The Disaster Artist

Cast: James Franco, Dave Franco, Seth Rogen, Alison Brie, Ari Graynor, Josh Hutcherson, Jacki Weaver

Director: James Franco

Writers: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber


The Room is one of those movies that really has to be seen to be believed. It is a movie that fundamentally does not work on any conceivable level, and yet it is so remarkably unique, mesmerising and endlessly rewatchable. It is one of the great cinematic paradoxes; The Room is a terrible film, but it is also great cinema. If you asked the greatest director in the world to make the worst movie of all time, they couldn’t get any closer to making this film than Gus Van Sant could get to making Psycho. Genius (or maybe ‘anti-genius’ in this case) is something that cannot be replicated, it can only be imitated. There is something there behind the shots and between the edits that cannot be faked, a sense of effort and sincerity that only comes across when the artist truly believes in what they are making. With The Disaster Artist, James Franco takes us behind the scenes to show us what was really going on beneath it all.

The movie follows Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), the author of the book the movie is based on, as a young actor in San Francisco. At one of his acting classes he meets Tommy Wiseau (James Franco), a strange-looking man with a weird accent who inspires Greg with his fearlessness. As soon as the two become friends, Tommy suggests that they move to Los Angeles to try and make it big. There Greg signs up with renowned talent agent Iris Burton (Sharon Stone) while Tommy gets turned down by everyone he approaches. Later he grows jealous of Greg as he enters a relationship with Amber (Alison Brie) and becomes more disheartened with every rejection. As Greg’s auditions start drying up, he reaches out to Tommy, who then decides to write, direct, produce, and star in his own movie. Thus he writes The Room, a drama in the vein of Tennessee Williams, and offers Greg a prominent part. Together they set about making this movie with the help of Sandy Schklair (Seth Rogen), the script supervisor, and Raphael Smadja (Paul Sceer), the cinematographer. As the chaotic production proceeds and unravels, only Tommy seems blind to the horrendous quality of the movie they’re making.

The obvious comparison here is Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, a movie that celebrates the director who made another movie often proclaimed as ‘the worst ever made’. And ‘celebrate’ really is the right word because what made Ed Wood a great movie was the way it admired Wood’s passion, sincerity and optimism, even as it understood that the movie he was making was rubbish. That same feeling of admiration is present in The Disaster Artist. There’s a scene where Tommy and Greg stand on the sight of James Dean’s fatal car crash and are inspired to follow his example and show the world what they can do, no matter the obstacles. That scene is there because the movie doesn’t want us to laugh at these two for making a crap movie, it wants us to identify with them and root for them to make the movie that, for better or worse, would make them both stars. Tommy may be the Disaster Artist, but he is also a dreamer and it is clear from watching this movie just how much James Franco admires that dream.

Tommy Wiseau with his unidentifiable accent, ambiguous age, and vampiric demeanour is very much an enigma to those who’ve seen him and his movie, and one of Franco’s successes is finding the human being within that enigma. He still allows us to laugh at Wiseau’s strangeness because, to put it simply, he is a very strange person. He insists that he’s from New Orleans despite not sounding like anything from planet Earth, he appears to be infinitely wealthy but cannot seem to explain where the money comes from, and he claims to be the same age as the twenty-something Greg even though, well, look at him! He’s also at the very least sexually ambiguous and the nature of his feelings towards Greg are never made very clear but are enough to raise some red flags with those around them (what with the way he keeps calling him ‘babyface’ and all). There’s also a monstrous side to Wiseau that comes out in his attempt to be the next Kubrick or Hitchcock which Franco showcases in one particularly revealing scene where Tommy mistreats his co-star Julliette Danielle (Ari Graynor). Yet, beneath all of that, Franco is able to find a vulnerable, insecure side to Tommy, someone who wants nothing more than to be admired and celebrated. It is a wonderful performance.

There is tragedy to The Disaster Artist, but from that tragedy comes laughter. The movie Wiseau made may not have been received the way he’d hoped and he may not be the enigmatic, inspired auteur he wanted to be, but through all the heartbreak and humiliation he made a movie that has brought endless joy to millions of people all over the world. To see just how much of a cult following The Room has gathered, look no further than the number of celebrities who join Franco in his celebration. This includes the likes of Kristen Bell, J.J. Abrams, Keegan-Michael Key, Adam Scott, and Kevin Smith, who all appear in the opening montage to discuss The Room and the impact it’s had, and also Bryan Cranston, Judd Apatow, Melanie Griffith, Hannibal Buress, and Bob Odenkirk, who all make cameos. It’s a movie which reminds us that there is inspiration to be found not only in the greatest successes but also in the greatest failures, and The Room might very well be the greatest failure in the history of cinema.

★★★★

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Suburbicon

Cast: Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Noah Jupe, Oscar Isaac

Director: George Clooney

Writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, George Clooney, Grant Heslov


Cinema is an art and the films that get made are inherently reflective of ourselves and the world we live in, which is why movies cannot help but be political and social constructs. Whether it’s done actively or passively, all movies are affected by the societies that shaped them and are indicative of the principles and values of their own time and place, whether it’s confirmation, opposition, indifference or ignorance. This applies whether it’s done well or badly and that brings me to Suburbicon. Clooney has been one of the most actively political American actors and directors of recent years and he has been successful in conveying his liberal beliefs in films such as Good Night, and Good Luck and The Ides of March. Here he tackles the difficult but important subject of race politics, a topic that has never seen much prominence in his filmography. Although I believe his intentions were honest and sincere, Clooney’s handling of the subject is problematic (to say the least).

Set in the 1950s, the film takes place in Suburbicon, a rural neighbourhood with a ‘diverse’ range of white residents. This peaceful community however is shaken up by the arrival of an African-American family who, despite being perfectly pleasant and agreeable people, are received with nothing but harassment, abuse, and scorn. So focused is everyone on their outrage against the Mayers family that nobody notices the dark dealings of the house adjacent to it, that of mild-mannered family man Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon). His house is broken into by two robbers, Sloan (Glenn Fleshler) and Louis (Alex Hassell), and he is taken captive along with his wife Rose (Julianne Moore) and son Nicky (Noah Jupe). Rose subsequently dies from an overdose of chloroform and so her twin sister Margaret (also Moore) steps in to help Gardner and Nicky rebuild their lives. Nicky however suspects that something strange is going on as his father and aunt start being suspiciously in the aftermath of the attack. His sentiments are shared by Bud Cooper (Oscar Isaac), the insurance agent brought in to investigate their case. As the case becomes more complicated and messy, so does the conduct of the white supremacists terrorising the Mayers become more aggressive.

What we essentially have here are two parallel narratives which work neither as parallels nor as narratives. The intention, I imagine, is to put a spotlight on the twisted and evil deeds of white people that go unnoticed because everyone else is looking in the wrong direction due to blinding racial anger. That would be fine if Clooney was prepared to completely invest the film into the characters of the Mayers family and fully explore their plight, but he fails to do so. We never learn the first names of Mr. (Leith Burke) or Mrs. Mayer (Karimah Westbrook) and the film never illustrates their discernable personalities or inner lives to us. They are there to serve as symbols of the African-American community in Clooney’s satire of 1950s racism. By taking this approach there is an implication that this kind of behaviour is a thing of the past, that it isn’t still going on in Charlottesville and other similar places. That may not have necessarily been Clooney’s intention, but by portraying these events by way of parody and depicting the effects on the black family not through their own eyes but rather the eyes of the white main characters, I cannot help but find the movie’s treatment of racism to be outdated.

The other narrative, which Clooney adapted from an abandoned Coen Brothers screenplay, concerns Nicky and the increasingly precarious situation growing in his house. Clooney, despite being a frequent collaborator of the Coens, proves unequal to the task of replicating their unique black noir tone and has instead made a movie that is neither funny enough nor dramatic enough to make the material work. There is no energy in his direction or in Damon’s and Moore’s performances, and so the story unfolds at a steadily stale and stolid pace. Gardner and Margaret are both extremely unpleasant people, as is often the case with the Coen Brothers’ characters, but neither the director nor the actors can bring enough humour, appeal or life to make them at all enjoyable, relatable or memorable. Isaac does better as a shrewd investigator with an uncanny nose for bullshit, but not enough to save the film.

The movie is earnest and well-intentioned, but that just isn’t enough in 2017. This movie takes the real-life story of an African-American family who suffered the horrid persecution of white America and trivialises it. The event is distanced from the audience as a laughable relic of the past, it plays second fiddle to a far less interesting story, and its effects are felt not by the victims but by the white family next door. This kind of movie is patronising for black viewers and undemanding for white viewers. If a white filmmaker wants to take on the weighty subjects of racism, hypocrisy and white privilege, it’s not enough for them to acknowledge that they (white people) understand that these things exist, especially when the movie in question is the product of an industry historically and overwhelmingly dominated by white men. Movies like this need and demand to be more challenging, more inspired and more truthful. Suburbicon is the product of a filmmaker who either didn’t know or couldn’t decide what story he was trying to tell and it falls far too short of whatever good intentions he may have had.

★★

Justice League

Cast: Henry Cavill, Ben Affleck, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, J.K. Simmons

Director: Zack Snyder

Writers: Chris Terrio, Joss Whedon


The DCEU does not have the best track record. Between the four movies that have been released so far they have all suffered from some combination of messy storytelling, overreliance on darkness as a substitute for drama, conflated self-importance, unfocused and clashing tones, lack of humanity, and fundamentally misguided acting choices made by a couple of certain castmembers in villainous roles. Even the inspiring, colourful, focused, refreshingly superb Wonder Woman wasn’t able to avoid all of these trappings as a couple of them seeped their way into the third act. Thus we come to Justice League, the movie it’s all been building up to. It’s been a long and turbulent journey getting here and through all the highs and lows, after all the disorder, disappointment and division, Warner Bros. has beaten the odds and created a superhero team up movie that turned out miraculously okay.

As the world mourns the death of Superman (Henry Cavill), Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) learns that a global threat is imminent and executes his plan to form a team of extraordinary people. Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) joins his cause after receiving a warning from her mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) about an attack on Themyscria by the ancient villain Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds). While Wayne sets off in search of Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), an aquatic being from Atlantis, and Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), a young man with superhuman speed, Diana tracks down Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), whose body is more machine than man. They learn that Steppenwolf is searching for the three Mother Boxes, prehistoric devices of immense energy hidden all over the world. As Batman attempts to bring what will become the Justice League together however, he finds that he isn’t able to inspire them in the way that only Superman could have done and fears that they will not be able to save the world unless he can find a way to unite them.

‘Okay’ is not the word I want to use to describe a Justice League movie but, after the example set by the prior DC movies, I’ll take okay where I can get it. There are issues with the story as there have been with every other instalment (to varying degrees), but there are also two saving graces: the characters and the tone. The film does struggle to find the right balance between focusing on those characters we’ve already met, namely Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman (it’s not a spoiler to say that Superman returns (Henry Cavill’s name is on the poster) it’s only a spoiler to say how and when), and focusing on those we’re meeting for the first time, namely Aquaman, the Flash, and Cyborg. It works though because the characters are all likeable and enjoyable to watch. Affleck continues to shine as a Batman whose cold-heartedness in Batman vs. Superman has been tempered, humbled even, by his awe over Superman’s sacrifice and his guilt for the role he played. Gadot is also once again stellar as Diana as she provides the league with its moral centre and a bit of a motherly presence as the combative and often childish acts of the guys often forces her to be the level-headed one (but thankfully not in a way that does a disservice to the character).

Meanwhile the new guys on the block do their best with what they’re given. The Flash is essentially there to provide comic relief through one-liners, bewildered reactions, and just general eccentricity. It’s hit and miss, but when it hits it really does hit. Aquaman has a couple of cool moments and brings enough appeal and attitude to the role that when he butts heads with Batman it doesn’t feel like conflict for its own sake, it feels authentic. The triumph of Miller and Momoa is making their respective characters interesting and entertaining enough that I actually want to see them carry their own movies. The downside is that Cyborg is mostly sidelined to make room for these characters despite being key to the film’s climax. As for Superman, Cavill is finally allowed to use his charm and charisma to play the Man of Steel the way he was meant to be played. I still think the decision to kill off Superman was a fundamentally stupid one, but Cavill’s performance was so good that I now find myself excited about the character’s future.

With the divisive reception of the previous non-Wonder-Woman DC films, the DCEU has put itself through a lot of self-correcting and, while I can’t say that Justice League was a fantastic movie, it did feel like a definite step in the right direction. A major part of this self-correction has been with the tone and with Justice League, Warner Bros. is ever closer to capturing that tone where it can be serious and funny without coming across as pretentious or childish. There are some scenes that hold real emotional weight, as when Batman shares his private fears and anxieties with Wonder Woman or when Superman is briefly reunited with Lois Lane (Amy Adams). Then there are some genuinely funny moments as we witness the banter and conflicts that ensue between this unlikely collection of unlikely characters (Aquaman’s accidental use of the lasso of truth is a highlight). More than that, there were even a couple of moments that I found truly awesome and exciting (my favourite is one that I cannot go into because of spoilers but basically it involves Superman turning his eyes in slow-motion).

Justice League is not the gamechanger that The Avengers was and is by no means a great film. The villain is as bland and forgettable as the MCU’s were at its most unremarkable, the movie relies on clichés and routine dialogue to get things moving, and the third act is about what you would expect. There are also a bunch of big ideas and themes, something that the DCEU has always been much more interested in pursuing than Marvel, that don’t quite get the development they need. The idea of Superman’s death leading the world to a place of despair where the people feel like all hope is lost and where the darker side of humanity is able to roam free without the presence of this benevolent, god-like symbol of truth, liberty and justice to keep it in check is one I would’ve liked to see more of. Still, I’m glad that I saw this film. Even though Wonder Woman is far and away the stronger film, it was so divorced from the other DCEU movies that it could pretty much be regarded as a standalone. This movie had to build something on top of the mess that the other films had left and that, along with a tempestuous production that saw Whedon take over directorial duties when a personal tragedy forced Snyder to drop out, was no easy task. Justice League is a studio movie through and through, where each and every detail has been calculated according to charts and demographics, but a part of me feels like Warner Bros needed to make this movie as a way of decisively bringing this chapter of the DCEU to an end and allowing themselves to start a new one on a new, blank page. Now, much like the people of Earth at the end of this film, I finally feel hopeful about the franchise’s future going forward.

★★★

Murder on the Orient Express

Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Writer: Michael Green


Dame Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Without those two names you don’t get the classic whodunit as we know it today. Christie’s work is now so iconic that you don’t even have to have read a single word of her writing to recognise the formula. There’s been a murder, everyone’s a suspect, a top detective is brought in to solve the crime and the audience sees if they can crack the case before the big reveal. It’s a formula that we’ve seen in movies time and time again from the classic Hollywood film noirs and Clair’s adaptation of Christie’s And Then There Were None to more recent examples like Clue and The Hateful Eight. Murder on the Orient Express is perhaps the most famous single story Christie ever wrote and it has been adapted numerous times, most notably in 1974 with Albert Finney and in 2010 with David Suchet. This time it’s Branagh, sporting a hideous moustache, who steps into the shoes of Christie’s iconic detective in what he hoped would be a dynamic retelling of the classic mystery.

It is 1934 and we are introduced to world-famous detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh and his ridiculous moustache) as he solves a case in Jerusalem. He must then immediately return to London for another case and is offered passage on the Orient Express by his good friend Bouc (Tom Bateman). Soon after the train departs Poirot receives an offer from the shady businessman Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp) to protect him from harm for the three-day journey after receiving an anonymous threatening letter, an offer which Poirot declines. The next morning Ratchett is discovered dead in his compartment and an avalanche stops the train in its tracks. A note is discovered connecting Ratchett’s murder to the infamous case of a murdered little girl in the USA and Poirot resolves to discover who among the other passengers killed him. His suspects include the governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley), the missionary Pilar Estravados (Penélope Cruz), Count Rudolph (Segei Polunin) and Countess Helena Andrenyi (Lucy Boynton), the butler Edward Henry Masterman (Derek Jacobi), the widow Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and her maid Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman), Professor Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe), the deceased’s assistant Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad), and Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.).

For me the biggest reservation I had going into this film was Kenneth Branagh as Poirot. Not because I dislike Branagh as an actor (I don’t) or because of that inhuman abomination to both man and God that he calls a moustache, but because David Suchet embodied the famous detective so perfectly on the ITV series that all other incarnations of the character, including the Oscar-nominated Finney and the Bafta-nominated Ustinov, will forever be fighting for second place. Still Branagh puts on the gross eyesore that occupies his upper lip and he has a go at Christie’s most famous character, playing him as an inflexible control-freak who cannot tolerate imperfections in the world, whether they be the physical imperfections of two uneven boiled eggs or the moral imperfections of human beings. Branagh is a good enough actor that he is able to play the atrociously-moustached Poirot with the sufficient flash and gravitas while also scoring some laughs with his one-liners, but his decision to attribute Poirot’s meticulousness as obsessive-compulsive tendencies made for what I found to be a far less interesting character than the altogether more eloquently-moustached Suchet, whose perfectionism as Poirot came from a steadfast, unyielding belief in the absolute virtue of the law, God, and decency.

Still, Branagh the actor didn’t bother me as much as Branagh the director did. He makes a strong attempt to make the Christie mystery feel cinematic, which is an effort that I do admire but don’t think ultimately worked. When we see Poirot boarding the Orient Express in a single, sweeping tracking shot or when we witness the discovery of Ratchett’s body with a static overhead shot that leaves the corpse just out of frame, the style of these shots called so much attention to themselves that they struck me as self-indulgent flourishes rather than as creative cinematic storytelling techniques. It’s the same kind of self-indulgence that I imagine inspired Branagh to feature Poirot and his ghastly facial fur at centre stage throughout the whole film at the detriment of the all-star ensemble at his disposal. Some actors do manage to give out a great deal with the little they’re dealt, most notably Pfeiffer as the glamorous and wealthy widow in search of her next husband, but other characters, including those played by the enormously talented likes of Olivia Colman and Derek Jacobi, simply do not get enough time to dance in their acting shoes. All are side-lined and are mainly there to sit and look astonished so the film can spend as much time as it can focusing on how incredibly impressive Poirot and his egregious display of horrendous facial hair are.

I saw the film with two friends who did not know the ending and, while the final twist did seem to take them by surprise, they left feeling overall underwhelmed. The movie just doesn’t have that edge-of-your-seat momentum that a great whodunit should have. The private interrogations that Poirot conducts with each of the passengers do not have that captivating sense of intrigue and feeling of inquisitiveness because Branagh is much more interested in showcasing the deductive brilliance of Poirot and his abominable whiskers than in fleshing out all these secretive characters and getting to the heart of the mystery. The movie is so desperate for tension that it resorts to a cheap, generic Hollywood chase scene along the exterior of the train. Even the big reveal fails to impress as it relies too much on style and not enough on substance, even going so far as to arrange all the characters into an impractical pose that evokes The Last Supper (I guess making Poirot Da Vinci because that’s how much of a genius he is). As with the later seasons of Sherlock, this is a case of an artist getting so carried away with showing everyone how brilliantly brilliant his brilliant character and brilliant style are that all else gets swept aside and the story suffers because of it. Murder on the Orient Express is a stylish but empty remake that did not need to be made. Also I didn’t like the moustache.

★★

Thor: Ragnarok

Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins

Director: Taika Waititi

Writers: Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, Christopher Yost


Sometimes I find it hard to believe that just a couple of years ago I was starting to feel fatigued by the abundance of superheroes in cinema. When Age of Ultron came out, it felt like the MCU was beginning to run out of steam and that this would be the beginning of the superhero genre’s decline. But then Civil War happened. And then Deadpool. And then Wonder Woman. And then Logan. The resurgence of superhero movies over the last two years has been astonishing. I keep telling myself with each new MCU release to remain critical and to not get swept away with the hype, but with their subsequent releases of Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy II, and Spider-Man: Homecoming, they’ve been on a hot streak that shows no sign of slowing down. Now with Thor: Ragnarok they’ve knocked it out of the park once again and my inner twelve-year-old self is doing cartwheels and screaming with delight.

After an unsuccessful search for the Infinity Stones, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returns to Asgard upon learning that his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is no longer there. There he finds his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) impersonating their father and orders him to reveal where he is hidden. They find Odin on Earth where they learn that he is dying and that his passing will allow his firstborn child Hela (Cate Blanchett) to escape from the prison where he has held her for millennia. Hela emerges upon Odin’s death, destroys Thor’s hammer, dispatches of her brothers and makes her way to Asgard to begin her conquest. Thor winds up on the planet Sakaar where he is captured by the bounty hunter Scrapper 142 (Tessa Thompson) and becomes a prisoner of the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). He is made to fight as a gladiator and is reunited in the arena with his good friend Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). However Asgard and its people, under the care of Heimdall (Idris Elba), remain in danger and so Thor makes it his duty to assemble a team and defeat Hela.

Even though Thor has always been one of the Marvel franchise’s most enjoyable heroes and Loki remains the undisputed champion of the MCU villain hierarchy, neither of the Thor movies have been particularly great. It always bothered me that Marvel had this wondrous mythological-fantasy universe at its disposal and yet insisted on moving the action to Earth with its familiar settings and (relative) realism and Jane Fosters. There is none of that here. Ragnarok fully embraces its realm of sci-fi/fantasy and is never afraid to go too big or too crazy. The movie draws its inspiration from the campy fantasies and space operas of the 70s and 80s like Logan’s Run and Flash Gordon and creates what truly feels like a comic-book universe. The costumes, sets and scenery are extravagant and cartoonish, the retro-techno music perfectly complements this disco neon-lit pop art sci-fi tone they’re going for, and the colours are so saturated you’d swear you were on a Magical Mystery Tour with the Beatles. Sure, the CGI landscapes, creatures, and battles don’t look at all real, but man do they look great.

This movie takes on a much more comedic tone than the non-Ant-Man Marvel movies are used to, thus requiring Hemsworth to put his comedy chops to the test, and he seriously delivers. As the macho, charming, ridiculously handsome god of thunder Hemsworth has always been fun and likeable but here he reaches new heights and makes Thor seem more human than ever before, whether he’s thoughtfully reflecting on his responsibility to his people that he has thus far neglected or he’s bumbling around like a goofball. Hiddleston is as good as ever as the devilish trickster Loki whose leanings between good and evil are forever going back and forth minute by minute, as is Ruffalo who shines in his dual roles as the exasperated Banner and the reckless Hulk. (In an odd twist akin to Deadpool being the best of all the X-Men movies (before Logan anyway) Thor has provided us with the best Hulk movie to date). Thompson holds her own as the hard-boiled Valkyrie admirably, Goldblum with his idiosyncratic tics and unique line deliveries is wonderfully employed, and Blanchett… what can I even say about her? Some actors can chew scenery; Blanchett devours entire sets and looks fabulous doing it.

This is the Thor movie I’ve been waiting for and it was well worth the wait. It was funny, exciting, colourful and utterly rewatchable. The dramatic moments might not have been particularly deep and parts of the plot might have been a little predictable, especially in the third act, but that’s okay. Sometimes all a great movie needs to be is great fun. Thor: Ragnarok is so much fun to watch that even the jokes I had already seen several times in the trailer, like Thor’s reaction when he meets Hulk in the arena (“I know him! He’s a friend from work!”), still got a laugh out of me because Hemsworth is just that good. The last couple of years have been an interesting time for superhero cinema and have seen some real gamechangers to the genre. Thor: Ragnarok is not one of those gamechangers, but it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes, all you need is an awesome protagonist battling a fire demon while ‘The Immigrant Song’ by Led Zeppelin plays. This movie has that, and then some.

★★★★★

The Death of Stalin

Cast: Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Paddy Considine, Rupert Friend, Jason Isaacs, Michael Palin, Andrea Riseborough, Jeffrey Tambor

Director: Armando Iannucci

Writers: Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin, Peter Fellows


In the opening scene of The Death of Stalin, a live performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 is being broadcast by Radio Moscow. Joseph Stalin (Adrian Mcloughlin) is listening and informs the head of the radio station Comrade Andreyev (Paddy Considine) that he would like a recording. Andreyev realises to his utter terror that the concert is not being recorded and now he must make one in the time it will take Stalin’s envoy to arrive for its collection. This means convincing famed pianist Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko), an avowed critic of the Soviet regime, to perform the whole concerto once more, sending the secret police to abduct another conductor after the first one is rendered unconscious, and pulling people off the street so that the acoustics sound right. They go through all these astoundingly absurd lengths in order to comply with the General Secretary’s request, so absolute was Stalin’s terror and the country’s fear of him. I knew going in that I was about to see a farcical satire, but I could never have imagined just how agonisingly dark that comedy would be.

As Stalin receives the recording, enclosed is a note from Yudina outlining all of the ways that he has ruined the country. As Stalin reads the note he laughs, then starts coughing, and then collapses. After Stalin is discovered the next day, the members of the Central Committee are alerted. They include security chief Laverntiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Deputy General Secretary Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), and Head of the Communist Party Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi). Also part of the committee is Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), who Stalin added to his list of enemies just the night before. With the Soviet leader now on his deathbed, his advisors resolve to act quickly in order to consolidate their authority in the power vacuum that is to follow. Key ingredients to a triumphant succession and securing control over the USSR are the Red Army, led by Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), and Stalin’s children Vasily (Rupert Friend) and Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough). As factions arise and plots are conspired, it isn’t long before all hell breaks loose.

The Death of Stalin is a farce in the same way as Dr. Strangelove. It takes a deeply frightening story and finds humour in the absurdity of it all; the nightmarish circumstances, the deranged logic of the events that transpire, the malicious nature of these characters, and even in the awful tragedy of this brutal regime. It works on the principle that people are funnier when they are being serious and sincere, as opposed to when they’re trying to be funny. There is enough distance between us and the past that we can recognise the behaviour and thinking of these characters, whether they be the calculating opportunistic conspirators, the blind ideological loyalists, or the terrified and powerless subjects, as being ridiculous without much exaggeration needed. When the most feared and dangerous man in the world is completely immobilised on his office floor lying in his own urine and nobody will even suggest that he might be dying for fear that he might recover and punish them for their treachery, you’ve got to laugh.

It works because the characters are all played realistically as subjects of the pressures and anxieties that characterised Stalinist Russia, all shrouded in an emotional fog that prevents them from seeing their predicament as the disturbed comedy that it is. The ensemble Iannucci has assembled is stellar and each actor assumes their meaty role beautifully. Beale shines as Beria, a conniving figure whose devious gears start turning the instant Stalin is discovered and wastes no time in sinking his claws into Stalin’s appointed successor, Tambor’s hilariously vain and spineless Malenkov. Buscemi is great in his turn as the intensely anxious Khrushchev, so edgy and stressed in his attempt to stay on top of things that you swear he’ll have a stroke himself before it’s all over. Palin is comic gold as Molotov, the feeble yes-man who will go along with his government’s every whim unfailingly (even when those whims concern the question of his wife’s loyalty). Also worthy of note is Isaacs as the buff, gruff and tough Zhukov, a man of action who doesn’t particularly care who succeeds Stalin and will go along with whoever has the best deal.

Iannucci has previously distinguished himself with his TV political satires The Thick of It and Veep, both about politicians and spin-doctors, made up of some combination of ambition, incompetence and nastiness, navigating the turbulent world of government, publicity and demographics. With The Death of Stalin he takes his brand of comedy to new heights. Unlike before where a cock up for Malcolm Tucker or Selina Meyer could result in a media embarrassment or a political loss, here a cock up means a bullet in the head. Thus the schemes are more diabolical, the scrambling is more desperate, and the self-aware reflection is more alarming than ever before. The regime of Stalin was a truly horrendous, unbearable time and this film shows us just how appalling it could get through a wickedly dark comedic lens. As with Dr. Strangelove or Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, things get so horrible, chaotic and devastating over time that by the end you won’t know whether to laugh or pull your own hair out.

★★★★★

The LEGO Ninjago Movie

Cast: (voiced by) Dave Franco, Justin Theroux, Fred Armisen, Abbi Jacobson, Olivia Munn, Kumail Nanjiani, Michael Peña, Zach Woods, Jackie Chan

Directors: Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher, Bob Logan

Writers: Bob Logan, Paul Fisher, Whilliam Wheeler, Tom Wheeler, Jared Stern, John Whittington


This film marks the third instalment in the LEGO Cinematic Universe, and it is the first time that one of them left me feeling underwhelmed. The pieces are all there, they just never quite click together the way they did the first two times. Maybe this was bound to happen sooner or later. It is near impossible for a franchise to knock it out of the park each and every time and this one already had two home runs going for it. The astounding surprise of the smart, funny, endlessly entertaining hit that was The LEGO Movie is something that can never really be replicated and, after The LEGO Batman Movie proved to be just as enjoyable, the standard was high. The LEGO Ninjago Movie has more of the same charm, humour and imagination, but with less steam.

This time we are taken to the city of Ninjago, a metropolis that gets frequently attacked by the evil Lord Garmadon. Here lives his son Lloyd (or L-Loyd as his father calls him) with his mother Koko. Lloyd is hated by the city at large for being the son of Garmadon, but what they do not know is that he is a member of the secret ninja force that protects the city along with his friends Nya, Zane, Jay, Cole and Kai. All six were trained in the martial arts by Master Wu, Garmadon’s brother, and together they foil each of Garmadon’s attempts to take over the city. Master Wu however warns his pupils that they will never be real ninjas if they continue to rely on weapons and machines and tells them that they should learn to master their minds and tap into the elements that define them (which, in Lloyd’s case, is the element Green). He also mentions an Ultimate Weapon that must never be used under any circumstances. Lloyd uses the Ultimate Weapon in an attempt to stop his father’s latest invasion and ends up dooming the city. Thus Lloyd, Master Wu, and the other ninjas must embark on a quest to find the Ultimate, Ultimate Weapon.

Although there are enough good things to make this film watchable, they just aren’t abundant enough to put it on par with its two predecessors. This movie doesn’t have the same rhythm or inventiveness that made the others such a blast to watch. There are some very good jokes that hit with me, for example the reveal of Meowthra the Ultimate Weapon, Garmadon’s tendency to fire his incompetent generals (out of a volcano) and Jackie Chan’s delivery of “Green”, but there were just as many that fell flat. One of the reasons the other two movies were so much fun is because they bombarded the viewer with joke after joke after joke all the way through, and this film lacks that same energy. Similarly there are enough creative visuals to keep your eye occupied, like with the ninja’s Zords (I‘m sure there’s another name for them, but they’re Zords), but again the film doesn’t go the extra mile with these visuals the way the others did.

I think this can all be credited to a lack of personality. Too much of this film feels too familiar and by-the-numbers. The ultimate conflict for instance concerns Lloyd’s daddy issues and feelings of alienation and abandonment and from Garmadon’s struggle to be a father to Lloyd. This is a trope that we can trace back to Luke and Darth Vader and further still and it has been done to death. There aren’t enough twists to make it feel any fresher and the characters are not interesting enough to sell it or entertaining enough to carry it. Compared to the first film’s conflict between control and freedom and LEGO Batman’s struggle to open himself up to others, this one feels woefully hollow and derivative. The film plays it frustratingly safe, never taking any chances or risks, and is never able to build enough of an identity to really distinguish itself from what we’ve seen before. I left this film feeling absolutely no connection to Ninjago or any of the characters who live there the way that I did with the other ones.

The film’s not bad enough for me to say that I disliked it, but with the standard set by this franchise there was a definite feeling of unfulfillment when it was all over. The cast is pretty good, with Chan in particular getting some laughs in both his animated and live-action roles, but there’s only so much any of them could have done with these underdeveloped characters. Nanjiani, Armisen and Peña, for instance, are all very funny actors but if you put a gun to my head I could not tell you which played which character, so interchangeable were they. Overall this film does not have enough going for it to make watching it worthwhile. Maybe it’s unfair to rate a film like this so lowly when it isn’t particularly bad in it’s own right, but I’d argue that when a standard has been set, falling short of that standard should be regarded as a failure. A similar example would be something like The Godfather: Part III, not a terrible film in its own right but pitiful when compared to what came before.

★★

Blade Runner 2049

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Lennie James, Dave Bautista, Jared Leto

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Writers: Hampton Fancher, Michael Green


If you were to put together a list of the five most influential science-fiction films of all time, there would not even be a question about including Blade Runner. I’m hard pressed to think of any sci-fi movie from the last three decades that doesn’t owe some kind of debt to Ridley Scott’s dystopian masterpiece. It is the film that redefined the genre, introducing a groundbreaking tone and visual style oft-replicated but never surpassed and exploring existential themes with immense sophistication and profundity. Blade Runner has had thirty-five years to secure its position as a landmark in the history of cinema and it’s still too early to tell whether the sequel will prove to be as monumental. What is clear however is that Blade Runner 2049 is not a pale imitation or a cheap cash grab; it’s the real thing. This is nothing less than a visually stunning picture that takes the same ideas about humanity, reality, and existence, and expands on them thoughtfully, compellingly, and beautifully.

There are details about the plot that I shouldn’t and won’t share here because the reveals are too good to spoil for the viewer. What I can tell you is that the movie takes place in Los Angeles in 2049. The Tyrell Corporation has gone bankrupt since the events of the first film and Replicants are now manufactured by the Wallace Corporation, led by Niander Wallace (Jared Leto). Our protagonist is a Blade Runner called K (Ryan Gosling). He reports to Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) of the LAPD and lives in a small, plain apartment with his holographic girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas), also a product of the Wallace Corporation. His job is to hunt down and ‘retire’ rogue Replicants, which we see him do in the opening scene with Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), a rogue Replicant just trying to live a peaceful life as a farmer. It is during this confrontation that he makes a discovery which will launch a mystery that leads him to question everything he knows about himself and the world around him.

To call this film a visual masterpiece is an understatement. Villeneuve, working with frequent collaborator and thirteen-time Academy Award nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins, has constructed a banquet for the eyes. Together they have recreated Ridley Scott and Philip K. Dick’s futuristic world with its polluted skyline, oppressive buildings, and torrents of rain and have used it all to create countless images of supreme beauty and poetry. You could put this film on mute and still enjoy it for the visual splendour that it is, but the ingenuity of the images is how they serve the story, characters, and themes at every turn. Images like K arriving at a new location shrouded by sand and dust and stepping tentatively into the hazy distance, uncertain of what he will find there. Images like our first glimpse of the blind Wallace and his striking white irises, a man who cannot see but who has vision. Images like a giant hologram approaching K and standing before him, a visual reminder of the cost he has had to pay to get to the truth. It is the two artists’ meticulous attention to detail and their profound understanding of the story and its ideas that enable this film to rise far beyond being an empty visual spectacle.

In Blade Runner Harrison Ford delivered what many (including myself) consider to be his greatest performance. Although he does indeed return and is on top form, it is Ryan Gosling who makes this film. Here he plays a man struggling with his own humanity, not unlike Deckard but not exactly like him either. Gosling plays the character similarly to when he did Drive, subdued, stoic, and handsome on the outside but anxious, confused, and vulnerable within. He plays both sides remarkably well and is able to be emotional without being melodramatic, just like Ford thirty-five years before. The other standouts were two actresses whom I had not encountered before: Ana de Armas, who plays K’s artificial sweetheart so affectionately that your heart breaks at the thought of them being unable to consummate their love, and Sylvia Hoeks as Luv, a Replicant enforcer, which she plays with ice-cold steeliness.

The story itself unfolds like a noir mystery, following our protagonist along with every step and taking its time with each development and reveal. With all the pressure and expectation surrounding this film, Villeneuve is to be applauded for having enough confidence in his story, his ability to tell it, and the audience’s ability to follow it, that he never feels compelled to rush things along. He adopts a slow but natural pace and allows events to progress in their own time, never once resorting to cheap, attention-grabbing tricks or throwing in action for the sake of action. The film measures at 163 minutes and I will confess that I did look at my watch once as the film entered the third act, but did so not out of boredom but rather out of a realisation that it had taken me a full two hours to notice the passage of time. For some the plot will drag, and that’s understandable, but the story is so fascinating and the visuals are so spectacular that I suspect the film’s runtime will become less of an issue with repeat viewings.

There is so much more to say and dissect, but first one must watch the film. Blade Runner 2049 is at its heart a mystery and its broader themes cannot be discussed without some reference to what actually happens. I can say that, like the first film, it is as much a mystery in a philosophical sense as it is in a detective sense and so many of the questions it raises are not there to be answered but to be contemplated. Even the mystery surrounding the nature of Deckard’s character is never given a clear answer; it is one that the film sustains, explores, expands upon, and adds layers to, and in the end it is up to the viewer to decide how to interpret it. This is what makes the film such a worthy successor to Blade Runner. It seeks not to solve its mysteries, but to expand on them. It seeks not to replace or improve on Scott’s film, but rather to build on its legacy and continue what it started. It captures the very soul of the sci-fi classic and lives up to its example without mimicking it, giving us two companion pieces that complement and enrich each other.

★★★★★

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Cast: Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Taron Egerton, Mark Strong, Halle Berry, Elton John, Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges, Pedro Pascal

Director: Matthew Vaughn

Writers: Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn


I remember when Kingsman: The Secret Service came out, it was the blockbuster that nobody saw coming. Even though it was based on a popular comic book series and had a good director and cast attached, it just wasn’t on anybody’s radar as a potential smash hit franchise. Then it came out and took everyone by surprise. It was fresh, it was tongue-in-cheek, it was thrilling, inventive, and over-the-top, and it did a good job of satirising and paying homage to the campy spy movies and TV shows of the 60s and 70s. There were parts of it that I didn’t like, but the film was fun enough that the negative aspects didn’t bother me all that much. This time around the sequel has to contend with something that the first film didn’t really have to: audience expectation. People wanted to know where the series was going to go next, how they were going to top the antics in the first film, and how they were going to justify bringing Colin Firth back from the dead. That’s a tall order for any movie and The Golden Circle proved not up to the task.

A year after the first film, the Kingsman Secret Service is still going strong and Eggsy Unwin (Taron Egerton) has stepped into his mentor’s role as Galahad. While on holiday in Sweden with his girlfriend Crown Princess Tilde (Hanna Alström), a volley of missiles destroy Kingsman’s secret headquarters and other bases of operations. Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong) are the only survivors and must find out who attacked them. They follow the Doomsday protocol to a distillery in Kentucky and cross paths with Tequila (Channing Tatum), a redneck who proves more than a match for Eggsy in combat. It turns out that Tequila is an agent of Statesman, a sister organisation from across the pond, made up of rowdy American cowboys to complement the dapper English gentlemen of Kingsman. The pair meet and team up with Champ (Jeff Bridges), Ginger Ale (Halle Berry), and Whiskey (Pedro Pascal), and learn that they also have Harry (Colin Firth) in their care, alive but with no memory of who he is. Together they learn that global drug dealer Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore) is behind the attack and make it their mission to foil her evil scheme.

The trouble Kingsman finds itself is something you see very often with comedy sequels. Oftentimes with the first film the concept itself is part of the joke and the amusement comes from seeing how it works and what they do with it. If the concept is something that we haven’t seen before then the movie can create humour by either meeting or subverting our expectations. Now, with the sequel, we’re in on the joke. That’s why it’s not enough to just do the same thing again; if the film is unable to come up with a new idea, then it must come up with a different take on the old idea. Kingsman tries to do this with Statesman, an American counterpart to Kingsman, an idea with a lot of potential that the movie never lives up to. There is so much that they could’ve done. We could have been treated to some interesting and funny comparisons between these British and American archetypes, we could have been offered a British commentary on US culture, the film could even have done away with the British spy game entirely and tackled a more characteristically American genre like the Western. The only Statesman who ends up having any kind of a prominent role in the story though is Whiskey (god, it pains me to write that extra ‘e’!). Tequila, Ginger Ale, and Champ are all sidelined so that the movie can instead offer us more of what we saw in the first film.

The return of Colin Firth has proven to be a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand I did enjoy seeing him resume his role as Galahad and his reunion with Eggsy did allow the film to retain and develop their relationship, which was the emotional core of the first film. Their scenes together in this film work well as Eggsy attempts to reach the Harry that taught him everything he knows and inspired him to dedicate his life and skills towards something worthwhile. On the other hand, Galahad’s death allowed the first film to establish serious stakes for its characters and bringing him back might have cost the sequel more than it bargained for. Now the stakes are gone, and with it the film coasts along without any real sense of tension or suspense. In the film’s very first bit of action when Eggsy battles a foe on a high-tech taxi through the streets of London, it felt more like a cartoon than a thriller because I never believed that Eggsy was really in any danger.

Some of it works. There’s a good joke here and there, a couple of decent action scenes (though nothing in the same league as the Baptist church massacre) and there’s even quite a moving moment near the end (one that continues the John Denver trend of 2017). But none of it is as fresh or as good as it was the first time around, which makes the parts that don’t work all the more glaring. The tone is all over the place, falling short off the line between silly and serious that it used to have. Yes, going over-the-top is part of this franchise’s M.O., but there’s edgy and then there’s ‘edgy’, and if you don’t know when to stop you’ll end up with a scene that turns sexual assault into a gag at the victim’s expense. The movie does follow its predecessor’s example by featuring a weak villain, but at least Jackson was trying in the former’s case. Moore phones it in so much that her CGI robot henchdogs felt real in comparison. Overall The Golden Circle will probably work well enough for those who loved the first film unreservedly, but for me the film’s positive qualities were not enough to outshine its negative qualities this time.

★★

mother!

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Writer: Darren Aronofsky


Divisive doesn’t even begin to cover the reception this film has received. mother! has inspired acclaim, hatred, adoration, revulsion, amusement, confusion, horror, curiosity, contemplation, frustration, and so much more from its audience. Some have applauded in ecstasy; others have walked out in disgust. Some hail it as an epic masterpiece; others disparage it as an epic catastrophe; and others still have absolutely no idea what to make of it whatsoever. It is a difficult film to watch, that much is certain. mother! is downright alienating, oftentimes horrifying, and relentlessly inscrutable. But it is also fascinating and unique. There’s never been a film quite like this and it’s one that compellingly draws your eyes and holds your attention the way that either a magnificent painting or a calamitous car crash would. I’ll try to go into more detail about the story and what I took from it, but personally I think the viewer should go in knowing nothing and would encourage anyone who has not seen it to stop reading now and go watch it.

Seriously, nothing I can say can prepare you for what happens. Whether you end up liking it or not, the only way to understand what kind of film mother! is is to actually watch it. If, however, you’re interested in knowing more about the story and what I think it means (if it means anything at all) then read on.

The movie is set in an old house in the middle of nowhere that was previously destroyed in a fire but has since been rebuilt and its two inhabitant are Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) and Him (Javier Bardem). He is a famous writer trying to start a new novel but is unable to find the words and she is his young wife who occupies her time with remodelling her husband’s house. The two live a quiet life completely cut off from civilisation, perfectly content with no other company but their own. Later they are visited by Man (Ed Harris), a lost traveller who asks for a place to stay for the night. The next day they are joined by his wife Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer). Mother isn’t keen on the idea of having visitors over, fearing the damage they might do to the house or the disruption they’ll cause to their quiet, solitary life, but her husband is positively delighted to have them stay.

It would appear to be a simple enough set-up, but there’s something else going on. Within the first 10-15 minutes, it became clear to me that this movie does not take place anywhere that we would recognise as the real world. The way that we never see any trace of an outside civilisation and the way that time doesn’t seem to have any structure or meaning here suggests this. The house itself appears to have more going on beneath the surface as we see when Mother puts her hand on the wall and sees what looks and sounds like a dying heart. After the visitors start arriving, things only proceed to get more insane and surreal and Aronofsky seems adamant that the audience’s hand must not be held through any of it. Events escalate as the movie moves closer to its increasingly chaotic climax and through it all the movie remains steadfastly metaphorical. It is clear that this is a movie that has no intentions of playing by the rules and Aronofsky never makes any apologies for it.

Our protagonist is Lawrence’s Mother and she is just as confused by what’s going on as we are. Aronofsky makes a strong effort to convey a POV affect by fixing the camera tightly on Lawrence for prolonged takes and shooting other scenes from over her shoulder, drawing a clear focus to her perspective and reactions. Her character has no apparent ambitions or desires apart from living with her husband, being completely devoted to him, and becoming the titular mother that she is destined to become. Her husband is less content with their life, suffering from writer’s block and revelling in the company of others (especially when he discovers them to be admirers of his work). He continues to neglect his wife’s wants and feelings as he indulges himself in the encouragement and admiration of others and she’s left with the task of cleaning up after them. The film takes on a Rosemary’s Baby vibe as Mother starts to feel like everyone is out to get her, destroying everything she holds dear and attacking her while her husband remains oblivious to her anxieties.

Anyone who has ever attended Sunday school will start picking up on the film’s biblical connotations before long. Lawrence serves as a stand-in for nature (or Mother Earth if you want to assign a character to her) while Bardem’s Him is God. Man and Woman then would clearly be Adam and Eve and later on the film’s introduces two characters to represent Cain and Abel. This, in turn, would apparently make Mother’s eventual child a stand-in for Christ. So what is the film trying to say with that? Well, given the duress and trauma inflicted on Mother throughout the film, both physical and emotional, perhaps this film is an allegory for the way that man has mistreated nature. If that’s the angle Aronofsky is going for then it’s clear where his sympathies lie. He casts God as a vain figure craving recognition, someone who cares more about being worshipped and adulated than in caring for his wife and child. Humanity meanwhile is portrayed as being negligent, fanatical, and destructive, caring nothing for the damage they cause in their wake.

Or maybe the movie means something else entirely. It isn’t clear what kind of movie mother! is and it was made that way intentionally. This is a movie that is meant to be dissected and written about in length. Its style is a striking one that demands the viewer’s attention and its story is an ambiguous one that invites a never-ending series of questions without answers and several contradictory interpretations. It has been advertised as a horror film, and it is a horror in the sense that it creates an atmosphere of dread, carnage, and paranoia, and thrives off the terror of that which cannot be understood. But is it any good? I don’t know. I guess it depends on what you take away from it. I found mother! to be an often enthralling, often horrifying film to sit through. Since then I’ve found it to be a fascinating film to think about, read about, and talk about. I will have to re-watch it sometime, so maybe there’s something to be said for a movie that demands to be seen again despite (or maybe because) of all the unpleasantness it depicts. mother! is a well-crafted, provocative, and confounding film and, if it’s inspiring such a strong reaction from the audience, both positive and negative, it must be doing something right.

★★★★★