No Time to Die (2021)

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2021 #170
Cary Joji Fukunaga | 163 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English, French, Italian & Russian | 12A / PG-13

No Time to Die

Britain’s most famous secret agent is Craig, Daniel Craig for the final time in the 25th James Bond film. It’s also the fifth and (presumably) final instalment in an ongoing narrative within the series; the kind of internal continuity never before attempted in the franchise’s 59-year history. Sure, there have been some hints at continuity in the past — Connery’s Bond was almost always up against some agent of SPECTRE, and Diamonds Are Forever is technically a sequel to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service — but never to this degree, and never with such keenly-felt emotional effects on our hero.

Much fuss has been made in some quarters of Quantum of Solace being the first true sequel in the Bond canon, because it very much continues storylines from Casino Royale. If that’s the case, No Time to Die may be classed as the second such sequel, because it picks up on various hints and threads left dangling in Spectre and weaves them into its narrative. (You could also argue Spectre is a “true sequel” for the way it tries to tie together the entire Daniel Craig era, but I think No Time to Die is even more directly connected to its immediate predecessor.) All of this is primarily of note to fans of the series, mind, because it marks a change of form for this particular series. In the wider world of film franchises, that kind of continuity is nothing new. For all that it’s been a massively-popular trailblazer over the past six decades, the Bond films can be surprisingly reactive, often seeking to incorporate things that are successful in the wider filmmaking space — witness Moonraker coming on the heels of Star Wars, or Casino Royale and (especially) Quantum incorporating styles and techniques from the Jason Bourne films. All of which is really just to say that Bond is not some monolithic island unto himself — these films exist in context, just like any other.

Bond's in the spotlight

Perhaps the single most influential trend on No Time to Die is one for closure. Once upon a time, heroes carried on having adventures forever — whatever challenges they faced in one tale, they overcame and ‘rode off into the sunset’ ready to go again. Not nowadays. When Christopher Nolan decided to give Batman an ending to complete his trilogy in The Dark Knight Rises, it was seen as a radical move; an exception to the rule, just for this special case. Now, it’s de rigueur — look at Marvel bothering to wrap-up the stories of Tony Stark and Steve Rogers in Avengers: Endgame, for example. They could have had these guys toddle off only to come back with an unexplained new face, just as has happened throughout movie franchise history, but instead they pay off the audience’s investment by giving them an ending. Spectre sort of did this, giving Craig’s Bond an ambiguous conclusion where he sort of seemed to retire and drive off with the girl. But that kind of ambiguity doesn’t cut it nowadays, and so No Time to Die finds that, yes, Bond did retire, but now he’s pressed back into service so we can get a more definitive fullstop on his story.

To discuss the specifics of that ending would be to get into spoiler territory, of course, which I’m not going to do here (the film is out in most regions now, but won’t hit some markets until much later in the year; and I can understand if some people are still reticent to return to cinemas and so will wait for a home release. It’s fine — there’ll be plenty of time to talk about the ending in month and years to come, because it is, again, no spoiler to say this is an ending that will be discussed for a long time, one way or another). What I will say is that I, personally, wasn’t wholly convinced by it. I don’t know if it was the right move. I’m not entirely sure how it makes me feel. Others may have a more definitive reaction — I haven’t sought out other people’s specific thoughts, and they’re hard to stumble upon because everyone is (rightly) avoiding spoilers. That said, the mostly positive reception, from both critics and regular viewers, suggests that it’s not an outright problem — maybe people mostly love the finale, but even if they don’t, they’re like me in thinking it doesn’t undermine the quality of the rest of the film.

The new 007

And quality is in abundance throughout No Time to Die. When it emerged that it ran nearly two-and-three-quarter hours, some were concerned that was far too long for a Bond film, especially after Spectre’s two-and-a-half hours was deemed a slog by many. Such concerns prove unfounded, because No Time to Die moves at a solid lick throughout, never feeling its length — like all the best movies, whether they be 80 minutes or four hours, it’s just as long as it needs to be. In many ways it’s your standard Bond fare: there’s a nefarious villain out there planning to do something evil on a massive scale, and Bond is roped in to stop them. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And yet, the Craig era has tried to ‘fix it’. Casino Royale consciously dismantled the Bond formula, riffing on some of its famous tropes rather than including them properly (cf. his response to “shaken or stirred?”), but the subsequent films have sought to rebuild the style we knew and loved. It’s arguable whether they truly have returned Bond to his previous ways — every one of these movies subverts ‘the Bond formula’ in some way, large or small — but I think No Time to Die might be the closest. That’s not a criticism.

Certainly, it has enough new going on to not feel like a throwback. Some of that is surface level, like the new 00 being a Black woman, played perfectly by Lashana Lynch. It’s an important bit of progressiveness, for sure, but in plot terms, replace her with a white man and everything still functions the same. Again, I don’t feel like that’s a criticism — sometimes the devil is in the details, and details matter. “Making that character a Black woman instead of a white man doesn’t affect the plot” is a reason to make such a change, not an argument against it. Conversely, Léa Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann somewhat upends the traditional Bond girl role by having a secret past that has significant bearing on both the plot and Bond’s emotional state. The former may not be so new (there have been Bond girls with secrets in the past), but allowing Bond to actually have emotions, and be challenged by them, is very much a Craig-era phenomenon. Again, you can find specific examples of this throughout the series — OHMSS is the biggest example, but you could argue Brosnan’s Bond is affected by Elektra in The World Is Not Enough — but it’s never been done with such consistency, such centrality, as in the Craig era.

Can anybody find him somebody to love?

Aside from all this borderline-groundbreaking stuff, No Time to Die serves up a load of traditional Bond thrills. There are exotic locales, beautifully lensed by Linus Sandgren — he may not be as big a name as Roger Deakins, but his work makes this rival Skyfall for prettiest Bond film. There are epic action sequences — the series may have lost its rep for outrageous done-for-real stunts to Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible-funded death wish, but it can still pull together an outstanding car chase or shoot-out. The pre-titles in Italy; a party in Cuba; a chase through Norwegian woods — all could be franchise highs in the set piece department. And the production design, by series newcomer Mark Tildesley, harks back to Bond of old too, not least in the villain’s island lair. Oh yes, the villain has his own island — proper old-school Bond.

Said villain is Safin, played by Oscar-winner Rami Malek. He’s not bad by any means, but he’s weirdly miscast (it’s not obvious until you think about it, but the character is meant to be 20+ years older than the actor) and he has little to do: Bond’s on his trail for most of the film, only confronting him in the final act. Maybe that’s not so different to many older Bond films either, but it’s out of place in the Craig era, where most of the villains have directly challenged Bond throughout the movie. Still, while he may not hit the highs of Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre or Javier Bardem’s Silva, he’s slightly less “villain by numbers” than Christoph Waltz’s disappointingly underwhelming turn as Blofeld, and more memorable than Mathieu Amalric’s Dominic Greene (not the actor’s fault, I don’t think — Quantum tried so hard to keep Bond grounded and he suffers for that). In fact, he’s such a Macguffin of a villain that I’m not even sure of his motivation — I get how he intends to do A Very Bad Thing (the mechanics of it are very important, for several reasons), but I don’t recall the film ever bothering to tell me why.

Old school Bond

It’s this kind of little niggle that loses No Time to Die its edge. Make no mistake: this is an immensely entertaining Bond film. I haven’t even mentioned some of its other highs, like all-too-brief supporting turns from Jeffrey Wright, returning as Bond’s CIA chum Felix Leiter, or Ana de Armas as a rookie agent who, it turns out, is as skilled as she is gorgeous, but is most memorable for being the most amusing part of the film — you’ll wish she was in it more. For all that, I foresee the film settling in as a well-liked entry in the series, and I’m sure it will cement a reputation as the greatest last-Bond-film for any actor (its only real rival in those stakes being Licence to Kill, which barely counts as it was only Dalton’s second). But, on the flipside, it doesn’t quite hit the dizzying heights of Casino Royale or Skyfall. Is that a problem? Nah. Not everything has to be “the greatest ever” to have merit.

4 out of 5

No Time to Die is in cinemas everywhere (except Australia and China) now.

Psycho Goreman (2020)

2021 #26
Steven Kostanski | 95 mins | digital (HD) | 2.40:1 | Canada / English | *

Psycho Goreman

In the recent episode of his Secrets of Cinema devoted to cult movies (which I covered here), Mark Kermode asserted that filmmakers can’t choose to make a cult movie — it’s up to the audience whether a film becomes a cult favourite or not. While this may be true in a sense, it’s also the case that, after several decades of the phenomenon being observed, any filmmaker who is interested in making a cult movie can consciously include the kinds of ingredients that provoke such devotion, thus giving themselves a head start. Psycho Goreman is one of the most recent films that seems custom-made to be a cult hit, and while only time will tell if it’s truly a “cult classic” or just a passing flavour of the month, it’s already attracted plenty of word-of-mouth attention — indeed, that’s precisely what led me to seek it out back in January, long before it had a confirmed UK release date (which, FYI, is today).

While digging up their back garden for a game, a pair of siblings — obnoxious Mimi (Nita-Josee Hanna) and her pushover older brother Luke (Owen Myre) — unearth a strange gem, which turns out to be a key imprisoning an intergalactic alien mass murderer. The monster now freed, he sets off to dominate and destroy Earth… except whoever possesses the gem can control him, and that’s Mimi. She christens her new pet/toy Psycho Goreman — PG for short — and the cruel, twisted, depraved mastermind sets about using the alien criminal for her own playful ends.

There’s a distinctly ’80s vibe to this whole setup and how it’s presented on screen, both in storytelling terms and in the use of practical suits, models, gore, and special effects. Once he’s free, PG’s old friends and enemies are all out to find him, which puts a wide array of fantastical creatures on screen. None of them are a slouch. The fact such extensive effects work must’ve been achieved on a tight budget, but by clearly enthusiastic and talented craftspeople, only furthers the throwback feel. Indeed, the creature outfits are so impressively designed and realised that, although I haven’t bought an action figure in many years, it made me really want ones of PG and, in particular, his robotic-ish police-lady nemesis, Pandora. (Funnily enough, they’re making some; but they’re retro-style, which I know is a popular thing nowadays, but I don’t think is as cool as a properly-detailed figure. Of course, those kind tend to be rather pricey; but the ones they’re making are far from cheap, especially with international postage. Oh well.)

Mimi and friends

Everything about the filmmaking here has been leveraged to tickle the nostalgia glands of genre fans who grew up with trashy but ambitious sci-fi, fantasy, and horror fare on video, probably when they were officially too young to be watching it. Added to the mix is overt and knowing comedy, because now we’re all in on the joke. I found this aspect a bit hit or miss. When writer-director Steven Kostanski’s work is really on form, it’s frigging hilarious — although do note it can be quite dark comedy at times (which works for me) — but the film doesn’t nail the schtick as consistently as I hoped it would. For every few gags that land or subplots that pay off, there’s something that misses an opportunity or seems to get forgotten. On the other hand, this roughness round the edges is part of the genuine cult movie charm. With geek culture having become mainstream, the high-value neatly-polished version of what used to be direct-to-video schlock is more-or-less what Hollywood serves up at the multiplex every couple of weeks (under normal circumstances). Arguably, a true cult movie has faults that its fans either overlook or embrace because of how much they love the overall result. Psycho Goreman certainly does enough right to inspire that kind of affection.

One complaint I’ve read fairly often, even from those who fall within the film’s target audience, is that Mimi is an annoying brat. Well, it’s pretty clear that’s intentional (as opposed to, say, the result of poor casting). I wouldn’t say the film celebrates her for it, but it doesn’t really punish or develop her either, so perhaps there’s some kind of tacit acceptance there. But then, she’s a preteen girl, so I don’t know how harsh you’d expect it to be on her. Anyway, your mileage will vary as to whether she’s annoying but still amusing, or just plain irritating. I err towards the former.

Gory man

Having outlined the film’s supposed intended audience earlier, I must say it doesn’t technically include me. I was much too mainstream in my childhood viewing, so it’s only in later years that I’ve come to appreciate more of the bizarre deviances in cinematic history. Those who grew up on that stuff may get the biggest kick out of the film, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t delight in its gonzo joys. I won’t be surprised if Psycho Goreman has a bright future ahead as a new cult staple.

4 out of 5

Psycho Goreman is available on Shudder from today.

* To the best of my knowledge, it hasn’t been rated by either the BBFC or the MPAA, the two classifications I normally cite. If you’re interested, for reference, classifications in the rest of the world are all in the 15–18 range. It is very gory, but it’s obviously fake and often comical. ^

Nomadland (2020)

2021 #83
Chloé Zhao | 108 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA & Germany / English | 12 / R

Nomadland

Having won the top gong at the BAFTAs, the Golden Globes, the PGAs, and the DGAs, plus various other smaller ceremonies, and at film festivals of varying significance, Nomadland topped it off by winning the headline prize at the Oscars last weekend, leaving no doubt that it’s been well and truly crowned the best film of 2020. Everyone will have their own opinion on whether it is or is not, of course, but there’s no questioning where the consensus lies. For me, this is the only one of the eight Best Picture nominees that I’ve seen to date, so if I would’ve preferred a different victor, I can’t yet say. Judged in isolation, however, it seems to me that Chloé Zhao’s film is a worthy winner.

The film follows Fern (Frances McDormand), a sixtysomething widow who ends up living on the road in a camper van, after the plant that provided work for most folk in her Nevada town is closed down in the wake of the late-’00s recession. It’s a lifestyle adopted by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of others: a whole community of modern-day nomads, travelling the American West in their van-homes, moving from one temporary seasonal job to another. It might seem fantastical — perhaps even dystopian — were it not based on a real-life subculture (and, in particular, Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century).

Indeed, Zhao’s film plays almost like a documentary, observing Fern’s experiences in long takes, or edited in that slightly choppy way that suggests it’s been cut down from hours of footage. This is compounded by the absence of any expository voiceover or dialogue; a welcome decision that substitutes telling us what to think for a confidence to rest the film’s weight on the shoulders of Zhao’s filmmaking and McDormand’s performance, both of which are strong enough to take it. On top of that, at times the film arguably slips into genuine documentary: most of the supporting cast are real people, playing themselves or versions thereof, so when these people Fern encounters tell their stories, it not only feels real, it is real. There’s a lot of sadness — in the events that have brought people to this place, and in the struggle to live this lifestyle — but a lot of happiness in what it’s given them, too. The net result is a dignified, deeply humane portrait of people who we might describe with negative words like “homeless” or “dispossessed”, but who in reality are free, in their way. It makes for a powerful, quietly moving experience.

A story of people

Moments of beauty abound. Some of the places Fern visits, the scenery we get to see, are incredible. At times it feels like the film should have been shot in a taller aspect ratio. That’s partly expectations of a modern indie movie (this is the kind of film many filmmakers would opt for unmatted 16:9, or even self-consciously-old-fashioned 4:3), but also because it’s so focused on people and faces, and on small environments like the back of vans, for which a squarer ratio feels more apt. But when we reach the scenery — the wide open environs with distant horizons — the only appropriate choice is ’Scope. I bet those parts look incredible on the big screen. That there was an IMAX release felt daft when I first heard of it, but seeing those vistas, it seems justified. But it’s not just visual prettiness: when it turns out that one character has just months to live, she shares memories of stunning moments from her life, and it plays like a grounded version of Blade Runner’s “tears in rain” speech, conjuring up real (rather than fantastical) sights. The truth of it makes it just as emotionally affecting, at least.

While it was the real people who stuck with me, for others, McDormand’s performance was the big takeaway. Some have even called it career-defining. I’m not sure about that. I don’t think she’s bad in it, by any means, but I do think she spends a lot of it being quite blank; someone for us to follow, virtually a silent audience avatar, as we hear from and about other people. Only occasionally do we get to see anything of Fern herself. If the rest of McDormand’s career was unremarkable, sure, this would be a standout role; but when you’ve got iconic turns like Fargo and Three Billboards under your belt, I’m not sure this — judged purely as a character and performance — is wholly on the same level. I doesn’t make Nomadland any less of a film, just that if you really want to see what McDormand can do as an actress, I’d say look to one of those earlier films.

Talking of crazy assertions, some have floated the idea that Nomadland is a Western. Surely not? Well, it’s an interesting facet to consider, at least. In one scene, a character explicitly draws a link between today’s nomads and the pioneers of the Old West. They’re not necessarily wrong: these are individuals trying to create a new kind of life in an untamed landscape. If nothing else, there’s a definite parallel there. It could seem like a pretentious, self-mythologising viewpoint, but the fact it comes from an outsider (Fern’s sister, who lives a regular suburban life), rather than one of the nomads bigging themselves up, lends it more credence for me. But even if these nomads are like the pioneers, that doesn’t necessarily mean a film about them falls within the same genre. It might make an interesting point for future study, though.

Pioneer spirit

From what I’d seen and read in advance, I worried that I might find Nomadland a bit boring and “not my kind of thing”. For people who don’t watch this kind of film — who are more used to the regular “narrative fiction” style of cinema — I do think it helps not to approach it like a normal movie (even thought it is, technically, still a narrative fiction). If you’re expecting a clear storyline and character arcs and dialogue and whatnot, that’s not what you’re going to get. It’s more like a travelogue; almost like one of those TV documentaries where a celebrity presenter visits places worth seeing. You watch to appreciate the scenery, the places, meeting the people, experiencing a way of life; not to follow a story or character arc in the traditional sense. It’s almost a film to hang out in, or to escape with — to get away from ordinary life and spend time with these captivating, unusual places and people.

5 out of 5

In the UK, Nomadland will be available on Disney+ from tomorrow, Friday 30th April, and is expected to screen in cinemas when they reopen.

Palm Springs (2020)

2020 #163
Max Barbakow | 90 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Palm Springs

For a couple of decades, Groundhog Day stood alone in a genre of one. But no good idea is allowed to rest in the Hollywood machine, and so the last few years have seen a veritable explosion in time loop stories, like sci-fi-actioner Edge of Tomorrow; or a slasher variant in Happy Death Day; or darkly comic Netflix mystery Russian Doll; or, most recently, teen romance The Map of Tiny Perfect Things. But just as you begin to think that maybe time loop comedies are becoming repetitiously overdone (irony), along comes one of the most acclaimed entries in this newly-abundant subgenre: Palm Springs, which debuted on Hulu in the US in the middle of last year and is now finally coming to the UK via Amazon Prime Video.

In this instance, the scene is set at a wedding, where two disconnected guests — Nyles (Andy Samberg), the boyfriend of the maid of honour, and Sarah (Cristin Milioti), the sister of the bride — end up stuck in a loop together, reliving the day of the wedding over and over. And I’ll say no more on that, because even giving away that it’s time loop comedy spoils what would otherwise be a first-act twist. (I don’t know if they ever thought they’d get away with keeping that a secret, what with it being a foundational conceit of the entire film, but some official blurbs do try to keep it hush-hush. Not many reviews, or even news articles, have been similarly circumspect, so I feel at this point trying to pretend you, dear reader, don’t already know (or wouldn’t accidentally find out some other way) is a fool’s errand.)

While the premise may be more-or-less familiar, one thing Palm Springs has in its favour is it upends numerous tropes that the subgenre has already acquired, even in its short lifespan. Some of these variations have already been explored in other examples listed in my opening paragraph, but Springs has one or two more up its sleeve, and its own way of tackling them. It can also boast its own tone and style of humour, which will be broadly familiar if you’ve seen any other Samberg vehicle (Brooklyn Nine-Nine, say, or Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping). For the uninitiated, it’s kinda silly without going to Pythonesque extremes, and kinda earthy without being vulgar (that the BBFC classification says the film contains “strong sex” is ridiculous).

Let's do the time loop again

Notably, when Palm Springs was sold at Sundance it went for the highest price ever paid for an acquisition at the festival: $17.5 million… and 69 cents, those few cents adds in order to beat the previous record. That they chose that additional figure gives you some insight into the film’s level of humour. But it also says something about how positively the film was received, which led to a degree of buzz that, personally, I found crippled the final film somewhat. To be clear, I still really enjoyed it, but, from reading reviews and watching the trailer, I was half expecting to be blown away by a new comedy masterpiece. Such is the danger of letting yourself get hyped up — if I’d seen it with no prior knowledge, I might’ve enjoyed it even more. The one benefit from the ludicrous delay in it crossing the pond is that hype has cooled to an appropriate background level; from a “OMG watch this new innovative groundbreaking amazing best comedy ever!” to more of a “that’s good, you should see it”.

All of which said, you should see it. I don’t want to accidentally undersell the movie by citing my own misapprehensions, because it’s definitely a funny, likeable, surprisingly romantic (but not twee) film. Indeed, even without the time loop USP, Palm Springs would be welcomed because it hits a really good tone on the romance angle. It doesn’t dive into full romcom cheesiness, but it’s also not that kind of “tacked on love story that the filmmakers clearly wish they didn’t have to bother with” that you normally find in these sorts of (for want of a better word) edgier comedies. Rather than rolling your eyes as the inevitable plays out, you might actually be rooting for these crazy kids.

4 out of 5

Palm Springs will be available on Amazon Prime Video in the UK from tomorrow.

Muse: Simulation Theory (2020)

2021 #45
Lance Drake | 90 mins | TV (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK / English | 15

Muse: Simulation Theory

Often cited as one of the best live acts around, for their latest concert movie British rock band Muse have attempted something a bit different: rather than just footage of them performing songs in front of a massive audience, Simulation Theory attempts to tell a sci-fi narrative… driven by and/or interspersed with the band performing songs in front of a massive audience, natch.

It begins with a slow track into a television set playing a news station where the presenter is talking about some kind of global events that have been traced back to the O2 Arena in London. Cut to a team of hazmat-suited scientists entering said arena, which they find deserted. Then, an arcade machine rises from the stage. One of the scientists approaches it, tries to play it, and is transported to another time/place/something, where the arena is full of screaming fans and a certain band begin their show. From there, the film cuts back and forth between Muse performances and a storyline about alternate simulated worlds, a highly infectious disease, and a few other bits and bobs. Frankly, it’s not the most coherent tale ever told.

Combining a concert film with a sci-fi narrative is the kind of concept that immediately piques my interest, but I’m not sure how well Simulation Theory really pulls it off. Ultimately, it’s kind of just a few scenes sprinkled between the songs. Occasionally there’s a link between the music and the story, but not as often or as clearly as one might expect. This isn’t akin to, say, Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds, where the music is like a soundtrack just waiting for its visual accompaniment. Indeed, despite the title and ’80s-style retro theming being taken from Muse’s 2018 album, fewer than half the songs performed come from that EP. That’s not a criticism, just an observation that the album wasn’t exactly waiting for the movie treatment. If that’s what they wanted to do, previous albums — like 2009’s The Resistance or 2015’s Drones — are concept albums more ready to be converted into a narrative.

They didn't do this bit live on stage

Setting aside the narrative aspirations, judged as ‘just’ a concert film, Simulation Theory is still only a mixed success. Perhaps because of the desire to connect it up with that cinematic storyline, the actual concert footage, editing, and sound mix are all a little too slick, feeling more like a big music video than a replication of the “in the room” experience. In fairness, that doesn’t seem to be the goal at all, with the film mixing up the order of the set list and even ditching half-a-dozen songs (more on that later). Eventually, it can no longer half-ignore the crowd. That doesn’t come until the ninth track played, Uprising, but suddenly you can really feel that Matt Bellamy has a connection with the audience, which then resurfaces in later songs (not least Mercy, aided by Bellamy going for a little off-stage walkabout).

For me, Muse were at their creative peak back in the ’00s, so it was often when those songs emerged that I felt their performance was at its most enjoyable, with the likes of Supermassive Black Hole, Starlight, and the aforementioned Uprising. That said, the film gave me a new appreciation for some of their more recent songs, like Mercy, Algorithm, Dig Down, and Madness (I say “recent” — Madness is from 2012), although others primarily work thanks to the theatrical staging — Propaganda, for example, looks impressive on stage, but I still think it’s an odd track.

As noted, the film has dropped several tracks from the live show, meaning we miss out on some of their very best material, like Plug In Baby, Hysteria, Time is Running Out, and Knights of Cydonia (actually the closing number in real life). That’s a shame — I’d rather the film had given us the full track list than spent time on the interstitial narrative. But why not both? Surely there wasn’t a restriction on the film’s running time? (And if there was, why?)

Sci-fi singer

Despite all these nits I’ve picked, overall I enjoyed Simulation Theory. It’s not wholly a success as a narrative, and, in my estimation, it’s a long way from being any kind of “greatest hits” gig for Muse; but the ambition is admirable, and most of the music plays well in situ. Plus, the finale involves a giant evil puppet hovering over the stage, so that’s got to be worth some bonus points.

4 out of 5

Muse: Simulation Theory is available on BBC iPlayer for the next 11 months.

Death to 2020 (2020)

2020 #264
Al Campbell & Alice Mathias | 71 mins | digital (UHD) | 2:1 | USA & UK / English | 15

Death to 2020

As if the line between film and TV wasn’t becoming blurred enough already, 2020 has torn it to shreds. It’s now basically up to streamers whether they brand something as “a film” or a “special” or whatever (some individual websites might insist on labelling any Netflix original movie as “TV”, but I’m not sure anyone’s listening). This feature-length one-off from the makers of Black Mirror is, officially, “a Netflix Original Comedy Event” — so it’s a TV special, really, isn’t it? I probably shouldn’t be counting it as a film. Oh, but who cares?

Despite the lack of familiar title format, Death to 2020 very much follows in the footsteps of the Wipe series of year-in-reviews specials Charlie Brooker used to make for the BBC. It’s both documentary and mockumentary: it recaps the real-life events of the year, with minimal diversion into satirical fantasy, but archly commented on by an array of actors portraying fake experts. The Netflix budget means some properly big names are involved: Samuel L. Jackson, Hugh Grant, Lisa Kudrow… the list goes on. The prime absentee is Brooker himself, only piping up occasionally as an offscreen interviewer.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it focuses on the major events of the year from a UK/US perspective — other countries (like Australia, China, and… um… I think that’s it) only enter the equation when events there affect everyone else (like, y’know, starting a global pandemic). That makes sense given who made it, but maybe less so for Netflix as a global company. But then, not everything needs to appeal to everyone. I’m sure if they had a French satirist on the books, they’d be producing a Franco-centric special.

A cast of dozens!

It’s to Death to 2020’s disadvantage that, this year, we’ve all been paying more attention to the news than ever. That might seem like a benefit — a knowledgeable, informed audience means you can cut straight to the jokes with minimal prompting — but I think instead it means we’ve already heard most of the humour. We’ve spent all year making these gags ourselves, trying to alleviate the doom-laden (inter)national mood. The other, related, problem lies in trying to appeal to an international audience. In trying to keep things accessible for both sides of the pond, Brooker and co avoid getting into the weeds of local politics. Brexit is briefly mentioned rather than deconstructed; US politics is limited to the election. Specificities of lockdown life are dodged almost entirely. Trying to stick to broad, globally-familiar topics seems to keep the humour similarly generalised.

Nonetheless, it starts out quite funny, even if they’re mostly riffs we’ve heard before. But around the time it hits the killing of George Floyd, the jokes dry up. If you’re not a racist dickhead, there’s little funny about the organisations that supposedly protect us instead arbitrarily murdering people. Death to 2020 knows this and picks its targets carefully, but it seems to kill the humour nonetheless — the jokes continue, but the humour in them dries up.

It turns out the biggest problem isn’t unoriginality or too broad a target audience, but rather that 2020 was such a shitshow that it’s just no fun to be reminded of it, even in an intentionally comedic context. It doesn’t help that we’re facing a 2021 that promises at least several months of being equally as bad. Maybe one day we’ll be able to look back on all this and laugh, but just as likely we’ll prefer to forget.

2 out of 5

Happy New Year, dear readers! It can’t actually be any worse… right?

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. It placed 2nd on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2020.

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.