X-Men: Dark Phoenix

Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp, Jessica Chastain

Director: Simon Kinberg

Writer: Simon Kinberg


Dark Phoenix marks the end of a two-decade journey for one of the franchises that helped launch the superhero phenomenon that has overtaken the world. As the genre has involved so has the series, going from a modestly-budgeted action flick with a mostly serious tone and black, leather costumes to a more campy sci-fi/fantasy style with larger effects-driven set-pieces and more inventive varieties of outfits and powers. Since then the franchise has also branched out to deliver a cartoonishly crude lampoon satirising the customs we’ve come to associate with the genre and an elegiac, western-inspired drama that explored and reflected on those conventions in complex and profound ways. The eleven films that came before have led the series to soaring heights and dreadful lows and, while the Disney-Fox deals guarantees that this is nowhere near the last we’ll see of the mutants, Dark Phoenix marks the end of an era all the same. That the film opted to once again draw from the ‘Phoenix Saga’ in the comics, the go-to character-killing storyline for the franchise when the actors are ready to be released from their contracts, should indicate this if nothing else. If ever there was a time for the series to pull out the big guns, be bold and daring, and make a loud, definitive statement for all to hear, this was it. Instead Dark Phoenix has turned out to be their weakest, most uninspired film yet (which is saying something).

The movie isn’t as terrible as X-Men Origins: Wolverine, it may not even be as bad as The Last Stand, but what both of those movies had that Dark Phoenix does not is personality and purpose. Wolverine was abysmal on almost every conceivable level, but it at least had the courtesy to be so laughably bad that it offers some entertainment value for those who enjoy hate-watching movies. The Last Stand, the last movie to adapt the ‘Dark Phoenix’ saga, was similarly condemned by audiences, but I’m still prepared to defend it insofar as it took actual chances with its story and characters, something that too few blockbusters are willing to do today. Dark Phoenix meanwhile is so dull and unimaginative in its approach and so pointless in its very existence that I can hardly believe it is technically considered a movie. Not only does it utterly fail to deliver its own compelling standalone story or to advance the overarching narrative of the franchise in any meaningful way, it hardly seems to care enough to so much as try. Not even the talented cast at its disposal could overcome the dismal script they were made to work with nor the failings of the first-time director the studio saw fit to entrust with their coda to the series. When Fox appointed longtime X-Men screenwriter Simon Kinberg to captain this conclusive title, what they doubtless expected was something safe, standard, and uncontroversial and that is exactly what they got in all the worst ways.

After opening with a brief flashback featuring Jean Grey’s (Sophie Turner) tragic backstory, the movie picks things up in 1992, precisely eight years before James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender (once again reprising their roles as Professor X and Magneto) are due to morph into Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. Since the events of X-Men: Apocalypse human-mutant relations have improved and the X-Men have been embraced as heroes and saviours (the Oval Office even has an X-shaped phone for the President’s use when their services are needed). Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters has also flourished into a haven for mutants in need of community and guidance and there Jean has grown to become one of the Professor’s brightest and most capable students. Xavier acknowledges that this harmony they’ve attained is more the result of necessity than it is of acceptance and that mutantkind is only one bad day away from returning to square one, but the contemporary connotations of such a concept are quickly brushed aside so that the X-Men series (as created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee as a metaphor for racism in the 1960s) may remain blissfully apolitical. Jean joins the team, as led by Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Beast (Nicholas Hoult), on a risky space mission that ends up going badly as she gets struck by some solar-flare-like force of energy. Jean inexplicably survives the blast and emerges not only unharmed but feeling stronger than ever. Her powers soon grow out of control however and it isn’t long before she finds herself heading down a destructive path.

Jean, having served as little more than a minor role in the last film, is the protagonist this time around and so much of why Dark Phoenix doesn’t work has to do with how much the movie takes our investment in her character for granted. The film for example assumes that we’re already on board with the romance between her and Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) despite their relationship barely amounting to a sub-plot in Apocalypse because the leg-work for these characters was already done back when they were played by Famke Janssen and James Marsden. Turner, as demonstrated in her tenure on Game of Thrones, is a talented enough actress that she ought to have been able to make the character her own and find some meat in the role of a conflicted woman with a fractured mind furiously at odds with herself and her loved ones. She never gets that far however because the movie has little interest in exploring her psyche and, more crucially, her feelings about the man responsible for perpetuating her rage and trauma. The shock from the cosmic explosion reawakens a lost memory that Xavier chose to repress in his first meeting with Jean, that of the tragic car crash that she inadvertently caused with her powers as a young girl and the harms it inflicted on her parents.

That the good Professor elected to suppress a little girl’s emotional development in a sorely misguided attempt to protect her is a questionable act worthy of interrogation, but that would mean confronting issues of underlying misogyny that the movie would prefer to leave unacknowledged. The film wants us to be critical of Xavier, but not so critical that he ceases to be sympathetic. Instead the film simply chastises him for his actions insofar as they enraged an increasingly powerful and unstable mutant and triggered a lethal rampage and tries to score what cheap feminist points it can through empty gestures and lip-service. With Mystique’s eyeroll-inducing declaration that the X-Men ought to consider calling themselves the X-Women, the film appears to be operating under the assumption that female empowerment amounts to meaningless ‘I am woman, hear me roar’ statements, caring not whether the substance even supports the statement being made. When Jean reaches the conclusion that it’s her emotions that make her strong, the words ring hollow coming from a character who is defined far more by her abilities and her connection to her previous incarnation than she is by her own personal feelings. It’s all there to provide token gestures towards a vague notion of progressivism without pressing any buttons in a world where people’s intolerance for the sexist exercise of patriarchal power and control over women is gradually increasing.

Ethical objections aside, Dark Phoenix ranks lowest in my estimation of the X-Men canon because of what a continual slog it is to sit through. Compared to First Class where each performer, most notably McAvoy, Fassbender, and above all Lawrence, brought so much spirit and enthusiasm to their roles, here they put in all the effort of mildly acquainted co-workers taking part in a mandatory team-building exercise. McAvoy and Fassbender do at least act like they somewhat care about what’s happening in the film if only because both men are physically incapable of phoning in a performance, but Lawrence, who in Apocalypse could barely disguise how bored she was of starring in these films, is so wooden and uninterested that they might as well have employed a CGI duplicate. Chastain however comes the worst out of the whole deal as a villain whose personality and motivations are so ill-defined that I’m honestly struggling to remember a single substantial thing about her character. She’s a shape-shifting alien with some kind of connection to the space energy consumed by Jean and manipulates her into performing hurtful acts towards her loved ones for… reasons. What she essentially amounts to is as an unambiguously villainous diversion (so that Jean’s dark turn need not be blamed solely on the objectionable mind games of Xavier) and an eventual antagonist for the whole team to combat in the film’s serviceable third act.

There isn’t much to talk about in terms of how the movie is shot and constructed. The style is so bland and nondescript that I can hardly remember a single image that had any kind of memorable effect on me in the whole movie. The climatic train battle does at least offer some basic thrills, particularly in the way it uses Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), but even that scene boils down to nothing more than each mutant dutifully performing their single trick in turn. So little happens in this film that I am honestly confounded as to why it was made in the first place. There’s no sense of momentum or direction to any of it; everything just more or less unfolds along the parameters of the plot points they decided to include and the movie doesn’t care enough to try and understand how or why. This movie was specially designed to be as broad, harmless and generic as is cinematically possible and the result of that endeavour is a movie so unbearably bland and meaningless that the reason for its very existence escapes me. If this is to be the final statement on Fox’s X-Men legacy and its place in the superhero movie canon, then this is the weakest, feeblest note on which they could possibly have ended especially compared to the poignant swan song of Logan. Talk about ending with a whimper.

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Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Cast: Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown, Bradley Whitford, Sally Hawkins, Charles Dance, Thomas Middleditch, Aisha Hinds, O’Shea Jackson Jr, David Strathairn, Ken Watanabe, Zhang Ziyi

Director: Michael Dougherty

Writers: Michael Dougherty, Zach Shields


“As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods, they kill us for their sport”. This King Lear quote is one that I kept returning to as I watched the latest Godzilla film. There’s something mythological about the way the monsters are portrayed here in their awesomeness and ineffability. It’s there in the primitive, superstitious mentality through which the human characters behold and regard the titans that roam the Earth as reflections of their own feelings and actions. Throughout the history of our species since the earliest days when disease, famine and ecological disaster were understood as divine punishments for our sins, human beings have always longed for some form of theological order to make sense of our chaotic and incomprehensible universe. Our perception of the world is so rooted in our emotional and sensual experiences that we often cannot help but feel that those forces beyond our control are somehow shaped by our existence. Lifted from one of his most tragic plays, the above Shakespeare quote demonstrates the human tendency to comprehend such intangible forces in human terms, through such recognisably human emotions as deliberate cruelty and malice. And yet the rain feels no more malice as it extinguishes our fires than it does benevolence when it feeds our crops; it simply exists. It’s through this frame that the movie invites us to observe and consider Godzilla.

King of the Monsters is the third instalment of a proposed cinematic universe for movie monsters that promises to one day deliver a King Kong-Godzilla crossover. It intends to bring together the many Toho-created kaiju, the Hollywood-created ape, and presumably some other famous, yet-to-be-announced movie monsters into a single shared narrative. In this universe these giant super-species are all part of an ancient ecosystem that predates human history. They have been in hibernation for millennia but are now waking up in response to the destructive and pollutive effect that human activity has had on the Earth. The environmental message isn’t subtle, but then subtlety isn’t really what you look for in a movie about giant monsters beating the shit out of each other. The films in the series so far, which include the 2014 Godzilla and the 2017 Kong: Skull Island, have been unambiguous about human activity (nuclear and chemical warfare, fossil fuels, overpopulation) being the direct cause of this awakening, leading some of the characters in this film to believe that the global catastrophe they bear witness to is humankind’s fateful reckoning. Through the eyes of these characters we are invited to consider Godzilla as both the scourge of civilisation and the saviour of humanity. Both views however presume that Godzilla is directly conscious of humanity’s feelings on the matter and that he (it?) has a moral stake in the earth-shattering brawl, a presumption that the movie also invites us to question.

The movie is an ensemble picture where several different characters offer vastly different takes on Godzilla and the monsters that he engages in their apocalyptic battle royale. Some we’ve met in previous films such as Dr. Ishirö Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins), both of them scientists who have devoted their lives towards studying the monsters for Monarch, the secret government agency responsible for keeping track of the beasts. There are also many new characters, the most important of whom are a family whose lives were fractured by the events of the first film. Dr. Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler) is a scientist who left Monarch following the death of his son in the battle between Godzilla and the MUTOs in San Francisco five years prior. His ex-wife Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) remains a part of the agency and is continuing the project she and Mark started together, the development of a device that could allow them to communicate directly with the monsters and manipulate their actions. Living with her is their teenaged daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown), who is also fascinated by these colossal, ancient creatures. Before long we learn that it wasn’t just the grief over their loss that drove the husband and wife apart but also their fundamental ideological disagreement over how the titans should be treated. Emma believes that these monsters could be used for the betterment of mankind whereas Mark feels that every last one of them ought to be eliminated.

The character who actively brings about the Armageddon that makes up the majority of the film is Colonel Alan Jonah (Charles Dance). He is an eco-terrorist who believes with the full resolve of a religious zealot that Godzilla is the Earth’s answer to humanity’s desecration of the Earth and he wants to awaken the rest of the monsters still in hibernation in order to accelerate the cleansing of man and his sins. As was revealed in the trailers that preceded the movie’s release, Emma is on board with Jonah’s crusade and joins him in his plan to wake up the remaining creatures, many of whom kaiju fans will immediately recognise. These include Mothra, a giant moth whose glowing wings are put on dazzling display in images of breathtaking beauty, Rodan, the giant pterodactyl, and Ghidorah, the malicious, three-headed behemoth and the greatest challenger to Godzilla’s dominance over the titans. Emma and Jonah believe with all their hearts that if these monsters are allowed to roam free and bring an end to the toxic, barren, depleted world that humanity created through their indifference and greed, then biological balance will be restored and the futures of the planet, the monsters and even of the human race will ultimately be assured. But therein lies the question: what price must humanity pay for the sake of the greater good?

The movies in the MonsterVerse so far, whilst financially successful, have not had the best track record with audiences. Many were disappointed by the Gareth Edwards Godzilla for how overly philosophical it was and how little screen-time the titular monster ended up getting in the end (about seven minutes) while others were let down by the Jordan Vogt-Roberts Kong for going overboard with the monster-on-monster action in the absence of any compelling characters or story. King of the Monsters attempts to offer a middle ground between these two approaches, combining the thematic ambition of the former with the abundant action of the latter. The execution is not always successful however; there are too many action scenes that take place in dark settings obscured by rain or snow and the film’s genuinely intelligent and compelling philosophy is undermined by its inability to trust the audience. The overall moral and ideological conflict of the film is present in the family drama between Mark, Emma and Madison, as are the themes of grief and trauma that are personified by the monsters who have been summoned to bring about humanity’s end. A film that placed more focus on the trio could have made for the kind of moving, high-concept family fantasy that Spielberg used to do so well. The film however devotes far too much time to such side characters as Dr. Sam Coleman (Thomas Middleditch) and Dr. Rick Stanton (Bradley Whitford), who serve as little more than surrogates, reacting to these seismic events on behalf of the audience and explaining the significance of any given moment for fear that the viewers might not understand for themselves.

King of the Monsters fits into a category of science-fiction cinema that is so deeply concerned with themes of faith and spirituality that it could almost be called a religious picture. It reveres the titanic creatures with a divine sense of wonder, both at its most awe-inspiring and terrifying. Godzilla and his kind are gods among men; their powers are nearly beyond comprehension and their intentions are ultimately unknowable. The film enables us to appreciate their grandiosity by framing them in profoundly human terms. The movie cares deeply about the ordinary people caught up in this catastrophe and how they all must feel about living in this strange new world where titans reign supreme. Much of the film’s time is devoted towards exploring the implications and realities of this universe they’ve created and it is positively bursting with countless astounding images in which the ideas it wants to convey come to stunning life. Such images include Godzilla swimming through the pitch-black depths of the ocean illuminated only by the fiery pale-blue lights on its spine, Mothra unfolding its resplendent wings against the luminous backdrop of a waterfall, and Ghidora roaring triumphantly atop an exploding volcano as the camera dramatically sweeps to reveal a crucifix in the foreground. The movie is certainly uneven and has plenty of problems where plot is concerned, but at its most visceral and thoughtful it is truly a work of magnificence.

★★★★

Aladdin

Cast: Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Billy Magnussen

Director: Guy Ritchie

Writers: John August, Guy Ritchie


Perhaps the single most famous scene in the 1992 animated classic Aladdin is when the titular street rat, disguised as a prince, sweeps the beautiful princess off her feet onto his magic carpet and shows her a whole new world. Singing the iconic Menken-composed song that would win him and lyricist Tim Rice an Oscar, the couple embark on a magical, physics defying, geographically illogical journey into the clouds and around the globe, marvelling at all the wondrous, hand-drawn sights the animating team could dream up. Having now watched the live-action remake’s equivalent of that scene, it really makes me wonder whether Ritchie and his team fully understood the irony as they were filming it. We are after all talking about a film whose whole premise isn’t to show us a dazzling place we never knew but to take us back to a familiar place we already know. Spontaneity and novelty give way to obligation and nostalgia and yet these two characters still sing the same old song about beholding incredible new sights, broadening their perspectives and pursuing uncharted horizons. The oxymoron would be laughable in its thematic emptiness and shamelessly weaponised inter-textuality were it not already a consistent feature of Disney’s unyielding chain of reliably profitable photo-realistic remakes. Once again Disney has produced a movie that re-enacts its predecessor so closely and customarily that it’s left me wondering all over again why they even bothered.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t anything to enjoy or that the movie doesn’t offer a couple of new twists and spins. The story however remains fundamentally the same. Aladdin (Mena Massoud) is a poor kid living in the slums of Agrabah who, with the help of his pet monkey Abu, steals in order to get by. Jasmine (Naomi Scott) is the daughter of the Sultan (Navid Nebahban) and lives an unfulfilling, sheltered life that requires her to be married off to a prince. The two meet one fateful day when the princess sneaks into the city and are immediately smitten with one another. Aladdin however is a street rat, something the world never lets him forget, and so it looks like the beautiful princess will forever be kept beyond his reach. That is until the Grand Vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) approaches him with promises of wealth and power beyond his dreams if he’ll only complete one task for him: enter the forbidding Cave of Wonders and retrieve a lamp. Jafar of course has no intention of keeping his promise, but his double cross backfires and Aladdin ends up trapped in the cave still in possession of the lamp. He gives the lamp a rub and *poof* out pops the Genie (Will Smith), a magic, omnipotent being with the power to grant three wishes. Aladdin thus hatches a plan to woo and marry Princess Jasmine with the Genie’s help, but Jafar is still determined to take the lamp and use it for his own nefarious purposes.

On a scale from Alice in Wonderland (doing something almost entirely divorced from the original) to Beauty and the Beast (basically a shot-for-shot remake), Aladdin is undoubtedly closer to the latter. It follows the old and familiar path so religiously that when it momentarily strays or digresses, it’s as if the movie has been freed from captivity like a genie from his lamp. And yet these departures are so inadequately scarce that the movie is never able to develop a personality or style it can call its own. One such variation is the attempt to give Jasmine more agency in the story, an idea that climaxes with her singing an empowering ‘Let It Go’ style solo of her own entitled ‘Speechless’. It’s a song about her refusal to be silenced by the patriarchy that Scott sings the hell out of, but it’s so awkwardly wedged in and is so disconnected to the rest of the film’s mode that its inclusion feels more like a corporate calculation than a narrative payoff. They likely could have made the song’s inclusion feel more organic in a movie that devoted more of its time towards Jasmine’s arc, but such an approach would have necessitated a more drastic restructuring of the narrative as a whole, an undesirable prospect for a film that’s more interested in capitalising on an existing property through explicit mimicry than it is in telling an updated story with a timely message.

The possibilities of the film that could have been are most evident in the actors’ performances. Massoud has the right amount of charm and energy for a likeable protagonist and he’s particularly good at straight-faced comic deliveries, but that aspect of his performance only gets to shine in those few instances when he isn’t repeating bits and gags we remember from the first film. Scott brings a fiery passion and graceful dignity to her role, hinting at a resolve that goes beyond a desire to see more of the world. Oftentimes Disney heroines in positions of royal authority are shown to be rather ambivalent about their statuses and seek some form of escape from their responsibilities; Jasmine, in contrast, has the will to be a leader to her people, and a capable and compassionate one at that, but is being constricted by a culture that she wishes to change. When acting opposite each other in those scenes that are copy and pasted directly from the animated film, it is their talent and chemistry that save those moments from feeling like a clumsy high school re-enactment of the stage musical. When they get to break free from the original for a little while and trade jabs in the kind of wisecracking banter that Guy Ritchie knows how to do well, that’s when they really get to shine.

Smith has a much tougher sell to make to those viewers who love the 1992 classic for Robin Williams’ iconic performance. That they cast Will Smith in the role as opposed to a famous comedian/impressionist like Jim Carrey or Bill Hader seemed promising at first as it suggested that they were determined to take the character in an entirely different direction rather than settle for a pale imitation. However the movie can never bring itself to commit to the idea fully and instead has Smith stand in this awkward middle ground between Williams’ Genie and the Fresh Prince of Arabia. After a career of over three decades, Smith remains one of the most naturally charismatic stars in Hollywood today but he can only bring so much personality to a role that requires him to spend 60% of his time imitating a character that was built so specifically around the persona of an equally idiosyncratic star. Within that tension is, I think, not only the biggest problem with this film but with all the Disney live-action remakes in general. The movie’s main selling point is the nostalgia it inspires, but that ardent worship of nostalgia over all else leaves little room for creativity and inspiration. The 1992 film was conceived and designed as an animated fantasy/adventure and it lives on today largely because of a phenomenal performance brought about by an ideal marriage between performer, character and format. You cannot translate these things into a live-action form and expect them to remain tangibly the same.

While the story in the original film flourished in its animated setting, here it too often seems constrained by the limitations of live-action filmmaking. Or perhaps the issue is more with conventional filmmaking, which is pretty disappointing considering what an unconventional director Ritchie often is (in ways both good and bad). One small moment that helped me appreciate how good the 90s Disney cartoons were at making a little count for a lot happens right before the magic carpet scene when Aladdin holds his hand out to Jasmine and says, “Do you trust me?” The line matters because he says it earlier in the film and it ignites her recognition of him. To make sure this point was not lost, the animated film took the care to frame Aladdin in the exact same way on both occasions, emphasising the reoccurrence in visual terms. Not so this time around thanks to the movie’s generic cinematography and editing. Jasmine’s performance signals to us that Aladdin’s line has triggered her memory of him, but there’s nothing in the way that the shot is composed to reinforce it. So much of the film is arranged in such a routine manner and relies so heavily on CGI that few moments truly dazzle and captivate the viewer the way the animated film did throughout. The musical and action sequences feel slower, the world feels smaller, and the designs (especially that of the Genie) lose in spectacle and wonder what they gain in photo-realism. There’s a common misconception behind these remakes that live-action is more legitimate and ‘real’ than animation and these films continue to prove that snobbish, narrow-minded assertion false.

★★

Rocketman

Cast: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard

Director: Dexter Fletcher

Writer: Lee Hall


It doesn’t seem possible to talk about Rocketman without also talking about last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Aside from sharing surface similarities (both films are about legendary glam rock superstars from the 70s and 80s and closeted queer man) and both having been directed by Dexter Fletcher, who took over the Freddie Mercury biopic when its original director was sacked amid allegations of sexual misconduct, it was Bohemian Rhapsody that really drove home for many people what a tired genre the music biopic was. Ever since Walk Hard came out and demonstrated just how predictable and clichéd these movies so often tend to be, it’s been difficult to take many subsequent biopics seriously (with notable exceptions like Straight Outta Compton). Bohemian Rhapsody hit so many of the same typical beats of the genre (the naïve singer, the disapproving family, the ‘one shot’ moment, the cesspit of sex and drugs, the triumphant redemption, etc.) that it bordered on self-parody. Perhaps it’s an inevitable by-product of the fact that most of the great 20th century musicians deemed worthy of receiving the cinematic treatment have tended to live similar lives, but just about every genre has their share of common stories and characteristic tropes to contend with. What made the music biopic seem so banal in comparison is how their stories seldom seem interested in actually saying anything beyond ‘here’s a noteworthy person who lived an interesting life and wrote some good songs that you should listen to on the soundtrack album we’ve compiled’.

That’s where I think this movie differs the most. While it has all the same tropes that I listed earlier as Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman never feels like a film that’s simply going through the motions. Not only does it find new, creative ways of depicting the kinds of features and moments we’ve already seen in countless films of this kind, but it also applies them in service of telling an actual story with something substantive to say. Rocketman isn’t just a film depicting the life and times of Sir Elton John (Taron Egerton); it is on a far deeper level the story of a fundamentally broken man trying to learn to love and accept himself. It is that simple distinction that makes the traditional elements of the music biopic that it employs not clichés, but instead vital ingredients in the story of itself. We get, for example, the disapproving parents in the form of Stanley (Steven Mackintosh), a stiff, stilted and stuck-up soldier who views his son (née Reginald) as little more than a nuisance, and Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard), who clearly loves her son but is so engrossed in her own daily working-class struggles and lack of romantic fulfilment that she appears largely uninterested in the boy’s extraordinary talent and success. Their disapproval and indifference aren’t mere obstacles Reginald Dwight has to overcome in order to become the legend he’s destined to be, they are symbols of the emotionally repressed, sexually conservative, homophobic culture he grew up in and they play significant roles in shaping him into the self-hating, self-destructive man he grows into.

What also distinguishes this film from the usual trend of biopics that came before is the rock ‘n’ roll musical style through which it tells its story. There’s something of the old-fashioned Hollywood musical in the way that it shoots such song and dance sequences as ‘Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)’ and ‘Honky Cat’ from a moderate distance with sinuous movements and few cuts, allowing us to appreciate the intricate staging, flashy choreography and lively performances on display. These sequences were shot with digital technology however, which allows them to pull off some clever effects and tricks with a fluidity that looks positively seamless such as one bit in which Elton literally steps through a door into his past and another where the teenage Elton scrambles through an opening in a fence and emerges as his adult self. The gimmick never gets old because the film often plays around with different stylistic flourishes and moods depending on what feels appropriate to the story. ‘Tiny Dancer’ is shot in an intimate and serene manner like something out of a Robert Altman film while ‘Pinball Wizard’ is a whirlwind of psychedelic close-ups. The dynamic energy of these scenes and the kinetic way they lead into each other is perfectly suited to the movie’s tone as Elton finds himself spiralling further and further into a drugged out haze where he loses all sense of time and geography and finds himself stumbling between disconnected scenes.

For all of the film’s wild set pieces and stylistic impulses, it never loses track of its central thesis. That the movie presents itself so blatantly as a fantasy grants it licence to indulge in ideas and devices that would be immediately dismissed in more conventionally narrated film. The framing device, for instance, whereby Elton ditches a concert in a flamboyant devil outfit, enters a therapy session at a rehab clinic and proceeds to recount his life story might at first appear to be little more than a hackneyed set-up to give the film a conventional form of structure, but I think it only reads that way if you approach the film from the most literal possible perspective. To me it comes across as something more theatrical; Elton is the lead player delivering his monologue and the addicts listening to him are his Greek chorus. Rocketman isn’t supposed to be understood as a documentary account of Sir Elton John’s life; it’s a dramatic reading that’s more interested in uncovering truths than it is in stating facts. The therapy setting is there because it’s a frame of reference that we can easily recognise and understand, one that invites reflection, self-criticism and perspective. The fantasy serves to enable Elton to express the way he sees the world in tangible ways and to have direct dialogues that could never happen in real life with his parents, his long-time collaborator and friend Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), his duplicitous manager and lover John Reid (Richard Madden), and his past self.

Grounding it all is Egerton as Elton, delivering the kind of performance that’s so transparent, full of life and forceful that at times you forget there’s even an actor there. Oftentimes Rocketman feels less like the performance of Elton John’s life than it does the story of Elton himself, as if they somehow convinced a de-aged version of the man himself to relive his most glorious and devastating moments, from defying gravity while singing ‘Crocodile Rock’ at the Troubadour to jumping into a swimming pool in a drunken attempt to kill himself. Egerton is perfectly game for all the film’s outrageous impulses and complements its overall tone in just the right way, acting and switching between the parts of the soulful artist, the outlandish diva and the wretched misfit from scene to scene, walking the fine line between profound seriousness and cheeky self-parody and remaining at all times utterly sincere. He also sells Elton’s sexuality in all the ways Bohemian Rhapsody wouldn’t allow Malek to do as Freddie, both in its affection (including an explicitly gay sex scene, apparently the first by a major Hollywood release) and debauchery. This could have perhaps been explored by the film at greater length and detail the way that Soderbergh did in his Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra, but by mainstream Hollywood standards the degree to which Elton’s sexual desires and compulsions are given prominence is almost revelatory.

It seems a little unfair to say that Rocketman is the movie Bohemian Rhapsody should have been considering what two different figures Elton and Freddie were (and especially given how differently their stories ended), but I do think this film is a demonstration of what the latter could have been. It’s a film that understands fully well that the story of an extraordinary man and his music cannot hope to be adequately told through ordinary means. Rocketman instead sets out to tell its story on its own unapologetic terms and you’re either along for the ride or you’re not. The film plainly states its mission statement when it has a musician tell Elton “you gotta kill the person you were born to be in order to become the person you wanna be”. This is a movie about how Elton found his true identity for himself by inventing one. It isn’t a story about a ‘real’ person and for that reason could never have been told in a realistic, straightforward way. This movie has far more interesting things on its mind than the greatest hits of Elton John’s life, it has something deep and personal it wants to say about the man whose life inspired it and does so in the way he would himself in all camp and sincerity. The film is unabashedly sentimental, especially in the finale as Elton finally has a heart to heart moment with his inner child, and doesn’t care about coming across as schmaltzy because, in that moment, it’s what we the audience, as well as the character, need.

★★★★★

Pokémon: Detective Pikachu

Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Justice Smith, Kathryn Newton, Suki Waterhouse, Omar Chaparro, Chris Geere, Ken Watanabe, Bill Nighy

Director: Rob Letterman

Writers: Dan Hernandez, Benji Samit, Rob Letterman, Derek Connolly


Detective Pikachu is a weird idea even for Pokémon, and we’re talking about a franchise whose whole concept is about prepubescent children travelling around the world and pitting their captive, magical pets against each other in combat. We’re talking about a franchise that has designed creatures resembling a walking three-headed palm tree, a humanoid mime-clown-dummy hybrid, and an obese drag queen wearing blackface. We’re talking about a franchise that infamously had an episode of its animated series banned overseas because it featured an underage girl getting ogled at in a beauty contest and an effeminate man sporting fake breasts and a bikini. If ever there was a franchise for which you can always count on the unexpected, this is it. And yet I still could not have predicted that their first ever venture into the realm of live-action cinema would have included a hard-boiled Pikachu with the voice of Deadpool wearing a deerstalker hat and solving crimes. What’s even stranger is how surprisingly ordinary that story ended up being. It’s like when Andy Kaufman took the stage to perform a comedy bit, only to nonchalantly eat a bowl of ice cream; you’re caught so off guard by the lack of payoff that you wind up laughing at the non-jokiness of it all. This movie embodies a similar oxymoron whereby it’s too strange to be ordinary and yet too ordinary to be strange.

The movie is set in Ryme City, a truly breathtaking metropolis that dazzles the eyes with how fully realised and brimming with life it is. With its shadowy, rain-soaked, film-noir ambience and its neon-lit, futuristic aesthetics, Ryme City looks like it could inhabit the same universe as Blade Runner were it not for the peculiar and wonderful creatures that inhabit it. In a world where Pokémon are typically treated as prize fighters and held in confined spaces except when called upon to do battle for human amusement, the celebrated inventor Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy) founded this city as a utopia where humankind and Pokémon could live side by side in harmony. It is a place where Pokémon are free to roam around of their own accord, perform jobs and community services (we see, for example, a Machamp directing traffic) and are essential to the community’s way of life. As is often the case in these kinds of stories, the city also has a hidden underbelly where the seedier members of society gather to partake in such illicit activities as illegal Pokémon battles. The obvious comparison here is Who Framed Roger Rabbit which similarly paired human beings with childish cartoon characters in a detective story with comedic overtones. While Ryme City is further removed from our own world than the L.A. of the Robert Zemeckis film, the level on which the movie’s vision of its fantastical utopia is so total and absolute that even those who are total strangers to the world of Pokémon will be drawn in.

Or they might were their introduction to the city not seen through the eyes of such a bland protagonist. Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) is a young accountant who gave up on all dreams of being a Pokémon trainer as a kid when his mother died. Despite his friends’ attempts to draw him out of his reclusive lifestyle by seeking out a new Pokémon companion, Tim favours a lifestyle as mundane and nondescript as his personality. His life is shaken up however by a phone call from Ryme City telling him that his estranged father, a detective, was killed in the line of duty along with his Pokémon partner, a Pikachu. Tim comes to the city to put his father’s affairs into order only to find in his apartment the Pikachu, alive and speaking in a voice that only Tim can understand. Pikachu, the adorable mouse-like thunder child with a penchant for coffee and snarky one-liners, explains that he and Tim’s father were investigating an unknown, gaseous substance that infects Pokémon with a rabid state of enragement and that they were closing in on the truth when the car crash that took the detective’s life occurred. From here the movie turns into a buddy-cop comedy as the unlikely duo set out to learn the secret that got Tim’s father killed.

While Smith does what he can to endear the audience to this blank slate of a character and gets in a few amusing looks of befuddlement and frustration as he’s dragged all around the city from one crazy encounter to the next, the real star of the show is his electrifying co-star. Offering a PG, family friendly spin on his Deadpool persona, Reynolds steals scene after scene as the cute, fast-talking, caffeine-addicted Pokémon. The visual effects employed in bringing the lovable critter to life are stunning, favouring a photo-realistic look without sacrificing his cartoon expressiveness and agility. The film is so good at having Pikachu move around the space of a given scene and interact with the environment in ways that Roger Rabbit could only have dreamed of that the illusion never breaks even for a second. The CGI animating him is so richly textured that even when his fur gets wet, dirty or charred, it still looks physical and authentic. The animation on the Pokémon throughout, of which there are dozens, is just as spectacular with some personal highlights being Lickitung living up to its name, an interrogation scene where the duo tries to get Mr. Mime to talk, and Psyduck’s explosive headache. The movie is at its best when focusing on the Pokémon at its disposal, especially Pikachu, and thankfully that’s most the time.

The story itself is pretty thin, especially when compared to Roger Rabbit which did such a great job of tying its mystery plot with some rather pointed satire and social commentary on demographics in Los Angeles and show business. Here the puzzle Tim and Pikachu must unfolds in a pretty predictable fashion and at the very end it doesn’t have all that much to say about anything save the usual themes of family and companionship that you’ll see in most children’s films. Even then the way it tries to tie it all together to Tim’s tragic backstory, particularly the fractured relationship with his father, never really lands the way that it should and it feels like the whole idea needed just a few more revisions at the screenplay stage. There is however some Enid Blyton Famous Five charm to the mystery insofar as it serves as an excuse to place the young characters into all of these scrapes that they only narrowly escape. Adding to that effect is the inclusion of Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), a rather underwritten character who would have amounted to little more than a token love interest were it not for Newton’s spirited performance, embodying her as a cross between Nancy Drew and a 1930s Hollywood newspaper movie heroine. I was especially a fan of her spotlight reveal, which felt like a vintage film noir flourish.

A weak plot and an uninteresting hero are significant problems for a film to have, which is why Detective Pikachu will never be an all-time classic, but they aren’t fatal when there is so much wonder and splendour to enjoy in the magnificent designs and enchanting creatures that make up this world. There are moments, few and far between but still, where the movie almost feels like it could’ve been a Ghibli production, where it attains a state of visceral wonderment that almost transcends such feeble things as plot. Perhaps the problem comes from taking a Japanese property, a profoundly weird one at that, and trying to conform it to Western storytelling conventions. Perhaps a version of Detective Pikachu that leant more on the wild fantasy-adventure and eye-popping unearthly spectacle of its video game/anime origins would have given us the movie that a smarter plot and a more interesting lead never could. But that’s a guessing game. For what it is, this is a pretty fun movie boasting an outstanding visual oeuvre (as realised by Letterman and cinematographer John Mathieson) that feels so refreshingly unlike anything else being made in Hollywood today. While it isn’t exactly the best like no one ever was, it is a thoroughly enjoyable watch and I’d like to see a lot more of where it came from.

★★★★

Long Shot

Cast: Seth Rogen, Charlize Theron, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Andy Serkis, June Diane Raphael, Bob Odenkirk, Alexander Skarsgård

Director: Jonathan Levine

Writers: Dan Sterling, Liz Hannah


The story of the low-status man who falls in love with the high-status woman and attempts to overcome the obstacles keeping them apart is at least as old as The Great Gatsby, but in that particular case the underdog hero has always been played by the dashing, desirable likes of Robert Redford and Leonardo DiCaprio. One could probably imagine that if Jay Gatsby happened to be a tubby, scruffy slob, then the beautiful, highborn Daisy would never have looked at him twice and the story would never have happened. That’s how Long Shot would appear to see it anyway as it presents us with the unlikely romance of the unkempt Seth Rogen and the glamorous Charlize Theron. He plays an overweight, unhygienic and unemployed journalist who gets dismissed by most as a loser with nothing of worth to offer the world while she plays an elegant, intelligent and successful politician whom the people revere. The whole film is built around the idea that a classy and stunning woman like Theron’s Madam Secretary falling for a schmuck like Rogen is so far beyond the realm of possibility as to be worthy of being both dramatized and made fun of. The truth of the matter is a subject of some debate considering how consistently Rogen has been playing appealing romantic leads since Knocked Up, but in any case Long Shot makes for a somewhat flawed and outdated if still charming and watchable film.

The movie follows Fred Flarsky (Rogen), a committedly left-leaning investigative reporter who quits his job in protest upon learning that his newspaper has been bought and absorbed into a corporate media empire run by the Rupert-Murdoch-ish Parker Wembley (Andy Serkis). Later the down on his luck Flarsky has a chance encounter with Secretary of State Charlotte Field (Theron), his former babysitter and first crush who even as a 16-year-old Sophomore was determined in her idealism and ambition. Having recently learnt that the inept President Chambers (Bob Odenkirk) has no intention of seeking re-election, she has begun laying the groundwork for her own presidential bid. Her polling data however indicates that much of the public views her as rather unapproachable and lacking in warmth and humour. After reading some of Fred’s articles and realising not only what a good writer he is but how deeply he cares about the same issues as she does, Charlotte brings him on board her campaign to punch up her speeches. As they work together for several nights on end and bond over shared values, adolescent memories and inside jokes, their friendship blossoms into a romance that gets put to the test by external prejudice, political pressure and sabotage.

The plot of Long Shot is pretty weak and worn and it goes about it for too long with a two-hour runtime where ninety minutes would have sufficed. What kept me going through it all was the wonderful chemistry between Rogen and Theron, who are thoroughly enjoyable in all of their interactions together. Playing the personas they’ve spent their whole careers cultivating, he as the awkward but lovable stoner nerd and she as the alluring and capable but still compassionately vulnerable lady, both fit naturally into their assigned roles and the comic energy between them endears you all the more to their coupledom. It helps that the film establishes the link between them as being founded on common interests and values and mutual respect for their talents and ambitions. Fred and Charlotte are quite simply two people who like each other in spite of their differences and the movie wastes absolutely no time on pitting them against each other and having them bicker in that Sam & Diane way in order to generate some cheap ‘will they, won’t they’ tension that rom-coms love so much. It’s obvious that these two are going to get together since that’s the premise of the whole movie and the tension arises from whether they’ll be able to make it work despite all the forces that threaten to keep them apart. Their relationship is all the more interesting and delightful for having not indulged in such needless pretence.

The spark that they share does wonders to enhance the comedy side of things, as does the work of much of the supporting cast, particularly June Diane Raphael as Charlotte’s snide and stuck-up campaign manager. As is to be expected whenever Rogen is on board, the movie partakes in gross-out humour and stoner comedy, including a scene where Charlotte is called upon to deal with an international crisis while high on molly and another in which a video of Fred masturbating is unearthed and employed in a blackmail scheme. The film however is at its best and funniest when Rogen and Theron are allowed to play off each other in verbal banter, which is why I wish the film could’ve been a little more Howard Hawks and a little less Judd Apatow. Such an approach however would probably have necessitated a deeper dive into the ideological differences between Charlotte and Fred and a more incisive commentary on the movie’s politics. The film opts to go silly and safe with its brand of humour instead, dropping inoffensively profane one-liners where it can and joking about pop culture and orgasms while paying only mild lip service to a brand of liberalism and gender politics through which they try to score points for progressivism without being so controversial so as to alienate certain audiences. That was where the film lost me the most.

To its credit the movie does make some timely observations about the position of women in today’s political sphere and the unique challenges they face. It rightly observes, for example, how ambivalent men still are about powerful and ambitious women, what regressively narrow parameters the public is willing to accept for their profiles, and how much higher they have to jump to hit the same targets as men. Charlotte, despite being hyper competent at her job, impeccably qualified, and boasting a bulletproof public record, still has to work harder to be accepted as a satisfactory presidential candidate than Chambers, whose one and only qualification was that he played a fictional president on a popular TV show. However, the film never provides any deeper insights into these issues because it’s ultimately only willing to go so far in reflecting the political realities of the world today. Instead the film glosses over how ugly and complicated the political minefield of moral compromise, partisan opposition, and sexist double standards can be, opting for an uncontroversial, centrist ideal with its false equivalencies and simplistic solutions. I could perhaps be a little more charitable and look at the movie as more of a Sorkin-esque political fantasy (the similarities with The American President are unmistakable), one where the strong independent woman gets to have her cake and eat it too. I think that’s a little disingenuous though considering how at the end of the day it’s the woman who has to learn the lesson and change her ways rather than the man.

With little of political substance to fuel the character dynamics and comedy, the quality of the film comes down mainly to the talents of its cast and the execution of certain gags that are often funny in the moment even if they don’t have any lasting consequence. One highlight is when Rogen is outfitted for a fancy banquet in Stockholm. He and Theron work wonders when they share the screen and I can only imagine what they might have accomplished with a smarter and more daring script. The two work so well together that the movie’s total fixation on its central gimmick, that being the comical unlikelihood of their relationship, soon loses its novelty. The way they keep returning to the idea that the gross, fat man and the beautiful, elegant woman have no business being together grows all the more monotonous the clearer it becomes what much more interesting and funnier things they could be doing and talking about if only the movie would let them. You become so convinced of the couple’s suitability that you start to wish the film would engage with them less as comedic archetypes and more as people. It is during the more human moments that Long Shot well and truly shines and that humanity, as determined by the main characters’ core political ideals and struggles in the face of adversity, is what the movie is sorely lacking.

★★★

Avengers: Endgame

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Paul Rudd, Brie Larson, Karen Gillan, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow, Josh Brolin

Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo

Writers: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely


We know for a fact that Avengers: Endgame will not be the last movie in the MCU. Even if the trailer for Spider-Man: Far From Home hadn’t already hit theatres by the time of the film’s release or that most of the stars in this film weren’t already contracted to appear in future instalments, it doesn’t take a genius to understand that Marvel and Disney are in no hurry to end their multi-platform, billion dollar franchise. One of the most notable things about Endgame though is how much it feels like a definitive conclusion to the story the MCU has told over the course of the 22 films they’ve released in the last 11 years. This is of course partly to do with the understanding that some of the film’s biggest stars, including Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans, would be retiring their characters with this movie. From a storytelling perspective, there is a definite sense of finality surrounding Endgame as it promises to deliver a conclusion to the stories of the characters who originally helped launch the series. It feels like a certain era has come to an end and the time has come for the old hands to step down and pass the torch over to the younger, fresher, and more diverse line-up slated to take their place. Understanding this, Endgame presents itself as the final chapter of an epic saga with all the grandeur, gravity and magnitude such a coda demands.

Endgame picks up immediately following the events of Infinity War, an epic earth shattering crossover event that ended with Thanos (Josh Brolin) collecting the six infinity stones and wiping out half of the universe with a snap of his fingers. Previously when the Marvel cinematic universe had seen a dramatic shift in the status quo, whether it be a change in the Avenger line-up, the disbandment of SHIELD, or half of Earth’s mightiest heroes becoming fugitives, the shift doesn’t tend to feel as momentous as it should since the filmic format favoured by the MCU is unsuited for the task of conveying long-term consequences. When Age of Ultron concluded with a new team of Avengers, we only get to see them do one mission together before the whole Avengers Initiative was terminated in Civil War. Even then, the reality of a world without the Avengers never got much time to sink in because as soon as Thanos came knocking in Infinity War, the team was back together again. This is why it’s so striking to see Endgame devote so much of its time towards depicting the tragic outcome of a post-Thanos world. Instead of immediately retconning the ending of the last film so that the Avengers might get back to business as quickly as possible, most of this film is actively focused on exploring and understanding the emotional toil of the surviving characters.

Those who survived the last film include Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson). Each is severely affected by their failure to stop Thanos and, even with the help of the newly arrived Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), all efforts to undo the damage prove futile. The only thing left for them is to live on in this new world and achieve what sense of normalcy they can. A significant amount of the film plays out not unlike a blockbuster remake of HBO’s The Leftovers as we’re treated to surprisingly profound explorations of grief. The characters who’ve been left behind following this galactic genocide have to deal with such feelings as personal loss, survivor’s guilt, dejection, disillusionment, helplessness and the crushing weight of failure and defeat. For those wondering why this chapter of the Marvel saga demands a three-hour runtime, this is it. In order for us to appreciate the desperation of the Avengers’ effort to fix the world that Thanos broke, we first must appreciate what it is they’ve all lost and what it is they’re each fighting for. Thus when Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) returns from his ill-timed trip to the Quantum Realm in Ant-Man and the Wasp and presents the Avengers with a possible solution, we’re ready to root for them all the harder.

Even then, however, the film doesn’t leap straight into the action. Endgame is a film about reflection and, given the impossibility of what they have to achieve compared with how much they’ve already lost and what little they’ve managed to hold on to, the film allows room for the characters to decide how much more they’re willing to sacrifice and how much further they’re willing to go. Given the stakes that have been set up, it’s not much of a stretch to consider that this may well be a one-way trip for some of the team, which by this point includes Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Rocket (Bradley Cooper). Where Infinity War struggled to accommodate each major character and share out whatever amount of screen-time they could spare, Endgame benefits enormously from having a smaller cast to work with and it is here that the long-form storytelling and character development starts to pay off. Inevitably it’s the main characters who experience the most meaningful changes while the side characters more or less fulfil their usual roles (with the exception of Nebula, who is given an extraordinary arc). Thus Captain America’s sense of duty compounded with his mourning for the life he had to give up to become a hero, Iron Man’s eternal struggle between his conceited ego and sincere desire to help and protect others, and Thor’s repressed traumas and insecurities versus the burden of his responsibility to his people; all these arcs are concluded in ways that, by the end of the film, feel fitting and earned.

The way the rest of the story plays out is a little disjointed. Characters are split up as they chase different objectives and encounter varying obstacles in ways that can feel divergent at times. Endgame plays out a lot like a Christopher Nolan movie with a dozen intricate parts all moving at the same, but without the clear sense of direction and cohesion that make his films feel so substantial. If this had been a standalone film with original character, it would have been all but incomprehensible for the viewer for all of its tangents and self-indulgence. But that’s not what Endgame is; this is a film that’s building off 21 movies worth of storytelling, characterisation and world building and that’s why its convoluted approach works. When the film seems to diverge, it’s because the characters in question need to end up in certain places at certain times in order for their arcs to be fulfilled. This is a movie that was designed to deliver pay-offs for anything and everything that long-time Marvel fans have invested themselves in from long term character journeys to tiny in-jokes carried over from previous Marvel films. The format is such that the film can structure itself around all the callbacks and references it can dream up, allowing fans to appreciate all the further how much change and growth has taken place, both in the fictional world and the real, since that moment 11 years ago when Tony Stark stood on a pedestal and announced to the whole world “I am Iron Man”.

The catharsis that Endgame offers to viewers who have followed them in their decade-long cinematic experiment and have grown to love the universe they’ve created and the characters who inhabit it is such that I can hardly bring myself to fault the film even as it missteps in the handling of certain characters’ stories (including a major death that I found deeply unsatisfying) and indulges in some of the habits and trends that I tend to dislike in their films. The action as directed by the Russo Brothers is typical of Marvel in that there are few visual flourishes and little technical inventiveness to enrich what is otherwise blandly competent, and yet the individual moments that occur, especially in the film’s colossal final hour, are so enjoyable and satisfying (outside of one rather patronising moment) that it’s a little difficult for me to care. This is a movie that was made to fulfil a very specific purpose for a specific kind of viewer and it succeeds so remarkably well both on an emotional and stimulating level that it seems almost churlish to demand more. The film doesn’t even attempt to appeal itself towards those who haven’t already been converted because it has absolutely nothing to offer them, which is a feature, not a bug. Avengers: Endgame is a singular cinematic event of unprecedented proportions and that it ended up being as great as it was is quite simply a miracle.

★★★★★

Hellboy

Cast: David Harbour, Milla Jovovich, Ian McShane, Sasha Lane, Daniel Dae Kim, Thomas Haden Church

Director: Neil Marshall

Writer: Andrew Cosby


Sometimes you’ve got to love Hollywood and their unfailing ability to learn the exact wrong lessons from whatever great success they want to capitalise upon next. Following the monumental success of the MCU, Warner Bros. and Universal sought to follow suit with their own franchises of interconnected films. What neither series appeared to anticipate was how difficult it actually is to make each title a distinct and satisfying film in its own right while still allowing it to serve a larger narrative. Although the DCEU films have gotten better, it is at least partly because the series has more or less abandoned the idea of tying them together. The Dark Universe meanwhile was dead on arrival when The Mummy, a movie that was dreadfully at odds with itself on every level, bombed with critics and audiences. Hellboy however is following the example of a different trend entirely, that of the R-rated superhero blockbuster. After Deadpool proved that such films could be monster hits and Logan proved that they could be critical darlings, the lesson they’ve taught Hollywood couldn’t be clearer: more swearing, blood and gore, and nudity equals ‘better’. Thus with a franchise that no longer has del Toro or Perlman attached and the R-rating that the pair never needed to make two great films, we get Hellboy, a big bloody mess both literally and figuratively.

Conceptually the Mike Mignola created character ranks amongst the most unique modern-day comic book heroes and a new Hellboy series could have made for a welcome break from the superhero routine Hollywood has fallen into. Instead the film staggers along without a trace of the personality rampant in the previous films, relying on ideas borrowed from other, better films. The opening prologue, detailing the defeat of the evil, bloodthirsty queen Nimue (Milla Jovovich) at the hands of King Arthur and the foretelling of her imminent return, feels like a half-arsed video game rehash of The Lord of the Rings, only with God of War levels of graphic violence. This sets up is followed with what almost plays out like an NSFW take on The Kid Who Would Be King as Hellboy (David Harbour) must embrace his destiny and rise to the task of combatting and vanquishing this Arthurian menace. The main difference is that more characters are bloodily decapitated while the F-word gets thrown around frequently and indiscriminately. Joining Hellboy for the ride are Alice (Sasha Lane), a clairvoyant with an unconvincing British accent and a past connection with the demonic hero, and Daimio (Danuel Dae Kim), a paranormal military specialist with an equally unconvincing British accent and some dark secret that will inevitably be revealed round about the third act.

Originally proposed as a sequel to The Golden Army until del Toro and his team dropped out, Hellboy is a hard reboot. Here the fiery, behemoth demon with his oversized rock-hard punching hand and filed-down head stumps where a pair of horns used to be is played by the star of Stranger Things while the director’s chair is assumed by Neil Marshall, director of The Descent and two all-time great episodes of Game of Thrones. Between the two of them there ought to be more than enough talent to make this superhero-fantasy romp work, but it wasn’t to be. The two previous films depicted Hellboy as this lovable outcast, as the heroes in del Toro’s films so often are; a tough guy and a wisecracker with a devil may care attitude, but ultimately a gentle soul who had to work as hard to battle his own inner demons as he did those supernatural monstrosities that threatened to destroy the world. This grittier, gorier title wants to offer a darker, more cynical spin on the character, which is fine as a concept, but what they lose in this iteration is Hellboy’s humanity. The film is so much more interested in depicting gruesome amputations and following them up with foul-mouthed one-liners that any kind of nuance the film wanted us to read into Hellboy’s character gets lost in the noise.

More’s the pity since Harbour does demonstrate some understanding of what his role is supposed to be about. His Hellboy appearance is a little less chiselled than Perlman’s, a little rougher around the edges, and some of the material he’s given almost manages to feel like it means something, especially when he’s interacting with his adoptive father Trevor Bruttenholm (Ian McShane), the leader of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defence that Hellboy works for. One source of conflict between them is how reluctant Hellboy is do battle with Nimue and her forces. As a demon who job is to kill other demons, it makes sense for him to lament the idea that every threat he faces must be met with violence and every foe eliminated. However, unlike the del Toro films which genuinely empathised with the creatures, even the villainous ones to some extent, and would treat their deaths with some degree of gravity and meaning, this one fails to live up to that theme. Instead it serves as mere lip-service that ends up adding to nought in the fight scenes where our crimson hero proceeds to massacre entire hordes of faceless creatures without a second thought. In truth the only purpose any of the plot serves is to provide the movie with some vague semblance of structure as it ravenously dashes towards the next gorefest with reckless abandon.

While the film does boast some visual flourishes in its action scenes and a few imaginatively designed creatures, as in one brief dream sequence where a fully demonised Hellboy rides atop a skeletal dragon, it gets exhausting after a while. The moviegoer can only take so much unyielding gratuity and Hellboy never lets up on that front. Excessively monotonous violence gets old if there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason behind it and Hellboy doesn’t offer any. All it offers is the same old tired superhero story we’ve seen dozens upon dozens of times before, just with an R-rated twist and not even an especially creative one at that. What makes Deadpool and Logan work where this film doesn’t is that they used the licence granted by their R-ratings to serve the stories and tones they were going for. Hellboy is so devoid of originality and inspiration that the excessive carnage and hardcore cussing come across more as desperate than anything, as if they realise on some level that they haven’t got anything worth a darn outside of it. The world didn’t need a new spin on this character when the last two films were as recent and as good as they were, but that didn’t mean this film couldn’t still be good in its own way. However, by trying as hard as it does to distinguish itself from what came before, the movie’s only success is proving its own futility.

Missing Link

Cast: (voiced by) Hugh Jackman, Zoe Saldana, Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, David Walliams, Timothy Olyphant, Matt Lucas, Amrita Acharia, Zach Galifianakis

Director: Chris Butler

Writer: Chris Butler


Laika doesn’t get nearly enough credit for what they do. When Disney Animation chose to abandon the traditional hand-drawn style for their theatrical releases in favour of the 3D, computer-rendered form of animation that Pixar, DreamWorks, Illumination and several more favour today, it marked a key turning point in the history of the craft. While the practice still lives on in some form at Disney, most recently in Mary Poppins Returns, the transition more or less confirmed that the old ways had died and that CGI was the new normal for modern animation. With so many studios favouring the form however, the films that they make, whether good or bad, can often feel quite samey in their video game aesthetics. This is what makes Laika, a studio that continues to employ the meticulous and distinct practice of stop-motion in their films (along with Aardman Animations), stand out all the more. It’s a form that requires thousands of hours of painstaking work and demands the kind of attention to detail and accomplished skill that all forms of handicraft demand. It isn’t a question of which format looks better or is more difficult to master, but with the knowledge of how much care and labour go into their creation and how uniquely physical such films as Coraline, ParaNorman and Kubo and the Two Strings look in this contemporary digital age, one cannot help but be awed by Laika’s output.

Their latest offering tells the story of Sir Lionel Frost, a Victorian explorer who travels the world in search of mythical beasts such as the Loch Ness Monster, which he encounters in the opening scene. Lionel is revealed to be an outlier to his 19th century peers, an adventurer whose goal isn’t to track and hunt animals for sport but to find these strange, legendary creatures and learn from them so that he might unlock the mysteries of the world. This doesn’t mean that Lionel isn’t a man of his time however, nor is he a saint. He is still shown to be a rather chauvinistic and egotistical man who isn’t above using others to serve his own ends and can be dreadfully immature when things don’t go his way. Things kick off when Lionel receives a letter from the United States telling of an enormous, hairy creature lurking in the woodlands of the Pacific Northwest. Lionel wastes not a second in heading straight there and it isn’t long before he encounters the Sasquatch himself. Mr. Link, as Lionel calls him at first, turns out to be a being of human-level intellect who learned English by observing humans and wrote the letter that brought the English explorer to him. Link, having recently learnt of the Yetis and believing them to be his distant relatives, asks Lionel for his help in travelling to the Himalayas and finding their hidden city so that he might finally be with his own people.

Thus Lionel and Susan, which is the name that the creature adopts (despite being voiced by Zach Galifianakis, the Bigfoot’s gender is an amusing source of some ambiguity), set off on a quest that leads them to all kinds of exotic locations. They first head to New Mexico where fiery Adelina Fortnight, an old flame of Lionel’s, holds the map they need to find their destination. She of course ends up joining them and so off they go on an ocean liner bound for Southeast Asia where they will then treck to the Himalayas in search of the secret Yeti sanctuary. Dogging them is the bloodthirsty Willard Stenk, a bounty hunter hired by Lord Piggot-Duncaby, the irrepressibly stuck-up president of an exclusive explorer’s society that Lionel longs to join. The main focus of the film throughout is the relationship between Lionel and Susan who find that despite the pomposity of the former and the witlessness of the latter (Susan is, for example, wont to takes things literally as when Lionel asks him to throw a rope over the wall he plans to climb), they make a pretty good team. The most enjoyable part of the film is watching the odd couple wind up in all manner of outlandish scrapes, stumbling their way out, and getting confused with each other at every turn through miscommunication and misunderstanding.

Missing Link, as directed by Laika regular Chris Butler, is less Kubo and the Two Strings this time and more Wallace & Gromit. The action is less pronounced, the stakes aren’t as critical and the tone is more tongue-in-cheek. While the fight scenes that do take place are inventively staged and great fun to watch, the film is far more interested in enjoying the journey as it unfolds and playing around with the characters along the way. This takes place in a time before there were planes and automobiles and so it is appropriate that the film never feels like it needs to rush things along so we can get to the endpoint that little bit sooner. We instead get to enjoy each splendidly designed setting and revel in their varying qualities and atmospheres at a pleasantly relaxed pace, allowing us to appreciate all the more the breadth of their voyage how animated each location feels. As a result, the film never feels like it’s trying too hard to keep things moving and hold our attention. The whole thing feels perfectly at ease with itself, never once resorting to eye-rollingly self-aware winks to the audience or out-of-place pop culture references, as if the children watching couldn’t appreciate an earnest, straightforward adventure such as this.

Laika demonstrates once again the breathtaking possibilities of stop-motion animation, a tradition that has been around for as long as cinema, with set-piece after set-piece featuring intricate detail, resplendent colours and wonderfully designed models, all of them lovingly crafted and positioned by hand. During the end-credits there’s a behind-the-scenes glimpse of all the work that went into accomplishing this one sweeping shot of Lionel, Susan and Adelina riding on the back of an elephant through an Indian jungle. Through an engaging time lapse we get see all the effort that went into moving each little detail, not just on the main characters as they traverse through the area but also the shuffling leaves in the greenery and the scrambling wildlife all around them so that the world they all inhabit might feel as rich and lived-in as our own. The only digital effect in the whole shot is the green-screened mountain range in the background. It all makes for a film that feels utterly immersive, as if the children in the audience were watching figures they could have built themselves out of papier-mâché and paint come to life and inhabit the world they conjured in their imaginations. Missing Link doesn’t reinvent the wheel nor are its themes as deep or profound as those in Kubo, but what it does do – create an exquisite world, present some delightful characters, and give the audience a good old time – it does well.

★★★★

Shazam!

Cast: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Adam Brody, Djimon Hounsou

Director: David F. Sandberg

Writer: Henry Gayden


With the global phenomenon that superheroes have become and the weightiness and maturity that many fans have come to associate with the genre, whether it be the disturbed philosophy of The Dark Knight, the reflective politics of Black Panther, or even the obscenely adult humour of Deadpool, a lot of people forget that most of the superheroes we love originate from comic books and Saturday morning cartoons aimed at children. The early DCEU films in particular tried so hard to adapt these stories into an esteemed, multifaceted saga with the kind of dark, gritty tone, densely complicated narrative and bleak (some might even say nihilistic) morality that they hoped would establish them as Marvel’s mature older brother, that I couldn’t help but feel that DC found their universe’s childish origins to be downright embarrassing. When The LEGO Batman Movie came out, a film that unashamedly aimed itself towards children and eagerly celebrated its hero’s colourful, campy history, I was as dumbstruck as I was impressed. This was a movie that wasn’t the least bit embarrassed to treat the mythology of the Caped Crusader as ‘kid’s stuff’, practically a blasphemous statement to make in this day and age. Shazam! follows in this tradition as a superhero movie that was gleefully made for kids and has absolutely no problem leaning on the inherent silliness and childishness of superhero movies.

Based on a 1940s comic book series about a superhero called Captain Marvel (a name that unsurprisingly never gets uttered once in this film), Shazam! is the story of the un-titular hero’s alter-ego Billy Baston (Asher Angel). Billy is a 14-year-old boy who has been living in foster care since he was little but has never stayed in any single place for long due to being a difficult and rebellious brat. He gets into trouble with the police thanks to a stunt he pulls in an attempt to track down his birth mother, leading him to be relocated to yet another foster home run by the welcoming and loving Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Rosa Vasquez (Marta Milans). Their home is a large and diverse one that houses the paraplegic wisecracker Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), college hopeful Mary (Grace Fulton), tech genius Eugene (Ian Chen), uncommunicative loner Pedro (Jovan Armand), and bubbly sweetheart Darla (Faithe Herman). Billy however has no desire to become a part of their family and resolves to run away as soon as possible. He does however demonstrate a capacity for nobility and kindness when he defends Freddy from a pack of school bullies, a deed that catches the attention of a force far beyond his comprehension. Billy is thus transported to a mystical lair where he meets the dying wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), who bestows his magical powers onto the young boy so that he might defeat the great evil that is to come.

What follows is essentially Big if it were also a superhero film. Billy discovers that by saying the word “Shazam!” he can transform himself into an impressively buff, superpowered adult man in a red spandex suit (played by Zachary Levi). Whether the spandex suit is actually a part of his physical body or if it’s simply an impractical outfit that offers no apparent means of relief when nature calls, Billy never figures out. Confused and beside himself, he brings Freddy in on the secret and together they set out to discover just what exactly Billy’s new body can do. Through a series of tests they learn that Billy’s powers include super strength and speed, invulnerability, and lightning magic. Their initial response however isn’t exactly that with great power comes great responsibility. Instead the adolescent boys take advantage of Billy’s abilities by buying beer under his adult guise, using his lightning powers to charge their phones, and uploading his stunts onto YouTube. Levi proves himself to be an ideal casting choice, looking imposing enough that anyone would be awed by his presence but also making use of his comedic talents to show that there is a young kid in there who cannot believe that he is inhabiting this kind of body. Even if his brash and awkward portrayal of the character isn’t exactly consistent with Angel’s performance as the rather quiet and level headed Billy, it still works.

Soon enough the big bad comes along in the form of Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), the unfortunate child of a rotten family who was summoned by Shazam as a young boy but was rejected from the call for power and greatness when his heart proved impure. Having dedicated his whole life to returning to that magical realm and claiming what he believes to be his destiny, Sivana has struck a deal with the devil (or, rather, seven demonic entities personifying the deadly sins) in order to realise his goal. Strong is such an intimidating figure throughout that his mere presence is enough to make you forget that Shazam! is a kid’s film. One scene where Sivana marches straight into a board meeting and casually tosses a character out of a skyscraper window mid-sentence caught me completely off guard. What makes him a great foil to Levi in this kind of movie is that Sivana has absolutely no idea he is the villain in a children’s comedy, making his puzzlement at the adult Billy’s amusing antics and juvenile humour all the funnier. The best example of this comes in their climatic showdown where Sivana’s obligatory bad guy speech about how much more powerful he is than the hero and how futile his efforts are doesn’t quite land with the effect he intended.

Shazam! isn’t just a kid’s adventure with some silly gags and action scenes. Billy’s main concern before acquiring his powers is searching for his long-lost mother, a pursuit that eventually leads him to some tough truths and complicated feelings. What Billy wants more than anything is to have a family that loves and accepts him and he gets so consumed both by his fruitless search and the preoccupation of being a superhuman with god-like powers that he doesn’t even notice how close he is to seeing his dream come true. The Vasquez family have invited him into their lives and are only too willing to offer the belonging and affection he has always desired, but Billy is so blind to the chance that it isn’t until an external threat appears and threatens to take them all away that he even realises what he actually had. It’s a strong lesson with such a satisfying payoff that the movie doesn’t care if it comes across as a bit schmaltzy. Such sweetness and sincerity is almost unheard of in a modern-day superhero blockbuster and the movie wears its own hokiness like a badge of honour. This is a movie that was made with the whole family in mind and it wants viewers to walk away feeling not only thrilled and amused but also moved.

Shazam! feels like a movie that was made in the Spielbergian spirit of the 1980s, an era where PG actually meant something. It’s a kid’s adventure through and through, but with enough of a personality and an edge to make it feel like there is something grown-up happening amidst all the adolescent jokes and cartoonish action. Unlike the likes of Netflix’s Stranger Things though, it doesn’t rely on direct references and callbacks in order for the connection to be made; it’s all there in the style and tone. The movie is goofy, but it’s also action-packed. It’s a movie that’s capable of being silly and light-hearted in one moment soberly dark the next without it feeling like a dissonant clash in tones. It’s a movie where not all of the digital effects look top notch, but that’s sort of part of its child-like charm. It is also, much in the spirit of such 80s classics as E.T. and The Goonies, a movie that lends much weight to childish personalities and experiences. Freddy in particular, a kid whose disability has rendered him to as much of an outcast as Billy, is a character whose voice counts for a lot as he assumes the role of both friend and (seriously unqualified) mentor. The rapport they share is one of the many pleasures of this thoroughly enjoyable movie.

★★★★