Posts Tagged ‘Film reviews’

See How They Run

Posted: September 25, 2022 in Film reviews
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Directed by Tom George. Starring Sam Rockwell, Saoirse Ronan, Adrien Brody, Ruth Wilson, Reece Shearsmith, Harris Dickinson and David Oyelowo.

The year is 1953 and in the West End Agatha’s Christie’s The Mousetrap is celebrating its 100th performance. On hand for the after party is sleazy American director Leo Köpernick (a wonderfully weaselly Brody) who’s been hired to produce the film version of the play. He seems determined to annoy everyone, so it’s probably no surprise when he winds up dead, but who killed him?

Cue the arrival of world-weary Detective Inspector Stoppard (Rockwell), assisted by inexperienced and overeager Constable Stalker (Ronan). It won’t be an easy case to solve because everyone seemed to have a motive, but can Stoppard and Stalker work out whodunnit before the killer strikes again?

It’s easy to compare See How They Run to Knives Out, both are modern deconstructions of the whodunnit genre centred around characters involved in mystery stories, both feature a cast of top notch actors having a ball hamming it us as a motley array of suspects, both feature a lead actor eschewing his natural accent, both feature a standout performance by an actress who’s the beating heart of the film, and in some respects the clever and knowing script is almost a little too clever for its own good.

I loved Knives Out.

So, it was probably inevitable that I’d love this too.

Not that See How They Run is any kind of copycat, and there are as many differences as there are similarities. Rockwell’s low-key performance is the antithesis of Daniel Craig’s Foghorn Leghorn exuberance, and the film prefers a cosy theatricality in place of Knives Out’s biting blockbuster satire (though I think they cost about the same to make). One’s set in the present, the other the past, yadda yadda yadda…

In terms of the cast I’m going to talk about Saoirse Ronan first, because she really is the best thing about the film. Anyone who’s read other reviews I’ve written of films featuring Ms Ronan will know that I’ve long been a fan. I think she’s a fantastic actor and I fully expect her to win an Oscar or two before the end of her career (and I’m slightly perplexed that she hasn’t already). She’s had meatier roles than this, but I don’t think she’s ever demonstrated her comic timing quite so well. There’s a lightness to her performance than makes it all seem effortless, wide eyed and over eager she may be, but she’s no ingenue, she’s smart and resourceful, even if she has a tendency to jump to the wrong conclusions (with hilarious results) and the film leans into its post war setting by giving her a life outside of her uniform, and tragedy in her past.

It would be easy to side-line Rockwell somewhat given the strength of Ronan’s performance, but every comedy double act needs a straight man and Rockwell’s grounded performance anchors the film and never lets it fly away into cloud cuckoo land. Given Rockwell is very capable of playing larger than life comedic characters (see Galaxy Quest!) it’s refreshing to see him taking the quieter role here and let Ronan have the spotlight. It’s a nuanced performance. Stoppard is dishevelled, he’s often drunk and he’s probably depressed, but he’s also clearly much sharper than people think. Much like Stalker, Stoppard is given a backstory, and with both the war looms large in the making of their characters. Rockwell’s English accent isn’t half bad either. 

The rest of the cast are great too. Brody has fun and even manages a moment or two of pathos as the murder victim,  Oyelowo camps it up no end as the put upon screenwriter and Harris Dickinson and  Pearl Chanda luvvie it up as Dickie Attenborough and Sheila Sim, two of several real life characters in the film, see also the ever wonderful Shearsmith’s John Woolf amongst others. Charlie Cooper as an usher and Sian Clifford as Woolf’s wife do well with limited screentime. It would have been nice to see Ruth Wilson get more to do, but everyone is almost upstaged by a Shirley Henderson cameo late on!    

The script is knowing and inventive, and while I loved how meta it was your milage may vary and I suspect others might find it annoying. Fans of the Mousetrap and Christie will either love it or hate it, I doubt there’ll a middle ground. As I said it’s a script that is almost too clever at times, though for me at least it always stayed the right side of things.

George’s direction is effortless, and the evocation of post war London is nicely done. Balancing the bright lights of the West End with post war austerity is handled well. At 100 minutes it doesn’t outstay its welcome, and if anything leaves you wanting more, and with that in mind I’ll mention Knives Out again because here’s hoping we get a sequel because  I for one would love to see another Stoppard and Stalker mystery!

Nope

Posted: September 3, 2022 in Film reviews, horror, science fiction
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Directed by Jordan Peele. Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Steven Yeun, Michael Wincott and Brandon Perea

Seen in August

After the inexplicable death of their father (always nice to see Keith David, however briefly) the Californian ranch he owned passes to Otis “OJ” Haywood Jr (Kaluuya) and his sister Em (Palmer). OJ tries to keep the ranch running, working as a horse wrangler for Hollywood, while his sister tries to make it in tinsel town anyway she can.

With money tight OJ is forced to sell some of his horses to Ricky “Jupe” Park (Yeun) a former child star who now runs a small western themed amusement park nearby.

When their electricity starts to fluctuate, and the horses get spooked, OJ and Em begin seeing what they think is a UFO. With the help of local electronics whizz Angel (Perea) and legendary Hollywood cinematographer Antlers Holst (Wincott) they set out to capture footage of the spaceship that they can sell for millions, but is everything quite what it appears?

And so we come to Jordan Peele’s third film as a director and I went in with some trepidation. I really liked Get Out, but I really didn’t like Us, so would this be thumbs up or thumbs down?

I’m happy to report it’s thumbs up, although it took a little while to get there. Make no mistake, this is a slow burn of a film, but by lord when it kicks into gear does it kick into gear! It’s also fair to say that this is a film I expect to like even more with repeat viewings, because it’s a film that might appear a trifle confusing until you get into it, with hindsight a whole heap of things make a lot more sense, in particular the flashbacks to an incident that happened to Jupe when he was a child filming a sitcom about an intelligent chimp. No spoilers here because the first flashback is right at the start. Suffice to say that what happened with the chimp does have a huge bearing on the wider story, as does Holst’s obsession with getting the ultimate shot.

At its heart this is a film about spectacle. From OJ and Em trying to get a money shot of a UFO, to Jupe’s need to put on a show and Holst’s obsession. There’s even a deranged TMZ paparazzi just in case you don’t get the message (a trifle obvious and possibly one tiny misstep?)

There are other themes but I’m not going into them as it will give the game away, not that there’s a stunning twist, but the story does take a sharp tun and it isn’t the film you think it’s going to be.   

Kaluuya is an actor I’ve admired since I first saw him in The Fades and Black Mirror. His performance here is at once understated whilst also being intense, he’s very much a man of few words, the taciturn cowboy whose eyes speak volumes (and it should be noted that he does indeed look damn cool sitting on a horse.)

By contrast Palmer is anything but reticent, her character is bold and brash and very much in your face, she brings the spark to the story and she and Kaluuya make for engaging siblings.

At first Perea’s Angel seems like he’ll be a minor character, but he hangs around and he becomes very much part of the gang.

Wincott is spot on casting, channelling his inner Hertzog to make Holst an intense, near fanatical cinematic artist.

That leaves Yeun, another favourite actor of mine, whose portrayal of the child star still haunted by the trauma of his youth is central to the story, even if it feels he’s slightly short-changed by the turn the story takes.

There are some genuine scares, and one truly horrible moment that might be one of the most unsettling things I’ve seen in a long time. I’ve heard this film compared to Under the Skin, and I can totally relate to the comparison, even though they’re very different films.

Peele’s direction is great, and he makes good use of sprawling desert vistas, the open sky, clouds and the little amusement park (which apparently you can go visit!). He does tension very well, and this film did have me on the edge of my seat on occasion.

It won’t be for everyone, and I’ve already heard that while NOPE might stand for Not Of Planet Earth, I’ve also it’s so titled because Peele thought that would be half the audience’s reaction upon discovering what it’s actually about!

It’s maybe a trifle too long and maybe takes a little too long to warm up, but it’s also stunningly original in an era of cookie cutter films. It’s well directed and well-acted. Nope gets a Yup from me!

Thor: Love and Thunder

Posted: August 12, 2022 in Film reviews
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Directed by Taika Waititi. Starring Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Christian Bale, Tessa Thompson and Russell Crowe.

Seen in July.

Thor (Hemsworth) has been bumming around the universe with the Guardians of the Galaxy, saving countless civilisations and getting into lots of fights and trying not to think about how heartbroken he is that his relationship with Jane Foster (Portman) ended many years before.

At the same time Jane has problems of her own, she has stage four cancer and is facing her own mortality. Desperate for a cure she finds herself drawn to New Asgard, and the fragmented remains of Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir.

Meanwhile an entire civilisation dies except for one man, Gorr (Bale). Finding himself in the presence of his God, Gorr discovers that the deity is vain and uncaring, and has barely noticed that his subjects, including Gorr’s daughter, have died. His philosophy seems to be that he can always get more followers. Enraged Gorr uses the God killing Necrosword to kill his own God, and then vows to kill all the Gods.

When Thor learns of Gorr’s crusade he travels to New Asgard to protect it. Gorr attacks but Thor is surprised to find that New Asgard has an additional protector. Jane now wields a restored Mjolnir and the hammer has imbued her with the power of Thor.

With time running out Thor and Jane must join forces with Valkyrie (Thompson) and Korg ( Waititi) to stop Gorr.  

So let’s be honest here, 2017’s Thor Ragnarok was a joy from start to finish, due in no small part to Taika Waititi’s direction and a great script coupled with Hemsworth’s wonderful portrayal of the God of Thunder, so when it was announced that we were getting a fourth Thor film, and that Waititi was again directing I got excited. When it turned out Portman would be returning, and would actually get something to do this time, I was even more thrilled. The casting of Bale as the bad guy and the presence of the Guardians of the Galaxy were just the icing on the cake.

This is the part where I tell you Love and Thunder is terrible, right?

Wrong. It’s a highly enjoyable romp. Is it as good as Ragnarok? No but could we get that lucky? It’s flawed, perhaps even a little forgettable, but while I was watching it I had a whale of a time, and I like to think most people will.

Hemsworth could probably play Thor in his sleep now, and while some people get annoyed at his loveable idiot persona, I think it’s perfect, playing Thor completely straight wouldn’t work, he lives in a realm of magic and giants, enchanted hammers and rainbow bridges, leave the grounded stuff for Cap and those like him and Thor, don’t ever change!

When reviewing Multiverse of Madness I pointed out that previously Marvel had hired great actresses, then gave them barely anything to work with. This was very true of Portman, but they’ve made up for it here. From Jane having to deal with her cancer, to kicking Arse as the Mighty Thor. It’s a great performance and I have to say she looks fab in her Thor get up. Hands down she’s the best part of the film.

There’s a hint of Eccleston’s villain from Thor 2 in Bale’s Gorr, but while Eccleston kind phoned it in, Bale throws himself into the role, and is truly terrifying at times, but also curiously empathetic at others.

Thomson as Valkyrie and Waititi himself voicing Korg are ok, but neither land quite as well as they did in Ragnorak.

That leaves Russell Crowe, with yet another extravagant accent playing Zeus. Some people have balked at Zeus being portrayed as a vain, gluttonous, lecherous buffoon, these people have obviously never read what Zeaus was like in the myths, and Crowe nails it perfectly, he also doesn’t outstay his welcome.

Oh and the Guardians of the Galaxy show up, on the downside they’re in the film for about five minutes, on the up side they’re very funny (although Platt felt a little off as Starlord).

Waititi direction and script are good, though the film does suffer tonally. There’s no reason a film can’t be both funny and serious by turns, but tonally Love and Thunder shifts too quickly from one to another. Some of the humour is very juvenile (not necessarily a bad thing) while Gorr as a character is deadly serious. Some aspects of Jane’s cancer land clunkily, and the least said about the child soldiers are a good thing aspect the better. It’s also relatively short as Marvel films go, which isn’t a terrible thing as some of them do go on a bit, but you can’t help feeling things are missing; in particular it’s a shame we don’t see Jane’s initial transformation into the Mighty Thor.

Suffers by comparison to Ragnarok, but if you’re a Marvel/Thor fan there’s still a whole lot to enjoy here, and I’m really hoping we haven’t seen the last of Natalie Portman with a big hammer…    

Top Gun: Maverick

Posted: July 5, 2022 in Film reviews
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Directed by Joseph Kosinski. Starring Tom Cruise, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly, Jon Hamm, Monica Barbaro, Glen Powell, Lewis Pullman, Ed Harris and Val Kilmer.

Seen in June.

Thirty years after his time at the Top Gun fighter school, Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Cruise) is a navy test pilot flying the top secret Darkstar scramjet. After disobeying orders to prove the plane’s viability Maverick is approached by Admiral Cain (Harris.) If he could Cain would bounce Maverick out of the navy, but instead he is being sent back to Top Gun on the orders of Maverick’s friend, and former rival, Admiral Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Kilmer.)

Kazansky wants Maverick to train a group of Top Gun graduates to fly a dangerous mission to destroy a rogue state’s uranium enrichment plant. The commander of naval air forces, Vice Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson (Hamm) thinks this is a terrible idea, and makes it clear that Maverick won’t be going on the mission.

Maverick reluctantly agrees to train the group, but it won’t be easy, especially given one of them is Lieutenant Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Teller) the son of Maverick’s former buddy Goose. Things are further complicated by the presence of Penny (Connelly) an old flame who Maverick rekindles romance with.

As the mission draws closer can Maverick find a way to inspire these pilots to be the best they can be, and can the mission really succeed without Maverick’s involvement?

I still remember seeing the original Top Gun at the cinema as a 16 year old and I’m embarrassed to admit that it did encourage me to look into how easily one could become a naval aviator! It was an iconic film, and there has been much talk over the years of a sequel. I don’t think anyone expected it’d take over thirty years, and I don’t expect anyone thought it would work anywhere near as well as this does, and it does work really well.

It’s preposterous, it’s predictable, it was written by someone clearly obsessed with the Death Star trench scene in Star Wars (and one really hopes by extension the Dambusters) and yet it’s also hugely enjoyable.

Cruise makes no attempt to suggest Maverick has grown or changed in any way. He’s still flying by the seat of his pants, still bucking authority, still wearing the same leather jacket and sunglasses and still riding a motorbike without a helmet!

But he does it so well!

There are a few sops to Maverick aging, but it doesn’t help that Cruise looks infuriatingly good for a man on the cusp of 60 (he’s 60 now but he wasn’t when he made this, ok!)

The character shouldn’t work. He’s Peter Pan, a man who never grew up, a man who won’t follow orders and a terrible role model (seriously, how many billions does he cost the US taxpayer with that little stunt at the start of the film?) but he gets by with his innate flying ability and that damn smile. And clearly every senior officer, with the exception of Iceman, is a risk averse idiot by comparison.

As Rooster, Goose’s son (see what he did there?) Teller is very good, although this film has taken so long to make that not only is it necessary for Rooster to have unresolved issues with Mav over the death of his father, they also insert another issue, namely that Maverick got his initial application to the academy refused which put him four years behind, how else to explain how he’s an up and coming fighter jock when he’s several years older than everyone else? Teller plays it well though and there are hints of Anthony Edwards in his performance, and not all of them are subtle, just take the scene where he sits at a piano playing Great Balls of Fire in one of many call-backs to the original.

Another call-back is the presence of Kilmer in a very moving cameo. Kilmer’s health issues are well documented and the fact that his voice was recreated by AI is simply amazing.

Of course some people are notable by the absence, namely Kelly McGillis and Meg Ryan, one of whom is killed off camera, the other of whom isn’t mentioned at all. I’m sure they had their reasons, too many call-backs perhaps, but you can’t dismiss the arguments of good old fashioned Hollywood sexism, heaven forbid a woman ages.

Maverick still has a love interest however, and Jennifer Connolly is, well she’s ok, but frankly her character is one of the few missteps in the film. Supposedly she’s the admiral’s daughter Maverick had a dalliance with back in the 80s. The main problem with her is a distinct lack of chemistry between her and Cruise, and their relationship feels oddly inert. Given a huge part of Top Gun’s appeal was the electricity between Cruise and McGillis, it’s strange for this sequel to feature a romance that’s such a damp squib.

Ed Harris deserves better than the stock one note admiral he gets to play, and while he’s still nominally an antagonist, Hamm at least is allowed some nuance.  Monica Barbaro and Lewis Pullman make for an amiable double act as Phoenix and Bob (they do at least let women fly planes now), and whilst he’s something of a dick, Glenn Powell’s turn as hangman shows potential star quality in the making.

The plot is ridiculous and though it did veer off into surprising Behind enemy Lines Territory towards the end, I pretty much saw every beat coming a mile away. Subtle or unexpected this film is not.

But the action is soooo good! Yes it would be a misnomer to suggest this was a film that eschewed CGI for reality given Hollywood didn’t have access to any SU-57s, or in fact an F-14 given the only ones still flying are in Iran (just in case you were wondering who the rogue state was) but all the F-18 footage seems to be genuine, with actors sitting in the rear of two seat Super Hornets to make it appear like they were flying them and it looks AMAZING.

It lacks the sexual spark and testosterone fuelled in your face attitude of the original, but the flying scenes are so much better and at least this time they didn’t have to pass off some Northrop F-5s as “Mig 28s”

This is a film that does exactly what it says on the tin, and you know what? Sometimes that’s no bad thing.

Men

Posted: June 21, 2022 in Film reviews, horror
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Directed by Alex Garland. Starring Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear.

After the death of her abusive husband, Harper Marlowe (Buckley) travels to a remote village to spend some time alone. She rents a house from the affable Geoffrey (Kinnear). It’s a lovely house but when she goes for a walk in the woods she encounters a naked man (Kinnear). Striving to get away from him she finds the local churchyard where she encounters a foul mouthed child (Kinnear) and a vicar (Kinnear) who makes her feel uncomfortable.

Soon Harper finds herself under threat from all sides. She is surrounded by men, and they all appear to look like the same man!

I’ve been a fan of Alex Garland as a writer and director for some time. Ex Machina was his first film as a director (although if you believe some he at least partially directed Dredd) and it was a beautifully shot film with an intriguing story. He followed this up with the wonderful Annihilation, a joy of a film with only one flaw, it didn’t get a cinematic release in the UK so I’ve never been able to see it on the big screen. I imagine it’d be amazing. While I think it ran one or two episodes too long, I enjoyed his miniseries Devs as well. I saw the trailer for Men before I even knew Garland had written and directed it, his involvement was just icing on the cake because the trailer alone was fascinating.

The first thing to say is that I loved this film, the second thing to say is that you should see it on the biggest screen you can. It might be a more intimate story than Annihilation, but Garland’s direction and Rob Hardy’s cinematography deserve the biggest canvas possible.

The third thing to say is that when it comes to Men, you’ll either love it, or you’ll really hate it.

The central conceit of Kinnear playing (almost) every male role works surprisingly well for several reasons. The first is that Kinnear himself is such an accomplished actor that each role feels incredibly different, even before you get to the different costumes/makeup etc.  It helps that there aren’t that many of them, while he plays a good seven characters, only four are really that heavily involved in the story. It also helps that the fact that every bloke looks like Kinnear is never actively addressed. Harper never remarks upon it for example, which of course could be something about the film that riles a viewer up. What is the point? What is Garland trying to say? Are all men effectively the same, or is it merely a neat trick to distinguish this film from your more run of the mill woman in peril horrors?

Does it even matter? I’m not sure it does when a film is this mesmerising.

Kinnear is, as already stated, amazing in his multiple roles, but it’s Buckley at the centre of the film that holds it together. An actor—much like Kinnear—who I have a lot of time for, in fact part of what drew me to want to watch the film was the presence of them both. I’ve seen Buckley in many things, and I’ve yet to see her not be amazing, as she is here. She manages to make Harper both strong, yet incredibly fragile, brave yet terrified. She’s committed to the role, and, for me at least, the fact that she relates to each of Kinnear’s characters as a completely different person, is another of the reasons this works so damn well.

As stated the cinematography is just incredible, making full use of the glorious English countryside. It’s a beautiful and verdant backdrop to Harper’s terror, filmed so exquisitely that it lends the countryside a dreamlike quality. Add in the fact that one of Kinnear’s characters is clearly a representation of the mythical Green Man and this is most assuredly a folk horror.

Be warned however, there’s a slow burn and atmospheric feel to most of the film, but in its final act…well, it goes full on bonkers, and there’s some wince inducing body horror going on.

Beautifully shot and fantastically acted, this is a film that asks questions but provides few answers, and I suspect I’m going to watch it many times for just that reason.

Highly recommended, just don’t blame me if you hate it 😉  

Directed by Sam Raimi. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, Xochitl Gomez and Rachel McAdams.

Seen in May.

Warning. I’ll keep spoilers to a minimum but it’s kinda hard to talk about this film without revealing certain things, most of which is revealed early on, but if you want to stay completely in the dark, don’t read on!

In another universe another Doctor Strange fights to protect a young woman named America Chavez (Gomez) who is being pursued by demonic entities intent of taking her power, the ability to travel between parallel worlds; although it is a power she can’t control. Strange is killed and America accidentally creates a portal that transports her, and Strange’s corpse, to the Earth where our Dr Strange (Cumberbatch) is reluctantly attending the wedding of colleague, and woman he loves, Christine Palmer (McAdams). Suddenly America arrives and so does the demon. With the help of the Sorcerer Supreme Wong (Benedict Wong) Strange defeats the demon which followed America.

America is initially distrusting of our Strange as the Doctor Strange in the last universe tried to kill her to stop the demon gaining her power. In search of answers Strange visits Wanda Maximoff (Olsen) but soon discovers the individual who is really behind the demons hunting America.

Soon Strange and America are on the run, America gets them to another universe where Strange is revered as a hero, but is this place as welcoming as it first appears?

Marvel’s knack for using new and up-and-coming directors continues with a young man named Sam Raimi who I think has a bright future ahead of him. Ho ho. For some Raimi perhaps isn’t the first name that springs to mind but he’s the perfect choice here, though oddly that’s less down to his experience of big budget superhero movies (three Spidey films) and more down to his horror roots, because make no mistake, in many ways The Multiverse of Madness is a horror film, and the longer it goes on the less MCU it feels and the more Evil Dead (albeit a heavily sanitised, kiddie friendly Evil Dead! We’re talking Army of Darkness here not the first one!)

I’ve always been pretty up-front that initially I wasn’t sure about Cumberbatch as Strange, but he’s really grown into the role, and grown in my estimation, which is just as well as he seems to be one of the main focal points of the MCU’s newest phase. The accent still feels a little off at times, but he’s left the cold Strange of the first film behind and, along with in Far from Home, turned into something of a father figure, first for Peter Parker and now for America Chavez. Cumberbatch is also clearly having a lot of fun with the role. Plus, the fact that Cumberbatch is such a good actor means you’re never 100% sure you can trust him. He’s still a little vain, a little arrogant, all of which adds to the allure of the character, and makes it all the easier to imagine other universes where that vanity tips him over the edge into becoming something far darker.

However good Cumberbatch is however, this film belongs to Elizabeth Olsen. Fresh from an amazing performance in WandaVision, Olsen is incredible. Yes she’s the bad guy, but her rationale elevates her above most antagonists, and much as she did in WandaVision she gets to act every ounce of Wanda’s grief and pain and longing. The Academy won’t care of course, but I’m pretty sure there are some universes out there where her performance would get her an Oscar nod.

If there’s one thing Marvel has been guilty of its wasting talented actresses. Thankfully they seem to be putting this right. We’ll soon have Natalie Portman going all God of Thunder on us, and here Rachel McAdams finally gets something to sink her teeth into as an alternate Christine. 

Benedict Wong is rapidly becoming the glue that holds the MCU together, it’s just a shame that Wong might never get his own movie. He does get more to do here than he has in some of his recent cameo appearances at least.

Gomez is very engaging as America and I’m guessing we’ll see her again. It’s always nice to see Ejiofor, here as an alternate version of Mordo, though as with the first Doctor Strange film, again you feel that the MCU hasn’t figured out the best use of his talents.

There are a few other cameos, alternate versions of characters we know, or even new heroes we’ve yet to see in the MCU. There’s no need to spoil their presences here, though chances are you might already know about a few, and one is very obvious from the trailers. Suffice to say there’s a certain person with a shield I’m hoping to see again one day in some shape or form.

So, all in all I thought this was a very good film, and it seems to have gone down well with audience as well. My only concern was whether you had to have seen the Marvel tv shows WandaVision and What if…? In order to enjoy it? Maybe not, although I think seeing both heightened my enjoyment. Some people have said this film throws the Wanda of WandaVision under the bus but I’m not sure it does. It may have looked like Wanda had come to terms with her grief, but that was before she started studying the Darkhold. I really do hope this isn’t the last we see of Wanda, and I also hope that next time out Scarlet Witch gets to be on the side of angels.

I’ve also seen people complaining that we don’t really get a multitude of multiverses—most of the action takes place in just two—but I think that works to the film’s advantage. Things could have got very confusing.

Raimi’s direction is flawless. He’s comfortable with special effects and a big budget, but some of the jump scares he gives us are very old school, and in particular Wanda possessing an alternate version of herself if creepy as anything.

 For all that people claim MCU films are cookie cutter and all alike, well this one for sure isn’t. I certainly didn’t expect that the final battle would be between Wanda and…well, you’ll find out.

Funny, inventive, action packed and full to the brim with excellent performances, this is top tier Marvel.

Give this woman an Oscar now!

The Northman

Posted: May 6, 2022 in Film reviews
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Directed by Robert Eggers. Starring Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy and Ethan Hawke.

Seen in April

The year is 895 and King Aurvandill War-Raven (Hawke) returns to his kingdom on the Irish coast from his conquests overseas and reunites with his wife Queen Gudrún (Kidman), and his young son, Prince Amleth. Injured in battle Aurvandill decides to bestow his crown on his son and the two undertake a spiritual ceremony. Next morning they’re attacked by Aurvandill’s brother, Fjölnir (Bang) and his men. Fjölnir kills Aurvandill, takes his kingdom and his wife for his own and young Amleth is forced to flee, swearing vengeance on his uncle and vowing to save his mother.

Amleth is raised by a band of Vikings. Now an adult (Skarsgård) he has become a berserker. After helping to subdue a village in the lands of the Rus he encounters a seeress who tells him he will soon have a chance to enact his vengeance on his uncle. Shortly afterwards Amleth learns that Rus slaves are being sent to Iceland, where Fjölnir, now lives in exile having been overthrown. Disguising himself as a slave, Amleth allows himself to be taken to Iceland. On the journey he meets another slave, a woman named Olga (Taylor-Joy) who claims to be a seeress.

Set to work on his uncle’s farm Amleth begins to plot his revenge! 

Following on from The Witch (or The VVitch as its styled, a film I appreciated much more on second viewing) and The Lighthouse (a film I still need to see) Eggers’ third film is a different beast entirely, albeit one that clearly sticks to his artistic integrity. The major change is one of budget. The Northman is a full-on blockbuster with a budget rumoured to be in the $70-90million range, a huge upswing compared to the Witch’s $4 million and The Lighthouse’s $11million and not bad at all for only his third feature length film. It’s fair to say every dime is up there on the screen, from epic battles to sweeping vistas (Ireland standing in for Russia and Iceland) and it’s certainly a full-blooded film.   

Eggers hasn’t compromised his vison however, at least insofar as it comes to authenticity. His evocation of the 9th and 10th centuries feels incredibly real. A time of darkness and dirt, violence and hardship. Likely he’s taken artistic licence but just as likely this is probably as accurate a Viking blockbuster as you’re ever going to get. Much of the dialogue is in English but a fair amount is in Norse with subtitles.

As Amleth  Skarsgård is well muscled and stoic, and one can certainly believe he’s a Viking berserker. Taylor-Joy is an actress I’ve admired since I first saw her in The VVitch (credit to Eggers who manages to include all three of the main players from his debut feature in this film) and she’s good here, although her part feels wafer thin, she’s mainly there to give Amleth an ally, and someone to fight for. I didn’t recognise Bang as Fjölnir until I saw the end credits. He’s good as the bad guy, though perhaps not the character you initially think he is. For me the standout is Kidman however, though much like Taylor-Joy she’s short-changed when it comes to screentime. Still, it’s nice to see her in such a meaty role, and it’s definitely the best performance of hers I’ve seen in a while (and given she’s usually good that’s hardly faint praise) and in respect of her character Eggers does some interesting things. Always good to see Ethan Hawke in anything but this is little more than a cameo sadly.

So great cast, good direction and cinematography and an indie heart married to a blockbuster head.

So why didn’t I enjoy this more?

Partly it’s the story that lets it down. Based upon an ancient legend and it feels old. Seriously, the rightful heir escapes his death as a child and returns as a man to get his vengeance is a story we’ve seen time and time again, and no amount of money can quite make up for a generic plot.

Pacing wise the story trudges at times, and I’ll admit to shuffling in my seat more than once and wondering how long was left to go. The mystical elements don’t quite chime with the grounded nature of the world Eggers has created either. He seems to be trying to have his cake and eat it, and while ambiguity worked well in The VVitch, it jars here. How authentic can the world you’ve created be after all, when the hero has a magic sword that can only be unsheathed at night?

Visually impressive yet something of a slog, this is a film I admired more than I actually liked. Not terrible by any means but this Viking epic didn’t exactly pillage my emotions.    

The Batman.

Posted: April 16, 2022 in Film reviews
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Directed by Matt Reeves. Starring Robert Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz, Paul Dano, Jeffrey Wright, John Turturro, Peter Sarsgaard,  Andy Serkis and Colin Farrell.

Watched in March.

The vigilante known as Batman (Pattinson) has been fighting crime in Gotham City for two years. Though looked on suspiciously by most in the Gotham City Police Department, he has an ally in Lieutenant James Gordon (Wright). When the mayor is murdered by a criminal calling himself The Riddler (Dano) Gordon involves Batman because the Riddler has left a riddle addressed to the caped crusader.

The Riddler also leaves evidence to suggest the mayor was corrupt and in the pocket of Oswald Cobblepot, known as the Penguin (an unrecognisable Farrell) a lieutenant of crime boss Carmine Falcone (Turturro). As Batman investigates further he crosses paths with car burglar Selina Kyle (Kravitz) who works at Penguin’s club and seems to have a relationship with Falcone.

As the Riddler kills more and more of Gotham’s elite, and reveals more and more dirty secrets, Batman finds himself increasingly isolated, with only Gordon, Selina and faithful butler Alfred (Serkis) for support. But worse is to come, because the Riddler has set his sights on another doyen of Gotham, billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne!

Another year, another Batman! If Nolan’s ‘Batman Begins’ was effectively Year One, Reeves’ ‘The Batman’ is most obviously Year Two, and while it isn’t perfect it’s still a hugely enjoyable entry into the Batman canon featuring a great performance from Pattinson.

It has to be said that this is a dark Batman film (in all sorts of ways) darker even than Nolan’s entries, riffing on things such as Se7en and Saw. Even more grounded than Nolan’s entries as well, this might be as realistic as Batman ever gets, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing (much as I love the gothic exuberance of Tim Burton’s two films). The Gotham City here is grim and dirty, a place you wouldn’t want to visit, let alone live in, and the closest comparable Gotham would be from the excellent tv series ‘Gotham’.

It would be unfair to say this was just an exercise in grimdark however, Reeves is saying something, and Batman evolves over the course of the film, starting as a harbinger of vengeance and ending up as more a symbol of hope.

As Bats, Pattinson is simply superb, eschewing the growl that sometimes made Christian Bale’s Batman seem a trifle silly, and with perhaps the best Batsuit to date (sleek, manoeuvrable and yes that Bat symbol on his chest is probably made from the gun that killed his mom and dad) he’s very, very good, and utterly convincing as a winged avenger. He is perhaps slightly (but only slightly) less successful as Bruce Wayne, but in part that’s because we get to see less of Bruce, and unlike Bale’s Wayne, and perhaps more like Keaton’s, this Bruce shuns the limelight, quite literally, and there’s a wonderful recurring motif that sees Pattinson struggle with bright sunlight because he spends so much of his life in the dark. I walked out feeling like I’d possibly seen the best cinematic Batman (well outside of Lego Batman and Adam West obviously, and I mean all that stops Keaton being number one by a country mile is a suit so rigid it looks like he’s some kind of invalid.  And Keaton remains the best Bruce Wayne by far, and I’ll shut up now!)

As The Riddler, Dano is about as far away from Frank Gorshin’s Riddler as you can get, even a more grounded Riddler like Gotham’s Cory Michael Smith has nothing on this guy. Dano’s Riddler is one part incel, one part serial killer and one part internet troll, and that he has his reasons is never enough to make him remotely empathetic, he’s a monster who delights in horrible murders and in generating fear (which does lead to an interesting comparison with Batman.) Dano is one of those quiet yet brilliant actors who immerse himself in a role and does the simple things very well.

Another actor immersing themselves in a role is Colin Farrell as Penguin, again Reeves plays up the mobster angle and plays down, well, the Penguin aspects. Some people have been sniffy about his performance, but I thought he was very good, of course you could ask why they didn’t just hire a larger actor for the role, but Farrell himself is very good, menacing yet also curiously likeable at times.

This film isn’t just about the Bat of course, it’s also about the Cat, and Kravitz is very good as Selina Kyle, again playing up the cat-burglar aspect of the role and playing down the feline aspects. She’s more Anne Hathaway than Michelle Pfeiffer (or Julie Newmar, Eartha Kitt or Lee Meriwether) which makes sense in this film. (Of course this is Kravitz’s second Catwoman because she’s also in the Lego Batman movie!) Perhaps the best thing about Kravitz’s Kyle is how much of a chameleon she is, changing personas as often as she changes her wigs and outfits. There’s definite chemistry between her and Pattinson and she makes for a good foil for Batman.

On paper Serkis should make for a great Alfred, but I wasn’t feeling it. Maybe the fact Bruce and Alfred had a somewhat testy relationship in this film didn’t help. Similarly Wright makes for a good Jim Gordon, but it would have been nice to see him get more agency rather than just being someone there to hold Bats’s cape at times.

Three other things I loved about this. One is the soundtrack which is fantastic, the second is the Batmobile, a souped up muscle car that fits this film’s aesthetic perfectly, and the third is that fact that, for all that Batman skulks around in the dark and punches people really hard, he’s also a detective, an important aspect of the character that’s often overlooked but here it’s front and centre.

Yes it’s a trifle grim, and yes it’s waaaay too long, and yes it falls into that Return of the King/The Last Jedi trap of making you thinking it’s over when there’s still a lot to get through, but despite all this I really, REALLY enjoyed it and I sincerely hope we get to see Pattinson in the Batsuit again.

Nightmare Alley

Posted: February 24, 2022 in Film reviews
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Directed by Guillermo del Toro. Starring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Rooney Mara, David Strathairn, Richard Jenkins, and Ron Perlman.

It’s 1939 and Stanton Carlisle (Cooper) buries a body beneath his home before setting fire to the house and heading out on the road. In need of work he links up with a carnival, working initially for a carny named Clem (Defoe), who runs the geek show, and explains to Stan how he lures alcoholics into working as a geek, a broken man who’ll eat live chickens.

Soon Stan is also working for clairvoyant Madam Zeena (Collette) and her alcoholic husband Pete (Strathairn). Their act relies on a detailed code that passes between them so that Zeena can appear to have psychic powers. Stan begins to pick up some of their skills, and suggests to Molly (Mara) a girl he’s fallen in love with that they could be successful running a similar act.

Two years later Stan and Molly are living in Buffalo and making money as a psychic act performing to the wealthier members of society. Everything is going well until Stan begins to cross the line that Zeena and Pete warned him about, that you should never fool people that the dead can talk to them. Soon Stan is embroiled with an icy psychiatrist named Lilith Ritter (Blanchett) and a dangerous man named Grindle (Jenkins) desperate to connect with his dead lover.

My second cinema trip of the year so far, and a corker of a film from Guillermo del Toro. I wasn’t familiar with the 1940s’ original or William Lindsay Gresham’s novel, but I tend to like del Toro, loved the noir aesthetic and the cast is great, so I thought it was worth giving a go, and I wasn’t disappointed.

It is a tad long, feels somewhat of a film of two halves and if you don’t figure out early on how it’s going to end, well, you probably just haven’t watched as many films as me, but in truth none of this matters because the film is a superb evocation of other times and other places, whether it’s the dirt and grime of the carnival, or the clean modernity of the city, and unsurprisingly there’s more honesty from the carneys than the city folks.

Del Toro’s direction and the cinematography are excellent. It’s a beautiful film to look at, even when it’s showing you something ugly, although the shift from the carnival to the city is a little jarring (but then maybe that’s the point.) From the dirt and grime of the carnival to the veneer of the big city, every frame looks amazing.

People have rightly pointed to Tod Browning’s Freaks from 1932, but I also felt the film had a curious kinship with Blade Runner once Stan ventures to the city. Blanchett’s ice femme fatale feels like a blonde Sean Young, with her coiffured hair and perfectly painted lips, and the art deco skyscraper she has an office in definitely feels like Deckard might walk in at any moment. There’s even a scene with a polygraph that evokes the Voight-Kampff test.

The cast are top notch, led by Cooper who’s come a long way since he was Sydney Bristow’s best mate in Alias all those years ago. He’s a very good actor, and has a rare ability to play both noble yet slightly shabby at the same time, he did it well in A Star is Born and he does it well here. However good the rest of the cast is, this is his movie, and it wouldn’t be half as good without him. 

Blanchett was born to play Lilith, cool and assured yet fragile as glass. Collette couldn’t put in a poor performance if she tried, and she and Strathairn make for an engaging couple. Defoe is very good as Clem, genuinely terrifying when he calmly explains how he grooms potential geeks.

Mara as Molly is perhaps lumbered with a character who’s less interesting, though she’s always important to the plot, and continues to provide a link between Stan and the carnival, even after they move to Buffalo. Credit also to Ron Perlman and Mark Povinelli as a pair of carneys concerned for Molly’s welfare.

As I say it is a long film, and towards the end it starts to feel it, and the shift from, carnival to the city is very noticeable. It’s fair to say I found the first half perhaps a little more interesting than the second, but the film does hang together well, it looks amazing, and the cast are great. It’s a shame it hasn’t done better at the box office, but I do think it’ll pick up some Oscars.

Spider-Man: No Way Home

Posted: February 5, 2022 in Film reviews
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Directed by Jon Watts  Starring Tom Holland Zendaya, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jacob Batalon and quite a lot of other people…

(Watched in January.)

Back to the cinema again! Quick warning, this review will be spoiler free insofar as the major plot points of the film go, however I will have to talk about the cast, which does include some surprises. Now I think it’s pretty common knowledge who else is in this film, but just in case you’ve been hiding under a rock and really would like to go into this cold, then maybe skip this review until you see the film.

The previous film ended with Mysterio framing Spider-Man for his own murder, and with J Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons the man who was born to play him) revealing that Peter Parker (Holland) is Spider-Man. While Peter is arrested, he’s soon released, although the world is now divided into those who believe him, and those who believe Msyterio’s fake news (feels very relevant doesn’t it!). Not only does Peter’s life become something of a nightmare, but this rubs off on his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) and best friend Ned (Batalon), and when all three are turned down by MIT Peter visits Dr Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch, who I’m liking more and more in the role) to ask him to cast a spell that will make people forget that Peter Parker is Spider-Man. This seems relatively straightforward but when Peter realises that MJ, Ned and Aunt May (the underused Tomei) will also forget that he’s Spider-Man, he tries to get Strange to alter the spell mid casting.

In the end Strange gives up, but it seems that he’s cast enough of the spell to have an unexpected impact on the multiverse. Rips are forming in the fabric of reality and villains from other universes are bleeding into Peter’s. Faced with a pantheon of evildoers Spider-Man’s going to need some help…

Okay, last chance…

Maybe it’s just the novelty of sitting in a cinema again for the first time since October and Bond, and only the second time since the pandemic hit, but I really really enjoyed this, and given this appears to be the sixth highest grossing film of all time it seems I’m not alone.

Not bad for a film that takes much of its inspiration from the excellent Into the Spiderverse and from that meme of Spiderman pointing at himself, and a film that lifts much of its cast from pre MCU Spidey films made between 2002 and 2014.

Sure, some elements of the plot don’t make a heap of sense when you think about them, but it doesn’t really matter because the film works so well on a visceral, emotional level, and the script and direction are punchy enough that even thought it’s two and a half hours long, it never outstays its welcome.

Holland continues to excel in a role it seems he was born to play, and I hope any rumours of him stepping down are wide of the mark, especially given where Spidey winds up at the end, wearing possibly my now favourite movie costume (side note one thing I’ve always slightly held against Holland’s Spidey is the patronage of Tony Stark and the gadget laden nanobot infused outfits.) Holland is great though, whether it’s as poor put-upon Peter—and he gets some hefty emotional scenes here—or as quippy Spider-Man.

His chemistry with Zendaya is wonderful, but perhaps not too surprising given they’re a couple in real life, and despite not always having enough to do, she does it well, as does Batalon as Ned whose chemistry with Holland can’t be attributed to an off-camera romance!

Cumberbatch has definitely relaxed into the Dr Strange role, though his accent still feels forced, and he has some good scenes with Holland, there’s also an amusing joke at his expense when we learn he’s no longer Sorcerer Supreme. He isn’t in it much, but Benedict Wong is always a joy to watch as Wong.

Now onto the villains, and what a clutch of bad guys our Peter must face. The Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, Electro, Lizard and Sandman! Some fare better than others, in particular Lizard and Sandman get short shrift, but that’s probably to be expected.

As Norman Osbourne Willem Dafoe is just amazing, and proves that he didn’t need that stupid costume back in 2002, his unmasked face is scary enough when he’s in Goblin mode, and he manages to flip between decent human being and maniacal psychopath with ease. Returning as Doc Ock Alfred Molina is also great, and to be honest Jamie Foxx probably gets a better run as Electro then he got in The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

Of course, as great as it is to see these bad guys show up, what’s even better is when Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield step through from their own universes.

When it first leaked that Dafoe, Garfield, Maguire and co were playing a part here I surmised, as did most people I imagine, that these would be little more than cameos, but the reality is something altogether much better, they’re in the film a lot, they each get their moment to shine and they’re absolutely not here to just make up the numbers, and the brotherly affection that develops between the three Peters is simply wonderful, especially with regard to Garfield as the somewhat side-lined middle child. Now I always loved Garfield in the role, but his films perhaps weren’t stellar, but here he finally gets to shine, and while unlikely, the notion of us seeing Garfield and maybe even Maguire again as Spider-Man is more films a mouth-watering thought.

There’s also a very funny joke shared between the three relating to the very different powers one Spidey has (I’ll say no more.)

The film’s funny, action packed, emotional, joyous and also heart-breaking, and it’s kinda weird to say given this is, what, Holland’s sixth cinematic appearance as Spidey, but this almost feels like the origin story we never got (with him at least).

Just great on every level, sure the plot maybe needed a bit of tightening up, and yes it is kinda hard to tell our three Spideys apart in the final battle, but minor, minor quibbles. This is amazing, this is spectacular, this is friendly neighbourhood…ok that didn’t work.

It’s great. Watch it!