LFF 2011: Anonymous***

To be or not to be, that is certainly the subjective question of whether director Roland Emmerich’s new film will excite or disgust. Indeed, with the covering of one of our greatest playwright’s name’s in his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon in protest of Anonymous, William Shakespeare might be thrilled at the reignited interest in him.

In writer John Orloff and Emmerich’s version of Elizabethan events, the playwright (played by Rafe Spall) is actually an illiterate fool, a scheming charlatan who grabs the opportunity for easy fame – and to make money (it could be argued, like a former-day version of a reality TV contestant) – by laying claim to a series of plays written by Anonymous that delight the crowds at the local theatre. Unbeknown to all, these were actually penned by Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans), to silence ‘the voices’ in his head. But as a member of the Royal Court, he is unable to be open about his creativity, or face disgrace. Meanwhile, the English throne, headed by theatre-loving Elizabeth I (played by both Joely Richardson and her real-life mother Vanessa Redgrave), is being manipulated by the Cecil Family of father William (David Thewlis) and later, by his son, Robert (Edward Hogg), so that a Scottish successor can take over.

Depending on how much you hold the bard dear to your heart, what must not be forgotten is this is an entertaining piece of imaginary work in itself – as suggested by the opening prologue by Derek Jacobi. The fact that there has always been speculation about the origins of Shakespeare’s works only goes to fuel how fitting the mystery is for cinematic purposes. Everyone likes to question history’s great mysteries when there is an ounce of doubt, from who shot JFK to the death of Princess Diana. So, without sounding flippant, the emphasis here is on ‘imaginary work’, and the film-makers certainly grab our attention.

This film is equally about the Royal Court power struggles, as it is the Shakespeare parts, and it is the former that is the film’s true momentum – not whether aristocrat De Vere will be found out. Hence, if period-based deception, temptation and pure decadence appeal, Emmerich’s rich ‘Old Masters’-style cinematography and sumptuous settings – some of which scream CGI – are a delight to behold.

Nevertheless, any upset at the ‘raw deal’ Shakespeare is getting in this, is not the question mark over the plays’ true author, but how the film-makers portray our great bard as an utter clown. Spall is certainly amusing, raising sniggers and having a ball in the role – if only employed to make Ifans look wise and credible as De Vere. But some might feel a little perturbed in the scene when Shakespeare asks De Vere whether ‘published’ means ‘in a book’? That said comedy makes a fool out of anyone, and this scene is little more ‘offensive’ than a TV comedy sketch, in all honesty, with Spall as Shakespeare as a parody of one of his own literary fools that provide the comical aspect in often a turbulent time.

These moments are also counterbalanced by the film’s celebration of the works in general, and there are some magical re-enactments of The Rose and The Globe theatres that make you yearn for a good Shakespearean evening out. The other delight is watching fine British acting at play, and the added surprise of Ifans in a serious role as de Vere that makes for a rousing spectacle, not too deft as to be unfitting for the whole gay affair, but with just enough deadpan theatrics to yet again remind you that you are watching a well-directed and staged interpretation of the reality.

Without going down the long, arduous road of comparing historical facts to add to the scholarly and fan-based denouncement of Anonymous, there are some extraordinary claims made that don’t add up after researching the characters. However, as we are prompted in the film’s lines to place our trust in the power of the words – these being merely another opinion to add to the rest of history’s sceptics, the overall sentiment after watching this is one of awe of the work in question, and that can only be a good thing.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2011: The Ides Of March ***

George Clooney’s fourth directorial film, The Ides of March, is an enticing ode to yesteryear political thrillers, but it’s also a delightful exercise in intense acting exchanges played out by his stellar main cast of Ryan Gosling, Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Although Clooney stars in this, it’s in a supporting capacity. His talent is in the direction of the 55th London Film Festival highlight, a perfect festival film contender, but also one that will entice the regular cinemagoer at the box office.

The story takes place during the frantic last days before a heavily contested Ohio presidential primary, when up-and-coming campaign press secretary Stephen Meyers (Gosling) finds himself involved in a political scandal that threatens to upend his candidate, Governor Mike Morris (Clooney)’s shot at the presidency, and exposes him as a pawn in the uglier side of politics at the hands of rival campaign directors Paul Zara (Seymour Hoffman) and Tom Duffy (Giamatti).

The dialogue-rich film is accentuated by the direction and camerawork that focuses our eye on the impact of the words or expressions – as demonstrated by the first and final shots. These bookend shots also establish whose journey we are following, and Gosling as the brilliant but gradually troubled Meyers is a perfect blend of poker-faced control that cracks and crumbles, as the traps are set, with him gradually breaking sweat then regaining his composure. Those who have seen Gosling in the recent hit Drive can expect more of the same style of performance, helped by this sharp script and supporting talent.

The real thrill, though, is witnessing the acting stalwarts of American drama in action; Giamatti and Seymour Hoffman as the enigmatic puppeteers are dynamite in this. Coupled with some fine performances from Marisa Tomei as dogmatic newspaper hack Ida Horowicz and Evan Rachel Wood as feisty and competitive intern Molly Stearns, the interactions are pin-sharp and a credit to Clooney’s casting and directing expertise.

The gripes with the film are the unsatisfactory plot that lacks intriguing layers, the likes of, say, All the President’s Men is flush in, plus the American-centric, localised nature of the politics to hand. That’s not to say that the political diet of conspiracy, deception and corruption are not universally understood, rather a lot of the full impact of the political detail may be lost on a non-American audience. Clooney points to a Monica Lewinsky-style plot, but the result isn’t quite headline-grabbing enough to make even Horowicz keen to continue unearthing the dirt. The build-up with its wonderful moments fizzles out in the long run. Thankfully, the acting tour de force dilutes the political thriller clichés.

Granted, Clooney and cast are an absolute triumph, but even their solid and engaging performances can’t mask the serviceable but thin and unremarkable plot that links them.

3/5 stars

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LFF 2011: Miss Bala ****

Adopting the frantic, hand-held documentary style of other gritty, foreign kitchen-sink offerings, Mexican writer-director Gerardo Naranjo’s explosive look at the dominant drugs culture in his country through the eyes of a young woman, Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman), is a sure-fire festival contender worthy of a look.

Laura dreams of being the next Miss Mexico and following a lucrative beauty contest lifestyle that will rescue her and her family from poverty. However, after agreeing to meet her best friend one day at a private party that is besieged by the local organised crime baron and his men, Laura is pressurized into doing the gang’s dirty and violent work to continue the flow of drugs, while masquerading as a beauty queen.

The title means ‘Miss Bullet’ in Spanish, which aptly captures the violent and dangerous lifestyle a lot of Mexicans live under. It also suggests Laura is a human weapon, used and abused by the various groups holding power in the film against one another. As we follow Laura around, Naranjo creates a real sense of lack of control on the main protagonist’s behalf that begins when her life turns upside down after being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Stephanie Sigman is a fascinating find on Naranjo’s part, exuding a captivating femininity, an inner strength and an intoxicating will to survive over adversity that shines through at every available moment throughout when Laura appears to be regaining control. This fascinating character renewal is forever displaced by the next situation she finds herself in, keeping the plot interesting and alive – even if the drugs war context is a clichéd one seen in many films before, including international hits like Traffic. What is unique and renders events farcical is the juxtaposition of two worlds of glamour; the pageant and the criminal gang, both thrilling and equally cutthroat in different ways.

That said there are some difficult and questionable scenes that punctuate the storyline, and others left needing further explanation. But Naranjo reigns in the abuse portrayals enough to give a sense of entrapment and horror, but without over-exploiting his female lead, so that we can retain our empathy with Laura’s compromised position until the very end.

In fact the end scene speaks volumes, highlighting the futility of existence for many in a country plagued by drugs, where average folk are often expendable in the authorities-verses-gangs war. Rather than anger, this invokes a curious, post-viewing sense of numbness, after the exhilarating, real-life-like, in-the-action scenes of flying bullets.

Naranjo’s tense, taunt and turbulent tale shrouded in beauty has a compellingly dangerous edge. Miss Bala not only rightfully captured global film festival attention, thanks to Sigman’s energising lead and Naranjo’s dynamic direction, but also has universal themes and gusto to transcend into international, commercial box-office success.

4/5 stars

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The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn

With Indiana Jones getting way past his prime – watching an older Harrison Ford leaping over containers in the opening scenes of the 2008 Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull brought tears to the eyes, while the potential of Shia LaBeouf filling his screen father’s boots was silently quash after the same film, it’s not surprising that director Steven Spielberg went searching for another action-adventure franchise with a little more longevity and promise.

Thankfully, the both the late Hergé, creator of the Tintin books, and his estate was and is a big Spielberg fan. All that one of cinema’s greatest storytellers has done is put his Indie stamp on Tintin and characters, fleshing out the line drawings into something near realistic, but still cartoonish with motion-capture performances to capture the comic innocence.

The Secret of the Unicorn, penned by all-Brit team Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish is actually a mixture of three adventures: The Secret of the Unicorn, The Crab With the Golden Claws and Red Rackham’s Treasure, and faithfully sticks to the story elements for fans of the comic books, though not necessarily to the letter. The story sees Tintin (Jamie Bell) unwittingly embroiled in a plot to find the Haddock Family treasure, with faithful fox terrier dog Snowy in tow, after buying a model ship in a market. The adventure takes him around the globe with larger-than-life character Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), where they come across the Haddocks’ greatest nemesis, Rackham’s descendant Ivanovich Sakharine (Daniel Craig), who is also after the riches.

Spielberg and producer Peter Jackson have paid great attention to fans’ initial concerns with their adaptation, even flattering them with the opening scene that sees Tintin being drawn by a street artist who claims, “I believe I’ve captured something of your likeness”: His drawing mirrors the original Tintin with pinprick eyes, before Spielberg’s Bell imitation turns around to face us for the first time.

Admittedly, as Tintin is the most anticipated and recognisable character to first appear to us, getting used to his glazed-eye expression feels a little disconcerting at first. However, it soon becomes apparent why the medium of motion-capture performance, as apposed to real-life actors, is used to get the flighty, gravity-defying stunts (car dodging etc) and Snowy’s humanistic doggy expressions right to be in-keeping with the energetic and nostalgic storylines.

The 3D is by the by. Fans of 3D who forever want it to work will applaud its more subtle use in certain scenes, while sceptics will once more question its relevance (and addition to the ticket price). It neither adds or detracts that much, possibly because you are so involved in the motion-capture and fine detail of the scenery to really care. What is worth the ticket price alone is Tintin and Haddock’s continuous one-shot escape through the fictitious Moroccan city of Bagghar that is breathtakingly brilliant. And for fans of Indiana Jones there is almost a cartoon replica to the Joneses’ sidecar antics in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where Captain Haddock could be Professor Henry Jones (Sean Connery), fending off the baddies, but causing destruction and mayhem in the process.

Bell’s uncharismatic performance aside, it’s the supporting cast – as in the books – that keeps things entertaining and turned up a notch, especially Serkis as booze-addled Haddock who is an absolute firecracker of a character to enjoy, coming up against Craig as the evil, pinched-featured Sakharine who provides just the right amount of PG-friendly menace. The addition of comedy duo Nick Frost and Simon Pegg as the intrepid but bumbling inspectors, the Thompson Twins, again adds substance and foolhardy, stiff-upper-lip humour to proceedings, in line with the nostalgic ‘tallyho’ humour of the time when the books were first published (in the 1940s).

Action-obsessed at times to the point of being immersed in one giant video game, which the youngsters will love, and cashing in on the Pirates’ popularity – which, considering Hergé’s source material, is an unavoidable comparison, but one that cynically arises, what with the likes of Pirates-wannabe tales like The Three Musketeers out in recent months, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn still stops and pays attention to the detail, down to a reflection in a bubble on the water’s surface that gives it an awe-inspiring and painstakingly obsessive charm.

Spielberg and Jackson will have no trouble selling the sequel to us as they have captured our imaginations with a serviceable Tintin introduction. All we need now is an adventure cobbled from Hergé’s work worthy of the likes of the former-year Indiana Jones tales to seal the deal.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Help *****

Influential films featuring an all-female cast are surprisingly few and far between, especially such projects that allow the actors to deliver a career-defining punch. Based on the New York Times best-selling debut novel of the same name from Kathryn Stockett, writer/director Tate Taylor takes its subject matter to heart – he and Stockett are childhood friends who grew up in Jackson, Mississippi – and breathes visual life into the empowering characters, without missing a beat as to how these different women interact in a time of considerable change.

Aspiring author Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan (Emma Stone) lives during the civil rights movement of the 1960s and decides to write a book detailing the African American maid’s – or ‘The Help’s’ – point of view on working for White families at the time, and the hardships they go through on a day-to-day basis.

Taylor’s take is a profound and rousing triumph, and possibly the best screen story of this year. It may have remarkable sisterhood energy at its core, but the essence of humour, hardship and inevitable hope are qualities that either sex can fully relate to. Like the Noughties’ very own The Color Purple with a touch of Steel Magnolias’ Southern charm laced in, The Help indeed addresses the racial issues via regional etiquettes of the time, but does not over egg the pudding. The film is far more about exploring equal rights for all involved, both in terms of race and gender, and has a lasting, universal appeal that should strike a chord with any marginalised group trying to win a voice.

Stone injects a fresh and contemporary feel to Skeeter, in both appearance and outlook. But it is her intriguing misfit dynamic – living two decades before her time, subliminally exercised at times, that coaxes two of the performance highlights of the lot from Viola Davis as Aibileen Clark and Octavia Spencer as Minny Jackson. It is through these actors’ charisma and their characters’ highs and lows and witty and telling retorts that the story unfolds, progresses and ripples outwards to the surrounding cast, as both deliver award-worthy and memorable portrayals of mounting hope, warmth and humanity. Without their input, this tale would be minus its heroines and its soul

In the same light, Bryce Dallas Howard as superior, self-righteous bully, Hilly Holbrook is magnificent, and although the despicable villain of the piece is as vulnerable as the Help she chastises. In this respect, Taylor retains all the book’s nuances, making sure the characters are as complex as the circumstances they encounter, and lifting this story out of the traditional Deep South cinematic mould, but keeping it authentic and engaging.

Jessica Chastain, who has quite an arsenal of films out recently (The Tree Of Life, The Debt etc), gives her most significant career performance yet as ostracised, Marilyn Monroe-look-alike Celia Foote, a lonely woman, unprejudiced and innocently forward-thinking for the time, who simply craves acceptance, much like the Help. Celia is the emotional linchpin in this, and Chastain keeps her believable and adorably naïve, especially in the wonderful ‘cooking coaching’ scenes between Celia and Minny.

Two further mentions should go to Allison Janney as Charlotte Phelan, Skeeter’s mother, and Sissy Spacek as Holbrook Sr., Ahna O’Reilly, both mothers of the previous generation, but open to the changing environment and perhaps dogmatic in their time. Both are superb at mixing intense moments of drama with cutting moments of sharp wit that will have you shedding tears of joy.

This coming of age tale is deeply affecting, magnificently acted and truly enlightening about the effect of volatile transition on the human psyche. In addition to the power of the history behind The Help are truly inspirational women who are an absolute joy to spend time with. Do not miss this.

5/5 stars

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LFF: We Need To Talk About Kevin****

Tilda Swinton generally never fails to impress audiences in anything she turns her hand to. Indeed, what can honestly be said about Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s riveting and utterly chilling book, We Need To Talk About Kevin, is that the role was written unquestionably for Swinton – or even the book’s character for that matter. Shriver even quotes in the back of her book that the film adaptation is “well cast, beautifully shot and thematically loyal” to her novel. Any anomalies that arise from watching the film are purely subjective as a result of what you’ve already visualise while reading mother Eva’s (Swinton) story – and there are a few, perhaps, minor ones.

Travel journalist Eva never wanted to be a mother, certainly not to a boy who murders seven of his fellow high school students, a cafeteria worker and a teacher who tried to befriend him. Now, two years after Kevin’s horrific rampage, it’s time for her to come to terms with her teenage son’s actions, fearing she may have been partly responsible.

The story looks at the ultimate ‘nature verses nurture’ question; was Kevin born evil or was his upbringing a factor in his actions? Ramsay addresses this but in a subliminal way, rather than focuses on it head on, as the book does through a series of letters by Eva to her absent husband (Franklin, played by John C. Reilly). The opening shot perfectly captures the pre-mother, carefree nature of travel nut Eva, as Swinton wallows in happiness in a sea of crushed tomatoes at the La Tomatina festival in Buñol, Spain, that simultaneously symbolise the destruction and reminder of the colour red of blood that now dominates Eva’s every thought.

Swinton is spellbinding as she sleepwalks through her everyday existence after the night in question, punctured by moments of intense pain as she is left trying to cope. Ramsay also keeps her stunning cinematography deliberately disorientating and menacingly unsettling between past and present moments that blur into one to add to Swinton’s faultless performance. It’s perhaps no coincidence then that the parts of Ramsay’s interpretation that jar a little are the ‘clearer’ re-enactments of Kevin’s younger years.

Jasper Newell plays a challenging feature-film debut role as the younger Kevin. But it’s this part of the book about Kevin’s manipulative ways that plant the seeds of despair that is crucial and does not quite translate across as well or as terrifying, and that’s quite disappointing. Things aren’t helped by Newell’s comical schlock horror glares, like a latter-day Damien, and the script that should help cultivate a deep sense of foreboding, before being introduced to Ezra Miller’s Kevin, seems contrived.

That said Miller captures the cool, calculating character as well as can be expected – a little more apathy would have satisfied further. However, those who have not been exposed to the book will find Miller pitch-perfect in this, both in look and in action. Nevertheless, the pivotal dinner monologue given to his mother feels less curt and unnerving than it should.

Thankfully, Ramsay doesn’t recreate a grand ‘killing spree’ flashback, merely touching on the carnage caused throughout, then showing one iconic Kevin pose in the gym, and keeping things in a state of suspended disbelief and focused on Eva’s angle. The director visually nails the shocking, end domestic scene in the book, as well as the last mother-son prison meeting, with Miller giving an incredibly underplayed but potent glimpse of human emotion and fear in Kevin at the very end.

As a standalone film, this is one of the most chilling social thrillers out this year with some powerhouse performances from Swinton and Miller. The problems arise when personal interpretations of the meaning behind Eva’s words in the novel get in the way of enjoying what is before you on screen, and trying to separate the power of the written word from the spoken/unspoken one is tricky. Hence, fans of the book will naturally be divided, but, as Shriver says in her book, should not fear watching the film: They will agree on Swinton being the only actor perfect for the dynamic role of survivour Eva.

4/5 stars

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Sleeping Beauty ***

On face value, Australian author Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty is both a sordid and brave film-making debut that will literally divide opinion. It’s not the nudity that is the main issue for most, rather the treatment of the main character, Lucy, played by Sucker Punch’s Emily Browning that triggers deep feelings of revulsion. At the same time, nothing is ever black and white, and there is a tragic fragility to all the characters’ mental states in this that counterbalances the horror first experienced.

Lucy (Browning) is a young university student drawn into a mysterious hidden world of unspoken desires that requires her absolute submission. She becomes a Sleeping Beauty, a girl drugged to spend the night with old men who covet her youth and beauty. However, Lucy begins to question what happens to her while she is asleep, and it is this hunger to know that awakens her from her daily slumber after a tragic event.

Browning’s incredibly bold performance cannot be faulted in this story. Her natural innocence and flawless radiance makes her an ideal casting for such a role – much like her Baby Doll presence in Sucker Punch. However, she keeps Lucy very real and intriguingly reckless in her ‘awake’ moments, as we watch a woman searching for her profound mark and social acceptance, being passively aggressive in trying to achieve that. Lucy is a user as much as she is used, forever thinking about the financial gain in her various encounters. It all comes back to your own view of those in the adult entertainment – exploited or empowered? You decide, hence the divided opinion.

That is not to say Leigh’s film does set out to outrageously disturb, especially with Man 2 scenes in the Sleeping Beauty Chamber. These depict the extreme position of Lucy’s trance-like subordination. They also act as the catalyst to her awakening from the ‘poison’ – like in the fairy tale. Leigh keeps the camera wide, implicating us in events as we watch like fascinated voyeurs. This makes viewing even more unsettling and guilt-ridden at times. But the most affecting aspect is Man 1 and his calmly delivered monologue addressed direct to us, the camera, that in hindsight, is the haunting aspect of the film, because it’s a  situation perpetuated by societal norms that frown upon the exposure of the older figure. This injects a sense of huge melancholy into proceedings as ingrained biases are questioned.

Leigh’s work first incites extreme views then raises urgent questions that cannot be ignored about the dark depths of the human psyche. Sleeping Beauty will arouse interest, purely because of its supposed tabooed subject matter and the promise for Browning fans of seeing their heroine in all her natural glory. As the director said, it’s hard to establish an objective review of what you witness in Sleeping Beauty because it is purely down to one’s own conditioning. If that sounds like a cop-out, it isn’t meant to be. One thing is for certain this feature is what is loosely known as ‘challenging cinema’.

3/5 stars

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Real Steel ****

It seems that every film-maker going after the youth market is adding gadgets and robots to films, as if the human interest side of their stories is not enough to keep the younger, video-gaming generation engaged. So it’s great to see a robot film that concentrates on the human relationships for once, and one that floors you with its big heart and endearing lead performances, even though the poignant life lesson told is totally clichéd.

Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is a washed-up boxer who lost his chance at a title when 2000-pound, 8-foot-tall steel robots took over the ring. Now he earns just enough money piecing together low-end bots from scrap metal to get from one underground boxing venue to the next. When Charlie hits rock bottom, he reluctantly teams up with his estranged son Max (Dakota Goyo) to build and train a championship contender, ATOM, who Max accidentally discovers in a scrap metal yard one night. With their champ winning every bout, they land in the ultimate World Robot Boxing fight.

As big as its heart, Real Steel is simply made for IMAX viewing, especially with the metal-verses-metal clashes in the ring. Fear not, though; it’s not like watching an eye-boggling, tangled visual mess of robotic Transformer limbs. And it’s not 3D. The robots in this are like dumb pets, totally reliant on human input to operate, but forming personalities of their own all the same.

As Shawn Levy places the emphasis on his human characters far more, there is a massive feel-good factor to be had watching Charlie and son bicker then eventually bond – even if Charlie and Max’s path starts out as the typical angry, misunderstood, smart kid who teaches his immature oaf of a father how to relate to others (that aren’t made of metal). Some of the lines are equally corny, such as Max yelling to his father, “I want you to fight for me. That’s all I ever wanted”, which totally sums up the emotional pull this film has. Mostly though, it never takes itself too seriously, allowing you to forgive its flaws and have fun going along on the ride.

Jackman’s American accent may waver in this and his acting turns wooden at times, but his fighting spirit shines through in infectious waves. This is a made-for-father-and-son movie that explores the ups and downs of fatherly responsibility. Jackman as Charlie is not only the Alpha male turned good in this, but looks mighty fine, too, for adoring fans. Goyo is surprisingly good at timing his reactions to Jackman, and is the miniature comedian in this, with a lot more charisma than a lot of child actors deliver nowadays. There is also a nice addition of Lost’s Evangeline Lilly as Charlie’s old-time friend and love interest Bailey, who is the daughter of the boxing coach who taught him. Lilly has an equally believable fighting spirit earned from her time on Lost, which compliments that of Jackman’s rough-and-ready response.

It’s hard to tell whether the big fighting scene at the end is well crafted, or like watching any real-life sparring match, the hype of the stadium recreation simply triggers your exhilaration. Levy wisely stops short of making the finale totally implausible, giving us just enough to go home on a natural high with – even with creeping doubts as to how motion-sensitive ATOM manages to fight his terrifying component AND watch Charlie’s moves at the same time. Still, Real Steel is an absolute crowd pleaser full of energy, warm, humour and undying passion.

4/5 stars

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The Three Musketeers ***

Author Alexandre Dumas‘s classic novel The Three Musketeers has been done to death, time and time again. None so like this swashbuckling silliness that’s child-friendly and borrows heavily from Gulliver’s Travels and the success of the Pirates franchise.

Paul W.S. Anderson’s film centres on young hothead D’Artagnan (Logan Lerman) – as well as lots of gadgets – who comes to Paris to become a Musketeer and encounters with his soon-to-be friends and fellow Musketeers, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. The Musketeers unite to defeat a beautiful double agent, Milady de Winter (Milla Jovovich), and her villainous employer from seizing the French throne and engulfing Europe in war.

There is no denying how inventive director Anderson and co have been here, as well as injected a lot of harmless fun into the story. The 2011 version has a lot less clashing of swords and far more amazing flying machines – Anderson admitted to his and the production team’s fascination with Germanic contraptions of centuries past at the London press conference. It’s still a shame, though, as the Musketeering quad of Matthew Macfadyen (Athos), Ray Stevenson (Porthos), Lerman (D’Artagnan) and Luke Evans (Aramis) makes for a fine group of hearty personalities with some comical banter that gets a little overshadowed by all the gadgets on show – all in order to keep the youngsters engaged, presumably.

It’s also very much a ‘Jovovich show’ – she’s married to Anderson who made her a star in Resident Evil. As the female villain of the piece, Jovovich fares better at being devilish than her male counterparts, but her Matrix slow-mo copycat moves and sporadic catwalk posing and TV make-up ad close-ups tire easily. Anderson appears to be steering Jovovich’s career in a different comedy direction – or getting his missus involved in films that they and their kids can sit down together and watch.

Typecast as a baddie since he burst onto the international scene as Col. Hans Landa in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, Christoph Waltz does his best, bored villainous piece as the cunning Richelieu and is always a pleasure to watch. It’s the other dastardly men in this, Orlando Bloom as the cocky Duke of Buckingham and Mads Mikkelsen as the war-mongering Rochefort who are most disappointing. Bloom seems woefully ill equipped and miscast to play a conceited villain, while Bond baddie Mikkelsen’s is easily overlooked and pretty much forgotten. Basically, there is not enough theatrics from both to match the film’s goofy sentiment.

Talking of panto, Freddie Fox is a surprise tonic as young King Louis, making the part his own in a vulnerably eccentric manner, and portraying a younger monarch that is more fitting to the time period. His presence outshines that of Bloom’s, even when he doesn’t utter a word. It’s a credit to Fox’s talent and an exciting premise for like roles to come.

Fans of Pirates and Gulliver’s Travels may be tempted by this giddy adaptation, but those who hold the tales of the Musketeers dearly to heart may feel a little wanting.

3/5 stars

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