Black Widow (2021)

I keep saying that I’m not going to any more Marvel movies, because what really am I getting from them? I certainly gave up posting reviews of them up here because they mostly just cover the same sort of arc (fun but empty, and was that bit where they destroyed most of [insert city here] really necessary?). I’m pretty sure I said no more after Avengers: Endgame, and I feel certain I’ve said it at other times too, but here I am, back in again (because, obviously, it’s directed by a woman). I’d sort of forgotten the main thing about the Black Widow character from that final film of so-called ‘Stage Three’ of the MCU (avert yr eyes, but if you care you know already: she dies), but this is a prequel and it largely eschews the other big stars of the franchise, so we get a fairly standalone film, which is I think the best thing about it. So yes, let’s get back into it.


At a certain level this is more of the usual Marvel sound and fury. Beforehand, I went to the Wikipedia page intending to spoiler myself just for fun but realised that I genuinely didn’t care about any of the characters at that point, so if the film achieves anything it’s that by the end, I did at least feel like there was something there, something to hold onto at a character level. As someone who was introduced to Scarlett Johansson back in the 90s in films like Manny & Lo and Ghost World, there was a little flicker of what she brought to those films, though she’s had a full career, a roller-coaster ride of decisions, so in 2021 the stand-out performer is of course Florence Pugh. She may perhaps be expected to take on Scarlett’s ‘Widow’ mantle in future and if so, it’s a canny choice, because one of the few reasons I consented to return to the cinema to see yet another MCU film was the presence of Pugh (and the director, Cate Shortland, whose style in her earlier, much lower-budget psychological dramas like Somersault and Lore, at times here manages to penetrate through the studio playbook). Of course, there are also the big explosions, the silly fights (there’s a lot that’s silly, both intentional and not) and the crashing of enormous things into the ground, but you’ve got David Harbour for the comic relief (who is very good at that), and some genuinely quite sweet scenes between Pugh and Johansson as sort-of sisters rediscovering their bond. Also, secretly, maybe the whole film is actually an allegory for #FreeBritney; certainly there is a message there that touches on conservatorship, I think, and about alienating women from choices over their bodies.

Black Widow (2021)CREDITS
Director Cate Shortland; Writers Eric Pearson, Jac Shaffer and Ned Benson; Cinematographer Gabriel Beristáin; Starring Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, Rachel Weisz, David Harbour, Ray Winstone, O-T Fagbenle; Length 134 minutes.
Seen at the Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 10 July 2021.

The Old Guard (2020)

I’m taking a pivot today from documentaries to feature a very recent release on Netflix, the action superhero film The Old Guard, most notable perhaps for its star turn by Charlize Theron, but with I think quite a lot of hidden depth. It’s an odd outing for a director previously best known for romances like the stellar Love & Basketball (2000) and the equally excellent Beyond the Lights (2014), but a very solid one too.


I see this is pulling down a good range of opinions, but even as someone who hasn’t always been so thrilled with the comic-book adaptations/superhero genre in the past, I thought it was great, punchily shot and edited and with some fine performances. One could quibble that not all the writing was up to the same standard, but it almost doesn’t matter with supporting actors of the quality of Chiwetel Ejiofor or KiKi Layne. At the heart of the film though is Charlize Theron and her gang of immortals, and it’s a difficult thing to convey hundreds if not thousands of years of existence adequately, but I think Theron pitched it at the right level. The film allowed moments of existential reflection, not to mention moral qualms about resorting to violence — already more than most genre films manage — but they key is in the characters and the performances, I think. Plus it all fit together expertly, and while she may be better known for romances, director Gina Prince-Bythewood shows herself to be a solid action director too.

The Old Guard film posterCREDITS
Director Gina Prince-Bythewood; Writer Greg Rucka (based on the comic book by him and Leandro Fernández); Cinematographers Tami Reiker and Barry Ackroyd; Starring Charlize Theron, KiKi Layne, Matthias Schoenaerts, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Marwan Kenzari مروان كنزاري, Luca Marinelli; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Thursday 16 July 2020.

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (2020)

This was released back when cinemas were still open, but has since gone to streaming-on-demand services (where you can pay some money right now to rent it). It got a bit of flack from the usual quarters, but it’s a really solid, colourful and beautifully-orchestrated superhero action film, a genre I have been very wary in recent years of dipping back into (having gone to see far too many of the Marvel films, and having been burned on some of the DC ones) but this one somehow managed to renew my interest. The director’s 2018 debut film Dead Pigs had some success on festival circuits, certainly a distinctive if divisive work, and she gets a bigger budget and brighter palette here.


I swore off superhero movies some time ago, but I was drawn back in by the creative team. It’s surprising to me too the way that Margot Robbie has really come into her own in the last five years; there’s a scene in this film where a girl is in awe of all of Harley Quinn’s achievements (that’s the title character played by Robbie), but it feels like she’s talking directly to Robbie. No, it turns out that between director Cathy Yan, the producer/star, the fabulous ensemble and the tireless work of her production designers and set dressers and costumiers, that I low-key loved this film. It does its critiques of toxic masculinity (Ewan McGregor and Chris Messina, both on top form) without ponderousness, giving them vignettes of pure malevolence and just letting them linger without distracting soundtrack choices or cutaways: when things are bad, they are allowed the space to be bad. But then there’s the fun, colourful, hyper, truly comic book fizz of the rest of the film, especially the kinetic fight sequences which make most of the Marvel ones (in fact, most of the fights in most other comic book films) feel badly staged. The ensemble camaraderie is real, and Winstead is a particular stand-out, albeit perhaps just by virtue of sort of playing against the cartoonish colourfulness of everyone else, but this feels like effortless fun (and I imagine it was anything other than effortless to create).

Birds of Prey film posterCREDITS
Director Cathy Yan 閻羽茜; Writer Christina Hodson (based on characters from DC Comics); Cinematographer Matthew Libatique; Starring Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Ella Jay Basco, Rosie Perez, Chris Messina, Ewan McGregor; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Tuesday 11 February 2020.

Fast Color (2018)

Catching up on my films-on-Netflix theme, we come to this striking outing from Julia Hart, a sort of supernatural superhero film albeit one very much grounded in a recognisable world.


This is a film that builds slowly, but it has a sense of atmosphere and mystery that I found beguiling and which really drew me into this story, reminiscent somewhat of NK Jemisin or Octavia Butler in putting across this recognisable future world of hardship and environmental breakdown without belabouring the dystopian qualities in a simple way or building societal collapse into some art-designed fascist nightmare. Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Ruth, a confused young woman just trying to piece things together as she travels across these wide, barren landscapes, and the film follows her and reveals things to us as she discovers them. It’s clearly not had a huge budget (like a number of other recent future dystopia films) but it uses its effects in a sparing and expressionist manner, and draws out the drama happening amongst primarily three characters.

Fast Color film posterCREDITS
Director Julia Hart; Writers Hart and Jordan Horowitz; Cinematographer Michael Fimognari; Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Saniyya Sidney, Lorraine Toussaint, Christopher Denham, David Strathairn; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Friday 13 December 2019.

Ghostbusters (2016)

It is apparently incumbent on every white dude on the internet to register his opinion on this new ‘reboot’ of Ghostbusters, the 1984 film which brought together a handful of comedic actors and writers (most prominently from Saturday Night Live) in a supernatural-themed comedy pitting aforesaid actors against a demonic threat to New York City. And so again we have a handful of comedic actors and writers (mostly from SNL) in a supernatural etc. etc. The remake largely refocuses the film on the four titular characters (three dorky scientists and one subway worker played by Leslie Jones) and their comedic interactions. Supporting characters — including their chief antagonist, who in a nod perhaps to the source of much of the online “criticism”, is an introverted, maladjusted guy with very little in the way of a defined character — are reduced to a number of cameos from the original cast, and a fine turn by another SNL alum Cecily Strong as the mayor’s sceptical and unhelpful aide. Oh, and Chris Hemsworth as a beefy but very very stupid receptionist, who threatens at times to steal the film. He doesn’t though, because Kate McKinnon does that, as the compellingly weird Jillian Holtzmann, who also gets one of the key later action sequences, a relatively short but thrilling single-handed paranormal combat. I don’t know, maybe the script isn’t so tight in all respects, and I have to concede I was pretty drunk when I watched it, but I really fail to understand a lot of the film’s critics. Perhaps the humour won’t appeal to everyone, but it all seemed pretty funny to me, plus there were scares reminiscent of the first film. And as far as I can recall, there aren’t any scenes of anyone being sexually pleasured by a ghost, so bonus marks for that. As I see it, though, quite aside from the comedy and horror, the key points are: representation for leading characters who are women, who don’t need the help of men, who get to be intelligent and have that define them rather than their looks or their sexuality, and who get a happy ending. That much seems rare enough in contemporary Hollywood blockbuster films that I think it’s worth trumpeting.

Ghostbusters film posterCREDITS
Director Paul Feig; Writers Katie Dippold and Feig (based on the 1984 film by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis); Cinematographer Robert Yeoman; Starring Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Chris Hemsworth; Length 116 minutes.
Seen at Peckhamplex, London, Friday 22 July 2016.

April 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up

Herewith some brief thoughts about films I saw in April which I didn’t review in full. It includes a couple of films I actually saw in March but had thought I’d write up in their own posts (I didn’t).

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015, USA)
The Book of Life (2014, USA)
En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron (A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence) (2014, Sweden/Norway/Germany/France)
Insurgent (aka The Divergent Series: Insurgent) (2015, USA)
Notting Hill (1999, UK)
Pitch Perfect (2012, USA)
Premium Rush (2012, USA)
Wild Card (2015, USA)

Continue reading “April 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up”

February 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up

Herewith some brief thoughts about films I saw in February which I didn’t review in full.

Big Hero 6 (2014, USA)
Bride of Frankenstein (1935, USA)
Kawachi Karumen (Carmen from Kawachi) (1966, Japan)
Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988, USA)
Lifeforce (1985, USA)
Lovelace (2013, USA)
La Reine Margot (1994, France/Italy)
The Selfish Giant (2013, UK)
Somersault (2004, Australia)
Stop Making Sense (1984, USA)

Continue reading “February 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up”

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

From its very title, with those weirdly-placed parentheses, you know that this New York-set film about actors and egos has a precious, slightly fragile and very much self-indulgent quality. This becomes even clearer as the film begins to unfold in what appears to be a long unbroken take (albeit one spliced together digitally). But if it’s self-indulgent as a film, it’s also about hugely self-indulgent characters, specifically Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), once famous for his portrayal of a winged superhero in a series of big budget Hollywood hits (hmm). Fallen on something like hard times, Riggan has written, directed and is starring in a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short stories, set to open imminently on Broadway, as a ploy to resurrect his reputation. He has conflicts with his actors (most notably Edward Norton as a mercurial stage talent with a disregard for film actors) and with his daughter Sam (Emma Stone, who hangs around the set doing odd jobs), but really it’s his ego with whom he’s most at war. Aside from the formal strategies, there’s also a mildly magical realist sense of a world of his imagination/paranoia/whatever that extends into his everyday life, as he is taunted by the growling voice of his Birdman alter ego. I can hardly fault any of the performances, and both Norton and Keaton are particularly excellent as different sides of the same rampaging egomania, with which those around them can only barely cope. So yes it’s brittle, and indulgent and just-so, but it’s all of a piece with its neurotic theatrical setting, and it all somehow works.

Birdman film posterCREDITS
Director Alejandro González Iñárritu; Writers Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr and Armando Bo; Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki; Starring Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis; Length 119 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Monday 29 December 2014.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

You can’t deny that Marvel Studios have done a good job at shaping their film presence over the last decade, in a way that goes well beyond just giving Stan Lee his surely contractually-obliged cameo (and yes, there’s one here too). It just seems, though, as someone who is coming over time to appreciate a well-written screenplay, that there’s an overabundance of detail (of plot, characters, worlds, special effects, music and noise): a sensory overload at times. Maybe that’s to do with the source material, but for a two-hour film, there certainly are a lot of distractions. Partly that goes with the fantasy sci-fi setting, but the opening half hour features plenty of breathless cross-cutting between all-but-identically-named worlds, blathering on about nonsense with silly names, trying to sketch out various tribal allegiances that you need series TV (or a comic book) to really do justice to. At the core of the plot, though, is a mysterious orb, a classic MacGuffin whose purpose and power is fairly redundant. After all, the point is surely the journey of the five outlaw protagonists, led by Chris Pratt’s likeable goofy Andy Peter “Starlord”, as they pursue this orb — and at that, the film succeeds.

I mentioned the writing above, but I don’t mean to criticise it. The real joy of the film — as with most of Marvel’s films — is in the character interactions, and these are all done well enough that I was left wanting less of the action-adventure and more of the hanging out. A standout is Rocket the genetically-modified raccoon-like creature (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a ball of maniacal energy imbued with a carnivalesque sense of dangerous fun and a touchy ego. In fact, when stacked alongside his character, a kind-hearted mutant tree called Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) and the heavily-tattooed and scarified warrior Drax (Dave Bautista), it’s the humanoids who have the tough acting job here. Pratt plays to his strengths so well honed in The Lego Movie, while Zoë Saldana’s Gamora gets a lot of glowering done under her green makeup, but they have to work hard not to be relegated to sideshow attractions.

The tone of the film is largely comedic, so when the bad guy Ronan (Lee Pace) is introduced, his vengeful pantomime (which is played and filmed totally straight, all threatening low-angle shots of his blue face lurking in shadows against the starry night sky) quickly descends into bathos. There’s so much of this kind of thing — Karen Gillan’s Nebula is another blue-skinned vengeful opponent, one amongst many — that it becomes a little wearing. Indeed, every so often the film requires an injection of fun, so has Starlord popping up at some inappropriate moment to boogie along to another 70s rock classic (you can certainly tell when the director was born, and in its persistent musical referencing of the era, it particularly calls to mind American Hustle).

It’s not perfect by any means: there are some very weird and apparently pointless moments of nastiness (such as Benicio del Toro’s ‘Collector’ and his subjugation of women) that aren’t even effaced by the presence of a female screenwriter — a rare enough occurrence on this kind of project. There’s also a post-credits sequence that briefly threatens the return of one of the more unloved characters in the Marvel back catalogue. Most aggravating is the reliance on what is now becoming the most inflexible of plot points for this Studio’s universe — the protracted destruction of a major city by bombardment from the air (not a real city, this time, but a sort of alien composite of many you’ll be familiar with). However, despite all this — which makes the running time seem longer than it mercifully is — Guardians of the Galaxy is on the whole a rather enjoyable comedic adventure romp.

Guardians of the Galaxy film posterCREDITS
Director James Gunn; Writers Gunn and Nicole Perlman (based on the comic book by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning); Cinematographer Ben Davis; Starring Chris Pratt, Zoë Saldana, Dave Bautista, Karen Gillan, Bradley Cooper; Length 122 minutes.
Seen at Genesis, London, Monday 4 August 2014.

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

Perhaps I’m just getting weary of superhero movies now, but it’s not just me, surely? Days of Future Past, while hardly being terrible (sorry, X-Men Origins: Wolverine), is not the equal even of its immediate predecessor, X-Men: First Class (2011, although I’m setting aside 2013’s The Wolverine). I had hope for Marvel movies after the surprisingly enjoyable Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but that was made by a different studio. By comparison, Days of Future Past just seems lazy and bloated. There’s an end-of-days apocalyptic plotline, including a thin excuse to bring together the different timelines (and their respective actors), but it’s no more compelling than Star Trek: Generations so many years before, another franchise to which Patrick Stewart has lent his considerable actorly gravitas. As with that franchise, here too it’s ultimately the younger generation who are more convincing and enjoyable in their roles, James McAvoy as Xavier and Michael Fassbender as Magneto nicely playing off one another, though Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine remains dependable across both timelines. There’s also an expanded role for Jennifer Lawrence, and it’s just as well she’s such a fine actor as she’s required to express plenty of fairly uninflected rage and caprice. Indeed, if there’s anything I’ll remember about Days of Future Past in years to come, it won’t be the special effects or the big setpieces or the now-canonical protracted final battle sequence, but the sense of so many very talented actors (those named above, along with a smaller role for Peter Dinklage, and poor Anna Paquin all but left on the cutting-room floor) being wasted on over-extended big-budget bloat.

X-Men: Days of Future Past film posterCREDITS
Director Bryan Singer; Writer Simon Kinberg (based on the Uncanny X-Men comic book storyline “Days of Future Past” by Chris Claremont and John Byrne); Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel; Starring Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Peter Dinklage; Length 131 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Thursday 22 May 2014.