Top five gas/petrol station scenes in movies

Ah, the humble gas/petrol station (as a Brit I’m keeping petrol in there, but also gas to please my American friends). Screenwriters love it as a setting for scenes. Perhaps because, in road movies at least, it offers a way for the characters to have a break from one another, to encounter others, assess their situation, that sort of thing.

Here are five I like, from action and comedy to sci-fi.

Romeo + Juliet (1996)

‘Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?’ This scene is easily my favourite gas/petrol station scene. Baz Luhrmann, for all his shortcomings as a director in some ways, completely nailed this scene. It’s the perfect location where two warring families might encounter one another. And also a fantastic way to introduce two key characters, Benvolio and our delicious antagonist, Tybalt.

Magic Mike XXL (2015)

This may be the ultimate bromance scene, or at least up there with the greats. Joe Manganiello’s Big Dick Ritchie is doubting himself and has lost his way as a performer. Mike (Channing Tatum) tells him that he’s born to be a male entertainer, and his challenge is to make the gas/petrol attendant smile. What follows is a wonderfully sweet and heartwarming scene about men supporting each other in a non-toxic way – something you rarely see in movies.

Zoolander (2001)

Ben Stiller’s dumb model Derek Zoolander is feeling down, so his equally dumb friends take him for orange mocha frappuccinos. They pull into a gas/petrol station and start squirting each other with water. Two unimpressed attendants watch on. Then Zoolander sees a man throw away a magazine with him on the cover. He walks over and reads the caption, which says ‘model idiot’. He glances back to see his friends now spraying each other with gas/petrol. Then one of them lights a match…

Super 8 (2011)

A monster thriller movie directed by J.J. Abrams and produced by Steven Spielberg was always going to be a winning formula. Super 8, if anything, is underrated. I’m not sure enough people talk about how great it was. In this scene a Sheriff refuelling his car notices something strange happening. It cuts to the gas/petrol station attendant inside listening to music. He realises something is up and heads outside. The Sheriff is nowhere to be seen. Then he sees the monster and runs, but it’s too late.

Monsters (2010)

In a standout climactic scene in Gareth Edwards’ atmospheric sci-fi drama the two main characters Andrew (Scoot McNairy) and Samantha (Whitney Able) encounter two giant aliens. We expect things to go badly, but as the scene develops it turns into something quite beautiful… a kind of mating ritual between the aliens.

Top five Margot Robbie performances

I recently rewatched the 2015 movie Focus about con artists, and seeing it again I was struck by how truly electric Margot Robbie is on screen. This was early into her film career, too. Admittedly she’d already done The Wolf of Wall Street, but the one-two punch of starring opposite Leonardo DiCaprio and then Will Smith really put her on the map as A-list. And deservedly so.

Which led me to think about her filmography and which movies and performances I’ve most enjoyed. Here’s what I came up with.

I, Tonya (2017)

Hands down her best performance. She’s phenomenal in this role and thoroughly deserving of the Academy Award nomination she received for Best Actress for playing disgraced figure skater, Tonya Harding. The only reason she didn’t win that year was because of the tough competition (Meryl Streep, Saoirse Ronan, Sally Hawkins and Frances McDormand). Even so, the world saw just how good she can be.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

This was her breakout role. And let’s face it, there’s no better way to get the industry to sit up and take notice, than to knock it out the park opposite DiCaprio in a Scorsese-directed movie about greed and excess. From the first audition she even had them on the back foot. She was meant to kiss DiCaprio in a scene, but instead slapped him and screamed in his face. Both DiCaprio and Scorsese loved that she had the audacity to try something so bold. Soon after, she got the call and got the role.

Suicide Squad (2016)

In the same way that Jack Nicholson was born to play the Joker, Margot was born to play Harley Quinn. You simply cannot picture any other actor in the role. Her character first gets introduced in this movie and goes on to steal pretty much every scene. This, in turn, led to her getting her own movie in Birds Of Prey (2020) a few years later. She’s likely to be one of the best things in James Gunn’s upcoming Suicide Squad 2 as well.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)

Robbie plays actress Sharon Tate in Tarantino’s love letter to the end of Hollywood’s golden age. She’s an innocent, precocious presence in this movie. For example in one scene she goes to watch herself in her own movie. It doesn’t push the plot forward, but it’s nice to spend time in her character’s company, seeing how she sees the world. She played Tate perfectly.

Bombshell (2019)

Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie starred in this drama about the women at Fox News who set out to expose the CEO for sexual harassment. This was a role that earned Robbie another Academy Award nomination, this one for Best Supporting Actress (losing out to Laura Dern for Marriage Story this time).

Fat Tuesday! Cool movies set in New Orleans

Happy Fat Tuesday! (or Shrove Tuesday, as some say.) A few years ago I was lucky enough to take a trip to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, and whilst I experienced a lot during the week’s festivities, I still feel like I only scratched the surface of what the city had to offer. It’s that kind of place.

And because it’s been so long since I was there it’s got to the point where I’ll sometimes randomly corner my partner and morph into Matthew Fox’s character from the TV show Lost, crying that ‘we have to go back!’

But Fat Tuesday got me thinking, what is it about Nawlins? Why is it such a good place to set stories? For me, I think it’s America’s ultimate melting pot. At its essence, it’s the people and cultural equivalent of gumbo, a mish-mash of stuff all melted and blended together to form something quite enticing.

Evocative, spooky, mysterious, sexy, dirty, glorious, unabashed, and flamboyant. So why wouldn’t you set stories there? Here’s a few I think are worth a look.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)

After the 1992 Abel Ferrara movie starring Harvey Keitel most actors would have left any kind of sequel or remake well alone. But then, most actors aren’t Nic Cage. And most don’t have Werner Herzog directing them. Apparently this film is neither a sequel nor a remake, yet features the same main character. Ferrara expressed his keen disappointment upon hearing the film was going to be made, yet it did well critically, and remains one of Cage’s best performances.

Focus (2015)

Legendary con artist (played by Will Smith) crosses paths with a raw but talented amateur (Margot Robbie). He sees promise and takes her under his wing. As you’d expect from this kind of film, there are twists, turns and cons within cons. It’s not the most complex entry in this genre, nor that demanding a watch, but Smith and Robbie’s chemistry propel it along.

Interview With The Vampire (1994)

Whilst this version of the city is quite an old and plague-ridden one, it still counts as New Orleans and thus makes the list. Brad Pitt’s newly turned vampire Louis struggles with his need to kill, whilst Tom Cruise’s flamboyant Lestat taunts him every step of the way. As far as vampire movies go (The Lost Boys notwithstanding) this remains my favourite, and one of the best.

Cat People (1983)

Paul Schrader directs Nastassja Kinski in this erotic thriller reimagining the 1942 original. David Bowie wrote the lyrics to Cat People (putting out fire) to go with the movie. In my opinion, it’s one of his best songs, and is a case of the song becoming far more famous than the movie it was trying to promote. In terms of the plot, I have to keep resisting the urge to call this Thundercats: the movie, but honestly the premise is ridiculous… thousands of years ago leopards ruled and mated with humans, creating cat people. Today, these ‘people’, when aroused, turn into savage leopards. Er, what? Ok, to be fair, legendary critic Roger Ebert quite liked it – so what do I know?

The Big Easy (1986)

This neo-noir romantic thriller stars Dennis Quaid, Ellen Barkin, Ned Beatty and John Goodman. The story focuses on Quaid’s lieutenant trying to solve the murder of a local mobster and it’s, er, well it’s something. Basically if you want proof that the 80s were ‘a different time’, at least for movies, then just watch this gem of a trailer.

Hard Target (1993)

Jean-Claude Van Damme plays an out-of-work Cajun sailor called Chance Boudreaux. I mean, as setups go, do you really need to know more? You do? Ok, fine. This film marked the US debut of Hong Kong director John Woo. Sam Raimi oversaw it, but it’s Woo’s film, and one that did relatively well commercially, as well as becoming a cult classic. Woo went on to direct some great films at the end of the ’90s, too… Broken Arrow (1996), Face/Off (1997) and Mission Impossible 2 (2000), to name a few.

Anti-Valentine’s Day movies

As most of us are locked down (note: it’s a pandemic), Valentine’s Day seems somewhat hollow. A good way to fight back against all the romance and declarations of love out there is with movies. But the opposite of romance, if you can find it. Think of them as palate cleansers. As a rule of thumb, when searching for anti-romance, I look for ’90s erotic thrillers and dark comedies.

The kind of movies that tend to end badly, at least romantically, but the ride is wild and cathartic.

Bad Influence (1990)

Wimpy guy (James Spader) is saved from a fight one night by a handsome stranger (Rob Lowe) who soon becomes a – wait for it – bad influence on him. Directed by the late, great Curtis Hanson, it’s a little like a precursor to Fight Club, yet more homoerotic. It was also written by David Keopp, who also wrote the next movie in this list, as well as Jurassic Park, War Of The Worlds, Mission Impossible and countless other great movies.

Death Becomes Her (1992)

Plastic surgeon Ernest (Bruce Willis, in one of his best performances) goes slowly mad trying to please two women: his wife (Meryl Streep) and ex (Goldie Hawn). Trouble is, they’ve both become immortal, with unwanted side effects.

Pump Up The Volume (1990)

In this coming-of-age drama lonely student Mark (Christian Slater) starts a pirate radio station to talk about what’s wrong with society – and also cock rings. Another student, Nora (Samantha Mathis) figures out his identity and things being to unravel.

The Rules Of Attraction (2002)

A Bret Easton Ellis story was always going to be dark. One critic described this as American Pie by way of Requiem for a Dream becomes America’s Trainspotting. Come for Dawson’s Creek’s James Van der Beek acting filthy and stay for Ian Somerholder dancing on a bed in his pants to George Michael.

The Cabin In The Woods (2011)

A bunch of sexy twenty-somethings (including Chris Hemsworth in an early role) head to a cabin for the weekend, hoping for some action. And boy do they get it, but not the way they expect.When things kick off they really kick off in this movie. Nothing is quite like the first time you watch it and all hell – literally – breaks loose.

Favourite female film characters with brightly coloured hair

Someone I know recently dyed her hair pink. She’d previously had it purple, or was it green or blue? I forget, whatever the colour I remember it looked cool at the time, because, let’s face it, if you’ve got bright hair you’re automatically fifty per cent more interesting than most of us.

I mean… it’s the same with someone with unusual tattoos. Are they more creative? More artistic? A tortured soul? Perhaps they are. I’d like to hope they are. Whether they are or not, I find these artistic additions and enhancements to people’s outward-facing personas to be endlessly fascinating. I get drawn in, like a moth to a flame.

And this got me thinking, as I do, about characters in film with bright hair, as there are a bunch – from Natalie Portman’s stripper in Closer to manic pixie dream girl Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim. I am sure there are lots more, but below are a few I thought I’d pick out.

Who would yours be?

Natalie Portman as Alice in Closer (2004)

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Milla Jovovich as Leeloo in The Fifth Element (1997)

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Angelina Jolie as Gia Curangi in Gia (1998)

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Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Romana Flowers in Scott Pilgrim Vs The World (2010)

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Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Noni in Beyond The Lights (2014)

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Lea Seydoux as Emma in Blue Is The Warmest Colour (2013)

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Kate Winslet as Clara in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

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Robert Pattinson and Daniel Radcliffe: indie darlings

So recently I watched The Rover starring Robert Pattinson. Then I caught the trailer for Daniel Radcliffe’s new film, the straight shot of demented madness that is Guns Akimbo, and it got me thinking… both these actors got their breaks in big franchise movies for children and teens (Radcliffe with Harry Potter and Pattinson with Twilight) and both, once free of those juggernauts, have spent the last eight years or so plying their trade in increasingly weird and wonderful films, about as far from the mainstream as you can get.

And that, in my book, has to be applauded.

I mean, I’m sure they’ve had many offers to return to big studio movies, yet they’ve stuck to their guns, akimbo… so to speak.

I guess my point with this piece is that I want to draw attention to them and give them some credit. Pattinson is arguably the better actor, but both have taken on some really interesting projects and really pushed themselves as actors, quietly rising up the ranks in my estimations. It’s as almost if the franchise movies that put them on the map is some kind of debt that they’re both working off.

So here’s to them. And to some of the films they’ve given us. Here are a few below.

Daniel Radcliffe

Is age 30 with 41 acting credits to his name. He’s played Allen Ginsberg, Igor, and a farting corpse. He’s tackled historical drama, fantasy, comedy, and demented action – his latest film sees him wake to find he has guns bolted to both his hands. It’s mad, unexpected, and delightfully weird.

The Woman In Black (2012)
Kill Your Darlings (2013)
Horns (2013)
Victor Frankenstein (2015)
Swiss Army Man (2016)
Now You See Me 2 (2016)
Imperium (2016)
Jungle (2017)
Beast of Burden (2018)
Guns Akimbo (2019)
Escape From Pretoria (2020)

Robert Pattinson

On the other hand, is a little older (33) and with a couple less acting credits (39), but has trod a similar path, albeit worked with more auteur directors: David Cronenberg (twice), James Gray, the Safdie brothers (who recently did Uncut Gems with Adam Sandler), Claire Denis and, this year, he’s in Christopher Nolan’s latest, Tenet.

Cosmopolis (2012)
The Rover (2014)
Maps To The Stars (2015)
The Lost City of Z (2016)
Good Time (2017)
High Life (2018)
The Lighthouse (2019)
Tenet (2020)
The Batman (2021)

Knives Out: a twisty, hilarious tale from Rian Johnson

After getting lambasted by angry man-babies for his attempt to do something very slightly different with Star Wars, you could forgive writer-director Rian Johnson if he decided he wanted to retreat to the hills never to make a movie again. However, the best thing you can do, with most setbacks in life, is to get back out there.

And boy, he did. For Knives Out is a triumph and, for me, one of the best films of the year.

It perhaps helps that we’ve had a lot of blockbuster and superhero films of late. So with Johnson’s film being in the mould of a classic whodunnit, it’s probably a welcome change of pace for a lot of movie fans. A palate cleanser at the end of the year? Maybe. Whatever it is, it’s a great story. Rumour is he came up with the idea for the film shortly after finishing Brick in 2005, so it’s been a long time coming. I am glad he’s finally been able to bring it to the screen.

From the first few minutes you can tell this is going to be a fun ride. The dialogue is sharp and peppery, the editing and direction slick and assured, and the performances on point.

The film opens with the death of the patriarch of a large family, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) and the family being called in for questioning. So we get to meet them one by one: the daughters – eldest Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and free spirit Joni (Toni Collette), underachieving son Walt (Michael Shannon) and shady son-in-law Richard (Don Johnson).

From the first few minutes you can tell this is going to be a fun ride. The dialogue is sharp and peppery, the editing and direction slick and assured, and the performances on point. Indeed, it’s one of those films where you can tell the cast all upped their game, knowing they were making something special.

Lurking in the background of these opening exchanges is master detective, Benoit Blanc (played with a sublime southern accent and real gusto by Daniel Craig. Probably relishing the chance to lean into the sort of role he rarely gets to play). Slowly, he gets more involved, taking over the questioning from the police and unsettling the family.

In some ways he acts as antagonist, of sorts, trying to get to the truth of Harlan’s murder whilst keeping Harlan’s nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) close – for the story is primarily told from her point of view. She seems distraught at Harlan’s death but is clearly hiding something. But then so is everyone. In classic whodunit style most of the family have a credible reason as to why they might want to kill the old man.

The trick, these days, is to try and keep the audience guessing, but not to confuse them trying to be too clever with the plot. I’d say that Johnson does this in a remarkably accomplished way, getting the balance spot on. It all goes up a notch when bad apple son Hugh (Chris Evans) turns up. After Captain America you can see the joy Evans has in playing a bit of a bastard.

It’s also worth mentioning Ana de Armas. As our protagonist she is really holding the whole thing together. I’d only really seen her in a small part in Blade Runner: 2049, so it was nice to see what she could do in a more complex role – and she does well.

Johnson has apparently said in an interview that he’d be open to doing a sequel, following Benoit Blanc around as he solves other murders. I am torn on this as sometimes it’s better to let things lie and not end up watering down the impact you had striking gold first time round.

Whatever he ends up doing, Knives Out remains one of Johnson’s best pieces of work, adding another string to his bow as a filmmaker (Brick, The Brothers Bloom, Looper, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) and makes me excited to see what he does next.

Top ten alternative Christmas movies

Now’s the time of year when a lot of people become insufferable, spouting their Christmas cheer all over the place. I bet there’s a chance that was your reaction reading my opening line, right? Something like, ‘Don’t be a scrooge! Cheer up, it’s chriiiissstmaaas!’ This is exactly the kind of thing that drives me mad. I mean, to be honest, I’d be fine with Christmas if it didn’t seem like everyone was forcing you to be merry all the time.

Which brings me onto movies. Most Christmas offerings are awful, tragically soppy and saccharine affairs (although I have a soft spot for Santa Claus: the movie, mostly because of John Lithgow). So when it comes to settling down with loved ones to get in the Christmas spirit, it’s either watch one of those or have an argument about whether Die Hard is or isn’t allowed Christmas movie status. And if it does get the ok, what else could be considered a Christmas movie?

So I did a little list. My alternative Christmas movies, if you will. See what you think.

1. Gremlins (1984)

This is such a fun film. There are rules: don’t get your mogwai wet, don’t feed it after midnight or it’ll turn into an evil gremlin with a mohawk, that sort of thing. I also found out, years later, that they used the exact same small town set for this film as they did for Back to the Future.

2. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)

Highest Shane Black film on my list (there are quite a few more below) and this one is significant because it marked the return from the wilderness for Robert Downey Jr (he went on to do some kind of superhero film or something). It also had fantastic performances from rising star (at the time) Michelle Monaghan and also a return, in hilarious fashion, for Val Kilmer.

3. Batman Returns (1992)

Arguably, whisper it, the best Batman film of the Keaton era? Actually, I am torn. Batman was truly great but Batman Returns gave us Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman, Danny DeVito as the Pengiun and Christopher Walken as, er, evil business dude. Max something.

4. Go (1999)

Written by legendary screenwriter John August, this is essentially the screenplay that put him on the map. It has a soft spot in my heart, being one I watched a lot growing up – it just seemed so cool. The story starts by introducing a group of characters, we follow one of them. The story then returns to the same place to follow another character. Eventually, they intertwine.

5. Trading Places (1983)

Dan Akroyd, Eddie Murphy and Jamie Lee Curtis team up to take down a couple of corrupt, rich old white guys. You could say this film feels intensely relevant in 2019, or ten years ago, or that it’s basically timeless. Either way, it’s a funny film with a bunch of ’80s actors at the top of their game. And Akroyd, dressed as Santa, eats salmon through his beard.

6. The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)

My second Shane Black film on this list. Before Angelina Jolie, Kate Beckinsale and others took up the mantle as the action women of Hollywood, we had the bad ass momma Gina Gershon. Here as an assassin that’s lost her memory and living life as a contented housewife. Then things happen and she starts to remember who she was, teaming up with Samuel L. Jackson to take down some bad guys.

7. In Bruges (2008)

A job goes wrong for two hit man, so they head to Bruges to lay low. One (Brendan Gleeson) loves the city, the other (Colin Farrell) hates it. Trouble is their somewhat unhinged boss (Ralph Fiennes) has ordered them to stay put. He then heads out to join them in a ridiculous showdown. This remains darkly comic genius from writer-director Martin McDonagh. Highly rewatchable.

8. Lethal Weapon (1987)

The film that put Mel Gibson on the map as a Hollywood leading man. This is also the film that got writer (and now director) Shane Black in the door, kickstarting his career. It’s also kind of interesting, in that this first film had live wire cop Riggs (Gibson) really struggle with his demons. The sequels were funnier but this first film actually had some fairly dark moments.

9. Iron Man 3 (2013)

After helping revive Downey Jr’s career with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang Downey returned the favour by having his friend Shane Black direct him in this third instalment of Iron Man’s story in the MCU. A good decision, some might say, as this film went on to be one of the highest grossing movies for Marvel.

10. American Psycho (2000)

The film that put Christian Bale on the map as an intense character actor. And also a leading man, in a weird sort of way. He’s since gone onto an incredibly varied career as one of the best actors working today. But for a long time, he was known as ‘the guy that played Patrick Bateman’.

Honourable mentions also go to:

Filth, Bad Santa, Home Alone, About a Boy, Brazil, Edward Scissorhands.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: Tarantino’s swansong

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the ninth film by Quentin Tarantino – and it’s one you’d better make sure you watch because he’s only making one more and that’s it, he’s done. His legacy of ten films will be there for us to watch but no more will be made, verily the movie gods have spoken (until he gets bored and comes out of retirement).

Now this used to make me sad, but in recent years it’s bothered me less. With each film he releases I end up enjoying them in parts, but don’t come out of the cinema fired up the way I used to – perhaps not since Kill Bill have I been blown away by one of his films. Yes, his stories all have had standout scenes and moments, but they just haven’t engaged me scene for scene the way his early ones did. His great vengeance and furious anger has dissapated.

The problem lies in the edit

Since his editor, Sally Menke, died in 2010 (she edited all of his films up until Inglorious Basterds) his storytelling has never been as tight. Legendary director Peter Bogdanovich was reportedly so good because he inherently understood the editing process; indeed, he was a brilliant editor in his own right. This is something Tarantino lacks and no one is strong enough to stand up to him in this regard, be it an editor or a producer.

As a result Once Upon a Time in Hollywood clocks in at 2 hours 45 minutes. If you add trailers we’re talking 3 hours plus – and this is the case every time you see one of his films these days. Add to this that I’ve read recently he wants to release an even longer version. If this doesn’t tell us he completely believes his own hype, then I don’t know what does.

Once upon a time…

Edit aside, the story here is an interesting one. It focuses on TV leading man Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), an actor whose star power is fading. A man trying to revive his career, but in general only has his stunt man and best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) in his corner, supporting his choices and acting as kind of a big brother. Cliff drives Rick around trying to keep him on the straight and narrow. They prop each other up and the dynamic between these two alpha males of Hollywood is the beating heart of this story.

Pitt is all easygoing charm, much like his character Rusty in Ocean’s Eleven. DiCaprio is tense, twitchy and unhinged, drawing on his characters from Wolf of Wall Street, Shutter Island and a host of others. It’s a delightful pairing and their chemistry sings in each scene. You just want to spend time watching them hang out and shoot the breeze.

A love letter to Sharon

Ahead of the film’s release many expected this story to focus on Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and the days leading up to her murder, but it doesn’t. The slight of hand Tarantino has played with the film’s marketing has frustrated some who have written about feeling cheated. They’ve been given minimal Tate (and therefore minimal Robbie). Yes, she’s a presence throughout, but her story is only very loosely connected to Dalton’s, which is the main one we follow.

Tarantino has written about how he just wanted to spend time with her, celebrating Tate as a person and an artist. This comes across, but is does feel like a waste of Robbie and we still don’t hugely get to know Tate as a person from this film. Robbie is an Oscar-winner and could have brought so much more to the part, had she been given more to work with.

There are things to love

Despite the baggy run time and the strangely languid pace of storytelling there are still many things to love in this film. I mean, you’ve got Pitt, DiCaprio and Robbie as the leads – three beautiful humans and all powerhouse actors. Pitt’s laidback charisma shines through in every scene. DiCaprio has played a bad guy for Tarantino before in Django Unchained and, in a sequence in this film, he plays the bad guy again, but not in the way you might think. It’s rather inspired. People forget how good he is at comedy.

And Robbie, whilst not having a great deal to do, drifts through the film as perhaps a symbol of innocence, beauty and hope for the future. It’s a joy to watch her dance and smile on screen. I just wish she had been more integral to the A plot story.

So, all in all, this film for me sits about mid-teir Tarantino. It looks beautiful and there were a few standout scenes and moments, but the issue I had was, like his last three, it’s overlong and drifts rather than engages me in the story and the characters.

Maybe some day someone will release a tighter edit of this film. I’d get behind that. In the meantime we have one more to go, I for one am most curious about what his final film will be. I hope he burns out rather than fades away as a director.

The Kid Who Would Be King – a warm-hearted retro delight of a movie

Joe Cornish hasn’t had the best run of luck as a director. He broke out with Attack the Block in 2011 and it’s taken eight years for him to give us another film. Through no fault of his own I might add, as he’s been plugging away on projects but I guess that’s just how the cookie crumbles, even for an up-and-coming director and a man with talent and friends in high places (hello Edgar Wright and Steven Spielberg).

Anyway, that’s all behind him now because his second big studio film as director is a pure delight. The Kid Who Would Be King harkens back to films like The Goonies and Stand By Me. A spirit perhaps only recently recaptured in TV show Stranger Things.

We start with 12-year-old schoolkid Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis, son of actor Andy Serkis), standing up to bullies Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris), protecting his weaker friend Bedders (Dean Chaumoo). In one scrap Alex finds himself in a building site and discovers a sword stuck in a lump of concrete. Turns out this is the sword in the stone, Excalibur, the sword of King Arthur. Who would’ve thunk it?

These events awaken evil sorcesses Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson), who seems to be trapped in a tree underground. She wants the sword for herself – to unleash evil on the world and that sort of thing. Alex pulling the sword out the stone also triggers Merlin (Angus Imrie, son of actor Celia Imrie) to return to the mortal realm (in the form of a teenager) to help Alex on his quest to defeat Morgana.

Alex ends up teamed up with aforementioned bullies Lance and Kaye, as well as the trusty Bedders. The four of them must learn how to become warriors and stop Morgana once and for all.

Now, plot wise, there are some pretty big leaps you have to take in order to be on board with the story, but this doesn’t matter that much. If you’re picking holes in the plot you’re probably the kind of person that refuses to be swept up in the magic of it all. Shame on you.

Because, in short, this film is utterly charming. It’s the sort you watch when you’re sad and need cheering up. Or you’re hungover. Or it’s Sunday and you’re visiting the family and need something that everyone can watch. And this isn’t to put it down in any way.

Making this sort of film is actually very hard to do.
It’s got real heart, charm and inventiveness. Simply put, it’s a good-natured feel-good tale. Phrases that get thrown around a lot, but genuinely apply here.

And the dynamic between the four ‘knights of the round table’: Alex, Bedders, Lance and Kaye, are the sort you just don’t see in film these days. Admittedly Lance and Kaye are a little underserved as characters, but Serkis and Chaumoo as Alex and Bedders have real chemistry. Serkis in particular, has clearly inherited a lot of his father’s skills as an actor. For a boy that’s barely even a teenager he leads the film well and holds the screen.

And then there’s Merlin.
Angus Imrie, also, must have picked up a trick or two from his mother Celia. He’s quite fantastic as teenage Merlin – for example in the way he performs his spells cutting shapes with his hands, to the way he walks and holds his body and gazes at you intently and disconcertingly in a somewhat devious manner. He elevates the film. Moreover, every now and then he switches into old Merlin (Patrick Stewart), which is both surprising and a little heartbreaking.

My slight niggle is that Rebecca Ferguson as Morgana is underserved – even more so than Lance and Kaye. Which is a shame as Ferguson is a fantastic actor. She could have brought some real menace and threat as Morgana, but for the most part she’s fused to a tree underground, stuck whispering commands to minions.

In one scene she gets a face to face with Merlin and I began to get excited, thinking we’d get to see a real juicy exchange between them. Sadly it didn’t last long. However, I get why. The star of this film is Alex and the focus is on him, and to a lesser extent, Bedders.

And in that I can be satisfied.
So, if you’re hungover, or sad, or tired, or anything really – go watch this film.

You’ll come out feeling that life is a little better with your heart and your cockles (whatever they are) truly warmed.