2 stars

REVIEW: The Middle Ages (2022)

Life under lockdown for a well-to-do yet dysfunctional Argentinian family leads to the parents struggling to maintain their creativity while their eight-year-old daughter Cleo (Cleo Moguillansky) plans to sell household items in order to buy herself a telescope.

Pandemic-set films can be hit or miss and while covid is certainly still a thing, there’s at least some distance now from when the outbreak began and all the fear, confusion, and uncertainty was almost all consuming. The fact that The Middle Ages semi-autobiographical makes the depictions of lockdowns and a family in close confinement a bit more relatable and less

The Middle Ages is written and directed by Alejo Moguillansky and Luciana Acuña who play versions of themselves, as does their daughter Cleo. It’s an interesting premise and as Alejo attempts to direct a Samuel Beckett play over Zoom and Luciana tries to teach online dance classes one has to wonder if this was what lockdown was really like for this family. The chaos of multiple family members being on Zoom calls, either trying to work or in Cleo’s case trying to get through her school lessons is relatable and it is a realistic dynamic as these three people begin to feel suffocated by each other’s presence.

Personally, I preferred the first half of The Middle Ages as it was a humorous take on life in lockdown as family members got annoyed with one another, or they struggled to earn money or keep their sanity as their usual jobs could no longer be done due to everything shutting down. The little moments of humanity and relatability were often the funniest.

When things got a bit surreal in the second half of the film, that’s when it lost me a bit. For instance, there’s a sequence of Clara shooting her mother with a toy gun and her mother than getting blood stains on her shirt as she dramatically flails around the house, is this in either of their imaginations? Are they play acting? What is going on?

The Middle Ages has an interesting concept and a strong start but as things take on an almost dreamlike quality in their home, the characters become less interesting and the film loses what relatable charm it had. 2/5.

REVIEW: Vampire in Brooklyn (1995)

Directed by Wes Craven, Caribbean vampire Maximillian (Eddie Murphy) arrives in Brooklyn looking for a specific woman who is the key to his survival – a half-human, half-vampire. NYPD detective Rita Veder (Angela Bassett) is that woman and she and her partner Detective Justice (Allen Payne) are investigating the many killings that have suddenly started in Brooklyn.

Tonally, Vampire in Brooklyn is all over the place. It’s billed as a horror comedy but it’s also pretty heavy on the gothic and the romance once Maximillian and Rita start circling one another. The jokes don’t always land though Silas Green (John Witherspoon) and his nephew Julius (Kadeem Hardison) were the ones who could consistently get a smile out of me. Personally, was a big fan of how Witherspoon said the word “wolf”. Considering Eddie Murphy is the star of Vampire in Brooklyn and played a couple of characters in this (the hair and makeup work for one in particular was excellent) it’s a shame I didn’t find his performance particularly amusing.

Angela Bassett though was brilliant as always – and stunningly beautiful too. Rita has nightmares she doesn’t understand, and sees things she can’t explain, but she’s also headstrong and capable. Her relationship with Justice is great as the chemistry is there and there’s a real will-they-won’t-they vibe to it all, especially when Maximillian arrives and starts messing with both of them.

The aesthetics of Vampire in Brooklyn was also pretty great. Some of the makeup work on Julius as he slowly starts to decompose is suitably disgusting, and the scenes where Maximillian is trying to enchant Rita with how the camera spins around them adds to the drama of it all.

Really Vampire in Brooklyn isn’t the worst Eddie Murphy film but it isn’t the best. It tries to bring his style of humour into a Wes Craven horror movie and they don’t really mesh that well. It’s never very funny or very scary but with its 90-minute runtime, it’s a film that’s never grating and it doesn’t outstay it’s welcome. 2/5.

REVIEW: Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City (2021)

Claire Redfield (Kaya Scodelario) returns to her hometown to reconnect with her brother Chris (Robbie Amell) and to try and prove that the pharmaceutical giant Umbrella Corporation have been poisoning the people of Raccoon City for years.

I have never played any of the Resident Evil games and I watched all the Milla Jovovich Resident Evil films for the first time back in 2017 (I was going to say it was a few years ago but then it turned out to be five! What is time? etc) so going into Welcome to Raccoon City I didn’t really have any preconceptions of what this film and its characters should be.

I think that was perhaps a blessing and a curse. A blessing as I can’t get mad at any changes the film may have made from the games but also a curse as I feel like I learnt so little about these characters, their personalities or the various relationship dynamics, that I couldn’t really care about them. The way character names were dropped it felt like the filmmakers were relying on viewers to already have knowledge of the characters and story from the games and didn’t really do any proper world or character-building to make you care if you were someone going into this film blind.

Everything about Welcome to Raccoon City is pretty generic but there are a few moments that are generally stylistically interesting. Most of them come from when Chris is under attack by these diseased and zombie-like people. Often the only light source is the flash from his gun or from a flickering lighter and then it becomes a point of view shot with his lighter held out in front of him and the creatures getting closer every time the flame goes out.

The dialogue is kind of awful and the cast does the best with what they’re given. Kaya Scodelario’s Claire is a highlight but that does mean that whenever the film is away from her it starts to drag again. The middle chunk of the film when the action gets going is pretty decent but it feels like it takes too much time to get to that point and then the ending is very rushed.

Overall Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City manages to be a frustrating endeavour. There’s few scares and what level of threat is there is diminished when you realise you don’t care about any of the characters chances of survival. 2/5.

REVIEW: Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)

Buffy (Kristy Swanson) is a typical popular cheerleader, oblivious to the strange things happening in her town. That is until a strange man called Merrick (Donald Sutherland) enters her life and tells her she’s the chosen one and is destined to battle vampires.

Confession time, I have never watched an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I think I was too young for it when it starting showing in the UK and the few bits I do remember catching on TV scared me as I have always been a wuss. Side note, I remember catching bits of Roswell around the same time and that also freaked me out. Anyway. Though I’ve never watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer the show, I do know some of the basics thanks to pop culture osmosis, mainly character names, but I’m definitely aware of the show and the phenomenon it was.

So though I’ve never watched the show it was still a bit weird watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer the movie as I’m so used to Sarah Michelle Gellar as the titular character and a bunch of other faces/names that don’t appear in this film. There’s still a lot of familiar faces in this film though like Hilary Swank, David Arquette, Thomas Jane and even Ben Affleck is a high school basketball player which was very jarring.

I feel like for a film that has a runtime of less than 90 minutes, the pacing of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is somehow simultaneously too fast and too slow. Relationships that you’re clearly supposed to care about like Buffy and Merrick aren’t given enough time to really feel anything for, and the constant back and forth Buffy goes through of being a vampire hunter and wanting to be a normal teenage girl is, while understandable not that interesting after a while. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is written but Joss Whedon, who would go on to create the show, and there’s hints of the kind of humour he’s known for sprinkled throughout the film but the script is never funny enough, tight enough, or dramatic enough to make its big ideas work.

To be honest, it’s as if Whedon didn’t know what he wanted Buffy the Vampire Slayer to be. Sometimes it’s a campy comedy, sometimes it tries to be horror movie, and then it’s also a coming-of-age story and a teen girl trying to find her own path – is it her “destiny” and everything Merrick says, or is it what her friends think she should be interested in? It veers wildly between each tone and none of them work together or separately.

Kristy Swanson is pretty good as Buffy; she’s got the physicality and a charm to her that eventually starts to shine through. Though I wish she and her friends weren’t the typical mean girls. Sure, Buffy goes through a character arc but it is hard to really root for her to begin with when she is so materialistic and is very much a dumb popular blonde stereotype.

Honestly, I think my favourite thing about Buffy the Vampire Slayer was Pike (Luke Perry). It’s always fun having a guy as the damsel in distress type role and Pike was great at being a supportive friend to Buffy and just generally rolling with all the weirdness he encounters. He’s not useless but it’s also clear that Buffy is more skilled than him when it comes to fighting the undead which was good.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer isn’t a great film but I think it’s an interesting jumping off point for what became a hugely successful TV show. 2/5.

READ THE WORLD – Eswatini: Weeding the Flowerbeds by Sarah Mkhonza

A fictionalised memoir of Sarah Mkhonza’s time at Manzini Nazarene High School, a boarding school in Eswatini (formerly called Swaziland), in the 1970s. life there is strict but she and her friends grow up learning about life and Christianity and they love school.

It’s kind of unfortunate but Weeding the Flowerbeds is one of those books that I read but as soon as I’d finished it, I couldn’t really tell you anything that had happened. It’s also a book, that while short at less than 200 pages, felt longer at times and was a bit of a slog to get through. It’s another book I persevered with due to it being for my Read the World Project and the only book I found for this country.

Weeding the Flowerbeds is simply written which suits the mundane lives that the three school girls have as they study. There are things like sports days, new teachers, and the sudden interest in boys – all things that tend to happen in kids’ lives – but none of them are huge, earth-shattering moments. They’re just things they experience. I suppose Weeding the Flowerbeds is a good way to show how school life doesn’t really change no matter the year or where in the world the school is. There are the routines and classes everyone must go through in order to become a “grown up”.

The inclusion of photographs from, presumably, Sarah Mkhonza’s school days was a nice touch but overall Weeding the Flowerbeds wasn’t memorable. I suppose it’s a nice slice of life kind of story, and those who like books set at boarding schools may get more from it than I did. 2/5.

REVIEW: Thor: Love and Thunder (2022)

Unsure of his life and what he wants from it, Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) mid-life crisis is interrupted by Gorr the God Butcher (Christian Bale), a galactic killer who seeks the extinction of the gods. Thor enlists the help of King Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), Korg (Taika Waititi) and his ex-girlfriend Dr Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who is now the Mighty Thor and wields Mjolnir, to stop the God Butcher.

Thor: Love and Thunder is style over substance. I feel at one time I may have had that criticism for Thor: Ragnarok but at least there the tone was mostly balanced and there was still a decent plot and character work. In Love and Thunder it’s all bright colours (except in the Shadow Realm which is the one stylistic thing and sequence I found interesting) and rock music and it’s so tonally inconsistent and the jokes are juvenile and grating. There’s running gags in Love and Thunder that may have been a bit cringey but generally OK the first time but the fact that they just keep going with that joke it feels like it’s flogging a dead horse and even if it was a little funny to begin with, in the end it becomes so unfunny that it’s painful. The jokes also often come at the expense of the drama and supposedly more emotional, hard-hitting moments which is annoying. Also, if you’re like me and only really like Korg in small doses, then Love and Thunder may be grating at times as that is a “funny” character I do not find amusing.

The tonal inconsistences aren’t just the humour undercutting dramatic moments, but how in some ways Gorr feels completely out of place to the rest of the film. Christian Bale is great in the role and is creepy and gives a great performance. Gorr is so serious, and perhaps a little mad, so when he comes up against a God that’s self-indulgent and arrogant it’s kind of jarring. You could say this is on purpose – showing how the Gods don’t care about the people that worship them and how they just want to live in opulence and have all the food, wine, and sex that they could ask for – thus giving Gorr all the more reason to kill the Gods. However as elsewhere in Love and Thunder there’s humour undercutting dramatic moments and drastic tonal shifts it feels like it’s part of a wider issue.

One of my biggest problems with Thor: Love and Thunder is Thor as a character. In films of all genres, I can kind of forgive a weaker plot if the character work is good. Especially in franchise films, if I like a character, I just enjoy seeing them and how they’ve grown and adapted to whatever situation they’re in and what’s going on around them isn’t such a big deal for me. With Thor: Love and Thunder the plot isn’t great and neither is the character work. Thor seems like he has regressed as a character and is back to being the arrogant man-child he was at the start of Thor. The whole point of the first film his him learning some humility, that actions have consequences and you can’t always go charging in like a bull in a China shop. Over the past however many Thor and Avengers movies Thor has learnt the smashing things without first attempting diplomacy isn’t the answer. In Love and Thunder, he doesn’t seem to care about anyone, including the Asgardian people he’s supposed to love and protect; summoning the Bifrost in buildings, destroying sacred temples as he stops bad guys, and just generally acting like an irresponsible buffoon.

Though she’s now King, Valkyrie gets no real development, any hints at a genuine friendship between her and Jane are few and far between and she is regulated to Thor’s sidekick once again. Jane and her heavy origin story and rise as the Mighty Thor feels shafted due to it being surrounded by flat jokes doing wrong by her as a character and what she’s going through. Plus, as it’s been a while since we’ve seen the character, the Jane/Thor romance feels underdeveloped even as the film gives a copious number of flashbacks to try and make you care about it.

Thor: Love and Thunder relies on the (unfunny) banter between characters rather than any real meaningful dialogue or emotion and does a disservice to all of its character. It definitely feels like Thor: Love and Thunder didn’t work when the thing that got the biggest reaction from me was an actor’s appearance in the midcredits scene. The rest of the film didn’t particularly make me feel happy or sad and I may have smiled a couple of times or chuckled but never full on laughed at anything that happened on screen. 2/5.

Perhaps I’m being generous with a 2/5 rating but that’s what I’ve settled on. I liked Gorr and the Shadow Realm sequence but everything else, not so much. As someone who tends to have mixed to positive feelings about Thor: Ragnarok, Thor: Love and Thunder is a serious step down.

V is for Vita & Virginia (2018)

The love affair between socialite and popular author Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton) and literary icon Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki).

Vita & Virginia is one of those films I chose to watch for two reasons and neither of them was because I thought I’d really enjoy the film. Those two reasons were one; it had an actor I liked a lot in it (in this case, Gemma Arterton) and two; it’s directed by a woman so can count towards my 52 Films by Women challenge. I didn’t go into Vita & Virginia thinking I’d hate it (and I didn’t) but equally, it wasn’t a story I was particularly interested in.

Based upon their real letters Vita & Virginia tells the story of how these two women met and became entangled in each other’s lives. There are many times where the letters are just read out by the actresses and the camera lingers on the face of the recipient as they register the words. This was an interesting way to show how they kept in touch and felt about one another to begin with, but the repetition soon got old.

It’s unfortunate that while the two leads do a decent job with what they’re given, it’s their relationships with their husbands that is far more touching and interesting than their forbidden love affair. Arterton and Debicki don’t have great chemistry whereas the support and care both Harold Nicolson (Rupert Penry-Jones) and Leonard Woolf (Peter Ferdinando) show their respected wives feels more real. Both couple’s marriages are unconventional in different ways and it’s a shame that’s what interested me more than what was happening between the titular characters.

The cast is good, it’s just how the film is put together (and a sometimes-dry script) that lets them down. How Vita & Virginia is edited feels weird. Some scenes or moments are cut too short so any intended emotional impact is lost while others meander or build to something that never happens. It makes this one hour and 50 minutes film often feel a lot longer than that. The music is also a bit strange at times, with almost techno, dance music playing during a party. It kind of feels it was going for the Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette anachronistic vibe of clashing the historical and the modern but as it wasn’t consistent in Vita & Virginia, it’s just more jarring and feels out of place.

Overall, while the cast does what they can with what they’re given, the lack of chemistry between the leads and its slow-pace makes Vita & Virginia feel far longer and duller than what it probably was. 2/5.

Q is for Quincy (2018)

Documentary about the life and career of music legend Quincy Jones.

This documentary is a bit of a mixed to negative bag. For me personally, Quincy Jones was a person I was aware of but definitely didn’t know a lot about. So, Quincy is a good overview of all the musicians he’s been involved with, his work through the decades and his personal life, however it never really delves deep into any of it so if you were a Quincy Jones fan who knew a lot about him already, I doubt you’d get anything from this doc.

The documentary goes between the present and Quincy Jones’ whirlwind work schedule even though he’s in his mid-80s and the past, starting at his childhood to how he got into music and made a career out of it. The segments in the past are narrated by Jones, making them feel less genuine in a way and also pretty unoriginal. You never really get an insight into his creative process and how working with various other artists might’ve made it different. Instead, it is just a man, telling his life story and the various anecdotes about the musical legends he worked with like Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles are nice to hear it all feels like a rehash of his Wikipedia page.

The moments where something surprising does happen, like the two times Jones has a medical emergency and ends up in hospital, are glossed over pretty quickly. While he is told he needs to do more exercise and work and travel less, what you see on screen doesn’t make you think he took the doctors warnings that seriously.

Quincy is co-directed by his daughter, actress Rashida Jones, and the whole production does feel very much like an outcome of nepotism. One of the first scenes is of Rashida Jones trying to learn how to use the camera and it feels a bit awkward. She’s often with her father, asking him pretty leading questions so it feels staged and like she gets the answers she was aiming for.

As a documentary it’s pretty standard and while it does give a decent overview of Quincy Jones’ career, if you knew his major career milestones like becoming a film composer, working with Michael Jackson on “Thriller”, becoming a producer and “discovering” Oprah Winfrey, then you don’t need to watch Quincy. It’s like the greatest hits of his life and features a load of famous people singing Jones’ praises. It feels a bit shallow and maybe it’s because the documentary was made by his daughter that there aren’t any huge surprises or much depth. She may not want to probe deeper into her father’s life out of respect for him and Quincy Jones has the power to just make the documentary what he wants. 2/5.

G is for The Good Shepherd (2006)

Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) loves and believes in America and will sacrifice everything to protect it, but as one of the covert founders of the CIA, Edward’s youthful idealism is slowly eroded by his growing suspicion of everyone around him.

The Good Shepherd is Robert De Niro’s sophomore film and it sure is a well-directed film and De Niro has an eye for detail that’s impressive. However, good direction doesn’t necessarily make an interesting film.

The Good Shepherd is set in the 1960s as Edward looks for a mole inside the CIA but there’s a lot of flashbacks to his father’s death, his student days, and how he’s recruited and works in counter intelligence in Europe during the Second World War. So, while The Good Shepherd is framed as the origins of the CIA, it’s more about Edward’s life and how he’s involved with various elements of the CIA and historical events. I had to google to see if Edward was a real person and he’s not but apparently the character is loosely based on a man called James Jesus Angleton who was chief of counterintelligence in the CIA from 1954-1974.

Angelina Jolie plays Clover, Edward’s wife, and she’s given the thankless task of being the typical dutiful wife at home that’s kept in the dark about everything her husband does. It was pretty jarring having Eddie Redmayne play their son in the 1960s. Considering Jolie is only six years older than him and Damon is 11 years older than him, it looks weird every time the three of them are on screen together as he looks too old/too close to their own ages to be their university-aged son.

The Good Shepherd is juggling a few things with Edward’s life story, family drama and life in the CIA, but it doesn’t really make any of them particularly interesting. In fact, for a so-called spy thriller, it actually becomes quite tedious. The hunt for the mole storyline has a few decent moments and Michael Gabon as Edward’s university professor and mentor is one of the most engaging characters, but overall, it’s not a film that really grabbed my attention for its two-and-a-half-hour runtime. 2/5.

F is for Firefox (1982)

When the Russians create Firefox, a prototype jet that’s invisible to radar and can be commanded by the pilot’s mind, the West send pilot Mitchell Gant (Clint Eastwood) to the Soviet Union to steal it.

The plot to get Gant into Moscow is convoluted and the plot moves from him to the Russian high command to back to mission control in the West and none of it’s particularly interesting. Or when it does have the potential to be interesting it moves from that group of characters to another suddenly. Some scenes seem too long and just fizzle out while others don’t have enough context to be worthwhile.

As well as the KGB being a threat to him, Gant also has PTSD and panic attacks that can make him freeze up. The way these panic attacks are shot is kind of interesting with the sound and camera movement as well as overlapping scenes of the incident that gave Gant this trauma. It was kind of nice that while other characters including Gant’s superiors knew of his mental health issues they aren’t really talked about negatively and he manages to deal with them to the best of his ability.

Firefox is one of those 80s films that’s almost futuristic. While it’s definitely set in the 80s with the Cold War paranoia, the fact that the jet can fire missiles and pick out targets with just the thought of the pilot is a kind of sci-fi twist. It feels very 80s that they thought that technology could even progress to that point.

One thing that amused/annoyed me was that one of the reasons Gant got chosen for this mission was that he’s fluent in Russian, but whenever he talked to a Russian when he was pretending to be Russian, he still talked in English and didn’t even put on a (potentially awful) Russian accent. It made sense for him to talk with his own American accent when he was pretending to be an American tourist but when he was infiltrating the base as a supposed Russian it just felt really wrong.

Firefox ticks a lot of the standard Cold War thriller trope boxes but it doesn’t do anything to make it stand out from other films in the genre. The first half of the film is often boring and in the second half, while naturally the fighter plane sequences look dated now and though it becomes a bit long there are some sparks of potential excitement in them. It’s like the film tried to be two things at once; serious Cold War thriller and fun sci-fi action film. The two tones don’t really mesh together.

On a personal note, I enjoyed seeing Freddie Jones in this. He played Aubrey, one of the British Intelligence officers involved with the mission. It was another instance of seeing an actor almost 40 years younger than I’ve ever seen him before as until fairly recently he was a regular on the British soap Emmerdale which I grew up watching.

Firefox is Clint Eastwood’s eighth film as a director so while you could blame some of the film’s shortcomings on it being an early film of his, Eastwood had directed Play Misty for Me and The Outlaw Josey Wales by then which are both great. Maybe this is an instance where a director can only do so much with a dull screenplay overstuffed with exposition. 2/5.