Movie Review 24: Solo – A Star Wars Story

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*SPOILER WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS A FEW SPOILERS FOR SOLO – A STAR WARS STORY. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.*

Normally I have to wait a whole year for my Star Wars fix. To get a new film just five months after the previous one was something that I was very much looking forward to. However, once it came to release week, I actually found myself forgetting that the next instalment in my favourite franchise was coming out. The overwhelming feeling of ‘Ah, I’ll see it tomorrow’ happened for about a week, despite my initial excitement. I’m sorry to say that Star Wars fatigue has definitely set in a little for me. But would I ever say that I disliked this latest entry? Hell, no!

Solo is the second Anthology film in the Star Wars franchise, after 2016’s Rogue One, and follows the eponymous scoundrel as he goes on all the adventures he always mentioned in the Original Trilogy. I’m talking meeting Chewie, winning the Millennium Falcon from Lando, and making the ever-infamous Kessel Run in just fourteen parsecs (or was that twelve?). There are some other, smaller outings included, too, ones that we didn’t know about until now, along with a few gaps in the timeline (here’s looking at you, Fett) that will need to be filled in what I’m hoping becomes a Solo trilogy.

The Good:

Let’s begin with the Ehrenreich in the room. It’s hard to say whether Alden truly nailed the character, and whatever I think about the matter, the argument will probably rage on until Star Wars is long dead. But I personally think he was very believable for the most part, and I have no problem with his performance. Simple as that. He even got a few of Ford’s mannerisms down pat, and those were great moments because the character really shone through. It’s a shame he wasn’t like that consistently, but I don’t think there’s a person on the planet who could perfectly follow Harrison Ford himself.

The overarching narrative of the film is okay. I really don’t think there’s anything shockingly awful about it, and overall it doesn’t deserve to be in the ‘To be Improved’ section of this review. It was a little disjointed at times, and there were definitely some moments that were better than others by a long way, but overall the chain of events flowed together without incident. I’ve always been an absolute sucker for scenes that put the ‘Wars’ in Star Wars, and the Imperial battlefront on Mimban, with AT-ST’s dropping in from aerial transports, mudtroopers dashing through trenches WWI style, with explosions going off all around and blaster bolts flying, took my breath away. And the best part? It’s never undercut by pitiful attempts at humour from characters who would not be cracking jokes in such a high-stakes life or death situation. Whenever an action scene starts in a film these days, I get so tense as I just wait for the epic music to grind to a halt so one of the heroes can say ‘Oh, turds’ or something equally as brainless. But with Solo, that never happens! Well… What I mean to say is it never happens to the point where it ruins the moment, because we can all name one character who’s very existence has split the fan-base when it comes to her humour.

Lots of people, somewhat understandably, dislike Lando’s plucky droid companion, L3-37, because of her feminist and social justice warrior parallels. However, casting these toxic Reddit troll terms aside, I thought she was one of the best aspects of the film. She’s unique, every joke she makes lands, and she is a true comedic relief sidekick because she’s not doing things so that she comes across as funny. She’s being herself, and she is inherently funny. L3, like Deadpool, has been written and created with humour in mind, so it works when they’re funny, because we expect them to be. This is a lesson Disney needs to learn and live by when it comes to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Characters who are otherwise serious making jokes purely for the audience’s benefit, not to mention when they’re in the middle of epic set pieces, ruining an otherwise powerful moment, do not work and are just cringeworthy. For me, L3 steals every scene she’s in, and I really love her.

But speaking of her master/owner/friend/potential lover/what term am I even supposed to use without upsetting her, let’s look at Lando. I can say nothing other than this: Glover positively exudes Calrissian charm. He perfectly embodies the character and transcends acting; he is Lando himself, and would outshine every other character in the film if they didn’t use him as sparingly as they did, which is another positive in and of itself. Because the directors clearly saw the risk that such a brilliant performance from a secondary protagonist posed to their hero’s credibility, they were able to give us the perfect amount of Lando. He greatly improves the film by complimenting Ehrenreich’s performance without detracting from it by being too good (nicer problems to have) and was handled very well overall.

I have lots of problems with this film’s score, but that’s not for this paragraph. On a positive note, I personally thought the very 2017 Ghost in the Shell-sounding choral theme for the Cloud Riders was brilliant, and really set them apart as unique and interesting villains, even if it did immediately evoke Spidertanks and cloaking-deviced androids. I expected it to sound out of place, but for some reason it just really clicked and worked perfectly. Whenever it played, it was sudden and startling, but in an amazing way, akin to the Cloud City doors hissing open to reveal Vader standing in all his evil glory, accompanied by his theme. It catches you off guard and really sets up the villains as a credible threat.

Another very strong aspect of the film, though one that may go overlooked by most viewers, is the various nuances between this and the Original Trilogy. Moments like ‘I hate you’/’I know’ and Lando beating an impatient Chewie at Dejarik with the same move C3PO uses in a New Hope, make me grin like an idiot. Consider them shoehorned in if you like, but I think they’re charming moments that neatly tie this, a very stylistically unique entry to the franchise, into the wider lore.

An aspect of films that I don’t really talk about because we normally just take them for granted is the costume’s and makeup. But in Solo, they just blew it completely out of the water. Every single character looks great, from the humans to the droids to the aliens. Enfys Nest and his (her) entire gang look incredible, and the various specialist stormtrooper armours are ones I’d like to see figures of lining my bedroom shelves. Phenomenal stuff. I only wish we got to see more of them.

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Puppy dog eyes… And Han’s.

To be Improved:

I want to start with the aspect of the film which was furthest away from my initial expectations. That is the absolutely badass-looking Cloud Rider Marauders, the members of a swoop bike gang which pursues the protagonists at most every turn. They were supposed to be awesome, but I think they were a massively wasted opportunity. On top of that, their leader, Enfys Nest’s gender being kept under wraps was completely fluffed by mentioning his (her) full name twice in one sentence very early on in the film. This signals to everyone who’s paying any sort of attention to the film that there must be a reason why the character isn’t being referred to by their assumed pronouns. Overall, though, I just hanker for interesting characters, and Enfys and the Cloud Riders all looked to be the most intriguing of the bunch, yet they were comically underused, with about four lines for Nest and one for Warwick Davis’ character. No setup equals no payoff, though they were awesome for the fight scenes they took part in and had my mouth hanging open while simultaneously curled in a massive grin. It’s hard when it comes to the coolest-looking characters in these films. Nest reminds me a lot of Fett. Looks amazing, deserves way more screen-time and lines than they get, but is left as a sort of disappointing squib in terms of the wider lore. Same number of syllables in their names, too.

There is train heist sequence about a third of the way through the film which was brilliant, if a little lacklustre at the end, but when not one but two more characters we know next to nothing about are killed off, it makes for an unfortunately underwhelming end to an otherwise very enjoyable scene. Following this, Beckett, Solo’s mentor sort of character, just makes little to no mention of the fact that his lover has just been killed for nothing. It deflates his character because it’s not played off like he is just hiding his emotions; it feels like he flat out forgets about them.

When it comes to the score, the lack of any real Star Wars music other than at opportune moments like (Chewie and Han sitting in the cockpit together) was an interesting stylistic choice but in my opinion hindered the film massively. Unlike the majority of people, I actually loved the remixed, bass drum heavy version of the classic Star Wars theme that played over the Solo trailers, so to see the entire film and have that theme NOT be in it left me feeling very flat. The lack of an opening crawl also seems to be a decision they’re sticking with for the Anthology films, but when this one began with more blue text after the classic ‘A long time ago…’ message, followed by a fairly unimpressive title sequence about ten minutes into the film, it just seems like they needed/wanted an opening crawl but were restricted by the producers’ stylistic choices.

I think Solo borrows too heavily, unintentionally or not, from some other notable works of sci-fi and fantasy, namely Abrams’ Star Trek and Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies. Perhaps I’m too good at spotting similarities between films, but a scene where the Millennium Falcon is trying to escape a black hole type scenario and jumps to light-speed but is still stuck in by the gravitational pull is taken straight from the end of Star Trek, and I saw the similarities immediately. It really took me out of the scene, especially when lots of the dialogue and action shots are almost exactly the same as they are in Abrams’ work. The only reason I’m upset about the Hobbit similarity is because I initially thought the film’s villain, Dryden Vos, was pretty unique on account of his facial scarring. However, a few days after seeing Solo I found Battle of the Five Armies on TV, and was very disappointed to see that Azog the Defiler’s scars are the very same ones, almost down to the exact pattern. Lots of people tell me that homage is perfectly fine and should be taken as flattery, but I think the outright stealing of ideas cannot be overlooked.

Overall: 7/10

My girlfriend and I came out of the screening of Solo with big smiles on our faces. The overall verdict was ‘Ah, man, that was so great!’, but it wasn’t spectacular by any stretch.  I think it’s those gaps in the narrative I mentioned earlier that remain my biggest problem with the film. I know that there’s only a set amount of time you can tell a story in, and just because Boba Fett wasn’t in it doesn’t mean that it’s a bad movie, but when an opportunity like this presents itself and the studio just goes in a completely new direction with it, though it’s refreshing and unique, we all know how the fan-base felt the last time Disney did that (hey Last Jedi, didn’t see you there). You can’t deny that Solo leaves you with a very pleasant ‘Ooh, what happens next?’ feeling, but all I can say is thank god there’s going to be a Solo trilogy. Currently the film’s storyline is being carried greatly by the fact that it’s going to have a sequel.

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Review 23: Avengers – Infinity War

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*WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS DOZENS OF MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR INFINITY WAR. IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE MOVIE, GO NO FURTHER. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.*

To paraphrase the big purple titan himself: “Fun isn’t something I usually consider when watching superhero movies. But this one… This one does put a smile on my face.”

The Marvel cinematic event that needs no introduction is finally here. So let me contradict myself and introduce it for anyone who isn’t familiar with the stakes. Thanos, an otherworldly Titan, has obtained the Infinity Gauntlet and seeks out the six Infinity Gems that will make him the most powerful being in the universe. If he retrieves them all, he will be able to wipe out half of all life with a snap of his fingers. Who will stand against him and his children as they sweep across the cosmos in search of the Gems, exterminating as they go? Well… You do see the title of the movie at the top of this review, right?

Such a huge movie event warrants a whole host of critiques, positive and negative, so apologies for how much of this is a little bit ranty, and for how long it is. I just have a lot of investment in these characters, growing up with most of them as my heroes, and seeing them grow in turn on the big screen is euphoric at times, and downright depressing at others, both ends of the scale that we’ve seen in my past reviews. This means that I simply can’t generalise or scrimp in my analysis, and I hope you’ll read the whole review as I’ve tried to cover as much as possible to give Infinity War the time and examination that such a pivotal entry in the franchise truly deserves.

The Good:

The praise for Infinity War starts at the very beginning of the film. The tone of the opening, and this is coming from a huge sci-fi fan, of the emergency broadcast radio chatter from the ship housing Asgard’s population, is phenomenal from the get-go. You’re right back in the universe you’ve been waiting to return to for so long, and it truly feels like an Avengers film right away. The rest of the film continues in this manner, with a majority of the scenes just feeling so deeply satisfying simply because the overriding feeling is: ‘Yes… We’re finally back.’ A lot of the tone is also helped greatly by the magnificent visuals throughout the film. Feeling more like a gorgeous science fiction than a superhero movie at many points in the runtime, there are a whole host of planets and locations that are unlike anything I’ve ever seen, almost Interstellar-esque in their stark beauty. Yet it is also helped by another factor that I don’t really talk about much in my reviews, simply because in most films its a facet that is lost in the background, not standing out at all. And that is the score. Infinity War’s reprise of the Avenger’s theme, used throughout in various forms with various sections of the orchestra is spellbinding and triumphant one minute, then full of dread and foreboding at the next. Masterful composing by Alan Silvestri, and it is admirable that he and his team held back on using all the different characters’ themes whenever a new one appeared. Because the decision to use just the Avengers Theme means that the score itself mirrors the themes of Infinity War about standing together as one, no longer separate heroes but one ass-kicking, universe-saving unit. Again, masterful.

And the music only enhances the emotional notes that were already so damn solid in this outing, and humanised many of the characters on top of that. Thanos above all, even more than ever before. When Thanos has to kill Gamora to obtain the Soul Gem, sacrificing one he loves in exchange for its power, when Starlord finds out about that fact (although this is actually a negative moment overall, as we’ll see in the ‘To be Improved’), when Tom Holland gives a truly incredible performance as a frightened and dying Peter Parker, falling into Tony’s arms pleading ‘Please, I don’t wanna go, please, Mr Stark.’ But above all, as someone in a committed relationship who because of that finds it very hard not to empathise most strongly with the pain of partners losing one another, Wanda having to watch herself destroy the Mind Stone keeping Vision alive. I can tell you, tears were streaming down my face during that moment (though I also welled up during all the others mentioned), and it is so incredibly well acted and such a huge far cry from Scarlet Witch’s previous characterisation in the franchise that for me it was one of the best moments in the film. This leads me very nicely onto my next point: The extent to which the MCU finally seem to be getting some of their characters to the right place in their arcs.

It’s taken some doing, and many failed attempts, but some of the heroes in Infinity War are unrecognisable from their past selves. And that’s the best thing that could have happened to them. For Scarlet Witch, gone is the weird Maximoffian accent, the unbalanced abilities that seemed useless one minute and overpowered the next, and the odd will-they-won’t-they-but-we-know-they’re-married-in-the-comics-anyway-soooo-I’m-gonna-say-they-will relationship with Vision which, though sweet, let’s be honest, was taking far too long to come to fruition. Instead, Wanda is now one of the most powerful figures on the team, seemingly the only one with the ability to destroy an Infinity Stone, yet that is twinned with the fact that none of her original characterisation of being the empathetic, thoughtful and kind woman that she is has been lost. None of it! This is what making a character well-rounded looks like! Hers is probably the biggest improvement, but there were many other slightly minor teammates of whose potential we also got a glimpse.

I will say that I am quite biased towards him because he’s been one of my favourites since I was a kid, but I am very happy to see War Machine finally being just that: a motherfucking War Machine, baby! Cluster-bombing alien warriors, unleashing massive payloads of shells from his arm cannons and shoulder-mounted turrets, he’s as formidable as he should be, and has finally filled his role as the cooler, more beefy Iron Man. Sorry, Stark. I feel like even though Rhodes did very little in this film he just fit the expectation I have for his character so well that it didn’t matter if he only had a few minutes of screentime at best, because he shone so brightly for that short time that he outdid a lot of the other lesser Avengers. Besides Rhodes, we have Black Widow sporting, I think, a very cool new look, and a new fighting style that somehow makes her even cooler than she used to be, and watching her team up with Okoye was a brilliant moment. Not to mention the fact that they’re all badass gals, who along with Scarlet Witch work wonders for the gender balancing on the team.

But now I’m going to have to address the Titan in the room. Thanos’ introduction, silencing and killing Loki in a brutal and chilling scene, is brilliant. He’s truly a force to be reckoned with from the moment he’s onscreen, even going toe to toe with the Incredible Hulk himself and utterly wrecking the one we thought was the Avengers’ secret weapon this whole time. Although I must say that I think Loki’s death was unfortunately undercut by Heimdall being offed just before him.

There are some very nice overlapping themes present here, and I don’t know if they’re on purpose but they play off each other very well nevertheless. The moment where Loki tells Thanos he will never be a god fits nicely with a later scene where Iron Man manages to slice Thanos’ cheek. As this small cut is the only physical damage the Titan has sustained after Dr Strange, Spiderman, Iron Man, and half the Guardians of the Galaxy have been whaling on him with all their might, Thanos responds with the cutting “All that… for a drop of blood”. But let’s look a the scenes leading up to this, the Loki one included. Spidey makes numerous references to the Alien franchise, talking of facehuggers and eggs being laid inside you, even defeating one of Thanos’ children by blasting a hole in the spaceship, sucking the foe into the vacuum of space, much like the Alien Queen was. I enjoy these pop culture nods as a fan of the Alien movies myself, but there’s something deeper here. Let’s take a look at Thanos alongside the Alien franchise’s sister-series: Predator. One of the most famous quotes from the original Predator is Schwarzenegger’s “If it bleeds… We can kill it.” Thanos may brush off the tiny cut sustained from the fray as pathetic, but I believe the Alien references were planted, along with Loki’s seemingly inconsequential line, to subtly turn our minds towards the fact that we now know Thanos is no god after all. Much like Predator, he has come from nowhere and is decimating our team of protagonists. But much like Predator, he too bleeds. And if he bleeds… Well, you know the rest.

To be Improved:

The unfortunate Yin to the above Yang is that although many characters ‘levelled up’ during Infinity War, there exists a far greater number of them who, for me, were a let down. If we’re going to name names, let’s go for it: Above all, Thor (see the next paragraph for more detailed analysis), but also Rocket, Groot, Drax, Mantis, Bucky, Falcon and (controversial opinion here) Captain America himself. The four Guardians because they did next to nothing for the entire film, although unfortunately it is Rocket and Groot’s involvement with Thor that lets their arcs down, rather than the characters themselves. Bucky because he’s back with another metal arm but has no real impact on any of the fights except that… He’s back to using his token big gun, I guess? I will say that an amazing moment where the Winter Soldier picks Rocket up by the collar and spins round on the spot, both of them emptying their weapons into the oncoming alien soldiers, had me grinning like a child, but it doesn’t excuse them for the overall lack of involvement in anything important. Falcon, because, try as Marvel might, I believe there is no way in hell they can ever make a character that uninteresting exciting. It simply cannot be done. And finally, Cap, oh, Cap, whatever has become of you? While I appreciate the loss of the shield from the end of Civil War, and the hairstyle change complete with beard, I just felt like Cap was almost the weakest member of the entire team. Not physically, because the scene where he grabs the Infinity Gauntlet and single-handedly holds Thanos back for a few moments is so epic, even if it was spoiled by the trailers (more about that in a second). But he just does so little, and we don’t even get to see him fight because the camera is too busy flinging around him for us to actually get a good look (more on that in a moment, too).

For now, let’s briefly talk about the God of Thunder, because his arc is so poorly handled by the Russo brothers that it deserves its own paragraph. The Thor side-quest in Infinity War (punctuated by Peter Dinklage’s submissions for the ‘Most Atrocious Acting in an Otherwise Great Movie’ award) is horribly smushed into the rest of the film, and, though visually impressive, like the rest of the film, has especially little merit because the only purpose it serves (entirely superficially by the way) is to reverse all the superb character development that director Taika Waititi did for Thor (see my review of Ragnarok). I was so disappointed to see him given back not only his eye, his cape, and his old armour, but also another useless weapon, which, despite Odin having previously told his son that he is not the God of Hammers, is to all intents and purposes yet another hammer. Marvel will call it an axe. But that’s a load of Thorse-shit.

Starlord is an odd one, because though he’s been developed very well and I love his chemistry with the rest of the team so actually think he’s redeemed himself a lot since the second Guardians film, there was a moment in the film which utterly ruined him for me. Seeing him whack Thanos just as the Infinity Gauntlet is prised from his hand, snapping him out of his Mantis-induced trance, was pitiful. I know that Quill has been set up to be very protective of those he loves, especially his mother, and we’ve seen his anger when people threaten his nearest and dearest many times before, so it’s worth nothing that my problem isn’t the fact that his actions were out of character (as mentioned above, I love his development). My problem is that he’s getting this upset over Gamora, a woman with whom we didn’t even really see Quill have that much romantic interaction, like, ever. In fact, they spent most of GotG Vol. 2 squabbling, so for me there is no way that Quill had enough anger in him to strike Thanos at such a crucial moment rather than just holding off for a few more seconds and then having a good ol’ beat-down once the Gauntlet was off. It also just makes Starlord the unfortunate vessel for Marvel using a very poor trope that is so cliche it reeks of DC. Oh, we’re so very nearly about to win, but one of us lacks the restraint to wait another second before screwing it all up, and whadya know, now it’s absolutely and categorically Starlord’s fault that half of the universe is dead. Yet none of the other characters seem ready to blame him at all. A uselessly trite moment that stands out like a sore, nay, a severed thumb in a movie that is for the most part very refreshing in its plot execution.

What is the total opposite of refreshing, though, is the damn fight scenes. Mother. Of. God. I know Thanos is taking over the world, but I doubt planet-wide earthquakes were part of the deal. In all seriousness, I know we’re sick of people being sick of shaky-cam, and god knows people have been complaining about the nausea-inducing trope since the likes of the Bourne trilogy back in the early 2000s. But I will make the same argument I made with Black Panther: fight scenes are not enjoyable in the slightest when I can’t actually see what’s going on, and where what I can see is a CGI mess. I miss the days of Captain America: Civil War, where that beautiful craning shot of one of the best moments in the MCU’s history, the airport clash, slowly swept over the battlefield, ducking between fists and over catlike leaps, and generally showcasing the whole scene. Infinity War continues the trend (set by Black Panther, and one of my biggest gripes of that film) of focusing not on the action, but on fists and feet as they fly through the air at foes. I honestly don’t expect much out of action scenes, and as long as the choreography is all well and good, and the characters are interesting (no doubt about that whatsoever when it comes to Marvel) so when the fight scenes are actually the least satisfying thing about a superhero movie, one starts to wonder if something went a little wrong.

Overall: 7/10

I came out of Infinity War suitably amazed, don’t get me wrong, and for all my lengthy criticisms, more suited to a podcast discussion than a short review, I have a very high opinion of it as superhero movies go. We all know how godawful I thought Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Black Panther were, so this is a very welcome respite. Marvel has been uncharacteristically bold with this one, a trend I can only hope will continue, and we’re left with an achingly beautiful and satisfying yet fist-clenchingly painful cliffhanger at the end of what is one of if not the darkest entry in the entire MCU. But after talking about this film with my friend for nearly three hours straight after we left the cinema (you can’t claim that it doesn’t fuel debate!), we discovered a lot of flaws. I think I gave it too much credit when I told my mate that I thought they had done what they could with squeezing such a huge storyline into a measly two and a half hours, but… On reflection, that’s a hell of a lot of time to do what they needed to do, and there were a lot of pointless scenes that could have been cut down or avoided entirely (Thor’s outing above all). And after sleeping on it, I’m left with the unshakeable feeling, whether or not Marvel did it on purpose, that the villain is the best thing about the film. By a huge margin. And in a way, just how well-rounded, interesting, well-acted, powerful, empathetic (in the ‘able to elicit empathy’ sense of the word) and all-round cool Thanos is seriously hurts everything else about the film, because it just doesn’t compare. Perhaps this is the point, and a metaphor for how the heroes literally can’t match Thanos. However, I’m willing to bet it’s just because Marvel accidentally fleshed out a villain so much that their heroes pale in comparison. What the second half of this venture brings, no one knows. But I await it with great anticipation.

Movie Review 22: Ready Player One

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On a pitifully grey and wet day, me and my girlfriend decided to roll the dice and see if Ready Player One was any good. Also, it was only five pounds, and our reasoning was even if it was bad we’d spend a Sunday in the warm and dry, with each other, and at least somewhat entertained, and wouldn’t have lost the regular £12.50 from the ticket. How our already cosmically low expectations never even came close to being met, let alone surpassed, I’ll never know. But I am damn glad I only wasted a fiver.

The Oasis is a virtual reality world populated by a furious amount of 80s references to video games, films and characters. When it’s creator dies, he reveals the existence of a hidden easter egg in the game that will grant whoever finds it total control of the Oasis, and half a trillion dollars to boot. Every Egghunter (known as ‘Gunters’) around… Pfft ahahaha I’m so sorry, you really thought I was going to be able to take that seriously? Oh, man, that is hilariously bad. Either way, every little bratty teen in the film has to find the egg. It really is a physical egg, as if any actual ‘easter egg’ in a video game has ever been that. It’s almost as if the producers knew nothing about video games… But… That would mean that the film is probably bad, and that can’t be the case… right?

The Good:

Iron Giant was in it.

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Accurate representation of my face taken after the opening scene when I realised that I was going to have to sit through two more hours of this garbage.

To be Improved:

Honestly, it’s come to my attention that every film I see in the cinema is worse than the last. It’s a trend that started way back with Ghost in the Shell remake (which I actually enjoyed but later realised didn’t meet my expectations) and has been steadily gaining momentum with each passing experience. Transformers 5, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Black Panther, Dunkirk, all truly terrible movies. Some jewels have shone through, like Blade Runner: 2049, but Ready Player One just knocks them all out of the park. And I don’t mean in a good way. Never before have I felt the desire to just get up and leave the cinema so strongly. The whole thing is a cringeworthy, YA fiction cliche, CGI-infused mess stuffed full of references either so obscure no one cares for them, or so blatant that they’re obviously mere cash-grabs/advertising ploys. Now, let’s look at the specifics.

First of all, and probably most annoyingly, good job giving your secondary protagonist a voice that the audience can’t even understand. No, really, that’s something I’ve never seen before. It’s so deep and audio-filtered that by the time you get the knack for hearing what he’s actually saying, you’re halfway through the film and have already missed some major plot points. And on the subject of protagonists, why don’t we talk about the fact that for most of the film Artemis subtly talks and acts like she’s going to suddenly turn evil at the end but then doesn’t (because that would be too clever for this movie) and that Parzival is horrifically acted. During the film I couldn’t place where I’d seen Tye Sheridan before, only noting that he is a terrible actor, but then I realised afterwards that he plays Cyclops in the Bryan Singer X-Men trilogy, where I actually thought he was pretty good. I don’t know if it’s just the character he’s playing in Ready Player One or the direction or the script or what, but everything that comes out of his mouth is whiny and laced with cliches. So, none of the three protagonists are likeable, always a good start… What’s next?

Let’s talk about the pixelated elephant in the room: the 80s references. I will admit that I actually thought it was pretty cool when Akira’s bike zoomed past during the race near the start of the film, but then it was ruined by Aech (the incomprehensible secondary protagonist in the above paragraph) as he blurts out “Ooh, that’s Kaneda’s bike! You know..! From Akira?” and after getting over my initial surprise that I actually understood some of the words coming out of his mouth, I was just like yes, you think anyone who doesn’t know what that bike is would have any interest in this movie? In fact, the whole film preaches to the choir constantly, using huge (and I mean HUGE in bold, italics and underlined) exposition dumps through narration at every and I mean every opportunity, attempting to discuss every single new character, planet, vehicle, giant robot, enemy, weapon and pretty much everything else you can think of as it appears, even though we’re the people spotting the split-second Robocop reference as it flashes past in the background. We already know all of this stuff, so SHOW DON’T TELL, Jesus H. Christ. The worst part of this narration is by far in the closing shots, when Parzival, now in control of the Oasis, states (over a shot of Artemis sitting on his lap making out with him!) that they closed the Oasis on Tuesdays and Thursdays to “spend time in the real world because it’s important”. My girlfriend immediately turned to me and whispered “It’s so they can fuck!” and I damn near burst out laughing at how horribly they’d managed to time that line with what was on screen.

I realise they’re squeezing a whole book into one film, but in fairness the film feels like it’s about three hours long and they still managed to make everything feel like it happened too quickly. This really is a monumentally negative achievement, one that only Guardians of the Galaxy 2, my previous 1/10, has managed to match. Parzival falls in love with Artemis after knowing her for about fifteen minutes, Artemis decides to leave after he tells her his real name, stating he’s too dangerous, then comes back about five minutes later to forgive him, then suddenly we’re torn from the city into the outskirts where the tone jarringly switches gear so hard it feels like the metaphorical gearbox is going to explode, then before you know it we’re at the final battle. But it just goes oooon, man! It never ends! If you asked my younger self if he would have wanted to skip through a fight between mega-robo Godzilla, a Gundam, and the Iron Giant, what do you think he would have said? “Heck, no! That sounds like the coolest thing ever!” Well, I’ve got some news for you, kiddo. They even managed to make that boring.

Just to wrap it up, the rotten bow on top of this putrid mess is the continuity error that when everyone in the Oasis is blown up at the film’s climax (literally and figuratively making everything up until that part of the film pointless), Parzival survives because he has an extra life in the form of a quarter he received earlier in the film. Oh, wait, when he was given it he didn’t want it and tossed it to Artemis instead, and we never saw her give it back. Whoops.

Overall: 1/10

Well, aside from having horrific acting all round, comedy that misses the mark, cringey themes, a shit-ton of references that would have been fun had the characters not discussed every single one in detail like the audience are idiots or something, and no likeable protagonists, this is a pretty good film! Oh… Wait, what’s that? That covers everything? Oh.. Damn, I guess this really is the worst film I’ve ever seen. And before you say “Well, you must never have seen a crap movie in your life”, oh, I’ve had many a drunken watch of Sharknado 2 with my friends in previous years, but that’s funny because it’s supposed to be awful and it knows it. Ready Player One, on the other hand, is utterly laughable because it stays serious the whole time, terrified to poke fun at itself, while never realising how mind-numbingly rubbish it truly is.

Movie Review 21: Black Panther – THE NEGATIVE REVIEW

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Black Panther follows the titular hero as he strives to protect his home country, Wakanda, from the clutches of those who would find and exploit its precious reserves of Vibranium, the most powerful element on Earth. His mission takes him across the world to South Korea and London, where the truth about his past becomes clearer than he ever thought it could. But the secrets hidden there are dark, and the time comes when the king must choose the right path.

The Good:

As my girlfriend pointed out after we left the cinema, the production value of the film is very impressive, the makeup and costume design especially. The soundtrack is also incredibly good, though how big of a thing The Weeknd is in South Korea is debatable, so I don’t know why they’d be playing that in a casino there. Either way.

The fight scenes where the camera isn’t focusing on the heroes fists and feet as they fly around in a vomit-inducing blur where actually pretty good. I’ve seen the Rotten Tomatoes review citing “not enough action” as a massive issue, but my problem is not with the amount of it, but the quality. There is one incredibly amazing sequence where Black Panther walks away from a crashed jet towards the fifty or so soldiers running towards him, and visually, soundtrack-wise, and emotionally it is an immensely powerful moment. I loved it, and it was just so upsetting that the rest of the film wasn’t of that quality.

To be Improved:

The film started with actual spoken narration, immediately characteristic of box office bombs, and a trope that no one is supposed to follow. Now, Black Panther has done quite the opposite of bombing in terms of income, raking in one of the highest openings in Marvel’s cinematic history, but that doesn’t excuse the blatant three minutes of narration that take up the space for what should be a brilliant opening scene. It’s like a good book with an opening chapter written by a child. Pathetic.

The entire narrative, actually, was just plain boring, and there’s no more to be said about that. The obvious Lion King parallels (trying very hard not to say rip-offs) are really cloying, especially seeing as I just discovered the tagline for the film is ‘Long Live the King’.

This was not helped by the fact that there were absolutely no stakes for the hero. Vibranium is a near-indestructible metal, and seeing as Black Panther’s full body suit is made from it, he’s immediately immune to anything the bad guys can throw at him. Then, the villain steals the second version of this suit, so now both of them are invincible. Are you starting to see the problem here…? And on top of that, they keep doing this thing where they cross their arms across their chest and release all the kinetic energy the suit has absorbed, which was cool the first time, but not the tenth.

Any comedy moments, as with Guardians of the Galaxy 2, REALLY missed the mark. They’re just so cringey, and it’s polluting the Marvel Cinematic Universe more and more with each passing film. I remember when the sense of humour was dry, charming and, most importantly, actually funny. Now they’ve been reduced to spouting Vine memes that aren’t even relevant by the time the film comes out. In Black Panther, the horrifically unfunny ‘WHAT ARE THOSE’ placed the narrative in the real, present day world so jarringly that it sort of demolished everything Marvel has done so far to keep superheroes separate from our timeline. This sudden fourth-wall break completely shatters the illusion, and further adds to the feeling that I’m not watching a superhero movie.

The moral is incredibly vague, too. The hero is a king, and when it takes him the whole film to reveal Wakanda’s resources to the rest of the world, is the message supposed to be that you shouldn’t share?

Overall: 3/10

This hype surrounding this film is unbelievable. Literally. I can’t physically comprehend why it’s become so popular or why so many people like a film with such little plot substance. I can get behind the empowerment of African-Americans and women, and I love the fact that children who haven’t had a role model to look up to now have such a badass to call their own. To be completely honest, Black Panther is just a crap film! That opinion has nothing to do with race, because I hated Guardians of the Galaxy 2 even more, and I’m fairly certain there wasn’t a single black person in that film. Big up Afro-Futurism; just execute it better next time.

Review 25: 1984 by George Orwell

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I’d always wanted to read 1984. The opening line alone is one of the most iconic in all literature (even if the clocks striking thirteen ends up meaning that the city simply operates on a twenty-four hour clock rather than a twelve hour one, a fact that makes the line way less impressive and takes a lot of credit away from Orwell). I’m starting Brave New World, a companion novel of sorts to 1984, at the time of writing this review, and the description of that by Arthur C. Clarke (an author I’ve reviewed a few times on this site, both Fall of Moondust and Space Odyssey) is “A startling warning against a future that seems eerily present already”, and that’s also a perfect summary of 1984.

Winston Smith works for the Ministry of Truth, altering the past to preserve the ever-changing present, brought about by the all-powerful Big Brother, the omnipotent ruler of Airstrip One (London). After hearing rumours all his life of the mysterious Brotherhood, an organisation said to be rising from the shadows to stand against the totalitarian government that watches and monitors the public’s every move at all times with the sinister Thought Police, Winston resigns himself to becoming a member of this secret revolution. Concepts abound that were very present both at the time Orwell was writing, and also persist in the dictatorships of today.

The Good:

Obviously, 1984 is a social commentary at heart. There is a storyline there, but it’s difficult to write at great length about it when an overshadowing mass of the narrative is, as already mentioned, a warning to keep democracy’s values held high and not to give in to those in positions of power when they seek to alter our very existence. Of course, it’s an extreme example, but it makes a lot of sense. That said, though, it makes it hard to write a review of it as one would for a regular novel. The storyline itself isn’t the main point, and it really has to be examined as a political piece, which is not what this site is really for. I personally didn’t actually like the plot, and found it to be very unsatisfying, especially seeing as it started out with such great promise. Movies like Equilibrium clearly draw influence from Orwell’s classic, and I thought the novel was going to go something like that film did, with a great twist at the end and the destruction of the antagonist. But it didn’t. A fact I will discuss in the ‘To be Improved’.

To talk about some of the strengths of the novel, though, I particularly enjoyed the implied backstory. I touched on this in my review of Bright, where I pointed out that I much prefer to be shown backstory and not told it through large walls of expositional text. High fantasy like Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones find it particularly difficult to avoid this, and it’s why I’ve nearly always steered clear of that genre. With 1984, the so-called ‘Floating Fortresses’ and ‘Malabar Front’ expertly conjure up imagery of faraway exotic lands and conflicts so removed that even though you can picture them exactly from the brief description, they (like modern-day Syria, Iraq and the like) are too distant to be of much immediate concern to you. It was just tastefully done, and I appreciate that.

Then, a sudden dramatic change around halfway through the novel from the deep, dark, rocket-bombed cityscape to the rolling British countryside, complete with carpets of bluebells and wriggling dace in babbling brooks, was as stark a contrast as that between to separate alien worlds. Which, in many ways, it is, and that’s the point. The real world is so far afield from the horrors of Big Brother and Room 101 that it really is like another planet, unreachable and far away. Whether this was Orwell’s intention, I’m not sure, but it really felt like it.

To be Improved:

My big issue with 1984 is how quickly it goes downhill. It takes Winston such a long time to garner up the courage and resources to stand in the face of the Thought Policing and everything else going on around him, to rise up against the total submission to the government, but then it takes a fraction of the time to break him back down again and ruin all that he has worked towards. The story sort of dead-ends itself right at the last few pages, and that was really jarring seeing as it seemed to be building up to something way more important and exciting than the protagonist failing. Losing. Giving up.

You stand behind Winston for so much of the novel, even enduring the horrors of the Ministry of Love’s torture facilities with him, with such brutal descriptions and reams of illogical fallacies spouted from O’Brien, the ringleader of the operations, that you feel sick to your stomach. And then it’s all for nothing! So frustrating.

After talking to my dad about the novel for a good hour after finishing it, I realised that the entire point of it is not the story itself, or the plight of the everyman (with a name like ‘Smith’, who else could the hero represent but everyone?), but the very fact that it gave us enough food for thought that we could discuss it at great length uninterrupted. In this way, 1984 is a very scary thing, because the principals of doublethink and the whole ‘the whole point is not the fact that there is a point but whether or not you think there is’ thing literally jump out of the page and make their way into the real world. It’s all a bit meta and it makes my head hurt, but props to Orwell for managing to do so.

Overall: 6/10

Enjoyable enough, and certainly not a book I ever found myself stuck on at any point, but not an outright page-turner either. The first chapters really set up the main character and give you, the reader, this real burning spark of hope that lasts until the very end, where just as it is about to turn into a raging fire of rebellion it is stamped out by the antagonists, never to be seen again. A bleak commentary on the state of dictatorships and the risk of letting society fall to the demagogues, the underlying warnings behind 1984 are extremely cunning for its time, but unfortunately the novel falls short in terms of narrative quality in the face of the more poetic and poignant modern classics like The Road.

Movie Review 20: Hostiles

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In preparation for seeing Hostiles the next day, me and my parents recently watched Open Range. It made me realise that I’m a sucker for Westerns, which is strange considering the fact that my favourite genre is sci-fi. But films like Magnificent Seven (original and remake), 3:10 to Yuma, The Revenant, For a Few Dollars More, and even Blazing Saddles are among some of my favourites to just whack on the TV of an evening. Hostiles began as an equal to these films, but I’m afraid it peaked far too early.

Christian Bale plays Captain Joe Blocker, a US cavalryman tasked with transporting a dying Cheyenne and his family across to Montana. But the Cheyenne is Chief Yellow Hawk, Blocker’s bitter rival from the Plains Wars, a fact Blocker must come to terms with lest he face court martial and the retraction of any benefit for his time served in the military. Over the course of his journey, he also comes across Rosamund Pike’s character. I genuinely don’t remember her name and I like to point out this fact instead of just looking it up for the review, because it shows how weak her character actually was. A story of honour and forgiveness, honestly, for a movie entitled ‘Hostiles’ it contains considerably fewer than expected.

The Good:

I mentioned above that Hostiles peaked too early. Our neighbour came round for tea before we watched the film, and he told us that he’d watched the first half an hour or so and found it violent and terrifying. It’s violent enough, but certainly nothing special, and there are a few tense moments for sure. The Comanche stalking Rosamund Pike’s character (who I’ve just learnt from IMDB is called Rosalie, so we’ll just refer to her as such for the rest of the review) is genuinely chilling, and seeing her whole family get killed in seconds is harrowing-ish, I suppose. It sort of happens too quickly to really conjure up any sort of emotion other than slight distaste, though, a trend we shall see runs through the rest of the film. Some other great aspects of the film’s first half hour are the acting, where Christian Bale’s performance is just phenomenal, and the locations. In fact, the latter stays fairly satisfying throughout. But then Bale’s moping, mumbling soldier-type demeanour becomes quite frustrating. Man, I really am having trouble giving this any praise, aren’t I?

However, one more thing I want to point out before we move onto the real criticisms is the character of Tommy. At the outset of the film, he mentions to Blocker over a glass of whiskey that the doctors say he has the melancholia. Then, almost at the film’s climax, Tommy rides off into the woods in a rainstorm wearing nothing but his breeches, and is later found sitting against a tree with a bullet in his head and a pistol in his hand, the barrel streaked with blood. I can’t remember ever seeing a character who suffers from depression and suicidal tendencies in a film before, at least not one where they aren’t the main subject of the plot. But as someone who has battled with similar feelings myself in the past, I think it was a great addition and really added to the depth of the characterisation. Tommy’s character is so much more amplified by this inner struggle which, even though it only surfaces a few times, is one that many filmmakers are unwilling to pay attention to.

To focus on a true positive, let’s look at the ending of the film, where Blocker escorts Rosalie and the now adopted Little Bear, Yellow Hawk’s grandson and the only surviving Cheyenne of the group, to the train station. He sees them onto the train then turns to walk away, the film winding down with a tastefully done slow-motion sequence. We see Rosalie crying in the carriage. We see Blocker walk away. We see Rosalie wiping her tears. We see Blocker stop. He turns to face the camera and stares into the audience’s soul with big mournful eyes for what feels like a whole thirty seconds (a long time to break the fourth wall). Then, slowly, elegantly, he walks along the platform after the train. As the music swells to its crescendo, Blocker puts a hand on the guardrail and lifts himself up onto the back of the last car, followed by a fade to black. It damn nearly redeemed the entire film for me, but after sleeping on it I realised that, try as it might, such a well-done ending couldn’t blind me completely to the shortcomings of the film throughout the rest of its runtime.

On a side note, there’s a particularly beautiful if detached sequence where Bale lays his gun in the dirt and silently screams while lightning strikes on the horizon and thunderclouds roll overhead. But that’s a single minute out of a hundred and thirty, so perhaps isn’t quite enough to sway me.

To be Improved:

Let’s start off with the most niggling issue I have: campfires. Bloody campfires. My mum put her head in her hands near the films climax and moaned “No more campfires”, but almost on cue they managed to put another ten second shot of the Cheyenne family sitting around one. It was to show the passage of time, but the timing couldn’t have been more perfectly awful. In all seriousness, there is just far too much sitting around and talking. Every scene, pretty much, is in a camp, or ends with Blocker ordering his men to stop and make one.

Another big problem I have is that the primary antagonist seems to be the plot itself. Anything to get in the way of our heroes goes, really. The Comanche, who are the coolest looking but least explored members of the cast (as is the case with many things, here’s looking at you, Boba Fett), and are frankly wasted. After a brief but exciting altercation, the troop sets off on another day and finds the last two Comanches killed, murdered in the night by the Cheyenne Blocker is escorting. It’s scenes like this that I want to see instead of the aftermath. I know you can only squeeze so much into two hours, but it would have fleshed out Yellow Hawk’s character no end. Instead, we’re left with the desire to see what happened and how he singlehandedly took down the two vicious warriors who, oh, I don’t know, murdered Rosalie’s whole family at the beginning of the film, but no satisfaction. Speaking of that fact, after being picked up by Blocker, Rosalie initially sees the Cheyenne he is transporting and shies away, screaming and crying. Then, after the Comanche attack again, she immediatelynay, purposefully makes a beeline to the Cheyenne and cowers with them. It’s a blatant contradiction to the character’s personality, and very jarring.

The final gunfight (which caused me to whisper “It’s not a Western unless everyone dies” in my girlfriend’s ear) is very muted and, whadya know, everyone dies in about six seconds flat, very back and forth in the nature of one protagonist down, one antagonist down, one protagonist, one antagonist, until there’s only a few left and of course the love interest and main hero, shot through the wrist but apparently impervious to any damage caused thanks to the wonder of plot armour, are the last ones standing. It doesn’t really work, and has nothing like the stakes, dynamics or duration of final shootouts such as those found in the true classics.

And finally, on a small technical note, there is a series of very awful shots of sunsets containing massive, painfully blue and purple Star Wars and Star Trek-esque flares. It completely detracts from the film as these strips of neon colour only occur when light goes through a manmade lens, so it immediately makes it clear that there’s a film crew present. What’s even worse is the fact that the flares aren’t even mixed up with the other, more natural colours. They’re completely isolated of off to one side, and I’m no expert, but it seems to me like they could have very easily been edited out. Accidental or deliberate, it was a huge oversight to include them.

Overall: 4/10

What a load of drivel. Songs round innumerable campfires, deaths that happen off-screen, a final gunfight where you don’t even see the last kill even though it’s the most satisfying (Blocker performing a Comache-style “stem to stern” slit with a bowie knife), a cast of characters where the most memorable one has about ten lines then shoots himself. Strange, then, that critics are hailing this as one of the most brutal Westerns ever made, a fact which not only makes me throw my head back and laugh, but also causes me to wonder if perchance they’ve ever seen Bone Tomahawk, Hateful Eight, or even Slow West. With probably three instances of actual bloody violence, and even then ones that are so blink-and-you’ll-miss-it that by definition they are nowhere near “brutal”, I’ll repeat what I started this review with: the cast and plot of Hostiles are anything but.

Review 24: The Secret Life of the Owl by John Lewis-Stempel

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Let us take a trip back. All the way back to May 2015, in fact. To what was only my second review on this site: Meadowland. The trip through a year in the life of an English field was a beautiful foray into nature, and in the present day, 2018 (Happy New Year, everyone!), I have two tattoos (of a planned many) relating to nature: A soaring peregrine falcon and a rearing stag. As one who believes his tattoos are an ‘outer manifestation of one’s inner state’, and someone who grew up with a family cottage in the English countryside (many references to that in some of my other reviews here and here), it’s safe to say nature is close to my heart. So when I saw The Secret Life of the Owl in the half price section in Waterstones I was both upset that it hadn’t been given more credit and pleasantly surprised that I could snap up such a pretty little read on the cheap. Student life, I’m afraid.

The author has a resident tawny owl, Old Brown, at his family home on the Welsh border. She swoops over his head by night, and is nowhere to be seen by day. This is the life of the owl, and Lewis-Stempel reveals it in all its wonder in this charming book.

The Good:

Short of science textbooks at school, I don’t think I’ve learnt as much from a book in my entire life as I did from this one. I finished it in two or three sittings, and each one was stuffed to the brim with new tidbits and oddities about these beautiful creatures. The chapter on Owl Factfiles in particular has most of the juicy stuff, but the preceding chapter is also jam-packed with info. I learnt that owls bob their heads because they’re gauging the distance of objects, and they have to do that because their eyes are fixed and immovable in their skulls. I also learnt that said eyes take up SEVENTY percent of the space available in their heads. The phrase isn’t ‘bird-brain’ for nothing, as my dad pointed out. Those facts alone are amazing, but the book is full of so many more. On top of that, a section on literature relating to owls was a particular favourite of mine as an aspiring author, future Creative Writing degree student and general bibliophile.

To be Improved:

With Meadowland, I could find little wrong. But I ended up giving the book a seven out of ten purely because, try as the author might with amazingly poetic description, there’s no way past the fact that the subject matter is a single field. Besides, it wasn’t really focused on the animals in general for educational purposes, more so an autobiography of a year of Lewis-Stempel’s life. With The Secret Life of the Owl, the subject matter is already something beautiful, and it is played upon to great effect. My only issues are that the book is far too short, perhaps because owls are as mysterious as they are, so we know much less about them than other creatures, and also that I would have enjoyed fact files and information on many more owls than the few found in Britain. The problem I had with Meadowland resurfaced with this book, because Lewis-Stempel has this sort of arrogance (charming all the same, but arrogance nonetheless) in the way he writes, wherein anything he is unable to experience for himself is not allowed. But I’m sure he isn’t doing this on purpose, and it does make the book nice and contained when it focuses on the wildlife of one particular place. If I wanted loads of variety I’d read one of my many RSPB bird-watching books.

Overall: 9/10

As mentioned above, I finished The Secret Life of the Owl far too quickly, which stands as a testament to how un-put-down-able and fascinating it is, but goes to show it could have been extended into a larger tome and I would have enjoyed it all the more. I know the author is British, but if he adores the creatures as much as he claims to in the book, he might have stretched to include some owls encountered beyond the realms of his own experiences. However, on the whole I don’t know how I could bring myself to give this book any less than a near-perfect score, for that’s exactly what the book is. Near-perfect.