Spiderhead (Review)

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Director: Joseph Kosinski
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Miles Teller, Jurnee Smollett, Mark Paguio, Tess Haubrich, Angie Millikan
Certificate: 15
Run Time: 107 mins

Spiderhead is the second film of the year to be directed by Joseph Kosinski, who is currently enjoying healthy box office returns and critical acclaim with Top Gun: Maverick, currently in cinemas. This straight-to-Netflix dystopian sci-fi thriller is set on a state-of-the-art penitentiary, called Spiderhead. The inmates are convicts from state prisons who have volunteered to head to the facility to reduce their sentence time. They wear a surgically attached device that administers a cocktail of mind-altering drugs, the effects analysed by Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth) and his assistant, Mark (Mark Paguio). Abnesti runs the prison with an open-door policy and the inmates are unsupervised – they have their own rooms and are free to roam around the facility. One of the inmates, Jeff (Miles Teller) represents the audience insight into the narrative and the first act of the film explores an experiment with him and two female inmates. 

It’s a fascinating concept and the characters are subjected to make some dark and difficult decisions. Spiderhead is directed with flair by Kosinski and the performances are great. Miles Teller is typically reliable and carries the baggage of his character’s crimes with the will to change his future convincingly. Hemsworth is excellent as the voyeuristic Abnesti, whose charisma walks a fine line between prickly comedy and satisfying ridiculousness. 

Cinematographer Claudio Miranda captures the prisoners’ point of view excellently, the hues of artificial colours inside the penitentiary juxtaposed with the lush, tropical island settling. Kosinski does well to methodically reveal character backstories, maintaining tension throughout proceedings. 

There’s also an interesting soundtrack by Kosinski-regular Joseph Trapanese, who flits between a predominantly electronic original score with 1970s rock, with some of the tracks are interestingly inserted dietetically into the film. 

The third act of the film changes gear from exploring its interesting themes and human behaviour to a more action-heavy delirium. I suspect this is why the film is receiving mixed reviews but I got on board with it and liked how Kosinski leaned into the ridiculousness of the premise. 

Spiderhead is an original sci-fi thriller that I had a lot of fun with. Kosinski constantly keeps the film fresh, being careful to keep audiences on their toes with its narrative and the cast are all fresh. I found the ending a natural and satisfyingly bleak place to develop its story and the film is bolstered by some entertaining performances.  

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Lightyear (Review)

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Angus MacLane
Starring: (voices of) Chris Evans, Keke Palmer, Peter Sohn, Taika Waititi, Dale Soules, James Brolin, Uzo Aduba
Certificate: PG
Run Time: 105 mins

Lightyear is the latest from Disney Pixar, a spin-off of the family favourite Toy Story character voiced by Tim Allen. The Toy Story series was a perfect trilogy and when Pixar announced a fourth film, many were trepidatious. While Toy Story 4 is, by far, the weakest in the series, it’s remains a ‘pretty great’ quadrilogy. Pixar are now heading down the prequel route with Lightyear but the studio says the film is divorced from the Toy Story series. A succinct opening title card states the film’s intention – “In 1995 Andy got a toy. That toy was based on a movie. This is that movie.” 

Chris Evans voices the space ranger and the film opens with Buzz and his commanding officer and best friend, Alisha Hawthorne, exploring a potentially habitable planet. Like the figure audiences have grown to love in Toy Story, this version of Lightyear is equally stubborn and prefers to work alone. 

Buzz and Hawthorne soon discover the planet is home to devil’s snare-like hostile life forms and the vessel they arrived on sustains damage. The planet ultimately becomes home to the duo and in time, a colony including Hathorne’s granddaughter Izzy, as Buzz is unable to crack the code of hyperspace travel. Buzz feels responsible for his mistake and feels it his mission to move the colony off the planet to pastures new. 

Lightyear is an amiable but unremarkable entry from Pixar that hits obvious narrative beats. It’s beautifully animated and the cinematography of Pixar-regular Jeremy Lasky, is inspired, but when you’re focussing on the interstellar aesthetics and not the story, there’s clearly a problem somewhere. 

On the plus side, Chris Evans makes the character his own and seems to have made an effortless step into voice acting. The script is tightly-paced, although it doesn’t leave a lot of time for characters to breathe and for them to be fleshed out. Other than the brilliant feline robot, Sox, who gets some excellent lines delivered in deadpan by Peter Sohn, the humour didn’t really work for me. 

The character interactions between Lightyear and the misfit crew are well-intentioned and they build a meaningful rapport. Taika Waititi essentially voices a spaceman version of himself and Keke Palmer is fine as Hawthorne’s granddaughter. Dale Soules as Darby Steel rounds out the crew and gets some humorous moments here and there, an ex-convict with a penchant for munitions. 

Director Angus MacLane clearly has a love of science fiction and that’s evident in the film’s reverent tone. But he seems to be reluctant to deal with the reasonably philosophical themes of change and personal growth, only hinting at them now and again. The score by Michael Giacchino is serviceable but never particularly rousing.  

Perhaps Lightyear’s execution is intentionally obvious – if Andy received the Buzz Lightyear figure in 1995, that would date the film to the 1980s. On that note, it succeeds and if you haven’t watched a film of this type before, of course a younger child would enjoy it. 

Lightyear is a reasonably stirring and well-intentioned film but it doesn’t particularly advance the series, nor is it particularly memorable. It’s a film that deserves a stronger concept and story and it doesn’t live up to the vast majority of Pixar’s other animated works. 

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Hustle (Review)

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Jeremiah Zagar
Starring: Adam Sandler, Queen Latifah, Ben Foster, Juancho Hernangómez, Robert Duvall, Anthony Edwards
Certificate: 15
Run Time: 117 mins

Hustle is a sports drama and represents the second feature length film to be directed by Jeremiah Zagar, following his debut We The Animals. Adam Sandler stars as Stanley Sugarman, a basketball NBA scout for the Philadelphia 76ers who is beyond the prime of his career. After a turn of events see him head to Spain, he stumbles upon an unknown but talented player in a local game called Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangómez). After some initial hesitation stemmed from his family arrangements, Cruz accepts Sugarman’s invitation and flies to America in an attempt to draft him into the NBA scouts. Sugarman also faces life baggage as he is consistently away from his family, his wife Teresa (Queen Latifah) and daughter Alex (Jordan Hull). There’s a repeated, poignant line that he has missed the last nine of his daughter’s birthdays. 

Hustle doesn’t particularly stray from sports drama convention but it’s an investing and consistently entertaining drama from start to finish. After giving the performance of his career in the thoroughly unnerving Uncut Gems, Adam Sandler continues to turn his poor comedic career choices around with another excellent performance. Sandler sells the washed-up mentality of the scout but clearly still has lots of passion for the sport. When he first witnesses Cruz playing in a local pick-up game, Sandler deftly portrays Sugarman’s lifelong inspiration rushing back to him in one hit, having been sucked dry for many years.

Juancho Hernangómez is also terrific as Cruz and is given a compelling back story for why he finds himself in the situation he is initially in at the start of the film. Both Sandler and Hernangómez share an absorbing chemistry, which makes the duo easy to root for. Of the rest of the cast, Latifah isn’t given much to work with as Sandler’s wife, and the ever-versatile Ben Foster is also short-changed as Sandler’s disparaging boss. 

It may not be as unpredictable as a basketball fixture, but Hustle is a well-intentioned film with a spring in its step bolstered by two great performances, even if it chooses to stick closely to convention. 

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Men (Review)

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Alex Garland
Starring: Jessie Buckley, Rory Kinnear, Paapa Essiedu, Gayle Rankin
Certificate: 15
Run Time: 100 mins

Men is the third film from Alex Garland, whose first two sci-fi films Ex_Machina and Annihilation were both thoughtful, thrilling and visually interesting pieces. Garland sidesteps from sci-fi into British folk horror and this film follows a young widow, Harper (Jessie Buckley) who ventures to the Cotswolds for a well-earned break from London city life and to recover from the death of her husband. 

She meets Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), the eccentric owner of the holiday let and Harper later dismisses him to her friend on a FaceTime calling him a “certain type”. Harper is clearly still raw from the event that made her a widow and shortly after she reaches her holiday retreat, she starts to become tormented by strange men in the village, all of whom are portrayed by Rory Kinnear. Harper starts to become overwhelmed by the titular men, who all share predatory or patronising traits.

Men’s first two acts are thrilling and Garland skilfully drip-feeds his audience details of her past trauma a piece at a time. He establishes a deeply unsettling tone and deftly ramps up the tension through Harper’s mental paranoia. The film is as much a metaphorical piece as much as it is a horror, using its frightening elements as allegories for misogyny, grieving and rebirth. 

Unfortunately, the film nosedives in its third act. On the plus side, there’s some suitably slimy body horror but Garland is self-indulgent and throws away any subtlety he builds in its first two acts. It just becomes rather silly and certainly not as clever as it thinks it is. 

The film is bolstered by an eery choral soundtrack from Garland regulars, Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow. The duo combine diegetic music with non-diegetic, one scene imaginatively sees Harper stop in a tunnel and sing chords, to experience the effects of the echo. 

Rob Hardy vividly captures the beauty yet foreboding nature of the Cotswolds. He captures many arresting images, from the full blown body horror to the biblical apple tree in the holiday let’s front garden.   

Jessie Buckley’s great as the prickly Harper. I’ve been quite sniffy on her performances in the past, especially with The Lost Daughter where her accent wanders all over the place (I still cannot grasp how she earned an Oscar nomination), but this role plays to her strengths. This is career best work from Rory Kinnear – all of his characters are strikingly individual and have their own personalities, which is an impressive feat. 

One aspect that threw me out somewhat in the film’s opening was a geographical goof – Harper is seen driving on the M40 motorway as there is a sign for Princes Risborough and Watlington which are small towns on the Oxfordshire / Buckinghamshire border but Kinnear’s landlord makes reference to how “the M4 can be a bore”. Harper would have had no reason to travel on the M4 to the Cotswolds if she is driving on the M40 past these towns. 

It’s a shame that Men falls apart in its third act, but for its first two, I was generally really on board with the film. Garland initially unveils his hand methodically and he coaxes two excellent performances from Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear. Men may be Garland’s weakest film but it’s still a strong piece from the director and I’d rather a filmmaker take a risk and it not fully succeed than play it safe.  

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Top Gun: Maverick (Review)

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Joseph Kosinski
Starring: Tom Cruise, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly, Jon Hamm, Glen Powell, Lewis Pullman, Ed Harris, Val Kilmer
Certificate: 12A
Run Time: 130 mins

Top Gun: Maverick is the long-awaited sequel to the late Tony Scott’s 1982 original, a film which quite literally propelled Tom Cruise’s career. Very much a product of its time in its tone and treatment of women, while the action sequences are admirable and Cruise’s performance is earnest, I can’t say I’m a big advocate of the original. This sequel is directed by Joseph Kosinski, who most recently directed the excellent forest-fire action drama Only The Brave and he reunites with some of the cast and crew such as Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly and cinematographer Claudio Miranda. 

Cruise returns as the titular Maverick, whose career has stalled thirty years later at the Captain rank after graduating from TOPGUN, due to repeat insubordination. Fellow TOPGUN rival and friend Iceman (Val Kilmer) has kept Maverick’s career afloat. 

Maverick is drafted in to tutor current TOPGUN students and to lead them on a mission to destroy an unsanctioned uranium enrichment plant. It relies on two miracles as it sits at a low altitude in a canyon. They have two chances to shoot at the target that lies in the canyon and to then escape, they have to fly up a steep bank where the pilots will experience forces in excess of 9.5G’s. The mission is further compounded by the fact they have to achieve all of this in the space of two and a half minutes. 

Maverick is uneasy with the assignment firstly due to its complexity but chiefly, as one of the test pilots in the group is Rooster (Miles Teller), son of Goose who was famously cooked in the first film. Maverick feels responsible for Goose’s death and both Maverick and Rooster share disdain for each other. 

Top Gun: Maverick is a surprisingly good film and is vastly superior to the original. While its story is familiar and fairly predictable, it is significantly more coherent and focussed with a singular narrative to achieve this specific mission. Tony Scott’s original wrangled in different directions and its climax sequence felt tacked on and unearned. 

The flight sequences are particularly excellent and are nail-biting in moments. It has the precision of Mission: Impossible director Christopher McQuarrie who co-writes and produces the film.

I’ve long been a critic of Tom Cruise and I’d argue he has far more misses than hits. Cruise’s performance works here as he plays an older and jaded instructor, whose ego and arrogance have been somewhat tarnished by his experiences. Miles Teller is reliably excellent as Rooster but there isn’t quite as much meat to the bone to the tumultuous relationship between him and Maverick as there could have been. There is a poignant scene with Val Kilmer, who returns as Iceman to offer his advice to Maverick and his voice is recreated using archival footage, after Kilmer lost his voice following throat cancer. 

Jennifer Connelly is rather wasted in a mundane role as Cruise’s love interest – like the original, Kosinski mostly fails with the treatment of women, although that said, Monica Barbaro as a courageous test pilot is excellent. 

The score by Harold Faltermeyer, Lady Gaga and Hans Zimmer fits in well with the film, although it isn’t particularly memorable. The composers continue the theme of pop music interspersed with an original score and they reuse Kenny Loggins’ iconic Danger Zone.  The film is richly shot by Claudio Miranda, who is particularly adept with the action sequences where he doesn’t resort to frenetic quick cuts. 

Top Gun: Maverick is an excellent action sequel that improves on the original in almost every way. The flight sequences are thrilling and the story thrives in its simplicity. Kosinski wisely finds the right balance between relying on nostalgia and creating an original piece. It’s not quite the action masterpiece that some are claiming it to be though – it’s not as radical a piece as George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road, which was essentially an entire film of rip-roaring action, and it doesn’t pack many narrative twists up its sleeve.  But it doesn’t need to be. For Top Gun: Maverick to be an improvement on the original is a miracle in and of itself and I’m glad it exists. 

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Everything Everywhere All At Once (Review)

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Dan Kwan & Daniel Scheinert
Starring: Michelle Yeoh, Stephanie Hsu, Ke Huy Quan, Jenny Slate, Harry Shum Jr, James Hong, Tallie Medel, Jamie Lee Curtis
Certificate: 15
Run Time: 139 mins

Everything Everywhere All At Once is the second feature film directed by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (collectively known as ‘Daniels’). Their debut feature was Swiss Army Man, a surreal comedy that starred Paul Dano as a man marooned on an island who is joined by Daniel Radcliffe as a farting corpse. Yes, you read that right. Despite critical acclaim, I couldn’t connect with the film at all and found it too zany for its own good. 

It is difficult to categorise Everything Everywhere All At Once as it blends many genres but it is most closely an absurdist science fiction with elements of black comedy and martial arts. 

The film stars Michelle Yeoh as Evelyn Quan Wang, an overwhelmed laundromat owner who lives with her goofy husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan). The laundromat is being audited by the IRS and Waymond is similarly dissatisfied with life, ready to hand Evelyn divorce papers. 

Family matters are complicated further by their daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu) who is trying to get her mother to accept her girlfriend, Becky (Tallie Medel). This is as well as Evelyn’s demanding wheelchair-bound father Gong Gong (James Hong), who has just arrived to stay with the family from China. 

It’s an excellent set-up and the directors deftly introduce the family members and their dysfunctional dynamic. The film then veers into genre mayhem as it’s crunch-time for the family with the IRS (Jamie Lee Curtis plays the interrogating inspector).  Evelyn is introduced to the concept of the Multiverse by ‘Alpha Waymond’, a version of Waymond from the ‘Alphaverse’. He explains that each decision a person creates an alternate universe and he has developed the ability to jump across universes. The multiverse is being threatened by Jobu Tupaki, formerly Alpha Joy, who can experience every universe simultaneously following a disagreement with Alpha Evelyn. 

The multiverse has been explored extensively in film recently, with Marvel using it to align different comic properties and expand the overarching narratives with films such as Spider-Man: No Way Home and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. I have a mixed outlook on the concept, as it tends to lessen the stakes of character emotional involvement, as well as making them more expendable. Kwan and Scheinert explore the concept differently as they draw parallels between universes and the life choices Evelyn has made, which affords the film an existential and nihilistic quality. The multiverse is therefore not for the sake of simply advancing a narrative but to function as a thematic mirror. 

Everything Everywhere All At Once is a film that needs to be watched repeatedly to fully understand it but my impressions after a first viewing are mixed. Starting with the positives, the first half an hour before the multiverse shenanigans are introduced is pretty much perfect. Once the multiverse concept is introduced, the film goes off the rails. There’s some giddy and inventive action sequences and heading into the third act, the film has a celestial quality as it starts to merge the multiverse with the theme of family. At times, the film is also quite profound. 

Another plus are the performances, which are uniformly excellent. Michelle Yeoh gives one of the best performances of her career as Evelyn, who goes through quite the emotional arc. What a comeback for Ke Huy Quan, who peaked as a child with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and The Goonies before largely leaving Hollywood. He matches Yeoh in the scenes they share and has a sincere yet earnest quality. 

Stephanie Hsu is clearly a talent to watch for as she is brilliant as the daughter with an identity crisis. James Hong is given some great moments as the directors explore the inevitable problems old age can bring but brilliantly subvert this at times. Jamie Lee Curtis is fine as the IRS representative, whose character morphs into other personalities but I found the character strange and hard to connect with. 

Onto the negatives, again with the caveat that I need to rewatch the film, but I found the film to be painfully overlong and repetitive. The novelty of the action sequences wore off quickly once the multiverse concept is let out of the bag and there’s just far too much baggage and a lack of momentum before the film starts to draw connections between the multiverse and the mother-daughter relationship. A good forty minutes or so could be cut. 

I didn’t find the film particularly funny and the Daniels often revert to their boisterous stoner humour. They explore absurdist realities such as one where people have hotdogs for fingers as well as one that bizarrely features a raccoon transposition of Ratatouille. Both subplots are tediously overextended and aren’t as funny or profound as the Daniels intended. 

On initial viewing, Everything Everywhere All At Once is a decidedly mixed bag. The film features excellent performances and its presentation of family is often well-judged. The film is strongest in its first and final acts but I found large stretches of its middle to be convoluted and repetitive and the humour often didn’t work for me. It’s a gargantuan step-up from Swiss Army Man and an ambitious follow-up but I don’t think the film is quite as intelligent as it thinks it is and find it quite overrated. I wish I liked it more. 

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness (Review)

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Sam Raimi
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, Xochitl Gomez, Michael Stuhlbarg, Rachel McAdams
Certificate: 12A
Run Time: 126 mins

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is the latest in the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe. It principally follows the events of Spider-Man: No Way Home and the Disney+ television series WandaVision. Although this is the officially Doctor Strange’s second solo film, the Sorcerer Supreme has featured in many Marvel films now, a key figure of Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, as well as a brief appearance in Thor: Ragnarok

His first solo outing, Doctor Strange, was one of the best entries in the Marvel canon, a thoroughly entertaining self-contained film directed by Scott Derrickson. Derrickson is most famous for his horror films such as The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Sinister and was able to put his own distinctive stamp on the material. 

Derrickson was slated to write and direct this sequel but unfortunately joins an ever-increasing group of directors who leave a project due to creative differences. It is always difficult for a distinguished director to be granted their own voice in the Marvel juggernaut and the studio have received repeated criticism for having a ‘house’ style. Luckily, Sam Raimi stepped in, another horror auteur, who found fame through his Evil Dead trilogy and the overrated and silly Drag Me To Hell. Raimi is also no stranger to the superhero genre, having directed the original Tobey Maguire Spider-Man trilogy.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a well-directed and generally entertaining sequel that takes ambitious risks in its narrative with its characters. From a directorial standpoint, Raimi mostly succeeds with putting his signature stamp on the material such as the exploration of the themes of possession, witchcraft and apparitions. There are a handful of jump scares too, which is novel for a Marvel entry, although they are relatively tame for a mature audience. 

The film is often visually arresting and the cinematography by John Mathieson is interesting. Like his work on Logan, Mathieson prefers to hold onto a shot than resort to quick cuts and the camera movement is often disorienting and kaleidoscopic. 

There are also some strong performances. Benedict Cumberbatch is effortless as the Sorcerer Supreme and the film offers him a natural character progression. Elizabeth Olsen is also excellent as Wanda Maximoff and the film offers her an ambitious but satisfying arc, although it is likely to draw controversy amongst some fans. Newcomer Xochitl Gomez makes a strong impression as America Chavez, a teenager who has the ability to change between ‘Multiverses’ (universes) when she is afraid, who is being hunted by an individual and Doctor Strange is forced to team up and protect her. 

There is also an interesting score by Danny Elfman, who regularly collaborates with Raimi, that has a domineering presence throughout the film. Some cues really gel with the material, although some doesn’t and it is disappointing that Elfman doesn’t revisit Michael Giacchino’s original and very memorable theme. In fact, it is quite hypocritical as Elfman controversially chose to ignore Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL’s themes for the theatrical edition of Justice League, citing that the best way to justice the characters was to to revisit their original themes. 

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’ most significant downfall is its ramshackle construction. It is all over the place narratively and not everything sticks. For every bold choice, there is a regressive counterpart and the film isn’t paced particularly well. It comes in at a reasonable 126 minute run time but there is a lot of narrative to get through and some scenes race through character beats whilst others are tiresome. The film opens rather wonkily, with a silly first-act action sequences between Strange, Chavez and a creature but luckily finds its feet soon afterward. At least Raimi doesn’t fall into the frequent trap of comic-book films overdoing the third act with an uninteresting and overlong CGI-heavy battle, which has hurt many a Marvel film. 

Although Marvel are hell-bent on developing a Multiverse, the notion is always a difficult concept as it feels like a cheap way of rectifying a narrative which lessens the stakes for the characters. That said, it’s not Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’ fault specifically, as it’s a running theme throughout the canon. 

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is ultimately a hodgepodge of a sequel, but an often entertaining ride and Raimi is able to put his personal stamp on the material to a degree. I wish Raimi was allowed even more free rein and leaned harder into the horror angle, as that feels like a natural tone for the material. There will always be a part of me that wonders what Scott Derrickson had in mind, as he also wanted to head down the horror route. Had he been able to deliver the film that he envisaged, it could have been very special. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness isn’t top-tier Marvel or Sam Raimi fare, but it’s an ambitious and for the most part, an exciting if flawed sequel. 

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

The Northman (Review)

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Robert Eggers
Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Björk, Willem Dafoe
Certificate: 15
Run Time: 138 mins

The Northman is the latest by director Robert Eggers and is arguably his highest-profile film to date. Eggers cooked a cinematic storm with his debut feature The Witch which was a visceral and deeply unsettling drama that was wrongly marketed as an out-and-out horror film which disappointed some audiences. It also served as a launchpad for Anya Taylor-Joy whose exemplary and nuanced performance provided the film’s backbone. 

Eggers next directed The Lighthouse, which performed favourably with critics. I thought Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe delivered excellent, authentic performances and the film’s atmosphere was frequently mesmerising, although narratively it is a challenging watch.   

The Northman is a historical revenge epic starring Alexander Skarsgård as Amleth, a Viking prince whose father, King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) is brutally murdered by his Uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) when he is a child. Fjölnir takes control of the kingdom and puts a price on Amleth’s head, forcing him to flee, and unites with Amleth’s mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). 

Amleth has a simple quest, a mantra that he repeats to himself throughout the film – avenge his father, save his mother and kill Fjölnir. The film jumps forward in time when Amleth is a fully fledged man, a member of a band of Vikings who have raised him as a ruthless berserker. When Amleth encounters a Seeress (Björk) following an attack on a village, he is placed on his path of revenge. 

The Northman is a Robert Eggers film through and through and there’s a lot to admire, even if it is flawed. As he has demonstrated in his first two films, his attention to authenticity is laudable and the Scandinavian setting is presented as a cutthroat, desolate and animalistic vista. It is typically well-researched and the script penned by Eggers and Icelandic poet Sjón feels genuine in its choice of language.  

The film is frequently spiritual and dream-like in its tone, although it often borders on the ridiculous and is full of portent. The first half an hour is particularly sensory, as the young Amleth undergoes a spiritual coming-of-age ceremony with his father. There is also an astonishingly beautiful montage sequence that foreshows Amleth’s destiny that is Eggers through and through. 

The cinematography by Eggers-regular Jarin Blaschke is profound and evocative, a long-take in an early raiding of a village particularly satisfying. The Northman marks the first of Eggers’ films not to be scored by Mark Korven and instead brings the duo of Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough to the fore. The score also does a lot of the heavy lifting in establishing a grim tone with its authentic string and percussion-based beats. 

As is also typical for Eggers, the director coaxes some excellent performances from the talented cast. Alexander Skarsgård is not the most subtle of actors in quieter films but with this being a more physical role that suits him, he delivers and he makes for a commanding lead. Anya Taylor-Joy is by far and away the highlight of the film with a typically nuanced and delicate performance as Olga, a Slavic sorceress whose path crosses with Amleth, their love diverting from his mission. Claes Bang is also surprisingly excellent as the seemingly formidable yet pathetic Fjölnir, offering a muted performance, which is against type as he is quite a showy actor. Ethan Hawke delivers an interesting but committed performance as the King with a limited life in the film’s first thirty minutes and Willem Dafoe makes a commanding impression in a small role as a court jester. Björk also delivers an assured performance as the Seeress in a small role. It’s only really Nicole Kidman who doesn’t bring her all to the role of the Queen, although she is serviceable enough. 

The Northman has its fair share of flaws though and it’s not quite the slam-dunk it could have been. Although Eggers generates a palpable atmosphere, the film’s narrative is rather empty and it doesn’t have much of an elegiac and lasting quality to it. That said, there are some interesting sporadic plot twists that keep the film tipped on the fresh side. One also has to suspend narrative belief as Amleth could very easily achieved his mission earlier. The film is a lengthy 138 minutes and it sure is plodding in its pace at times. 

The film is also not nearly violent enough considering its subject matter. Eggers stages some visceral action sequences with some thrilling kills, but they are generally all implied as the camera cuts away, leaving the action to audience interpretation.

The Northman is ultimately an ambitious Viking epic with some excellent performances and arresting visuals. However, it’s lacking in its narrative and lacks the lasting impact of the best historical epic revenge films. It is always better for a director to take risks than to compromise in its directors vision and deliver an anonymous picture. On that front, The Northman is unmistakably a Robert Eggers film that showcases his best and worst qualities. 

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (Review)

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Director: David Yates
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Jude Law, Ezra Miller, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, William Nadylam, Callum Turner, Jessica Williams, Mads Mikkelsen
Certificate: 12A
Run Time: 142 mins

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore is the third instalment in the spin-off series to the Harry Potter films. The series has drawn a fair amount of controversy, firstly with J.K. Rowling’s controversial comments on the transgender community losing her a legion of fans following the release of the The Crimes of Grindelwald. Then, there is Johnny Depp who plays the lead villain, Gellert Grindelwald, his career in limbo during his high-profile feud with Amber Heard. For The Secrets of Dumbledore, he was controversially asked to step down from the series and is instead replaced by Mads Mikkelsen. Ezra Miller, who plays Credence, has also been in trouble for his public conduct, which also doesn’t grant the film any favours. 

Perhaps the biggest hurdle of all is that The Secrets of Dumbledore is riding off the back of The Crimes of Grindelwald, the first in the entire Wizarding World canon to garner a mixed-to-negative reception. Whilst I loved Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, I was also disappointed by The Crimes of Grindelwald, a film that makes some strange decisions, chooses to bewilderingly retcon prior narrative events and is far too busy concerned with setting up future films than being entertaining itself. 

This third entry sees the younger Dumbledore (Jude Law) tasking series lead Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and his allies in their quest to thwart Grindelwald’s rapid ascent, who seeks to be elected as the Supreme Mugwump to govern over the wizarding world to unleash his reign of terror.  Can The Secrets of Dumbledore function as a course-correction for the series?  

The answer is mostly a resounding yes as Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore learns some important lessons from the second film’s shortcomings. Returning director David Yates deftly melds both Grindelwald’s political quest and Newt’s storyline and unlike the second film which sidelined the titular fantastic beasts, Newt’s briefcase of magical creatures play an important part in the narrative. 

David Yates is a fine director and as well as this series, he was responsible for the final four Harry Potter films and also the underrated The Legend of Tarzan. He excels as a visual voice and always strikes a poetic tone but he sadly seemed to be on autopilot for large sections of The Crimes of Grindelwald. There are some arresting visuals here and the film is directed with confidence.  

There are some noteworthy performances, with Jude Law the standout in an expanded role as Dumbledore, who retains Michael Gambon’s twinkly personality and Irish lilt. Redmayne carries the film well again and Callum Turner as Newt’s Auror brother, Theseus makes more of an impression in an expanded role, as he was quite wooden last time round. 

Newcomer Mads Mikkelsen is excellent as Grindelwald but wisely avoids channeling Johnny Depp’s equally strong performance. Mikkelsen is a more straight-faced but solemn presence and the idea that his character and Law’s Dumbledore had a romantic relationship is believable. Richard Coyle is also new to the franchise as Dumbledore’s brother Aberforth, and he’s also great and I can very easily see how the character grows up to be his older, gruff self as played by Ciaran Hinds in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

Cinematographer George Richmond replaces Philippe Rousselot for this third installment and he conjures a greyer aesthetic to suit the world that is on the brink of an all-out war, foregoing Rousselot’s more romantic elements. 

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore is a thoroughly entertaining ride that justifies the existence of this series. I’m not sure if it’s quite as good as the first instalment but it’s certainly pretty close. Sadly, the film has attracted mixed-to-positive reviews and with the many controversies looming over, I really hope it’s not the end for the series. I’d love to see how the story develops, as it slowly heads to the exciting historical wizarding match between Dumbledore and Grindelwald. Only time (and the box office) will determine the series future. 

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Best Films of 2021 (10-1)

This is the second part of my Best Films of 2021 feature detailing my Top Ten films. Click here to read numbers 25 to 11.

Without further ado, here are my Top Ten films of 2021:

10) The Little Things 

Sure to be an unpopular choice, for the majority of the run time of The Little Things, I was enamoured by the atmosphere, the development of the characters and the performances. Denzel Washington and Rami Malek make a great pair, Washington particularly convincing as the experienced but unorthodox sheriff. The Little Things is a neo-noir crime thriller that heavily wears its inspiration of David Fincher’s Se7en and Zodiac on its sleeve. Director John Lee Hancock lends an assured hand to the material, allowing the film a familiar feel that revels in its atmosphere.

Unfortunately, the film runs into murky water in its final 15 minutes with its controversial ending. Granted, it is original but I found it very anti-climatic, abrupt and like a big nothing and more than a little underwhelming. Hancock justifies the decision to end the film in this way. The film could easily for me have gone on for longer to solve its central mystery, but the film isn’t really interested in this and is more focussed on character. It is easy to understand the mixed reception to The Little Things but until its ending, I found it to be a riveting drama that is very cine-literate.

9) The Suicide Squad

The Suicide Squad is for the most part a giddy, gory and thoroughly adult superhero film. The film is written and directed by James Gunn, whose sensibility for gory horror and dark humour, blend perfectly with the source material, feeling much more akin to his earlier works such as Slither and Super. Gunn originally hit critical acclaim with Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy and its sequel, the first film in particular proving a refreshing break from the tired Marvel formula that really allowed his personality to shine through. Despite breaking free of the Marvel formula, Gunn was still constrained to a 12A / PG-13 rating, therefore The Suicide Squad represents him at his most unrestrained. 

The Suicide Squad fits into the wider DCEU rather awkwardly in that it is a part-sequel to 2016’s critically mauled Suicide Squad in that it shares a handful of the same characters but it also functions as a part-reboot in that everything about it is completely different to that film. 

Gunn has proven a knack for picking unfamiliar comic-book characters and spinning a gripping yarn from their background. The Suicide Squad is paced extremely well and the script is stuffed with quips and wisecracking interplay between the characters. There is violence and gore aplenty – heads are decapitated, blood splatters after characters get shot in the face and King Shark likes to devour people… a lot! This is a film that earns its 15 / R rating and it is all the better for it. Like its predecessor, there isn’t much of a story again this time round, but the characters combined objective acts as a coherent plot and there are some excellent character twists along the way. Gunn does an excellent job in not allowing his audience to get to attached to characters, as life is pretty expendable in this film. 

In a wider context, what impressed me most about The Suicide Squad was its progressive characters for the genre, which acts as a revisionist take on the superhero genre. The superhero genre is overpopulated with generic films that are uncomfortable in breaking the mould and Gunn’s film actively tries to defy conventions, even if it’s not always successful, but the ambition is to be admired. 

The main drawback of the film is in its ending, which unfortunately sticks to convention and is a little anti-climatic when the rest of the film is so entertaining and refreshing. 

8) Minari

Minari is an affecting and amiable portrayal of a hard-working, but down on their luck Korean family who are trying to carve out their own American dream. Directed by Lee Isaac Chung, Minari follows immigrant Jacob Yi (Steve Yeun), who is fed up of working in a chicken hatchery in California and moves his young family to a considerable piece of land that he has brought in rural Arkansas with a rickety mobile home. The interplay between the family is excellent and the performances poignant. The highlights are of course, Youn Yuh-Jung, whose Oscar win for her turn as the grandmother is excellent, deftly balancing the comedic elements of the role with some powerful sequences in the third act. Steve Yeun is also commendable as Jacob and his plight for success is piercing to the audience, as is Han Ye-ri as Monica. The film is technically beautiful with dream-like cinematography from Lachlan Milne, the families land seeming other-worldly and distant. Emile Mosseri’s predominantly piano and woodwind based score is also soul-stirring in its ethereal quality.  

7) Candyman

Candyman is an accomplished and thought-provoking update in the series and cements director Nia DaCosta as a new talent to watch. This spiritual sequel is a continuation of the story established in Bernard Rose’s original Candyman, an equally stimulating entry that has aged well even today. DaCosta’s film ignores the two sequels, both of which failed to garner critical acclaim, the second of which was one of director Bill Condon’s early works. 

Yahya Abdul-Matteen II plays Anthony McCoy, an artist who is suffering from writer’s block who lives with his girlfriend, Brianna (Teyonah Paris) who is an art gallery director. His writer’s block subsides once he learns of the Candyman legend and this suddenly gets his creative juices following until the horror legend starts to come to life and consume his mind. 

Directing from a script which Get Out and Us director Jordan Peele contributed to, Nia DaCosta makes an electric impression behind the screen. Whilst the influences of Peele can be felt in the film’s interrogation of gender, race and sexuality, DaCosta impresses with her cineliteracy, particularly with the exploration of the theme of the double through the use of mirrors and mirrored reflections. Art is explored as a mirrored reality and Anthony is unsettled at his reflection. There are some arresting sequences in the first act of the film where images are inverted and disorienting, setting a foreboding atmosphere. This is complimented by Robert Aubrey Aiki Lowe’s brilliant score and soundscape and it’s refreshing to see him craft his own memorable themes as well as revisit Philip Glass’ original themes, which really elevated the original film.

6) Stillwater

Stillwater is the long awaited follow-up from writer-director Tom McCarthy, after his last film Spotlight won the Best Picture Oscar back in 2016. Despite the film drawing some controversy due to its parallels with the Amanda Knox case, Stillwater is an excellent crime drama that is played on a more human scale and centres on one of Matt Damon’s best performances.

Matt Damon plays unemployed oil-rig worker Bill Baker who frequently journeys to Marseille from the small town of Stillwater, Oklahoma to visit his daughter, Allison Baker (Abigail Breslin). Allison is five years into her nine year prison sentence after being convicted of killing her university roommate, Lina. Bill is a man of few words and works in order to afford the trips to France. When Bill is in France on a visit, there is an opportunity for the case to be reopened and he fights for his daughter to be exonerated. He has difficulty with the language barrier and the French bureaucracy system. Many locals in the city are aware of the case and know what his daughter did. After a fortuitous chain of events, befriends Virginie (Camille Cottin) and her young daughter, Maya and they all take a reciprocal liking to each other.

Stillwater has a satisfying yet searing narrative and the character relationships are admirably developed, particularly between the central trio of Bill, Virginie and Maya. Bill is essentially given a second chance at fatherhood, after he proclaims that he screwed up in the past. If you can accept the fact that Stillwater is merely inspired from Amanda Knox and doesn’t follow the case to the letter, then you have what is one of the best films of the year. 

5) Old

Old is another bonkers concept by the auteur M. Night Shyamalan, and tonally is somewhere between Get Out and The Beach, infused with The Twilight Zone. It is a frequently profound and is an intense, nightmarish exploration into the themes of life and maturation. The film follows a group of people who find themselves on a beach where they seem to be ageing rapidly. A scene between two old characters facing worsening eyesight and deafness is beautiful, as their memories are worsening and losing the concept of space and time. Shyamalan deftly balances these profound moments with freakish body horror and violence, one sequence in particular involving a knife is particularly harrowing and well shot. That said, the film could have benefitted from portraying more of these bloody images rather than most of the violence being portrayed off-screen, although the on-screen horror that Shyamalan decides to portray is enough to earn the film a 15 age rating.

Old is a strong and unapologetic effort from Shyamalan and is further evidence of his career resurrection following Split and (controversially) his best film Glass, if you get on board with the narrative. 

4) Army of the Dead

Army of the Dead, visionary director Zack Snyder’s first film post-DC, is a total blast from start to finish. Snyder is no stranger to the zombie thriller genre as his first film was Dawn of the Dead, a very solid remake of George A. Romero’s original. This is not connected to Dawnbut does take some inspiration from other Romero works. Snyder crafts a fascinating world here and there is some interesting political sub-text. Ethical questions are posed that draw parallels to the current American political climate and treatment of migrants. We are introduced to a diverse set of characters that are going to carry out the heist operation. Whilst the character tropes are fairly conventional and some characters aren’t really fleshed out, this is a zombie film after all and it’s inevitable that some of the cast are only introduced to die. The film is a visual treat and Snyder, who acts his own cinematographer for the first time, does a commendable job in building a convincing post-apolocalyptic world that doesn’t feel too far removed from how it is currently. The film is bursting with colour and Snyder leans into the creative kills and gore that earn the film its 18-rating with joyful glee, the opening credits to the film being particularly memorable. He balances this with some suitably dour darker lit sequences that highlight the origins of the Alphas and their leader Zeus, who is particularly well developed as a villain, and fits in perfectly with Snyder’s horror roots. Army of the Dead is further proof that Snyder works best when he is not restrained by a film studio.

Now into the top #3…

3) No Time To Die

No Time To Die represents Daniel Craig’s swan-song as James Bond, whose films have proved to be the most consistent out of all the actors to play Ian Fleming’s spy. This is an operatic and thrilling finale to the Daniel Craig era that takes some ambitious risks in its narrative. Director Cary Joji Fukunaga’s fingerprints can be felt all over the film from the Japanese memorabilia to the more intimate character moments. The first half an hour gave me goosebumps with an opening tinged in horror and then an emotive initial action sequence. Fukunaga explores a more personal side to Bond and excitedly departs from established franchise formula. The film is beautifully shot by Linus Sandgren, who makes the various travel destination locations look intoxicating.  

No Time To Die is a thoroughly thrilling send-off for Craig and it will be interesting to see how James Bond is regenerated in future instalments, given how this film ends. It doesn’t bottle out and Craig’s films cement themselves as the most consistent.

2) Zack Snyder’s Justice League

Who would ever have thought that two Zack Snyder films, a director of great controversy, features twice in a ‘Best’ list?! Zack Snyder’s Justice League is the director’s cut of the film Snyder tried to originally make before butting heads with Warner Brothers executives and then departing the project after a family tragedy. The end result was a crushing disappointment that was a schizophrenic mess that represented a clash of two opposing styles of direction with a feeling that it felt unfinished. Fans have petitioned for Snyder’s original vision and the movement began on social media with the hashtag #RestoreTheSnyderCut. After many months of speculation, Snyder then revealed that he had most of a finished cut completed and it was up to Warner Bros to release it. Fans continued to push for its release in their numbers and the ‘Snyder Cut’ was announced in May 2020. Warner Bros granted Snyder an additional $70 million to finish the film and it now sees the light of day in its full 242 minute glory.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League is an astonishing achievement and represents a mature and risky effort in establishing the DC team. The four hours fly by and it is a visual treat throughout. This is a Zack Snyder film through and through but it interestingly represents a more mature effort in that the storytelling here is improved from some of his previous filmography, where some of his films have bordered on the incoherent. By the film having its length, the film can breathe and Snyder works wonders in establishing and developing each and every character of the team. There is no conceivable way this story can be told in a two hour run time.

The wider context of this director’s cut is fascinating in how different it is from what Warner Bros chose to release. The stark differences between both cuts is something that can and likely will be studied for years to come and having watched this director’s cut, one has to question the psychology of the decision to approve the theatrical cut for cinema release.

Ultimately, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a frequently astonishing and bold take on this DC lineup and it earns its four hour run time. With this director’s cut and Army Of The Dead, Snyder has matured as a director and he has markedly improved on some of his lesser qualities in previous films in regards to storytelling and representations. 

So the best film of the year is…

1) I Care A Lot  

From start to finish, I Care A Lot is really excellent with a riveting and thought-provoking story with a collection of morally bankrupt characters. Rosamund Pike plays Marla Grayson, a morally bankrupt but cool-as-a-cucumber con artist who preys and scams on the older generation by becoming their ‘legal guardian’ and sending them to a care home, whilst she profits from selling their property and assets. Perhaps some of the twists the film takes in its third act aren’t quite as fresh as the beginning and it begins to move away from its smart commentary in the first two acts on the elderly generation. The notion that this could happen to you when you are older is genuinely frightening and really doesn’t feel that far removed from reality. Director J. Blakeson has markedly developed and this is a thrilling and thoroughly original concept.

So there we go, these films were in my opinion the best of 2021. What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments or tweet @TheFilmMeister