Friday, May 24, 2024


My two stars for THE FALL GUY are a weighted average of 90 minutes of flaccid, obvious, juvenile action-romance followed by 30 minutes of a super-fun sparky high-stakes romantic comedy. The difference? In the final 30 minutes of the film its stars Ryan Gosling (BARBIE) and Emily Blunt (A QUIET PLACE) are actually on screen together, in on the plan together, MacGuivering a trap for the Bad Guy, and vibing of each other. The two actors are superfun and have real chemistry. The problem is that this film contrives to have them at odds with each other for most of its running time.

Gosling stars as stunt man Colt Seavers who doubles for douchebag superstar Tom Ryder, clearly based upon Tom Cruise, and played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson (KICKASS).  When the star disappears from the set of his latest blockbuster, which happens to be directed by Seavers' old flame and debut director Jody (Blunt), her agent Gail (Hannah Waddingham - Ted Lasso) persuades Colt to go find the star and save the film. Crucially for some reason Colt has to do this without telling Jody. And this is what separates them for the majority of the film.

I dunno. I just didn't vibe with this film. The humour didn't catch fire for me. The meta jokes about action films and Hollywood and the 1980s, which is totally my era, just felt forced and off.  The action sequences from director David Leitch (DEADPOOL, ATOMIC BLONDE) never excited me. And the script from writer Drew Pearce (MI: ROGUE NATION) lacked any romantic fizz or genuine laughs. I feel Blunt and Gosling were doing all the heavy lifting, and it worked when they were allowed to get into it at the end of the film, but that was too late to save it for me.

THE FALL GUY is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 126 minutes. It is on global release. 


I am giving CHALLENGERS one star for Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' occasionally superb electronic soundtrack and a further star for cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom's cheeky tennis ball POV shot. Otherwise CHALLENGERS is a damp squib of an attempt at a sexy adult relationship drama, replete with hammy dialogue and superficial characaterisation.

All of which is a shame for the multi-talented star Zendaya, who was using the film to rebadge herself from being a Disney child star to a serious actor.  The weird thing is that I am not sure anyone apart from Zendaya thinks she's pigeonholed in that way.  A brave, vulnerable performance in Euphoria put paid to peppy, pretty Zendaya the teen star.  And Sam Levinson's MALCOLM & MARIE gave her a role in an actually fully fleshed out proper adult relationship, playing opposite John David Washington.  Now that was a toxic relationship shown in all its gnarly and credible glory!

So back to CHALLENGERS.  The person responsible for this ludicrously melodramatic film is debut feature screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes.  No-one in a real relationship has ever spoken in the way that his characters speak.  Watching this felt like watching a Bollywood movie or 1980s soap opera. As a result, the relationships aren't credible and the characters struggle to capture one's attention or sympathy.  To be sure, the film tries hard to camouflage its superficiality with tricksy camera shots and a non-linear narrative. But unpick the flash and there's nothing there.

Zendaya "stars" as junior Tennis ace Tashi whose career is cruelly ended with a brutal knee injury.  She vicariously lives her career by coaching her successful husband Art (Mike Faist) but they have little sexual chemistry.  He hits a bump in confidence and she enters him in a challenger tournament to get some court time, at which point they both run into Patrick (Josh O'Connor - MOTHERING SUNDAY- a washed-up former peer and lover of Tashi and potentially Art.

The irony is that this is meant to be Zendaya's first headline film, and she has been the star of the red carpet promoting it.  But when you watch the film you realise that she's just the tennis ball that Art and Patrick are playing with. The film is ACTUALLY one about homosocial and potentially homosexual love. The climax thus has actually nothing to do with Tashi at all, but both players falling into each other over the tennis net. Poor Zendaya. She isn't even centred in her own film.

I am coming to the slow realisation that I do not like director Luca Guadagnino's films. But they appear to be critical darlings, certainly since he came to global recognition with CALL ME BY YOUR NAME. I just don't get the hype.

CHALLENGERS is rated R and has a 131 minute running time. It is on global release.

Sunday, May 05, 2024



Sanjay Leela Bhansali is an Indian auteur who specialises in lavish, big-budget costume dramas that feature stunning women in beautiful outfits singing heart-rending songs that Bhansali also writes. He is the Indian director as indulgent maximalist, though without the stunning landscapes of, say, a David Lean. Rather, Bhansali's control extends to creating huge sets in which his dramas are encased, lending them a claustrophobic, artificial air that often matches their narrative themes. This is nowhere more true than in his first TV series, HEERAMANDI.

Heeramandi may translate literally as The Diamond Bazaar, but subcontinental viewers will know it as the name of the red light district of Lahore, now in post-partition Pakistan.  But western viewers should banish any image of streetwalkers and take Geisha culture as their context. The madams of these opulent brothels train young girls in classical poetry, dance and music in order to seduce long-term aristocratic patrons or Nawabs. As such they form a triad of dependence with those Nawabs and the ruling British.  The Nawabs support the British because the British guarantee their lavish lifestyle and privilege relative to ordinary Indians.  And in turn the Nawabs financially support the courtesans of Heeramandi.  

The great irony of the series is that while the courtesans become politicised, they are essentially ending their own profession. Without the British there will be no Nawabs or patrons, and we know from history that many of these artists did end up as common prostitutes to survive. The gilded cage may be brutal - love cannot guarantee escape, and these woman are effectively slaves - but perhaps that is safer than life beyond it.

The series takes place in the 1920s and its two warring protagonists mark the contrast between tradition and modernity. Manisha Koirala (DIL SE...) is stunningly cruel as the traditional madam, Mallikajaan. She is a supremely successful businesswoman precisely because she rejects all sentimentality, even when it comes to her own family. Her antagonist is Fareedajaan, played by DABANG's Sonakshi Sinha. Sinha is very much a creature of the 1920s in her dress, hairstyle and even how she entertains, with cocktail parties rather than mujhras. Both actresses deliver outsized, high camp performances as selfish and successful woman, exploiting Nawabs, the British and their own family members alike. 

The tragedy plays itself out with the younger generation of courtesans. Richa Chadha (GANGS OF WASSEYPUR) is heartbreaking as Lajjo, a courtesan betrayed by her patron and self-medicating with alcohol and delusion. The role of the heartbroken and betrayed courtesan is a trope in Indian cinema, and Bhansali's exploits the viewers' familiarity with it to add layers of pathos. 

And then there is the political awakening of Bibbojaan (Aditi Rao Hydari) who uses her training in seducing men to provide information for the revolutionaries and ends up echoing the iconography of Nargis in Mehboob Khan's MOTHER INDIA.

Where the show is weaker is in its love story. Bhansali's niece Sharmin Segal is a lacklustre screen presence as the thinly written poetess Alamzeb.  Her love story with the Nawab's nephew is rather feeble and by the numbers.  Similarly, the British characters are all caricature baddies.  Characters become political and bury hatchets on a whim.  But all this can be forgiven as we gaze at the stunning outfits and puzzle over the inherent tension between the self-titled "Queens" of Lahore exerting power within their gilded cage, but ultimately being brutalised by the system they claim to run.

HEERAMANDI: THE DIAMOND BAZAAR was released on Netflix on May 1st.

Saturday, April 13, 2024


CIVIL WAR is a film that is politically, visually and aurally challenging. It is vital, important and politically astute.  I think a lot of criticism that's been thrown at it about being apoliticalis unfair and I'll get into why.  But most of all this is a film that sits with you - that moves you - that provokes you to thought and also features one of the most hilarious drop tracks of De La Soul's Say No Go! What more can you want from a film?

CIVIL WAR has been written and directed by Alex Garland who started off as a novelist with The Beach and then moved into writing for film and then directing. He created the amazing TV show Devs and actually a lot of the cast from that reappear in this film. He has come to represent one of the most thoughtful voices about the real structural challenges facing us as a species which I can't believe I'm saying because it sounds so pretentious! But films like EX MACHINA and 28 DAYS LATER challenge what it is to be human and a morally centred being. And now with CIVIL WAR he is tackling head on political divisiveness and everything about the current times in which we live that pit person against person, identity against identity, and tribe against tribe.

In its structure, this movie it is a road movie.  It's four journalists in a car going from New York to Washington DC. It stars Kirsten Dunst as Lee Miller, named after the real life journo who was first into Dachau. This is referenced in the film so Alex Garland is being very explicit about his references. I also think the character is based on the late Marie Colvin.  Lee is accompanied by Joel who's played by Wagner Moura of Narcos fame. He is charismatic and a really good counterbalance to Kirsten Dunst's Lee who is  held together tightly as if all her trauma might spill out if she cracks a smile. Lee and Joel have two interlopers in the car. First, we have have Sammy played by Steven McKinley Henderson. He'll be known to you if you watch Devs. He is an old school reporter and it's implied that he worked or still does work for the New York Times. He doesn't think they should be going to DC but he also wants that story. Lee and Joel are also accompanied by a very young aspiring photo journalist who kind of blags a ride. She is called Jesse and is played by Cailee Spaeny, who recently played Priscilla Presley in Sophia Coppola's biopic.  

In a sense the Journey of the film is twofold.  We're going from New York to DC to see what hell is happening in America but also I think that there's a message about generation Z having to confront the reality of what is happening and get blooded into war. There is a tragic mantel being handed from Lee to Jessie - a toughening up and a hardening and a locking down of emotion. I have seen some people criticize the character of Jessie and I would say the only flaw I find in this film is the final interaction between the two photo journalists. I'm not going to say more for fear of spoiling it but I think I would have maybe played that slightly differently or written it differently.

Our four journalists start off in a New York that is having power cuts and where there are violent protests and suicide bombers. As they journey down to DC they've got to skirt around Philadelphia to somehow get to DC which is the front line of the Civil War then as now.  They're seeing an America that's ravaged and where armed militia have taken the breakdown in institutional authority as an opening to wield their own authority.  

Nowhere is that more chillingly conveyed than in a short cameo by Jesse Plemons, who of course is the real life husband of Kirsten Dunst. He has a very small role to play but it's absolutely I think the the philosophical and political heart of this film. He asks a question of each of our journalists: "what kind of Americans are you?" I think that to me is the line of the film because it hints at the fact that it's no longer enough to say you're an American.  You have to say if you are a progressive or a Republican or a Mega supporter or a whatever it is - whatever label - whatever qualifier.  This is the problem that leads to the War, and I would bet you money this scene comes half way through the film.

The political setup of this film has caused a lot of controversy and I don't really understand why. There is a president of the United States and it is not ambiguous at all: this guy is a fascist! How do we know? He serving his third term and we know that's illegal under the Constitution right. We know he's abolished the FBI. We know he has ordered the Army to shoot on American citizens. So this guy's a Fascist and later on when they're talking about potentially getting an interview with him Sammy who's the older journalist says you know these these dictators always disappoint you when you meet them - Ceaucescu, Gaddafi et al - when you meet them in the flesh they are smaller men than you think they're going to be so he's clearly bracketing the President in that category.

What is I think troubling to some people is that the people fighting this fascist takeover or the two states of the Western Forces are Texas and California that's blowing people's minds right because you have what's perceived to be a very right-wing State and a very left-wing State joining forces in this film.  But you've got to free yourself from your contemporary politics and you've just got to see this is the way the film's going to position itself so as to speak to both sides of the aisle.  Moreover, the film is making a point about how people abuse military power. We see the official United States Army massacring civilians but we also see individual militia committing extra-judicial murder and lynchings and even the liberating WF army is shooting unarmed civilians. So  I think there is a message there about how invading forces act and maybe it's a commentary on what Imperial forces have done throughout history but I think the message that Alex Garland is going is giving in this film is they're but for the grace of God. I think he's making a point that however this fascism begins and whichever of the states comes together to fight against it it's going to unleash the worst of us.

I cannot speak highly enough of this film. I think it's beautifully shot and beautifully acted.  I would love to see Kirsten dun and Jesse Plemons up for awards.  I think it packs an emotional punch.  I think there are images that are just haunting and I really hope it serves to tell its audience on both sides of the political aisle "look where this leads if we don't find some kind of common ground and some kind of ability to talk through our differences in a civil manner (pun intended) as opposed to splitting into identitarian tribes where one side's good one side's evil and and conversations impossible and we are only left with the most extreme options this is film making at its finest and I hope it gets the audience it deserves."

Civil War is rated R it has running time of 109 minutes it it is currently on release in the UK and the USA. It is no coincidence that it's been released on April 12th - 13th - the anniversary of the Battle of Fort Sumter in 1861 and the start of the US Civil War.


Marisa Abella (Industry) delivers a stunning central performance as Amy Winehouse in this new biopic of the singer. She captures Amy's caustic wit, her physical mannerisms, and most impressively, her spoken and singing voice.  Director Sam Taylor-Wood (NOWHERE BOY) tackles the audience's apprehension head on in an opening scene showing Winehouse's Jewish parental family singing together. Abela freestyles Fly Me To The Moon and the audience relaxes, safe in the knowledge that Abela's Amy is spot on. Her Amy is straightforward to the point of rudeness, full of energy and sheer talent. But also troubled way before she meets her much vilified husband Blake Fielder-Civil. She is already bulimic and alcohol dependent with a self-acknowledged streak of self-sabotage, particularly when it comes to men. This is something that Matt Greenhalgh's script, using her own lyrics, explores from the first scenes.

About forty minutes into the film, Amy's first album has been a breakout success but she has been told to restyle herself for America. This plays into all of the insecurities that have fed into her self-abuse. And at that moment we meet Jack O'Connell (UNBROKEN) as Blake Fielder-Civil. He is charming and fun and has a deep knowledge of music over which he and Amy can bond. It's another powerhouse performance. There's an immediate spark and we are swept up in young, heedless romance.  According to this version of the story, it was a genuine love affair on both sides at first, and while he was already using Class A drugs she stuck "only" to alcohol and weed. It's only when they reunite after a break-up that he was motivated more by her fame and money and ability to fund his smack habit.  Once inside prison, he cleans up and realises what's obvious to the rest of us - that this is a desperately toxic codependent relationship with competitive self-harm. He wants to break free. Fair enough. But it breaks Amy in the process.

Needless to say, this is a more nuanced and sympathetic portrait of Fielder-Civil than we got from contemporary news reports, or from Asif Kapadia's superb 2015 documentary AMY. My only criticism of Kapadia is that he often creates pantomime villains in his films - whether Alain Prost in SENNA or Fielder-Civil and Mitch Winehouse in AMY.  Greenhalgh and Taylor-Wood may have swung the pendulum back too far in BACK TO BLACK but I really appreciate the attempt to treat humans as flawed real people. And we have to remember that Fielder-Civil was also a young man and an addict at the time. 

The whitewashing of Mitch Winehouse, played by the innately sympathetic Eddie Marsan, is probably going to be even more controversial.  In this film, he is portrayed as an indulgent father who is totally out of his depth when it comes to Amy's addictions. This kind of tracks with Amy's mother saying, in Kapadia's documentary, that when Amy told them about her bulimia they just kind of ignored it and hoped it would pass. We don't see the avaricious exploitative father of Kapadia's doc at all.

But let's not be fooled into thinking this film is a whitewashing of the brutality of addiction and bulimia.  Amy's descent into full blown class A drug addiction is shown explicitly, but never exploitatively. We see her ability to go clean for periods, but that she is, in the scripts words, always on edge, so that it doesn't take much to push her over. In this film, it's always heartbreak that does it - whether Fielder-Civil leaving her, or her inability to get pregnant and have the stable family life she craved.  The narrative is convincing, and Abela's central performance is heartbreaking.  I love that we spent so much time with Amy and her beloved Nan (Leslie Manville) and saw that Amy's heart was rooted in jazz. I felt I had an understanding of her deep familial musical heritage that I didn't get from Kapadia's doc.  And this is, I think, one of the most important things that we need to know about her.

BACK TO BLACK is rated R and has a running time of 122 minutes. It went on release in the UK today and goes on release in the USA on May 17th.

Thursday, April 04, 2024



I absolutely adore Patricia Highsmith's Ripley novels. They are slippery and subversive and dark and dangerous and about the best crime procedurals you can read. I have also loved many of the iterations by which Ripley has found himself on the big screen, from PLEIN SOLEIL to RIPLEY'S GAME and Anthony Minghella's superlative TALENTED MR RIPLEY.

When I first heard that Andrew Scott (ALL OF US STRANGERS) was cast as Ripley I was excited but I assumed that this would be an adaptation of one of the later books when Ripley was older. I was shocked to discover that this was actually an adaptation of the source novel where the characters are meant to be in their twenties. Johnny Flynn's Dickie is also in his forties.  The problem is that this makes the concept of the book seem ... well ... odd. Dickie Greenleaf dodging his responsibilities on a kind of extended gap year in Italy feels right for pretty young things but doesn't quite work for middle-aged men.  And thanks to Zaillian's choice to go for black and white photography, life in Italy never feels beautiful and lush and seductive. Rather, we start off in a world that is decaying and deserted and rather drab.  It's hard to see what in Dickie and Marge's existence would be attractive to Tom. Their life doesn't feel particularly luxurious. And there's no sexual tension between Dickie and Tom, and certainly no apparent love for Dickie on Marge's part. It's just all so flat.

As we move into the second act, things pick up pace. The crime procedural has its own momentum. Whether it needs five episodes though, is doubtful.  We see the quality of Eliot Sumner as Freddie Miles in their pivotal scene with Tom.  A scene that is played very differently to how Philip Seymour Hoffman played it, but with no less menace.  The problem is that Eliot is a good fifteen years younger than Andrew Scott and seems to be in a totally different film.

So far so problematic, but where this adaptation totally loses it is in the final episode. We begin episode eight with a flashback to Caravaggio which is way too on the noise, and a clear case of a showrunner being given way too much running time to pad out. We also get a confrontation between the police inspector and Tom that's so literally incredible it destroyed any respect I had for this adaptation. Minghella's choice to have them never meet was the more elegant solution.

RIPLEY was released on Netflix today.

Monday, March 25, 2024


Millie Bobby Brown (Stranger Things) returns to our small screens with a rather disappointing Young Adult-aimed feminist fairy tale. I really loved the wit and pace of MBB's ENOLA HOLMES, but this film lacks any kind of energy or pace.  It also suffers from the fact that the heroine basically has to do her escape journey not once but twice, the first time saving her own skin from a dragon, and the second time saving her little sister.

MBB plays earnest, resourceful Princess Elodie, who agrees to an arranged marriage with a Prince from a far richer kingdom to save her own people.  Problem is, that kingdom is sacrificing Princesses to assuage the vengeful nature of an evil dragon. As Elodie finds herself thrown into a dragon pit slash cave system she realises just how many young women have been thrown to their fate before her. And thanks to their wall-carved advice, she somehow manages to escape and get her own revenge.

The message of this film is admirable. No handsome Prince is coming to rescue you. The sisterhood will save you. Maybe the vengeful dragon is just hurting too. Maybe the wicked stepmother is actually wonderfully protective. Maybe the beautiful blonde Queen is the real villain.

It's just a shame that the earnest good message and MBB's high-energy performance is tethered to Dan Mazeau (FAST X)'s extremely thin and repetitive script.  I had also expected more from pace and invention from genre director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (28 WEEKS LATER).

DAMSEL is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 110 minutes. It was released on Netflix a few weeks ago.


Writer-director John Ridley (12 YEARS A SLAVE) has created a straightforward but nonetheless important biopic of the pathbreaking American politician Shirley Chisholm. It features a powerhouse performance by Regina King (IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK), ably supported by Terrence Howard (HUSTLE & FLOW) and Lance Reddick (The Wire).

Regina's Shirley is a self-motivated, powerful, centred, charismatic woman who fills every inch of the screen. It's testament to both the real woman and the performance that we somehow believe in her chances to take the Democratic nomination for the 1972 Presidential election. Those of us who know our US political history know that this battle was in some ways beside the point, because Nixon would go on to win in a landslide and probably would've done whoever the Dems put up against him. BUT Shirley's career importance is so much more than the immediate campaign or the proximate goal. She was the first black woman to be successful and visible on the political stage at a time when it was dominated by white men. She inspired a next generation of activist politicians. You don't get AOC without Shirley.

This film efficiently essays what Shirley was up against. The scepticism of her own Party - a lack of finances - opposition even from black MALE political leaders. Seeing her up against the DNC machine makes one think of how the cards were stacked against Bernie Sanders, or how somehow Biden remains on the ticket this year. 

But I guess in a way that's my criticism of the film. It's just all so efficient and competently made. There is no kinetic passion of the kind that MUST have propelled Shirley to continue against insurmountable odds. I guess I wanted a more imaginative freer hand at the helm of this film. But maybe the material is so important that is stifles that creative freedom.

SHIRLEY has a running time of 117 minutes and is rated PG-13.

ROAD HOUSE (2024)**

The original 1989 ROADHOUSE is an iconic grungy sexy action movie starring Patrick Swayze at his hottest, and I have no idea why one would want to remake movie perfection.  This remake seems keen to distance itself ironically from its predecessor - it's a ROAD HOUSE that's on an island and accessible by boat - geddit?!  That lame joke just about sums up the level of scripting and intelligence this film is operating with. 

Jake Gyllenhaal takes the lead role as the buff but damaged loner with a talent for breaking up rowdy fights.  He just doesn't have any charm or charisma, so why would one root for him? Talented comedienne Jessica Williams is wasted as the bar owner trying to save the Road House from evil capitalist property developers. And Conor McGregor - well let's just say I have views about director Doug Liman (BOURNE) giving a platform to a UFC fighter that has had many accusations of sexual assault thrown at him.

The resulting film features a lot of decent music played behind a cage while well-choreographed fight scenes are played out.  I didn't care. I didn't enjoy it. And I don't know why it exists. 

ROAD HOUSE is rated R and has a running time of 121 minutes. It played SXSW and is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.


New York, 2003. A tough cynical loner paramedic resents her dead mother for conducting dangerous experiments in South America while pregnant, so dying in childbirth. After an accident, the loner discovers she can see into the future and so prevent bad stuff happening. She also finds herself taking care of three young women who are being stalked by an evil villain in a spider suit. He's also had a vision that these wastrels are gonna kill him in the future. Meanwhile, our heroine's best friend and fellow paramedic Ben Parker's sister-in-law is about to go into labour.

The well known problem with MADAME WEB is that 15 years into the Marvel revolution nobody gives a shit. Dakota Johnson - whose low-key low-energy style suits many an indie film - definitely doesn't give a shit about a lead role she is miscast in. Tahar Rahim (NAPOLEON) and Zosia Mamet (Girls) is wasted as the baddie.  The three young women are given underwritten parts that are just a bag of tropes. Spoiled rich brat, nerdy shy girl etc. The action scenes from first-time feature director S J Clarkson are uninspired. The prologue is unnecessary. And the script is overlong with too many establishing examples of how being pre-cog works. The final shot features a now blind and paraplegic Madame Web hovering, masked, with her three proteges. It's a flash forward to a film nobody wants to see. 

MADAME WEB is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 113 minutes. It is on global release.


Director Reinaldo Marcus Green (KING RICHARD) returns to our screens with a biopic that is limp and uninspired. I am not sure how you make a film such a boring film about a musician as talented as Bob Marley, let alone a musician as mired in the violence of his native Jamaica. It is even more disappointing when you realise that the film was written by iconic show runner Terence Winter (The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET). The result is a Tab A into Slot B film that portrays Bob as a naive hapless fool and martyr who pumped out a classic album before succumbing to cancer. To be honest, I was relieved when he died. I came out none the wiser as to the political violence that forced Bob to flee Jamaica for England. And I was certainly not allowed to see the darker side of Bob's personality. This film is weak sauce hagiography. And while Kingsley Ben-Adir (Malcolm X in ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI) does a decent enough physical and verbal impression of Bob it just all feels very superficial and performative. 

BOB MARLEY: ONE LOVE has a running time of 117 minutes and is rated PG-13. It went on global release last month.

Thursday, March 21, 2024


British writer-director Rose Glass (ST MAUD) returns to our screen with a Tarantino-esque GRINDHOUSE movie where romance and violence sit together in a film in which earnest emotions, comic-book stylings and laugh-out-loud absurdism sit uneasily together. For me, the film was less than the sum of its parts, but there's no doubt that the BFI Flare crowd loved it, laughing uproariously throughout. My question is whether they were laughing at, or with, a film that seemed to waste Kristen Stewart's earnest performance.

Stewart stars as Lou - a gay woman who works at a gym in a dusty desert border town seemingly run by her gun-running badass father (Ed Harris in comedy hair extensions). Lou only sticks around to protect her sister (Jena Malone) from her abusive husband. This doesn't sit well with Lou's new lover Jackie (Katy O'Brian), who dreams of winning a body building championship in Vegas and driving to the coast with Lou for a new life. 

What could've been a deeply felt emotionally intense relationship drama becomes a nasty little crime movie when Jackie goes Hulk-Smash on Lou's scumbag brother-in-law and we discover Lou's talent for cleaning up murders. I love a grungy scuzzy crime caper, but what made this a bit frustrating is that I was being asked to take the central relationship with Hulk seriously. It felt like every tonal shift was pinging me about and what was so bad it's good finally just became it's bad.

LOVE LIES BLEEDING has a running time of 104 minutes and is rated R. It played Berlin, Sundance and BFI Flare 2024 and is currently on release in the USA. It opens in the UK on April 19th.


Stephen Sourcy has directed the definitive documentary of the iconic and important film-making collective known as Merchant Ivory. It might be best known to audiences for Oscar-winning costume dramas like A ROOM WITH A VIEW and REMAINS OF THE DAY, but the body of work is so much more expansive, impressive and influential than that. Merchant Ivory began making contemporary films in post-independence India that captured something of the life of diverse creatives in that era.  Only later did they turn to adapting Henry James and EM Forster, earning their reputation for handsomely filmed costume drama. Even after that, they made films set in contemporary New York. And most recently, for a younger generation, James Ivory finally earned his Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for CALL ME BY YOUR NAME.

The collective met entirely by chance. James Ivory was a young Waspy American who longed to create theatre productions, and almost fell into film directing on the side. He met Ismael Merchant, a young muslim Indian in New York, and they became lovers and collaborators.  Ivory directed, Merchant produced. Ivory had a meticulous eye for detail and gave actors room to breathe. Merchant had a knack of charming and cajoling people for money to create movies that looked luxurious on a shoestring budget.

Over the years they added to their film-making family. First came Ruth Prawer Jhabwala, a German jew who had escaped to England, married a persian Indian and become a writer of great renown in her own right. She gave Merchant Ivory her ability to write screenplays of piercing insight and subtle sedition. The last of the quartet was the composer Richard Robbins, who at some point became Ismael's lover too - a relationship that James likens to a muslim man taking on a second wife. 

Of course, for decades the fact that this powerhouse director-producer couple were an actual couple was not discussed publicly. It was the screenwriting equivalent of "Don't ask, don't tell" to protect conservative families and presumably career prospects too. And yet, behind all of this, Ivory claims he never felt any shame at being gay, and on the back of the wild success of A ROOM WITH A VIEW, they tackled E.M. Forster's explicitly gay novel MAURICE. That was a desperately important film, made as was against the backdrop of the AIDS epidemic and the fierce conservative backlash against homosexuals.  

The documentary benefits from an insightful use of archival material as well as a plethora of new interviews. Helena Bonham Carter and Emma Thompson are the most fascinating and insightful of the actors, and Anthony Hopkins is notably absent. But I really loved hearing from people who were long time collaborators behind the lens - make-up and costume designers and others who describe beautifully the charm and frustration of working for no money - and the learning experience from James Ivory's exquisite taste.

So the film is admiring, but not hagiography. The strange nature of the core relationship is explored as much as Ivory will allow. The weird overlap of personal and professional is interrogated, as is the strangulation of Ismael's desire to live with Richard Robbins.  You sense there is a steel under the refinement of James Ivory. 

But ultimately, this is a laudatory and glorious film that not only revisits the iconic fan favourites but hopefully will guide them toward the full back catalogue. It made me want to revisit JEFFERSON IN PARIS, which the critics panned, but looks sumptuous now - like a Kubrick period piece. Overall, it made me appreciate the real genius and danger of their superficially beautiful films. Like Agatha Christie, who is often portrayed as writing twee, safe, puzzle books, Merchant Ivory films are far more slippery, dangerous things. They deserve revisiting.

MERCHANT IVORY played BFI Flare 2024 and will get a US release at some point this year. It has a running time of 112 minutes.

Saturday, March 09, 2024


Guy Ritchie comes to our TV screens with a series that is a highly satisfying greatest hits mash-up of his mockney gangster films, like LOCK, STOCK to SNATCH. All the classic Ritchie tropes are here. Colourful East End gangsters in well-cut tweed. Thick as mince posh boys snorting coke getting rinsed by aforementioned gangsters. A cool, smart, stunning woman at the  centre of it all. Vinnie Jones in a cameo role. Illegal boxing. Travellers. Ganga farms on country estates. And a handsome protagonist who spends most of his time sorting out other people's bullshit. Oh and let's not forget the plotting - so complex, so full of double-crosses - and yet all resolving beautifully in the final act.

The good news is that while this show is set in the same world as Ritchie's feature film of the same name, you don't have to have watched that to enjoy the TV show. It opens cold establishing the bona fides of our hero, Eddie Horniman. He's a British soldier serving with UN Peacekeepers - and his skill for refined violence and defraying anger are going to come in handy. Eddie is played with suave cool by Theo James, of White Lotus season two fame. James treats this is a James Bond audition and is highly convincing in the role. 

The action begins when Eddie's father dies, leaving his title and estate to Eddie rather than his feckless big brother Freddy. Turns out daddy was leasing out the estate to Bobby Glass (Ray Winstone) to grow industrial quantities of ganga, managed by Bobby's daughter Suzy (Kaya Scodelario). Oh, and Freddy is in hock to some mean Liverpudlian cocaine-dealers who funded his drug-induced gambling binge.  Meanwhile, Giancarlo Esposito plays a mega rich American dealer who is keen to take over the business, and Eddie just wants to clear his brother's debts and get his estate back.  The series arc is effectively the process of Eddie discovering that as much as he says he wants out, he's actually pretty good at being a gangster. 

I really enjoyed this show. The lavish country house settings are beautifully filmed. The characters are compelling, the costumes stunning and the music propels the action scenes. Ritchie knows exactly what he's doing with this material, and while the the tropes are familiar, it still felt fresh and I was genuinely struggling to figure out how it would all resolve. I absolutely loved the final final final twist and really hope we get a second season.

Of the performances, Daniel Ings is the break-out star, with an instantly iconic chicken scene - you'll know what I mean when you see it - at the end of the first episode. I was also pleasantly surprised to see Vinnie Jones deliver a modulated performance, rather than just playing a pastiche of his bad boy football persona. I can't believe I am saying this, but it's Jones who delivers the one genuinely emotional scene in the whole series. Kudos to him.

THE GENTLEMEN is an eight episode miniseries available on Netflix.

Tuesday, March 05, 2024


MARY & GEORGE is a sumptuously produced costume drama set in the court of King James I of England. Despite being known to most English schoolchildren as the sponsor of a new translation of the Bible, historical sources tell us that he was definitely homosocial and most likely bi- or homosexual.  In this retelling from D.C.Moore, based on a work of history by Benjamin Woolley, any ambiguity is eradicated. James was most definitely homosexual - able to sire children with his Danish Queen - but taking pleasure in a series of young beautiful men.

This gives our heroine Mary Beaumont her chance at societal advancement, wealth and power. Born a serving woman, by the time we meet her she has already successfully faked an aristocratic lineage and buried her first husband. She marries a country booby in order to maintain her children, and grooms her son George to seduce the King. That they both achieve great power and set up her descendants as those the Dukes of Buckingham is a testament to Mary's intelligence, ruthlessness and strategic brilliance. 

Iconic actress Julianne Moore (MAY DECEMBER) perfectly embodies this complex and ambiguous woman. She is no feminist - happily sacrificing a rich heiress to her mentally ill and violent younger son. But one cannot help but admire her resilience and resourcefulness in a world where she had no lineage and few legal rights. It is testament to Nicholas Galitzine (RED, WHITE & ROYAL BLUE) that he matches her beat for beat. When we first meet his George he is young, fragile and drifting. By the end he is out-strategising both his mother and the King. He remains compelling throughout. In smaller roles, I admired Tony Curran's ability to make James so much more complex and indeed admirable than just a "cockstruck" dilettante. I also very much liked Sean Gilder as Mary's new husband, and Nicola Walker gets all the best lines as the scabrous, independently wealthy Lady Harron.

The production design, costumes, music, and locations are all beautifully done. The show is a joy to watch, and as far as I can tell, the broad historical outlines are close to the real history. My only real criticism of the show is that it cannot maintain the brilliantly funny brutal comedy of its opening episodes and that once the Villiers get closer to power, a dark pall falls over the show.  I felt that somewhere around episode 5 the drama lost its intensity and zest and we drifted toward the inevitable grim ending.  I wanted more of the bawdy language and nakedly open powerplays - notably between Mary and Lady Harron.  The show suffered for the latter's loss.

MARY & GEORGE is available to watch in its entirety in the UK on Sky. It releases next month in the USA on Starz.

Sunday, March 03, 2024


DUNE: PART TWO is probably about as good a film as one can make about Frank Herbert's iconic religio-sci-fi book. The flaws I found in this film are mostly down to how distasteful and uninspiring I find the source material - with its superficial embrace of Middle Eastern and North African culture and the fact that its female characters are almost entirely reduced to breeding vessels. I understand that I am not perhaps the appropriate demographic for the books. But Denis Villeneuve has taken it and created two films of arresting visuals and a stunning score.  Greig Fraser's IMAX cinematography is bold and beautiful and truly envelopes us in Arrakis. And Hans Zimmer is at his finest combining sandworm-commanding drums, rock guitars, and menacing prophecy-reciting choirs.

As this instalment opens, we are mere days after part one. Paul Atreides and his mother Lady Jessica have survived the massacre of their House on the desert planet of Arrakis.  Paul has proven himself a fearsome warrior to the indigenous Fremen, some of whom think he is their long-awaited messiah.  This delights Lady Jessica and Atreides loyalist Gurney Halleck, who believes the Fremen will be a powerful fighting force. But Paul's lover Chani has it right - these prophecies are just stories being used to control the Fremen.  The narrative arc is powered by the choice that faces Paul. Will he be swayed by his prophetic dreams of devastating interstellar war and reject being a messiah. Or will he exploit the Fremen for revenge on the Harkonnens and seize the imperial throne?

There is so much to love in how Villeneuve brings this to the screen. He wisely leaves the sandworms as barely seen epic creatures. The production and costume design of the Harkonnen's world and of the Baron and Na-Baron in particular are arresting. 

But the performances veer from mediocre to weak. I found something almost comical in Timothee Chalamet's petulance as Paul and was unfortunately reminded of THE LIFE OF BRIAN - "He's not the Messiah - he's a very naughty boy!" Once you see the film through that lens - "the gourd!" - there's no turning back. There was zero screen chemistry between Chalamet's Paul and Zendaya's Chani which is odd as they seem to be constantly low-key flirting on the red carpet. Christopher Walken is hopelessly miscast as the Emperor - totally bringing me out of the film with his unique American accent. Only Javier Bardem stood out as Stilgar - petrifying in his increasing religious fervour.

I suspect that performances aren't really what interest Villeneuve. He is all about spectacle. Script and character are somewhat beyond the point for him. But this leads to weird choices around narrative. 

Most obviously, Villeneuve's choice not to allow the narrative to unravel over several years problematic. It felt as though Paul's journey from young pup to Emperor had taken place over a few weeks! Is it really so easy to seize power?  And how is this going to impact the timeline around Alia, who we see as a grown woman in Paul's dreams.  Another choice I disagree with is to minimise the influence of the Guild and put all of the machinations onto the Bene Gesserit cult. 

But perhaps the biggest macro issue I have with both books and film is that there's no-one to really root for. On the one hand you have a decrepit Emperor who seems flaccid and pointless. Then there are the comically evil and therefore uninteresting Harkonnens.  The Bene Genesserit are nuts and seem to have no endgame. The Fremen are religious extremists. And Paul is a self-acknowledged harbinger of mass genocide. It's like watching Succession but without the comedy swearing.

DUNE: PART TWO has a running time of 166 minutes and is rated-PG-13. It is on global release. 


Sean Durkin's THE IRON CLAW is an absolutely mesmerising and deeply moving drama that tells the story of the real life Von Erich family. I had no knowledge of them before this film but apparently they are wrestling royalty, infamous for a much-mythologised series of tragedies. 

As the film opens, we are treated to a black-and-white flashback where the paterfamilias, Fritz Von Erich, is apparently denied his chance to win a title. His revenge is to seemingly raise a large family of boys who are pressured and groomed to win his approval and also win wrestling titles.  The Iron Claw is thus not just his trademark wrestling move, but also the way in which he exerts toxic control over his family, the wages of which we will see play out over the running time.

Zac Efron stars as Kevin von Erich.  It's a performance of great vulnerability and physical prowess that reminded me - inevitably - of Mickey Rourke in THE WRESTLER. Efron bulked up for the role and in the opening shot of him the camera interrogates every vein and muscle on his body. He is a machine created by his father for vengeance. Efron's mournful performance is a career-best and no doubt benefits from what we bring to seeing him on screen. His real-life arc from teen idol to indie darling by way of addiction and body dysmorphia adds a layer of pathos to this role. The parallels between Hollywood and wrestling are painful to contemplate - the extreme body mutilation and pressure to perform - the substance abuse and toxic svenaglis - it's all here.

Next comes Kevin's brother David, played by THE TRIANGLE OF SADNESS' Harris Dickinson. David is the natural showman, more articulate than Kevin, and so finds himself top of his father's preference ranking of his sons - a game that both Kevin and David seem willing to play.

We are in trickier water with the two youngest sons.  Kerry (The Bear's Jeremy Allen White) wants to compete in the Olympics, but his dreams are dashed by the 1980 boycott. He is pulled into wrestling, is good at it, but resents it. White's performance is one of such searing sadness that he barely needs to speak to convey the tragedy of his situation. Finally we have young Mike (Stanley Simons). He's just a kid who wants to make music with his literal garage band. He has no place in the ring, but what father wants, father gets.

All of this feels fairly hopeless and as a study of male toxicity it is. Maura Tierney gets a great scene as the religious oppressed mother who lets all of this happen. And Lily James is impressive in a small role as Kevin's wife. And really it's through her that the film avoids being unilaterally miserable. Because by anchoring in Kevin in marriage, the joy of fatherhood, and the opportunity to be a different kind of man, she gives us a path out of the Iron Claw. There's a scene near the end of this film between Kevin and his sons that made me cry. I don't want to spoil it - but it's one of the most well-earned moments of hope in recent cinema.

Kudos to Sean Durkin for writing and directing such a pellucid, affecting film. I absolutely loved his recreation of late 70s and early 80s small-town America - the music, the clothes, the cars, the garage bands. I loved the cinematography - the apparently meticulous recreation of the fight scenes - and the astonishing performances Durkin pulls from his cast. I do not understand why this film wasn't as big a deal on the awards circuit as THE WRESTLER was all those years ago. It deserves all the plaudits and all the success. And Efron deserves his own version of a McConaugheyssance. 

THE IRON CLAW is rated R and has a running time of 132 minutes. It is on global release.


Dutch writer-director Sasha Polak's SILVER HAZE a lightly fictionalised depiction of actor Vicky Knight's life story.  As a young child, Franky (Vicky's on-screen avatar) was badly burned in a fire in her uncle's pub, and still holds her father's new wife Jane responsible. This film picks Franky up as a young woman who is filled with anger and resentment.  She lives in a chaotic crowded family home in an economically-deprived part of East London. The threat of verbal or physical violence is always just under the surface and Franky gives as good as she gets.  

The narrative is propelled by Franky's relationship with Florence (Esme Creed-Miles), a privileged but troubled girl who now lives with her grandmother Alice in Southend. It begins as a liberation, allowing Franky to discover she is gay, and allowing her to create a found family with the wonderfully supportive Alice, and Florence's younger brother Jack.

I really admire this film for its delicate balance between laugh-out-loud family banter - genuine menace in a scene of a London bus - and joyous emotional release.  Sacha Polak handles the shifts in tone and mood so beautifully that you emerge from a film that deals with epically profound topics feeling uplifted. I also admire how brave the film is. Not just Vicky Knight having the body confidence to be naked on screen, and to show her unique beauty, but her real-life siblings playing her on-screen family and revisiting a traumatic experience. In a sub-plot, Franky's sister explores converting to Islam, and her need for that is treated with respect but also good humour. That feels brave in the current climate.  Finally, I am grateful to any film that lets me spend time with the charismatic Angela Bruce.  As Alice, she is no pushover, but radiates warmth. A tricky balance to pull off.

Behind the lens, Polak's largely Dutch crew create some memorable visuals of Southend, and a beautiful soundtrack, on what must have been a low budget. It just cheers my soul that unique, brave, entertaining and moving films like this can still be made and released. I really hope it finds the audience it deserves.

SILVER HAZE has a running time of 102 minutes. It played Berlin and London 2023, and will play BFI Flare 2024. It will be released in the UK on March 29th.

Thursday, January 18, 2024


Alice Walker's iconic novel of African American female endurance, THE COLOR PURPLE, has a new life as a movie-musical.  I cannot fault the look of the film, clearly inspired by Julie Dash's iconic DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST, nor its production values, cinematography, costumes, or performances.  Fantasia Barrino is deeply moving and convincing as the heroine, Celie - a woman we first meet as the victim of her father's sexual abuse. We watch her children abducted, her marriage to the equally abusive Mister (Colman Domingo), and late in life discovery of her sexuality and economic power.  By the end of the film she is a late middle-aged woman, with all of the physical change that that implies. She is framed by two other impressive performances. Taraji P Henson plays the renamed Shug Avery - the glamorous nightclub singer who has to reconcile with her faith and father. And Danielle Brooks plays Sofia - Celie's no-nonsense duaghter-in-law who is humbled by a racist white woman.  

Every individual element of this film is calculated to impress but I just could not get over the fact that it was a musical, and moreover that the music was not contemporary to the period in which the film is set (the first half of the twentieth century).  As a result, whenever the production design and performances pulled me into an emotional space, the anachronistic music pulled me right out.  It also didn't help that the director Blitz Bazawule chooses to have the actors lip synch to the ruthlessly studio clean soundtrack. Given that so many scenes are outdoors with the sounds of nature around, I feel this is really a film where it would have been of benefit to have the actors to sing live, as in Tom Hooper's LES MIS, or at least make the songs sound less airless and clean.

The upshot was that I never felt involved with the characters or their story and while I admired it theoretically I was not moved.  The original film made me cry, I felt keenly the humbling of Sofia, and the more discreet relationship between Celie and Margaret sizzled with sensuality. I didn't need the awkward intervention of anachronistic music. 

THE COLOR PURPLE is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 141 minutes. It was released in the US on Christmas Day 2023 and will be released in the UK on January 26th.


THE BOYS IN THE BOAT is a deeply dull, paint-by-numbers underdog sports biopic about a working class American rowing eight than won Gold at the 1936 Olympics. We don't learn much about them, other than that they are poor and motivated. We know they are poor because is an opening scene the hero (Callum Turner with an absurd and distracting blonde dye job) is putting cardboard inside his shoe. We don't learn much about their coach (Joel Edgerton) who just looks taciturn and unknowable for the entire film. We certainly don't understand why they are so good and what he did to make them that way. And we don't really understand the stakes.   

This was the Hitler/Berlin Olympics but director George Clooney has no interest in showing the real peril of fascist Germany, just as he isn't interested in showing the real tragedy of Depression-era America. Instead, he puts a few Nazi flags up, has a few brownshirts cheer for Germany, and some guy play dress up as the Fuhrer. It's actually so trivialising it's insulting - particularly to Jesse Owens. What we learn from all this is that Clooney doesn't want to get his hands dirty in the period.  

Instead he creates a film that is book-ended by a sappy grandpa-grandson bit of nostalgia; that is forever bathed in twinkling sunlight; and where the hero's girlfriend forever has perfectly styled hair and no character or lines to speak of.  This is dull retrograde film-making of the worst kind, and all the more embarrassing because CHARIOTS OF FIRE figured out how to inject emotion, stakes and modernity forty years ago.

THE BOYS IN THE BOAT is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 123 minutes. It was released in the USA on Christmas Day 2023, and in the UK on January 12th.

Sunday, January 14, 2024


Norwegian writer-director Kristoffer Borgli's DREAM SCENARIO is a film that feels as though it could have been made by a collective of Spike Jonze, Charlie Kauffman and Michel Gondry. This is a good thing. 

Nic Cage stars as a schlubby university professor who starts showing up in everyone's dreams. At first this leads to a wonderful surge in popularity - students actually turn up to his lectures and he gets a book deal. But when his dream avatar turns into a nightmare, the world turns on the real life professor. He and his family are shunned, and then subject to violence. The book deal morphs into a crass trashy occult-baiting book.  The poor man's entire life is upended.

The film has lots to say about the absurdity of the mob - whether in hyping someone up or tearing them down. The increasingly surreal dreams are beautifully executed. And through it all we have Cage's measured, disbelieving, horrified Professor. People are right when they say it's the most well-modulated performance Cage has given in years - playing against type - or rather the caricature that Cage sometimes puts forth of himself.

The resulting film is an intelligent and darkly absurd satire that entertains and provokes. Superb!

DREAM SCENARIO is rated R and has a running time of 102 minutes.  It played Toronto 2023 and was released in the USA and UK last November.


Nicole Newnham's new documentary is an urgent, well-constructed and desperately relevant film about a feminist sociologist and publishing sensation cut down by the patriarchy. 

Shere Hite was a beautiful, intelligent, curious and sex-positive woman. She supported herself through college at Columbia and then in her sociological research by modelling, some of which was nude.  She saw nothing wrong with this. She became famous for publishing The Hite Report in 1976 - summarising the results of a survey of 3000 American women. The most shocking of its revelations was that the best way to satisfy a woman sexually was through clitoral stimulation, and that conventional vaginal intercourse was a poor way to achieve this.  As a result, most women's best sexual experiences were through masturbation.

The severity and savagery of the masculine backlash was comprehensive.  The publishers tried to sabotage the book by restricting sales and the first print run.  They refused to run any publicity. But they couldn't stop the juggernaut of interest. Apparently it's the thirtieth best selling book of all time, even though few today have heard of it.  But the accompanying PR interviews, many of which are excerpted here, show the toll it took on Hite. She was pilloried on TV shows and accused of making men irrelevant. Men tried to discredit her based on her nude modelling and the sample biases in her research (you try getting a representative sample of women to answer a sex survey!).  Publishers would not give her a contract for her ongoing research and she ended up giving up her US citizenship and forging a new life in Europe.

Perhaps this cancellation and suppression is ongoing. People today all know about the Kinsey report on men, but how many now about the Hite report on women? Why - after immense critical acclaim at the Sundance film festival, did this film not get wider distribution, despite a star as big as Dakota Johnson voicing the words of Shere Hite? Why does the world not care when Shere Hite was speaking to exactly the repression of female sexuality that we now see rearing its head in the United States?  All of these factors speak to the continuing importance of Hite's work. This film is a worthy argument along those lines.

THE DISAPPEARANCE OF SHERE HITE is rated R and has a running time of 118 minutes. It played Sundance 2023 and was released in the USA last November. It was released in the UK this week.