Avengers: Infinity War Review - It's all about the end in Marvel's most ambitious and affecting film yet
Ten years. Eighteen films. Billions of dollars at the box office. And it’s all been leading to this – the megalithic Avengers: Infinity War (2018) – a.k.a. rumble in the jungle (universe style). My god were we unprepared. What started as an idea – a bid for global domination of superhero films – has finally come full circle, with Marvel Studios bringing together their best and brightest for one cataclysmic showdown. And whether you call it a gamble, an obsession, or just downright crazy, at the end of the day it’s a damn masterpiece. Something well, well worth the wait. Back for their third outing, the dynamic directing duo of Joe and Anthony Russo have, in the simplest terms, become the heroes they’ve put on screen – people pushed to their limits, heartbroken and ready to lose everything. And boy, in hindsight, how we wish we could go back to simpler times, when the problems were little more than a Chitauri invasion and homicidal robots.
It’s hard to provide an overview of Avengers: Infinity War (2018) that would do it justice, especially when so much of what makes it great is being able to go in it with as little information (and spoilers) as possible. But I’ll give it a shot. Picking up in the aftermath of Thanos vs. The Asgardians, just moments into the blockbuster we are finally given our first proper glimpse into the power and brutality of the MCU’s biggest baddie. The stakes have never been higher, the dread in full force. And once the ball starts rolling there’s barely a chance to breathe, as the Russo brothers toss us back and forth between multiple storylines and planets (Earth, Knowhere, Titan, to name just a few). On home turf, The Black Order (i.e. Thanos’ supervillain entourage, including Ebony Maw, Cull Obsidian, Corvus Glaive and Midnight Proxima) are on a mission to secure the time and mind stones, leading to the slow - but sure - reunion of our favourite outcast Avengers. Meanwhile, out in space the Guardians and their new-found refugee Thor, are tasked with tracking down the purple antagonist and forging a weapon to destroy him. When everything fails to go to plan though (as these things often do), we’re left with not just an all-out confrontation, but a biblical and unforgiving final act.
With approximately (I say that because it’s difficult to keep track) 38 characters to fit into one film, it’s tough to imagine a picture where no-one is overlooked. But despite the cramped roll-call, Avengers: Infinity War (2018) succeeds where few films have before – carefully crafting a chance for everyone to shine. And the actors jump at the chance, bringing A-game performances full of energy, charisma and laugh-out-loud one-liners. The key, perhaps, is splitting the group into smaller factions, with their stories maintaining the picture’s frenetic pace and drive. It’s such a steady crew though that stand-outs are few and far between. Some would point to Thor, who follows on from a rollicking third outing by stepping up to the plate with both muscle and might. While others may favour Iron Man, who has upgraded to some of the coolest tech since the Hulkbuster suit and shared it with his Spidey-protégé. Eager to match wits with Downey Junior, Doctor Strange is as sarcastic as ever too, while in a pleasant change of pace Bruce Banner finally gets a foot over his green alter ego, who hilariously spends most of the film refusing to come out and play.
But for all their efforts, this isn’t really our heroes’ film, instead playing like an origin tale to Thanos’ crusade. Part logically-driven dictator and part towering destructive force, the purple monster is driven by the desire to rid the universe of half its inhabitants. To him, it’s a simple equation of resources, like a parent choosing between having one child whose belly was always full, and two who were always half-hungry. Mad, undoubtedly, but a plan entrenched in warped humanitarian ideals and his own twisted sense of a saviour-complex. Big and brash, Thanos is the adversary we’ve been waiting for, providing the first real challenge the universe has come up against. It’s hard not to feel every swipe, blast and pummel from his gargantuan form, and behind the mask, Josh Brolin appears to relish the motion-capture role, bringing swagger and relentless authority every time a stone is acquired, or a hero ousted.
While the characters are fully fleshed out, answers seem to be something less nuanced in the MCU. And for those of you wondering about the film’s two biggest mysteries you may be left feeling a little deflated. See, it’s hard not to class them among the worst parts of the film. Number one is the absence of our favourite, quippy bird-man, Hawkeye, (as well as the lovable Ant-Man) whose MIA statuses are answered with little more than a throwaway line. It’s frustrating to say the least, especially given Clint’s loyalty, and even more so when you remember we will have to wait months for any true hints. Meanwhile, although the secret of the missing soul stone’s location is finally disclosed in the film’s bold two-and-a-half-hour run-time, it will likely leave few fans appeased. The big reveal feels lacklustre and rushed, relying heavily on emotion that hasn’t had the time to build.
But the greatest dilemma is in splitting such a movie in two, with the overhanging arc here feeling a lot like a guillotine over our heads. You’ve never seen a cliff-hanger like this, and probably never left a theatre in quite so dismal a mood. But while it’s a staggering blow to the gut (especially with a full year to wait until the next instalment), there’s an incredible power in how Marvel can take an unfinished story and still make it poignant and profound. In how they have crafted a cherished and adored universe over the course of more than a decade, to simply blow the hell out of it. The tag-line that no-one is safe is painfully accurate, and the studio has gone to great lengths to make sure we know it. So, what does this mean for the future of our intrepid caped crusaders? Well, maybe if you’ve been looking for hints like I have, it may lie in Doctor Strange’s words and the notion that time will tell.
Rating: 5 Infinity Stones out of 6
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
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
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them Review - Magic and mayhem ensues as a new series tries to claw its way to life
Just like the real world, magic must also mature over time. Childhood gives way to adulthood. Believing gives way to bureaucracy. School romances and bullying give way to lost-love, fear and hatred. Yet, like Dumbledore famously said – happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light. For such reasons alone, the wizarding world’s latest instalment, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016), is worth the watch, having grown along with its legion of fans to remind us that even in our changing and uncertain times, there is always hope. Unlike the first film in the Harry Potter universe though, which eased us into the magical and mythical universe, Fantastic Beasts’ throws us into the proverbial deep end. And whether it’s the darkness, pain, whimsy or fantasy the film jolts between, we just can’t help but feel it hasn’t quite embraced the true meaning of being an adult yet.
Set in the 1920’s, seventy years before Harry’s story begins, Fantastic Beasts reveals a new protagonist in the titular book’s author and acclaimed magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne). Trading the familiar London setting for prohibition-era New York, not a day after Newt passes through Ellis Island’s immigration he is already wreaking havoc, having sought to bring the majestic Thunderbird back into the wide and welcoming plains of Arizona, but instead unleashed his creatures on the already politically turbulent city. In steps Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), former Auror and Statue of Secrecy enforcer who tries to regain her position by turning Newt into the authorities. After a mix-up of suitcases lands no-maj Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) with Newt’s animals however, the three must work together, along with Goldstein’s sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), to track down the beasts and work out what bigger, badder force is at play in the city. If that isn’t enough, there’s also a plot point about a fanatical anti-witch group called the Second Salemer’s tossed in for good measure too, as well as Gellert Grindelwald’s mysterious disappearance and a family of non-magical politicians whose presence there is just plain and simply dumbfounding.
The special effects are as dazzling and dynamic as they were five years ago, but even they struggle to pull the film into anything other than ordinary. One standout sequence though would have to be the inventive journey into Newt’s suitcase, where we marvel at miniaturised makeshift habitats designed for an array of critters big and small. It is a testament to screenwriter J.K. Rowling and director David Yates that this feels both fresh and fun. As for the beasts themselves, they burst to life with colour, beauty and ferocity, from the bird and snake hybrid Occamy to the rhinoceros-esque Erumpet. Australians in particular may find a close connection with the Niffler, a pilfering echidna cross platypus that causes considerable grief for Newt. Similarly, a shout-out must also be given to the glorious and majestic Thunderbird Frank, who possesses just as much heart and soul as our favourite hippogriff Buckbeak. But it is the tiniest among them that bears the biggest weight, with the sassy stick-insect Bowtruckle saving the day on more than a few occasions.
A cluttered film from the outset, Fantastic Beasts’ biggest struggle is in how it pays too much attention to future instalments, forgetting to make its current one shine. Unlike a gambler sitting at the tables, Rowling and Yates are fearful to go all in, frightened they will spoil films two, three, four and five. Why we will need that many sequels is never really explained, but with so many lines cast out and not enough answers delivered, you can bet fans are already salivating for new source material. And with the legacy of Severus Snape’s big reveal, most have faith something equally uplifting will come to fruition here. On a more positive note, Yates’ direction is outstanding in its consistency, revelling in the fights and battles and good versus evil nature of the sorcery setting. Challenging situations fall at the wayside under his control, as he weaves his own kind of movie magic. It’s just a pity he, the studio, Rowling and pretty much anyone involved in the film behind-the-scenes, can’t decide how to enchant both children and adults alike.
Fogler and Sudol are clear standouts when it comes to the acting, boasting a relaxed allure and comfortable chemistry. Redmayne, in contrast, brings an affable, mannered and boyish charm, that jumps between frustratingly wearisome and refreshingly heroic. He has no interesting scar, ‘chosen one’ label or elderly mentor to set him apart. He is instead every bit the average man, preferring animals to humans. Waterston holds a more reserved performance, likeable only in the fact we get to know more about her, through flashback, than we do Newt. Veteran actors Jon Voight and Samantha Morton however are criminally underused, in what will likely go down as their most thankless roles to date. Depth is, in fact, missing from most of the characters, including the whole MACUSA horde, better known as American’s magical counterparts to the Ministry of Magic, who are just plain unlikable. Even the most redeeming among them, a female mix-raced president, proves to be bland and basic.
Ultimately, no matter how hard Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them tries to catch the magic of the original, it slips away like a memory in a pensieve, the gaping hole instead filled with the reality of the film’s cash-grab nature. It’s predictable, it’s formulaic and it’s far from fantastic. But thinking back, what adventure series that wasn’t based on a carefully calculated novel, constructed over years, has turned out great first try around? So although like the encyclopaedic book it’s based on, there is lots of information but little soul, thankfully it teaches us that there’s no point worrying about whether future films will be handled the same way. If only because that means we’ll be suffering twice.
Rating: 3 Fantastic Beasts out of 5
Let’s get one thing straight about Marvel’s latest superhero. It’s not Mister, it’s not Master, it’s Doctor. PhD and MD, at that. With such an arrogant statement there is more than a hint of Déjà vu about the studio’s latest caped crusader and his rather Stark-esque characteristics. So much so, in the coming months there is bound to be numerous similarities drawn between Doctor Strange (2016) and the studio’s first big hit Iron Man (2008). I mean, not only do we have a genius, millionaire, flirtatious, sort-of philanthropist, but Stephen Strange is also one to find his groove from pain and suffering, transformed from a self-centred coward, full of arrogance and ego, into a saviour. Thankfully, he also holds the same loveable and charming disposition to ensure audiences eat the film up. And that they should, with director Scott Derrickson weaving a magical and mind-bending work that makes a beautiful and important addition to the ongoing saga.
The fourteenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Doctor Strange begins with the talented and titular neurosurgeon proving his merit in the operating room, pulling bullets from brains as easily as he can recite the year obscure songs were released. On top of the world with an intellect matched only by his enormous ego, Strange is somewhat untouchable, charming his former flame and choosing only the cases that truly challenge him. That is until his life is up-ended, quite literally, when a horrendous car crash leaves his miracle-wielding hands torn up, bolted back together and with irreparable nerve damage. When Western medicine fails him, he takes the advice of a former physical therapy patient and heads to Nepal in search of the mysterious Kamar-Taj. From there things get mystical, as our protagonist is trained in everything from astral projection to gateway travel, thanks to a being known only as The Ancient One. When former sect student Kaecillius threatens reality with the dark realm of Dormammu though, it will take everything the newly transformed Strange has to turn time itself on its head.
It’s a different direction for the mad and masterful Marvel studios, venturing into worlds further afield than even those of James Gunn’s cosmic breakout hit Guardians of the Galaxy (2012). Here, magic and sorcery reign supreme, as we tread the fine line between unquantifiable science and pure faith. Psychedelic just doesn’t quite do it justice, the visuals taking us to numerous other dimensions and realities and opening up fantastic future film possibilities. The Ancient One describes it as spending your whole life looking through a keyhole and then having that keyhole widen. What they should have said though is it is like looking through a keyhole only to have the door swing open. Like an optical orgy, the special effects denote an exceptional attention to detail, building towards the final climactic moments. Interestingly, the denouement, while cumbersome, plays out in complete contrast to the destruction fuelled nightmares of the rest of 2016’s superhero films. It is hard to say whether it was intentional or coincidence, but either way it is both refreshing and optimistic for the future of the genre.
With one Academy Award winner and three more nominees among the cast, it is safe to say the acting hits the mark. Cumberbatch is of course the charismatic standout, with his New York accent, slick style and penchant for dry humour. His take on the character is as effortless a Downey Junior’s was with Iron Man, as if the role had been written specifically for him. For all the cries of whitewashing, Tilda Swinton also delivers a profound and solid turn as the wise old teacher, while Mads Mikkelsen once again channels his inner Hannibal Lecter as the main antagonist. Rachel McAdams is a wonderful addition too, walking the line between stereotypical and strong female representations. A qualified doctor who is able to hold power over our central protagonist, majority of her scenes involve hilarious jump scares that ground the film in reality. However it is the cloak of levitation that steals the show from everyone, garnering the most laughs in the film’s two-hour run. An inanimate object in the comics designed to help Doctor Strange fly, it takes on a sentient life here, pummelling baddies and looking cool, calm and collected as it goes.
If there is one flaw about the film, it is that is suffers from the pains of future constraints. With Strange destined to appear in the upcoming Avengers films, he is never put in any true amount of peril and as such, is never tested to his limits. We are constantly left with the idea of more, but never the satisfaction of it. Bigger and better is the promise as we head into Phase 3 and in Marvel’s rush to get there the studio has forgotten to give it their all in their introductory pictures. Similarly weak is the lack of humour, which paints the picture of just how depressing bleak the screenplay must have been before the addition of Dan Harmon’s re-writes. The funny offbeat moments we are given have a way of twisting and pulling at the characters’ development, making the moments feel needy and desperate instead of smooth and slick. For all his trying, Cumberbatch is never quite as quippy as Stark is and after seeing him deliver in everything from Sherlock (2010) to The Imitation Game (2014) it’s safe to say it’s not thanks to his acting ability.
It wouldn’t be a Marvel movie though without some tie-ins to the greater shared universe, with names like the Avengers sprinkled about here and there and the classic cameo from Stan Lee hitting the mark if not blowing it out of the water excelsior style. There’s even a big nod to the Infinity Stone storyline, if only for a minute. For anything bigger though, viewers will have to wait until the post-credit scenes, once again teasing future instalments and reminding us that as much as we may love any one character, this is, in fact, a shared universe. The real question for the studio now though is exactly how they will get to their big Avenging moment, throwing together the old and the new and letting them hand off their respective batons. So open your mind to the film, surrender control and let the film shape a new reality around you. Because while not everything in Doctor Strange and the expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe will make sense, then again, not everything has to.
Rating: 4 Mind-Bending Universes out of 5
About halfway through 20th Century Fox’s new film X-Men: Apocalypse (2016), there is a rather ironic moment where Sophie Turner’s young mutant Jean Grey, having snuck out to watch Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi (1983) with her classmates, comments tongue-in-cheek that ‘at least we can all agree the third movie is always the worst’. Sadly, despite being a satirical reference to Brett Ratner’s universally panned X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), it also speaks volumes about Singer’s new trilogy too.
The film follows the tried and tested formula of good guys versus bad guys, with the newly formed X-Men team called into action after the world’s first mutant, Apocalypse, wakes from a long slumber and threatens to unleash the end of days upon the world. Backed by his four horsemen; Storm (representing famine), Psylocke (representing pestilence), Angel (representing death), and Magneto (representing war), Apocalypse’s god-like stature helps him channel his recruit’s rage, greed and blind-faith to tear the world apart. When he kidnaps Professor X, seeking to attain his power, the new generation of X-Men must step up and unleash powers that, until now, they’ve been trying hard to control.
As the fourth superhero movie out this year, X-Men: Apocalypse (2017) unfortunately succumbs to the dreaded genre fatigue. Where Captain America: Civil War (2016) brought a smart, tight, and tense blockbuster, X-Men: Apocalypse comes across as a jagged and overblown extravaganza. It has none of the charm or comedy of Deadpool (2016) either, thankfully doing just well enough to put it ahead of Zack Snyder’s unrestrained Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016). Instead of focusing on being the culmination of a nuanced First Class trilogy, it too often slingshots off onto future tangents, be that Wolverine 3 (2017), or the upcoming X-Force film.
That is not to say X-Men: Apocalypse is without its good points though, with a grandiose scale accomplishing something rarely attained in the X-Men universe. The special effects are magnificent, and the visuals are simply stunning. It’s worth the ticket price alone just to see Evan Peter’s second Quicksilver slow-motion scene, which plays out as a true highlight of modern cinema, and is exactly, as the overlaying music intones, what ‘sweet dreams’ are made of. The film also excels in the ‘surprise’ cameo department, with Wolverine and Jean’s exchange making for one of the most emotional scenes of the film, and Stan Lee’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment made all the more special by the inclusion of his real-life wife.
These moments are few and far between though, as the film’s namesake goes about destroying what could have been one the finest superhero trilogies around. Oscar Isaac does the best he can with the character, however it’s just not enough to elevate him to the monstrosity we were promised. Instead, Apocalypse appears the weakest character of the bunch, with undefined powers which are rarely exerted until the second act whereupon he uses his henchman to do all the heavy lifting. They too, unfortunately, become conceited caricatures of the characters they could have been. Storm is criminally underused, with Alexandra Shipp giving a phenomenal performance; while in contrast, Psylocke and Angel are narcissistic and egotistical fillers who provide no benefit to the story whatsoever. The ‘bad guy’ team is redeemed only by Michael Fassbender’s Magneto, with the Irish actor once again proving his status as one of the most charming, likable, and talented actors in the industry today. Despite a predictable reason behind his third attempt to go dark-side, ultimately Magneto becomes the heart and soul of the movie.
As for the rest of the cast, the new youngsters all prove to be solid additions that will carry the series well in the future. Turner’s Jean Grey starts off rather uncomfortably, before settling into a strong character, managing something her predecessor Famke Janssen never did – a dignified and threatening Phoenix. Tye Sheridan’s Cyclops also lands well, his character arc travelling from disruptive high-schooler to daring leader. Kodi Smit-McPhee steals the show though as Nightcrawler, the most useful and endearing character of the bunch. Surprisingly one of the worst turns in the film is Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique, who has descended from Rebecca Romijn’s sultry vixen in the first X-trilogy, to a stale Mockingjay-esque bore.
The climax of the film is both the best and the worst part of the two-and-a-half-hour action epic. With all the mutants working together and Apocalypse forced to actually use his ‘God-like’ powers, we can finally remember what made the first X-Men (2000) movie so genre-defining. But it’s also a callous moment, as hundreds of cities are reduced to atoms. Bad taste is a common theme it seems, as Apocalypse's first form of destruction comes from making Magneto level Auschwitz. Yes, I stand by the fact it is still ‘too soon’ to make such mockery of historical moments for entertainment purposes.
If there is one thing to take from X-Men: Apocalypse though, it is in the title characters speech that “Everything they built will fall! And from the ashes of their world, we’ll build a better one!” For all the disappointment, there is always the option for rebirth. Hopefully for future installments, the idea of ‘rising from the ashes’ won’t be limited to just the Phoenix.
Rating: 3.5 Mutants out of 5
God versus man. Day versus night. All powerful versus all good. That’s the conundrum Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) has asked of its audience ever since its first trailer debuted last year. And as a superhero fanatic, I’ll readily admit it sucked me in straight away. Then, a few days ago, came the early wave of negative reviews, the memes of Marvel’s mighty CEO’s laughing at Warner Bros. over the dismal 30% ‘Fresh Rating’ the film received on Rotten Tomatoes, and the tragic but beautiful gifs of ‘Sad Affleck’, a video of the Oscar-winning actor staring into the abyss of what many are calling one of the most horrible iterations of DC’s beloved bat character to date. Undeterred, I ignored the critics reviews, cast my biases aside, and sat down to see for myself whether Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is worthy of a cinematic viewing. The red capes are a-coming…
Picking up eighteen months after the events of Man of Steel (2013), Zack Snyder’s sombre sequel follows the emotional, physical, and psychological trail of death and destruction left in the wake of Superman’s intergalactic fight with General Zod. Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) is hard at work at the Daily Planet but losing faith in what Superman stands for, Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is seeking out stories in Africa and living up to the damsel in distress trope, and the people of Metropolis are so caught up in what their False God can do that they are failing to ask what he should do. Then in swoops the Bat-fleck, an older, grizzlier manifestation of Bruce Wayne’s legendary hero, well into his crime-fighting years. A boy who let his family die and a man who seems doomed to repeat the sins of his past. After witnessing the uncontrollable power and formidable strength Superman wields, the Dark Knight sets about devising a plan for the Son of Krypton’s down-fall, and finally, just over two-thirds of the way into the film, we finally reach the crux of the climatic fight-scene. Sadly, it’s a short-lived moment; as a bigger villain crashes onto the scene and DC’s Holy Trinity unite to fight for what’s left of truth, justice, and the American way.
Introducing the Justice League is no mean feat, especially considering it’s a tenacious task never before achieved in a live-action film, and for that Batman v Superman deserves credit. It’s overshadowed though by the sheer weight of the movies dark and despairing tone. People die, others go crazy, and there’s a huge price to be paid by the best among us. There’s also a jumbled mess of unnecessary dream sequences and strange musical choices lurking about (don’t believe me – just wait until you here Lex Luthor’s theme). But it’s the film’s two-and-a-half-hour run-time that delivers the final blow. By the time you reach the finale, you’re too exhausted to comprehend the gravitas of the situation, and the speed at which the lacklustre lot finally become a League.
Affleck’s Batman has been a big criticism, and it’s hard to argue that there aren’t at least a few moments where he serves as a let-down. Like, pretty much the whole first half of the film. But after you warm up to him, and suspend disbelief at how fast he can change costumes between his busted up bat armour and his black (or really, really, dark grey) suit, he proves to be a solid addition to the cast. He’s the first swearing, killing, and jaded incarnation, and it makes for a frighteningly refreshing change. Sure he’s no Christian Bale, but he was also never trying to be. People are quick to forget how much he invested in the film and how hard it is to revive a character that last graced the screen just four years ago. He’s good, if not great, and given time his standalone features and ensemble team-ups could prove a real winner for Warner Bros. After all, superheroes are made not just born.
The smaller roles bring the biggest and best surprises though, with Gal Gadot knocking her Wonder Woman out of the park. Smooth, seductive, and strong, DC can finally lay claim to beating Marvel in at least one realm, with a female lead that stands equal to the boys, showcases real powers, and is a revelation as an unapologetic role-model. Black Widow and Scarlet Witch stand no chance. Similarly, Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor is one for the books; as a miss-match of maniacal madness who proves that psychotic really is just a three syllable word for any thought too big for little minds. Even Jeremy Irons cynical, old-man Alfred is great, as a gentleman resigned to simply ‘trying’ to convince Batman not to kill himself in his endeavours. But if you came for the ‘Dawn of Justice’ part of the title you won’t be disappointed, with a number of well-timed and wonderfully utilised cameos, that would be done no justice at all, should I spoil them. Just sit back, relax, and enjoy as they spill onto the screen.
Expecting a superhero movie that can rival the Marvel megalith at this stage is a hard ask, and more importantly a downright cruel one. They’ve had twelve films to set up their cinematic universe. DC have had two. And it’s a problem that has left a major hole for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, where the studio promised a second Superman outing and the introduction of DC’s A-League, but instead delivered a film that feels more like a Batman origin flick. The whole first act is practically devoted to setting the character up, with the Son of Krypton left to take centre stage only in the final, gut-wrenching moments. It’s not bad, but given time and space to breathe, it could have been so much more. If only they’d taken heed of their scriptwriters, when they wrote; ‘Be their hero, be their angel, be their monument. Be anything they need you to be… or be none of it. You don’t owe this world a thing. You never did.’
Rating: 3.5 Annoyed Alfred's out of 5
Guillermo Del Toro is a master of horror. Surprisingly, he is also a master of romance too. Gothic romance that is. Crimson Peak (2015), Del Toro’s latest foray into the directing world is a suspenseful, atmospheric, and beautifully crafted piece. It is also a telling exploration of love, and the forbidden temptations it brings with it. Because we all know that beneath the handsome façade of those we fall in love with, are the devilish and shadowy skeletons hiding in their closest. Which in this case turns out to be both literal and figurative.
In the words of Edith, Crimson Peak isn’t a ghost story; it is instead a story that features ghosts. Each one serving as a metaphor for the way in which our past indiscretions never really remain ‘dead and buried’. The tale focuses on young protagonist, Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), an eligible, sophisticated, and no-holds barred woman, who after tragedy befalls her, finds herself swept up into the arms of the dashing and debonair Baronet Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). Whisked away to Allerdale Hall with the English lad and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), Edith finds herself faced with life in an abode that is not only slowly decaying, but hiding within it a malevolent force. With the creaks and groans of the night growing louder, and the honeymoon dream slowly turning into nightmare, Edith is left with only one option; to uncover the real truth as to what lies beneath Crimson Peak.
Despite the film being labelled as part of the horror-genre, to class the film as such is a disgrace to its depth. Instead, it plays out as a fractured fairy-tale, from the moment the camera pans onto the title as if it were the cover of a book we were reading, all the way through to the lines plucked craftily from Elizabethan classics. This be a story of monsters, which come not always as the terrors lurking in the walls, or the spectres down the dark and unlit corridors, but buried within the people we love. Hate and desire are both passionate emotions, and they are after all, so very closely entwined.
The real achievement though is Del Toro’s proficiency for cinematography. If you see the movie for nothing other than the visuals, you will not be disappointed. At once both engrossing and meticulous, Del Toro masterfully crafts his scenes to be portraits of breathe-taking, striking and unnerving awe. Never once do we see the colour red in a scene that does not feature some form of other-worldly essence. And never once do we ever feel like the cinematic auteur isn’t giving 110%. The walls ‘breath, bleed, and remember’, like the real living entity they are, with red clay oozing from beneath the floorboards, snow gently falling through the decaying hole in the ceiling, and the ground outside the manor bleeding into a startlingly scarlet as winter fast approaches. Like watching a wound tear open in slow motion, viewing the film is intense and graphic, yet so remarkable that despite your best efforts, you can’t actually look away.
Whilst Hiddleston is easily the best thing to look at in the film (as Stephen Colbert said in his recent interview with the cast, he does show his *English Countryside* after all), and Wasikowska is fresh and enlivened as our hero Edith, the show belongs entirely to Chastain. She is almost unrecognizable from her turn in The Martian (2015), channeling a ferocity and sternness that shows you why she is one of the best emerging talents in Hollywood. Meryl Streep should watch her back, because the future of female film roles may have finally found a replacement. She is supprted strongly though by Hiddleston, who charms his way through the piece and is likely the reason the film has an estimated 60% female audience. It’s understandable too though, with his and Wasikowska’s sex scene alone making the price of the ticket worth it. The grin he pulls there is to die for. The only true disappointment though comes in the fact that Charlie Hunnam is under-utilised in his role as Dr Alan McMichael. The Sons of Anarchy (2008) star gives a strong effort, but there’s just not enough time dedicated to his character to make him more meaningful than a one-dimensional veneer for the classic ‘love triangle’.
What is also shameful with a piece this elegant, is how poorly it has landed with audiences. In America it opened to a solid, yet disappointing $13 million dollar weekend. Sure it was up against strong contenders, like family fare Goosebumps (2015) and megalith The Martian (2015), but it would seem that fans of cinema are continuing to turn away from more complex and graphic storytelling, for lighter popcorn fare. Whilst perhaps not the easiest of films to swallow; Crimson Peak is a film that once again reflects Del Toro’s style and storytelling, and the compelling way he can make the grotesque beautiful. The man's genius is in how his films symbolism eats away at your soul and your mind, not content to simply strive for a broken heart like most other pieces do. This one in particular does just that, ruining you from the inside out; just as the red seeps through every pore of Allerdale Hall, and the butterflies perish to the dying of the light.
Rating: 4 butterflies out of 5
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