The Forgiven (Review)

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Director: John Michael McDonagh
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Jessica Chastain, Matt Smith, Ismael Kanater, Caleb Landry Jones, Abbey Lee, Mourad Zaoui, Marie-Josée Croze, Alex Jennings, Saïd Taghmaoui, Christopher Abbott
Certificate: 18
Run Time: 117 mins

The Forgiven is the new film by director John Michael McDonagh, brother of Martin McDonagh behind films such as In Bruges and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The lesser known brother has also had a very strong career, his first two films with Brendan Gleeson in the leading role, The Guard and Calvary were magnificent. I was less enamoured with War On Everyone, a black comedy with Michael Peña and Alexander Skarsgård and found it to be very uneven. 

Based on a 2012 novel by Lawrence Osborne, Ralph Fiennes plays David Henninger, who is travelling with his wife Jo (Jessica Chastain) around Morocco. Their relationship is clearly strained at the start of the film and David is a high-functioning alcoholic. They travel to a friend’s gathering in a castle-like villa and on their way, David hits and kills a young teenager holding a fossil. The Henninger’s turn up late at the villa and after contacting the authorities, the death is ruled as an accident. However, the teenager’s father, Abdellah (Ismael Kanater), who shows up on the doorstep with his cronies and David ends up accompanying him back for the son’s burial. The story splits into two and we follow both David’ journey to forgiveness and Jo’s experiences in the villa with its ghastly inhabitants.  

The Forgiven sees McDonagh mostly back on form, although it’s not a masterpiece like his first two films were. The film is uneven and after the opening sequence, it takes a good twenty minutes or so to find its stride. At first, I thought McDonagh had made a straight-faced adaptation without his trademark black humour but thankfully, there’s plenty of that to be found once the film finds its feet. McDonagh balances this satisfying mean-spiritedness with sequences of profundity. Like the rest of his filmography, it’s a cathartic experience and the narrative leads you down some unexpected but satisfying roads.

Fiennes is excellent in the lead role, a tired and pitiful individual with a pessimistic outlook on life and McDonagh’s characterisation of him is excellent. He’s given some cracking lines in the script, especially one sequence where he is riding a camel in the desert. Fiennes balances this initial pessimism with an individual who has to do his penance and accept guilt. 

Chastain is also excellent as the lumbered wife who’s never allowed to have any fun and at first, the death clearly affects her more than David.  Matt Smith essentially plays himself but I didn’t gel with Caleb Landry Jones’ portrayal of his lover, Dally Margolis at all. Though, this is arguably by design McDonagh intentionally tries to portray the rich as despicable and repugnant. 

Ismael Kanater is also excellent as Abdellah, consumed by guilt and rage. Kanater conveys his unpredictability convincingly and you’re never quite sure if he’s going to lash out at David or try to understand him. Wonder Woman star Saïd Taghmaoui also impresses as one of his bodyguards, who receives an interesting backstory and provides a window into the poorer communities’ outlook on life. 

The score by Lorne Balfe is interesting, who crafts some memorable themes, particularly in the opening sequence. It’s also lusciously shot by Larry Smith, who crafts some arresting vistas. 

Overall, The Forgiven is an uneven yet thought-provoking drama. At times, it’s a profound drama infused with black comedy but it can also come across as a slightly oafish hangout film. Ralph Fiennes makes for an excellent lead and McDonagh has ultimately crafted a mostly gripping adaptation of the novel. It’s definitely worth your time. 

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Blackbird (Review)

⭐ (Terrible)

Director: Michael Flatley
Starring: Michael Flatley, Eric Roberts, Nicole Evans, Patrick Bergin, Ian Beattie, Rachel Warren
Certificate: 15

Run Time: 90 mins

Blackbird is a film directed, written, produced and starring Michael Flatley, best known for his Irish dancing in shows such as Riverdance and Lord of the Dance. The film was self-funded by Flatley (he says it was not a vanity project…) and Flatley not only directs, but also writes, produces and stars in the lead role. Blackbird was filmed back in 2018 and after terrible initial reviews, a UK release was unclear. Four years later, it’s finally with us. 

Flatley is Victor Blackley, an ex-MI6 agent who likes to wear a hat at all kinds of angles. A few minutes into the film, you know exactly what you’re in for with a hilarious, ill-advised flashback to a previous relationship with Flatley’s facial expression against a white background, akin to the Teletubbies sun. 

Blackley now owns a hotel in Barbados and has retired from espionage. That is until Eric Roberts’ villain walks in with his girlfriend, Vivian (Nicole Evans) who happens to also be an ex-MI6 agent from Viktor’s past.  We’re expected to believe that she is completely unaware of his villainous tendencies. Viktor’s friends repeatedly tell him something has to be done to prevent Roberts from unleashing worldwide catastrophe. 

Blackbird is expectedly terrible and is laugh-out-loud bad in places, particularly in its second half. Michael Flatley was not born to be an actor and his performance is all about his hat, that gets positioned. He has no charisma or emotion and his relationship with women is particularly wooden. 

The dialogue is ear-scraping and the story, if you can even call it that, perfunctory. Once you accept the film is an unmitigated disaster, it passes the time well enough and the unintentional laughs keep on coming, especially in the second half. 

And then there are the action sequences. Flatley imagines his secret agent as a superhero, who can take down henchmen twice his size in one blow. It’s quite extraordinary to witness. 

Blackbird is a train wreck and Flatley makes all of the wrong decisions in his filmmaking debut. But when categorised specifically as a ‘bad film’, Blackbird is pretty successful and there are consistent laughs or cringes to be had but I can’t imagine sitting through it again. 

⭐ (Terrible)

Beast (Review)

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Baltasar Kormákur
Starring: Idris Elba, Iyana Halley, Leah Sava Jeffries, Sharlto Copley
Certificate: 15
Run Time: 93 mins 

Beast is a survival creature feature directed by Baltasar Kormákur. Kormákur is an excellent director – 2 Guns is very enjoyable and Everest is an awe-inspiring and harrowing account of the 1996 disaster. He’s also proved himself adept at leaner survival genre with films such as Adrift and The Deep

Idris Elba plays a recently widowed doctor, Nate Samuels, who travels to South Africa with his two teenage daughters, Meredith (Iyana Halley) and Norah (Leah Sava Jeffries). Samuels reunites with his wildlife biologist and reserve manager friend Martin Battles (Sharlto Copley). He explains to Battles the trip is designed to reconnect with his daughters. When they visit Samuels’ wife’s home community, they discover most of the population is dead and a rogue, ferocious lion has wiped them out in a rage-fuelled attack. They quickly cross paths with the lion and what follows is a cat-and-mouse game of survival, with all of the characters having to use their instincts and strengths. 

Beast may have a rather simplistic set-up but Kormákur largely pulls it off. It doesn’t really have any surprises up its sleeve but it’s a competently made survival action thriller and it mostly maintains tension throughout. It also doesn’t outstay its welcome at a breezy 93 minutes and it’s well-paced. 

Elba is excellent in the lead role, and he’s able to balance both the physical requirements of the role and the pathos and parental instinct needed to communicate with his daughters. Both of the daughters begin the film as rather annoying, whiny characters and as you might expect, make some idiotic decisions. However, the character arc of the family is serviceable enough and it’s enough to carry the film when the lion doesn’t take centre stage. Copley is always a bright spot in whatever he’s in, with fun performances in Elysium and Chappie and he’s clearly having fun too, brings his upbeat energy. 

The film is impressively shot by Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them cinematographer Philippe Rousselot and there are surprisingly lots of long takes for a creature feature. This helps build tension and invites you to study the frame to work out what might be happening in the background. There’s also a thoughtful score from Steven Price, which is both melodic and intense. 

Ultimately, Beast is an above average entry for this type of film. It’s not particularly intelligent and the character set-up doesn’t break any boundaries. Idris Elba deftly carries the film and Kormákur leaves enough of a mark to make this an entertaining feature, even if it’s far from his best film. Sometimes, you need a film where a man punches a big cat. 

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Nope (Review)

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Jordan Peele 
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Steven Yeun, Michael Wincott, Brandon Perea, Wrenn Schmidt, Barbie Ferreira, Keith David
Certificate: 15
Run Time: 130 mins

Nope is the third directorial effort from Jordan Peele, who so far is two-for-two with horror films Get Out and Us. Nope sees Peele branch out from horror somewhat, as his latest is also infused with science fiction, the Western and comedy. 

Daniel Kaluuya reteams with Peele in the lead role of Otis Jr “OJ” Haywood. He’s a quiet rancher who works with his father (Keith David), both descendants of the black horse rider in Eadward Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion

Unfortunately, OJ’s father is not in the film for very long due to a freak accident. OJ and his sister, Emerald “Em” Haywood, inherit the ranch. Em isn’t particularly bothered about the ranch but OJ is desperate to keep the business afloat and maintain his father’s legacy. OJ doesn’t think his father’s death was a freak accident and is concerned with a cloud that hovers near the house that doesn’t seem to move.  

Intertwined with the Haywood’s story is Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun) who runs a small Western themed park called Jupiter’s Claim. Jupe has a past of his own and buys OJ’s horses that he can’t afford to keep. 

Nope is an original but flawed third film from Peele. It’s a multi-layered story that explores themes such as spectacle, the media, fantasy and the art of filmmaking. It’s definitely a film to go in blind. Unfortunately, Nope doesn’t fully work with its splicings of genre and it struggles in its pacing – it’s probably around 15 minutes overlong and it never really hooks you in. 

However, Peele is certainly able to craft suspense and tension and there are some excellent, subversive scares in the film. There’s some really striking and arresting images, too, as we have come to expect from the director.

Peele attempts to emulate the sci-fi of Steven Spielberg at times, with particular references to Close Encounters With The Third Kind. Some of the imagery is also indebted to Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival.  

Peele’s flirting with the Western and comedy is less assured. Many of the gags didn’t work for me and save for the stunning vistas of the California setting against the valleys and the exploration of marginalised races, it lacks grit and Jupe’s storyline and theme park are clumsily handled at best. 

Kaluuya is reliably great as OJ, an introverted but principled rancher. Keke Palmer doesn’t fare as well and her character is grating, but that is arguably by Peele’s design. Steve Yeun made such a strong impression in Minari last year and he does the best with what he’s got, but Jupe’s story arc is very messy in terms of how it fits with the overarching narrative. 

The score by Michael Abels is typically strong, ranging from other-worldly foreboding horror riffs to Western infusions.  The film is beautifully shot by Hoyte van Hoytema, who captures the spectacle of the wide vistas, through to immersive blood-drenched, nighttime horror. 

Nope is an interesting watch and despite its shortcomings, it’s subversive and thrillingly original. After a first viewing, you’ll need to ponder the various meanings and storyline and it’s a film that’s designed to be rewatched. Having seen the film twice, it still didn’t flow quite as succinctly as Peele’s first two films and its mashings of four genres feels awkward. It lacks the visceral punch of Get Out or the tension of Us‘ home invasion. There’s certainly a lot of positives and many of the arresting images have stuck with me but Nope is ultimately a better film to discuss than it is to experience.  

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Prey (Review)

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Director: Dan Trachtenberg
Starring: Amber Midthunder, Dakota Beavers, Michelle Thrush, Stormee Kipp, Julian Black Antelope, Bennett Taylor, Dane DiLiegro
Certificate: 15
Run Time: 100 mins

Prey is the latest instalment of the Predator series. The series has experienced a tough life, with the Arnold Schwarzenegger original leaving a lasting impression on critics and audiences. However, none of the sequels have managed to capture audience and critics to the same extent. Director Shane Black tried to reinvigorate the franchise with The Predator in 2018 but it unfortunately achieved negative reviews. My experience of the franchise has been quite the opposite however, and Predator 2 and Predators are both highly underrated. 

Prey is directed by Dan Trachtenberg, his second major film after 10 Cloverfield Lane, which left a barnstorming impression. The film is strangely heading straight to Hulu or Disney+ in the UK, foregoing a traditional theatrical release. 

Trachtenberg smartly takes the series back to its roots, positioning the film as a prequel. The film is set in 1719 in the Northern Great Plains and centres around Naru (Amber Midthunder), a skilled Comanche warrior in a tribe. She dreams of becoming a great hunter like her brother, Taabe (Dakota Beavers). When a Predator makes its way to Earth and the tribe believe a lion or bear to have caused destruction amongst the local fauna, Naru knows from her experience the creature causing carnage is no lion or bear. What follows is an intense cat-and-mouse chase between the Predator and its prey. 

Prey is an excellent prequel and is just the gut-punch the series needs. Trachtenberg directs with flair and the film features some terrific performance among its almost exclusively Native American cast. The very fact Trachtenberg has opted to centre the film around an underrepresented community is to be commended, too, with the only exception to the rule being a group of French fur trappers Naru encounters. 

Amber Midthunder makes for a formidable screen presence and it’s great the film focusses on her humanity. She is portrayed as both a skilled hunter but also an individual who makes mistakes. Trachtenberg’s mirroring of smaller animals hunting each other and the Predator and anything that steps in its way is also an excellent creative stroke. 

Prey features a rousing score by newcomer Sarah Schachner, at times reminiscent of the sound of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis but not quite as memorable.  It is a shame she doesn’t revisit Alan Silvestri’s iconic original themes, though. 

The film is very well-shot by Jeff Cutter, who beautifully captures the Great Plain landscape. All of the action sequences are exciting and kinetic and Cutter doesn’t resort to quick cuts. The final climax is particularly gripping, as is an altercation between the Comanche, French fur trappers and the Predator. 

Prey is an absolute blast and it’s a real shame the film isn’t being released theatrically. I’ll need to rewatch it but it’s certainly up there with Predator 2 and Predators as the best in the series for me. Trachtenberg is two-for-two and I can’t wait to see both what he directs next and how this franchise continues to evolve, now that it’s been granted a well-needed breath of fresh air. 

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Thirteen Lives (Review)

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Director: Ron Howard
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell, Joel Edgerton, Tom Bateman
Certificate: 15
Run Time: 147 mins

Thirteen Lives is a biographical retelling of the nail-biting 2018 Tham Lang cave rescue in northern Thailand. The film is directed by industry veteran Ron Howard, whose had hits such as Rush and Frost / Nixon and stinkers such as The Da Vinci Code series and his previous Oscar-bait failure Hillbilly Elegy. The film is told from the perspective of the rescue crew, rather than the school kids stuck inside with their football teacher. Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell play Richard Stanton and John Volanthen, two British divers who specialise in cave rescue. 

Thirteen Lives is a tremendous piece of work and is quite possibly Ron Howard’s best film. Despite its two and a half hour length, it’s taut and constantly maintains tension. The film does a great job of re-dramatising the narrative from different perspectives, be it the local farmers whose land need to be flooded so the water can be diverted away from the cave, to the governor trying to manage the situation and facing pressure from his seniors. 

Both Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell are excellent, although it took me a couple of scenes to buy their British accents. They dive into the roles and underplay their characters. Mortensen particularly relies more on facial expression and body language than spoken language. Joel Edgerton is also excellent as an anaesthetist and Tom Bateman is another highlight as Chris Jewell, who despite being an experienced diver is more of a rookie to cave rescue compared to the rest of the team. 

It’s brilliantly shot by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, most acclaimed for his collaborations with Suspiria director Luca Guadagnino. Mukdeeprom thrillingly captures both the claustrophobia of the situation and the serene yet threatening rural surroundings. The score by Benjamin Wallfisch is fitting, although I wish it were more memorable.

Thirteen Lives is a heart-pounding retelling of the Thai cave rescue. Despite us knowing the outcome, Howard manages to direct the film in an unshowy and skilful way that allows you to be on the edge of your seat and you wonder if the boys are going to survive. It’s one of the best films of the year.   

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Thor: Love and Thunder (Review)

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Taika Waititi
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Christian Bale, Tessa Thompson, Jaimie Alexander, Taika Waititi, Russell Crowe, Natalie Portman 
Certificate: 12A
Run Time: 119 mins

Thor: Love and Thunder is the latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the fourth solo outing for the Norse God. The first two films were generally regarded as lesser entries in the Marvel canon, although I found aspects to like in both of them. Director Taika Waititi made the transition from smaller budget fare to the Marvel juggernaut and helmed the third film Thor: Ragnarok, which rejuvenated the series. It went hard on the comedy, retaining his signature humour and subverted expectations of what a Thor film should be – ultimately, a refreshingly different and vibrant direction. 

After the events of Avengers: Endgame, we find Thor, who has joined the Guardians of the Galaxy, part ways from the team after he learns of a distress signal from warrior Sif (Jaimie Alexander). She has come into contact with Gorr the God Butcher (Christian Bale), who is on a quest to kill all gods after the loss of his daughter and his sights are set on New Asgard.

The impending threat of Gorr’s destruction is complicated by Waititi bringing Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) back into the fray (her character was absent in Thor: Ragnarok), who discovers she has stage four terminal cancer and her path crosses with Thor. 

Thor: Love and Thunder has attracted some very sniffy reviews and while it’s far from the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s best, it’s perfectly watchable and there’s enough going on in it for it to be worthwhile. Some have commented it is a redux of Thor: Ragnarok and I would disagree – arguably the reason why the reviews have been lukewarm is because Waititi once again subverts expectations, but with some mis-steps. 

In many ways, Thor: Love and Thunder feels more akin to Thor and Thor: The Dark World in exploring the relationship between the titular character and Foster. Waititi injects a fair amount of heart and clearly revels in digging deeper into their romantic banter. 

Chris Hemsworth once again proves his game as the God and successfully balances both the comedic and tragic elements Thor is exposed to. It’s a welcome return for Portman, too, and the pair share a healthy chemistry. 

Christian Bale is excellent as Gorr but he’s woefully underused. Waititi’s decision to bathe the character and his surroundings in black-and-white is inspired, affording the vampiric character a Nosferatu quality. 

Outside of Gorr, the film is visually a mixed bag. Some of the visual effects are surprisingly ropey for a film costing $250 million and Marvel has attracted controversy over the treatment of its VFX artists, specifically with this film. A sequence of Thor communicating with a teenager is particularly poorly realised visually and there are also instances of obvious green screen – I don’t see the film aging well in this respect. At least Barry Idoine’s cinematography is interesting, although the score by Michael Giacchino and Nami Melumad is sadly forgettable. 

Thor: Love and Thunder isn’t the freshest film in Marvel’s canon but Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok follow-up is a mostly entertaining and sincere outing for the God of Thunder. Waititi doubles down on the humour and the cast are mostly game, although Bale’s villain gets shortchanged in the proceedings. Despite its flaws and ramshackle construction, Thor: Love and Thunder gets enough right to make it worthwhile. 

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

The Black Phone (Review)

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Director: Scott Derrickson
Starring: Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Jeremy Davies, James Ransone, Ethan Hawke
Certificate: 15
Run Time: 103 mins

The Black Phone sees horror maestro Scott Derrickson return to his roots, a director most famed for The Exorcism of Emily Rose and his magnum opus, Sinister. More recently, Derrickon’s experienced a spell with Marvel, directing Doctor Strange which was one of my favourite entries in the ever-expanding canon. Not only was it visually arresting, but his authorship was somewhat on display, which is often the downfall of many a Marvel film. 

Derrickson was meant to direct its sequel Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and intended to further lean into his horror credentials with it but ended up departing over creative differences. Sam Raimi, another director esteemed for his work in the horror genre, ultimately stepped in and whilst the film is successful, I’d argue Derrickson’s vision could have been something very special. 

The Black Phone sees Derrickson reteam with writer C. Robert Cargill, this time adapting a short story of the same name by Joe Hill, son of Stephen King. Set in a Denver suburb, a serial child abductor dubbed ‘The Grabber’ (Ethan Hawke) roams the streets. We follow a 13 year old boy called Finney (Mason Thames) who has a close relationship with his supportive, psychic sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw). They live with their alcoholic father, Terrence (Jeremy Davies) after their mother died in a suicide. Gwen’s abilities take after her mother and Terrence tries to beat it out of her. Finney struggles bullying at school. 

Finney is abducted by ‘The Grabber’ and locked in a cellar. There is a disconnected phone which rings and when Finney answers, it is the voices of the previous victims who give him advice on how to deal with the situation. Gwen receives visions and she leads her own investigation to try and free Finney. 

The Black Phone is an excellent, intelligent horror film that is very well-directed by Derrickson. He crafts a delicious setting, leaning into 1970’s suburbia and isn’t afraid of unflinchingly portraying playground violence. Derrickson takes the narrative to dark places and the fast pacing grips you instantly. The film is very cine-literate, with Derrickon’s passion for film evident on the screen, be through the inclusion of period television shows from the time and the playful nods to It. On that note of the nods to Stephen King, it’s not unreasonable that his son carries some of his traits such as a community of children going missing, but it’s not derivative and the tone isn’t cynical. 

The script by Derrickson and Cargill deftly humanises the characters through meaningful arcs and avoids resorting to caricatures. There are also some exhilarating set pieces and I loved the creative choice to portray some of the previous victim’s lives on grainy film, which was another highlight of Sinister. The film is further bolstered by an interesting and unnerving score by Mark Korven and it’s beautifully shot by Brett Jutkiewicz.

The cast are excellent, especially Thame and McGraw who make an explosive impression. Thame makes for a compelling lead and deftly carries the baggage from bullied school kid to learning to stand up for himself. McGraw’s foul-mouthed but heroic sister gets many of the film’s best lines and she is surely destined for greatness. Her dream sequences are beautifully captured and possess a metaphysical quality. 

Hawke is also terrific – he has not played a villain on-screen before and ‘The Grabber’ is an unhinged and suitably sinister screen presence. The costume design for the character is brilliant, as he literally dons a threatening multi-layered mask. I wish his character was given a little more meat though and his interactions with Finney were longer or more frequent to make the horror villain really stand the test of time but I can understand why Derrickson would want to go down a more enigmatic route. 

The weak link of the cast is surprisingly James Ransone as a cocaine addict who is also trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together, independent of the police. It’s not that his performance is lacking but the character isn’t particularly well developed and a plot revelation that involves him felt out of place. 

Although the film aligns most closely with the horror genre, it’s not particularly frightening. There are some jump scares here and there and Derrickson conjures a generally creepy atmosphere but the film is more of a psychological thriller with supernatural elements. 

The Black Phone is a terrific ride from start to finish and further cements Derrickson as a master of the horror genre. It features some terrific performances from its child actors and Ethan Hawke and it’s a film that feels like it’s made with passion. It’s not perfect – Hawke’s villain could have been further explored, Ransone’s character arc isn’t very well executed and I wish the film further explored the link between overcoming one’s demons and the repercussions stemmed from that. Sinister remains Derrickson’s best work, however The Black Phone is up there and is one of the best films of the year so far. 

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

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)