Archive for January, 2020

Jojo Rabbit

Posted: January 25, 2020 in Film reviews

Directed by Taika Waititi. Starring Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Taika Waititi, Sam Rockwell and Scarlett Johansson.


In the latter stages of World War 2, Jojo (Griffin Davis) is a ten-year-old boy living in Nazi Germany. Indoctrinated by propaganda, and egged on by his imaginary friend, a childish version of Hitler (Waititi), he firmly believes that Jews are monsters and the Nazi party is completely in the right.

When he refuses to kill a rabbit at Hitler Youth camp he earns the nickname Jojo Rabbit, and while trying to reclaim some dignity he’s wounded by a grenade and as such he’s forced to spend more time at home which leads him to uncover a young Jewish girl (McKenzie) hiding upstairs, and to notice that his mother (Johansson), who is opposed to the war, is leaving notes all over town.

Soon Jojo finds himself having to confront the fact that everything he’s been taught is a lie.


Taika Waititi’s follow up to the insanely enjoyable Thor: Ragnarök is a very different film, at once more intimate and political, yet also displaying the distinctive flourish of a very accomplished director. It’s funny and heart-breaking, and I enjoyed it a lot, and yet…I can’t help feeling it’s perhaps not as good as many people, including the Academy where it’s up for best picture, think it is.

The thing is that satire is difficult to pull off, a tightrope walk, especially when you’re dealing with such an emotive real life subject as Nazism. Marrying horror and humour is never easy, and whilst Jojo Rabbit contains both, for the most part they’re kept separate, meaning the film’s tone dips and rises as it swings between comedy and tragedy and I wish there’d been more instances where we got both together. Compare this with a film like Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin which manages to horrify and amuse simultaneously. There are moments, but Jojo Rabbit never quite manages that level of satirical consistency.

The cast are superb, in particular young Roman Griffin Davis is marvellous (where’s his Oscar nom, eh?). As the central focus of the film he’s in practically every scene yet never seems overawed, either by the subject matter or company of more experienced actors, and in particular he has wonderful chemistry with both McKenzie and Johansson. His journey from fanatic to realisation isn’t sugar coated, and nor is it quick or easy making it all the more believable.


Johansson gives a nuanced, and somewhat unexpected performance. Rosie isn’t the woman you expect her to be, by turns joyous and quirky, she’s tortured, and her heartbreak at what’s happening to her country, and her son, are clear in every look Johannsson gives, and she’s far from the perfect movie mom, at times she’s downright mean to Jojo, if only for his own good, but is never less than loving.

McKenzie is also good, similarly she isn’t a shrinking violet, despite being in hiding. Elsa is a girl who has nothing left to lose except her life, and isn’t above threatening a small boy. McKenzie does her best with the material she’s given, even if at times she feels more like a plot device to educate Jojo rather than a character in her own right.

I could watch Sam Rockwell read the phone book, so of course he’s great, even if his noble German officer is something of a cliché, but he’s not alone there. When Stephen Merchant turns up as a Gestapo agent he seems to be channelling multiple comedy Nazi’s we’ve seen before, from Allo Allo’s Herr Flick to Ronald Lacey in Raiders, but thankfully it’s a cameo appearance so doesn’t detract too much.

Rebel Wilson as brutish Hitler Youth trainer is funny, but perhaps a little too broad at times.


This leaves the director himself as Hitler, or rather the imaginary Fuhrer friend Jojo has conjured for himself. He’s childish, impulsive and of course in no way like the actual Adolf. It’s a trick that could have easily fallen on its face, and maybe for the odd moment it does, but for the most part it makes for some of the funniest moments of the film, especially as he keeps offering Jojo cigarettes. I can see how people took against this, but it’s important to remember that it’s a small boy’s fantasy of Hitler, and Waititi I very funny. I wonder as well if this helped to get such a wonderful performance out of Griffin Davis.

His direction is very assured, in particular the opening titles where we get footage of Hitler arriving to give a speech overlaid with the soundtrack of the Beatles in concert is exceptional, and the film looks gorgeous, with the town looking almost idyllic, until you see the bodies hanging in the town square.

The script is very funny, and obviously a film highlighting the ease with which fanatical political ideas can grab hold, even of supposedly civilised people, is especially relevant in the current climate, but the plot is a little pedestrian, and aside from one heart-breaking rug pull in the middle of the film it rarely goes anywhere truly unexpected, and though mentioned, for the most part the Holocaust is out of sight and out of mind.

Well-acted and directed, funny and heart-breaking there’s a lot to love about Jojo Rabbit, and I feel slightly guilty for not liking it more than I did, I just can’t shake the feeling that it could have been something truly special if Waititi had been just a little more daring. That moment aside it feels like it plays things a little too safe.

Still lots to enjoy and well worth seeing!


Little Women

Posted: January 19, 2020 in Film reviews

Directed by Greta Gerwig. Starring Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlan, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet and Meryl Streep.


It’s several years after the Civil War, and Jo March (Ronan) is teaching in New York, though she’s also following her dream of becoming a writer. Back home are her sisters Meg (Watson) and Beth (Scanlen) while her fourth sister Amy (Pugh) is in Paris, learning to paint and providing companionship to Aunt March (Streep). When one of her sisters becomes unwell Jo decides to return home, convinced she’ll never make it as an author.

The story flashes back to 1861, when the girls are all living at home with their mother (Dern), and their father (Better Call Saul’s Bob Odenkirk) is away at war. The girls have dreams of a better life, and are intrigued by their neighbour Laurie (Chalamet) but he may only have eyes for Jo.

As the story flits between childhood and adulthood, the past and the present, the girls will face adversity and tragedy, but also joy and fulfilment, but can even Jo find happiness?


Fair disclosure I’ve never read the book, and haven’t seen any of the other adaptations, which isn’t to say I came to this completely fresh, I understood the rough narrative, and knew of the major tragedy that affected the sisters. As such I can’t speak to how many people who are fans will feel about this adaptation (though on the whole the prevailing wisdom appears to be extremely positive) I can only say how I felt about it, well aware that I’m not exactly the target demographic.

I thought it was wonderful.

Which does make you wonder about whether I’m the target demographic after all. Maybe my demographic is just well directed, well written, well-acted films? Who knew?

While I liked Lady Bird, I never quite understood why it was so well regarded, but in the case of Gerwig’s second solo directorial effort I have no such issues. This is an incredibly well directed film, sumptuous in its staging and costumes, which is all the more impressive when you realise it’s relatively small budget, and it’s well deserving of its recent best picture nomination, as is Gerwig for her best adapted screenplay nomination. It somewhat beggars’ belief that Gerwig didn’t get a nomination for directing, but chalk that up to yet another glaring Oscar omission. Her screenplay is exceptional, and by all accounts she hasn’t played with the text very much at all, so any accusations of turning Little Women into a modern feminist film are, I believe, entirely incorrect. Everything Gerwig needed was already in the text.


She’s used it to make a film demonstrating how little autonomy women had in the past. As both Jo and Amy make clear, women have few ways to gain wealth, and even if they do it becomes the property of their husband upon marriage. And yet despite this Gerwig shows all sides of the equation, one sister is more than happy to get married, and late on Ronan has a phenomenally strident monologue that balances her need to have agency with a deep and painful loneliness. It’s incredible.

Ah, Ronan. I know she can act, have known it since Atonement all those years ago, yet still she surprises me. She’s truly incredible here, and as Jo is the heart of the book, so Ronan is the beating heart of the film. It may not be this year (though I hope it is) but sooner or later Saoirse will win an Oscar, and I doubt it will be her last.

Close behind her in the acting stakes is Pugh, an actress who demonstrates ability far beyond her years. I may have been lukewarm about Midsommar, but Pugh was phenomenal in that, and is again here, and in some ways with a harder part as Amy isn’t as inherently likeable as Jo, yet Pugh and Gerwig make her empathetic, even when she’s being a spoilt brat.

Watson is a good actress, but she does fade a little into the background, in part because of how good Ronan and Pugh are, but also by nature of the character she has to play, still she’s quietly effective and the film would be lessened without her. Similarly Scanlan, who shines despite having the least to do of the four sisters.


But then as both writer and director Gerwig gives each member of her ensemble their moment to shine. Dern is wonderful, and the moment when she tells Jo that she’s angry every day is understated yet powerful.

Chalamet, much like Pugh, has to raise the character of Laurie above just being a drippy, spoilt brat, and for the most part is successful, and Chris Cooper as Laurie’s grandfather gets one of the best moments of the film, showcasing his grief without saying a word as he sits on the stairs and listens to Beth playing the piano. Meryl Street is of course very good.

The decision to show the story in a nonlinear way is a good one, and this might not have been as enjoyable if it had followed a more traditional path. For the most part Gerwig keeps the timelines easy to tell apart, although at times they do seem to merge, intentionally in one case in relation to tragedy, which just adds to the heartbreak.

If I had one issue it’s with the character of Friedrich, Louis Garrel is very good but I wish we’d seen a little more of him early on. He seems to appear out of nowhere at the end (but I hear this is the same in the book). Similarly more on the courtship of Meg and John Brooke (James Norton) might have been nice. Then again it might have made the film feel bloated, and it didn’t detract from my enjoyment.

Exceptionally well written and directed, gorgeous to look at and featuring stellar performances, this could have been mawkish and over sentimental but Gerwig never lets it veer even close to that. Twenty-year-old me probably would have hated it. Almost fifty-year-old me really, really enjoyed it.


For Your Eyes Only (1981)

Posted: January 17, 2020 in James Bond


And so we follow Roger Moore’s most ludicrous film with perhaps his most grounded. No world threatening supervillains with diabolical schemes here, instead we get a gritty cold war thriller. It’s amazing to think Moonraker and For Your Eyes Only are part of the same series, but then that’s part of the franchise’s charm in my opinion.

There was a time, maybe not even that long ago, when if asked FYEO would have sat in my worst Bond list. It doesn’t anymore. To be honest the reappraisal was prompted by a holiday in Corfu which made me watch it again. And I realised there’s a lot to like about it. I don’t mind the ridiculous, but it’s nice that Roger got something akin to From Russia with Love—it’s nowhere near as good obviously but after Moonraker they had to dial down the ridiculousness, and they’ll do this again of course, with Casino Royale following Die Another Day. And again, to be clear FYEO isn’t as good as Casino Royale.

The changes are obvious from the beginning. The pre-title sequence is somewhat lowkey, but I like it. The reference to Tracy is welcome, and Moore gets to look mournful and weary in a way he’s rarely allowed. His little comment of “It usually is” when told there’s an emergency feels almost Dalton’esque. Of course, while it’s clear Blofeld is the CEO of remote-control airways, he’s never credited as such due to copyright issues with Kevin McClory that would plague Eon for years. We all know it’s Ernst Stavro though, and 007 finally gets revenge for Tracy by dropping him down a chimney.


Cue titles and Sheena Easton (still the only time the singer’s been seen in the titles) before we get to the meat of the plot. After an accident (or is it?) sinks a British spy ship, the Royal navy’s ATAC device (used to communicate with and coordinate Polaris submarines) is at risk. The British hire Sir Timothy Havelock, a marine archaeologist, to find it but he’s murdered before he can by Hector Gonzales, a Cuban hitman. Bond is despatched to Spain to spy on Gonzales but gets caught, luckily before he can be killed Gonzales is killed by Havelock’s daughter Melina and the two make their escape, though after Bond’s Lotus self-destructs (worst anti-theft device ever, Q!) they have to use Melina’s 2CV.

This leads to a great little car chase, which could have been played strictly for laughs but is genuinely exciting, one of many top-notch set pieces in this film.

Bond’s off to Cortina in Italy next, to meet Julian Glover’s Kristatos, who promises to help Bond find out who hired Gonzales but suggests it’s probably his former friend turned nemesis, the dastardly Columbo, who given he’s played by Topol is of course really a good guy, while the man who’s played smooth talking villains in everything from Doctor Who to Game of Thrones by way of Star Wars is, of course, the bad guy.

Cortina features some more good set pieces. Bond’s encounter with a couple of motorbikes when Melina shows up, and his ice hockey fight aren’t great, but between them is a stunning sequence where Bond is hunted by the villains, and proceeds to elude/fight them using a variety of winter sports, from biathlon to ski jumping to the franchise’s second bobsleigh outing. It’s a wonderful sequence and you do halfway believe Roger Moore is doing all those stunts…well, maybe a quarter way.


Then it’s off to Corfu, and a night at the casino (filmed at the luscious Achilleion Palace—been there!) before Bond seduces Columbo’s girlfriend, the accent slipping Countess (Cassandra Harris, the first wife of Pierce Brosnan who sadly died in 1991) When they’re menaced on the beach the countess is killed, and Bond is about to die when rescued by…shock! Columbo’s men.

There’s a lovely scene between Bond and Columbo, and Topol easily fits into the retinue of larger than life allies alongside Kerim Bey and Tiger Tanaka. Columbo lets Bond in on a raid of Kristatos’s operation in Albania (actually filmed below the old venetian fortress in Corfu Town—been there!) which is another great set piece.


Bond and Melina reconnect and locate the St Georges. They find the ATAC but are attacked, first by a man in a metal diving suit, then by another henchmen in a minisub. They defeat both but back on the surface Kristatos is waiting and he takes the ATAC and attempts to keelhaul Bond and Melina. This is a great scene, lifted from Fleming, and their escape is even realistic, at least realistic for Bond.

Then we’re off to our finale, an assault on the mountaintop monastery of St Cyril’s. Yes Bond’s mountain climbing goes on a bit, but it’s still a great end to the film;  Kristatos is foiled and when General Gogol arrives 007 deprives him of his prize by tossing the ATAC off the cliff. “That’s detente comrade. I don’t have it. You don’t have it.”


What a shame the end of the film is ruined by the ridiculous Janet Brown/Margaret Thatcher moment. Seriously, what were they thinking?

maxresdefaultMoore is great here, and yes he is starting to look a bit older but at least he’s portrayed as slightly less sleazy than he has been elsewhere. His relationship with Melina takes time to grow, and while he hops into bed with the countess he is technically “on the job” and Harris is at least only young enough to be his daughter rather than his granddaughter! And then there’s Bibi, who Bond fends off.

Fun fact, though obviously playing younger than her years, Lynn Holly Johnson is actually only a year younger than Carole Bouquet, but then this film’s got some mixed up ideas about age. Bibi tells  Kristatos he’s too old for her, but Glover is almost eight years younger than Roger Moore who Bibi is desperate to shag!

Back to Roger, he gets to be brutal and be a proper spy, and yes by all accounts he wasn’t too happy kicking that guy off the cliff, but like a trouper he did it and it’s a great scene. You almost wish this had been his send off.


Carole Bouquet’s Melina is a great Bond girl. I mean, she has actual agency. Yes she falls for Bond, well duh, and yes she does seem to give up a little easily in Cortina, and yes Bond does divesplain to a woman who’s probably done more diving than he has…but, she’s engaged in the story, makes her own decisions and saves 007’s life, she also kicks butt with that crossbow. In a way I’m sorry she isn’t the one to kill Kristatos but you can’t have everything. Her comparisons with Elektra are also good. Definitely one of the better Bond girls.

Talking of Kristatis, Glover is wonderful in the role, charming and dangerous in equal measure, especially once his cover’s blown and we know he’s the bad guy. Topol is similarly engaging as Columbo, another one of those characters you kinda wish had come back. Perhaps a shame that we have a French woman, and English and Israeli men playing Greeks but they all play their parts well at least.

The henchmen are less memorable. Gonzales isn’t around long enough to get much of a personality, Locque’s defining trait is his glasses, and Erich Kriegler is just another generic monosyllabic Aryan blonde (see also Stamper, Hans, Necros etc etc) Interesting to note Charles Dance in one of his earliest roles.


While Moneypenny is on hand to flirt, and Q aids Bond with the ludicrous indentigraph, there’s no M as sadly Bernard Lee died before he could film his scenes. As a mark of respect the role wasn’t recast and Bond is briefed by others.

Never been a huge fan of Easton’s title track, but the wacka wacka soundtrack is very cool.

I can see why people don’t like it because it’s the atypical Moore Bond film, but it grows on me with each viewing, a taut little cold war thriller with some great set pieces and an underrated gem methinks, though that Thatcher scene belongs in the same bin they should put the penny whistle from The Man With the Golden Gun in.

Have no fear fans of the silly, I’m sure Roger will be clowning around again soon…


Jumanji: The Next Level.

Posted: January 10, 2020 in Film reviews

Directed by Jake Kasdan. Starring Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Nick Jonas, Awkwafina, Danny Glover and Danny DeVito.


Several years have passed since Spencer, Fridge, Martha and Bethany became trapped in the Jumanji video game and only just escaped with their lives, and though they’ve all moved on they’ve remained friends, and have arranged to meet up again before Christmas when each of them returns from college or overseas. All are happy, except for Spencer who hasn’t come to terms with no longer being the heroic Dr Bravestone (Johnson) and who yearns to re-enter the game.

When Spencer fails to turn up for brunch his friends go to his home and realise what he’s done. Though fearful they realise they must enter the game to save their friend, and besides, they know how the game works now, so they anticipate no problems.

Unfortunately for them the game has moved on, and they find themselves in another level with which they have no familiarity. Worse is to come when Spencer’s crotchety grandfather Eddie (DeVito) and his estranged best friend Milo (Glover) end up in the game as well. With time running out can they save the world of Jumanji, and more importantly can they save themselves?


When Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle came out a few years ago it caught everyone by surprise, not least me. What looked like a lame sequel come reboot turned out to be a clever and witty body-swap adventure comedy that was one of the most enjoyable films of recent years. As is always the way, success breeds a sequel, and here we are again, but surely the law of diminishing returns says they can’t pull off the same success twice, right?

Well it turns out they can. Almost. This isn’t quite as enjoyable as Welcome to the Jungle. It lacks the surprise elements for starters, and at times feels a little cluttered as it seeks to not only revisit pretty much every character from the first film, but also introduce several new ones (both in real life and in-game) and as a result some get lost in the crush, in particular Danny Glover’s overly thoughtful Milo. But on the whole, this succeeds wonderfully.


As with last time the major part of its success is the cast, and the chemistry between Johnson, Black, Gillan and Hart remains effective, even if they’re not all playing quite the same characters. In particular The Rock playing a cranky old man is hilarious, and Eddie and Milo spend a long time not understanding that they’re in a videogame. Black again shows his versatility, this time playing a hulking black football player as well as a selfie obsessed young woman, and of course as Ruby Roundhouse Gillan is wonderful (well I mean she always is, right?) and in many ways Ruby gets to be the leader, at least for part of the film.

It’s always nice to see Dannys DeVito and Glover, but it’s DeVito who gets the pick of the funny lines, and the most screen time. Still there’s a nice banter between them in the real world. Perhaps the best new character is Awkwafina as Ming Fleetfoot, an avatar with burglary skills. She has great comic timing and her crabby old man is every bit as amusing as Johnsons.


Special mention to the four actors playing the real-world characters. I still wish we got to see more of them.

The effects are impressive, and the gang are placed in peril after peril, with the ever-present threat of running out of lives ensuring the drama never dips even though they’re in a game. It’s the sharp script that makes the film as much as the action however, and there are reversals and surprises aplenty.

Funny and exciting, featuring a cast still bringing they’re A game, Jumanji: The Next Level is a joy from start to finish. Will there be a third film? Given how well this one is doing I wouldn’t bet against it, but can they strike gold three times in a row? Only time will tell.

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The Black Book

Posted: January 1, 2020 in Book reviews

51g1ku1IhnLBy Ian Rankin.

(read in 2019)

Inspector Rebus has a lot on his plate. His wayward brother Michael returns to Edinburgh seeking a place to stay, and while Rebus lets him bunk in his flat—which he’s currently renting to students—when he’s kicked out by his girlfriend, Doctor Patience Aitken, he has no choice but to sleep on his own sofa. There’s a convicted paedophile who’s also returned to Edinburgh, and a half-hearted new operation in place designed to put one of local gangster ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty’s money-lenders out of business. Rebus would love to get Cafferty but doubts this will succeed.

And then one of his colleagues, Brian Holmes is attacked and ends up in a coma. Brian’s girlfriend makes Rebus aware of a black notebook Brian used when making enquiries outside of work time. It’s in code but she thinks it might be the reason Brian was attacked.

Rebus finds the book, and while he can’t decipher everything, it becomes clear that Brian was looking into a mysterious fire that burned down Edinburgh’s seedy Central Hotel five years ago. A body was found in the ruins, a man who’d been shot, but he’d never been identified.

Rebus begins digging into the fire himself, but it soon becomes clear that certain persons would rather the past stayed buried, and soon Rebus, and those close to him, find themselves in danger.


I am trying to read the Rebus novels in order, but obviously only as I come across them, so I may have missed one or two out. Still it’s easy to pick up threads, and Rankin is good at reminding you of what’s come before without hitting you over the head and spending too long on things.

I’m still not quite sure why I like the Rebus books. There’s nothing particularly original about Rebus. A hard drinking, divorced loner with a love of books and music and a past in the SAS, it’s all the kind of character traits you could cobble together from a heap of other detectives, yet it works. Maybe because of the Edinburgh setting, maybe because of Rankin’s gritty, hardboiled and very pulpy prose. Rebus doesn’t solve crimes through deductive reasoning or some inhuman intellect, he solves them through legwork and a healthy dose of luck (though much like Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder you can argue he makes his own luck by talking to so many people, asking the same questions over and over, and through judicious application of shoe leather. Like Scudder, with Rebus it’s often a case of shaking the truth free through sheer bloody-mindedness.

The same is true here. There are a lot of characters, and a lot of threads linking them together, and while at times it does get a little confusing, it never gets quite so labyrinthine that you can’t follow what’s going on.

There’s a healthy sprinkling of coincidence, and you really do wonder quite how Rebus still has a job after one ill-judged action, but the book trots along at a decent pace and doesn’t outstay it’s welcome, and Rebus’ grumpy interactions with a bunch of interesting characters are great.

A decent hard boiled crime novel that was intriguing enough to keep me turning pages, and whilst I’m not chomping at the bit to read the next in the series, I’ll continue to keep my eye out for them and will no doubt snag another one as and when I spot one.