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. ^


  • 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.

    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


  • 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

    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.

    2022 | Weeks 1–3

    Here we go — finally, and somewhat later than anticipated (it’s been a slow start to the year, viewing-wise) — the new review format for 2022!

    …which you’ll have already seen in Archive 5, of course; and is fundamentally similar to what I was doing before in roundups and what-have-you; and which I’ve already ‘broken’, because my review of Flight of the Navigator came out so long that I posted it alone.

    But still, the intention is this is now my regular review format, popping up every week or two (or three) to review everything in a more timely fashion than I have for many, many years. We’ll see how it goes — I feel like I need to relearn how to write short pieces, because longer reviews feel like they should get their own posts, and that’s happened to pieces intended for every one of these roundups so far this year.


    Anyway — to kick things off for 2022, a film with a broadly appropriate title. Because, despite (deliberately misleading) hints to the contrary, I’m carrying on. Get it? Carrying on watching. And “spying” is a synonym of “watching”, right? (Look, there aren’t any Carry On films with more apposite titles, okay?)

    These weeks’ films are…

  • Carry On Spying (1964)
  • Penny Serenade (1941)
  • The Navigator (1924)
  • In the Line of Fire (1993)
  • Barbie as The Princess and the Pauper (2004)
  • Free Guy (2021)


    Carry On Spying

    (1964)

    Gerald Thomas | 84 mins | digital (SD) | 16:9 | UK / English | U

    Carry On Spying

    Believe it or not, I’ve never actually seen a Carry On film before. Maybe that’s not so surprising these days. They were once such a part of British culture that they produced 30 of the things, but I think they were seen as “a bit old fashioned” even before I was born, and by 2022’s standards… oof. But, lest you get the wrong end of the stick (oo-er, etc), this isn’t me intending to finally dive into all of them. Rather, as well as its timely title, I chose to watch Carry On Spying primarily because it’s a James Bond spoof — the first, I believe, seeing as it was released in July 1964, when the Bond series only encompassed Dr. No and From Russia with Love (Goldfinger would follow a couple of months later).

    With Bond not yet even properly into its initial phenomenon phase (the first two films were hits, but it was the next two that skyrocketed its popularity), you might think Spying came too soon, and would be disadvantaged by being produced before the famous Bond formula was fully in place. Instead, it sets its spoofing sights a little wider, including an extended riff on The Third Man. I couldn’t tell you everything it’s drawing on, but its third-act villain’s lair — all sleek metal corridors and little road-train thingies and jump-suited identikit henchpeople — appears to be a take-off of You Only Live Twice, some three years before that film even came out. So I can only presume Spying’s point of reference there is something else, which I can’t quite remember; some other spy fiction that was already doing stuff the Bond franchise would still be pulling off years later. That doesn’t reflect too positively on YOLT, when you think of it, although Bond’s cultural dominance and longevity has come to ensure it’s the one that’s remembered for pioneering all this stuff.

    I don’t know how many Carry On films were genre spoofs, but the series’ reputation is more for smut and innuendo. There’s pleasantly little of that here — some, for sure, mostly based around Barbara Windsor (of course) as a trainee agent; but while it’s all fundamentally juvenile, it’s not as ceaselessly ribald as I was expecting. Satisfyingly, it remains primarily focused on its chosen genre. In that respect, I’ve definitely seen worse spoofs.

    3 out of 5

    Carry On Spying is the 1st film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.


    Penny Serenade

    (1941)

    George Stevens | 120 mins | digital (HD) | 4:3 | USA / English | U

    Penny Serenade

    This is the third and final film to pair up stars Irene Dunne and Cary Grant as a married couple (I’ve watched all their collaborations within the past couple of years, but not posted reviews of the first two yet. I thought it was within the last year, but turns out I watched my first in May 2020. These strange days have really messed with my sense of the passage of time!) But where their first two films were screwball romcoms, this is undoubtedly a melodrama, following a couple as they meet, marry, and attempt to start a family.

    Dunne and Grant both make a fair fist of the serious stuff — Grant, in particular, gives an uncommonly sensitive performance at times — although they can’t resist slipping back into a spot of almost-slapstick given half a chance, with various individual sequences playing more like one of their comedies. Those scenes stand at odds with the film’s overall narrative and tone, which goes for full-on weepy. Indeed, if anything, I thought it was overdone, in particular an ending that throws in sudden tragedy followed so quickly by a pat happy ending that it feels almost distasteful.

    The film’s hook is that it begins with Dunne planning to leave, before she discovers a book of records that, as she plays them, take her back through their relationship. Different songs provoking specific memories is a neat narrative device on paper, but doesn’t really come across on screen. Aside from the first track, and maybe a later burst of Happy Birthday (although that could be almost any birthday, surely), the songs don’t seem to have any special relevance to the memories they supposedly call forth. It doesn’t help that, to modern ears, they all sound kinda samey. Plus, that the songs lead everything to unfurl in chronological order, with every major beat of their life story accounted for, is certainly convenient.

    If you can look past such artifice, and just want to revel in an old-fashioned bit of heart-tugging, Penny Serenade is fit to make you shed a tear. Personally, I’d rather the headline duo had given us another bout of screwball tomfoolery.

    3 out of 5

    Penny Serenade is the 3rd film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.


    The Navigator

    (1924)

    Donald Crisp & Buster Keaton | 66 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | USA / silent | U

    The Navigator

    This is my fourth Buster Keaton feature now (I’ve only previously reviewed The General, but Sherlock Jr made it into my 2019 top 3), and he’s established himself as my favourite of the major silent comedians (I rarely enjoy Chaplin’s films as much as I feel I should; and, in fairness to Harold Lloyd, I’ve only seen one of his so far, which I liked a lot). The Navigator was the biggest hit of his career, though is probably my least favourite of his I’ve seen so far — though I don’t want to damn it with false criticism, because it’s still a brisk and entertaining comedy.

    Keaton stars as a spoiled rich kid whose marriage proposal is rejected. He’d already booked the honeymoon tickets, so sets off by himself; but, due to several points of confusion, he ends up adrift at sea on a decommissioned ship, empty but for one other passenger: his would-be fiancée (Kathryn McGuire). It’s up to this pair of brats to get along and survive while they hope for rescue. (Rescue does not come quickly. Considering McGuire’s father is a successful shipping magnate who’s aware of what’s happened, you’d think he’d send a vessel after them; but then, he might have his own problems, owing to a bunch of foreign spies who… look, it’s best not to overthink the logistics and plausibility of the plot.)

    Although Keaton gets the lion’s share of the gags, as well he might, for a stretch in the middle he and McGuire form an effective double act. The two rich kids being hilariously useless at household basics, like making coffee or opening a tin of food, is well observed; a flash-forward to their automated solutions is also fun. While Keaton still gets to show off by himself — particularly in an elaborate underwater diving sequence, naturally saved for the final act — McGuire makes the most of the material she’s given.

    The only outright demerit to the film is that the finale hasn’t aged particularly well: the ship finally drifts near land, but it’s an island with a village-full of black natives, at which McGuire immediately exclaims “cannibals!” That she’s sort of proven right when they start attacking the ship is… well, maybe not even worse, but at least just as bad. Still, by 1920s standards, maybe we can take comfort in the fact that it’s only casual racism…

    More than that, the reason I say it’s my least favourite Keaton so far is simply that it doesn’t have as many comedic highs as his very best work. Nonetheless, his genius regularly shines through in moments and even whole sequences, and there are a couple of individual gags that are all-timers.

    4 out of 5

    The Navigator is the 4th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.


    In the Line of Fire

    (1993)

    Wolfgang Petersen | 129 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    In the Line of Fire

    Clint Eastwood is a Secret Service agent who failed to stop the JFK assassination, now taunted by John Malkovich’s mysterious wannabe-assassin and his threats to kill the current President. It’s a fundamentally strong idea for a thriller, and works especially well by having the villain constantly phoning the hero for little chats. Malkovich’s always makes for a first-rate antagonist, and his slightly loony personality clashes well with Eastwood’s stoic, dry-witted, old-fashioned tough guy. There are a couple of chase scenes and shoot-outs here and there, but, rather than any elaborate physical action, it’s the verbal sparring that represents the film’s highlights.

    On the downside, the pace is a little on the slow side (perhaps matched to the “too old for this shit” age of Eastwood’s hero — in real life, he’d be a whole decade past the mandatory retirement age) and there are one too many clichés as important plot points (don’t get too attached to the partner who’s always talking about his wife and kids). Plus, there’s a wholly unnecessary romance between 62-year-old Clint and 39-year-old Rene Russo — the film doesn’t need it, even if there wasn’t that age gap. It leads to an (almost) sex scene that’s worthy of the Naked Gun films, which is amusing but tonally misplaced.

    They used to make this kind of political thriller on the regular back in the ’90s, one of those bread-and-butter genres for grownups that have fallen by the wayside in favour of hyper-budgeted kids’-movie spectacle that men of allegedly adult age flock to nowadays. In the Line of Fire may not truly stand out among its brethren of the era, but I do wish they still made ’em like this.

    4 out of 5

    In the Line of Fire is the 6th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.


    Barbie as
    The Princess and the Pauper

    (2004)

    William Lau | 85 mins | digital (SD) | 16:9 | USA & Canada / English | U

    Barbie as The Princess and the Pauper

    One of the many film lists I have my eye on completing is Letterboxd 100: Animation, which lists the highest-rated animated feature films on the site (with a few caveats). There are over 40 titles left that I’ve not seen, and I could’ve chosen to watch almost any of them… but I chose the Barbie one. Well, not the Barbie one, because there are actually two Barbie titles on the list. And that’s not some temporary fluke: they’ve been on there for quite a while now. This merited investigation.

    As you’ve no doubt gathered from the title, this particular Barbie film is a reimagining of Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper. A fairytale-esque story, about a princess, done as a musical? Yep, this is very much a wannabe Disney, but without the production values of that major studio: the computer animation here looks more like a PS2 cutscene. But hiding beneath the cheap animation is a halfway decent musical fairytale. Take the second musical number, How Can I Refuse, for example: it’s every inch in the mould of a “Disney villain’s song”, but is better than some genuine examples, and comes complete with a dance routine by the antagonist and his two henchman. This film has ambition, I’ll give it that.

    Other songs vary in quality. When the eponymous duo first meet, there’s an unintentionally hilarious number in which they sing about how similar they are, the indentured servant and the pampered royal. If you say so, girls. A later track is a typical “you be you” song, but sung to a pet cat who behaves like a dog. That’s a level of barminess I can get on board with.

    I would never have dreamed of watching this if it weren’t on the Letterboxd animation list. Now, I wouldn’t exactly say I’m glad I watched it, but I enjoyed it more than I thought I would — even if sometimes that was due to laughing at it rather than with it.

    3 out of 5

    Barbie as The Princess and the Pauper is the 7th film in my 100 Films Challenge 2022.


    Free Guy

    (2021)

    Shawn Levy | 115 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Free Guy

    Ryan Reynolds plays his role again as Guy, a bank worker in city riddled with crime and superheroics. But, it turns out, Guy isn’t real — he’s an NPC in a computer game, programmed to do the same thing over and over and basically be ignored by the real-world players. Until, that is, he spots the woman of his dreams (Jodie Comer) and his programming breaks as Guy becomes self-aware.

    The basic concept sounds like a fun, fresh, and timely idea, right? Video games have never been more popular, AI is ever-improving, and there’s room for both gags and action in the core idea — that’s the winning Marvel formula, right there. Unfortunately, the execution is as if someone found a way to make a new movie by collaging others. Free Guy is just The LEGO Movie + The Truman Show + Wreck-It Ralph + Ready Player One + the PG-13 version of Deadpool 2 — not put in a blender, but cut up and stuck back together side-by-side, with snippets of Groundhog Day, Fortnite, and multiple Disney-owned properties scattered in for good measure.

    That last aspect, the Disney references, has been singled out for particular derision on social media. The film was initially produced by 20th Century Fox, but ended up a Disney title after the buyout, which allows a bunch of stuff they own to pop up in the movie. I know we’re supposed to find this infinitely depressing — a sad reminder that Disney are on course to own all culture, and that’s a bad thing — and it is bad, of course… but the bit with Captain America’s shield still made me laugh. Sorry, not sorry. Yeah, you can be miserable about this stuff, because obviously the total homogenisation of all American media under The Walt Disney Company is not worth that a couple of meta gags; but the homogenisation of all American media under The Walt Disney Company is happening anyway, so we may as well enjoy the gags we get along the way.

    Whether you have that kind of attitude or not will probably dictate how much you enjoy Free Guy. Its originality is surface deep, at best, and at every second it will call to mind some other film that already did the same thing. But, allowing for that, it’s still a fairly entertaining couple of hours of action-comedy.

    3 out of 5

    Free Guy is the 8th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.


  • American Animals (2018)

    Bart Layton | 117 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

    American Animals

    I don’t want this to turn into a rant about IMDb — there’s a time and a place for those, certainly, but what’s meant to be a short review of one film is not one of them — but the way they’ve devalued the documentary in recent years is not also depressing but also inaccurate. Because anything that has the genre Documentary is now marked as “(documentary)” on someone’s filmography, and therefore IMDb, and/or its contributors, are reluctant to use it about anything that isn’t 100% a documentary. Something like, say, American Animals.

    To be clear: American Animals is unquestionably a documentary. It tells a true story, about some students who plan to rob a library of its rare books. It features interviews with the real people involved, both the students and others. But it’s mostly told via reenactments starring actors, several of them fairly recognisable faces. The real people appear as talking heads scattered throughout, particularly at key moments. So, it’s also unquestionably a hybrid of documentary and fiction. On the surface, it can look a lot like any fictionalised adaptation of a true story; but it’s hidebound to be more accurate than those often are, because it’s also got all these interviews. IMDb isn’t built for nuance such as this.

    Prior planning prevents piss-poor performance... possibly

    The film’s director, Bart Layton, previously made widely-praised definitely-a-documentary The Imposter. In my review of that, I described his style as “flashy” and “over-eager”, wondering if “perhaps he better belongs in fiction filmmaking? Perhaps that’s where he wants to go in future”. Here, I guess he’s moving to bridge that divide; but the blurred line means that, when the film says “here’s the real [person X]”, you kind of question it. Especially as, if a crime was committed, how come they’re interviewing the criminals?

    That latter thought contributes to a genuine tension and suspense throughout the film. How far will this plot go? Do they even actually attempt it? One of the guys keeps saying, “I expected there to be something to stop us”, and you think maybe something will stop them… but the fact this film exists, and there’s all the chat about how the boys let their parents down and whatever, shows something happened. (No spoilers!) Yet it’s also surprisingly funny, like a bit where we’re shown the “Ocean’s Eleven version” of the robbery, complete with Elvis song on the soundtrack.

    Some have criticised these kinds of flights of fancy, or the whole hybrid form, for inviting us to sympathise with these guys rather than condemn their actions. I think there’s room for both. The film seeks to explore what led these pretty normal guys to do such a thing, and (to an extent) how it has affected them since. I think you can both disapprove of what they did and seek to sympathise with them — to understand how it happened is not to condone it.

    4 out of 5

    American Animals was #107 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2020.
    It is streaming on All 4 until 10th February.

    I Care a Lot (2020)

    J Blakeson | 119 mins | digital (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA & UK / English | 15 / R

    I Care a Lot

    Marla (Rosamund Pike) is a professional legal guardian, someone appointed by the courts to arrange care and legal affairs for elderly people no longer capable of doing it themselves. But her real trade lies in pinpointing wealthy people with no family who she can trick the court into placing in her care, at which point she can drain their savings and assets for her own profit. Yes, she is a thoroughly unlikeable, evil bitch. But when she pulls this con on Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest), it inadvertently brings Marla to the attention of Roman Lunyov (Peter Dinklage), a powerful man who is not used to being messed with.

    Already I’m edging into spoiler territory there, and there’ll be more to come, because it’s hard to discuss what’s so fundamentally wrong with I Care a Lot without digging into what occurs past some of its twists — it starts as one thing (which works), quickly becomes something else (which also works), but after about the halfway mark, it ends up diving off the deep end into a mess of implausibility. It may be stylishly made and performed, but all of that is in service of a philosophically jumbled attitude to character.

    What makes the film fall apart is where it wants our loyalties to lie. I’ve often written that I’m fine with films that star unlikeable or unsupportable characters (the idea we need someone we can like/support at the centre of a work of fiction was recently described by someone as a childish impulse, and I agree to an extent), but that doesn’t give them carte blanche. As a commenter put it on iCheckMovies, “you can make a film about horrible, unredeemable characters, but you can’t also expect an audience to root for them when you put them in peril, especially when that peril is one of their own making.” This is the ‘trick’ I Care a Lot attempts to pull. It seems to think we’ll be aligned with Marla by a certain point, but we really aren’t — she absolutely deserves what’s coming to her.

    Talk to the hand because I don't care a lot

    Similarly, when she accuses the villains of “not playing by the rules”, it feels like the film is, again, assuming that will get us on her side; like, “yeah, she’s bad, but at least she plays by the rules, whereas the crooks are just crooks”. But I did not think that, at all. If anything, it makes her even more disingenuous. Yes, technically she’s working within the system — but she’s cheating it and bending it (breaking it, even) to make it work for her. At least the criminals are unquestionably criminals — they’re not pretending to be legit. So while intellectually we know that Roman and his chums are Bad Guys (they’re drug smugglers who don’t care if their human mules die!), in this particular storyline we are much more likely to be on their side: they’ve been wronged by Marla, they deserve their recompense. Heck, they even attempt to do it legally first — that’s more than we can say about other wronged heroes, like, say, John Wick.

    Even while I Care a Lot is watchable thanks to its strong direction and highly talented cast, it’s an awkward viewing experience because it feels like we’re constantly at odds with the movie itself. That it eventually gives us what we need (via a small part for Macron Blair, which merits a metatextual “huh” in relation to the themes of his role in Blue Ruin) is scant compensation for the difficulties up to that point.

    3 out of 5

    I Care a Lot was the 101st film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2021.