King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Àstrid Bergès-Frisby, Djimon Hounsou, Aiden Gillan, Jude Law, Eric Bana

Director: Guy Ritchie

Writers: Joby Harold, Guy Ritchie, Lionel Wigram


There have been many unlikely combinations in art between subject and style that have worked splendidly despite expectations and preconceptions. A Second World War Western by the director of Pulp Fiction? Excellent! A hip-hop/rap musical about the US’s first Secretary of the Treasury? A masterpiece! An absurd yet melancholic TV show about a horse who used to be a sitcom star? Incredible! So when I saw that Guy Ritchie of all people was going to take on the King Arthur mythos, I was ready to give it a chance. His style is one that I’ve enjoyed in other movies before and he already made it work with another unlikely subject in Sherlock Holmes, so maybe there was something to this idea. In this case though, it doesn’t work. This version of the British legend is so stupid, so silly, and so dull that I’m inclined to take the version with the coconuts, the Trojan Rabbit and the Knights Who Say Ni more seriously.

Many years ago in a great battle where Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) defended the kingdom of Camelot against the warlock Mordred, his treacherous brother Vortigern (Jude Law) orchestrated a coup and used dark magic to slay the king and seize the throne for himself. Uther’s son survives the usurpation and drifts away on a boat that ends up in Londinium. The boy is found and raised by prostitutes and grows to become Arthur (Charlie Hunnam), a strong fighter and streetwise scoundrel. When a confrontation between Arthur and some Vikings goes badly, Arthur is taken by the king’s men and put on a ship to Camelot. There the Blacklegs have been forcing young men to try and pull out a sword stuck in a stone nearby. Arthur successfully removes the sword and is overwhelmed by its power. After he is subsequently taken prisoner and learns the truth of his heritage from Vortigern, a mage (Àstrid Bergès-Frisby), an acolyte of Merlin (Sir Not-Appearing-in-This-Film), rescues him from his planned execution with the aid of the Uther’s former knight Sir Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou). The mage and her team then enlists Arthur to embrace his legacy and help them overthrow Vortigern.

This movie takes pretty much the opposite approach to the Clive Owen film, which sought to depict a demystified, historically authentic King Arthur. Ritichie is instead more interested in modernising the myth and having some fun with it. This Arthur is less of a medieval nobleman and more of a 21st century lad, roughing it up and talking in slang. His crew is made up of other rough, tough misfits such as Back Lack (Neil Maskell) and Wet Stick (Kingsley Ben-Adir) and they are a multicultural bunch, complete with their own martial arts master in Kung Fu George (Tom Wu). They crack wise, get into fights, and plan their ruses the way the characters in Snatch would plan their heists. This is all fine in theory and Guy Ritchie is the kind of stylistically over-the-top director mad enough to pull it off. In theory, a contemporary King Arthur film with cockney banter, acrobatic, slow-motion sword fights and an array of enormous CGI creatures should’ve at least been good fun. The film however is anything but, and that is because it Ritchie exhibits absolutely zero restraint and moderation on his style.

It is one thing for a director to have a distinctive storytelling style that adds a fun, interesting twist to the narrative, it is another thing entirely when that style usurps the narrative. The movie is so overloaded with rapid edits, haphazard shifts in time and space, hectic ­mise-en-scène and blaring sounds that all the important things like story, dialogue and character get lost in the chaos. There are so many things happening all at once that nothing at all is happening. Nothing means anything in this film because nothing is allowed to sink in and be processed. Whether the film is being serious and trying to have an emotional impact, such as the moment when Arthur learns who he is and what happened to his father, or when the movie is being silly and cheeky and trying to have a laugh, such as when Arthur delivers one of those stories within a story that Ritchie likes so much recounting his encounter with the Vikings, it all rushes past like a blur. The film just doesn’t know when to stop and let a moment play out or when to let a crucial piece of information or plot development linger just long enough for the viewer to absorb it. It’s like Guy Ritchie made a 10-hour movie and then screened the whole thing in fast-forward.

It is entirely possible that the reason Ritchie went so overboard with his style is because the movie itself offered little else of substance or worth. The story is so determined to keep moving forward that it never actually gets anywhere. When Arthur lifts Excalibur from the stone and discovers that he is the heir to the throne, the objective from that point on is making Arthur the king. That’s fine except it feels more like an obligation for the plot than a progression, considering that we never really see Arthur displaying qualities of heroism or leadership. It doesn’t help that Hunnam plays him as a smirking rogue; I had a harder time rooting for him than I did for Jamie Campbell Bower’s rather bland take on the character in the otherwise solid Starz series from a few years back. Jude Law can be quite entertaining in his  scenery-chewing role as the villainous, slightly camp Vortigern but that’s about it. When a movie understands its story so little that it ends up detracting from one of its pivotal moments with an embarrassingly distracting celebrity cameo for the ages, you know you’re in trouble.

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Wonder Woman

Cast: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Connie Nielsen, Elena Anaya

Director: Patty Jenkins

Writer: Allan Heinberg


Whether it wants it or not (and whether it’s fair or not), Wonder Woman has got a lot of pressure and expectation riding on it. Not only is it the first solo movie for one of the most iconic female characters of all time, it is also the single biggest movie to ever be made by a female director. For years studios have been pointing towards flops like Catwoman and Helen Slater’s Supergirl as evidence that female superhero movies don’t work (as if male superhero movies have such a perfect track record). With the MCU so far neglecting to make any female-led movies in spite of having a popular character and marketable star in Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, it falls onto DC to finally break this glass ceiling. While it’s not up to me to judge this movie from a feminine standpoint, I also cannot ignore what a big deal this movie is or how significant its success will be. And it is by all means a resounding success.

The movie starts off with Diana (Gal Gadot) as a child on the secret island of Themyscria, the home of the Amazonian race. There, as the daughter of Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), she is forbidden to partake in training as a warrior, but does so anyway with her aunt, General Antipone (Robin Wright). Years later, having grown into a strong and capable woman, she rescues a downed pilot as his plane crashes nearby. The pilot is Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and he is an American soldier fighting in the First World War as a spy. He was being pursued by the Germans as he was escaping with a notebook stolen from the infamous chemist Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya) and must return to London as soon as possible. Diana, believing that the war god Ares, whom her people have sworn to oppose, is orchestrating this war in the form of General Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston), arms herself with the Amazons’ ‘Godkiller’ sword and accompanies him. Thus she joins the war to end all wars where she will discover the true extent of her powers and find her destiny.

This film marks the fourth instalment in the DCEU, a franchise that has so far proven uneven in its storytelling. Batman v. Superman for example was a movie that felt messy and overblown because it took on too many storylines and spent too much time on world building. One of the strengths of Wonder Woman is that it tells an entirely self-contained story. There are no forced cameos, no tangential set ups for upcoming titles and no unnecessary subplots. This is Diana’s story and the movie keeps the focus on her. When approaching a character such as Wonder Woman, one might have been tempted to sculpt her simply as a strong, badass warrior woman, essentially a female Braveheart. The movie however is more thoughtful and complex than that. Diana is indeed tough and vengeful, but she is also curious, compassionate, earnest and brave. She is an inspiring hero of a kind that movies haven’t really seen since Christopher Reeve’s Superman. When Diana runs into battle to face the enemy, there isn’t a childhood trauma that forces her, no words of wisdom from a mentor that move her, no inner conflict about responsibility and morality that compels her. Diana is a kind, virtuous person who wants to help simply because it’s the right thing to do.

Joining Gadot in her wonderful turn as the DC legend is a strong supporting cast, the best of whom is Chris Pine as the dashing WWI pilot. Whereas Diana is hopeful, naïve even, Trevor is altogether more pessimistic and world weary, a quality to which Pine brings both charm and humour. There is a clear attraction between them on the outset which feels utterly authentic and organic due to the electrifying chemistry they share. Not many superhero movies can make their romances work, but this is definitely one that can. Also great are the Amazonian women, particularly Wright, who are every bit as fierce, steadfast and awesome as a warrior people ought to be. Watching them in action is one of the most thrilling parts of the movie as Jenkins does away with the rapid editing and generic framing we see in most blockbusters. Instead we get to see the warriors in their full glory, fighting in a variety of styles that make the combat feel more like an epic ballet than a punch-by-numbers.

Jenkins is to applauded on more than just the action scenes. Much of Wonder Woman feels unlike anything we might’ve expected from recent blockbusters, including and especially those of the DCEU. For one thing, Wonder Woman has actual colour in it. The magnificent gold of the Amazonian armour and the luscious greens and deep blues of their paradise island can all be seen in their splendour. Even the reds, greys and browns of the Western Front show that dark colours can be dire without being murky and stale. The movie also installs much humanity and humour into its story which, far from undercutting, help to enhance the film’s more serious moments. When we see Diana charging into her battle with her comrades, which include Charlie (Ewan Bremner) the sharpshooter, Chief (Eugene Brave Rock) the Native American smuggler, and Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui) the Moroccan master of disguise, its all the more affective because the movie has actually taken the time to show these characters bonding. Wonder Woman, being set in 1918, also does a good job of tackling issues of sexism and racism without beating us over the head with it.

The fatal flaw holding this movie back from greatness is its third act which sadly slips into the more generic territory we’ve seen in recent blockbusters. In starts off promisingly enough with a reveal for the villain that is surprising in its sophistication, suggesting that Ares is not in fact the simple baddie we took him for, and there is an excellent final scene between Diana and Steve that I found moving. Otherwise, unfortunately, the climax is typical of the sort of explosive finales that modern blockbusters like with overwritten, pretentious dialogue and a morally confused resolution. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a weak ending and it certainly doesn’t kill the movie, but it was underwhelming given how strong and fresh the first two acts had been. Still, even if I would have preferred an ending that took a few more risks, Wonder Woman is despite its flaws a great watch. It is gorgeous, exciting and inspiring and is entirely worthy of the comic book icon it has brought to life.

★★★★

Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge

Cast: Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Geoffrey Rush, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Kevin McNally

Director: Joachim Rønning, Espen Sandberg

Writer: Jeff Nathanson


In the fifth instalment of the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy (somewhere out there Douglas Adams is laughing) there are two openings. One promises the return and salvation of a character from the previous films and the other introduces the latest villain in the franchise. By the time the title appeared, neither of these openings was able to inspire the slightest bit of curiosity or enthusiasm on my part. I was not at all interested in seeing the return of a character who had no business remaining a part of this franchise after the first film nor was I terribly excited to see yet another enormously talented actor put their talent to waste in this shipwreck of a movie series. The overblown plots, the ridiculous action, Johnny Depp’s silliness, these have all become staples of Pirates and all these opening scenes did was assure me that this movie would be more of the same.

Nine years after his last meeting with his cursed father Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), whom he has promised to free from by locating Poseidon’s Trident, Henry (Brenton Thwaites) is serving on a vessel that gets attacked by Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) and his undead crew. Henry alone survives and, upon learning that he is searching for Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), Salazar leaves him with a message for Jack: that death is coming. Over in Saint Martin Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario) has been accused of witchcraft, due to her knowledge of astronomy and horology, and is sentenced to death. She escapes and gets mixed up in a bank robbery orchestrated by Jack and his crew. When the robbery proves a failure Jack is abandoned by his crew and, in a moment of despair, he surrenders his magic compass for a drink, unwittingly releasing Salazar from his confinement in the Devil’s Triangle. Henry arrives in Saint Martin and becomes entangled with both Jack and Carina, teaming up with them to search for the Trident. Hot on their trail is Salazar who seeks to find Jack Sparrow with the aid of his new prisoner, Captain Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush).

There are several different plots been tackled all at once and the movie jumbles them to the point of incoherence. As always in this franchise there is a plot device the characters are all trying to reach, Poseidon’s Trident, which one would think might allow the film some focus. The plot however is completely lost in the tangled web of stories and sub-plots the movie wants to chuck in to try and convince us that there is a larger, more epic story being told. Henry of course must be the son of Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, since it’s apparently not enough for him to be his own character, so the film must allocate time towards the Turner family drama. Then there’s Carina and the mystery surrounding the diary she possesses which she received from a father she’s never met (because of course she hasn’t). Then there’s Captain Salazar and the history he shares with Jack Sparrow. Then there’s the matter of recovering the Black Pearl which is still trapped in a bottle from the last film. Then there are a series of obstacles along the way like Jack Sparrow’s death sentence and impromptu wedding which only exist to pad the runtime. That the movie lacks any kind of consistency or focus means that each and every aspect of this story, whether promising, unnecessary or just plain stupid, receives the equal amount of inattention and neglect.

The Pirates movies have always been silly and over the top, but in Curse of the Black Pearl it was fresh and toned down enough and coupled with enough entertaining characters and thrilling action to make for a great popcorn movie. While Dead Man’s Chest may mark the point where the movies got out of control, On Stranger Tides was when this series became unbearably boring. Even after the movies finally dispensed of its two least interesting characters, the continued adventures of Jack Sparrow carried a weary sense of ‘been there, done that’. This film feels the same. Johnny Depp’s performance has lost all of the wit and charm it once had and has been pitifully reduced to a 54-year-old man flailing his arms about and making weird expressions while slurring his words. The adventure meanwhile has lost all of its thrill and wonder as it repeats the same tired steps of having its main character stumble his way through a bunch of implausible and impossibly perilous situations with barely a scratch to show for it. It’s gotten old.

Much of this movie feels more like a blur to me (which, come to think of it, is probably how it felt to Jack Sparrow as well). The one element that felt to me like the movie was trying to do something different was with Carina’s arc as a smart, thinking woman in a backwards time. The idea of having this character whose affinity for science and astronomy makes her an outcast is one that makes Carina more than just a stand-in for Keira Knightley and one that I would have liked to see the movie develop some more. A shame then that her character also had to be used for a mysterious parentage sub-plot and as a subject for innuendoes and double entendres that wouldn’t even be worthy of a bawdy seaside postcard. I wasn’t very hopeful going in but I thought the movie might at least give me a fun memorable villain like Davy Jones to enjoy. Sadly, like Ian McShane before him, Javier Bardem is completely wasted and forgettable in his role. That’s Salazar’s Revenge in a nutshell really, a forgettable waste of time.

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.

★★