It’s been a busy time at the cinema with Assassin Club, Renfield, The Super Mario Bros Movie, 65, John Wick 4, Ant-Man 3: Quantumania, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, Cocaine Bear, Little Eggs: An African Rescue. I’ve seen a load of other stuff too, but this is what I can remember right now!
An absolute delight. This is perhaps the most perfect role for Nicolas Cage imaginable. Not content to chew the scenery, this time he gets to consume human blood too. He is every inch Christopher Lee’s Dracula and it’s a real joy to see how much care and attention the production has paid to his look and the feel of those films. It feels a lot like what Hammer Horror films could be in the twenty-first century: camp, very very gory, violent and action-filled, with the horror a matter of style not how much it makes you have nightmares. It’s a cool update, bringing Nicholas Hoult’s Renfield and his master into the modern world. Poor Renfield spends most of his time murdering people to feed Dracula, who keeps getting powerful and then blowing their cover while enjoying himself. Now though, Renfield has stumbled onto a self-help group for those with co-dependency issues and narcissists. Change is possible… Oh yeah, also when he eats bugs he gets a sliver of Dracula’s superpowers. In no time, Renfield’s hopes to free himself get mixed up in cop Awkwafina’s vendetta against the brutal drug gang who killed her cop dad. It’s a huge amount of fun, and is every single thing you expect it to be from watching the splendid trailer.
The Super Mario Bros Movie
Tragically, no longer a messy live-action affair, Mario and his tedious younger brother are back in an all new, beautifully animated adventure. I don’t really have a lot to say about this. I played most Mario games from the NES games up to Super Mario Galaxy 2, but it took a 90 minute film about to them to remember that I couldn’t give a toss. Looks pretty, has a bunch of things I more or less remember from the games, but it’s so… one dimensional. Even for a 2D platformer. There’s nothing here beyond referencing bits from the games, including Mario-Kart and Donkey Kong, there’s no character here apart from perhaps future incel Bowser. There’s no reason why anything happens, Mario and Luigi literally just fall in a pipe and end up in Mushroom Land and whatever the grim, dead-Koopa-filled region is called. Mario has to find his brother, talks Princess Peach into letting him come with her as she aims to fend off an attack from Bowser, and then every most obvious thing follows. This sounds harsh, but it is a kids’ film. I suppose I’m just not used to watching kids’ films that have no additional jokes or depth to be enjoyed an adult watching them. We’ve really been spoiled by Pixar, Dreamworks and Blue Sky. If you want Mario & co, then sure, this has them in it.
John Wick 4
I didn’t really like the first outing for Mr Wick, largely because they kill the dog, and I’m afraid that’s unforgivable. I got dragged back in eventually to watch 2 & 3 on TV, mostly because Mark Dacascos (who I adore) was in one of them – damned if I could tell you which without looking it up. They’re both very good action films, but were getting a little samey – after the gun-kata of Equilibrium there are only so many people I want to see get shot in a balletic way. Or so I thought… John Wick 4 absolutely raises the bar, with superb choreography covering a multitude of fighting styles as well (and including) just shooting people in the head. Bringing Donnie Yen in (to play yet another blind master) is phenomenal. I really didn’t notice the nearly three-hour runtime due to the wonderfully long fight scenes. The world of the Continental hotels and the High Table continues to make no sense whatsoever, but it really doesn’t matter as long as Paris is filled with hundreds of assassins for Wick to kill. As ever, Lovejoy/Al Swearengen (ian McShane) elevates the show, as does the final outing of the wonderful Lance Reddick. I imagine they just find people who speak beautifully and give them roles – whatever it is, they turn this very stupid world into something solid and credible. Very happy to see favourites like Bill Skarsgard, Hiroyuki Sanada and Clancy Brown doing their stuff too. If you like seeing people get shot by an invincible superman in a bulletproof suit who then falls down a lot of steps before returning to do more fighting in some of the very best fight choreography we’ve seen in years, then you should watch this.
Ant-Man 3: Quantumania
The first two Ant-Man films are some of my favourite chapters in the MCU. Ant-Man felt like the first time Marvel had tried to make a superhero film in a genre that wasn’t just “superhero”, giving us a deeply family and ensemble-rooted heist movie. It’s great. The second was just as much fun – small films with big characters, giving us Paul Rudd’s fuck-up hero and his little crew of thieves turned security specialists, plus the original Ant-Man and Wasp played by legendary living skull, Michael Douglas and Michelle Pfeiffer. The third alas loses the heist and small-scale story vibe entirely, replacing it with an admittedly cool trip into the Quantum Realm, which is basically space or another universe entirely, or something. Without the familiar heist tropes or his team, Rudd’s Ant-Man is just one of five Ant-Men charging about doing things and trying not to get killed by Kang. There are plenty of cool moments and I’m sure this will assist in making sense of the messy Phase 4 films, but I fear we’re still trapped in the nightmare of the multiverse story. It’s not doing anything good for the overall story arc because it cuts away all consequence and meaning – if everyone dies here, it doesn’t matter since there are a million other worlds where it’s all fine (see Scarlet Witch murdering her way through another Earth). It’s barely a step up on “and they woke up and it was all a dream”. A bad dream in this case. Fun, yet utterly forgettable, and a world away from the sheer joy of Ant-Man and Ant-Man & the Wasp. I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but everything in the cinema since Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings has been messy and inconsequential, and I fear for it all (the TV stuff has been great though!)
I’m not hugely attuned to the score and background music of films. If it’s done well and supports the action and actors then I guess it blends in perfectly and contributes to the general wonder of a good movie. In other cases it lurches away from the scene and is quite noticeable. So too with Assassin Club, where even the weirdly loud and intrusive music in the opening scene (following a teenage girl running upstairs to talk to her dad) instantly suggested a total lack of faith in the story holding up without musical props. That remained accurate. In theory, this is a lot like John Wick 4: a bunch of assassins are hired to kill each other, and in fairness, this probably has more story than the John Wick films, but unfortunately it makes even less sense and is not backed up by astonishing action scenes. Instead we’re stuck with a baffling, wooden plot and the kind of jerky quick-cut action that honestly, we deserve better than these days. Sam Neill and Noomi Rapace do little to make it any better, alas. Avoid, unless you find it in a Texaco VHS bin.
Shazam! Fury of the Gods
The first Shazam film was one of the most coherent and enjoyable of DC’s movies since Batman Begins. It wasn’t amazing, but it was fun to watch and vanished quickly as a popcorn superhero film should. Plainly it had to come back. Unfortunately it’s about three years too late, and the cast are all too old. Now, instead of transforming from a young teenager or child into a what – 40 year-old Zachary Levi? – the main character Billy Batson transforms from an 18 year-old man into… a different older man. It’s awkward and makes no sense. It’s worse when his foster sister Mary transforms, and is the same actor but with more make-up and costume. I’d also forgotten who everyone was, and worse I no longer cared. More interesting are the bad guys, the random Greek kinda-gods Calypso, Hespera and Anthea. Played by Lucy Liu, Helen Mirren and Rachel Zegler. The latter probably brings the most actual character, but the others are having a marvellous scowly time. There are fun things here: the kids have dressed up their lair filled with the terrifying frozen forms of monsters from the first film and are busy being the crappest superheroes their city could get. The goddesses want to bring back the realm of the gods, but instead plant their golden apple (which makes worlds, or something) in the middle of a baseball pitch and unleash traditional Ray Harryhausen beasts on the public. Don’t worry, no one appears to die. But the cyclops, manticores and nasty unicorns are rather pleasing, and better than the weird wooden dragon that Lucy Liu rides around. Spoiler: Billy Batson dies at the end in a noble sacrifice which is instantly erased by Wonder-Woman. Zero consequences, nothing matters.
Kylo Ren fights dinosaurs! Well, mostly. This is part of one of my favourite genres: really high-budget sci-fi B movie (see Pacific Rim, Life, Independence Day etc), so I am entirely in favour of this kind of nonsense. Mr Ren and his little ship of frozen travellers crashes on a mysterious planet (it’s Earth!) and has to get himself and little girl (a bit like the one he had to leave behind to get this job to pay for her medical bills – even 65 million years in the past, space-USA still has no free healthcare) to the other part of their spaceship and scarper. There’s a lot of scarpering, and scraping and sliding down things. When we see the dinosaurs they’re a bit weird looking, but feel very dangerous and murdery, which is exactly what we want from dinosaurs. For all that I’m very fond of them, I would never go to Jurassic Park, or the distant past. You can really tell this is a lockdown movie, with its very limited cast and not that much action considering the runtime. When stuff is happening though, this is enormous fun, and there’s much “trying to outwit a T-rex” (or whatever dino it’s supposed to be). I’m not convinced making Adam Driver and his passengers into aliens makes this any more interesting than sending them back in time would have done – they’re no better or worse equipped than the cast of Planet of the Apes would be. Fun!
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves
While I work in a D&D adjacent field and have many friends who indulge in the art form, I’m not a roleplayer, but I have absorbed a reasonable amount about it – and not just from the 80s cartoon or Stranger Things. I was delighted by the tone of the trailer when it first appeared, Chris Pine’s eye-twinkly bard leading a rag-tag band on some heist or other. Just splendid. And it’s executed perfectly, with the same lightly irreverent touch that the MCU brought to the similarly absurd and over-complicated yet incoherent world of Marvel comics. The characters are great, funny and well-played with warmth and confidence which brings the world of D&D to life. They’re not trying to encapsulate the whole game and its billion expressions, but it feels like you’re watching a roleplaying group being the people they’re playing at being in a game. There’s a story, there are endless nods at in-game lore without being either patronising or dismissive, proper stakes, lovely found-family vibes and some hard choices to be made, along with laugh out loud performances and scenes. Love the tubby dragon, Hugh Grant as a total bastard, the po-faced paladin, and even gelatinous cubes and mimics. There’s really nothing that should stop you enjoying this – it’s the very definition of a fun fantasy romp – and I’d be delighted if we got a whole series of them, with or without this cast.
This is sort of what you think it is – a big bear smashed off its tits on cocaine scattered around a forest. In theory it’s a horror comedy, one of my very favourite genres, but in practice it’s perhaps three ideas awkwardly mashed together resulting in about two thirds of a good film. There’s plenty to enjoy, from the eponymous ursid ripping people apart and rolling about like a cat in catnip, to Margo Martindale and Ray Liotta both having a tonne of fun. Story… um. Well, on the one hand the gangsters want their coke back, which has been shat out of a plane by an idiot, plus we’ve got two smart and snarky kids in the woods who need retrieving. Add some park rangers, an excellent mum, and a bit of cop drama, and you have a perplexing mess which is nonetheless rather to watch.
Little Eggs: An African Rescue
The rest of this list were pretty good, this is utterly abysmal. I’m including it mostly so I can feel like I don’t just gush about any film I see. I’m struggling to remember why we went to see it, but I can’t unsee it so you’ll have to just bear with me. It’s about some chickens who have eggs that they want to protect. Not chicks, eggs. Eggs with faces and legs and personalities. I’m unsure if it’s a bizarre piece of pro-life propaganda masquerading as a terrible children’s film or just a truly misconceived piece of cack. Possibly both. There are no highlights, but its features include baffling Russian egg thieves (who steal eggs from various species to sell to some rich fuck in Africa who cooks them at expensive, auctioned banquets – yeah, I know), the lady leader of whom has a terrifyingly liquid bosom and is briefly pictured hugging a painting of Putin. It’s just awful, possibly worse when we meet more eggs, some of whom are old and when they hatch become young versions of the infant animal. It’s truly baffling. There’s some hackneyed Jungle Book style bollocks, an unbearable talent show and eventually it blissfully ends. Don’t watch.