Knives Out: a twisty, hilarious tale from Rian Johnson

After getting lambasted by angry man-babies for his attempt to do something very slightly different with Star Wars, you could forgive writer-director Rian Johnson if he decided he wanted to retreat to the hills never to make a movie again. However, the best thing you can do, with most setbacks in life, is to get back out there.

And boy, he did. For Knives Out is a triumph and, for me, one of the best films of the year.

It perhaps helps that we’ve had a lot of blockbuster and superhero films of late. So with Johnson’s film being in the mould of a classic whodunnit, it’s probably a welcome change of pace for a lot of movie fans. A palate cleanser at the end of the year? Maybe. Whatever it is, it’s a great story. Rumour is he came up with the idea for the film shortly after finishing Brick in 2005, so it’s been a long time coming. I am glad he’s finally been able to bring it to the screen.

From the first few minutes you can tell this is going to be a fun ride. The dialogue is sharp and peppery, the editing and direction slick and assured, and the performances on point.

The film opens with the death of the patriarch of a large family, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) and the family being called in for questioning. So we get to meet them one by one: the daughters – eldest Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and free spirit Joni (Toni Collette), underachieving son Walt (Michael Shannon) and shady son-in-law Richard (Don Johnson).

From the first few minutes you can tell this is going to be a fun ride. The dialogue is sharp and peppery, the editing and direction slick and assured, and the performances on point. Indeed, it’s one of those films where you can tell the cast all upped their game, knowing they were making something special.

Lurking in the background of these opening exchanges is master detective, Benoit Blanc (played with a sublime southern accent and real gusto by Daniel Craig. Probably relishing the chance to lean into the sort of role he rarely gets to play). Slowly, he gets more involved, taking over the questioning from the police and unsettling the family.

In some ways he acts as antagonist, of sorts, trying to get to the truth of Harlan’s murder whilst keeping Harlan’s nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) close – for the story is primarily told from her point of view. She seems distraught at Harlan’s death but is clearly hiding something. But then so is everyone. In classic whodunit style most of the family have a credible reason as to why they might want to kill the old man.

The trick, these days, is to try and keep the audience guessing, but not to confuse them trying to be too clever with the plot. I’d say that Johnson does this in a remarkably accomplished way, getting the balance spot on. It all goes up a notch when bad apple son Hugh (Chris Evans) turns up. After Captain America you can see the joy Evans has in playing a bit of a bastard.

It’s also worth mentioning Ana de Armas. As our protagonist she is really holding the whole thing together. I’d only really seen her in a small part in Blade Runner: 2049, so it was nice to see what she could do in a more complex role – and she does well.

Johnson has apparently said in an interview that he’d be open to doing a sequel, following Benoit Blanc around as he solves other murders. I am torn on this as sometimes it’s better to let things lie and not end up watering down the impact you had striking gold first time round.

Whatever he ends up doing, Knives Out remains one of Johnson’s best pieces of work, adding another string to his bow as a filmmaker (Brick, The Brothers Bloom, Looper, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) and makes me excited to see what he does next.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: Tarantino’s swansong

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the ninth film by Quentin Tarantino – and it’s one you’d better make sure you watch because he’s only making one more and that’s it, he’s done. His legacy of ten films will be there for us to watch but no more will be made, verily the movie gods have spoken (until he gets bored and comes out of retirement).

Now this used to make me sad, but in recent years it’s bothered me less. With each film he releases I end up enjoying them in parts, but don’t come out of the cinema fired up the way I used to – perhaps not since Kill Bill have I been blown away by one of his films. Yes, his stories all have had standout scenes and moments, but they just haven’t engaged me scene for scene the way his early ones did. His great vengeance and furious anger has dissapated.

The problem lies in the edit

Since his editor, Sally Menke, died in 2010 (she edited all of his films up until Inglorious Basterds) his storytelling has never been as tight. Legendary director Peter Bogdanovich was reportedly so good because he inherently understood the editing process; indeed, he was a brilliant editor in his own right. This is something Tarantino lacks and no one is strong enough to stand up to him in this regard, be it an editor or a producer.

As a result Once Upon a Time in Hollywood clocks in at 2 hours 45 minutes. If you add trailers we’re talking 3 hours plus – and this is the case every time you see one of his films these days. Add to this that I’ve read recently he wants to release an even longer version. If this doesn’t tell us he completely believes his own hype, then I don’t know what does.

Once upon a time…

Edit aside, the story here is an interesting one. It focuses on TV leading man Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), an actor whose star power is fading. A man trying to revive his career, but in general only has his stunt man and best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) in his corner, supporting his choices and acting as kind of a big brother. Cliff drives Rick around trying to keep him on the straight and narrow. They prop each other up and the dynamic between these two alpha males of Hollywood is the beating heart of this story.

Pitt is all easygoing charm, much like his character Rusty in Ocean’s Eleven. DiCaprio is tense, twitchy and unhinged, drawing on his characters from Wolf of Wall Street, Shutter Island and a host of others. It’s a delightful pairing and their chemistry sings in each scene. You just want to spend time watching them hang out and shoot the breeze.

A love letter to Sharon

Ahead of the film’s release many expected this story to focus on Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and the days leading up to her murder, but it doesn’t. The slight of hand Tarantino has played with the film’s marketing has frustrated some who have written about feeling cheated. They’ve been given minimal Tate (and therefore minimal Robbie). Yes, she’s a presence throughout, but her story is only very loosely connected to Dalton’s, which is the main one we follow.

Tarantino has written about how he just wanted to spend time with her, celebrating Tate as a person and an artist. This comes across, but is does feel like a waste of Robbie and we still don’t hugely get to know Tate as a person from this film. Robbie is an Oscar-winner and could have brought so much more to the part, had she been given more to work with.

There are things to love

Despite the baggy run time and the strangely languid pace of storytelling there are still many things to love in this film. I mean, you’ve got Pitt, DiCaprio and Robbie as the leads – three beautiful humans and all powerhouse actors. Pitt’s laidback charisma shines through in every scene. DiCaprio has played a bad guy for Tarantino before in Django Unchained and, in a sequence in this film, he plays the bad guy again, but not in the way you might think. It’s rather inspired. People forget how good he is at comedy.

And Robbie, whilst not having a great deal to do, drifts through the film as perhaps a symbol of innocence, beauty and hope for the future. It’s a joy to watch her dance and smile on screen. I just wish she had been more integral to the A plot story.

So, all in all, this film for me sits about mid-teir Tarantino. It looks beautiful and there were a few standout scenes and moments, but the issue I had was, like his last three, it’s overlong and drifts rather than engages me in the story and the characters.

Maybe some day someone will release a tighter edit of this film. I’d get behind that. In the meantime we have one more to go, I for one am most curious about what his final film will be. I hope he burns out rather than fades away as a director.

The Kid Who Would Be King – a warm-hearted retro delight of a movie

Joe Cornish hasn’t had the best run of luck as a director. He broke out with Attack the Block in 2011 and it’s taken eight years for him to give us another film. Through no fault of his own I might add, as he’s been plugging away on projects but I guess that’s just how the cookie crumbles, even for an up-and-coming director and a man with talent and friends in high places (hello Edgar Wright and Steven Spielberg).

Anyway, that’s all behind him now because his second big studio film as director is a pure delight. The Kid Who Would Be King harkens back to films like The Goonies and Stand By Me. A spirit perhaps only recently recaptured in TV show Stranger Things.

We start with 12-year-old schoolkid Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis, son of actor Andy Serkis), standing up to bullies Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris), protecting his weaker friend Bedders (Dean Chaumoo). In one scrap Alex finds himself in a building site and discovers a sword stuck in a lump of concrete. Turns out this is the sword in the stone, Excalibur, the sword of King Arthur. Who would’ve thunk it?

These events awaken evil sorcesses Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson), who seems to be trapped in a tree underground. She wants the sword for herself – to unleash evil on the world and that sort of thing. Alex pulling the sword out the stone also triggers Merlin (Angus Imrie, son of actor Celia Imrie) to return to the mortal realm (in the form of a teenager) to help Alex on his quest to defeat Morgana.

Alex ends up teamed up with aforementioned bullies Lance and Kaye, as well as the trusty Bedders. The four of them must learn how to become warriors and stop Morgana once and for all.

Now, plot wise, there are some pretty big leaps you have to take in order to be on board with the story, but this doesn’t matter that much. If you’re picking holes in the plot you’re probably the kind of person that refuses to be swept up in the magic of it all. Shame on you.

Because, in short, this film is utterly charming. It’s the sort you watch when you’re sad and need cheering up. Or you’re hungover. Or it’s Sunday and you’re visiting the family and need something that everyone can watch. And this isn’t to put it down in any way.

Making this sort of film is actually very hard to do.
It’s got real heart, charm and inventiveness. Simply put, it’s a good-natured feel-good tale. Phrases that get thrown around a lot, but genuinely apply here.

And the dynamic between the four ‘knights of the round table’: Alex, Bedders, Lance and Kaye, are the sort you just don’t see in film these days. Admittedly Lance and Kaye are a little underserved as characters, but Serkis and Chaumoo as Alex and Bedders have real chemistry. Serkis in particular, has clearly inherited a lot of his father’s skills as an actor. For a boy that’s barely even a teenager he leads the film well and holds the screen.

And then there’s Merlin.
Angus Imrie, also, must have picked up a trick or two from his mother Celia. He’s quite fantastic as teenage Merlin – for example in the way he performs his spells cutting shapes with his hands, to the way he walks and holds his body and gazes at you intently and disconcertingly in a somewhat devious manner. He elevates the film. Moreover, every now and then he switches into old Merlin (Patrick Stewart), which is both surprising and a little heartbreaking.

My slight niggle is that Rebecca Ferguson as Morgana is underserved – even more so than Lance and Kaye. Which is a shame as Ferguson is a fantastic actor. She could have brought some real menace and threat as Morgana, but for the most part she’s fused to a tree underground, stuck whispering commands to minions.

In one scene she gets a face to face with Merlin and I began to get excited, thinking we’d get to see a real juicy exchange between them. Sadly it didn’t last long. However, I get why. The star of this film is Alex and the focus is on him, and to a lesser extent, Bedders.

And in that I can be satisfied.
So, if you’re hungover, or sad, or tired, or anything really – go watch this film.

You’ll come out feeling that life is a little better with your heart and your cockles (whatever they are) truly warmed.

 

Spider-Man: Into the spider verse – review

First things first. Where did this film come from? All of a sudden, there it was. My spidey sense did not tingle, I was basically caught fully unawares. Although, as far as surprises go, this was quite a welcome one.  When this came out some people questioned whether we needed yet another Spider-Man movie. However this was quickly put to bed as many have since said that this is quite possibly the best iteration of of the character so far. In your face live action movies, animation has beaten you to it!

The setup goes: young teen Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) gets bitten by a trippy psy-trance spider and then stumbles on the actual Spider-Man (Chris Pine) in the middle of a fight with a bunch of bad guys, led by Wilson Fisk aka Kingpin (Liev Schriber).

Fisk has a plan to create a rip between dimensions so can bring back his lost loved ones. However, his first attempt doesn’t go to plan, Spider-Man stops him, albeit temporarily. What does occur, though, is the momentary dimensional rip causes a number of alternate reality Spider-heroes to be sucked into the same dimension as Miles. And with the Spider-Man of Miles’ dimension unable to continue the fight, it’s left to Miles to take up the mantle.

With great power and all that…

Now this film was written by Phil Lord of Lord and Miller, the guys behind The LEGO Movie and 21 Jump Street. So in terms of bucking convention and getting a bit trippy, they’ve got you covered. Well, Phil Lord does. I am sure Miller was busy elsewhere.

Generally speaking, this film delivers way beyond expectation. In that there was no expectation. And so, no pressure. Often the best films turn up that way, completely out the blue. The sheer invention, wit and detail on display here was a joy to experience. The film takes real risks and pushes the formula of what a superhero movie should be in a way that live action just cannot match.

I’ve read that the filmmakers wanted you to feel as if you were within a comicbook and they’ve really achieved that – we get dialogue boxes popping up when characters are thinking certain things, as well as little visual flourishs that nod to their emotions, plus split panels across the screen that chop up the action.

And it’s all done so lovingly.
From a storytelling, character, and cinematic point of view it hits the mark on all levels.

Add to that it’s also very funny.

Hopefully this won’t be the last we see of Miles Morales. The question next though will be, can Phil Lord and co pull off that difficult second album?

My top ten films of 2018

Yes, I am late to the party with a ‘best of’ reviews of the films of 2018, but I like to let my thoughts settle a bit first. Reflecting on the past twelve months I think 2018 turned out to be a pretty amazing year at the cinema. Here are some of my favourites.

1. A Quiet Place

For a modern studio horror blockbuster to have the audience go silent from the off and pretty much stay that way throughout is, in this day and age, some kind of miracle. Although writer-director-actor John Krasinkski somehow managed it. He also persuaded his real life wife Emily Blunt to star alongside him, which was a canny bit of decision-making, as their chemistry elevated the film. We really felt their plight as parents desperately trying to protect their children in the face of these unrelenting monsters.

2. Avengers: Infinity War

Marvel’s cinematic universe (MCU) had been leading up to this point, this two-part finale, for over a decade now. The pressure on the Russo brothers as directors must have been immense. When it arrived though, this film, with its dozens of characters, came together effortlessly. Not only did the directors manage to juggle all these heroes, giving many some lovely little moments in which to sink their teeth, but also deliver a huge purple CGI bad guy in the form of Thanos (Josh Brolin), and have him be a credible, relatable antagonist. Bravely, even more so than The Empire Strikes Back, Thanos utterly won at the end, leaving our heroes depleted and broken.

3. Mission Impossible: Fallout

How is Tom Cruise still going? How is he still alive? Each mission he accepts as super spy Ethan Hunt just gets bigger and more impossible. And he’s in his 50s now. Honestly, he puts most of us to shame. Here Fallout brings together the last few films much like Bond’s SPECTRE tried to, although does it far better. It probably helped that Cruise brought back director Christopher McQuarrie, (the first to return for a second go at the franchise), as they seem to have a great working relationship. This is also backed up by the fact that, recently, McQuarrie has signed on to direct two more mission films, back to back.

4. I, Tonya

Telling the story of real life skater Tonya Harding, Margot Robbie puts in an outstanding performance in the lead role. The film plays out quite like Scorsese’s Goodfellas, in that it charts the rise and fall of Tonya (like it did with Henry Hill), has freeze frames where the characters break the fourth wall to speak to the audience, and comes complete with a great soundtrack. Robbie is also supported by Sebastian Stan (as Tonya’s husband), who put in a great performance. Although it’s Alison Janney as Tonya’s mother that almost steals the whole thing – or at least the scenes she’s in.

5. Black Panther

Culturally, this movie was hugely significant. It starred almost a complete pan-African cast and featured a superhero of colour as the lead. It had kick ass women (both as warriors and scientists), a cool soundtrack (by Kendrick Lamar), a layered antagonist, and helped expand the MCU beyond just stories set in America (this took place in the fictional African nation of Wakanda). Considering Ryan Coogler as director was in his early 30s and only had a few films under his belt, the end result was an astonishing achievement. Moreover, it was a blast to watch and audiences really cared about the characters.

6. Coco

Coming out almost a year ago (Jan 2018 in the UK) this film told the story of a boy who finds a guitar and gets transported to the land of the dead. He then has to seek out a dead musician in order to return to the land of the living. Now… this is another film by Pixar which will hit you hard in the emotional solar plexus. Much like the first few minutes of Up, or two or three times in Inside Out, every few years Pixar put out a film that becomes an instant classic. This one won two Academy awards – and deservedly so. A word of warning though, if you’ve recently lost a loved one, this will hit you especially hard. You should still watch it though, perhaps it’s even more reason to do so.

7. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Writer-director Martin McDonagh can boast dark comedies In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths as part of his filmography. And whilst they’re both great (In Bruges in particular) they don’t tackle the most weighty of subjects. Then he goes and does Three Billboards (out Jan 2018 in the UK) and it blows us away. Yes it’s dark and yes it’s funny, but it’s so much more than that. It got nominated for seven Academy awards and won two of them, which is not surprising. Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell both put in some of the best performances of their careers.

8. Widows

Steve McQueen as a director is astounding. His directorial debut starts with Hunger (2008), then Shame (2011), 12 Years a Slave (2013) and now Widows. Some output. Widows tells the story of a group of wives and girlfriends left to pick up the pieces after their partners all die in a heist gone wrong. It’s a tough, muscular piece that feels a lot like Michael Mann’s Heat. Although it’s not just a straight up crime movie, it juggles weighty themes throughout, mixing complex characters and commentary on societal issues with the action. Plus the cast are strong throughout: Viola Davis, Cynthia Erivo, Elizabeth Debicki, Daniel Kaluuya, Colin Farrell, Michelle Rodriguez – and all put in fantastic performances.

9. Deadpool 2

How does one top the first Deadpool movie? Add Cable, add X-Force, up the comedy, up the action, up the stakes. Introduce Peter. I appreciate a lot of this won’t make sense if you haven’t seen the movie, but if you have even a vague interest in superheroes and comedy, then it should be on your list. Morever, Deadpool as a character sits apart from the rest of the MCU heroes. He breaks the fourth wall, swears a lot, does filthy things. And forcing him to work with more overtly heroic characters like Collosus, or the more cynical ones like Cable just add to the comedy.

10. American Animals

This film is a true story, amazingly, somehow. It tells the tale of a bunch of college kids who decide to steal $12m worth of old books. They’re not criminals, so it all goes horribly wrong. Now this film feels slightly like I, Tonya in that it splices ‘to camera’ interviews of the real life guys into the narrative. This gets mixed together with interviews by two of the actors playing characters; the enthusiastic Warren (Evan Peters) and the reluctant Spencer (Barry Keoghan). Both actors put in convincing performances and the whole thing builds in a way that is hard to believe, were it not, in actual fact, a true story.

Bad Times at the El Royale: substance and style aplenty

Drew Goddard began his career writing for cult classic show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, then became part of J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot team penning scripts for Alias and Lost. In 2013 he helped set up the first season (as showrunner) of Netflix’s Daredevil (one of Marvel’s stronger TV shows) and before that wrote monster film Cloverfield (2008) and debuted as writer- director with the excellent Cabin in the Woods (2012); then followed this up writing the screenplays for World War Z (2013) and The Martian (2015).

Basically he has a filmography to die for – from a writer and up-and-coming director’s point of view.

And now, as writer-director, he brings us another original tale in Bad Times at the El Royale (great title); starring the relative unknown Cynthia Erivo (one of the best actors in new film Widows at the moment) along with seasoned actors Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth, Jeff Bridges and Dakota Johnson.

The story takes place at the El Royale hotel, a building that has the border of two states running through it and feels like a throwback to a bygone age. We open with a man stashing something under the floor in one of the rooms. He’s then shot. Fast forward a decade and the hotel has fallen on hard times (basically: no guests). Yet a random, entirely unrelated group of guests turn up at the same time, and it’s clear from the off they’re each hiding something and have their own agendas.

So far so Tarantino.

Travelling salesman Dwight (Hamm) does most of the talking in the opening scene (tapping into his Don Draper days), deploying charisma, charm – and a bit of smarm – to the max. Singer Darlene (Erivo) arrives and acts guarded; alleged holy man Father Flynn (Bridges) seems genial enough, but is clearly hiding something.

Finally, moody chick Emily (Dakota Johnson) completes the group. She says almost nothing, other than to write ‘fuck you!’ in the ledger when asked her name.

The hotel’s concierge Miles (Lewis Pullman) tries his best to provide the group with the full hotel experience but it’s clear none of them are remotely interested. You can almost sense the tension in the air and predict that everything is going to go sideways pretty quickly.

All it will take is a spark.

Once they head off to their rooms we follow Dwight and learn some interesting things about him. After he discovers certain unsavoury things in his room he explores the hotel further and finds a hidden corridor which allows visual and audio access to all of the guests’ rooms. And so the plot thickens.

Without giving too much away it’s worth saying that the aforementioned stuff stashed in one of the rooms really just acts as a MacGuffin to drive the plot along and allow the characters to clash in interesting ways.

It all starts to go a bit mad by the time Chris Hemsworth’s character turns up and, overall, the whole thing could lose twenty minutes off the running time. But it’s still a fun watch.

For me, it didn’t quite hit the heights – in terms of sheer enjoyment – of the Cabin in the Woods, but it’s still an entertaining watch.

 

Mission Impossible Fallout: the best one yet?

We were first introduced to super spy Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) in the first Mission Impossible in 1996 (directed by Brian de Palma), and it represented a bit of a departure for Cruise. His last film credited film before that was Interview with the Vampire (1994) and, with maybe the exception of Top Gun, he’d not really done action before.

Not that the first Mission was big on action, it was more a spy thriller with an action feel. And it’s fair to say the franchise has grown and morphed over the years. It switched gears, opting for full blown action for the second film and hasn’t looked back.

Now a juggernaut blockbuster, a huge part of the franchise’s success has been down to Cruise driving it, such is his star power.

For the sixth instalment, Fallout, Christopher McQuarrie returned as director (the first to do so), and went about giving it a different look and feel to his last film, Rogue Nation. The main premise here being the ‘fallout’ from all Ethan’s prior missions. So, in terms of setup (not that it matters much), we learn that Ethan’s team have lost three nuclear weapons which, obviously, they’d like back before a terrorist group called ‘the apostles’ decide to unleash them – as is the way with bad guys.

Blaming Ethan for losing the nukes is CIA director Erica Sloane (Angela Basset), who decides to pair him up with Agent August Walker (Henry Cavill) to ensure the job gets properly. Ethan’s a scalpel and Walker is a blunt hammer. They immediately butt heads, but both grudgingly accepting that they have the same goal.

Cut to a trial by fire for Walker, who has to immediately proceed with a halo jump out of a plane over Paris for his first mission with Hunt, infiltrating a fancy party to make contact with a lead that should get them closer to the nukes. And whether it’s intensely visceral brawls in bathrooms, foot or motorbike or car chases, Cruise is at the heart of it all.

Now, we know he does all his own stunts, and a major part of the appeal of watching these films is wondering what crazy stuff he’ll do next. To the point where you find yourself exclaiming, ‘Oh my God, that’s Tom Cruise, he’s running across the top of Blackfriars bridge in London! He’s really doing it!’ This happens multiple times – often within a single scene.

The clever thing the filmmakers have managed to pull off is finding new and inventive ways in which to get from one action set piece to the next. And new ways in which to put Tom Cruise is perilous situations. You can almost imagine the headlines, ‘Tom Cruise died filming the latest Mission Impossible.’ Whilst it would be sad news indeed, it wouldn’t be hugely shocking. Probably with people saying, ‘Well, it’s the way he would have wanted to go.’

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the Mission films are now a finely tuned machine. The action is tangible, visceral and exciting, and if CGI is used, it’s hard to pinpoint where or when. Indeed, McQuarrie manages to get a number of the action set pieces to feel like Christopher Nolan put them together, which is high praise indeed.

Then there’s the storytelling.
Yes, these films are action blockbusters, but they also feel like they deliver on character in a dynamic way. Never did I suffer from action fatigue, or feel that any character moments were being shoehorned into the story between the car chases and explosions, it all felt organic and well put together.

To the point where I’m comfortable saying that this is the best Mission yet.
Mr Cruise, I look forward to seeing what you’ll do for the next one, should you choose to accept it.

Ant-Man and the Wasp: it’s quantum baby!

The first Ant-Man was a welcome surprise – funny, inventive, and it had a lot of heart. What would the sequel offer, more of the same? Go bigger? Go smaller?

It’s worth mentioning that in the first film the story touches on the quantum realm, the place where Ant-Man can go if he shrinks to sub-atomic levels. Well, for Ant-Man and the Wasp the story picks up after events from Captain America: Civil War, where Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), after siding with Captain America by getting in an almighty fight with the rest of the Avengers in an airport in Germany, finds himself under house arrest for two years, under the watchful eye of the FBI, led by the surprisingly amusing Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) – who clearly admires Scott as a hero, but has a job to do keeping him contained.

The first film mentions Hank’s wife Janet, lost in quantum realm for decades. Hank and Hope begin to suspect she might still be alive, so set about building a device to bring her back.

They learn that, after his brief journey into the quantum realm, Scott may now have a connection to Janet, so they need his help. The issue is, a strange, shadowy figure named Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) also has an interest in their quantum technology, as does dodgy technology dealer Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins).

And thus we have chase after chase (putting to use size in inspired ways, giant Pez dispenser anyone?) around the picturesque streets of San Francisco as Ghost and Sonny try and steal Hank’s lab and technology, as Hank and Hope try aim to evade them. And Scott sort of gets in the way a bit.

So, plot wise, it gets a little bit samey and bogged down with all the characters running around in circles a little. However, it does make for some nice set pieces, in particular one where Scott’s suit malfunctions in a school with hilarious results – in a scene that wouldn’t have felt out of place in a Deadpool movie.

That said, it’s full of jokes, probably funnier than the first film, with bigger set pieces, more action and higher stakes. Hope as Wasp, in particular, gets a lot more screen time and is an exciting hero. Different enough to Scott’s Ant-Man (she has wings and blasters, and also a much more fluid fighting style), so as a duo they’re a ton of fun to watch on screen, throwing bad guys left and right.

In general, as far as sequels go, it’s a big thumbs up. Some critics have said the stakes aren’t high enough and it doesn’t reach the heights of Thor: Ragnarok, Infinity War or Black Panther, but those are basically three of Marvel’s most successful films out the 18 or so they’ve produced, so I think this comparison is unfair to make. More accurately, how does it compare to say, Thor: The Dark World or Guardians of the Galaxy 2? In my book, it’s up there, better than both possibly, sitting comfortably middle of the pack. Which is no bad thing at all.

It also has, for my money, one of the best stings from Marvel in some time. That’s all I’ll say on that, but watch to the end to see if you agree.

Infinity War: the pathos of Thanos

So, Avengers: Infinity War from Marvel Studios. The biggest of epic battles to end all epic battles (although not quite, as there’ll be an Avengers 4 in 2019, but more on that later). So, yes, there’s Thanos (Josh Brolin), a really bad guy. The worst. He’s purple, with a big chin from the planet Titan. He’s from Titan, not just his chin. That would be weird.

Yes, so Thanos. He wants to acquire some powerful trippy stones, so he can kill half the universe (that old chestnut). But… he has obstacles in his way, heroes! Earth’s mightiest ones, in fact. There’s Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) aka Iron Man, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) aka Spider-Man, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) aka, er, Thor, plus precisely 57 others I cannot be bothered to name.

But rest assured, they’re all great. Many have capes, for example.

And because there’s so many of them (and imax screens are only so big), the directors (the Russo brothers) have opted to split them up. Have them fighting battles in different locations. Some earth, some in space.

This is a nice idea and provides a change of scenery, so it’s not just one giant battle on earth. It also means we get some sexy pairings we’ve not seen before (Tony Stark, Steven Strange and Peter Parker, Rocket and Thor, that sort of thing). And from these odd couplings banter springs forth, classic Marvel. Keep the jokes coming. They’re sorely needed in an epic film such as this, lest we stray into dour DC territory.

But we don’t. It’s all good. The filmmakers know what they’re doing. They also, wisely, keep the focus on Thanos. This is his story. Nay, no longer will we have bad guys with questionable motivation, for Thanos has a decent reason. It’s just his execution (pun intended) that is perhaps somewhat suspect. Brolin sells it though, humanising the purple-chinned one. We connect, even if we don’t agree with him.

It’s not all Thanos Thanos Thanos though. Each hero (yes, all 57 of them) gets a little moment to shine, at least once, even if it’s a tiny line. Some get more than a line of course, it’s all about whose agent negotiated for what screen time. Isn’t it? I mean, let’s take the credits. Chris Pratt gets ‘with Chris Pratt’. His agent has to get a bonus for that one surely?

Anyway. The war. Yes. Each hero gets a moment and some get really cool ones too. Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) for example, finally, shows levels of badassery we’ve not seen. And it’s joyous. Thor gets a moment that rivals a couple of the best bits of Ragnarok (this other film he was in) and Tony has upgraded his suit to repair quicker than Wolverine (sorry, other franchise). Drax quietly steals most scenes he’s in and Star-Lord questions his masculinity when confronted with a pirate-angel (this will make sense when you see the film).

Basically, the film’s really good, albeit exhausting. Must be all the grizzled heroes and big-chinned bad’uns spouting worthy dialogue all over the place. Anyway, if you love Marvel films, you’ll get all as giddy as a cosplayer as comic con. You’ll be thrilled, shocked, scared, entertained and, perhaps saddened a little in places. But don’t worry, the conclusion of this story, a bit like Game of Thrones and winter, is coming (right after Deadpool 2 and Ant-Man and the Wasp this year and Captain Marvel next year).

May the force be with you.
Sorry, wrong franchise. Um, how can I make this better?

Hail Hydra.
#teamthanos

Ready Player One: a young man’s game?

‘Have you heard the news? Spielberg is directing Ready Player One!’ Thus went the geek cries across the interwebs – and I was one of them. For this was pleasing, one of cinema’s greatest directors was going to bring to screen a fast-paced and cinematic – but frankly tricky – book by Ernest Cline.

Mostly because it’s packed with ’80s pop culture references, which go some way to explain its huge popularity. So it made sense from a licensing point of view, that only someone with as many connections as Spielberg could pull it off. Plus, with the film straddling the real world as much as an artificial one, you’re effectively, almost, directing two films.

And there’s less than a handful of directors with enough experience to be able to juggle this effectively, and get something that’s both true to the book, cinematic and emotionally engaging to screen.

It also helps that it’s a young man’s adventure/coming-of-age story that’s set in a sci-fi future. One where humanity spends most of their time in a virtual world, because it’s better than the real one. Which is a perfect fit for Spielberg right?

At least, maybe it was almost two decades ago when he gave us films like Minority Report and AI. And to be honest, Tin Tin aside, this past decade he’s focused on more historical stories (War Horse, Lincoln, Bridge of Spies). Which had me wonder, would the heavy performance capture side of this film be beyond him? Is modern sci-fi and fantasy – on this scale – more of a young director’s game?

Well, we could argue that a director like Duncan Jones is (relatively) young and his performance capture fantasy fest Warcraft didn’t strike a huge chord with audiences and critics. So perhaps inexperience plays a part too. Moreover, computer game adaptations never seem to do well. Although Ready Player One isn’t an actual computer game, it does occupy a lot of that territory.

Ultimately though, beyond technology and techniques, a successful movie has got to be about the story and how much we engage with the characters. Spectacle can only get us so far. And granted, performance capturing huge chunks of any film must be a slog for a director of any age, but if we don’t connect with the characters we don’t like the film. Simple as that really.

Well, in the case of Ready Player One the story starts with the inventor of the aforementioned virtual world (the OASIS) James Halliday (Mark Rylance) and his death. This releases a recording in which Halliday says he’ll gift control of his world – and his vast fortune – to whoever finds three keys hidden within the game.

The way you find them is by knowing as much about past pop culture (films and retro gaming in particular) as much as Halliday does (or did). Luckily, our main character Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is one such geek. Perhaps the ultimate geek.

Although he’s not alone, other gamers (known as gunters) seek the keys, too. As does an evil corporation led by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn). Halliday’s vision was that the OASIS was free, a place of escape. But Sorrento and his gang would prefer to run lots of ads and monetise it (shout out Mark Zuckerberg).

So that’s the setup. (And a bit of my usual brain dump and rambling thought process.)

Here’s the thing. I read the book, as did my partner. She enjoyed the film but I only found it to be a so-so experience. For me, more, meh.

Now I don’t want to be one of those people that loves a book and finds any excuse to hate a film, honestly. I really wanted to like this film. I just don’t feel like it captured the spirit of the story in the way I’d hoped. Particularly given it was Spielberg at the helm – the ultimate blockbuster adventure director.

Without delving too much into specifics (head here for that), I get why Spielberg made most of the choices he did. Books give you a chance to add in a lot more detail, a chance for characters to allow their inner monologue to run wild, a chance to build up certain timelines and indulge in specific things you just cannot get away with in a film. In short, you can take your time.

In a film you’ve no such luxury. So Spielberg ditches a lot of the early setup of Wade building up his credits within the game, his initial meetings with love interest and fellow Gunter Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) and other such indulgences. Out goes much of the real world scenes early on, in favour of getting straight into the meat of the action. He also has Wade meet Art3mis face to face much earlier than the book, presumably so they have more of a connection that feels real.

For me, the film comes alive when Wade and his friends are united (in both the real world and the OASIS) around the time they’re going after the second key. This harkens back the sort of storytelling and sense of adventure Spielberg brought to The Goonies (he more or less co-directed with Richard Donner), E.T. and countless other films.

Perhaps, on a second watch, I’ll find more that I love about this film. Perhaps, despite enjoying the book, the film wasn’t really aimed at me (I am in my 30s) and is, in fact, The Goonies for the gaming generation, Gen Z or whatever they are. Perhaps, subconsciously, I had set my expectations too high. Whatever the reason, I found this film to be good, but not great. (Although other opinions are available.)