Movie Review: Last Night in Soho (2021)

TL;DR – psychological thriller involving ghosts, psychic connections, and 60s music.

Review (warning: spoilers)

There is a scene in Last Night in Soho between Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie) and Miss Collins (Diana Rigg). Eloise is renting a bedsit in Miss Collins’s house, and after a number of surreal events, she asks:

“Did someone die in my room?”

“This is London,” scoffs Miss Collins. “Someone’s died in every room in every building in this whole city. Every street corner, too.”

Eloise has moved from her rural home to Ye Ol’ London to study to become a fashion designer at the London College of Fashion. Her bright-eyed and innocent exuberance starts taking a turn when the move is not all it’s cracked up to be. The student dorms she initially stays in is filled with passive aggressive cliques, and her roommate, Jocasta (Synnove Karlsen) has a particular predilection for putting her down. This leads Eloise to pack her bags and move to the rental.

That’s when things start getting real weird. Eloise’s first night transports her back to the 1960s where she appears to be in the body of Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), a beautiful blonde girl trying to break into the singing business. There she meets Jack (Matt Smith) who is an agent/manager for various singers and is immediately struck by Sandie’s confidence. Jack and Sandie dance in a club and share a passionate embrace where Jack kisses her neck in a mirrored room, and we see Eloise in the reflection also being kissed by Jack (as if feeling the moment being inside Sandie).

When Eloise awakens, she thinks it’s a dream. But inspired by Sandie’s determination to become a singer, Eloise dyes her hair blonde and designs a dress that is 60s inspired and impresses her teacher. It’s then Eloise notices that she has a hickey on her neck and starts to believe it wasn’t just a dream.

Eloise’s present life starts mixing with Sandie’s past, and the rabbit hole gets dark when Eloise realises that Sandie has been tricked by Jack who gets her to be an exotic dancer and later a prostitute. To Eloise’s horror, Jack has become Sandie’s pimp, and all her dreams of becoming a singer have disappeared.

The mental overload starts crossing over during the day when Eloise sees apparitions of Jack and all the men that Eloise was forced to sleep with. Her sanity holds by a thread when in one vision she sees Sandie being held down in bed with Jack looming over her with a knife. The camera zooms in on the knife to reflect Eloise’s horror as blood goes flying.

Though you’re given the impression that Eloise has been murdered, the twist is she managed to wrench the knife away from Jack and kill him instead. Eloise then goes on a revenge murder spree and killing every man that took advantage of her.

When Eloise uncovers the truth, she discovers that Sandie is actually the present day, Miss Collins, and all the dead bodies have been buried in under the floorboards and in the walls of her house (how Miss Collins aka Sandie managed to get away with all these murders and prevent the stink of decaying corpses from permeating her entire home is a mystery).

The final confrontation between Eloise and Miss Collins/Sandie ends in the house being burned down and Miss Collins/Sandie accepting her fate and dying in the fire. Thus ends the tragic life of Miss Collins/Sandie.

Though it is never fully explained, Eloise appears to be a psychic medium. Throughout the film there are references to her mother who came to London, suffered a mental breakdown that resulted in her suicide, which would indicate that Eloise’s mother may have also been a psychic. At the beginning of the film, Eloise sees her mother in her mirror, which initially you think might just be a memory but later realise is her ghost.

London is the perfect setting to be overloaded by all the murders that have come before, and Eloise manages to survive through luck and the faith and trust of her sole friend, John (Michael Ajao), who she meets at the college and perseveres by her side even though everyone around Eloise thinks she is going mad.

The film’s strongest elements are in its casting, McKenzie, Taylor-Joy, Rigg and Smith are excellent and the choreography of 60s Soho clubs along with a brilliant soundtrack, allow the viewer to become immersed in the story.

Unfortunately, the story itself and the thriller/horror elements are a bit pedestrian. Eloise’s classmates are shallow to a fault and their passive aggressive nature does little to add to the story. The character Jocasta is particularly one-dimensional, embodying a bully that is more suitable in a high school setting than a college one. The mystery and twist around Sandie’s past life is evident when you examine the fact that the stabbing scene is never revealed in its entirety (not until the twist is revealed). The close-up of the plunging blade becoming more and more bloody is artistically clever but it shouts out that not everything is what it seems. It also doesn’t make much sense that Eloise, who witnesses the killing, doesn’t see that it ends up being Jack who is killed. She’s not stuck like we are (as the viewer) by a camera close up of the blade, so she should have seen that Sandie successfully wrenches the blade from Jack and stabs him. Yet, after this vision, Eloise is of the belief that Sandie is the one who was murdered.

Last Night in Soho is stylish with not quite enough substance, but you can still enjoy it for the strong cast and excellent soundtrack.

6 out of 10

A decent rom-com, if a bit saccharine.

7 out of 10

Movie Review: Love & Gelato (2022)

TL;DR – rom-com that tries for something a little deeper but only scratches the surface.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Love & Gelato follows the tried and true formula of rom-coms and attempts to throw you for a spin but with mixed and limited success.

The film has a number of strengths, but these are offset by some gaping problems. In the pros column we have the following:

  • a solid cast – the main character, Lina (Susanna Skaggs), along with an eclectic supporting cast are engaging and interesting enough to carry the story. Lina, particularly, has enough combination of quirkiness and introspection that draws you into her world, and Skaggs delivers this in spades even if she is unable to hide how stunning she looks under geeky glasses and baggy clothing.
  • choreography – the scenes of Rome and Florence spark the magic one would expect from a cultural icon of Europe. The camera work ensures that Rome is presented as one fascinating gigantic museum (which it is) where every road and cobblestone pathway leads you to something interesting and historical. The film never strays from its glamour which is a requirement of a rom-com and doesn’t reveal the rougher and seedier sides of big cities.
  • the story – based on the novel of the same name by Jenna Evans Welch, the journey of a young woman trying to navigate a world after the passing of her mother is poignant and rich with emotion.
  • the language – though I cannot speak Italian, from what I can tell, most of the characters are played by Italian actors and speak the language flawlessly.

Unfortunately, the above is offset by a cons column that requires a significant suspension of belief including:

  • Alessandro (Saul Nanni) – is the first love interest and spots Lina overlooking Rome and simply waltzes up to her with a bravado and interest that would never happen between two strangers. The fact that he is too good-looking is probably the only reason that Lina engages with him and doesn’t high-tail it out of there. Believable? I think not. He then obtains her phone number from a social profile that has been set up by Lina’s best friend, Addie (Anjelika Washington), without her knowledge and asks her to join him in a night at the opera. Not creepy at all. Totally believable. (Yes, I am rolling my eyes as I write this).
  • Lorenzo (Tobia De Angelis) – is the second love interest. Lorenzo is a budding chef and used to be best friends with Alessandro when they were younger (small world, yes?) Lina bumps into Lorenzo who is working in a kitchen cooking for the black tie party at the opera. Turns out Alessandro’s father is a rich snob who judges Alessandro’s date (i.e., Lina) as yet another girl he is dating that will be forgotten tomorrow. Lina is suitably mortified, rushes downstairs from the opera, into the kitchen and collides into Lorenzo holding desserts. Lorenzo being the good guy that he is, offers her a change of clothes and a lift back to her place on his moped. Lorenzo is also good-looking and cute, so he must be trustworthy even though he’s also a complete stranger. Again, really believable…not.
  • A weak mystery element that is meant to drive the story (see below).

“You never forget your first love” is spoken by Lina in the opening narration where it is revealed that Lina’s mother, Hadley, has passed away from cancer. In her final days, she made Lina promise to still go on their mother-daughter graduation trip to Rome even though all Lina wants to do is focus on preparing for college at MIT instead of a holiday that was meant to be with her mother.

The mystery element of the story lies in Lina’s (initially unwilling) attempts to unravel the experiences of her mother prior to her birth. This is presented to Lina in the form of a diary written by her mother and given to Lina by her self-proclaimed godmother, Francesca (Valentina Lodovini), when she arrives in Rome. The diary acts as a sort-of “life experiences” love letter and shows a part of her life that Lina never found out about. Until now.

The ensuing love triangle between Lina, Alessandro and Lorenzo is meant to build tension (who will she choose?) while she delves deeper into her mother’s diary and discovers that Lina’s conception happened in Italy and that her biological father (who Lina has never known) is now living in Florence as a successful photographer and art gallery owner.

When Lina hunts down her biological father, she discovers that he is a heartless bastard. She leaves furious and in tears. This isn’t really a twist because at the beginning, Lina has been told previously by her mother that if she ever met Lina’s biological father again, she would probably kill him. So, you know from the start that he used Hadley, and Lina simply confirms it in person.

Instead, the so-called twist comes in two forms.

The first is that Hadley’s true love is actually Howard (Owen McDonnell) who happens to be Francesca’s cousin. Howard went to a university in Rome and met Hadley in the summer she stayed with Francesca. Howard never confessed his feelings to Hadley (until it was too late), and she ended up falling for her photography teacher instead (aka ‘heartless bastard’ and Lina’s biological father).

Howard has stayed on in Italy as a teacher and is introduced to Lina at the beginning of the film through Francesca. Howard also happens to be one of Lorenzo’s teachers (yes, small world indeed).

The second so-called twist comes in the form that in the end, Lina discovers Alessandro is as messed up as she is, and they would end up being a car crash together. So, it appears that Lina has chosen Lorenzo, and she rushes to the train station when she finds out he is leaving for Paris to forge his dream of becoming a professional chef. She catches him before he leaves (as all good rom-coms do) and confesses in a roundabout way:

“Getting swept up in the wrong, or the right thing at the wrong time, it isn’t something that you can ever take back. I thought I had to make some choice between you and Alessandro, but she (my mother) really wanted me to come here to find me,” says Lina to a slightly befuddled but heart-in-mouth Lorenzo.

Thus, in the end, Lina chooses neither of them. Twist? Kind of.

In what is essentially an epilogue to the film, Lina finishes reading her mother’s diary and discovers that her mother loved Howard all along. Lina confronts Howard and they have a heart-to-heart and Howard asks if he can be her adopted father. She accepts and spends a gap year in Rome.

Fast forward a year and Lina has taken up photography and bumps into Lorenzo who has returned from Paris as a professional chef looking to open a bakery in Rome. And bingo, it is now the right thing at the right time.

Rom-com that isn’t terrible if you suspend belief in some of the plot holes and character encounters. At the very least, you’ll marvel at Italy’s beauty, and Susanna Skaggs portrays well the nerdiness of her character regardless of how stunning she is without glasses and baggy overalls.

A decent rom-com, if a bit saccharine.

7 out of 10

Movie Review: Spiderhead (2022)

TL;DR – scientist wants to create the ultimate drug by experimenting on convicted felons. Darkly comic in parts, kind of a thriller in others. Overall, doesn’t deliver on the potential it has.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth) is the owner and founder of Abnesti pharmaceutical. He runs a penitentiary and research centre called Spiderhead, situated on an isolated island, that houses individuals that have committed crimes that range from robbery to manslaughter.

The setting and name of the facility should be enough to make any criminal pause at the idea of being used as a guinea pig to trial a series of drugs that are administered through a device (called a “MobiPak”) that is attached to your lower spine. The reasons why they agree is that the facility allows greater freedoms than state prisons. Inmates are allowed to wear what they want (no prison uniforms), roam the interior of the giant facility that houses a kitchen, dining, lounge and games area and serve their time without the fear of prison violence (more on this point in a minute). Both men and women are housed within Spiderhead and apparently there is nothing stopping them from developing relationships (romantic, sexual or otherwise).

There are no prison guards, no jail cells and no barred windows. No locks except the one that prevents you from leaving Spiderhead, and no need to be part of a gang within the penitentiary in order to obtain some level of protection from other gangs.

Abnesti and his assistant, Verlaine (Mark Paguio), are the only ones who run Spiderhead, and if you’re wondering how they maintain law and order, it’s through the use of one of the drugs Abnesti pharma has created that instils a level of obedience in each person. Thus, circling back to the point about everyone inside not fearing prison violence.

However, as the film unfolds we discover that the individuals selected to reside in Spiderhead are not random and those that have been chosen have certain backgrounds, stories and circumstances that led them to be convicted of a crime that makes them suitable for the Spiderhead experiment. At least, the characters that are focused on are revealed to be people that have made horrific mistakes and have not chosen to live a life of crime.

We’re not talking mobsters, or serial killers, or psychopaths. We’re talking people who either misjudged their situation or were under some extreme emotional triggers that led them to act in tragic ways.

The main ‘inmate’ focused on is Jeff (Miles Teller) who was committed for manslaughter after driving his car (while intoxicated) at speed into a tree and killing the woman he loved and his good friend. Jeff now operates under a constant feeling of guilt and accepts being used as a guinea pig at Spiderhead because he thinks he deserves it.

Then there’s Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett) who plays a mother who left her baby in her locked car in the heart of summer while she did a three-hour shift at Walmart. She is now a shell of her former self, forever tortured for having killed her own baby daughter.

The “mad scientist” character, Steve Abnesti, believes he can create a drug that will ensure crimes will never be committed. However, the way he convinces those in Spiderhead to participate in the experiment is under the guise of creating the ultimate “feeling good, love” drug. If everyone loves each other then there would be peace on earth.

There are other types of drugs that he tests. For example, one that causes your fears to override your reason; another that causes extreme mental and physical distress; another that causes you to express your thoughts in a verbose way; and yet another that makes you hallucinate that everything is beautiful when in reality it might be horrific. And again, he does this under the guise of testing the limits of these drug-induced emotions to supposedly achieve the ultimate “love” drug.

In fact, Steve is so willing to back his experiments that he has one of the MobiPaks attached to his own spine. Mind you, he only ever administers the good feeling drugs on himself… never the bad ones.

In reality, what Steve is seeking to achieve is not a love-for-everyone drug that will end wars the world over. What he is trying to develop is a drug (called Obediex) that will achieve unconditional obedience from the person who receives the drug. This includes a level of obedience that goes against the individual’s inherent nature. For example, if a person genuinely loves and cares for another and is given Obediex, then Steve wants to order them to harm the one they love. This is meant to demonstrate the effectiveness of Obediex and be the ultimate drug to allow remote control of another person.

Of course, when Jeff finds out Steve’s true intentions, which involves having Obediex administered to him so he will hurt Lizzy (a woman he has found to be as damaged as him and falls in love with), he seeks to call in the authorities and have the whole mad scientist lab shut down.

Whether Spiderhead is meant to be a cautionary tale (i.e., we all need to accept the feelings we experience and acknowledge their existence rather than attempt to get rid of them through drugs) or a satirical examination of how people experience base emotions, the film never delivers the emotional impact it strives for.

Director Joseph Kosinski appears to waver between creating a film that is darkly comic versus a grim mystery thriller. Several situations are shown where the love drug is administered, or the characters think it will be administered, leading to some quirky, off-beat humour. Other times it unleashes blood and violence in a way that is meant to be shocking or cause you to be on the edge of your seat. But neither story mechanisms packs a punch and at most, you will perhaps raise an eyebrow or produce a wry grin.

In the end, Spiderhead never manages to be anything other than predictable. Even when Steve attempts to escape aboard his seaplane with the last drug samples while his MobiPak (damaged in a fight with Jeff) causes all the different types of drugs to flood his system, you know he’s not going to get far. And sure enough, the drug that makes him see everything as beautiful when really it’s not causes him to fly into a mountain.

The top notch cast do a good job of engaging you at the beginning. Chris Hemsworth and Miles Teller are both strong in their respective roles. But the movie flags by the halfway mark as you start questioning whether to see it through when you already know how it is going to end. If the movie went all-in as a black comedy, or all-in as a mystery thriller, it could have been far more engaging and riveting. Instead, Spiderhead meanders in a plot that doesn’t have enough meat on it and doesn’t know which way it wants to go.

5 out of 10

Movie Review: Hustle (2022)

TL;DR – Sports movie for basketball and Adam Sandler fans only.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Fictional professional sports movies are challenging. The need to achieve a level of authenticity usually requires a mix of actors and actual sports athletes. And while athletes can do the sporting action for the film, the need to generate story and drama doesn’t always mean they can act.

The plethora of professional sports docuseries generate more drama and insight because you know it’s athletes being themselves (no acting classes required). For example, The Last Dance which follows the Chicago Bulls sixth title run, and Formula 1: Drive to Survive that reveals the behind-the-scenes politics in F1 driving, are classic examples of how fascinating the athletes, coaches, managers etc. are in real life. And that there is more to the sport than the sport itself.

For the fast paced game of basketball, this can be especially challenging to create a fictional story that is both genuinely moving and authentically real. Efforts such as Spike Lee’s You Got Game and Samuel Jackson in Coach Carter are at the upper end while Space Jam (both the Michael Jordan and LeBron James versions) dwell at the bottom of the ladder. I mean I love Looney Tunes but NBA superstars teaming up with cartoon characters to play basketball in order to save the planet is a stretch.

So, where does Hustle land? Probably somewhere above the average but not anything at the earth shattering level. Adam Sandler clearly loves the game and plays Stanley Sugarman, a Philadelphia 76ers scout who has missed his daughter’s nine previous birthdays because he is always on the road or flying around the world trying to find the next big talent that will rock the NBA landscape.

After years of sacrificing his family life with wife Teresa (Queen Latifah) and daughter Alex (Jordan Hull), he is finally presented with his dream job as Assistant Coach to the 76ers by Philly owner Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall). However, when Rex suddenly passes away, Rex’s son, Vince (Ben Foster) takes over the reins and orders Stanley back on the road. It’s clear that while Rex treated Stanley like family and knows that Stanley has the basketball IQ to be a great coach, Vince has no such affection and often ends up butting heads with Stan.

Forced to be on the road once more, Stanley ends up in Spain and walks by a local outdoor court where a buzz is occurring. There’s a massive crowd as street basketballers place bets on who will out school and score the other. It is here that Stanley stumbles upon Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangómez) playing while wearing work boots and dominating his opponents on the court.

Stanley has found his unicorn. A diamond in the rough that needs a little polish, but he has no doubt can make an impact in the NBA.

The rest of the story is a by-the-numbers telling of a player with a rocky past (Bo has no father figure, has previously served time for an assault charge and is trying to care for his mother and daughter) that achieves his dreams of playing in the NBA through determination and belief from Stanley (who fills the father figure void that Bo lacks).

Stanley goes out on a limb when he is unable to convince Vince that the 76ers should give Bo a go and ends up quitting to train Cruz and get him in front of other NBA heads to witness his skill and talent.

A number of real life NBA players, coaches and commentators are dispersed throughout the film to drive home the authenticity angle of the story. Dirk Nowitzki, Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Anthony Edwards, Kenny Smith, Shaq, Charles Barkley, Allen Iverson, Tobias Harris, Matisse Thybulle, Doc Rivers, and Brad Stevens to name a few all lend their time, however brief, in the story.

Director Jeremiah Zagar is conscious enough to not dwell on the real athletes too much. Their appearances lend to some decent comic timing with Sandler’s one-liners and wit. But the primary focus is always on Stanley and Bo.

Juancho Hernangómez who plays Bo Cruz is also a Spanish international and real-life NBA player for the Utah Jazz. His ‘acting’ is confined to displaying his ridiculous basketball skills in endless drills and training along with on court action. The dramatic elements he needs to deliver are done with enough competence to be moving. For example, when he is reunited with his daughter as a surprise that Stan sets up by flying her over from Spain is genuinely touching. Likewise, when the inevitable conflict occurs between Stan and Bo due to a break in trust, Hernangómez delivers enough heartfelt anger and frustration to be believable.

But at the end of the day, this is an Adam Sandler film, and he shows he is more than a comedian. The character that is Stanley Sugarman has a number of past scars that allow Sandler to demonstrate his dramatic chops, and he does this in fine fashion. His chemistry with Queen Latifah and Jordan Hull on-screen adds to the emotional pull, and you can’t help but cheer on Stanley’s efforts even though you know it will all work out in the end.

7.5 out of 10

Movie Review: Top Gun: Maverick (2022)

TL;DR – I feel the need, the need for speed.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Three decades ago, director Tony Scott brought to the big screen one of the most testosterone fuelled, iconic films of the 80s. Not only did it make sales of Ray Ban aviator sunglasses shoot through the roof, contain a blistering hot soundtrack, solidify Tom Cruise as a Hollywood superstar, and establish Val Kilmer’s own rising star, the original Top Gun was lauded for the technical aspect of capturing real fighter planes in action. In a time before CGI became part and parcel of any action film’s budget, Top Gun was painstakingly filmed with the US Navy and actual pilots for the stunts.

For those going through adolescence in the 80s, myself included, it struck all the right chords to be a box office smash even if the story was straight forward and lacked any real complexity. The one liners (“Great Balls of Fire”, “Son, your ego is writing checks your body can’t cash”, “Because I was inverted” to name a few), the adrenaline rush of dog fights, and the chemistry and antagonism between Maverick, Goose, Charlie and Iceman characters were enough to deliver popcorn fun.

With box office success comes the speculation of a sequel. And while there was an indication of this possibility in Top Gun when Maverick chooses to return to the academy as an instructor, it still took two decades before a screenplay for the sequel was drafted.

And while the story is again straight forward: Maverick returns to Top Gun to train a bunch of hot shots on a deadly mission requiring a “Star Wars”-like bombing of a rogue uranium plant nestled in a snowy mountain (think Star Wars Death Star requiring two squads of fighter jets to bomb essentially a vent sized bullseye, the first squad bombing the vent and removing its cover, the second squad dropping bombs down the vent and destroying the underground plant while avoiding surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries and enemy patrol jets), there are a few surprises that arguably elevates Top Gun: Maverick above its predecessor.

The first is the emotional conflict that arises between Maverick (Tom Cruise) and Rooster (Miles Teller). Rooster is the son of Goose, who Top Gun fans will know died in the first film and was the primary source of Maverick’s rite of passage from reckless pilot to a wiser, more responsible one. Rooster holds a serious grudge against his teacher and mission instructor for blocking him from entering the Naval academy. This was a promise Maverick made to Goose’s wife who didn’t want Rooster to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a pilot.

The scenes where Rooster plays “Great Balls of Fire” on the piano in a bar with his fellow hot shots is a moving tribute to the original film and causes Maverick to feel haunted that events are repeating themselves and Rooster could die. There is also a wonderful and surprisingly humorous sequence in the climactic part of the film where Maverick and Rooster have to escape behind enemy lines by stealing a fighter jet. Having Rooster as the spotter to Maverick’s flying and the way Rooster delivers his lines is exactly like his father, Goose and provided a wonderful nostalgia for fans of the first film.

The second surprise is the story is set 36 years later than its predecessor. That is, it is set today which encapsulates all the aircraft and technology advances of today. One might have expected that the sequel would have been set closer to the original, perhaps in the 90s during the Iraq war or The Persian Gulf war. The fact that Maverick has not become an admiral (even though he should be after all his medals and years of service) and is stuck as a captain, provides an intriguing contrast for a man essentially stuck in doing the only thing he knows how to do in life (i.e. flying) during a time where acts of war involve using technology that does not require human pilots. The introductory diatribe from Rear Admiral Chester Cain (Ed Harris) on how he calls Maverick a dinosaur sets up the question of relevance and purpose in Maverick’s life.

The third surprise is that director Joseph Kosinski, along with Tom Cruise himself, demanded that the film should be filmed using real life jets as much as possible. There could have been an over abundance of CGI to create the action sequences, and while CGI is used, the scenes are meshed with live flying action that left me giddy.

Everything is all wrapped up with homages to the original including the opening text taken directly from the first film explaining what Top Gun is along with the song Danger Zone blasting over the speakers to video footage of jet fighters taking off and landing. There’s also an equivalent “volleyball” scene where Tom Cruise and company get to show off their half naked selves by playing team building beach football game. The fact Cruise looks ageless and that buff is in itself surprising (and ridiculous).

It is strongly advised you see the Top Gun before going to see Top Gun: Maverick in order to fully appreciate the sequel. There is a lot of love placed in the sequel; the fact it is dedicated in memory of Tony Scott (who was slated to do the sequel but committed suicide before filming began), the fact Val Kilmer reprises his role as Iceman (even though he is suffering from throat cancer in real life), and the attention to detail to bring back all that was good about the 80s film such as the Ray Bans, the motorcycle, and Penelope (Jennifer Connelly), who plays Maverick’s love interest driving an old model Porsche rather than a sleek, modern day one, adds to an overall experience that will leave fans more than satisfied.

9.5 out of 10

Movie Review: No Time to Die (2021)

TL;DR – For a franchise that has spanned decades and 25 movies (or 27 depending on who you ask) and counting, this is a Bond film of firsts. First time James Bond isn’t 007. First time there is a black female 007 agent. First time James sires a child. And the first time James Bond will meet his maker.

Review (warning: spoilers)

I’ll be up front. I’m not a huge James Bond fan. The man who has a licence to kill, the gadgets and gizmos, the Aston Martins, the womanising, the spy action, the over-the-top villains etc., are all mashed into a kind of amorphous blob for me. I think it has something to do with the main character himself. I just find him kind of bland. And don’t get me wrong, as a piece of entertainment, most Bond movies deliver enough thrills and action to be enjoyable, but I always find them largely forgettable the next day.

In saying this, however, when Daniel Craig took up the mantle and starred in Casino Royale (2006), it was a new take on an old character. Craig breathed fresh air resulting in a James Bond that was more human, more tortured, more flawed, and more interesting as a result.

Craig would go on to star in three more films – Quantum of Solace, Skyfall, and Spectre – before reaching his fifth and final film in No Time to Die.

The crux of the story revolves around a biological weapon of mass destruction (though initially it was designed to target specific individuals only). The weapon uses nanobots that target individuals using their DNA and be deadly to that person but harmless to everyone else. I should say at this point, the vast array of gadgets, weapons and devices used in No Time to Die are outrageously fun and cool but don’t expect them to be grounded in science; maybe science fiction but not science.

Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), leader of the criminal syndicate Spectre, currently incarcerated by MI6, and Bond’s arch-enemy, has his minions kidnap the scientist, Dr Obruchev (David Dencik), from MI6. Turns out the bioweapon (coined ‘Project Heracles’) is being manufactured by MI6, much to Bond’s disgust, and Dr Obruchev is the mastermind behind it.

Even though Bond is in retirement, Blofeld still has an axe to grind and sets a trap that draws Bond into working with the CIA and infiltrate a Spectre gathering of bigwigs in Cuba. When the trap is sprung, Bond is infected by the bioweapon while the Spectre elite get to watch on with glee. However, to their surprise, it is not Bond who keels over and dies but many of the Spectre members instead.

Turns out Obruchev betrayed Spectre and is working for a man named Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek) whose family was killed by Spectre and wants revenge not only on Blofeld but also wants to wipe out millions of people around the world.

What brings much needed emotional gravitas to the story are the many relationships that surround Bond and the challenges that confront him. This includes:

  • Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux) – Bond’s primary love interest, who James thinks betrays him to Spectre at the beginning of the film. Later, Bond realises Swann never had any part in Spectre’s plans to kill him and in fact reveals she has a little girl which James realises is his daughter.
  • Garreth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) – Head of MI6. He and Bond collide on many fronts yet they realise their goals are to try and make the world a better place even if their ways are misguided sometimes. When Bond discovers that it is Mallory and MI6 behind Project Heracles, it causes considerable friction.
  • Nomi (Lashana Lynch) – She has taken over as the new 007 agent. At one point, Bond aligns himself with the CIA and there is a race between him and Nomi to get to Obruchev first.
  • Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) – a CIA field officer and one of Bond’s few friends, which means he doesn’t survive to the end of the film. The scene where Leiter dies in Bond’s arms is genuinely moving.

No Time to Die is a much more complex film than previous Bond flicks and is better for it. James Bond needs to juggle the many people in his life while also facing off on not one, but two, mad men in Blofeld and Safin.

And for the first time, he sees a life that he can live outside of espionage with Swann and being a father to their daughter, Mathilde (Lisa-Dorrah Sonnet). It is this potential investment that draws the movie watcher into Bond’s plight.

So, it is quite a punch in the stomach, when we watch Bond successfully defeat Safin in the climactic finale only to be poisoned by the bioweapon. In a dying act of spite, Safin smashes a vial of nanobots programmed to kill Madeleine and Mathilde against Bond’s face. James knowing he can never be with the woman and daughter he loves, performs his final heroic act by opening the silo doors to Safin’s island compound as a strike from a UK navy destroyer sends missiles to destroy the bioweapon manufacturing plant within.

Thus, in a movie of firsts for the franchise, James Bond officially dies.

We will now have to wait and see whether 007 will make a comeback in another form or be rebooted. But what is almost certain is Daniel Craig’s tenure as the iconic character has now drawn to a close.

A fine ending, however bittersweet, that will make me remember it for days to come (unlike its predecessors).

8 out of 10

Movie Review: Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)

TL;DR – Less to do with Dr Strange and more to do with Wanda Maximoff (aka the Scarlet Witch)

Review (warning: spoilers)

For those who have not seen WandaVision, I would recommend watching that TV series first before diving into Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.

Devastated after losing Vision to Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War, Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) uses her chaos magic to alter the reality of a small town and control all its denizens to create the idyllic life she dreamed of with Vision which included having a family with twin boys. WandaVision unveils the slow spiral Wanda descends into and the mental breakdown that ensues.

The end of that TV series, Wanda also obtains the Darkhold (aka the Book of the Damned), a magical grimoire, that contains powerful magic but corrupts the user. The Darkhold reveals to Wanda the presence of the multiverse where alternate versions of her actually have twin boys that she is the mother of.

Now, to the movie, where we are thrown into an opening scene involving Steven Strange aka Dr Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) helping a young girl named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) escape from a demon chasing them between alternate universes. The pair are trying to find the Book of Vishanti, the anti-thesis to the Darkhold. They manage to find the book but have to face off against the demon. The demon kills Strange but Chavez escapes through a magical portal that she creates.

It’d be a short film if Strange dies in the first ten minutes, and sure enough we discover that the Strange that got killed was one from an alternate universe. We then see the version of Dr Strange that we know awaken from the nightmarish vision of his alternate self being killed. Chavez has now entered our universe and is chased by another demon before being rescued by our Dr Strange and Sorcerer Supreme Wong (Benedict Wong).

Steven then makes the mistake of seeking Wanda for help. If you’ve watched WandaVision then what follows won’t be a twist, but for those who haven’t, they might be surprised to see Wanda turn to the dark side. Turns out she’s the one who has been sending demons to hunt down Chavez, and she wants to acquire Chavez’s portal making ability to traverse the multiverse so she can take over one of the alternate versions, so she can have her family and live happily ever after with her twins.

What possibly is wrong with that? Obviously a lot. Dr Strange, his unrequited love interest Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), Chavez and Wong all work together to try and stop the Scarlet Witch.

The Dr Strange films do not have the benefit of reboots or remakes. So while Spider-man: No Way Home had previous Spider-man flicks starring Tobey Macguire and Andrew Garfield and an assortment of other villains that were able to cross over into Tom Holland’s Spidey world, the only alternate universe that Dr Strange draws from is one where he sacrificed his life to defeat Thanos rather than Tony Stark’s Iron Man, or an alternate universe where he ends up married to Christine.

For Marvel fans, it was a joy, however short-lived, to see that in the alternate universe where Dr Strange sacrificed his life, the Illuminati oversee the protection of that universe’s Earth. The Illuminati is led by five heroes:

  • Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejifor) – who is the Sorcerer Supreme in this alternate universe.
  • Captain Carter (Hayley Atwell) – who was Steve Rogers’s love interest in our universe but in this alternate one, she is the one injected with the super soldier serum.
  • Charles Xavier aka Professor X (Patrick Stewart) – leader of the X-men and the first indication in the MCU that the world of mutants is crossing over into the world of the Avengers.
  • Captain Marvel (Lashana Lynch) – an alternate version of Captain Marvel to the one we know played by Brie Larson.
  • Black Bolt (Anson Mount) – one of the leaders of the Inhumans who if he speaks (even a whisper) can cause soundwaves that can destroy buildings. Seeing the Inhumans introduced into the MCU was a delight. I was hoping Black Bolt’s love interest, Medusa, would make an appearance but alas she did not.
  • Reed Richards (John Krasinski) – leader of the Fantastic Four.

Watching them judge Dr Strange for travelling the multiverse while he pleads to them to set up defences against the Scarlet Witch’s arrival is one of the best bits in the film. The fact that Wanda comes in and decimates the Illuminati leadership (except Mordo) demonstrates she is uber powerful. And while an exciting sequence of action, I don’t think Marvel comic book fans will be satisfied that Wanda could dispose of Carter, Xavier, Captain Marvel, Black Bolt and Richards so easily.

In the end, this movie was much less about Dr Strange and much more about Wanda, and her anguish and subsequent corruption by the Darkhold. We get glimpses into Dr Strange’s own complex character (e.g. witnessing alternate universes with Christine, confronting an alternate universe that has become broken containing a damaged Dr Strange, and our own Steven’s sacrifice by using Darkhold magic to take control of one of the dead versions of himself to confront the Scarlet Witch).

But it never quite feels like the focus is on him. Rather, the most moving moments are taken by Wanda, and the eventual realisation that her wants are destroying many universes not just her own. Chavez is left as a supporting character. She’s like one of Professor X’s young mutants learning to use her powers rather than being controlled by them. Her eventual confidence to control her power simply by Steven telling her she can do it is a bit weak in the story telling department and frankly quite lazy.

Still, there’s enough going on for Marvel fans of both the cinematic universe and the comic books to digest and wonder what will be next for Steven Strange.

Popcorn fun!

8 out of 10

Movie Review: Nightbooks (2021)

TL;DR – Hansel and Gretel with a twist.

Review (warning: spoilers)

What does it mean to be “normal“? On his birthday, for young Alex (Winslow Fegley) something has happened that has his parents worried. The mother is concerned that Alex will be emotionally scarred, and the father wonders whether Alex’s obsession with tales of horror doesn’t make him “normal”.

You see, Alex has a creative passion for horror stories but has now expressed he’ll never write another story again. He packs his stuff in a backpack with the intention of burning all his work.

Alex sneaks out of their apartment without his parents knowing and enters the building elevator. He presses basement and the lift starts its descent. All seems normal until the elevator suddenly shudders to an unexpected stop, and the doors open to reveal a dark hallway.

He wanders down and enters, what looks like, an empty apartment with an old television showing the horror flick, “The Lost Boys”. He spies a plate with a slice of pie and takes a bite. He then falls unconscious as the door to the apartment closes by itself behind him.

For a kid who supposedly knows a lot about horror, he seems oblivious to all the things that scream at you to get the hell out of there. Not the least of which is deciding to enter a stranger’s apartment and eating a stranger’s pie while a horror film is showing on a TV that strangely is working while the rest of the apartment seems to have lost electricity.

Upon awakening, Alex discovers he is now captive inside a magical apartment that can travel and appear anywhere in the world. Its purpose is to lure kids into it. This magical abode is owned by the witch, Natacha (Krysten Ritter), who only keeps kids around if they’re useful. Alex reveals he can write scary stories, and Natacha spares his life on condition that he write and tell her a scary story every night.

Exploring the apartment, he bumps into Yazmin (Lidya Jewett), a girl also trapped and serves as housekeeper inside the apartment. She shows him around including a huge library with a collection of horror stories. Yazmin explains that she was made to read to Natacha every night one of the stories but now the witch has gone through the entire collection.

The interactions between Natacha and Alex during story time is amusing because she constantly critiques Alex’s stories. For example, ghosts can’t physically push objects. In a way, she is actually trying to make Alex a better writer.

“Every good story hints at truth. The more truth, the more powerful the story,” she says.

And while Alex tries to write for survival, he discovers that another (previous) captive has left messages in the pages of books in the library. He attempts to piece together how he and Yazmin might escape.

Director David Yarovesky has created a film (based on J A White’s dark fantasy children’s novel of the same name) that puts a spin on the Hansel and Gretel fairytale. And there’s enough to like for young and older audiences to be engaged. There’s a Goonies crossed with Coraline feel to the film, and Krysten Ritter’s depiction of Natacha the witch is a delight (along with the stylishly outlandish costumes she wears).

When finally it is revealed what happened on Alex’s birthday to cause him to give up on writing, it coincides with a delightful twist that makes Nightbooks more layered than expected.

The message that being weird or different is perfectly fine is obvious. And while the scares are aimed squarely at younger audiences, there’s enough polish to reveal this film as a hidden gem.

7.5 out of 10

Movie Review: The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022)

TL;DR – Nicholas Cage is suffering from a lack of exposure. Struggling to land his next big movie role, he agrees to be a celebrity guest for a billionaire to get an easy pay check. In the process, he gets roped into helping the CIA. With no CIA training whatsoever, he relies on his acting skills to go undercover.

Review (warning: spoilers)

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent suffers from the unbearable weight of expectation.

The trailer presents an interesting premise where actor Nicholas Cage plays himself struggling to land roles for major films. Deciding to retire, he agrees to one final pay check for $1 million to attend, as the guest of honour, a birthday party for a billionaire, Javi Gutierrez (Pedro Pascal). It then takes a funny turn when Javi is suspected of arms dealing and kidnapping a politician’s daughter. And Cage is hired by the CIA to dig deeper into Javi’s affairs and try to locate the kidnapped girl.

Unfortunately, the trailer reveals too much, and all the funniest moments are shown without leaving much left over for the actual film. Knowing Nicholas Cage’s acting career will benefit the viewer as some of the comic moments revolve around previous movies he has starred in.

The fictional depiction of his personal life is one of dysfunction as his relationship with his ex-wife Olivia (Sharon Horgan) and daughter Addy (Lily Sheen) always takes a backseat to his self-absorbed and narcissistic need to secure his next major movie role. It is only through Cage’s acting chops that allows him to pull off this depiction with enough emotional angst to get you to care rather than a standard trope of family neglect.

His interactions with movie buff Javi, who is also a die-hard Nicholas Cage fan, are amusing but you’ll want to turn off your brain at how silly it all gets.

The introduction of the CIA who have been monitoring Javi and trying to locate the kidnapped politician’s daughter is there to propel a plot forward that is really just about Cage going through a mid-life crisis and being steered to persevere through his interactions with Javi. Without the kidnapping plot, we would be watching a movie about two guys discuss existentialism and not much else.

The movie even acknowledges this self-deprecating need to have a hook and progress plot during a dialogue exchange between Javi and Cage. Javi has created a screenplay for a film, and it is Cage who suggests throwing in an action thriller component by introducing a kidnapping that really has no place in Javi’s screenplay.

The cleverness is in a movie about an actor becoming friends and working with a suspected criminal to make a movie about the very events we see on screen.

Nicholas Cage fans will likely be in rapture. For the rest of us, you can watch the trailer and that’ll be enough.

6.5 out of 10

Movie Review: Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022)

TL;DR – Evelyn’s world is already busy enough. So, when the multiverse comes calling and tells her she is the only one that can save it from destruction, all she wants to do is lie down and take a nap. But the universe rarely gives us what we want.

Review (warning: spoilers)

The multiverse is trending. A common technique in sci-fi/fantasy stories, the idea of parallel universes where a person’s life can be altered by different choices and events allows for an infinite source of material. Movies have long since examined these themes from drama flicks like Sliding Doors to sci-fi dystopias like Terminator.

Like many trends that come and go and then come around again, recent productions such as Spider-man: No Way Home, The Adam Project and the upcoming Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, all explore altering timelines, different pathways and the existence of one’s self in different universes.

However, never before have I seen a film that takes this idea to the extreme as the incredibly ambitious Everything Everywhere All At Once directed and written by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (aka “Daniels”).

There is a helter-skelter, everything-is-chaos feel from the start as we are introduced to the life of Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh). She runs a struggling laundromat with her husband, Waymond Wang (Ke Huy Quan) somewhere in America. She is madly trying to get her tax forms in order as they’re being audited by IRS inspector, Deirdre Beaubeirdra (Jamie-Lee Curtis) while at the same time, trying to prepare breakfast for her father Gong Gong (James Hong), who has flown over from China. They’re also getting ready for a Lunar New Year celebration at the laundromat and Evelyn’s daughter, Joy Wang (Stephanie Hsu) arrives on the scene with her girlfriend Becky (Tallie Medel) and is seeking her mother’s approval of the relationship. To top it all off, Waymond has been holding onto divorce papers and has been wanting to discuss their marriage with Evelyn, but she is always too busy.

This opening scene is one version of Evelyn and represents a microcosm of the multiverse chaos that unfolds shortly after. The film is broken up into three parts. Part 1 “Everything”, Part 2 “Everywhere” and Part 3 “All At Once”.

Everything goes into anarchy mode when they have to attend an appointment at the IRS. In a nutshell, a version of Waymond (from a universe called the “Alphaverse”) takes over Waymond and attempts to explain to Evelyn the existence of the multiverse. In the Alphaverse, technology known as “verse-jumping” has been created that allows the user to jump into alternate universes as well as draw from the skills, experience and knowledge of alternate universe selves upon fulfilling specific conditions.

The arrival of Alpha Waymond is to inform Evelyn of a being known as Jobu Tupaki, who turns out to be Joy from the Alphaverse and was pushed beyond her limits using the verse-jumping technology resulting in her mind being splintered. This Alpha Joy now experiences all universes at the same time and can manipulate matter in any way she chooses.

The comedy and action that ensues in the chaos is nothing short of mind-blowing. One of the funniest mechanics is where I said previously that in order for a person with verse-jumping technology to tap into the skills and knowledge of an alternate self, they need to fulfil specific conditions. The conditions are more outlandish depending on how extreme the alternate universe that is being reached.

For example, there is a version of Evelyn who ends up being a kung-fu master. For the laundromat Evelyn to tap into this version of her and gain these skills she needs to profess her love to the IRS inspector, Deirdre, who at the moment has been taken over by Jobu Tupaki and become a wrestling wrecking machine looking to kill Evelyn and Waymond. It is hilarious watching Evelyn saying, “I love you” at a mind-controlled Deirdre wrestler and trying to mean it.

Another example is Alpha Waymond has to eat a chapstick in order to gain martial arts prowess from an alternate universe of himself. And then there is a sequence where the conditions involve him having to self-inflict four paper cuts before he can tap into the alternate universe. I had tears coming out of my eyes because I was laughing so hard watching Waymond getting a sheet a paper and frantically trying to cut his hand while psycho Deirdre is on the loose and yelling that you never get a paper cut when you want to get one.

But comedy and action are only two elements of this genre defying film. The story also explores themes of relationships/family, existentialism, and the meaning of life. The fact that Jobu Tupaki is Joy demonstrates the fractures in the relationship she has with her mother, and the bigger picture of a generation of teenagers with nihilistic views. The film explores the messiness of family not only with mother and daughter, but also Evelyn’s relationship with her husband along with her relationship with her demanding father.

Everything builds to a bagel induced black hole of oblivion (yes, an actual bagel created by Jobu Tupaki containing all the versions of Joy and her emotions), and Evelyn teetering on a knife’s edge when she sees that the only way to confront Jobu is to splinter her mind so she can experience all universes everywhere all at once also.

Evelyn looks like she is convinced by Jobu that life is meaningless especially when the vast multiverse that she experiences all at once demonstrates that there isn’t any purpose. Just when they are about to enter the bagel of self-destruction, Evelyn hears Waymond.

This was unexpected. Evelyn is very much the alpha female in the family and Waymond appears the emasculated and tentative husband. But there is strength and integrity in Waymond simmering beneath the surface that shows his love for Evelyn and why he has always been by her side. Even when the contemplation of divorce papers comes to the fore, he does not want to actually divorce her. He simply wants to demonstrate the dire state their marriage is in and wants to talk and be heard. It is Waymond that speaks to Evelyn who is about to step into the void and talks of kindness and hope. In turn, Evelyn tells Jobu that she is not alone and she will always be with her.

The reconciliation is not all tied up in a neat bow. Life is messy regardless of which universe you’re in, and when the laundromat version of Joy confronts her mother and unleashes a torrent of emotion, it is representative of all the challenges those teenage years represent, especially when living in an environment where the teenager feels they are not being heard by their parents. The drama from these connections is as integral as the comedy and action if not more and transcends the sci-fi genre.

The acting is a tour de force. Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan demonstrate they can be in roles that are not boxed in by cultural stereotypes. Their comic timing is brilliant, but their ability to draw out empathy even when the situation is ludicrous is a greater feat. Likewise, Jamie Lee Curtis, James Hong and Stephanie Hsu wring out every bit of their roles.

One of the most original films I have ever seen. I have no idea how the Daniels will be able to create a film any better than this one.

10 out of 10