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)

Deep Water (Review)

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Adrian Lyne
Starring: Ben Affleck, Ana de Armas, Tracy Letts, Grace Jenkins, Dash Mihok, Rachel Blanchard, Kristen Connolly, Jacob Elordi, Lil Rel Howery
Certificate: 15
Run Time: 115 mins

Deep Water is an erotic psychological thriller, directed by Adrian Lyne, his first film in twenty years. This genre is Lyne’s bread-and-butter, most famous for films such as Fatal Attraction, Lolita and Jacob’s Ladder, all of which feature sexually charged stories and characters. 

The film is an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1957 novel of the same name and follows Vic and Melinda Van Allen (Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas), a couple in a loveless marriage. The two have an agreement that Melinda is allowed to have affairs with anyone she wants, as long as she does not desert Vic for the sake of their young daughter, Trixie (Grace Jenkins). 

Their open marriage isn’t a well kept secret amongst their friends, although Vic grows increasingly tired and jealous of Melinda’s lovers. They are both led into a web of conspiracies following the death of one of Melinda’s partners, with Vic the obvious prime suspect. 

Although Deep Water is a rather trashy affair, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable and pulpy ride. The film plays to Lyne’s directorial strengths and he’s able to capitalise on the spiky yet sensual relationship convincingly. Until the third act, the mystery is satisfying to witness unravel and it sustains its positively vicious tone throughout. 

Affleck is no stranger to this type of role, with obvious comparisons to Gone Girl. Vic has a cynical outlook on life and can be cold and clinical at times, but he is also measured and has the closer relationship with his daughter compared to her mother. Melinda, on the other hand, has an erratic personality and revels in the pain she inflicts on Vic and isn’t particularly motherly towards her daughter. After excellent performances in Knives Out and No Time To Die, Ana de Armas continues to build her impressive career with her versatility, as her character is quite despicable. 

Unfortunately, the film finds itself in fittingly deep water in its third act where it falls apart in its logic. Tracy Letts plays Don Wilson, a friend of the couple who is judgemental, in one scene outwardly questioning the moral ethics of the drone warfare that Vic has made his wealth from. It’s unnatural how uncommonly interested Wilson finds himself in Vic’s character and it’s impossible to take the character’s intentions seriously, which are particularly prevalent in the third act. There is also a borderline laughable chase between a car and a bicycle, worsened by choppy editing, that ends too narratively conveniently. 

Whilst it’s perhaps easy to understand why critics haven’t taken particularly kindly to Deep Water, I found the film a guilty pleasure. The spiky relationship of the central duo are the thread that binds the narrative and the murder mystery elements are genuinely interesting, as a result of the convincing development of the couple. If you can get on board with its ludicrous premise, it makes for a thoroughly entertaining ride until it falls apart somewhat in its third act. 

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Turning Red (Review)

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Domee Shi
Starring: (voices of) Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, Ava Morse, Hyein Park, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Orion Lee, Wai Ching Ho, Tristan Allerick Chen, James Hong
Certificate: PG
Run Time: 100 mins

Turning Red is the latest in the Disney Pixar canon and like Soul and Luca last year, it has released straight on Disney+. Whilst the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t gone away, this seems a strange decision, especially considering Disney films such as Encanto and Spider-Man: No Way Home have performed very well in cinemas. The film is directed by Domee Shi, the Oscar-winning director of Pixar short Bao.

Set in 2002, Turning Red’s central character is a thirteen year old Chinese-Canadian girl called Meilin ‘Mei’ Lee (Rosalie Chiang). She lives with her parents in Toronto – her father, Jin (Orion Lee) is relaxed and easygoing but her mother, Ming (Sandra Oh), is authoritative and overprotective. Mei walks a fine line between trying to please her mother and  trying to fit in with her peers at school, although she’s part of a small circle of girls who are fans of a boyband called ‘4*Town’. Her mother disapproves and outside of school, Mei helps to look after her family’s temple dedicated to their ancestor, Sun Yee. 

Mei gets increasingly stressed with having to walk the tightrope between her mother and her own personal choices and one morning, Mei wakes up and finds that she has transformed into a giant red panda. Mei discovers that she transforms  whenever she gets into a strong state of emotion, evocative of growing up and the film doesn’t shy away from topics such as menstruation and puberty. 

Turning Red is to be commended for its sheer ambition of dealing with what is a relatively taboo subject matter for a mainstream film, especially one that also has to appeal to younger audiences. It represents a very different affair for a Pixar film and as is typical for the animation studio, it is moving in parts. It is clearly inspired by anime with its transformative element and colour scheme, down to the extreme facial expressions of its characters. 

The script, co-written by Shi and Julia Cho, is smart and its characters bursting with personality. Mei is a very well written lead and is endlessly empathetic. She simply wants to carve her own life and is intelligent and funny, although crucially not perfect. Her friends – Miriam, Priya and Abby are also delightful and the topics they discuss and aspirations they share are typical of teenagers in an early 2000’s society. 

The toxic relationship between Mei and her mother is well-handled and once we start to learn more about the extended family that the Lee’s belong to, some of the extreme measures Ming takes to protect her daughter make more sense. It’s a shame that Jin is sidelined as a character, reduced to a quiet though thoroughly comedic presence. The film wears its distinctly female voice with pride on its sleeve but a more fleshed-out role for Jin would have been more satisfying to balance the drama. 

Turning Red takes some adjusting to get into, as its first fifteen minutes or so comes across as obnoxious. However, this is by design as Shi conveys the eclectic teenage lifestyle and once its characters have been introduced, the film is much easier to get on board with. The score by Ludwig Göransson, his first animation effort, is similarly eclectic but the themes aren’t particularly memorable and simply put, it doesn’t always work in the context of the scene it accompanies. 

Overall, Turning Red is an innovative and thoroughly original Pixar film and is respectful though unashamed in its presentation of its subject matter. Once you settle into its tone, it’s a very satisfying journey to watch unfold bolstered by its strongly written female characters. It’s not quite top-tier Pixar for me, as it isn’t quite as effortlessly charming and poignant as its best entries such as Up or Coco, but I’m very glad it exists. The film is sure to launch Domee Shi’s career and I can’t wait to see what she does next. 

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

The Batman (Review)

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Matt Reeves
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz, Paul Dano, Jeffrey Wright, John Turturro, Peter Sarsgaard, Andy Serkis, Colin Farrell
Certificate: 15
Run Time: 176 mins

The Batman is a new rendition of the Caped Crusader, positioned outside of the DCEU canon. The film was originally destined for the DCEU, functioning as a solo effort on Ben Affleck’s iteration of the character established in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Zack Snyder’s Justice League. Affleck was to also direct the project but departed, feeling it was too much to take on with his schedule at the time. 

War for the Planet of the Apes director Matt Reeves stepped in and decided to steer the property in a different direction to what Affleck had envisaged. Affleck had wanted to make a James Bond influenced film (which sounded very promising!) but Reeves wanted to introduce his own Batman without the confines of a cinematic universe. 

The Batman sees a younger Dark Knight (Robert Pattinson) in his second year of crimefighting and Reeves hones in on his detective skills. Gotham City is threatened by serial killer, The Riddler (Paul Dano), who is targeting the city’s elite. Batman uncovers a web of corruption, drawing him closer to the villain, as well as other unsavoury characters such as The Penguin (an almost unrecognisable Colin Farrell) and Carmine Falcone (John Turturro). He works alongside James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) and Reeves portrays a much closer relationship between the two, Batman allowed to investigate live crime scenes. His inquiries also collide with Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz), who is also in her early days of her alter ego, Catwoman, and the two form a relationship. 

There has been no filmic shortage of the Caped Crusader in recent memory. As well as the DCEU, there has been Will Arnett’s comedic Lego-themed performances, most notably in The Lego Batman Movie. There have also been spin-offs such as Joker, which received awards acclaim for its demented yet innovative treatment of Joaquin Phoenix’s supervillain, whose course collides with a young Bruce Wayne at one point. 

Even Christopher Nolan’s triumphant trilogy that represents the very pinnacle of the character is barely a decade old. Can Reeves’ neo-noir vision translate into an engaging film that stands apart from the plethora of other Batman properties?  

The Batman is an interesting, if flawed, depiction of the Caped Crusader. Reeves’ take on the character is certainly admirable. It very much owes a debt to the Nolan and Snyder aesthetic in that it is a darker and grungier interpretation. Experiencing Batman as a detective figure is refreshing. The notion of Batman providing narration is also innovative, yet uneven in that it’s not sustained throughout the film. The extended run time of 176 minutes isn’t to the film’s detriment.  It’s always promising to see a director allow a film breathe when it warrants it rather than resorting to quick cuts. Reeves has clearly been inspired by the filmography of David Fincher, with the aesthetic and narrative highly reminiscent of Se7en and Zodiac. There are also visual elements of Alfred Hitchcock in its ideology of crafting suspense (Reeves isn’t always successful), as well as an ode to Saw with some of the elaborate traps that the Riddler places his victims in. 

Batman is easily Pattinson’s highest profile role since his early career Twilight days. Pattinson has proved a particularly versatile screen presence, picking thoughtful projects and always being a highlight in them, with films such as Good Time, Tenet and The Devil All The Time. His portrayal of Batman is expectedly excellent, although his Bruce Wayne needs some work. This is more a choice of the script rather than any wrongdoing by Pattinson as Bruce Wayne doesn’t receive a particularly meaningful arc so he isn’t granted the opportunity. 

Other highlights of the cast include Colin Farrell, who is almost unrecognisable as Oswald Cobblepot in his early Penguin days. Here, he is presented as a mobster and Farrell does a great job here, although the role is rather limited. I can’t wait to see where they take the character in future instalments.

Jeffrey Wright is effortless as James Gordon and provides strong support to Pattinson. Andy Serkis portrays Alfred and represents a much younger portrayal from other actors who’ve taken the role such as Michael Caine and J.K. Simmons. I wasn’t sold on Serkis’ performance to begin with, as he lacks the wisened nature of his predecessors but I was won over later in the film, although his role is also quite limited. 

Moving onto the lesser performances, The Riddler is an interesting villain and poses a genuine threat to Batman throughout much of the film. He’s not in it a great deal but the spectre of his actions loom heavily throughout. Paul Dano does a reliably good job, as we’d expect him to do after performances in Prisoners and There Will Be Blood where he’s proved he can play this kind of deranged character. Unfortunately, his character arc is severely let down towards the end of the film to the point where he doesn’t pose a threat and his performance borders on being laughable. A scene that suggests a future direction for a sequel that features Dano is also ill-judged and undoes a lot of the solid groundwork. 

Zoë Kravitz also doesn’t particularly make much of an impression as Catwoman. Pattinson and Kravitz just don’t share a particularly believable chemistry, nor is their relationship believable from a scripting point of view.

The narrative that Reeves has concocted is pretty convincing and there are some interesting twists in the narrative. The riddles that The Riddler creates are not straightforward to answer and the way his intentions unfold over the bulk of the run time is mostly satisfying. 

I appreciated the darker tone that Reeves aimed for. Although the BBFC have rated the film a 15 in the UK, in reality, it is more of a high 12A as the violence doesn’t dwell on detail and there is only one use of strong language. The gritty world that Reeves creates is screaming for an adult rating and it feels a little restrained within the confines of being appealing to the broadest audience possible.

Reeves also isn’t quite sure on how to open the film. There are effectively three openings with two false starts. Some shuffling around of these scenes would have worked in the film’s favour, establishing Batman and the city of Gotham before introducing a problem.  

The score by Michael Giacchino is really excellent and he establishes very memorable themes for the characters. His score centres mainly on three themes, one for Batman, Catwoman and the Riddler. That said, how his score interacts with the scenes isn’t always brilliant and it’s also overused in places. Nirvana’s Something’s In The Way (which had also featured in the first trailer) is used twice, but it is inserted clumsily, as it is over speech and just doesn’t really fit. 

The cinematography by Greig Fraser is beautiful, hot on the footsteps of his similarly excellent work on Dune. He doesn’t resort to quick cuts and finds refreshing angles to shoot from. The film is pitch black, creating an atmosphere where Gotham’s criminals are unaware if Batman could be overseeing their activities. A high-octane car chase in the pouring rain is particularly interesting in that it has intentionally been shot incoherently. There is a beautiful shot towards the end of the film where the light erupting from a flare is contrasted against black.   

Ultimately, The Batman is a strong interpretation of the material and I’m looking forward to see where future instalments could go, although I have some reservations with the teases. However, it’s not quite the masterpiece that some have proclaimed it to be and Reeves is just not as competent a director as Nolan or even Snyder. Snyder may get a bad rap for his storytelling when he is restrained by a run time but despite any shortcomings, they are packed with his authorial traits. A neo-noir, detective spin is a strong stylistic choice from Reeves to go for and I hope he sustains these traits if he is to further develop this world. As a standalone film, The Batman is a promising diversion for the Caped Crusader, if not without its flaws. 

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Death On The Nile (Review)

⭐⭐ (Poor)

Director: Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Tom Bateman, Annette Bening, Russell Brand, Ali Fazal, Dawn French, Gal Gadot, Armie Hammer, Rose Leslie, Emma Mackey, Sophie Okonedo, Jennifer Saunders, Letitia Wright
Certificate: 12A
Run Time: 127 mins

Death On The Nile is the second of Agatha Christie’s Poirot novels for Sir Kenneth Branagh to adapt and star as the revered detective. Having made his debut in Murder On The Orient Express, Poirot finds himself embroiled in yet another murder mystery when he is invited to meet his friend, Bouc (Tom Bateman) in Egypt. Bouc invites him to the wedding of Linnet ‘Linny’ Ridgeway-Doyle (Gal Gadot), a wealthy heiress and Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer). Simon had previously been in a relationship with Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort (Emma Mackey). Jackie still believes Simon loves her and stalks them on their trip. 

To escape Jackie, all of the guests board a cruise ship, the S.S. Karnak. Linnet confides in Poirot regarding her paranoia, worried that something is going to happen to her as all of the guests would stand to gain something if the unfortunate should occur. 

Death On The Nile was filmed a couple of years ago and is another victim of the coronavirus pandemic in that it is only being released now. Unfortunately, it’s had some problems on the way to release with actor Armie Hammer’s unfathomable allegations arguably accounting for some of the delay. On the plus side, Branagh’s passion project Belfast is building momentum at this year’s Awards season and if the film isn’t to scratch, it could hurt its chances. 

Murder On The Orient Express had lots of problems, chiefly Branagh failing to develop any of the star-studded cast that had been assembled and putting his Poirot front and centre. Once again, Branagh is working with a talented cast including Gal Gadot, Annette Bening, Russell Brand, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders to name a few. The film also had problems with its ending, which I felt cheated by, although this is more a flaw with the novel. 

Death On The Nile solves some of its predecessors problems and regresses on other aspects. Starting with the positives, although Branagh’s Poirot is again very much the centre of the film, the rest of the cast have some development this time around. There are some good performances too, firstly with Branagh settling into the role with his outrageous moustache. Russell Brand’s performance is quiet and mournful, playing against type and when not saddled with poor dialogue, Gal Gadot makes the most of her role. 

The film starts on more sure-footed ground, allowing an opportunity to care for the story and characters somewhat. Poirot’s double-moustache even receives a satisfying pseudo-origin story. Murder On The Orient Express began rather terribly with a mini-mystery in Jerusalem that suffered an overly sickly tone.

Unfortunately that’s about it with the positives. Death On The Nile is 127 minutes long and it takes well over an hour for its inciting murder to take place. There is a lot of needless dead weight in the first hour with lots of Egyptian sightseeing and set-up laden with some trite speeches. 

Once a character meets their untimely end, the film picks up at a barreling pace. We go through the routine questioning of all of the characters and the old-fashioned second-guessing, where Branagh is in his element. The film could have done with more time to breathe here to build suspense and momentum and lost some of the fluff in its first hour. 

The ear-scraping script is a major issue. Screenwriter Michael Green returns and he has some great credits to his name with films such as Logan, Alien: Covenant and Blade Runner 2049. All three films were very well-written. I didn’t take issue with Green’s script in Murder On The Orient Express but this sequel is just really not very well-written. A lot of the dialogue is on-the-nose and is littered with insensitive and unintentionally laughable lines. 

Visually, the film is poor with many obvious uses of green screen. Coronavirus undoubtedly played a part but surely it would have been better to wait and shoot on-location as the visual result is often laughable. Branagh-regular Haris Zambarloukos’ cinematography is also uninspired. His work on the Murder on the Orient Express was interesting at times, filming the train compartments and suspects from above, reminiscent of a Cluedo board game as we head from room to room. 

Patrick Doyle’s original score was offensively bad in the first film but his score isn’t really noticeable this time around. There is, however, an overuse of jazzy blues music which is grating.

Overall, Death On The Nile is a clunky detective thriller that has its moments but suffers in critical areas. Neither of Branagh’s efforts have serviced Christie’s detective properly despite his inspired performance which has lots of potential. Serious lessons need to be learnt if this series is to thrive and arguably, a change in crew is what’s needed. 

⭐⭐ (Poor)

Belfast (Review)

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Caitríona Balfe, Judi Dench, Jamie Dornan, Ciarán Hinds, Colin Morgan, Jude Hill
Certificate: 12A
Run Time: 98 mins

Belfast is a coming-of-age drama directed by Kenneth Branagh who cites the film as one of his most personal works. This predominantly monochrome film centres on nine-year-old Buddy (newcomer Jude Hill), who lives in a community in the titular city in what he perceives as an idyll. He is left largely in the care of his mother (Caitriona Balfe) as his father (Jamie Dornan) works in England. His paternal grandparents (Ciaran Hinds and Judi Dench) regularly visit and in many ways help raise Buddy and his older brother, Will (Lewis McAskie). 

The film is set at the start of The Troubles in 1969 and the film recounts the resulting division and disruption that occurs in Buddy’s community. The father, who has accumulated a large amount of debt, is offered a promotion at work. Wanting a better life for his family and to remove them from the conflict, he proposes moving abroad. The family contemplate this throughout the film, anxious that they will be seen as outsiders and having to leave their friends and family behind. 

Belfast is a well-meaning and earnest drama that strikes parallels with John Boorman’s Hope and Glory, that was similarly told from a similarly child-like lens set against the backdrop of war.  Branagh certainly pours himself into the project, taking inspiration from his own childhood. The sub-plots that Buddy experiences, such as trying to move up to the top two tables at school so that he can sit with his crush, are beautifully handled. Buddy is inspired from a harsh sermon at the start of The Troubles that his family attend, who delivers a ‘fork in the road’ speech, the rhetoric bears weight on him throughout the film as he ponders his choices. Branagh deftly balances the more innocent aspects of childhood with the temptation of immorality and Buddy finds himself dragged into uncomfortable situations that test his character. 

Branagh has a clear love of cinema and the film captures the wonder that Buddy has for cinema. Buddy enjoys nothing more than going to ‘the pictures’ with his family and he experiences films such as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Branagh chooses to portray excerpts from these films in colour that reflect back on Buddy who views them from a monochrome view, connoting the wonder and transcendent experience that cinema can bring audiences.

There are some excellent performances, most notably from newcomer Jude Hill who captures the wonder and innocence of childhood perfectly. Caitriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan are also brilliant as the parents, at a ‘fork in the road’ in their lives with some tough choices ahead. They always try and do what’s right for each other and their children and perfectly balance the warm and caring nature of parenthood whilst also teaching their children valuable morals and life lessons. Both Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds have received critical acclaim for their performances and the pair are reliably excellent as the grandparents. That said, Balfe and Dornan have the meatier roles and their performances are equally, if not more impressive. 

Belfast runs into some issues though. It took me about half-an-hour to become accustomed to the filmic world that Branagh creates and doesn’t quite hit its stride straightaway. The use of black-and-white, interspersed with flashes of colour when Buddy heads to the cinema is an interesting stylistic choice but the opening credits are set in present-day Belfast, which doesn’t really work and comes across as odd as the film never comes full-circle at the end. The notion of condensing all of Buddy’s communities religious and political problems into one villainous character is also unnatural and the film would have worked better either without it or having ambiguous characters. There is an artificial quality to the film and it possesses a stage-play aesthetic at times, the barricades at the end of the family’s street resemblant of an exit stage. 

Belfast is ultimately an enjoyable passion project from Branagh and the warm characters, performances and script are admirable. The film has received lots of awards talk, many regarding it as a strong contender. I can see why the film has this appeal as it represents a personal project for a director which always goes down well and it has a feel-good quality. That said, I don’t think the film is quite to that level. I’d have liked to have seen more nuance to the material and a more contemplative and morally grey edge to the film instead of the relatively straight-faced and earnest finished product. Taken on its own merits as a singular film without the context of the upcoming awards season, Belfast is an amiable effort from Branagh and there is certainly a lot to like but it has its flaws. 

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Nightmare Alley (Review)

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen, David Strathairn
Certificate: 15
Run Time: 150 mins

Nightmare Alley is visionary director Guillermo Del Toro’s follow-up film after his Best Picture win for The Shape of Water in 2017. This film represents a departure for the director in many ways. Del Toro is most famed for his fantastical elements with monsters and creatures crafted using practical effects forming prominent components of his work. Nightmare Alley is not only an adaptation of the 1946 novel of the same name by William Lindsay Grensham but also a remake as there was a 1947 film starring Tyrone Power. 

This film noir psychological thriller is initially set in 1939 where we witness Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) burning a house down with a dead body inside and takes up a job at a carnival. The carnival is run by Clem (Willem Defoe) and is home to a cohort of eclectic characters. Stanton works with a clairvoyant Madam Zeena (Toni Collette) and her alcoholic husband, Pete (David Straithairn) and begins to learn the coded language they use to communicate in their act. He also falls in love with performer, Molly (Rooney Mara) and they contemplate the possibility of starting their own act. Where the film heads to next is ultimately inevitable as Stanton keeps trying his luck. 

Nightmare Alley features a typically luscious production and set design and is buoyed by a heavy and committed central turn from Bradley Cooper, who plays against type in what is one of his best performances. Its conclusion is poetic and satisfying, even if it is a little predictable and Del Toro really captures the minutiatie of the film noir aesthetic, which he is clearly in adoration of. It’s not a problem that the film lacks a signature monster as Del Toro revels in the macabre and peppers in some disturbing and powerful imagery throughout, as well as recurring motifs such as circles. 

Dan Laustsen’s cinematography is expectedly satisfying, hanging onto shots for as long as possible to create tension and he fully takes advantage of the rich production design. Despite having to replace the ever-dependable Alexandre Desplat late in the game, Knives Out composer Nathan Johnson’s score more than takes its inspiration from classic film noir and makes for a fitting accompaniment. 

With the caveat that this review is based on a first viewing, the film does feel strangely uninvolving and it is difficult to empathise with virtually all of the supporting characters as their personalities are underdeveloped. It’s difficult to buy the central relationship between Stanton and Molly and considering that in many ways, Molly is the moral compass of the film, her lack of development is disappointing. The third act of the film centres on Stanton assisting a dangerous but influential individual, Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins) reunite and find closure with a loved one but again, Del Toro omits to explore Grindle’s perspective and his characterisation is one dimensional. Considering that Nightmare Alley’s overarching narrative is dependent on its supporting characters, the fact that Del Toro doesn’t grant audiences the opportunity to empathise with their problems, it seems a strange creative choice. Nightmare Alley also lacks the cohesive pacing and energy of the rest of his filmography. This is a sizeable film at 150 minutes that is evenly split into two timeframes. Its second half fares better than the first but the film could very easily lose half an hour and that would have tightened everything up – there is no reason for the film to be this long. 

Nightmare Alley is ultimately a flawed follow-up from Guillermo Del Toro. There is lots to like here with a powerful Bradley Cooper performance, an intense atmosphere and Del Toro’s admiration for the material is very clear. I just wish it delved deeper into its supporting characters and  it was more engaging. Del Toro is one of my favourite filmmakers and I’ll certainly give Nightmare Alley another watch as I want to like more than I do. I’m certainly glad that the film exists as it provides an original service for the film noir aesthetic but it is ultimately an interesting yet deeply flawed film. 

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)