Solo: A Star Wars Story

Cast: Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Paul Bettany, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Thandie Newton

Director: Ron Howard

Writers: Jonathan Kasdan, Lawrence Kasdan


Another year, another Star Wars movie, and this time it’s all about everybody’s favourite stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf herder. As far as Star Wars prequels go, Solo is probably a movie that didn’t need to be made. Unlike Rogue One, this film does feel like there’s a little more puppeteering going on as it recounts the early years of Han Solo’s (Alden Ehrenreich) life with some of the key moments that we know happened from the original films. We see Han meet Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), we see him win the Millennium Falcon from Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) in a card game, and we see him complete the Kessel Run (a sequence that goes out of its way to fix a screenplay error in the 1977 film where ‘parsec’ was mistakenly used as a unit of time). Fans of the original movies know that these moments have got to happen and it does somewhat steal away from the sense of freedom that Rogue One had with a story and characters that were mostly divorced from the events of the official saga, but I don’t think that’s a fatal flaw. Solo is basically high-budget Star Wars fan-fiction and it’s pretty fun for what it is.

We meet Han as a young street rat living in the slums of an industrial planet with his sweetheart Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) where circumstances beyond their control force them apart. Han, left on his own, adopts the name Solo and enlists in the Imperial Navy where he’s sent to fight in the front lines of battles reminiscent of the trench warfare in such World War One movies as All Quiet on the Western Front and Paths of Glory (a clever way of signifying this movie’s position in the Star Wars timeline as years before that of original trilogy which was itself heavily influenced by Second World War cinema). Han deserts his post and joins a team of smugglers led by Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and Val (Thandie Newton). They are contracted to perform a train heist like something out of a John Ford movie (another key influence for Lucas) which goes south. They are brought before the displeased crime lord who hired them Dryden Voss (Paul Bettany) and his right hand woman, none other than Qi’ra. She persuades Dryden to give Han and his team one last chance and sends them off on a suicidal mission.

When Han Solo embarks on the quest that will one day lead him to the Mos Eisley cantina on Tatooine, you can almost visualise in your mind the checklist that the movie is ticking off with each step. With every story beat you can see the strings being pulled and the gears being turned as they manoeuvre their way towards the numerous scenarios from Han’s past that fans have heard of but never got to see depicted on screen. It’s difficult enough to create scenes that exceed the imaginations of those who have visualised their own versions for years, what’s more difficult is getting us to those scenes in a way that somehow feels organic and surprising, as if we’re really watching a story we haven’t ever seen unfolding before our eyes. Indeed, the moments where the film works best are usually when it’s not constrained by the machinations of what we know has to happen and is able to do its own thing. The new character I remember the most vividly is L3-37, a zealous droid voiced by Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridges who is defiantly devoted towards the cause of droid emancipation. This is a character who didn’t need to exist in a Han Solo origin story and that it precisely why she stands out so much.

When it comes to playing the past incarnation of iconic Star Wars characters, Alden Ehrenreich is not Ewan McGregor but he’s not Hayden Christensen either. To me, it isn’t nearly as important for the actor playing Han to look or sound like Harrison Ford as it is for him to be able to evoke the character and there were definitely moments in Ehrenreich’s performance when I saw glimpses. He’s got the cockiness, the swagger, and the charmingly roguish grin that Ford originally brought to Solo. What he doesn’t have is that sharp edge to his character, the aura of dishonour and danger that you get from a scoundrel who has had it rough, is only out for himself, and who will do whatever it takes to stay ahead of the curve. Ehrenreich is just not severe enough or brazen enough to feel like he could one day become that antihero who calculatingly shot a bounty hunter point blank when his back was against the wall and who only agreed to rescue a captive princess when he realised there was money to be made. It’s a charming and likeable enough performance and it’s enough to carry you through the film, but Ehrenreich is not the Han Solo of your dreams. (On a side note: One thing that would have made me very happy indeed is if they had somehow worked in the line, “Would that it were so simple”.)

The rest of the characters are a mixed bag. Qi’ra is meant to come across as this perfect foil to Han, a rogue cut from the same cloth who changes allegiances with the wind and who always has something hidden up her sleeve. Clarke however, like Ehrenreich, doesn’t bring enough darkness or boldness to her performance to really sell it (she’s also the third British brunette in a row to be cast as the female lead in a Star Wars film, which makes it all the harder for her to distinguish herself). I’m also not a fan of the way that the movie tries to invest us in this doomed romance when I’m already satisfied that Leia is the great love of Han’s life. Harrelson, Newton, and long-time Howard collaborator Bettany are all seasoned pros who couldn’t deliver dull performances if they tried but none of them really bring anything unique or remarkable to their roles to make them stand out. The only on-screen performance to accomplish that is Glover’s as Lando, the coolest, suavest, most debonair man in the galaxy. The casting choice is so perfect here that I think they probably should have given Lando his own movie rather than Solo. I, for one, am much more interested in learning how a space hustler became an entrepreneur with his own mining colony than I am in learning how a kid from the slums became a smuggler. He steals every scene he’s in and is only prevented from running away with the whole movie by limited screen time.

It’s not perfect and, for me, it’s probably the weakest of the ‘good’ Star Wars films but Solo is enjoyable enough and it’s a miracle that it got there at all considering how messy it got behind the scenes. The fan service is more blatant than it was in The Force Awakens and the movie doesn’t even dare to be as irreverent (or sacrilegious if you prefer) or as contemplative as The Last Jedi was, but that’s all fine if you know that’s what you’re signing up for. The film wears its heart on its sleeve and leads you by the hand all the way through, but it does it with enough style and spirit that you’ll enjoy getting there anyway. I’ll have to watch it again before I can appreciate its visual craft because the cinema where I saw it left the 3D filter on during its 2D screening, making everything look unnaturally dark, but it is a film that I will watch again sometime quite happily.

★★★

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Deadpool 2

Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Josh Brolin, Morena Baccarin, Julian Dennison Zazie Beetz, T.J. Miller, Stefan Kapičić, Brianna Hildebrand, Jack Kesy, Terry Crews

Director: David Leitch

Writers: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick, Ryan Reynolds


Comedy sequels are always a tricky business and I could probably count the number of movies that have actually pulled it off on one hand. The circumstances vary but the main problem is usually more or less the same; great comedy is nearly impossible to replicate. When a terrific and unique work of comedy comes along it’s almost like the stars aligning or lightning being captured in a bottle but, once the audience is wise to the concept and the brand of humour, it becomes far more difficult to keep the novelty as fresh, original and surprising as it was before. What makes it even more challenging is that many of the comedies that receive sequels simply don’t lend themselves to expansion. After a premise has been exhausted, sequels will try stretching the humour past the original concept (Little Fockers), changing the format (Evan Almighty), replacing the cast (Dumb and Dumberer), upping the ante (Anchorman 2), or simply repeating what the original did beat-for-beat in an ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ kind of approach (The Hangover 2).

When Deadpool was released in 2016, its significance was not to be doubted. It was a project that had taken years to get running, it was made on a much smaller budget than any other superhero movie would have received, and it rejected all studio attempts to make it more mainstream and PG. Miller and Reynolds had to fight to get Deadpool made and the result of their labours was a smash hit that won acclaim for its obscene, quick-fire, fourth-wall-breaking humour and its satirical take on the superhero movies dominating Hollywood. This time around, having proven that R-rated movies can be enormously successful, not only does the creative team have the total confidence of 20th Century Fox and double the budget, it also has the burden of expectation and hype to live up to. It’s in a better position than most comedy sequels thanks to the original comic books with its canon of characters and stories for the movie to draw from, but in order to succeed it still has to try and do what all other comedy sequels have to try and do: replicate without repeating.

The movie once again follows Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds), who has kept up the super-anti-hero gig after being reunited with girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) in the first film, on his escapades. X-Men members Colossus (Stefan Kapičić) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) enlist his help in relieving a stand-off between unstable mutant Russell Collins (Julian Dennison) and the Mutant Re-Education Centre where he was abused by the staff. Deadpool succeeds in talking him down but then finds that he must protect Russell from an even larger threat, a cyborg mercenary called Cable (Josh Brolin) who has come from the future to kill the boy. To stop him Deadpool and Weasel (T.J. Miller) form a team of mutants (the derivatively named X-Force) that includes Domino (Zazie Beetz), whose power is that she’s “lucky”, Bedlam (Terry Crews), who possesses electro-magnetic abilities, and Peter (Rob Delaney), a guy who thought that being part of a crime-fighting team might be quite fun.

When I saw the original Deadpool, I remember my one major criticism being that the story was quite thin. On rewatch I tried to look at it as a parody of the bland, by-the-numbers plots that superhero movies often have, but it instead became clear to me that Deadpool was simply a funny and entertaining movie with a bland, by-the-numbers plot. Deadpool 2 has a similarly formulaic plot but is at least more self-aware about it than before (in the middle of the second act Wade assures us that if everything goes to plan, we’ll all get to go home early because there’ll be no need for a third act). It also follows the same pattern of being laugh out loud funny except when it’s being serious and it does work in that the funny moment are funny and the serious moments are affective. I just kind of wish that the movie was better at being both at the same time the way that Edgar Wright’s movies can be.

What Deadpool 2 is more than anything else though is bigger than before. More gags, more action set-pieces, more explosions; this movie goes all-out in its effort to out-do the original. There are more characters with a larger variety of powers than before (the highlight here is Domino, whose power turns out to be a lot more cinematic than Deadpool thought), there’s a wonderful chase/fight scene in the middle that thrills and amuses in equal measure, there are dozens of funny, memorable jokes and pop-culture references from Deadpool’s anger at having his own movie get outdone by Logan to the observation that ‘Do You Want to Build a Snowman?’ from Frozen and ‘Papa, Can You Hear Me?’ from Yentl have suspiciously similar melodies to the funniest X-Men cameo since Wolverine’s ten-second appearance in First Class, and leading the charge is Ryan Reynolds who continues to give 110% in every frame. Brolin is also a great addition as Cable, an antagonist who, rather than being a spoilsport while everybody else has fun, gets some laughs of his own through deadpan deliveries and his growing frustration and befuddlement with Deadpool’s antics.

As far as comedy sequels go, Deadpool 2 is comfortably up there with Shrek 2 and 22 Jump Street. It expertly avoids the trappings that other comedy sequels fall victim to by reproducing the humour without recycling the jokes, moving the characters and their stories forward rather than falling back on the status quo from the previous film, and by being all-round creative, clever, and competently-made. Deadpool 2 is funny when it wants to be (another highlight I want to point to is when the musical score in one scene includes an epic choir singing “Holy shitballs!”), serious when it wants to be and action-packed when it wants to be and it’s more or less what you expect it to be, but in a good way. This is a film that knows exactly what it is and is very good at it. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel the way Deadpool did, but it doesn’t have to. It’s basically more of the same, but done a little bit differently with a little bit extra and that’s enough. It does what it does, takes its shots, fucks some shit up, and those who liked the first Deadpool will find plenty to like in its follow up.

★★★★

Avengers: Infinity War

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlatt Johansson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Don Cheadle, Tom Holland, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Sebastian Stan, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Dave Bautista, Zoe Saldana, Chris Pratt, Josh Brolin

Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo

Writers: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely


There’s a certain narrative that studios like to spin when a high-profile movie, oftentimes a comic book blockbuster, underperforms. If the movie in question has taken a beating in the critical consensus, studios like to dismiss the validity of the criticism by claiming that they “made it for the fans”. This is a garbage argument; not only is it an attempt by Hollywood to fabricate a divide between critics and fans to ensure that they aren’t held accountable for making mediocre movies that fail to resonate with audiences, it makes no sense from a purely economic perspective. It falsely suggests that the studio has no interest in pulling a larger crowd from beyond the core fanbase and maximising their profits. This is one of the reasons why I find Infinity War to be such an interesting case in the evolution of the blockbuster, because I think it is the exception that proves the rule. After their ten year campaign to build as large and inclusive a fanbase as possible, the MCU have released a title that appeals directly to them and that only works if you’ve seen and enjoyed all (well… most) of the eighteen films that came before. This is truly a movie that was made for the fans.

Therefore, even though I’ve criticised some of the Marvel movies in the past for neglecting to tell entirely self-contained stories, I don’t think it’s fair to hold this film to the same standard. Infinity War is a crossover event of unprecedented proportions; it is the culmination of all that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has built in the last decade and it fuses all of their flagship characters into a single narrative. There is so much to bring together and so much happening in this movie that expecting it to slow down for those who have not watched the preceding titles in order to bring them up to speed on all the characters and their histories strikes me as ludicrous a notion as it would be for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows or Game of Thrones Season Eight. Eighteen movies is a big ask for anyone who isn’t a fan of the franchise and that’s why I don’t think the studio was under any illusion that they were making this movie for anybody outside of the fanbase, which by this point has grown large enough to justify an investment on this scale. For those non-fans who feel that they must see this film all the same, I honestly don’t know what they expect to get out of it. Infinity War is a film that knows exactly who it was made for and for them it’s going to work very well indeed.

The film is 160 minutes long and it hits the ground running. There is so much action condensed in the runtime and so many big moments throughout that pretty much every detail feels like a potential spoiler. On the broadest possible level, the plot is about the intergalactic tyrant Thanos (Josh Brolin) in his quest to collect the six Infinity Stones with his gauntlet. Only when he’s acquired all six will he be able to realise his goal of wiping out half of the universe’s populace, his solution to the problem of galactic depletion and imbalance. Standing in his way are the Avengers, led by Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). Helping them along the way are such previous allies and adversaries as Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland), and such newcomers as Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the Guardians of the Galaxy as led by Star Lord (Chris Pratt) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana). What follows is an epic and devastating conflict, an earth-shattering spectacle on the scale of an opera or a Greek tragedy. Worlds are destroyed, lives are ruined, tears are shed, and heroes are killed.

The film wisely makes Thanos, the one major character who has not received any substantial character development in any of the previous films, its main focus. We follow him on his apocalyptic journey across the galaxy and, in large part due to Brolin’s remarkably forceful yet quiet performance, we learn to both fear and yet pity him in what he sees as a calling rather than a desire. Unlike the Joker and most other comic book villains who absolutely relish their evilness, Thanos is more like Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. He isn’t evil because he wants to be or was made to be but because he feels like that he has to be, as if he cannot see any other way and has resigned himself. He has the devotion and conviction of a religious zealot but also the calm and solemnity of a disciplined military leader. He attends to his mission with ruthless single-mindedness; he has no interest in trying to convince or bargain with anyone, what he must do is simply what has to happen and he will destroy all who stand in his way without a second thought. You hate him because of how merciless and cruel he is but there’s an air of inconsolable loneliness and trepidation about him that Brolin conveys superbly without overplaying. His strength and powers are absolute and there is no doubting that he is the biblical reckoning that many of the characters have been dreading all this time.

The inevitable downside of featuring an ensemble this large in a narrative that is somewhat constricted by the limitations of linear cause-and-effect storytelling is that there’s only so much screen time and dialogue it can dole out between the dozens of characters that it must juggle. Some of this is compensated by the fact that we’ve already seen these characters in their stories and can immediately identify them, so most of them can more or less get straight down to business. Homecoming has already established the mentor/trainee relationship between Tony Stark and Peter Parker, the Thor movies have already laid the groundwork for Thor’s PTSD, and Guardians of the Galaxy has already made clear to us Gamora’s and Nebula’s (Karen Gillan) history with Thanos. However there are other characters and plot threads that must take a backseat in order to make room for these stories. Steve Rogers gets a couple dozen lines, Natasha Romanoff and Bruce Banner, who had a romance in Age of Ultron, barely get a meaningful exchange, and there are some rather important characters such as Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Shuri (Letitia Wright) who could almost be considered glorified extras.

One of the pleasures of the crossover though is that we do get to see some great mixing and matching between the characters without pre-existing relationships. The combination of the ultra masculine Thor and the insecure Peter Quill allows for an amusing back-and-forth and Thor also gets to bond with Rocket (Bradley Cooper) with whom he shares more in common than you might think. Stark and Strange are acquainted and find that their identically obnoxious personalities clash, there’s a surprise appearance by the villain of a previous film who makes for an interesting contrast with Thanos, and there are some brief exchanges during the climatic battle that make for some great laughs. However I do wish the Russo Brothers had made more of an effort to combine the heroes’ differing abilities and styles in the action scenes the way they did so well in Civil War. Apart from one moment where Natasha, Okoye (Danai Gurira) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) work together to take down a foe and another where a plan to subdue Thanos almost works, I can’t remember any other notable instances of a character combination leading to an action set-piece that would not be possible in any other MCU film. Instead it mostly comes to down to individual heroes doing their own solo stuff in turn.

On that note, the action doesn’t really feel all that distinctive from what we’ve seen in other movies, especially not after Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther which were both made by directors with such distinct personalities and styles. Here it’s mostly shaky camerawork and quick-fire editing just like in any other blockbuster while the less action-packed scenes are framed rather generically with hardly any risky moves or striking flourishes to help the most impactful moments hit that little bit harder. There are some moments that stand out such as a wipe that cleverly reveals a scene to be an illusion conjured by Thanos and the use of slow motion during the climax to highlight the Avengers’ last-ditch desperation, but the filmmaking mostly feels routine and by-the-numbers. The most notable exception though is the ending which delivers a gut-punch with the exact right amount of shock and severity to catch you off guard even if you know intellectually in your head that what’s happening cannot possibly be permanent or irreversible (as tends to be the case with most cliffhangers). It’s a move that goes a step further than The Empire Strikes Back by not offering you that glimmer of hope at the end to leave you feeling elated and optimistic. Han is frozen in carbonite, Luke learns that the bad guy is his father and has his hand cut off, Vader is triumphant, cut to black. All you’re left with is that feeling of desolation and failure.

For most fans of Marvel, Infinity War is exactly what they want it to be. It brings together all the iconic characters they’ve grown to love (sans a couple whose absences are quickly explained in a throwaway sentence), pits them against the single greatest foe that any of them have ever faced, and delivers some good action, comedy, and surprises along the way. It’s not perfect and it’s not the most creative, clever, or compelling movie they’ve ever made, but it delivers. For me what really makes this film stand out among its predecessors is the combination of Thanos’ arc with Josh Brolin’s performance. He took a villain who has been built up big time despite his previous underwhelming appearances and added so much terror and humanity (aided by the best use of CGI on a character since Gollum) that you cannot help but be swept away by his crusade. Even though you can probably more or less predict how the story will progress, there’s still that agonising sense of dread gnawing away at you with each step that brings Thanos closer to bringing his plan to fruition. He’s the rare type of villain who is at his most intimidating when quiet and who demonstrates an unexpected capacity for respect and empathy when battling his enemies. He’s the one it’s all been leading to and he was worth the wait.

★★★★

Tully

Cast: Charlize Theron, Mackenzie Davis, Mark Duplass, Ron Livingston

Director: Jason Reitman

Writer: Diablo Cody


There’s a joke by Jim Gaffigan about what it’s like to have a fourth child which goes, “Imagine you’re drowning, then someone hands you a baby”. Parenthood isn’t just difficult; it is a strenuous, laborious task that gets exponentially more challenging with each additional child. It isn’t just that each child needs constant care and attention, but that they need different kinds of care and attention at different ages and that their demands are both simultaneous and ceaseless. It is a struggle that Diablo Cody, who wrote this film shortly after having her third child, understands well and brings viscerally to life in Tully. This is a film that looks at motherhood with absolutely zero sentimentality. It shows the process of raising children as the exhausting, dirty, stressful task that it is and finds both uncomfortable truths and bittersweet poignancy in its depiction. It is a story that Cody tells with both wit and wisdom and with intimacy and subtlety, delivering an emotional punch that you don’t see coming but which feels entirely earned.

The film follows Marlo (Charlize Theron), a mother of two who is pregnant with an unplanned third child. She has an eight-year-old daughter called Sarah (Lia Frankland), who is reaching that age where self esteem becomes a major issue, and a six-year-old son called Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) who is somewhere on the autism spectrum (or “quirky” as his teachers put it) and is proving too much for the school to handle. Her well-meaning husband Drew (Ron Livingston) often travels for work and so he is unable to really appreciate the daily demands Marlo faces, never mind help her. Her smug and wealthy brother Craig offers to help out by paying for a night nanny, someone who would come round during the night-time hours and care for the newborn baby while Marlo sleeps, but Marlo turns him down. However whatever fragile workload balance she’d attained at this point is completely obliterated by the arrival of her daughter Mia and it isn’t long before Marlo finds herself drowning from sheer exhaustion and stress. There is a great sequence here that cross-cuts between feedings, diaper changes, breast milk pumping, cooking, cleaning, driving, and the hundreds of other things Marlo has to do as a mother and homemaker. It is a sequence that drives home the endlessly gruelling nature of her routine and the punishing, isolating effects of toil and sleep deprivation; it gets so bad that Marlo can no longer work out when one day ends and the next begins.

The final straw comes when Jonah’s principal suggests that he be moved to a different school, leading Marlo to erupt with a public meltdown. As Marlo breaks down with baby Mia relentlessly wailing beside her, principal Laurie (Gameela Wright) clumsily tries to calm her down and laments that she doesn’t want to see Marlo leave like this. Marlo retorts that she always leaves like this, Laurie just doesn’t see it. At this rock bottom moment, Marlo finally decides that she needs help and agrees to employ the night nanny. Enter Tully (Mackenzie Davis), a 26-year-old free spirit with short hair and a tank top. She’s wide-eyed and earnest, compassionate and nurturing, and wise far beyond her years. She’s not just an extra pair of hands, she’s a confidante and a therapist, there to support Marlo emotionally as well as maternally. “I thought you were taking care of the baby” says Marlo at one point. “Yeah, but you pretty much are the baby” answers Tully. Marlo is drawn to Tully and sees in her the youthful energy and passion for life that she used to have at that age. They spend more and more time together, bonding over sangria and SHOWTIME’s Gigolos, and form a friendship that grows deeper and more profound over time as they learn more about each other.

The chemistry between Theron and Davis is substantial and forms the emotional bedrock upon which the whole film rests. Tully at first appears to be a simple manic pixie dream girl but the more we discover how much she and Marlo have in common and how much they both have to learn from each other, the more complex she turns out to be. At first Marlo doesn’t know what to make of her. The film has so thoroughly shattered the notion that motherhood is in any way enjoyable or wondrous that we’re as baffled as she is to meet someone who not only wants to help out but does so with a spark in her eye and an infectious grin. As Marlo sees more of herself in that spark and smile, it dawns on her just how long it’s been since she saw herself in that way. She wonders whether her old self is gone for good and if becoming a mother has reduced her to little more than a shell. Through Tully’s eyes though she starts to see that there is some of that spark still left and how vital it is to preserve it. It’s not as corny and New Age-y as all that though; in trying to recapture some of her youth, Marlo finds that she must confront some old regrets and admit to some harsh truths.

Tully is ultimately about self-care and its importance to the role of the mother. It’s about how creating a life doesn’t mean sacrificing your own and forsaking the person you used to be. What Marlo ultimately learns is that in order to care for those who depend on her, she needs to be able to care for herself and that she must keep a part of who she truly is at heart alive so that her husband and her children have someone that they can love. It is a lesson that the film imparts in an unexpectedly poetic but still entirely appropriate way. The movie is every bit the fairy tale that Mary Poppins is but its depiction of motherhood is as candid and as unvarnished as anything Hollywood has produced due to the combined fearless honesty and down-to-earthness of Cody and Reitman in their third time working together. With the help of Theron’s authentic rage and weariness and Davis’ angel-like warmth and sincerity, they’ve crafted a funny and moving film about learning to love others by learning to love one’s self.

★★★★

Rampage

Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Naomie Harris, Malin Åkerman, Jake Lacy, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Joe Manganiello

Director: Brad Peyton

Writers: Ryan Engle, Carlton Cuse, Ryan J. Condal, Adam Sztykiel


There is a fine line between a dumb movie done well and a dumb movie done badly. This isn’t quite the same as a ‘so bad it’s good’ kind of movie, where the entertainment value is there in spite of the movie’s faults. This rather refers to those movies that know full well how inherently stupid their concepts are and that decide to embrace them wholeheartedly. This isn’t a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card though, just because a movie is dumb and knows it doesn’t mean it gets to be lazy, awful or insulting. It is instead a licence to get creative, have some fun, and turn a silly idea into something unique, watchable, and entertaining. That’s how we get movies like Face/Off and Snakes on a Plane; movies that nobody would consider ‘great’, but are just so damn fun to watch. They’re the cinematic equivalent of fast food. You know that it’s trash, but it still tastes good.

There is, however, a standard. Even though what I want from this movie more than anything else is to watch giant mutant monsters beat the shit out of each other (I’m only human after all), I still expect it hold my interest at least on a visceral level, to display some kind of personality in its characters and style, and to demonstrate some degree of competence and effort. There is a difference between a dumb movie that indulges its own ridiculousness and a movie that falls victim to it (e.g. Batman & Robin and Wild, Wild West). In the pantheon of dumb modern Hollywood monster movies, Rampage falls somewhere between Pacific Rim and the 1998 Godzilla. It doesn’t have the creativity and heart of the former but it does possess the charm and thrill that the latter lacked. It also never tries to be more than it is, meaning that it lacks the poetry of the 2014 Godzilla but it does escape the political incoherence of Kong: Skull Island. It is the comfortable middle ground that makes for a fun, campy movie which never bores or frustrates, but which also never surprises or astonishes.

Rampage features Dwayne Johnson as Davis Okoye, a Dwayne-Johnson-ish ex-soldier turned primatologist. He works at San Diego Wildlife Sanctuary where he finds that he prefers the company of animals to people. His best friend is George the albino gorilla, whom Davis rescued from poachers and has since raised and taught to communicate through sign language. After an experiment in a space laboratory goes awry and leads to the station’s destruction, samples of the pathogen being developed fall to Earth with the debris and infect three animals: a Florida crocodile, a grey wolf in the Rocky Mountains, and George. This causes all three to mutate and become more aggressive. As Davis tries to understand why George is growing larger and lashing out, he is approached by Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomi Harris), a genetic engineer who worked on this project for Energyne until she was dismissed for objecting to their plans to develop the pathogen as a biological weapon. The diabolical CEO of Energyne Claire Wyden (Malin Åkerman) and her nitwit brother Brett (Jake Lacy), realising what has happened, decide to lure the three creatures to Chicago by emitting a signal from their headquarters so that they might capture one of them. Chaos ensues.

To say this is not the cleverest of plots would be charitable. The scheme hatched by the two nefarious corporate villains, one of whom we’re supposed to believe is actually quite competent and cunning, is beyond stupid. This is a ‘hold my beer and watch this’ kind of stupid we’re talking about. It’s an ‘invade Russia in the middle of winter’ kind of stupid. It’s a ‘their mothers are both called Martha’ kind of stupid. But the movie is perfectly aware of the idiocy of their scheme and more or less hopes that we’ll roll with it and accept the Wydens for the cartoon villains that they are. Anyway the three beasts are drawn by the signal and make for Chicago, leaving behind a trail of destruction as they go. All attempts to combat and contain the, including a guerrilla operation led by pro commando Burke (Joe Manganiello) fail. Instead it is up to Davis, Kate, and government agent Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) to reach George and try to save him.

The most appealing thing about this movie is how perfectly content it is to be nothing more and nothing less than a monster-buddy movie starring The Rock and a giant ape. Johnson, one of the few honest-to-god movie stars working in Hollywood today, is his usual charming, badass self and he gets to share his screen time with a CGI gorilla played by Jason Liles with whom he forms a surprisingly likeable duo. There is a clear sense of affection and familiarity in their hand-signed back-and-forths as they reminisce on shared experiences and tell dirty jokes. In fact George, by virtue of having a fully formed personality, is much more human than many of the human characters. Davis certainly hasn’t got very much character beyond that which Johnson naturally brings to all his roles. Still, that’s all you need if all you want is to watch Dwayne Johnson and King Kong battle a giant CGI wolf and alligator. The action is exactly what you want it to be, pitting three larger-than-life monsters in an epic battle royale complete with toppling buildings and explosions and throwing a larger-than-life action star in for good measure.

Those who came for the fireworks though will find that they have to be patient in the scenes that come in between. Some scenes deal with the budding romance between Davis and Dr. Kate which, despite Harris’ best efforts, feels as hollow and obligatory as it is. There is one moment where Kate shares the details of her backstory, which is supposed to draw parallels between herself and Davis in his attempt to rescue a loved one, but the emotional depth they’re going for feels far too forced and flat in a film that relishes in its mostly empty spectacle. The Wydens meanwhile are both paper-thin villains and although the movie is perfectly aware of that, their sheer transparency and incompetence make them rather tiresome. Still I like that the movie is under no illusion over what walking, talking clichés they are to the point that the corny comic book dialogue they’re given almost feels natural in their straight-faced deliveries. “There’s a reason we did our research on a space station” says one, “and it wasn’t for the betterment of humanity”. The one human character who nails that perfect balance of being goofy and enjoyable is Morgan’s Agent Russell. He brings so much eccentricity, swagger and charisma to what should have been a forgettable, generic character that you cannot help but be fascinated by the guy.

Rampage is the movie that it is and the movie that it promises to be. You can either take it or leave it. It is the perfect example of a dumb movie that knows exactly how dumb it is and that never apologises for it. However the inevitable downside of watching a movie that is exactly what you expect it to be, even if what you expect is exactly what you want, is that the movie will never surprise you or challenge you. Rampage unfolds and ends more or less how you think it will and, while getting there is fun enough, it doesn’t blow you away the way that a great action movie should. It’s fine if all you want is to switch your brain off for a couple of hours but this isn’t a movie that will capture your imagination and take you somewhere you’ve never been before. Again, it’s like fast food. It’s cheap, it’s adequate, and it’s convenient. Rampage gives you your fill and as soon you’re done you move on.

★★★

A Quiet Place

Cast: John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe

Director: John Krasinski

Writers: Bryan Woods, Scott Beck, John Krasinski


This is a great concept for a horror film. The world has undergone some great disaster and is now overrun by fearsome aliens/monsters who stalk the land preying on human beings. The beasts are completely blind but have enhanced hearing, allowing them to pick up sounds from miles away. The human survivors must therefore live their lives in a state of eternal dread as any sound they make could get them killed. What I love about this concept is that (1) it necessarily requires the film to be creative in its use of visuals and sound when conveying the story and (2) it invites the viewer to actively take part. The film is so good at establishing the terror of sound that the entire audience ends up undertaking its own vow of silence, hesitant to make so much as the slightest peep for fear of summoning the creatures. It is one thing to be frightened as an individual, the collective sense of anxiety that this film was able to inspire is really something else, which is why it pays to see A Quiet Place in the cinema.

Caught up in this silent nightmare are husband and wife Lee (John Krasinski) and Evelyn (Emily Blunt) and their children Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and Marcus (Noah Jupe). They’ve managed to get by together as a family for the most part, largely due to their fluency in sign language, a by-product of Regan’s deafness. Through tragedy and trauma they’ve been able to achieve what could charitably be called ‘normalcy’ in a world as frightening and deadly as this. They walk place to place on bare feet along paths made of sand, they play board games where the plastic playing pieces have been replaced by paper cut-outs, and they hold hands in silent solidarity during mealtimes. This status quo however is a tremendously precarious one and there are forces at work that threaten their very survival. Most worryingly, Evelyn is several weeks pregnant and the day when she will have to give birth (a difficult enough task without any doctors or anaesthetic at hand, never mind the noise problem) is surely approaching. Through all the dread and trepidation, Lee works tirelessly on securing their hideout and unearthing what means he can of combatting the frightful predators, intent on keeping his family safe whatever the cost.

Cinema has a rich legacy of horror-survival stories with fearsome monsters from the xenomorph in Alien to the Thing in The Thing to the T-Rex in Jurassic Park and Krasinski makes his contribution to the genre with the worthy confidence of a veteran horror director. He is precise and economic in his storytelling, with seldom a shot that does not contribute in some way to the scares, the emotional stakes, or the world around these characters. When we’re at the farm where the bulk of the movie takes place, Krasinski takes care to ensure that the geography is never lost on us. We are constantly aware of where everybody is, how far they are from each other, and who can see or hear what. He is also very good in his use of foreshadowing, more so because of the auditory nature of the storytelling. There are certain objects, most notably an exposed nail in the floor and a literal Chekhov’s gun, that inspire anxiety in their silence because we know that they will come into play at some point near the end and that the result will be exactly the kind of noise we’ve been conditioned to dread. What’s more, in a world where a loud and abrupt noise means almost certain death, the use of the jump scare is actually justified, although even then Krasinski takes care not to exploit that advantage for all its worth. He understands that horror isn’t really about trying to scare the audience, it’s about making them fear for the characters and he never loses sight of that simple notion.

Through a nuanced understanding of the visual language of cinema and the strong, expressive performances of the cast, we are able to identify with this family and feel for them throughout their ordeal. Starring opposite Krasinski is real-life wife and mother of his children Emily Blunt and the bond they share as spouses and parents is powerfully felt in every scene they share. In a movie that deals heavily with the idea of a family working together to keep each other safe, secure, and alive, the most vital ingredient to make it all work is that feeling of familial affection. The movie understands this and works harder to convey that feeling to us than it does with any other element, a move that pays off splendidly. The two children also deserve praise in this regard, especially the actually deaf Simmonds who, as well as having to deal with the same problems of being unable to express herself through noise, must also deal with the obstacle of being unable to hear the danger in any given moment, a source of both anxiety and even guilt for her. The most remarkable thing about any of these performances though is how intense they are given how controlled they necessarily have to be. In this world, none of these characters have the luxury of grunting in anger, sobbing in despair, or screaming in fear. The silence that defines their lives is as oppressive as it is terrifying and the actors do a marvellous job of conveying the agony of living without giving in to these basic human impulses.

That repression of the human condition is ultimately what makes A Quiet Place such a scary film. It’s not just the fear of being eaten by creepy aliens/monsters, it’s the torment of living in a world where a vital part of what makes us human has been taken away. We live in such a noisy world that it’s difficult to conceive of a life of total silence. We use sound to express ourselves and to reach out to others; we even use it when we’re on our own because we find that the mere presence of sound can somehow make us feel less alone. Many of the great horror films are about taking a fundamental part of our nature and weaponising it against ourselves, forcing us into a realm where we must adapt into lesser versions of ourselves in order to survive. If the characters are able to overcome the threat, we feel empowered; if they are defeated by it, we feel despondent. Either way we are deeply affected by what we’ve seen. A Quiet Place is one of the most profoundly affective horror films of recent years and it is truly a cinematic experience to behold.

★★★★★

Love, Simon

Cast: Nick Robinson, Jennifer Garner, Nick Duhamel, Katherine Langford, Alexandra Shipp, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Tony Hale

Director: Greg Berlanti

Writers: Isaac Aptaker, Elizabeth Berger


Love, Simon is a teen rom-com like any other. It’s quirky, idealistic, and a little bit schmaltzy. It features a good-looking, charming, and somewhat popular kid who falls for someone online and sets out to discover who they really are. There are parties, love triangles, clueless adults, a high school musical, public declarations, broken hearts, witty banter, and a compilation of catchy pop songs. It uses every cliché in the book and never apologises for it, it is as representative of this day and age as the John Hughes movies were of the 80s and 90s, and it is everything that a lover of sappy high school movie romances could possibly want. And also the main character happens to be gay. This is the first mainstream, major studio release to focus on a gay teenage romance, a milestone so overdue that I kind of feel like the movie might have had a more meaningful impact had it been made around the same time as Mean Girls. But the fact it was made at all is significant, to be sure, and it’s a good enough film to be worthy of the task it undertakes to break new ground in LGBT cinema.

Our protagonist is 16-year-old Simon Spier (Nick Robinson), a kid “just like you”. He lives in a beautiful home in the suburbs of Atlanta with his loving, liberal-minded parents Emily (Jennifer Ganrer) and Jack (Josh Duhamel) and his little, Top Chef obsessed sister Nora (Talitha Bateman). He has a healthy social life at school and a crew of close friends he likes to hang out with including lifelong BFFs Leah (Katherine Langford) and Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) and trendy new girl Abby (Alexandra Shipp). Simon is about as normal as a teenager can be. He goes to parties, takes part in the school’s drama club, attends sports rallies, and has even had a couple of girlfriends. But he also has a huge secret that’s he’s never shared with anybody before: he’s gay. Things change when a closeted boy at school, known only as Blue, writes an online post sharing his thoughts and fears about coming out. Simon reaches out to him privately in an email under the alias of Jacques and the two start a correspondence with each other that evolves over time into a romance.

Love, Simon is a refreshing watch for a number of reasons. For one thing, with a cinematic history that includes Boys Don’t Cry, Brokeback Mountain, and Milk where LGBT characters have to battle prejudices against their sexuality and find only heartbreak and oftentimes death at the end of it all, it is a sign of progress that a gay character can enjoy a healthy and harmless romance without being punished for it and get his happy ending. For another thing, in a genre where gay characters are often relegated to the role of sidekicks and are seldom given the opportunity to voice their own desires, anxieties, and struggles, it is almost unbelievable how wholly the film focuses on Simon’s gayness. In addition, I was surprised by how thoughtful, complex, and heartfelt this movie actually turned out to be. A part of me was worried that this major studio release that had made such a big deal in its marketing over how inclusive and liberal it would be might turn out to be a work of self-indulgence; a cheap way for Hollywood to pat itself on the back for being so ‘woke’. Thankfully (even though the movie is still a little too self-congratulatory for my liking) Love, Simon takes care to tell a real story where you can understand the main character’s feelings and inner-conflict and empathise with him.

Simon’s initial struggle is that he’s afraid of coming out. This isn’t because he fears he will be hated or rejected, in fact he is certain that his family and friends would be fully supportive and accepting of him. What’s stopping him is that he’s not quite ready for his life to change in the way it inevitably will when people learn the truth about him. He’s not prepared to handle the altered perceptions and the confused emotions that his loved ones will develop when they discover that he has been keeping a part of himself hidden from them for so long and just needs time to get himself there. A part of him is also resentful of the way the heterosexuality has been accepted as the default and that LGBT kids are the ones who have to come out, which the movie pokes fun at in an amusing sequence where we see some of Simon’s friends come out as straight to their hurt, tearful, and unaccepting parents. That scene is just one of the ways in which the film is skilfully able to merge humour with pathos, which is a vital part of what makes Love, Simon so watchable. The movie is capable of being both light-hearted and dark at the same time.

Things start taking a dark turn when fellow classmate Martin (Logan Miller), a nerdy and obnoxious guy who makes it so easy for all the characters to hate him it almost seems deliberate, learns Simon’s secret and uses it to blackmail him. Unless Simon helps him win a date with Abby, Martin will release his emails for the whole school to read. The secret will be out and Blue will retreat and be lost to Simon for good. Simon thus gets himself caught in a tangled web of unrequited crushes and manipulated feelings, leading to much emotional confusion, anguish and chaos among his friends as things spin more and more out of control. Simon himself gets increasingly confounded over time not only by guilt, but also by the nagging question of who Blue really is. The movie gives us plenty of suspects in this mystery, and with them comes all of these looks, statements, and gestures that could mean nothing or everything. Maybe Blue is Bram (Keiynan Lonsdale) the friendly jock, maybe he’s Lyle (Joey Pollari) the flirty server, or maybe Cal (Miles Heizer) the musical classmate. Or maybe he’s someone else entirely who Simon has never even given a second thought to. It’s a well-developed mystery and the climatic reveal is satisfying.

Still, even though it might be a little unfair to begrudge this of a film that wants to be a mainstream high school rom-com and does it well, there were times when I wished the movie was more willing to take a few risks. The characterisation of gayness in this film, for instance, is so conventional and inoffensive it could almost be called bland by today’s standards. For the most part Robinson plays Simon in a straightforward, normative manner with his typically masculine looks and physique, even when he’s alone and not putting up a façade; it’s a ‘normal guy who happens to be gay’ kind of thing that they’re going for, which is fine except it also would have been fine ten years ago. There’s a scene where Simon imagines the colourful, flamboyant musical his life might become when he’s out and goes to college, which ends with him breaking the fourth wall to say, “Well, maybe not that gay”. It’s a funny punchline, but it also kind of undercuts what I thought to be the most creative, vibrant and memorable scene in the whole movie. If the movie is really set on breaking ground in the representation and normalisation of gay culture in mass media, why not go all the way with it?

I do also wish that the movie didn’t go to quite as many lengths as it did to show how ‘okay’ it is for Simon to be gay and trusted that the audience would root for him themselves and celebrate his victories without any prompting. There are some moments when showing the other characters’ acceptance of Simon is important, as in one scene between Simon and his mother which Garner knocks out of the park (I now want a movie that’s just Jennifer Garner and Michael Stuhlbarg delivering moving and eloquent monologues to their gay children). But there are others where it feels like the movie is celebrating its own open-mindedness and liberalism more than it is Simon’s arc as a character. While it’s great that Simon is immediately accepted by the school en masse when the truth does finally come out, their active, fervent support and encouragement in his search for Blue struck me as so overzealous that when the climax arrived and we finally see the kiss it’s all been leading up to, I felt like the movie was trying harder to convey its affirmation of the moment than it was the culmination of Simon’s journey. For a movie that repeatedly emphasises how Simon is just like the rest of us, I felt that this overcompensation somewhat detracted from his relatability.

Still, Love, Simon is a movie that Hollywood has needed to make for a long time and its arrival marks an undeniable sign of progress. While recent films like Call Me by Your Name and Blue is the Warmest Colour have already garnered praise for their positive portrayals of LGBT romance, those films were not made for teen audiences nor are they the kinds of films that most teenagers will actively seek out. This film appeals itself directly towards modern teenagers and young adults of all sexual orientations and does so without talking down to them or seeming out of touch. It is a teenage rom-com through and through in that it is sentimental, quaint, and pretty cheesy, which means that those who like those kinds of movies will really like this one. Even those who tend to cringe or roll their eyes when the music starts playing as the lovers embrace each other may very well find themselves moved by what happens between the clichés. For those gay teens and adults who have been waiting for a movie such as this to come along, they, like Simon himself when all is finally said and done, can breath a sigh of relief. This is an enjoyable and heartfelt movie and one that I hope will launch a new wave of mainstream cinema that will feature new and different depictions of LGBT culture.

★★★★

Ready Player One

Cast: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg, Mark Rylance

Director: Steven Spielberg

Writers: Zak Penn, Ernest Cline


When it comes down to it, Spielberg is the only director who could possibly have made this movie, warts and all, and it’s not just because of the monumental role he played in creating the pop culture that the Ernest Cline novel pays tribute to. There is no other director out there who so perfectly personifies the paradoxical ideology at the heart of this film. The central conflict in Ready Player One is that between the ideological artists and fans, united by the passion and regard they share for the cultural icons and artworks of the past, and the soulless, corporate capitalists who seek to exploit those same products and reap the profits. Mr. Spielberg is a champion for both sides. He is a paragon of artistry, a visionary celebrated for his works of sentimentality and imagination that have inspired so much of the nostalgia we feel for 80s and 90s pop culture, but he is also a shrewd businessman, widely credited for inventing the blockbuster and, in turn, the modern, commercial Hollywood machine that systematically recycles familiar, demographically-targeted brands and properties to produce profitable titles. Spielberg’s attempt to reconcile this dualism has resulted in his most fascinatingly imperfect film since A.I.

Technically speaking the movie is set in Columbus, Ohio, in the year 2045, where poor, orphaned kid Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) lives in ‘the stacks’, a district of makeshift towers made up of trailer homes and vans. He spends every waking hour of his day plugged into his VR kit which transports him to the film’s actual setting, the virtual gaming world of OASIS. This is a realm of infinite possibilities where people can be and do whatever they want. You can ski the pyramids, hang out in a casino the size of a planet, or climb Mount Everest with Batman. OASIS is the creation of the late tech genius and pop culture obsessive James Halliday (Mark Rylance). Following his death, it was revealed that Halliday left behind a three-part quest to find the Easter Eggs hidden within the virtual world. The first person to find these three keys will inherit full ownership and control of OASIS. Wade, as his avatar Parzival, is one of the hundreds of gamers who have set out to solve Halliday’s puzzle, as are fellow ‘gunters’ Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Aech (Lena Waithe), Sho (Philip Zhao) and Daito (Win Morisaki). Another party in the race to find the keys is IOI, an avaricious company led by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) that wants to gain control of OASIS to exploit its profitability.

Perhaps the single biggest draw this film has is the innumerable crossovers and references brought over from movies, TV shows and video games of the 80s and 90s. The movie is almost like if Wreck-It Ralph were directed by Spinal Tap. It turns everything up to eleven and incorporates so many recognisable characters, items, and sounds that it is impossible to catch them all on the first viewing, never mind to list them. The movie features extended tributes to such films as The Shining and Saturday Night Fever, while other popular titles like The Breakfast Club and Goldeneye (the N64 game) are simply name-dropped. We see such vehicles as the DeLorean and the motorcycle from Akira get used in a virtual race where obstacles include King Kong and the T-Rex from Jurassic Park, we see the chestburster from Alien and Chucky from Child’s Play get used as weapons, and we get to see more characters than we can count combat each other in battle royales including the Iron Giant, Freddy Krueger, Stormtroopers, the Spartans from Halo and Mecha-Godzilla. These references are all made so abundantly and are featured so prominently, fleetingly, and blink-and-you-missed-it-ly that any viewer who goes simply to enjoy this pop culture edition of Where’s Wally will find no shortage of phenomena to search for.

Therein lies a question though: does the nostalgic amusement park ride through 80s and 90s pop culture ultimately work for the film or against it? Even if we excuse the film for depicting a sanitised, mainstream version of the late 20th century that appeals mainly to the nostalgia of white, American, male ‘nerds’, what do the Easter Eggs actually bring to the film? On one hand, the references are made so indiscriminately and with such little connection to the story that it seems the vast majority are only there for the audience members to point at and say, “I understood that reference”. Even when some properties are given a greater level of focus, little attempt is made to actively explore what it is that fans enjoy about them, which can make its very inclusion feel quite hollow. The counterargument to this however is that the film’s use of pop culture must necessarily be secondary to the story and characters. It’s the narrative itself that we should be paying attention to and the familiar sights that pop up along the way are simply window dressing for fans to enjoy as we get there. Thus when Serenity from Firefly makes its appearance, the film opts not to dwell on it and explain its origin or significance. Instead it trusts that those who recognise it will enjoy it as it is, and those who don’t will simply have seen a cool spaceship. I think both sides are valid, which is partly why Ready Player One is such a mixed bag. While I wish I felt more of an emotional connection to this virtual world, the pleasure of spotting a reference from something you love is undeniable (I could barely stifle my laughter at the appearance of the Holy Hand Grenade).

Another way to look at it is this: does the movie work even if you don’t get 99% of the references featured? Does Ready Player One work on its own terms? Well, it depends on what you want from the film. For those looking for action and spectacle, the movie delivers. If there is one word to describe Ready Player One, it is ‘overwhelming’. Across its two-hour runtime the action is almost non-stop and often mindblowing. There is a thrilling race sequence, a surreal game of cat and mouse through the Overlook Hotel, and an epic, climatic battle that Spielberg masterfully cross-cuts with a chase in the real world. This is one of those cases where the lavish use of CGI is not only excusable, but welcome, since a virtual world such as OASIS is expected to look artificial and the action (at least when it occurs within the game) should be allowed to defy the laws of physics. Spielberg is allowed to push the boundaries of what he can get away with more than with any other film he’s ever made and the scope of his vision (along with trademark cinematographer Janusz Kamiński) is immense. However non-stop action, even when it is exceptionally well done, can only take you so far if there is nothing to engage you on an emotional level (even the two-hour car chase that was Mad Max: Fury Road had to make room for character development and compelling themes). This is where Ready Player One struggles.

As our protagonist the movie gives us Wade Wilson/Parzival, a victim of Harry Potter Syndrome (the movies, not the books) in that he is the least interesting character in his own story. He’s a blandly good-looking, brave and athletic ‘nerd’ with an encyclopaedic knowledge of pop culture and of Halliday’s life, which he employs in his quest for the hidden keys. Aiding him is Art3mis, Parzival’s equal in both knowledge and skill who, to the film’s credit, has more of a personality than just that of the love interest even if it still isn’t enough to be worthy of Cooke. With what little she’s given, Cooke proves herself capable of being both badass and sensitive and deserved a much larger role than being the object of a love story that can pretty much be reduced to male nerd wish fulfilment (a beautiful girl with low self esteem who plays video games and falls for the hero). Waithe also does well with her swaggering performance in what could have been a much more compelling role had more time been allowed for her. As an African-American woman playing an ethnically ambiguous virtual man, her character could have provided some genuinely fascinating insights about what it really means to create your own online persona. Halliday, in a strong, (intentionally) awkward and heartfelt performance by Rylance, might be the film’s only fully-realised and fleshed-out character. A subject of reverence and worship in both life and death, the film gradually shows him to be a more tragic and human character in an exploration of his past directly reminiscent of Citizen Kane.

As far as themes go, it’s clear that Ready Player One is not meant to be regarded simply as an entertaining and harmless trip down pop culture memory lane; Spielberg and Cline are trying to say something about the world as it is today and as it might be in a couple of decades. There is a message here about the internet’s capacity to bring us together but also the disconnect it can create between us and the outside world with all its problems. This is conveyed very well in one scene where we see Wade climbing his way down the trailer tower he lives in past all his neighbours whom, as we can see through their windows, are living their own virtual fantasies oblivious to everything that’s going on outside. Still, despite concluding that it is healthy and important for us to spend more time outside in the real world, the film nevertheless seems reluctant to explore the deeper flaws of the OASIS – the darker possibilities of unfiltered content and fantasies, issues with privacy and security, the toxic side of the fanboy culture that this movie so enthusiastically celebrates. The whole idea of this gamer revolution against corporate greed and authoritarianism also feels rather unconvincing coming from a multi-million dollar studio blockbuster, but might have worked had the movie been more willing to explore its own hypocrisies and contradictions.

I really did enjoy this film, all things considered. It is a fascinating film to watch, critique and discuss with others and it’s also an intriguingly relevant film for both the right and the wrong reasons. Even when it doesn’t work, it’s interesting to consider how and why it doesn’t work. Some viewers will love it for its epic expression of adoration for nerdy pop culture while others will hate it for its hollow use of 80s and 90s references to score nostalgia points. Some viewers meanwhile will enjoy Ready Player One for the thrilling blockbuster that it us while others will deride it for the empty CGI spectacle that it also is. The movie isn’t any one thing and that is both its strength and its weakness. When it comes down to it, I think Ready Player One can be looked at as an experiment in nostalgia and storytelling. Having seen the result, I think it’s a failed experiment, but an experiment that had to be made and a fascinating one all the same.

★★★

Isle of Dogs

Cast: (voiced by) Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Kunichi Nomura, Ken Watanabe, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Fisher Stevens, Nijiro Murakami, Harvey Keitel, Koyu Rankin, Liev Schreiber, Scarlett Johansson, Akira Ito, Akira Takayama, F. Murray Abraham, Yojiro Noda, Mari Natsuki, Yoko Ono, Frank Wood

Director: Wes Anderson

Writer: Wes Anderson


When someone says they’re making an animated movie about dogs, this isn’t the kind of movie you expect them to make. But then, there isn’t really anybody out there who makes movies quite like Wes Anderson. His second foray into feature-length animation after Fantastic Mr. Fox, Isle of Dogs takes us far away from the childishly delightful All Dogs Go to Heaven to a morbid fable with a twisted sense of humour and a lot of bite. There is grisly imagery throughout the film from a dog getting its ear bitten off to a human character getting a bolt stuck in his head to a school of squirming fish getting chopped up to make sushi, all making for a PG film where the PG actually means something. Yet that doesn’t necessarily mean this movie isn’t for kids. Those who can handle it will find by the end that Isle of Dogs is a surprisingly soft-hearted and even endearing movie.

The movie is set in a post-apocalyptic, futuristic Japan where an outbreak of a canine virus in the city of Megasaki leads the autocratic mayor Kobayashi to sign a decree banishing all dogs to Trash Island. The first dog to be exiled is his own orphaned nephew’s dependable dog Spots. The 12-year-old Atari, bereft for having lost his best friend, ventures to Trash Island to search for him. There he crosses paths with “a pack of scary, indestructible alpha dogs”. There’s Rex, a gutsy house dog desperate to return to his master; Duke, a gossipy hound; King, the former star of a commercial for dog food; and Boss, the mascot for a high school Baseball team. Leading them, as far as any alpha dog can lead a pack of alpha dogs, is Chief, a vicious tramp who is deeply mistrustful when it comes to humans. When the pack agrees to help Atari in his search (they take a vote on it, just like they do when faced with pretty much anything), Chief only agrees to join them at the insistence of purebred show dog Nutmeg.

One of the things that makes Isle of Dogs compelling to watch is that the story can be pretty much whatever you want it to be. If you want to look at it as an allegory for disenfranchisement where the unfortunate mutts are stand-ins for those who live in the margins of our society (or even for animals if you want to look at it in more of an animal rights kind of way), it works. If you want to watch it as the simple tale of a boy and his dog embarking on a quest together and forming an affectionate bond that transcends species and language, that also works. There is much that the film leaves open for the viewer to interpret however they see fit. While all the canine barks, growls, and howls are delivered in English, the human Japanese dialogue is left largely untranslated save the occasional interpretations of a Frances McDormand character. The intention here is for the viewer to infer the meaning through the context and emotion of the moment, though some have criticised this approach, saying that it serves to cast the Japanese characters (as opposed to all human characters) as villainous ‘others’. Considering that one of the more heroic human characters is Tracy, an American white girl voiced by Greta Gerwig who speaks English, I can understand why this route has proven problematic (although, in light of how her ultimate confrontation with Kobayshi actually turns out, I don’t agree with the notion that she is a white saviour).

What was quite clear to me is that Anderson is quite enamoured with Japanese culture and desperately wanted to convey some of its aesthetics to an American and European audience. It follows a recent tradition in children’s animation with such films as Moana, Kubo and the Two Strings, and Coco of portraying stories from non-Western cultures with histories, traditions, and values that differ from our own (with admittedly varying degrees of success). As a Brit who has never even set foot in Japan, I am far from qualified to judge whether or not Anderson’s depiction of Japan is accurate or perceptive. It seems to me however that there is a strong effort being made by Anderson to engage with Japan’s culture and to try and find that fine line between appropriation and appreciation. Kunichi Nomura, the voice of Kobayashi, shares a writing credit, the cast features a great range of Japanese names from Ken Watanabe to Yoko Ono (of all people!), and there is no shortage of identifiably Japanese imagery to point at such as taiko drums, sumo wrestlers, sushi, a mushroom cloud explosion and various nods to Akira Kurosawa. Whether what we see is simply a white Westerner’s distortion of Japan is a question I will have to leave to others, but I do believe that in order for progress to be made, honest, well-meaning efforts do have to be attempted even if there are some mistakes along the way.

As far as the visual aesthetics go, I must say that I was blown away. Anderson has distinguished himself as a terrific visual director time and time again with his love of vibrant colours and symmetry and his idiosyncratic attention to detail and his style is put on full display coupled with the splendid use of stop-motion animation. The movie has a scratchy texture that contrasts with the technical precision of his compositions and allows the setting of Trash Island and the dogs that inhabit it to feel harsh and unrefined while still also strangely elegant. The landscapes of mountains and shelters made up of multi-coloured refuse are utterly breathtaking. The movie puts particular care into the movements and mannerisms of the dogs themselves, going so far as to show their fur shuddering in the breeze, and it uses certain flourishes that enable them to feel truly active such as animating the fight scenes to look like a swirling dust cloud with random limbs sticking out like something from a children’s comic book. It’s that level of detail that enables the film to feel as remarkably physical as stop-motion animated films are uniquely able to feel.

As many people have noticed, the title is a homonym for ‘I love dogs’ and it’s essentially a promise that this movie will offer something of a love letter to the canines of the world and will appeal to all the dog lovers out there. As a lifelong dog lover myself, I think the movie delivers on that promise in spades. Not only are these mutts fun and interesting characters in their own right, but the movie is able to find much humour and heart in their canine behaviour and personality. There’s a good example of dog logic used in an exchange between Chief and Nutmeg where he asks why he should bother to help Atari and she answers, ‘because he’s a twelve year old boy, dogs love those’. The movie is a celebration of the bond that humans and dogs share and the friendship that eventually forms between Atari and Chief is as moving as it is unlikely. The film is not without it’s problems, many of them to do with the grey area between cultural appropriation and appreciation that the movie inhabits, but there is more than enough humour, style and charm to make Isle of Dogs an enjoyable watch.

★★★★

A Wrinkle in Time

Cast: Storm Reid, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Michael Peña, Zach Galifianakis, Chris Pine

Director: Ava DuVernay

Writers: Jennifer Lee, Jeff Stockwell


A Wrinkle in Time is a noble, well-intentioned film with a lot to root for. It marks the first instance of a female African-American director helming a $100 million fantasy blockbuster, it boasts a richly diverse cast, and its central message is about love and acceptance of yourselves and others. Good intentions however do not a great film make, and those intentions can even work against the film when they take precedence over story, character, sensation, and everything else that makes for great cinema. So strong is this film’s desire to celebrate liberalism and to be inspirational that it cannot help but lead its viewers by the hand at every turn and ensure that none of the morals get lost on them. The film is quite clearly targeted at a young audience of 6 to 12 year olds and isn’t embarrassed about it (nor should it be), yet it doesn’t seem to trust them enough to rely on their own imaginations and to learn the lessons through inference. The movie spoon-feeds us its rhetoric so forcefully that its message of empowerment and affirmation loses all power and meaning, making for an unfulfilling watch.

The film tells the story of 13-year-old Meg Murray (Storm Reid), an introverted teenage girl with low self-esteem. She possesses a curious, inquisitive mind and an unfathomable fascination with the world around her that she shares with her scientist father Dr. Alexander Murray (Chris Pine), who disappeared without a trace four years ago. Since then Meg has lived a withdrawn and lonely life; she underperforms at school, has no friends to speak of, and she lashes out when attacked by her bully Veronica (Rowan Blanchard). While Meg and her mother Kate (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) continue to mourn their loss, her prodigious, six-year-old adopted brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), relentless in his optimism, provides a source of joy and comfort for them both. These early scenes are the most affective in the whole movie as we get a strong sense of the affection that Meg shares with her family and of her adolescent troubles.

Meg soon learns that her father is still alive and that he has been lost in space ever since solving the mystery of the tesseract, a mode of travel that can cross dimensions. She, Charles Wallace, and would-be boyfriend Calvin O’Keefe (Levi Miller) are invited to help search for him by three celestial beings. These are Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), a scatter-brained, unearthly woman who hasn’t quite mastered keeping her thoughts to herself, Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), who speaks only in quotations attributed to such great thinkers and artists of the world as Shakespeare, Buddha, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, and the all-knowing Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), who towers over everybody else and looks as regal as a deity played by Oprah ought to look. She reveals that Meg’s father is trapped on the planet Camazotz, home of the dark force known as the IT, and that it is up to Meg to find and rescue him in a journey across time and space.

The adventure that follows however doesn’t feel very adventurous. Meg doesn’t so much set out on a quest as she does get carried along one (by a flying lettuce creature no less), get told what to do, and be reminded at every turn about how special and extraordinary she is. Even when Meg, Charles Wallace and Calvin must make it on their own in the third act, the conclusion still feels far too easy considering the universe-shaking, existence-threatening stakes that were set up. It would be like if Frodo simply flew to Mordor on the back of an eagle with Sam and Gandalf showering him with praise and support the whole way and then ultimately defeated Sauron by learning to love himself. I get that A Wrinkle in Time isn’t trying to be The Lord of the Rings, but the point is that in order for a story with a quest to feel like an adventure, a journey with obstacles and trials has to actually take place. There is no sense of urgency propelling them from place to place and no tension in the tasks they must complete. The movie is instead so focused on validating Meg as a heroine and making sure that the children who relate to her are empowered by her victory that it neglects to make the journey itself all that interesting.

If the intention was for Meg to be a passive participant in a fantastical voyage like Alice or Dorothy that would be one thing, but here she is built up to be a chosen one upon whose shoulders the fate of the world rests. “Be a warrior”, says Mrs. Which, obviously not intended in a literal Joan of Arc sense but rather in an emotional sense, yet still a role that requires Meg to be more assertive and active than she’s allowed to be. The film doesn’t seem to trust that Meg’s positive qualities will make themselves evident to the viewer if displayed through actions and instead must assure us whenever possible that she is a great person capable of great things. Even when her wits and scientific know-how actually help to get them out of a spot when they’re caught up in a twister, the movie still has to stop for a second so that Calvin can remark on how incredible Meg is. Reid for her part delivers a remarkably confident performance and does a terrific job of showcasing Meg as the complex and flawed character that she is. I wish this film showed half as much confidence in depicting her arc.

What’s equally as disheartening is that the film’s visuals and style are shockingly weak given what DuVernay has proven herself capable of crafting as a director with films like Selma. There are some neat looking visuals such as the designs of the three Mrs. Ws and the orange corridor where Dr. Murray is trapped, but then there are others that just look bland and unoriginal. The dark forest where the kids wind up upon reaching Camazotz looks like any other foreboding forest you’ve ever seen. The use of CGI in the cave in the scene with the balancing stones and with the aforementioned flying lettuce creature is so fake looking that they could’ve been lifted straight out of a Disney Channel TV Movie. Even when we get a nice-looking setting like on the planet with the resplendent grass, shimmering lake, and colourful flowers, we don’t get to appreciate them much because DuVernay makes continuous use of tightly framed medium and close-up shots with seldom an establishing shot. The staging of each scene is often so awkward that it almost seems like some of the performers are acting in different films. It was only in the creepy, nightmarish neighbourhood scene where we see a row of children bouncing their basketballs in unison that I was reminded of what a great director DuVernay can actually be.

I really did want to like this film because I like what it’s trying to be. I like the message that it wants to convey, I like that it takes chances and risks and tries to do something a little different, and I like cast and crew involved. Winfrey, Kaling and Witherspoon are still fun to watch even in their roles as glorified exposition spouters, Pine continues to prove himself the most versatile of the Hollywood Chrises, and Reid is a star in the making. There’s even a fun Zach Galifianakis cameo to enjoy. I did find Charles Wallace pretty insufferable, but a lot of people seem to like him so maybe that’s just me. A Wrinkle in Time however is simply not a good film. The story is incoherent and not compelling, there isn’t nearly enough style to make up for the lack of substance, and the liberal ‘believe in yourself’ rhetoric is so constant, generic, and is hammered in so much that the ultimate lesson loses whatever power it might have had in the original L’Engle novel (which I have not read). I suppose the film is fun enough that it might work alright for its target audience, especially those who aren’t used to seeing themselves represented on screen, and maybe for them that’ll be enough. All that I, a 25-year-old white guy, can really say is that it didn’t work for me.

★★