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.

★★★

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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.

★★★★★

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Cast: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Rafe Spall, Justice Smith, Daniella Pineda, James Cromwell, Toby Jones, Ted Levine, B.D. Wong, Isabella Sermon, Geraldine Chaplin, Jeff Goldblum

Director: J.A. Bayona

Writers: Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow


I think what surprised me the most about this film was how much the trailers gave away and yet how little they prepared me. After watching the adverts I was able to predict beat for beat how the events were going to unfold and who was going to end up where doing what right up to the third act, but even now I am still astonished by how fundamentally ridiculous and derivative it all was. After the first Jurassic World, which I enjoyed and felt brought something new to the franchise while still remaining true to the original’s spirit but still fell short of the standard, I wasn’t expecting anything amazing. Even then, I still cannot wrap my head around what I saw. Fallen Kingdom is somehow both unremarkable for how dull and banal most of its story and action is and also mindboggling for the utter lunacy behind some of the choices that were made. This is an Attack of the Clones level of ineptitude I’m talking about here where it doesn’t seem possible for a movie to be this insanely stupid and still be so lacklustre.

Picking up after the events of Jurassic World that led to the closure of the park, the lives of the dinosaurs are now threatened by the impending eruption of a formerly inactive volcano on the island. Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), now running an organisation lobbying for the protection of the dinosaurs, is about to lose hope when she is approached by Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), the prim, proper, and seemingly earnest businessman who always appears in these kinds of movies. He runs the organisation responsible for resurrecting the dinosaurs, owned by Dr. Hammond’s former partner Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell) and they are putting together a rescue operation. They need Claire’s help to track the dinosaurs and bring them back safely, especially Blue, the intelligent and last living velociraptor. In an eye-rolling twist, Claire realises that the only person in the world who can rein Blue in is the last person in the world she wants to see, her ex-boyfriend and Blue’s former trainer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt). Owen has no interest in joining their operation but, after speaking to Claire and realising that there’s no movie if he sits it out, he agrees.

Things are a-go and Claire assembles her team, which as well as Owen includes Franklin Webb (Justice Smith), an IT technician who screams whenever anything moves, makes a sound, or exists, and Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda), a dino vet who has never actually treated nor even seen a dinosaur in the flesh. They tag along with a mercenary troop led by the gung-ho Ken Wheatley (Ted Levine) and head for the island on the day that the volcano is scheduled to erupt. Here they must contend with rampant dinosaurs, scorching lava, and double-crossing mercenaries serving some ulterior motive. After nearly drowning in a pod, shot in a single take from within the spherical trap as it gradually fills up with water (the best action scene in the film), Owen, Claire, and the comic reliefs realise that they’ve been had and must stow away on the departing cargo ship to escape. One tedious, drawn-out scene later, they reach their destination and there learn the insidious reason why these dinosaurs were saved from their doom.

The remainder of the movie takes place in a Gothic mansion like something out of an Edgar Allen Poe novel with thunder and lightning all through the night and secrets around every corner (which might have been fine if I weren’t there to watch a dinosaur movie) and what we get is this tiresome and underwhelming game of cat and mouse (or, rather, dinosaur and human). As Claire and Owen work to liberate the captive creatures they cross paths with a seedy, villainous character played by Toby Jones (because they’re always played by Toby Jones), Lockwood’s young granddaughter Maisie (Isabella Sermon), the obligatory kid who gets herself into all kinds of trouble but never comes to any harm, and another generically evil, blandly-designed, genetically-engineered dinosaur. It really bothers me how both Jurassic World movies have featured lab-designed dinosaurs as their big bads but have neglected to push the boundaries of what’s really possible, opting instead to make both of them barely distinguishable variations of raptors and T-Rexes. If you’re going to invent your own dinosaur, then get creative! Give them triceratops horns or a stegosaurus spike tail or pterodactyl wings or laser eyes or something! Anything!

Anyway, that’s the least of this movie’s problems. After the conclusion to Jurassic World with the escape of the dinosaurs and the collapse of the park provided the set-up to many interesting possible directions, Fallen Kingdom takes so many steps backwards it winds up retreading the territory they’ve already explored in the other films. The very idea of a nefarious organisation sending their team of idealistic, naïve characters to an island of dinosaurs to serve some secret scheme is straight out of The Lost World, except this time there’s a volcano. The movie is filled to the brim with scenes and images copied and pasted directly from the previous Jurassic Park films including the kid hiding from the dinosaur in an enclosed space, the predatory dinosaur falling through the glass, and the human villain getting chomped by the T-Rex. I know that there are certain things that we except to see in a Jurassic Park film the way we do with Star Wars and the Marvel movies, but there has to be some variation and progression. By revisiting the same plot in the same way and following the same beats, all this movie is demonstrating is that the characters in this universe are incapable of learning from their own mistakes. Fallen Kingdom even rips off its direct predecessor by splitting up Owen and Claire just so we can watch them argue about everything all over again before inevitably getting back together.

There is only one thing I really admire about this film and that is its willingness to confront the moral argument at the heart of the Jurassic Park films. What I love about the original 1993 film is how well it captured the sense of miraculous wonder that came with seeing living, breathing dinosaurs for the first time, allowing you to care for the creatures while still fearing them for all the chaos and destruction they could cause. The film acknowledges how dangerous it is for science to try and tamper with nature and the subsequent films have done nothing but confirm and reinforce the idea that bringing these dinosaurs back to life was a mistake. Time after time after time human attempts to control and interfere with them have failed as the beasts have consistently proven that they cannot be contained and that there is no place for them in a world where they are no longer the dominating species. Thus, faced with the prospect of a second extinction of the dinosaurs, Fallen Kingdom debates the question over whether they should be allowed to live or die. But then it bungles that debate in the most inept, outrageous way imaginable.

Before the plot gets started we sit in on a hearing held by Congress on whether they should act to save the dinosaurs or not. In this scene Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) is invited to testify and he argues in favour of extinction. He reasons that the dinosaurs had their time on Earth a long, long time ago and that bringing them back to life was a mistake that has blown up in humanity’s face more than once. This imminent volcanic eruption is an act of God and it strikes Dr. Malcolm as nature’s way of correcting itself. Therefore let nature take its course. Let the dinosaurs die. In a movie that’s supposed to have me root for Claire and Owen’s team and their goal to save the dinosaurs, it doesn’t speak well that in less than five minutes of screen-time Dr. Malcolm won the moral debate hands down. Not a single thing that happens in this movie convinces me that these creatures deserve their chance at life, especially not after Fallen Kingdom makes its case with a plot twist and a resolution that defies any sense of logic, reason or sanity. Never before have I been so horrified by the catastrophic implications of what is supposed to be an uplifting, optimistic ending.

Fallen Kingdom is a formulaic, characterless Hollywood sequel that stomps along with the same sense of purpose as a soulless, genetically-engineered dinosaur. There is nothing at all to emotionally invest the viewer in the events of this film. There is no sensation of majesty or wonder about the dinosaurs because the movie never makes any time for it. There is no suspense in any of the action or story because the movie advertises everything it’s about to do and then explains it all after the fact anyway. It’s not even as good as The Lost World (which is already a low bar to set) because Bayona’s direction, while competent, isn’t a match for 1990’s Steven Spielberg. There is also no affection, humour or wisdom in any of these characters because there is no feeling in anything that they do. The one and only character who exhibits any shred of humanity in this film is the one who has just had enough of it all, the one who feels that everything has run its course and that there’s nothing more to say or do. I don’t want to walk away from a Jurassic Park movie agreeing with the guy who thinks that the dinosaurs should be left to die so that the rest of us can move on with our lives but here we are. That is how badly this movie dropped the ball.

Solo: A Star Wars Story

Cast: Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Paul Bettany, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Thandie Newton

Director: Ron Howard

Writers: Jonathan Kasdan, Lawrence Kasdan


Another year, another Star Wars movie, and this time it’s all about everybody’s favourite stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf herder. As far as Star Wars prequels go, Solo is probably a movie that didn’t need to be made. Unlike Rogue One, this film does feel like there’s a little more puppeteering going on as it recounts the early years of Han Solo’s (Alden Ehrenreich) life with some of the key moments that we know happened from the original films. We see Han meet Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), we see him win the Millennium Falcon from Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) in a card game, and we see him complete the Kessel Run (a sequence that goes out of its way to fix a screenplay error in the 1977 film where ‘parsec’ was mistakenly used as a unit of time). Fans of the original movies know that these moments have got to happen and it does somewhat steal away from the sense of freedom that Rogue One had with a story and characters that were mostly divorced from the events of the official saga, but I don’t think that’s a fatal flaw. Solo is basically high-budget Star Wars fan-fiction and it’s pretty fun for what it is.

We meet Han as a young street rat living in the slums of an industrial planet with his sweetheart Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) where circumstances beyond their control force them apart. Han, left on his own, adopts the name Solo and enlists in the Imperial Navy where he’s sent to fight in the front lines of battles reminiscent of the trench warfare in such World War One movies as All Quiet on the Western Front and Paths of Glory (a clever way of signifying this movie’s position in the Star Wars timeline as years before that of original trilogy which was itself heavily influenced by Second World War cinema). Han deserts his post and joins a team of smugglers led by Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and Val (Thandie Newton). They are contracted to perform a train heist like something out of a John Ford movie (another key influence for Lucas) which goes south. They are brought before the displeased crime lord who hired them Dryden Voss (Paul Bettany) and his right hand woman, none other than Qi’ra. She persuades Dryden to give Han and his team one last chance and sends them off on a suicidal mission.

When Han Solo embarks on the quest that will one day lead him to the Mos Eisley cantina on Tatooine, you can almost visualise in your mind the checklist that the movie is ticking off with each step. With every story beat you can see the strings being pulled and the gears being turned as they manoeuvre their way towards the numerous scenarios from Han’s past that fans have heard of but never got to see depicted on screen. It’s difficult enough to create scenes that exceed the imaginations of those who have visualised their own versions for years, what’s more difficult is getting us to those scenes in a way that somehow feels organic and surprising, as if we’re really watching a story we haven’t ever seen unfolding before our eyes. Indeed, the moments where the film works best are usually when it’s not constrained by the machinations of what we know has to happen and is able to do its own thing. The new character I remember the most vividly is L3-37, a zealous droid voiced by Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridges who is defiantly devoted towards the cause of droid emancipation. This is a character who didn’t need to exist in a Han Solo origin story and that is precisely why she stands out so much.

When it comes to playing the past incarnation of iconic Star Wars characters, Alden Ehrenreich is not Ewan McGregor but he’s not Hayden Christensen either. To me, it isn’t nearly as important for the actor playing Han to look or sound like Harrison Ford as it is for him to be able to evoke the character and there were definitely moments in Ehrenreich’s performance when I saw glimpses. He’s got the cockiness, the swagger, and the charmingly roguish grin that Ford originally brought to Solo. What he doesn’t have is that sharp edge to his character, the aura of dishonour and danger that you get from a scoundrel who has had it rough, is only out for himself, and who will do whatever it takes to stay ahead of the curve. Ehrenreich is just not severe enough or brazen enough to feel like he could one day become that antihero who calculatingly shot a bounty hunter point blank when his back was against the wall and who only agreed to rescue a captive princess when he realised there was money to be made. It’s a charming and likeable enough performance and it’s enough to carry you through the film, but Ehrenreich is not the Han Solo of your dreams. (On a side note: One thing that would have made me very happy indeed is if they had somehow worked in the line, “Would that it were so simple”.)

The rest of the characters are a mixed bag. Qi’ra is meant to come across as this perfect foil to Han, a rogue cut from the same cloth who changes allegiances with the wind and who always has something hidden up her sleeve. Clarke however, like Ehrenreich, doesn’t bring enough darkness or boldness to her performance to really sell it (she’s also the third white, British brunette in a row to be cast as the female lead in a Star Wars film, which makes it all the harder for her to distinguish herself). I’m also not a fan of the way that the movie tries to invest us in this doomed romance when I’m already satisfied that Leia is the great love of Han’s life. Harrelson, Newton, and long-time Howard collaborator Bettany are all seasoned pros who couldn’t deliver dull performances if they tried but none of them really bring anything unique or remarkable to their roles to make them stand out. The only on-screen performance to accomplish that is Glover’s as Lando, the coolest, suavest, most debonair man in the galaxy. The casting choice is so perfect here that I think they probably should have given Lando his own movie rather than Solo. I, for one, am much more interested in learning how a space hustler became an entrepreneur with his own mining colony than I am in learning how a kid from the slums became a smuggler. He steals every scene he’s in and is only prevented from running away with the whole movie by limited screen time.

It’s not perfect and, for me, it’s probably the weakest of the ‘good’ Star Wars films but Solo is enjoyable enough and it’s a miracle that it got there at all considering how messy it got behind the scenes. The fan service is more blatant than it was in The Force Awakens and the movie doesn’t even dare to be as irreverent (or sacrilegious if you prefer) or as contemplative as The Last Jedi was, but that’s all fine if you know that’s what you’re signing up for. The film wears its heart on its sleeve and leads you by the hand all the way through, but it does it with enough style and spirit that you’ll enjoy getting there anyway. I’ll have to watch it again before I can appreciate its visual craft because the cinema where I saw it left the 3D filter on during its 2D screening, making everything look unnaturally dark, but it is a film that I will watch again sometime quite happily.

★★★

Avengers: Infinity War

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlatt Johansson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Don Cheadle, Tom Holland, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Sebastian Stan, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Dave Bautista, Zoe Saldana, Chris Pratt, Josh Brolin

Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo

Writers: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely


There’s a certain narrative that studios like to spin when a high-profile movie, oftentimes a comic book blockbuster, underperforms. If the movie in question has taken a beating in the critical consensus, studios like to dismiss the validity of the criticism by claiming that they “made it for the fans”. This is a garbage argument; not only is it an attempt by Hollywood to fabricate a divide between critics and fans to ensure that they aren’t held accountable for making mediocre movies that fail to resonate with audiences, it makes no sense from a purely economic perspective. It falsely suggests that the studio has no interest in pulling a larger crowd from beyond the core fanbase and maximising their profits. This is one of the reasons why I find Infinity War to be such an interesting case in the evolution of the blockbuster, because I think it is the exception that proves the rule. After their ten year campaign to build as large and inclusive a fanbase as possible, the MCU have released a title that appeals directly to them and that only works if you’ve seen and enjoyed all (well… most) of the eighteen films that came before. This is truly a movie that was made for the fans.

Therefore, even though I’ve criticised some of the Marvel movies in the past for neglecting to tell entirely self-contained stories, I don’t think it’s fair to hold this film to the same standard. Infinity War is a crossover event of unprecedented proportions; it is the culmination of all that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has built in the last decade and it fuses all of their flagship characters into a single narrative. There is so much to bring together and so much happening in this movie that expecting it to slow down for those who have not watched the preceding titles in order to bring them up to speed on all the characters and their histories strikes me as ludicrous a notion as it would be for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows or Game of Thrones Season Eight. Eighteen movies is a big ask for anyone who isn’t a fan of the franchise and that’s why I don’t think the studio was under any illusion that they were making this movie for anybody outside of the fanbase, which by this point has grown large enough to justify an investment on this scale. For those non-fans who feel that they must see this film all the same, I honestly don’t know what they expect to get out of it. Infinity War is a film that knows exactly who it was made for and for them it’s going to work very well indeed.

The film is 160 minutes long and it hits the ground running. There is so much action condensed in the runtime and so many big moments throughout that pretty much every detail feels like a potential spoiler. On the broadest possible level, the plot is about the intergalactic tyrant Thanos (Josh Brolin) in his quest to collect the six Infinity Stones with his gauntlet. Only when he’s acquired all six will he be able to realise his goal of wiping out half of the universe’s populace, his solution to the problem of galactic depletion and imbalance. Standing in his way are the Avengers, led by Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). Helping them along the way are such previous allies and adversaries as Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland), and such newcomers as Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the Guardians of the Galaxy as led by Star Lord (Chris Pratt) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana). What follows is an epic and devastating conflict, an earth-shattering spectacle on the scale of an opera or a Greek tragedy. Worlds are destroyed, lives are ruined, tears are shed, and heroes are killed.

The film wisely makes Thanos, the one major character who has not received any substantial character development in any of the previous films, its main focus. We follow him on his apocalyptic journey across the galaxy and, in large part due to Brolin’s remarkably forceful yet quiet performance, we learn to both fear and yet pity him in what he sees as a calling rather than a desire. Unlike the Joker and most other comic book villains who absolutely relish their evilness, Thanos is more like Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. He isn’t evil because he wants to be or was made to be but because he feels like that he has to be, as if he cannot see any other way and has resigned himself. He has the devotion and conviction of a religious zealot but also the calm and solemnity of a disciplined military leader. He attends to his mission with ruthless single-mindedness; he has no interest in trying to convince or bargain with anyone, what he must do is simply what has to happen and he will destroy all who stand in his way without a second thought. You hate him because of how merciless and cruel he is but there’s an air of inconsolable loneliness and trepidation about him that Brolin conveys superbly without overplaying. His strength and powers are absolute and there is no doubting that he is the biblical reckoning that many of the characters have been dreading all this time.

The inevitable downside of featuring an ensemble this large in a narrative that is somewhat constricted by the limitations of linear cause-and-effect storytelling is that there’s only so much screen time and dialogue it can dole out between the dozens of characters that it must juggle. Some of this is compensated by the fact that we’ve already seen these characters in their stories and can immediately identify them, so most of them can more or less get straight down to business. Homecoming has already established the mentor/trainee relationship between Tony Stark and Peter Parker, the Thor movies have already laid the groundwork for Thor’s PTSD, and Guardians of the Galaxy has already made clear to us Gamora’s and Nebula’s (Karen Gillan) history with Thanos. However there are other characters and plot threads that must take a backseat in order to make room for these stories. Steve Rogers gets a couple dozen lines, Natasha Romanoff and Bruce Banner, who had a romance in Age of Ultron, barely get a meaningful exchange, and there are some rather important characters such as Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Shuri (Letitia Wright) who could almost be considered glorified extras.

One of the pleasures of the crossover though is that we do get to see some great mixing and matching between the characters without pre-existing relationships. The combination of the ultra masculine Thor and the insecure Peter Quill allows for an amusing back-and-forth and Thor also gets to bond with Rocket (Bradley Cooper) with whom he shares more in common than you might think. Stark and Strange are acquainted and find that their identically obnoxious personalities clash, there’s a surprise appearance by the villain of a previous film who makes for an interesting contrast with Thanos, and there are some brief exchanges during the climatic battle that make for some great laughs. However I do wish the Russo Brothers had made more of an effort to combine the heroes’ differing abilities and styles in the action scenes the way they did so well in Civil War. Apart from one moment where Natasha, Okoye (Danai Gurira) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) work together to take down a foe and another where a plan to subdue Thanos almost works, I can’t remember any other notable instances of a character combination leading to an action set-piece that would not be possible in any other MCU film. Instead it mostly comes to down to individual heroes doing their own solo stuff in turn.

On that note, the action doesn’t really feel all that distinctive from what we’ve seen in other movies, especially not after Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther which were both made by directors with such distinct personalities and styles. Here it’s mostly shaky camerawork and quick-fire editing just like in any other blockbuster while the less action-packed scenes are framed rather generically with hardly any risky moves or striking flourishes to help the most impactful moments hit that little bit harder. There are some moments that stand out such as a wipe that cleverly reveals a scene to be an illusion conjured by Thanos and the use of slow motion during the climax to highlight the Avengers’ last-ditch desperation, but the filmmaking mostly feels routine and by-the-numbers. The most notable exception though is the ending which delivers a gut-punch with the exact right amount of shock and severity to catch you off guard even if you know intellectually in your head that what’s happening cannot possibly be permanent or irreversible (as tends to be the case with most cliffhangers). It’s a move that goes a step further than The Empire Strikes Back by not offering you that glimmer of hope at the end to leave you feeling elated and optimistic. Han is frozen in carbonite, Luke learns that the bad guy is his father and has his hand cut off, Vader is triumphant, cut to black. All you’re left with is that feeling of desolation and failure.

For most fans of Marvel, Infinity War is exactly what they want it to be. It brings together all the iconic characters they’ve grown to love (sans a couple whose absences are quickly explained in a throwaway sentence), pits them against the single greatest foe that any of them have ever faced, and delivers some good action, comedy, and surprises along the way. It’s not perfect and it’s not the most creative, clever, or compelling movie they’ve ever made, but it delivers. For me what really makes this film stand out among its predecessors is the combination of Thanos’ arc with Josh Brolin’s performance. He took a villain who has been built up big time despite his previous underwhelming appearances and added so much terror and humanity (aided by the best use of CGI on a character since Gollum) that you cannot help but be swept away by his crusade. Even though you can probably more or less predict how the story will progress, there’s still that agonising sense of dread gnawing away at you with each step that brings Thanos closer to bringing his plan to fruition. He’s the rare type of villain who is at his most intimidating when quiet and who demonstrates an unexpected capacity for respect and empathy when battling his enemies. He’s the one it’s all been leading to and he was worth the wait.

★★★★

Tully

Cast: Charlize Theron, Mackenzie Davis, Mark Duplass, Ron Livingston

Director: Jason Reitman

Writer: Diablo Cody


There’s a joke by Jim Gaffigan about what it’s like to have a fourth child which goes, “Imagine you’re drowning, then someone hands you a baby”. Parenthood isn’t just difficult; it is a strenuous, laborious task that gets exponentially more challenging with each additional child. It isn’t just that each child needs constant care and attention, but that they need different kinds of care and attention at different ages and that their demands are both simultaneous and ceaseless. It is a struggle that Diablo Cody, who wrote this film shortly after having her third child, understands well and brings viscerally to life in Tully. This is a film that looks at motherhood with absolutely zero sentimentality. It shows the process of raising children as the exhausting, dirty, stressful task that it is and finds both uncomfortable truths and bittersweet poignancy in its depiction. It is a story that Cody tells with both wit and wisdom and with intimacy and subtlety, delivering an emotional punch that you don’t see coming but which feels entirely earned.

The film follows Marlo (Charlize Theron), a mother of two who is pregnant with an unplanned third child. She has an eight-year-old daughter called Sarah (Lia Frankland), who is reaching that age where self esteem becomes a major issue, and a six-year-old son called Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) who is somewhere on the autism spectrum (or “quirky” as his teachers put it) and is proving too much for the school to handle. Her well-meaning husband Drew (Ron Livingston) often travels for work and so he is unable to really appreciate the daily demands Marlo faces, never mind help her. Her smug and wealthy brother Craig offers to help out by paying for a night nanny, someone who would come round during the night-time hours and care for the newborn baby while Marlo sleeps, but Marlo turns him down. However whatever fragile workload balance she’d attained at this point is completely obliterated by the arrival of her daughter Mia and it isn’t long before Marlo finds herself drowning from sheer exhaustion and stress. There is a great sequence here that cross-cuts between feedings, diaper changes, breast milk pumping, cooking, cleaning, driving, and the hundreds of other things Marlo has to do as a mother and homemaker. It is a sequence that drives home the endlessly gruelling nature of her routine and the punishing, isolating effects of toil and sleep deprivation; it gets so bad that Marlo can no longer work out when one day ends and the next begins.

The final straw comes when Jonah’s principal suggests that he be moved to a different school, leading Marlo to erupt with a public meltdown. As Marlo breaks down with baby Mia relentlessly wailing beside her, principal Laurie (Gameela Wright) clumsily tries to calm her down and laments that she doesn’t want to see Marlo leave like this. Marlo retorts that she always leaves like this, Laurie just doesn’t see it. At this rock bottom moment, Marlo finally decides that she needs help and agrees to employ the night nanny. Enter Tully (Mackenzie Davis), a 26-year-old free spirit with short hair and a tank top. She’s wide-eyed and earnest, compassionate and nurturing, and wise far beyond her years. She’s not just an extra pair of hands, she’s a confidante and a therapist, there to support Marlo emotionally as well as maternally. “I thought you were taking care of the baby” says Marlo at one point. “Yeah, but you pretty much are the baby” answers Tully. Marlo is drawn to Tully and sees in her the youthful energy and passion for life that she used to have at that age. They spend more and more time together, bonding over sangria and SHOWTIME’s Gigolos, and form a friendship that grows deeper and more profound over time as they learn more about each other.

The chemistry between Theron and Davis is substantial and forms the emotional bedrock upon which the whole film rests. Tully at first appears to be a simple manic pixie dream girl but the more we discover how much she and Marlo have in common and how much they both have to learn from each other, the more complex she turns out to be. At first Marlo doesn’t know what to make of her. The film has so thoroughly shattered the notion that motherhood is in any way enjoyable or wondrous that we’re as baffled as she is to meet someone who not only wants to help out but does so with a spark in her eye and an infectious grin. As Marlo sees more of herself in that spark and smile, it dawns on her just how long it’s been since she saw herself in that way. She wonders whether her old self is gone for good and if becoming a mother has reduced her to little more than a shell. Through Tully’s eyes though she starts to see that there is some of that spark still left and how vital it is to preserve it. It’s not as corny and New Age-y as all that though; in trying to recapture some of her youth, Marlo finds that she must confront some old regrets and admit to some harsh truths.

Tully is ultimately about self-care and its importance to the role of the mother. It’s about how creating a life doesn’t mean sacrificing your own and forsaking the person you used to be. What Marlo ultimately learns is that in order to care for those who depend on her, she needs to be able to care for herself and that she must keep a part of who she truly is at heart alive so that her husband and her children have someone that they can love. It is a lesson that the film imparts in an unexpectedly poetic but still entirely appropriate way. The movie is every bit the fairy tale that Mary Poppins is but its depiction of motherhood is as candid and as unvarnished as anything Hollywood has produced due to the combined fearless honesty and down-to-earthness of Cody and Reitman in their third time working together. With the help of Theron’s authentic rage and weariness and Davis’ angel-like warmth and sincerity, they’ve crafted a funny and moving film about learning to love others by learning to love one’s self.

★★★★

Rampage

Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Naomie Harris, Malin Åkerman, Jake Lacy, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Joe Manganiello

Director: Brad Peyton

Writers: Ryan Engle, Carlton Cuse, Ryan J. Condal, Adam Sztykiel


There is a fine line between a dumb movie done well and a dumb movie done badly. This isn’t quite the same as a ‘so bad it’s good’ kind of movie, where the entertainment value is there in spite of the movie’s faults. This rather refers to those movies that know full well how inherently stupid their concepts are and that decide to embrace them wholeheartedly. This isn’t a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card though, just because a movie is dumb and knows it doesn’t mean it gets to be lazy, awful or insulting. It is instead a licence to get creative, have some fun, and turn a silly idea into something unique, watchable, and entertaining. That’s how we get movies like Face/Off and Snakes on a Plane; movies that nobody would consider ‘great’, but are just so damn fun to watch. They’re the cinematic equivalent of fast food. You know that it’s trash, but it still tastes good.

There is, however, a standard. Even though what I want from this movie more than anything else is to watch giant mutant monsters beat the shit out of each other (I’m only human after all), I still expect it hold my interest at least on a visceral level, to display some kind of personality in its characters and style, and to demonstrate some degree of competence and effort. There is a difference between a dumb movie that indulges its own ridiculousness and a movie that falls victim to it (e.g. Batman & Robin and Wild, Wild West). In the pantheon of dumb modern Hollywood monster movies, Rampage falls somewhere between Pacific Rim and the 1998 Godzilla. It doesn’t have the creativity and heart of the former but it does possess the charm and thrill that the latter lacked. It also never tries to be more than it is, meaning that it lacks the poetry of the 2014 Godzilla but it does escape the political incoherence of Kong: Skull Island. It is the comfortable middle ground that makes for a fun, campy movie which never bores or frustrates, but which also never surprises or astonishes.

Rampage features Dwayne Johnson as Davis Okoye, a Dwayne-Johnson-ish ex-soldier turned primatologist. He works at San Diego Wildlife Sanctuary where he finds that he prefers the company of animals to people. His best friend is George the albino gorilla, whom Davis rescued from poachers and has since raised and taught to communicate through sign language. After an experiment in a space laboratory goes awry and leads to the station’s destruction, samples of the pathogen being developed fall to Earth with the debris and infect three animals: a Florida crocodile, a grey wolf in the Rocky Mountains, and George. This causes all three to mutate and become more aggressive. As Davis tries to understand why George is growing larger and lashing out, he is approached by Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomi Harris), a genetic engineer who worked on this project for Energyne until she was dismissed for objecting to their plans to develop the pathogen as a biological weapon. The diabolical CEO of Energyne Claire Wyden (Malin Åkerman) and her nitwit brother Brett (Jake Lacy), realising what has happened, decide to lure the three creatures to Chicago by emitting a signal from their headquarters so that they might capture one of them. Chaos ensues.

To say this is not the cleverest of plots would be charitable. The scheme hatched by the two nefarious corporate villains, one of whom we’re supposed to believe is actually quite competent and cunning, is beyond stupid. This is a ‘hold my beer and watch this’ kind of stupid we’re talking about. It’s an ‘invade Russia in the middle of winter’ kind of stupid. It’s a ‘their mothers are both called Martha’ kind of stupid. But the movie is perfectly aware of the idiocy of their scheme and more or less hopes that we’ll roll with it and accept the Wydens for the cartoon villains that they are. Anyway the three beasts are drawn by the signal and make for Chicago, leaving behind a trail of destruction as they go. All attempts to combat and contain the, including a guerrilla operation led by pro commando Burke (Joe Manganiello) fail. Instead it is up to Davis, Kate, and government agent Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) to reach George and try to save him.

The most appealing thing about this movie is how perfectly content it is to be nothing more and nothing less than a monster-buddy movie starring The Rock and a giant ape. Johnson, one of the few honest-to-god movie stars working in Hollywood today, is his usual charming, badass self and he gets to share his screen time with a CGI gorilla played by Jason Liles with whom he forms a surprisingly likeable duo. There is a clear sense of affection and familiarity in their hand-signed back-and-forths as they reminisce on shared experiences and tell dirty jokes. In fact George, by virtue of having a fully formed personality, is much more human than many of the human characters. Davis certainly hasn’t got very much character beyond that which Johnson naturally brings to all his roles. Still, that’s all you need if all you want is to watch Dwayne Johnson and King Kong battle a giant CGI wolf and alligator. The action is exactly what you want it to be, pitting three larger-than-life monsters in an epic battle royale complete with toppling buildings and explosions and throwing a larger-than-life action star in for good measure.

Those who came for the fireworks though will find that they have to be patient in the scenes that come in between. Some scenes deal with the budding romance between Davis and Dr. Kate which, despite Harris’ best efforts, feels as hollow and obligatory as it is. There is one moment where Kate shares the details of her backstory, which is supposed to draw parallels between herself and Davis in his attempt to rescue a loved one, but the emotional depth they’re going for feels far too forced and flat in a film that relishes in its mostly empty spectacle. The Wydens meanwhile are both paper-thin villains and although the movie is perfectly aware of that, their sheer transparency and incompetence make them rather tiresome. Still I like that the movie is under no illusion over what walking, talking clichés they are to the point that the corny comic book dialogue they’re given almost feels natural in their straight-faced deliveries. “There’s a reason we did our research on a space station” says one, “and it wasn’t for the betterment of humanity”. The one human character who nails that perfect balance of being goofy and enjoyable is Morgan’s Agent Russell. He brings so much eccentricity, swagger and charisma to what should have been a forgettable, generic character that you cannot help but be fascinated by the guy.

Rampage is the movie that it is and the movie that it promises to be. You can either take it or leave it. It is the perfect example of a dumb movie that knows exactly how dumb it is and that never apologises for it. However the inevitable downside of watching a movie that is exactly what you expect it to be, even if what you expect is exactly what you want, is that the movie will never surprise you or challenge you. Rampage unfolds and ends more or less how you think it will and, while getting there is fun enough, it doesn’t blow you away the way that a great action movie should. It’s fine if all you want is to switch your brain off for a couple of hours but this isn’t a movie that will capture your imagination and take you somewhere you’ve never been before. Again, it’s like fast food. It’s cheap, it’s adequate, and it’s convenient. Rampage gives you your fill and as soon you’re done you move on.

★★★

A Quiet Place

Cast: John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe

Director: John Krasinski

Writers: Bryan Woods, Scott Beck, John Krasinski


This is a great concept for a horror film. The world has undergone some great disaster and is now overrun by fearsome aliens/monsters who stalk the land preying on human beings. The beasts are completely blind but have enhanced hearing, allowing them to pick up sounds from miles away. The human survivors must therefore live their lives in a state of eternal dread as any sound they make could get them killed. What I love about this concept is that (1) it necessarily requires the film to be creative in its use of visuals and sound when conveying the story and (2) it invites the viewer to actively take part. The film is so good at establishing the terror of sound that the entire audience ends up undertaking its own vow of silence, hesitant to make so much as the slightest peep for fear of summoning the creatures. It is one thing to be frightened as an individual, the collective sense of anxiety that this film was able to inspire is really something else, which is why it pays to see A Quiet Place in the cinema.

Caught up in this silent nightmare are husband and wife Lee (John Krasinski) and Evelyn (Emily Blunt) and their children Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and Marcus (Noah Jupe). They’ve managed to get by together as a family for the most part, largely due to their fluency in sign language, a by-product of Regan’s deafness. Through tragedy and trauma they’ve been able to achieve what could charitably be called ‘normalcy’ in a world as frightening and deadly as this. They walk place to place on bare feet along paths made of sand, they play board games where the plastic playing pieces have been replaced by paper cut-outs, and they hold hands in silent solidarity during mealtimes. This status quo however is a tremendously precarious one and there are forces at work that threaten their very survival. Most worryingly, Evelyn is several weeks pregnant and the day when she will have to give birth (a difficult enough task without any doctors or anaesthetic at hand, never mind the noise problem) is surely approaching. Through all the dread and trepidation, Lee works tirelessly on securing their hideout and unearthing what means he can of combatting the frightful predators, intent on keeping his family safe whatever the cost.

Cinema has a rich legacy of horror-survival stories with fearsome monsters from the xenomorph in Alien to the Thing in The Thing to the T-Rex in Jurassic Park and Krasinski makes his contribution to the genre with the worthy confidence of a veteran horror director. He is precise and economic in his storytelling, with seldom a shot that does not contribute in some way to the scares, the emotional stakes, or the world around these characters. When we’re at the farm where the bulk of the movie takes place, Krasinski takes care to ensure that the geography is never lost on us. We are constantly aware of where everybody is, how far they are from each other, and who can see or hear what. He is also very good in his use of foreshadowing, more so because of the auditory nature of the storytelling. There are certain objects, most notably an exposed nail in the floor and a literal Chekhov’s gun, that inspire anxiety in their silence because we know that they will come into play at some point near the end and that the result will be exactly the kind of noise we’ve been conditioned to dread. What’s more, in a world where a loud and abrupt noise means almost certain death, the use of the jump scare is actually justified, although even then Krasinski takes care not to exploit that advantage for all its worth. He understands that horror isn’t really about trying to scare the audience, it’s about making them fear for the characters and he never loses sight of that simple notion.

Through a nuanced understanding of the visual language of cinema and the strong, expressive performances of the cast, we are able to identify with this family and feel for them throughout their ordeal. Starring opposite Krasinski is real-life wife and mother of his children Emily Blunt and the bond they share as spouses and parents is powerfully felt in every scene they share. In a movie that deals heavily with the idea of a family working together to keep each other safe, secure, and alive, the most vital ingredient to make it all work is that feeling of familial affection. The movie understands this and works harder to convey that feeling to us than it does with any other element, a move that pays off splendidly. The two children also deserve praise in this regard, especially the actually deaf Simmonds who, as well as having to deal with the same problems of being unable to express herself through noise, must also deal with the obstacle of being unable to hear the danger in any given moment, a source of both anxiety and even guilt for her. The most remarkable thing about any of these performances though is how intense they are given how controlled they necessarily have to be. In this world, none of these characters have the luxury of grunting in anger, sobbing in despair, or screaming in fear. The silence that defines their lives is as oppressive as it is terrifying and the actors do a marvellous job of conveying the agony of living without giving in to these basic human impulses.

That repression of the human condition is ultimately what makes A Quiet Place such a scary film. It’s not just the fear of being eaten by creepy aliens/monsters, it’s the torment of living in a world where a vital part of what makes us human has been taken away. We live in such a noisy world that it’s difficult to conceive of a life of total silence. We use sound to express ourselves and to reach out to others; we even use it when we’re on our own because we find that the mere presence of sound can somehow make us feel less alone. Many of the great horror films are about taking a fundamental part of our nature and weaponising it against ourselves, forcing us into a realm where we must adapt into lesser versions of ourselves in order to survive. If the characters are able to overcome the threat, we feel empowered; if they are defeated by it, we feel despondent. Either way we are deeply affected by what we’ve seen. A Quiet Place is one of the most profoundly affective horror films of recent years and it is truly a cinematic experience to behold.

★★★★★

Love, Simon

Cast: Nick Robinson, Jennifer Garner, Nick Duhamel, Katherine Langford, Alexandra Shipp, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Tony Hale

Director: Greg Berlanti

Writers: Isaac Aptaker, Elizabeth Berger


Love, Simon is a teen rom-com like any other. It’s quirky, idealistic, and a little bit schmaltzy. It features a good-looking, charming, and somewhat popular kid who falls for someone online and sets out to discover who they really are. There are parties, love triangles, clueless adults, a high school musical, public declarations, broken hearts, witty banter, and a compilation of catchy pop songs. It uses every cliché in the book and never apologises for it, it is as representative of this day and age as the John Hughes movies were of the 80s and 90s, and it is everything that a lover of sappy high school movie romances could possibly want. And also the main character happens to be gay. This is the first mainstream, major studio release to focus on a gay teenage romance, a milestone so overdue that I kind of feel like the movie might have had a more meaningful impact had it been made around the same time as Mean Girls. But the fact it was made at all is significant, to be sure, and it’s a good enough film to be worthy of the task it undertakes to break new ground in LGBT cinema.

Our protagonist is 16-year-old Simon Spier (Nick Robinson), a kid “just like you”. He lives in a beautiful home in the suburbs of Atlanta with his loving, liberal-minded parents Emily (Jennifer Ganrer) and Jack (Josh Duhamel) and his little, Top Chef obsessed sister Nora (Talitha Bateman). He has a healthy social life at school and a crew of close friends he likes to hang out with including lifelong BFFs Leah (Katherine Langford) and Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) and trendy new girl Abby (Alexandra Shipp). Simon is about as normal as a teenager can be. He goes to parties, takes part in the school’s drama club, attends sports rallies, and has even had a couple of girlfriends. But he also has a huge secret that’s he’s never shared with anybody before: he’s gay. Things change when a closeted boy at school, known only as Blue, writes an online post sharing his thoughts and fears about coming out. Simon reaches out to him privately in an email under the alias of Jacques and the two start a correspondence with each other that evolves over time into a romance.

Love, Simon is a refreshing watch for a number of reasons. For one thing, with a cinematic history that includes Boys Don’t Cry, Brokeback Mountain, and Milk where LGBT characters have to battle prejudices against their sexuality and find only heartbreak and oftentimes death at the end of it all, it is a sign of progress that a gay character can enjoy a healthy and harmless romance without being punished for it and get his happy ending. For another thing, in a genre where gay characters are often relegated to the role of sidekicks and are seldom given the opportunity to voice their own desires, anxieties, and struggles, it is almost unbelievable how wholly the film focuses on Simon’s gayness. In addition, I was surprised by how thoughtful, complex, and heartfelt this movie actually turned out to be. A part of me was worried that this major studio release that had made such a big deal in its marketing over how inclusive and liberal it would be might turn out to be a work of self-indulgence; a cheap way for Hollywood to pat itself on the back for being so ‘woke’. Thankfully (even though the movie is still a little too self-congratulatory for my liking) Love, Simon takes care to tell a real story where you can understand the main character’s feelings and inner-conflict and empathise with him.

Simon’s initial struggle is that he’s afraid of coming out. This isn’t because he fears he will be hated or rejected, in fact he is certain that his family and friends would be fully supportive and accepting of him. What’s stopping him is that he’s not quite ready for his life to change in the way it inevitably will when people learn the truth about him. He’s not prepared to handle the altered perceptions and the confused emotions that his loved ones will develop when they discover that he has been keeping a part of himself hidden from them for so long and just needs time to get himself there. A part of him is also resentful of the way the heterosexuality has been accepted as the default and that LGBT kids are the ones who have to come out, which the movie pokes fun at in an amusing sequence where we see some of Simon’s friends come out as straight to their hurt, tearful, and unaccepting parents. That scene is just one of the ways in which the film is skilfully able to merge humour with pathos, which is a vital part of what makes Love, Simon so watchable. The movie is capable of being both light-hearted and dark at the same time.

Things start taking a dark turn when fellow classmate Martin (Logan Miller), a nerdy and obnoxious guy who makes it so easy for all the characters to hate him it almost seems deliberate, learns Simon’s secret and uses it to blackmail him. Unless Simon helps him win a date with Abby, Martin will release his emails for the whole school to read. The secret will be out and Blue will retreat and be lost to Simon for good. Simon thus gets himself caught in a tangled web of unrequited crushes and manipulated feelings, leading to much emotional confusion, anguish and chaos among his friends as things spin more and more out of control. Simon himself gets increasingly confounded over time not only by guilt, but also by the nagging question of who Blue really is. The movie gives us plenty of suspects in this mystery, and with them comes all of these looks, statements, and gestures that could mean nothing or everything. Maybe Blue is Bram (Keiynan Lonsdale) the friendly jock, maybe he’s Lyle (Joey Pollari) the flirty server, or maybe Cal (Miles Heizer) the musical classmate. Or maybe he’s someone else entirely who Simon has never even given a second thought to. It’s a well-developed mystery and the climatic reveal is satisfying.

Still, even though it might be a little unfair to begrudge this of a film that wants to be a mainstream high school rom-com and does it well, there were times when I wished the movie was more willing to take a few risks. The characterisation of gayness in this film, for instance, is so conventional and inoffensive it could almost be called bland by today’s standards. For the most part Robinson plays Simon in a straightforward, normative manner with his typically masculine looks and physique, even when he’s alone and not putting up a façade; it’s a ‘normal guy who happens to be gay’ kind of thing that they’re going for, which is fine except it also would have been fine ten years ago. There’s a scene where Simon imagines the colourful, flamboyant musical his life might become when he’s out and goes to college, which ends with him breaking the fourth wall to say, “Well, maybe not that gay”. It’s a funny punchline, but it also kind of undercuts what I thought to be the most creative, vibrant and memorable scene in the whole movie. If the movie is really set on breaking ground in the representation and normalisation of gay culture in mass media, why not go all the way with it?

I do also wish that the movie didn’t go to quite as many lengths as it did to show how ‘okay’ it is for Simon to be gay and trusted that the audience would root for him themselves and celebrate his victories without any prompting. There are some moments when showing the other characters’ acceptance of Simon is important, as in one scene between Simon and his mother which Garner knocks out of the park (I now want a movie that’s just Jennifer Garner and Michael Stuhlbarg delivering moving and eloquent monologues to their gay children). But there are others where it feels like the movie is celebrating its own open-mindedness and liberalism more than it is Simon’s arc as a character. While it’s great that Simon is immediately accepted by the school en masse when the truth does finally come out, their active, fervent support and encouragement in his search for Blue struck me as so overzealous that when the climax arrived and we finally see the kiss it’s all been leading up to, I felt like the movie was trying harder to convey its affirmation of the moment than it was the culmination of Simon’s journey. For a movie that repeatedly emphasises how Simon is just like the rest of us, I felt that this overcompensation somewhat detracted from his relatability.

Still, Love, Simon is a movie that Hollywood has needed to make for a long time and its arrival marks an undeniable sign of progress. While recent films like Call Me by Your Name and Blue is the Warmest Colour have already garnered praise for their positive portrayals of LGBT romance, those films were not made for teen audiences nor are they the kinds of films that most teenagers will actively seek out. This film appeals itself directly towards modern teenagers and young adults of all sexual orientations and does so without talking down to them or seeming out of touch. It is a teenage rom-com through and through in that it is sentimental, quaint, and pretty cheesy, which means that those who like those kinds of movies will really like this one. Even those who tend to cringe or roll their eyes when the music starts playing as the lovers embrace each other may very well find themselves moved by what happens between the clichés. For those gay teens and adults who have been waiting for a movie such as this to come along, they, like Simon himself when all is finally said and done, can breath a sigh of relief. This is an enjoyable and heartfelt movie and one that I hope will launch a new wave of mainstream cinema that will feature new and different depictions of LGBT culture.

★★★★