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Onward

With Onward, Pixar demonstrates their ongoing combination of visual inventiveness with humour and emotion. Director Dan Scanlon weaves a literally mystical world, stacked with loving references to fantasy tropes such as perilous paths, elves and mages. But it is a far cry from The Lord of the Rings, as unicorns scavenge from dustbins and a manticore runs a family restaurant. Furthermore, it is a touching tale of two brothers learning about themselves and each other. Narratively, it’s pretty much stuff we’ve seen before, but is handled with such precision and élan that it never fails to delight. The film is ravishing in its visual design and there’s always something fun to pick out. If there’s magic to be found, it might look something like Onward

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Avengers: Endgame

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Avengers: Endgame is epic, grand, enthralling entertainment. It is a film painted on the grandest of canvasses, yet one that maintains a fine eye for detail. It combines planetary scale spectacle with intimate moments, mixes tragedy with comedy and provides a fitting climax to a staggering saga. Along the way, directors Joe and Anthony Russo perform the remarkable feat of paying fan service that also serves the story. Fan service is a much-maligned practice: seen as kowtowing to audiences, it smacks of not respecting the story and compromising the artistic vision. But is the purpose of the story and artistic vision, at least in the case of popular entertainment, not to serve the audience? The difficulty of paying fan service is that it is a shot in the dark, since it is hard to know what audiences actually want and attempting to predict this can end in an incoherent product. Arguably, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been performing this balancing act over the past eleven years and twenty-two films, nodding to comic book and movie fans along the way. For the most part, it has been successful, with a steady feed that develops the franchise into greater complexity, yet without becoming too clever and convoluted for its own good.

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With Endgame, the Russos marshal these potentially disparate elements, including a mass of familiar characters, a multitude of storylines that intersect, loop back, replay and turn in surprising directions, and a variety of tones. The managing of tone is especially impressive, as Endgame follows on from the tragic finale of Infinity War, one of the boldest ever conclusions of a blockbuster. The opening portion of the film depicts our surviving heroes – including Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) – living with the trauma of their devastating losses, each of them dealing with their particular trauma in a different way. From this melancholic position, a quest emerges possible redemption, the film echoing mythic quest narratives like The Lord of the Rings, before moving into multiple parallel narrative strands, and creative and at times overwhelming set pieces.

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No emotion is left untapped in this supreme super-powered saga. Laughs, tears, thrills, spills, affection, boo hiss villainy, punch the air moments of sheer joy – all are here in abundance. It is especially impressive that there are narrative elements that become more problematic the more you think about them, but during the film they are of little consequence because of the viewer’s emotional engagement. Those who have invested in the Marvel Cinematic Universe will find themselves amply rewarded, and those with a passing interest are still likely to find much to enthrall them. While there is more of the MCU to come, Endgame serves as a fitting finale to the previous eleven years, and one of the finest examples of its genre to date.

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Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

SpiderverseSpider-Man has a long and varied history across media, from comic books to TV series to blockbuster movies. Devoted fans will be aware of different permutations of Peter Parker, Aunt May, Gwen Stacy and various villains, but it takes a special level of dedication to recognise Spider-Man Noir and Spider-Ham. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse rewards dabbling and dedicated fans alike, with dazzlingly vibrant animation, a multitude of references and characterisation that is warm and engaging. Simultaneously, directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman create a level of postmodern self-awareness that could be infuriating but always feels inclusive. Multiple recountings of Spider-Man’s origin(s) are prefaced with ‘You know the story’, but slight differences indicate the malleability and adaptability of this character. Yet, far from being a film by geeks for geeks, SMITSV is a welcoming celebration of popular culture, blending the obscure with the mainstream. This blend takes place within a high stakes super-powered tale of dimensional rifts, fanatical villains, destiny and choice, identity, family and coming of age, as well as reminders that with great power comes, you know the rest, and the film knows that you know the rest. The material is handled with affection and irreverence, both by the directors and the game voice cast, including Shameik Moore as Miles Morales, Jake Johnson as Peter B. Parker and Liev Schreiber as Wilson Fisk. Johnson is a particular highlight, his cynical, jaded and rather flabby Spider-Man a welcome contrast to the idealised and naivety of Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield and Tom Holland, not to mention the irrepressible Mile Morales. Spider-Verse also features the most kick-ass Aunt May (Lily Tomlin) yet to grace the screen, and even includes footage from the 1960s TV series. The nostalgia and love for the character and his fans give the film a delightful edge, while the animation is creative and delivers genuine visual impact. Spider-Man will doubtless continue as a live action character, but this animated adventure is a welcome and wonderful addition to the verse.

In the Heart of the Sea

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Films at sea have the potential to be immersive but run the risk of being soggy. For the most part, Ron Howard’s latest effort succeeds in being the former, as Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) records the experiences of Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson/Tom Holland) aboard the whaling vessel Essex, the “true” story that inspired Moby Dick. Charles Leavitt’s screenplay balances Dickerson’s confession with the voyage of the Essex, commanded by Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) who frequently clashes with First Mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) as they sail in search of whales. The framing story raises interesting ideas about storytelling, although these are not developed because the emphasis is upon confession of “deep truth,” which at times becomes somewhat trite. But the spectacle of sailors battling the elements make up for this with rich visual detail and visceral rushes as waves crash against the Essex and men grapple with ropes and sails. The whaling sequences are also well handled for conservation-conscious eyes, as close-ups of both the whales and the whalers convey a sense of melancholy over the slaughter of these creatures. Later, the sailors’ voyage becomes a fight for survival, and this is the film’s greatest strength, as it focuses upon the relationship between humanity and nature, both elements and animals. This focus aligns In The Heart of the Sea with other recent films such as Godzilla and The Grey that explore the place of humanity in relation to untamed nature, arrogance, obsession and humility vying for prominence among the crew, as well as their employers back on land. This gives the film an interesting depth to go with its visual spectacle and, at times, palatable suffering. While not a perfect cruise, Howard’s oceanic adventure is still an enjoyable voyage.