Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker Trailers (My Thoughts)

Recently, I have been rewatching all the Star Wars movies in chronological order, including all the films outside all the main nine episodes. With the release of a new trailer, and a trailer from a couple of months ago, for the closing episode of the entire saga, I should feel more excited. Sadly, I don’t.

Not because I hated Star Wars: The Last Jedi. In fact, I am part of that small faction within the fandom that enjoyed the controversial changes and subversions to the established formula. Rather, The Rise of Skywalker seems less exciting because it deliberately trying to reverse these controversial changes. Palpatine’s return seems to be a direct response to the criticism over Snoke’s death, for example. The trailers for Episode IX, so far, have felt like apologies for the last film, which is hardly the most exciting message to send.

Trilogies are meant to build momentum, and feed off the emotion and enjoyment you felt for the last two. There are meant to be high stakes as the third film is meant to be the boiling point for all the developing storylines so far. Star Wars Episode IX’s trailer gives us none of that. The trailer is vage on plot details, showing only cool shots, impressive special effects, and hints towards character growth, all to the familiar Star Wars score. It wants us to feel like The Last Jedi never happened.

Further, this desire to appear more familiar and less subversive than The Last Jedi creates for an uneven tone across the whole trilogy. The Force Awakens heavily borrowed from A New Hope and effectively created an appealing feel of nostalgia. The Last Jedi wanted to take the series in a new and unexpected direction. This latest film appears to be going back to the nostalgia and sameness of The Force Awakens. It is hard to get excited when the phrase “the saga concludes” appears on screen because this part of the saga does not feel cohesive, neither in tone nor direction. This does not feel like a big finale; rather, it just feels like the third of Disney’s Star Wars episodes.

From the trailer, it does seem like it will be a solid episode in its own right. There is an impressive shot of Kylo Ren walking through the rain. The shots of spacecrafts promise skeptical. The shots of Kylo and Rey together tease possible, interesting avenues for the character development of both characters.

Whilst it may feel like a solid Star Wars film that I have no doubt will be a success, this film trailer does not sell The Rise of Skywalker as a conclusive finale to a cohesive trilogy. Instead, the trailer feels like a “let’s start again? I’m sorry” message. The wrong message to send for the final film in a nine part saga.

Zombieland: Double Tap (2019) Review

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For better or worse, if you loved the original Zombieland, then you will love its sequel. It does not move the story along, rehashing elements of the original, and the action sequences are still the least exciting parts of the film. However, it is equally as funny and the characters are as likeable as ever.

Before the film even starts, the film has you laughing out loud. The Columbia logo is invaded by zombies, and Columbia herself turns feisty in her self-defence. It is a brilliant, surprising and funny way to open the film. And the laughs keep on coming. There are so many funny moments to choose from: the introduction of the “Homer” zombie, Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) finding out Little Rock is not only dating a “MUSICIAN”, but a pacifist too, and the introduction of the doppelganger group, to name a few. (Although, the doppelganger group joke was done much better in Shaun of the Dead, it is still amusing here). If you found the first one funny, then you will laugh at this one too.

The subtleness of many of the jokes is also a great. Like the first one, many of the jokes will pass you by if you are not paying enough attention. We have a scene where they quickly sign a pardoning order for Wesley Snipes, a quick drive past a broken sign saying “Jesus will save you”, and a Garfield poster in the mall pays off later in a pleasant post-credits scene. This film knows that it is at its strongest when the action is limited and the comedy is allowed free reign. None of the action sequences are particularly exciting; although, it is refreshing that the film avoids the typical resolution, for film’s of this genre, of a shootout. Fortunately, the film focuses on the comedy, and the subtle gags. Zombieland: Double Tap will benefit from multiple re-watches as you unpack many of the hidden gags.

In fact, Rhett Rese, Paul Wernick and David Callahan’s script is tight throughout. There are references used with impeccable timing for maximum laughs: “time to teach Lenny about the rabbits”, followed by the cock of a gun, is a personal favourite. The double entendres feel original and fresh in comparison to most comedies that will lazily use references to size for a cheap gag: the “driveway” one and the “belonged to the first lady” lines spring to mind. The fact the hippie sanctuary is called Babylon does not merely refer to the size of the tower, but it is also highly suggestive of their arrogance over their pacifistic lifestyle. The script is well-written and surprisingly thoughtful.

And, it is magnificently brought to life by the cast of characters. Jesse Eisenberg, Abigail Breslin, Woody Harrelson and Emma Stone are as delightful in this sequel as they were in the original. The family dynamic, and the loveable characters, does not grow or develop enough to really justify the existence of this sequel. The film’s opening reverses the ending of the first one slightly in order to rehash the “will they won’t they” romantic subplot between Columbus and Wichita, in fact. Nevertheless, the characters are a joy to spend an hour and a half with. It is a fan service sequel with nothing to offer in terms of developing the story and the characters; even so, these characters are so human and likeable that you can forgive this.

Whether you enjoy this film is dependent on your answer to this question: did you enjoy the first one? If you did, very little has changed in terms of story, and there has been no improvement in the action. However, if you did, then you have got an hour and a half of dark comedy gold to enjoy.

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The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019) Review

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The debut film from Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz certainly has the best title of any film in 2019. Not only is the title unique and brilliant, the rest of the film is too. With strong performances and a heart-warming tone throughout, this buddy comedy movie is definitely going to be a crowd-pleaser.

The film has a thin plot. It is essentially a buddies on the road movie, but set on a river for the most part, aligning it closely with Mark Twain’s classic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. As expected with films of this genre, the plot is quite simple and loose. Zak (Zack Gottsagen)

has Down syndrome and is living reluctantly in an assisted living facility; Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) is his carer. Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) is a thief and fisherman. Both Zak and Tyler choose to run away from their old lives, and meet chance. Once the journey begins, the plot becomes much more episodic as the characters drift from encounter to encounter. This film has a light and breezy storytelling style. It takes its time and there is no sense of a narrative drive as the characters drift and bond.

This is why the film works so well. The lack of plot allows the filmmakers to focus on the characters and their growing relationship. The central trio have great chemistry and it is a joy to see them interact on the raft. Invigorating these characters are three stellar performances. Shia LaBeouf convincingly captures the cautious reclusiveness of Tyler at the beginning, and sells his gradual opening up as he steps into an older brother role for Zak. Zack Gottsagen is endearing and extremely funny as Zak. The best thing is the humour of the film, prevalent and brilliant throughout, never feels like it is at Zak’s expense. Whoever said comedy is dead in a world gone PC and woke clearly has not seen this film. It is inclusive and humorous. Dakota Johnson does not get loads to do as Eleanor, but, when she is on screen, she is extremely likeable and satisfactorily conveys the central dilemma of Eleanor’s role as a carer: does she let Zak do what makes him happy, or do what all her training says is best for him? The core impetus of this film is the growing relationship between these characters as they travel together. This journey is a moving  joy, tugging at the heartstrings as Tyler would tug at his sails, whilst also making you laugh.

Adding to this heart-warming tone is an excellent score. There is sweet, shy music playing in the background of the opening few shots, and this perfectly sets the tone of the movie. This film feels like a nostalgic memory about a lost summer from childhood, and the score is a big part of that (as is the gorgeous shots of the sunset yellow clouds in the sky) The score and cinematography capture the sense of adventure and joyous wonder that defines the film’s central characters.

Whilst this film may be sweet, one disconcerting element is the power dynamic between the three characters. The fact Eleanor and Tyler develop a romantic relationship, whilst Zak the character they both care about and bond over, sets up a parents/child dynamic. This ultimately goes against the core message of the film: you should not underestimate Zak and his abilities simply because he has Down syndrome. However, other than this nit-pick, the film mostly delivers its core message clearly and succinctly. One scene that particularly sticks to mind is when Tyler says to Eleanor “you may not be using the word ‘retard’ but you are sure as hell making him feel like one”. This is a film dedicated to changing the perception of people with Down syndrome as people who are victims, as this can be discriminatory, as is using slurs to insult them. As we see Zak grow as a character and follow his dreams, the challenge against the perception of people with Down syndrome as victims incapable of everything grows stronger.

This film has an important message, but one that never feels forced or obvious. It is told through a remarkably moving story too. With excellent performances, a great score, and fantastic shots to add to the breezy, this moving story has a radiance most will want to soak up and enjoy.

Abominable (2019) Review

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Don’t worry. Abominable‘s title is not a reflection on the film itself. In fact, there is a lot to enjoy here, with likeable characters and flourishes of creativity in the film’s second half. However,  these bursts of inspiration are few and far between.

Yi (Chloe Bennet) is a likeable and relatable protagonist. She is unhappy in life, but never complains. She wants to travel across China and is quietly saving money by doing the odd job here and there, rather than burden her family with such expenses. Fortunately, she gets her chance when she meets Everest, the yeti. “Adorable” may have been a better title for the film because Everest proves to have the cute excitement of a new puppy. He wants to go back home, to “Everest”, so Yi finally gets her chance to travel, whilst also protecting a creature she cares deeply about. Many of the other characters do feel like stereotypes, such as Peng and Jin, or rip offs from other movies: Burnish (Eddie Izzard) is very similar to the villain in Up, for example. Further, the core relationship borrows heavily from a superior Dreamworks Animation movie, How to Train Your Dragon. The side characters are here to serve a function, and prove to be no more than stereotypical fluff. This may limit the chances of Abominable being remembered this time next year, but it is not necessarily a bad thing. It gives the film more time to make Yi an endearing protagonist you want to spend an hour and a half with, even if the other characters are less developed.

A lack of originality does not just plague the cast of characters. Even from the opening few minutes, you know you are in for a derivative film. Dr Zara (Sara Paulson) says “no sudden movements” at one point. The opening action sequence is mostly told from the first person perspective of Everest the yeti. Choosing to include Coldplay’s “Fix You” in the soundtrack at a “moving” moment in the story is talent show level lazy and uninspired.

Although, there are sparks of creativity here and there. Crisp editing and transitions make the changeover from one scene to the next more satisfying and smooth. We are treated to some imaginative sequences only animation can provide: clouds shaped like koi carp, giant blueberries, a field of flowers becoming a wave for the lead characters to surf on (this is all explained in the movie). There is a twist at the end which surprises well. The setting of Shanghai is a refreshing change for a Dreamworks film, and the city is beautifully realised.  So there are moments where writer-director Jill Culton steps away from established formulae.

Unfortunately, it is not enough to make this film as memorable as a film like Toy Story 4 from earlier this year. Abominable is a good film, with a likeable protagonist, a cute yeti, and an even more endearing relationship between the two. Some of the settings and action sequences, and the transitions between them, look great. The only thing holding this film back is a sense of originality; as a result, it never reaches the heights of previous Dreamworks films.

Gemini Man (2019) Review

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If you have read a few reviews for Gemini Man, you have probably seen many negative reactions to this Ang Lee/Will Smith collaboration. This film has not impressed film critics. Going by the poor box office results so far, with many predicting a rare Will Smith flop, the public does not seem impressed either. For the sake of giving you something fresh to read, this review will first focus on the positives. There is a lot to like, even if the chain holding these jewels together is  weak.

The characters are charming and likeable. Benedict Wong plays a comic relief stock character brilliantly. The scene in the plane when he is singing “Gold Digger” (possibly the Ray Charles song sampled in “Gold Digger”) is just so human and warm. Funny too. The moment when he later calls out Henry Brogan (Will Smith) for actually being fifty one also elicits much laughter. Speaking of Will Smith, to nobody’s surprise, he delivers here. His performance is safe. He does not offer much that is new in terms of his range- although, the scene involving him talking to his younger self about insomnia is a moving surprise. Otherwise, the performance is exactly what you would expect: a charismatic and one dimensional hero, but an engaging and absorbing one too. What works for Will Smith throughout his career works here too. Like the rest of the cast of characters, he is likeable enough.

Ang Lee’s direction, and the work of the cinematographer, is a major highlight of the film. Many of the shots are inventive and a joy. A tracking shot of a drone rising directly into the air is so satisfying to watch, it feels like watching a tape measure zip back into its holder. Early in the film, there is a shot with an outstanding sense of depth, as the camera is placed over the shoulder of someone sniping Henry Brogan (Will Smith), only for Henry to walk on screen, a small figure in the distance, and shoot the sniper. The takes are long and controlled too. None of the choppy, disorientating and confused editing, plaguing many Hollywood action films at the minute, is to be found here. Further, his use of the de-ageing digital technology is some of the most impressive put to screen so far. Fresh Prince of Bel Air Will Smith could have travelled forward in time to star in this movie- it is that good. The direction and cinematography make this film much more enjoyable than critics would have you think.

The action sequences are a lot of fun as result. The hand to hand fighting boasts some impressive choreography too: seeing the two Henrys rolling around the floor beating the crap out of each other is as fun as it sounds .The motorcycle chase sequence involving the younger, cloned Henry Brogan chasing his older, original self, is entertaining and enjoyable highlight of the action. The  chase ends with the cloned Henry using his motorcycle as a martial arts staff and smacking the older Henry all over the place. Admittedly, it is dumb- Henry should be dead after such an attack. It is a memorable and outlandishly cool shot though, and it is refreshingly original. Maybe it would work better if Spider-Man were fighting off a motorcycle in this way. Regardless, the action is worth the price of entry.

The fact this cool scene does not make sense is the biggest problem plaguing this film. The sci-fi is poorly set up. The first scene, involving Henry Brogan, is highly reminiscent of Skyfall, as a trained assassin uses a sniper to kill someone on a moving train. The opening scene sets the tone so that Gemini Man feels like a spy thriller, not a sci-fi. When the cloning technology is revealed through its end product, it is jarring as a result. The opening should have done more to establish the sci-fi side of the setting. When the two Henrys are fighting each other with a motorcycle, this could have been rendered more believable with a reference to Henry taking some kind of super soldier serum. This is not the case, and the scene is illogical as a result. The science fiction elements of this film should have been properly established.

Instead, the first half an hour is wasted on dated and cliched “bureaucrats shouting at each other in an office” set up. You hear talk of “assets”, and even more talk of “Russian terrorists”. You see the hero getting ambushed by a SWAT term in their country retreat. The hero is forced out of retirement. Later in the film, the villain (Clive Owens) says “go ahead. Do it”, meaning the cliches are not limited to the first half hour. The original idea for this film was devised in the late 90s, and it seems the building blocks of the story are also from twenty years ago.

Gemini Man is not an amazing classic. It gets a lot wrong: the story feels dated and the sci-fi is poorly set up. But it also gets a lot right: the characters are funny and likeable, the de-ageing technology is a marvel here, and the action is a lot of fun. It may not be worth the price of a an expensive cinema ticket, but if it ends up on Netflix, it will keep you entertained. If you go in expecting a popcorn thriller, that is what you will get, and you will not be disappointed.

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (2019) Review

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Six years. Following four seasons of Better Call Saul, Jesse Pinkman is finally back on our screens. He continues to dazzle as the character that made him a household name, and Emmy award winner. No more needs to be said about Aaron Paul’s captivating and moving performance, which stays consistent and strong, even six years later, in this new Netflix film. But does the rest of the film hold up?

This is (nearly) a standalone story set after the events of Breaking Bad. El Camino follows Jesse Pinkman (played as compellingly as always by Aaron Paul) as he tries to escape a police manhunt, and to find the money needed to get his fresh start. There are moments where the film feels self-indulgent, such as when Joe brings up the “magnets” scene from the first episode of Season Five, or some slightly forced, and entirely expected, cameos towards the end. These moments are service for fans of the show, but ultimately hinder El Camino as a standalone piece of film. Also, the scene involving Ed (Robert Foster), the vacuum cleaner shop owner who also runs a witness protection programme for criminals, is not properly explained, and depends too much on the memory of fans of the show. Other than these moments of weakness, the film tells an original story about a criminal looking for his fresh start that even people who have not seen the show will be able to follow. The flashback sequences with Todd explain a lot of what is going on organically, whilst being captivating scenes in their own right. If you are a fan of the show, the returning characters and settings will add to your enjoyment with a cool wave of nostalgia, but El Camino works as a standalone film in its own right, for the most part.

The film is remarkably well told . This is to be expected, given that Vince Gilligan, the creator of the show, returns as writer-director for the film. Gilligan proves a master of suspense and tension. Characters are constantly trying to outsmart each other in thrilling, clever and wordy games of chess. The writing is superb so that these scenes can be just as intense as the gun shootouts. Gilligan constantly plays with what the audience knows in comparison to the other characters throughout to build suspense. One minute we believe Jesse has the upperhand because another character cannot see them, then a car will pull up and immediately spin the scene so that Jesse is now the one in danger. Gilligan’s control of audience knowledge is masterful, as he constantly reorientates the story so that what we know is given new context, and even more suspense is added.

Further, the film has two well integrated sub-plots. Transitions between the present, Jesse’s escape, and flashbacks to his time in captivity, are crisply done. Gilligan often uses an object or piece of speech to smoothly bring in a flashback; for example, early in the film, Jesse takes a shower, which forces him to remember the cold, garden hose showers he had during his time as a slave. This is a more obvious example example, but the links between scenes are sometimes, due to the finese and subtlety of Gilligan’s storytelling, quite hard to spot. Sometimes it will be something as organic as Jesse gaining access to a gun, and being given a choice to use it, in two seemingly unconnected scenes. The flashbacks are smoothly joined together. They never feel clunky. The transitions are seamless. This story is extremely well told.

The cinematography plays an essential role in the storytelling. One transition from present to past involves an extreme close-up of Jesse looking through an eye-hole, reminiscent of Psycho and Peeping Tom. One the camera pulls out, we realise we have gone back in time. The cinematography is fantastic throughout. It really is the strongest element of the film. The establishing shots of Albuquerque are stunning and immediately pull you in. Any cinematographer can take a good shot, but only the best can tell a story with the camera. In the scenes involving Todd (Jesse Plemons), you rarely see his face. You only ever see his face through bars, or through car windows. If his face is not blocked, it is a long shot. In comparison, Jesse’s face is constantly in the foreground, perhaps suggesting Jesse still cannot deal with the trauma, inflicted by Todd and his gang, properly. It is subtle touches like this that elevate the film, as it did the show.

El Camino does not feel like essential viewing because the show ended it so perfectly, and the film itself does not reach the quality of some standout episodes from the show, namely Ozymandias”. However, it is still a fantastic epilogue to the show, which is crafted carefully by a skilled writer-director. Finding the balance between being (mostly) standalone and delivering exciting service for fans of the show, El Camino is worth the six year wait.

Judy (2019) Review

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Adapted by screenwriter Tom Edge from the stage play End of the Rainbow, Judy will feel familiar for fans of biopic dramas released around award season. If you have seen any film of this genre, you have seen Judy. Stan and Ollie, for example, is almost identical to this film. One famous star is simply substituted for another. Nevertheless, it is not a bad film, for it gets right everything comparable films in the genre also get right. The plot, whilst familiar, is tight and well-structured, and Zellweger is brilliant as Judy Garland. The production and costume designers deserve a lot of credit too. It would have been nice if this film played it a little less safe.

The production and costume design is marvellous to look at. Recreating the 1930s American film sets and 1960s London, each setting feels real and authentic. The flashbacks and the main narrative both feel different from each other, and that is because of the hard work put into recreating both eras. From the very start, there is a recreation of the Oz set that is just gorgeous to look at. 

The work behind the scenes allows for an impressive backdrop against which Renée Zellweger dazzles. Her performance captures the sense that Garland was vulnerable and self-destructive, and that she was in denial about it at times. She sells the idea that Garland was frail and damaged, with a performance attentive to detail, even to subtle twitches. Zellweger’s performance is the film’s main selling point.

The rest of the film is well-put together. At the start, the scenes, cutting back and forth in time, run smoothly. The film’s climax comes with a performance of “Over the Rainbow”- ask yourself, does this surprise you at all? Of course it was going to end here. Further, the structure is predictable with a change in circumstance followed by flashback pattern. It is done well.  The relationship between the flashback and the present situation is always clear, so that the flashbacks do not feel jolting, and so the film has a smooth rhythm. Having this structure, however, gives the film an unoriginal “origins story” feel, as if all the bad things that happened to her made as a child were integral to making Garland a star, as if they are a necessary part of her development, akin to Bruce Wayne losing his parents so he could become Batman. Structurally, it plays it safe, with a very conventional situation, flashback, situation, then flashback, approach.  The film is well-put, but conventional and safe.

This style of storytelling is hard to stomach, given the fact the main character is Judy Garland. Garland suffered sexual abuse (which is not even depicted clearly!), and was denied a childhood, not even being allowed to eat, and being drugged up to suit the producer’s needs. She is not even allowed a birthday on her birthday because it will clash with filming schedules. Garland was used and abused by the studio system, but the film does not criticise the system enough; rather, it seems to suggest it was all part of the shaping Garland’s personality.

Judy could have benefited, and given itself much more to say, if it took the time to criticise this system that swallowed the real Garland whole and wrecked her life. It does not. It authentically shows the 1930s and 1960s as they were, with some impressive production and costume design, but it does not go out of its way to condemn the practices. As stated, this is not a bad film. Zellweger’s performance is a good reason to see it. It just feels like a missed opportunity. Judy plays it safe when it could have aimed for something more profound.

Joker (2019) Review

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This film is the masterpiece most critics, who have seen it so far, have described. Wow. Joker really lives up to the hype. With strong writing, a forlorn score, precise cinematography and an outstanding performance from Joaquin Phoenix, this is film people will be talking about for years to come.

The writing of Todd Phillips and Scott Silver has not been getting much praise, but it deserves it. The gritty story, which lives up to its 15 age rating, depicts Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), an already damaged and broken person, as he suffers incessant bad luck and cruel beatings from a careless society around him. The transformation from Arthur to Joker takes its time, feeling real and organic as a result (unlike other descents into madness from a popular show earlier this year). There is some unforced social commentary as well, for the inadequate state provisions for dealing with mental health issues are suggested to a possible cause in Arthur’s decay into insanity. Some truly surprising twists are also thrown in along the way, particularly involving Sophie (Zazie Beetz). The reason the twist works is because her affair with Arthur feels like a spin on the Joker/Harley Quinn romance. You believe in it. Then, the narrative pulls the curtain and reveals all was not as it seemed. Joker’s screenplay does this so well: exploiting our knowledge of the source material to shock and surprise. Take the inclusion of Bruce Wayne/Batman and his father, Thomas Wayne. Throughout the film, we know this subplot can only end one way. Another example is when Arthur/Joker is invited on a talkshow hosted by Murray Franklin. Not only is this calling back to a famous scene from the comics, but it is also an interesting parallel of a similar scene from The King of Comedy. By paying homage to these sources of inspiration, the talkshow scene is filled with tension, as we know things are not going to end well. The narrative is told through some carefully controlled writing.

This film is more than just a screenplay; the cinematography from Lawrence Sher, under the direction of Todd Phillips, is that of a craftsman. So much of the story is told from remarkably well chosen shots. An early shot in the film depicts Arthur at a makeup table. He is on the left of the frame, slightly off from the centre, suggesting how his life and mental state have slightly skewed from the normal. He is forcing a smile on his face, but a single tear is falling down his cheek, dragging the makeup with it. This one shot tells you everything you need to know about Arthur. Further, there are many shots depicting Arthur/Joker on a set of stairs. These shots are always framed so Arthur looks trapped between the two barristers, just as he is trapped by his depression and the crushing forces of an indifferent society. (Gotham, too, is perfectly realised by Sher as a neglected, brutal, and, sadly, recognisable city.) It is also important to track what he is doing on these stairs: is he struggling on his way up? Or dancing like there is no one else in the world on his way down? It is a clever way of tracking his character’s descent into madness.

Of course, Joker would not be what it is without the Oscar worthy performance from Joaquin Phoenix. Backed up by a moving, dark and tragic score from Hildur Guðnadóttir, Phoenix really captures the idea that it can be hard to determine whether Joker’s life is a tragedy or comedy. His physicality as he dances like the world is his stage, the way he can look in fits of laughter and genuine, gut-retching pain at the same time, and the way he effortlessly sends a chill down the audience’s spine as he changes from manic laughter to cold silence, all work to make the film as memorable as it is. Phoenix also lost a lot of weight for the role, and this was a superb artistic decision. It conveys how downtrodden and beaten this character is, whilst making for some unsettling viewing as his skin slides across his bones during his dance performances to himself. Phoenix joins the pantheon of great Joker performances.

Even if Phoenix was the only good thing about this film, it would still be worth seeing. Fortunately for us, everything is else is superbly crafted and lives up to this career high performance. The writing is careful and precise. The cinematography is even more masterful. And, unlike a lot of superhero films from Marvel, there is a terrific and dark score too. This really is the five star movie we were promised, and a true high point for film in 2019. 

Between Two Ferns: The Movie (2019) Review

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Between Two Ferns, the show, is a YouTube series that borrows the premise of the 00s hit show, Da Ali G Show. In both shows, the comedian/host interviews celebrities, but the twist is that the questions are harsh, scathing, and make you ask how he thinks he could get away with asking that. Between Two Ferns is a weaker imitation because the celebrities (including the likes of Obama) are in on the joke. Their responses to the hostile questions are funny, but you can tell they are as scripted and planned. In the 00s show, they did not, and their responses were all the more real, damning and revealing as a result. Nevertheless, the show is still funny. How does one turn an interview-based series into a feature length film for Netflix, though?

This is where Between Two Ferns surpasses the show it inspired. Da Ali G Show made the mistake of turning a character designed for short interview sequences and sketches into a character with a three act arc. It lacked the interviews that made Ali G a star. The film did not work. Between Two Ferns does not make this mistake. At the front and centre of this film is what makes the show so successful: Zach Galifianakis conducting uncomfortable interviews. The film is filled with them. The stars are big and recognisable: everyone from Peter Dinklage to John Legend to Matthew McConaughey makes an appearance. The eclectic range of the cast- from Instagram stars to famous interviewers to actors- will make sure everyone who sees this film can watch an interview they enjoy. This film is at its strongest when we are presented with these interviews.

The film’s plot is faint and tenuous. “Plot” is perhaps the wrong word. Rather, it is a thin storyline used to connect the interviews together. A dot to dot. A barely visible frame. In this sense, Between Two Ferns: The Movie borrows a lot more from Borat than Ali G. It is a mockumentary about the making of the show, with elements of the road trip and quest movie genres. Zach and his team have to travel around America, as in any road trip film, getting celebrity interviews within two weeks so that Zach can get his dream talk show deal, giving it a quest movie feel. In reality, the plot is an excuse, a set up, in order to connect some celebrity interviews together.

This is not necessarily a weakness, however. Between Two Ferns: The Movie is at its strongest when Galifianakis is roasting the celebrity guests. They are as funny and awkward as fans of the show expect. Some of the plot heavy, between interview scenes do work, but mostly when they connect directly to a celebrity interview to increase the level of humour: the John Legend sequence is a notable example of the show within a show blending with the outer story in humorous fashion. Another example is when Zach is “walking through the door of adventure” nonchalantly and coolly as he introduces the viewer to his documentary, only for it to cut behind the scenes and reveal that we are witnessing the twenty first take. When we are just given “plot”, such as the crew meeting for drinks in the bar, the film falters. Fortunately, these plot heavy scenes are few and far between, so that they do not get in the way. The pan shots turning towards the crew, zooming into their face, as they look at Zach in disdain and embarrassment are glorious. They have as much meme potential as similar shots in shows like The Office. This is a mockumentary, not a drama. For this one instance, the less plot the better.

Fans of the show will love this feature length adaptation. The hilariously unpleasant atmosphere of the celebrity interviews have been preserved, and we get many more of these funny interviews. All of them are linked together with a thin “plot”, but the film never allows the behind the scenes framing plot to slow the film down. Rather, some of the scenes off set work as comedy gold in their own right. Given the rather simple premise, and lack of a narrative, about the original show, the film adaptation can be watched by anybody. You do not need to see the show to get it. And if this is your introduction to Between Two Ferns, you will be hooked immediately.

Retrospective Reviews: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Ultimate Edition (2016)

Watch this as soon as you can…

Celebrating the 80th Anniversary of Batman, Bob Kane’s pop culture icon, could not be done properly without watching a few of the films. So many great Batman films have come out: The Dark Knight and Batman (1989) to name a couple of the best. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, for many, was not one of the great Batman movies, nor one of the great DC films more widely. Perhaps this is because the “Ultimate Edition” was not the one released in cinemas. It is a vastly superior cut of the film that gets a lot right. The differences between the r-rated cut and the theatrical cut are all very welcome.

The plot is a lot more fleshed out in this version. There is a smoother flow as plot point A moves to plot point B, rather than A going straight to C, as was the case in the original film. The Nairomi sequence is extended to make it clear how Superman (Henry Cavill) was set up so it looked like he caused the deaths in the terrorist compound. Wumni Nosaku’s Kahina Ziri is giving a much more significant role. Like the theatrical cut, Kahina testifies against Superman, but in this film, we find out she was paid by Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) to lie about the deaths. In fact, Lex just comes across as a better villain in this version. Eisenberg’s performance during the scene with the Senator (Holly Hunter), as he sinisterly drops his childlike innocence act, is so subtle in the way he changes from the public Lex Luthor to real one. He really sells the unhinged interpretation of Lex. When he is sent to Arkham Asylum, you do not doubt the decision. It helps that his plan make a lot more sense now too, for it is given greater time to develop. The fact all of these plot points were taken out for the theatrical release is baffling. It is difficult to differentiate between old and new scenes because the “new” scenes were always meant to be there. As the Ultimate Edition includes them, we are given a much more cogent film.

Most of the additions relate to Superman’s half of the story, rather than Batman’s half. Clark Kent/Superman is given clear reasons for being sceptical about Batman (Ben Affleck). He does some unassigned investigating of his own and witnesses first hand the intensity and brutality of Batman’s vigilante justice. The scene where Superman helps victims out of the burning Capital building is a particularly moving addition, demonstrating his sense of helplessness (for the bomb is revealed, in this edition, to be covered in lead) and his unwavering desire to help. Like the epic long shot where Superman blocks Doomsday’s punch from killing Lex, despite everything Lex has done, this film shows great understanding of the Superman character. It is a shame the theatrical cut did not get more of this Superman story.

The reason Batman’s story gets few extra scenes is because the theatrical cut’s greatest scenes were all related to Batman anyway. Ben Affleck is a natural as Bruce Wayne, and effortlessly changes from the public playboy persona to the angry soul behind the mask. We get a few more shots depicting Bruce struggling to sleep and taking pills, which hammer the point about his troubled mind home. No major additions though. The shot, early in the film, with the police officer’s nose and cheek in focus as the Batman watches out of focus is still a brilliant introduction to the shadowy hero. The warehouse scene did not need extra footage, for it is still one of the best Batman fight scenes put to film. The choreography is intense and violent in a way no other Batman film has been able to capture. Batman’s theme is played in all its magnificence during this scene too. Like Superman’s theme, it is memorable, captures the character perfectly, and just a pleasure to listen to in its own right.  Everything the theatrical cut got right was related to Batman, so the Ultimate Edition did not need to change much.

As the theatrical cut was two and a half hours long, the Ultimate Edition, with all its additions, comes to the three hour mark. This may put some off, especially because not all of the shots and scenes seem entirely necessary. Whilst the “Knightmare” sequence is great, and the fact Batman fails/gets captured subtly reveals a lot about Bruce’s insecurities, we could probably still do without the Flash sequence. It is confusing, even in this version. Did we really need to see Ben Affleck naked in the shower too? Extraneous shots and scenes are harder to forgive when a film is this long. Even harder when the titular battle does not take place until the two hour mark, and the first meeting between the two heroes does not take place until an hour has passed. Nevertheless, the narrative flows a lot better, and the action is still entertaining. The CGI is superbly rendered and remarkable in how realistic it looks, and all of the action is well-choreographed. What else would you expect from a Zack Snyder film? Action is what he does best. Even though the film is three hours, there is a lot to like to make sure it goes quickly.

Give Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice another go, but watch the Ultimate Edition this time. Everything the theatrical cut got wrong (an incoherent plot, lack of depth to Superman’s character development) is corrected. These are seamlessly mixed with everything the theatrical cut got right, such as the stellar cast of performances and the action sequences, which are still just as thrilling this time around. It may be three hours, but you can forgive the runtime when the film is this damn entertaining.