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Kingsman: The Golden Circle

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Kingsman: The Secret Service was one of the most pleasant cinematic surprises of 2015. Based on Mark Millar’s mildly misanthropic comic book, director Matthew Vaughn improved upon the source material, adding style, pathos and whimsy; a trick he also pulled off with the film adaptation of Kick-Ass. Kingsman: The Golden Circle is also a surprise but, sadly, this time around it’s not such a pleasant one.

Set a year after the events of the original, The Golden Circle wastes little time in literally blowing up the status quo. In short order, Eggsy (Taron Egerton) loses his home, place of work, a bunch of coworkers and dog. Teamed up with Merlin (Mark Strong) the pair travel to America to meet the Statesmen, the US equivalent of Kingsman, who fight the forces of evil with laser lassos and weaponised spittin’ tobacky. Yee-hah and so forth.

The 141 minute film is required to perform a balancing act where it gives our leads a proper story, introduce new characters in the form of Tequilla (Channing Tatum), Ginger Ale (Halle Berry) and Champagne (Jeff Bridges), plus concoct a satisfying villain, Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore) with a nefarious plan for world domination. Sadly it fails at many of these tasks, with baffling pacing decisions that make the main action feel truncated but a scene where Eggsy has to finger bang Clara Von Gluckfberg (Poppy Delevingne) at Glastonbury (to insert a tracking device, natch) drags on interminably.

That’s not to say The Golden Circle is without its moments. When the film takes a minute to breathe the character work is solid. Taron Egerton, Mark Strong and Colin Firth are all reliably excellent, although the inclusion of the latter takes up way too much screen time. The action is frenetic and well-directed, but nothing comes close to topping the gleefully splattery church massacre from the original. Julianne Moore’s Poppy starts strong, and includes some semi-subversive chatter about the war on drugs, but ultimately squanders the opportunity.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle seems less interested in skewering spy movie tropes and notions of class in favour of including celebrity guest spots, like an initially amusing but ludicrously overplayed Elton John cameo. It’s a film that manages to be sporadically engaging but is too bloated and unwieldy to hit the mark like its predecessor. It’s unfortunate because you get the feeling there’s a good film in there, somewhere, but it’s buried under a landfill of winking self congratulation and unnecessary callbacks. If the Kingsmen return for a third outing hopefully they’ll think to include the services of a judicious script editor next time.

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It is an enormous 1,138 page novel from Maine’s maestro of the macabre, Stephen King. It was released in 1986 and remains one of the most iconic horror novels of all time. It spans eras, time, dimensions and, frankly, is close to unadaptable. That hasn’t stopped people from trying, mind you.

In 1990 the US ABC network had a crack with a 3+ hour miniseries that was released in other territories as a really long “movie”. It featured a bloodless, bare bones retelling of the book’s biggest beats – but was too truncated and toothless to capture the menace and suspense of the novel. Although Tim Curry was fun as the villain.

In 2009 director of the “good season” of True Detective, Cary Fukunaga, attempted an ambitious take on the book that ultimately fell through due to that most nefarious Hollywood monster, “creative differences”.

That brings us to 2017. It, directed by Andrés Muschietti (Mama) is finally here, and the result is likely to have Stephen King fans and general audiences alike riveted. After 31 long, grumpy years they finally made an It adaptation worthy of the source material.

For those who haven’t made the literary journey into King’s masterpiece, It tells the tale of a group of kids – a self described “Loser’s Club” – who live in the strange and eerie town of Derry, Maine. Children have been disappearing in Derry and when Bill Denbrough’s (Jaeden Lieberher) little brother, Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) is taken by something lurking in the sewers, it begins an adventure that is part coming of age story/part unrelenting horror rollercoaster.

From the arm-ripping opening sequence It lets you know it’s not fucking around. This is a horror movie with a capital “H” and isn’t trying to pretend otherwise. Bill Skarsgård delivers an eerie performance as the main form of the titular menace, Pennywise the Dancing Clown. His drooling, wall-eyed Pennywise manages to straddle the line between absurdity and fear; making him a fascinating monster to watch.

The Losers are also fantastic for the most part, with superb takes on the characters of Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard) and Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer). Of course with a cast this large some characters get short shrift, and sadly Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) feels relegated to a near cameo, with most of his character work given to Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), which will have ardent fans of the book baffled.

While we’re talking negatives it has to be said that not all of the horror beats land. There’s a sense that director Andrés Muschietti really wants to make sure everyone in the damn audience is scared, so he’ll often machine gun the horror right into your face, noisily and prolifically. That said, when it does land it does so beautifully, often cleverly juxtaposed with a moment of laugh out loud humour or genuine pathos.

It is not a perfect adaptation. At 135 minutes It is long for a movie and yet doesn’t even cover 50% of the book. While the book becomes a strange, surreal tale of interdimensional chaos, the movie veers more towards a pulpy popcorn horror experience. The good news is: it’s a really bloody good pulpy, popcorn experience.

Ultimately It is a big, ballsy, crowd-pleasing monster movie with wonderful characters, creative scares and a sense of style and place that anchors the tall tale. It’s dense with wonderful little touches, stylish flourishes and pathos that actually works. Put simply, It is very likely to be the best wide release horror movie of 2017 and the best executed Stephen King adaptation in a long damn time.

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Game of Thrones S7E7: The Dragon and the Wolf

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[SPOILER WARNING: Please don’t read unless you’ve seen the episode. I mean, come on, you know how this works]

Season seven of Game of Thrones has whipped past quickly, some have opined too quickly. We’re in the show’s third act now and on occasion logic and consistency have been sacrificed at the altar of momentum. Nevertheless, here we are, at the finale of the penultimate season. So does “The Dragon and the Wolf” manage to live up to the heaviest of expectations? Let’s have foaming tankard of recap first.

The episode begins with The Unsullied arriving at King’s Landing. Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Bronn (Jerome Flynn) have some delightful patter about being surrounded by an army of “men without cocks”, but they’re just bantering to hide their nervousness. Today is an important day for the realm and things could go very badly.

Jon Snow (Kit Harington), Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) and Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) share their nervousness as they’re landing deep in enemy territory. Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann) checks to see if their “special” zombie cargo is still a screamer. It is.

Everyone’s heading for the important parley in the Dragonpit, you see, and no one’s quite sure what the other will do. On the walk there we have a few nice moments with Podric (Daniel Portman) and Tyrion, Bronn and Tyrion – it’s good to see these two together again – but the best moment by far is with Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) and Sandor. The Hound actually smiles when Brienne explains that Arya (Maisie Williams) is safe and with her family at Winterfell. Honestly, the Hound having a cheeky grin is probably the most unexpected thing to happen all episode.

Still, the friendly banter can’t last and the world’s deadliest staff meeting is about to begin, with a very well-armed HR department ready to enforce the rules. Cersei (Lena Headey) arrives and scowls fiercely. Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbæk) has a smirk-off with Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen). The Hound checks out his brother, The Mountain’s (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson), bold new zombie look and thinks it’s a bit tacky. Everyone manages to behave themselves for the moment and then Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) arrives on a dragon. The lady makes a hell of an entrance.

The meeting gets off to an awkward start. Euron starts to heckle Theon and Tyrion, but Cersei and Jaime shut him down. They want to hear what Tyrion has to say, or at least, they want to appear that way. Tyrion makes his pitch about the army of the dead, but it’s clear visual aids are needed. Rather than go with pie charts and graphs, The Hound brings out the blue-eyed zombie captured in last week’s ep, “Beyond the Wall”. The screechy dead thing takes a run at Cersei but The Hound clefts it in twain. “There is only one war that matters,” Jon explains, “The Great War – and it is here.”

Euron claims to be terrified and buggers off back to the Iron Islands, which seems suspiciously out of character. Cersei seems convinced of the threat, and more than a little freaked out, and says she’ll fight with Dany and Jon as long as the latter stays in the North. Jon tells her no, he’s bent the knee to Dany and Cersei storms off.

Tyrion wryly tells Jon that sometimes it’s a good thing to fib a little. Jon gives (yet another) impassioned TED talk about being honest in a post-truth Westeros, but maybe pick your moments, eh? Tyrion decides he should be the one to talk with Cersei. Seems like you’d be safer with the wights, mate.

In the episode’s best scene we have a long-awaited one on one with Cersei and Tyrion. Lena Headey is particularly effective in this scene, bringing genuine pathos to her character, as she lashes Tyrion with words regarding the death of her father and children. Peter Dinklage brings his usual wounded dignity to the table, offering his life if Cersei really wants to take it. She doesn’t, not really, and they both calm down, a little. The turning point is when Tyrion works out that Cersei is pregnant.

Jon and Dany have a bittersweet bit of business amongst the stunted dragon bones when Tyrion returns… with Cersei following. “The darkness is coming for us all… we will face it together” Cersei proclaims. “And when the Great War is over, perhaps you’ll remember I chose to help.” This is actually a great bit of character work for Cersei, if true, but can we possibly trust a word she says?

In Winterfell, Sansa (Sophie Turner) has the shits re: Jon bending the knee to Dany. Petyr Baelish (Aidan Gillen) continues to implicate Arya and isolate Sansa. Collectively GoT fans pray that Sansa hasn’t suddenly become stupid enough to believe him.

Battle plans are made in Dragonstone, and Dany announces she and Jon will sail together to the North. Afterwards Theon talks with Jon, trying to make him understand that he seeks redemption. Jon tells Theon it’s not for him to forgive, but maybe rescuing his sister, Yara Greyjoy (Gemma Whelan) would be a good start.

This plan proves less popular with Theon’s crew and he cops a savage beating. However this time he doesn’t turn tail, and after taking a misplaced knee to the not-cock (seriously, it’s a running theme for this episode) Theon triumphs and re-baptises himself in the sea. The crew are now with him (fickle bunch) and will follow his lead to rescue Yara.

At Winterfell, Sansa and Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) have Arya sent to the great hall, where armed soldiers surround her. “You stand accused of treason and murder,” Sansa says imperiously, “how do you answer these charges… Lord Baelish?” Yes, in a twist that isn’t terribly surprising but quite cathartic we find out Sansa, Arya and Bran have been aware of Littlefinger’s fuckery to at least some degree. His charges reveal that Petyr is responsible for much of the chaos in Westeros, including Ned Stark’s death. Littlefinger begs for his life, but Sansa calmly intones: “Thank you for all your many lessons, Lord Baelish, I will never forget them.” Then Arya slits his throat and he bleeds out on the cold ground.

Meanwhile Jaime is planning on moving his army North, when Cersei interrupts asking him what the hell he’s doing. Turns out Cersei has no intention of sending anyone northwards and will, instead, keep on being a cartoony supervillain – using Euron to bring a bunch of bad arses called The Golden Company, who have elephants apparently. It’s a shame and Jaime can no longer handle it. Jaime heads to the door and for a moment we think Cersei will have The Mountain kill him… but no. She’s not ready to do that, not yet. As Jaime leaves King’s Landing it begins to snow.

Up North, Samwell Tarly (John Bradley-West) arrives at Winterfell and visits Bran. The subject soon turns to Jon, and Bran is desperate to tell Jon the truth about himself. “No one knows, no one but me,” Bran says incorrectly (Gilly, you never get any respect), “Jon isn’t my father’s son. He’s the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and my aunt, Lyanna Stark.” With some extra exposition from Sam (which, again, Gilly gets no credit for – sorry, Hannah Murray!) it becomes clear that “Rhaegar didn’t kidnap my aunt or rape her, he loved her, and she loved him.” Which of course means: “[Jon’s] never been a bastard, he’s the heir to the Iron Throne.”

This information would have come in really handy for Jon, because at the same time as Bran and Sam are figuring all this out, he and Dany are getting it on. What’s he going to do when he finds out he’s shagging his aunt? And how will Dany react when she realises she’s not the rightful heir to the Iron Throne after all?

Arya and Sansa have a proper bonding moment, thank God, and it’s so sweet it almost makes up for the protracted silliness of this sister vs sister subplot.

Bran wargs to the Wall and we see what we’ve been dreading since the end of last episode. Tormund (Kristofer Hivju) and Beric (Richard Dormer) watch in horror as the army of the dead arrive… with the Night King (Richard Brake) riding a freaking zombie dragon! Everyone tries to flee as the dragon breathes corrosive blue fire all over The Wall but many die as a huge section of The Wall collapses. More importantly – the wights now have unrestricted access to the realms of men. Looks like Tyrion was right when he observed earlier, “we’re fucked.”

Just how fucked will our heroes be? We’ll have to wait until the next and final season but it’s sure to be epic.

Ultimately “The Dragon and the Wolf”, and indeed season seven of Game of Thrones in general, has been more action blockbuster than political drama or character-based thriller. It’s exciting and engaging and occasionally a bit silly, but unique in the televisual landscape.

One thing’s for sure it’s going to a long, cold, wintry wait to see how this sprawling tale ends. Until then, thanks so much for reading these reviews and we’ll see you next time when this song of ice and fire comes to a close.

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Game of Thrones S7E6: Beyond the Wall

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[SPOILER WARNING: Please don’t read unless you’ve seen the episode. I mean, come on, you know how this works

The penultimate episode of each Game of Thrones season tends to be a biggie and holy crap, this is no exception. After a somewhat rushed, piece-moving affair with last week’s “Eastwatch”, GoT delivers a tense, action-packed heartbreaker of an episode with massive ramifications.

We open where we ended last week, heading north of the Wall with Jon Snow (Kit Harington), Jorah (Iain Glen) The Hound (Rory McCann), Berric (Richard Dormer), Gendry (Joe Dempsie), Thoros (Paul Kaye) and Tormund (Kristofer Hivju), plus a bunch of redshirts, traipsing into the unknown.

Lots of character work takes place: Tormund being hilarious, Gendry being pensive, Snowy being serious – everyone gets a nice character moment, leading us to question – who the hell is going to die? Most telling is Tormund’s chat with Jon. They discuss bending the knee regarding Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) and Tormund has a surprisingly layered take on it, referring to Mance Rayder as the King who would not bend the knee, asking: “How many men died for his pride?”

Back at Winterfell, Arya (Maisie Williams) reveals to Sansa (Sophie Turner) that she has the hostage note. Sansa tries to explain herself, but Arya is playing a darker game. She understands the context of the note but wonders if the Northern Lords will be so kind. It’s a tense back and forth between the sisters, but to what end? Where is this subplot going?

At Dragonstone, Dany and Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) talk about heroism, morality and Jon Snow’s relative hotness. The pair clash even though they’re quite closely aligned philosophically. Dany’s pride and temper gets the better of her, especially when Tyrion brings up the topic of who will sit on the throne when Dany has died. “We will discuss the succession after I wear the crown.” Meeting over!

Up north the time for talk is over and shit pops off. In a blizzard of blinding snow, bears attack. Correction: ZOMBIE BEARS! A brutal fight begins with some of the no name extras getting ripped apart. Thoros saves Sandor from a burning bear but gets mauled in the process. The bears are killed (or re-killed, I guess) but Thoros has been gravely injured. He’s alive, for now, but odds on he won’t be making it to the episode’s end.

At Winterfell Sansa turns to Baelish (Aidan Gillen) for help. Oh Sansa, that’s not a good call, mate. Hopefully Sansa or Arya (or preferably both) can see through this scam. Petryr manages to convince Sansa to send Brienne away and lo did the eyes of many a Game of Thrones fan roll.

Team ‘Pretty Fly for a Wight Guy’ finds a smallish group of the dead. It’s now or never. Using a clever trap involving a campfire, the lads demolish all but one screamy zombie who wouldn’t look out of place on The Walking Dead. The zombie is captured but not before he calls for his mates. Jon sends Gendry back to Eastwatch to raven for help. The rest take their captured dead fellow and run as about a million zombies pour after them. They make it to a rock in the middle of a frozen lake. The ice protects them, for now… but the dead are patient and the weak ice will refreeze before too long.

Gendry makes it to The Wall and collapses.

It’s morning back on the tiny island of the dead. Thoros has died in his sleep. No more extra lives for Berric. RIP Topknot. His corpse is burned but things are looking grim. The Night King (Richard Brake) watches from a nearby ridge. Berric reckons the Lord of Light brought him and Jon back for a reason, and perhaps it’s to defeat the blue-eyed commander of the dead. Sandor opines: “Every lord I’ve ever met’s been a cunt. I don’t see why the Lord of Light should be any different.”

Frustratingly we’re back at Winterfell again where Sansa receives an invitation to King’s Landing. Sansa sends Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) off in her place, but this has the stink of a Littlefinger plot. Brienne tries to give Sansa the good oil on Baelish but Sansa doesn’t listen.

Up north, Clegane starts fanging rocks at a zombie. And then it’s on, you guys. It’s ON. The dead attack. It’s an exciting, messy scrap and our heroes fight hard but they can’t possibly last. The dead are simply too many. The remaining extras are whittled down but before any of the named cast can bite it… DANY COMES STORMING IN WITH HER DRAGONS! Honestly, it’s amazing that after “The Spoils of War” a somewhat expected dragon attack can still be so effective, but it’s an absolute goosebumps-running-up-your-arms moment.

But ol’ mate Night King has an ice spear ready and as Jon Snow fights off more dead – when frankly he should just be getting on the damn dragon – The Night King throws the spear and kills Viserion the dragon! Viserion goes down and sinks beneath the ice and it’s weirdly heart-breaking. Jon is also grabbed and pulled beneath the ice by the dead. Dany, our heroes and her remaining two dragons flee, narrowly dodging another ice spear.

Jon emerges from the water and the dead attack but he’s rescued but ol’ Uncle Benjen Stark (Joseph Mawle). Uncle B gives Jon a horse and faces the dead, a battle he swiftly loses but he’s saved his nephew.

Sansa searches Arya’s room for the note but instead discovers her Mission: Impossible face-changing kit. Arya springs her and goes full menace mode. Arya implies she could kill Sansa and take on her identity and then hands her a knife. I’m guessing we’ll see how this all turns out next week, but for the moment this whole subplot feels like a dud note and a forced conflict.

Dany watches over Jon as he recuperates. It took a dead dragon to convince her, but now Dany knows the army of the dead is real. “We are going to destroy the Night King and his army and we will do it together, you have my word.” Dany tells him. Jon then bends the knee, metaphorically (he’s stuck in bed) and the pair have a moment… but despite Jon’s enthusiasm now’s probably not the right time for some loving. Still their alliance is strong.

In the final scene the dead are dragging Viserion’s corpse from the ice and … oh Jesus, The Night King is making a zombie dragon. A ZOMBIE DRAGON, PEOPLE. THIS IS NOT A DRILL. Viserion’s dead eye opens and the episode ends.

Well, holy fucking shit. Game of Thrones promised a third act full of epic battles and shocking developments and thus far has been delivering in a big way.  “Beyond the Wall” is quite simply a brutal, exciting, oddly emotional hour-and-a-bit of television. The battle scenes are superb, Viserion’s death quite shocking and his subsequent resurrection horrific and full of menace for the future.

The Arya/Sansa B-story is less successful, but perhaps it will have more room to breathe next week. You better believe we’ll be here in seven days for the season finale!

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The Dark Tower

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Stephen King’s The Dark Tower book series is epic in every sense of the word. The eight volumes span time, dimensions, other worlds and close to 5,000 pages. It’s strange, majestic and occasionally infuriating, but it makes an unforgettable impact. It’s puzzling then that The Dark Tower movie adaptation is so bland that a mere 24 hours after watching it you may find you struggle to recall any of the details.

The story revolves around 11-year-old Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) a young man with a powerful “shine” aka psychic power. He dreams and draws pictures of a tower, a sinister Man in Black, Walter (Matthew McConaughey) and a heroic Gunslinger, Roland (Idris Elba). Jake believes his dreams are real, but his mother, Laurie (Katheryn Winnick) fears for his sanity.

Leaving aside its bastardisation of the source material, this isn’t a bad set up for a fantasy movie. The problem is that before your bum has had time to settle into your cinema seat, and certainly before an effective tone can be established, Jake whisks himself off through a portal into Mid-World and meets Roland with minimal audience engagement. This, sadly, is a recurring theme in The Dark Tower. Stuff just seems to happen in a blur of murky CGI and underwritten characters.

Director Nikolaj Arcel (A Royal Affair) directs the film with scant flair and absolutely zero atmosphere, delivering a product that manages to make monsters wearing human skins and concentration camps full of psychic teens dull. Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey try valiantly to breathe some life into Akiva Goldsman’s shallow, derivative script but are defeated at every turn by wince-inducing dialogue and baffling character decisions.

Ultimately the best thing that can be said about The Dark Tower is that it’s short. At a mere 95 minutes including credits you won’t have to endure it for long, but one can’t help but feel the sting of wasted potential and misused actors. Stephen King fans will be disappointed, obviously, but it’s hard to imagine even the most forgiving general audience finding something to love in this disjointed, inspiration-free enterprise.

The Dark Tower is a bad film, certainly, but even worse it’s a profoundly ordinary one. An utterly generic take on one of fiction’s more unique tales? Thankee-sai, but no thankee-sai.

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Terminator 2: Judgement Day 3D

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In 1991 director James Cameron unleashed Terminator 2: Judgement Day on an unsuspecting world. If you weren’t alive – or just too young to be aware of films at the time – you should know the effect on cinema was seismic and indelible. T2 redefined what action movies were capable of, set a new standard for storytelling in genre cinema and showcased a director (Cameron) and actors (Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton) at the height of their powers.

Cut to 2017 and cue the limited release of Terminator 2 in 3D. While you may question the need for the re-release there’s no doubt time has been extraordinarily kind to the movie. Time and James Cameron remastering the film for a crisp 4K print, that is.

The plot may not have the dark poetry of the original The Terminator (1984), but the story of young John Connor (Edward Furlong), his damaged but fearless mother, Sarah (Linda Hamilton) and reprogrammed, protector T-800 aka “Uncle Bob” (Arnold Schwarzenegger) remains engaging and surprisingly layered. The screenplay contains not one single wasted beat – which is impressive for a movie that clocks in at a hefty 137 minutes – and the action is of a quality that’s damn near timeless. In fact the only jarring moments that occur are with the use of then-groundbreaking CGI, which looks like a low res screensaver now, and “cool” 90s slang, which was always a bit rubbish to be honest.

The one dud note in the whole enterprise is the 3D, which isn’t bad per se, but doesn’t add much to the proceedings – except in the future war opening and Sarah Connor’s still-harrowing nuclear strike dream. Still, if 3D is the price that needs to be paid to get a stone cold classic like T2 back in the cinema, it seems a small one.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day was a great film when it was released 26 years ago and remains a great film today. If you’ve never seen it on the big screen, or want to experience it properly again, head to the cinema in the week starting August 24. Before Skynet becomes sentient.