Onward

Cast: (voiced by) Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer

Director: Dan Scanlon

Writers: Dan Scanlon, Keith Bunin, Jason Headley


One of the problems of attaining as high a batting average as Pixar has in the 25 years since Toy Story first captured our imaginations is that when anything falls even a couple of inches short, it inevitably feels like a disappointment. Had this film been made by DreamWorks, I’d have deemed it to be on par for them. Had it been made by Illumination, I’d be hailing it as their single greatest achievement by a mile and a half. For a studio that has previously taken the world by storm with such emotional, profound and visually daring original films as Ratatouille, Up, and WALL-E however, Onward feels light and tame in comparison. This past decade for Pixar, one in which seven of their eleven releases resulted in sequels and prequels, has led to a prevailing sense that the animation giant is losing its creative edge. Of their four most recent original releases, Brave, Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur, and Coco, two rank amongst the most moving and breathtaking films in all of American animation while the other two, having suffered turbulent productions, were mixed bags (I trust that I don’t need to clarify which films are which). The fact that Onward is to be the first of two original releases this year (barring global pandemics) would contest the idea that Pixar is losing faith in its original output were it not a film that played things so safely.

Onward certainly doesn’t feel like it’s a compromised version of the movie that Monsters University director Don Scanlon set out to make. There is a clarity to its vision, the world they’ve created is brimming with character and inventiveness, and the story feels wholly personal to those who wrote it. The problem isn’t with the movie’s execution but with its ambition; instead of shooting for the moon, it feels like Scanlon and his team were perfectly content to simply fly in its general direction. It’s a colourful and pleasant film with much to enjoy, but it isn’t much more than that. There’s nothing to match the delight of watching WALL-E and EVE dancing in space, the tragedy of the opening minutes of Up, or the profundity of Joy giving way to Sadness. This movie doesn’t take any bold risks, it doesn’t push the limits of what’s possible in its own reality, nor does it really go all that deep with its characterisation. Onward aspires to be nothing more and nothing less than a fun and pleasing family film and it is by all means a success; whatever flaws it might possess, this is a film that fundamentally works on its own terms. Because it bears the Pixar banner though, its successes cannot help but feel mild.

The story is that of brothers Ian and Barley Lightfoot, two pointy-eared, purple-skinned elves living a suburban life with their mother. Their father died before Ian was born and both boys have been shaped by his absence and what scant few memories they have of the old man. Ian, a shy and awkward teen, has none of the confidence he’s been told his father had in spades and Barley, a burly layabout with an obsession for fantasy and role play, has none of his drive. On the day of his 16th birthday, Ian is gifted with a memento that the Dad had left for his sons before his death: a magical staff with a special crystal and a spell that’ll allow the boys to resurrect him for one day. You see, this is a realm where magic used to be the way of life. It was so difficult to master however that it eventually fell out of use in favour of such modern luxuries as electricity and automobiles. Barley, an avid player of Quests of Yore, this Dungeons & Dragons style game based on their real-life history, knows all about how magic is supposed to work and talks Ian into giving it a try. The spell goes awry however and only half of it is completed before the crystal is shattered. What’s left when all the smoke clears is half of the man that their father used to be (by which I mean his bottom half).

While Pixar films tend to be set in our own world, or at least that we can more or less recognise as our own, Onward takes its cue from WALL-E and Monsters Inc. by transporting us to a whole other realm. It is effectively our own world in that it’s set in a suburban town and inhabited by people who wear T-shirts and jeans and use mobile phones, but the houses they live in are these domesticated giant mushrooms and the townsfolk include centaurs, manticores and fairies. It’s like Bright, only with some actual imagination put into it and no ill conceived, heavy-handed attempts at an allegory for racism. They similarly stay well clear of Shrek territory by keeping brand and pop-culture references to an absolute minimum and by not playing any songs by Smash Mouth. The movie is comfortable keeping things light and playing around with slapstick, especially where the Dad’s legs are concerned, but the kinds of snarky, self-referential one-liners that typically typify these kinds of comical modern-fantasy kid’s movies are thankfully absent. The movie instead allows its world to simply present itself to the audience on its own terms; a world where elves, goblins and queer cyclopes (of which there is one by virtue of a throwaway line that will be cut for Russian and Chinese screenings)  work mundane jobs, dragons are kept as pets, and wings are no longer used for flying. The world doesn’t feel as vast or as lived in as in previous Pixar titles, but it has its charms.

At times the characterisation of the world can be too broad to make it feel like a real, distinguishable place and the same goes for the characters. Ian and Barley are more archetypes than people, one as the spindly introvert who cannot bring himself to try anything because he’s afraid of his own shadow and the other as the extroverted, well-intentioned doofus who keeps screwing up. There are one or two reversals such as with Barley, who is made out to be a jock but instead turns out to be a hardcore fantasy nerd, and they’re likeable enough to carry the film but there isn’t enough specificity to their personalities for them to come into their own before the third act. When we reach that point and the overall themes of the film really start to take shape, we get a far better idea of who the brothers are supposed to be and what they’re supposed to mean to each other. While the groundwork for the emotional payoff they’re going for is established well enough for the conclusion to feel appropriate, it would have been more satisfying had the focal point been more pronounced throughout. A few too many callbacks have to be made in order to inspire the emotions we should have already been feeling and by the time we really start to get invested the movie has already reached its climax and is getting ready to wrap things up.

Still, for a straightforward fantasy family adventure, Onward delivers. Drawing much of its inspiration from such tabletop role-play games of the 1980s as D&D, the movie often feels like one of those campaigns in all of the right ways. Along their way to find a legendary gem to replace the one that was shattered, Ian and Barley must brave foes, improve their skills, solve puzzles, evade capture, collect items and, most importantly, learn to work together. There’s a lot to role-playing games that appeals to players and keeps them coming back; there’s the thirst for adventure, the feeling of progression, the immersive experience. More than that, it’s the sense of community. It’s about going on a journey with your friends and having a good time along the way. Onward understands this well. There’s a scene in the middle where Daddy Long Legs (sorry not sorry) feels the vibration of the music playing in the car and takes a moment to dance along and tap his sons in to join him. It’s a moment that captures what goofy fun these kinds of games can be if you’re prepared to just go along with whatever happens and not take anything too seriously. In the same way that The LEGO Movie gets a pass with some clichés and flaws because of how it all takes place in an eight-year-old’s imagination, so does Onward for how often it feels like a couple of teenagers playing a role-play board game with each other.

This can however be a fault where stakes are concerned. We get that there’s a personal weight to this adventure, namely that Ian and Barley need to find the crystal and complete the spell before sunset or else they’ll lose their one chance to spend some time with their father. For what is supposed to at least evoke, if not outright be, an epic quest, the pair face few obstacles along the way. Even the big boss they battle at the end feels more like an inconvenience than it does an antagonist. With the exception of one scene that draws a bit from the leap of faith scene in The Last Crusade (there is a lot of Spielberg in this movie), it rarely feels like the characters are ever in any genuine danger. This is more likely a feature than a bug considering that the film is set in suburbia and all the boys are really trying to do is drive their van up a hill in search of treasure, but it still feels like the stakes are lower than they should be. In Inside Out, all Joy wanted to do was get back to headquarters to make Riley happy again, but the journey there was such an urgent and emotional one because we cared so deeply about her and the other characters (Bing Bong, my heart goes out to you). The ending to this film is a sweet one that inspires relief, but not much else. But then, maybe it doesn’t need to. Not every movie can be Inside Out and not every film by Pixar needs to.

★★★★

The Invisible Man

Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Harriet Dyer, Michael Dorman, Oliver Jackson-Cohen

Director: Leigh Whannell

Writer: Leigh Whannell


Martin Scorsese once said that film is a matter of what’s in the frame and what isn’t. A movie isn’t just about what you can see in front of you, it’s just as much about what you can’t see; it’s about the implication of what exists within, behind and beyond the frame. A good filmmaker can therefore take a character whose defining characteristic is that they cannot be seen and still make their depiction cinematic. It isn’t about computer effects or moving things around with wires or magnets; it’s all about the framing. The placement of the camera, the subtlest of changes in focus, the slightest pans, tilts and zooms; all are employed by director Leigh Whannell (of the Saw and Insidious franchises) to bring to life the covert villain of H.G. Wells’ 1897 novel. This movie is rife with wide shots that have you imagining whether some entity could be hidden in plain sight and these pregnant pauses that have you listening intently for creaks in the floorboards, the turning of door handles, and light breathing. There are scenes where the mise-en-scène consists of nothing more than plain, empty rooms that nevertheless still manage to inspire anxiety and dread because of how they’ve been framed. Not since A Quiet Place have I seen a horror film elicit such tension from such restrained and skilful uses of basic cinematic techniques.

That’s just part of what makes The Invisible Man such a good film. Another is the smart, contemporary spin that brings the Victorian bogeyman straight into the 21st century. While domestic abuse has of course existed for as long as there have been domestic partnerships, it has never been as seriously treated or as widely discussed as it has in light of the #MeToo movement. Premiering just days after Harvey Weinstein’s conviction on two felony charges, the timing for a film that deals explicitly with the harms of sexual harassment and abuse, the perversity of powerful men exercising control over women, and the unbearable horror of not being believed has never felt more appropriate. By turning the Invisible Man into an aggrieved and vindictive ex-boyfriend bent on terrorising the traumatised survivor of his abuse, the movie constructs this wonderfully astute metaphor for how helpless a victim can truly feel when suffering such violent mistreatment at the hands of their partner, how difficult it is to escape and heal from the physical and emotional scars inflicted, and just how invisible such abuse can be to those looking in from the outside. It works because it feels of the moment while still capturing an experience that is sadly all too universal, the mark of any timeless work of fiction.

The very first scene, which has Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) fleeing the home of her boyfriend Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), wastes no time in preparing us for the horrific experiences to come. Having drugged him with Diazepam, her fear that any kind of noise or sudden movement might wake him up means that she must conduct her every step, breath and action with the utmost caution. The house is a high-tech estate perched on a hill, as befits a giant in the tech world. Made up of these huge, empty spaces and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the roaring sea, it’s a house that offers few hiding places. Surrounded by a stone wall and monitored with security cameras, it is a conceited shrine to its owner’s flagrant narcissism and irrepressible will to control just as it is a prison to the woman whom he cannot allow to be free from his grasp even as they sleep. With each passing moment her escape attempt, one that she has clearly been planning for a long time, gets more and more desperate. Around every corner and behind every barrier she keeps expecting to see her abuser, awake and enraged. As she scrambles into her sister’s car and gets clear of her pursuing captor, it plays out almost like the girl getting away from Leatherface at the end of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, only without the catharsis. For her, the horror is just beginning.

Even in a safe house with her friend James (Aldis Hodge) and his teen daughter Sydney (Storm Reid) weeks later, Cecilia still hasn’t fully escaped Adrian. After the terror he has instilled within her she can barely set foot outside the house, as if he were lurking in the shadows just waiting for her to let her guard down. James and Sydney are more sensitive and patient with Cecilia while her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer) takes more of a tough love approach; in both cases though, it’s clear that none of them can fully grasp the extent of the psychological trauma Cecilia has suffered from what had long since ceased to be anything resembling a relationship. Even when she hears the news from Adrian’s brother and lawyer Tom (Michael Dorman) that her boyfriend has committed suicide, she can hardly dare to believe it. With Adrian out of her life for good and the unexpected news that she stands to inherit $5 million, it looks like things will finally get better for Cecilia and that she might begin to heal. But then these inexplicable things start happening around her. A meal that she leaves on the stove catches on fire. The portfolio she packed for a job interview goes missing. She faints and is taken to the hospital to learn that she has a high level of Diazepam in her system. As she starts to lose her grip on reality, the thought that some ethereal presence is near and watching her at all times starts eating away at her.

The Invisible Man often feels like a spiritual remake of Gaslight, a film about a domineering man who terrorises and manipulates a woman into doubting her own thoughts and senses. When Cecilia determines that Adrian must have faked his death and has now somehow found a way to turn himself invisible so that he might stalk and punish her for leaving him, she cannot convince anybody else to believe her. She’s not even sure she can believe it herself; the years of damage she has suffered have made her incapable of thinking logically or rationally. She spends every waking second in frantic paranoia, never knowing where or how he might strike next. What the film captures here so masterfully is the experience of being haunted by trauma and abuse. To those on the outside, Cecilia is obviously struggling to move on from her torment but is otherwise safe. To Cecilia however the abuse is still happening just as viscerally and intensely as it ever was and moreover she’s being made to feel like she is crazy for her inability to stop it. As for Adrian, the movie captures in him the phenomenon of the invisible abuser. As we see him continue to torture Cecilia free from obstruction, it cannot be ignored that the film has chosen to portray Adrian has a rich, handsome, charming (and let’s not forget white) man, a state of enormous privilege. Bystanders don’t see him for the abuser that he is, either from innocent blindness or wilful ignorance, and so nobody steps in to protect Cecilia from his wrath.

One of the film’s most ingenious ideas was choosing to shift the focus away from the titular character, in contrast to such previous adaptations as the 1933 Claude Rains film, and placing it instead on his victim. It is through her eyes that we see and experience the Invisible Man and the horror is more palpable because of it. Of course it wouldn’t work half as well without a star like Elisabeth Moss to sell it with every pained expression and cry of anguish. There’s more going on in her performance than an imperilled woman being brutalised by a monster; there’s an actual character that you care about beneath it all. Even before the scares kick in, Moss convinces you of this PTSD-stricken wretch who is resigned to believing that she won’t ever feel safe again no matter how far away she gets. There’s a strong element of Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby to her portrayal of a tormented soul who cannot tell whether what they’re experiencing is real or not. The film operates more on feelings than on logic and Moss does the same in ways both blatant and subtle. One of the reasons the movie manages to make its antagonist as intimidating as he is while making minimal use of special effects is because Moss’ expressions do such a great job of convincing us of the danger she’s in.

The film lost me a bit in the third act when its villain becomes a little too larger than life. Here the movie turns into more of a thriller than a horror and loses a lot of its personality and emotional resonance because of it. It was a little like with 10 Cloverfield Lane where it spent most of its time as a particular kind of movie only to become something entirely different almost out of nowhere. There is a compelling and satisfying ending to be had when all is said and done that can be read as either bleak or cathartic depending on the viewer, but it still feels like it took a little contrivance and whiplash to get there. Whannell, who wrote the film as well as directing it, reveals that it is in the latter where his greatest strengths lie and thankfully it is more than enough to make The Invisible Man a worthwhile watch. The scares are economical and effective, Moss’ performance is stunning, and the underlying themes make it the most essential and appropriate movie of 2020 thus far. When I think of the Johnny Depp starring action blockbuster that we most likely would have got had The Mummy succeeded in launching the Dark Universe, I am overjoyed that this is the movie we got instead.

★★★★

Like a Boss

Cast: Tiffany Haddish, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Coolidge, Natasha Rothwell, Billy Porter, Salma Hayek

Director: Miguel Arteta

Writers: Sam Pitman, Adam Cole-Kelly


The more time that goes by, the more bored I get with the slate of big studio American comedies that gets released each year. There was a time, not even as long as a decade ago, when the Hollywood machine would reliably churn out at least a couple of reasonably funny, broadly appealing, traditional comedy films, The Hangover and Bridesmaids for instance, and make a killing at the box office. Nowadays the best comedies being made in the USA are either indies such as The Big Sick and Booksmart or genre films like Thor: Ragnarok and Knives Out. There could be any number of reasons for this slump from the rise of online streaming services and Peak TV to the possibility that the archetypal American comedy is becoming a harder sell in international markets compared to the increasingly popular superhero blockbuster. Judd Apatow, when asked about this topic, has held that audiences always have and always will go to the theatres to watch good movies, so perhaps the real issue is one of quality. That’s a thought I find myself inclined to agree with when watching films such as this. Like a Boss, a Paramount comedy, is yet another of these Hollywood farces that takes on an ensemble of talented actors and has them perform semi-improvised raunchy bits in lieu of actual, substantive jokes. Words can barely describe how bored I am of these kinds of movies, but what the heck I’ll give it a go.

The film is about two besties named Mia (Tiffany Haddish) and Mel (Rose Byrne) who have known each other since elementary school and have been inseparable ever since Mia and her mother took Mel in from her broken home. The two have grown up together, but they haven’t really grown up all that much if you get my meaning. As adults they still live their lives as if it were a non-stop college party; staying up until the early hours, smoking pot, hooking up with young men, you get the idea. In between they run a mildly successful beauty company with their colourful employees Sydney (Jennifer Coolidge) and Barrett (Billy Porter). While the two are more or less happy with their shared life, they could do without the passive-aggressive disapproval of their family-orientated friends and the debt they’ve accumulated could ruin their business if something doesn’t change soon. Enter Claire Luna (Salma Hayek), a fashion and cosmetics mogul with a fake tan, tight dress, and oversized heels, to make them an offer they cannot refuse. Claire wants to acquire Mia&Mel, bring the budding entrepreneurs into her business network, and have them develop a hot new product. Mel is desperate to take her up and save their business, but Mia is less convinced that surrendering sole control of their company is a good idea. They soon agree, unknowingly playing into Claire’s plan to drive them apart and steal their business out from under them.

So that’s the premise for this purported comedy. It isn’t anything substantial but there’s enough there for them to work with that the movie ought not to lack for comic material. Or so I would have thought. Like a Boss barely got so much as a titter out of me because somewhere along the way screenwriters Sam Pitman and Adam Cole-Kelly forgot to write some actual jokes. Following the examples of Neighbours and Bad Moms, this is a movie that mistakes bawdiness for hilarity, obscenity for edginess, and juvenility with trendiness. Simply being vulgar is one thing, some viewers may well find the joke cake styled to look like a baby’s head emerging from a bloody vagina to be funny, but what made the film such a drag was how tediously lame it constantly was. One scene has Mia saying something to the effect of “Don’t worry your pretty little head about it” to Claire. She replies, “My head is not little, it’s just that my breasts are humungous”. Ernst Lubitsch would be rolling in his grave if he could read that line. There’s some potential for comedy there, as there is throughout much of the movie, but the writers don’t seem to care enough to so much as try and be clever or creative about it. All the humour amounts to is a bunch of single entendres delivered by lazy stereotypes with barefaced banality.

Well, not all; there are a couple of slapstick set-pieces as in one scene where Mia accidentally consumes some hot peppers, but they’re so one-note and narrowly-conceived that the actors have to muster superhuman levels of commitment in order to salvage them. Haddish and Byrne, the respective stars of the similarly styled yet infinitely funnier Girls Night and Bridesmaids, do sell you on their ride together/die together BFF chemistry but there’s only so much they can bring to a movie that doesn’t know what to do with them beyond their most surface-level comedic tendencies. Haddish plays the loud and boisterous one and Byrne plays the anxious and insecure one. Together they stumble along this awkward middle ground between being intelligent and talented enough to be competent make-up artists and designers while also being clueless and immature enough that they struggle with some pretty basic tasks. This clumsy characterisation is another reason why few of the ‘jokes’ land. Hayek meanwhile plays a stereotypical boss lady whose accent is made subject to a recurring gag and whose looks, not her confidence, ruthlessness or ambition, are made her defining feature (and not in a self-aware way either). Porter gets the biggest laugh of all in the scene where his character is fired, a “tragic moment” that he milks like the drama queen that he is. These are all actors who are capable of being tremendously funny and they deserve better.

To be honest we all deserve better than Like a Boss, a movie that operates on the assumption that there’s something inherently funny about women behaving as crudely and obnoxiously as stereotypical men. Whether it’s about men, women, or people of other genders, I’m tired of sitting through films that masquerade as comedies while refusing to put any effort into constructing their humour beyond having their characters act like reprobates and fools and spouting expletives and vulgarisms as if they are intrinsically funny in and of themselves. There’s even a cheap attempt made to pass this film off as some sort of coarse testament to the complexity and sanctity of female friendships, but it rings hollow in a movie that treats women as caricatures (for a truly profound and hysterical take on female friendships with Tiffany Haddish, go onto Netflix and watch Tuca & Bertie). This is nothing more and nothing less than the same tired comedy film that the major Hollywood studios continue to spit out year after year because they seemingly cannot think of any other way to make them. In the end it doesn’t really matter how much I like the stars, how harmless the humour is, or how funny these films can be at fleeting moments; American studio comedies have lost their way and I barely have the patience for them any more.

★★

The Call of the Wild

Cast: Harrison Ford, Omar Sy, Dan Stevens, Karen Gillan, Bradley Whitford

Director: Chris Sanders

Writer: Michael Green


The Call of the Wild by Jack London is, as the title would suggest, the story of a civilised dog reverting to the more primitive, instinctual nature of its species, the descendants of wolves, in order to survive the perils of the wild. The Call of the Wild, the 2020 film directed by Chris Sanders, is the tale of an adventure shared by a man and his dog and the intrinsic bond they form along the way. The movie does make several references to this theme of ancestral memory and the innate animal nature of domesticated beasts but there is a whole chasm of difference between a film stating its themes and actually living up to them. It’s the reason why a war film that claims to be anti-war while still depicting scenes of battle in thrilling or glorious ways (Hacksaw Ridge comes to mind) rings hollow. Film is first and foremost a visual medium which is why the visual storytelling always trumps whatever is in the script. On paper The Call of the Wild can be read as a story that is thematically in keeping with the Jack London book, but on screen it is to difficult to reconcile Buck’s embrace of his natural, primal spirit with a CGI design that has been devised to make him feel more human than animal.

Buck is an oversized hound living a comfy life in late 19th century California with the wealthy Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford) as his master. He’s well liked around the small town, for the most part, but he has a wild streak that nobody has ever been able to tame. The ground trembles with his every step, stray rabbits send him into a frenzy, and it seems that even the judge’s stately manor and tracts of land aren’t enough to contain him. Now, this is at the height of the Klondike Gold Rush where big, strong dogs were in high demand to pull sleds for prospectors and so Buck is kidnapped (dognapped?) and shipped to the Yukon to be sold off. Confused, afraid, and totally out of his element, Buck is made privy for the first time in his life to the cruelties of the outside world as he suffers beatings and malnourishment at the hands of his captors. As Buck is bought and passed on between multiple owners, including the French-Canadian courier Perrault (Omar Sy) and his partner Françoise (Cara Gee), a rich and cruel gold hunter called Hal (Dan Stevens), and finally the dejected John Thornton (Harrison Ford), he grows accustomed to life in the northern wilds and proves himself an adept sled dog, a worthy pack leader, and a faithful friend. The further Buck gets from civilisation, the more he feels the call of a force greater than himself beckoning him onwards.

This film marks the live-action debut for Sanders, whose previous credits include such animations as Lilo & Stitch and How to Train Your Dragon. The influence his previous work has had is present in his construction of the film’s reality, which often feels more like a cartoon than real life. The physics of the universe is loose enough that it allows an elasticity in Buck’s movements; he can swing as swiftly and agilely as a Jellicle Cat, leap overwhelmingly improbable heights, and tumble with exaggerated heaviness. Then there’s the animated design of the dogs which departs from the Disney model of expressionless photorealism into something a bit more anthropomorphic that shoves the film straight into the uncanny valley. The movie is grounded enough in reality that the animals never talk verbally to one another, but otherwise their methods of expression and communication are so sophisticated and complex that they thrust the film straight into the realm of fantasy. Buck can express scepticism, amusement or concern with just a raise of his eyebrow, carry out intricate conversations and disputes with the other dogs through looks and barks, and even has a concept of honour and morality that he adheres to throughout. This would be easier to go along with in a fully animated film where there is more room for animals to receive humanised depictions, but in this live-action film Buck’s portrayal is just clumsy and awkward because he never comes across as a real dog.

The first half of the film is this odd mismatch of tones as we’re treated to quite a sobering, harsh tale of animalistic survival (toned down by Disney for a PG rating of course) with flights of whimsy and slapstick hijinks scattered throughout. One second we have Buck playfully chasing a rabbit in a decidedly non-lethal manner, the next he’s fighting for his life in a rather vicious duel with a rival dog, and the next moment after that we’re invited to stare in awe at his spiritual ascendancy to a state of bestial heritage. There’s a way to make these contrasting ideas work in harmony, but the movie’s inability to reconcile its family-friendly leanings and over-animated hero to the grittier and more mystical elements at play, including a shadowy wolf that appears before Buck as the manifestation of his call to the wild, doesn’t come close. Things do pick up in the second half where we get to enjoy some picturesque scenes of the Yukon landscape and Harrison Ford’s most sensitive performance in years. As a mourning father attempting to escape his woes, whether through the cold or the bottle, Ford is more vulnerable than his usual roles as rogues, vigilantes and heroes have ever allowed him to be and he sells it with every weighted line delivery and gentle yet wounded smile.

The world really didn’t need another movie of the Disney mode with its cutesy computer-animated characters and saturated schmaltz. In fact, a film that could offer children the kind of darkness and bite that animated movies in the 1980s were wont to offer (back when ‘Parental Guidance’ actually meant something) while also allowing for the kind of quiet contemplation you get in Studio Ghibli movies would have been a welcome break indeed. The Call of the Wild doesn’t trust its audience enough to be that kind of film however and instead chooses to keep things light with easy morals, slapstick humour, and a moustache-twirling villain. There is some charm to be had in watching a soft-hearted Harrison Ford bonding with a dog and beholding some of the wonders of the wild, but there are larger ideas behind this film that it never has the nerve to try and explore. When the movie looks like it might show something genuinely daring, it steps back and takes the easier, lighter path instead. There’s a scene where Buck and John must brave these ferocious rapids in their little canoe en route to their destination. Yet despite being knocked to and fro by the waves and barely maintaining control in their descent down the waterfall, John gets not one drop of water on him. While you may believe that there are dangers to be faced in the wilds, you won’t for a second believe that these characters are actually in danger until in the third act when it becomes clear that the story is going to end in a certain way. Ultimately, that’s all this movie really is: harmless.

★★

Emma.

Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Josh O’Connor, Callum Turner, Mia Goth, Miranda Hart, Bill Nighy

Director: Autumn de Wilde

Writer: Eleanor Catton


If your familiarity with Austen derives mostly from having watched adaptations of her work (as mine does), there’s a good chance you think of her as the author of these rather swoony, Georgian-era romances between passionate heroines and dashing rogues. It wasn’t until I watched 2016’s Love & Friendship, based on a little-known novella of hers, that I actually learned of what a wit she really was and how interlaced with satire her words truly were. There was a film that not only understood how foppish many of its characters were or the absurdities of their daily struggles but that positively revelled in it. That brand of sharp, ironic comedy is seldom present in the filmed versions of her work; one where it most certainly was is what is probably the most well-known and beloved adaptation of what was to be Austen’s final novel, Amy Heckerling’s Clueless. The “clever, rich and handsome” Emma, was reimagined as a well-meaning but self-obsessed high school Valley Girl in a movie that demonstrated, perhaps better than any other contemporary take on her work, how timely Austen’s morals and sensibilities can still be to a modern audience. The movie’s update on Austen was successful precisely because it played on that frivolity while still remaining at all times utterly sincere. Autumn de Wilde’s Emma. is a success for the exact same reason.

Starring Anya-Taylor Joy of The Witch and Split as the titular heroine, de Wilde’s take on Emma. is both comical and romantic in equal measure. Emma is a young and beautiful heiress living with her neurotic father Mr. Woodhouse (Bill Nighy) on their picturesque estate in the village of Highbury. The whole village reveres her as a queen; a paragon of wealth, beauty and grace who can do no wrong. Most of the village anyway. Her neighbour Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), whose brother is married to Emma’s sister, regards her more with amusement than admiration and doesn’t mind expressing his disapproval of her more wilful nature. Emma is spoiled and self-absorbed and her favourite pastime when confronted with the tedium of luxury is meddling in the lives of those within her social circle and playing Cupid. After her latest triumph comes to fruition with the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Weston (Rupert Graves and Gemma Whelan), she sets her sights on the naïve and comely schoolgirl Harriet Smith (Mia Goth) and resolves to take her on as a friend in her mission to find her a husband. Believing that only a gentleman of a certain class will do, Emma dissuades Harriet of her crush on Robert Martin (Connor Swindells), a humble farm boy, and instead enamours her towards Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor), the new town vicar. What Emma sees as a benevolent and harmless matchmaking scheme turns awry as her poor judgement and duplicity result in some hard-felt consequences.

While most of the characters are either blind or indulgent of Emma’s faults, the film makes them plain to the audience. In our introduction to her in the opening scene, we watch as she drifts whimsically around her father’s estate in the dusk of a new day and gazes at the blossoms in the garden while bossily commanding a maid to cut the exact ones she wants for her bouquet. We get a clear sense here of a woman, not yet 21, who has lived a carefree life of unmitigated privilege and whose greatest problem is the irrepressible, existential boredom of wallowing in one’s wealth day in and day out. The film isn’t unsympathetic to her, far from it, but it recognises her all too well as having “a disposition to think a little too well of herself” and doesn’t mind poking fun at her because of it. Much of the comedy comes from this discrepancy between what Emma self-satisfyingly thinks she knows and what she all too clearly and obliviously doesn’t understand. She is a fool throughout much of the film, but a likeable one thanks to her earnestness, charm and wit. When the film is critical of her, it’s because she has caused harm to another by acting selfishly and cruelly, wrongdoings for which she is made to atone.

Taylor-Joy, complete with a stylish wardrobe and a set of impeccable curls, plays Emma with both a grace and a severity befitting the razor-sharp screenplay that Booker-Prize winner Eleanor Catton has written. Her iteration of the character is a little less Cher Horowitz and a little more Regina George; her words and actions are more calculated and she maintains an ever hard, ice-cold exterior. Yet, as her façade cracks more and more, we see that there is a warmth and a generosity of spirit to her character. While she initially takes the innocent Harriet under her wing as something of a charity case, it becomes clear that their friendship is one Emma grows to value most deeply. De Wilde is good at letting the actor’s faces do the talking at many of the film’s most critical moments through wounded and withering looks and Taylor-Joy in particular shines as a remarkably expressive performer. Some praise must also be reserved for Goth, who is utterly endearing in the role and who plays her innocence and sensitivity to wonderful effect both comically and dramatically, and Nighy, whose idiosyncratic quirks are splendidly employed throughout. In fact the entire ensemble, which includes Callum Turner as Frank Churchill, a suave potential suitor whom Emma cannot see for the cad that he is, and Miranda Hart as the cartoonishly over-talkative Miss Bates, does a formidable job.

While set in the early 19th century, the time of the novel’s publication, Emma. is a film that has been written and designed to appeal to modern sensibilities. All one could want from an elegant costume drama is there from the serene landscape to the stately manors to the ornate apparel, but it’s all so exaggerated what with the oversized collars, farcical facial expressions and the extent to which the servants of the household are treated as furniture, that it comes across as very tongue in cheek. Every little gesture and ornament is so greatly embellished that no detail seems too small or insignificant in the social landscape of Highbury. The world these characters all inhabit is one where a single look, act or statement can have an unquantifiable effect on one’s social standing, the only thing that matters in the slightest, which is why they all must take pains to conduct themselves with the utmost deliberation. While Yorgos Lanthimos saw fit to satirise these kinds of customs by warping them into a grotesquely surreal form in The Favourite, de Wilde favours a more quaint, almost cheeky depiction that allows for the film to be both charming and self-effacing. There’s also a seductive quality to this film that’s played in a rather coy, teasing way; the romance is as polite and chaste as Austen adaptations are ever wont to be, but little by little the film will drop these little nods and winks that, much like in a Hollywood screwball comedy, playfully tune us in on what’s really going on.

Emma. is shot with a rich and sumptuous colour palette that almost looks like it could inhabit the same universe as Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. This does wonders to complement the many elaborate and textured costumes on display, including in one scene that has Mr. Knightley being stripped of one outfit and clothed in another, revealing the amount of care and detail that went into making each article. There’s also a certain theatricality in the arrangement of the actors and framing of each scene befitting a story in which each character seems to be constantly putting on some sort of performance for the benefit of those in their company. This is enhanced by the music that is structured, note for note it seems, around each character and every action they perform, almost as if they were all engaged in some elaborate ballet. Thus does de Wilde, in her directorial debut no less, provide a film that feels like it has been immaculately composed right down to the last detail. Every shot feels deliberate and each frame looks like it belongs in a gallery. Even when the style can sometimes feel a little stoic or staid or the tone a little artificial, the actors still carry us through and ensure that the movie’s comedic and emotional merits are preserved.

★★★★

Sonic the Hedgehog

Cast: Ben Schwartz, James Marsden, Tika Sumpter, Jim Carrey

Director: Jeff Fowler

Writers: Pat Casey, Josh Miller


Sonic the Hedgehog didn’t get off to a great start last year when the first trailer dropped and revealed its much-derided design of the titular speedster, complete with photorealistic blue fur, a set of human-like teeth, and an overall rodent-like physical demeanour. Paramount thus resolved to push the film’s release back to 2020 so that their underpaid animating team could work overtime on designing an avatar closer to the video game hero’s cartoonish appearance and incorporate it into the otherwise finished film. This isn’t exactly a case like All the Money in the World where an 11th hour casting change required entire scenes to be reshot on a few day’s notice. One would assume here that Sonic’s appearance is a purely aesthetic issue and, barring errors in the transition from one design to the other, the film itself should remain fundamentally the same. If it is indeed the case that the cut of the movie with the ‘corrected’ design currently in theatres is in essence the same as it was always going to be, then the grotesque original design ought to be understood as a warning of what was to come. The problems with Sonic the Hedgehog are more than aesthetic, what we have here is an adaptation of an ever popular video game franchise that has fundamentally misunderstood the basic appeal of its own source material.

Even as video games get more cinematic with each passing year, Hollywood has yet to fully crack the formula for translating them into a filmic form. While some have managed to break the mould by attaining a ‘pretty good’ level of quality (the two most recent examples that I’ve enjoyed are Detective Pikachu and Tomb Raider), most of them still tend to fall between the ‘okay I suppose’ and ‘just bad’ categories. And yet, whether it’s in Prince of Persia, Warcraft or Assassin’s Creed, what you’ll often find is that these films are at least attempting to engage with the original material and to replicate what fans loved about it in the first place. For all that Sonic the Hedgehog has in common with the Sega video games, the movie is spiritually closer to Uwe Boll’s filmography and the 1993 Super Mario Bros. than it is to any of the preceding examples. A character who became famous for speeding, jumping and looping his way through a colourful world full of other cutesy characters is dropped into a film that has him spending the whole second act on a road trip to San Francisco in a pick-up truck. Rather than exploring the cartoon world at its disposal (which, if you don’t remember the game, includes a casino-themed city), this movie goes the same route as The Smurfs by taking the action to our world and having the animated hedgehog interact with live-action people. Rather than making a Sonic the Hedgehog movie, what the studio has turned in is nothing more than a generic kid’s movie about some guy called Sonic.

Sonic (as voiced by Ben Schwartz) is a super-fast hedgehog from another world who is told by his guardian to go into hiding for fear that others might hunt him down and exploit his abilities for nefarious purposes. Using the magic gold rings Sonic is able to travel instantaneously to far-off planets, which is how he winds up in the rural town of Green Hills, Montana. There he lives in secret but, for all his effort to keep a low profile, the inquisitive creature becomes enamoured with the local residents and will often spend his days spying on them. His favourites of the bunch are Sheriff Tom Wachowski (James Marsden), or ‘Donut Lord’ as Sonic calls him, and his veterinarian wife Maddie (Tika Sumpter), or ‘The Pretzel Lady’, whom the hyperactive furball will often join on their movie nights (not that they know he’s there peering through the window). When he inadvertently causes a large-scale power outage while on a supersonic spree, the government sends the mad but brilliant scientist and inventor Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey) to investigate. A mishap causes Sonic to lose his golden ring portals, compelling him to reveal himself to Sheriff Tom and appeal to him for his help. Together they have to get to San Francisco and recover the rings before Dr. Robotnik can catch Sonic and harness his superspeed for… world domination I guess? That’s usually what it is.

Somewhere in there is a workable premise for a Sonic movie. We have a crisis, a goal, and an antagonist in pursuit. Sonic’s defining quality is that he’s “the fastest thing alive”, so it stands to reason that the most cinematic form his story could possibly take is that of a chase movie. Had they opted to set the movie in Sonic’s own fantasy world then perhaps we could have been treated to something along the lines of Speed Racer or Mad Max: Fury Road. By setting the movie in the real world however, screenwriters Pat Casey and Josh Miller aren’t at liberty to go down that route. In order to keep Sheriff Tom in the picture and have him form the other half of a buddy movie with an alien rodent who could run to California in two seconds flat if he wanted to, the movie has to keep contriving for ways to keep Sonic on a leash and to have their road trip last for the amount of time it takes to drive across the Pacific Northwest in a family vehicle. Even with their lives on the line, the movie still allows the pair a detour to a redneck bar where they join in some line dancing, ride one of those buckaroo horse machines, and stir up some trouble while enjoying a little odd couple bonding time. Of all the ways that a Sonic movie could have been approached, it baffles me that this was the direction they chose.

On top of that the movie doesn’t appear to have a very firm grip on Sonic as a character. Having lived on Earth for quite a few years he seems to be pretty with it when it comes to American pop culture (his favourite movie is Speed and he makes a quip about Amazon drones amongst other things) yet the film still tries to frame him as a fish out of water by having him be clueless about other facets of human society (like not understanding what a dog is). They also never really find a way to make his speed work for the film. Whenever we see him on the run, it’s either at a moderate distance and therefore from a detached perspective, it’s slowed down to ensure that we can get a clear look at him, or it’s done for comic effect by having him disappear and reappear as if he were teleporting. A high-speed chase ought to be exciting in the same way that watching Superman fly or watching Neo fight ought to be, but Sonic the Hedgehog never is. They do have a couple of bullet time scenes like with Quicksilver in X-Men where time goes to a standstill while Sonic zooms about to rearrange everything in the room, but the trouble is that those scenes (a) work as comedy but not as action and (b) raise questions about how Dr. Robotnik can possibly keep up with Sonic as he pursues him through the streets of San Francisco.

If the movie has a saving grace, it’s Jim Carrey being Jim Carrey for the first time in years. With his bizarre expressions, haphazard line deliveries and whacky postures and movements, he brings the exact right level of 90s Saturday morning cartoon villain energy to the role. Whether it’s a cheesy zinger, an expression of his evilness, or simply a line of exposition, Carrey makes a meal out of each and every last syllable, soaring gleefully between rapid-fire monologues to maniacal shouting. It is in his performance alone that we see even a glimpse of the movie that this should have been. Marsden and Sumpter are both agreeable enough as the straight man and woman and the chemistry they shared had me wishing they could have done without their CGI co-star and just made the movie a small-town rom-com that somehow still has Carrey’s Dr. Robotnik in it, but alas it wasn’t to be. Marsden’s character is given his own arc about wanting to leave his job as the sheriff of this safe and boring town and become a cop in a city where he can do some real police work and is framed as being selfish because of it. This is done in an attempt to tie his arc together with Sonic’s, whose greatest want is to not be alone anymore, but the film is as confused about how to make it work as it is about what Sonic ought to look like in a Sonic the Hedgehog movie. The closest thing this film has to a message seems to be “friends are good and therefore you should never leave your hometown”.

For his part Schwarz gives what he can to the material he’s given, most of it simply overused platitudes and lame one-liners, and the performance he delivers is let down by the sound department who never rework it into something that doesn’t sound like it was delivered in a recording booth. The impression that this gives is of a movie where everybody, save Carrey who always gives 100% no matter what, was going through the motions in making a harmless kids film and nothing more. Everything about it from the generic setting to the cookie-cutter jokes to the atypical action looks and feels like something that was designed by a committee (which it definitely was) to rake in a reliable profit and do nothing else. Sonic the Hedgehog is as inoffensive as it is unimaginative and the result is yet another blockbuster that kids and grown ups alike will watch once to distract themselves and then forget about as soon as they leave the theatre. We should perhaps be thankful that it wasn’t the atrocity that the first trailer promised it to be, and fair play to the animators who made the swap to the updated design as seamless as it was, but for the budget they had to work with and the wealth of material they must have after dozens of video games, TV shows and comics with this character, this cannot be the best they could possibly have dreamt up.

★★

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

Cast: Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, Chris Messina, Ella Jay Basco, Ali Wong, Ewan McGregor

Director: Cathy Yan

Writer: Christina Hodson


While female-led blockbusters have become a little more fashionable lately and Hollywood studios have gotten a little better at allowing them to be written and directed by actual human women, there still remains a pretty narrow framework through which these films are allowed to express their ideas of femininity. While once in a blue moon we do get a smash hit like Mad Max: Fury Road that manages to sneak in some thoughtful and provocative feminist themes, the trend you tend to see in these kinds of movies, including such recent examples as last year’s Captain Marvel and Alita: Battle Angel, is that badass woman beating up bad man equals empowerment. Birds of Prey, the second female-led blockbuster in DC’s proposed cinematic universe (a scheme they’ve all but abandoned at this point), is far from a masterpiece but, thematically speaking, I do think it is a step closer in the right direction. The ‘Girl Power’ message is there but it goes far beyond the superficial, patriarchal-approved gestures that studios include in expectation of nominal feminist endorsement to deliver something subtler and more nuanced. This is a film where the all-female team up comes about not just out of necessity but also out of an unspoken unity and empathy that they all feel for having lived a shared female experience in a world dominated by powerful men. It’s not the most groundbreaking of messages but the little touches that director Cathy Yan adds go a long way in what is otherwise a pretty fun superhero romp.

As the subtitle would suggest, the true star of this ensemble piece is one Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the psychopathic clown whose life has been reduced to tatters after being dumped by the Joker (Jared Leto). Kicked to the curb and a blubbering mess, she resolves to give herself some ‘me’ time and engages in your typical post-breakup rituals: cutting her hair, partying with her friends, breaking a goon’s legs, getting a pet hyena and indulging herself with junk food. The only thing she doesn’t do is tell anybody that she and Mr. J aren’t together any longer. If it became known to Gotham City’s undesirables that she is no longer under the protection of the fearsome clown, then suddenly it would become open season for those who have a grudge against Harley (of which there are many). That is until Harley overhears some friends mocking her for her denial and decides to cut ties with her ex for good by blowing up the chemical factory where they first declared their undying love to each other, an explosive move that she’s confident will have absolutely no negative repercussions for her whatsoever. At that point Harley becomes a target not just for the Gotham police but also for Roman Sionus (Ewan McGregor, camping it up), a bloodthirsty and conceited mob boss who has a score to settle with Harley and a stolen fortune to score.

This all revolves around a much-desired diamond that street urchin Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) unintentionally lifts from the pocket of Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), Roman’s right hand man. Harley volunteers to recover the diamond in exchange for her life but must race against the rest of Gotham in her pursuit. Amongst those also searching for Cassandra are Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a nightclub singer with a killer voice, Renée Montoya (Rosie Perez), a veteran cop with little patience left for bureaucratic bullshit, and Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a crossbow-wielding avenger with a socially awkward personality. The story seems routine enough except it’s all told from the warped perspective of Harley Quinn whose manic commentary, singular perspective and rambling digressions prevent any of it from feeling too stale. The plot does essentially boil down to an hour of backstory and Macguffin chasing that eventually climaxes with the squad finally getting together in the third act, but the whole thing is depicted with such gleeful abandon from the idiosyncratic, unreliable POV of its psychotic narrator that you don’t really notice or care. Birds of Prey demonstrates itself to be very much Harley Quinn’s movie with its vibrant colours, its use of pop-art title cards when introducing her many enemies and their respective “grievances”, and the odd fantasy-dream sequence in which she escapes the world for a while to enjoy an animated recounting of her adolescent years or a song-and-dance number (with a call back to McGregor’s Moulin Rouge!).

Bringing the whole thing to life is Cathy Yan who exhibits the same capability for mixing erratic humour with grisly violence that Tim Miller brought to Deadpool. Perhaps the film could have afforded to go even crazier than it did (a story told from Harley Quinn’s perspective really ought to look like something out of FX’s Legion) but the stylistic choices we do get, from the needle drops to the action scenes, are presented by Yan with admirable confidence. The climatic fight scene in particular packs a real punch thanks to the fluid camerawork on display and the fun-filled, acrobatic choreography throughout, a welcome break from the frantically edited, muddily coloured, computer generated action you tend to get from the MCU movies. Most crucially, I think, Yan also breaks Harley Quinn free from the male gaze of Suicide Squad that turned her into such a fetishized object. She and the rest of her female co-stars are free to enjoy themselves without any perverse framing inviting the viewer to ogle and objectify them. The scene where this was most apparent was when a vindictive Roman vents his frustrations by forcing some poor woman to strip for him. Throughout this uncomfortable scene I kept waiting for the ‘money shot’, so to speak; the gratuitous wide shot of her humiliation and violation that would undoubtedly have been there had a male director filmed it. Instead Yan focuses on McGregor’s reaction, which gives us all we need to feel discomforted. It’s a small touch, but it makes all the difference.

Robbie (who in Bombshell had a similar scene that lingered on her humiliation to a perverted degree) is as always on top form as the homicidal harlequin. She wisely plays up Harley’s most cartoonish traits, her exaggerated Brooklyn accent, extravagant mood swings, and fourth-wall breaking tendencies, to a positively absurdist degree. Even if you don’t take to her character at first she will either win you over with her charm or wear you down with her persistence. As well as being equal parts delightful, insufferable and horrific, this movie also allows her to display a layer of ambivalence, vulnerability and warmth that, rather than dismissed as weaknesses, serve to humanise her both in our eyes and in those of (some of) the other characters. Still, even being the psychopath that she is, there is a clear line the film is unwilling to cross for the sake of allowing her to remain likeable. One scene has her raiding a police station armed with a bazooka that fires non-lethal beanies and glitter. It’s a fun enough scene and the colourful gas and glimmering glitter do add to the carnivalesque tone of her rampage, but at some point I did find myself asking why Harley was going out of her way not to kill anybody. She’s shown not to have any qualms about killing and is perfectly game to break a man’s legs or feed him to a hyena for minor slights, so the most logical explanation I can think of is that having her commit a full-blown massacre in a police station would have been deemed a step too far for this kind of movie.

The movie’s main flaw is that it takes too long to bring its characters together and doesn’t explore their dynamic as deeply as I’d have liked. There’s certainly chemistry and a good rapport between them that makes their third-act team up work but there are points of focus that could have used some more development. While the main arc would seemingly be about Harley’s titular emancipation, they seemed to realise at a certain point that they could only go so far with that idea in a story that never sees her ex make an appearance so in the end Harley doesn’t so much break free of her past as she does forget about it. As for Black Canary, Detective Montoya and Huntress, they all get to enjoy enough depth to emerge as more than stock characters who exist to serve the plot. I particularly liked how matter-of-factly the film treats Montoya’s queerness, a trait that matters to her and to the plot but which isn’t made her defining feature. Still some facets, such as Huntress’ quest for vengeance, could have used some more attention rather than be relegated to sub-plots. There are a lot of plot threads and details that the film has to get out in order to make the climatic team-up work, so perhaps letting Harley steal the spotlight to the extent that she did was a misstep in that regard. Still, there’s something to be said for a film that knows what it is, mostly works and often works well. That’s certainly more than can be said for Suicide Squad.

★★★

Dolittle

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen, Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, John Cena, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer, Tom Holland, Craig Robinson, Ralph Fiennes, Selena Gomez, Marion Cotillard

Director: Stephen Gaghan

Writers: Stephen Gaghan, Dan Gregor, Doug Mand


When you consider the vast amount of collaborative work that goes into making a film of any kind and factor in the endless number of things that can possibly go wrong, it really is a wonder that any great films get made at all. Even the most surefire, well-intentioned movies can go completely wrong with just a little bit of bad luck. Whether it’s a director who simply isn’t right for the project, an actor who has committed themselves to a misguided performance, a script that needed more time before its submission, a studio that refuses to concede any ground, an act of God, or any other number of things, some movies are just doomed to fail. Sometimes things go so badly that the studio is left with no choice but to release a movie that isn’t even finished, which is how we get films like Suicide Squad and Fant4stic. We can only guess what went wrong behind the scenes of Dolittle, a film that was originally to be titled The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle as directed by Stephen Gaghan (best known for geopolitical thrillers such as Traffic and Syriana (you know, for kids!)) until it was made to undergo extensive, studio-mandated reshoots. Whether it was pulled apart by conflicting ideas and intentions or if the movie Gaghan made was simply unsalvageable, Dolittle is a colossal trainwreck of epic proportions. It is so incoherent in its entirety, so confused in its intention and so disjointed in its construction that I’m honestly unsure if it can technically be considered a film.

To say that Dolittle has a plot would be charitable; it would be more accurate to describe the ‘film’ as a haphazard montage of outtakes and half-finished scenes cobbled together by a blind chimp. The endless 100-minute runtime consists of Dr. Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr.), a surly and eccentric man with a superhuman ability to talk to animals in a Welsh-ish accent, mumbling and twitching his way from one moment to the next while a collage of celebrity-voiced CGI creatures scramble around him spouting one-liners. The only indicator that one scene has ended and another has begun is a change in the setting. Such backdrops include a derelict mansion that Mrs. Havisham would call untidy, a whimsical ship sailing across the ocean blue, a vaguely Caribbean stronghold city ruled by a pirate king and a hidden cave of mystical secrets. The basic premise compelling him on his travels to these locales is that Queen Victoria (an underutilised Jessie Buckley) has fallen gravely ill and is need of a magical remedy. Joining the good doctor on his quest are his animal compatriots including Polly the maternal parrot (voiced by Emma Thompson), Chee-Chee the cowardly gorilla (Rami Malek), Yoshi the gruff polar bear (John Cena), Plimpton the sarcastic ostrich (Kumail Nanjiani), and Dab-Dab the scatter-brained duck (Octavia Spencer). Also along for the ride is Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett), a young animal-loving boy who steps in as Dolittle’s apprentice.

I think that’s the premise anyway; Dolittle is so cluttered with content and noise that it’s near impossible to make any of it out. Any sort of emotional resonance or thematic exploration that was supposed to be carried all the way through gets lost amidst all the screeches, pratfalls and fart jokes. We get that Dr. Dolittle is an unhinged but brilliant man who has lived in seclusion ever since his wife’s death (because of course our antihero’s backstory includes a tragic romance with a woman who only appears in flashbacks and never speaks a line of dialogue). We therefore do get these vague gestures towards something almost resembling an arc wherein a wounded recluse finds that the only way to heal himself and his animal patients is for them to open themselves and their sanctuary to the outside world, but between Downey Jr.’s bizarre acting choices and the absence of any intelligible character development it’s hard to read even that much into any of it. Playing a character previously depicted on-screen by Rex Harrison and Eddie Murphy in his first non-Marvel movie since 2014, not even Downey Jr. himself seems to know what he’s supposed to be going for and winds up fumbling into this awkward middle ground between his Ritchie Sherlock and Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow while clumsily maintaining a distractingly inconsistent accent. If ever there was an actor who might have been able to make some sense out of the chaos, it would be him. Sadly, some films are beyond saving.

The problems with Dolittle are legion and we could spend all day dissecting its narrative shortcomings, its weak characterisation and its staggering unfunniness but these are all just symptoms of what’s really wrong with this movie. The real problem is far deeper and more foundational: it is an incomplete film. Dolittle is a failure of filmmaking at its most basic, rudimentary level. Even when given a simple scene of characters talking, be it human to animal or human to human, everything about it feels off. Dialogue is spoken from off-screen or by characters facing away from the camera, eye-lines between the actors and their computer-generated co-stars don’t align, and the continuity between and within scenes is all over the place. Characters such as a dancing orangutan and a guy in stocks called Jeff turn up out of nowhere to deliver a gag only to suddenly disappear, never to be mentioned again. Footage that has been ripped out of its original context and repurposed to fulfil functions and communicate ideas that it was never intended for sticks out like a sore thumb. This is filmmaking 101 stuff we’re talking about and a movie that cannot get them right is no better than a book without any understanding of its own language or a song that cannot sustain its own key, timbre or form. Such rules can and should be defied or broken, but to do so would demand far greater literacy and self-awareness than Dolittle possesses.

I suppose that as far as kids movies go the CG animals are watchable enough; this is the kind of film where it works better if the animals look cutesy and cartoonish than if they look photorealistic. The movie did itself no favours though by casting based more on star power than on vocal talent. Many of the voices are so generic or are so inappropriate for the creature in question (looking at you Malek) that it isn’t always apparent who is saying what in a given scene. Not that learning who said what would be very illuminating given that 90% of the animals’ roles can be broken down to reaction shots and cringeworthy one-liners. The low point for me was probably watching a tiger called Barry (voiced by Ralph Fiennes) scream “My Barry berries” upon being kicked in the groin (yes, that happens). Michael Sheen, who gleefully plays a moustache-twirling villain, appears to be the only actor who truly understands what kind of movie he’s in. What that is, I’m still not sure if I can say. There’s a definite Pirates of the Caribbean swashbuckling epic aesthetic it’s going for, but it cannot hope to reconcile that feeling with its more topical, anachronistic elements. These include a whole bunch of modern quips like “snitches get stitches”, an Angry Birds reference, and an ironclad warship that dogs (geddit?) Dolittle and his crew. Again, these are elements that would work better in a movie that has a better idea of what it is but I don’t think Dolittle has a clue.

Dolittle is one of those truly bad films that really put things into perspective. In many of the reviews I’ve read I’ve seen a lot of comparisons being made between this film and Cats. There is a fundamental difference though which is that Cats, for all of the outrageous choices it made in depicting this hellish world inhabited by these grotesque, deranged, hypersexual humanoid cats, knew precisely what kind of movie it was. It may well be the most disturbing film ever made, but it’s also striking, true to itself, and memorable. Dolittle is none of those things; it is just an outlandishly bad film that offers nothing worthy of a strong reaction. The only thing in this whole film that I can honestly call distinctive is that it contains an extended dragon fart joke (yes, really). In essence it is the same kind of movie we see come out of Hollywood every year, one that was designed by committee to appeal to the lowest common denominator with no allowance for cleverness, creativity or contemplation. Kids will probably laugh at the silly cartoon animals and parents may even be grateful for the temporary distraction, but they deserve better than this kind of rubbish. ‘Lazy’ is not a word I like using when criticising films because it devalues the efforts of those working people employed by the studios who put their time and labour into creating their rubbish, but in a film that feels this hastily strung together, that seemingly doesn’t care about offering its audience anything new or exciting and that neglects to employ the talent at its disposal to any greater use, I cannot think of a more appropriate word.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Cast: Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Anthony Daniels, Naomi Ackie, Domhnall Gleeson, Richard E. Grant, Lupita Nyong’o, Keri Russell, Joonas Suotamo, Kelly Marie Tran, Ian McDiarmid, Billy Dee Williams

Director: J.J. Abrams

Writers: Chris Terrio, J.J. Abrams


Not too long ago in a country not terribly far away, George Lucas made a movie that changed cinema and pop culture as we know it. The story that he started is one that has spanned decades and echoed across generations. Through soaring heights and sinking lows it has all led to The Rise of Skywalker, the supposed end to the so-called ‘Skywalker Saga’. After having lost Colin Trevorrow, who was previously attached to direct, J.J. Abrams, a filmmaker who has built an entire career out of starting stories and leaving them to be finished by others (as was meant to be the case here), has stepped in to helm this conclusive chapter. With The Force Awakens, he was able to play to his greatest strengths by modernising a familiar story and launching those of all these new, compelling characters. With The Last Jedi Rian Johnson took over from where Abrams left off, expanding on the mythology in profound ways and leading the characters’ arcs into daring, uncharted territory. Both movies presented different visions for Star Wars with one looking nostalgically at the past and the other assuredly towards the future. Neither approach is necessarily better than the other but in his previous movies Abrams has demonstrated a tendency to place greater weight on nostalgia than on theme or character (“My name is Khan!”). In The Rise of Skywalker, nostalgia reigns supreme and the film, as well as the trilogy it concludes, is worse for it.

The movie had enough problems already simply on a structural level with a plot that essentially amounts to a group of characters sprinting from scene to scene on these endless fetch quests in search of one MacGuffin after another. It’s one of those chaotic, unbalanced stories where there’s far too much going on all at once, yet very little actually happens. The basic set up is that the Resistance as led by Leia (Carrie Fisher in the most clumsy use of repurposed footage and special effects since Livia Soprano) is on its last legs and so Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) set out on an epic quest to stop Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and the First Order from dominating the galaxy. So far, so Star Wars. Yet, all the way through, the characters are kept in such constant motion in a film that is perpetually hurrying its way to the next scene that all it ultimately amounts to is scenes of heated exposition being routinely interrupted by bursts of action. Almost nothing is learned or advanced in terms of story and character because not nearly enough time is allowed for scenes of interaction, reflection and decision making where such moments have room to occur. Even when a major development takes place that’s clearly supposed to be treated with significance and weight, be that a revelation, a death or a point of no return, it still amounts to nought because there isn’t any time for the characters to process and reflect on them and to reveal their consequent thoughts and feelings.

Such are the makings of a weak movie, but not necessarily a disappointing one. What makes The Rise of Skywalker disappointing is its failure to resolve the many dangling plot threads from the previous two films in a satisfying way. In fairness it was always going to be difficult task no matter what route Abrams and co-writer Terrio chose, but still the level of feebleness and incoherence on display is staggering. Even when working on a movie that compels him to put his money where his mouth is and lay his cards on the table, Abrams cannot help but resort to his default mystery box storytelling method whereby he weaves his stories around secrets and intrigues with promises of resolution and meaning. As well as continuing the mystery of Rey’s parentage, The Rise of Skywalker also features the mystery of Poe’s past, the mystery of Kylo Ren’s corruption, the mystery of an untold secret that Finn wants to share with Rey and so on and so forth. By teasing these mysteries over the course of the film, whether they get resolved or not by the end, Abrams and Terrio hint at some hidden layer of depth to their story that simply does not exist. The revelation of Rey’s origins, a direct rejection of Johnson’s assertion of how anybody, even a nobody, can be a hero, is as weak as it is predictable.

Johnson got a lot of flack from a sub-set of fans for what they perceived as this wanton disrespect for the history and lore of Star Wars. Even were I to agree that the film’s portrayal of Luke (Mark Hamill) was a betrayal of his character or that its depictions of the Jedi and the Force are inconsistent with canon (I don’t), I still would find this film’s blatant disregard for the storytelling decisions of its preceding chapter far more egregious. Rose Tico (Kelly Marie-Tran), a charming character whose actress was subjected to the viciously racist and sexist backlash of a detestable faction of ‘fans’, is unceremoniously side-lined; Snoke, who was dispatched in the last film to pave the way for a more interesting and unpredictable villain in Kylo, is replaced by yet another crusty, evil, old Sith Lord; and the film’s appeal to not be beholden to the past is rejected so thoroughly and absolutely I’m surprised I didn’t get whiplash just from watching it. Whether they simply disagreed with Johnson’s vision for the series or their retconning of his film was an attempt to appease those few yet vocal fans who found it so contemptible, this film goes so far out of its own way to backpedal on its own story that its sudden retractions and half-baked explanations cannot help but feel clumsy. In giving a minority of its fans exactly what they asked for, a movie that immerses itself in the past and refuses to move its story forward in any meaningful way, The Rise of Skywalker has created the Star Wars franchise’s most alienating and self-defeating film yet.

I’ll give Abrams this much, he knows how to direct action. The movie is packed to the brim with lightsaber duels, starship dogfights and high-speed chases, all of them bursting with the kind of kinetic energy and explosive intensity that he has previously brought to the likes of Star Trek and Mission: Impossible. Were one to switch their brain off and allow themselves to be swept away by the flashing lights and thunderous sounds, I could imagine this film being quite an enjoyable watch. Here’s the thing though: even at it’s most boring, most clumsy, and most awful, Star Wars has never been nor ever asked to be treated as mindless action. Even the prequels, as terrible as they are, were the products of a man’s singular and personal vision and had greater aspirations and ideas than this film can ever muster. The Rise of Skywalker contents itself with ticking off the checklists of the franchise’s most obstinate and unimaginative fans and spouting the same old platitudes we get in every Disney film (stay true to yourself and your friends). It is a movie without any statement of substantive worth it wants to say, nor has it a single original creative idea in its DNA. The movie’s only aspiration is to be as broadly pleasing and reliably marketable as scientifically possible and the result is a Star Wars that never surprises, amuses or astounds. It’s not the worst Star Wars film ever made, but it may well be the weakest.

★★

Knives Out

Cast: Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Lakeith Stanfield, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, Christopher Plummer

Director: Rian Johnson

Writer: Rian Johnson


We all know how this works. There’s been a murder. The master detective is on the case. Everyone is a suspect. Such is the whodunit genre as popularised by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Dame Agatha Christie. Johnson, having previously made a teenage noir, a time-travel picture and, most recently (and controversially), a space opera, is no stranger to genre fiction. He has built a career out of twisting and subverting their conventions in clever and introspective ways, remaining true to what has allowed such stories to endure for decades while also bringing them into the 21st century. When he released The Last Jedi in 2017, a movie that dared interrogate and challenge the mythology and morality of Star Wars, an obnoxiously vocal minority of hardcore fans were outraged by what they saw as a violation of something they deemed sacred. What many of them apparently missed is that Johnson’s refusal to reaffirm the storytelling conventions of the beloved saga wasn’t simply for shits and giggles; it came about from a deep and passionate desire to see a story he sincerely loves evolve and expand in profound and exciting ways. With Knives Out, Johnson has once again delivered a film that goes beyond what is expected of it. Just as soon as the film gets down to business and starts laying its cards out on the table, the board flips over and you realise that you were playing chess the whole time (I’m not good at metaphors).

The elements of your classic whodunit are all there. The setting is a gothic estate in modern-day New England, its inhabitants are a bunch of colourful characters with ghastly personalities and gratuitous wealth, the deceased is an old patriarch whose death was ruled a suicide, and the man on the case is a gentleman sleuth who suspects foul play. Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a rich and successful crime novelist, is found dead in his bedroom on the night of his 85th birthday. He leaves behind a family of privileged narcissists and fools who care less about the loss than they do the inheritance. There’s his daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), a real-estate tycoon who prides herself on being self-made (with only a little help from her father and his $1,000,000 loan). There’s also his daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), a goopy lifestyle guru who most likely calls herself an influencer unironically. And then there’s Harlan’s son Walter (Michael Shannon) who runs his father’s publishing company but is unable to exercise any authority under his thumb. Rounding out the ensemble are Trumpian chauvinist Walter (Don Johnson), spoiled playboy Ransom (Chris Evans), performative liberal Meg (Katherine Langford), and alt-right troll Jacob (Jaeden Martell). The only decent person among them is Harlan’s live-in nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), a figure often upheld by the Thrombeys as a member of the family despite none of them being able to remember what country she comes from.

Investigating Harlan’s death is private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), a well-known, well-regarded detective (Joni recalls reading a tweet about a New Yorker article on him) with an eccentric demeanour and a distinctive Southern drawl (“CSI-KFC?” remarks one character). Blanc has no idea who hired him for the job or why but is determined none the less to find the truth in whatever form in may take. To divulge any more would be to rob the uninitiated reader the pleasures of watching the mystery unfold in all of its intricacies. The screenplay Johnson has written is a remarkably well-constructed one in which even slight details and innocuous, throwaway lines are paid off in some meaningful way. Johnson has an almost singular talent for understanding how every single piece fits into the larger picture in his mind’s eye and watching them click together as we get closer to the end is the movie’s most gratifying pleasure. Even those who make a sport out of guessing a film’s plot, convinced that to figure it out ahead of time means they’ve ‘beaten’ the film, are wont to find themselves distracted by the curveballs Johnson throws before pulling the rug out from under them. This is one of the movies that is going to reward rewatching in plenty, particularly for film students who will want to dissect its many threads and the seamless way in which they work in harmony.

Of course, such cleverness and skill would count for little if the film weren’t as entertaining as it is or if there wasn’t anything larger going on between the lines. Knives Out goes far beyond being a murder mystery to being a sharp critique on wealth and class. The film makes no secret of its contemporary setting and the political climate in which it lives and it is certainly not a coincidence that one of the main characters is an immigrant woman of colour employed by WASPs. The members of the Thrombey family, whether outright bigoted or nominally woke, all share a position of enormous wealth and privilege and have come to believe that they are entitled to the status they enjoy. Many of the movie’s best laughs come from watching these stuck-up jerks being shown for the buffoons that they are; the way that Walter smugly quotes Hamilton just one minute after ranting about immigrants screams of the same oblivious liberalism that prompted the dad in Get Out to proudly proclaim “I would have voted for Obama a third time”. The film pulls no punches in showcasing how ridiculous this family is for believing that the wealth they possess was won through merit alone, that the status they benefit from necessarily makes them superior to others, and that they represent the best of what their country has to offer. It is an image of wealth that has grown all the more familiar today and the glee with which the film cuts them down to size is cathartic.

What really struck me about the film more so than its exultant satire though was its profound sincerity. When things really take off, Blanc finds himself immersed in a game of intrigue where the rules are greed and deceit. In the end, however, it’s honesty and selflessness that win the day. Cynicism is pretty fashionable in movies today but Johnson is one of the few filmmakers demonstrating that there is still room for compassion, as he did so wonderfully in The Last Jedi, and Knives Out is a testament to that. On this note some praise needs to be imparted onto Armas, who previously gave such a touching performance in Blade Runner 2049, as Marta. Hers is a pure soul; she is hardworking, caring, and earnest, averse to wrongdoing and incapable of lying. There are no prizes for guessing that it is with her where the film’s sympathies lie and thus Armas has to do a lot of heavy lifting even in an ensemble of seasoned pros and movie stars. She proves more than equal to the task, bringing warmth and humour to the role as well as depth. It helps that the film treats her as a fully-formed character with feelings and a stake in all the mess rather than a vessel through which to impart the morals it clearly wants us to agree with. One of the reasons the movie works as well as it does is precisely because she’s such an attractive character.

There is far more to be said about Knives Out as a story, but that would require delving into plot details best left unknown for the first viewing. As a cinematic experience Johnson is to be lauded for the economic and visually inventive way he directs the film. He keeps things moving at a brisk enough pace with enough happening on-screen that we’re happy enough to enjoy the ride the whole way through rather than break away to try and guess where the destination will be. The confidence with which he presents each twist and revelation is stirring and he is blessed to have a cast so wholly committed to sell the material. The design of the house, from its carefully established geography to the immensity of detail adorning each room, plays no less of an equal part in drawing the viewer in. I particularly enjoyed the interrogation scenes that saw each character seated on a hot chair surrounded by dozens of knives, all pointing accusingly at them. Such is the attention to detail employed by Johnson and his team, who have composed each frame with meticulous deliberation and will often have just as much taking place in the background as in the foreground. There’s a joy in watching a film like Knives Out, an original film that feels so total and complete as an entity and that has been brought to such breathtaking life by a writer and director at the top of their game, that I haven’t felt since watching Jordan Peele’s Get Out.

★★★★★