ANNABELLE COMES HOME to a universe of both villains *and* (super)heroes

The so-called Conjuring Cinematic Universe confidently takes another key inspiration from Marvel’s all-dominant equivalent with Annabelle Comes Home by cementing the existence of the ‘horror movie superhero’.

Or, in this case, superheroes in the form of Ed and Lorraine Warren, played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga in The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2 previously, both of whom neatly bookend this ‘interquel’, depicting the carnage wreaked inside their evil-containing fortress of a domestic home when pesky kids unleash the titular Annabelle and the entire contents of their terrifying basement. The Warren’s were, of course, real people – Lorraine died, indeed, earlier this year, and in The Conjuring they were portrayed much more handsomely and less eccentrically than in real life, but they remained nevertheless demonologist investigators in particularly that first movie; a married, far less dysfunctional Mulder & Scully if their focus were demons rather than aliens. This changes in Annabelle Comes Home. They begin to morph from the Mulder & Scully to the Steve Rogers & Natasha Romanoff of the Conjuring Cinematic Universe.

It may be left to the forthcoming The Conjuring 3 to hit that idea square on but Annabelle Comes Home certainly lays the foundations, exploring what happens when you remove those heroes from the narrative.

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SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME proves Marvel’s formula-breaking *is* their formula

You know when people say “don’t watch this one unless you’ve seen the last one”? Well, that statement may just peak with Spider-Man: Far From Home, particularly when it comes to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The ‘one’ in particular isn’t even the previous solo Spider-Man film, 2017’s Homecoming, because the MCU has changed the game when it comes to how sequels work. Homecoming introduced the supporting characters in Peter Parker’s direct orbit but Jon Watts’ precious picture was neither Tom Holland’s first bow as the character, and Homecoming serves as an important part of the ongoing, overarching narrative in the first era of the MCU which concluded recently with the ‘one’ I am talking about – Avengers: Endgame. That’s the film you need to have seen before Far From Home as Watts’ Spider-Man film serves as an extended epilogue to the epic conclusion to the Infinity Saga, not to mention a coda to that first, decade-spanning era.

Far From Home is about the legacy of an era which reinvented exactly what the ‘superhero movie’ was. Marvel Studios, under Kevin Feige’s aegis, took the formula and tropes we had come to know and understand from the previous three decades since 1978’s seminal first Superman adaptation, through a legion of Batman movies and beyond, and subverted them pretty much from the get-go. Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man didn’t spend half a dozen films hiding his identity as Bruce Wayne did – he came out and told the world right at the end of his origin story. The MCU interweaved characters and narratives to develop the first ongoing, television-style serialised structure in cinematic history. Along the way it brewed up broad comedy, epic action, science-fiction and half a dozen other genres—often within the same films—inside which the traditional ‘superhero’ nestled.

What we have seen in previous Marvel pictures before Endgame, and which Far From Home makes abundantly clear, is that Marvel’s self-aware subversion of that formula has *become* their formula itself.

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Rage Against: X-Men – Dark Phoenix (2019)

Dark Phoenix is not quite the coda to the X-Men franchise that you might have expected going in.

For quite some time now, general feeling among a large swathe of the movie going audience invested in comic book cinema has been the belief that Dark Phoenix would be a significant let down. Despite the critical successes, even taking into account their flaws, of X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past, X-Men: Apocalypse was a strong case of diminishing returns (critically and financially as it turns out) which took a lot of air out of the X-Men balloon when it came to enthusiasm for the next generation of the franchise – having established new versions of Jean Grey, Cyclops, Storm etc… to help presumably carry the X-Men saga into a new era. With Bryan Singer no longer involved in the production due to the allegations against him, and long-term writer Simon Kinberg making his directorial debut, plus the usual report of reshoots of the final act and the film’s release being pushed back over half a year, the omens for Dark Phoenix outdoing Apocalypse and providing a satisfying end to this iteration of the saga were low. Perhaps the biggest surprise about Dark Phoenix, in which case, is that it *is* a better film than Apocalypse and just about accomplishes what it sets out to do.

Let me state this clearly for the record: Dark Phoenix is not a great X-Men film, or comic-book movie in general. When up against the heights of the medium, be it the Marvel Cinematic Universe at its peak or The Dark Knight trilogy, Dark Phoenix cannot compete. It is at times noisy. It can be unintentionally funny in how overwrought the central story finds itself. It suffers from some of the worst villains in the entirety of comic book cinema. It ignores elements of its own continuity and numerous character arcs for expediency. Plus it lacks a great deal of depth when it comes to the underpinnings geopolitical and social aspects that made the X-Men films more than just effects-driven spectacles. It focuses so tightly on one character journey in particular that much of the saga’s entertaining subtext is rejected. Yet despite all of this, it is not incoherent. It is a better adaptation of ‘The Dark Phoenix Saga’, the 1980 comic story from Chris Claremont and John Byrne, than X-Men: The Last Stand gave us. It does manage to give key characters Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr, as well as Jean Grey of course, dramatic through-lines which tether to the core narrative in a satisfying way.

And, perhaps as best it could, Dark Phoenix gives a level of closure to the X-Men franchise that we can probably live with.

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Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019)

If the release of Godzilla: King of the Monsters has taught us anything, it’s that the expectations of audiences and critics are a fair distance apart.

This is no great revelation. For every serious reviewer of cinema, you will find two casual cinema-goers pop up to remind them “it’s only a movie”. This is completely fine. Some people just enjoy cinema for the experience and don’t study it too closely, bathing in the drama or spectacle. Others like to dissect, unpick, or place into context. Some, admittedly. simply enjoy trashing a project for their own personal, particular reasons, and often reside in the sketchier corners of online fandom. Ultimately, we enjoy what we enjoy for the reasons we enjoy it, but Godzilla: King of the Monsters struck me as the purest exercise in giving the people what they want, Roman-forum style. It is, in the most primal sense, a monster movie. A movie starring monsters. There is so subtlety, no cloak and dagger subterfuge. You see Godzilla in the first frame. All of him. In his prime.

Compare this to Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla, off the back of which King of the Monsters follows, and we could be in different stylistic galaxies. A key complaint from paying punters in 2014 was that we simply didn’t see all that much of, as the Japanese call him, ‘Gojira’. For a film named after the big guy, he was conspicuous by his absence as Edwards attempted to root his film in human drama around which Godzilla appeared as a force of nature, a towering titanic beast it took a significant amount of the film to reveal. Edwards wanted awe in a different manner to King of the Monsters director Michael Dougherty. He wanted to keep us waiting for Godzilla, and make his entrance a *moment* to take our breath away. For some, this was the wrong approach, and King of the Monsters goes in a very different direction.

King of the Monsters wants you to know, very clearly, that Godzilla and a host of other monsters are what this film is about. The humans are plot devices. It is the *monsters* who are the real characters.

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Rocketman (2019)

Rocketman doesn’t like to use the word ‘biopic’.

Dexter Fletcher prefers the term “true fantasy” for his flamboyant take on the life story of Sir Elton John, arguably one of the most iconic British rock stars of the last fifty years. That certainly fits many of the creative choices inherent in Fletcher’s film and Lee Hall’s screenplay, not to mention the casting of Taron Egerton as John’s cinematic avatar – the culmination of numerous actors in the frame over the two decades in which John has tried to get a film about his life produced, including Justin Timberlake and Tom Hardy. Now if that is not fantasy, it’s hard to imagine what is! Elton John may be many things but a movie heart-throb he is most certainly not. Rocketman, from that perspective, is pure wish-fulfilment.

Yet this is not a hagiography, despite John and his long-term partner David Furnish producing (the latter more heavily). Hall’s script does not pretend that Elton rise to legendary fame was all champagne and rainbows. The drugs are there, the booze, the sex, the angry outbursts and egotistic trappings. Rocketman points a big, intentional, neon sign at the indulgent largesse of Elton’s life that more than once almost killed him at the height of his fame, and is unafraid to show the man at the most down point of his life. The reason Rocketman fails to quite ascend to the heights of great drama, great biopic or even great musical, is because it stops *just* short of showing Elton at his worst. This Elton is still the hero of his own story, looking for love in all the wrong places.

It leaves you wondering just how much bite Rocketman *might* have had if Elton had been less involved.

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John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019)

Parabellum is not an ending. That’s the first point to make about the third John Wick movie. Rather than a conclusion, this is the next part in what is rapidly becoming Hollywood’s most anticipated action franchise.

This feels important to state because it goes some way of approaching Chapter 3 of what most people assumed would be the capper on one of the most fine-tuned and striking Hollywood action movie trilogies of recent years. John Wick and John Wick: Chapter 2 threw some striking components into a cinematic blender – high-concept, hyper-real Hong Kong and Korean kung-fu/action, post-Jason Bourne close quarter fight stylistics, the dark glamour of James Bond and even the comic-book superheroism of The Matrix and brewed them up with a Neo-noir, even Neo-Western visual spectacle. Chad Stalhelski’s franchise manages to do what Gareth Evans’ The Raid films never quite succeeded in doing; taking a pulp action movie concept, filled with influences from the last twenty-five years, and turn it mainstream. Keanu Reeves as the titular assassin no doubt helped – a familiar, likeable household name giving the one-two punch to the chest and reviving his career in the process.

The first John Wick film skews more toward Americana than the subsequent movies; while the chief villains may be Russian, they have a sleaziness about them which only allows Stahelski to hint at the deeper mythology lurking beneath the world Wick inhabits, and while it certainly lays necessary foundations for Chapter 2 and establishes the character successfully, it is only Chapter 2 when Stahelski turns John Wick into a truly iconic 21st century action anti-hero. Festooned with stunning visuals and exemplary action choreography which feels more like a violent ballet than a shoot-em-up, Chapter 2 expands the scale and brings death, throwing obstacle after obstacle in Wick’s way before leaving a tantalising cliffhanger on the bubble which suggested Chapter 3, subtitled Parabellum, would be an intense, thrilling experience.

While that *is* the case, John Wick: Chapter 3 is also somewhat less revelatory, and an emptier experience than the film that preceded it.

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Avengers: Endgame (2019)

“Part of the journey is the end” says Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark at a key point in Avengers: Endgame, a phrase which could neatly punctuate Marvel Studios’ remarkable conclusion to the first era of their Cinematic Universe.

Endgame is a staggering achievement. It is, without question, *the* biggest superhero movie ever made. It makes last years Infinity War look, at times, like an indie movie. Okay, that’s a bit of an over-exaggeration, but there is one sequence in particular toward the climax of Endgame which is just, quite frankly, jaw-dropping in its ambition and scale. It was one of several moments over the next few minutes which had the audience in my screening cheering, whooping and gasping in joy, surprise and the impact of what Endgame provides, and provides in absolute spades: payoff. Payoff to ten years of narrative and character investment from an audience which has grown, some who have grown *up*, with the Avengers.

It therefore comes as a surprise to report that Endgame, on first blush, is not as solid or accomplished a piece of cinema as Infinity War, or Avengers Assemble, or Black Panther, Thor: Ragnarok and certainly the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie. It easily dwarfs every  single MCU movie to date in scope, without a shadow of a doubt, but by its very nature there are structural issues, and problems with certain beats of characterisation, which are going to become more of a sticking point for critical fans once the euphoria and magic of Marvel’s fan service begins to wear off. This is a euphoria I share, by the way, right now, to the point I am itching to see Endgame again very soon.

Endgame is a film which, certain problems aside, will absolutely make you feel a whole range of emotions by the end. If you’re invested, this is a powerful experience.

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