MULAN

Loyal. Brave. True.

Director
Niki Caro

Starring
Liu Yifei
Jason Scott Lee
Gong Li
Donnie Yen
Tzi Ma




To battle the invading Rouran force, led by the warrior Bori Khan [Lee] along with a shapeshifting witch (Xian Lang played by Gong Li), the Emperor of China [Jet Li] issues a decree that each household must send one man to enlist in the army. Having two daughters, ageing veteran Hua Zhou [Ma] is expected to sign up but will likely perish in the fighting. To save her father, Zhou’s eldest daughter Mulan [Liu] steals his armour and sword before making her way to the frontline, posing as a man: Hua Jun.

Mulan remains a fantastic piece of Disney animation history and a strong step forward in female led representation, outside of the damsel in distress role, as well as a point of note for the LGBTQ+ community. By comparison, this remake is remarkably dull, sterile and disappointingly generic, taking twenty minutes to convey what the animated version got across more effectively in three.

One thing the film has going for it, is that it can be undeniably pretty at times. A vibrantly designed, lavish production which is rich in colour and construction. The costumes, hair, make-up and sets are all beautiful, demonstrating real crafting excellence. Having said that, for all these positives, they are admittedly very surface level and upon closer inspection, it’s a pretty sloppy mesh of anachronisms and insensitivities.

An Asian-American friend of mine wrote an article when the trailer dropped last year, highlighting a very small but impactful decision made which shifts the entire people of the story, on top of this, it was later revealed that outside of the cast, there were practically no Asian advisors for the aforementioned praised production elements; which shows if you know anything of Chinese history or culture. I will admit, using the term Rouran rather than Mongolian feels like there was a semblance of research done and there is an attempt to reference the original Ballad Of Mulan with the hares running side by side but without enough explanatory dialogue, it is little more than a throwaway wink to the knowing members of the audience.

As stated earlier, the craftsmanship is undeniably good but the film lacks a specific identifiable time period which ends up feeling like a flick-book collection of historical influences. Some could argue this is perfectly acceptable for a fantastical family action film and historical accuracy shouldn’t be at the forefront of any critical analysis but I would say that’s a line of thinking which is a dark path to the likes of King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword and Robin Hood.

I also think Harry Gregson-Williams’ score work is strong enough with tracks like Four Ounces Can Move A Thousand Pounds, Mulan Leaves Home and The Charge in particular adding a bit of contemporary gravitas to the proceedings. Having said that, people have a lot of fondness for the songs and motifs of the original and it’s a hard legacy to inherit from stellar composer, Jerry Goldsmith, who produced absolutely cheerful, spirited and heartfelt themes, imbued with a sense of adventure. The choice to not make this film a musical feels like a fairly logical one and I have to commend the incorporation of the 1998 songs into the score.

The editing, however, didn’t fare nearly as well. The introduction was hideously lopsided – like an unhappy committee constantly reshuffling the opening line of a book without looking any further into the text – and while this slowly improves as the story continues, there are completely jarring moments that throw all of this out the window. A prime example is a replication of an iconic scene from the animated film. At the story’s halfway point, a large battle is taking place at the foot of a mountain range. Xian Lang uses her powers to morph into a flock of birds, causing the army to form up into clusters. This then gives the Rouran the opportunity to launch catapult attacks. Mulan, separated from the shielded groups, manages to flank the attackers and fires arrows from behind, forcing them to turn the catapult and (without aiming properly) hit the mountainside, causing the avalanche.

It’s a subtle change to the animated events but it’s one that makes the enemy dumber and make Mulan less of a bold tactician. What’s more so many connective moments within this sequence are missing, with the action advancing so far forward as to feel like Mulan must have teleported or turned invisible to sneak past. And this isn’t a solo offence, this happens at various points, often to the detriment of an emotional impact. Mulan’s iconic suiting up in her father’s armour scene, cutting her hair and preparing for war is reduced to removing a sword from its stand and turning, already clothed in armour. If there was ever a scene that should have been directly lifted from the animation it was this one.

Again, giving the film due credit, this is an entirely Asian cast (if one were to include Western Asia) and that is a genuinely welcome sign and the majority perform admirably enough with what they are given. In spite of this, Liu Yifei wasn’t a fantastic Mulan. There weren’t a lot of androgynous men cast so her physique stood out no matter how much dirt they put on her and despite the weight and importance of the events at hand, she felt remarkably wooden. I don’t know if this was a language barrier issue or the script or the direction but considering how creditable she was in The Four trilogy (wherein she plays a character called Emotionless) and most notably Once Upon A Time, I was genuinely surprised what we ended up with was rather gauche.

For the majority of the runtime, Mulan’s only real supports are her fellow soldiers but they all fall into fairly standard tropes and we don’t spend much meaningful time with them to the degree that they aren’t specifically named well (bar the love interest or the weak one, who is constantly derided). What’s more, there’s never a sense of scale, this “army” is one battalion defending all of China and similarly the invading forces barely approach a few hundred men. Given the vast size of China, it not only robs the movie of any actual threat but denies us the kind of Red Cliff scale encounters that this kind of budget can provide.

**spoilers toward the end of this paragraph**
One of the film’s most fascinating aspects is the inclusion of the sorceress, Xian Lang – although she is literally just referred to as “the witch” the for entire film. Her presence elicits an element of a sympathy and connection within Mulan, as well as a cautionary tale. I’d go so far as to say she’s probably the strongest part of the movie and Gong Li’s performance is solid, elevating her to be Mulan’s true adversary as well as an ally. On the surface, Lang telling Mulan the full invasion plan then letting her go in an attempt to foil it, is rather dumb but the fact Lang is under the impression that even if Mulan knows what’s to come, no “man’s army” will believe her, is a fair commentary. I will admit, however, that her presence and bond with Mulan does detract from Bori Khan somewhat, so when they finally face off at the film’s close, there’s less emotional resonance.

The final character note is relating to an absence. Anyone who has seen the marketing material will know that the classic Disney animal side-kicks are not present, most notably Mushu. I understand this change and didn’t have a problem with it as an aesthetic choice. That being said, Mushu is replaced by a phoenix and while I appreciate they were going for a supposedly grounded, more realistic version, including both a literal mythical bird and a witch who can shape-shift gives cause for pause. Also, for all the CGI in the movie, the phoenix never looks as impressive or creative as it should and if this film were shot for $60 million, that would be fine but being a $200+ million Disney production, that’s simply not on. The same could be said for the other clumsy green-screen work but we’ll leave that for now.

**spoilers in this paragraph – unless you’ve seen the trailer**
Diverging from the animated version, Mulan actively chooses to reveal her gender at the movie’s halfway point. After a confrontation with Xian Lang, she sheds her armour and confidently rides into battle. I see this as both a tricky positive and negative. On the one hand, there is a lot to praise here. Saying you are more than your family’s expectations, your people’s prejudices and your literal father’s armour is fantastic. No longer holding back, she is able to shine in a way that is comfortable to her, proving not only her worth but her superiority to her counterparts. However, with all the talk of Mulan’s chi and her abilities (illustrated through.. chicken chasing) she isn’t just a regular kid who works harder, receiving a meritocratic reward. She’s the chosen one. Her chi is so powerful that her family and main adversary see it, she could be tempted to the dark side and have all the powers that come with it or she can choose to serve her people. Subsequently, the various training montages aren’t about her getting stronger, they are about revealing who she actually is and no longer holding back. Some will love this and see it as a symbol of strength and duty to oneself but others will see it as an unrelatable magical main character.

To round off, I will say that there are a few brief flourishes of direction and cinematography that are quite inventive and – as with all of these live-action remakes – there are plenty of positive elements to comment on but ultimately they fail to capitalise on the creativity and expressiveness of the animation. No matter how much money this film had behind it, all you need do is watch the exciting action of Golden Harvest features or literally anything by Zhang Yimou, for the most stunning visuals you will see in cinema, to know that this film is incredibly lacklustre. There is active talk of a sequel in production and while I have no idea if that will actually come to fruition, you’ve got to hope they take clear and unmistakable steps to improve on what is on offer here. I recently reviewed Pinocchio, a straight adaptation of the source material by Italians which is risky, adventurous, magical, fun and frankly a little too scary for its own good, making it the best version of this story. Mulan needed to be that and fell grotesquely short.


Release Date:
04 September 2020

The Scene To Look Out For:
Early on in the film we are given a modicum of nicely shot, colourful visuals and some playful fun throughout the make-up scene, which leads into the matchmaker debacle. It shows the family dynamic well and doesn’t mind dropping the “grounded” facade for something light.

Notable Characters:
To start with, I didn’t recognise Jet Li as the Emperor. Watching the movie I thought, “huh, that looks like Jet Li” but internally berated myself for being racist. There’s no way that’s Jet Li, the dude has no presence and his voice sounds off. Turns out, it was indeed Jet Li and whether for health or age reasons, they gave one of China’s finest living martial artists nothing to do and then had the audacity to dub him. Again, I have no idea if there’s something going on in the background (like, say, Val Kilmer in The Snowman) but it just felt so jarring, taking you out of the film.

Highlighted Quote:
“You saved them today and still they turned on you”

In A Few Words:
“1998’s Mulan continues to be a standout work of animation two decades later but I would be surprised if the legacy of this adaptation lasts until the end of the year”

Total Score:

2/5

TENET

Time Runs Out

Director
Christopher Nolan

Starring
John David Washington
Robert Pattinson
Elizabeth Debicki
Kenneth Branagh




A CIA agent, played by John David Washington, is sent on an undercover mission to extract a target at the Ukrainian national opera house but the mission results in his torture and eventual death. Learning that the cyanide pill he took was a fake, putting him into a coma rather than killing him, the agent is drafted by a secret organisation and briefly told about inversion, where certain objects and people are moving backward through time, while everything around them continues to move forward. Paired with Neil, a handler played by Robert Pattinson, they uncover a plot by Russian arms dealer, Andrei Sator [Branagh] to bring about a war which could potentially lead to the end of the world. Seeing the arms dealer’s wife (Kat [Debicki]) as an angle to exploit, the agent is quickly swept up in a world of intrigue, misdirection and peril.

On its release, I bemoaned Interstellar for being filled with glorious visuals but marred by an unfortunately lacking story which was surprisingly linear and littered with trite platitudes. I’m sorry to say, Tenet suffers an unfortunately lacking story paired with unfortunately lacking visuals; nothing about this world where people running both forward and backward through time feels nearly as impressive or mind blowing as it should, even when it’s blatantly trying. I should clarify that this is by no means a bad movie, I have no problem with a film that requires you to focus and commit to the story to understand what is happening, but the impact that the marketing hyped and the opening scene so blatantly promised is never truly delivered.

**As with all my reviews, this is less a recommendation and more a conversational breakdown, so there will be huge plot spoilers from here on out. It is advised to watch the film before reading further, or to skim ahead to my In A Few Words summary and final rating**

Nolan has gone on the record in the past stating that he would love to direct a James Bond film, or at the very least that he draws a lot of inspiration from them. This influence plays heavily on many of his scripts but nowhere is that more prevalent than in Tenet. A maniacal Russian out to destroy the world, an agent working undercover to subvert this plot, high speed car chases, lavish international locales, thrilling shoot-outs, sharply dressed suave wise-cracking individuals and at the heart of it all, a beautiful woman who needs saving. Much like James Bond, the lead character is a pawn with little agency (it is then later revealed that he is his own pawn but there’s no added closure or catharsis to this revelation), given a mission and pointed in a direction but in no real danger of failure. The major difference is that Q branch’s various gadgets are substituted for a single gimmick. So let’s talk about that gimmick.

Countless films have covered time travel with varying degrees of success. Recently, we’ve had some extremely good examples from Looper, Source Code and a personal favourite of mine, Dark. Each of these sets out their own time travel rules and stick to them in a way that both allows the audience to understand what is going on while remaining true to the narrative events. But this film deals with time inversion, which is a little different; specifically it deals with the “travel” part of time travel, the action of moving backward through time while others move forward. This concept has the potential to be clear or convoluted depending on the script, exposition and visual storytelling. Somehow, in a feat of mad genuine ingenuity, it’s both.

Parts of this story are incredibly interwound and require attention to follow and process properly, other times they’re so painfully signposted that it goes so far as to ruin what’s to come. An unidentified woman dives off a boat, a line is said about physics working differently like fire turning to ice, demanding to know who an attacker works for without taking off the individual’s mask – you don’t have to know the complete formula of every time travel film to understand what these things mean: that woman you saw was you from the future, the following scene will have fire that turns to ice and that man attacking you is also you from the future. There is truly nothing worse than a predictable movie; to have a hunch in the first twenty minutes and then watch for two hours as your predictions come true but your expectations were possibly set too high. We give Shyamalan a lot of grief for his seemingly mandatory twists but Nolan has similar traits that are often praised. Knowing the movie played heavily with time, I worked out pretty much everything and that isn’t meant as a boast, it’s a lament.

These two elements – the James Bond spy thriller and the high-concept science fiction – are constantly at odds, refusing to truly merge. As such, it took a surprisingly long time for the film to properly grab me (after the in-your-face opening sequence) because the significant grounding leaves most of the film stagnant, never truly becoming fantastical. The time inversion concept is introduced but then side-lined just as quickly and used so sparingly that it is almost not worth having. In the world of Inception you are told enough to get by but remains very scant on details. Despite this, the effect is used well and often and the main principles are reinforced from those that understand to those who are new to the concept; so it works. Here, the world building doesn’t feel fleshed out enough, the impact of objects travelling backward and forward in time being treated with a dismissive “future people made it” isn’t enough and having an early explainer that we are finding more and more relics from a future war that possibly wipes out our way of life but doing almost nothing with that (to say nothing of never actually showing it) is not enough.

One thing that does become apparent very quickly is that this is a world devoid of consequence. There is no real impact for the average citizen because this does not concern them. You’re either in the loop and part of the temporal pincer movement or you’re background fodder. As with The Matrix Reloaded, suddenly Neo’s actions inside the matrix didn’t feel as under threat as the previous instalment because we knew it was a simulation and they could simply be pulled out; we were endlessly told it wasn’t real so we didn’t worry as much. Police, military, the rich, the poor, none of these people matter, all that matters is the next scene.

Supporting roles are few and far between but seemingly everyone is in on inversion, so there’s rarely a moment where the audience is part of a conversation that truly explains what is going on. Most know the stakes, most are working (knowingly or unwittingly) for the future version of the protagonist and there’s little real world impact. Even as far as reaction shots from bystanders when plans are being drawn up to crash a plane or when cars are screeching across the road in reverse. The only time we really see the general public is at the opera and, thanks to gas, they are almost instantly put to sleep. I feel there’s a sort of metaphor going on there but I can’t quite make it out.

In truth, inversion exists solely to justify cool set-pieces, as is the problem with all bad action movies, and the more time you spend thinking about it, the less the movie functions. For example, we are told that no one knows how something becomes inverted but this faceless group of paramilitary types seem to have access to multiple machines in Norway, Estonia and ..somewhere else that they can process a whole battalion through. Yes, these are minutiae but they are the fundamental drive for the movie and if they aren’t fit for purpose, your movie has essentially failed.

In an incredibly small role, Clémence Poésey offers Washington’s character his first explanation about the nature of inversion but immediately adds not to think about it, not to indulge in their backstories and teases some immense future war before disappearing from the movie entirely. My highlighted quote listed below is one of her lines that tells Washington (and by extension the audience) don’t try to understand it, just feel it – and while you can undoubtedly feel the awe of the spectacle and ribcage-rattling sound, I didn’t feel much of anything for these characters and their plights but that isn’t for lack of trying from the cast.

The biggest kick in the teeth for me was giving two incredibly charming actors utterly charmless dialogue. Pattinson has a little fun with his role and you always get the impression he knows more than he’s letting on but the reveal is pretty underwhelming. Then you have John David Washington who thoroughly impresses me in everything he turns up in and while he performs admirably, some of his dialogue and interactions are insultingly flat. The script even goes so far as to have the protagonist actively saying the words “I’m the protagonist” multiple times which is annoying in and of itself but to make matters worse, Washington’s character is actually credited as The Protagonist. The nameless lead trope worked well in something like Layer Cake and felt like it actually had a purpose but with Tenet, there’s no reason not to give him a name, especially as there’s no subversive twist reveal that he isn’t actually the protagonist or something like that. Some may try to counter “ah but he wasn’t the protagonist …yet” with a smug grin but that hardly warrants this move. Despite this, I think these two carry the film extremely well and exude gravitas and physical prowess during the action scenes.

On the other end of the spectrum, Kat is terrible. To be clear, Debicki isn’t terrible, she’s an absolutely fantastic actor who elevates the role as much as possible. But her character is incredibly frustrating. The Protagonist’s mission is to get close to Sator to ascertain the location of this doomsday device and his entry point is Sator’s estranged wife. So far that’s fine (and very Bond) but whenever a plan is put in motion, one of the key things that seems to derail everything is Kat. On multiple occasions she scuppers seemingly every plan because she’s just too damn emotional and her only motivation is to reunite with her son, which is just the worst kind of writing. I mean, I know a parent’s bond with their child is strong and they would do anything for them but when told about “Reversing entropy, killing everyone and everything” her only response is “including my son.” Yes obviously including your son! Everyone and everything includes him. To reiterate, this is less the fault of the actor and more the ham-fisted reiteration that this character has one sole driving force and we, the audience, need to be reminded of it as often as possible. What is never really explained is why Washington’s character cares so much about Kat. There is seemingly nothing remarkable about her situation but he is drawn to her, prioritising her needs over that of the objective. The motivation isn’t sexual or altruistic (which is refreshing) and goes beyond necessity or survival but without a clever or relevant alternative, the only remaining answer is “plot,” which is weak.

To change tack and focus on some positives, we need to talk about how this film was constructed. The plane highjacking scene is an audial assault of music and sound to invoke true scale and terror over something that we’ve actually seen many times before on-screen. This is extremely clever, injecting a fairly simple action sequence with some much needed life and reality. The score is also very intricately designed with elements that are running both forward and backward at the same time, making for a very kinetic and unique sound. It’s also worth noting that said score was composed by Ludwig Göransson, as it’s extremely reminiscent of Hans Zimmer’s style – to the degree that everyone will simply assume it was Zimmer despite him being busy on Dune. But even this aspect doesn’t get a clear pass as much of the dialogue is lost at times, taking a backseat to the intense thundering sound design – which isn’t a major headache in and of itself, except the film expects you to keep up with so much that is usually only found in muted, muffled, whispered or altogether smothered dialogue.

The cinematography is equally tricky to praise. On the one hand, doing so much in-camera is very commendable and when you see a sprawling vista, you can tell they were actually there. A good parallel would be something like The Wolf Of Wall Street, wherein so many lavish locations are green-screened. Yet while they’re done so well, to the point of almost seamlessness, there’s something to be said for what you capture with a camera. But when the film isn’t busying itself with action set pieces, we are treated to fairly mundane conversations presented with incredibly rudimentary medium shot-reverse-shots, linked together with extremely jarring editing, as if whole transitional scenes are missing. I don’t know if this is due to Nolan working with a different editor or just what was shot at the time but unlike Insomnia or Memento that toy with your perception of memories and dreams, this makes an actively ostracising movie even more inaccessible.

While I’ve spent a few thousand words eviscerating this film, I want it to be known that it is not without merit. There are plenty of powerful and exemplary moments, I’m just irked because a great deal of potential feels squandered. As with many Nolan features, few will say they disliked it for fear of being told they “just didn’t get it.” Well I got it and I still disliked it because there wasn’t a great deal to get. In a way, it’s akin to The Dark Knight Rises which also tried to be clever and convoluted but felt like it was crammed with filler and yet somehow incomplete. Little things like not returning to the opera scene, while not entirely necessary to retread everything, left the finale feeling like there were too many loose ends and pieces to be revisited. And while I’m all for an ambiguous you-don’t-need-all-the-details denouement, some details are requisite for any sense of satisfaction.

To round this review off, Tenet is a remarkably unambitious feature that isn’t nearly as smart as it purports to be. The problem with a high-stakes science fiction drama with a countdown to armageddon is that when time is relative to the audience, it nullifies the events. The self-fulfilling prophecy of it all means that once you realise the movie exists in a world where, as Pattinson’s character says, “what’s happened has happened,” you know they’ve already won, you’re just watching the leftover inertia pushing it to the conclusion. Stripped of urgency with an interesting sounding future war that never actually happens, the whole thing leaves you cold, repeatedly telling you don’t try to understand it but to feel it. But on inspection, the only feeling present is dissatisfaction.


Release Date:
26 August 2020

The Scene To Look Out For:
The biggest surprise for me was that nothing about this movie wowed me visually. The only thing that really stood out was the double-exploding building. In the final temporal pincer assault on Sator’s compound, we have a highly co-ordinated strike wherein a crumbled structure is targeted by both the alpha and beta teams, one going forward through time, the other going back. In an almost bell curve, the building begins to erect itself with a reverse explosion sealing it, only for the bottom layer to then be blown out and the whole thing falls again. It’s a very cool concept in the middle of a relatively well thought-out battle. Until you ask yourself why this happens. What was the point of this harmonised strike? The film tells you it’s a distraction but in truth, it’s just an excuse for spectacle. It’s there because the film requires a big action beat. And after the moment for the beat has passed, it has little relevance to the story and seemingly little impact on the battle itself. Which is a damned shame.

Notable Characters:
Kenneth Branagh plays the villain of the piece, a Russian oligarch arms dealer who is unsympathetic from start to end. A self-serving abusive monster who wants to bring about the end of the world because he too is dying. Knowing this, Branagh’s performance and energy feels fitting. The trouble I have is a passing line or two of dialogue that tries to make him a little relatable. Toward the end of the movie he explains to Washington that the world dies because of us and therefore mankind should be wiped out with this entropy device. It’s the same move as Infinity War and part of a trend that any environmental message of radical change only comes from a villainous individual who wants to wipe out humanity. Knowing this, The Protagonist tells the antagonist that it doesn’t matter. But unlike a post Thanos sense of hope or an Ad Astra epiphany that we need to take care of the earth because there isn’t much out there, the audience is left numb. The only thing we have to cling to is the rich lady gets to be with her kid, who is little more than property to be won back in a bet, and the fate of the universe is decided by either a billionaire arms dealer or a nameless CIA agent and that is a pretty bleak existence.

Highlighted Quote:
“Don’t try to understand it, feel it”

In A Few Words:
“A disappointingly undercooked experience, saved only by the calibre of talent involved behind the scenes and in front of the camera”

Total Score:

3/5

BLOODSHOT

You Don’t Need A Past To Have A Future

Director
David S F Wilson

Starring
Vin Diesel
Eiza Gonzalez
Guy Pearce
Toby Kebbell



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

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

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

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

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


Release Date:
13 March 2020

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

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

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

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

Total Score:

2/5

THE INVISIBLE MAN

What You Can’t See Can Hurt You

Director
Leigh Whannell

Starring
Elizabeth Moss
Oliver Jackson-Cohen



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

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

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

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

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

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


Release Date:
28 February 2020

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

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

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

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

Total Score:

5/5

COLOR OUT OF SPACE

It Will Consume You

Director
Richard Stanley

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Release Date:
28 February 2020

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

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

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

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

Total Score:

2/5

SONIC THE HEDGEHOG

Gotta Go Fast

Director
Jeff Fowler

Starring
Ben Schwartz
James Marsden
Jim Carrey
Tika Sumpter



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

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

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

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

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

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


Release Date:
14 February 2020

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

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

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

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

Total Score:

3/5

THE LIGHTHOUSE

Keeping Secrets Are Ye?

Director
Robert Eggers

Starring
Robert Pattinson
Willem Dafoe
Valeriia Karaman



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

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

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

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

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

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


Release Date:
07 February 2020

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

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

Highlighted Quote:
“To ye, you beauty”

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

Total Score:

5/5

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

Prey For Gotham

Director
Cathy Yan

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



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

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

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

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

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


Release Date:
07 February 2020

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

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

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

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

Total Score:

4/5

WEATHERING WITH YOU [天気の子]

Let The Sun Shine

Director
Makoto Shinkai

Starring
Kotaro Daigo
Nana Mori
Shun Oguri



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

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

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

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

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


Release Date:
31 January 2020

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

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

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

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

Total Score:

3/5

THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD

From Rags To Riches.. And Back Again

Director
Armando Iannucci

Starring
Dev Patel
Tilda Swinton
Peter Capaldi
Hugh Laurie



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

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

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

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

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


Release Date:
24 January 2020

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

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

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

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

Total Score:

4/5

BAD BOYS FOR LIFE

Ride Together. Die Together

Director
Adil El Arbi
Bilall Fallah

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Release Date:
17 January 2020

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

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

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

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

Total Score:

3/5

1917

Time Is The Enemy

Director
Sam Mendes

Starring
George MacKay
Dean-Charles Chapman



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

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

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

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

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

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


Release Date:
10 January 2020

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

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

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

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

Total Score:

5/5

BOMBSHELL

Based On A Real Scandal

Director
Jay Roach

Starring
Charlize Theron
Nicole Kidman
Margot Robbie
John Lithgow



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

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

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

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

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


Release Date:
17 January 2020

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

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

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

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

Total Score:

3/5

JUST MERCY

Every Generation Has Its Hero. Meet Ours

Director
Destin Daniel Cretton

Starring
Michael B Jordan
Jamie Foxx
Brie Larson



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

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

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

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

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

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


Release Date:
17 January 2020

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

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

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

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

Total Score:

4/5

JOJO RABBIT

An Anti-Hate Satire

Director
Taika Waititi

Starring
Roman Griffin Davis
Thomasin McKenzie
Scarlett Johansson
Sam Rockwell



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

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

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

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

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

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


Release Date:
03 January 2020

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

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

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

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

Total Score:

4/5