It’s another one of those delightful episodes where we talk about the films we’ve seen recently – The Sisters Brothers, Hellboy, The LEGO Movie 2, Styx, and Avengers: Endgame. Why not listen in?
The Sisters Brothers
This is a film you can watch, but due to its mediocrity we recommend you don’t.
Guillermo del Toro is a much-lauded director, and a pretty sound guy from everything I’ve ever seen but, I don’t actually think he’s that great of a filmmaker. Certainly my hit rate for his films is probably 1 in 3, at best, though I would still like to have seen his take on The Hobbit (which I like to think he wouldn’t have needlessly and cynically stretched to three instalments). My point being that rather than being outraged that (beyond my general distaste for remakes and reboots) he wasn’t returning to the Hellboy series, I didn’t care: I don’t actually think either of the two GDT Hellboy films are much good. Though in all honesty I now remember little about them except for Karel Roden being a terrible Nazi. All Nazis are terrible, obviously: I mean he was terrible at being a Nazi.
And as I write this I come to the realisation that Karel Roden, in fact, is not a Nazi in Hellboy, he’s just Nazi-adjacent, though still terrible, and I realise that it was in fact a hangover from Bulletproof Monk, in which he was a Nazi, and also terrible. All of which is to say I had no sentimentality towards the first two screen adaptations of Mike Mignola’s comic book, so I was open to Dog Soldiers’ Neil Marshall’s take on it.
In Arthurian times there was this guy called Arthur. Apparently his forces are close to succumbing so he goes to treat with Milla Jovovich’s Generic Baddie 4, or whatever her name is (and as far as Jovovich goes, if her name isn’t Leeloo then I’m not interested), but tricks her and kills her. For good measure he also chops her up, seals the body parts in mystical chests and has the chests stored in various holy sites around the island. She’s a) not fully dead and b) is fully pissed, but has to wait 1600 years until Wilbur the pig’s delinquent sibling (Stephen Graham) comes along to put her back together again.
Once restored (and after much violence and gore), she attempts to reclaim her dominion over Britain and then the world, and the only people standing in her way are Hellboy, his dad Ian McShane and the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Unnecessarily Encumbering People With Dodgy English Accents, embodied here by Sasha Lane and Daniel Dae Kim.
Hellboy 2019 has received some truly awful reviews, so on leaving the cinema I was pleasantly surprised to find that they’re largely wrong, and also perplexed as to the degree of negativity: it really, really doesn’t deserve the slating it has received. It’s not without its fault – far from it – but I quite enjoyed my time with it, and I certainly like it more than I did the Guillermo del Toro films.
One thing I do remember enjoying from the original films was Ron Perlman’s turn as the big red fella, and that is one area where the reboot is worse: physically, David Harbour looks the part, with his crazy bodybuilding giving him the appropriate physique (as an aside, memory suggested he and Perlman looked largely similar, but turns out memory is wrong, as on checking Big Ron comes in closer to “regular man painted red”). But the performance just isn’t there. Strange, actually, as it seemed perfect casting, Harbour having displayed over two seasons of Stranger Things in particular his ability to gruffly, drily and wittily deliver lines, with the necessary touches of weariness or vexation. In Hellboy, though, the weariness remains but the wit and dryness is largely gone, and I wonder if it has been submerged under the makeup.
But the upsides are in the world and creature designs, from Scouse pig monsters to giants to deformed witches of Eastern European folklore. This last, Baba Yaga, is one of the creepiest things I’ve seen in a while, and the interior of her house and the menu on her table are effectively unsettling.
There are a number of little things that niggle, though, that suggest a disconnect between the different aspects of production and writing. The aforementioned Scouse pig man is of the fairy folk, and they are said to be deterred by iron, and indeed this is shown as important in the story. Strange, then, that the character’s clothing clearly seems to be constructed partially from the metal. See also the famously Welsh legend Merlin, played by the extremely Irish Brian Gleeson. None huge demerits on their own, but cumulatively deleterious.
There are definitely other problems with it, like the Nazis wearing 3D glasses and the “fortunate arrival” of Nazi-hunting hero The Lobster, as well as too many instances of gore without much style, but all in all, I enjoyed it reasonably well, though very much more for the design and some of the set pieces than the story itself, which is very much of the meh variety.
I’d quite like to have had the opportunity to see another film from these producers, but the terrible reviews and box office have presumably put paid to that, more’s the pity. Anyway, it’s hardly a masterpiece but it has merit. Don’t believe the (anti-)hype.
The LEGO Movie 2
Following on from the first instalment with the meta cranked up to eleven, it’s not too dismissive to say that this is more of the same. If that’s the sort of thing you like, then you will like this.
Susanne Wolff’s Rike is a doctor in Germany. We first encounter her as part of a huge team of personnel from multiple emergency services responding to a car crash, where she directs the efforts of this expansive and expensive collection of resources to rescue a single person who has endangered their life through their own recklessness.
After this success and the demonstration of her ability and cool head, we meet Rike again in Gibraltar as she stocks her 12 metre sailing yacht with provisions for her solo voyage to Ascension Island in the South Atlantic. Prepared and relaxed, Rike begins her journey, and the first third of Styx passes in serenity and tranquillity, the sailor’s routine and the emptiness of the ocean producing an almost hypnotic and meditative state. Unexpected contact with another vessel, and the first speech in almost half an hour, brings a warning of bad weather, and Rike will soon face a storm, both literally and metaphorically.
Once the storm has passed and Rike groggily comes to, she spots a vessel a few hundred metres from her. It is an ancient fishing boat, adrift, and overloaded with a desperate human cargo. As she approaches, some of those aboard begin to throw themselves overboard, many immediately drowning. Rike enters the water in order to save one swimmer who managed to get close to her yacht: Kingsley (Gedion Wekesa Oduor), a 14 year old boy suffering from undernutrition, exhaustion, dehydration, irregular heartbeat and chemical burns.
Following the orders of the coastguard she distances herself from the boat, and treats Kingsley while awaiting the conspicuously absent rescue. As time passes Rike’s conscience, and the now awake Kingsley, compel her to act.
Austrian director Wolfgang Fischer and his co-writer Ika Künzel wanted to comment on the migrant crisis, and chose to do so with this efficient, intelligent and unsentimental moral thriller.
Fischer and Künzel keep their politics, whatever they might be, out of the film. You might think you know them, but towards the end you’ll realise you’re wrong, as a few crucial details show it to be more neutral in tone than you might expect. Another potential stumbling block and one it would be very easy for many filmmakers to trip over, is Rike being seen as the white saviour, but that’s not the character at all: indeed, as well as being a symbol of society she is also, in many ways, a victim.
Thoughtful and thought-provoking, Styx (named, and well-named, after the river from Greek mythology that separates the worlds of the living from the dead) is a morality tale, distinct from politics and free from sermonising.
Shot entirely practically, and with a multiple week shoot on open water (though off the coast of Malta rather than in the Eastern Atlantic), everything is viewed from Rike’s perspective, and we see and hear only what she does. As such the occupants of the distressed vessel are for much of the time only dim silhouettes and cacophonous howling until action brings them into focus, but this use of allegory (and others, like the hulking vastness of a commercial container ship next to Rike’s yacht) is used sparingly and effectively.
This dedication to realism is very much to the film’s favour, adding more than a simple veneer of veracity to the action. The standout moment in this regard is the real-time sequence of Rike trying to bring the exhausted and almost unconscious Kingsley on board her yacht. Though there may be some, I cannot currently recall another film in which the term “dead weight” was so understandable or so convincingly portrayed. The exertion and struggle of Wolff to move her young co-star is real, and so, therefore, is her character’s.
If I have any complaints any it’s that it’s perhaps in need of a little more time to draw out the tension, but as for the filmmaking I have few, and for the acting, none. Susanne Wolff is superb as Rike, displaying expertly the quandaries raging within her mind in the face of an impossible situation, and almost entirely without dialogue. Very much recommended.
Unless it’s being used for money laundering, going by the box office results everyone who had the barest interest in this has seen it already, but if you are waiting for this to appear on home formats, you’re probably not going to listen to this in case we spoil it for you. And we probably will, so please skip over this.
Now that they’ve gone, it’s either people who’ve already seen the film or have no interest in it, so neither group need too much of a plot recap. Short version – our surviving heroes are rejoined five years after Thanos’ hemi-mation of the universe, struggling to come to terms with the loss and the hemi-pocalypse it has brought. Through the mighty powers of contrivance, Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man is accidentally retrieved from the quantum realm, but for him only a few hours have passed, due to quantum. That gets him thinking about time travel, which is cracked after a short period of moping a damaged Robert Downey Jr’s Iron man and a Mark Ruffalo’s conglomerated Professor Hulk.
They go to great lengths for establishing their universe’s rules for time travel, then go on a Time Heist to capture the Infinity Stones before Thanos gets them, undo everything and put them back where they found him, making for an unexpectedly clever and engaging middle stretch of the movie, before throwing it out the window in the final act, alongside their laboriously and tediously established time travel rules in order to repeat the last half hour of the last film but with a different end result. It’s basically the Rocky 2 of the MCU.
Thankfully I don’t care all that much about plot holes in comic book movies, as they are at best always composed of loosely linked plot holes with a speckle of character and CG covering it, and adding time travel only compounds that, so it’s not enough to ruin the heart of the film. It’s not going to stop me calling it badly written on a narrative level, though, purely because if you’re going to wast my time with boring establishing of the time travel mechanic I’d appreciate at least a hand wavey throwaway reason they go flying out of the window because we need to get to the contractually mandated CG showdown. That’s quantum for you, pushing the boundaries of what’s sensible in a universe with actual magic in it.
The end state of this is not all that far off what was reasonably predictable given the almost impossible to avoid news of release schedules and contract negotiations, given the dominance Marvel’s had over the pop culture landscape over the past twenty odd film MCU duration, but it threw in enough twists to give some interesting scope for the future films, and in its central aim as a review of the highs of the first season of these films, or whatever we call these episodes, as the MCU is now something different from film as we’d understood it, it does very well.
It benefits greatly from Chris Evans and Downey Jnr seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, both far less disinterested than in the previous outings, and it’s a solid send off for them. As a cynical gen-xer I was surprised to see some minor public outpouring of emotion on their behalf – to me it’d be like being upset over rebranding a chocolate bar – but I suppose people have grown up with these characters plastered over every conceivable merchandising tie-in, so I suppose I can see their point of view.
I could witter on for ages, I suppose, but I won’t, other than to say despite the plot holes you could drive a spaceship through, it mostly delivers on the spectacle and emotion a series closer needs, with enough humour and urgency to keep things mostly belting along such that the running time for once doesn’t feel like a problem. Up there with Marvel’s best.
Oh, but they still can’t write female character for toffee, and would be better served minimising that until they hire someone who can. There’s one scene so forced and undeserved in the final act so embarrassing I pretty much cringed myself into a pretzel. Come back after the next Black Widow and Captain Marvel films and we’ll talk. Until then, maybe don’t draw attention to it.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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