Starring: Kaya Scodelario (The Maze Runner), Hannah John-Kamen (Ant-Man and the Wasp), Robbie Amell (The Babysitter), Tom Hopper (The Umbrella Academy), Avan Jogia (Zombieland: Double Tap), Donal Logue (Gotham), Neal McDonough (Captain America: The First Avenger)
Writer/Director: Johannes Roberts (47 Meters Down)
Runtime: 1 hour 47 minutes
Release Date: 24th November (US), 3rd December (UK)
Considering it takes much of its inspirations from horror cinema, you’d think the Resident Evil series would be one of the easier video game franchises to adapt, but reality unfortunately rarely makes that much sense. Between 2002 and 2017, modern schlockmeister Paul W. S. Anderson delivered six “adaptations” that merely used the characters and iconography of the games as window dressing to showing off his badass OC protagonist Alice, coincidentally played by Anderson’s wife Milla Jovovich. Whilst the Anderson series had their moments of gonzo stupid brilliance, they were a far cry from what fans of the series wanted: a faithful adaptation of the core storyline of the games. Well, it seems Sony have decided to grant that monkey’s paw wish, as the reboot Welcome to Raccoon City does deliver where the originals failed in looking and feeling like Resident Evil. It’s just a shame that the movie is otherwise a bit crap.
There were plenty of promising starting points for a new Resident Evil film to take; they could have adapted a more standalone story like 4 or 7, tackled the origin of Zero, or just told their own story that interweaved with the main timeline. Instead, Welcome to Raccoon City takes the wildcard approach and decides to mush together the plots of the first two games into one story. This idea might have worked in different circumstances (e.g. combining the second and third games, as they take place simultaneously), but what we get instead are the CliffsNotes of two already barebones stories that remove any of the meaty content that make them interesting. What’s there is relatively faithful to both the story and themes of the games, but there’s no time to actually explore any of it in detail, as the plot rapidly flits between these two mostly unrelated narratives. That’s not to say the film is fast-paced, as the story takes its time establishing the characters and setting whilst creating an impending sense of dread.
It’s during this calm before the storm where Welcome to Raccoon City is at its strongest, and as the action slowly ramps up it captures the horror of the series in ways the gun-toting Anderson films rarely ever did. Unfortunately, the movie is unable to deliver on any of its promises, with character arcs cut short and plot threads quietly abandoned as the film speeds towards its piddly and unsatisfying conclusion before doing the expected sequel bait in a mid-credits stinger. There is absolutely much more Resident Evil in this one movie than in the entirety of the previous series, but much like those films what’s there is mostly just the surface level elements. If the filmmakers had instead focused on adapting one of these two games, they might have at least managed to flesh out the characters and included more of the meaty subtext about corporate America and the pharmaceutical industry. In trying to do too much in too little time, they’ve once again made a film that will confuse newcomers and anger the fans it’s trying to pander to.
There are a lot of iconic characters in the Resident Evil franchise, and every fan has their favourites. In compressing the two games into one, a lot of them have been cut or had their functions lumped into other characters; don’t expect appearances from the likes of Barry Burton, Rebecca Chambers or either version of the Tyrant. The characters are the main area Welcome to Raccoon City has attempted to flesh out the mythos and differentiate these often-interchangeable heroes, but the results are somewhat mixed. Claire Redfield is the story’s ostensible protagonist and probably the closest to her game incarnation out of anyone, and Kaya Scodelario does a solid job of embodying her confidence in the face of danger and her unrelenting disdain for the big bad Umbrella Corporation. Jill Valentine has been reimagined here as a more brash and trigger-happy character, and whilst Hannah John-Kamen does a solid job of making this version endearing, she’s basically unrecognisable beyond her name and outfit. Chris Redfield was always the blandest of the games’ core cast and he remains so here, with the script and Robbie Amell’s performance doing little to elevate him beyond being a beefcake with a gun. That said, at least the film doesn’t do him a disservice, which can’t be said for this reboot’s version of Leon S. Kennedy. Though he was admittedly an inexperienced rookie in both versions of Resident Evil 2, Avan Jogia’s Leon is a complete buffoon played mostly for comic relief, sleeping through literal explosions and barely even able to handle a gun. This could have been acceptable if used as part of a character arc, which seems to be have been the intention, but it gets completely side-lined and Leon suddenly turns from confused simp into wise-cracking badass seemingly between scenes.
Out of the core cast, Tom Hopper easily fares the best as Albert Wesker. The future archenemy of the franchise was always something of a cipher; a character who, from the moment you saw him in the first game, you knew was evil. Here though, the filmmakers have tried to humanise and develop Wesker into a more grounded character whilst leaving the door open for him to become the villain fans know him as. Hopper does a solid job making Wesker a conflicted and potentially fascinating presence whenever the script finds him some breathing room, though the decision to include a limp love triangle between him, Jill and Chris is a little jarring. Reliable character actor Donal Logue is a welcome addition as Chief Irons, carrying the film’s comedic undertones where Jogia fails to and just relishing the opportunity to play an over-the-top police captain; a moment where he chews out Wesker was the only scene I got a genuine laugh out of. Neal McDonough is all the film has in terms of a human antagonist as Dr William Birkin, and though he makes ample appearances throughout and they’ve crafted this whole backstory connecting him to Claire and Chris, he leaves little impact. Even worse, Birkin’s daughter Sherry is an incredibly core component of Resident Evil 2, and whilst she’s here as played by Holly de Barros, she’s a complete nothing character with maybe two lines and no emotional connection to Claire or any of the other heroes; why even include her if she’s going to do nothing? There are minor roles here for other game characters like Richard Aiken, Brad Vickers and Ben Bertolucci, and whilst the film sets up Lisa Trevor in its opening and throughout as if she’s going to be important, the story completely drops her by the third act. That seems to be the main recurring problem with Welcome to Raccoon City: everything feels slapdash and unfinished. The often-drastic character changes would be fine if the story justified them or they satisfyingly evolved into their game counterparts, but they don’t, even when it seems like that was the intention. Again, if the filmmakers had just adapted one game instead of trying to Frankenstein two of them together, this might have been less of an issue.
Writer/director Johannes Roberts has stated in multiple interviews that his main inspiration for Welcome to Raccoon City were the films of John Carpenter, in particular Assault on Precinct 13, and that influence is clear in the film’s presentation. Though set in 1998, the film very much captures the look and feel of indie genre flicks from the 1970s, and that veneer of old school horror does a lot to ground the film and differentiate itself from the slick, Matrix-inspired sheen of the Anderson films. The camerawork feels ripped right out of the Dean Cundey playbook, with a lot of long handheld shots as we follow characters down dark hallways to the next fright. At the same time though, it sometimes feels like this approach is more out of necessity than creative intention. Not even taking inflation into account, this is the lowest-budget Resident Evil movie yet, and that lack of cash really shows in a lot of the cut corners. Raccoon City itself has turned from a bustling metropolis to a Podunk ghost town, there’s barely ever more than about ten zombies on screen at a time, and whilst locations like the Spencer Mansion and the police station lobby look game-accurate, they feel like empty sets rather than real places.
Whilst the camera aspect of the cinematography is solid, the lighting and colour grading is utterly amateurish; a real surprise, considering DOP Maxime Alexandre has done solid work on a number of horror flicks and even blockbusters like Shazam! Much of the film is awash in this dirty brown hue that’s meant to make it look old but just makes it dull, and so many sets are underlit seemingly to create ambience but it just makes it hard to see what’s going on. Most of the Spencer Mansion sequence is lit like this, and there’s even an action sequence where the only light source is Chris Redfield’s gun as he fires into the dark at zombies; this is the type of amateur filmmaking you expect out of Uwe Boll. Even if the cheap sets and obvious practical effects were an intentional nod rather than lack of funds, that old-school aesthetic is really thrown off once the CGI monsters come into play. On a design level they look straight out of the games…but not in a good way. The animation is chunky, the render quality is extremely low, and again their presence completely upends any attempt at looking nostalgic. It’s clear that Roberts is a big fan of both the Resident Evil games and John Carpenter movies, with plenty of Easter eggs for fans of both to find, but whether he lacked the budget or the skill to execute it properly, the final result sits somewhere between cheap studio schlock and overly-ambitious fan film.
Is Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City better than the original films? Yes. Is it more faithful to the games? Yes. Does it have some interesting new ideas of its own? In theory, sure. Does that mean it’s a good movie? Unfortunately, no. Try as it might, this reboot simply bites off more than it can chew in attempting to sandwich two great games into one subpar movie. It certainly feels like a well-intentioned film rather than a cash-in, the cast give it their all even when the script fails them, and the grungy grindhouse approach has its aesthetic charms, but it just goes to show that one fatal flaw can unravel everything else going for a movie. Given how low-budget this effort was, there’s a chance Welcome to Raccoon City may scrape together enough coin to get a sequel, and if it does I hope they at least take to heart that main issue and focus their next entry on just one game. Otherwise, let’s see if the upcoming (and wholly unrelated) Netflix series can deliver something more worthy of this franchise’s reputation.
Starring: Stephanie Beatriz (In the Heights), John Leguizamo (John Wick), María Cecilia Botero, Diane Guerrero (Orange is the New Black), Jessica Darrow, Angie Cepeda (Love in the Time of Cholera), Wilmer Valderrama (That ‘70s Show)
Director: Byron Howard & Jared Bush (Zootopia)
Writers: Jared Bush and Charise Castro Smith
Runtime: 1 hour 39 minutes
Release Date: 24th November (US, UK)
Wow, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s having a pretty damn good year. I have admittedly not seen his Sony/Netflix animated musical Vivo yet, but In the Heights finally made it to the silver screen in spectacular fashion and his feature directorial debut tick, tick… BOOM! was a fantastic re-imagining of Jonathan Larson’s semi-autobiographical stage show that proved Miranda has talent behind the camera as well as on the page and the mic. So after all that newness, him reteaming with Disney to write songs for another animated film shouldn’t feel as surprising or special; Moana was great, so this was bound to be at least pretty good. However, much like its protagonist Maribel Madrigal, Encanto is far more special than it seems on the outside. What begins as seemingly another typical Disney flick with a little Hispanic flavour evolves into one of their deepest and most emotionally-resonant films yet, and will likely take the titles of 2021’s best family film and best musical.
Much like Pixar’s Luca earlier this year, what helps Encanto feel so warm and intimate is how relatively contained its scope is. The story rarely goes more than a few miles away from its central locale, all of the prominent characters are members of the same family, and whilst the conflict and stakes may be huge for said household, in the grand scheme of things they are far from world-ending. That certainly doesn’t mean its story could have been told in live-action or without all of its fantastical elements, because that’s where the film’s energy and imagination lies, but the emotional core of the film is a tale that everyone in the audience will be able to connect with. Whilst the studio has been actively trying to diversify and buck the formula since at least Frozen, Encanto feels like a true departure in how much it places character development and interpersonal conflict over external driving forces. There’s no great evil mastermind driving a rift between Maribel and her family, or some lost MacGuffin she needs to find that will save her home from falling to ruin. Instead, everything she needs to save the day and resolve her issues, when you put aside all the fantastical elements, ultimately just comes down to talking things out (or, because this is a musical, singing them out).
It’s also the first time I’ve seen any kind of film aimed at kids, especially Disney, tackle subjects like mental health and burnout. It’s perhaps not quite as spelled out as, say, the subtext regarding prejudice in Zootopia, but it’s handled with just as much care and these are vitally important messages to get across to kids about taking care of yourself and not letting what others have or think make you feel lesser. There’s honestly very little to critique here other than maybe some subplots get a little less attention that I would have liked, but they are such minor gripes when everything in the grand scheme works as beautifully as it does. All in all, it expertly achieves what every great family movie should be: a fun and entertaining adventure for the kids, but one that imparts to them, and everyone else watching for that matter, a positive and motivational message.
Mirabel Madrigal is the best kind of modern Disney protagonist, in that she is a far cry from the lovestruck princesses of old and yet still neatly fits into that same pantheon. Plenty of family films feature an outcast as their main character, but few of them explore it as well as Encanto, with the entire film’s narrative thrust forward by Mirabel’s desperation to be accepted by her family for who she is. It’s a parable that will appeal to and comfort all kinds of shunned children, not to mention teaching parents how to raise and support them to be the best version of themselves, and so much of that lies of the shoulders of Stephanie Beatriz’s phenomenal vocal performance. She imbues Mirabel with a bouncy and immediately amiable energy that works wonders for both comedy and the musical numbers (two areas Beatriz has excelled in previously), but it’s in her more sombre moments where she really impresses and Mirabel evolves from simply a great protagonist into the new standard for Disney animation.
That said, Encanto is a film about family, and the rest of the Madrigal clan are all fascinating in their own ways. María Cecilia Botero makes for an equally genial and intimidating presence as the matriarch Abuela Alma, perfectly capturing the spirit of that family member you resent but yearn to earn the respect of; c’mon, you all have that one. John Leguizamo is nearly unrecognisable as the mysterious and similarly spurned uncle Bruno, Diane Guerrero has impeccable big sister energy as the golden child Isabela, and Jessica Darrow brings a wonderful dimensionality to the brawny Luisa. The rest of the cast don’t get nearly as much focus, but they are all fantastic whenever they get their moments to shine, and there’s simply too many of them to compliment all in one review. Needless to say, whilst Beatriz’s Mirabel is the easy standout performance, the entirety of the family Madrigal is what uplifts Encanto to instant classic greatness.
With Moana, Lin-Manuel Miranda was able to wonderfully capture the spirit of the classic Disney musicals whilst still retaining his signature flow and hip-hop influences, and he brings that exact same approach to the infectious bops here. Their frantic tempo and rapid-fire lyrics may make them hard for fans to drunkenly sing along to on karaoke night, but they are just as catchy as anything Miranda has written and will immediately bring a smile to any viewer’s face. It’s hard to pick a real standout song because they’re all so great for completely different reasons, but in terms of breakout potential, I think “Surface Pressure” is the one most audiences will glom onto. A ballad sung by Luisa about overcompensating and inner exhaustion, it’s easily the most recognisably Miranda song of the bunch and, whilst perhaps not as upbeat as Moana’s “You’re Welcome”, it has a similarly infectious flow and its subject matter will appeal to anyone who has ever pushed themselves too far. “The Family Madrigal” is a bouncy and witty introduction to all of the characters that sets the tone perfectly, “Waiting on a Miracle” is a beautifully tragic reinterpretation of the perennial “I want” song for Maribel, and “What Else Can I Do?” gives her and Isabela a wonderful duet about being more than what is expected of you. Delightfully complimented by Germaine Franco’s fantastical Latin-inspired score, and this is an absolute treat for any fan of musicals.
On an aesthetic level, Encanto also takes Walt Disney Animation Studios to new heights in regards to visual and technical mastery. The character designs and animation style are most reminiscent of The Princess and the Frog, but brought to life in 3D whilst still capturing the bounce and rhythm of 2D animation; even some of Disney’s best CG-animated films don’t recreate that feel as well as they do here. Though the film mostly takes place in and around one house, it is an enchanted home of course, and that still allows the designers and animators to imagine gorgeous locales as we visit each Madrigal’s unique Tardis-like rooms. It is a film exploding with colour and life from every corner, which alone makes it a must-see on the biggest screen you can, and after so many of their recent animated releases have been made exclusive to streaming or hard to see in theatres, it’s simply wonderful to be able to experience Encanto the way it’s designed to be. However, if going to the cinema still isn’t a viable option for you, the film will be available on Disney+ come Christmas Eve, so there really is no excuse to miss it completely.
Encanto is everything you could want from a Disney movie and more, delivering the fun and the thrills but also a heart-breaking family story and a wonderfully inclusive message about difference and defying expectation. Disney always tends to release their animated features around Thanksgiving in the States, but this one is more apt than ever, and will hopefully help families in turmoil like the Madrigals put aside their squabbles and learn to become the support system they need to be for each other. It’s too early to tell where it will land in the pantheon yet, but if Encanto doesn’t become an instant classic on the same level as Beauty and the Beast or Frozen, it will absolutely reign supreme as its greatest hidden gem. It is admittedly perhaps not best suited to the youngest of children (I’d say kids 6 and up will get the most out of it), but this is truly that perfect kind of family film that has something for everyone. Don’t wait on a miracle, and go see Encanto at your earliest convenience!
FINAL VERDICT: 9.5/10
P.S. The accompanying short film Far From the Tree is also a gorgeous 2D wonder and certainly not worth missing, and is easily one of the most thematically complimentary shorts when paired with its feature presentation.
Starring: Carrie Coon (Gone Girl), Finn Wolfhard (It), Mckenna Grace (Gifted), Paul Rudd (Ant-Man), Logan Kim, Celeste O’Connor (Freaky), Bokeem Woodbine (Spider-Man: Homecoming), Tracy Letts (Lady Bird)
Director: Jason Reitman (Juno)
Writers: Gil Kenan (Monster House) & Jason Reitman
Runtime: 2 hours 5 minutes
Release Date: 18th November (UK), 19th November (US)
The legacy of Ghostbusters is a bizarre one when you look back in retrospect. Whilst it has the scale and effects of a typical blockbuster of the era, when you get down to its core it’s really just another 80s comedy in much the same vein as Stripes or Animal House, and that was part of the gag. Its central conceit is “what if supernatural investigators were comparable to blue-collar exterminators?”, and all of its talk of ancient evils and pseudo-scientific technobabble is mostly in service of giving Saturday Night Live and SCTV alum something preposterous to riff off of. In the simplest of terms, it’s not supposed to be taken seriously.
However, in much the same way as other joke properties of the era (e.g., Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), Ghostbusters has been dissected and deified as if it were akin to Star Trek, and that perception has warped the perspective of certain sections of the fanbase. If anything, the real reason the 2016 reboot failed to find an audience isn’t because it changed too much, but because it understood its core conceit as a comedy and tried to modernise that, when what the fanbase was demanding was a movie that worshipped the original as much as they did. Ghostbusters: Afterlife positions itself as that film the fans asked for, delivering a truckload of nostalgia and a genuine reverence for the material, but in execution it is nothing more than a hollow and unoriginal cover song that misses the forest for the trees.
Right from its opening moments, it’s clear that the movie Afterlife wants to be is Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and that’s not an entirely bad idea as a starting point. The original film itself was basically a play on the screwball, snobs vs slobs comedies of its time, and taking that off-beat approach to a legacy storyline has plenty of material to mine. Unfortunately, it also quickly becomes obvious that Afterlife is completely and blindingly sincere in its convictions. This isn’t a parody or a comedic twist on that formula, but just another example of it, and treats its source material with a completely unwarranted grandiosity. It’s hard to describe, but basically imagine if they made a sequel to The Princess Bride today, but treated it as if it were a Lord of the Rings-style epic fantasy; that’s how badly Afterlife misses the point. That’s not to say it takes itself completely seriously, but the comedy here is secondary to the story, with the humour treated in much the same manner as a Marvel movie. Jason Reitman’s influence as director is felt in the quieter, character-focused scenes that make up its better moments, but as soon as the action kicks in it feels like just any other blockbuster and it goes straight for the obvious answer every time.
The entire film is just one giant pop culture reference, chucking in every call back to the original it can possibly think of. They are sparing with them at first, and there’s a few more subtle ones worthy of a chuckle or a knowing smile, but by the end there are scenes that are just straight-up remakes of bits from the first film; there’s maybe a sly wink or a tiny twist for the sake of a gag, but they feel like little more than a lampshade. Even if you accept its totally earnest and unironic approach to the material, as a sequel it has even less originality than Ghostbusters II, which itself was criticised at the time for being a cookie-cutter follow-up. That film at least brought new concepts to the table and expanded the lore, but Afterlife is more than content to just throw recognisable iconography at the screen and call it a day. It’s hard to go into more detail without getting into spoiler territory, but the entire third act plays out like trite fan fiction that attempts to go for the heart but falls completely flat, and even in this supposed emotional finale they can’t help but keep being self-referential. All in all, Afterlife certainly wants to be The Force Awakens, but what it ends up being instead is The Rise of Skywalker; seriously, they basically have the exact same ending.
With all that said, the first two acts that are less weighed down by constant self-satisfaction have their moments of joy, and those are mostly found in the performances of McKenna Grace as the socially-unattached prodigy Phoebe, and Logan Kim as her happy-go-lucky, conspiracy theory-obsessed sidekick Podcast. These are two characters who feel like they’d work in a movie completely unrelated to the busting of ghosts, and whether playing around with proton packs or just making awkward small talk they are consistently hilarious and entertaining to watch. Whilst Kim is mostly here just for comic relief and do so with exuberant aplomb, Grace does a fine job of balancing the comedic side of her character with the dramatic heft needed whenever the movie remembers that it’s directed by Jason Reitman. Grace has been doing phenomenal work in parts big and small for the past few years, and if nothing else, hopefully this film gives her enough of a spotlight to make her the household name she deserves to be.
The rest of the cast, unfortunately, aren’t so lucky to have characters with as much depth or humour. Carrie Coon is saddled with a pretty one-note role as downhearted mother Callie, whose dialogue entirely consists of three topics: “I hate my dad”, “I hate science because I hate my dad”, and “I don’t get you, Phoebe”. More than anything, she just feels like a self-insert for Reitman to vicariously vent about his own issues with his father and the series. Finn Wolfhard’s Trevor is also mostly a perfunctory role, with his only real motivation being his hopeless pursuit of Celeste O’Connor as local girl Lucky, and he spends most of the film off in his own unresolved sub-story before getting dragged into the main plot with little more than a shrug. Paul Rudd is at least his usual charming self as summer school teacher Gary Grooberson, but the character is otherwise so indistinguishable from Rudd’s own personality that he might as well just be playing himself. Other recognisable faces, like Bokeem Woodbine as the town sheriff or Tracy Letts as a hardware store owner, are little more than bit parts that could have been played by anyone, and then there are a few others in more subtle roles that I’ll let you discover by either watching the movie or reading the end credits. Some will delight you, some will make you shrug, and others will just have you going “Why did they bother?”
The only way Afterlife majorly differentiates itself from prior entries is in its aesthetic. Moving the story from New York to a Podunk town in Oklahoma gives it at least an air of freshness, though it doesn’t play as much with the new setting as it could have. It visually goes for a more cinematic look rather than the locked-down cinematography of its more comedy-focused forbearers, which does lead to some pretty shots but it still feels workman-like in its attempts to feel more like a blockbuster. The visual effects are top-notch, using a good mix of practical and CGI that feel like an upgrade to the original but without completely changing the wheel; I wish this level of effort and craftsmanship went into the effects in the 2016 film. However, from a design perspective, the ghosts here that aren’t just pulled from the 1984 original are just slight variations on them. There’s the mischievous poltergeist Muncher, who is basically just Slimer but blue and he eats metal instead of food, and the heavily-marketed Mini-Pufts who are just here to remake Gremlins for one mildly amusing scene. However, the most disappointing aspect of the film on a technical level is its music. There is not a single tune by Rob Simonsen I can actually recall, because most of the score is just repurposed tracks from Elmer Bernstein’s compositions for the original. It’s great to hear these classic refrains again, but they mostly feel slapped onto the movie and don’t really fit with the rest of the movie’s more grounded aesthetic; it’s like a Spielberg movie with Seinfeld stings.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife is the reason why you shouldn’t always listen to fans. Instead of doing something clever or refreshing with the material, it just throws references at the screen whilst convincing itself it’s original because it sometimes looks like an indie flick. Jason Reitman has laboured his entire career to differentiate himself from Ivan Reitman, and whilst I can’t say he’s just outright copied his father’s work for a quick cheque, he certainly doesn’t have a career as the next JJ Abrams if that’s what he’s contemplating. Whether you liked the 2016 version or not, you have to concede that it at least tried to do its own thing whilst still paying tribute to the originals. Afterlife, though, is the cinematic equivalent of a mass-produced T-shirt that’s been dyed to look faded and had holes purposefully ripped in to make it seem vintage; it wants you to think it’s trendy, but it’s just another bit of corporatized product.
Oh, and in case you are wondering, there is both a mid AND a post-credits scene, because of course there is!
Starring: Gemma Chan (Humans), Richard Madden (Bodyguard), Kumail Nanjiani (The Big Sick), Lia McHugh (Songbird), Brian Tyree Henry (Godzilla vs Kong), Lauren Ridloff (Sound of Metal), Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk), Don Lee (Train to Busan), Kit Harington (Game of Thrones), Salma Hayek (Desperado), Angelina Jolie (Maleficent)
Director: Chloé Zhao (Nomadland)
Writers: Chloé Zhao and Chloé Zhao & Patrick Burleigh (Peter Rabbit 2) and Ryan Firpo & Kaz Firpo
Runtime: 2 hours 36 minutes
Release Date: 5th November (US, UK)
It’s hard to imagine that, less than a decade ago, Guardians of the Galaxy was seen as a risky prospect for Marvel Studios. Now, it’s one of the most popular and recognisable parts of the franchise, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe has only continued to get bolder and weirder since. As Phase Four continues to show what a post-Endgame MCU looks like, the studio takes yet another step into the less explored parts of its source material to present Eternals to the masses. A property than even most comic book fans have little more than a passing familiarity with, it represents an opportunity to really break the conventions of the series and present something wholly unique, and if that was the brief then they have succeeded. Whilst it’s certainly not going to be to everyone’s taste, and far from the conventional crowd-pleaser audiences may be expecting, Eternals adds complexity, nuance and diversity sorely needed in a series that has gotten all too predictable.
Right from its opening moments with a foreboding opening crawl and stunning shots of deep space and prehistoric Earth, it’s obvious that Eternals wants to set itself apart from its forbearers. Its epic story spans centuries, its tone is more contemplative and world-wearier, its pacing more precise and composed, and it takes as many cues from the likes of Terrence Malick and Alejandro Jodorowsky as it does modern blockbusters. Though it certainly connects itself to the past, present and future of the MCU, for the most part it stands on its own and has far more interest in exploring its own ideas than riffing on those that have come before. In a franchise that has such a pre-established format that it often more resembles a television series, having such a completely different perspective this time around is thoroughly refreshing. However, it does face some growing pains.
The first half is noticeably weaker than its second, as it struggles to find the right balance between its Hollywood and artistic influences. The stop-start nature of the plotting and pacing is jarring at times, with many scenes either dragging on far too long or brushing past moments that needs more room to breathe. Much of the present-day story is spent simply assembling the cast, jumping from one locale to the next to introduce yet another character, interspersed with flashbacks throughout history to show the Eternals in their prime and explore how they disbanded. That said, once the film finds its groove and starts digging deeper into its multifaceted characters, timely commentary on socio-political and environmental collapse, and philosophical exploration of concepts like morality and determinism, Eternals finally begins to be the movie it set out to be. It’s a film far more interested in asking questions than providing answers, which may frustrate more mainstream viewers, but after so many spoon-fed good vs. evil stories it’s wonderful to have a blockbuster that leaves the audience the chance to think about its content rather than simply react. In spite of its barren setting, the third act is an absolute feast as not only the action reaches its peak, but the character conflicts and thematic undercurrent empower it all to a satisfying crescendo and a fittingly bittersweet aftermath. By the tale’s end, it becomes clear that Eternals’ true aspiration is to be an arthouse blockbuster in much the same vein as the works of Denis Villeneuve and The Wachowskis. Whether you think that its connection to Marvel is holding it back from being truly itself, or that it strays too far from the MCU formula to feel like a contiguous part of the grander tapestry, that is for you to decide.
It certainly took far longer than necessary for Marvel to diversify its world, and it certainly has plenty of opportunities to improve, but Eternals has certainly one of the more fascinating and distinctive cast of characters in the series yet. Even with its beefy runtime, the film has a lot of new faces to introduce and not all of them get the attention they deserve, but it’s hard to say anyone turns in a bad performance. After being short-changed by her blink-and-you’ll-miss-her role in Captain Marvel, Gemma Chan gets a second shot at superheroics as nominal lead Sersei and does a fantastic job as the emotional core of the team. She’s perhaps not got the most eccentric or unique personality compared to her co-stars, but Chan brings a relatable and down-to-earth perspective as someone truly caught between two worlds. Richard Madden fits comfortably into the boots of Ikaris, who functions as much as an allegory for the prototypical superhero as he does his mythological namesake, giving a reserved but commanding performance that takes on new meaning as we learn more about his past. Angelina Jolie is perfectly cast as warrior goddess Thena, bringing both gravitas and vulnerability to a character struggling with trauma in an all-too-human way, whilst Salma Hayek makes the most of her limited screentime as the nurturing and wise Ajak.
Despite being the youngest cast members, Lia McHugh and Barry Keoghan are saddled with the most morally complex characters as the trickster Sprite and the manipulative Druig, with McHugh showing an intelligence beyond her years that brought to mind Kirsten Dunst’s star-making turn in Interview with the Vampire. There’s also plenty of comic relief to go around courtesy of Kumail Nanjiani as the boisterous but self-obsessed Kingo, but even he too has his moments of introspection that ground him, as does his valet/ sidekick Karun (played wonderfully by Harish Patel). The short straws are ultimately drawn by Bryan Tyree Henry as inventor Phastos, Lauren Ridloff as speedster Makkari, and Don Lee as tank Gilgamesh, but they all get at least one standout moment and the actors acquit themselves with gusto; it’s great to finally see queer and disabled heroes brought to the MCU, and the representation is brief but tastefully done. Then there’s Kit Harington as Chan’s love interest Dane Whitman, who might as well have a giant “I’ll be important later” sticker on his forehead for the whole film, because his role here is little more than an extended cameo. If you know your comics, you’ll know Whitman’s importance to the Marvel lore and that Harington is an apt choice, but it’s the one element of the film that really feels like a relic from a more conventional MCU version of this story.
Throughout its production and marketing, it’s been stressed that Eternals is as huge a step away from the MCU formula on a technical level as it is story-wise, and that is certainly reflected in the aesthetic presentation. Though of course still stuffed to the brim with state-of-the-art CGI, the line between fantasy and reality is certainly more blurred by the increased amount of on-location shooting and natural lighting compared to most modern blockbusters. Director Chloé Zhao’s independent eye is all over every frame of Eternals, managing to show her directorial influence in a way few other MCU helmers have other than Taika Waititi and James Gunn, and it’d be fascinating to see what else she could accomplish if she continues down this big-budget path. Despite being having been behind the camera on four prior MCU outings, cinematographer Ben Davis gives the film a distinct look that retains a similar palette to previous films but ups the grit and verisimilitude of the visuals. The production design is audacious and inventive, especially the cold halls of the Eternals’ spacecraft and the grotesque look of the Deviant race, and Ramin Djawadi returns to Marvel for the first time since Iron Man to deliver a suitably sombre but triumphant score. It’s absolutely amongst the most visually satisfying films in the franchise so far, and one can only hope Marvel starts to allow its future filmmakers similar freedom to go beyond the boundaries and experiment with more flavours beyond the base MCU taste.
Eternals doesn’t always succeed in its ambitions and will likely leave some viewers cold, but for those who can get past its shortcomings and see the potential beneath, it’s an experience absolutely worth seeing on the biggest screen possible. Zhao absolutely has the chops to compete in the blockbuster space should she so wish, and hopefully the stumbling blocks of pacing and focus are ones that’ll be overcome in future ventures. Even if it doesn’t end up being a property as popular as The Avengers or Guardians of the Galaxy, the Eternals themselves are characters crying out for further exploration and will hopefully find a comfy corner of the universe to call their own, and they’ve certainly set the stage for a lot of potential threads to come. If you’re already on the MCU train, you’ll have likely decided to see this movie long before you read this or any other review and can appraise it for yourself. However, if you’re someone who has never really gotten the fuss or become tired of the formula, Eternals is certainly worth a gander. You may not end up liking it, but it’s hard to argue that it’s at least one of the most unique blockbusters of 2021.
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.