AD ASTRA

The Answers We Seek Are Just Outside Our Reach

Director
James Gray

Starring
Brad Pitt
Tommy Lee Jones



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

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

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

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

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

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


Release Date:
20 September 2019

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

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

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

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

Total Score:

5/5

HUSTLERS

Walk All Over Wall Street

Director
Lorene Scafaria

Starring
Constance Wu
Jennifer Lopez
Julia Stiles



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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Release Date:
13 September 2019

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

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

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

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

Total Score:

4/5

IT CHAPTER TWO

It All Ends

Director
Andy Muschietti

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



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

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

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

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

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

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


Release Date:
07 September 2019

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

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

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

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

Total Score:

3/5

ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD

The 9th Film From Quentin Tarantino

Director
Quentin Tarantino

Starring
Leonardo DiCaprio
Brad Pitt
Margot Robbie



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

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

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

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

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


Release Date:
23 August 2019

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

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

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

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

Total Score:

2/5

HOBBS & SHAW

This Time There Is No Team

Director
David Leitch

Starring
Dwayne Johnson
Jason Statham
Vanessa Kirby
Idris Elba



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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Release Date:
02 August 2019

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

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

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

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

Total Score:

2/5

THE LION KING

Take Your Place In The Circle Of Life

Director
Jon Favreau

Starring
Donald Glover
James Earl Jones
Chiwetel Ejiofor
Beyonce



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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Release Date:
19th July 2019

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

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

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

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

Total Score:

2/5

SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME

Swinging Over To Europe This Summer

Director
Jon Watts

Starring
Tom Holland
Zendaya
Jake Gyllenhaal
Samuel L Jackson



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

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

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

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

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

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


Release Date:
05 July 2019

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

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

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

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

Total Score:

4/5

YESTERDAY

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

Director
Danny Boyle

Starring
Himesh Patel
Lily James
Kate McKinnon
Joel Fry
Ed Sheeran



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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Release Date:
28 June 2019

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

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

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

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

Total Score:

2/5

MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM NARRATIVE

The Age Of The Newtypes Begins

Director
Toshikazu Yoshizawa

Starring
Junya Enoki
Tomo Muranaka
Ayu Matsuura
Yuichiro Umehara



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

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

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

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

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

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


Release Date:
UK TBA

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

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

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

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

Total Score:

2/5

TOY STORY 4

The Adventure Of A Lifetime

Director
Josh Cooley

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



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

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

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

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

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


Release Date:
21st June 2019

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

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

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

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

Total Score:

4/5

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