Archive for the ‘Film Reviews’ Category

We seem to be going through a period in which many of the films on release, certainly the significant ones, seem to be suffering from elephantiasis of the run-time: the new Avatar is three and a quarter hours long, Babylon likewise cracks 180 minutes, critical darlings Tar and The Fabelmans are two and a half hours, and even the Whitney Houston biopic (a film about the life of a pop star), is longer than 2001: A Space Odyssey (a philosophical exploration of the nature of human intelligence and the ultimate destiny of the species. Without any singing in it).

It’s a relief to come across something a bit more digestible, length-wise at least, such as Mark Jenkin’s Enys Men. This is also a film with a very easy-to-grasp title, provided you speak Cornish (‘stone island’ is the answer to the question you may well be framing in your mind at this point). Most of the rest of the film is, to be fair, considerably less straightforward.

Jenkin, a long-time TV and film professional, caused a bit of a stir with his previous film, Bait, a striking tale of non-singing Cornish fishermen, and this film should only cement his reputation as British cinema’s leading chronicler of life in the south-west, although quite what Enys Men is saying about the region is not always apparent.

Mary Woodvine plays a woman, credited only as ‘the volunteer’, who is living on the small island of the title, somewhere off the coast of Cornwall. It is the late Spring or early Summer of 1973. She appears to be there to conduct some sort of botanical survey: every day, she leaves her small cottage, makes her way across the island to where a small clump of flowers is growing, makes some observations about them, and then returns home where she writes up her notes, normally detouring to drop a stone down a disused mineshaft. She is alone; contact with the outside world is by radio – this is how she arranges fresh supplies of food and petrol.

But is she quite alone? The whole question of what is real and what is happening solely in her mind is an important one, considering the audience has no way of being certain. A young woman occasionally seems to be in and around the cottage. Other figures – a preacher, a boatman, women in traditional clothing, miners – also appear from time to time on the island. There is a further rather peculiar and rather baleful presence: a distinctive rock formation, which is (usually) not far from the cottage. However, given the ongoing disintegration of the fabric of space and time which seems to be in progress, this is not always a given.

There are various signs that past and future are piling up on top of one another, and that the distinction between the island and herself is slowly becoming confused. Does the landscape itself have a strange sentience of its own, operating through the rock?

Naturally, the film is much stronger on questions than answers. Its effectiveness stems from the success it has in evoking the  same kind of atmosphere as some of the weirder short films, TV shows and public information broadcasts of the decade in which it is set – creepy and unsettling little things I barely remember from my own young childhood. (It’s helped by the fact it is filmed in 16mm, the same format so many of those things used.)

Other than a brief sequence of self-harm, there is no violence and relatively little blood in the movie, but it still achieves a profound sense of disquiet and inescapable wrongness, especially as it continues. The film has its own rhythm and structure, built around the pattern of the protagonist’s days, and it is the small intrusions into and deviations from this that tell the story. The repetition produces an almost mesmeric effect as the days go by (or is it just the same day, endlessly repeating?).

On the other hand, I can imagine many people more used to conventional horror films being profoundly unimpressed by a film with very little dialogue, the story of which the audience really has to figure out for themselves. Perhaps we are in the realm of the post-horror or the horror-adjacent here – though, perhaps inevitably, suggestions that Enys Men is really a new folk horror classic are already in circulation. (To be fair, the fact that the film appears to be set almost exactly at the same time as The Wicker Man is surely not a coincidence, and suggests Jenkin himself was thinking along these lines.)

You can’t really discuss a film like this without considering the contribution of the main performer, and Mary Woodvine gives a remarkable performance – obviously, there’s a tricky balance to be found between overplaying her reactions to what’s going on around her (which might topple the film into camp) and just being too deadpan (which would probably result in a baffling art piece). She gets it just about right and the film is, for the most part, engrossingly enigmatic, with moments of genuine shock. Most of the other cast are in non-speaking roles – though I feel obliged to mention the appearance of Woodvine’s father John in a small part, 93 years old and clearly still going strong (Woodvine was a familiar face on British TV in the 1970s and 80s, but his biggest movie role was probably playing the doctor in An American Werewolf in London).

I see that Enys Men is being billed in some places as an ‘experimental horror film’, which to be honest makes me suspect some caution on the part of the people publicising it – ‘experimental’ being a kind of shorthand for ‘don’t complain to us if it’s not what you were expecting and you don’t like it’. I suppose in the end this is an accurate description – it’s a movie with the odd definitely scary moment, but which has only one character, is fairly repetitive, and the role of the monster is played by a pile of rocks – and I can imagine a lot of people not really connecting with it. However, there is craft and imagination here, and in its own way it is a quietly rather rewarding film.

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Everyone has their blind spots and I’m afraid that one of mine is the work of David Lynch, pretty much: now that I think about it, it may not so much be the case that I don’t like his films as much as my just not feeling any desire to watch them. Until recently the only ones I’d actually seen were The Elephant Man and Dune; the former is – it seems to me – a classy but essentially conflicted movie, while the latter is a watchable train-wreck of a film. I should say that I started watching Twin Peaks when it first came on in 1990, but I bailed out very early on – a few minutes into the first episode, in fact. I can’t quite remember why – there was a kind of measured intensity to scenes in which virtually nothing seemed to be happening which I found quite uncomfortable to watch.

However, my co-spousal unit is a) very interested in senior citizens and films dealing with them and b) always glad of a break from horror and exploitation movies, so when Lynch’s 1999 film The Straight Story came on the telly not long ago I made a point of recording it for her. This is famously the ‘nice’ David Lynch film – apparently many industry figures were shocked and mystified by the fact that the film was not shocking or mystifying. (This little bit of paradoxy alone is enough to make me well-disposed towards the film.)

Lynch sets out his stall very early on in the film with various sweeping aerial shots of the agricultural heartlands of the United States, golden fields of corn waving in the sun, etc. We are in for some max strength Americana in this movie, clearly, although it takes an unusual form: the form of Iowa-dwelling retired labourer Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth). Straight is, not to put too fine a point on it, knocking on a bit as the film begins, and probably qualifies as a decrepit physical wreck (you know, I say that lovingly, of course, and with a due sense of measured objectivity). After being found sprawled on his kitchen floor he is whisked off to the doctor, who diagnoses joint problems, failing eyesight, and incipient lung disease – and things are likely to get even worse unless Alvin Straight makes some different lifestyle choices.

However, being a rugged American individualist, Alvin is not the kind of man to meekly take advice from a medical professional and goes home to smoke a cigar. Not long after, however, the news arrives that his estranged brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton, who doesn’t actually appear in the movie until the very end) has suffered a stroke. Alvin resolves to visit him, over 200 miles away in Wisconsin, which seems entirely reasonable.

However, as Alvin can’t drive due to his bad eyesight and doesn’t have the money for a bus ticket, he chooses to make the trip on a riding lawnmower, which is perhaps a less reasonable choice. Certainly his daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek) reacts with concern as her old pa starts building a trailer to carry all the essentials he will take with him on this epic road trip. You might actually expect any dutiful daughter to say ‘Dad, no, this idea is nuts’ – but Rose is a slightly odd bird herself (the film doesn’t really dig into this, but she has some sort of atypical neurology) and lets him set off. After a false start and a change of mower, the great journey begins in earnest…

Forrest Gump on a tractor’ was the apparently-devastating verdict on The Straight Story, whispered into the ear of the renowned British film critic Mark Kermode by his colleague David Cox. It’s a very good line, and there is an element of truth to it, but I’m not sure it’s the beginning and the end of critical commentary on this film. (It’s also possibly worth noting that Cox made this observation just as the film was starting, making this an example of pre-reviewing a film for comic effect, something I try hard to avoid myself.)

Forrest Gump is another of those films I’ve never really sat down and got to grips with, but at the very least it’s a lavish and earnest attempt to make an insightful journey through the American experience of the latter part of the 20th century. The Straight Story is about a man travelling across country on a lawn mower, filmed in a very straightforward, no-frills sort of way. I suppose, if we accept the proposition that both films are essentially pieces of Americana, and as such primarily concerned with the nature of that great but somewhat fractured nation, then Forrest Gump is loudly and verbosely shouting about what it thinks that nature is. The Straight Story doesn’t shout or gesticulate, it just presents its answer in a slightly oblique and very understated way and leaves it for the viewer to figure out what that answer is.

And what is that answer? Well, if Alvin Straight is some kind of paragon or American folk-hero, we’re back to the archetype of rugged individualism, a man determined to make this trip on his own terms, without asking for help or charity from anyone. But he’s also a decent man, thoughtful (if not especially demonstrative) when it comes to his family and friends and the other people who meets on his journey. They are also routinely kind and considerate people. This is one of those rare films where all the characters are nice people who spend their time being pleasant to one another: the only crises driving the plot are the result of medical problems or lawn mowers breaking down. If nothing else this is a refreshing change of pace.

Nevertheless, at nearly two hours, you do find yourself wishing the lawn mower could go a bit faster well before the end. Saying the film has longeurs may not be entirely accurate or fair, as it seems like it’s deliberately paced the way it is (an alternate view might be that the whole film constitutes a single extended longeur); perhaps this is Lynch’s way of challenging the audience on this occasion. It seems like most of the film’s other quirks happened behind the camera – the film was shot in chronological order, according to the director, who said it was his most experimental film. Nevertheless, he handles the actors and the various scenes well and – once you get into the film’s groove – it’s actually very soothing and involving to watch. The story may be – perhaps inevitably – linear, but the acting is excellent and the cinematography and direction also good. I wouldn’t rush to watch it again, but it’s – how can I avoid the word ‘nice’ again? – a pleasant and worthwhile watch.

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It’s that time of year when everyone is gearing up for the start of gong season, and after the various upheavals inflicted by the pandemic there are hopeful signs that normal service is being resumed (always assuming you were a fan of normal service in the first place). Amongst the films which have acquired a bit of awards-season momentum are representatives of most of the classic types – biographies and semi-autobiographies (Elvis and The Fabelmans), more challenging and dark borderline-arty fare (The Banshees of Inisherin and Tar) and – of course – a big film about Hollywood itself (Babylon). And there’s also a plucky little British film, eschewing a big budget and expansive story – mainly because the former wasn’t available to pay for the latter – in favour of quality and authenticity. Living falls into this category, and so does Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light.

British films always seem more at ease when they’re actually set some time in the past, and the great thing about the past is that they keep adding new bits to it: Empire of Light is set in 1980 and 1981, which I can actually remember not being the past at all. And yet here those years are, the period backdrop to movie which – at least in part – trades on nostalgia. (Short version: this film made me feel quite old.)

The film is set in Margate on the south coast of England and concerns the lives of the staff of the old-fashioned cinema there, the Empire. The central character is Hilary (Olivia Colman), the duty manager; she is quietly having… how to put it? ‘An affair’ would be overstating things a bit… non-work-adjacent relations with the actual manager, Ellis (Colin Firth, doing one of those studies in petty corruption he’s actually rather good at). There are various other ushers and minions about the place, and also Norman the projectionist (Toby Jones, also thoroughly in his comfort zone). It turns out to be central to the film’s thesis that Norman proves to be something of a sage and a font of wisdom before the story ends, for his job makes him a High Priest of Cinema. It takes a while for us to reach that point, though.

The plot proper gets underway with someone new starting at the cinema – Stephen (Micheal Ward), who is, to coin a phrase, young, gifted and Black. His presence causes a stir amongst the female members of staff at the cinema, but it is the older Hilary who he seems to make the strongest connection with, especially after they explore the disused upper floors of the old building together. But a sour note is entering the national culture and there are all kinds of obstacles to a relationship like theirs…

The critical consensus on Empire of Light seems to be something along the lines of ‘great performances, pity the script isn’t better’, which I think gets it about fifty percent right. The acting is universally excellent – but then we’re at the point where you really expect that from people like Olivia Colman and Toby Jones, they seem genetically incapable of ever giving a bad performance. I’m not entirely sure that dismissing the script of the film (written by Mendes) is really justified.

Here’s the thing: this is clearly intended to be a life-affirming drama about ordinary people, with moments of sadness and poignancy but also joy and hope. So in a very general way it’s shooting at the same targets as A Man Called Otto, which we talked about last time. Empire of Light isn’t as funny as the Tom Hanks film, nor is it as moving, so there’s a sense in which you could say it was less successful. On the other hand – you can watch Otto and within about ten minutes get a strong and accurate sense of which way the film is going to go. That isn’t the case with Empire of Light – there’s essentially a kind of plot twist halfway through which turns it into a slightly different film than it initially seems to be. The twist is carefully set up and doesn’t seem arbitrary or unrealistic, so narratively it works, and it does leave you guessing as to how the rest of the film is going to play out.

I am not going to say that it’s a bad thing for a film to be predictable, as this is sort of one of the joys of genre and often a sign of capable storytelling. But on the other hand, Empire of Light somehow feels more authentic than A Man Called Otto – in real life, things don’t always resolve neatly and happily in the way you might expect them to. It’s also worth pointing out that Mendes’ film never feels sentimental – it’s not emotionally cold, it just doesn’t feel like it’s laying it on with a trowel; perhaps this is a sign of the film’s essential Englishness.

If I have a brick to sling at Empire of Light, it’s that… well, I suppose it’s the fault of the trailer I saw, which features all the big scenes, an epic soundtrack, and narration from Toby Jones that implies that the film is, in some way, about how going to the cinema is somehow a metaphor for life itself. I was quite looking forward to seeing that film – what I ended up seeing was a very well-done drama about recognisable human beings in a particular time and place, but not much more than that. The whole issue of cinema-as-life does make an appearance, quite late on, but it feels like an afterthought – Toby Jones is easily a good enough actor to sell Norman’s various pronouncements of wisdom, but it still stretches credulity a tiny bit that it turns out that one character, despite having worked at the cinema for ages, has never actually watched a film there. (Mendes’ choice of the film they eventually watch, resulting in a transcendent, revelatory moment for them, is an intriguing one.)

I did enjoy Empire of Light quite a lot in the end, simply because it’s very well-acted, well-made, and quite well-written. After his various successes with Bond and 1917, Sam Mendes is probably at the point where one of his films just being a reasonable success, commercially or critically, probably counts as a disappointment. This is a shame. There is surely always a place for a good film, which is what Empire of Light is.

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There’s a popular current thesis which suggests that the era of the movie star is coming to an end – ‘movie star’ meaning someone who can ‘open’ a movie, and ‘open’ meaning ‘someone whose mere presence in a film will make people want to go and see it’. No-one like that is coming up through the ranks, the theory goes: good actors and popular performers, maybe, but no-one who is bigger than the film they’re in. We’ve discussed previously the odd case of someone like Chris Hemsworth, whose films are massively popular… as long as he always plays the same character. The character here is the star, not the actor.

With all this going on there is, inevitably, a parallel discussion about who the last great film star standing is. You can make pretty decent cases for people like Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and Harrison Ford, but it frequently boils down to one of the two Toms – Hanks or Cruise. It looks very much like Tom Cruise is in the dominant spot at the moment, following the massive (if slightly bewildering) success of Top Gun 2 last year, and the publicity machine already gearing up for the next episode of Mission Impossible. Tom Hanks hasn’t done himself any favours, either, I might suggest, by lending his talents to streamers (Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio and others) – Cruise has remained absolutely faithful to the primacy of the theatrical experience. I’ll admit to being one of those people who in the past has occasionally suggested the Cruiser might be a bit nuts, but you have to admire him for taking a stand like that.

Still, Tom Hanks is still a contender to be reckoned with, in his own field at least. (There seems to be a definite demarcation between the two Toms – Cruise only really does action thrillers these days, while Hanks is rarely to be found outside a good-natured comedy-drama.) He is back on screens in Marc Forster’s A Man Called Otto, which is based on a Swedish movie (and novel) called A Man Called Ove. This isn’t the first Anglophone remake on Hanks’ CV, of course, while Forster’s filmgraphy is sufficiently eclectic (gritty drama, literary adaptations, family-friendly comedy drama, and the profoundly unpopular Bond film Quantum of Solace) for nothing he does to really be much of a surprise any more.

The premise is fairly simple: Hanks plays a man called Otto Anderson, a recently-widowed engineer living in (I guess) Pennsylvania. ‘Prickly’ doesn’t begin to do justice to Otto; he comes across as an inflexible, unfriendly pain-in-the-neck to anyone who meets him. He castigates the young manager of a hardware store for only selling rope by the yard rather than the foot. His retirement party descends into acrimony when he complaints he feels pushed out of his job by new management. Long-standing feuds with neighbours and the local property development company rumble on.

Otto retires to his home, arranges to have his electricity and telephone disconnected, affixes a hook to his living room ceiling, and prepares to hang himself using the five feet of rope he was attempting to buy earlier, all in a very businesslike manner. However, it is a measure of the man that a display of substandard parallel-parking taking place across the street is enough to make him put this plan on hold and go out to complain. It turns out the offenders are his new neighbours Marisol and Tommy (Mariana Trevino and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and at this point the trajectory of the film becomes very clear indeed: Marisol’s relentless cheery friendliness will somehow find a way through Otto’s crusty carapace (the winsome cuteness of her daughters will also be a factor) and this will prove to be the story of How A Spiky Old Git Rediscovers The Joy Of Living.

It’s the kind of film, aspiring to be heart-warming and life-affirming, which it’s very easy to be cynical about – in fact, when not done well, it’s the sort of thing that often inclines me towards slipping off somewhere and quietly opening a vein. On paper it sort of resembles the TV show One Foot in the Grave, albeit with a substantial dollop of the earnestness and sentimentality you occasionally find in some of Hanks’ less successful projects.

However, Tom Hanks hasn’t managed to maintain his position at the top of the Hollywood system for nearly forty years simply through good fortune – he’s technically a very skilled actor in addition to being a hugely likeable screen presence, and he does have an edge over the other Tom in his willingness to stretch himself – these days, it’s impossible to imagine Cruise appearing in a bonkers ensemble film like Cloud Atlas, or being so prepared to be grotesque and unlikeable as Hanks was in Elvis last year (I tried to think of the previous film I’d seen Hanks in before this one and completely forgot about his turn as the Colonel, eventually settling on A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood from 2020).

Hanks’ performance is this film’s greatest asset, but this is not to say that the rest of it isn’t very capably put together too. It manages to negotiate a tricky path between being an actually quite morbid black comedy – there’s a running gag about Hanks’ various attempts to top himself being interrupted or otherwise going wrong – and something genuinely heart-warming. You’re never in any doubt as to how this is going to play out, but as ever it’s not necessarily the destination but the journey which really counts – the script rarely puts a foot wrong as it introduces the various characters, fills in Otto’s back-story (Rachel Keller plays his late wife, the young Hanks is played – in a remarkable coincidence – by someone named Truman Hanks), and basically charts the reappearance of Otto’s appetite for life.

Parts of it are very funny, while others are intensely moving and poignant (although the film benefits, as any film or TV show does, from the canny deployment of a Kate Bush song on the soundtrack). I saw it with the co-spousal unit and she described it later as ‘a film that will make you feel every emotion’. This is not far from the truth. Maybe there is a tendency towards sentimentality, but then this is part of A Man Called Otto‘s conception, and there is enough darkness, loneliness and grief to compensate for this. Not the biggest film of Hanks’ career, but a good one nevertheless.

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My default position when it comes to John Carpenter is that he is basically one of those people who did their careers backwards – most of us, when starting out in a new field, have results which are a bit hit and miss, until we figure out what we’re up to and (given sufficient time, dedication and natural talent) eventually master whatever it is we’re doing. Carpenter’s career isn’t like that. Even though his first film Dark Star is flawed, it’s still arguably the most influential science fiction movie of the last fifty years, while Assault on Precinct 13 is flat-out brilliant, and Halloween changed the face of the American horror movie. And then, at some point, he just went off the boil – by the late 1980s he was making schlocky films like Prince of Darkness, a decade later it was warmed-over rehashes like Escape from LA, and after 2001’s Ghosts of Mars (a fairly dreadful film) he more or less gave up.

A sad decline. Most people point to the tipping point being the commercial failure of his version of The Thing, which was competing at the box office with E.T. and came off distinctly second-best. I disagree: I think the last genuinely really good Carpenter film came a couple of years later, in the form of Starman. It seems to be a film that slips easily from the mind when it comes to discussing Carpenter’s work, perhaps because it is so uncharacteristic of the films he’s known for.

The film opens with the slightly hackneyed plot device of the Voyager 2 probe being intercepted by an alien intelligence. The aliens give it a good checking out, paying special attention to the gold disc placed aboard, and return the favour by sending their own probe ship to Earth to see if it’s as nice as the LP suggests. You know those Earth people, they’re devils for sending mixed signals, and the probe is shot down by the US Air Force somewhere over Wisconsin. It crashes near the home of recently-widowed Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen) and the pilot – an immaterial being of pure energy – zips around the house curiously before settling on one of her mementoes of her late husband Scott; a lock of his hair. The alien uses this to grow itself a new body to inhabit, a body which is naturally the spitting image of Scott (Jeff Bridges).

Jenny herself takes this about as well as you might expect, but there is more bad news on the way – the alien Starman’s colleagues are coming to Earth to pick him up, but, for important reasons of plot, their agreed rendezvous will be in Arizona in a few days time. Road trip! The chances are it will take just long enough for Starman to learn to appreciate the beauties of life on Earth and for him and Jenny to fall in love. Meanwhile a scientist from SETI, on the government’s payroll (he is played, very capably, by Charles Martin Smith), is hunting for the visitor, but increasingly beginning to question the rightness of the uncompromising approach taken by the authorities.

As you can perhaps see, it’s a fairly straightforward story without big twists or deep complexities. It’s not an exploitation movie or an action movie, nor is it a western modulated into a different setting, and as such it’s a fairly atypical project for Carpenter to take on. Mostly it’s a romantic comedy drama about two people sitting in a car, with the qualifier that one of them happens to be an alien.

The history of Starman is fairly interesting if you’re a student of the genre: Columbia started developing it at the same time as a script called Night Skies, which eventually became E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. The studio eventually abandoned the latter project, which of course went on to be a massive hit for Universal – this in turn resulted in Starman, deemed a more adult-oriented take on similar material, being put into production. (Carpenter was hired ahead of Tony Scott and Peter Hyams, and was keen to change his image as a director.) The similarities are obvious enough; this is clearly a post-Spielberg science-fantasy film. But what struck me about the film, watching it again recently, was the extent to which it also feels like it’s parallelling The Terminator in some ways – not really in terms of the trajectory of the plot, but when it comes to the imagery of some sequences – the main character materialises naked, out of thin air, at the start of the story, and the central relationship ends up becoming an archetypal James Cameron-style romance – which is to say it concludes with a one-night stand in an unlikely setting.

Nevertheless the film has a kind of understated sweetness and authenticity to it which isn’t quite there in any of the films it resembles – the road movie element also helps to make it distinctive, Carpenter apparently keen to explore the Americana of the story. It only really has four significant characters (the other is Richard Jaeckel’s Air Force heavy) and most of it is about two of them sitting in a car or a diner together. Both Allen and Bridges are really excellent; you do wonder why Allen didn’t have a more significant career considering she’s so good here and in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Everyone seems to accept now that Jeff Bridges is one of the best actors of his generation – he remains, to the best of my knowledge, the only person ever to be Oscar nominated for playing an alien. He’s not afraid to come across as initially weird and unsettling as the Starman, before gradually toning it down and creating a credible and sympathetic character. It is, I think, one of the best ‘playing an alien’ performances anywhere.

There are lots of good things about Starman, even if the story feels a bit low-octane and familiar in places. The real flaw that jumps out at me, however, is that the script is so keen on the character-building, phatic scenes between Jenny and the Starman that some of the connective tissue that allows the script to function is a bit skimped on. For example, one scene ends with Jenny getting a fright as she bumps into the Starman, who has only just appeared in her house. The next time we see them both, he is wearing her late husband’s clothes and she is preparing to drive him to Arizona. A whole lot of quite significant stuff seems to have happened between scenes, which one would quite like to have seen. How did he explain all this to her? How does she feel about it? Is she down with the alien turning himself into a clone of her husband? And so on.

Nevertheless, the scenes we do have retain a considerable charm, and you can usually figure out for yourself what happened off-screen in the bits we’re not privy to. It’s a well-made, entertaining film for a mainstream audience, and as such fairly unrecognisable as a John Carpenter project. As I say, for me it’s the last really good film he directed – but despite good reviews, it wasn’t particularly successful and within a couple of years the director was back to making more energetic and derivative schlock. A shame – on the strength of this road movie, the road not taken by Carpenter would surely have been at least as interesting as the way his career actually went.

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It seems like every big entertainment corporation is permanently on the look-out for the next big property to systematically exploit – not that it hasn’t always been thus, but these days it all seems a lot more premeditated in terms of the branding and forward-planning and so on. Next recipient of this treatment looks likely to be the writer Roald Dahl. To be fair, Dahl’s work has been the subject of numerous adaptations for decades – Walt Disney nearly made a film of his early novel The Gremlins (a word he apparently did a lot to popularise), since when there have been dozens of movies and TV shows. I get the sense the next wave will be a bit more organised and irresistible – or perhaps I’m just reading too much into the fact that The Roald Dahl Story company now has its own animated logo. (I look forward to seeing this at the start of a possible future adaptation of My Uncle Oswald, a quasi-pornographic Dahl novel from 1979 concerning an enterprising scheme to harvest the semen of famous men using an infallible aphrodisiac and some open-minded accomplices.)

This December will see the release of the surely infelicitiously-titled Wonka, a probably inevitable prequel to the films based on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but still providing a cheerful and upbeat presence in UK cinemas is the new version of Matilda, directed by Matthew Warchus. (Strictly speaking, this film is trading under the title of Roald Dahl’s Matilda: the Musical, but, you know, who can be bothered? We all know what I’m talking about.)

This is the tale of Matilda Wormwood (Alisha Weir), whose arrival in the world happens during the opening number: in contrast to the joy experienced by most of the parents in the maternity ward, Matilda’s are filled with profound horror – her father (Stephen Graham) would prefer a boy, while her mother (Andrea Riseborough) would have preferred not have a child at all, the mere fact she is about to give birth being a profound shock to her. This utter disdain extends into Matilda’s childhood, when she is forced to sleep in the attic and generally neglected, her parents even forgetting to send her to school.

The local school board take a dim view of this sort of thing and Matilda ends up being sent to Crunchem Hall, a grim establishment overseen by the imposing figure of Agatha Trunchbull (Emma Thompson), a former champion hammer-thrower whose idea of encouragement is a slogan like ‘None of you are special’ and whose personal motto is ‘Children are maggots’. Matilda, however, has – from somewhere or other – acquired a passionate love of reading and sense of justice, and before long she finds herself heading for a collision with the headmistress. Perhaps the psychic powers she seems to be spontaneously manifesting will come in useful…?

‘It’s a bit like Carrie,’ was how I pitched Matilda to the co-spousal unit when we were thinking about going to see it, a description which I obviously still stand by: young girl from a troubled domestic situation has a hard time at school and takes her telekinetic revenge in the final act. There, of course, the similarities start to dry up, for Roald Dahl and Stephen King, despite their shared success, don’t really have that much in common as stylists. King is always grounding things in the mundane world, while Dahl is revelling gleefully in the grotesque details which have made his books so abidingly popular – it’s an over-the-top, cartoony sort of world his characters generally inhabit.

Of course, this has led to accusations of misogyny, anti-semitism and racism being levelled at his books, but the only one which has an outside chance of sticking to Matilda is the first – Trunchbull is a hideous monster rather than anything recognisable as an actual woman, while Mrs Wormwood is a shrill, parasitic shrew. It must be said that Emma Thompson and Andrea Riseborough nevertheless lean into the repulsive elements of their characters and clearly seem to be having a great time doing so. They’re so awful it’s impossible to think the film is trying to make a serious point, any more than an adaptation of Hansel and Gretel or Snow White.

If the film does have a message it’s an entirely laudable one – not just about not being horrible to other people, but about standing up for fairness and justice (and, seeing as we’re mentioning these things, the joys of reading, telling stories, and being educated generally). The film manages this in a non-preachy, entirely persuasive way I found wholly admirable; the fact the film is consistently funny and  poignant in the right places doesn’t do it any harm either.

I suspect the main reason I went to see Matilda was because, as the lengthy full title suggests, it’s a musical, and I do like a musical even if it’s a kids’ film. The songs are by Tim Minchin, as I expect is quite well known, and they are uniformly both clever and witty. We went to a singalong showing of the film, something I’m usually wary of doing, but luckily no-one seemed inclined to join in at our screening. The subtitles were actually quite welcome as they helped us to appreciate the finer points of the jokes in the lyrics which might otherwise have got lost. Emma Thompson sings a song about how to be a champion hammer-thrower, which isn’t something you’re going to get in many films, while the terrific ‘Revolting Children’ number is as agreeable an incitement to riot as you’re likely to hear all year. Great singing performances all round, from Weir, Thompson, and Lashana Lynch (who plays a friendly schoolteacher).

I didn’t see the last Chocolate Factory adaptation and the prospect of Timothee Chalamet in a top hat practicing to become Johnny Depp fills me with inertia – in fact it’s probably fair to say I’ve enjoyed Dahl’s work for adults more than his children’s stories (too many Tales of the Unexpected at a tender age, I expect). Nevertheless I had a really good time watching Matilda – the sad bits are really sad, but this is part of the process of earning a proper happy ending, and the funny and uplifting bits do exactly what they need to do. This is a thoroughly enjoyable and well-made film that, I suspect, the whole family can sit down and have a good time with.

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It feels like the world has been in love with Jane Austen for well over a quarter of a century now: at least since the release of the Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle-starring adaptation of Pride and Prejudice made by the BBC in 1995. Since then there have been so many versions of the author’s work – which, after all, mainly consists of only six finished novels – that they all start to blur into one, a composite world of cravats, rebuffed proposals, big hats, empire line dresses and very impressive balls. There’s nothing wrong with a milieu with that sort of strong identity, of course, and familiarity is certainly a plus as far as some audiences is concerned – but on the other hand it can all get a bit bland and predictable.

Whit Stillman’s 2016 film Love and Friendship does its best to give the usual style of Austen adaptation a kick up the backside, while still retaining most of the elements which make the genre identifiable. Stillman is perhaps best known as a chronicler of a certain stratum of contemporary society, and as such doing an Austen adaptation might be seen as a bit of a departure for him – but films like Metropolitan do feel like a costume drama, just one set in the present day. Perhaps this is a natural coming together of film-maker and source material. The specific source material, by the way, is a novella named Lady Susan, written by Austen in the 1790s when she was possibly only a teenager – long before the ‘major’ novels.

Stillman himself apparently found the book to be seriously flawed – to the point where he persuaded a publisher to let him write his own novelisation of the film in an attempt to fix some of the errors – and so it seems likely some extensive tweaking of the story has taken place to bring it to the screen. Kate Beckinsale plays Lady Susan, an attractive widow who has the serious problem of not having an income to support herself or her teenage daughter Frederica (an early appearance by Morfydd Clark, who did a sort of Austen double by turning up in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies in the same year). Beautiful, witty, and very, very shrewd, Lady Susan is nevertheless afflicted by the problem of a terrible reputation as a flirt – nobody really wants to have her to stay, due to the wrecking-ball effect she has on relationships in the house, but on the other hand this is pre-Regency England and everyone is much too polite to say a flat ‘no’ without some sort of pretext.

Anyway, after being kicked out of the home of the Manwaring family for getting too familiar with the lord of the manor, Lady Susan moves in with – and excuse me while I check this, for the film is stuffed with Manwarings and DeCourcys and Johnsons and Vernons, most of whom seem to be related somehow and several of whom bear a resemblance to each other (there are even two characters with the same name) – her late husband’s family, where she soon manages to ingratiate herself with – and hang on again – her late husband’s brother-in-law (Xavier Samuel).

All seems well until Frederica turns up, having run away from her boarding school, pursued by the wealthy but moronic Sir James Martin (an excellent comic turn from Tom Bennett). Sir James wants to marry Frederica, which would save the family fortunes, but she wants nothing to do with someone so ‘silly’ – at least, nothing in the nuptual sense. This results in tension between mother and daughter, as you might expect. But Lady Susan is determined to see her daughter make a good marriage – and if she can procure a good one for herself as well, so much the better…

I feel like I have simplified much more than usual in the capsule synopsis department, in case you were wondering. The film really doesn’t compromise when it comes to character and plot – the only concession it makes is to introduce characters through little portrait-like vignettes, with (frequently ironic) captions explaining who they are. The story unfolds through a succession of often quite brief scenes, with complex and allusive dialogue – this is the kind of film where many of the main characters never quite say exactly what they mean – and the end result is that you really have to strap in and pay attention to what’s going on – and I do mean concentrated, sustained attention. A copy of the Cliff’s Notes for the film would be an invaluable benefit and make it much more relaxing to watch.

I’m not really selling this to you, am I? Well, it’s not quite the ordeal I may be implying, for the general thrust of the plot is fairly clear even if some of the decorative curlicues remain a little obscure. It’s an uncompromisingly clever film, and often a very funny one as well, particularly when it comes to some of Lady Susan’s more outrageous pronouncements – she explains her preference not to actually pay the woman who’s effectively her servant, on the grounds this will spoil the bond of friendship between them. She is an awful, awful person, but due to the charm of Beckinsale’s performance you find yourself almost inclined to indulge her in this.

As I said, Stillman has performed surgery on Austen’s original novel and so how much of the film’s acid cynicism was originally there is not immediately obvious (i.e. I can’t be bothered to read the novella myself) – but this is a very atypical Austen adaptation. While certainly comic, you’d be hard-pressed to describe it as a conventional romance – virtue is to some extent rewarded at the end, but so is guile and manipulativeness, and at least one amiable fool is ruthlessly exploited. I think perhaps the sharpness of the blade is truer to Austen than most adaptations, but I wouldn’t presume to call myself an expert.

In any case, the film certainly meets the visual requirements of an Austen movie, with carriages and hats and stately homes and so on, and there is a solid costume-drama cast, too: Chloe Sevigny plays Susan’s American friend, and Stephen Fry her husband (only a brief appearance, though). James Fleet and Gemma Redgrave pop up in supporting roles, as does Justin Edwards (who I mention primarily because he was Gan in Blake’s Junction 7, which we discussed just the other day). Challenging it may be, but I think it’s still claimed a place as one of my favourite Austen adaptations.

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The first thing that strikes you about Rescue, obviously, is the change of opening credits – not necessarily much more radical than the change between seasons two and three, I suppose, but there is also the modified logo for this year. All in all I think it marks a significant shift in the aesthetics of Blake’s 7, and perhaps the storytelling too. The original title sequence, while a bit abstract, does a reasonable job of establishing the setting and premise of the series – a succession of images with a domed city, a security camera, a Federation trooper, Blake himself, and so on. The second title sequence is less abstract but does feature some lovely model work of the Liberator and some Federation ships, both of which are visually prominent in the series.

The fourth season titles are technically very impressive, as the camera swoops over the surface of a model planet while the HUD of some vessel is overlaid: the display switches as the ship soars away into space. On the other hand, the title sequence tells you virtually nothing about the premise, the characters, or the visual elements of the series; one gets the impression it’s just as it is because composer Dudley Simpson was vocally unhappy about how the original titles didn’t match his music. (The new ones obviously do.) Still, it’s very good music, as you would expect from Dudley Simpson – more than anyone else, he can claim to be responsible for the sound of British telefantasy in the 1970s, doing the themes for Blake’s 7 and The Tomorrow People, and providing incidental music for the bulk of Dr Who episodes in that decade. Somehow the theme manages to contain the mixture of the gritty and the camp which epitomise the series at its best – even if the new titles are more naturalistic than before.

There was a big shift in how science fiction looked on screen in the late 1970s and early 1980s – everything became a lot less shiny and theatrical and a lot more grimy and functional. The reason for this is the success of the first Star Wars film and also Aliens, both of which made heavy use of the so-called ‘used universe’ aesthetic (my personal suspicion is that this was originally pioneered by John Carpenter in Dark Star, but that’s by the by). With season four, this finally starts to influence Blake’s 7 – it’s there in the design of the Scorpio, many of the new costumes, and the general look of the show.

Avon was ahead of the curve, of course, with the studded black leather outfit he was wearing at the end of the previous series (and wears throughout this one). To be fair, continuity with Terminal is excellent, no doubt in part due to the fact that Mary Ridge was retained as director. Everyone is still stuck on the artificial planet Terminal, where it turns out that Servalan has been a little bit economical with the actualite – both the ship she has left the crew and her underground base are rigged to explode, which they promptly do. Cally is killed (off-screen) in the blast, though apparently Jan Chappell did come back to record her telepathic death-cry (‘Blake!’, of course).

Things look bleak, and the poor survival instincts of some of the group do not bode well. ‘Don’t you ever get bored with being right?’ asks Dayna, after Avon is obliged to rescue her from a giant carnivorous worm. ‘Only with the rest of you being wrong,’ says Avon. Some things may have changed, but not the fact that nobody else writes dialogue for these characters as well as Chris Boucher. It’s also worth noting that, despite what happened in the previous episode, Avon is back to being the dominant, cold figure we know and love.

Help, however, may be on the way, as approaching Terminal is the Scorpio, a modified freighter commanded by the mysterious Dorian (Geoffrey Burridge). Dorian is coming for the crew, but clearly doesn’t know the Liberator has been destroyed – which of course begs the questions of how he knows where to find them, and what his A-plan would have been if they’d still had transport. It is not at all obvious what either of the answers is, but given that Boucher was given the assignment of resurrecting the format of the show after Terry Nation did such a good job of demolishing it, it is at least partly forgivable.

Anyway, Dorian is captured (or lets himself get captured) and everyone blasts off in the Scorpio. Unfortunately, the flight computer Slave (Peter Tuddenham again) is voice-printed and the pre-set destination is to be Xenon, where Dorian has a base. That Dorian is a fairly exceptional individual is communicated by a longish sequence exploring the Scorpio set, which features a non-functioning attempt at a teleport system, the sophisticated AI Slave, and a locker of supposedly high-tech guns. Dayna gets a big speech about all the different ammo modes available, which in retrospect seems a bit odd as they never, to my memory, actually use any of them.

Naturally, it turns out that Dorian built all this stuff himself, as the cavern beneath his base contains an unpleasant secret, one which is responsible for his greatly extended lifespan (it is implied he has spent centuries building the guns, Slave, the teleport, and so on). His rescue of the crew is partly motivated by the fact that Orac could help get the teleport working – but he has another reason, too, which is not entirely humanitarian…

About fifteen years after this episode was first broadcast I was sitting in the pub with a couple of acquaintances and the subject of old culty TV shows came up – and this episode in particular. ‘I remember watching Blake’s 7 – and thinking, this is The Picture of Dorian Gray,’ said one of my companions, bemusement colouring his voice. He was right, and perhaps right to be bemused – ripping off other plots quite so specifically is a Dr Who trick, not really a Blake’s 7 one, and this is the only episode to do it this openly. But a sci-fi reworking of Oscar Wilde’s novel is what this is, although rather than a portrait, this Dorian has a slightly manky old Dr Who monster suit to project his various sins onto.

It’s a solid enough plot, well-written, played, and directed, especially when you consider all the other stuff the episode has to do – re-establish the characters, kill off Cally, introduce a new ship, come up with an explanation for a new teleport system, and so on. The only point where Chris Boucher runs out of space is in introducing the new character, Soolin (Glynis Barber). He doesn’t get far beyond ‘steely blonde gunslinger’, unfortunately. It’s interesting that the novelisation of this episode features an extra scene at the very end, which deals with a few points of plot carpentry quite deftly – Avon blows up the cavern under the base, which seems sensible enough, and there’s a nice character bit where the group reflect on Dorian’s claim that Avon and the others share a bond after what they’ve been through together. ‘Quite insane,’ says Avon. This looks very much like a chunk of script that got cut for timing purposes, which is a shame.

Given that the fourth season was commissioned and assembled under rather more time pressure than the previous ones, and the need to effectively reformat the series, Rescue is an impressively confident and competent episode. But then you sort of expect that from Chris Boucher by this point; what will be interesting is seeing what other people do with the new possibilities created here.

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The British governor of India (Ray Stevenson, from Rome and the earlier Thor movies) is visiting some of his subjects in a forest village in Adilabad. His wife (Alison Doody, who was in an Indiana Jones film aeons ago) gets a henna tattoo from a charming young girl named Malli (Twinkle Sharma): the tattoo is such a success and the girl so charming that she decides to take her on as an indentured servant, regardless of the wishes of her family. When Malli’s mother is bold enough to complain about this, she is smashed over the head with a log (mainly because the governor believes the life of an Indian isn’t worth a  bullet) and left by the roadside as the British depart.

Elsewhere, a British outpost is under siege by a huge pro-independence mob and things look bleak for the forces of the Raj. However, no-one has reckoned on the intervention of young officer Raju (Ram Charan), who leaps over the stockade (going about thirty feet in the air from the look of things) and single-handedly drives the vast crowd back using just a bit of wood. To say he is as keen as mustard is an absurd understatement.

Word reaches the governor’s staff that the villagers from the start of the story are very unhappy about Malli being kidnapped and have called in their guardian, a fellow called Bheem (Junior NTR), to rescue her. The British laugh this off at first, but as we get to see Bheem wrestling tigers in his pants we know that he is not a man to dismiss lightly. Eventually the governor comes around and offers a special reward to anyone who locates and captures Bheem. Bounding forward to accept this assignment, inevitably, is Raju, moustache positively vibrating at the prospect.

So, Bheem is in Delhi, looking for Malli, and Raju is likewise in town, but looking for Bheem (both men have adopted false identities for their missions). It looks like a calamitous confrontation is on the cards, but a strange twist of fate (actually an exploding train) leads to the two of them teaming up to save another innocent child (this is achieved through an extraordinary stunt sequence not easily or quickly described). Naturally two such superhumanly virile and powerful figures instantly become close pals, neither suspecting whom the other really is. In the course of their hanging-out, Raju helps Bheem court a beautiful young Englishwoman (Olivia Morris), which results in a huge anti-colonial dance-off contest at the governor’s residence. (Really.) But as they both pursue their missions, the moment of conflict draws implacably closer. Will the bonds of friendship survive the revelation of the truth?

This is how S. S. Rajamouli’s RRR gets going. (The title refers to the coming together of three Telugu-language cinema superstars: Ram Charan, Rama Rao (one of Jr NTR’s various names) and Rajamouli himself, though there’s also a subtitle suggesting it stands for Rise, Roar, Revolt: all three certainly happen in copious amounts throughout the movie.) I’d never heard of this film until a few days ago, when it started popping up all over ‘best films of the 2022’ lists. You don’t usually expect to find Indian movies there, and the rapturous critical notices the film has received were startling. Happily, the market-leading streaming service has acquired it, possibly inspired by the fact the film did impressive business in the US when it landed a theatrical release there.

Often, when a film has such a buzz about it, it can’t help but be a bit disappointing when you actually sit down and watch it, and the very early signs for RRR were not promising – before the action gets going there’s a very lengthy disclaimer making it absolutely clear that the film is entirely a work of fiction and the film-makers haven’t intended to upset anyone, and another one stressing that all the tigers, wolves, leopards, deer, snakes, etc, featured in the film are CGI and not subject to mistreatment. Then all the co-production partners get mentioned (this is the most expensive Indian film ever made), by which time you’re beginning to wonder if the film’s epic run-time (it’s nearly as long as the Avatar sequel) isn’t mostly just disclaimers and credits. It is not. This is indeed a very long film, but once the story proper kicks off it moves like a greasy bullet and never drags at all, barrelling from one outrageous action sequence to the next (pausing occasionally for a big musical number).

It’s almost completely ridiculous and yet at the same time irresistible: when it comes to his final rescue attempt, Bheem eschews stealth in favour of crashing a truck through the residency gates, from which he leaps (possibly forty feet in the air this time), a burning torch in each hand, surrounded by an entire menagerie of wild animals he’s brought along as a distraction. It’s absurd, and the CGI is pretty obvious – but the sheer bravura and confidence of the film is captivating. You can see the influence of western blockbusters like the Marvel movies here, and the broad-strokes plotting and characterisations aren’t usually the stuff of critical darlings – but RRR has a kind of earnestness and sincerity to it that somehow nullifies many of the normal criteria for judging a film. It is just relentlessly good fun.

There’s a fair degree of violence here which stops this from being a treat for all the family, and there are occasionally allusions to Indian culture and history which will probably go over the head of a western audience. I can imagine that some people might take exception to the presentation of nearly all the British characters as diabolically racist and sadistic, but I suppose that’s why the disclaimers are there at the start – the film may feature historical characters (Raju and Bheem are both based on real people) but the film is entirely fictional. (Again, I wonder if we aren’t cutting RRR some slack we wouldn’t allow to a Hollywood production.)

Nevertheless, I can’t overstate what a good time I had watching RRR: for sheer entertainment value it easily outshines every English-language blockbuster I’ve seen this year, and it has a vibrancy and liveliness to it which you likewise seldom find in western releases. It may not be subtle or particularly sensible, but RRR is the kind of film which makes you fall in love with the cinema all over again.

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People who feel it important to ruminate on such matters have suggested that 2023 will be the year in which the so-called ‘streaming wars’ turn nasty – rather than a bounteous wonderland where something for all tastes will be available for a reasonable fee just on Netflix, the suggestion is that we will find ourselves on a battlefield where the big N, Mouseplus, Paramount, Apple, etc, dig in and increasingly pitch for big middle-of-the-road audiences. (It seems to be taken as fact that Netflix’s long-anticipated crackdown on password sharing will come into force some time early in the New Year.)

If things really are this tough, you can see why the news that Netflix apparently spent $469 million on the rights to two sequels to the 2019 comedy-thriller Knives Out variously baffled, startled, and annoyed many of those same ruminators. The first film was good, and (more importantly) very profitable, but even so – over $450 million? (Including $100 million each for writer-director Rian Johnson and star Daniel Craig.) It does seem like mystifying insanity, and very possibly a sign of a profoundly decadent culture.

Still, whatever you make of the background to these films – and it is of course customary to emit a small sigh about the fact that this means that two potentially big and entertaining movies will only be appearing in cinemas for a couple of days each – here is the first of them, Glass Onion. This is very much a further adventure of Craig’s character, detective Benoit Blanc, rather than a sequel to the first film – marketing suggesting the two films share a storyline has apparently mightily annoyed Rian Johnson, but there you go, even $100 million can’t buy you complete creative control these days.

There is a strong element of topical satire to this movie and I expect a lot of fun will be had trying to guess who all the characters are based on. Chief amongst these is filthy rich tech tycoon Miles Bron (Edward Norton), who at the start of the film summons various old cronies to his private Greek island by sending them a large and intricate puzzle box, which contains the invitation. Amongst the recipients are a politician (Kathryn Hahn), a scientist (Leslie Odom Jr), a former model (Kate Hudson), an internet celebrity and men’s rights activist (Dave Bautista), and Bron’s former partner (Janelle Monae) – whom he treated very roughly indeed in some of their former business dealings. Also receiving a box is Blanc himself, who is confined to his bathtub and on the verge of going stir-crazy. (It’s somewhat relevant to the plot that all this is happening during the 2020 lockdown.)

Well, everyone rocks up somewhere beautiful in Greece, accompanied in some cases by hangers-on and so on, and they are welcomed by Bron in several displays of appalling ostentation. Bron reveals his plan for the weekend – they’re going to play a murder-mystery game, in which he will be the victim. But several things end up complicating this, mainly the presence of Blanc himself, who it turns out was never intended to receive an invitation in the first place. Blanc has profound misgivings about the very idea of Bron staging this kind of game with a group of people all of whom have – it turns out – good reason to want him dead. Soon enough the murder-mystery game has been supplanted by a genuine murder, and it’s up to Blanc to work out exactly what’s going on…

Releasing Glass Onion over the holiday period was probably a smart move on the part of the big N, as the piece inevitable recalls one of those lavish all-star Agatha Christie adaptations which comfortably fill up the schedule of a Bank Holiday afternoon – you know the sort of thing, usually starring Albert Finney or Peter Ustinov and with Maggie Smith lurking somewhere in the supporting cast. The resemblance is intentional, of course; this is a Christie pastiche, albeit one thoroughly updated for the era of the Metaverse and coronavirus, and with a rather broader element of comedy to it than the dame was wont to include in her stories.

I can imagine many families settling down to enjoy the film and having a good time doing so, for there is much to entertain here – you can see where the budget went, the ensemble cast are clearly enjoying themselves, and the script is clever and often very funny. (There are also some amusing cameos along the way, although given that some of the celebrity walk-ons have died since shooting was completed, the pleasure of seeing them again is inevitably bittersweet.)

And, you know, it is fun to watch, although I found it less satisfying than Knives Out. Why was this the case? Well, it took me a while to figure it out. I think it’s partly down to the sheer lavish expansiveness of the storyline – this is not a short film, and it’s getting on towards the half-way mark before anyone actually gets murdered (which is surely the whole point of a murder mystery film). I suppose what I’m trying to say is that the core storyline takes its time to unfold, slowing down to facilitate the various jokes and funny hats and comedy turns the film also contains.

I would suggest it’s also the case that while the film itself is undeniably a clever and engaging puzzle-box of a story, the cleverness comes more from how it’s presented than in terms of the plot itself. You expect various twists and turns, red herrings and misdirections, in this kind of story, but the plot here is actually relatively straightforward – that’s almost the point of it, although I’m hesitant to explain too much – the telling of it, however, is greatly complicated by extensive use of flashbacks and repeated scenes. There’s nothing actually wrong with this, of course, and I suppose it is just a matter of taste; I suppose I was just expecting something a little more traditional.

But in the end, this is an entertaining film, even if it does feel like Daniel Craig himself gets rather sidelined as it goes on. It’s another jolly performance, even if he hasn’t quite found a way to stop Blanc from feeling like the Poirot-clone he technically is. As a general rule I’m not the biggest fan of the genre which turns murder into a sort of parlour game, especially when it uses humour to make outrageous characters and plotting more acceptable (and this is that sort of film). But I did find this quite entertaining, if not quite up to the standard of the first one. It will be interesting to see what direction Johnson takes in the third one.

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