Midsommar

Cast: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren, Will Poulter

Director: Ari Aster

Writer: Ari Aster


First with Hereditary and now with Midsommar Ari Aster has delivered another horror film where the most intense and dreadful scenes aren’t those that where the violence inflicted on the characters is physical but is instead emotional. In a movie packed with crazy cultists and bloody murder, it’s the raw depictions of such unbearable emotions as grief, rage, depression, helplessness and isolation that hit the hardest because of how uncomfortably close to home they are for so many of us. Who amongst us hasn’t had that fear that we’re driving our closest friends away by burdening them with our baggage? Who amongst us hasn’t dreaded the prospect of being abandoned by our loved ones and left alone, inconsolable and powerless? Who amongst us hasn’t craved in vain for a place where we can belong and be loved and accepted as we are without reservation? Such are the devastating fears that Midsommar opts to explore and eventually realise on an appallingly extreme level. For all the blood and gore in this film (of which there is a lot) and the disturbing nature of its setting and many of the characters, it is the great dejection of the severely damaged person at its centre that makes it so gut-wrenching to watch, especially as we behold the emotional fallout of the fundamentally broken relationship she is in with all the intensity of watching a gruesome car crash in slow motion.

Our protagonist is Dani (Florence Pugh), a young woman who, in the opening minutes, suffers a devastating, unimaginable loss. It happens on a rainy night when she receives an ominous email from her sister, who has bipolar disorder and a history of self-harm. Dani’s desperate attempts to get in touch with her and their parents go unanswered, leaving her in a tearful panic. Compounded with her dread that something terrible may have happened is her apprehensive fear that her worry is an overreaction and that her hysteria will only make things worse. Although she has a boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), whom one would assume she could rely on to provide comfort and reassurance in this ordeal, she’s worried she’ll end up scaring him off if she continues to impose upon him with her anxieties and problems. By the end of the scene, we see Dani’s greatest fears turn out to be true on both fronts. Her sister has done something awful beyond anything she could have imagined (the way Aster goes about the nail-baiting reveal through the menacing, stalker-like movement of the camera is masterful) and her boyfriend does think of her as a nuisance who asks too much of him. We learn that he most likely would have dumped Dani before long if not for her tragic misfortune, but even as he remains by her side he can barely will himself to provide more than polite, nominal support for her in all her tremendous pain and anguish.

Months later Christian’s friends Mark (Will Poulter) and Josh (William Jackson Harper) keep egging him to rip the bandage and dump Dani so that they can all move on and enjoy the trip to Sweden they’ve been invited on by their classmate Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren). Dani, so starved for relief and affection that she finds the half-hearted company of her ambivalent boyfriend and his mates preferable to the prospect of being left alone, invites herself along. While the gory moments in the later part of the movie are pretty unsettling in their own right, it was the suffocating tension between Dani and Christian in their inability to communicate and be honest with one another that had me peeking between my fingers. The way that Christian kept tip-toeing about how burdensome he finds his girlfriend to be at this point and Dani’s awkward interactions with the friends who can just barely disguise how annoying they find her presence on their boys’ trip to be are so endlessly bleak and uncomfortable to watch that they had me wincing in ways that even the most graphically violent horror films tend not to. The only person who seems at all excited to have Dani along is Pelle, who suffered a similar loss to her at a young age and is more compassionate and sensitive to her anguish than the rest by a mile and a half.

Their destination is the remote community of Hårga, a picturesque and pastoral place that’s so out of the way and so divorced from modern society that only a single vehicle ever goes back and forth between them and the nearest town and mobile phones cannot pick up any reception. If that’s not the makings of a horror movie setting, then I don’t know what is. Their life is a communal one, free from the trappings of modern civilisation. They live off the land, share their worldly possessions, living spaces and labour, and function freely without government, hierarchies or capital. The people, all of them fair-skinned and wearing luminous white frocks, greet their guests with congenial smiles and inviting hospitality, excited to have them all along for this momentous, near-centennial festival that marks the occasion. On the outset, it’s a given that the culture they’ve come to observe and celebrate is a foreign one; one that Christian and his fellow graduate researcher friends understand has preserved a more authentic and agrarian lifestyle than what they are used to with their 21st century upbringings, which is what primes them to indulge the stranger and more macabre aspects of their traditions. Thus, as odd it is to see a caged bear in the vicinity for no apparent reason and as unsettling as the disturbing folk art decorating the shared living area are, they are rationalised as customs that differ from our own as opposed to sinister red flags.

While the setting is foreign to most audiences (although, come to think of it, isn’t that true about pretty much every film?), the sensibility will be very familiar to British and American viewers. The movie taps into a desire for community and connection that many people share, both to the present and the past. It’s what inspires us to selectively romanticise aspects of history and of foreign cultures while brushing the less appealing and flattering aspects under the rug (in the UK, one need only watch an ITV costume drama for an example). The whole reason Christian and co. embark on this expedition is because they are anthropology graduate students leaping on the unique chance to study a secluded society. Thus when they are invited to witness what turns out to be a ritual suicide where two elders walk of a cliff (only for one of them to survive and have his head crushed by a giant hammer), the academics reason that they ought to stay and keep an open mind rather than fleeing there and then as any other person would. While Dani most certainly wants to leave at this point, it is she who learns better than anybody else the deeper value of the attachments that these traditions serve. The guys don’t end up developing more than a detached interest in the community, which is why they don’t feel particularly apprehensive about wanting to get off with one of their young, beautiful maidens or sneaking around during the one hour of night-time darkness to photograph their most private scriptures. It is Dani alone who truly acclimates to their warped ways and finds that there really is something at the heart of the cult’s repugnant practices.

The most remarkable moment in the whole film comes towards the end in which Dani, having been crowned the May Queen upon winning a dancing competition, has a total breakdown that reduces her to a sobbing mess. These have been quite a frequent occurrence for her since that terrible night in the opening scene, as is demonstrated in a terrific shot that seamlessly transitions from a breakdown in her boyfriend’s apartment to another breakdown in an airplane bathroom. Every time this happens to her, Dani is by herself and she suffers in silence. Only this time, having witnessed an upsetting act that triggers another meltdown, her pain and anguish are met not with ignorance and apathy but with heartfelt affection. The women of the village follow Dani as she attempts to retreat to somewhere more private and, when she cannot hold the tears back any longer, they all cling on to her and wail in empathy to her tortured screams. It is a cathartic moment for Dani who, after months of being made to feel like her pain was nothing more than a burden on others, is finally validated as a person who deserves to be held and nurtured. For all of their murderous deeds and vicious rituals, the people of Hårga offer Dani the kind of love and acceptance that she so desperately needs and has been so cruelly denied by those closest to her, something for which no price seems too great. There’s a certain horror in learning that you don’t belong (as it was in The Wicker Man, clearly a key source of inspiration), but Midsommar shows that there’s just as much to be found in discovering that you do.

★★★★

Advertisements

Spider-Man: Far From Home

Cast: Tom Holland, Samuel L. Jackson, Zendaya, Cobie Smulders, Jon Favreau, J.B. Smoove, Jacob Batalon, Martin Starr, Marisa Tomei, Jake Gyllenhaal

Director: Jon Watts

Writers: Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers


Following the cataclysmic, seismic events of Avengers: Endgame, Spider-Man: Far From Home offers a similar kind of respite as Ant-Man and the Wasp did after Infinity War. In the aftermath of Thanos’ apocalyptic crusade and the critical feats and sacrifices it took to defeat him, the biggest thing worrying our friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man (Tom Holland) is how to tell the girl he’s crushing on that he likes her. Once again directed by Jon Watts, this latest instalment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe follows the example of Homecoming by placing its main focus on the coming-of-age aspects of the Spider-Man story and reining things back a bit. The action is on a smaller scale than whatever Thor or Captain Marvel are wont to get up to and the tone falls more in line with a teen comedy than it does a sci-fi/fantasy epic. While there are still hard lessons about power and responsibility to be learnt, there is plenty of relief to be found in Far From Home in the form of light-hearted comedy, an upbeat soundtrack and adolescent romance. The movie is also the start of a new era for the MCU (one that Spider-Man may not even end up being a part of, but that’s another story) as it grapples with Tony Stark’s legacy and what the future holds for Peter Parker.

Following the five-year period during which half of the world’s population had been snapped out of existence, referred to in this film as ‘The Blip’, Peter Parker is back at school and things are starting to return to normal. The shadow of Tony Stark looms large in this post-Thanos world and there is a question of who will step in to fill the void his death has left, but that’s not a question Peter is ready to face just yet as he continues to mourn the loss of his mentor and father figure. For now he’s back on the streets beating up small-time thugs, Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) is taking the revelation of his double life well, and he’s about to go on a trip to Europe with his friends Ned (Jacob Batalon) and MJ (Zendaya). Having recently grown rather smitten with MJ, this is the chance he’s been waiting for to tell her how he feels and he is determined not to let anything get in his way, even opting to leave his Spider Suit behind (which Aunt May cordially packs for him anyway). All he wants for the next few days is to be a normal teenager, hang out with his friends, and take a break from being a superhero for a while. But, as the saying goes, when people make plans, Yahweh laughs.

Peter’s vacation is threatened by the sudden arrival of these monstrous forces known as the Elementals. They strike without warning and leave a great trail of destruction in their wake and the only person who knows anything about them is Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal). Beck, also known as Mysterio, is a superhero from another dimension who has followed the Elementals into this realm to stop them before they reduce it to the ruin that his own world has become. This quest has led him to Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who is now trying to enlist Spider-Man to help them save the world from total carnage. When Peter ignores his call and proceeds with his holiday, Fury relocates the entire operation to Europe, hijacks the school’s trip, and presses onto the young webslinger that ‘no’ is not an option for him. The action takes Peter from Venice to Prague to London and as he works with Beck to battle these supernatural entities, the effort to keep his two lives separate grows all the more hectic and desperate. As things come to a head and grow more and more out of his control, Peter must finally decide what really matters to him and whether he truly is ready to assume Stark’s mantle as the hero that the world needs.

In this movie Peter is a young man on the cusp of adulthood and the main focus is on his growth and the impossible expectations he must somehow live up to as defined by the example set by Tony Stark. I’ve always been a little ambivalent about how largely this latest characterisation of Spider-Man revolves around Iron Man; to me it’s just more compelling for Peter to be out there all on his own driven only by the memory of a beloved family member whose death he is partly responsible for than to be adopted by this benevolent billionaire godfather who gifts him with all of these high-tech gadgets and handy short cuts. Whether Uncle Ben exists in this universe has yet to be confirmed however so Stark is the best that Marvel’s got and the movie makes good use of the connection between them (especially considering that Robert Downey Jr. never makes an appearance save in archive footage). There is a void in Peter’s life and he is searching for someone to show him the way forward. With Nick Fury impatiently pushing him to just grow up already and Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) getting uncomfortably close to May, Peter ends up confiding in the supportive and compassionate Beck, whom Gyllenhaal plays with chameleonic charm and magnetism.

While I think the jury is still out on where Holland ranks compared to Maguire and Garfield in the Spider-Man hierarchy, he remains my favourite Peter Parker, which is a strength in a film that has him undergo an identity crisis as his double life threatens to unravel around him. There’s an endearing sense of sincerity and earnestness to his take on the hapless hero, as if his compulsion to be just, decent and good was less of a choice on his part and more because he simply doesn’t know how else to be. He’s also immature enough that there’s still ample room for him to learn and grow, especially as his immaturity leads him to make mistakes that place himself and others in danger (as in one scene where he accidentally makes his rival for MJ’s affections the target of a military drone). Holland is once again on full form with the hyperactive charm he’s brought to all of his previous appearances in the MCU (while this is his second solo outing, it’s the fifth movie overall in which he has played Spidey) and continues to sell the idea of Peter as a frantic underdog who is only barely managing to keep his head above water. The text doesn’t always support that depiction (he is wearing a Stark-designed robo-spider suit after all) but the performance cannot be faulted.

While the action is constructed on a slightly more restrained scale that the other MCU entries, Watts still manages to bring the thrills by making inventive use of the character and the foes he must battle. There’s one particular sequence at the end that impresses in how it employs the hero’s Spider-Sense (called the Peter Tingle in this film) when all his other powers and senses fail him. There are also some wonderfully trippy scenes throughout akin to those in Doctor Strange that add the exact touch of surrealism you would want in a film featuring a character like Mysterio. The hallucinogenic quality of these scenes work so well at tapping into Peter’s vulnerability and highlighting the fish-out-of-water nature of his arc that it feels like the story could have been told with greater emotional focus had they opted to set the movie in Peter’s native Queens. Obviously I get that the title Far From Home is supposed to apply on both a literal and metaphorical level but the European segments felt rather redundant to me in a movie that has a lot going for it at its emotional core. I have no doubt that the commercial Disney has made for European tourism will work its magic on international viewers, but I don’t see any narrative reason why the movie couldn’t have told a more focused and personal version of this story set in New York.

The best thing the movie has going for it is that it is such effortless fun to watch. Holland continues to helm the franchise as an appealing lead and the chemistry he shares with his co-stars, particularly Gyllenhaal and Zendaya, makes the film all the more watchable. By moving the action to Europe and turning the spectacle up a notch they did lose a little of that down-to-earth, John-Hughes-ish teenage spirit that made Homecoming such a delight, but since this is a film about growth that may not necessarily be a bad thing. It remains a fun light-hearted adventure, there are plenty of laughs to be had (if only from Ned’s fleeting but sweet fling with Betty Brant (Angourie Rice)) and there’s a certain warmth to the film that’s not really there in any of the other Marvel titles. The movie is hardly the equal of Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 or last year’s Into the Spider-Verse, but it’s almost unfair to make the comparison when viewing these MCU films as the simple and pleasing B-stories that they’re supposed to be. Far From Home is a pleasant and enjoyable film that’s thoroughly gratifying to watch and it really doesn’t need to be much more than that. It also has the best mid-credits scene in any MCU movie thus far, so there’s that.

★★★★

Yesterday

Cast: Hamish Patel, Lily James, Ed Sheeran, Kate McKinnon

Director: Danny Boyle

Writer: Richard Curtis


In all of these years I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a movie that showed such little interest in such a promising concept. The premise is the actualisation of a fantasy that most of us have had at one time or another. A man wakes up one day to find that that the music of a phenomenally popular band has been erased and that he alone in the entire world remembers them. Armed with that sacred knowledge and a decent enough singing voice to make a go of it as a musician, he resolves to pass the songs off as his own and reap the benefits. It’s a terrific idea for a movie that opens itself up to countless possibilities just begging to be explored. But you see, there’s this girl; she’s the kind of girl you want so much it makes you sorry. It’s probably to be expected that Richard Curtis, the patron saint of British rom-coms, should want a quaint romance at the heart of this light-hearted fantasy. Why he felt that such a conventional and familiar story should totally supplant the endless potential of this alternate dimension he created however escapes me. Nearly every opportunity that the premise invites goes woefully unfulfilled to the point that the whole thing feels like nothing more than an afterthought. Instead of being taken away on the magical mystery tour that the movie promises, all we get in the end is a mediocre love story.

At the centre of it all is Jack Malik (Hamish Patel), a struggling musician whose career is going nowhere and who has no other direction or passion in life (he’s a bit of a nowhere man, if you will). For the last ten years since leaving his teaching job, he’s been busking on the same old streets, playing gigs in the same old pubs, and sharing his music with the same old group of friends. After one lousy gig too many, he’s ready to hang his guitar and walk away and it doesn’t look even his best friend, manager and biggest fan Ellie (Lily James) will be able talk him out of it. That is until one fateful night when a worldwide power cut ensues for twelve seconds, causing Jack to be hit by a bus. He wakes up the following morning in the hospital where the ever so winsome Ellie is waiting by his side with a brand new guitar as a get well present. Together they leave to meet their friends and Jack treats them to a rendition of an old favourite, ‘Yesterday’ by The Beatles. Only it’s the first time any of them have heard what they assume to be one of his own songs, by far his best one yet. A quick google search reveals to Jack that no such band as The Beatles exists anymore and that he appears to be the only one with any recollection of their music. Thus he finds himself faced with a singular opportunity to become the musician he’s always aspired to be.

You would be hard-pressed to find a group who have done more to influence the course and evolution of popular music in the last half century than The Beatles. They launched the British Invasion, set the template for boy bands, pioneered a movement of sonic and psychedelic experimentation, spoke to a younger, more enlightened generation on radical and taboo topics, and wrote more amazing songs than I can even begin to count. Therefore the idea that The Rolling Stones, Coldplay and Ed Sheeran could exist in a sans-Beatles world (as they all do in this film) is completely unbelievable to me. That might sound a bit pedantic but what it comes down to is the total lack of curiosity the movie has for contemplating a contemporary cultural landscape in a world where The Beatles never existed. The movie makes a couple of token gestures, the best of which is a tour around a Liverpool that never became a European Capital of Culture and the worst of which is a deeply uncomfortable scene in the third act, but for the most part the movie treats its Twilight Zone premise as little more than an obstacle in the rom-com love story it really wants to tell. The question of whether The Beatles would still be The Beatles in a modern world without their legacy is a fascinating one that I wish the movie had done more to explore.

In its presentation of the Fab Four’s songs, all of which are performed as closely to their original forms as a single tenor with an electric guitar can get, the movie is inviting us to listen to them as if for the first time and there are some moments when it works. What bothers me though is how uninterested the film really is in trying to understand what makes the music as great as it is and why it resonates with listeners as strongly as it does. The assumption seems to more or less be that the songs are great because they’re by The Beatles, whom we all love. It appears the film believes (wrongly) that the greatness of any work of art has little bearing on the time and place in which it was made or to its creator. A tune like ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’, with its Buddy-Holly-style rhythm and Everly-Brothers-inspired harmonies, doesn’t really work as a new song in 2019 without a modern update of some kind because its electrifying pop sound is no longer as fresh and dynamic as it was in 1963. Yesterday also seems just as unconcerned with what kind of personal connection Jack himself has with these songs. In a scene where he plays ‘In My Life’ on a talk show, Ellie is moved because she thinks the song is about her. Jack in contrast seems to have put almost no thought in what these songs are supposed to mean coming from him (that he doesn’t even stop to think about how weird it is for a man in his late twenties to sing “Well, she was just seventeen, you know what I mean” should at least be worth a raised eyebrow).

But enough about the film I wish they’d made, what about the film I actually saw? Well, aside from its sci-fi concept that it only occasionally addresses, Yesterday is at its core a love story and a pretty weak one at that. The two leads are charming enough that they are able to generate some little spark between them, he as the sensitive but self-centred artist and she as his kind-hearted and infinitely giving supporter. She carries a torch for him but not only is he entirely clueless about her affections, he doesn’t seem to have the slightest interest in sex or romance in general. It’s not until Ellie confronts him about her unrequited crush at the most awkward moment possible that it even occurs to him to look at this beautiful woman who continuously beckons to his call and worships the ground he walks on with in any kind of romantic light. When Jack makes it big, she falls out of his life partly out of her justified frustration for having been taken for granted for so long and partly because of her commitments as a schoolteacher. When the two reunite and Jack reveals that he does fancy her after all, the most conflict Curtis can conjure to prolong their will-they-won’t-they rapport is the fact that neither one did anything about their feelings before. The lack of any convincing obstacle to keep them apart gets so tiresome and the constant miserable state Jack is in is so off-putting that it didn’t take me long to wonder what it was she even saw in him and to conclude that she’s better off without him anyway.

On the comedy side of things, the movie fares a little better. The premise allows for some humorous moments as when Jack tries to play ‘Let It Be’ for his parents, expecting them to be wowed by one of the most moving songs in the Beatles canon, only for them to keep interrupting him with one distraction after another. There’s also a running joke throughout about Jack discovering that some other facet of modern culture has disappeared including Coca Cola (which presumably required him to reword ‘Come Together’ slightly) and Harry Potter. Ed Sheeran has an unexpectedly amusing role as an exaggerated version of himself who lifts Jack to fame only to be eclipsed by him. I’d have liked to see more of Sheeran as the self-described Salieri to Jack’s Mozart, but he would have had to play a much less affable version of himself to really sell it. I also enjoyed Kate McKinnon’s role as the greedy, soulless music executive intent on signing Jack to her record label, moulding him into the most generic singer/songwriter brand they can possibly market and milking the Beatles’ music for every cent it’s worth. Their satirical take of the music industry is pretty broad (not least because it has to make room for the love story) but McKinnon’s over-the-top expressions and comical line deliveries are always good for some reliable laughs.

It’s a shame to see a film take on such a surreal and inspired concept only to end up with something that feels so sadly generic. The movie leans so heavily on a crutch of clichés that by the time we get to the end and see the romantic payoff it’s all been leading to, Curtis cannot even summon a fraction of the tenderness and feel-good warmth that might have made the hackneyed journey feel worth it. Even with a crap film like Love Actually, he can normally add enough charm and sentimentality that you can go along with the ride and enjoy it for the piece of schmaltz that it is. Whatever vision or style Danny Boyle might have brought as a director is so passive or absent that there is no doubt about Yesterday being a Richard Curtis movie. The movie doesn’t even work as a tribute to The Beatles since, apparently, the world as we know it would have remained virtually the same as it is today, if ever so slightly more melancholic, had they not existed. There are so many more questions I want to ask of this Beatles-less world (Who sang the theme song to Live and Let Die? What stage name did Reginald Dwight end up adopting? Did Eric Clapton ever write ‘Layla’?), but the movie has no interest in so much as entertaining such queries. I could go on but, in the end, I think The Beatles said it best so, to paraphrase: “Doesn’t have a point of view, knows not where it’s going to, making all it’s nowhere plans for nobody”.

★★

Toy Story 4

Cast: (voiced by) Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Tony Hale, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Madeleine McGraw, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Ally Maki, Jay Hernandez, Lori Alan, Joan Cusack

Director: Josh Cooley

Writers: Stephany Folsom, Andrew Stanton


In the three films that made up its near-perfect trilogy, Toy Story told what was more or less a complete story about the life cycle of a sentient toy. What started off as a pretty cute idea (what if your toys came to life whenever you left the room?) grew into something richer and more compelling by virtue of having so many characters just teeming with personality, thoughts and feelings. Over the course of the years-long span of these three movies we’ve seen Woody and the gang confront such weighty themes as growth, identity, parenthood, trauma, abandonment, mortality and transient love. It concluded with a grown-up Andy passing the toys on to another child so that their calling in life, to belong to a child and be played with, may never come to an end. It is as moving and powerful an ending as any Pixar could have dreamed up and to say that it left me satisfied would be an understatement. Thus, when I heard that a fourth movie was on its way, my reaction was apprehension and dread. Why mess with something that already ended perfectly? Why not leave well enough alone? Where else can they even possibly go with the story? Perhaps it’s the desperate move of a once fresh and dynamic company that’s struggling to offer its audience something new (of the ten films Pixar has released since Toy Story 3, six have been sequels and prequels). If there is indeed some anxiety within Pixar about the fear of becoming obsolete, irrelevant and forgotten, they’ve baked it into the very DNA of this film.

After having spent three movies exploring the emotional challenges and harsh realities of life as a toy, an immortal life of child-like dependence and parent-like nurturing that inevitably ends in relinquishment, the fourth instalment takes things a step further by delving into the theme of their very existence. What does it actually mean to be a toy? Enter Forky, a plastic spork with googly eyes, pipe cleaner arms and popsicle stick feet brought to life by Bonnie’s imagination and desire for a friend at her new school. Forky’s defining trait as a character is his existential crisis. He was created for the sole purpose of becoming trash and keeps trying to break away from Bonnie and make for the nearest bin so that his purpose might be fulfilled. Woody however thwarts him at every turn. Forky is a toy now; he has been endowed with a consciousness and a soul by a five-year-old girl’s desperate need for a companion during a scary time in her life and Woody tries his darndest to press onto the panicky spork that it is now his duty to be there for her. Throughout this whole series all the toys we have met, both good and bad, have shared a single motivation compelling their actions at every point, the desire for a child’s love. Through Forky we are given the greatest illustration yet of how that love isn’t just what these toys yearn and strive for, it is essentially what gives them life.

That desire to be loved carries with it a desire to be needed and since being given away by Andy to Bonnie, Woody has found himself relegated to the sidelines. He clearly cares for the kid and is as determined as ever to look out for his friends, but his heroics and leadership aren’t really called for in this safe, cushy gig that they’ve landed and he’s no longer the playtime favourite. Jessie is now Bonnie’s sheriff of choice; the old cowboy tends to be left stranded in the closet most days. When Woody elects himself to join the shy, nervous Bonnie on her first day at kindergarten, it’s like he’s a grandparent intervening in his granddaughter’s life in some minor, nominal way because he misses having a small child depend on him. He means well, but it’s still more about making himself feel useful than it is about helping Bonnie. Woody is essentially a weathered old hand on the verge of retirement and he’s simply not ready to be discarded and forgotten (a fate that befalls every toy sooner or later). For an immortal being, this is as close to death as it gets short of being incinerated (as they all very nearly were in Toy Story 3). Thus, with Forky’s creation, Woody finds some purpose for himself as the self-appointed guardian of Bonnie’s new favourite but even that can only keep him busy for so long. When Woody is later reunited with Bo Peep, whose departure we see in the opening scene, and learns of the life she’s built for herself since, it’s then that he starts to wonder whether there is more to being a toy than having a kid’s name written on the sole of your foot.

It’s a tough question that Woody struggles to answer because he and so many of the other toys he’s encountered over the years have been conditioned to believe that a toy’s existence is meaningless without the love of a child. The dark side of this desire is presented in Gabby Gabby, a 1950s pullstring doll hidden away in an antiques shop. Her voicebox is broken, a manufacturing defect, and so she was rejected and stored away, left to sit and gather dust for all these decades. It’s a cruel lesson that the Toy Story films taught us before back when Woody tore his arm in the second film, that the adolescent love and adoration these toys all crave is conditional. Since no child wants to play with a pullstring doll that cannot speak, Gabby sets her sights on Woody’s voicebox when he Forky happen to wander into the shop in search of a friend. What makes Gabby a great antagonist (apart from being voiced by Christina Hendricks) is that she isn’t an outright villain in the way that Sid and Lotso were. She isn’t in herself a bad person but the years of neglect she’s suffered and the harsh belief that only true perfection will make her worthy of the affection she so despondently pines for compels her to act out in harmful ways. In meeting her Woody is treated to a dark reflection, a warning of who he might become if he allows his desire to be needed to consume him.

All of this talk about existential crises, moral dilemmas and empty futures makes Toy Story 4 sound like it could have been directed by David Lynch or Werner Herzog (either of which, incidentally, I would absolutely love to see happen). I should therefore take this chance to stress that the movie is in fact a delight to watch in all the ways Toy Story has always been. The movie is a visual splendour from beginning to end, not only in the wonderful designs it conjures up from the dark, sinister antiques shop that Gabby dominates with her ventriloquist dummy stooges (the scariest things in the film) to the colourfully resplendent fairground just across the road or in the seamless fluidity of the movements and action but also in the character animation. So many of the film’s most touching moments hit all the harder because the animators always know the exact right expression to go for to complement the performance, just as writers Stanton and Folsom and director Cooley know when to stop for a moment so that the audience has some time to take it in. Pixar remains one of the modern masters of visual storytelling and Toy Story 4 is yet another testament to them. The movie is also incredibly funny, thanks in no small part to the inclusion of such new characters as a pair of conjoined plush dolls voiced by Keegan Michael-Key and Jordan Peele and a Canadian Evel Knievel knock-off as voiced by Keanu Reeves.

It shouldn’t be possible for a movie to be this funny and entertaining while still being this loaded with philosophy and metaphor and yet Toy Story makes it look almost childishly simple. Part of the reason it works as well as it does is due to how freely flexible so much of the subtext is. The movie is loaded with images and ideas that can be a hundred different things to a hundred different people, all of whom can impart their own feelings onto the text of the film and read it all of their subtly different ways without the movie ever seeming like it’s at odds with itself. Woody is a character so rich in personality, history and mythology that he can be whichever character the individual viewer needs him to be. When Toy Story 3 came along nine years ago and delivered not only the perfect ending to its own story but also the ending that my seventeen-year-old self needed to see at that age, I was adamant that Pixar had no business revisiting this franchise and tarnishing its legacy. Having now watched Toy Story 4 I still believe that this is a movie that didn’t need to exist, but I’m glad that it does all the same. That the 1995 animated classic grew into such a magnificent blockbuster series and has against all odds proven itself capable of evolving and reinventing itself across generations is a feat worthy of celebration. Now please Pixar, for the love of God and all that is holy, stop making these films!

★★★★★

Men in Black: International

Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Rebecca Ferguson, Kumail Nanjiani, Rafe Spall, Laurent Bourgeois, Larry Bourgeois, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson

Director: F. Gary Gray

Writers: Art Marcum, Matt Holloway


Men in Black is one of those curious franchises that, even decades after its first release, has yet to prove itself a viable franchise. As is the case with Jurassic Park and Ghostbusters, the continuing popularity of the series has endured almost entirely because of a single original film that no subsequent release has managed to match, never mind surpass. The profits are there, to be sure, but that’s more of a marketing achievement than it is a qualitative one. On the two occasions that the original team from the 1997 hit (minus screenwriter Ed Solomon) reunited to revisit what appeared to be a strong enough foundation upon which to build a continuing franchise, the results have been underwhelming. Whatever the secret ‘X’ factor is that allowed the first Men in Black to be this perfect, unique action-comedy-sci-fi blockbuster, neither of its sequels were able to figure it out. Maybe it’s a case of lightning being captured in a bottle where the success of the original was so singular and unlikely that any attempt to recapture the magic will always be doomed to fail. Or perhaps all Sonnenfeld, Smith and Jones ever needed to do was let the original be and allow somebody else take a crack at the series. With Men in Black: International however, as directed by F. Gary Gray and featuring an all-new cast, comes yet another instalment in a franchise that still cannot justify its own continuation.

The same surface elements are there. We have a mismatched duo in the level-headed rookie Agent M (Tessa Thompson) and the devil-may-care pro Agent H (Chris Hemsworth), some big-budget special effects, and a tone that attempts to thread the needle between buddy comedy, action movie thrills and campy sci-fi. What appears to be missing is an adequate understanding of how the first movie employed those components to make it as enjoyable as it was. When Agent M (or Molly) comes to the secret agency’s London branch (after having learned of their existence and successfully applied to be recruited) and meets her new partner, a celebrated agent who saved the world once before, the spark that the two actors shared in Thor: Ragnarok is entirely absent. The movie doesn’t seem to get that in order for a mismatched double act to work, there needs to be enough contrast to fuel both the comedic and dramatic sides of things. Agents J and K worked well together because it was so much fun to watch the cockiness and immaturity of the former clash with the formality and humourlessness of the latter and there was also ample room for both characters to grow. This movie however doesn’t impart enough of a personality to either character for such a rapport to develop; Agent M is overly confident in herself but not to the point of outright arrogance while Agent H is a maverick but not to the point that he needs to be reined in. The most conflict we get between the two comes in snide remarks and knowing looks.

When it is discovered that the Men in Black (a name that inspires a mildly funny exchange between Agent M and her boss Agent O (Emma Thompson)) has been infiltrated by a mole, it is up to the rookie and her hunky partner to track them down. The case takes them all over the world from Marrakesh to Paris to Naples and along the way there are plenty of action scenes to be had, high-tech gadgets to be used, and weird-looking aliens to meet. It’s a convoluted plot that involves an alien race called the Hive of which we learn little, a three-armed femme fatale named Riza (Rebecca Ferguson), and a tiny weapon capable of Death Star levels of destruction. The movie mostly concerns itself with world building on the mistaken belief that complicating the story is the same thing as making it more interesting. Instead we get a film at odds with itself as it tries to make sense of its own mess. One major plot point is how Agent H has never been the same since the celebrated mission when he and his former partner High T (Liam Neeson) saved the world, a point that holds little water when you compare Hemsworth’s performance in the opening flashback to the rest of the film. On both occasions he plays the role of the dashing hero leaping head first into battle and always wearing a cocky smile. If there was any change in his behaviour, it escaped me.

What the film needed to focus on far more pressingly was the comedy, of which there is depressingly little save for the odd comment made by a tiny, Jiminy-Cricket-looking alien named Pawny (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani). Even if the plot made any kind of sense on its own terms, it wouldn’t matter a bit if the audience didn’t have any fun watching it. The movie gives its two leads little in the way of actual jokes, opting instead for the kind of light, semi-improvisatory banter that tends to prevail in American comedies nowadays, trusting that the stars’ shared charisma and chemistry will be enough to carry the audience through. In a big-budget sci-fi romp that’s constantly rushing from one action set-piece to the next, these scenes grow increasingly meagre and tedious in their aimlessness and failure to add any spark or energy to a movie already lacking in such sensation. Gray, who boasts an adequate enough filmography to feel like a safe bet for this kind of title, directs the movie with the kind of perfunctory competence that is the lifeblood of passable movies. Passable, however, is the wrong approach for a property this weird; the Men in Black universe demands the touch of a director who can transmit a wackier, more cartoonish personality than what Gray has to offer. His style, if it can even be called that, feels far too routine and indifferent.

Too much of Men in Black: International feels calculated in its course rather than inspired. Towards the end as the film starts to realise that it needs to offer some kind of emotional payoff, it suddenly takes a turn and plays around with vague ideas that feel like they were half-heartedly thrown it at the last minute. It’s not even terribly clear what ideas the movie is trying to impart, but as things start to slow down and the music starts playing it’s obvious that we’re supposed to be moved by whatever is happening on screen. I guess there’s something about love or friendship there, although it isn’t really clear which since the film never quite makes its mind up on whether it wants Agents M and H to be understood as love interests or if their relationship is to remain strictly platonic. There’s also some hint of a past trauma that one of them is supposed to overcome, but that whole arc is so confused that it’s difficult to say for sure. The reason these themes are so difficult to define is because they are so largely concerned with indefinitely elaborated relationships and underwritten characters. Whatever ideas this film has on its mind, it doesn’t seem particularly interested in exploring them beyond the minimum required for whatever they think constitutes an emotional beat. So long as it feels like something significant has been said or done, it doesn’t really matter what that is; that’s how little this movie cares about anything beyond the bottom line.

★★

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.

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.

★★★★