Tag: Willem Dafoe

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.

Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997)

Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997)

It seemed like such a good idea at the time… Keanu Reeves wisely passed on Speed 2 – so should you

Director: Jan de Bont

Cast: Sandra Bullock (Annie Porter), Jason Patric (Alex Shaw), Willem Dafoe (John Geiger), Temuera Morrison (Officer Juliano), Glenn Plummer (Maurice), Brian McCardie (Merced), Christine Firkins (Drew), Mike Hagerty (Harvey), Colleen Camp (Debbie), Lois Chiles (Celeste), Royale Watkins (Dante)

In 1996 Keanu Reeves turned down a huge salary for Speed 2. Everyone in Hollywood thought he was mad. On June 13th 1997, Speed 2 was released. On June 14th everyone thought Keanu Reeves was a genius. It’s quite something when one of your best ever career moves was not doing a movie. But God almighty Keanu was right: time has not been kind to Speed 2 – and even when it was released it was hailed as one of the worst sequels ever made. It’s like de Bont and co sold their souls for Speed and in 1997 the Devil came to collect.

Keanu’s Jack Traven is clumsily replaced by Jason Patric’s Alex Shaw – although the dialogue has clearly only had the mildest tweak as Shaw has inherited Traven’s job, friends, personality and girlfriend Annie (Sandra Bullock – elevated to top billing but even more of a damsel-in-distress than in the original). Alex and Annie are wrestling with making a long-term commitment – see what I mean about this script only be mildly tweaked? – when they decide to take an all-or-nothing cruise. Shame the cruise liner is hijacked by deranged computer programmer turned bomber Geiger (Willem Dafoe). With the boat powering through the water towards a collision on shore, can Alex save the day?

You’ve probably noticed the disparity between the title Speed and the setting: a slow-moving cruise liner. At one point, Alex asks how long it would take an oil tanker to move out of a collision course with the liner – “At least half hour – that’s not enough time!” he’s told. The very fact that a debate whether 30 minutes will be enough time in a flipping film about speed shows how far this sequel has fallen. How did anyone not notice this?

Pace is missing from the whole thing. The script is truly dreadful. Paper-thin characters populate the cruise liner, none of whom make even the slightest impression. At one point a character breaks an arm and then immediately shrugs off the injury to steer the ship. The script is crammed with deeply, desperately unfunny “comedy” beats. Bullock’s character seems to have transformed into a ditzy rom-com wisecracker – with a “hilarious” running joke that she’s a terrible driver (geddit!??!) – and, instead of the charming pluck she showed in the first film, is now an irritating egotist. She still fares better than poor Patric, who completely lacks the movie star charisma of Reeves and utterly fails to find anything that doesn’t feel like a low-rent McClane rip-off in his character.

It’s like de Bont forgot everything he knew about directing in the three years between the two films. If anything, this feels like a well below average effort from a novice director. The humour is dialled up with feeble sight gags and the film takes a turgid 45 minutes to really get going (most of which is given over to derivative romantic will-they-commit banter between Patric and Bullock).

de Bont basically flunks everything. He fails the basic directing test of confined-spaces thrillers like this by never making the geography clear to the viewer. I challenge anyone to really understand how characters get from A to C on this boat. The long introductions are supposed to establish these basics (see Die Hard for a masterclass in this), but here you haven’t got a clue about what’s where or why some locations are more risky than others. There is a spectacular lack of tension about the whole thing – it’s not really clear what Dafeo’s lip-smacking, giggling, leech-using (yes seriously) villain actually wants or how his scheme works, and the momentum of the boat towards unspecified destruction is (a) hard to see on the open water with no fixed point to compare the speed with and (b) even when we get that, not exactly adrenalin fuelled anyway.

de Bont’s comedic approach to much of the material might have worked if he had any sense of wit or comic timing in his direction. Or if Patric had been more comfortable with the wit the part requires. Bullock instead feels like she has to joke for all three of them, to disastrous effect. There are a couple of semi-comic sidekicks sprinkled among the supporting players, but none of them raises so much as a grin. The film can’t resist implausible in-jokes, like bringing back Glenn Plummer’s luckless character to have his boat swiped by Alex (they even leave in a mildly altered “what are you doing here?” line, as if they didn’t realise until shooting it that Keanu wasn’t going to be there).

It ends with a loud crash of a boat into the shore which cost tens of millions of dollars (at the time one of the most costly stunts ever) but just looks like a fake boat ripping through a load of backlot buildings. It’s a big, loud, dull, slow ending to a film that looks like it was made by people who had no idea what they were doing but enough power to ignore anyone who might have been able to point out what they were doing wrong. Speed 2 remains the worst sequel ever. Reeves went off to make The Matrix. Who’s the idiot?

The Lighthouse (2019)

The Lighthouse (2019)

Undefinable, haunting madness in Robert Egger’s mesmeric film that defies categorisation

Director: Robert Eggers

Cast: Robert Pattinson (Ephraim Winslow), Willem Dafoe (Thomas Wake)

Who’d want to be a lighthouse keeper? Weeks on end, stuck on a rock, with nothing but sea gulls and your fellow keepers for company. The cabin fever might well start to make you feel your grip on reality shifting. You’d definitely think it was a strong chance watching Robert Eggers’ mesmeric, enthralling and undefinable masterpiece, a mix of everything from Victorian shlock to Greek Mythology via MR James and Edgar Allen Poe, by way of Freud and Jung. It’s impossible to work out, horrifyingly clear and deeply, unsettlingly brilliant.

Two ‘wickies’ (lighthouse keepers) in 1890s arrive on an island off the coast of New England. Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) is a (self-proclaimed?) salty-sea-dog and veteran wickie. He tends the light. His assistant, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), is a former woodworker working on contract, seemingly on the run from something. He is the island’s dogsbody and tends the mechanisms that keep the light on and turning and the island’s fog-horn blaring. These two live cheek-by-jowl, a relationship that oscillates between distrust, resentment and strange warmth.

Things take an increasing turn for the bizarre, as a storm cuts them off from their scheduled relief. Slowly the isolation, supplies failure (gin and beans are seemingly the only food sources left) tap into the psychological flaws in the men themselves. Ephraim becomes ever more consumed by visions of a horrific but sensual mermaid. Wake obsessively guards his sole access to the lighthouse tower – and, Ephraim suspects, the mysteries it contains. Their relationship crosses boundaries of longing, violence and anger.

The Lighthouse is somewhere between parable, modern myth and psychological study. You could call it a horror film – I see it more as a classic ghost story – but you could just as easily call it a survivalist film, a character study or a psychological thriller. Egger’s insidiously unsettling film-making and the sublime acting from the two leads combine to make a film ripe for interpretation, and intensely rewarding on rewatch. It’s an explosion of artistic brilliance.

Shot in a superbly atmospheric black and white – and a claustrophobic academy ratio 4:3 – it’s a film that presents one striking, chilling, unforgettable visual image after another. Inspired by silent cinema – in particular Murnau, Lang and von Sternberg, although I spotted elements of Keaton – but as if moody German expressionism was used to shoot a Rorschach test. The inky blacks, and overwhelming bursts of blinding white light, suggest unimaginable horrors lurking out of sight, while its impressionistic imagery constantly pushes us to question the reality of the film.

It all builds on the superb feeling of isolation Eggers invokes. Rooms are small and crowded with furniture. The island is a bleak rock, shorn of any vegetation. The only wildlife is an army of seagulls. The blare of the island’s foghorn is continuous – sounding like a doom-laden rumble from Hell – that seeping into the viewer’s soul. Every corner of the lighthouse station becomes achingly familiar to the viewer and somewhere you can imagine not wanting to spend a second longer than you have to.

Stretching their vocal muscles around a script (written by Eggers and his brother Max) full of rich, chewy, Victoriania dialogue by way of Beckett and Pinter (in one compellingly funny sequence, the two actors basically shout “what” at each other over and over again) both are superb. Dafoe walks a fine line expertly between realism and Robert-Newton-esque parody, as the saltiest sea-dog imaginable, who can oscillate between surly admonitions and flights of myth-filled, metaphorical fancy. Pattinson dives head first into a man who we are never sure we fully understand: is he a frustrated time-server, a violent monster, a delusional schizophrenic, a little-boy lost? Either way it’s a truly brilliant performance of Day-Lewis level commitment and immersion.

You could have a lot of fun arguing that perhaps both men are two halves of the same fractured psyche (as if Wake is a future version of Ephraim, almost as if the film is him witnessing his own origins story). Certainly, as their film progresses, their personalities and histories begin to merge. It would help explain the curious emotional bond between them: at times they seem to almost hate each other, at another a drunken fight is only inches away from a sexual encounter. They laugh at and loath each other, are mutually dependent, plot each other’s destruction but then pathetically look at each other for reassurance and praise (Wake is heartbroken when Ephraim criticises his cooking, while Ephraim both resents and worships this hard-taskmaster father figure).

It’s a suspicion that could also be incited by the all-pervading weirdness on the island. Ephraim –carrying the burden of secret crimes on the mainland – see visions of a mermaid among logs, in which sexual encounters are mixed with the mermaid’s murderous attempts to drown him. His first-day searches of the house unearth a carving of a mermaid, which seems to fascinate and repel him – he takes to masturbating (joylessly) over it in the workshop. He seems to spy Wake worshiping, naked, the light during his long-night vigils up the tower (suspicious fluids drip down from here, along with half glimpses of mermaid tentacles). In any case, Wake guards his access to the light like a jealous lover, while his faith in sea mythology becomes increasingly less of a mantra and more of a framework to understand the world.

How much is real? Or is it a sign of Ephraim’s fractured, guilty, conscious? We see most of the events through his eyes – a man we know is a thief and, most likely, a killer. There is more than enough evidence that Ephraim is lying about his past as much to himself as he is Wake. Wake too is a liar – telling at least two versions of how he ended up with a gammy leg, enough to make you wonder how much his claims of being a sea-dog are true. As isolation and constant drink – the two spend most of the second half in various states of inebriation first from gin then turpentine – kick in, and they and their surroundings become increasingly dishevelled and fart-stenched.

There are dark powers at work on this island. Echoes of Greek Myths loom – Ephraim has traits of Prometheus, fascinated by a light horded by the Gods, the very light that Wake, Proteus like, is determined to keep to himself. Wake stresses that the gulls carry the souls of dead sailors – and the unsettling persistence these pester Ephraim with, is surpassed only by the violence with which he responds to them. Elements of Victorian ghost stories, hypnotism and gothic fiction combine in every corner of a film where we see very little but get a lot implied (powerful, Eisenstein and Bunuel-style, close-ups of faces and eyes imply powerful horrors out of shot).

The Lighthouse reminds me in many ways of the best of the BBC Ghost Stories of the 1970s in their unsettling, MR James-style unexplained (even unstated) horrors. There is a palpable air of horrific tension around the film, of an unexplained, unknowable force that could somewhere destroy both men – and has perhaps unsettled their minds. The film culminates in a superb, haunting shot as Ephraim comes face-to-face with something unknown that is pure MR James: we never see what caused the horror, only its terrible results. (It’s as terrifying as Whistle and I’ll Come to You or A Warning to the Curious where blind, over-confident curiosity leads to dreadful outcomes).

Eggers film is not a conventional horror film: I believe thinking of it as a deeply unsettling exploration of man’s vulnerability and weakness, ala MR James, is key. This is a story of unseen, imagined, unsettling horrors – but also a claustrophobic relationship drama, playing out like a psychological thriller as two men dance around destroying and seducing each other. It’s a complex Rubrik’s cube that rewards constant thought and attention. Beautifully filmed, superbly acted, compelling in every frame, it can claim to be one of the most unique and powerful American films of the 2010s.

Clear and Present Danger (1994)

Clear and Present Danger (1994)

Tom Clancy’s door-stop thriller is turned into an involving conspiracy thriller that makes masterful use of Harrison Ford

Director: Philip Noyce

Cast: Harrison Ford (Jack Ryan), Willem Dafoe (John Clark), Anne Archer (Dr Cathy Ryan), Joaquim de Almeida (Colonel Felix Cortez), Miguel Sandoval (Ernesto Escobedo), Henry Czerny (Bob Ritter), Harris Yulin (James Cutter), Donald Moffat (President Bennett), Benjamin Bratt (Captain Ramirez), Raymond Cruz (Domingo Chavez), James Earl Jones (Jim Greer), Tim Grimm (Dan Murray), Hope Lange (Senator Mayo)

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan has always been the All-American hero (his slimy, besuited CIA rival even frustratedly snarls “you are such a Boy Scout”). Ryan is almost too-good-to-be-true: pure as the driven snow, incorruptible, a success at everything he does and a devoted family man. What chance does someone like that have in Washington? In Clear and Present Danger, Ryan is dragged into the War on Drugs, unwittingly becoming the front man for an illegal military assault team against the Columbian cartels, ordered by a US President on a vendetta for the death of a friend. When the truth comes out, you’ve got one guess who takes it on himself to save the soldiers who are hung out to dry by the suits in Washington.

We know he’ll do the right thing as well, because he’s played by Harrison Ford. Ryan is basically a blank slate as a character, so Ford’s straight-as-an-arrow everyman decency does most of the heavy lifting to establish who he is. As an action hero, Ford has the chops but his real strength is his ability to look frazzled, scared and muddling through – rather like the rest of us would. Ryan gets in some real scrapes here, from dodging missiles in an attack on a diplomatic convoy to desperately fighting for his life in a timber factory. Ford’s strength as an actor is to be both authoritative and also vulnerable – his willingness to look scared but determined works wonders.

Clear and Present Danger also gives plenty of scope for Ford to employ his other major empathetic weapon: the clenched jaw and pointed figure of moral outrage. He does a lot of both here, a central scene seeing Ryan confronting besuited rival Ritter (played by a weaselly, bespectacled Henry Czerny, the polar opposite of Ford’s clean-cut everyman-ness) earnestly telling him he broke the law and is heading to jail (laughed off). There can’t be an actor more skilled at getting you to invest in someone, to both simultaneously worry about him while being confident he will do the right thing. It’s a rare gift, and Clear and Present Danger exploits it to the max.

Ford is the centrepiece – and main strength – of a competent, well-made conspiracy thriller, directed with a professional assurance by Philip Noyce. It makes a good fist of translating Clancy’s doorstop novel – with its huge complexities – to the screen (although you might need a couple of viewings to work out the twisty-turny, backstabby plot, where wicked schemers turn on their own schemes). Noyce has a special gift for keeping dense technical and exposition scenes lively. At one point he cross-cuts a parallel investigation into a fake car bombing between Ryan (who flicks doggedly through textbooks) and his Cartel rival who employs gadgetry and computers. Plot heavy scenes like this are well-shot, pacey and capturing plenty of reaction shots, even if they only feature characters messaging each other on clunky 90s computers or walking-and-talking in shadowy metaphors.

Clear and Present Danger also successful juggles its Washington shenanigans, with parallel intrigue in its Columbia setting. There ruthlessly charming Cortes (played with a wonderful cocksure suaveness by Joaquim de Almeida) is scheming to takeover his boss’ (a blustering Miguel Sandoval) operation. These plot unfold both together and in parallel, allowing for a little bit of neat commentary contrasting the cartels and Washington. The film manages a bit of critique of America’s thoughtlessly muscular intrusion into the affairs of other countries, with a President turning a blind eye after passing on implicit instructions (but still with a boy scout hero who will sort it all out).

Noyce also pulls out the stops for a couple of brilliantly executed scenes. Great editing, sound design and committed acting makes a scene where Luddite Ryan races to print off incriminating evidence from a shared drive while technically assured Ritter deletes the files, edge-of-the seat stuff. Never before has racing to fill a printer with paper seemed more exciting.

That pales into significance with the film’s centre piece, a genuinely thrilling Cartel ambush on a US diplomatic convoy, with Ryan stuck in the middle. With perfect build-up – from James Horner’s tense score to the skilful editing – the attack (with Oscar nominated sound design) is hugely tense, leaves our heroes terrifyingly powerless and is flawlessly executed by Noyce and his crew. It makes the whole film a must watch all on its own.

It’s surrounded by several other well-handled action set pieces, featuring the Marines sent on a covert mission (and then hung out to dry). As the operation leader, Willem Dafoe plays very successfully against type as a (ruthless) good guy, as Clancy’s other regular character, uber-fixer John Clark. Dafoe also has the chops to go toe-to-toe with Ford, and like de Almedia’s charmingly wicked Cartel-fixer also serves as another neat contrast to Ryan’s decency-with-a-fist.

The film is rounded out by a troop of reliable actors. Anne Archer has little to do as Ryan’s supportive wife, but Donald Moffat is good value as the shifty President (communicating both intimidating authority and Nixonian survival instinct), Harris Yulin perfectly cast as a President-pleasing apparatchik and Raymond Cruz as an ace but naïve marine sharp-shooter. Clear and Present Danger has few pretensions to be anything other than an involving thriller – but that also helps make it a very enjoyable one.

The Northman (2022)

The Northman (2022)

A viking tears through flesh and blood in quest for revenge in this bizarre, fascinating Viking epic

Director: Robert Eggers

Cast: Alexander Skarsgård (Amleth), Nicole Kidman (Queen Gudrún), Claes Bang (Fjölnir the Brotherless), Anya Taylor-Joy (Olga of the Birch Forest), Ethan Hawke (King Aurvandill War-Raven), Björk (The Seeress), Willem Dafoe (Heimir), Oscar Novak (Young Amleth), Gustav Lindh (Thorir), Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson (He-Witch), Kate Dickie (Halldora), Ralph Ineson (Captain Volodymyr)

Ask people about Hamlet, and they picture a poetic Prince, plagued with doubt and vulnerability, talking to skulls rather than carrying out his mission of revenge. What you probably don’t think about are Vikings on a Berserker rage, slaughtering left, right and centre. But Hamlet has its roots in a bloody Scandinavian legend, where remorseless death is handed out by a ruthless killer. That’s the side of Hamlet, Eggers takes for inspiration in his bloody, bold and resolute Viking film, a blood-soaked acid trip it’s hard to imagine anyone else making.

It’s 895 and King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) returns from conquest to his wife Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) and young son Amleth (Oscar Novak). Amleth takes his vows of manhood with his father, guided by a demented He-witch (Willem Dafoe) – only for his father to be almost immediately killed by his half-brother Fjölnir (Claes Bangs), who seizes his throne and wife. Amleth escapes – and years later has grown into a berserker Viking warrior (and Alexander Skarsgård). He sees his chance for revenge when he disguises himself as a slave, and joins a shipment traveling to Fjölnir’s village (Fjölnir having lost his throne). There he forms an alliance with Russian slave Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) and works to undermine and terrify Fjölnir, before he can enact his revenge and save his mother.

The Northman is, possibly above all, a shocking, absorbing deep-dive into Viking Culture. Eggers doesn’t shirk for a second from the bloody, ruthless mayhem of Viking life. Our introduction to the adult Amleth sees him first whipping himself (and others) into a (possibly magic mushroom fuelled) Berserker rage, dressed as wolves and howling at the fireside, before launching an unbelievably ruthless attack on a Russian village. The desperate peasants are butchered with savage fury (and blood lust). In the aftermath, rape, murder and other horrors occur uncommented on in the background, while those not seen fit for slavery are herded into a barn to be casually burned alive.

Amleth, at no point, expresses a jot of regret for his actions (as a Viking wouldn’t), and even after passing for a slave never questions the institution. His revenge uses the same ruthless, blood-dripping fury as his ravaging and his only passing moment of pause is about directly killing Viking women and children (he gets over it). In all this he is in no way different from the rest – in fact he’s even one of the more sympathetic – Vikings. Fjölnir – revealed as otherwise a wise and generous leader – ruthlessly murders and rapes his slave as he fancies and a weekend’s entertainment for all is watching two teams of slaves beat themselves to death in a no-holds-barred version of hockey.

Eggers leaves you in no doubt that, for all the grim fascination, this is a brutal and savage civilisation that you would in no way want to encounter. Saying that, despite Eggers’ clear intentions, with the film’s cast modelling a sort of chiselled, gym-trained super-human Aryanism, sweeping away Slavic peasants and enforcing a triumph of Nordic culture, parts of this film are surely being channelled into the wet dreams of elements of the right-wing.

The film doesn’t just explore violence. Family bonds are demonstrated to be all important to Vikings – Amleth and Fjölnir are dedicated to their families and go to huge ends to protect and mourn them. (A funeral of one warrior features elaborate blood-letting, as the deceased’s horse is decapitated and his favourite slave willingly butchered so both can join him on the journey to the afterlife). There is a mutual regard and affection between warriors – even opponents – in a culture that puts itself above others. Honoured slaves are respected – though told they can never be equal. Licensed fools and mystics are given a great deal of freedom – Willem Dafoe’s crazed He-witch at Aurvandill’s court mocks all and sundry with no repercussions. There is a huge faith placed in wise men and women who inspire awe and fear – even a slave, such as Olga, with possible mystic powers is treated with caution. Bonds and duties across generations and to the next life are revered. Prophecies and destinies are respected. Poetry and storytelling is highly valued.

For all the killing, there are elements of a rich culture here and strong family bonds. All these combine in the person of Amleth, who will not be shaken from his destiny but will enact it in his own time, in line with the prophecies he of a seeress (an unrecognisable Björk). Eventually it doesn’t matter if Amleth’s idealised memory of his parents turns out to be not the whole story, or if he has a chance to build a new life. Destiny is, in fact, all.

Eggers’ film takes place in what almost a state of heightened, fevered excitement. Beautifully shot by Jarin Blaschke, it mixes expressionistic near-black-and-white, with drained-out shots of violence and flame-lit moments of psychological and body horror. Visions shot in a piercing mix of blues, greys and icey chilliness puncture the film, with strange compositions of characters, Valkyries, Valhalla and the Gods. Supernatural elements pepper the film, with Amleth’s father influencing events in the shape of a raven and Amleth completing a quest for a fateful sword. These moments of hyper-reality are perfectly executed and in a visually unique, blood-drenched nightmare.

Where The Northman is less successful is exploring the inner-depth of its characters. Skarsgård is charismatic and physically perfect, but doesn’t give much inner-life to Amleth. Moments of doubt or uncertainty in Amleth never quite convince and he feels more a force of nature than a person. There are richer performances from others, Kidman in particular a revelation as a cryptic, unknowable woman with a mid-film encounter of heightened emotional (and sexual) tension between her Skarsgård. Bangs’ Fjölnir is strangely sympathetic. Anya Taylor-Joy carries a dominant, mystical force in her performance that helps make her character a bridge between multiple worlds.

All these combine into a film of shocking violence, jaw-dropping beauty and troubling emotional and psychological horror. There is no doubt the film is overlong – there are probably one too many deeply odd segues into drug-induced ravings of various prophets and seers – but as an exploration of a culture so uniquely alien, its sublime. As a piece of work from a truly distinctive and unmatchable director, it’s superb. You look it The Northman and can’t believe anyone else could have made it. If nothing else, that makes it a film worthy of your time.

Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)

Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)

Tom Holland’s Spider-Man encounters friends and enemies from another franchise or two

Director: Jon Watts

Cast: Tom Holland (Peter Parker/Spider-Man), Zendaya (MJ), Benedict Cumberbatch (Dr Stephen Strange), Jacob Batalon (Ned Leeds), Marisa Tomei (May Parker), Jon Favreau (“Happy” Hogan), Jamie Foxx (Max Dillon/Electro), Willem Dafoe (Norman Osborn/Green Goblin), Alfred Molina (Otto Octavius/Doctor Octopus), Benedict Wong (Wong), Tony Revolori (“Flash” Thompson), Andrew Garfield (Peter Parker/Spider-Man), Tobey Maguire (Peter Parker/Spider-Man), Rhys Ifans (Dr Curt Connors/Lizard), Thomas Haden Church (Flint Marko/Sandman), JK Simmons (J Jonah Jameson)

It’s been out long enough now – and Marvel are even advertising the Guest Stars – so I guess we can worry slightly less about spoiling this massive crossover event. Spider-Man: No Way Home became one of the biggest hits of all time. It’s not hard to see why, in our nostalgia-loving times. But its not just about nostalgia – lovely as it is to see all those old characters once again. It’s also a hugely entertaining, rather sweet film, crammed with slick lines and jokes, while also, like the best of Marvel’s films, having a heart. We’ve got a hero here so humanitarian he goes to huge risks to try and save the villains. That’s refreshingly human.

Picking up after the conclusion of Spider-Man: Far From Home, Peter Parker’s (Tom Holland) secret-identity is known. Parker finds himself at the centre of a massive, world-wide scandal, which ends the college chances of him and his friends MJ (Zendaya) and Ned (Jacob Batalon). Peter asks Dr Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) for help: namely can the world forget who he is? When the spell goes wrong, people who know Parker’s identity from other realities start appearing. And these guys aren’t happy, with villains like Dr Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), Electro (Jamie Foxx) and psychopath Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) arriving. But, when Peter discovers sending them back will condemn them to die in the battle against their Spider-man, he decides to do everything he can to try and save them.

No Way Home’s success partly lies on the nostalgia factor, especially for those of us who loved the early Maguire films. And you can sign me up to that: I can’t believe it’s been 20 years since the first one came out! No Way Home throws in characters from all five pre-Holland films and zeros in on the best of the bunch. The films has a lot of fun shuffling and realigning these characters in interesting new combinations, often allowing them to moan about things like origin stories (there is a very funny exchange between Electro and Sandman on the danger of falling into experiments) or just to get on each other’s nerves (Molina’s Doc Ock is spectacularly grumpy).

You pretty much have to have a heart of stone not to enjoy seeing most of these characters again – particularly as they are played with such lip-smacking aplomb. Above all, Dafoe relishes the chance to cement his place as one of the great villains, switching perfectly between gentle and psychotic as the schizophrenic Norman Osborn/Green Goblin (and becoming the nemesis of no-less than two Spider-men). Molina is equally good: pomposity and rage turning into avuncular decency. These two landmark villains from the two best films take most of the limelight, with a smaller share for Jamie Foxx (far more comfortable here than he was in Amazing Spider-Man 2). But every villain is given moments of tragic depth and seeing them react to news of their deaths is strangely moving.

It sets the table rather nicely for a film about redemption. Peter believes he can save these villains from death if he can cure them and restore their humanity. While the pragmatic Strange sees this as pointless, Peter can’t turn his back on a chance to save people. On top of this, No Way Home also serves as a meta-redemption arc for the two previous franchises: Maguire gets a third film worthy of the first two and Garfield is given the sort of rich material he was denied in his failed series.

Which brings us nicely to the biggest returns. Denied by both actors for the best part of a year, this film throws not one, not two but three Spider-men at us, with Maguire and Garfield reprising their incarnations. All three delight in sparking off each other, riffing on everything from web-slingers to making normal life work (“Peter time”) alongside Spider-manning. Maguire settles nicely into the Big-Brother role, giving a worldly experience to the others without losing his gentle idealism. Garfield is sensational – lighter, funnier and warmer than he was in his own films, with a hidden grief that plays out with genuine impact.

Who couldn’t get excited about seeing these three together – or to see the film make these scenes work as well as it does? It shuffles and reassembles things we are familiar with, but presents them in new and intriguing combinations and above all feels true to the characterisations established in previous films. Maguire, Molina and Dafoe in particular feel like they’ve not been away since their own films, while Garfield and Foxx deepen and improve their characters. But it became a mega-hit because it has a truly strong story behind it.

A story staffed by strong, relatable characters. There is a genuine sense of alarm around how Peter and his friends in the film’s opening act are hounded and persecuted by a population scared of them. Even here redemption is key, with Peter going to dangerous lengths to try and get his friends a second chance at getting into MIT. These three characters have a sweet, warm friendship and the chemistry, in particular between Holland (who is sensational, endearing, funny but bringing the role great emotional depth) and Zendaya is stronger than it’s ever been.

And that’s before we hit the film’s genuinely endearing message. Holland’s still-optimistic hero (another excellent contrast with his more damaged alter-egos) is motivated by saving people. And that includes the villains. Maybe it’s the years of Covid, but there is something hugely lovable about a hero who wants to give people a second chance. It’s a living demonstration of “with great power comes great responsibility” (words this film introduces into the Marvel universe with powerful effect, in a mid-film climax). In fact the film is, in some ways, the origin-story Holland’s Spider-Man never had: it gives him a foundational tragedy, leaves him in an isolated position, strips him of his Iron Man style tech and leaves him in a set-up (alone in a cheap apartment, struggling to make ends meet and superheroing on the side) familiar from the comics.

Watts directs the film with real confidence and zest, especially outside the action set-pieces: there is frequent use of ingenious-but-not-flashy single takes and the film’s patient momentum for much of its first half, focusing on character and emotion, really pay off in the second half of fan-service and fights. The camera effects used for Peter’s web-slinging and his spider-sense have a delightful quirky invention. What he really does well though is zero in on the emotion and when events get tragic, he isn’t afraid to commit to that. It gives the film an emotional force that really connected with people.

That heart is what sustains it. It’s a joyful nostalgia trip – that redeems elements of the previous films – but this is a film that really cares about its characters – all of them – and wants you to as well. That gives difficult, emotional struggles to all its Spider-Men, that searches of the humanity in its villains, even the worst of them, making us sympathise with them even as they do dreadful things. Combined with the action and adventure – and the electric pace of the best of Marvel – No Way Home rightly stands as one of the best entries so far.

Nightmare Alley (2021)

Nightmare Alley (2021)

A mysterious drifter gets more than he bargained for in del Toro’ flashy but unsatisfying film

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Cast: Bradley Cooper (Stanton Carlisle), Cate Blanchett (Lilith Ritter), Rooney Mara (Molly Cahill), Toni Collette (Zeena Krumbein), Willem Dafoe (Clem Hoatley), Richard Jenkins (Ezra Grindle), Ron Perlman (Bruno), David Strathairn (Pete Krumbein), Mark Povinelli (Major Mosquito), Mary Steenburgen (Felicia Kimball), Peter MacNeill (Judge Kimball), Paul Anderson (Geek), Clifton Collins Jnr (Funhouse Jack), Jim Beaver (Sheriff Jedediah Judd), Tim Blake Nelson (Carny Boss)

There isn’t any magic left in the world, it’s all show and tricks and no wonder. Nightmare Alley is del Toro’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning The Shape of Water and you can’t not admit it’s a triumph of style. It’s a glorious fusion of film noir and plush, gothic-tinged horror. There is something to admire in almost every frame. But it’s also all tricks and no wonder. There’s no heart to it, just a huge show that in the end makes nowhere near the impact you could expect.

In the late 1930s Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) is a drifter with a dark past, who is recruited as a labourer in a travelling carnival. Learning the ropes from freak show owner Clem (Willem Dafoe), he’s taken under the wing (in every sense) by mesmerist mind reader Zeena (Toni Collette) and taught the tricks of the art (observation and careful word codes using an assistant to guess names, objects and other facts) by Pete (David Strathairn). Eventually Stanton and his love, circus performer Molly (Rooney Mara), head to the big city where, after two years, Stanton reinvents himself as celebrity mind-reader and medium. There Stanton gets involved with psychiatrist Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) in a long con where he will use the recordings of her sessions with patients to act as a medium to put them in touch with their lost ones. But is there a danger Stanton isn’t ready for in one of his clients, powerful businessman Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins)?

Nightmare Alley looks fabulous. But it’s hellishly overlong and curiously uninvolving. It’s like Del Toro fell in love with the whole project and forgot to search for the reason why somebody else would love it. It’s a strangely unshaped film, alternating between long, loving scenes glorying in the dark mood, baroque performances and design but then makes drastic, swift jumps in character psychology that constantly leaves you grasping at engaging with or understanding the personalities of its characters.

Its design is faultless though – it’s no surprise that its only Oscar nominations outside the Best Picture nod were all in technical categories. Dan Lautsen’s cinematography is inky black, with splashes of all-consuming colour. It’s a marvellous updating of film noir, with deep shadows spliced with angles reminiscent of Hammer-style horror. The production design is a labour of love, the carnival sets a hellish nightmare of unsettling shapes, forms and structure contrasting with the art deco grandness of the big city. The design is pretty much faultless, a real labour of love.

But the same effort didn’t go into pacing and story. This is a slow-moving, self-indulgent film, that frequently seems to be holding itself at arm’s length to make it all the easier for it to admire itself. It looks extraordinary, but it’s a frequently empty experience, more interested in mood and striking imagery than character and emotion.

Bradley Cooper gives a fine performance as Stanton. He has an air of cocksure charm, and Cooper skilfully shows this is largely a front of a man who, when push comes to shove, is capable of sudden and unflinching acts of violence. We get an early hint of this when he reacts to being struck by an escaping circus freak with unhesitating brutality. It recurs again and again in the film, and Stanton proudly states his avoidance of alcohol with all the assurance of a man who knows the bottle could unleash dark forces that he could never control. Cooper is vulnerable but selfish and above all becomes more and more arrogantly convinced of his own genius and bulletproof invulnerability, so much so that he drives himself further and further on into self-destruction.

There is some rich material here, so it’s a shame that for all that we never really seem to be given a moment to really understand who he is. Much has to be inferred from Cooper’s performance, since the film seems content to state motivational factors – troubled parental relationships, greed, ambition, a desire to make something of himself – without ever crafting them into a whole. Stanton remains someone defined by what he does.

And Stanton is the only character who gets any real oxygen to breathe, with the others largely ciphers or over-played caricatures. Rooney Mara as his gentle love interest is under-developed and disappears from the film for long stretches. Cate Blanchett gives a distractingly arch performance, somewhere between femme fatale and Hannibal Lector and is so blatantly untrustworthy it’s never clear why Stanton (an expert reader of people!) trusts her completely. Richard Jenkins is miscast as a ruthless businessman, lacking the sense of danger and capacity of violence the part demands.

Most of the rest of the cast are swallowed by the long carnival prologue, that consumes almost a third of the film but boils down to little more than mood-setting and a repeated hammering home of a series of statements that will lead into a final scene twist (and I will admit that is a good payoff). The carnival seems like a self-indulgent exploration of style, and several actors (Perlman, Povinelli and even Collette) play roles that add very little to the film other than ballooning its runtime.

The earlier section would have perhaps been better if it was tighter and more focused on Stanton and his mentor, well played by David Straithairn. I appreciate that would have been more conventional – but it would also have been less self-indulgent and helped the opening third be less of a stylish but empty and rather superfluous experience (since the film’s real plot doesn’t start until it finishes). Drive My Car demonstrated how a long prologue can deepen a whole film – Nightmare Alley just takes a long, handsome route to giving us some plot essential facts, without really telling us anything engaging about its lead character.

It makes for an unsatisfying whole, a cold and distant film packed with arch performances – although Cooper is good – and events that frequently jump with a dreamlike logic. It’s a marvel of design but way too much of a good thing, and constantly seems to stop to admire itself in the mirror and wonder at its own beauty. It becomes a cold and arch study of a film not a narrative that you can embrace. And you can’t the same about many of Del Toro’s other films – from Pan’s Labyrinth to Pacific Rim they’ve got heart. Nightmare Alley doesn’t really have that.

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

Last Temptation of Christ header
Willem Dafoe plays the Son of God in Scorsese’s supremely controversial The Last Temptation of Christ

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Willem Dafoe (Jesus Christ), Harvey Keitel (Judas), Barbara Hershey (Mary Magdalene), Harry Dean Stanton (Saul), David Bowie (Pontius Pilate), Verna Bloom (Mary), Barry Miller (Jeroboam). Irvin Kershner (Zebedee), Victor Argo (Peter), Andre Gregory (John the Baptist), Nehemiah Persoff (Rabbi), Tomas Arana (Lazarus), Gary Barsaraba (Andrew), Juliette Caton (Girl Angel)

There are few films as controversial as this. Scorsese’s earthy adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ has lived its whole life under the shadow of the parade of traditionalists, conservatives and evangelists who have called for everything from the negative being destroyed to the death of its director. All this is rooted in the film’s quest – as in the book – for the human in Jesus, the saviour who was both mortal and divine. As part of this, it showed him expressing anger, doubt and of course, presented him with temptation and threw him into the dirty, working-class world where he made his ministry.

The film follows the life of Jesus (Willem Dafoe) pretty much as per the Gospels, with several interjections and reinterpretations (some of which seem designed to piss off the faithful). We meet Jesus as a carpenter who crafts crosses for Roman crucifixions by day, plagued by voices and fits at night. He knows he has a purpose but is scared of what it might be. Eventually he finds it, encouraged by Judas (Harvey Keitel) his most faithful disciple and a passionate campaigner against the Romans. The last temptation itself fills the final act of the film. On the cross, a disguised Satan comes to Jesus and offers him the chance to leave behind being the messiah and live a normal life: marriage, children and content old age surrounded by family.

The Last Temptation of Christ is Scorsese’s wrestling with his faith. It’s a highly personal, defiantly modern and daring version of the gospels that strongly invests in the notion that true faith is only possible if we also have doubt to overcome. And it applies this logic to Jesus, who is shown here as far more grounded, human and flawed than He has ever been in the movies (or anywhere else). Voiceovers communicate His constant doubts and insecurities – and even His resentments about not understanding what God intends for him.

Where other Biblical epics are old, stodgy and stiff, The Last Temptation profoundly challenges its viewers. This is not a picture postcard world. Jesus’ surroundings are humble and dirty. His disciples are simple men – Judas, the only one with any form of intellect, attacks them as clueless yes-men. But it’s a film that stresses the humanity of Jesus. It wants us to admire him even more, because He needed to overcome the same internal demons we all confront. This is not a saviour unbent in purpose, but battling always. It asks us to try and relate ourself to Jesus in a new way, to ask how we might have felt and whether we would have been strong enough to take on that mantle.

Played with extraordinary passion and fire by Willem Dafoe, this is a Jesus who is scared, reluctant, shows flashes of bitterness and anger but struggles to put all this aside to embrace His destiny and purpose as the Messiah. On other words, He’s far more human than we’ve seen before. He’s also rough and unprepared, in many ways, for His ministry. We see His first attempt at preaching – having, with half-confidence, half-apprehension told Judas He’s sure God will give Him the words – which is carefree, impassioned and amateurish but full of inspirational fire. He doesn’t quite convey the message He’s aiming for, but it is enough to win the devotion of several of the men who will become his disciples.

Scorsese shoots this, as he shoots many of the scenes among the crowds, with an immediacy and urgency, using a mobile camera and throwing us in among those listening to Jesus’ words. John the Baptist’s ministry by the lake is a near-orgy of religious ecstasy (with added nudity), full of wild emotion and jubilant singing – all of which drops out on the soundtrack to just the lapping of the river, as Judas and John meet. (It’s a brilliant moment that shows the world-stopping impact of revelation). Scorsese mixes this with scenes of a spiritual stillness and gentle mysticism. During his time in the desert – during which Jesus sits inside a perfect circle, which He draws free hand in the dirt – He encounters, in scenes of haunting unknowability, temptation from Satan in the form of a snake, a lion and a jet of fire.

It’s a starting point for Jesus’ embarking on a series of miracles and world-changing preaching. Controversially, even now, He is still uncertain of what He is meant to – he tells Judas (who remains a constant confidante) that God only gives Him small parts of the total picture as He needs them. He comes from the desert inviting his disciples to war – against Satan, and to bring God’s word to the world. It seems another provocative image – Jesus brandishing an axe in one hand, His own heart (plucked from His chest before the disciples) in the other – and it’s one of the points in the film where I feel Scorsese overplays his hand. I’m not quite sure what he is suggesting here, as Jesus calls his disciples to war, unless it’s a campaign of muscular Christianity.

It competes with several other images and sequences that infuriated many. Some of these are too much: Jesus crafting crosses and even helping the Romans (in the film’s opening) nail a victim too one is far too much, a tasteless attempt to show a flawed man. Waiting to apologise to Mary Magdalene (a delicate Barbara Hershey) for his part in this, He sits while she services a roomful of men one after another. Moments like this always feel a little too much, even if it’s a more genuine insight into what Mary Magdelene’s life was actually like than we normally get.

But the Temptation itself is fascinating and moving – if a little too long. There was of course outrage at seeing Jesus marry and make love to Mary Magdelene, rejecting his purpose for a life of normality. Surely, if Jesus could be tempted by anything it might have been this: the man who never knew a moment of the life you and I lead, given a chance to experience it. With Satan – passing himself off as a young female guardian angel – guiding him, the vision sees Jesus age into an old man. Satan presents a plausible argument: man and Earth can live in a simple happiness, if they forget the demands of God in heaven.

The very idea of Jesus either deceived by Satan for a time – or seriously considering abandoning His divine purpose – is anathema to many, but again it re-enforces Scorsese’s view that doubt is essential for faith. That we can only commit the supreme act of commitment to God, if we are uncertain about doing it in the first place. And Jesus’ re-devotion at the end to his mission truly gives a sense of “It is being accomplished” in a way few other films have managed.

Ideas like this – and the earthy, vigorous nature of Jesus’ world – dominate the film and dare and push the viewer. Dafoe is superb – and Harvey Keitel excellent as a politically committed Judas, here not betraying Jesus, but taking on the harder role (that of betrayer – Jesus even tells him he is not strong enough for such a role, so has the easier part in dying). It’s shot with a brilliant modernism and has a superb score from Peter Gabriel, stuffed with lyrical etherealism and making use of several contemporary instruments. It sometimes overplays its hand, but as a personal work of a director juggling his own doubts, fears and faith on screen, it’s perhaps one of the most extraordinary religious films ever made.

Aquaman (2018)

Jason Momoa takes himself rather seriously in the deeply silly Aquaman

Director: James Wan

Cast: Jason Momoa (Arthur Curry/Aquaman), Amber Heard (Mera), Willem Dafoe (Nuidis Vulko), Patrick Wilson (Orm Marius), Dolph Lundgren (King Nereus), Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (David Kane/Black Manta), Ludi Lin (Captain Murk), Temuera Morrison (Thomas Curry), Nicole Kidman (Queen Atlanna), Micheal Beach (Jesse Kane), Julie Andrews (Karathen)

After helping the rest of the Justice League save the world Arthur Curry aka Aquaman (Jason Momoa) is quite the celebrity. Curry is the son of lighthouse keeper Thomas (Temuera Morrison) and Atlantian Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), who fled her unloved husband and his underwater kingdom but was recaptured when Arthur was young. Her other son Orm (Patrick Wilson) is now King of Atlantis, planning to lead the forces of the sea in a war against those on land. Can Arthur and Orm’s unwilling betrothed Mera (Amber Heard) combine to prevent a war? And will Arthur become a worthy hero?

Aquaman makes a valiant effort to embrace perhaps the silliest set-up for a comic book novel yet. Based around a massive, technologically advanced underwater kingdom that has (inexplicably) remained silent and secret for thousands of years, who inhabitants all seem to have superhuman strength and magical skills (guess it must be all that water pressure), the film at times is hard to take seriously. But it sort of gets away with it, as Wan leans into the tongue-in-cheek campness of all this (and I’m amazed how camp these Atlantians are) and asks us not to take anything we see that seriously, but just to sit back and enjoy the ride.

And the film is basically just a big ride, as we travel from place-to-place and watch Aquaman hit things in various under-water and above ground locations, while keeping up a bit of rapid-fire banter that will flower (but of course!) into an opposites-attract romance with Mera. One thing Wan does very well is to find a way to present the various fights in a style I’ve not seen before. The showpiece one-on-ones take place in a series of incredibly smooth one-shots, which twist and glide around our heroes while they despatch countless foes and, in one impressive show-piece, in and out and across buildings during a fight in an Italian cliff-side town. The ending may be your typical CGI smackdown, but Wan’s presents the fights in a way that actually looks different and excites a bit of awe.

Where the film is less successful is in its slightly tired coming-of-age/proving-his-worth/resolving-his-loss storyline, which offers few surprises. Try as I might, I can’t find Jason Momoa a charming enough actor to effectively make me invest in his character. Compare him to Dwayne Johnson, who is always willing to laugh at himself and is the very embodiment of charming self-awareness. Momoa takes himself very seriously – he always needs to be the coolest guy in the room – and his air of cocky self-importance sometimes jars in a film as dopey as this one.

This also means the film fails to sell a real plot arc for Aquaman himself. Its nominally about a character learning to acknowledge his mistakes, vulnerability and inability to go-it-alone. This doesn’t always feel earned and sometimes emotionally confused. One of Aquaman’s earliest acts is to let the ruthless father of a hijacker (a scowlingly charismatic Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) drown. Later he expresses regret for doing this as, by making an enemy, he endangered Mera. Not regret because it was wrong to let the man die, but a sociopathic concern for his loved ones rather than someone else’s. The character’s growth never really convinces – he still seems like the same cocky maverick at the end than he was at the beginning, rather than someone who has matured into a real leader.

But aside from these doubts, this is a big silly pantomime pretty much told with the right balance between seriousness and tongue-in-cheek. Amber Heard mixes heroism with a dopey, flower-eating sweetness as Mera. Willem Dafoe constantly looks like he’s about to snigger as a wetsuit glad Grand Vizier. There is something rather lovable about a film so eclectic in its cast that Julie Andrews (of all people) voices a sea monster and Dolph Lundgren tackles King Nereus like it’s his shot at Macbeth.

Bangs, booms and few jokes carry us through a deeply silly but enjoyable film. There is a great deal of visual imagination for the sea kingdoms, a mix of Greek inspired nonsense and space-ship bombast. Wan pretty much throws the kitchen sink at the screen, and while it’s definitely rather too long it’s also bubbling with just as much tongue-in-cheek fun that you roll with it. Nothing here reinvents the wheel – and the plot often feels like a rather clumsy after-thought – but it’s still an entertaining wheel.

The English Patient (1996)

Ralph Fiennes excels as the tragic The English Patient

Director: Anthony Minghella

Cast: Ralph Fiennes (Count Almasy), Juliette Binoche (Hana), Willem Dafoe (David Caravaggio), Kristin Scott Thomas (Katherine Clifton), Naveen Andrews (Kip), Colin Firth (Geoffrey Clifton), Julian Wadham (Maddox), Jurgen Prochnow (Major Muller), Kevin Whatley (Sergeant Hardy), Clive Merrison (Colonel Fenelon-Barnes), Nino Castelnuovo (D’Agostino)

Sweeping, luscious, beautiful and an epic translation of an almost unfilmable novel into something supremely cinematic, The English Patient swept the board with nine Oscars at the 1996 Academy Awards. The English Patient has sometimes had a rocky reputation (not helped by an episode of Seinfeld where Elaine was famously non-plussed by the film). Like some of Minghella’s later work, it’s almost too well made for some to get past, looking like prime award bait. I didn’t “get it” the first time I watched it. But I – and the naysayers – were wrong: The English Patient is rich, rewarding and throbbing with a very British sense of repressed emotion and slow embracing of dangerous passions.

Adapted from Michael Ondatje’s multiple-award-winning novel, it unfolds across two time frames, hinging on a plane crash in the Sahara in 1942 that opens the film and leaves its pilot, Hungarian Count Almasy (Ralph Fiennes), hideously burned beyond recognition. The entire film is both an epilogue to that crash and a prologue explaining how we got there. In 1945, Almasy asserts he remembers nothing, even his own name. In what we later learn is a bitter irony, he is mistaken for an Englishman due to his perfect English. He is nursed through the final days of his life in an abandoned Italian monastery by a Canadian nurse Hana (Juliette Binoche), who has lost nearly everyone she loves in the war. Through Almasy’s memories, we see his life before the war as part of an international society of cartographers. In particular, the love affair that grows between him and Katherine Clifton (Kristin Scott-Thomas), the wife of another member of the society – an affair that will have life-shattering repercussions.

Appreciation for Minghella’s film must start with his ingenious screenplay. The English Patient, a book that moves eclectically between multiple timelines, shifting perspective frequently, and delivers its story in almost impossibly rich prose, should have been unfilmable. Minghella creates something which is both a mirror of the book’s intention, but also a cinematic text. You could use this as a teaching tool for adaptation (bizarrely one of the few Oscars it didn’t win was for Screenplay!). Working in close partnership with editor Walter Murch, Minghella’s film effortlessly cuts back and forth between at least three timelines, but never once confuses or jars. With (according to Murch) over 40 time transitions (that’s one almost every 3-4 minutes, fact fans), this could have been a jarring, impossible to follow mess. Instead, narrative clarity is its watchword.

But the film also succeeds because it’s the apex of Minghella’s ability to combine luscious, poetic story-telling with acute emotion and passion. It shouldn’t be a surprise that someone who showed such understanding of grief in Truly, Madly, Deeply acutely understands how joy and pain can go hand-in-hand in love. Perhaps one of the reasons people found this a difficult film is that Almasy and Katherine are not a traditional romantic pairing. Both guarded, sometimes even cold and distant people, they are tentative, perhaps even scared, of the deep bond they immediately feel. A bond that burns all the more brightly because of the compromises and barriers in their emotional lives.

Almasy is distant, aloof, a man easy to know but impossible to understand. Katherine has a very English reserve behind a certain patrician warmth, playful at times but very aware of duty. What’s fascinating – and moving – about the film, is that these two people actually have a huge groundswell of passion between them. They are besotted with each other, but for reasons ranging from background to their own fears of emotional involvement, struggle to admit it to each other. They fling themselves at each other in romantic couplings with an almost animalistic longing. They make each other laugh. They allow themselves to speak of deep feelings, experiences and thoughts that they would not express to others. And they are also able to hurt each other through resentments, distances and shunnings in a way no one else could.

It’s a decidedly unconventional romance – compare it to, say, the next year’s Oscar winner Titanic with its far more conventional love story – but it works wonderfully. The slight air of repression also means that the confessions of deep-rooted feelings – Scott Thomas’ reveal of a gift she has never parted from, or Fiennes’ face twisted in emotional anguish – carry huge impact.

It also helps that the film is set in the sort of grand vistas that David Lean would be proud of. While you can certainly argue (with some justification) that The English Patient is a picture postcard film, its perfect visuals of the desert, the stunning beauty of so many of its shots, add to the extraordinary luscious old-fashioned 1930s romance of its setting. It could all be taking place in a world of von Sternbergesque romanticism.

Minghella’s film also interweaves skilfully the 1945 story line, revolving around Juliette Binoche’s Hana. Binoche won a deserved Oscar for a sensitive, vulnerable performance as a woman terrified of emotional commitment (sound familiar?), scared anyone she grows close to is doomed to die. Her romance with bomb disposal expert Kip (a strikingly delicate performance from Naveen Andrews, with just enough hints of anti-colonial tension mixed in) seems ready to fit this trope, but instead develops in unexpected ways. It also contributes perhaps the film’s most sweepingly romantic moment when Kip uses a pulley system, a flare and a bit of muscle to give Hana a sweeping up-close look at some Renaissance frescos. But while our flashback romance has the foreboding of doom to it, this one instead shows us the hope of a life restarting.

The English Patient also makes some striking points about the insane foolishness not just of war, but nationalism and Empire. The cartographers are a pan-European group who come together as equals, disregarding all concerns of nation. Instead they find a freedom to behave – intellectually, emotionally and sexually – in a way they never could “at home”. They represent a chance of being free to make our own choices, rather than dictated by arbitrary borders. Problems of nationhood are what will bring disaster. Colonialism is viewed equally critically: Kip gets sharp digs in at Kipling and also makes clear that his status as an Indian officer in the British Army is one of uncertainty.

Minghella’s film also works because of the mastery of the performances. Fiennes is in nearly every scene (many of them under a layer of make-up), and the role is a perfect match for the surface coldness in his performance style, which hides his wit and sensitivity. Cheated of the Oscar, Fiennes has rarely been better – his clipped romanticism mellowing in the 1945 section as a gentler but broken man. Scott-Thomas is perfectly cast – I’m not sure any other film has used her skills better – as a woman who compromised on happiness at the wrong time, and now cannot express herself.

The English Patient is a romance of slow moments, of inferred passions, which only at a few points before the end flower into something intimate. But it carries a huge emotional force, precisely because of this. Its technical work is faultless – Gabriel Yared’s score is a sumptuous mix of inspirations – and the acting superb (as well as the stars, Firth is marvellous as a decent but dull man cuckolded, Dafoe adds a layer of unpredictability as a 1945 houseguest and Whatley is the picture of working-class decency in a rare film role). The English Patient is Booker-prize film-making in its depth, richness and the work it asks you to put in, mixed with a David-Lean-meets-Mills-and-Boon pictorial loveliness, where each frame is a sun-kissed example of pictorial perfection. Mixed together, it makes for a sumptuous and deeply emotional package that I find more and more rewarding with every viewing.