Starring: Melissa McCarthy (The Heat), Octavia Spencer (The Shape of Water), Jason Bateman (Horrible Bosses), Bobby Cannavale (Ant-Man), Pom Klementieff (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2), Kevin Dunn (Transformers), Melissa Leo (The Fighter)
Writer/Director: Ben Falcone (Tammy)
Runtime: 1 hour 45 minutes
Release Date: 9th April (Netflix)
They say madness is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results. If that’s true, whoever keeps letting Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone make movies together is certifiably insane, because every single one has failed in the exact same way. Whether it’s Tammy, The Boss, or Life of the Party, every single one is a thrown-together, unpolished, poorly structured mess where scenes meander on as McCarthy improvs incessantly until someone calls cut. With the wife-husband duo now turning their comedic eye towards the superhero genre, one might think the larger scale and action spectacle might mean these two would have to be more prepared, have a tighter story and rely less on their base instincts. Unfortunately, that’s not the case with Thunder Force.
With superheroes having been the rage of Hollywood for much of this century, there’s a lot of material to pick from and tropes to exploit, but Thunder Force’s vision of superheroes seems stuck somewhere in the mid-90s. The story is incredibly basic and told in a scattershot fashion, with only about enough plot to cover thirty minutes and the rest is just rambling tangents. The entire screenplay feels like a first draft, with ideas raised and then forgotten about or squandered at every turn, and the pacing is glacially slow as scenes drag on and on and on for no reason; the film can’t even do a basic training montage without having to constantly stop for improv.
The film does illicit the occasional chuckle, but most of them come from little incidental details like a character tick or a funny reaction. Meanwhile, the big scripted gags and McCarthy’s never-ending spiel of epithets and pop culture references mostly fall flat, and when the jokes don’t work, don’t expect the fight sequences to pick up the slack. Falcone obviously has no experience or talent for shooting high-concept action, as the staging and choreography of the brawls feels static and unimaginative. There’s no dynamism or dramatic tension to them whatsoever, and no amount of special effects or heroic music can cover up for that pervasive staleness.
Even when the jokes fall flat, what ultimately keeps Thunder Force (and Falcone’s films in general) alive is Melissa McCarthy’s pure charisma and persistence. The actress hardly challenges herself character-wise here, playing yet another lovable troublemaker wisecracking her way through life, but she certainly gives it her best shot and commits to the physicality of the role. Unfortunately, as is often the case, McCarthy’s need to constantly own every scene leaves her co-stars with a lot less chances to shine, and that unfortunately affects her heroic partner Octavia Spencer most of all. Her character is certainly strong on paper, but the script gives Spencer very little to work with and she’s clearly not as brazen or committed an improviser as McCarthy, leading her to being constantly overshadowed throughout.
Bobby Cannavale is undercooked as the film’s villain, his main schtick is just getting frustrated by everyone getting his name wrong and being trigger-happy; he’s hardly an appropriate comedic or dramatic foil to McCarthy or Spencer. Pom Klementieff as his laser-flinging sidekick doesn’t fare much better, with the film throwing her so few bones that she is basically forced to play it straight; Klementieff can do comedy, but the material is clearly out of her wheelhouse. Taylor Mosby shows promise as Spencer’s daughter but the story squanders her every chance it gets, whilst Melissa Leo is completely disposable by the film’s end. The only actor that even tries to match McCarthy’s energy is Jason Bateman as a half-crab supervillain. Sure, he’s still relying on the same awkward brand of humour he’s been coasting on since Arrested Development, but that laidback oblivious charm being applied to such a bizarre character is the only time the film feels like it’s actually having fun with it’s comic book-inspired world. Plus, he manages to mine a lot of laughs out of just his walk.
It’s hard to completely hate Thunder Force, but it doesn’t try hard enough to be worth liking either. Even with all the superhero bells and whistles, the whole affair seems like it was thrown together on a whim, which only makes it feel like an even bigger waste of its premise and its stars’ talents. If you’re a diehard McCarthy fan or just want to see Jason Bateman scuttle about like a crab, it may be worth a lazy Sunday afternoon watch. Otherwise, skip this and go watch Shazam! or Deadpool again if you need a superhero comedy fix. Heck, most of the Marvel movies are more consistently funny than this, and the comedy isn’t even the main thrust of those.
Starring: Alexander Skarsgård (The Legend of Tarzan), Millie Bobbie Brown (Stranger Things), Rebecca Hall (The Town), Brian Tyree Henry (Widows), Shun Oguri (Weathering with You), Eiza González (Baby Driver), Julian Dennison (Deadpool 2), Kyle Chandler (The Wolf of Wall Street), Demáin Bichir (A Better Life)
Director: Adam Wingard (The Guest)
Writers: Eric Pearson (Thor: Ragnarok) and Max Borenstein (Kong: Skull Island)
Runtime: 1 hour 53 minutes
Release Date: 31st March (US/HBO Max), 1st April (UK/PVOD)
Legendary Pictures’ Monsterverse has been one of the more peculiar attempts at crafting a cinematic universe, mainly because each successive film has totally reinvented the franchise whilst maintaining a solid continuity. What began as a fairly grounded and serious take on the Godzilla mythos has gradually shifted with each entry towards bonkers sci-fi blockbuster, itself mirroring the similar evolution into absurdity of the original Toho franchise. Now on its fourth entry, the series has now fully embraced that legacy and is ready to put out all the stops, and what better way to celebrate that than by finally delivering the ultimate rematch kaiju fans have been clamouring for: the King of the Monsters against the Eight Wonder of the World. Godzilla vs. Kong is a gonzo monster extravaganza packed full of stellar brawls, insane concepts and fan service surprises that more than delivers on the promise of its title. It’s just a shame that the plot and characters that support all of the spectacle is about as flimsy as the old miniature sets from the Japanese classics that inspired it.
Whilst a familiarity with the previous entries certainly enhances the experience, Godzilla vs. Kong is a mostly stand-alone story that should be followable to newcomers. Like many of the old kaiju films it takes obvious inspiration from, the plot is mostly an excuse to take the audience on a rollercoaster through its action set pieces and gimmicks, but now on a 2021 Hollywood scale. It moves at a non-stop pace as it breezes through its sub-two-hour running time, moving from sequence to sequence with only nominal downtime to re-establish the stakes. Clever plotting, character development and thematic depth are the last thing on the movie’s mind, and at times that care-free attitude can bolster the experience. Director Adam Wingard’s previous films have often evoked the spirit of 1980s B-movies, and he brings that same sensibility here but with modern toys to play with. By dialling these elements down to the bare minimum, it allows the film to focus entirely on the eye candy and, in doing so, creates one of the most unabashedly over-the-top blockbusters in recent memory. With that said, whilst neither Kong: Skull Island nor Godzilla: King of the Monsters had quite the same barefaced tenacity as Wingard’s film, both still managed to eke out just enough resonance to establish an emotional investment whilst still delivering on the spectacle. If watching those movies was like going to a trashy but earnest stage musical, Godzilla vs. Kong is more like an elaborately staged arena rock concert: the energy is intoxicating, everyone is having a blast and it’s never boring, but you’d be hard pressed to forget that it’s all just a show.
If anything has stayed consistent through the Monsterverse franchise, it’s been a tendency to hire a fantastic cast and then forgetting to do anything interesting with most of them. Only Millie Bobbie Brown and Kyle Chandler return as daughter and father Madison and Mark Russell from King of the Monsters, but the former has changed so much that she might as well be a totally new character whilst the latter only makes sporadic cameos. Alexander Skarsgård is the by-default lead as disgraced scientist Dr Nathan Lind, but his character is drawn in only the broadest of strokes and Skarsgård’s charisma can only carry that so far. Rebecca Hall is a bit more compelling as the Jane Goodall-inspired Dr Ilene Andrews, especially thanks to her sweet relationship with adopted daughter Jia (Kaylee Hottle) but not by much.
Julian Dennison is hilarious as usual and certainly giving his all as Madison’s reluctant ally Josh but is given very little to work with, whilst Brian Tyree Henry chews the scenery as paranoid conspiracy podcaster Bernie to mixed effect. The film’s biggest weak spot is its human villains who, despite their cartoon supervillain evil plan being a lot of fun, are as flat as the paper their dialogue was written on. Demáin Bichir certainly has a hoot hamming it up as tech CEO Walter Simmons, but Eiza González as his crony daughter Maia is little more than a prop. Most disappointingly, the film’s one interesting wrinkle is the introduction of Shun Ogori as Ren Serizawa, the son of Ken Watanabe’s character from the previous films, as Simmons’ right-hand man. They even hint at a really interesting twist with his character…that they then immediately throw away. Why bother even making that connection to Serizawa if you’re not going to do something interesting with it?
With the human characters mostly awash with perfunctory stock clichés, it’s up to the kaiju to carry the heavy lifting and, bafflingly, they end up being the only ones with actual character arcs and interesting motivations. Kong is the emotional core of the film, having grown tired and even more lonely in the decades since the events of Skull Island, and his quest to find a new home would have made a compelling adventure all on its own. Godzilla is depicted as an antagonist for much of the runtime, but the filmmakers never outright paint him as a villain and both his destructive motivations and rivalry with Kong make sense within the context of the story. Saying much more would be delving into spoiler territory, but there are absolutely more monsters old and new on display other than the titular titans, and one in particular is certain to please diehard kaiju fans.
The action across the three previous Monsterverse films was a mixed bag. The Gareth Edwards-directed Godzilla was scant on monster brawls and purposefully cut away from showing them at points, though it ultimately paid off with a stellar finale. Skull Island thankfully dropped this approach and went for a more traditional blockbuster presentation, whilst King of the Monsters did its best to marry the two styles. Godzilla vs. Kong, meanwhile, is a unique beast of its own. The action sequences are easily the most coherent of the series, set in well-lit locations with simple geography and featuring some of the most inventive fight choreography in a modern kaiju film. It truly feels like a natural evolution to the rubber suit clashes of the genre’s past, but at the same time it loses a lot of its verisimilitude. This is mainly due to the cinematography which, whilst gorgeous on a lighting level and great for showing off the fights, too often falls into the trap of using impossible CG camera angles. Whilst the filmmakers do still at times use low angles and long lenses to create a sense of scale and place your gaze as if looking up at these gargantuan creatures, it intercuts them with wide-angle close-ups and spinning aerial shots that break the immersion.
It’s just one detail in a production that is completely extra on every level, like the film’s wild production design that features gigantic biodomes, gravity-warping aircraft, tunnels through the earth’s core and the evil scientist lab to end all evil scientist labs. The visual effects have a slightly more cartoony flair but are consistently strong throughout, especially in the character animations that bring subtle hints of humanity to these legendary monsters, whilst Tom Holkenborg’s score is an epic mash-up of Zimmer-esque bombast and soothing Vangelis-inspired synth; in a landscape where so many blockbuster soundtracks sound the same, this one has flair all its own. However, easily the film’s biggest enemy is its structural editing, which makes it more than obvious that a lot of material was cut to get the film down to its breezy 113-minute runtime. Whether the film would be any more compelling or coherent with these scenes added back, I do not know, but their absence is certainly felt.
Godzilla vs. Kong is an indulgent bowl of pure sugar entertainment, cutting all the fluff and focusing entirely on delivering jaw-dropping ape-on-lizard carnage. There are certainly a bunch of easy parallels to be made to Batman v Superman (one scene in particular might as well have Kong plead to Godzilla to “save…Mothra”), but the more apt comparison would be Pacific Rim: Uprising. Beyond the genre connection, it is also a sequel that pays respect to its predecessor but drops all of its complexities and authenticity to essentially reinvent itself as an ultra-expensive Saturday morning cartoon. Whether that sounds appetising to you or not, Godzilla vs. Kong is certainly the dessert at the end of the Monsterverse meal, leaving you with a sweet taste in your mouth whilst lacking the nutrition the prior courses provided.
Starring: Ben Affleck (The Town), Henry Cavill (The Witcher), Amy Adams (Arrival), Gal Gadot (Fast & Furious 6), Ray Fisher (True Detective), Jason Momoa (Conan the Barbarian), Ezra Miller (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), Willem Dafoe (Platoon), Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network), Jeremy Irons (Die Hard with a Vengeance), Diane Lane (Streets of Fire), Connie Nielsen (Gladiator), J.K. Simmons (Spider-Man), Ciarán Hinds (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy)
Director: Zack Snyder (Watchmen)
Writer: Chris Terrio (Argo)
Runtime: 4 hours 2 minutes
Release Date: 18th March (US/HBO Max, UK/Sky Cinema)
Back in 2017, I was one of the defenders of the theatrical cut of Justice League, but let me be clear: my opinion has soured since then and you can file that review with about a dozen others I no longer stand by. I still don’t hate that version, but with every viewing the patchwork seams became more and more obvious. It’s not a Zack Snyder film, but it’s not a Joss Whedon film either; it’s a product constructed from disparate parts by a corporation salvaging a troubled production, thrown malformed into theatres hoping to eke out a profit. It didn’t work. Would I have liked to have seen Zack Snyder’s intended version back then? For the sake of curiosity, absolutely, but I doubted it would ever see the light of day. It would remain an unseen what-could-have-been, sat on a shelf next to Josh Trank’s original cut of Fantastic Four, Lord & Miller’s Solo, and the extended version of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 with Shailene Woodley as Mary Jane and Norman Osborn as a head in a jar. No seriously, that almost happened.
In spite of this, whether fuelled by hope, desperation, or old-fashioned toxic fan whinging, the demand for Snyder’s version to be finished persisted. Putting aside both its charitable contributions and its disconcerting connection to online harassment, #ReleaseTheSnyderCut seemed like a campaign doomed to fail for the simple reason that its goal seemed unreachable. This was a prospective project that would cost tens of millions to complete, all for a ridiculously-long version of a film that already lost the studio hundreds of millions, and the final result would make Warner Bros. look like idiots no matter how good or bad the final product turned out. However, whether fuelled by the fan demand or just needing original content to boost subscriptions for HBO Max, they went and did it anyway. Zack Snyder’s Justice League is now a real film you can watch, and let me get all of the important questions out of the way. Is it worthy of all the overblown hype and worth tolerating the obsessive, abusive tactics of some of its campaigners? No. Would it have been releasable as a tentpole theatrical blockbuster? Not without a hell of a marketing campaign and at least one interval. Is it better than the theatrical version? Absolutely. Did I like it? Well…that’s what the rest of the review is for.
Whilst Zack Snyder’s Justice League is twice as long as its 2017 counterpart and drastically different in many facets, at its core it tells essentially the same story. As much as people decried Whedon’s additions to the film, much of his work was to simplify and stitch together Snyder’s footage into something more “releasable”. That said, having now seen what it was supposed to be, it honestly makes the changes in the theatrical cut that much more baffling. Watching the film, it’s clear that Snyder took the criticisms of Batman v Superman to heart and did his best to satisfy them in his own way. Its story is fundamentally simpler, packing its gargantuan runtime with world-building and character development rather than over-complicated villain schemes or pretentious deconstructionism. It fundamentally lightens the tone without turning into an obvious attempt to ape Marvel, cutting much of the cloying and misplaced humour that permeated Whedon’s cut, resulting in a film that is consistent with Snyder’s prior entries but still has a blockbuster spirit and an uplifting outlook.
However, the most fundamental difference isn’t all of the gratuitous cameos, the increased operatic spectacle, or the plugging up of plot holes and inconsistencies. It’s the simple fact that this version has the core ingredient truly missing from the 2017 version: relatable characters with emotionally satisfying arcs. The film certainly takes its sweet time and probably could afford to kill a few darlings, especially an indulgence towards the end where Snyder gives in to his worst edgelord instincts, but on the whole it’s a satisfying blockbuster experience that hopefully gets the big screen presentation it is crying out for. It’s a true culmination of the story began in Man of Steel whilst opening itself up for plenty more, and its scope can only really be matched by Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame. Honestly, if this version had come out when it was supposed to, people would have accused Marvel of ripping them off.
With the increased runtime, that only gives the cast more opportunities to shine, and in some cases it fundamentally improves their characters. Ben Affleck still takes something of a backseat as Batman, but his performance remains strong and he gets plenty of good action beats and solid development. As usual, Gal Gadot is effervescent as Wonder Woman, with her character being improved less by what’s been added back in and more what’s been taken out (i.e. no more Flash lying on top of her or endless pining for Steve Trevor). Jason Momoa doesn’t get that much more screen time as Aquaman, but he now has a more cohesive arc that ties better into his solo film, whilst Ezra Miller’s Flash is given a lot more emotional heft whilst remaining the film’s key source of comic relief. Henry Cavill, now without a trace of his moustache-hiding CG upper lip, still doesn’t have much to do but the build-up to his return now has actual weight to it, by its conclusion delivering the sincere and hopeful Superman we’ve been dying for all along. However, no one benefits from this cut more than Ray Fisher’s Cyborg. Reduced to a mere plot device in the original, he now has a fleshed-out origin, a rapport with the rest of the team, and an actual story that transforms him from the most forgettable member of the Justice League into its emotional backbone. More than anyone, Fisher was done dirty by the theatrical cut, and here’s hoping his career gets the resurgence he deserves; not only because of his great performance here, but everything he’s done since to call out Hollywood toxicity.
There were so many characters in the theatrical version that got short shrift or removed entirely, and in some cases they were understandable. For instance, Willem Dafoe, Kiersey Clemons and Zheng Khai are restored as Nuidis Vulko, Iris West and Ryan Choi respectively, but their plot importance is mostly perfunctory; the film never even mentions that Clemons is playing West. However, for others their addition improves the film. Amy Adams’ Lois Lane gets her own subplot and development as she deals with her grief after Batman v Superman, though her primary purpose remains inextricably linked to Superman’s arc. A scene she shares with Diane Lane as Martha Kent is one of the more emotionally rich in the entire film, making its replacement by Whedon with an inferior version retroactively baffling. Much like his on-screen son, Joe Morton gets his due as Dr. Silas Stone and his strained relationship with Fisher is wonderfully bittersweet, whilst Ciarán Hinds’ Steppenwolf has been bolstered from one of the worst on-screen supervillains into…well, he’s still not that interesting, but he has more nuanced motivations and actually feels like a threat now. Though much hyped, Ray Porter’s role as Darkseid is mostly just sequel bait but he certainly embodies the part well, and Jared Leto’s cameo as The Joker is better than his performance in Suicide Squad but absolutely useless; it doesn’t even have the meme factor of him saying “we live in a society”.
Zack Snyder is a contentious filmmaker for completely understandable reasons, but much like fellow blockbuster punching bag Michael Bay, it would be wrong to call him an unimaginative hack. Even if he hasn’t always fully grasped the material he’s working with, he has a style all his own and has a distinctive eye for spectacle, and he delivers that in spades with Justice League. Whilst much of his action sequences were retained in the theatrical cut, they were cut to ribbons and ruined by a botched attempt to retroactively lighten the material. What were fairly generic set pieces in that version have been restored to full glory and are packed with standout moments, with the fight under Gotham Harbour and the final assault on Steppenwolf’s base being some of the best in DCEU history. The horrid oversaturated colour grade has been replaced with a cooler palette more in line with the previous films, though it does leave much of the film looking like they forgot to colour balance the cameras.
The structural editing of the film is also much improved, with the story now flowing at a more logical pace. Conversely though, the momentary editing now has the opposite problem to the theatrical, with countless takes held much longer than really needed. I understand Snyder probably felt like he needed to show everything, but certain scenes could have been trimmed ever-so-slightly. Easily the most transformation for the film is its new score by Junkie XL, which subtly but radically improves the tone of several key sequences; Danny Elfman’s prior score wasn’t terrible on its own, but it simply didn’t mesh with the visuals no matter what filter they put on it. Even the visual effects, whilst still compromised in certain ways, on the whole look better than the 2017 version, though some of the designs remain contentious; seriously, Steppenwolf now looks like a disco-themed Rob Liefeld character. The only aspect of the theatrical version I ended up missing were the choice of needle drops, with all of the rock music now replaced with sad ballads. Maybe it’s just me, but having seen Aquaman leap into the ocean to the thumping guitar of The White Stripes, it’s odd to see that sequence set to the gloomy tones of Nick Cave instead.
It baffles me to even say this, but it’s true: Zack Snyder’s Justice League is not only a better film than its 2017 version, it in hindsight makes the theatrical cut feel like a pointed insult. It’s a cinematic glow-up for the ages, transforming a box office bomb into a triumphant epic that dares to be extra. It pays off a trilogy of build-up whilst also setting up a promising and vibrant future for the DCEU, gives every character the time and respect they deserve, and proves that Snyder can listen to criticism whilst not compromising his vision. It’s perfectly understandable why some audiences may still not enjoy it, but it’s hard not to at least acknowledge how significant a moment this is in the current cinematic landscape. Whether this will affect the current plans for the DCEU or how studios approach director’s cuts in general, it’s too early to tell. Right now, all we have is a movie that I’m sure many of the fans who clamoured for it will love, and I hope this ultimately leads to positive change in the fandom. Well done, Zack. I hope this helped you find some peace.
Starring: Kelly Marie Tran (Star Wars: The Last Jedi), Awkwafina (The Farewell), Izaac Wang, Gemma Chan (Humans), Daniel Dae Kim (Hellboy), Benedict Wong (Doctor Strange), Sandra Oh (Killing Eve)
Directors: Don Hall (Big Hero 6) & Carlos López Estrada (Blindspotting)
Writers: Qui Nguyen & Adele Lim (Crazy Rich Asians)
Runtime: 1 hour 47 minutes
Release Date: 5th March (US/Disney+)
It’s been over four years since Walt Disney Animation Studios have delivered a wholly original feature film, with their last two outings being uncharacteristic diversions into sequels with Ralph Breaks the Internet and Frozen II. Whilst there was nothing inherently wrong with those films or making sequels in general, it did leave some to wonder if the studio’s second renaissance may finally have come to an end. With Raya and the Last Dragon, those worries should be put to bed. Though it treads on plenty of familiar territory for a Disney film, it also brings plenty that is innovative and refreshing to the genre. It is a sign that the House of Mouse, whilst still having an immense respect and confidence in its foundations, is willing to experiment and try to reach out to new concepts and audiences, and we can only hope this is a sign of even greater stories to come.
Raya and the Last Dragon takes place in a world ravaged by an unforgiving plague that has ripped families apart and divided humanity against itself, leaving those who survive yearning for a time when life can return to normal whilst their leaders only seek to fortify their own power. Whilst some of these parallels are likely unintentional, it’s a tale that reflects the current state of the world in an optimistic but honest fashion, and will hopefully teach and encourage its younger viewers with its unifying themes. The moment-to-moment storytelling is a little less inspiring, with a first act that relies on heavy-handed exposition and an episodic approach to its main quest. Though all of these elements come together and pay off excellently come the earth-shattering climax, it does leave you wanting a more optimised story. At times, it feels like an entire season of a TV series squashed into ninety minutes; a great series with a beautifully realized world, relatable and distinctive characters, and a truly inspiring message, but an abbreviated version of it nonetheless.
With that said, those broad strokes are more than enough to keep the plot fresh and engaging, and what it lacks in fine detail it makes up for with moral complexity and abundant sincerity. This is easily Disney’s most adult movie since its first renaissance, often evoking the bleaker spirit of Mulan and The Hunchback of Notre Dame,but it doesn’t succumb to tonal whiplash like those films; when things get dangerous or sombre, they are treated as such without relying on slapstick sidekicks or anachronistic humour to placate the kids. It is an emotionally rich and satisfying epic fantasy tale in its own right, and Disney should be commended for taking those risks and relying less on its traditional formulas.
Disney princesses have come in a lot of varieties over the years, and whilst more modern examples have pushed themselves away from the traditional dainty image, Raya is certainly the most drastic departure from the mould in quite a while. She’s a warrior first and a princess second, with a bitter attitude and a reluctance to trust others, but she has a sensitive soul and a relatable motivation for her pessimistic outlook. Voiced with exuberant aplomb by Kelly Marie Tran, Raya is a truly wonderful protagonist and a stellar example of how to craft a strong and multifaceted female protagonist, and we deserve more heroines of her ilk in the future.
At her side as the titular last dragon is Awkwafina as the naïve and excitable Sisu, who certainly evokes Disney’s previous animated dragon sidekick in her performance. Thankfully, she avoids turning Sisu into a caricature of her real-world persona and plays the character sincerely, delivering some of the film’s most heartfelt moments as well as being its main source of comic relief. The supporting cast is wonderfully fleshed out by a stellar mix of talent, from newcomer Izaac Wang as the boisterous ship captain/cook Boun to the always-dependable Benedict Wong as the warm-hearted barbarian Tong, but the clear standout is Gemma Chan as Raya’s rival princess Namaari. She’s the best kind of antagonist, in that she’s just as emotionally and morally complex as our protagonist, making every time she and Raya come to blows feel that much more captivating; with a simple rewrite, you could easily turn her into the hero and it’d be just as satisfying.
Though they haven’t always captured these cultures in the most authentic or respectful way in the past, it’s always a joy to see Disney bring to life another part of the world in their world-class animation. The world of Raya takes place in a fantastical land inspired by Southeast Asia, and I would place a hefty bet that the animators took inspiration just as much from a certain popular Nickelodeon cartoon as they did from the actual folklore of Thailand or the Philippines.
That said, any comparisons between this film and Avatar: The Last Airbender are mostly surface level, as the animation and artistic quality of Raya are undeniably those of Disney. This is a richly detailed and gorgeously vivid world they’ve crafted, from the macro concepts like the environments shaped to resemble the anatomy of a dragon, to tiny little moments like Raya using her snake-like sword like a grappling hook (eat your heart out, Ivy Valentine). It’s simply a beautifully realised film from start to finish whether engaging in thrillingly choreographed fight sequences or quiet moments of reflection in the rain, and I wish more audiences could safely experience it on the big screen; do yourself a favour and try to see it on the best TV you can if you’re watching at home.
Raya and the Last Dragon certainly isn’t an instant classic, but it’s more than worthy of the Disney legacy and takes the studio to bold new places. It has some structural issues that lead to some unfortunately cramped storytelling, but on the grand scale those hiccups never threaten what is otherwise a remarkable feat of animation. It stands as a film that reflects the progress and challenges of the time it was made in, but also respects that heritage of stories that came before it whilst remaining timeless for future generations. Whether they’ve known it or not, young audiences have needed and been craving for a hero like Raya for a long time, who now takes a distinguished place in the dynasty of Disney princesses. Much like how the first Disney renaissance broke away from paying homage to the classics and moved into more experimental territory in its second half, Raya and the Last Dragon could represent that shift for this generation. Hopefully, that means we’ve managed to skip over whatever the 21st century equivalent of Pocahontas is. *shudder*
Starring: Eddie Murphy (Beverly Hills Cop), Arsenio Hall (Black Dynamite), Jermaine Fowler (Superior Donuts), Leslie Jones (Ghostbusters), Tracy Morgan (30 Rock), KiKi Layne (The Old Guard), Shari Headley (The Preacher’s Wife), Wesley Snipes (Blade), James Earl Jones (The Lion King)
Director: Craig Brewer (Dolemite Is My Name)
Writers: Kenya Barris (Girls Trip) and Barry W. Blaustein & David Sheffield (The Nutty Professor)
Runtime: 1 hour 44 minutes
Release Date: 5th March (Amazon Prime)
I have mixed feelings about the return of Eddie Murphy. On the one hand, he is clearly still a talented and hilarious actor, with his stellar comeback turn as Rudy Ray Moore in Dolemite Is My Name prooving he still has something to give. However, like a lot of comedians from his era, his brand of humour doesn’t so easily translate to modern sensibilities. Even Murphy himself has apologised retroactively for some of his more tasteless stand-up, and I think that change in sensitivity may be partly why he backed away from Hollywood for nearly a decade after a long string of flops. Now with the goodwill he’s regained from Dolemite, Murphy seems confident to make a true triumphant return by making a follow-up to one of his beloved classics. Coming 2 America is very self-aware of the stigma surrounding comedy sequels, and if there was ever a good time to make a second Coming to America, now is better than any before. Unfortunately, the final product is ultimately stale, formulaic, and old-fashioned in the worst way; far from the royal homecoming Murphy clearly wanted or what his fans deserved.
Coming 2 America immediately stumbles within the first ten minutes, spending the rest of its runtime trying to recover from a massive error in judgement that epitomises the film’s greatest weakness. This may be stepping into spoiler territory, but this needs to be made clear up front: the plot begins when Prince Akeem (Murphy) learns he sired an illegitimate son off-screen during the events of the first film, after unknowingly having sex with Mary (Leslie Jones) because he was so high that he thought she was just a boar he hallucinated. Let me just rephrase that to make it clear: THE STORY BEGINS WITH EDDIE MURPHY REALIZING HE WAS RAPED, AND IT IS PLAYED FOR LAUGHS. From that moment on, there is absolutely no way Coming 2 America can recover from such a bad taste moment. Whilst the film never stoops so low again, this poor attempt to meld 80s comedy sensibilities with modern taste runs through the rest of the production and it constantly falls flat. Like so many comedy sequels, most of the jokes are just the recycled remains of the best jokes from the first movie, with pretty much every notable character from that film returning whether they have good reason to or not.
On the other end, Coming 2 America’s attempts at being contemporary and progressive fall just as flat. The story’s vague stab at female empowerment with KiKi Layne’s subplot is typical and underdeveloped, and the rest are just a bunch of tired jokes about Black Panther, being “on fleek”, Lyft drivers and, of course, mild transphobia. The only promising new conceit is Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler) and his reticence to accept royal privilege when he’d rather build a life for himself. It’s an interesting avenue that truly feels like a contemporary reflection on both its predecessor and present-day class disparity, but much like everything with promise in the film, it abandons it in favour of just rehashing the “I want a woman that will arouse my intellect as well as my loins” plot from the first film. With all that said, what’s most baffling about Coming 2 America is how seriously it otherwise takes itself. The story often treats itself as if its part of some great saga and goes for a far more sentimental vibe, which perhaps is fitting in a generational story of passing the torch, but it’s nigh impossible to be emotionally invested when those same scenes often feature Murphy dressed up in caricatured make-up talking in a silly voice and making sexist remarks.
The film only ends up being vaguely watchable because the cast’s talent and charisma manages to wade through the bad material and stay afloat to the end. Though not quite the same man he used to be, Eddie Murphy is certainly trying his best and manages to pull out several laughs and even a few moments of sincerity. He’s clearly not sleepwalking through the film, but there’s certainly a sense that he’s often fighting against an urge to go full Raw. Arsenio Hall, meanwhile, is given very little to work with and often flat-out disappears for good chunks of the film. Despite receiving second-billing and being just as much a star of the first film as Murphy, Hall lacks much if any narrative purpose after the first act other than to butt heads with Tracy Morgan. Shari Headley, returning as Akeem’s bride Lisa, gives a spirited performance with her limited material and once again holds her own against Murphy, whilst James Earl Jones makes a brief but dignified return as King Jaffe.
In terms of new faces, Jermaine Fowler easily comes out of the film the strongest as Akeem’s son Lavelle. He manages to embody Murphy’s mannerisms without directly copying him, and he has a rebellious attitude and grounded perspective that make him a much more relatable character than anyone else in the film; it’s a shame the plot doesn’t let him properly explore that. Leslie Jones does what Leslie Jones does best and steals every scene she is in, which is almost enough to redeem her character after being a key player in the story’s horrendous inciting incident. KiKi Layne is mostly wasted as Akeem’s eldest daughter Meeka, whilst Wesley Snipes hams it up as the treacherous General Izzi in yet another surprisingly accomplished comedic performance. Much of the rest of the cast is chock full of celebrity cameos, many of which playing themselves, but after an early scene where they blow half of them in the space of a few minutes, those surprises quickly feel fleeting.
Though it recycles a lot of humour and what’s new rarely raises a chuckle, I can’t call Coming 2 America a lazy or unnecessary sequel, but it is a fundamentally misguided one. Like a casually bigoted but otherwise kind old man trying to better himself around his son’s foreign wife and his queer granddaughter, it is a film that clearly wants to get with the times but whose old habits die hard. A sequel to Coming to America could have been more than just a repeat of past glories. It could have been a genuine exploration of changing times, an honest reflection on how “traditions” often come hand-in-hand with marginalisation, and tackled how attitudes towards race, class and gender (and, subtextually, comedy) have changed. Instead, Coming 2 America just wants to tell the same problematic jokes in an inappropriate context, then claim its progressive by making gentrification jokes and saying, “Hey…what about a woman leader?” I had such high hopes this might have been one of those exceptions to the comedy sequel rule, but you can go ahead and toss this in the same pile as Zoolander 2. The great nation of Zamunda deserved better than this.
You might have noticed that I didn’t post as much throughout 2020, and it’s easy to guess why. I honestly do wish I had written more reviews last year, because I still watched plenty of movies; I mean, there wasn’t much else to do while we’ve all been stuck inside besides doomscrolling and learning how to make bread. There are so many films I’ve wanted to talk about and tell people to go watch, but for a variety of reasons I just didn’t get around to it very often. But with 2021 now lying ahead and movies hopefully getting back to a more regular schedule soon, I wanted to make up for lost time and give you the rundown on every movie I saw in 2020 (that I haven’t already done a full review for). Now let me take a very deep breath…and let’s begin!
Guy Ritchie returns to his British crime caper roots with this fun but disposable bit of malarky. The plot isn’t much to write home about, but the performances across the board are strong and keep the fun banter flowing. Hugh Grant, Colin Farrell and Jeremy Strong ultimately make this worth a watch, and hopefully this marks a return to form for Ritchie after trying his hand at blockbusters. Still, I’d love a sequel to The Man from U.N.C.L.E. when you get the chance, Guy. 6/10
Modern documentaries about current pop stars are usually nothing more than marketing exercises for concert tours made only for the diehard fans, but Miss Americana is a fascinating film for even those who don’t like Taylor Swift. It successfully humanises Swift without trying to convince you she is “just like you”, giving you a glimpse of the pressure and impact of fame on a celebrity’s health and voice. The standard all future pop docs should hold themselves to. 8/10
Despite being a massive fan of Clueless, I’ve never read or seen any prior version of Emma, but this was a delightful way to be introduced to this Jane Austen tale. Anya Taylor-Joy is so perfectly cast as the titular character, along with great supporting turns from Bill Nighy and Miranda Hart, and the film on a visual level is just a gorgeous pastel-vision. Considering this is a feature film debut from director Autumn de Wilde, it’s a truly extraordinary bit of filmmaking on an aesthetic level. 8/10
After the horrors we’ve all witnessed over the past year, the controversy surrounding the release of The Hunt seems quaint and practically dated by comparison. Still, this politically-charged horror-thriller-satire is some solid B-movie fun, anchored by a brilliantly understated performance by Betty Gilpin. The commentary sometimes comes off a bit too on-the-nose and the ending fails to live up to the film’s promise, but there’s still a lot of fun action and topical humour along the way. 7/10
2020 was not a good year for superhero movies and, despite trying so hard to set itself apart from its peers, Bloodshot ends up being utterly forgettable. Yet another attempt to start a new cinematic universe, this feels like a comic book movie from at least ten years ago, and even the stoic charisma of Vin Diesel can’t save it. Bland characters, a predictable script, and action sequences involving nanobots and cybernetics that are somehow made boring, this superpowered action flop makes The New Mutants look awesome by comparison. I’m sceptical they’ll actually make a sequel, but hey: it took them until the fifth Fast & Furious before they got genuinely good, and they did eventually get around to doing xXx 3, so anything’s possible. 4/10
With Big Sick director Michael Showalter at the helm, the brilliant pairing of Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae as stars, and a quite literally killer premise, it’s a shame The Lovebirds is ultimately a bit of a non-starter. The plot is scattered and unfortunately predictable, whilst the jokes often strain to hold the whole enterprise together. Fortunately, the haphazard chemistry between Nanjiani and Rae ultimately make it worth a gander if you need some mindless light-hearted fun, but it still falls far short of the promise it had. 6/10
If you know me or have watched any of my video essays, you know transgender representation in film & TV is incredibly important to me, and this account of the history of the community on screen is a perfect encapsulation of every problem with representations of the marginalised in popular culture. It’s a great entry point for cis viewers looking to better understand the issues, but it hits on a deeper level for trans viewers seeing both the mockery and hatred we’ve endured on screen but also the joy and hope for a better future. Easily the best documentary I’ve seen all year. 10/10!
Da 5 Bloods
Spike Lee hits it out of the park again with this time-hopping Vietnam War drama. Much like BlacKkKlansman, it is both a brutal account of past events but also an incredibly timely story about race, war and colonialism, whilst also balancing that fine line between truth and entertainment. The cast across the board is excellent, but Delroy Lindo is easily the film’s MVP in a career-best performance that, in a just world, would net him all of the Best Actor awards. Also, that minefield scene. Holy hell, that was intense! 8.5/10
Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
This is an inherently stupid movie, but it’s a Will Ferrell comedy about Eurovision, so you really shouldn’t be too surprised. Though the plot is incredibly cliché and overstretched, it’s an undeniably fun ride with hilarious comedic turns by Rachel McAdams and Dan Stevens and some brilliantly catchy songs. Seriously, “Jaja Ding Dong” fucking slaps! If you’re in need of something to cheer you up and you love cheesy European pop music, you cannot go wrong. 7/10
I hesitate to count this a film, considering it’s just a filmed version of the Broadway show, but just to get it out of the way: yeah, Hamilton is as good as all of your theatre friends say it is. Even without the magic only a live performance can illicit, this is an astounding piece of theatrical art that is now more accessible than ever. If you’ve been missing your local theatre during the pandemic, there is no better cure than watching Hamilton. 9.5/10
The Old Guard
Whilst new blockbuster action movies were hard to find this past summer whilst they we wait for box offices to reopen, The Old Guard more than scratched that itch for gunfire and punching. Charlize Theron again shows herself to be a stellar action heroine, and the John Wick-meets-Highlander action is a lot of brutal genre movie fun. Also, that scene in the prison transport is beautiful and a brilliant example of how simple and naturally gay characters can be incorporated into a story. This is easily the best attempt at a blockbuster genre movie Netflix has ever attempted, and hopefully this blossoms out into the franchise it clearly wants to spawn. 8.5/10
The premise of a drug that gives you superpowers is absolute dynamite, and although Project Power does have some fun with the idea, it ultimately feels unfocused. Jamie Foxx does a decent enough job as lead Art, but the storyline for Joseph Gordon-Levitt as cop Frank Shaver feels woefully underdeveloped, and instead the real star of the movie ends up being Dominique Fishback as the street-smart Robin. Honestly, I would have rather watched the movie about her ambitions to be a rapper rather than her being thrown into yet another “grounded” superhero movie. 6.5/10
The King of Staten Island
Pete Davidson finally gets his chance at breaking out of Saturday Night Live in this semi-autobiographical dramedy from Judd Apatow. There’s some great supporting turns here from Marisa Tomei, Bel Powley and Steve Buscemi, but Davidson’s unique personality and brutally honest performance is what keeps it chugging through its overlong runtime. It ends up as a middling entry in Apatow’s filmography, but is easily his most earnest. I hope he continues to further mature as a director and evolve into the new James L. Brooks like he clearly has the potential to be. 7/10
Pretending I’m A Superman
As a huge fan of the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series of video games, I was really hoping there’d be an interesting story behind it worthy of a feature documentary. Unfortunately, Pretending I’m a Superman ends up feeling like a few disposable DVD featurettes stapled together. The film takes up so much time at the front talking about the history of skateboarding and other mostly irrelevant background info available in more focused docs, and then barely skims over the history of the franchise and dodges answering questions about the later entries that led to its downfall. There’s some resonance in realizing how much a video game not only greatly impacted the sport but pop culture in general, but in the end this doc is one for only the most diehard of THPS fans. 5.5/10
Dr Dolittle hasn’t had much luck on screen with either the Rex Harrison or Eddie Murphy versions, but this new incarnation has now convinced me that this franchise is cursed. Robert Downey Jr gives a frankly embarrassing performance as the titular animal-conversing doctor, surrounded by a bloated cast of celebrities voicing one-note animal characters rendered with terrifyingly uneven CGI. The story is barely comprehensible, clearly patched together after extensive reshoots, and the final result is a bloated, expensive mess. Michael Sheen is the film’s only saving grace, camping it up as the film’s moustache-twirling villain in his most entertainingly bad performance since TheTwilight Saga ended. 3/10
Bill & Ted Face the Music
This has been a movie in the works for decades and, for once, a long-belated sequel was more than worth the wait. Rather than a rehash of lost glory, the return of Bill & Ted takes an adult and reflective perspective on the story of two friends who never lived up to their dreams and turns into a time-hopping laugh riot. Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter slip back into the roles effortlessly, ably backed up by Samara Weaving and Brigette Lundy-Paine as their equally bodacious daughters, and there are too many other great characters and cameos to sum up in such a short review. Overall, this is the kind of heart-warming fun we needed in 2020, and perfectly caps of a most excellent trilogy of adventures. 8.5/10
Millie Bobbie Brown proves herself to be a worthy leading lady in the making with this young adult take on the Sherlock Holmes formula. The plot feels suitably ripped from the world of Arthur Conan Doyle but with an added flavour of classic English children’s literature, making the mystery an entertaining ride for both young and old. Sam Claflin and Henry Cavill make great turns as Mycroft and Sherlock respectively, but the film’s success lies entirely with Brown, and that hopefully means we’ll see more adventures with young Enola sooner rather than later. 7/10
Secret Society of Second-Born Royals
Disney Channel movies are rarely ever stellar productions, but with a bigger budget and the Disney+ platform behind it, this has no excuse to be as lazy and chintzy as it is. The film’s premise is basically a haphazard combo of The Princess Diaries and X-Men with half the charm and an eighth of the budget, but the Sharkboy and Lava Girl-level effects could be excusable if not for the stilted dialogue, overcomplicated world-building and amateur performances from even the film’s seasoned stars. With decades of great kids’ entertainment readily available on Disney+ already, why would you ever choose to watch this? 1.5/10
Though this new take on Scooby-Doo rightly abandons live-action of previous cinematic efforts, it’s the only smart decision the film ends up making. Scoob! tries to build a cinematic universe around the characters of Hannah-Barbera, but in the process turns a story about teenagers solving mysteries into yet another generic superhero send-up. The film is redeemed somewhat by some fun action sequences, an adorable opening sequence with young Shaggy and Scooby, and a delightfully OTT vocal performance by Jason Isaacs as Dick Dastardly, but this is otherwise a pretty forgettable animated flick that wouldn’t be out of place with the dozens of straight-to-DVD Scooby movies pumped out every year. 5/10
It’s hard to come by good British horror these days, and Saint Maud feels like a true modern answer to the classics of old. Morfyyd Clark gives a haunting performance as the titular Maud, creating a character that is grounded and sympathetic but disturbing at the same time. As a directorial debut from Rose Glass, this is a fantastic example of what low-budget British filmmaking can do when it plays outside the box, and Saint Maud already shows potential to be a future cult classic. If you love a truly twisted psychological horror, this is a must-see. 8/10
Vampires vs. The Bronx
Harnessing the spirit of films like The Goonies and The Monster Squad but with a modern-day flavour, Vampires vs. The Bronx is both an entertaining horror-comedy and a clever commentary on whitewashing and gentrification. The young cast of newcomers carry the film with the confidence of pros, with the more recognisable faces like Sarah Gadon, Shea Whigham and Chris Redd simply there to bolster and support their hijinks. It feels hampered at times by its low budget and PG-13 rating, but otherwise this is a solid addition to your Halloween movie playlist. 7.5/10
Now this is a rare sight: a Happy Madison production that is not entirely terrible? Whilst suffering from many of the same problems Adam Sandler’s films have had for years, Hubie Halloween manages to overcome them through the strength of its supporting cast and a lot more earnestness than his past productions. It’s by no means a Halloween classic, but it has enough laughs and genuine moments to make it seem like it was actually made with some degree of effort. I know that’s a low bar, but by Sandler’s usual standards it’s quite an achievement. 6/10
The Trial of the Chicago 7
Aaron Sorkin’s sophomore effort as a director takes a humorous but honest look at one of America’s most publicized trials, delivering the sizzling dialogue and airtight tension that the famed West Wing writer is known for. The ensemble cast across the board is well cast no matter the size of the role, but the film’s biggest standouts are easily Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong as Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin respectively, livening up what could have easily been a dry courtroom drama into something almost absurdist. If Sorkin ever gets to write that Social Network sequel, I hope the inevitable scene where Mark Zuckerberg gets questioned by Congress can at least match the grandeur and farce of the court scenes here. 8/10
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
In the most surprising film of 2020 on multiple levels, this belated follow-up to the infamous 2006 mockumentary is perhaps the first comedy sequel that arguably surpasses its predecessor. The film is an irreverent and often uncomfortable skewering of Trump’s America, taking target at the GOP, COVID-19 scepticism and its overall culture of backwards bigotry that has bubbled to the surface since Borat’s last trip to the USA. Baron Cohen is as entertaining as ever as the titular Kazakhstani reporter, but Maria Bakalova is the film’s true revelation as his feral daughter Tutar. She is a comedy mastermind in the making, and comedy filmmakers would be foolish not to give her more opportunities to shine in the future. If you need something cathartic after a year of absolute bullshit, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is just what the doctor ordered. 8.5/10
The Craft Legacy
The Craft has managed to stand the test of time despite its overwhelming 90s-ness to become a perennial favourite for goth girls and wannabe wiccans the world over, and this 2020 sequel/reboot serves its target generation admirably. Though on a skeletal level a rehash of the first film, Legacy is at its best when it is exploring contemporary topics through the lens of its female power fantasy. The storytelling feels a bit restrained by budget, as do its lacklustre special effects, but this is a welcome and tasteful approach to revitalising a story for a new generation, even if this year’s Bit did a much better job of the “supernatural intersectional feminists vs. the patriarchy” premise. 7.5/10
Though Happiest Season isn’t quite the gay Christmas classic all the Ls, Gs, Bs, Ts and beyond deserve, it’s regardless a heart-warming and hilarious step in the right direction. Kristen Stewart makes for a unique rom com lead stuck in an incredibly awkward family situation, with a relatable reticence and frustration that’ll speak to anyone who’s felt conflicted about their relationship, no matter your orientation or identity. The supporting cast is a smorgasbord of great comedy talent too, with Aubrey Plaza, Mary Holland and the always-iconic Dan Levy keeping the laughs coming fast. Sure, the ending is a bit rushed and as a result doesn’t quite feel earned, but its heart is absolutely in the right place, and that’s what matters more than anything. 8/10
Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey
Another solid addition to your holiday watchlist is this musical fantasy adventure from Netflix. Featuring music co-composed by John Legend and some boisterous performances from Forest Whittaker and Keegan Michael-Key, Jingle Jangle is a bold and imaginative throwback to the classic Christmas tales of our childhood with a modern perspective, blending old and new to create something distinctly familiar and yet completely refreshing. It can at times stretch your suspension of disbelief as it indulges in its fairy tale logic a little too much, but the jaw-dropping visuals and toe-tapping musical numbers swiftly help you forget how non-sensical some of the storytelling can be. 7/10
God’s Own Country helmsman Francis Lee returns with this sophomore effort and, though its historical accuracy remains up for debate, its emotional resonance is far from questionable. Kate Winslet’s performance as famed palaeontologist Mary Anning is among her best, portraying a character who is bitter and terse but still sympathetic. The complicated relationship she forms with Saoirse Ronan’s Charlotte Murchison, who herself gives a chilling but brutally honest depiction of depression, is subtle at first but blooms frankly, delivering a romantic drama that isn’t afraid to show the bleak side of star-crossed lovers. Whatever Anning’s sexuality actually was, after centuries of historians erasing and straightwashing queer lives from our collective memories, I think it’s fair to allow this ambiguous case a little creative license. 8.5/10
This psychological horror from Brandon Cronenberg (yes, son of David) is a gruesomely kaleidoscopic trip that explores identity, morality and empathy through a murky sci-fi lens. Andrea Risborough has never been better as a body-swapping assassin on the verge of mental collapse, which is beautifully mirrored in Christopher Abbott’s performance as her latest avatar. This is a shocking and often disturbing piece of filmmaking, with haunting visuals and graphic depictions of sex and violence that shows the Cronenberg apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. 7/10
The Boys in the Band
The language may be dated and the story a bit meandering, but this seminal piece of queer theatre has received a new cinematic adaptation worthy of its legacy. Though yet another example of a stage show struggling to shed its origins in translation, the witty dialogue and distinctive characters remain the true stars. Jim Parsons has never been better than here, finally making me forget he spent over a decade of his talent on a sitcom that had enough jokes for maybe two seasons. Sorry, slightly bitter tangent. The Boys in the Band is pretty good! 7/10
I think we all needed a big gay musical pick-me-up as this dreadful year came to an end, but this adaptation of the Broadway show is like a supermarket celebrating Pride with a rainbow cake or your straight work colleague throwing around drag slang they don’t understand. There is clearly a beating soul to the film’s message, making it hard at points not to get swept up and go with the flow, which is made easier by fantastically camp turns from Meryl Streep and Andrew Rannells, and an endearing debut performance from Jo Ellen Pellman. On the other hand, that sweetness quickly turns sickening, and not just because of James Corden’s frankly cloying performance that is only made less embarrassing by remembering he was also in Cats. 5.5/10
The Spongebob Movie: Sponge on the Run
The third cinematic outing for the favourite marine-based cartoon of children and stoners everywhere, Sponge on the Run is a chuckle-worthy adventure that unfortunately falls short of its superior predecessors. The new CG animation style is an inventive change of pace that luckily doesn’t rob the classic characters of what makes them unique, and there are some standout characters here courtesy of the likes of Matt Berry and Keanu Reeves, but the whole affair feels haphazard and unstructured even for a Spongebob cartoon. This is especially obvious in the much-marketed flashback sequences, which feel like they’ve been cut up and repurposed from some previous version of the movie and then thrown in at the last minute. 6/10
Trolls World Tour
The first Trolls was a pretty generic and forgettable kids movie that has only stayed in the popular consciousness thanks to the incessant catchiness of its tie-in Justin Timberlake song. However, they’ve cleverly leaned into its only relevance being a pop song by retrofitting this sequel into a music-themed adventure and…to my utter surprise, it works. It’s still a film aimed at very young kids and can be annoyingly twee at times, but there’s a sense of spectacle and cleverness here that was rarely present in its predecessor. The world design is bright and distinctive, there’s some funny vocal performances from Rachel Bloom and Sam Rockwell, and it even throws in some unexpectedly adult messages about strength through diversity and reconciling with the sins of your ancestors. It’s certainly not a kids’ movie that transcends the genre like the best animated fare, but if you’ve got children there are far worse films for them to be watching over and over again. 6.5/10
I’m definitely not the most qualified person to judge the subject matter of Antebellum, and it’s hard to even adequately explain my issues without spoiling it, but suffice it to say that this is a highly problematic movie. It is an incredibly misguided attempt to ape the success of Jordan Peele but without his sharp comedic timing, intricate plotting, or reverence for genre. The premise is a solid one packed with potential for both horror and social commentary, but the plotting is poorly constructed and the characters underdeveloped and flat, and with such heavy subject matter you can’t really afford to be this sloppy. Some of the performances are good, especially Gabourey Sidibe as this film’s clear answer to Lil Rel Howrey in Get Out, but they can’t save it from leaving a bad taste. Antebellum ends up feeling like the Green Book of horror movies, and in a year that brought racial inequality to the forefront, that makes it feel extra insulting. 2.5/10
While you wait for the sequel to Enchanted, here’s a Disney family comedy that might as well be a spin-off to it. Godmothered is the very definition of an inoffensive film, never particularly surprising or amazing you but delivering decent laughs and charm nonetheless. Jillian Bell and Isla Fisher make for a decent enough bickering duo, and the film’s commentary on the sleaziness of trend-chasing news networks gives it some edge, but it’s the kind of movie you’ll probably forget not long after you watch it. 6/10
Promising Young Woman
Wow. I mean…wow! I kind of want to wait and give this one a full review at some point, maybe closer to its UK release, but for now I’ll say this: go see Promising Young Woman as soon as you reasonably can. This is the kind of filmmaking we so rarely ever see: audacious, savage, completely bonkers and yet brutally honest. Carey Mulligan delivers the performance of a lifetime, whilst the biting screenplay and tight direction by Emerald Fennell here is instantly iconic. There’s not a single aspect of this film I can critique without it feeling like a nitpick, and just writing about it right now makes me excited to watch it again. It is absolutely my favourite movie of 2020, and I cannot recommend you see it highly enough. 10/10!
2020 was a double dip year for Pixar, and whilst Onward was a pretty decent animated adventure, it looks absolutely basic in comparison to Soul. While on the surface it may seem like a repeat of Pete Docter’s own Inside Out, Soul brings the same emotional nuance that film brought to growing up and applies it that greatest question of all: what is our purpose in life? What follows is easily Pixar’s most adult film to date, and one that is likely to make you ponder and even question your own life choices. It is still ultimately a film for all ages, but it doggedly refuses to dumb itself down whilst still providing enough gags and heart to keep the younger set entertained. 2020 was a year that made many of us reassess what we were doing with our lives, and Soul perfectly captures those feelings of inadequacy and doubt and turns them into beautiful art. 9.5/10
Feels Good Man
Whether you know his true origins or even his name, Pepe the Frog has been an internet meme for what feels like as long as memes have existed, and not in a good way. This captivating documentary is not only an excellent dive into how an innocent cartoon frog became a symbol of the alt-right, but an examination of how the darkest corners of the internet have taken control of real-world discourse. It’s an emotional rollercoaster of a story that starts with the carefree life of creator Matt Furie and sends him on a reluctant journey to battle internet trolls, and serves as a stark reminder of how easily media can be taken out of context and warped into something evil. 8/10
An American Pickle
Seth Rogen takes on a double role in this odd comedy about an immigrant who wakes up in modern day New York and is reunited with his great-grandson after 100 years of being preserved in pickle brine. Yep, it’s about as weird as it sounds. The film is mostly a two-hander between Rogen and himself, bickering back and forth in an escalating routine that quickly becomes repetitive. It’s a very distinctive and often fascinating film on a visual level, which may be owed to director Brandon Trost’s background in cinematography, but on a comedy level it is incredibly hit-and-miss. Your mileage may vary, as the film is admittedly very niche, but it’s easy to see why this one ended up being chucked onto HBO Max. 5.5/10
The Croods: A New Age
The lovable caveman family that is not The Flintstones returns in this breezy and imaginative animated adventure that asks questions about class, cultural differences, and the values of a sidekick that doubles as a wig. The returning cast are all spot-on once again, with Nicolas Cage once again stealing the show as the lovably stubborn Grug, but it’s the new characters that add a welcome change of dynamic. Peter Dinklage and Leslie Mann make for a wonderfully smug holier-than-thou couple Phil and Hope Betterman, whilst Kelly Marie Tran is an energetic delight as their daughter Dawn. Combine that comedy with some vibrant visuals, creative action and a rocking soundtrack, it all adds up to a film that more than matches the quality of its predecessor. 7.5/10
This new adaptation of the Roald Dahl classic is yet another example of how a film can end up being so much less than the sum of its parts. A children’s fantasy film directed by Robert Zemeckis, co-written by Guillermo del Toro, and starring the likes of Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer, Stanley Tucci and Chris Rock? The potential for something great was all laid out for us, but what we’ve got instead is an overblown mess of a film with cringe-worthy dialogue, uneven pacing and startlingly inconsistent visual effects. The film may have been envisioned with the intention of being campy and over-the-top, but Zemeckis’ overly-slick direction and its cast clearly not all on the same page about the tone leads to the whole thing falling apart. 3/10
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
This adaptation of the August Wilson play may wear its theatre origins on its sleeve, but it carries itself of as a movie far more cohesively than prior Wilson production Fences. Viola Davis is as magnetic and captivating as ever as the titular Ma Rainey, and there’s some strong supporting turns from Colman Domingo and Glynn Turman, but the performance here by the late Chadwick Boseman here is truly the film’s shining achievement. Not just because it’s his final role, but because it is easily his best. The acting world won’t see another like him for some time, and here he puts on display every ounce of his talent. Farewell, king. We will miss you. 8/10
Trust David Fincher to turn a movie about the creation of Citizen Kane into a film just as inventive, witty and culturally biting as the movie it is about. Written decades ago by Fincher’s late father Jack, Mank is one of those movies that feels like it was made to win Oscars. The film perfectly captures the look and feel of a classic Hollywood movie, from Erik Messerschmidt’s beautiful black-and-white cinematography to how the sound has been mixed to give it that 1930’s touch; there’s even “cigarette burns” to indicate reel changes. The performances are all top-notch, from Gary Oldman’s drunken mess of a screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz to Arliss Howard’s pitch-perfect portrayal of movie mogul Louis B. Mayer, though Amanda Seyfried ends up being the film’s surprise star as Hollywood legend Marion Davies; it may prove to be her best work yet. The film is a tad overlong and doesn’t have much screen time for William Randolph Hearst despite him being at the centre of the film’s conflict (though Charles Dance absolutely relishes in what few scenes he does have), but regardless this is one every lover of classic cinema should give a watch. It’s certainly far from Fincher’s best, but even his lesser works are masterpieces compared to most movies. 8.5/10
Starring: Gal Gadot (Fast & Furious 6), Chris Pine (Star Trek), Kristen Wiig (Bridesmaids), Pedro Pascal (The Mandalorian), Connie Nielsen (Gladiator), Robin Wright (The Princess Bride)
Director: Patty Jenkins (Monster)
Writers: Patty Jenkins & Geoff Johns (Aquaman) and Dave Callaham (Zombieland: Double Tap)
Runtime: 2 hours 31 minutes
Release Date: 16th December (UK), 25th December (US)
In this critic’s opinion, Patty Jenkin’s Wonder Woman is one of the best superhero movies ever made. Rather than just another aping of the Marvel formula, it used Richard Donner’s Superman as its key point of inspiration and delivered a classic mythic tale that encapsulated the essence of Diana Prince in cinematic form; yeah, the third act was a bit of an odd gear shift, but it otherwise delivered with flying colours. It remains the shining star all DC movies since have had to compare themselves too, and I doubt one will even match its like soon. That too, I’m afraid, very much applies to its sequel. Though Wonder Woman 1984 does retain the optimism and spirit that made the first film feel so refreshing, it ultimately tries to do too many things at once, making for an ambitious and often awe-inspiring blockbuster but one that nearly buckles from its own exuberance.
Wonder Woman 1984 immediately sheds what remaining grimdark influence Zack Snyder had over its predecessor, tonally delivering a much more vibrant and upbeat adventure that feels like it could have been made in the year of its namesake. The story itself is a fairly simple “be careful what you wished for” narrative blown up on a global scale, succeeding where the first film did by building its narrative and themes around Wonder Woman’s ethos; if the first film was about Diana’s power of love, this is about her power of truth. The film is at its best when it goes for broke and embraces its comic book inspirations, even if it sometimes borders on parody. However, this whimsical technicolour outlook doesn’t always gel with a film that also wants to make a serious political statement. Much of the plot is allegorical for both the greed of the 1980s and its nasty resurgence in modern times, and it’s hardly subtle about it. The problem doesn’t lie so much in its treacly yet earnest message, but in how it is delivered. It naively simplifies complex issues of political motivations and personality deficiencies that just can’t be unravelled so easily, even by a literal demigod superhero. There’s nothing wrong with a film being optimistic, and the breadth of it present in Wonder Woman 1984 can be intoxicatingly uplifting. Unfortunately, it approaches topics like capitalism and authoritarianism with the ingenuous thinking of an ex-boyfriend thinking they can win back their lover with a grand romantic gesture; its heart is in the right place, but it’s just not that simply solved.
Even in subpar fare like Batman v Superman and Justice League, Gal Gadot has always been the bright star of the DCEU and continues to do the name of Wonder Woman proud here. Much like the film itself, her performance exudes with joy and playfulness, but with a clear undercurrent of world weariness and desperate longing. She’s a more confident and witty character than in the first film, where her humour relied more on fish-out-of-water gags, but even with her power she’s still clearly a human with needs and flaws that lead her into trouble. This character development helps to freshen up her relationship with Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor, with him now in the role of the newcomer astounded by the “future” of the 1980s. Though the way his character re-enters the story is odd and needlessly complicated, Pine himself is as charming and affable as ever and his chemistry with Gadot continues to be a high point for the franchise.
The big new draw for WW84 is its villains, and both Kristen Wiig and Pedro Pascal do not disappoint on a performance level as Barbara Minerva and Maxwell Lord respectively. Though Wiig feels well-cast as an awkward wallflower, it’s a little tiresome to see yet another superhero movie where the villain starts off as a nerd with big glasses and bad hair who has an unhealthy obsession with the hero (I mean, they literally introduce her with a “clumsily drops her papers and no one helps her” moment). Luckily, once Minerva begins to shed her anxieties and go down the wicked path, Wiig really gets a chance to show her range as more than just a comedienne; I’d love to see her get more opportunities to stretch like this. Meanwhile, Pascal is an utter delight from his first moments on screen as the delightful but insecure Lord, turning the character into far more than just a playful take on a certain other power-hungry con man who lies his way to the top. He is absolutely the best thing about the movie and balances that fine line between taking his character seriously and having a blast with it. Sadly, his character’s arc is where the film’s biggest problem is most evident, as if the film itself fell in love with Lord so much that it couldn’t bare to give him his deserved fate. The rest of the supporting cast is made up of relatively minor roles, with Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright only returning as Hippolyta and Antiope for a prologue sequence that is narratively superfluous but thematically important, and classic Wonder Woman fans would do well to sit through the credits for a long-overdue cameo.
When I said the film has a “whimsical technicolour outlook”, that applies as much to the visuals as it does the tone. WW84 bathes itself in the neon excess of the 1980s on every level, from Diana’s glossy new costumes to the film’s highly stylised colour grading. Despite retaining cinematographer Matthew Jensen from the first film, this is a vastly different film from a stylistic perspective, going for a far more hyperreal aesthetic that is often evocative of the art of Alex Ross; there are so many shots in this film that made my jaw drop just from their staging and/or lighting. Though none could ever match the majesty of the No Man’s Land sequence from its predecessor, the action sequences on display are varied and thrilling, with particular highlights being a car chase through the Egyptian desert and the best superhero battle at the White House since the Nightcrawler sequence from X2. Sadly, the film does have some technical shortcomings. The visual effects are incredibly inconsistent, even with things as basic as compositing; one could argue this was an intentional choice to evoke the VFX of 1980s movies, but it’d be a pretty tenuous one. Most disappointingly, the score by Hans Zimmer lacks the bombast of his usual compositions and is mostly pretty forgettable, with the new arrangement of the Wonder Woman theme sounding especially restrained. It almost feels like temp music at times, with Zimmer even blatantly reusing a track from his Batman v Superman score in one key scene. Why? I have no idea. The scene isn’t a callback to that film in any way narratively or thematically. The track is just…there, like they put it in during the rough edit and forgot to replace it later.
If the first Wonder Woman was the spiritual successor to Richard Donner’s Superman, Wonder Woman 1984 is very much Superman II. It’s bigger, bolder and brighter than the first film, but it lacks the verisimilitude that made its predecessor transcend the genre. Purely as a piece of blockbuster entertainment, I can highly recommend it as a joyous comic book adventure made with an abundance of talent, passion and care. That said, it makes the mistake of buying into its own hype, lacking the restraint it needs to realize how ridiculously naïve it is. I mean, it’s nowhere near as childishly simplistic as “Superman solves nuclear war by tossing all the nukes into the Sun”, but it veers in that direction. Ultimately, Patty Jenkins’ love for the character is still all over this film, and I almost can’t blame her for overindulging herself after being freed from having to fit herself into a Snyder-shaped hole. Hopefully, after her detour to a galaxy far, far away with Star Wars: Rogue Squadron, she’ll come back and deliver a capper to this trilogy worthy of its ambitions.
Starring: Yifei Liu (The Forbidden Kingdom), Donnie Yen (Rogue One), Tzi Ma (The Farewell), Jason Scott Lee (Lilo & Stitch), Gong Li (Memoirs of a Geisha), Yonson An (Mortal Engines), Jet Li (The Expendables),
Director: Niki Caro (Whale Rider)
Writers: Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) and Lauren Hynek & Elizabeth Martin (Christmas Perfection)
Runtime: 1 hour 55 minutes
Release Date: 4th September (Disney+)
Another year, another live-action remake of a Disney animated classic, and 1998’s Mulan is an obvious yet dicey choice for the makeover treatment. Its wartime period setting immediately sets it up for action spectacle, its themes of female empowerment are just as timely as ever, and from a business perspective it’s a no-brainer to appeal to the lucrative Chinese box office. However, aside from maybe the occasional pop culture reference courtesy of Eddie Murphy, the original film still holds up incredibly well, and so remaking it only risks turning it into either yet another note-for-note rehash like The Lion King or some bizarre recontextualization like Dumbo. Luckily, it seems Disney has managed to hit the bullseye for the first time since 2016’s The Jungle Book, delivering a retelling that perfectly balances respecting its inspiration whilst forging its own identity and purpose.
The core plot structure of the 1998 film has been retained for the remake, though the first and third acts of the film have been expanded and altered to give the story a grander scope. Those familiar with the original will certainly find the film faithful in spirit, though reinterpreted through a modern and more serious lens. This is easily the most tonally mature of the Disney remakes so far, abandoning much of the light-hearted humour and giving the story a much more mythic feel. It clearly takes influence from wuxia films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers, along with western war epics like Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven, but at its core the film Mulan clearly aspires to be compared to is Wonder Woman. Like Patty Jenkins’ superhero epic, it very earnestly takes to heart the core themes and ideals of its protagonist, leaning into the power fantasy of its premise whilst still giving it due respect and pathos.
Unlike Disney’s recent iffy attempts at integrating feminist messages into their remakes like Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, they’ve managed to take a story that already had solid female empowerment and find ways to subtly improve on those ideas. Through just a few slight but significant changes to Mulan’s character arc and the introduction of the new sub-villain Xian Lang, the film bolsters the already-present themes of identity and family into something that feels fresh and contemporary; it’s very clear that this is a film made by women. Ultimately, what makes Mulan work is that it doesn’t try too hard to either copy the original or drastically set itself apart, finding a comfortable balance in the middle. It is a fantastic companion piece to the animated film, but also stands up as a great action movie on its own.
Where the decision to darken the film’s tone doesn’t work in its favour is in its characterisation. Yifei Liu’s Mulan is a far more distant and less charismatic interpretation than Ming-Na Wen’s from the animated film, though on the page that seems intentional. The new film positions Mulan as far less confident at first, her boisterous personality and longing for adventure forcibly supressed in order to fit in, and so understandably she comes off as nervous and scared to exert herself. Unfortunately, even once she finds her confidence as a warrior, her character remains somewhat bland. It’s unclear how much of this is down to Liu’s performance or the screenplay, but it’s a bit disappointing that the weakest part of Mulan is Mulan herself. Luckily, what this version of the character lacks in charm, she makes up for on the battlefield.
The film’s supporting cast is full of great Chinese acting talent and, though many of them don’t get the screen time they deserve, they all do a fantastic job with what material they’re given. The easy standout is Donnie Yen as Commander Tung, who is immediately captivating and badass from the moment he walks on screen. Fulfilling half of the role of Li Shang from the original film (with his companion and potential romance duties being given to Yonson An’s Chen), he carries much of the film’s charisma entirely on his shoulders. Tzi Ma is also fantastic as Mulan’s father Zhou, giving the film a much-needed sense of gravitas. Jason Scott Lee does a solid job as Bori Khan, the film’s reinterpretation of Shan Yu, but the character can’t help but be a somewhat bland villain. Thankfully, Gong Li as the witch Xian Lang more than makes up for this. She serves as a perfect mirror to Mulan and her desires, and gives us a villain motivated by far more than just power and revenge. Even though it’s interesting to see him get involved in the action this time around, Jet Li feels a bit underutilised as the Emperor, whilst the film’s new versions of Ling, Chien-Po and Yao are mere shadows of their original characters.
Where Mulan unquestionably shines brightest is in its presentation, practically showing off just how expensive the film was in every frame. Mandy Walker’s cinematography is jaw-droppingly beautiful throughout, bursting with colour and capturing striking imagery rarely seen in western productions. The production design, costumes, and make-up are all on-point, bringing this heightened version of Ancient China to life that perfectly balances the theatrical with the realistic. Much criticism has been aimed at the decision to excise the musical numbers of the original and, whilst they are missed, they absolutely wouldn’t have meshed with the film’s new aesthetic. However, the melodies from those songs are often integrated into Harry Gregson-Williams’ score, turning “Reflection” from a touching ballad into a fist-pumping moment in the heat of battle. Speaking of, the fight choreography on display is absolutely fantastic. The wuxia influence here is especially felt as characters run up walls or balance on spears, and it all flows together so well whilst the camera wisely pulls back to capture the action in all its glory. There are a few odd editing decisions here and there, but otherwise this is a technically outstanding film that meshes eastern and western cinema traditions into a magnificent package.
The new Mulan is an exciting and gorgeously executed reimagining that finds strong but subtle ways to improve on its inspiration. It may lack the approachable charm of the animated film, but it’s very clear that it isn’t trying to be. This is an action movie first and foremost, and as one it succeeds in delivering awesome set pieces and stunning visuals, whilst also adding some welcome nuance and updates to the film’s messages of female empowerment. The tonal shift and lack of songs may upset purists looking for a more faithful retelling of the original, but a beat-for-beat live action remake would have been redundant when the 1998 film is great as is. By taking the film in a distinct direction, it avoids this problem and creates a fresh experience for both fans and newcomers. If you like your Mulan with all the music and Mushu intact, you can watch the original. However, if a version that’s essentially a superhero movie as directed by Zhang Yimou sounds interesting to you, Niki Caro’s Mulan is well worth a watch.
Starring: Maisie Williams (Game of Thrones), Anya Taylor-Joy (Split), Charlie Heaton (Stranger Things), Alice Braga (Predators), Blu Hunt (Another Life), Henry Zaga (Looking for Alaska), Adam Beach (Suicide Squad)
Director: Josh Boone (The Fault in Our Stars)
Writers: Josh Boone & Knate Lee (Kidnap)
Runtime: 1 hour 38 minutes
Release Date: 28th August (US), 4th September (UK)
In our current reality where the cinematic calendar is constantly shifting, The New Mutants is like the hipster lurking in the back watching and laughing: it was constantly pushing back its release date before it was the norm. Originally slated for release in April 2018, this X-Men spin-off was repeatedly kicked from slot to slot for over two years due to planned reshoots that never happened and complications related to the Disney/Fox merger, finally given a firm date of April 2020 before COVID-19 hit it like almost every other major release. Finally in cinemas whilst the pandemic still afflicts the world and its own franchise having died over a year ago, there were many theories running about the internet as The New Mutants sat on the shelf that it was so unwatchable that it may never see the light of day. However, after having finally witnessed this mythic film, it’s safe to say that it isn’t some unsalvageable abomination. It’s actually just…fine.
There were several reports before release that claimed that all references to Fox’s X-Men films had been excised from the final cut of The New Mutants, supposedly so the film could be retroactively placed in the Marvel Cinematic Universe should Disney want to. Those reports, much like a lot of the rumours surrounding the film, are bunkum. The film not only mentions the X-Men several times, but actually ties into the events of Apocalypse and Logan, in the process typing up some dangling plot threads from the prior films. However, those pieces of continuity are relatively minor, as The New Mutants is otherwise a standalone story set almost entirely in one location. The film is something of a mash-up of teen coming-of-age movie and horror flick, most comparable to A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, but unfortunately neither element is particularly exemplary.
The teen angst stuff works well enough on its own, with director Josh Boone’s experience on films like The Fault in Our Stars and Stuck in Love evident in the grounded performances and tender exchanges; if only these moments had more time to breathe. Meanwhile, the horror elements are extremely lacklustre and barely even worth a hair raise. For a film whose premise is based around people’s fears being brought to life, there’s not any particularly frightful images or haunting concepts here that aren’t cliché, with the filmmakers’ imagination of horror extending only about as far as ‘Slender Man in a tacky silk shirt.’ With that said, in spite of the tepid scares, the film ultimately works somehow. The pacing is solid, the storytelling is efficient if a little rushed, the third act is exciting when it finally arrives, and its themes of overcoming trauma and rejection hit home. Those planned reshoots may have been helpful, especially if they used them to either amp up the horror or bolster the character development, but the final product is far from terrible. Compared to many of the big budget X-Men films with their bombastic scale and lack of respect for the source material, The New Mutants is competently made by comparison.
The film may give Maisie Williams top billing due to her being the biggest star, and the marketing focuses most on Anya Taylor-Joy because her character’s powers are the most visually impressive, but the protagonist of The New Mutants is actually Blu Hunt’s Dani Moonstar. Hunt delivers a perfectly fine central performance, but Moonstar is a bit of a blank slate and she has little to work with given how the story obstructs much of her true nature. Where Hunt shines is in her scenes with Williams, who plays the religiously-conflicted lycanthrope Rahne. The two have solid chemistry and just enough screen time together to cement a solid relationship, easily taking the crown of best LGBTQ+ representation in a mainstream superhero film. Then again, given the level of competition so far, that’s not exactly hard.
Taylor-Joy is as captivating an actor as ever, even though the characterisation of Illyana is a tad all over the place. She’s presented as this arrogant and frigid bully compensating for her inner trauma, but not only is her backstory wildly complicated compared to her peers and not explained too well, but her demeanour very suddenly shifts in the third act because the story needs her in action mode. The skeleton of a solid arc is there for Illyana, but it feels like there’s a few key steps missing. Charlie Heaton is somewhat wasted as Sam, his only distinguishing characteristic being his inconsistent Kentucky accent that fluctuates from non-existent to Benoit Blanc between scenes, whilst Henry Zaga’s Roberto is…there. Alice Braga is fine enough as Cecilia Reyes, but her characterisation is also slightly unclear; is she a good person forced into doing bad things, or a bad person hiding behind a kind exterior? The only other character of note is Adam Beach in a brief role as Dani’s father, and…wait, Marilyn Manson was the voice of one of the monsters? Huh. That’s an odd bit of trivia for you.
The New Mutants is by no means a terrible looking film, but for a production that allegedly cost $80 million, it looks like one that barely spent a quarter of that. For comparison, the first Deadpool cost just under $60 million, and that film had dozens of sets, bigger name stars and extensive CGI. Much of the film takes place in the halls of a hospital but, unlike Fox’s similarly confined Fantastic Four reboot, the restrictive locale works to film’s scale and tone. The cinematography by Peter Deming is suitably moody and grounded, giving the picture an indie quality that helps separate it from its big-budget cousins, and the visual effects are for the most part well-designed if not flawlessly executed; Illyana’s Magik powers and the film’s final boss in particular stand out. The film’s most underwhelming technical aspect is the film’s score, composed by Mark Snow of The X-Files fame. The music is almost unnoticeable, sounding barely above the generic royalty-free horror tracks you can find online, and its lack of oomph only makes the moments of horror fall even flatter.
Despite its many faults, The New Mutants is a distinct and enjoyable little superhero movie, and with some tweaks it could have been the breath of fresh air the genre needed. In its clearly undercooked released form and under intense scrutiny after two years of build-up, it’s something of a miracle that it’s as decent as it is. At least we can now put all the wild speculation and memes to rest, and with it the last vestiges of Fox’s mixed handling of the X-Men property. When all is said and done, The New Mutants will end up just being an interesting footnote to a franchise that lasted twenty years, with its troubled production history and cult internet status overshadowing the plucky little film that tried hiding underneath. It might not be worth the hype, but I’d certainly watch it ten times in a row before I even considered watching X-Men Origins: Wolverine or Dark Phoenix again.
Starring: John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman), Robert Pattinson (The Lighthouse), Elizabeth Debicki (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), Kenneth Branagh (Henry V), Dimple Kapadia (Rudaali), Himesh Patel (Yesterday), Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass), Michael Caine (Get Carter), Clémence Poésy (127 Hours)
Writer/Director: Christopher Nolan (Inception)
Runtime: 2 hours 30 mins
Release Date: 26th August (UK), 3rd September (US)
Cinemas in the UK have been open for roughly a month now, but there’s been very little incentive to go back. Partly due to fears about safety, but also just a lack of enticing releases; it’s mostly just been reruns, obscure indies and just generally films that don’t demand being seen on the big screen. Whilst most studios delayed their releases for this year or made them available to stream at home, Tenet was always seen as a certainty for cinematic release, mainly at the behest of Christopher Nolan himself. Known for his passion for the traditional cinema experience, Nolan’s insistence on bringing the film to movie theatres come hell or high water has been seen as the make-or-break moment for these venues. With Disney backing away for now by putting Mulan up for premium streaming, the future of cinemas has been saddled on the shoulders of Tenet, which is both a momentous and frightening prospect.
Even with all of the precautions taken by cinema chains and myself as an audience member, going back to the cinema in the midst of an ongoing pandemic was still a dicey prospect; I won’t lie, my anxiety was high as I sat down and the film finally began. However, even in a socially-distanced theatre with my mask on and being extremely cautious of what I touched, eventually I found myself comfortably back in my home away from home. The only real disappointment of the experience was that, as good as Tenet is in many aspects, I fear it’s ultimately going to be more remembered for the tumultuous nature of its release than for anything in the film itself.
Like many Nolan films, Tenet has been marketed in a way to obscure much of the story in secrecy, even down to the exact nature of its time-bending conceit. It’s a tactic that certainly preserves the surprises of the movie, but also makes it incredibly hard to review. The best I can do is say that Tenet does for time travel what Inception did for dreams, so if that film’s approach to its premise left you perplexed or annoyed, this one is probably not for you either. That said, as unique and visually captivating as many aspects of the film are, there is also an unnerving familiarity to the entire production. Much in the same unfortunate vein as Quentin Tarantino and Edgar Wright, Christopher Nolan’s style has reached a point where it has stopped being distinctive and started to feel tiresome. The first half of the film is frustratingly slow and dreary, only waking up for brief spurts of action that are cleverly executed but lack audience investment. The dialogue is 90% just exposition as characters exchange unnatural dialogue filled with scientific technobabble and philosophical musings, making it hard to care about the context of anything happening on screen. It’s a difficult film to follow at times; not because its story or ideas are particularly complicated, but because it gets so tedious at points that it is hard to pay attention. As bombastic and fascinating as many of its concepts and set pieces are, it’s all delivered with Nolan’s typical po-faced self-seriousness with nary a trace of humanity, and it just sucks much of the possible fun out of the movie.
However, once it hits the halfway mark and starts really embracing the full potential of its premise, the film not only finds its groove but also retroactively makes the preceding half better in retrospect. The film’s pacing kicks into high gear, the action sequences start being exciting rather than just nifty, and even the characters start to actually come to life as stakes are raised and relationships take interesting turns. Much like Memento or The Prestige, it’s a film that certainly entices you to watch it again for how its revelations recontextualise early scenes, and perhaps with time and reflection its quality may improve. With that said, its early fumbling still handicaps its overall enjoyment in a way Nolan’s previous mind-bending efforts didn’t. In his efforts to top himself, he has ended up making something too complex, focusing so much on crafting the mechanics of his world that he has ended up sacrificing the character, wit and energy that made his other films so consistently entertaining.
After a filmography mostly featuring white dudes in nice suits as main characters, it’s nice to see Nolan mix it up a bit and make his main character a Black dude in a nice suit. Jokes aside, John David Washington is a charismatic actor and his natural charm does a lot of heavy lifting as Tenet’s nameless lead. He’s something of a blank slate due to the nature of his character’s profession, but Washington brings subtleties to his performance that demonstrates a degree of humanity to this otherwise no-nonsense man on a mission. Elizabeth Debicki is as alluring as ever as Kat, giving easily the most emotionally vulnerable performance in the film as a woman trapped in an abusive marriage, though the film unfortunately boxes her in as a damsel-in-distress until the third act. Kenneth Branagh makes for an interesting choice as the film’s villain Sator, clearly having brushed up on his Russian accent since his questionable stab at one in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, giving a brutal and vicious performance but not without completely losing Branagh’s signature magnetism.
There’s a lot of great talent in small supporting roles throughout the film, some of whom only get one or two scenes before disappearing. There’s of course the expected Michael Caine cameo, but there’s also Clémence Poésy in a small role as a scientist who introduces Washington to the time-warping conceit of the plot, Himesh Patel as one of his accomplices, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as a military figure who arrives late into the second act. Dimple Kapadia, a respected Indian actress unknown to most western audiences, gets more screen time than all of these stars combined, and she delivers a strong performance that makes me hope she gets some more mainstream attention. However, the film’s unquestionable MVP is Robert Pattinson as Washington’s right-hand man Neil. In quite an odd turn, the usually brooding actor ends up being the one easily having the most fun, delivering much of the film’s scant moments of levity and injecting a healthy dose of charisma and emotion into the film. His character is easily the most nuanced in the whole film, and one of the main reasons watching the film again is a compelling prospect.
If you’ve seen any of Christopher Nolan’s films, especially those from Batman Begins onwards, you know what you’re going to get aesthetically, but there have been some noticeable changes behind-the-scenes that slightly alter its flavour. Most notably, the music is composed not by Nolan’s usual choices of Hans Zimmer or David Julyan, but by Ludwig Göransson of Black Panther and The Mandalorian fame. His score takes some inspiration from Zimmer but is noticeably more muted and techno-influenced, giving it slightly grungier and less operatic feel than a typical Nolan score. This change in musical tone is even reflected in the end credits, which play over an original rap song ‘The Plan’ by Travis Scott, that complements Göransson’s compositions beautifully.
The film’s editing, done by Noah Baumbach regular Jennifer Lame rather than Nolan’s usual Lee Smith, is tight and keeps up the tension in all of the right places, whilst the production design is grounded but intricate in much the same vein as Inception or Interstellar. In his third collaboration with Nolan, the cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema is, for the most part, gorgeous and captures the peculiar action sequences in enthralling fashion. The only flaw here is the lighting in scenes set at night, which often threaten to make Washington almost invisible; it seems even the best cinematographers could use some lessons in photographing Black skin.
Tenet is a unique and often stunning film about the nature of time and fate, but it’s ultimately a little too smart for its own good. It’s a difficult film to penetrate even by Nolan’s standards, and though its second half ultimately brings it across the finish line, getting through its slog of a first will be an endurance test for those looking for something more immediately entertaining. It’s certainly far from Nolan’s worst film (I swear, The Dark Knight Rises only gets shoddier every time I watch it), but in comparison to most of his filmography, it is a disappointment. I don’t doubt that many of those willing to go back to cinemas and see Tenet will love it. However, for those still understandably hesitant to venture to the multiplex, I will simply say this: Tenet is not worth rushing out to see anyway.