Alien: Covenant

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir

Director: Ridley Scott

Writer: John Logan, Dante Harper


Alien: Covenant is one of those times when I felt like I was watching a great film trapped in a mediocre film. The film as a whole is objectively the third best in the Alien franchise, but that’s not saying much. It suffers from the same sort of inauthentic Nolan-esque dialogue that made Prometheus such a chore to sit through as its characters spend much of their time spouting vaguely important sounding declarations explaining what is happening or what they are feeling. The film also suffers from a sense of sameness as it follows most of the beats we’ve come to expect from the Alien films to the point that it isn’t worth even getting to know the minor characters since we already know they’re only there to serve as cannon fodder. In the middle of all that though, there is a genuinely great story being told about death and creation, birth and parenthood, and man and monster. All of the scenes that focused on Michael Fassbender made this movie worth the price of admission.

Set a decade years after the bloody events in Prometheus, the colonisation ship Covenant is en route to a remote planet with its crew in hibernation while Walter (Michael Fassbender), a new version of the synthetic David from Prometheus, monitors them. A disaster occurs that requires Walter to bring the crew out of stasis and results in the captain’s death. After the first mate Chris Oram (Billy Crudup) assumes the role of Acting Captain, the ships picks up a transmission from a nearby planet that exhibits signs of life ideal for colonisation. Despite the objection of Daniels (Katherine Waterson), the captain’s widow, the crew decides to investigate this planet rather than go back into hibernation and continue their journey. Things of course go wrong when the ground team arrives on the planet and are attacked by vicious creatures, but they are presently rescued by a figure who turns out to be David (Fassbender again). As he explains to them the nature of the threat they face, the crew must work out how to escape.

Fassbender delivers a remarkable dual performance as Walter and David and it is these two characters and the relationship between them that makes this movie stand out from all the other Alien movies that came before. David has changed (or evolved as he puts it) in the years he has been stranded on this planet and has achieved what he views as a higher state of being. David is essentially a Frankenstein’s monster who has over time grown into a new Dr. Frankenstein, intent on creating new life to fulfil the purpose for which he believes he was created. He therefore sees Walter as some sort of a twisted combination between a brother, a son, and a lover and sees within him the potential to transcend humanity the way he has. In this way Covenant has more in common with Ridley Scott’s magnum opus Blade Runner than it does with the other Alien films. The bond David shares with Walter and the philosophical and psychological themes that they explore gives this movie an emotional core that was absent in Prometheus. My favourite scene of theirs was when David teaches Walter to play the recorder, a moment that is all at once compelling, funny and even weirdly seductive.

I wish I could have seen more of David and Walter because the rest of the film was about as typical as you could expect an Alien prequel to be. We get callbacks to the original film, generic characters making stupid decisions that get them killed, and plenty of carnage at the hands of the Giger-designed xenomorphs. The film is certainly watchable enough, but it offers little to all but those viewers who have not seen Scott’s original 1979 horror. One of the positives is Waterson as probably the film’s only compelling human character, a grieving widow set on fulfilling her late husband’s dream of building a new home, only to find all her hopes dashed by the desolate place and their forlorn situation. The design is also good, particularly that of the dead city where David has been hiding for the last decade. This forsaken ruin of what had once been a great civilisation has exactly the right air of foreboding and isolation that you would what for a movie such as this.

If Ridley Scott had set out to make a film about a synthetic being with a god complex (a Roy Batty movie maybe?), this could have been something special. As it is, Alien: Covenant is a competently made rehash of the first two Alien movies with a marvellous story lurking within the otherwise derivative plot. As far as being a prequel goes, I’m not sure whether the movie adds anything that will actually affect how I watch Alien or Aliens. As fascinating as the David and Walter narrative was, the question of whether it will add any sort of significance to the Ellen Ripley stories remains to be seen. In and of itself though, it was an excellent storyline that deserved more time and focus. The survival horror movie stuff that came in between was entertaining enough that I was willing to watch it while I waited for the movie to return to the Fassbender bots, but that’s all it did for me. Although this is one of those times when a star rating is grossly inadequate to reflect my mixed feelings on this film, on balance I’ve decided on four stars as a testament to the strength of the David/Walter story against the rest of the film.

★★★★

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan, Sean Gunn, Sylvester Stallone, Kurt Russell

Director: James Gunn

Writer: James Gunn


The original Guardians of the Galaxy has become such a monster hit in the years since its release that it’s easy to forget how little audiences were expecting from it at the time. Even though it was a Marvel property, the vast majority of viewers knew nothing about who these characters were or about the universe they lived in. All they really knew going in was that it starred the chubby guy from Parks & Rec and had a talking raccoon and a tree man fighting bad guys in space. People were so convinced that this movie with its strange premise was going to be Marvel’s first flop that they were taken completely by surprise when it turned out to be one of the funniest, most entertaining and awesome films of the year. Now that Guardians has lost that element of surprise, its sequel must somehow inspire that same reaction again while also managing the audience’s now eager expectations. Few films can live up to that kind of expectation, and I suspect that some will be inevitably disappointed when they find that this movie isn’t quite the gamechanger that the first film was. For me though, Vol. 2 is exactly the kind of sequel I hoped it would be.

Now renowned as the Guardians of the Galaxy, the movie opens with Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) protecting some valuable batteries for the Sovereign race in exchange for Gamora’s sister Nebula (Karen Gillan). When Rocket steals some of the batteries for himself the Guardians must go on the run and end up crash landing on a planet where they are met by Ego (Kurt Russell), who reveals himself to be Peter’s father. He invites Peter, Gamora and Drax to his home planet while Rocket and Groot fix the ship and guard Nebula. Meanwhile Yondu (Michael Rooker), now outcast by the Ravagers for child trafficking, is hired by Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), the leader of the Sovereigns, to track down the Guardians and capture them, a task he accepts but is reluctant to carry out.

The opening sequence sets the tone perfectly for this sequel. The Guardians are gearing up for a big fight with a giant CGI tentacle monster only for the battle to occur in the background as we instead follow Baby Groot around as he dances along to ‘Mr. Blue Sky’. Not only is it a clever and funny twist on a trope we’ve seen in countless other blockbusters, it reminds us at the outset that Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t and has no interest in being a generic, interchangeable action-driven movie void of character and plot. Guardians has character, whimsy and heart and wants to showcase them to its audience. There are certainly great moments of action that occur from Yondu taking over a ship with his whistling arrow to Gamora’s ultimate showdown with her sister. However, much like how the best scene in Age of Ultron was when the Avengers were just hanging out in Tony Stark’s apartment, Guardians is at its best when it allows its characters to just be themselves.

At its core Guardians of the Galaxy is about family and that theme becomes most prominent when Star Lord finally meets his estranged alien father (who, of course, is played by an 80s icon). Thus, with the revelation of who he really is and where he comes from, it isn’t long before Quill finds himself torn between his biological family and his makeshift one. The movie however expands on the same theme with its other characters, bringing equal attention to the combative sisterhood shared by Gamora and Nebula and the surrogate father-son bond Quill shares with Yondu. Rooker in fact was the biggest surprise for me as he gives this movie, and perhaps the whole MCU, its most touching and heartfelt performance. Although there may not be any real question about what the film’s resolution will be, which is that family is who you’re with and not where you’re from, the way that it gets there is still compelling and, in the end, moving.

When a property is as big and as successful as Guardians has become in the last few years, it becomes so easy for studios to decide that all they want to do is ride on that success and phone it in. This is why the movie’s best quality is how earnest and sincere it all feels. The effort that Gunn and his team put into this movie is evident not just in the attention and care they put into the story and its characters but in the visuals as well. The movie is teeming with radiant colours that movies like those in the DCEU don’t think exist, the set-pieces such as Ego’s home planet are wonderfully designed and the film is rife with striking visuals such as those in the space jumping scene. The movie does become cluttered and even a little by-the-numbers in the third act but Gunn does such a great job of keeping the focus on the characters and all of their motivations that it doesn’t really slow down the film for me. Even though Vol. 2 doesn’t have the surprise factor that made the first movie such a mind-blowing revelation, I actually enjoyed it even more. Not only is Guardians of the Galaxy a great work of pure entertainment, but Vol. 2 is also one of those rare sequels that took everything that was good about the original and made them even better.

★★★★★

Ghost in the Shell

Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Michael Pitt, Pilou Asbæk, Chin Han, Juliette Binoche, Beat Takeshi

Director: Rupert Sanders

Writers: Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, Ehren Kruger


When a film has generated such widely publicised controversy as Ghost in the Shell has, it’s often difficult to divorce the topic from the movie itself. As a critic it is my duty to evaluate each film I watch by its individual flaws and merits. The reality however is that no film is released in a vacuum and, as a viewer, I cannot help but have my perception altered by the circumstances surrounding a movie’s release. With that in mind, I’m not going to turn this review into an essay about feminism, whitewashing, or about America’s view of Japanese culture because I am not nearly smart or qualified enough to write one. Ghost in the Shell is a movie first and foremost and that’s how I plan to approach it. It isn’t a good movie but it is a visually stunning one. It is also a movie with poorly thought out morals and philosophies, insubstantial character development and a troubling relationship with race.

Set in a future where cybernetic enhancements have become a norm for human beings, the movie follows Major Mira Killian (Scarlet Johansson), a human whose brain was placed inside an entirely mechanical body after her own was damaged beyond repair in an accident. Now working for the anti-terrorist bureau Sector 9 with Batou (Pilou Asbæk) under Chief Daisuke Aramaki (Beat Takeshi), she combats threats and keeps the country safe. However she starts experiencing hallucinations and is puzzled by their meaning and significance. Her designer, Dr. Oulet (Juliette Binoche), dismisses them as glitches, but Major suspects they might be related to her past, of which she has little memory. Her confusion, as well as her suspicion that her friends and colleagues are lying to her, lead Major to start questioning her humanity and her place in the world. This existential crisis comes in the wake of an attack carried out by a terrorist known as Kuze (Michael Pitt), whom Major must track down and stop.

The anime this movie was based on had a compelling story that raised complex questions about what it means to be human. This film discards much of that complexity and depth in order to focus on how heroic and unique Major is, thus, intentionally or not, providing a quintessentially American type of narrative. Time and time again the movie periodically reiterates how special Killian is and how she is the only person (machine? being? entity?) of her kind without ever going deeper into the larger questions raised by her existence, or indeed by the very nature of the world they live in. What does identity mean to these people, especially Major? Where does one draw the line between human consciousness and artificial intelligence? What effect has technology had on the concept of race and gender? The film raises and alludes to all sorts of questions along these lines but never provides any detailed exploration or genuine insight.

The debate over whether the actress playing the main character of a Japanese manga should reflect their racial origins is one that I’m not prepared to go into. Johansson has proven herself in the past, both as an actress (Under the Skin, Her) and as an action star (The Avengers, Lucy), so I suppose it’s fair to say that I was prepared to accept her casting should she give a performance worthy of the character. The performance doesn’t work however because she was never able to form a convincing emotional connection with her character. Maybe this is because the character is tied so strongly to Japanese culture that no Caucasian actress could have built that connection, or maybe the fault lies elsewhere. In fairness, I don’t think the rest of the ensemble fared much better. Besides Batou I honestly cannot remember a single member of Killian’s team. Binoche does a decent job as a character whose presence hints at an intriguing mother/daughter relationship that I wish could have been explored more, but alas the film was too busy focusing on Major and how special and unique she is. Pitt as the villain is just bland and forgettable.

The movie is poor enough on its own. The characterisations are weak, the story is dull and the themes lack depth. What really kills Ghost in the Shell though is its problematic relationship with race. Perhaps the film could have survived the controversy if it merely side-lined any matters of race and just focused on the story it was trying to tell. Instead it fully addresses the issue in perhaps the most awkward, misguided way it could possibly have chosen. Far from allaying any concerns viewers might have had, the film ends bringing even more attention to the problem and throwing fuel onto the fire it started. I suppose the film should get some credit for at least trying to be representative by going to lengths to depict Japanese culture in its futuristic setting and featuring a not insignificant number of Asian actors in its cast. It is telling however that four out of five of the main characters are played by white actors. The film is often visually beautiful and has some great action as well, but narratively it feels soulless and empty. Kind of like a shell without a ghost.

★★

Free Fire

Cast: Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Jack Reynor, Babou Ceesay, Enzo Cilenti, Sam Riley, Michael Smiley, Noah Taylor

Director: Ben Wheatley

Writer: Amy Jump, Ben Wheatley


When it comes to action films, there is often a certain detached quality that can make them somewhat unfulfilling to watch. As much as I enjoy, say, watching James Bond take on a sinister villain or a dozen henchmen, it can get a little disaffecting when Bond is able to shrug off every blow he’s dealt, every car crash he’s in and every injury he suffers from an elaborate, deadly gadget like it’s nothing. Sometimes it’s just more fun when people get hurt. Wheatley takes this to an extreme with Free Fire, a movie where the injuries suffered are altogether smaller in scale than the atypical Hollywood blockbuster (single bullet wounds, falling rocks, shards of broken glass, etc.) but are still painful enough to affect the outcome of this haphazard gunfight. Not only is it more authentic, it’s funny as well because many of these injuries like banging your fingers or falling over and spraining your leg are the kinds of things that we can relate to. To see these kinds of things happen in a setting such as this makes for a thoroughly enjoyable farce.

The film is set in 1970s Boston and starts off when Stevo (Sam Riley) and Bernie (Enzo Cilente) set out to meet two IRA members, Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) for a weapons deal. They meet outside a warehouse and wait there for Christine (Brie Larson), an intermediary, and Ord (Armie Hammer), a representative for the arms dealer they are all meeting. They are led inside and are introduced to Vernon (Sharlto Copley), the arms dealer, and his associates Martin (Babou Ceesday), Harry (Jack Reynor) and Gordon (Noah Taylor). As the weapons deal proceeds, a series of tensions, grudges and misunderstandings between the gangsters emerge and intensify until they finally erupt violently. Once the shooting begins, everyone in the room scatters and takes cover and must then work out how to escape with either the money, the weapons, or even just their lives.

In terms of plot, Free Fire is essentially a 90-minute gunfight (kind of like how Mad Max: Fury Road was essentially a two-hour car chase). The fun comes in how the gunfight unfolds and how the characters interact with one another. Wheatley has a masterful command of both the geography and the continuity with a keen, continuous awareness of where each character is and what kind of injury they’ve suffered. The whole act unfolds much like a game of chess. Whenever any of the pieces make their moves, Wheatley knows exactly what the outcome will be depending on the other pieces’ positions on the board and acts accordingly. He knows who is in whose sights, he knows which characters are incapacitated or handicapped by which injuries, and he knows where each character wants to go or who/what it is they want to reach. Throw in some external elements like the rubble or the arrival of some extra shooters to add a little chaos into the mixture and what we get is 90-minutes of wonderfully directed anarchy.

The wounds suffered here are largely minor, most of them being inflicted on such parts as the hands, ankles and ears, but are still so painful that, once each character has suffered one injury or another, the bungling shootout finds itself at a stalemate. There’s a lot of ducking and crouching involved as at least half of these characters are unable to even remain upright. The cinematography follows suit, making use of low angles and slow crawls to covey this sense of being pinned down. The film also take place in real time, or at least feels like it does, making us appreciate the agony and anxiety overcoming these goons with each and every painstaking second. The longer the impasse is drawn out, the more desperate and wrathful they become, and so the more intense the fight becomes.

Free Fire is a crazy film and so it allows its cast to have a bit of fun, dressing them up in flamboyant costumes and letting all of them, especially Copley, chew up all the scenery they like. It’s funny enough watching a whole bunch of incompetent criminals trying to kill each other, but it’s even funnier when some of them are thoroughly loathsome and unlikeable people who probably deserve to be shot. The clash in personalities is awesome and the actors are all having the time of their lives playing them. The film has drawn many comparisons to Reservoir Dogs and, like Tarantino, Wheatley has found that delicate balance where we are drawn in enough that the violence feels real but are detached enough that it we can still recognise it as movie violence. That’s why we can wince at all the bloody, fiery, head-crushing moments and yet still laugh at them. This film is neither Wheatley’s nor Jump’s most ambitious or surprising film, but it does what it does very well and makes for good watching from beginning to end.

★★★★

Power Rangers

Cast: Dacre Montgomery, Naomi Scott, RJ Cyler, Becky G, Ludi Lin, Bill Hader, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Banks

Director: Dean Israelite

Writer: John Gatins


I was a 90s kid which means that I watched my fair share of Power Rangers growing up. The shows were spectacularly corny and silly but it worked very well for what it was, a campy kids TV show. However many different versions were made, the movies and shows all followed the same tried and true formula. A baddie would release some monsters to wreak havoc, the power rangers would suit up and fight them, the baddies would intervene by making one of monsters enormous, and then the rangers would work together in their animal-robot things to take it down. It was the exact same thing episode after episode after movie after episode. But it worked. It was a formula that children could recognise and follow and the show itself was fun enough that its ceaselessly repetitive structure didn’t really matter all that much. Looking back now it’s clear to me what a stupid, lame show it really was, but back then I couldn’t have cared less.

In the idyllic town of Angel Grove, high school football star Jason Scott (Dacre Montgomery) gets himself into trouble for an elaborate prank gone wrong and ends up in detention. There he meets Kimberly Hart (Naomi Scott), a shunned cheerleader, and Billy Cranston (RJ Cyler), an autistic nerd. The three end up at an old gold mine along with Trini (Becky), a moody loner, and Zack (Ludi Lin), a reckless maverick. After Billy breaks some rocks with his explosives, the five discover strange coloured coins and each take one. They later find that they’ve all acquired superhuman abilities overnight and return to the mine to discover the source. There they discover a spaceships inhabited by the robot Alpha 5 (Bill Hader) and the consciousness of Zordon (Bryan Cranston), a ranger from long ago. Zordon reveals that the five have been chosen to assume the roles of the Power Rangers and that they must begin training in order to defend the world against the imminent return of the dreaded Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks).

This is a film that truly exceeded my expectations. It isn’t by any means a great movie, but it is far, far better than a Power Rangers movie has any business being. All I really expected was five teenagers in coloured suits performing elaborate karate moves on weird-looking monsters. Instead I got a compelling teenage drama worthy of John Hughes with a Power Rangers episode taking up the last 30 minutes or so. The movies gives us five diverse teenagers who really do have attitude and showcases them all in believable, gripping ways. Billy’s autism and Trini’s sexual orientation don’t feel like topical traits the movie tacked on to score diversity points, they feel like genuine parts of their characters. The film actually takes time to show how much of an outsider Billy is, especially after the loss of his father who was the one person he felt he could really talk to, and how disconnected Trini feels with her clueless, conservative parents. Zack meanwhile shares a touching bond with his sick mother and is torn up by her illness while Kimberly struggles with being the subject of resentment amongst her classmates after committing an offence that’s actually pretty deserving of animosity. Jason completes the ensemble as its least interesting member, but he has his own father issues as well that leads to a couple of good moments.

As much as I enjoyed getting to know these characters and watching them bond, it did result in one rather glaring flaw. It takes forever for these characters to actually become the Power Rangers. After they meet Zordon about 30 minutes in, the five teenagers spend the subsequent hour training and learning about their abilities. In order to become the Power Rangers they must learn to morph, but the only way they can do that is by believing in themselves and discovering the power that is already within them. The climax cannot start until this happens and, when it finally does, there’s little more than twenty minutes left to go. The disconnect between the discovery of their abilities and their climatic showdown isn’t nearly as mishandled as it is in Fant4stic, but it’s still an issue. The teenage drama that takes up the first 90 minutes is good, but after a while it started to drag and I found myself looking at my watch wondering when they were finally going to master morphing and become the Power Rangers.

Once the climax does get started its about what you’d expect. The movie follows the standard Power Rangers formula to a tee in their battle against Rita as she comes to Angel Grove to find the something crystal of something power so she can something something destroy something Krispy Kreme something. Banks for her part completely commits herself to the role of the gold-obsessed alien and fully embraces the campy, ridiculous nature of this franchise. The rest, especially Cranston, play it straight for the most part but not to the point where they’re taking themselves too seriously. There’s plenty of comic relief, albeit some of it crude and predictable, and enough over-the-top action for the film to live up to the Power Rangers name. It isn’t a smart or a well-made film, but to be perfectly honest I never expected Power Rangers to be either of those things. That the film is at all thoughtful or compelling is in itself a miracle. There is an earnestness and sincerity to Power Rangers that I found rather charming. It’s a silly film but it falls on the right side of silly, offering kids some good, harmless fun with a couple of good lessons to take away and think about.

★★★

Beauty and the Beast

Cast: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson

Director: Bill Condon

Writers: Stephen Chbosky, Evan Spiliotopoulos


Another year, another Disney remake. For the most part I’m not against the idea of updating and modernising Disney films in principle, but in practice I think the result has been mixed at best. Cinderella for example did a lot that worked better than in the original animation, but did just as much that did not. Meanwhile I felt that The Jungle Book did a lot that was different to the 1967 film, but little that I felt was better or worse. In both cases however I was open to the idea of the remake because I felt that both of the animations, while classics in their own rights, left something to be desired. In this, Beauty and the Beast is different. Beauty and the Beast, as far as I’m concerned, is as perfect as Disney gets. Not only is it a marvellous fairy tale with wonderful characters, fantastic music and beautiful animation, it’s also one of the few Disney films that actually gets better as I get older. It may be bias on my part, but I just couldn’t see what Disney hoped to accomplish by remaking this film.

In an 18th-century French provincial town lives Belle (Emma Watson), a solitary bookworm who dreams of excitement and adventure. She lives with her father Maurice (Kevin Kline) and spends her days reading, thinking and rejecting the advances of the oafish Gaston (Luke Evans). When Maurice gets lost venturing through the forest, he seeks refuge in a castle where he is taken prisoner by the Beast (Dan Stevens). Belle comes to the castle in search of her father and offers herself as a prisoner in his place. The Beast, cursed by an enchantress to live as a horrific monster unless he should learn to love another and be loved in return, agrees. Also living in the castle are the Beast’s servants who, thanks to the curse, have taken the form of animate objects. These included Lumiere the candelabra (Ewan MacGregor), Cogsworth the clock (Ian McKellen), and Mrs. Potts the teapot (Emma Thompson). With their help the Beast hopes to win Belle’s heart and break the curse.

Now, while I haven’t been a terribly big fan of the Disney remakes overall, I do appreciate how many of them have at least tried to do something different with the stories that we all know so well. This is why I found this new Beauty and the Beast to be so aggravating. This film, rather than trying something different, is almost as much of a shot-for-shot remake as Gus Van Sant’s Psycho. It’s actually a bit of a paradox really. This film is exactly like the 1991 film, and yet somehow nothing like it. It copies everything the original did but it lacks all of the magic and humanity that made the film work as well as it did. None of the movie’s events occur because they are motivated by the story or its characters, they occur because they’re following what happened in the original. The ballroom dance for example, by far the animation’s most iconic scene, is not built up to in any way. There’s no romantic dinner, no exchange of nervous glances, no playful sense of spontaneity; the film just cuts straight from the couple meeting at the staircase to them dancing in the ballroom. Why are they dancing? Because that’s what they did in the original movie.

I know that I shouldn’t be dwelling so much on how much better the 1991 classic is and comparing it with the remake, but this movie has brought it on itself. It spends so much time trying to recreate the original that I couldn’t help but be reminded of how wonderful and magical these moments felt when they took place in the animation as opposed to how empty and lifeless they felt here. When the film does vary, it’s to the story’s detriment. There are some additional scenes, such as when Gaston and Le Fou (Josh Gad) venture into the woods with Maurice to search for Belle, which only serve to pad the runtime. Occasionally there are some interesting ideas, one being the idea of Belle and the Beast bonding when they learn that both of their mothers died when they were young, but the film never goes anywhere with them. Then there are some elements like the magical teleporting book and the inclusion of a character called Agathe (Hattie Morahan) that are just plain stupid. The film’s greatest accomplishment is that it looks like Beauty and the Beast, which I think is the secret to the movie’s success. The sets, costumes and visual effects in this movie are so evocative of the original that it can sometimes be quite easy to fall for the illusion and think that you actually are watching Beauty and the Beast.

That illusion however is just as easily broken by the missteps the film takes in its direction. The casting of Emma Watson as Belle for example was a great idea on paper but not in practice. Not only is Watson a subpar singer whose voice lacks both power and expression, she’s also quite a limited actress. Her performance as Hermione worked because she was able to build that character very much in line with her own personality, but as Belle the limits of her acting ability became all too apparent. Her facial expressions rarely varied, her line deliveries lacked range and her body language felt forced. The rest of the cast meanwhile varies from bland to passable (with the exception of McGregor’s indefinable accent). Some of the CGI characters do pretty well and Gad gets an occasional laugh (despite his role as Disney’s first openly gay character being grossly overblown. I’m all for inclusivity but I’ve seen gayer characters in The Lord of the Rings!). Watson was the only one who struck me as out of her depth here.

I’d be lying if I said that I went into this movie with a completely open mind. Even putting aside my mixed on feelings on the Disney remakes I had already seen, this was a movie I already felt sceptical towards. After the trailer made it clear to me that this was very much going to be the same movie as the animation rather than a different take, I couldn’t understand why Disney would want to recreate what was already perfect (creatively I mean. The real rea$on Di$ney made thi$ film wa$ obviou$). I would have liked to be wrong. Nothing would have pleased me more than to be moved and enchanted by this film the same way I was by the original Beauty and the Beast. I wouldn’t exactly categorise this movie along with the worse of the Disney remakes. In fact, all things considered, it’s not even that bad a film. It was never as inane as Maleficent or as dire as Alice in Wonderland. On the other hand though, those two movies at least tried to take their stories into new directions. Thus, while Beauty and the Beast may not be the worst of these films, it is, for me, the most pointless.

Kong: Skull Island

Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Terry Notary, John C. Reilly

Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts

Writers: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly


When Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla came out, it was criticised for its slow-reveal approach with the titular monster, who only appeared on-screen for about eight minutes. While Jaws is one example of how well this approach can work when done right, Godzilla shows how tedious it can be with the absence of compelling characters or an engaging story. Kong, the second instalment of the proposed MonsterVerse franchise, takes the opposite approach. We meet the gigantic ape as soon as the characters reach Skull Island and then he remains prominent throughout as he battles monsters and whatnot. This approach will undoubtedly work for many viewers as it allows them to see plenty of exactly the thing they paid to see: epic monster-on-monster action. It didn’t work for me though. This was because the misgivings with character and story were still there. It terms of pure action alone, this movie is weird, exciting and fun. As a whole it is a messy, misguided, and often tiresome film.

It is 1973 and the war in Vietnam is virtually over for the Americans. At this time Bill Randa (John Goodman), a government agent, hires the former soldier James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) to lead an expedition to Skull Island. Escorting them is a U.S. army squadron led by the ruthless Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). Also accompanying them is Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), a photojournalist and vocal peace activist. Upon arrival the troops start dropping heavy explosives to map out the island until they are interrupted by the arrival of Kong, an enormous ape, who attacks the party and scatters them all around the island. The survivors must navigate and survive the threats and creatures that inhabit the island in order to find each other and escape. Packard however has other plans for the monster that wiped out his troops.

The design and animation in this film is first-class. The monsters look like they could’ve been designed by Guillermo del Toro or Hayao Miyazaki. Kong himself is larger than life and he looks and feels as real as any of the human characters. The ground trembles with his every step, the blows he delivers to his foes leave a shattering impact and the sounds he makes teem with life. This authenticity however is only true on a visual level because, unlike the previous incarnations in the 1933 classic or in Jackson’s remake, this Kong has no personality. He isn’t keen or intelligent, he isn’t protective or vengeful, and he isn’t hard-hearted or compassionate; he’s just an exceptionally animated CGI monster there to wreak havoc or to rush in as the saviour depending on what the plot wants him to do. Even if Kong were an interesting character in his own right, he has to fight for his screen time against the half-dozen or so human characters the film saw fit to focus on. Hiddleston somehow has less of a character than Kong, Jackson is one-dimensionally crazy, and Larson’s character only exists because blonde damsels are mandatory in King Kong movies.

What really got on my nerves though was that Kong was not satisfied with being a simple King Kong movie. Even with the lack of character, I would’ve been just fine with two hours of mindless, visually stunning action (I’m only human). The truly baffling thing about this film is the statement it’s trying to make (whatever that statement may be). The movie is unreservedly intent on creating some sort of parable to the war in Vietnam, pitting its gung-ho soldiers and their advanced weaponry against a savage foe who bests them with guerrilla tactics, and clutters the movie with homages to Apocalypse Now and Platoon just in case there was any ambiguity on that front. The point however is lost on me. All I got from the movie’s ‘meaningful’ statements about the war, its superficial characterisations and its extravagant imagery complete with napalm explosions was that the film really wanted to make a Vietnam metaphor.

The total clash in tones makes Kong: Skull Island feel like several different films blended together into an indefinable mixture. There’s the monster movie that we all wanted to see but it has been mismatched with some kind of political allegory that is so blatant and unsubtle and yet so random and unfocused that I’m not sure whether ‘allegory’ is even the appropriate word. The movie somehow takes itself too seriously and yet not seriously enough. It is certainly a weird and crazy enough film that the mess will work for some viewers. At its best the action is thrilling, awe-inspiring, and epic. I however found myself so distracted by the confused, cluttered story and the soulless characters that I was never able to lose myself in the spectacle. Godzilla may have lacked character but at least it was tonally consistent enough that I never felt like the story ever derailed or lost track of itself. This movie was anarchy from beginning to end. Visually stunning anarchy, but anarchy nonetheless.

★★

Logan

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Boyd Holbrook, Stephen Merchant, Richard E. Grant, Dafne Keen

Director: James Mangold

Writers: Scott Frank, James Mangold, Michael Green


In Jackman’s final turn as the character that made him a star, Fox has finally delivered the Wolverine movie that fans have been waiting for. It’s probably significant that this movie was made with the intention of being Jackman’s final turn as the metal-clawed mutant. After having already seen him featured in two solo films, one terrible and one boring, I can imagine the filmmakers felt some pressure to use this one final chance to get it right. There will be other Wolverine movies I’m sure, but there may never be another actor who embodies this character as perfectly as Hugh Jackman did. With Logan he is finally allowed to fully realise this character he helped bring to life in a way he never he could in any of the prior X-Men films and it was well worth the wait. What makes Logan great is not just the way it portrays this iconic character, but also how it stands within the X-Men franchise and how it comments on the superhero genre that has dominated Hollywood for well over a decade.

Set far in the future where mutants are all but extinct, Logan (Hugh Jackman) has long since abandoned his calling as Wolverine. Now working as a limo driver, his healing factor has faltered and he has now become weaker and weary with age. With the help of the mutant tracker Caliban (Stephen Merchant), Logan cares for Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), now suffering from dementia and no longer in control of his telepathic abilities. At this time Logan is approached by Gabriela Lopez (Elizabeth Rodriguez), a nurse on the run from a secretive government organisation, who begs him to take in and protect an eleven-year-old girl called Laura (Dafne Keen). Hot on their trail is Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), the cybernetically-enhanced security officer charged with the girl’s retrieval. After an encounter where Logan learns that Laura possesses abilities similar to his own, they must go on the run with Xavier in search of a place called Eden.

After Deadpool proved once and for all that superhero movies could go for an R rating and still be massively successful, Logan followed suit and fully embraces the liberties that became available. In the very first scene Logan is protecting his car from a gang of thugs intent on stealing his tires and the fight that ensues is unlike anything we’ve seen from Wolverine before. Skulls and bones are being sliced, blood is splattering all over the place, and Logan swears like a sailor with every blow he’s dealt. However what makes the action feel so different from what we’re used to extends far beyond the blood and gore. Here Mangold does away with the rapidly edited, distantly shot action that the Marvel blockbusters tend to favour. Here the fighting is up close, intensely choreographed and much more raw and organic. When Logan gets hit, he feels it.

What makes Logan truly special though is not just the action, but also the characters and the story they tell. Logan is an old man now and Jackman plays him as a wearied soul, haunted by past traumas and losses and reluctant to ever fight again (not unlike Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven). He has grown disillusioned with the ideals he once believed in, especially now that the man who originally inspired him is little more than a raving loony. Professor X has gone senile and Stewart is loving every second of it as he rants and raves about the place while Logan tries to care for him. Keen is also great in her turn as Laura, a silent role that requires her to be as expressive as she can with her looks and gestures. All three play their role with such resolve, comedy, pathos and humanity that Logan reaches beyond what we’ve come to expect from the superhero genre and provides something altogether deeper and more stimulating.

Jackman was there when the cinematic superhero craze started, and now here he is 17 years later where the fatigue has set in for many audiences. Who better then to use as a model for the consideration and analysis of the genre and how it has evolved? There is a complex morality that comes with the superhero mythos, full of grey areas and contradictions, that goes largely unexplored (or perhaps underexplored) by superhero movies for the most part but which Logan fully embraces. The movie takes a fundamentally cynical view towards the superhero myth, establishing that the whole thing very much as a myth, the kind that only exists in children’s comic books or movies like Shane. Even after all the heroics he accomplished as Wolverine, Logan has gone on to lose everyone he cares about and none of the problems he solved or the people he’s saved have really mattered. Things have gone to hell and people have gotten hurt despite (and sometimes because) of what he’s done. And yet there are still some who believe in him and who believe that what he does is important and is for the better. The deconstruction of the genre is a fascinating one that at once dispels the myth of the superhero while also reaffirming it.

Between Logan and Deadpool, it looks like the game is very much changing for the superhero movie. As much as I enjoy the popcorn quality of the Marvel and DC movies, there is an undeniable fatigue that has set in. These franchises have adopted a certain business as usual sensibility that hasn’t exactly made them less enjoyable to watch (not for me anyway) but somewhat less fulfilling. It is for example difficult to feel that anything is really at stake in the Marvel and DC films when all of their actors are contracted to appear in future titles. It’s also true that these movies often spend so much time setting up future stories that you never really feel like you’re watching an actual story unfold. The superhero films are also falling victim to their conventions which, unless done very well, can feel tired and predictable (as it can with any genre). This is why movies like Logan are needed to shake up the genre, explore new directions and possibilities, and go deeper than any has gone before. What’s more, Logan is quite simply a great film with a profound story, excellent action, and a marvellous performance by Jackman.

★★★★★

Moonlight

Cast: Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Janelle Monáe, Ashton Sanders, Jharrel Jerome, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali

Director: Barry Jenkins

Writer: Barry Jenkins


Moonlight is such a complex and conceptual film that I hardly know how to even begin describing it. To say that this is a coming-of-age story about the life of a gay, black, working-class boy barely even scratches the surface. On a broader level the film is about what it means to be black and gay in America today and depicts such socially relevant issues as drug abuse, incarceration and schoolboy violence, but to call this movie a comment on the world we live in undermines the personal and artistic elements at work. In many ways this movie is more about the mood and tone and the individual moments that play out in the successive chapters. It is a character study, a social commentary, and an abstract exploration of art and emotion. The film is a beautiful, intimate personal tale telling the real-life story of a young man’s struggle for identity and it is also a visual poem, spoken through light, music, and expressions. It is all of those things and more and is without question one of the best films of 2016.

Told in three chapters, each entitled with his given name at the time, Moonlight tells the story of a poor, sexually conflicted African-American boy living in Florida with Paula (Naomie Harris), his drug addicted mother. First we see him as Little (Alex Hibbert), a withdrawn ten-year-old getting picked on by bullies. It is at this age that he befriends Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local drug dealer, and his girlfriend Theresa (Janelle Monáe), who provide him with advice and comfort to help him navigate through his turbulent life. In the second chapter he is Chiron (Ashton Sanders), an introverted teenager whose abuse at the hands of the bullies has become more unbearable and violent. His childhood friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), a cocky womaniser, is his greatest source of comfort at this time but is also a source of emotional and sexual confusion for him. Finally, as a young adult in chapter three, we see him as Black (Trevante Rhodes), a bulked up drug dealer living in Atlanta. Having seemingly left his past behind him, a phone call from a grown-up Kevin (André Holland) brings it all flooding back.

The defining theme of Moonlight seems to me to be identity. Throughout his childhood, adolescence and adulthood, Chiron is trying to figure out his place in the world and is tormented by conflicting ideas of sexuality and masculinity. As a kid, before he’s even old enough to understand the concept of homosexuality, the other boys sense something ‘different’ and ‘soft’ about him and punish him for it. As a teenager, as his confused desires start to manifest themselves, the bullying intensifies. Although Chiron is able to explore his sexuality in one of the film’s most delicate scenes, he is still at a vulnerable age where he lacks the support or the confidence to accept the way he is. Thus, when he is later taught in the harshest, most brutal way that the way he feels is contrary to what a man is ‘supposed’ to be, it’s a lesson he takes to heart. The next time we see him, his fear, rage, and self-loathing, have driven him to shape himself into the supposed archetype of African-American masculinity. He is a macho, physically dominant, violent man who has suppressed the part of himself that defies what he has been taught represents manhood.

Equally painful and agonising is his complicated relationship with his abusive, drug-addicted mother. As her addiction grows and her desperation increases, so does her son’s suffering increase. The drug trade in this area is controlled by Juan and Paula is one of his best customers. So when Juan starts to look out for Chiron, inviting him over for meals, teaching him valuable skills and lessons, and just spending time with him, their bond is sullied by the awareness that Juan is partly to blame for Chiron’s wretched home life. To view Juan as simply a surrogate-father is to simplify his character. He is a well-meaning man who sees something good in Chiron and wants to help him, but he is also a questionable role model whose influence and relationship with the young boy has as much of a toxic affect on Chiron (not only as evidenced by his mother but also by Chiron’s career as an adult) as much as a comforting one. This is only one of the ways in which Jenkins is able to bring humanity to a character and challenge what could very easily have been a stereotype

The story with its characters is fascinating and compelling enough, but the poetry of it all comes from the artistry Jenkins brings. Through sensual camera movements, rich and radiant colours and a subtle yet expressive score, the film creates a breathtaking, dream-like atmosphere. The chapters thus feel less like narratives and more like evocations, justifying the time-jumping structure the film adopts. The screenplay as well is marvellous, both in what it says and leaves unsaid. This is aided by the astounding performances provided by the ensemble, from Ali’s strong charisma to Harris’ desolate naturalism to the wonderfully expressive turns by each of the actors playing Chiron. As a character Chiron is shy, quiet, and unassuming, so it is a testament to Hibbert, Sanders, and Rhodes that we get such a comprehensive picture of his inner-turmoil. Whether it’s the knowing gaze of a child who finally understands the relationship between his mother and his father-figure, the nervous glance between two young men who feel an undeniable yet taboo attraction between them, and most of all in the final scenes, the film is filled with silences that speak volumes.

There is so much to say about Moonlight and I have no doubt it is a film that will be studied for decades to come. Moonlight is a landmark in both LGBTQ and racial cinema and yet its themes are so universal and so resonant that any attempt to categorise it would prove inadequate. The film is just too challenging and open-ended. Moonlight is simply a great film, one of the true masterpieces of the 21st century. It is a film of profound pain and sadness but also of beauty and affection. By the end, after years of pain, torment and suffering, Chiron finally attains a greater understanding of himself and of the world and may very well have found a future of hope and freedom. Moonlight is an utterly heartrending, moving film that provides a thoughtful, mesmerising window into Chiron’s very soul and consciousness. Watching his growth, progress and struggle is a deeply poignant and heartbreaking experience that only the finest, most ingenious works of art can create.

★★★★★

The Great Wall

Cast: Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau

Director: Zhang Yimou

Writers: Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, Tony Gilroy


The critical response to this movie has me quite perplexed. Personally, I didn’t like this movie at all. I thought it was a stupid, ridiculous, misguided mess of a film. While hardly a critical darling, this film was given a more positive reception than I thought it could possibly warrant. When I actually read some of those reviews though, what I found was that they weren’t exactly positive per se, but rather forgiving. Many of these reviews conceded that the film was silly, that it didn’t make any sense, that Damon’s performance is wooden, that a lot of the CGI isn’t at all convincing. They conceded some or all of those things, yet maintained that they enjoyed the movie anyway. A lot of this perhaps stems from the respect many critics have for Zhang Yimou, one of the most revered directors working in China today. Maybe some of them were swept away by the spectacle. Or maybe I’m making too much out of all this and all those critics simply enjoyed a silly, messy movie for what it is. All I can really say is that I didn’t like it.

The movie follows two European mercenaries, William Garin (Matt Damon) and Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) who are attacked on their way to China by some unknown creature. The creature massacres their entire troop but then flees after having its arm severed by William. The two survivors reach the Great Wall, where they hope to discover the secret of gunpowder, and are taken prisoner by The Nameless Order, a secretive Chinese army. Their leaders General Shao (Zhang Hanyu) and Strategist Wang (Andy Lau) reveal that they have been charged with the defence of China against a horde of alien monsters, the same kind that William and Tovar encountered, which rise every sixty years. When a wave of the beasts arrive and attack the Great Wall, William and Tovan are freed by Sir Ballard (Willem Dafoe), a European prisoner of many years, join the fight, and earn the respect of the General and of Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian). They resolve to aid the Chinese in their resistance against the insurmountable odds facing them.

As a viewer I am far from immune to spectacle, and I must confess that this movie does have some. If there are two things that are never lacking in Yimou’s films, it’s stylish action and a gorgeous colour palette. When the film established its Helm’s Deep setup and gave us our first big action scene, I was carried away for a while by the neat production and costumes, the gymnastic fighting style of the Crane troop, and the baffling insanity of it all. But then it wore off. Then I started getting distracted by the nonsensical plot, the stilted dialogue, Damon’s inability to settle on an accent and the overblown CGI. Then I started finding the movie tedious. Once I got past the oriental setting and the action scenes I found that The Great Wall was just a formulaic monster movie. There’s a roguish hero rising to the occasion, a deus ex machina plot device in the form of a magnet, a generic lesson about trust and honour and dozens upon dozens of expendable CGI monsters getting hacked and slashed along the way. That’s about it.

While Damon is no stranger to action, he looks so uncomfortably out of place in this film. The accent, the clothing, the bow and arrow, the ponytail, he looks and feels about as convincing here as John Wayne did playing Genghis Khan. The only difference is that in this case it isn’t technically whitewashing; it’s just awkward. (On that subject, I think that they could very easily have given this film a Chinese protagonist (Jing Tian’s character maybe) but I doubt it would have made the film much better). Pascal is a little more at home in this setting, possibly because of his excellent turn in Game of Thrones, but doesn’t really fare much better than Damon. The movie tries to establish them as some kind of medieval Butch-Sundance bromance, but the banter between them is hopelessly contrived. Dafoe meanwhile is so wasted in his villainous role that I honestly forgot he was even in the film. The Chinese cast, particularly Tian and Lau, fare far better but are unfortunately still trapped in a tiresome, senseless movie.

The Great Wall is a landmark in that it marks a big-budget, high profile cinematic collaboration between the USA and China, home of the two biggest movie audiences in the world, aimed at a global audience. It also marks Zhang Yimou’s first English-language production. Sadly it simply isn’t a good film. It is confused, illogical and derivative. The action and the visuals will work for some, as long as they’re willing to turn their brains off, and that’s okay I guess. Mindless spectacle is all well and good; this one just didn’t work for me. It wasn’t epic enough, compelling enough, or bonkers enough for me to get into. I’d like to think that this movie might at least bring about further cinematic collaboration between the East and the West and allow Chinese cinema to gain an even stronger foothold in the rest of the world, I just hope that the next movie is better.