BLOODSHOT

You Don’t Need A Past To Have A Future

Director
David S F Wilson

Starring
Vin Diesel
Eiza Gonzalez
Guy Pearce
Toby Kebbell



Based on the Valiant comic of the same name, Bloodshot is the story of US Marine Ray Garrison [Diesel] whose last mission ended successfully but resulted in a backlash from mercenaries led by Martin Axe (played by Toby Kebbell) that culminated in the capture and execution of his wife Gina. Swearing revenge on Axe and all involved, Ray explains that they might as well kill him now. Uncharacteristically for cinema, Axe agrees and puts a bullet in Ray’s head. Ray then wakes up at the Rising Spirit Tech (RST) facility and is introduced to Dr Emil Harting [Pearce] and fellow military official KT [Gonzalez]. Ray quickly learns that he is the first solider successfully revived by Harting’s revolutionary nanotechnology and in the process has become a much more efficient killing machine. Slowly coming to terms with what he’s being told, Ray starts to have flashbacks to his murder and sets out to get revenge. I’d like to leave it there but the plot hinges on the reveal (which is outlined in the trailer) that Ray’s memory is being tampered with and the identity of Axe is reassigned to whomever RST wants killed. I decided to mention it here as it will come up repeatedly throughout this review.

For a directorial debut, David S.F. Wilson has crafted a completely middle-of-the-road functional film. It has all the trappings of a generic blockbuster, which is actually a strangely impressive thing as so many other directors have had to work up to this level of mediocrity. The most frustrating thing about this feature is what can only be described as music video filmmaking: absolutely stunning visual sequences sewn together with flat expository scenes. Admittedly, I think Wilson’s background is visual effects rather than music videos but the sentiment still stands. Before we get on to the visuals, we need to talk about the sound which ranges wildly from perfectly serviceable to painfully inept. On the one hand, the sound design and score works pleasantly enough but it is certainly one of Jablonsky’s weaker efforts. On the other hand, some of the vocal sound mixing is truly atrocious. Whether off-screen deliveries that sound like they were recorded in a booth or ADR for what I can only assume is a European actor being dubbed by an American, there were some truly poor choices made.

As for the visuals, they largely hold up and feel pretty inventive at times – as one would expect from someone who has worked in that field. The action is actually quite unique, often utilising smoke elements from gas grenades to a haze of flour to interesting effect but a lot of it is lost by erratic over-cut editing (but more on that in my highlighted scene). It also doesn’t help that notable global locations are substituted for wherever they happened to be filming and it’s painfully apparent. One scene in particular takes place in the heart of London but within a few moments, the fight/chase rips through a fairly small city that blatantly isn’t even Britain from things like licence plates. Again, for someone who comes from a visual effects background, you feel like these little oddities would have been addressed. Unfortunately, while failing to pick up on the little things, the film also fails with the big stuff. The climactic finale is a three-way fight down the side of a skyscraper and while a great deal of the movie integrates its effects pleasingly, a significant portion of this brawl is entirely populated with rubbery CGI body doubles that stick out like a sore thumb.

Which brings us to the performances. Knowing the comics, Vin Diesel is, to put it politely, an unfortunate choice to play this role. To give him full credit, he is undeniably invested and this character feels a little broader than his usual Fast/Furious fare but if you walked into the middle of this movie, you would have a hard time identifying whether this was a separate property or not. The second Ray arrives back on US soil he removes his camo to reveal a Dominic Torreto cosplay vest underneath. And considering Hobbs & Shaw introduced genetically modified super soldiers, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was a Dom spin-off feature. In truth, this overall lack of unique identifiers that make Ray stand out as a new or distinct character to anything Diesel has done outside of Groot or Riddick leaves the entire feature feeling strangely forgettable. It doesn’t help that the supports shift wildly between exceptional actors in uninspired roles to mediocre actors in painfully unfunny roles. On the one hand we have Guy Pearce selling the whole “good guy bad guy” bit well, as does Toby Kebbell, while on the other there are the underdeveloped fellow mercs who are either noble allies or twisted unhinged killers; which could arguably work if it wasn’t for the fact that nobody has much of a fleshed-out backstory to justify their actions. Finally we have the comic relief and my God are they insufferably one dimensional but I’ll expand on my thoughts about this in my highlighted character section below.

In closing, this film isn’t as much of a misfire as The Mummy – Universal’s attempt to kick of the “Dark Universe” – but it’s not far off. Taking an established, successful property and bringing it to the cinema as a relatively flat story with an ill suiting lead in an attempt to create an Iron Man world building effect seems to be a bit of a growing trend but as Valiant have a decent run of genuinely fascinating stories, this is a crushing defeat at the first hurdle. Without a unique look or feel, all that we’re left with is generic action and forgettable characters in a film that goes nowhere and upon closer inspection is littered with plot holes; the biggest of which are Ray’s memories. We learn that Ray is subjected to a constantly altered version of his execution but it transpires that none of it is real. But rather than asking the big questions, (i.e. “was he even in the military?”) the plot doesn’t even think to address anything complicated, favouring run of the mill developments. In that way, there is an air of Gemini Man to it and like that movie, I doubt anyone will be talking about this in six months’ time.


Release Date:
13 March 2020

The Scene To Look Out For:
To emphasise a point made earlier, there are some undeniably pretty shots in this film. One key example is Katie’s underwater dance (yes, that is a stupid sentence and I have no idea what that has to do with being a Navy seal) which is shot commendably but is utterly butchered and lost in crappy editing. As much as this movie had the potential to be interesting, part of the reason it isn’t is the erratic, disorientating cuts present throughout.

Notable Characters:
To lighten the mood of this dour release, the story decides to introduce a comic relief character roughly an hour into the film. That relief is in the form of programmer Wilfred Wigans played by Lamorne Morris. It is entirely possible that this character could have been given significantly better dialogue and the character itself would have work but as it stands, he’s just painfully annoying. This isn’t helped when it’s made apparent that his counterpart/adversary is Harting’s programmer Eric (played by Siddharth Dhananjay) whose immaturity feels straight out of Silicon Valley. Both end up being severely irritating which culminates in a dull coding hacking type-off, wherein neither actor is given any chance to shine outside of typing fast.

Highlighted Quote:
“No one wants to make real decisions anymore, they just want to think they have”

In A Few Words:
“Dull, bland and ultimately lifeless”

Total Score:

2/5

THE INVISIBLE MAN

What You Can’t See Can Hurt You

Director
Leigh Whannell

Starring
Elizabeth Moss
Oliver Jackson-Cohen



Opening with Cecilia [Moss] escaping the clutches of her abusive boyfriend Adrian [Jackson-Cohen], we watch her rehabilitate while in hiding. This is until she learns that Adrian has committed suicide and left his money to her. Finally free, Cecilia tries to move on with her life but is tormented by a series of circumstances that lead her to believe that Adrian has somehow faked his own death to torment her. This fear escalates and Cecilia’s few allies are slowly pushed away, leaving her isolated and without anyone to trust.

After what feels like two decades trying to jump-start a resurrection of the iconic Universal monsters – the most recent failure being the commercially and critically lambasted The Mummy – Universal went back to the drawing board and created a contained, modern adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel. To my mind, the last big invisible man release was 2000’s Hollow Man which ended up being little more than a male fantasy piece portrayed as scandalous indulgence. The unique aspect to this version is the emphasis on the monstrousness of Griffin and shifting the perspective from the killer to his primary target, while ultimately presenting an allegory for domestic abuse. And as such the final result feels fresh, poignant and remarkably tense.

The first thing that stands out about this film is how fantastically it has been constructed. From the extremely unnerving but simply opening scene, the location is beautifully shot but this escalates following Griffin’s death and the camera takes on a terrifying quality by framing certain shots to include empty spaces as if someone else was stood in the scene, going so far as to include a few tracking pans and focus pulls. This is heightened by pivoting from the uneasy opening to disarming family bonding before finally giving way to voyeuristic camera angles and a creeping sense of disquiet and growing apprehension. Catching the audience off-guard with banal relatability (situations that lull you with their familiarity before disrupting them with a horrific act) is far from a new technique, but here it is a keenly utilised weapon from the horror/psychological thriller arsenal.

Owing to the nature of not being able to see the danger, a lot of this tension comes down to aural manipulation; much like A Quiet Place, this film has come seemingly out of nowhere and is heavily reliant on what you can hear more than what you can see. Benjamin Wallfisch has proven himself multiple times over with a range of diverse and varied orchestral scores and while horror can be very formulaic in its musical output, the accompanying score has a fantastic presence, building masterfully from painfully ominous to thunderous and terrifying. The real unsung hero of this film is the sound design and mixing which go beyond the standard foley work, creating a whole character from nothing. After absorbing a medium like film for so long, we begin to accept the established rules, the pact that when a character moves across a room, you will hear a combination of audio recorded on the day and manufactured ambience to enhance the immersive experience. But to put these markers in place without a visual counterpart leaves the audience unnerved. I will, of course, admit that this isn’t some revolutionary new practice, it’s how every single feature with an unseen villain has operated for the best part of ninety years but it’s done extremely well and that’s what stands out.

**light spoilers concerning the nature of invisibility**
No matter the cause for the titular character, whether it’s technology, science or the supernatural, eventually CGI will need to play a role. And for the most part, it’s fairly absent and pleasingly subtle. For a large portion of the runtime we aren’t given definitive evidence that Cecilia is experiencing an actual attack and as such when her fears are confirmed, the audience begins to question how this is possible. Rather than the tried-and-tested method of a chemical compound – as used in previous iterations of the adaptation – this version opts for a technological morph-suit covered in cameras. It’s one of those novel changes that feels close enough to be a possibility while still firmly in the realm of science fiction. A wonderful by-product of this is the gentle whirring of the lenses as they shift focus, creating an eerie signature to torment the audience with later.

One of the reasons I genuinely love this movie is the character shift. From the opening scenes, the movie makes the smart choice of keeping Adrian largely in the shadows, never giving us a clear look at anything more than a very masculine form. This is magnificently used later to not only make the threat more foreboding but also to crushingly illustrate the nature and effect of abuse; just the idea of the silhouette is enough to terrify both Cecilia and the audience. Without getting too far into spoiler territory, the film progresses decently with its premise (arguably with a few conveniences for the sake of prolonging the suspense) but due to the perfect execution of a terrifying twist that invalidates Cecilia and the control dynamic shifting repeatedly over the three acts, The Invisible Man proves itself an absolutely worthy successor and/or companion piece to the 1933 original.


Release Date:
28 February 2020

The Scene To Look Out For:
**spoilers**
With absolutely no pun-work intended, you don’t see a lot of the invisible man. The encounters are fairly limited to avoid weakening the impact but when he is finally on-screen, the experience never disappoints. One could argue the most memorable section, when Adrian finally drops the veneer of manipulator and marches confidently into unhinged serial killer, takes place in the asylum corridor. Cecilia has managed to get out of her cell by wounding Adrian, causing his suit to glitch but using this to his advantage he proceeds to brutally attack the facility guards. While there are several examples of gripping filmmaking, this scene demonstrates the flow of action and brilliantly executed choreography that we saw in Whannell’s last film, the stupidly underrated Upgrade.

Notable Characters:
Elizabeth Moss has proved herself time and again as a go to for extremely relatable performances, from more comedic turns in something like The Square to dark dystopian pieces like The Handmaid’s Tale, she is always captivating. Keeping the narrative focus on Cecilia creates a very different feature with a unique dynamic and there is so much pressure on that individual to keep the audience both hooked and convinced by the absurdity of what is taking place.

Highlighted Quote:
“Adrian will haunt you if you let him. Don’t let him”

In A Few Words:
“An absolutely fantastic and unsettling release that morphs and evolves from beginning to end”

Total Score:

5/5

COLOR OUT OF SPACE

It Will Consume You

Director
Richard Stanley

Starring
Nicolas Cage
Joely Richardson
Madeleine Arthur
Brendan Meyer
Julian Hilliard
Elliot Knight



Nathan Gardner [Cage] moves his family away from the city to his family home, deep in the woodland of Maine, following his wife Theresa’s [Richardson] mastectomy. Hoping this will help the family bond, he attempts to grow vegetables on the land and raise alpacas. This life doesn’t have the desired effect however as his two teenage children Lavinia [Arthur] and Benny [Meyer] resent being forced into the sticks and his wife feels detached from her high-pressure corporate job. The only one who seems to be at ease with the displacement is their youngest, Jack [Hilliard], but even he is quite withdrawn. Life for the Gardners shifts when a young hydrologist, Ward Phillips [Knight], is brought in to investigate a meteorite that crash-lands onto their farm and starts to display a clear and adverse effect on their mental stability.

To look at the technical aspects of this release is to understand why it ultimately doesn’t work. For every positive component there is a lacking one and the whole film suffers because of this general imbalance. From the very outset, Colin Stetson’s ethereal 80s synthy score is captivating, haunting and becomes progressively more manic and invasive in the best possible way, considering the nature of the premise. The visual elements are also quite interesting, from the effects which are often magical and otherworldly to the impressive practical effect work but unfortunately it never surpasses some of the maddening brilliance of The Thing and what we’re left with is a pale imitation. This also means we are offered several beautifully composed and constructed shots but not a great deal of cohesion between them and a great many ideas that never really go anywhere – but more on that later.

From a directorial and editorial standpoint, there is quite the heavy use of three way cross-dissolves (bleeding from one scene to another with a bridge shot that never fully materialises) but they regrettably fail to truly establish the displacement of time that they is intended. One could argue all of these pros and cons fall solely at the feet of director Richard Stanley. Stanley has been absent from the screen for over two decades and the details surrounding his firing from The Island Of Dr Moreau are fascinating but there’s something enjoyable about a director who was fired from a major project returning, not with a safe indie story but doubling down with a bat-shit crazy science fiction horror that will immediately ostracise a large portion of the audience for its weirdness. Knowing this, it almost explains how and why the film is the way it is, a stubborn, lovingly recreation of something that has never transitioned particularly well to cinema.

Aside from the atmospheric visual and aural aspects and with the narrative indifferent to the outside world, the majority of this movie is reliant on the Gardner family’s descent into madness; a task which the central cast rise to reasonably well. The chemistry between Richardson and Cage starts off well, with the family feeling like a plausible troupe. As the effects of the alien presence from the meteor become more felt, there are Close Encounters/Poltergeist levels of obsession and possession that add to the steady but slow march toward hysteria and moments of lucidity in between bouts of madness that help sell the decline. Given how a lot of people perceive Nicolas Cage, his subsidence into mania is a gradual one but the fact part of his transition relies on an impression of Nathan’s father (an individual, long dead, that we never see) often comes off cheesy and cartoony – which is so crushingly disappointing because there are so many fantastic instances of Cage staring off into the middle ground, like a worn out Kinski in Aguirre, breaking only to mutter some unsettling statement like “they’re not my family.” On top of this somewhat missed opportunity, each member of the ensemble cast have their own afflictions and symptoms but because we don’t get equal time with them, they feel lost or underdeveloped.

As much as there are parts of the casting that take a few missteps or come off as undercooked, the clear lack of a “sane” element, leaves the audience without a surrogate or anchor. The closest we have is Ward the hydrologist but his role is so minimalised that when he is eventually wheeled out, he acts completely irrationally, failing to establish he is distinctly different from the Gardners (albeit nowhere near as severe). This isn’t to say that a story about going insane can’t have an absence of logic, but not at the expense of the narrative or the characters themselves; there are plenty of examples where we follow individuals in this state but for every The Shining with its masterful performances, we have the completely baffling actions of the characters in something like Prometheus. But this is part of the trouble so many creatives have run into when adapting the works of HP Lovecraft, which heavily relies on the accounts of lone survivors and reminiscings/ramblings of strange events in journals or psychiatric doctor’s notes. Another similar disappointment was 2016’s The Void, which had a lot of decent visuals/effects amid the overall b-movie, schlocky aesthetic but it at least had a sense of prevailing urgency, which is somewhat lacking here. Speaking of which, the climax of the film rings little hollow but this is a unfortunate by-product of analysing an unknowable, malevolent colonising force from outer space (an intrinsic part of the horror) that can never offer any form of explanation to motivation. Again, something that should strengthen the sense of terror serves to simply undermine any form of structural closure, in a not too dissimilar way to Spielberg combining a cop-out closing with HG Wells’ clever conclusion in War Of The Worlds.

It also doesn’t help that the crux of the film is an unfathomable and inexplicable colour being shown in a visual medium like cinema, forcing them to resorting to a pink hue. It’s not a bad idea and it certainly looks eerie and atmospheric but when you have Cage saying, “there was a bright light, like a pink.. well actually it was like no colour I’ve ever seen before” the situation becomes laughable. There’s also a lot of markers and signposting set out in an organic opening that covers a lot of exposition neatly but most of it seemingly never goes anywhere. Things like Lavinia’s practicing of Wicca, the mayor wanting to buy the Gardner land and Nathan convinced he can get a profit from his alpacas; all of them effective dead ends. One of the most unusual is Theresa’s cancer. There is the assumption that the cancer would potentially link back to Richardson’s cosmic malady – most notably considering the visuals of her hair falling out, being unwillingly bonded with an organic form that is absorbing her and the helplessness of the family as they look on, not to mention the parallel with Stanley’s own mother suffering a similar fate – but no, it is apparently most inconsequential.

I feel that art shouldn’t necessarily be made to appease or assuage an audience (*cough* The Rise Of Skywalker *cough*), rather it should be created because it needs to experienced. For all the floundering and frustrations, I don’t actually dislike this film; I think it is grossly imperfect and wanting but ultimately Color Out Of Space feels different and for that it should be commended. I have heard that Stanley has plans to complete another two Lovecraftian releases, making this a thematic trilogy, and I would be sincerely curious to see what he does next.. providing he doesn’t return to exile for another twenty years or so.


Release Date:
28 February 2020

The Scene To Look Out For:
Toward the midpoint of the film, one of the first truly creepy moments takes place while Nathan is watching himself being interviewed on the news, loudly critiquing how it looks and that no one told him his hair looked so scruffy. All the while Theresa is in the kitchen, slowly entering a trance-like state, cutting a carrot dangerously close to her fingers. With the score, sound design and increasing rate of cuts, the whole thing becomes magnificently tense. Admittedly the conclusion plays off a little too jokey but that’s largely fine.

Notable Characters:
Two performances come to mind and they are both unfortunately neglected. The first is Hilliard as Jack Gardner, who holds his own extremely well – there’s one take that pushes in on him sat on the sofa as the family breaks down around him before he finally snaps out of it and seeks comfort from his mother. It’s the kind of impressive kid acting that horror often displays but is so often dismissed because the performance didn’t take place in a drama. The other performance is Tommy Chong as the local hermit Ezra. He too is given little to do but every time he is on screen he gives a captivating performance and his fate serves as the perfect embodiment of a Lovecraft victim.

Highlighted Quote:
“You might see her but I don’ think you’ll recognise her”

In A Few Words:
“While there are several positive elements at work, the final piece feels like an ultimately missed opportunity”

Total Score:

2/5

SONIC THE HEDGEHOG

Gotta Go Fast

Director
Jeff Fowler

Starring
Ben Schwartz
James Marsden
Jim Carrey
Tika Sumpter



The opening prologue details Sonic’s [Schwartz] younger years and how he was given a pouch containing rings that could transport him to any destination and forced to leave his homeworld after an attempted kidnapping. More exposition highlights that the blue anthropomorphic hedgehog has been hiding in a small American town, observing from a distance but keeping out of sight for fear of being captured to harness is unique power: super-speed. One evening, the young creature feels particularly isolated and alone so runs in a circle repeatedly to vent. Doing so creates a powerful discharge of energy that attracts the attention of the US military who send one of their foremost experts, the highly eccentric technophile Dr Robotnik [Carrey], to ascertain the cause. Fearing for his life, Sonic accidentally encounters the local Sheriff, Tom Wachowski [Marsden], who tranquilises the hedgehog, causing him to drop a teleportation ring linked to the Transamerica Pyramid tower. Feeling responsible, Tom begrudgingly agrees to help him get to San Francisco and recover his rings, allowing him to escape.

At the time of release, Sonic is primarily known for one thing (other than the mountain of video games and merchandise), the widely rejected design for the film which was then scrapped and the release date moved to allow time to rework the visual effects. But as this doesn’t have a direct bearing on what we have ended up with, I’ll largely ignore that. What we have got, after the protracted wait, is a story with a surprisingly fun atmosphere and energy and several actual laughs. The cinematography is pleasing, the Easter eggs for the fans are decent without feeling intrusive and the score is suitably epic – which is hardly surprising considering it was composed by Tom Holkenborg. To say this release was a surprise is an understatement.

Almost all of the film is carried by two very strong performances. In the role of the antagonist we have Jim Carrey giving a very nostalgic and familiar performance. One could argue that he did something similar in Dumb And Dumber To but due to the puerile humour, it felt more desperate and depressing to watch. The key difference here is that Carrey seems to be genuinely having fun with the performance and really hamming up the villain for the primary audience (more on that later). Admittedly, this is nowhere near Count Olaf level of compelling villain but thoroughly enjoyable nonetheless. What I found truly interesting is that this potentially flat role had some depth to it that added to the character. Throughout the movie we glean information about his past and the journey he has taken to become this misanthropic, vindictive individual, while still spouting moustache-twirling villainous lines such as, “Confidence, a fool’s substitute for intelligence.” In truth, there is a very fine line between an opponent who is too sympathetic, to the point they become a relatable figure, and someone who is so cartoonishly antagonistic that they come off as unbelievable and silly. Utilising Robotnik’s disdain for others, his earnest love of machinery and arrogance confirmed by circumstance, makes for an interesting adversary.

The other, arguably more important, member of the cast is the eponymous hedgehog himself. Whenever something is adapted from an early 90s console game, it is often necessary to inject a lot of lore and presence, on account of the simplicity of a side-scrolling platformer. As such, this version of Sonic comes off as a nice hybrid of contemporary sensibilities and the cocksure personality beats from the cartoon and comics. There’s also a plentiful injection of heart, exploring themes of belonging which a younger audience can easily relate to. What’s more, Sonic is aged to that of the target demographic which adds to the comedic impact and dictates how Marsden has portrayed Tom; specifically that of a nice but responsible father-figure with a heart of gold, even when the two butt heads or seem at odds. This also presents plenty of opportunity for great comic delivery; an example being Tom saying if Sonic were to use a ring to escape to the mushroom planet he “wouldn’t be the only fungi” which is immediately countered with “No, don’t ever do that again.” It may not sound like much but the back-and-forth is very reminiscent of a child reacting quintessential “Dad jokes.” This is a double-edged sword, however, as mature audiences who grew up with the character may find him a little irksome but he’s a blue hedgehog who runs fast, spins into a charged ball and jumps on bad guys to defeat them – on paper, it’s the very definition of what you would want from Sonic.

But despite the praises I’ve been singing, this movie is a pretty average release. The fact it wasn’t a total trainwreck is an accomplishment of late (as was the case with Detective Pikachu) but over time people will wonder what the fuss was about. Owing to the direction they took both the character and the story, the majority of this film comes off as excessively simplistic and innocent but also largely unadventurous. So often events are dismissed, overlooked or resolved with the assumption that kids won’t care. Stuff like the power going out all over town but the phones still working, Sonic is tranquilised and can’t run but when he recovers almost immediately, he takes literal directions (i.e. run that way until you hit the sea) and sometimes people are terrified of his strange alien form, other times he’s seen as just a regular kid. It shouldn’t matter but the other elements don’t compensate enough to account for these glaring issues.

In summary, Sonic The Hedgehog is an above average kids film and with that in mind, it is perfectly acceptable. It could have easily been more layered and complex but I think it was pitching to a significantly younger audience than initially expected. Keeping the action on Earth also limits the possibilities but it’s almost a given that this will spark a sequel, so hopefully these points can be addressed then. Either way, having a handful of impressive video game adaptations is quite the triumph and could be the start of a new, previously presumed impossible, bubble like the rise of superhero features. Who knows?


Release Date:
14 February 2020

The Scene To Look Out For:
There are plenty of extremely funny moments throughout this film that brought a smile to my face without being unnecessarily crass or dumbed-down. Having said that, the most brow-furrowing moment is probably the opening sequence. We are introduced to a lot of fantasy elements very quickly and they are just as quickly dismissed. Sonic lives on an island with an owl named Longclaw before a group of echidnas try to abduct him – that sentence alone needs a lot of unpacking but the movie doesn’t seem to have time to and it largely gets overlooked, creating a bit of whiplash right from the get-go.

Notable Characters:
Marsden is very basic in his execution but serviceable. Most of his motivation is wrestling with the idea of moving to San Francisco to help people there or to stay in his home town. If I was being cynical, I would say this is one of those developments that kicked off in the early 2000s: the idea that metropolises are dangerous places devoid of personality whereas the real heart of America is in the small towns, which have the same, if not more to offer. Regardless, it only factors in a handful of times and frankly primarily exists to remove Tom’s wife Maddie (played by Tika Sumpter) from the equation. Speaking of Maddie, she is completely side-lined to allow the boys road trip to exist but when Sumpter and Marsden are together, the chemistry is solid and we get a glimpse of something that could have been more entertaining. Still, the fact Maddie is played by a person of colour is a step forward, albeit a very small one.

Highlighted Quote:
“I’ve not been spying on you, we’ve been hanging out but from a distance and no one knew I was there”

In A Few Words:
“A painfully safe, considered release but one that achieves what it sets out to and will delight its target audience: kids”

Total Score:

3/5

THE LIGHTHOUSE

Keeping Secrets Are Ye?

Director
Robert Eggers

Starring
Robert Pattinson
Willem Dafoe
Valeriia Karaman



Set in the late 1800s, we are introduced to Ephraim Winslow [Pattinson] – a young man running from his past, trying to find a place he can belong and be productive – who takes on a four week position as a wickie for a lighthouse on a remote island off the coast of New England. Winslow’s only company is his supervisor, a cantankerous and superstitious ex-naval man named Thomas Wake [Dafoe]. The two say little to one another and go about their duties but Winslow quickly comes to resent Wake’s orders and dismissal of policy. As his time on the rock continues, Winslow grows restless and longs for the day his tenure is up and he can return to the mainland.

Despite being only his second feature film, Eggers has already proved himself an exceptional talent and become massively endeared to me for creating the kind of fiction that I could only dream of crafting. This is an important statement to bear in mind throughout the course of this review as my bias is more than evident. Having said that, even a layman could identify The Lighthouse as an extremely singular feature that has been powerfully constructed. More than that, it feels as if some old print of an experimental 30s film has been discovered and brought to light. The cinematography is bold and incredibly beautiful, the sound design is tremendous and the score is deeply haunting. But what stands out to me the most is the fact that this is an artist with the talent and (more importantly) the support to create whatever he pleases, regardless of what is trendy or expected; which is something that A24 has been championing since its inception less than ten years ago.

On a structural level, The Lighthouse is gloriously rhythmic. Visually you have the hypnotic draw of the ever turning light at the top of the tower paired with the audio of the continuous, maddeningly damning noise of the fog horn. It’s both comforting in its repetitive constant-presence and agonising in its intrusive indifference to the plight of those around it. In a way, there’s an almost Lovecraftian descent into mania, playing with themes of superstition, otherworldly influences and daring to know an uncaring natural phenomena. But the similarities with the works of HP Lovecraft are merely the surface of the inspiration and comparisons that can be drawn. In truth there are nods to Promethean legend and many parallels with The Shining and something like A Field In England but rather than directly homaging or plagiarising these works, The Lighthouse feels like a companion piece, analysing related concepts while still feeling fresh and original.

Speaking of sister works, so many of the underlying ideas at play were present in Egger’s previous release, The Witch. Both feel like time capsule pieces free from contemporary trappings, rife with superstition and projecting a world that feels at the same time both alien and eerily familiar to us. While this could be said for most period fiction, the way in which Jarin Blaschke shoots these films bucks modern expectations and preconceptions, giving us a truly uncommon aesthetic. Then we have the subject of man in isolation and all of the paranoid, horror that comes with it. For this story, religious fervour has been substituted with frantic, obsessive superstition but the effect is the same and an analysis is presented which posits that when left to our devices free from the watchful eye and judgments of civilisation, we sink to our baser urges, through sexual obsession aided by the consolation and comfort engendered by alcoholic stupor.

Something I sincerely adore is the script’s use of language, with little regard for the audience. Striving for authenticity and atmospheric immersion, it seems to almost purposefully ostracise the viewer in an attempt to bring to life this antiquated era. But while the words alone are fantastic, it’s the performances that sell us on this world. So much is put upon Pattinson and Dafoe but they rise to the challenge masterfully and command and captivate throughout; whether it’s Pattinson’s physical endurance and fatigue or Dafoe’s wide-eyed monologues, everything feels meticulously calculated and entirely organic. There is also an amusing nod to the possessive gatekeeper mentality that perfectly fits these keepers of the light. But this does bring us to the only real problems with this almost flawless release. Less a flaw, more a stumble, is that the pacing loses a bit of steam due to a lack of variety and the somewhat formulaic nature of the narrative. Earlier I praised the rhythmic quality to the film’s construction but this also leads to a somewhat monotonous slog of routine and repetition that can grind viewer’s patience and ultimately, when stripped of all its eerie majesty and pageantry, The Lighthouse is remarkably silly with a surprising amount of fart jokes that partly weakens its more superior qualities.

In conclusion, The Lighthouse is another audacious, impactful and unsettling study from Eggers that will polarise audiences and either be immediately rejected or held aloft. In my earnest opinion, it is an undeniable achievement and riveting throughout.


Release Date:
07 February 2020

The Scene To Look Out For:
One of the only additional members of the cast is a mermaid whose shrill cry and ghastly presence haunts Winslow’s (presumably) dreams. The mermaid sequences are truly terrifying and serve as one of the main sources of horror in this chilling dark supernatural thriller. In terms of performance, the visual effects and the sound design, her appearance serves a reminder of the sinister and monstrous origin of a mythology modern cinema has all but sterilised.

Notable Characters:
The gull. A combination of trained birds, puppetry and prop work is a true personality unto itself and a deeply oppressive and disturbing one.

Highlighted Quote:
“To ye, you beauty”

In A Few Words:
“Eggers once again proves he is one of the most unique and captivating talents working today”

Total Score:

5/5

BIRDS OF PREY (AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN)

Prey For Gotham

Director
Cathy Yan

Starring
Margot Robbie
Ella Jay Basco
Ewan McGregor
Jurnee Smollett-Bell
Rosie Perez
Mary Elizabeth Winstead



Set after the events of Suicide Squad, Harley Quinn [Robbie] and the Joker separate and by openly distancing herself from him, becomes a target for every crook in Gotham. Simultaneously a rare diamond with clues to the Bertinelli family fortune is on its way to crime boss Roman Sionis [McGregor] but is accidentally pickpocketed by wayward teen Cassandra Cain [Basco]. This two-pronged bounty hunt gets the attention of both sides of the law with Detective Renee Montoya [Perez] and lounge singer Dinah Lance [Smollett-Bell] trying to locate and protect Cain. All the while a mysterious vigilante is taking out several high-ranking mafia officials, whose method of execution has earned her the nickname the crossbow killer.

Given the fourth-wall breaking, narrative-hopping, gleefully violent nature of this movie, it’s almost impossible not to talk about Deadpool. In terms of pushing the envelope on irreverent antihero stories and 15/R-rated action comedies, Deadpool kicked the door open but every success that follows through does so on its own merit. Case in point, as a counterpoint to Suicide Squad with a madcap energy, feminist tonality and an exceptional rock n roll visual aesthetic, Birds Of Prey is incredibly fun and, for better or worse, the embodiment of the zeitgeist. Essentially the story of a pariah looking for friends in a world operated largely by and for men, it’s a welcome treat to follow a story of the women who have been wronged by them at every turn. From the costumes to the comedy, to how characters are framed, the entire film benefits infinitely from a shift in director in terms of gender and ethnicity. And while the score takes a bit of a backseat to the music cues, it blends seamlessly with the song choices and the decision to include entirely female-led tracks was such a simple but smart move that adds to this movie’s unique flavour.

As the title suggests, this is very much an ensemble piece but Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn stands out as the clear lead. As one of the undeniably best elements of Suicide Squad, her return is fantastic and separating her from the Joker highlights to the audience the layered complexity this individual has to offer. There are also quite a few new characters introduced in this film and the movie mostly does a good job giving them equal screen time.. mostly (but I’ll come back to that in my highlighted character section). Admittedly, comic fans may be upset by the use of the Birds Of Prey moniker or characters bearing little resemblance to their source material counterparts (Cassandra Cain comes to mind) but in truth, cinematic adaptations have always harvested things from comics while working them into a new identity; sometimes this then influences how the comic presents said character going forward. But for the purposes of forging something new, I genuinely understood and appreciated the alterations. As stated, the eponymous team takes a bit of a backseat to Harley but their arcs all weave together pleasingly and the performances from Smollett-Bell, Basco and, most surprisingly, Perez were extremely impressive, managing to find a balance between the film’s overall zany manner and the seriousness of their individual agendas. On the other end of the spectrum, Ewan McGregor as Roman Sionis is very interesting. On the one hand you could take the entire performance as an overblown, scenery chewing, laughable mess but his general instability and childlike tantrums feel almost satirical and painfully identifiable as a heightened recreation of a lot of toxic men. Again, is this Black Mask from the comics? No but it’s the kind of sadistic erratic villain this movie required.

Yan’s kinetic yet coherent direction captivates from start to finish and the brutal fight choreography is a joy to watch. This momentum successfully pushes the film forward, culminating in a conclusion of unity in the group but while this chemistry is spectacular once they are all assembled, it’s only a shame we didn’t see more of it. Again, it could be said that the film is shallow or superficial, lacking any real depth outside of the primary McGuffin/manhunt plot-thread but I think that would be an unfair assessment and, again, if we were to rate something like Deadpool highly despite having an incredibly similar straightforward motivational drive interspersed with character building through flashbacks, it would be a gross exercise in hypocrisy.

Without knowing what the hell is going on with the DCEU in general, it’s hard to predict where this film will go or where it stands in the shared universe flow but in actuality, it is a fantastic and well-timed standalone that in all seriousness, shouldn’t have worked; this movie should have been a fiery mess rather than the enjoyable romp it turned out to be but I’m all the more grateful for it.


Release Date:
07 February 2020

The Scene To Look Out For:
Sionis being such a larger-than-life cartoonish individual, the film ensures we are reminded that the fun aspect of his manic, unhinged personality is short-lived. Flying into paranoid rages over seemingly nothing, screaming “these are my things!” he is the personification of every violently abusive partner. A great example of this takes place in Roman’s club when he learns that Cain has eluded them again. Banging on the table and repeatedly shouting “fuck,” Roman catches sight of a patron laughing across the bar and approaches her. In an incredibly demeaning manner he challenges her before demanding she dance on the table and instructs her friend to cut her dress off. The whole thing is remarkably uncomfortable and accented perfectly by the sobriety of the pulsing score.

Notable Characters:
Despite the fact that the Bertinelli family fortune is one of the main central focuses of this film, Huntress is quite heavily left out of this movie. Considering how much is being juggled I can almost understand it but given how amusing the character is and how well she mixes with the team, it just feels like a missed opportunity. Classically, we have no way of knowing whether this will be rectified in a future outing, should there be one, but I would love to see more from the entire team, especially if the creatives behind the camera are returning.

Highlighted Quote:
“Call me dumb.. I have a PhD, motherfucker!”

In A Few Words:
“Frankly, Birds Of Prey is a fuck-tonne of fun”

Total Score:

4/5

WEATHERING WITH YOU [天気の子]

Let The Sun Shine

Director
Makoto Shinkai

Starring
Kotaro Daigo
Nana Mori
Shun Oguri



The film opens with a prologue introducing us to Hina Amano [Mori], a young student whose mother is at death’s door. On a rainy day she notices a single crepuscular ray shining down on a shrine atop a rundown Tokyo building. Making her way to the shrine, she prays and steps through the gate, finding herself in a land of the clouds, surrounded by rain droplets in the shape of fish and clouds that resemble dragons. We are then introduced to sixteen year old Hodaka Morishima [Daigo] who has run away from his home to start a new life in Tokyo. On the ferry over, he encounters a freak storm and almost goes overboard but is saved by a suave quasi-antihero named Suga [Oguri]. Being a minor, Hodaka encounters a lot of difficulty getting his Tokyo life started but eventually seeks out Suga, who he learns runs a trashy conspiracy theory magazine. Suga hires the teen and sends him out to research a young woman who can supposedly control the weather dubbed the sunshine girl.

Despite the aforementioned synopsis, the folktale fantasy element is largely subdued, aside from a few bookended developments. The majority of the story presents some fairly adult themes, almost akin to something Isao Takahata would produce.. at least on the surface. Rather than just a kid’s story, this film covers all manner of things from opportunistic adults praying on young women, the bureaucratic nature of social services that are unsympathetic to the human element of each case, the responsibilities thrust upon young adults and indeed adults themselves and, of all things, the rise in Japanese gun crime. Subsequently, it feels like two films are desperately at odds with one another and both suffer slightly for it.

One thing that is absolutely flawless, however, is the technical achievements on display. As with Shinkai’s previous film, Your Name, Weathering With You is visually stunning with an incredible level of animation detail that is truly evocative of contemporary Tokyo. This is partly aided by the real-world product placement and accurate shop fronts/landmarks, to the degree that they may have created the best Big Mac ever constructed. The sound design is also fantastic, from the hum of the city to the ethereal wails of the cloud-based creatures. As far as the score goes, it can be broken down into three simple forms; it takes on a digitised (sometimes reversed) quality during moments of peak stress, soaring strings when joyous and light melancholy solo piano work when sombre or sincere. This is of course very reminiscent of radwimps’ work on Your Name and in truth, is very much in keeping with anime scores of the last decade but still very pleasing throughout.

**spoilers at the culmination of this paragraph**
The entire focus on weather is a curious one. Being British, I’m obviously able to relate to frustrations with the weather but one would assume a film about endless uncharacteristic rain would have quite a strong message about climate change but the biggest surprise Weathering With You has to offer is that it almost doesn’t. For the most part, the film looks back at old-held traditions and the inexorable ebb and flow of nature. More specifically it states that human sacrifice has kept nature in check but in the face of human happiness, why should we suffer – which is kind of a climate change denier’s fantasy narrative. Yet the film delves deeper than mere implication, it takes confident strides into baffling territory with its conclusion. Hodaka manages to save Hina from the ethereal cumulonimbus world that all sacrificed weather maidens go to and faces the consequences of his actions (for the most part and entirely off-screen). We then learn that Tokyo has become completely submerged due to the constant year-round rain, which is an incredibly bold move, but rather than challenging the audience with this flooded dystopia, the movie settles for an upbeat romantic close with a sort of “fuck it, we can’t change the inevitable” tone that didn’t really gel. This, for me, was the weakest element. No strong moral conviction, no satisfactory resolution and no emotional gut-punch; what should have been a tremendous storm of change and defiance in the teenage heart and soul peters out to little more than a light drizzle.

Ultimately, apart from the animation, everything seems just out of reach. The danger is never truly felt, the fantasy world-building often comes off as Ghibli-lite and I didn’t feel the – for lack of a better word – painful longing for our leads to come together. It’s not that Weathering With You is a bad story, it’s just not a particularly strong one considering how easily a few slight alternations could have transformed it into another animated classic of the 2010s, as Shinkai’s last feature is. But as much as this movie stumbles, it is still performing well above the average animated release, as well as a great many live-action narratives aimed at teens, and that should always be commended.


Release Date:
31 January 2020

The Scene To Look Out For:
Given his first assignment, Hodaka has to meet several potential sunshine girls. This montage segment is where the film starts to pick-up speed and we get more of a playful side than the fairly despondent, dour tone of a down-on-his-luck adolescent runaway.

Notable Characters:
Hodaka is a bit of an oddity. Daigo does a marvellous job with the role but we know so little about this man. We never learn what the home life he was so desperate to escape was like, other than it was apparently a bit dull. He is reckless and impetuous, as most teenagers are, but everything seemingly works out in his favour to the degree that even discharging a weapon at a (presumably) yakuza club owner is met with little lasting consequence. I understand the notion of the blank slate shonen that audiences can project themselves onto but this is a prime example of an element that could have benefited from just a little more nurturing and development.

Highlighted Quote:
“The weather changes on a whim, regardless of human needs”

In A Few Words:
“Technically marvellous but narratively lacking”

Total Score:

3/5

THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD

From Rags To Riches.. And Back Again

Director
Armando Iannucci

Starring
Dev Patel
Tilda Swinton
Peter Capaldi
Hugh Laurie



The film opens with David’s [Patel] birth and is told with the aid of voiceover as Copperfield recalls the events and distinct individuals he has encountered over his unpredictable often turbulent life, battered by the whim of fate. Following the death of his father, David’s mother remarries a haunting figure who crushes the young boy’s dreams and aspirations. This is made worse when David is sent away to work at his step-father’s bottle factory in London, residing with the wily Mr Micawber [Capaldi]. Following the death of his mother, David runs away from London to live with his neurotic aunt, Betsey Trotwood [Swinton] and her equally neurotic cousin Mr Dick [Laurie] and for a time Copperfield is happy. But it isn’t long before struggle and ruin return to his life.

In the same vein as Little Women, David Copperfield is a modern interpretation in terms of pacing and attitudes rather than setting and production. From a technical standpoint it bears all the common, recognisable markers of your standard Victorian literature adaptation. However by gently updating the source material, there is a sense that the content is more relatable and accessible but in doing so it loses some of the story’s general flow and feels like a series of rushed, albeit extremely well-constructed, vignettes. Told with a dose of whimsy, despite the often dour subject matter, The Personal History Of David Copperfield may be an effectively a straight adaptation in terms of aesthetic and score but the performances, cinematography and delightful scene transitions have almost dreamlike fantasy qualities, as if something recalled from memory – which is what the author ultimately intended and fits well despite the fairly chaptered, often rushed, consequence of trying to cram a 624 page novel into a 119 minute runtime.

The film’s finest achievement, other than the script distilling all the key qualities of the novel (a feat which hasn’t been attempted since the late 60s), is the skilled ensemble cast. At the front of it all is Dev Patel, an individual I have sung the praises of for years. With acute charm and range, he manages to embody Copperfield’s noblest and weakest qualities; from his analytical view of the world, constantly impersonating the memorable characters he meets throughout his life to his often cruel dismissiveness and self-absorbed quest to climb the social ranks. Of course, Patel’s casting was met with the usual cries from (let’s not beat about the bush) racists who cannot fathom anyone playing a Dickensian lead other than a blonde white boy but as I explained in my Mary Queen Of Scots review, if the actor fits the role, cast them. On top of that, the diversity to the cast is a welcome treat and the rotating door of supporting cast members all perform admirably. Admittedly, Dickens didn’t seem to have a great deal to say about his female supporting players but Iannucci has managed to thankfully elevate and improve them for modern sensibilities.

The greatest disappointment with this film is more a frustration of expectations and how this movie was marketed; put another way, the humour was not what I ultimately thought it would be. This is, undoubtedly, one of Iannucci’s most unambiguously approachable projects for mainstream audiences, a sort of half-way house between his foul mouthed satire and run-of-the-mill period drama. But with this level of restraint, rather than simply shredding and warping the source material into a cynical reworking catering to today’s audiences, the amount of sincerity and earnestness takes you aback. It’s not necessarily that the film is lacking in any way or to say that Iannucci cannot step outside of his usual comfort zone but it almost feels like a missed opportunity to sample what a Dickensian drama populated with characters like Malcolm Tucker and Alan Partridge could have looked like. But again, this is less to the film’s detriment and more to the type of audience, in the same way that certain cinemagoers weren’t happy with The Favourite or Possum because they stepped away from the images conjured in one’s mind when told that Olivia Colman plays a British monarch in a period piece or Matt Holness has created a film about a puppeteer. So why bring it up if this is but a question of personal perspective and preconceived notions? Ultimately to highlight that the film could suffer because of this shared preconception.

Despite this minor but impactful issue, I feel the film is a perfectly timed triumph. Dickens works best when the reader’s world is less than desirable, as if to draw a motivational comparison for support and inspiration. And with a significant amount of heart, optimism and bounce throughout this version, it serves as a reminder to the viewer that the sum of where we are is not the sum of who we are and things can always get better so be the best person you can; which I’m sure we can all agree is a fine message to put out in 2020.


Release Date:
24 January 2020

The Scene To Look Out For:
Of all the varied moments this film offers, one that stuck with me was David bringing his school friend to the whimsical summer home of his youth. Sent away to Great Yarmouth to live in a house made from an upturned boat on the shore, David is surprised when the saturated colours and palatial interiors of his memory are significantly faded and shrunken on closer inspection with a grown body and adult eyes.

Notable Characters:
As stated earlier, the cast are magnificent in their entirety yet one individual still stands out from the outset. Tilda Swinton is one of those actors who has been quietly appearing in the background of so many films over the last twenty years and never gets the true recognition she deserves. In spite of the wealth of mirth and soul on display from all, the film feels just a little weaker when she is absent and wholly elevated upon her return.

Highlighted Quote:
“Don’t worry, you’ll make it through. And you’ll have quite the ride on the way”

In A Few Words:
“A fabulous adaptation brimming with warmth that only occasionally wobbles under the weight of the undertaking at hand”

Total Score:

4/5

BAD BOYS FOR LIFE

Ride Together. Die Together

Director
Adil El Arbi
Bilall Fallah

Starring
Will Smith
Martin Lawrence
Kate del Castillo
Jacob Scipio
Paulo Nunez



Set nearly two decades after Bad Boys 2, Detectives Marcus Burnett [Lawrence] and Mike Lowrey [Smith] have their lives turned upside down when Isa bel Arteas [del Castillo] of the Arteas cartel is broken out of prison and sets her son, Armando [Scipio], on all those who were involved in her imprisonment. Because of this, Mike is subsequently gunned down in a drive-by and Marcus swears to God that if Mike pulls through he will put violence behind him. Thankfully, Mike recovers but while he is hungry for revenge he is unable to work his own case. Subsequently, he is brought on in a consultancy capacity to assist a modern investigatory team headed up by his ex, Rita [Nunez].

From the very outset, the absence of previous director, Michael Bay, is distinctly felt but by no means in a bad way. The whole thing has clearer direction and doesn’t feel nearly as grimy or grubby as Bay’s signature frenzied, erratic style but still retains the general aesthetic we have come to expect from these movies. Another noticeable change is that the general premise is more focused with a surprisingly straightforward narrative that doesn’t get distracted with digression and excessive music video style indulgence. Furthermore, in a moderately self-aware move, the film openly lampoons itself for its telenovela, soap opera plot points and reveals.

On the whole, this instalment feels like a departure from its sophomoric roots and a decent reflection of a maturing of the central characters.. for the most part. The movie opens with Marcus vying for retirement and wanting to slowdown, not only that, he wants the same for his partner but acknowledges that Mike is too wild and will resist mellowing, seeing it as a defeat, until the life catches up with him and he eventually dies on the job. Shifting a large portion of the emotional weight onto Lawrence is a solid choice and reminds us that the man is a decent actor who can give us more than fart jokes and stupid faces – which is all Bay’s previous films seemed to hand him. That isn’t to say that Smith in any way drops the ball or is side-lined but Lawrence’s mission from God thread and Smith’s quest for both vengeance and redemption are primarily sold to the audience because there is a noticeable level of energy and sincerity from the leads. Of course, this spotlight on character development means that the movie sort of veers away from action comedy mayhem and further into older couple buddy comedy but it’s a welcome shift. This is also nicely juxtaposed by the introduction of the new younger team dynamic, who fit in the established universe perfectly because they look like models that can execute impeccable quips but quickly endear themselves to the audience.

As much as the inclusion of new directors has helped shape this film, the fact that each instalment has had notably different writers speaks volumes. A lot (but disappointingly not all) of the homophobia is curbed and the level of humour has thankfully moved away from base-level dregs. Even simple physical comedy feels elevated – when meeting an informant, Mike and Marcus argue about the amount of superfluous tasks they have to undertake en route and upon finally arriving at the scene, the timing of the snitch being dropped onto Mike’s wife’s car is fantastic. The action sequences, while admittedly not nearly as hyper-intense as Bay’s usual fare, are decent and thankfully far easier to follow. The addition of Lorne Balfe’s score work is also very positive, bringing the requisite intensity with a very nostalgic 90s Bruckheimer throwback feel.

**the following paragraph contains huge spoilers**
One of the main plot developments involves a significant twist regarding Mike’s past. The lack of any real backstory development to date has meant that dropping a huge “I used to be an undercover agent in Mexico” reveal doesn’t seem too unreasonable. The added twist moment comes when it is hypothesised that Armando is in fact Lowrey’s son and in doing so, we get to address the idea of a man who cannot move past his job, a man getting on in his years with little in the way of legacy and a man who is confronted with the physical embodiment of all the mistakes of his past. Put differently, Bad Boys For Life achieves what Gemini Man could not and perfectly pits Will Smith against a younger adversary with all the emotional weight behind such a revelation.

My biggest frustration was that the story attempts to address slowing down and acting your age but as the film closes, Lawrence and Smith turn to each other with a cheeky grin and essentially say “fuck it, bad boys for life.” The solidarity and self-denial is arguably fine but feels more like two fifty year old men realising they should make way for the next generation only to dismiss that fear by continuing to pretend they’re in their mid-twenties forever. On top of that – and partly due to this immaturity – Bad Boys still suffers from the signature toxic masculinity that afflicted the previous two movies but at least it feels like some sort of progress is made and the general racist, sexist, misogynistic and generally intolerant overtones have also been muted. Not eradicated, just muted.

It’s quite surreal to conclude that the best of a franchise is its third instalment but Bad Boys For Life feels like it finally hits the right rhythm and comes together to form a solid heartfelt action comedy. The mid-credits sequence heavily implies another film in the future and if this was to pass on to the younger team, that could work but I feel everything that needs to be said for Mike and Marcus has been covered. But depending on how this one performs at the box office, who knows?


Release Date:
17 January 2020

The Scene To Look Out For:
I genuinely felt the humour in this feature was the best it has been over the entire franchise. Largely inoffensive, it plays to simple amusements without regurgitating the same abhorrent jabs. A prime example would be Mike and Marcus forced to use non-lethal weapons to apprehend a perp. Whilst in pursuit, Mike lands a perfect hit on the criminal’s forehead. Walking over to the unconscious individual, it is revealed that an enormous welt has developed on his head. Both are repulsed but Marcus is compelled to touch it. Again, same stupid puerile but ultimately innocuous.

Notable Characters:
Martin Lawrence gets a lot of schtick for the roles he finds himself in but he’s undeniably talented and does a great job reminding everyone why he is such a solid supporting role. In a way, I was reminded of his performance in 1998’s Life where he bounces off Eddie Murphy perfectly with a considerable balanced degree of humour and heart.

Highlighted Quote:
“Sometimes you’ve gotta suffer for what is right”

In A Few Words:
“For what could have been a very lazy retread, the third instalment stands as the best of the series thus far”

Total Score:

3/5

1917

Time Is The Enemy

Director
Sam Mendes

Starring
George MacKay
Dean-Charles Chapman



Set in the titular year on the western front of the first world war, an isolated group of nearly two thousand men are walking into a trap, as highlighted by new aerial photos, and two English lance corporals, Blake [Chapman] and Schofield [MacKay] are given priority orders to call off the attack. With less than a day to cross over into no man’s land and span ground that the Germans have supposedly retreated from, the two young men cautiously proceed with the added pressure that one of the men they’re trying to reach is Blake’s older brother.

It is impossible to talk about this movie without first addressing the method in which it was executed. To boil the sprawling madness of WWI to a simple personal story isn’t necessarily a difficult task but through a series of vignettes intercutting a straightforward objective, it does make for a unique guided tour of the conflict. Creating such a spectacularly devised microcosm must have required so much forethought and deliberation; more than that, I would wager that more planning and consideration went into this film than the entirety of WWI. But to reduce the achievement for a moment, it is ultimately a gimmick and one that can initially be quite distracting as audiences start to look for the potential cutting points and camera hand-offs. Yet as the story unfolds, the technical wonder is superseded by the emotional tale of survival.

Furthermore as much as the camera work is a marvel, there are so many technical aspects performing truly above and beyond, cementing this release as one that ideally needs to be seen in a cinema. The sound is delightfully immersive and the accompanying tense, building score by long time Mendes collaborator Thomas Newman, while devoid of a lot of his signature sounds, is magnificent. Case in point, the rat tripwire scene is easily more engrossing and tense than most recent horror films that are overly reliant on jump-scares and aggressively staccato sound work. And the final icing on the cake is the lavish production design which, while jaw-droppingly bleak, evokes such a morbid beauty owing to the recreation of the twisted, buckled landscape, period accurate costumes and props and the maddeningly precise set arrangement necessary to achieve the ambitious shots.

No amount of technical aptitude can entirely carry a movie and if this film had subpar performances, it would die on its feet. As such, so much is put upon the two relatively unknown leads but I believe they succeed marvellously. One could argue that some of the more nuanced camaraderie and interminable waiting of trench warfare is lost, so in essence portrays a fairly unique view of the great war but the general back-and-forth between Blake and Schofield, flitting between abject dumbstruck terror and light-hearted anecdotal joking to cope with the reality of the situation, is a solid compromise. I also genuinely appreciated the acknowledgement of diversity within the various passing regiments, too often global conflicts of the twentieth century were branded as a white man’s war but the whole essence of a world war is that every nation is involved. And while it is an entirely different animal from an entirely different war, it’s worth brining up something like Dunkirk which could also be considered a high budget claustrophobic drama with a novel central contrivance. As stated, these are two different projects with two different agendas but I found 1917 significantly more humanising and impactful in its delivery; if only for the narrow and intimate focus.

**spoilers**
If I was forced to identify a fault or frustration, it would be something said by Mark Strong’s character Captain Smith. Entering the narrative at a particularly sensitive time (for both the lead and the audience), Smith is a figure of kindness and convenience and as such whatever he says is somewhat elevated in importance. Most notably, he warns Schofield that when he delivers his orders to Colonel Mackenzie [Benedict Cumberbatch], ensure there are witnesses. Regardless of the orders’ origins, Smith subtly explains that “Some men just want the fight.” This sets up such an interesting additional level of fear and concern because we had simply assumed the story would end if and when the orders were delivered but then we learn there may be an additional fight for the instruction to be read and followed. Regrettably this transpires to be foreshadowing that never delivers and is the only real anti-climax or flaw of the movie. It turns out Mackenzie is just a commander who is fed up of the war and thinks he is seizing the opportunity to end it.

As an example of continuous creeping paranoia and fear, the pacing is such that you don’t realise how much time has passed and once the film reaches its conclusion, you are left a little depleted in the wake of the experience. Subsequently, 1917 joins All Quiet On The Western Front, Gallipoli, A Very Long Engagement and Paths Of Glory as one of the best films set during the first world war and will likely be remembered in deservedly high regard.


Release Date:
10 January 2020

The Scene To Look Out For:
After the only clear and intentional cut of the movie, the narrative shifts from day to night and the reveal is absolutely fantastic cinema. With the general low light, fires burning in the distance, passing flares and so many moving elements, it is an absolute testament to the mastery of Roger Deakins. Paired with this to enhance the whole experience is the phenomenal sound design and Newman’s soaring score. It’s just a surreally beautiful heart-pounding moment.

Notable Characters:
The officer cameos punctuate the various vignettes and serve to highlight the different attitudes found in the army, from Andrew Scott’s jaded ambivalence to Mark Strong’s stoicism and Benedict Cumberbatch’s frustration. It’s a marvellous tapestry that helps reinforce the idea that despite the urgency of their mission, the two leads are treated with a general insignificance because life is being squandered on such a scale that the individual is irrelevant.

Highlighted Quote:
“It’s just a bit of tin, it doesn’t make you special”

In A Few Words:
“A genuine triumph of plain emotional storytelling and filmmaking technique”

Total Score:

5/5

BOMBSHELL

Based On A Real Scandal

Director
Jay Roach

Starring
Charlize Theron
Nicole Kidman
Margot Robbie
John Lithgow



Set largely during the early days of the election campaign that would lead to the Trump presidency, we are introduced to four key individuals working at Fox News. At the top is Roger Ailes [Lithgow], the man who built the network from the ground up and through his broadcasts, actively shaped how many Americans see the world. In his older age he is more frail but he controls his company with an iron fist, maintaining a clear direction over everything that is shown on his network. One of Fox’s lead anchors, Megyn Kelly [Theron] is a veteran broadcaster and acts as the introductory individual to this world, highlighting what makes Fox unique. We are then introduced to Gretchen Carlson [Kidman], another veteran anchor who has fallen out of favour with Ailes and been bumped to an unenviable afternoon slot and has contracted lawyers to start a sexual harassment case to counter the toxic environment she is expected to work in. Finally we have Kayla Pospisil [Robbie], a young up-and-coming researcher who leaves Carlson’s team to try and get on a superior career path but in doing so finds herself in Ailes’ sights.

Adopting the quirky style utilised by Adam McKay for features such as Big Short and Vice, Bombshell felt like it had the potential to be a whip-smart, irreverent yet sobering look at a horrific series of events through the prism of comedy. Regrettably, this overall approach is dropped fairly early on and what starts off as satirical comedy quickly veers to project a rather thin note of uplifting optimism. In a way, I was reminded of The King’s Speech which closes with nationwide celebratory scenes despite heralding the start of the worst conflict of the twentieth century. Ultimately, because this film can’t seem to decide what kind of story it wants to be, we end up with lacklustre pacing, a tonally mixed bag and central characters side-lined for (in story) months at a time.

In terms of the events being depicted, the reality is blisteringly tragic. In a time of such social and political division, there will be those who argue that it is incredibly hard to sympathise with those who work at Fox News but Bombshell does a great job of humanising the issue, raising it above politics and reminding the audience that this is an affliction that happens in all types of working environments; essentially challenging victim blaming just because the individuals affected work for the right wing press. Nowhere is this more aptly addressed than Kate McKinnon’s character: a staffer who works on Bill O’Reilly’s team who is in fact a Democrat voting lesbian. She acts as both counsel to Kayla but also serves as a reminder that for some individuals this is just a job and one that doesn’t reflect their actual worldviews, it also illustrates the blot on people’s curriculum vitae that traps them in the organisation because of their affiliation and association. Having said that, regardless of the subject matter and the implication of the very title, Bombshell never really crashes down with force, so the final result feels a surprisingly touch light with a handful of powerful, shocking scenes.

If there was a reason to watch this film (other than the importance of the issue presented), it would be the central performances, which are fantastic. The triumvirate combination of two specific examples and one amalgam is a nice touch, allowing the writers to draw audiences in with the authentic scandal while affording them the flexibility of several other similar stories in one followable thread. Backing this up is a grand, sprawling cast which doubles as a conveyer belt of notable cameos who all add their own touch and signature to this piece; with examples ranging from Richard Kind as Rudy Giuliani to Malcolm McDowell as Rupert Murdoch.

As I said in my Just Mercy review, we are seeing a changing landscape in the types of stories that are getting mainstream attention and promotion. While this will by no means be the last movie to address the subject of sexual harassment, it is a tale told in the eye of the storm – which is entirely absorbing and engaging at the time but cannot figure out a conclusion because society hasn’t reached one yet. And while that’s fine for certain releases (Margin Call’s heralding the pending fiscal crisis for example) it doesn’t seem to establish this tone or agenda from the start, setting itself up as an explanatory exposé but never really delivering, which is a damn shame.


Release Date:
17 January 2020

The Scene To Look Out For:
No matter how many characters defend him, the film offers several examples of Ailes being an absolute monster. One remarkably cruel outburst, as he loads up multiple doughnuts from a crafts services table, takes place immediately after Carlson has done a piece on raising awareness of the over-sexualisation of women and opting to not wear makeup for the entire segment. Ailes’ bitter rant comes to a head when he storms off crying out, “no one wants to watch a middle-aged woman sweating through menopause.”

Notable Characters:
While Kayla is the composite character, I’m hesitant to use the word fictional. Her transitional journey from keen and hungry for success to filled with regret and shame is one that an uncomfortable amount of audience members may be able to relate to or identify with. Nothing is ever explicitly shown but her reactions alone sell the absolutely appalling dilemma she finds herself in. Her initial scene with Ailes is presented without music, little background noise and probing camera angles making the entire experience remarkably uncomfortable. This is underlined when Kayla is summoned back to his office, unsure of what to expect. En route she briefly meets Megyn and Gretchen (who become slowly aware of what is going on) and the entire segment is accompanied by a tense yet playful rhythm that wonderfully enhances the practically dialogue-free scene.

Highlighted Quote:
“News is like a ship, you take your hands off the wheel and it pulls hard to the left”

In A Few Words:
“A noble effort but ultimately too drifting in its execution to be the hard-hitting revelatory drama it aspires to be”

Total Score:

3/5

JUST MERCY

Every Generation Has Its Hero. Meet Ours

Director
Destin Daniel Cretton

Starring
Michael B Jordan
Jamie Foxx
Brie Larson



Set in the late eighties and early nineties, Just Mercy is the story of young defence attorney Bryan Stevenson [Jordan] who, after an experience interning with death row inmates, is moved to represent them when no others will. Once he receives his degree from Harvard he moves from Delaware to Alabama and is instantly met with resistance from the local community for “helping set murderers free.” Bryan establishes the Equal Justice Institute with Eva Ansley [Larson] and they get to work addressing the death row cases of the main penitentiary. One case in particular is that of Walter McMillian [Foxx], known locally as Johnny D, who was arrested for the murder of teenager Ronda Morrison. With Ronda being a young white girl and both Bryan and Johnny D being African-American, the case quickly becomes more than a murder trial, addressing the nature of institutionalised racism and a broken society that only represents half of its constituents.

A film of this nature requires cold analysis of its execution, dispassionate and separate from the real events. Over the coming years there will definitely be a shift as US cinema slowly comes to terms with its history. Granted, there have been stand-out dramas concerning racial inequality and tensions over the last seventy years but it feels like these releases aren’t solely confined to the independent scene. One of the standout moments, which was utilised in all of the marketing, is addressing the concept of being guilty from the moment you’re born; the idea of being a second-class citizen in your own country who is a good enough scapegoat because of prejudice views held by others. As stated, this isn’t a new concept but it’s a painful reality and one that is extremely well explored in this film.

From a technical standpoint, Just Mercy is a very subtle example of exceptional work. The direction is strong and the beautiful almost washed out cinematography create an overall pleasing visual style. All of which is enormously enhanced by the gentle, tender, soulful and ultimately uplifting score – which I will come back to later. But what sets this film apart from other courtroom dramas is that it is illustrated very early on how flimsy the case is. Subsequently, the movie’s strength is the fight against the system, rather than the ambiguity of did Johnny D commit the crime or not and the agonising frustration of banging your head against a bigoted brick wall. It also pulls a parallel to the message of To Kill A Mockingbird in that it delves into the question of whether the law is absolute or if it is something malleable to be hijacked and warped by the holder of the gavel. The discussion then continues to run with the notion that if the system is rigged against you, no amount of last minute evidence will magically fix things and when the truth is not enough, can you support or even believe in the supposed ideologies and tenets of justice?

Just Mercy manages to maintain its steady pace and heartfelt sincerity due to the sublime performances from a really impressive cast. In particular, Michael B Jordan continues to utterly dominate the screen as Bryan and Foxx gives an incredibly controlled but emotionally-charged performance as Johnny D.I was also extremely impressed by Rob Morgan as the PTSD afflicted veteran Herbert Richardson; having only seen him in television roles and a few minor supports in a handful of features, Morgan really stood out and although his character is a bit of a formulaic warning to highlight the process and horrors of execution, he performs the role admirably. I also liked that the characters of the Sheriff and prosecutor weren’t too cartoony. With this kind of feature it’s all too easy to have the representations of oppression as soulless evil beings when it’s much harder to deal with someone who believes they are in the right and only act to protect their image. There’s also the kick-in-the-teeth hypocrisy of so many of the obstinate individuals happily promoting the Mockingbird museum and how revered it is, as if to say they couldn’t possibly be bigoted or racist because Monroeville happens to be the birthplace of Harper Lee.

**spoilers**
Despite the touching portrayals and commendable functionality, the film is flawed and there are elements that feel half-baked and underdeveloped. The biggest issue is the lack of any real sense of prevailing tension. Other than the example listed below, the audience is never in any doubt of how the film will conclude; or put more bluntly, that Johnny D will be exonerated. On top of that, Brie Larson’s character is underused and while you might expect the pressure on these characters to increase the closer they get to an overruling, other than a bomb threat and harassment experienced by Bryan, there isn’t a great deal of maintained and continual persecution to sustain that fear and urgency. I also really didn’t need the racist cop turnaround. Bryan’s first experience of the Monroeville establishment is a prejudice cop forcing him to strip for an illegal search. It serves to immediately establish the hostilities and resistance Bryan will encounter and works well because it is degrading, humiliating and wholly unnecessary. But don’t worry, that particular cop has a change of heart when he witnesses an actual execution and has two or three moments of kindness with Johnny D. It may be true, it may be a representation of the power of sincerity but it stood out and felt like a softball to the people in the audience who may be feeling guilty. I get why the character is a son of a bitch but I feel his vindication is akin to the Scandinavian prince in Aladdin, a completely unnecessary superfluous addition. Speaking of which, it’s always difficult to criticise narratives based on real people, so I can’t fault the flow of events too much as they have a designated path to follow, but the film doesn’t want to end and goes through multiple stop/start attempts at a conclusion, which was unfortunate.

On many levels Just Mercy has a lot going for it but due to a handful of decisions made, it falters ever so slightly. Naturally, this doesn’t detract from the overall message but it certainly tarnishes what could have been a lasting and profound story.


Release Date:
17 January 2020

The Scene To Look Out For:
**spoilers**
I was rather impressed with Joel P West’s score and the way it plays with y our emotions and expectations. During the first trial scene, the score leads you to believe, in typical court drama fashion, that Meyers’ testimony will be enough; that the truth will literally set Johnny D free. This plays equally well when it re-emerges and you cautiously hope for the best, even when you blatantly know how this film will end.

Notable Characters:
Tim Blake Nelson never fails to impress and despite only turning up a handful of times, really shines as Meyers, the eccentric criminal whose statement is the reason McMillian is facing the electric chair.

Highlighted Quote:
“If you can’t see the danger in what you’re doing, you need to ask Harvard for your money back ’cause you’re smarter than that”

In A Few Words:
“An extremely capable, if a little conventional, drama with a lot of heart”

Total Score:

4/5

JOJO RABBIT

An Anti-Hate Satire

Director
Taika Waititi

Starring
Roman Griffin Davis
Thomasin McKenzie
Scarlett Johansson
Sam Rockwell



Set in Nazi Germany during the last days of World War 2, we are introduced to the ten year old Johannes Betzler [Griffin Davis], affectionately dubbed Jojo. He is an extremely enthusiastic supporter of the Third Reich but being only ten years old, does what he can for the Hitler Youth with the intent of being promoted to Hitler’s personal guard. This feverish devotion is heightened by the fact that he has an imaginary friend in the form of a whimsically silly and childish Adolf Hitler [Waititi]. After being picked on during a retreat, Jojo attempts to prove his machismo by snatching a grenade and flinging it deep into the woods. This backfires, literally, and Jojo is left scarred and confined to his house with only his mother, Rosie [Johansson] for company. Jojo’s life is further disrupted when he meets Elsa [McKenzie], a young Jewish girl being hidden in the walls of his sister’s bedroom. Conflicted, Jojo and his imaginary Hitler decide the best course of action would be to interrogate the stranger and write a book all about Jews, which he can then present to the fuhrer to curry his favour.

Falling on the wrong side of history is often a mark of eternal regret, shaping a nation’s identity for decades to come but when a child is indoctrinated to follow suit, it’s utterly heart-breaking. Such is the tricky line that Jojo Rabbit walks. The tone of this movie is perfectly set within the first few minutes, from the Beatles/Hitler cult of personality juxtaposition to the irreverent goofiness of fake Hitler’s supportive comments, Jojo Rabbit wastes no time setting out what kind of movie this will be; a delightfully whimsical and charming story with an undercurrent of forlorn sorrow. Owing to its simple approach, this film is also as much a journey of shame and forgiveness as it is a standard coming of age dramatic comedy. But unlike Waititi’s other whimsical coming-of-age releases – Boy and Hunt For The Wilderpeople – Jojo Rabbit is more stylised in its execution, akin to an early Wes Anderson film, with its quirky cinematography and Giacchino’s score.

Part of the reason this film is such an easy sell is the calibre of acting on display. Griffin Davis and McKenzie carry the narrative magnificently, juggling light-hearted playfulness with sombre undertones of hardship. While it would be easy to descend into a cutesy portrayal, the script and performances allow for some genuine moments of immaturity and childlike self-centredness. A prime example would be the Nathan letters. After meeting Elsa, Jojo learns that she was proposed to by her boyfriend, Nathan, before he fled to join the resistance. In a moment of (admittedly conflicted) jealousy, Jojo pens a letter from Nathan that he claims to have found, the contents of which are actually remarkably cruel but when he realises how hurtful his actions have been, he starts to pen new letters apologising for being mean but maintaining that Nathan is still a bad person – in a hopeless attempt to protect his ego and elevate his own potential standing in Elsa’s eyes. They are simple interactions but afford the leads the chance to cement themselves in the audience’s favour and illustrate that despite the rhetoric that Jojo spouts, he is still a sweet innocent boy underneath it all. Having said all that, the film never manages to pack enough of a punch when compared to something like The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, to the film’s detriment.

The adult actors carry this heightened sense of absurdity with two in particular standing out. The first is the fatigued, disenfranchised Captain Klenzendorf [Rockwell], who is aware the war is coming to an end and that his side will likely lose. In a parallel with his character in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, throughout the story we are given the growing impression that, despite being a decorated Nazi officer, Klenzendorf is a decent human being who doesn’t believe in the cause; a roll which Rockwell is magnificently suited for. Then we have the manifestation of Jojo’s internal turmoil and conflict against ideologies, Waititi’s Hitler. At times childlike and mischievous while others erratic and intimidating, Waititi’s character is the very embodiment of a bully who calls himself a friend. In that way, it’s a great performance but we will come back to the problem with clowning an individual like Adolf Hitler. I also have two more characters to highlight but they too are respectively covered later in the highlighted character and scene sections below.

Walking away from this movie, I was imbued with a sense of warmth from this heartfelt tale. The emotional journey is endearing while the message is clear but the more I think back on it, the more this initial reaction tempers. Ultimately this film is surprisingly straightforward, predictable and blunt in its execution and while it is incredibly honest it doesn’t say anything new. Naturally, it would be nice to think “Nazis are bad” is the most rote thing one could say but the state of affairs in this day and age means victories are not won outright and this kind of on-the-nose satire could genuinely be quite helpful… were it not for the fact that all the villains are remarkably stupid and silly. Robbing such a violent and horrific regime of their prestige weakens them – as seen in something like The Producers but it also illustrates them in an amusing light and perpetuates the dangerous concept that intolerance will only ever arrive in an elaborate costume with a funny voice. Thankfully there are some tense moments that attempt to dismiss this but to maintain the overall comedic tone, these are few and far between. Having said that, sometimes intolerance is so widespread that you need a blunt instrument to break through the rhetoric.

Is Jojo Rabbit going to alter the way you look at the world? Very likely not. It is a fun, light film whose heart is in the right place? Almost certainly. And sometimes, that’s all a movie needs to be to get an important message across.


Release Date:
03 January 2019

The Scene To Look Out For:
**spoilers**
Scarlett Johansson performs magnificently as Rosie from start to finish. Playful, supportive and loving, she quickly endears the audience to her as an almost impossibly perfect mother and all-round good person. I was particularly impressed when Jojo demands to see his (presumably dead) father and Rosie storms off to grab his jacket, wipes soot across her face to make a faux-beard and berates her son for talking to his mother in such a way. It’s creative, simple and taps into the frustrations that she cannot really share with her child. I also really enjoyed the shoe-based signposting, for the tragedy that takes place in the third act, dotted throughout the movie.

Notable Characters:
Stephen Merchant is a wonderfully ridiculous individual. He is an obvious choice for comedic roles but it is when he is given the opportunity to be more human or menacing that he truly stands out. And although his appearance is brief, I think being a both menacing and hilarious gestapo agent strikes the perfect tone for this release, in the same way that he stood out as a stellar choice for things like Logan and Portal 2.

Highlighted Quote:
“We were chosen by God! You were chosen by a weak little man who can’t even grow a full moustache!”

In A Few Words:
“A sweet and earnest, if somewhat simple, feature with its heart in the right place”

Total Score:

4/5

CATS

The Must-See Musical Event

Director
Tom Hooper

Starring
Francesca Hayward
Judi Dench
Idris Elba
Jennifer Hudson



In early 20th century London, a young cat named Victoria [Hayward] is abandoned in an alleyway. There she meets a group who call themselves Jellicle Cats and learns about the selection process called the Jellicle Ball, wherein an elderly cat named Old Deuteronomy [Dench] selects a cat who will go on to the Heaviside Layer and be granted a new life; essentially it’s a talent contest and the winner gets reincarnated. And that is the best I can do to squeeze out some sort of synopsis from this bizarre tale.

Before we get in line with every film critic under the sun and rightly shred this feature to ribbons, let’s take a moment to appreciate the handful of things the film succeeds at. First of all, there is a tremendous energy and earnestness to each and every performance and you would be hard-pressed to claim that any of the cast were simply phoning it in. There are also plenty of interesting visuals, from the high quality set design, significantly helping to ground everything, to the CGI fur which is extremely impressive and accomplished.. providing the subjects are filmed up close and stay static. Regrettably, all of this quickly disappears once both the camera and the actor start moving and by the time the human-face-on-animal-body mice and cockroaches appear, it becomes almost impossible to defend. Especially when there’s nothing on-screen that desperately needed to be CGI when practical make-up and costume work would have worked perfectly well.

Like a despotic emperor at the height of their power, making absurd demands of their subjects, Cats is a prime example of what happens when a bad idea is given full reign to experiment. To elaborate, I’m not saying cinema shouldn’t have any freedom to create unique oddities but Cats is not the same thing as subversive independent cinema, it’s lunacy brought to life and told with complete sincerity. But it’s not just that the concept is farcical – after all something like Star Wars requires suspension of disbelief – it’s more that Cats is so ill-conceived that I don’t know what is required to enjoy it. From the very first scene the entire production is immediately jarring, confirming suspicions that this was never going to be a good idea and seeing the physical representation of cat/human hybrids is as odd a visual as the pilot episode of Thundercats wherein they’re all naked. But in my opinion, this film was doomed to fail because it tried to take something off the stage and put it on screen (not so much a negative in and of itself) using technology to enhance the photorealism of the core concept.

I have no problem with musicals, I think they are as unique and worthy as any other cinematic genre but Cats is shit. I appreciate it has won countless awards, performed on sold-out stages around the world and is loved by a great many but it’s still shit. Structurally, thematically and musically, it’s a state. Subsequently, if you weren’t already aware that this movie was a direct adaptation of a multi- billion dollar making stage success, it would be a hard sell. What surprised me the most (at least at first) was Hooper’s decision to, in no obvious way, update the music, meaning what we have is a repetitive synth nightmare, plagued by nauseating leitmotifs and “clever, poignant” lyrics such as “a cat is not a dog.” And while Memories is still a genuinely decent song, everything else is forgettable and nonsensical.

Then we have what could generously be described as the story. Despite trying to force some sort of cohesive narrative, the film can’t escape its source material being little more than a list of cats introducing themselves and on-screen it is remarkably boring. But to remain somehow faithful to the musical, none of the mythology is explained and the sheer lack of world building is flabbergasting. Certain cats wear clothes while others don’t and Jennyanydots [Rebel Wilson] can take her skin off? Some cats are magical, others are not. Old Deuteronomy selects a cat to be given a new life but little detail is given as to how or why. Macavity [Elba] is a feared and mischievous cat but we are never given a reason to hate or fear him other than being told to. And then there’s Jennifer Hudson as Griselda who is a sorrowful outcast but it is never clarified why she is such a pariah. More than that, the word jellicle is a nonsense phrase that means everything and nothing but the movie never attempts to really explain what jellicle is. Arguably this shouldn’t leave a stale taste but with so much heavy emphasis on the word jellicle repeated over-and-over without offering any expository description of what it is, it’s hard not to assume a climactic reveal was coming.

In fairness, I will commend Cats for committing wholeheartedly to its creepy vision but it is such an uncomfortable anomaly that it is so very hard to lose yourself in the experience. It doesn’t help that for every competent aspect, you cannot shake the unavoidable fact that the lack of structured story means the entire ordeal is awkward and dissatisfying; a prime example of an artist’s reach exceeding his grasp and likely a cautionary tale for studios for decades to come.


Release Date:
20 December 2019

The Scene To Look Out For:
The Jellicle Ball is such a strange concept; the idea that an elder selects a worthy individual to ascend into the sun to be destroyed and reincarnated. It has so much in the way of cultish overtones that simply do not fit the whimsical setting and vocalised passion of the central characters. And when the moment comes and the dawn arrives, the remaining cats sing their final ballad to the sun and all I could see was the horrified expressions on the Trafalgar Square lions and the realisation that the coveted prize is the sweet release of death. And by the film’s denouement, one sympathises.

Notable Characters:
There are two ends of the spectrum for this film. On one hand you have Jennifer Hudson belting out a heartfelt tragic tale (providing you don’t actually listen to the lyrics) worthy of a standing ovation for the energy, skill and emotion on display and on the other you have Ray Winstone gruffly singing about being a cat on a barge in the Thames. The two are so disparate in tone and ability yet both exist side-by-side in this ridiculous endeavour.

Highlighted Quote:
“You should need no interpreter”

In A Few Words:
“A thoroughly poorly conceived baffling nonsense fever dream of a film”

Total Score:

1/5

STAR WARS: EPISODE IX – THE RISE OF SKYWALKER

The Saga Ends

Director
JJ Abrams

Starring
Daisy Ridley
Adam Driver
John Boyega
Oscar Isaac


Not long after the events of The Last Jedi, whispers spread that the long deceased Emperor Palpatine [Ian McDiarmid] has returned. In an effort to consolidate his power and crush all opposition, Kylo Ren [Driver], now Supreme Leader of the First Order, uses an ancient navigational device to locate Exegol – the hidden home-world of the Sith. Meanwhile, the now tiny remaining force of the Resistance continue to strike back against this rise of evil where possible but the odds seem insurmountable. Uniting for one final mission, Rey [Ridley] is joined by Finn [Boyega] and Poe [Isaac] to track the location of a mighty First Order armada and in the process, discover Rey’s true identity and destiny.

If you haven’t already guessed, this review is going to delve heavily and unabashedly into spoiler territory, so please be warned that this entire write-up is an analysis to be read post viewing.

Now that we are at its end, it is evident that the entire sequel trilogy has effectively emulated the formula and structure of the original trilogy and for that reason, this film was always sort of doomed to fail because Return Of The Jedi is a pretty bad movie. I have fond memories viewing it as a child and some of the visuals and score work standout as some of the finest in the entire series but that doesn’t alter the fact that it is a structurally dry slog. Similarly, The Rise Of Skywalker follows the same pre-trodden path with its own speeder bike chase, rescue mission and final ground and aerial assault watched over by the central hero who battles an evil Emperor in a clash of wills leading to a final redemption of the central antagonist, etc.

One thing it does have that ROTJ didn’t is an extremely rushed pace. Where Jedi was languid and bisected, TROS is hurried and strained with character arcs. It also, most likely for the nature of its finale, pushes more of a comedic tone than its two predecessors (but for the most part, I found it amusing) which The Last Jedi was unforgettably lambasted for. And yet for a two and a half hour movie, so much is clearly on the cutting room floor, with scenes missing and connecting shots sacrificed with the goal to make this behemoth palatable. In the process, what we end up with is something quite overwhelming and excessively indulgent, feeling somehow sickly and bland at the same time.

But these things were always somewhat inevitable due to the nature of escalation. Not only does this film have to be bigger than the last two Star Wars films, it has to be bigger than everything that came before it and the plan to accomplish this was to seemingly be everything to everyone. There are quests for Indiana Jones style McGuffins, an X-Men power-stand-off with outstretched hands, Lord Of The Rings death fake-outs and ex machinas and an endless myriad of Star Wars cameos, references and callbacks throughout.

In my review for The Force Awakens, I had high praise for JJ Abrams. I still maintain that by jump-starting the franchise, Abrams was a spectacular choice to helm this opening chapter. Over time my opinion of TFA has shifted ever so slightly but after rave reviews and one of the highest box office performances of all time, giving rise to the rebirth of a previously toxic intellectual property, Abrams felt like the right choice to return and finish what he started. However, as Abrams proved with his other return sequel (Star Trek Into Darkness) he may be perfect for setting up threads but not to continue or conclude them. Throughout this movie there is plenty of spectacle but no impact, very heavy-handed storytelling and lots of little niggling nuances that seem present solely to serve an algorithmically timed action sequence (hyper-jumping Falcon that is somehow followed by TIE fighters as one throwaway example).

But this is not a question of capability, it is one of suitability. Once Rian Johnson pushed the trilogy forward – for better or worse – the Episode IX director had a choice to double-down or regress and Abrams does seemingly both and neither at the same time. As a quick and simple example, Johnson established that Ren and Rey are linked and can communicate across vast distances through a powerful force user. It was a bold new ability that not everyone got along with, nevertheless it was innovative and interesting. But the way in which Abrams presents it often felt jarring. At times it is shot with expert skill and very cleverly, on Ren’s ship over Kijimi for example, or it fails to establish to the audience what is real and what is a vision, such is the case during the lightsaber duel on the ruins of the Death Star wherein it’s not immediately clear if Kylo is actually there or not.

From the moment Darth Vader’s true identity as Anakin Skywalker was revealed in The Empire Strikes Back, this franchise became heavily mired with the concept of legacy and destiny. With the arrival of the prequels, that was all it was about and the nature of progeny and neatly connected characters meant it devolved into a tale of specials and grandfathers, those who are part of a secret bloodline and those who are background fodder. Subsequently, this galaxy far far away now very much resembles a small British town in a soap opera where everyone knows everyone and they’re all somehow related. And while the newly introduced characters of the sequels at first seemed fresh and disconnected, they too fell to the mighty bloodline story.

To rush through this a little, I still feel Kylo and his redemption arc are the most interesting thing at work in these movies. I also felt that there were more questions raised about Finn than answered – was it ever established what he “never got to tell Rey?” – and the work done with the unused footage/CGI hybrid Leia was both tasteful and fitting. In one of the film’s strongest points, the sheer chemistry and comedic interactions at work have been consistently pleasing in all three features and here they are one of the film’s strongest points as well as a welcome treat. However, in my opinion, two characters were dealt incredibly short-shrift: Rose and Poe.

Rose, the best new character from The Last Jedi played by Kelly Marie Tran, is completely side-lined here. More than that, she feels like a pale imitation, a lacklustre reimagining of someone who risked her life to save Finn from a suicide mission, at the potential expense of the entire future of the rebellion/resistance, only to witness him do the exact same thing but suppressing intervention without clear reason. The stakes are the same but she acts differently. Speaking of which, we need to talk about Poe’s character reset. At the end of the last film, Poe is humbled, he is reminded of his station and earns the respect of everyone around him as someone to be followed because he knows when to strike and when to fall back but at a terrible price. Leia even gives the literal handover with “what are you looking at me for? Follow him.” Yet throughout this movie he’s back again with a distinct lack of plans and vision. And the most frustrating part of his final moments is the script rushing in to reward him for his failure. To clarify, The Last Jedi puts out a sombre and rather bleak reality that in their final moment of need, the Resistance’s call was sent out and reinforcements simply didn’t come. So when the final onslaught of The Rise Of Skywalker turns out to be exactly the same thing, I was curious where the script would end up. More specifically, I didn’t want to be proved right in my prediction – but I was. There’s nothing wrong with the universe rallying to a central cause, if anything it’s an oft-occurring element of real life wars that art and mythology have drawn on for hundreds of years, but doing the same thing twice and getting a different result needs to have some sort of justifiable impetus; as far as I can tell, the only change here is Lando showed up.

This film has also cemented Sheev Palpatine as the most ridiculous character in the Star Wars canon. Whether positive or negative, events proceed according to plan or as foretold or foreseen and none of it ever really works; like a bungling magician dropping his deck of cards and saying “I meant to do that.” The Sith, the Empire, what is the point of any of it? What is the objective? For the sheer wealth of expositing and monologuing, we never learn what motivates or drives him other than the eradication of the Jedi (who have proven to be pretty ineffective and far from formidable adversaries) or even how he’s back from the dead in the first place. I’m not talking about a twenty minute flashback but a few sentences would have been nice. Then we have the muddled convolution of what the Sith are. Nine Skywalker saga movies and I still can’t tell you what the Emperor is. We have so many analogies to explain the force (some really good ones) but nothing about the nonsense of the opposition’s master string-puller. As the film hurtles toward its final scenes, Palpatine instructs Rey to strike him down and allow the Sith to live through him in her. While Rey manages to resist, she stands to face the Emperor with the last of her energy and wipes him out. Which one could describe as striking him down but there’s no fallout. As with Poe’s dilemma, the audience witnesses characters presented with inescapable odds only for them to be overcome by doing the same thing one last time but with some added conviction. Which means this entire story ended with that age-old classic, “the magic was inside you all along.” Additionally, before moving on, I will note that “And I am all the Jedi” came off as a rather uncomfortable rehash of “and I am Iron Man” from Avengers: Endgame. But I digress.

I thought both Rogue One and Solo, for all the ways they succeeded, gave too much in the way of fan service but this film chokes its audience with familiarity and insists some big stupid reveal is what the masses must want. Subsequently, this is what you get – nay, what you deserve – when you are consumed by nostalgia. This is the curse of fan-service, delivered. Personally, giving Chewbacca the medal was the last straw. Rather than presenting someone with an Oscar for their achievements, deciding to hand them someone else’s doesn’t hold the same weight and is a slap in the face frankly. But all of this stems from decades of hardcore Star Wars fans watching the first film over-and-over and absorbing every minutiae, which gives rise to feeble justifications like the exhaust port on the Death Star being an intentional weakness or Jango Fett banging his head on the door to Slave One. These concessions don’t drive the story forward, they pat the head of those who have spoken out the loudest and giving those people credence is the worst thing any 21st century blockbuster can do.

But the truth is, despite all this pent up frustration and venom, there are a great many positives at work. Some of the visuals are incredibly impressive and atmospheric, the performances are passionate and engaging, the sound, music and production design are all as stunningly breathtaking as ever and the filmmaking craft at work is undeniable. The Rise Of Skywalker is still – functionally, technically and in full hindsight – much better than the prequels if only for the energy involved in its construction but at best it feels like one of the weaker MCU films that has squandered some truly great storytelling potential for a calculated, unambitious denouement. Much like the ending of Game Of Thrones, if you establish a pending big final reveal, when you come to that inevitable concrete conclusion, adding it to inescapable canon devoid of uncertainty, it becomes a binding agent that some will relish while others will wholly reject. For me, I felt a lot of this movie was rote and surprisingly unimaginative and pandering… for others that will be more than enough.

In a word, this conclusion is fine. Neither poor enough to warrant lasting vitriol nor accomplished enough to garner praise, it’s just fine. And with all the world-building, setups and high-quality talent involved “fine” truly is one of the worst things for a Star Wars film to be.


Release Date:
20th December 2019

The Scene To Look Out For:
In the very first frame of this movie, the opening crawl starts with three foreshadowing words: “The dead speak!” This is a dumb sentence. If you handed a script to a studio with this as the opener, you would be laughed out of the room. It’s hokey, it’s farcical and it confirmed this film’s intent to me. As stated in my review for The Last Jedi, I despise force ghosts; I find the whole thing massively underdeveloped and lacking. But even they are not ghost Han Solo. And he wasn’t even a ghost. Kylo Ren interacting with the manifestation of a memory of his dead father was painful. Of all the ways to push Ren over the edge and have him transition from dark to light, a cringe-inducing interaction full of low-blow platitudes and callbacks was not the way to go about it. And the icing on the cake? “I know.” Get in the fucking bin.

Notable Characters:
Daisy Ridley shoulders a lot of the burden with this movie; arguably with the whole trilogy. But despite the maddening nonsense of her being the granddaughter of Palpatine, facing constant visions (including one of herself as a Sith which was clearly generated solely for marketing purposes) that would look like nonsense to an onlooker and some absolutely dire dialogue, she comes out the other side in tact and that takes an acute level of charisma and talent.

Highlighted Quote:
“People keep telling me they know me. I feel no one does”

In A Few Words:
“An overly predictable and lacklustre crossing of the finishing line for the Skywalker story”

Total Score:

3/5