The King’s Man (Review)

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Matthew Vaughn
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton, Rhys Ifans, Matthew Goode, Tom Hollander, Harris Dickinson, Daniel Brühl, Djimon Hounsou, Charles Dance
Certificate: 15
Run Time: 131 mins

The King’s Man is the third film in the expanding Kingsman franchise, with this entry serving as a prequel. When Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service released back in 2015, it was a self-aware and giddy sugar-rush of a film, rejuvenating the spy genre as Kick-Ass (also directed by Vaughn) did for the comic-book film. The sequel Kingsman: The Golden Circle doubled down hard on the more crass elements of the first film which attracted a mixed reception, I still found a lot to like in it, although it suffered in its villain department. Matthew Vaughn remains in the director’s chair for this prequel. 

The King’s Man begins at the climax of the Boer War and the story extends to the end of the First World War. It follows Ralph Fiennes’ charismatic aristocrat Orlando, the Duke of Oxford, an ex-army officer who received the Victoria Cross. Although he fought in the war, he was unsatisfied with killing people and is of the belief that conflict can be resolved using more peaceful methods, combined with espionage. Two of his house servants, Shola (Djimon Hounsou) and Polly (Gemma Arterton), join his spy network as the First World War approaches. His son, Conrad (Harris Dickinson) is desperate to join the war effort and fight for his country, but Orlando forbids it and uses his government and army connections to make it impossible for him. 

Behind the scenes, a group headed by a mysterious figure called ‘The Shepherd’ and comprised of historical figures such as Grigori Rasputin (Rhys Ifans), Erik Jan Haunssen (Daniel Brühl) and Gavrilo Princip (Joel Basman) are plotting on inciting war by assassinating the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and convincing the Russian Tsar Nicholas to remove Russia from the war, to allow Germany to conquer Great Britain. 

The King’s Man has been subject to numerous delays due to the Disney / Fox merger and the coronavirus pandemic, originally scheduled for release in November 2019. So has it been worth the wait? 

The King’s Man is an interesting but ultimately unnecessary prequel. Vaughn changes the formula from the first two films by interweaving actual historical events and historical figures. This isn’t a bad thing but gone is the majority of the heightened reality that the first two films exist in, and with that the witty and crass humour. This film is played a lot more straight-faced and in proceeding with this tone, the film loses a lot of the series’ charm and energy. 

Ralph Fiennes makes for a compelling lead and injects as much life into the material as he can. He has some amusing moments, one in particular where he refuses a cup of tea in a drunken state. Rhys Ifans is devilishly good as Rasputin and is clearly having fun with the material. The limited scenes he shares with Fiennes are where the film is at its best. Tom Hollander is also another highlight of the film, playing a triple role of King George V, Kaiser Wilhelm II and Tsar Nicholas. 

Of the rest of the cast, they are all largely under-utilised. Djimon Hounsou and Gemma Arterton show promise as the two house servants but their characters are underdeveloped. Harris Dickinson is no match for Taron Egerton’s Eggsy in the mainline films and other than the fact that he wants to join the war effort, there is no meat to the character. Daniel Brühl is completely wasted in a small henchvillain role which is a shame, given how strong and versatile he is of an actor. 

A significant downside with the film is that it peaks too early. There is an early action sequence with Rasputin which is a giddy excitement and as Ifans describes the scene, ‘a delicious excess’. It is perhaps the only scene in the film which has the kinetic energy of anything from the first two films but the film can never sustain or surpass this sequence 

The film badly suffers in its villain department, with the exception of Rhys Ifans’ Rasputin. A spy film is generally only as good as its villain and the The Secret Service remains the series’ pinnacle with Samuel L. Jackson’s menacing yet hilarious, lisping villain. The Golden Circle ran into villain problems as Julianne Moore’s Poppy was no equal to Jackson and this film represents an even steeper descent down this filmic trap. Allowing Ifan’s Rasputin more screen time or making him the lead villain would have really worked wonders for the film. 

The King’s Man is a serviceable entry in the series and Vaughn’s attempt at shaking up the formula isn’t to be ignored as many sequels run into the trap of repeating what worked in previous instalments. However, save Rasputin’s early action sequence and Fiennes’ performance, the film isn’t particularly memorable and represents a low point for the franchise. It can never settle on a cohesive tone, erratically veering between historical thriller and swashbuckling action. A sequence in the second act of the film set on the Western Front feels like a pale imitation of Wonder Woman infused with 1917. With a cast this star-studded and on the promise of the first two films, The King’s Man wasn’t worth the long wait and is a disappointment. 

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Don’t Look Up (Review)

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Adam McKay
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Rob Morgan, Jonah Hill, Mark Rylance, Tyler Perry, Timothee Chalamet, Ron Perlman, Ariana Grande, Scott Mescudi, Himesh Patel, Cate Blanchett, Meryl Streep
Certificate: 15
Run Time: 138 mins

Don’t Look Up represents director Adam McKay’s continuing exploration into more serious yet satirical filmmaking with a political edge. McKay is most famous for his collaborations with Will Ferrell with timeless films such as Anchorman and Talladega Nights. McKay’s foray into more serious fare started with The Big Short, an interesting and unconventional investigation into the American financial housing crisis in 2007/8 that earned Awards attention but I found its tone particularly obnoxious and its pacing disjointed. There was a lot more to like in his follow-up, Vice, a biopic concerning Dick Cheney with a transformative performance from Christian Bale, although it also runs into the same shortcomings. 

Don’t Look Up is a completely fictional piece this time around, although it draws many parallels with modern society. Leonardo DiCaprio (in his first role since Once Upon A Time In… Hollywood) and Jennifer Lawrence play two astronomers, Dr Randall Mindy and PhD student Kate Dibiasky. Dibiasky discovers a comet one evening whilst she is monitoring the sky and once Mindy calculates its trajectory, he discovers that it will impact Earth in approximately six month’s time and is large enough to cause a planet-wide extinction. After confirming the findings, they attempt to warn humanity, initially by being invited to meet the President, Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) who responds to the duo with complete apathy. The two astronomers are then encouraged to leak the news via media on a morning talk show, ‘The Daily Rip’, but the hosts (Tyler Perry and Cate Blanchett) and by extension, the public, do not take the threat seriously. The film draws many obvious parallels to the coronavirus pandemic, the climate crisis and scathing depictions of government and the media. 

Don’t Look Up is an interesting piece from Adam McKay. It is an expectedly biting satire with many satisfyingly uncomfortable comparisons to reality. There aren’t many laughs here due to how close the humour hits to home. The third act is a particularly morbid and elegiac affair as the comet becomes increasingly visible to Earth. That said, Don’t Look Up runs into the exactly the same problems as his previous two films with its obnoxious and boisterous tone.  McKay directs with the subtlety of a sledgehammer and the film would have worked better if he had left more to the imagination, perhaps with the aid of a co-writer, who could have reigned him in. The film’s pacing is scattershot throughout but particularly in its first half. Reducing the length by around twenty minutes would have really helped tighten up the pacing as the film doesn’t need to be 140 minutes. 

There are some strong performances. Jennifer Lawrence makes the strongest impression of the cast as the doctoral candidate astronomer. She is unafraid to speak her mind, whatever that may mean for her image and career. Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t fare quite as well and although he clearly isn’t as comfortable in comedy as he is in other genres, he still turns in a solid performance with the material he has to work with. McKay has assembled quite the supporting cast full of heavy-hitting A-listers. Of the supporting cast, Ron Perlman has some excellent moments as a right-wing, racist military leader who gets some memorable lines and Melanie Lynskey provides stable support to DiCaprio as his wife. 

There are also some performances that don’t fare as well. Meryl Streep as President Orlean is serviceable but like DiCaprio, she also appears uncomfortable in her comedic moments. Jonah Hill isn’t given much depth as Orlean’s son, who is the cantankerous Chief of Staff in the White House. Cate Blanchett plays one of the vapid hosts of ‘The Daily Rip’ and her characters is pretty despicable but I suppose that means she has met the brief. Finally, there is Mark Rylance, who puts in one of the strangest performances of the year as Sir Peter Isherwell, a tech billionaire CEO of BASH. Isherwell has bleached white hair, false teeth and a lisp and the character draws clear comparisons to Steve Jobs. 

Technically, the film is admirable. Linus Sandgren’s cinematography is polished, giving the film an unnatural sheen to compliment its shallowness and the visual effects are strong for a film of this budget, particularly with sequences of the comet. Nicholas Britell’s score is also strong with some memorable and ethereal themes. 

Ultimately, Don’t Look Up is an interesting piece from Adam McKay. Although it runs into his usual shortcomings, this is still a biting satire and its third act in particular is particularly amiable in its ambition. It’s very interesting to see that this film has attracted a decidedly marmite response when I would consider my reaction straight down the middle.  

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Encanto (Review)

⭐⭐ (Poor)

Director: Jared Bush & Byron Howard
Starring: (voices of) Stephanie Beatriz, Maria Cecilia Botero, John Leguizamo, Mauro Castillo, Jessica Darrow, Angie Cepeda, Carolina Gaitan, Diane Guerrero, Wilmer Valderrama
Certificate: U
Run Time: 102 mins

Encanto represents quite the milestone in that is the 60th film in Disney’s original animated canon. This milestone film follows heroine Mirabel Madrigal, an intelligent and sympathetic young woman living with her family in a magical protected enclave in rural Colombia. The matriarch of the family, Abuela was the first of the family to be bestowed with powers and the magical house was created at the same time as she lost her husband. Each of her children and grandchildren each have a magical power and when they are young, the community gather together in a ceremony where the child puts their hand on a door of the enchanted house which gifts them their skill. Mirabel is the only member of the family to have not been gifted and she lives her life with her family as an outsider and not knowing what to make of her life. As is customary with a film of this type, a crisis occurs and it is up to Mirabel to restore order to the family. Boasting songs penned by Lin-Manuel Miranda (does he ever take a break?!) and its Colombian setting, this sounds like the perfect and diverse recipe for a tentpole Disney release. 

Unfortunately, Encanto is a rare misfire from Disney and lacks the charm of the vast majority of their back catalogue. This is a cynical film that very much feels like a committee effort rather than a film crew, feeling like a box-ticking exercise that doesn’t take any risks. The film squanders its Colombian setting and fails to explore or acknowledge the culture – Encanto could be set anywhere in the world and it wouldn’t matter. 

The main failure of the film is the fact that it lacks a core narrative. There are various subplots that pull the film in different directions, which make it difficult to invest in as it never settles on one through-line tale. The best Disney films boast coherent simplistic stories that lay out the parameters of the world they exist in and fully explore and build upon their setting. 

Encanto is stuffed with musical numbers but unfortunately, the songs aren’t catchy and the lyrics are uninspired, repetitive and frequently baffling. It seems as if Lin-Manuel Miranda is behind every musical at the moment and has a very impressive output of work but the quality just isn’t here. Characters burst into musical rapture at inopportune times about trivial things and this gets grating very quickly. Miranda needs to take a break before he becomes a caricature of himself. 

It’s a shame that this tentpole feature from the revered studio is a disappointment, especially considering the promise of the premise. Encanto is ultimately a half-baked and cloying effort from Disney that lacks an inspirational message and a succinct narrative. Its absence of an identity means I’ll likely forget about it in five minutes. 

⭐⭐ (Poor)

The Power Of The Dog (Review)

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Jane Campion
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Thomasin McKenzie
Certificate: 12A
Run Time: 126 mins

The Power Of The Dog is director Jane Campion’s first feature film since 2009’s Bright Star. Her foray into the Western genre is set in 1920s Montana but filmed in Campion’s native New Zealand. This is an existential piece centred on power dynamics. 

Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (Jesse Plemons) both live and run a profitable ranch and are the polar opposite of each other. Phil is a serpent-like, slippery and angry presence who has a disregard for personal hygiene and revels in his unkemptness. George is a more introverted and kind-hearted individual. He doesn’t really fit in with the gang, even though the gang display signs of respect. Phil simultaneously bullies and relies on George, often calling him ‘Fatso’. Phil displays an admiration for Bronco Henry, a figure who we do not see in the film, who acted as a mentor to him and possibly served a more homoerotic function. When their gang dine at an inn run by Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a former cinematic pianist, Phil belittles her effeminate son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to the point of driving Rose to tears. George comforts her and the pair then fall in love, with Rose ultimately moving in to the house, sending Phil in to a seething, incandescent rage. Phil taunts Rose and has nothing but disdain for her, driving her to the point of alcoholism and depression. This dynamic is further disturbed by Peter, a young adult who struggles to fit in with his homosexuality. He makes paper flowers and is studying to be a surgeon and his arrival at the house marks as a turning point in the relationships between the characters. 

The Power Of The Dog is an atmospheric, slow-burning yet fascinating character study from the revered director. It features some brilliant performances. Benedict Cumberbatch gives possibly a career-best performance as Phil, a man with a masculine crisis. He conveys the seething and bullish nature of the character perfectly, going to great depths with his method acting by chain smoking to the point of nicotine poisoning and refusing to bathe and interact with Kirsten Dunst. A scene mid-way in the film where Rose is practicing the piano for a later dinner is particularly chilling as she struggles to perform the piece and Phil cruelly plays it faultlessly on his banjo out of sight. This is a masterful performance and one of the best of the year. 

Jesse Plemons is reliably strong as George and Kirsten Dunst also makes an impression as Rose, although her character is sidelined as the film progresses. Kodi Smit-McPhee is excellent as Peter, even if he is rather old for the role, but the brilliance of his performance lies in that he doesn’t convey what his character agenda is. Smit-McPhee is no stranger to the Western with his electrifying performance in Slow West

Technically, the film is handsomely shot by Ari Wegner, whose captivating vistas of the Western landscape invoke wonder and magic. There is a pensive string-based score by Jonny Greenwood, which brilliantly assists in creating an uneasy atmosphere. 

The Power Of The Dog is an enigmatic experience with powerhouse performances. It is deserving of its praise and the unexpected fierce ending creeps up on you. Although the film is slow in its pacing, the ending asks the audience to reconsider what you have witnessed and you’ll want to watch it again to piece the character motivations, where it is a richer and more multi-layered experience. 

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

House Of Gucci (Review)

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Jared Leto, Jeremy Irons, Salma Hayek, Al Pacino
Certificate: 15
Run Time: 158 mins

House of Gucci is the second of two Ridley Scott offerings this season after The Last Duel. This is a crime biopic with quite the powerhouse cast adapted from a non-fiction book by Sara Gay Forden on Patrizia Reggiani, who was found guilty of arranging the murder of her husband, Maurizio Gucci. It’s a fascinating story which begins with the whirlwind fairytale romance between the two that starts to sour once they involve themselves in Maurizio’s father and uncle’s business. Patrizia forces Maurizio to be cutthroat and has an intuitive business sense even if that means spoiling family relations, whereas Maurizio is a more coolly calculated individual and understands that the Gucci name alone is enough to drive the business. 

House of Gucci is a solid biopic and succeeds mainly on its performances and its gripping story. It is rather scattershot narratively in that it covers a lot of ground in a reasonably long run time but the film never really feels like it has a chance to breathe as it tries to cover too much. Scott also doesn’t quite master the balance between camp and serious and the film uneasily oscillates between the two tones. 

The characters are gleefully horrible and this is a sprawling exploration of the timeline. Lady Gaga is deserving of her praise in the lead role, a tempestuous character who descends further into delirium. It is impressive that this is her second major feature film role after A Star Is Born and she more than fends her own against the experienced cast. Adam Driver is also excellent as the more level-headed yet savvy Maurizio and provides an interesting contrast to Gaga in his more sober performance. Al Pacino is typically passionate as Maurizio’s Uncle, Aldo and Jeremy Irons is chilling as the decadent yet increasingly vampiric Rodolfo. Then, there is Jared Leto, who has received a mixed reaction to his performance, some labelling it as Awards worthy and others citing he is acting in a different film. I would position my opinion somewhere in the middle – he tries to do something different but isn’t too outlandish and the performance worked for me. There is one particular scene between Leto and Pacino and for Leto to outshine Pacino when he is in full-Pacino mode is no mean feat. 

Technically, the film is interesting with some expressionistic shots from Ridley Scott regular, Dariusz Wolski. They create a sense of foreboding with its muted colour palette as the film progresses, as if their lives are decaying and descending into hell. Harry Gregson-William’s jukebox soundtrack is disappointing in that the song choices are obvious and there aren’t any memorable themes. 

Ultimately, House of Gucci is a gripping yet sprawling biopic that will be remembered more for its performances than its filmic construction. Scott’s direction is shambolic in places and he tries to bite off more than he can chew and it would have been a more interesting film if he had leaned more into the camp or blackly serious tone rather than swerve between the two. What we get is a film that doesn’t take enough risks as it should yet isn’t completely devoid of the ridiculousness this type of story requires. 

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Red Notice (Review)

⭐⭐ (Poor)

Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber  
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds, Gal Gadot
Certificate: 12A
Run Time: 118 mins

Red Notice is an action-adventure comedy that teams Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds and Gal Gadot together. FBI Agent John Hartley (Dwayne Johnson) is assigned to investigate the theft of one of Cleopatra’s bejewelled, priceless eggs in a museum in Rome, of which in total there are three. The location of two are known but not the third. Hartley crosses paths with international art thief, Nolan Booth (Ryan Reynolds) who is in the process of stealing the egg as Hartley is in the room in the museum and a chase ensues. After a series of events, both Hartley and Booth are forced to team together to locate the other eggs in order to catch an even more skilled art thief, Sarah Black (Gal Gadot). 

On paper, the film’s cast and plot are a promising proposition. Johnson reteams with director Rawson Marshall Thurber who directed him in Central Intelligence and Skyscraper which were fun enough if rather derivative. Red Notice was originally a Universal feature but was acquired by Netflix and represents their largest budget feature to date at $200 million. 

Red Notice is a light enough romp but it fails to utilise its bankable three stars and is bland, lazy and rote in its construction. It feels like a mix of Indiana Jones, Jumanji and Jungle Cruise with a hint of The Hitman’s Bodyguard thrown in – essentially any film with a MacGuffin device with a comedic edge. There is even an unashamed and cheap reference to Indiana Jones as Reynolds whistles John Williams’ theme in a scene as the filmmakers clearly feel that the audience aren’t intelligent enough to understand the inference. The script isn’t brilliant – the humour mostly doesn’t land and the character quips feel forced and aggressive. The action sequences are laden with unconvincing CGI and there are no stakes – there are no after-effects if the third egg isn’t located and the world will continue as it was.

The performances are all serviceable from these profitable actors and Thurber asks them to do the things they do best in the constraint of a 12A rating. Johnson is a likeable presence and makes the most of the preposterous lines his character is given. Reynolds is on sarky autopilot and plagiarises his Deadpool performance but without the humour. Gadot isn’t great either and it is difficult to buy her as a dishonest character with a stilted performance. 

The narrative is convoluted for the sake of it and characters take actions that require you to suspend belief and then some. The film will then revisit events audiences are likely to question and offer a preposterous explanation of what actually happened, which one has to further suspend belief for. There are a couple of twists here and there and a large one at the end which don’t make the investment in the film all for nothing. 

The 12A rating really hurts Red Notice. The humour is painfully generic as the boundaries cannot be pushed and the film would have really benefited from some more risqué humour that Reynolds is renowned for, stronger language and more convincing and hard-hitting violence in the action sequences. This is simply a case of Netflix and / or Thurber wanting to appeal to the highest common denominator and in doing so, they appease no-one. 

Red Notice is watchable in the moment but is ultimately painfully cookie-cutter and represents a poor investment for its big budget with its CGI-heavy action. It is difficult to comprehend how the film’s budget is to the extent that it is as it certainly doesn’t portray that way on the screen. The film unashamedly sets up a sequel in its closing moments (and also contains a toe-curling Ed Sheeran cameo). When (not if) this happens, serious lessons will need to be learnt if this is to be a quality series to rival other action-adventure properties. Red Notice, as it is now, is a film that I’m sure I will forget about almost immediately. 

⭐⭐ (Poor)

The Harder They Fall (Review)

⭐⭐ (Poor)

Director: Jeymes Samuel
Starring: Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba, Zazie Beetz, Regina King, Delroy Lindo, Lakeith Stanfield, RJ Cyler, Danielle Deadwyler, Edi Gathegi, Deon Cole  
Certificate: 15
Run Time: 139 mins

The Harder They Fall is a revisionist Western directed by music producer Jeymes Samuel in his feature length debut. Samuel makes it clear in the film’s opening that although the story is fictional, it is based on real individuals and it is one of very few Westerns where all the principle cast members are of African-American origin. 

The film follows Nat Love (Jonathan Majors), an outlaw whose parents were uncompromisingly slain by enemy Rufus Beck (Idris Elba) when he was a child, who also carved a cross on the young child’s forehead, which the film opens on. When Nat hears news that Beck is released from prison, he rounds up a gang consisting of Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz), Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), Jim Beckwourth (RJ Cyler) and the transgender Cuffee (Danielle Deadwyler), modelled on Cathay Williams to track the villain down and enact his revenge. Beck also has a loyal gang backing him up, most notably Trudy Smith (Regina King) and Cherokee Bill (Lakeith Stanfield). Samuel has assembled quite the talented cast and this makes for a really interesting opportunity to further develop the Western so can this translate onto the screen? 

The Harder They Fall has an astoundingly refreshing first twenty minutes or so. It is innovative in its craft and reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino’s authorship with its poetic script and dazzling cinematic style – a scene portraying the brutal murder of Nat Love’s parents and his disfiguring is masterfully crafted in its tension, as is Nat enacting his revenge on one of Beck’s accomplices twenty years later and an early action sequence on a train. Idris Elba’s villain makes for a formidable foe in these early scenes and centres him as a brooding presence until he further appears later in the film. 

Unfortunately, that’s about it in terms of the good. The rest of the film is a slog to the finish with a simplistic story that is elongated to a 140 minute run time that lacks depth and is all surface. The script is quite egotistical and the various representations of race, gender and disability are heavy-handed and flat-out unrealistic. 

There are a mixed bag of performances here. Jonathan Majors makes for a compelling lead in his ever-developing career and Idris Elba’s early scenes are excellent, although this energy isn’t sustained in the second half of the film. Lakeith Stanfield is excellent as Cherokee Bill, possibly even more daunting a villain compared to Elba and Delroy Lindo can always be relied upon to elevate a film. 

Zazie Beetz’s performance is rather grating and her character largely unnecessary. If Beetz’s performance misses the mark, then Regina King’s henchwoman might make you want to gouge out your eyeballs more. King’s character is just horrible and totally unrelatable and she is saddled with boring monologue after monologue. Although perhaps as her performance and character is so abrasive, perhaps that makes for a powerful antagonist? 

Another large obstacle the film possesses is its obtrusive soundtrack, which has been compiled by Samuel and Jay-Z. The soundtrack is a mixture of contemporary soul, reggae, hip hop and rap artists, as well as songs that are sung diegetically by various cast members. Many of the musical choices aggressively do not fit in with the events being portrayed on-screen. The film feels, in many ways, like a musical, which isn’t necessarily a bad decision but this is the wrong type of story to try and balance this with in that the story is designed to have emotional weight. 

One final plus for the film is its cinematography with Paul Thomas Anderson regular Mihai Mălaimare Jr. behind the camera. The early train sequence in particular is masterfully shot, a standoff between two characters is portrayed as a split screen and when one character walks through the door to the other, the two views satisfyingly collide.

It’s very disappointing that The Harder They Fall cannot sustain its inventive opening and that it is all surface and no depth. With a cast this talented, Samuel largely wastes them and the film is a good hour or so overlong and carries a lot of baggage. Although omitting the boisterous soundtrack would have helped the film wonders, it’s still difficult to imagine the film being successful with its simplistic story and its clumsy representations of marginalised communities. The Harder They Fall has an interesting angle for a Western but Samuel fails to capitalise on it and the result is mostly unsuccessful. 

⭐⭐ (Poor)

Last Night In Soho (Review)

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Director: Edgar Wright 
Starring: Thomasin McKenzie, Anya Taylor-Joy, Matt Smith, Michael Ajao, Terence Stamp, Diana Rigg
Certificate: 18
Run Time: 116 mins

Last Night In Soho is a psychological horror from director Edgar Wright that represents a departure for him in that it mostly foregoes his comedic roots. Wright is most notable for directing the Cornetto trilogy, Scott Pilgrim Vs The World and the excellent Baby Driver, as well as a documentary, The Sparks Brothers, earlier this year. Wright has consistently proved an impressive cineliteracy in his filmography and his latest continues the trend where he is clearly influenced by 1960s British cinema.

Rising star Thomasin McKenzie plays Eloise, a budding fashion designer who lives with her grandmother in Redruth, Cornwall, who achieves the grades to study fashion design at her preferred university in London. She is excited about making the move to the Big Smoke, although her grandmother is weary over her mental wellbeing. In the past, Eloise has seen her mother’s ghost in mirrors, who had committed suicide in her childhood. Eloise gets off to an uncomfortable start in London. She doesn’t get on well with her flatmates and finds herself cruelly isolated amongst the students, unable to socially fit in. She decides to move into a top-floor bedsit belonging to the elderly Ms Collins. The landlord has a strict big upfront deposit and ‘no boys at night’ policy. Once Eloise moves in, she starts to have vivid dreams of Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), a young woman in the 1960s who enters a West End nightclub hoping to make a career as a singer but she has to fend off numerous advances from piggish men. Sandie attracts the attention of Jack (Matt Smith), who helps her ignite her career but his intentions are not as honest as they originally seem. The line between fantasy and reality start to blur and Eloise starts to experience horrors in her everyday life.

Last Night In Soho is another sharp and entertaining piece from Edgar Wright. It is meticulously crafted and is bursting with nostalgic nods to various 1960s iconography. Wright is clearly in love with the era, from the period correct posters of Thunderball to the decor in the sleazy but dazzling clubs of Soho that Sandie finds herself in. In many ways, this feels like Wright’s most personal film. There are some good twists in the plot that keep the story fresh and the last act takes the story in an interesting and satisfying direction. The film is interestingly a Giallo horror with its macabre murder mystery, hallucinatory quality and visual aesthetic. The Giallo sub-genre is beginning to make a comeback after a long period of dormancy with Wright’s film and also last month’s Malignant.

After dazzling in Leave No Trace, Jojo Rabbit and Old, Thomasin McKenzie puts in another excellent performances in her young career as the vulnerable Eloise. The film constantly keeps the audience on its toes as we question if the horrors she is witnessing is down to mental degradation or external forces. Diana Rigg puts in a barnstorming performance as Mrs Collins in what is sadly her final film role. There is also a notable extended cameo from Terence Stamp, who is clearly having fun. Despite being prominently billed, Anya Taylor Joy is solid as Sandie but she isn’t given that much to do in terms of acting range and acts as more of a vessel for McKenzie to react off. There is also a sincere performance by Michael Ajao, a fellow student of Eloise who takes a romantic interest in her.

The original score by Steven Price and musical choices are inspired and mostly mesh well with the events being portrayed on-screen. Wright’s films have always had a musical quality choreographed to the action and this continues the trend. The film is handsomely shot by Chung Chung-hoon, although it’s not as showy stylistically as some of his other works, particularly his collaborations with fellow Korean director Park Chan-Wook.

Not everything works in the film. The contrast between the 1960s and the present day can be quite jarring in its tonal shifts and the mirroring between Eloise and Sandie isn’t always coherent in how Eloise experiences Sandie in her dream-like state. When the film leans into its horror elements more in the second half, it doesn’t always work as the ghosts that Eloise experiences aren’t particularly well realised visually and Wright doesn’t attempt to build tension or even try to scare audiences – the lucid hauntings and gore are meant to be what is frightening rather than what isn’t portrayed on-screen.

Although uneven, there is a lot to admire in Last Night In Soho and it wildly succeeds in its story and the warmth that it brings to the 1960s of Wright’s vision. This is a really solid film to add to Wright’s back catalogue, even if it represents a departure from his comedic works. It makes a convincing argument for Giallo horror which the film revitalises, although between this and Malignant, Malignant is the better film in that it takes more risks and has a mind-blowing twist to its story. There is still lots to admire in Last Night In Soho and I can’t wait to see what genre Wright tries to tackle next.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Army Of Thieves (Review)

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Matthias Schweighöfer
Starring: Matthias Schweighöfer, Nathalie Emmanuel, Ruby O. Fee, Stuart Martin, Guz Khan, Jonathan Cohen
Certificate: 15
Run Time: 127 mins

Army Of Thieves is a prequel to Army of the Dead that released on Netflix earlier this year, the platform having full confidence in the property and produced this film despite not knowing how audiences would receive the original. This prequel centres on the safecracker known as Ludwig Dieter, a minor character in the first film and we learn how his character comes to be involved in the latter through the events of this film. Snyder’s zombie film was a refreshing change for the genre, a giddy and gory thrill ride. This prequel is directed by Matthias Schweighöfer and centres on Sebastian Schlencht-Wohnert (who renames himself to Ludwig Dieter later in the film) and his rise from his simple, mundane life as a bank teller to being part of a heist team. He idolises Hans Wagner, an individual who designed a series of intricate safe systems, each more difficult than the last. Sebastian post videos on YouTube and one day receives an anonymous message inviting him to an underground safecracking challenge where safecrackers race against each other to unlock a series of safes. One has to suspend disbelief that such a competition exists. Sebastian impresses in the competition and is recruited by Gwendoline (Nathalie Emmanuel), a skilled jewel thief to join a team that also consists of Portuguese expert hacker Karina (Ruby O. Fee), getaway driver Ralph (Guz Khan) and gunman Brad Cage (Stuart Martin). The film focuses on three heists that the team intend to pull off with a significant cash reward if they are successful, which happen to be three out of four of Wagner’s designs, that lead up to the events of Army of the Dead. An Interpol team, lead by the obsessed Delacroix (Jonathan Cohen) are hot on the tails of the gang, cueing various double-crosses and chase sequences. 

Army Of Thieves starts out quite promisingly. Sebastian receives meaningful character development and Schweighöfer does a convincing job of portraying the mundanity of his life through repetition of his daily routine and humour. Schweighöfer captures Sebastian admiration of Wagner’s safe designs well and it is clearly evident that he enjoys the challenge and privilege of cracking these safes more than the cash result. The heist team are also reasonably well developed, even if some have generic tropes. Karina and Gwendoline fare best off and have a believable arc. Brad Cage is an action hero wannabe who is fun but rather one note and what we see of Ralph is humorous but he isn’t developed enough. The film gets increasingly more generic as it progresses and lacks the sharp commentary that propelled the first film above standard genre fare. There are not enough surprises or shake-ups to the heist formula and the tone of the film can be quite boisterous at times. 

Schweighofer does a sound job directing but he is not a visionary director like Zack Snyder is and lacks his bold vision. The film makes an effort to tie itself in to Army of the Dead by being set at the beginning of the zombie apocalypse, where we see some news clips of the initial outbreak. The juxtaposition of zombies to heists feels rather awkward and there could have been a more satisfying way to tie the two movies together. There is a reasonable score by Hans Zimmer and Steve Mazzaro that matches the goofy nature of the character. 

Army of Thieves is ultimately unremarkable but it passes the time easily enough. It succeeds its purpose as a prequel in that it fleshes out a fun yet minor character into a character with greater depth. The fact that it is a prequel always means you’re going to be less invested as you know that Sebastian will somehow make it through the high stakes as he needs to feature in the next film. At least it’s not a severe comedown in quality like many sequels suffer and certainly if Schweighöfer were to return in another film, now that we understand his personality a little more, this film benefits audiences in existing.  

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

The Last Duel (Review)

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer, Ben Affleck
Certificate: 18
Run Time: 153 mins

The Last Duel is the latest from director Ridley Scott, who shows no signs of slowing down despite being in his eighties. Outside of the sci-fi genre where Scott has garnered most acclaim, this is a historical epic where he is also well-experienced with films such as Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven and Exodus: Gods and Kings. These films have varied in quality with Kingdom of Heaven in particular proving a chore to get through. 

Set in France in 1386, The Last Duel details the background to the final legally sanctioned judicial duel, of which the victor is seen as determined by God. The titular duel is between Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and his former friend, Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), who he had once saved in battle. Their quarrel is over an accusation of Le Gris raping de Carrouge’s wife, Marguerite (Jodie Comer), Le Gris vehemently denying the crime. The rape is the final blow to their friendship, after de Carrouges is unhappy that he has lost land that he feels is rightfully his that is gifted to Le Gris and he also loses his Captain promotion to him. 

Should de Carrouges lose the duel, not only will his life be lost but also his wife’s, Marguerite, as she will be burned at the stake as Le Gris will be seen as the victor chosen by God. Scott elects to tell the gripping story in a Rashomon structure from the perspectives of the two duellists and Marguerite before we then witness the duel. 

Screenwriting duties are by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, their first writing reunion since Good Will Hunting, with the latter also starring in the film as the drunken and greedy Count Pierre D’Allencon. Damon and Affleck have drafted in Nicole Holofcener, chiefly to write Marguerite’s telling to provide a specifically female voice. 

The Last Duel has a lot of positive aspects, in particular the fascinating and ambitious narrative concept of its Rashomon structure. We witness the same events from different perspectives and audience allegiances are challenged when we see conflicting accounts. The first two perspectives from the duellists are where the film is best, as they directly compliment each other. I found it particularly intelligent how Matt Damon’s performance changes between his account, where he presents himself as a stable and patriotic individual to Le Gris’ perspective of him where he is an embarrassing and oafish presence. The final perspective from Marguerite is also insightful in that women are regarded solely for transactional purposes. It’s interesting that many viewers have cited her telling as the ultimate truth but I think it is far more nuanced in that we don’t witness certain scenes of the film that the first two chapters highlight, invoking that even she isn’t as innocent as she presents herself. The culminating duel is fantastically realised by Scott and is an intense and bloody spectacle that ranks as one of his best set pieces. 

There are some gripping performances. Matt Damon is the highlight here with his excellent versatility of varying his performance according to the character account. Driver is also convincing and is an unlikeable screen presence and I found it easy to root against him. Comer is convincing as the silenced and judged Marguerite and Affleck is clearly having fun as the pompous Count with bleached blonde hair. 

The Last Duel is not without its flaws and I would argue that its concept has far more promise than the end result. Firstly, it is overlong despite covering lots of content. Scott never really allows the film the opportunity to breathe. It is typically workmanlike for the director and brisk in sections, which makes it emotionally distant. Scott revels in portraying the period detail and bloody battles with temporal weather. Although visually spectacular, they are largely irrelevant for the narrative and make the film feel like it’s running through a history lesson rather than the central thread of the question its posing of the truth. 

The script is also problematic in that it is frequently on-the-nose. Character exchanges don’t feel natural and the script lacks subtlety. In conjunction with the period milieu, the film veers dangerously close to parody at times.

Although flawed and not as strong in execution as its concept, The Last Duel is a very interesting offering from Ridley Scott. The film works best in its first two chapters as the two characters align together more than with Marguerite, even if her rape is the event in question that leads to the duel. The performances are also worth the time with Damon and Affleck playing against type. A brisker pacing, less focus on the period timeline and a sharper script would have really elevated the film. The cut that Scott has ultimately released is a fascinating narrative that with some improvements is something that is very close to being extraordinary. 

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)