Bullet Train (2022)

Quick Synopsis: Ladybug (Brad Pitt) is an unlucky assassin who’s been tasked to retrieve a briefcase from a train. A train full of other nefarious people including Tangerine and Lemon (Aaron-Taylor Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry), The Wolf (Bad Bunny), The Hornet (Zazie Beetz), The Prince (Joey King), and The Father (Andrew Koji) also all want the briefcase in this fun neon insanity directed by David Leitch (Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2).

My expectations for this: dumb fun. I’d watch it, be slightly amused, but come out thinking I could have watched this on Netflix.

In reality, I’ve seen this film twice already now. It’s among my favourites of the year. It just works. Action films depend on the two C’s: Characters and Choreography. Characters; You can have faceless mooks be injured and killed, but if it’s a one-on-one fight scene and you don’t care about one of the characters, the stakes will seem lower. A random person being punched in the face? Meh, who cares? Clive, who we know is working this low-level job to pay for his daughter’s hospital bills, and we witness him being injured? We care, we worry about Clive and the implications of him being injured. This film nails that aspect, there are moments where characters get a long introductory montage full of motivation and background, and then only last 5 minutes before dying. Some may find this frustrating but I loved it. Not only because it added character motivation to random fights, but also meant that there was a real “anyone can die” feel to the whole thing. You watch this knowing that any character could suddenly be killed, and not dramatically or meaningfully, characters can be killed by accident in the blink of an eye.

Now, choreography. I dislike a lot of modern action films for one simple reason: you can’t actually see what’s going on. The camera moves so quickly that your brain is forever playing catchup to your eyes. The fight scenes in this are brilliant. They’re brightly lit, and choreographed SO WELL. Unless it’s purposeful misdirection, you know where everybody is at all times and can clearly see everything that’s happening. It kind of helps that everybody looks so different so even when it is just two people grappling and rolling, you can tell who is winning, there’s none of those issues you had with Morbius where it just looked like a blob of flesh whirling around. This has some of my favourite fight scenes I’ve seen in a long time.

It looks great, the bright colours and unique setting help create a visual feast for the eyes. It’s like a weird mix of Edgar Wright, Guy Ritchie, and Chad Stahelski. The Guy Ritchie comparisons also extend to the story and the dialogue. There are lots of F-words, lots of character introductions via flashback, and lots of deadly misunderstandings and miscommunications. If the characters were terrible, that would hurt the film. But as it is, it works. The characters are all different enough that when you get another introduction, it doesn’t hurt the film. I would watch a spin-off film based around almost any one of these characters. The script is also VERY funny, there was sustained laughter throughout the cinema when I saw it. Different types of comedy too, there’s absurdity, wordplay, physical humour etc. It runs the gauntlet of different comedic styles flawlessly, whilst also putting in many references to Thomas The Tank Engine, more than most films.

Now onto the downsides: the CGI is slightly ropey at times. Usually not distractingly so but there a few moments which just don’t look “right”. There’s a moment near the end where Brad Pitts performance feels a little off. It’s hard to explain it, but it doesn’t feel like he’s interacting with a person, feels like he’s just on his own in a room reading lines. It’s strange as 99% of the time he can be depended on for a very good performance, and in most of this he’s perfect. There’s just that one scene which is a little off. One of the characters deaths doesn’t feel very satisfying. This persons comeuppance is constantly teased throughout, and when it does happen it feels like it happens too quickly.

Overall, I highly recommend this. As I said, I’ve seen it twice already, and will definitely be getting it on DVD, I’m already considering buying the soundtrack.

Minions: The Rise Of Gru

Quick synopsis: It’s 1976, 11 year old Gru wants to join a supervillain league but is rejected due to his young age, he does not take it well.

I was ready to slate this, I was ready to come down on this harder than the next UK Prime Minister comes down on an unemployed person not applying for jobs in their sleep. I was going to use every insult that exists, and a few that I made up to express my anger at this film.

But then it ruined my plans by having the audacity, the sheer gall, to actually be okay. How very dare you! I mean, it’s not going to end up on my “best of 2021” list, mainly because it’s 2022, but also because the best it ever gets is “okay”. I’ll admit, I’m not a huge fan of the franchise, I think it’s because it’s basically old Buster Keaton skits, but in animation so there’s no sense of danger or risk. There’s also always the sneaking suspicion that it’s a merchandise-driven series rather than a creative one. It’s strange as its when this film links to the others in the franchise that it’s at its weakest. The timeline doesn’t line up AT ALL with the first Minions film, and when it makes references to the other films it falls flat, and like every prequel ever made has moments where the audience reacts with “what a useful skill/gadget, that would have been useful in [scene in a film made earlier but chronologically takes place later]”.

This does fix the biggest mistake of the previous prequel, it focuses on a character who can talk. The minions are fine in small doses, if they were in a series of shorts it would be fine. But following them over the course of an entire feature-length film is tiresome, so following less obnoxious characters is a smart move. What would be even smarter is utilizing the supporting cast more effectively: the main villains are played by Lucy Lawless, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, Tajiri P Henson, and Danny Trejo. With the exception of Henson, it’s possible to watch this film and be unaware of that. They’re not used enough and it feels like kind of a waste casting them. Also, it’s strange having them in a movie set in 1976, change the plot (make Gru a young villain instead of a child), and set it in the 80s and that casting would make sense.

Now onto the good; the narrative is strong and it never feels like things are happening “just because”. It is very funny at times, and the music is fun. It’s also absolutely perfect for kids, they’ll love it. The colours, the sound, the jokes, this will be one of those films parents will hate because of how often their kids will want to watch it.

So in summary, if you have kids, take them to the cinema to see it. If not, wait until netflix then check it out when you have nothing else to do.

The Bad Guys (2022)

Quick Synopsis: A criminal gang made up of anthropomorphic animals pretend to reform themselves into good guys to avoid prison.

It’s difficult to be an animated movie. Since Toy Story changed the game back in 1995, everybody else has followed suit and started producing films more in line with that visual style. So they usually look great, but it does have the downside of meaning it will get compared to Pixar, and being compared to one of the most consistent studios is not going to end well. Sometimes studios don’t help themselves, like when Dreamworks released Antz so close to the release of A Bugs Life. This has a similar problem, a not-dog animal who frequently breaks the law tries to move to the side of good, and the big bad actually turns out to be a somewhat “cute” animal.” It’s going to be difficult for this to leave the shadow of Zootropolis.

Oh, I guess that “big bad reveal” is technically a spoiler, but it’s one that will be incredibly obvious to anybody who has ever seen a film before. That’s the biggest issue I have with this, it just doesn’t seem very original. It wears its cinematic influences too brazenly, so no matter how much you like it, it’s not likely to be your favourite film, as you’re constantly comparing it to something else.

Also, the opening is a bit strange. Essentially just two characters sitting in a cafe preparing for a heist while discussing an upcoming birthday. It establishes the characters, shows that the general public are afraid of them, and is weirdly Pulp Fiction-esque for a kid’s film. It’s also completely unnecessary. Everything it does is repeated in the next scene, the aftermath of the bank robbery. The bank robbery scene would be a much better opener, it’s fast-paced, funny, and showcases the best visual trick this film has: when it blends CGI animation with cel-shaded effects. This would get you straight into the film and perfectly set the tone for the rest of it. The opening it currently has is far too slow, boring, and I’m not going to lie, it did make me worry that the film was going to be awful.

That’s a shame as the film is actually quite fun. The characters are well-defined in terms of motivations (although there is one doublecross that happens far too quickly), the voice-acting is pretty good (with the exception of the newsreader), and the jokes are genuinely funny.

The Pulp Fiction comparison earlier was apt, as this is essentially a Tarantino film for kids (although one of the female characters has 8 feet, and if Tarantino could make a film like that he’d never leave the edit suite). It makes the most of the concept beautifully. Sometimes in films like this, there are not many references to them being animals and it can feel like a strange creative choice. This depends on it, there are certain plot points, certain jokes etc, which only work if the characters are animals, and only if they’re these specific ones. The jokes are character and plot-specific. It’s overall a quite impressive watch.

It’s not going to change the world, but if you’re looking after young kids and want to keep them entertained, you could do a lot worse than choosing this.

Catch The Fair One (2021)

Quick synopsis: In this thriller by Josef Kubota Wladyka, a boxer (Kali Reis) embarks on the fight of her life when she goes undercover in a sex trafficking operation to seek revenge for the disappearance of her sister

You often get a sense that a film “belongs” to someone. Usually, that’s the director. Kubota Wladyka did a great job here. He has a background in television, but the television he’s worked on has included such critically acclaimed series as The Terror and Narcos, so, despite the fact this is his feature debut, it’s not exactly unexpected that he managed to do such a good job of framing the urban decay and human apathy in this world. He also wrote the script, and some of the dialogue in this is painful, in a good way. He has a talent for exploring humanity, knowing what people go through during painful moments. He knows the kind of things people say in stressful situations, and more importantly, what they don’t say. There’s a scene where Reis’s character gets kidnapped and it’s one of the best kidnapping scenes I’ve seen. There are no audio cues to warn you what will happen. There’s zero visual indication of what’s about to happen, which makes sense as that doesn’t really happen in real life. It’s unexpected, as it should be.

Despite that, it’s not his film. I know that from what I’ve said so far, it should be, but the whole thing really belongs to Kali Reis. Considering this is her first role, she does a PHENOMENAL job, possibly one of the best acting debuts I’ve ever seen. She’s also responsible for the story. You can tell it’s one that’s deeply personal to her. She’s an active supporter of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls movement. That comes through in the story being told, the whole thing is basically “This shit needs to fucking stop!”. It’s personal, it’s passionate, and it’s fucking angry (as it should be).

You are slightly misled by the synopsis and the trailer, this is not a boxing movie, in fact, that aspect barely comes up (but is a good thing to keep in mind during the fight scenes). This is not a high-octane thriller like Taken. This is the cinematic equivalent of tooth extraction in slow motion. You know what you’re going through is painful, and it’s slow, but you do it in the hope that at the end the pain will be gone and it will all be worth it. There’s a scene where the main character waterboards someone (after threatening to cut off his wife’s ear). In a standard action movie, this would be the moment where the person being tortured gives up information which then leads to the hero saving the day. In this? The guy dies without giving up any information, because torture doesn’t fucking work no matter what movies which are coincidentally funded by the US military tell you.

It’s not a nice film, but it would be weird if a film about this subject was nice. It’s realistic, and that’s why it’s so painful. When a character says that “nobody is looking because nobody cares”, it hits deep because you know it’s true, there’s a reason Missing White Women Syndrome is a thing. When a sex trafficker describes a 29-year-old as “too old”, it disgusts you because you know that’s how people like him (and his customers) think.

That I feel is its biggest weakness, it’s unrelentingly bleak and uneasy to get through. But it could have been fixed if they changed the ending. I don’t mean to give it a happy ending full of unicorns and happiness as tonally that would be a complete mess. I’m talking about the ending credits. When a TV show handles certain subjects they often have someone at the end say “and if you’ve been affected by any of the issues raised in this programme tonight, resources to help are available at…….”. Something like that at the end could have improved it. Not a voiceover, as that would be weird. But if it went to the credits, and instead of just standard credits it started with a fact-sheet about the issues raised in the film, and lists of websites and resources which help, it would add a little something. At the moment you’re left with a “fuck, that’s terrible. There’s nothing we can do” feeling when the film ends, whereas if they provided resource links to websites and organisations at the end, then it could inspire people to help out. It could have been important and changed lives, instead of just INCREDIBLY impactful.

The other downside? Her being a boxer doesn’t play as big a part in it as it could. Also, there’s a really intense scene of her and her mother having an argument about guilt and recovery. It’s a brilliantly written scene, but it’s not really followed up on. I wouldn’t cut it though, mainly because of how good it is, but also the scene leading into it of her mother leading a missing persons group has some of the best moments, moments which say a lot about masculinity and responsibility. Such a brilliant scene and it deserves to be followed up in someway.

So in summary, I would highly recommend seeing this. You won’t enjoy it, but you will be changed by it.

Unhuman (2022)

Quick Synopsis: Seven misfit students must band together against a growing gang of zombies

Was really looking forward to this. It looked like it was going to be funny, violent, and slick. Basically I thought this was going to do with zombies what Freaky did with body swap cÍomedies. It’s not quite there, but that is what it’s aiming for. It’s definitely trying to do that, but it’s just not good enough to reach it.

Directing and editing are a bit like making a soufflé, there’s a fine line between perfection and the whole thing collapsing in on itself. This tries so hard to be slick and cool, but is too visually busy at times. Even scenes which are just conversations are overstylized to the point where it’s almost comical. There’s one in particular at the start where there’s an edit which is definitely a conscious choice, but feels like a mistake.

The directing and the writing are the weakest parts of this. The whole thing feels weirdly dated, to a very specific time too: the late 90’s early 2000’s. All that’s missing is a nu-metal soundtrack. There’s a cool mid-point plot twist that is pretty surprising, but I feel like it needs to be set up better. It also comes at a weird time, around halfway through. If it happened earlier then it would be the inciting incident and would set the film up as different from its contemporaries. If it happened later than it would propel the film into a chaotic third act, but it happens in the wrong place to achieve either. It also doesn’t do that thing that great twists do, you don’t sit there thinking “I’m going to watch this again and catch all the clues that led to this reveal”.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a pretty damn good twist, and very cleverly thought of, it’s just poorly executed. Probably would have been helped if the characters were better, they’re so poorly defined that you could swap the characters at multiple points and it wouldn’t affect the story that much. They don’t feel like they have a relationship outside of this film, their lives begin and end when the film does.

There are some promising moments though: the bus crash itself is very well shot. Although there’s a moment in it where someone bashes their head on the chair in front and gets a broken nose. But the impact itself is weirdly flat and if it wasn’t for the CGI blood you wouldn’t think it did any damage. There’s a great split-second moment afterwards though where a guy is handed a menstrual pad to pass over to the broken nose girl to help clean up the blood. The pad is new and in an unopened box, but the guy still acts with utter revulsion. I don’t know whether that was the actor’s decision or the director’s, but it was really smart and so funny.

The cast? It’s okay. The main star is Brianne Tju, better known for being in TV adaptations of 90s horror films, which is a weird niche to be in. Drew Scheid also seems to have found a niche as “nice guy in a horror movie who turns out to be creepy”. There are no real standout performances, you mostly get “wait, where do I know that person from?”. It was released by Paramount yet the whole thing SCREAMS “Made for MTV” in terms of casting.

It feels like it’s influenced by the John Hughes movies of the 80s, but doesn’t seem to understand what made those films work. It’s not enough to just have “here’s a jock, and here’s a fat kid, and a shy girl, all trapped together”, you need to have heart. You need a warmth to the whole thing. There needs to be an emotional lynchpin to base the situation around so that you can relate, and this lacks that.

It’s a shame as I had a lot of hope for this, and it’s a shame that it ended up being so disposable and forgetful. Also, and I appreciate this is a weird criticism: it’s nowhere near as gay as it should be.

It looks cheap.

The bus crash itself is well shot,

You Are Not My Mother (2021)

Quick synopsis: In a North Dublin housing estate, Char’s mother goes missing. When she returns, there’s something “different” about her.

I will always be a sucker for a slow-burn horror film. Don’t get me wrong, I adore a fast-paced slasher with blood from the outset. But there’s a weird sense of satisfaction I get from watching the closing section of a slow-burner, when everything comes together and the tension starts ramping up. This is one of those, it’s not the quickest film, not going to be one where you’re sitting there thrilled throughout. But it is one where you’ll be watching and enjoying. It’s the cinematic equivalent of when you read a book by the fire, and you’re so hooked that you finish the whole book in one night. It’s genuinely a compelling watch. It’s set in Ireland, the quiet modern world providing a lovingly simple backdrop to the haunting narrative. That’s the best location for this story, I feel if it was in a large city it wouldn’t have the cosy familiarity that it needs to work. It would also require a different type of audio, you’d need the sound of the hustle and bustle of city life, so you couldn’t get the silence and the darkness that this needs for the narrative to breathe.

That’s the best way to talk about one of the possible downsides of this film, it is slow, and that won’t be for everyone. There are also some plot points which are started, but not really closed. I know that closure is unrealistic, but there are some things which feel like they’re forgotten. Trouble is, I’m not entirely sure how you could have closed them without disrupting the narrative. It’s really tricky, and really picky of me to point out. You also get the feeling that this might work better as a short, it does struggle to fill the length sometimes. There are also moments where characters don’t question things which they probably should, it feels like this is just because if they asked questions and investigated, the film would be over quicker.

This is Kate Dolan’s debut feature as both a writer and a director. She’s found success in her shorts, creating the award-winning Catcalls back in 2017. There’s been a lot of promising debuts over the last few years, particularly in horror, especially from female creators. Some have shown promise (Umma), some have shown potential but aren’t quite there yet (How To Deter A Robber), and some instantly get you into the creator (Censor). This is up there towards the higher quality, I won’t exactly rush out and have a NEED to watch everything she has done, but if I’m watching a trailer and I see the words “By Kate Dolan”, it will be the deciding factor about the film. She has a great talent at narrative misdirection, but then making it seem like the ending was the only possible way, almost like it’s mocking you for thinking one thing was true. Her directing is pretty much spot on too. She knows when to inject suspense into a scene, and when to have it play like a drama. The biggest compliment I can give her as a director is it’s a horror movie that doesn’t feel like a horror movie. That’s a weird point I know, so I’ll just explain it. Often things in horror movies only happen because they’re horror movies: there are people just walking around a house while creepy music plays and they’re terrified. But if you think of it from their reality, they don’t hear the music, so what are they scared of? It makes you very aware you’re watching a movie. This plays out like a drama, so when the horror moments happen, the grounding in reality that the film has established means the horror feels real. These aren’t characters in a horror movie, these are real characters who are living, and are having a horror movie happen to them.

Her work is aided by the performances, the central 3 (Ingrid Craigle, Hazel Doupe, and Carolyn Bracken) work so well together that I could watch a film that’s just the three of them in a room talking for 90 minutes. Carolyn deserves special mention purely because of how physically demanding her role as the mother (and “mother”) is. She technically plays two roles and carries herself differently in both. There’s one scene in particular where she shines and is a great example of her talent. She’s dancing around the room, very graceful and elegant. But then it gets weird, and the dancing has a strange, almost violent energy to it. It is still elegant, but it’s a violent elegance that is beautiful to watch but also terrifying.

That’s how I sum up this film: terrifying elegance. The biggest disappointment is that it’s on Netflix and I didn’t get to see it at the cinema.

F@ck This Job a.k.a Tango With Putin (2021)

Quick synopsis: A documentary about the rise and predictable fall of Dozhd, an independent news company based in Russia.

I don’t normally do documentaries, but this one intrigued me. It was difficult for me to find as I was searching for it under its original title, which is difficult to find as it includes symbols in the title. Then I found out it’s also got another name, and is available on iPlayer, which is nice (under the Storyville section).

This is depressingly needed now. The invasion of Ukraine didn’t come out of a vacuum, it’s been set up and orchestrated for years. I don’t go into politics that much in these, mainly because it’s quite dull, plus it dates the reviews which would mean they’re not as enjoyable to reread in a year or so’s time. But occasionally there’s some stuff that goes beyond political, and becomes stuff that needs to be said. Being anti-racist isn’t political, it should be default. Similarly, being against a lot of what Putin has done isn’t political, it’s basic human empathy. He’s a prick, and It’s weird to see the love people have for him, which I’m sure has nothing to do with all the media talking about how great he is.

The control he has over the press is terrifying. The fact that a news company can unintentionally be notable just for telling the truth is strange. When Dozhd change focus from a happy optimistic news channel to hard-hitting journalism, the knives of the regime come out. The rest of the media calls them traitors, which is weird it’s clear to see that they deeply love their country, and that’s why it’s unthinkable to them to not fight for ways to improve it.

Now more onto the film itself. Vera Krichevskaya is a good choice for this as director and narrator. This is a story that needs to be told from the POV of someone who was there. I will admit, that there are moments where someone with a more flowing voice might have been a better option. Or have it in Russian and subtitle her narration. But that’s a small issue. Someone doing the narration just for a job would have been a disservice to the station. And having it be someone who wasn’t Russian would be kind of weird considering that this is a very Russian story.

It’s edited beautifully, it flows together like a fiction film, there’s no awkward “oh they obviously couldn’t say anything about this section” or “they had nothing to say here”, it flows together with a real sense of purpose and deliberateness.

Some of the interviewers could stand out a bit more. It doesn’t help that some of them look VASTLY different from how they did back then. Plus since the story only really focuses on one person, you don’t really get a chance to know most of the people involved. It’s a shame as the small glimpses we get of them show they are interesting people. Plus it would be good to find out more about the psychology of people who take on a project like this. At times it does feel not so much a look at the staff, or even the channel itself, and more a story about the owner: Natalya Sindeyeva. It focuses on her a lot, sometimes to the detriment of the film. Thankfully it’s not TOO big a detriment, not only because the channel itself is clearly a passion project for her, so by talking about Natalya, you do get a sense of Dozhd too, but also because she’s such an interesting person. She has the kind of energy where if you were at a party and she was in the room, all the attention would move to her. She captivates you with her presence and undeniable charisma. So when we see her go through what she does, it just makes it feel so awful. She has to leave the country she loves just because she disapproves of the leadership. Her friends and staff have been arrested and beaten, just for protesting. It adds a personal touch to the tragedy which is everyday life for Russia. The fear the general population have lived under, the worry that they are just one sentence away from being tortured, and how their fellow countryman not only seem to accept it, but embrace it.

Here’s the thing to remember though: all this shutting down of protests, all those arrests of “dissidents”, all of those inhuman government decisions that removed the rights of millions of people and killed thousands, all of them happened alongside the backdrop of silence from the UK and US governments. None of this was a problem to them. All of this was completely fine as long as Russian oligarchs still spend money on penthouse suites in London, or purchased our football clubs or sold us gas. People in bed with the Russian government performing these horrendous actions were still given access to Conservative politicians. All of this was completely fine. If our public figures had enough guts to stand up to them then, and started looking for other energy sources then the Russian military operation of this year wouldn’t have been as destructive on us as it is.

The Ukrainian invasion is mentioned very briefly in the end but it really changes this film. It would already be a compelling documentary, but knowing what comes after is a real kick in the balls and face. The fact that the channel still operates, but has had to move to another country for its own safety is a sign of pessimistic hope. In summary, well worth a watch, utterly fascinating, but in a depressing way.

Thor: Love And Thunder (2022)

Quick Synopsis: Gorr The God Butcher wants to butcher gods (hence this name). Thor is not happy about this. Also, Jane Foster has cancer and a hammer.

There’s been quite a few mixed reviews about this. On one hand I get it, but on the other I don’t. I feel part of that might be due to expectations. People expect certain things from Marvel films now, they expect cameos, they expect surprises, they expect every film to be the best one ever. This is not among the best films ever, but it is a lot of fun. As the film goes on you’ll have an idea of where it’s going, but you won’t know exactly. It’s got surprises, but not really any you can spoil. There’s no singular jaw dropping moment that the film anchors around. But in a way that saves it, what would No Way Home be without the appearance of Maguire and Garfield (Tobey and Andrew, not Harry and The Cat)? Because this doesn’t have a moment like that, it will hold up better in repeat viewings. It can’t really be spoiled in a sentence like some of the others can be.

It’s just generally a better story than they’ve done in a while. Not as many twists and turns, just a straight forward story with understandable character motivations and actions. Gorr The God Butcher is an understandable villain, but not completely sympathetic. It does try to make him one though, even trying to redeem him at the end, which is a weird step to take. It only works because he hasn’t really been shown as a villain. We see him kill the god at the start, but that guy was kind of a dick to begin with. We then get told “he’s killed this one, and this one”, it would be a lot better if we actually saw him kill an innocent god. As it is, his on-screen death count is one so he doesn’t seem to be that much of a threat. He definitely should have killed someone the audience knows. The fact that only one character we know dies in this film really hurts it. It had a chance to do something brave and game-changing but refuses.

That’s been a problem with a lot of MCU films lately though, we’re still waiting for something to happen, for that cataclysmic event that will change everything. The post-credits scene hints at something, which if it happens could define the next few films. But that’s all dependent on whether it’s followed up with, and quickly. Or whether it will be like the Adam Warlock reveal at end of Guardians 2 which has been five years in real-time and even longer in-universe due to the blip. Could be at least 10 years in that universe where that story has not developed at all.

One thing this does much better than any MCU film in years: it works as a stand-alone film. It does reference the others, but it does a good enough job of explaining other things that I think you could possibly go into this as your first Marvel film and not feel too lost.

There’s been some criticism of the humour in this. I don’t mind it. The characters make jokes, but they don’t do them in battle, they do them in casual conversation so the tonal whiplash isn’t too great. There are some very funny moments in this, and some sad ones. Overall I’d say it’s more funny than sad, but when it does have emotional moments, it hits hard.

In terms of performances, there are some strange choices made by some of the gods, the first one in particular is too reminiscent of Jim Howick for it not to be distracting. India Hemsworth has a lot of potential, showcasing her obvious talent in the small amount of screen time she’s given. Not quite at McKenna Grace levels of quality, but definitely has potential if utilised correctly. This is definitely the best Natalie Portman has been in the MCU. Although I’m not sure if part of that is because of performance, or due to the writing. I think it is the writing, this does a better job of displaying the Thor/Jane dynamic in a quick montage than the first two films did in their entirety. Christian Bale is good, but there are a few moments where he’s a bit too cartooney. Mostly works, but sometimes it does take away the fear factor which you should have of someone who is committing deicide.

In summary; if you’re a fan of Marvel films, you’ll enjoy this, probably. But this isn’t going to change your mind about the franchise as a whole. Much like……almost every Marvel film of the last few years to be honest.

Olga (2021)

Quick synopsis: Olga (Anastasiia Budiashkina) is a 15-year-old gymnast who is forced to live in Switzerland after protests in Ukraine render it an unsafe place to live.

A lot of films can amaze you with certain things, the look, the acting, the story, then there’s one like this where you’re amazed by just how fucking insane gymnastics are. Like, seriously, watch them, how the hell do they do that? The human body is not meant to operate like that, it’s phenomenal. How do they do that without internally screaming all the time? Impressive.

Now onto the film itself. I loved the opening for this. It starts off as a standard sports drama, her training and practicing in a slightly run-down building. All ready for an inspiring underdog story. . Then when she’s having a conversation with her mother, a car smashes into them. This is very sudden, there’s no deep meaningful conversation before it, there are no hints. In a brilliant directorial choice, the camera gives no clue what’s to happen, it doesn’t telegraph it at all. It truly comes out of nowhere in a sublime piece of whiplash, both mood and literal. So, is it going to be a “child driven to perfection by the memory of her dead mother” film? Nope, not only does the mother live, the car that hits them drives into them again, and in that second you realise it’s intentional. Then you remember the mother is a journalist. A journalist investigating the corruption of the pro-Russian president of Ukraine.
This film is set in 2013-2014 and was made before the 2022 Russian invasion, but that has certainly added another level to it. I feel bad saying it improves it because then I worry that comes off as “yes, war is bad, but it made a film better so it was worth it”. The film makes clear that whilst for the west, the invasion came as a surprise. For Ukrainians, and for anybody who was looking into it, it’s been on the horizon for a long time.

Quite a few of the emotional lynchpins of the film are based around the Euromaidan protests, when Ukrainians protested because they wanted closer integration to the EU as they felt membership of it was going to help keep them safe from Russian invasion. This was at a similar time as when the Brexit debate was kicking off and lots of Russian money was funded into getting Britain out of the EU, as such weakening the impact the EU could have. Don’t worry, I’m sure those two things happening at the same time are DEFINITELY just a coincidence.

The Maidan Square footage looks real, it very well could be. And the fact that she has to watch her homeland suffer like that whilst she’s safe in another country kills her. It’s after this moment that the actress shows her skill and how great a physical performer she is (or her stunt double). Her routine is still graceful and elegant, but there’s a certain snap to it that you can tell comes from a place of anger and frustration. I’ve never really understood people saying gymnastics is a form of expression because it’s all chosen for you and it’s the same. This has shown how wrong that was.

Looking back at it, it might not have been a stunt double. Anastasiia Budiashkina is a high-level gymnast, competing in the European championships in 2016. This just seems unfair considering how talented an actress she is as well. Her physical presence is incredible, she does some incredible non-verbal acting. It’s surprising that this is listed as her first film, she has a great future ahead of her.

Speaking of great first-timers, this is Elie Grappe’s first feature-length film, but you wouldn’t guess from looking at it. It has a lot more beauty than you’d expect. There’s a scene where someone is discussing what’s happening back home, and in the space above them scenes from the town square are superimposed, so you can see the lights of hundreds of mobile phones shining above the characters like starlight in the sky. There are moments which could be normal, but Grappe decides to give them a unique look. One example is someone lighting up a cigarette, Grappe shoots it in such a way that really highlights the colours of the flame and the background.

The writing is good too. But it will break you. The only way she can compete is on a Swiss passport, which means she has to get rid of her Ukrainian one. She essentially has to give up her national identity to survive. It’s slightly heartbreaking to be honest. Especially since Olga already feels guilty. The sense that she sold out her country by surviving is one of the core concepts, and it’s sold beautifully. Especially at the end when one of her former friends swears at her for leaving.

Her friend also provides one of the most subtle terrifying moments. When they meet again at a gymnastics event, Olga realises her friends hair is shorter “you look like a boy”. The response: “it stops me getting shit at the barricades”

That’s……………….fuck.

On the subject of horrifying things: you may think you’re ready for the reveal of how bad her mothers’ injuries look. You’re not.

On the negative, there are a few moments where the momentum of the film is slightly halted. Some of her interactions with her Swiss teammates don’t seem very consistent, and a lot of the background characters are inconsequential.

Olga herself is a brilliantly written character though. A tormented and broken person who has to convey beauty and poise despite the darkness. See it just for her. This is a great character study, and an important historical viewpoint on a period we all hope will be over soon.

The Black Phone (2021)

Quick synopsis: Finney is a young child kidnapped by The Grabber in this adaptation of a Joe Hill short story.

A few weeks ago I reviewed Firestarter, it’s okay if you’ve forgotten, give me a few weeks and I’m going to forget everything about it too. One thing I do remember is thinking that it should have led with the opening credits. This is similar, the actual opening of the film is standard horror movie “develop doomed character” but only really giving them one trait so you don’t really feel too much fear from their death. It feels like it’s there just because “well this is horror movies start, right?”. It introduces you to the main character too, and his relationship with the kid who dies, but both of those could have been developed more naturally throughout the film. It flashbacks and explains the connection between the two characters later on anyway, so not as though you miss much.

In contrast, the opening credits are really well-done. They’re super creepy and disturbing, like a home video which you know ends in tragedy. If the rest of the film was like that I would have enjoyed it a lot more. It just feels a bit……well you can tell it’s adapted from a short story. It doesn’t really have the momentum to carry itself through a full-length film. It feels a bit stop and start so never really gathers enough pace to really be exciting or scary. The idea of a small child being locked in a basement and getting help from the ghosts of previous victims is an intriguing one, but because that doesn’t happen until quite a way into the narrative, the situation never feels as helpless as it actually is. The section of that character in the basement either needs to be longer so we feel his pain and despair, or needs to be shorter so that it’s the final section.

The pacing as a whole is a bit weird, but thankfully the performances are great. There are moments where some of the child actors are slightly weak, but that’s to be expected. Plus, the true star of this is Ethan Hawke. If Johnny Depp turns out to be a genocidal dictator and the industry needs to remake all his films with a different performer, Hawke wouldn’t be a bad shout. He has a dangerous playfulness to him that makes him seem both weirdly endearing but also terrifying. I get why they don’t have him in it that much, if you over-used that character you do risk either watering him down, making him sympathetic, or giving too much information about him away and thus reducing the mystique around him. They could do a slightly better job of building up the legend of The Grabber. The only people who discuss him are the kids. So you don’t really get the idea of a town in fear. Compare this to Halloween Kills, that film truly made Haddonfield feel like a town scared. I know this was the 70’s, and people were slightly more blasé about child safety, but you get the feeling that the parents would be more cautious about the safety of their children when there’s someone going around abducting them.

To end this on a positive, the ending section where al the kids knowledge builds together to create the perfect escape method is a great piece of scriptwriting, it’s very narratively satisfying to see it all come together like it does. Also, when the ghosts first appear the film shows the lives of the children leading up their demise. It’s incredibly simple but effective, instantly providing emotional backstory to what otherwise could be fairly flat characters.

So in summary: not one of the best horror movies you’re likely to see, but one of the most interesting of the last few years.