Starring: Ethan Hawke (The Northman), Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Jeremy Davis (Saving Private Ryan), James Ransone (It Chapter Two), E. Roger Mitchell (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire)
Director: Scott Derrickson (Doctor Strange)
Writers: Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill (Sinister)
Runtime: 1 hour 42 minutes
Release Date: 22nd June (UK), 24th June (US)
Synopsis: After being abducted by an unsettling man known only as The Grabber, a young boy communes with his captor’s deceased victims through a supernatural phone to try and plot his escape.
Scott Derrickson’s career has veered its way into sci-fi and superheroes on occasion, but his bread and butter will always be horror, and he really shot himself into the big leagues by teaming with screenwriter C. Robert Cargill to make 2012’s grisly supernatural surprise hit Sinister. After that gig helped both Derrickson and Cargill nab the chance to bring Marvel’s Sorceror Supreme to the screen with 2016’s Doctor Strange, the duo were set to return for the sequel Multiverse of Madness until, due to the usual vague industry reason of “creative differences”, they departed the project and the reigns were instead handed to Sam Raimi. However, Derrickson and Cargill wasted no time in getting another project off the ground, instead returning to their horror roots, reuniting with Sinister lead Ethan Hawke, and adapting a short story from Joe Hill’s 20th Century Ghosts anthology into their latest twisted nightmare. The Black Phone in many ways is the true successor to Sinister, even moreso than its underwhelming 2015 sequel, building on those grimy foundations to make another chilling tale of gruesome murders and supernatural mystery. That said, as eerie and well-executed as it is, it’s far from an evolution of the concept.
In case you weren’t aware, Joe Hill is the son of legendary horror novelist Stephen King and, whilst father and son do have their stylistic differences and have both written stories far outside their usual comfort zones, The Black Phone feels very at home within the world of King. It’s got a creepy murderer disguised as a kids’ entertainer, an alcoholic and child-abusing father, kids with unexplained psychic powers, creepy baloons, and more; honestly, the biggest difference between this and most King stories is that it’s set in Colorado instead of Maine. Tropes aside, The Black Phone still does a really effective job of building tension. It takes almost until halfway through the movie before the titular communication device comes into play, but the carefully-paced journey to that premise gives plenty time to shape out our leads, and once the fantastical elements come into play it really starts to shine. Like a lot of King and Hill stories, it doesn’t waste time explaining how or why these paranormal elements exist and instead has fun playing in the sandbox, but it gives enough context on the margins to give a sense of stories beyond the one we’re in.
Once we hit the main stretch of Finney trying to escape The Grabber’s clutches, The Blank Phone just starts having gleefully dark fun. There’s some wonderfully tense and anxiety-inducing moments as he tries and fails to break free, plus some wonderfully brutal twists that come in to wrench away any slight feelings of relief. Whilst the film takes its premise fairly seriously, the screenplay has a great underlying sense of wit that prevents it from getting glum, and those moments of comedic relief only make its darkest moments seem that much more shocking. Unfortunately, whilst this is all well and good, it can’t quite escape the most damning King trope of them all: an underwhelming ending. This is especially disappointing as the anticipation for the climax is built up to incredibly well, setting the audience up for a truly thrilling conclusion, but the whole thing is over far too quickly and neither leaves you feeling neither fully satisfied or majorly creeped out. It just sort of…ends, with no real sense of what the previous ninety minutes were ultimately about beyond just being scary. I’m not demanding that The Black Phone have some big Jordan Peele-style message to impart, but I do wish it left me with something more to grasp onto than its admittedly sharp and professional execution.
Featuring not one but two children as your main protagonists is always a dicey move, but The Black Phone honestly has some of the best child performances seen since (and I don’t say this just because of the King comparison) the recent It adaptations. Both Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw as siblings Finney and Gwen Shaw are young stars in the making, carrying this heavy movie on their young shoulders with the confidence of their adult peers. Thames especially shines as he spends much of the film by himself talking to muffled voices on the phone, and he alone conveys so much despair and desperation in his torturous situation whilst still feeling genuine; a scene where he finally breaks down after yet another failed escape attempt is especially crushing. McGraw’s performance borders on precocious at times, but she ultimately overcomes it and delivers both one of its most emotionally-wrenching scenes and deliver some of the funniest line deliveries (all I’ll say is “Jesus, what the f*ck?!”).
Ethan Hawke is already having a hell of a 2022 with Moon Knight and The Northman (plus Rian Johnson’s Knives Out sequel Glass Onion still to come), and his performance as the eerie Grabber here is unlike anything we’ve seen from him. With his face obscured by various masks for most of the runtime, his performance is more reliant on his body language and voice, and with both he creates a character that should stand the test of time and become a staple for anyone looking for an easy but iconic Halloween costume. The character of The Grabber himself is very thinly drawn and his motivations unknown, but that only makes him scarier and the few hints we do get suggest his madness is far from typical. The rest of the supporting cast is a bit more of a mixed bag. Jeremy Davies puts in a decent turn as Thames and McGraw’s troubled father but he does little to overcome being a King stereotype, the detectives played by E. Roger Mitchell and Troy Rudeseal are interesting but underdeveloped, and whilst fellow Sinister alum James Ransone gives it his all as a coked-out resident trying to solve the Grabber case by himself, he gets far less screen time than he deserves for such a compellingly kooky character.
Whilst Sinister was a contemporary story that used cinema aesthetics from the 60s and 70s to tell its snuff-infused tale, The Black Phone is set firmly in 1978 and regularly reminds you of that fact without turning the setting into its whole identity. It all feels very authentic not just in terms of costumes and iconography, but it also borrows a lot of filmmaking ideas from the time, with an eye than sits somewhere between Brian de Palma and Tobe Hooper. The cinematography by Brett Jutkiewicz is simple but effective, and includes a few neat flourishes like slick scene transitions as we move between floors of a house or layers of a dream. Sound also plays a big role as it does in any horror, and whether its the creaking floorboards of The Grabber’s lair of the crackling tone of The Black Phone itself, it all adds to a general unsettling mood. The score by Mark Korven is sadly perfunctory, but that’s more than made up for by the wide array of period soundtrack choices that either compliment or purposefully throw off the mood of a scene; I think this film has now firmly supplanted the first trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 for the title of “most iconic use of ‘Fox on the Run’ by Sweet”.
The Black Phone is a good piece of trashy summer fun and a great return to his pure horror roots for Derrickson, though it ultimately can’t match the suprise and ingenuity of Sinister. It’s a genre he and Cargill clearly excel in, and I hope the pair continue to craft more tales of the macabre, hopefully with something that pushes the boundaries a little more rather than just a solid tribute to ages past. It might not be the kind of movie you have to rush out and see in a theatre, but it certainly plays well in one as most good horrors tend to, and if you’re a big horror fan you should absolutely support it. Beyond that initial run though, I expect The Black Phone to become a staple of midnight movie marathons or being stumbled across by an unexpecting audience on whatever streaming services it ends up on eventually. There’s a part of me that’s still miffed we never got to see Derrickson’s take on Multiverse of Madness, but at the same time I’m glad he’s excelling and having fun making movies like this he clearly has a passion for rather than having to conform to the Marvel machine.
Starring: Chris Evans (Knives Out), Keke Palmer (Hustlers), Peter Sohn (Monsters University), James Brolin (The Amityville Horror), Taika Waititi (Free Guy), Dale Soules (The Miseducation of Cameron Post), Uzo Aduba (Orange is the New Black)
Director: Angus MacLane
Writers: Jason Headley (Onward) & Angus MacLane
Runtime: 1 hour 45 minutes
Release Date: 17th June (US, UK)
Synopsis: After getting them stranded on a hostile planet, headstrong Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear’s attempts to find a way for his colony to escape end up flinging him into the future, where he must team up with his best friend’s granddaughter to combat a mysterious technologically-advanced threat.
After seeing their last three features being relegated to a straight-to-Disney+ release (four if you count Onward, which only got a few weeks in theatres before COVID-19 cut its run short), it’s great to see Pixar finally return to the big screen, and what a more fitting happenstance that it’s with a character that helped put them on the map. The mythos of Buzz Lightyear has been explored before outside the main Toy Story films, most notably in the Buzz Lightyear of Star Command cartoon from the early 2000s, but now the animation studio that created him has come to reset the canon. As its opening title cards clarify, this is the movie that young Andy fell in love with and made him ask for the tie-in action figure for his birthday back in 1995, and you can understand why. Whilst it may lack the emotional depth and childhood relatability of the Toy Story films, Lightyear is an action-packed and imaginative sci-fi romp that will inspire a new generation of kids to fall in love with the iconic character.
Right from the off, Lightyear feels very unlike anything else Pixar has ever made before. It tonally sits right on the line between space opera and hard science fiction, taking as much influence from the likes of Interstellar and Silent Running as it does from Star Wars or Lost in Space; it actually reminded me a lot of Mass Effect in its balance. While it works in plenty of family-friendly humour, it takes its world just seriously enough that you can invest in it and enjoy it as a story removed from its action figure origins, though it is still fun to see how they’ve reverse-engineered concepts from the toy back to their “inspiration”. The core themes aren’t exactly deep or profound enough to be considered brilliant sci-fi, instead simply using the tropes of the genre to impart Pixar’s typically earnest life messages; in this case, learning the value of teamwork, letting go of past mistakes, and simply living in the moment.
The story moves at a good pace whilst still taking some time to take it easy, there are a couple of really solid plot twists that keep things compelling, and it has a lot of great gags and even a tear-worthy moment or two. There’s nothing Lightyear does that’s especially wrong or any opportunities it seriously fails to take advantage of, but rather its biggest drawback is that it lacks a huge selling point; something it has that it can truly call its own. Nostalgia for the character may be what initially brings audience through the door, and the movie certainly has plenty of fan service ranging from obvious callbacks to deep-cut references for Pixar aficionados, but the “this is the fictional movie that inspired the toy” isn’t really enough of a revolutionary idea to support what is, whilst very fun and well-executed on all levels, a story that didn’t exactly demand to be told. To put it simply: it’s the Solo: A Star Wars Story of the Toy Story franchise.
We’ve seen actors take over an iconic role before, but never one quite like in Lightyear. The arrogant and self-righteous Buzz first voiced by Tim Allen audiences met in 1995 may have had the memories and knowledge of the “real” character, but that Buzz was just a toy imitation that broke out of his delusions and evolved into his character over four films and various spin-offs. Chris Evans’ task in inheriting the Space Ranger mantle is therefore made more treacherous, in that he has to imitate Allen enough that you can tell where the toy drew inspiration, but also flesh out and mould the character into more than just an action figure. Thankfully, Evans does a fantastic job on both counts and makes the role his own whilst still unmistakably being Buzz Lightyear. His brashness and tenacity remain intact, but this Buzz has an emotional nuance all his own as he obsesses over completing his mission whilst failing to make connections with the people around him. Whilst far from a revolutionary take on the hero’s journey, he absolutely makes for a compelling hero that kids will look up to, but parents may also seem themselves reflected in him, especially those who may feel life has slipped them by and missed out on the moments that mattered.
Whilst our titular lead does take up much of the spotlight, Lightyear also boasts an impressively likable supporting cast that are given a lot more free reign to define their characters. Keke Palmer makes for a delightful foil to Evans as his friend’s granddaughter Izzy, her blind optimism and crushing inexperience against Buzz’s entire persona. Taika Waititi is his usual lovably quirky self as the bumbling cadet Mo, whilst Dale Soules is consistently fun as the crochety ex-con Darby. Uzo Aduba’s role as Commander Alisha is brief but incredibly powerful and has a lasting impact throughout the film, though her LGBTQ+ status is once again a case where conservative media and homophobic governments have overblown a depiction of queer life that amounts to no more than a brief kiss. The less said about James Brolin’s turn as Zurg, the better. Being the only other character lifted from the Toy Story films, in contrast he is quite a far cry from his plastic counterpart but his reimagining is certainly compelling than just the obvious Darth Vader spoof he was in Toy Story 2. However, the film itself, and likely the hearts of many of its viewers, is stolen by the robotic cat Sox. Played with a wonderfully deadpan affect by Pixar creator Peter Sohn (who also voiced Emile in Ratatouille and Squishy in Monsters University), the character is equally cute and hilarious from the moment he springs to life and only gets funnier from there. From his matter-of-fact observations to how he adorably makes cat noises whilst performing certain tasks, he’s basically a more compact and feline version of Baymax from Big Hero 6. Quite ironically, I expect the best-selling toy from this movie inspired by a toy won’t be its decade-spanning title character, but his little ginger cat.
Where Lightyear really sets itself apart from its Pixar siblings is in its stunning visuals. Whilst it still retains a slightly caricaturised look for its human characters, they are rendered with a more photoreal finish than anything the studio has put out before, bringing to mind Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin whilst keeping it cartoony enough to comfortably avoid any dives into the uncanny valley. The way it contrasts the more grounded aesthetic of the human colony akin to The Martian against the far more fantastical design of Zurg and his robotic minions gives the world a more unique flavour than if it had been full-on space opera, and how it manages to translate the toyetic designs of the Space Ranger suits and their various gadgets into something that actually seems practical is a joy to behold. The alien world of T’Kani Prime itself is a little basic itself, mostly being a barren rock occasionally broken up by bits of jungle and the cityscape of the colony, and Zurg’s ship is a pretty standard evil spacecraft, but again there’s nothing inherently wrong with their designs other than they lack that final little touch of individuality. The film really shines on an audio level also, with not only fantastic sound design that includes recognisable noises from the toy but with a lifelike sheen, but also an incredible score from the always-reliable Michael Giacchino that elevates the whole experience to its lofty space-faring ambitions.
Lightyear completes its main objective in delivering an entertaining and expertly-crafted movie that stands alone from its Toy Story origins, but it doesn’t have a whole lot to offer beyond that. It’s a worthwhile experience for the family on the big screen, whilst also showing a range in style and genre that Pixar has never quite explored in this way before; I’m really looking forward to seeing what Angus MacLane, who makes his feature directorial debut here, will do in the future. At the same time though, it can’t quite escape feeling like more of a corporate idea than a purely creative one, right down to how its breakout character Sox will inevitably join the likes of Baby Groot and Grogu amongst the cute plushies at your local Disney Store. Balancing those two sides out, it ends up somewhere in the middle of the pack in the Pixar catalogue, certainly well above the likes of the heavily-corporatized Cars franchise or troubled productions like Brave or The Good Dinosaur, but a far cry from the quality of any Toy Story adventure. It’s kind of ironic: what’s supposed to be the more grown-up movie that inspired the toy ends up being far less adult and mature than the movies about the actual toys.
Starring: Chris Pratt (Guardians of the Galaxy), Bryce Dallas Howard (The Help), Sam Neill (Hunt for the Wilderpeople), Laura Dern (Star Wars: The Last Jedi), Jeff Goldblum (Thor: Ragnarok), Mamoudou Athie (The Get Down), Scott Haze (Venom), Dichen Lachman (Altered Carbon), Daniella Pineda (Cowboy Bebop), Campbell Scott (The Amazing Spider-Man), Isabella Sermon (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom), Justice Smith (Pokémon: Detective Pikachu), Omar Sy (Lupin), DeWanda Wise (The Harder They Fall), BD Wong (Mr. Robot)
Director: Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed)
Writers: Emily Carmichael (Pacific Rim: Uprising) and Colin Trevorrow
Runtime: 2 hours 26 minutes
Release Date: 10th June (US, UK)
Synopsis: When their adopted clone daughter Maisie is abducted by the power-hungry genetics company BioSyn, dinosaur trainer Owen and activist Claire must travel to their top-secret research facility to rescue her. Meanwhile, paleobotanist Ellie Sattler and paleontologist Alan Grant head to BioSyn with their own motive: find evidence the company is manufacturing an ecological disaster in order to take control of the world’s food supply.
I think most everyone can agree that the original Jurassic Park was a great film and a landmark in the history of visual effects and blockbuster filmmaking. What’s more contentious, however, is whether any of its sequels come even close to matching its quality. After two immediate follow-ups that mostly just flailed trying to reverse-engineer the success of the first, the Jurassic World series was a chance to reinvogorate the franchise and view it from a fresh, modern perspective. In a way, it succeeded in that aim, but only in that it has veered the story into weird and increasingly baffling directions. Whilst the first was a decent but forgettable summer romp with a few odd segues into WTF territory, the second entry Fallen Kingdom went completely off the rails and is still (to me, anyway) one of the worst Hollywood movies of the last five years. Regardless, they were both billion-dollar hits, and so now we inevitably reach the final entry of the trilogy Dominion, uniting the stars of both the Park and World eras and ending the story started in 1993. Will this entry finally redeem the franchise and give us a movie worthy of the Jurassic name? Short answer: no. Long answer….I mean, just keep reading and you’ll find out why!
One of the biggest flaws of Fallen Kingdom was that it was basically just a set-up for the next movie, crafting an overly-complicated series of events that led to dinosaurs being released into human civilization, then only teasing us with the possibilities of what that could lead to. That build-up, unfortunately, doesn’t mean a whole lot in the grand scheme of things for Dominion. The first act only briefly explores the impact of reintroducing dinosaurs to the modern world (mostly through an expostion dump prologue disguised as a NowThis viral mini-doc) before revealing the true source of Dominion‘s conflict: locusts. Yes, the movie franchise defined by dinosaurs has seemingly run out of ideas for what to do with them, demoting them to mini-boss fodder and shifting focus to genetically-engineered super-locusts who threaten to cause a global food shortage. The giant insects certainly make for an intimidating foe, but the movie places so much import on them that it’s easy to forget at points you’re supposed to be watching a Jurassic World movie.
Once we break into act two and the story splits into two narratives, its trajectory radically shifts even more. For a solid chunk of the movie, it basically becomes an espionage thriller as Owen and Claire chase after bad guys through the streets of Malta whilst Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler sneak their way through a secure lab, and even the presence of dinosaurs doesn’t make it seem that far removed from scenes that otherwise feel ripped straight from a Brosnan-era Bond film. The two storylines ultimately converge in the third act, where it finally starts to feel like a Jurassic Park movie again, but very much one we’ve seen before. It quickly devloves into yet another adventure on an island research facility for our heroes to encounter dinos both new and familiar, and you have to wonder why they even bothered making Fallen Kingdom if they weren’t going to take full advantage of its ramifications.
It is indeed a far less silly film than its immediate predecessor, even as it retains its dumber concepts like laser-targeted dinos, but it lacks any real spark of creativity and mostly just settles for compentently trundling along to the next action sequence. It moves at a good clip, rarely feeling its two-and-a-half hour length, and there’s no stretch where it gets boring or goes off on a tangent or springs some horrible twist, but…there’s really not much else to it. Most bafflingly of all, as the film’s plot is mostly centred around conflicts introduced and solved in Dominion rather than those from the prior films, it ultimately ends pretty much right where it started. Aside from some minor character development, you could literally stop watching the series at Fallen Kingdom and miss NOTHING of value; for a movie that’s marketing itself so heavily on returning cast members and being the “epic conclusion of the Jurassic era”, that’s pretty pathetic.
Much like Steven Spielberg did with Jaws, the initial draw of Jurassic Park may have been the prehistoric beasts but people remember it because of its characters. Alan Grant, Ellie Sattler and Ian Malcolm were a phenomenal trio, each with their own idiosyncrasies and evolutions that kept the movie interesting in between all the high-concept spectacle, and it’s yet another element none of the subsequent entries have captured. With Dominion, it’s almost like the filmmakers are aware of this fact and just went, “F*ck it, roll out the dumptrucks of cash and get the original stars back!” Seeing the return of Sam Neill, Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum (this time for more than just a quick cameo!) is quite something at first, picking up the characters again without missing a beat whilst still giving them a sense they’ve evolved since we last saw them. Dern is especially good as she balances being the more mature and environmentally-concerned Ellie whilst occasionally slipping back to the more innocent adventurer we knew in 1993, whilst Neill turns up the curmudgeon levels even more to create a performance that will remind many of their own elderly fathers, and Goldblum…well, he’s just doing his Goldblum thing, so if you’re tired of that shtick, your mileage with him may vary.
When it comes to the newer cast, it really does seem like they ran out of ideas on what to do. Thankfully, they’ve at least dropped the bickering odd couple routine between Chris Pratt’s Owen Grady and Bryce Dallas Howard’s Claire Dearing, portraying them more as responsible surrogate parents to Isabella Sermon’s Maisie, but otherwise they’re just kind of empty shells of characters now. They have motivations and relationships, sure, but their function is now completely plot-focused with no real attempt to give them the slightest bit of introspection. Sermon continues to be a major focus as we learn more about her backstory and how it relates to the franchise mythos, but again she’s basically a walking MacGuffin but now with a generic rebellious teen streak. Justice Smith and Daniella Pineda return from Fallen Kingdom for little more than an extended cameo to write them out of the plot, Omar Sy briefly reprises his role from Jurassic World during the Malta segment before disappearing again, and of course BD Wong is back as Dr Wu for…a poorly-motivated redemption arc? Uhhhh…
But wait, there’s more! Dominion also introduces a few new faces to the series, and the quality of their characters varies even more wildly. Campbell Scott serves as the film’s human antagonist Lewis Dodgson, yet another “Steve Jobs but Bond villain” type so obvious that the film doesn’t even try not to pretend he’s the bad guy. Fans of the original film may recognise that name and yes, he is indeed meant to be the same Lewis Dodgson that hired Wayne Knight’s Dennis Nedry to steal dino DNA samples (where he was played by Cameron Thor, who was unable to reprise his role due to…y’know what, just Google it). However, he bears little resemblence to the original character and, beyond a brief Easter egg reference, him being Dodgson has no bearing on the plot; he could have been named Dr. Weirdo McEvilbad and it wouldn’t change much. Mamoudou Athie portrays Dodgson’s protoge Ramsey and does a comendable job with a role that’s mostly perfunctory, though it may have made sense for expediency to just give all his scenes to Wong instead. The film’s real MVP is DeWanda Wise as no-nonsense freight smuggler Kayla Watts. From the moment she walks on screen, she commands a presence no other character has and grounds the film amidst all the prehistoric chaos, calling out the main characters’ bullsh*t and just being an well-rounded badass. If nothing else, hopefully this will get Wise on enough people’s radar to give her a shot in a meatier franchise role.
There have been so many memorable action sequences in the Jurassic franchise, with even the weakest entries having one or two stand-outs to call their own, and with this being the supposed finale of the saga you’d hope they’d end it on a bang. Dominion certainly has a larger variety of set pieces than previous outings, mainly thanks to its globe-trotting narrative that shows us dinosaurs in environments never before seen in the series. The easy winner here is the Malta sequence, which spices up a Bourne-style chase over rooftops and on motorbikes with a variety of dinos rampaging through the streets and a frantic rush to catch a plane mid-takeoff to cap it. It’s a ludicrous but very well-staged bit of action, and that’s unfortunately where the movie peaks. Right after that, we’re back to familiar jungles and research labs with all the familiar beats of trying to remain quiet as a dino passes before having to dash to safety. Even the final dino-on-dino showdown is a pale copy of the T-Rex vs. Indominus Rex from the end of Jurassic World, but with lower stakes and a less unique locale. At that point, I would have happily taken something dumb but fresh like, I don’t know, a T-Rex fighting a swarm of locusts that take the form of a T-Rex?
At least the movie looks and sounds pretty good. After Fallen Kingdom eschewed franchise tradition and went for a widescreen presentation, Dominion opts for the less-used 2.oo:1 aspect ratio and it really makes the movie pop, allowing for a good mix of wide vistas whilst also showing off the domineering presence of the dinosaurs. It still feels more like Colin Trevorrow’s style for certain, but it does bring back a little more of that Spielberg feel with its more tempered and wondrous gaze on these prehistoric creatures, as opposed to the commercial excess of World. Whilst it certainly far more favours digital effects than the original films, there’s a lot more practical work here than in the last two films; I especially loved how they used classic animatronics in a scene set in the 80s. The sound design and mixing as expected is phenomenal, being easily the biggest reason to bother seeing this in a cinema, and Michael Giacchino continues to have fun riffing on John Williams’ themes in fun and interesting ways (though it really loves to overplay the classic theme every time there’s a nostalgic moment).
Jurassic World Dominion has at least learnt some lessons from the failings of Fallen Kingdom, crafting a warmer and more audience-pleasing entry that will appeal to certain wings of the fanbase, especially with its bountiful doses of nostalgia that are thankfully more character-based rather than just “hey, remember that thing?” However, it’s ultimately far too safe and unremarkable to be anything more than a harmless distraction. The original Jurassic Park was summer popcorn fun, but there was subtelty and nuance to its tale of man’s hubris and science gone awry. Much like the first Jurassic World, Trevorrow’s eye is far too focused on the spectacle and not enough on the potent mix of Michael Crichton dystopia and Spielberg whimsy that made audiences fall in love with the series. If Universal intends to continue this series in some form, I hope they take their time and don’t hit that greenlight until they have something that’s a true evolution of the premise that also captures the heart of what made the 1993 film a modern classic.
Starring: Tom Cruise (Mission: Impossible), Miles Teller (Whiplash), Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind), Jon Hamm (Mad Men), Glen Powell (Set It Up), Lewis Pullman (Bad Times at the El Royale), Ed Harris (The Rock), Val Kilmer (Batman Forever)
Director: Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy)
Writers: Ehren Kruger (Transformers: Dark of the Moon) and Eric Warren Singer (American Hustle) and Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects)
Runtime: 2 hours 11 minutes
Release Date: 25th May (UK), 27th May (US)
Synopsis: Rebellious ace pilot Pete “Maverick” Mitchell heads back to the Top Gun academy to train a new generation of fighters for a highly dangerous mission, where he must confront the mistakes of his past and come to terms with the possibility of his high-flying days being numbered.
The original Top Gun carries a lot of weight in cinematic circles. It shot both its lead Tom Cruise and director Tony Scott to superstardom, its dialogue and soundtrack are constantly referenced throughout pop culture, and its homoerotic undertones have doubtlessly inspired many queer theory essays and slash fics alike. At the same time, it’s one of those movies that is never as good as you remember it, as outside the moments that have become 80s iconography, it’s a meandering and formulaic film that mostly gets by on style and charm. Even as Cruise’s career only continued to reach greater heights, the prospect of a sequel never fully went away, and with the tragic passing of Scott in 2012, for a while it seemed like the idea was officially retired. Now though, after several delays both pre and post-pandemic, the need for speed has finally returned to cinemas and the wait has been more than worth it. Top Gun: Maverick is not only the rare sequel that is superior to its predecessor in every facet, but one of the most exhilarating and just plain fun blockbusters in recent memory.
Picking up roughly in real time from the events of the first film, Maverick‘s reuse of the same blurb explaining the history of the titular flight academy and opening credits over footage of jets taking off and landing on aircraft carriers to the rocking guitar of Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” immediately bombards the audience with nostalgia. In much the same vein as recent legacy sequels like Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Ghostbusters: Afterlife, on a structural level it’s practically the same film as the original Top Gun but with Cruise now teaching the class rather sitting amongst the students. However, whereas the first film was an episodic affair with only the loosest of story and character development stitching the scenes together, the secondquickly sets its stakes with a high-stakes mission and remains focused on building up towards that finale throughout; every plot development is in some way connected to completing that objective.
There’s certainly evidence that the film may have originally had the looser approach of its forbearer, most evident by a second group of pilots (which notably includes The Good Place‘s Manny Jacinto) who are briefly introduced before fading into the background, but if these threads had to be sacrificed to get the film’s tension and pacing to where it is, it was the right call. There is hardly a wasted moment in Maverick‘s two-hour-plus runtime, consistently thrilling with its stunning airborne action whilst telling a compelling tale of defying the odds and finding redemption. Yes, it may use many of the same building blocks as its predecessor, but it does so with far more confidence and intention, and when it finally breaks from that formula and enters uncharted territory, it soars even higher. Whilst a fondness for the first film may enrich the experience, knowledge and affection for it is far from neccessary; in fact, I’d happily reccomend it even to those who hated the first. Name recognition and nostalgia may be what will initially draw audiences to Top Gun: Maverick, but they’ll leave loving it because of how it builds on the foundation and brings new ideas to the table.
Many consider Tom Cruise one of the last classic movie stars; an actor who can sell a movie based on his name alone rather than through IP recognition. After Ethan Hunt and Jack Reacher, this is only the third time he’s ever reprised a role, and even all these years later Pete “Maverick” Mitchell remains the character he will probably be most remembered for. His daredevil attitude and penchant for rule-breaking that masks a gold-hearted hero with an impeccably natural skill has been imitated in blockbusters for decades, some well (Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk) and others…not so much (Taylor Kitsch in Battleship), but what does Cruise bring to the role now thirty-six years later? The Maverick of this eponymous sequel is something of a Peter Pan figure, having the skills and experienced of a hardened veteran but retaining the adolescent mindset and rebellious streak of the young hot shot we remember, and the film is essentially about him having to finally grow up. This evolution is dramatised through his strenuous relationship with Miles Teller’s Rooster, the son of Anthony Edwards’ Goose from the original, having to both teach the young pilot how to survive their mission and overcome his remaining guilt for his role in Goose’s demise. Being something of a boy who never grew up himself, Cruise perfectly captures that dichotomy of a young soul trying to be responsible and delivers an entertaining yet layered performance brimming with both humour and ennui; it may indeed be one of his best.
As for the rest of the cast, there isn’t really a weak link amongst them. Teller plays Rooster as almost the antithesis of his on-screen father, making him a bitter and reserved character who resents Maverick’s attempts to help him, but underneath you can still tell he’s cut from the same cloth as Edwards (and I’m not just talking about the moustache). Glen Powell is perfectly cast as the unapologetically brash Hangman, whilst Monica Barbaro and Lewis Pullman make for a fun double act as the determined Phoenix and socially-awkward Bob respectively. Jon Hamm makes the most of his generally perfuntory role as the head of the Top Gun academy, whilst Ed Harris leaves a strong impression in his brief appearance as the sequel’s answer to James Tolkan, but the real tear-jerker is Val Kilmer’s return as Iceman. It’s a small but beautifully-handled scene that doesn’t shy away from Kilmer’s disability and allows him to give a full performance; I only wish he was given similar dignity in all of his recent films. One of the weaker elements of the first film is the romance subplot between Maverick and Kelly McGillis’ Charlie (who isn’t even acknowledged beyond a brief archival appearance), and whilst the similar storyline with Jennifer Connelly’s Penny is also not the strongest, it’s still an improvement. Not only do Cruise and Connelly have a more natural chemistry, Penny’s role serves to humble Maverick and strengthens his motivation beyond trying to save his legacy; again, everything is in service to the story.
There’s a reason most great fighter pilot movies are set in World War II: once the planes are able to move a certain speed, it’s hard to keep up with the action. The original Top Gun got around this by focusing more of the pilots themselves rather than the literal dogfights, but with advances in modern filmmaking, the technology is now there that can better keep up with the unbelievable speed and acrobatic capabilties of these aircrafts. To put it simply, Maverick contains some of the most edge-of-your-seat action sequences ever put to screen, and right now I couldn’t possibly tell you which parts were crafted in a computer and which parts they had the gall to do for real. Much like his Mission: Impossible films, Cruise’s dedication to doing as much practically as possible has once again paid off and delivers a spectacle that is quickly becoming a relic in a CGI-dominated age.
Director Joseph Kosinski’s previous films, particularly Tron: Legacy and Oblivion, have often been lauded for their visual splendour even if their stories were ultimately lacking, but here the solid script is only further enriched by his eye. Kosinski and cinematographer Claudio Miranda capture the spirit of the visual language crafted by Tony Scott and Jeffrey L. Kimball in 1986 but gives it a sleek, modern coat of paint, most evident in the jaw-dropping cockpit photography that pulls the camera back and shows off the environment whizzing past the actors’ heads. Combined with the pounding sound design and a fist-pumping score that combines the talents of Lorne Balfe, Harold Faltermeyer, Hans Zimmer and Lady Gaga (who also provides its excellent tie-in ballad “Hold My Hand”), and you’ve got yourself a film that demands to be see on the biggest and loudest screen possible. If you have an IMAX venue anywhere near you, it’s more than worth forking out the £5 upcharge to get the full experience.
There are still a fair few high-profile blockbusters to come in 2022, namely a couple more Marvel movies and the long-awaited Avatar: The Way of Water, but Top Gun: Maverick has now set the bar for the rest of the year incredibly high. Whilst most legacy sequels are content to wallow in their own nostalgia, Cruise and Kosinski haved instead enriched the iconography and created a film that stands on its own as just an excellent example of cinematic entertainment. There isn’t really more I can say other than that, so…just go see it for yourselves. I can guarantee you’ll have a blast.
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch (The Power of the Dog), Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene), Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), Benedict Wong (The Martian), Xochitl Gomez (The Baby-Sitters Club), Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man), Rachel McAdams (About Time)
Director: Sam Raimi (Army of Darkness)
Writer: Michael Waldron (Loki)
Runtime: 2 hours 6 minutes
Release Date: 5th May (UK), 6th May (US)
Synopsis: When paranormal superhero Dr Stephen Strange comes into contact with America Chavez, a young girl with the ability to open portals to alternate dimensions, he must protect her from dark forces that seek to control her power whilst travelling through the vast multiverse.
As Marvel Studios continues rolling out their Phase Four slate and lays the foundation for the next Thanos-level event, one thing is clear: the multiverse is key to all of it. With Loki, What If? and Spider-Man: No Way Home already dipping their toes in the concept, the biggest plunge yet into the realms beyond the cinematic universe we know is now here in the form of Dr. Stephen Strange’s second headlining adventure. Arguably more intriguing than meeting new and familiar heroes from parallel worlds, however, is the return of Sam Raimi to the superhero genre. After essentially creating the blueprint for the modern comic book blockbuster with his first two Spider-Man movies, the venerable horror maestro is a more-than-worthy choice to assume the franchise mantle from Scott Derrickson, but the real question is whether Raimi’s signature style can play nice with the tried-and-true Kevin Feige formula. The result of this marriage, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, is something of a double-edged sword. On one end, it’s an incredibly ambitious, deviously twisted, and boisterously entertaining thrill ride through the dark side of the Marvel universe that only a director like Raimi could pull off. On the other hand, it’s a rushed and unfocused mess of bonkers concepts that is nowhere as deep as it thinks it is and raises more questions about the multiverse than it answers.
Mere moments after the Marvel Studios logo fades away, it’s clear that Multiverse of Madness isn’t wasting anytime. Clocking in at just over two hours, already lean for a modern blockbuster, it’s especially brief for one with so much complex world-building to impart. Whilst the pace is pretty relentless, it’s far from exhausting and has just enough quiet moments for the audience to catch their breath and the characters to plan their next move. After many criticised Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 for being bloated by extraneous subplots, he seems to have taken that to heart and crafted a very streamlined stop-the-bad-guy adventure packed with satisfying twists, a wickedly dark sense of humour, and plenty of crowd-pleasing moments. On that note, it’s also a relief to find the film isn’t the relentless succession of surprise cameos and tie-in teases that many were expecting. Though it certainly has strong ties to Endgame and WandaVision as well as the Derrickson original, it’s far more focused on telling its own story and keeps the fan service contained to the end of the second act.
Whilst it undoubtedly remains an MCU movie, Raimi manages to weave in his idiosyncracies into the film’s DNA in much the same way James Gunn and Taika Waititi have, and not just the ones you might be familair with from his Tobey Maguire days. Multiverse of Madness has touted itself as Marvel’s first horror movie, and though it’s hardly as disturbing as Batman Returns or even Raimi’s own Darkman, there’s enough macabre imagery and heaps of (strategically unseen but heavily implied) gory violence to satiate the Evil Dead fans in the audience and scare younger audiences into hiding under their seats.
Unfortunately, though the story structure and pacing may be simplified compared to Spider-Man 3, the heart and charm that made both his first two Spidey flicks and the best MCU entries work is severely missed. The screenplay, credited to head writer on Loki Michael Waldron, is so focused on keeping the plot mechanics straight that character and theme is a bit of an afterthought. There are fleeting moments of character introspection scattered throughout and it has a dalliance with concepts like living with regret and pondering what could have been, but there’s a frustrating lack of depth and originality to anything it has to say thematically. Whether the meat of these ideas were simply cut for pacing reasons or never there to begin with is unclear, but I for one would have happily sat for an extra ten or fifteen minutes just so I could leave the cinema having gained something of substance. More cynical audiences have complained that all of Raimi’s Spider-Man films were too cheesy and overemotional, but I much prefer a film be too honest about its feelings with me than be too scared or unwilling to express them at all.
It’s kind of weird to realise that though this is only his second solo movie, this is actually Benedict Cumberbatch’s sixth appearance as the (now-former) Sorceror Supreme. After being humbled and learning the responsibility of his powers in his origin film, he’s since become less of a character and more of a function. In contrast to the likes of Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, where their appeal goes far beyond their superheroism, his importance to the MCU has been less about his characterisation and more about how his powers can create or mend narrative problems. That may all be fine and dandy is something like No Way Home, but for Multiverse of Madness you’d hope they would use this reality-hopping adventure to push the character in new directions. Unfortunately, whilst Cumberbatch is still excellent at pulling off Strange’s smug-but-affable demeanour, there’s not a huge amount on the page for him to really dig into. He has two main arcs concerning his regrets about his relationship with Christine Palmer (McAdams) and how best to nurture and help America Chavez (Gomez), but neither really seem to prompt any significant change in Strange or his status quo within the universe; he ends up only slightly adjacent to where he started.
Doing her best to make up for this is Elizabeth Olsen returning as Wanda Maximoff, and whilst her performance here isn’t quite as nuanced or heartbreaking as the one she gave in WandaVision, she absolutely devours every scene she’s in. Fully embracing her status as the Scarlet Witch, Maximoff is a true force to be reckoned with and uses her newfound powers to pull off some truly twisted deeds, but also has more emotional investment and development than any other character in the movie. There’s a fascinating complexity to her inner conflict, her unwillingness to see how her desires would do more harm than good, and how she is blinded and radicalised by her trauma. All of the best scenes in the movie involve Wanda in some form or another, including the most biting exchange of dialogue that will stick in my head for days, and Olsen just sells every deliciously dark moment. Benedict Wong is still just as brilliantly deadpan and hilarious as he’s ever been as Wong, and it’s nice to see Rachel McAdams’ Christine Palmer get in on the action more, but Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Baron Mordo is sadly underused in a perfunctory role that could have been filled by any number of other Marvel characters; hopefully his true return will be a lot more satisfying.
However, the most disappointing character is unfortunately the reality-hopping newcomer America Chavez. Whilst Xochitl Gomez injects the character with a lot of youthful energy that suggests she could become a promising character in the future, here she’s little more than a walking-and-talking MacGuffin for the heroes and villains to fight over. Barring one quick but admittedly effective scene establishing her backstory, she has little agency and the movie is basically over by the time she finds it after a hackneyed and predictable “you gotta believe in yourself” arc. Chavez is an incredibly fascinating character in the comics with huge potential, so hopefully she gets her true chance to shine later down the line.
Whilst Raimi has perhaps not brought his A-game when it comes to storytelling, on a visual level he’s never one to give anything but his gonzo best. Multiverse of Madness is as much a breath of fresh air to Marvel’s usual aesthetic monotony as Eternals, brimming with imaginative cinematography choices by John Mathieson that only accentuate both the mind-bending and horrific visuals alike. The kaleidoscopic Steve Ditko-inspired imagery returns and is turned up to eleven, especially in the sequences where characters cross dimensions and briefly flash through worlds that will inevitably be picked through frame-by-frame for hidden easter eggs. My only real criticism of the film’s visual design is that the main alternate reality we visit, Earth 838, is a little confused. At first it seems like some bizarre future world where weird plants grow everywhere and there are machines that can replay memories, but later on it just seems the same as the main MCU but with a few timeline tweaks.
The action sequences are enthralling and flow well, helped by strong moment-to-moment editing. The first major battle against Gargantos is a major highlight that immeidately brought to mind the bank fight from Spider-Man 2, the second-act skirmish as Wanda invades Earth-838 delivers a fan-pleasing match-up that’s as darkly funny as it is entertaining, whilst the third act sees Strange using his powers in some surreal and outright skin-crawling ways. Whilst there is the usual Marvel problem of too many locations being obviously green-screened rather than shot on location, when the visuals effects are about creating otherworldly environments or creatures they’re absolutely top-notch, whilst the few bits of practical effects work are quintessential Raimi; you’ll know what I’m talking about when you see it. Oh, and who could forget Danny Elfman’s wonderfully deranged music? Whilst certainly not quite the best MCU score (it’s going to take something transcendant to beat Black Panther on that), it’s easily in the top three as it builds on Michael Giacchino’s themes and, like the film itself, then melds tones and genres to create a wonderful fusion of heroic and horrific soundscapes.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness certainly lives up to its title in delivering yet another diverting chapter of the MCU, but there’s an unfortunate lack of method to the…well, you know. In its best moments, it reminded me of what was so great about Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy and proved again that Marvel movies don’t have to be homogenous blockbusters when Feige trusts a director to bring their vision to the table. At its worst though, it brought to mind The Rise of Skywalker; a technically well-made movie but one that focuses on plot and spectacle to the detriment of everything else. Its positive qualities ultimately outweigh its negatives, in particular Elizabeth Olsen’s delectably nuanced evolution of Scarlet Witch and the sheer brazenness of some of Raimi’s directorial choices, enough for me to give the film a recommendation but it pains me that I can’t praise it more. I only hope Marvel’s future explorations of the multiverse will have something more profound to say about it.
Starring: James Marsden (Enchanted), Ben Schwartz (Parks & Recreation), Tika Sumpter (Think Like A Man), Colleen O’Shaughnessey (Digimon), Idris Elba (The Suicide Squad), Jim Carrey (The Truman Show)
Director: Jeff Fowler (Sonic the Hedgehog)
Writers: Patrick Casey & Josh Miller (Transylmania) and John Whittington (The Lego Batman Movie)
Runtime: 2 hours 2 minutes
Release Date: 1st April (UK), 8th April (US)
Synopsis: When the maniacal Dr. Robotnik returns with the revenge-driven echidna Knuckles in tow, Sonic must team up with his plucky new friend Tails to find the all-powerful Master Emerald before Robotnik can use it for world domination.
The first Sonic the Hedgehog was hardly a grounbreaking piece of cinema, but it was an enjoyable and harmless family film that didn’t take itself too seriously and packed in just enough treats for franchise fans to keep them enticed. That doesn’t seem like much, but by video game movie standards it was a breath of fresh air and proved to be a step above the Alvin and the Chipmunks-style disaster most were expecting. Of course, the biggest pop of the movie came in its mid-credits scene teasing the arrival of Sonic’s long-time companion Tails, and now Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is here to deliver on that promise and more. Whilst still far from being a perfect recreation of the games, this sequel certainly leans harder into them and for the better, crafting a more confident and entertaining follow-up that’s sure to please kids and fans of Sega’s mascot.
Picking up roughly eight months after the events of the first movie, Sonic 2 wastes little time in re-establishing the world and characters and, for the most part, moves as quickly from there as the Blue Blur himself. Learning a good lesson from the first film (and most adaptations of this ilk), the new story wisely relegates Sonic’s human supporting cast to the sidelines and focuses in more on the title character and his fantastical friends and foes. The scale here is immense compared to the first film’s road trip approach, turning the adventure into a globe-trotting treasure hunt with a lot more action and world-ending stakes. That’s not to say the movie hasn’t abandoned the family comedy aspects, with the human characters getting their own subplot at a Hawaiian wedding and a totally superfluous dance number in the second act. These moments can occasionally feel like padding to fill out the simple save-the-world plot, but they’re luckily over before they wear out their welcome and there’s enough solid humour in them that they’re far from a total waste.
Ultimately though, the key question is simple: is Sonic the Hedgehog 2 fun? The answer is just as simple: yes, quite a bit. It’s not nutritious or always logical, but it knows its audience and caters to them with aplomb. There’s never a dull moment, it moves at a solid pace, the humour is quippy and cartoony in a good way, and the final act delivers the exact kind of go-for-broke bonkers finale you’d want out of a Sonic movie. Top it all off with another mid-credits tease that outdoes the first, and you’ve got yourself honestly the best movie you could reasonably expect about Sonic the Hedgehog.
Though James Marsden still oddly takes top billing despite getting less screentime than almost every other named character in the movie, Sonic 2 unequivocally belongs to Ben Schwartz as the titular speedy mammal. Whilst not every joke lands, Schwartz throws them out with such speed and exhuberance that it’s hard not to laugh along with him, but this time around he also gets a lot more opportunites to humanise Sonic and give him a little more emotional depth. It’s hardly anything revolutionary, but it’s more than you’d expect and does a lot to heighten the film. Tails, unfortunately, doesn’t get quite the same love. Whilst it’s lovely to hear Colleen O’Shaughnessey reprising the role and she imbues him with a lot of innocence and devotion, Tails as a character is sorely underdeveloped. His origins and motivations are explained very hastily, and his purpose in the story is mostly perfunctory; if it wasn’t for the first film bigging him up, you could easily write him out and not lose much. Thankfully, whilst Tails is a bit of letdown, Knuckles is easily the film’s best new addition. He’s basically a more kid-friendly version of Drax from Guardians of the Galaxy: a hulking brute driven by revenge but who doesn’t understand sarcasm and empathy. It’s a bit that keeps getting funnier every time it’s about to wear out its welcome, and Idris Elba’s deadpan delivery just makes it even more hilarious; it’s easy to see why they’ve already greenlit a Paramount+ spin-off series for him.
On the homo sapien side of things, Jim Carrey continues to ham it up as a more visually-faithful take on Dr. Robotnik, turning his unhinged levels up to eleven and just has a blast. As said before, Marsden’s Tom Wachowski is mostly relegated to cheerleading duties as Sonic’s surrogate dad, but surprisingly it’s the rest of his extended family that gets more to do. Tika Sumpter has a more active role as Tom’s wife Maddie, and for a good ten minutes the movie basically turns into a side vehicle for Natasha Rothwell as her sister Rachel. It’s an amusing bit and Rothwell really sells the pissed-off Bridezilla vibes, but it’s a plot cul-de-sac that resolves as quickly as it’s introduced and never comes up again. Adam Pally and Lee Majdoub also return as Tom’s bumbling deputy Wade and Robotnik’s sychophantic aide Agent Stone respectively, but the movie doesn’t really know what to do with them. Pally shows up sporadically throughout to do his usual awkward comedy shtick, and whilst Majdoub gets a big reintroduction and hints at some evolution in his relationship with Robotnik, it ends up going nowhere with the vague promise it may be resolved in a third film.
When it comes to spectacle, Sonic 2 is a massive upgrade from the first film. Though they’ve showed off a good chunk of them in the trailers, there’s a great deal more action set pieces here and they’re all executed with a lot of flair and imagination. The initial battle between Sonic and Knuckles as they tear up the Wachowski home is good and the Siberian snowboarding avalanche chase is even better, but nothing tops the finale back in Green Hills that really brings the speed and madness of the games to life. When it’s just the animated characters and Robotnik, the movie is a real visual treat, but again when it comes back to the humans it looks like a pretty standard studio comedy and it doesn’t gel as well with the video game elements. It’s so bizarre to see how they’ve upgraded the aesthetic of one half of the film whilst left the other basically the same, and hopefully in the next one they can make it a more seamless blend of styles.
The visual effects are mostly pretty solid for what are very cartoony designs, with a lot of great animation details on Sonic, Tails and Knuckles, though there are a few shots where I swear the models looked a little grainy like they were rendered at the wrong resolution. There’s also some shoddy compositing and rotoscoping around Robotnik during the action scenes; there’s some shots where I swear they’ve feathered his edges way too much. Despite those little nitpicks, the movie overall is a solid improvement on an aesthetic level, and capping it off with another 16-bit-inspired end credits sequence is a nice way to send the audience home nostalgic.
In my review of the first film, I hoped that a Sonic sequel needed to meet the “apologetically dumb fun” levels of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows and the 2017 Power Rangers movie; two other retro franchise adaptations that knew what they were and revelled in their goofiness. Well, I’m pleased to say the final result meets those desires. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 isn’t quite the best video game movie yet, but it’s very comfortably in the top five at least. It embraces its source material more wholeheartedly and does a admirable job of bringing in more of what the fans expect whilst still fitting within the groundwork set by its predecessor. Those who who didn’t find charm in the previous movie will likely not be swayed, but it takes the franchise in the right direction and sets the stage for a promising third installment.
Starring: Jared Leto (House of Gucci), Matt Smith (Last Night in Soho), Adria Arjona (6 Underground), Jared Harris (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows), Al Madrigal ([Finding] The Way Back), Tyrese Gibson (2 Fast 2 Furious)
Director: Daniel Espinosa (Safe House)
Writers: Matt Sazama & Burk Sharpless (Gods of Egypt)
Runtime: 1 hour 44 minutes
Release Date: 31st March (UK), 1st April (US)
Synopsis: After taking an experimental serum derived from bat DNA in an attempt to cure his debilitating disease, Dr. Michael Morbius becomes imbued with superhuman abilities but also an ever-increasing thirst for blood.
When Sony decided to start exploiting their rights to Spider-Man by making movies about his supporting cast, it feels like they didn’t really know where else to go with it after Venom. I mean, we’re apparently getting movies about Kraven the Hunter and Madame Web next, with projects featuring Black Cat, Silver Sable, Silk, and Jackpot (no joke, I’m serious, bloody Jackpot!) in various stages of development too. Of all of Spidey’s associates though, it’s baffling yet fitting that their next choice after Venom was Morbius the Living Vampire, probably the only other character in that roster who has enough history away from the wall crawler to stand on his own. The final product unfortunately, after a long string of delays from its original July 2020 release date, is a dull, formulaic and overproduced nothingburger of a movie with some of the worst universe building since 2017’s The Mummy.
Right from its opening moments, Morbius follows in the footsteps of the first Venom by feeling like a superhero movie made roughly twenty years ago, constantly in a battle with itself over tone and genre. Its premise is a basic sci-fi horror yarn ripped straight from the Jekyll & Hyde playbook and plays out with no real surprises, treating its plot less as an opportunity to explore its characters or world and more like a shopping checklist of tropes from superhero and vampire flicks. There’s no real nuance and depth to any of its storytelling choices, and despite trying to present Morbius as a conflicted anti-hero, the morality of the film is incredibly black-and-white and negates the internal conflict that makes the character intriguing in the first place.
The structure and pacing is all over the place, exhibiting the telltale signs of a troubled production like important plot beats happening off-screen and copius scenes from the trailers missing in the final product. Despite running at a light but healthy 104 minutes, there’s little meat on the bone here that isn’t recycled from a plethora of better films, and its teneous connections to the Marvel universe are mostly fleeting…until the inevitable post-credits bonus. Without a doubt, these two scenes are the most random, underwhelming, confusing and desperate examples of expanding a cinematic universe since…ever, to be honest. The fact they spoiled this reveal in the very first trailer (which has clearly been dropped and reshot since) is evidence enough that Sony knew they had a non-starter on their hands and just gave up, but these scenes would have fallen flat even if they had remained a secret until release.
It’s hard to think of an actor more unpopular and unsuited to being the lead of an aspiring blockbuster franchise than Jared Leto, especially given his last stint as a comic book character didn’t go over so well. It’s also surprising he took the role because, as a method actor known for his bold and bonkers choices, the character of Morbius on paper doesn’t give him much to play with. Seperated from his disability, he’s seemingly a smart and sweet but boring guy, and whilst his early flippancy with scientific ethics makes it seem like he’s going to be this morally complex character, that angle is abruptly dropped once he gains his powers. After just one scene of giving into his vampiric thirst, Morbius is chugging artificial plasma and basically in control of his bloodlust for the rest of the movie, robbing the film of the horror and suspense a good man-or-monster movie craves. In their attempts to make Morbius likable, they’ve way overstepped the mark and turned him into a high-and-mighty, hypocritical, melodramatic bore. I thought it wasn’t possible to make a vampire movie this dull, but accomplishing that dubious feat is the only original thing Morbius succeeds in.
The supporting cast unfortunately doesn’t fair much better. Adria Arjona does a fine enough job bringing fellow scientist and love interest Martine Bancroft to life, but she’s something of an empty vessel with no real sense of her own life outside of her relationship to Morbius. The only time she even comes close to seeming well-rounded is when she’s on good enough terms with a bodega clerk to convince him to thrown an FBI agent off her scent, but that’s really stretching. Speaking of the FBI, Tyrese Gibson and Al Madrigal plays said agents hunting down Morbius but they add next to nothing, especially because we know early on that Morbius is mostly innocent. At least Madrigal has some sense of character with his vampire supersitions and Alan Alda-like voice, because Gibson’s Simon Stroud is a complete empty shell role. Given that he signed a three-picture deal and said in a 2020 interview that his character was a superhero with a high-tech arm, those reshoots must have been incredibly drastic.
Similarly wasted on this film is Jared Harris as Morbius’ mentor and father figure Emil Nikols, who appears so sporadically that you forget he was even in the movie every time he shows back up. The only actor who seems to be having any fun here is Matt Smith as the friend-turned-villain Milo. Yes, the character is a pretty generic “evil mirror of the hero with the same powers” adversary (and the only other trope they’ve ripped from modern Marvel fare), but Smith’s indulgent performance is so wonderfully daft that you just wish he was the one playing Morbius instead of Leto. To put it simply, and with pun fully intended, he properly vamps it up.
The reported budget of Morbius may be $75 million, but most of the time it looks like it cost about half that. The visual effects are firmly stuck in the late 2000s, with horirble scene compositing and laughable vampiric face warping on Leto and Smith ripped right out of a Video Copilot tutorial. Much of the action looks like a pre-rendered cutscene from a PS3 game, especially the scenes where Morbius flies across the city in a manner eerily similar to Alex Mercer from Prototype, and that’s when you can even tell what’s going on. The lighting is so minimal and the camera whips around so much, combined with the overuse of fog and neon, that you can only tell what’s actually happening when the action slows down in faux-Zack Snyder style. Heck, the entire climax is essentially rendered unwatchable by a gigantic swarm of bats obscuring the fight! On the plus side though…um…Jon Ekstrand’s score is decently eerie, I guess, and…I liked the look of the credits. I mean, the whole vaporwave aesthetic seems like an odd choice for a vampire superhero movie, but…nice job, whoever put together the credits? I think?
The anti-hype was right for once, folks: Morbius is exactly the big-budget misguided flop everybody’s been predicting it would be. With the exception of Matt Smith’s performance, which mostly seems like him just having a bit of a laugh for an easy paycheck, there isn’t a single positive thing to say about this film that isn’t grasping at straws or doesn’t come with huge caveats. It doesn’t even have the so-bad-it’s-good qualities that made Venom morbidly enjoyable, quickly placing it amongst the worst recent examples of the genre alongside X-Men: Dark Phoenix and 2015’s Fantastic Four. What exactly Sony thinks they’re accomplishing with these Spidey-less spin-offs other than playing keep away with Marvel Studios is beyond me, because all they’ll end up doing is devaluing the brand. Yes, Sony just made a boatload off the back of No Way Home, but it would only take a few more duds like Morbius to bomb the Sonyverse and send Ol’ Webhead into the hands of Uncle Walt.
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler), Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (The Matrix Resurrections), Eiza González (Baby Driver)
Director: Michael Bay (Transformers)
Writers: Chris Fedak (Chuck)
Runtime: 2 hours 16 minutes
Release Date: 25th March (UK), 8th April (US)
Synopsis: When their heist goes haywire, flustered criminal Danny and his reluctant accomplice/brother Will hijack an ambulance, holding jaded EMT Cam and an injured police officer hostage as they are chased by law enforcement across Los Angeles.
Whilst the public perception of his career is still (and most likely forever will be) dominated by his Transformers movies, Michael Bay is a much more interesting filmmaker than people give him credit for. He’s not particularly introspective or nuanced, but he has filmmaking instincts and a distinctive style that still set him apart from the copycats and journeymen that dominate the action genre. The issue with much of his filmography is a lack of restraint on his worst instincts. His two best films, The Rock and Pain & Gain, were respectively made in either his early career when he didn’t yet have total freedom, or a much smaller picture that didn’t have the scope or budget to go too far off the rails. In summary, Bay excels when he doesn’t have too many toys to distract him and sticks to a simple narrative, which makes a contained action thriller like Ambulance a perfect vehicle for his talents.
Taking the base premise of the 2005 Danish original (which I have not seen, so I cannot compare) and jazzing it up with a Hollywood sheen, Ambulance is one of those movies that’s easy to explain with a “blank-meets-blank” comparison; in this case, Heat meets Speed. It wastes no time in getting to the action, explaining the motivations and dynamics of its three central characters in two scenes or less each, and then immediately leaps to the central heist and doesn’t let go of the accelerator from then until the final moments. It’s a frantic and occasionally exhausting experience as the film moves at a sprinter’s pace for over two hours, and it easily could lose a good twenty minutes of that runtime around the start of the second act, but it’s nigh-impossible to claim that it isn’t engaging or tense. In a rare move for a Bay movie, where plot and spectacle reign over character and theme, Ambulance does actually make just enough room for those humanising elements even as the chase remains ongoing. It’s a basic but solid exploration of family, morality, purpose, and the choice of whether to let those attributes define us or push them aside. It’s really the only Michael Bay movie that I can think of that has anything positive to say that isn’t wrapped up in jingoism or cliches, and whilst that may be a basic ask for most filmmakers that Bay probably should have figured out decades ago, it’s a point in the film’s favour nonetheless.
Whilst there are plenty of other characters floating about connected one way or another to the plot, our core attentions remain pretty focused on the three conscious occupants of the titular vehicle. With the brief amount of time the story gives the leads before literally cutting to the chase, the filmmakers establish our central characters thusly: Jake Gyllenhaal’s Danny is quick-tempered and cruelly sardonic, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s Will is desperate and morally conflicted, and Eiza González’s Cam is a committed professional but lacks genuine empathy. For much of the film’s first act, these basic character traits are exploited ad nauseum and it quickly threatens to make the experience even more strenuous. Luckily, that monotony is thankfully broken before it gets tiring and the characters start expressing complexity and developing beyond those core traits. These arcs honestly don’t go anywhere other than the way you may expect, but they are satisfyingly punchy mainly thanks to the solid performances.
Gyllenhaal channels the same manic and unpredictable energy that made him delightfully devilish in Nightcrawler and Spider-Man: Far From Home, and though he certainly does threaten to go OTT there’s always a sense of humanity to his insanity. Yahya continues to show himself as one of the best new talents in mainstream cinema, squeezing every last drop of empathy from a character who could have easily been rote, whilst González is immediately engaging and threatens to steal the show from her male co-stars. There’s not a whole lot to say about the supporting cast, who are mostly made up of the usual stock characters like the rookie cop, the angry captain, and the smug FBI agent, but there are at least a few decent one-liners and interesting quirks amongst them. Also, just wanted to note: Michael, well done on including a prominent gay character and NOT making his sexuality a punchline. Again, this really shouldn’t need congratulating, but just glance back at Bad Boys II for a moment and…yeah, you’ve come a long way, Bay-by.
When it comes to action in Michael Bay movies, audiences should really know what to expect at this point, and by his standards this is easily the most coherently-made of his explosion fests he’s put out in a while. The camera is constantly moving whether it’s justified or not, the editing is frenetic and full of random shots that feel like they were left on the timeline by accident, and it all remains smeared in that putrid and oversaturated orange-and-teal colour grade that every Bay movie has had since Armageddon. As visually cacophonous as the viewing experience may be at times, there’s no denying that the unrepentant energy is intoxicating, with enough memorable moments to stop it all smushing together in your mind like a big Autobot-shaped blob. Ambulance certainly isn’t for the squeamish as there is a lot of bloodshed, particularly in one gruelling moment as Yahya and González engage in high-speed emergency surgery, and who could deny the absurd awesomeness of a remote-control lowrider fitted with a minigun? Top it all off with some wildly inventive use of drone shots that may upset a few stomachs, plus a solid action score from Lorne Balfe, and what you have here is one of the best examples of pure Bayhem in a long, long time.
I think it’s time to stop expecting Michael Bay to conform to standards he has no interest in following, and instead encourage him to the best version of who he is. Ambulance still isn’t the best movie he’s ever put out, but it’s absolutely the kind of film he should focus on making and he’s certainly matured out of some of his worst sophormoric habits. Those who just inherently can’t get on board his style need not apply, but if you’re one of those who grew frustrated by his continued flaggelation of his own credibility on the Transformers movies and just wished he’d return to more grounded action, this is probably what you’ve been waiting for. Maybe don’t pay full price for it, but if you’re going to see it, see it on the biggest screen you can and just go along for the ride; you might want to bring a barf bag though.
Starring: Robert Pattinson (Tenet), Zoë Kravitz (Divergent), Paul Dano (Ruby Sparks), Jeffrey Wright (Casino Royale), John Turturro (Barton Fink), Peter Sarsgaard (Flightplan), Andy Serkis (Black Panther), Colin Farrell (Seven Psychopaths)
Director: Matt Reeves (War for the Planet of the Apes)
Writers: Matt Reeves and Peter Craig (The Town)
Runtime: 2 hours 56 minutes
Release Date: 4th March (US, UK)
Synopsis: When masked killer The Riddler starts murderering Gotham’s elite and exposes their darkest secrets, Bruce Wayne/Batman must reconcile his family’s legacy with his obsessive crusade for justice before the city is consumed by corruption.
The concept of superhero fatigue comes up alot in current movie discourse, and if there’s any comic book crime fighter we should be all sick of by now, you’d think it would be Batman. Instead, he seems more popular than ever. He’s practically been the face of the genre since 1989, his history in cinema consists of some of the highest highs and lowest lows, and fans will still endlessly argue about which version of the Caped Crusader was the best. He’s a character that means something different to everyone, malleable to interpretation more than any other superhero, and it seems like every generation will get at least one definitive portrayal. So what does Batman mean in 2022? What does yet another perspective on such a well-worn character have to say about the source material, the genre itself, and beyond? Matt Reeves’ sprawling epic clearly has these questions and many more on its mind and, whilst it doesn’t answer all of them perfectly, what it does deliver is one of the finest depictions of The Dark Knight on screen since…well, The Dark Knight.
Whilst it began its life as a DCEU project, The Batman is completely divorced from that universe and sets itself in a more grounded but still stylistically heightened reality. On both a visual and tonal level, this is easily the darkest interpretation of the comics on screen, but it avoids both the dedication to realism of the Nolan trilogy and the Frank Miller-inspired neo-fascistic undertones of the Zack Snyder version. Where it most sets itself apart, however, is in its approach to genre. Previous entries certainly incorporarted Batman’s status as The World’s Greatest Detective, but they were primarily action movies with occasional mystery elements. Reeves’ vision, in contrast, is a straight-up crime thriller with shades of socio-political intrigue and even elements of horror in what is probably the closest thing we’ll ever get to a David Fincher superhero movie. There is plenty of high-flying spectacle and the familiar elements you’d expect from a Batman movie, and there’s never a sense it’s ashamed of being a comic book movie (*cough* Joker *ahem*), but it does feel less concerned with being a crowd-pleaser and more with delivering a unique yet faitful take on the source material.
The central mystery is a genuinley intriguing and character-driven detective story that unravels Gotham’s underbelly and psychologically tests Batman more than any previous film, and the sheer quality of it all secures it a place as one of the best Batman films ever brought to the screen. What perhaps holds it back from being absolute perfection is its length and pacing, both of which may test general audiences expecting a more typical blockbuster. Clocking in at nearly three hours and taking its sweet time to unravel its intricate and sprawling murder mystery, it at times plays out less like a movie and more like a truncated season of True Detective, and though slow-paced it still seems rushed and lacks the time to properly explore certain characters and scenarios. That said, it’s hard to fault a movie that leaves you wanting more in such a positive way and, whilst it mostly avoids any kind of MCU-style teasing, it’s clear that they don’t intend for this to be a one-and-done. Now that the expectations have been set and the puzzle pieces are all in place, hopefully the next chapter of The Batman can refine the formula in much the same way The Dark Knight did for Batman Begins.
Another Batman, another casting choice that sent corners of the fandom into a frenzy where, thankfully, they’ve been proven wrong again. Only more time under the cowl will confirm it, but based on this performance alone, Robert Pattinson may be the best live-action version of The Dark Knight yet. He’s certainly the most eccentric take on the character since Michael Keaton, portraying him as a brooding loner with no social life and an all-consuming fixation on vengeance. He’s an incredibly weird and off-putting presence in all the best ways, accentuated by how many characters are baffled by his mere presence, but at the same time he’s easily the most human version of Bruce Wayne too. It’s one of the few stories where Batman is not only pushed to his limits but forced to reckon with his methods and change for the betterment of Gotham, and both Pattinson and Reeves have done a fantastic job of portraying that inner conflict and dogged self-righteousness. It’s also the first time since Begins that Batman himself hasn’t been overshadowed by his co-stars, and whilst his civilian side doesn’t get a huge amount of screentime, Pattinson’s presence looms large and finally proves himself in front of a mainstream audience that he’s more than just “that sparkly boy from Twilight“.
However, a Batman is only ever as good as his villains and allies, and the supporting cast of The Batman is certainly worthy inheritors of such revered characters. Jeffrey Wright makes for a compelling Jim Gordon and his repartee with Pattinson feels instantly familiar and yet strikingly fresh; they feel very comfortable with each other and yet distant enough not to fully trust the other. Andy Serkis doesn’t get a huge amount of time as Bruce’s loyal butler Alfred but he makes the most of what he has, especially in a heartbreaking scene where he recalls to Bruce his father’s greatest mistake. Whilst it’s always going to be hard to top Michelle Pfeiffer’s portrayal in Batman Returns, Zoë Kravitz’s Selina Kyle stands wonderfully on its own as a more nuanced and modernised take on the classic femme fatale, and her emotionally-charged performance makes for a great contrast with Pattinson’s dogged stoicism. John Turturro makes for a charming but still unnerving Carmine Falcone, whilst Colin Farrell is utterly unrecognisable as Oz Cobblepot and brings a wickedly sleazy energy to the classic villain, even if his performance at times teeters into Dick Tracy territory; seriously, his accent sounds like Al Pacino doing a Robert DeNiro impression. All that said, the real standout here is Paul Dano’s demented version on The Riddler, who runs with the “familiar yet different” remit of the film to its extreme. He’s easily the most unsettling take on the character yet, far removed from the popular conscience’s vision of Frank Gorshin and Jim Carrey, and yet once the mask comes down he’s still recognisably the puzzle-obsessed weirdo comic books fans have known for years. If this is the standard moving forward in this potential franchise, I can’t wait to see how Reeves reimagines more of Batman’s legendary rogue’s gallery.
Because Gotham City is a fictional location, it has been reinterpreted almost as many times on screen as Batman has himself in a way that often reflects the current interpretation of the character itself. Reeves’ version of the crime-ridden metropolis sits somewhere between the gothic cacophany of Tim Burton’s Gotham and Christopher Nolan’s more grounded take (i.e. basically just Chicago and New York mushed together), bathing the streets and alleys with grime, shadows and neon. It is dripping with atmosphere like a graphic novel come to life, and yet it feels real enough that it’s easy to get lost in its spell. Greig Fraser’s cinematography is a huge part of this effect, and whilst at times the visuals can be underlit and disorienting, it creates an immersive aesthetic so thick you can practically smell the fog and steam that coats the city.
The set and costume design is absolutely top notch, with one of the most practical yet page-accurate Batsuits ever put to film, and a Batmoblie that thankfully eschews the tank-like design of recent years; it looks cool and dangerous, but it still feels like a real car you could feasably buy and modify. There isn’t a whole lot of action here, but what’s there is executed with a irresistable stylistic flair that emphasises the forboding fear of Batman himself, with the Batmobile chase against Penguin and the climactic shown in the heart of the city being the easy standouts. Tying it all together is Michael Giacchino’s haunting score that clings to your ears and oozes with atmosphere on every note, including a simple but instantly memorable new theme that more than earns its place next to the compositions of Danny Elfman, Elliot Goldenthal and Hans Zimmer. The film’s use of Schubert’s “Ave Maria” as a chilling leitmotif is an especially dark touch, plus “Something in the Way” by Nirvana is brilliantly deployed as basically the soundtrack to Bruce’s inner monologue.
The Batman isn’t the best Batman film ever, but captures the essence of the character in a way that no other adaptation has dared to, crafting an evocative and emotionally-rich thriller worthy of such a vaunted character. Yes, it is lengthy and may test the patience of those wanting more comic book spectacle, but the world of Gotham is so thick and all-consuming that it’s easy to just get lost in its gloomy aura. This is absolutely a Batman movie that reflects our modern anxieties and fears, shows its heroes and villains as being far more morally uncertain than ever before, and leaves things open for further expansion without feeling like it is begging for it. If you’re tired of all the cinematic universes and cookie-cutter storytelling of the current superhero landscape, The Batman is a welcome change of pace that reaffirms the genre has plenty more to offer when it diversifies and broadens its horizons.
Let’s not waste any more time. I saw so many movies last year, plus a whole bunch still to catch up on, but if I delayed these reviews any longer I’m gonna end up not covering them at all and I’d feel super guilty about it so…here ya go!
Yeah. That feels like a totally cogent intro…
A fantastic cast and an intriguing premise can’t save this dystopian noir mystery from getting off the ground. It’s really telling when offhand details about the societal collapse and war that led to this water-damaged future are far more fascinating than the actual plot, but it leads to Reminiscence feeling like a bad episode of an otherwise solid TV show. As hard as it tries to differentiate itself, it really is just Inception but with memories in place of dreams; apt, considering it was written and directed by Christopher Nolan’s sister-in-law. Only real reason to watch it is for Thandiwe Newton, who consistently steals the show in a way that makes you wish the movie was about her instead. 5/10
The Night House
Note to Ari Aster: this is how you make a horror movie about depression and suicidal ideation. Rebecca Hall has never been better in this deconstructive twist of both psychological horror and haunted house tales, creating a chilling mystery that leaves you guessing until the end…and long after too. Whilst the ambiguity of what’s really going on adds a lot to the suspense for much of the story, as well as it mostly just being in service to discussing grief and trauma, but there’s a few too many dropped threads and tangents to make it feel totally cohesive. Still, Hall’s haunting performance makes it more than worth the watch, and the fact the filmmakers behind this are now tackling the Hellraiser reboot gives me confidence that they’ll nail the core of Clive Barker’s most famous work. 7/10
Can we please just ban James Corden from appearing in musicals now? Please? I mean, he’s not in this one that much, but he did produce it and so it really is his fault more than anyone. There’s certainly nothing wrong with yet another live-action Cinderella movie, and this one does try to set itself apart in a lot of promising ways, but the execution is absolutely dreadful in nearly every way. Despite its extravagant sets and costumes, the whole production feels cheap and the direction is of an incredibly poor standard for a musical; Kay Cannon may have written the Pitch Perfect movies, but she sure didn’t direct them and that’s obvious here. Camilla Cabello feels completely miscast and she’s not a strong enough actor to make herself even slightly convincing in the lead, the film absolutely wastes much of its cast of British comedians (seriously, how do you make James Acaster unappealing?), and even with his tiny role Corden is more than irksome enough; only Billy Porter and Doc Brown come out of this looking any good. If that viral video of Corden humping on a guy’s car wasn’t enough to scare you away from this movie, allow my words to confirm it: it’s really, really bad. Also, who decided to let Pierce Brosnan sing again? What did we do to deserve that? 2/10
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It
Most of the Conjuring spin-offs have never risen above OK, but the mainline series was always what held the whole enterprise together and that can mainly be owed to James Wan. Well, he was too busy making the batshit glory that is Malignant, so instead this third main instalment ultimately feels like a workmanlike spin-off that happens to star Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga. More than ever, the real-life inspiration feels just like window dressing to another generic exorcism flick, and Michael Chaves just utterly lacks the gonzo style of Wan to make it all tick. Still, Wilson and Farmiga are as engaging as ever, there are a few well-handled sequences here and there, and I’m always happy to see John Noble in anything, so it’s far from a total wash. If you’re invested in the franchise or just want some easy scares, it’s a fine but forgettable Friday night rental. 6/10
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie
Remember that movie The Prom from the other year? Yeah, this is basically that, but the good version. Bringing the hit West End musical to the silver screen, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is a fun and timely musical about being yourself, defying the norm, and looking bloody good while doing it. Whilst Richard E. Grant constantly threatens to steal the show as the veteran queen Loco Chanelle, with his number “This Was Me” being the emotional highlight of the film, it’s young Max Harwood as the titular Jamie who ultimately makes the whole production work. There are plenty of hackneyed moments and forced conflicts, but it’s all so breezy and enjoyable that it’s hard to care if it’s a little trite. 7.5/10
Those Who Wish Me Dead
Taylor Sheridan’s last directorial effort Wind River was a marvellous hidden gem back in 2017, so it’s great to see him get another shot behind the camera, but this Western-influenced thriller is unfortunately a little lacklustre. Angelina Jolie is easily its strongest asset, playing the lead role of a traumatised smokejumper with a compassionate but bitter disposition, and there’s some decent supporting work from the likes of Aiden Gillen and Jon Bernthal. However, the storytelling is muddled and far too understated for a plot with apparent larger consequences, the pacing is all over the place, and as thrilling as the climax is at points, the horrendous flame effects turn what is otherwise a beautiful and grounded film into a cheap CG fest. 6/10
The Last Duel
The first of two Ridley Scott films this year, The Last Duel’s long runtime and grim subject matter may make it a difficult watch, but if you’re in the right mindset this is a brutal and highly effective historical drama that explores gender dynamics and egomania in a way that’s depressingly still topical. Matt Damon and Adam Driver give strong performances as the former allies turned bitter rivals, whilst Ben Affleck puts in a memorably pompous show as the debaucherous Count Pierre, but this film ultimately belongs to Jodie Comer and her devastating role as Marguerite. The script by Nicole Holofcener and Damon & Affleck is also wonderfully constructed, using a Rashomon-style structure that recontextualises and renews each scene as we see the events from three separate perspectives, all leading to the titular duel that is as biting as it is vicious. If you missed this one in theatres and can stomach its more trigger-worthy moments, do yourself a favour and catch up. 9/10
The most expensive and successful Netflix original film yet, watching Red Notice is like watching the feature-length version of a fake movie inside another movie; it’s cliched, over-the-top, and plays out like a parody of itself. Whilst Dwayne Johnson and Ryan Reynolds are two of the most charismatic actors working in Hollywood today, their charms ultimately cancel each other out as they charmless bicker for over two hours, whilst Gal Gadot feels horribly miscast as the main villain. It has all the pizzaz and style you’d want from a big action movie, but it all feels so calculated and unreal that it might as well have been written and directed by the same algorithm that decides what’s next in your Netflix queue. Apparently, we’re getting two more of these. Yay, sarcastic joy! 5/10
tick, tick… BOOM!
Andrew Garfield delivers what may be the defining performance of his career as the man who would go on to create Rent in this fraught but hopeful musical drama directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda. The life and lyrics of Jonathan Larson leap onto the screen with a nervous exuberance that make you want to dance but also may induce a panic attack, all buoyed along by the phenomenal cast that also includes Robin de Jesus, Alexandra Shipp and Vanessa Hudgens; it’s like Uncut Gems with jazz hands. As a struggling writer approaching my 30s without any major success to speak of myself, this one hit home pretty hard but was also an incredibly satisfying kick up the backside to keep going, and one I’m sure I’ll revisit whenever I need to remind myself to keep going because you never know how much longer you’ve got. Miranda had a phenomenal year in 2021, and whilst I prefer both Encanto and In the Heights to tick, tick… BOOM!, this is one that would have snagged the gold in a far less competitive year. 8.5/10
Home Sweet Home Alone
Yeah, this…this is pretty bad. The plot is a meandering mess, the characters are underdeveloped and/or unlikable, the comedy is all based on awkwardness and excessively violent slapstick, and it seems to think just playing the Home Alone theme is enough to make it heartwarming without, you know, actually doing anything but pay lip service to the concept. Archie Yates is clearly a good young actor, but his Max comes off as a selfish and arrogant twerp, whilst the story spends too much time focused on Rob Delaney and Ellie Kemper as this entry’s equivalent to Harry & Marv, and making the burglars sympathetic is just flatly missing the point. Ailsing Bea is totally underutilised in the role that was the emotional centre of the original, whilst great comedic talents like Keenan Thompson, Pete Holmes and Chris Parnell are wasted on cameos. In stronger and more creative hands, this could have been at least some harmless fun, but instead this just feels like a 90 minute SNL skit without a good punchline. 2.5/10
House of Gucci
Whenever Ridley Scott puts out two movies in a year, usually one is good and the other…not so much. For 2021, despite receiving far more attention, it’s House of Gucci that ends up being the far weaker of the two. Swinging between camp melodrama and sophisticated family politics, it can’t decide if it wants to be The Godfather or The Wolf of Wall Street, and its hodgepodge middle-ground approach makes it a disappointment on both fronts. Lady Gaga is admittedly phenomenal as Patrizia Reggiani, mainly because she is the only actor who is able to bounce between its tonal extremes without looking ridiculous. Adam Driver and Al Pacino are pretty good too, but Jared Leto’s performance is such an absolute travesty that he threatens to derail the entire production. He disappears into the character, yes, but he’s a laughable stereotype who’s more cringeworthy than funny or interesting. It’s far from an intolerable watch, but there are very few surprises and it has a bit of a damp squib ending. Also, the needle drops are pretty gratuitous and all over the place; when “Faith” by George Michael started randomly playing over a wedding, I thought the cinema speakers were on the blink. 5/10
I only have vague memories of watching and mildly enjoying the first Sing, and so even I’m honestly surprised by how much I enjoyed Sing 2. Yeah, it’s cheesy and its musical taste isn’t always to my liking, but it has this infectious energy I can’t quite put my finger on. The story has perhaps a few too many subplots, but the core narrative is on-point and sends a solid message about pursuing your art in spite of what those with power and influence say. The cast are all really going for it (I got to the end credits and was like, “Wait, that was Bono and Halsey in those roles?!”), the animation is a step above the usually safe Illumination style, and at least a few of the musical numbers are genuinely a lot of fun on either a visual or auditory level. Defo a solid recommendation for the kids, but also an entertaining enough one for all the adults in the audience too. 7/10
West Side Story
This new adaptation of the classic musical is honestly about as good as the seminal 1961 film version; better in many aspects, but worse in a few others. Spielberg is perhaps not born to be a musical director, but he shows an impressive hand for a first-timer and Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography is *chef’s kiss*. How did this man make a man standing in a puddle look so beautiful? Rachel Zegler and Ariana DeBose are the easy standouts here and are now easily now the definitive versions of Maria and Anita to me. Mike Faist is a great riff, Brian D’arcy James is an inspired choice for Krupke, but I especially love everything they did to update Anybodys (trans headcanon confirmed!). The real sticking point here is Ansel Elgort. It’s a shame, because I do really like how they’ve reworked Tony as a character to be less wide-eyed and more remorseful guy with a troubled past he can’t seem to get away from, but Elgort’s performance is a bit flat and forgettable; if the writing and direction in his scenes weren’t so strong, it would threaten to tank the whole production. Whether you prefer this one or the ’61 version is going to come down to preference. If you put a gun to my head, I’d go with the original, but there is so much I do love about Spielberg’s that I wish I could combine the best of both to make the ultimate version of this show. 8.5/10
Single All The Way
Well, it’s a Netflix Christmas romantic comedy, but gay. That’s honestly all you really need to know. Speaking not facetiously though, this is a silly but cute little bit of holiday nonsense. The script is incredibly tacky and it’s padded to high heaven and there’s a lot of cringeworthy moments, but what ultimately makes it work are the lead performances from Michael Urie and Philemon Chambers, who remain completely earnest and actually manage to pull off the “will they, won’t they” bit without obviously telegraphing where it’ll go. Also, it’s got Barry Bostwick, Jennifer Coolidge and Kathy Najimy in it; how could any queer at least ironically love this. Sure, if I was to genuinely recommend an LGBT+ Christmas movie, I’d say go for Happiest Season, but this…is OK enough too. 6/10
The Worst Person in the World
I’ve never seen a Joachim Trier film before this one, but watching this has made me want to go back through his whole filmography, because this is such a beautiful yet melancholic portrait of millennial angst. Everyone has either been or known a Julie in their lives, and Renate Reinsve brings her to life with such a relatable amount of dissatisfaction and empathy. Her story is not some grand life-affirming tale of what it means to discover your calling or truly find love, but a meditation on how messy and complicated and honestly underwhelming being an adult is and, to not-so-subtly drop the title, that disappointment can make you feel like the worst person in the world. There’s such a simple beauty to this film that reminds me of Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, but one that reflects today’s anxieties. An absolute gem. 8.5/10
Dear Evan Hansen
I don’t think I’ve ever empathised with a movie so much whilst simultaneously hating it so much of it. First off, Dear Evan Hansen is frustratingly incompetently staged as a musical film. Most of the numbers are delivered whilst sitting down or standing still with next to no visual flair. The only exceptions are “Sincerely Me” and “You Will Be Found”, which just so happen to be the best songs. Like, if you took away the music and let the characters just say the lyrics as dialogue, not very much would change. That’s a bad sign. And then there’s Evan who, putting aside how unconvincing Ben Platt is in the part both age-wise and acting-wise, is badly portrayed in regards to perspective. I’ve heard he’s got more of a sociopathic anti-hero vibe in the stage show, which makes a lot more sense, but here he’s just a weeping mess who does some really messed-up stuff purely out of anxiety-fuelled politeness? Yeah, that makes him very hard to like even if I relate to some of his mental health struggles. Some of the cast are pretty good, like Kaitlin Dever and Colton Ryan, and whilst Amandla Stenberg is trying they are left with an underdeveloped character does a pretty shitty thing for poorly motivated reasons and gets no real comeuppance. Also, Amy Adams’ character is supposed to be grieving, I know, but she comes off as more deranged than sad; I half-expected to explode into a homicidal rage at some point. So yeah. It’s bad. The only thing is has to be thankful for is that Cinderella exists, thereby not making it the worst musical this year. 3.5/10
Don’t Look Up
Right up front: I absolutely believe and support the message of this film, and am just as frustrated with how the selfish idiocy and capitalistic lust of our world leaders is leading us right towards disaster…but just because I agree with its politics does not mean I think it’s a great movie. Don’t Look Up is honestly just OK. The performances are overall pretty strong, there’s some great gags spread throughout, that one Ariana Grande song is a bop, and as with Adam McKay’s previous satires he does a fantastic job of translating complex topics into easily digestible comedy. That said though, the movie makes its point pretty quickly and then just continues to hammer it home over and over for two hours plus, most of the supporting characters are caricatures so far removed from reality that it stops being biting and starts getting annoying, and its final conclusion is telegraphed a mile away. This could be a movie that ages better with time and distance, but it also just as easily could seem incredibly dated in mere years. Overall, its intentions are too noble to call it a flop, but I still can’t understand how so many awards bodies are slobbering all over it with accolades. Not everything with Leonardo DiCaprio and Meryl Streep in it is immediately Oscar-calibre, folks. 6/10
Can we please try and make a Megan Fox renaissance happen? Honestly, this woman really got done dirty simply for the crime of being attractive, starring in some bad movies, and calling out a director in an admittedly tactless but prescient way; c’mon, there’s people in Hollywood who’ve done far worse we’re still making excuses for. But anyway, Till Death is a solid little horror/thriller that shows Fox has solid scream queen chops if Jennifer’s Body hadn’t already made that clear to you. It takes a little too long to get going, but the basic Gerry’s Game-inspired premise is immediately engaging and works in some very tight but gory and satisfying set pieces. If you’re looking for a solid bit of Friday night schlock, you wouldn’t go wrong picking this. 7.5/10
Is this the best Paul Thomas Anderson movie? No, but it’s quite possibly the most Paul Thomas Anderson movie. It’s a movie very much about the journey rather than the destination, and what a wild ride that journey is! Cooper Hoffman is a revelation; he mirrors what made his late great father so charming and fascinating, but he’s still very much his own man. Alana Haim is equally astounding and her love/hate relationship with Hoffman is what keeps the movie going on track even as it keep going off on tangents. Bradley Cooper, Sean Penn and Tom Waits are absolutely nuts in their all-too-brief roles, with Cooper’s performance especially being such a perfect capture of the bizarre lunacy of the very-real Jon Peters. Honestly, just so any side characters just screaming out for movies of their own. They’ve truly created a living, breathing world in this nostalgia-fuelled reimagining of 70s California, and I loved every minute. This is what I wanted from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood! 9/10
Stellar performances, beautiful sets and costumes, stunning cinematography, a moody and gothic atmosphere so thick and creamy you could cut it with a butterknife, grotesque and haunting imagery. There is so much to love about Nightmare Alley…but a movie is nothing without a story, and the story here is easily its weakest element. The first act at the carnival is really solid; a great ode to Todd Browning, as you’d expect from a cinephile like Del Toro. The second act though overstays its welcome and eats into what should be a more beefy climax. The biggest tell? I predicted the ending within the first five minutes. That is never a good sign. It’s a gorgeous movie, and that counts for a lot, but it’s not enough. But goddamn, Cate Blanchett is hot in this! 6/10
If you were disappointed by Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables, I’d highly recommend giving this one a watch because everything that film got wrong, this one gets right. Yes, it has its moments of grit and sadness, but it’s also grand and unabashedly romantic and so full of life, and such a perfect translation of the stage experience to the screen whilst taking advantage of the best of both mediums. Joe Wright’s direction is strong, the aesthetic of the film is exquisite down to the last detail, and the songs by The National are all brimming with emotion and pain, but the real reason to watch this is just for Peter Dinklage and Haley Bennett. These are honestly probably the best performances I’ve ever seen from either of these actors, and the fact Dinklage especially has been snubbed an Oscar nom for this is a crime. Yes, I know he’s swimming in Emmys at this point, but dammit the man deserves at least to be recognised! Whatever. Just go watch it, because it feels like right now nobody is. 8.5/10