A Look Back at May

Another month indoors and more films on my list that I haven’t gotten round to yet; it’s strange, I can attend a cinema many times a week and never fail to motivate myself to want to see more, but stuck at home with nothing else to do, I just can’t find the energy or desire.

Still, I do try and review a few films a week, or work on a longer bit of writing, and this month saw me set a new record for most-viewed writing on this site, with my Robin Williams list attracting over 500 views!

So, thanks once again for your continued support during this tough time, I’m glad of all the views and that I can bring at least some entertainment to you, even if only for a while.

Film of the Month: The Conversation (1974) – Directed by Francis Ford Coppolla

Once again, slim pickings this month, and it was either this or The Empire Strikes Back and giving more praise to Empire felt like taking a sandpit to the Sahara, we know how good it is, but we don’t hear much about The Conversation, so it better be my film of the month.

I’m going to try and do more films this month, with both Blade Runner films lined-up to watch in the next week, as well as some more obscure ones, like Heathers and Shock Treatment, so I hope you enjoy those.

Hopefully see you all back in the cinemas sooner rather than later!

Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice – Ultimate Edition Review

Take this as the massive cry for help it probably is. I’ve gone so long without being in a cinema that I’ve decided to revisit an older film that I know I don’t like all that much, purely because I’ve never actually reviewed it and it seemed timely.

What with the long-awaited announcement of Zack Snyder’s Justice League now being official, I thought I’d go back and take a look at the film that preceded it, and not just a regular look either, no, this film is so dense with flaws and things to discuss that I can feel this is going to be more of a post-mortem than a review, a look at the extended version of this divisive (in the same way that Hitler is divisive) film, and look at the n numerous flaws, and even point out some of the bits I like, for I didn’t hate this film, I was disappointed, as there was enough in there to suggest an even better film was lurking beneath the surface, but I digress, let’s hold our noses and dive in.

For those who are a bit more slow on the uptake, and didn’t figure out much about this film from its title; Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (hereon in referred to as BvS) sees the DC’s two biggest characters clash on the big screen for the first time, that’s right we finally get the long awaited battle between Polka-Dot Man and Condiment King! Nah, I’m just kidding, that was a test to see if you’re all still awake.

The big issue hanging over BvS, like a pinata full of rancid luncheon meat, is one of studio interference. An issue that plagued the DCEU throughout its formative years, not only on this film, but also on Justice League and Suicide Squad. The studio behind these films (Warner Bros.) carved up these respective films, on the surface to make them more marketable and profitable, but in reality, they just made them all into incomprehensible piles of cow dung, soiling the reputation of these characters and the franchise.

But never fear, the creative force behind at least two of these movies (Zack Snyder) has found a way to convince Warner Brothers to let him release his intended vision, something that took significantly longer with Justice League, but is nonetheless a topic of much discussion amongst internet fans and critics.

The backlash began in earnest (at least as far as I can remember) with the casting of Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne/Batman, a backlash that was as inevitable as it was tedious, as the Batman fans never really know what they want until they have it, then they conveniently forget ever having not wanted it (the casting of Heath Ledger springs to mind) and as controversial as this film remains, Ben Affleck’s performance remains one of the aspects of it to be universally acclaimed.

So, I suppose that makes it as good a place as any to start.

For my review of this film, I took the uncharacteristic step of making notes, I can usually operate without needing them, as I write the review as soon as I’ve finished watching the film, and can, as a rule, be trusted to maintain my base opinions on what I saw. On this occasion, however, there was so much I wanted to say about BvS that I thought taking notes would be the only way to make sure I didn’t miss anything, and on the top of my page labelled ‘The Good’ is the name Ben Affleck.

If he’d featured in films that were better received, he could be considered the best live-action Batman ever seen, he’s a perfect fit for this version of the character, one who is established as a force, and has been for a while, and as a result is battle-scarred and jaded. He portrays this as a worn-down Bruce Wayne, looking to pin all the world’s problems on Superman, his usual black-and-white sense of morality is blurred in his single-minded determination to take down this otherworldly being.

The positives to the portrayal of Batman don’t end with the actor though, as BvS is home to some of the best Batman action ever seen on the big-screen, no matter how few and far between these moments are, it serves to remind us that this vision of Batman had the potential to be something truly special. Unfortunately though, as I say these moments are few and far between, there’s one particularly memorable moment where Batman takes down a room of thugs using his ingenuity, and his arsenal of Bat-weaponry, as well as a long-take sequence in a dream that really shows the potential of his iteration of the Dark Knight.

It makes it all the more disappointing then, that this potential is masked under a messy plot, full of contrivances and incredible stretches of logic. This isn’t the only potential wasted in BvS though, as I said in earlier paragraphs, one of the worst things about this film is catching a glimpse of a far-better movie, beneath the layers and layers of moist toilet paper that make up the insulation of this film. That was my ham-fisted attempt to say that this movie is more padded than an American footballer with brittle-bone disease.

Bizarrely though, even for a film with so much padding, some aspects of it are really rushed; the best example of which being the extremely clumsy shoe-horning in of cameos from other members of the Justice League, a blatantly transparent attempt to justify a team-up movie so early in the franchise continuity.

With all that said thought, here are a few more things I liked about BvS:

  • The introduction of Wonder Woman
  • The score by musical genius Hans Zimmer – in particular, Wonder Woman’s theme
  • Jeremy Irons’ portrayal of Alfred
  • The consistently good Batman action scenes, and the horror influence on his character
  • Some nice moments of cinematography (say what you like about this film, but for the most part, it looks nice)
  • The first confrontation between Batman and Superman
  • The duality of the Clark Kent/Superman character

I’ve said it before, and it bears repeating here, I don’t think BvS is as bad as some people say, it’s very flawed, and I’ll be getting to those flaws soon, but overall it’s an enjoyable enough watch, more so if you’re watching the Ultimate Edition, with some moments that really would make it stand-out, had it been put together better.

Ultimately, I think there are several different ‘camps’ of thinking when it comes to BvS: The first are the hardcore DC fans who loved it, and Snyder’s input overall, who can at times be blind to the number of issues Snyder has as a filmmaker, then there’s the casual fans of DC who liked The Dark Knight films and were disappointed in this because it wasn’t like the films they liked, the casual movie fan who enjoys the film for what it was, and finally is the hardcore comic book crowd who didn’t like it because it wasn’t Marvel, or they expected something more reminiscent of the MCU, and have spent the last half-decade using the DCEU as a punchline. There are other schools of thought, but these are the main four you come across.

As for me, I skirt around the edges of several of the above categories, I haven’t been above making a dig at the DCEU’s expense, but I’ve also been quick to praise its positives. I don’t think there’s been a ‘bad’ DC film since Justice League, there are some I’ve liked more than others, but none have actively annoyed me like Justice League did.

So, then, about those flaws I mentioned. Well, it won’t surprise you to know that I filled several pages of my little notebook with the films shortcomings, some are, admittedly, more nit-picks than genuine criticisms, so I’ll focus on my main complaints, and list the lesser ones as bullet points at the end.

Right, where to start… well, I might as well start with our primary antagonist, Lex Luthor, played here by Jesse Eisenberg, and I would very much like to know who told Jesse that he was playing The Riddler instead of Luthor, or whether he knew which character he was playing at all, because his performance is enough to make my teeth itch.

Eisenberg in the right part is a great actor, this is not the right part for Jesse Eisenberg. This character is all of his past character traits concentrated into one very annoying person and pumped up to 11. Luthor is cunning, tactical, and a world-class intellect, this movie thinks that the best way of portraying that is by having him say some vague-sounding poetic dialogue, and passing that off as complexity, that’s when he isn’t flapping around overacting like a pantomime villain.

All of this trickles down into Lex’s plan, which is so much of a stretch that Heath Ledger’s Joker would tell him to tone it down a notch. First, we’re just supposed to accept that Luthor knows Superman’s identity, we’re not shown how, he just does, then we’re supposed to just accept that he knows about Kryptonite, and how Kryptonian technology works, it’s all very convenient this isn’t it.

Lex’s plan, in a nutshell, is to force Superman to fight Batman, to do this he has Supes mother, Martha (remember that name) kidnapped (side-note: Superman’s instincts have this incredibly contrived, and convenient for the screenwriters, blind-spot, that means he can tell when Lois is in danger from two continents away, but never tell him anything about his mother being kidnapped) instead of arriving and explaining this to Batman, he engages him in an epic fight, where he is compromised by Kryptonite.

Ah, Kryptonite, that plot-convenient cop-out that screenwriters use when Superman seems too all-powerful, or when they need us to believe that a fight between a mortal man and an actual God is anywhere near feasible.

So far, so far-fetched, but it’s movie logic, so we’re going along with it, the point where the train comes off the rails, speeds through an orphanage and erupts into a giant fireball is at the pivotal moment where Batman decides to become BFFs with Superman, and it’s all because of one word: Martha.

Throughout the film, we see that Bruce is haunted by the memory of his dead parents (hey! Did you know Bruce’s parents were killed? What’s that? You’ve seen it, like, three times before? Oh, well, better show you it once more in slow motion) his mothers’ name is Martha, Superman’s name is Martha. Oh, why didn’t you say so? Let’s become best friends and have a slumber party.

It’s this one scene that drives the stake through the narrative so thoroughly for me, and you can tell me until you’re blue in the face about its symbolic meaning, or whatever, but I really don’t care how deep you, or Snyder thinks it is, because on screen, it just comes across as really dumb. It’s the biggest thing that ultimately kills this movie for me, and at this point, there’s still nearly an hour to go!

You see, pitting Batman and Superman against each other wasn’t the only string to Lex’s bow, oh dear me, no. He’d also figured out that by mixing his blood with the body of a dead Kryptonian general, he could create an unstoppable monster, theoretically capable of killing Superman. How does he know this, you ask? The screenwriters don’t care, and neither should you.

I’d be willing to stomach this development if Doomsday (the monster I alluded to) didn’t look so God-awful or feel like he was arbitrarily stapled onto the plot, just so the new Super Best Friends had something to kill. Truth be told, we see snapshots of Doomsday coming to be throughout the film, but it’s never explained how Lex knew he could make such h a monster, or how he came to know how to use the alien technology.

It could be argued that he is being controlled by Darkseid/Steppenwolf, but seeing as this extremely plot-important scene was cut from the theatrical release, we have to conclude that he isn’t, and that he was acting with his own knowledge, which is absurd.

Then, just to put the cherry on top of this wonderful final act, we have the conclusion, this is the point where those who haven’t seen BvS should close the page, or go to sleep, Superman sacrifices himself to kill Doomsday.

Now this might seem pretty significant, but it’s ultimately a hollow act, and it is a hollow act for two reasons:

A: There was no need for Superman to fly with the Kryptonite spear, he could have thrown it, or swapped places with Wonder Woman.

B: Everyone knew that he was going to be revived for Justice League, therefore making his sacrifice meaningless, and drop-kicking any sense of stakes out the door of a plane.

It is these three key aspects of BvS that damage it more than any other in my opinion. Even the cartoonish portrayal of Lex could have been at least bearable if his plan had made any sense at all, but in these three acts it completely deconstructs any goodwill I had towards it.

Here is a further list of more minor issues I had with the film:

  • Metropolis and Gotham City are about a mile apart, not sure why this annoys me, but it does.
  • Clumsy dialogue trying to use long words to sound complex.
  • Overuse of slow-motion.
  • While I’m at it, overuse of dream sequences.
  • Bruce seeing the climax of Man of Steel. It’s interesting, but certain parts push credibility.
  • Too much Dawn of Justice, not enough Batman v Superman.
  • There are too many variable that make the final act push credibility. (see my side-note earlier about Superman’s instincts not saving his Mum).
  • The overall messiness of the narrative. (Granted, this is worse in the theatrical cut)
  • When the cinematography isn’t being great, it’s looking like it’s shot through a used coffee filter. AKA dark lighting and framing does not equal complexity.

With all of that energy expended on this film, which I have spoken at length about elsewhere, I think I’ve put to bed all my thought on it pretty definitively. No, I don’t think it’s the worst superhero film ever, neither do I think it’s particularly good. If I were to switch my brain off and not try and over-think it, I’m sure it would pass the time sufficiently, but part of my conditioning after nearly four years of writing criticism is to think about films, why choices were made and how they’re constructed, it can enhance my enjoyment of a great film, and destroy my view of a bad film, and the more I look at BvS, the more cracks I notice.

Having said all that, I do have a lot of sympathy for some of the people involved. Ben Affleck was pretty much a broken man by the time Justice League came about, and it can’t be easy for a creative spirit like Zack Snyder’s to see his vision get put through the wringer so thoroughly and so often.

I remain, as ever, open-minded to The Snyder Cut, or whatever they’re calling it now. But I do advise caution when looking towards the future, we must remember the faults of the past.

 

The Empire Strikes Back Review

This past week marked the 40th anniversary of Empire, and as followers of my Twitter account will know (@NathanKenMajor for those wondering) that it also won a little competition I put together called the ‘World Cup of Films’ beating out close competitors The Lion King, Alien and Parasite. 

While this is only a small testing pool, given my modest follower count, it is nonetheless a show of public affection towards a film that many, myself included, consider to be the best in the Star Wars series, and given the gaps of my Star Wars reviewing on this site (I’ve only covered the new trilogy) along with an over-abundance of free-time, I thought the time was right to revisit the galaxy far, far away, and take a look at the Original Trilogy; and as an ironic tribute to the series blase attitude towards release numbering, I’m going to review them in the wrong order.

Following the rebels victory in the Battle of Yavin, and subsequent destruction of the Death Star, the alliance are regrouping and planning their next move. Meanwhile, the Empire seeks to crush the rebellion in retaliation for the embarrassment of the Death Star. All the while Luke is seeking his next move on the path to becoming a Jedi…

The Empire Strikes Back is one of the best examples of a sequel; one that takes everything established by its predecessor and expands it, introducing new worlds, new characters and new threats.

Not content with just being more of what made A New Hope the massive success it was, Empire instead seeks to up the stakes of the great struggle for galactic freedom while embracing a darker aesthetic and themes.

Another thing that gives Empire the edge over Hope, is the use of a different director and writer. As great as George Lucas’ strengths are, they don’t include direction and screenwriting, as evidenced by the Prequel trilogy, and some suspect dialogue in A New Hope which only gets worse over time.

Instead, Lucas hands the directorial reins over to Irwin Kershner, a somewhat surprising choice at the time, I’m sure, given his lack of experience in big-studio filmmaking, his background was as a mostly independent director of dramas, this previous focus on character development would serve him well in this production.

While George Lucas was responsible for the story again, the script was written by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan. The former being an experienced science-fiction novelist, and the latter going on to become somewhat of a Star Wars legend, as he would go on to write (or co-write) Return of the Jedi, The Force Awakens and Solo. This was the start of his relationship with the series, and it is very apparent that the film had a much more proficient writer at the helm, especially in the dialogue exchanges.

So, with these prior weaknesses accounted for and altered, Empire takes everything built for it by its predecessor, and ramps it up a few notches.

Starting with the all-time great opening of the Battle of Hoth, the story isn’t afraid to put the heroes on the back-foot throughout the runtime of the film, in fact, that’s a recurring theme, the Empire always seeming one step ahead this time, perhaps having learned their lesson from underestimating the Rebels before.

This really is a bold move in hindsight, as it makes our heroes look flawed and fallible, and therefore, more human and relatable. We can see now that their trust was too quickly misplaced, but it’s because these characters decide to trust that makes them likeable, and makes us all the more affected when something bad happens to them.

The story of Luke’s journey to becoming a Jedi is also expanded upon here. Following the death of his mentor Ben, he’s haunted by visions of his deceased master, and encouraged by these visions to seek out Yoda, one of the characters introduced in this film that would go on to be beloved staples of the franchise.

While Yoda’s backwards speech patterns would go on to become as easy on the ears as a rusty chainsaw running along a cast-iron fence, his mannerisms are more subdued here, eventually anyway, when he actually settles into his role as aged, sage mentor, and drops his crazy, hungry creature act he initially adopts.

Once he becomes the character we all know him to be, he becomes one of the film’s highlights, giving Luke some timeless words of wisdom, as well as encouragement when he needs it, and admonishment at all other times.

It is during his stay with Yoda that he has his first face-to-face encounter with ‘Vader’ in which he comes to learn that there is more of himself in his enemy than he thinks, given Luke a moment of existential crisis, as well as giving the audience a BIG hint about the twist that’s to come.

Everywhere else, it’s classic moments and developments as far as the eye can see. The seeds of Han and Leia’s romance are sown, Vader’s ruthlessness is ramped up, and the action is tightened all-around to give us the ultimate peak of the Star Wars universe.

I could go on forever talking about all that is great about Empire, I mean, I’m nearly 900 words in and I haven’t even mentioned Lando Calrissian! Or Boba Fett, for that matter, in fact, the whole Cloud City section is pretty much peak Star Wars, it has a bit of everything in there; action, character developments and plenty of twists-and-turns.

In terms of criticism, I do have some, although not a lot. Boba Fett starts on his trend of being under-utilised, for instance, depending on your own personal capacity for tolerating C3PO, you might find the sequence that focuses on him in Cloud City a bit grating, that for me is the biggest low-light of the film, and if that’s your film’s biggest problem, I’d say you were doing okay.

Performances are also incredibly strong, Mark Hamill, who had the look of a deer in the headlights in the last film, looks more assured in his role as Luke Skywalker, the more he seems to relax into the role, the more engaging he becomes, especially while he’s being put through his paces on Dagobah.

Harrison Ford comes dangerously close to being out-charisma-ed by Billy Dee Williams, but not quite, and Carrie Fisher shows more of her characters spirit that has made her beloved by generations of fans.

While the Star Wars fandom resembles a festering sewer 98% of the time, the one thing it seems to agree on is that Empire is the best, as evidenced by the recent marking of its 40th Anniversary, and for once, the fandom might be onto something. It’s everything that made A New Hope great but expanded and tightened, and we all love a tight expanse.

Yes, I do think Empire is the best Star Wars film ever, nor do I think it will be topped for the influence it had at the time and continues to have 40 years later. The franchise may have started with a bang in A New Hope, but it was perfected by The Empire Strikes Back.

The Conversation Review

It is impressive enough to be responsible for one film considered the greatest of all time. It’s even more impressive to produce two such movies, any more classic films will see you moved into the conversation (no pun intended) for the greatest filmmaker of all-time.

This is true of the man responsible for the director of today’s focus, Francis Ford Copolla. A director who, if he’d just made The Godfather would have enough of a reputation to dine out on for the rest of his life but would go on to produce further classics such as The Godfather Part II, Apocalypse Now and the film I’ll be looking at today, The Conversation.

Released in 1974 (incidentally, the same year The Godfather Part II was released) it focuses on Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), an increasingly-paranoid surveillance expert, who suffers a crisis of conscience when he fears that someone he’s been listening to will be murdered.

This sets the scene for an intriguingly tense near-two hour experience that flirts with multiple different plot threads and genres while making the audience start to feel as paranoid as Harry himself. You’ll certainly come away from this film with a newfound distrust of your phone.

Along with the rising tension of Henry’s ongoing paranoia about the world around him, is an unfolding mystery surrounding the people involved with his latest surveillance job.

All of this is established in an incredibly tightly-scripted and shot sequence, where we see the titular ‘conversation’ unfold, the people involved being unwittingly followed and recorded by Harry and his team.

It’s an effective scene because it efficiently sets the tone for the rest of the film, leaving you with a deep feeling of mistrust towards Harry, and anyone associated with him, along with its clever snippets of the recorded conversation, which are still to be fully amplified and uncovered throughout the film, leaving just enough for the audience to hear, and for them to want to see the rest pieced together.

It’s a film that will keep you on the back-foot for quite a while, and guessing where the plot is going to go, different characters and potential plot threads are teased, only for them to be a red herring, or to further enhance the underlying plot, or to more heavily focus on Harry as a character.

For instance, there’s a long sequence in roughly the mid-point of the film, where we’re introduced to several other such experts in their field, who seemingly know Harry and his work, who tease the audience with vague, mysterious details about Harry’s past, making him even more untrustworthy as the main character, while also adding to his increasing paranoia that any of these people could discover his work or parts of his work that he’d rather forget.

These are fleeting dalliances to give Harry as a character more depth, I believe, and it makes the film all the better for it. Now rather than being a somewhat archetypal character who hides away listening in to private discussions, he becomes a character with a hint of darkness and mystery.

Add to this a steady escalation of the main intrigue, the kind of intrigue that leads us to question Harry even more, as we don’t know if he’s delusional or his paranoia is justified, and it all comes together as an incredibly satisfying thriller; one which will leave you guessing with each replay of the eponymous conversation, and lead you to believe any number of possibilities behind it.

The film even manages to completely land the conclusion, which is rare in a film which includes a mystery, it’s a surprising twist on the expectation the film leads you to build, it wrong-foots you, but not in a way which makes you feel cheated, more in a way that makes you admire its skill in sleight-of-hand.

The acting is uniformly strong also, with Gene Hackman playing against his usual type as a pathetic, dour,  loner. His is the kind of character you are constantly questioning, you can’t trust his version of events when he seems to be so delusional, even when the film makes it seem justified.

The film also has a strong supporting cast including such names as Copolla regular John Cazale, and everyone’s favourite nerf-herder Harrison Ford. All the characters work together in building a tapestry of mistrust, all of them impossible to count on, but all compelling in their own way.

Sandwiched between the first two Godfather films, The Conversation is a product of a director who’s really hitting their stride. He’s bringing out excellent performances, the cinematography is top-notch, it being another example of building a narrative that is hard to deconstruct by cleverly framing and disguising key moments in several different ways, and he pieces together an intriguing mystery as well as a tense thriller in one incredibly gratifying package.

I do have certain points to pick about the film, it could feel a touch slow at times, specifically in the earlier stages of the film, and it does use a fair few of the usual portrayals of delusion in film, but it doesn’t quite wander into the stereotyping territory and uses them fleetingly enough for it to not be too much of a problem.

Overall then, I think The Conversation builds a really satisfyingly tense atmosphere, alongside an unfolding mystery that grows in complexity as the film goes on, drawing the audience in as the stakes grow in parallel to Harry’s delusional paranoia. It may not be remembered as much as Coppola’s biggest works, but it is an example of a great filmmaker flexing his narrative muscles, between perhaps his two biggest projects. If nothing else, it’ll make you very careful about what you say on the phone in the future, you never know who might be listening…

Time Bandits Review

I’d never fully understood the meaning of the phrase: ‘having one’s cake and eating it’ because a cake only really has one function unless you’re planning an elaborate food fight, but after watching Time Bandits it started to become a little clearer to me. It has a perfectly workable premise, but overreaches itself far too often, and has a rather clumsy lack of focus. But I get ahead of myself, let’s roll back a bit.

This was recommended to me by a friend on the reasonable assumption that because I like Monty Python films, and the work of Terry Gilliam in general, that it would be right up my street, and upon looking at a plot synopsis it wasn’t hard to see why, it sounded like Holy Grail, but with a bigger budget. Granted, part of Grail‘s charms was its creative ways around its lack of budget, but still, in theory, a bigger budget and better production values would deliver a better product; unfortunately, theories are flimsy things that are broken easier than Russell Brand’s (remember him? The late 2000’s sure were fun) oaths of fidelity.

Time Bandits is a fantasy film that sees 11-year-old Kevin (Craig Warnock) whisked away from his banal life, and taken on a journey across time by six dwarves (as in fantastical creatures, not the ableist slur) who possess a map that allows them to jump to different periods.

I think we can all agree that this is a fairly solid concept for a fantasy film aimed at children, and one with a fair bit of potential, unfortunately, the key concept gets a bit lost in an unfocused plot that misses the perfectly simple narrative devices right in front of its eyes, instead choosing to over-complicate proceedings, and try and squeeze as much as possible out of this intriguing concept. Then squeezing a little bit more until nothing remains but the remnants of the good ideas the film once had.

On top of the ‘time-travelling band of dwarves’ concept is a rather clumsy attempt at a typical ‘good vs evil’ conflict, manifesting itself as almost literally a fight between God and the Devil. I understand children’s fantasies are supposed to be goofy and off-the-wall, but this aspect of the plot really began to test my patience towards the end, as the all-powerful manifestation of Evil (David Warner) sneers like a panto villain.

It has the air of a story told by a child as opposed to for one. It isn’t so much crafted as thrown together, as the characters bumble randomly from one time-period to the next, with no discernable consequences of their meddling with time.

There’s no real connectivity to the story, rather than a cohesive development from one era to another, the assigned places they end up feeling extremely random; it really begins to feel as though this isn’t as much a structured adventure as it was thrown together on a busy weekend.

Kevin is a rather empty character, but he’s a surrogate for the intended audience, an every-child, onto which the audience can project themselves, he’s just there, not particularly adding to events, but observing them, as a sort of dumbstruck onlooker. As the main character, he’s bland but passable. Someone everyone can relate to from their own childhood.

As for the dwarves, they were the most baffling part of this whole film. Firstly, they’re all completely interchangeable, bar a few individual personality quirks you’d be forgiven for getting them all confused with one another. They’re essentially the driving force of the movie, but they don’t feel special in any way, they all blend together like one homogenous mass of mediocrity.

Secondly, I don’t precisely know why they had to be dwarves (again, using that word to describe the mythical creatures, please don’t dog-pile me) there’s an allusion to them working for the Supreme Being (this universe’s version of God) but never more than that. Are we led to believe that God has an army of dwarf workers then? Are they the Oompa-Loompas to his Willy Wonka? I don’t know, and it isn’t explained either.

Adding to the overall confusion and disjointed feel is the rapid rate in which characters are introduced, established and then never seen again. I understand that a film with a time-travel framework is probable;y going to make use of that to show us different historical figures, but with the collective time they all spend on screen, they needn’t have bothered. They don’t add anything to the plot, they’re just sort of there.

Take, for instance, John Cleese. Who received top billing in the opening credits, his performance as Robin Hood barely lasts five minutes. He takes some treasure from the heroes and they all skulk off, without so much as an argument, then they move on to the next period. Well, what was the point of that? Besides shoe-horning a Python cameo into a film that already feels too long, even without digressing the plot.

There are a few sections of this film that led me questioning the point of it all, in fact, that’s how I came away from the movie as a whole, overwhelmingly disappointed, and asking myself: ‘what was the point in any of that?’

It’s frustrating, because the premise itself, and some of the scenarios the film presents have tons of promise, just in terms of the surreality for which Gilliam is known, but even they feel half-hearted and not very well thought out.

For a film that includes: time-travelling dwarves, a giant who uses a boat for a hat, and a height-obsessed Napoleon nearly dying laughing whilst watching a Punch and Judy show, it’s unforgivably dull. It didn’t leave me gawping at the wonder of the fantastical events on screen, it just left me constantly looking at my watch.

Add to that a truly baffling ending that leads the main character as confused as I am, and you have an incredibly disappointing experience. One that left me scratching my head at all the missed opportunities, and wondering where it all went wrong, especially considering the director. Holy Grail might have had 100% less of the budget, but it was 100% more enjoyable.

Top 10 Robin Williams Performances

It’s hard to believe that it’s almost six years since the world lost Robin Williams, and it feels like we lost a little bit of joy with him.

Many thousands of words have been written in the time since then eulogising someone who I consider to be one of the all-time greats. Not only a comedic spark unlike any other, not only an incredibly gifted actor but an anarchic spirit, whose air of unpredictability carried a special aura that will never be replicated.

He had an incredibly successful 35-year film career that covered many genres, so join me as I celebrate the incredible career and life of the wonderful Robin Williams.

Honourable Mention – Patch Adams as Hunter “Patch” Adams

I’ve included this with some trepidation, as Patch Adams isn’t a particularly great film, but it is an example of Williams being a positive influence, even when the material wasn’t up to his standard.

It was a performance that shows his softer side, that sweet, familiar face we’d come to know helped his character feel more inviting, even though the film was, at best, mediocre.

A film I wouldn’t blame you if you skipped, but still something worthy of mention here.

10: Mrs Doubtfire as Eugenia Doubtfire/Daniel Hillard

I’ll admit, despite this being a childhood favourite of many, this film doesn’t quite hold up to modern eyes, despite its still obvious charms.

But, focusing centrally on the performance, it’s transformative and endearing, Eugenia Doubtfire became an instantly recognisable and quotable part of movie history pretty much overnight, and the narrative of a father fighting to see his children lends another emotional aspect to the tale.

While not being one of my favourite films, it still remains a beloved performance from Williams and a taste of the comedy genius that lied beneath the caked-on makeup and outrageous accent.

It’s rather juvenile, but the way he grabs the role with both hands is what ultimately makes this performance as endearing and memorable as it is, it simply wouldn’t work without his commitment to the part, he went all-in on it, and it shows.

9: World’s Greatest Dad as Lance Clayton

A bit of a dark horse here, and somewhat of a forgotten gem amongst his extended cinematography, but there’s still something about World’s Greatest Dad that makes it notable, and worthy of inclusion.

It’s one of his films that have become a slightly uncomfortable watch after his death, he was in a few films that at least mention the topic of suicide, and knowing how he would meet his end ultimately makes this an even sadder watch.

It’s a film that lies directly on the border of his comedic and dramatic talents. One that sadly gets lost in the shuffle when discussing his best performances, granted, the material he had to work with was nowhere near the levels of some of his more acclaimed parts, but he is what makes the film work, his portrayal of the character, without him, the film would fall apart.

It is, however, quite a dark film, especially with the benefit of hindsight, and that might be enough to put people off, and Williams’ character isn’t a clear-cut hero either, but as usual, he gives the material everything he can, and still somehow comes out looking sympathetic, despite doing some very questionable things.

Despite it sadly being somewhat lost to the mists of time, and not being a noteworthy success either critically or commercially, World’s Greatest Dad still deals with difficult issues head-on, with well-handled humour and more than its fair share of heart. It’s just a shame more people haven’t seen it.

8: The Birdcage as Amand Goldman

I often find myself admiring Williams more subtle performances more than his outlandish comedic ones, no matter how watchable he is, there’s just something to be said for his versatility, and his ability to play against type, using his reputation as a way of proving people wrong; and that perfectly encapsulates his performance in The Birdcage.

It isn’t very often Robin was outdone for zaniness unless he wanted to be, and this is a fine example, which sees Robin play the quieter part of a gay couple who run a drag bar, opposite the outlandishly brilliant Nathan Lane as his partner, Albert.

There was something immensely satisfying about watching this film, seeing Williams in a more controlled role, and allowing himself to be upstaged by another outlandish character, instead, he finds himself to be at the emotional heart of the story.

An American adaptation of the French classic La Cage Aux Folles, The Birdcage sees Amand’s son from a previous relationship wanting to introduce his fiancees socially conservative parents to his family, along the way trying to convince Amand and Albert to hide their homosexuality.

It’s an intriguing mix of moral drama and fish-out-of-water comedy (mostly provided by Lane) and the result will just warm the cockles of your heart. Williams and Lane have great chemistry together, and in one of his more contained performances, Robin really shines on his own too.

7: Aladdin as The Genie/Peddler

It says a lot about the man that the performance using only his voice can find itself in the Top 10; but as anyone who knows the film will attest, he didn’t just play the Genie, he encapsulated it.

Apparently, the script for this film was disqualified for contention for an Oscar because of the amount of improvisation Williams did for the Genie, and it turns out animation is the perfect field to let his stream of consciousness delivery run wild, as the animation team tries to keep up with his frantic pace and tailor the animations around his performance, that is a different kind of trust, and a different kind of respect to show an actor.

Like most things he did, he didn’t just roll up to Aladdin for an easy paycheck, he threw himself into it, he was essentially given free rein to ‘go nuts’ with the character and take it in any direction he fled it needed, as long as he was hitting the right story beats.

The result is a show-stealing performance from the Genie that’s so beloved, that anyone who succeeded him has been looked upon as nothing more than a pale imitation. This is where a generation of fans first learned of Robin and his rapid-fire style, and I dare say it’ll hold up for generations to come.

6: One Hour Photo as Sky Parrish

In the words of Monty Python: ‘and now for something completely different…’

One Hour Photo is one of those films that pas a lot of people by, it didn’t receive a great amount of hype upon release, yet it shows a side rarely seen of its leading performer.

I don’t want to say too much about it, as I have reviewed it in full before (One Hour Photo Review) but Williams is unsettlingly sinister in this dark thriller, as he plays a lonely man obsessed with a seemingly happy family.

His ability to be unnerving was rarely seen, but still finely honed as shown here, it’s easy to forget while watching this film that the man behind it is the man behind so many affable, and instantly loveable characters. He truly transforms into a chilling example of loneliness and makes us forget his usual friendly persona in the process.

5: Dead Poets Society as John Keating

In the course of his career, Robin Williams received four Oscar Nominations (three for Best Leading Actor, and one for Best Supporting) and all four of those nominated performances appear in the Top 5.

Now, I’m not a massive fan of the Oscars, as some of you may know, but I do think they got these nominations right, and he could have possibly felt hard done to not to have won at least one more statuette.

Dead Poets Society was his second nominated performance and one that was heavily referenced in tributes to him after his death. This is after all the film with the now-famous ‘oh Captain, my captain’ scene that has been paid tribute to several times in the following few years. It’s also an example of another such movie that becomes a little more uncomfortable to watch after his death.

I would say that this is perhaps one of Wiliams’ most tender performances, he’s certainly a bit more understated here than he was in other films, the larger-than-life comedy persona is dialled back to reveal a gentler side to him, one with a tremendous amount of heart, which would also serve him well in future performances.

It’s the tale of a teacher with new and exciting ideas challenging the norm, in a way that reflects his own personality perfectly, he was always a personality that ran against the norm, and this just shows the influence such a personality has.

It is a showing of just how consistently good he was that a portrayal such as John Keating can only rank fifth, as the character is the type of teacher we all want to have; influential, passionate, and just a little bit irreverent, played with such joyfulness and heart that lifted the film from middling school drama to memorable emotional journey.

4: What Dreams May Come as Chris Nielsen

This is one I’ve only just watched and one that I’m not entirely sure I completely understood on a first watch; it really does feel like one of those films that makes more sense the more you rewatch it, which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy it, but I enjoyed it because of its performances and subtext, rather than its slightly surreal delivery of said subtext.

Here’s a basic summary: Chris Nielsen (Williams) plays a man killed in a car accident, a few years after his two children also perished in similar circumstances, he finds himself in a heavenly landscape, made up of images based off his wife’s paintings. After his wife commits suicide (again, a bit difficult to watch) he must journey to another part of this afterlife to try and convince her soul to join his.

That is a very basic run-down of what I understood after my first watch, it’s much deeper than this, and its approach to portraying the afterlife doesn’t stick too much to one set of religious rules, preferring instead to make its own guidelines and rules, amidst increasingly surreal surrounds that the spirits of the deceased find themselves.

Again, given its use of suicide as an inescapable plot point, it does make viewing somewhat uncomfortable now, but Robin is his usual charming self in the lead role, he even finds various different layers to his character. Chris is like a scrap-book of all Williams’ successful characters; the affable and disarmingly humorous one as seen in films like The Birdcage, the tragic figure similar to The Fisher King, and last, the grieving family man, a role he excels in here, but would arguably perfect in another film that we’ll get to later.

It’s a film that is very difficult to surmise briefly without going into more detail than this format would allow, it’s dream-like landscapes, and its central performance aids its extremely heartfelt premise, and a face and personality as beloved as Robin Williams more than help its case in delivering the films more affecting messages.

What Dreams May Come is a film of Robin’s that has fallen out of the public subconscious in the years since its release and his death. Part of that could be the fact that it deals with seeing his character in the afterlife, but it could arguably give closure to his life, despite the tragic circumstances of his passing, he is seen to find happiness in whatever comes next. It was uniquely touching to see this film, seeing its interpretation of ‘heaven’ with Robin’s character right in the middle of it. It’s a film that has only become more poignant in these last few years.

3: Good Morning, Vietnam as Adrian Cronauer

In terms of scale, this film is very different from the previous one. While What Dreams May Come was a drama film that leaned effectively into comedy, Good Morning, Vietnam is a comedy that leans extremely effectively into dramatic territory.

Set amidst the backdrop of the ever-controversial Vietnam War, Willaims picked up his first Oscar nomination for his role as Adrian Cronauer, an airman in the US air-force, whose forces radio show lifts morale amongst station troops, but faces the ire of those higher up in the military food chain.

To me, this film is a perfect intersection of his comedic and dramatic talents. On one hand, we see his frenetic, off-the-cuff delivery style as seen in his performance as The Genie, and in his stand-up routines, but we also see the realities of someone stationed in a war zone, facing potentially losing friends, and relationships he’s worked hard to build among the ruins.

As much as his radio presentation scenes are beloved, and rightly so, I find the real treasure is to be found in his scenes with the locals, specifically his relationship with local boy Tuan, and his sister Trinh (Tung Thanh Tran and Chintara Sukapatana, respectively) as it shows the deeper narrative going on within the film. On the surface, it’s a comedy about a loud-mouthed DJ, but dig a little deeper and you find a rumination on the war itself and the strained relationship between locals and aggressors.

These elements are what helps make the film so memorable because it embraces deeper themes and ideas than just its surface narrative, it can stake a claim to being a film with a message rather than just a noisy piece of propaganda, and in that respect, it’s almost disarmingly perfect.

Adrian is noisy and rebellious, not for the sake of it, but because it’s what he thinks is right, and when he’s let down by someone he thought to be a friend, his visible disappointment and eventual anger is almost heartbreaking.

This film is one of the best examples of balancing comedy and drama, and its leading performance is one of the reasons why. He believably floats between both categories to create a well-rounded, and likeable, character.

2: Parry/Henry Sagan – The Fisher King

Another film I only watched recently, The Fisher King was a surprise to me. Not only did it deliver another great RW performance, but it perfectly mixed that performance with the mind of one of the film worlds most creative directors, Terry Gilliam.

Again, I don’t really have much to add here on top of what I said in my recent review (The Fisher King Review) but it says a lot about the film and the quality of Willaims’ performance (he wasn’t the only one worthy of mentioning though) that it leapfrogs pretty much the entire list, and lands in 2nd place after a recent first watch.

There was no way I could deny that it’s one of his best performances, and he could perhaps feel hard done to that he didn’t win the Oscar this time out, but his win was to come, and it was to come for…

1: Sean Maguire – Good Will Hunting

There was never any doubt in my mind while compiling this list what would be number one. Not only is Good Will Hunting, to my mind at least, Robin Williams’ best performance, it’s also my second favourite film of all-time, just below The Godfather.

This isn’t to say I think it’s the second ‘best film of all-time’ just that it’s my, subjective, second favourite, and a bulk of the reason for that is the character of Sean Maguire, played so effortlessly, and lovingly by the great man himself.

That isn’t to say he’s the ONLY good character here, far from it, Will Hunting (Matt Damon) is also a complex, somewhat tragic figure, but he’s done a disservice by having to share so much screen-time with Williams, who delivers a masterclass in character acting.

His range encapsulates, humour, tragedy and anger, all in such perfect strokes, he uses the trappings of a psychologist character to turn all the stereotypes and expectations on its head, leaving us to think just as much about him and his struggles as Will’s, without ever pulling the focus away from Will’s journey to self-acceptance. It’s truly marvellous.

Again, I have recently reviewed Good Will Hunting (Good Will Hunting Review) so I don’t want to repeat myself too much, but it really is a beautiful performance. Anyone going into this with the idea of Willaims as being ‘just a comedian’ is sure to have that impression smashed by the end of the film.

It’s a performance packed with raw emotion, has some of the best moments of his acting career, and is, therefore, for my money, the best Robin Williams performance ever.

The Mandalorian Review

Now, I don’t often review TV, as I find it difficult to format as a review; do I do episode by episode? Or do I just review the series as a whole? Each of these approaches has their separate issues, but in the end, I decided that with little else new to cover, it was time to bite the bullet (or rather the blaster bolt, because you know, Star Wars).

I have chosen to review it as one complete package, rather than episode by episode, as this is more expedient both to produce and to read. Although I will mention particular moments in specific episodes; without trying to give away too much, of course.

Star Wars is one of those franchises where the films are only really scratching the surface. Just go on any forum and ask about any plot detail, no matter how small, and there’s sure to be someone who’ll direct you to a book, or comic or cave drawing that tells you what you want to know. Of course, this is no excuse for the films not filling in their own gaps, we shouldn’t be expected to go looking for details they couldn’t be bothered to explain fully.

The positive side of this, however, is the richness of Star Wars lore, and the worlds, and indeed galaxies, they have created. There’s a reason why so much additional media is produced, it’s because there’s so much ground to cover, and so many stories to tell. Which brings me neatly to The Mandalorian.

Having the distinction of being the first-ever, live-action Star Wars TV series means that the show comes with a ton of expectations. There are already several other TV series currently in production for Disney+, and you can’t help but wonder if their eventual existence would depend on The Mandalorian not being a flop.

Created and executive-produced by Jon Favreau, who roped in several top names to direct episodes, such as Taika Waititi and Star Wars veteran Dave Filoni. It follows the adventures of the titular ‘Mandalorian’ a member of the eponymous race of warriors, working for the guild of bounty hunters, whose life changes course when he procures a unique bounty.

Might as well state this from the off, as his adorable little face has barely been off the internet since the shows U.S. launch last November; that bounty is ‘The Child’ otherwise known as ‘Baby Yoda’ and it appears Disney has managed to strike gold again in the marketability stakes, as BY (as I will now refer to him as) is as cute as a basket of puppies playfighting with each other.

If, like me, you’re a cynical type and your first thought upon seeing BY was: ‘what an obvious merchandise cash-in opportunity’ you’ll gladly find yourself won over within the little tyke’s first few episodes. He’s charming, and at times very funny, but he also manages to achieve something that former ‘merchandise-fodder’ characters couldn’t, he means something to the story. He isn’t just a cute peripheral character, he’s the character around whom all the series’ conflict occurs.

I know past characters have tried to be important to the story, who can forget Jar Jar Binks and his involvement with granting the Chancellor emergency powers? I certainly can’t, no matter how many times I throw myself headlong into a wall to stop the voices… sorry, lost my train of thought, my point is, he isn’t contrivedly crowbarred into the story for sake of selling toys, he’s arguably the series main focus.

He isn’t always front-and-centre to the story, but he’s the focus of the series arc, if you will, events happen along the way that he is only tangentially related to, but his continued allegiance with ‘Mando’ drives the overarching narrative along.

The series is also careful to pace itself in regard of BY’s character, there is more of him to find out, that we know, but we don’t need to know all the details, yet.

‘Mando’ himself (the series does give him a name, but it’s easier to just type ‘Mando’ and also, spoilers) undergoes an arc through the series that runs along neatly with BY and his continual guardianship, there are even a few neat moments of parallel between the two characters, where you start to see why Mando risked his life and career to save this creature he’d only just met.

Something else the series does right is that it indulges different genre ideas into the standard Star Wars formula. Yes, it’s still the classic sci-fi/fantasy hybrid, but there are elements of Western and war films in there too, with the Western aesthetic being particularly central to the series theme, Mando is modeled somewhat after one of Clint Eastwood’s many ‘gunslinger’ characters of questionable moral value.

When it indulges these flights of fancy to full effect, the results can be spectacular. Good examples of this include Chapter 4: Sanctuary which has the distinct feel of a Vietnam film that focused on the plight of the natives, being threatened on all sides; or Chapter 6: The Prisoner, which takes influence from heist movies.

What’s good about all this is that the change in tone and genre never feels forced or jarring, the characters mesh seamlessly into their new environments and surroundings.

The cast of characters is strong all-around I’d say. Because Mando is the ‘strong-and-silent’ type, it leaves more room for the characters around him to be fleshed out, and better dynamics are thus established. Recurring characters such as Cara Dune (Gina Carano) and Kuiil (Nick Nolte) both feel like they add something Mando lacks when they join forces, thus making them seem like a cohesive team, rather than one over-capable character and his tag-alongs.

Speaking of over-capable though, that leads me into my main fault with the series; it makes the Mando seem almost indestructible, because of the armour he is wearing, he’s seen to soak up several shots without flinching, it does mean that when he does face more heavy ordinance it seems more intimidating, but it doesn’t make everything else seem like a threat.

I said of the spin-off films a few years back, that I think the best way to mine the Star Wars universe, especially now the ‘Skywalker Saga’ is over, is to focus on new stories that add to the overall canon. Something that shows us new parts of this galaxy far, far away, rather than revisiting old characters and events for fan service, and that’s exactly what The Mandalorian is. It delivers something new and exciting to the overall canon, without falling back into the usual habits of bringing in recognisable faces in aid of fan service’ and little else.

Everything it does it seems to get right, even managing to sweeten a few minor errors in the extended canon. Didn’t like how Boba Fett’s existence was handled in the prequels and wanted to know more about Mandalorians and their society? This show’s got you covered, showing us just enough about the warrior race, without ruining their mystique.

It even manages to canonise a few things from the hated Holiday Special with its mention of ‘Life Day’ in Episode 1, and Mando’s weapon, which resembles one wielded by Boba Fett in the aforementioned monstrosity.

Overall, The Mandalorian might just be the best addition to canon since Disney acquired the Star Wars license. It’s certainly full of the newest ideas directions for the series, it also helps that being a TV show meant that it had more time to really focus on the details of a story that would be missed in film, something I think is now a recurring theme in TV & Film, and fear that one day, the TV might surpass film as the preferred method of adapting a story, but I digress.

Honestly, I could go on for a lot longer about the show, and its several aesthetic choices which I think enhanced the series maybe to a point beyond some of the films, but to do so would make a significantly less concise review, and this is already pushing the boundaries of ‘concise’!

The show isn’t just a vehicle for those Baby Yoda memes you’ve seen constantly in the last six months, it actually contains some of the freshest storytelling we’ve seen in Star Wars canon in years, and the ending of the series leaves many possibilities open for the future. A future I really hope isn’t too far, far away.