DUMBO

Let Your Imagination Soar

Director
Tim Burton

Starring
Colin Farrell
Nico Parker
Danny DeVito
Michael Keaton
Eva Green



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

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

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

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

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

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


Release Date:
29th March 2019

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

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

Highlighted Quote:
“Nobody wants to be alone”

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

Total Score:

2/5

SHAZAM!

Just Say The Word

Director
David F Sandberg

Starring
Zachary Levi
Asher Angel
Mark Strong
Jack Dylan Grazer



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

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

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

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

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

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


Release Date:
5th April 2019

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

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

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

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

Total Score:

5/5

US

Watch Yourself

Director
Jordan Peele

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



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

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

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

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

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


Release Date:
22nd March 2019

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

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

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

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

Total Score:

4/5

CAPTAIN MARVEL

Higher Further Faster

Director
Anna Boden
Ryan Fleck

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Release Date:
8th February 2019

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

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

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

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

Total Score:

4/5

ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL

An Angel Falls. A Warrior Rises.

Director
Robert Rodriguez

Starring
Rosa Salazar
Christoph Waltz
Keean Johnson
Mahershala Ali
Jennifer Connelly



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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Release Date:
8th February 2019

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

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

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

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

Total Score:

2/5

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK

Trust Love All The Way

Director
Barry Jenkins

Starring
Kiki Layne
Stephan James



While not told in linear fashion, If Beale Street Could Talk cuts back and forth between two timelines. Throughout one we see the budding relationship between a young black woman, Tish Rivers [Layne] and her boyfriend Fonny Hunt [James] in the 1970s. The other predominantly deals with Fonny’s arrest and incarceration on a falsely accused rape charge with the added complication of Tish’s recent pregnancy.

Some of the greatest romances have been stories of obstructions getting in the way of love, whether war, family feuds, or in this case, systemic racism. Case in point, I’ve seen so many World War II related features that achingly highlight the futility of war by using the backdrop of a young relationship that is marred or nullified by this inescapable but wholly pointless goliath. And for those who have experienced the trials and tribulations of love, this concept of injustice is so painfully relatable – which is why this type of romantic tale has prevailed and proved popular over the centuries. In truth, there have been many versions of this kind of story but not so many that have been filmed and shot so exquisitely.

As an adaptation of a novel, the bulk of the writing praise should go to the source material but without a doubt, there is a level of visual craft that Jenkins and his team bring that really elevate the whole narrative. From James Laxton’s intimate close-up shots, straight down the barrel and unwavering to the audience to the vibrant colour palates of the clothing, which fades as the hardships of realities of adult life take over. To top all that, we are treated to another fine Nicholas Britell score which shifts from period-setting jazz to uneasy tension and intoxicating romantic strings. The whole amalgam highlights how all involved are operating at the top of their game, underpinning the tension and despair with a rising feeling of prevailing hope.

In addition to this emotional spectrum, there is also a purity to what we are shown. Patient and perfectly paced, the leads age throughout so painfully but in a very real and identifiable way. A large part of this is down to the fact that most of the central actors are largely unknown to mainstream cinema and therefore few preconceptions are brought into the film. Both Layne and James carry this film magnificently and the chemistry between them is wonderful and not simply because they are a couple in love but because their various interactions hint at something more; momentary hesitation, insecurity, frustration, coyness – so many factors that make it feel whole and fleshed-out.

These tender performances help emphasise the tragically grounded finale but that grounding is also at the expense of elements from the novel, which has a few darker sections which are set aside to create something beautiful. There will also be audience members who don’t care for the conclusion. Over the years, film has raised us to believe that by the time the story ends, everything will probably be alright or at least have enough of a denouement to guarantee closure. Instead, If Beale Street Could Talk, infuriatingly swerves at the last minute and denies you the fairy tale ending because that isn’t how life works. Usually, I genuinely enjoy those kinds of endings but I know a lot of people watch something like No Country For Old Men or Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and feel frustrated by the abrupt finale.


Release Date:
15th February 2019

The Scene To Look Out For:
Throughout the story we are treated to a few contained vignettes that feel theatrical in structure, with character entrances and exits while the majority of the scene retains its position in one location. One of the best examples of this is the shifting performances and razor-sharp dialogue in the Rivers’ living room when Tish tells Fonny’s family the news about the pregnancy. The mood fluctuates depending on who has entered or left the scene and the brazen discourse is simultaneously shocking and entrancing.

Notable Characters:
**spoilers**
With such a strong and solid cast, it would be quite easy to highlight most of the actors involved but owing to one specific scene wherein Tish’s mother, Sharon (played by Regina King) travels to Puerto Rico and tracks down the woman who has accused Fonny of rape. The scene itself is desperate and disheartening and audiences may expect the scene (and indeed the remainder of the film) to take a certain course but seeing Sharon come so close and fail is frankly crushing.

Highlighted Quote:
“I need to figure out a way to get some bread together and the get the fuck out of this country”

In A Few Words:
“A tragically beautiful love story, singularly told”

Total Score:

5/5

MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS

Bow To No One.

Director
Josie Rourke

Starring
Saorise Ronan
Margot Robbie
Jack Lowden
Guy Pearce



Following the death of her husband, the Catholic Queen of Scotland Mary [Ronan], returned to her native land. Her cousin, the unmarried and heirless Protestant Queen of England, Elizabeth [Robbie], is threatened by her return and is advised by several politicians, earls, dukes and lords that they must act against any advancement to power made by Mary but constitutionally, Elizabeth is unable to directly involve herself without inciting open warfare. Elizabeth is advised by William Cecil [Pearce] to send a loyal English noble to wed Mary, thus enacting some control over her but Mary rejects Elizabeth’s choice and vies for the hand of Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley [Lowden]. Mary’s marriage to Darnley upsets the English who see this as an elevation of Mary’s right to the crown and the Scottish are suspicious of an Englishman sitting on the throne of Scotland.

Right from the outset, we need to discuss this feature’s finest components; the production design, hair and makeup and cinematography. The practical elements are astoundingly good and every scene is magnificently orchestrated and shot. All too often we take for granted the level of detail and work that goes into a production of this scale but the intricacy and craft is truly praiseworthy. Similarly, other than Logan, John Mathieson hasn’t been given a great deal to sink his teeth into that wasn’t slathered in CGI and with Mary Queen Of Scots, he finally gets to present an interesting dynamic, with Scotland’s blueish hues, covered in shadow and cloud, while England is presented with a warmer palate. I have no idea if this red against blue contrast (which mimics the nation’s respective flags) was intentional or not but it’s a nice touch either way.

Due to the script often lacking enough clout, the performances end up a bit of a mixed bag. Out in front we have Robbie and Ronan, both of whom do a spectacular job illustrating the struggles of a ruling female monarch who is surrounded by opportunistic chancers. Furthermore, both characters are presented in a fairly unique way, with Elizabeth transitioning to what she dubs “more man than woman” becoming a cold, calculating individual to survive and Mary is given a warrior’s prowess, abandoning the fairly soft-spoken representation we are all too familiar with. What’s more, mostly to date the lives of these queens has been told through the eyes and pens of male filmmakers and storytellers but there is a notably different feel with a female director at the helm, centring on the injustices inflicted upon these heads of state. This largely takes the form of sneering courtiers, red-faced with fury at the prospect of an upset status quo and incredibly weak, easily manipulated men. A prime example of the latter is Mary’s husband Henry, who is a spineless lush but given a considerable amount of power solely because of his gender and standing. As stated, the roles vary a little and a lot of the supports are neglected (a common complaint of any biopic) and unresolved, only to reappear to spout exposition. Curiously, Guy Pearce largely escapes that as William Cecil but he is also presented rather distinctly from other iterations; neither cold operator nor warm grandfather, he is presented as a loyal citizen who wants his country to excel seemingly above all personal interest.

Historical accuracy is going to be an interesting point of contention with release but let’s start with things the film seems to present well. Overall, I was rather impressed with the presentation and portrayal of court life; both Mary and Elizabeth are surrounded by two support struts, their council and their handmaidens. With the former, there is a clear resentment of female rule and an assumption that the monarch can be manipulated into puppetry and ultimately supplanted. As an interesting contrast to the controlling, conspiratorial nature of ambitious men, we have Elizabeth and Mary’s confidants. When Elizabeth is struck with the pox, her company of chamber maids seem unconcerned with infection and fiercely protect their queen. Likewise, Mary’s troupe are just as loyal, made up of Scottish, French and Italian individuals, one of whom being David Rizzio [Ismael Cruz Cordova], whose sexuality is addressed and welcomed by Mary: “be whoever you wish with us, you make for a lovely sister.”

But there are various developments that are rarely depicted on-screen which has left me wondering whether this film is ultimately revisionist or revelatory. As I have always maintained, for a work of entertainment, it doesn’t always matter. If you set out to create a living documentary, then so be it; if you want to make some bombastic fantastical feature that is more legend than history, that’s your choice. But historical films tend to pitch to a modern audience based on the expectations of the time. This is usually a given for action sequences, presenting fights that would seem underwhelming or sluggish are given a contemporary twist to elevate the scale and energy. This is also true for social politics and environmental factors; mostly an awareness of LGBTQ+ issues, bold religious opinions and respect for nature. Subsequently, Mary is presented as a very progressive and tolerant monarch. Now, whether this is in any way true or not is frankly impossible to know but as a device that serves to highlight the kind of impact Mary’s ideas would have had at the time, it is a decent narrative decision. Similarly, the presence of a more diverse cast of supporting roles is anachronistic because while there would have been a population of people of African or Asian descent in England, they certainly wouldn’t have been in such places of prominence in relation to the monarch. But again, is that at all important? I am of the same mindset as most contemporary Shakespearean productions – when casting, the right role should go to the right actor, regardless of ethnicity or gender.

Overall, this film boils down to a fairly hollow release. It contains fine performances, great levels of production and beautiful cinematography but the writing is pretty anemic and despite the new ground covered, the whole still feels like a re-tread. In a way, it has the air of the majority of films released directly to Netflix, that aren’t nearly as terrible as they could be but aside from a few thought-provoking aspects, are ultimately quite forgettable.


Release Date:
18th January 2019

The Scene To Look Out For:
**spoilers within**
With the pending birth of Queen Mary and Lord Darnley’s child worrying both English and Scottish lords, pressure is mounted on Darnley to blame Rizzio for the Queen’s alleged adultery and execute him. Rizzio is brutally murdered but Mary coerces Darnley to act and they leave the castle. Free from the hands of conspirators, Mary turns on Darnley and has him banished but will not divorce him. This entire section is fantastic cinema and a part of history that a great many people are probably unfamiliar with. Well-acted, well-executed and well-deserving of praise.

Notable Characters:
David Tennant portrays staunch Protestant cleric, John Knox; a man directly opposed to female rule and any form of Catholic subversion that may come with it. Stirring up inflammatory sentiment, he is one of the queen’s greatest nemeses. Yet all of his scenes effectively boil down to a strop in a castle courtroom and a handful of aggressive rants from the pulpit. Underusing this character is a missed opportunity but casting Tennant in such a villainous, antagonistic role and then underusing him is frankly shocking.

Highlighted Quote:
“When I am dead and you are dead and she is dead, what will it matter what names were or weren’t said?”

In A Few Words:
“A stimulating and refreshing historical drama lies deep within this film but there is far too much surface level inadequacy for it to properly shine”

Total Score:

3/5

VICE

The Untold Story That Changed The Course Of History

Director
Adam McKay

Starring
Christian Bale
Jesse Plemons
Amy Adams
Steve Carrell
Sam Rockwell



Bouncing back and forth between formative events, we are shown the life and political times of former US Vice President Dick Cheney [Bale]. Narrated by a fictional Iraq/Afghan war veteran [Plemons], we learn of Cheney’s simple origins and his quick rise to power through four separate Republican presidencies. Along the way, we see him networking with Donald Rumsfeld [Carrell] who acts as his first boss and mentor in Washington, being guided and supported by his opinionated and galvanised wife Lynne [Adams] and taking the young impressionable and inexperienced George W Bush [Rockwell] under his wing to push his own agenda.

As with The Big Short, McKay utilises his distinct style for this rather unorthodox biopic. In order for this to work you need a handful of unwavering, straight elements and several dynamic components that can shift and adapt when necessary. A primary example of that is Nicholas Britell’s magnificent score, which combines ominous and soaring brass with irreverent funky tracks, producing a genuinely solid output. The editing is also mostly there; initially wonderful and erratic, indicative of life flashing before your eyes, working around the nostalgic, simple memories of fishing but ultimately it loses itself and ends up feeling messy. For some, the level of comedy will be lacking and the gimmicks arbitrary or weak but I feel Vice displays just the right amount of comedy, both neatly getting around what is unknown with the omniscient narrator and employing over-the-top bits like a Shakespearean soliloquy to acknowledge that no one knows what was exchanged between two specific characters in private.

While we will return to talk about Christian Bale and his performance later, the casting in this movie is genuinely fantastic. Amy Adams is on fine form as Cheney’s wife, muse and driving motivator is powerful and human while also being rather abhorrent at times. What is most interesting is the pivotal conversation between her and her husband to be, stating that while she craves power and success, that life is not open to a woman (or at least, was less so at the time) so she needs her partner to be a success and she won’t settle for anything less. Equally, Carrell as the brash, charming but ultimately toxic Donald Rumsfeld is a brilliant mixture of cartoonish caricature and unnervingly real portrayal. Then we have Sam Rockwell as George W Bush. Bush is a really tricky performance that no one has been able to nail perfectly but Rockwell comes extremely close, with his confidence, naivety and ultimate incompetence.

Speaking of Bush, we need to talk about Oliver Stone. With such a dark figure coming from fairly innocuous backgrounds, there are a lot of interesting comparisons with Presidential biopic Nixon. At over three hours, that feature was a bit divisive but rather well received. Thirteen years later Stone took on the presidency of George W Bush with W. and while it did some very interesting things it didn’t cut deeply enough and felt very flat and ineffectual. Vice falls somewhere between these two releases, veering between the cutting sincerity and eye-opening portrayals and the lacklustre frailty of an inadequately delivered message. This should be a critical evolution of ruthlessness. We are presented with a serviceable tale, littered with a medley of archive footage and cultural reference points to establish the timeline (things like the “Wassup” Budweiser commercials), that pulls no punches and avoids neutrality with shots like showing Cheney’s cold, literally black heart. Yet there are two films at work (and ultimately at odds) here; one which humanises its subject, showing a protective father in several poignant quiet moments and then we have the busy stylistic choices depicting an opportunistic, unfeeling, monotone boogie man. I have no doubt Cheney is an amalgam hybrid of both but the story fails to cohesively blend them into one all-round exploratory experience, leaving vital developments by the side of the road. At no point do we really go into any detail as to the motivation behind Cheney’s rise and psyche, nor do we analyse how he transitioned from dropout nobody to getting a placement in the Nixon White House. One day he’s a degenerate, the next he’s an aid to Rumsfeld. Then we have the frankly shocking story of Lynne Cheney’s mother’s death – a part of history I was completely oblivious to – despite the implication of murder and an incredibly fractured relationship with Lynne’s father, the entire thread is abandoned as quickly as it is introduced. And finally, and most importantly, McKay finds himself in the same rut as Olive Stone by alluding to the really important atrocities such as torture and war profiteering but told with a knowing look, as if to say “you remember this” to a generation who really don’t.

In truth, Vice is a very entertaining and extremely well-performed feature with a smirk accenting its cold sneer but for those who know little of American politics, post 9/11 policies and the fallout of the actions taken by Cheney during his multiple stints at the White House, this film does little to educate or illuminate. But to be fair, this is why the movie opens with a title card that starts with an apology, stating so much is shrouded in secrecy but they tried. And with that in mind, this movie could be a lot worse.


Release Date:
25th January 2019

The Scene To Look Out For:
Midway through the film, Cheney leaves the White House and enters the private sector, becoming the CEO of oil conglomerate Halliburton. The film then offers several title cards depicting an alternate future wherein Cheney left politics for good to be with his family and raise an award-winning breed of dogs. It even goes so far as to start rolling credits before record scratching with a phone call from George W Bush to run as VP. I was very split over this. On the one hand, I find these fake-outs very amusing. I like the idea of a hindsight-possessing narrator toying with the idea of what could have been. On the other, this kind of joke can quickly outstay its welcome once it has been revealed that it’s not going anywhere – especially as McKay pulled this before with the end of The Big Short, discussing the fallout of the banking crisis and how so few individuals and companies were held to account. But as conflicted as I am, the sequence is still memorable and ultimately praiseworthy.

Notable Characters:
As with many biopics, the central performance is pretty much everything and Christian Bale’s Dick Cheney is marvellous. The actor loses himself in the role spectacularly and wears the familiar characteristics with ease and style. From the cold calculation to the matter-of-fact reactions to various heart attacks, Bale gives us the closest we can get to a man hungry for power. It’s simply a desperate shame that the script never gives him enough material to explore the inception of that hunger.

Highlighted Quote:
“The world is as you find it. You have to deal with that reality”

In A Few Words:
“A well-performed lambasting of a notoriously secretive political figure that just falls short of greatness”

Total Score:

4/5

STAN & OLLIE

The Untold Story Of The World’s Greatest Comedy Act

Director
Jon S Baird

Starring
Steven Coogan
John C Reilly
Shirley Henderson
Nina Arianda
Rufus Jones



Decades after the height of their success, Stan Laurel [Coogan] and Oliver Hardy [Reilly] have reunited to perform on stage in Britain while a producer secures funds for a feature film about Robin Hood. The quaint accommodation, middling crowds and rundown venues are a far throw from what they have been used to and their impresario, Bernard Delfont [Jones] is offering very little assistance, distracted by more lucrative clientele like Norman Wisdom. As the tour continues, we get a look into the cause of the fracture between the two artists, which exasperates with the arrival of the comic duo’s wives.

As with all biopics, this film is driven by its central performances and while Coogan and Reilly may not immediately jump to mind when thinking of ideal casting, they prove themselves quintessential. Offering an effortless, human portrayal of the personas and chemistry that people associate with the comedy duo but also delving into the mind-set of any creative partnership and the complications that sprout from clashing egos and lopsided behind-the-scenes workloads. More than that, there is a true on-screen revelry as Coogan and Reilly perfectly mimic the stylings and routines of Laurel and Hardy. But it should be noted, for all the exceptional recreations, sometimes it is at the expense of narrative content, leaving many of the routines feeling like padding or filer. As a comparison, Bohemian Rhapsody is full of amazing simulacra but audience fatigue with lip-synched covers can set in followed by the realisation that the story isn’t exactly being pushed forward by yet another (admittedly well-acted) bit. With such a keen and narrow focus on two powerful lead performances, supporting actors almost always fall by the side of the road but to quote the film, “two double-acts for the price of one.” The three other characters rounding out the main cast are Laurel and Hardy’s respective wives and their tour manager. Starting with the latter, Rufus Jones does a wonderful job of playing this semi-bullish, painfully cringe-worthy producer dancing that fine line between sycophancy and self-serving opportunism and it’s frankly marvellous. Then we have Shirley Henderson as Lucille Hardy and Nina Arianda as Ida Kitaeva Laurel, both of whom are fiercely protective of their husbands as well as equally pleasing caricatures as their husbands. Ida and her various eccentricities, especially, was extremely entertaining.

From a technical standpoint, the film is very capable. The direction, editing and production design are all praiseworthy and although the score is a touch straight and safe, it hardly detracts from the overall experience and, in truth, would likely be the ideal accompaniment for this kind of feel-good feature, for a lot of audience members. I will say, however, that the hair and makeup, including the prosthetic work, was incredibly good. It seems there has been a notable shift over the last few years, long gone are some of the more painfully dated effects and in their place are high quality seamless transformative appendages and suits.

For all the praise I can bestow upon the practical accomplishments, the overall impact is surprisingly tepid. Rather than a full account of the working relationship between two comedians, we are treated to a snapshot story, laced with a few brief flashbacks to better days and the rift that formed between Laurel and Hardy over a contract dispute. In doing so, we are given an entirely pleasant treatment that is given an inoffensive soft touch that lacks intricacy or detail. And for anyone who would contest this by highlighting the runtime of a film or audience separation from the subject matter, I would point to Chaplin which charts the entire course of Charlie Chaplin’s career while openly highlighting the unknown elements and effectively translating for a modern audience. But this isn’t to say that this film is in any way unworthy. Despite the gentle approach, it is no less immersive or captivating, generating something that is beautifully tragic at times. Case in point, the film closes with an incredibly ill Oliver Hardy pushing him and his partner into one of their most iconic dance routines to end their show. Physically demanding, Laurel’s face is racked with concern but Hardy insists and the final sequence is a wondrous, painful sight to behold. Sure, a lot of audience members will find this film boring or slow but for that perfect demographic, this film will thrill.


Release Date:
11th January 2019

The Scene To Look Out For:
**spoilers within**
Other than that aforementioned dance sequence, there was another wonderful, cutting moment when Stan reveals to Ollie that the picture deal has fallen through and Ollie confesses that he already knew. In that moment of transparency, Stan is briefly taken aback and asks if he knew, why would Ollie keep asking about the script and rehearsing scenes, to which he replies that Stan was writing them and it’s what they do. As heart-breaking as it is uplifting, it embodies everything you need to know about these two individuals.

Notable Characters:
Something I picked up on was the laudable levels of diversity in the supports. Whenever we look back to the past, it is through a very caucasian prism, both in terms of perspective and presence. Subsequently, reminding people that post war Britain saw a huge boom in different ethnicities, was a genuinely appreciated addition.

Highlighted Quote:
“It’s moments like this that make me love this industry. Madness. Beautiful madness”

In A Few Words:
“A simple, loving celebration”

Total Score:

3/5

THE FAVOURITE

Long Live The Queen

Director
Yorgos Lanthimos

Starring
Olivia Colman
Rachel Weisz
Emma Stone



Set in the early seventeen hundreds – a rarely explored period of British history – we are introduced to Queen Anne [Colman] and her advisor Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough [Weisz]. Through the early interactions it is clear that Anne has little interest or even capacity to rule the country and daily matters of state are pushed through by Marlborough. As England is at war with France (the fourteen year War of the Spanish Succession) Marlborough pushes for the war effort to be doubled and taxes to be raised, infuriating half of parliament. Politicians are unable to work past Marlborough to get to the Queen until Abigail Hill [Stone] is taken on as a scullery maid. It is revealed that Abigail is Marlborough’s cousin but due to her father’s gambling and drinking, has long lost her title. After surreptitiously treating the Queen’s gout, Abigail earns the Queen’s favour and is elevated to lady-in-waiting. As the story continues, it becomes apparent that Abigail means to further work her way into the Queen’s graces and ultimately supplant Marlborough.

It would be wrong to call this a comedy. Despite the marketing campaign, the level of sadism and spite that supersedes the initially pitched straight comedy will ostracise many cinemagoers. This is, of course, far from a negative point, as pandering to audiences should rarely be an artist’s priority. Ultimately, I can’t say I’m that surprised, considering Lanthimos’ previous works but in truth, this release is significantly more approachable, subduing the more outlandish elements and favouring a fairly straightforward look at hedonism, entitlement and absurdity. It is presented, however, with a specific visual flare, combining lavish production design and settings with the occasional fish-eye lens and ever-low, snaking camera movements, as if the viewer is a mere unseen underling, passing unseen through these private chambers. Equally, the score can be quite maddening, ranging from typical period-appropriate classical pieces to almost horror score stings and stabs.

While the beautiful visuals and haunting aural work is on top form, the film mostly shines thanks to the three lead performances. Olivia Colman has been portraying deep, emotional roles on British television and cinema screens for several years but will no doubt rise to prominence for her role here once paired with her upcoming work on The Crown .Colman’s portrayal of mental health, infirmity and decrepitude is both realistic and unflattering. There is always the constant danger, when portraying mental health on screen, of veering into excess and extravagance (admittedly, sometimes the role calls for it) but Queen Anne feels grounded and plausible with erratic mood swings, bouts of manic urgency and fatigue. Weisz and her delivery are extremely curious. Her role as Anne’s confidante is delivered with a similar childlike speed, confidence and naivety that was on display in The Lobster but in a way this serves to assist in normalising Anne’s eccentricities by highlighting the insanity of life at court. It’s also extremely difficult, when discussing Stone’s character, to avoid comparisons between The Favourite and All About Eve. But Stone reminds us of why she is a genuinely interesting talent, offering a complex, paranoid performance of a woman who sees loyalty as a thing to be manipulated rather than earned. But this only illustrates the best element of this story, which is that none of these characters are truly innocent and all are guilty of manipulating the other for various forms of personal gain.

The Favourite is, however, not without its flaws. There will be critics who will fawn over its lavish nonsense and viewers who will dismiss it for the exact same reason. In truth, while it is extremely well executed, this film lacks a few components or developments that could have really created a fantastic piece from start to end. Things like Marlborough’s motives pushing so heavily for war. A great deal is implied in terms of theft but due to the semi-unreliable nature of the characters it’s difficult to tell whether this is real or a fabrication of Abigail’s – even if the latter is most likely. There’s also a lack of historical context and absence of life outside the palace. While this replicates the hermetic environment the Queen inhabits, it adds a great deal of unknown for the audience and a lot of the satirical nods are lost. I’m not saying the movie should adhere to complete historical accuracy but the chance to analyse an incompetent ruler surrounded by sycophants and conspirators while drawing a subtle contemporary comparison would have been greatly appreciated. On top of that, everything unfolds very neatly and due to the nature of the performances, a lot of the tension is lost.

Overall, The Favourite is a very fun and ridiculous feature that often ventures into the cruel and brutal but for all its bells and whistles, it just misses out on being something truly special.


Release Date:
1st January 2019

The Scene To Look Out For:
To offset the Queen’s temper, Abigail discusses the ornate hutches in the monarch’s chambers. Anne explains that each rabbit is named after a child that she lost, whether stillborn or miscarriage. It’s a simple sobering moment amidst the senselessness and one that highlights the depths of Colman and Stone’s performances respectively.

Notable Characters:
While the three leads carry this film, the other key standout performance is Nicholas Hoult’s brilliantly awful representation of the leader of the opposing Whig Party, Robert Harley, the first Earl of Oxford. Uncaring, unfeeling, opportunistic, arrogant and pressing his own agenda, Hoult is one of the more comedic performances and even in his malice is laughably silly and extremely well-performed.

Highlighted Quote:
“It’s my state. Am I not business of state?”

In A Few Words:
“A more restrained effort from Lanthimos but a fantastic, twisted release all the same”

Total Score:

4/5

BUMBLEBEE

Every Hero Has A Beginning

Director
Travis Knight

Starring
Hailee Steinfeld
Jorge Lendeborg Jr
John Cena



1987. On the planet Cybertron, the war between sentient robots the Autobots and Decepticons has reached a critical point. The resistance members are forced to evacuate and B-127 is charged with scouting a new world to inhabit. Said world is Earth and upon his arrival, B-127 encounters a US military group in training, led by Agent Jack Burns [Cena]. In a fight with a decepticon that pursued B-127, most of Burns’ unit is wiped out and the alien refugee passes out, disguising itself as a Volkswagen Beetle. We are then introduced to teenage Charlie Watson [Steinfeld] who is still getting over the recent loss of her father. Awkward and rebellious, Charlie lashes out at her parents, doesn’t seem to have many friends and works a summer job that she hates. While working on her father’s car, she discovers the Beetle and convinces the garage owner to sell it to her. Learning of the Beetle’s true form and that he has no memory of who or what he is, Charlie names him Bumblebee and the two become friends.

Right off the bat, it is evident that Bumblebee is nothing like the Transformers fare that we have seen to date. From the premise to the quirky interaction, this film draws heavily on audience nostalgia for 80s films wherein a kid befriends a weird creature and goes on a crazy journey of self discovery and daring adventure, in the vein of ET, Flight Of The Navigator, Gremlins, etc. Keeping the threat small, tight and simple allows for an amazing and emotional fun energy to shine through that gives this release such a fresh feeling and coming in just over two hours, it’s a welcome break from the relentless three plus hour slogs that the other adaptations have been to date. What’s more, this grounded simplicity makes way for Charlie’s character to come to the fore, giving us a genuinely pleasant and relatable teen drama. Sure, it hits a lot of overly-trodden beats and veers into cliche territory on more than one occasion but another good recent comparison would be something like Spider-Man: Homecoming, which gave audiences the spectacle they were sold on and the heartfelt centre they weren’t expecting; but with Knight coming off the back of Kubo And The Two Strings, that’s hardly a surprise.

In truth, the writing flies in defiance of the world that Bay created. Gone is the hyper-sexualisation and cringeworthy dialogue and in their place we have legitimate family dynamics, honest comedy and relationships that form naturally and organically. But none of this would mean anything if its central star couldn’t channel a frustrated 18 year old who has recently lost her father and is trying to just get away from her life. Honestly, Charlie will feel familiar to so many teenagers and not in a Hollywood, romanticised way but as an authentic discontented young person. And this is largely down to Steinfeld who legitimately deserves so much more attention and praise for what she’s doing. Charlie is a fantastic, capable, intelligent and emotive female lead who feels like a real person rather than a caricature.

Again, in defiance of Bay, we have to talk about the redesigns. Ultimately, there are three main transformers: one hero and two villains. The designs are close to the original cartoon and the simple colour scheme makes them easy to distinguish who-is-who. I cannot tell you how much of a leap forward that is. With the camera largely still and the action clear, we can finally appreciate how astoundingly good these effects can be. The performance of the transformers is great and their physicality gives them so much personality. What’s interesting too, is that although the action is much simpler, the stakes feel higher. This is sort of similar to releases like Mission: Impossible – Fallout which gave audiences a taste of classic cinema where the threat feels real because it’s not 100% CGI. During one particular chase, a car slams on the brakes at a red light and so many vehicles stop inches before impact, leaving one to finally careen over the roof of the non-pile-up, making these near misses feel oddly surprising, defying our explosive expectations.

The film is, admittedly, far from perfect and it’s no Iron Giant as some will have you believe. It walks through some obvious tropes and the diving subplot is painfully predictable but it’s hard not to give these things a pass when considering how poor the previous films have been. Also, while I love the work of Dario Marianelli’s, his score lacks Steve Jablonsky’s pounding themes. Again, the softer tone reflects the film’s overall soft reboot direction but it also loses a bit of that memorability and presence.

In summation, this is a really pleasant, lively and satisfying release but if you had told me six months ago that a Transformers spin-off, which is also the sixth in the series, was the film we were all hoping for some twelve years ago, I sincerely wouldn’t have believed you. But now we’re here, I’m so very excited to see where this series can go now it’s finally got its proper debut.


Release Date:
21st December 2018

The Scene To Look Out For:
In the UK, our films open with a certificate from the BBFC, highlighting the film’s age rating and the various content warnings. To see this is the first Transformers film since the 80s to be rated PG, I was quite surprised. More surprising than that, was the level of violence they managed to get away with. While Bay’s use of violence was visceral and grimy, with street executions, there was a poetic martial arts to the fighting but it still resulted in robots being shot to death, cut in half and humans being liquified. That last bit is important. To date, humans have been killed in these movies and it always felt grimy and unnecessary but the way this is handled felt more like a cartoon and very much brought me back to the over-the-top but still family friendly execution of Men In Black and if these films had started with this tone, who knows how powerful this franchise could be now… I mean, it’s made billions, so it’s not like it’s doing that badly.


Notable Characters:
Charlie’s side-kick and co-lead is Memo, the nerdy guy who lives across the street from Charlie but has never had the courage to introduce himself. I’m very conflicted about this character. On the one hand, he’s a decent bit of comic relief and a nice-guy love interest for our lead. I also like that she keeps him at arms length because she’s not ready for a relationship and he respects that. But he’s also a six-pack-wielding hot guy with an amount of bravery and confidence that seems to bubble out of nowhere. I get why he exists, I just think he could have been written a touch better. Oh and I’d just like to add that while I’m fine with the whole ‘speaking through the radio’ thing, Dylan O’Brien was fantastic as Bumblebee’s actual voice. They need to bring him back.

Highlighted Quote:
“They literally call themselves Decepticons. Does that not send up any red flags?”

In A Few Words:
“If you’ve given up on Transformers films or never bothered to try one, this might be the film that changes your mind on the franchise”

Total Score:

4/5

GREEN BOOK

Inspired By A True Friendship

Director
Peter Farrelly

Starring
Viggo Mortensen
Mahershala Ali
Linda Cardellini



During the early 60s, Frank ‘Tony Lip’ Vallelonga [Mortensen] is working as a bouncer for a New York nightclub. As an Italian American, he has a past with organised crime but largely keeps out of it for his family’s sake. Either way, he’s a heavy and has a simple set of skills. We are then introduced to Don ‘Doc’ Shirley [Ali], an extremely talented pianist who lives above Carnegie Hall and needs a chauffeur to take him on an eight week tour of destinations in the deep south, who still have deep-rooted prejudices concerning African Americans. Tony reluctantly accepts the job and is given the Green Book (a guide to safe spots to stay, eat and drive for black tourists visiting the southern States). Along the way, there are distinct personality clashes between the refined and well-mannered Shirley and the abrasive but loveable Vallelonga.

I appreciate I’ve just summarised the plot but if you’ll humour me a moment, I would like to post two separate storylines to you. The first is about a highly educated African American musician taking a tour of venues in the deep south during the early 1960s. The second is about a fairly bigoted but charming Italian American who drives an artist through territory hostile to him. While both are compelling, one clearly stands out as the more interesting source for drama, tension, humour and poignancy. I would then ask which of those two individuals would you say is the lead character? And this is Green Book’s biggest flaw but we’ll come back to that properly later. The reason a lot of people won’t take issue with this is the performances, which are subtly spectacular. Both Mortensen and Ali have a wonderful amount of charisma and presence that shine throughout the film and from development to development, we not only want them to succeed but we actively want them to become close; much in the way audiences desperately will together a couple in a romantic comedy. As curators of lives, filmmakers that take on biopics or films “based on a true story” have a responsibility to authenticity and accuracy. Having said that, they also have a primary responsibility as entertainers to tell an entertaining and engaging story; after all, this isn’t a documentary. So what we end up with (for better or worse) are clear moralistic caricatures that work well. Sure, the script doesn’t go as far as it could to address the socio-political issues but it highlights enough to allow the co-leads to give us something compelling and heartfelt.

I have always maintained that the best source for dark performances or direction comes from those who have suffered it and try to deflect; in other words, comedians. A life in comedy is one that isn’t chosen lightly, especially if you actually have something to say, and tapping into whatever event or catalyst that prompted said coping method can yield some crushingly earnest performances. We’ve seen this recently with direction from people like Adam McKay who has stepped away from comedy to focus on cutting satire. Now, while the Farrellys have been heavily associated with visceral gross-out humour, there is also the presence of tremendous heart and a tendency to draw an understated focus to how we treat others – usually those with mental health issues. What’s more, directors who come from a comedy background usually know where the line is and have proven they can walk it deftly and that can give them an ability to address certain issues without going too far into the realms of saccharine, cliché or tedious. And while I think Peter Farrelly does this with reasonable skill, he also plays it too safe at times, shying away from some of the most important and powerful talking points; effectively avoiding the peaks and troughs to ensure a level experience.

Over the last few years I have noticed an uncomfortable trend in certain message pieces that breeds a very specific and identifiable formula. Scenes like cops pulling over minorities and mistreating them, black people who have tried to adapt to survive learning about contemporary African American culture from white people and discussions about foods associated with ethnicity are not without their historical merit but they do feel like they are fast becoming hackneyed (solely from a storytelling perspective) which in a way makes them dangerous because it can desensitise the very audiences the filmmakers are trying to educate. It also leaves this movie with an unfortunate summary of “I don’t like them black guys, don’t trust ’em” to “Hey, this black guy is my best friend, you treat him with respect.” Which, considering the script was co-written by Vallelonga’s son, has a bit of lop-sided rose-tinted hero worship. Having said that, while these tropes should be tired, they are still largely unknown for a lot of people, therefore still very important and the performances and direction hold throughout to ensure they play out with the desired well-intentioned effect. Admittedly, there is also an odd sense of closure and optimism by the end of the film. In one particular scene, a policeman pulls Don and Tony over and while we expect more intolerant attitudes, the officer shows genuine compassion and concern but this creates a false statement of “welcome back to the good ol’ tolerant North, where everything is perfect.” I understand why this is done from a narrative point of view but it paints an inaccurate portrayal and runs the risk of invalidating other stories; as if to imply everything worked out just fine. A good contrast is BlacKkKlansman which ends with a sobering contemporary comparison, highlighting that not only were these divisions not resolved back then, they still very much exist today. So for all its intentions and hopes, Green Book ends up less a cutting analysis of America’s past and more a reframing of white alliances by creating another Driving Miss Daisy.

But in spite of that scathing assessment and for all its faults, this film remains a very well-crafted feature but one that feels like it is pitching to a certain section of the audience, in an almost apologetic manner. Who knows? Maybe this is the best way to get through to people and if you can reach someone and make them assess their own attitudes and intolerances, surely that’s a positive step. But it is only a step into a much larger discussion that this film doesn’t really have the weight to hold.


Release Date:
1st February 2019

The Scene To Look Out For:
This is less a statement about a scene that is present but more about scenes that are absent. Cementing the skewing between the two leads, the movie opens with arguably arbitrary scenes of Tony stealing a hat to win a mob boss’ favour, winning an eating contest to make some extra cash for his family and his general uncultured manner with people. All of these serve to highlight the man’s wit, resourcefulness, resilience and desire to take care of his family, as well as his temper getting the best of him and his overall simple nature. But we are given next to nothing about Shirley’s character. In fairness, a lot of this is drawn out over the course of the film, allowing the audience to get to know the pianist as Tony does but even then, everything is shrouded and while that mystery is fine, it feels more like a failing in the scripting phase, rather than an intentional artistic choice.

Notable Characters:
Stepping away from the two leads for a second, the only other standout individual is Linda Cardellini as Tony’s wife Dolores. Again, this is a very clear-cut soft portrayal of a person who is mostly there as a cut-away rather than an actual, fleshed-out human. At the end of the day, she is there to notice and then vocalise the change in Vallelonga’s personality for the better and if I’m honest, Cardellini is wasted in a role that offers so very little.

Highlighted Quote:
“If I’m not black enough and if I’m not white enough and I’m not man enough, then tell me Tony, what am I?”

In A Few Words:
“An extremely enjoyable and charming release which falls short of being as poignant and insightful as it attempts to be”

Total Score:

4/5

AQUAMAN

Home Is Calling

Director
James Wan

Starring
Jason Momoa
Amber Heard
Patrick Wilson



The film opens with a healthy dose of backstory, detailing the origin of Arthur Curry [Momoa], also known as Aquaman. As a son of a lighthouse keeper and the queen of an underwater kingdom, named Atlantis, he has specific powers and abilities. One year after the events in Justice League, Arthur stops a group of pirates hijacking a Russian nuclear submarine. Well, he doesn’t exactly stop them but that’s a whole different review. Soon after King Orm [Wilson] meets with fellow monarch to discuss uniting the ocean for a fight against the surface when they are attacked, cementing the alliance. Meanwhile Princess Mera [Heard], Orm’s fiancée, contacts Arthur and sets him on a quest to discover the ancient Atlantean king’s trident and stop the impending war.

The first thing that is immediately obvious is that this film stands out from the other DCEU films. Each release has had a very distinct directorial vision, which has admittedly led to a bit of a lack of continuity in character portrayal, but Wan unabashedly leaning into the fantasy elements is one of this movie’s strongest spokes. Much like Marvel’s Thor or Guardians Of The Galaxy movies, the unique production design and colour palate not only offers audiences something new but takes a nice step away from the dour, desaturated self-importance of the other features. But coming from a horror background, Wan has limited experience filming direction and this often leads to unfortunate repetition. Case in point, all the major fight sequences suffer from an overuse of a spinning one-shot in a single box location, which breeds familiarity and tedium. The fights themselves are nicely choreographed and well performed, with the CGI largely holding up but it leaves everything feeling a touch uninventive. Having said that, there’s a very strong visual presence at work here, offering up some truly impressive shots. One that stands out (and was used in the trailer, so is hardly a spoiler) is the semi-submerged cross-section as Arthur and Mera dive into the depths of the ocean as a storm rages overhead. Almost everything is pitch black bar the penetrative light from the flare in Arthur’s hand, revealing the swarms of snarling beasts of the trench that are descending upon them. It’s genuinely art; the kind of splash panel one sees in a comic and immediately floors you with its sense of scale and severity of the situation. But regrettably, most of the CGI will age horribly due to the cartoonish lack of realism, veering into full-on video game cut-scene territory. Stepping away from the visuals for a second, the sound design is fantastic, creating an interesting underwater soundscape but the score is an altogether different beast. The music used throughout is a curious mix of the kind of themes set up by Hans Zimmer – riffing guitars and soaring strings – and digital synths, like a mix between Blade Runner and Mass Effect. Being Rupert Gregson-Williams, one of Zimmer’s many protégé’s this is hardly surprising.

From the very get-go it is evident that this movie is incredibly self-aware. They know very little is known about the Aquaman lore, they realise that fish people are a hard sell and they know all too well what this film needs to achieve and its star is. After a fairly large helping of flashback exposition, have the scene aboard the submarine, re-introducing us to the adult Momoa. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve no doubt seen this shot. Arthur drops down, facing away from the camera, flicks his hair back before rippling his muscles and sultrily grunting “Permission to come aboard.” And the thing is, it works because in my screening a lady three-or-so rows back was unable to contain herself and let out a disturbingly primal, “Oh.. yes!” Which, if you’ve ever watched a film with a British audience, you will know is pretty unorthodox. But unlike his appearance in Justice League, the bro machismo has been toned down, or somewhat refined at least. The abrasive, obnoxiousness has been traded out for a more subtle confidence and the conflicting motivational drive feels earned rather than simply petulant. As odd as it will sound (and I am fully prepared for blowback on this), it almost feels like Momoa is trying to channel Brandon Lee. For those who don’t know, Lee’s most well-known feature is The Crow, the production that he died on due to an on-set accident. But if we strip away the broody goth nature of that vengeance tale and simply focus on the wise-cracking bravado and arrogance of The Crow’s action scenes, the persona is very similar to how Arthur Curry is portrayed here. Unfortunately, every other character has the fairly daunting task of selling underwater fish people as a serious conceit. Acting as Aquaman’s side kick is Princess Mera, with Amber Heard returning to the role. In all honesty, there’s very little to the character, she has a bit of agency (more so than Arthur who is far from proactive) but her character is rather two dimensional and boils down to essentially the fish-out-of-water tropes – I’m not even going to acknowledge the pun there. The central opposition is King Orm and while I respect Wilson’s dedication to the craft and commitment to the performance, his character is very generic. As the lead’s half-brother, hell bent on conquest with a prejudice to the “surface world” inherited by his father and the knowledge that his mother died because of his half-breed half-brother, he’s pretty standard bad-guy fodder. But amidst the moustache-twirling, posturing and incessant yelling, Wilson manages to salvage a sizeable amount of credibility.

As energetic and fun as the direction is and as over the top and enjoyable as the performances are, the script is a particularly flat component. Sure, the main treasure hunt story is perfectly serviceable and the warlike machinations of the reigning king are somewhat interesting but the dialogue is just abysmal and the story follows a very predictable beat-by-beat formula. A prime example is the love story between Arthur and Mera which is painfully sophomoric in its execution. And yet while the starting point and the final destination are exactly where one would expect, the pleasing morsels along the way make the journey feel oddly worth it.


Release Date:
14th December 2018

The Scene To Look Out For:
Far too many recent superhero films stride into a third act conflict with their lead villain opening a portal (preferably blue) above a city and fighting waves of disposable infantry. Aquaman defies expectations by doing things a little differently. When discussing Orm’s motivation, the film a people furious with the pollution of the ocean by mankind. Such an eco-message could come off as campy and a bit Captain Planet but owing to how it is handled and the fact that we are under constant threat from climate change, this works as decent motivation and generates point of sympathy toward the Atlanteans. All of which builds to an all-out Lord Of The Rings style battle which is genuinely quite a stunning sight to behold. Either that or there’s a scene with an octopus playing drums! That’s some Little Mermaid shit right there and this movie has zero qualms including it front-and-centre.

Notable Characters:
I don’t think it would be entirely fair to say that Aquaman suffers from too many villains but a lot of the characters do feel underdeveloped. Black Manta is a tricky one as there is both too much and too little of him. He has his origin in the first act, he squares off against Arthur in the second and reappears mid-credits to set up a sequel but he never really poses much of a threat to Aquaman and feels like a bit of an afterthought whose quest for conflict with Arthur is an unrequited one.

Highlighted Quote:
“A king fights only for his nation. You fight for everyone”

In A Few Words:
“Aquaman is bombastic ridiculousness but precisely because it’s bombastic ridiculousness is why it’s the DCEU’s second best film to date”

Total Score:

3/5

CREED II

The Name. The History. The Feud.

Director
Steven Caple Jr

Starring
Michael B Jordan
Tessa Thompson
Sylvester Stallone
Florian Munteanu
Dolph Lundgren



Starting at the top, Creed II opens with Adonis Creed [Jordan] winning his heavyweight championship match to truly earn his place as his father’s successor. He proposes to his girlfriend Bianca Taylor [Thompson] but Is reluctant to move to Los Angeles and leave Philadelphia and trainer, Rocky Balboa [Stallone], behind. Having achieved the pinnacle of boxing, Creed learns of a young Russian boxer who challenges him to a fight, this man is Viktor Drago [Munteanu] who is being trained by his father Ivan Drago [Lundgren], the man who killed Apollo Creed in the ring. Against advice and better judgement, Adonis lashes out at his friends and family and, charged with emotion, accepts the grudge match.

Creed II picks up the franchise’s thematic baton, addressing the concepts of legacies, fatherhood and meritocracy while continuing to explore how our past experiences shape who we become as adults. But this shouldn’t come as any surprise as this release largely follows the established Rocky/boxing film formula to the degree that within the first twenty minutes, it’s very easy to map out how the film will unfold – but more on that later. What’s interesting is that the screenplay leans into the canon of the story, knowing full-well what it is and injects a seriousness to the now-campy 80s melodrama. But as with the six Rocky films of the past (more specifically the first four sequels) with every passing instalment, this franchise is tempting fate. Overall, Creed II says a lot and gives us a nice rounding out of these newly introduced characters but the more they stick around, the more regurgitation and re-treading of the same ground we are subjected to and the veneer quickly wears off. In other words, I kinda hope this is the last Rocky/Creed film but I doubt it will be.

As with Creed this film is carried by the magnificent, compelling performances. From an artistic level we always analyse Jordan’s ability to emote and give us a very real and powerful performance; and rightly so. The scene alone wherein Adonis is watching his new-born daughter’s test results and manages to convey so much without dialogue, separated from his fiancée by a viewing window, it’s spectacular acting. But not enough is said about how convincing the fights look and the training and the sheer physicality of Jordan’s performance. The choreography is amazing, the physical drain on the man is palpable and the toll of this life is more than evident in every scene. Arguably, any actor can bulk up and scream at a wall while throwing punches, few can make you believe someone is truly in this life. Equally, Tessa Thompson proves once again that she is one of the most important rising stars of the last five years, bringing so much class and heart to every role she takes on, outshining the restrictions of the character and cementing herself as a formidable presence.

Another interesting inclusion is the inevitable Drago storyline; considering how Apollo Creed was killed in the ring, a confrontation between a Creed and a Drago was inescapable. I was, however, pleasantly surprised that the Dragos are significantly more nuanced, rather than simply offered up as sneering foreign bad guys. Here we have two men who are just as layered and compelling as Creed and Balboa, with their own trials, tribulations, points to prove and obstacles to overcome; even if it does follow a lot of the beats from Iron Man 2. As mentioned earlier, the film leans into the silliness of the 80s and flips the expectations. When Ivan Drago was introduced in Rocky IV, he didn’t really have much of a character or personality, he was just the Russian opponent whose coaching was largely reliant on cutting edge technology. Here, he is a man rejected by his country, living in exile, weighing heavily on his son, offering us a look into a potential life that Adonis could have potentially endured.

Setting aside all the noteworthy components, there are two key factors that knock this film down and relegate it to acceptable status. The first is Caple Jr’s direction. Before we go any further, I should point out that Caple Jr does a commendable job with what he is given. There are plenty of examples of really impressive and inventive camera work and performance coaching that deserves credit. The problem is, he’s following Ryan Coogler and even with everything firing as planned, it lacks that distinct flare and skill that makes Coogler such a standout force. While I could let this slide and the film would be a solid 4/5, not enough can be said about the predictability of this film absolutely killing all possible tension and reward. I mentioned earlier that within the first twenty minutes you can tell how the film is going to unfold and it utterly cripples what this film could be. I will admit that this is true of most sports movies, especially sequels, but there is so little new ground explored (other than adding a semblance of depth to the “villain”) that Creed II fails to inspire as much emotional momentum and pay-off as its predecessor.

Picking up where Creed left off, this is a very solid edition to the franchise and deserves its place along with the other Rocky sequels as praiseworthy sports drama but unless they can produce a story that is so fresh and innovative, this might be the last time we need to visit this generation-spanning tale.


Release Date:
30th November 2018

The Scene To Look Out For:
There are plenty of little vignettes and moments that really stick with you in this film. Not all of them are especially revolutionary but they stay with you all the same. One montage that I particularly enjoyed is Bianca heading out and leaving Adonis in charge of their daughter. It’s admittedly fairly cliché but Adonis scrambling around, desperately trying to get his daughter to stop crying is very endearing (most notably when he’s on the phone to his mother) and as a kid growing up with his own abandonment issues surrounding his father, it’s a nice character building point.

Notable Characters:
While the Dragos are given personality, there’s still an underdeveloped side that is played up as important without enough evidence to justify it. In other words, not enough was done with Brigitte Nielsen’s cameo. So, Nielsen has a brief returning role as Ivan’s former wife and Viktor’s mother. At the start of the film it’s clear she is no longer in their life but it’s never expressly stated what happened. Then we learn that she simply abandoned them to stay in Russia while Ivan and Viktor lived in Ukraine. What we feel is building to an emotional confrontation is little more than two scenes, wherein Nielsen turns up, smirks then exits. It still has an impact on the agency of the characters but she’s not a person; it’s just a little weird. On the opposite end of the spectrum, bringing Milo Ventimiglia back to tie this movie into Rocky Balboa was both a nice touch and decent bookend to Rocky’s story. Although saying this is Stallone’s final appearance as Rocky Balboa is always a 50/50 coin toss.

Highlighted Quote:
“Are you here to prove something to other people or prove something to yourself?”

In A Few Words:
“There is nothing in this film that we haven’t seen before in a Rocky sequel but its execution is pleasing enough to earn its place as a solid continuation of the saga”

Total Score:

3/5

THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER’S WEB

A New Dragon Tattoo Story

Director
Fede Alvarez

Starring
Claire Foy
Sverrir Gudnason
Sylvia Hoeks
LaKeith Stanfield
Stephen Merchant



Several years after the events of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, hacker Lisbeth Salander [Foy] is hired by programmer Frans Balder [Merchant] to steal a program named Firefall, which has the ability to access all global nuclear codes and is currently possessed by the NSA. This hack prompts Agent Edwin Needham [Stanfield] to track the invasion and unofficially make his way to Sweden to retrieve it. Once Salander has the program, she is targeted by a group of mercenaries led by her estranged sister, Camilla Salander [Hoeks] and must again team up with journalist Mikael Blomkvist [Gudnason] to stop such a powerful weapon falling into a crime syndicate’s hands.

The Girl In The Spider’s Web is one of those unfortunate releases that has two extremely successful predecessors that were adapted from very simplistic source material. That isn’t a slight against the books, more an observation that the plotting and character designs are outwardly simplistic while being delivered in an extremely impressive manner. In lesser hands, we end up with a trite script, horrible editing, questionable direction and an overall watered down experience that lacks nuance, complexity and tension, saved largely by a reasonable central performance and solid cinematography. If this movie were released as a made for TV/streaming feature or bold pilot to a series, I would likely sing higher praises but as a feature length film it simply lacks all the requisite weight and presence one expects from a release of this potential scope and scale.

Despite being a soft reboot/sequel, this movie is pretty reliant on a fair amount of knowledge of the first. Granted, the story at no point demands you understand the details of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo but to appreciate the motivations between Blomkvist and Salander, it certainly helps. When The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was first released, everyone sold it on the obtuse nature of Salander, its alleged central character. Her quirks and eccentricities were a mystery to be unravelled. When I watched the Swedish adaptation of the book, I was surprised to learn that the story is actually a thriller about a journalist and a family of Nazis, with Salander merely an interesting supporting role. While Salander remains elusive and unquantified, she retains her mystery but like all misguided franchise-prolonging ventures, a spotlight focus is placed on an interesting supporting character and the result is a distinct genre shift and an ultimately hollow release.

At the helm of the misguided decisions is the casting of Claire Foy. Most critics will agree that Foy performs commendably and she shines despite the terrible script and I would completely agree with that, however, as hard as she is trying, she comes off oddly too emotive and the calculating, reptilian nature of the character is lost. In other words, this otherworldly socially-inept individual is humanised and made relatable, whereas both Noomi Rapace and Rooney Mara’s versions were unpredictable and hard to read. Then we have the villainous role of Lisbeth’s sister Camilla. While I appreciate that the theatricality of Lisbeth’s persona is amped up, her unscrupulous opposite feels a little too cartoonish, veering into campy James Bond villain territory, inheriting with it the mixed message about whether Camilla wants Lisbeth dead or not before you realise that the motivation of the character plays second fiddle to the movie’s need to provide unusual visuals and setups.

As stated, the script is both predictable and bland with laughable developments and turns of coincidence that allow the plot to forward itself. Clichéd situations are presented with lazy and tired direction, peppered with bizarre quips and dialogues that make the whole film a very bizarre experience. One that really stood out to me was the claim that a device that can cause nuclear armageddon would be safer in Scandinavian hands, as Sweden never went to war. Which.. is just.. laughably inaccurate. We are also treated to a fight in a bathroom as gas is being pumped through piping in the walls but as the cast are all dressed in black with gas masks kitted-out with red lights, it’s frankly impossible to follow and feels more like an indecipherable conflict from a Transformers movie. And then we have the hideously hackneyed ending wherein Blomkvist puts his name on his latest article, like it’s his Primary School homework, before pressing backspace and slowly deleting the whole thing. It’s a moronic setup that I’ve seen in a handful of films (Daredevil ends in the exact same way) that I understand as a visual but as I doubt any writer has ever done that in practice, it’s a weird thing for a writer to put into a script.

Very early on it became apparent that The Girl In The Spider’s Web (which, now I think about it, is a bit of a misnomer as she’s never really caught in any web, she just does a job that someone else is also interested in) shares several traits with The Bourne Legacy. Both are adaptations of a deceased author’s work with vastly superior available alternatives. Admittedly both prove arguably serviceable but the story is so weak that it leaves the experience ultimately forgettable.


Release Date:
25th November 2018

The Scene To Look Out For:
Despite the abundance of unimpressive, shaky-cam, rapidly edited action sequences, the scene wherein Salander breaks Agent Needham out of Swedish security in Stockholm airport is handled rather decently. A level of skill and restraint are shown and we get a glimpse of what this film could have been before it sinks back into its mire of mediocrity.

Notable Characters:
It’s very difficult to comment on the supporting cast as they are, effectively, pretty useless. But the most unusual is Camila who, as I mentioned earlier, has a combination of bad Bond villain motivation and a backstory that, while heavily linked to the lead, never explains why their paths have yet to cross despite living in the same country, operating under their given names.

Highlighted Quote:
“The past can be like a black hole. You get too close and it will pull you in. You disappear”

In A Few Words:
“A weak attempt at a franchise relaunch that will likely fade into obscurity extremely quickly”

Total Score:

2/5