Spectre ****

spectre

The year’s most hotly anticipated film is finally out. Spectre pays homage to many Bond outings before it, with fans recognising elements from previous films that made them so memorable. While Spectre has something for everyone, it does not have that dark, rich emotional pull of Skyfall (2012), which saw the demise of female M (Judi Dench). It does have a couple of surprises though, sure to give those fond of Skyfall a thrill.

A cryptic message from the past sends James Bond, 007 (Daniel Craig) on a rogue mission to Mexico City and then Rome, where he meets Lucia Sciarra (Monica Bellucci), the beautiful widow of an infamous criminal Bond was after in Mexico. In turn, Bond infiltrates a secret meeting and uncovers the existence of the sinister organisation known as SPECTRE led by shadowy figure Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz).

Meanwhile, in London, the value (and cost) of the ‘00’ spy operation is being called into question in favour of surveillance tech in a new Centre of National Security (CNS) housed across the river from the now derelict MI6 HQ. This puts M (Ralph Fiennes) at loggerheads with the CNS’s head Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott). 007 must covertly enlist Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Whishaw) to help him find Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), the daughter of his old nemesis, who may hold the clue to untangling the web of SPECTRE.

From Bond’s breathtaking rooftop sprint while Mexico City’s ‘Day of the Dead’ festival is in full Gothic swing below, to octopus-tentacle-tickling opening titles sung by Sam Smith, Spectre sets out to thrill from the start. It’s slicker, sexier and better (and more impacting) than any glossy car ad before it – complete with a new pair of stunning wheels and another exhilarating car chase. This is how we expect our Bond to be served the last decade plus, from Casino Royale (2006) to now, like a Bourne action flick – the case of the chicken or the egg? The uncovering of the SPECTRE organisation is pure latter-day Bond in style and fight choreography too, with a touch of retro 007 in production design.

For those who crave yonder years Bonds, 007’s first encounter with Ms Swann harks back to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, for example, in a snowy location – Seydoux herself, a Sixties-styled leading lady, not to mention the traditionally curvaceous lady in Bellucci as the widow with a price on her head. Even hefty henchman Mr Hinx (Dave Bautista) has all the subtly of The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker’s Jaws.

The big reveal will have Bond baddie aficionados either cheering from the seats or groaning in unison too, as director Sam Mendes and writing team John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Jez Butterworth make a (tenuous) link between Ian Fleming’s characters, all leading to one infamous puppet master. Tying in nicely with this back home in London is the all too sad, real-life fact that spying is going the way of police profiling and CCTV – prevention first – as budgets get slashed. This is a very nice touch that gives Spectre an air of credibility, as times of austerity have finally caught up with the Bond franchise in plot only.

The cast of Spectre does a grand job of their respective roles, with Waltz being the only one who disappoints a little as he doesn’t have the opportunity to really channelling enough of that sinister Inglourious Basterds’ Landa malice that we come to expect. His character is rendered more comical and caricature-like than is possibly intended, even when his serious link to Bond is fully spelt out. In this respect, there is a vague ‘familiar’ similarity to Mendes’ Skyfall final scenes.

Spectre has its niggles and perhaps, as with every new Bond, high expectations to meet. However, Mendes does try to please everyone here – and does so on the whole, so it’s a definite hit as the chickens come home to roost and Craig hangs up his tight-fitting suit.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Maya The Bee ***

maya-the-bee

You could be forgiven for thinking you’ve seen Maya the Bee before. She is 103 years old, after all, the Apidaen heroine of German writer Waldemar Bonsels’ 1922 children’s book, The Adventures of Maya the Bee. She’s also the star of a late 1970s’ German TV series based on the book, and more recently, a 2012 German/Austrian/Japanese one.

Nevertheless, it’s the fact that you may be more familiar with Disney-Pixar’s A Bug’s Life (1998) and DreamWorks’ Bee Movie (2007), so Maya seems like just another colourful animated insect trying to make something of her existence, even though she’s the great-grandma of the bunch. That said there is still a little innocent pleasure to be had from Maya the Bee (2014) though.

As soon as she is born, Maya the Bee (voiced by Mad Max: Fury Road’s Coco Jack Gillies) discovers she is one of an army of worker bees who are not allowed to dream or have fun but must work for the Queen (Miriam Margolyes). Maya decides she’s not just ‘a number’ and wants to dream and have fun, putting her in the direct line of fire with the Queen’s scheming personal adviser Buzzlina Von Beena (Jacki Weaver).

Buzzlina expels Maya from the hive – for despotic reasons other than the young bee’s continual disobedience, forcing Maya to find her own path in the meadow filled with danger. Maya persuades new Apidae chum Willy (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) to come along for the ride, where they encounter chirpy Cockney grasshopper Flip (Richard Roxburgh), who is a well of local knowledge.

Unbeknown to them, they also befriend Sting (Joel Franco), who turns out to be the son of hornet leader Hank (Andy McPhee), the bees’ sworn enemy. When the Queen’s special honey goes missing, a potential war between bees and hornets is on the cards, threatening the whole meadow. It’s down to Maya to save the day.

Anyone familiar with the storybook knows the ending. Those who don’t can guess it straightaway. However, the Studio 100-Flying Bark Productions 3D film has a slight spin on the original 1922 tale’s battle, perhaps bringing it up to date with more peace-seeking times. The rest is a fairly average but charming affair and less of an assault on the adult senses than the hyperactive big-studio offerings.

As Maya aims squarely for the younger, pre-teen market, it is quite innocuous in nature, even in its gag-telling, so there are no real double entendres for the grown-ups to snigger at. It’s a cuddly old-fashioned family flick with all the harm of Mary Poppins – and comes complete with musical numbers, thanks to its very own Cockney character.

Like all family films, it is stuffed with morals, from being yourself and striving to be the very best, to being tolerant of others. In an animation with far less detail in frame to marvel at (except some of the vivid sky palettes), it’s more obvious too. This is almost to the detriment of more thrills, which younger kids do come to expect nowadays with such a feature. With the studios’ ending tweak of the original tale, the prior build-up seems short-lived and flat in favour of being on message yet again.

Still, Maya is button-nosed cute and a positive female lead. Gillies does well to bring her alive and buzzing with confidence and youthful curiosity, while the irony is not lost having Weaver, Animal Kingdom’s malevolent mother, voicing an equally villainous character in Buzzlina.

Maya the Bee is a nice, safe, simplistic cinematic homage to Bonsels’ character. While Maya might be remembered for her sunny-yellow, can-do attitude, the rest can’t necessarily be said about the particulars of the film. There have been too many other insects making their mark on screen for this one to really take flight – even though the Maya doll merchandise handed out on the day was a massive hit.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2015: The Lobster ****

the-lobster

Damned if you are. Damned if you’re not. Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos’s first English-language feature The Lobster puts its characters in an impossible situation. The decision is all theirs in this bizarre but highly comical dark tale set in a dystopian future with completely different ideas on relationships.

David’s (a superb Colin Farrell) wife has just left him for another man, so he decides to book into The Hotel with his dog (actually his brother) to find a new life partner, in order to return and live in The City. He has 45 days or will be transformed into an animal of his choice. In David’s case, that’s a lobster as it lives for over 100 years, is blue-blooded (like an aristocrat), and he likes the sea too.

In the surrounding ‘The Woods’ live singletons or ‘loners’ that are not allowed to couple up, according to draconian rules followed by their leader (played by Bond’s Léa Seydoux). David can earn extra time (in days) at The Hotel for every loner he kills in establishment’s nightly organised hunts. However, after a tragic event at The Hotel, David is forced to become a loner. Ironically, he meets and falls for a ‘Short Sighted Woman’ (Rachel Weisz, who also narrates), someone he would love to have a relationship with.

The first half of the film in The Hotel is the best part by far. The latter half still has its nuggets and intriguing concepts as the overall way of life bemuses the hell out of you. There is a totally warped sense of coupling in both respects, played out in ritualistic dances, sports and breakfast meetings and set uniforms in The Hotel, and hilarious signing between David and his ‘Short Sighted Woman’ in The Woods.

Perhaps the funniest scene is the total lack of control when the ‘couple’ visits the loners’ leader’s parents in The City. Farrell and Weisz are an absolute scream here, openly doing what you only dreamt of doing in full view of the folks when the boyfriend was visiting, in the pretence of being a genuine couple. Weisz is also very funny as the sarcastic narrator, first telling the story of David at The Hotel then becoming part it.

Other delightful performances from an array of international talent include Olivia Colman as the obtuse Hotel Manager, along with her partner (played by Garry Mountaine) – almost certainly a product of their own creation. John C. Reilly is the ‘Lisping Man’ and Ben Whishaw the ‘Limping Man’ who gleefully squabble for our pleasure. Ashley Jensen is ‘Biscuit Woman’ with a penchant for custard creams – and David. The Greek director’s Dogtooth star Angeliki Papoulia is quite chilling as the ‘Heartless Woman’ who susses out David’s game and pursues him like a Terminator.

The Lobster has wonderful extremes too, from wildly absurd, laugh-out-loud moments to totally shocking brutality, often throwing you off course. The ending does let it down a bit as the effect of the brilliant set-up of this crazy dual existence seems to wane, which is a shame. Still, The Lobster is devilishly entertaining with some of the most original and deadpan crackpot wit on offer in a long time.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2015: Suffragette ****

Suffragette

As a female and a mother, the most sobering part of this film is at the very end. A list of nations rolls with the dates women got the vote. Some dates will profoundly shock. Others will not. Some women are still waiting. It’s the grand finale needed to drive the message home in a film that does not – and cannot – give you a happy ending. Too much was at stake and an awful lot lost.

Set in 1912-1913 at the height of the Suffragette movement, Suffragette follows the story of working-class Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), living with her husband (Ben Whishaw) and young son in London’s Bethnal Green, East End. Maud has worked long hours in a local laundry since she was a little girl, run by leering boss Mr Taylor (Geoff Bell) who uses every opportunity to abuse certain ‘favourites’ of his female staff.

One co-worker, Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) has had enough and been secretly attending Suffragette meetings, held by local chemist Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter). When a battered Violet is unable to speak before ministers to put forward her case for women’s suffrage, Maud is persuaded to step in. Something changes at that moment as Maud realises the importance of what these women stand for. However, joining the campaign will mean ostracism and heartache for her, and her way of life drastically altered forever.

Director Sarah Gavron and screenwriter Abi Morgan’s drama is designed to be highly emotive and empowering. It’s hard not to get behind Maud on such an important issue – and it’s not necessarily about getting the vote, but liberating fifty per cent of the UK’s population at the time.

Even though none of the fight is pictured in a particularly favourable light, it’s not meant to be – except, perhaps, the romanticised and very brief outing of Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst on a balcony then dashing into a waiting carriage while telling women everywhere to stand true and never give up. Gavron uses uncompromising shots to show the true brutality of the suffragettes verses authority. It may well be a period drama but it’s gritty like newsreel and quite unforgiving. It also highlights the stark reality of what happened if you got caught, with unpleasant reconstructions of prison suffering and torture.

In this respect, Mulligan’s weary, urchin-looking demeanour is perfectly cast and most harrowing when she losses that which is most dear to her. This point in the film – after following the escalation of previous sacrifices – will totally appal any parent at the tragic consequences reached when a mother and a wife is trying to bring about a better life, but not necessarily with the support of those closest to her.

The female cast is stellar and a draw in itself, but there is no posturing for screen time. In fact, the likes of Bonham Carter, for example, is very understated here. Romola Garai as middle-class Alice Haughton, a politician’s wife is equally downcast. Duff encapsulates all the physical scars of a suffragette of the time, including the emotional toll. Surrounding their characters is a greater menace of public shame and humiliation that puts a further gloom over the picture. However, it’s still Mulligan’s triumph as Maud as she grows from a wretched shell to a promising leader and independent.

Suffragette is a film on a mission to educate, and does so in an unambiguous fashion. It is deeply effecting and relevant with great performances that challenge perceptions. It may well beg for awards nods, but it is nevertheless a film that needed to be made – and even more significant is that it was by a female crew too.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Intern ***

the-intern

Life is grim in times of austerity, especially for those facing their autumn years in life. So what better than an uplifting film from the Nancy Meyers’ collection of ‘cosy life stories’ that embraces the more mature in the technology world. Yes, it may seem a little far-fetched in reality as we all know over thirty-somethings seem over the hill in this environment, cast aside for the energy of youth. However, The Intern takes this sorry premise and cynically pokes fun at it. Remember, with age comes wisdom, it seems.

70-year-old widower Ben Whittaker (Robert De Niro) has discovered that retirement isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Seizing an opportunity to get back in the game, he becomes a senior intern at an online fashion site, founded and run by Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway). Whittaker finds a new romance along the way while saving another.

Meyers magic returns for fans now living in the faster-paced 21st century and with life online. The rest of the scenario is much the same in The Intern, with cosy settings that we all dream of living and working in, ‘beautiful’ people to match, and events that spark a collective ‘sigh’ of contentment – but not without a little ripple or two to resolve first.

The Intern is the perfect vehicle for a mature De Niro to do his trademark ‘told you so’ frown and head tilt, while Hathaway flaps and talks ten to the dozen in her Devil Wears Prada way, complete with perfect painted pout – only this time she’s the Streep ‘Miranda Priestly’ character, the boss. Except, Ostin is flawed and struggling to keep it together, perhaps an analogy for the fickleness of the online business world too? Apart from ‘older and wiser’, it seems ‘old ways are the best ways’ too, the latest Meyers’ moral to be taken away here – or a reassurance for anyone approaching the ‘ancient age’ of 30+.

The Intern oozes charm, warm wit and cuteness in massive Meyer mounts; either let yourself bathe in it and come out feeling the world is not such a cold and hopeless place, or refrain and encounter every cliché in the sentimental book that you’ll feel like you’re drowning, while none of the scenarios have an ounce of believability – expect, perhaps, the workaholic partner endangering their idyllic family life, and the naivety of youth played out by some ‘clown-like’ characters.

The latter feeling rises to the surface here quite often, but does give the more cynical viewer a good chuckle at the characters’ expense. Hence, there is enjoyment to be had by either party watching. The actual reality here is a Meyers’ moment reaches the hearts others cannot reach, without investment in the story. There’s something for everyone, however much some try to fight it. It’s harmless escapism that we secretly wish to be true; The Intern is just the current Meyers tale in her emotional arsenal – nothing more, nothing less.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Martian ****

the-martian

“I am the greatest botanist on this planet”, says Mark Watney, a NASA astronaut who’s been left behind on Mars – presumed dead – as the only living soul. The ever-likeable Matt Damon convincingly plays Watney in another standout role, just that like that of Jason Bourne in the Bourne saga.

Watney’s line is one of the many in this gripping solo delivery and would ordinarily seem corny in a big blockbuster but demonstrates a playful comedic theme that runs right through director Ridley Scott’s new space epic, The Martian. The story’s intriguing contrast is the serious subject matter of Watney’s situation verses his positive can-do attitude and will to survive that render his situation more accessible to us and ‘lightens’ the mood.

That’s not to say Scott’s sumptuous cinematic spectacle – one of his best in a long time – doesn’t pull any action-packed punches and rack the tension sky high when needed. Indeed, The Martian comes with a surprising number of nail-biting moments that Watney encounters then resolves to the best of his ability – and with some devilish, sarcastic wit. There is also the daring grand finale that stretches credibility somewhat but works.

Back on Earth, NASA boffins and chiefs try to figure out how to get him back – or face an international PR disaster, much along the lines of many a space disaster movie such as Apollo 13. The fascination here is not mechanical fixes as such, but botanical ones – the first movie of its kind to relish the appearance of the humble potato. Apart from our curiosity about possible survival on Mars, it’s the very fact that Watney uses his environment and man’s ‘space junk’ to make Mars inhabitable that makes The Martian something different from the rest of the space disaster bunch.

Damon does not act entirely alone – albeit in parallel – in the film, getting some tremendous support from the likes of Jessica Chastain (Watney’s compromised commander), Jeff Daniels (NASA chief) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (another harassed NASA big-wig who has to find operational solutions). There are even some commendable performances from Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Michael Peña and Kate Mara to name a few that each serve their purpose to bolster the storyline.

In fact, nothing, it seems, human or inanimate, goes to waste here, making The Martian a very satisfying watch and a return to the Scott glory days.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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