Families, despots, musketeers, and chair senpais.
I know. In fact, look, here is my promise to you that the May entry of these will be live on-site for you all to read by *checks calendar* 9th of June. It’s been difficult to stay on top of stuff right now, both for self-inflicted workload reasons and mental health/exhaustion reasons. As always, Letterboxd is the easiest way to keep up with my latest film thoughts; only 25% of them are pithy meme reviews!
So, here’s what I’ve been watching last month. I promise to get better at the timing on these.
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves [Saturday 1st]
Dirs: John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein
Quintessential three-star movie, this. An enjoyable breezy time with good characters, fun setpieces, great designs for the sets and creatures – which often mesh CGI with good old-fashioned practical puppetry, creating a nice tangible reality to the action – and a well-told story. The kind of “good enough” movie to make one wish it was great. Perhaps if it were directed with more flair since Goldstein & Daley are way out of their depth when it comes to blockbuster filmmaking. Everything is kinda basic and plain-looking, not really taking advantage of those excellent sets in any memorable way; just lots of flat shot-reverse-shots until the second-unit crews take over for the setpieces. A shame, that, cos Game Night was a real directed looker even with it taking into account its cast’s capacity for improv (of which there is also a fair bit here).
Also, I honestly think this’d be better if it weren’t a comedy? It’s not just that most of the joke bits are “well, that was a thing” variations that often actively shut down the “yes, and” escalation which’d make them land better rather than finding a unique comic voice/angle. (Again, Game Night was great for this, but so too is The Legend of Vox Machina which Honor Among Thieves resembles a family-friendly version of.) But it’s also that the straight-faced high-fantasy works great enough on its own, so the film doesn’t really need the quipping. When characters stop with the “god, this paladin is annoying, huh?” schtick and just speak earnestly, the film finds both real pathos and a niche of its own in the modern blockbuster landscape. That also, from my limited experience of the game, ends up being a more faithful translation of Dungeons & Dragons to cinema than any nerdy easter-eggs or setting details could provide, a game which is all about the balance between “yes, and” serio-comic escalation and earnest high-fantasy pathos. Hopefully any potential follow-up will have more confidence in itself, but this is a solid first try.
Meet the Robinsons [Wednesday 5th]
Dir: Stephen Anderson
I’m not sure that I’d call Meet the Robinsons “good.” The thing is ridiculously overplotted, overstuffed, and overly frantic in the pacing so nothing lands emotionally. I don’t even need to read a smidge of research to tell this was a painful as hell production that went through total creative reboots multiple times; the movie never manages to find a true focus thematically, emotionally, or narratively. Also, whilst not outright ugly like Chicken Little, the boarding and technical animation are serviceable at best. Robinsons unmistakably looks like the work of a studio still not comfortable with all-CG animation or working to the technology’s strengths.
That said, I did have fun. Though it’s let down by the rough execution and some questionable character designs, I do like the retro-futurist design of the film. It’s something I’m always a homer for due to the warm comfort it induces whilst still having enough idiosyncrasies to avoid feeling too clean like an Apple store. The screenplay is most successful as a stream of breakneck absurdist gags, a large percentage of which do land as intended. And, relatedly, Bowler Hat Guy is an absolute riot. Underrated Disney baddie; I would gladly have watched a film entirely centred around his incompetent goober villain routine and slinky character animation.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie [Friday 7th]
Dirs: Aaron Horvath & Michael Jelenic
One thing I didn’t have time to include properly in my review, hence why I’m mentioning Mario here even though I otherwise avoid article fodder in WIBWs, is that I also vehemently reject any sentiment of “it’s Mario! There’s not a whole lot you can do story-wise with Mario!” There are literal decades-worth of RPGs and spin-off platformer-adjacent games in the Mario universe which stand as evidence otherwise. The Paper Mario games weren’t just praised for their approachable turn-based battle systems; they were rapturously received because they told more compelling, funnier, and character-rich stories than the official Mario movie could be bothered to offer. My friend Moosey was telling me about how the latest Mario RPG had a funny and genuinely moving character arc for a Bob-omb of all things! They’re still not War and Peace, but they’re also more than the empty parade of recognisable iconography that Illumination decided was good enough for the guaranteed biggest film of 2023.
If you enjoyed The Super Mario Bros. Movie, honestly good on you. I wish you well, glad you found some fun. But if you want to start claiming that critics are too elitist or expected too much from a Mario movie for young children, then I got stacks of the franchise’s own receipts to show you otherwise.
Monty Python’s Life of Brian [Saturday 15th]
Dir: Terry Jones
Rewatch (10+ Years)
This used to be my favourite comedy of all-time back in the day, was even one of the very first Blu-Rays I ever got. No idea why or how I managed to go a decade-ish without watching it again, but thankfully I still love it greatly! Not got anything unique to say about a movie which has been discussed and analysed to pieces over the last 44 years, though. It’s still shockingly tight for Python (whose prior attempt at a feature script was famously loose and sketch-indebted), marries intellectual and base comedy with the same effectiveness that they’re known for, looks fantastic (imitating the visual language and scope of the biblical epics they were mocking well despite the tight budget), and all the bits memed to death over the decades are still funny in context.
The one bit that doesn’t quite hold up is the Loretta runner, where Eric Idle plays a member of the People’s Front of Judea who wishes to be acknowledged as a woman. In some ways, it’s actually a touch ahead of its time in that, after the initial scene, the group do accede to her request and refer to her as Loretta rather than intentionally deadnaming or misgendering her. However, particularly with the context of the first scene, it does feel to me (I know others may feel differently) like the joke is on the absurdity of a male-presenting person wishing to be addressed as a woman. A symptom of the PFJ’s misaligned priorities and terminal impotency in their ‘rebellion,’ epitomised by the bit where she demands that “it is every man’s right to have babies if he wants them” and the incandescent Reg getting the last word of the bit: “Symbolic of his struggle against reality.” (Particularly with John Cleese’s big old reactionary arse-showing in recent years.) I’ve seen worse transphobia in comedies both of the time and far later, but it’s still uncomfortable for me to deal with nowadays.
The Death of Stalin [Saturday 22nd]
Dir: Armando Iannucci
The more time passes, the more rewatches I have, the more convinced I become that Death of Stalin is Iannucci’s true masterpiece. Sure, it may not be as screamingly funny and endlessly quotable as something like In the Loop or I’m Alan Partridge, but it’s not aiming to be. Instead, Stalin exposes the absurd fragility of fascist totalitarianism and political gamesmanship for all who live under by making sure to always keep one eye on the ordinary citizens whose lives are destroyed by forces well outside of their control. You can laugh at the buffoonery of the Central Committee all ineffectually jamming their cars together in an effort to be the symbolic first person following Stalin’s hearse, but then a mere minute later you’re watching a dehumanising massacre of the foot staff who worked the estate as it is mercilessly stripped bare like the man never existed. Awkward laughs are constantly mined from Committee members committing faux pas they have to quickly walk back, but Iannucci and his fellow writers make sure never to let the viewer forget that these are not idle threats.
It’s a spectacularly thin tightrope to walk. Lean too funny and you risk treating the material, and the many many massacres depicted or referenced, as callously as those you’re ostensibly critiquing. But go too dark and you risk forgetting that you’re supposed to be a comedy. Yet, Iannucci makes it look easy without ever showing off. Laughing at the pitch-black abruptness of a firing squad execution at a gulag being called off seconds after two members of the line-up had already been shot is just as much a coping mechanism for life’s Kafkaesque horror. It’s always fun to see the unearned pomposity of Vasily Stalin be punctured at every turn by everyone around him. But, conversely, there’s also no satisfaction in the eventual kangaroo court and execution of the monstrous Lavrenti Beria as Iannucci keeps his camera intimately attached to the man whilst everyone just screams and shouts until an errant bullet unceremoniously finishes the job. By refusing to look away from the consequences, even if they can be played for total-blackout comedy, and getting out of the bubble of those ruling classes in his other work, I feel like Iannucci’s satire of politics reaches a new height of effectiveness.
Suzume [Wednesday 26th]
Dir: Makoto Shinkai
Allusions to SPOILERS
Like seemingly every Makoto Shinkai film, a fun first-half with exceptionally gorgeous animation and a likeable protagonist gives way to a deflating second-half that overstuffs the plot and whose big emotional swings don’t connect because the central romance/relationship doesn’t convince at all. When it’s being a road trip movie about reconciling the ruins of past natural disasters, specifically the 3/11 earthquake-tsunami, and modern youth’s unjust need to shoulder that burden, Suzume is at its most engaging and poignant. The typically phenomenal art and animation make the various villages, cities, and abandoned remnants of Japan look and feel tangible even with the stylisation. Turning the everyday and forgotten worlds into something awe-inspiringly pretty and luminous, or uncomfortably fragile and tenuous depending on the immediacy of the Worm threat level. Suzume herself is one of the stronger protagonists in recent Shinkai works, at her best when engaging with others in her cheery personable nature that adds life to our brief vignette time at these locations.
And then, right on cue, the second-half kicks in and Suzume slowly dissolves. Sōta is perhaps the thinnest male lead that Shinkai’s yet written, with so very little going on in his personality outside of pushing the narrative along. I can only just about buy him and Suzume as being friends, asking me to see them as ride-or-dies with a romantic undercurrent who form the main emotional backbone of the narrative is as much a fool’s errand as when Shinkai pulled this exact same trick in Your Name and Weathering With You. (And that’s not even getting into the age-gap issue.) Because the second-half places the vast majority of its chips on the central relationship, the resolution of Suzume’s trauma over losing her mother in the 3/11 disaster doesn’t get the focus it needs for the payoff to gut like it wants. Throw in the usual exhaustion of all new visual ideas by the 90 min mark, a tangible sense of making shit up as we go along plot-wise, and a focus on the least interesting available side characters, and Suzume ends with a whiff rather than a firework display.
I am once again begging Makoto Shinkai to stop writing romances. He is SO BAD AT THEM and actively kneecapping his movies by refusing to accept his limitations. Let somebody else try writing one of his films for once.
The Three Musketeers: D’Artagnan [Thursday 27th]
Dir: Martin Bourboulon
Pretty alright! Old-fashioned in its design, straightforward characters, and swashbuckling charm. Makes good use of shooting on sets so there’s a believability and muck to proceedings. François Civil and Lyna Khourdi make for a fantastic D’Artagnan and Constance; boyish charm meeting playful strength with heat radiating off the screen. Might enjoy the thing a lot more when I’ve seen Part 2, cos this right now feels like the first half of a TV season. I do look forward to seeing more!
The big issue – besides the one that follows nearly all Musketeers takes of focussing so much on D’Artagnan that the titular trio might as well not exist – are that the action scenes stink. Bourboulon decides to shoot almost all of them in faux-one-takes and, rather than add to the immersion or up the intensity, they actually restrict what his setpieces can do. Instead of creating a flowing chaos, they expose a segmented video game-wave approach to choreography with little creativity in the staging and cameras shaking so much that the action can be difficult to follow, not helped by the obvious stitching used to create these faux-oners. (The Duke of Buckingham ambush even does the Oldboy remake thing of adding two reset cuts into what’s obviously supposed to flow like one-take and it murders the rhythm.) No coincidence that the one setpiece which manages to conjure genuine thrills and tension, the church assassination attempt, is the one that is shot and edited like a regular action scene in a different blockbuster.
Callie Petch loves you do, they love you not.