Natflix | Hawkeye Episode 1-2 Review

Hawkeye is often mocked for his lack of traditional powers, but Disney+’s latest Marvel show is smart enough to realise that’s all part of his appeal. Taking a leaf from Matt Fraction and David Aja’s definitive take on the character, Hawkeye turns away from the cosmic shenanigans of Loki or the po-faced politics of Falcon and the Winter Soldier in favour of a delightful Christmas caper that more than hits the mark.

Yet it’s not just Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) that’s along for the ride. Instead, the opening episode of Hawkeye focuses on introducing Kate Bishop, a wealthy college student who was inspired by Hawkeye to take up martial arts and archery. With a suspicious stepfather having recently entered the picture, she finds herself caught up in a dangerous world of millionaires and mob bosses.

In fact, it feels like Clint barely appears in the first episode, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Showrunner Jonathan Igla takes the time to properly introduce Kate, who, with her privileged lifestyle, precocious talents and penchant for smartassery feels more than a little like an Enid Blyton heroine. She’s smart enough to be likeable but still messy enough to be relatable, even if the episode’s overwhelming focus on her means that she never finds a sufficient sparring partner.

Perhaps the biggest issue with this first episode, as in many first episodes in this modern age of streaming, is that it’s all set up. There’s a lot to get through, from finding a way to make Kate start investigating – admittedly, it doesn’t take much – to setting up the first few clues in a mystery that will likely be stretched out over the series’ six episodes. 

The action, whilst serviceable, ultimately does not impress enough to pay off on its own. Although the choreography is pleasantly playful – there’s an entertainingly subversive set-piece in a wine cellar – the execution is slightly too clunky to reach the levels of Marvel’s Netflix shows, particularly Daredevil. 

That all changes when Kate finally gets to meet Clint. There dynamic is established almost immediately; he’s the reluctant mentor who just wants to get back to his family, whilst she’s the feisty partner who never does what she’s told. It’s a tale as old as time, but the chemistry between the two actors more than sells it. It’s particularly sweet how quickly the nominally gruff Clint’s fatherly instincts kick in, even as she does her best to get into trouble at every available opportunity.

Indeed, Renner gets the opportunity to explore a far more light-hearted side to Clint than we’ve seen before. In one cute scene, he finds himself trying to keep a low profile at a live-action role-playing event, only to be surprised to find himself having a whale of a time alongside the New York’s finest nerds. 

Indeed, Hawkeye’s willingness to show us more of the Marvel Universe’s iteration of the Big Apple is one of its greatest strengths. It would be a cliche to say that the city functions as a character within the show, but it does at least feel like a real place inhabited by real people, as opposed to merely a bland backdrop for super-heroics.

Hawkeye isn’t as ambitious as some of Marvel’s other shows, but after a year of failed experiments it’s exciting to see the company get back to what they’re good at; telling entertaining stories about likeable heroes. 

8/10

Nat Reviews: Phantom of the Open

Golf has never made for a particularly cinematic sport. Of course, there have been attempts to find some excitement in it on the big screen, most notably in the badly dated The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000), but ultimately middle aged men calmly strolling across gentle green slopes just isn’t that exciting. Yet, by combining a plucky underdog narrative with a peculiarly British sense of humour, writer Simon Farnaby and director Craig Roberts manage to make Phantom of the Open far more watchable than the game it is based on. 

The film tells the true story of Maurice Flitcroft (Mark Rylance), a crane operator from the North of England who managed to bluff his way into the British Open, the most prestigious golf tournament in the United Kingdom…multiple times. 

With its working class vs snobbish elites story, The Phantom of the Open feels like the natural successor to previous British classics like Whiskey Galore! (1949) and The Full Monty (1997). It would be easy to mock Flitcroft, who knows almost as little about golf as I do, but this is a far more gentle comedy. He’s not stupid, he just a man fundamentally doesn’t care what other people think, a far cry from the golfing officials who are obsessed with protecting the reputation of the sport.

Indeed, there is a great sense of warmth and fondness, not just for Flitcroft but for his whole family. Sally Hawkins plays his wife Jean with a steadfast strength. Rather than opting to emphasise the conflict between the couple, Farnaby highlights their solidarity. They may not be able to afford horse-drawn carriages or a flock of flying doves, but there is no less love in their determination to support each other no matter what. 

That gently mundanity is uplifted with a small but consistent dose of surrealism, scattered throughout the film. In one dream scene, Maurice hits a golf ball, only to find himself flying through the stratosphere, propelled by his own swing. It conveys more about his passion for the sport in less than a minute than any number of over-enthusiastic commentators could over the course of multiple games. The Phantom of the Open won’t win any Oscars, but its visual inventiveness and sheer joie de vivre ensure it never gets staid.

The script also smartly stays away from the usual cliches of sporting biopics. There’s never any chance of Flitcroft winning; he’s underfunded, undertrained, and has to wear numerous hilariously terrible disguises just to be allowed to compete. But The Phantom of the Open buys wholeheartedly into that old cliche, echoed around schoolrooms and sports days since before I was born; it’s not the winning that matters, it’s the taking part.

There will be bigger films this year, there will be smarter films this year, and there will probably be funnier films this year. Yet there are few films that boast as much warmth and heart as this silly, soppy film. It lacks the clinical efficiency of a hole in one, but then The Phantom of the Open isn’t about doing everything quickly, it’s about enjoying the time you spend doing it.

8/10

Every MCU Movie Ranked (Including Eternals)

We’re most of the way through the year, with just one more Marvel movie, the much awaited Spider-Man: No Way Home, left before January. What better time to rank every film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, including Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Eternals?

26.) The Incredible Hulk

The biggest crime of The Incredible Hulk is that it’s instantly forgettable. It’s not even that bad a movie. It’s got a solid cast, a cool final fight scene, and enough Hulk rampaging to be at least mildly entertaining. Still, nothing really clicks, and it’s hard to care much about the characters. That being said, there’s nothing particularly offensive about it either. It may be Marvel’s worst effort but I doubt it’d even get on the list of worst superhero movies. Which just goes to show how damn good they are at making films.

25.) Iron Man 2 

I’m gonna be honest, I have a lot of nostalgia for this film. It came out just as I was getting into Marvel and the first time I saw it, I really enjoyed it. However, it has not aged well. It was the first film where a lot of the problems with a lot of Marvel films started to become clear. It’s a bit of a mess. There are a bunch of plot points that don’t really make any sense and the third act is a boring, noisy and over-the-top CGI-fest. It also continues the tradition of getting a really pretty good actor (Mickey Rourke) to play a villain without enough development or screen time. It’s pretty forgettable, but there is fun to be had, chiefly from the charisma of the stars (including RDJ, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlet Johannson and a severely underused Sam Rockwell).

24.) Dr Strange

By no means is Dr Strange the worst Marvel film. It has a good cast, fun visuals and a few laughs (mainly provided by Benedict Wong). But it is the one that annoys me the most. The main reason is that it repeats all the mistakes previous Marvel films have made at a time when they should have learned better. The villain is played by a great actor who is shockingly wasted, the plot is a boring rehash of Iron Man, and the same goes for the character of Dr Strange. Worse still, Benedict Cumberbatch doesn’t have the same charisma as RDJ, meaning Strange irritates more than inspires. When a cape is more charismatic than your lead, you know you have a problem.

23.) Thor 

The first Thor film seems to be suffering from a bit of an identity crisis. On the one hand, it wants to be a Shakespearean family drama about ancient gods. On the other, it’s pretty much Doc Hollywood if Michael J. Fox took steroids. Not a lot happens for most of the film, and it swings between winking to its audience and taking itself way too seriously. What saves Thor is the casting; namely, Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston. Hemsworth is charming all hell as Thor, playing him like a big, slightly arrogant but loveable teddy bear. But Hiddleston steals the film away from him, playing a god who will betray just about anyone to gain the approval of his father. The truth is that their performances are much better than the film itself, and they almost manage to carry it out of mediocrity.

22.) Eternals

Eternals would have made a fantastic miniseries. It boasts loveable, three dimensional characters, bold thematic questions and enough exposition to justify a thirty minute powerpoint. It takes risks in a way that Marvel has often been scared to. Which is why it hurts quite so much to put it this low. There are two big problems; first of all, that there is simply too much to fit into one film, even if that film comes in at just under three hours. Plot points are forgotten, interesting questions go unanswered and some characters get notably short shrift, resulting in a film that never achieves what it set out to do. The other issue is the two leads, played by Gemma Chan and Richard Madden. In a film chock-full of colourful characters, from the rebellious Druig to the boisterous Gilgamesh, this pair of star-crossed lovers are painfully dull, making it much more painful when they get centre-screen at the expense of others. On the one hand, it’s exciting that Marvel is becoming increasingly willing to take these bold swings. On the other, it needs to be done better than this in future.

21.) Thor: The Dark World

Thor 2’s actually kind of fun. The plot is painfully generic, sure, and it’s practically criminal how much it wasted both Natalie Portman and Christopher Eccleston – his Malekith is perhaps the epitome of everything wrong with Marvel villains. But once Freyja dies and the action actually gets into gear, it’s really quite entertaining. Hemsworth and Hiddleston’s chemistry is as brilliant as ever and they get to add more layers to their characters’ relationship. On top of that, the use of portals in the final fight is surprisingly imaginative. A fun movie, as long as you’ve had a few to drink.

20.) Ant-Man 

Bless Paul Rudd. Just bless him. He’s so insanely likeable. In truth, he probably rescues this movie from obscurity. It falls into a lot of Marvel traps, like a bland villain, a generic origins story and an uninspired third act. Still, Rudd has a lot of backup from the supporting cast, with Michael Douglas, Michael Peña and Evangeline Lilly all providing plenty of sparring material. Unfortunately you can practically see the disconnect between what Edgar Wright envisioned and what we actually got, and there are some really boring stretches. Still, it’s got enough wholesome energy that it’s hard not to like.

19.) Black Widow

Marvel films work best when they wholeheartedly embrace the look and feel of a certain genre, whether it’s superhero, sci-fi, fantasy or even 1970s conspiracy thriller. Perhaps that’s why Black Widow feels like such a missed opportunity. After a promising opening that explores Natasha’s past through the lens of a gritty, Bourne-like spy film, the film quickly spirals into a generic, overproduced action film that struggles to get the audience’s pulse racing. Add to that some outrageously misjudged performances and what began as a streamlined thriller ends up a sloppy mess. Once again, it’s the chemistry of the leads that stops Black Widow from becoming a complete chore, with Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh anchoring the film and giving it the kind of pathos that will stick with you far longer than the ludicrous set pieces. Even then, it’s hard not to feel that Black Widow would have worked far better had it been released chronologically (the film is set between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War) rather than after Widow’s death in Endgame

18.) Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

It’s understandable that Marvel felt like they had to throw everything and the kitchen sink at this film; after all, Shang-Chi is one of the most obscure characters they’ve ever adapted, even when compared to the pure absurdity of the Guardians of the Galaxy. Unfortunately, this approach ultimately makes it feel like the studio just lacked faith in the strength of its story. Which is a real shame, because it’s a doozy, a battle between a ruthless warlord and his reluctant son. Shang-Chi is at its strongest when this core relationship is given room to breathe, but it gets too easily distracted by unnecessary camera trickery, a plethora of comedic sidekicks and, of course, a giant CGI monster. There’s a lot of potential here, but Marvel just needs to have a little more faith in the character they’ve created.

17.) Avengers: Age of Ultron 

This film got (and still gets) a lot of flack upon release. I understand that, to an extent. It is definitely overly long, leading to the middle feeling pretty flat, and it’s got way too much to try to set up. Still, I think there’s a lot to like; most of the characters are given interesting storylines, Hawkeye gets some much needed development and it continues the trend of actually being quite funny. However, the real reason that I like this film so much is that it embraces the full comic book-y vibe, with grand, ludicrous battles in the sky and characters with absolutely batshit origin stories (looking at you Vision). Underrated, over-criticised.

16.) Captain Marvel

Much like Ant-Man, Captain Marvel is a fairly mediocre film elevated by a brilliant leading performance. But there are a few differences that make it go a bit further. One; Brie Larson’s Carol Danvers is way less vanilla than Scott Lang, being a genuine badass who also manages to have a sweet side. Two; it feels much more cohesive, having managed to avoid the same production troubles that plagued the diminutive hero’s first film. Three; aliens. And last, but not least, Goose the cat. Goose is a badass. Why isn’t he in the Avengers? Why? Add to that Captain Marvel having a more coherent and resounding message, and you can see why it edged out Paul Rudd’s first endeavour.

15.) Ant-Man and the Wasp

After the somewhat overbearing heaviness of Infinity War, Marvel turned to their favourite comedian, Paul Rudd, and director Peyton Reed to give us something with a little more levity. And thank god they did. Ant-Man and the Wasp is the perfect antidote to self-seriousness, content to just give us plenty of likeable characters and inventive action. Freed from production turmoil, Peyton Reed is able to find his own voice behind the camera, giving us both the silliest and yet possibly most human MCU film to date. It also develops Scott Lang much more, making him a man struggling (and often failing) to do right by everyone, resulting in him becoming much more interesting and relatable than he was in the first film, where he was both an expert cat-burglar and also the nicest man in the world. 

14.) Captain America: The First Avenger 

I actually really enjoy this film. Again, it may not be as good as the later Cap films. It’s got a pretty boring villain and the grand sacrifice at the end just…doesn’t seem thought out. However, I love the pulpy, retro vibe of it, and its a genuine pleasure to have an unironically kindhearted hero who just wants to do good. I’d argue Cap’s never been more likeable than in his first instalment, with Chris Evans’ earnestness selling the potentially goofy character. On top of that, if you want to have a bunch of completely expendable henchmen for your hero to beat the shit out of, then Nazis are absolutely your best choice.

13.) Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 

The first time I watched this I actually wondered whether I preferred it to the first one. On second viewing, it doesn’t stand up as well, but it’s entertaining enough that for the most part you don’t really care. It’s definitely funnier than the first, and there’s less focus on Star-lord (which isn’t a bad thing in my book). It develops all the other characters nicely, to the extent that I actually like Nebula now. Kurt Russell is an above average villain. But this is Yondu’s (Michael Rooker) movie, and he enjoys every second he’s on screen. Sure, sometimes the daddy issue themes are a bit too obvious, but still a damn fun movie with another good soundtrack and characters you care about.

12.) Black Panther 

If this was a list of the best first two thirds of a film, Black Panther would top this list. It features a great cast, some cool villains and a strange mix of espionage and political intrigue that works way better than it should. Unfortunately, everything past T’Challa and Killmonger’s first fight is…well, it’s a mess. The action is impossible to follow and full of painfully bad CGI, whilst the story becomes devoid of any of the complexity that made the start so good. In truth, Black Panther was probably a victim of its own hype; people were so eager to proclaim it was the best Marvel film ever that the actual product was almost inevitably disappointing. Yet it’s still a strong effort, and should absolutely be applauded for bringing a new level of representation to superhero films.

11.) Iron Man 3 

Iron Man 3 is pretty polarising. Most people think this film is either brilliant or fairly crap. But because I’m an awkward bastard, I think it’s just quite good. Shane Black really does write RDJ like no other, and the darker tone and buddy comedy atmosphere actually works quite nicely. The biggest problem is the bad guy. Now, I’m not someone who particularly hates the twist, it’s actually pretty funny. But rewatching the film, it robs the film of a potentially great villain and replaces him with a much less interesting one. That then makes the final battle reasonably stale, and stops this movie going any higher.

10.) Spider-Man: Far From Home

The first film following the era-ending Avengers: Endgame, Spider-Man: Far From Home had a lot riding on it, namely the future of the MCU. The first half had me genuinely worrying, as it attempted to recreate the charming high school comedy appeal of Homecoming but without the same energy or freshness. Had it continued down that path, it would have most likely ended up in the bottom half of this list. What actually happens, however, is a sudden and drastic change of pace, one that keeps building momentum right up to the moment the credits role (and beyond, in fact). Add to that some of the most visually brilliant scenes in the MCU, and you get a film that reassures you that Marvel’s going to be okay. It’s issues may stop it reaching the highest echelons of this list, but it’s definitely one worth watching.

9.) Thor: Ragnarok 

I don’t think anyone was very excited for the third movie back in 2015. Surely there was only so much of messrs Hemsworth and Hiddleston we could have before we got bored? Then came the trailer. Mjolnir destroyed? Hulk and Thor on a gladiator planet? Led Zepplin’s Immigrant Song? It looked insanely campy, like Flash Gordon for the 21st century. And suddenly we were all excited. And we were right to be. The film is a shot in the arm for Marvel, funny, good looking and less self-serious than the previous Thor films. It embraces the ridiculousness of its own premise, and Korg is just gold. However, both Cate Blanchett and Karl Urban are wasted as the villains, and the humour unfortunately undercuts some of the more supposedly poignant moments of the film. Nevertheless, a lot of fun for anybody with a pulse.

8.) Avengers: Assemble 

I don’t think the first Avengers could be better. That’s not to say it’s perfect, but considering the sheer number of things it had to do (bringing the team together, finishing individual character arcs and setting up the next 6 years of the MCU) you’d be hard pressed to improve it. Whedon’s script is brilliantly quick and funny, the cast are all clearly enjoying themselves, and the action makes your inner 8 year old squeal with excitement. The film that finally convinced people that the cinematic universe could work, and other studios have been desperately trying to replicate it ever since.

7.) Iron Man 

The one that started it all. And one that stands up pretty damn well ten years later. Enough has been said about RDJ’s performance. And it is all you’ve heard about it. It’s fantastic. It’s complex, hilarious and somehow incredibly likeable. But that’s not all; the supporting cast all fill their roles admirably, and Favreau directs with just a touch of flair. But what makes it really special is that it’s the first; the plot and writing feel new and exciting, the villain issue hasn’t become so damn obvious, and honestly, we were just surprised by how damn good it was.

6.) Guardians of the Galaxy 

This is the one where Marvel realised they could sell anything. A talking racoon and a talking tree? It seemed like a long shot, even to hardcore comic fans. But that’s what makes this film so great. It’s something completely different. Even some of the usual Marvel complaints (again, boring finale and even more boring villain) don’t seem as obvious with the bonkers space setting and genuinely entertaining characters that make Guardians eminently rewatchable. Also, ‘We Are Groot’ is still one of the most emotional moments of the entire franchise. 

5.) Captain America: The Winter Soldier 

If this was an objective list of the best Marvel movies, there’s a decent chance that Winter Soldier would be at the top. It’s probably the best integration of Marvel’s traditional formula with the trappings of another genre (in this case the ‘70s spy thriller, as evidenced by the fact Robert Redford is in it), and some of the action is absolutely brutal. It even makes Cap, Marvel’s version of the Big Blue Boy Scout, pretty badass. And Anthony Mackie’s just great as Falcon. The only reason it’s not higher is the fact that it rarely captures that schoolboy giddiness that makes me love Marvel quite as much as the films above it.

4.) Avengers: Infinity War

Infinity War deserves to be this high for ambition alone. There are something like 63 established characters, most of whom have some kind of fanbase, all of whom want their favourite character to get some screentime. On top of that, Thanos had been teased since the first Avengers movie, and if he had underwhelmed cinemagoers would have been seriously disappointed. The Russo’s (and Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) stroke of genius was to make Thanos the main character, giving him the development he deserved and allowing each of the heroes to have their moment in the limelight. Instead of shying away from it, they embrace the cosmic insanity of the premise. If I had one complaint, it’s just that they could have been a little more ruthless.

3.) Avengers: Endgame

Where Infinity War was a masterclass in precision, finely balancing a huge cast of characters in order to give each of them a moment to shine, Endgame is an exercise in crowd-pleasing. It’s messier than it’s predecessor, and prioritises certain characters in order to give them the endings that they deserve. What it has that Infinity War lacks, however, is that childhood sense of wonder and joy. Admittedly, that makes sense; Infinity War wouldn’t have worked nearly as well without the all pervading sense of doom. But at times it felt a little clinical. Endgame, on the other hand, is so full of passion that it’s hard not to buy in. Accusations of excessive fanservice may be valid, but that only makes the final climactic battle even more cheer-worthy. Where many third acts begin to suffer from a lack of new ideas, Endgame’s just gives and gives and gives. And who could say a bad thing about a film so generous?

2.) Spider-Man: Homecoming 

This really feels like the film where Marvel finally learned how to solve the problems that have plagued their movies. It takes inspiration from the old John Hughes films, separating it from the rest of Marvel’s catalogue. Michael Keaton is hugely charismatic and actually quite sympathetic as the Vulture (who should have been completely ridiculous but wasn’t). And the third act, whilst still a bit too CGI, doesn’t go over the top, keeping the stakes real. Yet it does all this whilst keeping all the strengths of other Marvel films; it’s still funny, the plot skips along brilliantly, the cast are all great and it’s got Tony Stark. The Spider-Man we deserve.

1.) Captain America: Civil War 

I have a soft spot for the Civil War comic book; it was the first one I ever bought. But the film improves upon it in almost every way. The conflict makes more sense, with Tony’s recent personal troubles helping to explain his behaviour, and Daniel Brühl’s Zemo is understatedly menacing whilst providing some urgency to the idealogical conflict. That’s not to mention the note perfect introductions of Black Panther and Spider-Man, the growing tension, and the fact that the final battle is actually pretty small, but with far more palpable stakes than any CGI alien army they can dream up. Yet, unlike Winter Soldier, it somehow keeps the humour and spectacle which normally define Marvel. And the airport battle is pure fanboy escapism, at its very best.

Reviews | The French Dispatch

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but the protagonists of Wes Anderson’s latest endeavour would likely disagree. Following a group of American writers living in France during the mid-20th century, The French Dispatch is a loving homage to a bygone era and style of journalism. Like any piece of good writing, it lures you into its world with its wit, eloquence and elegance.

The French Dispatch is a journal made up of articles written by Americans in the fictional French city of Ennui. The film, which is split into five sections, explore some of the articles in the Dispatch’s final edition, from art and culture to the obituaries.

Recent Wes Anderson films have been underwhelming, largely due to the director’s detached approach to both his characters and stories. The director prefers to hang back, never letting the camera get close enough to lend context to his dispassionate dialogue. Yet by keeping its stories short, The French Dispatch finds a way round that problem; the audience is never asked to care too long about yet another self-imposed outcast straining against their own privilege. Instead, there is merely enough time to get to know them a little, to provide a little colour and to understand their struggles, before being whisked on to the next adventure. 

Furthermore, the premise allows Anderson to indulge in his love of rich language. His script perfectly captures the palpably pretentious yet soothing tone of long-form journalists and travel writers. A fondness for the cast-offs and strays of Ennui’s society, from its psychopathic artists to pickpockets and rebellious students, shines through every piece, particularly the brief travelogue that explores Ennui’s history. 

Those words are given extra weight by Anderson’s talented cast troupe of performers. All the usual suspects are here, from veterans like Bill Murray and Owen Wilson to more recent additions like Edward Norton and Adrien Brody. However, it’s the newcomer Jeffrey Wright, playing a writer who has moved to France in search of acceptance, who finds the most humanity in Anderson’s dialogue. Wright brings a world weary romanticism to his character, embodying a man who has seen the worst of humanity and has resolved to find good where he can.

All this is wrapped up with Anderson’s signature candy aesthetic. He jumps between pastel colours, black and white and even comic strip style animation with ease, every frame composed to be almost perfectly symmetrical. He also seems more at home with the period setting, the vintage costumes no longer clashing with a 21st century world. 

The French Dispatch is a lovely homage to an era and style of journalism that maybe never truly existed. Not only is it stylistically impeccable, but the brilliance of its performances gives it a level of emotional depth not usually seen in Wesville. It may be as gentle and unnecessarily verbose as the writers it pays homage to, but it also captures a touch of their magic.

8/10

Nat Reviews | Eternals

“Find your own purpose.” It’s a challenge that everyone faces; even, apparently, immortal aliens who protect Earth against monsters. That focus makes Chloe Zhao’s Eternals the most human Marvel film in years. Unfortunately, like most humans, it’s also something of a mess.

The Eternals are a group of undying extra-terrestrials who have been tasked by the god-like Celestials to guard Earth against the monstrous Deviants. Though they split up over 500 years ago, a new impending calamity forces them to get the band back together.

Chloe Zhao is the first Oscar-winner to direct an MCU film, and she brings an appropriate level of gravitas to the film. There are jokes, but they’re noticeably less frequent than recent Marvel films like Black Widow and Shang-Chi. Instead, Zhao prefers to explore the humanity of these seemingly inhuman characters, and how their detachment from the rest of the world has affected them.

With that more personal touch comes a level of thematic ambition not usually seen in Marvel films. Being forced to watch humans kill each other for centuries leads Druig, the surly outcast of the group played by magnetic Irish actor Barry Keoghan, to realise “We’re just like the soldiers down there. Pawns to their leaders, blinded by loyalty.” It’s bold territory for a superhero film to explore, and proves to be just as riveting as the huge set-pieces, with all their CGI spectacle.

Unfortunately, that interest dwindles whenever the two leads are on screen. Rather than following the rebellious Druig, the charismatic bruiser Gilgamesh (Don Lee) or regretful inventor Phastos (Bryan Tyree Henry), we instead follow a pair of starcrossed lovers named Sersi and Ikaris. Sersi, played by Gemma Chan, has the ability to manipulate matter, but largely melts into the background during group discussions, preferring to let others take the lead. Meanwhile, Ikaris, played by Richard Madden, is statuesque in the very worst sense; his grim face stoically refuses to reveal even the slightest hint of emotion. Compared to their energetic co-stars, they look disappointingly limp. It doesn’t help that the film never explains why they care so deeply about one another, a pivotal plot point that never feels convincing.

Any sense of momentum or engagement is shattered whenever the two are left alone on screen. This is particularly obvious in the final act, which foregrounds their relationship at the expense of all the other, more interesting characters. Whilst the attempt to create more personal stakes for the third act is welcome, a lack of previous investment in the two main characters, combined with unclear stakes, results in yet another underwhelming superhero finale.

Eternals demonstrates both the strengths and the weaknesses of the classic Marvel formula. On the one hand, its willingness to take risks is thrilling compared to the cookie-cutter blandness of Marvel’s other post-Endgame films. On the other, its lack of a compelling hero means that its finale is dreary and uninteresting. It’s by no means a good film, but its aching sincerity makes it an interesting experiment. Like humanity itself, it’s full of promise that’s never quite fulfilled.

5/10

Nat’s Lists | The Best Films At The 2021 London Film Festival

Returning to action after a year online, the 2021 London Film Festival (LFF) was a gargantuan event. In fact, it was so large that it would have been impossible for any one critic to see everything. Fortunately, I had help, in the form of the wonderful and incredibly talented Shakesqueer. Shakesqueer’s writing style can best be summarized by her tagline; ‘Every film is worth something.’ She provides a joyously positive optimistic outlook on everything from cult classics to blockbusters, and always manages to be nuanced and interesting whilst doing it. You can find her website through the link below:

https://shakesqueer.home.blog/

Having seen vastly different films, we’ve pooled our resources to create this list of the best movies to be screened at LFF. Whilst we weren’t able to see absolutely everything, we did manage 38 of them, which we’ve ranked from worst to best. Where possible, we’ve also included links to longer reviews, where we go more in-depth about what made each film work or not work. So, without further ado, let’s begin…

38.) Users

The documentary-style think piece about the technological advancements around us is mostly silent in voiceover and in tone. It ultimately never gets its feet off the ground and seems to have no stance on the pros and cons of tech. Upsettingly dull.

37.) Wild Indian

Handles its premise acceptably. The tale of two reunited childhood friends hiding a dark childhood secret is engaging enough and beautifully shot but doesn’t feel totally fulfilling. Excellent performances all around but it feels a little slow and simple

36.) All Is Vanity

Beginning as a seemingly mundane comedy about a photoshoot, this low-budget film repeatedly rearranges itself to become a completely new story. It’s self-aware enough to acknowledge its own flaws, but that doesn’t negate them. Instead, it just means All Is Vanity comes off as annoyingly smug.

35.) La Mif

An acceptable glimpse into the care sector. This fictional French story which follows a group of girls in a care home has lovable characters but suffers from jumping back and forth throughout the story. The story is excellent…if you can follow it.

34.) The Secrets of Jeremy Thomas

Mark Cousins’ dive into the mind of legendary producer Jeremy Thomas with a road trip to Cannes as the backdrop provides a documentary that is occasionally erratic. It oozes high art without being so itself and, like all stories, is worth listening to. Sure to be insightful for those who are aware of his work and oddly fascinating for those who aren’t.

33.) 7 Days

A couple of Indian-Americans on a date are forced to live together when COVID hits in this well-put-together production. There isn’t a bad word to be said but films set during The Pandemic still hit too close to home to be properly entertaining. Very sweet but too early.

32.) Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy

Contains more interesting concepts than execution. This collection of 3 Japanese shorts focused on love is more intriguing than tantalising with characters who vary in likability. Feels like it could be brilliant but lacks a certain oomph.

31.) Wolf Suit

Director Sam Firth explores her unresolved childhood trauma through an interesting hodgepodge of methods concluding in something I hope is cathartic for her. Interviews with her parents and rehearsed performances of childhood moments with actors provide art with a purpose. Viewing this film felt less like entertainment and more like a privilege.

30.) Sediments

Slow but centers on an important conversation. As a group of Spanish trans women take a trip to France, they discuss their lives and transitions whilst enjoying each other’s company. It showcases different experiences in a way that society so rarely does.

29.) Clara Sola

A simple tale told well. The story of a Puerto Rican woman connected to nature experiencing a sexual and mystical awaking is shot with wide-eyed wonder and filled with love. Often heartwarming and occasionally funny with a haunting score.

28.) The Taking

An interesting and necessary documentary. It discusses cinemas famous Monument Valley in relation to director John Ford and the Navaho people whilst also looking at the nature of monuments and the way society is shaped by the land. Frustratingly leisurely pace which remains respectful of the Navaho plight throughout.

27.) Neptune Frost

Where most films have a plot, Neptune Frost can best be described by a series of contemporary buzzwords; it’s an Afrofuturist, anti-colonialist, anti-capitalist science fiction musical. The result is as bonkers and baffling as it sounds. It may be messy and incomprehensible, but its unique aesthetic and sensibilities mean that it will likely become a cult classic soon enough.

26.) Last Night In Soho

Edgar Wright’s retro horror movie starts off promisingly, interrogating our obsession with the Swinging Sixties and the exploitation that lay beneath it. Unfortunately, an unnecessary third act twist completely derails the film, resulting in a comically unscary finale that contradicts everything that has come before.

For a longer review of Last Night In Soho follow the link below:

25.) Little Palestine: Diary of a Siege

This documentary about the besiegement of Yarmouk, Syria uses footage shot by the filmmaker at the time to demonstrate real human struggle. It’s fundamentally about perseverance but is full of melancholy. The fact that Palestine remains under subjugation only makes this more impactful. Heartbreaking to watch.

24.) The Real Charlie Chaplin

The fascinating life of Charlie Chaplin in relation to his work is whimsically dissected using film footage, reconstructions, and interviews. Narrated by Pearl Mackie, of Doctor Who fame, it lacks a proper exploration of his relationships but contains enough of his story.

23.) Between Two Worlds

This French drama based on a writer living as a cleaning person to expose their struggles is inherently tense but incredibly sympathetic. A portrayal of class and social inequality that is no less relevant than when the book was released. Blunt and brilliant.

22.) Flee

The true story of a gay Afghan refugee is told via a mixture of interview audio, 2D animation, and real news footage in an essential look at the seemingly eternal refugee crisis. An emotional rollercoaster which makes it difficult to remain impartial.

21.) The Harder They Fall

Debut director Samuel Jeymes’ film places black characters at the forefront of the traditionally white western genre. Though The Harder They Fall often feels like it could do more to challenge rather than imitate its predecessors, everyone on screen is having a blast, resulting in a bombastic crowd pleaser.

For a longer review of The Harder They Fall please follow the link below:

20.) Mothers of the Revolution

Powerful and timely. Using reconstructions, archived footage, and interviews it details the women’s protest camp at Greenham in the 1980s. The passion and importance of the piece clearly show we’d be worse off without them and how much is still to be done. Serves as a wonderful companion piece to documentary Rebel Dykes.

19.) Ear For Eye

One of the hardest watches of LFF, Ear For Eye is an uncompromising look at the frustration of being black in the United States and United Kingdom. Adapted from a stage show, it’s undeniably theatrical but always engaging. The second part, which features Lashana Lynch arguing with a white professor who refuses to acknowledge white terrorism, is particularly claustrophobic.

18.) Bull

A throwback to the classic cockney revenge thriller, Bull is a queasily enjoyable, ultraviolent guilty pleasure. Though a third act twist cheapens the heart of the story, this remains a thrillingly brutal watch.

For a longer review of Bull please follow the link below:

17.) The Power of the Dog

A period drama ripe with repressed tension, Jane Campion’s latest film stars Benedict Cumberbatch as a controlling cowboy in the early 20th century. Cumberbatch hands in an impressive performance, whilst Campion skillfully ratchets up the stress levels.

16.) Money Has Four Legs

This morally righteous satire tells the story of a Burmese filmmaker down on his luck who will do whatever it takes to get his film made. It is often funny, continuously entertaining and features a bittersweet ending. Also contains excellent music choices throughout.

15.) Cannon Arm and the Arcade Quest

This Swedish Doc about one man’s quest to play 100 hours of videogame Gyruss and the friends that help him is whimsical, funny, tense, and personal. It’s a testament to them and to all those like them, although liking video games probably helps with the entertainment.

For a full review of Cannon Arm and the Arcade Quest follow the link below:

14.) Ride The Wave

A feature length documentary that follows a young Scottish surfer, Ben, as he attempts to ride some of the biggest waves in the UK. Director Martyn Robertson’s film looks gorgeous, but is at its most powerful during the intimate moments with Ben and his family as they face the realities – and the dangers – of a career in surfing. The waters around Scotland may be freezing, but Ride The Waves radiates warmth.

13.) Memory Box

The story of a French teen learning about her mother’s past through a recently delivered box of memories is set against a Christmas backdrop and contains all the love of the season. It’s emphasised by a subtle yet powerful score and is visually interesting. Also contains a lesbian subtext without being overbearing.

12.) Phantom of the Open

There aren’t many things that Britain can realistically claim to be a world leader in, but cosy low-budget underdog comedies is one of them. Telling the true story of Maurice Flitcroft, a crane operator who was able to bluff his way into the prestigious British golf open, writer and national treasure Simon Farnaby has crafted a silly, soppy and effortlessly charming delight.

11.) Petite Maman

Céline Sciamma’s latest film is a gentle investigation of childhood, innocence and inter-generational bonding. When Nelly is taken to her mother’s childhood home in the wake of her grandmother’s death, she begins to learn more about her parents. Not much happens, but Petite Maman feels like revisiting home after a long time away; comforting on an almost atomic level.

10.) A Hero

This Iranian film explores the extent to which public opinion can shape a narrative. Rahim is in debtor’s prison, but when he returns a purse to an old women, he finds himself at the centre of an intense debate about whether he’s a hero or a schemer. Smart and sad, it’s ending is appropriately ambiguous.

9.) The Neutral Ground

Comedian CJ Hunt’s self-exploration of his race through the Chicago statue removals of 2017 starts lighthearted but shows that reality is often horrifying. There’s a sense of cautious optimism throughout, even to the end, despite often overbearing racism.

8.) Hinterlands

This utterly compelling Austrian war thriller about a group of POWs being murdered one by one in their homeland has a gripping story and wonderfully interesting backgrounds. It also serves as a harrowing insight into how badly soldiers were treated upon their return from war.

7.) The Good Boss

This scathing workplace satire follows the amoral boss of a factory, played by Javier Bardem. Though he may talk about justice and family, Bardem perfectly encapsulates the narcissism and greed of a man who’s convinced himself that what is good him must be good for the company. There are few laugh out loud moments, but this is a deliberately paced, finely tuned comedy that pays off in satisfying and unexpected ways.

6.) Encounter

An alien invasion film for the QAnon era. Riz Ahmed plays a military veteran, Khan, who effectively kidnaps his kids in an attempt to keep them safe from their extra-terrestrial attackers – the only problem is that it’s not clear whether the aliens are real or just a delusion. Unfortunately, Encounter gives away the truth too fast, but the touching relationship between Malik and his kids ensures this twisty thriller remains emotionally engaging at all times.

For a full review of Encounter please follow the link below:

5.) Drive My Car

A moving tale worthy of the 3-hour runtime. As a Japanese stage actor/director rehearses his show after losing his wife, he strikes an unlikely bond with his new driver in a powerhouse of performances. Intricate storytelling with several brilliant twists.

4.) Queen of Glory

The story of a Ghanian-American woman whose mother dies suddenly and leaves her with a Christian bookshop in Brooklyn is constantly entertaining and occasionally hilarious. It also manages to be an honest look at the aftermath of loss and never uses race or religion as a punchline.

For a full review of Queen of Glory follow the link below:

3.) The Tragedy of Macbeth

Tragedies are, by definition, not meant to be fun, but The Tragedy of Macbeth is an absolute blast. Boasting an all-star cast including Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand chewing up the minimalist scenery, gorgeous cinematography and lighting that makes it look like an arthouse Hammer horror film and all the gore that can never be shown on stage, this is Shakespeare at his most entertaining.

2.) Mass

A powerful piece about the aftermath of death. Two couples discuss a violent demise that has impacted them differently in a story that feels like it becomes more necessary every year. Excellent buildup and emotional delivery, this is a must-watch.

1.) Boiling Point

This gripping tale of a particularly busy night in a restaurant, with too many variables that could go wrong, is truly edge-of-the-seat stuff. Spectacular camera work and acting from all involved with an ending befitting its brilliance. And all shot in a single take. A must-watch.

Nat Reviews | Dune

There is a reason Frank Herbert’s sci-fi epic Dune has long been considered unfilmable. Boasting intricate world-building, characters of almost mythical stature and complex themes that unfold slowly over the span of several novels, more than one filmmaker has tried and failed to satisfyingly adapt it for cinema. Rather than attempt to fit all that into one movie, Denis Villeneuve has opted to split the opening novel into two parts. The result is an often impressive, sometimes exciting film that never quite feels complete. 

The House of Atreides, one of the great families in the Imperium, has been tasked by the emperor with bringing order to Arrakis, home of the invaluable commodity spice. The mission is more of a curse than a blessing, and they quickly find themselves under attack on a world hostile to everything except the giant worms that roam just beneath its surface. Meanwhile, its young heir, Paul, slowly discovers that he might just be the mythical One, destined to bring justice to the Galaxy. 

If there is one word to describe Dune – and Denis Villeneuve’s recent filmmaking career – it is epic. This is a huge film, in the most literal sense. People appear to be little more than toy soldiers when positioned next to the giant, hulking spaceships that ferry them from one planet to another. Villeneuve’s camera observes and orchestrates this from afar, like a general marshalling their forces.

Unfortunately, that sense of distance makes it difficult to get close to the characters. Whilst Jason Momoa and Josh Brolin’s gruff warriors make for engagingly gung-ho presences, and Rebecca Ferguson’s mother burns with a fire barely hidden by her grace, Oscar Isaac and Timothée Chalamet seem to slump through the film. It’s as if the heavy themes are simply too large a burden for them to bear. Are they genuinely honourable people, or just so caught up in their own drama they’re unable to notice that everyone else is suffering more? It’s an interesting question that Villeneuve never answers, leaving his film without a compelling protagonist. 

The film is littered with similarly intriguing but unanswered questions. Does the Atreides’ plan to make peace with the native Fremen come from a humanist desire for harmony or a pragmatic play for wealth and power? Is Paul really the One to overthrow the Emperor and change the universe, or is he just a manufactured Messiah whose quest for power will lead to yet more death? If these questions are answered satisfyingly, they could provide the basis for a thorough deconstruction of Western sci-fi narratives, but for now they’re just rhetorical questions, lost on the sandy dunes of Arrakkis. 

Yet none of that matters when the plot actually gets going. Villeneuve shoots the action scenes with muscular detachment, allowing the audience to revel in the sight of titanic armies smashing into one another with reckless abandon. In these scenarios, the Atreides’ glumness makes sense, their seeming ennui shattered by a desperate need to survive.

Unfortunately, these moments of action are rare, sprinkled sparsely amongst static scenes of strategic meetings, court appointments and industrial inspections. Part One is clearly doing the expository heavy lifting, helping the audience better understand Herbert’s multi-layered world. The result is a film that’s all set-up and no climax, a two and a half hour, $165 million TV pilot. 

Like any TV pilot, what comes next will ultimately define how we view this first instalment. Dune, like Paul, is full of untapped potential. Only time will tell whether it can fulfil its promises.

7/10

Nat Reviews: Bull

The British gangster flick is not a particularly fashionable genre right now. Run ragged by endless Guy Ritchie imitators, it’s become the cinematic equivalent of a cold cup of tea; damp, disappointing, and unmistakably British. Fortunately Bull, Paul Andrew Williams’ unrelentingly unpleasant revenge thriller, demonstrates that the combination of Scousers, swearing and sickening violence can still be compelling when played straight.

Starring veteran hardman Neil Maskell as the titular character, Bull follows an old enforcer on his quest to gain vengeance on his former boss, who took his kid and left him for dead. 

It’s a classic set-up, and for most of its runtime, Bull resists the temptation to stray into smug self-awareness. There are darkly humourous moments; an early scene features Bull and a disreputable arms dealer playing hot potato with a gun that’s just been used to murder someone. Yet these moments never undermine the gravitas of the story itself, nor do they detract from Bull’s single-minded desire for blood.

Maskell plays Bull like the terminator, an unthinking, unfeeling killing machine whose first resort is always violence. This is a man so hard he can say things like “I’ll cut you from bollocks to arse,” without even a hint of irony or hyperbole. There is no act too cruel or gruesome for him, and Williams never flinches from the extremely graphic violence on show. 

Yet Maskell is also able to capture a softer side of Bull, giving a glimpse at the man that could have been had he followed a different path. It’s an incredible tightrope act from the actor, utterly terrifying and yet with just enough underlying humanity to allow the audience to root for him.

It helps that the people Bull’s hunting are even less pleasant than him. Bull jumps back and forth between the past and the present, interspersing the enforcer’s bloody rampage with scenes explaining how he became so animalistic. His prey includes his junkie wife, her mob boss father and his idiotic henchmen. These are old archetypes, and yet by treating them like real people, Andrews and his cast keep the audience invested. Particularly memorable is David Hayman as Norm, a man whose steely quietness hints at a willingness to do whatever it takes to protect his reputation.

For most of its runtime, Bull is a gritty, gratuitously violent and grimly entertaining revenge flick. A late twist tries to put a new spin on an otherwise straightforward story, but ultimately just feels hokey and cheap. Yet even that’s not enough to diminish the guilty thrill of a good old-fashioned British bloodbath, executed with skill and ruthless conviction.

7/10

Nat Reviews: Last Night In Soho

The 1960s have been mythologised in Western cultural memory as a time of glamour, free love and artistic expression. Director Edgar Wright’s psychological horror interrogates that memory, exploring the way that many staples of the era were a result of the exploitation of women. Unfortunately, a late twist loses sight of this message, leading to a messy third act that never delivers on its promise.

Having moved to London to study fashion, Cornish teenager Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie) finds that at night she is transported back to Soho in the Swinging Sixties. Initially enthralled by the bright lights and exotic clubs, she quickly discovers a seedy underside to the city – one that isn’t ready to let her go.

Wright has always been a technically gifted director, and here he wields his not inconsiderable talent to great effect. His pacy editing and ability to deftly integrate musical cues suggest a city that never sleeps, a Soho that is the centre of the very world. It’s easy to see how Eloise, who spends her spare time posing like Audrey Hepburn and dancing to Petula Clark, could become so intoxicated with such a place.

Yet as Eloise is drawn further and further into this world, she discovers the dark underbelly that lies beneath. Though her sixties alter-ego, Sandy, dreams of becoming a singer, she is quickly railroaded into a life of prostitution. Subsequently, elements of Sandy’s increasingly nightmarish existence begin intruding into the modern world. In one scene, a Halloween student party is invaded by faces from the past, set to the frantic strains of Siouxsie Soux and the Banshees’ ‘Happy House.’

Wright ratchets up the tension from there, an escalating series of unsettling visions and jump scares that emphasise Eloise’s declining mental health. Laced throughout this montage are a procession of faceless, leering men, again underlining the extent to which Sandy has been exploited.

Yet Wright proves unable to resist undoing all of that good work for the sake of an unnecessary twist. Is the sudden left turn surprising? Mostly. Is it more interesting than than the direction the story was already taking? Absolutely not. Consequently, the final act is thematically messy and almost comically unscary, a waste of an otherwise promising psychological thriller.

There’s plenty to like about Last Night In Soho, but once again, an Edgar Wright film has been undermined by a weak script. Wright may seek to dig deeper than our superficial obsession with the past, but ultimately he struggles to find something of substance beneath his film’s stylish exterior.

6/10

Nat Reviews: Encounter

“We’re behind enemy lines here,” Riz Ahmed’s Marine veteran, Malik, tells his son. Yet they are not in a warring state or a distant alien planet, but the United States of America’s very own Nevada plains. Malik is convinced that his country has been infiltrated by parasitic aliens, but it’s not clear if he’s right or just paranoid. The result is an alien invasion film for the QAnon era, and a surprisingly touching story of the bond between a father and his sons.

Fearing an alien invasion, Malik effectively kidnap his children from his estranged wife in a desperate attempt to protect them from the aliens that may or may not be invading. That eerie uncertainty is exacerbated by Benjamin Kracun’s detached visual style. Opening with disconcerting images of insects feeding, it serves to heighten the otherworldly atmosphere, lending credibility to Malik’s claims. Meanwhile, director Michael Pearce’s approach is appealing without being overly-stylised; Encounter looks gorgeous, but that aesthetic never distracts from the heart of the story.

Unfortunately, the script, written by Pearce and Joe Barton, surrenders that crucial ambiguity far too early. Such a misstep might break a lesser film, but Pearce’s confident direction and the strength of his cast ensures Encounter remains an emotionally engaging watch, even as it loses some of its intellectual intrigue.

Riz Ahmed is one of contemporary cinema’s most reliably compelling actors, and Encounter serves as an able example of his talents. Malik bristles with barely restrained violence, but his desperation to protect his children at all costs ensures he remains sympathetic. It’s easy to see how his offspring could come to idolise their worldly father, with his lengthy absences only serving to further his mystique. 

Yet Ahmed is matched scene for scene by the young Lucian-River Chauhan as the preternaturally sensible Jay, Malik’s oldest son. In many ways, Encounter is as much about his coming-of-age as it is about an alien invasion, as Malik’s erratic behaviour forces him to step up for both of them. Chauhan captures Jay’s forced progression from innocence to maturity with real skill, and never seems out of place alongside Ahmed – perhaps the highest compliment anyone can give a young actor these days.

Encounter isn’t a perfect film, but its originality and emotional literacy mean that it is well worth watching. Boasting incredible performances from two actors at very different stages of their careers, it’s a reassuringly human tale of a protective father and the children who love him.

8/10