Tag: Michelle Yeoh

Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022)

Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022)

The multi-verse is at risk of ending – and only a disenchanted woman running a laundromat can save the day in this inventive science-fiction

Director: Dan Kwan, Daniel Scheinert

Cast: Michelle Yeoh (Evelyn Quan Wang), Stephanie Hsu (Joy Wang), Ke Huy Quan (Waymond Wang), James Hong (Gong Gong), Jamie Lee Curtis (Dierdre Beaubeirdre), Tallie Medel (Becky Sregor), Jenny Slate (Debbie), Harry Shum Jnr (Chad), Biff Wiff (Rick)

Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) has lots on her plate: running her laundromat, completing tax returns for a demanding IRS agent (Jamie Lee Curtis), her waning marriage to goofy husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) and drifting relationship with lesbian daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu), not to mention her fear of the disapproval of her demanding father (James Hong) – its Everything Everywhere All at Once as it is: no wonder she struggles to cope when discovering from an alternate version of her husband that she, and she alone, is the key to saving the entire multi-verse from destruction.

Everything Everywhere All at Once is an endlessly inventive, imaginative and unique spin on everything from science fiction to philosophy, via the struggles of an immigrant family, familial dynamics and love, death and the universe itself. Did I mention it’s got jokes as well? There isn’t anything quite like EEAAO out there, and if the film does lose energy at an inflated runtime of 145 minutes, at least that’s because it must have been a struggle knowing what to cut.

In the mythology of EEAAO, Evelyn lives in just one of a myriad different realities. Every time a decision is taken, a new reality branches off, spawning innumerable different realities. If Evelyn can imagine it, then somewhere in another universe it happened. She should be a film star, a martial artiste, a chef, a blind singer, a pizza sign spinner…there are realities where mankind never evolved or where they evolved with hot dogs for fingers (a joke the film is a way too pleased with and seriously outstays its welcome).

With some technology from the “Alpha” universe – the first universe to discover alternate realities, where Evelyn and Waymond were pioneering scientists – Evelyn can access the memories and skills of her alternates. All she – and others with the right training and equipment – need to do to become experts at anything in seconds is to build a mental link to that reality by performing a highly improbable act. Whether that’s getting four consecutive papercuts, eating a lipstick, swallowing a model frog or – in a comic highlight – Evelyn fighting to stop an opponent shoving an “Employee of the month” award shaped like a dildo up their bottom in public (you’re not going to see that in many movies) – it’s a brilliant comic device that raises belly laughs a plenty.

EEAAO knocks spots off the recent Doctor Strange sequel (that made almost nothing of its parallel universe concept) by not only presenting radically different worlds (in this universe Evelyn is a pinata! Here she’s a rock!), but also exploring how the path-not-taken can have a mesmerising and inspiring/depressing impact. Evelyn – a woman who (justifiably?) believes she has achieved nothing, is both fascinated or heart-broken to see realities where her accomplishments are titanic. EEAO is superbly thought-provoking when it explores the emotional impact of questioning your choices, when you see turning right rather than left could have been the first step on a path of astonishing glory and success and, even, a completely different personality.

This leads into the film’s second half which, after the comic energy of the first, dives into a philosophical debate about the nature of choice. The villain attempting to destroy reality is motivated not by rage or power-lust – but simply by the fact that jumping to a billion realities has persuaded them it all means nothing. Everything is basically a combination of atoms that, with a few pushes and pulls, can turn from one thing to anything else. This nihilistic view of the world – what does it matter killing one person when there are billions of other versions of them, many of them ‘better’ – and balancing it with a more humanitarian view, becomes the film’s key debate.

It’s also rooted in the film’s opening, which is does a marvellous job of exploring universal family questions, while still grounded in the experience of an immigrant family. Evelyn and Waymond, having moved to America in search of their dreams as youngsters – and wound up running a laundromat – struggle to balance their relationship (her growing irritation at his perpetual optimism, his alienation from her cynicism) and, particularly in Evelyn’s case, understanding her more Westernised daughter. Two generations with very different experiences, struggling to understand each other.

On top of which, many of these problems are universal. Generational conflicts: the grandpa who can’t be told his granddaughter is gay, because her mother isn’t sure how he will react. The mother and daughter who have lost the ability to communicate and reduced to saying increasingly cruel things to each other (there is a shocking moment when Evelyn tries to tell her daughter she loves her but instead chastises her for getting fat). Waymond tries to hold things together but is too gentle and ineffective to do anything.

All of this is bundled together in a film stuffed with inventive and hilarious sequences. There are kick-ass fights (one involving Alpha-Waymond and a fanny-pack – bum-bag to us Brits – which has to be seen to be believed), hilarious segues, brilliant parodies of other films (2001, Ratatouille and In the Mood for Love for starters): and then the film will hit you for six with a genuinely heart-breaking moment. I will say there is almost too much good stuff here – ten minutes trimmed from the film would work wonders, and the continued trips back to Hot Dog Hands reality is a joke stretched to absolute breaking point – but better too much than too little.

At the heart of this fabulous work from The Daniels are superb performances, none more so than a career best turn from Michelle Yeoh. Channelling everything Yeoh has ever done in her career into a single film, she of course can handle the astonishing action but also displays an emotional depth and complexity that will break your heart. She’s bitter and trapped, then will shift on a sixpence to agonised guilt and longing. She’s astonishingly good. There is brilliant support from Hsu as her trapped and troubled daughter and Ke Huy Quan (last seen in The Goonies) is heart-breakingly endearing, funny and wonderfully sweet as her good-natured husband (like Yeoh he also plays multiple variants – from confident to cold and distant). James Hong is wonderful as her austere father and Jamie Lee Curtis is having a ball as a bullying IRS agent turned villain’s heavy.

When the major flaw in the film is that it is too damn long, you know you are onto a good thing. There are more ideas in a few minutes here than in the entire runtime of such things as the Doctor Strange sequel. Superbly directed with wit, energy and compassion by the Daniels and with a career-defining role for Michelle Yeoh, Everything Everywhere All At Once is destined to take its place as a year defining cult hit.

Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)

Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)

Lush romantic adaptation settles for tourism and pretty pictures instead of any emotional or narrative weight

Director: Rob Marshall

Cast: Zhang Ziyi (Sayuri Nitta/Chiyo), Ken Watanabe (Chairman Ken Iwamura), Michelle Yeoh (Mameha), Gong Li (Hatsumomo), Suzuka Ohgo (Young Chiyo), Kōji Yakusho (Nobu), Kaori Momoi (Kayoko Nitta), Youki Kudoh (Pumpkin), Kotoko Kawamura (Grandmother Nitta), Tsai Chin (Auntie), Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (the Baron), Samantha Futerman (Satsu Sakamoto), Mako (Mr. Sakamoto)

In 1920s Japan, 9 year old disgraced former geisha pupil Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) meets a businessman, Chairman Ken Iwamura (Ken Watanabe), who is kind to her. She resolves to one day become a geisha so she may see him again. As a young woman, Sayuri (Zhang Ziyi), as she is now known, masters the geisha arts under the tutelage of famous geisha Mameha (Michelle Yeoh). She encounters the Chairman again – but can she confess her love? And can she escape the attempts of her rival Hatsumomo (Gong Li) to destroy her?

Arthur Golden’s romantic novel was a major success in 1997, tapping into a fascination with Japanese culture. It was inevitable it would come to the screen. But in the journey, it has been stripped down into a beautiful but basically empty story, that seems trite and shallow and revolves around hard-to-invest in characters. By the time it’s finished you’ll wonder what the fuss was about.

The reconstruction of 1920s-40s Japan does look radiant, even if the film focuses on the most chocolate-box, touristy view of Japan you could possibly imagine (think of a Japanese item, event or object and it’s in the film). But it’s radiantly shot and intricately put together – the geisha costumes are a gorgeous, multi-layered, decorative treat – and it’s not a surprise the film lifted three Oscars for cinematography, production and costume design.

It’s not a surprise as well that it was overlooked in all the majors. It’s well-directed by Rob Marshall (juggling a multi-lingual cast and framing the film beautifully), but fundamentally a mix of the highly predictable and the deeply troubling. It’s basically Geisha Expectations or Jane Geishyre. Our heroine is a poverty-stricken youth who makes a series of key encounters in her childhood that shape her whole personality as she comes into wealth as a young adult. Similarly, this quiet girl’s obsessive love for a distant businessman (whom, yuck, she meets as a child – and he compares her to his own children), suffering quietly while sacrificing everything to help him.

But it’s all much less interesting than either of those novels. Despite the narration by an older Sayuri, we never get inside the young woman’s head. Ziyi Zhang is given very little to work with: she either looks distressed, simpering or sad, and frequently fades into the background of her own story. All we really learn about her is that the Chairman gave her an ice cream when she was 9, and that this event influenced her entire life. Equally dull is the Chairman himself, whom Watanabe struggles to make anything other a mute and inscrutable character, terminally dull.

It’s hard to invest in a love-across-the-ages (in every sense) romance between these two, because the film fails to build them up as characters we care about and gives them hardly any time to be together. By the time we reach a late confession, that the Chairman decided (when Sayuri was 9) to turn her into his ideal geisha (um, grooming anyone? Oh yuck) and they finally kiss each other, they still feel like complete strangers. She never matures into a woman who can fall in love past her childhood obsession and he seems more like an oddly manipulative sugar daddy.

Memoirs of a Geisha flounders on the empty plot and non-characters at its heart. It ends up relying on the visuals and lovely design work, because there is no drive or interest in its plot. The film’s most compelling performance is Gong Li’s Hatsumomo and when she walks out of the picture three quarters of the way through, it never recovers. Gong is superb as an envious, embittered geisha being replaced by younger faces. She snipes and growls like a relic from a Bette Davis Hag-thriller, but in the next scene her face will crumple with fear and sadness. She gets all the best lines and the most interesting scenes, from sniping, to lost love to pyromaniac revenge.

Memoirs of a Geisha disappointed at the box office. It’s clumsy casting didn’t help: fine actresses as Zhang, Yeoh and Gong are, they were all Chinese (in Yeoh’s case Malaysian Chinese) rather than Japanese, and there was an uncomfortable feeling that the producers didn’t think this was really an issue. It opened up a can of worms about lingering Chinese hostility over Japanese war crimes, leading to a ban in China. In Japan, the casting was condemned and the film seen as more interested in a tourist eye on geisha culture than a truly Japanese one (and it does appear the film consulted virtually no Japanese people during its making).

All the glorious design in the world can’t hide the emptiness at the heart of Memoirs of a Geisha. World War Two is skipped over in about two minutes (Sayuri spends the time working in the hills, and sums up her whole wartime experience in a couple of sentences, delivered in voice-over while Zhang looks beautiful and pained washing fabric in a river). Other than their external glamour, we don’t learn much about what being a geisha actually means. Its central romance goes from bland, to anonymous, to deeply troubling. It looks wonderful, but if there was anything deeper to the novel than a luscious, gorgeous setting and a predictable, traditional romance, it’s completely lost in translation.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)

Simu Liu deals with father-son issues in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Director: Destin Daniel Cretton

Cast: Simu Liu (Shang-Chi), Awkwafina (Katy), Meng’er Zhang (Xu Xialing), Tony Leung (Xu Wenwu), Fala Chen (Ying Li), Michelle Yeoh (Ying Nan), Ben Kingsley (Trevor Slattery), Benedict Wong (Wong), Florian Munteanu (Razor Fist)

Thousands of years ago Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung) discovered ten rings which gave him immortality and power. Sadly, he used these powers for evil – until in 1996 he falls in love with Ying Li (Fala Chen), the powerful guardian of a mystical village he has searched hundreds of years for. They have two children – but after she dies, Wenwu returns to darkness and trains his son Shang-Chi to become an assassin. Aged 14, Shang-Chi flees: ten years later, Shaun (Simu Liu) works as a hotel valet with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina), both accomplished students with no aims in life.

All that changes when his father’s heavies attack them in San Francisco, stealing the mysterious pendant Ying Li gave to her son. She also gave a pendant to his sister Xu Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) – so Shang-Chi and Katy head to Macau to find her. But Xu resents Shang-Chi for abandoning her and has trained herself into the martial super-fighter her father would never allow her to become.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Two Rings is a curiously mixed bag. First the good: it’s a huge amount of fun. There are some cracking gags and some of the fight scenes have to be seen to be believed. In particular, an early fight scene on a San Francisco bus is an absolute belter. A whirligig of movement, flicks, kicks and punches in, on and around a bendy-bus, using bars, doors, windows and bells to imaginative effect. Hugely exciting, its something the rest of the film struggles to live up to – although a vertigo inducing scaffolding bound fight in Macau comes close.

The film is also built around engaging characters. Shang-Chi is charmingly played by Simu Liu as a very reluctant hero, an extremely polite, decent guy with a wistful wish to just mess around and not grow up, but determined to do the right thing when pushed. He’s very well matched with Awkwafina, extremely funny but also heartfelt as his best friend, great with the one-liners but handling the serious content very well. The film dances rather neatly along a line of not-quite-deciding if these old friends are a potential romantic couple as well, which actually makes for a rather sweet dynamic.

Unfortunately, where the film is a bit weaker is in making it clear exactly what the character arc, or goal, for Shang-Chi is. While this is partly the intent of the film – he has, after all, effectively been drifting through life for a decade – the lack of a really compelling story line or a powerful sense of motivation from Shang-Chi slightly weakens the story. We never really quite get a grip on him as a character, other than knowing he’s a decent guy, out of his depth.

That’s partly because the film invests so much depth into his father, played superbly by Tony Leung making his English-language debut. Wenwu is conflicted, traumatised and motivated by a desire to bring his family together, unable to see that children’s upbringing has made them confused and vulnerable rather than strong. In every scene, I always understand what Wenwu wants and where he is going in a way I don’t with the hero – and this somehow feels the wrong-way round. Effectively, Wenwu is the protagonist of the movie, and Shang-Chi never quite steps up to take his place.

Instead, Shang-Chi has a fairly conventional “Daddy’s issues” plot line – can he overcome his fear and respect for his wicked father? I’d point out that his sister – well played by Meng’er Zhang – has exactly the same issue, but the film isn’t interested in her solving them, focusing instead on the father and son confrontation. Essentially, thematically, not a lot in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is actually that new – it’s a fairly familiar coming-of-age Superhero origins story, with the loss of a parent and a clash with the surviving parent thrown into the mix.

Not that there is anything too wrong with that when it’s done well. Most of the film is done well, with jokes and fine set-pieces. Ben Kingsley enjoys himself hugely reprising his deluded actor from Iron Man 3. The film quite effectively builds in a Chinese aesthetic – large chunks of the dialogue is in Mandarin – and riffs charmingly off Chinese myths and legends and kung-fu inspirations. The Ten Rings themselves are barely explained at all, but an end-of-credits scene shows this was intentional.

Its weakest section is of course when we get to the final confrontation. This is a CGI over-loaded smack-down between two huge special effects – and carries significantly less impact than the emotional clash between father and son the film has been building towards. A braver film would have left it there without the CGI monsters – but the Marvel films have always been convinced that spectacle is what people want, and I guess they’ve not got much wrong so far.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings introduces a charming hero, but by the end of the film I still wasn’t quite sure who he was or what he wanted from life. Maybe that doesn’t matter since sequels are inevitable, but there is something amiss when the villain makes such a dominant impression that he takes over the film, as Tony Leung does here. Fun, but a little too long and a little lacking in focus.

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

Pierce Brosnan and Michelle Yeoh take on big media in the fun Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies

Director: Roger Spottiswoode

Cast: Pierce Brosnan (James Bond), Jonathan Pryce (Elliot Carver), Michelle Yeoh (Wai Lin), Teri Hatcher (Paris Carver), Joe Don Baker (Jack Wade), Ricky Jay (Henry Gupta), Gotz Otto (Richard Stamper), Vincent Schiavelli (Dr Kaufman), Judi Dench (M), Samantha Bond (Miss Moneypenny), Colin Salmon (Charles Robinson), Geoffrey Palmer (Admiral Roebuck), Julian Fellowes (Minister)

For Pierce Brosnan’s second Bond film, they knew there was life in the old dog yet. GoldenEye’s success meant Tomorrow Never Dies could be all about bangs and fun, a Moore-esque caper with a modern touch. And fun it certainly is – exciting, amusing and with some top gadgets. This doesn’t re-invent the gun barrel, but it gives us a hell of a ride.

A British Navy ship is sunk in Chinese waters (the navy is always so luckless in Bond films!) and a Chinese MiG is shot down. Each side blames the other: but MI6 believe they are both being played against each other by a third party – media mogul Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce). There’s 48 hours to find the truth and stop a war. Best send Bond (Pierce Brosnan) to Carver’s HQ to shake things up, not least because he has a past relationship with Carver’s wife Paris (Teri Hatcher). Soon partnering with Chinese Intelligence agent Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh), the two work to expose Carver’s dastardly schemes to start a war to increase his ratings and secure those lucrative Chinese broadcast rights.

Tomorrow Never Dies sometimes has a by-the-numbers feel to it – probably because the script was written on the go, with only locations and set-pieces decided in advance. Usually that’s a recipe for disaster, but with TND it works. Probably because everyone looks like they are having a whale of a time making it and the tongue is wedged so firmly in the cheek it’s practically touching the ear. And its concept of a mogul using fake news to manipulate the world seems alarmingly prescient today – think how powerful Elliot Carver would be if he ran Twitter (as he surely would today).

You can forgive Tomorrow Never Dies almost anything because it has so many stand-out sequences. The film has a (literally) explosive start, with Bond racing against time to fly some nuclear missiles out of a terrorist trading camp, before a British cruise missile blows the base sky high (and “make Chenoboyl look like a picnic”). Naturally the destruction as Bond lays waste to the camp makes you wonder why they wasted the money on a cruise missile when Bond can destroy the place for free.

Front-and-centre though is the “Bond drives a car through a shoot-out on the back-seat with a remote control” sequence. Which when written down, captures only about 5% of the sequence’s delight. Narrated by an over-cautious sat nav (constantly warning about hazards ahead, while the car is pummelled by bullets), we get all the gadgets we expect (bullet-proof glass, rockets, caltrops, a buzz saw that conveniently rises to the exact height required to cut through a steel wire obstacle) while also watching Bond masterfully steer a car around a multi-storey car-park on his phone from the back seat. Of course, Brosnan knows it’s silly and telegraphs his enjoyment, letting out a chuckle when he reinflates his tyres after driving over his own caltrops (I love this moment).

Tell me he’s not having fun.

There is a cursory sense of mystery, but TND wisely doesn’t have much patience with that. Bond is nominally under-cover at Carver’s HQ as a banker (inevitably using his own name) but, just like his Moore-heyday, Bond’s undercover skills are hilariously bad and his hints clankingly blunt. Fortunately Carver follows Bond villain form, confirming any suspicions by ordering his goons to beat Bond black-and-blue (more fool them, as Bond uses every instrument in a sound proof recording studio to best the baddies).

This was Brosnan in absolutely top form. He’s extremely charming, handles the action very well and gets more than a few grins. He looks like a guy just delighted to be there, living the dream of playing Bond. He’s both self-deprecating and cocksure and manages to be both a believable ruthless killer and a sort of charming little-boy-lost when needed. He loves a pun in a way no other Bond apart from Moore has done (“brushing up on a little Danish” indeed…) and his chemistry with Michelle Yeoh is superb, the two playing off each other like a sort of all-action Morecambe and Wise.

It’s a Bond where comedy is to the fore. An expensive satellite at Carver’s HQ is introduced (“It’s worth $300 million. You break it, you bought it”) solely so Bond can trash it without a second glance. A hitman (hilariously played in a cameo by Vincent Schiavelli) assures Bond he could “shoot him from Stuttgart” and still make it look like a suicide then apologises with embarrassment when he has to delay the hit to ask Bond how to unlock his car (“I don’t know what to say. I feel like an idiot.”). Moneypenny even calls Bond a “cunning linguist” after she interrupts by phone Bond’s tryst with a Danish professor (a joke which I certainly didn’t get when I first watched the film at a young age).

The lighter side of the script works more successfully than some of the attempts at emotion. The script bluntly states Bond had deep feelings for Paris Carver, but this never comes across at all in the performances. Probably because the emotions were torpedoed by the blatantly obvious lack of chemistry between Brosnan and Hatcher (allegedly they couldn’t stand each other). This is made all the more obvious by contrasting it to the delightful chemistry between Brosnan and Yeoh (watch the motorcycle chase with them handcuffed together – brilliant stuff, and Yeoh is excellent in this). When Paris is dispatched early in the film, Bond is cut up about it for literally 10 seconds before he’s having a whale of a time in that car park chase.

“There’s no news…like BAD news!”

Like many Bond films you can see how the franchise had become besotted with the latest “cool thing” in cinema. In this case, the film seems deeply in love with John-Woo-Hong-Kong-action gunplay. Bond probably fires more automatic machine guns in this film than he does in all the rest of the franchise put together, and the film’s finale (the dullest set-piece) is a run-of-the-mill shoot-out on a stealth boat, that feels pretty familiar from the series’ countless “face off in a sub” endings.

Spottiswoode directs with a straightforward lack of flair. Pryce has fun going OTT (and channelling Gus Hedges from Drop the Dead Donkey) as Carver even if the part is a bit under-written. But the main joy is in watching Brosnan have a huge amount of fun running around, blowing things up and shamelessly smirking through some dodgy puns. His Bond may never have been the most complex interpretation, but at his best I’m not sure anyone else was as purely enjoyable. Much like the film.

Last Christmas (2019)

Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding in a Christmassy romance with a twist

Director: Paul Feig

Cast: Emilia Clarke (Kate), Henry Golding (Tom Webster), Michelle Yeoh (“Santa”), Emma Thompson (Petra), Lydia Leonard (Marta), Peter Mygind (“Boy”), Rebecca Root (Dr Addis), Patti LuPone (Joyce), Ingrid Oliver (PO Crowley), Laura Evelyn (PO Churchill), Rob Delaney (Director), Peter Serafinowicz (Producer)

Last Christmas has been savaged by critics and held up by many like it was some sort of embodiment of everything that’s wrong with cinema. Jeez louise guys, take a chill pill why don’t you? Feig’s London based comedy, working with an Emma Thompson script, does exactly what it says on the tin – an It’s a Wonderful Life-inspired Christmassy story, that ticks all the Christmas boxes. It has no pretentions for doing anything else. And there is nothing wrong with that!

Kate (Emilia Clarke) is recovering from a heart transplant last year, and she’s heading off the rails. She takes no responsibility for anything, she’s selfish, lazy, demanding and making a car-crash of her life and health. Working as a full-time Elf in a Covent Garden Christmas store (run by Michelle Yeoh as “Santa”), Kate’s life is heading down the toilet until one day she meets Tom Webster (Henry Golding), an almost supernaturally decent guy, kind, considerate, friendly and caring. With his guidance can Kate start to turn her life around?

Well there is a twist in Last Christmas and, to be honest, it’s pretty easy to see coming. Anyone with half an eye on costumes or numbers of interactions will see it coming and anticipate what they are going to get. But you know, that’s fine. This is a film that knows what it is, a fairly unchallenging rom-com that’s spiced with a little touch of Capra-esque whimsy and a conventional morality tale of a selfish person turning round their life.

There are some good jokes, there are some reasonably charming performances, there is a good sense of fun driving through the whole film and it manages to capture at least a little touch of that Christmas-movie alchemy (a la Love Actually) where you can imagine people happily sitting down to watch it, in a light, fun, unchallenging way, for years to come. Its Feig’s offering for the Christmas movie cannon and it’s a perfectly acceptable entry. In fact its cosy predictability and familiar structure is pretty much a key part of its appeal. Because at Christmastime we don’t really want anything that’s going to stretch us or demand things from us. We kind of want to sit around and watch something a little predictable, a little fluffy but basically well-meaning and fun.

Emilia Clarke does a terrific job as light comedienne in the lead role, a role perhaps far more suited to her quirky, klutzy, off-the-wall charm than years of playing Daenerys Targaryen on Game of Thrones ever was. She throws herself into it here, happy to be silly, and shows both a good skill for pratfalls and also for drawing out a vulnerability from her character as well as being extremely charming. Henry Goulding makes a very good match as a character who could very easily tip over into smugly perfect, but again remains just the right side of charming.

Thompson writes herself a decent role as Kate’s Yugoslavian mother, a typical sort of nightmare domineering mother from films of this time, but laced with a sadness and isolation in the modern world and her adopted country. Moments that show the reaction of the characters to Brexit and the growing hostility to immigrants sometimes lean a little too heavily on the liberal conscience of the audience, but it fits in with the generally gentle, liberal attitudes of the film.

It’s a film that knows it’s a guilty pleasure, but it seems to have been designed to give you a sort of pre-Christmas glow. Catch it in the wrong mood and you will consider it one of the worst things you have seen. Take it in the right mood and you might even be charmed by it.

Sunshine (2007)

Astronauts head out to restart the sun in Danny Boyle’s Sunshine

Director: Danny Boyle

Cast: Cillian Murphy (Robert Capa), Chris Evans (James Mace), Rose Byrne (Cassie), Michelle Yeoh (Corazon), Cliff Curtis (Searle), Troy Garity (Harvey), Hiroyuki Sanada (Kaneda), Benedict Wong (Trey), Chipo Chung (Icarus), Mark Strong (Pinbacker)

Spoilers: Last act surprises are discussed here. Although they did put them in the trailer at the time as well

What would we do if the sun decided to pack it in? To be fair, probably not build a bomb the size of Manhattan out of all the world’s fissile material and then fly it up to the Sun in a huge spaceship to jump start the sun’s core. Because that idea is pretty much like trying to restart a volcano with a match. To be fair, Professor Brian Cox (for it was he) did come up with an actual concept that did work – something involving a Q-Ball in the sun, whatever the hell that is – that the film never mentions. But then who really cares about the science, we only care about the simple idea of restarting the sun’s engine with a massive nuke. That’s an idea I don’t need a staff pass at the Large Hardron Collider to understand.

Mankind’s final fate is in the hand of a team pulled from across the world’s space agencies, with Professor Robert Capa (played by Cillian Murphy as a figure inspired heavily by Brian Cox himself in looks and style) as the boffin whose job is to blow the bomb when the time comes. The mission, Icarus II, is under the command of Captain Taneka (Hiroyuki Sanada), with engineer Mace (Chris Evans), pilot Cassie (Rose Byrne), biologist Corazon (Michelle Yeoh) whose job is to maintain the oxygen garden, psychiatrist Searle (Cliff Curtis), navigator Trey (Benedict Wong) and second-in-command and comms officer Harvey (Troy Garity). Entering the final days of the mission, near Mercury, the crew discover traces of the first missing mission that carried the first payload to restart the sun, Icarus I. Deciding two payloads are better than one, the crew divert to intercept – and of course from there everything slowly falls apart into increasing chaos, destruction and horror.

Boyle’s film was marketed as a sort of slasher-in-space – which to be fair it only really becomes in its final act, as the crew accidentally take on board captain of Icarus I, Pinbacker (Mark Strong), a man driven mad by proximity to the sun, deluded in the belief that it is God’s will that mankind perish with the sun. In fact for the bulk of its runtime – and its primary themes – are really about the psychological impact of prolonged isolation in space with only a small group of people for company (a heightened submarine claustrophobia), the dangers and damage that obsession can cause and the moral complexities that emerge when the fate of mankind is literally in the hands of eight people.

With an intelligent script by Alex Garland, Boyle’s film is smart, superior sci-fi which asks searching questions of how we might respond in the situations this crew are thrown into. How quickly would you make decisions about who is expendable and who is not when you are mankind’s last chance? How quickly would you be willing to sacrifice yourself? What moral qualms would you feel if the fate of the one was balanced against the many? And how are all these feelings heightened by the intense claustrophobia and isolation of prolonged space travel, interacting with the same few people day-in and day-out in a ship of which every inch you would be intimately familiar within the first few months of a mission lasting years?

It’s a wonder more people don’t go crazy in the film. Boyle’s film makes excellent use of the terrifyingly awesome, good-like power of the sun. Its rays are so intense at the range of the ship, that any exposure over about 2% of its full strength is lethal. But there is something about its mighty power, its all-consuming presence, that draws characters too it like moths to a flame. Psychiatrist Searle (impressively played by Cliff Curtis) already seems to be becoming slowly a slave to an obsession with our star, his skin peeling from too many hours in the ship’s solar observation lounge. Pinbacker (a curiously accented performance of intense insanity from Mark Strong) lost his mind in sun worship, his mind seemingly snapped by coming face-to-face with the powers of the heaven compared to the mini-presence of man.

But it’s that presence of mankind that drives the mission, and lies behind all decisions. Hard-ass engineer Mace (Chris Evans, very good) seems like a jerk, but he simply applies Spock’s maxim of the needs of the many to a logical extreme (correctly) objecting to every course of action that invites unknowns into the equation that endanger the mission. And Mace doesn’t hesitate at any time in the film when asked to balance his own safety against the success of the mission. Each crew member – with the exception of Harvey – places their own survival a distant second behind the completion of the mission, and the film is littered with moments of self-sacrifice and self-imperilment.

It’s this humanistic core to the film, of accepting the world is it and that mankind must be preserved within that, which leads to some of the film’s more weighted points around faith and religion. The film has little time for anything away from pure science, and an interest in higher powers and staring too closely at the bright light, is mixed in heavily with a dangerous fundamentalism that eventually leads to the film’s only spiritual figure Pinbacker becoming a psychopath determined to follow what he sees as God’s plan at the cost of all human life. It’s not a subtle picture of religion – and the film could have balanced it with at least one of these characters expressing some faith in some sort of religion on the ship or gently questioning how humbling being this close to the face of God might feel. The film has no time for that.

But then I suppose this is really a psychologically intense mission film, a sort of big-themes action sci-fi that is the sort of ideas based film you wish was made more often. Boyle’s direction is pinsharp as always, and the moments of dreamy awe and shattering power of the sun (as bodies are vapourised, parts of the ship crumble) or the freezing vastness of space (as one character discovers to their cost) provide a series of haunting scenes. Shooting Pinbacker with a juddering out-of-focus intensity – intended to ape the feeling of starring directly at the sun – is effective in making the character chillingly unknowable.  This moments work very well, as does the superb cast which has not a weak link among them (Cillian Murphy in particular anchors the entire thing extremely well). Sunshine is a thought-provoking and blistering science-fiction film that manages to balance big themes and ideas with horror house jumps and haunting moments of tension.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi defy gravity and danger in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Director: Ang Lee

Cast: Chow Yun-Fat (Li Mu Bai), Michelle Yeoh (Yu Shu Lien), Zhang Ziyi (Yu Jiaolong), Chang Chen (Luo), Cheng Pei-pei (Jade Fox), Suhung Lung (Sir Te), Li Fazeng (Governor Yu), Gao Xi’an (Bo), Wang Deming (Prefect Cai Qiu), Li Li (May)

Ang Lee is the sort of director who can turn his hand to anything – is there a director with a more eclectic CV? From costume dramas to comic book films, coming-of-age 1970s stories to gay cowboys, he seems able to do everything. But the film that cemented him as a blockbuster director was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, an awe-inspiring, visually stunning, beautifully made martial arts film, told with a poetic grandiosity that opened the West’s eyes to a whole genre of film-making.

Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) is looking to give up the warrior lifestyle, and surrenders his legendary sword “Green Destiny”. Mu Bai asks Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), a professional bodyguard, to guard the sword on its way to its new owner. Mu Bai and Shu Lien have long held feelings for each other, but her late fiancée being Mu Bai’s best friend led them to never act on (or truly speak of) their love. The sword is stolen by a mysterious warrior, soon revealed to be the daughter of the local governor, Yu Jiaolong (Zhang Ziyi). Jiaolong has been trained by Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei), who murdered Mu Bai’s former master. Gradually the sword becomes the centre of a complex clash between these characters, of conflicting emotions and desires.

Despite its gravity-defying visuals, what Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is really about – and perhaps why it works as well as it does – is contrasting the principles and standards of two different generations. Li Mui Bai and Yu Shu Lien have both lived lives governed by restraint and self-denial, not least in denying their own love. Jiaolung and Luo, on the other hand, are far more willing to act on their emotions – even if these lead to destructive consequences. It’s the human stories like this that ground the drama and make it something with heart that you can invest in.

Jiaolong isn’t willing to tame her wild spirit, and Lee’s film explores within it the nature of mentor-mentee relationships, and the level of confinement that comes from training: Jade Fox wants to control Jiaolong, and both resent each other for the restrictions they have placed on each other. Mu Bai wants to train Jiaolong – but she doesn’t want to submit herself to a master. Mu Bai has spent his whole life searching for Jade Fox to avenge his master. The shadows that masters place over their apprentices hang over the whole movie.

It’s also a refreshing movie that places women so firmly at the centre. Its central figure is Jiaolong, a young woman with an instinctive mastery of the art of Wudang – and she has the fiery defiance and impulsiveness you would expect of a traditional male figure. Jiaolong is a loving but damaged figure, confused and poisoned by Jade Fox’s resentment. She can love with great feeling and also feel a prickly resentment towards the same person – a feeling she expresses time and again. Zhang Ziyi is terrific in the role, an electric screen presence, it’s impossible to take your eyes off her.

She is contrasted throughout the film with Shu Lien, expertly played by Michelle Yeoh. Shu Lien has lived years of control over her feelings, but carries great reserves of emotion. Yeoh’s eyes are crowded with emotion, and she conveys a great sharpness. Shu Lien is a shrewd, kind but reserved character – someone who realises too late the price she has paid. For all the combat in the film, you feel that the real clash is between these two women and how they have chosen to live their lives.

In the lead male roles, Mu Bai is played with a serene calm by Chow Yun-Fat. Yun-Fat is so reserved that he’s not always as interesting as he could be – despite having a few beautifully played moments. Chang Chen as Lo is a more conventional romantic figure, but he has a lot of charisma – and it’s also a refreshing balance that he is both the more traditionally “female” character in the relationship, but also feels like a worthy partner for Jianlong.

But the thing that makes the film really memorable is its extraordinary beauty. Ang Lee is a master at marrying up marvellous, dynamic images with intelligent, thematic plotting. The battle scenes are of course the most memorable, and they are truly striking, wonderfully choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping. These defy gravity and are extraordinarily graceful in timing and movement – as striking and genuinely beautiful to watch as they are exhilarating. They look marvellous and Lee films them with a disciplined simplicity to allow us to appreciate their beauty. 

On top of that, the overall design and feel of the film is wonderful. Every scene is carefully framed and beautifully composed. Tan Dun’s score is marvellous (amazingly the whole lot was composed, produced and recorded in just two weeks) and really helps to strength the emotions in the scenes themselves. Lee’s masterful direction never loses track of the emotions and relationships that underpin the action sequences, and makes them develop and grow organically from the story, rather than fight scenes for the sake of it.

Crouching Tiger works because it has a strong story, while showing some beautiful and breathtaking fight sequences, the likes of which many people had never seen before. It’s a well-paced movie, that packs a lot into a tightly controlled run time and its thematic richness gives every scene something to reward the viewer with. The real hero here is Ang Lee. Lee is not just a director who can deliver action, he is a man with an intimate emotional understanding. In particular, he has shown in his films an empathy and warmth towards women, and an appreciation of their worldview, in a way few other male directors have managed. Crouching Tiger still stands up – it’s still strikingly different, well acted, looks gorgeous and has a lot of emotional investment.