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.