Early Man

Cast: (voiced by) Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Maisie Williams, Timothy Spall

Director: Nick Park

Writers: Mark Burton, James Higginson

It has been a decade since the release of A Matter of Loaf and Death, Nick Park’s previous directorial work. A year later Disney produced The Princess and the Frog, which failed to secure a sizeable return, leading the animation giant to all but abandon hand-drawn animation as a format and instead focus on creating CGI features like those of Pixar. Such is the nature of the technology-dependent industry of cinema where the old, laborious, time-consuming methods are being left behind for the ease and convenience of the modern digital age. Aardman Animation now remains as one of the few leading producers of mainstream animation to keep one of the old practices alive, that being stop-motion. It is a meticulous, painstaking style of filmmaking where an efficient, productive week by a sizeable, multi-skilled team will result in about four or five seconds of filmed footage. At that rate, one might ask whether stop-motion is even worth it. Enter Early Man, an underdog story about a small community fighting against a new age of technology in order to preserve the ways of the past.

Early Man is set in the Stone Age where a young caveman named Dug lives in a peaceful valley with his rabbit hunting tribe. Bobnar, the chief of a tribe, is a cautious, passive sort who is perfectly content not venturing beyond their own territory or hunting any larger game, whereas Dug is keen to try new things and take a few risks. Their docile lifestyle is interrupted by the arrival Lord Nooth and his Bronze Age army (complete the bronze-clad mammoths). They seize the valley for themselves and exiles Dug and his people into the volcanic badlands. Dug finds his way to Nooth’s city and there learns about the ancient, celebrated ritual of football. Standing in the middle of the stadium with the entire crowd watching, Dug challenges Nooth and his elite team to a football match for the return of his home. Nooth accepts, trusting that Dug and his tribe will prove too inept and dim-witted to prevail. This proves to be exactly the case until Goona, a resident of the Bronze city whose gender excludes her from being allowed to play football despite her clear talent, steps in to help them.

Much like Monsters University, which had an entire extraordinary world at its disposal and squandered it in order to make an 80s college movie, Early Man neglects to explore its own world of possibilities in order to make a British sports comedy. From the opening scene we are introduced to a land of volcanoes, dinosaurs, and prehistoric tribes of differing technology, and yet all it leads up to is a formulaic football match with a few jokes and a foregone conclusion. From the second act onwards the movie devolves into training sequences as Dug and his clan attempt to work out the ins and outs of football with the occasional aside to check in Nooth as he makes his preparations for the climatic game, and at some point the Stone Age setting just felt superfluous. It allows for a few clever visual gags, but this is ultimately a story that could have been told at any time which is why it feels like such a wasted opportunity. The film simply follows the typical beats that generic sports movies tend to follow and the characters you follow along the way just aren’t compelling or charming enough to carry it.

Beyond being an underdog sports movie though, Early Man is first and foremost a children’s comedy and it is one that is not at all embarrassed to be childish and silly. Your enjoyment of the film will therefore depend on whether you’re into that kind of humour. Jokes include animals being used a substitutes for modern-day inventions a la The Flintstones (baby crocodiles as clothes pin, a scarab beetle as a beard trimmer, an actual zebra as a zebra crossing, that kind of thing) and endless wordplay like Nooth ordering his soldiers to “start mining ore”, only for one of them to reply “or what?” For the most part the comedy didn’t really do it for me. I did smile at a few bits like a peasant woman exclaiming sliced bread to be “the best thing since… well, ever” and Bobnar declaring himself too elderly to play football at the old age of 32, but I found most of the jokes to be rather predictable and familiar and never found myself enraptured by the novelty of it all. Still it isn’t really the film’s fault, none of the humour is lazy, witless, or forced, you’re just either into it or you’re not. Still, some things did grow on me like the recurring gag about the message bird and Hiddleston’s unyielding commitment to a French accent worthy of a Monty Python character, but then there are all the football related jokes which aren’t especially funny if you’re not a fan of football.

Early Man is one of those movies where you can take it or leave it. Anybody who watches the trailer will know instinctively whether this film is for them or not, and I for my part wasn’t very optimistic (even with the mind behind Wallace & Gromit attached). Having said that, it is film that clearly took a lot of care and effort to make. The craft and attention to detail that went into the creation of the sets and models is to be applauded and the movie incorporates so much movement and visual comedy, from the elaborate to the blink-and-you-miss-it, that I cannot even imagine how many man hours went into putting it all together. I do wish they’d dedicated that effort towards a more worthwhile story, but I’ll take sincerity and care for one’s work where I can get it. Stop-motion is such a laborious process, it’s pretty much a guarantee that any movie that follows it all the way through will be a labour of love. Early Man pales in comparison to Aardman Animation’s greatest achievements, but it’s fun and harmless enough for kids and it at least tries to offer them something inventive and creative even if it doesn’t fully deliver.



Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, Carmen Ejogo, Ron Perlman, Colin Farrell

Director: David Yates

Writer: J.K. Rowling

As a Brit, I was of course required by law to read the Harry Potter books growing up and, like everyone else, I loved them. The epic adventure, the unforgettable characters, the profound morals, the thrills, the imagination, the sensation and the magic of it all; I loved every bit of it. Although I don’t think the film series as a whole truly captured the books in all their appeal and wonder (a few of them got close though, my favourite being Prisoner of Azkaban), they have undeniably left their impact in recent movie history and I suppose a spin-off was only a matter of time. J.K. Rowling is still very much a part of the franchise and has penned the screenplay to this feature, a move that could either have worked very well or very badly. On one hand Rowling is the mastermind behind this magical universe so who better to decide on its next direction? The same however can be said of George Lucas who ran his own franchise into the ground because nobody would dare tamper with his vision. Either way, I was very interested in seeing what the result would be.

The film takes us away from Hogwarts and transports us to New York in the Jazz Age, a decade of glamour and prosperity for the States, but also one of repression and intolerance. Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) has arrived on a boat on his way to Arizona. In his suitcase are a host of diverse, magical creatures including the mischievous, platypus-like Niffler, which escapes and wreaks havoc in a bank. During the chaos Newt accidently swaps suitcases with a No-Maj (an American Muggle) aspiring baker called Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). While Newt is taken into custody by Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a recently demoted Auror, three creatures escape into the city and must be recaptured. Meanwhile Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) has emerged as a leading No-Maj voice against wizardry in light of the recent crimes of the infamous Gellert Grindelwald. Her abused son Credence (Ezra Miller) however has found a friend in Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), a high-ranking Auror who is searching for a mysterious creature that has caused great destruction around Manhattan. These two stories intersect as Newt discovers the nature of this creature and the truth of Graves’ intentions.

By taking such a drastic change in its setting from the familiar magical school in England to 1920s New York, much is gained but also lost by this film. It is a change that allows for a new exploration of Rowling’s world from a side that has been almost entirely untouched even by the books. This breakaway from the books also allows the film considerably more freedom with its characters and narrative than Harry Potter’s story ever allowed. The downside is that much of what we identified with Rowling’s universe is lost in the transition. It is admittedly difficult to define what exactly constitutes an identity that extends beyond character and setting except that we know it when we see it. It’s the reason why The Hobbit films, while reviving many familiar people and places, didn’t quite feel like The Lord of the Rings. Fantastic Beasts doesn’t have to be Harry Potter, but it does have to feel like it. Does it succeed? Yes… to an extent. There is that sense of darkness and wonder that were defining traits of the Harry Potter series as well as some of the whimsy from the two Columbus films. But there is also some of that generic, artificial blockbuster action that I would associate with a superhero movie before I would with Rowling’s stories. How many movies have we seen by this point where a large city gets levelled by an unstoppable force of CGI? Enough for it to feel tired in this film.

Now, this isn’t to say that Fantastic Beasts is not an entertaining, enjoyable movie in its own right, because it is. It has a likeable protagonist in Newt Scamandar, an eccentric wizard with some tics and a sly grin that evoked memories of Matt Smith as The Doctor. Fogler shines as Jacob Kowalski, the comic-relief sidekick who manages to be more than a comic-relief sidekick. He is our Muggle (sorry, No-Maj) surrogate in this world of magic and, just like us when we were first introduced to Rowling’s universe, he falls in love. The Potterverse is one of those franchises that can have its pick of top-quality actors and Fantastic Beasts gets its fair sure, including a couple of big American stars. Amongst the strongest of these supporting performances are such names as Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller and Ron Perlman. There is also an ensemble of cartoon-like magical creatures (a little too cartoony in my opinion) that will delight little children to no end. The film is at its best when it just takes a moment to revel in the world it inhabits and to enjoy the wondrous things in it. The moment my interest waned was the climax when the film ceased to be its own unique thing and instead became another typical fantasy-action blockbuster. Not bad or dull, just routine.

David Yates, who directed four of the eight Harry Potter films, is very much the safe choice for this film and he delivers about what you’d expect. He and Rowling mercifully restrain themselves from DC levels of franchise building with only the odd reference to Dumbledore, a woman called Lestrange and a (rather obvious) plot twist near the end. The story for the most part is self-contained and easy to follow. There is some of the darkness that Harry Potter was known for as the strained relationship between the wizarding and No-Maj worlds arouse themes of prejudice and intolerance. Credence’s story is also quite grim as he seems to display hints of a magical nature (and perhaps a bit of affection for his confidante that many at the time might have regarded as intolerable) but is forced to suppress that side of himself for fear of being discovered by his puritanical mother. On balance with the cutesy scenes with the magical creatures however I don’t think there is much in this film that’ll scare kids. Fantastic Beasts is by all accounts a fun, enjoyable film. The climax was underwhelming and some characters were forgettable but I definitely had a good time. There were parts that made me laugh, there were one or two moving scenes, and there were moments of spectacle that struck my inner-child. Whether this film will overcome the shadow cast by Harry Potter is a question that only the future can answer.


The Danish Girl

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ben Whishaw, Sebastian Koch, Amber Heard

Director: Tom Hooper

Writer: Lucinda Coxon

In a year where transgender stories and themes were able to reach a wider mainstream audience on TV with such shows as Transparent, Sense8, Boy Meets Girl, and of course I am Cait, the transgender movement has never been more visible or widely supported. Therefore there was much expectation for The Danish Girl which many hoped would help take the cause even further. Although there is a progressive history of transgender cinema, (The Crying Game, Boys Don’t Cry and Transamerica to name a few) few of the filmmakers driving it have had the mainstream appeal of Tom Hooper, the Oscar-winning director of The King’s Speech and Les Misérables. Given the significant rise in prominence the subject matter has made in recent years I was curious to see whether The Danish Girl would be the film that everybody wants it to be.

The film tells the real life story of Lili Elbe, one of the first known people to receive sex reassignment surgery. Before Lili there was Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne), a successful landscape artist living in 1920s Copenhagen. When his wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander), herself an aspiring artist, asks him to stand in for a female model Einar undergoes an awakening. As he finds himself entranced in his role as a woman, he discovers another side of himself whom he christens Lili. Over time Einar grows to understand that Lili has always been there deep within his sub-conscious and realises that she represents the core of who he truly is. This sets off a progression as Lili tries to leave her former identity behind so that she might live her life free from constraint and repression. When she discovers Dr Kurt Warnekros (Sebastian Koch), whose work concerns the practice of gender reassignment, Lili sees it as her chance for salvation.

The main problem with this film is that it is too safe. I believe the film was well-intentioned and wanted to pay all due respect to this woman’s story but it doesn’t take it far enough. Vital themes are underexplored; the focal characters are underwritten; and important questions are left unasked. The central conflict of this film is that between Lili and Einar where she must confront the reality that she is a woman trapped in a man’s body. The film however never goes deep enough to really explore the suffocation and confinement she must feel nor does it ever get to the heart of who Lili actually is. The focus of this film is placed on Lili’s situation rather than on Lili herself, resulting in a story without a character. The film also tries to incorporate Gerda’s struggle into the story as she confronts the prospect of losing her husband in order to help Lili. Her story is handled better than Lili’s is as the film showcases how this situation is just as difficult for her. The story is not handled badly nor would I call this film dull, it just seems airless to me. The film knows what it wants to say but it isn’t brave or daring enough to say it.

The actors for the most part do well with what they are given. I understand that the decision to cast the cisgender Eddie Redmayne as Lili got a lot of controversy but I thought he did very well considering. His performance is understated and vulnerable and he does a good job of conveying the anguish of a person torn between two identities. Alicia Vikander has gone from strength to strength this year and gives what is easily the film’s best performance. Her character’s struggle to help the person she loves become who she needs to be even though it means erasing the life that they have together is portrayed with such heart and sensitivity. Hooper for his part gives the film a very refined and elegant look much like a painting. As a director he has often favoured extreme close-ups of his characters and employs it to effective use with his intimate shots of Einar as he discovers and explores his feminine side.

The film’s refined and elegant tone however is also its let-down. The film tries so hard to tell this story in a tasteful and sensitive way that it ends up whitewashing the elements that really matter. The focus is placed on the conceptual element of the story rather than on the human element which means that the character at the centre of it all gets downplayed. There are occasional glimpses of the film that could’ve been (I remember one particularly moving scene taking place at a peep-show) but for the most part The Danish Girl plays it safe with its subject matter. I was hoping that this film would help introduce transgender themes to a wider mainstream audience but the problem is that the film itself is too mainstream. It is a noble, well-meaning effort but a reserved one nevertheless.


Jupiter Ascending

Cast: Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton, Maria Doyle Kennedy

Directors: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski

Writers: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski

No one can accuse the Wachowski brothers of being unambitious, but their films tend to be hit or miss. Just about everyone loves The Matrix and V for Vendetta, but the Matrix sequels and Speed Racer are universally despised. Cloud Atlas has proven to be divisive (personally I thought it was a great film). The Wachowskis are essentially two filmmakers who appear to want the best of two worlds. They want to make intelligent and insightful thought-provoking films, but they also want to make entertaining and exciting action films. Sometimes they succeed and sometimes they don’t. Jupiter Ascending is one of their misses.

The plot centres on Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), a Russian immigrant who was born under the stars as her family made their journey to America. Before his death her father, an enthusiastic astrologer, expressed a wish that his daughter be named after the greatest and most beautiful planet in the solar system. As she was being born there were signs written in the stars above, prophesying the greatness that awaits her.

Meanwhile, deep in space, we are introduced to the House of Abrasex whose matriarch has died. Her three children Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Kalique (Tuppence Middleton), and Titus (Douglas Booth) are fighting each other over her inheritance. They speak to each other in fanciful dialogue, consisting almost entirely of exposition, about politics and planets and other things we don’t care about until the subject of the Earth comes up. The Earth is apparently a key factor in whatever business it is they are discussing and becomes a matter of great interest to them.

Cut to a few years later where Jupiter and her mother are caretakers who make their living cleaning the houses of rich families. She often expresses how much she hates her life (and I mean often) and constantly wishes that she could be elsewhere. Beyond that her personality is non-existent. In order to raise some money for a telescope like the one her father had, Jupiter agrees to sell her eggs to a clinic. During the procedure the doctors and nurses turn out to be agents of Balem who have been sent to kill her. A mysterious figure bursts into the room, guns blazing, and saves Jupiter’s life. This alien warrior, Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) reveals to Jupiter the existence of extra-terrestrial life and informs her of the great destiny that awaits her. That’s probably as far as I can go without venturing into spoiler territory but I should probably say that the story that follows does not prove to be particularly exciting or interesting.

Jupiter Ascending is effectively style over substance. The visual effects are absolutely superb. The worlds they display are beautiful, creative and stunning. Rather than a sci-fi film, Jupiter Ascending is more of a fantasy set in space (like Star Wars) and so the sets and costumes are grand and epic like you would expect in a fantasy. The action scenes are somewhat entertaining but they often become so muddled and unclear that it is very easy to lose track of what is actually happening. Also, despite being a visual spectacle, this film failed to make any effective use of the 3D technology. Like so many other filmmakers, the Wachowskis don’t seem to realise the possibilities that come with making a 3D film and simply made their visuals jump at the screen a bit.

However the areas in which this film really falls short is in story and character. Jupiter is an uninspired protagonist who barely does anything throughout the film beyond serving as a damsel in distress. Caine is a typical impassive warrior whose role is to constantly rescue Jupiter from danger (seriously, every single action scene consists of him rushing in to save her). He is also obviously there to serve as a love interest to Jupiter despite not sharing any chemistry with her, leading to some very forced and awkward dialogue between them. None of this is a criticism against the actors, I’m sure they did their best, but against the bad writing and directing that they had to work with. Eddie Redmayne, someone who I know is a good actor, gives an unintentionally funny performance as the film’s main villain Balem. The way he alternates from underacting with a silly sounding voice to overacting with an even sillier sounding voice is hilarious. To give a performance that ridiculous could only have been accomplished through truly bad direction.

Jupiter Ascending tries to tell a Star Wars-like story about a young, ingenuous protagonist who stumbles her way into a grand galactic adventure in which she discovers that she has an important destiny to fulfil. However this film does not have any of the characters, the thrills or the heart that made Star Wars such a great trilogy. What the Wachowskis made instead was a film that, while visually stunning, is completely lacking in compelling characters, an interesting plot, and emotion.


The Theory of Everything

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Charlie Cox, David Thewlis, Simon McBurney, Emily Watson

Director: James Marsh

Writer: Anthony McCarten

Last year I saw a documentary about Stephen Hawking which introduced me to his remarkable story. I was deeply moved by the extraordinary life that he has led and was very much looking forward to seeing his story realised in a dramatic form. However I do realise that a remarkable story does not necessarily make a remarkable film and shall attempt to assess this film based on its own merits. With that in mind, The Theory of Everything is in itself a rather moving film that admirably depicts the struggle of a man with a brilliant mind suffering from motor neurone disease and the struggle of his equally brilliant wife in her effort to support him.

The film starts off at Cambridge University in 1963 where an astrophysics student named Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and a literature student named Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones) meet at a party. Stephen is shown to possess a very advanced mind and a keen thirst for knowledge as he reveals his greatest aspiration to be the search for the answer to life and existence. Jane meanwhile shows herself to be a very learned and cultured woman who is fascinated by Stephen’s intelligence but is not daunted by it as she challenges him on his dismissal of God’s existence. The two are smitten with each other and soon embark on a romantic relationship. The way this is done is a bit too romanticised for my liking (eyes meeting from across the room and all that), but the chemistry this couple shares is captivating and so I find myself willing to overlook this.

While this is happening Stephen starts showing the early signs of his disease as he has difficulties picking things up and stumbles slightly as he walks. He shrugs off these symptoms and attends a lecture on black holes which finally gives him the inspiration he needs to form a working theory about the creation of the universe. As he begins his pursuit of this theory he has an accident that leads him to visit the hospital. It is here that he receives his crushing diagnosis. Stephen is told that he has a degenerative disease that will deprive him of the control over his body and is given two years to live. Despite his attempt to push Jane away in order to spare her from pain and heartbreak, she finds out the truth and resolves to make the most of what little time they may have together. The rest of the film portrays the difficulties that Stephen’s disease brings to his work and marriage as he and his wife fight tooth and nail not to let his disease defeat them.

Eddie Redmayne delivers a breath-taking performance as Stephen Hawking both emotionally and physically. His portrayal of the effects of motor neurone disease on the way he walks, talks, looks and behaves are so convincing and so harrowing to watch that one often forgets that he is in fact an actor playing a part. He shows great conviction as Stephen in his effort not to let his condition prevent him from becoming one of the greatest minds in scientific study.Felicity Jones delivers a formidable performance as a woman struggling to cope with the life that she has chosen. She gives up her own ambitions so that Stephen might realise his as she dedicates herself to Stephen’s care and to raising their children. Jones depicts her character’s struggle with such heart and turmoil that it becomes all too apparent that this disease has just as heavy a toll on Jane as it does on her husband. Through Jane the film raises compelling questions about love and marriage and what exactly it means to love someone in sickness and in health.

It is often the case with biopics that the screenwriter and director merely attempt to recreate the key moments of the subject’s life, almost like a greatest hits compilation, without attempting any insight into the people themselves or what they did. The Theory of Everything is not one of those films. The director James Marsh and the screenwriter Anthony McCarten do not merely attempt to portray the struggle that this couple endured, they attempt to understand it by showing how it affected them. Stephen copes with the loss of his body by using the one resource that he still controls, his mind. He focuses all of his efforts onto his work so that he might do the one thing he knows he can do well and not allow himself to be limited by his disease. By doing so he neglects Jane who in turn must seek love and affection where she can find it, all the while never forgetting her duty and responsibility to her husband. This does not go unnoticed by Stephen, nor does he judge her for it.

The Theory of Everything is a wonderfully sensitive film that provides insightful reflections on these two characters and the marriage that they shared. It raises the challenges inherent with being unable to love someone or to be loved by their hearts’ desire. It depicts a powerful story of mind over matter. It provides an inspired and honest portrayal of a truly remarkable man and his remarkable life and marriage.