’ve suffered as well, such as with X-Men Origins: Wolverine…).

Logan succeeds because it takes what we like about the character (dark humour, bastardly manner and violence tinged with melancholy and a need to help others) and wraps it all together with a strong story. There are many times that you have to remind yourself (or some of the more outlandish comic-book stuff does) that you’re watching an X-Men movie. It’s shot like a western, wide vistas showcasing the extremes of the USA, and one western, Shane, is shown onscreen and quotes used to reinforce similar points. Director and writer James Mangold essentially uproots the superhero and places him in a road movie that allows Jackman and Stewart to finally act, after movies where they barely had to.

logannewposterThe script (co-written by Scott Frank and Michael Green) is almost a retrospective on Wolverine, the series and superhero films, confronting that which only The Dark Knight Rises has already: what happens when a superhero begins to reach the end? Logan is not healing as quickly anymore, Charles is suffering catastrophic seizures, and both are looking toward mortality from near-immortality. Their diminishing impacts are shot cleverly by Mangold, particularly Logan’s poorly-repairing injuries and Charles’ spectacular powers becoming uncontrollable. With the addition of Laura, this odd couple becomes a family, and the road movie begins – the stresses and strains of the journey and time on Logan at the same time as his kinship with Laura grows and Charles’ acceptance of his health problems.

Jackman deserves a lot of credit for making Wolverine so iconic. Like a lot of other heroes, those he cares about end up dead, and the actor’s done well showing how the gruff sod is gruff because of the hell he’s gone through. I felt Logan gave the Aussie a chance at last to let acting, not muscles, do the talking, and it’s his best performance. He’s no slouch when it comes to the action, holding his own in choreographed fights and brawls, but it’s in the arguments, conversations and the smaller, quieter scenes that his performance rings out, particularly as he faces more and more challenges, stoicism giving way to weariness, sadness, melancholy and resignation.

Stewart clearly relished messing with what has always been a fairly boring character, Xavier here much more funny, fragile and weak. The British actor is the comedic centre of the film and a source for a fair amount of emotion, knowing his time is nearly at an end and that his abilities are becoming increasingly dangerous. Where the other X-Men movies have seen the two characters share a staid, father-son mentor relationship, in this movie it’s carer and dependant, and it’s honestly really interesting to see Stewart largely dispose of the calm and kind in favour of this crotchety, incapable, unstable and frankly more human Xavier.

Young Dafne Keen plays Laura, and without ruining her story, I’ll just say the child actor is fantastic. Remaining mute for a large part of proceedings, Keen’s furious features and angry gestures go a long way towards characterising her, and when Laura does speak, you’re shocked by how young she is. It’s a testament to how well she acts that you forget her age, and in some violent scenes, she ably presents a new kind of female hero striking back with ferocity. The quieter, more emotional scenes develop with her understanding of the world as the film progresses, and if there are to be any future movies, I hope they keep Keen, because she brings a new energy, more than holding her own in many fraught and shouty scenes with Jackman.

The rest of the cast are a mixed bunch – Stephen Merchant is strangely cast as Caliban, probably for his height and generally odd appearance! His Bristolian accent jars, but his performance is subtly understated – he can act without needing to be funny or with Ricky Gervais, and he’s an interesting choice that somehow works. The two antagonists offer different sides of the coin, Boyd Holbrook’s smarmy muscle contrasted with Richard E. Grant’s cold scientist. Their differences and motivations were areas the film could have given more time to, particularly Grant’s Rice, whose aims are thrown at us quickly come the end, while Holbrook’s character is underdeveloped to the point at which his offbeat humour and robot arm are the parts that stick in the memory.

The very good music by Marco Beltrami deserves a mention, at turns contemplative, western-sounding and horroresque at other points. Following Deadpool’s profane and gory success, it’s refreshing to finally see the bestial Wolverine finally stab people, and they bleed! Sick as that might sound to some, it’s been odd before considering Wolverine has METAL CLAWS. The adult rating benefits in more ways than one, giving gore and more gore so there’s a clear physical cost and an impact to the action, while it feels like Logan and Charles have now finally realised they’re not surrounded by kids and can swear, a root of much of the film’s comedy (particularly where Patrick Stewart is concerned).

I’ve droned on long enough – even if you’re not a big X-Men fan, I’d recommend seeing Logan. It’s evidence of how good a “comic-book” film can be if given the chance to be a little more adult in intent and portrayal, and it’s a fitting conclusion to Jackman’s long history with Wolverine.

Review: Fences

A real acting powerhouse of a film, Fences at times betrays its origins as a play, but that’s about the only criticism I can make of an intense, dramatic experience.

In 1950s Philadelphia, Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) lives with wife Rose (Viola Davis) and son Cory (Jovan Adepo), and works as a binman with old friend ‘Bono’ (Stephen Henderson). The film takes us through a stage of the family’s life in which Troy’s controlling and braggart nature starts to expose cracks and divisions between all three, and Troy’s other son Lyons (Russell Hornsby).

Based on a play by African-American playwright August Wilson (who wrote the screenplay last decade before he died), Washington also directs, and the initial stages (perhaps the first 20 to 30 minutes) were about the only thing I found fault with. Its basis as a play is too obvious during this period, with monologues, too much conversation and not enough movement, and I did think I might struggle to adjust. Starting in the garden of the Maxson’s home (where much of the film takes place), everything finally seems to shift after this section, taking us around the home and making it feel more dynamic. The staging in a real, period house only adds to the intimacy and sense of place, and married to the excellent and committed acting, you buy into the whole package.

Monologues are so well-staged and filmed by Washington that you forget about the shaky start, and become engrossed. The lighting by Charlotte Bruus Christensen is also more organic and realistic (being as a lot of the film takes place outside), and again only adds to that feeling of reality. This also works perfectly together with the all-too-human story of fathers versus sons, and men ageing while confronting failure and inadequacy. Washington’s clear reverence for the material, along with his great casting and direction, shines through, and I look forward to any future dramas he might direct – what a debut. And it must be said that Wilson’s ground-level examination of the family during this time in their lives (and in America’s existence as well) excellently gives us an insight into the time, the environment and the struggles for the Maxsons as a family.fences_film

The lead acting is top-notch, with Washington and Davis far and away the best. Despite not knowing until afterwards that they had played the same characters on stage, that makes perfect sense with how well the two inhabit their roles. Washington was robbed of the Best Actor Oscar in my view, because his performance as the fairly irredeemable Troy is complex, gripping and aggravating. He breathlessly and effortlessly spins stories out of nowhere, a near motor-mouth, but as the film develops so does our perception of him, with a later revelation timed to make you truly dislike the man just as his bluster runs out and he becomes more contemplative. It’s very hard to grab your attention quite like Washington does, and his nuanced portrayal of a difficult man deserved more praise.

Viola Davis won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, and quite honestly should have been in with a shout for Best Actress (look at the poster – surely that merits a lead role rather than a supporting one). Her slowly-developing performance explodes halfway through with a great, great scene between her and Washington that I can only imagine was spectacular on stage, and she paints Rose as a woman who loves but also tolerates her irascible husband. She also toes the line between wanting to leave it all behind with her son, and sticking around to make it work – she makes a character with hard-to-understand motivations function, just like Washington does.

Of the rest of the cast, Adepo adds some youthful rage as Cory, the actor playing the stereotypical son butting heads with the father, as Troy’s previous experiences in life and his frankly odious personality come to bear spectacularly on the kid. Russell Hornsby offers a different twist on the same character as the older, more jaded Lyons, put down and treated just as poorly by Troy, with the actor hinting every so often at a submerged fury. Mykelti Williamson does very well in a difficult role as Troy’s mentally-damaged brother Gabe, which would have been tough for most actors so as not to appear offensive, but Williamson (and the character’s cause of injury) make sure that Gabe is sensitively handled (he becomes the lighter and more sympathetic side of things when everything gets more difficult).

Finally, Henderson provides a sympathetic performance as Troy’s old friend and colleague, acting as a quieter, more grounded foil to Washington’s gregariousness and later on showing Bono’s sterner, more moral side – bringing Troy’s actions into even more contrast. Technically, the music by Marcelo Zarvos is slight, and only comes in when needed, but it works to remind you that you’re watching a movie when it does appear, and fits in well with the ambient noise and voices (not to mention silence). Additionally, the editing by Hughes Winborne is worth mentioning too, because his work makes the impact of the speeches and scenes that much more affecting. On stage, your perspective is of the whole scene, from your seat. In a film, the editor chooses what you see, and so the more powerful and involving scenes become more so because we’re drawn to character’s faces, or shown reactions to someone offscreen, which only reinforces the tension and impact.

I will freely admit that this is not a film for everyone – a few people even left during the movie as they’d clearly expected something else! However, in my opinion it’s a strong and quite powerful film anchored by two excellent lead performances, and if you’re interested I would definitely recommend it.

Review: John Wick: Chapter Two

Another great sequel, John Wick: Chapter Two unfortunately wasn’t as good as the first for me, but that said that it’s far better than most action movies.

Not long after the events of John Wickthe titular assassin (Keanu Reeves) resolves some unfinished business before retiring again. Unfortunately a debt tying him to Italian mobster Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) reels him back into the shadowy, strange culture of assassins, where he alternately butts heads or just shoots returning and new characters, including assassin hotelier Winston (Ian McShane), fellow assassins Cassian (Common) and Ares (Ruby Rose), and a new entrant to the game, the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne).

You can see if you check my review above just how much I enjoyed the first John Wick. I rewatched it before seeing Chapter Two, and it’s absolutely fantastic – the problem with Chapter Two is it loses the novelty and quite a lot of the humour from writer Derek Kolstad’s original, and tries to make up for that with more action. For a large part of the first half, this was enough to keep me entertained, but the second half meanders towards its conclusion, the only part that adds some vim. In the first film we had no idea who John was, and his stunning vengeance for his puppy works perfectly, with mobsters and assassins speaking of him in hushed tones and reverence (before being murdered).

Here, we know only too well what he’s capable of, there’s no particularly stirring reason for him to get back into it (revenge is always more fun for the audience when it comes to motive), and the comedic reverence appears straight away in one of the funnier scenes, and is then dropped, John appearing diminished compared to the unbelievable amount of assassins coming his way. I loved the action, but towards the end it almost starts to drag, which is never a great thing – a tiny bit of editing might have solved that particular issue. However, in fleshing out the world of Wick (the assassin hotels, currency and other idiosyncracies) Chapter Two plays a blinder – other things were set up for future movies, or were hidden asides, and it’s this side that brings the film up a notch, particularly in a great montage when Wick arrives in Rome – we see other assassin hotels, special tailors and armourers.

johnwicknewDirector Chad Stahelski handles the action fantastically – if you’ve seen the first you know what’s coming, but if you’re new (why would you watch this one first?!) the former stuntman knows exactly how to shoot action for film. There’s no shaky cam, no quick edits – everything is choreographed, shot clearly and brutally by cinematographer Dan Laustsen, so Reeves, the other actors and stuntmen are vibrantly lit as they gorily, violently fight and kill. What Stahelski might do with other action movies is very exciting to think about (imagine his take on Bond, for example), and beyond the less-gripping central plot, it’s the set-pieces that drag the movie up in my estimations.

Reeves loses a little of the first film’s charm because there’s no introduction, no character building. We’re thrown in with him immediately and he’s all business (more or less), so the character becomes more of a cipher, when before he had wisecracks, his ridiculous abilities and a strong motive. The actor is still fantastic, particularly in a number of smaller, talkier scenes and in his 100 percent commitment to the action (Tom Cruise has nothing on Reeves and his ability with a gun). It’s just that he loses out by having less about him this time around, and less to actually “act” with.

The supporting cast is filled with scenery-chewing character actors as before, and some newbies. McShane continues to occupy a corner all to himself in Hollywood for gruff, fatherly and suave British gents, while Fishburne is on crazy form as the egotistic and shouty Bowery King (all we need is Carrie-Ann Moss in the inevitable Chapter Three for a Matrix reunion). Common has little acting to do but takes part in some bone-crunching action with Reeves, and stands toe-to-toe, while Aussie actress Ruby Rose is a pleasant surprise as the mute, signing henchwoman Ares, making more of an impact without even speaking. Scamarcio is devilishly Italian as D’Antonio, who is new for the series as a character that honestly knows what Wick is capable of, but isn’t really fazed, which makes him interesting (though he jumps in and out of the movie unfortunately).

Clark Peters makes a welcome and funny return as hotel doorman Charon, with other comedic characters of his ilk added including Peter Serafinowicz’s wine-punning quartermaster in one of the film’s funnier scenes. Additionally, crazy Nordic actor Peter Stormare (a natural addition to this series) appears early on as a Russian mobster very quickly and amusingly aware he’s in some Wick-related trouble. Other notable appearances include John Leguizamo as the long-suffering mechanic for assassins, and Franco Nero as Winston’s Italian hotelier counterpart.

Musically, Tyler Bates’ soundtrack is a missed opportunity, having worked perfectly in the first but rehashing many of the same beats here, and not taking advantage (bar one excellent scene) of musical marriage with the bone-crunching action. This hurts the film, particularly in long action scenes or fights where the events onscreen could have been made even better with a well-picked slice of score. The film expands beyond New York into Rome, and the contrast between the two locations (gritty, neon and urban versus marbled, polished and historical) is well thought-out. The staging of one particularly fantastic action scene in catacombs only adds to the sense that the filmmakers knew exactly what they were doing in their first expansion from the recognisable NYC.

A few tweaks, some more music, and a proper motivation – all three would have made this a truly better sequel. As it is, it’s an excellent action film – but I still prefer the first. And look, not one pun on Wick being “back” in this whole review…

Review: The Lego Batman Movie

It’s not as good as The Lego Movie, but The Lego Batman Movie is one of the better films about Batman, despite being made for kids.

Batman/Bruce Wayne (Will Arnett) is insufferably good at keeping control of crime in Gotham (or so he thinks). When Commissioner Gordon resigns to be replaced by daughter Barbara (Rosario Dawson), Batman faces a crisis only accentuated by accidentally adopting the hyperactively naive Dick Grayson (Michael Cera). The Joker (Zack Galifianakis) meanwhile struggles to convince Batman of their “special” relationship, and takes matters into his own hands, with meta results.

This film is just like The Lego Movie in that it appears made for children, but the sheer depth of jokes and references are designed for adults, specifically those only too aware of all things Batman. So as a consequence it is, at times, absolutely hilarious, with the jokes and comedy never far away – returning co-director of The Lego Movie Chris McKay ably utilises talent and technology for a ridiculous romp. It only pales in comparison in that it all feels too quick, and too keen to moralise come the end (as with every kid’s film), but after giving it thought I realised the conclusion is another great exposure of the frankly ridiculous character.cym_yo1w8aqqn_z

McKay utilises the same technology as in The Lego Movie, with the realistic looking characters and world so eerily like their real-life toy equivalents that you forget you’re watching special effects. It really is a remarkable achievement that I still don’t quite understand, and a great positive example of CGI. There’s little original music in the way of songs (a shame after ‘DARKNESS! NO PARENTS!’), but some well-timed uses of popular music add laughs or colour, while the soundtrack from Lorne Balfe feels like a mash-up of every previous doomy Batman score, which is the highest compliment I can give.

Will Arnett is a hilarious comic actor, and I’m pleased he’s got a leading role even if it is just voiceover. The actor’s laughably deep voice, and cocksure characters of the past, are perfect preparation for Batman, and Arnett’s smarmy tones brilliantly bring to life the character’s many, many issues. Michael Cera is also great as weedy, ridiculous Dick (many a knowing joke made about that name), whose idiocy and innocent nature help Batman open up, while offering a large part of the laughs for smaller viewers. The meta-textual nature (no spoilers) was quite a surprise, though I really should have seen that coming after The Lego Movie, and might well confuse some viewers wondering why certain things are happening!

Ralph Fiennes is very well cast as fatherly, doting Alfred, bringing a sort of resigned annoyance to Alfred, who’s always trying to remind Batman that he’s Bruce Wayne, and not just the superhero (hilariously so here). Rosario Dawson has to play the straight(wo)man Barbara to the idiocy taking place , and does this well enough, though it’s a bit of a thankless role; while Zach Galifanakis brings a sort of tortured sadness to the Joker, who really just wants to feel validated in his relationship with Batman (making for some of the funniest, loaded conversations). Also listen out for an A-lister’s arrogant performance as Batman’s Kryptonian pal – it’s worth watching the credits for a couple of minutes to be surprised by some of the voices!

Batman and film nerds alike will want to pause the movie to catch all its references, while casual filmgoers and those aware of Batman’s idiosyncrasies will enjoy it just as much (some early scenes in particular mock the ‘rich lonely orphan’ stereotype perfectly). For me, the best aspects were that scene-by-scene, I realised no other Batman film (whether grim-dark Bale/Affleck or whimsical Adam West) has quite outlined just how stupid the character is. Batman’s problems here, as always, stem from his lack of attachment versus his need for attachment, and the plot twists this every which way, poking holes in his seriousness to great effect. It gets right to the heart of Batman’s bizarre personality and motivations, like none of the other movies did – because it points right at them and mocks them, rather than pretending it’s cool to be an angry rich bloke beating up criminals in a bat-suit.

If The Lego Batman Movie could have been a little longer, with more jokes and less moralising, it would have been perfect! It’s great, but The Lego Movie is still funnier…

 

Review: T2 Trainspotting

A great sequel that offers something new and a hit of nostalgia, T2 Trainspotting is well worth the watch.

20 years after running away with the money earned from the original film’s drug deal, Renton (Ewan McGregor) returns to Edinburgh and re-enters the lives of Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), Spud (Ewen Bremner) and Begbie (Robert Carlyle). The question is whether the past has been left behind or still affects everything two decades later…

I only saw the first Trainspotting a few years ago, but it was worth waiting for. Even though I was only a kid in the 90s, the soundtrack alone transported me back, but the gritty story of these druggie idiots and their struggles at that low level of society is still like a punch in the face, even now. The sequel (author Irvine Welsh wrote the second book, Porno, in the last decade) adds that kick of nostalgia (for the viewer, not the characters) as well as telling a very adult story of middle age. Director Danny Boyle uses the same techniques and often the same locations as before to ram home just how little or how much has changed in 20 years, with freeze-frames and crazy camera moves supplemented by overlaying past on present through Jon Harris’ editing, accentuating the four’s dislocation from the events of the first movie.

The plot, cribbed from Welsh’s sequel (which was understandably renamed), is both believable and mundane enough to be realistic, though there were some missed opportunities. Sick Boy plots revenge on another character, but nothing more is made of it, and a sub-plot concerning opposition to their plans from a new character just peters out. The whole spectre of Scottish independence/Brexit is studiously ignored as well, which surprised me! A more general focus on the four and the issues between them would have made it perfect, but I get what Boyle and writer John Hodge are going for by tying in changes in Edinburgh and Scottish culture to the changes the four experienced. The dialogue, conversations and confrontations zing as much as in the first (with perhaps a little less drug-infused mania), and the ending is fitting, as well as essentially leaving everything open for a T3 – though that would be ridiculous in another 20 years.

t2-1Despite being the breakout star of the original, McGregor feels almost incidental throughout T2, but Renton serves as a catalyst for everything that takes place, and that’s probably why his role is pretty basic. He also sees most callbacks to the original movie, and the inertia of the character’s life since (and the conclusion here) is quite interesting – not where I expected him to go. His highlight is a new, impassioned and furious “choose life” speech that seems to scream from the helplessness of his generation, liberated by the 90s and now simply not able to understand the modern world, and for that alone he deserves some recognition.

Bremner, Miller and Carlyle however all seem to have much more to do this time around, and all three actors seize the opportunity. The hapless Spud is the only one not to have made any kind of meaningful life transition, but as the story develops Bremner gives the idiot of the bunch development, his middle-age anguish and a need to save himself giving him perhaps the most maturity and us the most satisfaction come the end. Miller’s very unsympathetic Sick Boy suffers from a curtailed revenge plot but otherwise disgusts and amuses in equal measure, the English actor presenting the almost irredeemable character eventually beginning (as with all four) to realise where he might go from here on out in life.

But the best character (no question) is Robert Carlyle’s Begbie. A furious, insane and bizarre machismo bastard, Begbie’s escapades are centred on brutal revenge, but as the movie progresses more and more is torn from his outer brute, before a couple of really quiet surprising scenes, where the actor conveys a sense of a life wasted and irrevocably damaged by his actions. We all enjoy watching larger-than-life scumbags like this (especially in the many, many confrontational and tense scenes here) but I really thought Carlyle took a great opportunity in giving the psycho a window into how others perceive him and how his life is broken, and I think he’s the best of the bunch.

The other main star is Anjela Nedyalkova as Veronica, Sick Boy’s “girlfriend” and partner-in-crime, and the actress does quite well with a role that shifts and changes, but which doesn’t offer her much individual development beyond interactions with the four and their schemes. Other actors pop in and out mainly for a hark back to the past, including Welsh’s criminal friend of the gang, James Cosmo’s broken, older father of Renton, and Kelly McDonald’s grown-up schoolgirl Diane, who puts Renton to shame with some searing life advice.

The soundtrack is strongest when it uses the original’s iconic music, such as Iggy Pop and Underworld, and some of the newer songs were actually distractingly bad (though that might just be a question of personal taste). The way the movie is shot is as uniquely different as the last, with Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography bringing Boyle’s updated vision to the screen with crisp and clean lines, a rather stark contrast to the scrappy filming of the original particularly when showing the rising tides of gentrification compared to the old Edinburgh.

If you enjoyed the first and can tolerate the swearing, violence, drug-taking and everything else, you’ll enjoy T2, no question. No point in watching if you’re not keen about any of the rest! Overall I really enjoyed it, and thought it was actually a more coherent movie than the first, though perhaps that film’s post-modern, bizarre nature was why we liked it in the first place.

Review: Hidden Figures

A stirring story based on real-life, I found Hidden Figures quite an inspiring story of intelligence against prejudice, that unfortunately makes standard Hollywood mistakes.

Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) work as human ‘computers’ at NASA in the 1960s, but face the constant barriers of racial segregation. When Katherine receives a promotion to the Space Task Group under Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), her incredible aptitude mirrors the rise of her and her friends within NASA, as they begin to try and leave discrimination behind while helping get an American into space.

It’s heartening to think that amidst the civil rights battle, NASA of all organisations was waking up to the idiocy. This means the movie follows what could be said to be a stereotypical line at times in terms of the women and their battle for recognition and equality, but the script by director Theodore Melfi and Allison Schroeder mixes up the original (non-fiction) book by Margot Lee Shetterly with some cinematic drama (and laughs). Adapting real-life in such a situation is fraught with difficulties and sensitivity, but by most accounts it appears they did a good job.

This does fall down a little, particularly featuring Costner’s (fictional) Al Harrison, one of those odd characters in Hollywood’s “civil rights era”. He is basically the “not-so-prejudicial” white person who serves to show others how racist they are. It’s a strange quirk that Hollywood believes white people watching should feel good about these (often fictional) figures, probably because they don’t want the American audience to feel alienated. This is despite the fact a GREAT deal of people thought and continue to think that way! What the script and direction do achieve is to bring home that NASA’s aims, in many ways, transcended boundaries in society, and that inspirational side is spot-on – not over-the-top, but perfectly measured (besides Costner and a few other, smaller scenes).

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Katherine is the de-facto heroine, whose MENSA-level intellect couples with a growing resentment, the actress expertly portraying awkwardness and growing confidence as she gets her chance to prove herself, as well as her fury at her treatment from white colleagues. Her gradual transformation is also well developed by the actress, who is the best of the three. Monáe is sparky and impressive as Jackson, the youngest and simmering with injustice that her intelligence and chances of progression are dictated by race, and I would have liked some more of her storyline, because the real Mary made history with her achievements, and she feels a little underrepresented. The musician is very good in what I would imagine is the first role of many.

Octavia Spencer brings a world-weary but humourous perspective to Dorothy, constantly overlooked for a supervisor role despite the fact she already does the work. The actress doesn’t really have much to do beyond bring humour at the onset (alongside Monáe, it has to be said), but her developing interactions with Kirsten Dunst’s withering manager are underlined by a steeliness, and she cleverly portrays Dorothy’s fierce intelligence and forward-thinking, spotting and taking advantage of an opportunity in the future of computing for her and her fellow workers.

Costner is quietly stoic and brings some gruff charm and amenability to the “inspirational” role, whilst Dunst brings ice-cold chilliness to a woman who would rather the status quo not change too much, offering a welcome and harsher departure from her previous films. The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons essentially turns in a more reserved and prejudicial version of his super nerd, as the genius that Katherine competes and battles with, while Mahershala Ali tempers his usual macho persona with sensitive touches as Katherine’s love interest. Finally, Glenn Powell has a hard job as John Glenn, the actor doing well in a very limited number of scenes to portray the astronaut’s straight-headed, colour-blind approach, a worthwhile testament to the recently-passed pioneer.

The music, by Hans Zimmer and Pharrell Williams, is at turns funky fun and dramatically reserved when needs be, though the singer-songwriter couldn’t resist throwing in some of his own singing, and this actually feels anachronistic. This is a shame, because the remainder of the score shows promise in its balance between the composer and popstar. The movie also feels very authentically of its time in terms of staging and costumes, with cinematographer Mandy Walker matching the iconic era’s styles both formally and informally at the NASA site and in the three women’s homes.

I felt Hidden Figures did try too hard to meet Hollywood civil rights stereotypes, when it could have given us the real story. These three struggled and won out in the end with their intelligence, and the film could do more than fall into the obvious traps. However, it’s a good film with some fine performances that honour the women and their hard-fought achievements.

Review: Assassin’s Creed

Sometimes you expect a film to be bad based on reviews, and sometimes that’s proven right. Sometimes though, it’s a surprise, and Assassin’s Creed was for me – it’s great fun and a perfect addition to the multimedia series, even though it’s the epitome of a throwaway popcorn film.

Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender) is sentenced to death for murder after a tough life. Expecting oblivion, he then wakes up at Abstergo Industries, a company run by Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons) and his daughter Sophie (Marion Cotillard), where their ‘Animus’ technology accesses a user’s genetic memory. ‘Cal’ is descended from a Spanish assassin, Aguilar (also Fassbender), and is thrown into a new world of warring factions – the Templars and Assassins – as he discovers and experiences the events of Aguilar in 1600s Spain, and wrestles with his position in the conflict.

The Assassin’s Creed games have followed this story since 2007, with their historical sci-fi/action offering a beguiling mix of stealth, intrigue, all-out-murder and hilarious glitches. The throughline of the plots and the recreation of historical periods are what bring me back though, and director Justin Kerzel – teaming up with Fassbender and Cotillard after Macbeth and writers Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper and Bill Collage adapt the basic outline of the series for cinema. The mythology of the games is, to put it nicely, Dan Brown-level splicing of real and fantastical events, individuals and technology, but I love it – and the film is actually simplified so as to offer those new to the series a (mostly) understandable introduction. In other words, if you’re expecting realism or believability, don’t bother.

This is an sci-fi action thriller just like the games, and fortunately, the parkour-inspired fighting is embellished with real stunts, though I’d have liked to see more and with perhaps a little less shaky-cam. The action still thumps though, with the 12A rating disingenuous (throats are slit, arrows and knives pierce skin – just no or little blood) – perhaps a 15 rating might have been worth going for to embrace the bloodshed. As it is, the flawed main plot of hidden heritage, the hero’s “journey” and some gaping plot holes were probably more forgivable as a fan, because I’ve come to expect nothing less, though you may differ.

There are other elements of the games tidied up, with the Animus now less of a Matrix-style bed and more a terrifying crane, helping keep the action propulsive and remind the viewer Cal is flying about in a lab and just visualising everything. It’s silly but makes sense, as it would suffer miserably cutting back to a comatose bloke on a bed. If I’ve got one major bugbear plot-wise, it’s that we don’t spend enough time in the past, nor do we actually see the archetypal assassinations as in the game. This may be deliberate, as we’re on Cal’s journey and not Aguilar’s (novice compared to a fully paid-up member of the creed), but even so it might have added more variety, more depth, and helped flesh out the characters – who are poorly developed in the modern story and totally forgotten in the past.

assassins_creed_film_posterThe amazing, boomy and thumping soundtrack from Jed Kurzel, the director’s brother, is one of the best in a while – the synthesis of electronic music with drums and strings marries perfectly with a Spanish/Moorish feel. It carries the film’s momentum even when everything else slows, and the more considered score in quieter moments retains the main, ethereal refrain – which I still can’t get out of my head. 16th century Spain is shot dusty, smoky and sun-baked, cinematographer Adam Arkapaw excellently contrasting the sandy past with the brutalist, cold and grey modern of the Abstergo facility, all concrete and exposed bricks. However, the fug of CGI hangs over many of the Animus scenes, a shame considering the effort taken to realistically depict the stunts – the effects are haphazard but fortunately not needed too often.

This is definitely not aiming at acting awards – Michael Fassbender produced it and helped get it made, and his dual roles are interesting if imbalanced in favour of Cal. Here he mostly just plays dumb, slowly learning what he’s stumbled into, but there are small scenes where he hints at an unexplored menace, and one spectacularly hammy scene where he completely flips out that feels a bit like the actor trying to burst out of the boredom. Aguilar is really given short shrift though, and it’s that character that Fassbender really could have made interesting – an enigmatic, tattooed Spanish assassin on secret missions! Instead, we learn nothing of his life, and only see him interact with a number of unexplained or expanded others – the film really misses a trick here.

Marion Cotillard engages her best British-slash-French mangled accent as Sophie Rikkin, who only really serves as our source of exposition to start, but who has some interesting shades. However, little development is given to her until right at the end, so this seems a missed opportunity passed up for a sequel that probably won’t happen. It’s refreshing that she’s not a love interest, but a shame the actress’s talents are wasted. Jeremy Irons has fun as Alan Rikkin, bringing his booming, deep tones to a sort-of pantomime villain, and the type of character you’d half expect in such a movie. Charlotte Rampling, usually an indie drama stalwart, adds to the devilishly British villainy with her lead Templar, grimacing in the background – a little more development might have created something a little more interesting there, too.

Of the remaining cast, it’s always good to see Michael K. Williams from The Wire, who plays another assassin descendant at Abstergo with his usual knowing, cool calm, while Brendan Gleeson randomly pops up as a character linked to Cal’s past – only really for one scene, but the actor is interesting enough in his cameo to suggest more of him would have been welcome. Ariane Labed, as Aguilar’s fellow assassin Maria, is another enigmatic character that deserved more time onscreen, and another casualty of the lack of focus on the Spanish plot – a love interest for the assassin who can handle herself could have made for a really interesting side-story, but instead we are expected to care for her when we’ve heard perhaps 10 lines of speech from her.

This film shouldn’t really have been as much fun – the story is poorly handled (in some cases worse that the games are) and the characters are barely given any time to grow. Despite all this, and against my better judgement, I really enjoyed Assassin’s Creed, so if you liked the games and/or action, and can switch your brain off for two hours, you’ll enjoy it too.