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Friday, 28 December 2018

The best and worst films of 2018

It's that time of the year again - a time when critics dig through their pile of reviews and compile a best 'of' list. So let's do it.

Firstly though I just want to point out I've been somewhat limited in what I've been able to watch this year, so forgive me if I haven't seen your fave. And release dates are based on Australian release dates.

Dig in.

1. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri 


A masterclass in screenwriting, acting, and directing, overflowing with great characters, brought to life beautifully by a stellar cast, and with a strong thematic and emotional core while still being wickedly and darkly funny. What more could you want in a film.

2. First Man


A story we all know but don't really know which proves fascinating in Chazelle's hands. His documentary-style delivery, aided by stunning performances from Gosling and Foy, makes for emotional, powerful, and gripping viewing.

3. A Quiet Place


The most innovative horror film since The Blair Witch Project. But it's so much more than its silent conceit - it's a repeatedly devastating story that will have you on the edge of your seat for the majority of its runtime.

4. The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs


The Coens' made-for-Netflix Wild West anthology is among their best stuff, with each segment gorgeously written, the lyrical qualities of the dialogue really singing in the mouths of an all-round talented cast.

5. The Shape Of Water


Guillermo del Toro's worthy Oscar-winner poses the question "what if the monster got the girl?". It's a strange question, with weird answers, but it's one del Toro asks with beauty, delicacy and intelligence in this fable about acceptance and equality.

6. Avengers: Infinity War


Infinity War makes some bold choices that render it not only surprising, but also devastating. It goes to the darkest places yet in the MCU, and yet is still brimming with the franchise's typical humour. It's had the biggest expectations of any superhero film to date, and manages to meet them and even exceed them.

7. Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse


With its eye-popping blend of hand-drawn sensibilities and CG wizardry, Sony's latest attempt to cash-in on its webslinging moneyspinner looks and feels ripped straight out of a comic book. It's a ploy that works better than expected and helps make this one of the best superhero flicks of the year.

8. Darkest Hour


Gary Oldman delivers the greatest performance of a great career, providing a fascinating insight into WWII and the machinations far from the trenches.

9. Black Panther


Black Panther is great, boasting a sense of grandeur as it tells a sprawling Shakespearean tale that traverses the political, the racial, the ideological, the familial and the fantastical.

10. A Star Is Born


Despite being the fifth version of this story to hit the big screen in 81 years, the narrative arc at the heart of A Star Is Born remains compelling, with Bradley Cooper's version a welcome modernisation that's enjoyable, interesting, and boasts a great soundtrack.


1. The BBQ


It feels unpatriotic to slag off an Aussie movie, but on the other hand it's galling that this is the type of crap Screen Australia chooses to fund. Regardless of its country of origin, The BBQ is a shit film. Its screenplay is so horribly boring and inane that it renders the entire film dull and almost irredeemable.

2. I Feel Pretty


Writers-directors Kohn and Silverstein are trying to make a movie about positive body image while getting across the idea that all you need is a bit of confidence and self-belief, but I Feel Pretty's script and delivery is constantly bodyshaming its main character (and a couple of side characters), in a sense belittling its target audience. The central premise seems to be that Amy Schumer's Renee is unattractive and we should be laughing at her for not realising she's unattractive. When a film has the exact opposite effect of what it's trying to do, that's a bad film.

3. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald


The worst film of JK Rowling's Wizarding World is a hot mess that suffers from an excess of ideas and no solid narrative to hold them together. It struggles to keep its story and characters rolling along in a sensible fashion, and ultimately whimpers its way to an unsatisfactory climax. The whole thing is a shambles.

4. Pitch Perfect 3


Pitch Perfect 3 is a great example of many things, such as "milking an idea dry", "the uncalled-for second sequel", "continued diminishing returns", "the wearing out of a welcome", and "not knowing when to stop". It's a shame - the first film was great, the second was okay, but the third one is bad enough to run the risk of damaging the brand.

5. Life Of The Party


Exactly as you expect it to be, but not as funny as it should be, Life Of The Party's "mom goes to college" premise rarely surprises, never shocks, and is lacking in laughs for too long. As a result, the whole thing is tiresome.

Wednesday, 26 December 2018


(M) ★★½

Director: James Wan.

Cast: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Patrick Wilson, Willem Dafoe, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Temuera Morrison, Nicole Kidman, Graham McTavish.

The new Pantene ads were off the hook.
DC Comic's Extended Universe is six films strong. No other big-budget franchise could have survived for six films delivering this level of quality - across the sextet, there is only one genuinely great entry (Wonder Woman) and five that range from terrible to okay.

And if there was one film to sum up the hit-and-mostly-miss nature of the DCEU, it's Aquaman. It perfectly embodies what is wrong and right with the franchise. Its script is a toneless mess filled with lengthy stretches of horrible dialogue, but it has enough high points to make you wonder if the next film is the one where the DC brains trust will finally gets its collective shit together.

It does manage to make its fish-summoning hero awesome though. Aquaman AKA Arthur Curry (Momoa) was introduced briefly in Batman Vs Superman and played a pivotal role in Justice League, but finally gets centre stage here as the son of a landlubber (Morrison) and an underwater queen (Kidman) who is seen by some as the perfect person to prevent an imminent attack on land by the sea kingdom of Atlantis.

But that means Arthur must visit a marine world he has never known, confront a half-brother (Wilson) hellbent on ruling the oceans and conquering the land, and claim a throne he's not that interested in claiming.

For much of its runtime, Aquaman is frustratingly unsubtle. It's the epitome of dumb screenwriting, partly painted into a corner by having already introduced the character yet trying to tell his origin story without actually telling his origin story, but also struggling under the weight of its mythology and its quest to find the right tone.

When it can turn off the exposition and turn up the explosions, Aquaman is one of the most visually impressive blockbuster spectacles in a long time. Its underwater world looks incredible, but even better are the CG effects used to make it a believable world. The work that has gone into creating a fully realised oceanic environment with its own set of enhanced-yet-natural-seeming physics is astounding. By the time we get to the final battle, much of the script's idiocy has been left for dead in a wave of stunning visuals.

But it's an often-painful journey to get to that point, largely thanks to the script. There are other factors though. In the first act, Morrison and Kidman have less chemistry than an arts school, and the CG de-ageing effect used on Morrison doesn't quite stick. But that's nothing compared to the truly turgid dialogue between Jesse Kane (Michael Beach) and his son David Kane AKA Black Manta (Abdul-Mateen II), which seems to have been dropped in from a shitty Steven Seagal movie. Aquaman also handles its flashbacks badly, despite the best efforts of Dafoe, whose character Vulko serves as part-Mr Miyagi/part-Mr Exposition.

There is also a real sense of "we don't know what this film is exactly", with the vibe shifting from scene to scene. It has echoes of an underwater Thor, which is probably where its tone should have sat, but it wanders off into Tomb Raider territory, and even has some horror elements. It can't quite nail its sense of humour either, which is at its worst when it actually turns Arthur into a squealing wimp at one stage. And any film that goes out of its way to look like a computer game on occasion is a worry.

Momoa is mostly good, and if nothing else he and this film have achieved their goal of making Aquaman a cool-as-fuck bad-ass, effectively killing off while simultaneously embracing the punchline about a superhero who talks to fish. Wilson gives an earnest and solid turn as the film's 'big bad' Orm AKA Ocean Master, and Lundgren seems to have hit a purple patch thanks to this and Creed II. Heard is patchy as Mera, while Kidman's performance is strangely the worst of the film.

But, as seems to be the usual now, DC have fumbled. The script is dire despite the story being okay, which makes whole stretches of the film cringe-inducing, and it continues to struggle with finding a balance between its moments of light and shade.

Admittedly, this was a tough play to make, and in some ways Aquaman is a success - its effects are off-the-charts, its action sequences are predominantly awesome, and it has succeeded in making its hero truly super and less joke-worthy.

But finding a second great film for the DCEU continues to be a white whale the comics company can't land.

Saturday, 22 December 2018

The Hottest 100 songs that missed triple j's Hottest 100


I'm a big fan of triple j's Hottest 100. I've listened to it and voted in it pretty much every year since 1994. In recent times I've written articles predicting who was going to win (with pretty solid accuracy, if I may say so myself) and dissecting the results with admittedly disturbing enthusiasm. My wife and I hold a day-long party to coincide with the countdown each year, and I'm the one that organises the sweep.

Why the obsession? Well, for me (and thousands of others), each and every Hottest 100 is a time capsule. I can remember where I was when Franz Ferdinand's Take Me Out surprised exactly no one to win in 2004, or the stunned looked on people's faces when Muse pipped Silverchair in 2007, or when Augie March seemingly came out of nowhere to win in 2006. I recall sitting in 40-degree heat in a Brunswick backyard when QOTSA's No One Knows took out #1, the tenterhooks of the final placings of 2013, and being appalled when The Offspring won in 1998.

But beyond the personal, the countdown represents exactly where triple j and their listeners were at every year. This in itself summarises a pretty big slice of young Australia and the alternative wave that runs through youth culture, as well as the musical tastes of a nation as perceived through the ears of those most plugged into new music.

But the people who vote for it aren't perfect (and neither is triple j, bless its cotton socks). Which brings us to the songs that missed out.

Back in February of 2018, about a month after the most recent edition of the Hottest 100, I found myself pondering the songs that had missed the list over the years. I knew Everlong missed out back in the day, and that The Flaming Lips had never made the countdown outside of a Chemical Brothers cameo. So what other amazing songs and bands hadn't polled in the world's biggest musical democracy?

As I pondered this question and began my own preliminary list-making, I realised this was a job too big for one Hottest 100 superfan. Out of the blue, and trying not to sound like a total fucking nutjob, I emailed the two other biggest aficionados of the countdown that I could think of.

The first was Tyler Jenke who runs this super-impressive database of all things Hottest 100. His site is my bible when I compile my prediction/dissection articles every January. The second was Patrick Avenell. He's the guy triple j calls when they want someone to go on air to talk about who polled where in what year. His brain is a thing of wonder.

I had never met either of these guys (and still haven't) and they most likely had no idea who I was. But they were immediately on board. As mentioned in this interview on ABC Darwin, we began creating a list of every song we could think of that was potentially worthy of our attempt to rewrite history.

(And yes, I got a few exact details wrong in that interview, such as when Knights Of Cydonia won. That's why triple j calls Patrick Avenell and not me.)

The "omissions masterlist" is close to 400 songs. From there, we voted on what we thought should make the cut - the songs with a vote from each of us were put into a final 101. Then we drew up our own Hottest 100s from those 101 songs, and mathematically squeezed them into a final order. Voila.

I'm very proud of this list. The blurbs we each wrote are illuminating I think, and the list itself is a pretty killer playlist that flows like a regular Hottest 100.

I'm yet to hear from Richard Kingsmill about it (and for the record, as an ABC employee, I did offer this article to Double J and triple j but they politely passed, which is totally understandable and also the reason as to why it ended up on Tone Deaf) but I hope he and his crew take this list with the love it was created with. It's meant to be a quirky celebration, a loving retcon, a nostalgic re-writing of history, and the missing piece that completes this wonderful institution.

Anyway, enough waffle. Here's the list of the Hottest 100 (plus a bonus 100) songs that missed the Hottest 100. 

And here are the Spotify playlists.

PS. There's some real gold in 102-200.

If you wanna see what was 102-200, just skip to the bottom of this one.

Thursday, 20 December 2018


(PG) ★★★

Director: Travis Knight.

Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., John Ortiz, Jason Drucker, Pamela Adlon, Stephen Schneider. 

"Are you staring at my headlights?"
Being the second best Transformers movie is no big deal - there's only one good one (the first one) and four shit ones. Second place is basically a participation medal in this race.

But Bumblebee actually has a crack at being genuinely good, and almost gets there. It fumbles its gear changes, stalls a few times, but manages to get up enough speed by the end to make for a decent-enough ride (that's my quota of car analogies out of the way early).

Central to its success is Steinfeld as teen mechanic Charlie. In between being a film about giant robots trying to beat the transmission fluid out of each other, Bumblebee has the semblance of being a mostly solid coming-of-age story. This provides the majority of the film's charm, and a lot of that is down to Steinfeld's magnetic performance.

We follow her as she struggles with the death of her father, her mother's annoying new partner, a crappy summer job, the lack of a car, and being the scorn of the popular girls. At least one of these problems is solved by using her mechanical skills to get an old Volkswagon Beetle started at the junkyard she frequents, thus scoring herself a free 18th birthday present thanks to the kindly junkyard owner (Len Cariou).

But when the Beetle turns out to be a Transformer who has fled the fighting on his homeworld of Cybertron, Charlie finds herself thrust into the middle of an intergalactic war.

For those of you playing along at home, Bumblebee is a prequel to the five other Transformer films. It's also the first without Michael Bay in the director's chair, and aside from some early moments (and one awkwardly sandwiched one) on Cybertron, it unfolds on a decidedly smaller scale than the rest of the series. There are really only three main Transformers in the plot, and their battles with each other and the army are not of a city-levelling size, unlike the rest of the franchise.

This allows the film to have a more personal scope. Much like the first film, the main driver is the interaction between a human-in-transition and their recently discovered robot buddy, which is very welcome. In Bumblebee, that teen-meets-Transformer plot plays out like the Spielberg masterpiece E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. The '80s setting helps with this vibe, and Steinfeld makes the heart of the story work better than it should a lot of the time.

While it tries its best to feel like it's not a Transformers movie, it regularly does some bad Transformer-ish or Bay-sian things in its plotting that snap you out of the lovely girl-meets-car story that's going on. It's decidedly unsubtle in places, and Cena really grinds the film's gears trying to be the wacky John Turturro-style character, but without the skills to pull it off. It's in these moments, and the cutaways to the bad guys, that the tone of the movie sours.

And despite having a spectacular selection of '80s tunes at its disposal (they get particularly good mileage out of The Smiths), the film leans heavily on its generic OTT score in unnecessary moments rather than embracing its soundtrack of era cuts, which would have helped give the film an extra layer of individual style. A key example is when Charlie first meets Bumblebee - a potentially charming and cool scene becomes mawkish and OTT.

The final battle is surprisingly cool, and plays out better than the generic Transformers climax because it feels personal (and we can actually follow the action). And that's the key to Bumblebee's successes and failures. When it's not being a typical film of the franchise, it feels fresh and enjoyable. But whenever it slips into generic Transformers movie mode, all the good work is undone and the vitality is lost.

Bumblebee is basically a really cool car with a charismatic driver at the wheel you'd like to go for a ride with, but then the car turns into an annoyingly run-of-the-mill robot that's not as interesting.

Friday, 14 December 2018

Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse

Spider-Man: Into The Spiderverse

(PG) ★★★★½

Cast: (voices of) Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Lily Tomlin, John Mulaney, Nicolas Cage, Liev Schreiber, Kathryn Hahn, Luna Lauren Velez, Kimiko Glenn.

Spider-Man's spider-sense was telling him someone was mocking him.
With great power et cetera et cetera; we all know about the whole power = responsibility thing, but there's also a responsibility for those making Spider-Man movies to make them fun.

The Spidey films that haven't worked - Spider-Man 3 and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 - have forgotten that (as well as messing up a few other things) but even when the film-makers have got it right, they've never been this fun. Into The Spider-Verse does lots of things right, but best of all, it's an absolute ball.

With its eye-popping blend of hand-drawn sensibilities and CG wizardry, Sony's latest attempt to cash-in on its webslinging moneyspinner looks and feels ripped straight out of a comic book. It's a ploy that works better than expected and helps make this one of the best superhero flicks of the year.

The story sees five different versions of Spider-Man ripped from various parallel universes and thrust into the world of Miles Morales (Moore) - a 13-year-old kid who was not only recently bitten by a certain radioactive spider, but who also happened to watch his universe's Spider-Man die at the hands of Kingpin (Schreiber).

As Morales tries to come to grips with his new powers, he must also work to send his fellow Spideys home, while stopping Kingpin from performing bizarre experiments that threaten to tear the entire time-space continuum a new one.

Spider-Man is one of the most fun figures in Marveldom, but also one of the most tragic. Across the many iterations of the character (male and female), there is a sadness at the centre of their story, whether it be the deaths of those close to them or the ongoing realisation that their happiness is always just out of reach due to the spider-shaped target drawn on their back.

But what makes Spidey truly special is the never-say-die attitude, and the wise-cracking quip to go with it. And Spider-Verse gets all of that. The story has plenty of heart to go with its humour. It's got the guts to go with its guffaws.

And it's fun (did I mention that it's fun?). Visually, it's an exhilarating mix of Ben-Day dots, onomatopoeia and shade lines ripped right from the pages of a Ditko-Lee collaboration amid a flurry of technicolour, watercolour and neon bursts. It's got a banging soundtrack, brilliant comic timing, and so many great one-liners and in-jokes you'll be coming back for a second look to get the ones you might have missed.

This pop art blitz of visual styles never sacrifices its story, and while it's very comic-booky and silly, it's somewhat aware of this and makes the most of it (the way it introduces its six different origin stories is clever and humourous). As with the MCU's Spider-Man: Homecoming, Spider-Verse gets what it is to be a teenager, and the growing pains associated with that, as symbolised by the gaining of superpowers. "We are all Spider-Man," the film intones, and it's more than just a corny line - it's an understanding of the universality of the character and what has made Peter Parker and his fellow web-slingers so popular for 56 years.

Its hyperactive style and cartoonish plot will put some off, but this utterly enjoyable slice of superhero hyperbole is a sugar rush that's actually good for you. Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse gets what makes comic books fun, what makes superhero movies enjoyable, and - best of all - what makes Spider-Man such an awesome and universal character.

Thursday, 6 December 2018

Mortal Engines

(M) ★★★

Director: Christian Rivers.

Cast: Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Hugo Weaving, Jihae, Leila George, Ronan Raftery, Stephen Lang, Patrick Malahide, Colin Salmon, Regé-Jean Page.

Kite-flying champion of the world, 253rd year running.
Big studios aren't searching for great films any more - they're searching for the next big franchise. Like the giant motorised cities of Mortal Engines, they roll around look for comic books, old TV shows and YA book series (preferably dystopian) to inhale and regurgitate as tentpole blockbusters.

But for every Harry Potter and Hunger Games, there is a Divergent and a Mortal Instruments (and quite a few others that don't even make it to the big screen). Mortal Engines, based on the novel of the same name by Philip Reeve, lands somewhere in the middle.

It's not terrible - in terms of spectacle it has some of the best of the year - but it lacks the heart, soul and style to make this anything more than a so-so standalone film unlikely to inspire the rabid fanbase required for a franchise.

Set in a distant dystopian future where cities roll around eating other cities (more on that in a minute), it follows a young woman named Hester Shaw (Hilmar) as she seeks vengeance on Thaddeus Valentine (Weaving) - the man who murdered her mother. When her assassination attempt on Valentine goes wrong thanks to the intervention of history buff Tom Natsworthy (Sheehan), Hester and Tom end up left for dead in the strange world that exists outside the motorised metropolises traversing the landscape.

Mortal Engines is an often infuriating mix of good and bad film-making. Its weird reality of "municipal Darwinism" and fascinating backstory is set up in intelligent ways but also ineptly clunky ways - one casual line works wonders to showcase the world we're in, but it's often backed up by some painfully dull exposition. There are stellar ideas poorly delivered, and silly ideas that look incredible. The script waivers between solid and dire, and the performance are okay, but never amazing.

It's this blend of diamonds and dirt that makes the whole thing a middling experience. There's never a spark to light the film, or rather when there is, a damp squib puts it out. It aspires to be a steam-punk Star Wars or a dystopian sci-fi epic with a mythology to match The Hunger Games but it rarely reaches such lofty heights.

It looks incredible (for the most part), and the opening sequence of a giant mobile London hunting down a small mining town is outstanding, even if these motorised metropolises make no functional sense (most people stopped being nomadic for many reasons thousands of years ago, let alone the unnecessary waste of energy required to propel a city around in order to "eat" other cities).

Obviously these tank-like mega-towns are not-hugely-realistic metaphors for mankind's propensity to devour the natural world, damn the costs. They are consumerism and industrialism run rampant, and on a couple of occasions the film's deeper ideas and bigger themes shine through the spectacle and dud lines. But it's not enough to give Mortal Engines the boost it desperately needs.

Stars Hilmar and Sheehan are adequate but lack chemistry, but then so does the whole film. It's missing a certain amount of style all round to stop it feeling so generic. A character like Jihae's Anna Fang has the potential to be iconic, but there's a lack of edge or x factor to make it all really sing. The best character is the mo-cap/CG creation Shrike, but his appearance is all-too-brief.

When it works, Mortal Engines hums like a well-tuned if slightly standard machine. But there are too many clunks, not enough spark in the belly, and a general blandness that stops it reaching the impressive heights it obviously aspires to.

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Creed II

(M) ★★★½

Director: Steven Caple Jr.

Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Florian Munteanu, Dolph Lundgren, Wood Harris, Phylicia Rashad.

And then they kissed.
Sylvester Stallone has vowed (for at least the third time) that Creed II (AKA Rocky VIII) will be his final outing as Rocky Balboa. While he's adamant the series will continue despite his absence, after watching Creed II it's hard to see how the franchise will have the same resonance without Sly's world-weary ex-pugilist in its corner.

With that in mind, if this is indeed Rocky's last time ringside, it's a solid if predictable farewell to one of American cinema's most enduring characters.

As with its predecessor, this film focuses on Adonis Creed (Jordan), son of Rocky's nemesis-turned-friend Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). After earning his stripes in the last movie, Adonis has risen to the top of the heap, winning the WBC World Heavyweight Championship.

But his triumph draws out Viktor Drago (Munteanu), the son of the boxer who killed Apollo Creed in the ring 33 years ago. The stage is set for an all-new Creed vs Drago showdown, and all the various baggage, demons and closeted skeletons that entails.

Rocky IV saw Rocky exact revenge on Russian boxer Ivan Drago (Lundgren) for the death of Apollo Creed, in the process making the movie a bombastic and unsubtle Cold War metaphor that is one of the favourites (and most successful film) of the series. Creed II is a smarter continuation of that over-the-top lineage, and is less about patriotism and more about fathers. Through the Dragos and the Creeds, it explores the expectations placed on sons by fathers, by outsiders, and by the sons themselves, and the relationships and dynamics that creates. It's the kind of thematic drive that helps make the film more than just a by-the-numbers boxing movie or franchise filler.

But Stallone's Rocky remains the emotional heart of this series, no matter how hard they try to pass the torch (and the film's focus) over to Jordan's Creed. Whenever Stallone's on screen, the film hits harder emotionally.

That's not to diminish Jordan's performance - he's amazing, displaying more range, and mixing more rage and humanity in the role this time. But he's harder to identify with than Rocky. While we are willing to follow Creed on his admittedly rewarding journey, the payoffs come from the fact this all extends back to Rocky, and by further extension Carl Weather's Apollo Creed. This film owes everything to the films that have gone before and the weight Stallone can bring to proceedings, and it succeeds because of this more than it succeeds on the strengths of Michael B. Jordan and his Adonis Creed.

Jordan is great in this role - let's not forget that - and the story's subplot involving Creed and his partner Bianca (Thompson) add welcome layers. Stallone is again great in a role that has seen him twice nominated for an Oscar, while Lundgren is surprisingly excellent in a dramatic role. And technically it ticks all the boxes; the bouts are genuinely thrilling and well shot.

One final burst of boxing analogies before the bell rings - Creed II works because it is has good technique, plenty of heart and is light on its feet. It has some great shots, and although its outcome seems obvious, it's still worth a ringside seat.

PS. If this is Stallone's last appearance as Rocky, then my bet is that Creed III will involve the death of Rocky (off-screen probably) at the hands of someone Adonis Creed then has to fight. I really hope it doesn't come to that (ie. yet another boxing-match-as-revenge plot) but I just wanted that on the record in case it does actually happen so I can say "I told you so" and collect a huge cheque from MGM and Warner Bros.

Monday, 26 November 2018

The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs

(MA15+) ★★★★½

Director: Joel & Ethan Coen.

Cast: Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Stephen Root, Liam Neeson, Harry Melling, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan, Bill Heck, Grainger Hines, Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson, Jonjo O’Neill, Saul Rubinek, Chelcie Ross.

Service: Netflix

The likeness was uncanny.
The Coen Brothers rarely do the expected.

Over more than three decades they've bounced from gangsters to stoners, from Odyssean journeys to inept spy games, from Ealing remakes to New York folk singers. Trying to predict what they would do next is a fool's game.

But even if you were so inclined as to play the game and guess what the Coens have up their sleeve, "straight-to-Netflix Western anthology" would have been at long odds. Yet here we are.

The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs is six tales, unconnected except for their western settings. The titular tale is a dark take on the singing cowboy trope, with Nelson as the eponymous warbling gunslinger, Near Algodones sees a hapless bandit (Franco) try to rob a seemingly unprotected bank in the middle of nowhere, Meal Ticket is an unsettlingly bleak story of a travelling limbless actor (Melling) and his carer (Neeson), All Gold Canyon is an emotional rollercoaster regarding a grizzled prospector (Waits) and his quest for gold, The Gal Who Got Rattled is a wagon train romance that takes an unexpected turn, and The Mortal Remains sees a stagecoach of strangers share a ride to the next town.

As you would expect with the Coens, each segment is gorgeously written, with the lyrical qualities of the dialogue really singing in the mouths of an all-round talented cast. Nelson, who gets to deliver his eloquent verbiage directly to camera for the most part, particularly revels in the writing, while the final segment rolls along entirely (and to great effect) on the strength of its words as there is no action.

And then there's All Gold Canyon and Meal Ticket which have next-to-no dialogue in them at all. It's a testament to their incredible skills as writers that the Coens are equally at home with the word tap turned on or off.

The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs also wonderfully captures that hint of the absurd that creeps into their filmic realities. It's perhaps best exemplified in Near Algodones where the strange occurrences pile-up hilariously, and in the eponymous story, which is flat-out funny and silly in classic Coen fashion. Five-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (who worked with the Coens on Inside Llewyn Davis) helps to nudge that reality into a heightened place, while simultaneously giving each tale its own look. At the same time the costume and set design, with a few CG flourishes, help make this one of the best looking films of the year.

The only thing missing for mine is a link between the stories, in particular some kind of thematic connection to take this to the next level. Maybe it's already there and will reveal itself on further viewings, much like the philosophical intricacies of The Big Lebowski or the metaphorical and metaphysical ideas nestled in Barton Fink. But for now, this is just six (excellent) narratives that stop and start and stand alone.

Everyone will have their favourite narrative and while it's a tough decision, I'll take All Gold Canyon. Waits' fantastic performance and the story's ups and downs making it the most gripping of the six, but there's not a weak link in the chain. It almost makes up for the fact Waits hasn't made an album in seven years.

As previously stated, it's near-impossible to guess what the Coens will do next. One can only hope that it's as good as The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs.

Saturday, 17 November 2018

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

(M) ★★

Director: David Yates.

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Jude Law, Johnny Depp, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Zoë Kravitz, Callum Turner, Carmen Ejogo, Claudia Kim, William Nadylam, Kevin Guthrie, Brontis Jodorowsky.

Jacob shunned suitcases - he was a bucket man now.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was a decent-enough return to the magical mind of JK Rowling. Set 70 years before Harry Potter's exploits, it showed a bigger and broader Wizarding World that was fascinating but didn't quite pack the punch of Voldemort and his henchmen.

Now we have the second in the supposedly five-film Fantastic Beasts saga and, to put it bluntly, it's a hot mess. The Crimes Of Grindelwald suffers from an excess of ideas but no solid narrative to hold them together. It struggles to keep its story and characters rolling along in a sensible fashion, and ultimately whimpers its way to an unsatisfactory climax. The whole thing is a shambles.

The plot, such as it is, sees hero Newt Scamander (Redmayne) banned from leaving England due to the events of the first film. However he's desperate to find American witch and love interest Tina Goldstein (Waterston), who happens to be in Paris hunting Credence Barebone (Miller), who is believed to have survived his supposed death in New York.

Meanwhile Gellert Grindelwald (Depp) is loose and also hunting Credence, as is a mysterious black wizard (Nadylam). Then there's a bunch of British Ministry of Magic agents hunting Grindelwald, but Albus Dumbledore (Law) wants Newt to get to Grindelwald first.

There are a couple of subplots in there that either add nothing or are sadly underplayed (such as the stories of Leta Lestrange, Yusuf Kama, Nicolas Flamel, and Nagini, or anything involving Grindelwald's supporters or the people he is enticing to his supposed revolution). These side stories chew up way too much screen time, with Lestrange and Kama the worst offenders, or they don't get another.

Who and why are people flocking to Grindelwald? Where does the discontent come from? This is the key question in this film and it gets forgotten amid a bunch of bad plotting. So bad are these side-stories that we get a huge exposition-laden section stuffed with flashbacks to explain WTF is going on with these subplots right before the big finale. It adds nothing but slows proceedings down to a crawl, leaving you wondering why it all went down like it did and what the point was.

This overstuffed narrative also means we lose track of the key characters in the edit and struggle to keep a focus on whatever it is we're supposed to be focused on. Newt and Tina, who are fascinating creations, are effectively sidelined in the story until Newt suddenly knows where to go to find the answer to the question that everyone wants to know, just out of nowhere, exactly as someone else suddenly does the same thing. This kind of nonsensical plotting is commonplace in the film.

Some of the spectacle is good - the opening jailbreak is exciting - while Newt and Tina are interesting. The relationship between Jacob (Fogler) and Queenie (Sudol) is equally intriguing, especially the way it folds into Grindelwald's crusade, but it's badly handled.

The biggest highlight is Law as Dumbledore. It's early days, and there's stiff competition, but he's quickly shaping up to be my favourite of the three actors playing the learned wizard. He has the right mix of warmth and wisdom in the role and is a delight to watch.

As for the whole film, it's the worst of the franchise. The Crimes Of Grindelwald has lost the magic, and with three movies to go, it's going to be interesting to see if Yates, Rowling and co. can find it again.

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

The Girl In The Spider's Web

(MA15+) ★★

Director: Fede Álvarez.

Cast: Claire Foy, Sverrir Gudnason, LaKeith Stanfield, Christopher Convery, Sylvia Hoeks, Stephen Merchant, Vicky Krieps, Claes Bang, Synnøve Macody Lund, Cameron Britton.

"Yeah, but at least I killed the spider."
The film versions of the Millennium books have been hit and miss. The Swedish film trilogy, which made a star out of Noomi Rapace, started brilliantly with The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, but the second and third films were disappointments.

David Fincher's Dragon Tattoo was also excellent, but this American "soft-reboot" follows the downward trend of the Swedish films. There are new actors and a new director on board, and even a new author (Stieg Larsson's passing in 2004 didn't stop his publishers from continuing the series with writer David Lagercrantz in his place), but the results feel old and tired, despite the fresh start.

The film opens with hacker Lisbeth Salander (Foy) continuing her passion for seeking vengeance on men who hurt women. But in between her missions of retribution, she takes on a job from a remorseful programmer (Merchant), who implores her to steal a cyberweapon he has created for the US Government.

Her subsequent theft of the weapon - dubbed Firewall - puts her in the crosshairs of numerous government agencies, as well as someone from her own dark past.

NOTE: This trailer contains some pretty major spoilers.

Foy's Salander is a good one, certainly on par with Rapace's and Rooney Mara's, but she's stuck in a film that is sadly lacking heart and soul. It's stylish, but it's missing something beneath that. Some deeper thematic layers would have helped, as well as some emotion.

Salander is such a distant person that it's understandable the film comes off as cold. But where her connection with journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Gudnason) and her own failings and frailties helped melt the ice in Dragon Tattoo, there is no such thawing here. A lack of connection puts the entire film emotionally out of reach; so much so that by the end you won't really care who lives or dies.

As mentioned, Spider's Web is stylish, but often at the expense of reason - the film too often goes for "what looks good" over "what makes sense". Salander's apartment is a good example of this, as are some key moments in the first half.

This lack of a grounding in reality shines through in Salander's hacking powers, which border on the supernatural, to the point of being ridiculous. While admittedly cool in places - what she can do to someone else's car with her phone is pretty rad - it moves the story further and further from the reality of the world it's set in.

It all boils down to style over substance. Throw in a so-so supporting cast, and it leaves you with little to recommend beyond a couple of cool moments and another great performance from Foy in her breakout year.

Thursday, 8 November 2018

Bohemian Rhapsody

(M) ★★★½

Director: Brian Singer & Dexter Fletcher.

Cast: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joseph Mazzello, Aidan Gillen, Tom Hollander, Mike Myers, Aaron McCusker.

"We had the best time at your party/the wife and I thank you very much."
Bands bust their arses to make albums, not greatest hits compilations. But when people look back at an act's career, an entire oeuvre of records is usually distilled into a collection of the best and biggest songs.

The same is true of musical biopics. The methodology (in most cases) in these movies is "all killer, no filler" - just give us the hits. As such, it's the nature of the beast that things get re-organised, re-arranged and omitted to summarise and celebrate a back catalogue.

With that in mind, Bohemian Rhapsody is an excellent summary and celebration of one of rock music's finest back catalogues. Yes, the story is streamlined and ironed into something more fitting of a typical Hollywood narrative, but that's what happens with films "based" on real events. From Argo to The Imitation Game to The Greatest Showman, there are varying degrees of truth in all true stories.

Bohemian Rhapsody is an approximation of the Queen story, and it's a thoroughly entertaining and surprisingly exultant one at that. It follows Freddie Mercury (Malek), Brian May (Lee), Roger Taylor (Hardy) and John Deacon (Mazzello) from their early club shows under the name Smile to their triumphant Live Aid set at Wembley Stadium in 1985, which is generally regarded as one of the greatest performances of all time.

Along the way we see them compose such all-time classics as Bohemian Rhapsody, We Will Rock You, and Another One Bites The Dust. We see them rock their way around the world. But we also watch Mercury as he rises and falls, grappling with his identity, his sexuality, the contradictions of his nature, and, finally, the sad realisation that he's not long for this world.

It's futile and pointless to complain about what's not in the film, although I've probably been guilty of that in past. The real question is whether what's in the film works or not. And for the most part, it does.

There are some typically naff biopic bits - people say bizarrely portentous and foreboding things, incredible events are condensed into impossibly tight time frames, and there are some terribly exposition-heavy sequences to fill in the gaps in the narrative and set up the next scene. It all dials up the melodrama more than is actually necessary.

But when it's on song - which is often - the film sings sweetly. The actors playing the four members of Queen (Malek, Lee, Hardy, and Mazzello) have great chemistry and do a decent-enough job of looking like they're really playing and singing. The atmosphere around the band is largely one of fun and humour, which elevates much of the film.

The stand-out is Malek, and while it's doubtful he's doing a large amount of the singing, he certainly replicates Mercury's moves and is an effective showman. His performance is also genuinely good, covering the highs and lows to ensure Mercury comes off as a real person and not a caricature.

Much of this comes down to the writing too. Mercury's sexuality treads a fine line between overwhelming the story and being underplayed, but it works well. The screenplay ensures the Queen frontman isn't defined by just one aspect of his story, making for a well-rounded character.

Considering what became of Mercury, the film is surprisingly buoyant. It doesn't shy away from the heavy stuff, which is where the emotion of Bohemian Rhapsody comes from, but the general tone is one of celebration. This comes through in the multitude of musical moments, the songwriting 'eureka' instances, the band banter, and, best of all, the magnificent recreation of (most of) Queen's incredible Live Aid performance, which provides an incredibly moving coda to the film.

It's worth noting that the context given to this triumphant gig is fabricated, but it's a great example of how things can be moulded to say more than the truth did. Live Aid becomes the perfect way to memorialise the band and elevate Mercury to legend status.

We can bitch and whine about what's not in Bohemian Rhapsody and what got changed, or we can sit back and enjoy the music and the way the film honours Mercury, Queen, and their incredible legacy. I would much prefer to do the latter.

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Halloween (2018)

(MA15+) ★★

Director: David Gordon Green.

Cast: Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak, Will Patton, Virginia Gardner, James Jude Courtney, Nick Castle, Haluk Bilginer, Jefferson Hall, Rhian Rees, Toby Huss, Dylan Arnold, Miles Robbins.

"Shatner? Is that you?"
Much like its Big Bad, the Halloween film series just won't die. Forty years on from John Carpenter's groundbreaking original, which helped birth the slasher genre, we now have the 11th film in the franchise.

This sequel appears to be aimed at people like me who have only seen Carpenter's '78 prototype - the plot reportedly ignores the nine other films in the franchise (although it must be noted that the last two movies were a reboot and a sequel, while Halloween 3 was a standalone oddity). If I was a fan of the series who had invested in paying to see the other entries in the series, I'd probably be pissed off at such blatant disregard for what had gone before. But whatever.

Regardless of its retconning (apparently the other films are "stories people made up", as one character puts it), this Halloween certainly captures the tone and vibe of '78. But does it have anything new to say, or something worth saying? Not really.

As with the rest of the (now-ignored) series, the film centres on the ominous killing machine Michael Myers (played by past-Myers performers Courtney and Castle). After 40 years in a mental institution, Myers is transported to a new facility on Halloween eve but the bus overturns and Myers is let loose near his old stomping ground of Haddonfield, Illinois.

Meanwhile, Laurie Strode (Curtis), the solo survivor of Myers' 1978 rampage, has spent her whole life waiting in Haddonfield for a chance at revenge. When Myers comes, she'll be ready.

Regular collaborators Danny McBride, David Gordon Green and Jeff Fradley are definitely deferential to Carpenter and his original - they've even brought the 70-year-old director back as a composer and executive producer. And it's no wonder the film as Carpenter's blessing. It's faithful in to his visual style and storytelling, and neatly encapsulates the mood and spirit of the original.

But all this devotion to the Spirit of '78 means the film is unfortunately trapped in the past. While it does a nice job of flipping the script in terms of the "final girl" trope, this Halloween lacks innovation. It's also short on scares or anything to get people to the edge of their seats. I found myself being more appreciative of the filmmakers' efforts to recapture the vibe of the original than entertained or scared by the film itself.

Part of this disappointment is simply due to the passage of time. A good old-fashioned slasher film is one thing, and maybe that could have worked, but the horror genre has become so meta and self-reflexive in the past 40 years that playing it straight seems, well, old-fashioned. After the likes of Scream and The Cabin In The Woods, it's hard not to laugh out loud every time someone trips over nothing while being pursued by the glacially paced villain or when someone decides it's a good idea to investigate a bump in the night by themselves.

Shorn of the trappings of the genre, the filmmaking is solid. It's moody, with nice lighting and cinematography. There's a bravura long-take that follows Myers through a couple of houses on a kill-spree that's genuinely impressive while the ending almost ratchets up the tension enough to overcome the film's shortcomings.

It's worth noting a major another of those shortcomings, which is the opening. It involves two podcasters/journalists digging into Myers' story and it's one of the worst opening scenes to hit the big screen in a long time. It's laughably bad and it's only once the podcasters are out of the picture that the film starts to hit its stride.

Carpenter's score is one of the best things about the movie, and Curtis, Greer and Matichak give their all. But this throwback, as admirable as it is, just doesn't feel like anything more than a novelty throwback, and not a hugely entertaining one at that.

A Star Is Born (2018)

(M) ★★★★

Director: Bradley Cooper.

Cast: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott, Andrew Dice Clay, Rafi Gavron, Dave Chappelle, Anthony Ramos, Michael Harney.

"Hey little boy, what you got there?/Kind sir, it's a mollusk I've found."
There are so many truisms in A Star Is Born that you could make the argument this latest version of the rise-to-fame story is the very dictionary definition of "truism" - "a statement that is obviously true and says nothing new or interesting" (according to Google).

Musical careers wane, "rock 'n' roll relationships" are notoriously volatile, overnight sensations are never "overnight", the music industry is inherently sexist, drugs are bad mmmkay, and great art often comes from great pain. So far, so true, nothing new.

But despite all this, and despite being the fifth version of this story to hit the big screen in 81 years, the narrative arc at the heart of A Star Is Born remains compelling. And Cooper's version (his directorial debut) is a welcome modernisation. It might not be a "new" story, but updating it for our time gives it a fresh edge that's enjoyable and, yes, interesting.

The rising star here is Ally (Lady Gaga), found by veteran alt-country star Jackson Maine (Cooper) singing Edith Piaf songs in a drag bar. Jackson is struggling with substances and hearing loss, while Ally is struggling to be noticed, having been repeatedly told she wasn't pretty enough to be a popstar.

This largely predictable story, set against the backdrop of the music industry, features a handful of story beats and emotional moments that don't ring true. For example, the first time Ally joins Jackson's band on stage - sans rehearsal - it sounds too good to be true. Plus there are some character behaviours or patches of dialogue, most notably during Ally and Jackson's first night hanging out together, that seem a bit removed from reality.

But much of that is forgivable, partly because there are so many other moments that feel real, with real emotional weight behind them. A lot of this comes down to Gaga and Cooper, whose performances are top notch. Gaga probably lived some version of this, but her expression of that through Ally very nearly steals the show in her debut as a big screen lead. It's an impressive turn.

Meanwhile Cooper gives a career-best performances in a growing filmography filled with quality performances. Jackson is a mix of Keith Urban, Johnny Cash and a handful of rock cliches, but he sells it. He also does a mighty fine job of singing and playing (or at least looking like he's playing) in the musical performances. Gaga, naturally, owns the musical side of this, but Cooper is no slouch either.

They have some great songs to work with. The opener Black Eyes is a Black Keys-esque belter, Jackson's signature tune Maybe It's Time (penned by Jason Isbell) feels timeless, the movie's key duet Shallow is a fitting lead single, and the closer I'll Never Love Again is an '80s-style ballad that works beautifully in the story's context. The soundtrack is great to dig through for the songs you only get snippets of in the film, because there's a lot of gold in here. Some of the lyrics are a bit cringe-worthy, but somehow it works.

As for Cooper as director, he acquits himself well. His visual style is subtle but it works. He lets the camera roam in the live performances to create a sense of energy, and there are some haunting shots in the ending, but largely his work is unobtrusive but effective.

With the power of its music and its two leads (plus some nice support from Elliot, Chappelle and Gavron), A Star Is Born is a worthy retread of a well-worn path.

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Bad Times At The El Royale

(MA15+) ★★★

Director: Drew Goddard.

Cast:  Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Lewis Pullman, Cailee Spaeny, Chris Hemsworth, Nick Offerman.

Even the bear was intrigued.
Drew Goddard's CV is beyond solid. He wrote Cloverfield, World War Z and earned an Oscar nom for his screenplay for The Martian. He penned episodes of Buffy, Angel, Alias and Lost. He was the brains behind the TV series Daredevil for Netflix. And he wrote and directed the excellent meta-horror The Cabin In The Woods.

After all that, there were big expectations for his second writer/director effort Bad Times At The El Royale. And five minutes in, those hopes were still riding high.

But slowly, but surely, the magic ebbs out of this neo-noir. Its colourful set-up ends up painting the film into a corner, and despite some steady surprises, the story can't sustain its brilliance.

That story kicks off with a group of strangers arriving at the hotel of the title, which sits astride the border between Nevada and California. There's vacuum cleaner salesman Laramie Sullivan (Hamm), gentle priest Father Flynn (Bridges), soul singer Darlene Sweet (Erivo), and the no-nonsense Emily (Johnson).

Each of these visitors carries a secret amid their luggage, and all of those secrets are about to be uncovered on one fateful, stormy night.

As far as first acts go, El Royale's is a doozy. Goddard's opening scene is simple, succinct and attention-grabbing, and as the guests start to check in, you'll be captivated by the dialogue and the talented ensemble delivering it. This continues as the skeletons start to emerge from the metaphorical closets, and the bullets and blood begin to fly.

The tension builds to a boiling point, but things bubble over at the end of the second act and nothing is quite the same. The last act pushes the already strange happenings into full-on Crazy Town as the story searches (unsatisfactorily) for an ending.

It pains me to say it, but things go wrong when Hemsworth turns up. His character, while intriguing, is not right for him - his performance lacks the necessary mix of danger and charisma, of sex and violence. It's not all his fault - the script uses his character as a kind of fix-all for the story's end problems, throwing him into proceedings at their most desperate hour, unsuccessfully.

The film crawls to the finish like a wounded dog, which is a disappointment after having run such a good race. Bridges, Erivo, and relative newcomer Pullman (son of Bill) help get it across the line, but the fact is the end is nowhere near as strong as the start.

It's a shame. The cast is great (Hamm is also worth mentioning), the production design and music are excellent, and the set-up is strong. There's a mild Tarantino vibe going on, although he and Goddard are probably just borrowing from the same places most likely. Goddard is also not as flashy as QT and seems happy to sit back and let the story and killer ensemble do the work.

This is probably why it's such a shame that this Strangers In A Hotel goes off the rails in the final leg. With so much riding on the story, when things go wrong, they really go wrong. A lot goes right too, and for the most part this is good fun, but Bad Times At The El Royale doesn't quite check out.

Sunday, 14 October 2018

First Man

(M) ★★★★★

Director: Damien Chazelle.

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Ciarán Hinds, Christopher Abbott, Patrick Fugit, Lukas Haas.

Unnoticed, the pen moved into attack position.
We all know who the first man on the moon was, but who was he really? And most people know how he got to the moon, but how did he really get there?

These are the two questions at the heart of this historical biopic. Not only are they interesting questions and well worth asking, but it's kind of a forehead-slapper that they haven't been asked before on the big screen. Neil Armstrong was part of the one of the most amazing - if not the most amazing - feats of the 20th century, yet his personal story has somehow remained untold, at least cinematically speaking.

That story, as shown here, is fascinating, and Chazelle's documentary-style delivery, aided by stunning performances from Gosling and Foy, makes for emotional, powerful, and gripping viewing.

Based on the only authorised Neil Armstrong biography (James R. Hansen's First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong), the film follows the astronaut through some of the key moments in his life and the space program in the eight years preceding his famous moonwalk.

Over this time period, we see the losses that shape Armstrong, the true cost of the US Government's lunar efforts, and the personal impacts the quest to reach the moon has on Armstrong, his family, and the families of the astronauts around them.

First Man, as much as it's about one giant leap for mankind, is very much about the many small steps men and women had to take to get there. And with Armstrong front and centre, we see the path he takes on the way to the moon. Much of this revolves around he and his first wife Janet (Foy).

It's this personal point of view that makes First Man so riveting. Armstrong is a complicated man, and the film is at great pains to show him as a distracted but caring family man, as well as a dedicated but driven astronaut. The possibility of painting him as one-dimensional is avoided by a well-rounded script and a stellar performance from Gosling. He portrays Armstrong as a very restrained and reserved man, yet not devoid of passion or power. It's a wonderfully complex role, beautifully rendered by Gosling.

He's equally matched by Foy, who does a lot of the emotional heavy-lifting in the film. Her performance is worthy of many nominations, as it helps give heart to a story that could have easily become a clinical exploration of the Gemini and Apollo programs.

They head a top-shelf cast - shoutouts in particular to Clarke and Stoll, with the latter getting good laughs at Buzz Aldrin - but as much as this is Gosling and Foy's show, it's Chazelle that deserves the bulk of the credit. On the back of the remarkable one-two jazz combo of Whiplash and La La Land, he has aimed for the heavens and scored a rare hat-trick.

His doco style, filled with shaky cams and POV shots, perfectly places the audience in the thick of it. He selectively uses his big moments, ensuring we don't get a good look at a launch until the whole world is watching on for Apollo 11.

His use of natural-looking light and different visual styles - a washed-out polaroid look for backyard summers, the darkness of a cockpit in space - helps with his sense of biopic realism. While he plays typically lose with some facts and timing of events, Chazelle keeps the pace of the film flowing beautifully, building to a jaw-dropping crescendo, which is awe-inspiring even though we all know where this thing is going.

As with his previous films, Chazelle and his crew nail every aspect of the film-making; from its editing to its production design to its use of music to its lighting to its cinematography. But all of this is in service of a remarkable story that actually succeeds in making one of the most phenomenally huge projects look decidedly small and human, which is why First Man resonates so deeply.

Thursday, 4 October 2018


(M) ★★

Director: Ruben Fleischer.

Cast: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Scott Haze, Reid Scott, Jenny Slate.

The Hollywood smile.
Prior to the release of this film, there were fears Sony were merely attempting to flog the only Marvel horse in its stable.

They had failed to get their own Spider-man franchise to work (despite the best efforts of Marc Webb and Andrew Garfield) and reluctantly handed the live action future of the character to the MCU. But they still owned the rights to the "Spider-verse" characters, and with the announcement of a standalone Venom film, it looked like Sony were hellbent on wringing every last penny they could get out of that dominion.

So if that means making a "Spider-man" movie without Spider-man in it, so be it. Who needs Spider-man anyway when you've got Black Cat, Silver Sable, Morbius or a bunch of other characters non-nerds don't know about, right?

But Sony were adamant - no, we have a good script and a good take on the Venom character, so that's why we're making the movie. It's not a shameless money-making exercise to cash in on Marvel goodwill and the superhero movie phenomenon, no, not at all, why would you say such a thing?

The sad truth is that Venom feels like the shameless cash-in many feared it would be. It's not good enough to deserve its place in the superhero pantheon and does a disservice to a villain/anti-hero that would most likely be better off in an MCU film. It's oddly close to being really good, but comes off as ultimately half-arsed.

Venom is the story of Eddie Brock (Hardy), a loose cannon reporter who offends Elon Musk-like supervillain Carlton Drake (Ahmed) and somehow manages to lose his job and his fiancee in one fell swoop. Six months later, a chance to bring down Drake lands in Brock's lap but during an ill-fated break-in to Drake's lab, Brock ends up infected with an alien organism named Venom.

The first mistake Venom makes is in the words "six months later". The first 20 minutes of the film are largely redundant but not only do they waste our time, they also dig a hole that's hard to get out of. The tone of the film is set in that opening act, but it's not the right one - that comes after the 20-minute mark, where we start to get the dark-comedy hints that persist through the film, not some weird rom-com-meets-horror-meets-Bond-villain thing that the first act messily wades through.

The opening also inadvertently demonstrates a lack of chemistry between Williams and Hardy, which is surprising given the fact they're both great actors. It also paints Hardy's Brock as an annoying douche who doesn't know how being a journalist works. There's also a tendency throughout the film for characters to have no idea how real people actually interact.

Aside from the chemistry thing, these are script problems. While things improve somewhat after the opening, Venom never gets its tone right. There are a few laughs, and these come out of the blacker and bleaker moments, but it never fully commits to the darkness lurking on the edges. For a movie about a headchomping alien, Venom is strangely toothless and bloodless, giving the whole thing a watered-down vibe.

Nor does it nail down the whole anti-hero thing. Brock is initially annoying before becoming pitiful, which actually works better. The Venom-Brock relationship has its hiccups but is actually close to being great. The best thing Venom has going for it is Hardy, who is excellent. He throws everything into the performance and damn near saves the film.

But there are too many things working against him. The film devolves into a typically emotionless CG-heavy boss battle, and even the action sequences before that are nothing special, aside from some brief moments of cool.

Ahmed is a disappointing villain, there are some major plotholes, and whenever the film finally starts to feel like it's on the up, it undoes itself with either bad dialogue, idiotic plotting, or another tone-deaf diversion. There's also no heart or depth to the film, which would be tolerable if it was more entertaining.

The mid-credits sequence would have us believe a sequel is in the offering. That's not an enticing prospect at this stage.

Thursday, 27 September 2018


(G) ★★★★

Director: Karey Kirkpatrick & Jason Reisig.

Cast: (voices of) Channing Tatum, James Corden, Zendaya, Common, LeBron James, Gina Rodriguez, Danny DeVito, Yara Shahidi, Ely Henry, Jimmy Tatro.

The tinea was completely gone!
What is the nature of "truth"? Are lies occasionally necessary, or does the power of truth always win out? Is it better to leave lies lie if they cause no harm, or should the boat be rocked so truth can out?

Okay, that's pretty deep for a critique of a kid's film, but believe it or not these are the questions at the heart of Smallfoot.

This is only the second non-Lego-related film from the re-branded Warner Animation Group and is the same vein as its predecessor Storks. It creates a similarly good world for its story, while getting strong laughs out of a comparatively dialled-down sense of humour. And like all the best family films, it has a thematic depth that's fascinating and will bear fruit on repeat viewings as the kids get older.

Oh and it's a musical. That may not have been totally obvious from the trailer, and it may put some people off, but don't let it, 'cos some of the songs are actually good.

The star is Migo (Tatum), a yeti who lives with his fellow abominable snowpeople above the cloudline of a Himalayan peak. He's quite happy living his yeti life and following the unquestionable rules of their society, as enforced by their de facto king the Stonekeeper (Common).

But a run-in with a crashing plane and its terrified pilot leads Migo to question the "truths" of his village's existence. Banished for refusing to deny the existence of the "smallfoot" pilot, Migo meets up with some fellow "smallfoot truthers" and sets about proving he was right - an action that could throw his people's way of life into jeopardy.

The major theme of the film centres on the nature of truth, which is fascinating, even if it does come perilously close to playing out like a conspiracy theorist's wet dream in family film form. The redeeming feature that stops this from feeling like it's championing such dimwitted dipshittery as flat-earthers, 9/11 truthers and anti-vaxxers is that Migo must find incontrovertible proof to validate his argument. Still, there was a moment or two where it felt like the fringe loonies were about to "woke the sheeple" or some such nonsense. 

Ultimately it's about questioning dogma and not being afraid of new ideas, but also exploring how lies serve a purpose. In all, Smallfoot's theme of truth, and the way it's displayed, is pretty cool. It's a level of depth that elevates the film, giving it a degree of sophistication that's very welcome, especially when stacked up against some other family movies. It's the kind of thing the parents get now, and the kids will appreciate later on re-watching as they get older - one of the true indications of a good family film.

In a more immediate sense, Smallfoot will win over the young'uns with its bursts of Looney Tunes-style antics. There are pratfalls and slapstick galore, which is complimented by good comedic delivery. It's nowhere near as OTT as Storks, but just as funny.

Tatum does a great job as the lead voice, with DeVito also a stand-out in a solid cast. Corden is annoying, which is partly because of his character, but that fades as the film progresses. His worst transgression is an altered version of the Bowie/Queen classic Under Pressure, but again that's not entirely his fault.

This musical mis-step is the nadir of the film but the rest of the songs are either good or great. Common gets the musical highlight with a Gorillaz-esque centrepiece called Let It Lie, while Tatum's opener is also strong. The film would've worked just as well without the music, yet Let It Lie ends up feeling necessary, so in hindsight the musical interludes are welcome. 

It's doubtful Smallfoot will be regarded as a kid-friendly classic, but it's a quality piece of animation that looks great, sounds good, and is thoroughly and thoughtfully entertaining across its brisk running time.