Captain Marvel

Cast: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Djimon Hounsou, Lee Pace, Lashana Lynch, Gemma Chan, Annette Bening, Clark Gregg, Jude Law

Directors: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck

Writers: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, Geneva Robertson-Dworet


While the monumental success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a record feat of production is not to be doubted, the quality of the individual films have tended to vary between pretty great and barely passable. Lately, for give or take a couple of years now, they’ve been on quite a hot streak with the emotional resonance of Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, the visual inventiveness of Thor: Ragnarok, the political boldness of Black Panther and the shattering scale of Avengers: Infinity War. Having maintained such a solid and consistent batting average as they have, something was bound to give sooner or later. Captain Marvel is by no means a terrible movie nor is it the worst in the MCU canon (hello The Incredible Hulk); it did however leave me feeling underwhelmed in a way that the MCU hasn’t really done in a while. More’s the pity since this is the first of their score of films to feature a female protagonist and to be (co)directed by a woman. Its creation is overdue and its ardent celebration of girl power is to be lauded; I just wish it had been in service of a more compelling story with a more well-defined protagonist and told in more engaging way.

To its credit, the film does try to shake things up on the outset by giving us a superhero origin story in reverse. Instead of showing us an ordinary person who later becomes somebody extraordinary, this is instead the story of one who is already extraordinary and later learns that she used to be ordinary. This is Vers (Brie Larson) who, when we first meet her, is completely unaware that she was once Carol Danvers, a hotshot pilot for the U.S. Air Force. By this point Vers is living on the planet Hala, the homeworld of the Kree (whom MCU fans might remember as the baddies in Guardians of the Galaxy). She possesses ambiguous super powers over which she has little control but which nonetheless prove useful in her capacity as a member of an elite squadron called Starforce. They are led by Yonn-Rogg (Jude Law), a great warrior who has taken it upon himself to train Carol and presses on her at every opportunity that her emotions are her greatest weakness. She is haunted by nightmares depicting memories of a past she does not recognise and not even the Supreme Intelligence (Annette Bening), an artificial intelligence whose appearance varies depending on the viewer, is unable to provide the answers she seeks. Vers eventually winds up on Earth and there finds that the answers to her past might have something to do with the Skrulls, the sworn enemies of the Kree.

Her arrival causes quite a stir in 1995 Los Angeles and is investigated by none other than a young SHIELD agent called Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, digitally de-aged to his Die Hard with a Vengeance self). Marvel has used this technology before on the likes of Robert Downey Jr., Michael Douglas and Kurt Russell, but never has it been employed at such length and executed so seamlessly. So much so that when Clark Gregg shows up as an unconvincingly younger Agent Coulson, you’ll think that the film’s entire de-aging budget went to Jackson alone. His first meeting with Vers proves a riotous one as he winds up chasing her across the streets of L.A. while she pursues the Skrulls who followed her to this planet. Realising that their goals may be similar, Vers and Fury partner up and resolve to investigate the mystery of her forgotten past together, enjoying a playful and appealing rapport as Jackson delivers his most committed performance in the ten years he’s been playing this character. He is outmatched only by Ben Mendelsohn, playing a Skrull named Talos who spends half of the film posing as Fury’s boss Keller and the other half in his natural, green form, and Goose, the feline who deserves his very own Marvel franchise.

It’s a good thing the supporting cast is as strong as it is because they have to do a lot of heavy lifting for want of a more compelling main character. None of this is Larson’s fault as an actress though; in fact, when she’s able to get into the action and deliver a few quips, she ticks all the right boxes. She can shoot energy blasts from her hands, meaning that not every action scene amounts to a simple punch-em-up, she is rather reserved in a way that the more loudmouthed Marvel heroes tend not to be, and she has this enchantingly rebellious spark befitting a woman who has zero tolerance of mansplaining and cat-calling. The problem is more with the way the movie handles her story. Since Vers has no memory of who she was before she got her powers, the film gives her little to draw from in terms of personality and motivation. Even when she does finally remember her past, the film has given her so little of substance to attach herself to that it doesn’t feel like she has all that much at stake in this whole affair. She doesn’t have any kind of family or love interest, there isn’t any place that she calls home, and the only real connection she has to her life on Earth is her friendship with fellow pilot Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch). The film was so intent on maintaining the mystery for as long as it possibly could that it only occasionally made the time for Vers’ actual character.

The film was directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who are much more at home making character-driven indies, and, while it isn’t at all unusual for Marvel to hand some of their biggest titles over to formerly small-time directors such as the Russo Brothers and Taika Waititi, It hasn’t really paid off this time around. While their talents for character interaction do shine in the more down-to-Earth scenes (I mean that in the most literal sense possible), the pair seem much more lost in the spectacle of their cosmic sci-fi adventure. The action scenes are so often shot in dark, murky settings and are strung together so choppily that it’s difficult to so much as keep track of what’s happening on screen. Marvel tends to have a rather bland and generic visual style they like to impose on their films when they’re not entrusted to one of their more visually distinct filmmakers like Gunn, Coogler or Waititi and Captain Marvel is one that suffers from a severe lack of some sort of stylistic personality. The shots are routinely composed, the colour and lighting is pretty much nondescript and the action scenes don’t have any kind of punch or flair to them beyond what an anonymous second-unit team compiling a studio-mandated fight scene for a mid-90s blockbuster could have done.

Still, that this film isn’t one of Marvel’s better offerings doesn’t mean that is has nothing of value to offer. As well as the enjoyable interplay between characters and some pretty good gags, the movie is also determined to make a statement about the world today, especially as it relates to women, and there is satisfaction to be gained if only from the knowledge that a small and loathsome sub-culture on the Internet is fuming because of it. It certainly adds some amount of depth to Vers’ journey for identity and independence as she grows more defiant in her unwillingness to follow the orders given to her by domineering male authority figures that she considers to be morally wrong. There’s also a gratifying moment near the end where Vers puts one of the more obnoxious male characters in his place by refusing to do battle with him on his terms or prove herself according to his regressive standards. The film isn’t as triumphantly defiant as it aspires to be, nor is it a particularly good film in general, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that there some aspects I enjoyed a good deal. Ultimately, however, Captain Marvel is more table setting than it is a cinematic feast. Maybe further along down the road we’ll get a sequel that allows the character to come more into her own, but even that wouldn’t retroactively make her first outing any better.

★★★

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Glass

Cast: James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Anya Taylor-Joy, Sarah Paulson, Samuel L. Jackson

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Writer: M. Night Shyamalan


Two decades ago when Shyamalan made Unbreakable, his thoughtful, meditative take on comic books, he could never have predicted how quickly and thoroughly superheroes would take over Hollywood in the subsequent years. Since the film’s 2000 release, superheroes have grown into a global sensation. From Sam Raimi’s campy, cartoonish Spider-Man trilogy to Christopher Nolan’s gritty, introspective Dark Knight trilogy right up to the cultural phenomena that the MCU and DCEU have become and countless more movies in between, the pervasiveness of the comic book movie in today’s cinematic landscape is not to be doubted. The genre with all of its characteristic stories and tropes have become so identifiable and familiar to us that many viewers have since grown bored and fatigued with their pervasiveness and are demanding progression and change. Part of this has led to more superhero films devoting their stories to a greater variety of characters (i.e. women and people of colour) and part of it has led to a self-reflexive examination of the genre itself, e.g. the satire of Deadpool, the demythologisation of Logan and the modernised evocation of Into the Spiderverse. There is a greater demand than ever for these kinds of films and the stage has never been clearer for Shyamalan to return to offer his philosophical, auteuristic take on comic book movies as they stand today.

Except that’s not what he does. Glass it turns out has shockingly little, if anything to say about superheroes today because it seems to think it’s addressing the same audience as 19 years ago. It’s almost as if back in 2000 Shyamalan had a screenplay that was ready to go but was instead shelved and that last year he dug it up, dusted it off and turned it into a movie without bothering to revise or update it. The plot revolves around super-strong vigilante David Dunn (Bruce Willis), multiple personality stricken Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy) and brittle-boned psychopath Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), who are all gathered together in a mental institution by Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson). She believes that all three men are deluded in the ‘superpowers’ they claim to have and tries to help them reckon with the superhero/villain complexes they each harbour. The most insight Shyamalan offers about superheroes however ultimately boils down to the most basic structure of comic book narratives, which he relates with the pedantic weightiness of a 15-year-old who thinks that they’re the first person to discover Quentin Tarantino. “In comics, this is referred to as the ‘showdown,’” explains Mr. Glass in anticipation of the film’s climax as if nobody in the audience has ever read a comic book or watched a superhero film before. One of the great failures of Glass is Shyamalan’s inability to recognise that the world has moved on since the days when Adam West was the most famous Batman.

The road to Glass was a long and arduous one for Shyamalan and, however one might feel about his filmography, one cannot help but admire the endurance it must have taken to weather the career-destroying storm that threatened to sink him for over a decade. Fresh after having astounded audiences with two back-to-back knockouts in 1999’s and 2000’s The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, with many speculating that he was primed to become the next Spielberg or Hitchcock, Shyamalan’s career took a nose dive. Audiences grew tired of his go-to formula (a supernatural mystery-thriller that comes to a head with a game-changing twist) and his concepts grew more and more outlandish and nonsensical, leading to such flops as Lady in the Water and The Happening. By the time he was making the critically panned and financially disastrous blockbusters After Earth and The Last Airbender, Shyamalan had become a Hollywood punchline; a parody of his former self whom most of us had written off. With his low-budget found-footage movie The Visit, Shyamalan was able to regain some shred of credibility and Split had us paying attention once again when his twisted horror-thriller turned out to be a surprise sequel to one of his most acclaimed films. Thus we get Glass, the film that seeks to combine the stories of Split and Unbreakable into a single, cohesive whole, the conclusion of what turned out to be a trilogy, and mark the triumphant return of Hollywood’s forgotten auteur.

If only. Outside of his absolute worst films, Shyamalan has often shown himself to be a director of great talent and singular vision and the composition of Glass is truly something to behold. The director has always been one for finding tension in that which appears normal and banal and the modest scale of Glass allows him to lean into that strength. Through long, drawn-out takes, theatrical staging and imposing colours, Shyamalan is able to make the asylum where the near entirety of the film is set feel like a battleground in the most ordinary sense. There are no unstoppable forces of CGI threatening to destroy the world, but the stakes still feel amplified because even the most mundane encounters are framed in such an intimate, eccentric way so as to make us feel like something larger is at work behind what we’ve been allowed to see. Shyamalan’s greatest weakness as a filmmaker however is that his skills as a screenwriter have never been a match for his skills as a director and Glass is let down by the same kind of confused plotting, laborious exposition and general goofiness that can be found in even his strongest work. There’s enough of interest going on throughout that the film is never unwatchable but there are hints and suggestions of a much more profound and stimulating story that was never realised.

My feeling is that either Shyamalan needed a few more years to work out what it was he really wanted to say with this film and how to make it work or he needed to bring another writer on board to iron out the ideas that were worthy of pursuit and scrap those that weren’t. If, at any point in his career, Shyamalan had ever managed to find his own Emeric Pressburger or Mark Frost, who knows what wonders he might have achieved? As far as Glass goes, there is certainly some promise in its premise. While the mystery of whether the characters really do have superpowers is a non-starter considering that those who have seen the previous two films will recall David bench pressing everything but the kitchen sink and the Horde running up the walls with his bare hands and feet, the film still raises some interesting points. By bringing its three leads together, the film invites us to consider the ways in which these broken men are all seeking some kind of identity and fulfilment in their alter egos. David finds some purpose in his previously unfulfilling existence by meting out vigilante justice, Kevin kidnaps and kills people in order to satisfy the most monstrous of his 24 personalities and Elijah became a criminal mastermind in order to make sense of the crippling disease he was born with. A greater focus on this theme might have allowed for a deeper, more captivating study of how superheroes and supervillains are almost always born from the traumas and tragedies they’ve suffered and what that really says about the ways in which we mythologise and revere them. Sadly this idea is left unexplored.

When the movie threatens to be too aimless and self-indulgent to bear, it is the three leads who pull you through and keep you watching. Even though the film never quite manages to strike the right balance between David, Kevin and Elijah (resulting in some conspicuous absences for certain stretches), each actor gives a memorable performance and make the most out of their interactions even with that awkward Shyamalan dialogue they inevitably have to contend with. McAvoy especially continues to give 100% in what must be a physically and dramatically demanding character to play. Playing a young man with two dozen personalities through which he is constantly jumping between at unpredictable beats, McAvoy ably assumes each persona thrust upon him including the prim and menacing Patricia, the lisping nine-year-old Hedwig and the savage, vicious Beast whose convulsively muscly appearance displays the kind of shocking body horror you might expect in a Cronenberg film. Jackson also impresses playing the character who gives the film its name. He’s a background player in the first half as he waits for his moment to come but once it does he comes as close to capturing some sense of pathos as this film could possibly attain. Willis, who has been asleep in most of his movies of the last few years, is also on form. Paulson, sadly, is once again trapped in a film that doesn’t know how to put her talents on display as she is given too little to work with until the very end, by which point it’s too late.

Glass is a showcase of everything that Shyamalan is good and bad at and neither dominates over the other. The film is very middling, which makes feel let down when I think about how much more the director could offer if he could just learn to overcome his weaknesses and limitations. While he offers some interesting ideas, directs his actors into delivering some great performances and brings things to a head with a wonderfully subversive confrontation near the end, they ultimately aren’t enough. What insights the film does try to make about comic books and superheroes are insubstantial, outdated and even a little patronising and the obligatory finale twist is a disappointment, complicating and confusing more than it enlightens and satisfies and failing to underscore the very themes and ideas driving the movie in the way that The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable did. It took a certain boldness on his part to try and offer the world a superhero movie unlike any other being made today and I would have loved nothing more than to see that film in its most fully realised form. Shyamalan, much like the characters he created, seems just as lost in his own search for identity and Glass could very well be seen as a film about the man himself; a mark of how far he has come and how much further he still has to go.

★★★

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 is 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.

★★★★★

The Hitman’s Bodyguard

Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson, Gary Oldman, Salma Hayek, Élodie Yung, Joaquim de Almeida, Kirsty Mitchell, Richard E. Grant

Director: Patrick Hughes

Writer: Tom O’Connor


This is the story of two men who are both pretty bad guys. One’s an infamous hitman who kills bad guys. The other’s a professional bodyguard who protects bad guys. Circumstances force the two to put aside their differences and work together to take down a really bad guy. Wacky hijinks ensue. The odd couple trope is older than time and has been used again and again in dozens of movies from In the Heat of the Night to Rush Hour to Toy Story. This time the movie brings together a movie star so coarse and badass that he has practically turned ‘motherfucker’ into a catchphrase and another who has somehow managed to build a persona combining profanity and perversity with childlike lovability. Together they make a movie that is neither more nor less than exactly what you would expect it to be: an over-the-top buddy movie with a lot of shooting, chasing and cussing to boot.

The hitman is Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson), the world’s most notorious assassin, now incarcerated. He becomes the last hope for a prosecution’s case against the heinous Belorussian dictator Vladislav Dukhovich (Gary Oldman) and so Darius agrees to testify against him in exchange for the release of his equally coarse and vicious wife Sonia (Salma Hayek), also serving time for one of her husband’s crimes. Dukhovich’s reach however is very far and Amelia Roussel (Élodie Yung), the agent charged with escorting Darius, soon learns that the police and secret service are all compromised. Thus she trusts Darius’ charge to her ex-boyfriend Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds), the formerly triple A rated now-disgraced executive protection agent. Together Michael and Darius must reach The Hague before Dukhovich’s trial is dismissed at 5 pm the next day while combatting the henchmen hot on their trail and each other.

This is a very dumb film and, in many ways, it is quite a generic film as well. It is just Samuel L. Jackson and Ryan Reynolds being Samuel L. Jackson and Ryan Reynolds and the story goes exactly how you think it would. Darius is a reckless psychopath who always charges ahead without thinking things through, which brings him at odds with Michael who is altogether more cautious and exact with his methods and wants to reach The Hague without any incident whatsoever, living by his oft-repeated motto “boring is always best”. They butt heads and hit a couple of detours along the way but we all know that eventually they’re going to start seeing eye-to-eye once they realise that they make a pretty good team. What makes it works is that Jackson and Reynolds are both so good at playing their respective personas and their chemistry is electrifying. No matter how predictable (gee, I wonder who killed the man Michael was protecting in the opening scene?) or formulaic this shoot-em-up of a story got, it is still very watchable thanks to this epic clash in personalities.

The Hitman’s Bodyguard does suffer from a case of bad timing with its depictions of carnage in London and Europe, both victims of devastating terrorist attacks in recent months, and that does steal away from the fun. It is hard to get caught up in this kind of escapist fantasy with its mindless violence, blazing guns, fiery explosions and a large, anonymous body count when it all feels just a little too close to home. But that’s not the movie’s fault; it’s just bad luck. Like Bastille Day, which was filmed in France before the attacks on the Bataclan Theatre and the Charlie Hebdo office, there is just no way they could’ve seen them coming. Maybe there’s a case to be made that, in light of these recent attacks, studios should strive to make movies that not only refuse to glorify violence and revel in sadism but also challenge those that do, but this is a movie that is not nearly smart or serious enough to take that kind of stance. The deepest this movie ever gets is when it asks whether the guy who protects baddies is worse than the guy who kills them, and anyone who thinks this movie is actually serious about engaging that question in a thoughtful debate is living in Cloud Cuckoo Land.

This is quite simply a silly, run-of-the-mill action-comedy with two great leads and it will probably hold up better when it comes out on something like Netflix with a little more distance from recent events. Apart from Jackson and Reynolds, who each give 100%, the other standout is Salma Hayek who plays Darius’ perfect woman: strong, beautiful, and positively psychopathic. The scene where Darius recounts the night they met, an evening of bloody murder accompanied by Lionel Richie, is one of the movie’s highlights. It isn’t a clever film, it isn’t an original film, and it isn’t a movie that I feel any particular desire to revisit in the future, but I laughed, I enjoyed watching Jackson and Reynolds go toe-to-toe, and I walked out feeling like I had a pretty good time.

★★★

Kong: Skull Island

Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Terry Notary, John C. Reilly

Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts

Writers: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly


When Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla came out, it was criticised for its slow-reveal approach with the titular monster, who only appeared on-screen for about eight minutes. While Jaws is one example of how well this approach can work when done right, Godzilla shows how tedious it can be with the absence of compelling characters or an engaging story. Kong, the second instalment of the proposed MonsterVerse franchise, takes the opposite approach. We meet the gigantic ape as soon as the characters reach Skull Island and then he remains prominent throughout as he battles monsters and whatnot. This approach will undoubtedly work for many viewers as it allows them to see plenty of exactly the thing they paid to see: epic monster-on-monster action. It didn’t work for me though. This was because the misgivings with character and story were still there. It terms of pure action alone, this movie is weird, exciting and fun. As a whole it is a messy, misguided, and often tiresome film.

It is 1973 and the war in Vietnam is virtually over for the Americans. At this time Bill Randa (John Goodman), a government agent, hires the former soldier James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) to lead an expedition to Skull Island. Escorting them is a U.S. army squadron led by the ruthless Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). Also accompanying them is Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), a photojournalist and vocal peace activist. Upon arrival the troops start dropping heavy explosives to map out the island until they are interrupted by the arrival of Kong, an enormous ape, who attacks the party and scatters them all around the island. The survivors must navigate and survive the threats and creatures that inhabit the island in order to find each other and escape. Packard however has other plans for the monster that wiped out his troops.

The design and animation in this film is first-class. The monsters look like they could’ve been designed by Guillermo del Toro or Hayao Miyazaki. Kong himself is larger than life and he looks and feels as real as any of the human characters. The ground trembles with his every step, the blows he delivers to his foes leave a shattering impact and the sounds he makes teem with life. This authenticity however is only true on a visual level because, unlike the previous incarnations in the 1933 classic or in Jackson’s remake, this Kong has no personality. He isn’t keen or intelligent, he isn’t protective or vengeful, and he isn’t hard-hearted or compassionate; he’s just an exceptionally animated CGI monster there to wreak havoc or to rush in as the saviour depending on what the plot wants him to do. Even if Kong were an interesting character in his own right, he has to fight for his screen time against the half-dozen or so human characters the film saw fit to focus on. Hiddleston somehow has less of a character than Kong, Jackson is one-dimensionally crazy, and Larson’s character only exists because blonde damsels are mandatory in King Kong movies.

What really got on my nerves though was that Kong was not satisfied with being a simple King Kong movie. Even with the lack of character, I would’ve been just fine with two hours of mindless, visually stunning action (I’m only human). The truly baffling thing about this film is the statement it’s trying to make (whatever that statement may be). The movie is unreservedly intent on creating some sort of parable to the war in Vietnam, pitting its gung-ho soldiers and their advanced weaponry against a savage foe who bests them with guerrilla tactics, and clutters the movie with homages to Apocalypse Now and Platoon just in case there was any ambiguity on that front. The point however is lost on me. All I got from the movie’s ‘meaningful’ statements about the war, its superficial characterisations and its extravagant imagery complete with napalm explosions was that the film really wanted to make a Vietnam metaphor.

The total clash in tones makes Kong: Skull Island feel like several different films blended together into an indefinable mixture. There’s the monster movie that we all wanted to see but it has been mismatched with some kind of political allegory that is so blatant and unsubtle and yet so random and unfocused that I’m not sure whether ‘allegory’ is even the appropriate word. The movie somehow takes itself too seriously and yet not seriously enough. It is certainly a weird and crazy enough film that the mess will work for some viewers. At its best the action is thrilling, awe-inspiring, and epic. I however found myself so distracted by the confused, cluttered story and the soulless characters that I was never able to lose myself in the spectacle. Godzilla may have lacked character but at least it was tonally consistent enough that I never felt like the story ever derailed or lost track of itself. This movie was anarchy from beginning to end. Visually stunning anarchy, but anarchy nonetheless.

★★

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Cast: Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Chris O’Dowd, Allison Janney, Rupert Everett, Terence Stamp, Ella Purnell, Judi Dench, Samuel L. Jackson

Director: Tim Burton

Writer: Jane Goldman


In a perfect world any film that combines the concepts of X-Men and Groundhog Day with Tim Burton’s style ought to be a guaranteed recipe for success. Sadly our world is far from perfect and so is this film. Burton, a singular visual director who practically created his own genre as he produced hit after hit in the 80s and 90s, has maintained an uneven career for the better part of two decades now. For every Big Fish and Sweeney Todd, he has made a Planet of the Apes and Alice in Wonderland. Nowadays the tropes that once made him an innovator and a visionary, from the gothic sets and costumes to the creepy and inventive visuals to the weird and eccentric characters, tend to lean more towards cliché and self-parody. Style over substance isn’t always a bad thing when the style is in itself something to be admired, but it is deadly once that style becomes tiring or is used half-heartedly.

Jake Portman first heard about Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children from his grandfather Abe (Terrence Stamp) in his bedtime stories. The house, so Abe says, is where he grew up along with a collection of other children who possess extraordinary abilities. After his grandfather dies a gruesome death Jake, on the advice of his therapist Dr. Golan (Allison Janney) sets off for the Welsh island with his father Franklin (Chris O’Dowd) to visit the house. At first all he finds is the estate’s remains after it was destroyed by a Luftwaffe bomb in 1943. Later he is found by some of the Peculiar Children who then lead him into a cave that transports them back in time to that very year. Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), it turns out, is able to keep her house and the children hidden from outsiders by storing them in a time loop. With her are the Peculiar Children, including Emma Bloom (Ella Purnell), a girl with the ability to fly, and Enoch O’Connor (Finlay MacMillan), a necromancer. Miss Peregrine’s Home however is threatened by strange creatures called Hollows, led by the sinister shapeshifter Mr. Barron (Samuel L. Jackson), and Jake is the only one who can help them.

The story hits the usual notes you might expect from a Burton movie. It focuses on a social outcast who finds meaning and belonging in a weird and wonderful world that differs from our own. Burton however does not bring the conviction or the commitment to this story that is so readily apparent in his earlier work. His style is evident in the film’s subdued colour palette and eerie designs, but the world he creates feels so spiritless and indifferent. There is no enthusiasm in the pursuit and discovery of the strange, no sensation to the ethereal nature of this universe, no wonder in the meeting of the innocent with the macabre. The man who used to speak volumes in every frame and who could always find charm and beauty in the strange and sinister now resorts to gratuitous exposition and depicts the peculiar for little more than peculiarity’s sake. Apart from the few brief glimpses we are allowed into Burton’s twisted and creative soul, the film is without life and originality.

Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the protagonist Jake, an introverted teenager with the personality of a cardboard box. In spite of Butterfield’s best efforts (putting aside his attempt at an American accent), Jake is an utterly forgettable and wooden character who cannot conjure a single emotion for love, wonder or pain. The shoe-horned romance he shares with Emma is so contrived and stale that I almost thought I was watching a gender-swapped rendition of Twilight. Accompanying him is a collection of superficially odd characters whose personalities are defined by their abilities and little else. Of all the actors whose talents went to dismal waste in this film (a list that includes Terence Stamp, Allison Janney, Judi Dench and Kim Dickens), only two brought any life to their performances. One is Eva Green as Miss Peregrine, an actress whose ability to chew scenery rivals that of Helena Bonham Carter. The other is Samuel L. Jackson, an actor who lives for the absurd and excessive.

The movie’s one other redeeming feature is its climax which is as enjoyably over the top as it is ludicrously nonsensical. As I approached the third act I found that I wasn’t in the least bit invested in the showdown that was to take place between the bland, characterless goodies and the painfully incompetent baddies. That attitude remains unchanged, but at least I got to watch a battle between a horde of invisible eye-gouging monsters and a legion of stop-motion Jason and the Argonauts skeletons in the middle of a seaside carnival. It comes nowhere close to saving the film, but I’ll take what I can get. All things considered, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is not the worst work Burton has produced recently but it is a testament to how far he has fallen since the days of Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood. While I can hardly say that the climatic battle is reason enough to watch this film, it is at the very least an assurance that some of the magic is still there. I hope to see more of it in his next project.

★★

The Legend of Tarzan

Cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Samuel L. Jackson, Margot Robbie, Djimon Hounsou, Jim Broadbent, Christoph Waltz

Director: David Yates

Writers: Adam Cozad, Craig Brewer


Before we had Batman, Superman or the Avengers, there was Tarzan. In this day and age where superheroes command the box office, it makes sense that Hollywood would want to revive and capitalise on one of the original superheroes. It is however rather telling that the figure they chose is a white man who rises as a hero and saviour for the people of Africa. Since race is one of the hottest topics in the world right now, a movie based on a story that reflects 19th century values of white supremacy seems at the very least ill advised. The film does acknowledge some of the dated aspects of this concept but is less than successful in its attempt to rise above them. The larger debate that needs to be held is one that I am not nearly qualified enough to engage in but, due to the prominent role these concerns play in the movie, it is an issue that needed to be acknowledged. Putting the politics and racial issues aside, The Legend of Tarzan is a sometimes exciting but otherwise drab movie.

The film is set in the late 19th century and opens in the Belgian Congo where Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz), a ruthless captain, has been sent by King Leopold II of Austria to search for diamonds. There he meets the tribal leader Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou) and strikes a bargain with him. The bargain concerns Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) who currently lives in London as Lord Greystoke with his wife Jane Porter (Margot Robbie). Although the Tarzan myth is a popular one in England, it is one that Greystoke is determined to leave in the past. Therefore, when he receives an invitation from the Prime Minister and King Leopold to visit Boma and assess the progress of the Congo’s development, it is an offer he is inclined to refuse. His mind is changed by the American entrepreneur George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) after he shares his suspicion that the Belgians are engaged in an illegal slave trade. Greystoke thus returns to his home with Jane and Williams to investigate these claims and there finds that he must become Tarzan once again to save the Congolese people.

The reason I’m more inclined to view and judge this movie through a political and racial lens rather than, say, Disney’s Tarzan is because this film brings it upon itself. The story tackles such historically provocative subjects as African colonisation and slavery and presents a revisionist version of events that allows the Brits and Americans to come across as the goodies. One way it does this is through the inclusion of George Washington Williams, a real life veteran of the civil war and writer of African-American history. The film hopes that it can escape the racist and imperialistic connotations of the Tarzan mythos by having a black character around to assure the audience that everything happening on screen is just fine and to remind us that the Belgians are the real baddies. Maybe the movie’s heart was in the right place but it just doesn’t work. When the film features such images as the jubilantly white Tarzan and Jane being hailed and celebrated by the black natives, it’s difficult to resist the urge to groan or to roll your eyes.

A 21st century movie based on Tarzan was always going to be problematic and working around the undertones of the original story was never going to be easy. The Legend of Tarzan however falls flat just as a movie in general. There are some good elements like the flashbacks revealing Tarzan’s origin which work well in their lucidity and restraint. Tarzan himself however is about as bland as a protagonist can get. The physique Skarsgård achieved for the role is certainly impressive but it shouldn’t have been the most interesting thing about him. Waltz meanwhile is called upon once again to portray yet another watered-down version of Hans Landa. Robbie does well as the spirited and capable Jane, which is a change from the damsel in distress she is usually portrayed as if a little bit idealistic for a movie set in the 19th century. The movie could’ve used a lot more of the life that she gave to her role.

The fatal weakness of The Legend of Tarzan is that it is dull, dull, dull. While the action is well executed, it isn’t until the final third that we get to see any of it. The visuals are flat and uninspired, which comes as a great disappointment after the example set by The Jungle Book. The story is tedious and typical of Hollywood in its obvious and simplistic way. If the movie had been more exciting and fulfilling to watch, perhaps its backwards and misguided subtext might have been a little more tolerable. Even then, Disney proved that it is possible to take the story of Tarzan and turn it into a fun, exciting and innocent adventure. The Legend of Tarzan in contrast is a misguided movie with a white saviour story that it is constantly trying to excuse to the point that it gets uncomfortable to watch. When people say that Hollywood is out of touch, this is the kind of thing they’re talking about.

★★

The Hateful Eight

Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demián Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Writer: Quentin Tarantino


Nobody does character and dialogue quite like Quentin Tarantino. His command of the English language is both bewildering and astonishing to behold as he crafts astounding cinematic moments through anecdotal conversations and suspenseful monologues. In Pulp Fiction he gave us an entire trivial conversation about hamburgers, TV pilots and foot massages. Not only is this discourse interesting, witty and captivating but also it allows the audience to learn a wealth about the characters and the world they inhabit without them even realising it. The characters themselves are so dynamic, fascinating and entertaining that you cannot help but love them whether they’re ruthlessly vengeful like the Bride, despicably evil like Hans Landa or even sadistically racist like Calvin Candie. This is why I was so excited by the concept of The Hateful Eight. By placing nearly the entirety of his film within a small, secluded cabin, Tarantino has created the perfect environment for his dialogue and characters to truly flourish. The result is stellar.

When a snowstorm strikes deep in the wilderness of Wyoming a collection of unconventional individuals are forced to seek shelter in a cabin and wait the blizzard out. Amongst them are the bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the new sheriff of Red Rock Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), the Mexican employee of the haberdashery Bob (Demián Bichir), the Red Rock hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), a quiet cowboy called Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), the civil war general Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern) and another bounty hunter called Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson). Ruth lets everyone know that he’ll be damned before letting anyone else take his $10,000 bounty from him and will not hesitate to turn his gun on anyone who tries anything suspicious. Tensions rise as these characters start to believe that somebody isn’t who they say they are and so the situation simply plays out from there.

What follows is essentially an Agatha Christie mystery with much more violence, profanity and racism. The real beauty of this film comes from watching the interactions between these characters as they seek to work out what exactly is happening. The tension is rife as they interrogate each other, looking for weaknesses and holes, and wait for somebody to make a move or a mistake. In what is undoubtedly one of the year’s best ensemble performances, the standouts for me were Samuel L. Jackson and Jennifer Jason Leigh. The former plays an astute and menacing bounty hunter who constantly gets derided for his race. The role fits Jackson likes a glove as he gives what is quite possibly his best performance since Pulp Fiction. Leigh meanwhile is a wild, foul-mouthed, erratic criminal who gets sheer glee from being downright malevolent. Amongst an entire group of nefarious characters she is able to distinguish herself as the baddest one in the bunch. These characters take on a life of their own as their actions and interactions propel the story forward and allow the drama to unfold at a rapid yet natural pace.

Tarantino’s dialogue is as always smart, absorbing and stylishly obscene. With each crafty exchange of dialogue and each devious monologue the film’s tension grows more and more palpable as these characters learn more about each other and their situation. The viewer is never quite sure where these characters stand or which ones they can really trust. By setting this film squarely in a cabin surrounded by a tempestuous snowstorm Tarantino allows the claustrophobia to reign supreme as the paranoia slowly seeps in and grows more potent. The film’s build-up of tension is as meticulous and exciting as it is in John Carpenter’s The Thing, also (not coincidentally) starring Kurt Russell. Tarantino’s abilities as a writer and a director shine in this film and are utilised to perfection. Also worthy of praise is Ennio Morricone’s electrifying original score which is every bit as intense and stylish as the dialogue.

I’ve heard a lot of people complain about this film’s runtime and I simply cannot understand why. The great Roger Ebert once said that no good movie is too long and The Hateful Eight is a great movie that makes every minute count. I was completely immersed by the film’s story, characters and dialogue and didn’t look at my watch once during the film’s entire three-hour duration. Tarantino has distinguished himself through his ability to blend genres and what he presents here is a spaghetti-western whodunit that only he could have made. The dialogue is typical Tarantino and is as funny, stimulating and rousing as it has ever been. Every character is compelling and memorable and each one gets a moment in the spotlight. The Hateful Eight is clever, bizarre, intense, unpredictable and riveting. Watching is was an exhilarating experience for me and I think it ranks amongst Tarantino’s best.

★★★★★