Murder on the Orient Express

Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Writer: Michael Green


Dame Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Without those two names you don’t get the classic whodunit as we know it today. Christie’s work is now so iconic that you don’t even have to have read a single word of her writing to recognise the formula. There’s been a murder, everyone’s a suspect, a top detective is brought in to solve the crime and the audience sees if they can crack the case before the big reveal. It’s a formula that we’ve seen in movies time and time again from the classic Hollywood film noirs and Clair’s adaptation of Christie’s And Then There Were None to more recent examples like Clue and The Hateful Eight. Murder on the Orient Express is perhaps the most famous single story Christie ever wrote and it has been adapted numerous times, most notably in 1974 with Albert Finney and in 2010 with David Suchet. This time it’s Branagh, sporting a hideous moustache, who steps into the shoes of Christie’s iconic detective in what he hoped would be a dynamic retelling of the classic mystery.

It is 1934 and we are introduced to world-famous detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh and his ridiculous moustache) as he solves a case in Jerusalem. He must then immediately return to London for another case and is offered passage on the Orient Express by his good friend Bouc (Tom Bateman). Soon after the train departs Poirot receives an offer from the shady businessman Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp) to protect him from harm for the three-day journey after receiving an anonymous threatening letter, an offer which Poirot declines. The next morning Ratchett is discovered dead in his compartment and an avalanche stops the train in its tracks. A note is discovered connecting Ratchett’s murder to the infamous case of a murdered little girl in the USA and Poirot resolves to discover who among the other passengers killed him. His suspects include the governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley), the missionary Pilar Estravados (Penélope Cruz), Count Rudolph (Segei Polunin) and Countess Helena Andrenyi (Lucy Boynton), the butler Edward Henry Masterman (Derek Jacobi), the widow Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and her maid Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman), Professor Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe), the deceased’s assistant Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad), and Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.).

For me the biggest reservation I had going into this film was Kenneth Branagh as Poirot. Not because I dislike Branagh as an actor (I don’t) or because of that inhuman abomination to both man and God that he calls a moustache, but because David Suchet embodied the famous detective so perfectly on the ITV series that all other incarnations of the character, including the Oscar-nominated Finney and the Bafta-nominated Ustinov, will forever be fighting for second place. Still Branagh puts on the gross eyesore that occupies his upper lip and he has a go at Christie’s most famous character, playing him as an inflexible control-freak who cannot tolerate imperfections in the world, whether they be the physical imperfections of two uneven boiled eggs or the moral imperfections of human beings. Branagh is a good enough actor that he is able to play the atrociously-moustached Poirot with the sufficient flash and gravitas while also scoring some laughs with his one-liners, but his decision to attribute Poirot’s meticulousness as obsessive-compulsive tendencies made for what I found to be a far less interesting character than the altogether more eloquently-moustached Suchet, whose perfectionism as Poirot came from a steadfast, unyielding belief in the absolute virtue of the law, God, and decency.

Still, Branagh the actor didn’t bother me as much as Branagh the director did. He makes a strong attempt to make the Christie mystery feel cinematic, which is an effort that I do admire but don’t think ultimately worked. When we see Poirot boarding the Orient Express in a single, sweeping tracking shot or when we witness the discovery of Ratchett’s body with a static overhead shot that leaves the corpse just out of frame, the style of these shots called so much attention to themselves that they struck me as self-indulgent flourishes rather than as creative cinematic storytelling techniques. It’s the same kind of self-indulgence that I imagine inspired Branagh to feature Poirot and his ghastly facial fur at centre stage throughout the whole film at the detriment of the all-star ensemble at his disposal. Some actors do manage to give out a great deal with the little they’re dealt, most notably Pfeiffer as the glamorous and wealthy widow in search of her next husband, but other characters, including those played by the enormously talented likes of Olivia Colman and Derek Jacobi, simply do not get enough time to dance in their acting shoes. All are side-lined and are mainly there to sit and look astonished so the film can spend as much time as it can focusing on how incredibly impressive Poirot and his egregious display of horrendous facial hair are.

I saw the film with two friends who did not know the ending and, while the final twist did seem to take them by surprise, they left feeling overall underwhelmed. The movie just doesn’t have that edge-of-your-seat momentum that a great whodunit should have. The private interrogations that Poirot conducts with each of the passengers do not have that captivating sense of intrigue and feeling of inquisitiveness because Branagh is much more interested in showcasing the deductive brilliance of Poirot and his abominable whiskers than in fleshing out all these secretive characters and getting to the heart of the mystery. The movie is so desperate for tension that it resorts to a cheap, generic Hollywood chase scene along the exterior of the train. Even the big reveal fails to impress as it relies too much on style and not enough on substance, even going so far as to arrange all the characters into an impractical pose that evokes The Last Supper (I guess making Poirot Da Vinci because that’s how much of a genius he is). As with the later seasons of Sherlock, this is a case of an artist getting so carried away with showing everyone how brilliantly brilliant his brilliant character and brilliant style are that all else gets swept aside and the story suffers because of it. Murder on the Orient Express is a stylish but empty remake that did not need to be made. Also I didn’t like the moustache.

★★

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Thor: Ragnarok

Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins

Director: Taika Waititi

Writers: Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, Christopher Yost


Sometimes I find it hard to believe that just a couple of years ago I was starting to feel fatigued by the abundance of superheroes in cinema. When Age of Ultron came out, it felt like the MCU was beginning to run out of steam and that this would be the beginning of the superhero genre’s decline. But then Civil War happened. And then Deadpool. And then Wonder Woman. And then Logan. The resurgence of superhero movies over the last two years has been astonishing. I keep telling myself with each new MCU release to remain critical and to not get swept away with the hype, but with their subsequent releases of Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy II, and Spider-Man: Homecoming, they’ve been on a hot streak that shows no sign of slowing down. Now with Thor: Ragnarok they’ve knocked it out of the park once again and my inner twelve-year-old self is doing cartwheels and screaming with delight.

After an unsuccessful search for the Infinity Stones, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returns to Asgard upon learning that his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is no longer there. There he finds his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) impersonating their father and orders him to reveal where he is hidden. They find Odin on Earth where they learn that he is dying and that his passing will allow his firstborn child Hela (Cate Blanchett) to escape from the prison where he has held her for millennia. Hela emerges upon Odin’s death, destroys Thor’s hammer, dispatches of her brothers and makes her way to Asgard to begin her conquest. Thor winds up on the planet Sakaar where he is captured by the bounty hunter Scrapper 142 (Tessa Thompson) and becomes a prisoner of the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). He is made to fight as a gladiator and is reunited in the arena with his good friend Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). However Asgard and its people, under the care of Heimdall (Idris Elba), remain in danger and so Thor makes it his duty to assemble a team and defeat Hela.

Even though Thor has always been one of the Marvel franchise’s most enjoyable heroes and Loki remains the undisputed champion of the MCU villain hierarchy, neither of the Thor movies have been particularly great. It always bothered me that Marvel had this wondrous mythological-fantasy universe at its disposal and yet insisted on moving the action to Earth with its familiar settings and (relative) realism and Jane Fosters. There is none of that here. Ragnarok fully embraces its realm of sci-fi/fantasy and is never afraid to go too big or too crazy. The movie draws its inspiration from the campy fantasies and space operas of the 70s and 80s like Logan’s Run and Flash Gordon and creates what truly feels like a comic-book universe. The costumes, sets and scenery are extravagant and cartoonish, the retro-techno music perfectly complements this disco neon-lit pop art sci-fi tone they’re going for, and the colours are so saturated you’d swear you were on a Magical Mystery Tour with the Beatles. Sure, the CGI landscapes, creatures, and battles don’t look at all real, but man do they look great.

This movie takes on a much more comedic tone than the non-Ant-Man Marvel movies are used to, thus requiring Hemsworth to put his comedy chops to the test, and he seriously delivers. As the macho, charming, ridiculously handsome god of thunder Hemsworth has always been fun and likeable but here he reaches new heights and makes Thor seem more human than ever before, whether he’s thoughtfully reflecting on his responsibility to his people that he has thus far neglected or he’s bumbling around like a goofball. Hiddleston is as good as ever as the devilish trickster Loki whose leanings between good and evil are forever going back and forth minute by minute, as is Ruffalo who shines in his dual roles as the exasperated Banner and the reckless Hulk. (In an odd twist akin to Deadpool being the best of all the X-Men movies (before Logan anyway) Thor has provided us with the best Hulk movie to date). Thompson holds her own as the hard-boiled Valkyrie admirably, Goldblum with his idiosyncratic tics and unique line deliveries is wonderfully employed, and Blanchett… what can I even say about her? Some actors can chew scenery; Blanchett devours entire sets and looks fabulous doing it.

This is the Thor movie I’ve been waiting for and it was well worth the wait. It was funny, exciting, colourful and utterly rewatchable. The dramatic moments might not have been particularly deep and parts of the plot might have been a little predictable, especially in the third act, but that’s okay. Sometimes all a great movie needs to be is great fun. Thor: Ragnarok is so much fun to watch that even the jokes I had already seen several times in the trailer, like Thor’s reaction when he meets Hulk in the arena (“I know him! He’s a friend from work!”), still got a laugh out of me because Hemsworth is just that good. The last couple of years have been an interesting time for superhero cinema and have seen some real gamechangers to the genre. Thor: Ragnarok is not one of those gamechangers, but it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes, all you need is an awesome protagonist battling a fire demon while ‘The Immigrant Song’ by Led Zeppelin plays. This movie has that, and then some.

★★★★★

The Death of Stalin

Cast: Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Paddy Considine, Rupert Friend, Jason Isaacs, Michael Palin, Andrea Riseborough, Jeffrey Tambor

Director: Armando Iannucci

Writers: Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin, Peter Fellows


In the opening scene of The Death of Stalin, a live performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 is being broadcast by Radio Moscow. Joseph Stalin (Adrian Mcloughlin) is listening and informs the head of the radio station Comrade Andreyev (Paddy Considine) that he would like a recording. Andreyev realises to his utter terror that the concert is not being recorded and now he must make one in the time it will take Stalin’s envoy to arrive for its collection. This means convincing famed pianist Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko), an avowed critic of the Soviet regime, to perform the whole concerto once more, sending the secret police to abduct another conductor after the first one is rendered unconscious, and pulling people off the street so that the acoustics sound right. They go through all these astoundingly absurd lengths in order to comply with the General Secretary’s request, so absolute was Stalin’s terror and the country’s fear of him. I knew going in that I was about to see a farcical satire, but I could never have imagined just how agonisingly dark that comedy would be.

As Stalin receives the recording, enclosed is a note from Yudina outlining all of the ways that he has ruined the country. As Stalin reads the note he laughs, then starts coughing, and then collapses. After Stalin is discovered the next day, the members of the Central Committee are alerted. They include security chief Laverntiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Deputy General Secretary Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), and Head of the Communist Party Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi). Also part of the committee is Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), who Stalin added to his list of enemies just the night before. With the Soviet leader now on his deathbed, his advisors resolve to act quickly in order to consolidate their authority in the power vacuum that is to follow. Key ingredients to a triumphant succession and securing control over the USSR are the Red Army, led by Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), and Stalin’s children Vasily (Rupert Friend) and Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough). As factions arise and plots are conspired, it isn’t long before all hell breaks loose.

The Death of Stalin is a farce in the same way as Dr. Strangelove. It takes a deeply frightening story and finds humour in the absurdity of it all; the nightmarish circumstances, the deranged logic of the events that transpire, the malicious nature of these characters, and even in the awful tragedy of this brutal regime. It works on the principle that people are funnier when they are being serious and sincere, as opposed to when they’re trying to be funny. There is enough distance between us and the past that we can recognise the behaviour and thinking of these characters, whether they be the calculating opportunistic conspirators, the blind ideological loyalists, or the terrified and powerless subjects, as being ridiculous without much exaggeration needed. When the most feared and dangerous man in the world is completely immobilised on his office floor lying in his own urine and nobody will even suggest that he might be dying for fear that he might recover and punish them for their treachery, you’ve got to laugh.

It works because the characters are all played realistically as subjects of the pressures and anxieties that characterised Stalinist Russia, all shrouded in an emotional fog that prevents them from seeing their predicament as the disturbed comedy that it is. The ensemble Iannucci has assembled is stellar and each actor assumes their meaty role beautifully. Beale shines as Beria, a conniving figure whose devious gears start turning the instant Stalin is discovered and wastes no time in sinking his claws into Stalin’s appointed successor, Tambor’s hilariously vain and spineless Malenkov. Buscemi is great in his turn as the intensely anxious Khrushchev, so edgy and stressed in his attempt to stay on top of things that you swear he’ll have a stroke himself before it’s all over. Palin is comic gold as Molotov, the feeble yes-man who will go along with his government’s every whim unfailingly (even when those whims concern the question of his wife’s loyalty). Also worthy of note is Isaacs as the buff, gruff and tough Zhukov, a man of action who doesn’t particularly care who succeeds Stalin and will go along with whoever has the best deal.

Iannucci has previously distinguished himself with his TV political satires The Thick of It and Veep, both about politicians and spin-doctors, made up of some combination of ambition, incompetence and nastiness, navigating the turbulent world of government, publicity and demographics. With The Death of Stalin he takes his brand of comedy to new heights. Unlike before where a cock up for Malcolm Tucker or Selina Meyer could result in a media embarrassment or a political loss, here a cock up means a bullet in the head. Thus the schemes are more diabolical, the scrambling is more desperate, and the self-aware reflection is more alarming than ever before. The regime of Stalin was a truly horrendous, unbearable time and this film shows us just how appalling it could get through a wickedly dark comedic lens. As with Dr. Strangelove or Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, things get so horrible, chaotic and devastating over time that by the end you won’t know whether to laugh or pull your own hair out.

★★★★★

The LEGO Ninjago Movie

Cast: (voiced by) Dave Franco, Justin Theroux, Fred Armisen, Abbi Jacobson, Olivia Munn, Kumail Nanjiani, Michael Peña, Zach Woods, Jackie Chan

Directors: Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher, Bob Logan

Writers: Bob Logan, Paul Fisher, Whilliam Wheeler, Tom Wheeler, Jared Stern, John Whittington


This film marks the third instalment in the LEGO Cinematic Universe, and it is the first time that one of them left me feeling underwhelmed. The pieces are all there, they just never quite click together the way they did the first two times. Maybe this was bound to happen sooner or later. It is near impossible for a franchise to knock it out of the park each and every time and this one already had two home runs going for it. The astounding surprise of the smart, funny, endlessly entertaining hit that was The LEGO Movie is something that can never really be replicated and, after The LEGO Batman Movie proved to be just as enjoyable, the standard was high. The LEGO Ninjago Movie has more of the same charm, humour and imagination, but with less steam.

This time we are taken to the city of Ninjago, a metropolis that gets frequently attacked by the evil Lord Garmadon. Here lives his son Lloyd (or L-Loyd as his father calls him) with his mother Koko. Lloyd is hated by the city at large for being the son of Garmadon, but what they do not know is that he is a member of the secret ninja force that protects the city along with his friends Nya, Zane, Jay, Cole and Kai. All six were trained in the martial arts by Master Wu, Garmadon’s brother, and together they foil each of Garmadon’s attempts to take over the city. Master Wu however warns his pupils that they will never be real ninjas is they continue to rely on weapons and machines and tells them that they should learn to master their minds and tap into the elements that define them (which, in Lloyd’s case, is the element Green). He also mentions an Ultimate Weapon that must never be used under any circumstances. Lloyd uses the Ultimate Weapon in an attempt to stop his father’s latest invasion and ends up dooming the city. Thus Lloyd, Master Wu, and the other ninjas must embark on a quest to find the Ultimate, Ultimate Weapon.

Although there are enough good things to make this film watchable, they just aren’t abundant enough to put it on par with its two predecessors. This movie doesn’t have the same rhythm or inventiveness that made the others such a blast to watch. There are some very good jokes that hit with me, for example the reveal of Meowthra the Ultimate Weapon, Garmadon’s tendency to fire his incompetent generals (out of a volcano) and Jackie Chan’s delivery of “Green”, but there were just as many that fell flat. One of the reasons the other two movies were so much fun is because they bombarded the viewer with joke after joke after joke all the way through, and this film lacks that same energy. Similarly there are enough creative visuals to keep your eye occupied, like with the ninja’s Zords (‘m sure there’s another name for them, but they’re Zords), but again the film doesn’t go the extra mile with these visuals the way the others did.

I think this can all be credited to a lack of personality. Too much of this film feels too familiar and by-the-numbers. The ultimate conflict for instance concerns Lloyd’s daddy issues and feelings of alienation and abandonment and from Garmadon’s struggle to be a father to Lloyd. This is a trope that we can trace back to Luke and Darth Vader and further still and it has been done to death. There aren’t enough twists to make it feel any fresher and the characters are not interesting enough to sell it or entertaining enough to carry it. Compared to the first film’s conflict between control and freedom and LEGO Batman’s struggle to open himself up to others, this one feels woefully hollow and derivative. The film plays it frustratingly safe, never taking any chances or risks, and is never able to build enough of an identity to really distinguish itself from what we’ve seen before. I left this film feeling absolutely no connection to Ninjago or any of the characters who live there the way that I did with the other ones.

The film’s not bad enough for me to say that I disliked it, but with the standard set by this franchise there was a definite feeling of unfulfillment when it was all over. The cast is pretty good, with Chan in particular getting some laughs in both his animated and live-action roles, but there’s only so much any of them could have done with these underdeveloped characters. Nanjiani, Armisen and Peña, for instance, are all very funny actors but if you put a gun to my head I could not tell you which played which character, so interchangeable were they. Overall this film does not have enough going for it to make watching it worthwhile. Maybe it’s unfair to rate a film like this so lowly when it isn’t particularly bad in it’s own right, but I’d argue that when a standard has been set, falling short of that standard should be regarded as a failure. A similar example would be something like The Godfather: Part III, not a terrible film in its own right but pitiful when compared to what came before.

★★

Blade Runner 2049

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Lennie James, Dave Bautista, Jared Leto

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Writers: Hampton Fancher, Michael Green


If you were to put together a list of the five most influential science-fiction films of all time, there would not even be a question about including Blade Runner. I’m hard pressed to think of any sci-fi movie from the last three decades that doesn’t owe some kind of debt to Ridley Scott’s dystopian masterpiece. It is the film that redefined the genre, introducing a groundbreaking tone and visual style oft-replicated but never surpassed and exploring existential themes with immense sophistication and profundity. Blade Runner has had thirty-five years to secure its position as a landmark in the history of cinema and it’s still too early to tell whether the sequel will prove to be as monumental. What is clear however is that Blade Runner 2049 is not a pale imitation or a cheap cash grab; it’s the real thing. This is nothing less than a visually stunning picture that takes the same ideas about humanity, reality, and existence, and expands on them thoughtfully, compellingly, and beautifully.

There are details about the plot that I shouldn’t and won’t share here because the reveals are too good to spoil for the viewer. What I can tell you is that the movie takes place in Los Angeles in 2049. The Tyrell Corporation has gone bankrupt since the events of the first film and Replicants are now manufactured by the Wallace Corporation, led by Niander Wallace (Jared Leto). Our protagonist is a Blade Runner called K (Ryan Gosling). He reports to Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) of the LAPD and lives in a small, plain apartment with his holographic girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas), also a product of the Wallace Corporation. His job is to hunt down and ‘retire’ rogue Replicants, which we see him do in the opening scene with Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), a rogue Replicant just trying to live a peaceful life as a farmer. It is during this confrontation that he makes a discovery which will launch a mystery that leads him to question everything he knows about himself and the world around him.

To call this film a visual masterpiece is an understatement. Villeneuve, working with frequent collaborator and thirteen-time Academy Award nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins, has constructed a banquet for the eyes. Together they have recreated Ridley Scott and Philip K. Dick’s futuristic world with its polluted skyline, oppressive buildings, and torrents of rain and have used it all to create countless images of supreme beauty and poetry. You could put this film on mute and still enjoy it for the visual splendour that it is, but the ingenuity of the images is how they serve the story, characters, and themes at every turn. Images like K arriving at a new location shrouded by sand and dust and stepping tentatively into the hazy distance, uncertain of what he will find there. Images like our first glimpse of the blind Wallace and his striking white irises, a man who cannot see but who has vision. Images like a giant hologram approaching K and standing before him, a visual reminder of the cost he has had to pay to get to the truth. It is the two artists’ meticulous attention to detail and their profound understanding of the story and its ideas that enable this film to rise far beyond being an empty visual spectacle.

In Blade Runner Harrison Ford delivered what many (including myself) consider to be his greatest performance. Although he does indeed return and is on top form, it is Ryan Gosling who makes this film. Here he plays a man struggling with his own humanity, not unlike Deckard but not exactly like him either. Gosling plays the character similarly to when he did Drive, subdued, stoic, and handsome on the outside but anxious, confused, and vulnerable within. He plays both sides remarkably well and is able to be emotional without being melodramatic, just like Ford thirty-five years before. The other standouts were two actresses whom I had not encountered before: Ana de Armas, who plays K’s artificial sweetheart so affectionately that your heart breaks at the thought of them being unable to consummate their love, and Sylvia Hoeks as Luv, a Replicant enforcer, which she plays with ice-cold steeliness.

The story itself unfolds like a noir mystery, following our protagonist along with every step and taking its time with each development and reveal. With all the pressure and expectation surrounding this film, Villeneuve is to be applauded for having enough confidence in his story, his ability to tell it, and the audience’s ability to follow it, that he never feels compelled to rush things along. He adopts a slow but natural pace and allows events to progress in their own time, never once resorting to cheap, attention-grabbing tricks or throwing in action for the sake of action. The film measures at 163 minutes and I will confess that I did look at my watch once as the film entered the third act, but did so not out of boredom but rather out of a realisation that it had taken me a full two hours to notice the passage of time. For some the plot will drag, and that’s understandable, but the story is so fascinating and the visuals are so spectacular that I suspect the film’s runtime will become less of an issue with repeat viewings.

There is so much more to say and dissect, but first one must watch the film. Blade Runner 2049 is at its heart a mystery and its broader themes cannot be discussed without some reference to what actually happens. I can say that, like the first film, it is as much a mystery in a philosophical sense as it is in a detective sense and so many of the questions it raises are not there to be answered but to be contemplated. Even the mystery surrounding the nature of Deckard’s character is never given a clear answer; it is one that the film sustains, explores, expands upon, and adds layers to, and in the end it is up to the viewer to decide how to interpret it. This is what makes the film such a worthy successor to Blade Runner. It seeks not to solve its mysteries, but to expand on them. It seeks not to replace or improve on Scott’s film, but rather to build on its legacy and continue what it started. It captures the very soul of the sci-fi classic and lives up to its example without mimicking it, giving us two companion pieces that complement and enrich each other.

★★★★★

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Cast: Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Taron Egerton, Mark Strong, Halle Berry, Elton John, Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges, Pedro Pascal

Director: Matthew Vaughn

Writers: Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn


I remember when Kingsman: The Secret Service came out, it was the blockbuster that nobody saw coming. Even though it was based on a popular comic book series and had a good director and cast attached, it just wasn’t on anybody’s radar as a potential smash hit franchise. Then it came out and took everyone by surprise. It was fresh, it was tongue-in-cheek, it was thrilling, inventive, and over-the-top, and it did a good job of satirising and paying homage to the camp spy movies and TV shows of the 60s and 70s. There were parts of it that I didn’t like, but the film was fun enough that I the negative aspects didn’t bother me all that much. This time around the sequel has to contend with something that the first film didn’t really have to: audience expectation. People wanted to know where the series was going to go next, how they were going to top the antics in the first film, and how they were going to justify bringing Colin Firth back from the dead. That’s a tall order for any movie and The Golden Circle proved not up to the task.

A year after the first film, the Kingsman Secret Service is still going strong and Eggsy Unwin (Taron Egerton) has stepped into his mentor’s role as Galahad. While on holiday in Sweden with his girlfriend Crown Princess Tilde (Hanna Alström), a volley of missiles destroy Kingsman’s secret headquarters and other bases of operations. Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong) are the only survivors and must find out who attacked them. They follow the Doomsday protocol to a distillery in Kentucky and cross paths with Tequila (Channing Tatum), a redneck who proves more than a match for Eggsy in combat. It turns out that Tequila is an agent of Statesman, a sister organisation from across the pond, made up of rowdy American cowboys to complement the dapper English gentlemen of Kingsman. The pair meet and team up with Champ (Jeff Bridges), Ginger Ale (Halle Berry), and Whiskey (Pedro Pascal), and learn that they also have Harry (Colin Firth) in their care, alive but with no memory of who he is. Together they learn that global drug dealer Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore) is behind the attack and make it their mission to foil her evil scheme.

The trouble Kingsman finds itself is something you see very often with comedy sequels. Oftentimes with the first film the concept itself is part of the joke and the amusement comes from seeing how it works and what they do with it. If the concept is something that we haven’t seen before then the movie can create humour by either meeting or subverting our expectations. Now, with the sequel, we’re in on the joke. That’s why it’s not enough to just do the same thing again; if the film is unable to come up with a new idea, then it must come up with a different take on the old idea. Kingsman tries to do this with Statesman, an American counterpart to Kingsman, an idea with a lot of potential that the movie never lives up to. There is so much that they could’ve done. We could have been treated to some interesting and funny comparisons between these British and American archetypes, we could have been offered a British commentary on US culture, the film could even have done away with the British spy game entirely and tackled a more characteristically American genre like the Western. The only Statesman who ends up having any kind of a prominent role in the story though is Whiskey (god, it pains me to write that extra ‘e’!). Tequila, Ginger Ale, and Champ are all sidelined so that the movie can instead offer us more of what we saw in the first film.

The return of Colin Firth has proven to be a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand I did enjoy seeing him resume his role as Galahad and his reunion with Eggsy did allow the film to retain and develop their relationship, which was the emotional core of the first film. There scenes together in this film work well as Eggsy attempts to reach the Harry that taught him everything he knows and inspired him to dedicate his life and skills towards something worthwhile. On the other hand, Galahad’s death allowed the first film to establish serious stakes for its characters and bringing him back might have cost the sequel more than it bargained for. Now the stakes are gone, and with it the film coasts along without any real sense of tension or suspense. In the film’s very first bit of action when Eggsy battles a foe on a high-tech taxi through the streets of London, it felt more like a cartoon than a thriller because I never believed that Eggsy was really in any danger.

Some of it works. There’s a good joke here and there, a couple of decent action scenes (though nothing in the same league as the Baptist church massacre) and there’s even quite a moving moment near the end (one that continues the John Denver trend of 2017). But none of it is as fresh or as good as it was the first time around, which makes the parts that don’t work all the more glaring. The tone is all over the place, falling short off the line between silly and serious that it used to have. Yes, going over-the-top is part of this franchise’s M.O., but there’s edgy and then there’s ‘edgy’, and if you don’t know when to stop you’ll end up with a scene that turns sexual assault into a gag at the victim’s expense. The movie does follow its predecessor’s example by featuring a weak villain, but at least Jackson was trying in the former’s case. Moore phones it in so much that her CGI robot henchdogs felt real in comparison. Overall The Golden Circle will probably work well enough for those who loved the first film unreservedly, but for me the film’s positive qualities were not enough to outshine its negative qualities this time.

★★

mother!

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Writer: Darren Aronofsky


Divisive doesn’t even begin to cover the reception this film has received. mother! has inspired acclaim, hatred, adoration, revulsion, amusement, confusion, horror, curiosity, contemplation, frustration, and so much more from its audience. Some have applauded in ecstasy; others have walked out disgust. Some hail it as an epic masterpiece; others disparage it as an epic catastrophe; and others still have absolutely no idea what to make of it whatsoever. It is a difficult film to watch, that much is certain. mother! is downright alienating, oftentimes horrifying, and relentlessly inscrutable. But it is also fascinating and unique. There’s never been a film quite like this and it’s one that compellingly draws your eyes and holds your attention the way that either a magnificent painting or a calamitous car crash would. I’ll try to go into more detail about the story and what I took from it, but personally I think the viewer should go in knowing nothing and would encourage anyone who has not seen it to stop reading now and go watch it.

Seriously, nothing I can say can prepare you for what happens. Whether you end up liking it or not, the only way to understand what kind of film mother! is is to actually watch it. If, however, you’re interested in knowing more about the story and what I think it means (if it means anything at all) then read on.

The movie is set in an old house in the middle of nowhere that was previously destroyed in a fire but has since been rebuilt and its two inhabitant are Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) and Him (Javier Bardem). He is a famous writer trying to start a new novel but is unable to find the words and she is his young wife who occupies her time with remodelling her husband’s house. The two live a quiet life completely cut off from civilisation, perfectly content with no other company but their own. Later they are visited by Man (Ed Harris), a lost traveller who asks for a place to stay for the night. The next day they are joined by his wife Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer). Mother isn’t keen on the idea of having visitors over, fearing the damage they might do to the house or the disruption they’ll cause to their quiet, solitary life, but her husband is positively delighted to have them stay.

It would appear to be a simple enough set-up, but there’s something else going on. Within the first 10-15 minutes, it became clear to me that this movie does not take place anywhere that we would recognise as the real world. The way that we never see any trace of an outside civilisation and the way that time doesn’t seem to have any structure or meaning here suggests this. The house itself appears to have more going on beneath the surface as we see when Mother puts her hand on the wall and sees what looks and sounds like a dying heart. After the visitors start arriving, things only proceed to get more insane and surreal and Aronofsky seems adamant that the audience’s hand must not be held through any of it. Events escalate as the movie moves closer to its increasingly chaotic climax and through it all the movie remains steadfastly metaphorical. It is clear that this is a movie that has no intentions of playing by the rules and Aronofsky never makes any apologies for it.

Our protagonist is Lawrence’s Mother and she is just as confused by what’s going on as we are. Aronofsky makes a strong effort to convey a POV affect by fixing the camera tightly on Lawrence for prolonged takes and shooting other scenes from over her shoulder, drawing a clear focus to her perspective and reactions. Her character has no apparent ambitions or desires apart from living with her husband, being completely devoted to him, and becoming the titular mother that she is destined to become. Her husband is less content with their life, suffering from writer’s block and revelling in the company of others (especially when he discovers them to be admirers of his work). He continues to neglect his wife’s wants and feelings as he indulges himself in the encouragement and admiration of others and she’s left with the task of cleaning up after them. The film takes on a Rosemary’s Baby vibe as Mother starts to feel like everyone is out to get her, destroying everything she holds dear and attacking her while her husband remains oblivious to her anxieties.

Anyone who has ever attended Sunday school will start picking up on the film’s biblical connotations before long. Lawrence serves as a stand-in for nature (or Mother Earth if you want to assign a character to her) while Bardem’s Him is God. Man and Woman then would clearly be Adam and Eve and later on the film’s introduces two characters to represent Cain and Abel. This, in turn, would apparently make Mother’s eventual child a stand-in for Christ. So what is the film trying to say with that? Well, given the duress and trauma inflicted on Mother throughout the film, both physical and emotional, perhaps this film is an allegory for the way that man has mistreated nature. If that’s the angle Aronofsky is going for then it’s clear where his sympathies lie. He casts God as a vain figure craving recognition, someone who cares more about being worshipped and adulated than in caring for his wife and child. Humanity meanwhile is portrayed as being negligent, fanatical, and destructive, caring nothing for the damage they cause in their wake.

Or maybe the movie means something else entirely. It isn’t clear what kind of movie mother! is and it was made that way intentionally. This is a movie that is meant to be dissected and written about in length. Its style is a striking one that demands the viewer’s attention and its story is an ambiguous one that invites a never-ending series of questions without answers and several contradictory interpretations. It has been advertised as a horror film, and it is a horror in the sense that it creates an atmosphere of dread, carnage, and paranoia, and thrives off the terror of that which cannot be understood. But is it any good? I don’t know. I guess it depends on what you take away from it. I found mother! to be an often enthralling, often horrifying film to sit through. Since then I’ve found it to be a fascinating film to think about, read about, and talk about. I will have to re-watch it sometime, so maybe there’s something to be said for a movie that demands to be seen again despite (or maybe because) of all the unpleasantness it depicts. mother! is a well-crafted, provocative, and confounding film and, if it’s inspiring such a strong reaction from the audience, both positive and negative, it must be doing something right.

★★★★★

It

Cast: Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis, Wyatt Olef, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Finn Wolfhard, Jack Dylan Grazer, Chosen Jacobs, Bill Skarsgård

Director: Andy Muschietti

Writers: Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, Gary Dauberman


Of the dozens of adaptations that Stephen King’s bibliography has seen over the years, the 1990 It miniseries might be the most characteristically ‘King’ of them all. Some, like Stand by Me, only show a single side of King while others, like The Shining, are more characteristic of the filmmakers than they are of the original author. The Tim Curry It however was a series that fully embraced the crazy world of King and showcased all of his best and worst qualities. It had strongly defined characters and told its story with a lot of personality, but it was also filled to the brim with King’s most typical tropes and had a ton of weird ideas that didn’t all work. Although the series is so identifiably King and has pretty much set the benchmark for subsequent adaptations, it isn’t a series that has aged very well and I came along too late to find it at all scary. It was my hope that this modern retelling might allow me to rediscover this bizarre tale as the horror that it’s supposed to be.

It starts in 1988 in Derry, Maine, with stuttering teenager Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher) giving his little brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) a paper boat. Georgie takes his boat outside to play with and ends up running into Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård), who entices little Georgie before dragging him into the sewer to his bloody demise. The following summer Bill remains convinced that his little brother is missing, not dead, and enlists his friends Stan (Wyatt Olef), the Jewish germaphobe, Richie (Finn Wolfhard), the foul-mouthed dirty-minded troublemaker, and Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), the sickly momma’s boy, to help him get to the bottom of what happened. Each has an encounter with a mysterious being who takes the form of each of their greatest fears, as do Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), the new kid in town, Bev (Sophia Lillis), a troubled young girl, and Mike (Chosen Jacobs), the African American outsider. Together they form The Loser’s Club as they team up to decipher the mysteries of Derry and its pattern of vanishing children.

The movie’s first horror scene is also the miniseries and novel’s most famous moment, the fatal meeting between Georgie and Pennywise. Here the movie makes a much stronger attempt than its TV counterpart to be scary, shrouding Pennywise in shadow, playing ominous music, and having the two characters almost whispering to each other. This plays to both the film’s advantage and its disadvantage. Although this Pennywise is a hundred times creepier than Curry’s version ever was, that creepiness can surprisingly work against the character. Curry’s murderous clown was silly and playful and thus approachable, which makes it easier for us to believe that Georgie would be enticed by this strange man in the sewer. This clown is silly in the wrong way, behaving so creepily that there is no way a real child would ever give him the time of day. When the scene reaches its gory conclusion, it’s an outcome that we can see coming from a mile away. It’s scary enough on the surface but it doesn’t have that deeper level of horror that would’ve paid off on rewatch because it just isn’t believable enough (which I know is an odd criticism for a movie with a supernatural killer clown, but still). This, I think, is indicative of a problem the movie has with finding the right tone, a problem that lessens many of the scares that follow.

With that said, there are nevertheless a lot of scary moments that do work very well. When Ben sees a headless boy skulking around the library, it is revealed in the most jarringly unsettling way. In some moments when Pennywise decides to embrace his inherently silly side and roll with it, as in one scene when he visits Bill and plays around with Georgie’s corpse like a talking dummy, he becomes all the more disturbing. There are some moments that don’t work particularly well because they are so obviously computer-generated (such as when Pennywise appears out of a projected image), but when the CGI is used well, as in the moment when Stan sees the distorted figure of an unnerving painting come to life, the movie can be very scary indeed. The film also uses its recurring image of balloons to sinister effect while the earlier version… really didn’t. The balloons here are all red and are often seen completely motionless, making them all the more eerie, and they are often used to foreshadow a scary event, thus inspiring a feeling of dread whenever they appear.

The movie also works well when it focuses on the kids and the coming-of-age aspect of the story, but even that can suffer from tonal inconsistencies. Each kid is perfectly cast and is given a clear personality and a story arc, albeit some do inevitably get more focus while others, namely Mike and Stan, are marginalised. Each has their own struggle, whether it’s a devastating family loss, abusive parents, or being an outcast, and the movie does a good job of relating each of their individual scares to their anxieties. Together they make a great ensemble with some marvellous chemistry and are all allowed their own moments to shine. The standouts for me were Bev, the only girl in the group whose troubles stem from living with her incestuous father, and Richie, the erratic trash-talker with a one-liner for every occasion. Again some moments don’t quite work due to the movie’s sudden shifts in tone such as the rock fight where the over-the-top music and slow-motion undercut the seriousness of the moment leading up to it or when Bev is inexplicably seen by Bill walking down the street in bright lights and slo-mo when he literally saw her just two minutes earlier.

Still, when the movie works, it works. Sometimes it takes things too far, and sometimes not far enough, and sometimes it just can’t decide what kind of movie it wants to be. It clearly wants to join the ranks of The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and be taken seriously as a terrifying horror film, but the very nature of its story and antagonist means that some parts are going to be inherently silly, and that’s something it’s not always ready to accept. Sometimes the movie will be silly and fun and other times it will be dark and serious. At moments it’s quiet and subtle and at others it’s loud and over-the-top. These varying tones clash with one another so often that it’s difficult to get a clear grip on this film. The movie wanted to be so many different things that it didn’t always know what was the right tone to go for or how to balance them against one another. While I did enjoy watching this movie, do think it has a lot of strong qualities, and found it to be so much scarier than the 1990 version that it hardly merits comparison; I don’t think this movie has a strong enough sense of identity to go down as a classic. Maybe my mind will change when Chapter 2 comes out.

★★★★

The Hitman’s Bodyguard

Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson, Gary Oldman, Salma Hayek, Élodie Yung, Joaquim de Almeida, Kirsty Mitchell, Richard E. Grant

Director: Patrick Hughes

Writer: Tom O’Connor


This is the story of two men who are both pretty bad guys. One’s an infamous hitman who kills bad guys. The other’s a professional bodyguard who protects bad guys. Circumstances force the two to put aside their differences and work together to take down a really bad guy. Wacky hijinks ensue. The odd couple trope is older than time and has been used again and again in dozens of movies from In the Heat of the Night to Rush Hour to Toy Story. This time the movie brings together a movie star so coarse and badass that he has practically turned ‘motherfucker’ into a catchphrase and another who has somehow managed to build a persona combining profanity and perversity with childlike lovability. Together they make a movie that is neither more nor less than exactly what you would expect it to be: an over-the-top buddy movie with a lot of shooting, chasing and cussing to boot.

The hitman is Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson), the world’s most notorious assassin, now incarcerated. He becomes the last hope for a prosecution’s case against the heinous Belorussian dictator Vladislav Dukhovich (Gary Oldman) and so Darius agrees to testify against him in exchange for the release of his equally coarse and vicious wife Sonia (Salma Hayek), also serving time for one of her husband’s crimes. Dukhovich’s reach however is very far and Amelia Roussel (Élodie Yung), the agent charged with escorting Darius, soon learns that the police and secret service are all compromised. Thus she trusts Darius’ charge to her ex-boyfriend Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds), the formerly triple A rated now-disgraced executive protection agent. Together Michael and Darius must reach The Hague before Dukhovich’s trial is dismissed at 5 pm the next day while combatting the henchmen hot on their trail and each other.

This is a very dumb film and, in many ways, it is quite a generic film as well. It is just Samuel L. Jackson and Ryan Reynolds being Samuel L. Jackson and Ryan Reynolds and the story goes exactly how you think it would. Darius is a reckless psychopath who always charges ahead without thinking things through, which brings him at odds with Michael who is altogether more cautious and exact with his methods and wants to reach The Hague without any incident whatsoever, living by his oft-repeated motto “boring is always best”. They butt heads and hit a couple of detours along the way but we all know that eventually they’re going to start seeing eye-to-eye once they realise that they make a pretty good team. What makes it works is that Jackson and Reynolds are both so good at playing their respective personas and their chemistry is electrifying. No matter how predictable (gee, I wonder who killed the man Michael was protecting in the opening scene?) or formulaic this shoot-em-up of a story got, it is still very watchable thanks to this epic clash in personalities.

The Hitman’s Bodyguard does suffer from a case of bad timing with its depictions of carnage in London and Europe, both victims of devastating terrorist attacks in recent months, and that does steal away from the fun. It is hard to get caught up in this kind of escapist fantasy with its mindless violence, blazing guns, fiery explosions and a large, anonymous body count when it all feels just a little too close to home. But that’s not the movie’s fault; it’s just bad luck. Like Bastille Day, which was filmed in France before the attacks on the Bataclan Theatre and the Charlie Hebdo office, there is just no way they could’ve seen them coming. Maybe there’s a case to be made that, in light of these recent attacks, studios should strive to make movies that not only refuse to glorify violence and revel in sadism but also challenge those that do, but this is a movie that is not nearly smart or serious enough to take that kind of stance. The deepest this movie ever gets is when it asks whether the guy who protects baddies is worse than the guy who kills them, and anyone who thinks this movie is actually serious about engaging that question in a thoughtful debate is living in Cloud Cuckoo Land.

This is quite simply a silly, run-of-the-mill action-comedy with two great leads and it will probably hold up better when it comes out on something like Netflix with a little more distance from recent events. Apart from Jackson and Reynolds, who each give 100%, the other standout is Salma Hayek who plays Darius’ perfect woman: strong, beautiful, and positively psychopathic. The scene where Darius recounts the night they met, an evening of bloody murder accompanied by Lionel Richie, is one of the movie’s highlights. It isn’t a clever film, it isn’t an original film, and it isn’t a movie that I feel any particular desire to revisit in the future, but I laughed, I enjoyed watching Jackson and Reynolds go toe-to-toe, and I walked out feeling like I had a pretty good time.

★★★

Logan Lucky

Cast: Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Seth MacFarlane, Riley Keough, Katie Holmes, Katherine Waterston, Dwight Yoakam, Sebastian Stan, Hilary Swank, Daniel Craig

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Writer: Rebecca Blunt


Steven Soderbergh is no stranger to heist movies. In fact he’s probably the one who sets the standard for other filmmakers. His most notable contribution is, of course, the Ocean’s trilogy, a series of slick, stylish movies that brought together an ensemble of colourful characters to pull off a string of increasingly impossible capers. These movies, while far from Soderbergh’s best work, were suspenseful, entertaining flicks that rose above the regular standard by virtue of his expert direction. One of the staples of the heist movie is the big reveal, the practice of keeping the audience in the dark about what’s really going on before (surprise!) revealing that the shootout between Paul Newman and Robert Redford was actually part of the plan. Soderbergh did this by playing around with perception, showing some, but not all, of what was happening and then revealing that there was a bigger plan all along. Soderbergh brings that same direction here to create what one character describes as “Ocean’s 7-Eleven”.

Logan Lucky is set far away from the classy, sophisticated city of Las Vegas in the rural, southern land of North Carolina. Here lives Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum), a blue-collar worker who is fired from his construction job due to a leg injury he sustained in high school. His daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie) lives with his ex-wife Bobbie (Katie Holmes), but they’re planning on moving to Lynchburg soon which will make visitations harder for Jimmy. He concocts a plan with his wounded veteran brother Clyde (Adam Driver) and their rough and tough sister Mellie (Riley Keough) to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedaway where Jimmy was laid off. To pull this off they need the assistance of Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), an explosives expert currently serving time behind bars, and his two redneck brothers, one of whom is apparently a computer expert who knows “all the Twitters”. Thus a plan goes underway to break Joe out of prison for a day and steal the money from the stadium vault during one of NASCAR’s biggest and most profitable races.

The genius of setting the movie in this rustic backdrop with these unpolished characters is that we never really know how smart or dumb they really are, which plays right into Soderbergh’s perception game with us. There are enough silly, comedic moments with these unruly characters for us to think that their plan will end up going wrong in a million different ways, but that just makes us all the more curious to see how their elaborate plan with its several moving parts will actually work out. The Logans and their comrades are a far cry away from the cool, suave likes of Danny Ocean and his gang; in fact they would not be at all out of place among the dim-witted misfits you often get from the Coen Brothers’ films like O Brother, Where Art Thou? Watching them execute a convoluted heist in the Soderbergh tradition is as fascinating as it is entertaining.

Logan Lucky is so-titled because of what Clyde refers to as the Logan Family Curse. Much like those hapless Coen Brothers characters whose prospects are thwarted time and time again by events beyond their control, misfortune seems to haunt the Logan family at every turn (or so Clyde believes). Between himself and his brother they have six working limbs and they are descended from a line of Logans whose lives have never gone the ways they’d hoped. Thus there is some additional suspense there as we wait to see whether the family curse will strike while their heist is underway. The screenplay as penned by Rebecca Blunt (who many suspect is a pseudonym for Soderbergh’s wife Jules Asner) does a very good job of keeping this idea present in the audience’s mind without banging them over the heads with it. Everything that transpires does so with the sufficient motivation and fluidity for the whole story to feel organic. Everything we see happens for a reason and, in the end when the carpet is inevitably pulled out from under us, all the missing pieces that get revealed fit in just right.

Like Ocean’s Eleven, Logan Lucky is neither the deepest nor the most innovative movie Soderbergh has ever made. There are some moments that are genuinely affective and impactful, the most notable of which takes place during Sadie’s child beauty pageant (of all places!), but otherwise the movie is simply good fun. Most of the performances are enormously entertaining, especially Daniel Craig’s who seems like such a grump in his role as Bond that it’s quite refreshing to see him having a genuinely good time. There are some characters like Hilary Swank’s FBI Agent and Katherine Waterston’s medical worker who don’t get enough time to make an impression and Seth MacFarlane can be pretty distracting (silly, fake English accents seem to be a thing with Soderbergh), but they don’t really drag the movie down. Logan Lucky is the kind of engaging, suspenseful movie that Soderbergh knows how to do well and is well worth a watch.

★★★★