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Dark Phoenix (2019)
6/10
A decidedly middling installment in the franchise - not as dreadful as Apocalypse, but nowhere near the giddy heights of X-Men or Logan.
5 June 2019
THE LOW-DOWN: In the age of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and the Avengers, it can be hard to forget that the X-Men were actually here first. The hyper-kinetic, gloriously operatic X-Men (2000) made blockbuster superhero movies cool again - plucking several of Marvel Comics' best characters out of cult comic books and launching them into the mainstream. It's a shame that such an iconic franchise is ending with a whimper rather than a bang. X-Men: Dark Phoenix is the final installment in the series - because it has to be, now that Fox is merging with Disney/Marvel. But the film does itself no favours in revisiting a storyline that was already told, albeit rather poorly, in The Last Stand (2006).

THE STORY: We've already met the ridiculously powerful cosmic force that is the Phoenix: it latched onto Famke Janssen's Jean Grey over a decade ago, and decimated a bunch of fan-favourite characters in its fiery wake. This time around, the Phoenix finds a host in Sophie Turner's younger Jean Grey, unlocking past trauma and present angst as it burns through the childhood defenses put in place in Jean's mind by Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy). As Jean goes on the run, her former allies rush to find her - some set on protecting her, others on eliminating the threat she poses to their safety and loved ones. But can they save her from Vuk (Jessica Chastain), the ice-cold leader of an alien race hellbent on claiming the Phoenix's power for herself?

THE GOOD: There's actually a decent amount of good seeded throughout Dark Phoenix. Most intriguing of all is the film's darker take on Xavier - he's usually portrayed as an unequivocally good (and therefore slightly boring) character, devoted to his young charges and leading the fight for a better, more unbiased world. Paired with a fascinating, almost petulant performance from McAvoy, Dark Phoenix reminds us that, sometimes, the road to Hell on Earth is paved with good intentions. Long-time X-Men writer Simon Kinberg makes his directorial debut, and proves more than equal to the task of whipping up fantastically thrilling action sequences. He peppers the film with plenty of lovely imagery and aesthetic touches: from Jean's hair taking on a life of its own when she's in Phoenix mode, to Quicksilver (Evan Peters) speed-climbing a whirlwind of debris.

THE NOT-SO-GOOD: It's hard to shake the feeling that there isn't much reason for this film to exist, other than giving Kinberg the opportunity to take a second stab at the same story. (He co-wrote The Last Stand, to eternal fan derision.) Dark Phoenix edges closer to the classic Chris Claremont storyline in the comics, but it never quite fulfils its own potential. The Xavier subplot doesn't get anywhere near the true depth or darkness it deserves. Chastain is brilliant casting, but for no real reason. If the screenplay had supported her better, Chastain could have transformed Vuk into a properly sympathetic antagonist; instead, she's stuck in the key of one-dimensional supervillain. We get a peek at Genosha, a mutant safe haven under the governance of Erik Lensherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) - but we don't linger there.

PHOENIX RISING: Turner isn't given much to do other than glower and fret, but she does it all well enough. The trouble is Jean Grey as a character. In all her incarnations, including in the comics, she gains immeasurable power, but loses all agency. She seems strong, but is actually a frustratingly passive protagonist. That's compounded here by literally everyone around her constantly telling her what to do - from Charles, Erik and the annoyingly maternal Raven Darkholme (Jennifer Lawrence), to her well-meaning boyfriend, Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan), and the relentless Vuk. Is Jean supposed to master her emotions, to repress her powers, to stay quiet? Or is she supposed to unleash them, to revel in them, to metaphorically shout about her remarkable abilities? It's a conundrum that exists in the source material - and this film makes a strong case for retiring Claremont's Dark Phoenix for good.

RECOMMENDED? If you've ever loved the X-Men, you'll probably want to say goodbye to this incarnation of these beloved characters before they're resurrected in the MCU. But this is a decidedly middling installment in the franchise - not as dreadful as Apocalypse, but nowhere near the giddy heights of X-Men or Logan.
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6/10
Godzilla II is a hot mess... but it's a fascinating hot mess, and surprisingly fun to watch and even think about.
29 May 2019
THE LOW-DOWN: With Marvel raking in the cash and plaudits after creating the world's most epic cinematic universe, every studio that can thread movies together - however tenuously - is hopping on the bandwagon. And so we have Godzilla II: King Of The Monsters: the third installment in Legendary Pictures' MonsterVerse, following Godzilla (2014) and Kong: Skull Island (2017). It's easily the most ambitious film yet, uniting several classic critters straight out of Godzilla lore and finding pretty much any excuse to have them fight one another. The final result is both bold and bonkers - good and bad, often in the very same moment.

THE STORY: Monsters break stuff, including people. It's a fact of life that the broken Russell family must deal with after Godzilla's epic battle leaves downtown San Francisco in ruins. Grieving and newly sober, Mark (Kyle Chandler) stalks wolf packs in another part of the world. Emma (Vera Farmiga), his ex-wife, continues to work on the Orca, a machine they created together that can emit soundwaves capable of calming or infuriating Godzilla-scale monsters. Madison (Millie Bobby Brown), their precocious daughter, is caught in between - especially when Emma's decision to use the Orca sets off a chain of monstrous events that could lead to the end of the world as we know it.

THE GOOD: The concept at the heart of Godzilla II, quite frankly, is off-the-wall wacky - so bold and audacious and weird that you have to give director/co-screenwriter Michael Dougherty some credit for effort, even if his execution of it is somewhat lacklustre. This is no mere story of monsters raining mayhem down upon mankind. Instead, the film moves its mythology quite firmly into the realm of faith; Godzilla, the film suggests, is as much god as monster. It's actually quite remarkable to see a mainstream blockbuster movie embrace - rather than shy away from - religious iconography, folding in theologies and environmental philosophies from Greek myth to Thanos. As such, Godzilla and his arch-nemesis, King Ghidorah (a three-headed Hydra-esque dragon beast), aren't just having their version of a bar-room brawl - their earth-shaking clash is a battle for the survival of humanity.

THE NOT-SO-GOOD: It's a shame that the film as a whole can't keep up with its high-concept ideas. The writing ranges from inspired to insipid, with character motivations dancing ridiculously back and forth - dictated mostly by the rather demented plot. As a director, Dougherty exhibited some skill with subversive comedy in cult horror flick Krampus, but very little of that is evident here. It's not just about sacrificing soul for scale - Dougherty occasionally struggles with telling such a massive story in visual terms. Some of the film's action sequences are so choppy as to be downright confusing. It doesn't help that Dougherty's preferred aesthetic tends towards the grey and grim, which makes it even harder to figure out just what is going on while monsters are duking it out in frustratingly murky lighting.

THE MONSTER MASH: The first Godzilla film in the franchise suffered for shoving its titular monster into the background, having him play second fiddle to human characters who weren't all that well-written to begin with. Godzilla II tries to rectify that, somewhat, by flinging so many monsters at the screen that you'd be almost glad to get back to the human drama after a while. Apart from Godzilla and Ghidorah, fans will be glad to see old-school Toho favourites like Mothra and Rodan in action too. (If they could actually see them, that is. Seriously - the monsters are beautifully rendered, but the bruise-toned lighting does them no favours.)

GOD(ZILLA)-LEVEL CASTING: If Dougherty learned one thing from his predecessor, Gareth Edwards, it's the importance of casting a bunch of top-notch character actors in an otherwise barmy creature feature. Veteran performers like Oscar nominee Farmiga, West Wing alumnus Whitford and Charles Dance (that's Tywin Lannister to you) reel off awkward exposition and pseudo-scientific claptrap ("bio-acoustics", "the Oxygen Destroyer") like it's actual real human dialogue. It's quite remarkable to see Friday Night Lights' Coach Eric Taylor in action anti-hero mode, but Chandler - just as Bryan Cranston did in the 2014 film - brings an everyman weight to a character whose narrative arc is muddled, to say the least. The MVP here, though, is Brown. She brings to Madison the same soulful blend of toughness and tenderness that made her such a breakout star in Netflix's Stranger Things.

RECOMMENDED? It depends. Godzilla II is a hot mess... but it's a fascinating hot mess, and surprisingly fun to watch and even think about.
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Aladdin (2019)
5/10
Aladdin tries, quite hard, but doesn't make a convincing argument for its own existence - and occasionally threatens to ruin your childhood.
22 May 2019
Warning: Spoilers
THE LOW-DOWN: For the past decade, Disney has been mining its treasure trove of animated classics for live-action remake fodder. Thus far, the results have been charming enough, though none of them has made a definitive case for or against telling the same story in a different medium. Aladdin has the rather dubious distinction of tilting the debate in favour of leaving well enough alone. Notwithstanding a few welcome sparks of colour and reinvention, this remake will struggle to convince anyone that it needed to exist. In fact, it provides concrete proof that - however good, however photo-real modern special effects have become - there are some things that just work better when animated.

THE STORY: You know the drill - Aladdin (Mena Massoud) is a street rat with a heart of gold, picking pockets to stay alive in the bustling markets of Agrabah. He's recruited by Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) - nefarious, ambitious vizier to the Sultan (Navid Negahban) - to steal a magic lamp from the Cave of Wonders. Aladdin's life takes a turn for the weird and wonderful when he rubs said lamp, freeing an all-powerful Genie (Will Smith) who grants him three wishes. With the Genie's help, Aladdin makes his bid for the heart of Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott). But romance falls by the wayside when Jafar sets his evil plans into motion.

THE GOOD: There are some welcome efforts to update elements of Aladdin's story to better reflect the world in which we live today. In the 1992 original, it was always frustrating that a princess with the intelligence and independent spirit of Jasmine had to find a husband to rule Agrabah. This remake doesn't derail the romance, but it does make time to return Jasmine her agency - making clear that she's the one in the relationship with all the (political) power. It's a shame that Speechless, the new song she's been given to explore her inner turmoil, feels so out-of-place in both the film and the score. The tune is disposable, presumably fished out of composer Alan Menken's bottom drawer, with pop anthem lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul that are frustratingly generic. But hey - effort appreciated.

THE NOT-SO-GOOD: Unfortunately, the rest of Aladdin never quite lives up to the spectacular heights of the original film. It's decently made, for the most part, and the action sequences are gratifying to watch. In live action, Aladdin is something of a parkour practitioner, the camera chasing after him on his gravity-defying sprints through the streets of Agrabah. But the magic is curiously gone, bled out of scenes that should crackle with joy and emotion, like Prince Ali and A Whole New World. Apart from a couple of goofy moments that feel charmingly improvised, you won't be able to spot director Guy Ritchie's chaotic comic streak in the film at all. Almost all of its best bits - specifically the friendship between Aladdin and the Genie - are lifted, beat for beat, from its predecessor.

I (DON'T WANT TO) DREAM OF GENIE: Robin Williams' Genie is one of Disney's towering achievements - his every motion, facial expression and quicksilver transformation like lighting captured in a bottle, literally and figuratively. It's truly one of the most sublime marriages of actor and animation ever: Robin Williams is the Genie, and the Genie is Robin Williams. It's actually unfair to expect anyone to fill Williams' enormous shoes, even someone like Smith, who has bucketloads of natural charisma of his own. Here, he's not only hamstrung by having to give a performance already perfected by someone else - he's saddled with unfortunate character design (that gigantic, puffed-up torso) and occasionally ropey CGI. As a result, Smith's Genie becomes the stuff of nightmares. It should come as no surprise that Smith is most effective in the scenes when he isn't big and blue. The opposite can be said of Jafar, who was made all the more sinister by his distinctively arch appearance in the animated film - something Kenzari can't possibly hope to approximate as a real human person. At least the film's animal companions (Abu, Rajah and Iago) are wonderfully rendered, which gives one hope for Disney's next live-action remake, The Lion King.

RECOMMENDED? Not particularly. Aladdin tries, quite hard, but doesn't make a convincing argument for its own existence - and occasionally threatens to ruin your childhood.
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7/10
Flawed as it is, this thoughtful re-imagining of the Pokémon franchise is fun, silly and charming in lots of the right ways.
10 May 2019
The Low-Down: There really is no better time for Hollywood to release its first live-action Pokémon movie. Generations of children - who are now adults with spending power - have grown up dreaming of becoming Pokémon trainers. Since their creation in the mid-1990s, the (mostly) adorable creatures known as Pokémon ('pocket monsters') have captured hearts and imaginations all over the world - through video-games, animated television shows, movies and more. The advent of Pokémon Go in 2016 has taken the franchise into the global mainstream, boosting its name recognition even among those who couldn't have differentiated between a Bulbasaur and a Charmander just a few years ago. Fortunately, Detective Pikachu doesn't come across as just a cynical cash-grab - it will delight its devoted fan base, but is also smart and charming enough to appeal to a wider audience.

The Story: Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) has lived a life as far away from his childhood dream of becoming a Pokémon trainer as you can get. Working quietly in the insurance industry, he refuses to even choose a Pokémon as his companion. One day, he receives a fateful call that brings him to Ryme City: a metropolis created by brilliant industrialist Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy), where humans and Pokémon live and work in harmony. Tim's estranged father has gone missing, and the only clue he has left behind is Detective Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds) - whose clever insights and snarky observations can only be understood by Tim.

The Good: Detective Pikachu is a remarkably canny adaptation of Pokémon lore and legend. Fans will have a ton of fun (and might need multiple viewings) to spot all the Pokémon wandering in and out of frame - from dozing Slakoths to swooping Pidgeots, grieving Cubones and beyond. You might find yourself experiencing a sense of visceral joy at seeing these critters come to life, quite literally, and interact with actual human beings - not just on the page, or via pixels. Happily, though, the film doesn't simply rely on fan service and affection to power through. There's a welcome wit and warmth to much of its writing that's impossible to resist, especially when it comes to the film's titular electric-yellow hero - an adorable ball of energy that literally (and metaphorically) lights up the screen.

The Not-So-Good: If you're a Pokémon neophyte, you might find yourself quite confused by audience reactions to Detective Pikachu, which don't always match what's happening on screen. You'll still be able to follow the narrative fairly easily, but you'll be lost when audience members freak out at the many Easter eggs and callbacks to decades of Pokémon canon. The film's plotting also loses its footing towards the end, when the motivations of its main antagonist and the truth about Tim's mysterious connection with Detective Pikachu become clear. At this point, it feels as if director Rob Letterman and his screenwriting team came up with the ending they wanted, and then reverse-engineered the rest of the film to make it work.

MVP (Most Valuable Pokémon): The answer is obviously Pikachu - a blend of brilliant character design and charismatic voice/facial-capture work by Reynolds. But one of the greatest joys of Detective Pikachu is that it doesn't simply provide a showcase for Pikachu, already one of the most beloved of all Pokémon. Psyduck - a frazzled duck perpetually on the verge of combusting from stress - walks a fine line between hilarious and helpful. Even Mr. Mime, easily one of the weirdest and creepiest Pokémon ever created, gets a moment to shine - and in the kind of scene that's so blissfully weird and silly that you can't help but appreciate what the filmmakers are trying to do, even if they don't always succeed.

Recommended? Yes. Detective Pikachu could have raked in the cash through brand loyalty alone. But the film is evidently the product of a great deal of love and care. Flawed as it is, this thoughtful re-imagining of the Pokémon franchise is fun, silly and charming in lots of the right ways.
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Hellboy (2019)
5/10
Enough good ideas and visual flair to be worth a watch, but it's also sorely missing the crucial ingredients that made del Toro's films take flight: heart and soul.
24 April 2019
THE LOW-DOWN: Hellboy, a cult comic creation dreamt up by Mike Mignola, is a fascinating meditation on the eternal 'nature vs. nurture' debate: can a demon child rebel against the blood that flows through his veins and choose his own fate? The movie-going public was first introduced to the existential crisis that is Hellboy in 2004 by visionary director Guillermo del Toro, whose gothic sensibilities and love of the ugly misfit were a perfect fit for the source material. 15 years and a couple of jettisoned productions later, the third Hellboy film - a del-Toro-free reboot, rather than a sequel - is finally thundering into cinemas, and will have you wondering if it was worth all that time and effort.

THE STORY: Hellboy (David Harbour) - under the guidance of his adoptive father, Trevor (Ian McShane) - is hunting down monsters for the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD) when destiny comes a-calling. Nimue (Milla Jovovich), a dastardly sorceress of world-destroying power, is set to break free from her several prisons so that she can turn the world of men into a haven for monsters. Accompanied by living ouija board Alice Monaghan (Sasha Lane) and grumpy BPRD agent Ben Daimio (Daniel Dae Kim), Hellboy must decide if he will help or hinder Nimue as she sets the apocalypse in motion.

THE GOOD: This new incarnation of Hellboy is fierce and unapologetic in everything it does - from its shiveringly awful monsters to its explosive moments of mayhem and carnage. If that's your kind of thing, you'll enjoy what director Neil Marshall, best known for cult horror flicks like The Descent and Dog Soldiers, is going for here. He leans heavily into the 'creature' aspect of 'creature feature', particularly in nightmarish scenes featuring Nimue regaining her body (think Frankenstein, with an added cringe factor) and unholy mess of a witch Baba Yaga collapsing and contorting her way across the screen.

THE NOT-SO-GOOD: Unfortunately, the film is a mess in pretty much every other way, teetering between brilliant, bonkers and bad - often in the same moment. Part of that is due to the strangely uneven special effects and prosthetics, which range from eye-popping to laughable. But it's in Andrew Cosby's desperately plot-obsessed screenplay too, which contains some great, fun ideas but constantly undercuts itself with painfully banal dialogue and minimal character development. It's a very peculiar experience to be simultaneously fascinated by and disappointed in a scene or character, and that keeps happening throughout Marshall's film.

SAFE HARBOUR? You'd never know it beneath the unwieldy prosthetics, but Hellboy is played - this time around - by one of the breakout stars of Netflix's Stranger Things. It's a shame that you can barely see what Harbour is bringing to the character and the performance; his hangdog charm and ability to emote is buried under layers of red make-up and a stubbornly fake chin. He looks great in still photographs, but often appears clunky and clumsy in motion. Script-wise, Harbour isn't given much to do, beyond playing catch with the next plot point and battle sequence. As a result, his Hellboy winds up as the least interesting character in a film actually named after him.

RUNNING THE GOOD RACE: If nothing else, Hellboy has a lesson to teach Hollywood and casting agents the world over about whitewashing and the importance of representation. Ed Skrein was originally cast as Ben Daimio, but voluntarily withdrew from the project when he realised that the character was of Japanese origin. It's still annoying that Asians from different countries are interchangeable in Hollywood terms - Kim is of Korean descent - but, hey, baby steps are better than nothing. At least Kim acquits himself quite well in a complex role, although his British accent is wobbly at best.

RECOMMENDED? It's a toss-up. There are enough good ideas and visual flair for Hellboy to be worth a watch, but it's also sorely missing the crucial ingredients that made del Toro's films take flight: heart and soul.
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10/10
Endgame sets the bar as high as it can possibly go for superhero epics. Brilliant, and worth every minute you've invested in the MCU since 2008.
24 April 2019
THE LOW-DOWN: Statistically, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has achieved a great deal: over 11 years and 21 films, it has introduced dozens of relatively obscure characters into mainstream pop culture. More importantly, however, the franchise has proven that long-form storytelling can work in a cinematic context - as long as you balance plot with heart and humour, prizing character development over spectacle. That's no small feat, and it's even more remarkable that a movie with the gargantuan scale and ambition of Avengers: Endgame doesn't fall apart beneath the weight of an unwieldy script or great expectations. In fact, this is the MCU's crowning achievement: a heartfelt love letter to the Avengers, their stories, the actors who play them, and to the fans.

THE STORY: That damn Snap, eh? At the end of Avengers: Infinity War, Thanos wiped out half of the galaxy's population with a snap of his Infinity-Stone-enhanced fingers. After bearing witness to teammates and loved ones vanishing in swirls of dust and ash, the remaining Avengers struggle to live with the crippling grief and guilt of surviving the Snap... and of failing to prevent it. Some characters spiral into darkness; others are frozen in place - a few even manage to move on. But hope is rekindled when Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) returns from the mysterious Quantum Realm, where the usual laws of physics, space and time do not apply...

THE GREAT: Endgame is a storytelling triumph - not only does it bring together and pay off plots and ideas that were seeded over a decade ago, it builds solid, powerful, heartrendingly emotional narrative arcs for almost all of the original Avengers. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) must grapple with their pasts to figure out their futures, while Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) find themselves literally fighting to save their families. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) might provide much of the film's comic relief, but both characters are also gifted with grace notes, growth and moments of true peace.

THE SUPER-GREAT: The ability to juggle and create space for multiple perspectives and storylines in one film has been honed to a fine art by directors Anthony and Joe Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. But their narrative strategy feels virtuosic in Endgame, paired as it is with an ingenious plot device that allows the film to truly acknowledge the staggering depth and breadth of its own history. Suddenly, the emotional and narrative stakes are raised, as beloved characters are forced to re-examine their lives, stories and priorities. You might find yourself in tears and in stitches, frequently in the same scene, and this happens throughout the film - a testament to the Russo Brothers' genius and their skills at anchoring even the most outlandish of storylines in humour and humanity.

THE NOT-SO-GREAT: This is emphatically not a film for casual viewers - there is no entry point, no easing in, no exposition, to help you understand what the heck is going on if you haven't watched most of the preceding films in the MCU. There are also a few logical fallacies and plotholes scattered throughout Endgame that will puzzle you the more you think about them - from the wobbly rules governing time travel to the fractured way in which the too-conveniently hyper-powered Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) pops in and out of the story.

STAN SERVICE: This film, above all others in the MCU, feels like a heartfelt tribute to the very concept of Marvel itself, finding numerous ways to reward and delight true-blue fans. Naturally, it includes Stan Lee's final appearance in the MCU, while folding in a host of other cameos and callbacks that reinforce the interconnectedness of the entire franchise - of all the stories that have been told before, especially the movie that started it all (Iron Man in 2008). There are even a couple of brilliant nods to comics lore, largely centred around the character of Captain America, that feel like the Russo Brothers are deliberately righting a few wrongs where some of Marvel Comics' more controversial plot twists are concerned. (See: Nick Spencer's run on Captain America: Steve Rogers.)

CAST-IRON MVP: Casting outside of the box has always been one of the MCU's core strengths, with Oscar winners/nominees and character actors regularly popping up to play heroes and villains alike. That canny casting strategy pays off in spades in Endgame - especially when certain characters have relatively limited screen time but manage to make it count anyway. The undisputed stars of the movie, however, are the Avengers who started it all. Hemsworth continues to brilliantly dance along the knife-edge between comedy and pathos, while Ruffalo radiates charm and intelligence through ever-improving CGI as Banner and his not-so-mean, green alter ego: The Hulk. Johansson and Renner are given more to do in this film than ever before, and their combined efforts will shred your soul to pieces. Evans brings great warmth and strength to his stoic role, making it perfectly legitimate for you to weep and whoop for a man who's - somewhat ridiculously - wrapped in an American flag. Above all, this double-whammy of Avengers films belongs, most fittingly, to Downey Jr. He still effortlessly injects Tony with snark and swagger, but also beautifully conveys every shade and layer of his character's hard-won growth and maturity - giving us all the proof that we have never needed that Tony Stark has a heart.

RECOMMENDED? In every imaginable way. Endgame sets the bar as high as it can possibly go for superhero epics that balance enormous scale and jaw-dropping ambition with actual substance and genuine emotion. It's the blockbuster movie event of our lifetimes, for very good reason - and it's worth every minute you've invested in the MCU since 2008.
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Dumbo (2019)
6/10
Undemanding family-friendly fare, with the cutest baby elephant ever put on screen. But the movie can be a bit of a slog to get through.
27 March 2019
THE LOW-DOWN: Dumbo is Disney's latest (but far from its last) attempt to adapt its vast stable of animated classics into live-action films. On paper, the project seems promising - there's a hallucinogenic quality to the 1941 film that sits right in the wheelhouse of visionary director Tim Burton, who has concocted a career for himself out of wild, creepy, romantic movies about misfits and the people who love them anyway. The film also tries to do its own thing and doesn't slavishly imitate the original film (which featured next to no human characters and was just 64 minutes long.) What a shame, then, that the final product feels a lot like the other remakes Disney has produced - passable, on the whole, with a few inspired moments and ideas, while never really coming close to surpassing the charm or magic of the original films.

THE STORY: Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns from the war, short of an arm and a wife, to the travelling circus that is still home to his children, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins). He's given the job of elephant whisperer just as a new pachyderm is born: Dumbo, a baby with ridiculously out-sized ears. Holt's children bond with Dumbo, and quickly discover that his ears lend him the magical ability to fly. Soon, Dumbo's growing fame as a circus act attracts the ravenous attention of theme-park entrepreneur V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton).

THE GOOD: Dumbo is precious - with his enormous ears and soulful puppy-dog eyes, he's easily one of the most adorable, appealing CGI creations ever put on screen. His story is also the most affecting narrative thread woven into the film, as he is forcibly separated from his mother and yearns to find his way back to her. Dumbo's heartbreak is simple, true and heartfelt, recalling the bittersweet way in which his animated counterpart sorely missed his mother. The baby elephant's tireless bravery in the face of cruel laughter and mockery will make you wish that this film named after him didn't spend so much time with other characters instead.

THE NOT-SO-GOOD: Dumbo, as a film, makes for a rather puzzling viewing experience. Beyond some gorgeous, gothic visual sequences (specifically Nightmare Island in Vandevere's Dreamland theme park), there's barely a hint of Burton's trademark whimsy to be found. Except when Dumbo is in the mix, Ehren Kruger's screenplay is lifeless and, on occasion, logic-free - possibly a holdover from his similarly bland work on three of the Transformers franchise's worst and most bloated films. It's especially frustrating because the bare bones of a good story are all there - especially the fact that Millie and Joe are motherless children, just like Dumbo. But it's largely squandered on paper-thin characters and a literally fiery climax that doesn't make either narrative or emotional sense.

BALANCING ACT: The cast Burton has assembled is actually very good - but none of them is given quite enough to do. As a result, Farrell's charm is wasted on a character who never stops to listen while he constantly yells about his late wife being the one who could "talk to the children". Keaton's Vandevere winds up as little more than a one-note capitalist cautionary tale. At least there's a little snap and crackle to DeVito's harried circus owner, and Eva Green manages to suggest both darkness and light as Colette, an otherwise underwritten French trapeze artist we first meet on Vandevere's arm.

FREAK SHOW: You'd imagine that Burton would take the purest delight in populating this travelling circus with freaks and oddities akin to the ones that have peopled his filmography over the years. But most of the characters in this travelling circus barely even register. If you're a fan of cult British shows though, watch out for Sharon Rooney as Miss Atlantis: she was dazzling in My Mad Fat Diary, and will steal a laugh and wring a tear or two out of you here, especially when she sings Baby Mine - one of the loveliest songs in the entire Disney canon.

RECOMMENDED? Hard to say. It's undemanding family-friendly fare, for the most part, and you'll be rewarded with the cutest baby elephant ever put on screen. But the movie can be a bit of a slog to get through the rest of the time.
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8/10
Often goes too far in the wrong direction when it tries to be a homage to the first film. But, when it does its own thing, the final result is both wonderful and wondrous.
7 March 2019
THE LOW-DOWN: Disney has been trying to make a sequel to 1964's Mary Poppins - a classic in every imaginable sense - for decades. But author P.L. Travers, who publicly disapproved of the studio's adaptation of her books, stood in the way of most early attempts. Ultimately, it's taken a good 54 years for everyone's favourite magical nanny to finally return to the silver screen. That's more than enough time for several generations of children to fall in love with the original film, grow up, and worry that the sequel will ruin their childhoods.

THE STORY: Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) returns to Cherry Tree Lane just when two generations of Banks children need her most. All grown-up, Michael (Ben Whishaw) - with the help of activist sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) - is a widower trying to keep it all together after the death of his beloved wife. As he ransacks the family house to ward off the threat of foreclosure by Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, Mary Poppins takes charge of his three children - John (Nathanael Saleh), Annabel (Pixie Davies) and Georgie (Joel Dawson).

THE GOOD: There's plenty of spark and dazzle in Mary Poppins Returns, but its truest magic comes in the loss and heartbreak layered into its narrative. This time, Mary Poppins isn't here just to remind everyone to embrace their inner children (as was the case 54 years ago). She's back to patch up a handful of broken hearts that are sorely missing a mother or a wife. This deep, rich and necessarily darker aspect of the film works wonderfully - its wisdom, depth and maturity will make you weep your heart and your childhood out of your eyes, in a good way.

THE NOT-SO-GOOD: Less successful is the film's creaky adherence to the formula established by its predecessor. Meryl Streep - so often the best thing about any film she's in - is both over-the-top and slightly pointless as Topsy, Mary Poppins' indiscriminately Eastern-European cousin, and the clear equivalent to the first film's laughing/floating Uncle Albert. As Jack the lamplighter, Lin-Manuel Miranda leads his fellow leeries in Trip A Little Light Fantastic - a flame-lit number that isn't half as magical as Step In Time, the glorious chimney-sweep dance in the original movie.

PRACTICALLY PERFECT IN EVERY WAY: Blunt may not have Julie Andrews' soaring soprano (now tragically lost to us all), but she makes the iconic character thoroughly her own. She's wonderfully adept at playing the heart of gold, tinged with an unspeakable grief, that lies beneath Mary Poppins' sarcasm and stiff upper lip. It's a shame, though, that her character almost fades into the background in the film's final act. There's a climactic moment featuring Big Ben and a lot of ladders that will make you wonder why Mary Poppins doesn't get involved sooner rather than later.

JACK OF ALL TRADES: At some point in the sequel, we're informed that Dick Van Dyke's Bert - everyone's favourite chimney sweep with the godawful Cockney accent - is off having untold adventures. His replacement is Jack, who literally brings light to the streets of London, and helps to take it away. Jack is mostly charming, but doesn't have quite the snap and fizzle of his predecessor. That's likely because Miranda - an unqualified creative genius (Hamilton ftw!) - isn't quite as strong an actor as he is a wordsmith. While he improves (very marginally) on the Cockney accent, he lacks the on-screen presence and charisma that Van Dyke has in spades.

HIGH SCORE: Marc Shaiman of Hairspray fame has created a score that's eminently lovely and accomplished. It's been criticised as forgettable, especially in contrast with the numerous breakout hits from the first film. But the Sherman brothers' score has had 54 years to soak into the cultural consciousness. On their own merits, Shaiman's songs are wonderfully tuneful, alternating jaunty numbers like Can You Imagine That? with sob-inducing ballads like A Conversation. If nothing else, Shaiman gives us The Place Where Lost Things Go - a modern classic built out of love and loss that will settle in your heart, where all the lovely, sad, joyful things go.

WATCH OUT FOR: Two absolutely fantastic cameos that will make your soul sing. Van Dyke's return to the franchise - at the venerable age of 93 - is pretty much the most magical moment in a film that's deliberately packed full of very magical moments. And we defy your Disney-loving heart not to swell with joy when Dame Angela Lansbury makes her appearance!

RECOMMENDED? Yes. Mary Poppins Returns often goes too far in the wrong direction when it tries to be a homage to the first film. But, when it does its own thing, the final result is both wonderful and wondrous.
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Bumblebee (2018)
8/10
Bumblebee is the best Transformers film yet, so full of warmth and character that it will leave you wanting more.
7 March 2019
THE LOW-DOWN: You'd be forgiven for thinking that Bumblebee is yet another shameless cash-grab by the powers-that-be behind the Transformers franchise. There isn't much incentive to improve, after all: money keeps pouring in at the box office (especially in China), even as the films - and scripts - have gotten progressively worse and more nonsensical. And yet, Bumblebee will have you buzzing with delight. In this blockbuster prequel (reboot?) centred on everyone's favourite sidekick Transformer, everything stale feels fresh again. Most importantly, this film about giant mutating machines has its heart and soul in the right place.

THE GOOD: The Transformers franchise takes a page from the hugely successful Marvel playbook, entrusting Bumblebee to a visionary director who's as comfortable with telling a story as creating jaw-dropping visuals. (Apologies to Michael Bay, but explosions do not a movie make.) Travis Knight - who gave us the sublime Kubo And The Two Strings - makes his live-action debut with plenty of heart and flair. He lavishes time and care on the film's emotional beats, grounding it effectively in the tender friendship between Bumblebee and Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), the mechanically-minded teenager who saves him from a salvage yard. Even with this almost arthouse focus on character development, Knight still delivers no shortage of expertly-choreographed explosions and action sequences.

THE NOT-SO-GOOD: Bumblebee's action-packed climactic showdown isn't half as consequential as it wants to be - indeed, it's the least interesting thing about the film by far. And it's not helped by the fact that Charlie and her friends and family seem to be the only humans on the planet worth saving. Jack Burns - played with intermittent charm by John Cena - just barely works as a character, while everyone around him is either forgettably bland or memorably idiotic.

THE NOSTALGIC: Fans of the original Transformers cartoon from the 1980s will lap up all the references and re-designs in Bumblebee. When first stranded on Earth, for instance, our titular hero finds refuge in a familiar form: a canary-yellow 1967 Volkswagen Beetle.

KNOCKOUT PERFORMANCE: Steinfeld hasn't really managed to find a movie role deserving of the talents she displayed as a young child actor in True Grit (2010) - a performance that nabbed her an Oscar nomination. Who'd have thought that role would come in a Transformers movie? Steinfeld is quite wonderful as Charlie, allowing us to peek beneath her character's tough exterior to see the oceans of hurt and heartbreak she's hiding - from her family and herself. She's remarkably good at playing the hero and the human in Charlie, often at the same time.

SCRIPT TEASE: There are a ton of eye-popping special effects in Bumblebee, including a fantastic moment in a tunnel when he shrinks and stretches to protect his human cargo. But the real special effect in Bumblebee is the script by Christina Hodson. By injecting heart and humour into her words and characters, Hodson has helped create the first Transformers film that might actually make you laugh and cry. Unlike later installments in the series, you'll actually root for her characters to live on in the sequels. And, as if all that weren't reason enough to celebrate Hodson's script, Bumblebee manages to be fun, funny and also feminist: establishing Charlie as a person and hero first, before giving her full control over when and whether she'll be anyone's love interest.

RECOMMENDED? Surprisingly, unexpectedly, unreservedly - yes. Bumblebee is the best Transformers film yet, so full of warmth and character that it will leave you wanting more.
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8/10
Captain Marvel pulls off the rather incredible feat of being properly entertaining and enlightening.
7 March 2019
THE LOW-DOWN: It's been a long, slightly ludicrous time in coming, but Marvel Studios' first female-led superhero movie is finally blasting into cinemas. Unfortunately, Captain Marvel is trailing plenty of controversy in its wake, largely generated by the same toxic, sexist segments of 'fandom' who have been venting their rage online about 'their' franchises being taken over by women. (See: Ghostbusters, Star Wars etc.) It's quite wonderful, then, that Captain Marvel is (literally and figuratively) the most powerful response to these haters yet - not only is it a ton of fun, this film is unapologetically, explicitly feminist in a way that's never before been presented on screen in such a mainstream blockbuster.

THE STORY: We first meet Vers (Brie Larson) as a promising new cadet in Starforce, an elite military unit dedicated to protecting the Kree homeworld of Hala from the threat of Skrull invasion. For what she lacks in memories of her own life and story, she more than makes up for in wit, courage and pure power - an energy that her commander, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), constantly counsels her to keep in check. When a Starforce mission goes wrong and she winds up on Earth, she starts putting together the puzzle pieces of her past as former Air Force fighter pilot Carol Danvers - and begins to reclaim what she has lost.

THE GOOD: All told, Captain Marvel is an absolute blast to watch. Like its titular heroine, the film is fun, fearless and thoroughly feminist: celebrating Carol herself, as well as the women in her orbit who (she will soon discover) helped make her who she really is. The film's genre-hopping - stacking psychological thriller on top of buddy comedy and spicing it all up with some space opera - doesn't always work when taken as a whole. But each element of the film is delightful, especially when Carol meets and impresses Nick Fury (a CGI-de-aged Samuel L. Jackson, dialling the goofy charm up to 11) and they embark on a road trip that takes them all the way to the stars. It's worth pointing out, too, that the film quite ingeniously deepens the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU)'s mythology, both backwards and forwards in time, while giving us the miracle that is Goose, a cat Flerken who will steal your heart and also strike fear into your soul - the way all the best cats Flerkens do.

THE NOT-SO-GOOD: The first act of Captain Marvel is its weakest - it's almost as if the film, like its title character, hasn't quite figured out what it is or wants to be. That can make for a mildly puzzling first viewing experience, compounded by a script that makes no allowances for those who can't keep up with the murkier politics of Kree-Skrull warfare. Due to the deliberately fractured narrative structure (mirroring Carol's identity crisis), even Marvel aficionados, who can readily tell their Krees from their Skrulls and Marvell from Marvel, might find it challenging to follow the plot at first.

O CAPTAIN, OUR CAPTAIN! Kudos are due to Larson for making all the disparate elements of the film and her character work. For one thing, she makes kicking inter-galactic butt look easy and effortless. But it's in finding Carol's heart and soul that Larson truly shines - a particularly impressive feat since she's essentially playing a character who barely knows who she really is. Somehow, somewhere, in the midst of Carol's snarky comebacks and fierce smackdowns, Larson promises us a real human being - one we're excited to get to know better as the MCU continues to grow.

NEVERTHELESS, SHE PERSISTED: One of Captain Marvel's purest delights is its unabashedly feminist heart. In the film's most emotionally affecting sequence, we see Carol getting up - over and over again, through the ages, over decades, all her life - when she's told (particularly by the men around her) to stay down, to smile, to please others, to live a life that is nothing like the one she deserves to make for herself. It's an electrifying moment that will resonate with women and girls everywhere, whose lived experiences are of a world that has them constantly questioning their worth and value. Carol's true triumph isn't against hordes of shape-shifting aliens or an imminent inter-galactic attack - it's against the insidious horrors of toxic masculinity and gaslighting. What makes it all work doubly well is that the film also proudly celebrates the women in Carol's orbit, from Annette Bening's brilliant maverick scientist, Dr. Wendy Lawson; to Lashana Lynch's fiercely competent fighter pilot/single mom, Maria Rambeau.

FAN FARE: Marvel fans, of both the film and comic-book variety, will find themselves very well-served by Captain Marvel. MCU devotees will be rewarded with origin stories for fan-favourite characters - not just Nick Fury, but also Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), both of whom are decades away from their destinies with S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Avengers. The script is canny enough to use and subvert fan expectations gleaned from decades of comic lore - testing our sympathies most notably in the form of charismatic Skrull leader Talos (Ben Mendelsohn). And be warned: this might well be the first movie ever that has you tearing up even before the opening credits, with Marvel having re-designed its production logo in honour of the late, great Stan Lee and the words he wrote that changed the world.

RECOMMENDED? Yes! Captain Marvel pulls off the rather incredible feat of being properly entertaining and enlightening. A film that will reward multiple viewings, it's an essential addition to the canon of superhero movies.
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8/10
Not as utterly wonderful as the first film, but the big, beating heart embedded in this story is a true delight.
13 December 2018
THE LOW-DOWN: Ralph Breaks The Internet is the sequel to 2012's Wreck-It Ralph, one of Disney's most inventive and beloved films. The first movie mined comic gold from nostalgia, bringing to life a host of video-game favourites from the '80s and '90s. This new film addresses the technology we have today: Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) and Vanellope Von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) head into the crazy wilderness of the Internet in a bid to save her game from being unplugged for good.

THE GOOD: The film smartly keeps its emotional focus on the wonderful friendship between Ralph and Vanellope, and is all the better for it. There's a great deal of wonderful comedy in Ralph's desperate efforts to save Vanellope (who, as it turns out, might not want to be saved anymore) - including going viral. Ralph Breaks The Internet is unexpectedly mature in reminding audiences about the value of unconditional love between friends - that your friends can make you better, smarter, and more loving than you ever thought possible. You might find yourself sobbing at the grief and the growth that both Ralph and Vanellope experience as their friendship deepens.

THE NOT-SO-GOOD: Much of the film's commentary on the social-media age in which we love works quite well, from over-eager search engine Knowsmore (Alan Tudyk) to sassy algorithm queen Yesss (Taraji P. Henson). But why are some well-known elements of the Internet given new names (Buzzfeed and YouTube merged into BuzzTube, for instance), while others aren't? It ends up feeling like product placement - for eBay, in particular. Also, the sub-plots for new character Shank (Gal Gadot), as well as old favourites Fix-It Felix (Jack McBrayer) and Calhoun (Jane Lynch), work, but also feel somewhat inconsequential.

KNOCKOUT MOMENT: The Disney Princesses win the Internet! This is definitely product placement but it works beautifully because it's done with so much tongue-in-cheek affection for the entire Disney Princess franchise. The first Wreck-It Ralph film introduced Vanellope as the Mouse House's most intriguing princess yet - full of spunk, fire and a refusal to abide by the usual princessy tropes - but didn't really do much with it. Here, Disney deconstructs itself: gifting Vanellope with her own 'I want' princess song, while giving its other princesses (from Elsa and Anna to Mulan, Belle, Snow White and more) the chance to comment (and act) on the not-always-very-feminist stories of which they were a part.

WATCH OUT FOR: The easter eggs in the credits - the one at the very end is pure genius.

RECOMMENDED? Absolutely. It's not as utterly wonderful as the first film - the script is a little clunkier and the nostalgia factor replaced with a world-wide-web-weary cynicism. But the big, beating heart embedded in this story is a true delight. The Princesses alone will be worth the price of your ticket.
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9/10
Into The Spider Verse isn't just the best Spider-Man movie that nobody asked for - it's one of the best Spider-Man movies ever made, period.
13 December 2018
THE LOW-DOWN: Does the world really need another Spider-Man movie? In just over 15 years, we've already had three different Peter Parkers, each one with the same basic origin story. It's a reliable formula that's been run into the ground... hasn't it? And yet, Spider-Man: Into The Spider Verse will have you clamouring for more. This fresh, funny, fantastic film proves that there's entire universes of mileage left in all things Spider-Man - introducing us to brand-new hero Miles Morales, while also dissecting (and reinforcing) our love for good ol' Peter Parker.

THE STORY: Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore) is a high-school kid just trying to figure out his purpose in life - which sharpens somewhat terrifyingly into focus when he's bitten by a radioactive spider and finds himself literally climbing the walls. Suddenly, he's forced to assume the mantle of Spider-Man, battling to save the world from the heartbroken insanity of Wilson Fisk (Liev Schreiber). It's a tall order for a half African-American, half Puerto-Rican kid from Brooklyn but, fortunately, Miles soon discovers that he isn't alone in the universe...

THE GOOD: Where to even begin? Into The Spider Verse is a delight in practically every way. First and foremost, it's remarkably refreshing to see a character like Miles - a young man of mixed-race descent - get his own superhero origin story. It helps enormously that the screenplay, credited to Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman, is equal parts sweet, sharp and snarky. Some superhero movies (*cough*DC*cough*) can take themselves too seriously, but Into The Spider Verse skewers Spider-Man's cinematic history with a cheeky charm that's impossible to resist. Miles also leads a cast of enormously appealing characters, including clever twists on fan favourites like Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), Aunt May (Lily Tomlin), Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) and Doctor Octopus (REDACTED).

THE NOT-SO-GOOD: There's almost too much going on, all the time. Into The Spider Verse is stuffed to the brim with multiple characters, multiple universes and multiple plot-lines - so much so that the emotional weight of Miles' fraught relationships with his dad (Brian Tyree Henry) and uncle (Mahershala Ali), which should tear audiences apart, comes close to getting lost amongst the shift and shuffle of the plot. It's hardly a deal-breaker, though: the narrative beats are all there, ready to be savoured and rediscovered on a rewatch.

THE GLORIOUSLY GEEKY: Comic-book fans, rejoice - this one's for you. There's a soul-deep love for Spider-Man lore threaded through every gorgeous frame of this movie. Naturally, it's right there in the plot, as alternate universes collide and truly cult characters tumble into Miles' life. But it's the medium of animation that makes the real difference here. It's why Into The Spider Verse can embrace its comic-book roots in a way that live-action movies can't. In some of the film's most visually arresting sequences, Miles leaps and soars in and out of frame, trailing sound effects and narration in his wake. This living, breathing comic-book effect is the crowning achievement of Sony's animation arm - not only is it fluid and stunning, it's ridiculously inventive, mixing and matching animation styles to further plot and develop character.

WATCH OUT FOR: Easter eggs galore! Spider-Man and Marvel aficonados should keep their eyes peeled for references peppered throughout the film. The late Stan Lee's cameo will break and warm your heart in equal measure. Meanwhile, Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli, who co-created Miles Morales, are name-checked, as are concepts and terms well-known to fans of the comics (Earth-616 and all). Stay through the credits for a series of of wonderful, silly rewards, including a song off Spider-Man's novelty Christmas album and some intriguing scenes that hint at where this new animated franchise might go. (A sequel and spin-offs have already been greenlit! 🙌) ALSO, this film features possibly the best use of Nicolas Cage in a movie since National Treasure!*

RECOMMENDED? YES. Into The Spider Verse isn't just the best Spider-Man movie that nobody asked for - it's one of the best Spider-Man movies ever made, period. It's also a top contender for best animated film of the year.

*Okay, fine, having Cage voice Superman in this year's Teen Titans Go! To The Movies was genius too - a nod to his life-long goal to play Superman. Maybe Cage should stick to voiceover work... 🤔
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6/10
Some of the best visual effects put on screen since Lord Of The Rings, but the muddled plot never quite lives up to its promise.
13 December 2018
THE LOW-DOWN: For a period of time a decade or so ago, steampunk was all the rage in young-adult fantasy novels. 'Steampunk' novels blended past and future, taking inspiration for futuristic technology from the steam-powered machinery of the 19th century. Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines series is a prime example - his characters battle to survive in a broken future, in which people now live in moving, mechanical, almost monstrous cities. The original source novel (published in 2001) was adapted for the screen (and produced) by the same creative team behind The Lord Of The Rings: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson.

THE GOOD: The Mortal Engines features some of the best world construction (though it might be more accurate to say deconstruction) in a fantasy movie in a generation.The visual effects and production design - including a thoroughly reconstituted London and a city built on clouds - are fantastic, so remarkably rendered that it's impossible to tell where reality ends and imagination begins. Before they wear out their welcome, the characters are reasonably diverse and appealing: Icelandic actress Hera Hilmar adroitly finds the toughness and tenderness in driven protagonist Hester Shaw, and Hugo Weaving is so good as fairly one-note villain Thaddeus Valentine that you'll wish he had more layers to work with.

THE CLEVERLY SUBVERSIVE: There's a clever thread of political commentary running throughout the film. As the predatory city of London storms smaller cities to steal their resources and energy, the obvious reference is to colonialism: our real-world history repeating itself in the form of fiction. There are even barely subtle allusions to some of the most bewildering policy decisions of our times: Brexit and Donald Trump's border separation initiative.

THE NOT-SO-GOOD: The movie doesn't end half as well at it begins - it tries desperately to be exciting but winds up being exhausting. The final 45 minutes are packed with so many moving parts that most of the emotional beats get lost in the melee, including an actual 'Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader' moment that misses both the heart and the mark. It's nice that Jackson is mentoring Christian Rivers in the latter's directorial debut, but you might find yourself wondering what the film would be like if Jackson had directed it himself. Separately, Jihae cuts a cool figure as rebel leader Anna Fang, but she can't seem to express emotion through all of her character's swagger and glower.

SCENE STEALER EXTRAORDINAIRE: Shrike - played in motion-capture by Stephen Lang - is a marvel. More machine than man, he steals pretty much every scene he stalks grimly through. Ironically (but also fittingly), this mechanical man's hunt for Hester lends the film most of its dramatic and emotional weight.

WATCH OUT FOR: Cameos by Jackson and Reeve, if you're not too busy trying to keep track of everything that's going on.

RECOMMENDED? If you want to see some of the best visual effects put on screen since Lord Of The Rings, yes. But the muddled plot never quite lives up to its promise. So be warned - you might be disappointed if you're in it for the story.
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Widows (2018)
7/10
McQueen's films can be harrowing and alienating - this one is neither, but it's also strange to watch.
13 December 2018
THE LOW-DOWN: Hailed as a classy crime thriller with a feminist twist, Widows sees Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis) gathering her fellow widows to pull off a heist after their husbands die in a mission gone badly wrong. The film boasts a pretty impressive pedigree: it's directed by Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave, Hunger) and co-written by McQueen and Gillian Flynn (who wrote Gone Girl - both the book and the film).

THE GOOD: Widows has both style and substance, which don't always co-exist in crime thrillers. Apart from scenes and moments shot with delicate flair by McQueen, the film powerfully weaves heartbreaking real-world violence into the backstory of one of its lead characters. When Widows is good, it's very good - its myriad characters and plot lines hint at the very thin line that separates crime from politics, and not many movies can pull off equating victory with comeuppance.

THE NOT-SO-GOOD: For all that is good about the film, Widows is weighed down by an identity crisis. Its tone is all over the place, meandering from heist thriller to soap opera, by way of a political drama. This slows the film's pace down considerably, when it should zip and zing. Lavishing so much time on the film's politicians and antagonists also means that some of the ostensible leads get short shrift. Michelle Rodriguez's Widow, in particular, is so slight that even a last-minute addition to the heist crew (played by Cynthia Erivo) fares better in terms of character development. And it's hard to shake the feeling that McQueen shot a bunch of great scenes that he couldn't bear to cut (pretty much any moment featuring Daniel Kaluuya's thug), even though they don't actually help move the story along very much.

KNOCKOUT PERFORMANCES: In an insanely good cast, Davis, Kaluuya and Elizabeth Debicki are the standouts. Davis wrings strength and vulnerability out of an underwritten role. Kaluuya flips his everyman charm on a dime and is truly terrifying as a henchman from hell. Debicki is effortlessly charming as the best Widow of all: the one who discovers she's much more than the trophy wife she'd always believed herself to be.

WATCH OUT FOR: The cannily cast husbands of the titular widows - some have so little screen time that they might well qualify as Easter eggs. Shoutout to Liam Neeson, who gamely sends up his geriaction hero status while reminding viewers that he's actually a pretty good actor - even with contrived material.

RECOMMENDED? Yes, but not without some qualifications. McQueen's films can be harrowing and alienating - this one is neither, but it's also strange to watch. There's a lot about it that's good, and quite a bit of it that doesn't work. But it's an interesting mess that's worth a look.
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First Man (2018)
5/10
Shoots for the moon, and misses the heart.
18 October 2018
There's no denying that Damien Chazelle is one of the most interesting directors working today. His two most recent credits, which he wrote and directed, were breakout hits. You could practically sense Chazelle himself living and breathing in every frame of Whiplash and La La Land - two films that were, on the surface, quite different, but which married complex character work with intense musicality to quite remarkable effect. With First Man, he turns his hand to the prestige biopic: a rich historical drama inspired by the life and achievements of legendary astronaut Neil Armstrong. The final result is a strange beast: it mostly works well when shooting (quite literally) for the moon, but falls short at getting to the heart of its subject.

We first meet Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) in 1962. Already a renowned test pilot, he and his wife, Janet (Claire Foy) have created a picture-perfect nuclear family, with one son, Eric, and one daughter, Karen. But tragedy strikes: he's forced to watch, helpless, as his beloved little girl wastes away from an inoperable brain tumour. Although her premature death shakes Armstrong to the core, you would never know it: he returns to work almost immediately, and signs up for America's space programme. Instead of dealing with the oceans of grief within him, he channels his intense stoicism and iron discipline into his new mission: taking leave of the surface of the Earth.

On this count, the film is a marvel - both in technical terms, and as a resurrection of a relatively distant past. The 1969 moon landing has passed into legend and lore: it's a fact we learn from history books, its accompanying dangers and follies fading with the passage of time. First Man brings all of that context back to vivid, shuddering, blood-and-guts life, reminding us that we somehow catapulted a man to the moon without any of the computing technology that most of us carry around in our pockets nowadays.

This point is driven home as Armstrong and his compatriots - including Ed White (Jason Clarke) and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) - take turns being shot into space. Through close-ups tighter than Tom Hooper's and deliberately shaky camera-work, Chazelle invites us to join these men inside their spacecrafts: glorified tin buckets, held together by a dream and a prayer, that might as easily serve as their coffins as their shuttle to the stars. The human cost of the entire space-faring effort weighs heavily on the film and its title character, forcing Armstrong to grapple with loss every time a mission fails - occasionally, before it even begins.

All the emotional beats that land (and there are quite a few that don't) come courtesy of Chazelle's first-rate cast. Gosling has made a career out of playing grimly determined men, whose hearts are beating wildly beneath veneers of impenetrable impassivity. He's very good as Armstrong, though he's hamstrung by the very role he's playing. Foy makes the most of a rather underwritten part, unearthing genuine rage and heartbreak as Janet's life revolves around the constant possibility of her husband's death.

Less successful are First Man's attempts to give us a sense of who Neil Armstrong was. It admirably avoids transforming him into a cliché or a lie: this is no charmingly airbrushed portrait of a genial aw-shucks American hero.

What the film does do, unfortunately, is swing almost too far towards the opposite extreme. At every turn, Armstrong refuses human connection: rebuffing his wife, his friends, his living children, while stewing in his own angst. Josh Singer, who consulted with Armstrong's first wife and sons in writing the screenplay, stands by the version of the man we meet in the film: so pathologically reticent that he would rather risk his life travelling to the moon than spend one evening talking honestly with his family.

But therein lies the problem. Sure, Armstrong could have been hard and cold and emotionally inaccessible (at least at the time) to those closest to him. It still takes a conscious narrative decision, however, to make one particular interpretation of the man's inner turmoil the emotional pivot of the entire film. When this Armstrong stares at the moon (which he does a lot), the film practically yells at us that he longs to escape there. Making history is incidental; it's all about processing his grief.

It's also why the film's climax - a scene that should be filled with awe and wonder at the superhuman feat achieved by distinctly unsuper humans - undercuts itself. We barely get to experience the joy that should accompany this remarkable achievement, because Armstrong's face remains obscured by a reflective visor as he takes his first steps on the moon. We only get to see his face at a moment so nakedly sentimental that it will have you rushing online afterwards to find out how much of it is fact and how much fiction. (Spoiler alert: it's fiction, which Singer will argue is grounded in fact. But it's still fiction.)

In effect, First Man ends up trapping itself by its own ambition. It wants desperately to avoid painting Armstrong as a noble, flaw-free hero - but focuses so much on his personal misery that his accomplishments are devalued. The historic moon landing becomes part of the weight of one man's sorrow, bleeding it of the enormous scientific and cultural significance that Armstrong himself would have fiercely defended. If Armstrong wasn't a real person, it might have worked. But because he was, First Man's awkward blend of documentary and melodrama - as relentless as it is reductive - feels tone-deaf. It aims for the stars... but winds up crashing to the ground.
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Incredibles 2 (2018)
9/10
Brilliant in both execution and enjoyment, Incredibles 2 is worth the wait.
17 June 2018
A sequel to The Incredibles has a lot to live up to. Pixar's fresh, funny look at an ordinary family with extraordinary powers became an instant classic when it was released in 2004 - for very good reason. Writer-director Brad Bird struck a sublime balance between domestic drama and tongue-in-cheek satire - celebrating and sending up superheroes in equal measure. So, 14 years on, is Incredibles 2 worth the wait? Fortunately... yes. It doesn't quite redefine or revitalise the genre, the way its predecessor did, but it's still brilliantly funny, thoughtful and a pure joy to watch.

The film picks up exactly where The Incredibles left off - revealing that, as in often the case in real life, the happy ending was neither entirely 'happy' nor an 'ending'. When we meet the superpowered Parrs again, they're trying to figure out how to fight crime - not just as a team, but as a family. It's more complicated and frustrating than any of them expects, especially when a botched mission yields catastrophic results... and a ban on superheroes.

This turn of events allows Bird to capitalise on the one element of Incredibles 2 that remains unique even in these superhero-obsessed times: the fact that the Parrs are a proper family, bound together by blood, love, duty and responsibility. That dynamic - anchored by the profoundly relatable tensions between husband and wife, parent and child, brother and sister - was what made the first film such a delight to begin with.

Incredibles 2 builds on this with even greater warmth, sensitivity and insight. When she's called upon to front a pro-superhero publicity campaign, we watch Helen/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) struggle with the demands of being a working mom. Left to take care of the children, Bob/Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson) is forced to come to terms with his own roles and responsibilities as a father. And the kids are experiencing growing pains of their own: Violet (Sarah Vowell) freaks out over a forgotten first date; Dash (Huck Milner) does battle with his homework; and baby Jack-Jack tests out his burgeoning powers on an unfortunate nemesis.

Speaking of Jack-Jack - the youngest member of the Parr family steals the entire film - and will run away with your heart too. It's no spoiler to say that he starts randomly unleashing one superpower after another: his abilities manifested in Pixar's 2005 short film, Jack-Jack Attack, and are on full display in every trailer for Incredibles 2. But it's impossible to adequately express just how delightful Jack-Jack is in this film - even as he shoots laser beams from his eyes, spontaneously combusts ("It means fire, Robert!") and morphs into a rampaging mini-demon. His kinetic showdown with a hapless raccoon is one of the film's best scenes: at once howlingly funny and gorgeously animated.

Jack-Jack is the easy standout, but similar care has been invested into exploring the potential and implications of his family's powers. In particular, there's a thrill of imaginative fluidity that runs throughout every one of Elastigirl's scenes, given freer rein by 14 years of technological improvements. Her ability to stretch herself thin - a canny metaphor for the myriad demands of motherhood - allows her to slip through cracks, soar through the air and stop a runaway train in visually arresting ways.

In fact, it all looks so spectacular that you'll find yourself gaining a renewed appreciation for the pure magic of animated movies. We're living at a time when CGI and special effects can pull off just about anything on screen. And yet, Incredibles 2 proves with its every frame and action sequence that there are some ideas that just won't work as well in live action. (That's a lesson Disney might want to take to heart, by the way.) Edna Mode - genius fashion designer and undying fan favourite - proves it whenever she slices through a scene, radiating a cutting charisma as huge as she is tiny.

It's fair to say, however, that not everything about Incredibles 2 feels quite as effortless as it did for its predecessor. This time around, Bird's screenplay isn't as light and nimble in its examination of superheroes and the people who help and hinder them. The characters of Winston (Bob Odenkirk) and Evelyn Deaver (Catherine Keener) are more grounded, for example, but also less interesting than the likes of supervillain Syndrome and super-sidekick Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson). The biting meta commentary of the first film is sorely missed. Some of the characters aren't given much space to grow, either - Dash moves the fastest of them all, but feels like he doesn't really go anywhere.

14 years on, you'd be perfectly justified to ask if there's any point to Incredibles 2. After all, we now live in a cinematic era in which the superhero genre has established itself firmly in Hollywood. We're intensely familiar with tales of ordinary people living and grappling with extraordinary powers. In the decade and a half(ish) that has passed since, Pixar has also released a bunch of sequels to films that didn't require or deserve them (*cough*Cars*cough*). It's enough to make you doubt if the Parrs have anything left to say - and if it would be said well. Thankfully, the wit and wonder of Incredibles 2 proves that good things do indeed come to those who wait - and that we'd be happy to wait for even more.
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Ocean's Eight (2018)
7/10
This ridiculously fantastic cast deserves better, but they make the film worth the watch.
13 June 2018
Strictly speaking, Ocean's 8 isn't a great movie. Its plot is more functional than fun, its execution more dutiful than dazzling. And yet, it's still one of this summer's purest cinematic pleasures - due almost entirely to the phenomenal cast assembled for the film. The eight leading ladies in Ocean's 8 are having so much fun, both on screen and off, that it's a delight just to kick back and watch them at work. They make the film better than it is and, by the time the credits start rolling, you'll be hankering for a rewatch - or, better yet, a sequel worthy of the cast's talents.

The film opens on Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) - younger sister to George Clooney's Danny - who's spent the past five years in prison, working out the perfect heist. Once she gains her freedom, she starts bringing together the dream team that can help her steal a legendary $150-million Cartier necklace off the neck of ultra-vain actress Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway) during the fabulously exclusive Met Gala in New York City. These include best friend Lou Miller (Cate Blanchett), fashion designer Rose (Helena Bonham Carter), jewellery expert Amita (Mindy Kaling), retired fence/middle-woman Tammy (Sarah Paulson), pickpocket Constance (Awkwafina) and hacker Nine Ball (Rihanna).

The main problem with Ocean's 8 is that it doesn't have quite the snap and sparkle that it should. A heist flick should sing and sizzle off the screen, but Ocean's 8 rarely manages to do either. Steven Soderbergh - in peak auteur mode - threaded a heartbeat of fizzy joy throughout the original trilogy of Ocean's films. None of those films, starring a host of Hollywood's top leading men, would be considered classic cinema, but they were a blast to watch and puzzle out. In contrast, Ocean's 8 lacks personality. The film is directed with workaday efficiency by Gary Ross, who seems concerned only with getting the plot from point A to point B.

It doesn't help that the screenplay - co-written by Ross and Olivia Milch - is too busy explaining the heist to actually enjoy it. Each aspect of this criminal endeavour is painstakingly laid out, leaving any hints of mystery and magic by the wayside. Even the film's plot twists barely register as surprises: one is mathematically guaranteed (the film is called Ocean's 8 for a reason); the other 'revelation' arrives less in the key of sleight-of-hand, more in the form of sledgehammer.

But - and this is a huge but - the cast of Ocean's 8 is so staggeringly good, their on-screen interaction so delicious, that the film becomes better by their very presence. This is particularly evident when it comes to the heist's ringleaders. Bullock largely plays it straight as Debbie: all calm, collected and in control. But she nonetheless unearths a little sensitivity to Debbie's swagger. Blanchett, meanwhile, is having the time of her life as Lou - revelling in and radiating a rock-and-roll confidence that can only partly be attributed to the array of fantastically tailored suits she wears.

They're even better together. As Debbie and Lou reunite to pull off their biggest heist yet, Bullock and Blanchett give a whole new meaning to the term 'partner in crime'. They could teach classes on the history and chemistry that they've created between their characters. Who - and what - are Debbie and Lou to each other? How did they meet, and what have they been through? There's certainly more heat and flirty sexual tension (whether it's resolved or unresolved is up for debate) between them than there is between Debbie and Claude (Richard Armitage), a man from her past that eventually gets tangled up in the present.

You'll be left wanting more - more of these characters, more of their backstories, more of their lives and hopes and dreams and crimes. That's true, too, of the other women in the film, who aren't always afforded much depth in the script. Their personalities, for the most part, are interchangeable with the jobs they're brought on to do. And yet, having these characters played by performers with such natural charisma and sharp wit as Bonham Carter, Kaling, Paulson, Awkwafina and Rihanna gives them a spark of life beyond what's on the page.

Hathaway, in particular, waltzes away with practically every scene she's in - a remarkable feat considering that she's sharing the screen with a host of accomplished scene-stealers. She is dynamite as Daphne, playing the ego and irony, monster and sweetheart, of her role in a fireworks display of comic energy.

As for production design, it would be wrong not to heap praise upon the exquisite work of Sarah Edwards, Ocean's 8's costume designer. In this film - and for women in real life - fashion can be power: the clothes we wear tell the stories we want to tell, communicate the messages we want to convey. They empower as well as disguise, bestowing uniqueness and anonymity as necessary. Edwards understands this keenly, and has crafted a dizzying collection of gorgeous outfits that are full of rich character insight and detail - something that the script doesn't always provide.

In the final analysis, it can be hard to separate Ocean's 8 from what it represents. After all, this is a summer blockbuster with a primary cast made up entirely of women - half of whom are over the age of 40 (typically the 'sell-by' date in youth-obsessed Hollywood). Like this summer's other female-led film, Book Club, it's a phenomenon so rare and so significant that it's worth celebrating.

What's harder to celebrate is the unfortunate fact that Ocean's 8 isn't anywhere near as good as its cast deserves. That's the true crime here. Imagine a version of this film shot with the flair and style of Soderbergh, or the tongue-in-cheek silliness of Taika Waititi. Imagine a screenplay that gives these incredible women depth and layers that they don't have to invent for themselves. Imagine a plot that's smart enough to take your breath away. And imagine all of that - for a sequel. Here's hoping that this won't be the last we see of Debbie Ocean and her crew.
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7/10
Surprisingly brave and thoughtful as massive blockbusters go, though there are moments that will sorely test your patience.
6 June 2018
Warning: Spoilers
When it comes to gigantic blockbuster franchises, the law of diminishing returns typically applies. Each new film somehow manages to be bigger and dumber, while also offering audiences pretty much the same experience that raked in the box-office bucks in the first place. That's why Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom comes as a pleasant surprise. It's far from perfect, with a screenplay that veers between breathtaking and breathtakingly silly. But there's a lot of thought and quite a bit of bravery invested in everything on display: from story, character and thematic development, to where this dino-driven series can go in the future.

On the surface, the plot is simple enough: Isla Numbar, the theme-park island left abandoned in Jurassic World, is facing an existential crisis. A volcano is about to erupt, threatening to take with it the dinosaurs now roaming freely all over the island. Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), now a dinosaur rights activist, convinces former dino trainer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) to return to Isla Numbar and save what dinosaurs they can, including (but especially) fan-favourite velociraptor Blue. Before long, they find themselves entangled not in a rescue operation, but in an utterly grim, cynical criminal enterprise.

It doesn't sound particularly groundbreaking, but what works refreshingly well is how Fallen Kingdom approaches the serious moral questions raised by the very premise of the entire Jurassic Park franchise. What happens when human beings play God, and bring dinosaurs back to life? How far can we push this power to manipulate genetic destiny? And do human beings have an ethical duty to preserve and protect a species that, by all the laws of nature, shouldn't even exist?

Fallen Kingdom doesn't just flirt with these questions, as its predecessors did. It places them squarely in the foreground, however uncomfortable this may become for the film's characters or audiences. Throughout its far stronger first half, the film continually asks us to ponder issues of complicity and responsibility in a complex world. It pushes the original idea behind Jurassic Park - a new-found ability to literally resurrect the past - to its logical conclusion, and asks again and again what happens when the things humans create take on lives of their own.

The film also benefits from director J.A. Bayona's remarkable ability to balance the epic and the intimate, as showcased so expertly in his tsunami drama, The Impossible. At its best, Fallen Kingdom serves up grand moments so startlingly effective in emotional terms that they might make you cry - whether it's Blue being, briefly, betrayed; or the sight of Isla Numbar retreating in the distance, the fiery backdrop for a sole dinosaur as it rages against the dying of the light. There's a truly eye-popping technical masterpiece of a scene that features humans and dinosaurs tumbling down a landscape ravaged by flame and fire. But the top-notch visual effects aren't the point. It's what the scene means, how it makes audiences feel - hearts lodging in throats at the prospect of innocent lives lost.

As much as Bayona deserves credit for unearthing the heart and humanity in Fallen Kingdom, the screenplay by Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly deserves some praise too. It contains some canny decisions that strengthen the franchise and its characters going forward. Claire, in particular, actually evolves - once the park's by-the-books operations manager, she is now a badass activist who dares to fight for what she believes is right. There's a great deal of potential, too, to the new character of Maisie Lockwood (Isabella Sermon), the plucky young granddaughter of one of Jurassic Park's co-founders.

It's a shame that the film slips into dumb and dumber territory in its second half. There are a couple of excellent moments, dripping with the tension and horror of Bayona's chilling directorial debut, The Orphanage. You can see what Bayona is going for: the appealing notion of turning dinosaurs into the proverbial monsters under the bed, a menace that could come for you in the safety of your own home. In this regard, the film's new hybrid dinosaur - the Indoraptor - takes centre stage, although it doesn't have quite the personality or appeal of either Blue or the iconic Tyrannosaurus Rex.

But Fallen Kingdom shrinks into itself once the action is transposed from the island to the Lockwood mansion. The nuance and depth of the first half largely disappears. Instead, the film ends up trading in the kind of huge, intelligence-free action sequences that belong in a lesser sequel - from characters (and dinosaurs) plunging in and out of bedrooms and across a shatter-friendly glass roof, to mercenary Ken Wheatley's (Ted Levine) final encounter with the Indoraptor.

The film also makes some narrative choices that seem silly even on paper, much less on screen. Daniella Pineda's spunky Zia Rodriguez is a fun addition as a paleoveterinarian - except she's never encountered a dinosaur in her entire life. (Why didn't they just make her a former Jurassic World employee, like Owen?) Similarly, the screenwriters demonstrate a bizarre disconnect from the real world when they put prices on the rescued dinosaurs - still insanely rare for being history made flesh - and come up with paltry amounts like $10 million each. (What criminal hijinks can you carry out for that amount of money?!) It makes the film's avaricious antagonists, Eli Mills (Rafe Spall) and Gunnar Eversoll (Toby Jones), come across as pantomime villains instead of criminal masterminds.

For the most part, however, Fallen Kingdom works. For a summer blockbuster, it's surprisingly thoughtful in examining the human - and dinosaur - condition. Its second half doesn't quite live up to the promise of the first, but it's still a fun enough romp. And the film ends as boldly as it begins. In completely re-calibrating the relationship between humans and dinosaurs in its final act, Fallen Kingdom doesn't just make a sequel welcome - it makes one necessary.
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6/10
A competent and watchable Solo adventure, but this incarnation of Han is unlikely to run away with your heart.
23 May 2018
Warning: Spoilers
Han Solo, as played by the incomparably charming Harrison Ford, is one of the most iconic action heroes in all of cinematic history. There's no denying that: it's simply a fact of life, an immutable truth. You have to give LucasFilm and Disney some credit for having the balls to re-imagine so beloved a hero - re-casting him, giving him a love interest other than Leia, filling in gaps in his backstory - all at the risk of alienating a devoted fanbase that has loved one incarnation of Han Solo for decades. It's a gamble that doesn't quite pay off, unfortunately. This origin story is fairly entertaining as outer-space adventures go, but it lingers almost permanently in the key of too safe and too slow.

We first meet Han (Alden Ehrenreich) on his grim home planet of Corellia. An orphan and a petty thief, he's been living the proverbial hard-knock life on the streets with his partner-in-crime, Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke). When the pair make an ill-fated attempt to escape, only Han manages to get away. He spends the next few years honing his craft as a pilot, while doing his best to get back to her side. Along the way, Han meets several individuals who will prove instrumental in shaping him into the charming rogue we already know and love: future first mate Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), pragmatic outlaw Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and suave smuggler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover).

For both Star Wars novices and aficionados, there's enough in Solo to enjoy. The stand-alone nature of this film makes it a decent jumping-on point for the uninitiated. There isn't a ton of dense Star Wars lore that you need to know in order for key dramatic moments in the film to work. At the same time, life-long fans will finally get to see just how Han pulled off his legendary Kessel Run in 12 parsecs, even as the deepening bromance between Han and Chewie proves to be one of the film's purest delights. Solo also boasts another scene-stealing droid (Phoebe Waller-Bridges' spunky L3-37) and a few spectacular action sequences (particularly a mid-air train heist that defies both gravity and expectations).

The trouble is that the film, as a whole, lacks the energy and inventiveness that ran through practically every frame of The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. The heist at the heart of Solo is never quite as exhilarating as it seems to think it is. We should be swept along in the sheer epic adventure of it all. Instead, the interstellar journey feels like it's checking off boxes (befriend Chewie, snag Millennium Falcon, survive Kessel Run) rather than letting loose and having fun. As a result, the film's middle section sags and practically plods along. At least 20 minutes could have been sliced out of Solo without detriment to the story or its pace.

It's no secret, of course, that Ron Howard came to the rescue after Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the film's original directors, were fired after almost five months of principal photography. That may be another reason for Solo's comparative lack of spark. The unifying vision here isn't the screwball anarchy of Lord and Miller's The Lego Movie and 21 Jump Street - more's the pity. This is by-the-numbers filmmaking, competently executed because Howard is one of Hollywood's most reliable journeyman directors. It works, sure, but very little of it actually inspires or intrigues, apart from a doozy of a final-act character revelation that arrives almost too late to make its mark.

The same could be said of its main cast. Ehrenreich is serviceable as Han Solo, largely because he doesn't try to slavishly imitate or channel his predecessor. (That's a wise choice, by the way - only Harrison Ford can do Harrison Ford.) But he doesn't pop off the screen the way he does in arthouse films like Hail, Caesar! It's almost as if he got the same studio note that was handed to Howard when he joined the production: play it safe, or else. Clarke is just barely okay as Qi'ra - she goes through the motions just fine, but doesn't really manage to colour in the depth and darkness of her character beyond what is already there in the script.

At least there's fun to be had where Solo's supporting cast is concerned. Glover and Harrelson both have charisma to spare, and you might be forgiven for wanting to watch films centred on their characters instead. Paul Bettany - a last-minute addition to the cast when reshoots prevented Michael K. Williams from returning - gives excellent villain as Dryden Vos, a snarlingly avaricious crime lord with a mysterious connection to Qi'ra. As Tobias' wife, Val, Thandie Newton is fantastic, but tragically underused.

It's odd to come to Solo: A Star Wars Story after the overwhelming success of the latest entries in the Star Wars cinematic franchise. All of these films have their detractors, of course, but The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi and Rogue One each demonstrated narrative courage: a willingness to commit to the fresh and unexpected, in order to tell an old story in a new way. Solo marches off resolutely in the opposite direction. This is a product hobbled by its heritage: cobbled together on the basis of and in tribute to past successes, with precious little insight of its own to offer.
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Deadpool 2 (2018)
8/10
So wildly funny and irreverent that you'll forgive the film its flaws.
18 May 2018
Remember when the very concept of making a Deadpool movie was a risk that no sane person or studio would dare to undertake? That was just over two years ago. Defying naysayers and sceptics, Deadpool became a cultural phenomenon: a seriously silly, smart, self-aware comedy that merrily skewered the entire superhero movie genre (sometimes literally), while repeatedly shattering box-office records and the fourth wall. If you enjoyed Deadpool's irresistible blend of satire, violence and irreverence, Deadpool 2 will be right up your alley. It's more (literally much more) of the same - in a (mostly) good way: this is blithely rude, clever filmmaking, funny and fresh enough that you'll be willing to forgive the movie its shortcomings.

Ryan Reynolds returns as Wade Wilson a.k.a. Deadpool - a super-dude (not quite a hero, almost certainly not a villain) blessed and cursed with the inability to die. When we meet Wade again, he is trying - and mostly failing - to come to terms with how his work as a mercenary endangers those whom he loves, particularly his girlfriend, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). The tragedy of Deadpool - both the character and this film - is that his superpower can mend his body and his bones but, unfortunately, cannot put a broken heart back together again.

Not quite able to put himself out his misery, Wade keeps staggering through the land of the living. During a mission with some third-string X-Men, he encounters Russell (Julian Dennison), a troubled young man with a fiery temper. It's a fateful meeting, for it sets Wade right in the path of Cable (Josh Brolin), a grim, grizzled bounty hunter who's determined to take a life to change a future he cannot accept.

It may sound like a dismal experience, but it's very much not. Deadpool 2 is easily one of the funniest, weirdest films you'll see this year. Emboldened by the runaway success of its predecessor, this sequel dials up the wild, wacky humour to an almost overwhelming degree. Every frame of this film is crammed with jokes: from puns and pop-culture gags to sassy quips and meta references. This is story-telling by way of pastiche and spoof, which allows the film to flit from Celine Dion to '80s cult classic Say Anything and back again. At one point, Deadpool even refers to Cable (grumpiness in half-man, half-machine form) as Thanos - a perfectly pointed nod to Brolin pulling double-duty as the huge-chinned purple antagonist in Marvel Studios' Avengers: Infinity War.

The undeniable highlight of Deadpool 2 is Wade's ill-advised attempt to stop Cable by creating X-Force, his own band of morally ambiguous super-powered individuals. Everything about this endeavour is hilarious: from selecting candidates like Terry Crews' Bedlam and Rob Delaney's schlubby Peter, to leaping into the great unknown with them on their very first mission. It allows for a brilliant sequence demonstrating how Domino (Zazie Beetz) gets by on her powers of extraordinary good luck, as well as a genius split-second cameo that works precisely because it's so damn brief.

Not every joke lands, however - which is unsurprising considering how many are flung in the direction of audiences. There are several moments that are clearly meant to be hysterical but fall flat, which suggests that the script (credited to Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick and Reynolds) could have benefited from some judicious editing. An extended scene centred on Deadpool's fairly gross regenerative abilities - let's just say it involves a fresh pair of legs - goes on too long and belabours a joke that just barely works the first time around.

With a couple of exceptions, the film doesn't manage to do justice to the supporting characters in Wade's orbit. Beetz's Domino may swagger through scenes as a human blast of cool, breezy fun, but lacks anything resembling a backstory or personality. Russell also feels more like a walking plot point than an actual human person - that's a huge shame, considering the depth of Dennison's talent (cf. Taika Waititi's Hunt For The Wilderpeople). Even Brolin's Cable doesn't get much in the way of characterisation until the final act.

It's a really good thing, then, that the movie manages to stick its surprisingly emotional landing. At every step of the way, this raucous, knockabout comedy chooses the giddy over the grave, the satire over the drama, the caricature over the character. And yet, there's a genuine emotional darkness at the heart of Deadpool 2. The film doesn't shy away from examining the demons that haunt Wade and Cable, which lends real weight to their choices when crap finally gets real and sacrifices have to be made. (In a manner that will delight fans of this pairing in the comics, by the way!)

There's a palpable joy, as well, to Reynolds' performance that is delightful to watch. His own love of the character shines through - and no doubt helped during the film's troubled pre-production process, when creative differences prompted original Deadpool director Tim Miller to leave. (He was replaced by David Leitch, aptly referred to in the credits as 'One of The Guys Who Killed The Dog in John Wick'.) Reynolds is wonderfully adept at the Looney Tunes-style comedy that peppers Deadpool 2, somehow managing to emote even through a mask that completely covers his face. But he also sells Wade's heartbreaking connection to Vanessa, one that he spends the entire film desperate to recover.

At this point in the evolution of superhero movies, we've truly seen it all: from the gritty existentialism of The Dark Knight Rises to the soaring hope of Wonder Woman. Marvel Studios alone has produced a host of films in different genres: spy thrillers, political dramas, crime capers and more. But, in a day and age when special effects can accomplish the impossible, the Deadpool films still stand apart as something entirely different. There's a giddy, unrestrained joy to them that recalls the wild, unchecked imagination of comic books - where anything can happen and nothing is off-limits. That Deadpool 2 manages to fold so much heart into its humour is icing on the cake.
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10/10
This movie will blow your mind and break your heart - and make you desperate to go back for more. Brave, brilliant and better than it has any right to be.
25 April 2018
Warning: Spoilers
Over the past decade, Marvel has earned itself the benefit of the doubt. The studio has consistently delivered smart, funny, brave films that both embrace and transcend their comic-book origins. The 18 blockbuster movies produced since Iron Man first blasted off into the stratosphere in 2008 have not only reinvented superhero films as a genre - they've helped to legitimise it. Indeed, Marvel's two most recent films - Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther - have received the kind of accolades usually reserved for edgy arthouse flicks.

And yet, it's perfectly reasonable to be apprehensive about Avengers: Infinity War. This is a blockbuster film that's been ten years in the making, its plot hinted at and scattered throughout 18 other movies. It features 30 or so characters, each with their own complex backstories and motivations. And all of them are coming together in a bid to stop a giant purple alien dude from destroying the universe. It sounds ridiculous, and feels impossible.

But that's precisely what makes the final product such a monumental achievement. Masterfully directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, Infinity War is bold, brainy filmmaking at its very best: the kind that will lift your spirits, blow your mind and shatter your soul - occasionally in the same scene. It demonstrates on an epic scale what Marvel has known all along: that special effects and tightly choreographed action are there to serve the story. For all its blockbuster spectacle (and there's almost too much of that), the film works because it's anchored by the heart, humour and humanity of its characters.

The film's basic plot is simple: Thanos (played via motion-capture by Josh Brolin), intergalactic purveyor of death and destruction, has long been on the hunt for the six Infinity Stones that will give him complete control over the elemental building blocks of the universe. He dispatches his acolytes to Earth to retrieve the Time Stone, currently in the possession of Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), and carve the Mind Stone out of the forehead of Vision (Paul Bettany). It's a literal existential threat so terrifying that all the heroes we've come to know and love - from the Avengers to the Guardians of the Galaxy - must put aside their differences and unite against a common foe.

From the outset, it's immediately clear that neither the film's directors nor screenwriters (Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) are interested in playing it safe. Most other superhero films are bled of high stakes - the hero in the title might suffer untold trauma, but it's a super-safe bet that he or she will make it to the end alive. There's no such guarantee here. Within the first ten minutes, we are confronted with the dark, twisted depths to which Thanos and his acolytes in the Black Order will sink in order to achieve their goals. Death, as well as genuine loss and sacrifice, is intrinsic to the narrative drumbeat that drives Infinity War ever forward, and the film is all the better for it.

That's not to say the movie is a morbid and depressing experience. What's so impressive about Infinity War is how it expertly juggles its constantly shifting tones and moods. When it's funny (and it very often is), it's deeply, truly funny. The film finds maximum joy in flinging characters together with merry abandon, mixing and matching ones you'd never have expected to share scenes or trade banter. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is floored by Thor's (Chris Hemsworth) godly muscles. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) is charmed by the wit and intelligence of Shuri (Letitia Wright). And it'd be impossible to not be utterly delighted by Peter Dinklage's inspired cameo. It's a blithely tongue-in-cheek sensibility shared by Marvel's best comic books, which understand that humour can make you care when it really counts.

And, boy, does Infinity War make it count. There are many heartbreakingly human moments threaded throughout the film: from the charming surrogate father-son dynamic shared by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) and Peter Parker (Tom Holland), to the undeniable love that ties Vision and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) together. In many ways, the film stands as a testament to the human capacity not just to love, but to love fiercely and beyond all logic. It's right there when the unfailingly noble Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) declares, "We don't trade lives", even when giving up one could save billions.

There's even a chilling echo of it in Thanos himself. A lesser film would have turned Thanos into a one-dimensional villain, much the way he's all monster and maniac in the comic books. In Infinity War, however, Thanos' end goal is surprisingly relevant when it comes to thinking and talking about the staggeringly overpopulated world in which we live today. There is, as it turns out, method to Thanos' madness. It makes the tragic twists and turns in his relationships with his estranged adopted daughters, Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan), all the more unsettling.

For the most part, Infinity War does justice, too, to the many heroes who have been assembled for the film. The Russo brothers displayed great skill at interweaving multiple perspectives and character trajectories in Captain America: Civil War, and they do so again here, with twice as many characters. Even the most minor of supporting players, like Don Cheadle's James Rhodes/War Machine, are given story beats that land. It helps that Marvel has always taken care to cast genuinely good actors in roles that might otherwise come off as silly and slight.

Even so, there are a few standouts amongst this enormous and enormously talented cast. Emotionally speaking, this is Downey's film. He plays every note of Tony's reluctant courage and bone-deep trauma, as he embarks on what he's convinced is a suicide mission. He's ably matched by Cumberbatch, who finds vulnerability even in his character's most cunning and calculative move. Hemsworth, meanwhile, is given free rein to import the big-hearted comedic swagger of Thor: Ragnarok into this film - while also layering it with a deeply-felt, jagged grief for the losses he has suffered at the hands of Thanos and the universe.

In a film with so many moving parts, some elements don't work quite as well. A couple of characters that you might have expected to be right at the forefront - including an original Avenger or two - fade into the background. The film tumbles from dizzying fight scene to dizzying fight scene, and while most of them are fantastically choreographed, there are some purely dumb moments that literally revolve around attempts to prevent Thanos from clenching his fist. In effect, this is a superhero mêlée that's part over-the-top and part overkill, and might prove too much for those who don't already care for this franchise and the characters in it.

Minor quibbles aside, though, Infinity War is yet another step in the right direction for Marvel. It continues the studio's tradition of placing a premium on rich, complex storytelling that respects both its characters and its audiences. But it also refuses to make things easy for itself. The film ends even more bravely than it began, with a final ten minutes that will haunt and horrify you in equal measure. It's a stroke of bold, brilliant genius - a narrative risk so audacious that you'll want to follow Marvel wherever it goes next.
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Black Panther (2018)
10/10
This may be Marvel's 18th film, but it feels like the studio is just getting started. Brave and brilliant, this superhero movie is like nothing you've ever seen before.
10 March 2018
Superhero movies never get a fair shake. There's always been an invisible - but undeniable - whiff of critical disdain attached to films revolving around people with superhuman abilities. More often than not, these films are viewed (and assessed) as popcorn entertainment: good fun, but not objectively good. Even the best examples of the genre are rarely, if ever, taken seriously by critics or award shows. But all that is set to change with Black Panther - a bold, brilliant blockbuster teeming with ideas, characters and messages that will make your soul take flight. For once, it's no exaggeration to say that you've never seen or experienced anything like this before.

The film gets off to a somewhat sedate start, as we're re-introduced to T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the freshly crowned King of Wakanda who is also infused with the ancestral powers of his nation's panther god. Writer-director Ryan Coogler takes his time in introducing us to all the key players in the film's first act, from the most important members of T'Challa's royal court to the rites, rituals and rigidity of Wakanda itself.

It's never boring, but Black Panther does linger in a minor key for a while. You might find yourself wondering just where the film is going, as T'Challa deals with a challenge to his authority from within Wakanda's five tribes. It can be hard to imagine, too, just what the film wants to say when T'Challa - who could easily delegate the responsibility - takes it upon himself to personally hunt down dastardly arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) in order to retrieve a stolen artifact made of Wakanda's most precious natural resource, vibranium.

But put your trust in Coogler - he's certainly earned it with his masterful blending of tension, character and story in his previous two films, Fruitvale Station and Creed. As Black Panther unfolds, everything starts to make a whole lot of sense, in dramatic, emotional and narrative terms. Suddenly, we're not just witnessing the growing pains of a new king. As it turns out, Black Panther is, for its titular character, an existential odyssey: as he fights for his nation's survival, T'Challa must also grapple with the choices (and sins) of his ancestors, deciding whether to embrace or reject them.

Most significantly, Black Panther uses its blockbuster platform to examine complex issues such as racism and colonialism in thoughtful, intimate ways. The fiction of Wakanda - a hyper-evolved African nation that has kept its technological advances a secret from the rest of the world for centuries - allows Coogler to hold up a mirror to the facts of the world in which we live. In quite unprecedented fashion, we are presented with a host of proud, brave, indomitable African warriors who have lived their lives free of the horrors of slavery and institutionalised racism. Just as Wonder Woman gave little girls the world over a hero in their own image, Black Panther will do the same for generations of black children who have never before seen themselves represented on screen.

If that sounds impossibly weighty and grim, don't worry. Coogler's script, co-written with Joe Robert Cole, is far from preachy. There may be a hint or two of hand-wringing melodrama to T'Challa's central dilemma - should Wakanda venture out into the world and lead by example? - but it's cleverly off-set by the depths of darkness and despair written into T'Challa's nemesis: Erik 'Killmonger' Stevens (Michael B. Jordan). Shaped by the very different circumstances of their lives, one man turns towards the light, and the other away from it - and yet, neither man falls simply into the black-and-white categories of 'hero' or 'villain'. Somehow, Coogler shades centuries of history and hope into the conflict at the heart of their troubled relationship.

Black Panther is no slouch, either, when it comes to turning up the heat in terms of action and spectacle. There's a jaw-dropping car chase through the neon-washed streets of Busan that's easily one of the most exhilarating scenes you'll see all year. Fight scenes are pulled off with remarkable flair, particularly when it comes to the swift military precision of the Dora Milaje - an incredibly cool, all-female special forces unit devoted to the protection of Wakanda's monarch. Wakanda itself is an eye-popping fantasy scape: a heady blend of futuristic elements and African traditons, colours and music.

Leading the film's top-notch ensemble, Boseman is the film's quiet backbone: an invaluable presence and the reason everything holds together at all. He shares an electric chemistry with Jordan, who blends swagger, menace and pathos in creating the Marvel Cinematic Universe's most complex, nuanced and sympathetic antagonist to date.

Fantastic as the two leading men, however, they're not the breakout stars of the film. That honour belongs to a trio of female characters - each one given depth, layers and a fierce, real on-screen presence that's still rare enough that they shouldn't be taken for granted. Lupita Nyong'o injects strength and steel into her portrayal of Nakia - a former and future love interest for T'Challa who manages to be interesting in her own right. The Walking Dead's Danai Gurira is a force to be reckoned with as Okoye, the righteous leader of the Dora Milaje; while Letitia Wright's Shuri - T'Challla's younger sister who also happens to be Wakanda's premier scientist - waltzes away with every scene in which she appears.

It may come as a surprise to some that Marvel's latest superhero blockbuster tackles issues of race, representation and discrimination in so bold and unflinching a manner. And yet, fans of the comic books that have inspired Marvel's entire slate of films would say: it's about time. In the way it embraces its story and heritage, in the way its heroes are presented, and in the way its message will inspire and empower generations to come, Black Panther matters. And it cannot - and will not - be ignored.
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5/10
A well-intentioned mess that manages to be weird - and yet also not weird enough.
10 March 2018
Since its publication in 1962, Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle In Time has gained a reputation for being unfilmable... for good reason. The book mixes science fiction and Christian theology in an epic odyssey across time, space and the universe - in ways that are endlessly charming to fans, and frustratingly messy to detractors. L'Engle's defiantly episodic tale provides as many pitfalls as opportunities for aspiring filmmakers - accordingly, director Ava DuVernay winds up getting about as much right as she gets wrong.

Meg Murry (Storm Reid) - full of youth, self-loathing and abandonment issues - is the prickly heart of the film. It's been four years since her physicist dad (Chris Pine) disappeared, and Meg is still falling apart. But everything changes when her precocious six-year-old brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), invites a most peculiar stranger into their home. Before long, Mrs Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) and her two equally unusual friends, Mrs Who (Mindy Kaling) and Mrs Which (Oprah Winfrey), invite the Murry siblings and their new friend, Calvin (Levi Miller), on a journey that will take them to the darkest corners of the galaxy - which might well include the very depths of their own souls.

In narrative terms, A Wrinkle In Time makes the canny decision to focus firmly on Meg in moving the story forward. While Meg was also the primary protagonist in the book, L'Engle spent almost as much time dwelling on what made her two male companions so special. The film chooses to lavish more attention on Meg, allowing her and all her insecurities and contradictions to anchor the entire adventure. It's Meg whose undying devotion to her father knocks the travellers off-course, and Meg who refuses to give up when loss threatens to claim her loved ones.

On this count, at least, the final result is something quite lovely. Meg is achingly real - an awkward young girl who can neither take nor believe compliments about herself, but who has the potential to change the world if only she can find her confidence and voice. Reid is fantastic in the part, credibly convincing audiences that Meg's faults might also be her gifts - that the outsized amount of love in her heart is not something she needs to hide or play down. It's an empowering message for girls and boys, and probably the best thing about DuVernay's otherwise uneven adaptation.

Unfortunately, the rest of A Wrinkle In Time lingers somewhere in the key of mediocre. For a book like L'Engle's, every choice made in changing or updating the novel for the screen will invariably invite debate. Viewers and readers will be discussing for years to come whether Meg's perfectly ordinary twin brothers should have been cut out of the family, and if the film's glamorous, purely Hollywoodian depiction of the three mysterious Mrses somehow makes them less - rather than more - interesting.

Where it really counts, however, Jennifer Lee's screenplay seems determined to avoid as much controversy as possible. The film steers almost entirely clear of what made the book such a seminal work of children's literature, paring away the Christian themes and allegories L'Engle embedded in her story and characters. And yet, it retains a lot of the more peculiar detours taken by the book, from visiting a Happy Medium (Zach Galifianakis) to encountering a sinister man with red eyes (Michael Pena). As a result, A Wrinkle In Time is almost as random and weird as the book on which it's based - but lacks the layers and soul that help make the weirdness work.

To be fair, there are plenty of enjoyable moments threaded throughout DuVernay's film. If you accept it for what it is, Meg's hero journey is irresistible and important for generations of young girls who will see themselves in her as she steps up and takes charge. Some of the modern updates are hugely welcome - from the diversity of the characters to a quite wonderful Hamilton reference. The cast, too, is uniformly appealing. Witherspoon, in particular, is having the time of her life as the chirpy, chatty Mrs Whatsit;, while Chris Pine continues his streak of playing white, male characters that we don't often see on screen by injecting his performance with a dark fragility.

Nonetheless, it's hard to shake the feeling that A Wrinkle In Time could have been so much more. In the hands of DuVernay (and, of course, Disney), the film is visually arresting, turning up the gloss, colour saturation and special effects to elicit full eye-popping wonder. But all the visual resplendence in the world can't disguise the messiness of the film's central themes and ideas. In effect, DuVernay's adaptation - a blockbuster that comes across as safe and generic when it should be bold and unusual - has things of its own to say but, in so doing, it largely misses L'Engle's point.
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Black Panther (2018)
10/10
This may be Marvel's 18th film, but it feels like the studio is just getting started. Brave and brilliant, this superhero movie is like nothing you've ever seen before.
15 February 2018
Superhero movies never get a fair shake. There's always been an invisible - but undeniable - whiff of critical disdain attached to films revolving around people with superhuman abilities. More often than not, these films are viewed (and assessed) as popcorn entertainment: good fun, but not objectively good. Even the best examples of the genre are rarely, if ever, taken seriously by critics or award shows. But all that is set to change with Black Panther - a bold, brilliant blockbuster teeming with ideas, characters and messages that will make your soul take flight. For once, it's no exaggeration to say that you've never seen or experienced anything like this before.

The film gets off to a somewhat sedate start, as we're re-introduced to T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the freshly crowned King of Wakanda who is also infused with the ancestral powers of his nation's panther god. Writer-director Ryan Coogler takes his time in introducing us to all the key players in the film's first act, from the most important members of T'Challa's royal court to the rites, rituals and rigidity of Wakanda itself.

It's never boring, but Black Panther does linger in a minor key for a while. You might find yourself wondering just where the film is going, as T'Challa deals with a challenge to his authority from within Wakanda's five tribes. It can be hard to imagine, too, just what the film wants to say when T'Challa - who could easily delegate the responsibility - takes it upon himself to personally hunt down dastardly arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) in order to retrieve a stolen artifact made of Wakanda's most precious natural resource, vibranium.

But put your trust in Coogler - he's certainly earned it with his masterful blending of tension, character and story in his previous two films, Fruitvale Station and Creed. As Black Panther unfolds, everything starts to make a whole lot of sense, in dramatic, emotional and narrative terms. Suddenly, we're not just witnessing the growing pains of a new king. As it turns out, Black Panther is, for its titular character, an existential odyssey: as he fights for his nation's survival, T'Challa must also grapple with the choices (and sins) of his ancestors, deciding whether to embrace or reject them.

Most significantly, Black Panther uses its blockbuster platform to examine complex issues such as racism and colonialism in thoughtful, intimate ways. The fiction of Wakanda - a hyper-evolved African nation that has kept its technological advances a secret from the rest of the world for centuries - allows Coogler to hold up a mirror to the facts of the world in which we live. In quite unprecedented fashion, we are presented with a host of proud, brave, indomitable African warriors who have lived their lives free of the horrors of slavery and institutionalised racism. Just as Wonder Woman gave little girls the world over a hero in their own image, Black Panther will do the same for generations of black children who have never before seen themselves represented on screen.

If that sounds impossibly weighty and grim, don't worry. Coogler's script, co-written with Joe Robert Cole, is far from preachy. There may be a hint or two of hand-wringing melodrama to T'Challa's central dilemma - should Wakanda venture out into the world and lead by example? - but it's cleverly off-set by the depths of darkness and despair written into T'Challa's nemesis: Erik 'Killmonger' Stevens (Michael B. Jordan). Shaped by the very different circumstances of their lives, one man turns towards the light, and the other away from it - and yet, neither man falls simply into the black-and-white categories of 'hero' or 'villain'. Somehow, Coogler shades centuries of history and hope into the conflict at the heart of their troubled relationship.

Black Panther is no slouch, either, when it comes to turning up the heat in terms of action and spectacle. There's a jaw-dropping car chase through the neon-washed streets of Busan that's easily one of the most exhilarating scenes you'll see all year. Fight scenes are pulled off with remarkable flair, particularly when it comes to the swift military precision of the Dora Milaje - an incredibly cool, all-female special forces unit devoted to the protection of Wakanda's monarch. Wakanda itself is an eye-popping fantasy scape: a heady blend of futuristic elements and African traditons, colours and music.

Leading the film's top-notch ensemble, Boseman is the film's quiet backbone: an invaluable presence and the reason everything holds together at all. He shares an electric chemistry with Jordan, who blends swagger, menace and pathos in creating the Marvel Cinematic Universe's most complex, nuanced and sympathetic antagonist to date.

Fantastic as the two leading men, however, they're not the breakout stars of the film. That honour belongs to a trio of female characters - each one given depth, layers and a fierce, real on-screen presence that's still rare enough that they shouldn't be taken for granted. Lupita Nyong'o injects strength and steel into her portrayal of Nakia - a former and future love interest for T'Challa who manages to be interesting in her own right. The Walking Dead's Danai Gurira is a force to be reckoned with as Okoye, the righteous leader of the Dora Milaje; while Letitia Wright's Shuri - T'Challa's younger sister who also happens to be Wakanda's premier scientist - waltzes away with every scene in which she appears.

It may come as a surprise to some that Marvel's latest superhero blockbuster tackles issues of race, representation and discrimination in so bold and unflinching a manner. And yet, fans of the comic books that have inspired Marvel's entire slate of films would say: it's about time. In the way it embraces its story and heritage, in the way its heroes are presented, and in the way its message will inspire and empower generations to come, Black Panther matters. And it cannot - and will not - be ignored.
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6/10
Beautifully crafted and psychologically gripping - but stuck in the same cold, empty vein of Anderson's earlier films about men behaving badly.
29 January 2018
Warning: Spoilers
There is an unsettling disquiet that runs throughout Phantom Thread. It's sewn into the film's every narrative twist, as power balances shift and infatuation bleeds into something darker. It's lodged firmly in the way characters gain and lose sympathy over time, as they (and their motives) constantly shift in and out of the light. It's present in every frame - most of which manage to intrigue and alienate, all at once. In other words, Phantom Thread is a quintessential Paul Thomas Anderson film: a gripping psychological study that will strike some as delightful, and others as depraved.

At first glance, the film pays troubling tribute to the debilitating genius of Daniel Day-Lewis' Reynolds Woodcock. One of 1950s London's top haute couture designers, Reynolds is so good at what he does that all kinds of excuses and exceptions are made for him, particularly by the women in his orbit. Cyril (Lesley Manville), his sister, efficiently manages his life and his whims, making sure that anything that might upset him is swiftly removed from his immediate environment. He acquires new muses as easily as he inevitably discards them - a grim fate that seems to await Alma (Vicky Krieps), a charming waitress whom Reynolds sweeps into his world of high fashion.

So far, so casually misogynistic. For much of its first act, the film feels like a bitter, twisted take on Pygmalion - a younger woman is forced to accommodate the eccentricities of an older man who lives and thrives in a cocoon of his own worth, wealth and privilege. Take a scene set at the Woodcock breakfast table: Alma's buttering of a slice of toast proves too jarring for Reynolds' delicate sensibilities. At a cultural moment in time defined by the #MeToo and Time's Up movements, it's hard not to think about issues like gender power imbalances and male entitlement when Alma first enters Reynolds' rigid household.

But, then, the film shifts gears. Alma, in her own way, pushes back against what is expected of her - both by Reynolds and the audience. She questions his choice of fabric. She decides to surprise a man who clearly does not appreciate the element of surprise, planning a romantic meal that leads to the most aggressive consumption of asparagus you'll ever see on screen. Suddenly, the tables are turned - or are they? As Alma and Reynolds continue dancing a deadly dance that's laced with as much attraction as resentment, right and wrong and black and white fade into too many shades of grey.

The trouble is that the film never quite makes a move for the heart. It's clever, and dark, and almost proudly perverse in its exploration of this match made in somewhere other than heaven. Anderson expertly allows tension to creep into every corner of Reynolds and Alma's 'love' story. But the film treats its own story and characters with such a chilly, cynical detachment that it's hard to care all that much when the proverbial (and literal!) shit hits the fan.

More frustratingly, we've seen it all before. Anderson has already asked audiences to dive with him into the psyches of two characters who are as much man as monster: The Master's Lancaster Dodd and There Will Be Blood's Daniel Plainview. Phantom Thread's Reynolds Woodcock is cut very much from the same cloth. To be fair, Reynolds' future and fate - unlike those of Lancaster and Daniel - are tied, quite firmly, to the women in his life. That immediately opens the film and its power dynamics up to plausible, if not particularly inspiring, feminist interpretations. Even so, Phantom Thread is ultimately all about Reynolds. The female characters are interesting, sure, but they also exist primarily to shed light (or darkness) on Reynolds - who he is, and how that will shape what he'll become.

That being said, Phantom Thread is never less than a gripping watch, and much of that is down to Anderson's superlative cast. As can be expected, Day-Lewis plays Reynolds on a masterful sliding scale, going from charming to sinister and back again, while hitting every note in between. It's a rich, committed performance, if not quite as dazzling as you might hope for from what Day-Lewis claims is his swan song. Krieps more than holds her own as Alma, somehow radiating innocence and malice, often in the same breath. It's Manville who steals the show, however; her ever-present Cyril is an intriguing creation, her deference to her brother never fading into a lack of agency.

In truth, there's a great deal to appreciate about Phantom Thread. Anderson knows just how to deploy everything at his disposal - a top-notch cast, Jonny Greenwood's stunning score, and the gorgeous London period setting - to create a mesmerising cinematic experience. But, as exquisitely crafted as the film is, it's becoming harder with each successive Anderson opus to shake the feeling that he's just treading familiar ground - that he's fast running out of things to say about hard, horrible (white) men who are drowning, sometimes quite happily, in their own toxic masculinity.
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