Natasha Lyonne is well-known from her turn in Orange Is The New Black, but her film career is varied to say the least; the star of American Pie, Yoga Hosers, Scary Movie 2 and Show Dogs would not necessarily be your first port of call for an existentialist drama. As executive producer, creator and writer of Russian Doll, Lyonne deserves a multitude of credit for pushing the boundaries to create a fresh, original and ground-breaking television programme for Netflix. As a Netflix production, the home of the portal, the narrative demands alternate realities a la Maniac or The Good Place, and so Russian Dolls follows Nadia, a young woman with a good-time attitude, an appetite for drink, drugs and men, and a strange predicament by which she keeps dying, and finding herself leaving the bathroom cubicle at her own birthday party over and over again. This scenario sounds a lot like Groundhog Day, but twists neatly in new directions when Nadia meets Alan (Charlie Barnett), a young man whose day begins over and over with him shaving and breaking up with his girlfriend. Russian Doll has layers, as the title might suggest, but it avoids conventions and manages to suggest how reparative patterns in human behaviour might be changed. It’s fast, scabrous, rude, adventurous, and everything that a new TV show should be.
There’s no reviews for Harry Potter films on this blog; they may have been huge at the box-office, but cinematically, they’re all pretty much the same. So Fantastic Beasts seemed like a welcome proposition; take away the familiar characters, but keep the imagination of the JK Rowling world. David Yates’s film is certainly more interesting for its steam-punk NYC aesthetic, and an unfamiliar storyline as Newt (Eddie Redmeyne) arrives in town with a suitcase full of trouble. The CGI is cute enough, and the idea of a city divided by belief in magic has some charm. But even with a few old-stagers like Jon Voight thrown into the mix, some flat performances (Samantha Morton, Colin Farrell, Katherine Waterson) suck out a lot of the goodwill. While Fantastic Beasts is pleasing enough as a time-passer, there’s a lack of engagement on offer that bodes ill for an extended five film franchise. But for now, Yates’s film has enough energy and expense to be a painless if uninspiring watch for those undazzled by Harry’s magic.
Hidden behind a not-very-expressive title and with poster art that suggests another tee fantasy, Your Name is a worthy follow-on to the ground-breaking Studio Ghibli animations. Starting with a gender-bending body-swap, Manako Shinkai‘s film has more to say than most. The two protagonists, Mitshua and Taki get the fun of interfering with each other’s lives, but the story opens out to encompass a natural disaster as a hunk of rock falls to earth and destroys a peaceful village. Your Name then becomes a time-shifting melodrama, as Taki attempts to avert the catastrophe. This is a ghost story, but also a rom-com, and also an action adventure, all in one package, adorned with stunningly imaginative animation and pop songs. It’s great for kids, but adults will understand and appreciate the gravity of the ideas, even if the presentation is sugar-sweet.
Vin Diesel is never afraid over over-sell his material, and his prophesy of a franchise for The Last Witch Hunter seems somewhat redundant when Breck Eisner’s fantasy thriller his screens like a rotten tomato in 2015. Then again, Diesel’s Chronicles of Riddick seemed to have flatlined another franchise until Diesel brought it back from the dead, so who knows? The Last Witch Hunter certainly has something to commend it, not least some tongue-in-cheek support from Michael Caine and some nicely rendered CGI-backdrops as Kaulder (Diesel) cannons through the centuries into a big boss battle with a Queen Witch. With reams of laughable expository dialogue about Witch Prisons to stumble through, The Last Witch Hunter is a nice example of the good-bad movie; it’s gibberish, but at least it’s fluent gibberish.
It’s debatable whether the world really needed a new Tarzan movie in 2016, but David Yates’s lush adventure was probably better than the traditional origins story that might be expected. The Legend of Tarzan begins with Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard) and Jane (Margot Robbie) happily living a sophisticated, domesticated life-style in Britain; the ape-man is lured back to Africa to act as a white-savior and sort out the nefarious activities of Christoph Waltz. The Belgian Congo background is an unfamiliar and colorful terrain, and there’s decent action and suspense sequences as well as a cleverly engineered set of original flashbacks. The Legend of Tarzan may not have rewritten the book as far as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ character is concerned, but it’s original enough blockbuster fare to be going on with.
You can rely on the Wachowski brand to come up with something big and colourful, and with some big ideas too. It’s just a shame that their dialogue and characterization can sometimes seem so wayward. By the time Eddie Redmayne’s intergalactic ruler announces ‘at least my mother never cleaned toilets!’ it’s clear that Jupiter Ascending is better filed under camp than classic, but maybe such a basket of random elements is better read in that way. Mila Kunis plays a Chicago toilet cleaner who gets ensnared by roller-skating mercenary angel (an ideally cast Channing Tatum) and transported to play her role in an on-going space-war. Sean Bean turns up to discuss bee-keeping and the general ‘anything goes’ atmosphere runs against the lashings of CGI required to make this ridiculous story work. Jupiter Ascending is a silly, fun adventure, probably not what the studio were hoping for, but of certain interest to connoisseurs of how large amounts of money can be turned into producing liquid steam-punk gibberish; for bad movie fans, there’s plenty of misfiring bang for your buck here.
Adapting games is a mug’s game, but director Duncan Jones has already shown he’s no mug with Source Code and Moon. And while the was plenty of derision for Warcraft, his adaptation of the popular game, Jones pulled out a great-looking and decidedly original slice of fantasy adventure, replete with giant orcs, massive set-piece action in the Avatar fashion, and some interesting political allusions. Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel) is caught between sides as mages battle to keep a giant portal shut that’s stopping orc hoards from invading, and Paula Patton’s Garona is along for the ride. Ben Forster plays a Merlin-type mage, while an accomplished cast includes Clancy Brown and Ruth Negga. For non-game players, it’s hard to work out what’s happening, but an overall theme of grunts betrayed by politicos is not hard to find, and Warcraft at least seems to be sticking to the combative mindset of a game; the action scene are big and beautiful to behold, and it’s something different from conventional blockbuster fare.