Prey (2022)

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Dan Trachtenberg | 99 mins | digital (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | NR* / R

Prey

In the seemingly-endless cycle of “trying to reboot popular ’70s/’80s sci-fi franchises”, it is once again the turn of Predator, following in the wake of 2018’s disappointingly messy The Predator and 2010’s apparently-disliked Predators (I enjoyed it, but everyone seems to write it off nowadays). Where both of those tried to go bigger — either with more or larger versions of the eponymous aliens — Prey strips things back to basics, as per the one entry in the series everyone can agree is good, the first.

Set around 300 years ago, when indigenous people still lived freely on the plains of North America, the film introduces to a member of the Comanche tribe, Naru (Amber Midthunder, who genre fans might recognise from X-Men-adjacent TV series Legion), a young woman who wants to prove herself as a hunter like the tribe’s menfolk, including her exalted brother (Dakota Beavers). Long story short, she’s about to get chance when an alien Predator rocks up.

Plot-wise, Prey is pretty straightforward. And therein lies a big part of its success, because what more do we want from a Predator movie than “a hero has to fight a technologically-superior Predator”? If you do want more than that, I think you’ve come to the wrong franchise. Of course, simply rehashing what’s gone before is just another path to failure, and so what Prey does is take those basic bones and dress them up with fresh settings, ideas, and perspectives. In this case, that’s the period setting and Native American heroes. How do you defeat a Predator using weapons no more technologically advanced than bows and arrows? With intelligence, of course, and the film does a nice job of showing Naru gather information and formulate plans without ever needing to spell them out for us.

The prey becomes the predator

That it can pull that off is also to the credit of star Amber Midthunder, who conveys so much of Naru’s thought processes through only looks and expressions. All round she makes for an appealing heroine: she’s capable and brave, but not foolishly so, sometimes hanging back to assess the situation, or even running away when the odds aren’t in her favour, rather than diving in mindlessly. As action heroes go, I think that counts as nuance. I saw one critic tweet opine that she’s so good she needs to be given a Marvel superhero role ASAP, which is more a depressing indication of the state of cinema (appealing action lead? The highest honour would be a Marvel role!) than an indication of Midthunder’s ability (please, Hollywood, don’t just waste her on Marvel filler).

This may be a straight-up humans vs aliens action movie, but it still treats its audience with a degree of respect. It knows we’re capable of joining dots ourselves, especially when we can see characters doing the same. Naturally, Prey has some developments and moments derived from previous Predator movies — it wouldn’t really be part of the same franchise if it wiped the slate wholly clean — but they feel recontextualised or come into play naturally, rather than the filmmakers over-eagerly forcing them on us as a plea to nostalgia.

Quite aside from the plot and action, this is a beautifully made film. The first half-hour almost evokes the work of Terence Malick, with its relatively slow pace and photography that showcases nature and gorgeous scenery. This would’ve been a stunner on the big screen. Most big-budget theatrically-released films don’t look this much like A Movie nowadays, never mind streaming churn. I say it only “almost evokes Malick” because it’s not actually Malick-speed slow, but what it’s doing is quite deliberate: establishing the characters, the environment they live in, the things they know and the tools they have access to, and so on — as well as building up the looming threat of the alien hunter — so that we understand the world and the stakes when things kick off later.

They're going on a bear hunt (no, really, at this point they think it's a bear)

One thing I sort of want to pull the filmmakers up on is the language(s) used for dialogue. During promotion, they’ve talked about how some of the film is actually in the Comanche language, a selling point because of diversity and inclusion. Well, not much of the dialogue is Comanche — the primary language is unquestionably English — and it’s not subtitled, which means the vast majority of viewers can’t understand it, so they could be saying anything. I don’t think a film is ‘in’ a language if you can’t understand it (it’s why I’ve not listed Comanche as a language at the top of this review, nor the European languages spoken by the settlers who come into the plot, which also aren’t subtitled). That said, there is the option to watch the entire film dubbed in Comanche — a first, apparently. That would be more historically authentic, but it’s also a dub, i.e. not how the film was ‘intended’. Nonetheless, I’ve already seen some argue it’s a better version, so it may well be worth a look.

That minor point aside (it’s not something I’m holding against the film, just the filmmakers boastfulness), Prey is a resounding success at what it sets out to be: an action movie in which humans and Predators have a fight. It’s the Predator film fans have long been waiting for. And it hopefully indicates to the studio bigwigs what the future of this franchise should be: pick a different era, with different technology and/or attitudes to combat, drop a Predator into it, and see how the humans get on against it. Honestly, with the right creatives, you could milk that simply premise for another half-dozen or more enjoyable movies, I reckon.

4 out of 5

Prey was the 49th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.

* There was no certificate listed on the BBFC website at time of review; Disney+ continuing to take advantage of the fact there’s no legal requirement for streaming content to be certified. Some press ads listed the film as 18+, but they’ve gone with 16+ on the service itself. So, it’s either a 15 or an 18. I guess we’ll never know (unless it gets a disc release). ^

The Halfway Monthly Review of June 2022

Another month gone, and suddenly we’re halfway through 2022. Whaaaat?!

To mark the occasion, the Viewing Notes section is a little longer than usual, taking a look at how the rest of the year might shape up — or might need to shape up, considering my new 100 Films Challenge is currently running behind schedule…



This month’s viewing towards my yearly challenge

#36 Top Gun 3D (1986) — Rewatch #6
#37 Scream (1996) — Wildcard #2
#38 Escape in the Fog (1945) — Genre #1
#39 Pretty in Pink (1986) — WDYMYHS #5
#40 Paris, Texas (1984) — Blindspot #6
#41 The Flying Deuces (1939) — DVD #3
#42 Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood (2022) — New Film #6
#43 My Name Is Julia Ross (1945) — Genre #2


  • I watched 12 feature films I’d never seen before in June.
  • Six of them counted towards my 100 Films in a Year Challenge, along with two rewatches.
  • Wait, two rewatches? Yep, because I’ve deployed my second wildcard of the year to count Scream as a second rewatch for June. That means I can’t count two rewatches in a single month again this year; but, as it marks the beginning of a rewatch of the Scream series, it does open up the rest of those films to counting under Series Progression. Nifty.
  • Genre was the only category I hadn’t started when June began. Escape in the Fog changed that, meaning all 11 categories are officially underway — and all still ‘in play’, with none completed — as I reach the halfway point.
  • This month’s Blindspot film was Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas, starring Harry Dean Stanton as a dad trying to bond with his kid.
  • This month’s WDYMYHS film was the John Hughes-penned Pretty in Pink, co-starring Harry Dean Stanton as a dad who’s really good with his kid. I remain one behind here, but there’s still plenty of time to catch that up.
  • From last month’s “failures” I only watched The Contender.
  • I also watched a short film this month — my first this year! I often feel like I should watch more shorts, especially as I own hundreds on disc (a handful of dedicated collections, and then loads included as special features here and there). Maybe I should make it some sort of official goal. 100 Short Films in a Year? Sounds doable — but in addition to what I already aim for? Maybe not.

As I was saying, now that we’re halfway through the year, here’s how things are shaping up overall…

  • I should be at #49 now (not #50, thanks to the first six months of the year being slightly shorter than the second six). Although I’m short of that, at least I’m not a whole month’s worth short (the target for the end of May is #41), so that’s something. Nonetheless, I need to push a bit harder for the rest of the year: the monthly average to reach 100 in 12 months exactly is 8.3 films per month, but for the rest of the year I need it to be 9.5.
  • As a point of comparison, so far this year I’ve averaged 7.2 Challenge films per month, so it’s a bit of a step up.
  • But I’ve averaged 10.5 films per month overall, so if I just make more of them Challenge-compliant going forward then I should be fine.
  • Were I still doing my old-style 100 Films Challenge (just watching any new-to-me 100 films in a year), I’d currently be at #63 — which would be my poorest performance at this point since 2014.
  • All of which sounds fine and dandy, until you remember this: I typically watch fewer films in the back half of the year.
  • That’s not just a casual observation: I have numbers on this. For example, I can tell you that, out of 15 years of running this blog, I did actually watch more films in the back half of the year five times. And on a further three occasions, the second half was within 10% of the first half’s tally. So, it’s not as if the two halves are often wildly different. Which is funny, when you think about it, considering my overall annual tallies can be so very different — historically, anywhere from 94 to 264 films in a year.
  • Anyway, what do the stats foretell for this year? Based on my all-time average first-half-to-second-half ratio, I would watch 122 films this year. Narrowing that to just the last five years, I would make it to 108. And if we look at just years where I’d made comparable progress by the end of June — which happen to be 2010 to 2014, when I’d reached between #55 to #64 by this point — they too reckon I’d make it to 122.
  • Which is all well and good for my old target, but what about the New 100 Films Challenge? Well, so far my ratio of new films to films that count is roughly 1.47:1. If that holds, then watching 122 new films would mean I watch only 83 that count towards my Challenge. So, as I said earlier, I need to up the number of compliant films. Or, of course, just watch more films.
  • As to that final point, the last time I watched more films in the second half of the year than the first was in 2015, driven by pushing myself to make it to #200. But such a goal isn’t always necessary: in 2014, I did an even greater percentage of my viewing in the back half, but only to make it to #136. And goals aren’t a guarantee of anything: in 2016, I watched more in the first half of the year than I had in 2015, but so much less in the second half that I only made it to #195.

All of which goes to prove one thing: when it comes to my film watching, statistics may be fun, but they’re useless at predicting the future.



The 85th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
Quite a few more-than-solid films this month, but the one that comes closest to jumping out at me is also one I’ve been meaning to see ever since it came out, 12 years ago now. That would be political thriller The Ghost Writer (originally released as The Ghost here in the UK, but now under its international title on Netflix). Why does it sometimes take me so damn long to get round to things I was actually quite keen to watch? Goodness only knows. And it’s things like this — where, as I expected, I enjoy them a lot — that prove I shouldn’t let such delays happen.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
Apologies to any Laurel and Hardy fans reading this, but my first real experience of their work didn’t really make me laugh, and a comedy that doesn’t make you laugh isn’t much of a success, so The Flying Deuces takes this (dis)honour.

Most Timely Viewing of the Month
Here in the UK, we got a bonus Bank Holiday if June, to celebrate Queenie’s Platinum Jubilee… and, on the first of them, I watched the fairly-obscure (I’d certainly never heard of it before) 1938 film Bank Holiday. The film and modern real-life event aren’t really connected in any way (no Jubilee going on in the film), but hey-ho.

Best Accent of the Month
Accents in films are a funny business. Sometimes, people don’t even bother: witness My Name Is Julia Ross, a Hollywood production set entirely in London and Cornwall, where half the cast don’t even bother to attempt English accents. Sometimes, you wonder if people needed to: take The Ghost Writer, where it feels like everyone’s doing one accent or another, be it Scots and Americans doing English, or Brits doing American. And then there’s films that are a wonder unto themselves, like House of Gucci, where the entirely-English-speaking cast are doing ‘Italian’ as if they’re in a Dolmio advert. “I cooka da pasta” indeed.

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
For the second month in a row, my monthly failures roundup — namely, May’s Failures — has topped the chart. I say “topped”: it was the highest new post, but 29th overall. I guess my new reviews just haven’t been that interesting. (My ‘mistake’ has been stopping TV reviews: 24 of the 28 posts above May’s Failures were old TV columns.)



Every review posted this month, including new titles and the Archive 5


Y’know, I still haven’t been to the cinema yet this year. I keep meaning to see Top Gun: Maverick, but things keep getting in the way. But, as of today, my local cinema have put it back on to their biggest screen for the weekend, so maybe I’ll finally pull my finger out and get there in the next couple of days.

As for the rest of the month… oh, who knows!

2022 | Weeks 18–20

These three weeks take us most of the way through May. When I first started writing this batch of reviews, I thought that would bring me almost up-to-date… but then I realised we were already over halfway through June, and, as I finish it, June is almost over. Time flies!

It’s partly because I haven’t been watching as many films over the past couple of months (so it doesn’t feel like I watched these as long ago as I actually did), instead spending a lot of my leisure time on finally watching Apple TV+ series For All Mankind (I’ve just finished season one, which was really good, and I hear only gets better) and replaying all the Monkey Island games (I’m on the fifth and, to date, final one now).

But I digress. Because I already posted Shang-Chi and Frances Ha separately, the remaining reviews from this period are…

  • The Monolith Monsters (1957)
  • Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
  • Chip ’n Dale: Rescue Rangers (2022)


    The Monolith Monsters

    (1957)

    John Sherwood | 77 mins | Blu-ray | 2:1 | USA / English | PG

    The Monolith Monsters

    I watched this film in Eureka’s box set of ’50s B-movies, Three Monster Tales of Sci-Fi Terror. As you can tell from its inclusion there — and, indeed, its title — this is one of a wave of “monster movies” from that era. Except it isn’t, really. In fact, it’s a sci-fi disaster movie jerry-rigged into what I guess was the prevailing B-movie trend of the day: the eponymous ‘Monolith Monsters’ aren’t monsters at all, but an alien rock that expands relentlessly.

    Whatever you want to call it, the film offers a mix of B-movie daftness and real-sounding science that’s quite appealing. For example: our heroes discover this crazy, hitherto unknown multiplying rock; then realise they have maybe two days to stop it before it destroys their town; and rather than, say, alert the government, or call in expert help, they decide to… figure it out for themselves. But it does make you wonder: is this poor B-movie logic, or just 1950s Americanness? I love the thought that some crazy extraterrestrial incident may have occurred in some backwater town in the middle of nowhere, and no one ever knew about it because the locals just dealt with it themselves. “Oh yeah, aliens invaded back in ’57, but we didn’t see the need to bother nobody else with it, just shut ’em down ourselves.”

    Yet for all that silliness, there’s some scientific logic in play too. Whether it’s real science or “close enough”, I don’t know (let’s be honest, it’s probably the latter), but they manage to make it sound convincing. It helps contribute to an exciting climax, in which a plan to stop the monoliths can only be executed at the last moment before the town is overrun. Rocks don’t normally move fast enough to create race-against-time tension, but hey, these are alien rocks.

    The more I reflect on The Monolith Monsters, the more I like it. For a pulpy B-movie, it has an appealing seriousness. Sure, there’s some schlockiness that I wager is inevitable thanks to its era and budget range, but it feels like it’s trying to be more than trashy entertainment, aiming instead to be a more grounded, almost realistic sci-fi thriller. In reaching for that end it becomes a little slow going at times, but overall it’s quite fun.

    3 out of 5

    The Monolith Monsters is the 31st film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.


    Hannah and Her Sisters

    (1986)

    Woody Allen | 107 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / PG-13

    Hannah and Her Sisters

    Hannah and Her Sisters is one of writer-director Woody Allen’s more popular and successful films. For example, it was nominated for seven Oscars, winning three; and nowadays, it’s his third highest-rated film on Letterboxd, above the likes of Manhattan and later-career highlight Midnight in Paris. All of which I mention because, personally, it’s the kind of film I’d describe as “something and nothing”, because I liked it well enough, but also didn’t really get what it was going for overall.

    It’s the story of… well, Hannah (Mia Farrow) and her sisters. They’re three middle-aged women who all live in New York City (of course) and, over the course of a couple of years, we follow their lives and relationships, with a focus on the latter. Actually, if anything, I might argue the biggest focus is on Elliot, played to Oscar-winning effect by Michael Caine, who is married to Hannah but finds himself pining for her sister, Lee (Barbara Hershey).

    I say “might argue” because Hannah and Her Sisters is one of those films that feels like a collection of subplots. All of the storylines play out, then they stop, with happy endings almost across the board, and that’s your film. I expect it’s based around a theme of some kind, but all I really got it from it was the old “the grass is always greener” adage. Apparently Allen particularly wanted to make something about the relationship between sisters, because he thought that was more complex than between brothers. Fair enough, but I’m not sure it really comes across in the finished film. There are only about two or three scenes in which the sisters actually interact. They’re mostly off on their own subplots; and while those subplots do effect each other, I don’t think they truly speak to the sisters’ relationships; not in any revelatory depth, anyway.

    I’ve enjoyed quite a few of Allen’s films that I’ve seen, but Hannah and Her Sisters won’t be cracking my personal favourites of his work. It was fine to watch — not exceptionally funny or dramatic or insightful or original, but fine — and then it ends, and we go on with our lives. It’s not bad, but it also wasn’t anything much. Not to me, anyway.

    3 out of 5

    Hannah and Her Sisters is the 32nd film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022. It was viewed as part of “What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…?” 2022.


    Chip ’n Dale: Rescue Rangers

    (2022)

    Akiva Schaffer | 97 mins | digital (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | NR* / PG

    Chip ’n Dale: Rescue Rangers

    On the surface, there’s nothing here for me — a live-action remake/reboot of a late-’80s/early-’90s cartoon that I don’t remember ever watching — but something persuaded me to watch the trailer, and that convinced me to watch the film the moment I could. If you’ve missed said trailer, or any of the attendant hype or reviews, what sold me is that this isn’t just an update of a children’s cartoon with modern tech, but a Who Framed Roger Rabbit-style riff on cartoon celebrity.

    Like Roger Rabbit, it’s set in a version of our world where cartoons are ‘real’ and living alongside us, and they act in the TV shows and movies we know them from. Decades on from the Rescue Rangers TV show, Chip (voiced by John Mulaney) and Dale (Andy Samberg) no longer get along, but when an old friend goes missing, they’re thrust into investigating his disappearance together.

    Frankly, the plot and character arcs feel like stuff you’ve seen before — probably because we have. Although Roger Rabbit is the obvious reference, the film’s storyline feels very similar to the Melissa McCarthy-starring Muppet version of the concept from a couple of years ago, The Happytime Murders. It works better here, though, because it’s not leaning on crudeness as a comedic crutch. If you didn’t see that film, it might be to Chip ’n Dale’s advantage in terms of feeling fresh.

    Instead, the best bit of the film is that it’s full to bursting with fun nods and references to pretty much every facet of (Western) animation. These are often tucked away in the background or on the periphery for the eagle-eyed to enjoy, with the film rarely (if ever) stopping to show them off. To its credit, that means the abundant Easter eggs aren’t allowed to overshadow the story, and so the film avoids using them in the same way Happytime Murders used its vulgarity. It’s just a shame that said story is a little well-worn.

    Ultimately, Chip ’n Dale gave me the same kind of entertainment as its trailer, but for 95 minutes. Which, in a way, is fair enough — no one can accuse the trailer of being misrepresentative. On the other hand, it would be nice if there’d been something more to substantive to discover. It’s no contender for Roger Rabbit’s throne, but nor is it another Happytime mess. My score rounds up, because I did have fun.

    4 out of 5

    Chip ’n Dale: Rescue Rangers is the 33rd film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.

    * There was no certificate listed on the BBFC website at time of review. As you may or may not know, there’s actually no legal requirement for streamers to have their content certified, and so it seems Disney haven’t bothered. For what it’s worth, Disney+ lists the film as “9+”, which I guess equates to PG. ^


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

    Destin Daniel Cretton | 132 mins | digital (HD+3D) | 2.39:1 | USA / English & Mandarin | 12 / PG-13

    Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

    Unless you’re a dyed-in-the-wool fan, keeping up with the MCU is beginning to feel more like a chore than entertainment. There’s just so much of it! No wonder it can feel like its fans never watch anything else, because getting through the myriad TV series and movies could conceivably fill most of your free time. That said, it’s obviously not doing the movies any harm (yet) based on the spectacular box office performances of No Way Home ($1.89 billion, the 6th highest grossing film of all time) and Doctor Strange 2 ($935.3 million and counting). And getting round to everything does have its benefits, because occasionally you find a diamond, and it’s not always one the critics or other viewers have flagged up. I mean, most of what I heard about the first Doctor Strange was that it was just the standard superhero origin story over again, but it’s one of my favourite films from the studio’s output, primarily thanks to the stunning visuals and a few other clever developments. Being another iteration of something isn’t always bad, especially if you’ve iterated closer to perfection.

    Shang-Chi is the latest Marvel movie to fall into that camp for me. It is, again, a superhero origin story; but, again, one that’s been refined to a place where the hints of familiarity don’t really matter. It’s about Shaun (Simu Liu), an ordinary guy working as a valet in San Francisco… who it turns out isn’t such an ordinary guy, but is really Shang-Chi, the son of the magically-powered leader of a global crime syndicate known as the Ten Rings. Of course, events conspire to bring Shang back into contact with his estranged family, where he must choose whether to stand against his father’s evil plans.

    The MCU publicity claim that any given film is “not just a superhero movie, it’s a [1970s conspiracy thriller / John Hughes comedy / whatever]” has, rightly, become a bit of a laughing stock. But I think Shang-Chi might be the first time it’s actually true. Yeah, it’s undeniably set in the MCU and, as such, plays by some of those rules (there are Blip references from early on, with the requisite cameos and mid-credit teaser scenes to follow), but the bulk of the movie itself is not really a superhero film as we normally think of them. Rather, it’s a martial arts fantasy-actioner. Now, maybe those are in the same ballpark — people with impossible abilities fighting each other — but I’d argue the style of it in Shang-Chi feels closer to something like Detective Dee or 47 Ronin (except good) than Iron Man or Captain America, or even the other fantasy/magic-based MCU sub-series like Thor or Doctor Strange.

    A sticky situation

    And for that, I loved it. Unfortunately, where it’s most like the MCU is in an ‘epic’ battle finale that, a few show-off moments aside, is mostly realised through CGI that looks like swirling mud. If it weren’t for that disappointment (and, to be clear, it’s not a disaster, just a bit of a let down), I might have given the film an even higher score.

    I was also glad I bothered to track down the 3D version (only released on disc in Japan, I believe. I also believe Japanese imports are expensive. I wouldn’t know from experience, I’ve never bought one). I’m aware that 3D is an ever-dwindling format and that’s why major labels aren’t bothering with disc releases anymore (though it must be worth it at theatrical level, because they’re still shelling out for these post-conversions that cost millions of dollars a pop), but it’s a shame for those of us who enjoy it and still have the kit, because it’s as enjoyable as it ever was when done well. Shang-Chi may not be the height of the format, but lots of it looked nice with the extra dimension. Sadly, unlike many previous Marvel 3D releases, it didn’t have the bonus benefit of a shifting IMAX ratio. There is an “IMAX Enhanced” version of the film (it’s on Disney+), but, like the last two Avengers movies, it presents the entire film in IMAX’s 1.9:1 ratio, so no luck for us 3D fans there (or anyone bar Disney+ viewers, because it’s not included on the film’s 2K or 4K Blu-ray releases either).

    4 out of 5

    2022 | Weeks 16–17

    Ooh, it was gonna be a classy one this week, with two recent Oscar winners — of Best Picture and Best Animated Feature, no less — and a highly-acclaimed Kurosawa classic — the 12th greatest film ever made, according to Letterboxd users. But then two of those reviews got so long I thought they better belonged in their own posts, and so we’re just left with two very different coming-of-age movies…

  • CODA (2021)
  • Cruella (2021)


    CODA

    (2021)

    Siân Heder | 112 mins | digital (UHD) | 1.85:1 | USA, France & Canada / English & American Sign Language | 12 / PG-13

    CODA

    When CODA became the Best Picture victor at this year’s Oscars, it wasn’t exactly unforeseen, but it certainly wasn’t what anyone had expected early on in the awards race. Indeed, the very reason it had became some people’s prediction hinged on the way the Best Picture votes are counted: a preferential ballot, which means that having a lot of second- and third-place votes is arguably even more important than first-place ones. The idea behind the system is to create a consensus around the winner, rather than the award going to the film with the largest minority of voters backing it. Certainly, pretty much everyone can agree that CODA is a nice film — but probably too “nice” to have won Best Picture, unfortunately.

    It’s not the kind of movie many will come away from feeling wowed. It’s a solid drama about a teenager coping with fairly typical teenage stuff, with the added twist that the rest of her family are deaf but she isn’t. Chalk up a mark in the ‘positives’ column for representation, then, in this case of the deaf community. It’s not one token character, either, but several major characters, who the film treats as real human beings who happen to be deaf, rather than as The Deaf Character. One reason it succeeds at this is because they’re not all perfect people just because they have a disability. Another is that the film doesn’t pretend their deafness isn’t a barrier — there are multiple obstacles it creates when engaging with the rest of their community. But CODA is a nice movie, remember, so everything turns out alright in the end; and it does so with enough effectively-managed (some might say “manipulated”) emotion that you may find yourself with a tear in your eye; or perhaps even bawling with tears flowing down your cheeks, depending on your susceptibility to such things.

    So, the best film of 2021? Almost certainly not. The one everyone is likely to agree they all liked? Most probably.

    4 out of 5


    Cruella

    (2021)

    Craig Gillespie | 134 mins | digital (UHD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    CODA

    Disney’s wave of live-action remakes seem to fall into one of two camps: straightforward remakes of the original Animated Classics, sometimes to the level of feeling like shot-for-shot do-overs; or extensions and reimaginings that seek to fill in around the edges of the original work. Perhaps because they already did a live-action version of 101 Dalmatians back in 1996, Cruella takes the latter approach. It’s a prequel, naturally, showing how an ordinary(-ish) little girl grows up to be a wanton dog murderer.

    Except (non-specific pseudo-spoilers incoming!) not really, because the film ends in such a way it’s very hard to imagine this Cruella becoming the deranged villain of the original text. Indeed, I’ve seen some commenters refer to this as a reboot rather than a true prequel, which seems like a fair enough angle. I mean, this is a Cruella de Vil who has a dog for a best mate. Even with the “dalmatians killed my mother” backstory (which I think the film knows is a gag. Considering that such a plot point came up as a joke on social media as soon as the project was announced, you’d hope the filmmakers were aware how daft the audience would find it), it’s hard to imagine how this version of the character could go from how we see her here to being prepared to roundup and kill hundreds of animals.

    Setting aside the need for connectivity and looking to the film in its own right, I would describe it as delightfully stylised. It’s got a particular tone and style that will turn off some viewers (and, certainly, some critics), but — even if you don’t personally enjoy it — I think it’s something we should celebrate. We sometimes talk about big-budget movies being homogenised; focus-grouped to the point of blandness and similarity. Cruella isn’t that, instead hitting notes that are suitably camp and gloriously unhinged. It certainly isn’t the most radical variation in tone ever — it merits comparison with early Tim Burton, without ever being as genuinely out-there as his best work — but it’s more so than the average. It’s so much madder than it needed to be, and that’s why it’s fun and not the usual Disney live-action cookie-cutter money-spinner.

    To my mind, its only sins are an over-reliance on obvious needle drops and cheap green screen. The latter has been brought up online as a damning example of how poorly crafted big-budget movies are these days. They’re not wrong about the examples used: two key scenes that take place at a cliffside have clearly been shot day-for-night in a studio and lit very flatly. The nighttime (i.e. ultra-dark) colour grade helps to hide some of the sin by covering it in darkness, but whack up the brightness and it’s all too apparent how awful it looks. But I would counter that these are fairly isolated examples. Cruella is hardly a go-to example of the wonders of cinematography (and there are other weak shots, too), but most of the film looks pretty good.

    4 out of 5


  • Encanto (2021)

    Jared Bush & Byron Howard | 102 mins | digital (UHD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English & Spanish | PG / PG

    Encanto

    The 60th film in Disney’s animated canon was, despite that status, sent straight to streaming in the midst of the pandemic. Possibly because of that, it seemed to catch on quite quickly as their latest major success. Case in point: one of the songs — We Don’t Talk About Bruno — ended up having greater chart success than Frozen’s notorious Let It Go.

    (I’ve got to take the time to say that I find this quite baffling. I don’t love Let It Go (I’m a 36-year-old man, not a six-year-old girl in 2013), but it’s clearly a catchy tune with lyrics that transcend its place in the film — you can understand how it became such a huge hit. But for the life of me I can’t work out why We Don’t Talk About Bruno has surpassed its success. It’s a likeable song that plays well in the movie — and I think hearing it in place is important, because the first time I heard it was on the radio and I couldn’t even work out what they were singing about. So, there’s nothing going on lyrically that makes it applicable in any other context, and I don’t think the underlying tune is so earwormy as to warrant play merely for that reason. Or maybe it is if you’re the right age, because clearly something made it a massive hit.)

    Anyway, the film itself is about a family, the Madrigals, who live in a magical house in an isolated part of Colombia and all have magical powers — except Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz), for reasons no one understands. But when the family begin to lose their abilities, finding out what’s going on and fixing it falls to Mirabel. Because of course it does.

    Someone's gotta do the donkey work

    Encanto doesn’t look like your typical Disney Princess movie, but it’s not functionally different to them. The Madrigal family’s powers mean they effectively rule over their small town, albeit in a benevolent way, which makes Mirabel a de facto Princess; and she has the usual Disney Princess hangups about feeling under-appreciated and needing to find her self-worth. But hey, at least she doesn’t also need to find a husband! Nonetheless, it’s welcome that the film is less traditional is its setting — present-day South America, rather than the typical fairytale land of historical Europe — and the pace is also up-to-date. In fact, it’s quite frantic. Like, okay, calm down a bit; take your time occasionally; let stuff stay on screen long enough for us to appreciate how good it looks. And the animation does look great, with detailed designs, fluid movement and dynamic camerawork, and an incredibly colourful palette, especially when fired up by HDR/WCG.

    The songs are by Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda, unmistakably so. It’s something about the phrasing, the rhythm, the rhyme patterns… I’m no musicologist so I can’t adequately explain it, but they’re distinctively his work. But that’s what you want when you hire someone, right — their own voice. If you don’t like this style from his other work, chances are the music here won’t appeal to you either. If you do like it, there’s much to enjoy, from the opening number, The Family Madrigal, which introduces us to the large cast of characters at whipcrack pace, to my personal favourite, Surface Pressure, about one family member’s struggle with all the weight on her shoulders. And yet they put Dos Oruguitas up for the Original Song Oscar, apparently trying to emulate the success of Coco’s Remember Me. Oops. (Obviously they should’ve gone with breakout hit Bruno, but I reckon either of the other songs I’ve mentioned would’ve stood a better chance.)

    One of Encanto’s directors is Byron Howard, whose previous work for Disney has encompassed Bolt, Tangled, and Zootropolis — three films I’d class as among the very best of Disney’s current purple patch. It’s a helluva record. Happily, Encanto continues it. I might rank it a little behind the other three when all is totted up, but being next in line to such strong movies is nothing to be ashamed of.

    4 out of 5

    Encanto is the 28th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.

    2022 | Weeks 14–15

    Only four reviews this time, taking us up to April 17th. It was going to be five, but then Spider-Man got far too long. So, we’re left with…

  • Withnail & I (1987)
  • Munich: The Edge of War (2021)
  • tick, tick… BOOM! (2021)
  • Move Over, Darling (1963)


    Withnail & I

    (1987)

    Bruce Robinson | 103 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | UK / English | 15 / R

    Withnail & I

    This may be a beloved cult comedy in its own right, but I can’t help but make comparison to a certain other British cult property. You see, each of the three primary cast members — Richard E. Grant (Withnail), Paul McGann (‘I’), and Richard Griffiths (Uncle Monty) have an atypical relationship to the lead role in Doctor Who. That has no bearing on the film itself, not least because their involvement (or non-involvement, in one case) took place years later, but it’s a correlation I can’t shake. I mean, what other work can claim to star the man who was simultaneously the shortest and longest serving Doctor; the man who was definitely, officially the new canonical Doctor, until he wasn’t; and a man who might well have been the Doctor if things had gone to plan? Nothing else that I can think of, that’s for sure.

    Setting all that aside, everything about Withnail & I screams “cult favourite”, and I guess that’s what it is — not a film that started out with a dedicated fanbase before being subsumed into the mainstream, but one that remains beloved of a relatively few devotees. Perhaps that explains why it’s one of those films I thought would’ve wound up on my Blindspot list by now, but never has: because it lacks that crossover appeal. (Maybe I need to factor in some lists of cult and/or British movies when compiling my Blindspot choices.) Coming to it afresh in 2022, aware of that rep it’s built up over the last 35 years, does it no favours. The characters aren’t likeable or interesting enough to truly enjoy hanging out with (even as they’re convincingly brought to life by the talented cast); the “gay panic” stuff that drives several sequences lands differently now than I suspect it did in 1987; and the supposedly never-ending quotable lines didn’t materialise (there are a small handful of memorable ones, at least). That said, there are quite a few lines that would be fun for a game of “did Paul McGann say this in Withnail or in Doctor Who?” (Oops, sorry to bring that up again.)

    The best bits of Withnail have been dulled by repetition out of context (variations on “we’ve gone on holiday by mistake” are a certifiable meme at this point), and I suspect I personally left it too long to see it, allowing it to build up too much of a reputation. I didn’t dislike it, I just wasn’t won over.

    3 out of 5


    Munich: The Edge of War

    (2021)

    Christian Schwochow | 129 mins | digital (UHD) | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English & German | 12 / PG-13

    Munich: The Edge of War

    Robert Harris has been a best-selling author for decades, but his works have had a rockier reception on the screen; perhaps not helped by the fact a couple have been helmed by director non grata Roman Polanski. Harris’s stock in trade is fictionalised tellings of historical events — the eruption of Vesuvius in Pompeii; the politics behind the invasion of Iraq in The Ghost; and so on. His 2017 novel Munich is set around war-avoiding negotiations between Adolf Hitler and Neville Chamberlain that took place in the titular city in 1938. This film adaptation gains a subtitle, presumably to differentiate it from Steven Spielberg’s Best Picture nominee, which retold entirely different historical events.

    The big names aren’t the main characters, however. Those would be a pair of low-ranking civil servants from the opposing sides: Brit Hugh Legat (1917‘s George MacKay) and German Paul von Hartmann (Jannis Niewöhner), former university chums who fell out when Hitler came to power. Now, von Hartmann is disillusioned with the Nazi regime and wishes to pass information to the British, but will only make contact with Legat, thus roping the inexperienced diplomat into the world of espionage, untrained. If the storyline is ringing bells, perhaps you too recently watched The Courier with Benedict Cumberbatch. It’s not an identical narrative — I’m not accusing anyone of plagiarism here — but there are definite parallels. Legat even has a strained relationship with his wife, who he has to leave at home and not tell the truth.

    But where the story in The Courier was true, and thus lent an inherent fascination, the story of Legat and von Hartmann is fictionalised. That’s not necessarily a problem — most thrillers are entirely made-up, of course — but Munich is hampered by feeling kind of muddy. It’s not so bad as to be described as muddled, but does seem like it’s perhaps the victim of being badly truncated from the book, or possibly just in its own edit. It’s not always clear what the point is of what we’re watching, or where certain characters have disappeared off to. That makes the overall experience longer and, occasionally, more plodding than it needs to be.

    That said, though it takes time, it does eventually develop the tension it needs; and it has definite merit for depicting a bit of history that’s normally relegated to footnote status. Indeed, it makes an interesting argument for “what Chamberlain did was good, actually”, which is not the normal point of view on politicians’ pre-WW2 actions.

    3 out of 5

    Munich: The Edge of War is the 27th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.


    tick, tick… BOOM!

    (2021)

    Lin-Manuel Miranda | 120 mins | digital (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    tick, tick… BOOM!

    Rent was one of the definitive Broadway musicals of the ’90s, but its creator didn’t live to see its success: composer, lyricist, and author Jonathan Larson died, with poetic timing, the night before the show’s premiere. It came after years of Larson struggling trying to break into the industry, much of which was documented in his semi-autobiographical (almost-)one-man show, Tick, Tick… Boom! This film adaptation broadens out and adds additional detail to become a more direct biopic of Larson, albeit one with musical numbers.

    Struggling musical theatre people in Manhattan… Yes, some people are going to find this insufferable. Others will look upon it as a dream life, especially as any actual hardship (Larson’s apartment didn’t have heating, for example) is played down or romanticised. Even setting that side, it remains the kind of movie that will speak to anyone who’s dreamt of making art (especially if that art is musical theatre), but might leave others (primarily those without such ambitions) identifying more closely with some of Jonathan’s friends — “there are bigger things to worry about,” they say.

    In the centre of it all is a pitch perfect performance from Andrew Garfield. He throws himself into the role, transformatively so: his Larson seems to be powered by a restless enthusiasm that I don’t think I’ve seen the actor portray in anything else. In the musical numbers, he holds his own against much more experienced singers (Garfield couldn’t even sing before production began — he spent a year learning and practicing).

    This is more than just a ‘one good performance’ film, though. Although based on a stage show, the screen version certainly doesn’t feel stage-bound, coming to cinematic life through Alice Brooks’s photography and Myron Kerstein and Andrew Weisblum’s editing as if it had always been meant for the screen. However, many people have been critical of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s direction. While I wouldn’t shout it out as anything amazingly special, I also don’t think it’s bad. You routinely see lesser work in Marvel movies, for example.

    4 out of 5


    Move Over, Darling

    (1963)

    Michael Gordon | 99 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | U

    Move Over, Darling

    Doris Day and James Garner star in this remake of My Favourite Wife, one of the trio of screwball comedies Irene Dunne and Cary Grant made together, and which I watched back in May 2020. Two years ago?! Time flies. Despite which, I’ve not reviewed it yet.

    Well, Move Over, Darling is an incredibly close re-envisioning. If someone authoritative told me it used the same screenplay with only minor tweaks, I’d believe them. I’m sure it’s not that close, in actual fact, but it’s darn near it. Certainly, one bit is definitely new: a fun sequence that sees Day recount the plot of the earlier film. Very meta. Alongside the screenplay, the remake also carries the original’s primary flaw, which is that they both lack the pace and snap of the very best screwball comedies. Day does her best to enliven the material, being a consistent source of fun and clearly game for a laugh — a sequence where she goes through a car wash in a convertible is a highlight. Garner can’t manage to equal Cary Grant, but who can?

    Nonetheless, on balance, I slightly preferred this version. That might just be due to my lowered expectations — knowing it had the double drawback of being (1) a remake, and (2) of a film I hadn’t particularly loved the first time, it was able to overcome that by simply being not too bad.

    3 out of 5


  • Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)

    Jon Watts | 148 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Spider-Man: No Way Home

    I’m currently both behind and out of sync with my viewing of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’ve seen Black Widow, but overleapt Shang-Chi and Eternals to get to this widely-discussed and already-beloved instalment. And that’s without discussing the various canonical TV series there now are, which I think some of us still thought would be treated as ‘side projects’ but seem to be being used to introduce and explore key elements that underpin Phase Four. Which is another way of saying: hopefully this film makes sense without having seen Loki. (It does, assuming you know what a multiverse is — and as that was also discussed in the previous Spidey film, I think we’re good.)

    No Way Home picks up at the exact moment the last Spidey movie, Far from Home, left off: Peter Parker’s identity has been revealed to the public, and he’s accused of murder. Rather than make a whole story from the fallout, No Way Home uses it as a jumping off point. As revealed in the film’s own trailers, Peter asks Dr Strange to magic things back to how they were before, but the spell goes awry and drags in villains from alternate realities. As the trailers didn’t give away — but was, frankly, inevitable (and has been widely used in post-release promos, so I’m not counting it as a spoiler anymore) — it also pulled through alternate Peter Parkers, as played by Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield.

    And that’s not the half of it! It feels like they’ve gone out of their way to crossover with everything possible: as well as the two previous Spider-Man film series, there’s something from spinoff Venom, and even the MCU Netflix series, which were previously of dubious canonicity (of course, now they’re on Disney+ so they’re allowed to count again). About all that’s missing is Into the Spider-Verse, and there’s even an oblique reference to that. With all of that in the mix, it plays kinda like Fan Service: The Movie. Normally that would be a criticism, but it does it so entertainingly — and it’s so much the movie’s very raison d’être — that I think it works, in its own way. It feels similar to X-Men: Days of Future Past in the way it mixes different eras and facets of the same franchise together to create an ‘anniversary special’ kind of feel. That also means it doesn’t just feel like “The MCU: Episode 27”, but instead a climax to all the Spider-Man movies. That’s a pleasant change of pace, and one befitting such a storied superhero.

    Your friendly neighbourhood Spider-meme

    Keeping the appearance of the other Spideys out of the marketing may have seemed daft — of course we all knew they’d be in it — but it at least means we hadn’t already seen their best interactions in the trailer(s). How rare is it for a blockbuster nowadays to actually keep some of its biggest thrills for the film itself, rather than blowing them in advance! Indeed, my favourite bit of the whole film was the Spideys just hanging out and chatting while they waited for the villains to show up for the climax. It’s mostly fan service again — their discussion is almost entirely framed in references to previous films — but it’s nice as a moment of calm. And, like all of the film’s fan service, it tickles the nostalgia glands in those of us who get the references.

    It’s notable that each of the Spider-Men has a distinct personality. We’re now familiar with Tom Holland’s childlike, motormouthed take. Garfield brings the earnest, kinda skater/surfer dude feel that he sometimes has in real life — witness the moment he pauses mid action sequence to tell the other two Spideys, quite sincerely, that he loves them. Maguire, on the other hand, is very quiet and still. He only speaks if he needs to, and that doesn’t seem to be too often. It’s an innate calmness — perhaps also maturity — but it goes beyond that. It’s not that you feel he doesn’t want to be there, more like he’d feel exactly the same way if he wasn’t there — whatever; it’s all fine. If that sounds like “laidback” might be the right label, it isn’t. It’s almost that he’s doing… nothing. But that would be a rude thing to say to an actor, because of course he’s not doing nothing. It’s a bit of an odd one; or odd within the context of the hyperactive MCU, at any rate.

    The (literal) cheers that greeted No Way Home on its release have led to it being labelled a Great Movie by some (there was even a campaign to get it Best Picture recognition). Part of that is the regular thing of certain MCU fans apparently not watching anything other than MCU movies and so not having a proper frame of reference. But it’s also how the movie works: it tickles certain pleasure glands in such a way that, for some people, there’s confusion between “this is a lot of fun” and “this is a genuinely superb piece of cinema”. Heck, maybe, for some people, those are the same thing. Not for me. I don’t even think it’s the best Spider-Man film. But let’s not end on a negative, because it is a highly entertaining and, in its way, rewarding couple of hours of entertainment.

    4 out of 5

    2022 | Weeks 12–13

    So, it’s already the 15th — fundamentally halfway through the month — and this is just my ffith post in May. (It would’ve been third, but then my West Side Story and F9 reviews felt like they should have their own posts.) In my mind, I’ve raced this batch out as quickly as possible following my start-of-month posts, but it certainly doesn’t feel very speedy when you look at the dates.

    And, talking about messing with time, this roundup begins by taking us all the way back to March: week 12 ended on the 27th of that month. I might’ve posted sooner, were it not that week 12 seemed too small to run by itself. For what it’s worth, week 13 ended on 3rd April, so I’m still over a month behind now.

    Anyway, here are the rest of the new films I watched that fortnight…

  • Muriel’s Wedding (1994)
  • Cobra (1986)
  • Django & Django (2021)
  • A Man Escaped (1956), aka Un condamné à mort s’est échappé
  • Death on the Nile (2022)


    Muriel’s Wedding

    (1994)

    P.J. Hogan | 101 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | Australia & France / English | 15 / R

    Muriel's Wedding

    This is one of those films I’ve been sort of aware of forever, but never really paid a huge amount of attention, until suddenly I’m watching it almost on a whim. It’s the story of the misadventures of small-town Australian girl Muriel (a breakout performance from Toni Collette), who doesn’t fit with her family or ‘friends’ and so sets off to the big city for a different life.

    I don’t know what I was expecting from the film, exactly — a kooky Aussie romcom, I guess — but not a surprisingly dark, quirky almost to the point of being twisted, black comedy. Not that that’s a bad thing, but it kind of bamboozled me by being a lot odder and more tonally complex than I’d anticipated. I liked it, but it’s a weird one.

    4 out of 5


    Cobra

    (1986)

    George P. Cosmatos | 87 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | USA & Israel / English | 18 / R

    Cobra

    This is the kind of film I might never have watched were it not for my WDYMYHS challenge. It’s a film I’d heard very little about, and what I had heard wasn’t good, but when it came to selecting the 12 most significant films I hadn’t seen from 1986, it scraped in. I’m glad things like that happen, because while Cobra is far from being a new favourite or something, I did enjoy it.

    Sly Stallone stars as a hot-shot cop on the trail of a serial killer with cult affiliations. That’s about it for the plot. This is a film that’s all style and no substance — though, when you’ve got this much style, maybe that is the substance. It’s so much a stereotypical ’80s macho action fest that it plays like a spoof of itself in places, with over-the-top editing, performances, and one liners that all seem driven by some sense of ‘cool’. I kinda love it for that. Take the car chase at the halfway mark: it’s a ludicrous sequence (one bit barely connects to the next; cars explode when shot; etc), but it’s filmed and cut with style and packed with excitement. It’s epic.

    Remarkably, it’s based on a novel. I say that’s remarkable because novels are devoid of being able to show off flashy visuals or dynamic action sequences, so you think of them as being heavier on things like plot and character — but, as discussed, this has very little plot, and even less character development. The already-brief running time seems to mostly contain music montages and extended action scenes. Reportedly the original cut was around two hours, which was then mercilessly shorn down to the under-90-minute final cut in an attempt to squeeze in more screenings per day. I imagine a lot of what went was the plot, although apparently there was also a lot of graphic violence — and what we’re left with still earnt an 18.

    I guess if a “director’s cut” was going to surface it would’ve done so by now (given all the other films that got them back in the ’00s). It’s something of a shame, because perhaps that version would round out the storyline enough to match the flair that’s all we get from the existing cut. Really, it’s a trashy film, but I rather enjoyed its trashiness. As stated, it’s all style and, at just 87 minutes, all business.

    3 out of 5

    Cobra is the 23rd film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022. It was viewed as part of “What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…?” 2022.


    Django & Django

    (2021)

    Luca Rea | 77 mins | digital (UHD) | 16:9 | Italy / English, Italian & French | 15

    Django & Django

    The work of the “second-best Spaghetti Western director”, Sergio Corbucci, is analysed by admirer Quentin Tarantino, and supplemented with a handful of anecdotes from a couple of people who worked with him. The small number of interviewees means the film is lacking in the depth you get from having multiple perspectives, but it’s a fine overview of Corbucci’s work nonetheless.

    Indeed, the title — implying a focus on two specific films — is a bit of a misnomer. Not only is it about Corbucci’s career as a whole, with Django just one film among many, but there’s only a single clip from Django Unchained, when QT mentions how Corbucci’s style influenced his choice of Southern setting. That’s it for discussion of Tarantino’s own work — barring a lengthy opening aside into the alternate history of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood; a ‘short story’ about Rick Dalton’s time in Italy and his meetings with Corbucci. Tarantino relates these events as if they’re historical fact — the guy really did thoroughly imagine his alternate history!

    3 out of 5

    Django & Django is the 24th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.


    A Man Escaped

    (1956)

    aka Un condamné à mort s’est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut

    Robert Bresson | 101 mins | digital (HD) | 1.33:1 | France / French & German | U

    A Man Escaped

    Most “prisoner of war” movies are about plucky Brits and/or Yanks stuck in jail somewhere behind enemy lines, working out ways to escape almost as a time killer, or at best a matter of honour. A Man Escaped is something different. Based on the memoirs of André Devigny, a member of the French Resistance held in a French prison by the occupying Germans during World War II, and written and directed by Robert Bresson, who was also imprisoned by the Germans as a member of the Resistance, you can’t doubt its pedigree for authenticity. Indeed, Devigny was an adviser on the film, and lent the production the actual ropes and hooks he had used in his escape. More than these points of fact, it’s the film’s overall tone that’s striking — more dour and pessimistic than the usual POW drama, at least as I remember them. Here, the need to escape isn’t a game, it’s literally life or death.

    Bresson certainly knows where he wants his focus to be. The film begins with our hero, Fontaine (François Leterrier), arriving at the prison, although an escape attempt on the way there sees him immediately condemned to solitary confinement. Nonetheless, we remain by his side, never leaving him or his point of view, right until the end, when… well, that would be a spoiler. In terms of background, there’s only what we can pick up along the way; the barest outline of who he is, why he’s there, and what awaits him on the outside. That’s extraneous detail — this is all about his time in prison, his mentality in prison, and how he intends to escape the prison.

    To that end, Bresson spends a lot of time detailing very little. The process by which Fontaine fashions ropes, or chips away at a crack in his door to facilitate a way out, is shown in almost-excruciating detail. It’s all about the prep. When something truly dramatic does happen — like Fontaine gaining a roommate, and the question of whether that man can be trusted — it’s dealt with quickly, confined to a couple of quick scenes. I can only think that’s part of the point: much of the work to escape prison is tedious preparation, but when a spanner gets in the works it has to be dealt with quickly lest it derail the whole enterprise. Such ‘big things’ are a potential threat, but it’s arguably the little things that are even more dangerous. Accidentally drop something noisily, thus alerting the guards to your suspicious activities, and it’s all over.

    As a film, it doesn’t feel as strikingly stylised as the other Bressons I’ve seen, but it definitely has a stripped-back simplicity that’s part of his overall ethos. It’s debatable if we need the semi-monotone voiceover that describes exactly what we can see on screen — I’m no expert, but such an unnecessary and purely cinematic addition seems out of sorts with Bresson’s usual style. That said, at points it adds insight into Fontaine’s thought process, so the narration is not without merit.

    4 out of 5

    A Man Escaped is the 25th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022. It was viewed as part of Blindspot 2022.


    Death on the Nile

    (2022)

    Kenneth Branagh | 127 mins | digital (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA & UK / English & French | 12 / PG-13

    Death on the Nile

    Kenneth Branagh returns as both director and star for another Hercule Poirot mystery, after the somewhat-surprising success of his Murder on the Orient Express — “surprising” in the sense that it did better at the box office than I think anyone expected. It performed less well with critics, but I enjoyed it. Sadly, this followup is not its equal… though that’s not necessarily saying it’s bad.

    For me, it was a film of two halves — although, often as not, those two halves occurred simultaneously. For example: there’s an over-reliance on CGI for the Egyptian vistas makes many scenes look disappointingly fake; but then there’s a fantastic, huge set for the boat where much of the film takes place, and the real-life elements are quite handsomely shot on 65mm. Story-wise, there’s been a lot of rejigging (try to line up the cast with who played the roles in previous adaptations, for example, and you’ll soon discover a lot of the characters are amalgamations), but Christie’s typically excellent plotting survives mostly intact. That said, the ratio of buildup to detective work feels off, with the murder seeming to occur quite late in the film and the subsequent investigation feeling rather rushed.

    The motive behind screenwriter Michael Green’s remixing seems to be a serious attempt to make the film All About Love — not just the motive for the crimes, but all the subplots and whatnot too. I guess they were seeking some kind of justification for why this story is being filmed again, and what makes it worthy of the all-star movie treatment, rather than being just a run-of-the-mill, see-it-every-week-on-TV whodunnit. Plus, there’s a bizarre attempt to provide a backstory for Poirot’s moustache. No, seriously.

    Branagh initially seemed miscast as Poirot, but wasn’t bad in Orient Express, and that continues here. His version of the character is rather likeable, imbuing the Belgian with a neat sense of humour that marks his interpretation out from previous incarnations (Ustinov often played it for laughs too, but with less subtlety). There’s the customary all-star supporting cast, but they’re somewhat wasted, with some big names or talented performers left with too little to do. Though, when about half of them are employing dodgy accents, maybe that’s no bad thing.

    A mixed bag, then. It’s far from my favourite Christie adaptation; although it might actually be my favourite Death on the Nile by default, because I don’t think the previous versions (a Ustinov film and Suchet TV episode) are the best their respective series have to offer either. Whatever — I love this kind of stuff, and I’m glad to hear they’re intending to forge ahead with a third outing.

    3 out of 5

    Death on the Nile is the 26th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.


  • Fast & Furious 9 (2021)

    aka F9

    Justin Lin | 137 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Fast & Furious 9

    Between spinoffs and Covid-related delays, it’s been four years since the preceding film in what we’re apparently now meant to call “The Fast Saga”. As the series’ storyline has become increasingly serialised, I’m sure I can’t be alone in wishing they’d begin with some kind of “previously on”. That might sound a bit much for a series whose rep is, not undeservedly, “dumb action with cars”; but while that action was revving up, I was left digging around in my memory for where we’d left these characters and why some things were the way they were.

    But, let’s be honest, it doesn’t matter all that much, because before long they were racing around (literally) after one Macguffin or another, plus all the requisite shooting stuff and blowing stuff up and performing physics-defying CGI-aided stunts that have become The Fast Saga’s hallmarks. If that makes it sound a bit tired — just “more of the same” — well, remember, we’ve reached film #9. Now, in fairness, if there’s any franchise that bucks its numbering system, it’s The Fast Saga: it tried on different lead characters and various underlying formulae throughout its first four movies, only settling on one that sang in the fifth film. Nonetheless, that means we’re now on the fifth instalment that’s driven by said formula — sixth, if you count the Hobbs & Shaw spinoff, which we should — and it’s beginning to wear thin.

    Since landing on that magic formula, the series has walked a couple of tightropes: with its action, being outrageous and ridiculous but still exciting and fun; and with its mythology, being unnecessarily complicated but still followable. F9 is where, for me, it finally stumbles, and perhaps even falls off. Who can still remember the ins and outs of what went on with Han and when? Not me! And… rocketing a car into space? Seriously? Well, Top Gear almost did it for real once, so maybe it’s not entirely implausible. But that’s far from the only so-ridiculous-it’s-ridiculous stunt in the film. Fast’s stunts have never carried the same thrill as, say, Tom Cruise’s in the Mission: Impossibles because they’re unquestionably not being done for real. We’re not impressed by what they managed to physically pull off, more amused by what they dreamt up and rendered in a computer. Most of them are implausible. But here, it reaches the tipping point where I went from laughing along with it to just finding it silly.

    Sunday drivers

    What changed? Well, missing from the cast are Jason Statham and The Rock, perhaps the only two actors in the franchise who knew precisely where to pitch their performances to reassure us the filmmakers knew it was all ludicrous but it was ok. But they were only supporting players — does removing them from the equation answer every misstep? Surely not. Perhaps the director? But that’s Justin Lin, the man who saved the franchise in the aforementioned fifth film, continuing the style into the sixth; so he’s only sat out #7 and #8. But perhaps his taste or touch for the material has gone — he did recently abandon production of the series’ forthcoming two-part finale, after all.

    Whatever the root cause, I found F9 lacked the fun of the last four films (five, counting the spinoff). Looking at it another way, five entertaining movies is a good run — they were overdue another dud. As that, it’s certainly not the weakest film the series has to offer.

    3 out of 5