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Film Review: Cosmos

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 15 Aug 2016

Here is the new film from cult Polish director Andrzej Żuławski, which sadly will also be his last. His many fans have had to wait 15 years for the curious riddle that is Cosmos – his previous effort was Fidelity, in 2000 – and I’m sure many will find much to like in it. Show the rest of this post…

The plot, in as much as there is one, is based on the novel Kosmos by Witold Gombrowicz, and concerns two young men, Witold (Jonathan Genet) and Fuchs (Johan Libéreau), who take a vacation in a country house in order to temporarily get away from their lives, and where they soon begin to notice some alarming oddities. The film begins with Witold discovering the corpse of a sparrow strung up from a pipe, which is a thing he cannot fully grasp. Who would do such a thing, and why? And how does it relate to the events in the house?

Witold becomes obsessed with the idea of how everything relates to everything else, driven to distraction by the possibility that the answer may simply be that it’s all random. He’s recently failed a law exam and disappointed his father, and is attempting to pen a novel about his experiences, which becomes increasingly tied to the heightened reactions he has on his vacation. Witold and Fuchs share some amusing dialogue – in which Witold tries to explain literature to Fuchs, who resolutely isn’t interested – while the proprietors of the house in which they’re staying (Sabine Azéma and Jean François-Balmer) indulge in their own bizarre, hysterical routines. The rest of the occupants of the house drift in and out, and include Clémentine Pons as a maid with a disfigured upper lip and Victória Guerra as Lena, both of whom inspire a sort of madness in Witold. At times this is driven by repressed sexual urges, but at others seems to come from his inability to fully comprehend anything he’s experiencing.

As an audience, we are sucked into Witold’s increasing instability by Zulawski’s determination to keep the film’s ideas at arm’s length. This is a film to be appreciated for its tone and performance, rather than a strict plot or narrative arcs. I have to say that I often found the film’s quirks  frustrating, and that at times I felt it indulged in anarchism without a great deal of result. I appreciated its madness (and indeed the intensity of Genet’s unhinged central performance), but at others felt I was being held at a distance by its unusual visual and dialogue choices.

While, as a whole, the film did not entirely work for me, there were elements to enjoy: in particular a sequence in some woods in the final act, in which the visuals and music came together with the purposefully eccentric script to produce some memorable moments; and some of Zulawski’s interesti ng camera work and visuals. There are ideas aplenty in Cosmos, many of which are compelling, but there is a lack of insight or resolution to most of it that feels frustrating.

3/5

Film Review: Wiener-Dog

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 8 Aug 2016

Wiener-Dog, the latest from director Todd Solondz, brings together four stories loosely joined by the itinerant presence of a dachshund. It’s a blackly comic drama dealing with the issue of futility, with a cynical edge that Solondz fans will be familiar with. Show the rest of this post…

The four stories, which share thematic elements but rarely characters, are well-observed and spiky in tone. We begin with a child in a dysfunctional household being given the titular dog as a gift, then move into three other narratives, probably the most successful of which involves Danny DeVito as a struggling and disillusioned screenwriter.

It’s one of those films that is well made and performed, sharply written and intermittently funny, but which never really comes together as a successful whole. Each story feels like it would work pretty well as a short, but put together like this, the film feels unable to settle on much of an idea or throughline beyond simply being cynical, or portraying disfunction. Those elements are periodically interesting, but the film ultimately left me a little cold. The first story, which includes the most barbed speech in the film, is unfortunately the weakest, leaving a vacuum that the rest of the film tries to fill.

There are, however, plenty of unexpected quirks to enjoy along the way, which I won’t spoil here, and some  of the diversions the individual narratives take are rewarding and, on occasion, touching.  I just wish the film as a whole had been as engaging. The dog, incidentally, is adorable.

3/5

Film Review: Star Trek Beyond

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 22 Jul 2016

After director JJ Abrams successfully rebooted Star Trek but then left the franchise to work on Star Wars The Force Awakens, it wasn’t immediately clear who would take his place, or indeed what film they would be making. Show the rest of this post…

Eventually, Simon Pegg (who plays Scotty), stepped into to write the script alongside Doug Jung, and Justin Lin, best known for his work on the long-running Fast and Furious franchise, was installed in the director’s chair.

We now have the result, Star Trek Beyond, which feels like a intentional shift towards a slightly more freewheeling, lighter version of Star Trek, perhaps closer in tone to the feel of the original series (which, I confess, I am not deeply familiar with). Although this film’s predecessor, Star Trek Into Darkness, was generally well received by critics (including this one), it also took decisions with tone and narrative that some core fans took issue with. A clear effort has been made here to reintegrate the sidelined members of the series’ prodigious ensemble back into the fold, and tell a romping, perhaps slightly more old-fashioned adventure.

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In many ways, this has been successful. The plot, which revolves around an attack on the Enterprise (and, by extension, Starfleet) by a mysterious alien called Krall (Idris Elba), sees the crew of the Enterprise stranded on a distant planet, cut off from reinforcement. Captain Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto) and the others must find a way to recover their lost crew members and get off the planet while stopping whatever scheme Krall has cooking. The plot forcibly separates the main cast into small groups, encouraging interactions between characters who did not necessarily share a huge amount of screen time up until now; so, for example, Spock crash lands with Bones, the ship’s chief medical officer (Karl Urban), Sulu and Uhura find themselves trapped together and Kirk must cook up a plan with Chekov (played by the late Anton Yeltchin, in one of his last appearances).

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In general, these divisions work, and as somebody who bemoaned the lack of screen time for many of the characters in the last film, I was happy to see more of them. The negative side is that the film has a weaker narrative thrust then the previous one, so while the cast members have more to do, what they’re doing doesn’t always feel essential or exciting. The previous film thrived on the relationship between Kirk and Spock, and this film only fleetingly revisits that. Obviously not all Trek films can continue to focus on that, but this film lacks a similarly engaging screen partnership or character depth. New cast member Sofia Boutella (Kingsman) as Jaylah, bring charm and some laughs, but not enough to bridge that gap. Nor does new bad guy Krall offer enough to give the narrative the necessary oomph; Idris Elba actually makes a strong impression when he’s given the chance, but Krall spends too much of the film as a bland villain to be completely saved by a strong final act.

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As new director, Justin Lin helms the film with assurance, putting his own stamp on things and ensuring this doesn’t feel like a second-rate JJ Abrams impression. He stages his conflicts well, and the sense of place (particularly in a new Starfleet megastation) is occasionally spectacular. There’s also a brief, touching tribute to the late Leonard Nimoy (who portrayed the original Spock, and has appeared in this series), cleverly woven into the plot of the film. Where the film is oddly lacking is in its close-combat action sequences, which are filmed in a fast-cutting, hyper-kinetic style that rendered many of the fights difficult to follow. Intentional, perhaps, but not to my taste.

Overall this is a solid entry in a franchise which, I hope, will continue to explore th e vastness of space for some time. The crew has been well cast, and although this may not be their most memorable adventure, it’s still a cut above your average action blockbuster.

3/5

Film Review: The Hard StopFan The Fire Recommends

Posted in Film, Recommended, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 13 Jul 2016

British readers will certainly remember the case of young Tottenham resident Mark Duggan, who was shot and killed by police in a ‘hard stop’ manoeuvre in 2011 – a hugely controversial incident that sparked anger in local communities about the treatment of black citizens, and is seen as one of the sparks that may have ignited the London riots. Show the rest of this post…

George Amponsah’s thoughtful documentary retells this story through the eyes of two of Mark’s peers, Marcus Knox Hook and Kurtis Henville.

Amponsah keeps the documentary at ground level, in the communities, mostly shirking news footage, and in this way the film becomes not just the story of Mark Duggan, but a portrayal of the deprived neighbourhoods of London (and indeed the UK) and the racial tensions therein. Hook is facing jail time for his role in, allegedly, catalysing the riots, while we see Henville looking for work and trying to provide for his family.

The film remains honest throughout. Our two protagonists come across as likeable, well-meaning guys whose previous lives of crime have been thrown into sharp relief by what they believe to be the unlawful killing of a close friend. Their hatred of police is palpable, and the film helps provide some context for that. The success of the film’s interactions with these two is that they provide an insight not just into Duggan himself, but the tribulations of communities who are getting a raw deal.

Shot mainly around the streets of Tottenham, the film has a genuine sense of place and mood, backed up by the use of music. There are interesting details in here about the shooting of Mark Duggan, which most viewers will remember, but also poignant moments of family, friendship and community. It doesn’t look directly at any aspect of the riots beyond the racial one, but in portraying the lives of struggling, everyday people, Amponsah’s film does more than it initially suggests. It’ s a film that reminds us about the inequality that persists in our country; about the racial tensions that shamefully still hold sway; and how community can provide hope and comfort.

4/5

Film Review: Maggie’s PlanFan The Fire Recommends

Posted in Film, Recommended, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 7 Jul 2016

In Maggie’s Plan, the new film written and directed by Rebecca Miller, Greta Gerwig stars as Maggie, a smart young woman who decides that she is ready to have a baby. Show the rest of this post…

The only problem is that she doesn’t have a boyfriend, so she attempts to artificially inseminate herself using a donation from an old acquaintance, Guy (Travis Fimmel).

Things are complicated by a chance meeting with John, a “ficto-critical anthropologist” (Ethan Hawke), whose marriage to Georgette (Julianne Moore) is creaking at the seams. Maggie and John quickly begin to enjoy each others’ company, to the point that Maggie’s plan starts to change. We then jump forward a couple of years to see how all the characters are getting on.

The triumph of Miller’s film comes from the meeting of a great cast with a sensitive, clever script that treats them all with remarkable even-handedness. There are no heroes or villains here; Miller is happy to let her characters fumble through their lives without singling any of them out for special treatment. So Maggie is smart and determined, but also controlling and afraid of imbalance; John is a borderline genius but has issues with self-absorption, and so on. Even Georgette, who initially appears to be the comic relief, is formulated by Moore into a rounded and likeable character. There’s also some lovely support from Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph as a bickering but loving couple who Maggie frequently turns to for advice.

In the first act, the film comes across as a little too quirky too quickly, but settles into itself. There are plenty of laughs along the way courtesy of the witty script, and by the end I found myself thoroughly enjoying the company of this cast – at times, its gentle warmth reminded me of a Woody Allen film. Gerwig, in particular, is on great form as Maggie, an d carries the film through its occasionally bitty narrative. The very last shot of the film is perhaps a tad too fairytale, but it’s not much of a bum note and still draws a smile.

4/5

Film Review: The Neon DemonFan The Fire Recommends

Posted in Film, Recommended, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 4 Jul 2016

What a spellbinding director Nicholas Winding Refn is. From his early work through to his biggest hit, Drive, viewers have tended to appreciate his artistry on a visual level, even if the films themselves tend to be divisive. Show the rest of this post…

His films, even when they don’t work, tend to at least look gorgeous. Refn’s latest, The Neon Demon, takes his languid, super-stylised approach – which reached ennui-inducing levels in Only God Forgives – and distills it into a more focused, taut narrative, and is ultimately a much more successful film as a result.

The story follows an aspiring model, Jesse (Elle Fanning), who moves to the city to kick-start her career, and swiftly turns heads in the fashion industry with her youth and natural good looks. She very quickly falls in with makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone) and her friends Gigi and Sarah (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee), the latter of whom are immediately jealous of Jesse’s quick success. Jesse is innocent (and told to lie about her age) and overwhelmed, but her attitude becomes twisted by success and a conviction that she has no real talent beyond her looks.

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In Only God Forgives, I felt Refn’s style overpowered what little narrative and character there was, leaving us with a film that, despite its surface beauty, was hollow and, frankly, boring. I was pleased, therefore, to find myself thoroughly enjoying The Neon Demon. Refn’s languorous style is perfectly suited to the poised, precise world of fashion, to the point that the themes of vanity and the monetisation of beauty crystallise into the very fabric of the film. Like Drive, this is a film whose powerful visual style and hypnotic soundtrack help build the narrative up to a point which it might not otherwise have reached. Refn and his collaborators give the film a very poised sense of tone and mood, which elevate and enhance the thin, genre movie plot. The whole thing is drenched in Cliff Martinez’s throbbing, undulating score – a fusion of electronica and pulsating noir tones. In places, the sound is as important as the visuals – Refn and Martinez clearly work as a cinematic pairing.

The film’s primarily female cast are all on deceptively good form, and while the script (by Refn, Mary Laws and Polly Stenham) doesn’t require huge range from all of its performers, the mannered style and delivery all work towards the film’s overarching sense of tone. The supporting cast are also on great form, from Karl Glusman as Jesse’s friend to Keanu Reeves’ sinister turn as the owner of the motel Jesse moves into. A word, too, for Alessandro Nivola as an unnamed fashion designer, who is just terrific, stealing every scene he’s in and providing one of the best outlets for the film’s sense of jet-black humour.

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It’s important to note the prevalence of women who worked on this film, from producers to writers to Natasha Braier’s terrific cinematography, because although for the majority of The Neon Demon, Refn shoots his cast with delicacy, there are one or two scenes towards the end which verge on the problematic, in particular a brief dream sequence which feels unnecessarily exploitative, and a crass nude shower scene which feels leery and out of place.

Some of the riffs Refn draws on with the visuals and violence hark back to the work of other directors, but only in a loving way; I felt the film had a mood and style all of its own, and that it subsumed its world so fully that it even came to resemble it, in a sort of formalised satire. Yes, Refn is certainly not the first filmmaker to comment on the beauty industry, but he’s the first to do it quite like this. The Neon Demon is positive step in Refn’s career after the dis appointment of Only God Forgives, which promised so much but delivered so little. I found much to enjoy in its stylised world of bitchy models and disturbing, noirish imagery.

4/5

Film Review: Tale of Tales

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 13 Jun 2016

Tale of Tales, the latest film from Gomorrah director Matteo Garrone, may have been inspired by fairytales, but is very much not for children. It winds together three loosely connected stories, bringing a touch of mischief and danger to familiar fairytale story tropes. Show the rest of this post…

The stories are entwined together in a way which suggests they are more interconnected than they really are, but despite the slightly convoluted structure, the three narratives are clear. We begin in Darkwood, where the Queen’s (Salma Hayek) desperation for a child drives her to seek help from a mysterious stranger; then on to Highhills, where the King (Toby Jones) pays more attention to his disgusting pet flea than to his daughter (Bebe Cave) and finally Stronghold, where the promiscuous King (Vincent Cassel) becomes enchanted by the voice of a pauper in his city.

I enjoyed the film’s weirdness – its desire to play with its characters, to subvert expectations, and to fill the narrative with intrigue. And indeed its willingness to be dark: the sight of a an woman, skin flayed from her bones, staggering towards a palace, is not easily forgotten. Garrone and his cinematographer Peter Suschitzky have created a rich world in which to enjoy these narratives, and there is a pleasing reliance on practical effects.

In many ways it’s a strange film. I was rapt by, but also distant from it, perhaps because the stories, while fun in their own playful ways, ultimately promise more than they deliver. There are good performances in here, in particular from Cave as a captive princess, but while the result is tonally satisfying, there isn’t a great deal more to it than surface. I found myself wondering what the connections between the stories might be or, in the absence of such connections, what the themes would turn out to be, and in that respect I was frustrated, because the film didn’t deal with much more than its basic narratives. It’s perhaps a result of the film’s structure and length that I found myself looking for crossovers that weren’t really there.

Where the stories are united, though, is in their stran geness and arresting visuals. In that sense, the film certainly has an identity of its own, and those in search of a fairytale oddity will find much to enjoy in Tale of Tales.

3/5

Film Review: Warcraft

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 31 May 2016

Film adaptations of computer games have tended to be failures. Too often, filmmakers have adapted well known franchises but failed to help them transition from one medium to the other. This year, there are two noteworthy computer game adaptations helmed by noteworthy directors. 2016, it seems, could be the year that Hollywood finally gets computer game adaptations right. Show the rest of this post…

At the end of the year we have Justin Kurzel’s Assassin’s Creed to look forward to, but for now we have Duncan Jones’ adaptation of the Warcraft series, which began life as a real-time strategy game and later morphed into World of Warcraft, the biggest and most popular MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) yet released. As a fan of Jones’ two previous films – Moon and Source Code – and as someone who has logged a decent amount of play time with the Warcraft games, I had higher hopes for this film than I might have done otherwise.

The result, I’m both relieved and afraid to say, is a mixed bag. Relieved, because there are things in Warcraft (subtitled ‘The Beginning’ in some regions) that are promising; and afraid, because it also falls into many of the traditional traps of this kind of adaptation.

The story is set in Azeroth, a peaceful world into which is brought an army of warmongering orcs led by the villainous Gul’dan (Duncan Wu), who has harnessed the power of Fel magic (which draws its power from the taking of life). Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel), as commander of the armies of Stormwind, must help King Wrynn (Dominic Cooper), protect the humans’ lands and find the source of the evil magic.

Duncan Jones and his design team have done a pretty good job translating the look of the games onto the big screen – the orcs are appropriately massive and smashy (but also with the potential for nobility and calm) and the armour and landscapes look the part, even if the whole thing is very CGI-heavy. To some extent, I also felt that the feel of the games was there, although that may simply be down to my familiarity with some of the characters. I can see, however, that a complete newcomer might be bamboozled by some of the fantasy vocabulary. That is not a criticism of the story itself, but more the script and the way it delivers it. The film does its best to be accessible to a mainstream audience, but is repeatedly undercut by thinly explained lore and, in some cases, characters without proper introductions. The structure doesn’t help either. The beginning of the film introduces a whirlwind of new locations, characters and concepts, not all of which are adequately explained. So while the film tries to be approachable, it simultaneously holds its audience at a distance with its sometimes jumbled storytelling.

The performances are a similarly mixed bag. Travis Fimmel, leading his first film of this scope, does a pretty good job as Lothar, although his performance, which is pitched between dashing, heroic and slightly unhinged, feels a little like it could’ve used a bit more explanation. Dominic Cooper, as the king, hardly gets enough dialogue to make any kind of impact, and isn’t given any meaningful scenes with his family or friends to make his role really take hold. As the much talked about ‘guardian’, Ben Foster is also sold short by the script, making an important character feel muddled, while Ben Schnetzer, to his credit, develops the initially annoying character of Khadgar, a young and talented mage, into a decent screen presence. The orcish side of things benefits from two of the strongest characters: Paula Patton, as a “half-breed” orc named Garona, is effective, overcoming the character’s lack of real backstory to make an impact, and Toby Kebbel gives an excellent motion-captured performance as noble Durotan, who is at odds with Gul’dan’s schemes.

In the end, despite the flaws, this is one of the better computer game adaptations, even if that may be damning with faint praise. Jones holds all the parts together, just about, and the things that work are strong enough to leave an impression. The action is hefty and well done, and there is a pleasing respect for characters on both sides of the conflict, which mirrors the story in the games. The plot, which has changed a little from the source material, is told in an overly muddled way, but enough of it comes through to make for a watchable, if uneven, action film.

3/5

 

Film Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 30 May 2016

2014 saw the release of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a Jonathan Liebesman-directed reboot of the well known 90s comic book franchise, in which four ordinary turtles mutate into walking, talking ninjas and do battle with the foes of New York City. Show the rest of this post…

The film used motion capture performances to portray the turtles, and starred Megan Fox as April O’Neil, the reporter who befriends the turtles and one of the few humans who knows of their existence.

This sequel, which has been directed by Dave Green (Earth to Echo), brings pretty much the whole gang back together. Fox is back as O’Neil, Will Arnett as Vern Fenwick (now a celebrity, having agreed to take credit for the turtles’ heroics) and Pete Ploszek, Alan Ritchson, Noel Fisher and Jeremy Howard as the turtles – Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo and Donatello, respectively.

The film is similar in many ways to its predecessor, in that it’s an untidy, inconsistent action film with hints of something better lurking underneath. This time, the turtles must bring their unique brand of bickering, brotherly justice to a dastardly plot to summon a being from another world. This plot is headed up by Shredder (Brian Tee), the villain from the first film, and his two new henchmen Bebop and Rocksteady, who, those familiar with the series will recall, are a talking warthog and rhinoceros.

Actually the elements of the film you might expect to misfire – in particular the ‘out there’ mo-capped characters – turn out to be one of its few strengths. The motion capture is fairly well done, and the turtles, as well as their new opponents, are pretty convincing. Where the film is less convincing, much like the first one, is in establishing an effective plot or characters. Although the turtles are well realised visually, their sibling squabbles come across as light and ultimately meaningless; as indeed do any of the human interactions. Megan Fox has little of real note to do as April and, in an early scene, is leered over by the camera in a pretty crass way. If the film had made her more of a character, it might’ve been easier to overlook. Steve Amell joins the cast as Casey Jones, and does his best with the hockey-stick toting vigilante, while Tyler Perry makes a decent impression as questionable scientist Baxter Stockman, but is quickly reduced to just laughing manically.

The action sequences feature fast-moving cameras and lots of whirly shots, some of which are impressive but most of which are just difficult to follow. There are flashes of invention, and the special effects are of a good standard, but it’s hard to really care when the film feels so hollow. The plot frequently descends into ludicrous contrivances that steer it from point to point, and at no point do we ever feel a sense of jeopardy or character progression.

I was disappointed to find that my reaction to this film more or less mirrored my reaction to the first.  The first film made  a decent profit, and most of the principal cast are signed on for a third, so I doubt this is last we’ll see of our reptilian crime fighters. Perhaps third time will be the charm.

2/5

Film Review: Alice Through the Looking Glass

Posted in Film, Illustration, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 26 May 2016

Alice in Wonderland and Tim Burton seemed like a perfect match of source material and director, but the film that resulted in 2010 was a disappointment – lacking a sense of magic, and ultimately forgettable. Now, six years later, James Bobin (The Muppets) has brought us Alice Through the Looking Glass, a somewhat belated but, as it turns out, not unwelcome sequel. Show the rest of this post…

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This time around, Alice (Mia Wasikowska) must travel back to Wonderland (or ‘Underland’, as it was known in the first film) to try to snap the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) out of a depression brought on by an item he found in the forest, which lead to him to believe that his long-lost family, whom he thought dead, may actually be alive. To do this, Alice must employ the power of the Chronosphere, a device that will allow her to travel through time and revisit past events. In order to reach the Chronosphere, however, Alice must cross paths with Time himself, as personified by Sacha Baron Cohen.

The film succeeds where the previous one failed, in that it attempts to actually have a story, and to tell it. Where the first film got bogged down in a rambling mess of CGI, this sequel establishes that things are at stake, and although some of the backstory feels contrived, it is done well enough that the quest feels meaningful, and the finale can muster up some suspense.

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Thankfully, Bobin and screenwriter Linda Woolverton (improving hugely on her screenplay for the first one) give Mia Wasikowska more of a chance to make an impression, so it feels like Alice is actually important beyond people simply talking about her importance. Johnny Depp is still doing his baffling Mad Hatter performance and still treads a fine line between endearing, weird, and just plain annoying, but this time at least has some plot to work with. Most of the rest of the supporting cast return, primarily in tiny cameos, and thankfully Helena Bonham Carter gets to reprise her fun Red Queen role. As Time, Sacha Baron Cohen brings a mix of silliness and surprising weight, and although some of the character’s jokes aren’t really very funny (same goes for his little helpers), the character is well implemented, and his lair has some nice visual touches.

It still all feels a little unfocused and rambling, but this time much less so. There are contrivances in the story and  some of the performances still hover on the annoying side, but this sequel is surprisingly a better effort than its predecessor, with some fun action and inventive visuals to enjoy.

3/5

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