Review in Brief: The Woman in the Window (2021)

The most annoying thing about THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW is that Amy Adams gives a good performance. The next is that the film, about an agoraphobic child psychologist who is convinced she witnesses a murder in the house across her street, not only lifts heavily from Hitchcock thrillers (a lot of films do, so what?), but shows REAR WINDOW and SPELLBOUND on screen, directly inviting those comparisons. There’s very little to recommend in the film aside from a committed Adams; the rest of the cast are wasted and it’s stylistically overblown and clumsily written throughout. Even if you’re thinking things are just inoffensively watchable, dully derivative at the halfway point, the hectic final act and its multiple stupid twists will ensure you’re begging for the end. SSP

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Reviews in Brief: Fear Street Trilogy (2021)

Welcome to Shadyside for a trilogy of horror films telling the story of the curse of Sarah Fier. This might have been inspired by the books of RL Stine, but be warned – GOOSEBUMPS this ain’t.

FEAR STREET PART 1: 1994 starts out as a blatant SCREAM ripoff but becomes considerably more interesting as it goes on. Multiple killers are running around Shadyside, a town with a dark past, now a Scooby Gang of teens must solve a mystery involving a witch’s curse as they are hunted. The occult twist on the usual slasher formula works really well and the characters – including a tender queer romance front-and-centre – are interesting and sympathetic enough for you to root for them not all to die.

FEAR STREET PART 2: 1978 flashes back 16 years to an earlier supernatural killing spree at a summer camp and digs further into the legend of Sarah Fier. The destructive rivalry between twin towns, prosperous Sunnyvale and deprived Shadyside remains from the first film, and here the kills are more plentiful and gory, the story is more evenly paced than Part 1 and the performances and killer needle drops give this instalment a much needed shot of energy. Overall it’s a stronger film, even if it has the middle chapter problem of setting up the finale.

FEAR STREET PART 3: 1666 takes us right back to the beginning and concludes the trilogy in thrilling and hugely entertaining fashion. Here what it’s all been about is made explicit, all the previous cast get to play new but connected historical counterparts and some really great late-game twists reward those who have stuck with the series. There’s clearly more to Leigh Janiak’s trilogy than the run-of-the-mill teen horror release; familiar genre tropes are used, but re-shaped to tell a new story with real empathy behind it. “I don’t fear the devil. I fear the neighbour who would accuse me. I fear the mother who would let her daughter hang”. SSP

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10 Best Studio Ghibli Films SSP

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Deerskin (2019) Review SSP

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Review: Black Widow (2021)

Sisters doing it for themselves: Disney/Marvel

Those worried about a talented director’s distinctive style being smothered after a Marvel hire need not be concerned here. Though it ends up with pretty much the same final act as most MCU movies (fight atop something big falling from the air) BLACK WIDOW for its first half at least feels very much like a Cate Shortland movie – dark, psychologically complex and a little bit twisted. Where did Natasha Romanoff AKA Black Widow come from, what experiences made her and how did she end up with so much red in her ledger? We’re about to find out.

Between the world-changing events of CIVIL WAR and universal cataclysm of INFINITY WAR, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) goes on a solo mission to reconnect with her past, the surrogate family of spies she grew up with, and fights to take down the Red Room programme that is chemically indoctrinating young women into an army of deadly Widow assassins across the world.

I think the statute of limitations on ENDGAME spoilers has lifted, but if you’ve somehow not seen the second biggest movie of all time and still plan to, *spoilers in the next paragraph*.

Not every Avenger made it through Endgame, and some didn’t even survive to face Thanos the Mad Titan in the final battle. One of those was Natasha, who sacrificed herself to release the all-powerful Soul Stone to the Avengers’ care and thereby give them a chance to undo Thanos’ reality-wide random genocide. Because we know when this story is set and that Natasha’s death isn’t coming until five years in her future, a certain amount of tension is lost, but that’s the curse of a prequel.

Black Widow’s strongest passage is without doubt the first half, the chapter’s focus on the impact of growing up in an artificially constructed family, with real and painful emotions behind it. We open with a suspiciously tranquil scene in Ohio, with young Natasha and her sister Yelena’s comfortable life interrupted by a need to escape from US soil with vital intelligence, the “family” split up and returned to Russia via Cuba for a life of enforced espionage work.

We then return to immediately post-Civil War with Natasha on the run from Thunderbolt Ross (William Hurt, earning his paycheque with his description of Ant-Man) then fleeing to Europe where the grown-up Yelena (Pugh) intercepts her and convinces her to join a very personal mission of liberation.

It’s an absolute joy to watch Johansson get some sisterly banter with Pugh and indulge in some more nuanced and poignant interplay with Harbour and Rachel Weisz, to the extent that you half-want a season of some kind of macabre family sitcom that’s just them eating around the dinner table, telling each other who they’ve killed today.

The film becomes a little less confident when the villains, chiefly a predatory Ray Winstone as General Dreykov (who only remembers he’s supposed to be doing an accent half the time) move into frame. His sickeningly invasive evil plan hits particularly hard in the age of MeToo, but it’s what he represents rather than Dreykov himself that’s scary, very little to do with Winstone’s first-base performance. Dreykov’s secret weapon, a masked warrior with photographic muscle memory known as the Taskmaster, is strikingly realised in contrast which makes it a shame that several action scenes involving the character never surpass the first.

Despite some smooth storytelling niggles, Black Widow ends up not only as one of the darkest and most violent MCU films, but also one of the most entertaining thanks to visceral and crunchy action scenes and the pleasing character dynamics. Natasha may have got her own movie about a decade after she should have done, but it was worth the wait and gives her a fine sendoff. SSP

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Review in Brief: Supernova (2020)

SUPERNOVA is a drama as much about what is left unsaid to loved ones as it is about living with dementia. We follow Sam (Colin Firth) and Tusker (Stanley Tucci) an artistic couple who are on holiday in the Lake District just as, or because of, Tusker’s mental acuity shows an alarming decline. They attend a family gathering, Sam makes a speech of thanks on the normally articulate Tusker’s behalf and they are left to consider what the future holds for their relationship. The astronomical imagery and the thematic links to the workings of the brain and the breadth of human love are hugely affecting, but what makes the film is the honest, unadorned central performances. Both Sam and Tusker are trying to protect the other, being too considerate in many ways rather than discussing every aspect of the upcoming difficult chapter in their lives. The film could have ended one scene earlier to be more powerful, but this is still all-but-guaranteed to leave you sobbing. SSP

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Where to Start with Pedro Almodóvar SSP

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Review in Brief: The Tomorrow War (2021)

THE TOMORROW WAR has a decent concept (people from the present are conscripted to fight alien invaders in the future) but spoils it by somehow over-explaining things as they happen and not explaining which rules of time travel they are following. The aliens have a killer design but don’t make an appearance until after 45 minutes of labored setup. Chris Pratt does the same likeable loser routine he does in everything, only this time he’s an ex special forces school teacher. Everyone else in the cast aside from Sam Richardson and JK Simmons (neither of whom are in it enough) is forgettable and the action and VFX are too inconsistent to leave an impact. If The Tomorrow War was trimmed down to be less bum-numbing and a bit less self-serious about its inherently silly concept, this could have been fun, as it is, when the beasties aren’t on screen it’s a bit of a slog. SSP

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Review in Brief: Batman: The Long Halloween, Part One (2021)

Batfans have been clamouring for this one for a long time. Faithfully based on Jeph Loeb’s run of the comics, THE LONG HALLOWEEN follows Batman (Jensen Ackles) on the tail of a holiday-themed serial killer as he works with DA Harvey Dent (Josh Duhamel) and more reluctantly Catwoman (Niya Rivera) to clean up the crime-ridden streets of Gotham. This is a tense and gripping film, only losing momentum and focus (like in the comic, to be fair) when the Joker (Troy Baker doing a Mark Hamill impression) sidetracks Bats by attempting to gas Gotham from a biplane. This is as dark and macabre as you might expect from the title and is at its best when digging into the tangled psychologies of the equally compelling Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent. The central mystery is far from solved at the films end which makes Part Two a tantalising prospect, especially when it seems at the moment that they’ve made some interesting tweaks to the story’s ultimate destination. SSP

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Review in Brief: Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)

RAYA might lose some points for its narrative being a very familiar shape with key story beats you could sleepwalk between, but it makes up for it by getting the casting right and being one of the most beautiful looking Disney animations of all time. Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) the last of the nation of Kumamdra’s Heart Clan must undertake a quest to reunite the lost shards of a magic gem that will keep a demonic darkness consuming her homeland at bay. Along the way she revives Sisu (Awkwafina) the last elemental dragon and her party of misfit allies grows as her enemies move to stop her. The film’s vibrant and fantastical world combines Cambodian, Thai and other Southeast Asian cultures and fills it with exciting chase and martial arts action sequences and breathtaking imagery. If Disney are to continue avoiding direct adaptations and tell more stories with diverse voices, inventing new fables rooted in specific cultures might just be the way to go. SSP

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