BlacKkKlansman

Cast: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace

Director: Spike Lee

Writers: Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee


Spike Lee pulls a very clever, very revealing trick on his viewers (the white ones at least) with BlacKkKlansman, his most celebrated and publicly discussed film in years. Taking the real life story of how the black police officer Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s with the help of fellow white officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), much of the film is played as a buddy cop action-comedy. We are invited to laugh at the white supremacists in their ignorance and absurdity, the fashions and trends of the 1970s in their datedness and the basic concept in its irony and unlikeliness. The movie leads us along the typical plot beats you would expect it to follow and there’s never any reason to doubt that Ron and Flip will learn to work together, triumph over the racist sons-of-bitches and put them away for good, and then end the movie on a satisfying note as they are congratulated and rewarded for their victory and live happily ever after in the brighter, more tolerant future that is sure to come.

And yet, while Lee is never subtle in his effort to draw parallels between the events of this film and the present (the obviousness of which is part of the point) and does depict some deeply and profoundly serious moments, that still doesn’t prepare you for the tragic punchline as the film jumps years ahead to the footage of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. It’s at that moment, as you behold former Grand Wizard of the Klan David Duke (a major character in this film) delivering the exact same racist rhetoric as his 1970s counterpart, the car crash that killed Heather Heyer, and then President Trump’s refusal to condemn the actions of the white supremacists, that the real point of the movie hits you like a ton of bricks. The aim isn’t to point out that racism still exists or that it’s bad; that’s a given when you’re watching a Spike Lee film. The point is that the hateful ideology of the KKK is still around today and is still as pervasive as it ever was precisely because so little has been done to challenge it. The film disparagingly condemns those, specifically white liberals, who so complacently dismissed the white cloaks and cross burnings as relics of the past that they never saw the rise of the alt-right for what it was even as it was happening before their very eyes. As a white liberal myself, I couldn’t help but feel ashamed for having been so contentedly thrilled and amused just minutes before.

I think that’s the reaction Lee was going for because BlacKkKlansman is indeed a funny and thrilling film. Based on, as the opening title puts it, “some fo’ real shit”, the movie follows Ron Stallworth as he instigates a plan to sneak a Trojan Horse into the ranks of the KKK. He does this by answering one of their newspaper ads on the phone and putting on his best generic white guy voice so that he might pose as a budding supremacist looking to join the Klan. He arranges a face-to-face meeting with president of the local chapter and recruits Flip to be his white avatar. Thus Flip meets with Walter (Ryan Eggold), the surprisingly affable head of the Colorado Springs branch of the KKK, and worms his way into his inner circle with the pathologically hostile Felix (Jasper Pääkönen) and the dim-witted Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser) while Ron continues to handle their interactions over the phone. The meetings are often comical to an almost absurdist degree as the movie portrays these racist, misogynistic, xenophobic militants as the bunch of buffoons that they are (Felix at one point demands that Flip drop his trousers to prove that he isn’t Jewish). And yet, anytime we start to get the impression that these guys are harmless in their incompetence and idiocy, the film is quick to remind us that these buffoons have guns and bombs and pose a real danger to innocent people that needs to be thwarted.

The balance BlacKkKlansman walks between comedy and drama, fact and fiction (while the story itself is true, much of it is fictionalised), and past and present is fitting for a film that is so largely focused on dualities. Our main character Ron is one who finds himself split between two worlds; one as a cop who is loyal to the institution and system that he serves and one as a black man whose community views the police as part of the problem in a system that has continuously let them down. His first undercover assignment is to attend a lecture delivered by civil rights activist Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) who preaches vigorously about the need for black people to find pride, beauty and love in who they are. This is one of the most powerful sequences in the whole film as close-up images of black faces in the audience are conjured up in soft fades with warm lighting to give us a visual representation of beauty for black people. It is also here that Ron meets Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), a student activist who is utterly devoted to the cause and who thinks all cops are pigs. Ron falls for her (keeping his occupation a secret of course) and is moved by her passion for pride and justice to become more assertive in his racial identity. Ron’s duality raises the question of whether it’s possible for him to remain loyal to an unjust system while trying to effect positive change to an enduring status quo from within and still stay true to the cause of social justice, cultural solidarity and Black Power. Ron’s crusade against the KKK is his attempt to reconcile that duality.

This duality doesn’t just apply to Ron or even to black people. BlacKkKlansman devotes a not insignificant amount of time towards exploring the duality of Flip, a white man of Jewish heritage but who has never thought of himself as Jewish, suddenly being forced to come to terms with his ethnicity. His vaguely Jewish appearance inspires Felix to try and bait him with anti-Semitic remarks, such as denying that the Holocaust ever happened, and it isn’t long before Flip realises that being subjected to such attacks is taking a toll on him. He starts to confront the idea that, as a Jewish-American who has been passing for ‘white’ all his life, he has as much at stake in this campaign as Ron does. Lee does a remarkable job of using the characters of Ron and Flip as symbols of the African-American and Jewish-American experiences and exploring them in parallel with one another in order to clarify both. The comparison is given even greater weight in Kwame’s speech where he likens black children watching the Tarzan movies and being taught to see the white protagonist living in Africa as the ideal of athleticism, heroism and beauty to Jewish children in Germany being shown propaganda films that taught them to root for the Nazis.

The comparison that Kwame makes is an example of the film’s fascination with cinema and its unique capacity to convey and spread ideas. The very first shot in the whole film belongs not to Lee or his crew; it belongs to Gone with the Wind, one of the greatest and most popular films ever made. The shot shows hundreds of wounded Southern soldiers spread around the grounds of a railway station while the camera is carried back to reveal the heroic image of the Confederate flag wavering on over them. It is an image that exemplifies everything that Gone with the Wind is and is about; it is a grand and iconic scene in cinema, almost peerless in its scale and magnificence, and it expresses this nostalgia for a mythologised Antebellum South, a time that the film portrays as a romantic summer of innocence where master and slave lived in harmony. Lee includes this image as an example of cinema’s power to shape attitudes and to keep alive such ideas as this sentimental tribute to an era of white supremacy. This lesson is given greater poignancy in the film’s greatest sequence where it contrasts a KKK screening of D.W. Griffith’s groundbreaking, racist epic The Birth of a Nation with an elderly gentleman played by Harry Belafonte recounting an incident in 1916 where he witnessed the lynching of Jesse Washington (a true story) and detailing the role that the film from the preceding year played in rousing racist hatred and revitalising the Ku Klux Klan.

But Lee is also a strong believer in cinema’s power as an instrument for positive change. He wouldn’t be a filmmaker if he didn’t. He imbues such passion and raw intensity into BlacKkKlansman that it shouldn’t be a surprise that he ended up making one of the landmark films of 2018. Shot on 35mm by cinematographer Chayse Irvin (who shot Beyoncé’s Lemonade), the film constructs a splendid recreation of 1970s USA and evokes much of the cinema from that era, matching the tone and energy of such cop movies as The French Connection. The costumes, complete with vibrant colours and elaborate afros, the note-perfect production design and the musical score with its groovy guitar riffs and funky drum beats recall such Blaxploitation movies as Shaft and Super Fly, which are discussed at length by Ron and Patrice in one scene. The editing makes incredibly skilful use of juxtaposition in both the Birth of a Nation and Charlottesville sequences to convey a heartbreaking tragedy and cutting furiousness that moves the viewer into a state of breathless amazement and tearful fury. The film is so impassioned, so provocative and so masterfully crafted that it demands to be watched and be included in the public conversation. BlacKkKlansman is Lee’s most momentous film in years and he proves himself a superstar still at the top of his game.

★★★★★

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Christopher Robin

Cast: Ewan McGregor, Hayley Atwell, Jim Cummings, Brad Garrett

Director: Marc Forster

Writers: Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy, Allison Schroeder


What I find most puzzling about Christopher Robin, Disney’s kinda/sorta live-action sequel to the animated films, is that I’m not sure who it was made for. The fact that the story was inspired by A.A. Milne’s stories for children and features its characters would suggest that this is a children’s film. However the story itself has less to do with the antics of Winnie the Pooh and company and more with the growing pains of the titular Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor). We first see Christopher as the young boy from the stories spending a final day with his imaginary (or are they?) friends before he’s due to start boarding school and embark on his journey into adulthood. Pooh, Tigger, Piglet, Eyore and the rest of the enchanted creatures of the Hundred Acres Wood throw a farewell party where Christopher makes a solemn promise to the absent-minded bear that he will never forget any of them.

We are then treated to a montage depicting the formative years of Christopher’s life. We see him conform to the Victorian values of his education, lose his father, fall in love, become a parent, go to war, and finally settle into a dull but secure job with a luggage company. It’s a wonderful montage in the vein of Up where, through the strong use of imagery with minimal dialogue, we are given a nuanced understanding of how the playful, imaginative boy whose best friend was a talking, yellow bear became this humourless, all-work-no-play grown up who spends his days performing mundane tasks in a stuffy office. It’s a sequence that splendidly captures the spirit of the wartime age that the real Christopher Robin, Milne’s son, grew up in. His was a generation that was always struggling and striving as they endured the Great Depression and the Second World War where every man and woman was expected to do their bit. The film takes place in the postwar landscape where the rebuilding process in England is still ongoing and former soldiers like Christopher have found solace from the battlefield in tediously boring but financially steady jobs.

While the protagonist serving as a symbol of lost childhood is not unheard of in kid’s films, Hook being a classic example, the solemn seriousness with which the film treated Christopher’s growth did have me wondering whether his story would be at all relatable to children. This is a major concern because the film devotes so much of its time towards exploring the particulars of his life as an adult before Pooh and his other childhood friends re-enter the picture. Amongst his daily struggles are his marriage to Evelyn (Hayley Atwell), which is being strained by his inability to make time for his family, his fatherhood of Madeline (Bronte Carmichael), whom he treats with such formality and discipline so as to be completely blind to her desire for childhood fantasies and adventures, and his job as an efficiency expert at Winslow Luggage where he answers to the smarmy Giles Winslow (Mark Gatiss). When Giles demands that Christopher draft a plan to reduce the company’s expenditure by 20%, foiling his weekend plans for a countryside retreat with his family, Christopher becomes overwhelmed by the stress of protecting his staff from these cuts and the widening gulf between him and his wife and daughter. His salvation comes at this moment in the unexpected form of the Pooh Bear from his youth.

At this point you would probably expect the film to progress into a playful, enchanting family adventure and, to an extent, that is what happens. Christopher returns Pooh to the Hundred Acre Wood and is reunited with his friends. What we see however as we enter the magical realm is not an animated, technicolour fairy tale world like Oz; it’s a more naturalistic landscape with a muted colour palette. The lifelike imagery is similarly extended to Christopher’s friends. Pooh, Piglet, Tigger and Eyore, all of whom were based on the stuffed animals that had belonged to Milne’s son, are recreated here as the living toys that they are with the matted fur and faded colours that come from years of being played with and left out in the sun. These designs, as well as those of Owl and Rabbit who are portrayed as an actual owl and rabbit, are so wonderfully animated and finely textured, you almost feel like they could climb right out of the screen and enter our own world The film’s commitment to maintaining its sombre, tone, even in a land entirely divorced from gloomy, postwar London, reinforces the notion that Christopher Robin is less interested in being a bright, lively children’s escapade than it is a thoughtful, elegiac kind of experience like Where the Wild Things Are. There are certainly elements of Spike Jonze to be found here, as well as those of the introspective, evocative films of Terrence Malick.

The screenplay, penned by an unlikely trio for a children’s Disney film in indie writer Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy (Oscar winner for Spotlight) and Allison Schroeder (Hidden Figures), is largely concerned with teaching Christopher (and the audience) the value of holding on to one’s childhood, living in the moment, and making time for what’s important. In his effort to reconcile with his family, resolve his workplace dilemma, and cling onto his sanity in his interactions with Pooh (“That’s a silly explanation” he remarks when inquiring how Pooh came to be in London, to which the clueless bear replies “Why thank you”), Christopher finds that he must rediscover a part of himself that was lost as he matured too quickly into adulthood. The film is very good at exploring his daily troubles but less so at solving them. Part of the conflict is that Christopher doesn’t have the luxury of reprioritisation between his personal and professional lives because too many people are depending on him to secure their continued employment. That is until Christopher comes up with a solution so simple, one could say that a child might have thought of it. Maybe that’s the point. But it also seems a little disingenuous to say that adult problems are easily fixable when the film seems so intent on treating its younger viewers as mature, thoughtful people.

Still, I do like that the film doesn’t talk down to children and that it adopted an approach to its story that we see so rarely in these kinds of films. If anything, I wish the film had committed to that approach more fully. For the most part it does a great job of maintaining the line between adult weightiness and childish whimsy with some light-hearted humour thrown in. Pooh, as affably played by veteran voice actor Jim Cummings, is a joy in every scene he’s in, whether he is completely oblivious to Christopher’s exasperation, innocently commenting on the strange sights of the modern world, or delivering profoundly nonsensical philosophical gobbets without the slightest hint of irony (“People say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day” he muses in one instance). And yet the film does on occasion indulge itself in an attempt to generate some excitement that breaks up the predominating sense of calmness. One example of this is car chase scene that would not have been at all out of place in a Paddington film but here comes across as action for its own sake. For the mood they were going for, I think Christopher Robin would have benefitted enormously from following the example of My Neighbour Totoro, a film which needed neither a plot nor action to become a masterpiece in children’s animation.

The film is somewhat moving, often charming and admirably sophisticated, but it suffers from a clash in tone that I don’t think it’s ever able to fully reconcile. At times it’s too drab and melancholic for kids, at others it’s too fanciful for grown ups (I personally could have done without the animals being physically, literally real). I think there is room for the kind of movie that Christopher Robin is trying to be and I would point to Pete’s Dragon as a recent example that succeeded in being wondrous, joyful and enchanting while still being serious and restrained. The film is good at letting moments of calmness and stillness last and at finding joy and nuance in something as simple and trivial as holding a balloon or lying in the sun. If only it could have savoured just a little bit more of that quaintness, concentrated a little more on the experience than on the conflict and dug just a little bit deeper with its concepts and ideas. “Nothing comes from nothing”, the film often proclaims, and I wish that was a lesson it took to heart. If Christopher Robin were less inclined to guide its story along a formulaic, plot-driven line and allowed its themes and morals to develop more organically, the result could have been something great indeed.

★★★

The Meg

Cast: Jason Statham, Bingbing Li, Rainn Wilson, Ruby Rose, Winston Chao, Cliff Curtis

Director: Jon Turteltaub

Writers: Dean Georgaris, Jon Hoeber, Erich Hoeber


There are some movies that wear their hearts on their sleeves; you don’t need to see so much as a trailer or a poster to know what you’re getting yourself into. The premise alone, ‘Jason Statham fights a gigantic, prehistoric shark’, tells you everything you could possibly need to know before buying a ticket. It’s exactly the same as hearing ‘The Rock battles three giant mutant monsters’ and ‘Samuel L. Jackson is trapped on a plane overrun with snakes’. The story doesn’t matter. The director doesn’t matter. The supporting cast and the characters they play don’t matter. The only question any prospective viewer needs to ask themselves is, ‘Do I want to watch a hard-as-nails, cockney movie star punch a 50-ft. CGI shark?’ The movie is perfectly aware of this and knows what kind of flick the target audience is going to expect: a dumb, fun B-Movie Jaws. It’s going to be silly, clichéd and over the top. All that remains to be seen is whether it’ll be the right kind of silly, clichéd and over the top.

The set up is promising enough. A marine research facility financed by the smug, Elon Muskish billionaire Jack Morris (Rainn Wilson) is sending a scouting team to explore the deepest depths of the ocean floor. The vessel is attacked by a very large creature upon arrival, causing them to lose contact with the main base. A rescue operation needs to happen ASAP and there’s only one man who can lead it. Enter Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham), a hard-boiled, Jason Stathamish figure who led a similar rescue five years earlier on a wrecked nuclear submarine. He was forced to abandon the operation midway through upon realising that they had been attacked by a giant beast and that it was coming back for them. Those he was able to save were brought back safely but nobody believed him about the underwater monster, instead figuring that he cracked under the pressure. Today the disgraced and cynical Jonas spends his days alone drowning his sorrows with beer. He is approached by his former boss Dr. Zhang (Winston Chao), who asks him to return once again. Jonas refuses but changes his mind when he learns that the captain of the trapped vessel is his ex-wife Lori (Jessica McNamee).

This takes up the first third of the movie and, while some set up is necessary if only to get us from point A to point B, the film (much like last year’s Kong: Skull Island) tests the viewer’s patience by spending too much time on getting all the human characters together, exploring their connections and detailing the ins and outs of marine exploration. We’re introduced to the other members of Zhang’s crew, including his oceanographer daughter and eligible bachelorette (a fact the movie never fails to bring up whenever Jonas notices her) Suyin (Bingbing Li) and her adorable daughter Meiying (Sophia Cai), along with Mac (Cliff Curtis), Jaxx (Ruby Rose) and DJ (Page Kennedy). Even after Jonas submerges his way to the ocean trench where the crew is helplessly stranded, rescues all but one (RIP Hiro Nakamura) and has his second encounter with what turns out to be a Megaladon (Meg for short), an enormous, prehistoric shark thought long extinct, it doesn’t feel like the movie has actually begun until the finned menace emerges at the surface to wreak havoc around the halfway point.

The movies does pick up at this point as we’re treated to a series of man versus shark sequences, one involving one of those shark diving tanks, one involving a collapsing crane and one involving the worst tourism commercial for the Chinese seaside you could possibly imagine. And yet, even with all the PG-13 blood and gore they could get away with and all the craziness Statham is allowed to do, it still never felt like the movie ever soared like it needed to. There are signs that there is a much wilder movie lurking beneath the surface that is being held on a leash. It’s somewhere between the choppy edits that hide the bits that we aren’t supposed to see. It’s written on Statham’s face as he delivers a far grittier and steelier performance than the material seems to warrant. What the movie is essentially trying to build up is this Captain Ahab/Moby Dick battle royale with a bit of Jaws thrown in but it never manages to reach that level in terms of scale, intensity or awesomeness.

Part of the problem is that, for a movie about a giant shark, The Meg doesn’t have very much of the shark in it. That’s fine if your name is Spielberg, you’re a master at crafting suspense and you know exactly how to use your central characters to keep the audience invested and engaged, otherwise it’s a problem. In the first two scenes we get with the Meg, its kept largely obscured by the darkness of the ocean depths and the deliberately unrevealing camera angles. Then when the second half takes off and the real movie starts, the only times we’re allowed a proper look at the man-eating fiend is through jump scares, meaning we’re never even given time to ever take its scale or the threat it poses in. What’s meant to make the Megalodon more threatening than the Great White that took on Brody, Quint and Hooper is its behemoth size, and yet it appears that the movie is largely uninterested in exploring that side of the beast until the very end when it happens upon a densely crowded beach. Until we reach that point and finally get to watch the movie that The Meg should have been from the start, what we get is mostly stilted scenes trying to invest us in character stories that occasionally get interrupted by a mildly thrilling shark attack.

In the middle of it all is Statham, an actor who’s always up for a laugh, taking on the serious role of a man seeking redemption. Statham is usually more at home playing the cheeky, morally ambiguous tough guy who’s forced to turn good, but here he’s playing a noble, heroic character with a little bit of shade who pretty much remains that way all the way through. He commits to the role but does seem a bit lost without anything roguish to do. He shares most of his many non-shark scenes with Li’s Suyin with whom just about everyone in the movie, not least of which her father and daughter and his ex-wife, are determined to ship from the word go. The two share little chemistry (I feel the language barrier may have been a factor here as Li was asked to act in her non-native language) and their romance is one of the many minor subplots that makes you wish the movie would just get back to the shark already. Another such subplot is that of greedy billionaire Jack Morris who is obsessively determined to exploit the carnivorous leviathan for profit. How exactly he plans to do this is about as clear as how the elves in South Park plan to make a profit out of stealing underwear.

The movie’s saving grace is that it has some semblance of personality to it that sets it apart from such forgettable, maritime sci-fi/fantasy thrillers as Battleship and Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge. Much of this has to do with the co-production effort between the Unites States and China, which means that as well as including Chinese actors who stand as titans in their own country but are less well known in Western cinema, the movie also instils some characteristically Chinese values into its story. The sacredness of fatherhood and motherhood are given prominence in Suyin’s relationship with her father and daughter, certain characters express remorse for mistakes that led to mishap and death (unheard of in American blockbusters where seldom a moment is made to contemplate and mourn the loss of life) and the ultra macho Statham is allowed to be warm and tender when talking to little Meiying in a way that a more typically American movie might have deemed too emasculating. These are all story elements that I wish could have been done better if the movie really was intended to be driven more by character than by spectacle the way Jaws was, but their very inclusion is nevertheless welcome in this partly American blockbuster.

The movie’s ultimate failure is that it is neither smart nor dumb enough to be the best version of what it could have been. The movie is self-aware enough of its own absurdity to understand that they have licence to get away with some pretty fantastic and silly things and is at its best when it embraces that fancy. When we reach the climax and are finally allowed to appreciate the sheer size of the Meg and the threat it poses to the thousands of clueless civilians innocently enjoying a nice sunny day at the beach, it sets us up for what is by far the most enjoyable part of the film. A guy tries making a run for it in one of those giant, plastic hamster balls. A tiny, immaculately groomed dog goes for a dip in the ocean and then frantically tries to paddle away from the looming danger. Jason Statham jumps into the sea and takes on the shark one-on-one. There is so much unrealised potential in this movie and so many places where they could have gone further and been even crazier. The Meg too often feels like its being restrained and being forced to suppress its baser instincts rather than free itself to be the movie it really wants to be.

★★

Ant-Man and the Wasp

Cast: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Peña, Walton Goggins, Bobby Cannavale, Judy Greer, Tip ‘T.I.’ Harrison, David Dastmalchian, Hannah John-Kamen, Abby Ryder Forston, Randall Park, Michelle Pfeiffer, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Douglas

Director: Peyton Reed

Writers: Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Paul Rudd, Andrew Barrer, Gabriel Ferrari


In Avengers: Infinity War, the Marvel Cinematic Universe beheld an apocalyptic reckoning. Earth’s mightiest heroes banded together to combat the greatest threat the universe had ever seen and were instead utterly defeated. But, before the world came to an end with a bang and a whimper, before the sun turned black and the moon became as blood and the stars of heaven fell unto the Earth, before the Avengers beheld Shiva the God of Death and Destroyer of Worlds, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) found himself caught up in a sticky situation involving a shrunken quantum laboratory being thrown around, a ghost-like figure phasing through walls and a human-sized ant playing the drums. In truth Ant-Man and the Wasp is probably the respite we needed after the operatic tragedy of Thanos and his cataclysmic crusade. This latest adventure in the MCU is light-hearted, fun and a total breeze to watch.

As a result of his actions in Civil War, in which he commandeered a shrinking suit and made off for Europe to aid Captain America in direct violation of the Sokovia Accords, Scott Lang has spent the last two years under heavy house arrest. He does what he can to support his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Forston) and to help Luis (Michael Peña) in setting up their new security business, but there’s only so much Scott can do when chained to an ankle monitor that goes off the second he sets a foot outdoors and with parole officer Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) breathing down his neck, just waiting for a chance to catch him with his pants down. Another consequence of joining Cap (and destroying the suit rather than let it be confiscated) is that former mentor Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and former girlfriend Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) want nothing more to do with Scott. They’ve cut all ties and have dedicated themselves towards finding a way into the Quantum Realm where they believe Pym’s wife Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) might still be saved after getting trapped there thirty years ago.

A breakthrough is reached when Scott receives what appears to be a message from the Quantum Realm. Convinced that this must have been sent by Janet, Pym and Hope reluctantly decide that they need his help to find her. They liberate Scott from his confinement and take him to their secret and, thanks to the wonders of shrinking technology, portable laboratory. Before the gateway to the Quantum Realm can be opened there is a particular machine part they need to obtain from black market dealer Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins). The deal goes south once Burch realises the economic potential of Pym’s research, leading to a clash between his goons and Hope in the new and improved wasp suit. Their skirmish is interrupted by Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), a masked figure with the ability to move through solid objects. She seizes the lab in its shrunken suitcase-sized state and absconds with it, leading to an elaborate game of cat-and-mouse where Scott, Hope and Pym must track the intangible thief down, recover the lab and rescue Janet from the Quantum Realm before their window of opportunity closes.

After the galactic catastrophe of Infinity War, the ideological conflict of Black Panther and the cartoonish sci-fi extravaganza of Thor: Ragnarok, Ant-Man and the Wasp is an MCU movie that feels a lot more grounded and down to earth with stakes that feel much more human-sized and personal. Pym’s ultimate goal is to rescue his wife. Scott’s biggest concern is getting through the next couple of days without getting caught breaching his house arrest so that he can start rebuilding his life with his family. Even the villain is revealed not to have any kind of overtly political, economic or moral motivation compelling her but is instead acting out purely from a place of tremendous pain. This allows for the kind of superhero movie that doesn’t need to be an epic or a spectacle; you can just enjoy it for the fun side story that it is. There is no attempt to make this movie feel epic, dark or all that serious because that’s not the movie it wants or needs to be. This is ultimately a B-story in the MCU canon and proud of it; all it wants is to get you to care about these characters and have some thrills and laughs along the way.

One way that this movie improves on the first Ant-Man is the action. The idea of pitting a hero who can shrink and grow at will was already enough to make for a viscerally gratifying experience but this time not only do they increase the scale (literally in one scene), they also add in a few extra factors. One is the titular heroine who not only possesses the same abilities as Ant-Man but is also a better fighter and can fly (I wonder if there’s a veiled reference somewhere in there to Ginger Rogers doing what Fred Astaire did backwards and in heels). Another is the antagonist who can phase through solid objects. Together they combine to create some of the most creative action in any modern Hollywood blockbuster. In the movie’s first proper action scene, Wasp takes out a whole bunch of hired goons using a combination of shrinking/enlarging technology and aerial hand-to-hand combat which is interrupted by the arrival of ghost whose use of phasing adds an entirely different dimension to the fight. Later there’s a car chase scene where the use of a shrinking vehicle leads to some neat surprises. These are accomplished by an inspired use of CGI, choreography and framing and made for an action movie that feels distinct from the rest of the Marvel properties.

Ant-Man and the Wasp isn’t just an action movie though, it’s also a comedy and a funny one at that. Part of the credit belongs to the cast, particularly Rudd who is effortlessly charming in his hapless, goofy way, Lilly whose eye-rolling, business-like demeanour gets played more for laughs, and Peña who continues to steal every scene he’s in. The bulk of the credit though goes to Reed and his team of screenwriters and their understanding of cinema’s capacity for visual comedy. The Ant-Man films are essentially high-budget screwball comedies with a sci-fi twist and the humour goes far beyond the use of situation and dialogue that most modern American flicks tend to rely on. The action scenes often give way to uproarious slapstick. There’s the continued use of idiosyncratically staged re-enactments to accompany Luis’ baffling, rambling narrations. There’s a scene where Reed’s use of framing and blocking allows for Ghost to unexpectedly reveal her presence in a hilarious way. There’s also a scene where Paul Rudd has to pretend to be another character, leading to some wonderful physical comedy. The laughs are numerous and they never get tiring because it isn’t all done in just one style.

The film does have two weaknesses. One is that it takes the movie a while to get going. The story is pretty messy as it tries to weave several subplots together into a coherent whole. As well as the main stories concerning Pym’s rescue plan, Scott’s house arrest and Ghost’s arc, we have Luis trying to save his new security business from falling under, the attempts by the weapon dealer and his goons to recover their merchandise, Scott’s ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer) and her husband Paxton (Bobby Cannavale) checking in every now and then so that Scott’s private life remains in the picture, and the introduction of Pym’s former colleague Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne) and their shared history. There’s a lot of ground to cover and the first-half of the film has to get through a lot of plot pushing and exposition dropping before the movie can really take off. Oftentimes the movie’s screenplay feels like it was cobbled together by a sizeable committee of writers (which, well… it was). The other main weakness is that Wasp, despite being one of the titular characters, doesn’t have as prominent a role as Ant-Man or her father. Although she gets plenty to do in the action scenes, she isn’t given enough of an arc or a large enough presence in the movie to justify her role as more than a supporting player in what is clearly the Ant-Men’s story.

All in all, Ant-Man and the Wasp isn’t the best at what it does nor is it really the best of what Marvel has to offer, but it is certainly more than enough for what it wants and needs to be. It does take a while to truly get there but, once all the pieces are in place and it can get started with the good stuff, it’s exactly the film you want it to be. The second half of the film is nothing but inventive fight and chase scenes coupled with outlandish comedy routines, all depicted with visual splendour and wit (another highlight is Scott asking for the villain’s help so that he can video-chat with his daughter in what is supposed to be a tense moment). The relief this movie provides from Marvel’s most recent offering is welcome and the film itself is self-contained enough that you won’t be distracted by tangential asides for world-building nor will you need to have seen any other movie but the first Ant-Man to be invested in what’s happening. It’s funny, it’s exciting, it has one or two touching scenes and it’s a blast to watch.

★★★★

Mission: Impossible – Fallout

Cast: Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Sean Harris, Angela Bassett, Vanessa Kirby, Michelle Monaghan, Alec Baldwin

Director: Christopher McQuarrie

Writer: Christopher McQuarrie


He’s at it again and this time things are different… in that a couple of things are actually the same this time around. After jumping through a roster of prominent directors who each boast their own distinctive style – Brian De Palma, John Woo, J.J. Abrams and Brad Bird – Fallout is the first of the Mission: Impossible films to have a director return. Following his highly enjoyable Rogue Nation, Christopher McQuarrie has stepped in once again to offer what is more or less a direct sequel, another break in precedent for the series. The story deals with the fallout (see what I did there?) from the events of the previous film, the female lead and the villain both return and the story-arc that was established for Cruise’s character is developed a little further. It isn’t hard to understand why Paramount signed McQuarrie up for another film and it’s not just because serialised franchises are the new thing in Hollywood right now. McQuarrie gets it. He gets what it is that people like about these movies, he gets Cruise’s appeal as a movie star and he knows how to make a decent action movie. Here he goes above and beyond and outdoes what he accomplished with Rogue Nation.

The remains of the Syndicate from the last film have reformed into the Apostles, a terrorist organisation hell-bent on creating chaos. That’s pretty much all you need to know about them. One of McQuarrie’s strengths is that he knows how to make a plot interesting without dwelling on the details. A movie like this needs a plot to keep things moving but it’s never the reason why anybody buys a ticket. We’re all here to see Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) in his latest adventure where he must stop the Apostles in their quest to assemble and set off three nuclear bombs. They already have the plutonium they need after Ethan loses it in an operation where he was forced to choose between completing the mission and saving his team. His boss Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) tasks him with recovering the plutonium by intercepting a weapons deal in Paris. He’s not going alone though. As well as his usual sidekicks Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), CIA Director Erica Sloane (Angela Bassett) orders him to take the imposing and ruthless August Walker (Henry Cavill and the moustache that destroyed a franchise) along. This latest mission leads Ethan into a crisis of apocalyptic proportions made all the more complicated by the return of former foe Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) and double agent/love interest Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson).

The movie hits the ground running and it never stops. It’s not just that there’s so much action happening but also that there are so many different styles of action to enjoy. There’s a stormy skydiving scene, a bare-knuckled fight that Jason Bourne would call brutal, a sprinting scene to remind us what great shape Tom Cruise is still in at 56 and more. What McQuarrie brings is this extraordinary fluidity in movement that allows us to keep up with the action without losing track of it, a rarity in the modern Hollywood blockbuster that favours shaky-cam and rapid editing even when it blinds us to the act. The skydiving scene where Hunt and Walker are free-falling their way through a thunder storm was shot in a single take (or made to look like it was), allowing us to appreciate their peril in real time, and with enough distance that each figure is constantly in sight. Then there’s the climatic helicopter chase scene where the intense pursuit is intercut with two other nail-biting events and which may well be the most ambitious, insane and masterfully executed sequence in any of the films.

In his nearly forty-year career, Cruise has displayed remarkable longevity as he has continued to play action heroes with the commitment and stamina of a man half his age. With Fallout though, McQuarrie is interested in exploring how the series and its central character has evolved since it first started in 1996 and so it opts for Cruise to start showing his age a bit with some of the wear and tear that comes from living a life as Ethan Hunt. Thus he gets paired up with Cavill who towers over Cruise (which is admittedly not that difficult a task for a 6 ft. 1 actor standing opposite a 5 ft. 8 actor) and who looks like a younger, fitter, tougher counterpart of Hunt. While Walker goes after his targets with a machine-like determination and deals blows with bone-crushing impact, Hunt is stumbling more than he used to and his punches don’t land with the same level of force. Hunt will still win the day of course because that’s what he does and he’s been doing it for a long time (I was reminded at one point of that Indiana Jones quote, “It’s not the years honey, it’s the mileage”), but the strain is starting to show and it raises the question of how much longer Ethan Hunt and keep being Ethan Hunt.

And that leads us to the other big question the film is interested in exploring of why Hunt does what he does. Early on in Fallout he makes the choice to save Luther and Benji from danger and has to abandon his objective to do so. It is argued that Hunt is too protective of those he cares about and that he doesn’t have it in him to make the kinds of sacrifices that are necessary for the greater good. Walker, an agent who works free of empathy and affection, is brought in to perform the role that Hunt is unable to fulfil, to let the few die so that the many may be saved. The contrast is a fascinating one as the film explores their differing methods and ideologies in an attempt to work out which is the better way. Near the end we’re given an insight into Hunt and his past which explains exactly how much he’s willing to sacrifice for the sake of the greater good and it’s more profound than you might expect from this kind of movie.

When I say “this kind of movie” I of course refer to the Hollywood blockbuster, which doesn’t have the esteem it used to possess. With the endless sequels, reboots and other franchising dominating the box office these days, it’s easy to feel pessimistic about the whole thing and to see the entire Hollywood industry as nothing more than as a mechanical profit-focused machine that has ceased to produce art and even entertainment in favour of commercial, demographically-targeted products. Even the movies themselves are getting pretty cynical these days (including the good ones like Logan, The Last Jedi, and Avengers: Infinity War). That’s why it’s important to remember that films like Mission: Impossible – Fallout are still being made by filmmakers like McQuarrie who care about what they do and about creating something special for the audience. This movie is an antidote to cynicism; it offers the kind of escapism that we crave from the movies and that leaves you feeling elated and ready to conquer the world. I’m all for introspective movies that ask us to take a hard look at ourselves and the world around us, but sometimes you want to forget about all that and just leave your body for a couple of hours to enjoy something exciting and fun. Fallout does not only offer that, but it also does it incredibly well.

★★★★★

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

Cast: Amanda Seyfried, Lily James, Christine Baranski, Julie Walters, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgård, Dominic Cooper, Andy Garcia, Cher, Meryl Streep

Director: Ol Parker

Writer: Ol Parker


I really don’t want to be that guy. I know that this movie wasn’t made for me. I know that the people it was made for love it to bits. I know that I’m the boring spoilsport at the karaoke party who’s sulking in the corner while everybody else is singing, dancing and having tremendous fun. I know that the movie is fully aware of how silly, cheesy and imperfect it is and embraces it all with total zeal and complete shamelessness. This is a movie without pretension or delusions of grandeur; there is no artistry to be dissected and scrutinised, no hidden truths or deeper meanings to be unearthed, and no profound or introspective thoughts or feelings to be taken away so that people like me can flex their movie critic muscles. All this movie wants is for you to lay back, let your hair down, open your mind and just laugh, sing along and embrace the joy, the glam and the ABBA of it all. Believe me, I get it. And I hated it all the same.

I really don’t want to be the guy who hates Mamma Mia. I like ABBA. And I like musicals. And I like many of the actors involved, both new and returning. But watching these movies is like being a teetotal introvert alone at a boozy music festival, even the most honest attempt to embrace the discomforting noise and clutter and humour the chaotic revelry is going to leave you drained from the monotony and effort. ‘Then why would you even bother going?’ you might ask. Well, I came for the music but, instead of ABBA, I got the amateur cover band made up of X-Factor rejects. What followed was a song-and-dance cataclysm that got more unbearable with every flat note, every clumsy dance routine and every obnoxiously garish sound and visual. I know that the goofiness and crudeness is kind of the point and for many it is part of the film’s charm, but all I can think about was how swept away I was by The Greatest Showman. Like Mamma Mia, that movie was stupid, clichéd and corny as hell but it was all done with such passion, creativity and honest-to-god effort by such a talented team (including actors who can actually sing and dance) that I couldn’t help but be charmed. What I find most grating about the Mamma Mia movies above all else is how feckless and insincere the whole thing feels.

Here We Go Again is pretty much everything I loathed about the first film sans Meryl Streep (who wasn’t all that great in the first place; she barely hit a note in ‘The Winner Takes It All’ and deserves far more attention for her heartfelt rendition of ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’). Donna has died and her loss has left a gaping hole in the lives of those who lived on that idyllic Greek island with her. Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is working to re-open the inn in her mother’s honour (having renamed it the Hotel Bella Donna) and is frantic as the opening night approaches and she’s trying to put the finishing touches on the big party she’s planning. Her mother’s friends Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters) arrive to show their support and share with her stories of the Donna they knew as a young woman back when she looked like Lily James (James, with her sunny presence and decent singing voice, is one of the film’s better qualities). In these flashbacks we are treated to the tale of how the free-spirited Donna first came to the island back in the groovy 70s, made it her home, and on the way met and slept with the three men who may or may not be Sophie’s father: the bashful Harry (Hugh Skinner), the adventurous Bill (Josh Dylan) and the dashing Sam (Jeremy Irvine), standing in for Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgård and Pierce Brosnan respectively.

Having used up most of ABBA’s most recognisable hits in the first film, Here We Go Again scrapes the barrel for whatever overlooked tracks and B-songs it can find to shoehorn into the story. We’re first introduced to young Donna as she sings ‘When I Kissed the Teacher’, a song that’s sure to get a staff member at her university sacked, we get young Harry singing about how sleeping with Donna would be his ‘Waterloo’ (whatever that means), and we’re treated to a version of ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ that isn’t nearly as dramatic as it should be in that moment due to Irvine’s atonal voice (which, if nothing else, is at least consistent with Brosnan’s performance). Most of these musical numbers are forgettable; the more memorable performances tend to be those that replay hits from the first film including ‘Dancing Queen’ and ‘Super Trouper’. And still, even at their most elaborate, the staging and choreography in these scenes is so conventional and uninspired they fall far short of the extravaganza that an ABBA musical ought to be. And then there’s Cher who enters the scene dressed all in white, radiating like a beacon of light just when you thought all hope was lost, to sing ‘Fernando’ with Andy Garcia. She barely adds anything to the story and the choreography is still too lacklustre and restrained for a star with her presence and energy, but damn did it feel good to listen to someone who could sing for a change.

Given how fantastically difficult it is for any film of any kind to be made, I don’t like accusing filmmakers of being lazy. Very few, if any, go into this industry because they want to make an easy buck. However if the effort that went into a film is not self-evident, it’s difficult for me to feel like any care or passion went into its making. This is what I was getting at when I said the film felt feckless and insincere. It feels like nobody, either in front or behind the camera, saw this movie as anything more than an excuse to spend a few weeks in sunny Greece and get a paycheque out of it. It feels like the filmmakers knew the movie would make money no matter what so they just didn’t care enough to try and turn it into something special; to cast actors who can sing and dance, to push the limits of what’s possible in the spectacles they can produce, to write a story that has something meaningful to say about love and heartbreak, youth and growth, joy and sadness, and the many other things ABBA used to sing about. That they had fun together is clear, but the fun isn’t infectious because there’s no personal or emotional investment in anything that’s happening on screen.

Based on the reception these films have received, it’s clear that my opinion is in the minority. It looks like many, many people are perfectly happy to watch A-List stars who can barely hold a tune belt out catchy pop songs in bell bottoms and jumpsuits and there’s not much I can really say to that. There’s for sure something to be said for joyful escapism, which isn’t something I would begrudge anybody in this day and age. What’s more, it seems that some of the things I vehemently dislike about Mamma Mia are amongst the very reasons why people find it so charming and lovable and there is no criticism I can make that will change how they see the film. These movies clearly do something that works for a large and diverse audience and if I don’t know what it is by this point I doubt I ever will. As someone who didn’t have any patience for the tangential subplots and musical scenes that detracted from the story, the blandly delivered songs and tediously repetitive format, and the derivative and empty plot that manages to go absolutely nowhere, this movie was exhausting. The only thing I took away from Mamma Mia was a headache.

Incredibles 2

Cast: (voiced by) Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, Huckleberry Milner, Bob Odenkirk, Catherine Keener, Samuel L. Jackson

Director: Brad Bird

Writer: Brad Bird


It amazes me that we had to go through two Cars sequels in order to get here. While Pixar seldom wants for praise anytime they release an original title (Coco just being the most recent example), their non Toy Story sequels tend to receive more lukewarm receptions. Even putting Cars aside (I wasn’t a fan of the original to begin with), Monsters University was weak and unnecessary while Finding Dory, despite being quite good, was not the equal of its predecessor. Even then I think most people would still have agreed that if any Pixar movie demanded a sequel, it was The Incredibles. The smash-hit movie about a family with super powers (not unlike The Fantastic Four except… good), the first film felt very much like an origin story, chapter one in the continued adventures of the Parr family, and it was one of those movies that had a little bit of everything. Action, laughter, drama, suspense, heart; while I wouldn’t rank it among the very best of Pixar, it certainly is one of their most watchable and most likable titles. Fourteen years is a long time to wait for a follow up, but from the very first second it feels like no time at all.

The movie picks up immediately where the last one left off, with the Underminer burrowing through the city and robbing every bank on the way while the Parr family work to try and stop him. Mr. Incredible, Elastigirl, Violet and Dash manage to stop the massive drill tank before it crashes into the city hall, but the feds could not be more displeased. As far as they’re concerned, it would’ve been better if the Parr’s had simply let the mole-like baddie go about his business. The banks’ insurance would have covered their losses and there wouldn’t have been nearly as much collateral damage to clear up. Part of what makes these movies work is that the setting is so consistent yet indefinite (vaguely 60s, yet futuristic), it allows the story to be updated for our times without feeling dated. The government, who deems it less costly to let the bad guys get away with it than to let the supers use their abilities for good, decides to scrap the Superhero Relocation Programme, leaving Bob, Helen and the kids to fend for themselves without financial aid or the help of Agent Dicker who had been so good at keeping them hidden from the public (right after he visits Tony, the would-be boyfriend who discovers Violet’s secret identity, and erases his entire memory of her).

There are however at least one person who believes that superheroes should be allowed to serve for the public good and that is business mogul Winston Deavor. A superhero superfan since he was a kid, he wants to work with Mr. Incredible, Elastigirl and Frozone to improve the public’s perception of superheroes and launch a campaign to overturn their criminalisation. Using body cameras and gadgets designed by his tech-savvy sister Evelyn, Winston wants to project their heroic deeds to the world and show them why the world needs superheroes. Mr. Incredible is only too keen to volunteer but Winston and Evelyn feel that his style of super justice is too cost-effective for their purposes and that the safer bet is for Elastigirl to be the face of their movement. Thus, with a brand new outfit and a space-age motorbike, Helen gets to work while Bob is left home to care for the kids. While she works to foil the plan of Screenslaver, a new supervillain who projects hypnotic images on television screens to control people (again, a new story for modern times), Bob finds being a parent to be just as tasking as any threat he’s faced as he tries to help Violet with boy troubles, Dash with his school work, and Jack-Jack with his new emerging powers (plural; Bob learns that his infant son has at least 17 abilities including spontaneous combustion, laser eyes, super strength, telekinesis and the ability to phase through walls).

Throughout his career Brad Bird has always been interested in following the stories of characters who defy social expectations and who manage to overcome their own limitations. A giant robot capable of immeasurable destruction instead turns out to be a compassionate being. A rat from the sewers of Paris dreams of nothing more than cooking gourmet dishes in a Michelin restaurant. Here he plays around with the conventions that the two main characters would (and in the first film, did) traditionally fill by having Elastigirl be the breadwinner who goes out to save the day with Mr. Incredible as the stay-at-home dad. There’s also a message here about how sometimes the most heroic thing a person can do is stay behind and look after what’s important while somebody else rushes into danger, a lesson that the kids find they have to learn as well. The theme of daring to be more than what others say you can be is given greater resonance by the introduction of other superheroes (Voyd, Reflux, et al), a collection of outcasts who were inspired by Elastigirl and company and learned that their abilities don’t only make them special, they make them who they are. It’s not the most profound Pixar movie ever made, but not every animated kids film has to be a tearjerker like Inside Out. Sometimes being inspiring is enough.

What makes Incredibles 2 great is not just how touching or rousing it is, but also what an absolute joy it is to watch. The action, from Elastigirl chasing a runaway train to the whole climax with its expert command over simultaneous activities and creative use of a wide array of variable superpowers, is superbly executed and exquisitely animated. The comedy, including but not limited to Jack-Jack trying out his new powers and Edna Mode’s return, is hilarious. The jazzy, titillating, John-Barry-esque score continues to enliven what is already a thrilling, vibrant film. So many children’s movies content themselves with throwing together a string of interchangeable comedy scenes and hammering their morals in between the spaces that flow and pacing have practically become a lost art. This is a movie that flows. It moves so seamlessly from drama to comedy to action and back again and does it with such panache that the two hours completely breeze by. It takes a director of enormous skill and talent to make a movie that is constantly on the move, that includes so much action, story, and character, and to make it all seem effortless. Bird is such a director and Incredibles 2 was worth the fourteen years it took him to make it happen. Whether the next movie comes out tomorrow, in another fourteen years, or when I’m 150, I’ll be waiting.

★★★★★

Sicario 2: Soldado

Cast: Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabela Moner, Jeffrey Donovan, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Catherine Kenner

Director: Stefano Sollima

Writer: Taylor Sheridan


For those who go to the movies for escapism, Soldado is probably the last film they want to watch. Focusing largely on the tumultuous issues of the US-Mexico border, the film taps into many of the fears and disputes plaguing the US at this time. On the outset we are treated to charged depictions of suicide bombings which rank among the most agonising moments I’ve ever seen in a film. One attack occurs in a Kansas City supermarket where we see an unbroken take of a mother pleading for her young daughter’s life as she slowly edges their way towards the exit only for the both of them to be mercilessly blown to bits. It is a deeply horrifying scene and some would probably argue that it crosses the line into gratuitous brutality and unwarranted fear mongering but if there is a more harrowing and powerful portrayal of the true horror of modern-day terrorism in cinema, then I haven’t seen it. With imagery this daring and provocative, Soldado holds itself like a movie that has something urgent and important it wants to say. However, after having watched it, I’m still not sure what that is.

It is assumed that these attacks were carried out by foreign terrorists who were smuggled into the country via the Mexican border with some help from the local crime bosses. The US government responds by officially relabeling the cartels as terrorist organisations, giving their secret services the authority they need to fight back with unorthodox methods. Secretary of Defence James Riley (Matthew Modine) tasks Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) with stirring up some chaos in Mexico by pitting the cartels against each other and instigating a war that will disrupt their operations and keep everybody in check. Matt hatches a plan to kidnap one of the leading cartel kingpin’s daughters, a girl called Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner), whose father just so happens to be the man responsible for the deaths of Alejandro’s (Benicio del Toro) wife and daughter, and convincing him that a rival cartel has taken her captive. Matt enlists Alejandro to get it done and assures him that there are “no rules this time”.

Those familiar with the original 2015 film will notice four significant absences in the sequel. Firstly is Emily Blunt as the smart but naïve protagonist who had served as the viewer’s proxy in the story (although, given how her introduction to this complex and dirty business turned out, I doubt there is anything on Earth that could have convinced this character to return). Secondly and thirdly are director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins who both did such a great job of finding the beauty and darkness in the US-Mexican landscape and in crafting some nail-bitingly tense sequences. Fourthly is the late composer Jóhann Jóhannsson whose hypnotic score was crucial in constructing the film’s intense and morally ambiguous tone. All four are masters at their crafts and it would be a big ask for any replacement to live up to their examples. Yet Soldado devotes so much effort towards trying to mimic the original film’s style that the comparisons are unavoidable. I do think Sollima does a commendable job in the director’s chair, but at every turn I am reminded that nearly every element of this film was done better the first time around and with greater artistry.

Returning to author the screenplay is Taylor Sheridan, a writer who isn’t one to back away from complex political realities plagued by conflicting ideologies and nihilistic tenacity. In Sicario he led us down a rabbit hole into the tumultuous war on drugs where the cartels and US forces are as brutal and greedy as each other and are trapped in an endless cycle of violence that brings nothing but a fractured order and ruined lives with no reason or hope in sight. The film was clear in what it was criticising and part of the tragedy was that it couldn’t find any clear solution to the pandemonium, leaving the Emily Blunt character totally broken and defeated. Here he moves on beyond the drug war to American border security and Mexican migrant smuggling, a controversial enough subject made all the more complicated by the depiction of Islamic terrorism. Soldado hits the ground running in its provocative opening minutes with its images of migrants running across the border in the dead of night and of suicide bombers murdering American civilians in domestic settings, seemingly confirming every xenophobic Trumpian nightmare. The film then proceeds to try and challenge the mindset it has established but doesn’t do so nearly as powerfully.

There are certainly some strong performances and tremendous scenes (such as an ambush on a military convoy) along the way. Sheridan has always been a fan of the machismo of the Old West and here he has Brolin and del Toro to play the part. Brolin has just the right kind of face and physique to play these hard-boiled military men but here he adds in a strong unruly edge. He’s that kind of soldier who has to be kept on a leash by his superiors so that he doesn’t cause too much trouble, only now they’re letting him loose to do things his way. It’s a stock character, but its one that Brolin plays well. del Toro however is the star of the show. As the stonefaced, seemingly indestructible Alejandro, del Toro continues to find depth and nuance beyond what he’s given. His pairing with Moner allows for a compelling dynamic as the soldado who has previously had no aversion towards murdering children starts to see some of his own daughter in the child of the man responsible for her death. Thank goodness for their duel act because that’s really the only trace of humanity I found in a film that desperately needed more.

At first glance Soldado would appear to be a match for the first Sicario film. It has the same look and tone, the characters, the same themes, the same amount of violence and the same moral greyness. It walks the same walk and talks the same talk. What’s missing is the humanity and the introspection. We start off with two male antiheroes who have resigned themselves to their Sisyphean callings, and that’s pretty much what we end with. In the time between we never get any kind of meaningful reckoning with what it really means to live that kind of life. The question of whether justice and morality can exist in this kind of world is a fascinating one and this movie has either already decided that they can’t or it has no interest in finding out. Thus we are treated to two hours of blood and terror, often impressively and compellingly done, and in the end we have nothing to show for it. This isn’t to say that every movie has to have something important or meaningful to say, but if a movie acts like it does then it damn well better say something.

★★★

Ocean’s 8

Cast: Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Awkwafina, Rihanna, Helena Bonham Carter

Director: Gary Ross

Writers: Gary Ross, Olivia Milch


After 2016’s Ghostbusters, an uneven film that was neither good nor bad enough to be worth the substantial negative attention it received, Ocean’s 8 is the second major Hollywood blockbuster featuring a gender-reversed rendition of a popular male-dominated property to be given a wide release. With more gender-flipped titles in the works, including female-led remakes of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Lord of the Flies, it looks like this is set to become a major trend in Hollywood. On one hand this means more opportunities for more women to star in more movies with greater exposure, on the other it means doing so in the shadow of men. Even though attaching themselves to a recognised property does increase the likelihood of getting a green light, it means that films like Ocean’s 8 are inevitably disadvantaged by the burden of distinguishing themselves in comparison to their male counterparts. Even if Ghostbusters had ended up being the greatest comedy movie there ever was or ever will be, it still would have had to face an uphill battle just to be accepted as the original’s peer. It isn’t fair, not by a long shot, but that doesn’t make it any less disappointing when a film with this distinguished a cast and this promising a premise turns out so unspectacularly average.

For fans of the original Soderbergh films, the set-up is familiar enough. The cool, calm and collected Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), sister of the dearly departed Danny Ocean, is released on parole after a five-year stint in prison and is ready to get straight back to what she does best. She reaches out to her best friend and longtime partner in crime Lou (Cate Blanchett) and reveals her plan to infiltrate the Met Gala in a few weeks time and steal the Toussaint, an ornate $150 million necklace, from the event’s host, Hollywood superstar Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway). To pull this job off, Debbie and Lou will need some help from the best and part of the fun is watching them assemble their team out of a handpicked group of ne’er do wells who each bring their own personality and talents into the mix. Together they recruit Amita (Mindy Kaling), a jeweller eager for any excuse to get away from her controlling mother, Nine Ball (Rihanna), a laid-backed and tight-lipped computer hacker, Constance (Awkwafina), a young, streetwise hustler and pickpocket, Tammy (Sarah Paulson), a fence who left this life behind to become a suburban mom, and Rose Weil (Helena Bonham Carter), a disgraced fashion designer with the profile they need to get into this exclusive, star-studded event.

Between these eight leading ladies there is more screentime to go around than with Clooney and Pitt’s male ensemble, which in theory ought to mean more room for the characters to shine and their chemistry to ignite. There are for sure some instances where this pays off. Bullock and Blanchett are great together as two seasoned cons who share an affectionate yet prickly sort of rapport. Their back-and-forths are smart and slick and there is an interesting dynamic between them where the hip and eccentric Lou is the one who has to rein Debbie in and try to keep her ambition and recklessness in check. Their prominence comes at the expense of the supporting players who aren’t as fleshed out as the actresses portraying them deserve. Carter gets to stretch her acting muscles a bit playing a rather melodramatic character (of course) and Rihanna gets some good lines but Kaling, Awkwafina and particularly Paulson, one of the most versatile actresses working today, are woefully underused in their roles. The movie pretty much belongs to Bullock and Blanchett right until the halfway point where Hathaway pulls out an intriguing twist on a role we thought we had figured out and runs away with the show. Playing a character whom we at first glance take to be a one-dimensional, air-headed showbiz narcissist, Hathaway peels away the layers to reveal surprising levels of vulnerability with some intriguing insights into modern-day femininity.

The cast is really the film’s saving grace because everything else about it feels mostly standard and safe. This is one of the points where the film might have been better off trying to be its own thing rather than attaching itself to a famous pre-existing title because, compared to Soderbergh’s idiosyncratic rhythm, visual flourish and stylised editing, Ross’ efforts cannot help but come across as tame. There are some moments that stick in the brain like when the team is gathered together on the subway and we see each member’s profile pop up on the screen like panels in a comic book before being united in the same frame, but they are few and far in between. Mostly the film unfolds in a fairly ordinary fashion with little of the panache that elevated Ocean’s Eleven beyond your typical caper flick. The planning and execution of the job doesn’t feel as slick, the dialogue doesn’t snap in the same way and that clicking sensation we get the moment when all the pieces come together and we learn that there was more going on in the picture than we were led to believe isn’t as strong or as satisfying.

Ocean’s 8 is a perfectly serviceable heist movie but, after the standard set by Soderbergh (in the first movie, I’m not going to pretend that Twelve and Thirteen were anything special) as well as the promise for the opportunity to watch badass women take Hollywood by storm, I wanted something a little more than serviceable. With such a formidable cast and a timely message to tell, I wanted to see something more surprising, more daring, and more distinctive. There is a statement the film is trying to convey about women’s place in society and what is expected of them, female camaraderie, and how the time has come for women to band together in order to assert their power and potential. Bullock says at one point, “A ‘him’ gets noticed. A ‘her’ gets ignored.”. This is a message that needs to be proclaimed loudly, unapologetically and with a distinctly female voice. Instead this feels like a movie that could have been made by anybody at any time. Sure, there’s probably a case to be made for mindless entertainment for mindless entertainment’s sake and the movie does deliver on that but I don’t think that’s all it was trying to be.

★★★

Hereditary

Cast: Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd, Gabriel Byrne

Director: Ari Aster

Writer: Ari Aster


One thing that sets horror apart from other genres is its willingness to directly confront the most dreaded and tragic aspects of reality. It asks us to look into the darkest corners of our minds and to bear witness to those ideas that distress, disturb, and dishearten us the most. Nowadays it is only horror that consistently has us fear the worst case scenario only to then unravel it before our very eyes. The barn burns down, the mother kills her children, the villain wins, and all we can do is sit there helplessly and watch, unable to alter the outcome. One thing I’ve learnt in the last couple of years from watching films like The Witch and Get Out is that judging a horror movie by how much it ‘scares’ you is the most useless way to appreciate the genre, especially historically. True horror is about how horrified and discomforted you are by what is depicted, how much you fear for the fate of the characters, and how dark and oppressive the world where it all takes place feels. For all of these reasons, Hereditary is a great horror film.

The movie opens with a family struggling with a recent loss. Annie Graham (Toni Collette) has lost her mother and speaks at the funeral about the complicated feelings her death has inspired. We learn that the deceased Ellen was a difficult woman to have any kind of affectionate relationship with and that her influence has resulted in a family that is highly uncomfortable with emotional gestures and frank, open conversations about thoughts and feelings. Annie’s husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) is a well-meaning man who just wants everybody to be normal and happy, their son Peter (Alex Wolff) uses pot as an anaesthetic to the world around him, and their daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) is a disturbed preteen girl with a haunting stare who is mostly quiet save the odd, unsettling click of her tongue (her performance is so intense and disconcerting, it’s almost impossible to believe that this same girl used to play Matilda on stage). And that’s about as much as I can reveal. The terror that befalls this family over the subsequent hours is so shocking and unbelievable that words cannot really do it justice; it is something that has to be lived.

Broadly speaking Hereditary is about a couple of different things. One recurring theme is this question of how much control we actually have over who we are and what we do. In the opening shot we are led into a dollhouse which takes the form of the family’s home, creating this ominous suggestion that there is some ethereal force manipulating the action. On one level this is to give the impression that something supernatural may be at work but, as the title suggests, much of this also has to do with our families and the demons that get passed along through the bloodline. Each member of this unfortunate family is severely dejected in their own way and one of the great fears the film is able to tap into is this overwhelming dread that being born into the wrong family means being doomed to live a life of inconsolable misery. The family in this case is one haunted by misfortune at every turn and all the more troubled and wretched for their shared inability to connect with one another on an emotional level.

Thus the film also delves into the subjects of trauma and grief and how people deal with them. With their deep-rooted anxieties and withdrawn temperaments, the family is plagued by sombre silences and melancholic dormancy brought about by a dreadful incapacity for vulnerability and openness with each other. Everybody tries to deal with their grief in their own incompatible ways and, as is often the case when a group of unhinged people in great pain remain in close proximity to one another, they lash out when confronted and forced to address the issues they are trying to hide from head on. There is a tragic irony in the way that these family members cannot help but bring out the worst in each other, leading them to hurt each other in fits of rage that are as painful to watch as even the most gruesome scenes (of which there are many). What makes Hereditary such a powerful movie is the way it is able to take what are already these intense, harrowing feelings and heighten them even further with the visceral, horrific nightmare that the characters are forced to live.

Hereditary is a difficult film to endure not because it is so violent and gruesome but because it is so harshly nihilistic. Anytime you find yourself sitting there in the dark wondering how things could possibly get worse for this desolate family, the movie finds a way and it is more terrible than you could have imagined. The Grahams are met with calamity after affliction after tragedy and the damage they suffer is so unbearable you can hardly bring yourself to look (but you also cannot look away). The horror comes not just from the sheer dreadfulness of what is happening but also from not quite knowing the nature of the threat lurking beneath it all or whose view we can trust. Although Annie is the character we follow the most closely and thus is the one whose feelings we understand the most clearly, her perception (as well as those of her husband and children) are so skewed by grief and pain and so deranged by uncertainty and anxiety that we never know for sure in any given moment who the voice of reason is and how much of what we see is actually happening. The film is less interested in scaring you than it is in breaking any sense of hope or certainty in your soul, and on that front it never lets up.

In making Hereditary, it’s quite clear that Aster was heavily influenced by an entire litany of horror classics including but not limited to Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, Carrie and Don’t Look Now. All of these films feature horrific portrayals of parenthood and of violence inflicted on families in one way or another and are all masterclasses in how to establish a fearful atmosphere built on such basic feelings as trauma, insanity, paranoia, oppression, defilement, and misery and Aster is able to inject their many influences into his own work to create a worthy peer. But the film is equally indebted to such tragic family dramas as A Woman Under the Influence, Ordinary People, and Secrets & Lies, films about profoundly damaged people being forced to face their deepest torments and trepidations with elaborate and raw displays of emotion that can often be as psychologically horrific and violent as anything you’ve seen in a supernatural blood-and-gore fest. The most disturbing moments in Hereditary are not just those where images of such terrible brutality and devastation occur but also where family members exchange cold looks and cutting words, the kind that cannot be taken back and that leave deep, searing wounds and scars that may well never heal.

The film’s biggest problem is that it has occasional problems with subtlety. There are a few too many instances of hints being dropped that are a little too obvious, some moments are a little too on the nose and right at the very end there is a monologue a la Psycho in that it spends far too much time explaining what had already been made clear through inference and shedding light on what would probably have been better left off as ambiguous. Foreshadowing and exposition are fine if they’re done cleverly and with little attention to drawn to themselves, otherwise they become distracting and self-defeating. It’s not a fatal problem in a film as great as this one and it never got so bad that I was completely taken out of the movie but there were certainly occasions where I felt less would have been more for a film that is so largely fascinated by the unknown and inexplicable. Still, even then, Hereditary is an astonishing cinematic debut for Aster who displays remarkable confidence and uncanny skill in his ability to construct an overwhelming aura of dread with each waking second and to execute some truly horrifying moments without overreliance on jump scares and other cheap tricks.

Grounding the extraordinary horror with authentic, shattering performances is Aster’s cast, among whom there isn’t a single weak link. Collette is devastating as a mother who grows more and more desolate the more she suffers and loses her grip on reality. Byrne has a formidable presence as a father who finds himself at the end of his tether as he loses his ability to keep the peace. Wolff has a strong turn as a son trying to daze himself into a state of such numbness that he can no longer feel anything at all and Shapiro is way more sinister than any child has any right to be as a deeply demented daughter. Between them they bring so much of the humanity that makes the family scenes so distressing to watch. There’s a delicate balance that has to be maintained when depicting the kinds of individuals who share enough of a domestic sense of familiarity that they have to stick together but are so detached from one another that any interaction is going to be fraught with tension and this ensemble nails it. There is also a good supporting performance by Esteemed Character Actress Ann Dowd who plays exactly the kind of character you want her to play in this kind of movie.

I can see Hereditary becoming quite a polarising film, but then ambitious horror movies often are. The film is largely character driven and is more interested in finding its frightfulness in the emotional turmoil that they suffer than it is in the more traditional method of physical violence and deathly spectacle even though the film does include both. For those who watch horror movies for introspective depictions of insanity, despair, and the human condition, Hereditary offers plenty to chew on. For those who want mutilated corpses, burning flesh and bloody murder, there’s that as well. In theory this ought to make for a ‘one size fits all’ kind of situation except that fans of the former might not have the patience for the latter and vice versa. While I personally tend to favour emotional horror over physical, I am certainly not above the latter when it’s done well with purpose and Hereditary definitely fits the bill. There are certain images in this film that I have no doubt will haunt me for the rest of my days.

★★★★★