Author: Richard Norton

Gentleman, podcaster and pop culture nerd, I love talking and writing about pretty much all pop culture.

May The Fan Film Be With You

December 23, 2018

I am a huge Star Wars fan. So obviously I’ve seen all the films and tv shows many times (even the prequels). I’ve also read fiction set in that universe, as well as non-fiction, I’ve read graphic novels, played computer games and literally bought the t-shirts. However, compared to some people I am not very committed at all. Some people love Star Wars so much they have devoted time, money and resources to create their own fan films, original stories set in the Star Wars universe. They do this without hope of profit or reward and I always admire people who work hard on something simply because they love it. In writing this article I watched a lot of Star Wars fan films and was shocked by just how good they were, so here’s a list of five great fan films that showcase the different types of film being made.


Troops was one of the first fan films and dates back to 1997. Troops create the format and style of infamous reality tv show Cops and applies it to stormtroopers on Tatooine. A Star Wars comedy parody fan film could easily annoy me but they pitch it perfectly, mixing the almost polite and reasonable behaviour police demonstrate on Cops – for example trying to calm down an arguing couple,  to more typical stormtrooper behaviour like shooting Jawas in cold blood.

There a lot of cute details for Star Wars fans and when we learn that these particular storm troopers are searching for stolen droids we kind of know where this is going. 

The special effects aren’t great but considering when this was made this is not surprising and the grainy appearance could even be intentional. The costumes are dead on and they certainly look like stormtroopers. Overall this a funny and cool film that everyone from casual fans to complete Star Wars nerds will enjoy.

Darth Maul: Apprentice 

This fan film focuses on everyone’s favourite bisected sith apprentice- Darth Maul, to many people he was one of the few good things in The Phantom Menace. In this film, Darth Maul takes on a number of Jedi sent to fight him. There is limited plot and is essentially one long fight scene but it has the best fighting of any fan film I’ve watched.

The stunt work and fighting are very well done, the fights moving quickly and smoothly and while occasionally some of the special effects remind you that you are not watching a Hollywood blockbuster that is a minor gripe as usually they are very well done.

The acting isn’t always top notch but this is a film about getting to watch Darth Maul fight Jedi and in that sense it is a complete success. That said, the actor playing Darth Maul has captured that character wonderfully.

Jakku: First Wave

A lot of fan films focus on fighting. Light sabre-duels, blaster fights and dogfights are all cool but often they lack story and interesting characters. Personally I really need these things and can put up with bad special effects if it makes me think and feel something.

This film has essentially abandoned many of the special effects and set pieces fan films rely on. The film lasts three and a bit minutes and is of several stormtroopers waiting to go into battle talking about why they are fighting. It was an interesting idea as it takes the normally anonymous stormtroopers who follow a clearly evil emperor and shows things from their point of view. The costumes and sound effects are great and I genuinely wanted to know more about their story and what happened to these characters and that’s high praise indeed.

TK-436: A Stormtrooper Story

Star Wars fan films are such a longstanding phenomenon there are awards – which this film won. Like Jakku: First Wave this is taken from the point of view of a person who signs up as a stormtrooper because he believes in the cause of the Empire, he’s clearly not evil but sees the Empire as the legitimate authority and propaganda broadcasts frame the Rebel Alliance wanting a return to the lawless days of the Republic. This is an epic of fan films capturing the chaotic and dirty business of war. Most of the film is focused on a single battlefield, soldiers fire at each other and dogfights go on above them and they even come up with some nifty stormtrooper weapons.

Perhaps most interestingly this film focuses on the fact that in a civil war your enemies can be your friends, your family, your neighbours. How will you feel fighting these people? Why did you choose different sides? Of all the fan films I watched this one felt most like a complete film.


This is a very interesting film that I enjoyed a lot, it is the story of Hoshino who we see both as an apprentice and as a Jedi Master with shots going back and forth from the present to the past. We see in the present that Jedi Master Hoshino is blind, a vicious scar running across both her eyes and when an apprentice this scar is not present. We will learn what happened to her.

The film has great special effects including a very cool sequence of Hoshino assembling her light sabre just by using the Force to combine all the pieces.  There is also some cool Jedi philosophising between Hoshino and the Jedi training her which fits in nicely with the Jedi religion that Lucas created. 

There is a familiar plot of arrogant apprentice rushing into something they’re not properly prepared for but this is handled well and has some interesting features. There is, of course, the question of how a blind Jedi perceives the world and while I don’t know of any such characters in the wider Star Wars universe I wouldn’t be surprised if they existed.


Not Watching The Worst Film Ever Made

December 13, 2018
The Worst Film Ever Made

I once went to an all-night cult film festival and the cinema had three screens so essentially you had a choice of three films at any time. First up was The Big Lebowski, Brazil and The Room. The first is probably my favourite film. Brazil is Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece and a film that is so good that it can get away with casting Michael Palin as a sadistic torturer. And The Room is considered to be one of the worst films ever made. Its entire fame is based on that it is terrible and yet people were choosing to see this over either of the two classics. It is a mystery to me why anyone would want to watch it at all. I’ve never seen Raging Bull, Vertigo or Oldboy all of which look brilliant and interesting but I just have never gotten round to watching them and it feels a bit wrong to see something like The Room before Raging Bull.

The Room (IMDb)

The Room would fit into a category of film known as “so bad it’s good”, that a film with glaring and obvious flaws, with failures of writing, acting, directing can be enjoyable because of these flaws. Usually, it’s not just films that aren’t very good, there are lots of those films, normally it needs something more like the filmmakers thought they had something good. That certainly seems to be the case with The Room and while the filmmakers seem to have embraced the awfulness of their film it certainly seems like they weren’t making it ironically.

Despite its terribleness, The Room is genuinely a cultural landmark with special fan screenings across the world and perhaps has wrestled the title of worst film ever made from Plan 9 From Outer Space. Both films are so notorious that each has been the subject to follow-up films (The Disaster Artist and Ed Wood respectively) which to me look far more interesting than the original films. I understand that I am in a distinct minority in this opinion with many people taking great pleasure in watching bad films. Mystery Science Theatre 3000 has been going for thirty years on the simple premise of watching bad films and making jokes about them (while that premise is simple the rest of the show involves evil scientists, talking robots and captured spaceship pilots). There are many bad movie podcasts such as The Flop House, a show with clever, witty hosts who know lots about films – good as well as bad ones.

The Worst Film Ever Made That Cost $125,000,000

Another contender for the worst film ever made is Batman & Robin and I have seen this one and in my defence, I had hoped it would be good. Before Christopher Nolan resurrected Batman it had been thoroughly killed by this film. There is a supposed Batman curse and that accepting a high profile role in a Batman film will harm your career and this was certainly true for Batman & Robin. The careers of George Clooney, Chris O’Donnell, Alicia Silverstone, Uma Thurman and Arnold Schwarzenegger suffered severe harm and some have still not recovered. This should have been a big success. George Clooney has since proven himself to be a great dramatic actor, director Joel Schumacher had made good films like Falling Down, and it’s easy to forget that Schwarzenegger was once the biggest movie star on the planet. The film is a total fiasco with everything from the script to costumes being picked apart in the subsequent twenty years for being absolutely awful. Personally, I’d say this is a far worse film than The Room; as that was a small film with no stars and not much money the budget of Batman & Robin was $125,000,000 and for that amount people expect results.

Batman & Robin (IMDb)

Guilty Pleasures

Many people say they enjoy “so bad it’s good” films as a “guilty pleasure”. Personally, I’m with the brilliant comedian Josie Long who said instead of having guilty pleasures said you should have “brazen pleasures”, things you love and are proud to love them. This doesn’t mean everything has to be  Kieślowski’s Three Colours Trilogy but you don’t need to feel guilty about what you love. Ultimately there are only two types of films – bad films and good films, and what goes in what category is just a matter of opinion. It’s hard to make a definitive argument that Citizen Kane is better than Clueless and it is perfectly valid to say that Alicia Silverstone’s performance is better than Orson Welles’. Personally, I really like Clueless and probably enjoyed watching it more than Citizen Kane and have had to defend it to other people who consider it awful. To me, Clueless is not a guilty pleasure it is a film I’m proud to say I enjoy. If a film engages you entertains you and interests you then it must have something going for it.

Clueless (IMDb)

So what do people get out of so bad it’s good films and guilty pleasures? Is it just to see a whole group of people fail? After all, many writers and philosophers have talked about the odd pleasure in seeing our friends fail and apparently we get the same pleasure when total strangers do so as well. Maybe it’s even better for us when they spend hundreds of millions of dollars doing it. It still seems bizarre to me to spend time watching something that even the people who made who it aren’t proud of it. I have no plans to ever watch The Room. Maybe when I’ve watched every good film ever made I’ll move onto watching the bad ones but that will probably take me quite a while as people keep making good ones.


Review: Sorry To Bother You

December 12, 2018

Sorry To Bother You is a comedic over-the-top portrayal of a slightly different America and the scary places the pursuit of success and money can take you.

What’s Going On?

Cassius Green is a man down on his luck, living in his uncle’s garage and unemployed. In fact, it seems like most of America is rather down on its luck. Cassius manages to get a job as a telemarketer and following a colleague’s advice, starts talking to customers using his “white voice”. Cassius and his colleague are black and sound black to the customers. Using this voice Cassius is a huge success and is quickly promoted to “power caller” where he sells very different products. The problem being that not only are these different products but they are morally dubious at best. The more successful Cassius becomes the less ethical the products become, leading to truly unbelievable moral dilemmas.

There are several minor plots that mirror Cassius’s struggles. His activist girlfriend, Detroit, has an upcoming art show and considering she makes earrings that are just the words “murder” and “kill” it is sure to be a shocking show. Then there is the fight to unionise the telemarketers to improve pay and conditions which the authorities are absolutely okay in using violence to settle. Finally, there is the ever-present company WorryFree, seen on television, billboards and more. WorryFree offers shelter and food in return for a lifetime contract which sounds disconcertingly like slavery to many people.  

Behind The Scenes

Sorry To Bother You is the directorial debut of Boots Riley (he is also the screenwriter), best known as a rapper as part of The Coup and Street Sweeper Social Club. I would never have guessed it was someone’s first film and there is a clear vision and purpose with Riley tells a strong story. 

In Front Of The Camera

The film has a big cast and stars Lakeith Stanfield as Cassius Green who gives a great performance. At the beginning of the film he is very much a man beaten down by life and for the first third of the film he is always walking with a slump and looking down at the ground. When he becomes successful a very different side is shown and gives a realistic portrayal of a man struggling with his principles. David Cross provides the “white voice” of Cassius, with Patton Oswalt doing the same for another character and both sound rightly non-threatening and bland. Tessa Thompson is great as Detroit, Cassisus’ girlfriend who often acts as his conscience. Armie Hammer plays a very believable scumbag billionaire entrepreneur, Steve Lift, owner of WorryFree, turning unspeakable crimes into more palatable PR-approved concepts that will benefit everyone.  

Does It Work?

The film is very funny and enjoyable. Riley makes interesting points about racism and class struggle in America and beyond. The final third of the film makes a big jump into more extreme situations that some people may simply find too unbelievable but undeniably most of the film is utterly fantastic. The more I have thought of the film the more the ending has bothered me perhaps the sheer oddness undercutting the serious messages in the film.

Cassius internal moral arguments are brilliantly realised and his motives are clear. He was never trying to be rich but only wanted to support himself and those close to him. Cassius’ decisions are very relatable especially when confronted with more extreme choices. 

Riley handles the issues around “white voice” excellently. It is pointed out by one character that the voice is not just an impression of a white person’s voice, but how white people would like to see themselves – sorted out, together and there is an implication that none of the white customers would think this applied to Cassius. When Cassius uses this voice at the lower levels of the company few people question what he is doing, perhaps because he was on the very brink. As he becomes increasingly successful the people close to him are less comfortable with it. There are accusations of “selling out” not just because of using this voice but also the work he is doing is betraying those around him and what he used to believe in. There is another black power caller who uses the “white voice” and even Detroit uses a different voice at her art show – her “White British Voice” – which presumably helps her sell her art. It would be interesting to see how other power callers who were white spoke, does everyone need to put on some sort of character to be successful?

WorryFree is scarily believable and for the most part feels only a few steps away from real companies. Sadly, as are the economic hardship endured by many of the characters and thus making WorryFree the only alternative to homelessness. These problems are not just limited to ethnic minorities but show how all groups in society are struggling and sometimes the divide portrayed in the film wasn’t white people and black people but the rich and everyone else. That said, there are moments in the film that speak purely to issues of race, most – but by no means all – of the rich people are white and Cassius is expected to regale them with stories of Oakland’s gang shootings and rap for them.

On the whole, the film is great and gives the viewer a lot to think about. There are problems with the plot as it goes along and I’m sure some people will simply not be able to accept it for being too outlandish. The film reminded me a lot of Black Mirror or The Twilight Zone on a more cinematic scale, a world very much like ours but pushed to be a bit more extreme, like many episodes of these shows the concept and setup of the story is fantastic with the ending being somewhat unsatisfactory.

Verdict: 3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)


Screens on Screen: Computers, The Internet And Social Media In Films

December 1, 2018

The Internet is constantly taking over more and more of the world as seemingly anything can be improved by a WiFi connection. We watch television through Netflix, buy things through Amazon and google every passing thought or question that goes through our mind. As with any new technology, Hollywood was eager to pounce on the Internet for ideas.

What Could Computers Do?

The Internet and computer networks have been featured in films since the 1980s examining the possibilities of what “hackers” could do from accidentally leading to nuclear war in Wargames to even more sinister – changing your attendance record at school in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. It is fair to say Hollywood has an odd relationship with the Internet and that’s not surprising – illegally downloading films was supposedly going to destroy the industry while Netflix almost single-handedly wiped out Blockbuster Video.

Wargames (IMDb)

Online Secrets

Assassination Nation is a recent release that deals with the Internet and social media, and without these, there would be no plot. In this film, a hacker plans to upload all of the messages sent by everyone in the town so secret conversations, insults, gossip will all come out. Judging from the trailer, the whole town collapses into violent anarchy very quickly.

Technology and Storytelling

The new technology computers and the Internet have made possible hasn’t always benefited storytelling. Mobile phones would have ruined the plots of hundreds of films and so often now there is an exposition explaining how it’s a bad reception area. Hacking into secure government files seems child’s play for any teenager with a computer, replacing any interesting and complicated break-in. Tracking someone down was once the territory of hard-bitten private detectives but social media has made it easy to find virtually anyone.

The First Glimpses of the Internet

1995’s The Net was one of the first major films to deal with the Internet and created a terrible world of secret online organisations controlling the world and, if necessary, acting against you. Sandra Bullock stars as a computer programmer and shut-in Angela Bennett, a woman with very few friends or family, who falls foul of a sinister online organisation. They swap her identity with that of convicted criminal Ruth Marx and kill her ex-husband by deleting his allergies from his medical records and pretty much ruin her life. It’s interesting that identity theft has now become an extremely commonplace crime, although not quite how they imagined it. Far scarier these days is not that someone accesses your bank account, that’s just money, but someone accessing your social media and email, that’s your soul. The Net seems laughably clueless now and I think at the time people who knew about the Internet thought it was as well.

The Net (IMDb)

The Good and the Bad

The Social Network is one of my favourite films and I’m still angry that it didn’t win Best Picture at the Oscars. This is a film with a far better grasp of the Internet, social media and computers as, if nothing else, Facebook co-creator Eduardo Saverin was consulted for the book the film was based on. The Social Network talks about algorithms for god’s sake. As films about the Internet go The Social Network is broadly positive – yes, a close friendship is destroyed and most of the characters are thoroughly unlikable but there’s no Black Mirror-style horror. It’s not surprising that most Internet films are about the potential dangers; films need to be dramatic so there’s no film about how awesome Facetime is for connecting with friends abroad, in the same way, there are no films about genetic modification fixing hunger, it’s all murderous mutant hybrids. The Social Network portrays Facebook as largely a good thing, even if the origins of Facebook involve hacking, theft and some pretty mean stuff around rating the looks of women. It would be interesting to see how Aaron Sorkin (writer) and David Fincher (director) would handle making the film now after Facebook’s recent problems.

Ingrid Goes West is a film showing a very dark side of social media. It stars Aubrey Plaza as a young woman who becomes dangerously obsessed with people via their social media (the film’s title is what she names her Instagram account when she moves to Los Angeles). The film feels very current as if social media is in the news it is usually negative – it’s bullying, it’s stalking, it’s catfishing. Ingrid carefully culls her victim’s social media to find out where she shops, where she eats, what things she likes and very quickly her actions escalate beyond simply following someone online. Not to give too much away but unsurprisingly it doesn’t go terribly well for any of those concerned.

Ingrid Goes West (IMDb)

Horror has quickly embraced the darker elements of the Internet. Unfriended is a supernatural horror film viewed entirely as if viewing a computer screen in a twist on found footage films. So you see Skype windows, instant messaging, Facebook updates almost making social media the “setting” of the film. Another recent horror/thriller Cam looks at another often dark side of the Internet – pornography. The film follows “camgirl” Alice who is trying to put on ever more inventive and exciting shows for her viewers when suddenly her identity is stolen: someone has hacked her account and is streaming new videos of her but videos she never made. As well as being a chilling identity theft thriller it also shows some of the real-life impact of working as a camgirl – how devastating it can be if people find out about her career, how viewers profess their adoration but then treat her as less than a person, how getting help is much harder for her because of the way the profession is seen.

What Next?

In many ways, Hollywood still seems to be learning how to use the Internet effectively in stories but given it’s increasing importance it does feature more and more all the time. Unsurprisingly it’s younger filmmakers who have grown up it that are leading the way.



Review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

November 24, 2018

Netflix’s newest film is a western anthology by Hollywood legends The Coen Brothers

What’s Going On?

The film is a set of six stories, all of them macabre, some tragic, some funny and some a bit of both. Typical of the Coens it’s full of dark humour, brief outbursts of violence and unfortunate twists of fate. If these six stories were to sum up the Old West it would be a cruel and brutal place with moments of joy and honour.

Behind The Scenes

The film is written and directed by the filmmaking geniuses of Joel and Ethan Coen and it’s hard to sum their careers easily, multiple oscar winners for films as diverse as The Hudsucker Proxy and No Country For Old Men. While they have had some failures their successes are almost endless. As you may have worked out I am a fan. Westerns are not new to the Coen Brothers, they remade the western classic True Grit and won Oscars for No Country For Old Men which feels like a modern western. Then films like Fargo, Miller’s Crossing and The Man Who Wasn’t There all features tropes of westerns, like morally upright sheriffs, terrifying villains and isolated situations where help will not come from outside. A diverse anthology suits the Coens well and they easily move from the unlucky comic adventures of James Franco to the far more sinister goings on of Liam Neeson’s character in the next story. The Coens have always easily moved between genres, making radical turns to different types of story and so this film feels like it’s summing up their whole career.

In Front Of The Camera

Naturally, as it’s an anthology it’s a big cast, the titular Buster Scruggs is played by Tim Blake Nelson who has a long list of credits on IMDb including one of the central prisoner characters in O Brother Where Art Thou?, but the film also contains Liam Neeson, Brendan Gleeson, James Franco, Tom Waits and more.  Every actor is on good form, and some giving great performances. Tim Blake Nelson sets the bar high from the start and is perfectly cast as someone who looks absolutely harmless but is a thoroughly proficient killing machine, going so far as leading tender sing-alongs in saloons in between brutal murders.

Does It Work?

Obviously, the film has six stories and so some work better than others but all are enjoyable and each deserves time spent on it individually:

The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs

The opening story regarding Buster Scruggs is very entertaining, a man looking like the stereotype of a white hat cowboy turns out to be an incredibly skilled and morally dubious gunman who has an enjoyably eloquent and on the surface exceedingly friendly way of speaking. This story distils just about every western cliche of the expert gunslinger into one short story.

Near Algodones & Meal Ticket

The weakest stories are Near Algodones and Meal Ticket. The first concerns James Franco, a less than successful bank robber (featuring a scene-stealing appearance by wonderful character actor Stephen Root, you may not know his name but I guarantee you’ve seen him) and is the most overly comedic of the stories. Meal Ticket is a horrendously dark story about the cynical calculations of a person’s value to another and what happens when they look elsewhere for opportunity. But even these stories have their charm and I was always engaged and interested, eager to know what would happen to the multitude of characters.

All Gold Canyon

A surprisingly enthralling performance by the musician Tom Waits, playing an aged prospector digging for gold, where he talks largely to himself and “Mr. Pocket” showing determination and a great amount of grit. The idea of Tom Waits’ digging holes and talking to himself sounds boring but it was one of the better stories with you becoming very invested in whether he succeeds or fails.

The Gal Who Got Rattled

The oddest and most difficult to pigeonhole is Zoe Kazan as Alice in The Gal Who Got Rattled, a story that starts as unrelentingly bleak with the occasional hopeful moment. Alice and her less than useful or reliable brother had joined a wagon train heading for Oregon and they are beset with the problems such a journey brings, admittedly most of them falling on Alice. This story features a great character turn around with a barely even acknowledged character jumping into the thick of things.

The Mortal Remains

Finally, the last story The Mortal Remains – five people riding together on a stagecoach, for half of the story nearly all the talking is done by three people on one side, strangers, they are arguing about the nature of love and relationships until the pair opposite explain their rather sinister profession. The pair played by Brendan Gleeson and Jongo O’Neil are bounty hunters, but not your typical bounty hunters. O’Neil is brilliant simultaneously terrifying and enticing the other passengers by telling them how he goes about his job and the importance of storytelling. Any film, play or book that talks about storytelling are intentionally inviting a lot of analysis, what exactly is going on? Is everything as it seems? Why is he telling this story to these people?

In Summary…

The film is funny, moving, tragic and more, and what’s more, it looks amazing, whether it’s Buster Scrugg’s in his brilliant white outfit or the breathtaking scenery in. I think by its very nature an anthology is not going to be as satisfying as one great feature-length film but these are six great stories. Perhaps the best compliment I can give this film is that it has stuck in my mind. Since watching it I’ve been replaying the stories in my mind, thinking about the characters, analysing what happened and what they meant. If it turned out the Coens had recorded another six stories but cut them from the film I would happily watch them straight away.

Verdict: 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)


Review: Outlaw King

November 19, 2018
Warning – there are minor spoilers in this review but as it’s history I don’t think these will surprise anyone.


David Mckenzie’s new historical drama about how Robert the Bruce became King of Scotland

What’s Going On?

The film starts with Edward I, King of England, forgiving Scottish lords for rebelling against him. Edward I claimed the Scottish crown after they asked him to decide on should be king and he picked himself (he had no claim to the throne). Not surprisingly many Scottish lords rebelled but were soundly defeated by Edward I. Robert the Bruce, son of a Scottish lord, was one of the leading rebels but he too makes his peace with Edward, possibly only because his father is one of the strongest claimants and they think Edward will make him king. English rule on Scotland is hard with Edward I brutalising Scotland; at one point he refuses to accept surrender from one lord until he’s had a chance to try out his new catapult (this really happened). Eventually, the injustices prove too much to bear and Robert the Bruce rebels despite being hugely outnumbered.

Behind The Scenes

The film is directed by David Mackenzie, who I knew mainly from Hell Or High Water, which is perhaps best described as a modern western, a film I enjoyed a lot. This is a Netflix production and I would say does manage to feel like a “proper” film and not some made-for-tv second rate movie. Obviously, this is based on history and while taking some liberties does a good job of setting the scene and showing how utterly outmatched Robert the Bruce is.

In Front Of The Camera

The film stars Chris Pine as Robert the Bruce and he very much carries the film, it is his story from start to finish. Stephen Dillane is King Edward, probably best known as Stannis Baratheon in Game of Thrones, and it is in many ways a similar performance, certainly not a likeable man but extremely capable. Billy Howle gives a great performance as Prince Edward; an arrogant fool, constantly shoving his exalted status in other people’s face while having mountains of father issues to work through. Florence Pugh takes on the difficult role of Robert’s wife, an Englishwoman who is married to Robert (neither seemed to have much say in it) and displayed the strained circumstances and mixed loyalties she has when her husband rebels.

The Elephant In The Cinema

Inevitably there are going to be comparisons with the hugely successful and Oscar-winning Braveheart. Three of the central characters also appear in that film and it is telling much of the same story but from a different perspective. Braveheart focused on William Wallace who is never actually seen in Outlaw King but his existence is referenced a lot. There are many similarities between the two portrayals of Edward I, both are old but fierce men, with Braveheart’s king being crueller and crazier, seemingly going out of his way to be evil. The big difference is with Prince Edward, in Braveheart a weak and ineffectual man whereas in Outlaw King he is a far more aggressive and warlike man but still was glaring deficits. This change seems to make Prince Edward a more compelling adversary to Robert.

Does It Work?

The film is certainly enjoyable and is a grimmer, less elegant portrayal than many similar films, it feels like 50% of the film is people fighting or walking through mud. Everything and everyone is dirty; even kings. Unavoidably it suffers from the problem that we know what is going to happen but it does as well as it can at maintaining the jeopardy. Certainly, some people will not know the ending or how it all happened. At times Robert is asked specifically how many soldiers he has and you could fit them all on one bus, hardly an army, and it is hard to conceive how he can possibly win. The real problem is one of scale. There is only one large scale battle in the film which is quite possibly the smallest battle in this whole war, with Robert having around 500 men. While this is historically accurate you can’t help but think they chose this battle over, say, the Battle of Bannockburn where Robert had at least ten times that number because the smaller battle would be cheaper. Considering Game of Thrones has battles that feel on a bigger scale this is a real failing with the film. Indeed the film ends with text explaining what happened next and it really feels like they have only told half of Robert’s story.

The viewer’s sympathies do lie with Robert but there is an incident early in the film which does muddy the water a lot. To the filmmaker’s credit, this is something that really happened and permanently tarnished Robert’s reputation and damaged his standing with a lot of people. An equivalent action today would probably be committing a war crime. Robert is portrayed as wanting to act not out of personal ambition but for the good of Scotland and it’s people. In part, though the film makes less of a case for Robert being the good guy but in clearly demonstrating that King Edward and Prince Edward are clearly the bad guys. A good point about the film is I don’t think every English person is shown as thoroughly evil (a problem I think Braveheart has), more than the people in charge have tried to steal Scotland and the foot soldiers are just caught up in it.

Overall I’d say if you like historical dramas you will enjoy this but it certainly isn’t the cultural touchstone something like Braveheart or Gladiator are but in Outlaw King’s defence the film is far more historically accurate than either of those. It’s a two-hour film that was always interesting and enjoyable and a lot of its faults come from comparing it to other films.

Verdict: 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)


Review: Widows

November 14, 2018

In Widows, Steve McQueen puts together an amazing ensemble cast for a thrilling crime drama.

What’s Going On?

I have always thought of Steve McQueen as an ambitious and confident director and not just because of his films, this a man who shares the name of a Hollywood legend and was not worried about permanently being called The Other Steve McQueen. McQueen’s latest film starts with the viewer being introduced to each member of a crew who is about to undertake a daring robbery lead by Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson). The brief glimpse into each of their family lives before the heist shows a not entirely sympathetic group of people. Things do not go to plan and Rawlings and the entire team are killed by the police. That is still just the beginning as the film is not really about Rawlings and his crew but the people they leave behind.

Viola Davis star’s as Veronica, Rawlings’ widow, who while still reeling from the death of her husband is visited by the criminals who were robbed and even though the money was destroyed they expect Veronica to pay it back.  The one thing of real value Rawlings left Veronica was his notebook on all his planned heists and with that Veronica plans to steal the money she needs, bringing in the other widows from the gang.

There is an ongoing B plot of an upcoming election for alderman between Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) and Jamal Manning (Bryan Tyree Henry), Mulligan being the son of the previous alderman and part of a political dynasty that has controlled the politics of the area for generations and Manning the very criminal who threatens Veronica. But while Manning may be the more obvious criminal it becomes very clear that Mulligan and his family are far from innocent.

Behind The Scenes

Steve McQueen is known for serious weighty dramas, 12 Years A Slave winning the Best Picture Oscar in 2014, and so Widows does feel like quite a departure. When watching the trailer my first thought was “I just have to see a Steve McQueen heist film” just to see what he would come up with. Widows is based on a Linda La Plate British TV show from the 1980s and while I hadn’t heard of it does seem to be well-regarded. Gillian Flynn, of Gone Girl fame, wrote the screenplay and the pair of McQueen and Flynn sets expectations high.

In Front Of The Camera

The cast McQueen has put together is amazing, casting great actors like Jacki Weaver, Liam Neeson and Robert Duvall in relatively small roles. The key trio of Veronica, Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) as the eponymous Widows hold the film together well with each of them adding immensely to the story, each with their own struggles and reasons for getting involved. Viola Davis is very convincing as a woman who had nothing to do with her husband’s criminal enterprises but rather than giving up or running wants to take back control of her life. Elizabeth Debicki stands out for the transformation her character goes on finding previously untapped reserves of strength. Michelle Rodriguez plays a little against type, being the most hesitant but also with the most to lose. Importantly, none of the women are ignorant of their husbands’ careers, even if not active participants.

Does It Work?

The film is very enjoyable with great performances all round and the two plots dovetail neatly in the conclusion. The film is suffused with the grim reality for all those within it and even Mulligan’s much more prosperous family are shown to be very much entangled in dark goings-on. Each of the three widows convincingly portrays women who are in dire straits and are willing to risk prison or even death to give themselves a chance.

McQueen is a brilliant director and easily handles the large cast and the quick plot developments easily. There are moments of real tension, particularly around Daniel Kaluuya who plays Manning’s brutal but keen on self-improvement enforcer. For a film that starts with the fiery death of four characters, there isn’t a great deal of violence in the film with just a few brutal and short scenes containing most of it. McQueen also gets as much tension out of the corrupt political machinations as the gunfights.

It is debatable if there are any “good guys” in this film. Even though you are rooting for Veronica and her team they are not entirely innocent and when faced with difficult times are happy enough planning an armed robbery and I think this is an intentional choice by McQueen. The political struggle of two different types of criminal – the gang leader Manning and the white collar corruption of Mulligan – supports the idea that everyone is involved in crime, to some degree, importantly the widows’ solution to their problem is more crime.

There is a running theme that it’s very hard to find people to trust. Family, what is normally the strongest of bonds between people, is shown to be unreliable and being close to someone brings trouble. Alice’s mother, played by Jacki Weaver, is shown to be far from the nurturing and supportive figure a mother usually is. Much of the same is also true of romantic relationships and there is a feeling that the best way to get through life is to rely on no one but yourself.

The film is an engaging drama with good performances from all the cast and I thoroughly enjoyed it, however, I am not sure how long it will linger in my mind and if it’s a film that I would want to come back to. Certainly, it is more entertaining and well made than similar films but considering the calibre of the people involved I was hoping for something better, something that would be a real classic.

Verdict: 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)


Breaking out of Typecasting

November 12, 2018

Steve McQueen has just released a heist thriller called Widows. This felt like quite a departure from his usual films and it piqued my curiosity immediately. McQueen normally makes “serious” films, they are about heavy topics with great dramatic performances from people like Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan and Chiwetel Ejiofor. A heist film, quite frankly, seems too fun for a McQueen film. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy his previous films, they’re great, but you don’t always enjoy them – 12 Years A Slave is full of genuinely harrowing scenes. Directors, like actors, often get pigeonholed for the things they can do e.g. Steve McQueen wouldn’t have been at the top of my list for a heist film. So what attracted McQueen to this project? Was part of it just to stretch his directing muscles by trying something new? Will we see a slew of McQueen action films? I think not, whatever else Widows is, it is still a Steve McQueen film.

Unbelievable Transformations

It must be very frustrating for people in Hollywood when they feel typecast and in recent years there have been some startling transformations as actors move away from what they’re known for. The two most striking being Liam Neeson and Matthew McConaughey. Not very long ago Liam Neeson was seen as a serious dramatic actor, Oscar-nominated for his role in Schindler’s List, taking on difficult roles like pioneering sexual behaviour researcher Alfred Kinsey or Irish revolutionary Michael Collins. And then Neeson’s career pivots and he becomes one of the biggest action stars on the planet. Neeson, a man in his fifties, is suddenly cast in Taken and The A-Team. Neeson might have actually jumpstarted a recent genre in “old action heroes”.

Matthew McConaughey in Killer Joe (IMDb)

Matthew McConaughey’s rise to Oscar-winning critical acclaim is even odder than Neeson becoming an action star. McConaughey was once a punchline, synonymous with starring in bad romantic comedies, and thought by many to be only getting by purely because he was a stunningly handsome man (this is literally a joke on Family Guy). Then came a transformation when McConaughey started taking on more serious roles and in a few short years became not only successful but one of the most respected actors working today. McConaughey’s change seems to have started around Killer Joe, a small indie film where he took the title role. I have not seen this film – partly because I derided it because it starred McConaughey – but it was well received by critics. McConaughey’s performance of what I’m reliably informed is a despicable and appalling character seemed to reinvent him and seemingly that’s all it sometimes takes.

The Rom-Com Trap

Women often find themselves trapped in romantic comedies. Jennifer Aniston and Katherine Heigl are seemingly cursed to repeat the same role over and over again in indistinguishable romcoms, like some modern Sisyphus endlessly pushing a rock up a hill, despite being talented and likeable actors. Will Zooey Deschanel ever not be the epitome of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl? Many of these actors seem to be looking for their Killer Joe role where they can break out of this pattern; Cake, and to a lesser extent, Horrible Bosses seemed to be Jennifer Anniston trying to change her image.

Cake (IMDb)

Decent Americans and Girls-Next-Door

Then there are actors who while not exactly typecast do have a type. Tom Hanks has taken on Jimmy Stewart’s role of decent American and Julia Roberts was the Girl Next Door and both of these actors seem to revel in roles that play against this type, Tom Hanks as the intellectual criminal mastermind in The Ladykillers or Julia Roberts as the sinister spy in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. I am borderline obsessed with the career of Ben Mendelsohn who has carved a career out of playing dirtbag villains. He has even been cast of the Sheriff of Nottingham in the new Robin Hood film; one of the classic villain roles. I can only presume his George VI from Darkest Hour is a dirtbag villain version of this king.

Directing Differences

There are seemingly some people who have always resisted the urge to do the same thing. The Coen Brothers’ career jumps from violent crime drama to knockabout comedy and back again easily and you never know what they will do next. Stanley Kubrick seemingly built his career on wanting to make the best film of every genre – 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining and Full Metal Jacket are often cited as the best sci-fi, horror and war films ever made. Some directors are so successful and consistent in their own films that they create their own genre – J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 was held up as a film belonging to a “Spielberg” genre. Many eyebrows were raised when people realised recent horror hit A Quiet Place had Michael Bay as a producer, a director who has as much as a distinctive style as Spielberg, and “quiet” is not part of that style.

For me, the greatest director changeup has been the career of George Miller. Miller made his name directing the Mad Max films, brutal Australian exploitation films, and then seemingly got bored of this and decided to direct the sequel to Babe (yes, that Babe about the talking pig) and the two Happy Feet films (yes, with the dancing penguins) before returning at the age of seventy to his Mad Max roots. The questions this creates are endless – what were the motivations behind these choices? Why did a producer hire Miller for Babe: Pig In The City? Is there a violent director’s cut of Happy Feet?

Mad Max (IMDb)

For most people in the film industry, you don’t have too much choice, there are very few people who can truly be picky about what jobs they accept and it would take a strong person to turn down a lucrative role just because it’s another ditzy best friend in a rom-com or megalomaniacal sci-fi villain.


Marvel vs DC: The Bitter Divide

November 8, 2018

I recently rewatched Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy and I consider this to be the high watermark of superhero films. My opinion is The Dark Knight is the best of the trilogy by a clear margin which I know is hardly controversial. The car chase scene of the Joker trying to get to Harvey Dent might be the best action scene in all of cinema. Batman Begins is the first superhero film where they really explained the origins of a superhero in a satisfying way. The Dark Knight Rises had an almost impossible job following The Dark Knight but is still an amazing film and added Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard, Anne Hathaway and Joseph Gordon-Levitt to a superhero franchise.

The Dark Knight (IMDb)


Divided Society


This leads me to what may be the most important and bitter divide in society today: Marvel Vs DC. On average Marvel films are better but the high point is Nolan’s work (which technically doesn’t belong to DC’s Extended Universe). It is certainly true that each has their own style. Marvel adopting a more fun and light-hearted take whereas just about every review of DC films uses the words “gritty” and “dark”.

Both have competed in making their own universes – Avengers: Infinity War has around thirty characters that could be called “superheroes” and just trying to keep track of them makes me dizzy. Again, of the two I think Marvel has been more successful in managing their own universe. The DC Justice League films have been widely panned by critics so much so that conspiracy theories exist that critics are all on Disney’s payroll. Rotten Tomatoes critic score for the first Avengers film is 92% compared to Justice League’s dire 40%. Personally, I not a big fan of interconnected universes as I think it becomes very convoluted and the weight of all the characters and storylines is crushing but admittedly seeing all the characters together can be really fun.




DC’s big success has been Wonder Woman; a film so good that I put aside my vendetta against Chris Pine. Gal Gadot is sensational as Diana who took one of the least plausible superhero origins and made the film work. Wonder Woman was not just good as a superhero film but dealt with the tragedy of the First World War surprisingly well (even touching on a character dealing with PTSD), the horror of war, even the inevitability of humankind’s own destructive tendencies. These are big things for any film to deal with. Diana’s charge across No Man’s Lead was an unforgettable scene and I cannot praise it enough.

Wonder Woman (IMDb)

Marvel’s high point for me is probably Guardians of the Galaxy Vol I. My knowledge of comic-books is not very deep and I had never heard of this before the film and I remember watching the trailer for the first time thinking “this is going to be a disaster”. It has a talking racoon. And a talking tree. And a professional wrestler playing one of the main parts. I thought not even Chris Pratt’s innate and irresistible likeability could save it. And what happened? Rocket and Groot are amazing characters and despite a limited vocabulary, Groot is surprisingly emotional. Dave Batista, the professional wrestler, was hilarious. I think Guardians of the Galaxy’s strength was in its emotional side, Peter/Star Lord has an amazing journey from scared child to well…a guardian of the galaxy. Perhaps this gives away my age but how can you not be charmed by a film that centres around lovingly put together mixtape?

Guardians of the Galaxy (IMDb)



So, those are the high-points, what are the disasters? Personally, I don’t think Marvel has really made a bad film, not all of them are great but all the ones I’ve seen I’ve enjoyed. The same cannot be said for DC. Man of Steel is that most frustrating of films in that parts of it are great but it ended in the obligatory but increasingly dull city smashing. Batman Vs Superman failed completely despite using whole sections from the fantastic graphic novel and animated film The Dark Knight Returns (which if you want to see a proper fight between Superman and Batman watch this).

But the award surely goes to the Suicide Squad. Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn was the film’s only redeeming feature but even then DC did not get a good handle on the admittedly very problematic Harley Quinn-Joker relationship. What every superhero film needs is a good villain, it’s perhaps more important than a good hero. I can’t tell you the name of the villain in Suicide Squad or even what they were trying to achieve or what they wanted. Captain America: The First Avenger is one of the poorer Marvel films but I remember Red Skull and what he was trying to do. Why is The Dark Knight so great? A huge part of that is Heath Ledger’s performance.

Suicide Squad (IMDb)


So In Conclusion…


Overall I think I have divided loyalties between DC and Marvel but I know what both could do better. First, too many films come down to the bad guy wants to destroy the whole world, so obviously they’re bad and anyone fighting them is good. Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a great film in part because it was actually about something – order versus freedom, there were discussions about how far you can go to protect people and the bad guys could put their case forward. Secondly, the tone of the film should match the character and not the branding of the whole universe. The TV show Daredevil is one of the very few dark Marvel properties and benefits from that enormously; DC should be able to make fun films and Marvel can make dark films. Marvel next has the very promising looking “dark” and “gritty” Captain Marvel and DC has the very light-hearted Shazam so maybe they have already taken my advice.