Ant-Man and the Wasp

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

Director: Peyton Reed

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

★★★★

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Mission: Impossible – Fallout

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

Director: Christopher McQuarrie

Writer: Christopher McQuarrie


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

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

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

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

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

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

★★★★★

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

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

Director: Ol Parker

Writer: Ol Parker


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

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

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

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

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

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

Incredibles 2

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

Director: Brad Bird

Writer: Brad Bird


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

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

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

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

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

★★★★★

Sicario 2: Soldado

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

Director: Stefano Sollima

Writer: Taylor Sheridan


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

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

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

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

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

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

★★★

Ocean’s 8

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

Director: Gary Ross

Writers: Gary Ross, Olivia Milch


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

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

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

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

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

★★★

Hereditary

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

Director: Ari Aster

Writer: Ari Aster


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

★★★★★

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.

★★★★