Category: Film about friendship

The Whale (2022)

The Whale (2022)

Manipulative and sentimental, Aronofsky’s tear-jerker is dishonest and disingenuous

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Cast: Brendan Fraser (Charlie), Sadie Sink (Ellie Sarsfield), Hong Chau (Liz), Ty Simpkins (Thomas), Samantha Morton (Mary), Sathya Sridharan (Dan)

The Whale is the sort of film that is either going to bring you out in tears or hives. Me? Let’s just say I felt incredibly itchy as I sat through this naïve, sentimental and manipulative film. I hated its dishonesty and its disingenuousness. The only thing I felt move was my stomach.

Charlie (Brendan Fraser) is a morbidly obese, reclusive English professor who teaches online courses with the camera turned off. Nursed by Liz (Hong Chau), the sister of his deceased partner, Charlie has never processed his depression and guilt at his partner’s suicide. Now, facing death from congestive heart failure, his last wish is to finally bond with his daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) whom he has not seen in the eight years since he left her and her mother (Samantha Morton). Ellie is now an angry, high-school drop-out teenager. But Charlie is sure he can see the good in her.

So much has been made about the morbid obesity of the film’s lead. The prosthetics coating Fraser in layers of fat are impressive. An opening montage shows Charlie struggling to move around the house. Picking something up off the floor is impossible and he has to lever himself out of the bed or into the shower. But the film is hugely pleased with itself that it dares to see a fat person as “one of us”. Aronofsky initially films him like a freak show monster – already patting himself on the back about how “humanising” it will be when we learn that obese people are just as capable of being at the heart of maudlin, self-pitying films as thin ones.

The Whale is adapted from a stage play. Not only does it really feel like it (it’s all set within Charlie’s apartment, with characters announcing their arrival in a neat four-act structure), it also sounds like it. The dialogue is forced, artificial and clumsy, making on-the-nose emotional points. Characters feel like narrative constructs. Sadie Sink’s Ellie is the sort of precocious-but-angry tear-away genius brat you never find in real life. Ty Simpkins’ hipster-turned-missionary is more a collection of quirks than a person. The script leans heavily on clumsy metaphors – a walk on the beach, bible quotes, Ellie’s childhood essay on Moby Dick – milked for all they are worth.

Worst of all, a film that prides itself on being about the power of honesty feels like a big, walloping lie. It lies about its characters and it lies about the real issues that drive them. Firstly, it never once touches on issues of mental health and addiction that have led Charlie to this state. Sure, we get a scene of him compulsively eating. But Liz, his “caring” nurse, brings him medicine and huge piles of food (a massive bucket of fried chicken, enormous sub sandwiches…). It’s like caring for an alcoholic by bringing him chicken soup and a huge bottle of whisky. How is this helping someone recognise and deal with an addiction? Which is what this level of over-eating is.

Worst of all the film treats this as a “charming friendship between two eccentrics”. It eventually touches on the fact they are both hurting from the suicide of Charlie’s partner Alan. But never once is the film brave enough to link their behaviour now to this act. Charlie failed to get Alan help, keeping him away from the world and others, believing that the isolated love of a single person would solve his depression. Liz repeats the same mistakes. She isolates Charlie, encourages him to eat, never challenges him to seek help or process his grief, and creates a safe environment for him to destroy himself. If he was a drug addict, what would we say about a carer who draws the curtains and encourages him to shoot up? We’d be calling her the villain of the piece.

That’s before we even dive into the film’s lack of honesty about Charlie. It’s sad to think of a character being so depressed he’s eaten himself to death. That’s awful – even if the film never wants to reflect on the emotional and psychological reasons for this (because that would be depressing in a film as desperate to be upbeat as this one). But by showing us Charlie at the end, full of regret and self-pity, the film white-washes his mistakes and selfishness. There are clear flaws in Charlie that contributed to this state – however much the film wants to present it as a terrible accident.

Charlie abandoned his family and made no contact with his daughter for years (he complains it was too difficult and tries to blame her mother), leaving her traumatised. The film loves its sentimental device of Charlie reading to himself Ellie’s childhood essay (which he knows by heart). But this is, basically, a selfish fantasy: an idea for Charlie to cling to that he was a good Dad and Ellie a kid with a future, radically different from the actual reality. Just like he never addresses why guilt and depression drove him to destroy himself, so he refuses to deal with the issues Ellie is facing now by simply not acknowledging that she has changed from his idealised version of her as the sweet, sensitive girl who knew Moby Dick was really about Melville’s unhappiness.

Instead, the film suggests her mother is the one who really failed. Charlie – who has spent about an hour in her company in eight years – would have donebetter. Just like Liz passing him chicken buckets, Charlie’s solution to solving his daughter’s problems is to smother her with love rather than get her to ask herself why she does and says the cruel things she does. How can the film not see he is repeating the same ghastly cycle again, encouraging a depressed, vulnerable person to stick her head in the sand and hope for the best? Well, he’s wrong. And the fact that the film doesn’t see this means it’s lying to itself as much as he is.

By the end you’ll be stuffed by sentiment, greased by the insistent score. Every single frame is like being walloped over the head while Aronofsky shouts “cry damn you”. The dreadful script is well acted, even if no-one ever makes these device-like characters feel like real people (except maybe Morton). Fraser is committed, a lovely chap and I’m very pleased he’s having “a moment”. But this is a simplistic character, that requires little of him other than to wear a fat suit and cry. He never once really delves into any complexity. It’s also true of Hong Chau, a collection of quirk and tears.

The Whale is a dreadful film, manipulative, artificial and full of naïve and dishonest emotions that avoids dealing with any complex or meaningful issues. Instead, it thinks it’s achieved something by making you see a fat person as a real person. There is almost nothing I can recommend about it.

Good Will Hunting (1997)

Good Will Hunting (1997)

Therapy saves the day in this well-written and acted, but rather earnest drama

Director: Gus van Sant

Cast: Matt Damon (Will Hunting), Robin Williams (Dr Sean Maguire), Ben Affleck (Chuckie Sullivan), Stellan Skarsgård (Professor Gerald Lambeau), Minnie Driver (Skylar), Casey Affleck (Morgan O’Mally), Cole Hauser (Billy McBride), John Mighton (Tom), Scott Williams Winters (Clark)

Two unknowns, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, made a sensation in 1997 with their script for Good Will Hunting. It turned them into stars and the two youngest Oscar-winning screenwriters in history. Good Will Hunting is a heartfelt, very genuine film crammed with finely scripted scenes and speeches. It’s also an unashamed crowd-pleaser, a paean to friendship and opening your heart, all washed down with a bit of Hollywood-psychotherapy magic. It’s a basically familiar tale, told and performed with such energy that it made a huge impact on millions of viewers.

In Boston, orphan Will Hunting (Matt Damon) has a fiery temper and a rap sheet as long as your arm. He’s content shooting the breeze with best friend Chuckie (Ben Affleck), but he is also a preternatural genius, an autodidact with a photographic memory able to solve complex theoretical problems in hundreds of fields. It’s why he effortlessly solves the impossible proof Professor Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård) pins up on a board at MIT, where Will works as a janitor. Lambeau is stunned, bailing out Will from his recent clash with the police – on condition he also sees a psychiatrist to resolve his anger management. Will reluctantly attends sessions with Lambeau’s old room-mate Dr Sean Maguire (Robin Williams), a recent widower – and the two of them slowly grow a father-son bond, while Lambeau pushes Will to not waste his talents.

Good Will Hunting is directed with a sensitive intimacy by Gus van Sant, with the camera frequently placed in careful two-shot, medium and close-up to bring these characters up-close with the audience. It’s an emotional story of grief, unspoken rage and trauma – but it manages to largely not present these in a sentimental or overly manipulative way. It’s gentle, patient and tender with its characters, not shying away from their rough edges, with an empathy for their wounded hearts.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Will himself. Matt Damon gives a charismatic, emotionally committed performance, as utterly convincing in genius as he is a surly, fragile young man hiding emotional trauma. He’s charming and easy to root for. He takes down smarmy Harvard types with a barrage of erudite opinions, is often self-deprecating, fiercely loyal to his friends and categorically on the side of the little guy. But he’s also aggressive, rude and capable of violence. He gets into fights for no reason, arrogantly assumes he can understand everyone better than they can themselves, and uses his intelligence as a weapon to pin-point and apply pressure to weak points.

It’s what he does throughout the film, from launching attacks at prospective therapists (accusing an illustrious MIT professor of suppressed homosexuality and mockingly supplying a string of psychobabble cliches to another) to cruelly exposing the limits of Lambeau’s intellect (which the professor is all too aware of, having to work night and day to even touch Will’s starting point). He analyses and strips down insecurities with dazzling displays of verbiage. It’s funny when he recounts doing this to an NSA recruiter: it’s less so when he reduces girlfriend Skylar to tears as she tries to get close to him, cruelly breaking down her life and personality into digestible, cliched clumps.

It’s all about pain of course. Good Will Hunting is rooted in the familiar Hollywood cliché of inner pain only being “fixed” by therapy. As always in Hollywood, sessions start with confrontation and end with a tear-filled hug as breakthroughs (that in real life take years) are hit after a dozen sessions. Will of course is using his intelligence to fuel his defensiveness – abandoned and poorly treated throughout his childhood, he pushes people away before they can get to close and holds the few people he trusts as tightly as he can. He can’t believe people want to help or care for him: Lambeau must be jealous, Skylar must be lying about loving him, Dr Maguire must be a fool.

It’s Dr Maguire who sees the lost little boy under the domineering, intellectually aggressive, angry exterior. Robin Williams won a well-deserved Oscar for a part tailor-made to his strengths. Maguire is witty, eccentric, cuddly – but also, like many of William’s best parts, fragile, tender and kind. It’s a part that allows Williams to combine his emotive acting and comic fire: he can mix grief-filled reflections on the weeping sore that is the loss of his wife, with hilarious flights of fancy on her late night farting (yup that’s Damon laughing for real in those scenes). Maguire is no push-over though: he throttles Will when he goes too far mocking the memory of his wife and gets into furious arguments with Lambeau over their differing opinions on what’s best for Will.

That’s the film’s other major thread: male friendship. Will’s friendship with Chuckie is the film’s key romance, and Benn Affleck gives a generous, open-hearted performance (although one scene of fast-talking cool when Chuckie stands in for Will at a job interview feels like a scene purely written to give Affleck “a moment”). Both these guys are fiercely loyal to each other – but it’s Chuckie who knows Will is wasting gifts and opportunities he would die to have, and who loves his friend so much he wants him to leave. Refreshingly, the slacker friends aren’t holding Will back here (he’s doing that himself) – they care so much they are trying to push him away.

If the film has a weakness, it’s the romance plotline, which feels like a forced narrative requirement to give Will something to “earn”. Minnie Driver does a decent job as a spunky, cool Harvard student – the sort of dream girl who quotes poetry but also tells smutty gags to Will’s mates – but she feels like an end-of-the-rainbow reward. Their relationship is underwritten and she bends over backwards to forgive and reassure Will at every opportunity: my wife probably isn’t the only woman watching the scene where Will punches the wall next to Skylar’s head during an argument and felt that she probably needs to get the heck out. For all the film wants a grand romance, honestly the film would probably have been better if it had focused more on the friendship between Will and Chuckie (the true love of his life).

Good Will Hunting truthfully does little that’s original. Our hero struggles with his past, guilt, anger – but learns to become a better man through the magic, sympathetic ear of therapy. What makes it work is the confident writing, which never shies away from its hero’s unsympathetic qualities and the sensitive, low-key direction of van Sant (the film never uses crashing violin-like moments to overegg emotion). It’s also superbly acted across the board – Damon, Williams, Skarsgård, Affleck and Driver are all excellent. It’s a warm tribute to the power of friendship. In short it gives you a pleasant, engaging and easy-to-relate to story. And who doesn’t want that?

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (2022)

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (2022)

The Potterverse goes through its death throws in this anaemic offering in a misguided franchise

Director: David Yates

Cast: Eddie Redmayne (Newt Scamander), Jude Law (Albus Dumbledore), Mads Mikkelsen (Gellert Gindelwald), Ezra Miller (Credence Barebone/Aurelius Dumbledore), Dan Fogler (Jacob Kowalski), Alison Sudol (Queenie Goldstein), William Nadylam (Yusof Kama), Callum Turner (Theseus Scamander), Jessica Williams (Lally Hicks), Victoria Yeates (Bunty), Richard Coyle (Aberforth Dumbledore), Poppy Corby-Tuech (Vinda Rosier), Fiona Glascott (Minerva McGonagall), Katherine Waterston (Tina Goldstein)

If the House of Potter teetered after the not-very-good Crimes of Grindelwald, it collapsed with the release of The Secrets of Dumbledore to waves of indifference. It’s proof that if you super-size your series not because you have a genuine story reason but because you think a fat goose will lay even more golden eggs than a thin one, you’ll eventually end up with a dead obese goose.

A year or something has passed and Dumbledore (Jude Law) and Grindelwald (now Mads Mikkelsen, thank God) continue circling, neither quite willing to end their ‘friendship’. Grindelwald is determined though to seize control of the Wizarding World by manipulating the election for the Supreme Leader to launch his anti-Muggle war. Dumbledore recruits a team, led by Newt (Eddie Redmayne), to stop him – but with Grindelwald’s new power to see the future, seized from a Fantastic Beast, Dumbledore can’t tell anyone his plan (plus ca change). Meanwhile Credence (Ezra Miller), is groomed by Grindelwald to destroy Hogwarts’ favourite professor.

The Secrets of Dumbledore may be flabby, over-extended and frequently meander down alleyways and byways that feel frustratingly pointless – but it is a better film than The Crimes of Grindelwald. Its problem is, it’s nowhere near good enough to win back the massive loss of audience faith that complete shit-show (combined with all sorts of social media storms) caused.

The Secrets of Dumbledore’s major positive is the arrival of Mikkelsen as Grindelwald. Replacing Johnny Depp (and his “personal problems”), he gives the film an automatic upgrade. If you want an arrogant, sinister, manipulative, but also dashing, romantic villain, why in God’s name wouldn’t you have cast Mikkelsen in the first place? The film is more daring on the Dumbledore and Grindelwald relationship than any other Potter film before – we even hear the “L” word.

Anything focused on these two – either together or alone – is invariably the good stuff. The two of them (Jude Law is equally good) semi-threatening, semi-reminiscing, semi-flirting in a café at the start is the finest scene, and the genuine regret between them is rather well done. Rowling also writes in, pretty much direct from the final book, the entire tragic Dumbledore-backstory reveal which the final Deathly Hallows film bizarrely cut (perhaps she thought it was as terrible an idea as I did?). Law plays this little moment to perfection.

You end up wishing the film was a more personal story between these two. Unfortunately, we get this over-inflated mess. The most bizarre thing about Secrets of Dumbledore is that simultaneously loads is going and the plot feels incredibly slight and mostly pointless. Frequently events bend down alleys or fizzle out into pointlessness. Far from being full of secrets, Dumbledore and his brother fall over themselves to share their secrets at every opportunity to keep the plot moving forward.

After the money-grabbing decision to squeeze as much cash out of this franchise (five movies!) as possible, The Secrets of Dumbledore feels like it has taken on a lot of padding to get up to length. Rowling, to put it frankly, isn’t that great at structuring a screenplay (it’s telling Steven Kloves was bought back to help bang this into shape). It’s a reminder it’s a very different set of skills telling a coherent story, full of twists, turns and universe building over 2 hours compared to 700 pages.

Grindelwald’s plan involves the complex and poorly explained, killing and resurrection of a magic goat. There is a lot of talk of “the people getting a say” in the election: an election where no one gets a say, since the leader of this civilisation is chosen on the whim of said magic goat. Our heroes go to the German Ministry of Magic solely, it seems, so Newt’s brother can be captured. A “spy” is planted among Grindelwald’s forces who does no spying, has parts of his memory wiped for no reason and then rejoins the heroes. Two characters communicate via a magic mirror, even though they’ve never met and couldn’t know who the other is. A labyrinthine plot about an assassination has so many hastily explained twists I genuinely have no idea what was going on. At regular intervals the heroes reconvene with Dumbledore, like players in a video game being given a brief for the next level.

Even more than the last one, the “Fantastic Beasts” idea feels like a burden. They’d have done better just starting a new “Dumbledore vs Grindelwald” franchise. The plot sort of revolves around a poorly explained magic animal. Theseus is whacked in a prison guarded by a deadly scorpion. In a bizarre tonal zig-zag, Newt distracts this beast’s scorpion-y minions by doing a funny dance – interrupted every so often by it grabbing a “political prisoner”, eating them alive and then spitting out the half-chewed corpse for its minions to consume. Remember when this felt like this series was going to be about the charming adventures of a naïve zoologist?

The legacy characters stumble through with little to do. Redmayne’s Newt is a character so bizarrely ill-conceived as the lead in a prelude-to-war series he’s often quietly relegated to side missions. Dan Fogler’s Jacob and Alison Sudol’s Queenie continue a nonsensical emotional journey (she, let’s not forget, defected to Grindelwald – the man who wants to destroy Muggles – because she wasn’t allowed to marry a Muggle). Katherine Waterston’s Tina is relegated to a cameo.

Then there’s Credence. This character, the central Macguffin of the last two films, is here relegated to the role of heavy whose long-hyped clash with Dumbledore is a little more than a dull one-sided scuffle. It’s hard not to think the character has been reduced to glorified extra due to the increasingly toxic public image of Ezra Miller (has there ever been a franchise more unlucky in its casting?). But the unceremonious dumping of this entire plotline so crucial to films one and two hammers home the feeling that there is no consistent planning going on here at all.

I said in Crimes of Grindelwald this franchise in need of a new creative eye. David Yates directs his seventh Potter film and, while he does nothing wrong, I don’t think he’s got a single new idea in the tank. The look and feel of this film, its visuals, the effects, its tone, its colour palette – all of it is now achingly familiar, making it feel even more like something tipped carelessly off a production line. It also looks shockingly over-processed: I know it’s about magic but by Merlin’s Beard nothing looks real. Does it feel magic to be back at Hogwarts? No, it looks like a freaking CGI nightmare.

The lack of freshness surely contributed to its death at the box-office. No one seems to have stopped and asked “would someone who hasn’t been working on Potter full time for over 12 years care about this?”. I don’t think they did. If you work the Golden Goose night and day, demanding it produces an egg a day, eventually it will keel over. It didn’t have to be like this, but there is more chance of Depp returning than anyone making the next two films in this misbegotten series.

Nomadland (2020)

Nomadland (2020)

Poetic and surprisingly moving, this Best Picture winner is light on plot but deep on meaning

Director: Chloé Zhao

Cast: Frances McDormand (Fern), David Strathairn (Dave), Linda May, Charlene Swankie, Bob Wells, Peter Spears, Derek Endres

We all have ideas about what life should look like in the 21st century. Settled job, dream home, the rooted life. It’s what we are expected to be working towards – but it’s not for everyone. Nomadland, Chloé Zhao’s Malick-influenced road movie explores the lives of those who decide to live off that beaten track. The modern nomad, who chooses flexibility to move their home from place to place and don’t want to be tied down by bricks-and-mortar. It makes for a meditative, soulfully poetic film with a quietly mesmeric power.

Fern (Frances McDormand) is recently widowed, childless and has lost her job after the gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada closes. But, far from down-hearted, Fern is determined to lead a new life without the fixed commitments of her old one. She sells most of her possessions, kits out a van as a travel home and begins to drive across the country, taking seasonal jobs as and where she stops. She finds herself part of a warm and supportive community of nomads, who help to learn how to flourish in this unconventional home life.          

Nomadland winning Best Picture is as close as the Oscars have come to giving an award to Terence Malick. It’s hard not to feel his influence over the camera’s languid worship of the beauty of the Badlands, or its characters quiet searching for higher in life, via a communing with nature. Zhao’s film is a very effective and surprisingly moving character study, with only the smallest smidgen of a plot, but full of feeling. Radiantly shot by Joshua James Richards, it finds an orange-tinged beauty in a dawn and dusk and tiny moments of joy in rain falling in your face. All contrasted with the dull oppressiveness of buildings, those four walls shutting out nature.

Zhao’s film goes a long way in challenging neat assumptions we might have about this lifestyle. “I’m not homeless I’m houseless” Fern states and she politely – but firmly – turns down well-meaning offers of charity. The decision to move from place-to-place is not one enforced by poverty or failure. Instead, this is a rich, vibrant, supportive community that looks out for each other and share a legitimate (and refreshing) view of the world. Who says you need to spend your life chasing the dollar and building up a debt to have a fixed slice of real-estate you can sort of call your own?

This is particularly true in our post-recession world. Nomadland starts with the final collapse of an industrial community, now a ghost town. Many of the nomads find seasonal work that is often manual and low-skilled. Fern’s first job (of many) is working at an Amazon dispatch location, where jolly team leaders burst with enthusiasm met with smiling indifference by the (often older) staff. Fern’s travel is shaped around moving to key locations for seasonal work – Amazon, a campsite, a short-order chef job, beet processing… The economic situation is poor, but this is a way of playing the system to get a higher level of freedom, without debt or financial pressures.

It’s a key subject of a talk given to fellow nomads by Bob Wells, an influential advocate of the nomad life-style (one of any people playing versions of themselves). It’s part of a series of events at a nomad event – a sort of convention – where people gather to share experiences, advise and life-hacks. Ever needed to know how to change a tyre or what size bucket you should use for your built-in toilet? Wonder no more! On the road people come together in a way they never would in more regular life. With everything transient and nothing fixed, friendships and connections are more intense, constantly in that first glow of excitement.

That’s the pay-off of choosing this lifestyle. Everything is transient. Close friendships form, but you might not see the other person for months at a time. While phones help you to keep in touch, day-to-day you see completely different people from place-to-place. It will never be completely clear where you might be to your family. However, the short-lived intensity of connections can lead to a closeness and intimacy that might otherwise take months – a friend of Fern’s confides she has terminal cancer but regrets nothing, with a warmth and trust that would normally takes years to form not weeks.

It’s implied as well that the more short-lived intensity of friendships fits more with what the slightly taciturn and guarded Fern wants from life. Frances McDormand makes her friendly, ready with a smile, good company – but she is always slightly reserved and guarded. She will give sympathetic ears and invite confidences. But she is also a woman determined to live by her own rule. Having lived most of her life in one place in a happy marriage, a conversation with her sister (who bails her out with a loan to repair her van) reveals she was always prone to not look back when a decision was made. It’s the same with deciding to live on the road as moving to Empire – Fern knows her own heart and mind, and will fully commit to that.

This is despite temptations, the main one she faces being David Strathairn’s (the only other professional actor in the film) Dave, a fellow nomad who makes no secret of his romantic interest in her. Sweetly played by Strathairn, Dave pursues Fern and dangles the possibility of a more fixed and traditional life. They are close, but Fern has lived that life of marriage and rejected already the idea of a family. And, as McDormand makes clear in her soulful eyes, if that life was ever on the cards, it would have been with her husband not this new man, nice as he is.

Nomadland, like Fern, can see the dangers and problems. A van breaking down in the middle of nowhere is a major danger, a broken plate a potential disaster – Fern painstakingly reassembles it, not wishing to spend the money to replace it. Low temperatures and bad weather can make it uncomfortable – although she (smilingly) rejects an offer from a garage owner to sleep inside. But it also understands living this lifestyle is a legitimate choice, filled with rich possibilities. You only need to see Fern joyfully travel to the coast or get wrapped up in the embrace of the vibrant community she finds on the road to see that you could do immeasurably worse with your life.

Zhao’s film has a documentary realism to it, that comes from its deep immersion in real nomad communities. It makes copious use of real nomads playing versions of themselves, giving a rich feeling of authenticity to every moment. It also means we gain a real understanding of the idea that goodbyes are never final in this world, that there is always the prospect of seeing someone again “down the road”. The film’s poetic empathy, its warmth and the vibrant humanity of its characters makes it film that creeps up on you and has a surprising, but profound, power.

Avatar: The Way of Water (2022)

Avatar: The Way of Water (2022)

Cameron’s film makes a huge splash despite its soggy plotted, flooded run-time

Director: James Cameron

Cast: Sam Worthington (Jake Sully), Zoe Saldaña (Neytiri), Sigourney Weaver (Kiri Sully), Stephen Lang (Colonel Miles Quaritch), Kate Winslet (Ronal), Cliff Curtis (Tonowari), Jamie Flatters (Neteyam Sully), Britain Dalton (Lo’ak Sully), Timothy Jo-Li Bliss (Tuk Sully), Jack Champion (Spider), Bailey Bass (Reya), Filip Geljo (Aonung), Duane Evans Jr (Rotxo), Edie Falco (General Frances Ardmore), Brendan Cowell (Captain Scoresby), Jermaine Clement (Dr Ian Garvin)

After thirteen years it finally arrived. The sequel to a film that seemed to leave no cultural impact, Avatar. People were convinced it would flop. But they say that about all Cameron films. And, if anyone should have learned anything from Terminator 2, Titanic and Avatar it was don’t bet against Cameron. If Avatar 2’s purpose was to make an awful lot of money, it has succeeded in every level. If its purpose was to make a strong and entertaining film… I’m not so sure.

About the same amount of time has passed on Pandora and Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) have raised a family of four children, including Kiri (Sigourney Weaver) born from the avatar of their friend Grace. They have also raised Quaritch’s son ‘Spider’ (Jack Champion) among them. Then the humans return… a bloody war begins, with Sully leading a guerrilla campaign. The company resurrects Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) as a Na’vi super soldier to fight on their own terms. After Spider is captured, Sully and his family flee to live among the Metkayina, a sea-living tribe. But they can’t escape the war and its dangers.

As Avatar: The Way of Water is garlanded with praise and Oscars nominations, I feel like we are all part of a wide conspiracy of silence. So desperate are so many to keep viewers handing over their cash at the box office, that a film completely designed to be seen on the big screen (and this really is) is being praised to the skies by some as a masterpiece. It is not. It’s not even the best Avatar film. Instead, Avatar 2 is a visually impressive but hellishly long, predictable re-tread of the first film that stuffs the eyes with CGI wonders but leaves not a jot for the heart.

I was reminded part way through the overlong runtime that Cameron once made imaginative, thrilling sequels that completely reset the table. Aliens reinvented a haunted house horror movie as a pulsating action film. Terminator 2 turned a chase story into ramped up family story that mused on destiny. Avatar 2… basically tells exactly the same story, but with a familiar generational family conflict storyline and lots of water. It has the same environmental messages and anti-corporation vibe. When this lands, it works. A whale hunt is shot in terrifying detail, a giant mother whale creature brutally trapped and eviscerated for a small cannister of fluid extracted from its brain. This is also probably the most effective sequence and the one that moved me the most.

The effects do look impressive. There is no denying that, and the motion capture that turns the actors in blue giants is totally convincing. These Na’vi look and feel like flesh and blood beings. The visual imagination that creates this world, with its sweeping vistas and eclipse-kissed sky not to mention the myriad exotic creatures that populate it are stunning. If Avatar 2 deserves praise it’s for that. Pretty much every single frame looks like it cost a million dollars.

Unfortunately, it often also has a sheen of unreality. I became desperate for something real to appear on screen. But when only one character out of ten is not an effect, you don’t get much of that. On top of which the decision to film in slick, blur-free 48 frames per second means everything glides across the screen with the perfect-focused quality of a videogame. Don’t know what I mean? Try looking at things around you while moving your head at moderate speed. What do you see? Blur. Blur is real. The perfect focus of this world clues you up in every second that nothing in it is real.

The lack of reality eventually starts to remind you of The Phantom Menace. In fact, the only thing really separating this from that disaster is that James Cameron is a master director of epic, visual cinema. The film-making here, as a technical exercise , is beyond reproach. And few directors shoot action scenes with as much skill and raw excitement as Cameron. I can’t fault anything about that, even while I struggled to care as they dragged out over a huge chunk of time.

But Cameron’s weakness as always been the writing. He is a flat and unimaginative writer of dialogue – the Na’vi dialogue is awful flicking from ponderous (“We Sully’s stick together. That is our greatest weakness. And our greatest strength!”) to painfully bad (the number of “Bros” and “Dudes” from the Na’vi teenagers is fist-bitingly awkward, like your Dad trying to be down with the kids).

That’s not mentioning the fact that it’s so similar to the first film. The earth people return, war starts and eventually our heroes travel to a new part of Pandora where, just like Jake in the first film, they go through a training montage to learn the “way of the water”. This takes up most of the middle act. That’s not forgetting the huge number of themes and characters reshuffled and represented.  We build towards a clash very similar to the first film at the end. Nothing here feels fresh, everything feels like a retread. Our villain is resurrected as a Na’vi but, despite almost being defined by his racism in the first film, he doesn’t bat an eyelid at this.

There is a vague attempt to transfer Sully’s “torn between two cultures” storyline to Spider. But this character remains terminally under-developed and the film’s attempt to explore the father-son dynamic between him and Quaritch is so rushed, you wonder if Cameron was interested (odd since it’s crucial to the final act). Instead, we get a huge amount of generational clash in the Sully family, with Jake butting heads with his second son who struggles with being “the spare” (oddly appropriate right now), a hot head who gets everyone in trouble. These play out with a reassuring predictability, so much so that if I asked you to guess the fates of those involved you probably could.

There are bizarre logic gaps. Quaritch and his soldiers have been resurrected to destroy the Na’vi resistance – but instantly drop this for a personal vendetta against Sully (no one seems to care about the resistance after the first half an hour). When Spider is captured, Sully and gang don’t give a damn or even consider rescuing him. Sully doesn’t want to put the forest Na’vi in danger by staying – but doesn’t care about moving that danger to the water people.

Above all it’s frankly hellishly long, fully of trivial culture clash stuff and just the fact that the people in at are giant and blue or that it looks fabulous doesn’t make it good. Instead, Avatar 2 is a re-tread that feels like its treading water, spinning plates and repeating rather than reinventing. I’d rather watch the original again which, while it wasn’t inspiring, at least felt new.

All Quiet on the Western Front (2022)

All Quiet on the Western Front (2022)

War is Hell in this impressively made but strangely unoriginal film, that looks the same and carries the same message as countless others

Director: Edward Berger

Cast: Felix Kammerer (Paul Bäumer), Albrecht Schuch (Stanislas “Kat” Katczinsky), Aaron Hilmer (Albert Kropp), Moritz Klaus (Franz Müller), Adrian Grünewald (Ludwig Behm), Edin Hasanovic (Tjaden Stackfleet), Daniel Brühl (Matthias Erzberger), Thibault de Montalambert (General Ferdinand Foch), David Striesow (General Friedrichs)

Perhaps no front-line fighting in history was more hellish than the mud-splattered sludge of death that were the First World War Trenches. Millions of men were fed through an industrial mincer of death, all for remarkably little gain. It was a tragedy born of ambition and pride. It’s cost on the young was beautifully captured by Erich Maria Remarque’s novel (an adaptation of which was one of the first Oscar winners) and it is bought to the screens again in this visceral German adaptation.

Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer) and his friends are naïve young men excited to serve in Spring 1917. Little do they know the blood-soaked, brutal reality of war. It’s soon thrust upon them when their first night in the trenches coincides with a catastrophic artillery attack. Skip forward a year and its November 1918. While Germany’s lead negotiator Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl) tries to end the war, Paul and his mentor “Kat” (Albrecht Schuch) just hope to survive. But is there any hope?

All Quiet on the Western Front is raw, bloody and unflinching in its glance at the horrific realities of war. Shot with a cinematic beauty by Edward Berger that turns the mist filled world of no-man’s land into a sort of dreamscape that tips into a nightmare, it leaves no doubt about the brutal cost of war. Bodies are torn apart by explosions, shredded by bullets (even dead ones). Hand-to-hand combat is ruthless and there is not a jot of quarter given on any side. Everything is coated in a sheen of mud and blood, with dying men desperately gulping filthy water or left slumped where they fall.

The after-effects of war are horrifically shown. On their first night one of Paul’s friend is literally shredded by mortar fire. Bodies left on no-man’s land are peppered with bullets. The remains of a soldier is blasted out of his uniform, left hanging several feet up a tree. Paul and Kat discover a missing regiment of young recruits dead in an old factory, having removed their gas masks too soon. Tanks emerge from the mist, setting the ground shaking, rats fleeing before them, spewing death from their machine gun turrets, crushing screaming men under their tracks.

This is actually a fairly loose adaptation of the novel. The original prided itself on its lack of specifics: it’s never quite sure when or where it happens other than in the trenches. The soldiers fight in brutal battles in unnamed locations and simply live a day-to-day existence. This version make everything very specific: November 1918. Sub-plots around the armistice negotiations and the unwillingness of a die-hard Prussian General (a vilely arrogant David Striesow) to accept defeat expand the film beyond the novel’s original scope. However, this expansion never feels fully explored and at times detracts from the film’s richer, more intimate focus on the soldiers.

Berger’s film perfectly captures the sense of these boys being fed into a huge industrial meatgrinder in a cycle of death. The opening sequence follows a young soldier. He trembles with fear before going over the top, aimlessly fires his bullets and then grabs his spade to continue the charge and bludgeon a soldier. Cut to black before we follow the progress of Heinrich’s uniform. It is removed from his dead body, carted back to Germany, washed, repaired and then handed over to Paul as he signs up. Paul questions the name-tag inside: “Must have been too small. Happens all the time” the recruiting officer says, ripping it out. It’s all a production line.

Paul soon learns the truth. Felix Kammerer is excellent as this sensitive, enthusiastic young man (forging his father’s signature so he can join up) who sheds his innocence to become a battle-hardened warrior, succumbing to a mechanical, merciless violence in combat. He kills without hesitation and when guilt arrives – such as his killing of a French soldier in a fox hole – it leaves little long-term impact, so deadened has he become. Equally good is Albrecht Schuch, humane and worldly-wise figure as Kat. The bond – part brotherly, part father-son – is the film’s most affecting personal beat, and its most effecting scene involves Paul reading the illiterate Kat his mail.

There is much to admire here. But yet, while a technical triumph and immersive experience (even its score plays out with the organ-led heaviness of an artillery attack), I was less impressed with it than I expected. Perhaps that’s because it does or says nothing new. The original film was made by many people who were actually in the trenches. This film was made by people who grew up watching movies about wars. It’s frames of reference are subtly different, although its intentions are the same. Maybe that’s why I find it less affecting and less shocking than a film made 100 years ago.

For all its technical skill, the film is a continuation of visual grammar and thematic ideas established in countless films before. The blood-spattered immediacy of Saving Private Ryan. Tracking shots that remind you of 1917 and Paths of Glory. The on-the-streets fury of Black Hawk Down. The rumbling soundtrack of Dunkirk. It tells us War is Hell: but nothing else. Maybe that message is enough and it deserves repeating. But when the film expands the original like this, you want more.

The inclusion of the armistice works against it. The time jump means we lose any sense of the slow disillusionment of these men. Several key moments from the book – most notably Paul’s brief return to a home he can no longer relate to – have been stripped out. Setting the film in the last week of the war leads to a predictable ending that feels like its straining for even more pathos – of course there will be key deaths in the final minutes of the war. A more daring film might have looked more at how a harsh armistice and dark mutterings of betrayal led so many of these young men to hurl Germany back into war only twenty years later.

All Quiet on the Western Front is powerful, but its power is one of reiterating a familiar message. Berger’s film is wonderfully made but only follows confidently in the footprints of other (better) films. It avoids developing its message or context further and it’s expansion of the book’s plotline waters down the personal stories that made it so affecting. It’s grand, cinematic and powerful – but could have been more.

Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy (2011)

Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy (2011)

We’re going on a Mole Hunt: Le Carré’s finest book is boiled down into an atmospheric and masterful spy thriller

Director: Tomas Alfredson

Cast: Gary Oldman (George Smiley), Colin Firth (Bill Haydon), Tom Hardy (Ricki Tarr), Mark Strong (Jim Prideaux), Ciaran Hinds (Roy Bland), Benedict Cumberbatch (Peter Guillam), David Dencik (Toby Esterhase), Toby Jones (Percy Alleline), John Hurt (Control), Kathy Burke (Connie Sachs), Roger Lloyd-Pack (Mendel), Svetlana Khodchenkove (Irina), Konstantin Khabensky (Polyakov)

Anyone taking on this, Le Carré’s finest novel faced a tough challenge. After all, arguably the definitive version already exists: the masterful, slow-burn, 1979 TV adaptation (one of my favourite films ever) starring an Alec Guinness so perfect as the rotund, inscrutable spy-master George Smiley that Le Carré stated he could no longer write the character without thinking of him. I’ve long been nuts for Tinker, Tailor: I rushed to the cinema to see this with an equally keen-friend about five days before my wedding (on my wife-to-be’s birthday!) because I was looking forward to it so much. (Despite this the wedding went ahead). It can’t match that Guinness version – but it runs it close.

It’s the height of the Cold War, and the respected head of the British Intelligence Services (‘the Circus’) Control (John Hurt) is forced out, along with his deputy George Smiley (Gary Oldman) after a rogue mission in Hungary goes disastrously wrong. Over a year later, Smiley is secretly recalled to lead a mole hunt. Someone at the top of the service is a Russian agent – but who? New head Percy Alleline (Toby Jones)? Or one of the deputies – Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds) or Toby Esterhase (David Dencik)?

The first inspiration here is the screenplay. When I heard the film was two hours long I was stunned: the TV series unfolded over nearly seven hours! But the script, by Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O’Connor (who tragically died of cancer during it’s making) is a masterpiece. It brilliantly and skilfully compresses and restructures the novel, boiling down scenes to their core. But yet, it never feels rushed. The script creates composite scenes – most brilliantly a flashback to a Circus Christmas party – which allows a vast range of sub-plots and characters to simultaneously unfold.

Alongside this, the film is superbly, atmospherically directed by Tomas Alfredson. Alfredson brings a sharp, outsider’s view to this public-school nightmare turned espionage hub. These are posh boys, running an exclusive club, which plays by punishing rules. Everyone constantly spies one everyone else and there is no moment of privacy. Alfredsen brilliantly explores the social and emotional impact of spying, trapped within a grim and oppressive 70s mileu of dirt, beige, fear and loneliness.

The film is brilliantly designed, capturing a vast array of 70s designs and shades. The Circus is an industrial office – with its centre piece an orange lined, sound-proof room. Streets are lined with political graffiti – at one point we see “The Future is Female” a nifty comment on the all-male institution we are watching. Communist Hungary is a post-industrial slum, hotel rooms crowded with papers, cigarette smoke and overflowing ash trays.

At the centre is Gary Oldman, simply brilliant as Smiley. Controlled, measured and deploying only as much energy is needed, Smiley adds a hint of Guinness to his voice and always seems in control. But this lugubrious Smiley bubbles with tension, driven by twin demons. The first is Karla, the Russian spy-master Smiley let slip through his fingers years ago, the subject of a maudlin late-night recollection to his assistant Guillam. Even more important is his wife Ann, the betrayer Smiley still loves to distraction, a half-sight of her enough to make him stumble and lose breath. We never see either of these clearly in the film, reflecting their status as the only characters Smiley never understands and can’t make cool, calm, passion-free decisions about.

Cold-eyed reason guides everything else he does. Oldman’s Smiley may be grandfatherly, softly-spoken and controlled, but he’s as ruthless (if not more so) than everyone else. Smiley is precise and patient. There is a beautiful character establishing moment: Smiley, Mendel and Guillam are in a car bothered by a wasp. Guillam and Mendel flap with futile energy: Smiley waits and then lowers the window slightly at the perfect moment to let the wasp fly out. It captures in microcosm Smiley’s investigation. But he’s not afraid to use force: quietly threatening Dencik’s trembling Esterhase with deportation (not even flinching as a plane lands behind him), ruthlessly mining witnesses for evidence and verbally lashing out bitterly at the mole.

Alfredson’s film zeroes in on much of the emotional impact on spying. Smiley is a man slightly lost in the world outside of spying: retired, he seems adrift walking the streets, swims alone, sits at home in his suit. He’s so deactivated he doesn’t even speak for the first 18 minutes of the film, when he is recalled to life. Smiley has suppressed his emotions so completely only the shadow of his wife can move him. His home is a strange shrine, so much so he even keeps the gifts her lover gives her.

Each of the characters suffers under their burdens, and the demands on them for secrecy and isolation. Mark Strong’s Jim Prideaux buries himself in guilt in a caravan and forms a friendship with a young boy he later realises he is crafting into the same secretive man he is. Guillam is quietly ordered by Smiley to end his relationship with his boyfriend and acquiesces in private tears. Connie Sachs lives in retirement like a mad woman in an attic, cradling her memories. Control dies alone in a hospital bed. Later the Mole clings to having “made his mark” to supress his guilt, while a man whose career is ruined walks into oblivion blank faced not even noticing the rain around him.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is full of moments like this, the high-price of dogged, dedicated work like spying. Alfredson’s coolly, beautifully shot film (by Hoyte van Hoytema) with its lyrical score by Alfredo Iglesias is a masterpiece of tone. This is a dark, dangerous world and we are constantly reminded of it, in between the muttered meetings in board rooms and dark corriders. Tom Hardy’s (wonderful) Ricki Tarr and Mark Strong’s deeply emotional Prideaux are spies-on-the-ground, face-to-face with dangers. Theirs is a world of brutal throat-cuts, eviscerations in a bath and sudden executions. The decisions played out in rooms like that orange-lined sound-proof office with its methodical, intricate ship’s clock, lead to death and violence.

The film is stuffed with beautifully composed shots and brilliantly edited (Dino Jonsäter’s cuts frequently carry us over brilliantly over transitions and segues that streamline the narrative perfectly). Despite cutting back and forth over multiple timelines, it’s always clear when we are (an ingenious device sees Smiley change his glasses in retirement, instantly grounding us in the timeline based on the pair he is wearing). The Christmas party scene – exactly the sort of bizarre public-school irreverent piss-up (where spies who fight night and day to destroy the USSR raucously sing communist songs with a Lenin-dressed Santa) is a superb distillation of character and plot beats and becomes, in many ways the emotional pivot of the movie. It’s a very inventive addition.

The film assembles a superb cast. Oldman, of course, leads from the front but there is not a weak turn in the cast. Hardy is gritty, bitter and jumped-up, Cumberbatch holding his tension down under professionalism, Strong drips quiet grief, Firth swaggers with superb, assured insouciance, Hurt is the book’s arch-spy-master come to life, Jones is full of preening pride, Burke lost in memories. If I’d like the film to be longer for any reason, it would be to see more of these actors.

Full of moody, seventies beauty and creeping paranoia, it’s also crammed with beautifully judged lines and incidental moments from the book. Alfredson’s atmospheric film has a profound emotional understanding of the cost of this life of isolation and paranoia. It took a couple of viewings, but this emerges from the shadow of my favourite TV series.

Paddington (2014)

Paddington (2014)

Michael Bond’s lovable bear makes an almost perfect screen-transition in this heart-warming tale

Director: Paul King

Cast: Ben Whishaw (Paddington Bear), Hugh Bonneville (Henry Brown), Sally Hawkins (Mary Brown), Madeleine Harris (Judy Brown), Samuel Joslin (Jonathan Brown), Julie Walters (Mrs Bird), Nicole Kidman (Millicent Clyde), Peter Capaldi (Mr Curry), Jim Broadbent (Samuel Gruber), Imelda Staunton (Aunt Lucy), Michael Gambon (Uncle Pastuzo), Tim Downie (Montgomery Clyde)

If there is one thing we need in troubled times, it’s kindness. Few characters are as overflowing with warmth and decency as Michael Bond’s Paddington Bear. First introduced in 1958, the lovable marmalade-consuming little bear all the way from darkest Peru is never anything less than kind and decent – even as the well-meaning bear gets himself into a string of catastrophes.

Paddington is one of the most universally beloved figures from post-War British culture – surely no surprise he was the perfect tea-party guest for that other beloved icon of the same period, the Queen. The pressure was on for a Paddington film – could it match the tone of the books? The answer was an over-whelming yes. Paddington is an endlessly heart-warming triumph, which it is impossible to watch without a warm glow building inside you, and a goofy smile on your face.

Explorer (Tim Downie) discovers a species of intelligent, marmalade-loving bears in darkest Peru. Forty years later, after a terrible earthquake, a young bear travels to find a new home in London. He meets the Brown family – overly cautious father Henry (Hugh Bonneville), caring Mary (Sally Hawkins) and their children Judy (Madeline Harris) and Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) – who take him into their home and name him Paddington after the train station where they found him (his bear name being unpronounceable). Paddington (Ben Whishaw) works hard to settle in with his new hosts – but danger looms from an ambitious Natural History Museum taxidermist (Nicole Kidman) who longs to make Paddington the centrepiece of her collection.

Directed with a great deal of unobtrusive flair by Paul King, Paddington is a truly endearing film about the triumph of opening your heart to strangers. The Brown family don’t realise it, but they are in need of a burst of kindness in their lives to help bring them together. They get it in spades with Paddington. The film captures perfectly the little bear’s personality. This is Paddington exactly as you remember him: polite, decent, kind and hilariously accident-prone. King’s film also gets the tone exactly right – there are no pop-culture references or rude gags (although there are a few subtle double-entendres of a sort) and the film is set in a timeless mix of 1950s London and today.

The film’s CGI Paddington is gorgeously designed – a wonderful rendering of the bear’s appearance tailored with more realistic fur, but still the same as the book– and perfectly voiced by Ben Whishaw. Whishaw was a late replacement – Colin Firth voluntarily withdrew, as he felt his voice was ill-matched to this naïve, gentle young bear – but his light and gentle tones convey all the warmth you need. It’s a superb performance, humane, kind and deeply funny, and so well suited you suddenly realise in your head Paddington always sounded like this.

King creates a series of gorgeously handled set-pieces to showcase Paddington’s possibilities for well-intentioned mayhem. On his first night in the Brown household, he duels with toothbrushes, mouthwash, toilet flushes and showers, culminating in flooding their bathroom with a swimming pool’s worth of water. He gets mummified in sellotape, slips up in the kitchen and causes several marmalade-sandwich involved disasters (most hilariously a marmalade baguette-pneumatic tube mix-up). But he always means well: a caper-filled set-piece through the London streets sees Paddington finally collide with a man he’s trying to return a dropped wallet too – allowing someone we’ve known all along to be a pickpocket to be apprehended by the police.

The Brown family’s home – already a beautifully designed dolls-house made real, with a tree blossom mural that changes to reflect the mood of the scene – comes to life with Paddington in it. (Watch how the colours of their clothing change depending on how much Paddington is part of the family or not). Mary (a wonderfully warm Sally Hawkins) is already eager for him to stay. Judy and Jonathan (superbly sparky performances from Madeline Harris and Samuel Joslin) are quickly won over by him. It’s only Mr Brown – a performance of perfectly judged fussy, pinickity, rule-bound caution and stuffiness by Hugh Bonneville which flourishes into something warmer – who is unsure. But then this is a man so obsessed with his risk analysis job, he prevents his children from doing anything (34% of all childhood accidents happen on the stairs!) and has forgotten how to have fun.

Watching Mr Brown slowly warm to Paddington is a huge part of the film’s charm and warmth. Who could imagine the man who tries to leave him at the train station (and urge his family not to catch the bear’s eye, muttering “stranger danger”) would later be dressing up as a Scottish cleaning woman to help him infiltrate the Geographer’s Guild building? (This sequence is a little comic physical and verbal tour-de-force Bonneville.) It’s a larger part of the film’s wider – and most rewarding – message: the importance of treating migrants to this country with respect and care.

The pro-migration message is throughout the film – and the film is a fabulous reminder to many of what we have gained from those who have come to this land from across the seas, from NHS staff to political leaders to entertainers. Paddington’s journey to London – in a small boat, then sneaking past customs – is all-too-familiar.  Next door neighbour Mr Curry (a comically ingratiating Peter Capaldi) voices many of the “concerns” of anti-immigrant communities (let one bear in and who knows how many will follow?). Even Mr Brown voices worries about bears telling you sob stories to win your trust. The important message here is the value migrants bring us. A recurring calypso band reminds us of parallels with the Windrush generation. It’s not spoken but Jim Broadbent’s antique shop owner’s accent and memories of arriving on a train in London as a child clearly mark him as a Kindertransport child. Paddington has a subtle and truly important message for people: when we open our arms to people, we gain as much as they from the exchange.

Paddington throws in a few moments of darkness: the shock death of Uncle Patuszo is surprisingly affecting and Nicole Kidman’s taxidermist is possibly the scariest villain you’ll see in a kid’s film this side of the child catcher. But in some ways this enhances the warmth even further. By the film’s end you’ll feel your own life has been enriched by the small bear’s presence as much as the Brown’s has. We need him in times like this.

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022)

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022)

Johnson’s playful Agatha Christie tributes continue to delight in this affectionate homage

Director: Rian Johnson

Cast: Daniel Craig (Benoit Blanc), Edward Norton (Miles Bron), Janelle Monáe (Andi Brand), Kathryn Hahn (Claire Debella), Leslie Odom Jnr (Lionel Toussaint), Kate Hudson (Birdie Joy), Dave Bautista (Duke Cody), Jessica Henwick (Peg), Madelyn Cline (Whiskey), Noah Segan (Derol)

Johnson’s Knives Out reminded Hollywood that people love a good whodunnit. Netflix purchased two more films from the franchise after the first’s success: Glass Onion is the first, a wild, enjoyable and deft mystery, crammed with enough jokes, puzzles, side-mysteries and actors having a good-time to become a perfect Christmas treat.

Set in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic – and how unusual again to see everyone wearing a facemask during the first meeting of its characters – it revolves around a weekend get-away at the Greek island mansion of a billionaire, its elaborate design centred around a huge Glass Onion dome. A stack of personalities from wildly divergent backgrounds, thrown together in a secluded location with murder on the cards? You couldn’t get more Agatha Christie unless Hercule Poirot turned up. Instead, we get Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc, as outrageously Southern as ever and seemingly invited by mistake to take part in billionaire Miles Bron’s (Edward Norton) murder-mystery weekend for his close friends.

Those close friends are a smorgasbord who all seem to have as much reason to hate Bron as they do for being in debt to him. All are in hock to Bron’s company Alpha and its quest to create a new hydrogen super-fuel. The guests? Kathryn Hahn’s governor of Connecticut (reliant on Bron for funding), Leslie Odom Jnr’s scientist (reliant on Bron for funding), Kate Hudson’s fashion editor (reliant on Bron for her job), Dave Bautista’s influencer (reliant on Bron for Likes), and Janelle Monáe as Bron’s ex-partner, cheated (perhaps) out of the company they co-founded. Will the murder mystery party turn into murder mystery reality?

Johnson’s playful, loving homage to Agatha Christie successfully carries over its tone and sense of fun from Knives Out, delighting in its conventions even as it subtly inverts some of them, and building a classic murder mystery in a very modern skin. It’s possible that no-one is better at this than Johnson, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing something as fun as this so straight. For all the jokes, it never sneers at its material or looks down on the classic Christie model. Instead, it feels like a lost Christie making its way to the screen with a solution that the author would love.

Glass Onion does make part of its effect work by concealing information from the viewer for as long as possible – some characters here are not as they appear and some know much more than they are letting on. It’s not quite the characters you might expect either, who are playing their cards close to their chest. The film dips into a non-linear structure, progressing us through to a killing before winding back to retell all the events we have just witnessed from another perspective. It’s a brilliant way of keeping us on our toes – and most successfully, never feels like cheating but a deliberate bit of rug-pulling to keep the fun going.

It also reminds us to question everything we are seeing as the film unfolds. Like an intricate onion, there are layers upon layers – and like glass when the light reflects right, it suddenly becomes transparent. Everything in Glass Onion is meant to only really become clear by its conclusion – although Johnson drops plenty of hints of what’s going to be important, not least the swiping sound of the protective glass shield that snaps down over Bron’s displayed Mona Lisa (the real one) that he pretentiously shows off to his friends.

Pretentious and self-satisfied showing-off is meat-and-drink to Bron, played with a hugely enjoyable smug smackability by Edward Norton (having the time of his life channelling every arrogant billionaire you can think of, not least Elon Musk). Irritatingly new-age in his ostentatious wealth, every act of Bron (no matter how generous it seems) is laced with self-serving. He delights in (and feeds) his reputation as an eccentric genius and the film’s elaborate set is a testament to Bron’s classless grandiosity.

His hangers-on share deeply mixed feelings about this generous man who demands (with a wining smile) that they dance to any tune that he plays. Even his murder mystery weekend is designed around a chance for him show off (his balloon being well-and-truly burst by Blanc early in the movie is one of its greatest laugh-out-loud moments). Hahn, Odom Jnr, Hudson and Bautista have huge fun with four characters all larger-than-life in their own ways. But Janelle Monáe is the film’s most striking performer: as Bron’s cast-off former partner she gives a performance brimming with complexity and hidden depths.

In all this colour and old-school mystery razzle-dazzle that Johnson serves up, it’s very easy to forget what an essential role Craig plays in holding it together. Blanc remains a loving Poirot tribute, inverting that character’s bizarre accent, dandyish clothes and exactitude but still capturing Poirot’s essential kindness and humanitarianism. Craig quietly carries a lot of the film here, while ceding much of the most striking material to his “guest stars”. It’s fine work.

Johnson’s film is a superb entertainment, the sort of film you can imagine people saying of it “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore”. It works as extraordinarily well as it does because it manages to be both cool and catchy and hugely old-fashioned. It’s an unabashed entertainment, that wants to puzzle and entertain you. It succeeds at both.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Luscious visuals, hilarious gags mix with an air of sadness and regret in Wes Anderson’s masterpiece

Director: Wes Anderson

Cast: Ralph Fiennes (M. Gustav), Tony Revolori (Zero), F. Murray Abraham (Mr Moustafa), Mathieu Amalric (Serge X), Adrien Brody (Dmitri), Willem Dafoe (Jopling), Jeff Goldblum (Deputy Kovacs), Harvey Keitel (Ludwig), Jude Law (Young Writer), Bill Murray (M. Ivan), Edward Norton (Inspector Henckels), Saoirse Ronan (Agatha), Jason Schwartzman (M. Jean), Léa Seydoux (Clotilde), Tilda Swinton (Madame D), Tom Wilkinson (Author), Owen Wilson (M. Chuck)

I wrote recently I could forgive the flaws I’ve found in Kurosawa’s work, for the majesty of Seven Samurai. I can totally say the same again for Wes Anderson. He is a director I’ve sometimes found quirky, mannered and artificial – but God almighty he deserves a place in the pantheon for directing a film as near to perfection as The Grand Budapest Hotel, a delight from start to finish, as beautiful to look at as it is whipper-snap funny, as heart-warming to bathe in as it is coldly, sadly bittersweet. After three viewings I can say it is, without a doubt, a masterpiece.

Like many Wes Anderson films, its storyline is eccentric, halfway between fantasy and absurdity. In 1932, in an opulent hotel, The Grand Budapest, concierge Monsieur Gustav (Ralph Fiennes) is the pinnacle of his trade: precise, fastidious, perfectionist, he can fix anything anywhere – opera tickets, the perfect table placement and a night of passion at any time for the elderly widows who visit his hotel. When one of them, Madame D (Tilda Swinton) dies leaving him a priceless painting, Boy with Apple he suddenly finds himself framed for her murder. Only his ingenuity, and the dedicated help of his protégé, best friend and surrogate brother/son, lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori) will save him.

You can’t escape on the first viewing that The Grand Budapest Hotel is an extraordinarily funny film. Crammed with superb one-liners, it’s a showcase for a breathtakingly, blissfully funny performance from Ralph Fiennes whose comic timing is exquisite and whose mastery of the perfectly structured monologue of flowery language is as spot-on as his ability to deliver a crude punch-line. Anderson fills the film with clever sight-gags, bounce and a supreme sense of fun. You’ll laugh out loud (I frequently do, and I remember most of the gags) and wind back to watch them again.

But what lifts this is the wonderfully evocative, elegiac piece this beautiful film is. For all its comic zip, it unfolds in a romanticised past already a relic in 1932. We can’t escape the rise of Fascism that fills the film. Jack-booted soldiers accost and hunt Gustav and Zero. Adrien Brody’s furious heir to Madame D looks like a Gestapo officer, and his vicious heavy Jopling (Willem Dafoe so weathered, he looks like he’s been beaten by a carpet duster) has a stormtrooper menace. En route to Madame D’s funeral, Zero is nearly dragged off the train to be lynched by fascist thugs for being an immigrant and The Grand Budapest is taken over by this dreadful movement, filled with Mussolini-inspired ZZ insignia and blackshirts.

Under the jokes, the world Gustav represents has already died and been buried. We are never allowed to forget we are marching, inexorably, towards a very real-world war that will rip apart this fictional country and leave millions dead. Gustav’s gentile old-school charm ended with 1920s: and he sort of knows it. Fiennes, under the suaveness, conveys a man who falls back into potty language when he can no longer maintain his assured confidence that a straight-backed, polite assurance will solve any problem or a poetic reflection will allow them to put any unpleasantness behind them. Those days are gone and it makes for a deep, rich vein of sadness just under the surface.

It’s particularly acute because it’s made clear this is a memory piece. Anderson constructs the film like a memory box. It has no less than three framing devices. It opens and closes with a young woman in 2014 visiting a monument to a great writer, the author of the book The Grand Budapest Hotel. From there we flash back to the author (a droll Tom Wilkinson) in 1985 recounting how he met the man who inspired the novel, before heading again to a flashback to the 1960s where the young author (Jude Law) meets the man we discover is an older Zero (F Murray Abraham) who recounts the story we then watch. Each layer of the film descends deeper into Anderson’s artificial, carefully structured visual style, with its heightened sense of reality.

Old Zero – beautifully played by F. Murray Abraham – is introduced as a man of acute loneliness and sadness, who tells us early on the woman his young self loves, Agatha (a radiant Saoirse Ronan) will die and shuffles around the nearly abandoned The Grand Budapest (now a concrete nightmare of Communist architecture) with only his memories for comfort. No matter how jovial and bright the events of the 1930s are, we can’t forget that these are the reflections of a man full of regrets.

When old Zero’s narration turns to remembering Agatha, the lights around him dim: Agatha even enters the narrative almost by the side door: Gustav is arrested and imprisoned before she appears, along with a series of flashbacks-within-flashbacks to Zero and her meeting and her first meeting with Gustav, as if Zero had to steel himself to remember her (as reflected in Abraham’s tear-stained face). Later, when remembering the fates of Gustav (his best friend) and Agatha (the love of his life) he almost draws a veil over it (even their final scenes in flashback play out in monochrome). There is a deep, moving sense of humanity here, a powerful thread of grief that adds immense richness.

But don’t forget this is also a funny film! Anderson is an inventive visual and narrative director at the best of times, and here every single beat of his playful style pays off in spades. The entire 1930s section of the film (the overwhelming bulk of the narrative) plays out in 4:3 ratio, which to many other directors would be restrictive, but seems a perfect fit for a director who often composes his visuals with the skill of an expert cartoonist. The frame is frequently filled in every direction when within the grandeur of the hotel, but then feels marvellously restrictive for Gustav’s prison cell or the train compartments that seem to constantly carry Zero and him to disaster.

Anderson’s wonderfully precise camera movements also reach their zenith here. His camera is deceptively static, often placed in a series of perfectly staged compositions that places the characters at their heart, frequently looking at us. But then the camera will turn – frequently in a fluid single-plain ninety degrees to reveal a new image of character. There are Steadicam tracking shots that are a dream to watch. It’s combined with some truly astounding model shots (parts of the set are not-even-disguised animated models and miniatures, adding to the sense of fantasia) and the detail of every inch of the design (astounding work from Adam Stockhausen and Anna Pinnock) is perfection. The film is an opulent visual delight.

It’s a film of belly laughs and then moments of haunting sadness. But also, a wonderful celebration of friendship. The bond between Gustav and Zero is profound, natural and deeply moving – grounded, fittingly, in adversity from the agents of a hostile, oppressive state – and carries real emotional force. Newcomer Tony Revolori is hugely endearing as naïve but brave Zero, making his way in this new world (fitting the theme, he left his homeland after his family was destroyed by war) and sparks superbly with Fiennes and Ronan.

There is a wonderful beating heart in The Grand Budapest Hotel, amongst the farce, perfectly timed gags and cheekiness, that makes it a rich film you can luxuriate in. Anderson’s direction is faultless, Fiennes is a breathtaking revelation, both hilarious, affronted, decent and fighting the good fight. Gorgeous to look at, thought-provoking and laugh-out loud funny it’s a dream of a film.