Spider-Man: No Way Home

Spider-Man: No Way Home 2021

Directed by Jon Watts. Screenplay by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, (based on characters created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko).

The film opens immediately after Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019), where Spider-Man is revealed to the world as Peter Parker. In desperation to regain a normal life, he turns to Doctor Strange for help but a spell goes wrong and characters from alternate realities appear in his world.This is the third installment of the current Spider-Man franchise under the Sony/Marvel deal, with Tom Holland in the titular role. He’s joined again by Zendaya, Jacob Batelon, Jon Favreau and Marissa Tomei plus many returning characters from the previous films and Benedict Cumberbatch, Benedict Wong and J. K. Simmons are also appearing.

Of course, there have been other relatively recent iterations of this beloved comic book character, played by Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire (my personal favourite web spinner), and this movie brings all three together. Added to the mix are villains from these previous films too, played again by Alfred Molina, Jamie Foxx, Rhys Ifans, Thomas Haden Church and Willem Dafoe.

The premise of bringing together so many characters from previous films is bold but not unheard of (Marvel’s Avengers movies anyone?) and I have to confess, I was afraid this would be yet another shallow exercise in fan service, which is my feeling about some of the recent Star Wars and Star Trek releases. This is especially true of season two of Picard, (currently streaming on Amazon Prime in Australia) which is rapidly becoming my biggest disappointment of 2022. This time, Patrick Stewart’s Picard is crossing swords with not only the Borg Queen but also John de Lancie, reprising his role as Q, (a kind of intergalactic Loki) one of my all time favourite Star Trek roles. But a lot of what made these characters so very special back in the day has been lost in the cocoon of nostalgia that engulfs this series.

What should be exciting, dangerous and new is lost, with fine actors being placeholders rather than extensions of their previous roles. It doesn’t move their stories forward, resulting in Picard feeling hollow, insincere and (it galls me to say this) boring, whereas Spider-Man: No Way Home feels surprisingly fresh and at times, incredibly moving.

And I think the key is in the screenplay by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers. All our Spidey’s are written to behave and react true to their particular characters. Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man has come to terms with it all, very calm, very zen; Andrew Garfield’s emotionally damaged version gets the support and validation he needed – if only from his other selves; and Tom Holland’s man-child is still trying to be everything for everyone.

They’re all striving to be better men and the script gives them space to do that – in surprisingly redemptive ways. And the same can be said for the returning villains, (particularly Molina, Foxx and Dafoe) who are all just as horrible as they ever were, but through a good script they’re given room to grow.

Naturally, it also helps to have a massive budget to employ people like Mauro Fiore (one of the great action cinematographers currently working) as DoP and the small army of specialists required to create special effects that are smooth and surprisingly seamless.

This film is a joy from start to finish. Spider-Man: No Way Home is available to rent or buy through Amazon Prime but was recently released on DVD and Blu Ray world wide. If you like fan service done right, this is very highly recommended.

Death on the Nile

Death on the Nile (2022)

Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Screenplay by Michael Green, based on the novel by Agatha Christie.

This is Kenneth Branagh’s second outing portraying the great Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot and directing the action. As with the previous Murder on the Orient Express (2017), this is an ensemble piece, drawing together some of the biggest names in contemporary cinema, probably all jumping at the chance to work with Branagh – I know I would be!

Like it’s predecessor, there are script adjustments, new characters added to bring it into the 21st century, (which thankfully draws Letitia Wright and Sophie Okonedo into the mix) and a callback character from the previous film. Overall, the cast are fine and it’s everything you’d expect from a film of this genre and style. The set design, costuming cinematography and lighting are sumptuous, coupled with a soundtrack that is period perfect, making this a feast for the senses. And therein lies one of the biggest flaws in this film – it’s too gorgeous. Yes, it serves as an important reminder of the opulent world these people inhabit but I find it detracted from them – the characters I wanted to meet, get to know, empathise with. The beauty overrode the rest of the film and never let me forget I was watching a movie.

I know many who adore Branagh’s skills as an actor and director (I include myself in that club) so what I’m about to say might sound heretical.

My other issue with this movie is Branagh’s take on Poirot, he plays him more as a man of action, which traditionally, Poirot is not. It’s very subjective (isn’t all art?) but after seeing this, I desperately wanted to rewatch David Suchet who, in my opinion, is a far more flamboyant version of the character, yet remains utterly human, unafraid to display his flaws and leans far more heavily into the character from Christie’s many books.

In conclusion, this is not as good as Murder on the Orient Express (2017) which I found far more entertaining. It is incredibly well made and almost too beautiful to look at – but ultimately, lacking in substance. Perfectly fine while it’s on screen but ultimately, forgettable.Death on the Nile is currently screening in selected cinemas in Australia and available to stream on Disney Plus.

The Northman

The Northman 2022

Directed by Robert Eggers. Screenplay by Robert Eggers and Sjon.

I saw The Northman in its opening weekend at a fairly well attended screening at The State, and from the opening scenes (unlike my last cinema outing) you could’ve heard pin drop. This chaotic and extremely bloody film is loosely based on the saga of Amleth, (also the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Hamlet) which forms part of the ‘Gesta Danorum’ or ‘History of the Danes’ from the 12th century.

Here, Eggers has teamed with Icelandic writer Sjon, who also wrote the screenplay for the much lauded Lamb (2021). The result is a mesmerising fever dream of epic proportions. Featuring Alexander Skarsgård, Anya Taylor-Joy, Claes Bang, Nicole Kidman and Ethan Hawke, this boasts a great supporting cast, including Willem Dafoe, Ingvar Sigurdsson and the wonderful Björk. The production was one of many delayed by Covid, but I think in this case, it has worked in favour of The Northman, with the end result a very polished production.

There are many, MANY fight sequences and they’re excellently choreographed by C C Smiff and shot by cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, a constant collaborator on all Eggers’ features. The framing throughout is superb but one scene in particular has stayed with me, a beserker raid on a village that contains a lengthy tracking shot through a village. Filmed in one take, it is wonderfully balletic as well as incredibly bloody. All praise too for stunt coordinator Jòn Vidar Ambórsson and his team, who really made me wince and occasionally, gasp for breath! The original soundtrack by Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough is perfect – front and centre when required and unobtrusive for the remainder. Similarly, there’s been a lot of work poured into costuming and historical accuracy, right down to a valkyrie with dental adornments and a he-witch in women’s clothing – real practices in Iron Age Viking culture.

Having a much bigger budget for this third feature has also opened up new horizons (literally) for Eggers. After the intentionally stifling feel of the New England forest (and Thomasin’s tiny family cabin) in The Witch (2015) and the similarly claustrophobic feel of The Lighthouse (2019), the broad horizons and multiple locations of The Northman give an appropriate sweeping, epic feel to this saga of vengeance and love. It fleetingly draws a shade of grey over Amleth’s quest (a thread that could’ve been pulled a little more I feel) but it remains a top class epic revenge saga.

If like me, you’re a fan of Eggers’ brand of visceral dark horror (yes, it is a horror movie), I’m sure you’ll enjoy this and, like his previous films, I’m sure this will stand repeated rewatching. But be aware, it isn’t for the squeamish or faint hearted. The Northman is currently in wide release globally and I suggest seeing it on the biggest screen possible. Very highly recommended.

Everything Everywhere All At Once

Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022)

Written and directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (as the Daniels)

I saw this with friends at my local cinema (the State) and while it was great to see on the big screen, our experience was unfortunately marred by some very inappropriately noisy young girls, which is always sad. We went in purposely knowing very little about the film, only the main cast and that it’s an A24 release. It’s my preferred way to see anything – and we weren’t disappointed.

This film is made up of very many thematic pieces. Part absurdist comedy, part family drama, part action blockbuster, part science fiction but at it’s core, I felt it was a thoughtful examination of existentialism on one hand and nihilism on the other. There are many film references, stretching from Hong Kong action cinema to Disney animation, and I even found myself thinking of In the Mood For Love (2000) with some very beautifully lit and heartfelt alley scenes. Perhaps my biggest takeaway from this, is that it isn’t based on an existing property, it’s a wholly original work (albeit a cinematic homage) and that makes it all the more refreshing.

The cast are top notch but my standouts are Michelle Yeoh (Evelyn Wang), the astonishing Jamie Lee Curtis (Deirdre Beaubeirdre) and Stephanie Hsu (Joy Wang). They’re ably supported by veteran actor James Hong (Gong Gong) and Ke Huy Kwan (Waymond Wang) who as a child actor, played Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984).

There are moments that are outrageously, laugh-out-loud funny, some blindingly great action sequences (where Yeoh is stunning) and moments when I found myself in tears, thinking of my own fraught family relationships. For the most part, the pacing is frenetic, at times reminiscent of Edgar Wright’s smash cuts from Scott Pilgrim vs The World (2010) but it’s interspersed with quieter, reflective moments that (for me, at least) will remain long after the movie has ended.

Overall, I found the whole far greater than the sum of its many parts and a thoroughly entertaining ride. Try and see it on the biggest screen possible. Very highly recommended.

Everything Everywhere All At Once is currently in wide release globally .

Blood of Dracula’s Castle

Blood of Dracula’s Castle 1969

Directed by Al Adamson. Written by Rex Carlton.

One of my favourite film podcasts, The Evolution of Horror is about to embark on their 8th season in coming weeks, and this time they’re focusing on vampires. As a lifelong fan of this subgenre, it got me thinking about vampire films I HAVEN’T seen. And that led me to Blood of Dracula’s Castle (1969) and what a wild ride it was!

Directed by Al Adamson, this definitely falls into the “so bad, it’s almost good” category, making it one of his better efforts. Adamson was a classic director of exploitation films, mostly pitched at the drive-in cinema market, which was hugely popular in the US and Australia in the 60s and 70s. As a child of that era, I was genuinely surprised I hadn’t seen this one before. It did have something of a difficult start, being filmed in 1966 and not released until 1969 and there’s an extended version, released separately as Dracula’s Castle.

The story (quite a convoluted beast) finds Dracula and his wife (played with delicious wit by veterans Alexander D’Arcy and Paula Raymond) living the high life under the alias Count and Countess Townsend in a Gothic castle, complete with an inarticulate beast-like servant, gruff and ghoulish butler (played with much tongue-in-cheek by the great John Carradine) and a dungeon inhabited by chained young women, whose blood is slowly drained to sustain the vampires. And it’s all set in the wilds of… California!

But the Count and Countess are only tenants, and the property is inherited by a hip young photographer and his bikini-model fiance who not only want a tour of the property but want to move in! There’s also a more interesting sub-plot involving a psychopathic killer (and friend of the Count & Countess) which gets kind of left behind.

Despite its multitude of flaws, I really quite enjoyed this very camp romp, probably the only things missing were Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. Blood of Dracula’s Castle is a fun excursion into 60s Californian Gothic – but certainly no masterpiece! It’s currently available to stream for free on Tubi in Australia though the resolution is sadly, quite poor.

The Adam Project

The Adam Project (2022)

Directed by Shawn Levy. Written by Jonathon Tropper, T. S. Nowlin, Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin

This Netflix production is another collaboration from Shawn Levy and Ryan Reynolds, after last year’s Oscar nominated Free Guy (2021). Shot entirely in British Columbia Canada, The Adam Project is essentially an action movie that straddles science fiction (time travel specifically), coming of age, comedy and family drama – especially the currently popular “Bad Dads” concept. (I think Bad Dads have become so prevalent it should be recognised as a subgenre all on its own!)

A common problem with mixing so many ideas in the same movie is that everything gets messy, fundamentals can be diluted and some important things get lost along the way. The quality cast really helps here, led by Ryan Reynolds as Adam Reed, who (while perfectly fine) doesn’t deviate from his usual charming performance. Jennifer Garner, Mark Ruffalo, Zoe Saldana and Catherine Keener all make the most of their roles, but the standout for me is Walker Scobell as 12 year old Adam. His delivery is on point, capturing Reynolds’ easy going charm perfectly.

While this is great family viewing, it’s one of those films that’s fine while you’re watching it but readily forgotten after the event. The Adam Project is currently available to stream on Netflix in most territories, including Australia.

Black Christmas

Black Christmas (1974)

Directed by Bob Clark, written by Roy Moore.

Bob Clark’s 1974 Canadian holiday horror is something of a minor masterpiece that holds up even today. Featuring a very strong cast, including John Saxon, Olivia Hussey, Kier Dullea and Margot Kidder, this is considered by many horror buffs as the proto- slasher that paved the way for Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) – even more than Hitchcock’s Psycho (1962) or Michael Powell’s brilliant and (sadly, often overlooked) Peeping Tom (1960).

There are many reasons for Black Christmas‘ success beyond its fabulous cast. The cinematography by Reg Morris is certainly a cut above a lot of horror releases of the day. Like many Hitchcock films, it employs the technique of not showing a lot of blood and gore (apart from a few key scenes) but rather, character reactions which are far more chilling. It was also an early adopter of not showing the antagonist but filming a moving camera from the killer’s PoV.

The music by Carl Zittrer is minimal and incredibly atmospheric and was considered very avant garde for its day. Some of the choices haven’t aged so well but for the most it adds a great deal to the narrative tension without getting in the way.

But above all, the story is solid and Roy Moore’s screenplay allows for plenty of development, giving the actors a lot to work with. This results in a film inhabited mostly by believable, fully fleshed out characters. It also allows room for some really quite funny moments that doesn’t feel out of place or tacked on. Marian Waldman’s deliciously drunk Mrs Mac is a particularly fine example of this.

I confess I haven’t seen the remakes (I think there are two?) but I don’t feel it would do much other than make me want to watch this again. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
Sadly, Black Christmas isn’t available currently to stream in Australia, but the fine folks at Newcastle After Dark have it on their YouTube channel.