Since Star Wars came out in 1977, all of the successive sequels and prequels that follows have skewed more or less towards a younger market; even The Empire Strikes Back has cheesy puppets and romantic elements which drop the ball, and from return of the Jedi onwards, it’s strictly for kids. Rogue One reverses the trend; it’s a dark, gritty, downbeat epic that tells the story of how the rebels captured the plans for the Death Star, a kind of Guns of Navarone in space. As well as addressing a number of plot holes in the original film, Rogue One feels more like a war film than a family-friendly blockbuster; parents with kids under ten should be warned that the good guys get their asses kicked here. But the formula of the original films is well-adhered to in Gareth Edwards’s one-off adventure; robot sidekick K2-S0 generates some good comedy touches, which are much needed because the storyline and characters are deliberately bleak. The introduction of a CGI Peter Cushing is regrettable, looking more like a video-game character and never resembling the original actor for a moment. But as the narrative builds to a massive multi-layed battle and a brilliant bit of business with a stuck door, Rogue One is the best entry in the series since, well, the original Star Wars itself.
Ian Fleming’s less developed franchise has so far run to only one film; a pity, since Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a strange and rather wonderful piece of work. Inventor Caractacus Potts (Dick Van Dyke) and squeeze Truly Scrumptious (Sally Ann Howes) restore an ancient Grand Prix car and head off with some kids on an adventure to child-less domain Vulgaria. Screenwriter Roald Dahl only based the sunny first half of the film on Fleming’s work; the second, a dark and frightening turn of events, is entirely Dahl’s own, and the creation of the Child-catcher (Aussie dance-whizz Robert Helpman) typifies Dahl’s macabre sense of humour. The overtones generally are far too dark for family audiences, but a slew of famous names supporting (James Robertson Justice, Benny Hill, plus many of the Bond cast) plus Ken Adam’s amazing set design and some singable songs make Ken Hughes’s film one you’ll get a Chitty Chitty Bang Bang from.
Long before Space Cowboys or Sully, Clint Eastwood was flexing his muscles with this high-tech thriller with an aviation rather than web-browser bent. Mitchell Gant (Eastwood) is recruited to infiltrate Soviet Russia and return in the cockpit of the Firefox, a plane so high-tech it responds to the thoughts of the pilot. The first half of the film has a lot of Clint standing around in toilets looking pensive, but once Gant gets his hands on the plane, it’s all action fare; even if the projection work isn’t quite to modern standards, it’s amazing for 1982. Adapted from Craig Thomas’s novel, Firefox is still fun to watch, even just as a record of Eastwood learning his trade; a strong supporting cast including Nigel Hawthorne, Freddie Jones, Warren Clarke and Ronald Lacey are also along for the ride in this unusual star vehicle. Reboot, please!
After the huge success of The Sting, neither Paul Newman, or Robert Redford fancied another, so this sequel represents a mighty downgrade on most aspects of the package. Who better to step into the shoes of Newman than Jackie Gleason? Almost anyone. And if Mac Davis is a like-for-like substitute for Redford, it’s a strange equation indeed. It’s another con-man story, with rollercoasters, boxing and all kinds of period attractions thrown in. But despite the lack of star-power, there’s much to enjoy here, with a super script by the same author, David S Ward, more wonderful soundtrack work from Lalo Schifrin, and some neat support from Karl Marlden, Oliver Reed and Teri Garr. Forever in the shadow of the original film, The Sting II is actually a pretty good film in its own right, and worth checking out for curiosity’s sake.
Hailed as a return to form for Tim Burton, Miss Peregrine is more like a return to familiar ground; Burton’s obsessions are never buried deep in his work, and it’s not like he was dampening his style down for Big Eyes, Frankenweenie or Dark Shadows. But this YA adaptation of the book by Ransom Riggs has a more confident and epic scope as it relates the story of a young boy Jake (Asa Butterfield) who is won over by the many gifted children of Miss Peregrine (Evan Green). There’s some complex, time-shifting story-telling here, and a strange visual atmosphere involving the British coastal resort of Blackpool. A strong supporting cast including Rupert Everett and Judi Dench don’t get to contribute much, but Green is as good as ever, and Burton seems to have remembered what his audience like to see; channeling his off-kilter style into a compelling narrative.
Another expensive-to-realise, hard-to-relate-to premise is featured in Ron Howard’s seafaring adventure; who wants to hear the true story that inspired Moby Dick? But Howard is a craftsman, and even his weaker efforts have some fun elements. A framing story, featuring Herman Melville (Ben Wishaw in a stuck-on beard) interviewing Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) about his past, is complete gibberish, but has a lovely background of a New England town. Things perk up when Liam Hemsworth swashbuckles his way centre-stage as Owen Chase, whose ship is sunk by a giant white whale, and then tail off into a unsatisfying story about cannibalism. But where In The Heart of the Sea fails as drama, it gets points for originality; it’s as high, wide and handsome as the hero, and evokes the spirit if not the letter of Melville’s work.
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.