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Fisherman's Friends (2019)
By its own admission, 'Fisherman's Friends (2019)' is only 'based on a true story' in the loosest of senses, making a point of pointing this out during its credits via an unusually strong disclaimer. Of course, this is absolutely fine - indeed, it's perhaps better to use real-world events more as inspiration for a piece's premise than to claim absolute authenticity while delivering something that, in many cases, couldn't be further from that - but it does make you wonder why many of the issues that typically plague 'true tales' appear here, and why the filmmakers didn't make use of their apparently larger-than-usual dramatic license to 'fix' (or reduce the impact of) some of them. Furthermore, the flick sticks to convention past the point of pure predictability and into the realm of bizarre detriment, as a very late and contrived 'all is lost' moment unnaturally and unnecessarily drags its duration way beyond its seemingly perfect finish-line. It's not as though this totally ruins the thing, but it does feel completely artificial and take the steam out of what was becoming a fairly enjoyable experience. In general, the feature does exactly what you'd expect it to but it does it well enough, for the most part, that you don't really mind. In its second act, it becomes unexpectedly entertaining as its down-to-earth characters and overall upbeat, 'feel-good' nature start to win you over. This is in stark contrast to, as I mentioned, its laboured final act and, even, its rocky start. The ending itself does a decent job of bringing everything back together and putting a smile on your face, but it is severely dampened by what's just preceded it. As a whole, the flick isn't very deep. The core group isn't really rendered all that well because only a select few are given any real character - never-mind an actual name in the credits - and, even then, most of their development is pretty basic. Most of them are more than watchable, though, and their often humourous inter-group dynamics are certainly believable. Pretty much the entire thing is an easy watch; it's never really boring. It's never exactly exciting or emotionally engaging, though. It also doesn't really say anything, other than maybe making a broad statement that people are more important than money. The best thing, honestly, is probably the music, provided by the real Fisherman's Friends. Now, that's got character. 6/10
One heck of a 'second album'.
While its political commentary isn't as immediately obvious as in Peele's predecessor, 'Get Out (2017)', it's certainly there; 'Us (2019)' touches upon themes of class, oppression and nature vs nurture in subtle but unmistakable ways. Its majority plays out like more straight-forward 'genre' fare, with most of its metaphor being subtextual. What I mean is that the movie makes a point of being satisfying on a surface level, even though it's undoubtedly more rewarding if you're willing to dive into its allegory at least a few levels deep. Also, I say 'straight-forward' but it's really anything but. Sure, it plays with several tried-and-tested tropes but it always tries to subvert your expectations, and it usually succeeds. Some of its twists and turns are more predictable than others, and may even make retrospection slightly more difficult than you'd perhaps like, but these also tend to form in rewardingly counterintuitive ways. It takes a few leaps in logic and doesn't answer every question but I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I feel it becomes slightly too unambiguous for its own good. A final act exposition dump takes some off the wind out of the pacing, even if the information is interesting and well presented, and the snippets of backstory we get often lead to more questions than answers, in a quite unsatisfying way that means it's better to ignore the stuff you don't see than to try and make absolute sense of it. Indeed, the sensory experience outweighs the logical on more than one occasion. Again, I don't think this is necessarily bad; the picture is frequently tense, suspenseful and, even, somewhat unnerving. It's never exactly scary but it knows exactly what it's doing, especially when it comes to getting you on the edge of your seat. The doppelgängers are performed exceptionally well, each with their own creepy little quirks and properly evolving motives. The soundtrack, too, does a great job of keeping the tone in check. Once things kick off (after a rather long but necessary first act which sets up the core family and gets us rooting for them), the piece is pretty much unrelenting. It's brilliantly made, in every area, and actually sticks with you for a while, even if that isn't for the reason you may expect it to. At the end of the day, though, the (somewhat unfair) question on everyone's lips is: is it as good as 'Get Out (2017)'? Well, no but, frankly, little is. In the end, it's one heck of a 'second album'. 8/10
Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)
World, here he comes.
'Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)' is pretty much just more of the same. Despite being no better or worse in terms of quality, it does expand upon the world of the first in a fairly satisfying way, not by piling on excess lore but by spending a bit more of its time and its seemingly larger budget on a plethora of creature designs. It's not just Perlman and Jones who are caked, pretty much head to toe, in make-up this time; there are only two main players who aren't, to some degree, painted a pasty colour or plastered with impressive prosthetics. This goes a long way in making the supernatural side of things seem more tangible. Plus, most of the designs are satisfyingly creative and unmistakably 'Del Toro'. It does, however, make the movie seem a little bit 'Men In Black (1997)', with long shots featuring background agents wrangling oddly-shaped demons and a market scene with a variety of entities who all have their own little throwaway quirks. It sometimes feels a little bit like the film wants to focus on these difficult-to-create but often quite irrelevant moments more than tell a tight tale, which is understandable but ultimately detrimental. It's not a huge issue but you do start to notice the length of time spent on characters with little to do, really, other than look cool. In general, though, the structure and, even, pacing is improved upon from the first, mainly because the audience's surrogate character, Myers, is now missing. This means that the majority of the time can be spent on Hellboy himself, with the left-over space usually being dedicated either to the two other members of his team - both of whom thankfully get beefier roles - or to the villain - who is yet another improvement. The story itself plays a bit more with Hellboy's desire to be accepted by humanity, and whether or not their acceptance is even necessary. It's a nice idea even if it isn't capitalised on fully, with most of the movie playing out like more standard fantasy-action fare. The action scenes are spruced up a bit, making use of subtle - but noticeable - speed-ramping and generally tighter choreography for a faster feel. This style does sometimes seems at odds with our quite clumsy hero, especially since he's often competing with trained martial-artists at full speed, but the piece makes sure to pepper in the occasional moment of brute force to balance things out. Overall, the picture is an entertaining one. Of course, it isn't without its issues and, like its predecessor, it's only truly engaging to a certain degree. It feels more like a 2004 superhero film than a 2008 one but it still manages to balance its character and action rather well, crafting a visually-creative and predominantly practical world in the process. 6/10
He's fireproof; you're not.
The prevailing problem with 'Hellboy (2004)' is that it feels the need to over-explain everything that happens. Whenever something even remotely strange - or, indeed, story-related - occurs, someone will surely say something expository to 'take its edge off'. This, of course, becomes grating after just a short while, especially when most of what's explained is shown on-screen as plain as day and doesn't really need any further analysis. It's a mentality that leads to the piece's other main problem: John Myers. He's the audience's surrogate, supposedly used to ease us into this supernatural world, but he's not really the protagonist that the picture really wants him to be. That's because most of the movie is torn between him and Hellboy, leading to an odd 'back-and-forth' pacing that makes sure neither of them get the screen-time or development they deserve. On top of this, he doesn't really serve his purpose, anyway; his rookie status affords the film a 'free pass' when it comes to blatant exposition, but most of it isn't even delivered via this method. It's weird that he was felt to be necessary as the incredibly long prologue does a decent job of introducing you to the narrative's supernatural elements, as well as its overall tone and, even, Hellboy himself (who's then strangely hidden in his adult form for quite some time). Myers isn't a bad character but he doesn't do anything, really, other than take time away from the more interesting ones. Despite the picture's generally messy nature, it's still a solid effort. One of the main positives that pops out straight away is its special effects prowess. The make-up on both Perlman and (a criminally underused) Jones truly is terrific. Apparently the only parts of the former that are actually visible are his eyelids (even his eyes are covered by demonically yellow contact lenses) and the latter is pretty much completely lost under a layer of impressive prosthetics. In both cases, however, the performances shine through. The piece's practical effects are matched pretty much perfectly with their computer-created counterparts. Of course, some of the completely CGI stuff looks a little rusty on retrospection - especially when the remotely-controlled and quite cumbersome 'right hand of doom' gets a more dexterous digital double - but a lot of it - most of it, even - holds up surprisingly well. The completely digital doubles often look good, which is especially rare, but the flick finds a brilliant balance between the 'real' and the rendered, to the point where the two are difficult to differentiate during some select shots. Another of the movie's highlights, in usual Del Toro fashion, is the way in which the monsters are brought to life with such care and attention. They're treated like proper characters rather than side-shows. Hellboy is, for all intents and purposes, a human, a flawed individual trying to do right by those he loves and deal with his unfair, essentially race-based ostracism. If that isn't relatable, I don't know what is. At its heart, it's a story about a group of outcasts sticking together, relenting against their unfair judgement and - in some cases - initially destructive nature. That's the most interesting stuff but it isn't capitalised on all that well. The feature is messy, as I mentioned, and has about five climaxes but no real denouement. Every line of dialogue also sounds 'monumental', if you will, in that early 2000s way where everything has to sound 'cool'. I wish that someone would say something 'normal', as that would help normalise the strange situations (most of) our characters are supposed to find ordinary and add to a sense of 'realism' - or, at least, help ground the story in a more tangible world. In the end, I feel that the movie manages to overcome most of its issues, even if they definitely impact its overall effect. It's enjoyable but not always as engaging as you'd expect. Still, as I said, it's a solid effort. 6/10
Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)
If you must blink, you'll miss a frame.
'Kubo And The Two Strings (2016)' is a visually-stunning and suitably entertaining stop-motion animation from the studio behind two of the medium's most accomplished works. It never quite manages to match the overall quality of those aforementioned titles, especially when it comes to story and character, despite the fact that it more than rivals them in terms of pure, gloriously frame-by-frame spectacle. Where the flick falls ever-so-slightly flat is in its narrative, as the ambitious yarn never quite knits together as neatly as you'd expect it to. Don't get me wrong; it's enjoyable, unique and generally well-told, taking a few bold turns that show it isn't afraid to challenge the youngest in its 'all ages' audience. There are some exciting set-pieces, which are animated incredibly well, and some engaging character interactions, too. It's just that its ideas and themes don't necessarily conflate all that satisfyingly, and are sometimes just strangely presented, to boot. There is also a somewhat odd pacing that sees the third act feel incredibly rushed and, essentially, lacking in a proper denouement. I will also say that the choice to not cast Japanese - or, at least, Japanese-American - actors in the lead roles is a bit of a shame, as well as a missed opportunity. Though, it is nice to see a film that's inspired by and rooted in Japanese culture. Overall, the picture is an enjoyable adventure that has several accomplished set-pieces and a few emotionally-resonant moments, thanks to its believable relationships. Despite its few story and pacing issues, it's a fun time that pushes stop-motion, visually, in all the right directions. 7/10
Todos lo saben (2018)
It's no secret: it's great.
'Everybody Knows (2018)' feels incredibly domestic. It realistically portrays a rich, character-filled family as they navigate their way through a personal tragedy which trudges up their past, reopening old-wounds and surfacing long-repressed secrets in the process. It somehow feels very small-scale yet suitably, almost dauntingly, sprawling, featuring a tangled web of stunningly well-drawn core players whose roles in the story consistently undulate to create this enigmatic, almost tense experience that keeps you guessing throughout. You're never exactly sure of anyone's motivations and the flick does an amazing job of keeping your suspicions alive, stoking their flames at the very moments they threaten to go out. It's not exactly a 'thriller', despite some truly thrilling sequences, but rather a 'drama' in the most traditional sense of the word. By focusing on the true-to-life family dynamics that spin out of its somewhat sensational central conflict, it manages to find its own (somewhat unconventional) pace and tone. Both of these aspects are crucial in creating its realistic feel, as is its rustic aesthetic and deep rooting in Spanish culture. You really get a sense of time and place with the piece, to the point that its idyllic opening makes you long to visit. This section of the film, especially, manages to capture that somewhat nostalgic sense of 'family'. Not long after, a fantastic party sequence perfectly goes from slightly tiring but fun to frantic but hopeless, perfectly mirroring the experience of the people seen inside it. The picture is a particularly confident one, as it never feels the need to inject false excitement - or 'drama', even - just for the sake of a potentially absent-minded viewer. It weaves an interconnected web between all its characters and grounds them firmly within their culture, making statements about class in the process. Then, it tugs on these connections as hard as it can to see if any of them will break. The way it uses its core conceit to dredge up unspoken tensions and supposedly forgotten secrets truly feels inspired - which is odd because many narratives go down a similar route. Every core player is presented as a fully-rounded individual, with a tangible history that isn't always spoken but consistently informs their world-view. Perhaps, though, it's the way that the relationships themselves are presented that feels like the real revelation. Character development is never done in a bubble; characters only change when forced to by their interactions with another person, which mimics the way this works in real life. There isn't a single moment that feels out of place - aside from, perhaps, the odd instance of ever-so-slightly iffy exposition and one 'out of perspective' scene. The ending, too, almost feels as though it comes a little too soon, even though pretty much everything that needs wrapping up is done so. You feel like you want to know more, which, I suppose, doesn't really discredit the ending so much as go to show how good the rest of the piece is. Still, it feels a tad sudden and an extra moment of denouement wouldn't have gone amiss. Overall, this is a very engaging and nuanced movie. It has an excellent sense of time and place, features some more-than-impressive character-work and is even genuinely surprising a couple of times. It has real, if slightly 'low-key', emotional and thematic resonance, too. It's great. 8/10
Hauru no ugoku shiro (2004)
'Howl's Moving Castle (2004)' is certainly a strange film. It's an endearingly strange film, though. It's filled to the brim with interesting ideas, inventive visuals and inspired animation, which makes up for its somewhat scattershot central story and slightly strange pacing. The characters are all very well realised - and beautifully dubbed, I'll add - but the titular Howl is ever so slightly inconsistent (or, at least, presented inconsistently). Of course, his enigmatic nature is a part of his appeal, but he seems to lack a solid motivation - as do several of the other side-players - and the more we learn, the less it makes sense, in a way. Even our protagonist loses her drive part-way through, putting aside her quest simply to spend time as a housemaid. In her case, however, her character always shines through as she's constantly a wise, kindhearted person who's willing to forgive even those who have done her the most wrong. The narrative she finds herself caught up in isn't quite as strong-willed, but it's suitably tumultuous and charmingly off-beat. It keeps you engaged through its duration and is certainly unique, allowing Miyazaki and his team to play around with their intriguing designs and animation techniques. I especially enjoy the tar-like henchmen that pursue our heroes; their bulging bodies squeeze through small gaps, twist together as they struggle to stay upright and merge with one another to form huge, undulating masses. Overall, though it has some issues and doesn't hit home as hard as it perhaps should (in its more emotional moments), this is an entertaining affair throughout. It's a visual treat, too. 6/10
The Kindergarten Teacher (2018)
Say "yes", anyway.
'The Kindergarten Teacher (2018)' is a pretty consistently unsettling experience. Of course, that's by design. It tells the tale of teacher who becomes obsessed with her young student due to his poetry prowess, tackling a bevy of themes in the process. The lead character isn't necessarily 'likeable' but she's certainly understandable; her desires come from a relatively reasonable place - though she obviously takes things too far - and she always feels as though she's doing the right thing. The boundaries she crosses are made all the more uncomfortable for an outside viewer because you don't know her true intentions and, as an audience member, you're constantly kept at just the right distance to be able to question them - though, ultimately, you're given a firm understanding. It is important to state that she doesn't want to harm the child, which is why you can engage with her as a protagonist; her actions may inadvertently be doing so - or heading down that path, at least - which clearly prevents her from being a traditional 'hero'. In fact, I'd wager that most people won't be 'on her side' by the film's finale. Regardless of this, the picture clearly wants to make its central conceit, or debate, seem valid, in the sense that it needs you to believe our protagonist is, in some ways, 'right'. It doesn't quite achieve this, however, because every time she posits her (and, by extension, the movie's) world-view, she comes across as pretentious as opposed to 'enlightened'. She's so caught up in her own small mindset when it comes to what she considers 'cultured' that all of her related pondering and 'talking down' honestly comes across more as "you don't like what I like just because you're not smart enough to understand it... because social media". Still, this can be seen as more a fault of the protagonist than of the piece itself, even if it does somewhat dampen the story's conceptual through-line and its thematically ambiguous ending. I will also say that the lead, despite everything, is still quite compelling to watch. You're never exactly 'rooting for her' but she is quite a complex character and, as such, is quite a fascination. The whole thing is oddly engaging, if uneasily so. It's not exactly entertaining but it's never boring and, despite its strange pace, it keeps you watching until the end. It's not for everyone, that's for sure. Still, it's an interesting flick with a unique premise and a solid execution. 6/10
Captain Marvel (2019)
A real marvel.
It takes a little while for 'Captain Marvel (2019)' to come into its own but, once it does, it's certainly enjoyable. It sets itself up to be somewhat generic, broadly speaking, so that it can pull a superb subversion later on. This 'twist', for lack of a better term, is rather unexpected, which is partially due to the casting of certain key players and the track record that the genre (as well as cinema as a whole, actually) has with such things. It's an invigorating, societally relevant plot-point that shakes things up and adds an appreciated dosage of subtext, too. It's not the only reason why the piece is ultimately as successful as it is, though. Another key aspect is the inclusion of one (scarily good CG) Samuel L. Jackson, whose chemistry with the equally good Brie Larson is what really makes the movie work. Their interactions are what keep things feeling light and energetic - though, that's not to imply that the narrative fails to deliver its darker, or more serious, moments. It's actually quite resonant in a number of key places, which is partially because the affair doesn't feel as though it's taking itself too seriously - it's not dour, that's for sure. Ben Mendelsohn takes a tricky role and does wonders with it, making sure that the humour doesn't undercut the emotion so much as make it seem more realistic. The actual plot focuses quite a bit on investigation, as the central character tries to untangle the mess of maybe messed-with memories inside her head. The whole thing is quite compelling, with the answers slowly being revealed to both us and the character at the same time. This is another aspect that feels fairly unique, especially among the slate of 'origin stories' within the 'MCU'. Some of the revelations are slightly obvious - though, maybe just to those familiar with the tropes associated with this type of story - but this isn't a big deal because most things are encompassed by the larger, more subversive 'reveal', which is harder to see coming, and because it's undeniably satisfying when everything is eventually on the table. I guess the most macro, or obvious, theme is that of empowering determination, a 'get back up' mentality that prevents others from dictating what one can and cannot do. The third act, which sees this theme come full circle in the name of compassion, is fun and fulfilling, despite being driven by a now somewhat overpowered (near indestructible) 'superhero'. Ultimately, the picture is entertaining and, even, somewhat unexpected. It easily sits somewhere if the better half of the 'MCU', pulling off a decently original 'origin story' around ten years after they, essentially, stopped being required. It also has one of, if not, the best (now sadly posthumous) Stan Lee cameos in the business. Obviously, it's not perfect but it's still a real marvel. 7/10
Brains... and heart.
Laika's second outing is a cine-literate, self-aware and subversive 'zombie' movie that, essentially, turns the sub-genre on its head. 'ParaNorman (2012)' also takes cues from similar sub-genres to tell its tale of an outcast kid who just needs to be listened to - a skill which he himself has pretty much perfected. It's an entertaining, intelligent and heartfelt affair that's knowing in all the right ways. It uses its brains to cut right to the heart of its audience. By subverting expectation and commenting not only on the genre but also on the audience's almost unquenchable thirst for it, it manages to make a comment on quite a few resonant themes. Generally, it deals with 'outsider culture' and what it feels like to be ostracised by your society simply for being 'different', taking aim at 'mob mentality' in the process. Like 'Coraline (2009)' before it, it maintains its 'family friendly' status despite its deep - and fairly 'adult' - storytelling and its often quite creepy visuals. Primarily, this is because it never forgets to be fun. Again, the focus isn't on fear so much as overcoming that fear, showing that it's often misplaced and actually causes pain rather than protect from it. The flick is rather funny and is a treat for genre-fans, too. It's also suspenseful when it needs to be and makes bold choices at a number of key points, hitting its emotional beats incredibly well. It does seem to lose some stream towards its middle section, ever-so-slightly pulling back from its protagonist's main 'quirk' in favour of the wider situation. Still, it soon gets back on track and is always enjoyable. It also looks incredible, the stop-motion seeming so fluid that you could almost swear it's CGI. The faces, especially, are amazingly emotive. It's a great second effort. 8/10
Mother didn't like it.
'Kid-friendly horror' is an interesting, if somewhat oxymoronic, concept. It isn't a genre - or, perhaps, idea - that's explored all too often. 'Coraline (2009)' is probably the first, and most effective, example of it that comes to mind. It confidently walks the tightrope of being tame enough for (older) children yet strong enough (to more than likely) scare those children just the right amount - all while, of course, being narratively and aesthetically appealing enough, in a creepy kind of way, for the adults in the audience, too. It's definitely a difficult thing to accomplish, yet the piece does so with ease. One of the ways it does this is by focusing on the adventurous, 'face your fears' aspects of its genre. This, along with its engaging and believable protagonist, makes for a compelling and accessible story that isn't mired in jump-scares, an oppressive atmosphere or gore. It's never dour and it actually leaves you feeling quite happy. When you think back, the emotion that first comes to mind isn't necessarily fear. Don't get me wrong, though, it's very much a 'horror' movie; it fits right in with those conventions, even if it also weaves in decent doses of fantasy, comedy and adventure. Personally, I don't find it scary but I don't think I'm supposed to - I'm an adult. You have to remember its target audience. It's meant to be a gateway horror to introduce potential new fans to the genre. It actually plays into legitimate fears - based on legitimate, if short-sighted, desires - and is resonant because of it. Besides which, it's just downright entertaining and that's the most important thing. The design of the flick, which is brought to life with beautiful stop-motion, is brilliant. The initially wonderful 'other' world contorts from whimsical to creepy in incredibly inventive, world-consistent ways. There are some spooky set-pieces that feature superbly unsettling, but still suitably pastel, imagery. Plus, the colourful characters that inhabit both of the picture's parallel planes are thoroughly enjoyable. It's interesting, and almost disturbing, that the characters created by the 'other mother' are essentially slaves; they're aware of their status as constructs but don't actually want to serve their function and constantly try to warn our hero of the danger she's in, often suffering horrible consequences and losing what little imitated humanity they were initially afforded. On top of all this, the flick has strong allegorical undertones which bolster its strong central message. You come away from it feeling elated. Ultimately, it's a uniquely presented, consistently entertaining and, in many ways, daringly dark family film, one that you can watch again and again. It's just delightful. 8/10
Spoken word, spoken well.
When Rafael Casal was approached about what would eventually become 'Blindspotting (2018)', he was asked to write a film that tells its tale using the heightened language of spoken word. The end result does that and much, much more, sort of becoming a spoken word poem in and of itself. It blends together it's contrasting elements incredibly elegantly, being at once formalistic and naturalistic, funny and heartfelt, broad and specific, enjoyable and hard-to-stomach, smart and emotional, heightened and truthful. Ultimately, it's just amazingly poignant. It deftly tackles several relevant social issues, many of which aren't obvious or often observed, and weaves them effortlessly with its more straight-forward narrative and character-work, so that the two are inseparable. This is what really gives the piece it's punch, though it's the excellent tone that arguably gives it its power. It confidently juggles all of its elements with poise, even those which might approach being somewhat absurd, which allows it to really earn its emotional payoffs. Plus, it's always an entertaining time and feels as though it knows exactly what it's doing, in spite of its somewhat sprawling story. Every aspect of the production is top-notch. A testament to this is the fact that the feature's climax is absolutely gripping when, conventionally, it would be silly. The flick feels like it's saying so much about so many things, cutting to the human experience at every turn. If that's not a truly great poem, I don't know what is. 8/10
The Hole in the Ground (2019)
It's not quite an impostor but it's not quite the real deal, either.
On one hand, 'The Hole In The Ground (2019)' is far too overt but, on the other hand, that's just what it is: a story that unfolds somewhat ambiguously until it reaches its boiling point and firmly plants itself on a specific side of the argument. Outside of its sort of, but not really, equivocal ending, it goes to great lengths to ensure that a negotiated reading of the piece is very much negotiated; it's possible but probably more work than it's worth. It's perhaps ironic, then, that I have to refer to the events of the plot using such ambiguous language, but I don't want to spoil the answer to what's essentially the flick's central question. All I can really say is that the answer isn't all that satisfying, mainly because the picture doesn't play around with its conceit as much as it could have. It probably would have been a better experience if more was left up to interpretation. Even accepting its constraints as an eventually decisive story, the 'is it, isn't it' aspect isn't pushed all that far. This is a shame as it's this portion that provides the most entertainment, with the (more or less) immediate lead-up to the 'big reveal' being a rather involving segment. The third-act doesn't withstand the scrutiny that the preceding two place upon it, though, despite a nicely claustrophobic section. There are some interesting ideas at play throughout the flick, but most of them aren't actually explored all that well. It's also never scary or, even, creepy. The soundtrack does a lot of the work but it's often overbearing and seems to be making up for something that's missing. Really, at its heart, this is a psychological thriller. That side of things seems strangely neglected, however. Perhaps if it were paid more attention, the late-game payoffs would hold more weight. As it is, this is a well-crafted but oddly unmoving horror that's never boring but always feels as though it's at a distance. I wouldn't go so far as to call it an impostor but, in a genre where so many films have done a similar thing so much better, it's not exactly the real deal, either. 6/10
Fighting with My Family (2019)
The Merchant of Venice enters the ring.
Like all good 'sports' (or 'activity') movies, 'Fighting With My Family (2019)' cuts to the heart of its story and appeals to all audiences, whether or not they're fans of its focal pastime. In this case, that pastime is wrestling, which I have a passing knowledge of but no real deep affinity for - or, indeed, understanding of. Yet, this flick had me gripped, even during the purely in-ring segments. It follows a familiar 'rags to riches' story but sprinkles, unsurprisingly, a hefty dose of family drama on there, too. It's characters are crafted to be likeable, believable and flawed. They're given a fair bit to overcome, which is why it's all the more satisfying whenever they do so. The stakes are also slightly unconventional, usually being more internal than is customary with the genre. The comedy, while sometimes fairly broad, frequently puts a smile on your face and often makes you chuckle. It adds to the overall entertainment value of a piece that isn't afraid to veer into slightly darker territory. The narrative itself is clean and constantly forward-moving. The only real issue is the somewhat rushed finale, which makes the protagonist's shift from 'time to train' to 'this is your big shot' seem incredibly - and unbelievably - quick. It's not a huge issue, though, and the finish itself is satisfying, mainly because Merchant wisely chooses to hold his cards closer to his chest here. All of this makes for a winning formula: a feel-good, self-professed 'Rocky (1976)'-esque, funny yet heartfelt tale which might not be all that unique but earns its emotional beats and ultimate outcome pretty much twofold. 7/10
Black Dynamite (2009)
Can you dig it?
'Black Dynamite (2009)' is a pitch-perfect pastiche of 'Blaxploitation'. It looks, sounds and, even, feels the part, so much so that you'd be forgiven, on first glance of pretty much any frame, for thinking that it really is a seventies-released entry in the genre. It isn't just in on the joke, it is the joke. It feels as though it is a genuine attempt at the genre, when in reality every moment is painstakingly hand-crafted to seem that way. That's a very difficult thing to do, something that takes a lot of skill. It's also why the piece works so well. It's so precise in its delivery that there isn't a single moment that feels out of place, no matter how increasingly exaggerated - or, frankly, absurd - things become. It's brilliant. It clearly comes from a place of love, so it's incredibly endearing. It's incredibly funny, too - riotously so. While it doesn't necessarily make a grand statement or do anything with its tropes aside from highlight them in a knowing way and, perhaps, exaggerate them to the point of parody, it never steps outside of its initial intent and is so wholistic that almost every moment is a clever callback in some way or another. It does start to wear a tad bit thin in its second act, mainly because of its break-neck pace, but things pick up again before its finale and, even at its worst, it's always an enjoyable experience. Indeed, it's amazingly entertaining throughout. It lets you know you're in good hands within the first few minutes before throwing you into a fast-moving, ever-escalating, rib-tickling adventure that doesn't slow down for a second. It's probably the most cohesive pastiche I've ever seen. Even if it doesn't necessarily comment on the genre, it never fails to put a smile on your face. Sometimes, that's enough. 8/10
All the President's Men (1976)
...couldn't put Nixon together again.
'All The President's Men (1976)' kicks off perhaps the most unassuming - and, indeed, unwitting - 'cinematic universe', which includes (but certainly isn't limited to) what's essentially its immediate prequel, 'The Post (2017)'. It also unravels an important, surprisingly relevant period in American history that's so convoluted, secretive and downright shocking that it seems like something straight out of a spy novel. I didn't really know the ins and outs of the whole 'Watergate' scandal, or its ensuing implications, apart from the fact that it caused Richard 'I am not a crook' Nixon to resign almost immediately after he said he wouldn't. Therefore, the feature - which is based on Woodward and Bernstein's book of the same name - actually educated me quite a bit and left me eager to learn more after its conclusion, which somewhat sadly rushes over most the cathartic stuff in text form but only to keep the story focused on the determined reporting that broke the story in the first place. What it does so brilliantly, however, is not get bogged down in the facts or usual 'bio-pic' formula. It constantly keeps its eye on its two central characters, who don't necessarily have huge arcs but are both rendered realistically, and makes sure to introduce information in an investigative way. We learn things how and when the characters do, wrapped up in their detective work and constantly feeling their emotions. With each new revelation, we share their elation, frustration, shock and fear. It's fantastic, fascinating stuff that keeps you engaged throughout. I do, however, acknowledge that I might have been slightly less invested if I had known the details of the story going in, regardless of its 'real-life' relevancy. I know it's not incredibly helpful to judge a movie based on its historical accuracy, but I can't deny that it adds a little something if a movie is as accurate as this one apparently is. Overall, the experience is a surprisingly entertaining and informative one. It also clearly inspires so many pictures of the kind, with its long lenses, long takes and naturalistic performances all combining to create a subtle, 'real-world' feel. It's probably the best in its sub-genre. 7/10
Cold Pursuit (2019)
'Cold Pursuit (2019)' doesn't know what it is or, even, what it wants to be. It has so many story and, more importantly, tonal issues that it's difficult to engage with, ending up as a 'comedy-thriller' that isn't funny or exciting. It seriously feels like an indecisive, slapdash compromise between two totally different cuts. This is strange, though, because it's, as far as I can tell, pretty much a shot-for-shot remake of a 2014 Norwegian film directed by the same guy. Still, it's not too crazy to assume that the original cut of the thing was either far more comedic or far more thrilling and some studio-head or other busybody stuck their nose in. Either that or the screenplay wasn't that great to begin with. Whatever the cause, the final result is a mess. You can tell that it's trying to avoid the cookie-cutter 'revenge movie' clichés that Neeson himself is so familiar with, but it ends up playing straight into them, as well as amalgamating them with tropes from a number of other genres. It also does them somewhat half-heartedly, as they never amount to the end product that they usually do. What I mean is that tropes are only tropes because they're seen in several similar works, which is usually because they successfully do what they set out to. Here, the tropes remain but their intent is lost - especially the ones that are, essentially, genre-less - which means that they don't provide their genuine - if, perhaps, at this point played-out - narrative worth. They just stick out like sore thumbs. A lot of pictures suffer from this problem and I'd even go so far as to say that 'generic' experiences only get labelled as such if they're both generic and generally sub-par, as you can be very 'by the book' and still deliver a solid - even standout - product. In this case, I feel as though the issue perhaps comes second, but also contributes, to the flick's fluctuating tone, which is by far its most egregious aspect. I don't want to keep going on about it but it really does prevent you from getting on-board with the story, highlighting its other issues and resulting in a rather dull time overall. If you're wrapped up in a narrative, you'll often be able to overlook its stranger turns or wobbly structure. Here, this doesn't happen. Even while you're watching, you just scratch your head and some of the stuff it tries to get away with: non-sequiturs, weak-characters, nonsensical plot-points, lax character-motivation, uncomfortably dark undertones and moments of pure absurdity. It's a shame, too, because there is potential in various aspects of the affair. Generally, the concept isn't bad and its juxtaposition of grisly violence and dry humour ought to work. In the end, it just doesn't. 5/10
The Kid Who Would Be King (2019)
Just because we've, essentially, seen it before doesn't mean it isn't good.
Let's be honest, we've all seen 'The Kid Who Would Be King (2019)' before. It's a kid-friendly, modern-day reimagining of an old legend entered around a 'chosen one' narrative and an ensemble of single-trait characters. That doesn't mean that it's without its merits, though. It may occupy a well-worn genre but it occupies it well, comfortably conforming to - and occasionally contorting - the conventions it knows so keenly. It also has a good amount of edge, self-censoring only through its central conceits, and, as such, it feels much closer to the fondly-remembered 'kid' films of yesteryear than most of the stuff being pumped out today (and not just because it's live-action). This actually makes it feel incredibly authentic as each moment seems to serve the story. Whether it's scary, funny, heartfelt or just plain action-packed, the flick always makes a point of staying true to itself, having an excellent understanding of its target audience in the process. Of course, this means that much of the piece is painted in pretty broad strokes. The humour is never really successful and the character-work is all incredibly basic. Still, it's appreciated. By the time the finale rolls around, you'll be invested in the characters and will actively want to see them succeed. Speaking of the finale, it's probably the best part; it's exciting, well-staged and uniquely large-scale. Unfortunately, it's preceded by a pace-killing 'fake-out' that's not only obvious but also just far too long. Without it, I feel the picture would have moved much more smoothly into its final movement and, generally, been all the more successful. It doesn't destroy the experience, though. Overall, the movie is a fun and well-executed entry into a widely-seen genre. It's, essentially, as predictable as it is enjoyable. It's not groundbreaking, nor extremely engaging, but it's entertaining enough to be worth a watch, especially - I suppose - if you aren't as familiar with its framework as I am. 6/10
Doesn't match the thematic integrity of the first but has a stronger narrative through-line than the second.
'How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (2019)' finally gets it right, visually. It looks a lot better than even the series' second outing, mainly because the characters' eyes, which were practically soulless before, now shine with emotion. From a narrative perspective, however, it simply sits somewhere between the prior two entries. It's not as clear and concise as the first flick, nor is it as occasionally stagnant or generally lax as the second. It has a stronger thematic through-line than its immediate predecessor, and it does come full-circle (in terms of both itself and the series) in a way, but it doesn't manage to match the total thematic integrity of the initial piece. Still, there's enough to like, especially in-the-moment. It manages to circumvent the strange, weightless self-censorship of the second by having the characters themselves choose the non-lethal route, which feels more natural as the fight-scenes can play out uninterrupted with blunt-force trauma in lieu of slashes - though, it does make you wonder what the point of a sword is if the bladed bit is never used. Sometimes, Toothless comes close to being a 'minion'-type character: 'cute' and 'random' for the sake of it. However, he doesn't quite get to this level as these sequences are meant to develop his character - and, by extension, our protagonist - and they're often quite charming in a strange way. Some of the other humour doesn't work so well, though. In general, the picture is enjoyable, if a little predictable. It sometimes even tugs at the heart-strings ever-so-slightly. With its improved look and refined story-telling, it manages to be a decent adventure with enough heart to carry you through to the end. 6/10
How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)
An improvement in, essentially, every area, except from the narrative.
'How To Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)' is technically an improvement on the first in pretty much every area, expect from the narrative. The story itself is actually quite messy, stalling in its middle section before rocketing into an unearned and kind of rushed finale. What it does better than its predecessor, however, is character. I mean, it's nothing groundbreaking but it's better. The core players aren't as flat this time, especially the father figure; he actually feels like a 'real person', as opposed to a caricature, and his actions are far more three-dimensional. There are far more scenes that rely solely on the interaction between characters, without really pushing forward the plot. Because of this, the pace seems slightly slack. There also isn't the sense of thematic integrity that the first so strongly had, which is a shame because it results in a film that doesn't really feel as though it's about anything. The violence is also bizarrely tame, especially since the feature tries to push a somewhat darker tone on the whole. The flick cuts away, essentially, every time something even remotely approaching 'bloodshed' is about to happen, which is very noticeable and reduces the impact of more than one key moment. Other than that, the action is pretty satisfying. It's high-flying and fast-paced, brought to life by animation that is, in general, much improved. The rendering, in particular, has taken a large leap forward, though there still seems to be a little something missing from behind the characters' eyes. Overall, the experience is enjoyable and, usually, comparable to that of the first flick. It isn't as tight from a narrative perspective, though, and this actually limits its emotional impact. It's certainly not a bad effort, but there are better movies out there. 6/10
How to Train Your Dragon (2010)
A tightly-constructed fable that focuses on delivering its message sometimes to the point of narrative detriment.
There's a purity of vision in 'How To Train Your Dragon (2010)', one that sees it work incredibly well as a tightly-constructed, somewhat allegorical fable that has a strong central message. It focuses pretty much entirely on delivering this message, sometimes to the detriment of character and, even, story. All in all, it's kind of flat. Its world, and the people within it, are very two-dimensional and only change when the narrative needs them to. This, as I mentioned, serves its themes and, in a way, tightens its plot, but it does make things seem kind of surface-level. It's most noticeable with the father character; he feels like a caricature and, without spoiling anything, must be in contender for the 'worst dad of the year' award. Still, this overall dedication to theme makes for a focused experience that knows exactly what it's trying to achieve. For the most part, it achieves that. The 'all is lost' moment is very frustrating, which goes to show just how invested we are in our likeable protagonist's journey. This is helped by a fantastic soundtrack, which is probably the picture's greatest asset. The animation itself is decent but the actual rendering is slightly off. Most characters feel dead behind the eyes and, in some cases, it's kind of creepy; again, this is most notable with the father character. Still, the story is brought to life well enough and, during the flick's action set-pieces, the visuals often evoke a great sense of speed and spectacle while still conveying character, essentially, above all else. In fact, here character through action is often more successful than character through dialogue. The flick is entertaining, in general. It's not perfect, certainly, but it moves briskly enough that most of its issues come second to its integrity and overall fun. It's probably one of Dreamworks' better animated efforts, though it's certainly no 'Shrek (2001)'. 7/10
Raining cans and hotdogs.
'Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs (2009)' might just about be Lord and Miller's weakest film, but that just goes to show how good they truly are. Frankly, this would be most people's magnum opus. While many of this flick's jokes can be seen - at least, in spirit - in their later entries with slightly tighter timing and, perhaps, bigger scope, that doesn't reduce their often absolute hilarity and general inventiveness. The fact that you can see where they've improved doesn't make their first attempt any less successful. It's great. The meat-and-potatoes of the piece - or, at least, its comedy - is the sight-gag, the funniest of which involves a walking TV stealing a man from an electronics shop during a riot (you just have to see it). It's very funny and it's very fun, too, which is arguably more important. It also has a well-rounded, fast-paced and fairly moving story chock full of memorable and endearing characters. The cherry on the food-pile is its colourful, cartoony animation which makes each frame a feast for the eyes. It's just so enjoyable. The amount of, often, genuine belly-laughs is impressive, to boot. I guess the way to your heart really is through your stomach. 8/10
Instant Family (2018)
Just add Wahlberg.
For me, 'Instant Family (2018)' works much more as a family drama than as a comedy, with its successful humour coming from, but always being second to, the relationship that forms between its focal foster parents and their newfound family. It's a well-conceived and relatively realistic central dynamic that's actually very satisfying when it comes full circle, even if it's somewhat rushed in places, quite sappy in others and generally pretty predictable. Indeed, it's easy to see why this piece shouldn't work. It takes a serious subject matter and, in some ways, waters in down so that it's as commercial as possible. Plus, it's oddly preachy at points - not least of which being when it promotes a movie tie-in 'learn more' website as its third credit - and manages to cram that serious stuff into a formula that's, at this point, incredibly generic. Sill, its intentions are good and its execution is undeniably effective. It may be fluff, and that's unfortunate given what it tries to tackle, but it's fun fluff, nevertheless. It's also emotionally affecting enough that I can easily see it having an impact on someone's decision to at least think about fostering a child. Whether or not the picture shows the process in it's true, unfiltered and, frankly, sometimes ugly light is a different matter, which does lead one to consider whether the possible uptake in maybe misled foster parents is necessarily all that helpful if they all meet a situation they aren't truly prepared for. This is a responsibility that I don't think is entirely on the film itself, though, even if it actively, and somewhat nobly, encourages its viewers to consider the real-life ramifications of its central conceit. Raising awareness is a valid mission-statement, regardless of how effective the final product is. In the end, this is an enjoyable and occasionally affecting family drama that isn't necessarily funny but doesn't necessarily need to be. It's generic and predictable, for sure, but it's an entertaining time and, for me, that's what really counts. 7/10
If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)
Beale Street speaks volumes, if you're willing to listen.
'If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)' is an equal parts tender and tough look at a complex love story, one that tackles several relevant racial issues as they shape the central couple's lives in more ways than one. It's clear by now that Jenkins is a master of his craft. He confidently creates an unconventional experience that's as gentle as it is powerful. The performances, which are often scrutinised in intense close-ups, bolster this. They're all brilliant, with a surprising stand-out for me actually being Brian Tyree Henry. Of course, the leads - KiKi Layne and Stephan James - are especially superb, subtly portraying their characters with nuance and poise. Both of them are quietly commanding in their own ways, only really revealing their true selves in each other's company. The movie isn't flawless, however. The almost dream-like pacing is purposefully slow but it occasionally leads to a lack of urgency. The plot itself also seems to meander at points, with truly powerful scenes often being punctuated by lax and almost tangential ones. Those powerful scenes more than make up for this, however, and every moment adds to the overall sense of that the flick wants to explore the differing lives of these characters. There's never a boring beat and the unique perspective and narrative structure keep things feeing fresh. The narration feels a little out of place and, sometimes, heavy-handed, though. It was surely meant to evoke the novel's prose more directly but it pales in comparison to the rest of the picture and, ultimately, feels unnecessary. On the whole, this is an enjoyable and quietly moving experience that tackles its heavy themes with the same elegance as it tackles its unconventional romance. 7/10
Happy Death Day 2U (2019)
Déjà vu all over again.
If 'Happy Death Day (2017)' is a sci-fi slasher, then 'Happy Death Day 2U (2019)' is... something. I mean, it's so chock full of ideas and storylines that its identity is hard to identify; it ultimately feels quite different from the first despite being a sequel in every sense of the word (if you haven't seen its predecessor, good luck keeping up). Luckily, the flick is just as entertaining as the original - in the moment, at least. It's pretty fun and it's problems are easy to ignore when they're breezed by as quickly as they are. Those problems become more prevalent upon retrospection, though. Its first movement is incredibly messy when considered in terms of the whole, as it establishes what seems to be a new protagonist and a wild but potentially interesting conceit that's unfortunately thrown away almost as soon as it's introduced. It's bizarre that most of this wasn't cut considering where the piece ends up spending the most time, as it does nothing other than confuse the story and slow the pace. Generally, the picture doesn't make much sense. Of course, this isn't too much of an issue. It's just frustrating because the problems it runs into have relatively easy solutions, since it's clear that writer/ director Christopher Landon can put whatever he wants into the screenplay and that things only feel phoney if they break rules established by the narrative itself. What I'm saying is, if something important breaks a rule you've made, then change the rule. Regardless of these hiccups or its generally strange pace and tone, the movie manages to make you smile. It takes you on a journey and, even, affects you emotionally in some well-written and conceived 'what-if' scenes. It's not as good as the first, of course, but it was never going to be. It's quite a bold shift that doesn't always work but often does. It's not great, but it's not bad by any means. 6/10