Captain America: Civil War (3D) ****

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Government bureaucrats are meddling again – this time with the Avengers. Ironically, mirroring sentiments of the Brexit brigade, the new Captain America: Civil War (3D) film sees the super-powered brethren divided when asked to conform to a set of rules drawn up by several countries, after their antics get out of control. The film then asks its Avenger players – and you – to choose sides. Cue big clash scene then confrontation with the real villain. It sounds like a familiar format (trouble brews, send in the Avengers), but Civil War is bursting with action, drama and genuine character individuality.

When another incident involves Avengers collateral damage and lives are lost, the global nations put pressure on the group to sign a document of accountability, to be headed by a governing body. This divides opinion at Avengers HQ, resulting in two camps: Steve Rogers/Captain America (against) verses Tony Stark/Iron Man (for). The other Avengers must chose sides, while the real culprit behind the atrocities still roams free.

There is a lot more happening in Civil War than previous films like Age of Ultron (2015). Marvel’s notorious characters are each given breathing space to reveal more of their personalities in reaction to the big decision. Naturally, Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron man (Robert Downey Jr.) take centre-stage as team leaders. In return for exposing the characters we get greater satisfaction, plus a very real sense of what’s at stake when the two sides square up.

The fight scenes are some of the best cinematic Avengers ones so far, still incorporating flying bodies and colourful debris, but allowing momentary pauses for character commentary, while neatly setting the scene for the following Infinity War films (2018). There is a massive thrill seeing your favourite Avenger ‘play fighting’ with its peers in a playground-like brawl at an airport, and guessing whose power trumps another’s.

On a more serious note, the ultimate scuffle between Captain America/Steve Rogers and Iron Man/Tony Stark feels like watching sibling rivalry with deeper, more damaging elements at play. This ugly standoff questions the boundaries of loyalty – and to whom? It’s a fascinating subject matter for fans.

The returning Avengers cast of Evans, Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow), Sebastian Stan (Winter Soldier), Anthony Mackie (Falcon), Don Cheadle (War Machine), Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye), Paul Bettany (Vision), Elizabeth Olsen (Wanda/Scarlet Witch), Paul Rudd (Ant-Man) and Frank Grillo (Crossbones) pull out all the stops to give this saga an enormous amount of the wit, tension and natural energy.

Newcomers Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther and Tom Holland as all-new Spider-Man do a fine job of bringing their comic-book characters to life, so it’s hard not to feel excited at the end for the Black Panther solo outing, also expected in 2018.

Holland has the biggest chore to convince us that we need yet another Spidey depiction but notches up enough laughs in this, and more than holds his own in his first meeting with Downey Jr.’s wise-cracking Stark. Still, you can’t help but think what Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker could have delivered though. It does feel like Holland has studied his predecessor’s portrayal closely.

It’s still down to a touch of Downey Jr. charisma to be the main catalyst. Evans’s all-American hero icon is forever dutifully composed but again, feels very wooden and two-dimensional, even with a personal bereavement story to deal with. Olsen’s uncredited Wanda in The Winter Soldier (2014) steals the thunder, especially with her intriguing relationship with Vision. For sheer comedy value, Rudd’s Ant-Man is hilarious, especially in the airport scene, keeping interest ticking along for the forthcoming Ant-Man and the Wasp, again out in 2018.

Daniel Brühl of Rush fame has the task of being lone villain Zemo among all the Avengers, stirring up the pot in the background but still managing to have an intriguing back-story to hand when needed. Brühl is always solid in his roles, so no surprises here.

The Russo Brothers, responsible for the direction of The Winter Soldier are showing their impressive expertise in tackling the plethora of Avenger characters in an intelligent and sophisticated fashion, making the two-part Infinity War series sequel to Age of Ultron – and introducing Josh Brolin as eagerly anticipated supervillain Thanos – a very exciting prospect in their very capable hands.

Captain America: Civil War is the smartest Avengers film to date and serves as a well-made introduction to the Marvel characters for any newbies. New cast members and old-timers do not disappoint, even with a lot of personalities at stake. Though Evans is now embedded as Captain America, in this reviewer’s opinion, the jury is still out as to whether he was the best possible choice opposite the Downey Jr. dynamo, especially when he headlines his own film once again. Thank goodness for the other Avengers.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Jungle Book (3D) ****

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Sometimes it pays off to remake a classic, especially a live-action version because we not only get to revisit some beloved characters, but see them transformed into real-life forms. This is the case with Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, first animated by Disney in 1967 to become a household classic, then brought to life much later in 1994 with Jason Scott Lee as an adult Mowgli, the human star of the story.

Disney’s 2016 live-action The Jungle Book remains absolutely true to the 1967 story, and has youngster Mowgli, impressively played by rising new star Neel Sethi. It also has the full arsenal of latter-day special effects to hand. In fact, it’s so in-tune with what is deemed by big studios as being an ultimate kids’ action film offering today – complete with 3D, it also bombards you with vision and sound on an IMAX screen.

This is thrilling to witness as it ravages the senses in half the scenes, but often too scary and intimidating for younger kids to deal with – parents, be warned by the PG rating. My three-year-old was terrified by the stampeding wildebeest and mudslides, let alone the likes of Shere Khan or Kaa in full swing.

In the story, a young boy called Mowgli (Sethi) is found in the jungle by a black panther called Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley) and taken to be raised by wolves as a man-cub. However, embittered tiger Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba) warns the animals that Mowgli will grow up to be a man and ultimately, put them in danger with the ‘red flower’ (fire). He threatens to kill the boy before he reaches adulthood.

After the death of wolf-pack leader Akela (voiced by Giancarlo Esposito), Shere Khan begins his man-cub hunt. Mowgli reluctantly flees into the jungle, guided by Bagheera and con-artist bear Baloo (voiced by Bill Murray). Hence Mowgli’s journey of self-discovery begins.

The 2016 film does look glorious on an IMAX screen, though watching it in 3D is another ‘fad’ and not necessary to enjoying its full impact, especially as the glasses at our Leicester Square screening didn’t come in kiddy-friendly-size. The result is small kids end up part-watching a fuzzy image, which is a great shame. With the impressive sound, this film is effective enough, but the big screen exposes you to its spectacular landscapes and really immerses you into the jungle terrain. 2D would still do the trick though.

Fear not, the latest, kinetic incarnation has all the classic songs too, for a bit of downtime from the arresting action. Murray’s voice is perfect as cheeky Baloo, especially when he breaks into song with ‘Bare Necessities’, making the character his own. Elba as Shere Khan is truly menacing. Christopher Walken lends his voice to King Louie, the King of the Swingers (monkeys), conjuring up images of a singing-and-dancing Walken of Fatboy Slim video fame having just as much fun here, though not as nimble as Louie.

If there was a weaker voice to the cast, it would be Scarlett Johansson as slippery snake Kaa. While Sterling Holloway’s 1967 lisping tones are long gone, Johansson’s supposedly seductive ones do not quite do the terrifying reptile image justice, even though the visuals more than compensate to bring on a chill factor.

The Jungle Book (2016) is full of vibrant creativity, noise and movement, probably requiring more than one viewing to fully appreciate what has gone into producing it. This makes it a childhood classic all over again. However, little ones might be best left to the original cartoon version – or run the risk of nightmares, even if the live-action dramatics still compels them to watch through one open eye in your lap until the very end.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2015: The Brand New Testament ***

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Imagine Dad is actually God, but you don’t get on with him, or have his vision for the minions below. It’s time to write a brand New Testament to put things right. This is the highly entertaining premise behind filmmaker Jaco Van Dormael’s quirky new Belgian comedy, starring Catherine Deneuve among others.

God (Benoît Poelvoorde) is Belgian and a nasty piece of work. He runs our meagre existence from a rundown block of flats while living with his downtrodden wife (Yolande Moreau) – who’s actually a goddess – and rebellious young daughter Ea (Pili Groyne). To add to matters, his son, Jesus Christ, has gone and got himself crucified, though communicates still with Ea as a statute in her room.

Ea decides it’s time to set matters straight and stop her controlling, bigoted, vicious slob of a father from doing any more mischief or harm. She will find another six apostles to take the number to 18 – the number of players in her mother’s beloved sports game – while causing chaos on Dad’s computer. Ea ‘falls’ to Earth via her family washing machine to find an assortment of contenders; one a natural born killer, another a lonely woman (Deneuve) who falls in love with a gorilla.

The Brand New Testament has that vinaigrette-wash, subdued cinematic hue of Delicatessen (1991) in God’s apartment, combined with the cuteness of character of Amélie (2001) when little Ea is in frame, and the eccentricity of Mood Indigo (2013) for the sheer imaginative lunacy. It is your very typical Gallic comedy farce with delightfully touching moments of nuttiness. The trouble is, while bathing in its absurdity and religious analogy, it never feels like it really transcends to any great heights – to knock on the pearly gates, so to speak. Rather, it keeps you satisfactorily tittering along the way.

The film is part-divided up into chapters of the six new disciples, giving ample screen time and detail to each. This is done in the usual fashion of the character being introduced on camera first, before the narrator lays bare their situation. Far from breaking up continuity, this method keeps things intriguing and controlled, allowing the unique madness of each character’s situation to pour forth – while Ea watches on.

The acting cannot be faulted. It’s young Groyne as Ea who is tasked with linking the tale’s elements and keeping interest brewing – and she does this as effectively as she can. Poelvoorde is utterly vile as God, misogynistic and motor-mouthed and always deserving of his mortal punishments. Amélie’s Moreau does ‘half-baked’ exceptionally well – as ever. Deneuve is as poised and picture-perfect as usual, so it’s wonderfully amusing to witness this former aloof screen siren self-mock while in the arms of a horny primate.

The Brand New Testament feels like a big box of frogs while breaking religious satirical taboo. It’s very liberating in fact. Even though the finale is a colourful, hallucinogenic one, there just seems to be a missing element to link the apostles’ scenarios with the concluding scenes. Thankfully, their chapters contain enough substance to mask this fact.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Midnight Special ****

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Filmmaker Jeff Nichols always gives us very real characters, ones that have to fight for their lot. It’s this passion that makes his work so remarkable and memorable, from Take Shelter (2011) to Mud (2012). His latest, sci-fi-toned addition, Midnight Special, is no different, using the element of the unexplained to further add complexity to what we understand as a ‘relationship’. Muse Michael Shannon takes centre-stage again, an actor with such an emotional resolve that we shudder at his inner turmoil, without a word ever passing his lips.

Shannon plays doting father, Roy, who goes on the run with his gifted but ‘poorly’ young son Alton (a brilliant Jaeden Lieberher), aided by old friend, ex-cop Lucas (Joel Edgerton on fine form). A religious sect and the Government are after Alton – the mystery is why?

It’s the power of the unknown that steers Nichols’s film. Its constant ambiguity prompts question after bigger question from its characters and its audience. Like all great 80s/90s sci-fi, there is an inherit paranoia surrounding events of the darker side of the authorities who want to control anything they don’t understand. This feeds our desire for father and son to reach whatever final destination they need to reach, whether it spells tragedy.

The casting is as exquisite as is the writing here, with Shannon and his retro, Fifties-hero screen presence a formidable contradiction of towering strength and crushing vulnerability. As his character progresses on this road movie he is constantly learning – as are we. The need for answers becomes overwhelming, sweeping you along in the narrative that is essentially a very basic one on paper. It’s intelligent filmmaking from Nichols who whips the status quo up into something far grander.

The special effects feel very real, ironically, even with a large dose of the supernatural. The ending conjures up feelings from first-time viewing of Cameron’s The Abyss (1989) too, which also made believable correlations between human/organic and alien existence, questioning man’s knowledge of the watery depths of our oceans. Midnight Special poses similar questions about the ‘after life’ with its juxtapositioning of science and religion.

As coaxing and hypnotic as the pace of Nichols’s films are, Midnight Special is not as even as Mud. There are some odd moments of unnecessary padding. It’s questionable as to how relevant Kirsten Dunst’s character Sarah (Alton’s mother) is, short of answering where Alton supposedly originated from. The story is really Shannon’s to help us understand Alton’s journey.

Midnight Special will delight fans of intelligent sci-fi, weary of current-day, big special effects and yearning to revisit man’s connection to the universe and beyond. Its magical quality makes it special, and the core relationship will tug hard at the heartstrings, without you realizing, until the very end, how deep an impact it has made.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Huntsman: Winter’s War (3D) **

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You’d be forgiven for wondering, where’s Snow White? Many references are made to our heroine of the much darker 2012 film, Snow White and The Huntsman, but she’s very much absent. This was the first challenge facing new team, director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan and writers Evan Spiliotopoulos and Craig Mazin. The second was creating s story interesting enough to sustain the run-time. In fact, there are several stories that all have merit, but sadly, the weakest of the lot is what the filmmakers run with.

In this prequel/sequel, evil Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) is still up to her old tricks, though this time, we get introduced to her younger sister, Queen Freya (Emily Blunt) and their rivalry – predating Snow White. After Freya’s ill-fated union with a duke leads to the death of her infant child, Queen Freya’s sorcery is awoken and in her grief, she turns into a ice queen and flees to the Northern hemisphere. If she can’t raise her own child, she will take those of others and train them to be her army, her Huntsmen. The warrior leaders are Eric (Chris Hemsworth reprising his role from 2012) and Sara (Jessica Chastain).

Eric and Sara fall in love, forbidden in Queen Freya’s kingdom. They are found out and banished. Meanwhile as the war between the rival sisters escalates, Snow White tries to capture the magic mirror, with the help of Eric. The Huntsman discovers an old flame on the way while trying to combat Ravenna’s wicked intentions.

It’s great to see the return of Theron in the role. The trouble is she gets very little screen-time. That’s not to say Blunt’s arrival as Freya is not as chilling or effective, it’s just the ‘sisters at war’ is a far more intriguing story and not fully explained. Instead, a lot of time is given over to our Huntsman road movie, complete with sidekick dwarves Nion (Nick Frost) and Gryff (Rob Brydon), who only really get into their comic stride with the arrival of feisty, no-nonsense female dwarf Mrs. Bromwyn, played by the ever witty Sheridan Smith. Even though this is The Huntsman’s tale of how things began, pre-Snow White, he really is only muscular eye candy for us, as well as a cheeky Mrs. Bromwyn.

Chastain’s ‘Katniss Everdeen’ character Sara does her very best to spice the scenes up with her Huntsman but it always falls to either the impressive special effects or Smith’s banter to get any real thrills going. The rest is padding. Things feel half-cooked and perhaps, there’s just too much on the plate to satisfactorily explain every story arc. Yes, it does feel like you’re watching a live-action Frozen at times too. But hey, why not tap into that film’s success, which ironically has a troubled-sister relationship at its core.

As predicted, the final queen showdown builds up well only to feel a huge letdown before anything impressive has really happened. The evil is suppressed too quickly, leaving that deflated feeling of wanting so much more before the inevitable fairy-tale ending. Perhaps the special effects budget was all used up on Ravenna’s ‘spectacular’ talents?

The Huntsman: Winter’s War has potential but follows the wrong lead story. It needed to be strong to justify it being made. It does feel lacking without its key character Snow White, even though Frozen fans can get to fantasise about a live-action Elsa.

2/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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