Starring: Timothée Chalamet (Little Women), Rebecca Ferguson (Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation), Oscar Isaac (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), Josh Brolin (Deadpool 2), Stellan Skarsgård (Thor), Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy), Stephen McKinley Henderson (Devs), Zendaya (Spider-Man: Homecoming), David Dastmalchian (Ant-Man), Chang Chen (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Sharon Duncan-Brewster (Rogue One), Charlotte Rampling (45 Years), Jason Momoa (Aquaman), Javier Bardem (Skyfall)
Director: Denis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049)
Writers: Jon Spaihts (Prometheus) and Denis Villeneuve and Eric Roth (Forrest Gump)
Runtime: 2 hour 35 minutes
Release Date: 21st October (UK), 22nd October (US/HBO Max)
There are many classic novels that have throughout history been said to be unadaptable due to their scope or complexity or just sheer esoteric nature. That’s not to say that many of these haven’t been adapted, but the success rate is variable and depends on who you ask. Whilst The Lord of the Rings received widespread critical acclaim once it was finally realised on screen, and The Bonfire of the Vanities went about as well as expected (i.e., terribly), adaptations like Watchmen or Cloud Atlas have had a more divided response. That said, no single novel has caused more frustration in the film business than Frank Herbert’s seminal sci-fi epic Dune.
Alejandro Jodorowsky made his attempt in the 70s but couldn’t even get it off the ground, then David Lynch’s 1984 version went so badly that he disowned it, with only the Syfy miniseries from 2000 receiving anything close to positive reception. It seemed for years that Dune would remain as the one truly unadaptable novel, but it seems filmmakers are not quite yet done trying. Denis Villeneuve, fresh off of modern sci-fi darlings Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, is now on board with what many fans have been hoping will be the definitive Dune on the big screen. After years of development and a pandemic-induced delay, the result of the labours is a true epic in every sense of the word, but not one without major compromise.
From very early on, it’s clear that the filmmakers’ model for adapting Dune is Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, in that it takes a dense story full of complex lore and archaic vernacular and turns it into something more palatable for a mainstream audience. The translation is ultimately a success, making the story much more accessible whilst still retaining the core soul of Dune’s appeal. It’s a fairly faithful adaptation, though it does move some events around and fully portrays scenes only described in the book, but it’s all in service of making the story more cinematic. The film also carefully handles the heavy exposition of the novel, imparting this information either through visual storytelling or through the eyes of protagonist Paul (Chalamet) doing research on the world of Arrakis. The story itself isn’t all that complicated or original once you wade past the political intrigue and world-building, but that’s only because so many sci-fi stories from Star Wars to Avatar have pillaged from it over the years. Looking objectively at what they’ve assembled here, you could not ask for a better on-screen realisation of Dune…’s first half.
Yes, following in much the same vein as Warner Bros. prior adaptation of the similarly-lengthy It, this is an adaptation set to be told in two chapters; the opening title even calls the film Dune: Part One. Whilst indeed a smart decision to avoid the rushed and jumbled storytelling of Lynch’s version, what this does mean is that the film can’t help but feel kind of unsatisfying without the second part immediately available. This is mainly because in regards to structure and pacing, this truly does feel like half of one big movie rather than a self-contained first part of a larger story; of any prior example of a novel split in two like this, it most resembles The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1. Villeneuve’s films are known for their slow pacing, but at times it feels like they are literally stalling for time, with a third act mostly consisting of Paul and Lady Jessica (Ferguson) wandering through an endless desert. There’s only one major action set piece to speak of about two thirds of the way through, with a few smatterings of heightened tension sprinkled throughout, but this is mostly just two-and-a-half hours of set-up for the next movie.
Most crushingly of all, the screenplay fails to find a satisfying midway climax on either a spectacle or emotional level, ending on a pretty tepid one-on-one duel and then a character pretty much turning to camera to say “we’ll be back in Part Two!” When even The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 has a more satisfying finale, you’ve got a serious problem. It’s hard to say ultimately if splitting the book in two was the best idea, but it’s a decision that ultimately feels like the compromise between creativity and finance. Making one four-hour epic in the vein of Zack Snyder’s Justice League might have been the best way to adapt the book from a storytelling perspective, but that would be taking what is already a box office risk and turning it into a Heaven’s Gate-scale disaster; remember, Villeneuve may be a critical darling, but he ain’t box office gold. Perhaps if the two films were made in tandem and Part Two was guaranteed to release within the next year, it would be more acceptable, but that second part is entirely reliant on this first film doing well, and that is far from a certainty. Don’t let all this doom and gloom get you down, because what they’ve made so far is absolutely phenomenal; on par with Lord of the Rings in terms of scale and faithfulness to the source material. The ending of Dune: Part One, though, would be like if The Fellowship of the Ring had ended on our heroes just setting up camp at Parth Galen, rather than the exciting forest battle and tragic turn of events that lead to the splintering of the Fellowship.
Whilst Dune is unlikely to entice a mainstream audience on the pedigree of the novel alone, its all-star cast just might. Timothée Chalamet makes for an excellent Paul Atreides, capturing that eerie mix of boyish wonderment and precocious intelligence that make him likeable and yet otherworldly. Yes, he’s a cold and reserved protagonist, but he’s meant to be and Chalamet manages to bring a sense of humanity to his otherwise unrelatable predicament. The film has majorly beefed up the role of Lady Jessica into as much a mentor to Paul as his male role models, and Rebecca Ferguson does a fantastic job of balancing that shaky dichotomy between teacher and mother. Oscar Isaac and Josh Brolin are both great as Leto Atreides and Gurney Halleck respectively, but they aren’t in the movie as much as you might expect.
Stellan Skarsgård is absolutely disgusting in all the right ways as the diabolical Baron Harkonnen, though the visual of a giant slimy obese man floating about like a rotund vampire may induce more giggles than frights. Dave Bautista has a far more engaging and menacing presence as the Baron’s nephew Glossu Rabban, but alongside David Dastmalchian’s Piter De Vries, he is relegated to little more than a trumped-up henchman. Zendaya and Javier Bardem are great with what they are given as the Fremen tribespeople Chani and Stilgar respectively, but their roles are little more than extended cameos for Part Two. The real scene-stealer is Jason Momoa as the gung-ho swordsmaster Duncan Idaho, who brings his natural charisma to the role and adds some much-needed relief to the otherwise very serious proceedings. Going through every cast member would take far too long, but it’s safe to say all do an exemplary job no matter the size of their role; a true testament to the “no small actors” axiom.
More than his love for the material or experience with the genre, what most excited many about Denis Villeneuve tackling Frank Herbert would be how he conceptually translated the world of Arrakis to the silver screen, and on that level he does not disappoint. Dune is a painstakingly realised and lusciously detailed movie on a visual and auditory level; a masterwork of every technical craft unseen since the efforts of Peter Jackson and Weta on Middle-earth. Every piece of production design is to die for, from the insect-like spaceships flown by the members of House Atreides to the cavernous lairs of the Harkonnen family. So much of the technology of Dune should be familiar to anyone with a passing familiarity with sci-fi, but the unique ways it visually realises force fields and breathing apparatus makes the whole world feel far more original than it is underneath; the accompanying stellar sound design and exemplary visual effects work only amplifies this feeling.
Greig Fraser’s cinematography, whilst occasionally too dark during night-set scenes, is jaw-dropping whenever it fully takes in the scope of worlds like Caladan and Arrakis, but the real show-stopper is Hans Zimmer’s gargantuan score. Whilst still undeniably his work, it sounds wholly unique and unlike anything you’d expect from him and it just kills. It’s a truly distinctive mixture of sounds and rhythms pulled from all kinds of cultures and eras, mashed together into something that still sounds like a blockbuster score but from far off in the future. I haven’t heard anything quite like it, though if I had to I’d compare it most to Kenji Kawai’s music for Ghost in the Shell, or Ludwig Göransson’s work on Black Panther. Seriously, who else but Zimmer could work bagpipes into their music and make them not only sound futuristic, but also badass? If nothing else, if you find the storytelling at all unsatisfying, there is always something about the film’s presentation to latch onto and enjoy on a pure aesthetic level.
When you get down to it, Dune has all of the right ingredients to make a genre-defining piece of filmmaking on the level of the original Star Wars, but regardless of its phenomenal pedigree, it is incomplete and with no guarantee it ever will be. At times, it almost feels as if the filmmakers are stalling for time, stretching out the story to further justify the two-part structure, when it might have been better off keeping it tight and finding a better note to leave off the story for now. It’s a film that will certainly appeal to diehard fans of both Frank Herbert and Denis Villeneuve, but it’s going to be a hard sell for the average moviegoer, and it’s their support that will make or break moving forward with Part Two. It is, after all, an arthouse blockbuster in every sense of both words. Only the eventual worldwide box office will let us know (it seems to be doing pretty well internationally so far), but if it fails, Dune may go down in film history in the same breath as Andrew Stanton’s John Carter (and I’m one of the five people who liked John Carter). It’s a movie that may well improve in retrospect when and if the second part is completed, but for now, the best thing I can say is that Dune is an unfinished masterpiece.
Starring: Tom Hardy (Dunkirk), Woody Harrelson (Zombieland), Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea), Reid Scott (Late Night), Naomie Harris (Skyfall), Stephen Graham (This is England)
Director: Andy Serkis (Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle)
Writer: Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr Banks)
Runtime: 1 hour 37 minutes
Release Date: 1st October (US), 15th October (UK)
More often that not, when I need to make a clarification about the previous entry in a franchise, it’s usually me saying it hasn’t aged well and I’d give it a lower score in retrospect; e.g., Suicide Squad or Spectre. This time though, it’s the other way around: I was way too harsh on Venom. Do I think it’s a good movie? No, far from it. It’s a studio-mandated mess that was clearly micromanaged and watered down to high heaven, with a wildly inconsistent tone that felt much closer to the grimdark superhero movies of the early-2000s than anything made post-Avengers. At the same time though, it has its charms as a mindless blockbuster and Tom Hardy’s performance as Eddie Brock/Venom is entertaining at least in all its Nicolas Cage-esque ham. Either way, it was a miraculous box office success that gained a devoted cult following, and that audience is where Venom: Let There Be Carnage has clearly aimed its sights at. The result is a film that’s still hampered by the inherent flaws of its concept, but now at least has a firmer grip of its own identity and fully embraces its own insanity. It’s far from a great movie, but it’s at least an entertaining one.
Picking up roughly a year after the events of the first film, the most immediately noticeable difference Let There Be Carnage has to its predecessor is its leanness. Rather than an overly complicated origin that took way too long to get to the point, this sequel throws us right into the action and doesn’t let up as it barrels through its breezy 90-minute runtime. This makes the first act a little disorienting, especially if you haven’t seen the first movie in a while, as it makes little effort to re-establish the world and characters and throws you in as if you’re completely familiar. Luckily, the film soon slows down just enough to catch its breath, and when it does the other improvements become even clearer. Much of the appeal to many audiences to the first film was its sense of humour, which there came off as something of an accidental afterthought, but here it’s front-and-centre and it generally works. Yeah, it’s absolutely goofy, will likely piss off hardcore Venom fans, and its attempts at allegory either come off as way too on-the-nose or worryingly confused, but it at least feels intentional.
The story is nothing to write home about, essentially throwing Brock into the middle of Natural Born Killers but with alien parasites, but it keeps the movie going and it even has some compelling character development and commentary on topics like abusive relationships and journalistic integrity; it ain’t exactly deep, but it’s there if you’re looking. The only major issue lingering from the first film is the imbalance of action. Whilst Venom himself gets a lot more screentime, this is mostly relegated to comedy hijinks, and the only major set piece involving him is the climax. Don’t worry, there’s plenty of action throughout as Woody Harrelson’s Carnage goes on his revenge-fuelled rampage, but for much of the film our hero is mostly bickering with themselves and making a mess instead of doing anything anti-hero-related.
Whether you loved or hated it, you have to admit Tom Hardy was dedicated to his performance in Venom, even when that entailed borderline embarrassment. Luckily here, whilst that bonkers streak is now a feature rather than a bug, Hardy feels a little more in control (after all, he’s a producer on the film and co-wrote the story). His dynamic with himself as both Brock and the symbiote is for the most part entertaining, as they argue back and forth about their opposing approaches to crime-fighting. The relationship subtext and sexual undertones are made way more blatant here, with a major plot point involving the pair having a lover’s spat and Venom “coming out of Eddie’s closet” (real line from the movie, no joke). It’s an amusing development that’ll appeal to the Tumblr fans (Tumblr is still a thing, right?), but it’s a little muddled when these queerbaiting hijinks are juxtaposed against Venom being physically abusive towards Eddie and literally having to kill people to stay alive without him. It’s all ultimately resolved in a way that’s acceptable if not entirely satisfying, but it’s certainly safe to say this franchise would be dead in the water if Hardy at any point decided he was tired of doing it.
When Woody Harrelson made his debut as Cletus Kasady in the mid-credits scene of Venom, it inspired a lot more laughter than fear in many audiences, and not just because of his ridiculous Ronald McDonald wig (which is gone here, and I kind of miss it, to be honest). Whilst it’s still not an ideal choice, and it’s ridiculous the movie expects us to believe Harrelson is roughly the same age as Naomie Harris’ Shriek (the prologue depicts both characters as teenagers in 1996), he still delectably eats up the high-camp role with gusto. This kind of gonzo let-‘em-loose role is the kind Harrelson can do in his sleep, but he still manages to find an ounce of depth in Kasady that even the comics rarely gave him. However, they do massively change the dynamic Kasady has with the Carnage symbiote, which works for the film’s story but does run counter to why the character is so scary and unpredictable in the comics.
Harris as his romantic sidekick is unfortunately something of an afterthought, serving far more as a plot point than an actual character, and her nasally American accent is a distracting choice for a character who’s supposed to be a threat on par with Kasady. Michelle Williams gets a little less to do this time around as Brock’s ex-girlfriend Anne Weying, but she at least seems a little less embarrassed to be there and gets more involved in the action this time around, as does Reid Scott as her bumbling boyfriend Dan. The real waste here is Stephen Graham as Detective Patrick Mulligan, whose role seems to have been cut down to the barest of bones despite the film simultaneously setting him up for more in future instalments. Sure, the role of the suspicious and angry cop is hardly one worth spending a huge chunk of your movie on, and comic book fans will know why Mulligan isn’t entirely disposable, but the compromise here ends up squandering both a fantastic actor and a promising new character.
Not only was the first Venom lacking in action, much of it was just a big CGI mess of gooey monsters slamming into each other like a kid playing with action figures. This time around, whilst the lack of an R rating still means no viscera despite the villain being a literal serial killer with gigantic blade hands, it’s at least a lot more coherent and creative. As soon as Carnage enters the picture and begins his slaughter, there are some cool visual tricks that help keep it compelling despite the muted violence, and the church-set climax is leaps and bounds above the first film; if you’ve been waiting a long time to see Venom and Carnage clash on the big screen, you won’t be disappointed.
All in all, it’s a simply more aesthetically pleasing film, mainly by embracing its B-movie qualities instead of trying to look slick and modern. Robert Richardson’s cinematography is grimy and gothic in a way that evokes the character’s 90s heyday, and the switch to full-frame over widescreen only serves to make these larger-than-life characters look even bigger. The visual effects are a lot more polished and tangible, managing to make these alien monsters feel more real than ever, and Marco Beltrami’s score is suitable bold and cinematic. Other than some slightly dodgy editing in the first act, where it’s evident most of the material on the cutting room floor was snipped from, this is a more-than-competent blockbuster package that has managed to retain an ounce of artistic soul as opposed to the too-many-cooks sludge of its predecessor.
Venom: Let There Be Carnage is like a problem child who finally decided to knuckle down at school and managed to become a solid C-student; you don’t expect them to be top of the class anytime soon, but you appreciate their effort more than anything. It makes no bones about being anything other than a silly comic book caper, but it puts in the effort in all the right places and even a few it didn’t need to. Fans of the first film are going to be more than happy, and probably even some of its detractors may come around and finally embrace the insanity. I’m still not sold on Sony doing its own little Spider-Verse (Morbius still looks terrible, to be honest), but as for more Venom movies? Yeah, that might not be such a bad idea after all.
Oh, and do stay for the mid-credits scene! Can’t say more than that, but…yeah. They finally went there.
I’ve covered film festivals before, but ususally under the guise of working them as a volunteer and then just seeing as many films as I could between shifts. This year though, Alternative Lens (i.e. just me!) headed to London as an accredited member of the press to cover the first post-pandemic BFI festival. It was certainly full of highs and lows as any film fest is, and there are so many films I didn’t get a chance to see for one reason or another, but to able to see so many without having to worry about other commitments for nearly two weeks was an absolute joy. So, without further ado, here are my two pence on everything I saw at this year’s LFF:
The Harder They Fall
A stellar feature debut by British musician Jeymes Samuel, this all-black western is a violent but fun throwback with a lot of charm and a biting sense of humour. The story is nothing to write home about, but it’s such a visual treat full of sight gags and copious amounts of blood that it’s hard to care. The stellar cast helps a lot too, with the easy standouts being Regina King, Lakeith Stanfield, and Danielle Deadwyler. Samuel’s stylish and vibrant direction here reminded me of 90s Robert Rodriguez in all the best ways, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see his name pop up on shortlists for blockbuster projects in the pipeline. What a perfect way to start of this year’s festivities! 7/10 (in select theatres and on Netflix on 3rd November)
Pablo Larrain’s follow-up to Jackie is yet another examination of a female political figure, and this Princess Diana drama is far as you can get from either the dreadful Naomi Watts film from 2013 or whatever that musical that just dropped on Netflix was. Less a biopic than it is a psychological thriller, Kristen Stewart gives a hauntingly effective lead performance that is sure to nab her some Oscar buzz. Larrain’s direction is impeccable, with the gorgeous cinematography and lavish production design turning Sandringham into a more opulent Overlook Hotel. Supported by Steven Knight’s biting script and strong supporting turns from Sean Harris and Sally Hawkins, this movie is likely to scare royalists more than a thousand revealing interviews with Meghan Markle. Also, I would like to own every piece of wardrobe Stewart wore in this. They’re all simply stunning. 9/10 (in theatres on 5th November)
Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon
Ana Lily Amirpour’s latest outing has more in common with her sophomore effort The Bad Batch than her stunning debut A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, resulting in a film with strong potential but absolutely no focus. Jeon Jong-seo’s lead performance as the titular Mona Lisa is subtle but effective, and Ed Skrein is a lot of cringey fun as the eccentric Fuzz, whose appearance and demeanour are best described as “Cyberpunk 2077 NPC who wished on a magic lava lamp to be a real boy”. Amirpour still has a lot of potential as a director, but the script is the real culprit here; the whole thing feels like a first draft that just flits from idea to idea with no narrative through-line or thematic resolution. 5.5/10 (US and UK release TBC)
Mamoru Hosoda’s latest is his best since Wolf Children, and possibly his greatest yet. A visual and emotional masterpiece of the anime form, this reimagining of Beauty and the Beast for the Internet age has everything you could possibly expect from a Studio Chizu production and more. Stunning animation that melds 2D and 3D, a timely story that depicts online culture and social media toxicity with frightening accuracy, beautiful and catchy original songs that transcend the language barrier, and a gorgeously realised computer world that feels like a true culmination of Hosoda’s prior work on Digimon and Summer Wars. It’s rare for a movie to make me shed a tear, but this one had me full-on sobbing in the cinema…three times! An absolute must-see. 10/10! (US and UK release TBC)
Some solid performances from the always on-point Riz Ahmed and the two youngsters playing his sons (Lucian River-Chauhan and Aditya Geddada) helps salvage this promising but ultimately underwhelming sci-fi thriller. Its premise is basic though with plenty of room to grow, and it has a pretty unique spin of the genre that initially works great, but the film plays that trump card way too early and turns the rest of the film into a waiting game. It probably would have played better if that reveal came far later on in the story, or if it simply made the audience question their perception of the events more after that. This really could have been something special, but it’s instead pretty average despite its excellent pedigree. 6/10 (in select theatres and on Amazon Prime on 10th December)
A unique combination of documentary and animated feature, this chronicling of the life experience of a gay Afghani refugee is an eye-opening tale full of both hardship and joy. The shifting animation style helps accentuate the mood and intensity of the film, playing smoothly in times of calm and beauty, before turning scratchy and disorienting in moments of trauma. An education in both the horrific struggles refugees go through to simply find a life not impeded by conflict, and learning to be accepted and accept yourself in a culture that sees you as invisible, this is a movie that should be shown in schools to educate students on the importance of human rights and what happens when they aren’t avaliable. 8.5/10 (US and UK release TBC)
Depicting a weekend getaway in the Spanish countryside for a generations-spanning group of transgender women, this is the rare film that centres trans voices and mostly avoids the usual tropes of trauma and insincere sympathy. Yes, the conversations can get cyclical and get bogged down in tired topics like surgery, but it’s so refreshing to not only see more intellectual and philosophical aspects of transness discuss, but simply seeing these women live mostly in joy and express personal happiness is something that is so needed right now. It may not do a huge amount for trans audiences, but for allies looking to educate themselves it’s not a bad starting place. But what’s with the gratuitous nudity shots? They almost completely undermine the otherwise tasteful presentation. 6.5/10 (US and UK release TBC)
Last Night in Soho
I already reviewed this one in full last week, but for those who just want the quick yay or nay: Edgar Wright’s latest is beautifully crafted but ultimately too ambitious for its own good. Despite a stunning lead performance by Thomasin McKenzie and a hauntingly gorgeous recreation of 1960s London, the undercooked script has a lot of thoughts but no cohesive opinions. For a film that centres women and tackles incredibly dark feminist topics, its gender politics are confused at best as it seeks to reconcile Wright’s period-accurate male gaze with its modern lens. It’s far too well made to be considered bad, but that’s still enough to make it Wright’s worst film by a wide margin. 6.5/10 (in theatres on 29th October)
Julia Decournau’s follow-up to Raw has been dividing audiences since it debuted at Cannes, and once you watch it, it’s easy to understand why. This is a fierce, challenging and frankly deranged piece of filmmaking that breaks the rules of genre and taste to deliver an experience truly unlike any other. That’s not to say you’ll like it or that it doesn’t have issues. The film’s first act is its strongest, building suspense and revelations that will leave you equally appaled and excited, and then it just coasts from there until the disturbing finale. At that point it just becomes a waiting game as you wait for the film to drops its two plates and the payoff, whilst as bizarre as you’d expect, isn’t worth the patience. It’s a film I’ve not been able to get out of my head, and has only improved with further thought, so I’d highly recommend you watch it even if it doesn’t seem like your kind of thing. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. 7.5/10 (in select US theatres now, and in UK theatres on 31st December)
Costa Brava, Lebanon
This Lebanese dystopian drama may be focused on domestic issues of environmental degradation and political unease, but its themes will resonate across many different countries and cultures in all sorts of ways. It’s unfortunate then that its simple message can’t quite hold to feature-length and ends up going exactly as you’d expect. The family drama as they argue about whether to stay and fight for their land or simply leave it to be overrun is compelling at first, but the same points are simply repeated over and over and very little of consequence happens for most of it. It definitely feels like a first feature, because there are really only enough ideas for a short here. A good short, but a short nonetheless. 5/10 (US and UK release TBC)
The French Dispatch
Outside of his animated efforts Fantastic Mr. Fox and Isle of Dogs, the films of Wes Anderson have never really appealed to me beyond aesthetic appreciation and some amusing deadpan humour. It should come as no surprise then that the best parts of The French Dispatch are its brief animated segments, and the rest is an impeccably crafted and amusing set of stories that simply don’t appeal much to my sensibilities. The story focusing around Benicio del Toro as an incarcerated modern artist is a hilariously spot-on critique of art culture, but Timothée Chalamet’s tale is an esoteric exercise is political satire, whilst Jeffrey Wright’s is mildly amusing but really springs to life in those aforementioned animated sequences. If you’re an Anderson fan, you will doubtlessly find lots to enjoy here, but otherwise this mostly more of the same. 6/10 (in theatres on 22nd October)
Oh no she won’t! While it works as a decent showcase for Alice Krige and does have some inventive visual ideas, beyond that it’s a meandering and confusing horror film that teases cool concepts but is either too self-assured or too conceited to actually explore them. Malcolm McDowell is surprisingly restrained here compared to his recent output, and his past relationship with Krige was one I wish got more in-depth exploration, but the two barely share any screen time and it just undercuts whatever kind of message it was flailing to get across. Instead, the ham is provided by a tired Rupert Everett as a character who you’d expect to be important given the casting and early prominence, but by the midpoint the story pretty much forgets him. Just a massive shrug of a movie. 3.5/10 (US and UK release TBC)
A British psychological horror about grief, eating disorders, and the potential end of the world as we know it, A Banquet twists everyday fears into disturbing reality as a family slowly falls apart. Held together by stellar lead performances from Sienna Guillory as widowed mother Holly and Jessica Alexander as disturbed daughter Betsey, there’s almost a beauty to how it weaves hints of distressing imagery and apocalyptic depravity into its otherwise grounded drama. Both its greatest strength and biggest weakness, however, is its vagueness. Whilst it helps build suspense and unease as we question whether Betsey’s ailment is real or not, and the final payoff certainly leaves a lot open to interpretation, it also has something of a troubling aftertaste. It’s absolutely an acquired taste, but it’s definitely one worth at least trying. Also, I’ve never seen food look so unappetising on film, which certainly helps put us in Betsey’s mindset. 7/10 (US and UK release TBC)
Inspired by the same story that gave us The Lighthouse, Shepherd can’t help but feel like the cheap Poundland knock-off version of Robert Eggers’ haunting tale of isolation and insanity. The entire production looks cheap, mostly consisting of our lead Tom Hughes flailing in confusion around a barren Scottish isle, with all the money having seemingly been spent on subpar CGI creatures and about five minutes of Kate Dickie being vaguely menacing. It just screams of a film made by a recent film school graduate who hasn’t figured out how to budget properly, trying to ape features with deeper pockets and more experience when it should be focusing on what it can do with what it has. 1.5/10 (in UK theatres on 12th November, US release TBC)
The Phantom of the Open
Playing out in much the same vein as fellow UK sports dramedy Eddie the Eagle, The Phantom of the Open retells the story of the infamous golfer Maurice Flitcroft with delightful aplomb. In the hands of other actors, this could have easily been another trite and shallow crowd-pleaser with little emotional depth, but with national treasures like Mark Rylance and Sally Hawkins in the leads its hard not to get swept up in its charms. An impressive directorial debut from Craig Roberts (yes, the kid from Submarine), its period aesthetic and quirky sense of humour, paired with its self-awareness of how ridiculous its story is, help give its ultimate message of perseverance and love of the game a similar heft to Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. All in all, the perfect film to take your mum to for a rainy-day matinee. 7/10 (in UK theatres on 15th April 2022, US release TBC)
This year’s LFF Surprise Screening, C’mon C’mon is a hard film to surmise but an easy one to recommend wholeheartedly. Joaquin Phoenix is better than he’s ever been as a radio journalist struggling to keep his composure whilst looking after his wildly precocious nephew, leading to a movie that’s best described as the uplifting, feelgood answer to Uncut Gems. It’s a film that can be frustrating and filled with tension, but it always manages to bring you back with a wonderfully heartfelt moment to reminds you, for all its faults, life is ultimately worth it. Gaby Hoffman is likewise wonderful as Phoenix’s exhausted sister, but its newcomer Woody Norman who truly steals the show as young Jesse; easily one of the best child performances I’ve seen in a long, long while. 9.5/10 (in theatres on 19th November)
Kenneth Branagh’s wistful drama about a working-class family trying to survive in the eponymous Northern Irish capital during the Troubles is an easy shoe-in for Best Picture consideration. Young Jude Hill is a compelling young lead as the immediately relatable young Buddy, and is ably supporting by a wonderful supporting cast including Jamie Dornan, Catriona Balfe, Ciaran Hinds and Judi Dench. Its use of black-and-white cinematography combined with brief flashes of vivid colour creates a nostalgic visual experience that perfectly contrasts against its imagery of smashed-in shop windows and military blockades on civilian streets. There are moments where its sentiments start to cloy more than charm, but it ends on such a strong note that it’s hard to really care. It may be far from my favourite of the year, but this will inevitably be the film to beat come awards season, and I’m just glad it’s this kind of wholesome Oscar bait rather than another Green Book. 8/10 (in US theatres on 12th November 2021, and in UK theatres on 25th February 2022)
Exploring the events leading up to the tragic 1996 Tasmania shooting that led to the overhaul of Australia’s gun control laws, this haunting drama from Justin Kurzel dives into the dysfunctional life of the man responsible. Caleb Landry Jones delivers a truly disturbing performance as the future shooter, painting a picture that makes you recognise (but far from sympathise with) how he came to do the unspeakable acts he committed. Essie Davis matches Jones’ disquieting energy as his deranged landlady/mother figure/possible lover, and Anthony LaPaglia and Judy Davis are respectively pathetic and troubling as his fed-up parents. It does indulge in a lot of the same cliches you might expect from serial killer origin stories, but its matter-of-fact presentation adds to the uncomfortability of how easy this was to pull off; the scene in which Jones acquires his weapons is especially damning. Worth one watch and one watch only; it’s far too depressing to endure more than that. 7/10 (on Stan [Australia only] on 24th November, US and UK release TBC)
The Lost Daughter
Maggie Gyllenhaal makes her directorial debut with this adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novel, and as you’d expect it’s an actor’s showcase more than anything else. Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley are equally brilliant playing the lead role at two stages in her life, creating one of the most cohesive shared performances in a long while, and the supporting turns from Ed Harris and an initially unrecognisable Dakota Johnson have their moments to shine. Unfortunately, the film’s story is a slow burner with a lot of build-up but next to no payoff, with its final vague moments making the rest of the movie feel like something of a waste. Still, I can’t completely hate any movie where a character unloads on rude cinema patrons, and Colman gets an absolute doozy of a going postal scene here. 5/10 (in select US theatres on 17th December 2021, on US Netflix on 31st December 2021, and in UK theatres on 7th January 2022)
A queer anti-capitalist Rwandan sci-fi musical? That’s certainly something you don’t see at every festival. Whilst its ambitions are perhaps a bit out of reach of its minimal budget and debut direction, Neptune Frost is unlike anything you’ve ever seen or will likely see afterwards. The first half is a bit of a hard sit, especially if you’re unfamiliar with African cinema, but once it finds its second wind and really doubles down on “f*ck corporations and colonialism and gender”, it’s a truly fascinating and refreshing experience. Also, I really want that keyboard coat the lead character wears. 6/10 (US and UK release TBC)
Munich – The Edge of War
Based on the Robert Harris thriller, this WWII historical drama manages to mine a lot of suspense and intrigue out of a series of events we know from history won’t end well. George MacKay and Jannis Niewöhner make for compelling leads as former university chums-turned-enemies-turned reluctant allies, whilst Jeremy Irons does a fantastic job of representing the positive and negative aspects of Neville Chamberlain’s approach to the role of Prime Minister; yes, he’s a naïve wet blanket, but you understand what he’s trying to do. It’s a pretty standard and unsurprising political thriller otherwise, with nothing that particularly stands out as good or bad, but it does just enough to stand out amongst the pack. 6.5/10 (on Netflix 21st January 2022)
Ali & Ava
A beautifully understated romantic drama from The Selfish Giant helmswoman Clio Barnard, Ali & Ava explores the difficulties of love against the backdrop of trauma, racism and cultural divide. Adeel Akhtar and Claire Rushbrook are both wonderful and heart-breaking as the titular lovers, with Akhtar especially shining by breaking out of his usual comedic persona, and the film’s no-frills depiction of the working-class streets of Bradford give it an authenticity most British films try to paint over. If you’re in the mood to cry, this would be a solid recommendation. 8/10 (US and UK release TBC)
The Neutral Ground
The Daily Show writer/producer CJ Hunt hosts and directs this amusing but informative and often shocking discussion of the history of Confederate monuments. Whilst it doesn’t have much new to offer anyone already aware of the problem, its focus in particular on the campaign to remove New Orleans’ key Civil War statues gives the documentary a solid backbone to the wider debate, and as it segues into discussing Charlottesville and the aftermath of George Floyd it really starts to leave an impact. If you’re new to the topic and are wanting a solid education on why these statues aren’t a true representation of American history and why they should be removed, this would be an excellent place to start; much like Flee, it’s another great educational tool. 8/10 (US and UK release TBC)
A dry and stoic historical drama that clinically presents the life story of poet Siegfried Sassoon, there’s an uncanny sense of dissonance that permeates every achingly-long moment of Benediction’s laborious runtime. Every performance, line of dialogue and directorial choice feels far more suited to the stage than a motion picture, with its few attempts at being cinematic mostly amounting to green screen montages and some of the worst CGI this side of the 1990s; seriously, it looks like something out of Myst at times. I don’t think I’ve seen a movie so gay and yet so dull, lifeless and completely full of itself; it’s like Pete Buttigieg in celluloid form. 1/10 (US and UK release TBC)
Will Smith finally finds the role that may win him that Oscar gold with this inspirational sports drama about the rise of the Williams Sisters. Smith is equally charming and unnerving as the unyielding Richard Williams, Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton shine as the young Venus and Serena respectively, whilst Jon Bernthal gives a delightfully enthusiastic performance as tennis coach Rick Macci. There’s certainly a lot of sentimental cheese to be found in its overlong runtime, and Richard’s less-endearing parental decisions don’t always get the pushback they deserve, but overall it’s hard not to get invested and swept up in all the excitement. Also, this is easily the best cinematic portrayal of tennis I’ve ever seen. 8/10 (in theatres on 19th November)
No matter the genre or language, you can always bet on Paul Verhoeven to give you something unique, and Benedetta is easily the most challenging and insane piece of filmmaking he’s put out since his Hollywood golden years. A historical drama that explores religious hypocrisy, this feature has a bird pooping a guy’s eye, someone lighting their farts on fire, and a young girl sucking on the breast of a Virgin Mary statue…and that’s just the prologue! Though supporting performances from veterans like Charlotte Rampling and Lambert Wilson certainly add to the audacious spectacle, it’s Virginie Efira’s lead performance as the titular Benedetta that keeps this glorious piece of blasphemous camp shining so bright. Certainly not one for those faint of heart, but if you love movies that like to live deliciously (e.g., Caligula), this is one for you. 8/10 (in US theatres on 3rd December 2021, and in UK theatres 25th March 2022)
Céline Sciamma’s follow-up to Portrait of a Lady on Fire is certainly much smaller-scale, but that doesn’t mean it’s lacking in quality or heart. A simple story of childhood worthy of Studio Ghibli, Petite Maman is far from coy about its premise and simply enjoys spending quiet moments with these two girls being young whilst trying their best to ignore their depressing realities. It finds warmth and even joy in such a mundanely sad series of events, and the lead performances from sisters Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz just make their relationships feel that much more believable. On top of that, it’s only 72 minutes long, so this is the perfect little treat if you want a little bit of indie sweetness without the time investment. 7.5/10 (in UK theatres 19th November, US release TBC)
Starring: Thomasin McKenzie (Jojo Rabbit), Anya Taylor-Joy (The Queen’s Gambit), Matt Smith (The Crown), Terence Stamp (Superman II), Michael Ajao, Diana Rigg (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), Rita Tushingham (Doctor Zhivago)
Director: Edgar Wright (Baby Driver)
Writers: Edgar Wright & Krysty Wilson-Cairns (1917)
Runtime: 1 hour 56 minutes
Release Date: 29th October (US, UK)
Two Edgar Wright movies in one year? It’s like the Christmas wish of a thousand film bros came true! Yes, 2021 has graced us with two projects by the guy that every third film student wants to be like (the other two being Tarantino and Fincher), and whilst The Sparks Brothers was a wonderfully informative and engaging documentary that proved Wright did have range outside his usual wheelhouse, this latest project is the real main course. Last Night in Soho is the closest Wright has yet come to making a “serious” movie, though it still can’t help but be yet another genre pastiche; in this case, psychological horror flicks from the 60s and 70s. Purely as an homage, this is a gorgeously crafted love letter to a rose-tinted era that simultaneously rips those glasses away to reveal the seedy truth underneath, but it’s ultimately a shame that it has little to say when it matters.
Going into detail on the plot of Last Night in Soho is difficult without giving the game away; the trailers show very little outside of the first act, and the press screening began with a request from Wright to not talk about anything in the second half. What I can say is that it’s a story that begins with the best of intentions and plenty of promises, and for a while it seems to know exactly what it wants. It doesn’t waste any time explaining how the fantastical elements work or get bogged down in logistical minutiae, and gets on with delivering the stylish and passionate energy you expect from a Wright production. It may be a film about the past, but Last Night in Soho comes at 1960s London from a modern lens, highlighting the glitz and glamour of the period and setting but also shining a spotlight on its gross underbelly. It perfectly captures the overwhelming anxiety of living in the city as an outsider, the shunning and isolation that comes with viewing the world through a different lens, the desire to push yourself to meet an unreachable standard to your own detriment, and the stigmatisation of poor mental health.
This all makes for a compelling and promising first half full of unnerving chills and unsettling laughs, and thankfully the cinematic references take a backseat to the evolving horror of the narrative. Unfortunately, it’s in that obfuscated second half where the wheels come off the carriage and it becomes clear the film hasn’t really thought about what it wants to say about the subjects it tackles. When you get past all the flair, this is a pretty basic “be careful what you wish for” cautionary tale, but where the main character never really did anything to deserve her torment, and the attempt to muddy the morals of all involved just makes everyone look like a dick, an idiot, or both. That’s not even getting into the dubious gender politics, which never cross into truly problematic territory but does skirt that line on many occasions. Despite having a female co-screenwriter, at its core this is a story about women obviously written by a man, and even with those softened edges I get the impression certain toxic audiences may take away totally the wrong message; I’m talking “Tyler Durden is my role model” levels of missing the point.
Whilst its story doesn’t always fire on all cylinders, what never loses momentum is Thomasin McKenzie’s mesmerising performance as the innocent Ellie Turner. She is an immediately likable and relatable character who we’ve all met and/or been at some point in our lives: sweet and naïve and something of a pushover, but with a burning desire to prove herself. She brings a subtlety and a depth to a character who could have so easily been a passive wet blanket, and proves once again she is an up-and-coming actress to take seriously. Playing the opposite side of Ellie’s coin is Anya Taylor-Joy as young starlet Sandie, and whilst she also gives it her absolute best shot performance-wise, her character lacks the humanising details that make McKenzie’s role seem like a real person. She is instead saddled to a pretty generic lost innocence narrative, and whilst she is ultimately portrayed in a sympathetic light, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was an early version where that wasn’t the case.
Matt Smith is utterly despicable and intentionally so as Sandie’s seedy lover Jack, whilst Terence Stamp brings the bravado and gravitas you expect from Terence Stamp as a mysterious patron at the bar Ellie works at. Michael Ajao brings some needed levity as Ellie’s concerned classmate John, in spite of the two lacking much romantic chemistry, and though Synnøve Karlsen shows a lot of potential as her narcissistic rival Jocasta, she quickly becomes just a snide bully who leaves little impact on the narrative. The only other standout performance, and it’s a bittersweet one at that, is the late Diana Rigg as Ellie’s landlady Miss Collins. She better than anyone knows what kind of movie she’s in and belts it to the back row, delivering a worthy final curtain for such an icon of British film and television.
No matter what scale or style he’s working with, Edgar Wright is a technical perfectionist and has a passion for the art and history of cinema that make his movies feel so unique and yet immediately recognisable. Whilst Last Night in Soho certainly wears its references to the likes of Dario Argento and Nicholas Roeg on its sleeves, it doesn’t completely overwhelm the film’s aesthetic in what is easily Wright’s most restrained piece of filmmaking yet. It still has that music video quality that makes his films so breezy and accessible, but it’s far less frenetic and focuses a lot more on mood and tone than flashy camera tricks or synchronised editing. The cinematography by Chung-hoon Chung is especially impressive, perfectly capturing the neon-drenched sordid streets of Soho in both past and present form, and the vintage costumes are absolutely to die for; I could easily see some of Sandie’s outfits becoming go-tos for those how want to go to a Halloween party looking a little more glam. As you’d expect, the soundtrack choices are an idiosyncratic mix of niche 60s rock-and-roll with a few stone-cold classics thrown in, whilst Steven Price’s score gives it that little extra push of B-movie twang.
There’s a lot to like or even love about Last Night in Soho, but in the end it’s a style-over-substance romp with a lot of ideas but no final thesis. There’s a fantastic movie in here somewhere, one that explores its timely subject matter and feminist undertones in a meaningful way, but here they’re treated like window dressing to the technical aspects when it should be the other way around. Wright is far too meticulous a director to make anything less than aesthetically excellent, but as a writer he feels completely out of his depth here without his usual bag of tricks. After making so many films that explored masculinity in various forms to hilarious effect, it’s understandable why he may have wanted to change perspective, but Wright doesn’t have anything meaningful to say about this subject matter beyond obvious platitudes like “showbiz is toxic” and “London is great but also kind of sucks.” It’s disheartening to say it because it’s clear he wants to get away from that image, but this may have played better if it dropped its pretentions and just embraced being a self-aware B movie instead of the “elevated horror” version of one. Then again, if that’s what you’re after, you should probably just watch Malignant instead.
Starring: Daniel Craig (Knives Out), Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody), Léa Seydoux (Blue is the Warmest Colour), Lashanna Lynch (Captain Marvel), Ben Whishaw (Paddington), Naomie Harris (28 Days Later), Jeffrey Wright (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire), Ana de Armas (Blade Runner 2049), Billy Magnussen (Game Night), Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained), Ralph Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
Director: Cary Joji Fukanaga (Beasts of No Nation)
Writers: Neal Purvis & Robert Wade (Casino Royale) and Cary Joji Fukanaga and Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag)
Runtime: 2 hours 43 minutes
Release Date: 30th September (UK), 8th October (US)
Can you believe that Daniel Craig has been James Bond for fifteen years, and yet in that time there’s only been five movies? It makes him the longest to ever hold the title of 007 (the late Roger Moore still holds the record for most films, with seven entries over twelve years), and what an eventful run it’s been full of thrilling highs and disappointing lows. From rebooting the franchise with explosive gusto in the excellent Casino Royale, wading through the intense production troubles of the forgettable Quantum of Solace, celebrating the fiftieth anniversary in style with the sublime Skyfall, and then coasting back into familiar formula in the perfunctory Spectre, what has always stayed consistent is Craig’s enduring commitment to the role, and that absolutely carries into his final curtain as the legendary spy. No Time to Die has been a long time coming, with repeated delays to its release even before COVID-19 impacted cinemas, leaving fans in breathless anticipation for well over a year. Finally, it’s safe to say that the wait is over and it was well worth it. Whilst No Time to Die isn’t quite the best of the recent Bond flicks, it is a fantastically entertaining one and a more than worthy finale to the Craig saga.
Unlike the Bond films of the bygone era, which occasionally made dalliances with continuity but mostly stood as self-contained stories, the five Craig films have had an ongoing narrative with recurring characters and themes that have evolved alongside 007 as a character. No Time to Die is no different, picking up the loose ends left by Spectre and spinning them into an epic yarn with world-ending stakes but an extremely personal character focus. The title itself is certainly apt, with death being a key theme of the film alongside secrets, forgiveness, and letting go of the past. It’s a story that touches on beats already explored in the series, with Bond still grappling with his lost love Vesper Lynd as he did in Quantum of Solace and being forced back into the saddle after a long hiatus as in Skyfall, but it brings more than enough fresh ideas to the table and the recurring motifs help thematically gel it with those prior entries. Whilst enjoyable in isolation, it works best in context with the rest of the series and satisfyingly pays off years of storytelling in a way that almost feels pre-planned; it even makes Spectre slightly better in retrospect.
The film is incredibly beefy with its 163-minute runtime, but it moves at such a strong clip that it’s hard to really care and there is hardly a wasted or dull moment to be found. The Craig movies have often been critiqued for sucking a lot of the zany fun out of the franchise in favour of more Bourne-influenced realism, but each entry has gradually brought back the fun and, whilst not going full Moonraker, No Time to Die does have a far more exuberant spring in its step. The screenplay is incredibly witty and self-aware, with Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s sense of humour shining through in the dialogue, though it stops well short of turning into a farce and grounds it with some solid moments of pathos. It expertly balances that line between popcorn entertainment and emotionally resonant cinema, all leading up to a finale that both delivers everything you could want from a Bond film but also completely upends your expectations. The story dares to go places one couldn’t imagine even the early Craig movies would go, and caps off this era for the franchise in a bittersweet but fittingly poignant manner.
It’s hard to believe back in 2006 there was such a backlash to the casting of Daniel Craig as James Bond, seemingly on little more basis than the fact he’s blonde and not conventionally attractive; in our age of increased gender-and-raceblind casting, it seems practically parodic. The haters were quickly silenced after seeing Casino Royale though, and over the years Craig has delivered a Bond that respects Ian Fleming’s writing whilst evolving and undoing some of his more unsavoury characteristics. The Bond we meet in No Time to Die is a perfect denouement to the arc he has been on over the five films and, without spoiling too much, Craig’s performance here is quite possibly his richest and most satisfying yet. Whilst this is certainly the most fun Craig’s ever had with the role, cracking off the one-liners and throwing himself into the action with a nary a sense of reluctance or lethargy, he’s certainly still the cold-blooded killer we first saw kill that man in the bathroom. This is a Bond at the end of his rope, trying to finally put to rest the demons of his past, leading him to become more abrasive and emotionally vulnerable. By story’s end, it’s clear he has evolved into a far more complex version of Bond than we’ve ever seen, and Craig more than delivers the touching send-off this character serves; I’d hate to be the performer who has to follow his act.
The rest of the returning cast generally deliver the quality performances you’d expect, but Léa Seydoux especially impresses as the rare returning Bond girl Madeleine Swann. An interesting but underdeveloped and inconsistent character in Spectre, here she is given much more material to play with and Seydoux really sinks her teeth into it and has a wonderfully natural chemistry with Craig. Jeffrey Wright returns for one last turn as Felix Leiter to bring back those feelings of nostalgia for Casino Royale, and Ben Whishaw continues to be an absolute delight as the constantly beleaguered Q. The only returning face to once again underwhelm is Christoph Waltz as perennial Bond villain Blofeld, and he’s mostly rendered a second banana who is far more talked about than seen or heard; it’s almost like the filmmakers are embarrassed by this version of the character. In terms of new faces, Lashanna Lynch is easily a standout as Bond’s replacement as 007 Nomi, bouncing off of Craig with charming aplomb and proving herself as a viable action heroine in her own right, whilst Ana de Armas threatens to steal the entire movie in her all-too-brief turn as the excitable rookie CIA agent Paloma; can we get a spin-off teaming up these two badass women, please? Even some of the smaller characters are memorable, like Billy Magnussen as a perpetually-grinning CIA operative, or David Dencik delivering an inspired take on the mad scientist trope. Unfortunately, the film’s biggest weakness is Rami Malek as the film’s villain Safin. Whilst Malek himself does a commendable job and his world-ending plan is unique and all-too-timely (probably yet another good reason to delay this film during COVID), he’s not in the film very much and his motivations are flimsy at best. He makes sense as a lower-stakes, more personal adversary in the vein of Javier Bardem’s Silva, but his leap into supervillainy never quite adds up and would have been more fitting in the hands of a series-spanning antagonist rather than one introduced in the final act.
When it comes to action, it’s been as inconsistent in quality across the Craig era as the writing. Whilst Casino Royale and Skyfall had some truly spectacular sequences like the parkour chase through Madagascar in the former or the silhouette fistfight in the latter, Spectre had its moments but lost steam towards the end (I mean, Bond defeats Blofeld in that movie by shooting down his helicopter with a bloody pistol) and Quantum of Solace was little more than a frenzied series of close-ups and quick cuts. Thankfully, No Time to Die is no slouch on this front and delivers some excellent sequences courtesy of the series’ perennial second unit director Alexander Witt. There are far too many to fully recount, with a frenzied shoot-out in a Cuban ballroom and a frantic vehicular chase across the Norwegian countryside as the easy standouts, but rest assured the action here is never lazy or perfunctory. The cinematography by Linus Sandgren is gorgeous in both its execution and variability, switching from relaxed beauty shots to frenzied thrills at a moment’s notice, and the production design shoots for the moon and delivers a final villain fortress truly worthy of the Bond brand. On the musical front, Hans Zimmer’s score is refreshingly restrained compared to his usual blockbuster fare, and even cleverly works in themes from prior films into its melodies. Billie Eilish is quite a refreshing choice for No Time to Die’ssignature Bond theme, and her song of the same name is a fittingly sombre number for the film’s tone and themes; it’s no “Skyfall” or “You Know My Name”, but very few songs are.
Back in my review of Spectre (which I gave 7.5 at the time, but I would downgrade it to a 6 in retrospect), I said it was the Dark Knight Rises to Casino Royale’s Batman Begins and Skyfall’s The Dark Knight. In hindsight, that comparison was a little short-sighted. If anything, No Time to Die has far more in common with the final entry in Christopher Nolan’s landmark trilogy, but with this extra caveat: No Time to Die is The Dark Knight Rises…done right. As an ending to this fifteen-year saga, it delivers on everything you could ask for on a narrative, spectacle and emotional level, completing the Bond franchise’s transition into the modern era in a way that could work as either as a touching way to cap off the series all together, or just the beginning of a whole new era. As both Game of Thrones and Star Wars proved recently, ending a long-running series in a satisfying and uncontroversial way is hard task, but No Time to Die is evidence that it can be done with elegance and respect. The news cycle may want to immediately turn to speculation about what the future of the franchise may hold (heck, they’ve been doing that anyway years before this one came out), but now I think is a better time to pause and reflect on the series just past, because it’s one that will be incredibly hard to follow.
Starring: Annabelle Wallis (The Mummy), Maddie Hasson (Impulse), George Young (Containment), Michole Briana White (Songbird), Jacqueline McKenzie (Deep Blue Sea), Jake Abel (The Host), Ingrid Bisu (The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It), Mckenna Grace (Gifted)
Director: James Wan (Aquaman)
Writer: Akela Cooper (Hell Fest)
Runtime: 1 hour 51 minutes
Release Date: 10th September (US/HBO Max, UK)
When a low-budget director finally gets their shot at the big leagues, one of two things usually happens: they either stay there indefinitely, or go back to their roots once their time in the spotlight is over. However, there is a third option that some take and is probably the best of both worlds: make smaller, more personal projects in between the giant blockbusters. James Wan has already done this once before, returning to his horror stomping grounds by making the comparably small The Conjuring 2 in between Furious 7 and Aquaman, and now he’s done it again before embarking on his second underwater adventure with the DC superhero. Malignant (which, to clarify, is totally unrelated to Wan’s 2011 graphic novel Malignant Man) is in some ways a return to Wan’s grungier Saw origins, but it’s an entirely different beast in other. It’s a film that the marketing has quite rightly been coy about, selling itself as a more traditional paranormal chiller, and to some viewers they will likely be disappointed or completely revulsed once they realised its true nature. However, if you’re willing to jump on board, Malignant is easily one of the most thrilling, idiosyncratic and utterly batsh*t mainstream horror movies in recent memory.
(I don’t usually do this in my reviews, as I generally don’t discuss narrative in beat-by-beat detail, but even mentioning the slightest details of Malignant’s story threatens to ruin the experience. Most films are best enjoyed knowing as little as possible going in, and this one has been specifically marketed that way. So, without further ado: POTENTIAL SPOILER WARNING!If you are interested in seeing Malignant, especially if you’re a huge horror fan, stop reading now and just go see it! If you’re still undecided and need a little more info to know if it’s your cup of tea, I will try to be as sensitive to potential giveaways in my critique as possible, but there are just some thoughts that have to be said that may give away the game. You have been warned.)
By all intents and purposes, Malignant shouldn’t work. Unlike Wan’s previous horror films that pick a style and mostly sticks with it, this one is like a bag of pick-and-mix, but with various styles and subgenres rather than sugary treats. The first two acts are mostly comparable to the Insidious franchise, especially in how it blurs the lines of perception and reality, but with a slightly more heightened, almost comic book tone. However, it throughout draws stylistic influence from all eras and types of horror: it has the suspense and mystery of Psycho and Rosemary’s Baby, the psychological eeriness of Repulsion and Don’t Look Now, and the gruesome imagery of Possession and The Evil Dead. As wild as all these influences sound, they merge together fairly well because the film stays consistent on a story level. There is a compelling whodunnit narrative as we learn more about the characters in drips and drabs and, whilst the final revelations do seemingly come out of nowhere, the pieces are all there and certainly solvable with an open mind. There is some clunky expositional dialogue and unsubtle foreshadowing, but it moves at such a brisk pace and with a knowing sense of self-deprecation that it’s easy to forget about the niggles and get swept up in the mystery.
That said, where the moviesimultaneously comes alive and goes off the rails is in its third act. In possibly the biggest mid-film shift since From Dusk till Dawn, Malignant finally reveals its trump card, drops all pretentions of subtlety, and proudly comes out as a tribute to 1980s exploitation movies. It still has the slick sheen of a mid-budget Hollywood film, but at its core this is absolutely the kind of gonzo high-concept horror flick you’d stumble across at the video store or on late-night TV. It’s a massive and risky swing that will likely turn off many, and even for those willing to go with it won’t find it an easy transition. There are logic holes left that even the biggest suspension of disbelief won’t account for and, whilst its nice to see a horror film be self-contained, it does leave plenty of unanswered questions. However, if you can get past the growing pains and accept the movie for what it is, you will find one of the most visceral, insane and flat-out fun horror movies since The Cabin in the Woods. Again, it’s hard to describe without giving it all away, but here’s a final litmus test: if the works of Larry Cohen and Frank Henenlotter mean anything to you, go see this movie immediately!
One does not usually go to horror movies looking for high-calibre acting, but there are exceptions…and Malignant isn’t one of them. That’s not to say the performances or characters here are bad in any way, but it’s hard to say to say that any of them are particularly exemplary. Annabelle Wallis takes the lead as the meek and disturbed Maddie, and she does a pretty solid job of portraying a character who has clearly been through a lot of abuse. However, her performance kind of begins and ends with that emotion, and we don’t really get much time with her before the plot kicks in to understand what she’s like outside of these supernatural circumstances. We actually get a much better sense of who her sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson) is through little incidental details that flesh her out, and she excels at emotionally grounding the film and providing some earnest comic relief. George Young is likable but a bit bland as Detective Kekoa Shaw, whilst his partner Regina (Michole Briana White) is mostly saddled with the typical “sceptic who immediately suspects and gaslights the protagonist” routine. Jake Abel and Susanna Thompson have mostly perfunctory roles as Maddie’s husband and mother respectively, whilst Ingrid Bisu (who also co-wrote the story with Wan and Akela Cooper) has a small but memorable role as a forensic officer that evokes Leigh Whannel’s role in the Insidious movies. However, the real unsung stars of the film are voice actor Ray Chase and stunt performer Marina Mazepa as the elusive shadow that is Gabriel. That’s all I can really say about them. See the movie for yourself, and you’ll understand why these two have together created a potential cult horror icon.
James Wan has proven himself time and again as a director willing to make bold and brazen choices, and Malignant is easily his most visually distinctive film yet. Yes, even more so than his movie with the giant octopus playing drums. Its use of harsh reds and midnight blues in its lighting is incredibly 70s, bringing to mind Dario Argento, but then the bombastic camera work is more in line with that of Wan’s blockbusters. There are some incredible tracking shots throughout the film that would make David Fincher blush, like an intense overhead sequence that follows Maddie up, down, and around the house. This frenetic shooting style then works perfectly into the movie’s action sequences. Yes, you read that right: action sequences! There’s an absolutely relentless chase through the streets of Seattle that keeps finding ways to up the ante, and the third act blow-out is best described as “What John Wick was a Cenobite?”, which are only made more visceral by the copious amounts of gore; it more than earns its 18 certificate from the BBFC. The entire aesthetic experience is then further enhanced by the excellent sound mixing and Joseph Bishara’s haunting score, which sounds like the disturbed love child of Bernard Hermann and John Carpenter. The only odd musical choice is its use of an instrumental cover of “Where Is My Mind” by Pixies as a recurring leitmotif; it’s a decent enough cover on its own, but it sticks out a little amongst the film’s mostly older cultural references.
Malignant simply isn’t the kind of movie that gets made anymore, especially by a major studio, and most other directors would have watered it down into something far more generic. In the hands of James Wan though, who both loves the horror genre and is willing to turn things up to eleven, it makes it an experience hard to forget whether you end up enjoying it or not. It’s easily the most distinctive movie he’s made since the original Saw, and reimagines a long-dormant subgenre on a scale its influences could only dream of. Seriously, the fact Warner Bros. even agreed to fund this is frankly unbelievable, and likely only did because of Wan’s track record…and the fact he just handed them a billion-dollar juggernaut in Aquaman. To make a long review short, Malignant is B-movie schlock dolled up in blockbuster drag, and destined to become a cult favourite amongst horror aficionados.
Starring: Simu Liu (Kim’s Convenience), Awkwafina (Raya and the Last Dragon), Meng’er Zhang, Fala Chen (Turning Point), Florian Munteanu (Creed II), Benedict Wong (The Martian), Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Tony Leung (Chungking Express)
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12)
Writers: Dave Callaham (Wonder Woman 1984) & Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham (Just Mercy)
Runtime: 2 hours 11 minutes
Release Date: 3rd September (US, UK)
Some people are sick of superhero origin stories; they think they’re tired and samey, and that more movies should just skip to the good stuff. Whilst this makes sense with characters whose histories are not only simple but ingrained in pop culture (Batman, Spider-Man, Hulk, etc), origins are vital to those who sit outside the trodden grounds of dead parents and/or freak accidents. Shang-Chi is a venerable but oft-forgotten Marvel hero whose story has potential that even the comics never fully tapped into, with not only his martial arts prowess and mystical connection to Chinese folklore, but as a superhero descended from a supervillain. Now is a better time than any to put him in the spotlight, and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings rises to the occasion in every aspect. It’s not only the best Marvel solo movie since Black Panther, but an engaging and beautifully put-together blockbuster that meshes western and eastern influences seamlessly.
Shang-Chi immediately sets itself apart from the other MCU origin stories by following the Batman Begins structure, switching between past and present as we witness both our hero’s sinister past and his ascendancy to the light. The story is simple but well-told and filled with theatrical heft, putting far more focus on character dynamics and thematic resonance than furthering the MCU canon (though it has its fair share of that too). On balance it is certainly classic Marvel tone-wise, but it does swing pretty far to both sides of that spectrum. It unexpectedly goes to some incredibly dark places, especially when showing Shang’s upbringing and his contentious relationship with his father, which help emotionally ground it in a way very few Marvel films do. At the same time, it’s an incredibly bright and funny movie, injecting a lot of self-aware humour and imaginative worlds that feel pulled from animation more than reality. It’d be easy for these clashing vibes to muddy the emotional timbre, but for the most part Shang-Chi doesn’t undercut itself where it counts and shows restraint even when it has an easy opportunity to chuck in a joke. I can’t speak fully to its authenticity (being a white European and all), but the film’s use of its Asian cast, setting and cultural influences is outstanding by Hollywood standards. Roughly 20% of the film, including the entire prologue, is in Mandarin and fluidly switches between it and English to great effect. Aside from a solid jab at the racist undertones of naming a character “The Mandarin”, it’s not exactly a thematically weighty film with something deep to say about Asian culture like Black Panther did for the African experience, but there is certainly a similar level of respect and a revelling joy from the filmmakers getting to tell this kind of story on such a huge canvas. That said, what it does do is tell a story with a core conflict that speaks to Asian experiences but that audiences of all backgrounds will relate to in one way or another. This is ultimately a family drama about legacy and nature vs. nurture told through the lens of an action fantasy epic, and it doesn’t have to be any deeper than that.
There are so many great portrayals of superheroes on screen both past and present, but only a few are so iconic that the actor and character become the definitive version in your head; Christopher Reeve, Hugh Jackman, Robert Downey Jr, Gal Gadot, and Margot Robbie are just a few that come to mind. Simu Liu certainly has an advantage stepping into the role of Shang-Chi, as the character has no major prior appearances outside the comics, and yet he manages to make the character iconic entirely by his own skill. Liu is an immediately likable leading man with a natural wit and strong physicality, but what truly sets the character apart is his internal conflict. We’ve seen plenty of heroes who don’t want the power or responsibility of saving the world, but Shang-Chi stands apart as someone whose abilities are irreconcilable to them from their childhood trauma and inner demons, and their journey overcoming this block could prove inspirational to those struggling with their own dark side. Awkwafina does what she does best as Shang’s best friend Katy, but they thankfully avoid making her just comic relief and make sure she has her own satisfying arc and relationships. Her chemistry with Liu is absolutely top-notch, more than selling these two as long-time buds who are there for each other in both good times and bad, and hopefully the MCU finds plenty more room for both of them.
Meng’er Zhang is fantastically stoic as Shang’s sister Xialing, getting across a lot with very little dialogue and selling herself as a stone-cold badass throughout; whenever she has an action sequence, it’s hard to take your eyes off her. Michelle Yeoh is as gracious and excellent as you’d expect her to be as Shang’s aunt Ying Nan, Florian Munteanu manages to bring forward depth and humour in what could be a stock henchman role as Razorfist, and there’s a fantastic redemptive return from an old MCU character I won’t spoil here (no, it’s not Wong, whose role is little more than a fun extended cameo). All that said, anyone who’s a fan of Chinese cinema will be here for Tony Leung as archvillain Wenwu, and he absolutely owns the movie from the moment he appears until the end. He is a far cry from the racist stereotyping of both The Mandarin and Fu Manchu, incorporating the better aspects of both into a new composite character that utterly destroys those dated expectations. He has all the trappings you’d expect of a supervillain, from the mountaintop lair and army of henchmen to his unyielding lust for power, but he’s also incredibly grounded and his motivations come from a completely human pain. Leung absolutely sells both sides of the character without ever undermining the other, and the father-son dynamic he has with Shang-Chi is relatable yet tragic; they both clearly want the best for each other, but know their paths cannot cross. He’s not only one of the MCU’s best villains yet, but possibly the first performance I’ve seen in one worthy of awards consideration.
Destin Daniel Cretton is a fantastic director of intimate drama, and that experience is absolutely key to why the story and characters work so well. That said, he finds himself at the helm of a martial arts movie despite having no experience in directing action of any scale but, like any good director knows how to do, he’s surrounded himself with the best in the business. I mean, he has the late Brad Allan, veteran of multiple Jackie Chan films, as his stunt co-ordinator, and Bill Pope, cinematographer of the first three Matrix movies, behind the camera. If the final result wasn’t some of the best hand-to-hand action sequences in MCU history, you’d want your money back, and thankfully Shang-Chi delivers on all that and more. This is a visually stunning movie on every level, from its gorgeous environments (both realistic and mystical) to its spectacular special effects, but of course the fight choreography is the real showstopper. It’s not quite on par with classic Hong Kong cinema, especially considering it can’t get too brutal for the kids in the audience, but it comes as close as it can and melds surprisingly seamlessly with the expected Marvel flair. This is further bolstered by the film’s music, with both Joel P. West’s gallant score and the great selection of rap and EDM tracks on the soundtrack perfectly symbolising the east-meets-west nature of the entire production.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is an absolute blast from start-to-finish and a wonderful way to truly kick off the Phase Four films. Even after over a decade of storytelling, Marvel Studios shows no signs of slowing down and continues to find new ways to keep their output fresh, diverse, and of quality. Simu Liu is a superstar in the making, ably taking on the title role with the confidence of a veteran of ten blockbusters, and holds his own against a cinema legend like Tony Leung. It feels like another cohesive piece of the Marvel universe, but it stands up better on its own than most and has gallons of potential as a franchise in its own right, and hopefully it finds an audience craving more. Whether you’re a diehard MCU fan, an action junkie wanting something with a little Hong Kong flavour, or you just appreciate good storytelling and imagination, you cannot go wrong with Shang-Chi.
Starring: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Aquaman), Teyonah Parris (WandaVision), Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Misfits), Colman Domingo (Selma), Kyle Kaminsky, Vanessa Williams (New Jack City)
Director: Nia DaCosta (Little Woods [AKA Crossing the Line])
Writers: Jordan Peele (Get Out) & Win Rosenfield (The Twilight Zone) and Nia DeCosta
Runtime: 1 hour 31 minutes
Release Date: 27th August (US, UK)
1992’s Candyman, as far as I’m concerned, is a modern classic. It was a perfect update of the gothic horror story, transposing it to contemporary urban Chicago and telling an ahead-of-its-time story that touched on gentrification and racial bias. It turned Tony Todd into a horror icon, delivered something fresh to a genre stagnated by mindless slashers, and propagated the classic mirror game still played by easily-scared kids everywhere. However, its legacy somewhat stopped there and its underlying themes never quite stayed in the popular conscience, no doubt muddied by its two direct-to-video sequels that dropped much of the depth that made the original so special. Now thirty years later, who more apt to reboot Candyman and bring those racial messages to the forefront than Jordan Peele? Unfortunately, whilst this reimagining certainly has all the right ideas, the execution is about as messy as the blood-drenched crime scenes Candyman leaves in his wake.
As 2021’s Candyman begins, it seems like it knows exactly what it’s doing. It clearly not only loves the original but fully understands its significance and wants to expand on its ideas. Hearing how the events of the first film have warped over time and become their own legend much like the story of the Candyman, it makes it feel like a true sequel but one that opens the door to new possibilities. The story is metaphorically and, by the end, literally about the recontextualization of the Candyman mythos in the modern era, taking some interesting swings with the material whilst ultimately still being a natural evolution of the original’s intentions. It not only expands upon the racial undertones discussed in the first film but brings in modern ideas too, such as the commodification of Black struggles for the entertainment of predominantly white audiences, which certainly brings a slight meta element to the narrative. The subplot surrounding the modern art world occasionally seem self-indulgent, often distracting from the narrative core so that the filmmakers can air their frustrations about critics, but the overall point it makes is valid and a natural evolution of ideas from the first film.
All of the right pieces are there and it’s easy to see the picture that the filmmakers were trying to create, but great intentions simply aren’t enough to carry it across the line. Its ambition is ultimately cut short by its top-heavy and scatter-brained storytelling, doing a solid job of building tension and intrigue for the first two acts before rushing through its climax so fast that it lacks the desired impact. Character motivations flip on a dime, several subplots and supporting characters are simply forgotten about, all subtlety gets chucked out the window, and the result is a finale that’s more confusing than it is scary or thought-provoking. It reeks of a screenplay in need of major restructuring, dropping certain ideas and focusing in on its core goals. Failing that, simply let the film run longer and flesh out the third act so that it doesn’t feel like such a rush job at the end. It’s such a shame that, for the first two thirds, Candyman was shaping up to be a more-than-worthy successor to the original. Instead, what we’ve ended up is two or three promising but unfinished ideas for a Candyman sequel squashed into ninety minutes whilst Jordan Peele reads aloud a copy of “Media Analysis for Dummies”.
Much of the same issues carry over into the film’s characterisation, but at least the cast they’ve assembled is able to deliver it all with gusto. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II makes for a charismatic but unnerving lead as struggling artist Anthony McCoy, with his descent into obsession mirroring that of Virginia Madsen’s Helen Lyle but taking it in an unexpected direction. He does a fantastic job of making you like this guy whilst also showing his flaws and more unsettling tendencies; his reaction to the film’s first major kill is an absolutely priceless moment that shows Anthony for who he really is. Unfortunately, where the writing fails him is that he makes some awfully stupid decisions that even his addled mental state can’t really account for. With Helen, the goading and gaslighting Candyman put her through explained her more rash decisions, but with Anthony there isn’t really that driving force. He’s far too passive a protagonist, allowing his situation to get out of hand and yet not fighting back once even as he starts to put the pieces together. By the end, the story just kind of unceremoniously shoves his character development to its obvious conclusion, and yet it ends up feeling vastly unearned.
Teyonah Parris is fantastic as Anthony’s curator girlfriend Brianna and is easily the most relatable character, reacting naturally to the insanity growing around her and keeping us grounded in reality. The only issue is that she’s mostly a supporting player through much of the story, dealing with several subplots about her art career and her deceased father that end up going nowhere, before being pushed into the spotlight of a central plot she had very little impact on prior to that point. Nathan Stewart-Jarrett makes for some fun comic relief as Brianna’s flamboyant brother Troy, and ably balanced out by his more modest boyfriend Grady (Kyle Kaminsky), but the story basically forgets about them once the blood starts really hitting the fan. Colman Domingo is always great, even when simply handled exposition, and he does a fantastic job going deep into the mythos as the perennial neighbourhood resident Burke. It’s hard to discuss the character in depth without getting into spoiler territory, but what happens to him in the third act is one of the greater tragedies of the rushed pacing; it really just comes out of nowhere. Vanessa Williams’ part as Anthony’s mother Anne-Marie, the only significant returning character from the original, is small but pivotal and she delivers it so well; it’s easily where the film comes closest to capturing the emotional heft of the original.
Whilst the script certainly leaves a lot to be desired, the film’s direction and technical prowess certainly do their best to make up for the lacklustre material. Nia DaCosta has a wonderful eye and stages certain sequences in imaginative ways that translate the tone and emotion of a scene with very little dialogue. John Guleserian’s cinematography is haunting in all the right ways, building off of visual ideas from the original whilst giving them a modern twist, and the use of shadow puppets to visualize the various myths surrounding Candyman is an especially welcome touch. The way the film handles its gory moments is also especially refreshing, showing you just enough to satisfy your bloodlust but not revelling in it; like a great horror movie should, it leads the scariest stuff to your imagination. The film visually looks a lot cleaner than the first film, which makes sense considering the gentrification of Cabrini-Green since then, but even the sets that are meant to be rundown don’t have that same level of grime and filth as they should. Also, whilst it’s certainly an unreasonable ask to expect any composer to match up to the iconic Phillip Glass, the film’s score is still pretty unmemorable and lacks that same eerie fairy-tale quality of Glass’ compositions.
There’s nothing worse than seeing a film’s potential so clearly on display and yet failing to make it work, but the new Candyman is an undercooked mistake and easily this summer’s biggest disappointment. The story and themes are brimming with potential, all of the actors put in their best, and DaCosta’s direction elevates the film beyond horror conventions in much the same way as Bernard Rose’s original; I can’t wait to see what she does with The Marvels. Much of the blame here must be put on the narrative itself, which feels overstuffed at best and outright unfinished at worst. It has the flow of an essay that waffles on too much early on, eating up the word count with frivolous tangents, before running out of time and rushing to the conclusion instead of simply going back and cutting out the fluff. Whether this was an issue at script level or something that happening during editing, I can’t say, but it reeks of much the same issues with Peele’s Us: it gets so caught up in its metaphors that it forgets to tell a satisfying story in its own right. In terms of horror sequels and reboots, I’ll certainly take an ambitious but failed new take like this over yet another unimaginative rehash, but it’s squandered potential nonetheless.
Starring: Henry Golding (Crazy Rich Asians), Andrew Koji (Warrior), Úrsula Corberó (Money Heist), Samara Weaving (Ready of Not), Iko Uwais (The Raid), Haruka Abe (Cruella), Takehiro Hira (Ace Attorney), Peter Mensah (300)
Director: Robert Schwentke (Red)
Writers: Evan Spiliotopoulos (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) and Joe Shrapnel & Anna Waterhouse (Race)
Runtime: 2 hours 1 minute
Release Date: 23rd July (US), 18th August (UK)
The question really has to be asked: is G.I. Joe even relevant anymore? Sure, it’s an important part of toy history and its 80s incarnation still has its retro appeal, but it hasn’t managed to stay in the modern zeitgeist like Transformers or Masters of the Universe have. There hasn’t been an animated series in a decade to keep it fresh in the heads of today’s kids, and whilst the prior attempts at live action adaptation The Rise of Cobra and Retaliation are guilty pleasures for some (i.e. me), neither proved as popular as even the worst-performing Bayformer film. Still, Paramount and Hasbro still see something of worth in the property and have opted to give the franchise a new lease in much the same way they did with Bumblebee: making a prequel focusing on the origin of a popular character to act as a springboard into a full reboot. Unfortunately, whilst Bumblebee was the upbeat breath of fresh air Transformers needed, Snake Eyes rarely feels like anything more than brand management.
As I’m sure many a diehard fan will let you know, G.I. Joe has an overwhelmingly in-depth mythology mainly thanks to the efforts of comics legend Larry Hama. Whilst a lot of that original backstory has been jettisoned here, it does have a tonal reverence for his work and treats the material with far more weight than the previous film incarnations. For a good chunk of its runtime, Snake Eyes is a grounded and strait-laced action thriller, mixing in elements of classic ninja and yakuza movies that make it stand out a little from the usual blockbuster fare. If it weren’t for the inclusion of its recognisable characters, it’s easy to forget that it’s a G.I. Joe movie at all until the expected Joes vs. Cobra elements start seeping into the plot. It’s also at this point the more fantastical elements get rolled in to, and soon this mostly boilerplate actioner is busting out giant anacondas and magical fire gems like they’re no big deal. This all leads to a drawn-out but otherwise satisfying finale that brings the OTT spectacle you’d hope for and hypes up the full G.I. Joe epic they clearly want to make. The problem is that not only does the script do a poor job of integrating those franchise building blocks into its core narrative, but the first two acts simply aren’t engaging enough on their own. The pacing is numbingly slow at points, with huge portions of the film bereft of extended action, to the point that any children in the audience will likely get restless as they await the next ninja bout. This film may have more respect for its source material on an intellectual level, but the 2009/2013 movies at least understood that G.I. Joe should be fun; I mean, it’s literally based on action figures. Snake Eyes, meanwhile, is like reading a dry fan wiki whilst watching a supercut of 80s ninja movies and edited-for-TV Takeshi Miike flicks.
The cast of G.I. Joe is pretty vast and full of quirky characters, but Snake Eyes has proved the most popular ever since the 80s relaunch; amazing for a character who was a throwaway they literally left as an unpainted black mould to save on manufacturing costs. On first thought, it’s only natural they chose the dark-garbed ninja to be the focus of a spin-off, but at the same time he doesn’t lend himself much to leading man status. In most incarnations, he rarely takes off his mask or even talks, so what is there to work with? Well, this is where Snake Eyes plays loose with the established mythology and gives the character the typical tragic backstory and quest for revenge, turning a character whose appeal lied in his mysteriousness into just another generic anti-hero. Henry Golding has proven himself an incredibly charismatic presence from his roles in Crazy Rich Asians and A Simple Favour, but he seems woefully out of depth as an action star here. Snakes Eyes is a role that simply doesn’t play to Golding’s strengths, requiring him to be constantly brooding and contemplative, and he ends up coming off like a preppy kid trying to be a bad boy rather than the downbeat street rat he’s written as. It’s clear that the man is trying, and with further refinement he has the potential to be a blockbuster leading man, but he’s simply not there yet. Henry Golding reminds me a lot of a young George Clooney and the comparison couldn’t be more apt here, as Snake Eyes is to Golding as what Batman was to Clooney; not inherently bad casting, but clearly out of their depth and lacking the material they needed to make it work.
Thankfully, Andrew Koji picks up a lot the slack as Tommy Arashikage, the man soon to be known as Storm Shadow. He immediately brings a lot of screen presence, has strong chemistry with Golding, and believably evolves over the course of the story from the trusted ally to the bitter rival of Snake Eyes fans know him to be. Also acting as a foil to both Golding and Koji is Haruka Abe as Akiko, the Arashikage clan’s head of security, but she’s fairly one-note and really only there to keep Golding on his toes until the third act. Iko Uwais and Peter Mensah are on hand as the clan’s teachers Hard Master and Blind Master respectively, and whilst both are welcome presences (and of course Uwais is easily the action standout) they are relegated to the background for much of the plot. The film’s primary antagonist is Takehiro Hira as Kenta, Tommy’s cousin and rival, but he’s no more than a stock yakuza bad guy with very little depth beyond what we are told about his past with the Arashikage clan. Whilst all this ninja intrigue is going on, the only representatives of the Joes vs. Cobra conflict are Samara Weaving as Scarlett and Úrsula Corberó as Baroness. Whilst Weaving makes the most of her limited screen time and once again cements herself as a superstar in the making, Corberó fails to make such an impact. Baroness is meant to be one of the most iconic villains in the G.I. Joe franchise, a Bond femme fatale turned up to 11 whose ruthlessness is only outmatched by Cobra Commander, but here she comes off more like a naughty librarian in a catsuit. At least she has her Eastern European accent this time around?
As said prior, Snake Eyes is pretty bereft of action compared to most blockbusters of its type, and unfortunately it fails to leave much impact even when it does arrive. Much in the same vein as this year’s Mortal Kombat, it’s unfortunately yet another example of solid choreography being ruined by sloppy editing that cuts on every impact; if this is the trend for Eastern-inspired action movies in 2021, I hope next month’s Shang-Chi doesn’t fall victim to it. Luckily, the third act is mostly an exception to this, especially an incredible Matrix Reloaded-inspired highway chase that finally brings in the ridiculous spectacle you’d expect from a G.I. Joe movie. Snake Eyes is also a surprisingly pretty movie to look at, especially in how it contrasts the neon-drenched streets of Tokyo at night with the calming serenity of the Arashikage compound, but some of the other visual presentation comes off cheap (e.g. the fiery orange subtitles that look like a WordArt template). Finally, Martin Todsharow’s score is an understated but unique fusion of electronica and traditional Japanese music, creating a soundscape that compliments the film’s old-meets-new aesthetic astutely.
Snakes Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins isn’t a terrible film, but it is a thoroughly unremarkable one that will likely fade from public memory before the year is out. The cast and crew are clearly trying to make the best of it, and it has fleeting moments that show the potential for a great G.I. Joe movie within, but it simply cannot get over the fact that its mere premise is a foolish gamble. When you get down to it, G.I. Joe just isn’t a property that has the fandom to support a spin-off/prequel in the same way as Marvel or DC or even Transformers; it certainly has a deep-enough mythology to, but until general audiences are as familiar with Duke and Cobra Commander as they are with Iron Man and Thanos, it ain’t happening. If they plan on following up on this with a proper Joes vs. Cobra story, they’ve built just enough of a promising foundation to have me mildly curious. However, given its box office performance so far has been dire even by post-COVID standards, it’s looking doubtful that audiences will be cheering “Yo, Joe!” again any time soon.
Starring: Ryan Reynolds (Deadpool), Jodie Comer (Killing Eve), Lil Rel Howrey (Get Out), Utkarsh Ambudkar (Pitch Perfect), Joe Keery (Stranger Things), Taika Waititi (Jojo Rabbit)
Director: Shawn Levy (Real Steel)
Writers: Matt Lieberman (Scoob!) and Zak Penn (Ready Player One)
Runtime: 1 hour 55 minutes
Release Date: 13th August (US, UK)
It’s often a cliché to sum up a film as “_______ meets _______”, but whether pitching to a room of executives, trying to convince your friends to go see it, or just a lazy critic looking for a catchy pull-quote (self-deprecating wink), it’s an easy catch-all to sell a movie’s premise and overall tone. Sometimes, a film is far more than just a mash-up of two things, and Free Guy is a prime example of a movie concept smorgasbord. It’s Ready Player One mixed with The Matrix mixed with They Live mixed with The Truman Show mixed with Wreck-It Ralph mixed with…you get the idea. An idea-packed movie like that can end up two ways: a sloppy mess of popular ideas shoved together with reckless abandon, or a rich stew where the flavours of every ingredient compliment each other to create something new. Thankfully, Free Guy falls into the latter category, and may end up being the biggest surprise of the summer.
Watching the trailers and certain scenes out of context, it’s easy to assume Free Guy is a fun but mindless blockbuster mostly selling itself on video game references and Ryan Reynolds’ charisma. However, much in the same vein as Reynolds’ Deadpool films, what they haven’t shown is its startling emotional depth and timely satirical edge. It takes the well-worn idea of someone realising they’re living in a false reality and uses it to explore existential questions about artificial intelligence, free will and what it means to be alive, but in such a breezy and uplifting manner that it avoids being overpowering. Unlike the broadly uncritical stance of Ready Player One, Free Guy isn’t afraid to lambast the more toxic sides of the video game industry. It frames its crime sandbox setting not as some fun-loving utopia, but a wretched hive full of players with sociopathic tendencies and casual bigotry, with Guy (Reynolds) as the optimistic antidote encouraging people to be better both in the game and real life. If that wasn’t enough, the film is an exaggerated but long-overdue critique of triple-A game development, depicting the toxic work environment, how employees are taken advantage of, the lies and broken promises made before launch, and just general corporate greed that the industry has become known for. Seriously, there are scenes that might as well have been written by James Stephanie Sterling themself and, given the recent scandals at places like Ubisoft and Activision, it’s especially cathartic to watch a stand-in for such companies get its just desserts.
That said, as much fun as the film is, the story’s internal logic doesn’t always add up. It’s hard to go into without spoiling, but there’s this big “all is lost” moment around the end of the second act that not only gets solved super quickly with little hassle, but literally contradicts itself in explaining how and why it worked. It’s a frustrating plot cul-de-sac that adds very little, only really serving to reinforce some exposition that could’ve been explained without stopping the movie dead for ten minutes. That’s also on top of the often-unclear rules of the game itself, which will likely confuse anyone who doesn’t have a decent understanding of online gaming. It’s refreshing that the film mostly avoids doing cheap reference humour, instead focusing its jokes on more universal video game observations like AI behaviour, glitches and streaming culture. Unfortunately, the third act suddenly shoves in about a dozen pop culture shout-outs in rapid succession; the first one is a big laugh because it takes you off guard, but then it keeps going and it starts to feel more like corporate synergy than genuine comedy. In the grand scheme of things though, these issues are easily overshadowed when Free Guy is such an infectiously joyful ride that manages to celebrate gaming culture whilst also justly criticising it.
After his career resurgence about five years ago, Ryan Reynolds has mostly been happy to recycle the sarcastic, self-aware persona that made Deadpool a hit. Whether it be 6 Underground, The Hitman’s Bodyguard, Hobbs & Shaw or even Detective Pikachu, his performances have remained consistently funny but also consistently samey. It’s a shame, because Reynolds is a more versatile actor than I think even he gives himself credit for; go watch criminally underseen gems like The Voices and Mississippi Grind for evidence of that. Thankfully, whilst he hasn’t abandoned that sense of humour, our protagonist Guy is at least a slightly different flavour of Reynolds. The character is bluntly compared in the film to a four-year-old, and that certainly sells in his wide-eyed naivety and chipper attitude, gradually turning him into a fish-out-of-water in his own reality. What sells the performance, and ultimately prevents the confused innocent routine from wearing thin, is how Guy develops across the story as his awareness of his predicament evolves. When the film eventually reaches that moment of existential crisis, Reynolds’ otherwise-hidden acting chops come out to play and Guy changes from a comedic foil into a character with actual humanity. It’s easily his best performance since his return to A-list status, and I hope he continues to refine and diversify his roles going forward.
Of course, a comedy is nothing without a great supporting cast, and Free Guy has a stellar crew to fill out its roster. Jodie Comer makes for a fantastic foil for Guy as both embittered indie game designer Millie and her in-game avatar Molotov Girl, bringing a grounded presence to the game world’s otherwise surreal characters and internal logic, and her evolving relationship with Guy strikes that fine balance between heartfelt and hilarious. Lil Rel Howrey continues to be a low-key secret weapon as Guy’s best friend and co-worker Buddy, leading the rest of the NPCs of Free City who all quickly become familiar faces with their own running gags and moments to shine. Joe Keery is mainly saddled with a lot of exposition as beleaguered tester and Comer’s former partner Keys but he makes the most of the role, whilst Utkarsh Ambudkar easily gets the shortest stick as Keery’s co-worker Mouser but gets in some killer lines. Of course, as you might expect, Taika Waititi ends up stealing the show as the douchebro head game designer Antwan, elevating a fairly stock villain into a chaotic whirlwind of slimy internet culture regurgitated as a person. Sure, the more realistic head of this kind of company would be a boring CEO in a grey suit who doesn’t even like video games, but that wouldn’t be nearly as fun as watching an egomaniacal Waititi dressed like Kanye West at a sci-fi convention, would it?
Translating a video game into a live-action space is a tricky prospect, and Free Guy manages to be a more faithful translation made with a passion for the medium than prior Hollywood attempts like Stay Alive or Gamer. The world of Free City itself certainly captures the heightened and madness-filled world of the likes of Grand Theft Auto, makes clever use of gaming staples like hub areas, hidden out-of-bounds geometry, leftovers from prior builds, and God Mode hacking, and incorporates the world of streamers and fan communities into the story’s background in a positive way. The sets and costume design are spot on, with the player characters dressed in ridiculous custom outfits contrasting with the non-descript looks of Guy and his fellow NPCs, and the visual effects fittingly fluctuate in quality based on how unreal and game-like the situation is. Christophe Beck’s score is an appropriate mix of traditional blockbuster score and action game bombast, and there’s some wonderfully pleasing soundtrack choices for both emotional and comedic effect; you will definitely walk out with Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy” stuck in your head.
However, there are some odd inconsistencies in how the game world is presented that muddy the waters. Just for one prominent example, the game uses sunglasses to distinguish real players from NPCs, with said glasses providing players with their head-ups display (HUD). This would lead one to assume Free City is a first-person game, and this is reinforced by cutting to Guy’s POV where we see expected HUD elements (health, weapon selection, mission markers, etc). However, we most often see the game depicted in the real world through gameplay shown from a cinematic, photo mode-like perspective rather than placing the camera inside or behind the player character; I guess Free City uses some kind of revolutionary second-person camera? Yes, it’s something of a nitpick, but this and other inconsistent details do threaten to break the authenticity of a film that otherwise is a loving and faithful translation of video game tropes.
Free Guy may look like a glossy big-budget studio comedy, but under the hood it’s a mix of anti-capitalist catharsis and sincere humanist optimism. Rather than being just a movie about video games, it uses the medium as a backdrop to tell a story about identity, self-worth and defining life by more than wealth and fame. Despite its numerous celebrity cameos, endorsements by Twitch streamers and being distributed by a subsidiary of Disney, it is far more a takedown of the corporatisation and gluttony of video game culture than an unquestioning celebration of it, and it couldn’t be timelier in that respect. It has a similar vibrancy and wit to Phil Lord & Chris Miller’s work on 21 Jump Street or The Lego Movie, and to find it was actually made by a journeyman like Shawn Levy makes its thesis-worthy depth especially surprising; this is easily his best directorial effort yet, by the way. Whether you’re into video games or not, Free Guy is a delightfully engaging slice of summer fun that’s smarter and more prescient than it has any right to be.