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.
Starring: Ethan Hawke (The Northman), Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Jeremy Davis (Saving Private Ryan), James Ransone (It Chapter Two), E. Roger Mitchell (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire)
Director: Scott Derrickson (Doctor Strange)
Writers: Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill (Sinister)
Runtime: 1 hour 42 minutes
Release Date: 22nd June (UK), 24th June (US)
Synopsis: After being abducted by an unsettling man known only as The Grabber, a young boy communes with his captor’s deceased victims through a supernatural phone to try and plot his escape.
Scott Derrickson’s career has veered its way into sci-fi and superheroes on occasion, but his bread and butter will always be horror, and he really shot himself into the big leagues by teaming with screenwriter C. Robert Cargill to make 2012’s grisly supernatural surprise hit Sinister. After that gig helped both Derrickson and Cargill nab the chance to bring Marvel’s Sorceror Supreme to the screen with 2016’s Doctor Strange, the duo were set to return for the sequel Multiverse of Madness until, due to the usual vague industry reason of “creative differences”, they departed the project and the reigns were instead handed to Sam Raimi. However, Derrickson and Cargill wasted no time in getting another project off the ground, instead returning to their horror roots, reuniting with Sinister lead Ethan Hawke, and adapting a short story from Joe Hill’s 20th Century Ghosts anthology into their latest twisted nightmare. The Black Phone in many ways is the true successor to Sinister, even moreso than its underwhelming 2015 sequel, building on those grimy foundations to make another chilling tale of gruesome murders and supernatural mystery. That said, as eerie and well-executed as it is, it’s far from an evolution of the concept.
In case you weren’t aware, Joe Hill is the son of legendary horror novelist Stephen King and, whilst father and son do have their stylistic differences and have both written stories far outside their usual comfort zones, The Black Phone feels very at home within the world of King. It’s got a creepy murderer disguised as a kids’ entertainer, an alcoholic and child-abusing father, kids with unexplained psychic powers, creepy baloons, and more; honestly, the biggest difference between this and most King stories is that it’s set in Colorado instead of Maine. Tropes aside, The Black Phone still does a really effective job of building tension. It takes almost until halfway through the movie before the titular communication device comes into play, but the carefully-paced journey to that premise gives plenty time to shape out our leads, and once the fantastical elements come into play it really starts to shine. Like a lot of King and Hill stories, it doesn’t waste time explaining how or why these paranormal elements exist and instead has fun playing in the sandbox, but it gives enough context on the margins to give a sense of stories beyond the one we’re in.
Once we hit the main stretch of Finney trying to escape The Grabber’s clutches, The Blank Phone just starts having gleefully dark fun. There’s some wonderfully tense and anxiety-inducing moments as he tries and fails to break free, plus some wonderfully brutal twists that come in to wrench away any slight feelings of relief. Whilst the film takes its premise fairly seriously, the screenplay has a great underlying sense of wit that prevents it from getting glum, and those moments of comedic relief only make its darkest moments seem that much more shocking. Unfortunately, whilst this is all well and good, it can’t quite escape the most damning King trope of them all: an underwhelming ending. This is especially disappointing as the anticipation for the climax is built up to incredibly well, setting the audience up for a truly thrilling conclusion, but the whole thing is over far too quickly and neither leaves you feeling neither fully satisfied or majorly creeped out. It just sort of…ends, with no real sense of what the previous ninety minutes were ultimately about beyond just being scary. I’m not demanding that The Black Phone have some big Jordan Peele-style message to impart, but I do wish it left me with something more to grasp onto than its admittedly sharp and professional execution.
Featuring not one but two children as your main protagonists is always a dicey move, but The Black Phone honestly has some of the best child performances seen since (and I don’t say this just because of the King comparison) the recent It adaptations. Both Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw as siblings Finney and Gwen Shaw are young stars in the making, carrying this heavy movie on their young shoulders with the confidence of their adult peers. Thames especially shines as he spends much of the film by himself talking to muffled voices on the phone, and he alone conveys so much despair and desperation in his torturous situation whilst still feeling genuine; a scene where he finally breaks down after yet another failed escape attempt is especially crushing. McGraw’s performance borders on precocious at times, but she ultimately overcomes it and delivers both one of its most emotionally-wrenching scenes and deliver some of the funniest line deliveries (all I’ll say is “Jesus, what the f*ck?!”).
Ethan Hawke is already having a hell of a 2022 with Moon Knight and The Northman (plus Rian Johnson’s Knives Out sequel Glass Onion still to come), and his performance as the eerie Grabber here is unlike anything we’ve seen from him. With his face obscured by various masks for most of the runtime, his performance is more reliant on his body language and voice, and with both he creates a character that should stand the test of time and become a staple for anyone looking for an easy but iconic Halloween costume. The character of The Grabber himself is very thinly drawn and his motivations unknown, but that only makes him scarier and the few hints we do get suggest his madness is far from typical. The rest of the supporting cast is a bit more of a mixed bag. Jeremy Davies puts in a decent turn as Thames and McGraw’s troubled father but he does little to overcome being a King stereotype, the detectives played by E. Roger Mitchell and Troy Rudeseal are interesting but underdeveloped, and whilst fellow Sinister alum James Ransone gives it his all as a coked-out resident trying to solve the Grabber case by himself, he gets far less screen time than he deserves for such a compellingly kooky character.
Whilst Sinister was a contemporary story that used cinema aesthetics from the 60s and 70s to tell its snuff-infused tale, The Black Phone is set firmly in 1978 and regularly reminds you of that fact without turning the setting into its whole identity. It all feels very authentic not just in terms of costumes and iconography, but it also borrows a lot of filmmaking ideas from the time, with an eye than sits somewhere between Brian de Palma and Tobe Hooper. The cinematography by Brett Jutkiewicz is simple but effective, and includes a few neat flourishes like slick scene transitions as we move between floors of a house or layers of a dream. Sound also plays a big role as it does in any horror, and whether its the creaking floorboards of The Grabber’s lair of the crackling tone of The Black Phone itself, it all adds to a general unsettling mood. The score by Mark Korven is sadly perfunctory, but that’s more than made up for by the wide array of period soundtrack choices that either compliment or purposefully throw off the mood of a scene; I think this film has now firmly supplanted the first trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 for the title of “most iconic use of ‘Fox on the Run’ by Sweet”.
The Black Phone is a good piece of trashy summer fun and a great return to his pure horror roots for Derrickson, though it ultimately can’t match the suprise and ingenuity of Sinister. It’s a genre he and Cargill clearly excel in, and I hope the pair continue to craft more tales of the macabre, hopefully with something that pushes the boundaries a little more rather than just a solid tribute to ages past. It might not be the kind of movie you have to rush out and see in a theatre, but it certainly plays well in one as most good horrors tend to, and if you’re a big horror fan you should absolutely support it. Beyond that initial run though, I expect The Black Phone to become a staple of midnight movie marathons or being stumbled across by an unexpecting audience on whatever streaming services it ends up on eventually. There’s a part of me that’s still miffed we never got to see Derrickson’s take on Multiverse of Madness, but at the same time I’m glad he’s excelling and having fun making movies like this he clearly has a passion for rather than having to conform to the Marvel machine.
Starring: Chris Evans (Knives Out), Keke Palmer (Hustlers), Peter Sohn (Monsters University), James Brolin (The Amityville Horror), Taika Waititi (Free Guy), Dale Soules (The Miseducation of Cameron Post), Uzo Aduba (Orange is the New Black)
Director: Angus MacLane
Writers: Jason Headley (Onward) & Angus MacLane
Runtime: 1 hour 45 minutes
Release Date: 17th June (US, UK)
Synopsis: After getting them stranded on a hostile planet, headstrong Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear’s attempts to find a way for his colony to escape end up flinging him into the future, where he must team up with his best friend’s granddaughter to combat a mysterious technologically-advanced threat.
After seeing their last three features being relegated to a straight-to-Disney+ release (four if you count Onward, which only got a few weeks in theatres before COVID-19 cut its run short), it’s great to see Pixar finally return to the big screen, and what a more fitting happenstance that it’s with a character that helped put them on the map. The mythos of Buzz Lightyear has been explored before outside the main Toy Story films, most notably in the Buzz Lightyear of Star Command cartoon from the early 2000s, but now the animation studio that created him has come to reset the canon. As its opening title cards clarify, this is the movie that young Andy fell in love with and made him ask for the tie-in action figure for his birthday back in 1995, and you can understand why. Whilst it may lack the emotional depth and childhood relatability of the Toy Story films, Lightyear is an action-packed and imaginative sci-fi romp that will inspire a new generation of kids to fall in love with the iconic character.
Right from the off, Lightyear feels very unlike anything else Pixar has ever made before. It tonally sits right on the line between space opera and hard science fiction, taking as much influence from the likes of Interstellar and Silent Running as it does from Star Wars or Lost in Space; it actually reminded me a lot of Mass Effect in its balance. While it works in plenty of family-friendly humour, it takes its world just seriously enough that you can invest in it and enjoy it as a story removed from its action figure origins, though it is still fun to see how they’ve reverse-engineered concepts from the toy back to their “inspiration”. The core themes aren’t exactly deep or profound enough to be considered brilliant sci-fi, instead simply using the tropes of the genre to impart Pixar’s typically earnest life messages; in this case, learning the value of teamwork, letting go of past mistakes, and simply living in the moment.
The story moves at a good pace whilst still taking some time to take it easy, there are a couple of really solid plot twists that keep things compelling, and it has a lot of great gags and even a tear-worthy moment or two. There’s nothing Lightyear does that’s especially wrong or any opportunities it seriously fails to take advantage of, but rather its biggest drawback is that it lacks a huge selling point; something it has that it can truly call its own. Nostalgia for the character may be what initially brings audience through the door, and the movie certainly has plenty of fan service ranging from obvious callbacks to deep-cut references for Pixar aficionados, but the “this is the fictional movie that inspired the toy” isn’t really enough of a revolutionary idea to support what is, whilst very fun and well-executed on all levels, a story that didn’t exactly demand to be told. To put it simply: it’s the Solo: A Star Wars Story of the Toy Story franchise.
We’ve seen actors take over an iconic role before, but never one quite like in Lightyear. The arrogant and self-righteous Buzz first voiced by Tim Allen audiences met in 1995 may have had the memories and knowledge of the “real” character, but that Buzz was just a toy imitation that broke out of his delusions and evolved into his character over four films and various spin-offs. Chris Evans’ task in inheriting the Space Ranger mantle is therefore made more treacherous, in that he has to imitate Allen enough that you can tell where the toy drew inspiration, but also flesh out and mould the character into more than just an action figure. Thankfully, Evans does a fantastic job on both counts and makes the role his own whilst still unmistakably being Buzz Lightyear. His brashness and tenacity remain intact, but this Buzz has an emotional nuance all his own as he obsesses over completing his mission whilst failing to make connections with the people around him. Whilst far from a revolutionary take on the hero’s journey, he absolutely makes for a compelling hero that kids will look up to, but parents may also seem themselves reflected in him, especially those who may feel life has slipped them by and missed out on the moments that mattered.
Whilst our titular lead does take up much of the spotlight, Lightyear also boasts an impressively likable supporting cast that are given a lot more free reign to define their characters. Keke Palmer makes for a delightful foil to Evans as his friend’s granddaughter Izzy, her blind optimism and crushing inexperience against Buzz’s entire persona. Taika Waititi is his usual lovably quirky self as the bumbling cadet Mo, whilst Dale Soules is consistently fun as the crochety ex-con Darby. Uzo Aduba’s role as Commander Alisha is brief but incredibly powerful and has a lasting impact throughout the film, though her LGBTQ+ status is once again a case where conservative media and homophobic governments have overblown a depiction of queer life that amounts to no more than a brief kiss. The less said about James Brolin’s turn as Zurg, the better. Being the only other character lifted from the Toy Story films, in contrast he is quite a far cry from his plastic counterpart but his reimagining is certainly compelling than just the obvious Darth Vader spoof he was in Toy Story 2. However, the film itself, and likely the hearts of many of its viewers, is stolen by the robotic cat Sox. Played with a wonderfully deadpan affect by Pixar creator Peter Sohn (who also voiced Emile in Ratatouille and Squishy in Monsters University), the character is equally cute and hilarious from the moment he springs to life and only gets funnier from there. From his matter-of-fact observations to how he adorably makes cat noises whilst performing certain tasks, he’s basically a more compact and feline version of Baymax from Big Hero 6. Quite ironically, I expect the best-selling toy from this movie inspired by a toy won’t be its decade-spanning title character, but his little ginger cat.
Where Lightyear really sets itself apart from its Pixar siblings is in its stunning visuals. Whilst it still retains a slightly caricaturised look for its human characters, they are rendered with a more photoreal finish than anything the studio has put out before, bringing to mind Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin whilst keeping it cartoony enough to comfortably avoid any dives into the uncanny valley. The way it contrasts the more grounded aesthetic of the human colony akin to The Martian against the far more fantastical design of Zurg and his robotic minions gives the world a more unique flavour than if it had been full-on space opera, and how it manages to translate the toyetic designs of the Space Ranger suits and their various gadgets into something that actually seems practical is a joy to behold. The alien world of T’Kani Prime itself is a little basic itself, mostly being a barren rock occasionally broken up by bits of jungle and the cityscape of the colony, and Zurg’s ship is a pretty standard evil spacecraft, but again there’s nothing inherently wrong with their designs other than they lack that final little touch of individuality. The film really shines on an audio level also, with not only fantastic sound design that includes recognisable noises from the toy but with a lifelike sheen, but also an incredible score from the always-reliable Michael Giacchino that elevates the whole experience to its lofty space-faring ambitions.
Lightyear completes its main objective in delivering an entertaining and expertly-crafted movie that stands alone from its Toy Story origins, but it doesn’t have a whole lot to offer beyond that. It’s a worthwhile experience for the family on the big screen, whilst also showing a range in style and genre that Pixar has never quite explored in this way before; I’m really looking forward to seeing what Angus MacLane, who makes his feature directorial debut here, will do in the future. At the same time though, it can’t quite escape feeling like more of a corporate idea than a purely creative one, right down to how its breakout character Sox will inevitably join the likes of Baby Groot and Grogu amongst the cute plushies at your local Disney Store. Balancing those two sides out, it ends up somewhere in the middle of the pack in the Pixar catalogue, certainly well above the likes of the heavily-corporatized Cars franchise or troubled productions like Brave or The Good Dinosaur, but a far cry from the quality of any Toy Story adventure. It’s kind of ironic: what’s supposed to be the more grown-up movie that inspired the toy ends up being far less adult and mature than the movies about the actual toys.
Starring: Chris Pratt (Guardians of the Galaxy), Bryce Dallas Howard (The Help), Sam Neill (Hunt for the Wilderpeople), Laura Dern (Star Wars: The Last Jedi), Jeff Goldblum (Thor: Ragnarok), Mamoudou Athie (The Get Down), Scott Haze (Venom), Dichen Lachman (Altered Carbon), Daniella Pineda (Cowboy Bebop), Campbell Scott (The Amazing Spider-Man), Isabella Sermon (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom), Justice Smith (Pokémon: Detective Pikachu), Omar Sy (Lupin), DeWanda Wise (The Harder They Fall), BD Wong (Mr. Robot)
Director: Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed)
Writers: Emily Carmichael (Pacific Rim: Uprising) and Colin Trevorrow
Runtime: 2 hours 26 minutes
Release Date: 10th June (US, UK)
Synopsis: When their adopted clone daughter Maisie is abducted by the power-hungry genetics company BioSyn, dinosaur trainer Owen and activist Claire must travel to their top-secret research facility to rescue her. Meanwhile, paleobotanist Ellie Sattler and paleontologist Alan Grant head to BioSyn with their own motive: find evidence the company is manufacturing an ecological disaster in order to take control of the world’s food supply.
I think most everyone can agree that the original Jurassic Park was a great film and a landmark in the history of visual effects and blockbuster filmmaking. What’s more contentious, however, is whether any of its sequels come even close to matching its quality. After two immediate follow-ups that mostly just flailed trying to reverse-engineer the success of the first, the Jurassic World series was a chance to reinvogorate the franchise and view it from a fresh, modern perspective. In a way, it succeeded in that aim, but only in that it has veered the story into weird and increasingly baffling directions. Whilst the first was a decent but forgettable summer romp with a few odd segues into WTF territory, the second entry Fallen Kingdom went completely off the rails and is still (to me, anyway) one of the worst Hollywood movies of the last five years. Regardless, they were both billion-dollar hits, and so now we inevitably reach the final entry of the trilogy Dominion, uniting the stars of both the Park and World eras and ending the story started in 1993. Will this entry finally redeem the franchise and give us a movie worthy of the Jurassic name? Short answer: no. Long answer….I mean, just keep reading and you’ll find out why!
One of the biggest flaws of Fallen Kingdom was that it was basically just a set-up for the next movie, crafting an overly-complicated series of events that led to dinosaurs being released into human civilization, then only teasing us with the possibilities of what that could lead to. That build-up, unfortunately, doesn’t mean a whole lot in the grand scheme of things for Dominion. The first act only briefly explores the impact of reintroducing dinosaurs to the modern world (mostly through an expostion dump prologue disguised as a NowThis viral mini-doc) before revealing the true source of Dominion‘s conflict: locusts. Yes, the movie franchise defined by dinosaurs has seemingly run out of ideas for what to do with them, demoting them to mini-boss fodder and shifting focus to genetically-engineered super-locusts who threaten to cause a global food shortage. The giant insects certainly make for an intimidating foe, but the movie places so much import on them that it’s easy to forget at points you’re supposed to be watching a Jurassic World movie.
Once we break into act two and the story splits into two narratives, its trajectory radically shifts even more. For a solid chunk of the movie, it basically becomes an espionage thriller as Owen and Claire chase after bad guys through the streets of Malta whilst Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler sneak their way through a secure lab, and even the presence of dinosaurs doesn’t make it seem that far removed from scenes that otherwise feel ripped straight from a Brosnan-era Bond film. The two storylines ultimately converge in the third act, where it finally starts to feel like a Jurassic Park movie again, but very much one we’ve seen before. It quickly devloves into yet another adventure on an island research facility for our heroes to encounter dinos both new and familiar, and you have to wonder why they even bothered making Fallen Kingdom if they weren’t going to take full advantage of its ramifications.
It is indeed a far less silly film than its immediate predecessor, even as it retains its dumber concepts like laser-targeted dinos, but it lacks any real spark of creativity and mostly just settles for compentently trundling along to the next action sequence. It moves at a good clip, rarely feeling its two-and-a-half hour length, and there’s no stretch where it gets boring or goes off on a tangent or springs some horrible twist, but…there’s really not much else to it. Most bafflingly of all, as the film’s plot is mostly centred around conflicts introduced and solved in Dominion rather than those from the prior films, it ultimately ends pretty much right where it started. Aside from some minor character development, you could literally stop watching the series at Fallen Kingdom and miss NOTHING of value; for a movie that’s marketing itself so heavily on returning cast members and being the “epic conclusion of the Jurassic era”, that’s pretty pathetic.
Much like Steven Spielberg did with Jaws, the initial draw of Jurassic Park may have been the prehistoric beasts but people remember it because of its characters. Alan Grant, Ellie Sattler and Ian Malcolm were a phenomenal trio, each with their own idiosyncrasies and evolutions that kept the movie interesting in between all the high-concept spectacle, and it’s yet another element none of the subsequent entries have captured. With Dominion, it’s almost like the filmmakers are aware of this fact and just went, “F*ck it, roll out the dumptrucks of cash and get the original stars back!” Seeing the return of Sam Neill, Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum (this time for more than just a quick cameo!) is quite something at first, picking up the characters again without missing a beat whilst still giving them a sense they’ve evolved since we last saw them. Dern is especially good as she balances being the more mature and environmentally-concerned Ellie whilst occasionally slipping back to the more innocent adventurer we knew in 1993, whilst Neill turns up the curmudgeon levels even more to create a performance that will remind many of their own elderly fathers, and Goldblum…well, he’s just doing his Goldblum thing, so if you’re tired of that shtick, your mileage with him may vary.
When it comes to the newer cast, it really does seem like they ran out of ideas on what to do. Thankfully, they’ve at least dropped the bickering odd couple routine between Chris Pratt’s Owen Grady and Bryce Dallas Howard’s Claire Dearing, portraying them more as responsible surrogate parents to Isabella Sermon’s Maisie, but otherwise they’re just kind of empty shells of characters now. They have motivations and relationships, sure, but their function is now completely plot-focused with no real attempt to give them the slightest bit of introspection. Sermon continues to be a major focus as we learn more about her backstory and how it relates to the franchise mythos, but again she’s basically a walking MacGuffin but now with a generic rebellious teen streak. Justice Smith and Daniella Pineda return from Fallen Kingdom for little more than an extended cameo to write them out of the plot, Omar Sy briefly reprises his role from Jurassic World during the Malta segment before disappearing again, and of course BD Wong is back as Dr Wu for…a poorly-motivated redemption arc? Uhhhh…
But wait, there’s more! Dominion also introduces a few new faces to the series, and the quality of their characters varies even more wildly. Campbell Scott serves as the film’s human antagonist Lewis Dodgson, yet another “Steve Jobs but Bond villain” type so obvious that the film doesn’t even try not to pretend he’s the bad guy. Fans of the original film may recognise that name and yes, he is indeed meant to be the same Lewis Dodgson that hired Wayne Knight’s Dennis Nedry to steal dino DNA samples (where he was played by Cameron Thor, who was unable to reprise his role due to…y’know what, just Google it). However, he bears little resemblence to the original character and, beyond a brief Easter egg reference, him being Dodgson has no bearing on the plot; he could have been named Dr. Weirdo McEvilbad and it wouldn’t change much. Mamoudou Athie portrays Dodgson’s protoge Ramsey and does a comendable job with a role that’s mostly perfunctory, though it may have made sense for expediency to just give all his scenes to Wong instead. The film’s real MVP is DeWanda Wise as no-nonsense freight smuggler Kayla Watts. From the moment she walks on screen, she commands a presence no other character has and grounds the film amidst all the prehistoric chaos, calling out the main characters’ bullsh*t and just being an well-rounded badass. If nothing else, hopefully this will get Wise on enough people’s radar to give her a shot in a meatier franchise role.
There have been so many memorable action sequences in the Jurassic franchise, with even the weakest entries having one or two stand-outs to call their own, and with this being the supposed finale of the saga you’d hope they’d end it on a bang. Dominion certainly has a larger variety of set pieces than previous outings, mainly thanks to its globe-trotting narrative that shows us dinosaurs in environments never before seen in the series. The easy winner here is the Malta sequence, which spices up a Bourne-style chase over rooftops and on motorbikes with a variety of dinos rampaging through the streets and a frantic rush to catch a plane mid-takeoff to cap it. It’s a ludicrous but very well-staged bit of action, and that’s unfortunately where the movie peaks. Right after that, we’re back to familiar jungles and research labs with all the familiar beats of trying to remain quiet as a dino passes before having to dash to safety. Even the final dino-on-dino showdown is a pale copy of the T-Rex vs. Indominus Rex from the end of Jurassic World, but with lower stakes and a less unique locale. At that point, I would have happily taken something dumb but fresh like, I don’t know, a T-Rex fighting a swarm of locusts that take the form of a T-Rex?
At least the movie looks and sounds pretty good. After Fallen Kingdom eschewed franchise tradition and went for a widescreen presentation, Dominion opts for the less-used 2.oo:1 aspect ratio and it really makes the movie pop, allowing for a good mix of wide vistas whilst also showing off the domineering presence of the dinosaurs. It still feels more like Colin Trevorrow’s style for certain, but it does bring back a little more of that Spielberg feel with its more tempered and wondrous gaze on these prehistoric creatures, as opposed to the commercial excess of World. Whilst it certainly far more favours digital effects than the original films, there’s a lot more practical work here than in the last two films; I especially loved how they used classic animatronics in a scene set in the 80s. The sound design and mixing as expected is phenomenal, being easily the biggest reason to bother seeing this in a cinema, and Michael Giacchino continues to have fun riffing on John Williams’ themes in fun and interesting ways (though it really loves to overplay the classic theme every time there’s a nostalgic moment).
Jurassic World Dominion has at least learnt some lessons from the failings of Fallen Kingdom, crafting a warmer and more audience-pleasing entry that will appeal to certain wings of the fanbase, especially with its bountiful doses of nostalgia that are thankfully more character-based rather than just “hey, remember that thing?” However, it’s ultimately far too safe and unremarkable to be anything more than a harmless distraction. The original Jurassic Park was summer popcorn fun, but there was subtelty and nuance to its tale of man’s hubris and science gone awry. Much like the first Jurassic World, Trevorrow’s eye is far too focused on the spectacle and not enough on the potent mix of Michael Crichton dystopia and Spielberg whimsy that made audiences fall in love with the series. If Universal intends to continue this series in some form, I hope they take their time and don’t hit that greenlight until they have something that’s a true evolution of the premise that also captures the heart of what made the 1993 film a modern classic.
Starring: Tom Cruise (Mission: Impossible), Miles Teller (Whiplash), Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind), Jon Hamm (Mad Men), Glen Powell (Set It Up), Lewis Pullman (Bad Times at the El Royale), Ed Harris (The Rock), Val Kilmer (Batman Forever)
Director: Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy)
Writers: Ehren Kruger (Transformers: Dark of the Moon) and Eric Warren Singer (American Hustle) and Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects)
Runtime: 2 hours 11 minutes
Release Date: 25th May (UK), 27th May (US)
Synopsis: Rebellious ace pilot Pete “Maverick” Mitchell heads back to the Top Gun academy to train a new generation of fighters for a highly dangerous mission, where he must confront the mistakes of his past and come to terms with the possibility of his high-flying days being numbered.
The original Top Gun carries a lot of weight in cinematic circles. It shot both its lead Tom Cruise and director Tony Scott to superstardom, its dialogue and soundtrack are constantly referenced throughout pop culture, and its homoerotic undertones have doubtlessly inspired many queer theory essays and slash fics alike. At the same time, it’s one of those movies that is never as good as you remember it, as outside the moments that have become 80s iconography, it’s a meandering and formulaic film that mostly gets by on style and charm. Even as Cruise’s career only continued to reach greater heights, the prospect of a sequel never fully went away, and with the tragic passing of Scott in 2012, for a while it seemed like the idea was officially retired. Now though, after several delays both pre and post-pandemic, the need for speed has finally returned to cinemas and the wait has been more than worth it. Top Gun: Maverick is not only the rare sequel that is superior to its predecessor in every facet, but one of the most exhilarating and just plain fun blockbusters in recent memory.
Picking up roughly in real time from the events of the first film, Maverick‘s reuse of the same blurb explaining the history of the titular flight academy and opening credits over footage of jets taking off and landing on aircraft carriers to the rocking guitar of Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” immediately bombards the audience with nostalgia. In much the same vein as recent legacy sequels like Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Ghostbusters: Afterlife, on a structural level it’s practically the same film as the original Top Gun but with Cruise now teaching the class rather sitting amongst the students. However, whereas the first film was an episodic affair with only the loosest of story and character development stitching the scenes together, the secondquickly sets its stakes with a high-stakes mission and remains focused on building up towards that finale throughout; every plot development is in some way connected to completing that objective.
There’s certainly evidence that the film may have originally had the looser approach of its forbearer, most evident by a second group of pilots (which notably includes The Good Place‘s Manny Jacinto) who are briefly introduced before fading into the background, but if these threads had to be sacrificed to get the film’s tension and pacing to where it is, it was the right call. There is hardly a wasted moment in Maverick‘s two-hour-plus runtime, consistently thrilling with its stunning airborne action whilst telling a compelling tale of defying the odds and finding redemption. Yes, it may use many of the same building blocks as its predecessor, but it does so with far more confidence and intention, and when it finally breaks from that formula and enters uncharted territory, it soars even higher. Whilst a fondness for the first film may enrich the experience, knowledge and affection for it is far from neccessary; in fact, I’d happily reccomend it even to those who hated the first. Name recognition and nostalgia may be what will initially draw audiences to Top Gun: Maverick, but they’ll leave loving it because of how it builds on the foundation and brings new ideas to the table.
Many consider Tom Cruise one of the last classic movie stars; an actor who can sell a movie based on his name alone rather than through IP recognition. After Ethan Hunt and Jack Reacher, this is only the third time he’s ever reprised a role, and even all these years later Pete “Maverick” Mitchell remains the character he will probably be most remembered for. His daredevil attitude and penchant for rule-breaking that masks a gold-hearted hero with an impeccably natural skill has been imitated in blockbusters for decades, some well (Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk) and others…not so much (Taylor Kitsch in Battleship), but what does Cruise bring to the role now thirty-six years later? The Maverick of this eponymous sequel is something of a Peter Pan figure, having the skills and experienced of a hardened veteran but retaining the adolescent mindset and rebellious streak of the young hot shot we remember, and the film is essentially about him having to finally grow up. This evolution is dramatised through his strenuous relationship with Miles Teller’s Rooster, the son of Anthony Edwards’ Goose from the original, having to both teach the young pilot how to survive their mission and overcome his remaining guilt for his role in Goose’s demise. Being something of a boy who never grew up himself, Cruise perfectly captures that dichotomy of a young soul trying to be responsible and delivers an entertaining yet layered performance brimming with both humour and ennui; it may indeed be one of his best.
As for the rest of the cast, there isn’t really a weak link amongst them. Teller plays Rooster as almost the antithesis of his on-screen father, making him a bitter and reserved character who resents Maverick’s attempts to help him, but underneath you can still tell he’s cut from the same cloth as Edwards (and I’m not just talking about the moustache). Glen Powell is perfectly cast as the unapologetically brash Hangman, whilst Monica Barbaro and Lewis Pullman make for a fun double act as the determined Phoenix and socially-awkward Bob respectively. Jon Hamm makes the most of his generally perfuntory role as the head of the Top Gun academy, whilst Ed Harris leaves a strong impression in his brief appearance as the sequel’s answer to James Tolkan, but the real tear-jerker is Val Kilmer’s return as Iceman. It’s a small but beautifully-handled scene that doesn’t shy away from Kilmer’s disability and allows him to give a full performance; I only wish he was given similar dignity in all of his recent films. One of the weaker elements of the first film is the romance subplot between Maverick and Kelly McGillis’ Charlie (who isn’t even acknowledged beyond a brief archival appearance), and whilst the similar storyline with Jennifer Connelly’s Penny is also not the strongest, it’s still an improvement. Not only do Cruise and Connelly have a more natural chemistry, Penny’s role serves to humble Maverick and strengthens his motivation beyond trying to save his legacy; again, everything is in service to the story.
There’s a reason most great fighter pilot movies are set in World War II: once the planes are able to move a certain speed, it’s hard to keep up with the action. The original Top Gun got around this by focusing more of the pilots themselves rather than the literal dogfights, but with advances in modern filmmaking, the technology is now there that can better keep up with the unbelievable speed and acrobatic capabilties of these aircrafts. To put it simply, Maverick contains some of the most edge-of-your-seat action sequences ever put to screen, and right now I couldn’t possibly tell you which parts were crafted in a computer and which parts they had the gall to do for real. Much like his Mission: Impossible films, Cruise’s dedication to doing as much practically as possible has once again paid off and delivers a spectacle that is quickly becoming a relic in a CGI-dominated age.
Director Joseph Kosinski’s previous films, particularly Tron: Legacy and Oblivion, have often been lauded for their visual splendour even if their stories were ultimately lacking, but here the solid script is only further enriched by his eye. Kosinski and cinematographer Claudio Miranda capture the spirit of the visual language crafted by Tony Scott and Jeffrey L. Kimball in 1986 but gives it a sleek, modern coat of paint, most evident in the jaw-dropping cockpit photography that pulls the camera back and shows off the environment whizzing past the actors’ heads. Combined with the pounding sound design and a fist-pumping score that combines the talents of Lorne Balfe, Harold Faltermeyer, Hans Zimmer and Lady Gaga (who also provides its excellent tie-in ballad “Hold My Hand”), and you’ve got yourself a film that demands to be see on the biggest and loudest screen possible. If you have an IMAX venue anywhere near you, it’s more than worth forking out the £5 upcharge to get the full experience.
There are still a fair few high-profile blockbusters to come in 2022, namely a couple more Marvel movies and the long-awaited Avatar: The Way of Water, but Top Gun: Maverick has now set the bar for the rest of the year incredibly high. Whilst most legacy sequels are content to wallow in their own nostalgia, Cruise and Kosinski haved instead enriched the iconography and created a film that stands on its own as just an excellent example of cinematic entertainment. There isn’t really more I can say other than that, so…just go see it for yourselves. I can guarantee you’ll have a blast.
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch (The Power of the Dog), Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene), Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), Benedict Wong (The Martian), Xochitl Gomez (The Baby-Sitters Club), Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man), Rachel McAdams (About Time)
Director: Sam Raimi (Army of Darkness)
Writer: Michael Waldron (Loki)
Runtime: 2 hours 6 minutes
Release Date: 5th May (UK), 6th May (US)
Synopsis: When paranormal superhero Dr Stephen Strange comes into contact with America Chavez, a young girl with the ability to open portals to alternate dimensions, he must protect her from dark forces that seek to control her power whilst travelling through the vast multiverse.
As Marvel Studios continues rolling out their Phase Four slate and lays the foundation for the next Thanos-level event, one thing is clear: the multiverse is key to all of it. With Loki, What If? and Spider-Man: No Way Home already dipping their toes in the concept, the biggest plunge yet into the realms beyond the cinematic universe we know is now here in the form of Dr. Stephen Strange’s second headlining adventure. Arguably more intriguing than meeting new and familiar heroes from parallel worlds, however, is the return of Sam Raimi to the superhero genre. After essentially creating the blueprint for the modern comic book blockbuster with his first two Spider-Man movies, the venerable horror maestro is a more-than-worthy choice to assume the franchise mantle from Scott Derrickson, but the real question is whether Raimi’s signature style can play nice with the tried-and-true Kevin Feige formula. The result of this marriage, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, is something of a double-edged sword. On one end, it’s an incredibly ambitious, deviously twisted, and boisterously entertaining thrill ride through the dark side of the Marvel universe that only a director like Raimi could pull off. On the other hand, it’s a rushed and unfocused mess of bonkers concepts that is nowhere as deep as it thinks it is and raises more questions about the multiverse than it answers.
Mere moments after the Marvel Studios logo fades away, it’s clear that Multiverse of Madness isn’t wasting anytime. Clocking in at just over two hours, already lean for a modern blockbuster, it’s especially brief for one with so much complex world-building to impart. Whilst the pace is pretty relentless, it’s far from exhausting and has just enough quiet moments for the audience to catch their breath and the characters to plan their next move. After many criticised Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 for being bloated by extraneous subplots, he seems to have taken that to heart and crafted a very streamlined stop-the-bad-guy adventure packed with satisfying twists, a wickedly dark sense of humour, and plenty of crowd-pleasing moments. On that note, it’s also a relief to find the film isn’t the relentless succession of surprise cameos and tie-in teases that many were expecting. Though it certainly has strong ties to Endgame and WandaVision as well as the Derrickson original, it’s far more focused on telling its own story and keeps the fan service contained to the end of the second act.
Whilst it undoubtedly remains an MCU movie, Raimi manages to weave in his idiosyncracies into the film’s DNA in much the same way James Gunn and Taika Waititi have, and not just the ones you might be familair with from his Tobey Maguire days. Multiverse of Madness has touted itself as Marvel’s first horror movie, and though it’s hardly as disturbing as Batman Returns or even Raimi’s own Darkman, there’s enough macabre imagery and heaps of (strategically unseen but heavily implied) gory violence to satiate the Evil Dead fans in the audience and scare younger audiences into hiding under their seats.
Unfortunately, though the story structure and pacing may be simplified compared to Spider-Man 3, the heart and charm that made both his first two Spidey flicks and the best MCU entries work is severely missed. The screenplay, credited to head writer on Loki Michael Waldron, is so focused on keeping the plot mechanics straight that character and theme is a bit of an afterthought. There are fleeting moments of character introspection scattered throughout and it has a dalliance with concepts like living with regret and pondering what could have been, but there’s a frustrating lack of depth and originality to anything it has to say thematically. Whether the meat of these ideas were simply cut for pacing reasons or never there to begin with is unclear, but I for one would have happily sat for an extra ten or fifteen minutes just so I could leave the cinema having gained something of substance. More cynical audiences have complained that all of Raimi’s Spider-Man films were too cheesy and overemotional, but I much prefer a film be too honest about its feelings with me than be too scared or unwilling to express them at all.
It’s kind of weird to realise that though this is only his second solo movie, this is actually Benedict Cumberbatch’s sixth appearance as the (now-former) Sorceror Supreme. After being humbled and learning the responsibility of his powers in his origin film, he’s since become less of a character and more of a function. In contrast to the likes of Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, where their appeal goes far beyond their superheroism, his importance to the MCU has been less about his characterisation and more about how his powers can create or mend narrative problems. That may all be fine and dandy is something like No Way Home, but for Multiverse of Madness you’d hope they would use this reality-hopping adventure to push the character in new directions. Unfortunately, whilst Cumberbatch is still excellent at pulling off Strange’s smug-but-affable demeanour, there’s not a huge amount on the page for him to really dig into. He has two main arcs concerning his regrets about his relationship with Christine Palmer (McAdams) and how best to nurture and help America Chavez (Gomez), but neither really seem to prompt any significant change in Strange or his status quo within the universe; he ends up only slightly adjacent to where he started.
Doing her best to make up for this is Elizabeth Olsen returning as Wanda Maximoff, and whilst her performance here isn’t quite as nuanced or heartbreaking as the one she gave in WandaVision, she absolutely devours every scene she’s in. Fully embracing her status as the Scarlet Witch, Maximoff is a true force to be reckoned with and uses her newfound powers to pull off some truly twisted deeds, but also has more emotional investment and development than any other character in the movie. There’s a fascinating complexity to her inner conflict, her unwillingness to see how her desires would do more harm than good, and how she is blinded and radicalised by her trauma. All of the best scenes in the movie involve Wanda in some form or another, including the most biting exchange of dialogue that will stick in my head for days, and Olsen just sells every deliciously dark moment. Benedict Wong is still just as brilliantly deadpan and hilarious as he’s ever been as Wong, and it’s nice to see Rachel McAdams’ Christine Palmer get in on the action more, but Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Baron Mordo is sadly underused in a perfunctory role that could have been filled by any number of other Marvel characters; hopefully his true return will be a lot more satisfying.
However, the most disappointing character is unfortunately the reality-hopping newcomer America Chavez. Whilst Xochitl Gomez injects the character with a lot of youthful energy that suggests she could become a promising character in the future, here she’s little more than a walking-and-talking MacGuffin for the heroes and villains to fight over. Barring one quick but admittedly effective scene establishing her backstory, she has little agency and the movie is basically over by the time she finds it after a hackneyed and predictable “you gotta believe in yourself” arc. Chavez is an incredibly fascinating character in the comics with huge potential, so hopefully she gets her true chance to shine later down the line.
Whilst Raimi has perhaps not brought his A-game when it comes to storytelling, on a visual level he’s never one to give anything but his gonzo best. Multiverse of Madness is as much a breath of fresh air to Marvel’s usual aesthetic monotony as Eternals, brimming with imaginative cinematography choices by John Mathieson that only accentuate both the mind-bending and horrific visuals alike. The kaleidoscopic Steve Ditko-inspired imagery returns and is turned up to eleven, especially in the sequences where characters cross dimensions and briefly flash through worlds that will inevitably be picked through frame-by-frame for hidden easter eggs. My only real criticism of the film’s visual design is that the main alternate reality we visit, Earth 838, is a little confused. At first it seems like some bizarre future world where weird plants grow everywhere and there are machines that can replay memories, but later on it just seems the same as the main MCU but with a few timeline tweaks.
The action sequences are enthralling and flow well, helped by strong moment-to-moment editing. The first major battle against Gargantos is a major highlight that immeidately brought to mind the bank fight from Spider-Man 2, the second-act skirmish as Wanda invades Earth-838 delivers a fan-pleasing match-up that’s as darkly funny as it is entertaining, whilst the third act sees Strange using his powers in some surreal and outright skin-crawling ways. Whilst there is the usual Marvel problem of too many locations being obviously green-screened rather than shot on location, when the visuals effects are about creating otherworldly environments or creatures they’re absolutely top-notch, whilst the few bits of practical effects work are quintessential Raimi; you’ll know what I’m talking about when you see it. Oh, and who could forget Danny Elfman’s wonderfully deranged music? Whilst certainly not quite the best MCU score (it’s going to take something transcendant to beat Black Panther on that), it’s easily in the top three as it builds on Michael Giacchino’s themes and, like the film itself, then melds tones and genres to create a wonderful fusion of heroic and horrific soundscapes.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness certainly lives up to its title in delivering yet another diverting chapter of the MCU, but there’s an unfortunate lack of method to the…well, you know. In its best moments, it reminded me of what was so great about Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy and proved again that Marvel movies don’t have to be homogenous blockbusters when Feige trusts a director to bring their vision to the table. At its worst though, it brought to mind The Rise of Skywalker; a technically well-made movie but one that focuses on plot and spectacle to the detriment of everything else. Its positive qualities ultimately outweigh its negatives, in particular Elizabeth Olsen’s delectably nuanced evolution of Scarlet Witch and the sheer brazenness of some of Raimi’s directorial choices, enough for me to give the film a recommendation but it pains me that I can’t praise it more. I only hope Marvel’s future explorations of the multiverse will have something more profound to say about it.