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Non-Review Review: Enola Holmes

Enola Holmes is a movie with a lot of charm, anchored in a sense of playful enthusiasm and a winning central performance.

Adapted from Nancy Springer’s The Enola Holmes Mysteries series of novels, the basic premise of Enola Holmes is straightforward enough. The classic Victorian detective Sherlock Holmes is given a younger sister, who inevitably finds herself forced to navigate the wider world while solving mysteries and avoiding the best efforts of her older brothers to ship her off to a suffocating and restrictive boarding school where she might be taught to be a lady.

Make yourself at Holmes…

Enola Holmes moves quickly and cheerfully through its starting premise and central mystery, bouncing from one sequence to another with considerable grace. However, it’s lead actor Millie Bobby Brown who carries the film. Brown is probably best known for her work on Stranger Things and a prominent role in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, but Enola Holmes suggests a long and promising career ahead of the young actor. It is impossible to imagine the movie seeming as effortless without her at its centre.

In fact, Enola Holmes suffers most when it moves away from its protagonist and makes room in her story for less compelling (but more nominally “important”) characters that wind up sapping the film’s energy. Enola Holmes has a surprisingly slow start for a film that breezes along once it finds its footing, and that is largely because it is initially reluctant to give its central character the breathing room that she needs. Still, once the film gets past that, it is a highly enjoyable adventure.

Enola that look…

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Non-Review Review: Project Power

Project Power is an oddity, a strange clash of style and content that never quite aligns but results in some interesting chemistry.

The basic plot of Project Power is fairly straightforward. A mysterious designer drug known only as “power” has arrived on the streets of New Orleans. These pills cause the user to spontaneously manifest a random superpower for five minutes – that power can be awesome, mundane or fatal. It’s a basic set-up as these sorts of stories go, and its rooted in the tropes of the modern superhero genre: human experimentation, industrialised production. unchecked power fantasies.

The bitterest pill.

Project Power uses this central plot element to two competing ends. In terms of direction, the simple-yet-flexible set-up serves as a motivator for a variety of high-concept and high-energy action sequences as characters manifest strange abilities that inevitably alter the dynamics of one-on-one combat, allowing for impressive stunts and frantic violence. In terms of theme, Project Power uses this set-up as a metaphorical commentary on the War on Drugs and the historical exploitation of marginalised communities by those in… well, power.

These are two interesting angles, even if they are never explored as creatively as one might hope. Indeed, the two approaches make strange bedfollows, with Project Power feeling like a paranoid conspiracy thriller that movies with the hyper pacing of a modern direct-to-video action film. It doesn’t really work, but the cocktail is fascinating enough that it holds attention.

Power play.

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New Escapist Column! On “The Old Guard” and Offering Easy Answers to Tough Problems…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine this evening. The Old Guard was released on Netflix this evening, so it seemed a film that was worth discussing.

The Old Guard is essentially a film that exists half-way between a turn-of-the-millennium high-concept action film and a modern superhero blockbuster, and it doesn’t always split the difference in a particularly elegant way. This is a film that is about the importance of doing good in the world, even when the results aren’t quantifiable or apparent. However, it makes a rather clumsy and facile argument about that, lacking the strength or vision to make its point from first principles.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

New Escapist Column! On “Hannibal” as the Perfect Adaptation…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine this evening. With Hannibal premiering on Netflix and generating a host of new appraisals and discussions, connecting with a new generation of fans, I thought it might be worth looking at Bryna Fuller’s television masterpiece.

In an era dominated by recycled intellectual property, remakes and reboots, it would have been easy to be cynical about another adaptation of Thomas Harris’ seminal serial killer novels, particularly given how severely the film franchise had degenerated since the triumph of Silence of the Lambs. However, Bryan Fuller used Hannibal as a showcase for a particularly ambitious and inventive approach to adaptation, one that used an existing set of iconography in new and innovative ways. Hannibal was the perfect adaptation of a familiar property, breathing new life into it.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

Non-Review Review: The Old Guard

The Old Guard works best as a nostalgic throwback to turn-of-the-millennium action movies, and struggles awkwardly when it tries to be a modern superhero blockbuster.

The Old Guard is adapted by writer Greg Rucka from the Image Comics series that he created with artist Leandro Fernandez. The story focuses on a group of immortal warriors who have worked at the margins of human history for centuries, making small differences wherever they can while trying to stay out of the spotlight. It’s a pretty solid premise with a lot of narrative potential, and it could easily branch in any number of directions.

Immortal narrative engines.

The best and worst thing about The Old Guard is that it insists on branching in various competing directions. It often feels like three or four different movies that have been edited down into a fairly conventional and generic structure. By turns, The Old Guard tries to be a character study about the weight of immortality, a franchise-launching origin story, a criticism of modern hyper-capitalism, a solemn meditation on what it means to do good in a fallen world, and an old-fashioned kick-ass action movie with a pretty neat soundtrack.

To the credit of The Old Guard, it manages to avoid embarrassing itself too badly while trying to serve all of those competing impulses. However, that balance comes at a cost. None of the central ideas in The Old Guard are ever truly explored or developed, because that might mean that some other angle would get a short shrift. The result is an action film that is largely functional, which isn’t entirely satisfying but is also never completely frustrating. It’s a solid and sturdy film that largely avoids a potential identity crisis by declining to commit to a single identity.

An axe-soldier.

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Non-Review Review: Sergio

Sergio belongs to the same school of earnest, overwrought, tonally misjudged, narratively unfocused, clumsily paced biopics that includes Noble, The Price of Desire and A Girl from Mogadishu.

This films offer heartwarming stories about truly exceptional individuals. There is undoubtedly value in that. However, the genre often confuses subject for substance. These biographies assume that the story they are telling is so compelling and so engaging that the actual art of storytelling doesn’t matter, that the basic mechanics of constructing a satisfying narrative or balancing a consistent tone or finding an interesting hooks are fundamentally less important than the simple fact that they are about something that makes them inherently “worthy.” Worthy of attention, worthy of praise, worthy of time.

“You can’t spell U.N. with U.”

Sergio certainly tells a story that is worth telling. It is an adaptation of the life of Sérgio Vieira de Mello, the United Nations diplomat. By all accounts, de Mello was a genuinely exceptional person who made a very real and very tangible difference to the world. There is a compelling story to be told here, a life that is worthy of study and discussion. Indeed, director Greg Barker seems to think so. Sergio is Barker’s first narrative feature, and it serves as a companion piece to his 2009 documentary of the same title. It’s easy to understand why Barker was so drawn to the subject.

Unfortunately, Sergio is a complete misfire. It is a disaster. It is a clumsily constructed film with no strong sense of identity or purpose, with little to say about its central character or his circumstances beyond “this was a remarkable person.” However, even that is communicated through exposition and information dumps rather than through actual storytelling.

“You wanna live like common people.
You wanna see whatever common people see.”

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167. Marriage Story – This Just In (#225)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with guests Tara Brady and Donald Clarke, The 250 is a fortnightly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story.

Charlie and Nicole had an ideal marriage, until they didn’t. Unsatisfied with her marriage, Nicole decides to separate from her husband Charlie. The couple agree to keep things amicable, but the situation quickly escalates as Charlie finds him completely unprepared for the process that will follow.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 225th best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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Non-Review Review: Horse Girl

Horse Girl is certainly an ambitious work, if not an entirely successful one.

Directed by Jeff Baena and co-written with star Alison Brie, Horse Girl is essentially a study of a socially awkward young woman who gradually loosens her grip on reality. Sarah is a charming and isolated young woman. She works a steady job at an arts and crafts shop, to which she seems quite suited – she’s immediately able to identify the best paint for a classroom setting. She lives with a roommate who clearly harbours some affection for her. She assists at the local stables. She even attends weekly dance fitness classes.

Horsing around.

However, beneath the surface, Sarah is increasingly isolated. She lives in a world of her own, absorbed in her supernatural procedurals, lying about the extent of her social circle, and haunted by dreams that don’t seem quite right. Sarah increasingly begins to feel that there is something very wrong with the world, as she experiences lost time and lucid dreams. Naturally, things only escalate from there.

Horse Girl plays with some interesting ideas, and approaches its subject matter in interesting ways, but it suffers a little bit too much from a suffocating sense of forced whimsy. Horse Girl premiered at Sundance, and for all its ambition, it is very much a “Sundance indie.” There is constantly a sense of a more interesting film bubbling beneath the surface, waiting to get out, but never quite able to materalise beneath the trappings of its own particular brand of independent cinema.

Getting it all back to front.

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New Escapist Column! On Uncanny Valley of “The Witcher” Between Prestige and Tradition…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine the week before last, looking at the Netflix streaming show The Witcher.

There are a lot of interesting things about the eight episode introductory season of The Witcher, which is adapted from two books of short stories and which seems to exist largely to set the table for more impressive seasons to follow. However, what is most immediately striking about The Witcher is the way in which it exists in the uncanny valley between modern prestige television and a more traditional model of episodic storytelling, looking like a hybrid of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Game of Thrones. To be clear, this is not a bad thing.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

New Escapist Column! On “The Witcher” and True Monstrosity…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine last week, looking at the Netflix streaming show The Witcher.

The Witcher is an interesting show, the story of a monster hunter who drifts through a magical world that seems caught on the cusp of war. The first season is very broad and largely episodic, but it does have a clear thematic through line. The series plays with the tropes and conventions of the fantasy genre, but most pointed with the idea of monstrosity. The Witcher is the story of a man who kills monsters, but also a story about how sometimes true monstrosity comes in human form.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.