Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019, Quentin Tarantino)

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Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Los Angeles, 1969… An actor with fading confidence attempts to rebuild his career… His stuntman friend struggles to find work… Actress Sharon Tate is enjoying her rise to stardom… And the followers of cult leader Charles Manson are planning murder…

What does QT do? Writing and directing. While declining to take an on-screen acting role – something he hasn’t done since his awful cameo in Django Unchained – Quentin Tarantino’s voice is heard twice: as a commercials director and the narrator of a fictional TV show called Bounty Law.

Notable characters:
* Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a 40-something actor living off his previous earnings in a house in the Hollywood hills. Years earlier he starred in a TV Western called Bounty Law, but never made the jump to being a movie star. He’s especially prickly about the role of Hilts in The Great Escape going to Steve McQueen (we see an imagined clip from that 1963 classic, with Rick/Leo replacing Hilts/McQueen via CGI). Rick now buddies around town with Cliff, his long-time stuntman-cum-PA, but is disheartened by the lack of starring roles on offer and is resorting to playing guest heavies in TV shows. After fluffing his lines and suffering a panic attack while playing the bad guy in the pilot episode of Western series Lancer, Rick has something of an epiphany: he pulls himself together and gives a performance that impresses his co-stars and the director (the latter calls him an ‘evil, sexy Hamlet’). His equilibrium back, Rick then accepts that his career options are limited and agrees to go to Italy to make a Spaghetti Western called Nebraska Jim. The trip goes well – Rick stars in two other films as well – but he then has to tell Cliff that, now he’s married an Italian actress, he can no longer afford to employ him. Back in the States, the two men commemorate the end of their arrangement with a few drinks – and then, late at night, Rick’s home is invaded by a group of kids intent on murder… DiCaprio is truly fantastic as Rick. Smartly trading on his own real-life image as a pretty-boy actor now in middle age (though he’s never suffered the kind of career slump that’s dogging Rick), the star is always on the edge of paranoia, self-loathing and nerves. He generates real empathy as we follow his character through what is essentially a midlife crisis – Rick flip-flops between comedy and tragedy, and DiCaprio is always in control.

* Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is ostensibly Rick’s stunt double, but their relationship has evolved into a codependency. Cliff finds it hard to get industry jobs due to rumours that he murdered his wife, so he now also works as Rick’s personal assistant, driver and general gofer. The two men are good pals and rely on each other – it’s almost a platonic version of a married couple. But while Rick has a nice, big house with a swimming pool and great views across LA, Cliff lives in a battered old caravan with his obedient pitbull Brandy. One day, while carrying out errands for Rick, Cliff picks up a young hitchhiker called Pussycat and learns that she and her cultish friends live at an old ranch out of town. The ringleader is not keen on Cliff being there, but he insists on speaking to the ranch’s owner, George, who he knows from when the property was used for making movies. Months later, Cliff encounters some of the cult again when three members break into Rick’s house – they plan to murder the TV star, who they see as a symbol of violence in modern culture. Cliff, who is stoned on an acid-cigarette by now, easily beats them all up with the help of a savage Brandy… The character of Cliff is based on several movie figures of the era, including actor Robert Blake – a one-time friend of Tarantino’s – who was suspected of killing his wife, and a stuntman who was hired specifically to intimidate Bruce Lee on a film set. Another inspiration was Kurt Russell. While making his 2007 film Death Proof, Quentin has got to know Russell’s long-time stuntman, John Casino, which kicked off the idea of a friendship between a star and his double. Brad Pitt won an Oscar for his performance as Cliff and it’s no surprise – his easy-going yet steely-eyed charisma is peppered with laconic comic timing and a middle-aged confidence. He’s incredibly watchable. He also looks pretty good with his shirt off. (Tom Cruise was an early possibility for the role, though surely would have lacked Pitt’s self-awareness.)

* Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) is an ingratiating film producer who wants Rick to make Italian Westerns in Europe. Trying to butter him up, Marvin sycophantically raves about Rick’s old hits, which he screened in his private cinema the night before – ‘Thirty-five-millimetre prints of Tanner and The 14 Fists of McClusky’ – but Rick is skeptical about the idea of going abroad (‘Sergio who?’). The role of Marvin was written specifically for Pacino.

* Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) is a young actress on the rise in Hollywood, who moves into the property next door to Rick’s with her husband, the hip movie director Roman Polanski. Sharon is a sunshine personality, liked by everyone she meets, and someone who enjoys life. She parties, listens to music, hangs around with friends. As 1969 progresses, she also becomes pregnant… Of course, in reality, Tate, her friends Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski and Abigail Folger and an 18-year-old visitor called Steven Parent were murdered on 8 August 1969 by followers of Charles Manson who wished for notoriety. When Tarantino began work on Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, rumours circulated that he was telling Sharon’s story – or maybe the Manson Family’s – but he quickly said that those events would instead be a backdrop to a fictional tale. The finished movie is told from a relentlessly *male* point of view, and Sharon Tate acts as more of an ‘ideal’ than a character; a symbol of the purity and joy that is at risk as the hedonistic 1960s give away to a more cynical era of violence. Many critics have lamented how little agency and dialogue Sharon has (a representation issue not helped by another high-profile film of 2019, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, which gave experienced actress Anna Paquin a total of *seven words* to say). But in the context of this film, less is more – and Margot Robbie is stunningly luminescent in the role, giving a memorable, charming performance even with limited screentime.

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* Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) is the hippie hitchhiker who Cliff picks up. She’s sexually forward (‘Want me to suck your cock while driving?’) but Cliff resists, recognising just how young she is – though he does accept the offer of an acid-dipped cigarette and pockets it for later. Pussycat is a member of the religious cult who have taken over the Spahn Ranch outside Los Angeles. As well as living in a strict commune, they provide horseback rides for tourists… Interestingly, Tarantino has mooted the possibility that he was present at Spahn Ranch in the year this film is set. ‘I actually went horseback riding at six years old [he was born in 1963] with my mom and dad. I don’t know if we went to Spahn Ranch. I like to think that we did. We probably went to Griffith Park, but I like to think that we went to Spahn Ranch.’

* Squeaky (Dakota Fanning) is the grumpy, bossy leader at the ranch. She and her fellow acolytes spend their days lazing around in front of the TV, but her guard is up when Pussycat brings a skeptical and suspicious Cliff back. Jennifer Lawrence was considered for the role but the dates didn’t work out. The character is a fictionalised take on Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme, who as well as being a member of the Manson Family, tried to murder President Gerald Ford in 1975. She was imprisoned for the attempt until 2009.

* The Spahn Ranch is owned by George Spahn (Bruce Dern), who is now 80 and bedridden and blind. The Manson Family are taking advantage of him, in order to live on the ranch, and he is supplicated via sexual favours from Squeaky. (In reality, Spahn (1889-1974) gave Squeaky her nickname based on a sound she made when touched.) Burt Reynolds was originally cast in the role, but died very soon before filming. His presence can still be detected in the finished movie, though, in two ways: it was Reynolds’s suggestion that someone tell Cliff, ‘You’re pretty for a stunt guy’, while the role Rick Dalton plays in an episode of the 1960s TV drama The F.B.I. was – in reality – played by Burt.

* Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) features in a set-piece flashback scene that takes place in the car park of the studio where he is filming his TV show The Green Hornet. Stuntman Cliff scoffs at Lee’s hubris and arrogance, leading to a best-of-three fight between the men. The scene is cutely shot and staged, especially a lengthy ‘oner’ leading up to the first fall, and enjoyably builds Cliff’s character as a man who’s cool under pressure… The scene in Once Upon a Time has been heavily criticised by some as being disrespectful to an Asian icon of cinema. In the 1960s, actor and martial-arts star Lee (1940-1973) was carving out a career on American television – Cliff sarcastically calls him Kato, his character in The Green Hornet – and he is undoubtedly the butt of the joke here. But Tarantino has defended the sequence on three levels. Firstly, the point is that Cliff *tricks* Lee by initially taking a dive. He doesn’t put up any resistance in the first challenge of the two-out-of-three bout, therefore forcing Lee to reveal his best move. Secondly, the real Bruce Lee did have a reputation for hating and antagonising American stuntmen. And thirdly, in Tarantino’s imagining – which is further embellished in his novelisation of the movie – Cliff is actually a *killer*. Bruce Lee, for all his ability, was an actor. He just pretended to be tough.

* Sheriff Hackett (Michael Madsen) is a character seen in a clip from an episode of Bounty Law. Both this character and Madsen’s role in The Hateful Eight were inspired by Maverick star Peter Breck; hence the same neckerchief look.

* Among the other real-world people being dramatised are Sharon Tate’s friends Joanna Pettet (Rumer Willis), Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) and Abigail Folger (Samantha Robinson); Hollywood heavyweight Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis); actress and singer Connie Stevens (Dreama Walker); Mama and the Papas members Michelle Phillips (Rebecca Rittenhouse) and Mama Cass (Rachel Redleaf); the real stars of Lancer, James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant) and Wayne Maunder (Luke Perry); and director Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond). Stacey lost his left leg and arm in a 1973 motorbike accident that killed his girlfriend – so in a morbid reference, we last see him in this film riding off on a motorcycle. The party with McQueen, Phillips, Cass and co was shot where it’s set – the Playboy Mansion. Perry died soon after filming his role.

* Charles Manson himself (played by Damon Herriman) barely appears; just one short cameo, based on a real-life moment when he turned up at Tate’s house months before the murders looking for his friend the music producer Terry Melcher. But a whole host of his followers get more screentime. All are based on real figures, sometimes with their names tweaked: Tex (Austin Butler, later the star of 2022’s Elvis biopic), Gypsy (the writer and director Lena Dunham), Katie (Madisen Beaty), Sadie (Mikey Madison), Clem (James Landry Hébert), Flowerchild (Stranger Things’ Maya Hawke), Lulu (Victoria Pedretti), Snake (Sydney Sweeney), Blue (Kansas Bowling), Angel (Danielle Harris), Froggie (Harley Quinn Smith, the daughter of Tarantino’s fellow director Kevin Smith).

* Trudi Fraser (Julia Butters) is a child actor, aged eight, who is playing a role in Rick Dalton’s episode of Lancer. They chat between takes, striking up a friendship, and Rick is oddly charmed by her precociousness. ‘I believe it’s the job of an actor – and I say actor, not actress because the word actress is nonsensical,’ she proclaims, ‘it’s the actor’s job to avoid impediments to their performance. It’s the actor’s job to strive for one-hundred-per-cent effectiveness.’ Later, on set, Trudi is bowled over with Rick’s performance on camera (‘That was the best acting I’ve ever seen in my whole life,’ she says, making him cry). Wildly wise beyond her years, Trudi is based in part on a real star with a similar name, Jodie Foster, who began her career with attention-grabbing juvenile roles (Taxi Driver, Bugsy Malone, Freaky Friday).

* Billie Booth (Rebecca Gayheart) was Cliff’s wife, who we see in a brief flashback to the day she died. While they pair argue on a boat, Cliff is holding a speargun… which goes off and kills her. Was it murder or an accident? The movie leaves the question pleasingly open-ended – because the myth is more interesting than the facts. Quentin’s subsequent novelisation of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, published in 2021, reveals that Cliff did it on purpose. ‘All my characters are problematic,’ Tarantino has said. ‘And that’s a good thing.’ The incident, of course, is an echo of the death of actor Natalie Wood, who died in unresolved circumstances on a boat in 1981.

* Randy Lloyd (Kurt Russell) is a stunt coordinator who has his doubts about hiring suspected killer Cliff… and regrets it when Cliff beats on star Bruce Lee. For one thing, it pisses off Randy’s wife and colleague, Janet (Zoe Bell). Like her character, QT regular Bell is a stunt coordinator as well as an actor – she performed that role on Once Upon a Time, in fact. Russell also provides some explanatory voiceover later in the film.

* Francesca Capucci (Lorenza Izzo) is an Italian actress who marries Rick during his stint in Rome, then returns with him to Hollywood. She’s present when the Manson followers show up one night. ‘How dare you come into my house, motherfucker!’ she cries.

Returning actors: Leonardo DiCaprio was in Django Unchained while Brad Pitt had a small role in True Romance then a larger part in Inglourious Basterds. This film is Bruce Dern’s third Tarantino movie, Zoe Bell’s fourth (seven if you count her stunt-performing gigs), Kurt Russell’s third, and Michael Madsen’s fifth. James Remar (who appears in the Bounty Law clips) played two roles in Django Unchained. Omar Doom (who plays a biker at the ranch) was in Death Proof and Inglourious Basterds. Perla Haney-Jardine, who’d played Uma Thurman’s character’s daughter in Kill Bill Vol. 2, appears a hippie selling LSD… while Thurman’s real daughter, Maya Hawke, plays one of Manson’s acolytes. Tim Roth (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Four Rooms, The Hateful Eight) and Walton Goggins (Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight) appear in scenes that didn’t make the final cut. Rebecca Gayheart was in the Quentin-produced From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman’s Daughter.

Music: The jukebox soundtrack is a succession of period pop hits, oftentimes mixed with authentic snatches of 1969 radio jingles. This helps create a mood of buoyancy and sun, as well as a decadent nostalgia for a world that never really existed. However, none of the songs matches the cinematic power of, say, Stuck in the Middle With You (Reservoir Dogs), Across 110th Street (Jackie Brown) or David Bowie’s Cat People (Inglourious Basterds). At one point, in a sequence that was always destined to become a Twitter meme, Rick Dalton appears on the mid-60s variety TV show Hullabaloo and sings/dorky-dances to The Green Door.

Time shifts and chapters: The story mostly plays in chronological order, aside from when we see clips from old TV shows, jump back to Cliff’s fight with Bruce Lee, and get a very brief flashback to the day Cliff’s wife died. The plot skips forward a few months at one point.

Connections:
* In one of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s most famous sequences, Sharon Tate goes to a movie theatre to watch one of her own films. The incident is fictional, but is based on an experience Tarantino had of seeing True Romance and having to convince the cinema staff that he’d written the film. Sharon sits in on a screening of The Wrecking Crew (1968), the fourth and final entry in the Matt Helm series of spy capers. She absolutely adores the experience and it’s extremely touching to see her so proud and positive – wide grin, eyes full of glee, bare feet up on the seat in front of her. In reality, however, The Wrecking Crew is a truly feeble movie featuring a lazy Dean Martin leering over women half his age. (When we see clips, it’s the real Sharon Tate on screen.)
* At one point, Marvin Schwarz says that Sergio Corbucci is the ‘second-best director of Spaghetti Westerns in the whole wide world’ and Rick later goes to Italy to work with him. (As Quentin pointed out on the 2022 documentary film Django & Django, the consensus is that Sergio Leone was the best; Corbucci unquestionably the next best.) One of Corbucci’s real-life films was Django (1966), which Quentin riffed on with his 2012 movie Django Unchained.
* The kettle that was used to poison various people in The Hateful Eight can be seen in Cliff’s kitchen.
* When they return from Italy, Rick and Cliff walk past a famous, multi-coloured mural at LAX that was also used in Jackie Brown.
* The character played by James Stacy in Lancer – both here and in reality – is called Johnny Madrid, which is the name of a character in the Tarantino-produced From Dusk Till Dawn 3.
* Ranting at some hippies (actually Manson acolytes), Rick calls one of them ‘Dennis Hopper’. Hopper, the star and director of counterculture text Easy Rider, appeared in the Tarantino-penned True Romance.
* Two cars seen in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood have links to previous QT films – Cliff drives a 1964 Volkswagen convertible, as did the Bride in Kill Bill Vol. 2, while Rick’s 1966 Cadillac de Ville also appeared in Reservoir Dogs (where it was driven by its owner, Michael Madsen).
* In 2021, Tarantino published a novelisation of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which embellished the main characters, drastically rejigged the storyline and put the finale in the first half. It also added an Easter-egg factory’s worth of new associations, links, references and allusions to the Once Upon a Time mythos – for example, we learn that Rick later starred in Coming Home in a Body Bag, a Vietnam film that was discussed by characters in True Romance. (An audiobook version of the novel was read by The Hateful Eight‘s Jennifer Jason Leigh.) QT has reportedly written a follow-up that will detail Rick Dalton’s entire career, and has mooted a stage version (which would feature a lengthy sequence about Rick and Cliff’s time in Italy) *and* producing full-length episodes of Bounty Law.
* In a reference that’s super-sly even by Tarantino’s standards, Margot Robbie actually plays two roles in this film. As well as starring as Sharon Tate, we briefly hear her voice when a Pan Am flight attendant gives Rick a cocktail as he flies home from Rome. Robbie had played attendant Laura Cameron in the TV drama Pan Am, which was also set in the 1960s, and this is intended as the same woman.
* Red Apple cigarettes and Big Kahuna Burgers – two fictional brands that have appeared in many Tarantino movies – crop up again.

Review: For years, when asked if had a favourite of the films he’d directed, Quentin Tarantino would give a politic answer like, ‘Oh, they’re all my children.’ But then at some point things changed and he decided to be honest. ‘I really do think Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is my best movie,’ he said in late 2022. Referred to in countless interviews and reviews as a ‘love letter to Hollywood’, Once Upon a Time was clearly a passion project for Quentin, who imbues every single frame with overt, unmistakable and gleaming Tarantinoisms. He creates compelling characters and addictive situations better than anyone who’s ever directed, and this film – which may end up being his final effort (retirement has been mooted) – is soulful, skilfully made and surprisingly sensitive.

The noir novelist James Ellroy has called Once Upon a Time in Hollywood the best movie set in Hollywood he’s ever seen, in part because of how it evokes time and place. Ellroy was 21 during the Manson killings and lived in the LA area: ‘I could smell it,’ he said of Tarantino’s film. A large reason for this fidelity is thrilling filmmaking craft – whole city blocks were redressed as 1969 with no recourse to CGI, the sound mix is peppered with genuine radio ads and jingles – while the script is absolutely drenched in pop-culture references of the era. In contrast to the movie-obsessed characters Tarantino is famed for, however, Once Upon a Time actually contains many more mentions of television shows – both real (Lancer, I Love Lucy, Peyton Place, Batman, The Girl From UNCLE, Land of the Giants, literally dozens more) and invented.

This is because, to his chagrin, TV is the world Rick Dalton finds himself in as the story begins. While Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is structurally similar to the fuzzy, irregular, multi-thread format of Pulp Fiction, with several voices demanding our attention, Rick is the lead character. He’s the emotional heart and the epicentre, around whom all the madness swirls. He’s a dying breed, a relic – much like the Hollywood culture being washed away by hippies, drugs, cynicism, television, a more sophisticated audience and big-business taking over the studios – and he knows it *vividly*. The script follows Rick as, in turn, he tries to cling on, tries to adapt, rallies against the coming forces, accepts his lot, fights back, finds a new way to live… This is a midlife-crisis film, an existential crisis in fact – a companion to Tarantino’s Jackie Brown in how it deals with a character growing older and fearing that their time is passing. And just like Pam Greer in that 1997 masterpiece, DiCaprio sells every beat.

Obviously, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s title is a deliberate reference to the great Italian director Sergio Leone – a master of cinematic violence. Leone made movies called Once Upon a Time in the West (a sublime Western from 1968) and Once Upon a Time in America (a classy 1984 gangster epic), and Quentin’s stylistic debt to him has been obvious for a long time to anyone who knows the two men’s work. However, as is often the case with Tarantino, this isn’t just empty referencing. It’s a master director who, like Leone, knows that violence on film only works if the build-up has created meaning for the characters and the audience.

In Sergio Leone’s greatest films – the six he made between 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars and 1984’s Once Upon a Time in America – characters are forever heading towards violence, but Leone was never interested in the face-offs and the brawls and the mass shootouts. Leone’s gunfights are usually over in an instant. Instead his focus was the seconds, the minutes, the hours, the *years* that lead up to these moments; the ritual and the preparation and the creation of suspense.

Tarantino knows that virtually every viewer will know (or think they know) what’s coming, what’s going to happen when Sharon Tate and the Manson murderers collide. A growing sense of dread builds as we get to know Sharon (albeit at a remove), as we follow Rick and Cliff’s intertwined storylines, as we soak up the glamorous, celebrity-dotted world of 1969 LA, because we’re sure that the movie is heading for a tragic end. When writing 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, it became clear to Tarantino that a key scene would turn out much longer than he’d planned – 24 pages, almost unheard of in a Hollywood film. But he was enjoying the writing, and believed it held its length, so stuck to his guns. ‘Not only do I think it holds,’ he said in a 2019 interview with BBC Radio 1, ‘but I think the longer I can stretch this out the better it will be.’ He talked about the ‘give in the rubber band’ – in other words, more and more tension before the snap. Once Upon a Time uses this trick with more subtly and nuance than any other film in Tarantino’s filmography – not in a single scene as Standartenführer Landa questions a nervous farmer or jewel thieves debate who the mole is, but across an entire 160-minute film.

But there’s another, very important element at play here. As well as nodding towards his hero Leone, Tarantino used the title Once Upon a Time in Hollywood so he could tip us off that this is a fairy tale. And fairy tales have happy endings…
As the trio of Manson followers arrive in Rick and Sharon’s high-end cul-de-sac, we’ve been conditioned by a century of biopics and real-life dramas into assuming that events will play out in a certain way. The film then pulls off an audacious switch: Cliff intervenes and the Manson-twats never even get to Sharon’s house. It’s the film’s biggest laugh – an arch, Grand Guignol reversal of expectations, which features violence so overblown and extreme and cartoon that the gag is obvious. Well, obvious to most. Some viewers have occasionally taken issue with this historically inaccurate ending, presumably failing to grasp the fairy-tale context (as did people who have criticised the noir stylings and punchy plotting in a film called… Pulp Fiction). Like a similar beat in Inglourious Basterds – which saw Adolf Hitler massacred in a cinema – this is Quentin exacting fantasy justice. Literalness and reality are not as fun, exciting or illustrative as daydream imaginings can be, so the script takes true history and twists it into something more dramatically interesting, something more rawly thrilling, something more unashamedly playful, and something more like a fairy tale. Out of tragedy comes joy.

Quentin Tarantino has said he ‘equates transgression with art’ – and by being so unexpected, so unconventional, so flat-out funny while showing graphic violence, art is what the heady, fantasia climax of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood reaches.

Nine streets are silent… except when Rick Dalton’s got a fucking shotgun, I’ll tell you that, out of 10


			

My Best Films of 2022

Here’s my ranking of all the new films I saw in 2022. Let me know in the comments below if I’ve missed out your favourite…

26. Thor: Love and Thunder. I was angered by how appalling this MCU sequel is. Two hours of smugness, pointless cameos, in-jokes and incessant undercutting of any drama. Nothing is treated seriously and patience wears thin almost immediately.

25. Morbius. Superhero drivel with a terrible plot, laughable dialogue, blank characters, cheesy CGI, illogical rules and a stuffy sense of self-importance – the latter typified by Jared Leto’s tedious lead performance.

24. Mad God. A 90-minute stop-motion horror film, made by special-effects genius Phil Tippett (Star Wars, Jurassic Park). The dystopian, dieselpunk modelwork is an old-school treat, but it *really* needs a proper storyline. Gets dull very quickly.

23. The Northman. This retelling of the ur-myth that inspired Hamlet features some impressive visuals and a bonkers cameo from Willem Defoe. But while it grasps for mythology and ritual, the film is drab and pretentious. Characters proclaim things, rather than talking to each other.

22. The Invitation. A lonely New York singleton learns she has a posh English cousin, so attends a family wedding at “New Carfax Abbey in Whitby”. The name and location should tip most viewers off where things are heading… A boring, rote, hollow horror where a handsome lord turns out to be Count Dracula and the lead character doesn’t run a mile when weird shit keeps happening. Forgettable nonsense.

21. Jurassic World Dominion. The return of original cast members Sam Neill, Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum is fun as it goes, but everything else in this sequel is so lacklustre. The storytelling is really hackneyed, the cast is dotted with weak performances and the action is derivative.

20. Uncharted. One of those films where you start to forget the details while you’re still watching it, this is badly written, quest-based nonsense with a few laughs and some decent action. Tom Holland’s good fun as the hero, but no one else impresses. (Like in Morbius, the female lead is so cursory she’s not even needed for the final act.)

19. Amsterdam. A star-studded yet meandering conspiracy caper, set in the 1930s, about a doctor and a lawyer accused of murder. The arch, mannered tone is reminiscent of a Wes Anderson film, though it lacks either the zip or the heart that would make things sing. Christian Bale and Margot Robbie are watchable, and the score and cinematography are tremendous, but overall the film is significantly weaker than the sum of its parts.

18. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Engaging in parts but sloppy in others, this gonzo superhero flick was directed by Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead) and it’s a shame he wasn’t allowed to go full-blown horror – the flashes of creepiness and zombie stuff work well. But the OTT plot is a mess and you have to squint for recurring character Wanda’s storyline to make any sense.

17. Bullet Train. An action comedy with eccentric characters, lots of silliness, plenty of violence, some Family Guy-style cutaways, a few cameos, some oddball music choices and a general sense of glee. Not everything works, and at least one actor is poor, but it’s often funny. Brad Pitt is fantastic as the (relatively) normal centre of the chaos.

16. The Batman. Batman is now a myth that gets retold in various ways, like Dracula or Robin Hood, and this take has a *dark*, emo, grungy vibe, which pitches the superhero as a detective (honouring the source comics). There’s a terrifically expressionistic car chase in the rain and a sweeping sense of grandeur. However, Robert Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne has no charm, and there’s a big sense of seen-it-all-before.

15. Catherine Called Birdy. Likeable medieval comedy about a smart, spirited teenager (played by that little girl who was better than you think she’s going to be in Game of Thrones). It’s refreshing to have a coming-of-age story from a female point of view (periods are part of the storytelling), but the plot is too episodic to justify 110 minutes and scenes are occasionally too frivolous.

14. Hellraiser. The 47th film in the horror series (approx) is a reboot, and like all good horror films it makes you care about characters – especially Odessa A’zion’s Riley, a recovering addict who stumbles across the familiar puzzle box. There are flashes of surrealism and expressionism alongside the usual sadism and gore, while the art direction is excellent.

13. Elvis. A breakneck-fast biopic summary of the King of Rock’n’roll – from fresh, young talent to Biff-from-Back-to-the-Future-Part-II decline – and especially his toxic relationship with manager Colonel Tom Parker (a superb Tom Hanks). The film zips through countless entertaining sequences, yet barely pausing for breath, so a varied pace would help.

12. X. As if Quentin Tarantino made a slasher movie, this low-budget horror is set in 1979 – a small film crew attempt to make a porn flick at a secluded rural house, but obviously things don’t go well and there are soon murders. A film where the characters really pop, this taps cleverly into the 70s/80s slasher boom while there’s also some sly metatextual mirroring of the porno with the movie you’re watching.

11. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Really enjoyed this one – it deals with the death of lead actor Chadwick Boseman very smartly and sensitivity, holds its (long) runtime fine, contains lots of shades-of-grey moral discussion, and has plenty of feels. Occasionally shoddy CGI, though, and sometimes lacks a sense of fun where one would help.

10. Death on the Nile. Better than Kenneth Branagh’s first go at playing Hercules Poirot – 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express – by virtue of having a livelier storyline and some nice new elements. The look of the film is an eclectic mix of gorgeous 70mm cinematography, exquisite period production design and, sadly, some naff greenscreens. A few casting choices fall flat, but this is one of Agatha Christie’s best plots and Branagh the director spins all the plates admirably.

9. Weird: The Al Yankovic Story. With a sense of humour that flicks between parched-dry and outrageously absurd, this comedy about the 80s comedy pop star is a real treat. Yankovic’s career is used as a way of spoofing the entire genre of biopics: the rags-to-riches story is told with faux-Spielbergian wonder; there are celebrity cameos and implausible fudges of real history. The movie is consistently funny as well as gloriously bonkers, while Daniel Radcliffe is super as Yankovic.

8. Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery. This comedy murder-mystery sequel is a delightful puzzle box of misdirection, revelations, ingenuity and comedy. There are top performances too, especially from Daniel Craig, Janelle Monáe and Kate Hudson, as well as playful flashbacks and celebrity cameos. Not as tightly constructed as the original Knives Out, perhaps, but still enormously entertaining.

7. Prey. The best Predator film since Predator, this elegant action thriller is set in 18th-century North America. The theme of hunting (always key in this series) is used well for a story about a member of the Comanche who must take on an alien invader. Terrific cinematography and incidental music mixes with gnarly violence, moments of real tension and a lead character you care about.

6. Clerks III. Kevin Smith’s latest comedy certainly won’t be for everyone – but I was bowled over. A self-indulgent celebration of characters I’ve known for nearly 30 years (the original Clerks came out in 1994), but also a moving, melancholic study of middle-age concerns such as loss, regret, friendship and hope. Silly and superb in equal measure. (Quite why a comedy drama about men in their 40s who realise their better days are probably behind them hit home so hard with me is a TOTAL MYSTERY.)

5. See How They Run. With strong echoes of Clue and Knives Out, this murder-mystery satire/spoof/pastiche/celebration is enormous fun. Agatha Christie tropes, clichés and references swim about in a whirlpool of comedy, intrigue and meta awareness. Sam Rockwell and Saoirse Ronan are extremely entertaining as the detectives investigating a death behind the scenes at The Mousetrap, while everything is lightly directed with real wit.

4. Downton Abbey: A New Era. The first Downton movie had been disappointing – muddled, undercooked, overstuffed, with a TV season’s worth of material squeezed into 120 minutes. The sequel is a vast improvement. Focusing on two parallel plots, the film makes sure that every character gets a chance to shine and is brimming with charm, comic energy, period detail, effecting emotion and an undimmable sense of joy. There’s a mystery involving the Dowager Countess’s past, which involves a sun-kissed sojourn to the South of France, while the house is overtaken by a 1920s film crew. Wonderful.

3. Top Gun: Maverick. *Immaculate* blockbuster filmmaking, full of heart and passion and popcorn thrills. The producers and star Tom Cruise delayed the film’s debut until after COVID had faded because they knew this widescreen epic had to be seen HUGE, and they were right to be patient. This sequel is wonderfully old-fashioned in its use of a high-concept plot, vivid characters, spectacularly ‘real’ special effects and a perfect balance of plot, emotion, humour and action. Imbued with wonder, a sense of humour, awareness of cliche and some of the most thrilling aerial sequences ever filmed, Top Gun: Maverick is pure cheese – but expensive, matured, cultured cheese. The best 80s film since the 80s.

2. Licorice Pizza. A magnificent romantic movie, set in 1973 LA. Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman (both making their film debuts) are *superb* as an aimless twenty-something woman and her charismatic teenage suitor, while secondary roles really pop (especially Bradley Cooper in a grandstanding cameo). Written with verve and featuring some wonderful uses of source music, this is Paul Thomas Anderson’s best film since Magnolia. Heart, attitude and whimsy abound.

1 Everything Everywhere All at Once. Dazzlingly inventive, gleefully surreal, outrageously hilarious and magnificently flamboyant, EEAAO is the kind of movie that reminds you why you love cinema. Michelle Yeoh stars as a middle-aged laundrette owner who’s undergoing a tax audit. But her life is up-ended when a version of her husband (Short Round from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) from an alternative universe arrives to tell her that only she can save the multiverse from destruction. That summary barely scratches the surface of a story that encompasses romance, comedy, action, genre spoofing, family drama, existential crises and people with hot dogs for fingers. To be seen to be believed.

The Batman (2022, Matt Reeves)

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A master criminal is causing terror in Gotham City, but can masked vigilante the Batman help the police defeat the macabre and deadly games of the Riddler?

For many genre fans the advent of another Batman movie results in two distinct but parallel feelings. On one Bat-wing, we’re excited to see how this version will tackle the well-known canon of characters and concepts. But on the other, a deep fear of seen-it-all-before-ness creeps in. So let’s take a detailed look at 2022’s The Batman, a reboot set apart from all the other Batman-related films of recent years, and consider the balance of old and new…

The context

We’ve been here before. Many times, of course. This list would be far greater if we included all the comic books, graphic novels, television shows, videogames and audio incarnations, but if we just count the *cinematic* versions of Batman we need to take a deep breath. There were movie serials for children in the 1940s, with the title role played by Lewis Wilson and Robert Lowery. The 1960s TV show with Adam West as the Caped Crusader was spun-off onto the big screen in 1966. Director Tim Burton launched an influential new continuity in 1989, which resulted in four films and three lead actors. A TV animated version of Batman was promoted to movie theatres in 1993. Halle Berry gave us a Catwoman origin story in 2004. A bold and incisive new trilogy by director Christopher Nolan started with 2005’s Batman Begins. Ben Affleck took over the role in a rebooted series from 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. In 2019, Joaquin Phoenix’s one-off Joker film was set in a brand-new timeline. Michael Keaton, who’d played the superhero for Burton, is set to reprise his version in 2023’s The Flash (and was also in a Batgirl movie that was controversially junked by HBO Max), while Batman has appeared repeatedly in the Lego animated series.

So why another Batman reboot? So soon? While Affleck’s incarnation is still technically a going concern? No one can claim that the world was crying out for 2022’s The Batman, which was directed by Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, two Planets of the Apes sequels) and co-written by him and Peter Craig. But among movie intellectual properties, the character is as close as you get to a sure-fire hit. Most previous Bat-flicks have made serious money, while three of them – The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises and Joker – have topped a billion dollars at the box office.

There’s also the fact that Batman has become a *myth*.

The cultural commentator Sir Christopher Frayling has talked about how certain horror stories – Frankenstein, Dracula et al – are now told again and again. Successive generations have, he argues, ‘rewritten them – filling in the gaps, redirecting their purposes, making them easier to remember and more obviously dramatic – to “fit” the modern experience.’ The same thing applies to Batman. Like Count Dracula or Frankenstein’s monster or even a folkloric hero like Robin Hood, he has outgrown his source material and become a cultural icon; a collection of tropes that are replayed in different contexts and in different ways by different generations. Each new telling both looks to the past, by reusing characters and concepts and settings, and looks to the future by dealing with new concerns and adding new ideas. To use Frayling’s language, these tellings ‘have managed by a process of accretion to invent another, parallel, text – which has filled in the gaps and made it “make sense”. Or, rather, make a new sense which fits the audience’s expectation.’

So while many people sighed with cynicism at the news of *yet another* Batman cash-grab, they have perhaps missed an important point. This is not a standard story that gets retold in diminishing-return remakes: Gotham City’s defender has become something more elemental, something more interesting, more malleable. Each new movie reflects its era’s preoccupations and the creative team’s focus in fascinatingly different ways. Matt Reeves’s film actually mutated out of an aborted attempt to make a sequel to 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice starring Ben Affleck, who was originally also going to direct. But when Reeves came aboard, he reshaped the project as a standalone film with no narrative connection to the DC Extended Universe franchise – and this allowed him to fashion a new version of the character and of Gotham City, and to explore a different set of themes. As The Batman’s star Robert Pattinson has said, ‘The more people reinterpret [Batman], the space to reinvent it gets smaller – but actually I think it just gets more specific.’

The events

Bruce Wayne and his superhero alter ego were born in the pages of a comic book published by DC. That these initials stand for Detective Comics is our key to understanding the conception of Batman. Artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger looked to fictional detectives and avenging adventurers as their inspirations: echoes of Zorro (a masked vigilante created in 1919) and The Phantom (a comic-book crimefighter who had debuted in 1936) would have sounded for astute readers when Batman first appeared in 1939. As with any detective story, the impact of Sherlock Holmes was never far away either.

This has always set him apart from most comic-book superheroes. While Superman is an alien, Wonder Women a goddess and the X-Men mutants, Bruce Wayne is a human detective – he may have lots of money, guile and ingenuity, but he can’t fly or shoot laser beams out of his eyes. He’s therefore often placed in noir-ish, down-to-seedy-earth stories about criminals and gangs, rather than tasked with stopping the entire annihilation of the planet. The 2022 movie honours this perhaps more strongly than any previous Batman film: its plot is built on a foundation of crime and corruption.

We open with a masked killer stalking and murdering Gotham City’s mayor. As local billionaire Bruce Wayne investigates – under the cover of his masked alter ego, the Batman – he assists his friend in the police department, Lieutenant James Gordon. The killer, known as the Riddler, begins a reign of terror and leaves cryptic messages for the Batman, which lead the crimefighter into a venal underworld where almost everyone is morally compromised… A nightclub called the Iceberg Lounge is run by sleazy mob caporegime Oswald Cobblepot aka the Penguin… His boss is the Godfather-like Carmine Falcone… A young woman has been killed because of what she knows and a cat burglar is attempting to get her own justice… We soon learn about systemic dishonesty and dirty dealing within the police… And there’s even the revelation that Bruce’s sainted father, the late Thomas Wayne, had a dark past… The Riddler’s motives, as warped and dangerous as they are, are actually because he wants to purge Gotham of corruption. He sees himself as railing against a broken system.

The hero

Bruce Wayne, meanwhile, sees himself as the guardian of good and virtue. His first line of dialogue comes when a petty thug encounters Batman in a train station and asks who this masked, battle-suited freak is. ‘I’m vengeance,’ croaks Batman. (The choice of line is a deliberate move away from the standard ‘I’m Batman’ heard in previous films. The writers took the quote from a comic book.) But for all his powerful intent, ability to beat up criminals and high-tech gadgets, this hero is broken and flawed. We learn that he’s been established as a vigilante for a few years and built up a working relationship with the solitary cop he can trust, but this Batman is far from in control.

Cast in the role was British actor Robert Pattinson (below). With his emo eyeliner (to hide his eyes while wearing the Batman mask) and lank hair, this Bruce comes off as a younger take on the character than any previous holder of the role. In fact, Pattinson was 34 when filming began – older than Adam West, Val Kilmer and Christian Bale when they took over the cowl, younger than Michael Keaton, George Clooney and Ben Affleck. Deeply troubled by his past – murdered parents, as per with these movies – 2022’s Bruce is a loner and remorselessly humourless. (‘Why so serious?’ a previous Batman villain might say.) We hardly ever see him outside of his Batman persona, and when we do Bruce Wayne is moody, uncommunicative, sullen. There are certainly no scenes of him playing up as a rich dilettante for appearance’s sake, like the iterations in the 1989 and 2005 movies.

Pattinson is a curious rather than a compelling choice. His slow, measured performance fits with the sombre, self-important mood of the film in general, though he struggles to punch through with any deep understanding of Bruce’s psychology – and he lacks *any* kind of charm. The casting does, however, bring a whole new bag of references to the table. Pattinson will probably always be best known for his breakout role as vampire Edward Cullen in the Twilight series of movies. From a vampire to the Batman: it’s a logical step.

Many people have equated the character of Batman to a vampire – partly because of the halfway link of vampire bats. (The creatures do not exist in Europe, the home of the folkloric vampire. Their name was first coined by Cortez when he encountered them in Mexico.) When Batman was devised by Kane and Finger in the 1930s, an illustration of a flying device by Leonardo da Vinci gave them the idea of a bat-shaped silhouette, and many early readers will have subconsciously made an association. A dark, caped character who is almost always seen at night will have made them think of Bela Lugosi’s Dracula movie of 1931, which had established Bram Stoker’s vampire as a rich guy in a cape who enjoys nocturnal secrets. Very Batman. In fact, as Dracula scholars Raymond T McNally and Radu Florescu wrote in 1973, ‘The vampire possesses powers which are similar to those belonging to certain 20th-century comic-book characters. During the day he is helpless and vulnerable like Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne. At night, just as the mild-mannered Clark Kent becomes Superman and the effete Bruce Wayne becomes Batman, so the vampire acquires great powers and springs into flight.’

Speaking of Dracula, there have been several fictional crossovers between the Caped Crusader and the most famous vampire of them all. The two icons have met in various comic books, the 1964 Andy Warhol film Batman Dracula, a 1967 Filipino movie called Batman Fights Dracula, and an animated special from 2005 called The Batman Vs Dracula. Were Kane and Fingers thinking of Count Dracula when creating their superhero? This is uncertain, but the similarities are striking… aside from the obvious fact that Bruce Wayne is attempting to defeat evil, not spread it.

The allies

Like a lot of myths, the intrinsic elements of the Batman canon have built up gradually. Batman first appeared in a comic book in 1939. His ally in the local police force, James Gordon, cropped up later that same year, while his loyal butler, Alfred, debuted in 1943. The three most famous guest characters of the Reeves movie – Catwoman, the Penguin and the Riddler – made their bows in, respectively, 1940, 1941 and 1948. But these early characterisations have undergone massive redevelopment down the decades, both in the pages of DC comics and on screen – each restatement of the essential myth is remoulded and reshaped. (There’s no Robin in this 2022 film, incidentally. The sidekick has often been ignored in cinematic Batmans. The more grown-up the storytelling, the less likely Robin is to appear.)

Gordon (above) is played by Jeffrey Wright, who has form for assaying world-weary allies of totemic heroes after his three-film stint as CIA agent Felix Leiter in the James Bond series. The Batman’s take on James Gordon owes a great debt to a 1987 comic-book run written by Frank Miller; wearing a moustache and rarely approaching a smile, this Gordon is a lowly lieutenant with the GCPD rather than the powerful commissioner seen in the 1960s TV show or the 1989-97 film run. He must battle office politics and departmental rivalries as much as hunt for bad guys, but manages to retain a moral authority – Wright has called his character an ‘overwhelmed everyman’ – and has formed a trusting bond with Batman. As usual, Wright is a very watchable presence and implies dignity in every line.

Bruce’s other confidant, Alfred Pennyworth (above), is the only person who knows he’s Batman. For this role, Reeves went to an actor he’d worked with before. Andy Serkis’s motion-capture performances in the director’s Planet of the Apes films helped redefine a technology as an art form. As he had previously done with Gollum in the Lord of the Rings series and the titular ape in 2005’s King Kong, Serkis’s soul and humanity had shone through even when playing CGI-realised creatures; there had even been a campaign to get him a Best Actor nod at the Oscars. Here, his tougher-than-usual Alfred follows a lead started by Michael Caine in the Christopher Nolan movies and then embellished in the TV shows Gotham and Pennyworth. This Alfred has a working-class accent and you sense he would handle himself in a brawl. We’re a long way from the avuncular, retirement-age patricians of the 1960s TV show or the 80s/90s film series. Sadly, Serkis doesn’t get too much screentime and the home-life angle to Batman’s story is neglected.

Bruce Wayne’s major ally in the story is Selina Kyle (above), played by Zoë Kravitz (who had voiced a different version of the same character in 2017 animation The Lego Batman Movie). Previous filmic Catwomen – Lee Meriwether (1966), Michelle Pfieffer (1992), Anne Hathaway (2012) – all tended to emphasise the character’s sexiness, dressing in slinky, kinky, fetish gear and adopting a sultry, flirty manner. Kravitz’s playing, befitting the low-gear mood of this movie, is more pragmatic and iconoclastic. She also has her own agency in the plot: Batman stumbles across Selina when both are independently investigating a woman with links to the mayor. Selina is using her job as a waitress to get close to those she holds responsible for the woman – her flatmate Annika – going missing. We soon realise that this is a focussed women on a focussed quest. Focussed to the point of humourless, in fact, but Kravitz carries her storyline to such a degree that the film’s real emotional weight often lands with her, not Batman.

The foes

Annika’s fate is revealed to be tied up with the Iceberg Lounge nightclub (one of those movie nightclubs that’s housed in an industrial space, is always jam-packed full, and has endlessly flashing lights and poundingly loud dance music). The Iceberg is owned by mob overlord Carmine Falcone (below), a character introduced into the comic-book series during the 1987 rethink of the Batman mythos. He’s played here by John Turturro, who doesn’t exactly push against the crime-boss cliche: faux politeness, aloof manner, American-Italian heritage, sharp suits, high-end sunglasses always in place, goons on standby. But, again, this representation ties neatly into established lore. The world of Batman was cooked up in the 1930s, a decade that saw a peak in quality and quantity for Hollywood gangster movies – Angels With Dirty Faces, Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, The Roaring Twenties, Scarface – as well as the real-world arrest and imprisonment of Al Capone. Mobsters were hot news, so they understandably became a central Batman trope. The first season of TV show Gotham was built on Falcone’s power games with his underworld rivals, while the character is also a key factor in Batman Begins.

Speaking of Scarface, The Batman’s interpretation of heritage villain the Penguin (below) was partly modelled on the lead character from the 1980s remake of that classic; there’s even been talk of a spin-off showing a murky, Tony Montana-style rise to power. This Penguin – played by Colin Farrell under such heavy prosthetics and fat-padding that many viewers failed to recognise him – is far less urbane than Burgess Meredith’s cigar-chomping cad of the 1960s film, less theatrically grotesque than Danny DeVito had been in the 1990s, less deviously manipulative than Robin Lord Taylor in TV gem Gotham. Instead, he’s a rawly dangerous thug in a leather longcoat who knows he’s underestimated by those around him. Part buffoon, part bluster, part serious-as-a-heart-attack threat, this Oswald Cobblepot adds some skuzzy, slimy energy to what can otherwise be a cold and clinical film. In some ways, it’s a shame the plot ultimately focuses on his boss, Falcone, because Farrell’s Penguin deserves to be the lead villain. He’s also involved in the movie’s greatest sequence…

After realising that Batman has been secretly watching a drugs deal, Penguin makes an attempt to kill the vigilante – but then flees in his muscular motor, a Maserati Quattroporte. Batman gives chase in the Batmobile, which for this film has been redesigned as a Mad Max-style horsepower machine styled on a 1960s Dodge Charger. Production designer James Chinlund has said the vehicle was ‘meant to intimidate, it has to be like a monster,’ and he achieved his aim. The resulting chase scene elevates The Batman into something purely cinematic, something expressionistic, with two cars that feel less Fast & Furious and more like mythical creatures going battle in a fantasy world. Rain pounds down incessantly, Michael Giacchino’s score thunders away building dread and drive in every moment, and the night-time cinematography excels at creating a mood of horror-film danger. The sequence is not Marvel-clean or Spielberg-precise; instead there’s a chaotic, kinetic energy as we catch glimpses of action beats and squint to see events in smudged rear-view mirrors.

But the driving force of destruction in The Batman is Paul Dano’s Riddler, a serial killer in combats who murders the mayor and leaves childish-cryptic questions for Batman at crime scenes. (‘A thumb… drive,’ Bruce realises when a severed digit leads to some hidden digital files.) Previous representations of Gotham bad guy the Riddler have pushed towards a Harlequin-style madman, a loopy yet intelligent tricker who giggles with glee as he taunts the superhero. The 1960s saw Frank Gorshin in a tight green onesie and bowler hat, while in the 1990s Jim Carrey used all his elasticated facial expressions to ham up the character almost as a cartoon creation come to life. Dano’s version – real name Edward Nashton – is far less frivolous. His first scene, for example, as he silently stalks the mayor, brings to mind the unstoppable, savage power of Michael Myers from the Halloween slasher films. To paraphrase another killing machine from a different genre film, the Riddler can’t be bargained with, can’t be reasoned with; he doesn’t feel pity or remorse or fear, and he absolutely will not stop, ever, until his quest is complete.

The actor is well known for his attention to detail – for this role, he experimented with dozens of different spectacles before finding the right character-specific pair. (The effort was worth it: the Riddler’s clear-framed glasses add a brilliant off-kilter touch, telling us immediately that this agent provocateur is a few steps out of sync with fashion and the mainstream.) Dano’s detailed work also involved keeping copious notes and creating swathes of backstory for the Riddler – so much so that, after filming, he wrote them up into a six-issue comic book called Riddler: Year One. But – and here’s a problem that’s emblematic of the entire movie – this Riddler fails to feel fresh or different. In fact, for Batman fans, it’s impossible to avoid comparisons with Heath Ledger’s extraordinary portrayal of the Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight. Both are arch, singular reimaginings of age-old characters, rethought as personifications of violent chaos who have aims to confront and reshape a diseased Gotham City. But whereas Ledger’s Joker was threatening, unpredictable and awe-inspiring, The Batman’s Riddler (below) is closer to an incel; he even has online followers, all presumably pathetic, disillusioned young men. More topical, perhaps, but not as thrilling as a movie villain.

The visuals

‘Words are an impure medium,’ the polymath Virginia Woolf wrote in 1934. ‘Better far to have been born into the silent kingdom of paint.’ This is a tenet that will chime with director Matt Reeves and his collaborators, who produced a movie positively defined by its visuals. The dialogue in The Batman rarely pops as poetry or lands as insightful; the film’s power instead comes from the unified look of the production design – the sets, the costumes, the locations, the props, the vehicles – and the cinematography by DOP Greig Fraser (Rogue One, 2021’s Dune).

This Gotham City is a dark world, heavily influenced by the film-noir stylings of 1930s cinema – a genre that has been a Batmanian touchstone for decades, both in print and on screen. This is a place of shadows and contrasts and shades of grey, a perfect setting for its story about corruption, antiheroes and flawed avengers. The movie’s photography is not black and white, however (though that undoubtedly would have been an interesting choice). Rather, the central colour palette scheme is look-into-the-abyss black… and oranges that range from cigarette-stained to sunburst, a two-tone palette that makes you subconsciously think of the city as a form of Hell. Fraser’s darkly beautiful cinematography also echoes the just-off sensation of a graphic novel – tantalisingly close to looking like the real world, but not quite. It’s grungier, seedier, more decaying, more faded.

For the filming, Gotham City was achieved via a combination of methods. Huge sets were built at Leavesden Studios near Watford. The crew shot in some very smartly chosen sections of Liverpool, showing off the city’s grand Victorian architecture. And certain scenes were played out in a Volume rig, an interior space where computer-manipulated backgrounds can be projected onto an enormous screen behind the actors with eerily convincing results. The result is a grimy, industrial and relentlessly rain-sodden setting.

An obvious precedent is the LA of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic Blade Runner, an urban sprawl where it’s almost always night and almost always raining. The ghost of 1995 movie Seven (above) haunts The Batman too – in fact, this film could virtually be retconning David Fincher’s serial-killer thriller as taking place in the same Gotham. (In Seven, we never learn the name of the city.) Both films feature film-noir cops in twisted version of the modern day, buckets of rain trying feebly to cleanse the streets, and a psychotic murderer disgusted by what he sees as rapacious sins. (Also, a key character in both movies keeps scrawled, handwritten diaries of rambling thoughts: the killer in Seven, the hero in The Batman.) In terms of previous dramatisations of Gotham, 2022’s city most closely resembles the look created by Tim Burton and his production designer Anton Furst in 1989, though with the dapper, Modernist polish rusted off by corruption. The lavish interior of Wayne Manor – too fussily designed compared to the lived-in feel elsewhere – is like a Gothic cathedral; civic buildings have Victorian grandeur; costumes tend towards the mid 20th century. But there’s always a sense of order falling apart at every seam; that a reckoning is coming. By the third act of the story, this antebellum attitude is so toxic that The Batman’s detective story bleeds into a disaster movie. The Riddler engineers a massive, cataclysmic flood that threatens to purge the entire city. ‘Batman had to go through a baptismal transformation,’ Reeves has said.

The fallout

Sometimes feeling more like an art-house film than a blockbuster superhero flick, The Batman has slow, bleary-eyed pacing. Picking up his lead character’s investigator origins, director Matt Reeves has cited 1976’s All the President’s Men as an influence, especially in the way that film focuses on dogged journalists acting as detectives and hunting through myriad clues to get to the truth. However, while The Batman features a clue-based quest to uncover the corruption, it fatally misses the high-stakes buzz and sheer, giddy *dash* of Alan J Pakula’s Watergate masterpiece. Scenes that would typically be dialogue-heavy in a conventional thriller are played and edited slowly and deliberately, with gaping vacuums where personal relationships, dramatic tension and psychological struggles should be. Frankly, despite its host of postmodern associations and often gorgeous imagery, the film often teeters on the edge of boredom.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect is how The Batman deals so thoroughly with modern-day concerns such as corruption (especially within politics and law enforcement), misogyny and the very real threat of society breaking down. (How could it ignore such things? The Batman was written and filmed within the presidency of Donald Trump.) These certainly hit home on an intellectual, academic, think-about-it-for-a-blog level. But with a cast of characters so grim, dour and singularly lacking in charisma, the ideas sit in isolation rather than driving stories we can engage with. Compare with Batman Begins, to pick an example, which takes its Bruce Wayne on an arch journey of discovery, growth and defeating self-doubt; or the 1989 Batman film, which is so full of gleeful energy, wit and *oomph* that we instantly care about the comic-book characters come to life.

Another prominent theme in The Batman, which is evident in many superhero stories, is people hiding behind masks – both literal and figurative. Several characters in this film use aliases, conceal their true identity, attempt to reinvent themselves. Bruce Wayne prowls the city with his face obscured by a mask, as do Selina and the Riddler. The latter’s whole motivation is to *unmask* what he sees as Gotham City’s cancerous corruption. Carmine Falcone is forever hiding behind sunglasses (actor John Turturro: ‘I thought, “I need a mask,” because a lot of those guys did wear dark glasses when they testified’). Colin Farrell’s mask is metatextual – extensive movie make-up to hide an actor who’s much slimmer and more handsome than his character.

This motif extended beyond the fiction too. While The Batman was being shot, all the crew standing off-camera were often wearing masks – Covid face masks. Production began in January 2020, paused in March due to the onset of the pandemic, then restarted after a six-month gap in September with social-distance protocols in place. It seems that the movie’s biggest achievement was getting made at all. But that’s one of the things about myths: they keep on finding a way to survive.

Six comments and tips on detonators out of 10

Modern Vampires (1998, Richard Elfman)

An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: This low-budget comedy-horror flick, made for television, largely takes place in Los Angeles in the late 1990s. It’s an LA of seedy alleys, kinky nightclubs and empty hotels.

Faithful to the novel? No, this is an original story which uses two of Stoker’s biggest characters. When twentysomething-looking vampire Dallas (Casper Van Dien) visits LA to see his old cohorts Ulrike (Kim Cattrall), Richard (Craig Ferguson), Vincent (Udo Kier) and Panthia (Natalya Andreychenko), he knows he’s in trouble. Count Dracula (Robert Pastorelli), the local overlord of the vamps, holds a grudge. Dallas has often bitten and turned people without the Count’s permission, including a troubled young woman called Nico (Natasha Gregson Wagner) who now risks exposing vampires to the public because she has become a serial killer known as the Hollywood Slasher. Meanwhile, a vampire hunter called Dr Frederick Van Helsing (Rod Steiger) is on Dallas’s trail – he blames him for the death of his son, Hans, 20 years earlier…

Best performance: Someone with a career as impressive as Rod Steiger’s is clearly slumming it in a picture like this. Steiger, a pioneer of the Method school and an actor capable of both heart and heft, starred in many important and/or successful films: On the Waterfront, Oklahoma!, The Longest Day, Doctor Zhivago, In the Heat of the Night, Waterloo, Duck You Sucker!, The Amityville Horror and many more. By the 1980s, however, health issues kept him off many Hollywood casting directors’ Rolodexes and he resorted to parts in B-movies. In Modern Vampires, he trots out a wandering European accent but at least brings a bit of soul to proceedings.

Elsewhere, the cast is notable for actors with Dracula and vampire connections: Natasha Gregson Wagner, the daughter of starlet Natalie Wood, had a small role in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie and later starred in 2002 schlock sequel Vampires: Los Muertos; Natasha Lyonne (who appears here as Nico’s human friend Rachel and went on to star in TV show Orange Is the New Black) was in Blade: Trinity; both Casper Van Dien and Udo Kier later starred in sci-fi nonsense Dracula 3000: Infinite Darkness. In fact, Kier has numerous credentials in this regard. As well as supporting roles in Modern Vampires and Dracula 3000, the German was in the 2005 vampire film BloodRayne, has been Count Dracula twice (in 1974 movie Blood for Dracula aka Andy Warhol’s Dracula and 2009 short film Memories of a Young Pianist) and also played Albin Grau, the producer and production designer of 1922 Dracula film Nosferatu, in the 2000 drama Shadow of the Vampire.

Best bit: Needing help to hunt down and kill Dallas, Van Helsing takes the perplexing step of putting an advert in the newspaper. The ad is answered by a Crips member called Time Bomb (Gabriel Casseus), who’s introduced by a burst of hip-hop music. Time Bomb doesn’t believe in vampires but this doesn’t dampen his willingness to work: ‘As long as you’re writing the cheques I’ll fuck up anyone you say.’ This irreverent gag is what the whole movie is reaching for – a tone of ironic aloofness, not taking itself or the genre too seriously. Sadly the humour rarely bites, as it were.

Review: Also sometimes known as Revenant, Modern Vampires is an odd film. Light-hearted without being funny; featuring blood spurts and graphic decapitations without ever being shocking. It’s low-energy camp, essentially – a form highlighted by incidental music that tries to meld spooky horror flavours with synthy beats and cabaret-night chintz. (Famed movie composer Danny Elfman contributed. His brother directed the movie.) The script does the barest work imaginable to introduce or develop its characters, which means the resulting 90 minutes soon begins to drag, while the whole endeavour is directed with a tin ear for dialogue or drama. There’s also a pungent whiff of misogyny: Nico is rehabilitated from her time as a ferocious, feral serial killer… by getting a haircut and going clothes shopping; a rape scene is played for laughs. Modern Vampires’ Count Dracula, meanwhile, is one of the least compelling ever put on film. Not every Dracula has to be a copy of Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee, of course, but you always hope the use of the name will engender some new take or fresh approach. This Count, however, is first seen holding court in his nightclub like a drugs kingpin, torturing people for fun. He sounds like he’s not used to talking through his fangs and is a racist moron. The character has nothing to do with Bram Stoker’s creation, either as a homage to or a reaction against.

Three commercial lubricants out of 10

Runaround: Horror Special (1981)

An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Faithful to the novel? Rather than an example of Dracula drama, this time we’re focusing on a chaotic, loud and untamed children’s game show – one episode of which featured a comedic appearance by the famous vampire. The British version of Runaround was modelled on a US format of the same name, and 103 episodes were churned out between 1975 and 1981 by Southern Television for the ITV network. The best-remembered and longest-running host was comedian Mike Reid, who later played a regular role in soap opera EastEnders, though Leslie Crowther and Stan Boardman also presented episodes. Dressed in a Slazenger T-shirt and barking his questions in his trademark east-London growl, Reid oversees the Horror Special we’re reviewing here like a supply teacher who went out on the lash the night before.

Broadcast on 25 February 1981 (so either four months late or eight months early, depending on your view), this Halloween-themed episode features the standard middle-class children as contestants. They run out onto the set in monster masks and are introduced by Reid, who reveals what hobbies they enjoy – stamp-collecting, rugby, horror movies – then sets a series of multiple-choice questions.

Best bit: The reason we’re reviewing this piece of archive telly is a pre-scripted comic interlude. The games pause and a hearse is pulled into the studio by some horses. The coffin lid then opens to reveal… Count Dracula, played by Carry On star Charles Hawtrey. ‘Ooh, hello,’ he says – the actor’s well-known catchphrase. Hawtrey and Reid then engage in some underrehearsed banter before a topical question is put to the contestants: ‘Where does Dracula come from? Transitania, Transylvania or Pennsylvania?’

Born in 1914, Charles Hawtrey had copied his stage name from a successful stage actor of a previous generation in the hope that people would infer a familial link. After working in music hall, revue and many films, he landed the most significant role of his life in 1958 when he was cast in ensemble comedy Carry On Sergeant. Hawtrey went on to appear in 23 of the first 26 movies in the Carry On series, always playing characters with his trademark persona: an effete, meek, mummy’s boy in NHS specs. But by the early 1970s, alcoholism, unreliability and an ill-advised attempt to secure top billing had blotted his copybook with the producers. He was dropped from the series after Carry On Abroad, and filled the remainder of his diminishing career with panto appearances. That’s essentially what his Count Dracula is in Runaround: a kid-friendly vampire who tells a few jokes.

Review: Not many of Runaround’s 103 episodes have survived, and in fact this Horror Special was missing from the archives for many years. Perhaps it was lost on purpose due to the noticeably inappropriate content used by the production team. Not many game shows aimed squarely at children begin with a title sequence that shows the host being guillotined and then holding his (still alive) head under his own arm. Elsewhere, the episode is peppered with horror references, with tame jokes about garlic sitting alongside more adult-orientated stuff. One question is based around a clip from 1974 film Young Frankenstein (‘Cost four bob to make that,’ quips Mike Reid, missing the subtly of Mel Brooks’s superior pastiche), while one of the prizes on offer is an LP of the soundtrack music from The Shining. The format of the game-show element, meanwhile, is bafflingly simplistic. As kids run around the studio like they’re on a sugar rush, there are presumably rules to be obeyed and points to be given out. But no one seems that keen on following or explaining them.

Five film projectors (for those private viewings of all your favourite super-scary movies) out of 10

Every Kevin Smith film – reviewed

Spoiler warning: a few minor plot points are revealed below

For nearly 30 years, American writer/director Kevin Smith has ploughed an idiosyncratic furrow. From his indie-classic debut, Clerks, right through to its 2022 sequel, Smith does not toe a line or clip his own wings to fit in. Whether it be potty-mouthed comedies, near-the-edge horrors or self-celebratory mash-up movies that reprise old characters, his work could not be mistaken for someone else – his fingerprints are smudged over every frame.

Not all his movies have been successful. Some have flopped financially, while many have bewildered and frustrated critics. But he’s acquired a large and dedicated fanbase, who he regularly connects with directly through numerous podcasts and blogs, and he has built himself into a brand: a film director who essentially moonlights as a stand-up comedian. Smith is clearly an extremely smart and savvy guy, very aware of the movie industry’s pitfalls and able to huckster his way through three decades of funding and releases.

If anything, he sometimes seems too self-aware for his own good. Watch just a few random interviews and you soon think that Kevin Smith hangs off every word ever written about him – by a critic, by a colleague or by a fan in a tweet. But if you keep watching those interviews and reading those blogs and listening to his many podcasts and DVD commentaries – and I have done recently – you can’t help but like him. With his working-class chumminess (he loves setting films in his beloved New Jersey; he has a habit of calling friends by their surnames), and his clear love of actors (having got their breaks in Kevin Smith films, stars Ben Affleck and Jason Lee keep showing up for small roles), Smith comes off as fun to hang around with – in person or via his movies.

He’s also a classic underdog. Not as cinematically talented as his peers Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson, nor as insightful as his hero Richard Linklater, Smith has nevertheless carved a stellar career by most people’s standards. Fourteen films in 28 years is an astonishing record, even if – as we’ll see below – quite a few are misfires.

To celebrate the fascinating CV of Kevin Smith, I set myself the challenge of watching his films and recording my thoughts. I’d seen about half of them before (I was a huge fan of Clerks and Mallrats at the time, then drifted away after being disappointed by Dogma), but others were new to me…

Clerks (1994)

Kevin Smith’s debut film is a low-fi gem – a vividly written comedy drama with an am-dram cast, set on one day in mostly one location, made in black-and-white on a über-indie budget of $27,000. (Smith raised the dough by selling his comic-book collection and maxing out several credit cards.) The crew was tiny, production corners were cut, some actors are pretty poor, and cinematographer Dave Klein has since admitted he didn’t know what he was doing. But while Clerks lacks professional polish, the rough-and-tumble aesthetic perfectly suits its drifting-through-life characters. The story takes place in a working-class convenience store. Stuck-in-a-rut twenty-something Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran, nicely sympathetic) has been coerced into doing a shift at short notice (‘I’m not even supposed to be here today!’ becomes his mantra). His slacker buddy Randal (Jeff Anderson, incredibly watchable) nominally runs the video shop next door but spends most of his time hanging out with Dante – and the rest deliberately insulting customers. Dante is also juggling a love triangle with current girlfriend Marilyn (Veronica Loughran) and ex Caitlin (Lisa Spoonauer), while a pair of dopeheads (played by Smith and his sometimes-drunk-on-camera pal Jason Mewes) loiter outside selling drugs. The film brims with comic energy, electric dialogue, ramshackle charisma and angry wit, even if some gags have dated badly (especially a bad-taste incident with a dead body). It’s easy to see why this film was such a critical darling and financial hit – and why Kevin Smith was soon being courted by Hollywood players Miramax.
Nine Death Star contractors out of 10

Mallrats (1995)

For Smith’s follow-up to Clerks the studio asked for a ‘smart Porkies’ – on the basis that there was a gap in the market for risqué teen comedies – but what they ended up with is more like a ‘childish John Hughes film’. As with Clerks this is a comedy set on one day, and sees friends TS (Jeremy London) and Brodie (a star-making turn from My Name Is Earl’s Jason Lee) hanging out in their local shopping mall. The loosely woven plot has several threads: both boys have problems in their love life and become involved in a scheme to sabotage a game show, Brodie gets into a feud with a bully played by Ben Affleck (in his first of many Kevin Smith roles), comic-book legend Stan Lee cameos as himself, the comedic drug-dealers Jay and Silent Bob return from Clerks, a Magic Eye picture causes confusion and a schoolgirl keeps a diary of her sex experiences with grown men. (Jay and Silent Bob’s role in the story establishes Mallrats and Clerks as part of a shared universe – the ‘View Askewniverse’, named after Kevin Smith’s production company. Mallrats is actually a prequel, taking place the day before Dante was called into work.) The film’s silliness grates a few times, especially as we follow Jay and Silent Bob’s slapstick subplot, while the naive misogyny on show is risible. The movie is also photographed appallingly at times – static cameras, ugly angles, bad pacing. (Smith has often been criticised for a lack of visual style: his early films are typified by a plonk-the-camera-down-anywhere vibe.) But Mallrats still has much going for it – the dialogue is terrific and reeled off at a clip, the humour has bite, while the Generation-X mood from Clerks is given a pump of immature enthusiasm that’s hard to dislike.
Eight schooners out of 10

Chasing Amy (1997)

Smith’s third movie – a romcom – is the first that feels like a proper Hollywood effort. Here, the leads have star quality, the camera moves, actors are well lit, the cutting is in sync with the storytelling, and scenes have dramatic beats – things that were previously in short supply. Ben Affleck and Jason Lee return from Mallrats, this time playing comic-book artists Holden McNeil and Banky Edwards. When Holden falls for a women he meets at a convention, he’s perplexed to realise that she’s gay. Despite this, Alyssa Jones (Joey Lauren Adams, who was dating Kevin Smith at the time) finds herself drawn to him anyway, while Banky suffers from jealousy as his friend’s attention drifts away from their partnership… The movie was criticised at the time for being an example of the ‘straight man turns a sexy lesbian’ cliché, but it actually plays better now in an era where fluid identities are more accepted; the drama concerns characters who are struggling with society’s idea of who they should be, whether that be an alpha male or a lesbian. Having said that, some of the sexual politics have aged very badly – or, rather, were already stale in 1997. Is it really plausible that a grown man wouldn’t know what lesbian sex involves? Overall Chasing Amy is decent, watchable and engaging. It also helps that Jay and Silent Bob – by now prerequisites in a Kevin Smith movie – are wisely restricted to just one key scene, in which they act as a sounding board for Holden as well as a burst of comic relief.
Seven figments of your fucking imagination out of 10

Dogma (1999)

Dogma starts with an on-screen disclaimer, imploring viewers to remember that it’s a comedy. The text was added to offset some controversy generated by the religious subject matter, but it turned out to be a wise move – because you’d never tell otherwise. Laughs are virtually nonexistent… Following several characters in a storyline about two fallen angels (Matt Damon and Ben Affleck) attempting to get back into heaven, Dogma is a disjointed and jittery work, seemingly made by people with short attention spans. Ideas and jokes are introduced, bounced around erratically, and often dropped. The dialogue, so strong in Smith’s earlier scripts, is lumpen, leaden and largely made up of exposition (Chris Rock seems to do little but explain and make fun of Christian mythology). And the religious satire itself – which somehow managed to raise the hackles of a few thin-skinned believers – feels like it’s been written by sixth-formers who think they’re the first people to ever spot that Christianity contains some contradictions. The movie’s de facto lead character is played by Linda Fiorentino, who flounders as a terribly written character who is either angry or blasé depending on what the scene needs. (Actress and director clashed, and at times weren’t speaking to each other during filming.) Affleck and Damon, meanwhile, who were cast here soon after their Oscar-winning time with Good Will Hunting, come off as complacently smug. Jay and Silent Bob are involved again for no real reason, Salma Hayek pops up as a pointless character, Janeane Garofalo is wasted in a one-scene part and Alanis Morissette cameos (mutely) as God. No one can save the film: things are so tawdry that even the great Alan Rickman, who plays a bitter, sarcastic angel, is annoying.
Three consequences schmonsequences out of 10

Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001)

Both Chasing Amy and Dogma had been very profitable for Miramax, who then gave Smith more or less free rein on his next picture. Sadly, the result was an abject lesson of what happens when a director with no willpower is allowed to just amuse himself and his mates. Jay and Silent Bob Strikes Back, which puts the stoner sidekicks front and centre, is ninety minutes of self-indulgent in-jokes, pop-culture references, appearances by characters from previous Kevin Smith films, actors playing multiple roles and nonsensical storytelling, all propped up by gross-out, misogynistic and ‘gay is funny’ humour. When the druggie double act realise that a Hollywood movie is being made about them – an idea spun off a detail in Chasing Amy – they begin a cross-country trip to stop the production… and get entangled in any number of tiresome diversions. The comedy often aims for the goofiness of Austin Powers but fatally lacks that movie’s self-deprecation, so ends up closer in tone to one of those latter-day National Lampoon films that desperately wants to be American Pie. Given by far the biggest role of his career, Jason Mewes (Jay) almost gets by on chutzpah alone – you *can* see why Smith has always been so enamoured with his troubled pal – but the rest of the cast is a hotchpotch of good actors dropping down a division (Ben Affleck, Eliza Dushku, Jason Lee), celebrities demeaning themselves in small roles (Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Will Ferrell, Judd Nelson, George Carlin, many more) and Smith’s rep company being wheeled out (Jeff Anderson and Brian O’Halloran have pointless cameos). A kind, sympathetic view of this movie would be think of it as the flamboyant celebration of a film director’s personality, a one-man Avengers Assemble that collects elements and characters from his first decade of moviemaking for a blow-out party. In the cold light of 20 years later, though, it’s just a ghastly, hubristic experience.
Two communication tools used the world over where people can come together to bitch about movies and share pornography with one another out of 10

Jersey Girl (2004)

The slump continues. After Kevin Smith’s slide into more and more self-indulgence with the previous two films, Jersey Girl was supposed to be his mainstream breakout – a large-budget Hollywood romcom with bankable stars. Sadly, by toning down his inherent Smithism and stepping away from his View Askewniverse continuity (in part because he didn’t want to work with his muse Mewes until the latter dealt with his addiction issues), the writer/director ended up making a mawkish and moribund flop. The script features characters photocopied from a thousand other films: a sad, lonely but matinee-idol-handsome man (Ben Affleck), who’s widowed after the death of his angelic wife (Jennifer Lopez); their cutesy, cheeky young daughter (Raquel Castro); a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (Liv Tyler) who comes into his life and gives him a new happiness; and his frustrated but kindly father (George Carlin). Before release, the movie was adversely affected by poor test screenings, studio interference, and the negative publicity generated by Affleck and Lopez’s previous film, the lambasted Gigli. But none of that explains away the factory-line plotting, bland characters and rote acting (Liv Tyler does nothing with her blank character). Smith later more or less disowned the movie, even adding an apologetic gag in his credits of his next film, thanking Jersey Girl ‘for taking it so hard in the ass and never complaining.’
Five boobies out of 10

Clerks II (2006)

Dante and Randal, the two friends at the centre of Kevin Smith’s first film, have been a recurring presence in the director’s career. This is not surprising, given that they were inspired by his pre-fame days working in a convenience store. He even planned on playing Randal himself, before he realised how busy he’d be directing. The pair made a brief appearance in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, while actors Brian O’Halloran and Jeff Anderson had various other roles in Mallrats, Chasing Amy and Dogma. But in 2006, Smith made a full-blown Clerks sequel which shone a new spotlight on Dante and Randal – and the result was one of his very best movies. It actually took some cajoling to get Anderson to return. Clearly someone with no time for celebrity bullshit, the actor has seemed to struggle with the legacy of Clerks and at one point fell out with Smith over money. But having enjoyed reminiscing with the old gang while working on a Clerks DVD box set, he agreed to Clerks II on the strength of the script… As we catch up with Randal and Dante a decade after that chaotic day at the Quick Stop, they’re now working at a fast-food joint with Rosario Dawson’s branch manager Becky and Trevor Fehrman’s dopey burger-flipper Elias. The four bicker and discuss life, talk to eccentric customers, and get involved in an extreme and illegal piece of live theatre. O’Halloran and Anderson are terrific, instantly reigniting their old chemistry and perfectly capturing how their characters would be 10 years later. Dawson is absolutely *radiant* – she oozes smarts, sex appeal and star quality – while Fehrman is both endearingly sweet and very funny. Just like in the first movie, the humour is near-the-knuckle and adolescent, but often hits home. More importantly, there’s now genuine emotion that drives several character stories – will Dante turn his back on the boring middle-class life ahead of him? Will he admit that he’s in love with Becky? What will Randal do if his best pal leaves him behind? One reviewer said Clerks II has a ‘dirty mouth but a pure heart’ and that’s spot on. We also get the best cinematography yet in a Kevin Smith film, shot in colour unlike the 1994 original. Returning DOP Dave Klein (who’d missed the previous three Smith films for backstage political reasons) makes Clerks II simultaneously movie-beautiful and yet real; heightened and yet still connected to the makeshift Clerks. A theatrically staged musical sequence set to The Jackson 5’s ABC is also an infectious expression of pure joy. A wonderful film.
Nine donkey shows out of 10

Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008)

When twenty-something housemates Miri (Elizabeth Banks) and Zack (Seth Rogan) can’t make ends meet, they decide to, um, make their own ends meet by starring in a self-made porn film – the theory being that all their former school pals will pay top dollar to watch them screw. The idea then mushrooms, with adult-industry actors hired and sexy spoofs of Star Wars planned. After the brief return with Clerks II, Smith again eschewed the View Askewniverse and instead attempted to tag himself into the then-current fad for frat-pack comedies about childish adults struggling with the real world. This genre, led by writer/director Judd Apatow and stars such as Seth Rogan, Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson, had been partly influenced by Clerks and Mallrats, of course, so in theory the move should have worked. But while the puerile sex gags in earlier Smith films hit home because they came from characters who were essentially teenagers (whatever their actual age), Zack and Miri are grown-ups with bills to pay and who attend a high-school reunion. The humour therefore tends towards crude and passé; then when actual sex is involved it’s relatively tame or played for embarrassed laughs. (Well, aside from one scatological gag that caused protracted aggro with the censors.) The romcom subplot, meanwhile, feels limp, while too much Apatow-esque improv has been allowed – Smith is usually renowned for insisting on actors sticking to the script – meaning that several scenes slide away into nothing. Poor.
Five all-male casts (like Glengarry Glen Ross? Like that?) out of 10

Cop Out (2010)

Smith’s only gig as a director for hire, working with someone else’s script, is a dispiritingly empty comedy thriller. It’s like if Lethal Weapon were remade by a particularly poor Saturday Night Live line-up: the staples are there – the sarcastic cops who bend the rules, the outlandish humour, the absurd violence – but everything feels like it’s been thrown together with barely a thought. There’s no class, no finesse, no wit, no oomph. The leads are actors with good track records – Bruce Willis, who is obviously (and at one point explicitly) trading on his Die Hard persona, and Tracy Morgan, who was then one of the stars of sitcom 30 Rock. A few years earlier, Kevin Smith had made two approaches to Willis when he wanted him for a cameo in Jersey Girl – and Willis had ignored him both times. Yet after the pair enjoyed working together on Die Hard 4.0, in which Smith took an acting role, a collaboration on Cop Out seemed a good idea. Things did not go well. Willis was unhappy about Smith’s habit of smoking pot on set and Smith later publicly harangued the star for being difficult and moody. (To his credit, Smith apologised years later when Willis revealed he was suffering from dementia.) But whatever the backstage ructions, on screen Willis is lazy, lethargic and boring, showing none of that stellar spark that lit up his best movies. Tracy Morgan tries gamely to make the scenes between lead cops Monroe and Hodges fly, though he’s got nothing to work with; Rashida Jones and Smith regular Jason Lee are also half-decent in secondary roles. But this is an horrifically flippant and charmless movie – there’s no heart or pizzazz at all.
Three knock-knock jokes out of 10

Red State (2011)

Smith’s career was now in a drift, his reputation damaged by a box-office bombs and bad reviews. Loyal fans remained, but the wider world was starting to define him as the guy who never topped Clerks. He needed a radical about-turn – and the welcome jolt came from this enjoyably grimy, grungy, grindhouse-flavoured horror film. It feels like a director flexing muscles he’d previously ignored. As with a lot of American horror, Red State is wrapped up with sexuality – the plot is kicked off when three horny teenage boys seek out a MILF they’ve seen advertised online. Their quest into the backwoods, however, leads to them being captured by an extreme Christian cult who punish them for their seedy urges. The cult is led by Pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks, absolutely mesmerising), a Westboro Baptist Church-inspired hate preacher, and this isolated, family-based community are violently homophobic and puritanically regressive. But Red State is also, as Smith once said, a ‘weird parlour trick of a movie’: the story then evolves into a shooty-shooty action thriller when a Waco-style siege begins. Using lots of handheld and shaky camerawork to keep everyone on edge – and an absence of any Hollywood glamour – Smith creates a terrific tone and maintains it throughout. The director is less surefooted when experienced actors such as John Goodman, Kevin Pollak and Stephen Root need attention as law-enforcement officers and he can’t find a satisfying ending, resorting instead to oddball humour. But for good or bad, this is a film with drive and energy and an authorial voice, which certainly couldn’t be said about Cop Out.
Six single-note trumpet blasts they pulled off the Internet out of 10

Tusk (2014)

Next, Smith surprised cinema fans by making another horror film – although Tusk has a much more absurdist slant than Red State. The idea for the movie was improvised by Smith and his long-time friend and producer Scott Mosier during an episode of their podcast. They had been tickled by a British newspaper advert offering a room to let for free if the tenant was willing to periodically dress up as a walrus. (The ad was later revealed to be a prank.) Enthused by the Blue Velvet-ish perversion, Smith quickly wrote the notion up into a twisted horror script and was filming within six months. Justin Long plays a mean-spirited podcaster, Wallace, who heads off to track down a Canadian nerd who accidentally sliced off his own leg with a Kill Bill sword. Getting sidetracked, Wallace then meets an old sailor (Red State’s Michael Parks bringing his unique brand of studied lugubriousness to another Kevin Smith flick) who has a treasure chest of spooky stories to spill. But the old man soon reveals a macabre and terrifying plan… With Wallace missing, his girlfriend (Genesis Rodriguez) and pal Teddy (Haley Joel Osment) fly up to Canada to look for him. So far, so good – we won’t specify it here, but what’s happening to Wallace is gleefully surreal, while Parks and Long commit to their scenes brilliantly. Then, sadly, after an hour, Johnny Depp crops up as a French Canadian detective on a serial killer’s trail… His desultory, self-centred, sketch-show performance – dodgy accent, wig and beret – is so out of step with the established tone that he almost completely derails the movie. (The role was written for Kill Bill director Quentin Tarantino, a pal of Smith’s, but he got confused and thought he was being offered Long’s part so turned the project down.) Away from Depp, Tusk – with its central plot like something from a kooky episode of The X Files – is an entertainingly weird body-horror flick, and the bizarre storyline is played with admirable conviction. The movie is also a world away from the point-the-camera-at-the-actors cinematography of Smith’s early films. Tusk tells its story via visuals, blocking, edits and music (yes, the titular Fleetwood Mac song does appear) just as much as dialogue. Good fun. Apart from Johnny Depp.
Seven eons of oceanic adventure out of 10

Yoga Hosers (2016)

While technically a spin-off from Tusk, watching this film is closer to sitting through a stranger’s home movie of a family Christmas – you get the sense that the people involved all had a marvellous time, but why the rest of us should be interested is a mystery. Two minor, unlikeable characters in Tusk were a pair of 15-year-olds working in a convenience store. Both were called Colleen, and they were played by Harley Quinn Smith and Lily-Rose Depp, respectively the daughters of Kevin Smith and Johnny Depp. Precisely no one outside the Smith household was asking for an entire movie to built around them, yet here we are… The setting obviously echoes Clerks (Colleen McKenzie even quotes Clerks’ Dante at one point: ‘I’m not even supposed to be here today!’) but rather than nihilist Gen-X-ers, these characters are Generation Zs who spend half their time on their phones and the other half rehearsing their earnestly awful music group. Along the way, there are fragments of a plot about Canadian Nazis, Satanists, sausage monsters and the joys of hating critics, but none of it lands. Neither does any of the intended comedy, which largely consists of mocking Canadian accents. (Characters saying ‘aboot’ rather than ‘about’ is the level.) Alongside the Colleens, Johnny Depp returns as his Tusk character, mispronouncing random words like he’s Peter Sellers in a Pink Panther film and being just as intensely irritating as before. A few other Tusk alumni return in new roles (Justin Long, Genesis Rodriguez, Haley Joel Osment), while future Elvis star Austin Butler and Lily-Rose Depp’s mother, Vanessa Paradis, appear too. Kevin Smith presumably meant Yoga Hosers to be a showcase for his daughter and her best friend – who, admittedly, have some chemistry – but the film is instead a phenomenally underwhelming, tediously undisciplined and wholly pointless endeavour. The most embarrassing and deplorable entry on Smith’s CV.
One douche out of 10

Jay and Silent Bob Reboot (2019)

Kevin Smith’s health was never the best. Weight came and went – he fluctuated up to 28 stone at one point – and he was a smoker until 2008. Then in February 2018, at the age of 47, the director suffered a heart attack after performing a stand-up comedy show. The news sent a shiver through those of us old enough to have loved Clerks first time round. Thankfully, Smith recovered and, now on a vegan diet, lost a vast amount of weight. The incident also gave him a desire to revisit his past. It had been more than a decade since his last View Askewniverse picture, more than a decade since he and pal Jason Mewes had played Jay and Silent Bob… More or less a remake of 2001’s Jay and Silent Strike Back, this film follows the characters as they head across country to stop a movie based on them being completed. But this intensely vague plot gets forgotten about for long stretches in favour of “comedic” diversions. Everything is just as idiotic and navel-gazing as in Strike Back, though now there are also facile jokes about the intellectual vacuity of reboots. The meta-twaddle even extends to Kevin Smith playing himself (the guy who made “that walrus shit”) because in this story he’s directing the new movie about Jay and Silent Bob. As their usual characters, Smith and Mewes gurn and eye-pop their way through a succession of laugh-free scenes, while there’s a conveyor belt of View Askewniverse characters, View Askewniverse actors playing new characters, View Askewniverse actors playing themselves (the film’s best gag: the cast of Clerks appear in black and white), Justin Long reprising his Zack and Miri character (retroactively defining that film as part of the View Askewniverse), Matt Damon back as his Dogma character (who jokingly claims he’s really Jason Bourne), Ben Affleck referencing lots of his own films, and Smith’s daughter Harley Quinn as Jay’s daughter Millennium ‘Milly’ Faulken, who like her dad is a gobby prick with a mute mate. Yet, despite the film’s relentless lack of hilarity, Reboot actually betters Strike Back. The first film had been utterly charmless, vain and smug. But this remake has a nostalgic bent that is at least understandable, while every now and again an actual emotion peeks through the foggy haze of weed jokes.
Five multi-movie universes that breed brand-loyal customers from cradle to grave out of 10

Clerks III (2022)

And we end where we began, with a visit to the Quick Stop convenience store and clerks Dante and Randal. The way in which Kevin Smith has periodically dropped in on this pair has been unquestionably the highlight of his filmography; the characters have been his ‘control’, the heart around which all the other chaos can swirl. Over nearly 30 years Brian O’Halloran and Jeff Anderson’s creations have become modern-day versions of Vladimir and Estragon, but rather than waiting for Godot, these guys are killing time while they wait for their lives to get going… Tragedy has struck since 2006’s Clerks II, while both men are still working in the same shop as in 1994. Jay and Silent Bob have taken over the old video store next door and now run a legal marijuana business, while old colleague Elias is dabbling in NFTs. But all their lives are shaken when Randal – who’s approaching 50 – suffers a heart attack. (The storyline was obviously inspired by Smith’s experiences.) Realising that he needs to seize the day, a recovering Randal then decides to make a movie about his life. Dante feels pressured into helping his best friend, while Silent Bob takes on the task of being a one-man film crew. Of course, you soon realise that the script Randal has written is essentially the original Clerks. We therefore (again) enter some *very* metatextual material as classic scenes are restaged shot for shot and self-aware jokes are cracked about the virtues of using black-and-white film stock. But do you know what? Despite being roughly the 17th movie in which Kevin Smith has recycled his own career, Clerks III handles all this in an endearing and character-specific way. The storyline makes perfect sense, speaking to that strain of nostalgia and the yearning for youthful happiness that strikes many men in their 40s. After the young-adult ennui seen in film one, and the existential panic of hitting your 30s that powered the first sequel, Clerks III is a midlife-crisis movie – and specifically a male midlife-crisis movie. Dante and Randal are looking back to former glories because they don’t see many new ones on the horizon, and that’s a deeply affecting basis for a comedy drama. As a celebration of characters I’ve known for 30 years, as well as a moving, melancholic study of middle-age concerns – loss, regret, friendship, hope – Clerks III might very well be Smith’s best work yet.
Ten kites out of 10

Agree with these scores? Disagree? Let me know in the comments below…

Voyage (2021)

Of all the unlikely musical reunions there have been over recent years, ABBA was perhaps the most unlikely. The group had parted ways in 1983 after a triumphant decade of joyful music, successful albums and global tours, leaving an indelible and classy legacy. The four members remained on good terms personally; the two songwriters collaborated on various projects; and they all benefitted financially from a smash-hit stage show and movie based on their music. Yet while outrageous sums of money were offered for tours and new recordings – more than $1 billion has been cited – Benny Anderson, Agnetha Fältskog, Anni-Frid ‘Frida’ Lyngstad and Björn Ulvaeus seemed content to leave ABBA in the past.

However, in June 2016, the four sang and played together at a private gala in Stockholm held to mark the 50th anniversary of Benny and Björn’s friendship. Frida and Agnetha began to sing the 1980 song Me and I, then the lads joined in – ABBA’s first performance in 33 years. ‘It was absolutely amazing,’ said Frida afterwards. ‘A lot of emotions. We’ve made this journey throughout our history. Benny and Björn in particular. It’s been very nostalgic.’

The feeling began to grow that the quartet could – maybe, should – do something again… Over the next few months Benny and Björn assembled some material and then recording sessions were carried out in secret, while plans were also made for a reunion TV special. When the world was initially informed of the developments, in April 2018, we were told of just two new songs. Soon after, the TV special was ditched in favour of an elaborate stage show featuring digitally created avatars of the band. News started to filter out about more tracks, but the innovative ‘ABBA-tars’ project was hit by Covid delays. Then, in September 2021, the official word came of a brand-new album to be released in November and a stage show from May 2022…

Cover: The solar eclipse on the album’s artwork suggests a new dawn – or maybe even a celestial visit from an all-powerful deity, sent to brighten and enrich our lives. As well as being a natty piece of design intended to attract listeners on streaming services like Spotify, the moody, autumnal, one-colour-and-black palette ties in with the iconography of ABBA’s 2022 stage show. ABBA Voyage, which features CGI recreations of Benny, Agnetha, Frida and Björn wearing Tron-like jumpsuits, is still running at a purpose-built venue in London’s Olympic Park.

Best song: Don’t Shut Me Down stands alongside the very best of ABBA’s music. This energetic, polished and thoroughly infectious banger was the first new material to be publicly released from the LP – as a double-A-side single with I Still Have Faith in You, dropped on the day of the album’s announcement – and instantly became one of the greatest songs of the 2020s. A gorgeous production is full of compelling chord progressions, subtle strings and a groovy bottom end. Agnetha’s immaculate lead vocal, meanwhile, is the latest in her series of powerful, characterful performances where an entire life beyond the lyric is implied through acting and emotion (see also SOS, The Winner Takes It All, The Day Before You Came). Don’t Shut Me Down is a dramatic tale of both newfound self-confidence (‘And now you see another me, I’ve been reloaded, yeah/I’m fired up, don’t shut me down’) peppered with themes of regret, guilt, reconciliation and poignant hope. There are also three key changes. Sensational stuff.

Honourable mentions:

* The subdued album opener is I Still Have Faith in You, one of several tracks on Voyage that sound like they come from the world of musical theatre. (After ABBA’s 1980s break-up, Benny and Björn had dabbled in the genre – most notably with Chess, their Cold War-themed collaboration with lyricist Tim Rice.) The song was recorded early in this new phase of ABBA-tivity (in June 2017), though parts of the melody were recycled by Benny from an instrumental he wrote for the 2015 Swedish film The Circle. When he showed the rough idea to Björn, his writing partner knew instantly that the song was about the band’s reunion. Frida sings the uncomplicated lyric of quiet defiance, then in the second half the track becomes rousing and the vocals become multilayered, which saves things just as they start to drift towards boring.

* When You Danced With Me has a faux-folksy mood – emphasised by a lyric about a country girl left behind when her fella goes to the big city, with mentions of the Irish town of Kilkenny, village fairs and the simple joys of dancing. In less-talented hands, the track would be a disaster. As it is, the band’s charm is still there.

* Just a Notion, which features elements of rock’n’roll and boogie-woogie, was another single, issued soon before the album in October 2021. It’s actually a reheated track that was worked on during the sessions for Voulez-Vous in 1978 then discarded – Agnetha and Frida’s original vocals were retained, but they’re now complemented by new backing music. The result is an up-tempo tune difficult to dislike – and a cute way of short-circuiting ABBA’s career, linking this 21st-century coda with the main canon.

* There’s a sci-fi edge to the enjoyable Keep an Eye on Dan, as ABBA dial up the electro-pop for an icy-cold song about a mother dropping her son off at his dad’s. Synthesiser beats, pulses and noodles provide a base for Agnetha’s emotion-soaked vocals, while the top melody is occasionally picked out by what sounds like a stylophone.

* Frida takes the lead on the high-energy and catchy No Doubt About It. Another ABBA lyric about relationship regrets (‘Hissing like a wild cat when I should have been purring’), the words tumble through the choruses while the backing track is densely packed.

Worst song: The final single released from the album, Little Things, is a schmaltzy and hollow Christmas song with twinkly production, backing vocals from a Stockholm children’s choir and the mood of a snowy singalong from a kids’ TV show. In another hint that Benny and Björn’s inspiration perhaps wasn’t striking enough for a fully original album, the outro is partly based on Godnattvisa, an instrumental track recorded by Benny’s sideline project, Benny Anderssons Orkester, in 2007.

Best video: The release of I Still Have Faith in You was accompanied by a montage promo. Celebrating the group’s original run of success, we see backstage footage, shots of the group with adoring fans, clips from classic videos and candid photos, all cleverly cut together as if they’re moving images on a noticeboard. Then, towards the end, the ABBA-tars take over – the uncanny-valley digital recreations of the foursome that fans would see for a full performance once the spin-off stage show began. Presumably ABBA Voyage will be the first of many instances of technology de-ageing (or even resurrecting) music stars for new live shows. How long until we can go and see Elvis at Wembley Stadium?

Review: Released 40 years to the month since the band’s previous ‘final’ album, Voyage became an instant smash hit – topping charts, shifting units, receiving warm reviews. A huge part of this success was probably due to some people being curious about a great band reuniting after so long and others being so excited they were always going to like the new music. But there were two other factors at play.

One was timing. Initiated before Covid-19 struck, the Voyage album was partly recorded during the face-mask era and then released 18 months into a global pandemic. As well as the countless deaths and the unprecedented upheaval in society caused by coronavirus, the world was facing tragedy and disaster from other sources too – the repellant Donald Trump had dominated world news for several years, the UK was dogged by Brexit and Boris Johnson and freak weather, Afghanistan had fallen to the Taliban, several entertainment figures were being found guilty of reprehensible crimes… The return of ABBA and their music – and all the associated positivity and joy – was, for many, a bright spot just when bright spots seemed depressingly rare.

And the other reason for Voyage’s high sales/streams and good critical reaction was that the music itself is so strikingly *ABBA*. Stylistically, Voyage fits into the group’s established discography perfectly – perhaps better than any other instance of a reunion album after a lengthy break. A guest super-producer like Mark Ronson might have felt the need to update, tweak, evolve, spice up or ‘make relevant’; essentially use the songwriting and voices of ABBA in a new aural context. But Benny, Agnetha, Frida, Björn and their team did not reinvent their brand; they revived it wholesale. So while we can swoon over classic-sounding new ABBA tracks like Don’t Shut Me Down, we must also concede that – like on most ABBA albums – Voyage has its share of unmemorable filler too.

Seven bittersweet songs in the memories we share out of 10

The Old Royal Naval College and Patriot Games (1992)

Needing to shoot a key sequence in the 1992 thriller Patriot Games, director Phillip Noyce and his team faced a problem. The scene takes place in central London, yet features a terrorist assassination attempt, plenty of gunfire and an exploding taxi. They would need several days to film this complex action, and closing down an area of the city for that long was a tall order.

The solution came when the production team did a deal to use a site in Greenwich in south-east London, which not only features some stunning 17th-century architecture but at the time was owned by the Royal Navy. The Old Royal Naval College, as it’s now known, was originally the Royal Hospital for Seamen and was built between 1696 and 1713 by the great architect Sir Christopher Wren. After the hospital (in this context the word means a convalescence home for injured and retired sailors rather than an emergency facility) closed in 1869, the Royal Navy took over and used the buildings as a training college until moving out in 1998. The site is now partly a university campus, partly a free-to-enter tourist attraction.

Close to a hundred films and dozens of TV shows have used the Old Royal Naval College as a filming location, as detailed in the site’s visitor centre. Filmmakers have been attracted by the architectural beauty and the riverside views, as well as the ability to completely control the environment and close it to through traffic.

From 1958’s romantic comedy Indiscreet, through Octopussy, The Madness of King George, Four Weddings and Funeral, The Golden Compass, The Dark Knight Rises, Skyfall, Les Miserables, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Thor: The Dark World and many, many more, right up to recent streaming hits like Cruella and Enola Holmes, the buildings and layout of the ORNC are recognisable again and again.

Patriot Games wasn’t the first to film here, but it used the location excellently as a stand-in for central London. So to celebrate that movie’s 30th anniversary, I set off to photograph the locations as they appear today…

The sequence shot here involves a group of rogue IRA terrorists, including Sean Bean’s Sean Miller, who ambush a member of the Royal Family. Their aim is to assassinate Lord Holmes (James Fox), so force his chauffeur-driven car to pull over and then plant a bomb underneath. The attempt is foiled, however, because of a passerby – the American espionage analyst Jack Ryan (Harrison Ford), who just happens to be on the scene. He uses his former US Marines training to intervene and kill one of the terrorists…

The superb sequence can be viewed here:

Before the terrorists strike, the scene is set. Jack is in London because he has just delivered a lecture at a Royal Navy headquarters building (making it apt the filmmakers used what was then a naval college), and is on his way to meet his wife, Kathy (Anne Archer), and their young daughter, Sally (Thora Birch). We see Kathy and Sally killing time before Jack arrives and Sally is fascinated by a uniformed guard at what is meant to be the entrance to an unspecified royal residence. In fact, the scene was shot the ORNC’s East Gate.

We also see the pair walking towards their rendezvous with Jack, which was filmed over on the other side of the complex to the west of the King William Court block.

Mother and daughter also stroll past the eastern edge of Queen Mary’s Court, which – thanks to the magic of movie editing – is a completely illogical route.

Jack, meanwhile, arrives at the meeting spot, which is atop some wide steps in the centre of the complex – steps which, sit between the ORNC’s chapel with its world-famous Painted Hall. These steps can be seen in a whole host of Hollywood and British films, usually redressed as period London – see Robert Downey Jr’s take on Sherlock Holmes, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Cruella and so many more instances that this blog would be twice the length if we listed them all.

The distinctive colonnades visible behind Jack crop up in many movies too: in The Dark Knight Rises, for example, Bruce Wayne eats at a cafe supposedly in Florence, while Keira Knightley and Eddie Redmayne filmed scenes here for, respectively, The Duchess and The Aeronauts.

These colonnades are part of King William Court, which houses the aforementioned Painted Hall – very possibly the UK’s most beautiful room. Once planned as a refectory, the vast hall was given an elaborately painted ceiling by Sir James Thornhill – so elaborate, in fact, that when finished the room was deemed too grand for the hospital’s residents. It’s since been used for state dinners, as an art gallery and, since the 1950s, as a filming location. Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman danced here in Indiscreet, Johnny Depp was dragged through the space (standing in for a Buckingham Palace corridor) in a Pirates of the Caribbean sequel, and Olivia Colman gave us her Queen Elizabeth in TV show The Crown.

Patriot Games, however, didn’t venture inside. The production team had an explosion to film…

Lord Holmes’ car is ambushed in the central open area of the Old Royal Naval College, with those iconic steps just off to the left in these images and the river to the right. In fact, if we turn right to look out across the Thames, you see in the distance the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf – a markedly different view from when Patriot Games filmed here. In the early 1990s, just one solitary tall building – One Canada Square – was visible on the horizon.

When it comes in the film, the explosion of the Holmeses’ limo is a spectacular set piece, and the decision to mount it in Greenwich was a masterstroke from director Phillip Noyce and his colleagues. The Naval College site, with its stunning and authentic architecture, sells the idea that this is busy, bustling central London – which makes the idea of an IRA attack more daring, more edgy, more dangerous. Patriot Games is a glossy, classy action thriller, and its location work – not just here, but also in Maryland and California – adds a huge amount of both production value and verisimilitude. (Just imagine if they’d cut corners and filmed on a dreary backlot set in Hollywood, the kind of fake street-grid of bland buildings you see in things like NCIS and studio sitcoms.)

I first visited the Old Royal Naval College in around 2010, specifically to see the filming locations from Patriot Games (a film I’ve always been very fond of). I’ve lived within walking distance for 20 years and now return virtually weekly for one reason or another. So, in order to research this blog post, I went very early one Sunday in summer; the ground had only just opened and there was no one around. The sun was already bright and warm, and everything was peaceful and serene as I walked around and took my photographs and imagined how Noyce and co used this space for their blockbuster. There was no sign of Harrison Ford or Sean Bean or terrorists ambushing a dignitary and attempting an assassination. All was calm.

The Old Royal Naval College is well worth a visit if you’re in the area and is open seven days a week.

Dracula [BBC Radio 4, 2003]

An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: This BBC Radio production, produced by BBC Northern Ireland and aired on Radio 4 in late 2003, is a heavily abridged reading of the book. We therefore hit the major locations from Stoker’s original: near the Borgo Pass in Transylvania; Whitby on the North Yorkshire coast of England; Purfleet in Essex; and various parts of London. As in the novel, the events take place from 3 May until 6 November in an unspecified year (probably 1893).

Faithful to the novel? Yes, the script is Stoker’s text, although a *huge* amount of material has been excised by writer Daragh Carville in order to fit the format – 10 episodes, roughly 13 minutes each. (By comparison, an unabridged reading of Dracula I reviewed in 2020 ran for 15 and a half hours.) While Stoker was undoubtedly a writer who banged on a bit – Dracula contains many passages that test the patience, especially when Van Helsing is giving neverending speeches – listeners familiar with the 1897 novel will find some cuts jarring. Vastly reducing the role of eccentric Whitby local Mr Swales, an old duffer who spooks Mina and Lucy with macabre stories about suicide, doesn’t hurt the storytelling. Barely mentioning Lucy’s American suitor, Quincey P Morris, who is often dropped from film and TV adaptations, is also a wise choice. But Lucy herself – Dracula’s first victim – is a shadowy presence until she becomes a vampire. She doesn’t even get to speak in her own voice: all 5,000 words of her letters and diaries have been removed.

Best performance: There are just four performers, each reading their characters’ diary entries, letters and telegrams. (Stoker’s full text features 16 narrators, though most are minor characters who are easily removed.) Michael Fassbender plays Jonathan Harker, who travels to Castle Dracula in the opening episodes, encounters the vampire Count Dracula and kickstarts the plot. Later the star of numerous Hollywood movies, including multiple entries in the X-Men series, Fassbender conveys Harker’s plight well. Elsewhere, Gillian Kearney (Brookside, Emmerdale) reads the material from Mina’s point of view; James D’Arcy (Agent Carter, Broadchurch) is Dr Seward; and James Greene (who later appeared in a 2006 TV version of Dracula) is Van Helsing.

Review: Some clever editing disguises how much original material has been jettisoned, and Bram Stoker’s story rattles along enjoyably enough and without losing too much substance. None of the actors generates much energy, however, while music and sound effects are sparse.

Seven doubts and fears crowding upon me out of 10

Wonder Woman 1984 (2020, Patty Jenkins)

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Amazonian warrior Diana Prince is living undercover as a museum administrator in Washington, DC, but must defeat a businessman who has taken possession of an artefact that grants wishes…

After her modern-day debut and her First World War origin story, this film finds Diana Prince – aka the never-ageing superhero Wonder Woman – in the 1980s. Younger readers may find this hard to believe, but the 1980s used to be unfashionable. Once we all moved on to the postmodern, self-reflective 90s, the ‘greed decade’ became a punchline of clashing colours, soulless pop music and commercial artifice. When the sitcom Friends showed us some flashbacks to its characters in the 80s, everything was mocked – look at Chandler’s dorky haircut, listen to the irritating theme tune from Beverly Hills Cop, see how naive they all were.

Then time passed and, crucially, people who had been young and happy in the 1980s started to write, produce and direct TV shows and movies. The 80s-set TV drama Stranger Things, with its overt echoing of films like E.T. the Extra-Terrestial and The Goonies, has been hugely successful in making the decade cool again. But similar work had been done earlier by JJ Abrams’s film Super 8, the US spy drama The Americans, the British cop show Ashes to Ashes and many other fictions that affectionately traded on the 1980s’ idiosyncrasies and charms.

So setting this latest Wonder Woman film in 1984 (after a largely pointless prologue featuring a 10-year-old Diana cheating at a game of Total Wipeout) seemed a decent idea. As well as developing the character’s backstory and showing us her life before she hooked up with Superman and the rest the Justice League, the movie could have some nostalgic fun with the outdated styles and politics of a previous era…

Now fully assimilated to life in America, and hiding the fact she never grows any older, Diana (Gal Gadot) has a high-level job at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC. But she’s privately sad and lonely because she’s still mourning her love interest from an earlier movie, First World War fighter pilot Steve Trevor. As the story kicks off, Diana meets a new colleague, Barbara (Kristen Wiig), who is initially presented as a glasses-wearing klutz who can’t walk in high heels. And on Barbara’s first day, an ancient artefact is donated to the museum. It’s actually a mystical wish-giver, capable of making any desire come true, and before you can say ‘plot development’ both Barbara and Diana have unknowingly wished for things…

Barbara wants to become like her new pal Diana – ie, a strong, confident, sexy woman with 20/20 vision – so soon casts aside her glasses, gets a nicer hairdo and starts walking in heels no problem. (That’s right, folks: this film flat-out equates a woman’s worth with her appearance.) This transformation… somehow… eventually leads Barbara to becoming a maniacal super-villain with a chip on her shoulder who looks like a humanoid cheetah. (Don’t ask. The scriptwriters didn’t.)

Meanwhile, Diana herself wishes that her dead love, Steve, would return to life… so return he does! But for baffling reasons he does this by taking over the body of a randomly selected nearby man of a similar age and build. Why the MacGuffin gives Diana her desire in this way, rather than Steve just magically appearing, or his 70-year-old corpse being reanimated, is just one of many questions the film sidesteps. In order for star Chris Pine to play the role, we viewers (and Diana) see the man as if he were Steve. When he looks in a mirror, however, he sees the poor guy whose life has been put on hold against his will. Rather shockingly in this day and age, neither Diana nor Steve (nor the film) has any moral issues with using a stranger’s body for a few days, even for sex at one point.

Anyway, the pair reacquaint themselves with each other, and Steve gets to know the 1980s. At one point, in a fun gender-reversal of the cliche, there’s a montage scene where he tries on a variety of garish clothes – Miami Vice jacket, tracksuit, scarf – with Diana disapproving of the bad choices. Diana also shows him the subway (ooo!) and a space shuttle at the museum (wow!). But all this lovey-dovey stuff can’t last forever, as Diana and Steve have a villain to stop.

The Smithsonian’s new benefactor, oil baron Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), is in reality a conman who’s been running a Ponzi scheme to raise funds. (Lord’s a fraud!) He wants the wish-granting device for himself, and when he tricks Barbara into giving him access, he wishes for the same abilities as the device itself. So from this point on, he’s able to make other people’s desires comes true – and of course he uses this to trick people into wishing for things that are advantageous for him. Cue superhero-movie action scenes and chases and cursory detective work for the lead characters…

An early sequence in Wonder Woman 1984 is set in the kind of chintzy shopping mall seen in 80s comedies such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Weird Science (and which was recently homaged in a season of Stranger Things). As a pair of hapless crooks attempt to rob a jewellers, and Wonder Woman swoops in to save the day, the filmmaking aims for the zippy elan of the Christopher Reeve Superman films, which had also been a clear touchstone for Wonder Woman’s 2017 origin story. Action mixes with light comedy, all seasoned with a sense of optimism and style. However, the longer the film goes on, and the less sense *any* of the storytelling makes, this optimism curdles into boredom.

We’re used to superhero films with action scenes that look cartoony fake, and WW84 has a wodge of greenscreen howlers. Maybe it’s not a big deal for Diana Prince to have no real character arc – other than sad-happy-sad again – because this is her fourth movie and it’s a prequel. But less forgivable is a script stocked full of clunky beats, head-stratchingly bizarre plot developments, contradictory rules, underwritten characters, laughable coincidences and the breathless oh-and-then-this-ness that suggests multiple filmmaking voices chipped in with ideas that couldn’t be vetoed. The ending is then so badly thought-out it beggars belief. In order to end a global crisis of Maxwell Lord’s making, every human being on the planet has to recant a wish they’ve just made – including presumably those who wished to be cured of cancer or for their starving family to be fed. Surely even bombastic, CG-heavy superhero films need *some* plausibility?!

Of the main cast, Chris Pine, Kristen Wiig and Pedro Pascal do the best they can; they’re good actors, able to add some charm and depth to their characters. But Gal Gadot continues to be awful. A lead actor needs more than the three gears (aloof, mildly amused and sad) she manages to find in this story. WW84 features a topical theme about unwanted male attention, with several morons coming on to Diana or Barbara and reacting badly when they’re spurned. But Gadot can make nothing of this, show us none of Diana’s emotional reaction, and leaves the subplot as just an obvious piece of pointing out the obvious. Elsewhere, Pine is left to do almost all the heavy lifting in the central romance.

But for all these failings and frustrations, perhaps the biggest letdown of Wonder Woman 1984 is how little it uses its time period. Frankly, the film could be set in any era of the last century or so; there’s nothing intrinsic in the story or the characters that speaks to, or about, the 1980s. True, we get a kaleidoscopic conveyor belt of flashy cars, keep-fit fanatics, shopping malls, colour-clashing fashions and questionable haircuts. And yet all these things feel like cursory set dressing; they lack the authenticity of Stranger Things and the like, which delve beneath the surface to say something about how society evolves. Characters here may have rolled-up sleeves and TV sets might be square, but none of the film’s politics, attitudes or spirit has anything to do with the 1980s specifically. Diana herself never looks or acts or speaks like anything other than a 21st-century woman, despite actually being an immortal goddess from Amazonia. A thoroughly out-dated mess of a movie.

Four trash cans out of 10