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

MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL

The Universe Is Expanding

Director
F Gary Gray

Starring
Tessa Thompson
Chris Hemsworth
Kumail Nanjiani
Liam Neeson
Emma Thompson



Opening with two separate prologues, we are introduced to a young Molly Wright who witnesses an alien creature but manages to avoid being neuralised, thus sparking a drive to become the best and brightest to get into the ever-elusive agency that she witnessed that fateful night. Fast forward a decade and a half later and we see Men In Black agents H [Hemsworth] and T [Neeson] on a Parisian mission to avoid a world-ending invasion of the shape-shifting race, the Hive. We are then reintroduced to the adult Molly [T Thompson] who infiltrates the New York MIB office and blags her way into a probationary position as Agent M. From here M is dispatched to the London office by Agent O [E Thompson] to investigate irregularities in their operations.

The first Men In Black film had an air of Ghostbusters to it. A character-driven, surprisingly emotional and charming, fun, action-packed, effects heavy romp that pulled the curtain back on the world just underneath our own. It sparked the imagination and captivated audiences but no sequel has ever really come close to replicating that magic. The aliens were relatable, the situations were surprisingly grounded and there was a very thinly-veiled allegory of immigration with outsiders wanting to make a new home and get on with their lives that elevated the entire thing. Men In Black International, on the other hand, is a shell of its predecessor with a complete lack of world-building, aside from the dreary rehashes of the previous films with uninspired alien disguises and eye-rolling concealed entrances. As with the previous instalments, there seems to have been a move away from the nuanced balance of styles, to a very comedy-led approach. Admittedly, there’s nothing wrong with this and sometimes a film can shift genres mid-film and it can generate spectacular results but if you are switching genres, you have to really commit to it and ensure the execution is exceptional enough to warrant said change. Classic examples are Alien/Aliens, Cloverfield/10 Cloverfield Lane but the most appropriate example would be the transition from the rather dark family adventure Jumanji to the light comedic outing Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle. Suffice it to say, Men In Black International does not have half of the energy or originality of these instances.

As was apparent from the promotional footage, the Men In Black series has descended from cutting-edge visuals to some genuinely lacklustre CGI. With generic blue holograms-a-plenty, (unintentionally) rubbery looking aliens and big glowing sky beams, there is nothing that sets this movie apart from countless other disappointing summer blockbusters. The only remaining personality comes across through the production design and costume work but even these feel acceptable at best and rely on what has come before rather than forging ahead. While we’re on the subject of visuals, the direction and cinematography lack so much atmosphere, opting for a comedy-centric visual style of brightly lit scenes and generic, underwhelming composition and camera movements. I could transition to the cast but in truth, there isn’t really a lot worth talking about. I can summarise my opinions by grouping everyone into one of two categories. On the one hand you have those who are doing their best with what they have been given, eking out a handful of smirk/titter-inducing lines and eyebrow raising visual sequences. Whereas the remainder are background fodder, underdeveloped signposts moving the characters from triviality to triviality.

Initially one would assume that the key culprit is the story itself, which is remarkably stupid, bland and predictable but the premise itself is fine, it’s in fact the script itself that is so very lacking. As the audience surrogate, the story should largely focus on M’s induction and on paper it does but rushes through the training to get to her first assignment, meaning we are left unsure of her abilities outside of her enthusiasm and being told she is very intelligent. And classically, this movie illustrates this with luck and by making those around her stupid. The script is also littered with painful foreshadowing for third act plot developments and deus ex machina. In the opening prologue Molly meets the young Tranchian creature and as it scampers off into the night, the film whispers “what could that mean” while the audience is expected to keep up the pretence that it wasn’t overtly obvious that said creature will return when the plot requires it, only to be dismissed again just as quickly. Completing the trifecta of mediocrity, is the incredibly flat humour, a lot of which retreads safe familiar ground. I mean, call-backs can be fun when subtle or amusing but more often than not, they hinder a film. Before boarding an express train from New York to London, M (who I should point out, is surrounded by new and exciting peculiarities) takes a moment to look at the worm guys from the previous film before boarding the train. There’s nothing particularly engaging about what they’re saying and no in-character reason for her to be so consumed but the reference is for audiences and therefore is given the same treatment as product placement. It doesn’t matter that it doesn’t make sense, there is simply an obligation to show them before moving on with the story.

One of the most frustrating aspects of this film is that on paper it sounds like a winner; a dual-lead team with great chemistry in a new setting on a globe-hopping adventure to save the world. But with rather insipid execution and a very lifeless script, this somehow ends up feeling like the worst Men In Black film, or at the very least, the most unnecessary one.


Release Date:
14th June 2019

The Scene To Look Out For:
**mild spoilers within**
So much of the script is riddled with first draft issues; things that look cool or ham-fistedly push the plot along but quickly fall apart under minimal scrutiny. As an example, let’s take the assassination of a member of an alien royal family, Vungus. The twins approach the race of chess people, they refuse and then they kill them all except for the pawn (for unclear reasons). They then learn of Vungus’ location – again, never explicitly stated how – and use a poison dart to kill him. With the alien dying, he is then transported to a car which is propelled into the side of a building with an explosion. While all of the above works as an excuse for action set-pieces and a tedious dance sequence in three separate locations, none of it tracks logically which means either the writing is subpar and everyone involved failed to realise it didn’t make sense or they did and are wilfully indifferent. And with the end result being as it is, I’m not sure which is worse.

Notable Characters:
There are some truly unimaginative beings created for this film. One new addition is intergalactic arms dealer Riza (played by Rebecca Ferguson) who lives on a private island off of the coast of Naples. This alien is referenced a fair few times, creating some mystery and tension but when we eventually meet her, the final product is magnificently underwhelming. With a coloured wig and flowing gown, Ferguson looks like she’s fallen out of a Katy Perry music video and the only thing fundamentally “alien” about her is a third arm. Wow, pulling out all the stops there. But then the film goes in the completely opposite direction with the main villains (dubbed The Twins) whose ill-defined hyper powers are never explained but allow them to crop up briefly when the plot requires them only to be dispatched just as quickly.

Highlighted Quote:
“Passion is unstable, logic is constant”

In A Few Words:
“Frankly, Men In Black International was everything I expected and less”

Total Score:

2/5

X-MEN: DARK PHOENIX

Every Hero Has A Dark Side

Director
Simon Kinberg

Starring
Sophie Turner
Tye Sheridan
James McAvoy
Nicholas Hoult
Michael Fassbender
Jessica Chastain
Jennifer Lawrence



Loosely based on the Dark Phoenix storyline in the X-Men comics, the events of this film are set 9 years after the events in X-Men: Apocalypse. The X-Men are now a publically approved group, with a direct line to the President. While undertaking a rescue mission in the earth’s orbit, Jean Grey [Turner] is hit by an anomaly but survives. This triggers a brief debate between Beast [Hoult], Mystique [Lawrence] and Professor Xavier [McAvoy], who question the extents mutants are pushed to maintain public approval. But Jean is far from alright and begins to suffer uncontrollable mood swings and surges of energy that begin to unlock repressed memories of her past. All the while a mysterious entity named Vuk [Chastain] with a hidden agenda approaches Jean.

It’s worth noting, before we go any deeper into this review, that the director of this release also served as writer for the heavily castigated X-Men: The Last Stand – which also attempted to cover this comic arc. Granted, Kinberg has served as producer on several decent films but his writing credits leave a lot to be desired but with this release he has been gifted full autonomy as writer, producer and director (his cinematic debut) and it is finally transparently clear that his abilities are not up to the task. Littered with fairly uninspired action sequences and excessive use of extreme close-ups, there is a distinct lack of visual flare. On top of that we also have the production design. While I didn’t much care for X-Men: Days Of Future Past or Apocalypse, I could sort of see the references to their respective period settings but this is very much 1992 in name only. If you take something like Captain Marvel for a second, that was a decent example of a film that mostly understood the era and represented it with a playful mirth and wink in its eye. If you had told me this movie was set five years ago, I could have arguably believed it. And then we have the writing itself which is absolutely shocking. The dialogue is atrocious, the story bounces around mercilessly and the world-building is remarkably plain. In other words, the responsibility fell to Kinberg and he has failed on almost every count. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Dark Phoenix is a turgid, thoroughly boring affair, taking a franchise that has trundled along for nearly twenty years and serves up one of its most unremarkable offerings. X-Men Origins: Wolverine was very badly made and frustrated fans, Apocalypse had spectacle but lacked heart or consequence but Dark Phoenix may be the first X-Men film to feel truly dull. Disney purchasing Fox and merging the franchise with the MCU means this is all very likely irrelevant and what should be a fitting send-off (in the way that Avengers: Endgame was) is little more than another bloated outing.

To my mind, there are two redeeming points to this feature. The first is the score work, which was also one of the only positive points about The Last Stand. I enjoyed the motif work and themes but was incredibly shocked to learn that they were composed by Hans “I’ll never score a superhero movie ever again” Zimmer. Which then made me question how much I actually enjoyed the soundtrack because the foreboding strings were thoroughly fitting and pleasant, elevating the entirely mediocre on-screen antics but knowing it was Zimmer, I feel like it could have done more; difficult to say. The second point is the actors. I genuinely have to commend almost everyone involved for the solid performances they worked out of an incredibly flat lacklustre script. Turner, especially, was very impressive even if the story didn’t afford her the necessary logic leaps between tortured, conflicted young woman and straight-up murder-happy psychopath. In truth, even the best chef in the world can only do so much with a handful of second rate ingredients but when you have painful one-liners, erratic narrative leaps and stupid developments (at one point a shuttle is spinning out of control in space but after Cyclops blasts the thruster it stops within two rotations.. that’s not just terrible physics, it’s nonsense), it was never going to end well for anyone.

**semi-spoilery comments mid-paragraph**
What struck me is how unambitious the film is, from the visual effects to the costumes, I couldn’t help but wonder how this movie ended up costing 200 million dollars. And then it became evidently clear; reshoots, tonnes and tonnes of reshoots. Other than the messy story, erratic character priorities and boring action set-pieces, the mighty hand of Disney is present throughout. Not direct interference but as fallout from the acquisition of Fox meaning plot elements and seeds for potential sequels had to be reworked. One of the more obvious examples is the antagonists. Considering the X-Men universe has been kind of grounded on Earth up until now, the film introduces an unspecified shape-shifting alien race who have been chasing the galactic phoenix force and wish to harness it for themselves. Only, they haven’t just been chasing this force, they’ve also been on earth for some time waiting to infiltrate and take over; which is a complete contradiction. I wouldn’t be surprised if the aliens in question were supposed to be Skrulls until Marvel took them back for their own movies. This means we have Jessica Chastain in a completely wasted non-role, attempting to manipulate Jean for very blunt ends with a very ill-defined set of abilities.

While it’s one of the biggest X-Men comic arcs, the dark phoenix saga is supposed to be an enormous emotional culmination but with the lead up this film had, this story was always going to be fighting an uphill battle to produce a satisfactory conclusion. As it stands, Jean is first introduced in Apocalypse, where she isn’t really given much to do but because she’s Jean Grey and everyone is waiting for her to inevitably turn evil, it is demonstrated that she has some sort of inert Phoenix power buried deep down inside her. Yet somehow, in the course of three years, this instalment forgets this development and claims the force is a purely separate entity/ability. Well, I say “claims,” the film never goes into a great amount of detail about much of anything. Another reason this story has never been depicted well, is the continued assumption that the more interesting story isn’t the individual searching for their past with an uncontrollable power but the people who put a few barriers in an attempt to control her. It’s as if we had a Wolverine story about Colonel Stryker. Sure, it’s an important factor to the story but it’s not the main crux and not where the central and relatable emotional core lies.

Overall, this entire effort feels tired, apathetic, lazy and a victim of multiple poor drafts. While I have saluted a fair few of these releases, Dark Phoenix serves as a reminder that Fox may have helped jump-start the superhero resurgence in the early 2000s but it had no real idea how to properly cultivate and develop it, throwing multiple efforts at the wall, hoping something would stick. What’s most disappointing is that the best end to this story was released two years ago but instead it limped on until it finally coughed up this mess, destined to be forgotten once the inevitable reboots roll out.


Release Date:
7th June 2019

The Scene To Look Out For:
The film opening with the X-Men being established as beloved celebrities is weird. Not only because a central conceit of the X-Men is fear of the other, the outsider hiding within, etc. So to start them out of the shadows is a bold choice. More so than that, Jean commits two brief on-screen attacks (where I believe only one life is lost) and within a scene or two an entire taskforce is released. Which means the story races from cheering fans with signs and X-Men action figures to internment facilities in a few days; I know the descent of humanity into depravity takes minimal prompting but this is pretty breakneck. Oh, and that mean, misguided, evil, anti-mutant faction coming to take our heroes away is called the MCU. Subtle Fox, real subtle.

Notable Characters:
I’ve always praised both McAvoy and Fassbender for their portrayals of Xavier and Magneto respectively but I can never understand why zero attempt is made to make them age. It’s never established that mutants age differently (other than Mystique) so why do these men, who grew up during World War II, somehow look thirty years younger than they should!? I can suspend disbelief about so much in this movie but I honestly can’t let that go.

Highlighted Quote:
“And by the way, the women are always saving the men around here so you might want to think about changing the name to X-Women”

In A Few Words:
“A very unsatisfactory close to an incredibly marred and violently fluctuating franchise”

Total Score:

2/5

GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS

Long Live The King

Director
Michael Dougherty

Starring
Vera Farmiga
Millie Bobby Brown
Kyle Chandler
Charles Dance



Set five years after the events of Godzilla, the monster hunting agency Monarch are under public scrutiny for their knowledge of the existence of giant creatures dubbed “titans.” Paleobiologist Dr Emma Russell [Farmiga] is working closely with Monarch on sonar technology to potentially control or subdue monsters. While Emma is working on a new discovery in China, an eco-terrorist organisation, run by ex-military Colonel, Alan Jonah [Dance], storms the Monarch facility and abducts both Emma and her daughter Madison [Brown]. In order to help track the terrorist’s actions, Emma’s estranged husband Mark [Chandler] is brought on board as Jonah and his agenda are revealed.

From the outset, I was quite surprised and impressed at how the pacing wastes no time and rushes along to get straight to the monsters. But this elation quickly faded as the narrative maintains this gait throughout and never eases up to appreciate what’s unfolding. Scrambling from set-piece to set-piece, neglecting the very monsters they sold so heavily in the marketing. See, a lot of critics will dub this film repetitive, cluttered and suffering from too many monsters and on one level, I can entirely understand that but if anything, this movie actually suffers from too few monster bouts and those we get have some genuinely standout moments but even these are littered with stupid or odd directorial decisions but I will expand on that more a little later.

A film of this nature if very much driven by the production design and effect work; all of which, I’m happy to report, are commendable. Bear McCreary’s score is nowhere near as good as Alexandre Desplat’s in the last instalment or even Henry Jackman’s in Kong: Skull Island – both of which emulated a 60s/70s monster pic aural landscape – but by building on the Showa era themes and leitmotifs, it is certainly a rather strong effort. The overall sound design is also great, I missed the guttural Godzilla roar established in 2014 but this is a minor gripe considering the level of talent that has been employed. In a similar way to Aquaman, I was also very impressed at the selection of beautiful, slower wide shots and tableaus peppered throughout the film that felt like the kind of concept art that sells the film but rarely makes it to the final cut. But these pretty and haunting moments also serve to highlight how disappointing the mucky-CGI close-ups can be and while the majority is easy enough to follow, it fails to really convey the scale. Something I wholly applaud Gareth Edwards for doing in 2014 was keeping the view of the monsters from a human perspective, highlighting how helpless we are against these towering behemoths. This sequel largely maintains that but the choice to shoot the fights as if they were regular sized humans wading around a set left the action feeling generic at times and strangely consequence free; which, incidentally, is also what happened in Pacific Rim: Uprising. We lose a sense of terror and wonder and lean into campy Power Rangers visuals; granted, this could be an intentional callback to the older releases but I didn’t feel this landed particularly well. But if I’m honest, that’s always been Godzilla’s problem. The first few instalments strike fear but the series will always devolve into Godzilla recast as a saviour not an agent of balance and we get into more brow-furrowing territory and the human element grows increasingly obsolete.

With the most recent Godzilla releases (including Toho’s Shin Godzilla), there has been a step away from atomic and nuclear fear to one of climate change and human eradication through ecological disaster. The progression of this notion in King Of The Monsters is that our efforts to control and domesticate these forces will always end in folly – specifically releasing Ghidorah then acting surprised when it establishes itself as the alpha species and enacts its own agenda. I, for one, wholly welcome this and have never really understood the complaint that these modern incarnations have been preachy as these features have always been message heavy films with a parallel human component that features sparring opinions, the inefficiency of excessive bureaucracy and crazy technology that man shouldn’t meddle with.

Staying with that point for a moment, the human side of these things frequently gets a bashing. From the marketing, people want to see big stompy kaiju monsters wrestle each other to the ground but the human characters are the ones we spend the majority of the film with. The cast here is a pleasant mix of ethnicity and gender in positions of power and prominence across the board; again, something I fully champion and relish seeing on film. But the characters themselves are furnished with simplistic motivations and remarkably moronic decisions that none of them are especially likeable. And then there’s the dialogue. I’ll readily admit that the lines and their respective deliveries are typical for the genre but even by this standard, anything said aloud is incredibly painful; I’m quietly confident I heard lazy inserts such as, “you better take a look at this” five or six times. Making it worse, there is a strange imbalance across the casting with certain individuals being dispatched rather unceremoniously while others are clothed in immense plot armour that protects them from the most absurd scenarios. In one case, taking a team to land a helicopter to search for one person at the literal feet of the climactic battle between two gargantuan beasts is frankly fucking stupid. But one of the more unusual elements to the cast is that I’m not entirely sure I could point to a single individual and identify them as the lead character. None of the actors massively underperform or standout, everyone simply acts serviceably. One could argue this is because Godzilla is the lead or that the ensemble works so well as a whole that the group services as the driving force but I think those statements may be giving this movie too much credit. In actuality, I think this is just largely a by-product of a jumbled story and messy script with underdeveloped arcs and flip-flopping priorities.

Due to its reduction from a semi-grounded piece, King Of The Monsters is somehow dumber than its predecessor but by the same logic it is also arguably more fun. With that in mind, there will be those who will watch this film and have a blast from start to finish, watching titanic creatures battle it out for supremacy. For me, I am conflicted and this film will join the long line of Godzilla continuations that I somewhat enjoy but can never truly appreciate because that vital fear is lost, substituted for mindless, almost consequence free action.


Release Date:
31st May 2019

The Scene To Look Out For:
Maybe it’s saying something to the nature of how we process “fake news” and the desensitisation of audiences but when a news reporter is glibly explaining that things are looking pretty bad right now, with zero emotion in her voice, you feel someone should have shown the actors footage of journalists reporting on actual disasters because at that point in the movie the fucking US Capitol was on fire! You’d think that would have people just a little worked up.

Notable Characters:
I was going to talk about Charles Dance and the fact he’s a rather interesting individual with unique motivations is looked over quite a lot but instead, I’m highlighting the more memorable Bradley Whitford for being unabashedly Bradley Whitford and quipping his arse off from start to finish. He was incredibly menacing in Get Out but he’s ride sincere and sarcastic so perfectly that his performance feels effortless. Unfortunately, the script doesn’t give him much to work with but his delivery of even mundane lines elevates proceedings.

Highlighted Quote:
“I’ve seen human nature first hand and I’m here to tell you it doesn’t get any better. It gets worse”

In A Few Words:
“In an effort to homogenise properties closer and closer to a standard tone for Legendary’s monsterverse, Godzilla feels lost in a silly, sometimes fun, romp that ultimately fails to impress”

Total Score:

2/5

ROCKETMAN

Based On A True Fantasy

Director
Dexter Fletcher

Starring
Taron Egerton
Jamie Bell
Bryce Dallas Howard
Richard Madden



The story opens in the early 80s with Elton John [Egerton] checking himself into rehab and regaling the story of young Reggie Dwight to fellow addicts. He recounts being able to play music by ear from a very early age but that his abilities as a musical prodigy were never really supported by his mother [Howard] or father [Steven Mackintosh]. As he grew up, he played backing piano for a few American soul bands on tour but was unable to really write his own music due to an inability to pen lyrics. Bucking up the courage to approach a label, Dwight adopts the new name Elton John and is paired with lyricist Bernie Taupin [Bell] and the two churn out hit after hit. Shortly after this, John comes out to Bernie but is saddened when Bernie does not reciprocate. Despite this initial friction, the two are sent to America and John’s career takes off.

The initial teaser trailer for Rocketman closed with the poster tagline: based on a true fantasy. A lot of these liners tend to boil down to fairly unimaginative marketing but there is an air of accuracy to this statement because while the narrative follows the extremely tired, standard biopic structure, it is only part biopic, with the other part being a musical. In truth, we’ve heard this story a thousand times but this shift in perspective and making the music a reflective expression of the subject’s life works wonders and reinvigorates what could have been a rather dreary paint-by-numbers affair. The overall tone is therefore both extravagant and lavish as well as quite isolated and simple, giving us something relatively unique. Furthermore, the choice to avoid a family friendly PG-13/12a rating was a smart move, allowing the script and performances to actively address the drinking, drugs and sex without resorting to mere coy implication. Having said that, nothing is ever too graphic, choosing instead to lean in to the theatricality of the musical element and producing a trippy, heightened vibe that thankfully never feels out of place. Admittedly, those looking for a straightforward narrative will likely find this jarring and if you’re not sold by the end of the opening sequence, this film makes few attempts to ease or placate.

Like many biographical pieces, this is a long film, running at just over two hours but the pacing works extremely well partly because the cinematography, editing and time-skipping transitions are all perfectly in-line with the manic theatrical format. Which is a decision I can only assume was Fletcher’s but even if it wasn’t, his direction is simply superb; fresh, flamboyant and confident, it’s clear this man has a real handle on the medium and deserves plenty of opportunities to flex these muscles. As a side point, there remains a great debate over how much of Bohemian Rhapsody was actually directed by Bryan Singer but while Fletcher may have been called in to capture two weeks of footage to save that feature, when working from start-to-finish, he really proves that he would have made a substantially better release of Mercury’s story than what we ended up with. But I digress.

The respective hair, costume, make-up and production design teams have worked absolute miracles recreating Elton’s evolving wardrobe and look, gleefully running side-by-side comparisons during the credit sequence to highlight the absurdity of what Elton John was getting away with on stage and the painstaking accuracy and attention to detail involved in recreating it all. But none of that would have gotten the film anywhere without an extremely charismatic lead. Cue Taron Edgerton. Initially one may assume “the kid from Kingsman” is an unusual choice but he embodies John with supreme ease, capturing the rage, the insecurities and the raw, frustrated talent skilfully (also, he kind of had a bit of a dry-run audition in Sing albeit in gorilla form). He carries himself well singing Elton’s biggest hits and though his voice isn’t exactly the same, his twist on the tracks is a welcome treat. To my mind, one of the key accomplishments here is managing to carrying the pageantry of this tragicomedy without tilting too far into eye-rolling melodrama or irreverent farce, which would have been so very easy for a lesser-skilled actor.

With this kind of genre piece, the supporting roles are always a bit of a mixed bag, especially when central performance is such a strong, attention-pulling lead character. Few are particularly standout and even fewer drag the film down with their miscasting or capability. From Elton’s childhood we have some interesting players: Howard is cold and unrelenting in her dismissal of her son, as is Mackintosh as John’s father but they never get to scene-stealing territory or disappointing to the point of distraction. There’s nothing especially vindictive or malicious about them, they’re simply not supportive. But in a way, this makes them all the more relatable for an audience, neither of them beat or neglected Elton (not by the conventions of the period) but they are spiteful in their dismissal of him and that is something that cuts surprisingly deep. If anything, the film’s real villain is Elton’s producer John Reid [Madden] who is controlling and disrespectful – but whether it was Madden’s performance or the naivety of the lead character, there was no twist here, no sign that Reid ever really had Elton’s interests at heart outside of personal gain. He was simply played as a fairly sneering, calculating individual and there was never any doubt that it wouldn’t all end up unpleasantly.

I can’t really comment on the events of Elton John’s real life but this kind of film, released with the blessing and involvement of the man himself while he’s still alive and unafraid of airing undesirable truths, is an incredibly positive move to transparency. As an artist, he owes the public nothing but offering up something that is wall-to-wall swearing and avarice to highlight what the life is like without veering into an overly romanticised fantasy is commendable and something that should be imitated. All we need now is to figure out a way to illustrate the hazards of music and stardom without the copy and paste linear structure, although Rocketman comes damned close.


Release Date:
24th May 2019

The Scene To Look Out For:
The standard biopic trope is to build to some formative concert or tour but in a perfect example of this film both bucking the trend and indulging in the formula, the bookend scenes culminate to a recreation of the music video for I’m Still Standing. It’s an interesting choice and effectively acts in the same way as the big final number but with everything that has been shown on screen for the previous two hours, the lyrics resonate rather well.

Notable Characters:
Again, another example of the film getting it perfectly right and curiously misfiring is Jamie Bell. Bell is great in this movie and presents a nice parallel to Elton’s extravagance and self destruction but he is also the man behind the words of the songs that people know. Sure, this is Rocketman, story of the man behind the piano, lost in a world of addiction and debauchery but he’s arguably only one half of the puzzle. Taupin is so very overlooked by this movie that it’s almost obtuse using the lyrics to illustrate parts of John’s life – which I appreciate is in direct contrast to what I wrote not one paragraph prior.

Highlighted Quote:
“You’ve gotta kill the man you were born to be, to become the person you want to be”

In A Few Words:
“Covering the excess, the drama and the songs in a unique way, Rocketman is everything Bohemian Rhapsody wishes it could be”

Total Score:

4/5

ALADDIN

A Rags To Wishes Story

Director
Guy Ritchie

Starring
Will Smith
Mena Massoud
Naomi Scott
Marwan Kenzari
Navid Negahban




Set several hundred years ago, in the ancient kingdom of Agrabah, we are introduced to Aladdin [Massoud], a young street urchin who survives thanks to his quick-wits, fast fingers and sharp tongue. One day in the marketplace, Aladdin meets Princess Jasmine [Scott], who has disguised herself to walk among the common folk and keeps her true identity a secret from the young man. When trying to see the princess again, Aladdin is arrested by the Sultan’s vizier, Jafar [Kenzari] who offers him a chance at redemption by descending into the cave of wonders, deep in the desert, to retrieve an oil lamp. Aladdin becomes trapped in the cave but discovers a genie [Smith] living inside the lamp, who explains he will grant his new master three wishes.

The only appeal these Disney live-action remakes offer is a familiar story through a different prism; for the studio it’s a safe bet and for the audiences, it’s comfortable. In all honesty, that’s been Disney’s modus operandi since day one; take a familiar fairy tale rooted in core values and spin a yarn from it that will entertain their target four quadrants and generate a shit-tonne of merchandise sales. These have ranged from alternate takes, such as Maleficent and Dumbo, where a different perspective has been shown or largely reinventing the story, to fairly straight-laced shot-for-shot adaptations like Beauty And The Beast and for the most part, these movies have generated an insane amount of money for Disney but stagnated their output by recycling and cannibalising their own properties. Aladdin is, for a great many people, one of the top three best Disney animated features and fundamentally this iteration was always going to be at a disadvantage and fighting an uphill battle.

From the outset, it’s clear that a great deal of time, attention and effort has gone into crafting a detailed visually lush setting. Drawing on so many cultures from India to Morocco, we are shown a vast melting pot kingdom similar to the standard vague medieval Europe that Disney calls on for its western adaptations. The costumes, hair and makeup are all spectacularly rich and vibrant as is the production design employed to shape the city of Agrabah. Having said that, maintaining the bright and colourful quasi-cartoony tone does leave a lot of the movie feeling a little too polished, failing to give that realistic lived-in quality.

Another key factor of this release is the musical set-pieces. It is extremely difficult to grade the songs because they are a rehash of what has come before (and arguably some of Disney’s finest tracks) and while the new entries are perfectly serviceable, they are competing against decades of nostalgia and familiarity, coming off a bit Eurovision-y at times. That being said, Alan Menken has returned to build a charming mix of older methods and modern flare that gives the score a nice rounded presence. But sticking with the songs for a moment, we have to address how they are presented visually. Ritchie’s direction has always been a bit of a mixed bag, veering from incredibly creative and innovative shots to generic repackaged tropes. This comes out most notably during the musical numbers where some of the lines are delivered seemingly to no one or without impact. As silly and potentially petty as this example may sound let’s take an example. During the One Jump Ahead number, Aladdin turns and sings, “let’s not be too hasty’ while ascending a flight of stairs. In the animated version, he is surrounded by guards and backed into a corner, whereas in this live-action version it doesn’t become immediately apparent that he hasn’t got away and is still being pursued; the villains are off-screen and he’s kinda warbling to no one in particular. Small things like this really impact how well these musical interludes are incorporated into the story. Having said that, the execution and choreography for many of the standalone dance sequences are very impressive and pleasingly handled.

Really there are only three performances to talk about: Jasmine, Genie and Jafar. Giving Jasmine actual agency reflects contemporary sensibilities, in the same way that the 90s animated Jasmine was very outspoken and reflected the social progression of that specific era. I feel Scott is a very capable actress and enjoyed her in the underrated Power Rangers, she is also giving one of the best all-round performances in this story. She is earnest, driven, empathetic and intelligent, while also displaying that young naivety that allows the audience to connect with her. On the other end of the spectrum, the Genie is larger than life and sits somewhat outside of the more grounded realism of the human characters. Will Smith is as charismatic and charming as he always is and makes this role very much his own; not the manic-paced, impression-quipping ball of energy that Robin Williams was, nor the big, bombastic, drag-inspired, fourth-wall breaking performance that the Broadway/West End musical cultivated but a pleasing middle ground that very much plays to his strengths. Which brings us to Jafar – easily the weakest thing about this movie. The performance would have been arguably fine if it weren’t for the range of hissing, shrieking, growling and arrogant tones that Jonathan Freeman gave us. Giving us a glimpse of Jafar’s past, that he has worked his way up from the slums to the highest position outside of inherited nobility, is nice but criminally underused. Alan Tudyk helps elevate the vizier’s persona with a subtly malicious Iago that is very different from Gilbert Gottfried’s pitch and intensity but a solid companion for this more subdued Jafar

The opportunity was here to create something bigger, more ambitious and more spellbinding but a lot of the time, what we end up with feels inferior to a nearly thirty year old cartoon (without sounding too diminutive). Just as a brief example, at the close of the animated movie, Aladdin is almost crushed by a giant rolling tower in a frozen tundra, Jafar transforms into an enormous serpent, Jasmine is trapped in an hourglass filling with sand and the stakes feel important and lasting. All this film really shows us is a few guards being arrested, a parrot morphing into a sort-of-roc and principal characters being raised off the ground in a very loosely defined glowing energy field. And that is the ultimate problem with this feature, lack of mind-blowing, awe-inspiring vision. There is such a wealth of mythological and cultural influence to draw on but Aladdin failed to capitalise on any of it, choosing to comfortably recreate the beats of the original but without ever really escaping its shadow.


Release Date:
24th May 2019

The Scene To Look Out For:
I’m a sucker for the opening song Arabian Nights. I genuinely love it and the elegant, exotic tones resonate for me and genuinely set the mood in the same way that Maurice Jarre’s Lawrence Of Arabia score immediately captivates the imagination and transports you to a different land. It is a wonderful example of music constructing an environment before one is ever truly seen. This variant, however, is not without its flaws; not because of the song itself but because of what we are being shown at the same time. This sequence is used here to establish so much, under the distinct impression that you are already more than familiar with the original animated film. Subsequently, this devolves into a rush job that demonstrates some of the scale of this locale but not enough of the wonder and mystery to it all. If anything, the film’s opening sets the scene for everything else that follows.

Notable Characters:
I enjoyed that the Sultan [Negahban] is less of a simpering, doddering old man, as he was in 1992. Instead he is simply an over-protective father with the best intentions for his daughter. It also helps to reiterate Jasmine’s relatable frustrations rather than convincing an audience to accept the will and authority of a bit of a man-child.

Highlighted Quote:
“Steal an apple and you’re a thief. Steal a kingdom and you’re a statesman”

In A Few Words:
“A very middle of the road, mixed bag recreation that never truly justifies its own existence”

Total Score:

3/5

POKÉMON: DETECTIVE PIKACHU

It’s Time For A World Class Detective

Director
Rob Letterman

Starring
Justice Smith
Kathryn Newton
Bill Nighy
Ryan Reynolds



Set in a world where Pokemon and humans co-exist, we are introduced to Tim Goodman [Smith], a young insurance salesman who turned his back on the world of Pokemon due to the death of his mother and absence of his father, Harry – a detective working in the sprawling metropolis of Ryme City. Tim’s fairly mundane existence is disrupted when he learns that his father has died during an investigation. Tim heads to Ryme City to collect the personal effects of his estranged father but is drawn into the investigation when he meets Lucy Stevens [Newton], a click-bait-columnist who dreams of investigative journalism and a Pikachu in a deerstalker who Tim can understand verbatim.

The first thing to acknowledge is that while this movie generates a fair amount of lore (and rather interestingly seems to tie-in with the original animated series canon) it doesn’t devote a great deal of time to dryly expositing about what Pokemon are. Subsequently, those familiar with the property will get significantly more out of the film than those who are newly initiated but there is still plenty of charm and abounding cuteness for the casual viewer. A lot of this comes down to the fact that this movie is relatively a straightforward fun romp that revels in the playground it is afforded. More than that, Pokemon: Detective Pikachu captures that same magic present in the various games of world-building, creating something an audience would want to belong to – akin to franchises like Star Wars and Harry Potter, etc – and starts conversations among fans about what Pokemon would be their companion, what job they would like to do in this universe, which Pokemon they would like to see represented in future instalments. Admittedly, this level of fanaticism has always been present and has eked out further into the public consciousness over the last twenty years through games, shows and recently the mobile app, Pokemon Go but the leap into multi-million dollar filmmaking has the power to not only invigorate the established fan base but to cast a wider net of support and interest in the property. So even before we discuss the merits of the film itself, it’s already done its job acting as one big advert for the licence.

Leaving the branding talk for a moment, this is a very technically sound feature. The initial reaction was mixed but unsurprising, owing to the attempt to make photo-realistic incarnations of fictional creatures. One of the smartest moves by the production team was shooting on film and utilising a combination of puppetry and CGI to create something eerily realistic; replicating the methods of the first Jurassic Park film. All the detailed, layered and bustling shots illustrate that clear care, attention and respect for the source material has been taken but when we are introduced to a creature outside of the central cast, there can be a significant dose of uncanny-valley wavering that spoils the illusion. An example of this would be the colossal Torterra set-piece which starts on a mind-blowing scale before resolving itself extremely quickly and proves the entire sequence was little more than an excuse for CGI action without actual consequence. In addition to the visuals, the audio work performs admirably, the sound design and mixing are pleasant and Henry Jackman’s score being a mix of video game inspired themes and genre-expected orchestral tones offers a welcome balance.

Detective Pikachu walks a fine line between trying to be dark, gritty and grounded at the same time as fun, light, colourful and cartoony; a dichotomy that will conjure a lot of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? parallels for older viewers. In an essence, the film simultaneously treats the content seriously but is aware that kids are the primary demographic so avoids taking itself too seriously and this is a key difference. The film never condescends or talks down to its target audience; there is a distinct absence of dance numbers and pop culture references (excluding the central conceit) and feels more like an 80s/90s family feature than the post-Shrek formula we have seen repeated ad nauseam. This level of pseudo-maturity has allowed the writers to slip in some references to contemporary issues of equality, feminism, integrity of news and the environment, which in of itself is fantastic, but as they are delivered wholly without subtlety, the messages feel a little stunted and disposable; much like the 80s cartoon sign-offs instructing children to avoid the perils of drugs. As a counterpoint, despite the various progressive messages, the story heavily relies on the tired trope of a disabled villain, which is a tragic and easily avoidable misstep.

Keeping the narrative character-focused, the usual Pokemon Trainer trekking through the landscape, finding various creatures before entering a tournament story and, subsequently, a larger scale is missing but this probably helped make the film more palatable for newly initiated. At the same time, the movie attempts to sample this in the underground fight club scene and hoping for a positive reaction to this, will likely build on it in future (especially as it has been at the forefront of a significant portion of the marketing). One aspect I have avoided discussing up until this point is the characters and that is because they are fairly simple and frankly dumb. Far from stilted, the performances aren’t as terrible as some would make out but they are certainly one of the weakest elements. Tim’s story is very vanilla and Smith’s portrayal of him is just as flat as his character in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. Kathryn Newton as plucky up-and-coming reporter Lucy Stevens is much more interesting and feels very much like a video game NPC brought to life but as much as she displays a degree of skill and competence in her role, the plot does tend to unfold for the leads quite conveniently and without any lasting ramifications. But again, this is something present in films like ET, The Goonies and Flight Of The Navigator and clearly something being heavily emulated for nostalgia purposes, relying on a combination of charm, nostalgia and fantasy to see you through to the close.

**spoilers abound throughout this paragraph**
As much as I enjoyed this film, it has a plethora of problems, most notably the entire third act which is horribly cliché and uneven. The big reveal that Howard is actually the central antagonist was obvious very early on, as was the method of defeating him, thanks to some uninspired dialogue from Howard himself stating that he can transfer his consciousness to Mewtwo while leaving his body vulnerable and unguarded. It’s the kind of quick fix that is remarkably lazy and has no place in modern cinema for an audience of any age. And this simplicity is a truly double-edged sword, allowing for a light approachable fun feature but generating huge plot holes and stale exchanges. The aforementioned charm cannot supplant this insufficient depth, leading to a rather flat but strangely satisfying conclusion despite the heavily signposted twists. What’s more, the ending seemingly shuts out a direct copy and paste sequel by establishing that the status quo would not remain. I found this a genuinely interesting move and one that could highlight the potential future direction the studio could take the franchise in.

The bar for video game adaptations has been incredibly low and while Detective Pikachu makes many of the same mistakes committed by every other attempt (incorporating the flaws from the source material and alienating newcomers) it somehow manages to come out standing, having earned enough respect from all swathes of demographics to warrant returning to this property but owing to how the film ends, it will be interesting to see if we will see a genre-shift or if this magic can even be captured for a second time.


Release Date:
10th May 2019

The Scene To Look Out For:
I’m going to briefly highlight the Mr Mime scene for two simple reasons. Firstly Mr Mime was the source of a lot of flak in the trailers due to the outrage about the Pokemon skin textures. When finally watching this on a big screen, any fears or concerns I had were allayed; sure it’s a little unsettling and weird but it’s a four foot mime creature, nothing about it is conventional. Secondly, part of the film walking that line between cute and dark is in this scene. Tim and Pikachu interrogate Mr Mime for information and a handful of mime gags ensue, mostly telling our heroes to get lost. But then things take a weird turn when Tim mimes dowsing the creature in gasoline and lighting several matches. Especially as the joke ends with, what I can only assume, is a dead Mr Mime, whose belief in the improv sends him into a psychosomatic cardiac arrest.

Notable Characters:
This is a little tricky as I nobody stood out as decidedly impressive or an impediment to the film as a whole; there were definite areas for improvement but nothing ruined the experience. I felt Ken Watanabe was criminally underused and Nighy was limited by his chair but the biggest head-scratch is Ryan Reynolds. He is absolutely serviceable as Pikachu and by the end of the film, it’s very clear why he was chosen but I still don’t think there was anything specific about Reynolds’ performance that was unique to him and, as much as I want to resist writing this, ultimately felt like a studio/producer’s note about the success of Deadpool.

Highlighted Quote:
“It’s not news if it can’t be verified”

In A Few Words:
“An upbeat, energetic and competent adaptation that understands its core audience while providing enough light-hearted entertainment for the uninitiated”

Total Score:

3/5

BOOKSMART

Getting Straight A’s. Giving Zero F’s.

Director
Olivia Wilde

Starring
Kaitlyn Dever
Beanie Feldstein



The day before their high school graduation, Amy [Dever] and Molly [Feldstein] learn that all their dedication and hard work, which has given them reputations as pretentious and aloof, has been in vain as their fellow students have also gotten into ivy league universities despite outwardly partying, slacking off in class and showing little interest in further education. This sparks a crisis for Molly who feels they have wasted their time and abandons their pre-determined evening celebrations to attend a popular jock’s house party and live as stereotypical teenagers.

When it comes to analysing comedies, the writing and performances are (understandably) at the forefront of reviews and opinions. One thing that is often overlooked is the technical acumen on display and Booksmart is a prime example because while it merits a significant amount of praise for its creative elements, the sound design, camera work, editing and direction are all magnificently vibrant, energetic and captivating. More than that, Wilde has managed to create a time capsule release, akin to the works of John Hughes, steeped in the politics and social landscapes/pressures facing the youth of 2019 while retaining a timeless relatability for older audience members.

Over the last decade, many films have tried to imitate the energy and zeal of Superbad, setting two high school best friends on a final hurrah odyssey that tests their relationship but ultimately strengthens it with the assurance that even though they may change, these moments will be with them forever. Almost all of these imitators have fallen flat, conveying little more than the shock factor without any actual impactful or lasting weight. Present in this feature is the perfect combination of outrageous teenage comedic antics and a rather mature emotional core that resonates throughout. At the same time, Booksmart also subtly subverts several genre expectations and feels fresh due to the perspective shift. In truth, society, reflected through cinema, has always given young males a free pass; the content of Stand By Me would be difficult to imagine with an all-female cast solely due to the difference in coming-of-age experiences between genders – or so we would be lead to believe. Of course a film like Stand By Me could be written with an all-female cast, the only difference would be a wealth of additions that would need to be included to illustrate the increased pressure that young women face. A simple example of this is when Amy and Molly are trying to ascertain the location of Nick’s party and realise that a local pizza parlour has completed a large delivery and would likely know the whereabouts. Fashioning their hair into makeshift masks, they break into the back of the pizza delivery man’s car and make their demands. Immediately, he gives a wake-up call by explaining that they have willingly entered a stranger’s car, unarmed (while he has a gun), and he could easily drive them onto the interstate and abduct them with little resistance. As they get the information and depart the car, he calls over his shoulder “Don’t trust people! Oh my god!” It’s such a simple interaction but one that highlights things would almost never be considered in a male-led feature. If we take Superbad, for example, Seth and Evan’s lives are in jeopardy so frequently but we rarely worry about it because they’re male and we assume nothing too awful will happen, whereas the reality for young women is different – as obvious as that may sound.

At the centre of this movie is the duo of Dever and Feldstein that are a magnificent find; the timing and chemistry are genuinely astounding, feeling both sincere and free from superficiality. On top of the whip-smart dialogue present in the script, the delivery and physical comedy display a confidence and capability which shows promise that these actors will go on to have very successful careers. I would also add that so many of the characters and situations are extraordinarily relatable on so many levels. From the students who have worked hard only to discover that others appear to be coasting by, the further revelation that everyone is dealing with their own insecurities and issues and that the adults barely have their own lives figured out. The principal moonlighting as a Lyft driver is a standard commentary on underpaid teaching positions but Amy and Molly’s favourite teacher stating that she felt she didn’t experience enough radical, life-changing things as a teenager so went off-the-rails by over-compensating in her 20s and regretted so much of it, cut wonderfully deep for me. Another stellar move is taking the key lesson from the conclusion of Mean Girls, illustrating these kids not necessarily turning on one another but generating unusual alliances due to the common ground of adolescent tribulations. More so than that, this film manages to recreate the warzone of high school without including intentionally malicious individuals; the worst we get is highly opinionated, self-absorbed kids who are trying to figure out who they are – which is one of the most accurate representations of teenage life. The film is not without antagonistic individuals but this villainless high school film is an art-form and a welcome treat.

In spite of all the above gushing, the film isn’t perfect. The events depicted provoke little fallout and follows the same path as most teen comedies, even a character getting arrested is given a rather fantastical resolution, enforcing the movie’s overall consequence-free, feel good tone. What’s more, aside from the female and LGBT perspective, the actual plot doesn’t really offer anything new. The standard archetypal characters are present, the only difference is that the bully/villain angle is played down or explained. But if I’m honest, this could be said of most genre pieces; you don’t need to reinvent pasta for a good pasta dish, you just need the right accoutrements.


Release Date:
24th May 2019

The Scene To Look Out For:
There are plenty of fantastic scenes to highlight but the opening five minutes are spectacular. Molly sits cross-legged on her bedroom floor, listening to a motivational tape, reinforcing the notion that she is truly better than others because she is giving 110%. Amy then picks her up and they spend an excessive amount of time dancing outside Molly’s house. It’s honestly fantastic and indicated to me, so very early on, that this film was going to be noteworthy.

Notable Characters:
Gigi (played by Billie Lourd) is a strange medley. On the one hand, she represents the classic stoner character who seemingly appears wherever the plot requires her, connected to everyone and blessed with insight; essentially an otherworldly spirit guide. On the other hand, she’s also a spoilt rich girl in desperate need for validation and attention. Again, two archetypes that don’t often gel but Lourd brings this wealthy insecure oddball to life superbly.

Highlighted Quote:
“Excuse me madam, are you judging people’s sexual preferences? Because you fuck a panda every night”

In A Few Words:
“Sharp, witty and endearing, Booksmart deserves to become a classic”

Total Score:

4/5

AVENGERS: ENDGAME

Directors
Anthony Russo
Joe Russo

Starring
Chris Evans
Robert Downey Jr
Chris Hemsworth
Scarlett Johansson
Mark Ruffalo
Jeremy Renner
Josh Brolin



**I would have thought this obvious but literally everything about this review is a spoiler and as such, this review is primarily for those who have already seen the movie**

After the events of Avengers: Infinity War, Tony Stark [Downey Jr] and Nebula [Karen Gillen] are adrift in space but rescued by Captain Marvel [Brie Larson] and brought back to Earth. There, the surviving Avengers locate a signal on a distant planet and discover that Thanos is alone, having used the infinity stones again to destroy the infinity stones. With their plan to simply reverse the effect of the gauntlet ruined, Thor [Hemsworth], lashes out and beheads the Titan. The story then jumps ahead five years and illustrates mankind’s efforts to move on in the wake of the loss of half of all life. The Avengers are dispatched both globally and galactically to act as an unofficial police force. Through random circumstance, Scott Lang [Paul Rudd], whom everyone thought dead, is released from the quantum realm and introduces the idea that quantum physics can be deployed to navigate time and undo Thanos’ actions. Thus a grand scheme is hatched to travel back in time and recover all of the infinity stones to reverse the damage wrought upon the universe.

One of the first things that needs to be addressed is that Endgame has the unenviable task of being a second instalment. More than that, it is the follow-up to a film that got to step away from the standard formula, break the rules and leave its audience hanging in a state of uncertainty. This film had to not only course correct back to the expected but do it in a manner that felt somehow satisfying to the majority of viewers without feeling like a complete retcon. In truth, this movie could never live up to everyone’s expectations, the best it could do was deliver something simultaneously nostalgic, subversive and bombastic – which I believe it did stunningly. Having said that, that statement comes with a lot of caveats.

From the trailers alone, the notion of a time skip and time travel were somehow inevitable and despite what could be construed as a fairly slow-burn first hour, it felt like no time was wasted getting straight to these conceits. But as I said, there was an inevitability to the regressive, self-exploratory nature and a weight of legacy to this feature despite the fact that, ultimately, very little actually happens (I will contradict this exact point later but I stand by it). Oddly enough, both Avengers and Infinity War did the same thing; while achieving something hitherto unimaginable, the core narrative developments were relatively straightforward and could be broken down into a handful of key plot points. But introducing something like time travel to a universe creates a lot of headaches for a standalone tale let alone the direction of a franchise as the question will continually arise: why don’t they just use time travel to fix this new problem? On top fo that, Endgame also sets up its own rules for time travel and then seemingly breaks them – a cardinal sin of story-telling. Certain outcomes are not possible through time travel, others ostensibly are and the only overriding sense of which prevails is dictated by which is more convenient for the plot at that moment in time. Having said that, I would stand by my tried and tested adage that we don’t care that Terminator 2 can’t work because it’s so very, very entertaining and Endgame is no different.

Something that may not be apparent upon first viewing is how well Marvel have balanced character development with spectacle; despite being something they repeatedly exercise in their features. If we take Tony Stark, for example, the catalyst that drives his arc is choosing to potentially lose the peace he has found in defeat or live with the guilt of simply not trying to rectify his failings. What it is to be a hero, what it is to be a father, many of these things may be initially lost on an audience but the script is smart enough to condense it down into three or four lines that will really resonate with fans: “I love you 3000” “I am Iron Man” and “You can rest now Tony.” That’s it. His whole arc in this movie. This is what I stand to lose, this is my choice, this is my destiny. Which is a logic that can be applied to the six central Avengers and the truth is that so many of the core characters have these deeply personal moments but a few may become initially lost in the first viewing. Things like Black Widow’s [Johansson] death, for another example, may feel rushed over, solely because the narrative urgency dictates the pacing. But when we think about Natasha’s role as “the man on the wall” (as Fury once said in the comics), her attempts to bring Clint back into the fold, her sacrifice and finally her almost secondary funeral with only Barton and Wanda in attendance, it says a lot to the nature of her presence on the team as a spy who keeps everyone at arm’s length. Each of the OG members of the Avengers team transitions from individually-motivated hero to saviour, willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for the good of humanity. In other words, the film achieves wondrous things with character development and catharsis but by offering so much of it, the nuance is lost, like eating spoonfuls of assorted herbs and spices without a main dish – sure I can kind of taste them all but it’s frankly overwhelming and difficult to appreciate.

If we put the old guard to one side for a second, we end up with the Captain Marvel problem. Carol Danvers is extremely overpowered and is absent for almost the entire film. Sure, it’s explained fairly, highlighting that the Earth isn’t the centre of the universe but she was not only massively under-utilised but also a bit devoid of the personality cultivated in her standalone feature (but I think this is probably down to the filming schedule – I wouldn’t be surprised if her scenes here were shot before anything on Captain Marvel). By devoting such a substantial amount of time to the original core group (as a milestone and a send off), new blood are left a little neglected and curiously, a little obsolete. I understand there will be plenty of time to explore them in greater detail in the coming years and the next 20+ Marvel films but this lack of screen time afforded to individual components felt like an imbalance.

It’s also worth noting that Endgame is a brilliant technical achievement. The amount of exciting and competent visual effects is staggering and the level of production design and recreation involved in revisiting old sets during the time travel sequences is impressive. I still feel one of the standout accomplishments is the level of emotion, physicality and weight of presence behind the motion capture of Josh Brolin as Thanos. Interestingly, with so many periods and settings visited, Alan Silvestri is given quite a lot to play with. He works in the major character themes and instrumentation as well as the dour funereal tones we experienced in Infinity War but also gives us a taste of some levity with the jazz-infused heist music, especially when breaking into the SHIELD facility in 1970. But for every soaring motif, there is a slew of admittedly generic ambient tones that fit the visuals but are far from memorable, averaging out to a functional but fairly uninspired score.

Incidentally, as a rather odd comparison, YouTube board game enthusiasts, Shut Up And Sit Down, reviewed one of the largest, most expansive and indulgent board games (Twilight Imperium: Fourth Edition) by stating for all of its merits and all their love of it, it is incredibly stupid. That’s how I feel about Endgame. I am, at this point, a devotee to the MCU; I’m here for release-day screenings and the next decade of stories. I think the whole franchise is a wonder and even when it is misfiring, it’s performing spectacularly. Its interconnectivity and episodic nature is as much a pro as it is a con, the possibilities are vast and the accomplishments to date, undeniable. But if I take a step back from that love, I can quite happily admit that this 22 part saga is a bloated, calculable mound of fatuity and pretension. Yet this is, first and foremost, a celebration; a cavalcade of fan-service. It is as emotional as you are invested. If you are fairly indifferent, you’re not going to suddenly care any more now but if you have an ounce of dedication or investment in this sprawling story or its legion cast, you can’t help but get sucked into the mad glory of its soap opera tropes. The three hours passes reasonably and then we enter into a bit of a Return Of The King multiple endings situation that is more a passing of the torch than an all-out conclusion. Which is probably because Endgame is somehow bigger than a single narrative, it’s a chapter of a larger entity – subsequently it will leave a bitter taste in some viewer’s mouths but the actualisation of the feat remains. It didn’t do what everyone wanted but it did what it was supposed to. It drew a line and allowed this steamrolling behemoth to rest on its laurels for just a moment and proudly announce, “Like it or not, we have done the impossible. And we will do it again. And again.”


Release Date:
25th April 2019

The Scene To Look Out For:
During the colossal final showdown between Thanos’ vast army and Earth’s finest, there is a moment when an ensemble of female heroes mount an all-out assault. It makes no sense in a sense of battle logistics but who honestly gives a shit? My wife felt this was a bit forced but it’s about time images like this are forced onto our screen. The fact that the audience could tell the film was making a point to gather its female combatants into a single melee is testament to its importance, specifically we shouldn’t notice, it should be the norm by now and we’re still far from it. And if this is the direction Marvel is taking blockbusters, more power to them. As a second highlighted scene, during the credits time is given to the key players of the entire franchise and there is a genuine rising in one’s chest as Endgame pulls a Star Trek: VI – The Undiscovered Country with the actors silhouettes and signatures acknowledging the significance this cast and these movies have had on the industry.

Notable Characters:
The evolution of Thor from dour to pure comedic relief has been an interesting one. When looking back on Thor’s best moments, people tend to highlight the fish-out-of-water mirth or giddy irreverence, yet the shift in personality was one of the main complaints made about Thor: Ragnarok. I feel the representation of Thor will be a very divisive one here too but for a plethora of reasons. In Iron Man 3, Stark is racked with PTSD at the prospect of his own insignificance and the mounting intergalactic forces that could threaten the Earth. It’s given a very serious treatment and shines a light on mental health. It also appears briefly again when Stark returns to Earth and has genuine difficulty coping with his brushes with death and the monumental inability to prevent the worst from happening. When travelling back to the events of Thor: The Dark World (with some painfully shoe-horned leftover Natalie Portman footage) Thor experiences the same thing and sinks into denial, depression and insecurity but the difference is, it’s played for comedy. Something about it didn’t feel entirely right, especially as the last meaningful interaction between Rocket and Thor was in Infinity War with Thor putting on a brave face and Hemsworth giving a surprisingly impressive and emotive performance. As stated, Thor may be one of the more divisive components, with some loving the performance and others hating it but the fact he’s (probably) being tied into a future Guardians Of The Galaxy release is a work of pure genius.

Highlighted Quote:
“It’s time travel.. either all of it is a joke or none of it is”

In A Few Words:
“A magnificent abundance of movie that stumbles only under the weight of its own excess”

Total Score:

4/5

HELLBOY

Legendary AF

Director
Neil Marshall

Starring
David Harbour
Milla Jovovich
Ian McShane



The film opens by introducing us to dark sorceress Nimue [Jovovich] who unleashes a plague on England until she is eviscerated by King Arthur and her body buried across the land. The story then jumps ahead to the present day and we meet Hellboy [Harbour], a powerful, cynical, red demon hybrid named Anung Un Rama who files down his horns to better fit in with humanity. And this is where the synopsis gets tricky. From here we flit about between the BPRD (an agency keeping paranormal threats at bay), the secretive Osiris Club hunting giants, a man-pig-fairy searching for Nimue’s body parts, a medium who has a history with Hellboy and M11 agent Ben Daimio [Daniel Dae Kim] who is concealing a terrible secret… which is hardly hidden considering it’s used in all the trailers and from his scarring and constant serum injections alone, is apparent he has some sort of transformative power; but I digress. Hellboy receives instruction from his adoptive father, Professor Bruttenholm [McShane], that if Nimue is to rise again, it would mean the end of the world and only Hellboy can avert such a fate.

The existence of Del Toro’s< a href="http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0167190">Hellboy films is a major issue for this movie. As with all reboots, one assumes that from a pre-production perspective, discussions must have been had about how to approach the story considering the cinematic and published versions are well known to the key demographic but a non-entity to cinema audiences at large. The conclusion they reached was for the plot to gloss over many origin aspects, making the assumption that you are either familiar with what came before or as an attempt to capture that episodic vignette structure of the comics but either way, it leaves the pacing and character arcs feeling disjointed and erratic.

The whole thing has an air of The Mummy remake to it; taking a fan-favourite series, stripping all the fun out of it, adding a darker tone, utilising a very generic attack on London and ultimately producing something that fails to please critics or audiences. As with The Mummy (and the whole misfiring of Universal’s premature Dark Universe), Hellboy feels like the studio’s fingerprints are deeply impressed into every facet. The pacing is terrible, causing the narrative to race and rush along manically, the action is edited to an amazingly sloppy degree and the CGI is extremely ropey at times, ranging from atmospheric (like Baba Yaga’s chicken-legged house stepping out of the fog) to laughably bad (without spoiling too much, a mucusy spectral vision of a dead character at the end of the film). I also felt the song cues were badly selected and while Benjamin Wallfisch is a very adroit composer, capable of creating wonderfully creepy mood-setting pieces (A Cure For Wellness comes to mind), the thematic stings felt intrusive and unnecessarily bombastic. Which is actually a pretty good comparative metric for the entire creative process this film undertook; overly aggressive in its execution of the “r-rated” toy box contents, deploying lazy uses of swearing, gore, violence and a handful of other sophomoric tropes – all of which you become desensitised to quite quickly. All of which is made more baffling when you take into account that Neil Marshall is far from a bad director, producing two genuinely great films in Dog Soldiers and The Descent.

With the technical aspects being so irregular, it’s almost impressive that the only constant from start to finish is how poor the script work is, bordering on insultingly dumb. The core elements of what make a Hellboy story are there, rich folk-lore inspirations, conspiracies, demons, secret societies and ancient orders but they are largely present in name only and heavily weighed down by a mire of clean, sometimes nonsensical resolutions and humour that misses the mark seemingly every time. Evident from the first teaser trailer, the dialogue is painful and ill-fitting for the casting choices made. Harbour is relegated to tired, hammy jokes and awkward quips, Jovovich is assigned the unenviable to task of expositing with every scene, Dae Kim feels like he’s building to a tonal crescendo that never arrives and Stephen Graham is supposed to just swear constantly “Fuckin’ Hellboy! I fucking hate that fucker!” I have no problem with swearing but it loses meaning when utilised without gravitas or meaning. On top of that, Hellboy himself boils down to little more than a pawn and lacks a lot of agency, which I will be the first to admit, is something present in every iteration of the character but the execution is usually so charming and convincing that we not only accept this flaw but embrace it as an inherent personality quirk. Dialogue and interactions aside, there’s also the driving force of the plot and the feeble developments and coincidences that push the plot clumsily from one point to another. At no point did I feel an actual sense of tension or urgency because some last-minute quick fix would present itself. The standard plot development of placing a long-sought McGuffin under the lead’s nose the whole time can be applied cleverly but when boons are haphazardly slapped directly in the hero’s path, it becomes evident that little time, attention or thought has gone into constructing a discerning or coherent tale.

There are a handful of positive elements that genuinely save this release from being a miserable wreck. First up we have the entire Baba Yaga scene, which is atmospheric, a nice hybrid of practical and digital effects, is both creepy and surreally funny, as well as fitting the source material and folk lore. This scene also acts as a reminder that the production design, sets, props and costume work are all very impressive and commendable, inheriting a lot of the elements that acted as the backbone for the (visual) success of the other Hellboy films. In terms of performances, we also have a handful that somehow shine a little despite what they’ve been given (like Dwayne Johnson in mediocre action films). Specifically, Harbour and Jovovich are easily the best things about this movie, with Harbour proving himself a fantastic choice to take the torch from Ron Perlman and Jovovich wading through the dense dialogue to conjure a threatening and believable villain. Then we have Ian McShane who barks and growls his way through every scene and does a terrific job of it but remains a terrible fit for Bruttenholm.

With extensive interference, lack of clear vision and given less less money than the 2004 film, it’s evident that this movie never had much of a chance. More than that, it highlights that to take a project like this forward, you need an exceptional amount of love for the components that make up the source material and the trust of the studio to create a unique vision without obstruction or burden. But as this film will no doubt fail hideously, I can’t see this property being resurrected any time soon.


Release Date:
12th April 2019

The Scene To Look Out For:
The finale is terribly anticlimactic. Nimue summons colossal ancient monsters to run rampant through London but Hellboy commits one simple act and they disappear as quickly as they arrived. I will happily admit that is also the plot of the 2004 Hellboy film but it had the good sense to still give us a stowaway that broke through that prompted a pleasing final showdown. This film does not. Giant beings appear, gratuitous violence ensues and then they are gone, all within a ten minute window. It’s a combination of lack of fiscal support, the aforementioned dull writing and the marketing campaign giving everything away in the trailers.

Notable Characters:
Thomas Haden Church makes a brief appearance as BPRD regular, Lobster Johnson; a pulpy ridiculous throwback to classic comic characters. There isn’t a great deal to the performance but his presence in a flashback is one that reminds us of the fun, zany world Mike Mignola created and what this film could have easily been.

Highlighted Quote:
“They have replaced swords with singing competitions”

In A Few Words:
“A shocking misfire that is “saved” solely due to the hard work of the practical effects and production design teams”

Total Score:

1/5

DUMBO

Let Your Imagination Soar

Director
Tim Burton

Starring
Colin Farrell
Nico Parker
Danny DeVito
Michael Keaton
Eva Green



Set shortly after the events of World War I, circus cowboy Holt Farrier [Farrell] returns home to find his wife has died of Spanish flu and the circus on hard times. What’s more, he has lost an arm fighting for his country and can no longer perform to the same level. Worried for the wellbeing of his son Joe [Finley Hobbins] and daughter [Parker], Holt takes whatever job he can get and is put in charge of the elephants by ringmaster Max Medici [DeVito]. After a short time, one of the newly acquired elephants gives birth to a large-eared elephant they name Baby Jumbo. Max is horrified by the freakish ears and is forced to get rid of the elephant’s mother when a show goes badly and the crowd mock the big-eared elephant which is then nicknamed Dumbo. Max is then approached by mogul V A Vandevere [Keaton] and his assistant Colette [Green] when it is discovered that Dumbo can use his wings to fly but while Vandevere claims he can save Max’s circus, he is seemingly solely interested in helping himself.

From the very get-go there is a clear sense that the film is trying so hard but the whole thing is very two dimensional. From the characters to the story itself, attempts seem to have been made to create something new that will reflect contemporary attitudes and sensibilities while capturing the magic of the original. What we end up with is a Dumbo in name only that doesn’t really know what to do with itself after cherry picking a very meagre selection of memorable key moments and padding the remainder with hollow fluff. To add extra frustration, several mixed messages are introduced that fail to resonate. The film breaks its back trying to highlight that Milly is both very creative and scientifically minded but when it comes to the emotional payoff toward the finale (wherein she realises both “the power was in her all along” and she will honour her mother’s memory by throwing away a prized possession passed from mother to daughter before her death) the message amalgamates a handful of clichéd platitudes, hoping the audience won’t notice anything off.

Of the parts salvaged (and others strongly and forcefully ejected – crows, I’m talking about the crows), Dumbo is very much intact. As a CGI creation, the giant-glassy-eyed elephant is incredibly cute and will reduce many audience members to tears. But for all the technical acumen that has gone into bringing this creature to life, there is a distinct lack of soul. Specifically, in the way Dumbo is treated. I appreciate we are being shown a different time and during a post-World War I era, there wasn’t an exceptional amount of mirth to go around but the fact this elephant calf is born with large ears being a point of ridicule makes next to no sense. I never understood the conceit in the cartoon and I don’t understand it here. It’s not as if only we enlightened, woke individuals are able to see past the brutal exterior and see the beauty inside; this is a purposefully created concoction of cuteness. Subsequently, the rather mature villain being fiscal responsibility and evolving social pressures, the film is reduced to using absurdly clichéd and laughably mean villains. Firstly we have Rufus the mean roustabout animal handler who is seemingly only working with animals to abuse them, only for him to be replaced by an even more absurd elephant-skin-boot wearing South African, who sneers and is simply itching for the opportunity to murder the eponymous character.

The “heroic” counterparts are a bit trickier to gauge. We have Holt’s kids and for the most part they are perfectly fine; brave, smart and kind, they are the typical model of how Disney live-action films expect children to be. Holt himself has the opportunity for more complexity and Farrell is extremely capable as a father who clearly loves his children but is adrift in life (he played that exact role rather pleasingly in Saving Mr Banks) but it doesn’t really go anywhere. I don’t know what the overall arc for the character was but he came off as a largely ineffective individual due to his timid nature. Again, this could quite easily be chalked up to PTSD, survivor’s guilt, adjusting to life out of the spotlight and with a disability but the film doesn’t really do enough with it to earn any of that. Eva Green is sort of similar, playing a bit of a hostage but we are never given a strong look into who she is or what brought her to this point, outside of a few throwaway lines of dialogue. That and her accentuating her natural French accent felt like Ewan McGregor in Beauty & The Beast. And finally we have Danny DeVito as ringmaster Max Medici, who redeems himself in the final act but only because he’s Danny DeVito and that man is charming as hell, because the character does very little from start to end that displays a shred of decency.

I must confess, I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with these live action remakes. As an artist I feel they are an act of stagnation, a slap in the face for older animation techniques and a blockage for new writers and new ideas. On the other hand, the execution of a great many of these releases has been extremely praiseworthy and I can’t help but enjoy them. Burton’s Alice In Wonderland didn’t impress me but it made one billion at the box office and signalled to Disney that this idea was a winner. So why wouldn’t Burton be a good choice for Dumbo? It’s got a sad lead, parenting issues, circus aesthetics and the potential for wonder and mayhem. The closest we get to the usual Burton flare is Dreamland itself, which transitions the film from flat period feature to bombastic recreation of colourful elements of Vincent, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and Big Fish. But this is only really during its introduction and outside of the main tent itself we don’t see a great deal of the attractions, rides and wonder that Burton could conjure up. Made worse for the fact that a great deal of the sets were constructed but muddied down with some truly nasty, blurry, hazy CGI. Maybe they were trying to emulate an old faded photograph, maybe they were trying to present the dizzying world of the circus, whatever the intention, it was lost and what we end up with is a visually disappointing setting, accompanied by a completely forgettable score with only hints of the original soundtrack.

In all honesty, Dumbo is a perfectly serviceable release. For anyone who hasn’t seen the original, it will probably entertain and sell a few stuffed elephant toys. But ultimately it suffers from the fact that nobody was asking for this. It may sound unnecessarily aggressive but Dumbo is no one’s favourite Disney film. Sure, you can enjoy it and have fond memories of watching its standout moments as a child but is it really your favourite Disney film? Unlikely. So other than money, why did anyone think this would be a success in the same year as Disney is releasing live-action adaptations of two of its biggest successes, Aladdin and The Lion King?


Release Date:
29th March 2019

The Scene To Look Out For:
A prime example of everything wrong with this film takes place in one scene (that I’m quietly confident they repeat). You may not know the name Michael Buffer but he has made a fortune on television, in movies and at live events for five words: let’s get ready to rumble. It’s his trademark and we are all very familiar with him and it. So during the Dreamland sequence, as Dumbo is to premiere his act, Buffer steps into the ring. As an announcer by trade, he’s actually rather well cast. Oddly, we see Buffer reflected in Dumbo’s eyes but using the same footage so clearly an afterthought as the visual doesn’t actually work properly. But, I give this a pass too. Then finally, he bellows to the crowd, “Let’s get ready for Dumbo.” And I was done. I sat in the dark cinema mouthing “what the absolute fuck!?” over and over.

Notable Characters:
**spoilers in this paragraph**
As upbeat as the ending is, Vandervere is right: the future of the travelling circus is a theme park. This is another fine example of the mixed messages the film gives. Milly is constantly looking to the future, wanting little to do with the circus, wanting to further the advancements of science and her exhibit isn’t very different from that set up in Dreamland (although the Dreamland one is painfully 50s and is just Burton revelling in the time period he favours the most). So for a film talking about going forward, adapting and belonging to something special, it’s odd that the conclusion takes everyone back to square one with a moderate rebranding that ignores the problems facing the circus in the first place. But to stick with Vandervere for a moment, sure he’s a shrewd businessman but comically so, rather than the dually charming and unpleasant Ray Kroc in The Founder or lavishly enthusiastic Barnum in The Greatest Showman, Vandervere is self-serving and thinking of what will work for his business. I’m not trying to defend the clearly unscrupulous villain but the only difference between him and Max is a modicum of remorse and that just makes the writing feel very cheap and rushed.

Highlighted Quote:
“Nobody wants to be alone”

In A Few Words:
“A wholly unremarkable and uninspired remake from a creator who is capable of so much more”

Total Score:

2/5

SHAZAM!

Just Say The Word

Director
David F Sandberg

Starring
Zachary Levi
Asher Angel
Mark Strong
Jack Dylan Grazer



In the mid-70s a young Thaddeus Sivana is summoned and tested by a wizard named Shazam [Djimon Hounsou], found unworthy of his power, Thaddeus is returned to his regular life and in trying to get back to prove himself, causes a car crash that nearly kills his father and brother. In the present day, the adult Thaddeus [Strong] has invested countless funds into gathering information on how to get back to the wizard’s lair with the help of information from fellow unwilling applicants. Finally making progress, Thaddeus confronts the ageing Shazam and unleashes the demonic seven deadly sins to wreak havoc on the earth. At the same time we are introduced to Billy Batson [Angel], an unruly orphan who is searching for his mother but is forced into a foster family. The family themselves are very welcoming but Billy, being a troubled teenager, has no intention of bonding or staying with them. One day after school, Billy is evading an altercation with some particularly sadistic bullies when he finds himself in Shazam’s presence. Desperate, the wizard has little choice but to imbue the young man with his powers, pushing him to his full physical potential whenever Billy speaks the name Shazam, transforming him into a caped adult superhero [Levi].

Before discussing this movie, we need to briefly take stock of the last two decades of superhero films, specifically those released by DC.. more specifically, we need to talk about the looming presence of Batman. Superman dominated most of the 20th century but Batman took the reins as DC’s most marketable film property from the late 80s onward. But Batman is very different from a lot of other DC properties for its dark and sombre tones. This came to a head in the late 90s when the colourful mess that was Batman & Robin hurt the brand and it wasn’t until Nolan’s gritty, grounded reboot, Batman Begins that people started having faith in these releases again. But starting with a Batman title dictated the course the company would take for years and characters like Superman, a beacon of hope, got the flat Superman Returns and the divisive Man Of Steel. WB/DC then doubled down on being the gritty superhero franchise to counter Marvel’s winning whimsical formula and somehow made a Justice League film that made less than their Superman solo film released four years prior. But with films like The Dark Knight being such a fan favourite, it became the standard by which everything that followed was measured against but for a Shazam feature, the only fair comparison is Richard Donner’s Superman and I believe that tonally and as a representation of the comic, this film is a more than worthy successor.

Not only is this feature simple and fun, it feels surprisingly effortless, as if it was always entirely possible for DC to “make a Marvel movie” – which it was, they just wanted to feel different. The first feature that comes to mind is Spider-Man: Homecoming, for the general vibe, mix of humour and action and representation of adolescent wish fulfilment that remembers one of its key demographics is kids. Sure, it may feel a little trite and rote but Shazam revels in what it means to be a hero, leading to some truly entertaining and funny sequences. Everything about this film seems to be a statement about stepping in a new direction – there’s even a child smashing Batman and Superman action figures together, only to witness Shazam fighting Thaddeus outside of his window and drops the iconic characters to the floor, engrossed in what is happening in front of him. The cinematography and production design are incredibly good, both leaning in to the lush colourful costume designs but also bringing the seven deadly sins to life as pretty monstrous creations that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Guillermo Del Toro feature. The threat is real, the horror is real, the magic is dangerous but throughout all of it, there is an overriding sense of mirth and revelry. Of course there are strong themes of family and responsibility but these quiet introspections and analyses of what a superhero is never get in the way of the initial contract between the audience and the storyteller: we are going to show you a superhero doing superhero things.

But a great deal of this success lands at the feet of the cast, who have astounding chemistry. Levi is a magnificent choice as Shazam, given plenty of opportunity to mess around and be remarkably silly, whereas Angel as the younger Billy brings a pleasant amount of heart and maturity to the character and his relatable teenage struggles. On top of that, the diverse cast of supports and extras is equally wonderful, with each of the Marvel family displaying their own distinct personalities and traits. Without the opening sequence adding an entitlement and semi-sympathetic motivation, Mark Strong’s antagonist would be a touch two dimensional but I think there’s just enough there to make him interesting and compelling as a villain riddled with arrogance, entitlement borne of a sense of injustice. Without spoiling the end of the film, I have extremely high hopes for where this cast could go and what is possible.

I will happily admit that I have something of a bias toward this character. I have always felt that the big red cheese was a DC character that felt neglected when it came to reboots and adaptations. All the powers of Superman with all the wise-assery of Spider-Man, it’s a winning combination. But, as with the comics, the stories presented have often been a little flat and while I enjoy this origin tale, it doesn’t do a great deal to forge new ground or territory. One of its few defining traits is the use of Billy’s family but even with this, it still tells a rather predictable, humdrum story. I would also add that one of the areas where DC films excel is the musical scores, crafting stellar and memorable themes but Benjamin Wallfisch doesn’t really hit the right stride, producing something a little forgettable with a big triumphant theme but one that doesn’t really stick with you. Which is genuinely baffling as his work on films like A Cure For Wellness, Blade Runner 2049 and Hidden Figures were extremely impressive.

This film won’t be for everyone. It makes multiple points about wanting to turn a page on the last ten years of bleak, desaturated features and nowhere is that more present than the end credit sequence which is silly, cartoony and reminds us that this film wants to have fun with these heroes, like a kid with access to one of the biggest toy boxes. In a way, Shazam achieves the same progress that Bumblebee made, aware of the limitations and criticisms laid at the feet of its predecessors and tries to counter with something clearly shot, nicely written and well-acted, while still following the exact same formula we have come to expect. And I for one would very much like to see more.


Release Date:
5th April 2019

The Scene To Look Out For:
As weird as this may sound, the first thing that leapt to mind when highlighting one standout scene was Billy and Freddy skiving off school. As they try and sneak out they are stopped by a security guard who explains that unless a parent is physically present, they cannot go. At which point Billy sneaks off, transforms into Shazam and returns to claim the kids. The setup is simple but the delivery is what makes it really nice. Adult Billy rambles, saying, “Ah! Here I am to collect my child and other child that just left. You must be that security guard that everyone talks about and respects so much.” But before the compliment can be processed, Freddy magnificently undercuts with, “Nah, that’s the other guy. This one is a dick.” It was just.. really funny.

Notable Characters:
While the supports do a fine job, the symbiotic role of Billy/Shazam by Angel and Levi is too commendable to pass up. All the emotional weight is rested on a young actor who is clearly very capable and the silly indulgence is taken by Levi, who channels the immaturity in a very charismatic way. Having said that, Jack Dylan Grazer as Freddy interacts with both actors seamlessly and steals so many scenes that he can’t not get a mention.

Highlighted Quote:
“My brother I applaud your choice today. Gold shoes, white cape.. it shouldn’t work but it does!”

In A Few Words:
“Vibrant, upbeat and full of heart, Shazam is a welcome break from the recent spate of morose superhero outings”

Total Score:

5/5

US

Watch Yourself

Director
Jordan Peele

Starring
Lupita Nyong’o
Winston Duke
Shahadi Wright Joseph
Evan Alex



Us opens with a prologue sequence set in 1986, detailing Adelaide Wilson at a carnival with her parents before she wanders off and gets lost in a hall of mirrors attraction. Her experience is initially unclear but it left her traumatised. In the present day, an adult Adelaide [Nyong’o] (along with her husband Gabe [Duke] and kids Zora [Wright Joseph] and Jason [Alex]) are visiting her family’s beach house in Santa Cruz where the incident took place. Adelaide is apprehensive but tries to make an effort for her family. The evening of the first night, a family of doppelgangers assault the Wilsons.

As with, Get Out, the production design and aesthetic of this feature is pretty special. From the disarmingly simple and relatable presentation to the subtle use of mirrors, reflections, mimicry, twins and duplicated imagery to hit home the constant feeling of off-kilter symmetry. In addition, there is also a pleasant, novel use of the beach as an unsettling location – an open, wide and brightly lit area that is rather atypical for this genre (as previously/perfectly utilised in Jaws). Then we have the sound design, which is hitting all the genre standards with eerie ambience and jump scares galore but more than that, the use of language and communication is marvellous and the score is something else entirely. Michael Abels’ work on Get Out highlighted him as a very talented individual but his choral, percussive score accented with some truly haunting cello components is spellbinding. Description can’t do it justice but Pas De Deux (used in my highlighted scene) is frankly entrancing and should go down as one of the great cinematic horror scores.

On top of the visual and audial elements firing on all cylinders, the co-ordination of body doubles and visual effects is beautiful, ensuring that at no point do we question that there were doubles of the actors on screen. Furthermore, the unsettling performances themselves are wonderfully engrossing and transformative; an exceptional awareness of physicality and movement. The family gel magnificently, their menial daily complaints feel very real and the chemistry is marvellous. More than that, the performances as the tethered, the family’s alternates, addresses issues of entitlement and forced connectivity in an interesting way, through the whimsical exploration of the homes and lives of the surface-dwellers over the invaders.

**major spoilers throughout this paragraph**
For all its groundwork, without a clever or satisfying denouement Us wouldn’t work. More than that, it would become like War Of The Worlds which is made up of great scenes and praiseworthy performances but the entire feature is undercut by a rushed and disappointing finale (combination of the simplicity of HG Well’s ending for a modern audience and the utter lack of consequence). I believe Us succeeds brilliantly but only just. The alternate family turn up quite early in the story and it becomes apparent quite quickly that this story is going to unspool and escalate further than something like Halloween that only fully ramps up the tension in the final act. This reminded me of something like The Cabin In The Woods which evolves midway through beyond its initial premise. But that’s part of the problem because the logistics of the tethered is incredibly difficult to get your head around. We don’t need to know the specificities of what these creatures are but the extent and scale with which they are used (seemingly one for every American, simply living in underground facilities) poses so many questions. But the reason I feel this gets a pass is because it isn’t at all important. The experience outweighs the logic and while it may fall apart under any scrutiny or pressure, what horror film doesn’t? The truth is, the unique imagery sells this film and will ensure its longevity. The fact I have no idea how these beings can exist as exact semi-symbiotic replicas is an irrelevance when compared to the lasting imagery that will stick with me for years to come.

On a deeper level, this film also tries to juggle quite a lot of layered symbolism surrounding class, race, division, entitlement, vengeance, retribution, abuse, neglect and sins of the past. The majority of which is channelled well while others feel a little lost and underdeveloped but the analysis of the psychology of vengeance and how one can lose their humanity or how another can evolve to discover theirs is fantastic. Peele has proven himself quite deft with simple, straightforward concepts that cut to the root of you, which is why I genuinely feel he will continue to produce outstanding cinema but more importantly (on a bit of a tangent) that he is quite possibly the finest choice to helm the new The Twilight Zone series. As for his feature films, I think it would be genuinely difficult for him to make a bad one.


Release Date:
22nd March 2019

The Scene To Look Out For:
**spoilers**
One of the most standout sequences in this entire movie is a beautifully shot dance/fight sequence between Adelaide and her alternate. The cinematography, editing, choreography, editing and musical accompaniment all flow exceptionally well and following the immediate revelation of what the tethered are (or at least, what they are believed to be), it is a wonderful harmonising of sound and vision to create something engrossing and captivating.

Notable Characters:
There has never been any doubt that Lupita Nyong’o is an astonishingly talented actor. She has proved herself time and again and the dual roles she portrays in this feature merely confirm it. So much animosity, fear, hatred and dread are packed behind her eyes and the way she sits, moves and carries herself as both the characters of Adelaide and Red is amazing to the degree that it is extremely difficult to picture anyone else who could be better suited for this role. And that’s before we address the developments in the final moments of the film which make me want to go back and analyse the clues like Adelaide eating strawberries while her family eat junk food, abstains from alcohol and openly admits she doesn’t do well with talking. Brilliant.

Highlighted Quote:
“Once upon a time there was a girl and the girl had a shadow”

In A Few Words:
“A lush and captivating feature that suffers only from an issue of maybe too many concepts at work but it’s not nearly enough to tarnish what is an incredible film”

Total Score:

4/5

CAPTAIN MARVEL

Higher Further Faster

Director
Anna Boden
Ryan Fleck

Starring
Brie Larson
Samuel L Jackson
Ben Mendelsohn
Jude Law
Annette Bening



Captain Marvel opens in 1995 on the alien world of Hala. We are introduced to Vers [Larson], a Kree warrior being trained by her superior, Yon-Rogg [Law] to suppress her emotions in order to become a better fighter but as she is suffering from amnesia, is desperate to uncover who she is. Sent on a mission to extract an undercover operative, we learn about the Kree’s war with the shape-shifting alien race, the Skrulls. The mission is an ambush and Vers is taken hostage and has her memory probed, revealing glimpses of a history on Earth. Vers escapes the Skrull ship and falls to Earth, where she meets SHIELD agent, Nick Fury [Jackson].

If anything can be said to sell this movie, it will be the chemistry between the cast. Seeing Larson and Jackson interacting at the Oscars it was very quickly apparent that they have great rapport and this comes across wonderfully throughout this movie. Fury is less jaded than we’ve seen before, making him more charismatic and fun while Vers’ fish-out-of-water cocky fighter pilot spunk gets her in and out of a lot of trouble. By the way, before we go any further, this may be considered a spoiler but Vers is indeed from Earth and her name is Carol Danvers. I just wanted to get that out of the way so you don’t get confused if I jump back and forth between Vers, Carol Danvers and Captain Marvel. Ok, moving on.

In each of the Marvel origin stories, the characters have grown, evolved and improved through group interactions; this is one of Marvel’s strongest assets. When people rank their favourite MCU films, it’s very rare that a standalone will be highest, it’s usually a medley piece as seen in a sequel, which is less bogged down with origin mythology and established comic book lore and finds traction and its place in the larger narrative universe. Case in point, Captain America is my favourite MCU character but in his first film I will quite happily admit that Steve Rogers is a fairly two dimensional unwavering pillar of moral fortitude. There isn’t much of an arc for him and he remains a flawless stalwart of truth and justice from start to end. If that film were to be released now, it would be eviscerated. But when analysing Carol’s place in this saga, we need to address who she stands to replace. If Iron Man, Captain America and Thor were the original Avengers trinity, then Doctor Strange and Black Panther are their replacements, along with Captain Marvel as the Thor substitute; becoming the overpowered cosmic hothead. And while that’s great, it’s worth pointing out that for a lot of audience members, Thor only got really good by his fifth appearance. It’s also incredibly difficult to gauge the personality of a character in an amnesia piece but I think Carol was a fun inclusion with a lot of potential for growth and exploration; very different from the comic version but that’s not a bad thing.

**If I’m honest, most of the review will pretty much be spoiler-laden from hereon out, so you may want to skip ahead to the final paragraph**
Stepping away from the lead, one of the most interesting elements is the role of the bad guys and I don’t mean the Skrulls (I’ll get back to that later), I mean the true villains of the piece. The double-punch of the Kree’s artificial intelligence ruler, Supreme Intelligence [Bening], who adopts the form of an individual you respect and Carol’s commanding officer, Yon-Rogg. These characters are keenly placed to illustrate both a society that limits individuals, constantly reiterating that they need to be something they aren’t and threatening to take away power that is given, even when this isn’t the case. To be blunt, Supreme Intelligence is every institution that has denied a sect of society the ability to prosper and then expects gratitude when offering a recycled piecemeal morsel back. While Yon-Rogg shines a subtle light on the nature of abusive controlling relationships, lying to an individual while gas-lighting and rewriting the past to keep their partner weak, submissive and compliant. My original highlighted quote was “if toast is cut diagonally I can’t eat it” but the conclusion of the Yon-Rogg fight is so spectacular, how could I highlight anything else? And the truth is, these sorts of characters aren’t going to particularly resonate with a lot of people, specifically because they either haven’t been in that position, haven’t had many frank conversations about these traits or worse still, are those individuals. I’m talking about white males. And I genuinely feel this is why a lot of the backlash about this film being disappointing may stem from; that unrelatability. Oh and speaking of Supreme Intelligence, I don’t care that Mar-Vell is a woman. Don’t care in the slightest. Sure, he’s a big part of the Marvel comics lore but it would add little to this movie to be bogged down with even more sprawling backstory.

Being a prequel period piece, Captain Marvel somehow feels a little less like the Marvel films we’ve seen of late. In an essence, it seems more fleshed out and like a contained standalone with well-rounded and developed side characters and villains – something the MCU often struggles with. The supports in particular are incredibly noteworthy. From things like setting up future heroes like Monica Rambeau to the open-ended fate of characters like Talos, who could return in future instalments. Speaking of which, let’s talk about the complexity of war and the strange allies and bedfellows it can generate. In the comics, the Skrulls are straight-up evil, they were first traders then conquering explorers and finally, when they met the Kree, portrayed as little more than conquest hungry, deceptive killers. This film complicates the narrative a little and adds some nuance and complexity to both sides; which is true of any conflict. But the Skrulls being different from their comic counterpart may be received like the changes to the Mandarin in Iron Man 3. Personally, I really liked it, this isn’t to say the comic standard won’t one day be shown, in the same way the “real” Mandarin can be used in a future release, we are given an open-ended, fairly unexplored establishment which doesn’t clearly cut good and bad. Even Talos says, “this is war, my hands are filthy from it too.” Who is to say that these wise-cracking charming Skrulls are going to be representative of the entire race, maybe over the 20+ years between the events of Captain Marvel and the present day, there won’t be a shift to an eventual Secret Invasion style plot where disenfranchised and bitter Skrulls launch an attack on Earth. Who knows? The point is, it isn’t black and white and that is appreciated.

As with every Marvel release (and if I’m honest, every major contemporary blockbuster), the computer generated imagery utilised throughout veers from seamless to plasticy. If we step away from the failings for a second, it’s worth noting that some of the more subtle, practically unseen VFX standing head and shoulders above some of the more bombastic efforts. Specifically the de-ageing of Fury. I’ve maintained that what Disney and Marvel have been doing with this combination of make-up and CGI tweaking has been frankly breathtaking but to push this for a central supporting role for an entire feature is incredibly bold and it pays off so well because you forget that it is even an effect at all. I was also very impressed with the audio elements (not enough is ever said about the sound design in these movies) and while the song choices were fun and nostalgia-driven, they unfortunately take precedent over Pinar Toprak’s original score. This wasn’t so much a problem with something like Guardians Of The Galaxy because that movie had a very distinct and memorable main theme but here the genuinely grand synth and brass combination work felt pretty incidental and downplayed. Which is disappointing because it conjured an interesting hybrid of the soundscape of Thor, Captain America and Mass Effect with some wailing 90s guitars for good measure. I’ll also add that while I found the pacing to be acceptable, neither dragging nor rushing through at any point, the editing during the action was pretty erratic and clumsy but the final space battle wrapped up far too quickly. I understand that this movie was going for a character development close with Carol quite literally standing up to her captors but much like Wonder Woman the actual final fight is just too rushed and neatly resolved.

Overall Captain Marvel is a solid film with a really strong heart that suffers from a few small problems but nothing that hasn’t appeared in any other Marvel origin story. I have absolutely no doubt that once Carol has been introduced into the ever-expanding stable of MCU characters she will flourish but for the missteps this movie takes, they aren’t enough to hold back the future dynamic shift that is coming.


Release Date:
8th February 2019

The Scene To Look Out For:
Even from the trailer it was always going to be this scene. There’s something chilling about being shown an individual at several stages of their life being pushed to the ground and having the temerity to rise to their feet and face not only the challenge but the slings, arrows and consequences. It’s arguably the movie’s most powerful moment and should hit you like a punch to the gut. As a sign of strength, resilience and determination it is a representation of what should be the defining qualities of our species. Hyperbolic? Maybe but I think it warrants it.

Notable Characters:
**more spoilers**
So, it’s still incredibly stupid that nobody knows about SHIELD in Iron Man, to the point they haven’t even figured out a good way to introduce themselves other than the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division to Fury being able to flash his badge in the 90s and every security guard recognising its authority. But that’s retconning. At this point and with this big a franchise, stuff like that is frankly unavoidable at times, so fuck it. But we should talk about Fury. Before the Avengers happened, there was widespread discussion about what kind of releases we could expect and one that was bounced around a lot was a SHIELD/Nick Fury film and while that never came to pass, this is likely the closest we’ll get to see Nick Fury, super spy, the guy whose secrets have secrets in action.. and I was far from disappointed. I also love that some of those secrets are protecting his ego and the line from Winter Soldier about “the last time I trusted someone, I lost an eye” has shifted in tone somewhat. But then we circle back to that retconning and the idea of what Fury is. In Avengers, Fury explains to the proto-avengers that weapons were being built to counteract Asgardians, that since Thor arrived on Earth it has become apparent that mankind is “hopelessly, hilariously outgunned.” With the events that take place in this movie, a fair few people will take umbrage with this, believing it contradicts what has already been established. But the depressing truth is that’s because gatekeepers like to think they know everything about a character and are surprised (and strangely hurt) when that confidence is “betrayed” should evidence to the contrary surface. Same thing happened with The Last Jedi – I know this character inside out, this is what he would do. Then we are shown the character ending up in the predicted place but via a different route and that angers certain fans. To avoid rambling any further, I will simply say that this was a nice exploration of the Fury character that humanises him and puts a grounded perspective on the man he becomes and why he has chosen to a) keep certain truths to himself and b) that he has allowed the semi-fabricated legend surrounding his persona to thrive because it benefits him; the Frank Urquhart logic of “you might very well think that; I couldn’t possibly comment.”

Highlighted Quote:
“I have nothing to prove to you”

In A Few Words:
“A flawed but entertaining introduction to what promises to be a very interesting MCU hero”

Total Score:

4/5

ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL

An Angel Falls. A Warrior Rises.

Director
Robert Rodriguez

Starring
Rosa Salazar
Christoph Waltz
Keean Johnson
Mahershala Ali
Jennifer Connelly



Set in the twenty sixth century, several hundred years after a cataclysmic war, Dr Ido [Waltz] searches through the rubble for discarded cybernetic parts and comes across the upper-torso of a teenage girl with a living human brain. Bringing the parts back to his workshop, Ido hooks her up to a new body and wakes her. The young lady is conscious and aware of the world but has no memory, so Ido names her Alita [Salazar]. After a wealth of exposition, we learn that the world is divided between the floating utopic city of Salem and the brutal realities of Iron City. As Alita tries to remember her past, she meets Hugo [Johnson] and becomes interested in motorball – a violent gladiatorial robotic version of roller derby run by gangster Vector [Ali].

The first thing about this feature that both surprised and truly impressed me was the amount of practical effects and colourful Central American influenced production design. I had fully expected this film to be a wall-to-wall greenscreen nightmare but the constructed sets and locations helped give this world a genuine, lived-in feel and injected a level of detail that most blockbusters tend to sorely lack. But I feel I’ve been down this road before with Ghost In The Shell – another supposedly faithful adaptation with the original creator’s consent and an absolutely stunning visual style and colour palate but so little in terms of a connection with the story, heart and general narrative direction of the source material. In truth, that is the biggest crime these films perpetrate, to take so much world-building potential, pair it with spectacular craftsmanship and lash it to an unimaginative, flimsy script.

I respect James Cameron (acting as writer and producer) and Robert Rodriguez as visual filmmakers who have pushed the medium from both a blockbuster and independent angle. I think they are both truly visionary at times and have created astounding works. But this film brings out the worst in both of them. On the one hand, we have so little of Rodriguez’s personality on show, leaving Alita feeling like a very reined in ordeal. Taking on board Cameron’s script, Rodriguez may not have felt at liberty to go to more bombastic places seen in films like Sin City or Spy Kids and for better or worse, this has left the film feeling a touch flat and unambitious. Then we have Cameron’s script which takes the general idea and setting from the manga and puts one element of that story into central focus. I had a real problem with this but I’ll get onto that in the next paragraph. It’s evident from this movie that Cameron has fallen back on rote setups and fuck-awful dialogue to produce something so very hammy and cliché, rife with stale parental archetypes and a hideously pedestrian love-story. Much like Ready Player One, all the characters are one dimensional, fall into every overused pitfall and the first act conveniently rushes along, introducing characters in the most asinine way that robs the setting of any sort of scale.

A large part of the story is devoted to the barbaric sport, motorball. In the manga, motorball plays a decent role but not to the extent that it does in the film, which hinges so many plot points on the games and the prize awarded to the victors: the opportunity to go up to Salem (apparently the only way one can). In promotional material, Cameron talks about Alita’s arc and journey and then riffs that the motorball sequences are fantastic action set pieces. For a film driven by visual effects, I was hoping these scenes would be the ones that blew me away and they weren’t. Here we have the predominantly green-screen, CGI constructions and as it’s only featured twice, it didn’t live up to the hype, even if the direction and effects were competent. And throughout the whole experience, with the largely forgettable score blaring and an utterly painful commentator delivering some of the most dire dialogue, it hit me that motorball is this film’s pod racing but failed to reach the heights achieved in those sequences.

Stepping away from visual effects, mostly, we need to talk about the performances. Salazar is a genuinely talented individual who emotes passionately, conveying a wonderful level of innocence and a fantastic arc from childhood to young womanhood. Unfortunately, the majority of this is lost under CGI and terrible writing. In addition to this earnest lead performance, bringing to life a violent but strangely relatable analogy for puberty, we have extremely adept and accomplished actors who are pigeon-holed into noticeably superficial parts. Vector quotes Milton believing it’s better to reign in hell than serve in heaven and that’s pretty much everything we get to know about him, Dr Ido and his former partner Dr Chiren [Connelly] are grieving parents who took two parallel moral paths to cope and Hugo is a punk kid who has genuine feelings for Alita but needs to clean up his hoodlum ways before they catch up with him. It’s all so agonisingly worn out and unoriginal that it’s difficult to care about anyone.

The more I think about it, the more I conclude that the only real positives stem from the manga; the cool concept, the world building, the general design, the central role, etc. It also occurred to me that a lot of the changes made in this live-action version were part of the 1993 OVA Battle Angel. Admittedly, nobody wants to hear “the source material is better.” Of course it is, it almost always is but that’s no excuse for the film to glean the aesthetic while failing to capture what made the original so very entertaining and popular. One could argue that this could easily have been another self-aware surprise like Aquaman but its po-faced melodrama and self-importance left the entire experience remarkably predictable and hackneyed. What’s more, the lack of real conclusion and sequel setup with a hitherto-mute Edward Norton, leaves so much of Alita’s story left under a fog of mystery in the least pleasing way. So many franchise-hungry films have left an opening instalment with a “see you in the sequel moment” that audiences are both wary and sick of. For long-running confirmed series or those with already-shot sequels, these setups mostly work but for the vast majority of abandoned properties, we are left with these hollow, open-ended stories that lack a definitive close.

As a final point, I want to return to James Cameron. When discussing the best living directors, Cameron’s name will crop up because of his industry changing achievements. But since he has been dividing his time between the bottom of the sea and Pandora with some 4 Avatar sequels planned, this film could not be completed by Cameron himself and was handed over to Rodriguez but the truth is that people (both audiences and industry professionals) don’t come to a Cameron production for the story, they come to see how the technology will be pushed decades ahead. They come for the innovation. And most disappointingly, Alita doesn’t exhibit any real innovation. Much like Avatar, the story is questionable, the characters rather straightforward and the action acceptable but unlike the 2009 megahit, the visuals aren’t nearly as spellbinding enough to blind us all to its flaws and weaknesses and what we’re left with is a rather capable but ultimately disappointing release.


Release Date:
8th February 2019

The Scene To Look Out For:
A major part of the story is that Alita has no memory of who she is. Fans of anime and manga will recognise this trope as one of the most customary for a character, so I’m not complaining about that, I’m miffed about what was hinted at. The first time Alita gets her first solid flashback is during a fight; the violence triggers a memory of her on the surface of the moon, battling forces under the call-sign 99. It’s very fucking cool. What’s frustrating, however, is the entire backstory of Alita’s origin and her past which is only hinted at, no doubt so it can be slowly explored over a series of potential sequels that we likely never see.

Notable Characters:
Idara Victor plays Nurse Gerhad, who works with Dr Ido. I don’t know if a lot of her role was cut for time or if she had always been this way but there was something standout about a character who was present for the majority of the character building scenes from start to end but only had a line or two. To be fair, these kinds of supports aren’t that uncommon in a blockbuster of this nature but something about her limited dialogue and minimal development really irked me.

Highlighted Quote:
“How you control it, I don’t know. You didn’t come with a manual”

In A Few Words:
“Yet another project that crawled its way out of decades of development hell only to feel like it might not have been worth the wait”

Total Score:

2/5