4 stars

REVIEW: Plane (2023)

After a terrible storm forces commercial airline pilot captain Brodie Torrance (Gerard Butler) to land, he has to fight to save his crew and passengers after realising they’ve landed on an island run by militia.

Plane is a proper 90s throwback action movie that does a simple premise well and has a lot of fun while doing it. A film being called a “90s throwback” may be deemed an insult but honestly with Plane it’s a compliment. It’s a solid action film done well with a great couple of lead characters.

Gerard Butler is probably a bit underappreciated for what he can do in an action film because he’s been playing this kind of charismatic but tough guy for years now but that doesn’t mean what he does isn’t good. Butler is allowed to be Scottish in Plane and naturally one of the first things his character does is be insulted someone thought he was English. Butler’s captain is just a good buy, he’s a reassuring presence for his crew and passengers and he is good at his job. Shoutout to his co-pilot Dele (Yoson An) who is also pretty great and the two of the make a good team. Not going to lie, Dele is the kind of nice secondary character that you fear for because he’s so likeable and not a big name so could potentially be expendable.

Butler also makes a good team with Mike Colter’s Louis Gaspare, a prisoner who was being transported on the plane. The two characters compliment each other well and become reluctant allies as Gaspare is more of a military-mind and a planer while Torrance wants to go in all guns blazing to save his passengers.

The bad guys as a group are pretty intimidating and there is a lot of blood spilt when they are around but there isn’t really a memorable villain leading them. In Plane the gunshots and stabbings are visceral and the sound effects on some of the killings do make you wince.

Overall Plane is a really good time. It’s a simple action film that’s very enjoyable with a group of leading characters that are easy to like and feel for. 4/5.

REVIEW: Rocky II (1979)

After Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) goes the distance with champ Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), he retires from boxing and plans to get an everyday job and settle down with the love of his life Adrian (Talia Shire). But when Creed wants a rematch in order to restore his reputation, he begins to insistently goad Rocky to accept the challenge.

I don’t know how controversial this may be but I preferred Rocky II to the original. One of the fun things about watching these films for the first time is that while I’ve been aware of them though pop culture osmosis, I don’t know what happens in each film nor do I really know which films are considered to be the best/worst.

Everything in Rocky II just clicked better for me. Perhaps it helps that now I know these characters so I’m not starting from scratch and am more invested in their relationships. Rocky II follows a similar format to the first in the sense the first half is Rocky trying to live a life away from boxing before getting pulled back into it again and then the second half is the training montages with the boxing match at the end. There’s a surprisingly emotional hurdle for Rocky in that second half though and Stallone really brought a level of sincerity to this character/story that I wasn’t expecting.

Rightly or wrongly, I’ve often thought of Stallone as more of just an action star rather than a proper actor, at least when he was young (I have seen Creed and admit he deserved a load of awards for his performance there). Seeing how Stallone portrays the love he has for Adrian and the life he’s trying to build makes me think there was always a great actor in this action hero stereotype. Knowing also how this character/story was created by him, makes this franchise feel like a real labour of love and I’m already looking forward to revisiting Creed once I’ve seen Rocky’s story in full.

One thing I really enjoyed was Rocky’s relationship with his coach Mickey (Burgess Meredith). Their dynamic was excellent and while Mickey was no nonsense and gave Rocky tough love when training him, he also was ready and willing to be by his side when Rocky needed it the most. Mickey’s monologue to Rocky in the church was excellent and possible one of my favourite moments in the film – alongside the training montage where hundreds of schoolkids though the streets of Philadelphia with Rocky. Both scenes got me emotional for different reasons.

Rocky II provides a great rematch for these two larger than life characters and it was good to see more of Creed’s home life to as it made him more sympathetic and it was a good juxtaposition with Rocky’s situation. The final boxing match was really engaging and all the character elements came together really well. A very worthy sequel. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

The Girl in the Tower is the second book in the Winternight trilogy so there may be vague spoilers for the first book, The Bear and the Nightingale, in this review.

Vasya has left her village and sets out to be free and discover the wide world. Soon though she encounters the Grand Prince of Moscow and his men, which includes her older brother Sasha, a monk, as they’re on the trial of the rumoured bandits that roam the countryside, burning the villages and kidnapping young girls. Being disguised as a boy, Vasya soon proves herself in battle and gets the respect of the Prince and Sasha reluctantly keeps her secret though danger lurks in Moscow as there are power struggles and it might not just be human but fantastical dangers the city faces as well.

While there is still fantastical elements in The Girl in the Tower with Vasya’s talking horse and the various creatures from folklore Vasya encounters in different peoples homes, the political machinations really takes the forefront in this book compared to the first. Vasya is still headstrong and brave but she is unused to the way people act in court and the double meanings and alliances that can form. Plus, as she’s pretending to be her sibling’s younger brother, there’s always a sense of danger as in this world women should not act as Vasya does. It’s a patriarchal society and women and girls are judged by their looks and presumed virtue and nothing more, Vasya is opinionated and smart and finds a freedom in pretending to be a boy as well as the danger.

The sibling relationships in The Girl in the Tower are really interesting. Vasya is in her late teens and her older brother and sister, Sasha and Olga, are in their twenties and haven’t seen her for at least ten years. Both younger and older siblings struggle to understand and connect with the version of their sibling that’s in front of them when they’re so different to who they remember. It’s an interesting dynamic as Sasha and Olga aren’t who Vasya remembers from her childhood but equally, Vasya perplexes them both as she refuses to be confined and do what is expected of a young woman of her age – marry a man and bear children, or join a convent. Vasya’s wildness grates against Sasha and Olga’s propriety and their understanding of the political and social standings they have in Moscow clashes with her dreams.

The connection Vasya has with Morozko, the Winter King or Frost Demon, continues to be really intriguing. It has the start of romance but at the same time there’s a lot of half truths between them, and how can an immortal demon love a mortal girl without it being the undoing of either of them?

Unlike The Bear and the Nightingale where the first half was slower and more character-driven and then things picked up in the second half, The Girl in the Tower has a lot more action throughout. Though the political plotting can drag a little bit in the middle and there’s a thread of tension through most of the book because you’re waiting to see if/when Vasya’s deception is discovered and if it is, just how bad the consequences will be. The writing in The Girl in the Tower is still excellent though and even odd moments or throwaway lines are purposeful as everything builds to a thrilling ending.

I’m both excited and kind of nervous about what the third and final book of this trilogy will bring. There are prophesies still to be fulfilled for Vasya and for other characters, so The Girl in the Tower has done that wonderful thing of leaving some mysteries and plot threads hanging. Hopefully everything will wrap up nicely as at the moment it looks like The Winter of the Witch has the potential to be an epic conclusion. 4/5.

REVIEW: Rocky (1976)

When world heavyweight boxing champion, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) needs a competitor for an exhibition match, he chooses to go for an underdog. Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) is a small-time Philadelphia boxer making his living working for a loan shark, but when he gets the opportunity of a lifetime, he strives to go the distance.

On run up to Creed III I thought I’d re/watch the series. I’ve seen (and loved) the Creed films before and I had watched Rocky a good 6+ years ago but hadn’t seen the many sequels so thought it’d be fun to get all the backstory and references and see what all the fuss is about with this franchise. As I said, I had seen Rocky before, but as it’d been so long ago I remembered next to nothing about it so this was like a first time watch.

I kind of find Rocky fascinating. This little film started a whole franchise and while we all love an underdog story, it’s kind of unbelievable that it grew from this film which feels so incredibly small and indie. Also, where is “Eye of the Tiger”?! I’m guessing it’s in one of the many sequels but it’s kind of wild that the song that’s so synonymous with the Rocky franchise and character isn’t even in the first film. The actual Rocky theme is pretty great though and does suit the characters underdog origins.

I prefer the latter half of Rocky, after he’s invited to compete against Apollo Creed and then starts training and his relationship with Adrian (Talia Shire) develops, as the first half is a lot slower and is more of his everyday life which isn’t really that great. However, I don’t think the latter would be half as impactful if we didn’t see where Rocky came from. Honestly the ending and how Rocky slowly opens up to Adrian before the fight makes me appreciate the first half more with hindsight. You need to see how Rocky is kind of coasting through life and not really believing in himself, so when he does start to really work for his dream it’s all the more impactful.

The start of Rocky and Adrian’s romance does make me a bit uncomfortable as her shyness/hesitancy and Rocky’s persistence does feel a bit like he’s stomping all over her boundaries. I know this sort of thing was pretty normal in the 70s (and even today in rom-coms the (often male) love interests persistence tends to be rewarded) but the way it’s shot and Shire’s performance does make Adrian and Rocky’s first kiss feel a bit off to me. As their relationship evolves and the balance they find in each other, it does become a sweet romance – Rocky saying “she’s got gaps, I got gaps, together we fill gaps” is one of the most romantic things I’ve heard in a film in a while. Was such a unique way of saying the usual “she completes me” line.

Rocky is a pretty great underdog story and, for a sports movie, features very little boxing. It’s more about Rocky as a character and the connections he has with his friends, trainer, and girlfriend. The slow and meandering first half is worth it as the final act is pretty great. 4/5.

REVIEW: Wildcat (2022)

Wildcat contains trigger warnings for PTSD, depression, suicidal thoughts, self-harm, and discussions of alcoholism and domestic abuse.

Back from war in Afghanistan Harry Turner, a young British soldier struggling with depression and PTSD, finds a second chance in the Amazon rainforest when he meets Samantha Zwicker, an American scientist and conservationist, and together they foster an orphaned baby ocelot.

What I really liked about Wildcat is that while the starting point is Harry’s relationship with the baby ocelot and how he learns to be a mother figure to it and teach it all it needs to know to survive in the wild, it branches out to being about Harry’s mental health and how putting all his love, focus and attention into this ocelot could be detrimental to him and the people around him.

Wildcat went into Harry’s mental health issues more than I was expecting and while it was a very open portrayal of his struggles, it also showed how loving someone who has such dark thoughts and can hurt themselves, is a struggle for the people around them too. The ocelot is like a lifeline to Harry and though he still cares about Samantha and his family, it’s like he is pinning all his happiness on the ocelot’s survival and success, which is not healthy for either of them.

The conversation work Samantha and her team do is invaluable, and Wildcat does a good job of going into the dangers the animals in the rainforest face. Plus it’s nice to see that she’s understanding of some of the locals actions as often the only way they can really earn money is through logging and mining – both of which is detrimental to the wildlife. It never comes across that Samantha knows best because she’s American compared to her Peruvian co-workers and locals who she often helps out and learns from. It’s clear that the logging and mining is part of a wider problem that people with more power and influence need to solve, not the people who are just trying to earn enough money for their families.

Wildcat shows the incredible bond humans can have with wild animals and Harry’s relationship with the ocelot is very sweet and it’s always lovely to see footage of cute animals that we don’t typically see. Wildcat is a really thoughtful and impactful documentary and one that’s incredibly honest. It’s both sad and hopeful and it truly gives you an unfiltered look into the life of someone struggling with depression and shows how there’s good days and bad days. 4/5.

REVIEW: Confess, Fletch (2022)

After arriving in Boston to try and find stolen paintings belonging to his Italian girlfriend’s rich father, Fletch (John Hamm) encounters problems straightaway when he finds a murdered young woman in the house he’s renting. With the police convinced he’s the murderer, former-investigative reporter Fletch strives to prove his innocence while simultaneously searching for the missing paintings.

Confess, Fletch is a reboot/adaptation but as I’d never seen, read, or even had heard of the books/films before I saw the trailer for this film, it’s safe to say I took this film on its own merit and have no reference point for it. I think that’s a good thing as Confess, Fletch is an old-school mystery in the best possible way and I had a thoroughly good time with it.

It’s the dry wit and sharp script that makes Confess, Fletch so much fun. There’s so many quips but they never undercut any drama of the moment and Confess, Fletch is the sort of film that rewards you when you give it your full attention. Fletch, as a character, is brilliant. He’s charming, quick-witted and can talk himself out of (or into) just about anything. He’s almost annoying with how smooth and confident he is, but he does it all with a smile so you can’t stay mad at him. It’s easy to see why the two detectives on his case (played by Roy Wood Jr. and Ayden Mayeri) get so frustrated nearly every time they talk to him.

The mystery has a lot of avenues and it’s fun to see how it all plays out and if and how all these eccentric people Fletch encounters are connected at all. John Hamm has great comedic timing and is a brilliant lead here but Confess, Fletch thrives because the supporting cast is just as good. Fletch’s girlfriend Angela (Lorenza Izzo) has a rivalry with her father’s wife (Marcia Gay Harden), then there’s John Slattery playing Fletch’s old boss and Kyle MacLachlan as an art dealer. Everyone has their own eccentricities and agenda and the dialogue between them and Fletch is often top-notch.

The humour in Confess, Fletch comes from the characters and it it’s really a funny and charming film. I’d love to watch many sequels with John Hamm in the lead role as these sort of clever but fun mysteries are truly timeless. I hope I’m wrong but due to the release and lack of promotion I can see Confess, Fletch going the same way as The Nice Guys – a funny mystery that’s ripe for sequels never getting them as it doesn’t find the audience when it’s first released. 4/5.

REVIEW: Enola Holmes 2 (2022)

Now a detective in her own right, Enola Holmes’ (Mille Bobby Brown) detective agency is struggling as she tries to make it out of her older brother Sherlock’s (Henry Cavill) shadow. That is until she gets asked to find a missing girl by her little sister, and soon Enola is entangled in a dangerous conspiracy and her case may even be related to Sherlock’s case and they both will need all the help they can get.

I was a big fan of the first Enola Holmes film and I’m very happy to say the sequel is just as fun and delightful as the original and expands on the characters in an engaging way. In many ways Enola Holmes 2 is incredibly similar to the first film as it may be a different mystery but there’s still the undercurrent of political/feminist themes and the same fourth wall breaking with a wink from Mille Bobby Brown but what this sequel does well is not make these elements seem tired or boring. Look sometimes it’s nice for a sequel to do something vastly different, while other times it’s nice for a sequel to embrace what made the original so entertaining and just do that again. With a lot of Netflix’s action output being stoic, it’s nice that they’re investing in the fun adventures of a plucky young girl in Victorian London.

Mille Bobby Brown continues to shine in Enola Holmes 2 and the referential humour could become grating in lesser hands but with Brown as our lead, she plays Enola as charming and resourceful as ever. Though it is the moments when she is out of her depth, like attending a ball and having to ask young Lord Tewkesbury (Louis Partridge) to teach her to dance, that are really interesting as while Enola comes across as self-assured, her independence doesn’t fit into what society deems fit for women and there are some things that she is clueless about.

The mystery itself loses its way a bit in the middle and all the loose ends aren’t tied up particularly neatly but the inclusion of new adversaries – David Thewlis’ Superintendent Grail is fun as it appears that every Holmes has a problem with him, including the matriarch of the family Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter) – old friends, and some young romance and rebellion makes it an enjoyable ride.

Having Sherlock involved more in this mystery works without him taking control and pushing Enola out of her own story. He has his own case and while he does help Enola, she helps him too and their awkward personal relationship is more compelling than their working one. Also Cavill’s dry sense of humour as Sherlock while still being very protective of his little sister is brilliant.

I honestly would happily watch Enola and her friends and allies go on many more adventures. A casting choice in a mid-credits scene makes me hopeful that there will be a third film as I need to see more from that person than a cameo. Plus, these films are just fun, lightly feminist, teen girl power escapism and are really enjoyable to watch and we all can use some light, charming fun these days. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (2015)

Teamed with a group of her closest friends – including Gale (Liam Hemsworth), Finnick (Sam Claflin), and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) – Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) goes off on a mission with the unit from District 13 as they risk their lives to stage an assassination attempt on President Snow (Donald Sutherland) who has become increasingly obsessed with destroying her.

While Katniss and her team have to take part in guerrilla-style warfare, the themes that have been prevalent throughout this series are still there. Katniss’s march through the boobytrapped Capitol is like she’s back in the Arena and both President Snow and President Coin (Julianne Moore) are doing their best to manipulate the situation and Katniss to their advantage.

Josh Hutcherson deserves a shout out for his performance in Mockingjay – Part 2. Naturally Jennifer Lawrence is still fantastic and she is really the glue holding this franchise together, but in this film, Hutcherson gets to do more than just be in love with Katniss and be a way for her to show her softer side. Peeta has been tortured and had his mind manipulated while being captured by the Capitol and as he slowly starts to break out of the confusion of not being able to trust his own mind, Hutcherson’s performance is often both impressive and heart-breaking.

Katniss and her team’s mission is tense and exciting as boobytraps of any kind can spring up out of nowhere and when Peeta joins the team he’s a wildcard that gives Katniss extra stress. There’s a couple of moments of levity at the beginning of Mockingjay – Part 2, mostly down to Finnick and Annie (Stef Dawson), but really it is almost relentless grim as it doesn’t shy away from the realities of war and Katniss has to face losing the ones she cares about in a way she hasn’t before.

Sure, an argument can be made that Mockingjay should’ve been one film (like many last books in YA series film adaptations) but it really is a solid end to a series of films that have always been somewhere between good and fantastic. I think The Hunger Games films are some of the best adaptations of YA books and is truly the high point of an influx of dystopian media we had a decade ago. Mockingjay – Part 2 is an impressive and satisfying end as it pulls together all the themes and characters the series has been dealing with. 4/5.

REVIEW: Cherry (2022)

After discovering she’s almost 11 weeks pregnant, Cherry (Alexandria Threwhitt) has a big decision to make in just 24 hours, whether or not to keep this unplanned pregnancy.

Films about women’s access (or lack thereof) to essential healthcare like abortions and the morning after pill are becoming more common nowadays as women’s right to choose is still being debated – and in some places being outright denied. Personally, I’m a fan of this timely sub-genre, whether it’s a dramatic period piece or a teen road trip comedy as no matter what the central characters decide it’s a huge decision and the circumstances of their pregnancy can be so different.

Cherry is in her early twenties and has had a load of dead-end jobs, is still mostly living with her mother and has no real direction in her life. Her life is a bit of a mess and while some of this is down to her, it’s also obvious that everyone has their own things they’re going through and when people are absent it’s sometimes not because of maliciousness. Alexandria Threwhitt gives a great and compelling performance as Cherry. She bounces between her family, her friends who she sort of ditched and her not so serious boyfriend/the would-be baby’s father a she tries to figure out if motherhood right now is for her while finding it increasingly difficult to talk to the people in her life about what’s going on with her.

As Cherry tries to decide what to do, she talks to her parents about parenthood in a roundabout way, trying to get their advice and guidance without telling them why she’s suddenly so interested in about the circumstances of her own conception and birth. The scenes with her dad (Charlie S. Jensen) are especially good as it’s clear they both have different ideas of what it is to be a parent and support their family. Her father said he was a good father because he worked all the time so they could be secure but to Cherry that meant he was never around and their awkward relationship is testament to that.

I want to mention the doctor Cherry sees, played by Sandy Duarte, quickly. Perhaps it’s because some of the films I’ve watched recently that deal with this topic have had doctors that have been judgmental or unhelpful, but it was so refreshing to see this doctor – who herself was clearly very pregnant, be kind and non-judgemental towards Cherry. She gave her all the information she needed, talked her through all her options and refused to judge her no matter what decision she made but was still firm that Cherry needed to decide one way or another as there was no ignoring what was happening to her body.

Cherry is one of those wonderfully short (its runtime is less than 75 minutes) but poignant and funny indie dramas. It has a great soundtrack and the sunny streets of LA and Cherry’s shiny red roller-skates help give this film almost a sense of whimsy even though Cherry has big choices ahead of her. 4/5.

REVIEW: Werewolves Within (2021)

After a snowstorm traps a group of eccentric townspeople in the local, secluded inn, new ranger Finn Wheeler (Sam Richardson) tries to keep everyone calm as he looks for the mysterious creature threatening the community

Werewolves Within is based on a videogame but it’s not a game I’ve played, or had even heard of before I heard about this film, so I can’t comment on how well it works as video game/movie adaptation though historically they’ve been kind of hit and miss (and mostly miss). Werewolves Within as film though, is definitely a hit.

Finn is the new guy to town and with postal worker Cecily (Milana Vayntrub) acting as his guide to the town and its people, he soon learns that everyone has their own quirks and there’s bubbling tension as developer Sam Parker (Wayne Duvall) wants to knock down homes and businesses to put down a gas pipeline and the town is divided between those who want to sell their homes to make it happen, and those who don’t. So naturally, when something appears to be stalking the town the people are quick to point fingers and tempers fray.

Werewolves Within is a horror/comedy but it mostly feels like a really fun whodunit! There are some scares, including some pretty funny ones, but it’s the mystery and the characters that made Werewolves Within really work for me. There’s a lot of interesting characters and the script is great as a lot of the time, things that are mentioned in passing at the beginning have an alternate meaning as the film progresses. It’s fun to try and figure things out alongside Finn as he’s the perfect person to take on this case as an outsider – however, being an outsider can also be to his detriment as these people have known each other for a lot longer.

Werewolves Within is just a lot of fun. It has a great script along with great performances – the whole cast are perfect for their roles but it’s Richardson who is a solid lead performance, grounding any and all of the absurdity that ensues – and with a 90-minute runtime, Werewolves Within is an entertaining horror/comedy/mystery hybrid. 4/5.