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.

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

Doctor Strange: Marvel continue to mix it up

From the opening third of this movie I thought, here we go, Inception on acid with a large helping of Batman Begins. No bad thing, but still… everything draws from something else, so the studio had to make this movie stand out; but also give it that Marvel flavour. Which, happily, they did; with mystic monks bending matter and reality and turning cities into living kaleidoscopes, it’s definitely no cookie cutter approach. Nor should it be, because Marvel – the juggernaut it is now – need to keep pushing the envelope to stay fresh.

Heroes cannot just punch people to solve their problems.

And after all, our hero here is Doctor Strange, so strange is what you want from this character, right? So what follows after the initial sugar rush of monks and warped cityscapes is the introduction of neurosurgeon Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch); brilliant but arrogant and living the playboy lifestyle. Then a horrific car crash leaves him with severe nerve damage in both hands. So no more surgery and no more perfect career for our hero. His life is effectively over and he’s broken and angry.

doctorstrange_new

So he seeks alternative therapies, which eventually lead him to Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One, the ultimate mystical monk. She sees potential so takes him on, but gives him an LSD style crash course trip before he gets to his training proper. And during this time one of the Ancient One’s former pupils (Mads Mikkelsen) has gone to the dark side and is tearing around the place trying to unleash a being from the dark dimension (as we all are wont to do when we’ve had a bad day).

Amidst this we have Strange desperately trying to stop him; whilst awkwardly learning how to be a hero at the same time. It’s from this that most of the humour is drawn. Because, as he’s no fully formed Avenger, the mishaps work a treat; he’s reckless but inquisitive, arrogant but intelligent, a fast learner but a bit of an idiot. So we have an odd hero, offbeat. More the mould of Ant-Man or early Tony Stark than Thor or Captain America. He definitely doesn’t have all the answers.

He even has a levitating cloak which, in a genius bit of screenwriting, gets its own rather brilliant introduction and, after a few scenes and no dialogue (being a cloak) half steals the film from Cumberbatch. But every hero needs a sidekick, so it works.

doctorstrangetildaswinton

And Cumberbatch is fantastic in this role.

Did I mention that? Half Sherlock but more of an outright hero with more swagger. With bits of John Harrison (a la Khan) in there, but here much more appealing to root for than a tortured bad guy taunting Kirk.

And for the fanboys (and girls) I can no doubt imagine their excitement to have Cumberbatch now part of the MCU, with his version of Strange interacting with the Avengers in future films an enticing prospect. Picture it: even just him, The Vision and Tony Stark sitting down for a cup of tea could be standout scene in any Marvel movie you care to name.

Then there’s the other fact that, with this film including Strange’s use of an Infinity stone, Marvel have drawn much closer links between Earth’s heroes and the Guardians of the Galaxy gang. And Strange could be the glue that holds them all together. With, er, five Infinity stones now in play, we’re moving closer to the end game.

A slight bum note is that, yet again, the baddies are not that fleshed out. Mads gets one proper scene where he explains why he’s doing what he’s doing, but it’s kind of hard to feel much for him after that. Especially as the rest of the time he’s just scowling and running around after Strange.

But whatever, it’s nitpicking. And with Cumberbatch, Marvel have struck casting gold again, so the future looks rosy. Not that it was ever in doubt.

I guess it’s just a case of saying… Infinity War here we come!

Avengers: Age of Ultron review

And so, Marvel’s quest for domination of box office dollars and moviegoer’s time continues. This may sound like I’m starting cynical but I’d like to point out I’m a fan and did enjoy Avengers: Age of Ultron immensely. But… I am starting to feel blockbuster burnout.

First though, the good stuff.

It’s great to have another Avengers movie and the gang back together, they’ve got an easy chemistry and work well as a unit. The story kicks off almost immediately with a slow-mo money shot of them attacking a Hydra base – one to get the fanboys screaming. There’s wisecracking all round and Hulk smashing stuff, yay.

avengers-age-of-ultron-black-widow-scarlet-johansson

The team are after Loki’s sceptre which carries a great deal of power. Once retrieved, Stark and Banner think they can use it to create artificial intelligence to put in a robot that will protect the earth so the Avengers can effectively retire. With Captain America the strongest opposed to this plan (more on that later) it backfires producing a rather hateful and sociopathic Ultron (voiced with verve and menace by James Spader).

And so the team have a new foe to face, typically one they created themselves – but let’s not get into that. For those that haven’t been living under a rock the past decade you should all know these characters by now – and no time is wasted picking up where they left off in the first film (and indeed all the other individual films they’ve been in).

avengers-age-of-ultron-robert-downey-jr-mark-ruffalo1

Moving things along a bit director Joss Whedon does provide some nice character moments, in particular Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff and Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner developing as a couple and Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye showing another side as a family man.

There’s also new characters.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Quicksilver and Elisabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch make an intriguing pair – and it’s nice that their loyalties are torn during the film rather than them being clean cut heroes throughout. In terms of powers (his, speed; hers, telekinesis and mind control) they’re brought to life effectively, although hers does mean that we veer pretty closely to X-Men territory. (There’s lots of crossover in the comic book world but on the silver screen I’m not sure I’d like the Avengers and X-Men to meet/fight/team up really, but that’s another discussion.)

avengers-age-of-ultron-aaron-taylor-johnson-elizabeth-olsen

Where this film falls over a little is down to the fact we’ve seen it all before. And before. And before. The film’s final third is yet another battle in the skies, which now seems to happen in every Marvel film. Also, even though we do want to see the team smash bad guys to bits it doesn’t feel like there’s ever much at stake. Maybe I’m starting to care less about the characters, or maybe I know that they’ll never kill off any of the major ones, but it just makes it all seem a little too… safe and pedestrian. Which is ridiculous given all the explosions and fights and whatnot.

Also, it never seems to take that much effort to outwit the bad guy. Well, mental effort. Physical effort the team have aplenty. Making a clumsy comparison to The Dark Knight for a second, the Joker laughs at Batman as he pounds him saying he has nothing to threaten him with. It feels like that here. Other than brute force to solve problems it never feels like the Avengers have any other way of doing things. Is avenging just different ways of punching someone? Maybe their enemies will get more complex in the future, who knows. The teaser (spoiler, ish) at the end of the film suggests Marvel are drawing all the strands of their portfolio together, perhaps for forthcoming Civil War where we see the differences of opinion of Captain America and Tony Stark (on how to protect the masses) come to a head in a monumental scrap.

avengers-age-of-ultron-chris-evans-chris-hemsworth1

Back to Age of Ultron though. Despite what I’ve just said, all in all it’s a lot of fun. There’s lots of meat for the geeks and comic book fans to chow down on, we get a bit more character development and a lot more smashy smashy bad guys but – and it’s a big but – are we reaching saturation point? Are audiences getting tired of these characters? I am a little. Still love them, but I’m getting a little jaded.

Maybe less smashy more talky is the order of the day. There’s a section in Age of Ultron where Scarlet Witch pretty much floors the team with her mind control skills. That was intriguing. More of that please. Same goes for Paul Bettany’s The Vision – another nice addition, and a more thoughtful one to boot. Perhaps my ponderings are immaterial as, from the film’s final scenes, it looks like they’re trying to move the world onto other characters, which is good. I love the old gang as much as the next fanboy, but maybe it’s time to call time on them?

Anyway… I could go on and on but you get the idea. Go watch it and judge for yourself. Do you feel the same way?

BannerNatasha-AoU

Trailer park: Ultron, Tomorrowland, Crimson Peak and Aloha

To butcher Led Zeppelin lyrics a little, there’s a whole lotta love out there for a whole lotta films coming out in the next few months. Too many to go through in much depth, but here’s a few I’d like to briefly pick out for your consideration.

Avengers: Age of Ultron
Ok, not everyone is a fan of this current glut of superhero films, yet this one really does look impressive. And so it should, given the budget, cast and studio muscle. At one point or another it’s all going to implode, it has to. But for now, I’m on board.

Tomorrowland
This film started life as a theme park ride and whether it turns out to be a franchise behemoth a la Pirates of the Caribbean remains to be seen. What we do know is that Clooney is attached, and he rarely joins doomed projects, so it could be a blast.

Crimson Peak
It’s high time Guillermo del Toro got back to what he does best… inhibiting a niche genre perhaps only rivalled by Tim Burton. But where Burton comes at his stories from more of an oddball outsider perspective, del Toro opts for horror and macabre fantasy.

Aloha
Ah, the sweet and observant writer-director Cameron Crowe, who doesn’t love his films? His last beautiful little story was We Bought a Zoo in 2011, so he’s been out the game a while. This looks like a good return to form with a cracking cast to boot.

Can Disney save Star Wars?

Upon hearing the news that Disney have recently acquired Lucasfilm I asked myself this question. Good old George, the 68-year-old filmmaker sold Lucasfilm for $4.05bn (£2.5bn), my initial reaction was not exactly excitement, more tentative hope.

Lucas is more or less a pensioner and his heart went out of making these films a long time ago. In some ways I’m amazed he managed to get the latest trilogy off the ground at all. Selling to Disney at this point was perfect timing and great business sense. How many other pensioners do you know that increase their fortunes by $4bn a couple of years before they turn 70? No wonder he looks smug.

He has said he wants to pass the franchise on to a new generation of filmmakers, with episode 7 being set for release in 2015. Episodes 8 and 9 will naturally follow, completing a 9-film trilogy spanning decades. Quite a legacy.

The force is strong in this one
Some die-hard fans have been moaning that Disney without Lucas means the corporation will be butchering the beloved world Lucas has created. I think that’s unfair.

Disney has moved on in the last 10 years. It’s worth pointing out they have a savvy – albeit slightly bullish – track record of acquisitions, with Pixar in 2006 ($7.4bn), Marvel in 2009 ($4.2bn) and now Lucasfilm in 2012 ($4bn).

With Marvel and Pixar, Disney have – to their credit – allowed these studios to approach their films, characters and stories in a way that stays true to their philosophy.

For Marvel, they’ve also chosen wisely in terms of Directors: Kenneth Branagh (Thor), Jon Favreau (Iron Man), Joss Whedon (Avengers). When Disney and Pixar merged in 2006, it was explicitly laid out that Pixar would maintain its identity and creative control, allowing this has meant their philosophy of filmmaking has continued and given us films such as: Up (2009), Toy Story 3 (2010) and Brave (2012).

I see no reason why Disney won’t continue in a similar fashion with new Star Wars films. This cinematic franchise has been around a hell of a lot longer than Marvel or Pixar films, with an incredibly devoted fan base to match.

I don’t believe it. That is why you fail
Make no mistake episode 7 is going to be a massive challenge for whichever Director Disney put in charge. It will be a continuation of Luke, Leia and Han’s story, so it’s completely new territory. There has been brief – probably comical – mention of the original actors returning, but they’re all pensioners now and it’s not worth entertaining the thought.

I’m not going to start dictating the best way Disney should approach these films, I genuinely have faith they’ll treat the brand with respect – and hopefully take it back towards the look and feel of the original films.  Either way, Lucas remains a ‘consultant’ for the next trilogy, so his reign of terror is largely over. Onwards and upwards!

Marvel – masters of the cinematic universe

avengers natasha romanoff

For this posting I’d like to discuss the evolution of the Marvel universe. I recently – finally – got around to seeing The Avengers. Or, as it’s known in the UK, Avengers Assemble (damn you, Steed).

I have to say, having unavoidably seen and heard many reviews, I was worried I wouldn’t enjoy it and be expecting too much. Would it live up to the hype? Would it feel rushed/crowded with so many larger-than-life characters jostling for screen time? Well, much like everybody else, I found it thoroughly enjoyable. Great pacing, great action, great characters, great dialogue.

avengers natasha romanoffPlus all the Avengers were given – more or less – an equal amount to do, including the new characters: Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. The latter unsurprisingly well written, given writer/director Joss Whedon’s affinity for strong, female characters (Buffy et al).

So, before this becomes an Avengers review, back to the subject in question. I had a vague awareness of the fact there’s been quite a few films over recent years that have come out of the Marvel studio. However when you really look, it seems like an unstoppable wave. To name the live-action films we’ve had since 1998:

  • 5 X Men (2000, 2003, 2006, 2009, 2011)
  • 4 Spider Man (2002, 2004, 2007, 2012)
  • 3 Blade (1998, 2002, 2004)
  • 2 Iron Man (2008, 2010)
  • 2 Hulk (2003, 2008)
  • 2 Fantastic Four (2005, 2007)
  • 2 Ghost Rider (2007, 2012)
  • 1 Thor (2011)
  • 1 Captain America (2011)
  • 1 Avengers (2012)

I’ve left off the experiments that were Daredevil, Elektra and Man Thing, simply because they weren’t hugely successful and it’s unlikely there will be a follow up to any of these in the near future. Therefore I’m only including films where the characters have appeared more than once in the Marvel cinematic universe. So, from 1998 to 2012 (that’s 14 years, keep up), we’ve had 23 films. That’s 1.6 films a year! I’m not sure if what I’m expressing here is good shock or bad shock? Perhaps both.

snipes dorff bladeLooking ahead
I suppose, with this sort of prolific output, you’ll have successes and failures. In recent years, they’ve begun to have more of the former, both critically and commercially. For every mediocre Daredevil or Fantastic Four you’ll get a decent Spider Man or Blade.

Or, if you’re really lucky, strike complete gold and unearth Robert Downey Jr. A man born to play Tony Stark. Don’t believe me? Watch some of his early work, like Natural Born Killers. Check out this classic scene. For me, if you take his character there, throw in a little Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Tropic Thunder, you’ll get Tony Stark. Perhaps a leap but it makes sense to me!

Don’t stop us now
With recent successes of the Avengers’ characters, both in their ensemble film and stand-alone outings, the plan for Marvel films over the next few years is looking quite exciting. Next year we’ll get a second from the blonde Asgardian, Thor: The Dark World and Iron Man 3.  In 2014 we’ll have, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, plus – most intriguingly – a massive departure from the norm with Guardians of the Galaxy. A film which has a sentient tree and a raccoon with a gun as main characters.

I can’t say I’m excited about this one…yet. Although I do approve of the concept art above. What I like is that you cannot accuse Marvel of resting on their laurels or playing it too safe. That, in itself, is reason to be quietly optimistic. But I guess we’ll see. Oh, and there’s also a second Avengers due out 2015, just in case Guardians doesn’t go as planned.

Defenders of the universe
So, on the whole, I think it’s great Marvel are mixing it up. Yes, they’re putting out films for a lot of their mainstream superheroes, but they’re safer bets. Keeps the money coming in. They could just sit on that but, like any industry, if you’re not moving forward you’re doing the opposite.

So introducing a new host of characters is brave, yet wholly necessary. Eventually we’ll get sick of superhero films and want westerns or zombie films for a few years or something. But, if Marvel keep freshening things up, maybe we’ll stay a while longer. Maybe a character called Rocket Raccoon is just what’s called for – long live diversity!