LAST CHRISTMAS

Sometimes You’ve Just Gotta Have Faith

Director
Paul Feig

Starring
Emilia Clark
Henry Golding
Michelle Yeoh
Emma Thompson



Set around the festive period in 2017, we are introduced to Kate [Clarke], a young aspiring singer working at a Christmas decoration shop in London. As the story progresses, we learn from her prickly boss Santa (Michelle Yeoh playing a character who has genuinely changed her name to Santa), her mother Petra and her sister Marta that since her operation last Christmas, she has become distant, cold, lazy and selfish. This has gotten her into a great deal of trouble and left her without a place to stay after a series of disastrous house-sharing mishaps. But Kate’s outlook on life slowly starts to change when she meets the wholesome, charming Tom [Golding]. But as Tom has avowed to live life and get away from his mobile phone (locking it in a cupboard), she has difficulty forming a lasting relationship with him, which impacts both her professional and private life.

To give full credit to Paul Feig, he has produced a very visually pleasing chameleon of a film. Aesthetically different from his usual fare, Last Christmas has a distinctly British feel to it, serving as a bit of a love letter to London and the random hidden eccentricities of the city. Admittedly, it’s likely this is due to the script being penned by someone who knows London extremely well, but the direction and production design feel more grounded in a form of reality than the affluential projection of London. More than that, it nails a great sense of rhythm and editing that utilises everyone involved and gives the film a pleasant, familiar sheen and air of quality. On top of that, the cast are fantastic, displaying sublime chemistry throughout. Golding is delightfully charming and wholesome, Yeoh goes from stern to caring to hilarious with great ease and Clarke proves comedy is better suited to her strengths, giving off heavy Sandra Bullock vibes. But despite this, the film is not good. It is a strange aberration, a melting pot of pitch-perfect ingredients with an ultimately disastrous final product. The actors are well cast and perform decently, the synopsis is functional with that hint of festive magic, the direction and cinematography are warm and inviting, there’s a subtle commentary on the current political crisis and the score is a mix of nostalgic George Michael/Wham hits and tender themes by Theodore Shapiro; but none of it comes together.

**spoilers**
To discuss this film and the problems therein, we need to spoil the twist, so consider yourself warned and skip to the final paragraph if necessary. So as the song Last Christmas suggests with the line “Last Christmas I gave you my heart” this film is about a young woman who, on the anniversary of her heart transplant, meets a man who turns out to be the previous owner of that organ. She falls in love with him and becomes a better person in the process, rediscovering who she is and connecting with her family and community in a way she never had before. In essence, this movie is A Christmas Carol by way of Fleabag and Fight Club but with none of the lofty qualities of those titles. For anyone looking, the twist is pretty predictable from the early scenes but I will expand on that further in my highlighted character section. With this twist in mind, the movie goes out of its way to show Kate as a difficult person but rather than seeing someone who is exceptionally selfish, rude, lazy or malevolent, she is just a little immature. In fact, her worst quality seems to be that she is a bit clumsy and a tiny bit promiscuous, which is hardly damning traits to the degree that all her friends kick her out of their flats and that’s before we consider the fact that she had a heart transplant months prior which cast members often refer to as “when you were ill.” It’s this tug-of-war between making Kate both a lost cause and a loveable scamp that constantly finds both the character and the film in this odd middle ground of mediocrity; her roots are showing and she wears a lot of eyeliner therefore tramp, she accidentally breaks things in people’s homes therefore she’s a menace, she doesn’t like her menial retail job therefore she’s lazy. When you breakdown the situations and apply some common sense to it, the conclusion is people are frankly awful to Clarke and it’s a miracle she hasn’t lamped someone sooner.

The whole movie also closes with extreme consequence free ease, like a fairy tale or fable, all it takes is a slight change of outlook and every peripheral issue resolves itself. As with most things in this film, the moral makes sense and has a positive message. Kate’s gestures of atonement are small and simple but they are heartfelt and sincere and because her friends and family recognise this, they accept the act of contrition. But in typical Christmas movie fashion, this works without fail every time and unifies everyone in a flashy, showy finale. Earlier comments about middle class white saviour syndrome are then dismissed with carefree abandon as Kate puts aside her selfish goals (if you consider getting a job as a performer selfish) and spends her spare time trying to help the homeless. That sentence elevates Kate, it should fundamentally make her a better person in the audience’s eyes but it reeks of hackneyed convenience to force a conclusion. What’s more, because of the poorly-defined flaws at the start of the film, the improvements made are hard to quantify.

In truth, it’s less that the film is riddled with a myriad of destructive properties but more one colossal problem. Everything about this film should work but seemingly none of it does and while it is perfect on paper, the execution falls flat. If I had to put a finger on what is to blame, I would have to say it’s the script. The simple synopsis or even elevator pitch for this yarn is perfectly serviceable but when said script made its way on-screen it either lost something in translation or could have done with a few rewrites because it’s all too trite, recurring supporting characters come off as irksome caricatures and nobody in this whimsical nonsense feels real. One could argue that a film of this type doesn’t benefit from grounded reality but again with the script not leaning into more of a Love Actually-style saccharine sweetness, it ends up twee and forced. In a way, it is very reminiscent of Yesterday, which also didn’t really work and failed to execute a decent premise despite an ideal cast and crew, becoming bogged down with absurd, directionless plot lines and far too neat a resolve. But this may all be for naught because while it feels like a heightened made-for-TV movie that got a lucky break, people will likely love it and no doubt return to it again and again, citing it as their favourite Christmas film. A prime example of critic vs audience, as I experienced with the acceptable but altogether mediocre The Holiday, which people still singing their praises for some thirteen years later.


Release Date:
15 November 2019

The Scene To Look Out For:
A minor recurring subplot addresses the fact that Kate’s family are refugees from the former Yugoslavia. More specifically, as the film is set in 2017, it gleans the fears and treatment of European nationals in Britain in the wake of the Brexit referendum verdict. On a bus ride, Kate witnesses a man shouting at a couple speaking in a different language proclaiming that in England you have to speak English, before extending this to anyone else riding the bus. In an attempt to comfort the couple, Kate speaks in their native tongue and says they are indeed welcome. This commentary strikes a chord and feels painful for the fact that this country has endured horrific division off the back of this political act but the film addresses it with a passing nod, aware it cannot simply fix that problem with a local sing-song. I’ve always maintained the era of Brexit and Trump will be prime fodder for cinema but the fact it has cropped up while still in the middle of it all is quite surprising and will no doubt rub some audience members the wrong way; even if the film does deliver a hard truth.

Notable Characters:
**spoilers again**
Henry Golding is great, always is. In this movie he displays an energy, passion and earnestness that pushes through the lacking script. Having said that, while this film relies on emotional connection over technicalities, his character still required a smarter draft and there are so many things about his situation that don’t sit right. Things like Clarke gaining access to his flat. I understand he continually dodges people because he’s not there and I also understand the film’s concept that her new heart is guiding her to information she couldn’t know but that doesn’t explain how she gains access to a dead man’s flat. What’s more, once the revelation hits, you wouldn’t expect to see or hear from Tom again, showing him only in flashback but in spite of this reveal, Kate and Tom have one last interaction, which felt a little uncomfortable as it feels neither mysterious or magical, just a touch awkward followed by Tom literally walking away. Nothing fantastical just a wave and “see you later.”

Highlighted Quote:
“We have this Christmas gibbon”

In A Few Words:
“Decently constructed but far too formulaic and uninventive to properly succeed”

Total Score:

2/5

LE MANS 66 (FORD V FERRARI)

They Took The American Dream For A Ride

Director
James Mangold

Starring
Matt Damon
Christian Bale
Caitriona Balfe
Josh Lucas
Jon Bernthal



In the mid-1960s the Ford motor company are feeling the pinch with fellow US rivals pushing them out of the market. The head of the company, Henry Ford II [Tracy Letts] sets his team the task of finding a way to revolutionise their company. Lee Iacocca [Bernthal] highlights that Ferrari are the leading company for winning global racing competitions but because their handmade output is so minimal, they are facing bankruptcy. Several Ford representatives visit the Ferrari heads in Italy but are turned away and mortified when word of the failed merger gets out to newspaper. As an act of revenge, Ford declares he wants to replace Ferrari as the manufacturer of the fastest cars and tasks his team to set to work immediately. The Ford executives then turn to ex-racecar driver Carroll Shelby [Damon] who takes on the impossible task but knows that his only chance of success is pairing the fastest car with the best driver, who just so happens to be Ken Miles [Bale], a highly opinionated and difficult individual that Ford do not want staining their company image.

If you’ll forgive the racing analogy for a moment, this movie functions on the concept of the car and the driver. The car can have all the technical specs aligned perfectly but if it isn’t operated by a driver in peak condition, the results can be anywhere between lacklustre and catastrophic. From a technical standpoint, Le Mans 66 is as good as it can get. The sound design is magnificently on point, working in harmony with a jazzy-rocky score that mirrors and elevates the upbeat, hopeful, fun tone and helps give the entire feature a vibrant, very fun energy. On top of that, the direction is exhilarating and the road-level camera weaving in and out of the thundering cars creates an amazing sense of tension while the script maintains its electric pacing. Then we have the subtle elements of the period aesthetic and production design, which lovingly recreate the mid ’60s and celebrate the craft of racecar manufacturing. But it would be so easy to flood the film with these components and smother the audience but Mangold has the marvellous ability to make big budget releases feel intimate and keep a blinker-vision focus on story and character; which brings us to the driver or our analogy.

Whether music, sport or politics, biopics are rarely about the subject matter or surroundings that the leads find themselves in and more about the personalities that populate them. Equally, Le Mans 66 is a film about friendship and obsession, more than cars and racing. At first glance, it’s not easy to see the similarities between Shelby and Miles, with the former’s business savvy and the latter’s excess of personality but as the film unfolds, it becomes apparent that both men are extremely dedicated and talented drivers who have been held back from succeeding and doing what they love by their own faults. In the case of Shelby that’s his heart condition and for Ken it’s his brash personality and refusal to compromise. Ultimately, both men are extremely arrogant but Ken’s confidence and Carroll’s charm quickly win the audience over and it’s made clear that these men have both a rivalry and a respect for one another. One of two great examples of this is when Shelby is arriving by private plane to a launch event and takes control from the pilot (citing his WWII experience as justification) before banking heavily and performing quite the daredevil landing. The other is during a fistfight between the two leads which is immediately robbed of any threat when Miles’ wife pulls up a chair to watch and Shelby reaches for something to hit Miles with, putting his hand on a can, realising that would be too dangerous and so reaches for a loaf of bread instead. These are subtle little inclusions but ones that deftly demonstrate the bond between the two reluctant friends.

But the friendship between Carroll and Ken is also a problematic one. It is given such importance that it pushes out room for the true racing rivalry and the bond between Miles and his family. For a film called Ford v Ferrari (in the States at least) the film is less about the rivalry between two drivers, as is the case in Rush, and feels more like Ford executives v its own teams. This constant stop-start yanking of the chain creates an extremely frustrating friction for the story’s flow. What should be a straight shot to victory with various trials and tribulations on the way is marred by in-house disagreements and hindrances. My problem, however, is not necessarily with this in-fighting but how it is neglected in the script. We have the incompetent head desperate to stand up to his grandfather’s legacy, the supposedly good guy suits who have no real influence other than to kick the story off and the weasely lieutenant whose motivation is never made explicitly clear other than to keep some sort of structured order on the company but without any clear personal gain or consequence. Other than a few sneers and mean comments from Enzo Ferrari and his lead racer (whose name I don’t even remember because he’s barely in the movie), Ferrari fails to provide much of an antagonistic presence. Coming back to Miles’ family, this film’s poor gender and race representation – although probably historically accurate – serves to illustrate that this movie can be boiled down to a petty pissing contest between two rich white men. The stakes are actually fairly low and the finale loses a little of that great pacing by shifting the emotional high from Le Mans itself to a handful of loose targets. So the longer the film stays with you, the more those heady moments fade and all you’re left with is a competent rowdy petrol-head film – or to put it another highly unfair way, an entertaining but unfortunately dated boys film geared to a very specific demographic.


Release Date:
15 November 2019

The Scene To Look Out For:
Repeatedly throughout the film, Ford traipses all over Shelby’s decisions and encroaches on any freedom he has to run his team. The primary source of this contention is Ford’s inability to keep Ken on message. Subsequently, the officials flex their muscles and bench Ken from competing. The following scene doesn’t actually show the race but the audience experiences it by proxy as Ken listens to race via the radio. It’s a simple scene but a well-executed one that doesn’t rely on flashy CGI visuals, only the passion and expressions on Miles’ face.

Notable Characters:
Earlier I briefly mentioned the central antagonist, Leo Beebe played by Josh Lucas in a role he usually finds himself in. To reiterate what I said earlier, his motivation is arguably to preserve his position and the company image but the execution is so painfully pantomime. To be clear, I don’t think Lucas does a particularly bad job, I think the tonal nature of the movie sets him up as a very one dimensional adversary. For a two and a half hour film, I’m not suggesting more runtime is devoted to this individual but some of his scenes could have benefited from illustrating if there was any actual fallout should Ford’s racing venture fail, aside from a decrease in share value – which is a notoriously dull but very grounded reason.

Highlighted Quote:
“James Bond is not driving Ford, sir”

In A Few Words:
“A wholly agreeable, fun and gratifying release, if a little formulaic, predictable and ultimately safe”

Total Score:

4/5

DOCTOR SLEEP

Dare To Go Back

Director
Mike Flanagan

Starring
Ewan McGregor
Rebecca Ferguson
Kyliegh Curran



Set three decades after the events in The Shining, Dan Torrance [McGregor] has become an alcoholic vagrant going from town-to-town, drinking, brawling and keeping himself distanced from those around him. He is then drawn to a small town where he tries to start over, gets clean and begins working in a hospice. At the same time we are introduced to a young girl who has similar abilities to Dan, a telepathic and telekinetic ability dubbed the shining, named Abra Stone who hides her abilities from her parents, fearing they will treat her differently. The film then jumps ahead several years later reintroducing us to a teenage Abra [Curran] and Dan as a stable and contributing member of society. Running concurrently to this, we follow a group of almost vampiric cultists – called the True Knot – who feed off of this shining quality (which they call steam), led by the eerie Rose the Hat [Ferguson]. After they claim the life of a young victim, they become aware of Abra and sensing her powers are potentially greater than any they have experienced before, set out to consume her. In order to prevent this, Dan must confront all of his literal and figurative inner demons.

It is my firm opinion that there are only a handful of flaws present in this release but they are of such a sizeable nature that it knocked my rating down from a four out of five, to a three; the first being the antagonists. It will likely be unanimously agreed that Rebecca Ferguson’s turn as Rose the Hat is a very enigmatic and commanding one. She is a fascinating and haunting individual but the group she operates with brings her down somewhat. Possibly my biggest frustration with this movie is that the True Knot troupe are a knowable enemy, which detracts a little because for all their actions the threat is never entirely real or felt and despite decent performances, there is never any doubt that the protagonists will succeed. As I haven’t read the source material, I cannot claim to know the differences between the book and the film but I have read both The Shining and watched the film and there is a distinct difference in their presentation. If you follow the book, the expanding knowable world of evil entities makes sense and Doctor Sleep is a wonderful addition. If your only experience of this setting is the movie, the answers and expansion that this new script provides somewhat cheapens the events of 1980’s The Shining with absolute clarification rather than broad interpretation. But I’ll expand on this point further later.

While Ewan McGregor may feel like an unusual choice to play an adult Danny Torrance, he proves himself extremely deft at giving us a conflicted, cagey individual eking out an existence as the son of an alcoholic and extreme trauma survivor, let alone someone who is continually visited by images of the dead. But despite the rough opening, it was genuinely rewarding to find Dan discover both a purpose and closure working in the old people’s ward and making the connection with Billy. I also felt Abra was an interesting and savvy character but as stated earlier, her levels of confidence ensure that we never overly worry for her wellbeing, even in the face of death. Without delving straight into spoilers, Abra seems more cut-up about the death of a stranger than a loved one. Maybe this is to illustrate a desensitisation or maturation but with a limited runtime, it simply felt rushed and regrettably undercooked.

Doctor Sleep provides a very engaging story but its predecessor is so iconic that it is an almost impossible act to follow. This isn’t merely some beaten-up horror franchise, it’s one of the few examples of high-brow horror adaptation by one of the true masters of cinema. What’s more, the imagery presented has become so exemplary and burned into the public consciousness that it creates a spectacularly daunting target for any creative to reach let alone surpass. Having said that, Flanagan has done an extremely impressive job walking the fine line of compromise between Kubrick and King’s clashing visions to create a very pleasing hybrid continuation that honours both versions. Things like the recasting of familiar roles is well played and in an era of de-aging technology, this serves to highlight that a part-imitation part-celebration performance can be something incredibly powerful. The only thing I could knock Flanagan for would be the fairly rudimentary direction. That isn’t to say he doesn’t do a good job or is in any way fundamentally lacking , it’s just that some of the most notable imagery comes from semi-fetishistic recreations of Kubrick’s concepts and never stands on its own two feet. Put another way, I don’t think I could put my finger on any particular shot or scene in the film that would stand the test of a decade to the degree that others will be imitating and studying it. But as with my very similar critique of Terminator: Dark Fate, this may be too much of a demand. Sometimes creating a solid instalment is more than enough and although it never exceeds what came before, the fact Doctor Sleep is able to pick up the baton and take it to the film’s close is a fantastic accomplishment in and of itself.


Release Date:
01 November 2019

The Scene To Look Out For:
While I derided the amount of time we spent with the True Knot, one of the earlier scenes where they recruit Snakebite Andi was particularly nice. In terms of establishing characters, motivations and abilities as well as intrigue and mystery, it is extremely well handled.

Notable Characters:
As stated the returning characters and recasting were dealt with proficiently but the increased usage serves to weaken the effect. For a specific example, let’s take the old lady in the bath. As a recurring piece of imagery her presence in The Shining is baffling and terrifying and unsettling. She’s not, as depicted in Ready Player One a fast, scuttling, knife wielding maniac, she’s just a creepy-ass naked decrepit lady. But for the fact we end up seeing her four or five times in this feature, even as a good recreation, she becomes almost comical and loses any edge of scariness. Which is likely intended to illustrate the idea that we can overcome our fears but sometimes scary stuff needs to stay scary.

Highlighted Quote:
“We’re all dying; the world is one big hospice with fresh air”

In A Few Words:
“A very strong postscript celebration of both the written and cinematic versions of The Shining and for that, it should be praised but without giving us anything truly captivating, it serves as little more than a decently crafted shadow”

Total Score:

3/5

TERMINATOR: DARK FATE

Welcome To The Day After Judgment Day

Director
Tim Miller

Starring
Natalia Reyes
Mackenzie Davis
Gabriel Luna
Linda Hamilton
Arnold Schwarzenegger



Long after the events of Terminator 2, the future has been altered significantly but man is still plunged deep into a war against machines. As with the first Terminator movie, a cybernetic being from the future (the Rev-9 played by Gabriel Luna) is sent back to our time to assassinate a person of significance in the future – this time young Mexican factory worker, Dani Ramos [Reyes]. But on her side is an augmented soldier, Grace [Davis], sent back from the future to protect Dani and Sarah Connor [Hamilton], the future artificial intelligence’s previous target.

Much like 2018’s Halloween, Dark Fate is a combination of both reboot and retread as much as sequel. It scraps the last three attempts at a continuation and brings back the common element from the first two that was missing from Rise Of The Machines, Salvation and Genisys: Sarah Connor, or more specifically Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor. It’s frankly indisputable that this decision is hands down the best idea the film has. John Connor is an interesting subject but Sarah’s evolution is where the series’ true heart lies. And like Halloween, bringing an older, bitter, war-weary Sarah gives the audience and the characters a fantastic juxtaposition.

Sticking with Hamilton for a second, this film’s strongest component is its performances. The four key players have great chemistry and screen presence. Hamilton makes a welcome return to her most iconic role and frankly shines in every scene. Reyes has the fairly unforgiving task of being Connor 2.0 but brings enough urgency and self reliance to the role to allow her to break loose from this initial blueprint. Mackenzie Davis is also a fantastic addition, confident but flawed, desperate but determined and capable of going toe-to-toe with the veteran cast. And as for their pursuer, the trailers did Luna’s character a bit of a disservice, leaving him cold and boring but the Rev-9 has enough of a personality that makes him more than a faceless entity. But it’s hard not to compare these new characters with their 1984 surrogates. Even as I was typing the previous sentence I wanted to make a comparison to the T1000 and that’s where the film immediately starts to fall apart.

**spoilers from here on out**
Admittedly, to talk about paradoxes is always difficult with this franchise because everything outside of the first Terminator film is a contradictory nightmare. I have always maintained that while I love Terminator 2, for all its many accomplishments, it is a bad sequel because it sacrifices the neat loop of its predecessor for more action. So with that in mind, one could dismiss many of Dark Fate’s problems but that road leads to lazy writing and vacuous plot holes the likes of which sank Genisys, so we need to address them. The big twist is that the future war fought by an adult John Connor no longer exists. In its place, a new reality has formed where Legion (the carbon copy of Skynet) rises up and suppresses humanity. But the big hit of the opening scene is that yet another Schwarzenegger Terminator arrives and simply shoots a teenage John Connor in the chest. Despite everything that we have seen, all the preparations, John is killed in broad daylight and the Terminator saunters off. But in the time between that event and the bulk of the movie, Sarah Connor has spent years killing Terminators, by the sound of it, every two years or so. What are they hunting? Who is sending them? Which future are they coming from? The film makes no attempts to explain this, it simply has to be in order for Sarah to retain her grizzled view of the world. Then we have Carl. Carl being the name of the aforementioned Terminator that killed John Connor, wandered off, got a bit bored without a mission that learned to be more human by growing a conscience and raising a family. I’m not actually as bothered about this as I could be, I’m more irritated by the fact that this reveal is so rushed and haphazardly written (especially as it seems to contradict the events in Terminator 2, albeit the directors cut).

The film also withholds the knowledge that Dani is effectively the new John Connor for ultimately no reason. It is neither a satisfactory twist, nor a surprising reveal, it is merely manufactured suspense for those who cannot see incredibly blunt signposting. But even if this film were trying to elevate itself above what came before, it exists solely on the shoulders of its predecessors, never really expositing about the time travel technology, never furthering the story, simply rehashing what we have seen time and time again. This is why I always maintain that as derided as T3 was, at least it had an incredibly bold ending. Dark Fate simply resets with the same will they/won’t they return ominousness that is as painfully rote as it is predictable. It also flies in the face of the central tenant of what the film purports to be about: there is no fate but what we make. This phrase couldn’t be more nonsensical in a world where you stop a murderous AI, only for an identical model to take its place which has the same inevitable plan to stop its adversary, including skeletal time travelling terminators and aerial drones dubbed hunter killers!

To give Dark Fate its due, it is significantly stronger than the last two outings but the bar was so low to the point of franchise killing that it’s not saying much. But the real missed opportunity is that there is absolutely nothing revolutionary about this film other than it isn’t a complete disappointment.


Release Date:
25th October 2019

The Scene To Look Out For:
For all this film’s strengths, it still commits some cardinal sins of robot fighting. Fights are dragged out in favour of prolonging set-pieces rather than taking the cold calculating mindset of an algorithm programmed machine and if I ever see a Terminator film where a machine is lying on someone with its hands around their throat but not a) crushing them under the intense weight or b) immediately mashing their esophagus with its piston grip, it’ll be quite the achievement.

Notable Characters:
Luna does a great job with what he has but like so many on-screen adversaries, he is both overpowered and weakened as dictated by the plot’s requirements. The rules of the Rev-9 shift between a ruthlessly efficient killing machine acting without hesitation and a sluggish dullard amnesiatically overlooking its own capabilities.

Highlighted Quote:
“Funerals don’t help them and goodbyes don’t help you”

In A Few Words:
“A surprisingly solid feature but offers a lot more of the same, proving itself more imitator than innovator”

Total Score:

3/5

JOKER

Put On A Happy Face

Director
Todd Phillips

Starring
Joaquin Phoenix
Frances Conroy
Zazie Beetz
Robert De Niro
Brett Cullen




To read this review may bring about some confusion in the sense that the ratio of criticism will not reflect the final score; this is largely due to the fact that I have awarded this movie a high rating but will spend the entirety of this word count banging on about two specific frustrations in great and meandering detail. But I should highlight that the majority of this release, the cinematography, production design, the incredibly deep score work, is a marvel and genuinely engrossing cinema. Unfortunately, there are just a few significant points that need to be addressed.

The film opens in early 80s Gotham, where we are introduced to Arthur Fleck [Phoenix], a meek, timid clown-for-hire who lives with his mother and clearly suffers from several mental health issues. As the cruel city around him chips away at the few remaining pillars of his stability, Fleck descends into a self-destructive collapse before evolving into a confident nihilistic killer.

There are infinite merits to homage and imitation in cinema. They can be used to draw beautiful contemporary parallels, take established concepts and run further with them or flip them on their head entirely. It is undeniably and brazenly clear that Joker is an effective recreation of key components from both Taxi Driver and King Of Comedy – which the film makes no attempts to hide, going so far to include Robert De Niro among its supporting cast – and without prior knowledge of these releases, Joker earns an initially impressive air of maturity, intelligence and depth. But while the aforementioned Scorsese movies had insightful narratives, Joker is surprisingly base, existing mostly as a surface-level character study with hints of social commentary but never truly picking up these themes that have been so expertly used in the past and running with them.

This then started something of an existential calculation in my mind; specifically focusing on the question of does a film fundamentally need to say anything to be good, can it not simply be a character study? Does Joker merely present nihilism for the sake of nihilism ending up saying nothing? There will, of course, be discussions about how this movie reflects contemporary society to a degree, surrounded by subliminally influential headlines that say “kill the rich”, addressing the state of mental health neglect, presenting a growing air civil unrest and tension and tabulating factors that lead to mass shootings and other acts of disenfranchised domestic terrorism. But as much as this feels like a film that projects the plight of our time onto a past setting, in actuality, all it does is takes a decent but cinematically familiar unhinged, voiceless individual and slaps the joker face-paint on him. Once the MCU first gained real traction and success, it was evident that cinema was going to inadvertently adopt a lot of comic book tropes and trappings. We are now at the state of the standalone, the elseworlds tale that does not exist within the established universe of the franchise; which, ironically, is how cinema has functioned, outside of serialisation, for a century. To my mind, this film exists in the same way that Netflix’s Daredevil does; it can be seen as a darker, subversive tale with a character that will likely reappear in a different form in the near future but that shouldn’t detract from what has been achieved therein. Having said that, Daredevil took its time to cultivate complex characters, storylines and universe building, whereas Joker focuses solely on that first point.

Which brings us to the nature of the Joker himself. I harbour a point of contention when it comes to praise for the Joker predominantly because of a misconception about the role. All too often the mysterious clown prince of crime is heralded as the greatest villain of all time, even the greatest character of all time, with the most memorable and shocking performances. This is, frankly, bullshit. The truth is, anyone can play the Joker. As an incredibly broadly drawn blank slate, littered with ambiguity, the portrayal is easy to do because no matter how over the top or subdued, it still sells the character. That’s why there may be iterations that people favour but each one holds merit in its own way (yes, even Jared Leto, whose neon gangster persona spoke to many people and fit the setting he found himself in, even if I personally didn’t care for it). This is because the Joker is a lens to magnify an actor’s uninhibited heights; a way to say “be as big as you can then go another 10%” which, let’s be honest, is what most actors desperately love to hear. The difference here is that Phoenix is an exceptionally talented individual and brings to life an incredibly strong, layered performance, from the physicality and uncontrollable (almost painful) laughter, to the left/right hand switch in his journaling and his eventual transition to confident superstar villain. It is, quite frankly, impossible to fault Phoenix in this movie, he is undeniably flawless and the film is worth seeing for this masterful unstable shift from weak to empowered.

In the Marvel/Sony collaborative version of Spider-Man, there is no visible Uncle Ben origin. The MCU assumes and ultimately relies on audience preconceptions and prior knowledge of the franchise. This is something that I feel is a bit of a failing point because without seeing the formative moment that defines the character and his quest to become a hero, we latch onto other superfluous or secondary motivations. Similarly, this franchiseless tale can’t escape Batman. It wasn’t enough to simply tell a Joker origin story, we had to tie it in to a character who is completely irrelevant to this feature, for whom there will be no tie-in, crossover or follow-up; like the cameo from Richard the Lionheart at the end of Kingdom Of Heaven, it appears solely as a wink/nod/in-joke to audience members in the know (which is arguably everyone). But while Bruce is a fairly non-existent, silent character in this release, we are treated to an alternate look at his father, Thomas Wayne [Cullen]. Here, Wayne is shown to be both a caring and dispassionate individual, the kind of 80s republican “pull yourself out of poverty” individual who wants his city to thrive but doesn’t want to get his hands dirty in the process. He’s also the closest thing we get to humanising the opposition. But we never see the life of the rich other than Fleck’s perspective – meaning we don’t have a clear understanding of who to sympathise with; the serial killer clown or the sucker-punching thugs? This lack of coherence means the film closes on chaos and riots in the streets but we witness similar riotous upheavals happen in The Dark Knight Rises but we weren’t supposed to sympathise with Bane and without the juxtaposition of a Batman, we don’t have anyone to say “you’re wrong” and the only one who does gets a bullet to the face and chest. But that’s the fundamental problem with nihilism used as an artistic expression, if nothing matters, what conclusion are we supposed to form? Pair that with an unreliable narrator and there is the ambiguous question of whether anything shown in the film actually happened or not.

In addition to my issues with the nature of the Joker and the use of homage/imitation, there are a handful of other minor things that crop up the more one scrutinises this feature. Things like Joker actively saying he isn’t political before giving a political statement and performing a public execution, that he doesn’t acknowledge he’s a symbol before becoming that very thing and relishing it, what’s more the film attempts to operate above the mainstream superhero offerings, looking on them with a level of disdain, while being put out by the mainstream and finding itself in the familiar trench of depicting Thomas and Martha Wayne dying in an alley with those fucking pearls flying in slow motion. And then there’s the end, a dream-like sauntering but before that it feels like the movie can’t decide which final image it wants to settle on, giving us a Lord Of The Rings style conveyer belt of powerful images that could easily close the movie.

As stated at the start of this review, despite my harsh and pessimistic tone, I very much enjoyed this film and think it deserves a great deal of praise for what it has accomplished and committed to screen. Within this feature is a thoroughly unpleasant, disturbed individual grounded in reality rather than a hyper sexualised or idolised champion – as the Joker has been constructed in the past. One could argue this film is in danger of galvanising and inspiring a group of susceptible individuals but I have never subscribed to the notion that art motivates people to do terrible things, so the less said on that, the better.


Release Date:
04 October 2019

The Scene To Look Out For:
In what will likely be most audience member’s favourite or most memorable scene, a fully-formed confident Joker walks down the steps he frequently trudges up, dancing, strutting and striking a magnificently powerful self-indulgence, blissfully unaware (or indifferent) to the world around him. It’s a culmination of the film firing on all cylinders and one of the emotional culminations of Fleck’s arc. But – and this is a substantial but – the music used caused an eyebrow to rise. US audiences may be unfamiliar with British 70s singer Gary Glitter but in Britain he is an infamous convicted paedophile. His hit, including Rock And Roll Part 2, are all but expunged from our collective works, regardless or any merit the actual music has. I say this as someone who listened to that theme and thought, “Oh I haven’t heard this in ages.. what is this?” before reality dawned on me. In truth, it’s very difficult to say how deliberate this inclusion was and will no doubt be flagged as a trigger for many people as this would imply the demonised musician will receive royalty funds for its use. I haven’t come to a full conclusion of how I feel about the matter but it’s a point that will likely be brought up frequently over the coming months of analysis, praise and criticism.

Notable Characters:
The role of Murray Franklin doesn’t feel much like a recent De Niro character. Sure, there are a few familiar traits and characteristics but there’s an energy, humour and subdued aggression that we haven’t seen from De Niro for several decades. Whether that’s down to his agent, type-casting or lazy roles is hard to say but I thought his inclusion (while conjuring direct parallels to a younger De Niro’s works) was a smart and welcome one.

Highlighted Quote:
“I just hope my death makes more cents than my life”

In A Few Words:
“Not nearly as clever as it makes itself out to be but a tremendous central performance driven outing nevertheless”

Total Score:

4/5

AD ASTRA

The Answers We Seek Are Just Outside Our Reach

Director
James Gray

Starring
Brad Pitt
Tommy Lee Jones



In the near future, Earth is bombarded with a surge that briefly knocks out all power and creates chaos. Astronaut Roy McBride [Pitt] is charged by SpaceCon to travel to Mars, via a base on the moon, to send a long-range message to the outer edges of the solar system. It is their belief that McBride’s father, legendary astronaut H. Clifford McBride [Jones], who went missing around Neptune decades prior, is in fact alive and could hold the answer to what is causing these surges and to ultimately stop them.

With Ad Astra, Gray continues his glacial, measured 1970s style direction and pacing from The Lost City Of Z; finding a middle ground between the approaches of Terrence Malick and Andrei Tarkovsky. The story itself is an example of the best kind of science fiction, a simple tale that could just as easily have been set several hundred years in the past about an arctic expedition, terrifyingly grounded pioneer horror where the only threats are the elements and the limits of our own sanity.

On a technical level, there is a lot to compliment. The visuals are bold and incredibly striking, the production design has that magnificent credibility and Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography is frankly gorgeous. And over all of this observable splendour is this grand and chilling score from Max Richter, full of brass and presence and foreboding.

The entirety of this film rests on Pitt’s shoulders and he carries this burden with remarkable ease. As the emotionally distant and controlled Roy McBride, Pitt gives a subtle, disciplined and understated performance; everything is conveyed in micro-expressions and finely spun from an actor in complete immersion with a character. Furthermore, the periodic psych evaluations are a nice device for allowing the character to offer another level of introspection, other than the narration alone. Admittedly, without subplots or a continual supporting character, the tension is false and manufactured but that reality never truly dawns on the audience because we want to see how Roy’s story will end, we want him to succeed – whatever that success is.

The ponderous, self-analytical complexities of this film will no doubt be construed as pretentious or even dull but while I can understand the logic behind such critiques, I would say they are largely unfounded – or harshly cast at the very least. Over the last decade, we have witnessed some truly distinct directors in the form of people like Denis Villeneuve, Jeff Nichols and James Gray, all of whom are bringing back a much needed tempered, creeping confidence and originality to big screen science fiction features.

Unlike the bleak outlook of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Ad Astra offers an amazing message that for all of its beauty and majesty, space is not our home, Earth is. And we should do everything we can to savour and protect it. In that, I found Ad Astra gave me the high-brow philosophical intensity and emotional resonance that I wanted from Interstellar and while I will happily confess that Interstellar is still a fantastic (but flawed) release with some truly unforgettable imagery, Ad Astra is its more mature younger brother who delivers the impactful payoff that I craved.


Release Date:
20 September 2019

The Scene To Look Out For:
**spoilers within**
When the two McBrides finally reunite, there is a marvellously crushing distant sterility between them, as well as a mirrored stubbornness that has cursed them both with the madness of obsession and exploration. It’s always difficult when portraying a character that others spend the majority of a film’s runtime discussing and pondering on but Jones delivers pleasingly when the spotlight is cast on him.

Notable Characters:
Much like booster rockets that break off from the main vessel, the supporting cast are solely there to push Roy further on his journey. They do not take it with him but they facilitate him along the way. Frustratingly, those that we do see are a little two dimensional because Pitt cares so little for them but if there was one individual I would have liked to seen develop further, it would be the overseer of the Mars facility played by Ruth Negga. The minor revelations that she brings to the lead give us just a hint of something bigger that I would have liked more of.

Highlighted Quote:
“I’ve been trained to compartmentalise, seems to me that’s how I approach my life”

In A Few Words:
“Haunting, evocative and poignant, Gray has created a sublime thought-provoking, curiously optimistic hyper-frontier adventure”

Total Score:

5/5

HUSTLERS

Walk All Over Wall Street

Director
Lorene Scafaria

Starring
Constance Wu
Jennifer Lopez
Julia Stiles



When you mention Goodfellas in a review, it immediately puts a lot of backs up. Goodfellas is such a towering release that no imitator has ever really come close but Hustlers follows the path set out by Scorsese and strides so confidently down it that its missteps are forgivable. So when I say this film is Goodfellas-esque, in terms of story type, directorial style and character arcs, it’s not said lightly.

The narrative bounces back and forth between a journalist, Elizabeth [Stiles], interviewing ex-stripper Destiny [Wu] and the events being described, taking place before and after the 2008 financial crisis. Destiny reveals that in 2007 she took up work at a strip club, befriending the enigmatic and extremely successful dancer, Ramona [Lopez]. Together they make a ridiculous amount of money, feeding off the base desires of Wall Street bankers but once the crash happens, the big-spender clientele evaporates and the club devolves into a seedy unsafe environment. With the money running out and Destiny forced to raise her new-born child alone, Ramona introduces her to a scam wherein she sources previous regulars, drugs them and racks up an enormous credit card bill, assuming that no one would ever publically declare their actions.

One of the big takeaways from this release is that Scafaria is an incredibly capable director and certainly one to watch. The film opens by wonderfully illustrating the unglamorous reality of the industry which is then turned on its head with Jennifer Lopez’s intro scene doing the exact opposite and revelling in the hyper-sexuality of the stage. This successfully executed “have your cake and eat it” juxtaposition of expectation vs reality is impressive enough as it is but with genuinely spectacular direction, acting, editing and pacing, the whole feature is an incredibly impressive achievement and if we were grading this movie solely on its opening half, it would be contender for film of the year.

Another important aspect to cover is how this movie sounds. Obviously Hustlers will garner immense praise and attention for its overall look, with the production design, lavish costumes and atmospheric cinematography all worthy of merit, but the myriad novel sound design techniques are equally laudable. To my mind there are three notable examples of this, the first set during the framing device when Elizabeth presses Destiny for information and becoming cagey, she shuts off the recorder and walks to the door, instructing Elizabeth to leave. From the moment the recorder stops until the door slams shut, the film is silent and we do not hear the exchange. The second takes place when one of the strippers is wearing a wire for a police sting, the visuals carry on as normal while the audio feels like listening back to a single wireless body mic. And finally, and maybe most interestingly, this film is a fantastic example of music being used despite an absence of an original score. It’s commonly known that Tarantino does this all the time but the variety of genres involved (rather than a seemingly random, eclectic mix) is used to highlight the time period, the mood and signal what is next to come (i.e. everything a good score should do) while wisely avoiding songs featuring Jennifer Lopez, Cardi B or Lizzo that could distract from the story.

The other point of note for this film, other than how it looks and sounds, is the powerful central performances. There aren’t a great many examples of films with strippers as the main characters that doesn’t feel excessively exploitative or presenting the illusion of control and power while never delivering it. I believe part of that stems from the fact that these were films shot by men, whereas Hustlers presents two very real individuals at its core who are both incredibly powerful but also remarkably human. The supports, as strong as they are, admittedly fall away whenever Wu and Lopez are on-screen. The chemistry between them, the emotional stress and turmoil, the way they’ve been framed and shot, it’s a masterclass of visually establishing a character style and dynamic. From a male gaze, it’s difficult to not sound either lecherous or like I’m virtue signalling but the complexity and demand of these two performances is possibly career bests from both actors and wholly deserves all the accolades bestowed upon them.

But the film is far from perfect. It may be Goodfellas-esque but it’s no Goodfellas. For one thing, the entire middle section drags and introduces two heavily supporting roles quite late in the film’s runtime to the degree that they do not impact the story as heavily as they should. On top of that, the ending is fairly abrupt and a little unsatisfactory but being inspired by true events, the finale is often a problem for films of this nature. Having said that, the choice to close with the classic white text on a black background detailing “what happened next” doesn’t have the desired effect when you’ve had a framing device running throughout the movie set after said text. There are also examples of signposting and signalling that unfortunately went nowhere (I felt the character of Stephen was going to serve some sort of purpose but he did not) and Ramona goes from whip-smart savvy to making reckless stupid decisions but these are minor gripes and ultimately, the big flaw is that the third act can’t deliver on the promise of the first and second.

Much like Magic Mike, advertising for Hustlers has been flashy and playing heavily on the gaudy elements but the film itself is a nuanced, substantial character study with simple relatable drama and amazing tension that should be widely seen.


Release Date:
13 September 2019

The Scene To Look Out For:
When Destiny suggests changing the ratio of the drug they are slipping to their marks, we are treated to a very light-hearted sequence debating turning the power into a liquid or the liquid into a powder. The trials are silly and a little over the top, thanks to the accompanying piano, but perfectly illustrates the central friendship and offers the kind of bonding and absurd levity that sets it apart from the surprisingly similar Widows.

Notable Characters:
In the final act of the film there are a few too many undercooked characters. Dawn is a walking stereotype so is quite easy to understand but at the same time, she is also a bit of a cartoon character when compared to the grounded seriousness of Destiny and her constant back-and-forth struggles. While the performance itself can’t really be knocked and this isn’t a sole accusation, her presence added a little tonal instability and inconsistency that caused the whole final act to wobble.

Highlighted Quote:
“2007 was the fucking best. I made more money that year than a fucking brain surgeon”

In A Few Words:
“An entertaining and cathartic workplace dramedy headed by two incredibly solid central performances”

Total Score:

4/5

IT CHAPTER TWO

It All Ends

Director
Andy Muschietti

Starring
Bill Skarsgard
Jessica Chastain
James McAvoy
Bill Hader
Isaiah Mustafa
James Ransone
Jay Ryan



Set 27 years after the events of the first film, Mike Hanlon [Mustafa] is the only member of the losers club who has remained in Derry, working as the librarian. When he learns of mysterious deaths in Derry, he believes the creature they fought as children has returned and he must reunite his friends, who have all but forgotten the experiences of their youth. Upon arrival the now adult misfits must retrace their steps to restore the missing memories and deal with the threat for good.

It is my opinion that this movie will not be especially divisive. The flaws are quite transparent and incontestable but they don’t impact the film enough to make it arguably any less enjoyable, just a little flat in places. The CGI, much like the Chapter One, has an oddly jarring quality to it and the more you look at it, the more silly and significantly less scary it becomes. I can’t quite decide whether this is a conscious choice to illustrate the nature of adults interacting and combating childish fears or if it is simply a misjudged decision and subpar effects. But for all the faults and flaws of the computer generated elements, they seem to strive for something original. With such a heavy focus on the mix of practical and computer effects, I think enough attention isn’t given to the incredibly inventive direction and editing that is used throughout this film. It would have been so very easy to shoot this in a bland fashion but the creativity on display is genuinely welcome in this genre. I could say the same of Benjamin Wallfisch’s score which at times is eerie, suspenseful and atmospheric but at times veers into surprisingly uninspired. The whole thing makes for a mixed bag that leaves Chapter Two feeling acceptable but short of its predecessor on a technical level.

Casting any dual role is extremely challenging and I think it’s fair to say every member of the cast gave a perfectly fitting symbiotic recreation of their counterpart’s performance; case in point, the reunion scene in the Chinese restaurant illustrates this fantastic chemistry. As with Chapter One, this instalment retains the good use of levity but with adults as the central characters, there is a slight tonal shift to accommodate for the time period and characters aging up. This, as with the CGI, could be construed as a negative but I feel that is more a commentary on the nature of how we perceive change; specifically that the events of our lives shape us as adults, so I wouldn’t expect the central characters to have the exact same mannerisms and charm because they are jaded and guarded – which is the very nature of adulthood. Despite this, two performances in particular genuinely stand out from the others and that is those of Bill Hader as Richie and James Ransone as Eddie. Both as a continuation of the familiar and as performances in their own right, Hader and Ransone are a joy to watch from start to finish and bring a level of soul that the characters may not have possessed in the book.

One particular performance that, while perfectly capable and serviceable in its own right, is that of Teach Grant as the adult Henry Bowers , who has spent time in an asylum for the crime of killing his parents. Midway through the film It summons Bowers, prompting him to escape from prison and hunt the losers down. Initially he appears to be imbued with supernatural qualities but it later becomes apparent that this is not the case and can be killed like any mortal. The problem seems to be that the character is so easily dispatching and doesn’t really move the story along, other than to serve as another brief obstacle that it becomes ultimately pointless, which is extremely unfortunate. The other performance to discuss is that of Bill Skarsgard, returning as Pennywise. When the initial footage went up of the evil creature’s clown form, people were sceptical but what Skarsgard brought to the performance was so memorable and chilling that it struck an immediate chord with audiences. As with the first part, Pennywise is just as unnerving and sinister but as with a lot of the film, because we are dealing with adult versions of characters, the foreboding presence of the clown itself is robbed of its power and menace.

A repeated observation throughout this review is that this movie doesn’t have the punch of It Chapter One but no less impressive. In truth, it’s not even particularly scary. The jump-scares are predictable, the visuals aren’t particularly monstrous and the imagery doesn’t stay with you as long as it should; the most disturbing thing is how realistic the homophobic attack is at the start of the film and the fact such an attack in a 1985 setting has just as much resonance with a 2019 audience. But this brings me to the point I’ve been alluding to from the start, this film inherits all the flaws of the book in that the kid’s story is much more entertaining. And while the adult element is a fantastic place to take the story, it also feels like a retread and shifts the tone of rationality and plausible acceptance. For example, not one character suggests shooting It, there’s simply a childlike regression with lines like “this kills monsters if you believe it does.” I get one of the themes of the book was the nature of the loss of childlike innocence and how it can never be reclaimed but this never really came across. Instead, recalling the group eats a lot of the runtime and slows the pacing to a crawl, only to then be replaced with a memory quest that becomes very formulaic very quickly. Furthermore, the impact on their adult lives isn’t especially well felt or communicated because outside of the initial setup, we never see any follow-up or impact; as if the events in Derry, both past and present, exist within a bubble, leaving the entirety of the story ending on a less than satisfying dreamlike note.

Ultimately, the flaws lie with the structure of the novel itself but as a single story, rather than two separate standalone entities, these adaptations of chapters one and two work perfectly but with a slightly stumbling finale but still better than the egg laying, catatonic Audra being brought back with a bike ride nonsense of the source material. The real question is how would this movie have been received if dramatic changes had been made from the events of the book (more so than currently on display here), my guess is badly.


Release Date:
07 September 2019

The Scene To Look Out For:
To establish that Bill went on to have a successful film career, we cut to him on the Warner Bros lot desperately trying to write script pages for an amended adaptation to his best-selling book. I hate this scene. I hate it because everyone involved has been on a film set and this doesn’t really feel like a film set, more a projected nonsense reality. Yes, I know troubled shoots have rewrites on the day and chaos ensues when no one knows what is happening but according to the director (who was Peter fucking Bogdanovich by the way!) they literally have no idea what the ending of this movie is but are apparently filming it in a matter of hours. What’s more, this serves to enforce the point I made earlier about the “real world” having almost no impact or relevance because it is never established what happened to either that film or indeed Bill’s wife. I mean, I know the film is already quite bloated but this kind of disconnect is extremely unhelpful.

Notable Characters:
Other than those listed above, I was very pleased that the young cast came back without noticeable differences. In fact, one of the standout moments for me was the young Stanley at his Bar Mitzvah ceremony challenging everyone present. A solid reminder that these kids were and are phenomenal choices for these individuals.

Highlighted Quote:
“People want to believe they are what they choose to remember”

In A Few Words:
“Technically, an inferior feature to its predecessor but when watched as a whole, hard to argue it’s anything other than a genuinely solid (and likely eventually considered classic) adaptation”

Total Score:

3/5

ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD

The 9th Film From Quentin Tarantino

Director
Quentin Tarantino

Starring
Leonardo DiCaprio
Brad Pitt
Margot Robbie



Set in late 1960s Hollywood, the film follows Rick Dalton [DiCaprio] as he tries to salvage a once high-studded career with TV guest appearances but never getting the grace he feels he deserves. With him as his dogsbody is stuntman Cliff Booth [Pitt] whose calm demeanour and simple living conditions seem to compliment Dalton’s highly strung need for approval and success. Around the time of this slump, Roman Polanski and his new wife Sharon Tate [Robbie] move in next door and for a period of time we follow Tate as she enjoys LA life. Lurking in the periphery is a group of transient young women who all live out on an old film ranch with an enigmatic man named Charlie.

At its heart, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood feels like an attempt at a more focused, mature story from a director who has had great fun playing with a toy box of artistic talent but now wants to create something of grounded merit. However, without as many signature directorial flourishes and a very lethargic story, the final result is one that closes disappointingly. From the fairly disjointed opening vignettes, quickly darting through flashbacks to points of Dalton’s career, to the lack of closure with most of Booth’s subplots, the entire experience is left slow and languid due to lack of real fluidity. On top of that, the script suffers from some unfortunately overt and frankly lazy writing. Tarantino has always been gifted with dialogue and natural-feeling discourse but too often the dialogue devolves into uncharacteristically blunt signposting. As an example, in one of the film’s most enjoyable and immersive scenes, Dalton is on the set of a TV pilot, reading a pulpy western novel while his precocious young co-star is working on her character. In this scene, the actress asks what the book is about and Dalton explains that it centres on the adventures of a semi-over-the-hill bronco named Easy Breezy. As he describes the character questioning whether his better years are behind him, he starts to break down in a moment of fragility. The actress comforts him before he snidely pushes her away. This should be a subtle insightful moment but it lacks nuance and beats the audience around the head with the parallel between Dalton and the subject of his story. Then you have the Bruce Lee scene, which wasted a great imitator performance and is a classic example of unimaginatively pitting your fictional creation against a recognisable or established individual to cement their supposed abilities. It’s seemingly not enough to illustrate through circumstance that Booth is a wholly capable performer, he has to pummel someone who the audience know would have been extremely difficult to best in fight. And in the most backhanded of compliments, that is genuinely beneath Tarantino.

At this stage in his career Tarantino is in an interesting place, his films are commercial and critical successes (even his missteps have merit) and that’s largely due to the incredibly talented individuals he surrounds himself with. Subsequently, it’s hard not to compliment great swaths of this movie. Case in point, the production design and period recreation are exceptional with the cars, locations, costumes, hair and makeup perfectly evoking the desired time period. This also extends to the cast and their honestly hypnotic performances. For a great deal of the runtime it can often feel like nothing is happening – especially as a brief synopsis of the film could boil down to, actor films a pilot, stuntman picks up a hitchhiker and actress gets a book then watches a film on the way home – but calibre of acting involved means that these small moments are the most memorable and moving; for example, Tate decides, on a whim, to watch her own film in secret, enjoying the audience’s positive reaction and feeling pride that she has done well without jumping up and soaking up any praise or limelight. But with all these fantastic components, the film ultimately stumbles and falters with the denouement primarily because the story-proper is barely tangible and the only people who really care about Hollywood stories are Hollywood.

**the end of the movie is discussed in this paragraph.. so.. spoilers**
In truth, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood strives to capture something but never quite does. The entire film circles, without ever fully focusing on, the Manson Family, before bringing it into the foreground at the end of the film. At this point, Tarantino departs from the genuinely gruesome history and creates his third revenge fantasy. This created a problem for me that had a retroactive reflective effect. Creating an alternate series of events surrounding the Tate murders left a strangely bad taste in the mouth and didn’t strike me as cathartic or an act of celebratory retribution, just an exercise of poor taste. But while this writing tool or gimmick, if you will, was incredibly effective in Inglourious Basterds but had diminishing returns in Django Unchained, it finally outstayed its welcome here; which is where I had a bit of an analytical crisis. I praised the Hitler’s face being peppered with bullet holes while a giant face cackles, “this is the face of Jewish vengeance” and understood the satisfaction that comes from seeing a freed slave walking through a house of cruel plantation owners, mercilessly blowing them away with the effect of a canon but this was different. This felt less like a fantasy correction of a huge endemic case of genocide or mass-slavery, it was a single, personal event. But surely that’s just as appalling as these aforementioned cases. Am I just unhappy with its use here because I’m bored of the gimmick? I would like to think that isn’t the case but either way, I think the key difference is the characters and stories were so centrally focused on this entire issue and the audience could work up to where the events were headed but with this feature, the Manson Family are quite peripheral and incidental. I can understand that might have been the desired effect to show how the events in question came out of nowhere but as stated, it strives for something but never quite attains it.

The real frustration is if this film was in the hands of any other director or acting team, it would be lambasted for being a bloated, pretentious, meandering celebration of a bygone era of male-oriented stardom at everyone else’s expense. But owing to the individuals involved, it will likely be hailed as a glorious love letter to a “better time” that never really was.


Release Date:
23 August 2019

The Scene To Look Out For:
As stated, there are some truly gripping and fantastic vignettes throughout. One of which is Cliff Booth surveying the ranch he use to work on and approaching the owner’s house. Booth can handle himself as a war hero so we know any negative outcome is unlikely but the levels of tension as the entire community stop and watch him walk up to the lonely shack is fantastic. What’s more, it made me realise how much I would like to see Tarantino do straight horror – even something akin to Rob Zombie’s work if he wants to retain his schlocky grindhouse feel – affording him the opportunity to make something truly interesting.

Notable Characters:
DiCaprio is without a doubt a standout performer. He is an actor who has been giving commanding roles for over two decades and brings so much depth and dedication to every single character he embodies. Rick Dalton is no different and the levels of complexity and immersion are fantastic, from the outward projection of his “acting” to the character he is in private, to the extremely fragile broken man he allows himself to briefly be around close confidents. It’s an authentically brilliant all-round performance that unfortunately belongs in a superior release.

Highlighted Quote:
“My idea is we kill the people who taught us how to kill”

In A Few Words:
“A wholly self-indulgent commemoration of cinema from yesteryear but one that fails to actually say much of anything”

Total Score:

2/5

HOBBS & SHAW

This Time There Is No Team

Director
David Leitch

Starring
Dwayne Johnson
Jason Statham
Vanessa Kirby
Idris Elba



After an MI6 operation is hit by a terrorist group known as Eteon, the only surviving agent, Hattie Shaw [Kirby], injects herself with an engineered virus to ensure it can’t fall into the wrong hands. The Eteon insurgents are led by Brixton Lore [Elba], a biogenetically enhanced soldier with various cybernetic upgrades. With Hattie on the run, the CIA bring in two fixers to hunt her down: federal agent Luke Hobs [Johnson] and former Special Forces mercenary Deckard Shaw [Statham]. As the two have a history, they are less than happy to see one another but must work together to prevent Hattie from dying and the Snowflake virus going pandemic.

In truth, the story boils down to a fairly by-the-numbers odd couple heist film meaning it eventually devolves into an incredibly long, bloated and surprisingly dull slog. With the first The Fast And The Furious starting out as Point Break with cars, the franchise has kept itself alive by evolving somewhat and moving from street racing action thriller to action heist dramas and finally to superhero (in all but name) features. This has earned the Fast/Furious franchise a bit of a formulaic reputation for constant posturing and testosterone-driven alpha-male nonsense peppered with on the nose dialogue about family and loyalty, etc. Nowhere is that more evident than this release.

On paper, doing a spin off pairing one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood makes complete sense. It frees up the characters to largely step away from the trappings of what came before and acts as a jump-on point for anyone who isn’t up to date with the now eighteen year old series. But what we get is dumb.. truly, laughably dumb. In The Winter Soldier Captain America (a genetically enhanced super soldier) has difficulty holding onto a helicopter but Hobbs can hold one down with a chain because.. muscles. Then we have the constant tension. I was less convinced by the painfully trite romance between Johnson and Kirby as the real on-screen sexual tension is undeniably between Johnson and Statham. Which would actually work as a nice progressive story arc but I don’t think the fanbase or even the actors themselves could handle that kind of development. So in addition to emulating the action set pieces of a superhero film (abandoning all semblance of realism and escalating so far from stealing DVD players in the first film) the film heavily shifts its weight from thriller to comedy. For all its flexing and end of the world talk, a cavalier attitude is on display from start to end and this film thinks it is incredibly funny. It is not. Instead, we have a supposedly high stakes scenario with two indestructible characters wisecracking throughout.

For the most part, the CGI is impressive and the fight sequences are rather well-choreographed but anything positive is butchered with clumsy editing. Fairly early on in the film, Hobbs and both Shaws are trying to evade capture by Eteon agents. The chase itself is a decent combination of thrilling action, noteworthy CGI, great sound design and a decent score complimenting the whole thing. But as it comes to a close, our leads manage to evade capture and it becomes painfully obvious that this film is never going to create a scenario wherein our heroes struggle. And sure enough, every fist fight, every chase, everything circumnavigates back to a victory for Hobbs and Shaw. One could argue this is true of any action piece but it is in fact the opposite. The standard cliché is to introduce our character, have them experience a setback or lose, show them learning from their mistakes and coming back in the third act to achieve a more meaningful victory. Again, it’s cliché but it’s also writing 101. Hobbs and Shaw seemingly refuses to adhere to this because the alpha cannot be seen to fail and the ego of the actors is too strong and unyielding. Meaning the film is robbed of any tension, development or consequence.

Before we cover the central cast, something has to be said about the supports, most notably the self-indulgent extended cameos. Ryan Reynolds portrays a quipping CIA handler named Locke, who may as well be Deadpool. I thought I had missed something in a previous instalment because his introduction is so absurd and extremely jarring that it’s hard to know if he is in any way genuine or just psychologically unhinged. Then we have Kevin Hart appearing as an Air Marshall in what would usually amount to a throwaway line but carries on for a full mini-scene plus call-back. One could say there’s nothing wrong with these harmless oddities but in truth they skew an already uneven and unbalanced film.

In truth, there’s little to say about Johnson and Statham’s respective performances because they are remarkably safe; there is nothing outside of what we would expect and frankly, that’s what the film wants. I will discuss Elba more later in the review but I was both impressed and disappointed for Vanessa Kirby. It’s evident that Kirby is a great actor and that she will rise to prominence quite quickly. She has already proven herself with standout performances on The Crown and Mission: Impossible – Fallout and while she is afforded the opportunity to portray a physically capable character, she is instead relegated to a support with little agency after the first act. Speaking of Hattie Shaw, this film offers us a few flashbacks and imparts the closeness of their relationship (with some absolutely fucking stupid “plan names”) but completely omits or forgets that Deckard has another brother, Owen Shaw from Fast & Furious 6. It’s not really worth dwelling on but it’s such an oddity and smacks of amnesic writing.

Some of the best on-screen action, in terms of how it is shot and executed, can be found in the Mission: Impossible films and for action comedy the first Kingsman movie strikes a wonderful balance. Hobbs & Shaw presents the worst components of both, all flash and flare with little to no substance, heavily reliant on the lead’s charm and incredibly dismissive of any sort of intelligent engagement. While it would be so easy to simply dismiss this as a franchise staple and claim that these movies have always been big and dumb, the truth is that they have been bold and flashy but largely had a modicum of heart or passion. Hobbs & Shaw, regrettably, resembles the weaker Fast/Furious releases but will no doubt entertain its core demographic and make more than a mark at the box office.


Release Date:
02 August 2019

The Scene To Look Out For:
**spoilers**
Throughout the film we are constantly told that these two superhuman leads are not only physically capable but extremely mentally savvy. Quoting Nietzsche, referencing previous accomplishments and boasting about flawless plans, we are instructed that the eponymous characters are masters of stratagem. When it comes down to it, however, their plans are laughable and the big “Mick Jagger” plan simply doesn’t work, almost entirely reliant on a deus ex machina in the form of a Russian scientist. But that’s what you get for basing your highly coordinated strike on a crudely outlined con run by children.

Notable Characters:
The villain for this feature was crucial and while the owner of the mysterious distorted voice remains to be seen, Elba is a fantastic choice. He has the confidence, presence and acting chops to helm an antagonist of this nature and exudes cool. On top of that, there is an nicely thought out physicality to his performance, moving and holding himself in a way that reflects the biometric upgrades inside him. Even if his bulletproof suit with an exposed head is remarkably stupid.

Highlighted Quote:
“The more machine I am, the more humane I become”

In A Few Words:
“I will commend this film for trying something different but the final output is a silly lazy comedic action piece that, despite its blatant flaws, will likely go on to be extremely successful”

Total Score:

2/5

THE LION KING

Take Your Place In The Circle Of Life

Director
Jon Favreau

Starring
Donald Glover
James Earl Jones
Chiwetel Ejiofor
Beyonce



In the pride lands of Africa, we are introduced to the reigning king, Mufasa [Jones] and his newborn son Simba [JD McCrary]. The wise king tries to instil virtuous to his impetuous child who believes that becoming the new monarch will allow him to say and do as he pleases. Simba’s uncle Scar [Ejiofor] is resents the prospect of serving under a spoilt child when he was the next in line for the throne and schemes to remove both his brother and nephew in one fell swoop with the assistance of a rival gang of hyenas.

It goes without saying that The Lion King is not only one of Disney’s best animated features but also one of their most beloved, sitting in most people’s Top 5s. From the music and artwork to the simple core morals, for many in the West, watching this film for the first time is a formative experience. So before the first frame was shown or the first song sung, there was already a significant level of scepticism and maybe some guarded optimism. Sure, Disney have had some success with their live-action remakes of classics but the most prosperous of these were the ones that either deviated from the story or took features that most audiences wouldn’t have as strong a connection to (excluding Dumbo.. that did both and was still bad). But this movie will always exist in the shadow of and cannot escape its progenitor and without a clear, new vision, this remake feels like little more than an exploitative cash-grab.

Speaking of which, let’s discuss the idea of the remake for a moment. In 1998, acclaimed director Gus Van Sant made a shot-for-shot recreation of the classic horror film Psycho. It was an interesting undertaking but one seemingly without purpose, being both perfectly serviceable and completely forgettable. In this case, it would be unfair to say this is a shot-for-shot remake because it is closer to a reinterpretation of essentially the same script – a few lines of dialogue tweaked, a scene or two added but the bulk of the film depicts the same events from different angles while evoking the same imagery. This is the tightrope walk these films put themselves through, of creating a new or unique interpretation while also staying true to the original. But by failing to do enough differently and wanting to appease everyone we end up with a chimera, a Frankenstein’s monster with familiar components in tact but painfully different from what we know.

Subsequently you would assume producing something so faithfully would construct the perfect environment for triumph but while it has the blue prints for a critically and commercially acclaimed hit, The Lion King runs into two rather unanticipated obstacles: a lack of emotional connection and dull direction borne out of an obsessive quest for photo realism. The latter is much easier to explain so we’ll start there. The camera in Disney animated films, for better or worse is incredibly expressive. It defies logic and weight, moving passionately, acting alongside the vocal work and score as another means to engage, entertain and emote. To maintain the illusion of reality, the camera simply can’t do that, so gone are the dolly zooms, flashy musical numbers, palate and contrast shifts, mystical elements and heightened theatrical lighting, all of which are replaced with weak National Geographic direction and uninspired camera work.

The other powerhouse element sacrificed at the altar of reality is the facial expressions. Lions don’t cry. Hornbills don’t have lips. Warthogs don’t frown. I understand this, we all do. Know what else they don’t do? Talk. But there has got to be a middle ground for the purposes of entertainment where we can suspend disbelief and maintain a semblance of credibility. This is largely why I felt The Jungle Book worked while Mowgli: Legend Of The Jungle did not. With so many blank faces, all the well-known emotional beats fall flat, leaving the heavy lifting to the voice acting. On paper the chosen cast are absolutely perfect. When the list of actors dropped, I nodded approvingly at the eerie precision of their selection but without that symbiotic tie, the performances feels somehow detached from the on-screen animals and that perfect cast becomes wasted.

This will also be an unpopular decision but bringing James Earl Jones back was a mistake. I appreciate that his portrayal of Mufasa is iconic but this is true of all the cast and retaining such a strong reminder of the original hinders anything this film could have been. What’s worse is that, like a live performance of a musical act, these artists age, their abilities shift and they can offer entirely different iterations or renditions. But having played what is effectively a recording of one take over and over so that we, the viewer/listener, find it impossible to imagine the delivery of one line being said any other way, you doom your project by not bringing someone else in to try and bring a fresh perspective. This means that certain scenes lack the same resonance or indeed any presence/urgency. I found this when Simba is being scolded by his father then shifts his tone to one of affection with the line, “that’s ‘cause no one messes with your dad.” It’s a playful scene and delivery that indicates a nice emotional transition while highlighting the bond between father and son; it’s what makes Mufasa’s death all the more painful to experience. For whatever reason, the new delivery comes off a little tired and grounded, robbing us of what should be a cutting moment of foreshadowing. And in truth, that’s my problem with the whole feature.. robbed of something beautiful in place of something functional.

I truly believe this will be one of the least divisive of Disney’s remakes solely because the flaws and merits are so evident; there already seems to be a general consensus that it lacks a soul but for all the head-hanging and hand-wringing, it needs to be said how much this movie accomplishes. This movie is unequivocally visually astounding. The art these animators have brought to life is undeniably breathtaking. My only frustration is that their achievements have been focused on something nobody really asked for and will not receive the industry changing impact they deserve. That accolade will be reserved for the team that brings this level of finesse, proficiency and skill to an original, game-changing story. Regrettably, this is not it but if this feature does anything, it serves as a reminder for audiences of how powerful, effective and seminal the original is.


Release Date:
19th July 2019

The Scene To Look Out For:
I try to imagine if this film would be enjoyable and have the same impact if I had no knowledge of the material it is emulating. So say a child goes to see this movie, having not watched the hand-animated version, would they have as many issues or gripes? I would assume Disney is hoping they would not. But then we have Timon and Pumba singing Hakuna Matata with a few self aware nods that will go straight over this implied audience’s collective heads. Just little callbacks like the meerkat and warthog explaining that people usually cheer when they first hear this phrase and the line “I got downhearted every time that I fa—” is no longer cut-off by Timon in a fourth wall breaking moment but given a new twist. I have no idea why this stuck with me so much but it’s one of the only moments in the film that I’ve been replaying in my head. Take from that what you will.

Notable Characters:
Scar is a truly all-encompassing Disney villain. His motives, performance, song, design, motion, dialogue and queer-coding created something theatrical, self indulgent and decadent. It’s what we think of when we think Disney villain. Ejiofor’s Scar is not. What tears me is that I actually like what this film does with Scar, I like the less (for lack of a better word) sexualised flowing locks and gives Scar a bit of a mangy unkempt loner look. This is not someone to be admired, he’s a murderous, ambitious opportunist. But for all Ejiofor brings to the role, it can’t hold a candle to what Jeremy Irons did.

Highlighted Quote:
“There’s one in every family. My cousin thought he was a woodpecker, slammed his head into trees. Our beaks weren’t built for it. He was concussed regularly”

In A Few Words:
“In a quest for technological advancement The Lion King eschews emotional impact and suffers for it”

Total Score:

2/5

SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME

Swinging Over To Europe This Summer

Director
Jon Watts

Starring
Tom Holland
Zendaya
Jake Gyllenhaal
Samuel L Jackson



After the events of Avengers: Endgame, the world is recovering from the loss of certain heroes and the reunion of people who have been missing/dead for five long years; none more so than Peter Parker [Holland] aka Spider-Man. This period is given the simple affectation of “the blip” and it is explained that the students that survived are in their early twenties while the others have returned to complete high school. With this new lease on life and an appreciation that time is a precious commodity, a field trip to Europe is arranged, where Peter intends to take full advantage of the opportunity and confess his feelings to fellow classmate, Mary Jane [Zendaya]. Before leaving, Peter is contacted by Nick Fury [Jackson] who is working with a hero from an alternate version of Earth to stop a host of elemental creatures intent on destroying the world and hands him a pair of sunglasses from Tony Stark (hooked into the entire Stark defence network). But feeling the pressure to be the next Iron Man and missing his mentor, Peter simply wants to enjoy his field trip and be a kid. While in Venice, the trip is interrupted when a water elemental attacks and Peter meets the hero Fury has been working with: Quentin Beck [Gyllenhaal] who the kids nickname Mysterio. With someone to talk to about superhero woes, Peter believes he may have found a new confident.

The true success of this film is that it puts some truly loveable characters front and centre and no matter how they are tessellated, they interconnect marvellously. As with his previous appearances, Holland remains spectacular casting and a great representation of an actual teenager rather than the 70s and 80s idea of what a teenager is. I appreciate there are those who really enjoy previous iterations – I would include myself among their number – but from a description of the character alone (hyperactive, funny, incredibly intelligent, insecure and torn between responsibilities) Holland embodies these traits with amazing ease. I was also quite impressed with Zendaya’s representation of Mary Jane. After the semi-twist reveal at the end of Homecoming, a lot of people were unsure about the direction of the character but this slightly adjusted MJ is still incredibly identifiable as a teenager who is trying to figure out who she is while maintaining an air of cool. In one scene she learns an Italian word and wryly states, “Bo is my new superpower, it’s the anti-aloha. I was born to say this word.” But this increased focus on MJ means less focus on Ned (who was a standout character in the previous instalment) and I missed that friendship dynamic. It’s still present here but is given less spotlight to develop. Introducing Nick Fury to the mix was a nice touch and watching his frustration at being out of the loop for five years, going from knowing everything to knowing nothing, was a nice touch. This allows him the opportunity to keep up the terrifying pretence of an all-knowing super spy as well as channelling irritations at feeling so left behind. Admittedly, I had some initial concerns about plotholes with the presence of Fury, the SHIELD operations and how Beck manages to convince everyone he is a bona fide hero but with all the levels of subterfuge and deception utilised throughout, it mostly works and with the end credit sequence most of my concerns with allayed. Bringing Jon Favreau as Happy Hogan more into the foreground was a genuine pleasure and it’s easy to forget that his character has been around since the first film and Favreau is very deft when given the opportunity to be a bit silly.

Speaking of silly, it’s always been argued that certain comic book characters do not translate well to the big screen for their, for lack of a better word, goofiness. Mysterio, with his emerald body suit, long flowing cape and smoky fish bowl for a head is a prime example but through the combination of a great performance, interesting design and plausible motivation, Mysterio is definitely in the upper tier of MCU villains. It is my belief that there are only a handful of individuals who would be appropriate for this role. To realise a character who has to start out as a trustworthy, endearing, surrogate father figure then to turn into a real threat driven by unhinged malice is an incredibly difficult task but one that, let’s face it, almost every Spider-Man villain is expected to achieve. The only one to date that has really come close is Alfred Molina as Doctor Octopus in Spider-Man 2 but Mysterio has been setup perfectly with this version of Spider-Man substituting the whole Uncle Ben angle with dead Tony Stark. But I digress. Gyllenhaal is absolutely perfect casting for someone charismatic and likeable to suddenly make such an alignment shift and ensure that this betrayal resonates with the audience. The only real problem I have with Beck is that he is effectively same as the Vulture in Homecoming and like the rest of the film, exists in Iron Man’s shadow. Again, considering how this Spider-Man has been introduced, he will be inextricably linked to the legacy of Tony Stark and regrettably that means his adversaries will likely also stem from the same place as the MCU has avoided depicting a lot of the origin tropes that we are familiar with. Having said that, there is more than enough by way of difference between these characters and the implications of how we absorb media and news in 2019 (with the constant threat of augmented images, AR technology and questionable, agenda-driven news agencies), Mysterio is a good and interesting choice for the antagonist. I would also add that while Michael Giacchino’s score is far from his best work, his recognisable take on the Spider-Man theme makes a welcome return and the mix of thundering operatic tones and electrical synth work for Mysterio was impressive and fitting.

With a successful vibe achieved, Far From Home builds off of the characterisation and tonality of Homecoming. I will admit that this is both a positive and a negative as it won’t win over any new fans who didn’t get on with this MCU-friendly version but feels like more of the same. Unless you really enjoyed Homecoming, in which case, this will be a welcome treat with the added bonus of feeling more like a Spider-Man solo film than Homecoming – even with all the Endgame/Iron Man fallout – because more agency and development is placed on Peter finding his confidence and stride. But this transition isn’t a seamless on and there are some pacing issues as the story hops from one location to the next but thanks to the production design and location work, each one feels distinct and unique, rather than just a blur of overly similar locales. There is also a lot of loose-end tying that is foisted onto this film’s shoulders and what starts out amusing ends up repetitive. To explain, the film opens with a school news network mourning the loss of the Avengers who gave their lives to bring everyone back. Furthermore, it explains away a fan questions about the five year age gap leaving certain students five years older than others. But this is only one of a handful of clumsy expository info dumps, the other most notable one is Quentin’s toast – which I won’t go into too much detail about to avoid spoilers – which could have been presented in a host of more interesting, novel and inventive ways.

**Spoiler in the last sentence**
Like Ant-Man (for most people; I wasn’t a fan) Far From Home is a palate cleanser, a wind down after a big event before the next chapter launches. After so much to digest over the last few features, it’s nice to take a breather with a light-hearted teen comedy. With that said, while its light irreverent levity makes it a welcome break from universe ending scenarios it also makes it somewhat more forgettable. What’s interesting though is that the most memorable aspect is the giant in-joke that will only really resonate with certain audience members. For example, from a viewer perspective, many of the fight sequences with the elementals come off as a bit samey but the film goes out of its way to indicate this is an intentional choice; acting as both a satire of the action blockbuster industry but also revelling in the hypocrisy. I mean, the very fact that Mysterio’s costume has two versions, one of which is literally just a motion capture suit, is amazing.

Far From Home isn’t exactly forging new territory for any of the genres that make up the Venn diagram of categories it falls into but it performs reasonably at all of them, which is an incredibly impressive feat in and of itself. The real development takes place in the mid-credits sequence which effectively acts as a game-changing cliffhanger development for the next film to deal with.


Release Date:
05 July 2019

The Scene To Look Out For:
**spoilers within**
Once the film has dispensed with the pretence that Beck is in any way an ally to Spider-Man, Beck reveals both how powerful his technology is and how twisted he can be. Granted, the CGI could have been stronger but every time we enter Mysterio’s world the visuals were interesting, engaging and unique nonetheless. Much like the mind-warping spectral realm work in Doctor Strange, this feels like something that will always be tied to this release and will ensure that my previously mentioned longevity and notability issues are somewhat assuaged.

Notable Characters:
I am happy that Peter and MJ have good chemistry. I was initially unsure by the end of the first film but they are actually cute together. We don’t get the big sweeping grandiose personal melodrama of individuals in their twenties, instead the backdrop is the melodrama with the simple centre piece of a boy trying to give a gift to a girl and tell her his feelings, while she tries to keep people at a distance but wants to acknowledge she feels the same way. It’s simple, relatable and feels age-appropriate without being condescending; which should mean it will work surprisingly well for a wide demographic.

Highlighted Quote:
“Never apologise for being the smartest one in the room”

In A Few Words:
“Far from particularly unique in its content, the real charm of this Spider-Man feature lies in how effortlessly it appears to juggle and keep aloft so many components”

Total Score:

4/5

YESTERDAY

Everyone In The World Has Forgotten The Beatles. Everyone Except Jack

Director
Danny Boyle

Starring
Himesh Patel
Lily James
Kate McKinnon
Joel Fry
Ed Sheeran



Jack Malik [Patel] is a struggling musician in the east of England, represented by his manager and childhood friend Ellie [James]. Feeling close to giving up on the music life (or lack thereof), Jack cycles home one night but due to a 12 second global power-cut, is hit by a random bus, losing his two front teeth in the process. As a get-well present, his friends buy him a new guitar and he christens it by playing Yesterday by The Beatles. For some reason, nobody recognises the song, attributing it to Jack. In a panic, Jack learns that this seems to be a worldwide phenomenon and takes it upon himself to gift the world with the songs. After initially struggling, “Jack’s music” is heard around the world and attracts the attention of Ed Sheeran and his unscrupulous producer, Debra Hammer [McKinnon].

There will be a recurring theme throughout this review and unfortunately, it is targeted at one individual in particular; perhaps unfairly, perhaps not. In my opinion, Danny Boyle doesn’t make bad films but Richard Curtis makes plenty of trite ones. To clarify, I have enjoyed a lot of Curtis’ work and he is very deft at producing a certain type of writing but it’s all notoriously twee, rudimentary and rather corny. As such, we probably need to start by talking about the writing and the characters.

Both Himesh Patel and Lily James are, for lack of a better word, very cute. There’s a wonderful relatable earnestness to their performances and this really helps drive the story along, regardless of the absurdity of its foundation. I feel that Boyle has an eye for this and was reminded of Millions, which has a quirky fairy tale device but it is never questioned because the cast are so wholesome and engaging. This unfortunately also means that despite best efforts, the supports are pretty forgettable. That is, until we get to the halfway point of the film and hyperbole reigns over logic. Childhood friend Rocky quickly devolves into a clone of Rhys Ifans’ character from Notting Hill and Kate McKinnon departs the typical agenda-driven producer tropes and becomes a wide-eyed, money obsessed, maniacal figure and everything breaks down into farce. While Patel makes it through in reasonable shape, James’ character is utterly butchered. Without wanting to spoil too much, Jack bumps into Ellie in Liverpool, where she issues an ultimatum: continue on his journey to fame and success or stay with her. This is, frankly, some very lazy writing and creates a path riddled with clichés that the film haphazardly falls into. I appreciate you can’t have drama without conflict but forced in this way, at this time in the story, is quite amateur and sullies both the character and the unrequited nature of the relationship. As stated, James’ charm saves a lot of this because it’s not badly acted but badly drawn selfishness. While this on its own may sound like I am being unfair toward the role of Ellie, it’s a by-product of inconsistencies, whereby she loves Jack dearly but only mentions it at the worst times (setting Jack up to be ineffective and never actually address the issue), is fully supportive until the sought-after success arrives and contradicts her own advice when Jack is thinking of quitting and she explains that he can’t go back to teaching and pour all his energy into kids who will succeed where he deserves to – that last one is a particularly weird line that, due to being delivered well we nod along with in the moment, but in retrospect feels rather cruel and dismissive. Again, I believe the relationship and the chemistry between the two leads is solid but everything they say and do with each other feels clumsy and stupid. But I also appreciate the same could be said of almost every character that Curtis has written and people love them – so maybe it’s a personal rather than purely critical frustration (it isn’t).

The unspoken additional character is this newly forged world that Jack finds himself in. Subsequently there is some truly odd world-building. The trailers hide quite well that a world without The Beatles means there is no Oasis (as they were largely inspired by the Beatles’ sound and aesthetic) which was a nice, surprising touch. This quickly gets out of hand, however, when that extends to Coca Cola, cigarettes and Harry Potter; not to mention Saturday Night Live is now Thursday Night Live for unspecified reasons. Considering how many creatives have been quoted as saying “I wouldn’t be a musician/actor/writer without the Beatles,” hyperbolic or not, the choices illustrated here are very unusual. Things like no Monty Python or Led Zeppelin would have made more sense rather than just a few random alterations. Amazon Prime’s The Man In The High Castle TV series is an interesting “what if” story (what if the Allies lost World War II?) that doesn’t get overly muddied by complicating the rules of its existence. It establishes the similarities and revels in the eccentricities and nuanced differences of this new world. Unfortunately Yesterday seems to operate without any real rules. While I cannot confirm this, it would seem Jack Barth’s initial script has been injected with Curtis-isms and punched up to something more familiar and marketable. I prattled on about this before but there were so many random subtractions, done on a whim, free from research. Apparently, at one stage Curtis wanted to remove the colour purple – the literal colour – from existence. No logical basis for this, just because it would be weird.

**spoilers for the end of the film throughout**
The other key problem I have with this film is how it ends. I am of the opinion that it essentially crumples under the weight of a very rushed, odd, incredibly (almost insultingly) simplistic finale. Making a surprise appearance at one of Ed Sheeran’s stadium concerts, Jack confesses that he is not the progenitor of the songs and credits John, Paul, George and Ringo, to expected animosity and a sea of jeering. He then changes it up by confessing his love for Ellie (who is now in a relationship) and then defies his producer by uploading his entire catalogue to the internet. I hate this plot point. Nothing screams “old man who doesn’t understand how the internet works” better than hacking something or “I will upload it to the internet.” For all the evils of corporations and the excess of fame, I don’t think you can just upload music to the internet and escape the tangled madness of royalties and contractual obligations. But this is what happens. Even then I was expecting the film to turn. It was only a matter of time before normality would be restored and it would be revealed that Jack had in fact been in a coma or was having some manic fever dream but this never comes to pass. This alternate universe is now the new reality. While this allows for a seemingly neat ending, it gave me a complete headache. As I left the screening, many of the audience members muttered to each other “ooh I really enjoyed that” but all I could think of was the logistics and fallout. At one point it is stated that a world without The Beatles is poorer for it and as a fan of their work, I would agree but while I love The Beatles, a world without cigarettes and the Manson murders is surely a better place. It’s the kind of innocent naïve writing that permeates blockbuster cinema where we suspend a level of disbelief and analytical detail to simply enjoy the mirth and hijinks but this kind of surreal, lacklustre close ends up anticlimactic and beneath those involved.

Finally, I need to step away from the writing and talk about the music. Almost half of this film’s budget went on royalties to use The Beatles’ tracks and their presence is a joyous celebration of what makes them popular and iconic. In these kinds of films, the score can be relegated to the background but I genuinely feel Daniel Pemberton’s score complimented the songs marvellously, utilising familiar stings and leitmotifs while accenting the on-screen drama. But getting back to the songs themselves – as a celebration of The Beatles’ hits, I felt like Across The Universe was a more lovingly crafted piece that, due to its musical nature, did more with the pieces and various reference points throughout. Having said that, if the purpose of this release was to instil a feeling of nostalgia or triumph for these iconic anthems, it would be fair to say this was achieved magnificently.

Ultimately this is an interesting premise let down by writing that could not do the concept justice. There’s plenty of whimsy, mirth and charm on display but overall it’s a very disappointing and surprisingly shallow tale.


Release Date:
28 June 2019

The Scene To Look Out For:
There’s a touching moment that all creatives must feel, when Jack, who has been playing (arguably) some of the greatest songs of all time to pub audiences who do not appreciate what they’re hearing. This then raises some extremely interesting questions about the concept of talent over luck and opportunity, depicting literal imposter syndrome; that the material is good but it must be the delivery method (i.e. him) that is the problem when in truth, it’s audience absorption of art and the money-making system that drives it. It’s genuinely fascinating and I just wish it was developed a little more.

Notable Characters:
**spoilers**
Don’t ask me why – because the film never bothers to explain it. But Jack is the only person who remembers the Beatles. Except he isn’t. For some unknown and bizarre reason, there are two other individuals; a Russian named Leo and a Liverpudlian named Liz – played by Justin Edwards and Sarah Lancashire respectively. Toward the end of the film, these two meet up with Jack but rather than expose him, they thank him for bringing the music back into the world to hear it again and supply him with the address for a still-living John Lennon. At the point of writing this, I’m still not sure how I feel about these two characters. They are setup like creepy stalkers for so long that the twist doesn’t pay off in the intended manner and it seems they are solely there to allow the central figure a chance to vent and revel in the abnormal situation that they’ve found themselves in. But again, none of them question it and everything just carries on as normal.

Highlighted Quote:
“You’ve gotta stop pretending you’re in a big story with an exciting end. You’re in a small story and it ends here”

In A Few Words:
“A strange silly fantasy tribute that, in the words of my wife, I loved until suddenly I didn’t”

Total Score:

2/5

MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM NARRATIVE

The Age Of The Newtypes Begins

Director
Toshikazu Yoshizawa

Starring
Junya Enoki
Tomo Muranaka
Ayu Matsuura
Yuichiro Umehara



Set after the events of Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn, the Unicorn and Banshee suits have been dismantled and the existence of newtypes is now public knowledge but this hasn’t led to the great shift of power that was initially expected. The mysterious appearance of the third RX0 unit, the Phenex, prompts the Republic of Zeon (led by eccentric pilot Zoltan, voiced by Umehara) to secretly conduct a search to acquire it but Mineva Zabi is politically incapable of intervening. Through flashback we are introduced to three “miracle children” (Jona, Michele and Rita) who precognitively predicted the fallout of Operation British (saving lives in the process) but were then taken to be extensively tested on. By UC0097, Jona Basta [Enoki] is a mobile suit pilot, Michele [Muranaka] is working for her father’s powerful company Luio & Co and it is suspected that Rita Bernal [Matsuura] is piloting the Phenex.

For many Gundam fans, Unicorn is either a specific high point or a gateway into the franchise; short and insanely beautiful, it’s a series standout. Subsequently, any continuation of the Universal Century story was going to have an extremely difficult time living up to its predecessors. On the surface, there are a lot of immense positives to take away from this instalment, from the extremely interesting world-building continuation with the strong focus on newtypes to the questions of identity, evolution and connection. More than that, the outlines of a good Gundam show are here – subterfuge, political machinations, emotionally-charged personal drive, pressure placed upon innocent youth, glorious mech battles – but almost every element is either underdeveloped or rushed over, crammed in to a meagre 88 minute runtime. Disappointingly, this was a recurring thought that cropped up as I was watching the film, how could we fix this choppy narrative? Flesh it out properly in a full series. The powers of the II Neo Zeong feel oddly mapped out (the II Neo Zeong is already overpowered, it doesn’t really benefit from mobile suit puppets)? Just take the time to full explore its potential abilities and the reason for its construction. On top of that, a more evenly paced and generous length would have added impact to the overarching legacy of the piece. Unlike Unicorn, Narrative lacks a certain standalone quality and requires a large amount of Gundam canon knowledge (confirmed by the use of archive footage) which might work in a 12 episode series but doesn’t here.

I should clarify, the “just make it a TV series instead of a film” argument is a bit of a lazy fall-back for critics since the rise of prestige television a decade or so ago. More often than not, I will happily defend the cinematic medium and argue that a reworked or stronger story can resolve a lot of the above issues. But this is not a case of a story written solely for the big screen, nor is it spawned from a series of movies, it is that classically doomed exercise of a film that follows a long-running series and whether it’s The Simpsons, South Park or even The X-Files, the translation from long-form narrative to a single big budget outing can often ring hollow and unsatisfying.

While the story squanders a lot of potential, one of the trades offered up is superior sound and visuals but Narrative stumbles once again. I will admit that the score was mostly subtle and foreboding but in classic anime film fashion, during the pinnacle battle sequences, this gives way to J-Pop/J-Rock tracks that feel out of place and significantly sully the mood. The bigger surprise, however, was the quality of the visuals, which weren’t as good as something like Origin, let alone Unicorn. Oddly animated faces, very uninventive fight sequences and far too many clumsy pop-up screen-within-screens – which were likely a time saving method so as not to detract from the exposition and the combat but felt more like cheap video game cut-scenes. And then the film resurrects classic sound effects from the 70s that felt incredibly dated and jarring rather than jarring than celebratory. I understand the need for homage but without reworking the effect in any way, it stood out rather painfully.

Finally we have the characters – one of the most important elements of any Gundam release. Sure, audiences initially come for the big stompy robots but you stay for the politics and forever remember the characters. Narrative unfortunately comes close to greatness with some heightened character designs, solid vocal performances and decently crafted personalities, only to falter with their execution. The central trio are all quite compelling but so much of their story is revealed through flashback and rather than pushing forward with the UC story, Narrative is more concerned with introducing and resolving these characters; something I would actually praise if it didn’t make the story so unbalanced. Then we have the lead antagonist, Zoltan Akkanen, who is amusingly over-the-top and brings a lot of colour and life to the proceedings. I very much enjoyed Umehara’s performance, there’s a lot of the flamboyancy that is on display in Origin’s hybridisation of old and new but the character’s motivation and background are shockingly unclear and what could be construed as an enticing tease is actually a frustrating glimpse of what could have been. Similarly, revelations like a central character not actually being a newtype and powerful deaths feel far too rushed over and dismissed. Even cameos like the appearances of Banagher and Mineva are mediocre and sterilised, making them ineffective through their inactivity.

Ultimately, there is enough of a release here to pass the time and generate talking points for moving into the next chapter of the Universal Century story. But at this point, Narrative isn’t a lead-in to some pending series, it’s a completely standalone feature that regrettably fails to live up to the legacy that came before it.


Release Date:
UK TBA

The Scene To Look Out For:
While I was largely disappointed with the artwork and direction, the colony fight in the rain between Zoltan and Basta, while trying to procure the II Neo Zeong, was very impressive. There was a nice scope and scale that emphasised the importance and gravitas of the feud and, for lack of better phrasing, felt like a Gundam release.

Notable Characters:
Rather than highlighting a standout character that I particularly enjoyed, I kept circling individuals that felt weak or a little too embryonic and nebulous. Sometimes this came down to the direction the story was taking but with someone like Michele, I thought a lot of interesting threads were frittered away. But, as stated, this conclusion could very much be applied to the majority of those present.

Highlighted Quote:
“Genuinely happy things always come together with painful things or sad things”

In A Few Words:
“With the foundation it had, Narrative squanders what could have been a truly fantastic instalment but it is not completely without merit”

Total Score:

2/5

TOY STORY 4

The Adventure Of A Lifetime

Director
Josh Cooley

Starring
Tom Hanks
Tony Hale
Annie Potts
Tim Allen
Christina Hendricks
Madeleine McGraw



Set shortly after the events in Toy Story 3, Bonnie [McGraw] is being inducted into kindergarten but feeling that the orientation may be too overwhelming for her, Woody [Hanks] stows away in her backpack. While experiencing school for the first time, Bonnie creates a toy from rubbish, naming her creation Sporky [Hale]. Upon return to Bonnie’s room, Woody introduces the other toys to this new creation who is somehow alive and unsure what his purpose is, aside from being trash, to be disposed of. Before her full term at kindergarten starts, Bonnie’s parents take their RV on a road trip, leaving Woody in charge of the frankly suicidal new addition, who is evidently very important to his maker. En route to a carnival, Woody and Sporks are separated from the group and Woody reunites with a long lost friend, Bo Peep [Potts].

It’s hard to remember what Toy Story was like when first released in 1995. CGI animation was largely in its infancy and to revisit it now shows just how far this technology and art-form have come. As a flagship series, Toy Story has always pushed the envelope but with their simple toy designs and rosy retrospection, it’s never exactly apparent until a direct comparison is made but when looking at the environment and natural elements like water and light, the result is truly stunning. Another overlooked factor to these films is the oddity that is Randy Newman. I find his songs mind-numbingly vanilla and lacking in all subtlety. On the other hand, his orchestral score work is absolutely pitch-perfect and magnificently touching in the purest of ways. If you don’t believe me just listen to “Gabby Gabby’s Most Noble Thing”; it’s an astounding piece of music that, even separate from the imagery, is charged with an impressive flowing range of emotion. Then there’s the writing. The synopses of these movies have never been too grand in scope because the scale is minute; the drama and risk for the toys being discovered or abandoned is such that we don’t need some globe-trotting outing. What stood out about this instalment though is that it is, quite surprisingly, the funniest Toy Story. It goes without saying that these movies have always been so blisteringly charming but the dialogue and improv work on display here is so consistently and intentionally funny from start to finish.

If it were ever in any doubt, this film confirms that Toy Story is entirely Woody’s tale; the eponymous toy in question is the cowboy and Hanks continues to prove he is one of western cinema’s greatest treasures, up there with some of the untouchable all-time icons. But if we step aside from him for a moment, the character roster gets a bit messy. Introducing new individuals in a “final” chapter is always tricky because for space purposes alone, you will end up shuffling favourites to the background in favour of bringing new faces to the fore. One of the most surprising casualties is Buzz Lightyear [Allen] who, along with many of the original cast, is relegated to a minor support. The crushing thing is that I didn’t miss him. His arc (along with the other classics) was pretty much complete, while this tale focuses on “how do you fix a problem like Bo Peep?” Bo’s absence was very much noted in Toy Story 3 and this entire feature feels like an apologetic send-off to a character who was dealt a poor hand. She is given a much more fleshed-out personality and the prologue gifts her with retroactive agency and skills that were not present in the other films. Rather than a complaint – because I’m all for better utilisation of a film’s established creations and Potts’ performance gives everyone a run for their money – it’s a slight lamentation that this entire release feels like an afterthought. But I’ll expand on that later.

There are plenty of new toys in this film, all of which came across rather dry in the marketing but every single one of them endeared themselves to me by the end of the film. The two prominent additions to discuss are Sporky and Gabby [Hendricks]. From the animation of his movements to Hale’s hysterical whimsy and naivety, Sporky is a complete delight. More than that, he is a great pairing for Woody, offering so much introspection on matters of existence and purpose that are so often absent from family films but which Disney (and Pixar specifically) are known for tackling head-on. Gabby is also a fascinating part if only because she is clearly billed as the antagonist (and for a time she kind of is) but the truth is that this movie doesn’t have a villain, only the harsh, crushing beats of reality.

Is Toy Story 4 an emotionally-charged, heart-warming, thoroughly entertaining piece of cinema? Of course it is. In that regard it’s as much of a triumph as the previous instalments. Was it a necessary addition that created a more pleasing ending than Toy Story 3’s already established close? No. And this is the uncomfortable feeling I left the cinema with. Certain properties, while still functional, are considered sacrosanct until they are run into the ground and ruined. Thus far, these films have returned with great, engaging stories that continue the narrative while acting as standalones. But that lack of diminishing returns is a frail rope bridge and eventually it will collapse. Having said that, these fears and concerns were somewhat dashed when I remembered the other animated movies advertised to the audience before the film started and when held in comparison to that dross, the minor gripes might as well be non-existent.


Release Date:
21st June 2019

The Scene To Look Out For:
**spoilers for the final scene**
At the end of the movie (which I won’t discuss in too much detail) Bonnie returns from school once again with yet another new Frankenstein-esque creation. Naturally, there is a connection between Sporky and this new utensil-based invention. Having come to terms with what it means to be a toy, Sporky explains that everything will be alright. He is then asked, “How am I alive?” and for a brief moment, the movie teases a reveal on the mechanics of the entire franchise but all he says in response is, “I don’t know” and with that, the film continues its refusal to explain the universe because we all know that would utterly ruin it. Simple but very effective.

Notable Characters:
One toy I forgot to mention is the heightened and ridiculous Canadian stunt motorcyclist Duke Caboom, voiced by Keanu Reeves. Caboom is 100% comic relief from start to end. Whether fearful, optimistic, brave, jealous, sad or happy, every line is given a comedic twist. The same could be said for Key and Peele’s incredibly funny duo, Ducky and Bunny but there was something strikingly silly about Caboom that made him a joy to watch.

Highlighted Quote:
“Oh yeah! Combat Carl’s gonna get played with!”

In A Few Words:
“While it doesn’t bring anything especially new to the table, Toy Story 4 more than justifies its own existence with a positively splendid adventure”

Total Score:

4/5