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    11 years



She's here... and she hears everything.
Filmed during COVID-19 lockdown with a script that explicitly acknowledges the pandemic and the affects it can have on mental health, 'Kimi (2022)' is Steven Sodebergh's umpteenth un-retirement project. It's an insular thriller focusing on an agoraphobic young woman who works for a shady tech giant, aiding the voice recognition of its flagship Alexa-esque device by manually interpreting commands the software isn't able to parse on its own. During the course of her work, she comes across what sounds like a heinous crime and decides to investigate its authenticity, setting in motion a series of events that will push her outside of her comfort zone (literally) and reshape the way she thinks about the safety of her own home. You can always count on Sodebergh to experiment, especially when it comes to sound design and editing. The director has done his part making big-budget studio movies and has now earnt the right to spend his self-proclaimed retirement working on projects that specifically appeal to his current sensibilities. He seemingly isn't interested in convention, which almost always leads to some really invigorating, slightly off-centre yet still straightforwardly enjoyable projects. This film is no exception to that, a solid outing that does exactly what it needs to in as efficient a way as possible. The narrative is a bit of a riff on Rear Window (1954) and its imitators, but it does just enough to set itself apart and therefore doesn't feel like a copy. The first half is confined and almost claustrophobic, while the second opens things up and brings with it some immersive experimentation. At the same time, the grounded and believable vibe of the first half gives way to an increasingly absurd situation in the second. Thankfully, though, the assured execution of this segment and its ability to draw genuine suspense from its set-pieces keeps things enjoyable throughout. It remains engaging even at its silliest, although the transition from 'realistic' drama to pulpy genre fare is a bit jarring at first. Pretty much every scene that doesn't feature the always enigmatic Zoë Kravitz feels as though it was shot during amateur hour (specifically due to some bland scripting and its unconvincing delivery), but these moments are few and far between. The film keeps up its pace while playing around with some interesting themes and character arcs, both of which act as a nice undercurrent to its more traditional surface excitement. It's an entertaining experience overall with a few appreciated moments of experimentation and a strong grasp on its material.

Operation Mincemeat

Can't wait for the Christmas spin-off, 'Operation Mince Pie'.
Despite its surprisingly fast pace and its moments of visual creativity, 'Operation Mincemeat (2021)' is still very much a dry period piece that sits firmly in the genre of movies your (gran)dad would love. It's the sort of thing that seems destined to find a permanent home on BBC iPlayer. This isn't necessarily a slight, although I can't say this type of film particularly appeals to me. For the most part, this is an above average example of its kind, thanks principally to the quick pace I mentioned earlier. The acting is also strong across the board, with the two Darcys (Firth and Macfadyen), Penelope Wilton and Kelly Macdonald all elevating their often dry dialogue to the point of believability. The underlying true story that this is based on is an interesting one, but it's the sort of thing that could be told in a single sentence and still provoke the same reaction: "oh, that's cool." Stretching it out to two hours is plain unnecessary, especially when you do so by incorporating a clunky and surely invented love triangle that fails to provide the compelling personal stakes it desperately seeks to. The frequent James Bond references are a bit weird, too, even though the inclusion of a young Ian Fleming (played by an accent-chewing Johnny Flynn) is both accurate and intellectually amusing. Ultimately, this is a fairly enjoyable war-time drama that keeps up a quick pace and makes sure its story never stagnates. It's pretty good, especially considering its unofficial genre, but it isn't anything more than that.

Red Eye

She needs to make fists with her toes.
Nobody does a suspense set-piece quite like Wes Craven, one of the masters of his craft. This high-concept thriller (literally) follows a hotel manager who finds herself trapped on a plane with a mysterious stranger who informs her she must do what he says or her father will die. 'Red Eye (2005)' is as stripped back as possible, a tight 81-minute experience that isn't so much light on content as it is content to tell its story in the most efficient way possible. With its colourful, early-2000s aesthetics and its to-the-point plotting, the movie scratches a very specific itch and knows exactly what its doing at all times. Its lead performances are fantastic and, as I mentioned earlier, its direction is top-notch. Though it'a a bit silly if you think about it too much, its danger is credible and its story is compelling. It's an exciting, edge-of-your-seat affair throughout.

My Bloody Valentine

Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it's off to kill I go!
Butchered more brutally than the victims of Harry Warden, 'My Bloody Valentine (1981)' suffered massive cuts at the hands of the MPAA and is missing around nine minutes of footage in its most readily available version. Although an uncut edition was eventually released in the US in 2009, as far as I can tell it hasn't made it across the pond. As such, the version I saw is missing most of its notoriously grisly gore and, more disappointingly, feels disjointed in several scenes. It's this latter complication that has the most impact, as the censorship has done more damage than just preventing the piece from satisfying its audience's assumed bloodlust. Having said that, these snips don't stop the film from being a solid little slasher, albeit a potentially less effective one. Set in a sleepy mining town twenty years after a Valentine's Day massacre put a stop to all the holiday's romantic festivities, the movie opens with a murder in a mineshaft and a subsequent warning to the local authorities (by way of a bloody heart in a heart-shaped chocolate box) that their planned revival of the Valentine's Day dance which apparently was a time-honoured tradition prior to those killings I just mentioned will only result in further death. Most of the movie is spent building the legend of its killer while establishing its main cast - comprised of unglamorous, relatively 'real' young miners and their girlfriends - and their questionable efforts to hold a forbidden party in an abandoned mineshaft. There's a decent milieu that marks the piece as one which feels grounded in its fairly distinct setting. The characters interact in believable ways and their petty rivalries and love triangles are engaging enough to carry you through to the narrative's suitably splashy finish. The suspense sequences are mostly enjoyable, even if they're a little choppy (no doubt due to the aforementioned MPAA meddling) and a little unconvincing when it comes to some of their more action-heavy moments. It's also worth mentioning that the audio is oddly tinny throughout. Ultimately, this represents almost the bare minimum required to craft a solid slasher; it doesn't go above and beyond in any of its aspects. However, it does everything it needs to and it does it all pretty well. It's an entertaining, if somewhat forgettable, affair from start to finish.

The Sword in the Stone

Merlin's beard!
'The Sword In The Stone (1963)' is a bit of a weird one, narratively speaking: what you'd expect to be its inciting incident or, at the very least, its midpoint turn actually occurs mere minutes before it ends. Most of the movie instead revolves around Merlin's efforts to convince Arthur that a classical education is important and that he's meant for bigger things than being a squire. This amounts to a series of vignettes in which the old wizard transforms the lad into a variety of animals, ostensibly using the trials and tribulations of that specific beast as a form of teaching. In reality, though, it's actually just putting the kid in danger - be it from a hungry fish, a horny squirrel (yes, really) or an off-kilter witch - while singing a song and pretending that the experience would be anything other than traumatic. None of the sequences really build Arthur's character and he's essentially the same at the end as he is at the beginning. However, they're typically rather fun. The most engaging sequence is a magical dual between Merlin and Madame Mim, wherein the pair transform into various animals in an effort to get one up on their opponent; it's a really enjoyable set-piece that's energetic and well-animated. Speaking of the animation, it's satisfying despite being simple and somewhat rough (you can see flashes of the initial sketches relatively frequently). It feels like the animators figured out how to do convincing water splashes just before starting work on this, because the flick is filled with lovely liquid simulation far more often than is strictly necessary. There's something iconic about this Disney era's moustaches, too. The overall picture is a bit inconsequential, but it's fairly entertaining right the way through and that's just about enough for it to be worth watching. It's lesser Disney, for sure, but it isn't at the bottom of the barrel. It's a solid effort overall, despite its narrative haziness.

The Golden Child

Inconsequential yet somewhat baffling.
Bizarrely, 'The Golden Child (1986)' opens by telling us that it's set in the present day, even though it clearly isn't (to the point that every single scene reminds you how wild it must have been to live in the eighties) and it never leaves its own time period. All this opening does is date the piece and make you scratch your head as to its inclusion; without it, the audience would have just assumed the film took place around the same time as it was released (and clearly depicts). It's not a massive deal, but it's kind of indicative of the entire affair: somewhat inconsequential yet simultaneously baffling. This really isn't a bad picture... well, technically it is, but it's never anything less than watchable. Despite its lacklustre screenplay, poor characterisation, vague racism and downright awful editing, the experience is generally just about enjoyable enough to be classed as entirely inoffensive. Having said that, it isn't exactly fun. It also isn't funny, although it was obviously intended to be a straightforward action film prior to the signing of Eddie Murphy (who plays an ass-kicking, fast-talking social worker in this?). It's fine. That's really all the praise I can give it. Thankfully, it's all the criticism I can give it, too.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore

The secret formula is -
'Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets Of Dumbledore (2022)' is narratively inept. There's no other way to put it. It's just about coherent in the sense that you can follow it, but it's incredibly unsatisfying because it simply doesn't lead you anywhere. It rambles about for two hours before its various side plots coalesce into something that vaguely - and I do mean vaguely - resembles a finale. The experience is bland, uninspired and inert from start to finish, with dull cinematography removing any semblance of magic that may have been had from the various magical creatures and spells that spill their way across the screen under Yates' sleepwalking direction. The characters are flat, despite the acting generally being quite good, and there's no sense of emotion or stakes whatsoever. I mean, call me old-fashioned but I like my lovers-turned-enemies arcs to have even a little bit of melancholic longing to them (or any sort of emotionality, really). It's all just incredibly mediocre from start to finish, a paint-by-numbers blockbuster created seemingly because those involved felt it had to be; everything about it screams contractural obligation. It isn't awful, by any means, but there's just nothing to it. Like its predecessors, it's mostly fine in the moment, something that simply exists and does nothing more than wash over you for two hours, but its true nature really becomes apparent in retrospect when you realise how incompetent and unfulfilling it actually is. Plus, it's just way too long.

As a bit of an aside, why is everyone so surprised that Dumbledore has a brother? Do you know if your ex-teacher has a brother? I didn't think so. Furthermore, why is everyone willing to die for a dude who taught them some spells fifteen years ago? Why do they trust his purposefully obtuse plans? Having this close a relationship with your teacher is just weird... and, of course, the film elects to outright ignore the parallels between Grindelwald and Dumbledore when it comes to them recruiting impressionable young people to do their bidding.

Irma Vep

Maggie Cheung is missed.
'Irma Vep (2022)' is Olivier Assayas' soft remake of / legacy sequel to his own film of the same name, one that sees its director character remake a movie of his as an eight-part limited series. It's meta on a number of levels and plays around with the concept of continuity on a few occasions. Its main goal, however, seems to be to comment on the status of film as an art form and how lofty artistic intentions may contrast the entertainment value the medium almost inherently provides. The piece spends a lot of time debating whether a balance between the two is possible, and also which of them is more important. In all honesty, it gets a bit pretentious and tiresome at times. The same is true of the whole show, which wears thin surprisingly quickly and never really escalates between episodes. The level of intensity in the beginning of the first episode is pretty much maintained right up until the end of the last, even though there are peaks and valleys within the middle ground it occupies. That's not to say the show is particularly bad. In fact, there's usually at least one really good scene per episode. The performances are all wonderfully naturalistic and there are some interesting ideas and arcs floating around the stretched-thin narrative. It's far less successful than Assayas' original attempt, though, primarily because it's genuinely boring on occasion. It's a really middling affair overall. Still, it has value and is arguably worth watching for its highlights.

The Bad Guys

Don't judge a book by its cover.
'The Bad Guys (2022)' is Dreamworks' most visually arresting film in years. A clear disciple of 'Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse (2018)', the film constantly wows with its illustration-esque rendering and hyperactive - yet uncluttered - animation. There are a couple of downright jaw-dropping set-pieces, including an incredibly choreographed fight scene and an effortlessly energetic car chase. It's just an absolute joy to watch, filled with aesthetic flair at every turn. Of course, a lot of its success is also to do with its tone, which walks the line between irreverence and sincerity remarkably well. The picture's narrative may be typically predictable and, even, somewhat messy, but its presentation easily carries it past the finish line. That's not meant as a slight, either; there's validity in doing something that's been proven to work in a relatively new and certainly exciting way. Plus, the story is no slouch. It does lose its way a little in the first half of its second act and it's generally quite obvious for its majority, but it succeeds in keeping you engaged and entertained throughout. Its characters are written nicely and voiced with aplomb, while its messages are as successful as they are expected. Even the (I suppose obligatory) fart jokes can't take you out of the affair. It's pretty great, to be honest, and is a really nice surprise. Ultimately, it's a highly enjoyable heist film that puts its foot on the gas as soon as its amazingly low-key one-take opener is over and doesn't let up until its credits have rolled.

Those Who Wish Me Dead

Terrific title; mediocre movie.
Taylor Sheridan wrote 'Sicario (2015)', 'Hell Or High Water (2016)' and 'Wind River (2017)' all on his own. Yet, he's one of three credited writers on 'Those Who Wish Me Dead (2021)', a straightforward book adaptation that such an accomplished writer should surely have been able to turn in on time, on his own and without breaking a sweat. Things start to make more sense when you learn that Sheridan was originally brought onto the project to simply rewrite the screenplay, rather than craft it from the start. It was only after the original director dropped out that he decided to stay on as director, apparently by convincing the studio he could nab Angelina Jolie for the thankless lead role. If you're expecting anything close to the quality of the three films I named in the opening sentence, you're going to be bitterly disappointed. The film is as generic as they come, a nuts-and-bolts thriller with a semi-interesting setting and a surprisingly all-star cast. Simple isn't inherently bad; in fact, a simple story executed well can sometimes yield the best results, especially in action-thriller territory. Here, however, the MacGuffin-lead narrative actively swerves around anything approaching nuance or depth. Sprinkling a couple of meek flashbacks to a tragic backstory atop an otherwise in-the-moment affair isn't enough to convince anyone that the lead character has any real layers to her, especially since her trauma only manifests itself in a couple of teary-eyed moments that never impede on her functionality in the actual action (as soon as she meets the child she has to protect, she turns on the charm and becomes an almost entirely new person). Jolie does well enough with what she's given - as does the always excellent Jon Bernthal, resident 'that guy' Aidan Gillan and the somewhat miscast Nicholas Hoult - but she just isn't given enough. It's hard to really care about anything that's happening, which wouldn't be too bad if the piece were actually thrilling. It isn't, though, and it moves far too slowly for its own good. It looks really bland, too, with some obvious CGI impeding on its otherwise relatively realist aesthetic. The action is occasionally compelling, but there's far too little of it and the picture never builds any sort of momentum between or anticipation for its infrequent set-pieces. Still, the few action scenes there are clearly stand out as the piece's highlights. It's totally watchable overall; there's nothing notably awful about any of it. However, it's never anything more than fine and that's just not good enough, really. It has strong performances and a few enjoyable moments of action, but this no-frills thriller ultimately just doesn't quite hit the mark.

Puss in Boots: The Three Diablos

Cat got your boots?
The best joke in 'Puss In Boots: The Three Diablos (2012)' is arguably far too brief and could've been mined for more laughs, but in a way it's good that the short doesn't overdo any of its aspects. This is an entertaining outing from the moment it begins. The story pairs the feline protagonist with a trio of naughty but cute kitties, tasking him with taking care of the unruly youth as they lead him to a stolen treasure. It has a quick pace that skips over some fairly important character development, but the broad strokes are all there and the arcs are generally satisfying. It features a few chuckles here and there, and its aesthetic isn't too much of a downgrade from the feature film it acts as a spin-off from. It's an enjoyable effort overall, even if its narrative is a little undercooked.

Scared Shrekless

Holy Shrek!
Scared Shrekless (2010) is a short film in which Shrek's friends take it in turns telling him scary stories in an effort to frighten the big fella and prove that ogres can be terrified too. Leading the charge is Donkey (surprisingly not voiced by Eddie Murphy), who instigates the whole ordeal, and he's joined by Puss in Boots, Gingerbread Man, Pinocchio, The Three Little Pigs and The Big Bad Wolf. Only the first three get to actually tell a tale because Shrek himself chimes in with a story that just so happens to have the world's best pun as a title. The three stories are all enjoyable in their own right, as is the framing device. There are several entertaining, if ham-fisted, references to previous movies in the series, as well as to other films and to the fairytales that lend the franchise its characters. It's really fun, actually, and is varied enough to never feel stale. It's a pacy, well-animated affair that's much better than I was expecting it to be.

Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio

"It's perfect!" *Nose grows*
It's fitting that this story of a hand-crafted wooden boy who is brought to life by the magic of an ancient spirit is itself comprised of hand-crafted wooden-looking characters who are brought to life by the patience and skill of a plethora of underpaid and overworked animators. 'Guillermo Del Toro's Pinocchio (2022)' (I'm not a fan of having the director's name in the title, by the way, especially since he's actually only the co-director of the piece) is nothing if not beautiful, with its breathtakingly tactile aesthetics clearly being the best part about it. It's a fairytale in the traditional sense of the word, one not just of rainbows and wishes but also of darkness and grief, and this is reflected in the way that it looks. With splashes of scariness and dashes of the uncanny, the picture constantly plays with the assumption that its source story can only be one of wonder and whimsy (though, to be fair, there has been some grimness in most adaptations of it). It's a treat to behold, for sure, even if some of its visuals don't quite meet the standard it sets for itself early on (such as the water, which seems to be a straightforward computer-generated particle simulation, for instance). Unfortunately, the narrative doesn't quite have the same effect. In many ways, the film is somewhat disappointing, primarily because of its rampant tonal inconsistencies and the uncomfortable push-pull between its slapstick humour, musical numbers and sometimes saccharine sweetness and its underlying rumination on fascism, grief and mortality. This is one of the rare examples of a movie which would genuinely be better if it wasn't a musical. The songs are generally uninspired, with weak melodies and undercooked lyrics, and their accompanying sequences tend to take the steam out of the story due to how blindsiding they often are (their infrequency makes it easy to forget the flick is a musical at all). Plus, Pinocchio is just straight-up irritating for most of the runtime, and I know that's the point but it undeniably makes things less compelling; annoying by design is still annoying, after all. The experience is honestly a lot better before he first springs to life. The plot takes some really strange left turns at times, seemingly to force in a predetermined theme rather than elaborate on the themes already present within the source story (or, at least, the version of it that most people are familiar with), and it leaves things on an affirming yet oddly downbeat note that feels a bit off in retrospect. Despite the narrative issues, though, there are plenty of entertaining segments and the vivid brilliance of the animation ensures that even the least engaging moments are always enjoyable to look at. Plus, Ewan McGregor lights up the screen - or, I suppose, speakers - whenever his cricket character chirps his way into the story, which sadly occurs far less frequently than you'd hope it would, and the other voice performers deliver strong work across the board. Ultimately, this is a disjointed affair that's often jarring thanks to its wild shifts in tone, but is just as often stunning thanks to its meticulous visual design and animation. It doesn't quite live up to the hype, if that matters, and I'm a little unsure as to how much I actually like it overall. Still, it's a solid enough effort that may fail to outdo its Disney forefather (and I'm not talking about the live-action remake), but still stands on its own as something I can see plenty of people getting a lot of enjoyment from.

Glass Onion

A glass onion in a donut hole.
Rian Johnson himself has expressed annoyance at the film's subtitle, which is a blatant attempt by Netflix to cash in on the success of Benoit Blanc's initial outing, because it solidifies this as a sequel rather than what it is: simply another day in the life of the world's last gentlemen detective. This episodic entry in what's soon to be a trilogy is so disconnected from its predecessor in terms of its story that it could even be a prequel. It's also visually, atmospherically, thematically and even stylistically distinct. This is all to say that I, too, am not a fan of the picture's clunky, nonsensical subtitle. I am, however, a fan of the picture itself. With its heart on its sleeve, this layered yet clear murder mystery doesn't try to replicate the success of its predecessor, rather expand into other areas its genre often visits. 'Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022)', in many ways, feels like a response to the tepid 'Death On The Nile (2022)', with a plot that puts its detective in a warm holiday destination and surrounds him with an insipid group of so-called friends whose repressed resentments inevitably bubble to the surface. Rather than simply stick to the formula of 'the same but abroad' that many follow-ups favour, the flick elects to change its underlying elements just as much as its aesthetics. In many ways, it deliberately dials things back by presenting an answer that's staring you in the face from the very beginning, yet is impossible to guess until the piece lets you in on its little secret. Though this is less satisfying than something that can actually be guessed - or, rather, worked out - prior to it being officially revealed, it's fitting for the material because it accompanies the movie's underlying theme of assumed complexity (think about the implication of its title and you'll understand what I mean). The important thing is that the piece is always entertaining, whether during its longer-than-expected set-up or its longer-than-expected payoff. Even its red herrings have implications for the narrative, not necessarily in terms of plot but certainly in terms of character. Indeed, the characters themselves are all well rounded and their dynamics are varied and believable (the acting, from yet another world-class cast, is also top-notch). The film really comes into its own after the halfway mark, even if most of what follows its midpoint turn essentially amounts to a stretched-out version of the sequence bookended by the coin toss in 'Knives Out (2019)'. It's an enjoyable, engaging and often funny affair that further proves Johnson's writing and directing prowess. It isn't as good as its predecessor, which is now pretty much the definitive whodunnit, but it doesn't need to be. After all, it's its own thing. It's one of the best efforts of the year, even if it is a bit too long overall.

Wong Gok ka moon

Like tears in rain.
'As Tears Go By (1988)' is remarkably assured and, I suppose, fully-formed for a feature debut, displaying many elements which director Wong Kar-Wai would become known for later on in his career. Perhaps its only obviously unrefined element is its music, which - though satisfyingly atmospheric and periodic thanks to its heavy use of synths - is relatively haphazard in its placement and often overbearing in a slightly cheesy way. The picture focuses on a triad member whose attempts to leave his life of crime and live happily ever after in a romantic relationship with his cousin are constantly thwarted not by his lifestyle's unforgiving nature or the insistence of its authoritative members but by his desire to protect his reckless protégée from the life-endangering actions he constantly takes to prove himself. That's where the real tragedy of the piece lies and it's rather potent. The narrative plays out almost like that of a John Woo heroic bloodshed picture, with a focus on brotherhood and loyalty and the inherent risks associated with a criminal occupation. The difference, of course, is that this feature doesn't break its tension with lead-slinging, high-octane, brutally romanticised action; its moments of violence are fast-paced and impressionistic, unrelentingly brutal and more convinced with chaos than choreography. There's nothing romantic about the lives of its characters, nor the destruction they both inflict and have inflicted upon them. It avoids glamorising crime in any way shape or form, emerging as a truly tragic experience overall. Of course, it also has moments of melancholic beauty. The inevitable darkness of the story is made all the more biting by the genuine, visually distinct happiness provided by the brief moments of respite the hero finds with his enigmatically elegant and mundanely beautiful lover. The fact that the pair are related in some way does definitely dampen the success of their relationship, but it's undeniable that Wong's expert presentation of their dynamic is rousing and effective (it helps that the young Maggie Cheung is as alluring as ever). Ultimately, this is an entertaining and engaging experience throughout. It's also rather funny on occasion, despite being desperately sad overall. It's a brutal yet somewhat beautiful story of brotherhood, loyalty, love and longing.

Top Gun: Maverick

I feel the need...
'Top Gun: Maverick (2022)' is, in many ways, exactly what you'd expect it to be. It's an earnest, almost cheesy ode to the American military that places emphasis on human pilots (as opposed to drones) who are able to disobey orders when necessary and never seem to get properly sanctioned for doing so. All the themes you'd expect - such as pilots vs officers, humans vs drones and Tom Cruise vs ageing - are here, although the picture is disappointingly decidedly less gay than its predecessor (to an almost revisionist degree). It's jingoistic, albeit slightly less jingoistic than the first flick, and clunky when it comes to everything other than its high-flying set-pieces. It's predictable and it gets off to a pretty rocky start, too. Eventually, though, you realise that you're not thinking about its problems, that they're not even relevant anymore. You realise that you're having a blast and that, ultimately, that's what matters. Every single time the characters get into their cockpits, the film transforms into an invigorating and expertly choreographed action extravaganza. Though the fact that they did most of this stuff for real doesn't inherently make it good, it's undeniably far more effective than any visual effects method of achieving a similar result because it never once requires suspension of disbelief. There are, of course, special effects involved in some of the sequences but they're so seamless and secondary to the overwhelming practicality of it all that they feel just as natural as that which was really present on set. The effects do what they're supposed to do: enhance rather than replace. In an era where some films can't even convincingly put five people together in a single room, practicality like this is even more important than ever before. Even if you aren't actively thinking about the very real ground whizzing past the very real people in the very real planes flying at very really dangerous speeds, you feel it on a subconscious level. There's nothing quite like seeing gravity yank an actor's face so much that they're almost unrecognisable, or two planes dance with each other like ballerinas in the sky. It's incredibly exciting, and credit has to go those involved with transforming arial stunts into actual action scenes. The flick had to be incredibly bad for the environment, though, which is obviously a major downside. It's worth noting that Tom Cruise is actually kind of great in a couple of the dialogue scenes, genuinely delivering a brilliant performance in the piece's most emotional moment. He may be known more for his apparent willingness to die for his craft, but he's a solidified star for a reason and it's important to remember that his earlier roles relied on his acting abilities more than his action abilities (and, in a way, aren't they one in the same?). In the end, the movie is a ton of fun that's simultaneously generic and one-of-a-kind. If it had a better story with more focused character arcs, it could have been one of the all-time greats. As it is, it's an incredible achievement that's often enthralling and deserves most of the praise it's been receiving.


Don't go in the house.
As others have pointed out, going in blind truly is the best way to experience 'Barbarian (2022)'. It's never quite what you expect it to be, a series of ever-escalating twists that constantly subvert expectation (for better and, in some cases, worse). With that said, I'll try to be as vague as possible when reviewing the piece, but if you have any intention of watching it - as I ultimately recommend you do - then you should probably stop reading this right about now.

This enigmatic horror film drops you straight into its inciting incident: a woman arrives at her rented property in the dead of night to find somebody else already living there. Within mere moments, its initial dynamic is established and ripe for exploration. It isn't long before its two-hander of a first act is fully underway, relying on the subtly excellent work of Georgina Campbell and Bill Skarsgard (who are joined later on by an equally impressive Justin Long) to sell the uneasy relationship between its unintentional roomies. There's always a sense that something is wrong, that danger lurks within the halls of this humble airbnb abode, but you're never sure exactly where it's going to come from. The flick somehow creates a connection with its protagonist almost instantly, drawing you into her situation and bringing you to the edge of your seat whenever you feel as though she's unsafe (which is most of the time). A genuine sense of suspense builds throughout the movie's first half, one that leads to a surprisingly scary set-piece involving nothing more than a dark corridor and the prospect that something unspeakably unsavoury may have occurred wherever it leads. The direction is markedly good throughout, brilliantly establishing the geography of any given space and using it to creating tension with even the slightest glide of the camera.

If you're like me, by the time the hero walks under the doorframe that surrounds her in the film's poster, you're absolutely enraptured by the affair. You're bolted to the edge of your seat with an appreciative smile plastered across your face, ready to weather whatever storm has been brewing since the end of the 20th Century Studios logo...

...and then the movie smash-cuts to Justin Long.

With a single cut, the tension snaps like an elastic band and the atmosphere dissipates as quickly as when someone puts on Mambo No. 5 at a party. Everything resets to zero and we get what's essentially a repeat of the first act, except the vibe leans further into comedy and the focal character is a total heel. The intent is clearly to shock, to subvert, to callously refuse the audience any semblance of closure. It's jarring by design and, once you settle into the piece's new rhythm, it's typically successful. In retrospect, this movement mostly repeats where it could reinvent or refocus, but it works in the moment because it still feels as though it's building to a climax that reinstates the horrific brilliance of the first half. It's directed well and the performances are solid. It also builds suspense, rising to a level just below that of the moments before the aforementioned smash-cut. As it approaches its final third, it feels as though the feature is going to tie its two halves together and move into a best-of-both-worlds finale...

...and then, once again, it does a tension-snapping, suspense-sapping, atmosphere-killing cut.

The following segment is too long to be an effective aside but too short to be anything more substantial, and honestly it's pretty irrelevant to - or, rather, unnecessary for - the narrative. All it does it take you out of the affair, especially when you realise how inconsequential it actually is. Thankfully, though, this is followed by an actual finale that does tie together the first two movements, one that's still as subversive and tastefully disgusting as you'd expect. The only downside to the climax is that its final moments are incredibly rushed, building off the back of a joke to lead to an oddly elliptical ending that should really have been presented in a more straightforward fashion. Most of the final movement works well enough, though, and there are some really great moments sprinkled throughout.

Ultimately, the majority affair is kind of disappointing, more so in retrospect. That's not because any of it is especially bad, but because the first act is so mouth-wateringly amazing. As a whole, it's still an entertainingly suspenseful and enjoyably gruesome experience that has a couple of sequences that are genuinely scary in their own simple way. Sadly, the flick frustratingly shoots itself in the foot on more than one occasion, dampening its own effect by being decidedly stop-start when it comes to its tension. It's still worth a watch and is arguably one of the better films of the year, but it isn't quite as good as it initially makes itself out to be. The first act is phenomenal and the rest is dull by comparison, but the rest is markedly better than a lot of similar fare.

Shrek the Halls

Christmas with the cranky ogre.
'Shrek The Halls (2007)' is a short film about Shrek's first Christmas. Not only does he have to come to terms with the concept itself, he has to suppress his inner ogre so that he doesn't come to blows with his incredibly annoying friends. It's a predictable and tame affair from beginning to end. Its pacing is lighting fast, but it doesn't really need to be. It isn't especially funny, either (though one or two moments do provoke a chuckle). There's something just a bit off about it, despite it being nicely animated and decently voiced by all the proper cast members. It just feels a bit cheap, I suppose. This isn't helped by a couple of elliptical moments clearly meant to sandwich a commercial break on television. It's fine for what it is, I guess, but it isn't especially Shrektacular.

Cat Burglar

Choose your own... trivia?
'Cat Burglar (2022)' is an interactive short that essentially plays out as Tex Avery cartoon. Following a literal cat burglar as he attempts to break into an art museum, the picture strangely elects to incorporate its interactivity via a series of trivia questions instead of the more obviously appropriate 'choose your own adventure' sort of fare. The result is a little clunky, a bit of a missed opportunity in which failure always results in a lost life and a reset to the beginning of the previous scene rather than in an alternate scene that pushes the story in a new direction. The latter would be much more seamless and, indeed, satisfying. The piece does play out differently each time you go through it, but it does so by randomising each step of the story (even on a repeat). Sometimes, it flows well as one cohesive piece, but it often feels unnatural and becomes blatant from the second time around, never mind the sixth. There are six paintings to collect, each of which are tied to a different ending, and this results in an admittedly impressive amount of variation. It must have took quite a bit of work to put together, perhaps even almost as much as a feature-length affair. The animation is mostly fluid and energetic, packed with inventive sight gags and genre-literate homages. It's no slouch when it comes to its visuals. The thing is perhaps a bit inappropriate for the younger - or, perhaps, wider - audience at which it initially seems aimed, both in terms of its violence and in terms of its questions; it's almost unclear as to who it's actually for. It's worth noting, too, that the protagonist is actually quite hard to relate to, especially when it comes to how he handles the victory you may have led him towards (repeat viewings will likely have you rooting for his opposite, a security dog who deserves better than he usually gets). However, older children will probably enjoy playing though it multiple times to see how many different scenes they can see and they may even appreciate the 'edginess' of the affair. It isn't a bad effort, overall, and it clearly took a lot of work to put together. For me, though, it's a bit of a missed opportunity that's ultimately rather uninspiring.


Why do tomorrow what you can do today?
This movie musical is an adaptation of a popular Broadway show, itself based on the 'Little Orphan Annie' comic strips. 'Annie (1982)' is the all-singing, all-dancing story of a young orphan who gets invited to stay with a bald billionaire in a bid to improve his image and soon starts to melt the icy heart of the indomitable capitalist. It's pure wish-fulfilment fantasy that totally ignores the implications of the iffy class politics at its core. Those class politics are pretty distasteful and actually dampen the experience if you think about them for even a microsecond. However, the film flies past them and expects you to do the same; if you engage with it on its own level, there's certainly some fun to be had. The story is a total nonstarter, but it works well enough for the material and culminates in a bizarrely life-or-death chase sequence that's as out-of-place as it is entertaining. There are a couple of iconic song-and-dance routines and even the least enjoyable musical numbers are suitably diverting. It's all mostly wholesome on its surface and its performances are mostly fun in a scenery-chewing sort of way. The feature is far too long for its own good, though, and it also features some frustrating racism in the form of Punjab, an Indian bodyguard who can do rudimentary telekinesis seemingly solely due to his ethnicity. The cinematography has a wide-screen feel that combines with the practical, Depression-era sets and costumes to give the affair a 'seventies epic' visual vibe. However, John Huston's direction is far less consistent; his long takes often allow the choreography to shine, but he also frames things somewhat poorly and actually obscures some of the dancing. Things are sometimes too hectic for their own good and a lot of the sequences are just far too chaotic. Still, there's some decent fun to be had and the piece is enjoyable overall. Despite its dodgy class politics, it's a solid rags-to-riches musical that's earnest and mostly entertaining.

Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey

Jingle all the way?
'Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey (2020)' is a messy musical about an inventor whose life falls into disarray when his apprentice steals his schematics (as well as a self-obsessed sentient wooden doll voiced by Ricky Martin, for some reason) and starts passing them off as his own. After an extended prologue that sets up the plot, the piece mainly follows the inventor's granddaughter as she comes to visit and attempts to reignite his passion for pseudoscience. The picture is incredibly uneven, seemingly wildly unsure as to what it is and what it ought to be. There are just so many moments that make you scratch your head, including a belief-powered robot that can produce some sort of anti-gravity field (clearly an effort to create a minions-esque mascot), the aforementioned narcissistic living doll, the insistence that the square root of impossible is possible (alongside other supposedly mathematical nonsense) and a horny postal worker who worryingly won't take no for an answer and somehow isn't one of the villains. Despite a decent, set-focused steam-punk aesthetic and a handful of enjoyable musical numbers, most of the picture falls a little flat. Most of the song-and-dance routines are energetic but unmoving, as fast-paced as they are forgettable, and the story is both uneven and unfulfilling. The picture is predictable, slightly annoying at times and far too long overall (it's over two hours, for God's sake). The cast do a good job with the material, though, and the piece typically looks the part. It's notable that it's an original movie musical, too. Ultimately, this is fine fluff that may appeal more to younger or more musically inclined audiences than it does to me. It constantly teeters on the edge of being pretty good, but in the end it lands firmly in the average category.

Anna and the Apocalypse

School's out... forever?
'Anna And The Apocalypse (2017)' is a musical comedy Christmas movie about a zombie outbreak that interrupts the post-school plans of a disillusioned girl with dreams of travelling before going to university. It's very obviously inspired by 'Shaun Of The Dead (2004)', even though it doesn't come close to it in terms of quality, and its relatively distinct approach to the genre is appreciated. You could even argue that the overly pop sound and choreography of its 'High School Musical (2006)'-esque musical numbers is part of the picture's satire, though I think this is perhaps giving it a bit too much credit. The film is fairly fun throughout, even though it suffers from an uneven script that ranges from serviceable to sub-par. The music is oddly flat, lacking in energy despite its quick pace and the all-in nature of the dance sequences that accompany it, and it's often somewhat misplaced (a battle in a bowling alley is surely better suited to a song than its head-scratching 'I'm obsessed with my phone' aftermath). The story has a decent sense of escalation to it though, something helped by the fact that even the main characters aren't immune from the undead fate that may await them. The emotional beats don't really land and the comedy isn't as sharp as it needs to be, but the piece is typically well-paced and keeps you engaged throughout. It's a solid effort overall.

Who Killed Santa? A Murderville Murder Mystery

Even the corpse is corpsing.
'Who Killed Santa? A Murderville Mystery (2022)' is pure chaos in the best possible way. The piece is a spin-off of 'Murderville (2022-)', a Netflix show - itself based on the BBC series 'Murder In Successville (2015-2017)' - in which Will Arnett plays grizzled senior homicide detective Terry Seattle and is joined by a celebrity guest each episode who has no script and must attempt to improvise their way to a conclusion as to who among the suspects is guilty of whatever crime has been committed (usually murder). A large part of the show's appeal comes from the absurd scenarios the guests are forced to fumble their way through while trying not to break character, which probably happens at least once an episode. This longer version of the formula is ostensibly the movie adaptation of the show, though it does act as a loose sequel thanks to a couple of callbacks. As I mentioned up top, the chaos is bumped up to eleven this time and practically nobody can keep a straight face. Even the corpse is corpsing. Jason Bateman joins early on and undergoes the entire journey, whereas Maya Rudolph comes in later and has to be filled in on the bizarreness that she missed. There's even a surprise third guest that arrives way too late into the game to make any sort of informed decision, yet makes their impression felt by constantly threatening to derail the entire show. It works as a sort of live experience, almost akin to one of those Blank Goes Wrong plays, and most of its charm comes from watching comedians trying to make each other laugh. You have to be in the right mindset for it; if you are, it's really fun. The story is a nonstarter, purposefully so, and even the mystery is backgrounded this time in favour of barely controlled comedy. Still, the clues all line up and the written aspects of the piece are actually really well-done, with set-ups and callbacks making the ultimate reveal seem like the most natural thing in the world. Overall, this is a blast despite its occasional clumsiness. It's genuinely funny and, though it constantly seems as though it's going to tear apart at the seams, it's a cohesive slice of comedy that keeps you engaged throughout.

The Wipers Times

Papers, please.
'The Wipers Times (2013)' is about a group of soldiers in WWI who come across a printing press while stationed in Ypres and decide to produce a satirical newspaper to give the troops the gift of laughter while they endure trench warfare. The piece is based on a relatively interesting true story and sort of seeks to explore the Great War from a new perspective. Though it looks like an episode of 'Doctor Who (2005-)' and is generally rather confined due to its budget, it's an admirable attempt at recreating the period and it has a certain rustic charm to it. It sometimes blends the horrors of war with the comping mechanism of humour rather well, peeling back the characters' surface of detached wit to reveal a much darker truth about their experience, but it leans far more into comedy than drama even though it's quite dry overall. It's never boring, but it doesn't really have a sense of escalation. It's also too long for its own good. Yet, the narrative is compelling enough for what it is and the cutaway gags, which play out like the skits from 'Horrible Histories (2009-2022)', are generally enjoyable. It's a solid effort overall.

Eyes Wide Shut

The dream is a lie; the nightmare is the truth.
It's somewhat ironic that the narrative takes place over the course of about three days because the production literally holds the world record for having the longest number of shoot days with a whopping 400. Most movies are the result of a compromise between the filmmakers' intentions and what they were able to achieve given the time and money available to them, but 'Eyes Wide Shut (1999)' seems to be an exercise in sheer perfectionism. Having said that, if director Stanley Kubrick had survived to see its release, I'm almost certain he would have still found something to pick out as being not exactly what he wanted it to be. We are all our own worst critics, after all. Still, the result is a film that nobody can claim isn't at least incredibly close to its director's vision, despite his untimely death shortly after the final edit was delivered to the studio. Kubrick was so meticulous - a descriptor practically synonymous with his work - that he even went so far as to hire a team to recreate the streets of New York on a sound stage in London using exact measurements gathered by members of the production crew who didn't share his fear of flying. Even after every aspect of the production design, costuming, blocking, dialogue and performance had been decided, the cast and crew were plagued by an exhausting amount of takes; Vinessa Shaw was originally contracted for two weeks for her single scene, but this ballooned to two months thanks to the repetition demanded by the director. Kubrick also pushed his actors so far that Tom Cruise developed an ulcer and Nicole Kidman had an as-yet-undiscovered benign cyst exacerbated by the six-day-long shooting of a sex scene that only resulted in around a minute of actually used footage. The married couple were also forced to undergo therapy alongside their director, which both parties have agreed never to elaborate on, and to have the seeds of suspicion sewn into their real relationship by an atmosphere of secrecy on set.

The obvious question is: was it worth it? Almost everyone who has been interviewed about the picture, and working with Kubrick in general, seems more than happy to have undergone the impossibly tiring yet ostensibly rewarding process. However, there are reports of genuine suffering caused by this method (Shelley Duvall's treatment of the set of 'The Shining (1980)' comes to mind). Plus, art is arguably defined by the restrictions encountered while creating it; putting down the brush for the last time and declaring your piece complete is the only thing that transforms art-in-progress into actual art. In either case, perhaps the question itself is irrelevant - or, at the very least, so subjective that any answer to it would be equally as personal as it is pointless.

Kubrick's final feature is a bit of an odd one, a slow-paced micro-odyssey that sees Tom Cruise wander around New York while contemplating his marriage and the role that non-monogamy could play in it. Though almost every aspect of the picture circles back to sex in one way or another, its most potent underlying themes are mystery and class. Practically everything about the piece is an enigma in its own right, from its floaty and almost ethereal aesthetic to its elusive and almost dream-like plot. The protagonist is sent spiralling into an existential crisis when he comes to realise he doesn't understand his wife, nor the relationship between them, as well as he thought he did, a crisis which externalises itself in the form of a pensive journey of discovery. Yet, the further down the rabbit hole the hero goes, the less things make sense; definitive answers are nowhere to be found. The class system, and the various characters' place within it, is explored and challenged throughout the piece. It initially seems as though the wealthy and successful lead is on the top rung of capitalistic society, able to casually flash his cash in almost every scenario and get things that everyone else simply wouldn't have access to. Soon, though, it becomes clear that he's actually on the bottom rung of an entirely different ladder, one which leads to a place so potent and powerful that nobody outside of it really knows of its existence and those who occupy it can do unimaginable things with no fear of repercussion. Both of the main themes collide - and, arguably, come into focus - during the film's most infamous scene. I won't spoil its events just in case you've somehow managed to avoid knowledge of them, but I will say that this eerie and uncomfortable sequence represents the point at which the class system becomes a mystery and the other mysteries become subject to the class system. It's a disturbing moment because it represents an intangible horror, a sort of societal wound that you may not be aware of until you notice yourself picking at the scab. Once you've heard of it, you won't rest until you've seen it; once you've seen it, you won't ever rest again. It also, in a way, represents the vast unknowable nature of the universe and is a microcosm for the feature at large.

The more you think about the movie, the scarier it gets. In the moment, though, it plays out as a compelling and unconventional drama that constantly threatens to become something else. It's the sort of thing that makes you wonder why certain aspects of its plot were included in the first place, then realise that everything is as it was always meant to be. There are many layers to it and it's a very interesting affair overall, even if it is a little slow in general and takes a while to root itself in your brain. It's an undeniably well-made effort in pretty much every aspect, from the calculated camerawork to the believable performances (though Cruise seriously struggles to look as though he isn't resisting the urge to violently lash out at any given moment). It perhaps isn't for every one, but it's an entertaining and effective alternate Christmas movie that fans of anyone involved should see.

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