The grief monster lives inside the house. Based on a 12-page short story by Stephen King from the 1970s that obscures the nightmare between supernatural and psychological, The Boogeyman (2023) is a lean and enjoyable 90-minute horror that is as good a theatre experience as you’ll find right now. There is no obscurity here, as screenwriters Scott Beck, Bryan Woods, and Mark Heyman begin with a horrific cold open that leaves little doubt about the threat at the centre of the film.
The Boogeyman follows a similar trajectory to most Stephen King stories – familial grief made manifest, a central car crash, overlooked teens, etc – but it’s in execution where the film thrives. After the sudden passing of their mother in a car crash, the Harper family of teenager Sadie (Sophie Thatcher), much younger Sawyer (Vivien Lyra Blair), and father Will (Chris Messina) are struggling to cope in the aftermath, leaving them vulnerable to the presence of a looming spectre in the dark. The film is light on narrative invention, but has some of the most impressively creative horror set pieces that engages an audience far more than the story.
Emerging onto the scene with the impressively minimalist Covid horror film Host (2020), Rob Savage weaponised the familiar with Zoom calls and our collective sense of isolation during the pandemic that made it so effective. Given a studio budget and higher-level actors to work with, the filmmaker created an effective horror film that should stand as one of the year’s best. Savage’s impressive use of light and negative space that he flexed in Host (especially in its constraints), is heightened in The Boogeyman, especially through the use of unique light sources in the set pieces like Sawyer’s light ball, a PlayStation game, or the therapist’s red pulsating light pillar that ratchets up the tension greatly.
Looking for narrative invention and complexity in a film titled The Boogeyman is like searching for water in the Sahara, and Savage is acutely aware of this. The film’s narrative simplicity strips it down to its base elements of a grief-addled family and a monster feeding off their pain, allowing the set pieces and creative execution to thrive. Feeling much like a short story that hastily needs connective tissue to leap to its heightened moments, the film takes narrative shortcuts to arrive at its impressive set pieces. This is not uncommon in the horror genre, but in a post-Get Out (2017) world, its lack of self-awareness is surprising, especially in its very post-2020s setup of therapy and grief.
Supported by a solid all-around cast, Thatcher and Blair are terrific as the mourning sisters. Sophie Thatcher in particular, in her first lead film role since breaking out in the TV series Yellowjackets (2021), holds the movie together with a combination of teenage resolve and raw open nerve that is always engaging. Horror has long been a genre that’s allowed young actors to break out, and Thatcher’s performance here is one of the more impressive in recent years.
The Boogeyman is another in a long run of recent film and television centred on therapy, which while an important addition to culture to lessen the stigma, it makes for a collection of tired tropes with little insight. Will is a therapist, which certainly heightens his fear of opening up to his daughters about the sudden passing of his wife and their mother, but is hollow as a character (something not uncommon with adults in King stories). The depictions of therapists in the film, Will and Dr Weller (LisaGay Hamilton), are harsh and broad, ultimately hurting the characterisation of the profession instead of illuminating it.
Despite its narrative flaws and simplicities, it’s hard not to get swept up in the enjoyment and genre craft on display in The Boogeyman, from a recent emerging talent in Rob Savage. Comfortably levelling up to studio horror scale, Savage heightens every moment with creative set pieces that will thrill any horror fan seeking a new cinema experience.
Beginning, as most noir stories do, in a detective’s office. In enters the striking heiress Clare Cavendish (Diane Kruger), seeking to hire the famed private investigator Philip Marlowe (Liam Neeson) to find her missing lover, Nico Peterson (François Arnaud). These familiar beats are established efficiently and with a breeze of frictionless storytelling that makes for pleasant viewing to begin a film, but makes for a shaky foundation to build a twisty detective caper. Based not on Raymond Chandler’s series of novels, but the 2014 novel The Black-Eyed Blonde by John Banville, the film feels notably modern while inside the familiar world of the famed detective, making for a unique watch.
Marlowe (2023) has the presentation early on of a Sunday matinee theatre film, which makes the sudden shift with a quite gnarly sequence in its first act even more jarring. It destabilises the film, which could be an interesting choice to move the audience into an unexpected place, but these two styles run on parallel tracks throughout the film. L.A. noir stories are often about the seedy underbelly of the Hollywood system, so these juxtaposed styles could reinforce that concept, but in Marlowe they lessen the impact of each other completely.
The performances are solid all round, especially in the smaller side characters headlined by Jessica Lange and Alan Cumming, but is let down by a lacking lead performance by Neeson, who is still within his post-Taken mode that feels out of place for a Marlowe role. While Robert Mitchum’s performance of Marlowe in Farewell, My Lovely (1975) was hard-nosed and rough as sandpaper, there was still the famed character’s wisecracking and philosophising that made him beloved. Whether these changes have been ground down with this much older Marlowe is unclear, as the film focuses on addressing his age physically, not emotionally or mentally. It’s difficult to separate the previous Marlowe performances here, but it’s those changes that flatten the film as a whole.
A causal change with this flat Neeson performance is the lack of chemistry he has with Diane Kruger, which should be the igniting spark for the whole film. An underwritten femme fatale part is a staple in the noir genre, usually buoyed by the filmmaking and dynamic chemistry with the detective, neither of which are serviced to Kruger, who should be the standout element of the film.
Philip Marlowe has always been a compelling literary and screen character throughout the years due to his iron moral backbone being constantly put up against the rapidly shifting immorality of old Hollywood. This is shown in flashes in Marlowe – it will never grow tiring to see the villain attempt to bribe the unflappable detective – but the portrayal here is focused on Marlowe’s desire to either retire or return to the police force for a more stable life. While unique for a screen portrayal of the character through its source material, this forces the film into a thematically inert corner that does not make for engaging cinema.
The film’s strange mixture of modern sensibilities (graphic violence, modern dialogue, handheld camerawork) inside of a period setting makes it a fascinating but not always engaging watch. The final act devolves into a strangely modern action spectacle – equipped even with the neon-drenched scenery – that has a stronger connection to last year’s Neeson action film Memory (2022) than The Big Sleep (1946). In theory this could all work as a form of adaptation of old Hollywood noir tropes through a modern lens, but in practice Marlowe ends up a mess of contradictions that complicates what began as a charming enough Summer noir for older audiences.
Guardians of the Galaxy have long been the under-appreciated Marvel gang of underdogs (now including an actual dog in Cosmo, played by Oscar nominee Maria Bakalova), that, against all odds, have formed a surprising trilogy of films that can all be put amongst the enduring enterprises very best. The three films are simple, emotional, and dynamic in ways that are becoming increasingly rare in the MCU – largely off the back of filmmaker James Gunn’s writing and directing style – but a great portion of credit should be given to their strong ensembles and creative art and production designs.
It’s been 6 years since the last stand-alone Guardians adventure, with Gunn being immensely busy in the interim. He has switched allegiances from Marvel to DC, first with his own The Suicide Squad (2021) film alongside a John Cena TV show, and now operating as the franchise’s own Kevin Feige overlord, beginning with his own Superhero rebirth story set for 2025.
What allows this new instalment, Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3 (2023), to thrive is its basic retrieval mission with crystal clear stakes, a divergence not just from recent Marvel plots, but from most third entries in franchises. When Adam Warlock (Will Poulter) crashes through Knowhere in a failed attempt to kidnap Rocket (Bradley Cooper) for mysterious reasons, resulting in significant injuries, the remaining Guardians must go back through his past in order to save their friend’s life. Where Volume 2 (2017) narrowed its focus to Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt, who is at his best here) backstory with his family, Volume 3 smartly focuses on the origins of Rocket Racoon. Cooper’s Rocket has always been the hipster pick for best performance in the MCU, and he is given an interesting role here as the tech genius Racoon is shown mostly in flashback for the film’s runtime, slowly becoming the grizzled vet we know today. Volume 2 excelled in the tertiary moments between Rocket and Michael Rooker’s Yondu, a formula Volume 3 follows similarly in this flashback origin structure.
Music has always been a heavy focus of the Guardians story from the 80s Yacht Rock focus of the first two films (with Peter’s beloved cassette player), to the introduction of the Zune player in Volume 3, allowing the film to have a distinct 90s flavour. Opening with a wonderful sequence on Knowhere with an acoustic version of Radiohead’s Creep, we see Rocket (Bradley Cooper) singing and moving amongst the ragtag community they have cultivated. It is clear that Rocket is now as closely attached to this Earth music as Peter, a connection that has slowly been growing across the three films. Volume 3 is scattered with outstanding music cues from The Flaming Lips, Beastie Boys, and Florence + the Machine, which surprisingly feels more cohesive to the film’s style than the built-in nostalgia of the 80s music that is so integral to the Guardian’s story.
The ensemble has grown to accommodate a few welcome faces, including Will Poulter and Chukwudi Iwuji as Adam Warlock and The High Evolutionary respectively. Poulter’s charming wide eyed emergence into the world as a young celestial is a wonderful inclusion, especially the two hander scenes between Adam and Ayesha (Elizebeth Debiki), which are the comedic highpoint of the film. Debiki’s devolution from a pompous ruler at the beginning of Volume 2 to a desperate lackey to a maniacal boss here showcases the actress’s comedic chops, breathing new life into a character that was previously given little time.
Iwuji does his best 90s action villain impression as twisted experimental scientist The High Evolutionary – the whole movie has a great ongoing Face/Off (1997) bit – that heightens his scenes, making him more enjoyable than recent Marvel villains. The film’s villain storyline closely resembles the arc of X-Men 2 (2003), with Rocket in the Wolverine role and The High Evolutionary in the role of Brian Cox’s William Stryker, the man responsible for his claws through unethical experimentations. With this close resemblance, an audience is able to settle into a familiar story, allowing the emotional stakes to become the focus instead of a convoluted plot that derails too many comic stories.
Where Volume 3 exceeds well above the previous two films is the wildly inventive world-building and production designs. The warm interiors of Knowhere feel like a home to these characters, which garners emotional weight when it gets put in jeopardy. Guardians has always been about its misfit community with Knowhere at its heart, so it is never a chore the film cuts back to the misadventures of the crew on board while the Guardians are away on a mission. But the inclusion of new locations in Volume 3, like the 80s Star Trek-styled organic security hub Orgosphere or Stepford Wives (1972) tinged Counter-Earth, feels wholly unique in the MCU. Gunn’s Guardians trilogy consistently breathes new life into the wider MCU establishment, with Volume 3 coming at a time they need a major kickstart.
Although the Guardians were integral to the plot of the later Avengers films, it is remarkable how cohesive this trilogy of films is when viewed together. Comparatively, the Jon Watts Spider-Man trilogy and Peyton Reed Ant-Man trilogy are tonally jarring when viewed as a collective story, instead being pulled and twisted into the larger MCU puzzle set.
The very best filmmakers to operate within this larger Superhero space have been those that have been able to wrestle with the large enterprise while maintaining their own sensibilities. Ryan Coogler was able to bring his political and empathic filmmaking chops from Fruitvale Station (2013)into his Black Panther films, while Gunn has been able to weave a satisfying and hilarious adventure romp that never lacks bite, qualities that made him such a compelling emerging filmmaker.
Gunn has a penchant for having his characters plainly express their feelings about any situation, which is a creative quirk that takes a while to settle into but can often lead to moments of immense emotionality. Much like Aaron Sorkin’s or Quentin Tarantino’s distinct writing style, Gunn trusts his audience to move to the rhythms of his character’s dialogue to an emotionally satisfying conclusion, accepting the occasional off-notes on the journey.
In spite of its long runtime and simple retrieval plotting, Volume 3 excels through the strong emotional connection that has been made with this world and its characters. Gunn has perfected his emotionally candid dialogue style, with an ensemble of quality performances, highlighted by Cooper, to create the most satisfying Marvel film in years.
Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3 is in theatres now.
One of the best films from MIFF 2022 has finally arrived in theatres, Broker (2022)is a deeply complicated but always empathetic drama from a true modern master. Hirokazu Koreeda’s films have a certain sticky texture, maturing in your mind long after the credits roll. His films will always affect you emotionally, but their true power is the depths he is able to mine from a collection of characters.
Born out of a desire to work with legendary Korean actor Song Kang-ho, working with a large swathe of the Parasite (2019) production crew, Koreeda has crafted another thorny but deeply humanist portrait of an unlikely family, thrown together through unusual circumstances. Broker follows a pair of church volunteers Ha Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho) and Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won), who sell unwanted babies that are left in the church’s baby box on the adoption black market. When a young mother Moon So-young (pop star IU), returns for her baby the next day, she catches wind of their schemes and forces the brokers to take her on their journey out of town to sell her baby to the right family.
Even for one of the greatest humanist filmmakers to ever live, this is an extremely difficult story to operate as an empathy machine for an audience, making it all the more moving when it does break you open. Most of the auteur’s films start with a sweeter taste, which then patiently develops into a more acidic and complex series of emotions and flavours. In Broker, however, Koreeda begins with his darkest and most complicated place to date. The film builds and develops on top of this shaky foundation, unmasking compassion and empathy in unexpected places that will leave you in pieces.
Where The Truth (2019) faltered in its execution of performance (French and Japanese styles are worlds apart), Broker is one of the best ensembles put to film in years. From Song Kang-ho’s heart of gold humanity in face of difficult circumstance to the detectives Lee (Lee Jou-young) and Su-jin (the always terrific Bae Donna) that are tasked with taking down the operation, the entire cast is pitched perfectly to Koreeda’s empathetic underpinnings that make his work so affecting. But it is IU (real name Ji-eun Lee), who really stands out and is transcendent in the role, vaulting her immediately into the top tier of pop star performances.
Broker operates closer in style to The Truth, the filmmaker’s big swing after winning the Palme d’Or for the masterful Shoplifters (2018), which was filmed away from his home nation of Japan and in a foreign language. Both Broker and The Truth has less of the documentary style of pacing and mise en scene that made him legendary in Japanese cinema, showcasing his adaptability not just in style, but in his ability to work with a cast and crew that speak different languages.
Broker, leaning into the more Korean style of cinema, is more forceful and plot-driven in its storytelling than Koreeda’s other films, that often stem from his documentary background. The film is quite astonishing and deeply felt, with perhaps the only false note being its loud, heavy-handed moments. These moments are further leaned on by quite an obtrusive and manipulative score by Jung Jae-il, especially by Koreeda standards, who usually allows emotions to develop more naturally in his films.
In most Koreeda films, a single location is used that is full of so much personality and attention that it feels like a whole world. In Broker, a road trip movie for the most part, that single location becomes the two central vehicles: Ha Sang-hyun’s laundry van with its broken back door but homely interior, and Su-jin and Lee’s detective sedan where they spend most of the film.
Themes of care in different forms permeate the film, with the notable motifs of rain and shirt buttons coursing through its veins. By weaving themes of care and compassion between Ha Sang-hyun and detective Su-jin through their clothing, Koreeda complicates his seemingly straightforward detective story through his characters’ shared connections. In these small moments, Koreeda excels and deepens his character portraits which have made him a modern master.
Perhaps the most emotionally overwhelmed you will feel in a theatre this year occurs in a hotel room with Moon So-young and the ragtag crew, with all the lights off, thanking them for being born. She is unable to say it directly to her child who she may never see again, so she says it individually to the whole group. This is a group who have felt discarded and left behind in their own lives, so to have a young mother saying this to them with the same care as she tells her own son, is profound. This is one of the most emotionally resonant scenes Koreeda has put to film, which is saying something given his extraordinary filmography.
Fellow filmmaker Kogonada once described Koreeda’s films as tasting similarly to the legendary director Yasujirō Ozu’s work due to its aftertaste. “When we leave his films we experience a similar aftertaste, which is to say, a deeper sense of life. And it turns out that the every day is a lot like tofu (which may explain why Ozu referred to himself as a tofu maker). It may seem bland in comparison to the spectacle of other dishes and desserts being offered, but if we happen to stumble upon a master chef capable of bringing out its subtle flavours, it will change the way we experience tofu forever.” In this case, Broker is perhaps Koreeda’s most complex dish yet, one that will stay with you forever.
“Welcome back Mr Wick” (RIP the iconic Lance Reddick). The bravura American action franchise of the past 10 years, John Wick returns bolder, brasher, and more inventive than ever in John Wick:Chapter 4 (2023). The film, clocking in at 169 minutes with an immense 14 action set pieces, figures which on the surface would cripple most films, but in reality are remarkably well paced. Renown stuntman turned in-demand filmmaker (his IMDb page reads like a to-do list) Chad Stahelski has always focused more on individual moments than a wholly engaging narrative, which is still the case with the fourth entry in the franchise, but the attention to detail in these moments, along with an extraordinary ensemble that are all giving their best, makes the film as a whole immensely enjoyable.
The franchise has always focused on three central tenets: gloriously realistic fight choreography with one of the best to ever do it in Keanu Reeves, stunningly inventive visuals in all real locations, and minimal dialogue with an eye for larger world-building on the margins. These are all ratcheted up to extremes in Chapter 4, bringing the film closer in comparison to a David Lean film than whatever the Russo’s are producing on Netflix.
Following on from the events of Chapter 3: Parabellum (2019), John Wick (Reeves), down a finger and assumed dead by the High Table, must traverse even further reaches of the globe to take down the senior figures of the organisation. The major inclusion to the franchise here is the legendary Donnie Yen, and his presence is felt immediately as the blind retired assassin Caine, tasked with eliminating his old friend John. Caine’s story parallels John’s from the first film, a connection that is simple but effective in a film that knows when to expand the story and when to be quiet and let audiences bathe in the stylised action set pieces.
The franchise has been able to boast an incredibly varied list of cameos from Angelica Houston to Boban Marjanović, adding a sense of scale and interest to each sequence. Added here are Yen, Bill Skarsgard, Rina Sawayama, and Hiroyuki Sanada, all improving on an already impressive ensemble that is unparalleled in an action franchise. Yen in particular is incredible, adding a coy and aloof nature to one of the best fighters in cinema history makes for a constantly compelling screen presence. To be able to add a figure like Yen to the franchise after four films shows the filmmakers are never satisfied with what was previously achieved, always seeking a greater experience for audiences, which they have accomplished in spades.
John Wick has long been a quintessential YouTube clips movie, focusing on individual moments over a cohesive narrative. Chapter 4 is easily the most ambitious entry. Whether that is in its outrageous Berlin rave sequence, incredible Donnie Yen fight sequences, or a seen-to-be-believed false roof bird’s eye oner with explosive shotgun rounds that will have audiences with their jaws on the floor and an overwhelming desire to cheer in appreciation.
The best inclusion to the franchise introduced in Chapter 3: Parabellum (besides Halle Berry and her dogs) are the locations outside of New York, something that is being further expanded here in Chapter 4. Taking place in Berlin, Paris, and Osaka, this film is able to flex its muscles visually and tonally which adds important freshness to a world that could have relied on what previously worked instead of giving audiences a three-hour endorphin rush.
Connection to the entire franchise can be felt throughout Chapter 4, from its extraordinary Berlin rave sequence to Mr Nobody’s attack dog. These moments never feel like a tired repetition, but an evolution of form that makes this film the quintessential John Wick film. With the additions of location jumping and more convoluted plots, the John Wick franchise has morphed into a sort of John Woo-inspired, American Wuxia James Bond or Mission Impossible, with Keanu Reeves at its centre. The only thing it’s missing is the iconic score (although the music is always top-notch).
Among the best blockbuster theatre experiences this decade, Stahelski and crew have pushed every moment to its limits to put John Wick: Chapter 4 in the pantheon of action filmmaking achievements. Comfortably the best film in the series, Chapter 4 is a perfect culmination of everything that makes the previous films great, heightened and stylised to the highest degree imaginable.
“Please lord, make me the biggest star the world has ever seen”, our heroine Pearl (Mia Goth) pleads each night before bed, accompanied by a garish string accompaniment that draws immediate comparisons to the early colour cinema. A skilled director of pastiche, Ti West has crafted a Douglas Sirk-styled film within the dark and gory world he has created with muse Goth, that is sure to thrill old and new fans alike. Immediately following the release of one of 2022’s best horror films, X, it was announced West and Goth will be creating a trilogy surrounding these characters, here with the prequel Pearl (2022), and concluding with MaXXXine (2023), all following Goth’s characters.
Set in 1918 Texas during the Influenza pandemic, Pearl is the only child of a German immigrant family. Pearl’s father (Matthew Sunderland) is infirm, laying the burden of survival in a trying time with Ruth (Tandi Wright), Pearl’s domineering mother who needs to get her daughter to help out around the farm. Pearl, however, is desperate to become a silent film star and dancer, sneaking off to the picture house every opportunity she gets.
Pearl’s love of cinema and desire to be a star is established in X, something that ties her to Goth’s other character Maxine in that film, which is deepened here. Pearl is never more joyful than when she is at the picture house, watching the newest dancing features. Goth and West craft such an empathetic and archetypal image of a budding star hoping to break out, that her budding malevolence is allowed to boil under the surface.
The film is aware its greatest strength is a close-up of Goth’s expressive face, a cinematic world into itself. Enough can’t be said about Goth’s commitment to the performance of this character, beginning in X but truly flowering here to create a singular horror cinema performance. You can immediately feel Goth’s co-writing credit in the character, similar to Hunter Schaeffer’s co-writing credit in the Euphoria (2019) Covid special, Fuck Anyone Who’s Not a Sea Blob (the artistic peak of the show), where a performer has a psychic connection to their role that tears through the screen.
The saturated, Wizard of Oz (1939) inspired-yet-repressed world that Pearl inhabits can grow tiring at stages, but the final act is such a showcase for Goth’s magnetism as a performer and writer, that the film leaves you satisfied. West’s films often have an issue of peaking early through his deft skill at creating tension and dread compared to his bloody finales, an issue absent in Pearl.
The film’s setting within the Influenza pandemic whilst being a Covid-produced film has a simple charm to it, with all crowds in masks and characters bemoaning the difficulties of recognising people in them. Pearl’s yearning to be out of the isolation of her farm during this pandemic is a more relatable experience than you’d expect to come out of this film.
Pearl is a unique prequel in that it has the potential to be viewed before the original film, X, due to its focused character study of Pearl, a character you leave the first film aching for more details on. West and Goth feel acutely aware of the aspects audiences were craving more from in X, namely the Pearl character and a further relishing of Goth’s unique screen presence.
Where X focuses on its wide ensemble and 70s environment, Pearl is very much a character study. Aside from a compelling performance by Tandi Wright as Ruth, Pearl’s mother, we are not given many deeply written side characters, allowing the audience to narrow their attention to our star. Wright and Goth have a similar dynamic to Spacek and Laurie in Carrie (1976), a foundational text for the film, particularly in its latter stages. While West is focusing on the juxtaposition of the Cinemascope aesthetic with the gore, the true dynamism is achieved through Goth’s varied performance that gets stymied by Wright’s hard-lined determination to survive their struggling lives. The real climax of the film is not a gory showstopper like in X, but the culmination of Pearl and Ruth’s resentments colliding at a family dinner.
The West trilogy is soon to be completed with the upcoming MaXXXine (2023), the first A24 trilogy. Following on from the events of X, this second entry in this quickly produced franchise is a unique world that has been crafted by a pair of oddball filmmakers in West and Goth that is refreshing in the world of IP drudgery we find ourselves in the never-ending middle of.
The Oscar-bait film too contrived even for awards voters, Sam Mendes’ follow-up to the acclaimed war film 1917 (2019) Empire of Light (2022) is a flat ode to the theatre made by some of the best industry professionals. Spanning the early 80s in the small British seaside town of Margate, we follow the workers of the quiet movie theatre including deputy manager Hillary (Olivia Colman), manager Donald (Colin Firth), projectionist Norman (Toby Jones), and bright-eyed new crew member Stephen (Michael Ward). We are mostly locked onto the world of Hillary, a depressive older woman burnt out and fading through life until a romance is sparked with the much younger Stephen.
Made with the best intentions with a world class crew and ensemble, Empire of Light stumbles not just in its underbaked racial and political underpinnings, but in its narrative contrivances that permeate every moment. Hillary is written into a dead end within 40 minutes, sucking the air out of the film before it even gets going. Mendes overreaches in so many narrative directions that no one moment is given the time it deserves, reducing everything to its thinnest ideas, making all the plot machinations nakedly visible.
There are many films inside this one, making it feel closer to a debut Sundance feature from an upstart filmmaker that is unsure whether they will ever make another film. Through its flat characters spouting unfelt political statements, Mendes has made a unmemorable film that takes for granted its extraordinary crew.
And enough cannot be said about the crew involved here; Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross craft an interesting piano score that unfortunately never seeps deeply into the drama; greatest living cinematographer Roger Deakins has mastered his craft to an absurd degree that we should be thankful doesn’t get relegated to a TV screen just yet; the ensemble of Colman, Firth, Jones, and the breakout of Michael Ward is punching well above the script, finding emotional depths to their characters that were clearly underdeveloped on the page.
One of the best technical filmmakers working, Mendes has always been successful when working with quality screenwriters (Skyfall, Jarhead, American Beauty if that’s your thing) while still pursuing his own point of view, often surrounded by top-tier craftspeople. He has been able to create quality features without working as the screenwriter, but was clearly emboldened by his original screenplay Oscar nomination for 1917, a film that is effective more as a set piece art installation than as a work of screenwriting, to pen his follow-up feature.
Much has been made about Empire of Light being a love letter to the theatre, which is reductive at best. This film is as much a movie about the movies as Snowpiercer (2013) is a movie about trains. Cinema has enough love letters to itself, but too few ones of quality and substance that values the audience on the other end of that beam of light.
The racial politics of the film are tired and dated, with the anti-black violence made in service of a white character’s emotional development that is a disservice to both performers. The few instances of racialised violence do not even give Ward the respect of a reaction shot. There is also the issue of the depiction of Stephen’s mother Delia (Tanya Moodie) in the film, a character who does not speak to her son for almost its entirety, having more lines of dialogue with Colman than Ward. Mendes shows little maturity to handle these racial aspects of his film, souring any goodwill in its pursuits of bringing to light the racism of 1980s England.
Colman does better than any actor could with her extraordinary mix of subtle rage, but the script lends her or the other actors little assistance. Her performance in 2021’s The Lost Daughter (which she should’ve won an Oscar for last year), is a better demonstration of her quality at playing a depressive older woman.
Ward’s performance as Stephen is above the level given to him, as a purely contrived character that is more aggressively attached to the film’s writing faults and poor writing than any other character. Even with the quality of individual performance from Ward and Colman, the pair’s growing romance never garners genuine interest or stirred emotions as it is just another one of Mendes’ undercooked ideas in a film without a strong perspective.
Mendes never trusts his actors and, to a greater self-critique, his own penned characters, to develop the story and romance organically, ending up with a collection of contrivances. Empire of Light is a beautifully shot but unsubstantial feature that will quickly be forgotten, adding up to less than the sum of the parts with its top-tier cast and crew.
Marvel (by way of Star Wars and Rick and Morty), the surprising third instalment in the Ant-Man franchise, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023), is one of the most enjoyable and cohesive Marvel films in years, and a great entry point into the new Phase of the universe. With a wildly inventive world that enchants and inspires awe, Quantumania manages to create something that’s been lacking from Marvel of late: pure imagination and efficient storytelling.
Quantumania kicks off with a return to the Lang family. Scott (Paul Rudd) is touring his ant-pun-filled memoir; Hope (Evangeline Lily) is running the company to improve many noble causes from affordable housing to environmental rehabilitation; Hank (Michael Douglas) and Janet (Michelle Pfieffer) are reunited and retired; and Cassie (Kathryn Newton), now 18, is getting arrested protesting the police for tearing down displacement camps. The surprising heart of the film, Cassie both sparks the plot by creating a beacon to the Quantum Realm, as well as the thematic (socialist uprising via ants combats tyranny in a blockbuster? A+) and emotional story that is never beholden to other properties. The speed in which we are thrown into the world is appreciated and economical, especially in comparison to recent superhero films that have felt bloated and undercooked.
The Rick and Morty-fication of Marvel is complete in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, with longtime comedy writer Jeff Loveness (Jimmy Kimmel Live, Rick and Morty) given sole screenwriting credit here. Previous Rick and Morty writers landing at Marvel include Jessica Gao (She-Hulk: Attorney at Law), Michael Waldron (Loki, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Avengers: Secret Wars), and Loveness. This connection to the cult TV show is felt particularly through its world-building and humour, as Loveness and Reed are clearly having a blast creating these unique quantum aliens, from snail horses to amoeba buildings and freedom fighters, all with a visual and comedic flair that feels considered. The parallel is also felt in its storytelling, as Loveness is able to craft an efficient and entertaining film that works independently of its outside world, maintaining a coherent thematic pull with compelling characters that feel genuinely changed through the experience.
Fears were rising that, with the emergence of the multiverse and glut of recent Marvel products, regular movie fans would be left in the dust. Thankfully, Quantumania is a refreshingly standalone film and a great entry point for this new phase of Marvel. The briskness of the storytelling allows you to get swept up in the world-building and creature design, sharing the sense of wonder Scott and Cassie have for the Quantum Realm. We are shown many sides to this new realm, from its refugee camps to its high society bars inspired by the Star Wars cantina (I was shocked not to have an original tune playing when they entered the room), all fully realised. The craft and consideration here are leagues ahead of recent entry Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022), where the biggest leap in the boundless opportunity of multiversal storytelling was an Earth where green means stop.
Director Peyton Reed, hot off helming a couple of great episodes of The Mandalorian, returns to complete his highly improbable but all-enjoyable Ant-Man trilogy. The list of directors crafting a full trilogy is short, with Reed joining Spider-Man directors Sam Raimi and Jon Watts on the superhero trilogy front. Through a consistently robust supporting cast, the Rudd-helmed franchise has always felt light on its feet and affable, mirroring its star.
Reed’s Ant-Man films thrive more in the conversational moments, both in comedy and tension than when action is required. Early entries allowed the action set pieces to play out like big-budget Honey I Shrunk the Kids (1989)homages, but in Quantumania, the action feels taken straight from the Marvel assembly line, with its rapid cuts, poor blocking, and hand lasers. Fortunately, Reed seems aware of these shortcomings, as the film does not rely on these moments for its crescendos, opting instead for more personal battles against Kang the Conqueror.
Jonathan Majors, the greatest recruit into the Marvel acting army thrives as the ominous but deeply felt villain Kang the Conqueror. Acting alongside Michelle Pfieffer for many scenes, Majors uses his physicality and always surprising depth of feeling to keep Kang more interesting and compelling to the audience, allowing him to balance out the film in ways we rarely see in Marvel villains. There is a tension and friction to his scenes that allows other actors to occupy space to play off of Majors, instead of merely dominating every moment of screen time, a rare gift to be used in a blockbuster film. The next Avengers film, Kang Dynasty (2025), is more likely to match the quality of Endgame with the emerging A-lister at its core.
No one would’ve imagined back in 2015 that Reed and Rudd would be completing a trilogy of Ant-Man films in 2023, with the third entry becoming crucial to the wider Marvel project with the emergence of Johnathan Majors’ Kang as the next Avengers villain (Loki appearance notwithstanding), let alone creating one of this quality. While still overfilled with messy CGI action set pieces, Quantumania thrives in its inventive world-building, with an economic and satisfying script by Loveness that allows its impressive ensemble to shine.
Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumaniais in theatres now.
Early contender for the strangest and most fun internet explosion curio in film circles of the year, Skinamarink (2022) is an atmospheric, extremely lo-fi creepypasta horror seemingly born out of a haunted VHS tape. This may be the hardest film to have a blanket recommendation for due to its upsetting atmosphere centred around young children, durational cinema tendencies, and an active refusal to follow cinematic conventions that will annoy many audiences. It may be easier to recommend Skinamarink to lovers of Apichatpong Weerasethakul or Chantal Ackerman films than horror fanatics looking for a low-budget thrill, a place I sit on both ends of.
The filmmaker, Kyle Edward Ball, has been making horror short films for years based on user-submitted stories about their nightmares on YouTube. There is a simplistic effectiveness to many of these videos, with a certain aesthetic formed that grew into Ball’s debut feature, Skinamarink.
Set one night in a family home, Skinamarink follows two young children, Kevin (Lucas Paul) and Kaylee (Dali Rose Tetreault), who have seemingly been abandoned one night as their father disappears without a sound. This childhood nightmare of abandonment is immediately heightened as the doors and windows to their home also begin to disappear, and there is a distorted voice seemingly coming from upstairs beckoning them.
The effectiveness of the film’s horror is its depiction of a universal childhood fear shown from an actual child’s perspective. Ball is tapping into primordial fears that dwell within all of us, using the constraints of his very modest budget to heighten the atmosphere of dread across its extended run time. The film is certainly too long for its narrow scope coming in at 100 minutes, but when Skinamarink is working, it is one of the most effective horror experiences in years.
What has allowed Skinamarink to explode as a curio of indie horror cinema (including several in-demand screenings at The Astor Theatre and Palace Cinemas) is its experiential, durational cinema-styled horror that has a clear lineage in the genre, whilst feeling entirely new. Think Paranormal Activity (2007) but with actual aesthetic choices and storytelling ideas. Those films had some good scares scattered throughout the franchise, but the flat filmmaking in the name of realism makes them a chore to get through. The mixture of base human fears with an individual cinematic style that heightens digital noise and extremely low lighting, allows Skinamarink to feel familiar yet new, creating a deceptively compelling horror.
Its weaponisation of digital distortion is pretty special while still feeling familiar, turning one of indie cinema’s biggest issues (access to only cheap equipment), into its greatest strength. At its strongest moments, Skinamarink will have you questioning your own eyes, not sure if you’re seeing something that is not there or if Ball is manipulating everything on screen. Establishing an off-kilter immersion from the outset allows you to never be sure of that answer, drawing you further into each scene and the encroaching feeling of dread.
Ball gives us just enough narrative to get a sense of the family dynamic here before this fateful night. In a film centred around parental control, beginning with the four-year-old child Kevin apparently falling down the stairs (an act, like many in the film, we do not see but only hear) sets an early tone and has us questioning the children’s parents. The oldest child, six-year-old Kaylee, not wanting to speak to the mother further layers the themes of domestic issues and how they play a role in our childhood fears. In a regular horror film, a disembodied voice beckoning you to “come upstairs” would regularly have you questioning why our young protagonist would do such a thing, but here, we have an understanding about the likelihood this situation isn’t too far removed from their previous experience.
Its central set piece, which involves Kaylee going upstairs into her parent’s room, is one of the most haunting film sequences in years. After 40 minutes of atmospheric buildup, completely unsure of where we are being led, you will be wishing to return to watching cartoons downstairs and staring at Legos. The extended long take in this scene ratchets up the tension to a boiling point, with your palms a sweating mess in a sequence that seemingly goes for eternity. This is no doubt the peak of the film, with only smaller moments in the proceeding hour that match its tension and atmosphere. Structurally, Skinamarink could’ve taken some notes from its predecessors Paranormal Activity and Blair Witch Project (1999), by peaking in its final moments, but the atmosphere is definitely more of the Ball’s focus than the bigger scares the film has. Unfortunately, this makes the film drag in its second half, even for a great lover of durational cinema as I am.
A film sure to annoy and entice in equal measure, Skinamarink is a curious and mostly effective piece of atmospheric horror filmmaking from an interesting internet-focused filmmaker that is able to use his constraints to his advantage. Whilst not of the same quality as The Blair Witch Project, or the level of engagement culturally so far, Skinamarink is a more interesting and worthwhile horror experience than almost any found footage-style films in the genre.
The only story more common in Hollywood than a film about filmmaking is an award-winning director cashing in a blank check to make a dream project they may never get the chance to do again. Babylon (2022), the new film by Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle, is an all-in movie for a filmmaker who knows the opportunity to make a big-budget, silent-era Hollywood romp with A-list stars will not come around again. We should be grateful the prodigious filmmaker chose to use seemingly every ounce of industry capital he had to get this oddball movie made, as even if the film isn’t great, there are enough transcendent moments, particularly early on, that makes it a ride worth taking.
Inside this whirlwind of frenetic Hollywood excess is a group of artists striving for their place in the moviemaking circus as it begins to transition from the silent era into the talkies. These include the star-to-be Nellie LaRoy (pitched to eleven Margot Robbie); a hustling upstart looking for his place in the movies and true heart of the film, Manuel Torres (Diego Calva); and ageing star with a waning grip on the top, Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt); including a suite of other terrific performers in this frenetic tragicomedy that you won’t soon forget.
Calva is wonderful in the film and a true revelation, but the standouts for the film are Li Jun Li and Jovan Adepo, who play singer and artist Lady Fay Zhu and jazz trumpeter Sidney Palmer respectively. Both characters are great in limited time, but even in a film of this width, their stories are sidelined too easily. There are essentially four films worth of story in Babylon, from Manny and Nellie’s rise, to Palmer’s rise in the industry that does not value him, to Lady Fay’s weaving through a constantly changing industry without the recognition she deserves, to finally Jack Conrad’s slow decline from the heights of stardom into irrelevancy. All these dense stories deserve more time than they are given, sidelined in favour of ambitious dalliances into the debauchery of the industry Chazelle seems so persistent to explore.
Surprisingly, given the long runtime, Babylon is stretched thin by its wide array of storylines. Jack’s story rarely interweaves with Nelly and Manuel’s, making them feel isolated. Chazelle’s previous films, Whiplash (2014) and La La Land (2016) work emotionally as two-handers between the leads, whilst here the key characters are oftentimes isolated from each other, striving for their own ambitious goals alone in a chaotic world. This is clearly by design, as Jack’s declining trajectory works alongside his divergence from the young upstarts who are looking to take over the budding talkies boom, but the film ultimately falters because of it.
Where Babylon never falters is in the deliriously bombastic score from Justin Hurwitz, which will no doubt pick him up another Oscar. This may be his crowning achievement as a film composer as Chazelle allows him room to dominate. Full of bombastic horns and drums that propel us into each scene with boundless energy, Hurwitz is the shining light in an uneven film with easily the year’s best score.
A surprisingly dark film visually, with Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren opting for a more natural use of lighting which heightens the dynamic contrast between the debaucherous night sequences and the bright daylight where the work gets done. This is most effective through the opening two sequences from the coke-fuelled bacchanalia prologue into the extended scene of manic moviemaking. It is clear this is where Chazelle finds himself most comfortable and where Babylon truly shines. Watching Manuel organise a mass of skid row extras for Jack’s war film or Nellie’s first day on set is electric, set to Hurwitz’s bombastic score, all within the ticking clock structure of the single day shoot, is one of the best sequences of the year. While I am always in favour of directors taking big ambitious swings when given the opportunity, there is a tinge of sadness that Chazelle moves away from these high points later in the film.
Chazelle has always been a filmmaker who wears his influences on his sleeve, which has been felt in the past, with Whiplash and of course La La Land, like a prodigious young filmmaker attempting to brush shoulders with both modern and canonical directors simultaneously. Here, the Oscar-winning director is working to rewrite the legendary Singin in the Rain (1952) as a tragicomedy structured somewhere between Scorsese classics Goodfellas (1990) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), or Paul Thomas Anderson’s braggadocio Hollywood epic Boogie Nights (1997). This is a lofty goal that is certainly appreciated, even if it doesn’t hit the mark consistently.
By wielding PTA as a key inspirational pole instead of the Boogie Nights director’s idol Robert Altman, Chazelle is playing a game of telephone with this style of film, ending up with a story with smoothed-over edges. Scenes of freneticism are shown cleanly, never feeling dangerous to the audience or its key players. Nellie and Manuel glide through manic scenes as smoothly as Sandgren’s graceful camera, creating a certain inevitability to their landing point that while interesting as a decision, ultimately flattens most defining sequences.
There are thematic depths to mine in Babylon, but they feel oftentimes short-changed in favour of larger set pieces. Manuel’s narrative of assimilation and identity is compelling and the most consistent thread being pulled throughout this 188-minute cinematic feast. We follow this immigrant story of a man who must essentially remove his nationality in pursuit of his ambitions within a rigid Hollywood system. Total annihilation of personhood for your art is something that clearly compels Chazelle as it is a key driver for his characters across his filmography, but it is here with Manuel that these themes truly land. We see him transform throughout the film, shifting into whiter clothing, changing his name to Manny more diligently, and even telling producers that he is Spanish, all in the hope that it gets him closer to his goal.
What separates PTA’s writing from Chazelle’s is ultimately what is lacking in a garish epic like Babylon: romanticism towards its characters. This does not mean fawning over them but treating them with respect and humanity that allows us to connect with them. Chazelle too often uses his characters as vessels for obsession and ambition in a primordial sense, making them kinetic and engaging, but rarely emotionally involving. The most personal moment of the whole film is wedged between its two great opening set pieces, as we see the modest living arrangements of Nellie and Lady Fay after seeing them command the attention of the lavish Hollywood party through their powerful charisma.
Chazelle has made a career of crafting sequences with wide dynamics, thrilling highs hard cut into crushing lows that usually work wonders like in Whiplash and La La Land. Unfortunately, adding to its issues with being stretched thin, these dynamics end up compressing the emotionality into dust.
The anguish-laden death march that consumes much of the second half sucks all air and exhilaration from the theatre, so the film is unable to coast off his own momentum as it languishes to its finale. This total fever dream opening into a death spiral has been done to great effect before (Boogie Nights and Goodfellas), but in Babylon the work on characters is less involved on a human level so the feeling is widely cheapened.
Ultimately, Babylon feels like a terrarium of meticulous detail about a revered moment in Hollywood history, with the edges sanded down to create a smooth glass dome. Even its finale, which is attempting a Godard-esque swing for the fences, feels strained. Authenticity was not the predominant goal of the film (this is not 2009’s The Artist but with coke), but somewhere along the way, the heart of the film was sidelined in terms of gawking ambitious set pieces. There are incredible sequences here that will be burned into my retinas to the tune of blaring trumpets, but you may not feel anything at the end.