Director: Spike Lee (2016) BBFC cert: 15

Anger is the defining emotion of Spike Lee’s films and there’s no denying the blistering power of his latest brash, sexy, and rap-filled essay on the state of the US.

Having produced, directed and co-written this satirical musical, he has updated a classical Greek comedy with an irresistible raucous energy.

As Lysistrata, Teyonah Parris is dynamite in an afro and high heels. Motivated by the shooting of a bystander, she persuades the women on both sides of the Chicago gang divide to withhold sex from their boyfriends as a means of preventing further violence.

Her charismatic criminal boyfriend Chi-Raq is one of the unhappy men. He shares his name with the gang-ridden south side of Chicago, an area more deadly to locals than Iraq to US soldiers.

Samuel L. Jackson has a ball a as zoot suited Greek chorus rapping straight to camera. Jennifer Hudson, Angela Bassett, Wesley Snipes and John Cusack form the backbone of a strong support cast.


The Legend of Tarzan

Director: David Yates (2016) BBFC cert. 12A

There’s no animal magic when the lord of the apes returns in this action adventure.

Now with over fifty movies plus TV series, cartoons and video games to his name, I’m not sure we need another, especially one this inconsistent, unconvincing and dull.

Set in 1886, the imperialist story of an infant English lord raised by gorillas has been refashioned as an anti-colonial and anti-slavery tale. Although the Africans are still forced to say stereotypical things such as ‘As is custom.’

Played by ripped Swede Alexander Skarsgard from TV’s True Blood, Tarzan has the speed of a lion, the agility of an ape, the endurance of an elephant and the charisma of a giraffe.

He can replicate the mating call of every jungle animal, so presumably his teenage years were interesting.

Now living in London as Lord Greystoke, he goes back to the Congo to investigate rumours of slavery by the beastly Belgians. Once there his local friends are captured, their village is burned and his glamorous wife Jane is kidnapped.

Margot Robbie does her best to give Jane some kick ass quality but basically exists to be rescued. Samuel L. Jackson tags along as comic relief and though their banter is woeful, he shares better chemistry and more screen time with Tarzan than Jane does.

Christoph Waltz plays an ambitious army Captain in cahoots with Djimon Hounso’s chief Mbonga. Neither are required to stretch themselves.

With the first ever Tarzan movie released in 1918, the oldest swinger in town is getting a little creaky.

The animated gorillas, alligators and elephants are noticeably below par for an expensive wannabee blockbuster franchise and director David Yates has an uphill struggle with a  lacklustre script.

He’s in charge of the Harry Potter prequel, Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them. It’s due in November and you’ll not discover any such creatures here.



The Hateful Eight

Director: Quentin Tarantino (2016)

Quentin Tarantino’s new western is a slow burning fistful of cinematic dynamite which explodes all over the screen.

In a set up surprisingly reminiscent of Agatha Christie, eight hateful desperadoes are brought together one night by a Wyoming blizzard.

The discovery of loose connections leads to the opportunity to settle old scores and much bloodshed.

It’s a major work from an important director and a minor masterpiece of the genre.

Building on the strengths of Django Unchained (2013), Tarantino’s burgeoning maturity after a mid career slump of Kill Bill 2 (2004) and Death Proof (2007) suggests the mouthwatering prospect his best work is yet to come.

The Hateful Eight (2016) is proclaimed as Tarantino’s 8th film. With one eye on his legacy the 52 year old director recently speculated he would only make 10 movies, adding he felt he would never dominate the Academy Awards with multiple wins for a single film.

His current upward trajectory suggests his tenth and possibly final film could easily sweep the Oscars board.

In any circumstances I very much doubt Tarantino will go quietly into the cinematic night of his own accord.

With two consecutive westerns under his gun belt, Tarantino seems to have found his meter in the genre, itself the great American art form.

His previous best work was Jackie Brown (1997) based on the novel Rum Punch (pub. 1992) by Elmore Leonard.

The inestimable crime writer produced a raft of novels, many of which ended up on screen. Notable examples are Hombre (1967) Get Shorty (1995) and Out of Sight (1998).

However he began his career as a prodigious writer of pulp westerns. Three-Ten To Yuma (pub. 1953) was filmed in 1957 as 3:10 To Yuma starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, and filmed again in 2007 with Christian Bale and Russell Crowe.

Should Tarantino feel the need for inspiration he could do worse than tackle another of Leonard’s many works.

Until then we have The Hateful Eight which as rich in character and performance as any movie Tarantino has made thus far.

The former enfant terrible of Indie cinema takes a more mature and traditional approach.

He throws out the pop cultural references in favour of discussions on justice and the morality of the civil war.

Also out are the eclectic rock soundtrack and in comes a score by the maestro of spaghetti westerns, Ennio Morricone.

As good as it is, it’s no disservice to suggest it’s not the greatest work from the composer of the score for The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, among many others.

And it’s worth the entrance fee to be able to savour it on a cinema sound system.

A majestic opening shot features a vast snow-filled plain with a stagecoach driving past a frozen crucifix.

This elegant, eloquent statement of intent gives an icy indication of the grand guignol the passengers are heading towards.

This is cinematographer Robert Richardson’s 5th Tarantino movie after Django Unchained (2013), Inglourious Basterds (2009) Kill Bill 2 (2004) and Kill Bill (2003).

His ridiculously impressive CV includes 6 Scorsese films, 9 by Oliver Stone and works by Robert Redford, Barry Levinson and Robert Reiner.

Plus he’s one of only two living persons to win 3 Oscars for his craft. There’s another 5 nominations in there as well.

Colorado stands in for Wyoming and camera movement is kept to practical minimum while capturing the magnificent icy vistas.

Once inside in the relative warmth, Richardson’s camera glides about the confined space to skilfully illuminate the dialogue.

Even with 2 screenplay winning Oscars from 3 nominations, his sharp wordcraft is among the best Tarantino has written, it’s no wonder actors return to work for him time and again.

Heading what is now practically of troupe of Tarantino regulars, Samuel L. Jackson plays Major Warren, a former Union soldier turned bounty hunter.

Our first encounter him reprises the entrance of John Wayne in John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939).

Other visual influences are Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) and Robert Altman’s McCabe And Mrs Miller (1971).

With his frozen bounty in tow Warren hitches a ride on a private stage hired Kurt Russell’s bounty hunter, known as The Hangman.

It’s always great to see Russell in anything  and seeing him in wrapped up in a blizzard raises pleasant memories of John Carpenter’s sci-fi chiller The Thing (1982).

The Hangman is transporting outlaw Daisy Domergue to the town of Red Rock to be hung. Jennifer Jason Leigh brings a fierce humour to her demented portrayal.

Her heavily bruised eye resembles the stylised look of Alex from Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), and suggests some impending ultra violence.

Vying with Leigh as the most valuable player in the uniformly excellent cast is Walton Goggins. He plays a racist former confederate soldier called Chris Mannix.

Other returning Tarantino regulars include Michael Madsen, Zoe Bell and Tim Roth channelling Terry-Thomas.

Caught up in a blinding snowstorm the travellers reluctantly take refuge together in an isolated holding post where other guests are warming themselves.

This fraught atmosphere demonstrates Tarantino’s ability to and it frequently wrong foots us in our expectations of where the story is going.

All the characters have nicknames referring to their status, The Prisoner, The Sheriff and so on.

When doubt is shed on their self-declared personal narratives, this remove from their professed identities adds layers to the slowly building snow drifts of lies, fear and mistrust.

As we’ve come to expect from Tarantino, there is a non-linear narrative. This gives a greater opportunity for character development than a more straightforward approach to structure would allow.

There’s a crude and confrontational tale Major Warren tells Bruce Dern’s aged General and some may feel this scene is evidence the director hasn’t yet shaken off his juvenile sense of humour.

However it serves a narrative purpose and there’s a sense Tarantino can’t resist baiting his film with poisoned morsels for unwary detractors.

Domergue suffers repeated physical abuse. It’s not the violence itself which worries, that can be justified by the milieu and far worse treatment is meted out to women in the westerns of Leone and Eastwood.

What’s problematic about this violence is its use as a literal punchline. The abuse of a captive woman, the only female character of note, is intentionally used to draw laughs from the audience.

The defence could reasonably claim more and greater violence is trespassed against other characters and done in an equally intentionally comic and more grisly manner.

Plus her tolerance for pain and patience for revenge tells us a great deal about her character.

Production of The Hateful Eight ran parallel to the Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle The Revenant (2016).

Although superficially similar in their brutal nature and western setting, the two frozen features are very different beasts except in the extremes of their ambition.

With The Hateful Eight distributor Harvey Weinstein stealing a commercial march by opening in the UK a week earlier, it’s doubtful a mass UK audience could stomach two similar seeming films in quick succession.

With this in mind I expect The Hateful Eight to win at the box office but The Revenant to win bigger at the Oscars.


Barely Lethal

Director: Kyle Newman (2015)

High school tribulations are compared to water-boarding in this spy comedy. Well it’s flimsy but not quite that bad.

Orphaned teen assassin Agent 83 has been raised in Samuel L. Jackson’s quasi-governmental institution since a baby.

When a mission goes wrong, she’s stranded in Chechnya.

83 adopts the name of Megan and enrols on a student exchange programme to experience real-life in an American high school.

But she’s armed only with teen films such as Clueless (1995) and Mean Girls (2004) to guide her through the social minefield.

Hailee Steinfeld is nicely goofy in the lead and there’s sparky playing from Jessica Alba and Sophie Turner as fellow spies.

From the dubious taste of the title to the unconvincing slang and the weak riffs on superior teen flicks, none of the jokes carry a punch.

There are homecomings and house parties, killer heels and boy issues.

It all feels like the pilot for a TV show which will never see the light of day.

Big Game

Director: Jalmari Helander (2015)

A President, terrorists and wild bears are the targets in this goofy action adventure romp which provides a forest full of explosive entertainment.

The son of a famous hunter, 13 year old Oskari (Onni Tommila) is sent into the remote mountains of his native Finland.

Armed only with a sharp knife and a bow and arrow he can barely control, the determined teen must spend a day and night hunting wild bear in a traditional coming of age ceremony. Guns are not allowed.

Meanwhile high above, Air Force One ferries the unnamed US President (Samuel L. Jackson) to a G8 summit in Helsinki. The plane is shot down by terrorist Hazar (Mehmet Kurtulus).

He’s the psychotic son of a Sheik who’s so enjoyably evil he shoots a man in the back with a surface-to-air-missile, and then is rude about the quality of the Chinese made weapons.

Ejected to ground in an escape pod, the barefoot and hapless President is found by a startled Oskari.

However the boy has commendably little respect for the authority of the Oval Office. Even with Hazar in pursuit, Oskari will only take the President to safety after his bear hunt is successfully completed.

Another survivor loose in the wood is the girdle-wearing, pill popping Chief-of-security Morris (Ray Stevenson). He once took a bullet for the President.

Meanwhile back in the Pentagon‘s command bunker, a tank-top wearing, sandwich eating analyst called Herbert (Jim Broadbent) is offering advice to the Vice President (Victor Garber) and General Underwood (Ted Levine).

They’re rapidly falling to pieces quickly at the situation, having definitely picked the wrong day to quit smoking, drinking etc.

Arching an eyebrow alongside the men is the token woman with a speaking role; the CIA Director (Felicity Huffman).

As the script builds betrayal upon betrayal, the most well-intentioned is the most affecting.

Among the the sky-diving, missile attacks and shoot-outs, the special effects aren’t terribly special –  and some of the outdoor locations look suspiciously indoor.

At every possible interlude rousing blasts of orchestral music are accompanied by sweeping helicopter shots of the glorious mountains.

The director coaxes a guileless performance from the young Finnish lead actor and Jackson enjoys himself playing against type as a man definitely not in control of events. Kurtuluş has fun channeling Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) from Die Hard (1988).

With it’s young hero suffering daddy issues and familiar visual gags and stunts, it’s easy to recognise inspiration drawn from the ’80’s work of Steven Spielberg; specifically E.T. and The Temple Of Doom – but the tone is closer to that of Richard Donner’s The Goonies (1985). (Story and Executive produced by S. Spielberg)

However exciting and fun as it all is, the message one is not a man until you’ve killed something is far from typically Spielberg.

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Director: Joss Whedon (2015)

Bigger, darker, funnier and more explosive than ever; the world’s greatest superhero team return in the most spectacular action movie of the summer.

The Avengers take off on a do or die mission to save the world – but before confronting an army of killer robots, they must put aside their differences and overcome their crippling worst fears.

With ferocious fight scenes, dynamic design and sleekly organic CGI, it’s all underpinned by a busy, witty and coherent script.

The wise-cracking, squabbling team of Captain AmericaIron ManThorThe Hulk, Hawkeye and Black Widow are played with enormously energetic enthusiasm by regulars Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Chris HemsworthMark RuffaloJeremy Renner and Scarlett Johansson.

Following on from Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the Avengers are hunting down Hydra, the terrorist organisation responsible the destruction of law-enforcement spy agency SHIELD.

Meanwhile in his civilian identity as billionaire inventor Tony Stark, Iron Man activates a dormant peace-keeping programme designed to keep the Earth safe form alien invaders.

However the villainous giant robot Ultron (James Spader) takes control and uses it to threaten the extinction of mankind. He is hugely powerful, beautiful, shiny, intelligent and funny – in all ways a threat to Iron Man and his monstrous ego.

Ultron is aided by super-powered twins who want Iron Man dead; Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. He can move lightning-fast while she uses mystical powers to produce visions of fear to paralyse her enemies.

They’re played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen, showcasing their talents on a far better forum than in last year’s terrible Godzilla.

Meanwhile as well as voicing Iron Man’s computer butler JARVIS, Paul Bettany plays a mysterious newcomer called The Vision.

As if this weren’t a surfeit of super-powers, screen-time is also found for a host of supporting characters including SHIELD agents Nick Fury, Maria Hill and Peggy Carter (Samuel L. JacksonCobie Smulders, Hayley Atwell) superheroes War Machine and Falcon (Don Cheadle and Anthony Mackie) and Asgardian warrior Heimdall (Idris Elba).

There’s no appearance by fan’s favourite Tom Hiddlestone as Loki and the absence of Pepper Potts and Jane Foster (Gwyneth Paltrow and Natalie Portman) is mentioned in passing.

Breathless and brilliantly executed action sequences move through Europe, America, Africa and Asia. Though it’s more fierce than Avengers Assemble, the steel-bodied violence is always laced with a tough coating of humour.

The final battle includes an extended composition of astonishing choreography, bearing all the grace and technical excellence we’re used to seeing from British effects house Framestore. They also provide the FX for an amazing freeway chase scene in downtown Seoul.

Visually and thematically Ultron references Moloch, the internet demon from Whedon’s TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The writer also recycles an old Buffy line and puts it in the mouth of Nick Fury.

In his typically intelligent script, Whedon accomplishes the astounding juggling act of tying the large roster of characters to their various plot points, develop them emotionally and maintain their relative positions within the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).

He’s also at impressively at ease including a joke about playwright Eugene O’Neill while bouncing around ideas of sacrifice and duty.

There are also ongoing discussions of evolution, the ethics of eugenics, the accountability of the military and the importance of defending freedoms without sacrificing them.

These are underpinned by visual allusions to the Second World War and references to two British Prime Minsters.

Meanwhile US President’s Teddy Roosevelt‘s maxim about a big stick is invoked and is neatly reflected in some merry horseplay involving Thor’s hammer Molinjor.

More great nuggets of humour are mined from Thor’s mythical self-regard but the focus is moved sideways away from the trio of heroes (Iron Man, Captain America and Thor) who all have their own individual franchise outside of the Avengers.

This allows for the development of the lesser characters of Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye.

Despite having starred in two poor films of his own in 2003 and 2008, it was in the Avengers Assemble (2012) where The Hulk became the breakout star, rampaging through the last half hour like, well, an enormous green rage monster.

This time Whedon puts him at the centre of the action from the beginning, squaring off against soldiers, robots and even Iron Man.

More importantly, alter ego scientist Bruce Banner is afforded a full character arc, one influenced by the fairytale of the beauty and the beast.

With his sharp intelligence wrapped up in magnificent brawn and powered by passion, the Hulk is very much the symbol of the Avengers – a super-powered combination offering the best hope Age Of Ultron will be the smash it deserves to be.


Director: José Padilha (2014)

This grim-faced mechanical reboot of the 1987 sci-fi classic stomps through the motions with all human interest surgically removed.

The action sequences are incoherent, dull and lacking in tension. And the gleefully satirical edge of the original is sadly absent.

Set in Detroit in 2028, the remake offers no sense of a wider society or vision of the future – it’s just like today but with robots and amazingly little internet use.

Joel Kinnaman is trigger-happy, straight backed and taciturn. And that’s before his character Alex Murphy is transformed into the relentless crime-fighting cyborg.

When Murphy’s life is saved by the technician’s of OmniCorp, he’s turned into a crime-fighting war machine and put back on the streets as the ultimate deterrent.

When investigating his own attempted assassination he uncovers a trail of corruption and once again becomes a target.

There is some lovely design work in the new streamlined suit. And when we first see the extent of Murphy’s injuries there is a promisingly nightmarish feel. But it’s quickly lost thanks to the plodding direction.

Computer-generated images mix unconvincingly with live action and although Robocop looks very cool when riding his neon and black motorbike, we see him doing it far more often than is necessary.

There is wit in the casting of actors associated with that other faceless crime-fighter Batman – but even the considerable talents of Michael Keaton and Gary Oldman can’t tease any humour from a dour script.

Keaton plays the duplicitous CEO of the powerful OmniCorp and Oldman co-stars as a technical genius with compromised principles.

And Samuel L. Jackson has fun as a TV commentator – but his scenes seem disconnected from events happening elsewhere.

Key catchphrases are lifted from the original to be chucked around. But the new dialogue is as leaden as Robocop’s thudding footsteps as Murphy hunts down the men who had tried to kill him – and unleashes powerful forces that are hellbent on finishing the job.


Kingsman: The Secret Service

Director: Matthew Vaughn (2015)

This glossy smug spy spoof lacks much spark or charm, it’s as flat and laboured as the later Roger Moore Bond movies it offers homage to.

The Kingsmen are an aristocratic, super-rich secret spy agency who operate without any pesky political oversight or accountability.

They’re an exclusive and aspirational club for the Bullingdon boys only with nattier outfits. Putting great stock by personal grooming, they’re based in a Tailor’s shop in Savile Row.

Head of the outfitters is Michael Caine who played spy Harry Palmer. All the agents sport Palmer’s famous wide brimmed specs because the film can’t resist its little jokes. It also references The Man From UNCLE and The Men In Black.

Brolly carrying agent Harry Hart (Colin Firth) sees the opportunity to atone for the death of a colleague by putting forward his son Eggsy (Taron Egerton) for recruitment.

Only he’s turned out to be a bit of baseball cap wearing chav and so must be properly attired, trained in espionage and taught to use violence to subjugate the working classes.

Although the script plays lip-service to meritocracy, Eggsy is chosen due to being of good stock and all the other potential recruits are public school types. The only female recruit of note is Roxy (Sophie Cookson) and she of course is a gorgeous lesbian.

Meanwhile billionaire Richmond Valentino (a lisping Samuel L. Jackson) is plotting to create a new world order involving the murder of millions using micro-chips.

Politicians can’t be trusted to hang on to their integrity in the face of Valentino’s money, though a supple-buttocked Scandinavian Princess holds firm. Because she’s royal you see.

Valentino is assisted by a decorative blade-footed assassin called Gazelle (Sofia Boutella). Having demonstrated her ability early doors, she’s mostly there to look pretty.

Poison pens, explosive cigarette lighters, jet packs and underground bases add to the retro atmosphere of the 1970’s sexual politics.

In the absence of decent jokes, obscenities are used as punchlines to scenes, the action set pieces are all too familiar and aside from a colourful moment of pomp and circumstance, there’s little that will raise an eyebrow.

Based on comic book by Mark Millar who also wrote the Vaughn directed Kick Ass, it’s the fifth script collaboration between Vaughn and Jane Goldman (Stardust, Kick Ass, X-Men: First Class, The Debt).

It’s most similar in tone but lacks the fresh energy and originality of the uproariously violent and funny Kick Ass.

Roger Moore single-handedly mocked his own image with far more grace, talent, charm and wit than is mustered here. Check out North Sea Hijack for a rather better service.


Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo (2014)

Loyalty, friendship and the freedom of world are tested to destruction as Captain America returns in this action packed and hugely exciting Marvel comic-book sequel.

Dynamic duo Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson power this breakneck thrill ride which will be followed in 2016 by Captain America: Civil War.

Blue-eyed, lantern-jawed Steve Rogers (Evans), aka Captain America, punches his way through a series of brilliant action sequences, including a rescue of hostages on the high seas and a marvellous mayhem-filled fight on a freeway.

Samuel L. Jackson returns as S.H.I.E.L.D. boss Nick Fury and introduces superhero The Falcon (Anthony Mackie).

Robert Redford is his smooth-talking superior Alexander Pierce, bringing a knowing cinematic echo of his earlier roles in 1970’s conspiracy thrillers Three Days of the Condor (1975) and All the President’s Men (1976).

Rogers, who struggles to cope in the modern world, is framed for the shooting of Fury and goes on the run with Natasha Romanoff, aka super-assassin Black Widow (Johansson).

Facing terrible adversity, he’s armed only with his indestructible shield and she a pair of perfectly calibrated pistols – yet still they find time to flirt while evading squadrons of fighter jets, convoys of trucks and legions of Swat teams packing the latest in futuristic military weapons.

People are brutally stabbed, shot, punched, kicked and thrown off buildings as they’re also pursued by the mysterious Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), a relentless super-villain with a robotic arm and secret past.

Helped by Falcon, the duo must stop the sinister Hydra group, which infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ long ago, from imposing a new and deadly world order.

Considering the patriotic conservatism of the central character, Captain America is a far richer experience than could have been hoped for and excluding the Avengers, my favourite franchise in the canon.

Now all the Marvel Cinematic Universe is missing is a Black Widow standalone movie.