Bait (2019)

2020 #9
Mark Jenkin | 89 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | UK / English | 15

Bait

The past and the present — the old ways and the new — clash head-on in Mark Jenkin’s Bait, both in its storyline and its production.

The former is the tale of a fisherman without a fishing boat: Martin (Edward Rowe) is a Cornishman through-and-through, a lover of his community and resistant to change; but his brother, Steve (Giles King) has turned their boat into a tourist vehicle, and they’ve had to sell their childhood home to well-to-do city-dwellers (played by Simon Shepherd and Mary Woodvine, as the very embodiment of upper-middle-class London-types with the money for a rural second home). As the summer season arrives, and upcountry tourists descend on the small town, flashing their cash, Martin struggles to get by; and the clash between two different worlds comes to a head.

As to the latter (the production method), Jenkin has steeped his film in both older filmmaking methods and the place it was made. It was shot on 16mm black-and-white stock with a wind-up camera, with all the sound post-synced because the camera was too noisy to record on set. All 130 rolls of film were hand-developed by Jenkin in his Cornish studio, with a deliberate degree of what some might call “carelessness” to add authenticity: scratches come from washing the film under a running tap; exposure varies because the film was wound manually, therefore at an inconsistent speed; a “strange sparkle” on one bit of film was caused by leaving the studio door open and pollen blowing onto the drying film (there’s more about tall that in an interview with Jenkin by British Cinematographer). It’s a defiantly hand-crafted and old-fashioned method for making a movie; a way that’s becoming ever rarer thanks to the appealing ease of digital, both to blockbuster and low-budget productions. It’s funny that the only people ‘allowed’ to use film are either your Christopher Nolans — big-name auteurs who make tonnes of money for the studios, so they can do what they want — or your Mark Jenkins — tiny independent artists producing films for a pittance, so they can do it how they want.

Beautiful black and white

Some might consider Jenkin’s method to be unnecessarily pretentious — self-consciously Arty — but it’s actually a wonderful marriage of form and content; the earthy, hand-hewn visuals reflect the film’s themes. It’s not just an exercise in style, either. This would be a worthwhile narrative if told in a more conventional manner, but it would feel less striking and authentic with a glossy digital sheen. Of course, all filmmaking is “technology”, but there’s something about using such old cameras and film stock, developing the footage by hand, post-dubbing the sound, that all feels like The Old Ways, like it’s traditional and handmade, in a way that matches up with Martin’s desires and goals.

Some reviews have compared the end result to silent film, which doesn’t wash for me. The damaged visual quality might initially call to mind a poorly-preserved and unrestored print, which, if one has encountered such a thing at all, is likely to be from a silent film. But the actual feel is more 1950s location-shot social realism, with the themes of everyday rural working life, naturalistic acting and lighting, and post-dubbed dialogue (there’s none of that on your average silent movie, is there?)

Lest you think Jenkin is a one-note polemical storyteller, different points of view are allowed to exist: the upcountry folk aren’t all ‘evil’ (Martin may feel they’re a thorn in his side, but sometimes they’re actually on his side), and not all the locals long for the past (some are happy, or at least resigned, to fitting in and making their way with how things are). These are issues Cornwall has been dealing with for decades — it’s one of the poorest regions of the UK, thanks in part to so much property being bought as holiday homes and only occupied for a few weeks a year. But now is the right time to tell a story like that, because those problems are coming to a head: Brexit is set to be a disaster for Cornwall, because they’re going to lose a lot of EU funding. Will the British government replace it? The Cornish people, who did vote for Brexit, presumably assume so. I think they’ll be lucky.

This is a local pub for local people

Not that Jenkin is directly engaging in the Brexit debate here. In one scene we can overhear it being discussed on the radio, leaving us in no doubt when we are, but this isn’t a commentary on political upheaval. This is a story of normal people and how their lives have been altered by changing times. It may be unquestionably set now, but, as the filmmaking style underlines, the story is fairly timeless; it’s grounded and everyday.

Well, until a shocking event near the end, anyhow. No spoilers, but I have mixed feelings about that plot development. In one sense, it takes away from the feeling that this is an everyday situation that plays out across modern Cornwall; but, in another way, it’s a realisation of all the tensions that have been brewing throughout the film, like it’s almost inevitable that some tragedy would occur. Fortunately, how the film then deals with the aftermath is typically coolheaded and understated. We don’t get to see the immediate fallout (there are some characters we don’t even see again), just what ultimately happens later. In some ways that’s almost too little (for example, we’re not shown how it affects the locals’ relationship with the upcountry folk), but it also lands its overall point.

Bait has mostly been a regional success; regional not just to the UK, but to specific parts of the UK: according to figures published in Sight & Sound (and repeated in the BFI’s booklet accompanying the film’s Blu-ray), a typical movie makes 4.9% of its UK box office in the southwest, but for Bait that’s up at 35%. Hopefully time will see it break out further, because it’s a compelling story, both timely and timeless, uniquely told.

5 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Bait is on Film4 tonight at 11:20pm.

The 100-Week Roundup XII

In the interests of catching up, this roundup combines two separate weeks.

The first contains two of the most acclaimed films of all time (both feature on numerous “greatest ever” lists, including those from IMDb, Letterboxd, TSPDT, and Empire), which happen to be my final reviews from September 2018.

The second is a pair of movies I watched back-to-back in October 2018 that share an obvious pregnancy theme — but, oh, they could hardly handle it more differently.

This week’s films are…

  • Network (1976)
  • Ran (1985)
  • Prevenge (2016)
  • Bridget Jones’s Baby (2016)


    Network
    (1976)

    2018 #201
    Sidney Lumet | 121 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Network

    no predictor of the future — not even Orwell — has ever been as right as Chayefsky was when he wrote Network.

    So wrote Aaron Sorkin, who has cited Network’s screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky as a major inspiration on his own writing; he even cited the man when accepting his Oscar for The Social Network; and Sorkin’s TV series The Newsroom feels like it could’ve been called Network: The Series.

    Well, maybe not. The first half-hour or so of Network feels like The Newsroom (which was a series very much aimed at being realistic, to the extent that it was set in the recent past and mostly used real news stories for its plots), whereas Network spirals off into its own level of satirical craziness, far beyond what Sorkin’s series attempted.

    But whereas The Newsroom looked to the recent past and real events, Network is as indicative of the future as Sorkin said in that opening quote. The film may be 44 years old, but I’m pretty sure you could Chayefsky’s this screenplay, change only a couple of minor specific words, and film it as being set today. It forecasts the future of TV news as angry men ranting as if they were prophets (this was 20 years before Fox News launched), as well as commentating on the place of terrorism in driving TV ratings.

    It’s cynical and ultimately bleak, but, worst of all, it’s entirely accurate.

    5 out of 5

    Network placed 21st on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

    Ran
    (1985)

    2018 #203
    Akira Kurosawa | 161 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | Japan & France / Japanese | 12 / R

    Ran

    Akira Kurosawa returns to Shakespeare (after Throne of Blood quite closely adapted Macbeth and The Bad Sleep Well may or may not have been based on Hamlet) for an adaptation of King Lear, relocated to feudal Japan. At the time, it was speculated to be his final film. It wasn’t — he made three more — but this was his last large-scale work.

    The title translates roughly as “chaos”, “pandemonium”, or “turmoil” — I guess they didn’t bother retitling it for the West because the original is a nice, simple word we can understand. But the original meaning is clearly apt, because the film depicts the mayhem that ensues when a warlord abdicates and tries to divide his kingdom between his three sons.

    It’s testament to Kurosawa’s greatness that he can make a movie this magnificent and I wouldn’t even put it in his top five. That might be my failing, though — this is a longer and more complex work than, say, Throne of Blood or Sanjuro. I need to revisit all of Kurosawa’s movies, but none more so than this.

    5 out of 5

    Ran was viewed as part of What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2018.

    Prevenge
    (2016)

    2018 #208
    Alice Lowe | 88 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15

    Prevenge

    Seven-months-pregnant Ruth (played by Alice Lowe, who also writes and directs) believes she can hear the voice of her unborn baby, and it’s telling her to kill people. Why is a mystery… unless you read the Wikipedia entry, which just tells you upfront. (Don’t read the Wikipedia entry.)

    The behind-the-scenes story of Prevenge is impressive: it was made while Lowe herself was pregnant; she wrote it in just four days, and shot it in just 11. Speed is no indicator of quality, either positively nor negatively, but Prevenge is very good. The premise is obviously absurd, but it leans into that by being darkly funny. As a horror movie, it’s not scary, more kind of creepy, although not even quite that — it’s not playing on those kind of thrills.

    Perhaps this means it fails to satisfy “horror fans”, thus explaining its fairly low score on IMDb, which I think is unwarranted. But it’s also not what people have started to call “elevated horror” (i.e. horror that is acceptable as a Quality Movie too), because it’s too transgressive for that. Perhaps it is best taken as an exceptionally black comedy.

    4 out of 5

    Bridget Jones’s Baby
    (2016)

    2018 #209
    Sharon Maguire | 123 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK, USA, France & China / English | 15 / R

    Bridget Jones's Baby

    I first and last watched the original Bridget Jones’s Diary and its sequel, The Edge of Reason, many years ago (probably close to when they were originally released, in 2001 and 2004 respectively; certainly well before this blog existed). I didn’t dislike them, but all I can really remember about them is broad-sweep stuff, including barely anything from the second one. So I didn’t come to this belated third movie as an all-read-up fan; but, just like the first two, I didn’t dislike it… and, 100 weeks later, can barely remember any details about it. (I read the detailed plot description on Wikipedia and some of it came back to me.)

    The storyline is mostly pretty obvious — it’s a recycle of the previous films’ love triangle thing, now with the added complexity of a pregnancy — which means the over-two-hours running time feels somewhat excessive (I continue to believe all comedies should be about 90 minutes). In spite of that, it’s often pretty funny. Some of the riffs on modern media and whatnot are a bit tired (“those young people, just posting photos of their food on Instagram!”), but other gags land well enough.

    In the earlier movies, Renée Zellweger attracted praise for her ability to inhabit a British lass. It feels like she’s forgotten how to do the accent in the 12 year gap; or maybe it’s just thanks to the work she’s obviously had done on her face… At least she’s helped by a supporting cast so stuffed with quality performers from UK comedies that some literally just appear in the back of shot (presumably there were deleted scenes).

    Reasonably successful at what it sets out to do, then; enough so that there’s been talk of a fourth one.

    3 out of 5

  • Memories of Murder (2003)

    aka Salinui chueok

    2019 #15
    Bong Joon Ho | 131 mins | download (HD) | 1.85:1 | South Korea / Korean | 15

    Memories of Murder

    South Korean director Bong Joon Ho has gradually risen in prominence over the past few years, culminating in Parasite’s history-making success at this year’s Oscars (yes, that was only earlier this year). Memories of Murder wasn’t his debut work, but it was what initially garnered him some attention outside Korea. It’s been surprisingly hard to come by for a while now, but a new 4K restoration is released in the UK via Curzon today (it’s coming to US cinemas for a limited run in October, and new Blu-ray releases (including one from Criterion) will follow).

    In 1986, two women are raped and murdered in provincial South Korea. The local detective, Park Doo-man (Bong regular Song Kang-ho), has never dealt with a case of this magnitude and relies on old-fashioned methods — his main one being to have his partner, Cho (Kim Roi-ha), beat confessions out of suspects. After a modern-minded big-city ‘tec, Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung), volunteers to help, the old and the new clash. As more crimes are committed, more clues are gathered, and more suspects are apprehended, but then cleared. Can the police ever get close to their man?

    Loosely based on the true story of Korea’s first serial murders, and taking a procedural approach to the crime thriller genre, Memories of Murder invites comparison to David Fincher’s Zodiac for its methodical, realistic narrative style and plot that follows obsessed investigators chasing unsolved murders in the past. Zodiac is one of my favourite films (it placed 3rd in 100 Favourites II), so it’s a tall order to be pitched against it. Fortunately, Memories of Murder is strong enough to withstand the comparison.

    Investigators

    A lot of praise that applies to Zodiac could be copy-and-pasted here. In addition to the facets I’ve already mentioned, there are several fine performances (not least from Song, who’s clearly become a Bong regular for a reason); several striking set piece crimes and/or discoveries without indulging in glorification of real crimes; and a commentary on the methods and obsessions of investigators that goes beyond ‘doing the job’. It does none of this in the same way as Fincher would a couple of years later, but it’s a different perspective within the same genre headspace.

    Memories of Murder is already a well-regarded film (on top of a 91% Tomatometer score, it’s on the IMDb Top 250 and in the top 100 of Letterboxd’s version ) but, having been out of widespread circulation for a few years, and with renewed interest in Bong’s back catalogue, it’s ripe for wider (re)discovery.

    5 out of 5

    Memories of Murder is available to rent on Curzon Home Cinema from today.

    It placed 5th on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2019, after being viewed as part of What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2019.

    Le Mans ’66 (2019)

    aka Ford v Ferrari

    2020 #177
    James Mangold | 153 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English & Italian |
    12 / PG-13

    Le Mans '66

    Did you know that Ford tried to buy Ferrari in the ’60s? I didn’t. As per this film, Ford were desperate to appeal to a younger market and an association with motor racing seemed the way to do that. Ferrari were the regular winners of the Le Mans 24-hour race but were struggling financially, so Ford made an offer; but Ferrari played them, merely using Ford’s interest to get a better deal from Fiat. Pissed off, Ford set about making a racing car by themselves to beat Ferrari at their own game. Enter former Le Mans-winning driver turned race-car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a smooth-talking American who’s as adept at charming higher-ups as he is at making fast cars; and his favoured mechanic and driver, Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a quick-tempered Brit who rubs the Ford execs up the wrong way. With Ford’s money behind them, but also management watching over them, can Shelby and Miles engineer a car good enough to beat Ferrari at Le Mans?

    That the film goes by one of two different titles depending where you live might seem like an incidental point of trivia — it’s not the first time this has happened (Avengers Assemble is probably the most famous recent example), and it wasn’t an artistic decision, nor even a marketing one, apparently, but instead legal necessity (according to director James Mangold, you can’t use brand names in a title in the UK and/or Europe) — but it’s also a lens through which we can consider the film’s focus. To wit, is it more about the rivalry between Ford and Ferrari (as in the original title) or winning the 1966 Le Mans race (as in the UK title)? The consensus seems to be that the original title sounds more dynamic, but I think the international one is more accurate. The head of Ford has it in for Ferrari, but our two heroes are more interested in winning the race, rivalry or not.

    Winner!

    To some extent the story has been streamlined in that direction. The original screenplay was an ensemble about the entire team building the Le Mans car — more historically accurate, I’m sure, but I’d wager less dramatic and personal. That’s what’s gained by focusing on Shelby and Miles, the two key figures. To the film’s credit, it still doesn’t pretend they did it alone. The role attributed to other mechanics may not be as large as it was in real life, but nor does the film try to pass it off as the achievement of just two men. What it primarily adds is relatable drama. This isn’t just a movie about building and/or racing a car, but about these two particular men — what motivates them; how their ego gets in the way, especially in Miles’s case.

    The film plays to the lead actors’ strengths in this respect, with Damon turning on the easy charm and Bale, who famously stays in character throughout a shoot, embodying someone who is superb at their job but can be belligerent. The standout from a quality supporting cast is Caitriona Balfe. She may just have the typical Wife role, but she’s made to be a bit more badass than that usually allows… before getting relegated it to the sidelines for the finale, naturally.

    Said finale is the eponymous Le Mans event, of course. It’s not the only race sequence in the film, but it’s by far the longest. Nonetheless, they’re all suitably thrilling in how they’re shot and edited. One of the film’s genres on IMDb is “Action”, and though it doesn’t really conform to my idea of what an Action movie is — not least in the fact that there are only three or four of these “action sequence” race scenes throughout the two-and-a-half-hour movie — I can see where they’re coming from.

    We are golden

    That runtime is quite long, but it doesn’t drag… once it gets going, anyway. The slowest part is early on, getting the story up and running, which I feel could have been streamlined. Ford’s attempt to buy Ferrari initially seems like an aside, but obviously it comes to frame the whole rivalry; but Miles’s woes with the IRS barely have anything to do with the rest of the movie, and, other than providing an extended introduction to the man, I don’t think you’d lose much by losing them. The film was clearly trimmed a fair bit, though, because there are loads of little bits you can spot in the making-of that aren’t in the finished film. Said making-of also highlights the choices behind the cinematography. The visuals are very golden — that kind of “wasn’t the past pretty” atmosphere — but the behind-the-scenes footage shows the shooting conditions to be much duller and greyer, revealing how much the orange/gold light comes from the camerawork and grading.

    Le Mans ’66 might look like a film for car nuts, and I’m sure they’ll get a lot out of it — alongside the likes of Rush, I guess this kind of thing would be their favourite movie (both those films currently sit in the IMDb Top 250). But the rest of us are by no means left out, thanks to involving characters and exciting race scenes, even if some plot beats border on clichéd. Le Mans ’66 may not reinvent the wheel, but it works hard at refining it.

    4 out of 5

    Le Mans ’66 is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from midnight tonight.

    Before Midnight (2013)

    2018 #205
    Richard Linklater | 109 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA & Greece / English | 15 / R

    Before Midnight

    The third film in co-writer/director Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy catches up with couple Celine (Julie Delpy, also a co-writer) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke, the third co-writer) in middle age, after years of being together, with two kids (plus his kid from a previous relationship) and a host of problems bubbling under the surface.

    Linklater got a lot of attention for shooting coming-of-age drama Boyhood in real-time over 12 years, but for my money he’s used a similar technique to much better effect in this trilogy. It’s a different way of handling it, of course: Boyhood was filmed across all 12 of those years, following the characters closely as they grow and change; whereas the Before films drop us in for a crucial few hours once every nine years, thereby offering a more concentrated experience of time on screen, but covering so much more in what’s discussed and implied about the time in between our visits.

    The first two films — 1995’s Before Sunrise and 2004’s Before Sunset — are marked by an unreserved romanticism. Midnight is notably different, abandoning that lovey-dovey-ness and replacing it with a powerful examination of the tension in a long-term relationship. In some respects, it’s all the better for it. That’s in no way a criticism of the previous films (I still think Sunrise is first among equals), but it’s realistic that, as time goes on, people change. They can’t be young-spirited and full of the joys of first love forever. Well, they could, but it wouldn’t be life and relationships as most of us know it.

    Jesse and Celine

    Their interpersonal turmoil is all the more affecting because we’ve connected with these characters on and off in real-time for a couple of decades. Consequently, I can’t remember the last time I went on such an emotional rollercoaster. It’s not just realistic, but brave, to choose to swing the film in such a quarrelsome direction, rather than just show them rekindle old passions (again). It leads to an entirely different effect: the first two leave you feeling warm and fuzzy; this is more like being punched in the gut. And yet I wouldn’t have it any other way. Rather than feeling out of place when put next to its forebears, Midnight feels like a necessary addition.

    My original reviews of Sunrise and Sunset from 2007 (linked earlier) are both marked as 4 out of 5, but I don’t stand by that. I watched them again before Midnight and would unequivocally give them each 5 stars. I wouldn’t want anyone to read all three reviews and think I’m rating Midnight as better than its predecessors. As a trilogy, they’re all almost equally good. I say “almost” because the hard-hitting emotional realism of this one is kinda depressing, while the unabashed romanticism of the first two is lovely. Maybe how you are as a person dictates which of those ends of the spectrum you prefer, because the dramatic shift in tone does not presage a shift in quality. Put another way, on a qualitative level I think they’re all 5s, but I love the first two that bit more because they’re nicer… but perhaps less real. Either way, together they are one of the greatest trilogies ever made.

    I really hope they do a fourth one, though. Maybe it’s just because I want to spend more time with these characters, but I also feel a little that the series might need balance. As I’ve said, the first two are so of a piece, the third isn’t, so perhaps there’s room for one more ‘act’ to even that up. Or, hey, why not just make another one every nine years until the inevitable? (Now I’m just getting greedy.) Ethan Hawke has observed that Sunrise begins with Celine and Jesse watching a couple in their 40s arguing and Midnight is about Celine and Jesse as a couple in their 40s arguing, so maybe it’s an apt place to stop. But he also says that all it takes is for one of them to have an idea that excites the other two and they’d do it again, so perhaps we can look forward to Before Midday in 2022 after all.

    5 out of 5

    Before Midnight placed 2nd on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw in 2018.

    Love on a Leash (2011)

    2020 #173
    Fen Tian | 86 mins | digital (SD) | 16:9 | USA / English

    Love on a Leash

    Love on a Leash first gained a degree of notoriety when some YouTuber happened upon it on Amazon Prime and made a video about it, in which he instructed his followers to rate it 10-out-of-10 on IMDb. Enough of them did that it apparently resulted in his account being banned. (At time of writing, it has a score of 9.2 from almost 6,500 ratings.) I came across it more recently on Letterboxd, where it was featured on a list of divisive films. You only have to look at its ratings spread to see why:

    Love on a Leash Letterboxd ratings

    Are the 1,504 people who’ve rated it 5 stars in on the same joke as those YouTuber’s fans who rated it 10 on IMDb? Or is there in fact something to this movie that makes some people think “this is worth full marks”? You might be surprised to learn that, actually, I think it’s the latter.

    The film tells the story of Prince, a golden retriever who is actually a man turned into a dog (and whose human name may have been Alvin Flang. Or maybe not — I feel like the dog is an unreliable narrator). How has this happened? Why? Who knows? Who cares? (The film has a lot of random shots of ducks for no obvious reason (it’s almost Lynchian), so my guess is they did it to him. Still don’t know why, though.) Prince learns (from a magic rock-pool) that he can only return to human form by finding the true love of a woman. Enter unlucky-in-love shopgirl Lisa (Jana Camp), who meets Prince in a park and eventually takes him home. What unfolds is not as straightforward as the Beauty and the Beast narrative you might imagine, but to describe any more of the craziness would be to ruin half the fun. The plot’s constant twists and developments beggar belief — it’s genuinely imaginative, in its own way. By which I mean I don’t think you’ll have ever see anything else quite like this.

    Pizza-faced cinder block and Alvin Flang

    I give full credit to Love on a Leash for just going for it. It’s hard to pigeonhole what genre it was even aiming for. The poster and basic concept suggest a cheesy kids’ film or Hallmark movie; the way it initially plays, you kinda assume it wants to be a romcom; but then it gets so fucking dark (suicide attempt! abusive coworkers! dead dog!), and there’s so much fantastical strange stuff… it’s so much weirder, wilder, and more unique than you can imagine. That’s without even mentioning the bizarre production quirks, like the fact Lisa only wears green clothes and lives in a green house with a green phone and green mugs and green plates… Or that it’s shot with a kind of documentary realism… um, maybe; or maybe it was just done quickly on digital video. There’s definitely no music, though. Like, at all. Even though there’s a composer credited.

    Well, except for a couple of songs the dog sings. Prince is constantly chatting away to himself in voiceover, and sometimes sings little childish ditties too (I suspect they weren’t actually composed by anyone). He can be a right snarky little bugger (he describes the love of his life as a “pizza-faced cinder block”), to the point that I suspect it may all have been improvised by the voice actor in post-production — he seems to be taking the piss out of what’s going on as often as we are.

    Love on a Leash was written and directed by Fen Tian, a 64-year-old Chinese woman who came to America in her 40s “with fifty dollars in her pocket, and not one word of English in her possession,” according to her production bio. It asserts that the screenplay won an award and funding from the Taiwan government, and at one point she took an American cast and crew to China to shoot it but funding fell through. After decades of trying, the film was eventually produced “with barely enough money to cover craft services”, and during post-production she “slept on the couches of her editors, dragging around her blanket, toothbrush, pillow and thirty-nine DV cam reels” and “spoiled” her team by “cooking up huge feasts of homemade Chinese food, and fixing her crew’s love lives with a motherly heart and some Chinese wisdom.” I feel like this deserves a Disaster Artist-type biopic…

    What people get up to in the privacy of their own homes...

    So, we come to the issue I touched on at the start: how do you rate a film like this? As an exercise in moviemaking, it’s a 1. The storyline is borderline nonsensical; it’s shot like an amateur using a camcorder for the first time; the sound mix is so unfinished I’m not sure it was ever started… And yet it’s constantly enjoyable, partly through a “so bad it’s good” hilarity (see the aforementioned terrible filmmaking), but also for the barminess with which it conducts itself, the relentless forward momentum of the storyline leading us in unpredictable narrative directions. Like famous cult favourite The Room, it transcends its amateur awfulness to be an artistic experience all of its own. In fact, it achieves a higher level of genuine artistry than The Room for me, because Wisseau’s film sometimes mires itself in wannabe-seriousness and runs out of stuff to laugh at, whereas Love on a Leash is restless in its creativity and consequently almost non-stop entertaining. It transcends its obvious awfulness through a kind of perverse innovation; a commitment to not hewing to any recognisable conventions. And it’s really funny — sometimes deliberately, often not.

    With reservations duly noted, then, I honestly and unequivocally give Love on a Leash full marks.

    5 out of 5

    The 100-Week Roundup X

    These 100-week roundups are a clearing house for reviews I haven’t got round to writing up 100 weeks (i.e. almost two years) after I actually watched the films in question. As I mentioned in my August review, I’ve recently fallen behind even on that, so the 100-week moniker isn’t technically accurate right now. Hopefully I’ll catch up soon.

    This time, we have a motley bunch from September 2018: two one-star films that made my “worst of year” list; and two four-star films, one of which made my “best of year” list. They are…

  • Lost in Space (1998)
  • Skyline (2010)
  • April and the Extraordinary World (2015)
  • I Kill Giants (2018)


    Lost in Space
    (1998)

    2018 #189
    Stephen Hopkins | 125 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | PG / PG-13

    Lost in Space

    I remember this reboot of the classic ’60s sci-fi series being received very poorly indeed when it came out in 1998; and so, even though I was a young sci-fi nut at the time, I didn’t bother to see it — and then spent the next 20 years not bothering to see it. But with the recent re-reboot on Netflix going down rather well, I thought maybe it was time to see for myself. I shouldn’t have bothered — it’s truly terrible.

    It gets off on the wrong foot, starting with a load of over-ambitious CGI, and that continues unabated throughout the entire movie. Anyone who moans about the quality of CGI in modern blockbusters should be made to watch this so they can understand what they’re complaining about. Maybe it looked ok back in ’98, I can’t remember (I suspect not), but watched now it looks like an old computer game, never mind an old movie.

    Poor effects can be forgiven if the film itself is any good, but the opening action scene is both fundamentally needless and stuffed to bursting with cliches, and the rest of the film is no better — just nonstop bad designs, bad dialogue, bad ideas, more bad CGI… Even the end credits are painful, playing like a spoof of the worst excesses of the ’90s, from the trippy “look what our computer graphics program can do” visuals to the dance-remix-with-dialogue-samples version of the theme.

    So, it turns out the critics at the time were right. I have seen even worse movies in my time, but there aren’t many merits here — there’s one effect that is well realised, at least. But that doesn’t come close to justifying the film, or for anyone to waste their time watching it. It really is very, very bad.

    1 out of 5

    Lost in Space featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

    Skyline
    (2010)

    2018 #190
    The Brothers Strause | 93 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / PG-13

    Skyline

    In a Cloverfield-esque setup, a bunch of young people awaken from a boozy party to discover an Independence Day-esque alien invasion happening outside their window. What follows just feels like familiar parts from even more movies Frankensteined together in a failed attempt to produce something original.

    In terms of overall quality, it’s like a direct-to-Syfy movie granted a minor-blockbuster effects budget. Goodness knows how it landed a cinema release. The directors were visual effects artists who, based on their IMDb credits, moved into directing music videos before springboarding into film directing with Aliens vs Predator: Requiem, the sequel to the much maligned AVP that, shockingly, managed to be even worse. Skyline was their second feature — and, in a seemingly-rare bit of justice for directors making shitty blockbusters, their last (they’ve gone back to effects, where they continue to have a long list of high-profile credits). They completely financed Skyline themselves, forking out just $500,000 for the shoot before spending $10 million on the effects. It couldn’t be any clearer where their priorities were…

    And it feels like a film made by VFX artists. For one thing, one of the main characters is a VFX artist. He lives in a swanky apartment, with a hot wife and a hot mistress, drives a Ferrari and owns a yacht. Either this is extremely obvious wish fulfilment, or at one point VFX guys were doing very well indeed. (Considering there was that whole thing a few years back about major VFX companies shutting down, either this was made before the bubble burst, or some were able to weather the storm to a sickening degree. Or, like I said, it’s wish fulfilment.) Aside from that, it’s like a CGI showcase. Everything’s shot handheld, all the better to show off how realistically the CGI’s been integrated. The screenplay puts in no effort, with thinly sketched characters and a flat, uninspired storyline that rips off other movies with abandon, runs on a shortage of logic, features weak world-building with inconsistent rules, and seems to just… keep… going… until, after you think it’s definitely over this time, there’s yet another scene: a mind-bendingly gross and laughable finale.

    And yet, years later, someone made a sequel! I’ve even heard it recommended (though it has a lowly 5.3 on IMDb). Someday, I’ll have to see…

    1 out of 5

    Skyline featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

    April and the Extraordinary World
    (2015)

    aka Avril et le monde truqué

    2018 #191
    Christian Desmares & Franck Ekinci | 102 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | France, Belgium & Canada / French | PG / PG

    April and the Extraordinary World

    This French animation is an alternate-history steampunk adventure that follows orphan April (voiced by Marion Cotillard in the original audio) as she investigates a decades-long spate of missing scientists, including her own parents.

    The tone is one of pulp adventure, which is right up my street, and consequently I found the film a lot of fun. It’s a great adventure, abundant with imaginative sci-fi/fantasy ideas, engaging characters, and laced with humour. The independent French production means it’s not beholden to Hollywood homogenisation — there’s some very dark stuff in the world-building details, which contrasts somewhat with the light adventure tone of the actual plot, and some viewers may find this spread of tones problematic. More of an issue for me came when, a while in, the plot heads off into barmy sci-fi territory. No spoilers, but it wasn’t quite what I was expecting from the original premise. But this is perhaps more an issue of expectation than actuality — it wasn’t severe enough to lose me, just take the shine off something that was otherwise headed for perfection; and, as I adjusted to where the story was going, I enjoyed it more again.

    Resolutely unproblematic is the visual style. The design and animation, inspired by the works of comic book artist Jacques Tardi, are absolutely gorgeous — like a ligne claire comic sprung to life. When US animations try to ape an artist’s style, it often winds up as a movie-ised imitation — at best you can recognise the inspiration, but it’s still been filtered and reinterpreted (cf. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns). But this is like the panels just started moving, with full fluidity (none of the “jerkily moving between static poses” you sometimes get with cheaply-done modern animation). That applies to character animation as much as anything, but the wildly imaginative steampunk alternate history allows the designers and animators to really cut loose, with a fabulously invented world.

    Put alongside the likes of Long Way North and The Secret of Kells, it’s a reminder that we should look further afield than the US and Japan for great animation.

    4 out of 5

    April and the Extraordinary World placed 26th on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2018.

    I Kill Giants
    (2018)

    2018 #193
    Anders Walter | 106 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | Belgium, UK, USA & China / English | 12 / PG-13

    I Kill Giants

    The past few years have seen a random, unexpected mini-genre pop up: dramas about Serious Issues where the protagonists also have something to do with giant monsters. I’m not talking about Pacific Rim or Godzilla, but movies where the monsters are either imaginary or in some other way analogous to the very real problems experienced by the characters. Films like A Monster Calls, about a teenage boy coping with impending bereavement, or Colossal, in which Anne Hathaway discovers she’s controlling a giant monster that keeps appearing (and which kept its big issue a secret in the marketing, so I will too). I don’t know if there’s really enough of these to call it a “genre”, but three films in as many years that fit roughly in that very specific bucket strikes me as a lot; and I watched all three in the span of a few months, just to emphasise the point.

    Anyway, the latest entry in this genre I may’ve just invented is I Kill Giants. Based on a graphic novel by Joe Kelly (who also penned this adaptation) and J.M. Ken Niimura, it’s about American schoolgirl Barbara (Madison Wolfe) who believes giants are coming to attack her hometown and she’s the only one prepared to fight them. Whether these giants are real or just an outward expression of an inner conflict is, of course, why this ties in with the other films I mentioned.

    There’s plenty of stuff I liked a lot in I Kill Giants. The female focus. The power of friendship, and of small acts of kindness. The acceptance of being a bit different and an outsider, within reason. The magical realism in its handling of the giants. Unfortunately, it takes a bit too long to get to its conclusion — it’s not exactly repetitive, but there is some running on the spot. When the finale comes, it’s an effective twist. I’d guessed many of the reveals, and I think the film definitely expects you to guess at least one (which it then wrong-foots you about). But narrative trickery isn’t really the point. It’s impossible to discuss which other film it’s most similar to without spoilers, but the other one dealt with certain stuff better due to being upfront about it, rather than lacking it all into the final ten minutes. That’s the ending’s biggest flaw: that another film did fundamentally the same thing recently and, overall, better. That’s not the film’s fault.

    Not a perfect film, then, but it has a lot to commend it. Just be aware it’s one where the journey is more rewarding than the destination.

    4 out of 5

  • Yes, God, Yes (2019)

    2020 #191
    Karen Maine | 78 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Yes, God, Yes

    It’s the early 2000s, and Alice (Stranger Things’ Natalia Dyer) is a pupil at an ultra-Christian high school (“in America” goes without saying there, right?) But Alice is feeling conflicted. In morality class, she’s being taught about the wrongs of sex, while at home she likes to rewind the Titanic VHS to rewatch the sex scene. One day, a chat on AOL turns naughty, and Alice finds herself putting her hand down her skirt and… well… Of course, for a good indoctrinated little Christian girl, access to pleasure is not an instant revelation, and soon she’s off to her school’s weekend camp to learn to connect with Jesus, or something. Instead, she’ll learn a little something about the hypocrisy of those around her.

    It would be easy to label Yes, God, Yes a “cumming of age movie” (such a pun is certainly not below my level of humour), but it would feel slightly inaccurate. Put another way, if you’ve come to see Nancy Wheeler cum, you’ll be disappointed. There is, perhaps, a whole analysis of the film to be written from the starting point that Alice doesn’t seem to reach orgasm — I mean, the film already (comically) touches on the difference between men and women in this regard; but also, Alice only needs to touch herself to feel sinful and transgressive, so how would she feel if she got ‘all the way’? But I am not necessarily best placed to write such an analysis of the depiction of female self-pleasure. It could be as simple as the fact the film has a female writer-director and didn’t want to show that moment on screen, for any number of reasons.

    A touching moment

    Indeed, despite it providing the plot hook and title, wanking is only one part of the film’s exposure of religious hypocrisy when it comes to sex. Alice’s desire to go to camp is as much provoked by a nasty rumour doing the rounds at school as it is by her personal discoveries. Said rumour is that, at a party, Alice “tossed the salad” of a classmate. She has no idea what this means; everyone else seems to know (if you don’t know either, don’t worry, the film has a dictionary definition at the start). Alice may go to an ultra-conservative school that teaches repressive values, but it’s clear her classmates are still learning about the wider world from elsewhere, while she believes everything she’s being taught and remains naïve. Ironically, the camp does teach her something about herself, just not what was intended. It’s the realisation of Christianity’s hypocrisy, more so than of the power of touching herself, that prompts Alice’s personal development by the end of the film.

    Throughout all this personal revelation, the film leans heavily on Natalia Dyer’s ability to convey confused inner thoughts with just her face, and fortunately she’s up to the task. Indeed, it feels like overkill on the handful of occasions when it resorts to underlining a point via a kind of flashback-audio. We get what Alice is thinking when she looks at a microwave, we don’t need the soundtrack to repeat the Father’s microwave/oven analogy. Nonetheless, such moments are relatively rare, and instead we’re left to identify with the shy, wary, quiet Alice — something I’m sure a lot of us can relate to from our own adolescence. And if your own adolescence occurred around the turn of the millennium, boy does this film have you pinned down: playing Snake on a Nokia phone; AOL chatrooms… Small incidental details that very much specify the time (and place — AOL wasn’t such a thing here in the UK, but we had our alternatives).

    Christian 'teaching'

    I’m surprised I’ve managed to get this far in the review without calling up Saved!, a film to which Yes, God, Yes bears more than a passing resemblance. For those who’ve not seen it (why not? It was on my list of 100 Favourites over four years ago!), Saved is about a girl at an ultra-Christian high school in the early ’00s who discovers religious hypocrisy after a sex-related revelation. Both films criticise that hypocrisy through humour and satire. The main difference is that Saved is an outright comedy, whereas Yes, God, Yes is a comedy-drama, where its laughs come more from wry observations grounded in real-life rather than outright comedic bits, which is perhaps the result of it being semi-autobiographical by writer-director Karen Maine. Others have compared it to Lady Bird, another semi-autobiographical early-’00s-set coming-of-age drama about a girl at a Christian high school, including her first experiences with sex.

    But let’s not lean too heavily on the fact there have been other films a bit like this, because Yes, God, Yes is still its own beast — more grounded than Saved; hornier than Lady Bird. If it seems more focused, or even niche, than some other coming-of-age movies, is that a bad thing? Part of the point about recent calls to enable more women and people of colour to make films is that we get to hear new stories and different perspectives, and Yes, God, Yes is an example of exactly that.

    4 out of 5

    Yes, God, Yes is available to rent and buy digitally in the UK as of yesterday.

    The Man Who Laughs (1928)

    2020 #189
    Paul Leni | 110 mins | Blu-ray | 1.20:1 | USA / silent | PG

    The Man Who Laughs

    Just over 90 years ago, in the final years of the silent era, The Man Who Laughs was a “super-production” — an expensive and major release, designed to follow in the footsteps of successes like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, with an acclaimed imported director (Paul Leni, Waxworks) and star (Conrad Veidt, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari), a shared leading lady from Phantom (Mary Philbin), and adapted from another novel by the author of Hunchback (Victor Hugo). It did, I believe, live up to its pedigree and expectations. But today it’s primarily remembered for one thing: being the visual inspiration behind a certain comic book supervillain…

    Perhaps because of the connections to the aforementioned films, and because it inspired such a violent character, and because of the publicity stills that inspired that look, and because its production studio (Universal) would shortly become renowned for their iconic interpretations of the cornerstones of horror (Dracula, Frankenstein, et al), The Man Who Laughs has often been cited as a horror movie. It isn’t. Well, some of the first 15 minutes do play a bit like one — execution by iron maiden; mutilation and abandonment of a child; dangling corpses of hanged men — but then it jumps forward in time and becomes a romantic melodrama, with a bit of antiestablishment satire and a swashbuckling climax thrown in for good measure.

    I was only Jokering

    The story begins in 1690, with King James II punishing a rebellious lord by handing his son, Gwynplaine, to comprachicos (invented by Hugo for the novel; it means “child-buyers”) who mutilate the boy’s mouth into a permanent grin. And then he executes the lord in an iron maiden for good measure. When all the comprachicos are later exiled, they abandon the boy. Wandering through the snow, the kid finds a woman frozen to death, but her baby still alive in her arms. (Like I said, the first 15 minutes are pretty bleak.) He rescues the baby, who it’ll turn out is blind, and soon the pair are taken in by a wandering performer, Ursus (Cesare Gravina). Jump forward a couple of decades and Gwynplaine (Veidt) is now a popular attraction himself thanks to his laughing face, and the baby has grown into a beautiful young woman, Dea (Philbin), and the pair are in love. Let’s not think too much about the background to that relationship, eh? Gwynplaine feels unworthy of Dea’s love because he’s so hideous, but she doesn’t care because she’s literally blind.

    Meanwhile, Gwynplaine’s fame and unique facial features lead to it being discovered that he’s really a noble, kicking off a bunch of courtly intrigue — I could explain it, but then we’d just be getting into the plot of the entire movie. Suffice to say, it involves a scheming courtier, Barkilphedro (Brandon Hurst), who was partly responsible for Gwynplaine’s dad’s death; a horny duchess, Josiana (Olga Baclanova), who we first meet while a peasant messenger spies on her having a bath (nothing explicit is actually seen — it cuts away just in time — but it was still too risqué for British censors, who cut away even sooner); and Queen Anne (Josphine Cromwell), best known today as “the one Olivia Colman played in The Favourite (there’s considerably less swearing, gout, lesbianism, and bunny rabbits in this version).

    With the “beauty and the beast” angle to the film’s central romance, the film does withstand comparison to other variations of that story — like, um, Beauty and the Beast, but also, again, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The difference here is in how people react to the ‘beast’. Only he himself seems to find him monstrous. The public find him inescapably hilarious, which isn’t nice for him to live with, but has made him popular and beloved rather than reviled. The love of his life is besotted with him unconditionally. Josiana comes to see his show and for some reason finds him instantly attractive (in fairness, I think she’s attracted to any man with a pulse).

    Tale as old as time...

    A more apt comparison is to a film made over 50 years later, David Lynch’s The Elephant Man — a parallel I spotted for myself, but also is mentioned in two essays in the booklet accompanying Eureka’s new Blu-ray release, so I’m certainly not alone in feeling this. Both concern a man who is physically disfigured and has fallen in with fairground sideshow folk, who despises himself but comes to find love and compassion from others. They even both climax with a grandstanding speech where the man in question declares his worth to the world, with the famous “I am a human being!” bit from The Elephant Man seeming like an echo of a scene here where Gwynplaine, forced to join the House of Lords by order of the Queen, eventually rejects her command, declaring his independence with the assertion that “God made me a man!” As Travis Crawford writes in the aforementioned booklet, “while sinister clowns would ultimately become an unlikely horror cliche, Gwynplaine’s gruesome disfigurement makes him a figure of pity, not menace… more Pierrot than Pennywise.” The Man Who Laughs is less concerned with examining and affirming the fundamental humanity underneath ‘freaks’ than Lynch’s film (this is a classical melodrama, after all), but it’s certainly an aspect of the story that, despite how he looks, Gwynplaine is still a human being; that, despite his fixed grin, he’s full of all the emotions of any human being.

    Before I go, a quick word on the film’s soundtrack. “But it’s a silent movie.” Yes, but as you surely know, silent movies aren’t meant to be watched actually silent. The Blu-ray release (both the new UK one and an earlier US one from Flicker Alley) comes with two audio options: a new 2018 score by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra, and the original 1928 Movietone sync track, which is not just general music backing but also includes some music clearly framed as diegetic, plus occasional sound effects, and even dialogue (in the form of background crowd noise, mostly). Now, the film was originally released as silent, then withdrawn and re-released with this accompanying soundtrack, so I guess the option of a new score isn’t wholly unmerited. Nonetheless, it still seems slightly off to me that you’d supplant an authentic original track with a modern creation. As if to underline this point, the booklet reveals that the new score is actually little more than a final-year project by a group of students! It’s lovely for them that they were able to present their work at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and it was well received, and that it’s now included as an option on the film’s official releases… but presenting it as the primary audio option? No thanks. I suggest you choose the 1928 soundtrack.

    I said it's NOT a horror movie!

    It’s probably unlikely that The Man Who Laughs can escape its status as a trivia footnote for the Joker at this point (heck, Flicker Alley’s release even plays up the connection on its cover, taking the film’s most Joker-esque photo and decorating it in the character’s colours of purple and green). Certainly, no one should watch it for that reason alone — the inspiration for the Joker begins and ends with the grinning-man imagery; there’s nothing in the film itself that contributes to the character. There’s also little here to support its reputation as an influential early horror movie — those seeking horror thrills shouldn’t watch for that reason either. But for all the things The Man Who Laughs is not, what it is is a well-made and performed drama; one that deserves to stand and be appreciated on its own merits, not those that others have mistakenly conferred on it.

    4 out of 5

    The Man Who Laughs is released on Blu-ray in the UK today.

    The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)

    2020 #133
    Joe Talbot | 121 mins | digital (HD) | 1.66:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    The Last Black Man in San Francisco

    The opening few minutes of The Last Black Man in San Francisco are some of the most visually extraordinary I remember seeing from a film in a while. Well, it begins with two men waiting at a bus stop, but when the bus doesn’t arrive… cinema happens. If the rest of the film had been terrible, I’d have been ok with watching it just to have seen that.

    Those two men at the bus stop are Jimmie Fails (played by Jimmie Fails, also co-writer, in a role I assume can’t be entirely autobiographical, but who knows) and his best friend Montgomery Allen (Jonathan Majors), an artist and writer who always has a pencil behind his ear, who’s always sketching or jotting. Every day, Jimmie and Mont visit the same old house in a gentrified neighbourhood of San Francisco, which Jimmie is obsessed with maintaining and restoring because he doesn’t think the current owners do a good enough job.

    Of course, the reason for Jimmie’s monomania is more complicated than “it’s a nice house”, but oh my, is it a nice house. In terms of “significant houses in 2019 movies”, fair few people seemed to be in love with the one from Parasite, but give me this beautiful old mansion-like home any day. It even has a built-in organ! I mean, a built-in organ isn’t exactly high on my list of ‘wants’ in a house, but it’s kinda cool. (To be fair, based on the amount of upkeep Jimmie feels the house needs and that its owners shirk, I doubt I’d be up to the task of looking after such a place. But I’m not going to be buying one anyway, so it’s a nice little fantasy.)

    On the outside looking in

    But this isn’t property porn, and deep down Jimmie’s really looking for more than just this particular building. Other characters seem similarly at a loss. It’s likely important to note that writer-director Joe Talbot and Fails, who came up with the story together, are native San Franciscans who grow up together and discussed making the movie since they were teenagers. The film is not just about the changing face of San Francisco, but that’s definitely part of the mix. Indeed, I’m sure there are several readings of what Last Black Man is ‘about’. Another, related part of it is the black experience (I mean, there’s a clue in the title), including a street preacher bemoaning a hazardous cleanup operation; an acquaintance who lives in his car; Jimmie’s absentee father (played by the reliably excellent Rob Morgan, who you may recognise from all of Netflix’s Marvel series, and who has another small but key role in the just-released Greyhound); and a group of men who hang around outside Mont’s house, apparently with nothing better to do than argue with each other. The latter, in particular, have a key role to play in where the story ultimately goes.

    Another aspect is to do with the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Our past isn’t just a series of indisputable facts, but a mix of memories — which themselves are self-selected narratives — and stories we’ve been told by others and assumed into our identities, possibly giving them more significance than was intended. It’s this kind of mythologising that drives Jimmie, and it clashing with reality is part of the catalyst for the film’s resolution. As I said, events involving that group of guys outside Mont’s place (no spoilers!) also have a major part to play, but it agains come round to the way our lives, and others’, are dictated by how we choose to tell our and their stories.

    Who tells your story?

    How this story is told is one of its strongest aspects. The cinematography by Adam Newport-Berra is extraordinary; not in a glaringly obvious “pretty colours” way, but exhibiting superb depth of field, framing, composition, movement… My knowledge is inadequate to convey the rich quality and wonder of the imagery he creates. It, literally, has to be seen. Several distinctive sequences are carved by his work combined with David Marks’ editing and Emile Mosseri’s score, which includes some well-aimed needle drops and remixes (it’s always great to hear Jefferson Airplane’s Somebody to Love, which is here rendered in a strikingly stripped-back form remixed by Mosseri).

    If I have one criticism it’s that it felt a little long, with some scenes seemingly superfluous, but I’m fully prepared to accept I may have just missed their point. And even with that, the total effect is enough to overcome any perceived longueurs. My score rounds up, then, because even if it’s not perfect (what is?), it’s very good overall, and several parts are truly exceptional.

    5 out of 5

    The Last Black Man in San Francisco is on Sky Cinema and Now TV from today.