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In a nutshell: By jingo, it’s Battleship!

Popcorn rating: 3.5/5

I remember the Battleship board game from when I was a kid. I think it’s fair to say I wasn’t a fan. I certainly wasn’t a player. If anything, Battleship seemed to be an interminably dull game, one that people who liked grey cardigans and thick, dusty books on military strategy might play. Not the type of people I wanted to be consorting with, you understand. And, because I presumed the game itself so be yawnsome, I also presumed it had a series of complex and lengthy rules, like chess. In other words, dull, dull, dull.

Battle ship the movie, on the other hand, sounded right up my street. Dull? As if! Complex and intelligent? As if! Who you kidding cardigan boy? I take your stuffy old game and I give you Rihanna in fatigues and tattoos, I give you big explosions and even bigger specials effects, I give you scary aliens in massive, f*ck off spaceships. I give you Battleship, reimagined.

In many ways, I was right. About the movie that is. The game? Well, let’s just say, I’m still not a fan. On any medium.

So, what’s the movie about? Well, in brief, a naval fleet at Pearl Harbour must battle alien invaders, thwarting their presumably evil intentions and saving the world. That’s it really but, because this is “Hollywood”, selected (and beautiful) humans must also find inner strength and learn some moral lessons, before becoming heroes.

Director Peter Berg (Hancock, The Kingdom) serves up a slice of typical Blockbuster-On-Sea. There are plenty of eye sizzling explosions and big action sequences to keep any eight–year-old happy and they do work, they really do. Our trusty group are likable enough, slacker turned navy man Taylor Kitsch has a certain sweetness, Rihanna and her pal Ordy (Jesse Plemons)  are peppy, while everyone else plays their own version of strong, military type. Oh, and we get to see the aliens in the flesh too, which is good, though they are strangely human, and their motives remain unclear, especially given how reluctant they are to kill people one-on-one yet wreak devastation on a grand scale.

On the downside, and as with so many blockbusters, the actual story is almost laughably bad, from stereotypes (I already mentioned the slacker turned hero but we also have the nerds, the stoical old navy men, the mean daddy/commander, the beautiful girl….I could go on) to cheesy twists, dreadful dialogue, unbelievable coincidences and, yes, some really wooden acting. It’s all in there as we lurch from scene to scene, waiting for the next big bang.

But, to be honest, even with all the cheesiness and the ardent US jingoism which abounds, Battleship still kinda works. It’s stupid yeah but it’s big, it’s flashy and it’s a lot of fun. A guilty pleasure that’s best seen on the big screen.

Reviewer: CurlyShirley

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In a nutshell: Mental, fun and very, very funny.

Popcorn rating: 4/5

There’s something lovely about sharing a laugh with someone – siblings sharing a chuckle over a parent’s well-known habits, children’s bubbling mirth at something wonderfully silly, friends’ raucous, dirty giggling on a night out. 21 Jump Street is the kind of movie best served up in a group, preferably with beer and nachos, because when films comes this funny, you’ll want to share the laughter with friends.

Written by the formerly chubby and always lovable Jonah Hill and writer Michael Bacall, 21 Jump Street takes a rather beloved, albeit worn-out movie premise (adults coping with modern day high school,  and somehow manages to make it fresh and, delightfully, both madcap and tongue- in-cheek all at the same time.

The adults in question are new cops, former school nerd Schmidt (Hill) and former school jock Jenko (Channing Tatum). Assigned to 21 Jump Street, a specialist division, the fresh faced duo are tasked with infiltrating a local high school by posing as students and uncovering the dealers and suppliers of a new, lethal, designer drug.

As I said, not exactly a new idea in movie land, but somehow 21 Jump Street manages to pull it off, giving us a smart and affectionate satire of all those 80s teen movies. Central to its likability is the Hill-Channing partnership which, simply, works. Two actors I would never have thought of together and yet they fit perfectly, with Channing bringing plenty of muscle and an unexpected tenderness to Jenko while Hill is shorter, smarter and enjoying being in the cool gang for once in his (well, Schmidt’s) life.

The chuckles come thick and fast, from slapstick to the odd in-joke for those who remember all those teen movies from before they were “classics”; though at times Hill and Bacall do rely a touch too heavily on foul language to tickle the old funny bone. There’s a fair bit of action shoehorned in too, as well as a nice play on kids’ mentality today (it’s cool to care) and, of course, a little harmless romance. There’s even a very angry police chief or two and, hey, who doesn’t love a shouty police chief?

I’m too young to remember the original 21 Jump Street series on which this is loosely based (cameo alert!), but I’ve heard it was a rather earnest affair. Fortunately this time round, it’s the funny that wins the day, even if there is a little moral at the heart of it all.

Reviewer: CurlyShirley

In a nutshell: Big and beautiful but ultimately empty.

Popcorn rating: 1.5/5

Considering how rubbish the 2010 film Clash of the Titans was, it comes as somewhat of a surprise that a sequel had been made, namely this year’s Wrath of the Titans. Then again, when you consider Clash made somewhere in the region of half a billion dollars, it’s not that much of a surprise. Someone, somewhere, must have liked it. And if they didn’t, they paid to see it anyway.

Set around a decade after the end of Clash, Wrath of the Titans sees Perseus (Sam Worthington) eschewing a charmed life as a demi-god and right hand man to his dad, the great god  Zeus (Liam Neeson), for the simplicity of life as a fisherman and single dad to his young son, Helius (John Bell). Mum seems to have died somewhere in the intervening period. Probably of shame at being involved in the first, one can only assume.

Anywho, to cut a long story short – nice gods Zeus and Posiedon (Danny Huston) are in trouble because not enough people are worshipping them, which means the walls of  Tartarus are on the verge of breaking and unleashing very nasty monsters into the world.  Totally exploiting the whole situation and a bit jealous and angry and stuff, Hades (Ralph Fiennes) and his sidekick Ares (Édgar Ramírez) do a bit of betraying which ends up with Zeus captured and being cruelly leached of his power to awaken Kronos, the badass daddy of the gods. He appears to have a few “issues” and is made of fire and what I think is coal, which is never a good look. Thus it is up to Perseus, Queen Andromeda (Rosamund Pike) and the “comic element”, ie new demi god on the scene,  Agenor (Toby Kebbell, doing his best with the material on hand),  to do the necessary and save mankind. Or whatever. Who cares? Because it’s complete garbage.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Greek mythology itself is a wonderful melting pot of fabulous tales, unforgettable heroes, powerful gods and terrifying monsters. As a potential source of movie magic, ancient Greece is surely ripe for the picking. Unfortunately, Clash of the Titans chooses big action and and eye-popping special effects over the art of clever story-telling, intriguing characterisation and believable dialogue. It’s a bit like a beautiful mannequin – pleasing to the eye sure, but ultimately, everyone’s disappointed. Take my advice, don’t bother.

Reviewer: CurlyShirley

In nutshell: Battle Royale. Without the blood.

Popcorn rating: 4/5

Joining the growing racks of dystopian films comes The Hunger Games, an adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ excellent novel of the same name. Set in the totalitarian future nation of Panem, The Hunger Games are, well, just that, games. And not ones your mum would let you play either…

The premise is this. Panem’s powerless 12 districts are ruled by the wealthy Capitol, a place where the lucky and the fashionable live charmed lives. So long as they abide by the rules. Under Capitol law, and to forever punish the people of the districts for an historic and failed rebellion, each year a boy and a girl from each district are chosen to take part in the televised Hunger Games, a fight to the death.

The film’s heroine du jour is 16-year-old Katniss (the excellent Jennifer Lawrence), who volunteers to take the place of her little sister in the games and finds herself pitted against allies she may ultimately have to kill, as well as enemies stronger, although not always smarter, than she is.

It’s an interesting, if not unique, premise. The same goes for many of The Hunger Games other ideas in fact. From 1984 to The Truman Show to The Fifth Element to Battle Royale, there is nothing new here. Of course, that’s not to say The Hunger Games isn’t entertaining in its own right, because it is – after all everything from rom-coms to crime thrillers are often a reworking of the same old, winning formula.

The Hunger Games stays close to its source material – not always an easy job with no voiceover to provide the clarity of the novel’s first person narration. On screen, information is revealed in gentle touchs, a nightmare, a fragmented memory, a TV insert, which explains just enough to keep you up-to-date.

It also looks good. The Capitol’s wealth is suitably dazzling and the fashion, snigger inducing (of particular note is lead Gamekeeper Seneca’s beard), while the down-at-heel districts are pitiful in their earthy poverty, their silent heartbreak. The general lack of CGI is also refreshing, making this world and its people seem all too possible.

On the downside, it is difficult to get into peoples’ heads – the tributes and their loved ones seem strangely subdued when their names are called, there is little discussion of the class system, little portrayal of how the tributes feel as they prepare to kill and be killed, in the name of entertainment. In fact, the other tributes barely get any screen time, presented merely as puppets to be killed off, with the result that their deaths lack impact. This may have helped garner that all important 12A rating but it’s when The Hunger Games is at its darkest, that it’s at its best – the Cornucopia “bloodbath”, a plate of berries, a young girl shaking as the seconds count down.

The Hunger Games has been compared to Battle Royale and, it is easy to see why, with both movies pitting teenagers against one another. There is one major difference. For while The Hunger Games is a good film, well acted and certainly well worth seeing, it is forgettable. Battle Royale is not.

Reviewer: CurlyShirley

In a nutshell: Not bad, but not as good as the first.

Popcorn rating: 3.5/5

Okay, here goes, I’m just going to say it. I quite like Guy Ritchie’s work. I mean, he’s no Martin Scorcese, no Paul Thomas Anderson, but his films are kind of fun. Usually. Sure, sometimes they’re clichéd, a bit too much of the old Cockney gangster. And 2002’s Swept Away? Well, I’d happily see it swept away into the Dungeon of Heinous Movies, never to be released. But generally, you know, I kind of like a Guy Ritchie movie. Lock, Stock; Snatch, Rock’n’Rolla and, yip, Sherlock Holmes. They’re kinda good. Even if it’s not cool to say so.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect back in 2009, when I heard that Ritchie had reinvented Holmes with Hollywood wild child Robert Downey Junior as the eponymous hero and pretty boy Jude Law as avuncular sidekick Dr Watson.  I did know, however, that I wasn’t expecting much so it was a pleasant surprise when Ritchie’s first Holmes outing proved to be a good, old, rip roaring adventure set in a picture perfect imagining of Victorian London. It was fun, it was engaging and it was action packed, something I had never quite associated with the Deerstalker sporting sleuth of old. Even the Downey Jr/Law pairing worked well with Downey suitably wild eyed and sizzlingly smart and Law giving us a new, more military and less chubby take on the beloved sidekick (as is fitting and correct).

Hollywood’s mantra for sequels has always been ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ and Ritchie, up to a point, has followed this with Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows – another contemporary take on the classic. Holmes and Watson are back, bickering and battling and beating the bad guys by sheer force of intellect. Lots of old faces return too, Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan), Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), Watson’s beloved fiancée, Mary (Kelly Reilly) and even Gladstone the dog. And, as with the first, the sets show off a wonderful, smoky, industrial London on the rise as a world power.  Importantly, Ritchie has also retained that smattering of humour which made the first film so light hearted, amidst all that dry detective work.

There are a few welcome changes too. This time the plot takes the duo dashing across Europe (why do sequels always take their characters abroad?) in the fight against Holmes’ greatest nemesis – Professor James Moriarty (played with sheer relish by Jared Harris). Other notable new faces include Stephen Fry as Sherlock’s big bro Mycroft and Noomi Rapace as Madame Simza, a gypsy woman searching for her missing brother. Oh, and the scene where our ragtag group are running through the forest is a new touch and exceptionally well done, a beautiful piece of cinema.

Sadly, not everything  works as well as it should. Holmes thinking out each fight beforehand, an interesting addition in the first film, proves monotonous this time around. There are a also few glaring plot holes and omissions which niggle a bit. In fact, the overall story is unnecessarily convoluted for what turns out to be quite a simple plot, by Moriarty, to make some bucks. There is also an air of Ritchie trying to shove a little too much into the film, showing off  just because he can. Fry is perfectly cast as Mycroft, for example, but he doesn’t seem particularly necessary. Similarly, Holmes’ new camouflage technique is neither humorous nor believable.

All in all, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows isn’t a masterpiece, nor is it as good as the first film. It is, however, a harmless bit of fun, a picturesque “romp”, if you will, and joy of joys, the phrase “Elementary, my dear Watson” continues to be absent (in keeping with the original texts). Cut a good 20 minutes off A Game of Shadows and it’d be a tighter, better movie, but it has already made enough at the Box Office to ensure a third film is likely and that’s no bad thing. So long as it doesn’t turn out to be another Pirates of the Caribbean style turkey.

Reviewer: CurlyShirley

In a nutshell: Robots wars, with a little bit of family bonding.

Popcorn rating: 3/5

Fighting robots. Big crashing metal hulks slamming each other, pounding hydraulic fists into steel chest plates, squeezing skulls, ripping and crushing and smashing each other to bits. Seriously, what’s not to love about Real Steel? The game that is. The imagined World Robot Boxing (WRB) championships, set in a not too distant future where 10ftish robots kick the sh*t out of each other in front of a packed stadium.

Real Steel the film, in which said championship games mark a zenith, isn’t quite as must see as Real Steel the game, but, to be honest, it’s actually not half bad. Based, in part, on the 1956 short story ‘Steel’ by Richard Matheson, Real Steel is set in 2020, a world very similar to today with a few small exceptions – humans have been replaced in the boxing ring by robots, operated by high tech hand held devices or, in some cases, by voice control or “shadowing”. Robot boxing is big business in 2020 and, on the fringes of the sport, is former boxer Wolverine (or rather Hugh Jackman as Charlie Kenton). Kenton earns a crust pitting his old, washed up robots against, well, pretty much anything, until one day he finds himself in a predicament – forced to spend the summer babysitting his 11-year-old son, Max (Dakota Goyo), a boy he doesn’t know, and doesn’t want to. Fortunately, the kid takes to the robot boxing game like a duck to water and soon pop and Max are pitting their tired old robot Atom against the big boys.

And that’s where Real Steel shines. See it on the big screen. The biggest screen you can find, with the biggest audio system and the biggest seats with a bucket of popcorn and a gallon of soda. And enjoy.  Cos this is telly’s little Robot Wars gone Hollywood. Robot battles, no, robot annihilations, are what you want. And that’s exactly what you get, from the opening mechanoid versus raging bull to something that looks like a Disney version of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. For mechs.

Aside from the steely fist fights, it’s all rather humdrum in a pleasing enough sort of way. Goyo is a cute kid with a little bit of attitude and a pleasing lack of sacharrine (thankfully sugar king Spielberg doesn’t have his muddy paws on this one). Then there’s the evil baddies with their sharp bones and funny accents. They’re Russian and Japanese btw, for added nasty. Anyone for a harmless love interest? A Dead mum? A random twist forcing daddy and son unhappily together to bond? Tick, tick, tick. Oh, and of course. There’s Wolverine. With his top off. If you like that sort of thing.

Is Jackman a brilliant actor? Well no, probably not, but that doesn’t really matter because there’s just something so damn likable about him, and he suits this kind of role. Sure, Kenton is a bit shifty, you wouldn’t want to loan him any money for one, but you just can’t help  rooting for him and his shoddy fly-by-night antics. And Jackman isn’t overstated here, he doesn’t ham it up (which I know he can. I’ve seen The Prestige). He’s just well, himself, with a slightly funny accent. And it works. It really does.

Real Steel is an old school family yarn. There are so many cliches (bad boy comes good, wise beyond his years kid, underdog wins etc etc) you kinda get bored counting, but that’s okay. Sometimes you just want to suspend your disbelief and enjoy the usual old schmaltz, happy in the knowledge it’ll all come good in the end.

Action junkie little uns will love this movie, they’ll probably want their own 10ft robot for Christmas (hey, who wouldn’t?). For the adults, there isn’t quite as much on offer, the dialogue is a little clunky, everything slots too easily into place, but come on – this film has massive f**k off robots ripping each other to shreds for your entertainment. What’s not to like?

Reviewer: CurlyShirley

In a nutshell: Humanity is doomed. And it’s all Gwyneth Paltrow’s fault.

Popcorn rating: 3.5/5

SARS. Swine flu. HIV. Hell, even the common cold. Think about it. If there’s one thing that could wipe out life as we know it, other than war , surely it would be the devastating affects of Gwyneth Paltrow. Nah, I’m jesting. I mean, of course, an unknown and deadly virus. And, unlike war, such a virus could slip unnoticed into the population with the mere flap of a wing.

It is that fear which is at the crux of Contagion, a film so real it almost plays out like a More4 documentary.

Directed by Steven Soderbergh and using a dream ensemble cast (Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow,  Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, etc, etc, oh and Jude Law who gets a special mention for sporting an irritating snaggle tooth), Contagion follows the swift, worldwide progress of an airborne virus that kills within days.

Using  intertwining plotlines, we are offered an overview of the affects of the virus, from the medical community searching for a cure, a blogger/journalist who believes a conspiracy theory is afoot to an an ordinary family struggling to stay safe and, randomly, a kidnapped World Health Organisation representative (the ransom is vaccines).

This multi-story approach is an interesting and effective device. Contagion presents a horrifying and very possible scenario; it feels utterly, terrifyingly real and that’s the key – not only could this happen but the next time you’re on a train or crowded room, you may find yourself edging away from that person who looks a little tired, preferring not to hold onto the safety rail. This is a film which will make you think.

Sorderbergh, whose previous outings include Traffic and Ocean’s Eleven, is a master of this type of interlinking, jigsaw style but, conversely, while each individual Contagion story is interesting, the overall feel is somewhat cold, clinical.

The talent of this star cast is without question, but none have enough screen time, nor enough scope for us to really empathise with their character. There are, simply, too many stories, and with each of the protagonists appearing to hold back emotionally, remaining clam and professional at all times despite the horrors they face, there is not enough individuality, not enough humanity on screen.

*spoiler alert*

That’s not to say Soderbergh isn’t aware of the human side of the overall piece. Unfortunately, when humanity is shoehorned in, it feels fake, sanctimonious. Take, for example, the plight of the kidnapped doctor whose story jumps from being faced with a house full of terrified children wearing makeshift masks to teaching said children under the shade on a sunny glade. Or, if you prefer, the note on which the film ends, the great glowing sign which highlights that, this virus? Guess what? It’s all the fault of Big Business and it’s unending expansionism. Of course. A message which, let’s face it, was done perhaps less obviously but with greater emotional impact in Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest. Says it all.

Contagion is a good film, a thoughtful film but it’s not quite as clever as it thinks it is. Sure, it’ll make you nervous if the guy next to you at work has a bit of a sniffle, but you won’t shed a tear for the victims on screen.

Reviewer: CurlyShirley