Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) – Review

Lightyears from sticking the landing.

Continue reading Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) – Review

IT Chapter Two (2019) – Review

Less chiller, more adventure for King’s dancing harlequin

‘I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?’ We’re 33 years on from Stand By Me, yet its legacy continues to breathe. Muschietti’s first IT took heed of Stephen King’s affection for pure adolescence, reassembling his near-biblical horror odyssey into a lean coming-of-age fable; weaving the infectious familiarity of potty-mouthed liberty, Stranger Things-esque tone, and the inevitable loss of innocence.

Nostalgia was always Muschietti’s greatest enemy. King’s fiendish monster wasn’t a stranger to the screen: Tim Curry’s indelible turn in 1990’s otherwise dire mini-series birthed a multitude of generation’s phobias forevermore. But, as 2017’s first chapter opened on Georgie’s unfading, horrendous demise, it was clear the director knew his onions.

After seemingly defeating Pennywise, the child-eating clown (Bill Skarsgård) – with bats, chains and, of course, the power of friendship – the tweens of the Losers Club made a blood-oath to return if ‘it’ ever came back. IT Chapter Two fast-forwards 27 years later, and that promise is calling from the drains.

We’re reintroduced to Derry with true-to-life terror: as per the novel, the film begins with a teeth-crunching homophobic attack that does anything but skimp on acoustically sickening blows. The town’s rednecks detest gay men, but don’t expect further commentary on the US’ LGBT+ conflicts – it’s a medium for surface-level sickness, a reminder that nearly everyone outside the Losers is, basically, a villain, and a narrative tool. By one way or another, it spurs the re-emergence of the sewer’s frill-spangled beast – and he’s carrying an even harsher feasting ethic.

Meanwhile, the ragtag group of clown-killers are all grown-up. Bill (James McAvoy) is a successful author battling studios over screen adaptations of his work, constantly the butt of bad ending jokes (wink wink); Beverley (Jessica Chastain) has a successful career but is, again, ensnared in an abusive relationship; Ben (Jay Ryan) has shed the flab and transformed into a chiselled, high-flying architect; Richie (Bill Hader) has channelled his trash-mouth into stand-up comedy; Eddie (James Ransone) has cut a risk assessment vocation out of his hypochondriacal psyche and swapped out an anxiety-ridden mother for a (hilariously) similar wife; and there’s Stanley (Andy Bean), with a low-key, suburban lifestyle.

© – Warner Bros

One Loser remains: Mike (Isaiah Mustafa). ‘Me? I never left… I remember all of it,’ he says. Clocking the return of ‘it’, he calls upon the group to cash in the oath and rally them to Derry. Excluding Mike, their recollections have mostly faded to a distant blur – although their unholy reunion causes a tidal wave of memory. Some moments welcomed, others packaged with nausea.

If the first chapter was about tackling the unknown, the sequel revolves around the aftershocks of trauma: while the Losers enjoy each other’s company upon meeting again, it’s evident they’re still harbouring past demons: one mention of the clown sends Eddie reaching for his inhaler, and Bill’s stutter clicks in. Beverley has the most tragic arc, going from her monstrous father to a (briefly seen) toxic husband where abuse is as frequent as a morning kiss. While her dad’s shadow lingers like a spectre, and despite a very strong performance from Chastain, her self-destruction isn’t entirely well-observed.

In translating King’s 1,138-page slab, Muschietti and screenwriter Gary Dauberman had wacky, sometimes repellent nonsense to trim: the giant turtle, the macroverse, and thank the lord, the sewer orgy. But some things remain: Henry Bowers’ presence is utterly pointless, there’s some creepy crawlies that echo The Thing‘s Lovecraftian scarily strange incarnations, and the romantic sub-plots. The ‘January embers’ latter bogs the film down; cutesy, yes, but predictable.

The group are better as a club than split up – though Hader’s Richie is a fiercely funny, rather heartbreaking force of nature. The quick-fire, sweary rapport as the Losers rekindle their loveable ticks over dinner, particularly between Richie and Eddie, manages to fleetingly bottle their former selves’ chemistry. Then, a major moment in the film sees the members split up (aptly pointed out as ‘fucking stupid’) to probe their buried teenage experience.

© – Warner Bros

IT has always been psychological – the villain feeds on your fear – and Chapter Two establishes quickly that Pennywise isn’t just out to eat the adults; he wants to brutally torment them. In a string of rinse-and-repeat set-pieces (easily the film’s most tedious and runtime-pestering stretch), each individual Loser faces off with ‘it’ in some form while intersecting with flashbacks from their past selves: for example, Richie revisits an arcade where he was bullied, and Beverley makes a trip to her old home where an elderly woman now lives (a fixture of the sequel’s trailers). The de-aging technology on the kids is relatively seamless in these scenes, but the incessant reliance on them sees the film drag its feet from encounter-to-encounter.

McAvoy walks away with the movie’s best sequence; an frightening, dazzling funhouse (a nightmarish arena illuminated by Checco Varese, whose cinematography consistently blends vintage polaroid and wide, deliberately detailed framing), where Bill is desperately pursuing a young boy under the watchful drool of Pennywise (Skarsgård’s symbiotic relationship with the character should see him worshipped in the house of horror for years to come). This, and a baseball game munch, capture the very essence of what makes the clown so terrifying: its ruthlessness. The monster is at ITs best when there’s a horrid vulnerability: like Dennis Nedry’s demise at the hands of the dilophosaurus in Jurassic Park, that feeling of the clown whetting his appetite and moistening the child up with a mix of faux-security and ‘tasty, tasty, beautiful fear’ sends a shiver down your spine.

While lower-league child actors are offered up for the antagonist’s cravings throughout, the Losers are frustratingly protected by plot armour. On more than one reality-warping occasion, Pennywise proves that saying ‘it’s not real’ is no longer an adequate antidote to his transcendent onslaught; but he has very little agency in actually causing harm to the main cast – in return, the stakes are meagre and the scare-count is dreadfully scarce.

But the film’s horror elements are packaged in the mould of a fantastic adventure movie: like its Amblin-chasing predecessor, Chapter Two sees its grown-ups band together (under the leaping music of Benjamin Wallfisch’s classically fabulous composition) in the face of adversity to ‘kill this fucking clown’ – excellently delivered by Hader. ‘We are what we wish we could forget,’ the opening narration posits – to heal, we must recognise and conquer. For our Losers, childhood never reached a natural end, even as they broach their 40s – and while the boss battle succumbs to tiresome, modern CGI-trappings, the context of their fight remains steadfast.

King’s magnum opus gets its reverent due. Sparse on scares but plentiful in fun, it’s the epic grown-up Goonies sequel we’ll never get.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) – Review

Tarantino-tailored time capsule. 

Don Draper described nostalgia as “a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone”. Tarantino’s vision of a pre-Manson, sun-kissed 60s Los Angeles – illustrated with Pan Am planes, Cadillacs and neon-lit cinema dusk-scapes – transcends the reality of your experiences and radiates like a warm memory, creating a tangible sense of place that’s every bit authentic as it is irresistible. Like Scorsese’s titular twinkly Casino, QT’s city of angels is an alluring character of its own.

The filmmaker’s legacy is a complex menagerie of violent, sweary concoctions: among them is the ultra-nihilism of The Hateful Eight; the jet-black, scalped revisionism of Inglorious Basterds; the ode to Grindhouse exploitation of Death Proof; and the superfly pithiness of Reservoir Dogs. He’s famously proclaimed he’ll only make 10 films; which makes Once Upon a Time in Hollywood his ninth (counting Kill Bill as one bloody affair).

Though, contrasting expectations as his filmography draws to a close, his penultimate release doesn’t write history with lightning in Pulp (semi-)Fiction. For much of its 161-minute runtime, it’s closer in spirit to Jackie Brown; still layered with Tarantinoisms – freeze frame flashback exposition à la Hugo Stiglitz, snazzy editing and infectious tunes (particularly Los Bravos’ Bring a Little Lovin’) – but much mellower, allowing every little thread to untangle at a leisurely, captivating pace.

© – Sony Pictures

We open with a reel of Bounty Law, an amusingly corny western TV show, before cutting to an interview with our leads: Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a jading television actor; and his stunt-double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who helps “carry Rick’s load”. Rick is floundering in a youthful arena; as his agent warns him (Al Pacino in a cameo powered by legend-casting), he’s playing the bad guy so the good guys can run in the industry, coming “face to face with he failure” of his career as he averts change.

Cliff on the other hand plays fiddle to Rick’s lifestyle. Without a gig next to his double, he’s yang without ying. He drives him around, picks him up, fixes his aerial – though it isn’t begrudged. The pair share a brotherly bond; while Rick’s actions may appear selfish, Cliff’s puppy-like eagerness makes their rapport particularly charming as they traverse their respective tales.

The film takes place over the course of 1969, placing up-and-coming starlet Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) in their orbit, living next door to Rick with world-renowned director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha). The Bryan Adams timestamp is no secret coincidence; the Manson family pervade frames as Rick and Cliff cruise around, dead behind the eyes and endlessly hitchhiking back to Charles (Damon Herriman). The presence of the cult (who infamously slaughtered Sharon Tate and four others) is more of a lingering reminder of the (seemingly) inevitable than an examination from the director; perturbing the almost wistful essence that makes much of the picture feel like a reverie.

There’s a certain poeticism to OUATIH. Robert Richardson’s cinematography is beautifully textured and composed, feeling more of a tool to establish a world you’d roam than the wall-worthy pizazz of The Hateful Eight and Kill Bill. There’s no major takeaway moment of screenwriting genius like Jules’ recital of Ezekiel 25:17. Nor is there much of a plot at all – while Django Unchained‘s narrative path is rather traditional compared to Pulp Fiction‘s vastly different, groundbreaking spliced storytelling, the filmmaker’s latest flows through the trio’s vignettes like an epic rhapsody.

© – Sony Pictures

It’s Tarantino at his most personal. He’s crafted an immense love letter; not to racial slurs, not to feet (even though there are many, and they’re all dirty), but to the movies. Robbie’s Tate is a vessel for his addiction to the ecstasy of Hollywood – she’s an utterly joyous presence, glamorous and grin-inducing (particularly in a scene where she charms her way into a free screening of her own film, The Wrecking Crew, lapping up the audience’s reactions as she sits wide-eyed in pride).

Pitt’s Cliff embodies the problematic essence of Tarantino’s best characters, now entering his pantheon of icons. It’s an exceptional turn, one layered in stud charisma that straddles you from the off. He’s what Stuntman Mike imagines he is – take a concoction of him, True Romance‘s Floyd and Inglorious Basterds‘ Aldo, and you have Cliff. Whereas DiCaprio’s Rick is more delicate; an actor losing his feet and forever battling his own – frequently weepy – insecurities. One could read him as a representation of QT’s post-Death Proof emotional state (disheartened by the sedated critical and audience response). His first lead role since The Revenant could see him win another Oscar – though often played for laughs, the actor never forgets to imbue despair with genuine, poignant pathos.

Tones diverge without pattern; you have a hilariously silly, albeit very brief, tussle with Bruce Lee one moment, then an arse-clenching, suspense-knitted trip to the Manson family’s Spahn Ranch the next. As you hurtle towards the film’s show-stopping conclusion (smartly spawned from a meta-commentary on the violence debate), the underlying dread releases. The result is an explosion of exhilarating bloodlust that only Tarantino could orchestrate – audiences will laugh, scream and cheer till the credits roll. Also, there’s an amazing dog.

Tarantino’s penultimate film is pure movie magic; a beautifully crafted, deliriously cathartic sonnet to Hollywood’s Golden Age.

Rating: ★★★★★

Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm

Toy Story 4 (2019) – Review

A majestic epilogue. 

Toy Story is a cinema landmark. A turn-of-the-tide in computer animation, a blissful injection of universal jollity, and the beginning of one of film’s greatest trilogies. The road to Toy Story 4 has been one of paranoia; the third entry tied up everything in a heart-wrenching bow, so what’s the point? As the cloud-laden blue sky appears once again, with Randy Newman’s happy-go-lucky Western score, the real question is: why did we ever doubt Pixar?

Childhood attachment is a fickle thing; the initial resistance towards this fourthquel is an interesting parallel to the series’ themes. If anyone was fit for the task, it’s Josh Cooley; one of the minds behind the studio’s brilliant Inside Out. Though in helming this unexpected continuation, he’s stripped the ensemble feel; honing in on an intimate reflection of one’s wants, needs, past and fate.

We start nine years in the past, in the silhouette-begging rainfall of night. We’re still in the world of Andy, with an eclectic gathering of toys in tow. It’s a complete sugar-rush; igniting that childhood love with some a-class plaything action, bidding to rescue RC from the monsoon. Soon, we’re thrown back to the past, with Bonnie – the sweet little girl to whom Andy passed the mantle post-incinerator.

Woody (Tom Hanks), the ever-protective sheriff, is desperate to make sure Bonnie is okay on her first day of kindergarten, but soon finds himself saddled with Forky (Tony Hale) – a day-one craft construction of goggly eyes, tack and a spork. Above all else, he’s a toy; one with an identity crisis, a fear of himself and love for trash (his self-loathing is intensely relatable). Woody’s attempts at babysitting go awry near a fairground, where Forky escapes, setting of a chain of hilarious, sometimes frightening events.

© – Disney

In truth, there are similarities to Toy Story 3; the single location set-up is very Sunnyside, and yes there are toys who resent their past owners. But Cooley plays it out much differently. Instead of divvying up tasks, Buzz (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack) and co. are rather sidelined; utensils in serving Woody’s plight and popping in for some gags and emotional moments.

It’s quite effective; Hanks has never been better as Woody, feeling truly human rather than merely anthropomorphic, battling his in-built addiction to keep his owner happy – a fact of ‘life’ that seems impossible to overcome. Of course, there’s another key figure in this tale: Bo Peep (Annie Potts). Making a return as a Rey-inspired wasteland warrior, with a shining polish and terrific self-assurance, she and Woody turn Toy Story 4 into an unexpected, but dizzyingly engrossing love story – think Before Sunset, but plastic and porcelain.

This, plus a refreshingly realised, un-twisty antagonist (voiced by Christina Hendricks) with a Dead Silence-esque team of terrifying dummies, and two new wicked fluffballs, Ducky and Bunny, in the form of Key and Peele, with a madcap, deranged sense of humour and boundless energy, give way to a plentiful supply of gut-bursting laughs. You won’t forget Keanu Reeves as Duke Caboom (!), a Canadian stuntman toy with a dazzling aptitude for posing (and saying “Kaboom” better than anyone on the face of the earth). The screenplay from Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom is arguably the funniest of the lot.

The inevitable perils do become a little repetitive (always a danger of a movie in one place) but the joy that propels stops it from grating. One thing’s for sure; it’s a stunner to look at. Meticulously rendered, finite reflections and mind-boggling detail considered from the most inconsequential of moments to soaring landscapes bursting with Coco-esque colour (there’s even a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it animated split diopter) – as an overall package, cosmetically, you cannot do any better.

Then comes the kick in the balls of your heart. Some say it’s unnecessary; I say it’s bang-on-the-money. As has been the case before, the film delves deeper into areas we never knew existed, explored themes audiences never anticipated, and manages to make adults and kids alike weep like they’ve never weeped. Kids: put down the phones, grab a toy, make a story.

A poignant, Woody-centric epilogue to an unprecedented franchise; mesmerising, hysterical and destined for ugly crying. 

Rating: ★★★★☆

Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm

John Wick 3: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019) – Review

‘Guns… a lot of guns.’

Keanu Reeve’s connection to the neo-western genre now goes beyond the prefix. In the latest Wickian outing, director Chad Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad put a spectacular bounty on the boogeyman’s head, switching out the Wild West for neon-scorched cityscapes and adding a breathless amount of kung/gun/dog-fu.

A single droplet of blood cues the cheesy opening credits. We’re back in the world of John Wick (Reeves); immediately following the events of Chapter 2, Continental hotel manager Winston (Ian McShane) allows the hitman one hour to escape before a $14 million contract for his life is lit.

Every single killer in New York City wants a slice of that bounty; but it’ll be no easy catch. This is “John fucking Wick”, “the last thing many men see before they die”, therefore, “the odds are about even”. As the rain pours like a Vietnam monsoon, John is hunted like a dog – though we all know that action equals a deadly consequence in this franchise.

Old faces return: Lance Reddick’s low-toned, refined Charon; Laurence Fishburne on amazingly loose form as Bowery King (he belongs in Westeros with lines like “I am the throne, baby!”). But, as the lore of this canine-avenging series expands and vastly deepens, many more emerge from the shadows: Asia Kate Dillon as The Adjudicator, representing the High Table’s reticles focused on Winston after his friendly allowance to John after breaking sacred rules; Halle Berry as Sofia, a former partner of John’s with a toe-curling knack for letting her pair of gorgeous dogs ravage her enemies genitals (it happens a lot). Not to mention the actual Anjelica Houston and Mark Dacascos as a delightfully twisted baddie.

Coins, markers, High Tables; Stahelski and Kolstad have rapidly moved from their emotive beginnings to expansive, hammy lore, constantly revealing new areas of the assassin-sphere. Your allegiances can be deciphered on the primitive question; which film did you prefer? The answer will likely indicate how you take Chapter 3, by far the most outrageous, exaggerated entry of the trilogy.

This time round though, the leaps and bounds the whacky mythos takes doesn’t always equal an exciting story. The runtime, a reasonable 131 minutes, can sag in bullet-less intervals, often woven with opaque dialogue about bonds, worths and penance. But, when the action comes back, the film kicks into a much higher gear.

The choreography here is close to The Raid 2-levels of blood-soaked quality; inventive, grim but rarely gratuitous. There’s horses, kitanas, uber-shotguns; all and more used in the act of killing, and it’s glorious. From a fight with the franchise equivalent of Jaws (Bond villain, not the shark), to a jaw-dropping move with a book, to the most impressive use of dogs in any motion picture that’s ever existed; this is premium action cinema. Stahelski is a genius in this arena, but all due credit to Dan Laustsen, the cinematographer that evokes blinding electricity from acutely framed, cross-discipline chaos.

“Art is pain” one character quips; I bet Reeves agrees. The people’s action star is known for loving the stunt-work, but this performance is one of immense physical aptitude. Stahelski said in an interview that when John looks to be struggling in the movie, panting and grunting, that’s because Reeves is. You believe it, you’re there for every punch, stab and shot he faces, every body-slam he dishes out; but with that reliable charisma he’s perfected in his renaissance, he’s also an immensely likeable hero.

There are other quibbles; Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard’s score is a bit uninspiring; it has momentum, but not the raw acceleration of say, Junkie XL’s work on Mad Max: Fury Road. There’s also the fact that these assassins kill people in broad daylight a lot, even in train stations, and nobody seems to notice. But, with such a remarkable plethora of sequences some directors could only dream of producing, this is an exhilarating, ooh-inducing watch (shout-out to all the good dogs again).

First he avenged a dog, now he fights alongside them. John Wick’s third chapter is an over-the-top feast of brutal, giddy, masterful violence.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm

High Life (2019) – Review

Bewildering, penetrative sci-fi.

Endless blackness, an infinite stretch of both everything and nothing, mesmerizing but (literally) suffocating in its incomprehensible scale; the existential terror of High Life’s surrounding twinkly cosmos looms like an unconquerable inevitability. But famed arthouse director Claire Denis, making her English-language movie debut, imbues her unlikely sci-fi effort with more than fear of the unknown.

Floating far, far away from Earth, a crew of Death Row inmates is sent on a near-suicide mission to extract energy from a whopping black hole. But the ship’s doctor, Dibs (Juliette Binoche), has other ideas; battling her own demons, she wants to harvest the men’s semen and impregnate the women. But Monte (Robert Pattinson) isn’t game to make a deposit to the wank-bank.

Although, the film opens, presumably, after this gestation operation, with Monte looking after an adorable little baby; screaming for her dad as he works on the outside of the craft (the physics of Denis’ void are unique; bodies float over opening titles but a spanner drops like a pebble). The first half-hour is entrancing; dazzling cinematography from Yorick Le Saux and Tomasz Naumiuk evokes the lucid neon of HAL’s brain and the lingering malevolence of the Overlook Hotel’s haunted corridors (smoke pervades hallways like blood from the elevator).

© – A24

There are shades of other wonderful features here: a glorious green garden is reminiscent of the environmental isolation of Silent Running; the team’s objective is similar to Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, although tonally disparate. But as the narrative opens up to the other inmates, Denis’ opaque trip turns extraordinarily carnal.

“It’s called a taboo,” Monte says at one point – High Life certainly falls into that challenging category. Taking us back to others onboard (a terrific ensemble, including Mia Goth and André Benjamin), we’re transferred into a sensually charged prison, where bloodlust is normal and the risk of rape (both male and female) is prevalent. While its mood is similar to that of Under the Skin and thematically in the same ballpark as Children of Men, it’s a mind-bending, unique experience – quite possibly the horniest space expedition to hit cinemas.

The composition of every frame is impeccable (the way Denis commands dread from a gaze is chilling), and the pace is calculated; stretches of ominous inactivity are punctuated with violent vignettes. For the cast, it’s not exactly breezy fare, but they manage to shine; Pattinson puts in an engrossingly fractured performance, navigating his way through with a natural gravity (particularly as the film heads towards its conclusion). Binoche makes the bigger impression though, terrifying throughout and stopping the show with a barnstorming, intensely visceral, almost-occult solo sex scene inside the facility’s “fuck box” (with a heart-thumping score from Tindersticks’ Stuart Staples), akin spiritually to 2018’s Suspiria – indeed, “it’s a whole other rabbit hole”.

But like Guadagnino’s remake, High Life can be an easier film to admire than enjoy. The script allows itself to lean on exposition instead of letting mystique take the wheel; but at the other end of the spectrum, its frequent ambiguity doesn’t always inspire cohesion. Worst of all, towards the end there’s an abhorrent scene with dogs that is so overtly horrific, so difficult to stomach, it made me upset to the point of being physically ill.

But in a complex tapestry of ideas, Denis’ direction is quite remarkable. The content is troubling, and by the time the credits roll, you’ll likely be craving a cold shower. The filmmaker purposely tests your patience, drags you through the depths of morality; but it’s undoubtedly indelible. Plus, there’s a triumphant snippet of ‘Flower of Scotland’ that granted me merciful elation before the nausea took control.

Human nature and Mother Nature come to blows with uncomfortable consequences in this disturbing, mystifying sci-fi odyssey.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm

Avengers: Endgame (2019) – Review

If each month of every year had a gravestone, April 2019 would have “Part of the journey is the end” etched on it. The final season of Game of Thrones and Avengers: Endgame – the two biggest events of all time in their respective mediums. Hype can be both friend and foe in the tumultuous build-up (particularly when spawns of Satan leak footage), but the directing Russo brothers have proved themselves to be dab hands in this particular pop culture arena. And, with this masterful, galvanizing conclusion to more than 10 years of movies, they’ve provided fans with the rarest thing of all; a true end.

Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) sets the scene: “Thanos did exactly what he said he was gonna do, he wiped out 50% of all living creatures.” The film picks up after the catastrophic events of its finger-snapping predecessor, and survivors’ guilt is rife. Team members have turned to self-help groups, others to exacting vengeful violence on those who made it out alive who perhaps don’t deserve to be, and a few are trying to push on through the grief and preserve that oh-so-cherished “suit of armour around the world”. The fact is, they now know what it’s like to lose, to feel so desperately that they’re right, but to fail nonetheless.

Appropriately, the first act of Endgame is indeed a somber affair, right from the ultra-downbeat, perfectly pitched opening scene; a painting of post-trauma life for our very human heroes, with hurt dripping off the canvas as they strive and struggle to do something with the world that’s left. It’s no spoiler to say that Tony (Robert Downey Jr) and Nebula (Karen Gillan, who’s “only a tiny bit sadistic”) are stranded in space from the off, following their final boss stint on Titan. But, as Steve Rogers says: “Some people move on, but not us.” Through an absolute fluke, there’s a small chance to do something; and that’s when the madness really begins.

It’s a long film, 181 minutes to be exact. But it feels much, much shorter; similarly to Infinity War (but entirely different in tone), there’s a brilliant momentum through the acutely paced vignettes of the story, allowing for deep-cutting character work and 10 years of plot threads to finally tie together (Tony and Steve’s precarious relationship is a highlight). If the first third burns, the second dazzles. Like a victory lap of the MCU’s triumphs, the directors and writers, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, orchestrate angst, wonder and poignancy in all the right moments, their love for these icons shining through every reunion and callback. Only a few moments stumble; a certain character’s alcoholic arc loses its charm, the comedy is occasionally clunky, one moment of intended welly is hampered by a scrappy structure and a shot reminiscent of Black Widow, Okoye (Danai Gurira) and Scarlet Witch’s (Elizabeth Olsen) team-up in Infinity War is cool but contrived.

Thanos was the twisted protagonist of the last outing, but here he peeps in and out, delivering signature grandiose, purring dialogue in calculated doses with lingering dread (“I am inevitable,” he says, smugly). It’s the best showcase of the cast’s acting talents so far. Some members, naturally, aren’t afforded as much of the spotlight but still do well with what they have (Gillan’s underrated Nebula, Bradley Cooper’s Rocket, Don Cheadle’s Rhodey and Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel). The stars are undoubtedly Evans and Downey Jr: the former offering a broken, transformative performance that changes the character forever; the latter at his most touching and contemplative. Sarcastic and snarly but earnest, recalibrated like a fresh Iron Man suit.

It’s not all agony – the third act of this movie is a pure-hearted, unbelievable, fist-pumping extravaganza of stupendously geeky delights. The Russo’s weaponise nostalgia and fan-service and wield it like Thanos does his Infinity Gauntlet, delivering a feast of cathartic pay-offs you are absolutely not prepared for. The effects work here is vastly impressive, building upon coherent choreography and cinematography (brilliantly versatile work by Trent Opaloch, from awesomely giddy shots to honed-in intimacy) as Return of the King syndrome looms. Fights have a barnstorming, nervous energy, like the ruthless pressure of every encounter in 2014’s Winter Soldier. This is peak blockbuster: extraordinary entertainment that is as concerned with dropping your jaw as breaking your heart. With Alan Silvestri’s melancholic, rousing score in the mix to stir the anguish and pump the blood, by the time those credits roll, you’ll be booking your tickets for round two, three, four and so on. Is it the best MCU movie? Perhaps. The most ambitious? Certainly. A deserving champion to knock a certain trip to Pandora off its podium.

A spectacular, once-in-a-lifetime epic. Avengers, dismissed.

Rating: ★★★★★

Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm