Benedetta (Paul Verhoeven, 2021)

Paul Verhoeven’s retelling of the story of Benedetta Carlini may surprise fans of his most mainstream English-language work (for example, Robocop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers), but it is deftly executed and performed to perfection by a strong cast, all of whom raise the bar of a smartly-written tale.

The film is set in 17th century Italy, where the titular Benedetta is taken to Pescia to become a nun. After a humorous but important opening scene of Benedetta as a child, we are transported to her in adulthood, as she begins to have visions of Jesus that raise her standing amongst her fellow sisters in the convent, belying her secret desires to start a lesbian relationship with a younger nun, the illiterate Bartolomea.

Virginie Efra on the set of Benedetta with Paul Verhoeven

Virginie Efira is in electric form in the lead role here. She is an experienced actress who has flourished in popularity in recent years with the likes of In Bed With Victoria and An Impossible Love, as well as Verhoeven’s last film Elle.

Charlotte Rampling also puts in a powerful supporting performance as Abbess Felicita, with Daphné Patakia completing the trio of female key players in a promising early role.

If there are any criticisms for the film, it’s that it feels a little slow and saggy at the start of the film proper, although viewers are more than rewarded as the film builds to a tremendous crescendo at the end of the film. Indeed, as a comet looms over the convent and the sky lights up in red hues, the action on the ground seems to offer a bigger threat to those in Pescia.

It never feels overblown or rushed, nor overly simple. I am seldom excited by a period piece, less so one set in a convent, but this had me gripped to the end. It is highly recommended.

Firebird (Peeter Rebane, 2022)

Peter Rebane’s wartime romance Firebird courted controversy in the run up to the release, with Russian attempts to silence the film in the country. It is also being released into a market with little or no interest in a story showing any aspect of the Russian military, given the recent invasion of Ukraine. 

Watching it objectively is, therefore, an art in itself. 

It stars Tom Prior and Oleg Zagorodnii as two military men – Sergey and Roman – who develop a secret romance, in spite of its illegality in Soviet Russia at the time. It’s a beautifully written piece of romantic drama, with the two leads doing well to portray the kind of electricity only found in such forbidden passions.

I won’t be looking into how much of the film is true to life and how much has been fabricated for the film. Doing that usually makes it far less enjoyable!

I did fail to deal with my utter dislike of any English-language film that sets itself in a foreign country, but then asks the actors and actresses to speak in English but with a hint of an accent. Tom Prior sounded close enough in the more placid scenes but as soon as there was any intense emotion in his wording, you could hear his Dorchester accent much clearer. In fairness to the wider film, the cast is primarily made up of Estonian actors and actresses, with a handful of the lead roles being taken by British actors.

Russian actress Diana Pozharskaya puts in a powerhouse performance as Luisa, a friend and lover caught in the middle of the two men. She turns in a particularly impactful scene at the end, which I can’t discuss without spoilers!

This is a film worth seeking out, even if you’re put off by the Russian/Soviet setting. Romance done well is always a joy to watch and this is no exception.

Film review – Spaghetti Code Love (Takeshi Maruyama, 2021)

Takeshi Maruyama’s latest is one with an unusual feel. An ensemble piece made up of interrelated tales, the most likely outcome for Spaghetti Code Love would have been a confusing mess of a film. Somehow, despite risking a drop in pace in the middle, the exact opposite happens here and you’re rewarded for sticking with a daunting initial task.

Why daunting? Well, I lost count of how many stories there were. There was a woman at a pachinko arcade, a struggling photographer, an angry model, a nervous busker, a clingy wife, an emotionally distant young couple, two school kids planning their deaths, an even young student planning his entire life, a woman wasting money on a psychic and her neighbour who is addicted to Skippy peanut butter. I certainly missed a few!

Somehow, the film manages to keep you abreast of all of these varied stories, all of which play out in a beautifully shot Tokyo. Not only that, but they build to a crescendo and are somehow tied together in a neatly positive conclusion across the board.

I’m glad I was fairly focused and in the mood to be challenged, but I’m worried that if I’d been cloudy of mind I may have struggled to keep up. For international audiences, the sheer volume of stories might make the film a little inaccessible.

The standout plot thread for me involved the brilliant Tôko Miura (who recently starred in the Oscar-nominated Drive My Car) as a musician grappling with her own self-confidence. In an ensemble cast full of talent, I found her woes hugely relatable and her delivery was highly memorable.

Certainly worth watching.

Note: I watched this as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme at Broadway in Nottingham, an annual festival that offers British cinema goers a first look at the latest cinematic releases from Japan.

Guns Akimbo (Jason Lei Howden, 2020)

It’s rare that a film with a big-name actor gets as far as being released without me knowing anything about it, let alone being watched. It’s occasionally an indicator that it is a big event film with a special surprise release by the distributor. More often, it means it’s just a terrible film that is trying to be buried.

I watched most of Guns Akimbo wondering which category it fell under. Is it absolutely terrible, or completely genius? It certainly isn’t for the squeamish, with Lei Howden (Deathgasm, Deathgasm 2: Goremegeddon) making sure the adrenaline doesn’t get much rest in the short running time.

The setup is straightforward. Daniel Radcliffe plays Miles, a video game coder living a fairly joyless life. He regrets letting a relationship with Nova (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), his ex, fizzle out. He learns of an illegal online game called Skizm – a survival game where contestants, who are usually criminals or psychopaths, fight to the death. He goes onto their online forums and leaves a few scathing comments. One thing leads to another, and he wakes up with pistols bolted to his hands and is the newest competitor in the game, taking on current champion Nix (Samara Weaving). With limited time and limited ammunition, Miles must choose to kill or be killed, whilst the world watches on.

It’s not an original concept for sure, with televised deathmatches being well explored in cinema. That said, there’s enough going on stylistically and a snappy-enough script to inject a bit of freshness into proceedings.

Daniel Radcliffe goes from strength to strength in his career as he continues to take on risky roles. It’s almost hard to believe he was still starring as Harry Potter a decade ago, when I wasn’t alone in thinking his acting hadn’t really improved over the ten year period he was involved in the franchise.

I’m not going to write about nuances of any of the acting performances. As solid as they are, this isn’t a nuanced film. The characters are caricatures, larger than life, fairly one dimensional affairs. Somehow this doesn’t cause any detriment to the overall impact. Lei Howden doesn’t leave space for the viewer to think about the characters, constantly just pushing forwards with one bloody action set piece after another.

Does it feel a bit too much at times? Maybe. But it’s never not fun, and sometimes that’s just what you need.

Why everyone stopped watching The Walking Dead and why you should pick it up again

I’m a huge fan of The Walking Dead. I’ve watched it from the start and, whilst I’ve sometimes fallen behind on a few episodes, I’m fully up to date and enjoying the anticipation for the upcoming final series.

However, of my countless friends who I have shared conversations with about the iconic series, I am the only person I know who is still watching it. Those that haven’t given up on it have fallen drastically behind on the latest episodes, making conversations about it more of a memory test rather than, as it should be, a group of friends getting excited about a plot line or key cliffhanger. “Where are you up to?” “Erm, Season 7. Maybe 8. They aren’t in the prison anymore. There’s a tiger.”

Here’s a graph, taken from the Wikipedia episode guide, which displays the rise and fall of popularity for The Walking Dead (albeit in the USA but I suspect this reflects its popularity globally).

As you can see, there was a clear peak from the start of Season 4 to the first episode of Season 7. This is roughly the immediate aftermath of the Governor story arch, battling with the cannibals, introduction of The Hilltop, battling the Wolves and then the Saviors, right through to the iconic episode in which Negan exacts his horrifying revenge on Glenn and Abraham.

From that point onwards, many things conspired to alienate the viewers. The lack of direction or desire to finally conclude the story. Two canonical spin-off series that may have been essential viewing. Three planned Rick Grimes films. Five Telltale video games. A parallel comic book with differing storylines. The continual killing off of main characters. Disheartening comments from the the show’s creators that implied it would never end. Spending too long focused on secondary characters and ignoring the main characters for several episodes at a time. All these things conspired to lead all but the most enthusiastic away from the show. It was too much to keep up with.

Take the situation in the UK, where I am based. When the first spin-off, Fear The Walking Dead, was announced, I was really excited. Then it was announced it was coming to a new BT-exclusive TV channel called AMC, launching in August 2015, which was fortunate for me because I was a BT subscriber. However, shortly after this announcement (on 1st March 2016), FOX TV was removed from the BT service due to a contractual disagreement. This meant that in the UK you had to choose between watching the main series or the spin-off series – a crazy situation to leave a flagship programme in.

This confusion coincided with the controversial killing of Glenn and Abraham, and the sudden decline in viewership. It was a botched job – too much content, too difficult to access, spread too thin across multiple channels.

Additionally, it was confusing just to keep track over the years exactly where each series was going to be released, or how long it was going to stay on the platform. I had a hilarious situation late last year where I was desperately trying to watch 2-3 episodes of Series 10 every day, just to watch them before Sky deleted them from their service. Fortunately, I found this watching experience to be entirely engaging and exciting, with Samantha Morton putting in a star turn as the series antagonist Alpha and a wonderful Whisperers storyline bringing as much excitement to the story as I’d ever seen.

So, why should you watch it now? Well, for the first time we now definitely know when the end point is going to be. Starting in August 2021 – next month as I write this – the final series is going to start airing. That should mean that the show will pick up significant pace as they aim towards the eventual conclusion. There are rumours that Rick Grimes will be returning, although these are unsubstantiated.

Secondly, you can watch the entire series on a single platform (in the UK at least). For The Walking Dead, go to Disney Plus, work out where you got lost, and dip back in. If you’re enjoying it and want more of a fix, you can go to your Amazon Prime account and watch Fear The Walking Dead. If you’re feeling extremely hungry for more you could also seek out the brilliant The World Beyond, also on Amazon Prime. No longer will you be wondering where you are in the multiple series as it’s all in one place.

You will still need to suffer through some of the most frustrating tropes of the show, the most blatant being the continual desire to put a cliffhanger out in the open that is not mentioned again for two or three episodes. They’ve always been guilty of this and it doesn’t change before the end of Series 10, I’m sorry to say.

But, if you have ever wondered if you’ve missed the boat on it, then now is your time to catch up just in time for the start of the new series.

Film review – Soul (Pete Docter, 2020)

What is “cinema”? In 2020, the answer to this question was turned upon its head, in ways we could never have imagined.

For me, escapism is always a key part of watching a film, and one I’ve strictly tried to enforce at home as much as possible. Yes, that means that I leave my phone out of reach when I’m watching something engrossing. It’s the only way to give yourself a chance of being transported to the world the filmmakers are crafting for you. Frankly, if you look at your phone once during a film, you’ve lost already.

More than this, for a film to stick with me for a long time, I have to feel personally and profoundly moved by what I’ve seen. It doesn’t have to completely change my life, but it has to have some kind of impact.

It can be a real joyful discovery, which happened to me when I saw Ladybird (2017) as the surprise film at the 2017 BFI London Film Festival. This was an excellent film, but the impact was doubled-down by having a story that really resonating with a time of my life that can only be described as a fork in the road – leaving home for university, which for me happening in the year the film was set. Ladybird really left its mark on me, and I was moved at the time to write a very personal review of the film.

Once I was at university, I discovered two wonderful cinemas in Nottingham. Broadway Cinema and Cafebar is somewhere I still go to, almost 20 years later. How I long to get back to that place right now! I was also drawn to The Screen Room, which was across the road on Broad Street and boasted being the smallest screen in the world. It was here that I discovered a completely different side of cinema with the likes of Napoleon Dynamite (2004) and Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes (2003) showing with very limited runs. The thing that amazed me about these films, and others I watched (usually on my own), was how unlikely it was that they were being shown on the big screen at all. The former was a bizarre tale about a socially-awkward schoolchild with a very thin storyline. The latter doesn’t have a storyline at all, instead materialising in the form of 11 short vignettes. I don’t know why I sought them out, but they opened up my mind to a world of cinema beyond the generic multiplexes and their mainstream film selections.

Being deeply moved by a film is what cinephiles are looking for. That’s why we watch 100s of films a year. Eventually we find a diamond in the rough. It may not happen very often, but that’s what makes the chase even more appealing.

As we’ve largely been forced to the small screen for the last year, I have explored almost every route to discover new cinema and ways of enjoying cinema. I have streamed films directly from distributors, funnelled money into Curzon Home Cinema and MUBI, made plentiful use of recording screenings from Film 4 and Talking Pictures TV, and continued to buy physical media long beyond my wife would have preferred.

It comes as a surprise, then, that 2020’s most profound cinematic experience was via Disney Plus, on the afternoon of the last day of the year, whilst my daughter slept. Perhaps the threat of her waking up meant we were savouring every moment of the film, but it didn’t take long before we were entirely captivated.

Warning! Spoilers are found in the following sections of this article.

Soul (2020) tells the story of Joe Gardner (Jamie Joxx), a New York middle school teacher who has followed his mother’s desire for him to have a stable income rather than pursue his dreams as a jobbing jazz pianist. One day, there is an unlikely opening in an evening performance with jazz legend Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett), which gives Joe the opportunity to finally realise his dreams. However, disaster strikes when Joe falls down a manhole and dies. He realises that he is heading slowly towards The Great Beyond. Panicking, he escapes and finds himself in The Great Before, a holding place for souls still awaiting passage to Earth, as soon as they find their spark. There he meets 22, a soul that has thus far never found her spark, despite the best, hilarious efforts of some of the greatest thinkers in the history of humanity.

What follows is a beautiful exploration of life, dreams, failures, missed opportunities and self realisation. It’s an existential triumph, and one that was perfectly timed in its release between Christmas and New Year – just when we all tend to start reflecting on our past year and what we want from the following year.

The animation is stunning. Every note of Jon Batiste’s jazz score is brought to life by what we see on screen. You can feel each press of a piano key, each blow of the saxophone. It is so good, you can almost forget to appreciate exactly how wonderful the achievement is. The high point comes in an emotional crescendo, when Joe eventually gets on stage to perform with Dorothea. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before, and will take anyone who has ever been to a proper New York jazz bar straight back to their seat.

To achieve something as beautiful and profound as this, and manage to get it out in a year where it’s likely most of the film staff were forced into unexpectedly isolated circumstances, is a huge achievement. For the second time this year, Disney’s timing is impeccable.

Soul is a film I am desperate to revisit, as soon as my own soul is ready.