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.

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.

Luxor (2020)

AMPLIFY! film festival starts today, and one of the launch films is Luxor, which is also on general release in the UK today (though not in cinemas, what with them all being closed again). It’s available digitally via an array of services, but, psst, AMPLIFY! may well be the cheapest.

Other titles available on AMPLIFY! from today are…

…and there’s much more to come over the next couple of weeks (the festival ends on Sunday 22nd). For info on all the films, check out the AMPLIFY! programme.

I’ve already seen some of those films, so I intend to review them in the next day or two; but for starters, here are my thoughts on Luxor

Luxor
(2020)

2020 #226
Zeina Durra | 86 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | Egypt, UK & UAE / English & Arabic | 12A

Luxor

Hana (Andrea Riseborough) arrives in Luxor, Egypt, for a break — as we will come to learn, she’s a doctor who’s been working on the Syrian border, and the traumatic things she witnessed have clearly taken their toll; and Luxor isn’t just a scenic place to visit, but somewhere she spent a significant time, a couple of decades ago, in her 20s. While touring the sights, she happens to bump into Sultan (Karim Saleh), an old friend from back in the day — and, clearly, more than a friend. He’s an archaeologist on a dig, and so they begin to see more sights together, and their connection is rekindled…

Luxor plays like it’s part gentle romantic drama, part tourism video. There are multiple scenes of Hana leisurely roaming around ancient monuments, soaking in the atmosphere and history. (According to writer-director Zeina Durra, “the film had a whole load more of those silent walking scenes but we had to take them out for the sake of the audience’s sanity!”) There’s a lot going on internally for these characters — a lot of stuff we’re not privy to — which will work for some viewers and wholly turn off others. I found Hana’s mental state to be infectious, to a degree. There’s evident nostalgia for her previous time there, tinged with a certain amount of melancholy. Well, nostalgia is inherently quite a melancholic emotion, with its longing for unobtainable pleasures, but Hana is definitely at a time in her life when she’s considering both the past and possible futures. It’s so palpable that Luxor is, at times, the kind of film that’s so seeped in nostalgia it can make you long for a place you’ve never been.

Sightseeing

Unfortunately, these things I liked about the film begin to lose footing somewhat as it goes on and hunts around for a conclusion. There’s a thread of spiritual, almost magical realism stuff, which doesn’t feel inappropriate given the history of the place, but it doesn’t sit wholly with the romantic drama bit either. It’s the kind of thing that has to be measured out very carefully if you’re going to mix it into an otherwise grounded drama, and I’m not sure how much the film commits to it. It culminates in a dream sequence that I didn’t buy into. Also rubbing me up the wrong way were the occasional chapter-like title cards, which felt like a pointless addition (I’m tempted to say affectation) because they didn’t seem to add anything, not even a shape or structure, that wasn’t there otherwise.

I liked Luxor at lot at first (if describing it as “a tourism video” sounds negative, well, it’s set in the kind of enchanting place you’d like to watch a travel video about, so that’s ok), but by the end it had kind of lost me. I thought it was better when it had less of a plot, even — I’m not normally the kind of critic to take such a view (I like a story in my films, thanks), but I was succumbing to its relaxed tenor quite pleasantly. In the absence of the option for real-world trips abroad right now, others may well feel the same. What unfolds after that is, I think, on reflection, a meditation on a specific kind of female middle-age. I suspect that, too, will play better with some viewers more than others.

3 out of 5

Luxor is screening on AMPLIFY! until Thursday 12th 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.

Bloodshot (2020)

2020 #178
David S.F. Wilson | 109 mins | digital (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA & China / English |
12 / PG-13

Bloodshot

If you only know about comic books from the movie universes they spawn, you’d be forgiven for thinking Marvel and DC are the be-all and end-all of that medium. Not so, of course. One of the other publishers with their own stable of superheroes just waiting to make the leap to the screen is Valiant, and (if you hadn’t already guessed) Bloodshot is one of theirs. Indeed, at one point it was intended that it would be an Iron Man-style jumping off point for another cinematic universe, but I can’t imagine that’s still on the cards.

Anyway, in this screen incarnation, Bloodshot stars Vin Diesel as Ray Garrison, a US Marine who is kidnapped and killed along with his wife… but then he wakes up, albeit with amnesia. An experimental scientific programme has seen nanite tech injected into his bloodstream, giving him increased strength and healing abilities. Increased strength? Speed healing? Amnesia? I guess he’s Cyber-Wolverine, only without the cool claws. Anyway, Ray begins to have flashbacks, and he heads off to kill the terrorists who killed him and his wife. But all is not as it seems…

I don’t know why I’m holding back — the trailer spoiled more of the plot than that. And I’m not trying to spare you so you can enjoy the story as the movie unfolds, because Bloodshot is not a film I particularly recommend; and what is enjoyable about it has nothing to do with its storyline. That said, the twist I’ve implied exists would’ve been quite good — certainly one of the film’s higher points — if they hadn’t blown it in the trailer. The only other thrills come from its action sequences, which are passable, albeit constructed with a prominent degree of sloppiness that indicates the filmmakers either weren’t skilled enough or weren’t attentive enough to truly get it right. For example, they didn’t even bother to put British number plates on any of the cars during a chase that supposedly takes place in London; not to mention that the streets they’re darting around look nothing like the UK.

Kind of a superhero

Poor location scouting aside, there’s copious amounts of the computer-generated bombast that’s par for the course in a modern blockbuster. But underneath that digital set dressing, Bloodshot feels like a throwback to the comic book adaptations of 20 years ago; one of those superhero-movies-they’d-rather-weren’t-superhero-movies we got in the late ’90s or early ’00s, before X-Men and Spider-Man finally straightened everyone out. It even has the kind of plasticky CGI stunt doubles you haven’t seen in at least 15 years (Marvel & co use CGI stunt doubles all the time, of course, but they’re better done than these ones).

Like those half-arsed efforts of old, Bloodshot is, when taken as a brain-off sci-fi actioner, mostly adequate. That’s about the best that can be said for it. I was going to say that it’s probably bland enough to scrape a passing grade, but, the further I get from it, the more it lessens in my memory. My score sides with that hindsight.

2 out of 5

Bloodshot is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from today.

Enola Holmes (2020)

2020 #214
Harry Bradbeer | 123 mins | digital (UHD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 12 / PG-13

Enola Holmes

The latest screen incarnation of Sherlock Holmes is not really about the Great Detective at all. Instead, Enola Holmes introduces us to his eponymous young sister — not part of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original canon, but a creation of author Nancy Springer, on whose series of young adult mystery novels this film is based. (Nor, I feel I should point out, was Sherlock’s Eurus drawn from canon, despite what some hardcore Sherlock fans berating Netflix’s Enola promos seem to believe.) Indeed, the film imagines a whole family for Sherlock and his elder brother Mycroft: a father who died when Enola was young; and a mother, Eudoria, who has since raised Enola to be a multi-talented, independent, forward-thinking young woman.

But when Enola (Mille Bobby Brown) wakes on her 16th birthday, she finds that Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter) has disappeared. She summons her brothers, famous detective Sherlock (Henry Cavill) and uptight government man Mycroft (Sam Claflin), and various clues to Eudoria’s actions and intentions are unearthed — but not always shared among the siblings, because the brothers want little to do with their younger sister, resolving to send her to a finishing school to learn how to be a ‘proper’ lady. That doesn’t fit with Enola’s plans, though, so she escapes and runs away to find her mother. On her journey, she runs into similarly young Lord Tewkesbury (Louis Partridge), who is also on the run from his family, for reasons that, it will emerge, are even more sinister than Enola’s…

Enola and Sherlock

As a story set in the world of Sherlock Holmes, Enola Holmes is… well… um… Look, I’ve been fond of Henry Cavill since The Tudors, but he’s not my idea of Sherlock Holmes; and apparently Dr Watson doesn’t even exist? Sacrilege! While I can’t forgive the latter, the weird casting decision of Cavill is somewhat justified by the film itself. I’m not sure it was conceived to include a ‘traditional’ Holmes, and Cavill fits the character as he has been written: as an admirable, kindly, almost mentor-like older brother to Enola. Perhaps if they’d cast a more traditionally Holmesian actor then that person would have managed to shift it towards a traditional portrayal, but I suspect that’s not what the filmmakers wanted. Arguably that makes this a bad Holmes adaptation (if you’ve changed the style and nature of the character, is it actually an “adaptation”?), but then, it’s not really about him.

It’s about Enola — as per, y’know, the title — and in that role Mille Bobby Brown proves that her success as Eleven in Stranger Things was not a fluke. In the wrong hands, the confident, capable, and headstrong Enola could have been brattish, but Brown brings enough charm to sweep us along. She frequently turns to speak to camera, like some kind of Victorian teenage Fleabag, which, again, could have been irritating, but mostly works to bring us into her confidence and, occasionally, underscore the fun and thrill of her adventure. However, there’s more room for nuance in how the character is written. Enola is by no means perfect, but we’re rarely allowed to see deficiencies. This works when she’s putting on a brave face to a world that would underestimate her, but a little more sense that she’s new to all this and doesn’t always get it right wouldn’t go amiss.

Victorian teenage Fleabag

So, while I don’t imagine Sherlockians will be inducting this into their favourite screen iterations of the Great Detective, it works as a female-led YA mystery-adventure. Originally produced by Warner Bros for a cinematic release, but sold to Netflix after the pandemic hit, I suspect this might have actually done quite well in cinemas. It’s good fun, accessible entertainment; the kind of thing that once upon a time would have been a PG-rated family blockbuster hit (nowadays it’s rated 12/PG-13, though with their “allow children in so long as they’re with adults” rules, those certs are really the modern-day equivalent of what used to be PG). Now, it looks to have been a hit for Netflix: it seems to have been widely viewed, based on how the number of ratings on IMDb and Letterboxd shot up over the first 24 hours (and kept going), and it’s been the #1 film on Netflix UK for a whole week (and, apparently, set a record for being #1 in the most countries on its release day). I suspect this won’t be the last adventure we see for Miss Holmes…

4 out of 5

Enola Holmes is available on Netflix now.

Greyhound (2020)

2020 #164
Aaron Schneider | 92 mins | digital (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA, Canada & China / English | 12 / PG-13

Greyhound

In the early days of the US joining World War 2, ageing Navy Captain Ernie Krause (Tom Hanks) is finally given his first command, as captain of the lead escort for a convoy of Allied supply and troop ships crossing the Atlantic. As they enter the treacherous part of the ocean too far from land for air support, a pack of German U-boats begins stalking the convoy…

Perhaps the key word to describe Greyhound would be “efficient”. It spends about as much time setting up its premise as I did in the previous paragraph. There are no drawn-out scenes of Krause meeting with the higher-ups to be given his command; no introductions to a motley cast of crewmen before they board; no scene-setting stuff of the convoy sailing out from port… We first meet these boats in the middle of the ocean, their air support signalling “good luck” via Morse code as it turns to head home. There’s a brief flashback to the previous Christmas, when Krause informs his girlfriend (an age-appropriate Elisabeth Shue) of his new station, and then we’re off to the races: a radar contact suggests an enemy submarine, and a game of cat and mouse begins.

What follows over the next 70-or-so minutes is a lean, no-nonsense series of combat sequences. Character development is limited to expressions and glances, or incidental details. For the former, we know Krause is inexperienced, so as we watch his face we can read his silent internal battles about the best course of action; or we see that the eyes of the crew are always watching him, in shots that are held maybe just a little too long, implying the men’s uncertainty about their commander. For the latter, the ship’s cook regularly brings Krause meals that he never eats — he’s too busy being on guard to spend time on food. The rest of the crew are mostly faceless, just bodies to relay orders and information back and forth, or to man machinery. One man or another might get focus for a bit (the sonar operator is significant during the first encounter, for example), but the film doesn’t expend effort to unnecessarily bring individuals back later. Consequently, the feel is realistic: the crew hasn’t been streamlined for the sake of a movie narrative; a ship is staffed by dozens of men, sharing jobs so others can rest, the only constant being the very top men, namely Krause and his XO, played by Stephen Graham.

You sunk my battleship!

The impression of realism extends to the dialogue, the vast majority of which is naval jargon. I didn’t have a bloody clue what most of it actually meant (it’s all bearings and ranges and orders about direction and speed and whatnot), but you don’t need to because the visuals are telling the story. The film is adapted from a novel, The Good Shepherd by C.S. Forester, and if it’s at all faithful then I have no desire to read the book, because I don’t think I’d have a clue what was happening. But it works magnificently in the visual medium of film, where what the barked words signify is conveyed succinctly by the accompanying images. New sonar information leads to men with maps and rulers rushing to work out new courses; the ship turning this way and that in response to relayed commands; Krause rushing from one side to the other, binoculars always in hand, trying to spot any sign of their underwater foe amid the choppy mid-Atlantic waves. I have no idea how faithful it is to the reality of WW2 naval combat, but it feels genuine.

Some reviewers have found this unrelenting focus on the business of sea combat to be dull. I felt exactly the opposite. The threat of the U-boats is ever present, a constant danger that leaves our men pinging from one crisis to the next. The intensity is underlined by Blake Neely’s ominous, percussive score, which shrieks when the enemy is near and thuds throughout combat, in a good way. Combined with the brief running time, it feels like the film doesn’t let up. This isn’t some stately drama about men at sea who are occasionally forced to take potshots at an unseen enemy, but an action movie; only instead of men clashing with kung fu or guns, it’s boats and subs fighting with torpedoes and, um, trigonometry. The result is tight, tense, and thrilling.

4 out of 5

Greyhound is available on Apple TV+ now.

The Old Guard (2020)

2020 #162
Gina Prince-Bythewood | 125 mins | digital (UHD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

The Old Guard

Netflix’s latest attempt to launch a blockbuster film franchise is a comic book adaptation about a group of immortal warriors, led by Charlize Theron, who’ve been secretly fighting to help the rest of humanity down the centuries. Despite their efforts to remain hidden, someone shady has picked up their trail. At the same time, a new immortal (If Beale Street Could Talk’s KiKi Layne) has appeared for the first time in 200 years.

If you’re looking to start an action/fantasy franchise nowadays, what better bet than superheroes? The Old Guard is sort of a superhero movie, but also not really. Their only superpower, which they all share, is a Wolverine-esque healing ability. They can die, they just get better (most of the time). So whether you class this as a “superhero movie” probably depends on your personal definition. I think some critics have just seen “based on a comic book” and gone “superheroes!”, and it’s a shame we haven’t got past that attitude by now. Equally, yeah, the characters do have a superpower, so fair enough. But the film itself plays more like an action-thriller, with the team relying mostly on guns and military tactics in combat rather than special abilities.

Bearing that in mind, the concept has fundamental similarities to another recent big-budget Netflix actioner, Michael Bay’s 6 Underground (which I’ve seen but not reviewed yet, fyi). Whereas that was about a band of off-the-grid mercenaries working in secret to try to influence the course of human history for the better by going around shooting bad guys, The Old Guard is about a band of people who can’t die working in secret to try to influence the course of human history for the better by going around shooting bad guys. Obviously the set dressing is different — The Old Guard has a lot more mythology to explain, and the heroes occasionally whip out swords and axes and stuff; and it lacks (for good or ill) the unique storytelling style of Bayhem — but, honestly, at heart it’s the same deal.

5 overground

They’re also equally badly written. It’s what we expect from Michael Bay at this point — a plot that might hang together if he ever stopped to let it be explained, but instead he’s more concerned with amping every single scene up to 11 with hyperactive editing and gonzo action sequences. The Old Guard, on the other hand, does stop to explain stuff. All. The. Time. Half the dialogue is characters speaking in infodumps to fill us in on this world. Or not fill us in, because there are gaps. It’s hard to tell if those are deliberate mysteries meant for a sequel (there’s a definite sequel tease at the end, naturally) or if the filmmakers just got bored of world-building and decided the characters don’t know how it works either.

On the bright side, it has some nice grace notes, like a betrayal I actually didn’t see coming, or Chiwetel Ejiofor injecting genuine emotion into his character’s motivations. Two of the immortals are a gay couple, played by Luca Marinelli and Marwan Kenzari, the latter of whom was Jafar in Disney’s live-action Aladdin (another one I’ve seen but not yet reviewed). He’s much better here, to the extent you wonder how he was such a limp Jafar. Anyway, the pair get a nice scene when they’re captured by a van full of enemy soldiers: a “what is he, your boyfriend?” taunt receives an epically romantic answer that’s an even better putdown than just “yes”. They also get a couple of beats of welcome humour later on. Not laugh-out-loud stuff, but this is quite a dour film otherwise. Most of the action is well staged if unremarkable, although the finale is a rather good assault on the villain’s HQ, ending with a couple of cool deaths.

Immortal badass

Despite the poor dialogue and certain familiarities of concept, The Old Guard is more blandly acceptable than 6 Underground. And yet it never swings as big as Bay’s films — for all his many faults, his “go big or go home” style has its merits as blockbuster entertainment. Nothing here is going to stick in the memory as much as 6 Underground’s opening car chase, or midway apartment assault, or madly overblown yacht climax. All told, I’d rather have 7 Underground than 2 Old 2 Guard, please Netflix. Both would be fine.

3 out of 5

The Old Guard is available on Netflix now.

Hamilton (2020)

2020 #157
Thomas Kail | 160 mins | streaming (UHD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Hamilton on Disney+

Hamilton, the original musical, is one of the great works of art of the 21st century so far, and now we all get a chance to be in the room where it happened (provided you’re prepared to pony up some dough to Disney+) thanks to the makers having had the foresight to film a full production with the original Broadway cast back in 2016 (and then flogging that recording to Disney for $75 million).

The show is a genuine phenomenon, but if you’ve let it pass you by, allow me to explain the basics. This is the life story of Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers of the USA; an immigrant who fought in the War of Independence, became the first Secretary of the Treasury, and in between and around all that most assuredly lived a life — there’s friendship and rivalry; romance and infidelity; genuine triumph and heartbreaking tragedy. Here that story is told via music, written and composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda (who also portrays the title role), a fusion of hip-hop, R&B, and more traditional Broadway stylings, performed by a cast mostly made up of people of colour. It’s a tale of outsiders and immigrants and forward-thinkers who battled for the right to be recognised and respected — it’s a history lesson, but oh yeah, it’s timely.

It premiered back in 2015, so over the past five years the praises of the original show and its successful soundtrack album (the primary medium through which most people have been able to experience the work, given the scarcity and cost of tickets) have been thoroughly sung. To briefly offer my perspective, I came to it ‘late’ — sure, I heard about it (initially thanks to references to its ticket prices), but I overlooked it as just another bit of mass-popular culture that likely didn’t have any weight or staying power. My mistake. Long story short, I finally listened to it in full in 2019 and was blown away.

Aaron Burr, sir

Adjectives to describe its quality are endless. It’s densely and intelligently written, packed with historical information at every turn, abundant with sly references to other media. Its structure is sublime, laced with callbacks and nods forward from the very opening number; musical motifs repeat, as do lines and ideas, some cropping up before their real significance has been reached, like flash-forwards; elements of plot and character are echoed and mirrored. Many of these are observable first time through; others only reveal themselves with repeat visits. The characters are sharply and smartly drawn, revealing layers and nuances and different perspectives as the piece goes on — it may ostensibly be about Alexander Hamilton, but multiple other characters are at least as richly painted, if not more so. It engrosses like a thriller and packs the serious emotional punch of a finely-wrought drama, but it’s also very funny at times, with numbers as toe-tappingly addictive as a great pop song. It’s hard to think of a more complete all-round experience.

Well, complete but for visuals if (like me) you’d never seen it performed, only listened to the soundtrack. And, you know, the soundtrack’s not a bad way to experience it — it doesn’t feel notably incomplete. Normally when you listen to a musical’s album, you just get some nice songs from the production. With Hamilton, you get (very nearly almost) the entire soundtrack, and therefore the entire story — you can follow it and not feel like you’ve missed anything. (I do wonder if that’s part of why it’s been such a success.) The lyrics and music conjure up their own imagery in your mind — certainly for me, ever since I first listened to it I’ve pictured whole chunks of it as I’d realise them in a movie version. I’m sure they’ll do a ‘proper’ film of it someday (you really think they’re going to leave all that money on the table?), but I think it’s for the best that’s not the first way I’m seeing it, because I worry it won’t live up to what I’ve concocted in my version.

As I mentioned at the start, this isn’t a film reimagining like a normal movie musical, but rather a filmed record of the original production. It was shot over three days back in June 2016 (shortly before the original cast moved on), during a mix of live performances and in an audience-less auditorium for the sake of closeups, crane shots, etc. That’s one of the things that elevates this particular film above other recorded-theatre productions I’ve been watching recently (like One Man Two Guvnors, Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein, or the RSC’s Macbeth): whereas they have clearly been filmed live during a single performance, with all the restrictions that implies (limited camera angles; making editing choices in real-time), Hamilton has some extra remove, which has allowed director Thomas Kail to be a bit more creative.

Looking for a film at work, work

The camerawork endeavours to add something no theatre performance could, allowing us to see details that would be missed from even the best seats in the house. Closeups let us appreciate the full spit-flecked contempt from Jonathan Groff’s George III in You’ll Be Back; the restrained emotional sacrifice injected into Angelica by Renée Elise Goldsberry during Satisfied; Eliza’s heartbroken defiance from Phillipa Soo in Burn; or the rare occasions Leslie Odom Jr. allows Aaron Burr’s true emotions to break through in the likes of Wait For It and The World Was Wide Enough. That’s not to mention the countless other moments and performers that benefit from us being able to see how much they’re giving their performances; all the subtleties they’re adding.

At other times the camera angles show off the choreography, for example with punch-ins to highlight specific elements during stage-wide ensemble showpieces, like the rewind at the start of Satisfied, or a bird’s eye view as paper flutters in the air during The Reynolds Pamphlet. Still other scenes are reframed for our convenience, such as an exchange between Burr and Hamilton during Non-Stop that takes place upstage off to one side, but is now centred through medium shots and closeups. If all that sounds like it might serve to undermine the staging, it most certainly does not. When called for, Kail and editor Jonah Moran frequently fall back on wide angles to ensure we see the scope of what’s occurring. Only once or twice during the whole two-and-a-half hours do you feel maybe they chose a less-than-ideal angle or over-edited a sequence.

Having said that listening to the soundtrack feels like a complete experience, watching it certainly shows what you were missing. There’s so much more to add, from little nuances of performance, to visual-only gags and callbacks, to impressive dance and staging — and if we’re already comparing this to the presumed ‘proper film’ version that will exist someday, I also presume some of that staging will be lost in the visual translation. But while there’s an undoubted “designed for the stage” aspect to the blocking or the way some things are realised, it still works on film.

Not throwing away their shot

You can’t ignore that this is a film of a Broadway production — even if you wanted to, an opening subtitle reminds us it’s June 2016 in the Richard Rodgers Theatre, and the audience is frequently to be heard clapping, cheering, and laughing (mixed onto the rear speakers if you’re watching in surround sound, as you’d expect, along with a few other moments and effects that add to the experience if you can benefit from such a setup). But it’s so well staged and filmed that you can buy this as the intended experience. With those other filmed-theatre productions I mentioned, you’re often aware that what you’re watching has primarily been staged for those in the room, and that you getting to observe it from a few fixed camera positions is a nice bonus if you couldn’t be there. With Hamilton, it feels like nothing is missed; not only that, but that this is the way the story was meant to be told, complete with elements of theatrical artifice, like the stripped-back staging and actors playing multiple roles (which roles are shared by the same actors is not without significance). Whenever and whatever they do for that theoretical ‘proper film’, I feel like it won’t negate this version, not just as a record of the original show, but as a film in its own right.

That’s perhaps the most striking aspect of this particular version: it doesn’t feel like a mere stopgap until they film it ‘properly’, nor a “that’ll do” stand-in for a real theatrical performance, but instead like a legitimate experience in its own right. Hamilton is a masterpiece, and getting to see it performed by the original cast in its original staging via a film so carefully and lovingly crafted is an absolute thrill.

5 out of 5

Hamilton is available on Disney+ now.

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (2020)

2020 #153
David Dobkin | 123 mins | streaming (UHD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English & Icelandic | 12 / PG-13

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

The Eurovision Song Contest: if you’re from Europe or Australia, or one of the other countries that competes but isn’t really in Europe, it needs no introduction. If you’re from somewhere that hasn’t been enjoying/subjected to it every year for the past seven decades… well, it’s hard to explain. Actually, the basics are easy: it’s a continent-wide song competition, where each participating country submits one artist performing one song, and everyone votes for the winner. But, oh, the cultural connotations and ramifications are so, so much more! For some countries, it’s deadly serious — it’s a way to get noticed on the world stage; it may even make the artist famous. For others, like us Brits, it’s a big campy silly joke… except we’re also rather fond of it (some of us), and we’re terribly annoyed that we don’t win it every year (or at least on a regular basis. Like, once a decade or so would probably keep us happy). And that’s just scratching the surface — it would probably take a book (or, at least, a reasonably long article) to fully explain every nuance.

Will Ferrell’s latest comedy attempts to distill all that history into a globally-friendly movie-length spoof. It’s a big ask, not just because there’s so much background information to assimilate, but because us Brits have been ripping the piss out of Eurovision for decades. And not just sometimes, but constantly: each country provides a local commentary over the live broadcast, and each year ours is basically a roast. (Notoriously so: some countries are not impressed by the sarcastic, piss-taking attitude being our ‘official’ stance on the contest.) We’re not alone, either: a few years ago when Sweden hosted the contest, they did a pitch-perfect sketch about creating the perfect Eurovision song. If you want to get a feel for the entire Eurovision experience in just six minutes, watch Love Love Peace Peace.

And so with all that in mind, Ferrell and co are on a hiding to nothing; especially as the film has been made with the cooperation and endorsement of Eurovision’s producer, the EBU (they even get a credit right up front), so it was never going to be able to truly get stuck in for fear of offending its subject. So I guess that’s why they barely even bothered. Oh, there are certainly references to and riffs on Eurovision-y things, so viewers in the know can pick up on them and not feel like it’s about Generic Foreign Singing Contest; but this isn’t really a comedy about Eurovision, it’s about a small-town music duo wanting to make it big. Their chosen method is Eurovision, but it could just as well be The X Factor or The Voice or, well, anything, and it wouldn’t change the core narrative.

And a man in a hamster wheel

Said narrative goes through all the motions you’d expect. About the only thing that could be described as a twist is that the smarmy “bad buy” isn’t actually up to anything evil after all, he’s genuinely quite nice. As he’s another contestant, you do wonder if that was an EBU stipulation… The man in question is the Russian entry, Alexander Lemtov (Dan Stevens, who’s excellent as usual), renowned as a “sex player” and the subject of an overlong bit about how he probably has a massive penis. “Overlong” is the watchword for most of the comedic routines in the movie. It’s a form of self indulgence that plagues many a comedy nowadays, and here it helps contribute to a running time that’s simply too long. I always feel like the best comedies are within sight of 90 minutes, but this runs a full two hours. Of course, a comedy made for a famously hands-off studio like Netflix is hardly likely to be exempt from indulgence. Maybe a more interfering one would’ve questioned the wisdom of letting Ferrell include a bit where his character criticises American tourists for coming to Europe and ruining it. Um… It could work in a meta way, but it feels like it’s lacking any kind of knowing wink, beyond it’s very existence.

One thing that does often work are the songs. You may well have heard Volcano Man when Netflix released it as the first promo for the film, but Fire Saga themselves get two or three more numbers, all of which are varying degrees of “surprisingly catchy”. The one they sing as the climax even made me feel a little emotional. I expect it’s the manipulation of the key changes or whatever (I’m no musician), because I didn’t really feel invested in the characters’ relationship before that point, but hey, if it works it works. Then there are the other contestants… where, unfortunately, the film drops the ball again. Lemtov’s number, Lion of Love, clearly had the most effort put into it — it’s quite fun and very Eurovisiony. But a montage of other acts is weird because it feels like it’s been edited to emphasise the jokes, only there aren’t any. I’m not even being clever, saying “there aren’t any” because I didn’t find them funny — the lyrics aren’t humorous, the staging isn’t particularly laughable… they’re just mediocre songs. It’s a wasted opportunity to provide some quick-fire riffs on Eurovision staples. The best it can do is the first of the montage, a rock song by guys in monster costumes — a reference to Lordi, who won in 2006. As far as I remember, no one has tried the same trick in the intervening 14 years.

Lion of Love

The weirdest musical number comes halfway through: at a party Lemtov is hosting for all the contestants, a “song-along” breaks out. Not a singalong, a “song-along”. Suddenly, a bunch of previous real Eurovision contestants show up (much to the bafflement of viewers who’ve never seen the real thing, I suspect) to sing a medley of… songs. Not Eurovision songs, just… songs. Well, Waterloo is in there, but I think that was the only one. It sort of almost works as a kind of mid-film celebration of the real Eurovision, but it’s all so random. Why isn’t it a medley of previous Eurovision tracks? Who even are some of the singers? (I recognised most but not all.) Do people who aren’t fans even get what’s going on during that sequence? It’s a cheesy but potentially fun idea, which I’d embrace wholeheartedly if I felt they’d nailed it. Or even if they’d just had them all cover Love Love Peace Peace.

Yet for all the film’s faults, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it. By sticking to tried and tested plot beats and gags, it has an unchallenging comfortableness. There are laughs along the way — some are just echoes of better versions, yeah (most notably, a bit that’s almost jumping through hoops to avoid Rachel McAdams repeating her iconic line from Game Night. It would’ve been better if they’d just leaned into it and let it be a meta-gag), but there were a couple that caught me with a genuine chuckle.

Sporadically funny; often dated; with tired and rehashed routines; longer than Alexander Lemtov’s penis; and surprisingly emotional at the end… Actually, maybe The Story of Fire Saga is like Eurovision after all.

3 out of 5

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is available on Netflix now.