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Non-Review Review: The Witches (2020)

The Witches offers a clumsy American update of the classic Roald Dahl novel.

To be fair, there is something potentially interesting in attempting to update The Witches, both for modern audiences and for American viewers. It’s to the credit of director Robert Zemeckis and co-writers Kenya Barris and Guillermo del Toro that they at least understand this. The Witches makes a number of alterations to its source material, and at least some of those reflect a genuine and compelling attempt to update the story to fit in a modern and American context.

Any witch way but loose…

At the same time, The Witches is a mess. Part of this is down to the way in which a lot of the appeal of Dahl’s story is lost in translation, as a wry and arch British story gets filtered through the hypersaturated Americana of one of the defining American directors, an even more exaggerated effect of what happened with Steven Spielberg’s work on The B.F.G. However, some of this is more fundamental, as Zemeckis struggles to balance tone and mood across the film, and finds his attentions drawn more to what his interests desire than what the plot demands.

The Witches is a misfire, but an intriguing one. There are hints of a much more compelling movie to found, sifting between its more misjudged moments.

Putting a (ro)dent in his reputation…

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Non-Review Review: On the Rocks

On the Rocks is a disarmingly charming film.

Sofia Coppola’s latest is built around the relationship between Laura and her father Felix. Laura is happily married with two young girls, but has begun to suspect that her marriage is dysfunctional. There are small clues. Her husband Dean seems less interested in physical intimacy, and has been spending more time at the office with his co-worker Fiona. As her suspicions mount, Laura reaches out to her father Felix, who has spent his life as a debonair playboy with a somewhat cynical perspective of the masculine psyche.

Daddy daughter day.

On the Rocks is an earnest dramedy, following the dynamic between Laura and Felix as they launch an investigation into her husband’s potential affair. It’s elevated by two superb central performances, a clever script, and direction that allows its characters and its actors room to work. There’s a surprising amount of honest and introspection in On the Rocks, but also a surprising earnestness. On the Rocks is a surprisingly empathic film, never judging or condemning its characters as easily as it might.

The results are engaging and heartening. In some ways, particularly given the central dynamic of an older man played by Bill Murray and a younger woman managing her own life crisis, it’s hard not to see On the Rocks as a companion piece to Coppola’s breakout film Lost in Translation. However, there’s a lot more maturity and reflection at play here, a kindness and gentleness that feels earned through the two decades between then and now.

“Enjoying a nice Mar-team-ee.”

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Non-Review Review: Rebecca

The most shocking thing about Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of Rebecca is how tame it feels.

The bulk of the coverage of the adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s gothic romance focuses on the idea that Wheatley is tilting at cinematic windmills by daring to explore the same ground that Alfred Hitchcock had already so memorably mapped. Hitchcock is as close to a cinematic sacred cow as exists, and to attempt to remake one of his most beloved films would be tantamount to making another version of Gone with the Wind or restaging Casablanca. It is one of the rare lines that exists in a modern pop culture built around recycling existing intellectual property.

Maxim-um fun.

In truth, there’s nothing wrong with daring to approach the cinema of Alfred Hitchcock. After all, Park Chan-wook’s Stoker was very much an update of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. More than that, there are perhaps valid reasons for wanting to go to Manderley again. Hitchcock’s adaptation of du Maurier’s novel was constrained by the demands of the Production Code Authority, and forced to change key plot points and obscure others through subtext. While some observers might argue this renders the film more “artful”, it does justify a revisit in a less puritanical time.

However, Wheatley never manages to bring these ideas to the surface. His version of Rebecca never manages to quite articulate or express the anxieties lurking in the shadow of Hitchcock’s classic. Rebecca is a sleek and stylish production with a set of solid performances and a few flashes of visual vigour, but it lacks a strong sense of its own identity – often seeming disjointedly caught between its influences and its impulses, failing to reconcile the two into anything especially compelling.

A time for reflection.

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New Podcast! The Escapist Movie Podcast – “Hubie Halloween, The Witches and Possessor Uncut”

The Escapist have launched a movie podcast, and I was thrilled to join Jack Packard and Bob Chipman for the seventh episode. There was quite a lot of Halloween-related news this week, including the release of Adam Sandler’s Hubie Halloween on Netflix, the trailer for The Witches on HBO Max in the United States, and the release of Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor Uncut wherever cinemas were open.

You can listen to the episode here, back episodes of the podcast here, click the link below or even listen directly.

Non-Review Review: Possessor

Possessor is a brutal and graphic slice of body horror, unsettling and uncanny in equal measure.

It seems unfair to define writer and director Brandon Cronenberg by his relationship to his father, Canadian horror maestro David Cronenberg. The fact that it’s possible to draw a clear line from his father’s work on films like Scanners, The Brood and Videodrome through to Possessor only makes these comparisons more obvious and ubiquitous. However, Brandon Cronenberg has already established himself as a potent force in the body horror genre with his feature debut, AntiViral.

She can explain the plot until she’s red in the face…

Possessor is a grotesque and creepy addition to the genre. The movie focuses on Tasya Vos, a professional assassin who completes her assignments by hijacking the body of somebody close to her target, allowing her to infiltrate their inner circle and carry out the murder in that persona. As the premise suggests, Possessor is rife with body horror. The film is built around the classic body horror nightmare, the realisation that the human body is ultimately nothing more than an often malfunctioning machine made of meat, equally often at odds with the mind driving it.

At the same time, Possessor is perhaps a little too broad and too abstract. Possessor is obviously a body horror, but its storytelling often feels closer to the more abstract social horrors that are popular in modern American independent cinema, films like She Dies Tomorrow. This is interesting in some respects, but also leaves the film feeling a little too vague at points. The problem isn’t that Possessor has nothing to say, it’s more that it’s trying to say everything at once. While this confusion is occasionally effective given the themes of the story, it is also frequently frustrating.

Piecing it together.

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Non-Review Review: Cats and Dogs III – Paws Unite

The pandemic has been an interesting time for film critics.

The general dearth of mainstream theatrical releases has allowed critics to essentially pick and choose the films that they cover on streaming. As a general rule, this has led to the elevation of good films, with critics generally picking films out of the mass of streaming service releases that merit coverage and attention – films like Palm Springs or Greyhound. Of course, there have been a couple of stinkers, particularly among children’s fare with mass audience appeal like Artemis Fowl or Scoob!, but by and large critics have been able to avoid true stinkers.

Dogsbody work.

As such, the arrival of Cats and Dogs III – Paws Unite! marks something of a return to normality and business as usual. It is the kind of film that critics would have had to see and review as a matter of course in the pre-pandemic era as a major theatrical release, but which might have slipped under the radar had it gone straight to streaming. Watching Cats and Dogs III – Paws Unite is a reminder of a time not too long ago when critics were expected to see every major theatrical release, no matter how dark or how soul-destroying that experience might be.

With that in mind, there is something almost reassuring in the awfulness of Cats and Dogs III – Paws Unite!, a movie that few critics would actively seek out if it weren’t for the obligations of their job. In a world that is desperately scrambling for any vague sense of a return to normality, Paws Unite! servers as a welcome reminder when seeing terrible movies was the worst thing with which film critics had to contend.

Keep on trucking.

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Non-Review Review: Kajillionaire

Kajillionaire is “quirky”, in a manner that is typical of the modern American independent film.

Miranda July’s third feature-length film operates on its own distinct wavelength, populated by eccentric and exaggerated characters who exist in a world caught in a twilight zone between the mundane and the surreal. Kajillionaire has a distinct sensibility, which it signals as early as a shot of its leading trio trying awkwardly to evade the landlord desperately seeking overdue rent. Kajillionaire operates at a level of heightened reality that immediately gives it a “marmite” flavour.

However, if the viewer can get past the abundance of quirk, there’s a lot to enjoy in Kajillionaire‘s study of emotional dysfunction. Kajillionaire is a con artist movie about a family living on the margins, but one that doesn’t seem particularly interested in the art of the con. Veteran hustlers Robert and Theresa are well removed from the smooth operators of films like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Matchstick Men or The Brothers Bloom. Instead, they are a mess of contradictions and maladaptations.

Kajillionaire works largely due to its wry sense of humour, which manages to offset a lot of what might otherwise be suffocating quirkiness. It also benefits greatly from a set of impressive performances. Debra Winger and Richard Jenkins do good work as Robert and Theresa, but the film belongs to Evan Rachel Wood as their daughter Old Dolio and Gina Rodriguez as Melanie, the character who quickly gets swept up in their hijinks.

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Non-Review Review: The Boys in the Band

The Boys in the Band is not only a cinematic adaptation of a classic play, it is a cinematic adaptation of a particular staging of a classic play.

The Boys in the Band is a film designed to capture a snapshot of the 2018 Broadway run of Mart Crowley’s iconic 1968 off-Broadway play. It is directed by Joe Mantello, who is perhaps best know for his theatre work including Wicked and the fiftieth anniversary revival of The Boys in the Band that forms the basis of this filmed version. The film reunites the entire ensemble of that staging, including actors like Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto and Matt Bomer.

Banding together.

In some ways, Hamilton feels like the obvious point of comparison here. The goal is not just to bring a beloved play to the screen, but to capture the particular energy of a particular staging of that beloved play. However, while Hamilton leaned into its attempts to recreate the Broadway experience for an audience watching at home, The Boys in the Band is a much more traditional cinematic adaptation of a theatrical staging. It is a film, but it is a film that feels particularly “stagey.” It recalls a particular brand of awards fare, like Doubt or Fences.

This is perhaps the biggest issue with this adaptation of The Boys in the Band. With the exception of a few framing scenes set outside the apartment at the beginning and the end of the story, The Boys in the Band doesn’t feel like a reimagining so much as a restaging. Then again, it’s debatable to what extent this is a problem. Mantello’s approach to the material is straightforward rather than showy, putting his faith in the script – which was reworked by Crowley shortly before his death with writer Ned Martel – and in the cast, trusting them to carry the film.

Not-so-midnight-cowboy.

This largely works. The Boys in the Band is a fascinating snapshot of a cultural moment. Crowley’s play was famously one of the first pieces of mainstream pop art to focus on a large a diverse cast of gay characters, arriving before the AIDS crisis and before Stonewall. While the play has remained constant in all of those years, the world around it has changed. Its fortunes have ebbed and flowed, while the text seems to remain vital and relevant – it always seemed to say something to the moment, even if that something made critics uneasy.

The Boys in the Band is a welcome reminder that there is nothing inherently wrong with a theatrical approach to cinematic stagings of beloved plays. The Boys in the Band may not pop off the screen in the way that Hamilton does, engaging as much with the audience’s experience of the show as with the content of the show itself. Instead, The Boys in the Band serves largely as a showcase for its actors and for its source material, proof that there is a lot to be said for locking a bunch of talented cast in a confined space with a good script.

Drinking it all in…

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Non-Review Review: The Trial of the Chicago 7

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is Aaron Sorkin’s second feature film as director, following on from Molly’s Game.

However, the project originated with Steven Spielberg. The finished film includes the Dreamworks logo. Watching the movie, it feels like Sorkin is channeling Spielberg, particularly with the film’s delicate balance of historical accuracy and its relatively heartening final act. Indeed, The Trial of the Chicago 7 feels like something of a companion piece to Spielberg’s most recent film, The Post. It is another movie about the troubled transition from the flawed utopian idealism of the sixties to the brutal political cynicism of the seventies.

Cycles of mistrust.

In many ways, The Trial of the Chicago 7 appeals to Sorkin’s strengths as a writer. After all, Sorkin rose to prominence as the writer of A Few Good Men, another court room drama. The basic premise of The Trial of the Chicago 7 involves placing a bunch of similar-but-distinct characters in a locked room together and focusing on the group dynamics, which provides a lot of space for Sorkin to demonstrate his skill with dialogue and characterisation. There’s a lot of clever detail and definition between the protagonists in The Trial of the Chicago 7.

To be fair, The Trial of the Chicago 7 suffers slightly from being a little heavy-handed in places. As with Spielberg and The Post, Sorkin is very much aware of the movie’s contemporary resonance and occasionally leans into it a little too eagerly. Beyond that, the depiction of events from the eponymous trial can occasionally seem a little episodic and haphazard. Still, there’s a lot to recommend The Trial of the Chicago 7, particular as an old-fashioned example of an ensemble historical drama.

Courting controversy.

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Non-Review Review: Antebellum

Antebellum never seems entirely sure whether it wants to be a biting social commentary or a pulpy genre exercise.

To be clear, this is a false dichotomy. One of the most interesting aspects of horror is how frequently it can satisfy both of those objectives. Get Out is perhaps the most obvious recent example of this, and it is telling that (like so many modern horrors) Antebellum markets itself as “from the producers of Get Out.” However, this has always been a feature of horror, as demonstrated by the films of directors like Wes Craven and John Carpenter. Antebellum shouldn’t have to choose between being socially relevant and being an effective horror, but it insists on doing so.

Shining some light on the matter.

There is a good movie buried somewhere in Antebellum. It is very clear that writers and directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz have a good idea that resonates in the current moment. Indeed, Antebellum hammers that point pretty heavily. It opens with a quote from William Faulkner, reminding audiences that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In case the audience doesn’t get how that applies to the movie’s set-up, a character repeats it about forty minutes into the runtime. Antebellum has things to say, and is not shy about saying them.

However, what Antebellum is trying to say is muddled by a number of awkward structural choices. Antebellum is a film that is consciously built around a number of developments that are intended to wrong-foot the audience and catch them off-guard, to invite the viewer to ask questions about what is happening and why, and maybe even add some compelling gif-able content for the film’s marketing. This structuring of Antebellum is wrong-headed on a number of levels, but most profoundly in the way that it reduces the movie’s biting thesis to a cheap narrative hook.

Burning unease.

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