Blonde (2022) **** – Seen at the Cinema

Stream of consciousness reimagining of Marilyn Monroe’s life mainlining on celebrity, identity, mental illness and vulnerability and held together by a mesmerizing performance by Ana de Armas. Director Andrew Dominik’s slicing and dicing of screen shape, occasional dips into black-and-white and a special effects foetus won’t work at all as well on the small screen. Monroe’s insistence on calling husbands “daddy” and letters from a never-seen potential father that turns into a cruel sucker punch, threaten to tip the picture into an over-obvious direction.  

A very selective narrative based on a work of fiction by novelist Joyce Carol Oates leaves you wondering how much of it is true, and also how much worse was the stuff left out. As you might expect, the power mongers (Hollywood especially) don’t come out of it well, and her story is bookended by abuse, rape as an ingenue by a movie mogul and being dragged “like a piece of meat” along White House corridors to be abused by the President.

A mentally ill mother who tries to drown her in the bath and later disowns sets up a lifetime of instability. Eliminated entirely is her first husband, but the scenes with second husband (Bobby Canavale) and especially the third (Adrien Brody) are touchingly done, Marilyn’s desire for an ordinary home life at odds with her lack of domesticity, and each relationship begins with a spark that soon fades as she grapples with a personality heading out of control.

That she can’t come to grips with “Marilyn,” perceived almost as an alien construct, a larger-than-life screen personality that bewitches men, is central to the celebrity dichotomy, how to set aside the identity on which you rely for a living. It’s hardly a new idea, but celebrity has its most celebrated victim in Monroe.

According to this scenario, she enjoyed a threesome with Charlie Chaplin Jr (Xavier Samuel) and Edward G. Robinson Jr.  (Evan Williams) but otherwise her sexuality, except as it radiated on screen, was muted. The only real problem with Dominik’s take on her life that there is no clear indication of when her life began to spiral out of control beyond the repetition of the same problems. She remains a little girl lost most of the time.

I had no problems with the length (164 minutes) or with the selectivity. Several scenes were cinematically electrifying – her mother driving through a raging inferno – or emotionally heart-breaking (being dumped at the orphanage) and despite the constant emotional turbulence it never felt like too heavy a ride. But you wished for more occasions when she just stood up for herself as when arguing for a bigger salary for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

I wondered too if the NC-17 controversy was a publicity ploy because the rape scene is nothing like as brutal as, for example, The Straw Dogs (1971) or Irreversible (2002), and the nudity is not particular abundant nor often sexual. That’s not to say there is much tasteful about the picture, and you couldn’t help but flinch at the rawness of her emotions, her inability to find any peace, the constant gnaw of insecurity, and her abuse by men in power.

Ana de Armas (No Time to Die, 2021) is quite superb. I can’t offer any opinion on how well she captured the actress’s intonations or personality, but her depiction of a woman falling apart and her various stabs at holding herself together is immense. The early scenes by Adrien Brody (See How They Run, 2022) as the playwright smitten by her understanding of his characters are exceptional as is the work of Julianne Nicholson (I, Tonya, 2017) as her demented mother. Worth a mention too are the sexually adventurous entitled self-aware bad boys Xavier Samuel (Elvis, 2022) and Evan Williams (Escape Room, 2017).

While there are no great individual revelations, what we’ve not witnessed before is the depth of her emotional tumult. Apart from an occasional piece of self-indulgence, Andrew Dominik, whose career has been spotty to say the least, delivers a completely absorbing with an actress in the form of her life. Try and catch this on the big screen, as I suspect its power will diminish on a small screen.

See How They Run (2022) **** – Seen at the Cinema

Kind of film that needs sold on word-of-mouth and a slow platform-release rather than being bundled out to fill the distribution gap. Let the audience sing its praises first before slinging it out in wide release. Because this is a definite audience-pleaser, a fun whodunit. Though a limiting factor might be that appeal may be restricted to those of a certain age familiar with  The Mousetrap. I wouldn’t bet my last dollar, either, on modern young audiences even having a clue who Agatha Christie was, or responding to a picture set in dull, dull, Britain in a year -1953 – when there was a significantly more glorious event that might have suited better the average Downton Abbey moviegoer: the coronation of the recently-deceased Queen Elizabeth II.

Delightful pastiche on the detective story, too much to suggest it’s a piss-take on Knives Out or the latest big-screen veneration of Hercule Poirot, but it certainly has enough going for it even if none of those connections are eventually made. Certainly, there’s some sly humor in scoring points for mentioning, a la Murder on the Orient Express, that the initial murder could have been committed by all the suspects.

Basically, out of favor war hero and alcoholically-inclined cop Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) is saddled with rookie Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan) – two in-jokes right there, John Stalker being a very prominent British cop, playwright Tom Stoppard the author of The Real Inspector Hound – to investigate the death of Yank Leo Kopernick (Adrien Brody), in London to turn Agatha Christie’s famed play into a movie for real-life producer John Woolf (Reace Shearsmith) who made The African Queen (1951).

Virtually everyone associated with the play becomes a suspect. These include pompous playwright Mervyn Cocker-Norris (David Oyelowo), the play’s petulant producer Petula “Chew” Spencer (Ruth Wilson), real-life actor Richard Attenborough (Harris Dickinson) and even Agatha Christie (Shirley Henderson) is not above a bit of poisoning. Throw into the mix that the cops have assigned the bulk of their resources to tracking down the 10 Rillington Place serial killer – another in-joke, Attenborough playing the murderer in that movie.

One of the movie’s delights is that whereas both Stoppard and Stalker have considerable personal issues, we discover them in passing, and neither character makes a meal of them. Instead, their screen charisma works a treat, Stoppard dogged and the earnest Stalker inclined to jump the gun.

Even the “all-star-cast” is a spoof on films like “Death on the Nile.” The title was a popular one, movies in big-screen or small using it in 1955, 1964, 1984, 1999 and 2006.

The stage shenanigans are a hoot, puffed-up pride and ruthless machinations powering many of the sub-plots. There’s some pretty clever sleight-of-hand not to mention occasional cinematic avant-garde and there’s no shortage of laughs and that out-dated comedy fall-back – slapstick. The climax is particularly excellent, in part because it is a notion immediately discarded as the denouement of the proposed movie version of the play, one that succinctly critiques the differences between British and Hollywood approaches to movie-making.

Red herrings and cul-de-sacs abound, flashbacks remove any plot-holes, while managing to ram in a country-house finale takes some brio. And in among all the jokes, you might be surprised to find a serious point being made about reality vs fiction. Full marks to the virtually laugh-a-minute screenplay by Mark Chappell  (The Rack Pack, 2016) and director Tom George in his movie debut who brilliantly shuffles the deck.

Dramatic heavyweight pair Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards, Outside Ebbing Missouri, 2017) and Saoirse Ronan (Mary, Queen of Scots, 2018) prove a double-act to cherish. In gentle comedic roles at odds with virtually their entire portfolios, a wise producer might already be sizing them up for a re-run. Everyone else gets to be bitchy/scheming/ruthless to their heart’s content and certainly in those categories Adrien Brody (The Grand Budapest Hotel, 2014)  and Ruth Wilson (His Dark Materials, 2019-2022) win hands-down. But spare a thought for excellent performances from David Oyelowo (The Bastard King, 2020), Reace Shearsmith (of League of Gentlemen TV fame), Lucian Msamati (The Bike Thief, 2020) as the imperturbable Max Mallowan, husband of the distinctly perturbed Agatha, played with venomous glee by Shirley Henderson (Greed, 2019).

I went to see it not expecting much at all and came out singing its praises. Definitely worth a whirl.

Triple Bill Blues: Fall (2022) ***; The Forgiven (2021) **; Three Thousand Years of Longing (2022) ** – Seen at the Cinema

You may be aware that I am partial to a triple bill on my weekly Monday trip to the cinema. I’m rather an indiscriminate cinemagoer and generally just see what’s available, though it’s true return trips to view Top Gun: Maverick have helped paper over cracks in the current distribution malaise. Sometimes a triple bill can reveal unsung gems, sometimes I am rowing against the critical tide in my opinions and sometimes, not too often thank goodness, I end up seeing movies with few redeeming qualities. That was the circumstance this week.

FALL

So now I know. If I need to get a mobile phone dropped 2,000 feet without it breaking into pieces, the thing to do is stuff it inside a cadaver. That’s one of the more outlandish suggestions in this climbing picture two-hander that for most of the time is quite gripping.

So as not to have to spend the first anniversary of her husband’s death sozzled in booze and despair, Becky (Grace Caroline Currey) agrees to partner YouTube click-hound Hunter (Virginia Gardner) in scaling an extremely high disused radio mast. Becky, a mountaineer, had watched her husband fall to his death, so is pretty iffy about the expedition. When they reach the top they can’t get down again since the ladder they climbed has disintegrated. Although there was mobile phone reception at ground level, there’s none this high up. Hunter has 60,000 followers and reckons if only her phone reached the ground it would automatically activate so they toss it down in a shoe stuffed with a bra.

That doesn’t work nor does firing a flare pistol to alert two guys in a nearby RV – all they are alerted to is the girl’s vehicle which they promptly steal. The girls are trapped without water or drone, both stuck 50ft below on radio dishes. At one point you think this is going to go in an entirely different – murderous – direction after Becky discovers Hunter had an affair with her husband. But they manage to get over that hiccup. Recuing their water and drone results in Hunter being out of action as far as further climbing goes and it’s up to Becky to reach the top of the mast and recharge the drone from the power there, fending off a passing vulture.

There’s definitely one weird bit where it turns out that Hunter, who you imagined was up there all the time supporting a defeatist Becky, is already dead. But, luckily, the corpse provides the cavity in which to bury the mobile phone. I’m not sure much of a human body survives a drop of 2,000 ft, certainly not enough to safeguard a phone, but that’s the way this plays out.

A great mountaineering film is always a welcome find in my book. This isn’t great but it’s certainly passable. And while Becky is more interesting than the gung-ho Hunter, the pair, emotions almost spinning out of control, make a very watchable pair.

Grace Caroline Curry aka Grace Fulton (Shazam!, 2019) does well in her first starring role and Virginia Gardner (Monster Party, 2018) is as convincing. Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Rampage, 2018) has a small role. A novel take on the mountaineering sub-genre, it’s kudos to director Scott Mann (Heist, 2015) – who co-wrote the screenplay with Jonathan Frank (Final Score, 2018)  that I spent a lot of time wondering just how the hell they managed to make it look so realistic.

THE FORGIVEN

Note to studios, no matter how much you plan to tart up a modern version of Appointment in Samarra – aka a tale of unavoidable fate – you ain’t going to get anywhere if it’s filled with entitled obnoxious characters. The worst of it is this is well-made.

Functioning alcoholic doctor David Henninger (Ralph Fiennes) knocks down and kills young Muslim boy Driss (Omar Ghazaoui) while on the way with wife Jo (Jessica Chastain) to a hedonistic weekend party in Morocco hosted by Richard Galloway (Matt Smith) and his partner Dally (Caleb Landry Jones). There are hints that Driss was planning to hijack the tourists, but while his death is deemed an accident by the local cops, David agrees to go back with the boy’s father Ismael (Abdellah Taheri) and observe the local funeral rites and possibly pay the father off.

While her husband is away Jo has a one-night stand with serial seducer Tom (Christopher Abbott) while the rest of the party – including Lord Swanthorne (Alex Jennings) and assorted beautiful men and woman – trade bon mots and make racist and sexist remarks. While the arrogant David changes his perspective and accepts his fate, there is not, himself included, a single likeable person in the whole of the tourist contingent which makes it impossible to care what happens to anybody. Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh (Calvary, 2014) it spends all its time trying to make clever points, not realizing the audience has long lost interest.

THREE THOUSAND YEARS OF LONGING

Note to studios, if you’re going to indulge an action director in a vanity project, make sure he hires actors who don’t just drone on. It might also help if the director could decide what story he wants to tell, and not essentially present a voice-over narrative of stuff that happened in the past, no matter how exotic the timescale.

I was astonished to discover there actually is a job called narratologist. Alithea (Tilda Swinton) is a dried-up old stick of a narratologist who summons up the dullest genie/djinn in movie history known – no names, no pack drill – just as The Djinn  (Idris Elba) who proceeds to bore the audience to death with his stories of how he came to end up in a bottle.  

There’s a bundle of academic nonsense about storytelling, a swathe of tales that sound like rejects from The Arabian Nights, and a lot of unconnected characters. The invention of director George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road, 2015) just isn’t inventive enough and the visuals just aren’t arresting enough. I’m assuming this got greenlit on the basis Miller would turn in a couple more in the Mad Max franchise.

Orphan First Kill (2022) *** – Seen at the Cinema

Evil meets its match” would have been a good tagline for this neat B-picture, a slow burn that starts off as horror before swerving into a more straightforward thriller. A prequel to surprise hit Orphan (2009) and a perverse take on the origin theme so beloved of the MCU/DC movies, this begins in Estonia where Leena (Isabelle Fuhrman) is an inmate at a psychiatric institute.

At first it looks like the tale is heading in the direction of Leena’s relationship with new art therapist Anna (Gwendolyn Collins). But that is quickly stymied when Leena, having orchestrated an escape through her manipulative and seductive powers, knocks off Anna as well, pausing only long enough to harness the woman’s computer to find a lookalike missing girl, the American Esther Albright, she could pretend to be. The wealthy Albrights, mum Tricia (Julia Stiles), devastated artist husband Allen (Rossif Sutherland) and spoiled brat son Gunnar (Matthew Finlan) live in a huge mansion in Connecticut.

And at first again, we go down another rabbit hole, this time the question of whether Esther can maintain her disguise, coming up shy at times in the old memory department. A psychiatrist is initially a bit suspicious and there’s a cop, Inspector Donnan (Hiro Kanagawa) lingering in the background. But Esther bonds with Allen over their shared interest in painting and the husband believes he has unearthed a new shining talent.

We also go down a rat-hole, so to speak, when Esther befriends a rat (an unlikely inhabitant in such a deluxe property, but there you go) whose only purpose you guess right away is to die, poisoned in one way or another. You imagine the poisoner is going to be Esther just wanting to maintain her killing skills.

Not so. The poor old rat is killed by mistake by Tricia who is, it turns out, trying to rid herself of this imposter, a lass she knows only too well cannot be her missing daughter for one very unsavoury reason which I won’t divulge but certainly took me by surprise.

So then the film switches onto a completely different tack, and one that is far more satisfying than just a deranged maniac, as in most horror pictures, going round slaughtering everyone in sight.  Donnan has re-entered the frame by this point, continuing his investigations to the point of sneakily snatching Esther’s fingerprints so he can try and do a match.

So now it’s game on and Esther is out- numbered, up against a pretty dangerous mother-and-son combo, with only the dim husband as ally. And no matter what clever stunts Esther dreams up to rid herself of this infernal duo and live happily ever after with the doting father, the equally tough Julia is quietly setting her own snares.

We were already expecting trouble the moment we set eyes on Esther, who, with her baby-faced features and size, that was a given, if ever there was a monster-in-disguise it was her. But beautiful socialite Tricia is a different story and so if there’s a “secret” this time round it’s to do with Tricia’s family, the pair involved maintaining an ongoing masquerade with the unwitting father.

Esther’s survival depends not so much on killing her way out of here but on winning over the father sufficiently should that, inevitably, if her plans work out, bereft of wife and son he will turn to her for consolation.

Isabelle Fuhrman (Orphan) is even better than she was before. Then she was a young actress playing a young maniac. Now she’s over a decade older and having to act more than a decade younger and that certainly takes some doing. But Julia Stiles (Hustlers, 2019) is the revelation, the cold-as-ice beauty, barely holding her family together after the previous tragedy, on the one hand welcoming Esther because it revitalizes her almost-dormant husband, on the other needing to exert considerable control otherwise their carefully constructed lives are going to explode. Although the surname is not new to me, the actor is, and Rossif Sutherland (The Middle Man, 2021) gives a touching performance as the grieving, brooding father finding himself, especially good in his scenes in his studio with Esther. In only his second picture Mathew Finlan (My Fake Boyfriend, 2022) isn’t given much scope as a spoilt brat son nor is Hiro Kanagawa, best known for the Star Trek: Discovery TV series.

Director William Brent Bell (The Boy, 2016) does a decent job, especially given he has to stradde the twin genres or horror and thriller with a nod in the direction of film noir. The scenes between Esther and Julia, where they realise they are adversaries, are especially well done. There are enough twists to keep the plot spiralling along and clever use of doubles to make you believe Fuhrman is a little girl.

Far from a great picture, but enough to be getting along with in the absence of a blockbuster. The hardier of the moviegoer species, people like me who pop along to their local cinema every week regardless and find something to watch, will be less picky about this kind of fare than those who get in for nothing or are sent a streamer due to their status as critics. Exhibitors have complained for over a century now that the best movies are never spread out over the year, but clustered into various time zones. Their livelihood, after all, depends on a constant string of winners. It’s a different story for cinemagoers. We just want to sit in the dark and see a film and as long as it’s reasonable enough we’re not going to complain.

In what should have been an indifferent week for moviegoing – given I had already seen Bullet Train, Nope, Top Gun: Maverick etc – I managed quite a nice triple bill on my weekly outing. This was the sandwich between the charmingly tolerable Fishermen’s Friends: One for All and documentary Girls Can’t Surf.    

Nope (2022) **** – Seen at the Cinema

So I’m going to start with a SPOILER ALERT. To give you a moment to digest that, I’m going to explain that if I included half points in my ratings system, this would be a three-and-a-half rather than a four. But it’s certainly better than a three, so it automatically becomes a four. Okay, now that we’ve got that out of the way let’s take the plunge.

After a pretty good build-up, invoking elements of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Alien (1979) and, yes, Predator (1987), the mysterious spaceship goes from being a cloud that doesn’t move for six months to a flying saucer (yawn!) to a giant stetson with a hole in the middle to the kind of piratical sail that might have been shredded in a storm. And for an alien that’s flown a gazillion miles to get to this spot of wilderness, it’s pretty dumb, falling for the old trick of swallowing a balloon. Yep, didn’t make much sense to me neither.

But that’s most of the downside because it’s anchored by an absolutely outstanding performance from Daniel Kaluuya who is not far off being this generation’s Tom Hanks.

And there’s a lot of pretty neat stuff, a couple of sizzlers of a red herring, some clever moves at the end by our beleaguered team as they turn from hunted to hunters. And there a host of stunning images, blood drenching a house, a pig on a roof, the deflation of inflatable stick figures, a guy wrapping himself in barbed wire, a boy trapped under a table by a chimp terrorizing a television studio, a shoe that stands up on its end, a horse statue rammed through a windscreen, a bug on a camera that might just be the alien and innovative sound effects.

O.J. Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya) runs a ranch specializing in supplying horses for the movies. But it’s on its last legs after the mysterious death of his father (Keith David). He’s not helped by his sister Emerald  (Keke Palmer), as wacky as he is sombre. Amateur Ufologist Angel (Brandon Perea) invites himself to the party while sometime cinematic genius Antlers (Michael Wincott) is a late recruit, but in the end a bit too close to the nutters atop skyscrapers in Independence Day (1996) desperate to welcome aliens.

It does veer too often from sci-fi to horror but instead of Spielbergian awe the characters, while intrigued by the prospect of aliens, are just as likely to be shit scared, too worried about consequence to actually come clean about what they may have witnessed. Emerald and Angel are the enthusiasts, OJ the naysayer. Turns out the sassy Emerald, prone to unearned self-importance and acting too often on whims, annoys the alien by planting in a field a statue of a horse, stolen from a Wild West tourist attraction run by Ricky Park (Steven Yeun), a one-time child television star. Turns out Ricky has the same sensitivity to the presence of the cloud as OJ but instead of leaving well alone plans to publicize its existence to help market his ailing venture.

I’m not sure where the rampaging chimpanzee fits into the equation since that incident occurred in 1998 and Ricky was the youngster hiding under the table.

But once the quartet turn their attention to attempting to lure the alien onto a camera, previous efforts ruined by the alien’s ability to knock out any electricity supply, it turns into quite a cinematic spectacle, the kind of equivalent to Apollo 13 (1995) or The Martian (2015) where survivors of catastrophe have to come up with ideas out of left field.

Adding a bit of spice surprisingly enough is some interesting comedy, OJ and Emerald rubbing each other up the wrong way, Angel complaining of being dumped by a model-turned-actress, and some deadpan one-liners.

There’s a certainly a welcome freshness in terms of the characters, all superb inventions, recognisable as only too human, some of the family dysfunction but none of the obsession of Roy Neary from Close Encounters, nor the enclosed world of the space travellers from Alien whose personalities are generally revealed only in relation to their reaction to the predator, and none of the governmental mumbo-jumbo of ID4.

As I mentioned, the acting is a huge plus. Often sci-fi characterisation is paper-thin, the director thinking, wrongly, that audiences just want to get to the monsters. Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out, 2017) is top-notch but energy-on-a-stick Keke Palmer (Alice, 2022) runs him very close. Brandon Perea (American Insurrection, 2021) and Steven Yeung (The Humans, 20201) are also excellent, investing their characters with considerable ambiguity, while veteran  character actor Michael Wincott has his first movie outing since Forsaken (2015).

I take issue with the notion that director Jordan Peele (Get Out) has fallen into the M Night Shyamalen (The Sixth Sense, 1999) trap of following an inspired debut with subsequently less inspiring pictures. This is a very bold effort for his third outing and only really let down by the fact that, in carrying out the roles of writer, producer and director, he doesn’t have anyone to rein him in when the ideas go off-piste. Trimming twenty minutes out and losing the self-consciously arty elements and adding a bit more clarity and spending a bit more on CGI and this might have been a real winner.

As it is, worth seeing but with reservations.

Bullet Train (2022) **** – Seen at the Cinema

What a blast! What a gas! And what the heck’s wrong with critics? Complaining Hollywood lacks originality and turning their noses up at this helter skelter of a thriller that hits eleven from the outset, maintains a hectic pace, and boasts gut-busting laughs.

The plot’s as complicated as it is simple. A bunch of assassins on a train trying to steal a suitcase containing ten million dollars discover they are taking the ride for another reason. Finding out they have competition, not just on board, but on various train station platforms, lends to the complications as they – and the viewer – try to work out just what the hell is going on. While there’s some great dialogue, for most of these guys fists and guns are their easiest means of communication so cue some fabulous action sequences.

Twin English hitmen Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry) are the original messenger boys, tasked with delivering the loot from Tokyo to Kyoto on the titular train along with the son of a notorious gangster. Lemon, not the brightest gun in the arsenal, has left the case on a communal luggage rack where first off it is snaffled by Ladybug (Brad Pitt), as ethereal an assassin as you could wish for, and one in denial, preferring a more spiritual outlet for his skills. But guys who are good at killing people are less efficient at holding onto suitcases.

And so the prize bounces from character to character, including Kimura (Andrew Koji), the Wolf (Bad Bunny), Hornet (Zazie Beetz) and Prince (Joey King). Did I mention there was a deadly snake aboard and that the ultimate gangster going by the moniker of The White Death (Michael Shannon) was lying in wait? No? I didn’t want to overcomplicate matters.

Every time the various assassins, who specialize in different murder techniques, think they are getting to the bottom of the mysterious goings-on the movie virtually jumps track to head down a different route, but it does so with such elan and verve that you can’t wait for the next wrong turn.

The characterisation is as good as anything dreamt up by Tarantino, the oddbeat characters dancing to their own odd beat, the squabbling Tangerine and Lemon almost steal the show from Ladybug who believes he is suffering from a run of bad luck. And like he’s caught up in the wrong movie, Ladybug confides his thoughts to his offscreen handler Maria (Sandra Bullock). Wistful schoolgirl Prince can talk her way out of any situation. But as I said, the others prefer to just beat up their rivals.

So stand by for some of the greatest action this side of Jason Bourne and John Wick. And some of the dumbest moves this side of Dumb and Dumber. You’d think the action/comedy fusion wouldn’t work at all but the way director David Leitch plays with our expectations the whole shebang works beautifully. Though I wouldn’t describe it as such, more like an action picture that happens to make you laugh.

Part of the reason the action is so terrific is Leitch is a former stuntman, who must dream fights in his sleep, because he’s certainly dreamt up some original mano a mano stuff here. But he’s also the uncredited co-director of John Wick (2104) and sole helmer of Deadpool 2 (2018) and Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw (2019) so he’s no stranger to mixing action and comedy. And he takes a fluid approach to narrative.

But the laidback Brad Pitt (Ad Astra, 2019), almost a Bill Murray throwback, is absolutely superb, an Oscar worthy performance, a character re-examining his life in the midst of an assassins convention, and trying not to blame anyone attempting to kill him. Brian Tyree Henry (Joker, 2019) is the pick of the supporting cast. It’s a step up for Aaron Taylor-Johnson (The King’s Man, 2021), who plays the most irascible gangster since Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York (2002). The outstanding supporting cast is mostly made up of up-and-comers  – Joey King (The Kissing Booth 2, 2020), Zazie Beetz (Lucy in the Sky, 2019), Andrew Koji (Snake Eyes, 2021) – plus Michael Shannon (Heart of Champions, 2021) and Sandra Bullock (The Lost City, 2022) and cameos from Channing Tatum (The Lost City) and

The only minor quibbles are overuse of references to British kids fave Thomas the Tank Engine which may not be such a global phenomenon as the director would like, leading I would guess to some audience bafflement in the U.S., as might occasional mention of London soccer team West Ham, both key to the lives of Tangerine and Lemon.

Leitch owes an almighty vote of thanks to screenwriter Zak Olkewicz (Fear Street, Part Two -1978, 2021) who not only pulls the whole package together but springs brilliant lines and situations though how much was lifted directly from the source book by Kotaro Isaka I couldn’t tell you.

Can’t wait for the sequel. Brad Pitt has created a brilliant screen character that deserves a second outing.

Where the Crawdads Sing (2022) **** – Seen at the Cinema

I enjoyed the film so much I went out (literally) and bought the book (multiplex and bookshop in same shopping mall). And I’ve no idea why this has received such a tepid response from critics. Reminiscent of Prince of Tides (1991), it packs a far greater emotional punch when it gets into its stride with the aftermath of romance gone wrong. And it’s not as sappy as that might suggest, themes far more adult than young adult, covering domestic abuse, attempted rape, vilification and humiliation.

Even though set in the 1960s, the sense that people fear the different is as topical today, it still stands as a portrait of the outsider for whom rejection by society is common. Illiterate Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones), snubbed by locals, lives alone in the marshes of North Carolina so when her boyfriend is killed she becomes the automatic suspect. The movie then shifts between the the present day courtroom of 1969 and the past. Isolation makes her vulnerable but not to the point where she is scared to fight back, although she acknowledges that “men always need the last word.” She’s also accustomed to literally covering her tracks, returning leaves disturbed by her footsteps to their original position, with concealment a fact of life.

Regardless of the prejudices of the townspeople, the audience is fed enough clues to leave them guessing right up to the very last scene in one of those revelations straight out of Jagged Edge (1985). And sufficient red herrings muddy the pitch while in true modern style vital pieces of information that might easily have determined the outcome of the trial are hidden until late in the day.

But this is not primarily a courtroom drama. It’s a beautifully realized coming-of-age picture, sucking you into a wilderness that in previous depictions of such alternative worlds would have been doused in violence, check Deliverance (1972) or Southern Comfort (1981). Kya isn’t capable of setting traps to lure the unwary, nor of predatory behavior. Instead, she is more open to abuse of her trust. The two men – Tate (Taylor John Smith) and Chase (Harris Dickinson) – who enter her life, with different degrees of entitlement, are liable to either abandon her or wish to control her.

Self-discovery remains core, with Kya’s tale as much about growing up as finding her path as an artist, and as she develops self-confidence is able to monetize her naturalist skills. Her artistry is often on show and through poetic internal monologues we view her soul, sometimes aching but just as often practical, never confusing the beauty of nature with a reality in which “even doves fight” to quote from the first few pages of the book I managed to read before starting this Blog.

Producer Reese Witherspoon performed a nifty trick. She chose the novel for her book club, watched it turn into a bestseller and then produced the film.

Tate and Chase bring out different aspects of her personality, the former teaching her to read and write, the latter determined to ensure she doesn’t lose the freedom so essential to her being. But whether either man can provide the emotional support she requires is open to question.

The twists and turns of the courtroom are well done. Defence attorney Tom Milton (David Strathairn) is surprisingly gentle for a lawyer, doing his best to bat away the more aggressive  prosecutor’s claims. It’s classic stuff, trying to tie Sheriff Jackson (Bill Kelly) up in knots, deflecting prosecution attempts to paint her as an out-of-control feral child. Milton, plus storekeeper Jumpin’ (Sterling Macey Jr.) and his wife Mabel (Michael Hyatt), are the only locals to show any kindness.

It’s rich in atmosphere and the feeling Kya has for nature comes easily to the surface. I found it totally absorbing, helped in equal parts by the court proceedings, and Kya’s difficult navigation of the emotional highway. There’s a nice meet-cute, done with feathers would you believe, and her reactions to both men, restraint followed by passion, caution at war with raw impulse, are entirely believable. If there is any problem in the narrative relating to both suitors, it’s that we only see them through Kya’s eyes, rather than being given true insight into their ambitions, but you can hardly fault a movie taking the point-of-view of the heroine for expecting her to have a clearer picture of what would-be romancers would rather hide.

The early scenes, depicting abuse of the young Kya (JoJo Regina) at the hands of her alcoholic father (Garret Dillahunt) and her disillusion and fear as one by one she is abandoned by mother and brothers are especially powerful, nobody departing without a cut or a bruise, as if carrying a paternal brand.

The whole picture is such an immersive experience, understanding insects and shellfish as Kya’s wealth of knowledge grows, fearing for her involvement with any man, her inexperience inevitably faulting her choice. And yet she grows through bad experience until she gains the self-reliance to see her through.

Daisy Edgar-Jones, best known for the television mini-series Normal People (2020) does wonders with a difficult role, never playing the sympathy card. It’s always a delight to see a veteran like David Strathairn (Nomadland, 2020) get his teeth into a meaty role. And it’s refreshing to see neither of the young men, Taylor John Smith (Blacklight, 2022) and  British actor Harris Dickinson (The King’s Man, 2021) favoring the grandstanding approach, delivering largely subtle performances.

Restrained performances too from Sterling Macer Jr. (Double Down, 2020) and Michael Hyatt (The Little Things, 2021) while Garret Dillahunt (Ambulance, 2022) continues to do admirable work.

Most credit goes to Olivia Newman (First Match, 2018) for creating a fascinating well-paced picture that allows the actors to breathe and refuses to fall into the trap of delivering a bloated adaptation of a bestseller. And in part this is down to calling in for screenplay duty Lucy Alibar, who has form in this area through Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012).

This has all the hallmarks of a classic sleeper.   

The Gray Man (2022) ** – Seen at the Cinema

I could have seen this for nothing on Netflix, but instead, hoping to do an action picture justice by seeing it on the  big screen, I shelled out my bucks for the privilege. Bourne Ripoff is as much as you need to know. Lazy writing with a bundle of the incongruities you can get away with within the MCU because as long as there’s the requisite action nobody bothers too much about logic.

Don’t be fooled into thinking this is John Wick gone wild. It’s many things gone wild, including a heap of overacting, and a pair of the biggest villainous klutzes you will ever come across. It’s vaguely redeemed by an explosions/ shootout/ tram chase in Vienna but that’s only enough to shift it up from one-star to two. And it’s a shame because Ryan Gosling (First Man, 2018) in his first movie for four years is a believable tough guy in the Bourne tradition and Ana de Armas delivers on the action chops she displayed in No Time to Die (2021).

A poster straight out of the Joseph E. Levine playbook. He used to dream up these kind of posters which characters were assigned titles that bore no resemblance to the part they played on screen.

It should be an action romp, but instead it’s a mess. A C.I.A. black ops unit – inventively called the gray department – is hiring convicted killers to knock off anyone they want. Six (Ryan Gosling) got jailed for an insane amount of time, would you believe (nope!) for, as a teenager, killing his dad who was domestically abusing both his sons (trying to drown Six, for example). Six’s latest mission is to kill a guy who turns out to be an assassin in the same line of work but who is blackmailing C.I.A. boss Carmichael (Rege-Jean Page).

There’s nothing cool about Carmichael, he throws coffee at windows when he’s cross, and that sets an awfully bad example because his underling Suzanne (Jessica Henwick) is also prone to getting very cross. But that’s nothing compared to complete nutjob Lloyd (Chris Evans) who enjoys a bit of torture and gives psychopaths a bad name, but if I got this right attended Harvard with Carmichael so that’s okay then. Lloyd is hired to kill Six because he knows too much. And Lloyd calls in other assassins.

Now we’ve had that template in Bourne so what’s going to make it different? I know, let’s ramp it up. Instead of individual assassins, who might display some kind of finesse, let’s have teams of rampaging assassins. You can’t really wreck Vienna with just an assassin or two, you need a whole army.

Danush (Avik San) is an unusual assassin in that he operates on his own, not needing a huge team, but he is also cursed by – remember he’s a ruthless assassin – being suddenly conscience-stricken.

Oh, I forgot to mention Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton), the guy who sprung Six from jail but is now retired. Luckily, he happens to have a young niece Claire (Julia Butters). And that comes in handy when Lloyd needs to bring him to heel – and can kidnap the girl. But wait, two years before, Six was assigned to protect Claire and saved her life twice.

Twice? Yep, once from assassination and once when he rushed her to hospital after something went wrong with her pacemaker. Yep, she has some terrible heart disease. But not enough apparently to prevent her being the world’s pacemaker poster girl. Guess what? She can race along the top of a castle and jump 100 feet off a castle wall into a moat.

After being blame-shamed by Carmichael, Six’s C.I.A. sidekick Dani (Ana de Armas) switches sides to help him and can be counted on to turn up to shoot darts at Lloyd and appear with a fast car in time to save Six from assassins on the aforesaid tram. But she’s one of the victims of the lazy writing. She has two clear chances to save the day by marksmanship and fails each time. The first excuse is just so dumb. Thrown a sharpshooting rifle by Six, she discovers this comes minus ammunition. “Never throw a loaded gun,” must be one of the stupidest lines ever written, a lame joke that clearly makes reference to No Time to Die. Armed with another sharpshooting device and with clear line of sight on Lloyd, for reasons that are never made clear she doesn’t shoot.

Did I mention that Six is the kind of tough guy who, armed with little more than a penknife, can saw through a water pipe because the directors want to do some kind of riff on Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014) or that this this is the thriller version of If It’s Tuesday It Must Be Belgium (1969) with a different country about every ten minutes. And if people aren’t losing digits, it’s fingernails.

Ryan Gosling and Ana de Armas come out of this well but Chris Evans (Avengers: Infinity War, 2018), with a Tom Selleck moustache, is just awful, a joke villain, the only surprise being he doesn’t twirl said moustache. It’s almost as if he’s doing his utmost to make people forget he was ever Captain Marvel, but this is to the utmost and beyond. Stick to Bridgerton would be my advice to Rege-Jean Page. Billy Bob Thornton (Bad Santa 2, 2016) plays one of his more restrained characters.

The Russo Brothers (Avengers: Infinity War) throw every trick in the book at the movie without starting from the obvious point – a decent script.

Thor (2022) **** – Seen at the Cinema

It was time someone took the piss out of the MCU. Just as well Marvel decided to do it for themselves. The result is a hoot.

Finding gainful employment for the universe’s dumbest superhero is no joke, but in a welter of visual and verbal gags the studio celebrates his stupidity. I was laughing from the outset and I didn’t stop and from the mad recaps to the giant goats, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) treating his weapons as if they had the power to upset him, his ignorance of the devastation he wreaks, and non-PC references to orgies and the size of his manhood, the inevitable Marvel save-the-world plot takes second place to humor.

Asgard has been turned into a tourist attraction, terrible actors perform sagas in tacky productions to entertain visitors, until Gorr (Christian Bale) the god-killer, having been allocated in normal mysterious fashion and in Excalibur-style the Necrosword, comes calling, kidnapping children, packing them off to the Shadow Realm as a means of luring Thor. Fortunately, lost love Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), unfortunately dying of cancer, reappears in his life, though, on the debit side, she steals his hammer, causing him to turn to his axe. There’s hammer hocus-pocus, the usual lengthy daft exposition, but that’s offset by Thor, sensitive soul that he is, feeling he has to woo the discarded axe.

Also recruited are Asgard king Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and stone-man Korg. First port of call, naturally, is Omnipotence City where all the top gods hang out, including Zeus (Russell Crowe), the top god of all. Unwilling to help them out when there are delectable maidens hanging on his every word and orgies to enjoy, Zeus foolishly picks a fight and loses his lightning bolt.

But that’s enough of the madcap fun. Now it gets serious in the usual annoying way, redemption and its alter-ego sacrifice required at every turn, as you try to keep up with the new ideas suddenly introduced, the Bifrost and Eternity, and have to remind yourself of the rules regarding the axe and sword and the various pitfalls awaiting the characters. But the first half has given the movie sufficient energy to woosh you through the second half.

I’m not sure of The Avengers recruitment policy and how Thor ever fitted in and it’s just as well his cohorts in this adventure, part of the way at least, are the equally demented Guardians of the Galaxy phalanx led by the vain and vainglorious Star Lord (Chris Pratt). I always felt the rest of the MCU mob, albeit they occasionally deliver a good quip or two, were just too serious a bunch, what with all the saving-the-universe-and-beyond malarkey whereas Thor and Star Lord are blood brothers, daft specimens, useless at romance and anything serious, good for nothing except a good scrap.

There are a whole bunch of stand-out comic scenes – Thor looking to Star Lord of all people for advice on matters of the heart, the goats leading the space craft crash-landing into a planet. Admittedly, excepting the serious bits at the end, this is far more light-hearted than anything else in the MCU and thankfully sticking to the one universe rather than the multi-universe departures of late.

Chris Hemsworth (Thor: Ragnarok, 2017) as usual is superb, just the right bombast and imbecility coupled with vulnerability and sweetness, his clipped delivery at odds with his befuddlement, his eve-of-battle speeches would have Churchill turning in his grave. But Russell Crowe (Unhinged, 2020), with his mangled Greek accent, matches him in the dumb stakes. Natalie Portman (Lucy in the Sky, 2019) makes a welcome return and Tessa Thompson (Passing, 2021) proves a good side-kick to both. Christian Bale (Ford vs. Ferrari, 2019) bring his malevolent A-game as a memorable villain. Watch out for cameos from Matt Damon (The Last Duel, 2021), Melissa McCarthy (Superintelligence, 2020), Luke Hemsworth (Death of Me, 2020) and Sam Neill (Jurassic World: Dominion, 2022).

Director Taika Waitiki (Thor: Ragnarok , who also voices Korg, does a quite brilliant job of combining action and comedy. He also takes credit for the screenplay along with Jennifer Kaytin Robinson (Unpregnant, 2020).

The Black Phone (2022) **** – Seen at the Cinema

Most original horror film since Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) and sharing that film’s ability to throw the audience off guard by constantly twisting expectations and slowly taking its time to reach an incredible denouement. Be warned, though, it is about child abuse and some of the scenes come down to the knuckle. But it is also, surprisingly, a coming-of-age picture.  

In 1978 in a Denver suburb, Finney (Mason Thames) and younger sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) live with widowed alcoholic father  (Jeremy Davies), prone to beating his kids with a belt. Although bullied by classmates, Finney always picks himself up. Gwen has dreams which may be real – her mother committed suicide after similar visions.

When Finney becomes the latest victim of masked serial child kidnapper The Grabber (Ethan Hawke) he finds himself trapped in a basement, empty except for a mattress and a phone that doesn’t work. The cops are baffled. Gwen attempts to reach her brother through dreams. When the phone mysteriously does ring it’s always one of the Grabber’s five previous victims offering practical escape advice. At the top of the stairs a half-naked masked Grabber sits in a chair gripping a leather belt waiting for his captive to become “naughty” so he can be punished.

I’m going to be in spoiler alert country if I tell you anymore but if you’ve seen the trailer be aware that’s far from the whole story. Part of what makes this so good is how realistic is the portrayal of the kids and the venal world they inhabit. They have no defence against the brutal father and in some respects expect adults to behave in horrific fashion. A boy who Finney helps with schoolwork acts as his protector but when he is kidnapped the bullies take revenge, handing out a bloody beating. Although brother and sister are close, there are few limits to their teasing. And Gwen has the lip of an adult in taking on a couple of unwary cops.

All the time you are left guessing. Is the Grabber behind the phone calls? Is it another of his elaborate games? Does he intend to offer escape, only to snatch it away? Can Gwen summon up spirits at will or will she flounder helplessly trying to save her brother. And if he disappears for ever, what prospect could be worse than living with her awful dad? Have the snippy cops got any leads at all? The father’s not out helping the hunt for his boy, so it possible he’s involved, especially since he wields a belt similar to the killer? Is Max, the visitor from out of state, possibly the killer, even though he appears to be a harmless cocaine-sniffing conspiracy nut?

And if five previous victims are gone, presumed dead, what chance has Finney, a vulnerable kid if ever? His protector was a very tough kid, one capable of beating a bully to a pulp, and if he can’t survive the kidnapping what chance does Finney have?

Over it all is the malevolent presence of the Grabber who wears two-piece masks (with devilish horns and long chin) that show different parts of his face but never the whole, who sometimes just sounds like a guy who has lost his way and means no real harm, if only he could sort out what’s gone wrong.  His kidnapping ploy is to drop his shopping on the sidewalk and hope a nice kid is going to help, especially as he is a magician with a stack of black balloons, the kind of conjurer who might appeal to an edgy teenager who thinks The Texas Chainsaw Massacre the greatest film ever made.

Jump-out-of-your-seat shocks are few but this is a rare horror movie that has little reliance on such tricks. Tension is maintained with magnificent ease.

Mason Thames (Walker TV series 2021) and Madeleine McGraw (Secrets of Sulphur Springs, 2021-2022) are terrific as the kids, not putting a foot wrong as they move in the sometimes inexplicable adult world, but sharpening their teeth on vicious childhood. Sure the mask does a lot for Ethan Hawkes (The Northman, 2022) but his voice and his movements do the rest and this is a bold part to take on, way out of his comfort zone. Jeremy Davies (The House That Jack Built, 2018) is every bit as creepy.

While Scott Derrickson has dipped his foot into horror (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, 2005.) and for that matter the supernatural (Doctor Strange, 2016) before, he has never done so with such distinction, reining in the shocks in favour of escalating tension, never shifting focus away from the kids. He co-wrote the screenplay with Doctor Strange collaborator Robert Cargill based on the short story by Joe Hill (Horns, 2013).

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