ANNOUNCEMENT – Re-branding and Relaunch

To all my readers, old and new,

Over the past two-and-a-half years, I’ve worked very hard at being the best critic I can be, but I can’t help but feel like I’m being held back.

To tell the truth, I’ve felt the ‘Mr Opinionated’ moniker has held me back; it’s very hard to take seriously someone who gives themselves a pseudonym, but I was stuck with the name after purchasing a domain.

But, with that domain due to expire, and after much thought, I feel like a re-branding is well overdue.

So, from January 1st of 2020, Mr Opinionated as you know it will be no more; in its place will be: Major Film Reviews, making use of my actual name and taking full ownership of my writing.

Volume 2 of my book will proceed as planned, and will be the final swansong for my alter-ego, as I work on re-building and re-branding my website, I have the wonderful Graham Musk Designs (who designed the lovely page logo you see at the top of the site) working on some new caricatures for this new era.

The reviews and their frequency won’t change a bit, just the site name, which I feel is well past its sell-by date, hopefully allowing me to take full responsibility for my words in the future.

Hopefully, I’ll enjoy the same readership into the New Year, and I hope you enjoy the rest of this years’ writing.

All the best,

Nathan

The Peanut Butter Falcon Review

Those who read my little rants disguised as reviews on a regular basis, will remember that I’ve mentioned a few times that I’m a fan on professional wrestling and I have been since I was young. Sadly, when the worlds of wrestling and films intersect, they often end in disaster.

Dwayne Johnson and John Cena may be riding high in Hollywood right now, but they are the exception rather than the rule, many figures from the wrestling world have tried their hand at acting, more often than not on an ill-fated WWE Studios venture, but they very rarely break through to the mainstream, and wrestling as a topic is usually held in contempt by Hollywood.

There are exceptions to the rule, as usual, The Wrestler for one is a phenomenal film, lauded by critics for its daring approach to portraying wrestling, and admired by many in the industry for its unflinching accuracy. Even earlier this year there was Fighting With My Family, which wasn’t on the same level, but was still a damn good film.

The Peanut Butter Falcon is an intersection of several unusual threads, one of which being wrestling, all wrapped up in a surprising package.

Story

Zak (Zack Gottsagen) is a young man with Down’s syndrome living in an old folks home with a big dream: to become a professional wrestler. To peruse this dream he goes on the run, soon gaining help in the form of Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) a down-on-his luck fisherman on the run from violent rivals.

Verdict

Bit of an odd premise isn’t it? But upon reading it, do you want to read more? I certainly did.

What this film has that many films try so vainly to chase is effortless charm. I challenge anyone to watch this film and not fall in love with the character of Zak, his infectious personality and heart bind this film together, like rivets hold together a ship. He’s so charming that everyone around him becomes that much more likeable, like his energy is passed from character to character, and it’s simply wonderful.

This film may fly under a lot of radars, but it is catching a lot of acclaim in independent circles, richly deserved acclaim I’d say, for such a unique concept that enters risky ground in portraying those with a learning disability, it handles it with such affection and drive that you forget about Zak’s condition, he simply becomes human, which is the message at the heart of this film.

Filmmakers who want to portray those with learning impairments should look to this film as an example, it uses Zak’s condition as a key part of his portrayal for sure, but they don’t let it define him. They let his boundless energy and passion speak for itself, and seeing his and Tyler’s relationship develop is seriously heartwarming.

This would be what I’d consider the main draw to the film: the ever-developing chemistry between Zak and Tyler. They start off at odds, unable to understand each other or their respective worlds, but through shared experience they come to appreciate each other. Tyler eventually sees past Zack’s Down’s syndrome, and in a really touching character arc, helps others to see past it too.

The film also looks very nice, making use of its pilgrimage setup to show off some of the vast American countryside, shooting varied, yet beautiful scenes on land and water, cruising across vast body’s of water, and observing serene landscapes. The cinematography has a real picture book feel to it when the characters are exploring the wilderness, giving a wild and vibrant feel to the film as a whole.

Acting is also a strong point for this film. Held together by the strong bedrock of Zack Gottsagen’s incredibly honest performance, it’s helped by a controlled and contemplative Shia LaBeouf, who’s at his best when portraying deep, cutting emotion with just facial expressions, it’s like his characters entire story lurks behind his eyes, his face flickering with regret, but while also keeping up with Zack’s optimistic side later in the film, he becomes a surrogate older brother figure, a role he metamorphosis’s into with great ease.

It can be on the more absurd side at times, but it also manages to juggle a great many factors. It manages to be incredibly funny, while also being exceptionally touching, as I say, a heart of ice could be melted by Zak, and his relationship with Tyler, and that alone made this film worthwhile for me, to the extent that I’m willing to forgive its few flaws, it’s literal interpretation of wrestling and occasional steps into the ridiculous among them, because it touched me like few films ever do.

In conclusion, I may have seen technically better films this year, but I don’t think I’ve seen many with quite as much heart and charm as this film has. An outlandish premise delivers a seriously affecting final product that will really stick with you, despite what could be conceived as a downbeat ending, it still manages to leave you with a feeling of optimism, and, more importantly, a massive smile on your face.

The Irishman Review

There are few directors working in Hollywood right now with the prestige of Martin Scorsese. A masterful director, his legacy would have been secured as one of the all-time greats if he’d have stopped making films in around 1982, instead he carried on, now almost into his sixth decade as a filmmaker, he still manages to bring excitement to the heart of even the coldest critics.

He’s responsible for at least three of my favourite films of all time and he’s one of Hollywood’s biggest living legends. Now he’s assembled somewhat of a dream team for this long-gestating mob film.

Marty is no stranger to the criminal underworld (on the big screen I mean) two of his most critically successful films revolve around organised crime: 1990’s Goodfellas and 2006’s The Departed. Not only that, but he’s reuniting with two of his best co-collaborators: Robert DeNiro and the returning-from-retirement Joe Pesci. As well as one new exciting partner; Al Pacino.

It’s also one of the tentpole acquisitions of Netflix, which continues to recruit the cream of the Hollywood crop for its originals lineup. It had success last year with Roma, and something tells me another Netflix original will be gracing the awards stage next year…

Story

Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) is a World War II veteran, back home and working as a meat van driver, he’s soon embroiled in Philadelphia’s criminal underworld.

Verdict

Scorsese films are like rich tapestries, full of style and detail, and The Irishman is no different.

For those, like myself, who are seasoned Scorsese vets, you may be surprised as to exactly how much detail is stuffed into The Irishman, filling each of its 3-and-a-half hour runtime, something which in ordinary hands, would very very difficult.

It uses a framework we’ve seen many times before, but with its own style. The central character, Frank Sheeran is telling his story to some unknown and unseen third party, this takes us on an journey that stretches from the 1960’s right into the 21st century.

Frank’s story is that of a perpetual rising star in the mafia world, starting by working odd jobs and eventually becoming the right-hand man to some of the organisations most powerful men, again, it’s not so much how original the story is that makes it worthwhile, but the way it is told.

Scorsese has forgotten more about filmmaking than most will ever know, and his experienced and expert guiding hand can be felt all over the film, as it zips from place to place, scene to scene leaving no stone unturned, no event undocumented. Each event is treated as important as the last, even the fates of side characters are treated as important enough for us to know, and it goes a long way to building a cohesive world and landscape for the viewer to be immersed in.

The veteran filmmaker has lost none of his gift for artistic framing either, making even the most brutal act of violence seem beautiful in its own way. The visuals enhance the story by playing up to its setting. Scenes from the 60’s look like they were shot then, and more modern scenes are in sharper contrast, really giving the impression that we’re part of the story, watching it as it happens.

But, even as it looks as luxurious and vintage as it does, the hand of modern technology is felt, with some absolutely jaw-dropping de-ageing techniques. It is simply amazing how the actors, now in their seventies, can look like they did in their prime with no stand-ins, no prosthetics, just acting and technology. It feels like the film is simultaneously paying respect to the past while openly embracing the future.

What about the acting then? Well, it’s what you come to expect when Scorsese directs DeNiro and Pesci. Those who are only familiar with DeNiro because of his recent (and uniformly awful) comedy films, are in for a reminder of the Titan he once was, he shows that the same actor who brought Travis Bickel to life still exists if it is coaxed out.

Pesci’s turn is even more incredible; it’s been almost a decade since he was last seen on screen, but he strides back in front of camera like he hasn’t missed a step. His character is very much the puppet-master, a long way from his turn in Goodfellas, his intentions are bubbling under, rather than barely contained, and it’s a joy to see him back on screen and in such form.

Not to be forgotten, Pacino threatens to steal the show as Jimmy Hoffa, the union leader who the main plot eventually revolves around, he isn’t introduced until someways into the film, but explodes on the scene like a cannonball, delivering a fiery performance the likes of which we haven’t seen from him in many years.

Maybe the source material lit a fire beneath these three acting greats, and they embraced how good they were, and still could be, but it’s refreshing to once again enjoy the sight of them, as opposed to feeling sorry for them, as I often to, in DeNiro and Pacino’s case especially.

This kind of film is one that is very rarely made these days, probably with good reason. It takes an expert conductor to bring together a symphony orchestra, and it takes a master filmmaker to orchestrate an epic of a film such as this. It’s something that comes around maybe once a decade, and something we should cherish, because it may never come around again.

No matter your take on home streaming, you’re getting a real treat if you’re a Netflix subscriber; as much as I’d argue that this film demands to be seen on the big screen, it delivers an experience like few films can.

I went in with extremely high expectations, but with my usual caution and it met or exceeded every single one, it’s a rollercoaster crafted to the very last detail to guarantee the very best experience; each character has a reason and a purpose, every frame is constructed with precision, and not a single thing is out of place.

In conclusion, this may end up being the last time we see a film like this, and if it is, it’s a fitting last hurrah for all involved. The retelling of a colourful life (to say the least) told in an engaging way. Don’t be put off by it’s long runtime, it earns every second, and makes it worth the while. There is simply nothing else like it, and may never be again. Only time will tell as to how it is remembered amongst the great mob films of history, but in a career built of timeless masterpieces, I think Martin Scorsese has delivered another.

Midway Review

It is often said that history is written by the victors; and World War II is a victory we’ve been telling for eight decades now, something that shows no sign of slowing down.

It makes me wonder if one day we may run out of war stories to tell, this facilitating the need for a new war, just to keep the Hollywood studios in business.

I joke, of course, but it’s no over exaggeration either, it seems like every event in the course of the six-year-long war has been shaken down by Hollywood for an easy buck. Some of them are great, but for every good war film, there are several imitators flying closely behind.

I think I may have a handle for spotting the give away signs now, but I am not delusional enough to think I’ve seen it all.

Anyway, this ramble is getting us nowhere fast, let’s get in with the review.

Story

After the attack on Pearl Harbor leaves the Unites States reeling, intelligence teams and the heads of military re-group to think of a counter-attack. Meanwhile, over the Pacific, Japanese forces are planning their follow-up strike.

Verdict

I must admit to a fair amount of trepidation going into this film. First there’s the subject matter; Pearl Harbor and its aftermath is an event that has been put onto film before, and with disastrous consequences, hardly surprising given the director of that particular film, it’s an event that is difficult to portray with any amount of even-handedness, even with the benefit of hindsight.

Secondly, I worried because of the director. Roland Emmerich is the man behind the camera here, someone who I don’t consider to be awful, but certainly doesn’t shy away from the ‘style-over-substance’ approach. He’s the man behind Independence Day, a film where aliens blow up the White House, in case my point needs proving.

To cut him some slack though, if ever there was to be a subject where big explosions were to fit right in, it’d be a war movie, something where explosions are slightly more necessary, but can nonetheless be overused regardless, again just look at the Pearl Harbor movie for proof.

I’ve often thought that the best war films are those that focus on the human struggle, as opposed to being about any particular stance. Of course the ethics have to be there and in World War II’s case they’re fairly cut-and-dry, especially on the European front. On the American-Japanese side however, things are a little muddier, and the line slightly narrower.

Yes, the Americans were definitely on the side of good in this war (doesn’t that make a change) but I feel like a lot of war films in the past have used this to present and enhance certain racist stereotypes.

I’m no war historian, but I’d say that the fine points in this film were fairly accurate and well done, the Japanese characters are not heavy stereotypes, but probably a fair representation of what the Imperial Japanese were like, we’re even given a little prologue that attempts to put the Japanese attack into perspective somewhat.

I’d say in terms of ethics, it hits just the right balance, of course all the Americans are portrayed as heroes giving the Japanese threat what for, but they’re also shown to have flaws, and pains, something that is very rarely shown in an American made war film.

I’d also say the action was well-handled too, in particular the portrayal of the Pearl Harbor attack is not so over-the-top that it ceases to be impactful, we get a genuine feeling of the loss of humanity in that event. There’s a few stories of the souls lost in the attack that really add to its effect.

The film isn’t so much ABOUT that attack though, it’s more about the aftermath and the following military operation, The Battle of Midway, and all the events in between.

The film comes into its own during the battle scenes, squeezing every last bit of tension from every dog-fight and bombing run, but as a consequence of this, the more talkative plot moments are in a rush to get to the next battle, and as a result some events seem rushed. It’s not a deal-breaker, but there is a jarring difference between the time taken to complete an intelligence mission, and one to complete a military one.

As a film, Midway may be over-stuffed, it has so many things it wants to show that it fasts-forwards through the parts it thinks we’ll find boring; so perhaps a more streamlined approach would have been prudent, maybe only show us the parts that you think we’ll find interesting?

I don’t want to be too down on the film though, as I do think there’s enough about it to recommend. It’s a bit unfocused, if anything, but in the moments when it is focused (usually the action sequences) then it does deliver.

It’s not a film that will be remembered for its outstanding acting or directing, but rather an account of a war event that is maybe less publicised. The acting and directing are fine, nothing special, maybe even good in parts, but ultimately not what we’ll remember.

I remain divided then, on my actual opinion of the film. I found it engaging in some parts, but bloated and over-bearing in others. It’s certainly not the worst portrayal of World War II, but it’s also not the best. Emmerich gets my respect for not demonising the Japanese as thoroughly as other films have, I think as a German he may be somewhat empathetic to the portrayal of former war villains.

In conclusion then, I’m afraid I have to wheel out the ever-vague ‘could be better, could be worse’ verdict. If you’re a fan of war films, I’m almost certain you’d have seen better, but it’s probably not going to upset many people either. I’d recommend seeing it once, but I doubt you’ll be rushing to buy it on Blu-Ray.

Last Christmas Review

It’s been a while since we’ve had a genuinely good Christmas film. One that will be populating terrestrial TV at this time of year for years to come. I’m talking about films like Elf, or Love Actually.

Each generation has their own Christmas films, there’s the two I’ve just mentioned, or there’s Home Alone if you’re a bit older, Gremlins or Die Hard for those looking for a harder-edged Christmas flick, going back even further there’s Miracle on 34th Street, or It’s a Wonderful Life; Christmas films tend to live on longer than their unseasonal counterparts.

So, along comes this film: Last Christmas. Hoping to step into those shoes, and fill a void that has been empty for a considerable time, there’s a case to be argued that we’ve yet to have a genuine ‘Christmas classic’ in this decade, but after this, we may just have had a very late entry to consider.

Story

One year after suffering an almost fatal heart complication, Kate’s (Emilia Clarke) life is a mess, she isn’t taking care of herself, and is alienating everyone around her. The arrival of the mysterious Tom threatens to turn her life around, no matter how much she is unwilling to do so…

Verdict

When I first read about this film, I was worried somewhat. It sounds like the kind of concept that could easily fall apart; a Christmas film based off the music of George Michael sounds a bit ridiculous on the surface, at best it sounds like a fluffy distraction that fawns over its subject matter, at worst it might have been a dire attempt to pluck at our heartstrings.

Luckily, the film had a secret weapon: Emma Thomson. The tenured actress is not only a part of the cast for this film, but one half of the screenwriters too. She has form as a writer, having received an Academy Award nomination for her Sense and Sensibility script. She is also known to edit scripts uncredited in numerous productions.

This was a massive point in the films favour, as the film benefits from an enormous heart thanks to Thomson’s script, her dialogue sparkles with wit and warmth. It’s the films bedrock that helps it endear itself to the audience.

It’s also helped by a dream-like directorial approach, using some of London’s more romantic settings to help enhance its central love story. It’s almost fantastical approach to its settings conjures up all the warmth that a Christmas film needs, settling us into a cosy place, with its winter, romantic images.

I have been critical in the past of Emilia Clarke as an actress, with good reason, I feel. She has, in the past, blankly stared he way through roles with all the warmth and expression of a robot with low batteries, but here, whether the script has engaged her more, or the director has worked with her better, she manages to find the warmth that she has been sorely missing, carrying the stories emotional heart extremely well, as well as shining in her characters more humorous moments.

Alongside her is Henry Golding, an actor with whom I am unfamiliar, according to his online profile, he was a star of last years Crazy Rich Asians, a film I sadly missed upon its release. I was very impressed with Golding though, and his portrayal of Tom strikes the right balance of distant, yet heartfelt. Keeping his character somewhat mysterious, yet approachable, in some ways, he’s the backbone of the story, the maypole around which all the events dance merrily.

I don’t think the film is a complete home run, however. There are some clumsy links to modern attitudes and politics that I think were ultimately unnecessary amongst the narrative, it felt like an attempt to insert real-world events where they weren’t needed. The background of Kate’s family fleeing Yugoslavia was enough, anything else was just passing for the sake.

I also feel as if the connection to its subject of George Michael was fleeting at best, there’s a brief moment of Kate mentioning how much she admires him, then the link is merely reduced to using his songs in the background, besides the big link to the title song, it all feels very vestigial.

These things aside though, this film will leave you with the warm, cosy feeling that all Christmas films should leave you with, as well as a surprisingly daring twist towards the end that turns the film on its head and leaves you desperately clawing through the film for clues.

It may well be the closest we’ve come to a genuine ‘Christmas classic’ in quite some time.

Le Mans ‘66 Review

Earlier in the year, I reviewed a film called Vice, an experience that must have been fulfilling, because I can’t remember much about it; but what I can remember mostly revolves around its leading man, Christian Bale, who I described in that review as being a ‘chameleon’ meaning an actor who changes themselves drastically to fit a role, something he proves once again here.

In Vice, he was a sharp-suited, yet personality free, Vice President. Here he’s a fiery tempered, unkempt race driver from Birmingham (that’s England’s Birmingham, not Alabama) talk about range!

A lot of hype has been afforded to this film – as well as some early Oscar hype – mainly due to its superstar leading men, the aforementioned Bale and the evergreen Matt Damon, and its Director, James Mangold, a director who is picking up a fair amount of prestige on the back of Logan, but has previously been responsible for the fantastic Walk The Line.

So, we begin the season of release madness, with a hot start out of the pits…

Story

After being ferociously rejected in a takeover bid of Ferrari, a furious Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) orders Ford enter motor racing; recruiting Former Le Mans winner, turned car designer, Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) who turns to his most trusted driver, the unpredictable Ken Miles (Christian Bale) who quickly ruffles feathers at Ford.

Verdict

James Mangold has a great eye for an involving story, I’ll give him that. Although, on the surface, a feud between two motor companies might not sound like a solid gold story idea, but as with many things, the intrigue is in the human element of the story.

Motor racing really has to be one of those sports you really have to be into to fully understand. Unfortunately, it’s not something I’m into all that much; I drive a car, and I know what I need to keep an eye on to make sure it doesn’t blow up, but beyond that, I don’t know the difference between an inlet valve and drive shaft.

Which means that there is a thin line for this film to toe to make itself accessible to the layman, but paying its respects to its source material, a line I’d say it goes quite well, it tells you, and shows you in easy to understand terms what could go wrong, and indeed, what does wrong.

It does an admirable job in showing the dangers of the job too, it’s not a film with an overwhelming amount of needless explosions, but it knows when one can be inserted for maximum narrative drama. Just one explosion in this film means more than a million ones in the latest Fast & Furious or whatever, because it’s used to show the stakes, instead of visual flair.

That being said, there’s no lack of visual flair on display, I really like the colour palate Mangold uses for most of his films, and he tends to favour a dusty aesthetic, which works well when combined with some of the test tracks; speaking of tracks, that brings me nicely onto another highlight of the film: the driving scenes.

I wouldn’t say it was too heavy on the in-car driving or racing scenes, in many ways it’s just building up to the climactic race at the end, but when it does, the use of camera techniques helps us feel the speed and the intensity that goes with piloting these powerful, monstrous cars, and the reaction times needed to properly control it. This is mostly done with tight shots inside the cockpit, as well as showing us details of the car from the drivers perspective, it all goes together to create an incredibly immersive atmosphere, you forget you are watching a film at all, and are just transfixed on the ebbs and flows of the race.

Ironically for a film so focused on speed, I feel the pacing could have been better. It does feel over-long, which is a trend I’m noticing more and more in films, and there are many scenes I feel would have been better trimmed down or cut entirely.

That said however, I found the film incredibly engrossing from start to finish, even with its occasional flabbiness. The main reason for this is the character struggles at the films heart.

There’s a real conflict of conscious towards the end, the viewers expectations are manipulated masterfully, by putting Carroll and Ken so at odds with their superiors, there’s a constant clash of egos that is built to a quite excellent crescendo of mixed feelings that will play on the audiences’ perceptions in the best possible way. (This was a very hard paragraph to write without spoilers, let me tell you.)

Damon and Bale are at their excellent best in this film too. I see another Oscar nomination in Christian Bale’s future, that’s for sure. There seems to be no end to the man’s adaptability, as for Damon, he has some nice moments of characterisation, as well as a real poignant sincerity to his performance.

In conclusion, this is a well-crafted, intelligently-executed and finely-acted piece of cinema. Another great effort to add to James Mangold’s ever-increasing pile, and overall, it’s just an enjoyable film, with a little bit of something for everyone. Some character, some suspense, some action, and some emotion. We’re off to a flying start to the festive release boom.

Marvel Cinematic Universe Retrospective – Phase Three

So, this is a blast from the past.

Last year, I did a pair of retrospectives on the MCU (available here and here), and my aim was always to finish the job, and only now will I get the chance to do just that, after the release of Far From Home.

So, a year (and a bit) in the making, here’s my look back at the third phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Captain America: Civil War (2016) – Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo

Might as well start with a bang, eh?

So, Civil War was an adaptation of a classic comic arc of the same name, one beloved by fans, so not a small task to kick off the next phase of the story. Luckily it was helmed by the Russo Brothers, the duo responsible for the excellent Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Whereas the first two Phases started smaller and got bigger, Phase Three starts huge and just keeps growing, delivering one of the best films in the franchise in the process, we’re introduced to new heroes in Black Panther and the newest incarnation of Spider-Man, while all the heroes we’ve come to know and love get together and batter each other.

It also boasts one of the finest action scenes in the MCU and maybe cinema as a whole with the airport scene, which has some great action mixed in with amazing camera shots, Civil War was a real statement of intent for Phase Three.

Doctor Strange (2016) – Directed by Scott Derrickson

I’ve always been conflicted about this film. I’ve never really enjoyed it, but have been able to acknowledge its achievements as a film.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all bad. The casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange was a masterstroke, and he slot into the character with ease. embodying the arrogance of the doctor at the start and growing as the film progresses, he’s one of the bright sparks of the film.

The other area where it exceeds expectations is in the visuals department, there is some truly staggering VFX work going on in this film, some Inception-level visual trickery, and some really imaginative uses of it as well, but as I’ve said before VFX cannot carry a movie.

What I’ve always said about the film is, it’s very nice visually, but it’s crushingly dull. It has a fantastic cast, but wastes it for the most part. Mads Mikkelsen is a phenomenal actor, but gets almost nothing to do, Tilda Swinton is very disappointing as The Ancient One, and the film’s climactic villain fight is just Benedict Cumberbatch talking to himself.

Doctor Strange would find himself as a character as time went on, but his solo movie debut was very disappointing.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) – Directed by James Gunn

It’s safe to say that I did not envy James Gunn on this venture.

Nobody saw the success of the first Guardians coming, and if you think you did, you’re a liar. So after that, the task was to do it again, but better this time.

So, James Gunn set out to do just that, and succeeded, somehow.

There are people who prefer Guardians 1 as a whole, and I love the first Guardians, it’s hard to realise now how much of a breath of fresh air it was, but Guardians 2 takes all the aspects we loved about the first outing and amps them up a notch.

The villain is better this time out, for a start. It’s always nice to see Kurt Russell and he delivers the necessary charismatic performance here as Ego, and all the Guardians get more time to expand their characters, as well as picking up a few more friends along the way.

It’s hard to imagine an MCU without the Guardians now, and not to discredit the first film, but this installment truly cemented their status as cherished characters.

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) – Directed by Jon Watts

Thinking back, this film seems like a lifetime ago. So much has happened with the character of Spider-Man. He’s died, been resurrected and almost repossessed by his actual owners, but cast your minds back to when the future looked rosy.

All the signs are here for a really good film, and truth be told, it isn’t bad, but there are teething problems for his first solo outing.

Firstly, and most galling, is calling it a solo Spider-Man movie is a bit of a stretch as it’s more like a Spider-Man and Iron Man movie, and as great as Tony Stark is, he’s completely unnecessary here, he adds nothing to Peter’s character development besides being a stern father figure that he didn’t need, and mostly just gets in the way of the plot.

It takes no risks with the character, but really doesn’t need to, it’s basically just there to remind us of Spider-Man’s potential, a placeholder for a future, more exciting, film.

There are parts that make it worthwhile, however. Tom Holland continues to stake his claim as the best Spider-Man ever, Michael Keaton plays a really interesting villain, and Peter Parker’s high school life manages to be engaging without being too stereotypical.

Overall, a cautious first step in integrating solo Spider-Man movies into the MCU, it wouldn’t be perfect on its first attempt, but the promise was there.

Thor: Ragnarok (2017) – Directed by Taika Waititi

After the perpetual series low point that was Thor: The Dark World, pressure was on to prove that Thor could handle his own solo outing without boring the world to tears.

Thankfully, Taika Waititi was on hand to remind everyone that Thor doesn’t have to be a miserable pseudo-Shakespearean misery, he can be charming and charismatic, and crack a joke just as well as any Guardian of the Galaxy.

Yes, it took them long enough, but they finally figured out the formula to making Thor interesting, dust off all the grit the first two films languished in, and replace it with a bit of colour.

The Thor present here is almost unrecognisable when compared to Thor from The Dark World. He’s engaging and bright, still with a hint of heartache, but presenting a facade of goofy lovable-ness, in fact, all the characters here are a far cry from the past of Dark Elves and the like. Instead we have an enigmatic and eccentric dictator, a warrior Hulk and a creature made of rocks with an unmistakable New Zealand accent.

All the aspects of Ragnarok come together in an orgy of colour and fun, and it’s so far removed from the previous entries that it’s hard to believe they share any similarities at all. I don’t think it’s an understatement to say that Waititi saved the character from becoming background noise in the franchise.

It may be leaning on the comedy a bit too much for some peoples tastes, but I found that just added to its charm. Thor was interesting again, and he had a bunch of interesting new friends the merchandise department could take full advantage of; everyone’s a winner!

Black Panther (2018) – Directed by Ryan Coogler

Well, in terms of quality, Marvel have been pretty consistent these last few years; a few films can be fairly accused of being formulaic, but when the formula is as successful as the MCU has been, then one can hardly blame them for returning to the well. In terms of telling one continuous story, a few films stand-out on their own, Black Panther is one such film.

I believe this is one of the few films in the franchise that could almost be viewed in a vacuum, it rarely flirts with the larger series storyline, it instead tells a smaller, more personal story, one that really resonated with audiences.

It is often praised for being ‘revolutionary’ in its method of making the struggles of black characters mainstream, something which I believe to be over-stated, but my focus is, and always will be, on the quality of the film (there are exceptions, I mainly operate on a case-by-case basis) and there is plenty of quality about Black Panther, in fact it’s probably one of the franchises’ best films, certainly one of its most ambitious.

I have said a lot in the past (especially on an early edition of my podcast) that I was slightly aghast at its inclusion as a Best Picture nominee for this past years’ Oscars, and I stand by the opinion that it didn’t belong in that category, but I fear what may get lost in that argument is how much I truly did love the film, how it presented a complex, yet cohesive, villain, built a new world teeming with life right in front of our eyes; even just in the ways it is considered ‘different’ I think make it brilliant.

It’s a film that I think got lavished with a lot of deserved praise, but may get lost in the mists of time alongside its bigger stablemates, being followed by Infinity War for example, but this is an instance where Marvel got everything spot-on; the storytelling, direction and writing are all excellent, and it deserves to be regarded as one of the MCU’s high points.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018) – Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo

Okay, we’re on the home stretch now…

Now twenty films in, the MCU comes to its epic conclusion, well, part one of its epic conclusion, at least.

The pressure was well and truly on to deliver a worthy ending to ten years of continuous build toward this film, anyone could be forgiven for folding like a pack of cards in delivering a film that simply HAD to be generation-defying, explosive, and fitting.

It’s genuinely difficult to comprehend the impact this film and its sequel have had on the film industry, for all intents and purposes, it was the culmination of a great experiment that could have easily blew up in everyone’s face, and superhero films would have remained a red-headed stepchild in the eyes of Hollywood. It’s true that their reputation had been climbing over the previous decade, but I believe this film cemented their permanent seat amongst the big boys.

Thinking about it for a second, previously, a bad film in a superhero series was the death knell for a franchise; think Superman IV or Batman & Robin, nowadays, their position is unassailable, unable to be dented by even the most underwhelming of films, and the previous two Avengers films making almost $5 Billion between them massively helped this.

Even looking at it apart from its financial achievements, it’s an awe-inspiring success. Managing to wrangle that many characters into even a basically comprehensible plot is an achievement, to make it seem as balanced and brimming with life as Infinity War does verges on being a miracle. Some films struggle to keep a film interesting with just a few characters, Infinity War manages to be engaging with upwards of twenty main characters, this isn’t just a reflection of the Russo’s skills, but also that of their screenwriters, who I feel get over-looked when all the congratulations are handed out.

It’s exactly what the ending needed to be, epic, emotional and exciting; with an ending that will stand the test of time as one of cinema’s great cliffhangers. There may have been better comic book films in terms of quality, but none will ever match Infinity War’s (and by extension, Endgame) scale.

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018) – Directed by Peyton Reed

I can only imagine what it must have been like to follow Queen at Live Aid, I can imagine David Bowie stood in the wings (that’s right, I do my research you know) trying to figure out how quickly you can contract laryngitis. This is analogous to how I think Peyton Reed was feeling when his Ant-Man sequel was scheduled to follow Infinity War.

In fairness to the film, the first one was a fun little romp fronted by an endlessly-charismatic leading man, so a sequel was almost inevitable, I just think it was completely out of its depth in its positioning, literally the only thing important to the over-arching series story was the post-credits sting, something that could have been released as a short film on the Infinity War Blu-Ray, or placed at the start of Endgame.

Don’t get me wrong, it was still a fun little film, and an ideal palate cleanser between bigger releases, but I think it really wasn’t done any favours by its placement, especially since it was quite lacking story-wise, and as mentioned, offered little to the over-arching narrative.

Instead it got by on the likeability of Paul Rudd, and his chemistry with Evangeline Lilly and Michael Douglas; which works to a degree, but it was always going to fall short. For some it may be enough, but otherwise it seems a bit inconsequential.

Captain Marvel (2019) – Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck

I remember saying at the time of Captain Marvel’s release that it seemed like the final piece of the puzzle that we needed to complete the build towards Endgame, in hindsight, that might have been over-stating it slightly.

To say Captain Marvel is divisive would be an understatement, however, for both valid reasons, and not-so-valid, the latter views being a strong current of obvious misogyny that plague the internet, but again, not really my interest, I’m here for the valid arguments.

I remain on the fence and reasonably apathetic towards Captain Marvel, I feel like it was a disappointment, but also unfairly ridiculed, at the same time. To be honest, I feel it’s biggest flaw is not being memorable enough, it really didn’t push any boats out or take many risks as perhaps it should have, and the result is a film that I just can’t feel passionate about.

Brie Larson was good as Captain Marvel and there was some nice moments with her old friend in the later stages of the film, but I feel a lot more needs to be done with the character in the future. A bit of an anticlimax, truth be told.

Avengers: Endgame (2019) – Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo

While enough has been said about Endgame and its predecessor to fill several books, and this films significance as the biggest film of all time is secure, I must stress again that this film was by no means risk-free.

Getting that balance of character screen time right once can be seen as a fluke, but to do it twice? Now, there would be an achievement, then just as we thought Infinity War couldn’t be topped in terms of scale and emotion, those darned Russo’s surprised us once more.

Which film you prefer comes down to personal preference, personally I don’t think there’s much to separate the two, but Endgame just edges it. I think it’s the finality, the satisfaction of a conclusion that we’d wanted for ten years, Infinity War gave us that to a degree, but still left us on a cliffhanger, this film gave us the closure.

I’ve said before that a story can it be considered great until it has ended, and while the MCU will probably never truly end, this is as close as we’re going to get to that explosive payoff.

It wasn’t just that though, it was the anticipation in finding out how they would write themselves out of the almighty corner Infinity War had left them in, but write themselves out they did, and in spectacular fashion, at that.

This film may contain some of my favourite moments in superhero films, just the mention of the word ‘Portals’ is enough to send a shiver down my spine, just as the phrase ‘I love you 3000’ will bring a tear to my eye.

Combine this with some truly great performances, seriously, everyone brought their A-game here, even those who have previously been sidelined were spectacular, Jeremy Renner is the best he’s ever been in the MCU, and then there’s Robert Downey Jr, who provides a perfect swan song performance.

What’s that? RDJ is going to be in Black Widow? Motherfu…

Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) – Directed by Jon Watts

So, here we are, the end of the road. Well, at least until Phase Four finishes, which I estimate will probably be around 2035.

While following Endgame is no small feat, I do think this film was in a better position than Ant-Man the year before; mainly because, no disrespect to Ant-Man, he’s no Spider-Man. That and there was an unresolved arc for Spider-Man following the loss of his father figure, Tony Stark (spoiler alert, although if you haven’t seen Endgame yet, then please let me know how you figured out how to breath on Mars) how he was going to bounce back was going to be an interesting point.

Well, it turns out he bounces back by touring Europe and fighting illusions that destroy famous landmarks.

Far From Home May well be one of the best Spider-Man films, its certainly an upgrade on Homecoming, mainly because it actually feels like a Spider-Man film, a film where he finally steps out of everyone’s shadows and becomes his own hero, an important aspect in the film being how ‘ready’ he was to be a hero, judging by this film, he’s ready to be the face of the franchise, but knowing the fragility of the Sony-Marvel relationship, let’s not be too hasty.

The plot is high-stakes, but still light and fun in the way that Spider-Man excels at, and Tom Holland is a treat, an electrifying presence on screen, and for my money, he’s the best on-screen Spidey.

It wasn’t Endgame scale, but it established the direction the series would be taking from here on out, simultaneously closing the Third Chapter of the MCU, and opening the Fourth, starting an era of rebuilding and reestablishing. Where will we go next? What heroes shall we encounter? We can only wait to find out the answer.

The Good Liar Review

I think it’s fair to call Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren ‘legends’. In fact, I might go as far as calling them ‘national treasures’ such is their longevity, prestige and, most importantly, talent.

So a film that combines these two talents on screen for the first time is a recipe for something special, with the right director and script that is, as the two leads are certainly not lacking in experience or skill.

I’ve made no secret of my admiration for Sir Ian McKellen in the past; he brings a real sense of old-school gravitas in a way that is now sadly dying out. He’s also shown himself to be an extremely versatile performer, and the same can be said of Dame Helen. So seeing them advertised together made me optimistic of a good result.

Story

Brian and Estelle meet online, except not really. Neither is really who they say they are, and as a romance blossoms between the two septuagenarians, suspicion grows about Roy (McKellen) who is hiding man secrets of a dark past.

Verdict

What I liked most about this film is it starts small and contained, then opens up its narrative later on. It starts as two elderly widows meeting for a date, and quickly develops into an intriguing tale of lies and identity, with a central theme of trying to figure out who someone truly is.

Bill Condon, the Director, is no stranger to working with McKellen having directed him twice before. First in 2015’s Mr Holmes, and again two years later in the remake of Beauty and the Beast. The three films share a certain ‘homely’ feel I can only attribute to the directors vision, wherein the story feels comfortable in a homely setting, with simple but effective broad strokes. He uses very little visual symbolism, but does utilise extremely effective framing, giving us hints of a characters true nature.

What I will say about The Good Liar is that it’s a hell of a lot more complex than it first looked. On first glance it seems like a run-of-the-mill story about relationships in later life and old-school criminals, what it actually is though, is a tangled web of backstory and events that would shame an Agatha Christie story. It’s not strictly speaking a whodunnit, but it shares the same DNA as one.

Because of this, I found the film to be a very enjoyable experience, much more so than perhaps I anticipated. I was expecting to be charmed by a simple story, instead in was won over by a twisting tale, expertly played out by two of film’s most distinguished veterans.

The nature of this film makes it very difficult to review without spoiling its many twists and turns, something I wouldn’t want to do, as the appeal lies in trying to fathom the mystery before the film finishes playing out, and good luck to you, because some of the twists are as unexpected as a Michael Bay Oscar win, maybe to the films detriment towards the end, as depending on your own tolerance for a third-act twist, it may seem like it’s over-reaching and one twist too many, but I thoroughly enjoyed its more unexpected nature.

Acting-wise, it’s not below the high standard we’ve come to expect from these luminaries, I will say I think it’s McKellen’s film, and he’s as good as he’s been in years, still remaining refreshing even in his eighties, but Dame Helen is no slouch, delivering a memorable final monologue with the air of a victorious ice queen that she so obviously revels in.

In conclusion, there’s plenty to like here, a pair of stellar leading performances, competent, if unspectacular, direction, and a twisting script that will leave you guessing right up to the final credits. It taught me once again that one should not make assumptions based on trailers, and reaffirms the importance of going into films with an open mind; a truly surprising triumph, it proves once again the capability of both leading actors, and that their appeal is not waning with age.