Starring: Dwayne Johnson (San Andreas), Aldis Hodge (Straight Outta Compton), Noah Centineo (To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before), Sarah Shahi (Person of Interest), Marwan Kenzari (The Old Guard), Quintessa Swindell (Trinkets), Bohdi Sabongui (A Million Little Things), Pierce Brosnan (Goldeneye)
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra (Jungle Cruise)
Writers: Adam Sztykiel (Rampage) and Rory Haines & Sohrab Noshirvani (The Mauritanian)
Runtime: 2 hours 4 minutes
Release Date: 21st October (US, UK)
Synopsis: Awakening after five thousand years, the slave-turned-demigod Teth-Adam must come to terms with his deification by the people of Kahndaq, all whilst combatting both the invading paramilitary forces of Intergang and the superhero team The Justice Society.
Dwayne Johnson was born to play a superhero, and despite multiple offers and fan castings, the wrestler-turned-Hollywood superstar has kept his eyes focused on one dream role for nearly two decades: Black Adam. Best known as the archenemy of the hero formerly known as Captain Marvel, he’s not the character you’d usually expect to debut in his own movie; in fact, he was originally supposed to be the main villain of Shazam!. However, due to Johnson’s star power and after a multitude of production delays, the protector of Kahndaq has finally arrived on the big screen as the first major DC release of the Warner Bros. Discovery era. With the future of the DCEU very much up in the air after 2023, Black Adam finds itself in a less extreme but still comparable situation to 2017’s Justice League: caught creatively between where the franchise has been, and where the studio is trying to make it go. Its split priorities have ended up producing a film that has every piece it needs to be great, but remains confused as how exactly to stick them all together.
Whilst technically a spin-off of Shazam!, Black Adam connects just as much to the wider DC world as it does to its immediate cousin, but not in a way that majorly indicates where the cinematic universe is headed as a whole; it very much is a smaller story set within a larger world. The film’s biggest issue shows itseld almost immediately with its impatient pace and poor structuring. The entire first act is muddled as we are quickly thrown into the thick of the story, leading to a disorienting barrage of scenes that feel like they are being played on fast-forward. It screams of a production that has been heavily fiddled with throughout, with all the focus placed on spectacle whilst plot and character are left on autopilot. The dialogue is plagued with clunky exposition and motivations are explained over and over again, as if the filmmakers are worried the audience won’t be able to follow, when the issue is less how complicated the story is (because, on paper, it’s not at all) and more how poorly they are telling it.
Thankfully, things do improve once all the pieces are firmly on the board. The film takes some breaths in the second act, allowing the actors to be more personable instead of just yammering about the plot, forming some decent characterisation along the way. It does just enough to get you to care about these characters before it hits the finale, which is where the movie finally comes alive and manages to end things on a high. What surprisingly is the picture’s biggest saving grace, of all things, is its thematic richness. It really focuses in on Kahndaq as an exploited nation, plundered for its resources and ignored by first-world nations. It creates an interesting dynamic once Adam is revealed to the world and the Justice Society step in, with the supposed heroes being treated as hostile by the locals and yet another example of a big foreign power intruding on their issues. It’s not explored in as much depth as it could have, but it confronts the issue in a far more blunt and honest way than Captain America: Civil War, which focused far more on collateral damage than the actual morality of America sticking its nose in other nations. It’s the perfect backdrop to an antihero story, one where the morality of all its characters is put into question, especially those who believe they are righteous. I just wish it was handled with more grace.
After so many years hyping up this role, Johnson does indeed prove he’s a good fit for Black Adam. He has clearly cobbled together elements from other comic book characters; namely, Thor’s bemused relationship with the modern world, Drax’s stoic literalism, and Peacemaker’s brutal and steadfast approach to “justice”. That said, the combination makes for an entertaining mix and a refreshing departure from Johnson’s usual interchangable protagonists, literally storming through most of the movie like a Kryptonian Jason Vorhees. He’s a bit of a blank slate at first, but as the film goes on and we learn more about his back story, he becomes more compelling as we come to understand the difference between the legend of Teth-Adam and the real man behind it. Despite this, the story still gives us a more grounded viewpoint with Sarah Shahi and Bohdi Sabongui as professor and resistance leader Adrianna Tomaz and her son Amon respectively. Whilst Sabongui’s performance is sadly typical for a child actor, the character captures a similar charm to Ms. Marvel as a superhero fan who tries to mold Adam into a more traditional hero. Meanwhile, Shahi mostly seems to exist to spout exposition, yell after Amon, or just be someone for Adam to speak at. Given the Tomaz’s role in the comics, they serve a sadly perfunctory role with little indication of the direction they may go in.
As if our titular character played by the biggest movie star in the world wasn’t enough, Black Adam also serves as the cinematic debut of a bunch of other DC superheroes big and small, and from a casting point-of-view they’re all great. Aldis Hodge serves as the leader of the Justice Society as Hawkman, and he plays him as a sort of curmudgeonly, by-the-books boy scout whose will is tested by Adam’s disinterest in playing fair. It’s fun to see his self-seriousness broken and brought to anger by Adam being so nonchalant in his violence, and Hodge absolutely nails that. Pierce Brosnan makes for a great Doctor Fate, whose own disconnectedness from reality makes for a good mirror to Adam, and his wise temperment and relationship with Hodge gives the film a heart at its otherwise spectacle-driven centre.
Noah Centineo is the big surprise here as Atom-Smasher, and whilst he’s obviously cribbing from Tom Holland’s notes by being a reticent and clumsy youngster in awe of his teammates, his himbo edge gives him enough of a unique flavour and is responsible for most of the gags that land. Quintessa Swindell sadly draws the short straw amongst the Society as Cyclone, who plays the role with gusto and has a few fun interactions with Centineo as a fellow new recruit, but otherwise adds very little to proceedings; you could easily cut her and not miss much. But easily the biggest weakness, and a pretty common one for the genre, is the villain played by Marwan Kenzari. The marketing hasn’t said much about his role, so I won’t spoil it here, but it’s a very undercooked part that’s made even more frustrating by the potential it occasionally shows. Kenzari is a talented actor who could make for a great comic book villain, and it’s sad to see his shot wasted on such a ho-hum baddie.
From an aesthetic perspective, Black Adam is easily the closest a DCEU movie has come to being indistinguisable from an MCU production, mainly in how it lacks the distinct directorial style that has helped DC’s pictures stand out from Marvel’s more uniform policy. Jaume Collet-Serra is the most journeyman of a director the superhero genre has had since Alan Taylor, and though Jungle Cruise proved he could handle blockbuster action after a background in mostly horror and thrillers, this really does feel like a more work-for-hire gig because of his prior relationship with Johnson rather than being the only filmmaker who could do justice to this character. The action sequences are fine enough, emulating Zack Snyder mostly with extensive slo-mo, but there’s nothing really too definitive or memorable about any of it. What really ruins the film’s techincal presentation is the editing and soundtrack choices. This is easily the worst edit job since the original Suicide Squad, with sequences that were clearly much longer pared down to the bare minimum, especially during the needle drop moments where the songs barely have a chance to play before the scene is over. Plus, the music choices are just bad. Including “Paint It Black” by The Rolling Stones, for instance, is just too obvious, whilst chucking on “Power” by Kanye West makes more sense but…is highly questionable given recent events.
Black Adam is a movie that is so close to being good, and with a few small tweaks it could have even been great, but it’s just too much of a mess in so many departments. After being on something of a consistent positive streak post-Justice League (from my POV, anyway), it’s heartbreaking to see DC fall into many of the same traps that tripped them before. You can hear the ideal version of this film screaming for help at certain points, mainly from the cast who do such a phenomenal job at keeping it entertaining, all whilst the flimsy script and choppy editing does them no favours. Whether Johnson’s charisma alone can carry it across the finish line at the box office remains to be seen, but I can certainly say Black Adam isn’t unsalvagable. I mean, if James Gunn can rummage through the scraps of a junker like Suicide Squad, and use them to make not only one of the best DC movies but also one of the best superhero TV shows ever period, some filmmaker can easily do the same for Teth-Adam and the Justice Society.
Then again, who really wants to risk working under David Zaslav right now?
After attending London Film Festival last year for the very first time on a professional basis, this year I wanted to expand my coverage slightly. This entailed seeing even more films, writing more full written reviews, and reaching out to write for outlets outside of Alternative Lens. Whilst I perhaps didn’t succeed in these goals to the level I might have hoped, various other circumstances prevented that. Still, I saw a lot of movies in a very short amount of time, and here I am to recap them all. There’s a few of these I may do full reviews of further down the line when they hit general release, but for now enjoy this lovely tasting platter of films; from the big awards season spectaculars to the smaller pictures in need of a little love:
Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical
Release Date: 25th November (UK), 9th December (US [limited]), 25th December (Netflix)
Danny DeVito’s 1996 adaptation of Matilda is still considered a childhood classic to many, so even as an adaptation of the stage musical rather than the book, this had some massive shoes to fill but does so effortlessly. Buoyed by stellar performances from Lashana Lynch, Emma Thompson and newcomer Alisha Weir, Matilda the Musical is a boisterous and hilarious romp from start to finish that recontextualises Dahl’s story for a modern age. The way it highlights Matilda’s abuse and how that relates to her powers is an especially welcome embellishment, making this also a way to introduce young audiences to such a vital topic. What a fun way to kick off a rollercoaster of a festival! 8/10
Joanna Hogg’s semi-autobiographic ghost story features a dual performance from Tilda Swinton as a mother and daughter spending a weekend at a country hotel for the former’s birthday. A suitably spooky and melancholy affair broken up with touches of dry humour, The Eternal Daughter has an interesting perspective on the often-frayed mother-daughter relationship, but it leaves a little too much to the imagination and its twist is given away by the blatant filmmaking choices. Shout-out to Carly-Sophia Davies as the stoic hotel receptionist, whose intensely laidback attitude never stops being funny. 6/10
Release Date: 23rd December (US), 30th December (UK)
Phantom Thread’s Vicky Krieps leads this period drama about the infamous Empress Elizabeth of Austria. This was what ended up winning Best Film at the fest, but to be honest I didn’t see what the fuss was about. Krieps herself delivers a compelling performance as the promiscuous and self-destructive royal, but there’s a severe lack of debauchery and decadence needed in a film with this subject matter; it’s all too reserved and safe. At least the costumes are to die for. 5/10
Release Date: 25th November (US [limited]), 30th December (Netflix)
Noah Baumbach’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel is a complete departure from the director’s usual grounded dramedies, stepping into full-on absurdist satire in one of the most idiosyncratic films of the year. Adam Driver and Don Cheadle deliver some of their most memorable characters yet, the way Baumbach so abruptly yet effortlessly switches genre throughout and perfectly imitates so many other filmmakers is phenomenal, and Danny Elfman’s score may be one of the best of his lengthy career. It’s the closest I’ve ever seen a movie capture the unimitable magic of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, and from me that’s incredibly high praise. 9/10
A low-budget horror set in prehistoric Scotland, The Origin certainly has lofty ambitions with its sweeping misty vistas and the whole film being performed in a fictional dialect, but it ends up just feeling like a cheap amalgamation of a bunch of other films. It tries to capture a similar rural atmosphere to The Revenant but its direction and cinematography is nowhere near as gorgeous or inventive, and once the mysterious antagonist starts picking off our heroes it just becomes Prey but without the stunning fight choreography or visual effects. In its final moments it attempts to pull a big reveal that recontextualises the morals of our heroes, but it’s far too little far too late. Despite being barely over eighty minutes long, this is an excruciatingly drawn-out experience. 2.5/10
Release Date: TBC (US, UK)
Shedding light on an infamous Catskills retreat for gender-questioning folk in the mid-twentieth century, Casa Susanna has an interesting story at its heart about self-actualisation and finding community in an unaccepting world. Unfortunately, it ends up mostly focusing on the superficial aspects of transness that cis filmmakers have always been obsessed with, and the constant throwing around of outdated and offensive terms without context makes this far less effective as an educational tool. There are only four sources interviewed for the whole film, and only half were actually part of the community; c’mon, you couldn’t have brought in some queer historians, or maybe some younger trans folks just to add a little extra perspective? It all ends up just feeling like a forgettable TV doc from twenty years go. 3.5/10
Release Date: TBC (US, UK)
Essentially Birdman for the world of fashion, this one-take dark comedy set around a murder at a hairstylist competition is a fun but not particularly remarkable little jaunt. There are some interesting characters, fun gags, and impressive cinematography at points, but this is just begging to be a little more over-the-top. 6/10
Bones and All
Release Date: 23rd November (US, UK)
Luca Guadagnino and Timothée Chalamet reunite for this unconventional coming-of-age story about a pair of young cannibals trying to figure out their place in an omnivore world. Taylor Russell gives a captivating lead performance as the reticent Maren, Mark Rylance has never been creepier as a veteran cannibal named Sully (who always refers to himself in the third person), and there’s some haunting one-scene-and-done turns by Michael Stuhlbarg and Chloe Sevigny. Unfortunately, the whole film is a bit meandering with choppy pacing and an unfocused narrative. There are some wonderful and unforgettable moments in here, but as a whole it just doesn’t add up to a truly substantial movie. 6.5/10
Release Date: TBC (US, UK)
Georgia Oakley makes her theatrical feature debut with this exploration of queer identity in Thatcher-era England. Rosy McEwen absolutely shines in what should be a star-making turn as a lesbian PE teacher struggling to keep her queerness secret as Section 28 starts to ramp up. A vital film in the current British climate as similar legislation is being threatened against the trans community, Blue Jean investigates what it truly means to be authentically queer in a world that could destroy you if outed, and how we can overcome those internal struggles in a time of crisis. A perfect companion piece to It’s a Sin. 8/10
My Father’s Dragon
Release Date: 4th November (UK [limited]), 11th November (Netflix)
Cartoon Saloon puts out some of the most original and beautiful animated movies today and, whilst My Father’s Dragon continues their excellent track record, it is easily the most conventional family film they’ve ever made. The voices of Jacob Tremblay and Gaten Matarazzo lead this charming story about a young boy and a novice dragon trying to save a sinking island, and though it touches on some deeper themes it mostly gets bogged down by the more expected tropes of the genre. With Disney veteran Meg LeFauve behind the screenplay, it’s easy to see why this one ended up being a bit more orthodox, but it remains an entertaining and aesthetically gorgeous movie for all ages. 8/10
Release Date: 21st October (US), 18th November (UK)
Normal People’s Paul Mescal and newcomer Frankie Corio star in this drama about a divorced Scottish dad and his daughter on holiday in Turkey in the early 2000s, and it’s a heart-breaking mix of nostalgia and sadness. Evoking the early works of Lynne Ramsay and Andrea Arnold, writer-director Charlotte Wells leaves much of the subtext up to your imagination and just allows the actors’ performances to tell the real story, creating much more of a mood piece than a narrative but an incredible evocative one at that. If you grew up in the 00s, this is going to be an incredibly wistful but shattering experience for you. 8/10
BARDO, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths
Release Date: 27th October (Mexico), 4th November (US [limited]), 16th December (Netflix)
Alejandro Iñárritu returns after a long hiatus with his most personal magnum opus yet, and despite being trimmed down from its divisive three-hour Venice premiere, it remains an overlong and irritatingly pretentious slog. The whole thing is supposed to run on a dream logic reminiscent of Jean Cocteau or Ingmar Bergman, but rather than immersive or contemplative it’s just confusing and weird. There are some interesting musings on US-Mexican relations, a few moments of surreal imagery that stick, and the movie looks absolutely gorgeous thanks to the cinematography of Darius Khondji, but as a whole this was a more painful than pleasurable experience. 4/10
Release Date: 2nd December 2022 (US), 10th February 2023 (UK)
Sarah Polley’s first feature in a decade may well be the film that defines her directorial career. Based on the acclaimed 2018 novel of the same name, Women Talking is basically 12 Angry Men for the #MeToo era, tackling sexual abuse and the patriarchy from the perspective of devout Mennonites that pits faith against freedom in a gut-wrenching way. Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy and Ben Whishaw all give some of the best acting of their careers, but the real star here is Polley and how she is able to effectively dramatize what is little more than an extended conversation into compelling cinema, as well as getting stunning performances from both its big-name stars and its less-known talent. One of the most harrowing films I’ve ever seen, and yet I can’t wait to see it again! 9.5/10
Pretty Red Dress
Release Date: TBC (US, UK)
Dionne Edwards’ directorial debut tackles the weighty subjects of gender nonconformity and toxic masculinity within the Black British community, but what is otherwise a fairly formulaic and frothy comedy doesn’t have the teeth to bite too deep into these subjects. I applaud the film from avoiding using protagonist Travis’ affinity for feminine clothing for comedic purposes, but it does sexualise it in a way that’s never really explored, and Alexandra Burke’s subplot about auditioning for a Tina Turner musical is a mostly irrelevant excursion that only seems to exist to give Burke an excuse to sing throughout. This might have been a classic if released in the late 90s or early 2000s, but in 2022 it feels sadly well behind the times. 4.5/10
The Good Nurse
Release Date: 26th October (Netflix)
Jessica Chastain and Eddie Redmayne lead this true story about a string of mysterious patient deaths in a hospital that suggest foul play. The screenplay by Krysty Wilson-Cairns has some compelling twists and turns but it’s all presented a bit blandly, and though limited by the true events it never escalates to something shocking; you can pretty much figure out what’s going on within the opening shot. Chastain does a decent enough job, and for most the runtime Redmayne surprisingly restrains himself but unfortunately ends up reverting to his old tricks by the end. One of the few Netflix films at the fest this year that I’m actually not bothered isn’t getting a full theatrical run. 6.5/10
Decision to Leave
Release Date: 14th October (US), 21st October (UK)
Park Chan-Wook returns with two murder mysteries for the price of one in this romantic thriller that plays out like Double Indemnity mixed with Insomnia by way of Twin Peaks. It gets off to a slow and somewhat muddled start, but once the pieces start falling into place it becomes captivating, and the final scene? *chef’s kiss* Cinema! Definitely not as shocking or innovative as Park’s seminal classic Oldboy, but any fan of Korean cinema or just a good whodunnit should have a blast with this one. Also, some of the weirdest and most creative editing I’ve seen in a long while. 8.5/10
Release Date: TBC (US, UK)
What a shock to system to follow a great film out of South Korea with a spectacularly disappointing one. I’m always up for a good horror anthology, and the stories of New Normal have promising handful of set-ups: a murderer using a dating app to stalk victims, a hopeless romantic following a treasure hunt of love letters, and a convenience store clerk just fed up with all the assholes she has to deal with (relatable vibes, hon), just to name a few. Unfortunately, as interesting as those premises may seem, the pay-off is always abrupt and painfully unimaginative; seriously, the first story and the third story pull the exact same twist! I certainly admire the way the stories are weaved together at points with characters and events affecting each other like its own miniature cinematic universe, but when the actual tales are this limp, it quickly becomes hard to care. 3/10
Release Date: 9th December (US), TBC (UK)
Brendan Fraser has been owed a comeback for a long time and, after initially returning to us through TV on Doom Patrol, this is his triumphant homecoming to cinema in this play adaptation from Black Swan’s Darren Aronofsky. The story’s premise of a morbidly obese man essentially eating himself to death out of depression and guilt has proved controversial for valid reasons, but the film in practice handles the situation as delicately as it can and never exploits it for comedy (except in some truly dark moments). Fraser is clearly channelling his own real-life experiences with mental health here and it really is the performance of the year, but he is ably supported by a superb supporting cast including Hong Chau and Sadie Sink. It’s a heart-breaking and harrowing film, and one you should be cautious to watch if you’ve struggled with eating disorders, but it has such a noble heart despite its vile undertones that it somehow ends up being one of Aronofsky’s most uplifting films (though I think that says more about the man than the movie). Still, worth watching for Fraser alone. He’s that good. 8/10
Release Date: 30th September (US), 28th October (UK)
Billy Eichner finally gets to be the leading man in this queer-themed rom com, functioning as both a satire of and love letter to the genre, and the LGBTQ+ community as a whole. This is one of those rare laugh-a-minute comedies that has way more hits than misses, with the gags ranging from bizarre euphemisms to ridiculous fake movie trailers to just straight-up raunchy sex scenes, all with Eichner’s unique brand of gay humour. In amongst the chaotic comedy though is a touching love story between a mismatched couple that touches on male inadequacy, internalised homophobia, and what it really means to be queer in the modern age. It’s a significant film for representation, yes, but more importantly it’s just, plain and simple, so f*cking funny! Grab all your shes, gays and theys, get a little tipsy, and just have a blast. 9/10
Release Date: 21st October (US [limited]), 4th November (Amazon Prime)
Yet another bizarre switch-up to go from watching Bros, which takes the piss out of this kind of sad gay period drama, to watching the textbook example of one; it’s like trying to watch Walk the Line right after watching Walk Hard. Harry Styles comes off better here than he did in Don’t Worry Darling, but only because he’s not surrounded by such mammoth actors, though he’s still clearly underprepared to be a leading man. Emma Corrin sadly doesn’t come off too well here either, though the tepid and cliché-ridden script doesn’t do them any favours, whilst Rupert Everett makes a bizarre go of playing a stroke victim. Far more laughable than moving, My Policeman probably would have fared better if played as a parody. 3.5/10
Empire of Light
Release Date: 9th December 2022 (US), 13th January 2023 (UK)
Empire of Light is a British period piece starring Olivia Colman and Colin Firth, directed by Sam Mendes, shot by Roger Deakins, and deals with mental illness, racism, and the magic of cinema. Observed like that, it seems like a cynical checklist of everything you need to win an Oscar, but the movie luckily works at least on an emotional level. The story is a little unfocused as it juggles all these various plot points, rarely crossing over into each other and functioning more as a slice of life than a cohesive narrative. Colman is as good as you’d expect her to be and, just one year after doing the same The Eternal Daughter, gets another go at shouting down some asshole in a cinema; truly, iconic queen behaviour. Props also to Michael Ward as new cinema hire Stephen, who ably holds his own against a pro like Colman. It’s going for a very similar nostalgia appeal to last year’s Belfast, though far less effectively. Still, a perfectly good trip down memory lane for older cinema fans. 7.5/10
She Is Love
Release Date: 3rd February 2023 (UK), TBC (US)
Jamie Adams’ latest low-budget, semi-improvised drama inexplicably stars Haley Bennett and Sam Riley as a pair of exes who are reunited ten years later at a Cornish country hotel, and the results are pretty disastrous. The plot is meandering and clichéd, the dialogue repetitive and unfunny, and the pacing makes its 82-minute runtime seem like an eternity. Only the surprisingly natural chemistry between our leads makes this anything close to watchable, but that’s being super generous. Give this one a miss. 1.5/10
Ruben Östlund, director of Force Majeure and The Square, delivers an absolute bombshell experience with this pitch-perfect satire of the wealthy and beautiful. With hilarious performances from Harrison Dickinson and Woody Harrelson, and a star-making turn by Dolly de Leon, Triangle of Sadness is one of those movies that keeps getting funnier as it sinks lower and lower. Featuring a sequence of excessive debauchery and filth that puts the Mr. Creosote sketch from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life to shame, there is no limit to how far this film is willing to go to depict its privileged players in the worst light possible. See it with the biggest crowd you can, and maybe bring a sick bag too. 9.5/10
The Banshees of Inisherin
Release Date: 21st October (US, UK)
Martin McDonough reunites with his In Bruges co-stars Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, as well as returning to his home shores of Ireland, for a bizarre dark comedy set on a rural island during the Irish Civil War. Farrell and Gleeson play the roles of friends-turned-enemies that keep escalating their inexplicable feud to brilliant effect, both comedically and dramatically, along with solid supporting turns by Barry Keoghan and Kerry Condon. The film gets a bit stretched thin and monotonous as it keeps on, but the conclusion is satisfying and McDonough’s witty writing keeps it entertaining enough. 7.5/10
Release Date: 18th November (US), 25th November (UK)
It was inevitable that the New York Times investigation into Harvey Weinstein would get the Spotlight treatment, and She Said mostly just plays out like a faded photocopy of it. Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan make for compelling leads but lack the character depth that made the reporters from its Oscar-winning inspiration so captivating, and the events play out too much like bullet points of events rather than a compelling unravelling of conspiracy. Overall, it’s an effective enough journalistic drama, but if you’ve read the articles already there’s nothing new this film is going to offer you. It’s something that feels like it was made more out of obligation that a genuine need to dramatize this admittedly important story. 6/10
Release Date: TBC (US, UK)
A Spanish-language animation that depicts cute teddy bears engaging in a brutal blood-soaked war with unicorns sounds like cathartic fun, and it is at first. Unfortunately, the joke of clashing cuddly characters with graphic violence quickly loses its charm and it ends up being a bit too monotonous. It’s little more than a feature-length episode of Happy Tree Friends but with a more melancholic philosophy. Maybe that appeals to you, but for me it was a bitterly disappointing watch. 5.5/10
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio
Release Date: TBC November (US [limited]), 9th December (Netflix)
After so many passion projects that ended up shelved, Guillermo del Toro finally gets a win with this beautiful reimagining of the classic story of a puppet who wishes to be a real boy. A real throwback to the age of 80s kids’ movies like The Dark Crystal and Return to Oz, this Pinocchio uses its backdrop of 1930s Italy to reframe the tale into an exploration of free will, parenthood, and what it means to be truly human. The animation is gorgeous, the voice cast is top-notch across the board, and its opening ten minutes are the saddest since Up. You definitely won’t want to miss this one. 9/10
Release Date: 14th October 2022 (US), 13th January 2023 (UK)
The tragic story of Emmett Till and his mother’s fight for justice finally gets the cinematic treatment, featuring an incredibly powerful first act and a heart-breaking closing ten minutes. Sadly, the film in the middle of those moments of excellence is only so-so, falling back into a lot of biopic tropes and lacks the visceral impact of its bookends. Still, the film is carried by an absolutely devastating leading performance from Danielle Deadwyler, one that will surely skyrocket her name to every casting director’s wish list, and those predicting the Best Actress race. Also, props to Haley Bennett’s truly diabolical turn as Carolyn Bryant, AKA The Original “Karen”. 7/10
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery
Release Date: 23rd November (US [limited], UK [limited]), 23rd December (Netflix)
Benoit Blanc returns for another murder mystery caper in the rare sequel that matches the near-perfect quality of its predecessor in every way. Its twisty intrigue-stuffed plot is yet another satire-rich polemic on the wealthy, but with a wider target and a more righteous edge. Daniel Craig is as Southernly-charming as ever as Blanc, but the entire troupe of new characters are absolutely perfectly cast and working at the top of their game, with Edward Norton as a love-to-hate-him tech bro and a career-defining performance from Janelle Monáe as the highlights. If you loved Knives Out, you are almost certainly going to love Glass Onion just as much. A perfect capper to such a phenomenal festival! 10/10!
Starring: Daniel Craig (No Time to Die), Edward Norton (Fight Club), Janelle Monáe (Hidden Figures), Kathryn Hahn (WandaVision), Leslie Odom Jr. (One Night in Miami…), Jessica Henwick (The Matrix Resurrections), Madelyn Cline (Outer Banks), Kate Hudson (Deepwater Horizon), Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy)
Writer/Director: Rian Johnson (Star Wars: The Last Jedi)
Runtime: 2 hours 19 minutes
Release Date: 23rd November (US [limited], UK [limited]), 23rd December (Netflix)
Synopsis: Famed detective Benoit Blanc finds himself mysteriously invited to the island getaway of eccentric tech mogul Miles Bron and his inner circle of friends, only for their murder mystery party to evolve into an active crime scene.
Rian Johnson struck gold with Knives Out, a postmodern love letter to the classic whodunnit that twisted the conventions to serve as both a great example of the genre and a witty commentary on upper class culture. It was the kind of movie that stood perfectly on its own, and yet also left audiences begging for more. For Johnson’s first sequel (to one of his own movies, at least), he has taken another page out of Agatha Christie’s book and retained only the Kentuckian sleuth Benoit Blanc, following him on a brand new case with a fresh batch of colourful suspects. The result is a film very close in spirit to its predecessor, retaining its sense of humour and thematic backbone, whilst also being an entirely unique thrill ride that will have you on the edge of your seat until its final reveals…and laughing the entire way too!
ATTENTION: Much like its predecessor, discussing the plot of Glass Onion is incredibly difficult without revealing a lot of information that the trailers have thankfully avoided, but there’s just some things I have to talk about. I won’t be covering any of the major twists or victims or basically anything beyond the first half of the movie, but if you want to go in knowing nothing (and I’d honestly advise you do), just skip to my final verdict and watch for yourself. For those who wish to continue, MILD SPOILER WARNING!
Within its opening few seconds, Glass Onion reaffirms how on the pulse of the modern conversation it is, being the first major film to really address the impact of COVID-19 without making it the primary focus; you could have told this story without addressing it, but it adds so many layers to the plot and characters. Like how Knives Out could have only been made in 2019, this film could have only been made in 2022, and it’s an incredibly cathartic experience to see so many of the developments of the past few years ripped to shreds in such whipsmart fashion. It continues its predecessor’s focus on the wealthy, but broadens its scope from just one rich family to a cavalcade that represents every variant of privileged a-hole: the tech mogul, the politician, the internet celebrity, so on and so forth. It sets the stage for a story about how all these different industry giants are interconnected and reliant on each other, whether the parties involved like it or not, and really focuses in one of the most ignored yet obvious points about billionaire culture: just because someone is rich, it doesn’t mean they’re smart.
As the only returning cast member (well, the only one playing the same role at least…), Daniel Craig slips back into the drawling charm of Benoit Blanc and it’s a pure joy to hear him spout a new string of memeable Blanc-isms. The film spends a lot more time with him than Knives Out did, switching things up and making him our window into this story for the first half. We get to know a little more about the detective’s personal life, and his motives for getting involved in the mystery are a little more personal whilst still maintaining an objective view of the situation. It’s also fascinating to see him struggle with the limits of his jurisdiction; he may be a brilliant detective, but he’s not law enforcement, and even he knows when the system has beaten him.
When it comes to the new cast, Johnson has assembled another great mixture of established and rising stars who all have a unique chemistry that truly makes you believe this odd group have been friends their entire adult lives. Edward Norton takes the central focus as host Miles Bron, a pretentious tech giant who could best be described as “what if Norton’s character from 2003’s The Italian Job did a load of drugs and decided to become Elon Musk”. He’s one of those people who is incredibly hard to read due to the front of insecurity and showmanship he throws up over himself, making you question who he really is underneath the bravado. Kate Hudson gives the best performance of her career since Almost Famous as featherheaded fashionista Birdie Jay, whose vapid observations and tendency to blurt out problematic thoughts really captures a certain selfish and superficial vibe of celebrity culture. Dave Bautista is another standout as gun-toting Twitch streamer Duke Cody, playing the ridiculously macho role like the gay love child of Joe Rogan and Andrew Tate.
Kathyrn Hahn and Leslie Odom Jr. are left with a little less to do as senate candidate Claire and scientist Lionel, but they have a unique chemistry as the smartest and most self-aware members of Bron’s posse. Jessica Henwick sadly draws the shortest straw as Birdie’s put-upon personal assistant Peg, fading into the background for long stretches, but she has her moments serving as the most “normal” character in a sea of idiosyncratic weirdos; her frustration with Birdie in particular will be relatable to anyone who’s had a difficult boss. Madelyn Cline is something of a secret weapon as Duke’s girlfriend Whiskey, a seemingly perfunctory character whose deeper layers slowly unravel, and Cline does a brilliant job of hiding and revealing that complexity. However, the real show-stopping winner here is Janelle Monáe as Bron’s former business partner Cassandra “Andi” Brand. I can’t really say much more about her without giving the game away, but it’s easily her finest performance to date. You’ll understand what I mean once you’ve seen her.
The most striking difference between Knives Out and Glass Onion are the visuals, swapping out a foreboding mansion in the frigid woodlands of Massachusetts for a futuristic mansion on a sunny Greek island worthy of a Bond villain. It’s a change in environment that matches the higher stakes and more outlandish characters, and that feel of gaudy decadence spreads into every aesthetic choice. The colour pallette is warm and highly saturated, the costumes are stylish and expensive-looking, and the sets have an almost sci-fi feel. Unlike the first film which covered itself in classical mystery trappings, Glass Onion is a film that now feels as visually modern as it does thematically, and that change alone does a lot to reassure you this isn’t a simple rehash. Top it all off with yet another solid score by Nathan Johnson and some solid needle drops, and you have yet another impeccable technical package from Rian Johnson.
A cynical viewer could easily break Glass Onion down to its most basic elements and dismiss it as being fundamentally the same film as Knives Out. On that extremely shallow observation, they are technically correct but they would ultimately be missing the real point of the movie. This is yet another stellar example of the murder mystery genre that expands on the views of its predecessor, whilst also delving deeper into Blanc’s mentality and creating a compelling cast of new characters to boot. It’s easily on par with the first film, and whether you end up liking it slightly more or less will really come down to individual palate. In conclusion, if you liked Knives Out, I’d be highly surprised if you left Glass Onion being anything less than satisfied.
Starring: Adam Driver (House of Gucci), Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha), Don Cheadle (Iron Man 3), Raffey Cassidy (The Killing of a Sacred Deer), André Benjamin (High Life), Jodie Turner-Smith (Queen & Slim)
Writer/Director: Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story)
Runtime: 2 hours 16 minutes
Release Date: 25th November (US [limited]), 30th December (Netflix)
Synopsis: Eccentric college professor Jack Gladney and his absent-minded wife Babette both have an irrational fear of death, which is put to the test by an airborne toxic event afflicting their town, and a mysterious drug Babette is taking unbenownst to her husband.
When you say the name “Noah Baumbach” to a film lover, your mind is probably going to conjure up a quirky dramedy filled with awkward situations, extremely flawed and relatable characters, and the presence of Ben Stiller and/or Adam Driver and/or Greta Gerwig. White Noise, however, is a different beast in a lot of ways. It’s the first adapatation he’s ever written and directed after a career of original stories (not counting co-writing credits on the likes of Fantastic Mr. Fox and Madagascar 3), and it stretches far outside his usual comfort zone of grounded New York angst and into the heightened satirical mind of Cosmopolis author Don DeLillo. The result is an idiosyncratic hodgepodge of genres and ideas that shouldn’t work together or even make sense but somehow, whether due to its uniqueness or just sheer dumb luck, it absolutely slaps!
Set in a fictional college town in Ronald Reagan’s America, White Noise engages in a stream-of-conscience narrative that throws out all traditional notions of pacing, structure and tone; by all accounts, that actually makes it a pretty accurate translation of a novel many considered unfilmable. The story is still neatly split into three chapters, but rather than gradually escalating over the story and reaching its crescendo at the climax, it suddenly ramps up at the start of the second act into a completely different narrative. This thread is then almost entirely forgotten about in the third, picking up where it left off in the beginning before reaching a comparably lower-stakes finale.
Despite this seemingly backwards approach, what ultimately holds together the whole enterprise is a consistent thematic throughline; namely, humanity’s fasincation with, and collective fear of, the inevitability of death. This thread runs through every facet of the film, from Murray Siskind’s (Cheadle) opening lecture about the pleasure and beauty of movie car crashes, to its final moments where the cost of trying to overcome that fear is laid bare. This is on top of the story’s satire of pretentious academia and Reagan-era Americana, all of which feel all too familiar in a post-Trump world. It’s a complicated collage of concepts that a more general audience is probably going to have a hard time unpacking, but for those willing to dig and see beyond its idiosyncracies will find a singular piece of cinema that walks like an Amblin production and yet quacks like the works of Paul Verhoeven and Yorgos Lanthimos.
In spite of his distinct presence, Adam Driver has proved himself a malleable chameleon of an actor who can effortlessly slip into many different skins. His performance as Jack Gladney here is certainly yet another feather in his cap, portraying this neurotic yet boisterously self-important college professor with a smug confidence entirely his own. A scene where he and Cheadle have a lecture-off where they juxtapose the lives of Adolf Hitler and Elvis Presley is a hilarious and surreal bit of acting you won’t soon forget, whilst his need to debate and initial hesitancy to recognise the seriousness of the toxic event’s threat feels all too familiar in a world filled with “rational sceptics”. Greta Gerwig plays a more familiar role for her as Driver’s ditzy yet internally struggling wife Babette, and whilst she gets far less focus than her co-star she still gets enough moments to shine and avoid being overshadowed.
Closely following the brilliance of Driver’s work is Don Cheadle as Siskind, who shares Gladney’s eccentric tendencies but with a more optimistic and slightly unsettling energy; he just always seems so excited about some pretty morbid subjects. There’s also some really strong child performances from Driver and Gerwig’s children, including Raffey Cassidy and siblings Sam & May Nivola (the children of Alessandro Nivola and Emily Mortimer), and some small but memorable roles for the likes of André Benjamin (watch out for his GIF-able cookie dance), Jodie Turner-Smith and Saturday Night Live‘s Chloe Fineman.
The aesthetic presentation of White Noise feels just as schizophrenic as its tonal make-up, but they’re all handled with impeccable skill. Each act has a unifying overall feel, but every scene within them has a style and energy all its own. It begins with this seemingly idyllic depiction of the town of Blacksmith that could be best described as “if Norman Rockwell designed Stranger Things“, which seems even more apt in the second chapter and it takes on an scope more akin to the spectacle and freneticism of classic Spielbarg and Jordan Peele’s Nope, and then the final third is more a riff on the Davids Fincher and Cronenberg. Its depiction of the 1980s feels like a satire in and of itself of the decade’s superficial depcitions in modern media, and the slight unrealness of it only adds to the humour of the film. Tying the whole thing together, and quite possibly the strongest element of the entire production, is Danny Elfman’s wonderful score. Considering his own back catalogue is as eclectic as the film itself, he’s a perfect fit for the project and his music segues perfectly between its various mood swings. From grand and operatic during the moments of awe, to frenetic and tense in its bursts of action, and foreboding and eerie during its solemn conclusion, it might just rank up there with Elfman’s best work to date.
White Noise at first seems like the cinematic equivalent of its own title: a wavering mess of visuals and noise with seemingly no pattern or meaning. However, if you can simply look past the static and see the many moving parts underneath, you’ll realise it’s actually a gorgeous tapestry. It’s one made of random scraps of cloth that look like they’ve been stitched together with no plan, but it all comes together in the end. It reminded me of a lot of different films throughout its many phases, but by the end I realised where I had once experience this kind of eclectic and somewhat baffling cinema that felt no need to explain itself: The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. By the time the film reached its unforgettable end credits sequence, I was convinced Baumbach must have been inspired by this cult classic (especially considering The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which he co-wrote with Wes Anderson, ends with a blatant tribute to Banzai). In the end, it’s a film I cannot blame anyone from coming out of and feeling tricked or cheated, but if you go in with the right mindset or are simply willing to give anything a chance, it’s absolutely an experience you have to at least taste.
Starring: Florence Pugh (Little Women), Harry Styles (Dunkirk), Olivia Wilde (Tron: Legacy), Gemma Chan (Eternals), KiKi Layne (The Old Guard), Nick Kroll (Big Mouth), Chris Pine (Star Trek)
Director: Olivia Wilde (Booksmart)
Writer: Katie Silberman (Set It Up)
Runtime: 2 hours 3 minutes
Release Date: 23rd September (US, UK)
Synopsis: Housewife Alice Chambers (Pugh) and her doting husband Jack (Styles) are living the dream in an idyillic suburbia as part of The Victory Project, a mysterious but alluring venture overseen by the charismatic Frank (Pine). When Alice begins to question the exact nature of the project, her world unravels as she uncovers the dark secrets of her supposedly perfect life.
When Olivia Wilde stepped away from the front of the camera and sat behind it on her feature directorial debut Booksmart, it for a moment seemed like we had another superstar in the making. Her ability to mix crowdpleasing comedy with an honest and heartfelt portrayal of female friendship, along with a distinct cinematic eye rarely seen in the genre, birthed one of the first seminal films of Gen Z and immediately made whatever she did next hotly anticipated by many a cinephile. The sophmore effort can often be a make-or-break moment for any director, and for it Wilde decided to pull out all the stops. With a genre-bending premise, an all-star ensemble, and a familiar but striking retro aesthetic, Don’t Worry Darling on paper seemed like it would be a surefire hit. Instead, much of the buzz around the film has been consumed by rumours and controversy, the overshadowing of which has only been made easier by the cryptic marketing doing everything it can to avoid telling you what the movie is actually about. With such an accumulation of hype and attention, even a truly great movie would struggle to live up to the expectations laden on Don’t Worry Darling, and that only makes the final messy results feel even more like a cruel punchline.
It’s hard to pin down the overriding genre of Don’t Worry Darling, but it certainly falls within the camp of speculative fiction; a story that uses a hypothetical scenario to reflect the darker truths of our modern world. It liberally borrows concepts from all over literature and cinema, most obviously from the likes of other false utopian narratives like The Stepford Wives and Pleasantville, but to list more of them would not only give away its twists but also reveal how lacking in original ideas the screenplay fundamentally is. There’s a fascinating kernel of an idea at the centre of its core conceit, but it fails in every fathomable way to communicate that message. The most obvious culprit here is the interminable pacing, which doles out new revelations at a snail’s pace and finds Alice running on the spot for much of the story as she’s inundated with hallucinations and gaslighting. The direction plays things way too coy despite the obviousness that there is trouble in paradise, and the constant teasing comes off more like stalling than suspense.
Once the film finally drops the pretence and starts explaining itself, it’s far too little too late, and then it just ends. After eons of build-up through its first two thirds, the final act suddenly leaps into overdrive and rushes to its climax with a flurry of concerning unanswered questions and no time to linger on the impact or implications of its harrowing premise. It’s possible a lot of these finer details got lost in the edit, but the more likely answer is also the simplest: the movie just didn’t have much depth to begin with. Despite its lofty ambitions to explore topics like the dichotomy of happiness and autonomy, toxic masculinity and “traditional family values”, what it ultimately has to say is incredibly surface-level and appeals to a problematic cishetero white-centric view of feminism where any other issues that contribute to a patriarchal society aren’t even addressed. Don’t Worry Darling aspires to be for women what Get Out was for people of colour, but it’s far too concerned with simply looking important to give its timely subject matter the nuance it deserves.
The biggest saving grace of the film is its cast, most prominently another powerhouse turn from Florence Pugh. She absolutely understands the assignment and imbues Alice with all the subtleties of inner conflict, caught between her undying love for her husband and her unshakable feeling that there is something wrong with her life. There is hardly ever a scene without her and her screen presence alone is what keeps the movie watchable until its crash-and-burn final act. Also delivering solid work is Chris Pine as the elusive Frank, playing the role as a repulsive yet charming mix of Elon Musk, Jordan Peterson and Jim Jones; you absolutely understand why the majority of the characters are so enamoured by and eager to please him.
Unfortunately, whilst the rest of the ensemble deliver consistently good performances, the material they have to work with is severly lacking. This is most evident in the roles given to KiKi Layne, weirdly enough, Olivia Wilde herself. As Alice’s best friend Bunny, Wilde’s characterisation of this cynical yet content wife and mother adds a much needed dimension to a world where, intentional as it may be, most of the female characters are pretty interchangable. Unfortunately, when it comes time to dig deeper into Bunny’s unique perspective, the movie is basically over and we get only the most base understanding of her conflicted motivations. Layne’s Margaret, meanwhile, is an incredibly key component of the narrative but she’s a character more often talked about than actually seen, and beyond some fleeting exposition we never get a sense of who she was before the events of the story. A charitable reading of the film’s subtext is that Margaret, as one of the few prominent BIPOC characters in the film, is meant to represent how marginalised women are often the first to notice and call out their oppresion but are ignored by their priveleged white counterparts until it’s too late…but once you realise this role was originally intended for Dakota Johnson, that interpretation ends up being little more than wishful thinking that this film has any kind of intersectional point to make.
In terms of wasted potential, Gemma Chan and Nick Kroll are left out to dry as Shelley and Bill, the respective spouses of Pine and Wilde. Chan’s role at first seems to be something of an Aunt Lydia-type, a queen bee responsible for making sure Alice and her friends are content and fulfilled in their domestic paradise, but there’s not even a hint of an extra dimension to her perfunctory role until it comes out of nowhere right at the end. Kroll has even less to work with and disappears into the background for much of the runtime, given even less attention than the majority of its incidental players. We then arrive at the biggest elephant in the room: Harry Styles as Alice’s husband Jack. This is a meaty and complex role that requires its actor to be able to shift demeanour subtly yet dramatically…and Styles simply isn’t up to the task. His natural charisma carries him well enough through his romantic interactions with Pugh, but as soon as he has to portray anything but a dreamboat he is utterly out of his depth in comparison to her. When driven to anger or frustration by Alice’s conspiratorial spiral, he comes off more like a petulant child than a concerned husband, made all the more baffling by his indecision to commit to an accent; I swear, they must have written in those lines about his nationality simply to justify how jarring it is. I saw this movie with a big crowd of Harry Styles stans, and even they were laughing at the ineptness of his performance.
Let’s all be honest, people: using 1950s retro kitsch as a metaphor for patricarchal structures and false utopia is played, and its use in Don’t Worry Darling gives away the jist of its intentions before you can even see a chink in its superficially flawless world. That said, despite the worn-out nature of its setting, it is executed on a technical level to near-perfection. The cinematography by Matthew Libatique is a gorgeous technicolour display that evokes classic Hollywood stylistically but subverts it into a modern nightmare whenever reality comes into question. Katie Byron’s production design and Arianne Phillips’ costumes are impeccably realised and capture the story’s fantasised and nostalgic fantasy of the era through a contemporary lens perfectly; also, I want every dress and accessory Pugh and Wilde wear in this. The always underrated John Powell delivers a solid score that effortlessly transitions between paradisical whimsy and eerie horror, though conversely the constant blaring of period music only serves to remind the audience how stagnant and overdone this aesthetic is and just makes you wish you were playing Fallout. At least there you can kill mutants and bandits while listening to these jazzy tunes.
Don’t Worry Darling is a beautiful trash fire; a trainwreck you can’t look away from that confuses vagueness for subtelty, confusion for suspense, and pomposity for importance. It’s far from the worst film of 2022, for it has too many positive qualities and even its faults are so fascinatingly inept that you could write an entire thesis about its failings on a storytelling and thematic level. It is however, unfortunately but undoubtedly, is the most frustrating film of 2022, the most pretentious film of 2022, the most laughable film of 2022, and sadly also the most disappointing film of 2022. Wilde may have aimed high in comparing her magnum opus to the likes of The Matrix and Inception, but what she has instead crafted is destined to be compared to so many other failed and forgotten wannabes like In Time, Transcendence and Serenity (no, not the Firefly movie. The one with Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway. Don’t remember it? It’s a doozy!) To put it succinctly: Olivia Wilde has made an M. Night Shyamalan movie, and not one of the good ones. Watch at your own risk.
Starring: Brad Pitt (Ocean’s Eleven), Joey King (White House Down), Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass), Brian Tyree Henry (Eternals), Andrew Koji (Snakes Eyes: GI Joe Origins), Hiroyuki Sanada (Mortal Kombat), Michael Shannon (Man of Steel), Benito A. Martínez Ocasio (F9), Sandra Bullock (The Lost City), Zazie Beetz (Joker)
Director: David Leitch (Deadpool 2)
Writer: Zak Olekewicz (Fear Street: Part Two – 1978)
Runtime: 2 hours 6 minutes
Release Date: 3rd August (UK), 5th August (US)
Synopsis: When beleaguered hitman Ladybug is tasked with the job of stealing a briefcase aboard a bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto, he finds himself caught amongst a web of other assassins all aboard the train for their own reasons.
David Leitch has managed to make quite a name for himself in the action world over the last few years. After years of stunt work and second unit directing with longtime collaborator Chad Stahelski, the pair worked together to direct the first John Wick and helped redefine the standard of what an American action movie should aspire to. Whilst Stahelski opted to stay and sheperd Mr. Wick further, Leitch stepped out on his own and directed a string of increasingly madcap actioners: from grounded spy thriller Atomic Blonde, to superhero sequel bonanza Deadpool 2, to the unmitigated insanity that is Hobbs & Shaw. But now, much in the way Stahelski was once Keanu Reeves’ stunt double and now directs him, Leitch is returning the favour to the star he used to be an alternate for: Brad Pitt. The result is Bullet Train, an action-comedy that sticks every facet of Leitch’s career so far into a blender for a bloody fun movie, if not always an original or coherent one.
There are two ways to sum up Bullet Train, and here’s my favourite of the two: what would happen if a bunch of different characters from different styles of action movies were all stuck on a train together? You’ve got the beleaguered assassin who wants out of the game, two British goons who’ve walked right out of a Guy Ritchie movie, a Robert Rodriguez-like Latino badass, a few Yakuza types, some Russian gangsters, and even a young woman who’s basically a mix of Mathilda from Léon and Hit-Girl from Kick-Ass. The whole plot is basically just an excuse to get all these disparate characters in one location, bouncing quips and fists off each other until they reach their final destination. There’s a fair amount of world-building as we explore character backstories, but there’s not a huge amount of depth to it and I wouldn’t be surprised if many audiences completely lose sight of the bigger picture. In a lot of ways though, it ultimately doesn’t matter, as the filmmakers are clearly more concerned about the moment-to-moment fun rather than some great overall narrative, and on that level Bullet Train succeeds.
The film is as much as a comedy as it is an action movie, and probably one of the funnier hybrids this side of Deadpool. Some of the targets of their jabs at Japanese culture like “they love mascots” and “their toilets are complicated” seem obvious, and there’s a running gag about Thomas the Tank Engine that gets way overplayed, but they always manage to eventually subvert expectations and turn these into hilarious or even poignant moments. It’s a really odd experience to watch a movie that, on a scene-by-scene basis, has some really clever and witty writing, but as a whole feels like a bit of a disparate mess. The only thing keep the whole enterprise cohesive is this common theme of luck and fate that characters constantly make reference to, and whilst the film tries to pass this off as some message about looking on the bright side and how life always finds a way, it’s more plainly obvious it’s a writing tool to explain how so many coincidences line up to get every character onto that train in the first place. Which brings me back to my second quick way to sum up Bullet Train: it’s Murder on the Orient Express, but if every suspect was a John Wick character. Apt not just because of the setting and structure, but because both are about as equally convoluted and ridiculous.
In any film with a large cast of colourful characters, it’s an easy mistake to focus on and fall in love with a select few whilst the rest feel like afterthoughts, and Bullet Train does a solid enough job of giving everyone just enough time to shine and make an impact, even those who only pop in for a scene or two. Though Brad Pitt may be the big name on the poster and who we are introduced to this world through, there’s really three main storylines afoot here that criss-cross between each other before finally coalescing in the third act. Pitt himself is as charming as you’d expect as our lead Ladybug, but he’s also not afraid to play the fool. Both the character’s anxiety about going back on the job and his running bad luck are the backbone of his comedy, and Pitt sells these as well as his punches.
The real highlights are Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson at the aformentioned Ritchie types Lemon and Tangerine, with their constant bickering but undying loyalty to each other making for a compelling double act (also, Henry really sells the British accent). Joey King, also less successfully donning an English brogue, is solid as a conniving young trickster known as The Prince but her overall motivation and arch is a bit lacking, whereas Andrew Koji ends up drawing a bit of short straw amongst the leads as revenge-driven father Yuichi. Hiroyuki Sanada is here doing what he does best as Yuichi’s disappointed father, and Michael Shannon’s villain shows up quite late to the party after being built up throughout to little payoff. Sandra Bullock spends the vast majority of her time off-screen as Pitt’s mysterious handler, whilst Zazie Beetz and Benito A. Martínez Ocasio (AKA Bad Bunny) pop in as one-scene wonders who threaten to steal the whole show. Though he has little dialogue, Ocasio is an especially strong screen presence and the sequence showing his origins is a fun but brutal Rodriguez tribute in under five minutes all on its own.
With its high-saturation colour grade and frequent use of poppy title cards to introduce characters, Bullet Train is clearly going for an exaggerated, graphic novel-inspired aesthetic, which only adds to the vibe that it’s a film not to take too seriously. The cinematography is fun and vibrant, even if the camera can often feel a little too close for comfort; then again, the claustrophobic tightness of the train location certainly limits distance and maneuverability. The action sequences themselves, as to be expected from someone with a lifetime of experience with stuntwork, are well thought out and just different enough from each other to be memorable. The third act is a bit of an exception, unfortunately. After over an hour of tight-quarters fisticuffs, the finale goes all in on CGI and the film crosses beyond just heightened reality into something more out of a superhero movie (specifically The Wolverine, which was also set in Japan and featured a standout sequence aboard a bullet train). The original music by Dominic Lewis is sadly quite forgettable, but the use of licensed tracks, specifically Japanese covers of classic pop and disco tunes, further adds to the quirky and OTT tone.
Bullet Train is silly and preposterous, but it clearly knows that, and whether you end up enjoying the ride will be down to whether you’re willing to accept its many bumps on the way. Its aesthetic and tonal influences come from all over cinema, from Kill Bill and Takeshi Miike to Sam Raimi and Fast & Furious, but deep down this feels like a throwback to the charisma-led gonzo action movies of the 1990s with a slick modern paint job. This is Con Air, this is Bad Boys, this is Demolition Man. If that’s your kind of thing, know not to expect too much, and ideally don’t pay full price for it, you’ll probably have an enjoyable time.
Starring: Dwayne Johnson (Jungle Cruise), Kevin Hart (Central Intelligence), Kate McKinnon (Bombshell), John Krasinski (A Quiet Place), Vanesssa Bayer (Trainwreck), Natahsa Lyonne (Russian Doll), Diego Luna (Rogue One), Thomas Middleditch (Godzilla: King of the Monsters), Ben Schwartz (Sonic the Hedgehog), Keanu Reeves (The Matrix)
Director: Jared Stern (Happy Anniversary)
Writers: Jared Stern and John Whittington (The Lego Batman Movie)
Runtime: 1 hour 40 minutes
Release Date: 29th July (US, UK)
Synopsis: When Superman and the Justice League are captured by Lex Luthor’s telekinetic guinea pig Lulu, Krypto the Superdog must team up with a group of recently-superpowered pets to save his best friend from certain doom.
When certain fanboys on the internet get all self-serious about how DC Comics is supposed to be dark and gritty, I often recall how at one point Superman had a whole cadre of animal compatriots, including a horse named Comet and a monkey called Beppo (yes, these are all real. Look them up). That said, other than the Hanna-Barbera-inspired animated series Krypto the Superdog from the mid-2000s, mainstream pop culture hasn’t exactly been widely exposed to this more playful side of the universe. Now though, as Warner Bros tries to diversify their DC Films slate beyond the core franchise, they’re dipping their toes into the children’s animation market with what I’m sure some executive pitched as “Paw Patrol for superheroes”. The final result is a film that is thankfully far from the bottom of the barrel as far as kids’ entertainment goes, delivering enough spectacle and laughs to entertain young audiences and be tolerable for parents, but doesn’t exactly soar as high as any of its superpowered stars.
DC League of Super-Pets is a middle-of-the-road animated movie on almost every level, and its storytelling is no exception. It follows a very basic “protagonist must learn to make friends to achieve goal” plot you’ve seen in countless children’s films and barely ever deviates from it, making it an extremely predictable experience for anyone beyond adolesence. Barring one dangling plot thread that seems to be setting up some kind of “liar revealed” moment (I’m glad they don’t pull that tired cliche, but they set it up and then never pay it off, so it’s frustrating regardless), the whole thing is competently put together and has enough heart to avoid being cynical, but there’s absolutely nothing here that you couldn’t find done better or any other kind of unique selling point.
What ultimately makes the movie fun is its irreverent tone and solid sense of humour, which has much more of a 90s Saturday morning cartoon vibe mixed with a little classic Looney Tunes. The riffs on DC and the superhero genre in general are mostly played out, including yet more tired gags about Clark Kent’s glasses and people thinking Aquaman is lame, which is especially disappointing as we’ve seen them pull this off better in projects like The Lego Batman Movie or even Teen Titans Go! To the Movies. That said, the more character-based gags and random background jokes inspire more than a handful of laughs (I’m still chortling at a news headline that simply read “Rich Man Actually Goes to Prison”), along with a few moments of genuine nuance that give it some heft, but these bits of brilliance only highlight how easily this movie could have aspired to be more than average. I was hardly expecting something emotionally resonant like I would from a Disney, Pixar or even higher-end DreamWorks production, but it lacks an interesting take on a source material ripe for commentary and delivers little more on a thematic level than “having friends is good, and you should adopt a pet”.
Celebrity stunt casting in animated movies has been a big problem since the early days of DreamWorks, and whilst thankfully they’ve calmed down on the practice a lot in recent years, other studios are still more than happy to slap a famous name on a poster whilst experienced voice actors pick up the scraps. The cast list for DC League of Super-Pets is utterly ridiculous, with even bit characters who aren’t around for more than a scene or two played by name talent; like, why pay for Busy Phillips or Dan Fogler to come in and say a handful of lines a piece? On the other hand, in terms of actual quality and appropriateness to the roles, they’ve surprisingly hit the mark. When it was first announced that perennial duo Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart would be the leads, I assumed the latter would voice Krypto while the former would play Ace, but the opposite turned out to be true yet it surprisingly works. Johnson is definitely the weaker of the two, feeling too stitled and rehearsed even in moments Krypto is supposed to be more reactionary, but his natural charisma shines through and works for this overconfident and conceited interpretation of the character. Meanwhile, this version of Ace is a far cry from previous depictions, but Hart gives a suprisingly nuanced performance that avoids his usual OTT persona in favour of a more worldweary affect; after so many interchangable Hart performances, it’s nice to see him take a step back and do something different.
When it comes to the rest of Krypto’s new friends, Vanessa Bayer and Diego Luna are fine enough as the size-changing pig PB and electrically-charged squirrel Chip, but Natasha Lyonne as the speedy tortoise Merton is an absolute scene-stealer; every other line of hers made me chuckle, if not laugh out loud. Kate McKinnon takes the villainous lead as the maniacal Lulu and revels in the camp of it, whilst her timid fire-and-ice sidekicks are amusingly voiced by another inseperable duo Thomas Middleditch and Ben Schwartz. On the human side, John Krasinski voices Superman and does a solid job at portraying an admittedly generic interpretation of the Man of Steel (still, it’s more suitable casting than his other recent superhero outing…). Keanu Reeves’ gravelly tones make for a great Batman performance, but unfortunately most of his material sounds like rejected Will Arnett bits from The Lego Batman Movie, whilst the likes of Jameela Jamil, Jemaine Clement and Daveed Diggs amongst others fill in the rest of the Justice League. Faring much better though is Marc Maron as Lex Luthor in a truly inspired piece of casting and, paired with a wonderfully-dry Maya Erskine as Mercy Graves, has me wishing they’d somehow retcon this pair into the live-action DC Universe.
On an aesthetic level, Super-Pets also just looks…fine. Despite having a reportedly heftier budget than other animated hits this year like The Bad Guys and even Minions 2, the production often looks more like an made-for-TV Cartoon Network movie than a theatrically-released feature film. The whole aesthetic is again very cartoony, with a lot of obvious inspiration taken from Bruce Timm’s DCAU but with a little Teen Titans Go! energy, and the fluidity and energy of the animation brings to mind Genndy Taratakovsky. This stylisation works great for the animal characters, and I love the quirky designs like how PB’s cheeks take up so much of her face or the bumper stickers on Merton’s shell. However, there’s something about the designs and rendering of especially the human characters that just gives off a cheap vibe. Everything just looks so fragile, like it’s made of plastic and porcelain, and that absolutely can be a deliberate stylistic choice (i.e. Star Wars: The Clone Wars), but it just doesn’t really vibe here. In a post Spider-Verse world, I think audiences are clamouring for animated films that look wildly different from each other, and Super-Pets is sitting somewhere awkwardly in the middle still trying to figure out if it wants to look like Hotel Transylvania or Despicable Me.
When all is said and done, DC League of Super-Pets accomplishes its main mission but doesn’t take the time and effort to be more than just OK. That doesn’t mean it’s bad or that it shouldn’t exist, but it’s just frustrating because it misses out on a lot of obvious potential that would have taken only a little more thought. If you’ve got kids who really, really want to see this movie, take them. They’ll absolutely have a good time with it, and you’ll probably be more than satisfied too, especially if you’re a DC fan who’ll notice all the tinier in-jokes. But if you don’t have kids or yours aren’t particularly clamouring to watch it, then there’s really no rush to see it an cinema. This movie feels perfect for a rainy-day matinee or to stream on a family movie night, and sometimes that’s all you want and it’s OK for movies like that to exist. Those movies just aren’t exactly paying full price for.
Hey, so you might have noticed my reviews haven’t been as frequent this year. Well, due to both professional and personal reasons, I’ve not been able to give the site as much attention as I would like. Your girl has got a lot of plates spinning right now, and as much as I love doing it, Alternative Lens isn’t as important as my ultimate career aspirations or my mental health.
However, that didn’t mean I stopped seeing as many movies. In fact, I’ve seen so many more so far this year than I had by this time in 2021. So as a result, my bi-annual attempt to catch up on everything I didn’t have time to do a full review of, or didn’t have much of a take to warrant doing one, or just saw way too late, is now MUCH larger than it’d usually be.
But if you REALLY need to know my thoughts on a movie as soon as I’ve seen it, give me a follow on Letterboxd here: https://letterboxd.com/AltFilmLens/. I’ll often do my quick thoughts on movies straight after I’ve seen them, including first watches of older films or revisiting movies I’ve seen before. So if you’ve been missing me on here and looking for more AltLens content, head on over to Letterboxd. It’s where all the cool kids are these days.
Now, on with the show!
Death on the Nile
Kenneth Branagh returns to the world of Agatha Christie in front of and behind the camera once again in this star-studded sequel to his Murder on the Orient Express, and it’s a mild but noticeable improvement over the first. All the characters are given a bit more dimension (Emma Mackey is especially great at balancing the line between camp and tragic), Branagh’s Poirot is less of a cartoon character, and the final reveal is far less preposterous and unintentionally hilarious. That said, it’s still a mostly style-over-substance affair that’s fun in the moment but doesn’t at all stick in the mind. Also, the fact half the cast has been cancelled to varying degrees between filming and release makes it an awkward watch at points. 5/10
Directed by the late Roger Michell, this dramatization of the true-life caper of a working-class pensioner stealing a famous portrait and holding it for ransom in exchange for free TV licenses is a simple but charming cup of Northern goodness. You can never go too wrong with Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren as your leads and, given the current economic climate in the UK right now, this hits close to home in just the right way. It’s still too formulaic and old-fashioned to be anything remarkable, but it’s a solid Sunday afternoon watch. 6/10
Texas Chainsaw Massacre
How many times do we need to reboot Texas Chainsaw Massacre before we get one that understands the original? And if you can’t do that, just don’t make it all or, at the very least, don’t call it Texas Chainsaw Massacre! Whilst I do appreciate the attempts at cultural commentary by touching on gentrification and school shootings, they are exploited in an uncreative and borderline tasteless manner, and its attempts to tie back into the original are just unnecessary. Elsie Fisher is the main thing keeping this whole enterprise from being completely unwatchable, and at least it has to decency to be mercifully short; only 74 minutes excluding credits. 3/10
An interesting premise for a low-budget speculative drama with strong performances and some intriguing moral dilemmas, but it unfortunately doesn’t play the few good cards it has very well. The key twists are too telegraphed due to some non-linear storytelling cues and obvious foreshadowing, and it’s yet another example of a film trying to use the COVID crisis (allegorically this time, thankfully) to its advantage and rush out something “timely” instead of focusing on its far more interesting ideas regarding ecological collapse and doing whatever it takes for the greater good. 5/10
Channing Tatum makes his directorial debut alongside longtime collaborator Reid Carolin in this animal-based dramedy that is the definition of a perfectly OK movie that doesn’t do anything badly, but doesn’t do anything particularly well either. It’s highly predictable for the most part, and it knowingly treads into areas of outdated ableist and racist humour, but it at least acknowledges it and turns these tasteless gags into a learning moment. It’s simply one of those movies that has enough heart to be entertaining in the moment, but you’ll forget about within a month. If you like Channing Tatum and cute dogs, you’ll probably enjoy it fine. Also, Tatum’s character shares a name with a Mortal Kombat character. I don’t think that was intentional, but it did distract me everytime they said his full name. 6/10
Wow, this was a surprise! A great bottle premise: a bunch of folks trapped during a snowstorm, at least one of them is a kidnapper, and it only intensifies from there. Solid performances from the whole cast, and its expert pacing constantly had me on my toes. Every time you think you have it all figured out, it throws another curveball. It doesn’t do anything particularly ground-breaking or emotionally resonant, but this does do a stellar job of being “pretty damn good”, and that’s all you really need for a thriller like this. Also, this was written by the same guys who wrote Ant-Man and the Wasp. I don’t have anything to say about that but…yeah, bit of trivia. 7/10
The Quiet Girl
A wonderful little Irish-language drama that gets across a lot whilst saying very little at all. The lead performance from young Catherine Clinch is astonishing; one of the best child performances I’ve ever seen, and worth seeing the film for her alone. It’s an incredibly bleak and yet wholesome little movie about finding family that should resonate with anyone who had a touch upbringing, and another great example of how cinemas can tell great stories on the micro level as well as the macro. 8/10
Basically the South African answer to Get Out, Good Madam is a brilliantly dark and effective horror about internalised racism and the continuing effects of apartheid on the country even decades after it ended. It absolutely lacks the slickness and sense of humour that made the Jordan Peele’s seminal film such a crowd-pleaser, but it also has more subtlety and a pervading sense of dread that makes you question whether anything untoward is happening at all or if its all in the character’s head. Tighten this up a bit and get it to the horror soon, and this could have been a bona fide cult classic, but as is, it’s just pretty good. 7/10
A historical fiction queer-coded rock opera anime?! Do I need to say anything more? This is a movie quire unlike any other I’ve ever seen, and its idiosyncrasies may make it a hard watch for someone, especially those unfamiliar with anime, but its quirky and unorthodox is what makes it so enthralling. The animation is wonderfully stylised, the music is catchy as hell, and the story is simultaneously joyous and heart-breaking. If you’re looking for something completely out of the box, go see this one at your earliest convenience; it’s getting a US theatrical run in August, and a UK one soon after too. 9/10
The Adam Project
Shawn Levy is an incredibly inconsistent director, and so after a career-high with Free Guy, it was only natural he fell back down to the mediocre-to-bad realm with this time travel action-comedy. Never have I heard such hyperactive dialogue so painfully lacking in wit that I often struggled to even follow the basic plot. Ryan Reynolds is just doing the same thing yet again, and whilst he’s good at it, it’s starting to get annoying. Even worse is Walker Scobell as the young Reynolds, whose precociousness as he tries to imitate the banter of his older self is tiresome from the word go. Also, just a stunning waste of Catherine Keener, and whatever deaging they’ve done to create her younger self is some of the worst this side of X-Men: The Last Stand. For a movie packed full of this many stars and effects, the whole thing just feels cheap and lazily designed. Only Mark Ruffalo and Jennifer Garner made this thing worth watching, and they’re barely in it, so it’s far from enough. 3/10
If people thought Luca was a strange change of pace and style for Pixar, it has absolutely nothing on Turning Red, which similar takes far more influence from eastern animation than western. Whilst Luca took obvious notes from the Studio Ghibli playbook, Turning Red is more like if The Farewell was also a shojo anime, but it’s an absolutely joyous, relatable, and heartfelt experience. Rosalie Chiang and Sandra Oh give stellar vocal performances, the original early-00s-style boy band tracks from Billie Eilish are spot-on, and its story is the honest and necessary reflection of what it really feels like to grow up that kids’ movies rarely show…just with, you know, a giant red panda. My only annoyance with this movie is that I had to watch it on Disney+ instead of getting to see it in a cinema. 8.5/10
Daisy Edgar-Jones and Sebastian Stan star in this dark comedy-horror that’s subtextually about toxic relationships and the commodification of women, but on the surface is about a relationship with a quirky cannibal gone wrong. This is one of those movies that feels like it was written with no plan of where it was going beforehand. It starts off really well with strong Hard Candy-like vibes but with a more twisted sense of humour, but then when it reaches the third act it all starts to fall apart as it haphazardly dashes towards an ending that leaves basic questions unanswered and completely fumbles the pacing. All the performances are great, the soundtrack choices are inspired with an eerie score that compliments them perfectly, and there are some very clever subversions of expectations. I just wish it all flowed together a bit more cohesively instead of feeling scattershot. 6/10
Now this is the modern-day answer to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre we’ve been waiting for! It understands that a slow build and uncomfortable tension needed to pull off such scares rather than just gore, and all the set-up involving the porn film production is compelling in its own “Boogie Nights Does Dallas” kind of way; I wouldn’t have actually minded if they just never got to the horror part. The exploration of female sexuality and empowerment is well done and overdue in a genre where women’s bodies and agency are often exploited, and whilst once the blood starts flowing it’s entertainingly done, it doesn’t quite hit the same cathartic pleasure spot of something like Ready of Not. Still, Mia Goth and Jenna Ortega continue to prove themselves worthy of being the modern scream queens. More of them please! 7/10
The Bad Guys
An adaptation of the children’s novels by Aaron Blabey, The Bad Guys is a return to form for DreamWorks Animation, yet also the promise of a bold new direction for the prolific studio. After a few experiments breaking away from their house style like Captain Underpants and Spirit Untamed, this embraces the stylism of the illustrations that inspired it to create a beautifully-realised and exaggerated anthropomorphic world and pays homage to the great crime films of yesteryear. Yes, it touches on a lot of the same themes as Zootopia in how it uses animal breeds as metaphors for discrimination, and some of the humour is can be crass and outdated (including a recurring fart gag and the oh-so-tired “man-disguises-himself-as-woman-and-does-high-pitched-voice” routine), yet the charm of the characters and the strong voice cast including Sam Rockwell, Marc Maron and Issa Rae keeps it enjoyable. It ultimately did well at the box office, but nowhere near as well as it deserved to, and with this and the upcoming Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, it’s great to see DreamWorks taking more risks on an animation level. 7.5/10
The Lost City
We haven’t had a great romantic adventure movie in decades, and The Lost City seems like a perfect movie to fill that gap in the market. Whilst its stars are all perfectly cast, including a wonderfully camp villain turn from Daniel Radcliffe, as well as Brad Pitt stealing the show in his brief supporting role, it doesn’t quite thread the needle. The story and pacing are ultimately a bigger threat than the dangers of the jungle, with scenes that are over either way too quickly or are stretched far beyond the point the joke stopped being funny. There’s just a disappointing lack of consistency as it can’t quite decide whether to weigh more in the direction of action or comedy, and the treasure hunt that should keep things moving along is mostly done before the plot starts and is resolved by figuring out only one clue; where’s the sense of adventure and discovery in that? Still, the charms of its cast, some solid knee-slapping gags and dialogue, and the exploration of themes like lost passion and self-doubt keep it more than entertaining, but this is honestly barely a step above the fine-but-forgettable pablum Netflix puts out every other week. Also, not enough Patti Harrison. 6.5/10
I wanted to stop watching The Bubble within the first 20 minutes, and almost did at least five times. If that isn’t a sign of its poor quality, I don’t know what it is. Making it all the more frustrating, I love everyone in this cast. I can tell they’re really, really trying, and it’s great to see up-and-coming British talent like Harry Trevaldwyn and Ben Ashenden & Alexander Owen getting their shot, even if much of their material is utter drivel. What really sinks this interesting set-up for a farce about Hollywood film production in the COVID era is the utterly abysmal script and amateurish direction, made even more baffling when you find out it was co-written and directed by Judd Apatow. It pushes the adage of “comedy is misery” to its worst extreme, and it keeps thinking by getting grimmer and even more extreme it’ll be funnier, but it’s just soul-destroying. There’s no real logical structure or pacing, the cast seem utterly lost and just try to adlib their way through pointless scenes, and then in the climax they all just change motivations and start working together. Other than one bizarrely funny scene involving Daisy Ridley as a holographic personal trainer, there is nothing particularly amusing about this so-called comedy. 1.5/10
Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore
(Disclaimer: I only saw this movie because I had time to kill and was able to see it for free. I would never have bothered otherwise, ‘cos I ain’t giving any of my money to Mumsnet Anita Bryant.)
Well…at least it’s better than the last one…slightly? The Fantastic Beasts series continues its slump into irrelevance with an entry that, given the amount of controversies that happened during its journey to the screen, probably should never have even made it to cinemas. Whilst the incidental dialogue and humour is better thanks to veteran Harry Potter screenwriter Steve Kloves, The Secrets of Dumbledore admits early on it has no structure and then just spends two hours meandering about, pandering with obvious fan service and swiftly tying up so many loose plot threads that you can tell the filmmakers don’t expect the fourth and fifth entries to happen. There are far too many characters to keep track of, none of this adds anything of relevance to the Wizarding World lore, and what should be a fun fantasy blockbuster is instead a tedious bore about rigging a wizard election where we don’t know any of the candidates or their political positions. There are honestly worse movies this year, but on a moral level I’d rather you watch them than this, because at least there you don’t have to give a portion of your purchase to Prosecco Orson Scott Card. 2/10
It was only a matter of time before Robert Eggers got a Hollywood budget after a string of niche indie hits, but instead of being pulled in to do a Marvel film or something first, he’s gone for broke with this epic arthouse blockbuster that mixes Hamlet and Gladiator through the lens of a hardcore metal album cover. Whilst its tale of revenge is pretty familiar on a structural level, The Northman is anything but ordinary on every other, mixing Eggers’ love for period-appropriate attention for detail and haunting imagery with the high drama scope befitting a Norse folk tale. All the performances are strong, particularly from the stoic Alexander Skarsgård and a wonderfully twisted Nicole Kidman, but it’s the visual splendour and rawness that make this a real once-in-a-lifetime experience for Eggers and the audience. It’s certainly not a crowd-pleaser, but if this seems like you’re kind of thing, you owe it to yourself to give it a whirl. 9/10
The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent
Nicolas Cage is back (not that he went anywhere…) with this meta-comedy where he plays himself hanging out with a rich mega-fan that slowly turns south. Cage is clearly having a blast playing on all of his meme-worthy eccentricities, especially when portraying his inner id Nicky, but the film only works thanks to Pedro Pascal matching his level of bonkers as his fan Javi; a sequence where the two get high together is utter comedy gold. The sense of humour is very self-referential but it always manages to pull back before it gets overbearing, and thankfully puts much of its weight in a more emotionally-driven tale of a man attempting to rediscover his passion. It’s a little disappointing that the action portion of the film can’t live up to its comedy, as its limited scope and tepid set pieces makes it feel more like one of Cage’s direct-to-DVD efforts from the early 2010s, but it far from ruins the experience. It’s a shame this one bombed on theatrical release, but The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is ultimately one for the hardcore Cage aficionados, and I’m sure enough of them will give it the cult status it was clearly intended for. 8/10
Everything Everywhere All at Once
Most films end up being overhyped and can’t help but be disappointing once you finally see them. This is one of those rare exceptions. Everything Everywhere All at Once takes advantage of every aspect of the cinematic form to tell a story you couldn’t do justice in any other medium. It’s up there with Mad Max: Fury Road, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and The Matrix, in that it’s a movie that fully embraces the spectacle and artistry of cinema whilst never forgetting about what really matters: story, character, and theme. Michelle Yeoh has never been better. Stephaine Hsu is a revelation. Ke Huy Quan: truly a star reborn! I hope this is just the start of a renaissance for him. And who could ever say a bad thing about James Hong or Jamie Lee Curtis? But the real stars here are the Daniels. The screenplay and direction are just pure perfection. Yes, one could nitpick about certain logic gaps, but if you’re focusing that much on those insignificant details, then you’re watching movies wrong. The way they’ve balanced all the genre elements and absurdist comedy whilst also tackling some pretty dark and serious subject matter is the stuff of legends; the kind of excellence that will be studied and gushed over by film academics for decades to come. If there’s a better movie than this in 2022, then 2022 will have been a bloody landmark year for cinema. 10/10!
Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers
This meta follow-up to the 80s cartoon is both better than I feared it would be, and not as good as it clearly could be. It’s easily one of the most twisted things Disney has ever released, and the legal department at the studio probably went through a lot of headaches to pull off some of these blink-and-you’ll-miss-them jokes. The mix of animation styles is off-putting at time, and despite the advances in technology this still looks nowhere near as good as Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which it clearly aspires to be the modern successor to. The pacing is a bit off, making it feel more like a really long TV episode rather than a feature film, and despite a fair few red herrings, the mystery itself is way too simple and foreshadowed to be compelling. That said, whilst John Mulaney and Andy Samberg are basically just playing themselves but as cartoon chipmunks, the real scene-stealers are Will Arnett and J.K. Simmons. Also, there is a really nice heartfelt turn near the end that got me a little weepy, and any movie that gets me even close to crying can’t be all bad. I have no idea how or why Disney greenlit this, which is essentially a Lonely Island movie that happens to feature a bunch of Disney IP, and as much as I like Hot Rod and adore Popstar, I think a more focused and steady hand like Lord & Miller might have pushed this into legendary status. 6/10
The only film this year that comes even close to matching Everything Everywhere All at Once is this modern Tollywood masterpiece of historical fiction that is the definition of “extra”. Like a lot of mainstream Indian cinema, RRR encompasses every genre and mushes them all together into a cheesy feast for the eyes and ears and doesn’t hold back. The action sequences are utterly out of this world, the dance numbers are better than any western musical in recent memory, and the melodrama is so overblown and intense that it crosses ridiculous and loops back around to earnest and powerful. This is easily the best pacing I’ve ever seen in a film over three hours, and it somehow always finds a way to top itself just when you think it couldn’t get more ridiculously awesome. It’s a shame the most easily accessible version of this on Netflix is the Hindi dub rather than the original Telegu language version, but even in that form it’s an absolute joy. Hopefully, this film’s success crossing into western recognition will help more audiences discover the joyful insanity of Indian cinema. 9.5/10
Men? More like Meh. Alex Garland’s latest is unfortunately very much less than the sum of its parts. Jessie Buckley is as great as she’s ever been starring as a woman coming to terms with the suicide of her abusive husband, whilst Rory Kinnear shows off a range he’s never gotten a chance to playing a cavalcade of male characters who each embody the worst traits of masculinity. It’s great to see Garland return to horror, and he crafts some really unnerving moments and haunting imagery; it prefers to low-key creep you out throughout rather than with sudden bursts of fear. The cinematography is ace, the score is really effective, the practical and digital effects are brilliantly meshed…so why am I still underwhelmed? Ultimately, it’s the exact same problem I had with Last Night in Soho: it’s a movie that has a lot to say, but has no real depth or insight about any of it. It may intensify as the story builds, but it doesn’t actually lead to much; it’s like it thinks just saying the same thing but increasingly louder will be enough to get the point across. Maybe for audiences who don’t relate as much (i.e. cishetero men without traumatic histories), this might be something to inspire some introspection, but for me I was just nodding along going, “Yep, that is indeed what men are like. I agree, they tend to suck, but…what’s your point?” 6/10
The trend in the late 90s and early 00s was to do adaptations of Shakespeare and Austen works but set in contemporary American high school. Let’s make the 2020s the era of adaptations of Shakespeare and Austen works but starring a bunch of messy millennial queers. Fire Island takes the basic beats of Pride & Prejudice and transplants it to the modern gay mecca off the coast of New York, and it’s a wonderfully fluid translation of the classic tale. Joel Kim Booster (who also wrote the screenplay) makes for a wonderfully messy Liz Bennett stand-in as Noah, Bowen Yang shows a more sensitive side than his usual Saturday Live Persona as the story’s Jane with Howie, and Conrad Ricamorra is a revelation as the stoic Darcy-like Will. Just some good chill comedy fun, but one that also highlights BIPOC queer voices in a way rarely seen in mainstream cinema. 7/10
Good Luck to You, Leo Grande
I like the title they went with, but I have no idea how they resisted not calling it Let’s Talk About Sex, because that is 80% of the movie. This dramedy about a widow discovering self-pleasure through a series of encounters with a sex worker may resemble a play more often than it does a film, but its limited cast and locations only helps to amplify its cracking dialogue and mesmerising performances. We of course all know Emma Thompson is a national treasure, but Daryl McCormack shows so much raw charm and personality that he has the potential to become one should he so choose; I honestly couldn’t get enough of both of them. Given how sexually repressed much of British society is, it’s so refreshing and eye-opening to see a British film not only discuss these topics, but openly advocate for a more sexually liberal society and better rights for sex workers, all whilst not being too eye-popping for the older audiences just there for Emma Thompson. I loved every awkward, horny moment of this movie, and I honestly got a better and more affirming sex education from this movie than anything I got in a secondary school classroom. 8.5/10
It’s rare to see a director release two films in one year, but even rarer that one of those films is their best work whilst the other is easily their worst. Whilst Joseph Kosinski gave us the smash-hit of the summer with Top Gun: Maverick, he also made this intriguing but ultimately underwhelming sci-fi thriller starring Chris Hemsworth, Miles Teller and Jurnee Smollett. There’s a really good movie in somewhere in Spiderhead, and it has all the right ingredients to be one, but it fumbles the ball in too many make-or-break moments. The story is good, but the pacing and structure is abysmal; it’s far too episodic and with no clear direction until we’re almost at the climax. The actors are all well cast, but their performances are generally either too muted or over-the-top. The visuals, as expected from a Kosinski film, are bloody gorgeous, but they get super, SUPER repetitive. The pop soundtrack is a nice touch, but it’s a crutch that’s way overused and some of the choices are way too obvious (still, the recurring use of Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me with Science” is a stroke of genius). All in all, I can’t say I hated the experience, but it’s certainly not something I would actively encourage anyone to watch. 5/10
Cha Cha Real Smooth
This Sundance darling about a recent college grad who falls in with a young mother whilst working bar/bat mitzvahs is certainly worth the festival hype. This is one of those movies that’s so deceptively simple that you constantly think you know where it’s going, and yet it always finds a way to surprise you. A brilliant new take on a well-worn postgrad coming-of-age tale, and one of the most brutally accurate depictions of being in your 20s ever (and I say that as someone who’s only got a year of my 20s left). More than anything though, I’m so goddamn jealous of Cooper Raiff. I mean, you can write, direct, produce and act this damn well on your second feature, AND you’re only 25?! I would do so many terrible things just to as good as you at ONE of those skills. Also, I unironically want that oversized T-shirt Dakota Johnson wears in that one scene. It looks comfy. 9/10
Starring: Chris Hemsworth (Rush), Christian Bale (The Fighter), Tessa Thompson (Sorry to Bother You), Jaimie Alexander (Blindspotting), Taika Waititi (Free Guy), Russell Crowe (Gladiator), Natalie Portman (Black Swan)
Writer/Director: Taika Waititi (Jojo Rabbit)
Runtime: 1 hour 59 minutes
Release Date: 7th July (UK), 8th July (US)
Synopsis: When the nihilistic Gorr the God Butcher threatens to destroy all gods, Thor teams up with the Asgardian king Valkyrie and his ex-girlfriend Dr. Jane Foster (who now also wields the power of Thor) to find a way to stop his genocidal plans.
The Thor series has certainly had the oddest trajectory amongst the various solo series with in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Kenneth Branagh’s first film was a solid foundation and helped set the tone as a sci-fi fantasy with strong comedic undertones, and overnight turned its leads Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston into Hollywood superstars. Its sequel, The Dark World, was unfortunately a stepdown into mediocrity with a generic and unfocused plot, an increased reliance on cheap gags, and still the worst villain in MCU history; it’s far from unwatchable and has lots of redeeming qualities, but still easily the weakest entry in the modern Marvel pantheon (and yet another old review of mine I no longer stand by). After this, it seemed for a moment that Thor may just become another member of the Avengers roster, rather than a core component that helped build the franchise.
Then, Taika Waititi stepped in and spiritually rebooted the series with Ragnarok, injecting it with a bold 80s-inspired aesthetic and his own quirky brand of humour whilst also upping the action and spectacle to new heights. It refashioned the titular God of Thunder as a more dynamic and relatable hero that better played to Hemsworth’s strengths, and brought a sense of cathartic joy that’s often missing from the more self-serious MCU entries. The sheer strength of Ragnarok shot Thor back into the spotlight and now, with Waititi returning to the helm, he is the first Marvel hero to attain a fourth solo entry with Love and Thunder. Will this crew be able to make lightning strike twice (or four-ice…quice…wait, nothing comes after thrice?…um…four times, depending on how you look at it?), or should the son of Odin have taken a hint from fellow OG Avengers and taken an early retirement to Valhalla?
Taking place in the aftermath of Avengers: Endgame (the MCU timeline has gotten a bit confusing as of late), Love and Thunder retains much of the zaniness and wit that made Ragnarok such a blast, but also takes the franchise in unexpected new directions. Much in the same way as last year’s Shang-Chi, it’s so refreshing to see a solo Marvel film mostly unconcerned with fitting into the larger cosmos of the MCU and simply telling, as our title character repeatedly exclaims, “another classic Thor adventure!” Where it falters slightly and doesn’t quite meet the quality of its immediate predecessor, ironically, are the same flaws that held Ragnarok back: a structurally imbalanced plot and a scattered attention span. Whilst the previous entry managed to compensate for this with its idiosyncrasies, here the surprise has worn off a bit and its easier to see the flimsy pieces connecting all the gags and set pieces. Waititi’s more laidback approach to directing works great in its moments of comedic respite, but it does also leads to pacing issues and a more fractured editing style; you can just sense how many scenes must have been binned, or how much improvising they’ve cut around. It’s not an inherently bad style of filmmaking, but it’s one that requires a lot of skill and a fair bit of luck, and sadly fate wasn’t as much on Waititi’s side this time around.
With that criticism out of the way though, Love and Thunder compensates for its structural shortcomings by turning up the thematic elements and taking the character in a more heartfelt direction. Despite the potential galaxy-wide threat posed by its main villain, this is a much more personal and emotionally-driven journey for Thor as he continues to grapple with himself post-Thanos. Continuing the anti-colonial subtext of Ragnarok, Love and Thunder‘s God-killing plot could be seen as an allegory for billionaires and the 1%. These are immensely powerful omnipotent beings who could use their abilities to help the world, instead selfishly hiding away and showing active disdain for their worshippers; the metaphor would only be more obvious if Gorr started literally eating the gods instead of merely killing them.
But on a grander scale, and as the title suggests, it’s a story about love in various incarnations, which motivates both its heroes and villains in its own complicated ways. This is most exemplified by a sequence showing how Thor and Jane’s relationship fell apart; something that was explained away with a handwave in Ragnarok. It’s seemingly just a funny rom-com spoof, but it leaves a sad undercurrent throughout the rest of the film as it further ruminates on the nature of love itself. This all comes to a head in a climax that is undoubtedly one of the most touching and heartwrenching conclusions to a superhero film I’ve ever seen; I was genuinely tearing up towards the end. It’s a bold choice that mirrors Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2‘s own detour into tearjerking sentimentality in so many ways, and some audiences will undoubtedly feel disappointed it’s not more Ragnarok. However, also like Vol. 2, I expect there’ll be a fair bit of reppraisal down the line as folk stop comparing it so much to Ragnarok and judge it for what it is trying to do.
The character of Thor has certainly had the biggest evolution over the course of the MCU, and Chris Hemsworth has been a steady hand at keeping the character fresh and exciting through various directors and visions. Even though he may have gotten himself back in shape, the scars left by the events of Endgame still linger in Thor as he once again finds himself lost about his purpose in life, which makes this a perfect moment to reintroduce Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster to the mix. Hemsworth’s strong comedic chops are once again put to great use as he finds himself in a bit of an identity crisis to see his ex now wielding his own powers, and the journey he goes on as he comes to terms with those complicated feelings are the true heart of Love and Thunder. Portman, meanwhile, matches that with a performance that blows her previous MCU appearances out of the water. She retains the awkward and insecure aspects that made Jane endearing, seen here as she tries and fails to settle on a superhero catchphrase, but there’s an element to her arc here that adds a neccessary layer of sadness; comic fans will know what I’m talking about, but please don’t ruin it for anyone who doesn’t. More than anything, you can tell Portman is having a lot more fun here being the hero rather than just the damsel, and I hope her Mighty Thor does a lot to inspire all kinds of people to keep fighting.
Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie was one of the best additions to the Thor mythos and she continues to be a fun presence here, but she sadly ends up feeling like a bit of a third wheel to the two Thors. There’s a fun sister-like relationship between her and Jane that doesn’t get enoug time to shine, and her new responsibilities as King ultimately don’t factor in too much. Waititi himself also returns as the lovable rock man Korg, but this time around he’s here purely for comic relief and to add a humourous running narration; he’s still consistently funny, but he’s far from necessary to the plot. Fans of the Guardians of the Galaxy may be dissapointed to hear they’re gone within the first fifteen minutes, their appearance feeling obligatory to tie up a loose end from Endgame, but the dynamic between Thor and Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord is still a lot of fun and it’s still a treat that’ll hold audiences over until the long-awaited Vol. 3. Jamie Alexander’s return as Lady Sif is little more than an extended cameo, with no real explanation as to what she’s been up to since The Dark World, whilst Russell Crowe camps it up with a ridiculous Mediterranean accent and pot-bellied body armour in his brief appearance as Zeus.
Who thankfully doesn’t disappoint is Christian Bale in his supervillain turn as Gorr the God Butcher. His motivations may veer towards the basic and his appearance simplified compared to his comic book counterpart, but he makes up for it in sheer unhinged menace. The opening sequence showing his origins is one of the best cold opens in MCU history, making him an immediately relatable character that ties deeply into the film’s thematic intent. This is what Malekith could have been in The Dark World, proving a simple “kill everyone” antagonist can be effective as long as they have a personality and a memorable performance backing it up. Seriously, Bale’s Gorr will be the stuff of nightmares for younger viewers, and may well rank up as one of the best villains in the MCU canon.
When the first Thor was coming out, people were worried that Jack Kirby’s iconic vision of Asgard simply wouldn’t translate to screen or, worse, would be junked in favour of a more generic fantasy aesthetic. Luckily, the first film embraced the stylism of the comics and Love and Thunder gleefully continues playing with its hyperealism to create a wonderfully wacky visual experience. The cinematography is garish but in a good way, splashing colour and light across the screen whenever it can, but it also pulls it away for great dramatic effect. The opening sequence is a wonderful example, as Gorr finds himself one moment in a desolate waste before discovering a verdant oasis, or later when our heroes arrive at Gorr’s asteroid lair, and almost all colour drains from the image. The production design is fantastically over-the-top, packed with twisted alien structures and a gaudy, commercialised New Asgard in what feels like a not-so-subtle dig at Disney’s theme park empire.
The editing is easily the weakest element of the film on a structural level (the fact there are four credited editors is certainly a sign), but on a moment-to-moment basis the action scenes pop and the comedy are expertly timed for maximum impact. When it comes to music, Marvel veteran Michael Giacchino steps in as the fourth composer to handle Thor’s soundscape. He does a solid job of emulating the 80s synth rhythms of Mark Mothersbaugh’s score for Ragnarok, but also brings in other musical influences to create a varied and effective superhero score; you’d expect nothing less from Giacchino these days. On top of that though, Love and Thunder features more licensed music than any MCU movie not called Guardians of the Galaxy, and though choices like AC/DC, Guns ‘n Roses and Dio could easily be seen as cheap and obvious in other hands, it fits perfectly into the film’s camp and unapologetically-sincere vibe.
Thor: Love and Thunder may lack the visceral impact of Ragnarok and certainly won’t please everyone, but for those willing to open up their hearts and go along for the ride, it’s a wonderfully entertaining and refreshingly honest piece of filmmaking from a director who clearly wants to show he’s more than “that funny guy from New Zealand”. I have no doubt this’ll divide the fanbase as much as Iron Man 3, if not more so, but if you loved that film’s boldness and willingness to take risks, you owe it to yourself to give Thor’s latest classic adventure a whirl. Marvel fatigue is absolutely a problem in the current blockbuster landscape, but it’s a sentiment I believe the studio can overcome by continuing to diversify and shake up the formula. Eternals and Multiverse of Madness were imperfect steps in that direction, and Love and Thunder isn’t without its faults either, but I hope they continue taking risks like this with their established properties.
Starring: Austin Butler (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), Tom Hanks (Saving Private Ryan), Helen Thomson (La Spagnola), Richard Roxburgh (Van Helsing), Olivia DeJonge (The Visit), Luke Bracey (Hacksaw Ridge), Natasha Bassett (Hail Caesar!), David Wenham (300), Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Cyrano), Xavier Samuel (The Twilight Saga: Eclipse), Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Power of the Dog), Dacre Montgomery (Stranger Things)
Director: Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!)
Writers: Baz Luhrmann & Sam Bromell (The Get Down) and Baz Luhrmann & Craig Pearce (Romeo + Juliet) and Jeremy Doner (The Killing)
Runtime: 2 hours 39 minutes
Release Date: 24th June (US, UK)
Synopsis: When rock ‘n roll pioneer Elvis Presley attracts the attention of ambitious huckster Colonel Tom Parker, the two form a tumultuous decade-spanning bond through Presley’s rise to stardom to his fall from grace.
Another year, another musician biopic; we seemingly can’t go 365 days without at least one. They’re a subgenre that reliably draws in audiences and awards contention, even though almost every single one is basically the same story with different coats of paint (again, Patrick H Willems did a great video breaking this down). However, Elvis certainly has its own unique draws. For one, it’s Baz Luhrmann’s first directing gig in nine years and, whether you like his aesthetic or not, it’s a style all his own and immediately makes this something more than a standard studio production. More than that even, it’s the first big-budget Hollywood film about the life of Elvis Presley, a figure who you would have thought would have gotten his glitzy production decades ago; there’s been a few TV movies and a miniseries, plus plenty of guest appearances in other major biopics, but never one to call his own. The mere idea of Baz Luhrmann making an Elvis movie seems like either a match made in heaven or a case of sensory overload, as two figures known for their extravagant theatricality merge to create something that, whether you end up liking it or not, you can’t look away from. 2022’s Elvis is indeed an overlong and exhausting ride that hits a lot of the familiar beats, but it’s also an incredibly immersive and audacious piece of cinema that delivers the spectacle and energy of a live rock concert.
Literally as soon as the movie starts, before we are even out of the opening studio logos, this is undeniably a Baz Luhrmann film and it only ramps up from the there. Its opening moments are a little disorienting, not only because it moves so fast and jumps around in time a bunch, but because the visuals themselves make you feel like you’re at one of the many carnivals Elvis plays at in his formative years. Whilst the story eventually settles into a more linear narrative that takes us from Elvis’ early years living in poverty to his vice-addled flop era performing in Las Vegas, the pacing and visual flair doesn’t slow down as much. The whole first half has the frenetic energy of a movie trailer blown up to feature-length, especially in its numerous montage sequences, before slowing down more in the second. However, this speed feels deliberate in how it mirrors Elvis’ fame and state-of-mind, giving you first the intoxicating rush of seeing him perform at his height and then crashing down as Elvis’ career goes off the rails. That’s not to say there’s no substance or downtime in the film, and it’s these moments of introspection that both makes all the glitz mean something and stops the whole enterprise from just being a three-hour music video.
On a skeletal level, Elvis is still a pretty standard rags-to-riches tale that you’ve seen in every music biopic, to the point where you could easily replace certain scenes with their parody equivalent in Walk Hard and some people might not even notice. Where it manages to overcome those tropes is not just in its sheer shownmanship, but in how it focuses more on the love-hate relationship between Presley and his manager Colonel Tom Parker. The Colonel himself narrates directly to the audience as he tries to rationalize his decisions, and most of the major narrative beats centre around Elvis either defying his controlling nature or falling prey to his influence.
Though the story is ultimately a love letter to Presley and doesn’t address some of the darker or unflattering aspects of his life (no, you don’t get to see him die on the toilet), it really emphasises that his downfall wasn’t just out of poor health choices or making a quick buck, but a more tragic situation of being stuck with a man who both made him who he is and trapped him in his grasp forever. As formulaic as it is under the hood, there’s a reason filmmakers keep going back to this structure and Luhrmann does a fantastic job of making this old banger seem like a new model. His directorial style just gives it an infectious charm that makes you feel like you’re right there in the audience watching The King do his thing, and for that reason alone it makes this a movie you need to see on the big screen with an enthusiastic crowd.
Whilst stars such as Kurt Russell, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Michael Shannon have played him over the years, casting Elvis Presley should be approached with the same principle as casting Superman: if you cast a movie star as Superman, the audience just sees that movie star in a Superman costume, but if you cast an unknown, they see only Superman. Austin Butler is by no means a complete stranger picked off the street, but he’s far from the obvious choice and has never even led a major film before. That might quickly change after this though, because Butler delivers a tour de force performance as he completely transforms himself into the King of Rock and Roll. Presley is such a theatrical character that it’s hard to take him completely seriously, but Butler strikes the right balance between being authentic and going over the top, which is especially impressive when you remember who’s directing him. Even the distinctive honky tonk voice, whilst perhaps worth a chuckle at first, eventually just becomes a natural part of his performance. Whether it’s worthy of awards consideration yet is too early to call, but undoubtedly this movie alone is a guaranteed star maker for Butler.
The role that will likely divide more audience is Tom Hanks’ turn as Colonel Tom Parker, whose characterisation here I can only describe as “imagine if Jim Broadbent’s character from Moulin Rouge! had a love child with a hillbilly demon”. He gets pretty much equal screen time with Butler and is rarely far from him, with him being portrayed as a Faustian figure constantly looming over Presley and somehow luring him back every time he thinks their partnership is over. Hanks certainly throws himself into the role with gusto, adopting the strange Dutch-meets-Southern drawl and lumbering around under heavy make-up, but it’s absolutely a highly exaggerated performance by even Luhrmann’s standards, and yet I’m not sure if the movie would work as well if it were toned down. This is an exaggerated Hollywood retelling after all, so it therefore needs a villain, and despite rarely getting such opportunities Hanks can relish a good sinister turn.
The rest of the supporting cast is certainly jam-packed, with some pretty major stars like Kodi Smit-McPhee and Dacre Montgomery in roles that come and go in what feels like five minutes. Helen Thomson certainly shines the most in her brief time as Elvis’ beleaguered mother Gladys, whilst Richard Roxburgh gives a rare understated turn as his father Vernon. Olivia DeJonge certainly throws herself into the role of Priscilla Presley, to the point I didn’t even recognise her until the credits, but the character seems like a bit of an afterthought and devolves into yet another biopic trope character by the end. Kelvin Harrison Jr. is also pretty good as fellow musical pioneer B.B. King, but he’s only in a handful of scenes, which is especially egregious as he’s the only major Black character in a movie about a guy who owes so much of his career to African-American culture. In the grand scheme of things though, this is a story about Elvis and the Colonel, and so it’s only natural those two take up so much of the stage in such a decade-spanning chronicle.
If I had to take a guess on a word Baz Luhrmann doesn’t know the meaning of, it would be “subtlety”, because every single one of his movies lack any of it and Elvis is no exception. The visual presentation hits you like a tonne of bricks from the word go, sweeping you off into its technicolour dreamlike presentation and not letting you go until the credits roll. The editing is simply relentless, especially during its concert scenes as we cut between Presley’s on-stage antics and the crowd going quite literally mad for him, but never in a way that feels incomprehensible or random; it is quite deliberately strenuous. The presentation is just awash in bright lights and spinning cameras abound, turning the movie into a figurative roller coaster, and all of the set and costume work is just to die for.
The montage sequences are perhaps relied on a little too frequently, but they keep the energy of the story up and they’ve done a fantastic job of compositing Butler into old archival footage (but there are times when you can see they haven’t bother for shots that don’t show Elvis’ face). Of course for a movie about a musician, you’d expect a stellar music experience and Elvis certainly delivers on all the hits and more, and Butler even gets a chance to show off his own singing ability for a few select songs. Luhrmann also loves himself a bit of anachronistic clashing and inserts modern songs onto the soundtrack, though all of them sample or are outright covers of Elvis songs, so there is at least a theme to it rather than just slapping a Jay-Z song on The Great Gatsby. Still, it is kind of weird to be leaving the cinema as Eminem raps over the credits. What is this? Venom?
Elvis isn’t going to please those looking for a more nuanced take on the legend or something that bucks the formula of the musician biopic, but as a crowd-pleasing epic it hits every note like a pro. It’s probably the closest anyone these days can get to seeing the man himself play live, and for fans it’s an absolute must-see in cinemas. As much as I’m personally tired of the current wave of these movies post-Bohemian Rhapsody (with the exception of Rocketman, which this rivals closely for me), I can forgive a lot of workmanlike screenwriting when there’s so much passion and creativity up on the screen, and on that level Baz Luhrmann doesn’t disappoint. The whole experience may have left me feeling like I’d run a marathon, but it’s a ride I’d gladly take again in the right circumstances. More than anything else though, I think The King would be proud, because this matches his own standards of showmanship.