Avengers: Endgame

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Paul Rudd, Brie Larson, Karen Gillan, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow, Josh Brolin

Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo

Writers: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely


We know for a fact that Avengers: Endgame will not be the last movie in the MCU. Even if the trailer for Spider-Man: Far From Home hadn’t already hit theatres by the time of the film’s release or that most of the stars in this film weren’t already contracted to appear in future instalments, it doesn’t take a genius to understand that Marvel and Disney are in no hurry to end their multi-platform, billion dollar franchise. One of the most notable things about Endgame though is how much it feels like a definitive conclusion to the story the MCU has told over the course of the 22 films they’ve released in the last 11 years. This is of course partly to do with the understanding that some of the film’s biggest stars, including Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans, would be retiring their characters with this movie. From a storytelling perspective, there is a definite sense of finality surrounding Endgame as it promises to deliver a conclusion to the stories of the characters who originally helped launch the series. It feels like a certain era has come to an end and the time has come for the old hands to step down and pass the torch over to the younger, fresher, and more diverse line-up slated to take their place. Understanding this, Endgame presents itself as the final chapter of an epic saga with all the grandeur, gravity and magnitude such a coda demands.

Endgame picks up immediately following the events of Infinity War, an epic earth shattering crossover event that ended with Thanos (Josh Brolin) collecting the six infinity stones and wiping out half of the universe with a snap of his fingers. Previously when the Marvel cinematic universe had seen a dramatic shift in the status quo, whether it be a change in the Avenger line-up, the disbandment of SHIELD, or half of Earth’s mightiest heroes becoming fugitives, the shift doesn’t tend to feel as momentous as it should since the filmic format favoured by the MCU is unsuited for the task of conveying long-term consequences. When Age of Ultron concluded with a new team of Avengers, we only get to see them do one mission together before the whole Avengers Initiative was terminated in Civil War. Even then, the reality of a world without the Avengers never got much time to sink in because as soon as Thanos came knocking in Infinity War, the team was back together again. This is why it’s so striking to see Endgame devote so much of its time towards depicting the tragic outcome of a post-Thanos world. Instead of immediately retconning the ending of the last film so that the Avengers might get back to business as quickly as possible, most of this film is actively focused on exploring and understanding the emotional toil of the surviving characters.

Those who survived the last film include Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson). Each is severely affected by their failure to stop Thanos and, even with the help of the newly arrived Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), all efforts to undo the damage prove futile. The only thing left for them is to live on in this new world and achieve what sense of normalcy they can. A significant amount of the film plays out not unlike a blockbuster remake of HBO’s The Leftovers as we’re treated to surprisingly profound explorations of grief. The characters who’ve been left behind following this galactic genocide have to deal with such feelings as personal loss, survivor’s guilt, dejection, disillusionment, helplessness and the crushing weight of failure and defeat. For those wondering why this chapter of the Marvel saga demands a three-hour runtime, this is it. In order for us to appreciate the desperation of the Avengers’ effort to fix the world that Thanos broke, we first must appreciate what it is they’ve all lost and what it is they’re each fighting for. Thus when Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) returns from his ill-timed trip to the Quantum Realm in Ant-Man and the Wasp and presents the Avengers with a possible solution, we’re ready to root for them all the harder.

Even then, however, the film doesn’t leap straight into the action. Endgame is a film about reflection and, given the impossibility of what they have to achieve compared with how much they’ve already lost and what little they’ve managed to hold on to, the film allows room for the characters to decide how much more they’re willing to sacrifice and how much further they’re willing to go. Given the stakes that have been set up, it’s not much of a stretch to consider that this may well be a one-way trip for some of the team, which by this point includes Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Rocket (Bradley Cooper). Where Infinity War struggled to accommodate each major character and share out whatever amount of screen-time they could spare, Endgame benefits enormously from having a smaller cast to work with and it is here that the long-form storytelling and character development starts to pay off. Inevitably it’s the main characters who experience the most meaningful changes while the side characters more or less fulfil their usual roles (with the exception of Nebula, who is given an extraordinary arc). Thus Captain America’s sense of duty compounded with his mourning for the life he had to give up to become a hero, Iron Man’s eternal struggle between his conceited ego and sincere desire to help and protect others, and Thor’s repressed traumas and insecurities versus the burden of his responsibility to his people; all these arcs are concluded in ways that, by the end of the film, feel fitting and earned.

The way the rest of the story plays out is a little disjointed. Characters are split up as they chase different objectives and encounter varying obstacles in ways that can feel divergent at times. Endgame plays out a lot like a Christopher Nolan movie with a dozen intricate parts all moving at the same, but without the clear sense of direction and cohesion that make his films feel so substantial. If this had been a standalone film with original character, it would have been all but incomprehensible for the viewer for all of its tangents and self-indulgence. But that’s not what Endgame is; this is a film that’s building off 21 movies worth of storytelling, characterisation and world building and that’s why its convoluted approach works. When the film seems to diverge, it’s because the characters in question need to end up in certain places at certain times in order for their arcs to be fulfilled. This is a movie that was designed to deliver pay-offs for anything and everything that long-time Marvel fans have invested themselves in from long term character journeys to tiny in-jokes carried over from previous Marvel films. The format is such that the film can structure itself around all the callbacks and references it can dream up, allowing fans to appreciate all the further how much change and growth has taken place, both in the fictional world and the real, since that moment 11 years ago when Tony Stark stood on a pedestal and announced to the whole world “I am Iron Man”.

The catharsis that Endgame offers to viewers who have followed them in their decade-long cinematic experiment and have grown to love the universe they’ve created and the characters who inhabit it is such that I can hardly bring myself to fault the film even as it missteps in the handling of certain characters’ stories (including a major death that I found deeply unsatisfying) and indulges in some of the habits and trends that I tend to dislike in their films. The action as directed by the Russo Brothers is typical of Marvel in that there are few visual flourishes and little technical inventiveness to enrich what is otherwise blandly competent, and yet the individual moments that occur, especially in the film’s colossal final hour, are so enjoyable and satisfying (outside of one rather patronising moment) that it’s a little difficult for me to care. This is a movie that was made to fulfil a very specific purpose for a specific kind of viewer and it succeeds so remarkably well both on an emotional and stimulating level that it seems almost churlish to demand more. The film doesn’t even attempt to appeal itself towards those who haven’t already been converted because it has absolutely nothing to offer them, which is a feature, not a bug. Avengers: Endgame is a singular cinematic event of unprecedented proportions and that it ended up being as great as it was is quite simply a miracle.

★★★★★

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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.

★★★★

Isle of Dogs

Cast: (voiced by) Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Kunichi Nomura, Ken Watanabe, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Fisher Stevens, Nijiro Murakami, Harvey Keitel, Koyu Rankin, Liev Schreiber, Scarlett Johansson, Akira Ito, Akira Takayama, F. Murray Abraham, Yojiro Noda, Mari Natsuki, Yoko Ono, Frank Wood

Director: Wes Anderson

Writer: Wes Anderson


When someone says they’re making an animated movie about dogs, this isn’t the kind of movie you expect them to make. But then, there isn’t really anybody out there who makes movies quite like Wes Anderson. His second foray into feature-length animation after Fantastic Mr. Fox, Isle of Dogs takes us far away from the childishly delightful All Dogs Go to Heaven to a morbid fable with a twisted sense of humour and a lot of bite. There is grisly imagery throughout the film from a dog getting its ear bitten off to a human character getting a bolt stuck in his head to a school of squirming fish getting chopped up to make sushi, all making for a PG film where the PG actually means something. Yet that doesn’t necessarily mean this movie isn’t for kids. Those who can handle it will find by the end that Isle of Dogs is a surprisingly soft-hearted and even endearing movie.

The movie is set in a post-apocalyptic, futuristic Japan where an outbreak of a canine virus in the city of Megasaki leads the autocratic mayor Kobayashi to sign a decree banishing all dogs to Trash Island. The first dog to be exiled is his own orphaned nephew’s dependable dog Spots. The 12-year-old Atari, bereft for having lost his best friend, ventures to Trash Island to search for him. There he crosses paths with “a pack of scary, indestructible alpha dogs”. There’s Rex, a gutsy house dog desperate to return to his master; Duke, a gossipy hound; King, the former star of a commercial for dog food; and Boss, the mascot for a high school Baseball team. Leading them, as far as any alpha dog can lead a pack of alpha dogs, is Chief, a vicious tramp who is deeply mistrustful when it comes to humans. When the pack agrees to help Atari in his search (they take a vote on it, just like they do when faced with pretty much anything), Chief only agrees to join them at the insistence of purebred show dog Nutmeg.

One of the things that makes Isle of Dogs compelling to watch is that the story can be pretty much whatever you want it to be. If you want to look at it as an allegory for disenfranchisement where the unfortunate mutts are stand-ins for those who live in the margins of our society (or even for animals if you want to look at it in more of an animal rights kind of way), it works. If you want to watch it as the simple tale of a boy and his dog embarking on a quest together and forming an affectionate bond that transcends species and language, that also works. There is much that the film leaves open for the viewer to interpret however they see fit. While all the canine barks, growls, and howls are delivered in English, the human Japanese dialogue is left largely untranslated save the occasional interpretations of a Frances McDormand character. The intention here is for the viewer to infer the meaning through the context and emotion of the moment, though some have criticised this approach, saying that it serves to cast the Japanese characters (as opposed to all human characters) as villainous ‘others’. Considering that one of the more heroic human characters is Tracy, an American white girl voiced by Greta Gerwig who speaks English, I can understand why this route has proven problematic (although, in light of how her ultimate confrontation with Kobayshi actually turns out, I don’t agree with the notion that she is a white saviour).

What was quite clear to me is that Anderson is quite enamoured with Japanese culture and desperately wanted to convey some of its aesthetics to an American and European audience. It follows a recent tradition in children’s animation with such films as Moana, Kubo and the Two Strings, and Coco of portraying stories from non-Western cultures with histories, traditions, and values that differ from our own (with admittedly varying degrees of success). As a Brit who has never even set foot in Japan, I am far from qualified to judge whether or not Anderson’s depiction of Japan is accurate or perceptive. It seems to me however that there is a strong effort being made by Anderson to engage with Japan’s culture and to try and find that fine line between appropriation and appreciation. Kunichi Nomura, the voice of Kobayashi, shares a writing credit, the cast features a great range of Japanese names from Ken Watanabe to Yoko Ono (of all people!), and there is no shortage of identifiably Japanese imagery to point at such as taiko drums, sumo wrestlers, sushi, a mushroom cloud explosion and various nods to Akira Kurosawa. Whether what we see is simply a white Westerner’s distortion of Japan is a question I will have to leave to others, but I do believe that in order for progress to be made, honest, well-meaning efforts do have to be attempted even if there are some mistakes along the way.

As far as the visual aesthetics go, I must say that I was blown away. Anderson has distinguished himself as a terrific visual director time and time again with his love of vibrant colours and symmetry and his idiosyncratic attention to detail and his style is put on full display coupled with the splendid use of stop-motion animation. The movie has a scratchy texture that contrasts with the technical precision of his compositions and allows the setting of Trash Island and the dogs that inhabit it to feel harsh and unrefined while still also strangely elegant. The landscapes of mountains and shelters made up of multi-coloured refuse are utterly breathtaking. The movie puts particular care into the movements and mannerisms of the dogs themselves, going so far as to show their fur shuddering in the breeze, and it uses certain flourishes that enable them to feel truly active such as animating the fight scenes to look like a swirling dust cloud with random limbs sticking out like something from a children’s comic book. It’s that level of detail that enables the film to feel as remarkably physical as stop-motion animated films are uniquely able to feel.

As many people have noticed, the title is a homonym for ‘I love dogs’ and it’s essentially a promise that this movie will offer something of a love letter to the canines of the world and will appeal to all the dog lovers out there. As a lifelong dog lover myself, I think the movie delivers on that promise in spades. Not only are these mutts fun and interesting characters in their own right, but the movie is able to find much humour and heart in their canine behaviour and personality. There’s a good example of dog logic used in an exchange between Chief and Nutmeg where he asks why he should bother to help Atari and she answers, ‘because he’s a twelve year old boy, dogs love those’. The movie is a celebration of the bond that humans and dogs share and the friendship that eventually forms between Atari and Chief is as moving as it is unlikely. The film is not without it’s problems, many of them to do with the grey area between cultural appropriation and appreciation that the movie inhabits, but there is more than enough humour, style and charm to make Isle of Dogs an enjoyable watch.

★★★★

Ghost in the Shell

Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Michael Pitt, Pilou Asbæk, Chin Han, Juliette Binoche, Beat Takeshi

Director: Rupert Sanders

Writers: Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, Ehren Kruger


When a film has generated such widely publicised controversy as Ghost in the Shell has, it’s often difficult to divorce the topic from the movie itself. As a critic it is my duty to evaluate each film I watch by its individual flaws and merits. The reality however is that no film is released in a vacuum and, as a viewer, I cannot help but have my perception altered by the circumstances surrounding a movie’s release. With that in mind, I’m not going to turn this review into an essay about feminism, whitewashing, or about America’s view of Japanese culture because I am not nearly smart or qualified enough to write one. Ghost in the Shell is a movie first and foremost and that’s how I plan to approach it. It isn’t a good movie but it is a visually stunning one. It is also a movie with poorly thought out morals and philosophies, insubstantial character development and a troubling relationship with race.

Set in a future where cybernetic enhancements have become a norm for human beings, the movie follows Major Mira Killian (Scarlet Johansson), a human whose brain was placed inside an entirely mechanical body after her own was damaged beyond repair in an accident. Now working for the anti-terrorist bureau Sector 9 with Batou (Pilou Asbæk) under Chief Daisuke Aramaki (Beat Takeshi), she combats threats and keeps the country safe. However she starts experiencing hallucinations and is puzzled by their meaning and significance. Her designer, Dr. Oulet (Juliette Binoche), dismisses them as glitches, but Major suspects they might be related to her past, of which she has little memory. Her confusion, as well as her suspicion that her friends and colleagues are lying to her, lead Major to start questioning her humanity and her place in the world. This existential crisis comes in the wake of an attack carried out by a terrorist known as Kuze (Michael Pitt), whom Major must track down and stop.

The anime this movie was based on had a compelling story that raised complex questions about what it means to be human. This film discards much of that complexity and depth in order to focus on how heroic and unique Major is, thus, intentionally or not, providing a quintessentially American type of narrative. Time and time again the movie periodically reiterates how special Killian is and how she is the only person (machine? being? entity?) of her kind without ever going deeper into the larger questions raised by her existence, or indeed by the very nature of the world they live in. What does identity mean to these people, especially Major? Where does one draw the line between human consciousness and artificial intelligence? What effect has technology had on the concept of race and gender? The film raises and alludes to all sorts of questions along these lines but never provides any detailed exploration or genuine insight.

The debate over whether the actress playing the main character of a Japanese manga should reflect their racial origins is one that I’m not prepared to go into. Johansson has proven herself in the past, both as an actress (Under the Skin, Her) and as an action star (The Avengers, Lucy), so I suppose it’s fair to say that I was prepared to accept her casting should she give a performance worthy of the character. The performance doesn’t work however because she was never able to form a convincing emotional connection with her character. Maybe this is because the character is tied so strongly to Japanese culture that no Caucasian actress could have built that connection, or maybe the fault lies elsewhere. In fairness, I don’t think the rest of the ensemble fared much better. Besides Batou I honestly cannot remember a single member of Killian’s team. Binoche does a decent job as a character whose presence hints at an intriguing mother/daughter relationship that I wish could have been explored more, but alas the film was too busy focusing on Major and how special and unique she is. Pitt as the villain is just bland and forgettable.

The movie is poor enough on its own. The characterisations are weak, the story is dull and the themes lack depth. What really kills Ghost in the Shell though is its problematic relationship with race. Perhaps the film could have survived the controversy if it merely side-lined any matters of race and just focused on the story it was trying to tell. Instead it fully addresses the issue in perhaps the most awkward, misguided way it could possibly have chosen. Far from allaying any concerns viewers might have had, the film ends bringing even more attention to the problem and throwing fuel onto the fire it started. I suppose the film should get some credit for at least trying to be representative by going to lengths to depict Japanese culture in its futuristic setting and featuring a not insignificant number of Asian actors in its cast. It is telling however that four out of five of the main characters are played by white actors. The film is often visually beautiful and has some great action as well, but narratively it feels soulless and empty. Kind of like a shell without a ghost.

★★

Captain America: Civil War

Cast: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Emily VanCamp, Tom Holland, Frank Grillo, William Hurt, Daniel Brühl

Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo

Writers: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely


In order to talk about Civil War, I feel like I first need to talk briefly about Batman v Superman as both films have virtually the same concept. Although I enjoyed Dawn of Justice I felt that the movie suffered from a lack of focus and direction. Snyder, being the great visual director that he is, delivered spectacularly on the action but where he fell short was in the characters’ motivations and the thematic conflict. These elements might have been allowed to flourish had the movie not been so cluttered with subplots, tie-ins and cameos that were immaterial to the central conflict but, alas, it wasn’t the case. This is something that the Russo Brothers clearly understood when they directed Civil War. They understood that character is more important than spectacle; that conflict depends more on motivation than it does on combat; and that a movie can be cluttered with subplots, tie-ins and cameos as long as they exist to serve the central conflict. This is why it is not an exaggeration to say that Civil War is Dawn of Justice done right.

After a mission in Lagos goes badly and results in civilian casualties the government decides to push for a Hero Registration Act to keep the Avengers in check. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), feeling guilty for the part he played in Ultron’s creation and Sokovia’s destruction, supports this bill. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) however believes that government supervision would hinder or even compromise his ability to save lives. This disagreement causes a rift between Captain America and Iron Man that is made all the worse when Bucky (Sebastian Stan) resurfaces and commits a terrorist act in Vienna. Determined to bring Bucky in himself and to protect him, Captain America has to work against the government and enlists Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) to his cause. It is up to Iron Man to stop him with the help of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Rhodey (Don Cheadle), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Vision (Paul Bettany). This conflict escalates into an all-out war between the two sides with the mysterious Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl) at the centre of it all.

As the summary has probably shown there are a lot of characters in this movie, something that I found to be an issue with Age of Ultron. What makes it work however is that the Russo Brothers, drawing from their experience with such shows as Community, approach this film as an ensemble piece. As the film builds up to its climatic battle between the opposing sides, it masterfully shifts enough of the focus onto each character so that they all have a reason to actually be there. It helps that many of these characters are already familiar to us from the previous films and therefore don’t need any introduction, but still each one is given a motivation that is made clear to us without drawing the focus away from the central conflict. And yet this is a Captain America movie and not an Avengers movie. Although the film makes terrific work of the ensemble at its disposal, the movie belongs to Cap above all others and allows his part in the story to take precedence above all others without making it all about him. The film demonstrates a superb balance in its focus that should make movies like Dawn of Justice blush with shame.

While Civil War is a movie that is very much built on conflict and character, it also boasts of some of the best action that Marvel has ever put on screen. The tunnel chase scene alone is a stunning sequence of intense running, flying, driving, punching, kicking and clawing but it is the airport fight where the film truly shines. Bringing all of these heroes (including Spider-man) together into a single arena and pitting them against each other is epic enough, but the way the film played their different abilities against each other and allowed each character their own moment in the spotlight raised it to a whole new level. The film is full jam-packed with strong action and compelling conflicts but, being a Marvel movie, it also makes room for much humour and light-heartedness. Even when the conflict between Cap and Iron Man escalates in seriousness, watching them fight each other never ceases to be fun.

As far as superhero blockbusters go there is very little to fault. I suppose I could have used a little more focus on the villainous Zemo and perhaps a slightly stronger motivation from him but that’s just a nit-pick. This is as magnificent as a superhero movie can get. When Civil War is compared with Dawn of Justice the contrasts between them are incredibly revealing. Dawn of Justice is what you get when your movie contains little more than impressive action. Civil War succeeds where the Batman v Superman failed by placing its emphases on its characters and employing them to serve the central conflict above all else. Civil War is captivating, immersive, hilarious, action-packed, thrilling, emotional and fun. It is the pinnacle of everything that Marvel does well and is without question one of their finest cinematic offering to date.

★★★★★

The Jungle Book

Cast: Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Walken

Director: Jon Favreau

Writer: Justin Marks


Of all the Disney movies to be treated to a live-action remake, The Jungle Book is perhaps the most beloved of all. It boasts of unforgettable characters, enjoyable music and a timeless charm, traits which leave little room for improvement. Although I can understand why Disney might want to update some of these tales and introduce them to a new audience, I so far haven’t been sold by any of their attempts. On one end of the spectrum is Cinderella which contains some aspects that were better than the original but also just as many that were worse. On the other end was Alice in Wonderland which completely and fundamentally misunderstood what it was that made the original cartoon (and the books for that matter) good in the first place. The Jungle Book has posed a curious dilemma for me because while there are very few aspects of the film that I’ve found to be worse than the original, there are just as few that I’ve found to be better. I enjoyed the film, there’s no question about that. The trouble is that I’m not sure whether this film should actually exist.

Like the 1967 cartoon The Jungle Book tells the story of Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a “man cub”. As an infant Mowgli was found alone in the jungle by the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) and was taken to the wolf pack led by Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) where he was raised by Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o). Years later Mowgli is discovered by Shere Khan (Idris Elba), a ferocious tiger with a bitter hatred of men, who swears he will kill the boy. Mowgli agrees to leave for the sake of the pack and runs away with Bagheera. The two are separated when Shere Khan makes his attack, leaving Mowgli stranded in the middle of the jungle. After an encounter with Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), an enormous python with hypnotic powers, Mowgli falls into the company of the bear Baloo (Bill Murray). The two form a friendship as Mowgli agrees to help him make preparations for the winter. Mowgli however remains in great danger as Shere Khan relentlessly continues the hunt for him.

Although the same characters, songs and basic plot as the original cartoon are all present in this movie, it should be noted that it is by no means an exact copy. The Jungle Book offers a slightly different take on the story by drawing inspiration from Rudyard Kipling’s original works. Thus the film includes such additions as the Law of the Jungle, details of Mowgli’s backstory and the red flower. There is certainly a degree of weight and significance to the characters’ actions that isn’t present in its predecessor but it doesn’t always work to the film’s advantage. Shere Khan for example is an attempt by the film to combine his literary counterpart, a manipulative brute who wants to rule the jungle, with that of the cartoon, a charming but menacing beast who simply does as he pleases, and the result is a confused character with an inconsistent motivation. I was never sure whether Shere Khan’s ultimate plan was to assert his dominance in the jungle or to simply kill Mowgli. In either case the plan he concocts just doesn’t make sense to me.

I think the confusion with Shere Khan is symptomatic of a certain disharmony in terms of story and tone. The original books, on one hand, are serious in their approach as they tell tightly-structured stories with clear morals while the Disney cartoon, in contrast, is much more light-hearted and is more interested in simply portraying comedic highlights and character interactions than in focusing on its narrative. Both of these stories had clear ideas of what they were. It seems to me this film wants to be the best of both worlds: an enjoyable, daring and adventurous family movie with a serious story complete with comedy, music and darkness. While I certainly wouldn’t go so far as to say that the film fails to blend these two different styles together, there were still moments when I felt it struggled. For example in the scene where Mowgli meets King Louie (played magnificently by Christopher Walken), the character comes across as brutally intimidating and for a moment I was afraid for the little boy. The tone in that scene was then shattered when Louie suddenly burst out with ‘I Wanna Be Like You’, a song that has no business being sung by a ruthless, terrifying giant.

However I’m getting too caught up in the negatives and want to talk about the positives, of which there are a lot. For one thing The Jungle Book could very well be the most visually stunning film of the year with its breathtaking landscapes and astonishingly lifelike animals. The animals may not have the advantage of being as expressive as those in the cartoon but that’s when the voice acting comes in. Whatever my issues with Shere Khan I definitely cannot dispute the menacing charm in Elba’s voice. Murray is also perfectly cast as the lovable Baloo and provides the film with plenty of heart and laughs. The bond he forms with Mowgli is a truly affectionate one and when they sang ‘The Bare Necessities’ together I was grinning from ear to ear. Mowgli himself is played splendidly by newcomer Neel Stehi whose performance is especially praiseworthy considering that he was the only living breathing person actually in front of the camera. That the jungle and the animals in it were able to come to life in this movie is a remarkable achievement in both visual effects and direction.

The one issue that continues to nag at me however is that, as much as I enjoyed this movie, the visuals were the only aspect that I found to be substantially better than the cartoon while the characterisation of Shere Khan was the only part that I found to be worse. The rest of the film, while certainly different in terms of content, still felt more or less the same in terms of the impression it left on me despite its attempts to distinguish itself. The film draws so heavily from the cartoon that I don’t think it’s possible to assess it in isolation and, as enjoyable as this movie could be, there were moments when I felt my enjoyment was inspired more by my nostalgia than by the movie itself. And yet, for children who may not have grown up with the cartoon the way I have, I can absolutely imagine their imaginations being awestruck by the visual spectacle and their hearts being captured by the delightful characters. I’ve tried for so long to reconcile my feelings for this film that I’m not sure I could ever choose a star rating that can truly encompass them. However, in the words of the great Roger Ebert, “your intellect may be confused, but your emotions will never lie to you”. On that basis I have to give The Jungle Book credit for the enjoyment that I got from watching it, however ambivalently.

★★★★

Hail, Caesar!

Cast: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum

Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen


This latest offering by the Coen brothers is one that harkens back to the Golden Age of Hollywood, a time before television when film was the single most popular form of daily entertainment. The studios were titans, the movies were phenomena and the actors were gods. The film’s 1951 setting marks a time when this age of glitz, glamour and glory was nearing its end following a decision by the US Supreme Court to abolish the studio system and end the monopoly of the ‘Big Five’. Cinema approached an age of uncertainty with the adoption of TV on the rise, as was the fear of Communism and McCarthyism. Many of the films Hollywood made at this time were escapist fantasies from majestic westerns like The Searchers to dazzling musicals like Singin’ in the Rain to biblical epics like The Ten Commandments. This age of disenchantment, paranoia and frivolity, all based around the movies, is the perfect setting for a Coen brothers movie.

The film follows a day in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a Hollywood ‘fixer’ whose job it is to preserve the public image of Capitol Pictures and its stars. When Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the star of the studio’s biggest production ‘Hail, Caesar!’ is kidnapped and held for ransom, it becomes Eddie’s job to recover him without the press finding out. Along the way he must also deal with such problems as the pregnancy of Deanna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), a celebrated actress who remains unmarried, and the grievances of the esteemed director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) who finds working on his period drama with the inept Western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) impossible. Mannix is also offered a job by an airline company, a prestigious job with better pay that would allow him more time with his family, and must decide what working for the studio really means to him.

I’m a little stumped by Hail, Caesar! The Coen brothers have never been ones to opt for simple, conventional narratives and their off-beat, eccentric style has always been liable to throw some viewers off at first. However I couldn’t help but feel lost while watching this film. I was definitely entertained by it but, when it was over, I was left wondering what had actually happened and what it was all for. The stars whose roles amounted to little more than cameos, the stories that were left unresolved, the outlandish plot developments; all of these had me wondering what on earth Joel and Ethan Coen were thinking as they made this film. However I must remind myself that these concerns are also present in The Big Lebowski which is by all means a great movie. The Coen brothers are two quality filmmakers whose work has proven to be largely consistent (with a couple of exceptions) and are therefore entitled to a certain degree of trust and faith.

Faith. Based on the closing monologue to ‘Hail, Caesar!’ (the movie within the movie), faith seems to be the idea behind it all. Faith in an institution, faith in an ideology, faith in a greater being; these are all featured prominently in the film. The protagonist Eddie is an earnest, well-meaning, god-fearing man whose work often requires him to do things that weigh heavily on his conscience. Every night he unloads his sins onto his confessor, looking for direction and reassurance. In other words he is suffering from a crisis of faith. Brolin is excellent in this role. I think the reason I felt perplexed though is that the film felt bloated to me. There is so much going on in this movie on top of Eddie’s story that the central point kind of gets lost in the middle of it all. Layered storytelling is nothing new to the Coen brothers but the film’s larger purpose usually remains prevalent through it all. Here it just seems like the story took a backseat to the comedy, characters and homages.

With that said, the comedy, characters and homages are all splendid. The film’s recreation and parody of Golden-Age Hollywood is spot on and was a constant pleasure to behold. Standouts as well as Brolin include Clooney as the oblivious and impressionable movie star, Ehrenreich as the hopelessly miscast actor and Tilda Swinton as a pair of twin sisters who run rival gossip columns. There is also a one-off appearance by Frances McDormand that is pure gold. The movies featured within this film pay tribute to many of Hollywood’s classic tropes including the stylised looks, the song and dance numbers and the large and extravagant sets. ‘Hail, Caesar!’ itself is basically a reimagined Ben-Hur. The comedy jumps between satire and farce and leads to some hysterical moments, one of the best being Laurentz’s futile attempts to direct a refined performance out of Doyle.

After watching about half a dozen Coen films before this, I’ve reached a theory that they all follow one central theme: shit happens, and it happens for no reason. This is why I think their films often end without reaching a definitive resolution, because you cannot resolve chance. These is no blatant deliberation to their stories, they are just a string of events that simply happened. In the end, when it’s all over, life goes on. What I think sets Hail, Caesar! apart though and prevents it from attaining greatness is that the larger point it wants to make gets buried underneath the multitude of stories and characters that, while entertaining, lack depth. One of the things I love about Fargo is that it always feels like there is something larger at stake in the film’s conflict and that all of the characters, including the minor ones, have a purpose. Hail, Caesar! simply doesn’t have enough of that. What it does have is an ensemble of entertaining characters, great comedy and a wonderful retrospective of classic Hollywood.

★★★★

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Cast: Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Andy Serkis, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson

Director: Joss Whedon

Writer: Joss Whedon


Usually when I review a film from a series I like to briefly discuss my thoughts on the films that came before to provide context. However a discussion on the Marvel franchise could take up an entire article so instead I’ll settle on just discussing the first Avengers film. For me The Avengers is the perfect superhero film. While earlier films like Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight had already perfected the superhero formula, The Avengers took the genre onto a whole new level. It was the first film to ever bring together an ensemble of heroes who had already been introduced and developed in their own films and it pulled it off beautifully. It brought together all of these brilliant characters and, by allowing them to interact and work off each other, created a dynamic quality that no film had ever really done before. It was an incredibly well executed film that had the perfect amount of action, the perfect amount of humour and the perfect amount of character. I couldn’t wait to see the Avengers’ second outing together.

The film opens with the Avengers, Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), leading an assault on a Hydra base to recover Loki’s sceptre. There they encounter the orphaned twins who were subjected to Hydra’s experiments, Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who has superhuman speed, and Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen), who has the power to manipulate minds. Wanda infects Tony Stark’s mind and gives him a vision of his worst fear come true. Stark sees a dark, forlorn future; one where he stands alone surrounded by the corpses of his fallen comrades as the Earth falls to the alien threat they failed to stop. Stark is deeply affected by this vision and resolves to prevent it from ever happening.

Upon studying the sceptre’s gem, Stark and Banner discover an artificial intelligence that Stark believes could be the final piece they need to create the Ultron program. Stark envisions Ultron as a global defence program designed to protect the Earth from the alien threats that the Avengers would be unable to fight themselves and convinces Banner to help him complete it. Ultron (James Spader) becomes sentient and turns on his creators. Ultron sees himself as the next evolutionary step and thus believes that the only way for world peace to be achieved is for humanity to be annihilated. The Avengers band together to stop him but are then overcome with fears and doubts that threaten to divide and destroy them.

Like its predecessor, Avengers: Age of Ultron delivers on the action, the humour and the character. However the inherent weaknesses of the Marvel franchise become more noticeable in this film as they become more difficult to manage. After the way The Avengers developed the Marvel franchise and set it up for further growth, the success, acclaim and demand that followed meant that the sequel was inevitably going to try and go even bigger and further still. This means more characters to juggle and more interactions with the other Marvel films. So, with a gigantic line-up of future films already in development and a large ensemble of major characters played by actors who are contracted to appear in them, Whedon thus doesn’t have the creative freedom to take the risks and tell the story that he might otherwise have done in a perfect world. In addition to this we the audience are becoming so accustomed to these massive blockbusters that they’re almost starting to feel a little generic and the action is starting to look a little familiar. Still, with all of that weight and pressure bearing down on this film, Whedon, being the master craftsman that he is, just manages to create a worthy sequel that is entertaining and exciting to watch even if it didn’t amaze us in the same way that The Avengers did.

With such a gargantuan number of characters to feature and develop, the film is able to provide a balance between them and allows each major character a moment or two to shine. While Captain America, Iron Man, Thor and Hulk remain the stars of the show characters like Black Widow and Hawkeye (who many felt were underused in the first film) are given extensive roles and compelling arcs this time around. The film also has a number of new characters to deal with, most notably Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. Despite a limited amount of development and screen time these two characters are nevertheless able to create a memorable impression complete with motivations and distinctive personalities, if little else. There is also the titular villain to consider who (thankfully) is one of the Marvel franchise’s more entertaining and memorable villains. Ultron is strangely emotive for a sentient being and shows an indignation and a fallaciousness that is very… human. Spader’s voice is both menacing and sardonic and complements the character perfectly.

I liked this film a lot but I didn’t love it. As good as it was, it was missing that little bit of magic that was present in The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy. Maybe this is because the film had so many different characters and arcs to balance that it was never really able to find a clear and distinct focus. Maybe it’s because my expectations were overly amplified by the incredible quality and success of this franchise. Maybe (hopefully not) it’s because the Marvel franchise is starting to collapse on itself and that this film marks the beginning of the end. Whatever the reason, Age of Ultron is nevertheless a good, entertaining film that offers plenty of thrills and plenty of heart. There is some great action, there is a good amount of humour, and the characters are as enjoyable as ever whilst delivering a decent amount of development and emotional moments. The challenge of running the Marvel franchise is only going to get more difficult from here and so I hope that the Russo brothers are up to the challenge.

★★★★