Logan Lucky

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

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Writer: Rebecca Blunt


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

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

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

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

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

★★★★

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The Dark Tower

Cast: Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor, Claudia Kim, Fran Kranz, Abbey Lee, Katheryn Winnick, Jackie Earle Haley

Director: Nikolaj Arcel

Writers: Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen, Nikolaj Arcel


I had high hopes for this one. I read The Dark Tower series as a teenager and have been waiting for an adaptation ever since (it was always my feeling that a TV series would have served the books better than a film, but hey, I’ll take what I can get). Stephen King started writing this series in the 80s and it took him decades to complete what he hoped would be his magnum opus. The idea was to write an epic series akin to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and the Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns that would serve as the centrepiece of his literary universe, and it is a superb read. The Dark Tower has since been trapped in development hell as different filmmakers from J.J. Abrams to Ron Howard have attempted to bring this extensive, complex narrative to life (with Javier Bardem attached to star at one point). All roads have thus led us here, to Nikolaj Arcel’s The Dark Tower, a film which sadly leaves this decades-long journey unfulfilled.

The Man in Black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followed. The Man in Black is Walter Padick (Matthew McConaughey), a sorcerer who seeks to destroy the Dark Tower, the structure at the centre of the universe protecting all the worlds from the evils outside. The Gunslinger is Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), the last of an ancient order and the only man who can protect the Tower. A young boy called Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) has visions of these two and of the Tower, visions that his mother Laurie (Katheryn Winnick) and therapist dismiss as dreams brought by the trauma of his father’s death. Believing his visions to be real and determined to learn their meaning, Jake follows them to an abandoned house where he discovers a portal to Mid-World, the world in which the Dark Tower stands, and there meets Roland. The Gunslinger takes the boy under his wing and together they must pursue the Man in Black and stop him from destroying the Tower and bringing all the worlds to ruin.

Having been in development for so long and subjected to reshoots following negative test screenings, I think most people who watch this film will be able to tell that this is the work of a studio. It is business-like in its approach and never takes any chances with the story. In the original book series, you are dropped straight into the desolate, fantastical land of Mid-World and follow a mysterious, morally ambiguous protagonist on an uncertain quest. Here the protagonist is a teenage boy in New York who discovers that he is the key to saving the universe. We know that he’s troubled because he speaks to psychiatrists and skips school but he has no real personality to speak of. His father is dead, paving the way for Roland to step in as his surrogate father, and he possesses abilities that he does not understand. He isn’t so much a character as he is a plot device, there to take the story wherever the studio feels it has to go and to prompt the exposition wherever the studio feels its needed.

The two best and most strongly defined characters are, not coincidentally, the two who most closely resemble their literary counterparts. Elba’s Roland is a melancholy warrior, haunted by the ghosts of his past, and he brings a strong sense of weight to the role. This is a man who has experienced pain and loss we can hardly fathom and has become cold and numb with time. The humanity that his surrogate son is supposed to inspire never quite hits home but I’m inclined to lay the blame with the script rather than the actor. McConaughey meanwhile hams it up as the Man in Black, but never so much that we cannot take him seriously as a villain. He walks that fine line between being eccentric and menacing and hits just the right balance. Casting these two is far and away the best thing this movie did and anytime these two came together, I felt like I was actually watching the Dark Tower movie I had been waiting to see. It makes me sad that their performances could not have been realised with a better script with a greater vision for King’s epic.

Most of the scenes that make up The Dark Tower seem like they were included simply because those are the scenes that you need in this kind of movie. When Jake discovers the portal in the abandoned house and activates it, the house comes alive and attacks him. There’s no build up or even much of a conclusion to this scene, it’s just something that happens and is then forgotten about as soon as it’s over. The movie’s crime isn’t that it’s terrible, but that it’s unimaginative and forgettable. The book series was often dark and strange and, while not all of its ideas worked, one of the things it had that this film did not was vision. The world King built is immense. The characters he created are iconic. The themes he explored are resonant. Here the studio decided to play it safe, making a generic movie with a simplified story, watered-down characters and a non-threatening PG-13 rating. The movie attempts to appease fans of King’s work while still appealing to a wider audience and it fails at both. It’s not as bad as I feared it would be, but it falls short of even my most conservative hopes.

★★

The Emoji Movie

Cast: (voiced by) T.J. Miller, James Corden, Anna Faris, Maya Rudolph, Steven Wright, Jennifer Coolidge, Christina Aguilera, Sofía Vergara, Sean Hayes, Patrick Stewart

Director: Tony Leondis

Writers: Tony Leondis, Eric Siegel, Mike White


Once upon a time, I walked into The LEGO Movie completely convinced that I was going to hate it. I had no idea at the time what critics and audiences were saying because I usually try to avoid that kind of stuff before watching a film. All I knew was that I hated the very idea of The LEGO Movie. As I sat there in the theatre I didn’t think I was going to watch a movie, I thought I was going to watch a 90-minute commercial. And, in a way, that’s exactly what I got. A clever, funny, enormously entertaining and even surprisingly profound 90-minute commercial. Then I saw The Emoji Movie, and it was everything I thought The LEGO Movie was going to be and worse. It’s a bad movie, but that’s not why I hated it. What I hated was the movie’s blatant commercialisation, its shamelessness, its total creative bankruptcy. I would call what this film did prostitution, except that would imply the movie has something that’s actually worth paying for.

The movie takes place within the smartphone of Alex, your average teenage boy. He has a crush on a girl called Addie and needs to find the perfect emoji to text her. These emojis all live together in Textopolis and it is their job to provide Alex with whatever emoji he calls upon. Our main emoji is Gene, the son of two ‘meh’ emojis, who feels anything but ‘meh’. Even though emojis are only ever allowed to express their one given expression, Gene is so animated that he cannot contain himself to one emotion. On his first day on the job, Gene panics and screws up, delivering Alex a confusing emoji. Smiler, the leader of the emojis, determines that Gene is a malfunction and must be eliminated. Gene escapes with the help of Hi-5 and together they set off in search of the Cloud where he hopes he can be reprogrammed into the ‘meh’ he was always meant to be. They meet and recruit Jailbreak, the only emoji who can help them reach the Cloud, and travel through a maze of popular and marketable apps as they learn about friendship and being yourself and all that rubbish.

The film has drawn comparisons to Inside Out, a movie where the characters explore different parts of the human psyche in the same way that the emojis explore different parts of Alex’s phone. Inside Out adopted this approach in order to highlight and explore the function and value of human emotions and the role they play in our growth from adolescence to adulthood. A narrative whereby the emojis visit the different apps on this teenager’s phone might have allowed them the opportunity to explore some of the concerns a teenage boy might have at that age. Things like the pressures of social media, issues with privacy, dependency on technology, the detachment the virtual world creates from the real one, any one of these topics, if handled properly, is something that a young audience could identify and relate to. I’m not saying this had to be an episode of Black Mirror, it’s a kids movie after all, but had this movie followed the examples of Inside Out and The LEGO Movie by using its concept to address and explore larger themes and ideas, we might have had something quite interesting and, dare I say, good. But The Emoji Movie wasn’t interested in any of that. It was only interested in giving product placement to branded apps and showing how super rad and awesome they are to its audience of braindead eight-year-olds. The brazenly materialistic attitude this movie holds is beyond contemptible.

This movies isn’t just void of integrity, it is void of imagination. There isn’t a single original idea in this whole movie that offers anything of worth. There isn’t a single joke that lands, no moment of excitement, and no emotional substance whatsoever. The moral this movie shoehorns in about believing in yourself is so banal and hollow that it might as well have been written by Siri. If any of the actors felt any enthusiasm for the material they were given, it did not come through in their performance. Casting Sir Patrick Stewart (emphasis on the Sir) as Poop is an idea that could’ve led to some good laughs, except the movie does absolutely nothing with it. The jokes don’t even amount to potty-mouthed double-entendres because even that would be too high-calibre for this movie. All through this movie I sat there looking, listening, searching for something, anything to justify its existence. I don’t use emojis myself, so perhaps this was a chance to learn something about their value as a means of communication. But no, it was all for naught.

There is nothing I can write that will ever convey the full depth of my derision for this film. I hate this movie for how utterly perverse and transparent it is in its materialism. I hate this movie for how totally empty it is of even the slightest trace of wit, feeling, and creativity. I loathe this movie for leeching off the success of other films like Inside Out, which has more profundity, entertainment and emotion in its opening frame than this movie has in its entire 90-minute runtime. I despise this movie for its gross failure to make any basic use of the enormous comedic talent at its disposal. I abhor this movie for using its young audience as an excuse not to put any kind of thought or effort into whatever it thinks passes for story, character, and sensation. I hate this movie for not caring. I hate this movie for existing. I hate this movie for daring to ask for my time and money and for offering me less than nothing in return. We live in a world where children’s movies can be wondrous, smart, hilarious, touching, and profound. This movie aspires to be none of those things and that is its only success.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Cast: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu, Rutger Hauer

Director: Luc Besson

Writer: Luc Besson


When I go to see a new movie, one of my greatest hopes is that I’ll get to see something new. If I wanted to watch, say, a sci-fi movie that simply copies whatever Star Wars, Blade Runner, or The Matrix did, I would just watch one of those movies instead. There is a lot that I’m willing to forgive in a movie that is able to excite and astound me with something that I’ve never seen before. The Fifth Element is a perfect example. The Fifth Element is a profoundly dumb movie, but its characters are so entertaining and its universe is so remarkable that I ended up not caring in the slightest. In fact, the movie was so bizarre and unique that the silliness and absurdity actually added to its appeal. Valerian is a more extreme version of The Fifth Element, it is a much dumber film with a much more remarkable universe. It isn’t as charming a film, and is weaker for it, but it is still a wildly entertaining movie for all the right and wrong reasons.

Based on the French sci-fi comics Valérian et Laureline, Valerian takes place in the 28th century on the monumental space station Alpha, where millions of alien species live together sharing their knowledge and cultures. It follows Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), two special operatives charged with maintaining peace and order throughout the universe. While on a mission the partners uncover a mystery concerning an alien race of which they can find no record. After securing a Mül Converter, a small creature that can reproduce anything it eats, they return to Alpha and are charged with the protection of Commander Filitt (Clive Owen), who is responsible for the station’s security. Alpha, he says, has been infected by some unknown force and a summit has been called to discuss the crisis. The summit is interrupted by an attack and in the fight that ensues Filitt is kidnapped. Valerian and Laureline must therefore find and rescue their commander and work out what it is these mysterious people want.

Visually this film is on its own level. The attention to detail Bresson brought to Fifth Element is maximised here as we are taken on a mad ride through dozens of stunning settings complete with strange creatures, extravagant costumes, and hundreds of great blink-and-you-miss-it details within each frame. Oftentimes with sci-fi movies you can get the gist of the universe within the first 15 minutes, but the world in Valerian felt like one where there was always more to discover. As with Terry Gilliam’s films, this is one of those movies where I felt like I could barely keep up (in the best way possible) with all that was happening and all that was being shown. Some elements are given a proper spotlight so that they can be fully appreciated like the burlesque dance of the shape-shifter Bubble (Rihanna), the Big Market where the marketplace exists on two different planes of reality, and one of the opening scenes in which we learn about an entire alien race’s world and culture without a single line of dialogue from any earthly language spoken. Then there are some fleeting moments, as in one sequence where Valerian navigates several variable districts of Alpha in his pursuit of his kidnapped commander, which are no less stunning for being brief. I could re-watch this whole movie again on mute and still delight in all that the visuals have to offer.

And yet the movie is still so very dumb. The story is completely incoherent and the characters have no consistency. Valerian is a cocky happy-go-lucky maverick, except when he’s not. Laureline is his no-nonsense, cool and collected partner, except when she’s not. Dehaan delivers an unconvincing performance that comes across less as a brave, resourceful, cheeky but loveable scoundrel and more as a kid pretending to be Star Lord. Delevingne is pretty good half the time and pretty bland the other. The two have chemistry, which helps when it comes to pushing their predictable will they/won’t they love story, but Han and Leia they are not. In their mission together they stumble into side-plot after side-plot which have absolutely nothing to do with the issue pressing them. However entertaining it is to see Valerian fleeing alien gangsters while stuck between an organic and a virtual reality or watching an imprisoned Laureline being offered to the grossly gluttonous chief of a primitive tribe, at these points you just have to ask yourself “how did we get here?”

Still, what separates this movie from something like Jupiter Ascending is that no matter how stupid it got, I was never bored. I wouldn’t really call it a good movie in its own right; I’d say that half of it is good and the other half is so bad it’s good. There’s also a feeling of sincerity to this film. Good or bad, I believe that the director, writers and actors were all genuinely trying to create something unique and enjoyable and that effort does count for a lot. It may not have been a legitimately great film the way The Fifth Element was, but it was a lot of fun to watch and it showed me many things that I can honestly say I’ve never seen before (one highlight being a trio of duck-like aliens who complete each other’s sentences). Let’s put it this way: The Fifth Element was a great but dumb film. Valerian is an entertaining but dumb film. It’s not going to work for everyone and that’s perfectly understandable. But, if you manage your expectations with this film and are prepared not to take it seriously, you might be surprised by how good a time you’ll still end up having.

★★★★

Dunkirk

Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy

Director: Christopher Nolan

Writer: Christopher Nolan


There are some movies that demand to be watched and some that demand to be experienced. Gravity is a good example. I saw Gravity in 3D at the cinema when it first came out in 2013 and I was blown away. The scale, the scope, the sensation, Gravity was a movie that transported me and once it was over I almost felt like I had spent the last couple of hours in space and had just returned. That was four years ago and I haven’t seen the movie since. Unless it’s being screened in a cinema in 3D, there’s just no point. I’ve never even considered going out to buy a DVD because I know that watching it on TV or on my laptop would not do the movie justice. It’s too big, too dynamic, too spectacular. There are some movies that simply must be seen on the big screen to be appreciated. Dunkirk is one of those movies.

Dunkirk tells the story of the 1940 evacuation of over 300,000 British soldiers following their humiliating defeat at the hands of the Germans in their invasion and conquest of France. The story is told through three different timelines, all focusing on three different sets of characters with three different goals. The first timeline takes place on land and its events transpire over the course of week. It follows a young private called Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) desperately trying to escape from the beach by any and all means with the help of fellow soldier Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) while Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) tries to orchestrate the whole evacuation from the Mole (the pier where the soldiers set up their base as they wait for the ships). The second take place on the sea over the course of a day. It follows Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), a mariner who sets sail on his boat with his son and his friend to help with the evacuations. On the way they rescue the Shivering Soldier (Cillian Murphy), a shell-shocked survivor of a shipwreck. The third timeline takes place in the air over the course of an hour and it follows Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) as they take down as many German fighters as they can for as long as the little fuel they have lasts.

I saw this movie in IMAX and the effect is astonishing. There are two things Nolan can do as a director at which he is almost peerless: scale and tension. He excels at depicting large, complex narratives with huge ideas driving them and he can draw his audience to the very edge of their seats and hold them there for what feels like an eternity. Dunkirk allows him to showcase these talents like never before and as I sat there watching it on a screen that was larger than life with sound that engulfed me from every direction, I honestly felt like I was there. From the very first frame we are dropped right into the action as Tommy flees a troop of enemy soldiers and stumbles onto the beach and, in every single moment that follows, the tension never falters for a second. Dunkirk does not feel so much like a war film as it does like a disaster film. There is an overwhelming sense of dread that commands each scene as each character restlessly await the arrival of a rescue party, without any knowledge of when it will arrive or if it will be enough, while dreading the impending arrival of an enemy whose movements are similarly indefinite. This is a race against time for the British army and Nolan does a fantastic job of stressing that motif, not just with his time-jumping structure but also with Hans Zimmer’s score which evokes a ticking clock.

Although the time-jumping structure does work incredibly well for the film, I do wish I’d known about it going in or that the movie had made it clearer that that was the approach they were going for. The only hand-holding the movie gives here is a trio of brief captions naming only the place and the timespan. That by itself would be sufficient if you already knew what they meant, but I hadn’t a clue and was quite disorientated for the 15-20 minutes it took me to work out what was happening. Once I’d figured it out though, I was absolutely mesmerised by the intricacies of how these three stories affected and interacted with each other. There’s one scene where one of the pilots must make an emergency landing in the sea and lets out a wave to his commander, one that he takes to mean all is well. It isn’t until we see that same landing from the perspective of those in the boat that we understand the wave was something else entirely. The structure can also be used for poetic effect, such as in a sequence near the end where we see the landing of a plane seem as long as the boarding and launching of a naval fleet.

I’ve always liked Nolan more as a director than as a writer because I’ve found that his dialogue is often too contrived and expository and his characters too flat and artificial. With Dunkirk though it would seem that Nolan has gone out of his way to avoid these pitfalls and it works out wonderfully. The movie use of dialogue is so minimal that it could have almost been a silent movie (if not for the deafening sounds of planes, gunfire and explosions). The bond between Tommy and Gibson is one that goes almost entirely unspoken; theirs is a comradeship built on a recognition that they are stuck in the same hell and need to help each other and it is expressed through actions and gestures. The movie follows the example set by Malick’s The Thin Red Line by treating its characters more as units of a whole rather than as individuals. They’re all struggling together and the film is only interested in their personalities and individual plights insofar as they relate to the larger crisis. It is therefore a testament to the fine acting at work and the carefully chosen lines of dialogue they are given that we are able to feel so strongly for these characters and fear for their survival.

As opposed to most 20th century conflicts, the Second World War is one that the Brits and Americans often look back on with a selective, venerated memory. Dunkirk in particular proved to be an event of symbolic significance to Britain as it appealed to their perception of themselves as the steadfast underdog fighting against evil and adversity. Nolan has sought to depict a demythologised version of Dunkirk. He does not do this however by showing the graphic brutalities of war with blood and guts flying all over the place the way they were in Hacksaw Ridge. He chooses instead to portray the emotional turmoil of all those involved in the evacuations; the despair of the soldiers stranded in a foreboding warzone, the anxiety of not knowing whether or when rescue or ruin would come, the cold and utter shame of their defeat. It is also significant that, while the threat of the German army is ever present, we seldom see the German soldiers and, even then, only at a distance. The film isn’t interested in portraying them as villains because that’s not what the story is about. It’s about these soldiers and the arduous trial they all suffered and endured together. In the end when the movies allows for some sentimentality, it is completely earned.

Dunkirk is a cinematic triumph, one that somehow feels both epically huge and intimately small. The scale of the action taking place is immense and executed to technical perfection. The opening sequence where Tommy darts around alley corners and over garden fences as the enemy pursues him, the panic and chaos that ensues when dozens of men frantically try to escape from a sinking ship, the hectic dogfights between the Spitfire planes and the German aircrafts, these are all intense moments that grip the viewer and transport them right into the film. And yet the human element is never lost. Whether it’s the fear of a young man of being forsaken, the torment of a traumatised soldier, or the pressure felt by a pilot flying solo and on reserve fuel, Dunkirk allows us to fully understand and appreciate the trials and tribulations of those who were caught in the middle of this tight spot. Dunkirk is not a great watch, it is a great experience and (I really cannot stress this enough) it is one that must be seen in the cinema.

★★★★★

War for the Planet of the Apes

Cast: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Amiah Miller, Steve Zahn

Director: Matt Reeves

Writer: Mark Bomback, Matt Reeves


No movie about sentient apes has any business being this good. Even the original 1968 Charlton Heston movie isn’t so much a serious, profound picture with deep philosophical and sociological themes as it is a campy and often humorous sci-fi adventure-thriller (albeit an intelligent, well-made one). This prequel trilogy took the ideas raised by the original, modernised them, and has gone on to depict them with a greater degree of intimacy and sophistication than I’d ever have thought possible of a story about talking primates. The film’s allegory of racism, politics, and culture is similarly depicted with a reflective sense of irony, but is far less satirical about it. The conflict between the humans and the apes is more complex, more substantial, and more morally ambiguous and War of the Planet of the Apes goes even further than Rise or Dawn ever did, capping off one of the best Hollywood trilogies of the 21st century.

Two years after The Dawn of the Planet of the Apes when the strained tension between the humans and the apes finally erupted into an all-out war, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his troops are engaged in a conflict with Alpha-Omega, a rogue faction of the U.S. Army led by The Colonel (Woody Harrelson). After releasing some human prisoners and expressing to them his desire for peace, Caesar becomes a subject of personal interest to The Colonel, who subsequently leads an attack on the ape base, killing half of Caesar’s family. From here Caesar sets out on a quest for vengeance, accompanied only by his closest friends and advisors Maurice (Karin Konoval), an orangutan, Rocket (Ty Olsson), a chimp, and Luca (Michael Adamthwaite), a gorilla. Along the way they discover a human girl, rendered mute and simple by some unknown cause, whom Maurice takes into his care and calls Nova (Amiah Miller). They also meet Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), a reclusive chimpanzee who knows the location of the Alpha-Omega base. There Caesar finds The Colonel and faces him in a battle that will ultimately define the fates of both of their species.

The achievement of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was drawing the humans and the apes into war with each other in such a way that we could understand the views and choices of both sides to the point that we cannot even really say for sure who started it. Now its two years later and there’s no clear victor or even an end in sight. Caesar’s main priority is survival, but even after all that’s happened what he really wants is peace and for the apes to be left alone to live their lives. The humans however will not abide co-existence with another species of equal, if not superior, intelligence. Thus Caesar is forced to continue fighting this war and suffer the tragedies that come with it. As soon as his loved ones die by the hands of The Colonel, so does any chance of peace. From there it becomes all about vengeance. One of this film’s achievements is how strongly it depicts Caesar’s turmoil; the despondent grief he feels upon losing his family, the cold single-mindedness he brings to his hunt for The Colonel, the way he loses his very soul along with everything else that gave his life any kind of meaning. The movie makes the narrative decision to stay with Caesar throughout his quest (rather than cutting away on occasion to show us what Woody Harrelson is up to) and it is by following him at every step and seeing all that occurs through his eyes that we are able to identify so strongly with him.

Another reason of course is Andy Serkis who has, perhaps more than other actor in the past couple of decades, almost single-handedly redefined what acting is and can be. The remarkable thing about the CGI complexion they give him is that you can still see the actor beneath it all. The expressions and gestures are all his and are all so genuine that Caesar feels as real and as human as anything else. That he has portrayed this character across an entire lifetime from infancy to adulthood to old age over the course of three movies is in itself an astonishing feat. Here he deftly conveys the kind of forlorn, world-weary melancholy that you only get from those old veteran characters who have been through hell and have carried it with them ever since, the kind that we saw from Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven and Hugh Jackman in Logan, to name a couple. This is a character who deserves to be memorialised in the hall of fame of sci-fi heroes and, if the Oscars were to finally look past the CGI barrier and recognise the actor behind it all, it would be well-deserved and about time.

It still astonishes me that I can watch a war take place between human beings and talking apes and take it as seriously as I could if I were watching Platoon. Indeed, there are echoes of Vietnam in this movie (which, unlike Kong: Skull Island, does not beat you over the head with it) and it is clear that Matt Reeves was especially inspired by Apocalypse Now (there’s even one point in the film where you can see the term ‘Ape-pocalypse Now’ inscribed in graffiti). This is especially apparent in Woody Harrelson’s Colonel, a bald, philosophical villain cut from the same cloth as Kurtz and holding a similar heart of darkness (although his goal of building a wall does invite comparison to another figure). There is a parallel between him and Caesar as The Colonel seems to be fighting his own war of vengeance, that being for his species. We learn that there is a virus going round infecting the humans and rendering them mute and primitive, an epidemic that The Colonel intends to stop by executing and burning any and all who are affected. What we see here is a man who recognises that the time for human beings is ending and so has done away with his humanity.

One of the signs of great science fiction is that it provides a reflection of the world as we know it and of ourselves. In War of the Planet of the Apes we see people, humans and primates alike, who are affected by tragedy, pain, and loss and who turn to violence and revenge as an answer, one that inevitably begets more tragedy. We see the fear and aggression that comes with being confronted with that which we cannot understand and with losing our power and control. It isn’t all doom and gloom though. There’s also humour to be found in this film, particularly from Bad Ape who doesn’t understand much of what’s going on. There’s also empathy to be found, this time from the silent Nova and the bond she forms with her simian rescuers. Through her we see the bridge that could be built between the two species, one of compassion and understanding, if only things hadn’t turned out the way they had. This is a great film and it is a great end to a great trilogy.

★★★★★

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Cast: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Jon Favreau, Zendaya, Donald Glover, Tyne Daly, Marisa Tomei, Robert Downey Jr.

Director: Jon Watts

Writers: Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Jon Watts, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers


This movie is a big deal for Marvel. For decades Spider-Man has been the comic book company’s flagship character; he is to Marvel what Superman is to DC. After two movie franchises in a little over a decade, one that became too silly for its own good and one that crashed under the weight of all the characters and stories it was trying to juggle, Sony has finally made a deal with Marvel to bring Spider-Man into the MCU. After a wonderfully received debut by Tom Holland in Civil War, Homecoming now marks the character’s third cinematic introduction a mere fifteen years after his first. It’s a bit different this time because Peter Parker is now a part of a larger world, one where the idea of the superhero has already been well established and where the world has already been threatened by gods, aliens, an artificial intelligence, sorcerers, and a guy with energy whips. Thus, to focus more on the themes of growing up and taking responsibility, Homecoming scales back on the epic fantasy and instead gives us a high school movie with superheroes.

After being drafted by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) to fight for the Avengers, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is told that he’s not ready yet to join the superhero team and is sent back to school to focus on his studies. In the meantime Stark encourages Peter to be more of “a friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man” and assigns Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) to look after him. Peter however struggles to balance his school life with his crime-fighting life. His best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) keeps pestering him about his ‘Stark Internship’, his decathlon team, led by Peter’s crush Liz (Laura Harrier), is getting frustrated with his inability to commit to the upcoming championship, and even his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) must be kept in the dark about his alter-ego. Meanwhile Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), a salvager who was driven out of business years ago by Stark Industries, has gone into the arms trafficking business, dealing weapons based on Chitauri technology recovered from the Battle of New York in The Avengers. When he learns of Toomes’ activities, it falls onto Spider-Man to stop whatever it is he has planned.

Holland plays a much younger Peter Parker than either Maguire of Garfield ever played and his youth plays a prominent role. Spider-Man’s arc as a character has always been that he’s a young man learning to grow up and take responsibility, which is exactly what makes him so identifiable and relatable, especially to teenagers. In Homecoming his youth is emphasised in order to set him apart from the Avengers, most notably Tony Stark, who are pros at being superheroes and who understand the dangers and responsibilities of the job far better than Peter does. Although Peter is smart, talented and well intentioned, he’s also just a kid and he possesses all of the liabilities of youth. He is cocky, naïve and is in way over his head. Spider-Man has never just been a superhero fantasy, it is at its core a coming of age story and this movie embraces that by drawing inspiration from the filmography of John Hughes (which is good, but a little on the nose in one scene referencing Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). Angst, awkwardness and adolescence all come in abundance and the movie does a great job of showcasing those sides of Peter Parker.

The superhero side is also very good, but there is a slight disconnection there. The one thing I never really got from this incarnation of Spider-Man was a sense of what was driving him, a motivation. It’s hinted at in his first scene in Civil War but in this movie it is never elaborated in any meaningful way. Now, I’ve seen the other movies, I’ve read the comics, and I’ve watched some of the cartoon. I know full well what Spider-Man’s motivation is. The problem is that this movie throws us straight in without giving us some kind of foundation on which we can plant our feet. Uncle Ben, the lessons he taught Peter, and the role Peter may or may not have played in his death, we have no idea how relevant these are to this version of Spider-Man because they are never addressed. There is something of a stigma these days against superhero origin stories and not for no reason (we have after all seen two Spider-Man origin movies within ten years of each). I’m not saying that Homecoming had to be origin movie, but the crucial details of the backstory that fundamentally make Peter who he is do have to be addressed, even if it’s only in a couple of sentences. Leaving that out is bad storytelling.

Homecoming however is far from a bad movie. It is engaging, funny, thrilling and just delightful. Not only is Holland terrific as Spider-Man, he is hands down the best Peter Parker in any of the movies. His Peter is nerdy and awkward enough to make him a believable social outcast but also charming and eccentric enough to be likeable. Keaton as the Vulture is spot on and for me is easily the second best villain in the whole MCU after Loki. He is menacing, but also entertaining; villainous, but understandable. In addition, there is a twist with the villain (because there always are these days) that works incredibly well, bringing the conflict between him and Spider-Man to an entirely higher level. There are a couple of action scenes that don’t quite work, such as the climatic fight that takes place almost completely in the dark, but the ones that do work really well. As well as being his usual acrobatic self, this Spider-Man also makes effective use of the gadgets at his disposal such as his iconic web-slingers and a ton of other goodies provided by Stark’s suit. It’s not the best Spider-Man movie ever made but there is a lot to enjoy and a lot to be excited about going forward.

★★★★

Baby Driver

Cast: Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Eiza González, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Jon Bernthal

Director: Edgar Wright

Writer: Edgar Wright


Before working on this film Edgar Wright famously walked away from the production of Ant-Man over creative differences, stating that the studio would not allow him to make the movie he wanted to make. That experience must have had a profound effect on him because with Baby Driver what Edgar Wright has delivered is a movie that only he could have made. As with Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Baby Driver is a movie that is positively bursting with life and energy. There is always something happening on screen and it is always something interesting, creative and entertaining. There is also a clash in genre that is similarly typical of the director’s work as this movie brings together the adrenaline-fuelled car-chase thrillers of the 60s and 70s with the romantic musicals of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. Wright has distinguished himself before with his enormously funny and inventive films, but Baby Driver feels like more of a passion project than any other movie he’s made, making it his most personal work to date.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a getaway driver in Atlanta, working off a debt he owes to the fearsome criminal mastermind Doc (Kevin Spacey). As a child Baby and his family were caught in a car crash that killed his parents and left him with an eternal ringing sound in his ears. He blocks this sound out with music, keeping a sizeable library stored on his iPods, and now choreographs his daily routines, including his getaway driving, around the songs he listens to. After his latest job he stops by a diner and there meets the waitress Debora (Lily James), whom he starts dating. After his next job goes awry Baby is ready to get out of the game, but Doc isn’t ready to let him go even after their debt is squared away. Instead Doc blackmails him into working on another heist, teaming him up with the psychopathic Bats (Jamie Foxx) and the happy-go-lucky couple Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eiza González). Stuck in this predicament where there are no happy outcomes, Baby has to decide what kind of man he wants to be and what he must do to save Debora and himself.

Baby Driver isn’t a musical in the sense that it has characters bursting into song and partaking in elaborate dance routines, but it has the mood, sensibility and logic of a musical. Baby chooses his music to reflect his state of mind and whether he’s losing the police to the tune of ‘Bellbottoms’ by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion in a car that dances in its own way or skipping along to ‘Harlem Shuffle’ by Bob & Earl on his way to pick up some coffee, there is such seamless synchronicity to his movements. Wright shoots these scenes as if everything surrounding Baby were in perfect harmony with him, matching the tone and tempo of the song, lining Baby up with visual cues and even placing lyrics in the background. This synchronisation is vital to Baby’s process and when he loses it, that’s how we know things have gone badly. When Baby abruptly halts and delays a job in order to sync up with The Damned’s ‘Neat, Neat, Neat’, it’s a hint of the dark turn that the job is going to take.

The story isn’t as interesting as the execution, but then that tends to be the case with action films. Take some good characters and put them in the hands of a great director and you can make the plot almost irrelevant (just look at Mad Max: Fury Road). Baby himself however wasn’t as interesting as I would’ve liked and I cannot help feel that he was miscast. Elgort gives it a good try and he’s certainly baby-faced enough for the role, but he just didn’t have the charisma to pull it off. I think the role would have been better served by more of a Steve McQueen/Burt Reynolds type. Still the movie had some great side characters to pick up the slack, especially in Foxx’s Bats and Hamm’s Buddy. Foxx brings a volatile sadism to his role not unlike Joe Pesci’s in Goodfellas and every scene he’s in is rife with tension as we wait to see what will or won’t set him off. Hamm (and González for that matter) are both great as the criminal couple who are as dangerous as they are passionate.

The superb soundtrack, the inspired choreography, and Wright’s keen instinct for visual storytelling all make for a movie that’s as imaginative, as stimulating and as enjoyable as La La Land. There are some weaknesses like the lead and the rather bland romance that never quite hits the wild fairy tale love story of True Romance that it was going for, but compared to the sensationalist experience of watching this film I’m willing to dismiss those complaints as nit-picks. Who cares about that kind of stuff when you’re enjoying an adrenaline-pumping finale to the tune of ‘Brighton Rock’ by Queen? This is a Hollywood blockbuster that doesn’t get made any more, not based on any popular property nor part of any franchise. It pays homage to the dozens of movies that inspired it, but it is also modern and self-aware enough that it doesn’t feel in any way outdated. It is a movie of its time and of times gone by, a balance that not many movies can hit. Edgar Wright put his heart and soul into this film and it was a pleasure to watch from beginning to end.

★★★★★

Despicable Me 3

Cast: (voiced by) Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig, Trey Parker, Miranda Cosgrove, Steve Coogan, Jenny Slate, Dana Gaier, Julie Andrews

Directors: Pierre Coffin, Kyle Balda

Writers: Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio


Although I was never a big fan of Despicable Me, I could understand the appeal. It had a fun idea that allowed room for both humour and sentiment, it was well animated and had some good performances, and the Minions in particular were enjoyable in their scene-stealing moments. Despicable Me 2 was serviceable as a sequel but otherwise forgettable. It lacked the novelty of the original, its humour got more childish and unimaginative, and the popularity of the Minions led to the expansion of their roles, at which point they started to feel a little much. When Minions came along I ended up not seeing it because I was about as interested in watching the Minions in their own movie as I would if they were the Oompa Loompas or the aliens in Toy Story. They’re fine in brief segments, but not as protagonists in a feature-length narrative. Now, with Despicable Me 3, it feels to me like this franchise has seriously run out of steam.

Gru, having left his villainous ways behind him, is now a member of the Anti-Villain League with his wife Lucy and is tasked with stopping Balthazar Bratt, a former child TV star turned supervillain. Gru is able to foil Bratt’s plan to steal the world’s largest diamond but fails to catch him, leading to Gru and Lucy being dismissed from their jobs. Shortly after informing his daughters Margo, Edith, and Agnes of their termination, Gru receives an invitation to fly to Freedonia (Land of the Brave and Free!) to meet Dru, his long-lost twin brother. The family meets Dru at his estate and learn that he is charming, handsome and fabulously wealthy. Later Dru reveals to Gru that the source of his wealth is their father, who was in fact a legendary supervillain. Dru enlists Gru to return to his old ways and to teach him how to follow their father in his footsteps. Gru however, desperate to get him and Lucy their old jobs back, decides to take advantage of Dru’s resources to catch Bratt before he can proceed with his villainous plot.

With a story about three adoptive daughters in the first film and one that ended with Gru falling in love and getting married in the second, it’s very clear that Despicable Me is a series very much about family and that continues in this film. Here Gru is reunited with a brother he never knew he had and gets to learn more about himself and where he came from while bonding with this person who is so different from him in so many ways and yet in many other ways so identical. Lucy meanwhile is realising that by marrying Gru she also married his three daughters and is struggling to step into the role of their mother. Either or both of these stories could have been interesting and touching enough to make for an enjoyable family movie. The trouble is that Despicable Me targets itself towards a very young demographic and is ill-equipped to tackle these stories with the maturity they warrant. This isn’t to say that the stories cannot be made accessible to young children, but when a movie elects to open up with a fart joke during the production company’s logo, I think that sends a clear message about the kind of tone the movie is going for.

Now, if a movie doesn’t care about nuance and just wants to keep an audience of six-year-olds entertained for a couple of hours, that’s fine. But I don’t think that Despicable Me 3 does that particularly well. The story they’ve put together with its points about Gru and Lucy’s concerns for the future with the loss of their jobs and the family dynamics is just not engaging for young viewers. The characters are not rich enough and their problems are not relatable enough. There are a couple of sub-plots that might catch children’s interest like Agnes’ search for her very own unicorn and the Minions’ misadventures in prison and a TV talent show, but they’re so disconnected from the main story that if either or both plots were removed entirely barely a single thing would change. The movie would be less fun, considering that those two subplots contain the film’s best moments (as annoying as the Minions can be, even I had to chuckle during their rendition of Gilbert and Sullivan), but otherwise the same beats of the main stories would still play out in the same way. It also doesn’t help that the main villain is one big joke about a the 80’s, decade about which little kids are pretty much clueless.

More than anything Despicable Me 3 is a guaranteed paycheck for the studio. Even the cast seemed largely disinterested, especially Trey Parker who turned in his most generic South Park voice for a movie that’s about two MPAA ratings below what he needs to excel. Carell does well enough for Gru to remain an entertaining character but he doesn’t bring anything new or surprising to his performance despite having an entire second character to play. The movie is bright, noisy, and recognisable enough that kids will flock to the theatre to see it and will probably even enjoy it. What the studio either doesn’t realise or doesn’t care about though is that, in the long run, those kids are not going to embrace this film because it doesn’t offer them anything worth returning to. There are no valuable lessons to take away, no unforgettable moments that demand to be relived and no qualities that make this movie rewarding to an older audience. Any attempt this movie makes to be more grown-up backfires because it simply isn’t smart, competent or mature enough to handle that kind of material.

★★

The Mummy

Cast: Tom Cruise, Annabelle Wallis, Sofia Boutella, Jake Johnson, Courtney B. Vance, Russell Crowe

Director: Alex Kurtzman

Writers: David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie, Dylan Kussman


You have to give it to Hollywood, they know how to take a neat idea and keep screwing around with it until everyone hates it. This time it’s the ‘cinematic shared universe’ idea, the concept of producing several movies that inhabit the same reality and tie into each other. The MCU showed it could be done with only a few hiccups here and there, and now everyone wants to do it. The problem is that the studios are so focused on building these universes that they keep forgetting to make movies. The Amazing Spider-Man and its sequel suffered because they spent far too much time on plot points, characters and tie-ins that had no bearing on their respective stories. Batman v. Superman was similarly overblown as part of DC’s effort to sprint ahead to The Justice League in as few steps as possible. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was the MCU, and yet still these studios persist in their exorbitant franchise building. Thus we get the proposed Dark Universe which, after just one movie, I’ve already had enough of.

The movie kicks off with a flashback to Ancient Egypt where Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) falls to second in the line of succession when her father’s second wife gives birth to a son. She summons Set, god of violence, to help her claim the throne and kills her family but is caught before she can complete the ritual to transfer the deity’s spirit to corporeal form and is mummified. In present-day Iraq the American soldiers Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) and Chris Vail (Jake Johnson) discover Ahmanet’s tomb after calling in an airstrike. Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis), a renowned archaeologist, investigates the tomb and finds Ahmanet’s sarcophagus within. As the sarcophagus is being transported to England however, Ahmanet’s spirit attacks the crew. Jenny escapes with her life when Nick parachutes her off the plane but everyone else is killed. Or so they think. Nick wakes up in an Oxford morgue and learns that he has been cursed by Ahmanet, who has decided that he shall be Set’s vessel.

I’m not sure how many different projects had to be merged in order to bring Tom Cruise and the Dark Universe together, but it plays out like a shambolic mixture of several different clashing ideas that has no idea what kind of movie it wants to be. On one side we get the supernatural monster movie that plays out more like a superhero thriller than a horror akin to those of the classic Universal monster films or the Hammer Horrors. On another side we get a Tom Cruise movie that, despite having him get killed and resurrected by an ancient Egyptian curse, is somehow as generically Tom Cruise as Tom Cruise gets. Then there’s the franchise building whereby we are introduced to the Prodigium, a secret society led by Russell Crowe dedicated towards combating supernatural threats, there to distract us from the story and to assure us that sequels are on the way. The movie also incorporates the English crusaders (because one historical backdrop wasn’t enough), a romance with less life than a 3500-year-old embalmed corpse, and the Iraq War (because that isn’t at all problematic for a silly horror/thriller blockbuster).

Naturally when an audience goes to see a monster movie, the thing they look forward to the most is the monster itself. People are so drawn to great monsters that iconic actors such as Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney and Christopher Lee were able to build their careers playing them. The Mummy in this film is not one of the greats. It might not be fair to criticise this creature for not being scary because I’m not convinced that that was what the movie was going for, but she is not in any way an interesting or entertaining creature. Her design follows the example set by the Enchantress in Suicide Squad by being scanty and erotic to the point that it is impossible to find her at all threatening or intimidating. Her personality as well is a complete blank slate and, if she had a motivation, it escaped me. Tom Cruise meanwhile tries to do his usual thing the best he can, but the character he is given is a cosmic nonentity and there he is only so much he can bring through star power alone.

This movie isn’t terrible or painful; it’s just depressingly dull. The story is tired and incoherent, the characters are bland and redundant and the moments between the action scenes are so relentlessly tedious and overstuffed with filler and exposition. Even when the action gets going, its mostly just a collection of moments lifted from better movies that I would rather have watched like An American Werewolf in London and Bride of Frankenstein. There were maybe one or two moments when the film went completely off the wall and delivered a moment that was crazy enough to hold my attention for a couple of minutes, as with Russell Crowe’s performance as a surprise character. Those moments were never good, but at least they were interesting. At the end of the day though, what really killed this movie for me was how blatantly transparent it was in its attempt to kickstart a franchise that has got nothing going for it and nowhere to go. I could not be less excited for the Dark Universe’s future.