Pinocchio shouldn’t have been streamed

Pinocchio is unsuitable for streaming. The live action remake of Disney’s classic film doesn’t meet the demand of the format it’s been released in. This article should be a four minute read.

Streaming, like television, demands a higher standard than the theatre and cinema. Aaron Sorkin, writer of The West Wing, said in his Masterclass that it’s easier to turn off a TV than walk out of a theatre or cinema. Going to see a play or film is coupled with the trouble and expense of buying tickets, leaving home, and maybe having dinner beforehand. So, we are usually willing to tolerate it if the story doesn’t grab us as soon as the curtain is clear. We will often stick it out and see if the play or film gets better, because of all that we’ve done just to be sitting there watching it. There’s no such deterrent if we’re sitting watching a TV or computer screen. We can turn it off, walk away, change the channel, or click exit, with little to no wasted time or effort if we see no reason to keep watching. A streamed film or episode must convince an audience to keep watching from the very beginning, because there is no other reason for them to stay.

Here, Pinocchio fails. Geppetto, played by Tom Hanks, the lonely woodcarver and father of Pinocchio, talks about how he wishes the wooden boy he carves could be as real as the son he’s lost. But there are no tears. Not a moment when his cheery face darkens with the desperate longing intense enough to make a man carve a puppet in the image of his son and wish for it to become a real boy. Hanks’s ability to plunge into the depths of a character and bring it to the surface that he’s shown in his roles as Mr Rogers and Ben Bradlee, is wasted. When Pinocchio does come to life, how he came alive, why he is alive, how he becomes a real boy, and why he should become a real boy, questions potentially each worth a scene in themselves, are dispatched in about five minutes. It sounds like being a real boy will make my father happy, Pinocchio says, plucking the reason for what’s to be his entire quest almost out of thin air. The characters appeared pushed and jerked like puppets in the hands of clumsy puppeteers to say these lines and make these choices, without concern for the why that could increase the story’s layers. There’s no reason to expect a film that’s so superficial and artificial within its first two scenes will get any better, so there’s no reason to keep watching.

Pinocchio may get better past its first scenes, but because it’s been released by streaming, there’s no reason to keep watching.

Top Gun: Maverick

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Over two decades since Top Gun, its sequel tries for a moment to be its own film, but then just copies, copies, and copies. This review should take 3 minutes to read.

It’s not a blatant copy of the original Top Gun. Maverick is still flying, with the same brazen defiance of his superiors. But while he’s still the “fastest man alive,” as his friend Hondo calls him, the race he’s in is different. It’s no longer to be top of his class at Top Gun. It’s to stay in the air, as his attitude makes his career untenable and a future where drones replace pilots make him obsolete. Before, Maverick was shooting towards glory. Now, he’s trying to outrun extinction. The story is still a hero’s journey, but Maverick’s journey is different.

But it’s not different enough. The film begins, Maverick fronting his commander for insubordinate courage, and ends, a crowd gathered on the carrier cheering at victory, just as the original did. Photos, music, faces, and even original footage from the original, litter the film. The opening and closing sequences and music are near identical. Even some scenes are shot just like in the original. Maverick races into Top Gun on the same motorbike, in the same jacket, with a jet alongside him, just as he did the first time. The film is too derivative.

Despite giving Maverick a new challenge, the originality in Top Gun: Maverick stops there, as it becomes a re-hash of its predecessor.

12 Angry Men

Rating: 5 out of 5.

12 Angry Men is drama at its finest. This review should take one and a half minutes to read.

The plot is airtight. When one juror of 12 deciding a murder trial refuses to vote guilty, the others must confront the evidence and their own conclusions they’ve drawn about the boy they’re voting to hang. If they can’t all agree on a verdict, the boy goes to another jury who will most likely say “Guilty.” Sealed inside the jury room, they must confront the case and their own characters.

As their deliberations go on and the case deepens, each juror is cracked open. What began as an open and shut case dissolves as each piece of evidence is pressed. Simultaneously, each juror is opened as they reveal how they reach their decisions. Some through principle. Others prejudice. One man is knocked about like a table-tennis ball, and another couldn’t care less where he ends up, so long as it’s out of the courthouse and to the baseball game. All breeds of men, brave, frivolous, timid, vacuous, and hateful, are put under the microscope. The plot crushes them like nuts, revealing the gold or blackness at their centres.

12 Angry Men seals its cast inside an intense conflict that forces a revelation and reckoning with who they are.

The French Dispatch

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Wes Anderson’s 2021 film The French Dispatch is brilliant if silly. This review should be a 2-minute read.

It’s a rogue’s gallery of cinematic innovation. The film is a dramatization of an obituary, a brief travel guide, and three feature articles published in the final issue of the French Dispatch. They’re listed on the screen before the title. Just like on the contents page of a magazine. These episodes of dramatized journalism, nonfiction literature brought to life by cinematographers and actors, are intertwined with scenes showing them being brought together by the magazine’s staff into the final issue. It shifts between black and white. One shot is composed like the stage in a theatre. Others contain entire cities, planes, landscapes, and scenery, assembled within the frame like models, as Andersson achieved in The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Fantastic Mr Fox. Multiple shots are held in the same frame. One portion is even rendered as a comic strip. Anderson dashes, like a child, from one invention to another.

But the film isn’t for someone looking for serious drama. I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that each episode in the film is pointless. But their points are looney. An artist is discovered while in prison using his guard as a model. An interview with the chef of a police precinct. A student revolution over free access to the female dormitories for all male students. There’s no attempt at realism. Just fun. A florid, bordering on Nabokovian, humour that’s frivolously gay. It’s not serious but zany.

If not serious, The French Dispatch is still colourful and creative. 

The Anti-Heroism of The Searchers

This 3 minute read is a short film essay rather than a review.

The Searchers is a freak. It’s an utterly unheroic film in a genre defined by heroism.

The film’s protagonist embodies its contradictions. John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards who spends years searching for his niece after she’s abducted by Comanche. His voice could stop a cannon ball and he walks in strides. Just by moving and talking he projects strength. In his search he traverses desserts and blizzards. He walks and talks like the lawmen, honourable gunslingers, soldiers, and frontiersmen Wayne portrayed in his many Westerns. But Ethan is a Confederate soldier who refuses to renounce its cause even after its defeat. He desecrates a Comanche’s body and he would rather kill his niece rather than let her live as a Comanche because to him that’s not living. Ethan is given the quest and mannerisms of a hero, but he’s a murderous bigot.

Marty, Ethan’s companion in his search, tries but largely fails to be the hero Ethan isn’t. Marty wants to go with Ethan. Yet when Ethan attempts to go on without him, Marty can’t say why he should come and withers under Ethan’s gaze. Like a boy asked a question in class who doesn’t know the answer. He’s made a fool of by Ethan who uses him as bait, and his girlfriend Laurie who walks in on him naked in a tub. Unlike Ethan Marty is a good man, but he’s too incompetent to be this story’s hero.

Those around Ethan and Marty are just as foolish, ridiculous, and despicable. While Marty is away, Laurie agrees to marry another man. Her fiancé, Charlie, looks, sounds, and talks like a donkey. He serves as a ranger under Reverend Captain Clayton who, before a raid on the Comanche, warns Marty that the rangers won’t be able to pick their targets. What he means is they will shoot anyone that moves. Armed or unarmed. Man, woman, or child. He’s permitting a massacre. Before the raid, Laurie tells Marty Ethan’s brother and sister-in-law would want Ethan to kill their daughter rather than let her be a Comanche. Even the Comanche murder, kidnap and, it’s implied, rape indiscriminately. The supporting characters are as devoid of heroism as the film’s stars.

The Searchers is a Western devoid of the genre’s signature brand of heroes, and instead populated by the foolish and contemptable, rendering the film disappointing.

The Bravados

I gave The Bravados 7 out of 10. It begins with fine momentum but loses steam as one act passes into the next. This review should take 3 minutes to read. I haven’t included a trailer because none exists that I can find that doesn’t spoil the portion of the film that’s worth seeing.

The film’s first act begins and passes at a strong gallop. When Gregory Peck’s Jim Douglass rides into Rio Arriba, he brings with him the mystery and countdown that animates the first act. He offers little clues as to why he’s come to watch a hanging. His face moves as much as a stone warrior. His mouth reveals even less. He doesn’t speak to the hangman, suggesting he’s sore that this man, Curly from the Three Stooges, will be killing the men instead of him. He speaks in short sentences to an old flame Josefa, played by Joan Collins, that don’t let slip why he’s in town. Jim’s taciturn manner, created with Peck’s trademark dramatic Stoicism, perpetuated my anticipation of the hanging, as I awaited the hour, the minute, when he’d see the men hang and I might find out why he wanted it so badly. The mystery of Jim and the deadline of the hanging pushes the story forward until the end of the first act.

From when the first act ends after the men escape, the story slows to a tired canter. Jim pursues the men, one stays behind to hold Jim off, Jim overpowers him, catches him, and kills him. This pattern is repeated for the whole film after the first act. While Jim finds a new way to kill each man, it quickly became repetitive. “I made myself judge, jury, and executioner.” When this pivotal moment comes when Jim reflects on what vengeance has done to him, he uses the most predictable words. When Jim’s daughter is first shown she’s dressed in rags with dirt over her face. After she’s been entrusted to Josefa’s care, she’s a cherub in a sweet pink dress with ribbons in her hair and her face polished bright. Yet this display of what Josefa’s love achieves compared to Jim’s thirst for revenge comes only in the film’s final moments and doesn’t receive a word of dialogue. Nor does Josefa make a great effort to make Jim choose between her love and his revenge. She only asks him why he doesn’t give it up, once, and then breaks down saying she understands, imploring him to “KILL THEM.” Feeble drama and lack of exploration kills the thrust of the story began in the first act.

The Bravados isn’t carried through as well as it’s built up.

My Fair Lady

You can watch the trailer for My Fair Lady, directed by George Cukor, above.

This review should take 3 minutes to read.

I have never seen a more joyful film as My Fair Lady. I gave it 10 out of 10.

In costume and set, the film reaches from the regal to the humble. All the charm of Edwardian England is shown whether it’s at the races in suits, thick, curling dresses and blossoming hats, or in Convent Garden pubs in soft, woollen coats and bowler hats. The beauties both aristocratic and proletariat are included.

Yet the people walking these streets and wearing these clothes are the most colourful flowers in this cinematic flower show. “You’ll get much further with the Lord if you learn not to offend his ears,” Rex Harrison’s Professor Henry Higgins tells his student Eliza Dolittle. He’s not only rude, and eloquent in his rudeness, but also totally unashamed of it. As he tells Eliza he treats even a duchess as if she were a flower girl. She shouldn’t complain if he treats her badly. Only if he treats her any worse than he treats everyone else. As Eliza Dolittle the flower girl, Audrey Hepburn squawks at Higgins’s insults like the “bilious pigeon” he compares her to. Her cockney accent is so thick her words stumble and trip out her throat as she does on her legs in equally comic fashion. But, transformed into a lady under Higgins, her words are as soft and graceful as the clothes she wears that look sown from the silken skins of the flowers she used to sell on the street. I even enjoyed watching Eliza’s wastrel father rolling through the streets like a sponge with legs. “I give her the greatest gift any human being can give to another: life,” he says when asked why Eliza should give him money for drink, “then I disappeared to leave her on her own to enjoy it.” Like Higgins he’s ridiculously at peace with his faults, and invents an entire philosophy to justify them. His needs are as great as a deserving man he says. Greater even, because if he asks for help, he’s refused because he’s undeserving. Each character is their own variety to tickle and delight.

The one colour I never saw in My Fair Lady is grey. It was impossible to be bored.

L.A. Conifdential

You can watch the trailer for L.A. Confidential above.

L.A. Confidential can be streamed on Disney Plus. I gave it 9 out of 10. This review should take 3 and a half minutes to read.

L.A. Confidential is noir but more than just nostalgia.

Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland consciously engage with the era they step back into when directing and writing this film respectively. “You’d think this place was the Garden of Eden. But there’s trouble in Paradise.” Tabloid reporter Sid Hudgens, played by Danny DeVito, provides various snippets of this pulpy narration. He gives information as if writing for his Hollywood scandal-sheet. “Do you follow my drift?” Police Captain Dudley Smith asks disgraced cop Budd White. “In Technicolor sir,” White says, accepting Dudley’s offer to have his badge back, referring to the process used to colour the screens of Hollywood’s Golden Age. There are prostitutes dolled up to look like Rita Hayworth and Veronica Lake. Lana Turner even makes an appearance. Hanson and Helgeland go a bit too far into the muck of police brutality, corruption, prostitution and pornography. The nudity and blood are too overt. Too much is shown and splattered across walls and floors that it becomes gratuitous. Yet, despite being heavy on filth, L.A. Confidential doesn’t lose the scent of LA in the time of Chandler.

The film is more than a nostalgia show for noir enthusiasts. The drama reaches above boiling point thanks to the actors as much as the plot. When Budd, played by Russell Crowe, discovers photos of his girlfriend with the man he hates, he stumbles backwards, as if a crack is opening in the ground to swallow him up, dropping the pictures one by one. The action only intensifies, bodies pile up and guns multiply, until the climax. Once there, Budd and Detective Exley, played by Guy Pearce, are barricaded inside a motel, surrounded by armed men, with no option but to shoot their way out. This film is loud with the blast of guns and the pounding of running blood.

The characters are as rich as the plot is explosive. Exley claims to be serving justice by testifying against fellow officers. But he also swings a promotion out of it. Bud goes out of his way to protect women from abusive men, although his method is often to bash the fellow’s jaw to pieces. Jack Vincennes, played by Kevin Spacey, is regularly smiling and receiving bribes. None of them are one way. They all have their bright and dark spots. “Why’d you become a cop?” Exley asks Vincennes. “I don’t remember,” Jack answers. These three men discover why they chose the badge and seek to do something right despite their black marks. The film’s heroes are men you can hate, pity, respect and love all within its two hours.

L.A. Confidential is a journey back in time, to the extreme, and the complex.

Where the Crawdads Sing

You can watch the trailer for Where the Crawdads Sing, directed by Olivia Newman, above.

I saw this film at Palace Nova in the East End. I gave it 9 out of 10. This review should take 5 minutes to read.

I haven’t read Delia Owens’s bestselling novel Where the Crawdads Sing. After seeing this adaption, I want to. It’s To Kill A Mockingbird, if it was written by Hitchcock and instead of Tom Robinson it was Huck Finn on trial.  

The pillar of the film is its fascinating protagonist. When police come to search her home, Catherine “Kya” Clark hides behind a tree. She digs her nails into the bark. Her fingers bend into the tree like the claws of a drowning animal grabbing a log. When she comes face to face with another person her eyes freeze and drop to the ground. Her lips and face close up into a shell. But within that shell is a beautiful woman. She survives alone in the marsh with just her mind, her hands, and the kindness of those who know who, which isn’t many people. Kya describes her home as a place “where water flows into the sky.” She has her first kiss in a burst of golden sunlight in the eye of a whirlwind of leaves. When she first makes love, the camera shows her fingers sinking hungrily into her boyfriend’s flesh. Her neck and face are long and lean like a stork’s. Her eyes are a serene but deep blue. Like the waters of her beloved marsh, Kya’s eyes are calm but hint that there’s an entire world beneath. Thanks to Newman’s camera and Daisy Edgar-Jones, Kya is created as a mighty and gorgeous heroine.

She’s also charged with murder. Talk in a bar after the body is found reveals the victim is Chase Andrews the town’s star quarterback. A woman says “the Marsh Girl” killed him. On her first day in court, Kya is told the prosecution will seek the death penalty. The crowd in the gallery shout guilty before the trial has even begun. Kya’s lawyer is a kindly old man with drained, wrinkled features. When I heard him speak, I thought a gust of wind could blow him over. Kya is a freak, in the eyes of these villagers who are only missing torches and pitchforks. They’re coming for her head, and she only has this frail old gentleman to defend her. This magnificent woman is put on the chopping block, so I kept watching until I knew if the axe would fall.

But the mystery isn’t the murder and it isn’t the jury that has to arrive at the answer. Kya is the real mystery. “Did she kill him?” isn’t the most important question. “Is she a murderer?” is the question that drives the story. Who she is rather than whodunit. The film is a journey into her life to find out who she is and you must ultimately decide. The audience is the real jury who must pronounce judgement on Kya even when the trial is over. I’m still uncertain if this is a cop-out to avoid giving a final answer or a great flourish of plot. The plot is unique in its mystery being a person and the answer having to come from the audience.

While the merits of its ending are debatable, Where the Crawdads Sing is both beautiful and thrilling.

Thor: Love and Thunder

You can watch the trailer for Thor: Love and Thunder, directed by Taika Waititi, above.

I went to see this film on its opening night at Palace Nova in the East End. I gave it 1 out of 10. This review should take three minutes to read.

This film is ridiculous.

Thor isn’t a hero. When he says farewell to the Guardians of the Galaxy he tells Star-Lord to take good care of “my” ship and crew. He talks to his axe like it’s his girlfriend and even gives it a beer. As he stands triumphant after saving a temple, he declares what a success it is that the temple isn’t damaged. The glass cathedral then collapses into a ruin of shards behind him. The most intimidating line he can utter in battle is “Don’t touch my things,” when the villain tries to take his axe. Gone is the smouldering and Shakespearian warrior, prince and god Kenneth Branagh sent to Earth in Thor’s first film. Now there’s just a deluded and incompetent fool.

But he’s just one in a court of fools. None of the other so-called heroes are anymore heroic. Valkyrie brings a portable speaker into battle. Jane Foster tosses up what catchphrases to use when defeating the bad guy. They’re cartoonish. I wouldn’t trust them to house-sit for me. I saw no reason to trust them to defeat Gorr the God Butcher, played by Christian Bale, who offers a ray of gravitas. His face shatters and collapses when he realises his god is false. It then freezes over with dead, cold malevolence as he takes up the Necrosword and vows that all gods will die. He next appears emerging out of the shadows to look down on New Asgard as he prepares to slay its people. He’s a pale corpse shrouded in a deathly white robe that’s like a shroud. There’s a twisted smile in his lips. Like the grin of a wolf after the scent of blood hits its nostrils. But alas, Waititi doesn’t allow Bale to stay serious for long. Soon, Bale is playing scary storyteller to the children he’s kidnapped. If Waititi can’t take his characters seriously no one else has a reason to.

The visuals are spectacular, but empty. There’s the city of the gods built of gold amidst the clouds. I could feel the shadows that envelope Gorr’s lair creeping up my neck. They crawled over everything. Like living, black spiderwebs. But painting a toilet gold doesn’t change what’s underneath. All Waititi’s visual shock and awe can’t conceal the lack of any in the story itself.

Thor: Love and Thunder is shiny but without even a glimmer of serious drama.

The Count of Monte Cristo (2002)

You can watch the trailer for the 2002 adaption of The Count of Monte Cristo above. The film was written by Jay Wolpert and directed by Kevin Reynolds.

I gave this film 9 out of 10. This review should take 5 minutes to read.

One of the greatest novels is here almost flawlessly translated into a great film.

Since reading The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas I’d wanted to see it adapted to film. But I also appreciated the difficulties in carrying the story to the screen. It extends over two decades and 1065 pages, in my copy, with a cast so extensive I sometimes needed a chart to keep track. But Wolpert and Reynolds have preserved the story while simplifying it. They cut the story back to its raw backbone. Edmund Dantes, played by Jim Caviezel, is betrayed and imprisoned. He escapes, and with a fortune in lost treasure and his new identity as the Count of Monte Cristo plots revenge on those who robbed him of his life. Secondary characters and their sub-plots are omitted. The most interesting such as Luigi Vampa, “a smuggler and a thief,” are retained. But only to help or hinder Dantes’ quest. This trimming allows the story to fit within a feature film while preserving its drama and colour.

What’s left of Dumas’ original story after Wolpert and Reynolds have cut it back, they enrich. The novel’s Fernand is a jealous rival who plays one of three hands in sending Dantes to prison so he can wed Dantes’ fiancé Mercedes. The film’s Fernand, played by Guy Pearce, is Dantes’ best friend and the instigator of Dantes’ fall. His betrayal is greater. The original Fernand did little more than betray Dantes’ and then suffer under the Count’s vengeance. This Fernand also kills a man in a duel for exposing his affair with the man’s wife, goes home, pours himself a drink, and remarks to his pale wife what an inconvenience the dead man caused. He’s far from a stock character. He’s a narcissistic and murderous dandy. Dantes’ escape is slimmer than in the novel. A guard discovers the corpse he’s traded places with and rushes to alert the guards as they are about to throw Dantes’ to freedom in the dead man’s shroud. The film’s story may not be the original, but its characters are deeper, and its plot has more twists and sharper turns.

But the film carries out Dantes’ revenge too quickly. It happened so fast that I couldn’t fully understand what his plan was. It seemed contrived. But it also wasn’t as satisfying. There wasn’t the succession of one careful step after the other leading towards the final, vengeful moment. Of seeing Dantes advance slowly and gradually close his fingers around his enemies’ necks. It discards one of the novel’s primary sources of suspense.

Despite rushing Dante’s revenge, the film preserves and amplifies the essential characters and conflicts of  Dumas’ novel.

Benediction

You can watch the trailer for Benediction, directed by Terence Davies, above.

I went to see this film on its opening night at Palace Nova in the East End. I gave it 9 out of 10. This review should take four minutes to read.

Benediction is an ephemeral but beautiful journey, in both directions, through the life of the great poet Siegfried Sassoon.

A young Sassoon, played by Jack Lowden, tells his doctor he’s looking for truth. An elderly Sassoon, played by Peter Capaldi, says to his son that he’s trying to “understand the enigma of over people.” At other times he calls the object of his quest purity, goodness, and God. Even if they’re all interchangeable in Sassoon’s mind they’re all abstractions that receive little enunciation. After he’s done musing about them, he returns to his succession of failed romances. Without a clear goal or conflict, the film is deprived of a climax and I eventually grew bored. Davies shows Sassoon’s journey but it’s a journey through fog that could only keep my interest for so long.

Yet Davies makes the fog worth watching. Scenes flow into each other with the grace of waves stroking the shore. As Sassoon walks down the corridor to report you hear him already in the office reporting. Davies does this throughout the film. This use of voice overs to make scenes fold into one another. There are moments of prolonged silence, such as when Sassoon reads a poem by his friend Wilfred Owen, that made me wonder what awe, sorrow or horror could make these people remain silent for so long. Many conversations occur with one person speaking off camera. I imagined how their jaws fell or their eyes jumped in response to what they heard. Davies doesn’t use his lamp to cast a light through the fog but to cast shadow puppets on it in shapes I’ve never seen before.

Benediction shows Davies has great skill in style if not in plot.

Operation Mincemeat

You can watch the trailer for Operation Mincemeat, directed by John Madden and written by Michelle Ashford, above.

I went to see this film on its opening night at Palace Nova in the East End. I gave it 7 out of 10. This review should take four minutes to read.

Operation Mincemeat begins without a hitch, but then makes more and more mistakes.

The plot is perfectly assembled. It begins by cutting back and forth between two scenes: the spies in their basement centre of operations gathered silently around a telegraph waiting in weak amber light, then thunder across a cloudy night sky and the hulls of warships breaking through waves. It then reels back six months. In six months, director and writer Madden and Ashford promise, you will come to this moment of stark suspense. You will know what those ships were sailing towards and why the spies were praying as they waited for a message. After this clock is set, the conflict is established quickly and succinctly. Strategic meetings and discussions reveal that the Allies must invade Sicily but it’s obvious to anyone who looks at a map. If the plan to deceive the Nazis into thinking otherwise, Operation Mincemeat, fails “history herself will avert her eyes from the slaughter.”

The spies who are the heroes of the story have a deadline to solve an impossible problem to save thousands of lives. They must succeed, by a certain time, or endure the bloody consequences. But the execution wastes and kills much of the thrill created by this full-proof conflict.

When the spies face their first, terrifying obstacle they behave incompetently. They’re terrified before her. Almost impotent. They can’t even lie convincingly. Their attempt to bribe her is as good as an admission that something’s afoot. Yet, after inflating her into a formidable menace undeterred by the spies’ disassembling, Madden and Ashford have her just walk out of the room. I lost my trust in the characters to conquer their adversaries, designed by humans or fortune, and Madden and Ashford’s ability to provide them with any trials.

The attempt to generate conflict between characters is also mishandled. “We’ve become good friends,” Charles Cholmondeley refers to his relationship with Ewen Montagu, played by Colin Firth and Matthew Macfadyen respectively. Yet there’s no definite moment when they start calling each other Charles and Ewen. No shared drink or meal when they exchange memories, praise, or criticism to gradually open their souls to one another. Nor are there similar necessary steps in the relationship between Montagu and Jean Leslie, played by Kelly Macdonald, before they begin taking moon-light walks and imagining themselves as the fictional soldier and his fiancé they’ve created for Mincemeat. It all just happened. The relationships between characters and the conflicts that emerge out of them seemed contrive, like trying to turn water and flour into cake.

Operation Mincemeat isn’t a botched operation. But it isn’t as successful as the real one.

Cleopatra (1963)

You can watch the trailer for Cleopatra, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewecz, above.

I gave this film 10 out of 10. This review should take two and a half minutes to read.

Poetry and drama worthy of Shakespeare meets the glamour of Hollywood’s Golden Age in this film.

The drama is about the builders, destroyers and heirs of empires and republics. A queen who marries her conqueror for a dream to unite the world. A general who abandons his troops during their greatest battle to chase after the woman he loves. It’s a story of the giants who hold up the edifice of history. What ideas and impulses cause them to stretch their arms at that angle, raise that ceiling and allow that one to fall, their knees to tremble and their backs to become straight. “Well now can I weep and beg. From whom?” Richard Burton’s thunderous voice resounds as Anthony guiltily laments his abandoned, dead troops. “The thousands and thousands who can no longer hear me? Shall I give my reason? Shall I say simply: I loved?” The dialogue not only gives voice to the innards of these titanic souls but its graceful on the ear. “Is that how one says it. As simply as that. Mark Anthony is dead. Lord Anthony is dead,” Augustus Caesar says as he stands victorious. “The soup is hot, the soup is cold, Anthony is living, Anthony is dead.” The film is both epic and eloquent.

While the drama and dialogue are worthy of Shakespeare the film looks like a product of classical Hollywood. Cleopatra enters Rome wrapped in a golden, winged dress and at the head of a giant obsidian replica of the sphinx. Ancient Egypt and Rome are recreated in full. Complete with the entire white marble Roman forum and the vast halls of Cleopatra’s palace with walls covered in amber hieroglyphs. The cast are as glorious as their surroundings. None more than Elizabeth Taylor. In all moments and in every detail, in walking, talking, the rise and contraction of her eyes and jaw, she glistens like her silken threads and the wings of makeup around her eyes. Every shot is a spectacle on its own.

In Cleopatra, a cast and crew of thousands set one of ancient history’s greatest sagas alight to burn and sing before your eyes.

Frenzy

You can watch the trailer for Frenzy above.

I saw this film at Palace Nova in the East End as part of their weekly Monday Doubles. I gave this film 10 out of 10. This review should take two and a half minutes to read.

Alfred Hitchcock’s last film is proof that he kept his mastery of suspense until the very end of his illustrious career.

I was always anticipating some revelation or act of violence. That I’d found out who is the ‘neck-tie murderer.’ But even after I’d learned who the killer was I was still waiting to see if he’d get caught. Even while the Chief Inspector was having his dinner I didn’t look away, because if I did, I might not see if he told his wife how horrid her cooking was. In every moment I was watching and waiting for whatever Hitchcock would deliver.

Hitchcock prolongs this anticipation for as long as he can. When a victim’s secretary returns to the office the camera stays lingering on the street entrance. I had to stare at the street corner imagining her walking up to the office, opening the door, seeing the body, until, finally, she screams. When the killer has to remove an incriminating piece of evidence from a corpse’s hand Hitchcock doesn’t allow him to just pluck it from the dead woman’s grip and then walk away. Hitchcock demands that the killer must break each finger. This creates a greater window where the killer may be caught.

The killer’s first murder of the film is shown in full. You’re shown every detail from when he walks into the victim’s office, refuses to leave, draws closer to her, pushes her against the wall, forces himself on her, and then finally strangles her. But when he closes the door behind his next victim the camera leaps away. It cuts to pan slowly down the steps in silence. You have to imagine the rape, screams and horrible struggle ending in suffocating death. Hitchcock both shows and withholds when the effect is the greatest possible shock.

Frenzy is the final masterpiece of the Master of Suspense.

An Affair to Remember

You can watch the original trailer for An Affair to Remember above. The film’s director Leo McCarey also directed the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup.

I gave this film 8 out of 10. This review should take two and a half minutes to read.

An Affair to Remember its rightly considered one of the most romantic films ever made, even if it isn’t much else.

It’s about two people who are perfect for each other but who can’t be together. “I’m sorry,” Nickie Ferrante, played by Cary Grant, says declining a bridge invitation from another passenger, “but I’d cheat. It’s an addiction.” In one sentence he told me what he’d already shown in a phone conversation with the woman he’s just left behind in Europe: he’s a Casanova. Strolling down the deck he meets Terry McKay, played by Deborah Kerr, over a lost cigarette case. “You could light it from that inscription,” she points at his cigarette case gifted by his recently discarded flirtation when he searches for a lighter. Their repertoire is instantaneous and flows effortlessly, like two bolts of lightning striking open a well in the earth. They’re both witty, charismatic, stylish and sophisticated. But they’re also both engaged.

The first half of the film counts down to when the ship will dock in New York. I was waiting to see if by then Nickie’s flirtations bore fruit or if they grew into something more genuine. When they finally did, I still kept watching to see how he and Terry would fix the problem they’d created by falling in love. When they do reach port, the clock begins counting down the six months until I’d see if Nickie and Terry kept their appointment atop the Empire State Building. If both could end their engagements and get a job to support their marriage. But also if ‘the old Ferranti’ was as dead as Nickie claimed. However, once they set foot on dry land the plot also slackens. Opportunities for conflict are dropped and conflicts are dreamt out of thin air. Mountains are levelled and mole hills are turned into mountains. But there’s still mountains and it was a pleasure to see Nickie and Terry climb them.

An Affair to Remember is nothing more than a lovely romance, but it’s nothing less either.

Downton Abbey: A New Era

You can watch the trailer for Downton Abbey: A New Era above. Julian Fellowes has returned to write this latest instalment of the series that’s directed by Simon Curtis.

I saw this film at the Capri Theatre as part of a special screening organised by the cinema’s management for its volunteer staff. I gave it 9 out of 10. This review should take 3 minutes to read.

Like a diamond, Downton Abbey persists through the years without losing its sparkle. This film is proof that the series remains as dazzling and warm as when I saw the first episode.

The class of story remains the same. The sequel, like the film and TV series before it, is a story of manners. It’s about families. Not spies, soldiers or superheroes. The mystery isn’t who killed the American president. It’s why Violet, still played by Maggie Smith, has inherited a villa in the South of France from a man she knew only for a week. The struggles aren’t “Will James Bond save the world?” or “Will Odysseus reach home in defiance of the gods?” They’re “Will Mary get the film finished that’s shooting at Downton?”, “Will Mosley propose to Ms Baxter?”, “Will Barrow find happiness?” and other conflicts of the same calibre.  The intrigue, battles and quests can fit easily into a drawing room.

Yet these little trials are far from little. They alter lives. They decide the difference between bliss and sorrow. Hugh Bonneville shows how Lord Grantham at one moment feels as if his heart is being ripped out, because that’s precisely what’s happening. But this film is the latest piece of a story. Mary tells the handsome film director, played by Michelle Dockery and Hugh Dancy respectively, that her former husband was like a “prince from a fairy tale.” The significance of what Mary is revealing might be lost on someone who doesn’t know the series and what Matthew, played by Dan Stevens, meant to her. The cast show how much is at stake for these characters but much of the stakes lie in the story that’s come before.

The film draws its beauty from all quarters. It goes from the vaulting stone ceiling of the Abbey to the warm shade of the kitchen downstairs.  From sweeping wide shots of a marble white villa on the clear blue of the Mediterranean to close shots of gowned aristocrats and cotton-garbed workers holding their spouses in their arms. Downton Abbey, as always, shows the beauty in everyone and every corner upstairs and downstairs.

While it’s built on the portions of Downton’s story that have come before it, Downton Abbey: A New Era continues the trip into the glitter amidst crystal and pewter across the lives of countesses and cooks.  

Hitchcock

You can watch the trailer for Hitchcock above. The film stars Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren and was directed by Sacha Gervasi.

I gave this film 10 out of 10. This review should take 3 minutes to read.

While not as great as the man himself, Hitchcock is a good tribute.

It uses Hitchcock’s own tricks to tell the story of his most famous film. The camera travels along black coils across Hitchcock’s set. Steam courses through them as the music beats faster and faster until the camera arrives at a shower head. Hitchcock himself, played by Anthony Hopkins, opens the film gleefully sipping a cup of tea as he watches Ed Gein murder his brother. Gervasi imitates Hitchcock to tell the man’s story.

The plot of this film is as clearly defined as the film whose genesis it shows. Hitchcock, “you may call me Hitch hold the cock,” wants to make Psycho. He’s yearning for it and Hopkins shows just how much when Hitch tells his wife Alma, played by Helen Mirren, why. But to make it Hitch must fight the censors, the studio, his public image, his own destructive impulses and even Alma herself. Yet so much of the conflict relies on subtleties. On the significance of Alma leaving her earring on top of the photos of Hitch’s leading ladies and him finding it. Much of the drama lies in the unsaid that the film seemed at times quiet. Even subdued. But silence is more suspenseful than noise. You have to wonder what someone is thinking, discern it from the most seemingly insignificant of gestures, when they’re not telling you aloud. And Hitch and Alma do eventually have it out.

When they do, Hopkins and Mirren bring out all the suspicion, anger and indignation that has remained underneath Hitch and Alma’s skins. That they’ve both shown until then through frustrated rubs of the neck and interrogating stares. They throw it at each other with the force of two bullet trains colliding head-first in a tunnel.  

But as well as Hopkins and Mirren show the thoughts and feelings of Hitch and Alma’s story, that’s all the film is about. While Patton is about fleeting glory and The 300 Spartans is about fighting for freedom Hitchcock is about Hitchcock. Nothing less. But nothing more. It was like watching a biography that gives all the facts of the man, his time and story but not abstracts that may be applied to another man, another time and another story.

While not a bang, Hitchcock is a well-performed clap and hurrah for Alfred Hitchcock.

Lady and the Tramp (2019)

You can watch the trailer for Lady and the Tramp, directed by Charlie Bean, above.

I watched this film on Disney Plus. I gave it 7 out of 10. This review should take 3 minutes to read.

This remake of the Disney classic is better in some places, poor in others, but always fun.

It has more in it than the original. When Lady, voiced by Tessa Thompson, is lost in the streets and falling in love with the Tramp, voiced by Justin Theroux, she doesn’t know if she has a home to go back to. She has just a hope that her owners will come back. When the Tramp offers to show her a life where each day is a new adventure, she can’t just turn him down by saying “Who would watch the baby?” as she did in the original. Because her owners have taken the baby away with them. When Lady is at the pound she sees the dogcatcher take one inmate through “the one-way door.” When the Tramp is taken away, he’s not just being taken to prison, but to his death. The humans are more than faceless extras. The dog-catcher, Lady’s owners and their tiresome aunt Sarah all are people to love, hate and pity for how they treat Lady and the Tramp. With kindness, ignorance and contempt. They become fools, villains and, on occasions, heroes.

But while the remake goes further in quality than the original in some places, it falls short in others. The Tramp and Lady’s long sojourn sight-seeing and dining is necessary because, the Tramp says, the dogcatcher is after them. Yet this danger is a reason to take a short-cut to get Lady home, rather than “the scenic route.” The song, “He’s a Tramp”, sung to Lady by dogs in the pound doesn’t tell her anything new. It tells her the Tramp’s a loner who looks out for himself. It doesn’t reveal to her, as it did in the original, the Tramp’s history of short-term love affairs. It shouldn’t shake Lady’s trust in the Tramp, yet it does.

Stepping over the holes in the plot, I still liked where the film took me. It bounds through its New England town in the dawn of the 20th century. Through the streets dotted with bowler hats and blooming dresses. Onto horse-drawn carriages and the early motor cars that are coming to replace them. Onto a steamboat as it ferries a jazz band along a river. The story is told by dogs who are short, long, tall, squat, round, bald, fluffy, bare-backed and clothed. The film took me into this different world populated by a myriad cast of interesting dogs, and people too.

While uneven in quality, Lady and the Tramp still has the wonder I’d expect of a Disney film.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

You can watch the trailer for Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, directed by Sam Raimi, above.

I saw this film on its opening night at Palace Nova in the East End. I gave it 5 out of 10. This review should three minutes to read.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness dashes from one scene to the next, almost unconcerned with how it gets there.

It’s one scream and pool of blood after another, each a different pitch and colour. A man’s third eye continues to look out from his forehead after he’s been impaled on a gate post. Reflections become pools through which people sink. One massacre is an exhibition of creative ways to kill someone. A head implodes, someone is shredded to ribbons, and another is cut in half. Watching it was like running through a haunted house with a high budget where each room offers a new kind of horror.

One scene encapsulates the film’s strengths and flaws. Wanda pursues Dr Strange, played by Elizabeth Olsen and Benedict Cumberbatch respectively, through a tunnel. She limps but tries to run. Blood clings to her face and chest like cobwebs. She looks like a corpse animated by madness. Something dead driven by a lust that makes it impossible to stop or reason with. But this woman is one of the most powerful magic-users on the planet yet she’s somehow limping. She’s walking when she could fly. She’s chasing Strange when she could choke him with her mind. It’s terrifying but implausible and the entire film is the same.

The journey from spectacle to spectacle is rushed. As soon as Strange arrives in a new dimension he’s brought to trial as a threat to the multiverse. Yet his judges neglect to explain how they’ve moved from believing their Strange was a threat to the multiverse to believing all versions of him are a threat. Then, as quickly as they’ve imprisoned him, they let him go. When Strange asks Christine, played by Rachel McAdams, to protect him from the spirits of the damned they don’t bother to discuss how this woman without any superpowers is supposed to ward off demons from Hell. Decisions that should contain thought and situations that require explanation are quickly scrolled through. The plot is a train that jumps over the tracks that it’s missing.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness hurtles from one colourful horror to the next without bothering to ask how precisely it gets from one to the other.

Patton

You can watch the trailer for Patton above. The film’s director, Franklin J. Schaffner, also directed the original Planet of the Apes film.

I gave this film 10 out of 10. This review should take 4 minutes to read.

I have no clue if Patton is historically accurate. But it if is it’s a flawless biographical film about one of history’s most fascinating, eccentric and at times looney warriors.

I’m not a historian. I can’t judge the film’s historical accuracy. I don’t have the time for the necessary reading to do so either. Assuming it’s accurate, this film is flawless because by the end I knew Patton. I understood him. What he thought and believed which were the reasons for what he did. Who he was and what he was. It showed me how this man who thought war was glorious and how this belief made him a great anachronism.

Patton’s ideas of war are conspicuously old fashioned. He longs to send his adversary Erwin Rommel a challenge to a duel using their tanks. Written in two stanzas in iambic pentameter. “Too bad jousting’s gone out of style”, his young aid tells the old man. “It’s like your poetry general. It isn’t part of the twentieth century”. Patton sees romantic glory in war when the world has come to see it as highly organised slaughter. He leaps out of his office during an air raid to fire his ivory-encrusted pistol at the attacking planes. He talks to reporters astride a steed. He tells them he sees no wonder in the Nazi’s so-called wonder weapons. “Killing without heroics, nothing is glorified, nothing is reaffirmed. No heroes, no cowards, no troops. No generals. Only those who are left alive and those who are left dead.” He sees no glory in this type of modern warfare. Patton loves war even while fighting in the most horrific war in history.

But the film doesn’t show everything Patton ever was or did. If Patton stubbed his toe while walking down an English street, you won’t learn about it from this film. Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund H. North have chosen the details from Patton’s life they regard as significant.  His battles both in the field and off it. With the Nazis, his own commanders and his own troops. These events form the plot of Patton’s rise and fall and rise again. From the multitude of disparate and random events that created Patton’s life Coppola and North select these few and with them assemble a story. A plot with a clear beginning, middle and end. With acts, a climax and resolution. The film has the essential feature of any biographical film: selectivity.

The film looks closely at Patton. It shows his humour which can be dirty but also supreme. “As soon as our soldiers…get to know the English ladies”, he tells a gathering, “the sooner the American ladies will get jealous and force this war to a quick termination”. His passion that comes through in his eyes when addressing troops. They’re wet, delicate and shine with a joy that’s almost childlike. But also his madness. Those same eyes become dangerous when he slaps a shell-shocked soldier. “YOU GOD DAMN COWARD,” he screams at the soldier. In bringing Patton to life George C. Scott is the film’s greatest asset. Each word he says is a roar or a bellow. They each land like the step of a mighty and old elephant. As if every word this man speaks is as important to him as the last bullet in his gun. Patton is the centre of this film, and the centre is strong.

While I can’t judge Patton as a historian I can judge it as a film critic. I find it perfect.

Saboteur

You can watch the original trailer for Saboteur above. The film, an early Hitchcock, displays many themes and techniques that would come to define his most famous work.

I gave this film 8 out of 10. This review should take three minutes to read.

Alfred Hitchcock’s World War II spy thriller has his finesse for plot and cinematic innovation, but is hindered by poor context.

The plot is immaculate. Within the first five minutes an airplane factory bursts into flames, and after watching his best friend die in the blaze, Barry Kane, played by Robert Cummings, is suspected of being behind the act of sabotage. Immediately and clearly, Hitchcock establishes the conflict. Barry must find a man he suspects is the real saboteur. Barry knows him only as Fry. He must. To avenge his friend, to save others, and to clear his name and save himself. Barely after the screen has come out of black, Hitchcock has given Barry a problem to solve and compelling reasons to solve it. Barry is made to keep running and running through the film right to its climax.

It’s at the climax that this thriller becomes a Hitchcock thriller. Pursued by Barry and the police, Fry tries to escape through Radio City Music Hall while a film is showing. The police move in on him. He pulls out a gun. They pull out theirs. When they start firing, their gunshots mix with and become indistinguishable from those of the madman in the movie. It becomes impossible to tell which shots are real, so each becomes a potentially real and lethal bullet. The cries of the woman on the screen of “mad” and “run for your life” become the voice of the fleeing audience. When Fry has fled to the top of the Statue of Liberty and is hanging from the edge of its torch, there’s no music and barely any dialogue. It’s largely the hiss of the wind, and Fry’s groans as his grip slowly slips. There’s nothing but the tension as this man literally hangs on for his life. These two scenes add Hitchcock’s distinctive innovative touch to this thriller.

A lack of context diminishes the film’s clarity. “There’s only one reason a man would commit sabotage and that’s worse than murder,” the film’s female lead Priscilla Lane says. But this reason isn’t stated, not openly at least. The closest is mention of “totalitarian regimes” and the world becoming divided into two camps. If I hadn’t known this film was made and set during World War II, I don’t think I would have understood it. The lack of context obscures the film’s otherwise competent plot.

Even without the full context, Saboteur is still a fine thriller touched by Hitchcock’s cinematic ingenuity.

Ambulance

You can watch the trailer for Ambulance above. The film was directed by Michael Bay. I haven’t seen any of Bay’s other work. But now I want to.

I saw this film on its opening night at Palace Nova in the East End. I gave it 9 out of 10. This review should three and a half minutes to read.

“We’re a locomotive, we don’t stop”. This dialogue from Michael Bay’s latest film Ambulance could describe the film itself.

It doesn’t stop. It moves from one conflict to the next. Will, played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, is looking for the money for his wife’s life-saving surgery. Then he has to decide whether to get the money by helping his brother Danny, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, rob a bank. While they’re emptying the vault, a police officer knocks on the front door. As they try to get away police surround the building. To escape, the brothers steal an ambulance, and take Cam, an EMT worker played by Eliza Gonzalez, and the wounded cop inside hostage. Even when Cam is having lunch with her partner, the bank robbery is still happening nearby. There’s never a lull in the action.

Bay’s camera moves with the action, like that of a journalist and war reporter who’s there at the scene. It panes over the bills covering Will’s coffee table, sweeps over the bank as the brothers try to flee the swarming cops, and follows the ambulance as it ploughs through the streets pursued by police cars and choppers.

Each successive conflict is squeezed for all the drama it’s worth. The entire film only takes one day. Problems have to be solved, new ones arise, and decisions have to be made in a matter of minutes or seconds, rather than days or hours. I thought Will would have at least a few hours to decide whether to rob the bank. He only gets five minutes. Compressing time increases both the pace and the pressure on the characters as they move from one situation to the next. The situations they run to and from are extreme. When Cam has to perform surgery on the wounded cop as the ambulance is moving, she can’t just sew up a cut. She has to reach inside his gut. When Danny calls his mob contacts to help him and Will escape, they don’t just shoot the police. They shoot at them with a machine gun mounted to a hot-rod. But the physical extremity is nothing compared to the value-conflicts the characters step into. Will isn’t a criminal. He’s a war hero, and a good man. He just makes a mistake, and because of it he either must become even more like a criminal, or surrender to a long stint in prison, and doom his wife to death. Will is trapped in this situation with his brother whom he loves, but who might kill the hostages Will is trying to protect. Will can’t kill Danny, but he can’t let Danny kill anyone else. This story is nothing short of a crucible.

I did start to get used to the heat. By halfway I’d had adrenaline pumping through my veins for so long that the taste had lost some of its kick. I was no longer at risk of falling off the edge of my seat, but I hadn’t left it either. While my interest may have lulled, it was never lost.

While its thrill may wear, Ambulance is still a high-speed chase, with even higher stakes, even when not a single car is moving.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore

You can watch the trailer for Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore above. The film’s director, David Yates, directed the final four films in the Harry Potter film series.

I went to see this film on its opening night at Palace Nova in the East End. I gave it 4 out of 10. This review should take four to read.

This new addition to the stories of J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World is a string of dazzling beads, that haven’t been strung together into a whole and complete necklace.

It has heart. Rowling is at her best as a writer, and Yates at his best as a filmmaker, in scenes of one person, or beast, bearing its soul to another. When Dumbledore, played by Jude Law, and his brother are eating dinner together, the stony and grimy pub is emptied of light. Almost as empty as the chasm between these brothers, that sits in the space between them at the table. “I was there”, Aberforth, played by Richard Coyle, tells Albus when his brother begins reminding him of their childhood, “I grew up in the same house. Everything you saw, I saw.” When Newt, played by Eddie Redmayne, apologises to a magical creature for failing to save its life, the camera peers into the beast’s eye. A tear rolls down and freezes on its cheek as its eye empties of all movement and life. These moments that cut to the centre of what these characters think and feel are as beautiful to watch as the film’s greatest feats of magic.

It would be better if these moments had a plot to connect them. Dumbledore’s plan to confuse Grindelwald by having no plan certainly confused me. I didn’t understand what was trying to be achieved, how the heroes were going to achieve it and exactly what was standing in their way. It was only until Grindelwald’s plan to rig the upcoming wizarding world election became clear, that there was any tension. Before anything started to pull me out of the back of my seat where I’d been reclined watching one touching scene give way to another, and this was at least halfway through the film. It’s never satisfactorily explained why these wizards and witches enlist the help of the No-Maj Jacob Kawolski, played by Dan Fogler. He’s a good man, but Dumbledore knows plenty of good witches and wizards. Nor why Dumbledore uses a cobbler to replicate Newt’s case, when he has a wand. What there is of a plot trips over these implausible turns as it goes towards its impenetrable destination.

There is no shortage of the dazzling magic tricks I’ve come to expect when I step into Rowling’s world. Pages fly off a book and create a whirlwind. The German Ministry of Magic is a fortress of cold glamour, composed of frosted glass screens, like a crystalline filing cabinet. The non-magical is just as beautiful. Streetlamps glow like stars in the snow above the brownstones, as the Brooklyn Bridge stretches across the sky in the background. A pure white wedding cake lined with pinkly flowers of icing stands in Jacob’s bakery. It’s perfect except for the groom that’s fallen over, as Jacob’s dream of happiness has been toppled. These shots, like those touching moments, make the film worth watching.

But these pretty moments and shots are undermined by the poor plot. Even while enjoying just watching them, I was still saying “Why?” Why include this? How did this happen? Why does it happen? What function does this serve? Grindelwald, played by Mads Mikkelsen, appears at the German Ministry in a stunning obsidian black car. Its silver hood ornament rears its head, like living liquid metal. But it couldn’t take my eyes off the fact that Grindelwald, who hates all that isn’t magical, is riding in a car, a thoroughly non-magical contraption, when he can dissapparate. Telling a coherent story has taken a backseat to pretty images.  

This film is made up of lovely moments, but what’s between them is a rocky and rickety train ride.

Morbius

You can watch the trailer for Morbius above. I look forward to whatever Daniel Espinosa, the film’s director, makes next.

I saw this film at Palace Nova in the East End. I gave it 8 out of 10. This review should take five and a half minutes to read.

Morbius is a serious story, even though it’s derived from comic books, that rises on fine cinematic craft rather than on brand reputation. Aside from some minor blemishes, it’s what superhero films used to be and could be again.

At the centre is one man who I wanted to watch for the film’s entire 104 minutes. Do you need a doctor, the pilot asks the man who carefully alights from the helicopter wrapped in a black poncho. The man has to push against his crutches to stand upright and to walk. Mere movement is a struggle for him, but he does it. “I am a doctor,” Michael Morbius responds, after the camera has panned up to reveal Jared Leto’s darkly tanned and lean face surrounded by black hair. That one line is Morbius, as much as his laboured stride. It’s him rising above his disability. When he puts a machete across his hand and cuts open a thin line of blood, it’s just another exercise of his will power. When he raises his bleeding hand to attract a swarm of bats, he becomes a man of mystery. I wanted to know what he was doing, because I wanted to know more, see more, and spend more time with this daring man. From the first scene, Michael Morbius was someone I wanted to follow into this tale of scientific horror.

What I found in Morbius and the characters surrounding him didn’t disappoint me. Some ask Michael to justify his means of finding a cure for his condition. “That was evolution,” Michael’s colleague Dr Bancroft, played by Adria Arjona, tells him when she finds his experiments, “this is different.” Michael disagrees. If they don’t push the boundaries, there is no progress. There is no science. Others try to convince Michael to embrace the vampirism that his experiments bring on him. That he’s had death hanging over him his whole life, so why shouldn’t the rest of the world know what it’s like. I saw the goals driving these individuals and their beliefs that conflicted with one other. They’re not cardboard cut-outs being yanked across the stage by threads and wires. They’re real people.

As the skilful painter uses each brushstroke, even the most minute and seemingly insignificant, Espinosa uses every shot and everything in it to do something interesting. Espinosa dollies past a policeman standing lost on the street corner. He then cuts to Bancroft on a bus as it passes the cop, revealing the previous shot was her watching her tail recede into the distance. “Do you want me to lie to you?”, Michael asks his friend Milo, who responds “That would be nice”. Sentences in this film are like peaks around some new corner. Sweeping wide shots of New York show ledges and rooftops where a vampire could lurk and then leap down upon their victims. Everything pulls its weight to make the film more exciting, and more terrifying.

Terror is created in both old and new ways. I never saw a single throat actually ripped out. I only saw at most a mouth sunk into a neck. I was left to imagine the fangs ripping the flesh open, and the person’s blood being drained from their throat while they’re still alive. Suggestion has been used to inspire fear in audiences ever since film began. Since the Nosferatu’s shadow was creeping up those stairs. Because the filmmaker can’t show you anything more terrifying than what you imagine for yourself. Michael’s first slaughter was unlike anything I’ve seen. The camera moved and shook erratically, as if hand-held, like the men Michael hunts. Looking from left to right, back and front, over their shoulders and in every corner, sweat bleeding from their faces, for this creature they can’t see but they know is there. Somewhere. The camera becomes a man’s eyes in his final moments. I saw Michael’s jaws consume his entire vision. Blood even splattered across the lens. Espinosa’s methods for creating fear vary from the time-tested to the innovative, but all are effective.

Some decisions, however, undermine the film’s realism and finesse. I was disappointed that it ended by looking ahead to a sequel. Most of the main characters are left hanging, to varying degrees, from one cliff or another, so someone can come back to pull them up or push them over. Michael’s ability to fly without wings and communicate with and control bats aren’t as plausible as his strength, agility and echolocation. They add a dash of the ridiculous to this otherwise realistic vampire. These are cracks in the film’s mature style, that don’t ruin it, but prevent it from being perfect.

After watching the superhero films of the MCU become progressively sillier, the maturity, of both story and craft, in Morbius was refreshing. It could have been better, but not by much.

Strangers on a Train

You can watch the original trailer for Strangers on a Train above. The film is just one of Alfred Hitchcock’s master strokes of suspense.

I saw this film at Palace Nova in the East End as part of their weekly Monday Doubles. I gave this film 10 out of 10. This review should take 5 minutes to read.

Strangers on a Train is proof that Alfred Hitchcock deserves his title of the Master of Suspense.

I never wanted to stop watching the film, because there was always a question I wanted answered, and I knew Hitchcock would answer it. The film begins with a mystery. The camera follows two pairs of shoes, dismounting from their separate cabs, and strolling onto the same train, without rising above their owners’ ankles. I wanted to know who these men were. When would they meet on the train? What will happen when they do? Hitchcock provided the answers in a timely fashion. By the next scene I was watching the two men, Guy Haines and Bruno Anthony, played by Farley Granger and Robert Walker respectively, talk and lunch with each other. By having them introduce themselves to each other, Hitchcock introduced them to me. Them, and Bruno’s plan for the perfect murder. Two strangers have someone they’d like to kill. So, they swap murders. Because you wouldn’t be suspected of killing someone you don’t know. Yet again, I was waiting for an answer. To see if they would commit this ‘perfect murder’. I kept waiting because I knew Hitchcock would deliver an answer as he had done before. This pattern of mystery and answer, promise and delivery, repeats throughout the film, and kept me in my seat.

One question that Hitchcock kept suspended in the air, like the blade of a guillotine, was whether Guy would survive. Hitchcock has Guy, Bruno and others talk about various ways Guy could escape. He could find an alibi, go to the police, or go to Bruno’s parents. Hitchcock explores Guy’s various escape routes and erects a brick wall across them all which Guy can’t jump over or go around. Guy is sealed inside this scenario. His only way out is through Bruno, and to confront their Faustian bargain. Hitchcock traps this decent chap in a cell without windows or doors with a monster. Guy’s danger only grows when it becomes not just a matter of if he will escape Bruno, but if he will in time. Hitchcock keeps Guy’s life hanging by a thread, with the thread wound around Bruno’s fingers for him to snap at any moment, until the very end. It wasn’t until the film’s final moments that I learnt if Bruno would win. Hitchcock puts Guy’s head on a chopping block, and I stayed for the entire film to see if he would chop it off.

Hitchcock zooms in as close as he can to his characters. When Guy and Bruno confront each other, the camera jumps back and forth between shots over each of their shoulders. Each of their faces take up a whole side of the shot and more easily, as they talk, yell at, and threaten each another. When Guy talks to his love Anne, played by Ruth Roman, the camera is looking over his shoulder down on her, then over her shoulder up at him. I could see his creeping panic as she began to ask him about Bruno. In her face I could see her love for Guy twist and mutate into poisoned anger when she began to see him as a murderer. When a man appears on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, I saw him from a distance as Guy did. I saw him as an indistinct and ominous silhouette against the marble steps that could be Bruno, or a random stranger. Hitchcock made me feel Guy’s fear and paranoia. Hitchcock is like a bird that watches these people over their shoulders, from window ledges and across the street. From a close distance he peers into their psyches that are shaken, bent and stretched to breaking point, by this story that begins with something as innocuous as a meeting between two strangers on a train.

With mystery and air-tight jeopardy, shown with his peeping camera, Hitchcock kept me watching.

The Godfather

You can watch the 50th anniversary trailer for The Godfather above. The film’s director Francis Ford Coppola has also directed the film’s two sequels, The Godfather Part II and III.

I went to see The Godfather at Palace Nova in the East End, when the cinema screened the film for the 50th anniversary of its release. I, along with every other attendee, received cannoli and a gift bag filled of Italian biscuits on entry. I declined the glass of wine. I gave the film 2 out of 10. This review should take 5 minutes to read.

The Godfather isn’t the great film some people think it is. I’d heard so much about it, but saw very little in it.

I heard that the film was about the false promise of the American Dream. It begins with the face of Bonasera appearing out of the darkness, speaking of how he “believes in America”. How he raised his daughter to be an American. How when his daughter’s beautiful face was beaten and shattered an American judge let the men responsible go free. Drawing back from Bonasera, the camera reveals Don Corleone, the crime lord who Bonasera has come to for help.  Bonasera is a man lost in darkness after America, his dream, has betrayed him, and he must beg a gangster, a criminal, for justice. But the American Dream leaves the film as Bonasera leaves Corleone’s office. It’s never again brought in as a topic of discussion or vital idea to the plot. Whatever the film is about I’m not convinced it’s the American Dream.

I heard that the film shows the Corleone crime family as they see themselves. This is true. Coppola only shows murder when it’s one of the family that does the killing or is killed. There is no violence, except that which directly touches the Corleones. I didn’t see the junkies and prostitutes who the family profits off. Coppola doesn’t show the shopkeepers beaten up for protection money, or the men, women and children threatened and blackmailed. The Corleones appear as legitimate businessmen, which is what they tell themselves and their wives they are. This is what makes the film original, and wrong. It holds up the mask these criminals erect to convince others and themselves that they’re not monsters, without exposing it as a lie. “My father’s no different than any other powerful man,” Corleone’s son Michael tells his fiancé Kay, “any man who’s responsible for other people, like a senator or president”. But senators and presidents don’t have people killed, Kay says. Her statement is lame with naivety, and is easily swatted away by Michael with just one sentence. “Who’s being naïve Kay?” Coppola lets Michael’s argument stand as the strongest. Coppola seems to endorse the Corleones’ view of themselves and the world.

I heard that the film is about Michael, and his fall from innocence as he descends deeper and deeper into his family’s criminal enterprise. This is also true. When he first tells Kay what his family does, Michael doesn’t meet her eyes, speaks in short sentences and a clenched voice. He is holding the shameful truth back inside him. As he approaches the moment of his first murder, Michael’s eyes dart around wildly before becoming fixed on his victim, as a subway car screeches over rails. Al Pacino plays Michael flawlessly, but there’s not much of a character to play. No reason is given for why Michael initially wants nothing to do with his family’s criminal activities. His reason for becoming involved, to avenge his father after an attack by rival gangs, is reactive and simplistic. Coppola doesn’t mediate over Michael’s decisions or any values that might inform them. He tosses Michael about like a leaf blown predictably in one direction and another by the wind. Without Pacino’s smouldering flesh, Michael would be a cardboard cut-out on a wooden frame.

Michael’s well-acted but superficial character is the rule rather than the exception. When his sister Connie’s marriage reaches breaking point, the wild despair Talia Shire summons when she tears apart her home and brandishes a knife at her husband, is terrifying. It turns her into a weeping and destructive harpy. But how Connie’s marriage reaches this point is left unexplained. Marlon Brando speaks and moves with the slow eloquence of the aged gentleman Don Corleone pretends to be. But why he lets Michael into the family business when tells Michael “I never wanted this for you”, is a contradiction Coppola leaves unattended. Thanks to the cast the characters have an abundance of flash and bang, but because of the writing they have little else.

The Godfather is at best a superficial gangster thriller. At worst it’s an endorsement of the gangsters’ worldview that crime is a legitimate industry.

Belfast

You can watch the trailer for Belfast here. This is the second of the director Kenneth Branagh’s films released this year that I’ve reviewed that I’ve reviewed. The other is Death on the Nile.

I saw this film at Palace Nova in the East End. I gave it 10 out of 10. This review should take five minutes to watch.

In Belfast Kenneth Branagh looks with a child’s eye on a troubled present, in the past, and a future that’s beset with uncertainty.  

Branagh tells the story through a child. The nine-year-old Buddy, played by Jude Hill, provides the eyes through which the story is shown. What I heard and saw of Buddy’s parents’ fights, and the deterioration of Belfast and Northern Ireland through the Troubles, was what Buddy heard and saw. When he’s sitting at the dinner table, looking out his bedroom window, and eavesdropping from around corners and on top of the stairs. I watched the story unfold as a child would watch it. In shots peeping around corners, and looking a long way into the distance down stairs, out open doors and over people’s shoulders. Branagh doesn’t give the full context and knowledge available to the adults that would explain it fully. But like Buddy I understood what was important, even without the full details: there is trouble. Between his parents, and in his home, that could cut a scar right down the centre of his childhood. A child’s eyes also see the horrors of the adult world that adults become accustomed to. When an angry mob bursts onto Buddy’s street, and when its ringleader punches a man in the face, everything slows down. The moment is drawn out, like something that’s not quite real. That shouldn’t be here in this street. It shows the violence as it seems to Buddy. As an aberration that twists and malforms the very space and time around it. Buddy is Branagh’s appointed guide to Belfast, and he’s a grand one because while he’s innocent and ignorant, he sees everything that’s important and for what it is.

Talk of the present and the future, bound together like a newspaper thrown on Buddy’s doorstep, permeate the film. The tellies and radios constantly beam out the plummeting employment figures, and the latest craters blown into the streets. Buddy’s Ma and Pa, played by Caitriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan respectively, talk constantly of their troubles with the tax man, and the family possibly leaving for England, Canada, or even Australia. Branagh keeps the question of the future of Buddy’s family alive for the entire film with constant jolts.

From the moment the coloured shots of modern-day Belfast gave way to the black and white of Belfast in 1969, Branagh took me fully back into the period. Buddy watches Star Trek and High Noon on telly. His Pa sings “Ever Lasting Love”, the climax of a collection of songs from the period that serve as the film’s soundtrack. But these aren’t just historical window dressings. Star Trek mirrors Buddy’s and everyone else’s hopes for a brighter and better future. Buddy’s Pa occupies a similar role to Bradley Cooper in High Noon. He stands alone for what’s right, against the world around him, and even sometimes against the woman he loves. When the gang leader comes to the family’s home, Pa’s face fills the entire shot, forming a barrier between this thug and his family. Everlasting Love is Pa’s love for Ma, for Buddy, and Buddy for them. It’s the love that unites them and ultimately sees them through. Details create both historical immersion and significance for the story.  

Belfast is a trip back in time, but more importantly into the life of a family, and a child, all faced with the constant question “Which road will we take?”

The Batman

You can watch the trailer for The Batman here. The film’s director Matt Reeves has previously directed Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and War of the Planet of the Apes.

I saw this film at Palace Nova in the East End, which served cocktails, with names such as the Penguin and the Bruce Wayne, to celebrate the film’s premiere. I gave it 6 out of 10. This review should take five and a half minutes to read.

Matt Reeve’s addition to Batman’s lore is a worthy attempt to create a story better than Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, that ultimately fails. Nolan set a high bar that Reeves’s film can’t reach, despite his camera and his cast, due to its impatient plotting, lack of originality, and the weakness of its Batman.  

I’ve never seen a Batman like the one Reeves has written and Robert Pattinson brings to life. His steps release a metallic clunk that echoes through the rain when he rises out of the shadows to face a gang of thugs. His heavy armour clatters as he walks slowly towards them, like a predator encircling its prey before it attacks. As he chases Oz Cobbelpot through the streets, Batman’s raging screams mix with and drown out the roar of his car. He almost looks like he’s breaking apart. Pattinson is Batman more than Bruce Wayne. In the few scenes where his face is shown, Pattinson’s Bruce is pale and speaks very little. He seems an empty vessel to be filled by the Batman. What Reeves chooses to show and how Pattinson shows it creates a Batman that is consuming Bruce.

But Bruce becoming lost inside the mask is only mentioned once, and never spoken of again, like much in the film. Gordon says he will get into trouble after the Riddler hacks his account, yet no trouble materialises. The Riddler reveals Bruce’s mother Martha Wayne, nee Arkham, was possibly insane, but Bruce never finds out if this is the truth or even goes looking for it. Reeves sets up the perfect first kiss for Batman and Selina Kyle, atop a building overlooking the city as the sun sets the sky ablaze as it falls over the horizon. Yet the source of their emerging love isn’t located and identified. There are steps that have to be taken to get to this brilliant scene which the film skips.  When an explosion at the climax breaks across the ceiling of Gotham’s version of Madison Square Gardens, Batman descends out of the explosion, with glass raining down around him, onto his adversaries to save the day. It’s awesome to watch, but unbelievable, because Reeves doesn’t show how Batman got there, or that he had explosives powerful enough to blow the roof off an entire stadium. Reeves erects the spire of a skyscraper without laying the foundations.

This Batman is also weak compared to his adversary. When he goes to question Cobblepot, Batman knocks on the front door of the gangster’s club. Having beaten his way through Oz’s thugs, Batman then goes with Oz to his office to talk. If it was Christian Bale, Micheal Keaton, or Frank Miller behind that mask, Batman would have dropped into the club out of the shadows, whisked Cobblepot away to the rooftop, and dangled him over the edge until he talked. This Batman is less powerful than previous versions. The Riddler, on the other hand, is more complex, sinister, and terrifying than ever. His affinity for puzzles is a facet of a violent obsession to ‘unmask’ the truth behind Gotham. His blank mask turns the man himself into a mystery to be solved. He’s the catalyst for the entire story. His rasping voice, broken and scabbed over with pain and hatred like laboured breathing, is the voice of a little man screaming up from the bottom of a dark well. In the opening scene, he leaps onto his first victim and swings and swings and swings as he beats the man’s head in. He’s a man worthy of being feared. Reeves’s Riddler is a powerful force of madness and violence, but his Batman doesn’t equal those that have come before.

Surrounding Batman and the Riddler are fine but unoriginal characters. Zoe Kravtiz, Jeffrey Wright, Andy Serkis, and Colin Farrell, all inhabit their roles as Selina, Gordon, Alfred, and Cobbelpot fully, from their eyes to their lips to their fingertips. Selina is tough and morally ambiguous, but that’s what I expect Selina Kyle to be after seeing her in TV, films and comics. Even when I heard the bewitching music that is Selina’s theme, I heard the one that followed Michelle Pfeiffer in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns. Wright’s calm and mildly sardonic Gordon is almost indistinguishable from Gary Oldman’s. Serkis’s gentlemanly but rough Alfred is near identical to Sean Pertwee’s. I enjoyed watching them all, but I’ve seen them all before.

Any strength the story of The Batman has is undermined by how it skips and misses steps, leaving characters and ideas floating in the aether, its lack of originality and the weakness of its hero.

Cyrano

You can watch the trailer for Cyrano here. The director Joe Wright has previously directed Darkest Hour, Pan, and Anna Karenina. There are many film directors practicing today. Wright is one of the best.

I went and saw this film at Palace Nova in the East End. As it was an opening night event, I received a free glass of blood orange soda and a madeleine. They were delicious, and I gave the film 9 out of 10. This review should take 5 minutes to read.

Cyrano isn’t perfect, but that doesn’t prevent it from being beautiful. It’s a film adaption by Joe Wright, of a musical by Erica Schmidt, based on the play by Edmond Rostand. Despite the long translation from Rostand’s 19th century pen to Wright’s 21st century camera, the original story isn’t lost. It’s still about the poet and soldier Cyrano de Bergerac. In love with Roxanne, but insecure due to his appearance, Cyrano helps another man, Christian, woo her in his place.

Poetry and music surround, encircle and envelop the story like a gymnast’s twirling ribbon. It has the soaring, galloping, and thumping that usually only comes from an orchestra pit, and the mouths of poets. “Don’t tell me you love me,” Roxanne sings out to Christian. “I’ve heard that line before. I need more.” When Roxanne demands more, Haley Bennett draws the words out like a hungry and longing breathe. It’s a call to be given proof by Christian that he loves her, greater than the words “I love you”. When she receives Christian’s first love letter, Roxanne flourishes it in the air and across her skin. She tosses about on her bed, as if the words are making love to her. Soldiers march off to their deaths singing “Heaven is where I fall”. Their words are slow and heavy like the beat of their boots, and the roll of their drums. Even the muskets fire to the beat. This film harnesses that motion and power usually only wielded by music and poetry, through the voices and bodies of its cast.

If you stopped the film, what you would be looking at could be a painting. When he gives Christian his words to woo Roxanne beneath her balcony, Cyrano crouches in a corner in shadows, with light cast by Roxanne’s window flooding down over his shoulder. That image alone could tell you that he is hiding from this beautiful woman, this love, that he refuses to face. When Roxanne sits with the painted-faced noble who seeks her hand, her apartment is cold and sterile. Even the light is devoid of warmth or passion. The sunlight coming through the windows is the cold light that reflects of ice. Roxanne travels through the streets in a carriage singing of the love she wishes to find. As she sings, the reflections of couples in the street dance across her carriage window. The film isn’t just beautiful to hear, but also beautiful to look at.

Peter Dinklage is more than Cyrano de Bergeac in this film. He’s the Atlas who holds the story on his shoulders. Without him there wouldn’t be a story, and the film would be pretty birds floating on the wind. Despite his stature, Cyrano stands up straight and strides past his much taller countrymen. He’s proud and indifferent to their stares as he marches towards his goal, be it Roxanne, a duel, or a war. Dinklage fills all of Cyrano, to the brim and over. He drops to his knees with longing for Roxanne. His crystal blue eyes seem to reach out for her. When he speaks Cyrano’s poetry, his smouldering voice can carry the words like flower petals, release them like water from a stream, or fire them with the force of a cannon. He speaks as if they were his own words. As if he did write them. As if he is Cyrano. Dinklage’s Cyrano is nothing short of heroic.

The film has minor flaws. Cyrano at one time says he won’t tell Roxanne he loves her because he thinks of himself as deformed. Another time he says it’s because “the world” would never accept them. Wright circles around Cyrano’s motive without standing on it exactly, but he does get very close. This is the most significant flaw. The film is still a beautiful tapestry, woven in gold, crimson and white silk. Wright just leaves some stitches showing. They’re errors of craftsmanship, not story. There’s no dark streak running through the tapestry as a whole.

While it has weaknesses in spots, which you might not even notice, Cyrano is filled with bright and moving splendour.    

In the Heat of the Night

You can watch the trailer for In the Heat of the Night above. The films was directed by Norman Jewison, who also directed The Thomas Crown Affair in 1968, and Fiddler on the Roof in 1971.

I went to see this film at Palace Nova in the East End as part of their Anniversary Tuesdays. I gave it 9 out of 10. This article should take 6 minutes to read.

A “black” policeman tries to solve a murder in a deep south town. What makes In the Heat of the Night an innovative and effective thriller is that the detective must find a criminal in a world where he’s treated like a criminal, because of the colour of his skin.

Virgil Tibbs, played by Sidney Poitier, isn’t hardboiled. He doesn’t have the cynicism. But he does have the power rumbling beneath a reserved surface.  When he’s brought before Gillespie, Chief of Police in Sparta, Mississippi, played by Rod Steiger, Tibbs’s eyes are burning. There’s a righteous fury in him at the injustice of being suspected of murder because he’s a “Negro”. Yet, his jaw remains still and tight. He keeps his voice level, but there’s a roar behind it. Poitier gives Tibbs his face of ice, and his soul of fire the face conceals. What emerges from the writing and Poitier’s acting is an original and powerful character and hero.

Tibbs is a detective who steps into a mystery, inside the twisted and violent world of America’s deep south in the 60’s. This is a world where flies gather in a diner and fester over the food. Where teenage girls parade naked in the heat of the night by their windows, and coo while describing how they’ve had sex with a man on a tombstone. An elderly cotton baron keeps a blackface gnome outside his home. It’s a totem of what the people of Sparta expect Tibbs to be. The yellow sunglasses Gillespie wears give him the dead eyes of a fat lizard lying in the sun on a rock asleep. This man is responsible for justice in this town. But he’s fat, lazy, and useless. He pins the murder on the first man to be brought before his desk, so he and his officers can get back to chewing gum and drinking coke. This film is a detective thriller inside a southern gothic.  

Tibbs fights the setting well. When a suspect hits him, he hits back. Close ups of his fingers capture his precise and methodical movements as he examines the victim’s body, and reveals the “white” ME for the average investigator he is. With his expertise and relentless pursuit of justice, Tibbs puts the “white” policemen to shame. I found no end to the gratification I received in seeing his intelligence and integrity make a mockery of the prejudice and stupidity these men wear over their faces like rouge and lipstick. “They call me Mr Tibbs,” Poitier roars when Gillespie, spitting, asks what they call him at home in Philadelphia. That line is Tibbs standing his ground. It’s him asserting his ability as a cop and his right to tell Gillespie he’s holding the wrong man. Tibbs’s battle against the people of Sparta to solve the murder never ceases to be gruelling.  

It’s plausible that Tibbs’s skills would begin to soften Gillespie. But Gillespie inviting Tibbs to his home, for dinner, and to bear their souls to one another, is a jump. The scene is well shot, written, and performed. Tibbs and Gillespie both talk sombrely about how the job is all they have. An empty third chair occupies a shot of them sitting in Gillespie’s living room. It could be occupied by the wife and children both men say they haven’t got. But the scene comes out of nowhere. It’s the first indication that Gillespie is lonely. A shot of him leaving his empty bed and house and going off to work would solve that. Tibbs also must do more before I’ll believe Gillespie would open up to him and show him this much of what’s beneath his layers of lard and fat. It’s a good scene, but there’s several steps that have to come before it that are missed.

Tibbs is given a reason to stay in Sparta and solve the mystery. Jewison creates a constant tension by putting Tibbs on a murder case surrounded by people who may insult him, spit in his eye, or hang him from a tree because of his skin. He escalates the danger surrounding Tibbs, from insults, to hooligans running him off the road, to a fully armed lynch mob coming for him. Jewison increases the danger slowly. He throws Tibbs in a boiler and gradually turns the heat up closer and closer to boiling. But there’s a red herring and some steps in Tibb’s investigation that aren’t fully explained. There’s links in the chain of Tibbs’s reasoning that aren’t shown. You could probably guess them quite well if you thought about them. But an audience shouldn’t have to stitch a film’s plot together for the filmmakers. As a thriller, the film isn’t perfect.

But whatever holes it has, In the Heat of the Night is still an original story that’s full of heat.

Death on the Nile

You can watch the trailer for Death on the Nile above. This is the second of Agatha Christie’s mysteries starring Hercule Poirot that the film’s director and star Kenneth Branagh has adapted for film. It follows Murder on the Orient Express, released in 2017.

I saw this film at Palace Nova in the East End. I gave it 10 out of 10.

This is more than just a murder mystery. It’s a love story, a psychological thriller, and a tragedy. It’s glamorous, bewitching, and rich.

The foundations of the story are the same as in the original novel by Agatha Christie. Hercule Poirot seeks to solve a murder that occurs aboard the steamship Karnak during a cruise on the river Nile. But Branagh’s Poirot is more than a gentleman detective, and the characters he fills the ship with are more than just victims, suspects, and culprits.

Poirot is given an origin story. His singular moustache becomes more than an eccentric piece of facial hair. It’s a symbol of Poirot. Of the man he’s become after emerging from the Great War. The Ottomans in Christie’s novel, a ludicrous erotic novelist and her daughter, are replaced by the Otterbournes. Their sharp words, delivered with deep rhythm by Leitita Wright and Sophie Okonedo, are as enjoyable to listen to as their Blues music. Played by Emma Mackey, Jackie de Bellefort is given a supernatural power that she never had in Christie’s novel. Her face burns. Her eyes are wild. Her voice is delicately ruthless, like her small and ornate pistol she calls “practically a toy”. She acts as though possessed, and she dresses and moves for the part.  Sauntering up the marble steps to the hotel against the fire of the Nile’s setting sun, the hem of her blood-red dress flows behind her like a trail of flame in her wake. Christie’s characters mostly just talked. Branagh’s talk, shout, sing, weep, laugh, bleed and burn.

It takes time to get to the murder, but Branagh fills the time. Blues is pumped into a dark and steamy nightclub in London, where Jackie dances. She twists and wraps herself around her beloved as the spotlights illuminate the sweat on their faces. They look as if they’re making love rather than dancing. The Karnak stretches out across the Nile. Its ivory-white wooden body looks like a pearl floating on top of the water. Balloons rise from the ship, and it’s filled “with enough champagne to fill the Nile”. Subtle signs of danger rear their head. A cobra strikes out from its basket. A crocodile devours a bird in the corner of the shot as the Karnak goes off into the sunset. They’re auguries. They forebode of the tragedy that’s coming. The path to the murder is paved with glamour.

At every turn, Branagh makes his film more dramatic than Christie’s novel. Some is due to the characters. Their complexities, their loves, hopes, disappointments, and fears, intertwine with each other. They become entangled with one another so that there’s more at stake than finding a killer. A marriage or a love may live or die based on what someone does next. Some is due to the staging. When Poirot unmasks the killer, he doesn’t just summon all the suspects to the drawing room. He stands on the bough of the ship and fires a gun in the air. At his signal, the anchors behind him drop, and the crew lock all the suspects inside the parlour to face his reveal. Where Christie brought a candle, Branagh brings fireworks.

Christie’s novel was about a murder. Branagh’s film is a murder mystery about love. Everyone in the story is touched by love in some way. Love uplifts them, devastates them, and drives them to madness and blood. The land around them is the land of Anthony and Cleopatra, and of tombs built so the dead kings and queens of Ancient Egypt can lie together for eternity. Like the fiery sun over the Nile, love consumes everything.

Branagh hasn’t just adapted Christie’s story. He’s improved it. He’s taken a first-rate thriller and built it up into an intoxicating tragedy of crime and passion.

Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner

You can watch the trailer for Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner above. The film’s director Stanley Kramer was and still is famous his films that dealt with prominent social issues.

I saw this film at Palace Nova in the East End, as part of their weekly Anniversary Tuesdays event. I gave it 10 out of 10. This article should take 4 minutes to read.

Two parents have to choose whether to bless or destroy their child’s marriage, and they have only one day to decide. That’s the plot for a good film. In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Stanley Kramer turned it into a great film about America, race, family and love.

The film opens with a plane gliding into San Francisco. On it are John Prentice, played by Sidney Poitier, and Joanna Drayton, played by Katharine Houghton. With them they bring the problem that kept me engrossed in their lives and their families’ lives for over an hour and a half. They talk and laugh, put their arms around each other, and kiss in the back of the cab, as a song is sung in the place of any words or sounds. “That’s the story of, that’s the glory of love”. It’s sung with a mature gaiety. The singers have lived and loved long enough to know what they’re singing about.

A man and a woman in love usually wouldn’t be a problem. But it’s 1967, Joanna is “a white girl”, and John is “a coloured man”. With their love, and engagement, they turn the home of Joanna’s parents, Matt and Christina played by Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn respectively, into a crucible. But, the conflict isn’t primarily racial, but generational and familial.

It’s between children who are racing towards their future with open arms, and parents who are terrified “they’ll both get their brains knocked out”. Between young people who don’t see skin as a problem, and old people who have seen how much of a problem the world can make it. The gulf between the minds of the parents and the children is funny, such as when Christina peevishly tries to ask Joanna if she and John have had sex. The answer she receives is an unembarrassed no, with Joanna adding that it’s not from lack of effort on her part. It’s also explosive. When John confronts his father, he’s manic. His eyes are screaming. His voice rattles like a prisoner trying to shake the bars of his cell apart.

It’s a fight between people who love each other. Where your greatest love, and that of the person you love, becomes the obstacle. The sheer torture of it is struck across their faces, as happiness and pain clash in the same minds. At times, Christina doesn’t look like she knows whether to smile or cry. Her face seems prepared to split in two. On the phone with his parents, John is trying to be cheerful but also feverishly wiping the sweat from his brow and hands. He’s searching for the courage to tell them Joanna isn’t “a coloured girl”. The arrival of John’s parents for dinner only adds fuel to the fire. The Draytons and Prentices talk, argue, take sides, and try to sway both their children and their spouses to make the right choice. Whether that’s what will happen is a question that isn’t answered until the eleventh hour.

Without special effects, with just a great conflict played out by great actors, Stanley Kramer generated one of the most intensely dramatic films I’ve ever seen. In one day, largely within the confines of one house, this story pushes an entire family to the brink of ruin. If and how they get back is something you can learn by reading a plot synopsis, but you’d be cheating yourself. Watch the film instead.

Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story

You can watch the trailer for Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story above. Spielberg is one of the greatest film makers living, and once he dies he’ll be one of the greatest film makers to ever live. He’s created E.T., Indiana Jones, The Post, amongst other films. He should need no introduction.

I saw this film twice. First at Wallis cinemas at Mitcham, and then again at Palance Nova in the East End. I give this film 10 out of 10. This article should take 4 minutes to read.

Spielberg’s West Side Story is perfect. As a romance, a musical, and a tragedy. As a film, as literature, and as a story about love and hatred. 

I haven’t seen the original 1961 film. I’ve only seen the original Broadway play. The story is the same. Tony and Maria fall in love, but their families and friends belong to opposing gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, battling for control of New York’s Upper West Side. Spielberg’s film isn’t a perfect adaption. It’s better. It’s an improvement. It tells the story better than the original play.

From the first to the last shot, Spielberg put me in the West Side. His sweeping wide shots of the brownstone apartments and fire escapes climbing towards the sky made me see and feel all of the world that is the stage for this story.

The film is dripping in colour. Both the glamorous and the terrifying. There’s the sun-yellow of Anita’s dress as she dances through the streets singing of her American Dream. But there’s also the shadows that descend on the West Side and invade every room along with murder and tragedy.

The richness extends to the characters themselves. While the characters in the original play weren’t cardboard, they were of a similar material, compared to what Spielberg makes them. He gives them flesh and blood, beating hearts, minds, and souls, which burst through their eyes, faces, legs and feet. Tony isn’t just Maria’s lover. He’s also a recently released convict. Maria isn’t just Tony’s lover. She’s seeking to build a life for herself and break free of her brother. Chino isn’t just Maria’s suitor. He’s also an aspiring accountant who wants to be a gangster. The Sharks and Jets aren’t just thugs fighting for turf. The Sharks are fighting to protect the Puerto Rican community. The Jets are fighting to hold onto the world they know, which is literally being demolished before their eyes. Everyone has layers. They have loves, dreams, hopes, and reasons. 

Much of this richness is shown through song and dance. In Spielberg’s musical, the singing and dancing performs the same function as action and dialogue. They show who the characters are and push the story along. Characters both talk and sing about their loves and plans. They both dance and fight. 

Everything serves the story. When Tony and Maria first meet, the lights breaking through the gaps between the stands look like stars coming into the night sky. I could see their love being born. Even the most minute details create the story, which is as Spielberg said, a story for every generation. It’s about love. Between lovers, brothers, sisters, and people and their dreams, and how hatred can destroy them all. It’s immortal.