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Lower echelon QT.
An ode to the Golden Age of Tinseltown, this 1969-set odyssey tackles a bunch of topics: celebrity culture and its excesses, the rockiness of acting as a career, the importance of true friendships, and the fragility of peace during the Vietnam War era. Of course, being a Quentin Tarantino picture, this story is told with an abundance of panache; his encyclopaedic knowledge of the cinematic world lending itself to a thoughtful, reference-riddled peek behind the curtains. The 'on-set' sequences are fascinating in their own right. QT has long since been his own genre thanks to his singular filmmaking voice, but his latest could arguably be his most straight-forward movie yet. For all its side-tracking subplots and final act swerve, it is, first and foremost, a bromantic drama. As over-the-hill star Rick Dalton and his loyal stunt double Cliff Booth, Leo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt fuel the show on sheer charisma; Leo's larger-than-life personality wonderfully offset by Pitt's calm and collected demeanour. It's actually a surprisingly sweet tale, Tarantino's trademark vicious spirit, profanity-laden dialogue and hyper-violence largely (but not completely) dialled back in favour of more traditional narrative beats and rose-tinted historical revisions. Maintaining such a ridiculously high standard across his body of work, this is clearly lesser QT though, sitting in the lower echelon of his CV. There's a slightness to this outing not normally present in his films, his decisions here seemingly safer and less interesting than normal. Lacking in truly memorable moments, Once Upon a Time coasts by on the charm of its cast (including an appealing Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate) and Tarantino's impressively high base-level flair.
The rare spinoff that matches, and arguably betters the original series.
Taking two of the coolest SOBs from the F&F franchise - Dwayne Johnson as mega-cop Hobbs and Jason Statham as suave spy Shaw - and teaming them up for their own arse-whooping, wise-cracking, world-saving adventure is a winning formula all on its own. Having stunt-coordinator turned director David Leitch behind the camera is just being greedy. Leitch proved with his utterly brilliant Atomic Blonde that he was no ordinary filmmaker, seeking inventive ways to shoot his brutal and balletic action. He puts that flair and imagination to good use with a bigger budget, concocting ultra-stylised and eminently entertaining set-pieces that build on the characters' personalities, whether focusing on The Rock's bull-in-a-china-shop approach or The Stath's slick and swift method. As has become the trademark of the series, physics and logic are wantonly thrown out of the window in favour of creativity and one-upmanship, and here it allows the part-human, part-machine baddies to pull off some killer moves. Of course it helps that the villain Brixton - a self-proclaimed Black Superman - is played by Idris Elba, possibly one of the only actors around who can, and does, out-swagger our charismatic heroes. Rounding out the quartet of main stars, Vanessa Kirby more than holds her own as framed MI6 agent Hattie. She is tough, smart, sexy and requires exactly zero men to save her; the next in an increasingly long line of Leitch's kickass heroines. Throw in an unsurprisingly boss soundtrack, a couple of unexpected (and awesome) cameos, some downright hilarious moments and a raft of confidently magnetic performances and you have one of the year's most unashamedly fun blockbusters. It won't convert those who find this franchise too outlandish for their taste, but Hobbs and Shaw is that rare beast: a spinoff that matches, and Fast Five excluded, betters the original series.
Operation Brothers (2019)
An interesting historical drama.
Set in late-70s Sudan, this historical drama retells the true story of an undercover Mossad group who smuggled out thousands of Ethopian Jewish refugees utilising the eponymous resort, which they themselves operated, as cover. Very much a spiritual successor to Argo, writer-director Gideon Raff opts to lean into the can't-believe-this-happened element of the situation with a relatively light-hearted tone that sprinkles amusing moments throughout an otherwise solemn set of circumstances. That's definitely not to say Raff is underplaying the seriousness of the issue. There are a few pivotal scenes featuring heartbreaking atrocities that are made all the more potent due to their juxtaposition with the high-spirited moments. Cinematographer Roberto Schaefer plays a big part in creating the movie's vibe too; his glistening, sun-drenched photography of oceanside Sudan shows the beauty of a land devastatingly marred by gang-led conflict and massacres. Raff doesn't get everything right mind you, with a few narrative shortcuts and genre clichés stopping this from being truly excellent. There's an unclear passing of time that makes it difficult to get a sense of wear and tear on our protagonists, subsequently lessening our connection with them, whilst their traits seem to merely define their role within the team rather than actually provide insight into their character. Headlining as team-leader Ari Levinson, Chris Evans delivers a strong performance that doesn't shy away from the unlikeable aspects of his stubborn, arrogant risk-taking personality, but still puts his natural charm to good use. An interesting (if not always completely captivating) based-on-real-events yarn, The Red Sea Diving Resort is a decent choice next time you're browsing through Netflix for something to watch.
The Lion King (2019)
Visually splendid, but lacks wonder and excitement.
Two remakes of beloved animated Disney classics in as many months, Jon Favreau's live-action (visually speaking) version of The Lion King conjured up more hype and expectation than Guy Ritchie's Aladdin, but ultimately couldn't live up to it. The film's primary focus seems to be the delivery of photorealistic CGI animals - which it does, gloriously - although this quickly becomes a double-edged sword. Whilst it assists in the more dramatic moments - stampede, climactic pride rock showdown, anytime Mufasa's mane blows in the wind - it severely hampers the comedic elements due to the reality-grounding limits of the visual presentation. Whereas Favreau's 2016 The Jungle Book (and the modern Planet of the Apes trilogy) had a darker tone to suit the scarily lifelike animals, this mouse-house adventure relies on its toe-tapping joviality to offset, and actually strengthen, its serious scenes. Unfortunately then, gone are the amusing cutaways (Timon dancing in a Hawaiian skirt, Simba emerging from the lake with a puffy mane to name a couple) whilst the song-and-dance sequences lose their more overt fantastical strands (no hyenas playing bone xylophones = sad face). There's a relatively strict adherence to the original's plot and visual motifs with only a few minor tweaks and additions, however these fail to add anything meaningful beside the occasional smile-worthy meta-joke. The voice cast are hit-and-miss too, with comparisons to original counterparts hard to look past for some (not needed for the only returning cast member, James Earl Jones, who is of course always amazing as the regal Mufasa). So whilst Donald Glover (adult Simba) brings his child-like panache, Billy Eichner (Timon) amps up the snark and Seth Rogen (Pumbaa) nails the dopey optimism, Chiwetel Ejiofor (Scar) fails to reach Jeremy Irons level of terror and John Oliver (Zazu) lacks Rowen Atkinson's hilarious pomp. Although a jaw-dropping visual feat without doubt, this Lion King lacks wonder, excitement and memorable humour.
Conventional tale told with excitement.
Olivia Wilde's directorial debut follows two ultra-vigilant high-schoolers who let loose on graduation night in the pursuit of making up for lost time. Cue awkward parents, sexual awakenings, drunken parties, friendship tension and life-altering epiphanies. The coming-of-age tale has been around as long as cinema itself whilst the one-final-night-before-college storytelling device has become a go-to in the comedy genre, so it's the characters and their relationships that can deliver something fresh. And this is Olivia's Wilde Card: in lead pair Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever, as besties Molly and Amy, she has found a charming, hilarious and charismatic pair that the audience can warm to immediately, despite and perhaps even because of, their flaws. As soon as Amy and Molly start dancing on the front lawn without a care in the world in the pre-opening credits sequence, you know that the next 90 minutes with them is going to be a hoot. Their sheer likability pulls you through the movie even when supporting players fail to make an impression and the plot falls back on cliché, both of which become more prevalent in a final act that wraps everything up a little too neatly. It doesn't break through convention or proffer a message on friendship we don't already know, but that doesn't matter, Booksmart is an affecting and joyous yarn propelled by a compelling central duo.
Spider-Man: Far from Home (2019)
Charming and exciting Spidey outing
Following the biggest cinematic event in recent memory is no easy feat, but the second solo Spidey outing within the MCU, coming a little over two months after Avengers: Endgame, is required to do just that. Knowing it can't match Endgame on either narrative heft or spectacle size, the film makes two wise moves: leans heavily into the boy-likes-girl story at its heart and lowers the stakes down a few notches from the life-altering Thanos-snap (here played mostly for minor gags). It's a great decision that allows director Jon S. Baird (returning after successfully delivering Spidey's MCU Homecoming) to keep the tone light-hearted, his intentions clear as soon as Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" blares out during the Marvel Studios opening logo. That's not to say the threat of the Elementals - gigantic rage-monsters formed from wind, water, earth, etc etc - isn't taken seriously, but much like Peter Parker himself, the movie is more interested in our hero returning to normal teenage life. Tom Holland continues his impressive form as the awkward super-powered adolescent, finding plenty of humour (and humanity) in his attempts to ditch the costume, much to the chagrin of Nick Fury, as he deals with love, life and loss. His blossoming romance with MJ (a brilliant Zendaya) is genuinely riveting and could easily be its own film, whilst his relationships with best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), guardian Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and similarly-grieving pal Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) entertainingly serve their purpose despite less screen time. Not everything is a home run though. The action, although decent enough, lacks any truly memorable moments; Jake Gyllenhaal's aptly-named Mysterio fails to engage on any meaningful level; and the European setting feels strangely ill-suited to our protagonist. But these are relatively minor quibbles in an otherwise funny and rousing blockbuster that, thanks to two massively important post-credits scenes, sets up the future of the MCU in an intriguing manner. In an astoundingly high-quality franchise this can't quite push into the top tier, but Spider-Man: Far From Home is nevertheless a charming and exciting web-slinging adventure.
Neither style nor substance.
Coming 19 years after Samuel L Jackson's big-screen Shaft, and almost five decades after Richard Roundtree's original portrayal, this sequel's attempt to modernise fails epically. Following John Shaft Jr, a nerdy-cool FBI data analyst with huge Daddy abandonment issues, this outing neither excites on a primal level nor subverts in an amusing way. Jessie T Usher is mediocre as the new-age iteration of the titular badass; he shares decent chemistry with Alexandra Shipp as long-time besties with feelings, but he lacks the requisite charisma. Jackson returns as Papa Shaft, still violating human rights, showing women half his age a good time and walking out in front of traffic, but his swagger can't disguise that he's actually too old for this sh...aft business. The action is dreary, the violence is mean-spirited and the sporadic moments of flashy filmmaking - slow-mo bullet streams, etc - feel desperate and very early 2000s. Morally, tonally and narratively all over the place, Shaft is neither style nor substance. A hard pass.
Soundtrack on point, performances not.
A hip-hop tale of a 17 y.o. musical wunderkind who turns to his keyboard and mixer after the traumatic murder of his sister on the hard-knock streets of Chicago. The plot follows well-worn beats (ahem) in the troubled-kid-genius subgenre offering very little in the way of narrative freshness, but there's an urgency to the drama that propels the film along nicely nevertheless. Khalil Everage is wooden and awkward in the key role of August, whilst Anthony Anderson is hard to like as the down-on-his-luck mentor seeking a return to former musical-manager glory. Importantly though, the soundtrack is on point. The central rap created for the film is electric, with Seandrea 'Dreezy' Sledge slinging slick vocals on top of August's unique tunes in a breakthrough block concert - the movie's standout scene. There are some toe-tapping moments and an energetic tempo, but a strict adherence to convention and some odd central performances keeps Beats from landing hard.
Murder Mystery (2019)
Rainy Sunday flick.
The next Adam Sandler vehicle as part of his mega-Netflix deal, this comedic whodunit is arguably his most accessible movie in years. Paired with Jennifer Aniston - they play stuck-in-a-rut couple Nick and Audrey Spitz - the typical Sandler slapstick shtick is thankfully dialled down in lieu of some darker humour and witty satire of the eponymous pulpy crime genre. The leading duo share a surprisingly decent chemistry together, his curmudgeonly attitude offset by her positive disposition, making their deadpan tongue-in-cheek commentary on proceedings amusing if not ever hilarious. The sun-soaked European vistas are stunningly shot (as they should be) but the action sequences are clunky and bland, seemingly more of a box-ticking activity than anything else. With a short runtime, breezy tone and a cast that's clearly having fun, Murder Mystery is the epitome of a rainy Sunday arvo flick.
Men in Black: International (2019)
Re-watch the 1997 original instead.
No-one was asking for a new Men in Black movie, but with charismatic superstars Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thomson teaming up to take on the alien scum, there was cautious optimism that it might just be a rollicking good time. Nope. There's no amount of actor charm capable of elevating such a slapdash, clunky and utterly dull reboot that goes from weakness to weakness over its excruciating (nearly) two hours runtime. The flaws start with the script; a concoction of lazy clichés, signposted plot turns and unintentionally ridiculous dialogue, the jokes landing with all the amusement of a punch in the genitals. F. Gary Gray's direction doesn't exactly turn the tide either, the action sequences are messy, filled to the brim with atrocious visual effects and straight up boring. If ever there felt like a 'paycheque movie' for a filmmaker, this is it. The leading duo give it their best - Hemsworth all goofy self-deprecation as the famed Agent H whilst Thomson plays it calm and cool as the new-kid-on-the-block Agent M - but they don't find the same level of chemistry they had in Thor: Ragnarok. Elsewhere Liam Neeson phones in a yawn-inducing turn as head of the London MIB branch, Rebecca Ferguson is awkward as infamous arms-dealing creature Riza, and Kumail Nanjiani is the standout (low bar) as the voice of an over-confident 2-inch tall alien soldier. A complete waste of time and a low point for all involved, MIB: International will offer very little even to the least-demanding of cinema goers. Go re-watch the entertaining 1997 original instead.
Dark Phoenix (2019)
Lacklustre and bland.
The X-Men universe has a surprisingly even split between memorable outings (X-Men, X2, First Class, Days of Future Past, Logan) and those that failed to fire (The Last Stand, Origins: Wolverine, The Wolverine, Apocalypse). Disappointingly, the final X-Men instalment produced by Twentieth Century Fox - now owned by Disney - fits squarely into the latter group. It's not a dire effort by any means, but instead of going out with a bang it merely fizzles out with a whimper. Turning its full attention to Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), a mutant considered throughout X-Men lore as the most powerful of them all, this entry focuses on her struggle with inner demons, both metaphorical (death of her parents) and literal (a dark cosmic force). Internal good-vs-evil conflict is a concept that has been explored through art for centuries, and it has always been at the centre of the X-Men world, but here it's played too simply and too on the nose to be engrossing. Jean's descent into darkness is just a bit, well, m'eh. It's difficult to tell how much of Jean's blandness comes from the lacklustre script or Turner's performance, either way she's not alone: J-Law looks utterly bored as Mystique, Fassbender is on autopilot as Magento and Chastain seems like she can't believe she took the role of dull villain Vuk. Criminally, fan favourite Quicksilver (Evan Peters), who has been given some of the greatest sequences in the previous two X-team flicks, is sidelined after the first act in which his biggest moment is unclipping some seat belts. From an action perspective there's a lot going on with at least six large set pieces - the opening sequence in outer space and the climactic battle aboard a train the highlights - however none of these are truly memorable and, strangely for such a big budget movie, feature some woeful CGI. Not the worst film in the franchise, but a lack of narrative resonance and awe-inspiring action means Dark Phoenix fails to make an impact.
Titanic blockbuster sequel.
Checklist: skyscraper-sized atomic-lizard creature. Tick. Electricity-breathing three-headed dragon. Tick. Gargantuan luminescent moth and behemoth aircraft-eating pterodactyl. Tick and tick. All of the above battling for supremacy in our modern cities. Tick. If this all sounds as riveting as your list of chores for the weekend, then you can quickly and safely assume this movie isn't for you. If, on the other hand, that catalogue of mayhem-causing monsters gets you excited then this sequel could be right up your alley. Doubling down on the gigantic-scale action of 2014's Godzilla (and, well, every Godzilla movie), this follow-up ditches the slow-burn build up and cranks out set-piece after set-piece at a rapid rate, seemingly introducing a new element into each sequence. It occasionally suffers from Transformers style action - choppy camerawork, rampant editing and fuzzy CGI - but it thankfully minimises this in favour of monumental wide shots that artfully display the titans or in extreme close-ups that accentuate the enormous size disparity with humans. The sound design is once again on point too, the thunderous roars and penetrating shrieks reverberating through your body whilst Zilla's radiation-charging power-ups instantly gets the adrenaline pumping. Although kicking big goals in the action/spectacle department, the dramatic narrative filler is a major hurdle, particularly when it bloats the runtime to over two hours. Swapping out the Ford family from the first instalment for the equally boring Russell's here, the over-seriousness in which their familial turmoil plays out is completely misjudged and unnecessary. Vera Farmiga, Kyle Chandler and Millie Bobby Brown are all decent actors, but they're regularly asked to make the dumbest decision available to them and sell it like they're in an Oscar contender. At least Ken Watanabe and Charles Dance are having fun in their ham-fisted roles. Needlessly earnest and po-faced human relationships aside, King of the Monsters delivers impressive blockbuster thrills deserving of a big screen viewing.
Flawed but fun and beautiful.
We all have those childhood movies that hold a special place in our hearts. Well for me it was the one-two punch of Aladdin and The Lion King; 7-year-old Troy's eyes being opened to the wonders of cinema through two classic Disney adventures. There's no possible way for me to consider the animated Aladdin with any sort of objectivity - in my eyes it's perfect - which in turn makes it extremely hard to judge this live-action remake as anything but paling in comparison. Putting those impossible comparisons (and inevitable conclusion) aside, Guy Ritchie's take on this rags-to-riches tale is energetic, vibrant and largely a load of fun, albeit with a few missteps. Taking it in a Bollywood-esque direction is a great choice, allowing Ritchie to lean heavily into stunning musical set pieces with grand sets and even grander costumes; the biggest and most beautiful spectacle coming from the magnificent 'Prince Ali' sequence. There's a new song too, Jasmine's solo-effort 'Speechless' a powerful ode to her under-valued strength in a male-dominated world. It encapsulates this film's overall stronger focus on Jasmine (stunningly played by Naomi Scott), who proves to be a more interesting character than the titular street-rat. Mena Massoud is both charming and physically convincing as our protagonist, put through his paces as Ritchie bolsters the action stakes where possible; the parkour-inspired 'One Jump Ahead' a fun introduction to the nimble-thief hero despite the occasionally awkward lyric delivery. The big blue elephant in the room is undoubtedly Will Smith's Genie though. Whilst the performance is fine, the computer-generated visual execution is shockingly bad and at times downright creepy due to the dreadful face replacement technology. Smith still manages to bring a bit of his trademark swagger and when Genie and Aladdin are exchanging witty banter there are plenty of amusing moments, but these are mostly worthy of smiles rather than belly laughs. It's certainly no classic, but this live-action Aladdin is a mostly enjoyable flick for kids and adults alike.
Adrenaline-pumping stylistic fun.
Kicking off immediately after the events of Chapter 2, the titular assassin is on the run; his pursuit for survival, and bloody revenge, not only motivated by the death of his wife and the murder of his puppy, but also the newly opened $14m contract placed on his head. Again operating in a glorious world of hyper-realistic action-a la Bourne, Craig-era Bond and Mission: Impossible-this third instalment delivers more close-quarter combat that is gritty but stylistic, brutal but beautiful, and downright exhilarating. Franchise director Chad Stahelski is not resting on his laurels after taking the world by storm with the first two chapters, upping his game here to include fights on motorbikes, extended one-shot takes involving attack dogs, and Wick battling through downtown New York on a horse. Yep, a horse. A long and esteemed career in stunt choreography has served Stahelski well in the director's chair, his commitment to unbroken shots, a steady camera and preparing his cast to do as much of the fisticuffs as possible allows him to deliver hard-hitting thrills rarely seen in big-budget action blockbusters. Of course a lot of credit also goes to Keanu Reeves, the 55-year-old willing to go the extra mile to ensure he's as convincing as possible as an unstoppable death-dealing badass who's as lethal with a gun as he is with a knife or his bare hands. Only Tom Cruise rivals Reeves' fitness, ferocity and dedication to putting on an action extravaganza. The balletic gunplay aside, this sequel also builds on the fantastical assassin-universe of the series. With its safe-haven hotels, opera-loving people smugglers, desert-residing gangsters and strictly followed criminal rules, this is pure, highfalutin melodrama that is somehow tonally perfect for these movies. Inventive, adrenaline-pumping and two-barrels full of fun, Parabellum continues this franchise's impressive run.
Pokémon Detective Pikachu (2019)
Colourful, cheery and charismatic - but also lightweight.
Prior to watching this family-friendly adventure, I had never consumed an iota of Pokémon content. I've watched none of the anime TV series or movies, I've never played any of the numerous video games, and I've never collected or played with the trading cards. Of course I knew the absolute basics of this world (I did live through the Pokémon Go phenomena after all), but otherwise I was going into this film with zero expectations, other than hoping for a fun, goofy ride. It delivers... to an extent. The puzzle-to-be-solved plot is meagre and relatively predictable - the twists aren't as "twisty" as Pikachu likes to think - but the light-hearted joy of hanging out with the furry yellow sleuth (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) compensates for it. Reynolds turns his wise-cracking way up, albeit within the confines of a PG rating, making Pikachu the perfect partner for Justice Smith's emotionally anguished Tim Goodman, a young man on the hunt for his estranged Dad's killer. Once together they embark on a collection of set pieces that show off other Pokémon, including a fiery battle with the dragon-esque Charizard, an amusing 'chase' and interrogation with Mr Mime, and a colossal escape from the ground-breaking Torterra. The climactic save-the-city sequence, set in the fictional Ryme City that appears to have once been London, doesn't stick the landing; which is a shame considering the antagonist Mewtwo - a sinister, magical kangaroo-esque creature - is conceptually pretty badass. A colourful and cheery caper that is best viewed with the brain switched off, Detective Pikachu offers just enough charisma and humorous hijinks to satisfy across its runtime.
Avengers: Endgame (2019)
Satisfying conclusion to a fun franchise ride.
There have been few movie events as big as the 22nd instalment into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As the title suggests, this three-hour epic is the culmination of a 12-year series that has become the benchmark for blockbuster movie-making. Since Iron Man screened in 2008 I've been there every step of the way, which makes it virtually impossible to view, or review, Endgame with any sort of objectivity. Staying spoiler-free means there's little I can talk about in the way of plot specifics, although suffice to say there are twists and turns all the way throughout this sweeping finale as it strives to deliver satisfying conclusions and/or defining moments for the vast array of beloved characters. Justifiably, there's no attempt here to bring in new fans or to create a film that can stand on its own; it's a cathartic, somewhat nostalgic experience that relies on the emotional investment built up over 21 movies. This franchise has arguably become a tad unwieldly, with the team-up adventures in particular having to squeeze in an increasing amount of heroes; however, Endgame whittles it mostly back to the original Avenger crew, which is both wise and fitting. It's glorious to watch Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Black Widow, Hulk and Hawkeye teaming up for their biggest battle yet, with the MCU's big bad Thanos just a click away from causing Earth even more grief than before. Despite the end-of-world stakes the humour is amped up to surprisingly high levels, the quips and one-avengers endliners coming thick and fast in amongst ambitious long-form gags that reference previous entries whilst also subverting convention and audience expectation. The quantity of action sequences is relatively low with a distinct lack of memorable set pieces to inspire awe, but the climactic showdown is a fist-pumping crowd pleaser that throws everything except the kitchen sink at the screen. The finale also boasts one of the MCU's greatest moments, a simple but hugely effective surprise that sends shivers down the spine. It's by no means a perfect film - even the lightest of retrospective discussion unearths the abundance of plot holes - and it'll likely diminish in favour once far enough removed from the current zeitgeist surrounding it. But it doesn't matter. This is a cinematic experience for the now. It's meant to be consumed with the hype still swirling around it. The numerous flaws may be ripe for criticising down the track, at present they're merely blips in a gratifying conclusion of the 22-film 'Infinity Saga'. The MCU isn't finished, not by a long shot, and I can't wait to see where the next 22 MCU outings take us, but Avengers: Endgame is the end of an era, and boy has it been one hell of a fun ride!
Almost so bad it's good, but ultimately just bad.
For years fans had been clamouring for Guillermo del Toro to be given the chance to round out his lovably offbeat Hellboy movies with a trilogy-closing instalment, but instead we're treated to a big pile of steaming reboot. Swapping del Toro's cinematic passion and artistic ambition for Neil Marshall's cartoonish bloodlust and blustering storytelling, this version tries to compensate for a lack of charm and inventiveness by leaning wholeheartedly into its adults-only take on the titular demon-hero. It doesn't work. This is two hours of crude plotting, joyless acting, deflating action and woeful dialogue. There's a slither of fun in the foul-mouthed insult-slinging, but there's limited mileage when the barbs rely so heavily on cursing and so little on wit. Marshall has proven with Centurion and his 'Blackwater' ep of GoT (S2 E9) that he can concoct exhilaratingly brutal action sequences, however he's hamstrung here by cheap CGI and an overemphasis on gore. Ironically, it's the sequel-teasing epilogue that boasts the most creative set piece. It's tonally confusing too, Marshall sometimes going full piss-take in pursuit of peak B-grade glory; but it can be hard to judge where the intentional irreverence begins and the subpar filmmaking ends. The latter seems to win out more often than not. I could write a novella listing the ridiculously bad aspects of this film but let me keep it to three of the worst: the Stephen Graham voiced CGI pig-monster Gruagach, a bizarre narrative link to the King Arthur fable, and, well, majority of the acting. David Harbour (Sheriff Jim Hopper in Stranger Things) appears tired as the eponymous anti-hero, Sasha Lane is irritating as his séance sidekick Alice, and Daniel Dae Kim huffs and puffs as frenemy Major Daimio. Ian McShane and Milla Jovovich have a bit of fun hamming it up as Hellboy's pop Professor Bloom and the villainess Blood Queen Nimue respectively, although even they struggle to spit out some of the sillier lines - of which there are plenty. Sporadic moments of enjoyment sprinkled throughout an otherwise dreadful comic-book adaptation, Hellboy teeters on the edge of being so bad it's good, but ultimately is just bad.
Doesn't quite scratch the blockbuster itch.
More a comedy than an action flick, the latest superhero outing for the DC Extended Universe emphasises the direction Warner Bros clearly started taking with last year's ridiculously entertaining Aquaman. Gone is the energy-sapping gloom and doom that permeated throughout the Justice League centric franchise, now replaced by colourful, cartoonish wish fulfilment that goes all in on the goofier side of superheroes. When 14 y.o. foster kid Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is plucked from obscurity by a bizarre underground wizard (Djimon Hounsou), he's given the power to transform at will into the near-invincible hero Shazam, played by man-child Zachary Levi. Although a lot of the funnier moments were in the trailer, when focusing on the titular rookie hero and his amusing sidekick/best friend Freddy Freeman (a scene-stealing Jack Dylan Grazer), the movie kicks goals. Their methods of testing exactly what powers he possesses is often hilariously realistic. The change in tone for this series is welcome, but it's unfortunate that the blockbuster spectacle has seemingly fallen by the wayside. The set pieces on offer here are unfathomably unoriginal and, by the time the final showdown arrives, it has repeated similar action beats ad nauseum. It also makes two terrible decisions in the villainy stakes: employing a seemingly-bored Mark Strong as a one-dimensional megalomaniac and then giving him indistinguishable CGI monster henchmen who grow wearisome quickly. Parents of youngsters beware: although primarily a light-hearted romp there are a few scenes that are emotionally and physically brutal - a board room sequence in particular holding back no punches with its savagery. Amusing enough to serve as a decent slice of escapism, but Shazam! lacks the action awesomeness required to really scratch the blockbuster itch.
Devoid of splendour.
Spinning such a classic animated film into a live-action yarn is no easy feat. Stick too close to the source material and it becomes redundant, veer too far away and you risk losing the essence of what made the original a classic in the first place. Tim Burton takes on the unenviable job and, unfortunately, fails to deliver. This is not a bad movie by any means, in fact there are many positives to be found, but this remake commits one unforgivable sin that trumps all else: it's boring. There are the usual Burton eccentricities splashed across the screen - an old-school circus is ripe for his weirdness - yet even this seems to be well and truly on his safe side, the oddness of it all quickly becoming a pastiche of his previous work. One can't help and feel like of all the changes made from the 1941 masterpiece, and there are plenty, some dampen the fun more than others. Humans now fill out all of the supporting roles which has a double downside: first, there's no Timothy Q. Mouse as Dumbo's lovably rapscallion sidekick; second, the animals no longer talk, making it less about Dumbo and more about the rather bland kids who take him under their wing. The spectacle isn't what you would expect either. The CGI Dumbo is neither photorealistic enough to be convincing, nor exhilarating enough in full flight to get the pulse soaring. The big-bang finale only barely conjures up a slither of excitement. The familiar trappings put this squarely in the comfort zone of Burton fans, but this Dumbo retelling is plodding, bland and devoid of any memorable splendour.
Five years after defeating the evil Lord Business and ensuring imagination and innovation survived in their Lego-home, nice guy Emmet (Chris Pratt) and warrior Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) have been leading the fight for survival against the destructive Lego Duplo invaders. Written and produced by the original film's creators Phil Lord and Chris Miller, incoming director Mike Mitchell delivers another peppy, sardonic and amusing escapade that places pop culture front and centre, this time expanding into the apocalyptic and outerspace sub-genres. The tongue-in-cheek meta-humour is again layered to appeal to all ages, encompassing everything from slapstick gags and Dad-jokes to satirical social commentary and cinematic homages only adults would understand. It doubles down on its comically catchy-song gag with another ludicrously absurd toe-tapper (the aptly named 'Catchy Song') that'll undoubtedly find its way into every household with a young kid, although the superbly on-the-nose 'Not Evil' performed by Tiffany Haddish's Queen Watevra Wa'Nabi is the highlight. Where this sequel loses its edge compared to its predecessor is on two fronts: the Lego-building action and the narrative structure. And it's not just because the surprise factor is now missing. There are still car chases, explosions and gunfights on display, but the 'master building' inventiveness has decreased in favour of more standard action beats. The finale also breaks the film's own logic, which feels like a bit of a cheat. The plot twist in the first instalment is developed further here, with true-to-life parallels driving the Lego-verse story; however, the moral lessons have become even more unsubtle thanks to unnecessary flashes of the real world throughout the runtime. It finishes on a joyfully silly high though, the end credits rap commenting on, well, end credits. I'm guessing Chris Cunnington is the first stereoscopic supervisor to be mentioned in a song. Ever. Suffering from diminishing returns for sure, there's still more than enough laugh-out-loud humour and clever references to make The Lego Movie 2 a crowd-pleasing adventure.
Triple Frontier (2019)
Compelling action flick.
Arguably the biggest Netflix release so far in 2019, this action thriller is stacked with talent. J.C Chandor (Margin Call, A Most Violent Year) behind the camera, Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) on scripting duty, and the likes of Oscar Isaac, Ben Affleck, Pedro Pascal and Charlie Hunnam on screen. There's also clearly a lot of money behind this production as this crime saga - in which a group of former special forces soldiers plan an armed robbery on a drug cartel kingpin - not only shoots on location throughout South America but boasts some epic set pieces. Said action sequences largely take place in the first hour, opening with an exhilarating mid-town gun battle and culminating in a breathtaking heist that expertly builds tension and exudes bulk coolness. From here it turns into somewhat of a survival flick, slowing down the pace to become more contemplative and dialogue-driven. The second half challenges genre convention and attempts at a type of poignancy, which is interesting, but also a lot less exciting. The switch in tempo and tone is undeniably ambitious, and the impressive cast ensure a decent level of buy-in, yet I couldn't help but feel a little let down by the lack of action (a minor climactic car-bound sequence fails to pump the adrenaline) in the final act. Isaac's lead performance highlights why he's one of the most intriguing and enthralling actors working today, whilst Pascal is best of the rest in another charismatic and moving turn. There are no weak links though; Affleck, Hunnam and Garrett Hedlund rounding out a powerhouse ensemble. Doesn't finish as strong as it could have, but Triple Frontier is nevertheless a compelling and enjoyable action pic with plenty to chew on.
Captain Marvel (2019)
Lower-tiered Marvel, but still fun.
Set prior to where the Marvel Cinematic Universe is currently at, this instalment serves as an origin story for amnesic Kree warrior Vers, an impulsive, resilient badass intent on figuring out her muddled memories whilst bringing down the planet-destroying Skrull race. There has been a lot made out about the fact this is the first female-led Marvel movie, but unsurprisingly, they succeed (and why wouldn't they?) in delivering a central protagonist as compelling, complex and charismatic as any male lead. Oscar winner Brie Larson is a good fit for the brazen space agent, imbuing her with a resolve that only strengthens when her vulnerabilities come to the fore. She's also just straight up a cool, kickass hero. Which makes it a shame that the strangely underwhelming action places this squarely into lower-tier MCU territory. There's certainly not a lack of set pieces, but none of them are memorable. Even the climactic sky-soaring sequence showing off the enormity of our lead's powers doesn't pack the punch you would expect. This franchise loves tapping into different genres to tell their superhero stories, this one riffing on the buddy-cop formula with Larson's outer-space operstive teaming up with Samuel L Jackson's SHIELD agent to exchange barbs and build an emotional relationship. It's awkward and forced to start with, but they warm up as the film progresses. The pre-Avengers Fury is less enlightened and experienced than as we've come to know him, but, with that trademark Jackson swagger, he's no less confident of himself. De-aging technology continues to evolve at an impressive rate too, a mid-90s Jackson extremely convincing, Elsewhere there's an amusing turn by Ben Mendelsohn as Skrull soldier Talos, a relatively one-note performance by Jude Law as Kree officer Yon-Rogg, and some class brought by Hollywood royalty Annette Bening as the Supreme Intelligence. This series sets a high bar in the blockbuster arena and Captain Marvel can't quite clear it, but comparisons aside this is still a fun adventure with a riveting hero at the centre of it all.
High Flying Bird (2019)
Energetic but frustrating.
Popping up on Netflix with their usual amount of pre-publicity (ie, virtually none), it's strange to think that a Steven Soderbergh movie can be dropped on the masses with little fanfare. But this is the streaming world we live in now. Styled somewhat as the basketball version of Moneyball, this fast-talking drama delves into the big-money business side of the sport - "the game on top of the game" - during a patience-testing lockout. Heavy on dialogue and light on explanation, Tarell Alvin McCraney's script is frustratingly oblique and borderline pretentious. The passion is clearly there, especially about bringing the sport back to its roots, but when everyone talks in riddles it becomes hard to care who wins and who loses. Soderbergh directs with minimal fuss, the entire film being shot on an iPhone (albeit with a relatively hefty post-production budget). He injects a few panning shots and scene transition effects, but otherwise lets his actors do most of the heavy lifting. Andre Holland (Moonlight) is decent as next-level agent Ray Burke and Zazie Beetz (Deadpool 2) is charismatic as his eager offsider, however it's Hollywood veteran Bill Duke (Predator) who shines brightest as an aging, old-school youth basketball coach who is endearingly stubborn. Unfortunately those on the other side of the equation, such as Kyle MacLachlan's team owner and Zachary Quinto's corporate higher-up, are one-dimensional stereotypes; disappointingly low-hanging fruit for the movie to target. There's a great movie - or better yet, a stage play - in here somewhere, but in its current form High Flying Bird is exasperatingly inaccessible.
Alita: Battle Angel (2019)
Ambitious, messy and exciting.
Sometimes it's hard to know why certain movies tickle your fancy. Every now and then a film comes along and, despite all possible logic, you can't help but enjoy it. And so there's Alita, a dystopian-future manga (Japanese animation) adaptation. With a list of flaws long enough to fill an essay, there's no way I can argue against anyone who claims it is a bad film - they're probably right. So why didn't they bother me, or at least, why was I able to forgive these flaws? It boils down to two things: first, the titular cyborg (played by Rosa Salazar via motion capture) is a plausibly real and captivating character; second, the spectacularly choregraphed action sequences are exhilarating. Although her love interest, human grifter Hugo (Keean Johnson), is as damp a squib as you'll find in a blockbuster, Alita compensates with her infectious enthusiasm, charming naivety and badass fighting skills. The battle against her own memory is as equally compelling as her battle against the baddies. The other supporting cast members (including Jennifer Connelly and Mahershala Ali) seem to appreciate the chance to ham it up despite the astoundingly bad and cliché-ridden dialogue, but only Christoph Waltz really makes an impression as the enigmatic yet endearing father-figure Dr Ido. In the pursuit of creating a photorealistic fantasy iron-world where the protagonist is a literal killing machine and majority of the population are somehow augmented with mechanical parts, the lion's share of the huge budget (estimated around $200m) has clearly gone into visual effects. Alita alone is a technological wonder, the entirely CGI teen-warrior another step in the direction of scarily convincing computer-generated humans. This is not an ape or a Na'vi or a digitally de-aged Marvel hero that's tricking our eyes into believing, but a young female with mostly human facial features - which is impressive. The CGI wonder doesn't end there. Whether it's Alita handing out beat-downs with her balletic martial arts or a ruthless full-throttle 'Motorball' race, the action set-pieces are full of visual panache and inventiveness where the editing (and some well-timed slow-mo) actually lets you see what is going on. Proving that you can't always understand your own feelings, Alita: Battle Angel is ambitious, messy, bold and narratively weak all rolled into one - and I love it.
Cold Pursuit (2019)
Eccentric ball of fun.
At first glance this looks like just another Liam Neeson revenge flick. Neeson plays a stoic, no-fuss kinda guy who gets all kick-arse-y when his son is murdered by a drug cartel. But it doesn't take long for this unorthodox murder-fest to reveal there's more than meets the eye. Based on his own 2014 Norwegian film In Order of Disappearance, director Hans Petter Moland's storytelling style is clearly influenced by the Coen brothers, Quentin Tarantino and the McDonagh brothers. It's a slippery movie, zigging and zagging between genres with an unpredictable plot, idiosyncratic characters, and a tone that veers wildly as the macabre content is often portrayed in a humorous manner. There are laughs, but they're all uncomfortable. It's visually interesting too; not just because it's set in a heavy snowfall region on the outskirts of Denver, but also due to Philip Øgaard's curious cinematography. He shoots the snowy scenery to look equal parts beautiful and frightening. Neeson seems to relish the opportunity to play against what has now become his type, his avenging father here makes mistakes, fumbles his way through the vendetta, and noticeably feels the physical and mental exhaustion of it all. Shout out to Tom Bateman as well, his Native Indian elder White Bull is a poignantly contemplative presence - whilst also being an extremely violent drug kingpin who is arguably the most vicious of the lot. It doesn't all land perfectly, and it certainly isn't for everyone's tastes, however Cold Pursuit is a quirky ball of fun that features moments of brilliance side by side with moments of bafflement.