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CINEMA REVIEW: NOPE (2022)

CINEMA REVIEW: NOPE (2022)

Directed by Jordan Peele

Written by Jordan Peele

Produced by: Jordan Peele and Ian Cooper


Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Steven Yeun, Michael Wincott, Brandon Perea, Wrenn Schmidt, Barbie Ferreira, Keith David, etc.

Cinematography: Hoyte van Hoytema

*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***



Following on from the Oscar winning, Get Out (2017), and the should-have-won-an-Oscar-for-Best-Actress-in-Lupita-Nyong’o, Us (2019), Jordan Peele is back with the enigmatically titled, and equally ambiguous sci-fi-Western-horror film, NOPE (2022). Taking on writing and directing duties again, Peele has delivered a majestic looking cinematic feast, brimming with incredibly memorable images involving horses, chimpanzees, cinema, waving inflatables, surveillance cameras, carnival shows, and something very large that comes from beyond the clouds.

So, what’s Nope (2022) actually about? Well, put simply it’s all about cowboys and girls overcoming a monster. But it is much more than that. Because, narratively speaking it is difficult to sum up in a few sentences. Peele builds his most complex film to date by delivering a series of visually powerful set-pieces throughout. He also challenges the audience with an intelligent visual system which thematically links television, cinema, cameras, Hollywood, animals and a spectacular eye in the sky. Like Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021) and Martin Scorsese’s religious epics, Nope (2022), is what I consider to be a big-budget, arthouse blockbuster.



The film, which is divided into chapters, establishes brother, OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and sister, Emerald (Keke Palmer), trying valiantly to keep the family ranch from going under. Once thriving under their father’s management, the ranch would supply horses to the Hollywood conveyor belt of A-list and B-movie Westerns. With such work now in short supply, OJ is forced to sell horses to local theme park owner, Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), however, he vows to get them back when business improves. But a bigger threat is soon looming over the ranch.

Kaluuya’s performance as OJ is laconic, invoking pure Robert Mitchum. Did I like and root for OJ? Sort of. Keke Palmer as Emerald brought the energy to the screen, but I never felt the two characters really gelled with the themes successfully. Peele’s intellectual leaps, while thought-provoking, barriered an emotional connection within Nope (2022). Likewise, Yuen’s Jupe is given a tremendously imaginative and powerful backstory which brings us into his character, but ultimately fails to pay off dramatically. In fact, these scenes felt like they were from a different film altogether. Indeed, Peele uses the sci-fi monster genre to hang his view of the world on, not always to maximum impact.

While the characterisations and themes arguably fail to gel within the screenplay, it is visually where Nope (2022) really soars. Hoyte van Hoytema should sweep he board come awards time. Further, Peele creates an optical banquet by juxtaposing the majestic vistas of the Californian landscape with modern camera and surveillance equipment, plus those colourful inflatable dummies. Then there’s the thing that is “Not Of Planet Earth”. What is it and what does it represent? Who is watching and controlling and feeding on us? Peele’s challenging concepts are to be applauded within the genre blockbuster, but I just wanted to be scared and care a bit more. On additional viewings, Nope (2022), may be considered a masterpiece, but at the moment it could be one of those great films which I kind of didn’t like. As discussed previously here.

Mark: 8 out of 11


SIX OF THE BEST #36 – FILM UNDERDOGS!

Why the canine is considered to be the appropriate animal to represent a character who overcomes great loss and adversity is fascinating. On further digging one will find that etymological history of the term, Underdog, derives from the second half of the 19th century, where its first meaning was “the beaten dog in a fight”. Two dogs fight and the losing one is the underdog. Quite simple and obvious really. It makes sense then that the term has also been used in sporting and filmic language down the years. Here the underdog is a team or individual who faces an insurmountable opponent where defeat is most likely. To then gain victory against the odds makes the winning oh so much sweeter and glorious.

So, for my occasional Six of the Best series I’d like to explore and list some of the finest underdogs from cinema. I’d also like to consider certain conventions from within this subgenre. Clearly, I could just choose six films about sport, so I am going to work a bit harder and provide some less obvious choices too. Hope you agree.

** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS **


ROCKY (1976) – The individual underdog!

The individual underdog is synonymous with sporting films. Cinderella Man (2005), Eddie the Eagle (2015), Rudy (1993) and The Karate Kid (1984) are just some of the fine narratives which have used the individual overcoming the odds to triumph. Obviously, though the greatest of all time is Stallone’s working-class journeyman, Rocky Balboa, rising up from the gutters of Philadelphia to seeing stars and finding love in the ring. Reflected in Rocky’s incredible journey is Stallone’s own underdog story of a struggling actor, who had to sell his dog, wrote a brilliant script, determined to play the lead, earned his break and became one of the biggest film stars of a generation.


REMEMBER THE TITANS (2000) – the team underdog!

Like the individual underdog sports film, cinema is brimming with crowd pleasers about a bunch of unlikely oddballs or losers joining forces to steal victory from the jaws of defeat. Usually, the team underdogs will overcome singular divisions, while learning about themselves to find formidable communal fighting spirit. The Bad News Bears (1976), The Mighty Ducks (1990), The Longest Yard (1974/2005), Miracle (2004) and the aptly named Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004) are but a few of these excellent team films. However, Remember the Titans (2000) is one of the most powerful sporting team movies featuring Denzel Washington as T. C. Williams High School coach, Herman Boone, whose team not only overcomes sporting obstacles, but political ones including institutional racism and widespread bigotry outside and within the school system.


NIGHTCRAWLER (2014) – the villain as underdog!

Here’s a character which is incredibly difficult to write and even more problematic to define due to the paradoxical nature of their personality. If you’re doing bad things can you be considered an underdog? I mean is the underdog’s victory earned and can an audience root for the villain? I think one of the greatest underdogs and most unreliable of protagonists is Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects (1995). But he was a trickster, genius and fake underdog. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom tops Verbal for me. At the start of the film, Nightcrawler (2014), he has absolutely nothing. But his conniving, planning and preparedness to go the extra mile and expand his media business via sabotage and eventually murder are an unforgettably dark underdog journey.


CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (2011) – the superhero underdog!

The superhero genre staple for both heroes and villains often finds a character acquiring by accident, fate or design abilities which transform them into beings of immense and fantastic power. The likes of Superman, Thor, and Wonder Woman are god-like superheroes, however, the likes of Steve Rogers, as Captain America, grew from humbler beginnings. Rogers is an admirable underdog because he doesn’t like bullies, his character never knew when he was beaten, he comes from working-class stock and he’s an anachronism as character tension comes from not fitting into the present. Rogers is not a god or scientist or billionaire, but the little guy with a big heart who becomes a hero.


ERIN BROCKOVICH (2000) – the legal underdog!

It’s a sad indictment of humanity and the capitalist system that there are so many films showing the evil wrongs corporations have perpetuated against people and the environment. Dark Waters (2019), Silkwood (1983), Class Action (1991) and Erin Brockovich (2000) are but a few of such stories where individuals fight against an unjust legal system which strives to protect the rich and powerful from accepting responsibility for the heinous damage they have wreaked. Erin Brockovich is an especially positive example of an individual who, despite her lack of education in the law, was instrumental in building a case against Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E) involving underground contamination. Brockovich also overcame sexist attitudes in the workplace too which placed certain judgements on the way she behaved and dressed. Brilliantly portrayed by Julia Roberts in the film, Erin Brockovich is a true underdog hero of a generation.


SPARTACUS (1960) – the epic underdog!

Having recently read Kirk Douglas’ enlightening memoir, I Am Spartacus!: Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist, I have to say it is one of the most excellent books about filmmaking and politics I have experienced. Douglas took up the cause of underdog screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who having served prison time for refusing to name names to the Joseph McCarthy led House of Un-American Activities Committee, was blacklisted in Hollywood. Writing under a series of fake names, Trumbo scribed the screenplay to the epic Spartacus (1960), with Douglas as the eponymous hero who rises up from slave to Gladiator to leader, defeating the Romans in many battles before dying a martyr. One can see Trumbo’s underdog fight reflected in Spartacus’ epic journey and the fact that Douglas eventually placed Trumbo’s name in the credits of the film was testament to his powerful writing and unjust treatment by the nefarious American government.

CINEMA REVIEW: EVERYTHING, EVERYWHERE, ALL AT ONCE (2022)

CINEMA REVIEW: EVERYTHING, EVERYWHERE, ALL AT ONCE (2022)

Directed by: Dan Kwan & Daniel Scheinert

Written by: Dan Kwan & Daniel Scheinert

Produced by: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo, Mike Larocca, Dan Kwan, Daniel Scheinert, Jonathan Wang, Michelle Yeoh, etc.

Cast: Michelle Yeoh, Stephanie Hsu, Ke Huy Quan, Jenny Slate, Harry Shum Jr., James Hong, Jamie Lee Curtis, etc.

Cinematography: Larkin Seiple

Editor: Paul Rogers

*** CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS ***



Wow, where does one start when reviewing Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s highly entertaining and genre-colliding film, Everything, Everywhere, All at Once (2022)? Well, let’s start inward and work outwards. Thus, overall, it is one of the most exhilarating cinema releases of the year. Michelle Yeoh gives a spectacular series of performances as middle-aged wife, mother, business person, actor, chef, martial artist, sign-flipper, lesbian pianist, planet saviour, and rock named simultaneously Evelyn Wang, Evelyn Wang, Evelyn Wang, Evelyn Wang and yet more Evelyn Wang’s. Yes, if you didn’t know this is another multiverse narrative, but arguably the best and most fun of the lot.

Spinning a plot that could be pitched as Crouching Matrix, Hidden Beauty the relentless Everything, Everywhere, All at Once (2022) has a seriously insane story and series of crazy, funny set-pieces throughout, with the filmmakers throwing drama, science-fiction, kung-fu, horror, comedy, rites-of-passage, romance, surrealism, and kitchen sink genres at the page and screen in a riotous visual and aural feast. I mean what other films deliver a talking raccoon, giant dildo fight and homage to Stanley Kubrick into the creative mixer. And that’s just for starters. I could say more but don’t want to spoil all the spectacular surprises on show. Safe to say, I won’t look at a bagel the same after watching this devastating cinematic smorgasbord. Word of warning the tone of this film smash cuts all over the place, and while I could find fault with this, the sheer pace, imagination and diversity of the concepts did not just win me over, but smashed me into submission.



But what the hell is the story, Paul? Oh yes, there is a narrative core and spine with which to hang the madness on. I said I was going outwards didn’t I? So, Michelle Yeoh, Evelyn, is married to Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) and their relationship is slowly cooling like campfire embers. The family business is in financial strife and as the launderette struggles, Evelyn finds herself being audited by the I.R.S. Adding to these woes are stressful relationships with her daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu) and elderly father, Gong Gong (James Hong), thus Evelyn’s mid-life is not so much in crisis as about to explode. She needs a miracle. An escape. A means with which to resolve and work through her issues. But this reality bites. Hard. Thankfully, this isn’t real life. It is cinema. And there are alternatives universes. Many alternative Evelyn’s in fact. But is this Evelyn the chosen one? So a journey of identity and discovery begins. Will Evelyn save herself? Will Evelyn save the world(s)? And does it even matter?

I would probably need to watch Everything, Everywhere, All at Once (2022) again to see if the myriad of plot concepts actually make sense. My instinct was that the writers were in control and deliberately out of control with their material. Throwing punchlines, taking risks, improvising and not so much pushing but burning many, many envelopes. Yet, they have found a rock in Michelle Yeoh to build their multi-stranded narratives and themes around. She superbly anchors the film allowing the filmmakers to simultaneously explore the meaning of life, identity and existence in two-hours-or-so of exhilarating cinemas. Yeoh deserves award nominations galore for the energy, strength and emotion shown within the many lives of Evelyn Wang. It was also terrific too to see Ke Huy Quan return to a prominent movie role. He is so likeable and funny. Please never retire again!

Lastly, kudos to Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert for delivering one of the most extraordinary films about ordinary people of the year. They potentially could have shaved some minutes of the runtime for pace. Because, by the time yet another smashing fight scene had finished I was almost too exhausted to feel at one with the final act familial reconciliation. But, Kwan and Scheinert succeed with Everything, Everywhere, All at Once (2022) because as well as a machine-gun splattering of hilarious ideas and gags combined with some pretty lofty themes, this film ultimately has a hell of a heart. More than one; a multiverse of hearts in fact. All beating as one.

Mark: 9 out of 11


HAIL BRITISH CINEMA! REVIEWS OF: AFTER LOVE (2020), BOILING POINT (2021), CALIBRE (2018), COUNTY LINES (2019) & ROSE PLAYS JULIE (2019)

HAIL BRITISH CINEMA!

Tired of watching big-budget homogeneous Hollywood product dominated by superheroes, sequels, remakes, prequels and remakes of prequels to sequels? I kind of am. Not that I don’t love a genre blockbuster when it’s done well. However, from time to time it’s good to diversify and watch films with more depth.

BFI Player has some terrific new and classic releases from all over the world. So, of late I have concentrated on watching some of the newer releases made by British filmmakers. My homeland has always been rich in talented people both in front and behind the camera. This has meant an incredible array of actors, filmmaking artists and technicians being poached by Hollywood. This is not just an artistic decision but an economic one. There just isn’t the money here to make big budget films, however, that doesn’t mean there isn’t some cinematic gold coming out of Britain.

While there have been some very successful film studios in the past, the British film industry has the air of an independently driven environment now. Film Four, the BFI, Aardman, BBC films, Heyday, Baby Cow, Salon Pictures, Marv Films and Number 9 films are all production companies which inhabit the industry. However, it is difficult competing with the gigantic corporate film companies, especially those that dominate distribution at the cinemas.

Yet, here are several brilliant British films I have watched on BFI Player, Netflix and Amazon lately. They are low-budget, mostly independently produced and highly recommended. Check them out as they certainly offer a divergent and absorbing change from the standard generic product at the multiplexes. With marks out of the usual eleven.

*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***



AFTER LOVE (2020) – BFI PLAYER

Written and directed by: Aleem Khan

Main cast: Joanna Scanlan, Natalie Richard, Talid Arliss etc.

Joanna Scanlan is mesmerising as a Western woman, Mary Hussain, who converted to Islam when she married her childhood sweetheart. In the present, her husband dies suddenly and she discovers he had a secret history. Dealing with both grief and shock at this news, this beautifully acted and directed character study is quietly devastating and moving. Covering themes relating to family, religion, love and fidelity After Love (2020), deservedly won best film at the British Independent film awards. Scanlan, more synonymous with comedic roles, is outstanding and Aleem Khan is a filmmaker who is definitely going places.

Mark: 9 out of 11


BOILING POINT (2021)

Written by: Philip Barandini, James Cummings

Directed by: Philip Barandini

Main cast: Stephen Graham, Vinette Robinson, Ray Panthaki etc.

I’m not a big fan of one-take films generally as it is kind of an unnecessary gimmick, yet this fantastic restaurant-set drama makes full dramatic use of the technique. Stephen Graham is the Head Chef at a Dalston eatery and has to navigate a stressful shift with environmental health, marital, staffing, customer, financial and culinary issues all mounting up around him. There’s even a food critic in the venue. It is brilliantly acted and directed and extremely tense throughout. Graham is always a cracking watch, but Vinette Robinson, as his over-worked deputy, really brings the soup to a boil, serving up a tasty performance amidst the fine ensemble.

Mark: 9 out of 11


CALIBRE (2019) – NETFLIX

Written and directed by: Matt Palmer

Main cast: Jack Lowden, Martin McCann, Tony Curran etc.

This nerve-wracking thriller takes two former boarding-school friends, Vaughn and Marcus, portrayed by Lowden and McCann, on a shooting trip to the Highlands of Scotland and throws them into the pits of despair when tragedy strikes. Taut is not the word when a fateful shooting incident occurs, as a series of bad decisions places their fractious relationship at the mercy of the angry locals. Further conflict derives as Vaughn’s attempts to mature are countered by the reckless Marcus’ aggressive behaviour. Meanwhile, the film also pointedly comments on the corporate invasion of Scottish nature. Overall, Calibre (2019), had me on the edge-of-my-seat, not wasting a moment to raise the pulse. Finally, Lowden is superb, giving a nuanced performance in an impressively directed feature film debut.

Mark: 8.5 out of 11


COUNTY LINES (2019) – BFI PLAYER

Written and directed by: Henry Blake

Main cast: Conrad Khan, Ashley Madekwe, Harris Dickinson etc.

If you didn’t know ‘County Lines’ is the practice of trafficking drugs into rural areas and small towns, away from bigger cities. Traffickers often recruit vulnerable children, including those who have been excluded from school, as drug dealers. Part-thriller and part-cautionary tale, Henry Blake’s gritty and impactful film draws on his own experiences working in a pupil referral unit. Lead character, teenager Tyler (Conrad Khan), is groomed and drawn into a murky world of drugs, only to learn some harsh life lessons. Ashley Madekwe gives a fighting performance as the mother who fears her son is lost to the mean streets of London and Harris Dickinson’s charismatic dealer.

Mark: 8 out of 11


ROSE PLAYS JULIE (2019) – BFI PLAYER

Written and directed by: Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor

Main cast: Ann Skelly, Orla Brady, Aiden Gillen etc.

Similar in style and tone to Lynn Ramsay’s intense You Were Never Really Here (2018), this poetic thriller takes a generic revenge narrative and delivers an eerie experience through haunting performances, direction, editing and musical composition. While the story moves at a glacial pace it retains power and purpose, as Ann Skelly portrays adoptee, Rose/Julie, a veterinarian student searching for her biological parents. Her detective work unearths devastating secrets which then precipitate twisted turns into thematically dark territory. Skelly gives a subtle but intelligent performance, while Orla Brady and Aiden Gillen also give emotional depth to their respective roles. Ultimately, despite the film delivering certain plot points too enigmatically, one cannot fail to be moved by Rose’s shocking journey of discovery.

Mark: 8 out of 11


Lest we forget. . .

SAINT MAUD (2019) – AMAZON PRIME

Written and directed by: Rose Glass

Main cast: Morfydd Clark, Jennifer Ehle etc.

The film is more than just a calling card for the extremely talented director, Rose Glass. Her grasp of the material is superb and the cinematography and shot composition support her dark vision brilliantly. The film may disappoint those who prefer conventional supernatural films, as it is more arthouse than classic horror. Moreover, it has much in common with searing character studies by Paul Schrader, such as Taxi Driver (1976), and the more recent, First Reformed (2017). Indeed, Maud’s voiceover permeates like a prayer to an empty sky bleeding into the powerful imagery to compelling effect. The true horror of Saint Maud (2019) is not in jump scares or one-dimensional monsters, but rather the slow descent into hell by a character who strives to be a saviour. Tragically though, Maud is a self-appointed Angel, whose mental fragility disintegrates under the weight of holy desire and biblical fervour.

Mark: 9 out of 11


CINEMA REVIEW: THE BATMAN (2022)

CINEMA REVIEW: THE BATMAN (2022)

Directed by: Matt Reeves

Written by: Matt Reeves, Peter Craig

Based on: Characters from DC

Produced by: Dylan Clark, Matt Reeves

Cast: Robert Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz, Paul Dano, Jeffrey Wright, John Turturro, Peter Sarsgaard, Andy Serkis, Colin Farrell, etc.

Cinematography: Greig Fraser

*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***



Three hours of darkness, shadows, fireworks, distorted sound and vision, dull emo-bluster, explosions, fist-to-fist combat, choppy chases, limp dialogue, sparse suspense, blaring sirens, mumbling delivery and humdrum sexual chemistry combine to an incredibly stylish yet boring experience. It may be the biggest box office hit of the year, but The Batman (2022) was interminable filmic disappointment for me. Bruce Wayne/The Batman is a miserable cipher here for the action on show. He is also arguably one of the worst detectives I have witnessed on the screen. Yet, be aware it is NOT the filmmaker’s fault. It is mine. I am a bad cinemagoer.

I am as jaded, and world weary as Robert Pattinson’s noir gumshoe in a costume on screen. Except I have earned it. I have lived through dead-end jobs, despair and disappointment. This film starts by asking us to follow Bruce Wayne’s Caped Crusader into the mean streets of Gotham to battle nefarious gangsters and a crazed, riddle-driven terrorist. But why do we care about him? Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale breathed vibrancy and commitment into the DC comic hero. His trilogy, though not faultless, made us root for the rich kid scared of flying rats. Going on a journey of discovery and finding himself an identity in the process, Bale’s Batman was a three-dimensional hero. Matt Reeves eschews all that with The Batman (2022), presenting familiar characters searching for some semblance of plot and characterisation in the dark.



The story is a breadcrumb plot as Pattinson’s suited vermin plods through scene after scene trying to work out who is killing the corrupt officials of Gotham City. There are fireworks and expertly designed action sequences although many of them are difficult to see amidst the cinematographic murk. Moreover, there isn’t really any empathetic characters here. I love a good cinematic anti-hero, but that requires personality and energy. This Batman has neither of those. Although the screen work of Jeffrey Wright, Paul Dano, John Turturro, Colin Farrell, Andy Serkis and Zoe Kravitz does breathe light and heat into the dull script. Farrell is The Penguin but essentially an Al Capone substitute. His excellent caricature gets buried and almost lost in obsidian and prosthetics.

But as I say, I am to blame. I am a bad superhero cinema person. I am saturated and fatigued by comic book film adaptations and TV shows from Marvel to DC to Vertigo and Image and Icon (yes I know this is Marvel too). I mean the best I can say is The Batman (2022) blasts away the rot that Affleck and Snyder implanted into the Batman franchise. Although that isn’t saying much. Because an obscene $200 million dollars was spent on this hollow vision of a wealthy emo-brat in a dark suit kicking the crap out of shadows. But remember this is my fault. I am old. I am cynical. I applaud Matt Reeves and his talented production team for delivering an impressive visual feast. It’s just a shame that in the bloated running time (15 minutes of that being end credits), they didn’t write any characters worth spending three hours with.

Mark: 7 out of 11


EMERGING FILMMAKER’S NIGHT @ THE GARDEN CINEMA!

EMERGING FILMMAKER’S NIGHT @ THE GARDEN CINEMA

As an emerging filmmaker for the last twenty years (and counting), I am always looking out for fresh presentations and potential collaboration in regard to film production. Most of all I love watching quality short films. Thus, I was thrilled to attend the ‘Best of EFN’ Screening and Networking Event on Friday 11th March 2022. Find out more about them here:

Website: https://www.efnfestival.org

Twitter: @EFNFilmFest



The event took place at The Garden Cinema in Covent Garden – a new fully independent art-house cinema in the heart of London. If you ever want a break from the standard multiplexes, then check out this stylish art-deco delight.

Their website is here: https://www.thegardencinema.co.uk/



Not only was it an incredible venue, but the night had an selection of some the best short films around. The line-up offered fine drinks, decent networking, a quality audience, a fun raffle, plus the finest shorts screened over the many great Emerging Film and Festival Nights.

SHORT FILM LINE UP

Films of Fury – Dir: Mila Araoz Ellis (2020) 12’57

The Sappho Project: fragment 147 Dir: Sari Katharyn (2021) 7’40

Moth Dir: Wai Ying Tiffany Tong (2020) 3′

Staying (Aros Mae) Dir: Zillah Bowes (2020) 19’23

Friends Online Dir: Samantha White (2019) 5’21

Vincent before Noon Dir: Guillaume Mainguet (2019) 17’

Crashing Waves Dir: Emma Gilbertson (2018) 3’39

Stationary Dir: Louis Chan (2019) 12’38

Single Dir: Ashley Eakin (2020) 14’09

All Stretched Out Dir: Alastair Train (2019) 3’33


EFN International Short Film Festival

Emerging Filmmakers Night (EFN) is a quarterly International Short Film Festival that showcases work by emerging talent.

EFN is a BIFA (British Independent Film Awards) Qualifying Short Film Festival

W.https://www.efnfestival.org

E.info@efnfestival.org


CINEMA REVIEW: DEATH ON THE NILE (2022)

CINEMA REVIEW: DEATH ON THE NILE (2022)

Directed by: Kenneth Branagh

Screenplay by: Michael Green

Based on: Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie

Produced by: Ridley Scott, Kenneth Branagh, Judy Hofflund, Kevin J. Walsh

Cast: Tom Bateman, Annette Bening, Kenneth Branagh, Russell Brand, Ali Fazal, Dawn French, Gal Gadot, Armie Hammer, Rose Leslie, Emma Mackey, Sophie Okonedo, Jennifer Saunders, Letitia Wright etc.

Cinematography: Haris Zambarloukos

*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***



Following the box office success of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017), it comes as no surprise there is a sequel to the classy Hercule Poirot train-set murder mystery. Once again Kenneth Branagh directs and stars as the Belgian detective and he has also assembled a wonderful cast of A-listers and solid character actors within the ensemble. I was especially pleased to see Annette Bening lend some gravitas to the glamour and whether the ultra-talented Rose Leslie could break out into bigger film roles. Gal Gadot and Letitia Wright also leave behind recent comic book films for an altogether more period setting. Lastly, who doesn’t want to see French and Saunders reunited on screen.

I have always loved Agatha Christie’s work be it in literary, radio, television or film mediums. DEATH ON THE NILE (1978), while a bit of a guilty romp, is a favourite of mine, especially as it was the first Christie adaptation I saw at the cinema. I must have seen that particular film about twenty times over the years. So much so I know the plot backwards. I guess the nostalgia for watching a film as a child and familiarity with the story create a kind of comfort film. Thus, another positive reason why I was looking forward to the new adaptation.


Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot in 20th Century Studios’ DEATH ON THE NILE. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2022 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Agatha Christie truly knows how to create a masterful detective plot. In fact, she was a genius. What we now consider to be a cliched genre, the “whodunnit”, was practically invented and reinvented by Christie and this story has a devious plot and surprising ending. While the genre is familiar, I enjoy watching all the players in one location conflicting with each other. Of course, Poirot is an eccentric and brilliant detective, so even though I know he will solve the crime and how, paradoxically I still love the journey of it all. But what of this latest iteration? Well, all throughout I kept channelling the fury of Annie Wilkes! If it’s not broken, why are they howdy-doody trying to fix it!

If you have never read Death of the Nile, it truly is a wonderful detective story, tightly plotted and full of biting wit and observations from Christie. There is subtle critique of English types abroad and the negative impact money, lust and envy have on the human condition. But having said that there is an exotic location, crafty humour, witty dialogue and bright sunshine illuminating the bloody murder in the novel. This is where Branagh and his screenwriter get Death of the Nile utterly wrong for me. From very off they gloom the mood and tone, lose much of the fun and introduce too many different subplots which do nothing to enhance Christie’s original work. Her novel did not need changing!

Perhaps I was just too familiar with the material or Branagh’s confident/arrogance got the better of him. Aside from some highly suspect CGI with Bouc (Tom Bateman) on the pyramids, Death of the Nile (2022), looked fantastic. But it felt hollow and drained of joy. I mean, does it matter why Poirot grew a moustache and moreover why has he suddenly become so existential and sad? Gal Gadot felt too modern as the rich victim of the story and Armie Hammer is handsome yet bland. I enjoyed Sophie Okonedo’s performance, but her character was enjoyable comic relief in the 1978 version. Otterbourne is now given unnecessary depth and musical filler as a sultry blues singer. Lastly, Emma Mackey has some fine moments as the vengeful Jackie, but I thought overall the script served the actors badly. My advice is to watch the David Suchet or 1978 version instead of this sinking cinematic vessel.

Mark: 5.5 out of 11


CINEMA REVIEW: NIGHTMARE ALLEY (2021)

CINEMA REVIEW: NIGHTMARE ALLEY (2021)

Directed by: Guillermo del Toro

Screenplay by: Guillermo del Toro, Kim Morgan

Based on: Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham

Produced by: J. Miles Dale, Guillermo del Toro, Bradley Cooper

Cast: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen, David Strathairn, etc.

Cinematography: Dan Laustsen

*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***



Guillermo Del Toro could probably have had his pick of film stories to choose from after the monumental box office and critical success of the majestic alternative love story, The Shape of Water (2017). But rather than build on the message of love and hope in that creature feature he has chosen to adapt the noir novel, Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham. In the process Del Toro has also remade the classic 1947 film of the same name, starring Tyrone Power.

Essentially a $60 million dollar B-movie, the film is one of the most opulently dark and beautifully designed films I have witnessed in some time. Light, shadow, wood, gold, blood, fire, sweat, skin, snow, and night all collide and collude in a stunningly presented palette from Del Toro and lead production designer, Tamara Deverell. This film is a moving painting with inspiration from geniuses such as Picasso, Dali, Matisse and Edward Hopper. While the look of the Nightmare Alley (2021) and cast are a constant wonder, I had a nagging thought while watching the film which made me question who the audience was for this film. Also, there were many story elements which did not gel for me.



Nightmare Alley (2021) opens with fire and death. Drifter Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) then finds himself drawn to the carnival arena. It is full of shadowy characters, oddballs and tricksters, portrayed with dirty glamour by the likes of Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, David Strathairn, plus the more innocent, Rooney Mara. Stanton fits right in and is soon making a name for himself as a mentalist, fooling audiences with carefully rehearsed cues and memory tricks. The first half of the film is its narrative strength. Only after Stanton’s story leaves the carnival his journey twists into something more sinister, but less satisfying.

I enjoyed Del Toro’s stunning visual magic employed in Nightmare Alley (2021). However, while Bradley Cooper has terrific star quality I did not care for his anti-heroic Stanton Carlisle. Cate Blanchett is also alluring as the latter second act enchanter, but ultimately the film lacks real depth. Themes relating to masculinity in crisis, war, psychoanalysis, crime, grief, the afterlife and what it means to be a freak or outsider are there, but only skimmed. I mean the plot has some decent twists, but I did not entirely commit to the downward trajectory of Carlisle’s tale. Overall, as a morality tale Nightmare Alley (2021) is not as frighteningly tragic as it could have been. Carlisle gets what he deserves, and I felt little pity or horror for his end. Unlike another classic noir from some years back, Angel Heart (1987).

Mark: 8 out of 11


CULT MOVIE REVIEW: XTRO (1982)

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: XTRO (1982)

Directed by: Harry Bromley Davenport

Screenplay by: Harry Bromley Davenport, Michel Perry, Iain Cassie, Robert Smith

Story by: Harry Bromley Davenport, Michel Perry

Produced by: Mark Forstater

Cast: Bernice Stegers, Philip Sayer, Simon Nash, Maryam d’Abo, Danny Brainin etc.

Cinematography: John Metcalfe

*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***



Being a fan of the horror genre never fails to spring surprises, especially if you also love trashy-B-movie-exploitation-video-nasties too. Because what often occurs is a hidden or buried or previously banned film will reanimate and be located on one of the many streaming platforms we have today. I am both surprised and even more joyous if I find I have never even seen the said film. This is certainly the case with low-budget alien monster film, XTRO (1982).

There I was pressing play via Amazon Prime, thinking it was another schlocky American indie I had missed from yesteryear, only to discover Xtro (1982) is actually a bizarre British film which twists and riffs on the box office hit that was ET: Extra Terrestrial (1982). Xtro (1982), directed by Harry Bromley Davenport, is not a comforting family science fiction drama like its more famous counterpart though. Instead, it is a gory sci-fi shocker with many outrageously violent set-pieces and a budget lower than E.T.’s lunch bill.


Critically damned at the time, Xtro (1982), when released on home video in 1983, was subject to a prosecution case in relation to British obscenity laws and labelled a “video-nasty”. Watching it now I have to admit it is quite shocking still, but the practical effects are so gloriously over-the-top they are more humorous than sickening. Having said that there are some memorably gruesome moments involving alien births, crazy clowns, a live “Action Man” doll, weird space eggs, and transformative man-into-monster effects.

The film doesn’t hang about establishing character but propels, from the opening scene of a father playing in the garden with his son, straight into the disappearing parent plot. The father (Philip Sayers) vanishes without a trace and three years later his wife (Bernice Stegers) and son are attempting to repair their lives. Yet, the boy is suffering horrific nightmares when suddenly his father reappears attempting to reconcile. The familial drama within the script itself could have been further developed to some emotional impact. However, while Bernice Stegers gives a decent dramatic performance, the film soon descends into a mix of surreal and insane set-pieces, combined with the father’s metamorphosis into something from another world.

There’s much to like and much to loathe about, Xtro (1982), notably the gratuitous nudity sprinkled throughout. Yet, if you are drawn to exploitational B-movies there is much sick entertainment to be found in the blend of impressive practical effects and creature moments. Philip Sayer and Bernice Stegers keep the shlocky elements of the plot in check with sane acting performances and despite some eccentric writing throughout Harry Bromley Davenport and his team have delivered an out-of-this-world bona fide B-movie cult classic.


UNDER-RATED CLASSICS #10 – TO DIE FOR (1995)

UNDER-RATED CLASSICS #10 – TO DIE FOR (1995)

Directed by Gus Van Sant

Screenplay by Buck Henry based on To Die For by Joyce Maynard

Produced by Laura Ziskin

Cast: Nicole Kidman, Joaquin Phoenix, Matt Dillon, Casey Affleck, Dan Hedaya,

Cinematography Eric Alan Edwards

Edited by Curtiss Clayton



For the record, for me, an under-rated classic can be a film I love, plus satisfy the following criteria:

  1. Must not have won an Oscar.
  2. Must not have won a BAFTA.
  3. Must not appear in the AFI Top 100 list.
  4. Must not appear in the IMDB Top 250 list.
  5. Must not appear in the BFI 100 Great British films.
  6. Must not appear in the all-time highest grossing movies of list.

To Die For (1995) is a bona fide under-rated classic and I am surprised it received no Academy Award nominations, especially as Nicole Kidman was nominated for a BAFTA, and won a Golden Globe Award. Kidman is sensational in arguably her greatest performance as narcissistic and ambitious sociopath, Suzanne Stone. Indeed, Stone as the driven, media-hungry manipulator is one of the most glamorous monsters ever seen in cinema.



Told in mockumentary style, To Die For (1995) is deftly directed by Gus Van Sant in a somewhat punchier and more comedic tone than usual. Stone strives for fame as a TV newscaster but eventually becomes a weathergirl on a local TV station. Marrying local boy Tony Maretto (Matt Dillon) does not stop Stone’s ambition. In striving for hard-hitting new stories, she meets a group of young drop outs, featuring early roles for Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix. The delusional Stone turns seductress and arch-conspirator as her husband becomes a victim of her venal plotting.

Both funny and tragic, To Die For (1995), has an almost perfect screenplay. There isn’t a wasted scene, with its use of direct address, media clips and interviews forming a rich tapestry of comedic scenes and character moments. The fact that Stone uses the teenagers to commit murder is so tragic as her husband, Tony, is a decent bloke who loves her so much. Such is her blind desire for fame, that while one is admirable of her forceful qualities, one questions her evil intent. Ultimately, To Die For (1995), is a film which has stood the test of time, especially in these days of rampant self-obsession on social media. Lastly, Kidman has never been better as a character who even up to her icy end thought her name would be up in TV lights.