The Amplified Monthly Review of November 2020

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Normally I avoid starting Christmas until at least December 1st. Shops and TV channels can begin to flood themselves with Christmas-related product throughout November (if not before), but I feel like “the day you open the first door of your advent calendar” is when Christmas can begin.

This year’s a bit different, though. Never mind the whole “2020 has been shit” of it all — despite that, I was still aiming for December 1st — but then family wanted to watch Netflix’s Jingle Jangle in the middle of November, and that opened the door a crack, until eventually Christmas fully barged in on the final weekend of the month. Presents bought! Decorations up! Built a festive LEGO set I didn’t get round to doing last year!

What I didn’t do is watch another Netflix original Christmas movie: Klaus. I didn’t get round to it last festive season, and as it’s (surprisingly) on the IMDb Top 250, I’ve been waiting impatiently all damn year for the time to roll around when I felt I could watch it. Well, it’s December now, so…

But before I get stuck into Christmas properly, let’s remember the month that just was.


#237 An American Werewolf in London (1981)
#238 Robolove (2019)
#239 Rose Plays Julie (2019)
#240 Showrunners (2014), aka Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show
#241 Falling (2020)
#242 An Impossible Project (2020)
#243 Coded Bias (2020)
#244 Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey (2020)
#245 The Lie (2018)
#246 Mangrove (2020), aka Small Axe: Mangrove
#247 The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)
#248 You Will Die at Twenty (2019)
#249 Influence (2020)
#250 My Mexican Bretzel (2019)
#251 Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (2020)
#252 Ordet (1955), aka The Word
#253 Never Surrender (2019), aka Never Surrender: A Galaxy Quest Documentary
#254 Millennium Actress (2001), aka Sennen joyû
An American Werewolf in London

An Impossible Project

Never Surrender

.

Normally I include any short films I’ve watched in amongst the list of features, but this month I watched 53 short films. No, that’s not a typo. In the almost-14-year history of this blog to October 2020, I’d watched 97 shorts; now, AMPLIFY! alone has increased my count by 55%. That seemed an overwhelming amount to include in the above list, so I’ve separated them off here.

A quick guide: #247a–e were the IMDb New Filmmaker nominees; #249a–k were in the Cornwall Film Festival South West Regional programme; #249l–s were in the Cornwall Film Festival International programme; #249t–z were in the New Voices programme; #250a–i were in the CINECITY Open programme; and #250j–v were in the FilmBath programme.

#247a Under the Full Moon (2020)
#247b Flush Lou (2020)
#247c The Monkeys on Our Backs (2020)
#247d Players (2020)
#247e Home (2020)
#249a Shuttlecock (2019)
#249b Stitch (2020)
#249c Nut Pops (2019)
#249d Swivel (2020)
#249e Anoraks (2020)
#249f Frayed Edges (2020)
#249g So Far (2020)
#249h Man-Spider (2019)
#249i Slow Burn (2020)
#249j Closed Until Further Notice (2020)
#249k Quiescent (2018), aka Anvew
#249l Clean (2020)
#249m Appreciation (2019)
#249n Adnan (2020)
#249o Sticker (2019)
#249p Interstice (2019), aka Mellanrum
#249q The Day of the Coyote (2020)
#249r Chumbak (2019)
#249s Guardians of Ua Huka (2020)
#249t Destructors (2020)
#249u Nelly (2020)
#249v Life in Brighton: An Artist’s Perspective (2020)
#249w My Life, My Voice (2020)
#249x Embedded (2020)
#249y One Piece of the Puzzle (2020)
#249z Time and Tide (2020)
#250a The Wick (2020)
#250b We Farmed a Lot of Acres (2020)
#250c A Spring in Endless Bloom (2020)
#250d Booklovers (2020)
#250e The Fruit Fix (2020)
#250f Keratin (2020)
#250g Blue Passport (2020)
#250h Siren (2020)
#250i Reconnected (2020)
#250j The Last Video Store (2020)
#250k Water Baby (2019)
#250l Window (2019)
#250m Alan, the Infinite (2020)
#250n Our Song (2020)
#250o Hold (2020)
#250p Befriend to Defend (2019)
#250q Fuel (2020)
#250r My Dad’s Name Was Huw. He Was an Alcoholic Poet. (2019)
#250s Quiet on Set (2020)
#250t A Map of the World (2020)
#250u Talia (2020)
#250v The Starey Bampire (2019)


  • I watched 18 new feature films in November.
  • That’s the exact same tally as last month (and also February), so the same applies: it’s in the lower-middle for the year, coming =7th out of 11 months.
  • However, it’s below my average for 2020 to date (previously 23.6, now 23.1), and below the rolling average of the last 12 months — although, because I only watched 12 films last November, that still goes up slightly (from 21.1 to 21.6).
  • But it does pass the November average (previously 10.4, now 11.0).
  • Plus, #254 is the furthest I’ve ever reached by the end of November, beating #248 in 2018. It sets me up well to beat that year’s record for my highest ever final total — although victory is by no means guaranteed: I need eight more films to reach a new record, and last December I only watched five…
  • I’ve already noted above how the number of shorts I watched this month is measurable on an “entire history of the blog” scale, but, for what it’s worth, the next closest month came last November, also thanks to a film festival, when I watched… 9. Pales in comparison, doesn’t it?
  • This month’s Blindspot films: first, to catch-up for last month, a belated Halloween pick (that I therefore watched right at the start of the month), An American Werewolf in London; and second, Carl Th. Dreyer’s acclaimed meditation on religion, Ordet.
  • From last month’s “failures” I watched Borat Subsequent Moviefilm and The Lie.



The 66th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
Not that this was a bad month by any means, but it started on a high that was never quite equalled: An American Werewolf in London is exactly the kind of film “What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen?” was created for (honestly, I’m surprised it’s taken this many years for it to make it onto the list), and it didn’t disappoint.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
Conversely, failing to live up to expectations was The Mask of Fu Manchu. I didn’t exactly expect great things of it (there’s the inherent racism, for one thing), but even as a pulpy ’30s pre-code adventure movie, it didn’t tick the right boxes for me.

Favourite Short Film of the Month
With so many short films watched this month, it seems only right to extend the Arbies to them; though I won’t do a “least favourite” (seems unfair when shorts struggle to gain attention enough as it is). There are lots of entertaining little numbers in the 53-strong field, but undoubtedly my personal favourite was The Last Video Store, a documentary about Bristol’s still-running independent video rental place, 20th Century Flicks. It’s all about the importance and brilliance of physical media — right up my street. It’s available free on Vimeo, so do check it out.

Best Documentary Where the Tagline Gets Listed as Part of the Title of the Month
I watched two behind-the-scenes-y documentaries this month, Showrunners and Never Surrender — those are the titles they use on screen, anyway, but look online and you’ll mostly find them listed as Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show and Never Surrender: A Galaxy Quest Documentary. Regular readers will know how much this kind of imprecision / inconsistency annoys me. Anyway, they were both interesting, but Never Surrender was really warm-hearted and lovely as well as informative — if you love Galaxy Quest (and who doesn’t?) then you must see it. It’s on Amazon Prime, at least in the UK.

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
A very deserving victor this month, in my opinion: my review of “missing hammer in a Belgian nudist camp” comedy-thriller (that should totally by a subgenre) Patrick.



After being ahead of target most of the year, last month saw me slip behind slightly, and I haven’t caught it up… but I’m close enough that December could yet see me reach my goal of 50 rewatches.

#42 Hot Fuzz (2007)
#43 Fisherman’s Friends (2019)
#44 Knives Out (2019)

Considering how much I’ve always enjoyed Hot Fuzz (and how often it’s on ITV2), it’s a little remarkable that I’ve only watched it once since seeing it at the cinema in 2007; and, according to my records, that was around when it came out on DVD, in late ’07 or early ’08 — so I haven’t seen it in over 12 years. (Don’t ask me how long it’s been since Shaun of the Dead…) To think: all the mediocre movies I’ve watched in that time, and I could’ve just been rewatching this classic. Oh well.

At the other end of the time spectrum, I only first watched Fisherman’s Friends this May, and Knives Out this March. Both were family-appeasing viewing choices — not that I dislike either (indeed, I’d been specifically wanting to rewatch Knives Out). I’ve not got round to reviewing either in full yet, but I will someday (probably).


Cinemas may’ve been closed again thanks to Lockdown 2, but new releases continue to debut online — like Christmas lesbian romcom Happiest Season, which I’ve heard good things about; or Netflix’s The Christmas Chronicles 2, which hopefully is as likeable as the first one; or Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy, which I’ve not heard anything good about. It does star Amy Adams and Glenn Close, though, so I expect it’ll be part of the awards conversation nonetheless.

The same conditions that have kept theatrical releases to a minimum have seen the streamers all pile on new content, though little of it’s brand-new. Particularly drawing my attention on Netflix was Assassination Nation, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the latter because it’s reminded me I still haven’t watched the 3D Blu-ray I imported from Australia. On social media, they made a big fuss of having Spider-Verse in 4K — I believe it’s a 2K upscale, but its visual style seems made for HDR enhancement. So, basically, I need to rewatch it twice, once in 3D, once in 4K…

iPlayer is also offering original movies at the minute — kind of — with Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series. I watched the first, but need to catch up on Lovers Rock and Red, White and Blue. They also have a speedy TV premiere for recent UK release Monsoon. Over on Amazon, the best they could offer is Military Wives — the kind of thing I might watch with my mum over Christmas. They also added Parasite, but I (a) have seen it, and (b) own it on disc.

In fact, I own it on disc twice, thanks to picking up the US 4K release back in July (they’ve just released it on 4K here, but I think the import still cost me less), and buying the Criterion edition this month. I’m not one of those Criterion completists buying it for the sake of it being a Criterion — I want the special features, and also the black-and-white version (though that’s on Amazon Prime too, so…) It was one of many titles I imported thanks to Barnes & Noble’s biannual Criterion sale — although, as they still refuse to ship to the UK, I actually bought stuff price-matched from Amazon.com. Other titles I picked up included Ghost Dog (been waiting for that on Blu-ray for years), Christopher Nolan’s Following, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, Marriage Story, and the Three Fantastic Journeys bu Karel Zeman box set — the UK editions were still slightly cheaper, but pop-up packaging? Yes please! While I was at it, I also imported a bunch of other US stuff I’ve wanted for a while: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (I’ve never heard great things about the film, but the US release is a 4K-HFR / 3D combo pack that entices me), Shout’s release of Creepshow (as the UK release is long out of print and it’s one of the few George Romero titles I didn’t own), the 4K restoration of Rian Johnson’s Brick, animation Long Way North, The Mask of Zorro in 4K, the 26th Zatoichi film (upgrading my Arrow DVD)… and a few others too (this list is getting plenty long enough, and I’ve not even started on my UK purchases).

Yes, various UK sales further decimated my bank account this month. There was a UK Criterion offer, too, in which I picked up The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Life of Oharu, and Metropolitan; Indicator had a Hammer sale, from which I nabbed two of their box sets (Volumes Three and Four, if anyone’s interested); from Arrow’s Noirvember offer I snagged Dark City, Hangmen Also Die, and (after many years of never quite buying them) both the 1946 and 1964 versions of The Killers; plus random discounts on the 4K box sets of Sicario 1 and 2, and the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy.

Oh, and there were new releases too! The headliner has to be Second Sight’s incredible 4K box set of Dawn of the Dead, a behemoth packed with alternate cuts, special features, and books — not booklets, literal books. Amazing. Also available in multiple fancily-packaged editions was the 4K release of V for Vendetta, though I just went for the regular version in the end. There were also two new Jackie Chan titles from 88 Films (Shaolin Wooden Men and New Fist of Fury); plus another Eastern action classic from Eureka, The Bride with White Hair; and Japanese sci-fi from Eureka too, in the form of Mothra, The H-Man, and Battle in Outer Space. More noir, as well, in the form of Indicator’s Columbia Noir #1 box set — that number at the end promising I’ll be spending much money on this series in the years to come. And, finally, rounding out the month, a Train to Busan trilogy box set, meaning I finally picked up that zombie modern classic, along with the anime prequel (which I don’t much care for) and the new sequel, Peninsula.

Christ, look at that list — anyone’d think I’d just had a Christmas present haul! And I left half-a-dozen titles out just to speed things up. But no, Christmas is still to come…


Iiiiit’s Chriiiiiistmaaaaas! I have been waiting pretty much all year to be able to watch Klaus (can’t watch a Christmas film from January to November, no no no), so if I don’t get round to it I’ll be doing some serious self-chastising in my December review.

The Past Month on TV #63

There’s all sorts of stuff I thought I’d’ve got round to for this TV column — Cobra Kai season 2; more of The Twilight Zone; Netflix miniseries The Queen’s Gambit; finally starting The bloody Mandalorian — but I haven’t seen any of them. So, rather than keep pushing this post back and back, here’s what little I have watched that’s worth commenting on in the almost-two-months-now since my last TV review.

Young Wallander  Season 1
Young WallanderI think that Swedish detective Kurt Wallander’s USP, if he has one, was that he wasn’t some young hotshot maverick genius, like so many fictional detectives, but rather a middle-aged, somewhat disillusioned, almost workaday cop who got the job done. So a series about his younger days already seems like it might be missing half the point. But it’s worked for other TV detectives (most notably Morse in the acclaimed Endeavour), so why not? After all, seeing what police work in 1970s Sweden was like might be interesting — it’s certainly a different setting, anyway.

Well, that’s Young Wallander‘s first misstep: this isn’t about the young life of canonical Wallander, it’s a modern-day reboot. So, you’ve removed the obvious character traits and you’ve changed when it’s set — what makes this Wallander as opposed to Generic Swedish Cop? That was the question I had after watching the trailer and, sadly, I still wondered it after watching the series in full. At least the storyline is Wallander-ish, all about nationalism and refugees and how they’re treated. That may sound very timely, given what’s been going on politically over the last five to ten years, and it is; but it’s also the kind of thing Wallander’s original creator, Henning Mankell, often wrote about before that. But that makes it a mixed blessing: yes, it’s the kind of story you can imagine a ‘real’ Wallander text tackling, but it’s also such a present-day issue that that doesn’t matter; it’s the kind of plot any drama might choose to take on right now.

The production itself is a strange international hybrid: made by Swedish production company Yellow Bird (though actually shot elsewhere in Europe, I believe), but with a British writer and mostly British cast speaking English, while thankfully not trying to emulate the accent. That’s except for Wallander himself, who’s played by a Swede, who has kind of retained his accent. In a story all about national identity, it’s kind of ironic that Wallander sounds like the only Swedish man in Sweden.

I can see why the Wallander rights-holders would want the brand to continue, because it’s been very popular in various incarnations, in particular the Swedish series starring Krister Henriksson and the British series starring Kenneth Branagh. But between those, and the previous series of Swedish TV movies starring Rolf Lassgård, every one of Mankell’s original novels has been adapted twice, plus the invention of about 30 original-for-TV stories — so, if you want to continue the character, a new direction does feel called for. Unfortunately, this isn’t it. It’s too generic, lacking any uniqueness that makes you feel this is a story that could only be told — or even should be told — using the Wallander brand. Even leaving that aside — if you had no previous attachment to the character and so just approached this as an original cop drama — the series is less than great. It’s not outright bad, just thoroughly middling, with an underwhelming finale that leaves plot threads dangling; and it’s not clear if it’s meant to be a realistic “not everything gets tied up” ending, or if they’re hoping to pick up on them in a second season.

The only good thing to come out of all this, for me, was that it’s reminded me I still have a bunch of adaptations starring Lassgård that I’ve never watched, so it’ll be nice to go visit those. And then revisit the Henriksson series at some point, because it was excellent; and maybe the Branagh one too, because that was also really good. But if Young Wallander manages to bag itself a recommission, I’m not sure I’ll bother with it.

Jonathan Creek  Series 5 Episodes 2-3 + 2016 Christmas Special
Jonathan Creek: Daemons' RoostI noted last time that Jonathan Creek seems to be ending with a whimper rather than a bang. It was a huge hit when it first aired in the ’90s, and a revival in 2009 was a big ratings success too, but the sporadic specials made since then have seen it drift further and further from the spark that once made it special. The nadir was the premiere episode of series 5, which didn’t even function properly as an episode of the show. The remaining two instalments of that short run are better, but still nowhere near the series’ early-day highs. The third one, The Curse of the Bronze Lamp, includes an array of terrible subplots that make you wish it was considerably shorter (it’s only an hour long but feels like two), but its mystery is still the nearest these latter-day Creeks have come to its heyday.

A saving grace comes in the last (for now) episode, 2016 Christmas special Daemons’ Roost. Is it the last-ever episode? Many online listings treat it as such, but the four years since it aired means if another episode popped up it wouldn’t be the longest gap in the series’ history. But if it is the last time we ever get to see the character, it’s actually not a bad one to go out on; in fact, thought it was a real return to form. As with many later episodes, it struggles to get Jonathan involved in the case — daft, really, because, after he had the same problem right back in series 1, writer David Renwick came up with a way to just throw Jonathan and Maddy into the case every episode… then undid that after series 4, since when we’ve once again been subjected to long-winded reasonings for Jonathan to get involved. So, once again, it takes a while to get going (Jonathan doesn’t get properly involved until 40 minutes in), but once it ramps up there are some neat mysteries and bags of Gothic atmosphere. I always feel Creek is at its best when it’s invoking that almost Hammer Horror vibe. There are also some nice nods to the series’ history, which is the main reason it feels like it could serve fittingly as a “finale” if needs must.

Though, personally, I’d love to see Jonathan reunited with Maddy for one final case; and I’m happy to wait for a one-off special when Renwick’s got a good idea, because we’ve seen how wrong it goes when he forces it.

Also watched…
  • Anthony Jeselnik: Thoughts and Prayers — After enjoying his Netflix special that I watched last time, I watched the other. This one starts dark… and gets darker. I loved that, but I can see he’s not for everyone.
  • Demetri Martin: The Overthinker — After enjoying his Netflix special that I watched last time, I watched the other. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy it as much — it was, ironically, overthought. Oh well, can’t win ’em all.
  • Small Axe Episode 1 — Just to note that I’ll be counting these as films, because that’s what they are, really, aren’t they? I suppose the counterargument is it’s an anthology miniseries because they’re premiering on TV, but nah — especially as several of them actually premiered at a film festival.
  • The Great British Bake Off Series 11 Episodes 2-4 — I’m even way behind on Bake Off! I’ve managed to avoid most spoilers, at least, so I’ll catch up soon.

    Things to Catch Up On
    His Dark Materials series 2This month, I have mostly been missing His Dark Materials, the second series of the BBC/HBO adaptation of Philip Pullman’s acclaimed trilogy. Of course, I’ve been missing lots of stuff (that was kind of the theme of my introduction, remember?), but that’s one of the most pressing to me personally. You might argue The Mandalorian, also on its second season, is even more pertinent, what with it regularly being thoroughly discussed online, but I’ve not even started that yet. His Dark Materials, on the other hand, I do expect to watch soon.

    Next month… His Dark Materials season 2, probably. What else, only time will tell.

  • Some Beasts (2019)

    aka Algunas Bestias

    2020 #225
    Jorge Riquelme Serrano | 97 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | Chile / Spanish

    Some Beasts

    Sometimes, one thing can ruin an entire movie. Depending on how harsh a critic you are, I’d say that’s quite rare. Unless it’s threaded throughout the entire film (like, say, a terrible lead performance, or a consistently poor cinematography decision), a small constituent part would have to be truly horrendous to take the entire rest of the movie down with it. Some Beasts is one of those films. The problem arrives in the final 20 minutes, which makes it a massive plot spoiler. Out of some lingering respect for storytellers, I provide this spoiler warning; others would argue content of this nature doesn’t deserve such courtesy.

    Anyway, before I get to that: the film’s first hour-or-so. It’s about a family — mum, dad, teenage son and daughter, and their maternal grandparents — travelling to a small island near Chile that the mum & dad have just bought. They want to turn its ramshackle house into a luxury hotel, and they want her rich parents to stump up some money. They’re a snobby bunch — not horrendously so, but with that creeping sense that their grumpiness isn’t just a bad day, it’s a lifelong sense of entitlement. They’re accompanied by a guide, but after he’s accused of being inappropriate towards the daughter (which he wasn’t) and he’s groped (against his protestations) by the grandmother, the family wake up the next day to find he’s disappeared, stranding them on the island.

    Some Beasts is labelled as a thriller, but there’s not much thrilling about it. By the halfway point, people are literally sat around staring into space… On the surface, it’s just a family on a bad holiday; but there are obvious interpersonal tensions, which combine with some occasionally ominous music and unusual shot choices (like a series of straight-down bird’s eye views that open the film) to lend a mildly unsettling atmosphere. As the film goes on, their behaviour gets worse, but it’s in small increments on a long sliding scale.

    Abusers

    Later, they all play a board game. And we watch. In real time. And we join it halfway through, so you’re not going to know what the game is or how it’s played. Then the tensions explode and everybody’s arguing. The whole of this unfolds in one long static take, which is either an impressive bit of staging and acting or just directorial showing off, depending how you want to take it. I tend towards the latter, given what happens next.

    The final 20 minutes suddenly throw in a very sensitive and emotive subjective, presenting it in a deliberately provocative fashion. To be clear: the grandfather gets into bed with the teenage daughter and rapes her. Like the board game, this is presented in a couple of long static wide shots, meaning we witness more-or-less the whole thing. A raft of questions are posed. Is this the first time? The daughter seems awfully accepting of it. Not that she likes it, but is resigned; she barely protests. If not, when did it start? There’s only been the vaguest hints earlier in the film about the grandfather’s feelings. Who knows about it? Because there are some cutaways that suggest some of the other characters know what’s going on. And the next morning, it seems like they all know — so when did they find out? And what happens next? Because there’s no blazing row; no calm confrontation, either. They all sit around a bit more, looking shocked… then get in a boat and go home. The end. It’s like there’s not enough screen time to deal with the subject in sufficient detail, so the film doesn’t even try. Except, of course, that it’s the filmmaker who decides the running time and the pacing. There’s no “oops, I introduced a serious issue too late in the day and now I don’t have time to examine it properly!”

    Because the film doesn’t actually explore with the topic it’s raised, that means we’re left primarily with the manner of its presentation. That seems consciously designed as an assault on our sensibilities via a brazen depiction of something morally abhorrent. Rather than any meaningful engagement with the multitude of questions and issues it raises, it pokes at us for a reaction, being about as provocative as a child saying a rude word at an inappropriate moment — the scene, and its explicit detail, exists only to say, “look how edgy I am! Look how I’m prepared to show things that shouldn’t be shown!” I’ll be the first to argue that depicting something is not necessarily to endorse it (cf. the endless stupid debates about Scorsese’s oeuvre), but when the Bad Thing goes as unexamined and unpunished as it does here, one starts to wonder about the real intent of the filmmaker.

    Abused

    The first hour or so of Some Beasts is mostly uneventful; the final 20 minutes are offensively ill-judged. I don’t think you get to throw something that serious into your film, and shoot it so provocatively, without also tackling what it means. You can’t take something that so profoundly affects people who’ve suffered it and treat it in such an off-hand manner. Taboo subjects can and should be tackled in films, but you have to engage with them in thoughtful and meaningful ways, not use them as something shocking for the sake of being shocking. The ending is so egregious, it kicks aside what value there was in the earlier portion of the film. It actually made me feel kind of angry, which is not the kind of reaction I normally feel towards a film.

    Some Beasts is well made, in its way, but it’s a bad film.

    1 out of 5

    Some Beasts is screening on AMPLIFY! until Sunday.

    The IMDb New Filmmaker Award 2020

    Last night on AMPLIFY!, FilmBath presented the 9th annual IMDb New Filmmaker Award, in which a trio of industry judges choose the best short film by a new filmmaker (clue’s in the name). The winner gets £1,000 cash, £1,000 in gear hire for their next project, a natty trophy, and an IMDb pin badge (normally only given to IMDb employees). If you missed the evening, never fear: the whole 90-minute event is available to rewatch for free, worldwide, here.

    Why would you watch an awards show after it’s happened? Well, in this case, you get to hear the judges’ musings on what makes a good film — and when those judges are BAFTA-nominated director Coky Giedroyc (The Virgin Queen, How to Build a Girl), Oscar-nominated and BAFTA-winning producer Amanda Posey (An Education, Brooklyn), and the CEO of IMDb, Col Needham, those are opinions worth listening to. Even better, you get to watch the five nominated shorts in full, and they’re good a bunch.

    But don’t just take my word for it: take my, er, word for it, in the form of these reviews…

    If you do intend to watch the awards, fair warning: I’m going to ‘spoil’ who won.

    Under the Full Moon

    Taking the films in the order they were shown, first up is Under the Full Moon (2020, Ziyang Liu, UK, English, 9 mins, ★★★★☆), about a guy who has his phone pickpocketed and decides to confront the mugger. The most noteworthy aspect here is the whole short is achieved in a single unbroken eight-minute take. I love stuff done in single long takes; at this point it’s a bit of a cliché to enjoy such things — a real film nerd kind of obsession — but, sod it, it’s still cool. To do a thriller storyline like that — something which requires management of tension and suspense, and of information being revealed at the right time in the right way — is even more impressive. You might say, “well, that’s what theatre is — a drama performed in ‘one take’”, but theatre doesn’t have to factor in camerawork; making sure we’re seeing the right stuff at the right time, framed in the right ways. Under the Full Moon manages every different element almost perfectly, the only real flaw coming right near the end, when the camera fails to clearly capture a phone screen with an incoming call, so the director resorts to a subtitle to make sure we get this final ironic twist. And that’s the other thing: this isn’t just a technical stunt, or an exercise in escalating suspense, but a dramatic work with some neatly-drawn character parts and a sense of dramatic irony. Really strong work.

    The winner (told you I’d spoil it) was Flush Lou (2020, Madison Leonard, USA, English, 9 mins, ★★★★★), and I entirely agree. It’s a black comedy about the reaction of three women to the death of a man: his daughter (who narrates), his wife, and his mother. It’s got a quirkiness that could be inappropriate, but the tone is juggled just right that it remains hilarious rather than at all distasteful. It’s there in the performances, the shot choices, the editing — the piece really works as a whole to hit precisely the right note. It might call to mind the work of someone like Wes Anderson, but it’s far from a rip-off; it also reminded me of certain just-off-reality American-suburbia-skewering TV shows, like The Riches or Suburgatory (I’m sure there are some more mainstream examples that are eluding my reach right now). Also, it manages to pack eight chapters into its eight minutes, without ever feeling like that’s an unnecessary affectation; if anything, it helps clarify the structure, which is exactly the kind of thing chapters are good for. A huge success all round.

    Flush Lou

    At the other end of the seriousness spectrum was the winner of the audience vote, The Monkeys on Our Backs (2020, Hunter Williams, New Zealand, English, 8 mins, ★★★★★), a documentary about the mental health of farmers in New Zealand. I think we often have a very positive view of New Zealand — they seem like nice people; their government is doing awesomely well; they make great movies; they’re good at rugby; and so on. But the country has one of the highest suicide rates in the developed world, and mental health problems disproportionately affect those living and working in isolated rural communities. This is not only a succinct explanation of the problems, with real-life examples as well as expert opinions, but also talks about the solutions, what help is out there and how it’s working. Plus it’s a beautifully shot film (some outtakes in black & white at the beginning show the fundamental quality underlying the colour photography in the rest of the film), with lovely views of countryside life, as if to help remind you that the world is a wonderful place. A wholly different film to Flush Lou, but an equally deserving winner.

    The shortest of this year’s five is Players (2020, Ava Bounds, UK, English, 3 mins, ★★★★☆), but that’s not the most noteworthy thing about it. This is: it was made by a 14-year-old. But you’d never guess, because it has a competency and, more strikingly, a surrealism that belies someone much more experienced. Heck, the sound design most reminded me of David Lynch! And the comparison goes beyond the sound work, with an ending that calls to mind some of Lynch’s work where nature and technology clash. Subtitled “a clearly confused film”, I think that was somewhat how the judges felt about its mix of retro costumes and music, computer-generated vocals, and a sci-fi sting in the tail. It’s the kind of film that clearly doesn’t work for everyone — just another way it’s a natural successor to Lynch, then. A 14-year-old making a competition-worthy short film is incredible in itself, but that it also merits so many comparisons to David fucking Lynch? Remarkable.

    The Monkeys on Our Backs

    The final film was Home (2020, Hsieh Meng Han, UK, English, 10 mins, ★★★☆☆), in which a girl living with her mother in a single room in a dingy apartment block finds the communal toilet locked, but then hears music coming from a nearby ventilation grill. Climbing through, she finds herself in a brightly-lit world of opulence, with people in elegant clothes dancing to genteel music, and an array of luscious food on offer. She even makes a friend. But then uptight officiousness arrives in the form of a stuffy manager, who refuses to let her use the toilet. It’s like a modern socially-conscious take on Alice in Wonderland, though I’m not sure what point it was ultimately making — kindness is nice and everyone deserves to be allowed to use the toilet?

    If any of that tickles your fancy, don’t forget you can still watch the whole event, free, here.

    Disclosure: I’m working for AMPLIFY! as part of FilmBath. However, all opinions are my own, and I benefit in no way (financial or otherwise) from you following the links in this post or making purchases.

    Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020)

    2020 #193
    Eliza Hittman | 101 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / PG-13

    Never Rarely Sometimes Always

    Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is a teenage girl from rural Pennsylvania, and she’s pregnant. She’s young, her family clearly aren’t well off, she’s not in a relationship with the father — the film explains none of this to us explicitly, but it’s all clear. So is it any wonder that Autumn decides she wants an abortion? Her local sex health clinic’s attitude is to show her a video about why it’s evil. Her conservative parents obviously wouldn’t understand; especially, you think, her dad, who is at least verbally abusive. And so with the help of her cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder), they scrape together what little money they have, throw a simple lie in the parents’ direction, and set off for New York City, where Autumn can get the procedure without parental consent.

    Clearly, Never Rarely Sometimes Always is not impressed by the state of things in the US of A. It’s an indictment of what women have to endure to have control over their own bodies. The so-called “Land of the Free” isn’t so free for some people. All this is stuff many of us know, thanks to recent political movements and counter-campaigns to change women’s rights. But by showing us a ‘case study’, as it were, of one girl’s experience, writer-director Eliza Hittman makes the real-world effect of these political decisions so very tangible. (It’s interesting that the film is quite prominently a UK coproduction. One suspects that non-US influence and/or cash injection may’ve been necessary.)

    Lest you think the film is some kind of feminist polemic, it comments on all of this without ever saying much of it explicitly. It is, if anything, a witness statement; a factually-stated case from which we infer the unjustness of the system because we are capable of empathy. (The natural counterpoint being that, of course, if you showed it to certain groups they’d not feel the same level of care or compassion, but that’s their failing as human beings.) Despite the big issues at play, and these unavoidable conclusions, it’s a subtle and quiet film, with much left unsaid. The scene which gives the film its title is a series of questions posed to Autumn before she can have the abortion. Some are just yes/no answers; some she can’t even bring herself to respond. They’re not specific enough to tell us what exactly has happened in her life, but they indicate and hint at so much. And that’s ok — we don’t need to know the totality of her personal experience to empathise with what she’s going through now; just that she’s not coming from a loving, supportive place that might make it all a bit easier.

    Skylar and Autumn

    As Autumn, Flanigan is incredible; doubly so as it’s a debut performance (apparently she beat over 100 actresses for the role. Well done, casting director!) Like the film, she conveys so much with so little; so much bottled up emotion. Skylar is a great character, too: so supportive, but not incapable of feeling her own emotions. At one point, as the trip unexpectedly drags on over several days, it all gets a bit much and she has to go off by herself for a bit. That kind of behaviour helps accentuate the realness of events — even when you want to be supportive, sometimes you need a little break. No one’s perfect. Ryder has a couple of minor credits to her name, but both girls deserve to go on to much more on the strength of their work here.

    Some viewers will find the film’s style too slow, too wandering, aimless; but, for me, that further underlined the reality. All that time spent just getting from place to place, or just waiting around until it’s time — that’s life. Indeed, for me, it only heightened the film’s tension, which crushes in all the time, throughout. Or perhaps not tension, exactly, but worry; uncertainty; anxiety. What’s going to happen? What’s going to go wrong? How are they going to deal with this, that, and the other? Horribly, this is probably what it’s like to be a young woman a lot of the time, especially in America. That’s the film’s power: it takes a real-life experience lived by so many, and it doesn’t just show it to us, it makes us feel it.

    At one point, a professional tells Autumn that “whatever your decision is, is totally fine, as long as it’s yours.” It’s a moment of much-needed kindness, because, in Autumn’s experience, that is not how things are — but it is how they should be.

    5 out of 5

    Never Rarely Sometimes Always is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from today.

    Jojo Rabbit (2019)

    2019 #145
    Taika Waititi | 108 mins | cinema | 1.85:1 | USA, New Zealand & Czech Republic / English | 12A / PG-13

    Jojo Rabbit

    So much was said about Jojo Rabbit on its release (last October in the US; at the start of this year here in the UK) — and, indeed, before its release, thanks to it debuting on the festival circuit — that, coming to it now, it feels like there’s nothing fresh to add. Doubly so as it’s been through the usual cycle of backlash and backlash-to-the-backlash (rinsed and repeated several times over). That said, it does seem to have dropped out of the conversation and consciousness somewhat, which perhaps hints at its longer-term reception — in short, it’s no Parasite. (Maybe that’s an unfair comparison anyway, given Parasite is the kind of movie that’s already attracted “greatest of all time” status some places.)

    And so, faced with nothing fresh to say, I will instead just explain and/or justify my own full-marks star rating. “Justify” feels like the right word, because some people (some critics, in particular) really took against the film. Others, less vitriolic, thought it didn’t measure up to writer-director Taika Waititi’s high standard. I don’t think it’s as good as Hunt for the Wilderpeople or What We Do in the Shadows (both modern classics, more or less), but I did like it a lot. When it hit the mark with its humour, it was very, very funny; but it balances this with emotional and hard-hitting bits. The balance it strikes between the two is uncommon but well managed. On a micro level, some parts are outstanding (like the title sequence cut to the Beatles), but I also felt it was a little long in places.

    My friend Hitler

    Before it came out, some were worried about the wider reaction to a comedy where the ‘heroes’ were Nazis. But, of course, Nazis aren’t the heroes, and it’s not difficult to understand that. Indeed, I can see why some critics were saying that, despite expectations, it’s not actually a particularly hard-hitting movie, because it’s not really shocking (unless you’re easily shocked by an imaginary-friend Hitler being a comedic character; and considering that humorous screen depictions of Hitler date back to at least The Great Dictator, so it’s hardly a revolutionary idea).

    Despite some doubts, in the end I rounded my score up to a full 5 because, while it’s not perfect, it contains an awful lot that I enjoyed an awful lot. One to rewatch and reconsider, perhaps.

    5 out of 5

    Jojo Rabbit is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from today.

    Patrick (2019)

    aka De Patrick

    2020 #221
    Tim Mielants | 96 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | Belgium & Netherlands / Flemish, Dutch, French, English & German

    Patrick

    Patrick’s hammer is missing. More accurately, one of Patrick’s hammers is missing — he has seven, of different sizes, arranged in a neat row on a bespoke wall mount, and the middle one is no longer there. Patrick is the handyman at a nudist campsite run by his father, who is old and sick. The head of the residents’ council is a busybody; his wife is secretly sleeping with Patrick, not that Patrick seems to care. A famous musician Patrick has never heard of arrives to stay, followed by his pretty but frustrated girlfriend. Then Patrick’s father dies. But, most importantly, Patrick’s hammer is still missing. Fortunately, a former police officer friend turns up to pay his respects, and gives Patrick advice on how to find his hammer — so Patrick launches his investigation.

    To sum Patrick up as “Agatha Christie meets the Coen brothers in a nudist camp” doesn’t feel too wide of the mark. Okay, there’s no murder, so perhaps mystery-genre fans could think of a better (though, unavoidably, less famous) author than Christie to sub in. But the fact remains that the missing hammer isn’t just a story hook to hang something else on: it’s a solid mystery narrative, with clues and red herrings and twists. Conversely, it’s not just a mystery, which is where the second comparison comes in. The overall quirky, just-left-of-reality, slightly-heightened tone evokes the Coens’ work, without (thank goodness) being a rip-off. It’s very much a comedy-drama, in that it’s not out-and-out seeking to provoke laughs, but it’s frequently absurd to the point of being laughable — although, with What We Do in the Shadows’ Jemaine Clement among the supporting cast, you can be assured of some genuinely humorous moments too.

    One element that isn’t mined for amusement, to the film’s credit, is the nudity. Equally, if you’re the kind of person who hears “set in a nudist camp” and thinks “wah-hey!”, don’t get your hopes up. These are real nudists, not pretty movie ones: middle-aged to older, with lumpy flesh wobbling around all over the place. The one conventionally attractive member of the cast (Hannah Hoekstra as the musician’s girlfriend, Nathalie) remains clothed. Indeed, the positive aspect of how the film treats nudity is that… it doesn’t really treat it at all. It’s doesn’t use the nudity for laughs, nor does it sexualise it, nor does it linger on it, nor does it avoid it. It’s just there; a fact of life. This story takes place in a nudist camp, so people are naked — that’s that. Even if all sorts of bits flopping about strikes you as giggle-worthy at first, before too long you stop even noticing.

    Anyone could have taken it

    What is often visually appealing is Frank van den Eeden’s cinematography. There are some beautiful shots and scenes, from your obvious screen-cap-able pretty lensing (like a funeral where the whole camp are scattered around a smoke-filled forest), but the way the camera moves, with slow pans (like the one when Nathalie first visits Patrick’s workshop), or clever angles (like when Patrick has to climb out of a tipped-over caravan).

    The combination of all of the above made me rather love Patrick. While the limits of a five-star rating system mean I’m only going to give it a 4 for now, it’s sort of a 4+, thanks to a litany of great shots and moments that spike above the overall quality of the film (which, I should make clear, is still high). It’s a movie that appeals to my taste: unmistakably absurd, but without revelling in that absurdity to the point where the wheels of momentum come off and it all falls apart. It satisfies as a mystery; as a pillorying of the politicking that goes on in small organisations; and as a character study of a man who just wants to find his hammer.

    4 out of 5

    Patrick is streaming on AMPLIFY! from today until 17th November. It’s on general UK release from 20th November.

    Disclosure: I’m working for AMPLIFY! as part of FilmBath. However, all opinions are my own, and I benefit in no way (financial or otherwise) from you following the links in this post or making purchases.

    Waxworks (1924)

    aka Das Wachsfigurenkabinett

    2020 #232
    Paul Leni | 82 mins | digital (HD) | 1.33:1 | Germany / silent | PG

    Waxworks

    Often billed as the first portmanteau horror movie, Waxworks only fits the bill in the loosest sense: its “three stories” are actually two stories and a dream sequence, the first (and longest) of which is, if anything, a swashbuckling farce.

    But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. The film begins with a young writer (William Dieterle, who would later become a Hollywood director, responsible for 1938 Best Picture winner The Life of Emile Zola, amongst others) who is hired to pen backstories for the four statues in a carnival wax museum. Yes, four — the filmmakers ran out of money before they could film the fourth tale. As he begins writing, into each story he injects both himself and the museum’s curator’s daughter (Olga Belajeff) as his love interest.

    The first tale is set in Arabian Nights-style Bagdad (IMDb says this part inspired Douglas Fairbanks to make The Thief of Bagdad, but a quick look at their release dates shows Fairbanks’ film came out months before Waxworks), and concerns a lecherous Caliph (Emil Jannings) who sets his sights on wooing a baker’s wife. It’s quite a sexualised segment all round: the baker kneads dough so erotically it sends his wife (and himself) all aquiver (I doubt it’ll do the same for many viewers, but it clearly works for them); later, the disguised Caliph sneaks into the baker’s home and spies the wife lying in bed with her back to him, and his gaze (and, by extension, ours) clearly lingers on her bottom (clothed, lest you think the film is uncommonly explicit). I guess the characters were too busy perving to apply logic to their decision-making: when the baker is too wary to slip a ring off the sleeping Caliph’s finger, he decides to chop his whole arm off instead. Totally reasonable. Meanwhile, why is the all-powerful Caliph worried about being found out by a lowly baker? Indeed, why’s he so worried that his guards will know he sneaks out at night? He’s the boss! On the bright side, there’s some beautiful and striking Expressionist set design; an exciting chase scene, set to dramatic percussive music in the new score by Bernd Schultheis, Olav Lervik, and Jan Kohl; and the wife’s save at the climax is a cunning twist. But, overall, it’s a bit of a daft farce.

    Arabian nights

    The second story stars Conrad Veidt as a Rasputin-esque Ivan the Terrible, who revels in killing prisoners in the Kremlin’s dungeons with an ultra-specifically-timed poison. If that wasn’t clue enough, this segment is thematically much darker. A bride’s father invites Ivan to attend the wedding, then the Czar insists they switch roles to travel there and the dad is killed by mistaken assassins. Then his arrow-pierced corpse is unceremoniously dumped on the front steps of his home while the wedding banquet continues inside; and when daughter sneaks away to grieve over his body, Ivan has some guards snatch her; and when the angry groom tries to attack Ivan, he’s ordered off to the torture chamber. Puts people who complain about rain on their wedding day into perspective, doesn’t it? Veidt is great as the deranged Ivan, although he’s so mentally unstable that it borders on comical. The finale doesn’t make much sense (he lets the girl go… then doesn’t?), but the denouement delivers a neat and fitting fate to Czar Terrible.

    The third and final story begins with just five minutes of screen time left, so you know it’s not going to be wholly-realised tale. (Incidentally, the original German version of the film is lost, leaving us with only the English version, which is about 25 minutes shorter. What’s in those minutes? If anyone knows, they’re not saying online (to the best of my knowledge). Perhaps there was more linking material in the museum? Perhaps the third ‘story’ really was a whole story? Perhaps the first two were once even longer, though it’s hard to imagine how much more there could be to do in either of them — maybe the cuts were for the best…) Anyway, the third segment is the aforementioned dream sequence, in which the waxwork of Jack the Ripper comes to life and pursues the writer and his love (they met earlier that day but already seem pretty committed) through a series of highly impressionist sets, their disjointed oddity exacerbated by differently-aligned multiple exposures. It’s Expressionism to the max, and it’s suitably effective as a chiller. But, of course, it’s all a dream… and that’s suddenly the end!

    Ivan's terrible, but Veidt's great

    Like so many of the portmanteau films that have followed in its wake, Waxworks struggles to be the sum of its parts. It’s ultimately a bit underwhelming, with the first two stories being slower than necessary (and this is the cut version!) before giving way to a rushed finale. Make no mistake, there’s some very nice stuff in here, but it comes in bits and pieces. It’s a welcome watch for fans of silent cinema or early horror (with caveats about its “horror” content duly noted), and there are enough good parts to recommend it, but I wouldn’t argue it’s a classic in any enduring sense (beyond its obvious influence as a stepping stone to future portmanteau films).

    3 out of 5

    Waxworks is streaming on AMPLIFY! until 22nd November, and is released on Blu-ray as part of the Masters of Cinema Series today.

    Also, new on AMPLIFY! today are…

    • what sounds like a German riff on Whiplash, but with violins, in The Audition
    • a documentary about the drawbacks of algorithms, Coded Bias
    • the UK premiere of Viggo Mortensen’s directorial debut, Falling
    • Catalan coming-of-age drama The Innocence
    • and unusual found footage documentary My Mexican Bretzel.

    (If you don’t know, “bretzel” is the German word for “pretzel”.)

    Disclosure: I’m working for AMPLIFY! as part of FilmBath. However, all opinions are my own, and I benefit in no way (financial or otherwise) from you following the links in this post or making purchases.

    Rose Plays Julie (2019)

    2020 #239
    Joe Lawlor & Christine Molloy | 101 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | Ireland & UK / English

    Rose Plays Julie

    Long Lost Family meets rape revenge thriller in this Irish drama about a veterinary student, Rose (Ann Skelly), who was adopted as a baby and now decides to finally meet her birth mother, Ellen (Orla Brady), only to uncover a dark secret about their shared past. Well, I’ve kinda given away the ‘secret’ in my opening ten words, haven’t I? My apologies if you’re a total spoilerphobe, but here’s the thing: some blurbs and whatnot try to conceal that reveal (and when it comes in the film, it is played as a revelation; more on that in a bit), but, frankly, even if you haven’t already had it spelled out (and most reviews don’t try to hide it), it’s pretty easy to guess where things are going — perhaps even from reading one of those oh-so-oblique blurbs (that’s when I figured it out).

    But this isn’t your standard rape revenge movie. The act itself is historical, with only its aftermath shown in a couple of fuzzy flashbacks — this isn’t one of those trashy flicks that has its cake and eats it by ickily revelling in the assault before also enjoying the violent vengeance. And instead of the avenger being a dismayed husband/partner, or the (attractive, young) wronged woman who’s suddenly an expert assassin, it’s the daughter who came of it. If you’re after the visceral thrills of the aforementioned kind of rape revenge movies, you won’t find them in this slow-burn, introspective drama; but if you’re open to that style, the mother-daughter angle of how it approaches its subject matter is a unique element.

    This is where the Long Lost Family part remains relevant, because the tentative new relationship between Rose and the mother who gave her up two decades ago is almost a big a part of the film as her seeking out and confronting her biological father. This rides a lot on Skelly and Brady as actors, because writer-directors Joe Lawlor & Christine Molloy aren’t the sort of filmmakers who write big speeches where their characters explain their feelings — quite the opposite. Instead, we study their passive faces in extended closeups, trying to discern what’s going on as they think things over. One of the most outwardly expressive moments comes when Ellen reveals their shared past to Rose, in a blunt statement just hours after they’ve first met. It’s probably not the best way to go about telling someone that was how they were conceived, but it makes for a slap-in-the-face moment of drama, and Skelly’s reaction is powerful: she doesn’t ‘do’ anything, but her face changes entirely.

    The secret comes out

    The film’s quiet, subtle mode must be challenging for an actor — no grand emotive speeches to show off with — but this cast are up to the challenge. Skelly is obviously the standout, letting through just glimmers of reaction that allow us to understand how much she’s struggling with all this troubling new information. Brady is very good also, even though I feel like some of her character arc has been left offscreen, between scenes. Rose’s father, Peter, is played by Aidan Gillen, who always excels at embodying smarmy bastards, and that extra-textual awareness helps him to, again, keep his performance mostly subdued and realistic. He’s not some overt monster stomping across everyone’s lives, but an outwardly nice guy with an evil core.

    The film’s biggest detriment is that it perhaps takes its serious subject matter a bit too seriously. It’s a very portentous film, in which the restrained performances, gloomy photography, slow-burn pace, and ominous music combine to create an intensely fateful atmosphere. Something is, inevitably, going to happen… eventually… On the one hand, it means that, as Rose gets in deeper, the tension steadily begins to grow. On the other, I’m aware some viewers think it’s so self-serious that it tips over into being laughable. There’s something to be said for varying your tone.

    Conversely, I can see why Lawlor & Molloy weren’t in the mood for levity: this is a film about two women, damaged in different ways, who need to come to terms with what has happened to them; both searching for something, even if they don’t know it. You could argue, even, that applies to three people, because Gillen’s character also comes to realise he’s broken — though, in his case, how much sympathy we can feel for him is a whole other discussion. And mixed into all that are major ethical dilemmas: reaching out to birth parents who requested no contact; euthanising healthy animals (if you’re squeamish about injured and dying animals, do not apply); and, by extension, the question of what is appropriate restitution for transgressive behaviour by humans.

    Peter the rapist

    The latter leads to an ending that I’m not sure how I feel about (massive spoilers follow!) Peter is killed by Ellen, but only because he acquiesces — he accepts what’s happening and allows Ellen to finish it. It’s not exactly suicide (he wouldn’t have done it if Ellen hadn’t turned up and stabbed him with a syringe full of poison), but, by the end, he’s also not protesting. He accepts his guilt and punishment; almost seems to welcome the relief, in fact. If only all rapists were so helpful… and the fact they wouldn’t be is what makes this such a grey area. But then, maybe that’s the point: the film isn’t arguing that this is how things should be done, but asking the question: is this ok? If not, what would be? On another level, from a story structure perspective, it feels somewhat unsatisfying that Rose isn’t involved, after the rest of the film was primarily about her. That might be morally correct (it’s really Ellen’s trauma to deal with), but it feels wrong dramatically to end the film with resolution for Ellen more than for Rose.

    Between its heavy issues and unwaveringly doom-laden tone, Rose Plays Julie is not a light viewing experience. If you like the idea of slow-burn dramatic thriller that spends a lot of time focused on people’s still faces as they process information silently and internally, and leaves you with a lot to chew over when it’s done, this is a film for you. If you think that sounds inscrutable or dull, steer clear.

    4 out of 5

    Rose Plays Julie is streaming on AMPLIFY! until Thursday 12th November. It includes a half-hour Q&A with the directors, actor Orla Brady, and composer Stephen McKeon.

    Disclosure: I’m working for AMPLIFY! as part of FilmBath. However, all opinions are my own, and I benefit in no way (financial or otherwise) from you following the links in this post or making purchases.

    The Mole Agent (2020)

    It’s Day 2 of the AMPLIFY! film festival (new content goes live at 1am, FYI). Among today’s additions is the UK premiere of The Mole Agent — one of 18 UK premieres that are part of the festival.

    My review of that in a moment, but first, also debuting today are…

    Incidentally, I’d recommend Rose Plays Julie, an engrossing and powerful psychological thriller (I’ll review it in full soon, time permitting).

    The Mole Agent
    (2020)

    2020 #231
    Maite Alberdi | 90 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | Chile, USA, Germany, Netherlands & Spain / Spanish

    The Mole Agent

    It’s easy to make The Mole Agent sound like the setup for a comedy: it’s about a doddery 83-year-old who must learn to be a spy. And, indeed, there are scene where the film is very amusing; particularly early on, when the octogenarian in question, Sergio Chamy, struggles to get to grips with the technology he’ll need to use, much to the exasperation of his spymaster, Rómulo Aitken.

    Except that premise, which the film has leant its promotion on (note the tagline on the above poster: “it’s never too late to become a spy”), is slightly misleading. Aitken isn’t a spymaster, he’s a private detective, who’s been hired to investigate allegations of abuse at an old people’s home — hence the need for an old person to go in as an undercover observer. It’s not exactly Bond, or even Le Carré, is it?

    Indeed, director Maite Alberdi leans into a different genre — film noir — shooting the early briefing scenes with a heavy use of venetian blinds, either peering through them or employing their distinctive shadows. It’s a level of visual panache you’re not used to from a conventional documentary. It might lead you to question if what you’re watching was entirely documentary in nature, were it not for the fact that these scenes take place in the ‘safety’ of the PI’s office —it’s not unreasonable to assume the film crew semi-staged a couple of ‘scenes’ to add a bit of visual interest. (They clearly did it for the promo photos, too. I mean, just look at this one…)

    Secret agent men

    The real questions of form begin to emerge once Sergio begins his undercover mission. To be able to film what he’s up to, the documentary crew have inveigled themselves into the same old people’s home with the cover story that they want to make a film about a new resident — so when Sergio turns up, what a perfect coincidence, and excuse to focus their filming on him. Except… if this care home is abusing its residents, are they going to continue doing that with a film crew present? Heck, surely they wouldn’t even agree to a film being made at all?

    Well, the whole investigative goal goes out the window pretty quickly, anyway. Sergio is initially diligent about snooping around and secretly recording his reports for Rómulo, but he soon begins to make friends and become involved in the life of this little community. The other residents become his friends, and he’s more invested in their wellbeing as their comrade than as an outside observer. Concurrently, the film becomes less interested in the comedic fumbles of an octogenarian secret agent, and more in exploring the lives of these old people. Sergio’s fellow residents aren’t faceless possible-victims, but characters we get to know too.

    What Sergio ultimately finds (spoilers!) is neglect — not by the staff, but by the families that shoved their elders away and forgot about them. For the film, that’s a much bigger observation; one on the state of society as a whole, rather than the misdeeds of a single care home. (If anything, the home is wholly vindicated, because we see how much they care for and support their residents.)

    Friends to the end

    If The Mole Agent has a fault it’s that it can be a little slow at times — though, given the pace these (often delightful) oldies move at, perhaps that was unavoidable. But it’s worth the investment nonetheless, because it’s ultimately a powerfully affecting experience. It’s a film that intrigues you with its laughable premise, then swings round to punch you in the emotions with a crystal-clear message.

    4 out of 5

    The UK premiere screening of The Mole Agent is on AMPLIFY! until Friday 13th November. It’s on general release in the UK from 11th December.

    Disclosure: I’m working for AMPLIFY! as part of FilmBath. However, all opinions are my own, and I benefit in no way (financial or otherwise) from you following the links in this post or making purchases.