2022 | Weeks 18–20

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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. ^


  • Frances Ha (2012)

    Noah Baumbach | 81 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA & Brazil / English | 15 / R

    Frances Ha

    Being a ditzy twentysomething in New York, hanging out with friends and going to parties, having a job as a dancer and earning just enough to get by, and nothing quite going to plan but it all kinda being ok anyway — all in black & white? I see why some people love this film. It’s a kind of obvious fantasy life for certain Artsy people. Of course, there’s not much drama in that (not that that would stop some filmmakers), and so Frances’s messy life begins to get messier. It may stop being a fantasy, but it’s certainly relatable to any of us who’ve failed at the things we’d dreamed of doing.

    While some viewers find the characters’ lives relatable or something to aim for, I’m not surprised to learn that other viewers just find them really annoying. The primary characters are all twentysomething art snobs, which is a definite phase some twentysomethings go through. Some grow out of it, some don’t. I don’t think the film is idolising them, which is part of what allowed me to enjoy it. If it had presented them as wonderful people living an ideal lifestyle, I might’ve hated them. Not that the film condemns them, but I think it takes them for what they are rather than outright celebrating it. That much is clear by how Frances ends up washing out of that lifestyle — it’s not even that she chooses to reject it; it’s that it’s unsustainable.

    Having watched the film with the perspective of being older than Frances, where her life ultimately goes after she’s forced to reevaluate and make changes… well, I guess personal experience of whether your dreams were fulfilled, had to be tweaked, or were totally squandered is likely to colour whether you think the film ends up somewhere realistic or, in fact, with almost-stereotypical movieland optimism. As if that wording doesn’t give it away, I do err towards the latter.

    Girls just wanna live in New York City in black & white

    To dig deeper into that, I find it hard to process my reaction to the ending, because it’s not that I want Frances to suffer — indeed, in many ways I found it a relief that she got her life on track and seemed happy. I can’t say I was super-invested in her as a character, but co-writer/director Noah Baumbach and co-writer/star Greta Gerwig got me invested enough that, when things were truly shitty, I did feel bad for her, and when she turned it around I was glad. But I also felt like she was lucky. She doesn’t get her dream, but she gets something comfortably adjacent to it. To people who want to make films and are making films (like, y’know, the people who made this film) that probably seems like a “compromised (therefore realistic) happy ending” (as opposed to an “everything turns out exactly as hoped (therefore unrealistic) happy ending”). But to those of us who’ve had to make even greater compromises — who’ve had to abandon dreams entirely and settle for what’s achievable — which, I’d wager, is the majority of human beings — Frances’s fate doesn’t seem hugely realistic.

    I suspect the filmmakers believe they’ve created an ending in which Frances didn’t win, but nor did she lose; that she did ok. I’m sure I can’t be alone in seeing it as Frances still winning — not a 100% victory, but whatever she has (85% maybe?) is nothing to be sniffed at. So that’s why I’m conflicted: I’m glad Frances got her 85%; but if you want realism — and, as this is a black & white indie movie, not a glossy Hollywood dream factory, I kinda do — she should’ve got, like, 20%. By that I don’t mean end up living on the street or whatever, but maybe she had to move back to boring old Sacramento, move in with her parents for a bit, get a run-of-the-mill job in an office or whatever — something like that. Depressing, but truthful.

    Anyway, it’s still a nice little fantasy for indie kids, so:

    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


  • High and Low (1963)

    aka Tengoku to jigoku

    Akira Kurosawa | 144 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 12

    High and Low

    Akira Kurosawa has a good many classic films to his name, but, according to users of both IMDb and Letterboxd, this is the second best of them all — and, on the latter’s list. the 12th greatest film ever made, to boot. No pressure.

    Adapted from the American crime novel King’s Ransom by Ed McBain, the film stars Toshiro Mifune as a business executive who we first meet being wooed to join a potential coup of the company. (The film rattles through a few twists early on to set up its initial dilemma, which I’m now going to spoil, so if you want to go in completely cold, jump to the next paragraph.) In fact, Mifune is plotting his own takeover, paid for by leveraging everything he has. But then, his young son is abducted, with the kidnappers demanding a huge ransom — if he pays, his carefully-laid plans will be impossible to execute; but it’s his son! But then, it turns out it isn’t his son — the crooks took the wrong boy, instead kidnapping the son of Mifune’s lowly chauffeur. But they don’t know that, and there’s no way in hell the poor chauffeur could pay a ransom. What’s a man to do?

    Some might power a whole film on that storyline and dilemma, but it’s only the beginning of High and Low. Its original Japanese title (天国と地獄) literally translates as Heaven and Hell, and, as both monikers indicate, this is a film of two halves; of opposing forces; of extreme choices. Without wishing to spoil any more of what goes down, I’ll say that almost the first hour of the film takes place almost entirely in a single room. It feels like the whole thing might unfurl there, a la Hitchcock’s Rope — almost a formal exercise in telling a story from a single setting. But then it moves to an immediately more dynamic locale — a train — for a properly thrilling sequence, around which the story and structure pivots. The rest of the film goes ultra-procedural. A lengthy scene early in this half depicts a police debriefing in a manner that feels almost documentarian, as if we’re witnessing a genuine meeting filmed and presented in real-time, as various detective duos update senior officers and their colleagues on the specific aspect of the case they’ve been working.

    Hanging on the telephone

    This eye for detail, presented with a degree of mundanity, makes the film feel extra realistic. That extends to the final details. No spoilers, but, although you may call this a Thriller due to the type of story being told, it doesn’t climax with a big twist or revelation; no reveal of some super-clever grand plan that, with implausible foresight, anticipated and accounted for everything that’s happened. Rather, the film seems to proceed methodically and logically through every thread of investigation and consequence for its primary characters, until it simply has no more left to tell.

    It’s certainly a fine piece of work — although, on first watch, I’d say I’ve seen several better examples of the genre and several better films by Kurosawa. But that isn’t truly a criticism of the film, rather of its high placing on the lists mentioned at the start. Awareness of such accolades has a tendency to overshadow any first viewing of a film that warrants them (just witness how many people are underwhelmed by Citizen Kane), so I look forward to returning to High and Low sometime under less pressure.

    5 out of 5

    High and Low is the 30th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022. It was viewed as part of Blindspot 2022.

    Top Gun (1986)

    The 100 Films Guide to…

    Top Gun

    Up there with the best of the best

    Country: USA
    Language: English
    Runtime: 110 minutes
    BBFC: 15 (1986) | 12 (cinema, 1989) | 15 (video, 1996) | 12 (video, 2004)
    MPAA: PG

    Original Release: 12th May 1986 (Mexico)
    US Release: 16th May 1986
    UK Release: 3rd October 1986
    Budget: $15 million
    Worldwide Gross: $357.5 million

    Stars
    Tom Cruise (Risky Business, Mission: Impossible)
    Kelly McGillis (Witness, The Accused)
    Val Kilmer (Top Secret!, Batman Forever)
    Anthony Edwards (Revenge of the Nerds, Miracle Mile)

    Director
    Tony Scott (The Hunger, Crimson Tide)

    Screenwriters
    Jim Cash (Turner & Hooch, Anaconda)
    Jack Epps Jr. (Dick Tracy, The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas)

    Based on
    Top Guns, a magazine article by Ehud Yonay.


    The Story
    Fighter pilots Maverick and Goose are sent to the US Navy’s elite Fighter Weapons School, aka Top Gun, a combat training academy-cum-competition to establish the Navy’s best pilots.

    Our Hero
    Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell is a hotshot pilot who’s prone to bending the rules when he thinks it’s necessary. But that sort of behaviour doesn’t fly with the instructors at Top Gun. Is his daring what gives him the edge, or what makes him a liability?

    Our Villain
    Maverick’s prime rival in the Top Gun competition is Tom ‘Iceman’ Kazansky, whose callsign comes from the his precise, ‘ice cold’ flying style — the antithesis of Maverick. In the real-world, the villains are the MiG fighter jets of a tactfully unnamed foreign power.

    Best Supporting Character
    Maverick’s best mate and RIO (Radar Intercept Officer) is Nick ‘Goose’ Bradshaw. While Maverick seems to rub most people up the wrong way, Goose is widely liked. No idea where his nickname comes from.

    Memorable Quote
    “I feel the need… the need for speed!” — Maverick

    Memorable Scene
    For all the slick flying and whatnot, arguably the film’s most iconic scene comes on the ground, when the pilots relax by playing a game of beach volleyball — mostly shirtless, their sweaty muscles glistening in the sun. If you weren’t already feeling the homoerotic subtext, this kind of rams it home. (It’s a fairly incidental scene, but if you doubt its impact, know that the makes of the sequel felt they had to include a version of it, which led to the cast prepping for months to make sure their bodies were suitably toned.)

    Memorable Music
    Top Gun is blessed with multiple memorable tracks, both original songs and soundtrack cues. Several even won awards (see below). But the one that didn’t is the most iconic, and so catchy that it’s played several times throughout the film: Kenny Loggins’ Danger Zone.

    Making of
    There was a lot of cooperation from the US Navy in the production of the film (it paid off: after release, they saw recruitment skyrocket), but they only authorised two actual missile shots for filming purposes. Both were were shot from multiple angles to generate extra usable footage, but it still wasn’t enough, and so the filmmakers commissioned further shots using miniature planes and rockets. These were done so convincingly that the Navy conducted an investigation into whether any unauthorised missile firings had been performed for the film.

    Next time…
    It took over 35 years (partially thanks to Covid-related delays), but a sequel was finally released this year. But of course you know that: Top Gun: Maverick is probably the most praised blockbuster of the year so far.

    Awards
    1 Oscar (Original Song (Take My Breath Away))
    3 Oscar nominations (Sound, Film Editing, Sound Effects Editing)
    1 People’s Choice Award (Favorite Motion Picture)
    1 Grammy (Pop Instrumental Performance (Top Gun Anthem))
    1 Brit Award (Soundtrack)

    Verdict

    I loved Top Gun as a young kid — though, as is so often the case with movies from my childhood, I don’t actually know how many times I saw it. We weren’t great rewatchers in my household, so I expect I only actually watched it two, maybe three times, max. But my dad and I used to play jet fighter simulator games on our PC, with usernames like Maverick and Iceman, entirely inspired by the film. So, obviously, it comes with a dose of nostalgia for me, even though I hadn’t seen it for a couple of decades (my recent rewatch inspired by, of course, the release of the sequel). Does it hold up? Well, that depends what you want from a movie. It certainly comes with a more-than-healthy does of ’80s cheese and rampant-but-unacknowledged homoeroticism. For some, that makes it either unwatchable or two hours of laughing at the film. But if you’re onboard with its particular style, it’s still good fun; an entertainment-focused blend of fast-paced action in the skies and matey rivalry on the ground, with a dash of romantic melodrama for good measure.

    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


  • West Side Story (2021)

    Steven Spielberg | 146 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English & Spanish | 12 / PG-13

    West Side Story

    I remember when I first heard about this remake, I couldn’t quite understand what they were going to add by redoing it. The original is a widely-acclaimed classic — why remake it? I should’ve remembered one of the golden rules of cinema: always trust Spielberg.

    If you’re somehow unfamiliar with West Side Story, it’s a reimagining of Romeo and Juliet set in 1950s New York City, with the two warring families replaced by two warring street gangs. Although the teenage love story is still present, obv., the strength here is more in its depiction of cultural clashes between different groups of immigrants — essentially, the heart of the American experience. Like most musicals, it started out on the stage before being filmed in 1961. I’m not going to dispute the classic status of that film, but it has dated — most problematically in the use of brown face to depict Puerto Rican characters, but also in its overall style, which, though shot in part on the real streets of New York, is quite stagey. Plus it made various changes to the original work, primarily in the order and therefore context of multiple musical numbers; something that Spielberg, as a fan of the stage production, sort to restore.

    In short, it worked. Well, I’ve never seen the stage production, so I don’t know if this film is more faithful to it, but it feels like a superior execution of the constituent elements. Primarily, it deepens some of the characters and their motives, most especially Tony (the Romeo figure) and Chino (his ostensible love rival, though you’d be forgiven for missing that entirely in the ’61 film). In the original film, I almost felt like Tony and Maria were a subplot, only being regarded as the leads because they’re Romeo and Juliet in what we know is an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Here, they get more screen time, both together and apart, and more shades to their characters, so it actually feels like they’re the leads. That doesn’t suddenly make them the most interesting characters, but you can’t have everything.

    Dance in the streets in America

    This added depth comes from the screenplay as much as the performances, which were great in the original but are fantastic here too. The Oscar-winning turn by Ariana DeBose as Anita is indeed the standout, but Rachel Zegler is perfectly sweet as Maria, and Rita Moreno thankfully has more to offer than just a tribute cameo in the Doc role. There was a lot of talk that Mike Faist was snubbed by awards for his Riff. He’s good, but doesn’t quite equal Russ Tambyln for me. The weak link is clearly Ansel Elgort as Tony. I had wondered if people were just saying that because of the allegations against him, but he’s not ideal for the role. That said, I do think he’s adequate, and the only reason to find his presence actively distasteful is if you can’t set aside the real-life stories.

    All these comparisons are inevitable, and it’s mostly in the eye of the beholder which individual aspect is better in which version; but I think it’s undeniable that Spielberg’s film looks more cinematic. It’s not just superior to the ’61 film, but a masterclass in itself: the lighting, the shot composition, the camera moves, the blocking; several songs are more excitingly staged than in the original, not least arguably the most famous, America. DoP Janusz Kaminski has been doing sterling work with Spielberg for decades now, so perhaps it’s easy to overlook just how talented they both are. In an era when mega-budgeted films increasingly look like TV shows that lean on green screen to scrape by, this is Cinema at its purest.

    Perhaps that’s why, overall, I prefer this version. Sure, the original is a classic, but Spielberg’s film is ultimately more cinematic (less stage-minded), less campy (though it doesn’t entirely ditch that aspect), and more modern, but appropriately so (with race-appropriate casting instead of awkward brownface). It’s perhaps proof that any remake can be worthwhile if done for the right reasons by the right people.

    5 out of 5

    2022 | Weeks 9–11

    Right, let’s try (again) to get things back on track.

    These compilations were/are meant to keep my reviewing roughly up-to-date with my viewing, but I don’t think stuffing them with too many films at once is the right way to go. I don’t know about anyone else, but I feel like five or six per post is about right (with some leeway, of course — I’m sure four or seven would be fine too). However, dividing like that means getting out of sync with Real Life, so I suppose I should clarify when “weeks 9–11” were: Monday February 28th to Sunday 20th March, to be precise. And back then, I watched…

  • Tintin and the Temple of the Sun (1969), aka Tintin et le temple du soleil
  • Los Olvidados (1950), aka The Young and the Damned
  • The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee (2020)
  • The King’s Man (2021)
  • Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)
  • Nothing Like a Dame (2018)


    Tintin and the Temple of the Sun

    (1969)

    aka Tintin et le temple du soleil / The Adventures of Tintin: The Prisoners of the Sun

    Eddie Lateste* | 75 mins | DVD | 4:3 | Belgium & France / English | U

    Tintin and the Temple of the Sun

    This fourth big-screen outing for the Belgian reporter also continues the popular TV series, Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin, made by Belgian studio Belvision from 1957 to 1962. Having adapted ten of Hergé’s volumes for TV, here they tackled two more: two-parter The Seven Crystal Balls and Prisoners of the Sun. The story sees Tintin and chums head to Peru on the trail of their kidnapped friend, Professor Calculus, and to investigate an Incan curse that has befallen a previous party of archaeologists.

    Trekking up mountains and through jungles, with nefarious agents in pursuit, plus all the to-do with ancient curses and whatnot, this is chock-a-block with good old “Boy’s Own Adventure” stuff. As with so many of those, the joy lies in being swept along with the adventure rather than thinking about it too hard (our heroes are saved at the end because the Captain happens to have a scrap of newspaper that Snowy happens to steal that Tintin happens to fancy having a look at that happens to mention a handy forthcoming event). By the same token, there’s also the unavoidable effects of time: some of it feels a teensy bit racist nowadays; Tintin makes his way through the jungle merrily murdering animals left, right and centre. The animation itself is fine, with designs and an overall visual style that emulate Hergé well, but it does have a certain TV-ness.

    It’s also not available in the greatest of copies, at least to English-language viewers. Reportedly the original version contains two songs, both of which were cut from the UK video release, but only one of which has been restored for the DVD (and, I presume, the version currently available to stream from Apple, etc). Although most of the film is dubbed, the song is in the original French, unsubtitled; and has clearly been edited, because there are digital freeze frames around it. At the start of the film, the title card has been replaced in a similarly awkward fashion. Then there’s the 5.1 remix, which seems to be missing some effects and music cues. You can still enjoy the majority of the film despite these distractions, but it’s disappointing that we still have to put up with such palaver nowadays.

    3 out of 5

    Tintin and the Temple of the Sun is the 19th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.

    * Many (but not all) online sources list Lateste as the director, including IMDb, but the film itself doesn’t actually credit him — the only director-like credit is for “Belvision”. Lateste is credited as one of the screenwriters, at least. ^


    Los Olvidados

    (1950)

    aka The Young and the Damned

    Luis Buñuel | 81 mins | digital (HD) | 1.37:1 | Mexico / Spanish | 12

    Los Olvidados

    Combine the literal translation of the film’s title — The Forgotten Ones — with the US retitling — The Young and the Damned — and you build a sense of what Los Olvidados (as it’s been released in the UK) is about. To be clearly, it’s a socially-realist depiction of life for children in the slums of Mexico City. Although initially condemned (according to IMDb, it only played for three days in Mexico before the “enraged reactions” of the press, government, and upper- and middle-class audiences caused it to be pulled), it’s since been reevaluated as one of the greats of Latin American cinema. Certainly, watching it after films like The 400 Blows (made almost a decade later), City of God (over 50 years later), and Capernaum (almost 70 years later), its influence is felt.

    The downside to that is the film feels somewhat less fresh and more worthy than the later efforts. It’s got an overt anti-poverty message that is admirable but sometimes heavy-handed (a school principal character feels like he’s been inserted just to state the film’s thesis out loud) or naïvely optimistic (the opening voiceover asserts that child poverty will ultimately be solved by progress. Over 70 years later, I don’t think progress is doing a great job…) While much of the movie works at its intended goal, when aspects like these intrude it stops feeling like a realistic depiction of poverty and more like a straightforward polemic about how it should be fixed. On the bright side, it avoids the lure of a pat happy ending — although one was actually discovered in 2002, apparently shot to appease Mexican censors. Clearly they managed to get the film released without having to cave on that point, and it’s better for it.

    4 out of 5

    Los Olvidados is the 20th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022. It was viewed as part of Blindspot 2022.


    The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee

    (2020)

    Dean Murphy | 88 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | Australia & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee

    Not a fourth Crocodile Dundee film, but rather a depiction of the accidentally-chaotic life of that series’ leading man, Paul Hogan, the archetypal Aussie now living in LA and, reaching his 80s, somewhat bemused by the modern world.

    Even from that quick summary, you can tell it’s not a terribly original premise. Couple that with a clearly small budget and you have a recipe for many dismissing the film out of hand. Personally, I found it to be surprisingly enjoyable, in a laidback, undemanding way. None of it is properly hilarious (though a bizarre musical sequence comes close), but it’s kinda amiable, and almost heartwarming at the end. Discerning viewers should perhaps not apply, but if you have any affection for the second or third Crocodile Dundee films (again, widely maligned instalments that I found passably entertaining), this is worth a punt.

    3 out of 5


    The King’s Man

    (2021)

    Matthew Vaughn | 131 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

    The King's Man

    Co-writer/director Matthew Vaughn expands the Kingsman universe with this World War I-era prequel that delves into the backstory of how the eponymous organisation was founded. Unlike so many prequels, this does feel like a story worth telling — we don’t necessarily need it, but it’s not merely an exercise in visualising events we’ve already been told, or coming up with over-elaborate reasons for people’s names or whatever (why couldn’t Han Solo’s birth name have just been Han Solo, hm?)

    The story begins with Europe on the brink of war, and our heroes — led by the Duke of Oxford (Ralph Fiennes) — attempting to stop it. History tells us they fail, and so the narrative unfurls across WWI as they try to bring it to a close. That will see them come up against the manipulations of Rasputin (Rhys Ifans), who’s part of a secret organisation plotting to bring down the great empires.

    Let’s cut to the chase: the Kingsman films have a rep for elaborate fight scenes set to pop music. One of the major villains is Rasputin. You only need a passing familiarity with the disco hits of the ’70s to know what I was looking forward to here. Well, it doesn’t happen. Indeed, that stylistic calling card is more or less entirely abandoned (the fight does happen, of course, but it’s set to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture — kind of like era-appropriate ‘pop’ music, I guess?) Apparently Vaughn did originally intend the sequence to be set to an orchestral version of the song in question, but ultimately felt it didn’t work.

    This, perhaps, speaks to another concern I had going in, which was that Kingsman’s highly irreverent, almost satirical tone might clash with the all-too-real WWI setting. Such an historical tragedy doesn’t feel right to be made light of in that way, even over a century later. So, as if to compensate, Vaughn and co have toned down the humour, making The King’s Man fairly serious… but without fully sacrificing the near-whimsy at other times, because, well, it’s part of the franchise. The result is a little awkward, tonally, swinging back and forth between historical seriousness and franchise-establishing fun. Put another way, it’s hamstrung by being an entry in a series known for its irreverence that feels the need to show due reverence to WWI. That’s a clash of values it struggles with, some might say admirably, but can’t quite reconcile. In short, it’s too serious to be a Kingsman film, but too Kingsman-y to be a standalone WWI-set action-adventure.

    I wouldn’t say it’s a disaster, by any means — but then, I enjoyed The Golden Circle when many lambasted it, so make of that what you will. Nonetheless, I’m looking forward to the next film getting back to Eggsy & co in the present day.

    3 out of 5


    Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

    (1988)

    Frank Oz | 110 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

    Michael Caine and Steve Martin star as a couple of chalk-and-cheese con men, pilfering the fortunes of wealthy single ladies on the French Riviera, in this fun con caper with a neat sting in its tail.

    Caine hits just the right note as a charming con artist, his manner inspired by David Niven, who played the role in the original, 1964’s Bedtime Story. I was unaware the film was a remake until after watching it, though I did know it was itself subject to a gender-bent do-over in 2019, The Hustle. I don’t know how similar Bedtime Story and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels are, but, based on its trailer, The Hustle seems to be a direct lift from this, albeit peppered with the kind of pratfalling that’s de rigueur in modern big screen comedy.

    Marlon Brando was Niven’s co-lead, whereas here Caine gets Steve Martin as the very embodiment of a brash American — a little too brash, if anything, though reportedly there were bits he actually reined in. The running time could have done with a similar consideration, because it’s a little long for its breezy premise and tone (running 110 minutes, it would be better nearer 90), but that’s a minor complaint — it rarely feels too slow or draggy, just a little long overall.

    4 out of 5

    Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is the 21st film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.


    Nothing Like a Dame

    (2018)

    aka Tea with the Dames

    Roger Michell | 77 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | UK / English | 12

    Nothing Like a Dame

    Four thespian friends, Dames all — Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, and Maggie Smith — gather for a natter about their careers and lives. That’s it, that’s the film.

    Given the setup, plus the style of advertising and US retitle, you’d be forgiven for expecting a gentle bit of fluff; eavesdropping on a pleasant chinwag with four venerable British actresses. The film is that, in places, but it also has a surprising undercurrent of sadness running throughout, as these ageing ladies reflect on the ups and downs of their careers and personal lives now that they’re (shall we say) closer to the end than the beginning. It rarely bubbles to the surface, but it always feels like it’s there, somehow inescapable.

    If that gives proceedings more texture than you might’ve expected, then the film’s biggest flaw lies elsewhere. For me, it’s that it wasn’t long enough. The conversations are often delightful and occasionally insightful, but you feel like there’s so much more to be gleaned from these women. The film chops about between topics and pairings, always feeling like we’re getting snippets of the full conversation, never the true depth; like we’re watching a highlights reel of what should be a three-hour series, or something like that. I know it’s an old theatrical adage to “leave ’em wanting more”, but I really did want some more.

    4 out of 5


  • 2022 | Weeks 7–8

    It’s been a hectic time, both at work and in my personal life, these past few weeks. I’ve managed to carve out a small amount of time for some film watching (though not as much as I’d like), but little for film reviewing — hence why there’s not been an Archive 5 for a fortnight, and why this update comes over two weeks after the period it covers.

    But better late than never, and the only way to get back on track is to get on, so…

  • Shot in the Dark (1933)
  • The Brits Are Coming (2018), aka The Con Is On
  • Ode to Joy (2019)
  • The Courier (2020)
  • The Misfits (2021)


    Shot in the Dark

    (1933)

    George Pearson | 52 mins | digital (SD) | 4:3 | UK / English

    Shot in the Dark

    The works of Agatha Christie and G.K. Chesterton are casually evoked in this ‘quota quickie’ murder mystery, adapted from a novel by H. Fowler Mear, a screenwriter whose Wikipedia entry describes him as “competent but uninspired”. (FYI, the film is often listed as A Shot in the Dark online, I presume due to confusion with a couple of slightly later films that go by that title. As the title card makes plain, there’s no A here.)

    When a wealthy old man dies of a gunshot, it’s ruled a suicide; but when the family gather to listen to the will he recorded, the deceased claims he must have been murdered. Before he can make any further accusations from beyond the grave, the record goes missing. Fortunately, the local vicar (O.B. Clarence) happens to be passing at the time, and sticks his nose in — to find both the record and the murderer.

    There’s nothing particularly special about the mystery that unfolds. As a detective, the vicar is a cut-price Father Brown knockoff; a weak caricature of the Sherlock Holmes type: every time he interviews someone, he seems to already know everything they’re going to tell him, if not more. It’s quite fun that almost everyone confesses to the murder at one time or another, only to turn out to not actually be responsible, but I have trouble crediting that as a deliberate gag — it’s not emphasised enough for that to be the case. When the actual culprit is eventually revealed, how and why the crime was committed isn’t properly explained. This is the kind of film that doesn’t see the value in wasting valuable screen time on things like “motive” and “plausible opportunity” and “plot twists” when it can offer dark & stormy nights and people storing poison next to medicine and secret passageways. Indeed, when they find a secret room, it turns out to have its own secret room — that’s the kind of work we’re dealing with here.

    All in all, it’s not <i<bad for a quick little murder mystery, but it’s not strictly good either. It scrapes a 3 by the skin of its teeth.

    3 out of 5

    Shot in the Dark is the 16th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.


    The Brits Are Coming

    (2018)

    aka The Con Is On

    James Haslam | 91 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

    The Brits Are Coming

    Uma Thurman and Tim Roth star as a couple of British crooks who accidentally gamble away a pile of cash belonging to a crime lord (Maggie Q), so flee to LA to steal the expensive new engagement ring of his ex (Alice Eve).

    As a crime-comedy caper, you feel like this must have read funny — how else to explain such a starry cast in such a cheap-feeling production? Assuming that’s the case, something definitely got lost between page and screen: almost everything about The Brits Are Coming seems as if it should work, and yet almost none of it does. The occasional moment lands, amid a barrage of F-words so unnecessary you wonder if the film was in some kind of competition to use as many as possible. You sense the cast might’ve been having fun, at least, though supporting appearances from the likes of Stephen Fry and Crispin Glover do little to elevate the material.

    1 out of 5


    Ode to Joy

    (2019)

    Jason Winer | 97 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / R

    Ode to Joy

    Charlie (Martin Freeman) has cataplexy, a rare neurological condition that means if he feels a strong emotion — in his case, happiness — he passes out. Unfortunately for Charlie, he seems to be a bit of a softy: even just seeing someone with their baby or cute dog on the street is liable to make him wobbly. So Charlie lives an uneventful life, working in a library (what better place for calm?) and never doing anything particularly interesting. Certainly never dating. But then one day he defuses a situation involving Francesca (Morena Baccarin), who takes a shine to him; and of course he’s interested in her, because, duh, it’s Morena Baccarin. Can Charlie manage to be happy… but not too happy?

    If it all sounds a tad far-fetched, you should know that it’s inspired by a true story (there’s even a writing credit acknowledging the journalist behind the original piece). Nonetheless, the fictionalised version could easily have turned the premise into something ridiculous, but a solid screenplay and great cast ensure it stays balanced on just the right comedy-drama line. Freeman is perfect casting for “man who would like to be happy but must keep himself miserable”, playing to strengths he’s displayed ever since his breakthrough role in The Office. As his love interest, Baccarin could probably have got away with just looking pretty, but there’s more zest to her character than that. Among the supporting cast, The Big Bang Theory alum Melissa Rauch is particularly hilarious as Francesca’s ‘boring’ friend who Charlie ends up dating instead. She’s the closest thing the film has to an outright “comedy character”, but the screenplay and Rauch’s performance manage to round her out.

    Ode to Joy could’ve coasted on easy (if probably repetitive) gags derived from Charlie’s condition, or it could’ve more-or-less ignored it as simply a hook for a bog-standard romcom. Instead, it’s something a bit more thoughtful, exploring what it really means to be “happy”, as well as where and how we find happiness. Not to mention that age-old question, what’s the point in living if you don’t feel alive?

    4 out of 5


    The Courier

    (2020)

    Dominic Cooke | 112 mins | digital (UHD) | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English & Russian | 12 / PG-13

    The Courier

    A fascinating true story that I wasn’t the slightest bit aware of, The Courier stars Benedict Cumberbatch as nondescript businessman Greville Wynne, who was recruited during the Cold War by MI6 and the CIA to travel to Russia and collect information offered by an asset in Soviet military intelligence, Colonel Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), at that time the highest-ranked Soviet to leak intelligence to the West. Definitely sounds like spy novel stuff, but, as I said, it’s all true (well, except for the bits tweaked for dramatic licence, obv).

    As regular readers will no doubt have inferred from my reviews of James Bond, John le Carré adaptations, and other similar fare, I love a bit of Cold War espionage. Normally that’s of the fictional variety — I guess most of the true stories aren’t quite as exciting, or remain too classified — but there’s nothing quite like knowing the events you’re witnessing actually took place. That said, the events depicted here fall under the latter category, as they’re officially still classified. Screenwriter Tom O’Connor reportedly pieced the narrative together from various sources, which I imagine helps make this as close to the truth as we’re likely to get, for now at least.

    Either way, it’s a suitably thrilling tale, powered by two superb lead performances from Cumberbatch — initially reluctant and floundering, but increasingly self-assured and moralistic — and Ninidze — controlled and honourable, but with an emotional undercurrent. Strong supporting turns, too, from the likes of Jessie Buckley and Rachel Brosnahan, don’t let us forget the very human cost of the spy games, especially if things should turn sour…

    By the end, you definitely feel that the actions of Wynne and Penkovsky should be better known. Perhaps the need for keeping official secrets has stymied that — although (without wishing to spoil what happens) some events did make news at the time, and this isn’t the first drama or documentary to cover the case — but The Courier stands as a valiant effort to bring their tale to a wider audience.

    4 out of 5


    The Misfits

    (2021)

    Renny Harlin | 95 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA, UAE & Finland / English | 15 / R

    The Misfits

    If you thought Michael Bay’s 6 Underground was bad, The Misfits is here to show you what a properly poor “former crooks do good deeds from the shadows” action movie looks like.

    The eponymous ‘Misfits’ are a small group of international Robin Hoods, preying on the rich and selfish for the benefit of the poor and helpless. Their latest job is to steal the gold reserves of a terrorist organisation, which are kept safe in a prison owned by Warner Schultz (Tim Roth, slumming it again), so they recruit his nemesis: thief and multi-time Schultz prison escapee Richard Pace (Pierce Brosnan, only half succeeding to reconjure the roguish charm he deployed decades ago in similarly-themed films like The Thomas Crown Affair).

    Despite the involvement of a couple of big-ish names in front of the camera and a former blockbuster director behind it (Renny Harlin, whose credits included Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger before a couple of flops relegated him to rental-shelf-filler fare), The Misfits looks like it was made for £3.50 and a favour from the Abu Dhabi tourist board (the city appears glamorous and expensive, unlike anything else about the film).

    The screenplay feels like it was generated by an AI fed on every low-rent heist movie from the last 30 years. It’s not just clichés, but the way it drifts along with a “this is the sort of thing that happens in this sort of movie” logic, not particularly caring if it makes objective sense. The construction is sloppy, too. For example, a ton of time is devoted upfront to introducing the ‘Misfits’, only for most of them to be 2D one-trick pies (a thief, a fighter, an explosives expert, etc) who are supporting characters in what is really Brosnan’s film. I thought it was going to be a case of bait-and-switch marketing — make the famous actor prominent on the poster, only for his role to be little more than an extended cameo when the film is really about these other guys — but no, he’s genuinely the lead, it’s just the film is weirdly built. And that’s before we get onto the centrepiece heist itself, where the inevitable twists and reveals are either too clearly telegraphed, or simply pulled out of thin air (the gold isn’t there, it’s here! Except it’s not here, it’s there! But it’s not there, it’s here!)

    If you are exceptionally forgiving, The Misfits has vague merit as entertainment, but it’s a very hollow kind of fun. If you’re in the mood for the particular joys of a heist movie, and you can’t think of or get hold of another one at that minute, it would probably scratch the itch.

    2 out of 5

    The Misfits is the 18th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.

  • Knives Out (2019)

    2020 #55
    Rian Johnson | 130 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Knives Out

    After creating the widely beloved and totally uncontroversial Star Wars instalment The Last Jedi, writer-director used his newfound filmmaking cachet to quickly launch a passion project that he’d been working on since after his debut feature, Brick: a whodunnit murder mystery in the Agatha Christie mould, a genre of which Johnson is a lifelong fan.

    The story revolves around crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) and his family of hangers-on, played by an all-star cast (including the likes of Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Chris Evans, Toni Collette, and Don Johnson). When Harlan dies, seemingly by suicide, freelance detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) has reason to suspect foul play, and teams up with Harlan’s nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas), to find out which of the family members dunnit.

    Knives Out is clearly built like a Christie story, though perhaps with a touch more satire and humour. That’s not to say it’s an outright comedy (though I’ve tagged it as one, because it’s often amusing), but this is a heightened world we’re in; it’s the real world, but filtered through the lens of a genre. And rather than follow the familiar formula of a Poirot- or Marple-type case, the film is like one of Christie’s other novels; one of the ones where the broad shape is the same, but there’s some twist or variant in how it’s told. Here, it’s that the detective isn’t actually our POV character, and at times we know a lot more than him (or, at least, different stuff to him). That leads to some effective twists that I won’t spoil, but which certainly keep you thinking and on your toes. I made a prediction as to the true solution before the halfway mark, and it turned out to be wrong, so that was fun (I don’t mean to boast, but plenty of murder mysteries are thoroughly guessable).

    The name's Blanc, Benoit Blanc

    That said, I wasn’t a million miles off with my guess, but that also doesn’t matter. As I noted in my summation of the film for my 2020 top ten, it’s not so important who actually dunnit when it’s so much fun spending time with the outrageous suspects and Craig’s implausibly-accented detective. That means it achieves something many mystery-based films miss: it’s highly rewatchable, because knowing the outcome isn’t the be-all and end-all. And yet, to achieve that, it doesn’t sell out the mystery entirely — I say “it barely matters who dunnit”, but it’s still an engaging riddle on first viewing.

    Knives Out was a notable success, eventually leading Netflix to pay a frankly ludicrous sum for two sequels. I’m glad there’ll be followups, because more mysteries in this vein promises more fun, but it’s a shame that what could’ve been a non-superhero non-action-based big-screen franchise has been nipped in the bud by the streamer. I expect that was literally their goal (and why they paid so very, very much money), but that’s a whole other debate.

    5 out of 5

    The UK network TV premiere of Knives Out is on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm. It placed 13th on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2020.

    Netflix’s currently-untitled sequel is due for release later this year.