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Six Minutes To Midnight (2021) Review

Based on historical fact, SIX MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT, the latest Sky Original Movie, takes the very real existence of the Augusta Victoria College, in Bexhill-on-Sea, a boarding school which in the final days before the outbreak of World War II housed the daughters of high-ranking and influential Nazi families and uses it as the setting for a genteel tale of espionage and a diplomatic race against time.

When one of the teachers at the school mysteriously vanishes, six days later Thomas Miller (Eddie Izzard) takes up the post of the school’s English teacher to find out what happened and – crucially – what else is occurring at the school in the run up to the widely anticipated conflict with Germany.

The film, Izzard’s first credit as co-screenwriter, represents something of a passion project for the comedian, who herself grew up in the town where this drama is set – and the real school existed between 1932 and 1939. Founded ostensibly to foster amicable relations between the two normally contentious European powers, it quickly became a conduit for introducing the children of high ranking Germans to the British aristocracy in the hopes of solidifying a network of connections and relationships.

It’s into this ‘Heilwarts’ that Miller finds himself sent to take up the post which some might consider Defence of the Dark Arts. The school is run by Ms Rocholl (Judi Dench), a dedicated but severe headmistress who dotes on the girls and sees nothing wrong with their eager and passionate patriotism. She’s not even above indulging in a few “Sieg Heils” herself, dismissing the sinister overtones of the gesture as innocent pride and a desire to ‘hail victory’.

SIX MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT is rich in atmosphere and the production values and cinematography are first-rate, but there’s a hollowness to the film that lets down its polished aesthetics and period authenticity. The lacking isn’t to be found in the performances, to be sure, and Izzard is particularly impressive and Dench plays the headmistress with all the blinkered iron certainty of your average Brexit voter, caught up in the passion and ideological fervour only to realise too late what their credulous zealotry has given rise to. There’s a starker warning for the present, too, in contemplating just how insidious an idea of a school designed to corrupt and indoctrinate rather than educate its pupils can be and how easily it can happen even now.

Stylistically, SIX MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT homages the likes of “The 39 Steps” but never really finds its rhythm to keep the creeping tension rising credibly. While the protagonists are well defined, it neglects to flesh out the antagonists or, for that matter, any of the girls of the school beyond some superficial details. We learn but a few of their names and even fewer of their personalities so by the time the film’s endgame plays out, there just aren’t enough characters to hang the more dramatic moments the film is aiming for and, as a result, it fails to stick the landing.


Blithe Spirit (2021) Review

This new production of BLITHE SPIRIT opens on a setting that will look awfully familiar to viewers of AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT, with the iconic house serving as the home of Charles Condomine (Dan Stevens) and his second wife Ruth (Isla Fisher) having appeared in several episodes of the celebrated detective series. Unfortunately, unlike the Grade II listed Joldwynds, Noël Coward’s acidly witty play has been subjected to some very unsympathetic renovations which are entirely out of keeping with the style or the original.

In the late 1930s, socialite and celebrated novelist Charles Condomine is suffering from writers block, struggling with a commission to write a screenplay for his movie producer father-in-law. In a desperate attempt to find some inspiration, he commissions a séance at his house, presided over by the imperious Madame Arcarti (Judi Dench). Although the spiritualist evening seems to be something of a bust, it does conjure the spirit of Charles’ first wife Elvira (Leslie Mann), to whom Charles remarriage is something of a vexation. Hilarity ensues.

Or, at least, it should but there’s something about this adaptation that feels decidedly flat, like a fine vintage champagne which has been left open and lost all its fizz. Occasionally it amuses, but it’s never flat-out funny despite Leslie Mann staging an almost heroic one-woman battle to inject the piece with some life – an irony considering she’s playing the deceased.

Not that Dan Stevens and Isla Fisher don’t try hard, they do. As do Julian Rhind-Tutt and Emilia Fox as Charles’ friend – and medicinal narcotic supplier – Doctor Bradman and his wife, but they’re trapped in a screenplay which seems to have been exorcised of the arch wit of the original and possessed by the spirit of a milquetoast 1970s tv sitcom farce and seemingly being asked for the most mannered performances possible. Even Judi Dench, completely a cheque-cashing trilogy of performances after CATS and ARTEMIS FOWL can’t seem to summon up much enthusiasm for the role of Madame Arcarti – a role made larger than life itself by Margaret Rutherford in the rightly celebrated 1945 David Lean film.

Coward’s characters in BLITHE SPIRIT are Meant to be deeply unlikeable but here they come off as just plain annoying and the film takes a singular joke from its heady concept and flogs it to death: the idea that only Charles can see his ghostly paramour so when he talks to her other characters believe he is talking to them. The most notable changes to the original text, though, come towards the denouement where, building upon the change from novelist to screenwriter, Charles’ Hollywood dreams come to a dramatic end as BLITHE SPIRIT veers into THE FIRST WIVES CLUB territory.

Director Edward Hall, making his feature debut after a solid career in TV which includes the likes of DOWNTON ABBEY, SPOOKS and THE DURRELLS doesn’t quite make the leap to cinema successfully and there’s a very flat, televisual feel to both the lighting and cinematography, further inhibiting the energy of a work that’s trying desperately to escape its static origins as a stage play. It’s a shame, too, as aside from the flaccid script (Doctor Bradman may have something to help with that) and lacklustre direction, the sets, locations and costumes are delightfully bright, colourful and energetic – perhaps an overcompensation for the goings-on in the foreground.

Elegantly cast and handsomely appointed, it’s a shame this BLITHE SPIRIT shows little of either quality.


A version of this review was previously published on CineFlixDaily.com

Artemis Fowl (2020) ducks its obligations and gives fans of the books the bird.

First published in 2001, Eoin Colfer’s action-fantasy series of adventures centring around tweenage criminal mastermind Artemis Fowl (Jr) may at first glance appear to be little more than an attempt to cash-in on the then white-hot and unquestioned success of J K Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series but in reality the books hewed much closer to the world of Guillermo del Toro’s “Hellboy”, with a dash of “Men In Black” thrown in for good measure. Of course, you’d never be able to glean this from this misbegotten mishmash. Directed by Kenneth Branagh, what arrives on screen, limping to an ignominious debut on Disney+, is a compromised collision of elements from the first two novels, bowdlerised and sanitised by a butchering job in the edit suite and any hint of the creativity and magic of the source material redacted for fear of somehow alienating an audience who in the end will be more repulsed by this milquetoast adaptation than any of the supposedly subversive elements of having an actual criminal be the lead character.

When his father goes missing on a business trip, Artemis Fowl (Ferdia Shaw) decides to take matters into his own hands, concocting a fiendish plan to coerce the forces of the fairy world, into helping him rescue his father.

There’s an early warning sign that all is not well with this movie as Josh Gad is pressed into service not only to anchor the story’s framing device but also to deliver a relentless, gravel-voiced narration as he attempts to paper over the many, many chops and cuts which have clearly been made to the original script. This becomes even more apparent when his narration all but disappears halfway through the movie despite the narrative being no less incoherent or arbitrary.

Gad, ironically, is actually pretty good as Mulch Diggums, the ‘giant dwarf’ whose talents for tunnelling and larceny make him a pivotal part of Artemis’ plan and the character is one of the few who makes it to the screen relatively unscathed, although I hope Gad had a special allowance for lozenges in his contract. Poor Nonso Anozie gets precious little to do as Butler, the Fowl’s faithful manservant and bodyguard and the less said about poor old Judy Dench’s turn as Commander Root the better. Actually no, wait. I will say two things: one, I hope she had the same lozenge clause as Josh Gad and two: whatever penance Dench had incurred from “Cats” has more than been atoned for by her having to appear in this. She looks thoroughly miserable throughout, spending every moment obviously regretting doing dear Ken a favour.

But its in its would-be lead characters that the film really fails to take off. Neither Lara McDonnell nor Ferdia Shaw makes any kind of impression as the two lead protagonists, Holly Short and Artemis Fowl. As up-and-coming Lower Elements Police office Holly Short, McDonnell fails to give the fairy any sense of agency, never mind magic and Ferdia Shaw, struggles to convince as a normal child let alone a criminal genius. The role of Artemis Fowl is thoroughly beyond him that everything else just sort of collapses into the sinkhole where his performance should be.

The underwhelming character work is set, like nuggets of corn in a turd, in a film so haphazardly plotted and ugly to look at that even fans of the book, steeped in the lore, will be hard-pushed to recognised all of the elements being thrown onto the screen. For a book series so notable for the ingenuity and intricacy of its world-building, it’s astonishing how perfunctory the effort is to bring that world to understandable life on screen. The dialogue is clunky and awkward and the action is appalling shot too. Given a story of the hidden world of fairies, goblins, trolls and dwarves, Brannagh offers precious little magic or wonder in bringing things to life and virtually no fun or excitement whatsoever. Lacking any kind of coherent villain or defined motivation, the film – like one of it’s poorly articulated ‘time freeze’ set pieces – manages to make its 93 minute run time feel like an eternity.


I don’t think anyone was readdicle, for these Jellicles. Cats (2019) Review

Much has been made of the bizarre nature of Tom Hooper’s movie adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical adaptation of T S Elliot’s book of cat poems and sure, there’s no denying that there are a bunch of weird choices in the movie, but none perhaps as weird as the decision to make a movie version of this in the first place.

When a white kitten called Victoria (Francesca Hayward) is abandoned on the streets of London one night, she finds herself in the company of the Jellicle cats, a tribe of felines who are gathering to celebrate the Jellicle Ball, a once-a-year celebration where Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) will select one lucky cat to ascend to a new life in the Heaviside Layer. While the various cats prepare their acts to impress Old Deuteronomy, the malevolent alley cat (Idris Elba) plots to steal the prize by eliminating the competition.

Lloyd Webber’s wildly successful musical is, first and foremost, a theatrical experience. It lacks much of an actual story beyond the vaudevillian cat talent contest so it’s not really a narrative musical per se. It’s a cavalcade of singing and dancing with some stand-out show tunes but in bringing it to the big screen, Tom Hooper attempts to make it something more significant, more cohesive and fails abysmally thanks to a succession of strange artistic decisions.

The realisation of the cats themselves is a deeply disconcerting exercise in combining the unnerving qualities of the uncanny valley with the almost fetishized anthropomorphisation of felis catus that superficially seems designed to appeal to a furry audience but, in execution, is so off-putting that this film is more likely to quench rather than fan the flames of that particular desire. There’s an almost relentlessness to the film’s bizarreness, a litany of peculiarity that keeps pushing the boundary of common sense, typified in the moment, quite early on, while you’re still trying to get to grips with humanoid felines who look like they just stepped out of James Cameron’s special edition of the “Doctor Who” story “Survival” where the movie asks you to go even further and accept anthropomorphic mice and even cockroaches with human faces – who are then randomly consumed as snacks by dancing cats during a song and dance number.

It’s like Disney’s “Zootropolis”, fed through Google’s Deep Dream algorithm.

More strangeness abounds in some of the casting decisions. You can tell everything’s weirdly off-kilter because James Corden actually isn’t awful in it, and Rebel Wilson, Ian McKellen and Idris Elba seem to be having a lot of fun if nothing else. Despite the surreal chaos all around her, “Cats” still showcases Francesca Hayward as a genuine movie star, dominating the screen and drawing the eye no matter what outré activity is going on around her. Likewise, Laurie Davidson makes for a likeable Mr Mistoffelees and creates an appealing rapport with Hayward as hints of a burgeoning romance between their two characters provide the movie with one of its many neglected opportunities for any kind of character development. Judi Dench, on the other hand, proves that she is the same vocal gift to feline-themed musicals what Pierce Brosnan was to Greek-set Swedish jukebox musicals

In many ways, the closest movie relative to “Cats” may be “Suspiria”, a century of minutes (it feels every moment of its run time) devoted to cats surrendering to ‘the dance’ but what I was most reminded of while watching it was a CBeebies pantomime. I saw it with the family on Christmas eve and, as that kind of crazy, celebrity dress-up, pseudo-“Strictly Come Dancing” theme week variety show, it kind of works. As a movie, though, it’s an utter CATastrophe.


Murder On The Orient Express (2017) Review

All aboard for a star-studded reimagining of classic whodunnit

Offering first class accommodation, stunning views and a fine selection of a la carte thespian talent, Kenneth Branagh’s elegant and stylish remake of Christie’s famous Murder On The Orient Express is far more than a mere replacement cast service for the lauded 1974 ‘original’.

Exhausted from work and ever so slightly jaded, celebrated Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is looking forward to some much needed rest on board the Orient Express. However, he’s barely on the train a matter of hours before he’s approached by shady businessman Ratchett (Johnny Depp) and offered the role of pre-emptive bodyguard. Poirot declines and lo and behold, Ratchett is murdered during the night. With the train marooned by an avalanche, Poirot has little option but to take up the case and identify the murderer from the array of potential suspects.

Branagh’s film makes an instant case for itself visually, with a zippy opening scene establishing – for any of those in the audience who may not have heard of our hero, as unlikely as that may be – Poirot’s bona fides and a lavish attention to period detail so whatever your feelings towards remakes might be, it’s a pleasure to simply look at.

The casting of this Murder On The Orient Express is as precise and exquisite as our detective would have it to. Given the general disdain in which he’s held these days, there’s a thematic and narrative neatness to Depp’s casting as the shady victim at the heart of the Orient Express’ mystery, and it’s a genuine pleasure to see him actually acting for a change rather than mugging his way through a caricature. You can argue about how much of a stretch it may be for him, but there’s no denying he exudes a kind of sleazy wrongness that makes Poirot’s spiritual and physical moustache bristle.

Speaking of which, Branagh’s Poirot’s moustache is a sight to behold. Distractingly convoluted in the trailers, it’s actually luxuriantly impressive in the film itself, a triumph of grooming and design which doesn’t overshadow the abundant charm of Kenneth Branagh’s performance. Having tamed his facial hair into submission by sheer force of charisma, Branagh’s free to essay his take on Christie’s famous detective, retaining all the idiosyncratic oddness of the character (as well as a flawless accent) but playing them as a burden the character feels resigned to bear, albeit with a twinkle in his eye and a mischievous sense of fun.

The rest of the stellar cast are, as you’d expect, nothing less than superb – even Josh Gad manages to reign in his usual over exuberance to deliver a nuanced and sinister performance but it’s Michelle Pfeiffer who steals the show, reminding us once again that she is one of the finest screen actresses working today.

The mystery unfolds in a well-crafted way, with the environs of the train carriages never feeling claustrophobic or limiting, although it stumbles slightly at the end where there’s an abrupt end to a baggage car confrontation which segues clumsily into the (Da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’ referencing) gathering of all the suspects, but it’s a minor leaf on the track of an otherwise excellent journey.

It may not have been strictly necessary, but there’s much to appreciate in this luxurious journey through Christie’s surprisingly dark and archly topical murder mystery.

Skyfall (2012) Review

A major change* occurred in the Bond films when Daniel Craig took over and the impact of that change has been felt more and more in each subsequent film. As of “Casino Royale”, the films were no longer about Bond’s adventures and his mission, they were about Bond himself. Although each film contained the requisite action and intrigue, they were essentially the backdrop against which his character was examined and tested: a deliberate deconstruction of the witty, über-confident, martini-swilling womanising superhero of movies past.

With the Teflon coating removed, Bond’s vices brought consequences; the scene in “Quantum Of Solace” aboard the plane with Mathis is the first time we’ve ever seen Bond drunk. The brutal fights hurt, leaving him bruised and bloody. And the women…well, through three whole films, there’s really only been one woman and she left him devastated and damaged. Vesper Lynd is the only main Bond girl that Daniel Craig has taken as a lover throughout the course of his first three films. There have been dalliances, of course, but the relationship with the leading lady in each of his subsequent films has not been a sexual one: Olga Kurylenko’s Camille in “Quantum Of Solace” and Judi Dench’s M in “Skyfall”.

Whether through serendipity or sagacity, the delays caused to the production by the financial difficulties of parent studio MGM was used wisely by the writers, producers and Director Sam Mendes to really polish and fine tune the screenplay, conscious of how badly the underdeveloped narrative had hurt its predecessor. The Quantum plotline was abruptly dropped in favour of a dramatic storyline which would bring two characters to the foreground in a way that the movies had never done before.

When M comes under attack from a seemingly unstoppable force with links to her past, Bond’s loyalty is put to the test as he is tasked with tracking down and destroying the threat by the very woman who left him for dead. With MI6 under siege from enemies both foreign and domestic, Bond is forced to take unprecedented steps to protect everything he stands for, no matter what the personal cost.

The film begins with Bond and a fellow agent in pursuit of a stolen hard drive. This disk, it turns out, contains a list of every single MI6 agent in deep cover. By now, you have to wonder why security services continue to keep their deep cover operatives’ names and aliases on discs given the frequency with which these discs fall into enemy hands. Just ask Ethan Hunt or, indeed, Charlie’s Angels. In any event, the mission does not go well, showcasing again this Bond’s inability to put his opponent down swiftly and effectively. Thankfully that allows the fight/ chase to stretch out over an impressive action sequence involving cars, motorbikes and, memorably, a train and an excavator. Unfortunately, the rookie agent Bond is partnered with is forced by M into taking an ill-timed sniper shot and Bond plummets from a bridge into the icy waters of the opening credits.

Adele’s sultry theme song seems to have roused the opening credits from the stupor “Another Way To Die” drove them into, or maybe it’s the return of Daniel Kleinman that makes the real difference. His opening titles this time out are a thing of beauty, slyly reflecting and foreshadowing the whole movie without spoiling a single aspect of it.

Among the many admirable qualities Daniel Craig has brought to Bond, he has also given Britain’s finest secret agent an unappealing petulant streak and “Skyfall” gets his trademark ‘disappear off and sulk for a bit’ out of the way pretty quickly as Bond takes a holiday. Nothing fancy, mind just the usual: sun, sea, shots with scorpions. He is roused from his melancholy by a news report of an attack on MI6 headquarters and returns to London. Although it’s not particularly clear how long Bond’s vacation lasts (all Bond’s assets have been liquidated and his obituary published yet Moneypenny is still temporarily suspended over the bungled shooting) his return from the dead is hardly a miraculous resurrection. The evaluation sequences (a world away from the cosy spa atmosphere of Shrublands) and tests are a careful and deliberate deconstruction of everything we’ve come to expect of Bond. He misses his target, gets tired and out of breath, unable to quip his way through the fitness test. The dismantling of the legend of Bond would actually border on the offensively heavy handed if it weren’t merely a prelude to the comprehensive rebuilding and redefining of the character through the rest of the movie.

As they carefully bring Bond back, they include some of the elements which have been missing from Craig’s Bond so far: the dry humour finally reappears and Daniel Craig seems comfortable in delivering the odd joke amidst the earnest character-driven drama. The Aston Martin DB5 is back too, tricked out with the exact gadgets it had in “Goldfinger” (although given he won it from a bad guy in the Bahamas in “Casino Royale” there’s no indication of how or why he had it pimped). Even Q makes a welcome return after a three-movie absence, although his initial offering of gadgets is miserly, to say the least.

Apart from the brief detour to Shanghai and Macau, “Skyfall” is the most domestically rooted Bond film in the entire series although it never feels anything less than exotic. Conveniently glossing over the fact MI6 aren’t legally allowed to operate within the United Kingdom (that’s MI5’s job), “Skyfall” sees Bond sparring with Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) under, over and through London (someone really needs to make a film that features a foot race between Daniel Craig and Tom Cruise) all the way to the Scottish highlands.

The reason the film doesn’t suffer from its largely familiar setting is that it looks stunning. Whether it’s the neon vistas of high rise shanghai, the subterranean environs of the London Underground or the big country vistas of Skyfall, Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins conspire to make this the most visually opulent Bond film of all time. Mendes – an admitted sceptic when Daniel Craig was first cast as Bond – not only subtly restores the character but surrounds him with a note perfect cast of characters. Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris and Ben Wishaw are excellent additions to the Bond cast, each of them placed with an eye to the future rather than a one-shot guest role. Albert Finney is wonderfully cantankerous as Skyfall’s caretaker Kincaid (and it’s a marvellously realistic touch that he mishears M’s name as ‘Emma’). On the villainous side of the scales, Bérénice Marlohe is sensational as the doomed and fragile secondary ‘Bond girl’ Severine but it Javier Bardem’s Silva who gives “Skyfall” its sense of gravity and magnitude.

After a fairly long run of lacklustre or insubstantial opponents, Bardem’s Silva is a fascinating villain for Bond to deal with. His almost playful introduction is a slick piece of misdirection, making his later ruthlessness all the more shocking. The tale of rat cannibalism and coconuts is chilling, despite his almost CBeebies bedtime hour sing song delivery of it. What makes him so special is that he’s not the equal of Bond: he is the superior. The ease with which Silva puppeteers everyone and everything (for all Q’s millennial smugness, he’s the one stupid enough to plug Silva’s laptop directly into the MI6 mainframe) casts Bond in the unfamiliar role of the underdog. Silva is smarter than Bond, stronger than Bond, more ruthless than Bond. He’s even blonder than Bond. Giving him the cyanide damaged face feels like overkill, a pointless gimmick that gilds the lily. Silva is Bond, only through a glass darkly.

The filmmaking and character work is so good; it covers a multitude of plot sins. Bond’s inability to keep his targets alive rears its head again and it’s only through some luck that he happens on another clue to keep his investigation alive. There’s also the moment when Bond is remonstrating with M about her order that saw him shot off the train where he angrily declares she should have ‘trusted him to finish the job’. Bless you James, but finishing things off quickly and efficiently is precisely the opposite of what this incarnation of the character can be relied on to do.

There’s also the fact that, when you look at the ease with which Silva and his accomplices compromise and control MI6 together with the placement of Quantum agents close to M, it’s hard not to agree with Helen McCrory’s strident government minister that MI6 isn’t fit for purpose. Bond’s plan also isn’t terribly good in the end – he strands himself in a place with no weapons, miles from civilisation. Admittedly it’s compounded by Mallory, Tanner and Q monitoring Silva using road cams and being aware of the plan to lure him out yet they send no backup or support for Bond, leaving him isolated. With Dench as the de facto Bond girl of “Skyfall”, this marks the third film in the entire series – and the second for Daniel Craig – where Bond fails to keep the Bond girl alive. And given that M’s death was the entirety of Silva’s plan, this may also be the only Bond film where the bad guy wins. Dench is tremendous throughout and manages to give M’s death real emotional heft despite the fact it represents Bond’s ultimate failure and Silva’s triumph.

It’s testament to the profound feeling of quality and class that pervades the film that these heresies pass almost unnoticed, especially on the first watch. Having torn the character down in the first hour and re-forged him in the fires of Skyfall, the film ends on a confident high note. It’s a cunningly unexpected pressing of the ‘reset button’, taking Bond back to the beginning while retaining its modern sensibilities. Moneypenny is in place and M awaits Bond in an oak-panelled office behind the studded red leather door. An annoyance in “Quantum Of Solace”, the use of the gun barrel sequence at the end of the film doesn’t feel like an ending, it feels like a fresh start for the series – no mean feat at the venerable age of 50.

Craggus’ Bond Voyage will return with SPECTRE


* Actually two things: the poster art has become incredibly dull too.