The real start to Phase 4 of the MCU, Shang-Chi provides a new lens through which to tell a familiar superhero origin story. Like Black Panther, Shang-Chi fully embraces its ethnic roots through not just casting but the underlying mythology and martial arts as well as the costuming and visual style, with contrasting elemental powers. It is not quite so successful a package but it demonstrates that Marvel is (belatedly) fully committed to a diverse roster of characters. Perhaps the film’s greatest assets are Eastern cinema veterans Tony Leung and Michelle Yeoh. Although Wenwu is an antogonist driven by a single purpose, Leung’s performance provides nuance and pathos, even if the end of his arc is underwhelming. Awkwafina’s role will be divisive, but it provides a helpful grounding presence amidst characters already familiar with what is unfolding. A surprising attempt is also made to rehabilitate one of the MCU’s more controversial villains and I will be curious to see how it is received. With superhero action becoming increasingly formulaic, the martial arts choreography feels genuinely fresh (particularly in the beautiful opening sequence) and it does not devovle into monsters and blasts of power until the very end. Where Black Widow‘s attempt to tie up loose ends underwhelmed, Shang-Chi shows far greater promise for Phase 4.
Sequels are a precarious prospect, particularly when continuing the narrative of a high concept breakout hit like A Quiet Place, which was never envisioned as the start of a franchise. Aside from an opening flashback to the arrival of the creatures, A Quiet Place Part II unfolds over a handful of days after the first film’s ending. Lee’s sacrifice to save his children in A Quiet Place leaves a significant hole in the excellent family dynamic, though one of the themes is Regan and Marcus discovering that they each have their father’s strength of character. The physical void is ably filled by Cillian Murphy, with a character who is not simply a replica of Krasinski’s. Whilst the narrative may be thin, Krasinksi’s assured direction delivers a solid second outing which still effectively ratchets tension despite the creatures being a known quantity and in full view from the start. Midway through Part II, he opts to split the group up, leading to a wonderfully edited sequence that cuts rapidly between simultaneous attacks, the use of tonal similarities heightening the suspense rather than detracting from it. The sound design is once again exceptional, although there is less use of Regan’s hearing impaired perspective than one might expect when she takes off alone.
“If I were gonna haunt somebody, this would certainly be the house I’d do it in.”
Unashamedly a B-movie shocker, House on Haunted Hill is a quintessential haunted house film that remains enjoyable today. Its setup is now a classic: an eccentric millionaire offers a group of strangers $10,000 each if they will spend a night in a haunted house (the exterior facade used is Ennis House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright); death ensues. As one might expect, the performances are split between overacting and entirely wooden, save for Vincent Price’s wonderfully enigmatic host. His jovially combative relationship with his wife (“Do you remember the fun we had when you poisoned me?” he asks) provides the most compelling intrigue. By contrast, the guests are largely forgettable or ill-used. The atmosphere is midlly creepy in an entertaining way rather than ever being truly scary, no matter what thr frequent high-pitched shrieks may suggest. House on Haunted Hill may not be clever, but it knows how to have fun with its schlocky bag of tricks like floating aparitions and a deadly acid pit.
“You’ve got an old fashioned idea divorce is something that lasts forever, ’til death do us part.’ Why divorce doesn’t mean anything nowadays, Hildy, just a few words mumbled over you by a judge.”
The quickfire repartee between Grant and Russell is a delight as the newspaper editor tries to win back his ex-wife and top reporter before her imminent wedding. The subtext about clinging on to a former lover is questionable, but Walter Burns is plainly a manipulative and duplicitous man and — despite all of Cary Grant’s charm — Hildy Johnson is fully aware of this, recognising his machinations sometimes more swiftly than the audience. Agency always rests with Hildy and whether she is truly ready to give up her career, toxic as it may be. The press room can at times devolve into a scripted cacophony that is impossible to follow, but the other newspaper men are really just a backdrop in order to demonstrate Hildy’s superiority both as a journalist and as a human being. The opening credits include a pointed dig at the press, noting that these depictions are historic and of course bear no resemblance to journalists any longer; 80 years later, it is even starker that the ever shortening news cycle has only increased the extent to which having a story is prized over the truth. His Girl Friday does, however, make one wistful for a time when the press were actually capable of holding mendacious politicians to account.
“Want to see a magic trick? I can make matter disappear.”
Keir Burrows’ debut feature is a thoughtful low-budget sci-fi thriller that poses fascinating questions even if its exploration of these ideas is limited. The premise is that an Oxford PhD student finds herself unable to form memories after testing an experiment that transports matter. Funnelling the experience solely through Ana’s perspective is a stylistic strength but a narrative weakness: it creates a heightened sense of intellectual paranoia, reminiscent of Aranofsky’s Pi, but it also means the audience’s information is limited and unreliable. Ana does not so much discover the truth as have it revealed to her at the end, so only partial glimpses can be discerned by an astute viewer during the film. This will frustrate those who are not content simply to ruminate on the film’s underlying philosophical quandaries — the fundamental question is what it means to transport the matter which makes up a person, but Anti Matter looks beyond this to questions about the relationship between memory and identity. Whilst the vehicle may be science fiction, this experiment is ultimately a blend of philosophy and paranoia rather than science.
“Nothing good is born from lies. And greatness is not what you think.”
2017’s Wonder Woman broke the DCEU‘s streak of weak movies and beat Marvel to the punch with a female-fronted superhero movie. With Patty Jenkins returning to direct the sequel, expectations were high. Sadly, WW84 slumps to the level of its DC stablemates, with nearly all of its issues stemming from an awful script that is not only set in the 1980s but seems like it could have been written then too. The themes of desire and there being no good shortcuts to success are interesting but it is hard to engage with a story where every development is handwaved away as the result of a wish. Invariably the time jump means that only a single character is carried forward and the previous film’s team dynamic is lost; things are somehow worse when Chris Pine’s character is shoehorned back in (and then inevitably discarded). The new characters are poorly introduced (particularly the villains whose motivations are never sketched beyond a desire for power) and hackneyed screenwriting abounds: we cut to multiple conversations with people already laughing at some unheard joke to indicate chemistry rather than having to write dialogue that actually demonstrates it. The film’s best action is in its opening scene — a flashback to Amazons competing in a multi-disciplinary race across Themyscira — after which it is just Diana lassoing around and hurling people into walls. Even in the context of the DCEU much of the film makes little sense, like Diana’s unexplained desire to conceal her identity (since she has no one to protect) or learning to fly only never to use this ability with the Justice League thirty years later. It may be functional as a big budget blockbuster but, particularly in the wake of its predecessor, WW84 is bloated and disappointing.
Disclosure: I know personally at least one person involved in the making of this film.
Whilst it remains unclear the extent to which studio intervention caused the issues in David Ayers’ Suicide Squad, James Gunn’s follow-up has been billed as a soft reboot – in reality, with a number of returning characters it is essentially a direct sequel with a revised (and more consistent) tone. The key ingredient Gunn provides is his skill in writing dysfunctinal group chemistry which proved so successful in Guardians of the Galaxy. What makes The Suicide Squad excel is this in combination with beautiful visual flourishes and creative variation when it comes to the action, choreographed around the characters’ varying levels of power and skill rather than the godlike punchfests that have routinely plagued the DCEU. Viewers should be prepared for ridiculous ultraviolent excess — this is the sort of film where multiple people are literally torn in half — but it is fitting for a group of villains, and Gunn uses it to comment on American foreign policy. As pure entertainment, this concotion produces the best comicbook film in the past few years.
“Hey, I’m here with my best friend, trying to help him through a tough time. If that ain’t real, I don’t know what is.”
The Truman Show for the digital generation, Free Guy imagines a videogame NPC becoming self-aware and breaking free of his scripted routine, commenting on the way we live our lives as well as our treatment of virtual characters. The videogame conceit lends itself to cameos from big-name streamers but the creative freedom offered by Free City’s virtual environment is spent predominantly on ostentatious Fortnite-esque visual effects rather than memorable action. Ryan Reynolds is ideal as the charmingly guileless everyman as is Jodie Comer in a more nuanced role as both a player and a programmer with her own agenda, but the film leans too heavily on the likability of its characters at the expense of smarter social commentary. On the tech side, Free Guy is to AI what Hackers is to hacking — this is designed to be surface-level entertainment and swiftly falls apart on deeper examination. Despite its cartoonish violence, this is a summer blockbuster fun filled with genuine warmth.
Stan & Ollie is a wonderful portrayal of the friendship between the comedy duo Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. This is not a standard biopic, eschewing the pair’s rise to worldwide fame and instead focusing on a grueling UK stage tour long after their peak. The whole endeavour relies upon the performances of Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly, filled with warmth and the weight of such a long-running partnership, as well as being brilliantly observed as the actors recreate a number of the duo’s classic acts. It would be easy to overplay the emotional moments between two performers who were, by their nature, larger than life — what makes the film so moving is knowing when understated subtlety is more effective.
“A faint clap of thunder / Clouded skies / Perhaps rain will come / If so, will you stay here with me?”
The Garden of Words feels like something of a stepping stone between Makoto Shinkai’s earlier work and his bigger budget successes that followed. Although only 45 minutes long, this is still a meditative piece, following a teenage boy who strikes up a relationship with an older woman whom he meets on rainy days in a park. The hallmarks of Shinkai’s writing are present: isolated individuals who have a connection yet find themselves separated (in this case by age). The rain-soaked greenery is stunningly beautiful, with more naturalistic hues than the oversaturated Your Name and Weathering With You, but not so dour as the colour palette in 5 Centimetres Per Second. Yet, for all this beauty, the experience is best described as fleeting — not only in duration but also in depth. Perhaps this could have been resolved by a stronger conclusion (often a weakness in Shinkai’s work); as it is, The Garden of Words is ephemoral, leaving little to take away.