It is a rare thing for a Marvel origin movie to be a resounding success. I mean, out of our introductions to current titular superheroes Iron Man (2008), Thor (2011), Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), Ant-Man (2015), Doctor Strange (2016) and even the recent Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) very few have left audiences both impassioned and awe-inspired. You see, it’s a hard combination to create, at least the first time around, with the studio usually more interested in carefully crafting the characters for their star-studded team-up flicks. Perhaps this is why Black Panther (2018) works so well, with director Ryan Coogler spending less time introducing us to his restrained and dignified main man following his launch in Captain America: Civil War (2016) and instead focusing his energy and expertise into bringing one of Marvel’s most beautiful realms to life. Here, he breathes life into a myth, building a groovy world worthy of the big screen and the landmark acclaim it is gaining.
We start in the aftermath of King T’Chaka’s death, as royal heir T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns to his technologically advanced homeland to take up the mantle of its monarch. Following a primordial challenge from the land’s four other tribes, the Prince emerges as Wakanda’s rightful leader and warrior. But just days into his reign he is forced to bring the nation’s greatest villain Ulysses Klaue to justice – a feat his father was unable to achieve for more than 30 years. It’s no wonder then that blood and betrayal run deep in the movie as it shifts to South Korea for its stylish and slick second half. Here our protagonist, his protector Okoye (Danai Gurera) and his feisty ex-girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) take on their foes in a polished casino-heist style scene. No Marvel movie would be complete though without an all-out car race, this time sweeping through neon-streaked streets and providing the perfect opportunity for the Prince’s tech-savvy sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) to shine. But it’s mercenary Eric Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) who takes centre stage come part three, putting a dampener on the ruler’s plans by challenging his right to sit upon the throne and causing the series second civil war to break out.
Visually the film is stunning. Gorgeous cosmic colours swirl through ancestral worlds and bleed into the gorgeous country of Wakanda. There’s a similar vibe in the music too, with an original soundtrack from Kendrick Lamar combining wild drumbeats with flourishes of frenetic hip-hop. It makes you want to get up and move, pulling viewers into the film and transforming them into more than just oblivious observers. Part of what makes the film great though is how seamlessly it blends the traditions of old with the technology of new. This is a country that exists with the greatest advancements in life - from hover trains to metal-balls that can save people’s spines - yet continues to conduct ritual bloodfights for its governance. Culture is important and no matter how far its people may progress, the sanctity of their customs and their desire to prove you can have it all sets them apart.
The star-studded cast are a step-above, but one wouldn’t expect any less from those who have mastered funk legends, slayed zombies and won Oscars. Boseman brings a serene presence to his King, funnier than we have seen him before, but still duty and honour bound. He is the wise leader, forced to understand how failure is crucial to making a great leader. In opposition, Jordan brings a reckless, snarky-ness to his scarred villain Killmonger. Yet despite his flaws, he is one of the most well-rounded and empathetic antagonists the Marvel universe has produced - his unwillingness to give-up on his beliefs demanding credit. Daniel Kaluuya, Martin Freeman, Andy Serkis, Forest Whitaker and Winston Duke all provide solid support in roles that could easily have been extended, but it is hard not to see how it is their actress counterparts that really make a mark in the film’s two-hour run.
Women are incredibly powerful in Coogler’s world, with their representation here among the best in Marvel’s history. While T’Challa may serve as King and hero, females form the brunt of those closest to him. His mother Queen Ramonda is a guiding force in who he becomes. His sister Princess Shuri provides the smarts behind his advantage over foes. And former flame and spirited badass Nakia is not afraid to challenge and push to be a better person. Then there is the King’s guard – the Dora Milaje - an all-female group of shaven-haired warrior women led by General Okoye. Little girls have long waited for Marvel to get their act together and give them someone more than just Black Widow and Scarlet Witch to aspire to, and here Coogler cocks his head and says screw waiting until Captain Marvel (2019). You want to be a cool scientist? Then study hard and do it. You want to be an activist and stand up for what you believe in? Make people hear your voice. You want to be someone other than the damsel-in-distress? No-one is stopping you. Not anymore.
Above all, race is the most crucial element here, there’s no denying it. Never before has there been a superhero movie with such a triumphant African-American cast, directed by an African-American visionary and with a budget this big to throw around. And Coogler makes it clear from the get-go that identity is at the heart of his blockbuster, whether that be a hesitant son trying to live up to his father’s name or a beefed-up outcast hitting back at the home he was never invited into. Our movie-maestro has been commenting on these themes for a while now, from his incredible introduction Fruitvale Station (2013) to his powerful follow-up Creed (2015). But everything about Black Panther (2018) makes it feel like he has simply been gearing up for an ultimate chance to comment on the politics that so deeply divide us. So, it’s no surprise he is keen to finish on a note of unity rather than division. It’s a representation that will make generations sit up and pay attention. And maybe one day, we’ll realise that difference isn’t something to be afraid of, but something to embrace.
Rating: 4 Wakandan Warriors out of 5
Thor: Ragnarok Review - Brash, bold and downright hilarious, this time the God of Thunder is finally a champion
It’s funny, but when Marvel first started on the giant conglomerate that is their cinematic universe, people were eager to jump aboard the train. Good film after great film kept falling in our laps, from Iron Man (2008) to The Avengers (2012) and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). And then the sequels, dark and juicy, just like Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014), each providing yet more opportunities to be blown away. But the whole time, one of the quintessential characters of that universe – the mighty Thor - was resigned to little more than a muscle-man stereotype: a guy who talked funny, liked to hit things and was frankly just a little bit dim. Well, it’s so, so, nice to say that has finally changed. Okay, mostly. He does still talk funny and look hot. But in the God of Thunder’s third outing, Thor: Ragnarok (2017) we patient fans are finally introduced to the comic gold we’ve been waiting for. All wrapped up in a fresh, fun and fancy-free bow. Not quite bottled lightning, but pretty damn close. This threequel is a disorienting, dream-like feast. It’s a god damn rebel without a cause. And frankly it’s about damn time.
Ragnarok kicks things up a notch from previous Marvel-verse movies in both style and scale. Perhaps it’s because we don’t have to spend half the film explaining things or carefully crafting back stories. Or perhaps it’s because under Taika Waititi’s control a linear plot gives way to pure, unadulterated fun. But regardless, the film zips along at breakneck pace, bouncing between planets, puns and incredible cameos. It picks up with Thor in a precarious position as he learns of Asgaard’s end of days. Not long after he’s back on his shiny home world discovering his mischievous ‘adopted’ brother Loki is not just alive and well, but has being playing dress-up in his absence. From there the Marvel machine takes hold, as the mythical Hela arrives on the scene plotting – yawn – yet another global annihilation. We get it, okay. But really isn't there a better superhero movie schtick yet? Thankfully, Waititi holds his ground, giving us a reunion between Avenger’s outcasts Thor and Hulk to bring back the human element and take what could otherwise be a banal series of scenes into full-on Gladiator territory. Without spoiling things too much, the remainder of the movie comfortably settles into a cross between psychedelic roller-coaster ride and hilarious buddy-movie flick, as the ‘Revengers’ do battle for heart and home.
Third time round Hemsworth finally gets the chance to flex his comedic chops, whether that be in his joyous interactions with the Hulk or screaming like a little girl when confronted with The Grandmaster. But he also manages to bring a depth and brevity to the role that hadn’t existed before. Thor has grown up a lot since his introduction and there’s plenty of visual reminders too. From shaved locks, to his bond with his brother, and even his trandsformation when having to deal with the destruction of his beloved Mjolnir. Odin’s son is finally living up to his name, in more ways than one. In comparison, everyone’s favourite bad boy villain Loki has had a somewhat slower maturity, creating monuments in his honour after being left to his own devices. It’s clear Hiddleston still relishes the role, part Shakespearean part slapstick and a whole lot of mischievous charisma. It’s no wonder he’s won fans the world over. Hulk meanwhile is sassier than ever, speaking his mind rather than just smashing things aimlessly (although a lot of that happens too). If any of the repeat players fall flat, it’s Anthony Hopkins’ wise leader, who seems like he’s sleepwalking his way to a paycheck rather than handing out sage advice.
The newcomers provide plenty of energy to keep things going though, with Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie both an original and badass addition. Declared the first bisexual character in the Marvel universe, that seems to be the last thing on her mind, with the warrior-woman spending most of her screen time drinking, throwing sarcastic comments her co-stars way and giving off a strong ‘don’t fuck with me vibe’. What more could you ask for in an individual, right? Then there’s Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster, who is a throwback to the eighties if I ever saw one. Not only does he own a spaceship specifically used for orgies, but he also wears blue eyeliner and uses so much hair product global warming should be a problem on his planet. It’s safe to say he’s almost more Goldblum than Goldblum is, and that man played Ian freaking Malcolm. Meanwhile, Karl Urban’s Skurge is much like you’d expect, taking on the traditional villain’s assistant role while maintaining some ‘redeemable’ characteristics. Best of all is Waititi’s own motion capture creature, Korg, a stone alien whose kiwi tongue and soft spoken logic has been sorely lacking from these blockbuster affairs.
When it comes to cinematography it’s a cacophony of colour here, dragging us out of the cold shadows of Captain America: Civil War (2016). But visual aspects play little part in determining the best scene in the film, because while most woman will likely judge it as the moment they can swoon over Hemsworth’s *cough* it’s-probably-in-his-contract *cough* shirtless scene, the hands down standout is Loki’s Tony-Award winning theatrical production. To say anymore would be to spoil the best moment of your year. But suffice to say, the cameos are everything. So what about the worst element then? Well, that must go to the overused, overblown and seriously-can-we-just-do-away-with-this-trope-now plot for Hela to try and take over the universe. Frankly it is really hard to care when Thanos’ master plan is lurking just around the corner. With Infinity War (2018) looming large, the stakes here just can't ever be big enough, meaning we remain almost ambivalent to the villainess (who clearly took her goth phase too seriously). Even the devastating finale piece, full of astounding visual effects, falls somewhat flat as a result.
Coming in as a relatively small-scale director, it’s incredibly empowering to see Taika Waititi bringing his trademark charm, wit and down-to-earth fun to this piece. Unlike the James Gunn’s and the Jon Watts of the Marvel-verse (who have done incredible work, don’t get me wrong), Waititi stands just slightly above the crowd. Because while he brings the same genuine heart and humour like those before him, he also brings a breakaway from the formulaic style Marvel is renowned for delivering. He smashes the idea that the tone, characters and secrets must be carefully formulated because Marvel are watching. He knows but just doesn’t care. Because Waititi is the revolution maker (in both the literal and figurative sense), finding a compromise that fits everyone. It’s an eye for an eye after all.
Rating: 4 Shirtless Hemsworth's out of 5
Clowns have never scared me. Unnerved, sure. Weirded out, wouldn’t you be. But terrified? Not so much. After all, they’re little more than a person dressed in a suit, designed to entertain and thrill you. Right? But then came the news that Warner Bros had decided to bring their crazed-killer-clown adaptation IT (1990) into the 21st century. And with it came a series of creepy (and allegedly unrelated) sightings of such creatures across the world. And suddenly clowns stopped representing a fun night out at the circus or rodeo and instead became psychotic killers lurking in bushes. Perhaps after Stephen King’s original novel they always had been. What is interesting though, is that the studio’s remake could have so easily played into this melodrama and cliché. That clowns are evil and that’s all there is to them. But these red-nosed, white-faced, devilishly-smiling creatures aren’t the only thing to fear and IT (2017) wisely knows it. Sometimes, what makes us most afraid, is fear itself.
Based on King’s work, and given the seal of approval from the author himself, the movie follows a rag-tag group of teens as they investigate a spate of mysterious disappearances in their sleepy Maine town. A year after Bill’s (Jaeden Lieberher) little brother Georgie vanishes while out playing, he and his ‘Loser Club’ friends start witnessing haunting visions. From blood-soaked bathrooms to pus-filled lepers, each play on the children’s worst fears. And soon they start culminating in the appearance of Pennywise, a malevolent clown (Bill Skarsgard). Not your average circus performer, this monster is determined to wreak havoc, using a red balloon, well-timed music and a set of nasty teeth to do the job. Scared, yet determined to get to the bottom of it, the team start connecting the dots the adults refuse to see, leading them deep into Derry’s history and sewer systems to find the heart of the beast itself.
Part horror, part coming-of-age tale, the film dances around both for most of its two-hour runtime. But director Andy Muschietti has a steady hand and throws us just enough of both to keep us intrigued. A close-up of Pennywise’s face here, a dramatic build-up there and just enough gore sprinkled between the moments of childhood innocence. His biggest success though is making us care for the seven-strong main cast, each getting almost enough screen-time and bonding moments to make them individuals. Even if Stan is reduced to little more than the Jewish boy preparing for his Bat Mitzvah and Ben is represented as the formulaic new kid who spends his time in the library. The child actors show talent and wisdom beyond their years though, led by an impressive performance from Jaeden Lieberher. But two standouts work hard to upstage him, in Finn Wolfhard’s foul-mouthed, comic-relief character Ritchie, and the dazzlingly-innocent yet terrifically tomboyish performance of Sophia Lillis’ Beverley.
And while killer-clowns sound like the most cliched of all horror tropes, IT’s fiendish villain is a breath of fresh air. Skarsgard delivers a phenomenal and all-encompassing turn, so deeply and richly conceived it’s hard to see any humanity in the character at all. It’s not Tim Curry’s iconic version, I’ll give you that, but it’s a scintillating vision nonetheless. Sadly, it is let down by Muschietti, who spends too much time establishing the character rather than delving into the film’s darker fear – that parents are the true fiends. He hints at it when we see abusive fathers controlling their daughters or pushing their sons to breaking point, but it is never at the forefront. And its such a let down, because fear is a contagion that is made worse when we can’t explain or confront it. And for all the dread, uncertainty and mystical forces Pennywise conjures up, he can be overcome. Trusted adults exploiting their power and pretending the terror isn’t real, is a whole lot harder to beat.
The movie’s strongest element therefore, is its focus on the theme of fear. For starters, each child’s horror is hinted at long before it is used against them. For Beverley, coming into womanhood and having her first period, blood plays a big part in her terror. While Eddie, raised by a mother in constant fear of his health, the thing that frightens him is sickness. Mike, the outcast unable to deal with death, is forced to relive such a demise time and time again, just as Stanley, who has no tangible female figure in his life, is unable to get past a creepy portrait of a woman hanging in his father’s office. And then there is Bill, plagued by his brother’s disappearance and unable to let him go. But the most frightening part of what Pennywise represents is the fear of the unknown. A killer clown that appears from nowhere, doesn’t discriminate and most importantly – is never named. Fear of fear itself is what drives the film forward and keeps us glued to our seats. Because if we can’t understand it, how can we hope to beat it?
With King’s mammoth novel spanning more than 27 years and more than 1,000 pages, the question of splitting the film was, for once, a legitimate no-brainer. Unlike Twilight (2008), The Hunger Games (2012) or The Hobbit films (2012 – 2014), in this case making two films from one book will finally prove not just a box office hit, but also one the critics can’t slam. Provided it has the same level of fun and friendship delivered in act one. Because who doesn’t like watching a group of misfit kids throw rocks at bullies while an eighties soundtrack blares behind them.?Or see them whack the crap out of a clown using metal poles, baseball bats and chains? It just ups the ante when they become adults. The only thing I’m hoping for is that the giant spider from the novel doesn't make its way into the antagonist’s manifestations second time round. Because that would truly be terrifying.
Rating: 4 Red Balloons out of 5
Spider-Man: Homecoming Review - Peter Parker finds his feet and some fun as he swings into the Marvel universe
I’m going to get it out there right now. Transparency is important after all. I have never been a fan of Spider-Man. Yes, when I first fell into the land of superheroes and comics, I guess you could say I was indifferent to the idea of a guy in tights swinging across New York City and taking up the name of an insect that thousands of people around the world fear. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that spiders in Australia aren’t something to be proud of – they're gigantic, pains in the ass, which scare the crap out of you by their size and deadliness. Or perhaps it stems from the god-awful original movies starring Tobey Maguire, you know – the ones where he dances and you find yourself staring into a void you feel you’ll never get out of. But when Sony and Marvel announced they had got their act together to share rights to the character, something started to change. I found myself following the film’s updates and poring over its recent developments. I was there championing Tom Holland on behind a computer screen when he was announced on the shortlist, and I was there scrunching my face up in trepidation when they announced Jon Watts as the director. And somehow, along the way and without my knowledge, I had become a fan of the character. And can I just say, after watching this film, I am really glad I did.
Despite having one of the most convoluted posters in recent history, Spider-Man: Homecoming’s (2017) plot – mercifully – is far easier to follow. After his scene-stealing introduction in Captain America: Civil War (2016), 15-year-old Peter Parker is back in Queens and hankering for some action. Unfortunately for him, Team Stark is just as eager to keep the training wheels on – quite literally at times – suggesting he instead remain a “friendly, neighbourhood Spider-Man”. You know, the kind that steers old ladies in the right direction and foils dastardly bike thieves, all before enjoying a well-deserved churro. But what would a Spider-Man movie be without a little action right? So, it’s not long before Peter's Spidey-senses start tingling and he lands right in the middle of some Vulture-sized trouble. After being laid-off his job collecting alien-tech in the aftermath of the battle of New York, the bird in question – Mr Adrien Toombes – has decided to take things into his own hands. Stealing and refurbishing powerful weapons he then sells them on to the highest buyer in back alleys and bushes. But when Peter gets in the way of his ability to do that – and thus provide for his family – great power and great responsibility is the last thing on everyone’s minds.
Now, if there is one fault to Marvel’s ever-expanding cinematic universe, it is their reliance on the age-old formula of a troubled protagonist who can too easily prove himself the hero. Life is hard, and pretty crappy at times, so most people escaping to the cinema want to see their hero’s struggle a bit before they come out on top. Refreshingly, that is where Spider-Man: Homecoming succeeds, as Holland’s incarnation falls flat on his face just as many times as he triumphs. This time around he’s the dorky kid who must run across a golf course because there’s nowhere to shoot his webbing. He’s the guy who swings in to save the day but doesn’t quite know how to announce his presence to the villains. And he’s the guy that reduces a ferry to scrap metal instead of saving the day. He’s relatable and – God bless him – so very redeemable. Just like the audiences sitting in darkened theatres, he gets scared occasionally.
But Peter is also the sort of guy who knows how wrong it is to bring out his suit just to impress a girl at a party. Who understands how important it is to surround yourself with friends who truly care – trust me when I say, everyone needs a “guy in the chair”. And it’s this morality that is interwoven not just into Holland’s take on the character, but into the very fabric of the film. It’s there every time his AI assistant Karen – voiced by the wonderful new addition Jennifer Connelly – asks whether he would like to turn on ‘instant kill’. Or every time he realises that just because Aunt May is a strong independent women doesn’t mean she worries any less. That being said, the movie also finds a good balance by laying on the laughs. Whether it’s Peter’s disillusioned teachers or his lack of patience at being locked in a room. Maybe he can learn a thing or two from his Avenging idols after all…
Casting for this film was a great accomplishment by Marvel. Holland is hands down the best pick, and he’s been proving it ever since his masterful turn in The Impossible (2012). Then there’s Peter’s best friend Ned, to which Jacob Batalon brings perfect comedic timing. In just his second feature film he is already garnering fans and making you wonder where his star will reach. For all the mentions of Zendaya in the film’s marketing her character Michelle is downplayed heavily, but a casual reference come the films end ensures she will be back in future instalments and hopefully with a meatier role. Villain-wise Michael Keaton is cutting and interesting in his portrayal of Vulture, while Tony Revolori adds nuance to school bully Flash. Then there are the familiar faces, with Robert Downey Jr – slash – Iron Man (let’s face it they’re practically the same person now) phoning it in for most of the movie – believe me when I say that actually adds something to the piece though. Stan Lee gets a good run too, as does a mystery cameo, which will bring a smile to your face and have you digging through the DVD’s special features to see more.
One of the most interesting dynamics I enjoyed about Spider-Man: Homecoming is how heavily it leaned on the idea of Peter becoming the next Tony Stark. Not like Doctor Strange (2016), which delivered a blow-by-blow recreation of Iron Man’s first solo outing (i.e. Rich and entitled bad boy gets injured, learns heroic ways and returns to save the day). But more in a passing of the torch sort of way. He’s there to save Peter when he gets in over his head and to lecture him into realising he shouldn’t want to be ‘like him’ but be a ‘better him’. There is even the Artificial Intelligence who provides him snarky comments and helpful support. Above all though, there is the closing moments of the film, which while not as grand as Tony’s ‘I am Iron Man’ speech, certainly bring up something reminiscent. Not everyone may know Peter Parker’s secret-identity, but the wonderful thing about the Marvel Universe is that it really makes it a family affair.
Rating: 4 Spidey-Jumps out of 5
When Marvel first set about building their budding universe with Robert Downey Jr’s spectacularly sarcastic and snarky Iron Man back in 2008, they left their fellow competitors DC in their dust. And while Christopher Nolan delivered a gritty gamble with his Batman trilogy, Zack Snyder’s subsequent Superman attempts and David Ayer’s Suicide Squad (2016) proved no match for the mighty Disney megalith that is, quite frankly, taking over the filmic world. But it feels rather ironic now that DC’s big comeuppance to their foes is their first female-centric piece, directed by the talented Patty Jenkins. It’s funny, because while Marvel have huffed and puffed and blown every straw house down in their way, they themselves have still yet to deliver a standalone female-led film. And even more humorous, because their competitor’s instalment will be a damn hard one to beat.
Beginning on Themyscira - the home of the sword-wielding, horseback-riding Amazonian warrior woman - we are first introduced to Wonder Woman’s (2017) titular protagonist by way of Lilly Aspell’s eight-year-old version. Running away from school to spy upon the women training in combat, the intrepid young lady’s eagerness to fight and learn touchingly represents all the young girls who will gain more in life for having seen such a gender-defying film. And as Diana grows she battles hard, proving herself as Emily Carey’s pre-teen before transforming into Gal Gadot’s wide-eyed and glorious incarnation. But everything changes on the island when Chris Pine’s World War I pilot Steve Trevor crash lands, bringing the German enemy with him. With her head filled of stories of Greek Gods content on wreaking havoc, she defies her mother Hippolyta and seeks to leave with her new ‘above-average’ friend in search of Ares. All the while unbeknownst of her true status or power. Adjusting to life in England and on the Western Front, she then goes about proving – backed by a kickass score – that fighting injustice is more than simply slugging people in a super suit. It’s sacrifice and love, themes we women are all too familiar with. No wonder the film’s garnering critical acclaim.
A solid and scintillating dose of feminine power has, arguably, been a long time coming. From Halle Berry’s cringeworthy Catwoman (2004) to Jennifer Garner’s laughable Elektra (2005), girls have so far had little to look up to on the silver screen. Even Marvel’s Black Widow and Scarlet Witch have been relegated to side-acts. Thankfully Gadot’s Diana delivers, standing up to men not only by shoving her sword through them, but also declaring them cowards when they choose to sit safely at home and have others do their dirty work. Unafraid, unabashed and unassuming, she doesn’t hesitate to put men in their place, telling Trevor how the male sex is necessary for procreation, but not so much for pleasure. But perhaps the best moment of patriarchy-defiance, comes from a naked Chris Pine emerging from a steaming hot pool. Seemingly assured that the Amazonian fighter is looking at his unclothed frame, his is surprised to find she instead is far more interested in his wristwatch. For all you women out there - such subtle gender reversals are splendidly littered throughout.
As far as acting goes, Gal Gadot owns the role thanks to her beauty, poise and wildness. It says something for her that despite her obvious good looks and charming manner, she manages to deliver incredible emotion and humour, even when commenting on how ‘honourable’ an ice-cream can be. The mark of a true actor is to turn the smallest of scenes into a masterpiece, and Gadot does that with ease. She should be proud that little girls (and boys) will want to emulate her for years to come. As side-support goes, Pine provides his trademark affable comedy and gutso. And along with his rag-tag team of Said Taghmaoui’s Sameer, Ewen Bremner’s Charlie and Eugene Brave Rock’s the Chief, the boys help stand Diana in good company. The villains’ meanwhile lash on slopping’s of cliché, reminiscent of the Red Skull from Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). And while the script is largely tepid and lacklustre, the special effects help take it to the next level. Awash with graceful kinetic movements and ALL. THE. SLOW. MOTION, it’s just as beautiful to watch as its main star.
But for all the sexist stereotypes the movie overcomes, there are still moments that are painfully overlooked. For starters Diana is seen complaining about why a corset would ‘keep your tummy tucked in,’ just minutes before she runs into battle in a strapless, form fitting metal combination. Breasts on show, hair in place, heavy eyeliner prominent. The ideals of beauty are hard to get around and even in the first, proper female standalone superhero flick they abound aplenty. Then there’s the continuity errors to deal with. Like, why if Diana can defeat the God of War during modern society’s first great conflict does she exist in a universe where World War II, The Korean, Vietnam and Iraq War’s, as well as the impending doom of Justice League probably occur? There’s gimmick too, tucked away in the script, which breeds cliché even within its most sentimental moments. For as great as the idea that love is of course the answer, it would have been a far greater third act climax to avoid the predictable and instead delve into man’s psyche as a broken and troubled race.
If there is one thing to be taken from the film though, it is the impact it will have on the wide-eyed children growing up in today’s fractious society. The one filled with terrorists and bloodshed. The one where men who choose not to believe the facts presented them. The one where everyone is still telling women they are not equal. Not really. Not when it comes to filmic representations, wage gaps and success in the workplace. The one that calls them to be stronger than they have ever been before therefore to make a difference. It’s wonder-ful that, finally, they have a role model to aspire to. Not because of her incredible fighting prowess. Not because of her good looks. But because she is a woman, who chooses not to ignore the pain and suffering in the world. A woman who makes the word ‘feminine,’ something to be proud of.
Rating: 4 X-Factors out of 5
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Review - Where a twig saves the day and the Guardians finally find family
When Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) debuted three years ago it was Marvel’s biggest gamble to date. Assembling a rag-tag team of misfits may have worked for The Avengers (2012), but the studio had six solo films to get to that point. And convincing people that an anthropomorphic raccoon, green ninja woman, scarred alien, self-confessed ‘Star-Lord’ and sentient tree would make the ideal protagonists, was another thing entirely. But convince they did, as then relatively unknown director James Gunn wowed viewers and critics alike with his incredible style and outstanding eighties soundtrack. Offbeat, funny and fresh, the movie surprised all who watched it, resulting in almost universal praise. But it did leave a real dilemma. How does one follows up a film that good? How do you create a sequel that outdoes the best? Well, the simple answer is you don’t. Instead you focus on making a movie that is exciting, humorous and just damn cute. You focus on doing well, instead of constantly trying to one-up yourself. And that’s exactly what Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) delivers.
The film follows a pretty straight-up storyline, whereby Peter finally discovers his origins and realises family doesn’t finish with blood. Since saving the galaxy the group have been settling into their role as protectors, with their latest venture taking them to the Sovereign’s home world to guard their batteries. But when one of the clan live up to their roguish background, golden ruler Ayesha sends her forces after them, driving the group to crash land on a foreign world. Saved by the mysterious Ego, Quill learns that the aptly-titled figure is his father and agrees to go to visit his planet alongside Drax and Gamora to discover more. Meanwhile, Yondu finds himself getting a bigger side-plot this time around, after being exiled by the ravaging community, caught up in a mutiny, and working with Rocket and Groot to try and right his wrongs. And then there comes the third act set piece, full of explosions, heart, cool cameos and enough guitar chords to keep fans happy.
But before delving into the nitty gritty technical elements, one thing I must do is take a moment to acknowledge the incredible opening sequence of the film. Without giving too much away, the equal parts cute and action-fuelled moment is perhaps the best introduction in Marvel filmic history. Not only does it give us the first look at the adorable Baby Groot and his fondness for dancing, but it proves why fight scenes become something else in Gunn’s hands. Slow-motion shots, sounds from Electric Light Orchestra and all filmed from the smallest team member’s point of view. It’s a lot, an overwhelming array of a scene that makes you wonder if your brain will be able to handle the next two hours. But it’s the kind of intense, colourful and enjoyable moment that makes Guardians stand apart from a crowd. And visually, the rest of the film delivers the same dynamic, as every tint and tone pops off the screen like a kaleidoscope of colour. Forget the stone wash of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), or the sombre hues of Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). Guardians is about the fun and what’s more fun than bringing things back to a classic comic book-style?
As far as the jokes go, for the most part they fall on Dave Bautista’s Drax and Bradley Cooper’s Rocket, who channel the sarcasm and sass with ease. Pom Klementieff’s newcomer Mantis also steps in for support, with Gunn using her innocence as a fantastic front for humour. Sadly, while most of the jokes stick their landing a lot manage to mess up in the process. The toilet humour is strong in this sequel and will leave you wondering why the film felt it had to sink so low. Similarly, a long-running gag about a ravager named Taserface lasts a little too long and falls a little too flat for diehard fans. But the pop culture references are what have always won over viewers and there’s plenty to go around, from Knight Rider moments to mentions of Mary Poppins. And with young Groot learning his way in the new world, there’s just as many ‘awww’ instances as there our laugh out loud moments. Peter’s story may be the heart of the flick, but the young sapling’s is undoubtedly its spirit. I mean, come on, we’d pay the ticket price just to watch two hours of him sitting around, he’s that damn adorable.
Interestingly while Groot’s representation has been stepped up in this flick, perhaps the producers were leaning a little too hard on it. Because while Chris Pratt delivered one of the best Marvel representations in the first film, here he has been reduced to little more than a chess piece in a bigger game, torn between two fathers and two families. It’s every bit the cliché you think it is and leaves him faltering throughout a large part of the film. Thankfully he regains his star status by the final showdown, and it’s almost entirely thanks to Michael Rooker’s surprisingly earnest performance. If anyone deserves praise for the film, it is him. Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista and Karen Gillan all put on a solid show, while Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper again provide fantastic voiceover work. The real drawback though is Kurt Russell’s Ego. Perhaps the character brief was simply one-dimensional, or maybe he felt the need to draw too much on the stereotyped villains of old, but all it adds up to is the weakest link in the chain.
I expected a lot of things from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 going in. And perhaps that’s why I left a little less fulfilled and a lot more disappointed than I was after round one. But that’s my fault and not something I can lump on the film. Critics are, after all, known to become jaded every now and then. But there’s a lot of heart in the second instalment and its powerful focus on family is hard to ignore, especially as we make our way towards the Phase three climax that is Avengers: Infinity War (2018). The series is more personal, more poignant and more imperative than ever. So, it’s important to have some good old fashioned fun before we get there. Guardians style.
Rating: 4 Baby Groots out of 5
13 Reasons Why Review - A powerful, moving and tragic look at suicide and why in the end... everything matters
It seems wrong to begin a review by calling a series about suicide addictive. But it’s hard to find a better word to fit Netflix’s new show 13 Reasons Why (2017). One of the most binge-worthy instalments released by the streaming service in recent years, the series follows the critically acclaimed book of the same name by Jay Asher, and it pulls no punches in dealing with its main topic. Perhaps that’s why it’s hard to look away. Because rarely do we see a show brave enough to look beyond the romanticised notion of death and instead underline the grief of those left behind. Rarely are we delivered a production so honest, open and unpretentious that we’re left wondering how dark it must become for some that they believe life is no longer an option. So, I use the word addictive, not because you’ll become enraptured by how the story is presented, or because you’ll keep watching just to see whether it might end differently. But because you’ll be left wondering whether the phrase ‘it was her choice,’ really means quite what you think it does.
We begin with a community reeling in the wake of high-school student Hannah Baker’s death. One morning, Clay Jensen receives a mysterious box on his doorstep. Inside are 13 cassette tapes, detailing the reasons why his workmate, classmate and almost lover, chose to take her life. Delivered to each person who played a part in Hannah’s death, like a brutal chain mail letter, the tapes are designed not only to haunt those who hear them, but to ensure their secrets don’t die with her. From former friends and flames, to stalkers and rapists. The more Clay listens, the more he discovers the hurtful, unkind, and sometimes illegal actions his classmates have been involved in. The deeper he gets the more the others try to silence him, as Hannah’s truth starts to become his. But as he edges closer and closer to his own tape, and the final few weeks of her life, Clay comes to understand that every action has a consequence, and some things are just not destined to stay hidden.
Despite its modern setting, there are echoes of the classic teen ‘coming of age’ stereotypes hidden behind every door and lurking in every corner. From the jocks and cheerleaders right down to the school dances and hot-or-not lists. Like it’s predecessor Stranger Things (2016), there is also a heavy influence on everything old-fashioned. Cassette players, poetry readings, paper journals, Joy Division posters and pedal-powered bikes are just a few of the ways the nostalgia play out. Even the soundtrack is brimming with references to the past, with music from The Chromatics, The Cure and The Call. So heavy is it on eighties, nineties and noughties nods, just a few episodes in you’ll be left wondering whether we’ll see someone stand outside Hannah’s house with a boom box, or catch the main characters meeting up in detention. And while an homage to both those moments does arise, it’s doesn’t happen in quite the way you’d expect. This is, after all, a show about suicide.
At its core, the only other word that best arises to describe 13 Reasons Why, would be heartbreaking. Heartbreaking for Hannah that she believes she is alone. Heartbreaking for her mother who winds up nothing more than the shell of a woman looking for answers. Heartbreaking for Clay that he will always carry the weight of what happened with him. And heartbreaking for us as an audience. Because although we the know the ending already, we are always left wondering whether it could have been changed. And that’s the point. Heartbreak heals, but it never goes away. The theme is something that is backed up on a more intricate level too, in the care and craftsmanship that has been taken with the cinematography. Hannah and Clay’s world has been painted in a series of melancholic, metallic and sombre hues. And it’s done deliberately. Because it’s like watching their feelings be blown to life. Seeing, somewhat tangibly at times, the sadness of a soul hanging in the air. It’s not without it’s romantic, comedic or happy scenes too. A series about suicide alone could easily get so dark it turns the viewer off. Life is not just a series of depressing moments. But sadly, sometimes the best ones of all are what can tip a person over the edge.
A lot of critics have raved that 13 Reasons Why is not for the feint-hearted. But to me, that is inaccurate. It’s simply not a show for someone who isn’t ready to know how their actions impact others. Because even the best among us have done something we regret. What really concerns me though about such reviews are the calls for people not to watch. Their main reason is that the show details Hannah’s death in intricate, graphic detail. As a journalist, I work by a code of ethics that claims care must be taken when reporting on suicide. It means that while it is okay to mention it as the type of death, it is not okay to mention how it was the person died. The strange thing is though, this always seems to be the point most people are curious about. And in this instance, I think it was an entirely valid choice. Because as a journalist you are always directed by what in the public’s best interest. Hannah’s story is. Compare it to accounts about Anorexic people who have overcome their problems, or tales from those that have lost loved ones in horrific circumstances. Both go into graphic detail, and both have the potential for copycats to arise. But most of the time they help more than they hurt. It’s simply a risk we judge when putting pen to paper. So, do I think it’s ‘right’ that the show portrayed Hannah’s violent and horrific final moments? Probably not. Because I don’t think it was right that it happened at all. And I damn well think it’s important her voice was heard.
To me, the greatest lesson to learn from 13 Reasons Why is that everyone has a different truth, and everyone’s truth demands to be heard. That doesn’t make one better than the other. It simply makes us less lonely. And despite coming full circle, I like that there are so many stories left unresolved that a second season could be commissioned. Because people slip away in front of us all the time. Sometimes we see it happen, most of the time we don’t. And on rare occasions, we can all miss the calls for help. In Hannah’s case, it happened thirteen times. And in Hannah’s, there was no coming back. And although her story may be fictitious, deep down, the reason the show is so addictive is because we know it isn’t all that far from the truth. So, it is important to know that even if you’re friends, family, teachers, bosses, workmates, schoolmates, coaches or so on miss the signs, there are always people who will listen. Reach out to Lifeline on 13 11 14. Google a local suicide prevention website. Be there for a friend. Just listen. Before it’s too late.
Rating: 5 Cassette Tapes out of 5
Ever since it was released back in the nineties, Disney’s tale as old as time has enraptured the hearts and minds of little girls everywhere. Sure, it’s no Moana (2016), pushing the feminist theory that women can be leaders without a man by their side. And its soundtrack never quite hit the same viral level that Frozen’s (2013) epically overplayed track Let It Go did. But for everyone who grew up with Beauty and the Beast (1991), it was not just a classic romance, but an enduring piece that made us believe everyone, regardless of looks or personality, could one day find the thing we crave so dearly - love. So, with the legacy of those children’s hearts and souls on the line, it’s safe to say that there was a lot riding on how well the studio pulled off their live-action version of the film, over 25 years later. For me, a girl who unabashedly knows every line to the ensemble act Be Our Guest, it was also about whether it could reclaim some sense of the magic the film brought to my childhood. The magic I’ve lost as I’ve grown up. And damn, if it didn’t turn out to be so much more I had planned.
The 2017 live-action update is a larger-than-life piece, pitched as a scene-by-scene remake of the original. We begin with the Prince’s prologue, detailing his narcissistic tendencies and cold heart. Turning away an old hag because of her appearance, he and his court of onlookers are left aghast when she transforms into an enchantress, cursing everyone inside the castle. Back in town years later, our pretty protagonist is dreaming of adventure, while shirking the brutish Gaston and his eager advances. After her beloved father goes missing while headed to market, Belle sets out to find him, trading places with the artist after he is captured and leaving her life in the hands of a hardened creature. As she gets to know the transformed inhabitants of the castle, including fan favourites Lumiere, Cogsworth, Mrs Potts, Chip and Plumette, as well as new characters like Cadenza, she discovers there may be more to her new world than she first believed. Bonding with the Beast over their love of books, the pair’s connection blossoms into a romance, as they visit Paris through the pages of a bewitched novel. When Belle’s father falls into trouble again, thanks to Gaston’s dastardly ways, the Beast sets her free and she runs to his rescue once more. But as the villagers learn of the terrifying monster so close to their town’s walls, they lead an uprising, which ends in a showdown between man and monster, and finally, the much-awaited expression of love between Beauty and Beast.
Many critics have claimed the biggest failing of the film is that it does little to update the original’s story. What was once a tale of a feminist girl singing about a world outside marriage but settling for a Prince is still, in essence, the same thing. There are no great revelations about Belle transforming into a 21st century woman. No actual adventures in the great wide somewhere. About the closest we come is a throwaway line to our beauty’s headstrong nature. But I have to argue that this is not a flaw. Like I mentioned earlier, this isn’t Frozen or Moana. It’s not even Mulan (1998) or Pocahontas (1995). Part of feminism is accepting that some women can be strong and independent while still wanting love to define them. What’s important is that it’s a choice, a decision the woman gets to make. And for all the Stockholm talk, some of it justified, some of it not, Belle makes her decision after she is given the freedom to do so. After she has fled the walls of her ‘prison’ and after she has every opportunity to leave her relationship as merely a friendship. Disney is all about the happily ever after’s, and sometimes, we must accept, the happily ever after’s involve love. Belle is an educated and fearless woman. She is a dreamer and an inventor. She is someone little girls should look up to, not just because she wears a gorgeous golden gown and dances under a starry sky. But because she knows what she wants and chooses not to settle.
The casting is exceptional, taking two-dimensional characters and realising them in human form. Luke Evans and Josh Gad are a dynamic duo as Gaston and LeFou, riffing off each other and providing most of the comedy for the film. Evans’ strong tenor resounds in his solo numbers, as does his physique when he impressively lifts two cast members mid-song. In this version, he even receives a back story to help explain his violent demeanour. Gad meanwhile, turns in a stellar performance in a role he was born to play. What was a snivelly, downtrodden servant becomes a misunderstood, compassionate and redeeming character, who might finally get his own happily ever after by the time the credits roll. Watson is gorgeous as ever as our leading lady, inhabiting the wonder and awe of her original counterpart perfectly, while balancing it with her own grace and intellect. About the worst one can say about her is that she seems somewhat disinterested as the film begins. Too timid. Too indifferent. But just like the prince, by journey’s end her Belle has morphed into the person she truly deserves to be. Speaking of the beast, I’ll admit, it did take a while for me to warm to Dan Steven’s portrayal. Perhaps it was his jarring representation in the prologue, or the fact he was a CGI monster for 95 per cent of the film. But by the time his long-overdue solo song comes along in Act Three, there was not a dry eye in the house, or a heart left in one piece.
The film is not without its faults for sure, and to claim it had none would be an injustice to all the things it did right. The fact they are so few and far between is what sets it apart from other productions. Visually it is a juggernaut, everything from the Swarovski encrusted gowns to the jowls of the beast beautifully created and envisioned on screen. Among this though, the newly designed Mrs Potts stands out as a sub-par construction. Not just because her new ceramic side-face appears slightly disconcerting, but also because Emma Thompson’s voice never quite reaches the great heights Angela Lansbury’s did. Similarly, while the songs are expertly crafted in the new film, adding something to their originals rather than detracting from them, one in particular comes across as far too overblown. Be Our Guest was an intrinsically feel-good moment of the original animated feature, but in its recreation it becomes nothing more than a stunted, jumpy production aiming high and falling low. Had they chosen to run the song from start to finish it could have been saved, but by allowing multiple beats for the music to swell and soar and the Fantasia (1940) elements to take place, it impedes the rhythm and detracts from the wonder.
The real question fans want answered before they fork out their hard-earned cash for yet another Disney remake, is whether the film ever truly become the glorious spectacle it promised the world it would be. Or whether it is just another bastardised version like Alice in Wonderland (2010) or Maleficent (2014). The answer is a joyous yes, full of fluttering butterflies, mysticism and grace. The animated original has long been heralded as a ‘classic’, making it hard to believe any film could even come close. But here we are, with a transporting piece, full of flourishes and lacking in gimmick. It’s pure, unadulterated fun, toned up for the nineties babies who are now in their mid-to-late twenties, but still charming enough to win over a new generation of little girls and boys. It’s fresh, unforced and unequivocally grand. It really is a tale as old as time, a song as old as rhyme. It’s a beauty and a beast.
Rating: 4.5 Roses out of 5
Ever since the King of the Apes first appeared on the silver screen in 1933 he has been both a terrifying presence and one that has defined cinematic history. The tyrannosaurus may have a memorable roar, but Kong’s chest pounding is just as intimidating. His latest incarnation, in Jordan Vogt-Roberts Kong: Skull Island (2017), falls short of both these ideas though, delivering the biggest modern-day incarnation of the menacing monster but one that manages little with all his might. He’s got the chest-pounding down-pat. He’s got the growl. He’s even got that glimmer in his eye for the busty blonde. But he just doesn’t have that something special, that something incredible. That something that brings the film above a glorified and formulaic Apocalypse Now style (1979) re-telling. Complete with orange hues, helicopter homage and a napalm fireball.
Opening with the crash-landing of a World War II fighter pilot and his enemy combatant, it isn’t that long before we get our first glimpse of the title ape, as the behemoth stuns the duo amidst their clifftop battle-to-the-death. Just as the adrenaline hits though we find ourselves flung forward in time to Washington circa 1973, were we meet a research team made up of Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins), who are looking for someone to bankroll their plight to find some mythical animals ‘that were here long before us’. Bullshitting their way on the back of another mission the pair also manage to secure some military backing in the form of pissed-off Vietnam vet Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), his troupe of threadbare men and a chiselled renegade SAS tracker named James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston). No mission would be complete though without someone to document proceedings (or more accurately some stereotypical female role), with Brie Larson’s antiwar photographer Mason Weaver helping round out the unlikely bunch. Bonding over seventies rock and flying off into a literal electrical storm-laden sunset is just the beginning of their adventure together though, with the crashes, creatures and character-deaths coming thick and fast over the remaining hour and a half runtime.
Visually the movie is a step above Peter Jackson’s 2005 effort, punching above the weight of a cliché storyline and adding some true razzle dazzle. While Andy Serkis’ motion-capture creature may have had far more emotion in his grizzly jowls, the action moments here don’t simply aim to be bigger and better, but deliver something refreshingly intense. When the helicopters go down, audiences cringe at the impact and when the monsters attack, they bring a real sense of weight with them. The ecosystem is more detailed than previous filmic incarnations too, giving birth to razor-beaked pterodactyls, bark-encrusted stick insects, a much-too-large spider, some domineering water buffalo, and the real villains of the piece – some reptilian snake dinosaurs that look terrifying up-front and plain preposterous from the back. In an age of psychedelic superhero films and expansive spacey sci-fi’s, it is a real feat to feel something so very new here on our own earthy shores.
On the acting front, the cast certainly work well together, having clearly got to know each other throughout the months spent filming in exotic and isolated locations. Within the title figures Hiddleston feels the most strangely miscast though, brought in as the muscle, smarts and all round hero archetype. But in trying to fill so many shoes, he fails to fit even one. Not only does his posh accent feel jagged in the jungle setting, but with so much time devoted to the ensemble, we never really get to know his character outside of a throwaway line to his father. Nevertheless, he’s killer eye-candy, his blue t-shirt clinging to him in all the right places to satisfy those who tuned in solely to see him finally headline an action-adventure. In contrast, after her award-winning turn in captive-drama Room (2015) Larson has the hippy vibe down-pat, bringing a real effervescence and spark to the photo-journo. After showing off her comedic chops and badass ‘take no shit’ attitude here, she is bound to please in her upcoming turn as Captain Marvel. Samuel L. Jackson, usually a champion of pretty much any role he’s given, puts in his most unlikable bastard performance in quite some time. And frankly, it’s just plain bad. Maybe it’s the writing – after all he is playing a military team leader who tries to take down an animal simply because he thinks he’s higher up on the intelligence scale. Or maybe it’s because it doesn’t feel any different to the hundreds of villains he’s played before.
Despite being a creature feature at heart, there is a strange political undercurrent to Kong: Skull Island. One so brief one could be mistaken for thinking it’s not there at all. It comes as John Goodman’s Randa steps out of a car at the Capitol, claiming ‘Mark my words, there’ll never be a more screwed-up time in Washington!’ Meant as a reference to its seventies setting - where America’s presence in the unpopular Vietnam War and the upcoming Watergate scandal are full force – of course, it comes off as a tongue-in-cheek dig at President Trump’s turn in office. And for all the sly smiles and quiet chuckles it brings to the face of businessman’s opposition (myself included), it just seems incredibly unnecessary. It’s not just politics that find its way into Kong; Skull Island though, with racial stereotypes also prevailing. It may be set in the seventies, but there is something to be said for a modern story that projects a black antagonist against two white protagonists, at times almost comparing him to the ape himself. Such storyline frailties are never fully acknowledged, but are pushed to the back of the audience’s mind to make way for a killer soundtrack. If Kong himself could be represented by music, it would no doubt be the sweet tunes of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Bad Moon Rising or the late David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust. And not since Star Trek Beyond’s (2016) epic Sabotage scene has music been better matched to a scene than it does when the crew’s helicopters get smacked down by the mighty beast to the hype of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid.
If I had to pick a ‘best bit’ concerning Kong: Skull Island, besides the hilarious and heart-warming performance from John C. Reilly and the cult classic soundtrack, it would be that the action sticks to Kong’s home turf. Not once do we see him scaling a skyscraper or simplified to the horrendous line ‘twas beauty that killed the beast’. Instead, he is a badass that wrecks helicopters with no apologies and munches on live calamari like there is no tomorrow. He is an animal: wild, full of rage and without the hints of humanity previous films have given him. When he does get a glimmer of a soul it is well-earned and brief, exactly the way it should be. While at times it feels like the film is overreaching purely for its future instalments, anyone who knows anything about Legendary Pictures pursuit of the perfect monster movie universe, knows that eventually the giant gorilla will face off against Godzilla himself. Something heavily hinted at in the ever-more-common post-credits scene. So, although it may never rise above its b-movie status, Kong: Skull Island is a fun popcorn flick that aims low and delivers. Especially if you’re all about that sequel.
Rating: 3 Growling Gorillas out of 5
Fifty Shades Darker Review - A grey sequel that proves only slightly more pleasurable than its first film
When Fifty Shades of Grey (2015) first hit screens on Valentine’s Day two years ago, the trailers told audiences to expect a sleek, sexy, edgy and eyebrow-raising look into the world of BDSM. Naturally, it was none of those things. While the film went on to earn millions worldwide, critically it was deemed a disaster, hobbling away with a C+ CinemaScore and a dismal 25% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. This time around those trading their hard-earned cash for a ticket to the sequel have no excuse for the film they are delivered. Swapping directors and again promising a stylish and saucy take on what was originally Twilight (2008) fanfiction, Fifty Shades Darker (2017), is at best a blunt, unfeeling and oddly unsexy attempt at a big budget blockbuster. At worst, however, it is a complete mockery of what real relationships should be. See, while there is no doubt this instalment is more elegant and engaging than its predecessor, it is hard to shake the notion that the film just isn’t about experimenting in the world of BDSM anymore. But instead about the role of a man in controlling a woman.
We pick up just a few days after Ana and Christian awkwardly parted ways with their laughable and cringeworthy elevator goodbye. Since then Miss Steele has managed to establish herself as the personal assistant of Seattle Independent Publishing’s editor Jack Hyde, while Mr Grey has been wallowing in self-pity, keen to reignite whatever ‘passion’ the duo had to begin with. Following Ana to her friend Jose’s art exhibition, Christian begs her to give him a second chance and invites her to dinner. Ana, the strong, independent woman she is, agrees to the date if only ‘because she is hungry’, and the further into the movie we go the clearer it is her appetite is for something a little more salacious than a simple salad. So, she reluctantly agrees to pick up where they left off provided Christian renege the rules and punishments and soon the two are back in a routine and revelling in their newfound ‘vanilla’ relationship. Vomit spew. The baseless plot doesn’t end there though, with the pair’s rekindled romance threatened by two former flames. Leila (Bella Heathcoate), the sub-turned-suicidal-stalker and Elena (Kim Basinger), the dom-turned-jealous-cougar. And that’s all before Ana’s boss gets his creep on, a helicopter crashes and a proposal gets announced. Not even daytime soapies could write a story this stereotypical.
Where does one start with this film. Well, first-off let’s discuss the sheer-volume of questionable clichés that pop up in the two-hour runtime. We’ve got wine-tossing, face-slapping, masquerade-ball attending, a helicopter crash and not one, but two crazy stalkers. Most cliché of all though is the notion that Anastasia is a self-sufficient woman who ‘don’t need no man’. For all her feigned-independence she lasts about three minutes before she goes crawling back to Christian, who proves to be just as domineering, controlling and manipulative as he was before. To him, Anastasia is a possession and one he must own, whether that be her image, her time, her company, her job, or her sexuality. Similarly, the duo’s relationship in this film once again presents the idea that one partner must change for it to work. Where Anastasia had to challenge her notions of a ‘normal’ relationship in the first film, here Christian must give up his sadistic ways to keep the girl.
As for the script, they may have abandoned their ‘fifty shades of fucked up’ train-wreck that closed out the first film, but they clearly haven’t learnt from it. Instead the filmmakers use a myriad of corny and ridiculous scenes to justify their own ends. Say, like the time Ana wows an editor’s meeting by stating they should simply turn to online authors. A bit like the one who wrote this rubbish to begin with. You can’t really discredit scriptwriter Niall Leonard for trying there, especially when he is in fact the husband of the book’s author E.L. James. But even the worst of films can be worth the ticket price provided the script is somewhat decent. Sadly, that is where Leonard fails. Too caught up in pandering to his wife’s original content, the movie becomes a cyclical bore. Stalker here, Ana fed-up with Christian’s domineering there, sex scene and then kiss and make-up. Rinse and repeat. Not only does this add nothing to the ‘kinky’ genre they are trying so hard to establish, but it adds little to the cinematic world in general. Even the sex scenes don’t sell the film, framed in the same way, nearly shot-for-shot. Breasts, bare skin and ‘sex eyes’ don’t seem to be enough to keep people interested anymore.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. At least this time around the leads have both relaxed enough into their roles to develop some sort of chemistry. While Johnston continues to give it her all in that charming and naïve ‘girl next door’ way, Dornan continues to play Grey as somewhat of a brick wall. Expressionless yet chiselled, he is around only for his good-looks. And appreciate them the female viewers will, as he saunters around shirtless for half the film almost entirely for no reason. But just like the way Johnston’s Anastasia is pitched as the better half of the duo, so too is the actor better than this film and even she seems to be staring off into the void at times. It may have got her the career-boost she desperately wanted, but some things just aren’t worth selling your soul for. New additions Basinger and Heathcote are criminally underused too, appearing on screen for five-minutes apiece like they are simply literary tools thrown in to give the film some edge. It’s as if the filmmakers (or maybe more accurately the scriptwriter) didn’t know what to do with them once they had conjured them there. When Rita Ora almost becomes the best bit of a film, something has clearly gone tragically wrong.
There is no doubt that Fifty Shades Darker has tried hard to distance itself from its former film. And in some ways it even succeeds, playing into its cringeworthy sadism instead of running from it. But BDSM, at least according to the readily available literature on the subject, seems to be the trust between two people to take chances and experiment. And while this film does that with its audience, it forgets the fundamental rule that you ask whether everyone is okay at the end. Because for all the goofy fun and popcorn escapism we are delivered, the novelty of such love has certainly worn off. And we’re definitely going to need some wine before we can be Fifty Shades Freed.
Rating: 2 Seductive Stares out of 5
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