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Fighting with My Family (2019)
Celebrates the misfits
Wrestling movies don't come along very often, at least not those that take the sport seriously. Perhaps the idea of adults dressing up in ridiculously skimpy costumes and acting out a pre-choreographed fight is theatrical enough already, so a leap to the big screen would be ultimately redundant, or maybe the sport is simply too niche to guarantee a healthy return on a studios investment. But ever since The Wrestler put Mickey Rourke through the ringer, there has been a newfound respect for wrestling and the athletes who push their bodies to the very limit, particularly from those who have never sat down to watch a WWE event in their lives. Fighting with My Family continues this trend, loosely retelling the story of Saraya-Jade Bevis , aka Paige, who emerged from a working-class wrestling family in Norwich, England to become a WWE champion.
The film begins in 2002, with wrestling-mad 10 year-old Zak Knight getting pumped for the start of a WWF pay-per-view event before his younger sister Saraya turns over the channel to watch her favourite show, Charmed. Fast-forward a decade, and the two siblings have embraced their parents' passion for wrestling and have adopted ring names of their own. Zak (Jack Lowden) has become 'Zodiac Zak' and Saraya (Florence Pugh) is now 'Britani Knight', and they perform regularly at their wrestling club. The dream of dad Ricky (Nick Frost) and mum Julia (Lena Headey) is for their kids to make the transition to the big leagues, and tapes are regularly sent off to promoters in the hope of catching their eye. They finally receive a call from WWE trainer Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn) and receive an invitation for try-outs, but after a gruelling audition, only Saraya, now using the stage name Paige, is selected.
As Zak is sent into a spiral of anger and depression, Paige struggles to work out who she is in Florida's sun-drenched world of golden-skinned models. Somewhat an outsider even back home (outside of the close-knit wrestling community), she feels isolated, mentally unprepared for the rigorous workout schedules and the standards required for the big-time. Fighting with My Family often flirts with cliche, but this is a sports movie after all. It works by developing characters we can relate to and truly root for, regardless of how ridiculous you may find the whole wrestling craze. This is down to the combined efforts of writer/director Stephen Merchant, who seems like the unlikeliest candidate to helm a wrestling picture, and the cast, who are all entirely believable.
Pugh in particular finds the right balance of inner vulnerability and the outer toughness Hutch no doubt signed her up for, and Merchant helps bring out these traits with the right balance of comedy, drama and sentiment. Frost is also perfectly cast, showing once again that he's a terrific actor in his own right and not just Simon Pegg's sidekick. For wrestling fans, there are plenty of cameos to spot, with Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson showing up for an extended cameo that may feel like a gimmick until you learn of his role in Paige's real-life story. Above all, Fighting with My Family is a heartfelt tale that celebrates embracing the inner weirdo and the sport that welcomes such misfits with open arms - if you're tough enough.
Planet of the Apes (1968)
More than fifty years after its release, Planet of the Apes is better than ever
"You maniacs! You blew it all up! God damn you all to hell!" The image of the sweaty, bare-chested Charlton Heston beating the floor as the truth finally hits home at the climax of Planet of the Apes is now one of the most iconic moments in cinema history. If you saw the film as a kid, chances are this will be the scene you'll remember, or the famous "Take your stinking paws off me you damn dirty ape!" line, as Heston's fallen astronaut George Taylor reveals himself as an intelligent being to his simian captors. It's been lovingly parodied through the subsequent decades, and its memory somewhat tarnished by Tim Burton's abysmal 2001 remake, so it's easy to forget just how revolutionary Franklin J. Schaffner's film was for mainstream science-fiction cinema, and just how much it has inspired the genre with its legacy ever since.
Astronauts Taylor, Landon (Robert Gunner) and Dodge (Jeff Burton) rest in deep hibernation as their spaceship speeds through the galaxy at light-speed. While the crew have aged just over a year, by the time the craft crashes down on a strange, but seemingly habitable, planet, two thousand years have gone by back on Earth. With no hope in sight, the three space travellers decide to trudge through the deserts of this unknown rock and eventually come across fresh water, stopping for a well-earned bathe despite the ominous presence of crude scarecrows looming over them. When their clothes are stolen, they encounter what appears to be a community of humans, only these are dressed in rags and don't communicate verbally. Out of nowhere, they are raided by figures on horseback, who hunt the fleeing humans to either kill or capture them. The aggressors are rifle-wielding gorillas wearing armour, and Taylor and Landon are ensnared and carried off to Ape City to be studied and experimented on by an intelligent ape society.
While it's easy to get caught up in all the action and adventure, it's the social, political and religious observations that will stay with you long after the credits have rolled. Planet of the Apes is the stuff of truly great science-fiction, a genre that allows us to be whisked off to a different time or space that feels oddly close to home. Schaffner's film paints a pretty pessimistic picture of humanity, as Taylor, prior to hibernation, ponders the planet he thinks he'll eventually return to, and whether humanity will have moved on from the conflict-ridden world he was eager to leave behind. The world he is eventually plunged into is much like our own, or is certainly heading that way. Taylor is viewed as a threat, foretold in ancient religious texts that sound suspiciously like our own, while blinkered scientist Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) dismisses the idea of evolution despite the pleas of psychologist Zira (Kim Hunter) and her fiance Cornelius (Roddy McDowall). The Oscar-winning make-up is also staggering, standing shoulder to shoulder with anything from the modern era. More than fifty years after its release, Planet of the Apes is better, and sadly more relevant, than ever. There's a reason this story is still being told.
Assassin's Creed (2016)
Doesn't break the trend for video game adaptations
Despite numerous critical and commercial failures over the last quarter of a century, Hollywood just cannot turn away from trying to capitalise on an industry that continues to out to out-gross them. Video game adaptations have been a thing ever since Nintendo tried and catastrophically failed to bring to life the colourful world of Mario and Luigi with 1993's Super Mario Bros., and it's become a running joke ever since that there has never been, and will unlikely ever be, a decent console-to-big-screen adaptation. But the $1 billion-plus success of Capcom's Resident Evil franchise lingers in the minds of many a studio head, so pretty much every year a new cast and crew are put together to develop a game series with a promise to break the trend.
While the likes of Prince of Persia and Rampage are perfectly serviceable fluff, they are way overshadowed by the unbearable awfulness of a Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, or a Max Payne, or whatever hot turd Uwe Boll is serving up that month. We have gone through the disappointment too many times to believe it when a director promises to stick to the source material, but eyebrows were raised when it came to the inevitable movie adaptation of Ubisoft's hugely successful Assassin's Creed series, which plunged you into a centuries-old battle between the Knights Templar and a shadowy group known as the Assassins. Not only was Justin Kurzel, director of the truly unsettling Australian drama Snowtown and Shakespeare epic Macbeth, to helm the film, but Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, two of the most respected actors in the business, were also signed up for the leads. Could this be the movie to finally bridge the two mediums and match the success of its source material?
The short answer is no, but by no means is Assassin's Creed a complete disaster. Its main problem is that it depicts two worlds from two different periods in time, but forgets to make them both interesting. We have the Inquisition-era Madrid, where hooded assassins move stealthily through the crowd armed with daggers and their wits, as they attempt to bring down those in power who seek peace in the land through control. The Assassins also long for peace, but peace gained through freedom, and they don't want a McGuffin known as the Apple of Eden, which somehow possesses the power to block humanity's free will, falling into their hands. This war has raged on for centuries, and in the modern era - a glum grey world full of murky corridors and empty rooms - the Templar continue their search for the Apple, employing a new technology that allows people to travel into the memories of their ancestors, to track down the allusive object through the centuries.
We spend the bulk of the time in the present day, as convicted criminal Cal Lynch (Fassbender) is saved from the electric chair by Sofia (Cotillard) and spends much of his time brooding in his cell over the murder of his mother. I get the feeling that writers Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper and Bill Collage want to keep you in the dark about who the good guys are here, but as soon as Jeremy Irons arrives with his black turtleneck sweater, you pretty much know how this is going to play out. The plot is an odd mixture of overly complicated and incredibly stupid, and much of the screentime is spent having these characters explain it to each other and the audience, or at least those in the crowd who have never played the game (like myself). When Cal finally straps up and enter the body of his ancestor Aguilar de Nerha, the movie springs into life, although this bleached-out world of questionable special effects and wannabe-Indiana Jones action may have seemed all the more exiting by the sheer dreariness of the alternative.
Avengers: Endgame (2019)
An incredibly satisfying conclusion to a ground-breaking 22-movie arc
It feels like an eternity since the bald, purple alien madman Thanos (Josh Brolin) assembled his impressive gauntlet with all of the infinity stones and snapped half of our universe out of existence. It was a bold move by writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and directors Anthony and Joe Russo, and although there were many fanboys in the crowd who knew beforehand that what they were seeing was essentially the first part of two-act structure, the sight of many beloved superheroes dissolving into nothingness was a shock for those who had never read a comic-book in their life.
It's actually only been a year since Avengers: Infinity War, but the secrecy surrounding the plot of Avengers: Endgame (the title was only revealed a few months ago) has kept audiences desperate to see how the remaining heroes will react to their failure. The main question hanging over Endgame's head is how they will handle the devastation left over by Infinity War, and whether certain characters who met their demise last time around will in fact stay dead, or, as is the case in the comic-books, find their way back into the story via one of various means (cloning, parallel universes, time travel, etc.).
Without spoiling anything, Endgame establishes quite early on that there are indeed irreversible consequences to Thanos' victory, and no amount of magic or technological advancement can set things back to how they were. The decimation happened, and those lucky, or unlucky, enough to be left behind are forced to deal with it. Those that didn't fall victim to the snap consist of the original Avengers crew - Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), who we find drifting hopelessly in space with only Karen Gillan's Nebula for company.
There's also Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye, an integral member of the crew and surprise no-show in Infinity War, who perhaps has more reason than anybody to avenge the loss of half of all life. The sight of Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) disappearing before our eyes may have been shocking, but Endgame's opening scene pulls the snap right back to a personal level. With his family gone, Hawkeye adopts a new persona and has taken it upon himself to take out criminal organisations Punisher-style.
As the trailer pointed out, people find a way to move on, but our heroes don't. Bolstered by the arrival of uber-powerful hero Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), the gang - along with Don Cheadle's War Machine and Bradley Cooper's Rocket - head into space to make Thanos pay for what he has done. Naturally, things don't go quite according to plan, but when Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) - previously believed to have been a victim when in fact he was trapped in the Quantum Realm - re-emerges with Pym technology and an ambitious plan, the Avengers are handed a glimmer of hope.
I'm deliberately leaving out specific plot points for fear of spoilers. This is a three-hour film, but every second counts in some way to moving the complex plot forward or explaining the mind-bending mechanics at work. While Infinity War barely paused for breath, Endgame begins on a sombre note, before launching us into a breathlessly exciting second act that serves as both as inventive way for our heroes to stand a fighting chance, and a celebration of Marvel's ground-breaking 22-film, 11-year spanning arc.
The third act, a colossal battle between the forces of good and evil that is almost too overwhelming to comprehend, throws lots of fancy effects and punch-ups at the screen. In most other big-budget epics, these climactic smack-downs are when my attention start to wander, but here they are involve characters I have watched evolve over the course of a decade and have grown to love, and when that Alan Silverstri score kicks in at just the right moment, the heart-flutters are inescapable. I'd also be lying if I said I didn't well up on multiple occasions. After all, we knew contracts were up and we'd be forced to say goodbye to at least one of the original heroes, but the future also looks bright for Marvel. For the moment, until Spider-Man: Far from Home arrives in a couple of months at least, Endgame is a near-perfect way to wrap up 11 years of storytelling and character-building, and a warm thank you to the fans who have been there since 2008.
The song will get stuck inside your head, the rest of the movie sadly won't
Before Phil Lord and Christopher Miller surprised everybody with one of the best films of 2014, the idea of a movie based on a toy line seemed like a rather hopeless idea. Yes, the building blocks and miniature figures of Lego have been adored by both children and adults alike for decades, but they are still produced by a company whose main focus is naturally on your wallets. It felt inevitable that The Lego Movie would be a soulless feature-length advertisement, but not only did it feature some of the most eye-popping CG animation in recent memory (which also felt hand-crafted), it also melted our hearts by taking the action into the real world, where we discover that events are being conjured by the imagination of a young boy. His father, an avid collector played by Will Ferrell, had forgotten the true meaning of playtime. Lego, after all, is about whatever you want it to be.
The Lego Movie wasn't just great, it was awesome. It was also unfairly snubbed by the Academy, but with a worldwide box-office gross of just shy of $500 million, Lord and Miller's film was a huge hit and seemingly the beginning of a lucrative new big-screen franchise. The Lego Batman Movie was next, successfully capitalising on the appeal of Will Arnett's supporting character and opening up Lego's own DC universe. The juggernaut started to creak and show signs of fatigue with The Lego Ninjago Movie however, which arrived the same year as Batman, so the brand was allowed a bit of time to breathe before its next instalment. The big question is does The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part steer this yellow-tinged universe back on course, or has it burnt itself out? The good news is that this sequel is far more the former than the latter, but despite the skills of Lord and Miller on the screenplay (Mike Mitchell has moved in to direct), it does suffer slightly from sequelitis.
The end of The Lego Movie saw the arrival of the real-world family's young girl on the playing field, and with her comes unicorns and Duplo, both unwelcome arrivals in the world built up by the young boy. As a result, Bricksburg has become Apocalypseburg, a Mad Max-esque wasteland turned to dust by the invading Duplo aliens. While Wyldstyle/Lucy (Elizabeth Banks) finds the wastelands a perfect place in which to brood and gaze seriously into the distance, Emmet (Chris Pratt) maintains an upbeat attitude, enthusiastically purchasing his morning coffees and listening to remixes of his favourite song, Everything Is Awesome. Despite being plagued by visions of Armageddon, Emmet builds Lucy their dream home, but their attempts to live a normal life are scuppered by the arrival of intergalactic traveller Sweet Mayhem (Stephanie Beatriz), a mini-doll from the 'Systar System' who has come to take the strongest leader away to marry Queen Watevra Wa'Nabi (Tiffany Haddish). Naturally, that leader is Batman, and he along with Lucy, Benny (Charlie Day), MetalBeard (Nick Offerman) and Unikitty (Alison Brie), find themselves kidnapped and taken to another galaxy.
The premise sounds fun and that's precisely what it is. It maintains the madcap energy of the first film and brings back memorable characters, throwing in more meta-jokes and visual gags than you can shake a stick at. But The Lego Movie was fun and so much more, and Lord and Miller really set the bar high for any future sequels. The Second Part keeps the family thread going, this time with Mom (Maya Rudolph) trying to keep the peace between older son and younger daughter, but doesn't bring anything new to the table. One of the funnest aspects of the original was tying to keep up the amount of characters from both pop culture and real life showing their faces, but the supporting cast seems much thinner this time around. There's a joke about Marvel not returning the calls, and in fact no characters from the world of Disney show their faces. More focus could have been given to other DC figures who show up, particularly Channing Tatum's Superman and Jonah Hill's Green Lantern, who both seem to be having a great time behind the microphone. It's still a rollicking ride, and it only seems like a slight let-down because, somehow, we have come to expect something special from these Lego romps. The film boasts a new catchy song called, um, Catchy Song, which warns 'This song's gonna get stuck inside your head." And in your head it will certainly remain, but the rest of the movie sadly won't.
Monsters vs. Aliens (2009)
Fun, funny and heartfelt
When it comes to big-screen animation, it's pretty widely accepted that Pixar frequently mines critical and commercial gold whilst their biggest rival, Dreamworks Animation, provides the fluff. Pixar certainly possess the largest awards cabinet, but Dreamworks know how to attract an audience, with the likes of Shrek, Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon all developing into successful franchises with memorable characters. With the market now aggressively over-saturated with animated efforts for the whole family, a few of their titles have flown under the radar, and sometimes unfairly. 2009's Monsters vs. Aliens is one such example: a fun, funny and heartfelt throwback to 50's B-movies that spawned some spin-off shorts, but wasn't successful enough to warrant a sequel.
In California, Susan Murphy (Reese Witherspoon) is waiting to marry her vain TV weatherman fiance Derek (Paul Rudd), who has just announced the news of a job offer in another state. Before the wedding ceremony kicks off however, a huge asteroid crashes down on top of Susan. and although she appears unaffected at first, the mysterious energy given off by the rock causes her to grow to enormous size. With her head now peaking through the roof and the guests running for their lives, the military are quick on the scene, capturing Susan and taker her to a secret government facility ran by General W.R. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland), who has been hoarding a collection of strange monsters for decades.
There she meets fellow captives B.O.B. (Seth Rogen), a boneless blob of blue goo; Dr. Cockroach Ph.D. (Hugh Laurie), a genius half-man, half-insect; The Missing Link (Will Arnett), a hybrid of sea creature and ape, and Insectosaurus, a gargantuan mutated bug. Their futures look increasingly bleak, but when alien Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson) arrives on Earth in search of the crashed meteorite, US President Hathaway (Stephen Colbert), gives Monger the go-ahead to put his freaky prisoners to the test and straight into battle with the intergalactic invader.
B-movie fans will spot the homages immediately, and there's enough of a modern twist to the rag-tag gang of 'monsters' to delight any children watching. The references are obvious: there's Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, The Blob, The Fly, Creature from the Black Lagoon and Mothra, but the characters are so lovingly crafted and terrifically voiced by a talented cast that they feel more love letter than straight rip-off. Although there are a few laugh-out-loud moments, Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon's film, working from a script by no less than five writers, fails to be consistently funny, and the arrival of Gallaxhar is a one-note plot device designed to bring everybody together. But there are some exciting set-pieces, particularly whenever the weirdly adorable Insectosaurus is involved, and there is enough heart woven into its fabric to make Monsters vs. Aliens one of Dreamworks' most underappreciated animations.
Revenge of the Boogeyman (1983)
An insult to film and filmmakers
If there was ever a horror film that didn't require a sequel, Ulli Lommel's cult 1980 hit The Boogeyman is it. Telling the story of two siblings who accidentally release the spirit of their mother's dead boyfriend via a magical mirror, The Boogeyman is a hokey, stupid, and instantly forgettable film, although I can understand why certain fans of the genre may hold it in higher esteem. Following its surprisingly successful limited run, Paramount Pictures were keen to hand Lommel, a bad-boy German arthouse director, a substantially larger budget for the follow-up, but the filmmaker became annoyed at their refusal to allow him to work on other projects outside the realm of horror.
Lommel eventually made Revenge of the Boogeyman, or simply Boogeyman II, out of sheer frustration, and the result was one of the most notoriously terrible movies ever made. You get the sense that the sequel is one giant middle-finger to all those pesky studio heads who were only interested in squeezing some quick cash out of a mediocre horror film that proved an unexpected hit with the horror crowd. Lommel even casts himself as a movie director tasked with adapting the events of the first film for the big screen, who also questions Hollywood's opportunistic, closed-minded approach. You could almost admire Lommel's arrogance if Revenge of the Boogeyman didn't also feel like a huge middle-finger to the audience, who are not only forced to sit through some of the most laughable and badly-constructed set-pieces ever committed to screen, but also over forty minutes of flashbacks which consist of recycled footage from the previous film.
The 'story' follows lone survivor Lacey (Suzanna Love) as she travels to Hollywood to stay with friends and recuperate after the trauma she suffered at the hands of the 'boogeyman'. After recapping her tale, she is quickly pounced on by a bunch of Hollywood types who are keen to profit on her misery. God knows why, but Lacey carries a piece of the cursed broken mirror with her wherever she goes, so it isn't long until the party guests start turning up dead. And how spectacularly they die. There's death by toothbrush, death by exhaust pipe through the mouth after being hit on the backside by a ladder, and worst of all, death by that most terrifying of household items, shaving foam. Looking as though it was shot over a weekend and patched together without any resemblance of a script, Revenge of the Boogeyman is an insult to film and filmmakers, and anyone seeking to find the most reprehensible of all the 'video nasties' need look no further. To make matters worse, Lommel went back to try and salvage the film, releasing a 'Redux' version in 2003. Apparently, somehow, it's even worse.
Les frères Sisters (2018)
More at home with the revisionist westerns of the 70s
French filmmaker Jacques Audiard has made a name for himself by focusing on morally-conflicted lead characters surviving any way they can in an environment they have no real control over. Whether it be the brutal prison setting of A Prophet, the street brawls of Rust and Bone, or the Sri Lanka torn apart by civil war in Dheepan, Audiard seems most at home when tossing his lead character in the deep end and observing as the survival instincts inevitably kick in. There is perhaps no greater time and place to explore humanity at its most savage and uncivilised as the Wild West, so Audiard feels right at home among the shootouts, saloon fights and general lawlessness of his latest film, the curiously-titled The Sisters Brothers.
Based on the novel by Patrick deWitt, The Sisters Brothers follows the titular siblings Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix), two apparent opposites who seem to tolerate each other for their shared bloodline only. While their overall outlook on life couldn't be further apart, one skill the pair undoubtedly share is a knack for killing, and their exploits have granted them an almost mythical status throughout the land. They are hired killers in the employment of a shady businessman known only as the Commodore (Rutger Hauer), and their latest job is to track down and kill chemist Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), who has supposedly stolen from the old man. Their journey takes them from Jacksonville to San Francisco, but the mission is plagued by misfortune. Encountering everything from bear attacks to venomous spiders to rival hired hands, these mishaps allow plenty of time for the brothers to reflect on their life choices and their future, if they are ever to make it out alive.
As the elder of the brothers, Reilly's Eli hopes to eventually settle down and walk away from a life where death seems to await them at every turn. The drunken, unpredictable Charlie believes their lives couldn't get any better, and cannot imagine a world where his brother is not at his side. Little by little their backstories are revealed, and although he shares his younger sibling's flair for murder, it becomes clear that Eli's life would have turned out quite differently if he wasn't forced to pick up the pieces left in the wake of Charlie's destructive nature. The two actors are so good together that the film slows down when the action moves away from them, and more time is spent developing the relationship between Warm and softly-spoken private detective John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal). Morris is actually working with the Sisters, but has a change of heart when Warm reveals his water-based formula that will potentially turn the tide for gold prospecting.
While these little detours slightly derail the film's pace, they prove intriguing enough in their own right. Despite the brutality of their surroundings and the natural hostility of the unexplored frontier, Warm and Morris are tidier, more articulate, and completely at odds with the survivalist nature of the anti-heroes of the title. They hint at a changing world, and the way the Old West is imagined by cinematographer Benoit Debie - shot in Spain - would be more at home with the auteur-driven revisionist westerns of the 1970s, but not so different to cause traditionalists to scoff. The key ingredients are all there: bursts of violence, whiskey-drenched brothel visits, and a long, perilous journey across country; but there is a sensitive, character-driven drama at its core. It was billed as a comedy of sorts upon its release, and although there are certainly laugh-out-loud moments, they serve only to reinforce the humanity lurking within its murky characters.
Underwhelming closure to an unexpected cinematic universe
When M. Night Shyamalan's Split came out three years ago, I doubt anybody was expecting what appeared to be a relatively low-key kidnap thriller to eventually reveal itself as a supervillain origin story of sorts, as well as a sequel to the director's finest film, Unbreakable, released a whopping 16 years previous. Despite its flaws, Split was a success with audiences, and it seemed that Shyamalan's reputation - relegated to near-joke status following a string of utter stinkers like Lady in the Water, The Happening and The Last Airbender - was starting to claw its way back to the dizzy heights of his early career, when he was dubbed the next Steven Spielberg after scaring audiences with The Sixth Sense and, to a lesser degree, Signs. Shyamalan doesn't do middle-of-the-road. He's either at the top of his game or testing our patience, but Glass, the inevitable third instalment of this 19-years-in-the-making trilogy, may be the first time he's dabbled with both extremes.
Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), the abusive victim whose 23 other personalities serve to protect him, is still at large. His activities have led to the press dubbing him 'The Horde', and he is currently holed up with four young cheerleaders, the next potential victims of his cannibalistic hunger and his most feared personality of all, the hulking 'Beast'. Meanwhile, super-strong David Dunn (Bruce Willis) juggles his time between running a security business with his son Joseph (an all-grown-up Spencer Treat Clark), and fighting crime.
On top of being damn near indestructible, David - named 'The Overseer' by fans of his work - can also sniff out crime by mere touch, and a chance encounter with Crumb leads him to an abandoned warehouse, where the girls wait bound and terrified. The two superhumans slug it out, but before one can outmatch the other, they are set on by a SWAT team directed by the unnervingly mild-mannered psychologist Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson). She specialises in cases in which the patient believes they are a comic-book character, and takes David and Kevin to a grungy institution where an old friend awaits them.
The old friend, of course, is Samuel L. Jackon's Elijah Price, aka Mr. Glass, named after the rare brittle-bone disease from which he suffers. Split is still fresh in the memory, but if - like me - you haven't seen Unbreakable since it was released 19 years ago, it may take a while to fill in the blanks, because Shyamalan isn't willing to refresh your memory. Glass was an intriguing (and surprising) foe for David last time around, but would a man who is simply more intelligent than most really be lumped into the same category as a man who can survive a train crash and another who can scale bare walls? Nevertheless, the actors are all on top form, with Willis' gruff, underplayed performance finding a nice balance with McAvoy's manic character-switching, and when he isn't being laboured with exposition, Jackson has fun as the guy who is always one step ahead.
The strength of the performances makes it seem as though all of the movie's budget went into paying the actors to up their game, as it's difficult to judge where else it was spent. The first two-thirds builds an intriguing atmosphere, despite spending too much time pondering the question of what it would be like if superheroes really existed (doesn't every superhero film tackle this in one form or another?). Shyamalan blows it in the last act, delivering an underwhelming showdown that will leave audiences wondering what the hell the writer/director was thinking. It won't have many calling for more from this unexpected cinematic universe, but it's certainly worth a gamble.
Plays it frustratingly safe
Loosely based on the series of books by Cressida Cowell, the How to Train Your Dragon series has grown to become the jewel in the somewhat small and dusty crown of Dreamworks Animation. With Pixar killing it near enough year in, year out, the adventures of reluctant Viking leader Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his trusted Night Fury pal are the closest thing that Dreamworks have ever come to the quality and visual splendour of its most fearsome rivals. If you've kept up with the series since its debut in 2010, you'll have watched Hiccup grow out of his father's shadow into a battle-scarred warrior and forward-thinking frontiersman, who brought a close to his tribe's never-ending war with the dragons to discover the fire-breathing beasts actually make for useful and loving friends. The second instalment veered into incredibly dark territory, signalling a maturing tone that matched the protagonist's transformation from nervous kid to an innovator destined to change the lives of his people forever.
The third and presumably final entry into the series, The Hidden World, doesn't darken the tone further - it is still a kids' film after all - but you get the sense from very early on that we are heading inevitably towards an emotional parting of ways. Hiccup and his friends continue their quest to rescue captive dragons and bring them back to the village of Berk to live in harmony with humans. The problem is that they've become so good at their search-and-rescue missions that their home is now overcrowded with the lumbering beasts. Hiccup believes their only hope lies in 'the hidden world, a mysterious and possibly make-believe haven at the edge of the world spoken of by his late father Stoick (Gerard Butler). But cracks start to appear in the young chieftan's plans when his dragon and best friend Toothless happens across a Light Fury, the female of his species. Wild and distrusting of humans, the female bolts from Toothless' advances any time Hiccup shows his face to help, and it becomes clear that if he is ever to see his best bud happy, he must also let his dragon run free.
As ever, there's a dragon-hating antagonist to jeopardise Hiccup's plans in the form of renowned hunter Grimmel the Grisly (F. Murray Abraham), whose own mind-controlled dragons have the ability to vomit acid and melt pretty much anything in their wake. He certainly looks and sounds cool, but Grimmel shares much of the same motivation as the bad guys that come before him, and the character really symbolises the film's overall reluctance to dig that little bit deeper. For me, How to Train Your Dragon 2 really stepped up the game for this franchise, but it feels like returning director Dean DeBlois is happy to ease off the accelerator and ride this trilogy-closer out. If this were practically any other series, The Hidden World would be a delightful surprise, offering up great moments like the opening night-time raid and the sight of Toothless clumsily attempting win over his potential mate, the latter proving to be one of the most charming and heart-warming scenes of the entire trilogy. But with the knowledge of how great this could have been, The Hidden World is a disappointment, fizzling out with an ending that undoubtedly satisfies, but when compared to the emotional wallop of, say, Toy Story 3, plays it rather safe.
Mary Poppins Returns (2018)
Rarely fails to charm or tug at the heartstrings
With many studios these days greenlighting reboots, spin-offs and remakes, it's actually quite refreshing to get a good old-fashioned sequel to a beloved classic. It worked for Blade Runner, and - somewhat surprisingly - it also works for Mary Poppins. A sequel to Robert Stevenson's 1964 family classic has been stuck in development hell for decades, with original author P. L. Travers proving notoriously difficult to work with. She despised what Walt Disney had done to her work, although she admired certain aspects, so while she was still alive, a follow-up would only see the light of the day on her own very strict terms. We almost saw the return of the nanny who is practically perfect in every way in the 1980s, with a screenplay by Travers and her friend Brian Sibley, but Julie Andrews' reluctance to return meant the film quickly fell apart. Some 55 years later, Poppins finally returns in the form of Emily Blunt, and there is plenty to enjoy for both adults who adored the original growing up and children new to this unique world.
It's 1930, and siblings Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer) are all grown up. They remember the nanny who raised them but believe the magic she displayed was all part of their youthful imaginations. Michael is now a widowed banker and takes after his father, while Jane mirrors her mother in that she is ever the optimist. Still living at Cherry Tree Lane and forced to raise his three children - Annabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh) and Georgie (Joel Dawson) - on his own, things aren't going well for Michael. With grief consuming him, the bills have gone unpaid, and the bank, headed by new chairman William Wilkins (Colin Firth), have served a notice threatening to repossess the house if the loan isn't paid back in full. Spirits are lifted by the re-appearance of Mary Poppins, who offers to look after the children while the adults get their affairs in order. With the help of cheery Cockney lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), Annabel, John and Georgie are whisked off into a world of musical numbers and talking cartoon animals, and learn that when you think you've reached the bottom, the only way is up.
There's not much going on in terms of plot in Mary Poppins Returns, but things weren't much different last time around. Director Rob Marshall and writer David Magee are far more concerned with pulling you into a fantastical world of catchy songs, breathtaking dance numbers, and lovingly rendered hand-drawn animation. Tunes like 'Tip a Little Light Fantastic' and '(Underneath the) London Sky' are clearly trying to copy iconic moments from the original (with Miranda playing the Dick Van Dyke supporting role), but composer Marc Shaiman and lyricist Scott Wittman have found a way to wonderfully capture the essence of the original while adding a modern twist. Blunt, who seems to be fan-cast for just about every upcoming role, proves to be the perfect choice for Poppins. Stern but playful, strict yet mischievous, she embraces Andrews' iconic performance and adds much sparkle of her own, displaying a knack for comedy timing that went unjustly unrecognised by the Academy. She wouldn't be complete without an enthusiastic sidekick, and Miranda is on great form, speaking with an accent that fares only slightly better than Van Dyke's, but that was all part of what made the original so memorable. Mary Poppins Returns isn't quite practically perfect in every way, but as far as sequels to childhood staples go, it rarely fails to charm or tug the heartstrings.
Heart-warming nostalgia trip
By the time Transformers: The Last Knight rolled around in 2017, even the most hardcore fans of Michael Bay's Transformers franchise were getting tired of it all. The Last Knight, which was the fifth entry into the series, marked ten years of Bay's butt-numbing, explosion-heavy epics, which substituted the charm of the original 80's television show and toy line for faceless CGI constructs bashing each other to pieces, lame comedy, and an increasingly creepy attitude towards its female actors. Bay teased his departure from the franchise after three movies, but went on to make another two, and it's always been clear that the problem lay with the director's inability to engage the audience on an emotional level and refusal to deliver anything but headache-inducing action and softcore pornography. Eyebrows were raised when Paramount announced that one of its few memorable characters, Bumblebee, would receive his own spin-off. Yet they were significantly relaxed when they learned that Travis Knight, director of the acclaimed Kubo and the Two Strings, would helm the project, and not Bay.
Opening with a battle between the Autobots and Decepticons on their home planet of Cybertron, it's immediately apparent that all this universe required was a fresh pair of eyes. Yes, this sequence isn't much more than a computer-generated smackdown between huge alien robots, but at least we can tell them apart. The Autobot leader Optimus Prime (voiced as ever by Peter Cullen) is leading a resistance against their oppressive foes, but seeing his side are losing badly, Prime sends scout B-127 (Dylan O'Brien) to Earth to set up base for their eventual rendezvous. Crashing down in 1987 California, the diminutive Autobot immediately encounters a unit of government soldiers, led by Agent Jack Burns (John Cena), on a routine training exercise, and is met with open hostility. Left grievously wounded after an attack by Decepticon Blitzwing (David Sobolov), B-127 transforms into a Volkswagen Beetle to lay low while awaiting rescue. Meanwhile, teenager and amateur mechanic Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld), still grieving after the death of her father years ago, finds the rusty banger and decides to repair it as a pet project, hoping to impress junkyard owner Hank (Len Cariou) in the process. But when that final piece slips into place, Charlie finds way more in the piece of junk she names Bumblebee than she was expecting.
While Bay quickly forgot about the fans who loved the cartoons, toys and comic books growing up, Knight eagerly embraces them. Rewinding the timeline back to the 1980s, Knight mixes the inevitable action set-pieces with heartfelt drama, which stems not only from Charlie's relationship with the clumsy yet adorable yellow lunk, but also from her grief and anger that her mother has already moved on. As Bumblebee stumbles around the house trying his best not to break anything, you can't help but think of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. His prat-falls are made funnier because you have grown to love the character, and by evoking such an established 80's classic, Bumblebee engulfs you further in its pure nostalgia trip. Most importantly, there's a sense of fun and playfulness that was lost in the crotch-grabbing and flag-waving of Bay's cinematic haemorrhoids. Charlie and Bumblebee's bonding sessions are sweet and charming, and Steinfeld's performance is undoubtedly key to this. An endearing mix of awkward teenager and highly capable mechanic, Charlie wears vests and listens to The Smiths, and where Bay may have had her in hot pants leaning over a car, Charlie would much prefer to be underneath it. Her character helps paint an even clearer line between this semi-reboot and Bay's parasitic universe, and finally, I'm excited from the next Transformers film again.
Fails to get to the cold heart of its subject
After spending most of his career larking around with Will Ferrell in the likes of Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Step Brothers and The Other Guys, writer/director Adam McKay took a huge leap towards 'serious' film-making in 2015 when he released The Big Short, a funny, intelligent and unexpectedly engrossing account of the 2007-2008 financial crisis. The Big Short may not sound like much fun on paper, but McKay latched onto this idea, making the tedious subject of subprime loans and triple-A ratings interesting by entwining it with pop culture, employing the likes of Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez to dumb it down for the audience in a manner that was too wickedly clever to ever be patronising. With Academy recognition now under his belt, McKay strides into his next project - a biopic of one of the most fearsome yet enigmatic political figures in U.S. history - with confidence, and dare I say it, a touch of arrogance.
McKay is eager to perform the same trick again with Vice, a sporadically inspired but frustratingly blunt quasi-biography that feels to penetrate the skin of its subject or answer the big question of just what was the driving force behind the man who turned the symbolic position of Vice President into one of great power and influence. Rather than dig deeper, McKay prefers to allow Dick Cheney's actions to speak for themselves, occasionally cutting away to a visual metaphor, such as, in the case of Cheney's key meeting with Sam Rockwell's George W. Bush, a cheetah bringing down its prey. Cheney is a man McKay clearly views as a highly functioning psychopath, tracking his journey from working under Steve Carell's Donald Rumsfeld in the Nixon Administration, to his opportunistic lunge for control in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. He fought to grant more power to a President he easily manipulated, praying on his short attention span and lack of political know-how, and to legalise torture, finding a massive legal loophole in the shape of Guantanamo Bay.
Vice is structured like a classic coming-of-age movie, with its 'hero' rising and falling, before dusting himself off and getting to his feet to rise again. After President Ford (Bill Camp) is voted out of office, seemingly closing all political doors for Cheney, McKay rolls the credits and pans away from the Cheney household, before an abrupt phone call reminds us that this story has barely begun. Like many of the jokes in Vice, the credit-roll-fake-out is funnier in theory than execution, and the film often takes the trickery so far that it threatens to undermine the seriousness of the subject matter. Satire must be funny, but it must also carry an emotional wallop that McKay struggles to find. At the centre of it all is Christian Bale's powerhouse performance, which explores a man whose obsessiveness could be compared to that of the actor's own extreme approach to his craft. Once again Bale takes his own body to the limit, piling on the pounds to resemble a man who suffered multiple heart attacks throughout his life (it becomes a running gag in the film), and adopting a deep growl capable of subtle intimidation. The performances of Bale, Carrel and Rockwell are all worth the entry fee alone, but Vice stutters to engage on a deeper level, failing to explain just how an oil company CEO can seize control of one of the most powerful countries in the world, and execute his plans with such cold indifference.
Cuaron's best and most personal film to date
You wouldn't know it, but director Alfonso Cuaron has being paying homage to one of the women that helped raise him as a child throughout his career. This woman, Liboria Rodriguez, is clearly close to the filmmaker's heart, and he cast her in cameos in a few of his films, including 2001's Y Tu Mama Tambien. Now, Rodriguez is the topic of her very own film, Roma, Cuaron's ode to the network of women that were key to his upbringing in 1970s Mexico. Of late, Cuaron has mainly focused on big-budget movies for Hollywood, such as last year's Gravity, the riveting thriller Children of Men, and the best Harry Potter film of the series, The Prisoner of Azkaban, but he has dialled things way down for his latest. Roma is about as small-scale as you can get, focusing on a humble maid working for a middle-class family in Mexico City, but complete with the director's trademark dizzying camerawork and gorgeous cinematography.
In a debut appearance, Yalitza Aparicio plays Cleo, a maid working in an affluent household in the Colonia Roma neighbourhood in Mexico City. The four children are incredibly affectionate towards her, scrambling for a cuddle when they sit down to watch television, and parents Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) clearly rely on her as they get on with their busy lifestyles. But there are cracks starting to appear in the marriage. Antonio squeezes his bulky, show-off car into the narrow garage every night, hinting at the father's growing dismay with his surroundings, and he quickly grows frustrated when Cleo fails to clean up the dog s**t littering the patio. However, as happy and content as she may appear on the surface, Cleo has to deal with her own problems when she falls pregnant to a martial-arts obsessed military type who is nowhere to be found. With her employers' marriage falling apart and a baby on the way, Cleo struggles to juggle attempting to hold the family together for the sake of the children, and the idea of starting life as a single mother.
Trying to summarise the plot of Roma is no easy task. This is a slice of life plucked from Cuaron's own memories, shot in luscious black-and-white that almost feels like remembering the past through an old photograph. Roma is about class, politics and poverty, but mainly it wishes to tell a story of an unseen hero whose stories are rarely told. It's a film of moments that leave a mark despite how inconsequential they appear, very similar to the neo-Realist films of Satyajit Ray and Robert Rossellini, somehow telling a story that feels vast and epic in scale while keeping the focus on an incredibly personal level. Cuaron is a true craftsman, and, with regular collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki unavailable, actually steps up to the role of cinematographer. This compromise actually worked out in the film's favour, as you couldn't imagine anyone else recreating a time and place from one's childhood with such detail and intimacy. Liboria Rodriguez is clearly a huge inspiration in Cuaron's life, and here the director steps aside to shine the spotlight on her and many other that disappear into the crowd. It was a surprise to learn that Roma would be distributed through Netflix, but after seeing the film, it's hard to believe that any studios would take a gamble on what is essentially a collection of memories played out on screen. But what beautiful memories they are.
Così dolce... così perversa (1969)
Plodding early giallo from Umberto Lenzi
The giallo may have been pioneered by the great Mario Bava and spectacularly refined by Dario Argento, but Umberto Lenzi was developing the techniques and stylings we now know and love from the mid-1960s. Before he became known for schlocky horror trash like Eaten Alive!, Nightmare City and Cannibal Ferox, Lenzi was toying with rich socialites and exploring pulpy, dime-store stories that often involved ridiculous, labyrinthine plots, psychedelic interiors, and beautiful, untrustworthy women. These are all ingredients of the giallo, and some of these early Lenzi efforts hint at a director with an eye for kitschy visuals, something that certainly doesn't come to mind when you watch a native tribesman scalp a poor traveller in the despicable Cannibal Ferox. These eye-catching visuals are certainly present in his 1969 film So Sweet... So Perverse, but there isn't much else to hold the attention in this plodding soap opera.
Handsome, jet-setting socialite Jean Reynaud (Jean-Louis Trintignant) enjoys a lavish lifestyle of cocktail parties and shooting ranges, but he has grown bored and frustrated with the lack of passion in his marriage to the beautiful Danielle (Erika Blanc). To counter this, Jean sleeps with anybody who happens to catch his eye, including his friend Helene (Helga Line), and his head is turned by the woman who has just moved upstairs, Nicole (Carroll Baker). When he hears screams coming from above, he rushes to Nicole's aid, learning that she is stuck in an abusive sexual relationship with her husband Klaus (Horst Frank). As they spend more time together, the couple inevitably fall in love, yet whenever they escape for a weekend, Klaus always manages to track them down. After a night of passion, Nicole reveals that she and Klaus have actually been paid a hefty sum to lure in and eventually kill Jean, but that the one doing the hiring has not yet revealed themselves.
With such a cool-sounding title (yet another famous trait of the gialli), there is nothing sweet and little perverse about the film itself. Argento eventually set a high standard for story-telling and the slow-building of tension within a vital set-piece, and the likes of Lucio Fulci and Sergio Martino added gory violence and a graceful style into the mix, but So Sweet... So Perverse is frustratingly tame, failing to ignite much interest in the plot or generate any excitement when events take a more sinister tone. Where Lenzi ultimately excels is in the glossy cinematography and dazzling interiors, which are garish enough to amusingly satirise the world of these detached characters and their materialistic lifestyles. Images of sun-drenched locations, expensive suits and beautiful, provocative women add a sleazy glamour and seductive glaze to the film, a hedonistic way-of-life Lenzi is happy to indulge as he shrewdly condemns it. It isn't quite enough to prevent So Sweet... So Perverse from becoming little more than a curious cinematic artefact, that ultimately paved the way for better directors to come along and take this new genre by the scruff.
Captain Marvel (2019)
Formulaic, certainly, but Marvel knows how to entertain
It says a lot about the mammoth universe built by Kevin Feige and the folks at Marvel over the past 11 years that merely the glimpse of a modified pager displaying the colours of their costume is enough to generate a huge amount of buzz around the arrival of a new superhero. Captain Marvel's introduction was teased during the traditional post-credits stinger of last year's Avengers: Infinity War, and now, just under a year later, Brie Larson's Carol Danvers finally makes her bow. Black Panther became a cultural phenomenon, and Infinity War delivered and then some on its promise to bring this breathtaking (first) saga closer to an end, so the small-scale and light-hearted Ant-Man and the Wasp was a welcome, if underwhelming palette cleanser. Captain Marvel is the studio's first female-led superhero film, so there's a weight of expectation behind Marvel once again.
There has been a wave of ugliness online in protest against the idea of female empowerment and Brie Larson's pro-feminist comments before the film even premiered, but an opening weekend of north of $500 million has silenced the haters and, with any hope, brought us closer to a future when a hero's gender or sexuality is irrelevant to a film's success. Captain Marvel is far from perfect. In fact, it relies heavily on Marvel's tried-and-tested origin story formula we saw a lot of when this universe was still in its first phase, although directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck toy around with the structure enough to keep things slightly less familiar. Anyone who was keen to write Captain Marvel off as an example of forced diversity should take the time to actually watch it. Don't get me wrong, the film takes a strong pro-feminist stance and tackles issues plaguing our modern world, but it does so with subtlety. Carol Danvers aka Captain Marvel is strong, confident, even arrogant at times, but just like Tony Stark or Dr. Strange, she is also flawed, troubled and - despite the mystery surrounding her ancestry - recognisably human.
The warrior known as Vers (Larson) is a member of Starforce, an elite band of soldiers operating within the Kree Empire tasked with infiltrating the Skrulls, a race of shape-shifting aliens they have been at war with since before they can remember. Vers is troubled by dreams that feel like memories she does not remember, but her commander Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) trains her to put aside her emotion to focus on the enemy. During a mission to rescue one Starforce's own, Vera is captured by Skrull leader Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), who proceeds to dissect her memories before they all crash down on a strange, primitive planet. That planet is Earth, and the year is 1995. It isn't long before an eager, two-eyed agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. called Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is drawn to this mysterious stranger and is caught up in her desire to uncover the secrets of her past, along with learning of an intergalactic war that may one day threaten his home. With the help of old friend Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) and a cat named Goose, Vers discovers that she was born Carol Danvers, and that everything she has been taught about who she is and what she's fighting for may actually be a lie.
Although Marvel have done period before with Captain America: The First Avenger back in 2011, Boden and Fleck were clearly having fun revelling in some 90's nostalgia. Although some of the music choices are a little on-the-nose, the appearance of a Blockbuster store and the sound of a dial-up internet connection will delight those, like me, who grew up in the decade. The big joke is that while Carol embarks on galaxy-hopping adventures with the Kree, down here on Earth everything takes an age to load. Captain Marvel switches seamlessly between these two extremes with good humour, and for a character that is destined to become the franchise's next cosmic powerhouse, the low-key approach to her origin actually works in the film's favour. It also allows time for Larson to develop the character, whether it be bouncing off Jackson's one-liners or discovering her old self with her best friend. Larson is great: strong but not over-powered, cocky but endearing. Despite Mendelsohn's scene-stealing, Larson ensures that it'll be Captain Marvel's appearance you'll be eagerly awaiting in the upcoming Avengers: Endgame. Formulaic? Certainly, but Marvel knows how to entertain, and they can't exactly re-define the genre with every film.
The Reckoning (1970)
A true forgotten British gem
Indicator are a small British blu-ray label who seem to have made it their ultimate goal to unearth some of the best and weirdest forgotten gems from Britain's cinematic past, routinely releasing titles I've never even heard of that turn out to be well worthy of a remaster and rediscovery. One such title is Jack Gold's The Reckoning, a tough, lean thriller about a no-nonsense businessman who travels up North seeking vengeance. Sound familiar? The Reckoning has been compared to Get Carter, which was released the following year, and the two films certainly share some similarities. Yet tonally and thematically the two are worlds apart, with Gold's film more eager to explore class divide and national identity than Carter's more straightforward revenge fantasy. The Reckoning may also be the better film: a punishing experience full of off-putting characters that leaves more of a lasting impression than what many consider to be Michael Caine's finest hour.
It tells the story of Mick Marler (Nicol Williamson), a corporate ball-buster who has worked his way up the ladder over the years with a combination of ruthless business savvy and sheer intimidation. He seems satisfied with his high income and strong social standing, but also has a button-pushing, gold-digging wife (Ann Bell) to contend with. After putting the pieces in place for a business manoeuvre that will favour both himself and his boss (as well as doing away with his biggest rival), Mick heads up north to Liverpool to visit his working-class Irish family. Immediately upon arrival, he discovers his father has died from a heart attack, but is disturbed when he discovers bruising on his father's body. After doing some digging, Mick learns that his father got into a fight with some English 'teddy boys', suffering the fatal heart attack after being punched and kicked to the ground by one of the gang. With his Irish blood boiling inside of him, Mick decides that he must avenge his father, but he also has responsibilities back home.
Torn between his two worlds, Mick goes on a journey of self-discovery that ultimately makes him even more loathsome. When he is in the South, he laughs at the idea of being bound by blood and tradition to avenge his father, but when he is back North, a beast is awoken inside him, and he is irresistibly drawn to embracing his primitive instincts. It's a tough, ugly film that asks you to stick with this part-thug, part-corporate psychopath for just shy of two hours, but John McGrath's screenplay - based on the novel by Patrick Hall - trusts the audience to at least try to understand the man who breezes between two equally brutal, yet entirely different, worlds. This isn't action-packed or even violent as you would expect from a man-on-a-revenge-mission movie, but takes its time to develop this hateful yet fascinating character who used his working-class upbringing to batter his way into the world of lavish dinner parties and fast cars, and was both intrigued and repulsed by what he found. Williamson is excellent, managing to emote both outer ferocity and inner turmoil at the same time, and it's a puzzle why the actor didn't go on to land bigger roles. While it's chaotic at times, The Reckoning is a true forgotten gem that highlights how important the work carried out by Indicator really is.
A wheezing, sickly bore
After a cameo in Zack Snyder's 2016 car crash Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and a team-up appearance in 2017's equally disastrous Justice League, the time feels right for one of comic-book lore's goofiest superheroes, Aquaman, to receive his own standalone origin story. After all, Jason Momoa's hulking, tattooed fish-whisperer was one of the surprising standouts of DC's flop team-up event, and with the campy orange-and-green costume replaced by a long-hared and shirtless Kiwi Adonis, the character can now be played straight-faced. Wonder Woman proved that DC could produce quality with the right director pulling the strings, and they pulled off a coup with James Wan, a filmmaker whose talents I have long admired despite many of his films missing the mark for me. So it pains me to say that Aquaman is yet another tonally uneven and bloated effort from Warner Bros. that never quite knows if it wants to make you laugh or feel, with a marathon running time which, by the time is gets round to its umpteenth climax, is about as welcome as a fart in a wetsuit.
In 1985, lighthouse keeper Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison) comes across a beautiful woman washed up on the shores of Maine. The woman is Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), a princess from the underwater nation of Atlantis who has escaped an arranged marriage and a gang of Atalantian stormtroopers. Tom takes her in and the two naturally fall in love, resulting in the birth of the half-Atlantian, half-human Arthur. When her enemies come calling, Atlanna must return to the ocean, leaving Tom to bring up young Arthur on his own. The baby grows up to be the beer-swilling gym-devotee we saw in Justice League, but there is trouble a-brewin' down in the depths. Arthur's half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) wants to unite the kingdoms of Atlantis and wage war on the surface, who have been polluting their home for decades. But Orm knows that he will never be accepted as the true leader while Arthur, who has no desire to take the throne, is still alive. Mera (Amber Heard), the daughter of King Nereus (Dolph Lundgren), comes to warn Arthur, but they don't stand a chance against the might of Atlantis without the Trident of Atlan, a magical weapon buried somewhere in the Sahara desert.
Aquaman certainly isn't short of ideas; the problem is that Wan doesn't quite know how to cram them all in. We are taken across continents on land and to multiple kingdoms under the water. With a desire to capture the adventurous magic of Romancing the Stone and Indiana Jones, the film actually trips over its own ambition, squeezing in side characters such as Atlantean Mr. Miyagi Vulko (Willem Dafoe) and the fearsome pirate Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), as well as a variety of underwater races we are expected to remember and littering the story with clunky CGI smackdowns. Wan crafts a colourful, vivid world, full of giant sea-horses and advanced technology, but it shares more in common with the weightless. computer-generated locations of The Phantom Menace than the tangible flamboyance of Black Panther's Wakanda. Yet all of this could be considered a mere niggle had the leads been up to the task, but Momoa and Heard have all the chemistry of two strangers making awkward small-talk in a lift. Momoa is an impressive specimen and possesses the charisma to bring this character to life (see Justice League), but here he is denied a moment to have that quiet moment of reflection or to reveal the flaws to his character that would help make him interesting. A wheezing, confused and sickly bore.
Creed II (2018)
Surprisingly emotional, exciting and joyous
One of the many surprise pleasures of Ryan Coogler's Creed was not only its ability to find much life in what was a tired, decades-sprawling franchise, but the way it managed to add emotional weight to the events of Rocky IV, a crowd-pleasing fan-favourite that remains the cheesiest and most ridiculous entry into the series to date. While the death of Carl Weathers' Apollo Creed was shocking and unexpected, it was followed by an air-punching victory for the Italian Stallion underdog during which he also won the Cold War for the U.S., all backed to the most 80s of soundtracks. By following the early career of one of Apollo's illegitimate children Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), Creed added an unexpected gravity to the consequences of the former's reckless lifestyle, mixing family tragedy into what was otherwise a traditional sports movie.
With Adonis now having dealt with his personal demons over his father's neglect and untimely death, Steven Caple Jr.'s follow-up Creed II faces its own battle in keeping the young fighter's story interesting, as well as delivering an exciting boxing movie without bowing down to cliches. Having lost the fight but won the night at the climax of the previous film, Adonis has gone on to win the Heavyweight Championship and achieve global stardom with trusted old dog Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) at his side. He proposes to his girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson), who is concerned that her own hearing loss may be passed down to their unborn child, and with few fighters talented enough to pose Adonis a real threat, he agonises over building a legacy worthy of his father and trainer. Ripples start to appear in his close relationships and personal drive, which only work against him when a figure from Rocky's past re-emerges with a challenge that could not only lose Creed the title, but end his career entirely.
That man is Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), who over the years has worked tirelessly to mould his son Viktor (Florian Munteanu) into one of the most most formidable bruisers on the planet. The film begins with them exiled in Ukraine after the embarrassment of Ivan's defeat in Rocky IV, and their relationship is actually the film's most interesting aspect. Ivan hopes that by making his son the world champion his country will welcome him back, but their bond is fractured and strained as a result. It's a thread that should have been explored in more depth, since it's infinitely more interesting than Adonis awkwardly practising his proposal speech. But the melodrama is backed up with a lot of heart, and Stallone's Balboa is again the thread that ties it all together. Dealing with his own family issues on top of dreading the thought of watching another Creed die in his prime at the hands of a Drago, Stallone is magnificent, capable of delivering chills as his voice is heard for the first time off-camera. It's a step down from the electricity of Creed, but it was always going to be. For what is essentially a remake of Rocky IV, the fact that Creed II manages to be emotional, exciting and joyous despite embracing genre cliches is a monumental achievement in itself.
Four Rooms (1995)
One of the biggest disappointments of the 90s
The early 1990s saw a rise in independent film-making that gave a voice to the wannabe auteurs and allowed them to handpick their own posse of preferred actors. This movement was spearheaded by the likes of Richard Linklater, Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino, and backed by disgraced scumbag Harvey Weinstein. Fresh off the huge success of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino was becoming a household name, and his unique brand of motor-mouthed, pop-culture-heavy dialogue and extreme violence was striking a chord with moviegoers both young and old. He took this unexpected fame and influence and used it unite a group of indie up-and-comers - Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell and Robert Rodruguez - for an offbeat anthology film about a young bellhop named Ted (Tim Roth) and his encounters with the various oddballs staying at his hotel.
The result was Four Rooms, and there's a reason Tarantino chooses to forget his own segment behind the camera when his trailers announce the new film as the nth of his career. It begins promisingly with a quirky animated intro that sets the goofy, unpredictable tone of the film, before diving into a collection of stories that appear to have been dreamt up in between bong hits. One thing Four Rooms has going for it is that the short films improve as we progress, but even Tarantino's final section reeks of narcissism and smugness. Anders' first story, about a coven of witches (including Ione Skye, Madonna, Alicia Witt, Lili Taylor, Sammi Davis and Valeria Golino) attempting to resurrect a goddess, may have worked for an episode of Charmed, but falls flat as the opener of what is supposed to be a collaboration between some of cinema's most exciting maverick filmmakers. Rockwell's short plonks Ted in the middle of psycho-sexual game between married couple Sigfried (David Proval) and Angela (Jennifer Beals).
The first two segments may have raised a titter if the writers didn't have such a tin ear for comedy and had a lead actor with a natural gift for over-the-top comedy. I love Tim Roth and he has had many great roles, but his twitching, shrieking Ted belongs in a cartoon. Rodriguez and Tarantino's efforts fare better because they rely less on Roth's prat-falls and more on their own self-indulgences. The performance of Antonio Banderas as a ridiculously posturing father who leaves his children under Ted's protection is a particular highlight from the third story, as the children naturally decide to make Ted's night a living Hell. Tarantino's climactic entry is full of memorable dialogue and pop culture insights, but the director, who also plays the main role, fails to inject much life into what is otherwise a plodding re-hash of his favourite episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Anthology films are always hit-and-miss, but Four Rooms fails to register a single hit. What was supposed to be a triumphant coming-together of a new wave of hip filmmakers is instead a limp and uneven slog through a tide of bad comedy and even worse ideas. One of the biggest disappointments of the 90s.
Too concerned with moving the chess pieces into place to deliver a coherent story
Aside from Peter Jackson's epic Lord of the Rings trilogy (the less said about his more recent adaptation of The Hobbit, the better), no cinematic journey into the realms of the fantastical has captured the imagination of audiences in recent years quite as much as J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter, a cash-making juggernaut for both Warner Bros. and the author herself. When the franchise came to a conclusion in 2011, it was never going to be away from our screens for very long, and the 'Wizarding World' universe was expanded in 2016 with the surprisingly charming Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Like Harry Potter, Beasts managed to find a nice balance between wand-swishing set-pieces, enduring us to a new set of compelling characters, and building a tangible new world for it all to take place in. And with Eddie Redmayne's Newt Scamander - a shy and awkward David Attenborough type - at the centre of it all, the pieces were in place for an engrossing - and different - saga to get out teeth into.
The delicate balance found by Rowling and director David Yates the first time around is sadly nowhere to be found in this follow-up, The Crimes of Grindelwald. This is part two of a five-part story, so introductions are brushed aside in favour of plot, plot and some more plot. The first hour is taken up by bringing this new group of characters back into the fold, finding Newt grounded by the Ministry of Magic following his shenanigans last time around, just as a new threat rears its ugly face in the form of Johnny Depp's muggle-hating Grindelwald. The bad wizard is searching for the troubled Credence (Ezra Miller), who has emerged in Paris with a circus performer called Nagini (Clauia Kim), but Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) is already on the case. It seems as though everybody is searching for Credence. Even the young Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), who is mysteriously reluctant to face his old friend-gone-bad himself, tries to convince Newt to go to Paris in his stead. Muggle Kowalski (Dan Fogler) is also back with his memory mainly in tact, as is his girlfriend Queenie (Alison Sudol), who is struggling to deal with a Ministry ban on Wizard-Muggle relationships.
The Crimes of Grindelwald throws everything it can into the mix: a rain-soaked battle in the air, Newt caught up in no less than three romantic entanglements, a detour to Hogwarts, and more name-drops and Easter eggs than you can shake a stick at. It's an unfathomable wall of information, punctured by an occasional set-piece that only truly come to life when the titular (and frustratingly sidelined) beasts are involved. The Harry Potter films dodged this bullet by allowing the audience to grow into this world, and often grow up with the characters, but Fantastic Beasts goes all out without really justifying its flagrant disregard for coherency, or earning the right to take such an approach. Although he is often pushed out of the spotlight by the many side-plots occurring, Redmayne just about holds it all together with another endearingly twitchy performance, and Law, who combines some of Michael Gambon mannerisms with a more youthful swagger, proves to be a shrewd bit of casting. Ultimately, this follow-up is too busy moving the chess pieces into place to focus on character, and many are pushed into the background as a result. There are great revelations, but after two hours of trying to keep up with who's who and what's what, they don't have much impact. It isn't enough to derail the series completely, but I'll have a hard time remembering where the hell we are by the time the third entry rolls around.
Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018)
Fun and creative, but struggles to find its heart amidst the chaos
While 2012's Wreck-It Ralph is far from Pixar's most accomplished achievement, it was a fun tale of friendship and nostalgia as our two lovable heroes romped their way through a variety of games, both modern and retro. Despite the appeal of its characters, the ending hardly cried out for a sequel, but the world created by Rich Moore and his team of animators offered endless possibilities with which the story could be taken. With demand for 80's and 90's nostalgia at an all-time high, you have to wonder why a sequel took a whole six years to arrive. While one of the main appeals of Wreck-It Ralph was seeing a bunch of familiar characters from your childhood weaved into the story and placed into everyday situations, this follow-up takes Ralph and best pal Vanellope out of their pixelated comfort-zone and into a brave new world of pop-up ads and nightmarish comment sections.
Six years have also passed for arcade-game villain Ralph (John C. Reilly) and glitchy Sugar Rush racer Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), who both enjoy a routine-based life of doing their video game duty by day and knocking back root beers together at night. But while Ralph finds comfort in familiarity, Vanellope longs for something different. In an attempt to cheer up his best friend, Ralph creates a special new track in Sugar Rush, but the stunt backfires when the steering-wheel breaks in the real world and Vanellope is left without a game. However, the shiny new arrival at Litwak's Family Fun Centre and Arcade - the internet - may offer a glimmer of hope in the form of eBay, where one user has a replacement steering-wheel up for auction. So, the two friends venture into this digital metropolis of corporate logos and dead-eyed avatars to buy the part, only they don't have any money to back up their winning bid.
Of course, there's always money to be made on the internet if you know how, and with the help of Yesss (Taraji P. Henson), the algorithm at video site BuzzzTube, Ralph racks up the likes and hearts by becoming a viral sensation. Vanellope's friendship with Ralph is tested when she discovers dangerous open-world racing game Slaughter Race and finds a like-minded friend in bad-ass racer Shank (Gal Gadot). There's a message about the dangers of toxic friendships in there somewhere, but the sweet relationship developed more carefully the first time around is often drowned out by the sheer noise of this online world. There are many great ideas here, such as Alan Tudyk's KnowsMore, an search engine who is always over-eager to predict what you're going to say, and Bill Hader's J.P. Spamley, a click-bait pop-up ad who acts like a desperate, down-on-his-luck salesman. A detour into a Disney fan-site initially reeks of self-promotion, but the company sends itself up rather well, conjuring up an inspired moment involving the entire roster of Disney princesses. Ralph Breaks the Internet is fun and packed with creativity, but struggles to find its heart amidst all the eye-catching chaos.
Pánico en el Transiberiano (1972)
With a cast list boasting the names of both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing and a claustrophobic setting aboard a high-speed train, it would be easy to assume that Horror Express is another low-budget gothic effort from Hammer, or perhaps a portmanteau effort from Amicus. It is neither, and is in fact a joint Spanish and UK production made at a time when gothic horror was falling out of favour with audiences, who were being treated to more graphic, socially-aware films such as Night of the Living Dead, and psychological horrors from the US. Helmed on a measly budget by Spanish director Eugenio Martin (so low-budget that the shadow of the camera and cameraman is clearly present in the very first shot), Horror Express actually deserves more attention. It may not be particularly original, but it's shockingly entertaining, utterly bonkers, and provides an interesting sci-fi twist to a familiar genre piece.
Stuffy British anthropologist Sir Alexander Saxton (Lee) discovers the mummified remains of what appears to be a primitive human in a Manchurian cave. With hopes of this find-of-the-century providing some insight on the missing link in human evolution, Saxton packs the body into a wooden crate and hops onto the Trans-Siberian Express from China to Moscow. Before boarding the train however, a Chinese thief attempts to pick the crate's lock, and is found dead just moments later with his eyes completely white. The discovery also catches the eye of Saxton's friendly rival Dr. Wells (Cushing), who pays a baggage handler to cut a hole in the box so he can sneak a peek. The porter is too found dead soon after, and the crate empty. With the beast now loose aboard a moving train, it isn't long until the bodies start to pile up. Saxton and Wells are on the case, but the commotion also catches the attention of Inspector Mirov (Julio Pena), Polish countess Irina (Silvia Tortosa) and crazy Orthodox monk Father Pujardov (Robert DeNiro lookalike Alberto de Mendoza).
It's a strange but enticing mixture of Agatha Christie and The Thing from Another World. The discovery that their foe is actually a body-hopping alien capable of devouring memories and knowledge with each kill allows for some whodunnit fun to be had in between the many gory moments, and gives the film a strange sci-fi kick that, while completely ridiculous, adds something different to an otherwise straight-forward monster flick. The special effects have also aged rather well. It isn't scary, but the sight of corpses frozen in shock with their eyes rolled to the back of their heads makes for a rather creepy sight, and graphic scenes of surgical procedures means that Martin's picture has a welcome nasty edge that helps it to distance itself from Hammer's campier gore. You can pick the film apart, but Horror Express is simply outrageously entertaining and never lets up. Once the horror starts, each scene seems to want to double-down on what came before, even introducing Telly Savalas late on as an intimidating, vodka-swilling Cossack officer named Captain Kazan. A must-see for any fans of European horror from the Lee/Cushing era.
Struggles to find the perfect balance
Whenever a director needs to lend a computer-generated character a much-needed dramatic weight and dimension, Andy Serkis is all but guaranteed to be at the top of anybody's list. The actor took the breath away as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and again as the magnetic Caesar in the rebooted Planet of the Apes trilogy. So it makes perfect sense that his directorial debut would be motion-capture heavy, with the master himself playing one of the CGI characters. Adapting Rudyard Kipling's novel The Jungle Book has long been a passion project for Serkis, and the film, which was originally entitled Jungle Book: Origins, was scheduled for a 2016 release and set to compete against Disney's own remake of their 1967 classic. To allow more time to work on the special effects, the release date was pushed back to 2017, and then to 2018. As Warner Bros. seemingly became concerned at the idea of a potential box-office bomb, the distribution rights were eventually sold to Netflix.
This transition to the small screen works both for and against Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle. Although he has voiced his delight at Netflix acquiring his film, it's difficult to believe that Serkis wasn't disappointed that such a personal project wouldn't be seen on the big screen. On the other hand, this has allowed for a much darker tone, and thus bringing it closer to Kipling's original text, without any concern for classification. It's a 12A on Netflix, but I feel the censors may have requested some cuts for a cinema release, and probably rightfully so. This doesn't feature any song-and-dance numbers or King Louie, and the once-cuddly Baloo the sloth bear is now a scarred brute with a Cockney accent. The story is familiar enough, with an orphan boy being left to die in the jungle before being carried to safety by the wise black panther Bageera (voiced by Christian Bale). A wolf pack takes him in, and the boy grows up to be Mowgli (Rohan Chand), only the wolves are never quite convinced of his importance and the man-cub struggles to find his place.
All is relatively happy until the fearsome, man-killing Bengal tiger Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch) arrives to kill Mowgli, who he feels threatens the very jungle itself. Cumberbatch is far more terrifying than Idris Elba's incarnation, and the effects work is rather astonishing. This level of quality is not maintained however, as for every jaw-dropping close-up of Bageera's face, there is a wolf that looks bizarrely unfinished. And this unevenness runs throughout the film, not only with the special effects, but also with the tone. Serkis' attempt to deliver a different take on the story is admirable and warranted, but the darkness occasionally veers into outright horror. The climax of the film is shockingly brutal when compared to the lighter moments before, and the fate of one of Mowgli's close friends is one of the most disturbing things I've seen for a very a long time. It's undeniably jarring, and will likely scar any unsuspecting children watching for life. While Serkis may struggle to find the perfect balance, it's a bold piece of work by a thoroughly underappreciated actor that at least strives to grasp the deeper themes within the story.
Bird Box (2018)
A missed opportunity
Perhaps it's because the dystopian survival horror has been done to death of late, or maybe it's because John Krasinski's vastly superior and similarly themed A Quiet Place is still fresh in the mind, but there's something strangely hollow about Netflix's latest smash-hit and water-cooler conversation starter. Bird Box became the inspiration for a series of dangerous YouTube stunts that resulted in the social media platform issuing a warning to anyone thinking about taking part in the 'Bird Box Challenge', but sadly, given the film's potential, this is perhaps all it will be remembered for in the years to come. All the pieces are in place for a tense 90 minutes, but Oscar-winning director Susanne Bier's film plays out over a mostly dull 2-and-a-bit hours, with little more than two memorable set-pieces and a strong central performance from Sandra Bullock to hold it all together.
Like an uneasy blend A Quiet Place and The Happening, the planet has been overrun by a mysterious force that causes people to go insane and commit suicide. While the family of Krasinski's memorable horror were forbidden to make any sounds, the players in Bird Box aren't permitted to see. Just one glance at the unknown creatures stalking the streets will cause their eyes to turn a murky purple and instantly seek a way of ending their own life, and when we first meet Malorie (Bullock), she is about to embark on a dangerous journey down river with two children in the hope of locating a sanctuary they heard about over a walkie-talkie. Flash back five years, and the pregnant Malorie witnesses the collapse of society first-hand, as a routine car ride back from the hospital turns into a mindless bloodbath. She escapes into the home of shouty misanthrope Douglas (John Malkovich), and is forced to hole up with a bunch of genre archetypes (played by Trevante Rhodes, Jacki Weaver, Rosa Salazar, BD Wong and Lil Rel Howery, amongst others).
With the doors locked and the windows covered up, it seems like Malorie and her new friends have it made. But for reasons never entirely explained, the creatures don't drive everybody to suicide. If you're crazy, you are instead driven to expose those lucky enough to be hiding out to the mysterious force. It might be an attempt to keep things cryptic, or it may be sheer laziness, but the rules of the game remain frustratingly unexplained. These creatures - who we never see - sometimes announce their presence with a gust of wind, and sometimes not. One person infected will immediately jump out of a window, but another will take minutes to turn, allowing them time to say something meaningful before they croak. The monsters clearly possess the power to move objects, so why don't they at least try to enter homes? We are left to fit the pieces together ourselves, but very little adds up. The likes of Night of the Living Dead and Assault on Precinct 13 sustained a bristly atmosphere by making us care about the characters, but reliable actors like Rhodes and Malkovich are never allowed to be anything more than 'love interest' or 'annoying right-wing nut'. It isn't all bad - one set-piece involving a short car ride to get supplies with only a SatNav computer screen to guide them is wrought with tension - but in the wake of A Quiet Place, which understood the mechanics behind what makes an effective survival horror, Bird Box feels like a missed opportunity.