Tuesday, 3 January 2023

My Ten Best films of 2022

 

In an especially busy year, I haven't been able to catch as many new films as I would have liked, nor find time to fully review all the ones I have seen. Still, I did manage to see a fair few, including some that really stood out. Here, then, are my choices for the ten best films of 2022. (Alphabetically to begin with, with my choice for the film of the year at the end. Details I consider too spoilerific I've hidden, you can just highlight them to read them.)


The Batman

(Matt Reeves)

I did manage to review this one when it came out. Long story short, this film justified rebooting the Batman franchise yet again with a powerful and impactful take on the hero and his rogue's gallery, with excellent performances from Robert Pattinson, Zoe Kravitz, Paul Dano and and almost unrecognisable Colin Farrell as the Penguin. Naturally, there will be a sequel, but whether it can have the impact of this scathing attack on male obsession remains to be seen. Flawed, certainly, but one of the best movies to come out of DC/WB in a long time.

Where to watch: available as part of a NOW TV subscription, and available to buy on DVD/Blu-Ray, Amazon Prime Video, Google Play and YouTube.


Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

(Ryan Coogler)

Following up 2018's seminal Black Panther was never going to be an easy job, but to do so after Chadwick Boseman's tragically early death seemed impossible. Marvel's decision to focus on his legacy rather than recast the T'Challa is a wise one, and while Letitia Wright's Shuri was an obvious choice for his successor as Black Panther, she really does elevate this film from a solid sci-fi actioner to something really special.

She's ably supported by Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira and the great Angela Bassett, who all give effortlessly classy performances, and while Michaela Coel and Florence Kasumba are underused, it's a great MCU debut for Dominique Thorne as Riri Williams. There's a risk with these films that putting the blocks in place for the next run of stories will overwhelm the one being told now, and Riri is here partly to set up Armor Wars and Ironheart, but she's is a perfect foil for Shuri, two engineering geniuses who happen to be young black women, but from vastly different backgrounds.

It's Tenoch Huerta Mejia who perhaps has the hardest job as Namor. While the mutant is one of Marvel's oldest and most important characters, he's also one who really skirts the line between super and silly, and it's to the credit of Huerta and Coogler as director that a man with tiny wings on his feet remains a serious and formidable presence on the big screen. While changing Namor's origin from Atlantis to an offshoot of the Mayan civilisation doubtless owes more to not wanting to be compared to closely to Aquaman, it works thematically, with both Wakanda and Talokan representing fantastic versions of cultures threatened by western imperialism. (Wonderfully, Huerta couldn't swim before this, learning specifically for the role.)

Martin Freeman's Everett Ross still seems out of place, and the film is at least half an hour too long, but it remains the best comicbook movie of the year, a thrilling and visually stunning story of two vastly powerful forces meeting explosively.

Where to watch: still out in cinemas, and coming to Disney Plus on 20th January.


Elvis

(Baz Lurhman)

One of two singer biopics in the list, although they couldn't be more different. Elvis sees Baz Lurhman regain his standing as the master of musical spectacle, but more importantly, restores the life of Elvis Presley to the legendary status it deserves. Presley's death long after his prime, and the decades of cultural familiarity since, has left him as an archaic figure for many, and a joke for many more. The film puts him back into the spotlight to remind us just how exceptionally talented he was, and how important he was to the history of popular music.

Austin Butler is truly exceptional in the lead role, and is definitely one to watch (a tenner says he's cast as Clark Kent in the latest Superman reboot), but holding much of the film together is Tom Hanks in a truly unforgettable turn as the self-serving Colonel Parker. While Presley comes off a little too innocent here – laying the blame for his addiction troubles purely at Parker's feet is unrealistic, and the film rapidly skirts over his preference for much younger girls – ultimately it's a largely accurate and heartbreaking look at one young man so swept up in his own success that he couldn't see how he was being exploited.

The decision to have Butler sing his own songs, untouched, in the early scenes, then to very gradually blend in Presley's own voice as the film progresses, was an ingenious one. The final scene, where Butler finally shifts into Presley himself in his final performance, is powerful.

Where to watch: available to buy on most streaming services, including Amazon Prime Video, YouTube and Google Play, and out on DVD/BluRay.


Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

(Rian Johnson)

2019's Knives Out was a joy, and from the outset Johnson had hoped to continue Benoit Blanc's adventures in successive films. Setting it during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic should have made the film feel dated (a testament to our ability to pretend the damned thing isn't actually still happening), but by luck it's been released perfectly in time with Elon Musk's catastrophic self-own, making this tale of billionaire idiocy absolutely on point.

Edward Norton is a perfect choice for Miles Blon, the Musk-like antagonist, not least because apparently very few people actually like working with the guy. As obnoxious as Miles is, his hangers on are somehow worse, particularly men's rights activist Duke (the ubiquitous Dave Bautista) and the near mindless model and influencer Birdie (Kate Hudson). We've also got brilliant turns from Kathryn Hahn and Leslie Odom Jr, who play somewhat more balanced characters, but still just as amoral as the others. Janelle Monae is even more impressive, but I really won't spoilt why here, as this is a compelling mystery and to give any more way would spoil it. It's not quite on the level of the original Knives Out, but it has a re-watchability that means I'm certain to revisit it.

Daniel Craig, as well as being the best Bond ever (no, I will not change my mind), is a truly brilliant character actor. Benoit Blanc is an irresistibly watchable character, an Craig is clearly having a ball playing him. Netflix have bought the rights to one more Blanc film, but I could see the character continuing for years, or at least as long as the current vogue for murder mysteries lasts.

Where to watch: available on Netflix with subscription, with a limited cinema release coming.

Nope

(Jordan Peele)

Peele's third horror film, and perhaps the most divisive, not for its content but its style. Yes, it's undeniably slow to get going, but every element is so essential to the story and its themes that it's essential to pay close attention. Bizarrely, some commenters have struggled to identify the themes of the film or the need to include the flashbacks to the brutal events with the chimpanzee in the TV studio. The major theme of the film – that of exploitation and underestimation of animals – is so clearly written that it seems impossible to miss.

While there are other themes involved, such as the racial element, and the power of media exposure illustrated by various characters' obsession with getting footage of the creature, it's this that is the most essential. Animals, be it OJ's horses, the suddenly violent chimpanzee Gordy, or the mysterious and unearthly Jean Jacket, must be treated with respect and understanding, and to assume they can simply be used without such care leads inevitably to tragedy – for the human handlers and bystanders, and the animals themselves.

More than that, though, the film is an ingenious take on the UFO phenomenon, albeit not an entirely original one. Whether Jean Jacket is a previously unknown terrestrial animal (which seems to be the intention of Peele according to interviews) or an extraterrestrial organism (which was my interpretation – it's nature as a cloud-living creature and the prominently named “Jupiter's Claim” convinced me it's Jovian in origin) doesn't really matter.

Aside from a couple of moments, Peele has managed to create a horror film that is both full of spectacle and truly disquieting without being gory or over-the-top. It also works as a truly modern neo-western, with a thick atmosphere of isolation and hopelessness from the get-go. Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Steven Yeun and Brandon Perea are all excellent in their roles.

Where to watch: available to buy on DVD/BluRay, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, Google Play and Curzon home cinema.

Pinocchio

(Guillermo del Toro)

There are, somehow, three adaptations of The Adventures of Pinocchio out this year, and while I'm sure to watch both the Disney remake and the Russian animation at some point, this is the one that caught my attention and had to be considered a must-see. You know that any film from del Toro will be a visual extravaganza and a chilling fantasy, so yes, to some extent you know exactly what you're getting from a film marketed as Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio. Yet the directions he has chosen remain surprising, with the story shifted from the late 19th century to interwar Fascist Italy to provide a historical lesson that has uncomfortable implications for the way politics is moving today.

The voice cast is excellent. Gregory Mann is a charming, mischievous Pinocchio, with David Bradley giving us a flawed but sympathetic Geppetto. Ewan McGregor gives a solidly entertaining performance as the cricket (Sebastian J. Cricket in this version), who is also our narrator. It wouldn't be a del Toro film without Ron Perlman turning up, but the most surprising casting is Cate Blanchett as abused performing monkey Spazzatura (“garbage” in Italian, the poor thing). She gets one chance to speak, as Spazzatura performs through puppets, and otherwise communicates in screams and grunts. It's a stop motion film that stars a puppet and other characters that talk through puppets, which has a certain surreal genius to it.

Tilda Swinton is haunting as the two main supernatural beings in the film, the Wood Sprite and Death. The former is still the blue fairy we'd expect, but rendered more as a terrifyingly Biblical angel, while Death is sort of sphinx or chimaera, who has many meetings with Pinocchio as he repeatedly dies and is resurrected. It's a quite astonishingly dark take on the story (although less terrifying than the Disney classic's donkey transformation scene), but one that is ultimately very beautiful and hopeful.

Where to watch: the cinematic run seems to be over, so on Netflix with subscription.


Prey

(Dan Trachtenburg)

I've never been the biggest fan of the original Predator, brilliantly done through it is; it's altogether too macho for my tastes. So this reworking of the central concept appeals to me greatly, with Amber Midthunder captivatingly cast as the Comanche hunter Naru. Having a woman in the central role gives the film an entirely different feel and verve to the previous instalments (including AVP, which was really just a huge videogame cutscene), and the period setting means that a forty-year-old franchise manages to feel fresh again. It's not the first time this has been tried (there are some extraordinary fanfilms out there), but it represents a different direction for the series on film proper.

Trachtenberg's direction is taught and nerve-wracking, and there is some truly gorgeous cinematography. Comanche/Blackfeet producer Jhane Myers was responsible for ensuring much of the historical accuracy of the script, and the resulting film is an intelligent discussion of traditional gender roles as well as the brutal treatment of Native populations by alien invaders (not just the Predator, but the dreaded French). Notably, this is the first feature film to be released in Comanche. Plus, there are some satisfyingly gruesome kills and a great update on the Predator design.

Where to watch: available to buy on DVD/BluRay, or to stream on Disney Plus with subscription.




Six Years Gone

(Warren Dudley)

Among all the big names and blockbusters, there's still room for indie films to make a huge impact. Six Years Gone might well have passed me by if I didn't have a fleeting connection to its star, Veronica Jean Trickett (my partner Suzanne was in the short film The World Can Wait with her). Trickett has risen from such shorts to starring in this multi-award-winning, Cannes Award Trophy-nominated drama, and she gives an astonishingly strong performance.

Written and directed by Warren Dudley, Six Years Gone is the unflinching story of Carrie, whose daughter disappears from outside school on day. Six years later, Carrie is in emotional and financial ruin. While the early scenes are a little clunky in terms of exposition and dialogue, the film rapidly tightens up to become a disturbingly real insight into loss and desperation. Carrie's life unravels as her situation worsens in a chain reaction of impossible choices, but there is, ultimately, some hope to be found. Powerful, upsetting and moving, largely down to Trickett's performance.

Where to watch: available to buy on Amazon Prime Video, YouTube and Google Play (only £3.49 in the UK).


Weird: The Al Yankovic Story

(Eric Appel)

Unusually bankrolled and released by Roku, Weird is a biopic presented the only way that Weird Al could do it: as an ingenious parody. Eric Appel co-writing, Yankovic has done something genuinely clever: taken as many liberties with the truth as acclaimed films such as Rocket Man and draw attention to them. The result is baffling and hilarious. Daniel Radcliffe, who has grown into the choice actor for weird roles, is perfect in the lead, while Evan Rachel Wood is a great choice for Madonna. The singer, who actually did suggest that Yankovic parody “Like a Virgin” with “Like a Surgeon,” has been the source of Weird Al rumours, including suggestions that she disapproved of his work and tried to get the single pulled. It seems fitting, then, that this film has led to a spate of internet searches to see if she and Yankovic really did have a relationship, when in reality they barely know each other. Madonna's real life opinions on being made into both the love interest and villain of this film remain unknown.

Where to watch: only via the Roku Channel, so you'll need a Roku device. However, there's no subscription needed. Alternatively, Weird Al himself has mentioned that there might be a TORRENT of alternative channels on the DOWNLOad.


Finally, my film of the year:


Everything Everywhere All at Once

(Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert)

That rarest of things: a genuinely original film. While the multiverse is, of course, the in thing at the moment, Everything Everywhere is the first film I've seen that really runs with the concept and does something worthwhile with it. As much as I enjoyed Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and Spider-Man: No Way Home (which would have made the list if had been released a few weeks later), their use of the multiverse was primarily as a source of fan-pleasing in-jokes. Nothing wrong with that, of course, and No Way Home in particular married it to a meaningful story, but it's shallow water compared to this.

Michelle Yeoh continues to show that she's a true star of the modern era of film-making, with a subtle and very real performance as the unwitting heroine Evelyn combined with some spectacular martial arts. Originally it was conceived by the Daniels as a vehicle for Jackie Chan, and yes, I can totally imagine that, but he wouldn't have given it the depth that Yeoh does. And how amazing to have a sixty-year-old woman as the lead in an action movie?

It's also a joy to see Ke Huy Quan back on screen after so long, with a performance so assured you'd never think he took a decades-long break from acting. Really standing out is Stephanie Hsu as Evelyn's daughter Joy and her nihilistic alter ego Jobu Tupak, an absolutely stunning performance that elevates the long series of confrontations into something truly special. It's a treat to see Jamie Lee Curtis again, in a very different role to what we're used to – at 64 she's now allowed to be old, grim and frumpy, and she's still allowed a romantic subplot. Well, one iteration is anyway.

The film is a wonderful examination of Asian American identity, family dynamics, the agonising loss of hopes and dreams and deeply philosophical questions of reality and identity. It's also a surreal, truly unpredictable action comedy, which goes beyond the normal twists of parallel universe fiction to present some unforgettable images. You won't get hotdog fingers world out of your head for a while. A brilliant, affirming, hilarious, smutty, cosmic, ingenious adventure, an absolute must-see.

Where to watch: available to buy on DVD/BluRay, and on YouTube, Google Play and Curzon home cinema. It's currently included as part of an Amazon Prime Video subscription, but that could change to a paid ,purchase-only option at any time.



Friday, 23 December 2022

TIME AND RELATIVE

I'm very pleased to announce - a little belatedly, but still - that the new Doctor Who website by Television Heaven head honcho Laurence Marcus is up and running. Time and Relative is a site dedicated to Who both new and old, with news, articles, reviews, biographies and more. 

I'm very proud to be listed as lead writer for the site, but there are also contributions from Joshua Nicholson, Dr. Andrew O'Day, Frank Collins and the guru, Lol Marcus himself. The latest piece is Malcolm Alexander's review of Troughton serial The Krotons.

Television Heaven is, of course, going strong, but from this point on any Who-related material will be published on the new site and archive material is being moved over. Currently I'm sporadically updating links while also contributing new material to both sites, during the brief gaps between the day job and baby wrangling. This includes, finally, my overview of season two of Angel, with the remainder of the franchise to come soon-ish.


Monday, 14 November 2022

R.I.P. Kevin Conroy - the late, great Batman



This is hardly the only piece you're going to read about Kevin Conroy this week.

The actor died on 10th November from a short, intense battle with cancer, aged only 66, and in the couple of days since the news broke, tributes to him have flooded the internet. Conroy was one of those rare performers who seemed universally admired, and it seems that no one has a bad word to say about him. Fellow performers, notably Mark Hamill (the Joker to his Batman) and other noted voice actors such as Tara Strong and Matthew Mercer, industry creatives such as James Gunn (new DC screen head honcho) and Paul Dini (the creator of Batman: The Animated Series) have been outspoken in their admiration. But it's the outpouring of love from the fans that says it all.

Conroy wasn't just Batman, of course. He appeared in front of the camera in shows ranging from Cheers to Kennedy, and in voice roles as various characters across his career, his last work being on the revived Masters of the Universe. None of these roles, however, will ever come close to being as fondly remembered as his time as Bruce Wayne.

I was six when Batman: The Animated Series began, exactly the right age for the seminal series. It is rightly regarded as one of the greatest animated series of all time, and certainly the greatest superhero cartoon. Heavily influenced by the dark fairytales of the Tim Burton films and the almost art deco style of the Fleischer Superman cartoons of the 1940s, Batman: TAS had a haunting, timeless art and music style that immediately captured the imagination. Combined with remarkably mature but accessible writing and some truly great voice performances, Batman: TAS is the definitive version of Batman for a generation.

This was, in no small part, down to Conroy's note perfect performance in the lead role. His gravelly voice was reassuring as Bruce-about-town, commanding as Bruce when on-mission, and powerful as Batman when facing his enemies. He gave the role a subtlety that many actors would not have bothered with for a children's series. Such was his acclaim and popularity in the role that he continued to be the primary voice for animated Batman productions and video games almost through to his death, from the follow-ups Superman: The Animated Series and The New Batman Adventures, the elder Bruce Wayne in Batman Beyond, cinematic and home video movies from the great Mask of the Phantasm to the dark, adult-oriented The Killing Joke, and the acclaimed Arkham Asylum game series. There have been other great Batman voice actors, but none have ever really approached Conroy's stature. It was beyond time when he finally got to play the character in live action, portraying the elderly Bruce of Earth-99 on Batwoman as part of 2019's Crisis on Infinite Earths event.

It's no accident that when James and Scott created their World's Greatest Detective audio series it was hugely influenced by Batman: TAS, with Terry Cooper often sounding uncannily like Conroy in his performance as Batman.

Conroy came out as gay in 2016, after facing years of hostility within the industry in his early career. He wrote the comic story “Finding Batman,” an acclaimed piece in which he explored his own years behind a metaphorical mask, in this year's DC Pride Anthology. DC have made the strip available for free on their website (you'll need to sign up for a free account to read it).

It may seem odd to take to heart the loss of an actor whose face I hadn't even seen until a few years ago, but to me and many others of my generation, Conroy was Batman, the most iconic incarnation of the most iconic superhero.



Sunday, 9 October 2022

A real life update

Afternoon all. It's been a while since I posted anything, so I thought it was about time I checked in and gave an explanation.

To start with, in August my laptop gave up the ghost completely, and since I can't really afford a new one right now I've been slumming it with an old lend and using phone or tablet, none of which is terribly suitable. I've also been tremendously busy, not least of which was preparing for the birth of my first child.

Suz gave birth to our daughter Astrid on 9th September and since then pretty much everything has revolved around her. However, I do plan to get back to some writing in the near future so keep an eye open. As has been the case lately, the bulk of my work will be for Television Heaven (with some potential new developments to the site) but I'll keep updating here with new material too. 

Right, with that I'm back to feed my beautiful one-month-old girl.

(And yes, she's at least partly named after the Fringe character, and we have not missed the fact that her name is an anagram of TARDIS).