Wednesday, 3 July 2019

IN THEATRES: Spiderman - Far From Home (SPOILER CITY, FOLKS)

Following the death of Tony Stark, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is trying to move on, focusing on his class trip to Europe and his plan to win the affections of his crush MJ (Zendaya).

However, the appearances of a group of supernatural entities known as the Elementals, and a mysterious stranger from another dimension, Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), means that Parker's plans are soon on the back-burner...

I really enjoyed Spider-Man: Homecoming. It was not the deepest movie in the world, but it is incredibly charming, boasts a great cast and - in Michael Keaton - a villain to write home about.

I really enjoyed Spider-Man: Far From Home. It was not the deepest movie in the world, but it is rather charming, boasts a great cast and - in Jake Gyllenhaal - a villain to write home about.

I have reached a point with Marvel where I no longer expect these movies to act like singular stories - they do not push the characters forward, they do not escalate in terms of stakes. What they exist as is middle episodes in a soap opera. Maybe if I had invested in watching the last two Avengers movies, this one would have more a bit more emotional resonance, but I doubt it. 

After watching last year's terrific Into The Spider-Verse, this movie cannot help but feel rote. Fundamentally, it never really gets under its main character's skin. And no matter how great Holland is - and he is terrific - the MCU Peter Parker is still stuck in neutral.

But as I stated at the outset - this movie is a lot of fun. Marvel may produce movies with machine-like efficiency, but by god does it do so with zest.

First off, Spider-Man has one of the most interesting and eclectic rogues galleries of all the superheroes, which gives this new incarnation plenty of new adversaries to introduce. Homecoming had a great version of Scarecrow, and Far From Home has special effects genius Mysterio.

Mysterio initially presents himself as a hero from an alternate Earth, who has come to stop his adversaries the Elementals from destroying Peter's world. It's a great, cheesy backstory that comes close to feeling like a send-up of the typical origin story, but not really.

Jake Gyllenhaal is great as the initially benevolent Beck. Gregarious and empathetic, he is easily the most appealing of the would-be mentors that Parker has had cinematically (Alfred Molina's Doc Ock is the only real competition). Despite the lack of focus on this relationship, it is a testament to Gyllenhaal and Hollands' performances that Parker's rash decision to essentially give Beck the keys to Tony Stark's kingdom does not feel as rushed as it otherwise would.

I wish the movie had focused more on building more of a rapport between Parker and Beck. Their initial confrontation is great, with the filmmakers taking full advantage of Beck's abilities, but as with the previous movie, the filmmakers are unwilling to really bring Holland's Parker to figure out what his weaknesses are and then push him to a breaking point.

Rather like the previous movie, I don't really understand what the turning point for Parker is - he does not really change between the beginning of the movie and the end. Dramatically, the most dire peril Parker faces is reserved for the mid-credits sequence. It's a great cliff hanger, but highlights the movie's weakness in terms of conflict for its main character. Here is hoping Spider-Man 3/8 delivers on what this -very enjoyable - sequence promises.

I am not a fan of the Raimi movies but the thing they understand (and ran into the ground) was the consequences of Peter being a superhero - having Stark Industries and Nick Fury in the wings to help out prevents the stakes from ever getting that big. In this movie, all he needs is a pep talk and a new suit and he is sorted.
Contrast this with last year's Into The Spider-Verse, where Miles Morales is faced with trying to figure out what kind of hero he wants to be, and the entire movie is premised on his journey to figuring that out. I went back and watched the key scene where the other Spider-people leave Miles tied up in his room. That scene involves TWO monologues, and they both fulfil important functions in helping Miles to recognise what he needs to do.

I feel like this franchise was impeded from the beginning by the decision to introduce the character sans origin. I have no desire to see Uncle Ben die again, but both Homecoming and Far From Home are hamstrung by not providing a solid sense of Peter's wants and needs, and then developing conflicts that force him to confront what is really important to him.

These movies are so much fun, and the cast are so good (Jacob Batalon is once again marvellous as Ned), it is so disappointing that movie is so disinterested in building a narrative infrastructure that would allow this character to really soar. To be honest, when Far From Home focuses on comedy, it soars. If the filmmakers had more courage, they would ditch the rote super-heroics and just craft a teen comedy. With all the various supporting players and their subplots, this movie feels like a couple of episodes of a teen show I would watch religiously.

In terms of subplots, I was looking forward to seeing how Peter's relationship with MJ developed. She was such a fresh departure from the classic archetype of Mary Jane Watson (she felt closer to the confident nerd of the Ultimate version). After essentially providing a comic cameo in the last movie, it is good to see Zendaya get a bit more to do, although - as with Beck - I would have liked to see her fleshed out more, beyond the fact that she likes Peter.

Overall, Far From Home is a movie filled with pleasures. But it is ultimately too much dessert with not enough meal.

Related reviews

Spider-Man: Homecoming

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Saturday, 22 June 2019

The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

If you have not watched The Hidden, do so. It is so much more fun to go in completely ignorant.

They like money, they like loud music, they love Ferrari’s and they will kill anyone who gets in their way. It falls to veteran cop Thomas Beck (Michael Nouri) and FBI Agent Lloyd Gallagher (Kyle MaLachlan) to take them down.

I first watched this movie a decade ago and fell hard for it.

I re-watched it about a couple of weeks before Men in Black: International, and I could not help comparing the two. In fact, if you are in the mood for a double bill, pair The Hidden with Men in Black. They are both buddy-cop movies that also act as savvy blends of science fiction, horror and very different but distinct lashings of comedy.

When you break down the components, this movie should not work: the premise is hokey; the director’s previous effort had been Nightmare on Elm Street 2; the score is inexplicably bad, and it mixes so many different genres and tones that it is a miracle it works so magnificently.

The execution is what makes this movie. Jack Sholder must thank his lucky stars for this movie, but he is one of the reasons why it is great.

His direction clean, clear and filled with moments of invention. The opening scene - a bank robbery shot entirely from a single security camera, immediately discombobulates the viewer while also setting up the important action, concluding with the stone-faced robber turning and staring straight at the camera. He smiles and shoots the camera.

Cue a terrific car chase, which utilises the visual vocabulary (particularly POV shots and mounted side angles shooting backwards over the rear wheels) of 70s chase thrillers like Bullitt and The French Connection, but filled with remarkable touches of black comedy (including maybe the best variation on the old ‘two guys carrying a pane of glass across a street’ gag).

This scene really sums up the movie's relationship to genre - it takes a familiar trope and then elevates it.

A lot of the movie's use of familiar tropes boils down to how people react to what is happening: There’s an amazing sense of scale and stakes to the movie - people react like people; people get hurt; people experience pain and death and fear.

The way Beck and his wife talk feels like believable couple, even down to the way she reacts to Beck's annoyance at Gallagher.
Everybody plays the movie straight - the cops feel straight out of a police procedural, but there is no real delineation between Beck and his fellow officers - he might be the best officer in the department, but he is not a loose cannon or a macho figure. The one time he is singled out as exceptional - when his chief lists the number of ways his department (and the city) would be reduced to rubble if he is transferred.

The relationship between Beck and Gallagher is the heart of the movie. Initially it feels like a cliche - government suit and regular Joe cop - but as their partnership and the case evolves, the archetypes are subverted.

While the cop-as-everyman is familiar in action movies, it usually a superficial signifier that the filmmakers ignore as the set pieces get more extravagant (check out the heroes of Lethal Weapon in the sequels). The script pays close attention to Beck's personality - he is not a vigilante loner ala Dirty Harry, and does not rush into situations with guns blazing. He is genuinely disturbed by the case, and grows increasingly terrified as every assumption he has about the suspect and his partner are proved wrong. And unlike most action heroes, his gun does run out of bullets...

Michael Nouri's performance is terrific - there is an intelligence and a world-weariness to his performance that makes Beck far more than a cookie-cutter hero. He comes across as a smart guy who has been on the beat a long time, and applies the same approach to this new case. By grounding Beck, the situation feels more dire. He seems genuinely affected by the Hidden's actions, and appears genuinely terrified during the climactic set pieces.

Kyle MacLachan s uncanny presence - so well-utilised in his collaborations with David Lynch - is perfect for the awkward and obtuse Gallagher. Initially coming across as a stuffy, out-of-touch bureaucrat (another 80s movie cliche), MacLachan gives Gallagher a weird sense of empathy that somehow still feels unsettling.

The script is also wonderfully oblique about Gallagher's origins. Pieced together through vague references and only spelled out in the third act, his true nature never comes across as cheesy or cliche.  Combined with MacLachan's deadpan performance, Gallagher ends up as the most human character in the movie.

Nouri and MacLachan's chemistry together is magnetic - it is a pity they were never re-teamed again.

The movie's savvy use of familiar tropes extends to the way the filmmakers reveal what The Hidden is. There have been body-jumping aliens in movies before and since, but even after we have a grasp of what it is, the filmmakers find multiple ways to play on the rules they establish (the standout example is when the creature transfers into a dog, which leads to one of the film's best set pieces).

William Boyett
The portrayal of the creature's various incarnations, from the actors to the special effects, are all great. What I particularly enjoyed was the ways in which all the actors feel of a piece with each other, yet manifest the alien's uniquely selfish love of fast cars, loud music and violence. The standout is William Boyett, formerly a heart transplant patient, who brings an adolescent glee to his rampage. Thanks to judicious editing, the dog is also fantastic as the evil alien.

The reflection of pure evil
The only real flaw with the movie is the inexplicable score, which feels like a child playing with an electronic keyboard. It is a testament to the movie that it never detracts from the movie's effect.

Produced on a shoestring budget of five million bucks, The Hidden never feels lacking for anything, and punches far above its weight.

Related reviews

Men in Black: International

If you are new to this blog, I also co-host a podcast on the British girl group the Sugababes, cleverly entitled SugaBros

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Wednesday, 12 June 2019

IN THEATRES: Men in Black - International

Probationary agent M (Tessa Thompson) is given her first assignment and sent to the London branch, where she falls in with the dashing-but-oafish Agent H.

Together they have to protect a piece of powerful alien techno-and you've already stopped reading.

There are bad aliens. Thor and Valkyrie kill them. The end. No Will Smith/Tommy Lee Jones cameos.

I've been trying to come up with something to introduce this review. So here is the music video for 'Men in Black'.

Best to keep it playing - it will be more fun than this review.


What a hollow movie.

What a bland, uninteresting, cookie-cutter release date-in-cinematic-form movie.

This franchise had one good story and while the initial sequels were successful they never captured the strange magic of the first movie: the chalk and cheese dynamic of smith and jones; the deadpan style of Barry Sonnenfeld; the great Vincent D’Nofrio as the villain. With this iteration, we get a sliver of a maybe-interesting idea for a main character, and that’s about it for unique ideas.

Admittedly, the first movie is a pretty slim proposition - the plot barely exists (and was basically re-written in post-production) - yet the ingredients already listed make up for it. This movie sadly proves that Men in Black should have stayed at just one movie.

From the jump something is off - we get another extended title sequence but this one does not end on a joke or really add to the story. And then we get two flashbacks, which do no help: we open on a scene set in 2016, and then transition to another scene in 1998, and then back to the present. It is bizarre, and while the scenes provide important info for our heroes, the scenes feel disconnected from each other, and do not really pay off in satisfying ways.

What makes it worse is that there are moments where it feels like this movie could be way more fun than it is. Once the movie shifts into the present, it feels like the filmmakers are setting up a really cool premise - what if a kid grew up wanting to be a MIB (or a WIB), and actively tried to break in? This is the way we are introduced to Tessa Thompson's Agent M aka Molly, a young woman who witnessed the Men in Black and an alien in action when she was a child, and became obsessed with joining the secretive organisation. 

These early scenes are kind of fun - we get a montage of Molly crashing out of interviews for various government agencies because she keeps asking about the guys in black suits, and then a sequence showing her figuring out how to sneak into MIB HQ. Once she breaks into the building the movie's problems become very obvious.

The big issue is that the movie feels in a hurry, and does not allow anything to grow organically. Thompson's discovery and infiltration of MIB headquarters is so fast, and so easy, and followed so quickly by her becoming an agent, the movie loses what little motivation her character has. She wanted to become an MIB agent - and she does. Sure, she is on probation, but at no point through the rest of the movie does it feel like she is growing and learning how to become an agent. No big obstacles and no real stakes make this movie weightless.

While Thompson is a winning presence, she cannot compensate for how underwritten this character is. Throughout the movie I found it difficult to follow her motivations and to really get a sense of her personality. What does she want? What does she need? We never really find out.

The same goes for her co-star: Chris Hemsworth is an agent who has lost his spark, and has grown careless. Sadly the movie chickens out on making him a real loser - he is still too cool and smart. He never screws up in a big way. Even this shoddy characterisation is for nought because the big obvious twist completely negates his (slim) need for redemption.

In a franchise built on the rapport between two main characters, it is ironic that this movie completely fails in this respect. Neither character starts in a solid place, they don’t really learn anything, and they win at the end because of the actions of a minor character. If they committed to the idea of these characters - a gifted amateur who nobody believed in; a veteran who has lost his motivation - it could have worked. The idea of a character coasting because he already did something heroic, and having to humble himself, could be interesting.

Heck, it would have been funnier if it turned out Thompson is a natural at the job and Hemsworth is unmasked as a useless bro who has been getting by on charm and good luck.

Thompson and Hemsworth do their best, but the script does not give their characters or relationship enough definition to really click. What makes it worse is the ham-fisted way the movie tries to wedge in some romantic tension right at the end of the movie. It is already cliche as hell that subtext is never present in their relationship prior.

On top of its bland-erised characters, the movie is not really about anything thematically. Initially it feels like the movie will be taking a swing at current fights over immigration: Rafe Ifans, Agent C, speaks about aliens in very deragotory terms. It sets you up to expect that he will turn out to be some kind of Trumpian threat - the idea of a xenophobic MIB is interesting, but this turns out to be a character trait that just serves to make H look better when C points out signs of trouble. This aspect of the character is pretty much forgotten once the true villain is unmasked, and C turns out to be on the side of angels.

Once again, the movie takes a punt on turning its established formula on its head.

Past MIB movies are famous for their incidental pleasures (Frank the pug; the various denizens of New York), but this movie features few of the same fun details - Kumail Nanjiani plays a tiny alien soldier who becomes M's bodyguard; there's an alien masquerading as a beard.

F. Gary Gray's direction makes a fatal error of all franchise starters (or re-starters): he does not take the time to build and reveal the world - the movie is moving too fast, and introduces locations through wide shots which the characters then walk into. We are never aligned with Molly’s POV as she discovers this hidden world. There is never any sense of tension, or any really great punchlines to any of the jokes (the 'best' of which are in the trailers).

Despite the number of locations (or because of them) the movie never establishes a unique identity. One of the key things from the original is how specific it is to New York. Here, the movie flirts with James Bond-style location-hopping but never makes that interesting. Rebecca Ferguson shows up as a wealthy arms dealer with an island fortress, but the most noteworthy aspect of her character is that she has a third arm. That’s it.

And the lack of practical effects is really felt. None of the creatures or environments feel lived-in or tangible. Even exterior scenes feel canned and limited in scope. Men in Black 3 is a mess but I feel like this movie is going to age worse - its greatest weakness is not that it is bad, it is just incredibly generic in almost every respect.

The one minor highlight is the score (duties shared by Danny Elfman and Chris Bacon), which recalls Elfman's themes from the previous movies.

I would like to give the movie some kudos (half a kudo?) for resisting the urge to include a pop-in from Will Smith or  Tommy Lee Jones. Whether it was scheduling, money or a creative choice is irrelevant, but it is a testament to how little this movie sparked that I was kinda-hoping the movie would pull a Marvel and feature them in a mid-credit stinger.

If you are looking for an easy rental in a couple months, Men in Black: International will suit your needs. But it is not worth going out to the theatre.

Here's hoping Hemsworth and Thompson get to re-team on something else. They have good chemistry in Thor: Ragnarok and the same is true here. They need a Thin Man or something.

If you are looking for a good Tessa Thompson movie, wait till Little Woods comes out next week.


Little Woods

If you are new to this blog, I also co-host a podcast on the British girl group the Sugababes, cleverly entitled SugaBros

You can check out the latest episode here. Subscribe on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts!

Sunday, 9 June 2019

Lisa and the Devil (Mario Bava, 1973)

While on holiday in a Spanish town, Lisa (Elke Sommer) separates from her friends and gets lost.

Unable to find her party, Lisa ends up hitching a ride with an unhappy couple Sophie (Sylva Koscina) and Francis (Eduardo Fajardo). When the car breaks down, Lisa and her companions wind up as guests at a nearby estate where they become uncomfortable guests of the owner (Alida Valli) and her son (Alessio Orano), who develops an unhealthy fixation on Lisa.

While Lisa and the other characters struggle to figure out what is going on, butler Leandro (Telly Savalas) sucks on a lollipop and sits back to enjoy the show...

Directed by the master of Italian horror, Mario Bava, Lisa and the Devil has been on my radar for over a decade. My local arthouse has been running a series of classic films as part of a season on 'identity horror', and Lisa was one of them.

Infamously re-cut and partially reshot by producer Alfredo Leone to cash in on the success of The Exorcist, Lisa... is one of the Italian master’s final works.

After his previous film, Baron Blood, became a big hit, Bava was given complete creative control and it shows - the movie’s atmosphere is strong, the photography is beautiful and the effects are effective rather than realistic. Bava started out in special effects and as a cinematographer - he became famous for his gifts for delivering strong material on the smell of an oily rag.

Aside from his debut Black Sunday, which is regarded as one of the finest hour movies ever made (it is one of my personal favourites), Bava is known as the originator of the 'Giallo', a subgenre of mystery thrillers renowned for their emphasis on hyper-violent murders. From Blood and Black Lace (1964) - regarded as one of the earliest gailli - Bava's subsequent additions to the genre push it in different directions - Hatchet for the Honeymoon plays the action out from the murderer's perspective; Twitch of the Death Nerve pushes the genre to its most nihilistic extreme, with multiple murderers fighting over an inheritance until no one is left alive.

A surreal descent into hell, Lisa and the Devil is only tangentially related to the genre, but in its focus on a small group of characters in an isolated location, it feels like a perverse inversion of the template - the story that Lisa stumbles into feels so familiar, and is treated so cursorily that it almost comes across as parody.

Even the components - a wealthy family on an isolated estate, riven by deceit and perverse urges - feel past their use-by date.

Once the players are stuck on the estate, any lingering semblance of cause and effect, time and place, fall apart.

One of the primary attractions of Mario Bava's work is his unsettling aesthetic - the movie features super bright technicolor, mise-en-scene crowded with creepy dummies, and judicious use of the old fish-eye lense.

In certain respects, it feels similar to The Shining - the isolated setting; the 'daytime nightmare' aspect of the photography (Bava's use of super bright technicolor is incredibly unsettling); the ultimate revelation that Lisa - like Jack Torrance - is and has always been a part of the family’s story

There are some dead spots, and most of the acting is wooden, but the big selling point - aside from Bava's aesthetic - is Telly Savalas as the satanic Leandro.

From the outset, Bava establishes Leandro's control over the movie, with a close-up of Savalas smiling straight at the camera.

Bava does not hide Leandro's true identity - Sommer literally walks around the corner from a massive fresco of the Devil, and immediately runs into the eerily similar Savalas, who is buying a life-size dummy of a man.

In the 'story', Leandro is the butler to this creepy family, both servant, overseer and an audience for the character's antics. For a majority of the runtime, his Satan is basically a background presence, observing and commenting on the other characters as they bumble around the estate.

He talks shit behind their backs, seems to delight in their panic and frustration, and he also seems a little bored by the exercise. Savalas plays the role with a droll charm, pushing his role's servility just ever-so-slightly over the top.

While Sommer is buffeted by events, it feels like the family are running through the same melodramatic storyline over and over again. Savalas’s Devil can barely be bothered to play his role. You get the impression he's played versions of this scenario out countless times already, constantly tinkering with the movements and identities of the characters to see how the scenario  plays out.

At times it feels like Leandro is pushing the story toward the ending because he wants to skip the boring parts - like exposition or character development. The most interesting murder is a spur-of-the-moment act - Sophie runs her husband over after he mocks the fact that her lover - their driver - has been killed.

Every time the movie feels like it is building toward the melodrama its story implies, Bava undercuts it, or focuses on Leandro doing something totally banal - like talking to a dummy, or attempting to bum a cigarette off a guest (and then, in the film's funniest moment, returning it as soon as his 'boss', the Countess, looms up behind him).

Savalas is so magnetic, he gives Lisa and the Devil a weird sense of gravity - the story may make no sense, the English dub may reduce the other characters to cardboard cliches, but Savalas is so good and in tune with Bava's direction that the film does not collapse.

Through Savalas, the film gains an offbeat, pitch-black vein of comedy that adds to the movie's off-kilter atmosphere.

It is not in danger being my favourite, but Lisa and the Devil is definitely worth checking out, and Savalas makes for one of the more fascinating versions of the Prince of Darkness I have seen.

If you are new to this blog, I also co-host a podcast on James Bond called The James Bond Cocktail Hour. Every episode, we do a review of one of the books and one of the movies, picked at random. 

In the latest episode we discuss the portrayal of women in the Bond franchise. Subscribe on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts!

Friday, 31 May 2019

IN THEATRES: Godzilla - King of the Monsters

When a group of eco-terrorists begin releasing monsters around the world, a team of scientists led by Coach Eric Taylor struggle to figure out how to stop them.

Their only hope lies with the mountain-sized juggernaut Godzilla.

Of course the Japanese poster is cooler
This movie should be taken as a straight monster mash.

It has no real pretensions toward being something more. The original 2014 movie spent its runtime on the human characters in an attempt ala Jaws to create a relatable vantage point to the rise of a creature like Godzilla, with the big lizard only glimpsed in snippets until the end.

Gareth Edwards’ movie is a valiant but flawed attempt to restore some of Godzilla’s menace and sheer scale. The downfall of that movie is that the human spine was not as string as it needed to be. Michael Doherty makes no attempts to hold off on the monsters - they come early and they come often.

This movie feels like a reaction to its predecessor in this respect, although Doherty’s handling of the monsters is shaky. With any genre movie it is important to establish rules. A key one is to establish a sense of stakes: for example, when a creature the size of a mountain lands beside you, or when a vehicle explodes close by, what effect does that have on the human body?

There is so much destruction, but rarely does it feel like the human characters are reacting enough to what is going on. I could go on about the importance of geography and the weightlessness of too much CGI, but you'll get the idea. 

The key failing with this movie is the same as its predecessor - the human story is never fleshed out enough to engage. Kyle Chandler and Vera Farmiga play a divorced couple who lost a child during Godzilla's last rampage. In the time since, he has become a recluse, and she has become a full-on super-villain intent on resurrecting Godzilla's fellow monsters to reclaim the Earth from the excesses of human beings.

There is a nugget of an idea here - the monsters' destruction is actually providing an opportunity for nature to reclaim areas destroyed by urbanisation - but we spend so little time with Chandler and Farmiga at the outset that the tragedy that pulled them apart never really connects to Farmiga's fanatical desire to un-terraform the earth.

She just comes across as a dangerous idealist who is completely disinterested in the millions of lives she is allowing to die. There might be a bit of commentary here: the area that we see the most of is a poor village in Mexico - are the filmmakers satirising rich white people's ideas for saving the environment and how these plans ignore minorities, the poor and anyone else without their money and privilege?

Probably not. For some reason the movie insists on making Farming a sympathetic character. Even though she sacrifices herself for the greater good at the end, it is not enough of a re-balance to address the genocidal levels of human misery she has left in her wake.

On a certain level I could appreciate a monster movie that attempted to create morally blurred protagonists (I guess this is meant to echo Chandler's mixed feelings toward the title creature, who was responsible for the death of his son), but Godzilla II - Smash Harder spends so little time on these relationships that the Chandler-Farmiga subplot comes off as flippant and cliche. Having Chandler as a logical everyMAN and Farmiga as a scientist complicated by her silly emotions (women!) smacks of old-school sexism.

The rest of the acting is fine, but they are all stuck playing familiar monster movie cliches - stern military person (Aisha Hinds); jokey scientist (Bradley Whitford); serious scientist (Zhang Ziyi); sage who sacrifices himself (you can guess who). They are just your usual band of bystanders and hype man for the fights.

I was not a fan of the last Godzilla, but one of the things I really dug was the slow-burn reveal of the big blue galoot - Gareth Edwards always framed the creature from a human point of view which added a sense of human scale and wonder to the movie.

There's nothing like that here. While it will satisfy some people just to see all their favourite monsters on the big screen, I felt almost nothing watching their big battles. Doherty is overwhelmed by the scale of destruction, that the stakes fly out the window (into Rodan's mouth).

There's not even much of a dramatic escalation to the battles - you never feel like Godzilla is learning or trying new things. He just gets juiced from a nuke and does exactly what he usually does until Ghidorah dies. Big whoop.

There are occasional things which are fun - the three heads of Ghidorah appear to have different personalities, and bicker over their prey like wolves at a carcass; there's a beaut of a shot of Ghidorah perched atop a volcano that is awesome.

But these things just throw into light how generic the rest of this movie is.

If you want monsters smashing things, this movie might satisfy you. But not enough to justify going to a theatre to see it.

If you are new to this blog, I also co-host a podcast on James Bond called The James Bond Cocktail Hour. Every episode, we do a review of one of the books and one of the movies, picked at random. 

In the latest episode we discuss the portrayal of women in the Bond franchise. Subscribe on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts!

Wednesday, 29 May 2019


You ever see the 1992 Aladdin? You got it.

If you were looking for an example of the vacuousness underpinning Disney's live-action remakes of its animated properties, Aladdin fits that bill.

A stilted live action remake of the classic Disney animation, Aladdin is never overtly terrible, yet it is remarkably dead movie. 

Almost every major element from the original get replayed here, but there is no sense of revision or joy - it feels like a group effort to tick boxes off a list.

The opening scenes cover almost exactly the same plot beats as the original yet feel strangely compressed and lacking context. There is a presentational quality to the staging and photography that undermines any attempt at building drama and tension.

Director Guy Ritchie is known for going all out with editing and visual tricks in his previous work, but he is on auto-pilot throughout. Even the action sequences and musical numbers lack verve - the 'Prince Ali' number feels grounded and stagey - filmed in a variety of long and medium shots, Ritchie conveys no sense of rhythm or movement. Even the set in which it takes place seems small and unimpressive (Strangely the most engaging number is the final reprise of ‘Never Had A Friend Like Me’, filmed in a wide shot with dancing extras and the cast choreographed in full frame. It is more alive and spontaneous than any of the other musical numbers).

Putting a white English guy in charge of remaking an orientalist fantasy is already on the wrong track (especially when the same studio is willing to back a movie like Black Panther, which feels like a mirror to this kind of western fantasy), and Ritchie compounds by failing to do the things that he can do well - action and comedy. There is a universe where getting the guy who did Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels to make a story about a street thief conning his way into a palace should be up his alley is a perfect marriage but this is a shotgun wedding where bride and groom are on sedatives. 

Underpinning all of this is a profound lack of meaning. This movie never feels like it is about anything, and even as pure escapism, it just feels limp.

The movie can not justify itself except as a corporate attempt to make more money off an old property. Elements such as Abu, the magic carpet and even the Genie lose character and personality - they were never meant to work in live action and highlight the difference between the expressionistic qualities of animation and the limits of so-called photo-realistic CGI.

It does not help that the movie’s overall aesthetic feels so sterile. Everything looks just a little off - it feels like it needs to be more stylised and over the top.

What makes it all worse is that every now and then, the movie offers (a few) sparks of life.

The recasting of Princess Jasmine shows promise - she is presented as an ambitious woman uninterested in marriage, but as with all the changes, it feels like extra shading to what already exists, rather than a fundamental alteration to the text. Naomi Scott delivers one of the best performance in the movie, but she is still limited by the movie's adherence to the '92 version.

Marwan Kenzari is also pretty good as Jafar - he underplays the menace, and has a decent motivation. And that's about it. Bizarrely, they neuter his bickering with Iago, which does not help.

As new character Dalia, Nasim Pedrad has some funny moments - and that is about it. Ultimately she exists purely to give the Genie a motivation (although, once again more could have been made of this relationship).

Every change in the adaptation just feels like doodling in the margins.

This even effects the movie's biggest star - Will Smith is fine as the big blue guy. He is charismatic, and he has some funny moments, but he can only juice up the movie so much.

Ultimately this movie is a zombie - it is familiar as something once living and has some interesting fungal growths, but it is still fundamentally soulless. 

If you are new to this blog, I also co-host a podcast on James Bond called The James Bond Cocktail Hour. Every episode, we do a review of one of the books and one of the movies, picked at random. 

In the latest episode we discuss the portrayal of women in the Bond franchise. Subscribe on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts!