Green Book (2018)

2019 #26
Peter Farrelly | 130 mins | download (HD) | 2.00:1 | USA / English, Italian & Russian | 12 / PG-13

Green Book

Oscar statue2019 Academy Awards
5 nominations — 3 wins

Won: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali), Best Original Screenplay.
Nominated: Best Actor (Viggo Mortensen), Best Editing.

White people tell black people all about racism (again) in this year’s surprise Best Picture victor. Well, a surprise to some people — Roma was considered the frontrunner, but some of those with their finger on the pulse of Hollywood had already predicted Green Book’s success. One such pundit was Deadline’s Pete Hammond, a very pro-Green Book voice, although his post-show analysis seems to suggest it only won because of efforts by some Academy members to rig the vote against Netflix…

The reaction to Green Book has been an odd one. It was initially well received, winning the People’s Choice Award after its premiere at TIFF, and racking up acclaim from both critics (a Certified Fresh 79% on Rotten Tomatoes) and audiences (8.3 on IMDb, which places it 128th on their Top 250 list). But the more widely it’s been seen and discussed, the more the tide has turned, especially as a more diverse audience has come to it. On its surface, the film is about overcoming racism — it’s the true story of a bigoted Italian American (Viggo Mortensen) serving as a driver for talented African American pianist Dr Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) as he goes on a concert tour of the Deep South during segregation — but it’s told entirely from the white guy’s perspective.

Coming at it from the perspective of a white guy also, I can see why people have liked the movie. It’s decently entertaining, with likeable performances from Mortensen and Ali, who have good chemistry. Their chalk-and-cheese relationship is funny without tipping over into outright comedy; and, naturally, the way they come to get along is Heartwarming. But it’s also a completely unchallenging movie. There’s just enough racism that you get to go “ooh, weren’t things unpleasant back then!” and be joyed when the characters overcome it in various ways, but not so much as to convey the actual outrage and horror of the era — or, indeed, the way it continues today. You’d think racism was more or less solved by this pair getting along back in ’62.

Admire the white guy

And that is a big part of the problem with the film. If you’d made this 20 or 30 years ago, that level of discussion might be alright — beginning to make old white men face up to what happened by softening it a little, by letting them see themselves in the white guy. Now, it all looks kinda naïve and simplistic. The more you dig into it, the more you realise Green Book has some casually racist elements of its own. I mean, the white guy even helps the black guy to become a better black guy! That’d be offensive in a fiction, but when these were real people it seems distasteful. I guess the counterargument might be that the black guy helps make the white guy better too, improving his ability to write love letters, as if that was some kind of mutual beneficial exchange. But it’s not equal, is it? Plus it’s again all from the white guy’s perspective: he’s fundamentally fine but, hey, a bit of a polish wouldn’t hurt, whereas the black guy needs a character overhaul that apparently only this straight-talking white guy can give him.

But hey, don’t just take it from this white guy. For instance, check out this piece by Justin Chang at the L.A. Times about the film and its reception in the wake of its big win. It digs into the film’s negatives and controversies better than I ever could.

A side note regarding the film’s title: it’s taken from The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guidebook to help African Americans travel in the segregated South by listing establishments that would accept them. They do use it in the film… briefly, about three times total. You feel like a movie depicting how and why the volume came into existence might’ve made for a more novel story.

Write this instead...

In the end, I find Green Book a little difficult to rate. Coming to it as a white viewer, it’s an enjoyably safe trip into history, with charming characters on enough of a personal journey to give it a story arc, but not so much of one as to ever make it challenging. Similarly, it has a simplistic but not fundamentally negative theme (“racism is bad, yo”). In that mindset, it’s a pleasant, feel-good two hours. But, considering it’s 2019 not 1989, I can certainly see why some are clamouring for more nuanced engagement with these issues. I wouldn’t call it a bad movie, but it is an old fashioned one, and certainly not the best of what 2018 had to offer.

3 out of 5

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Roma (2018)

2019 #25
Alfonso Cuarón | 135 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.39:1 | Mexico & USA / Spanish & Mixtec | 15 / R

Roma

Oscar statue2019 Academy Awards
10 nominations

Nominated: Best Picture, Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director, Best Actress (Yalitza Aparicio), Best Supporting Actress (Marina de Tavira), Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing.

Drawn from writer-director Alfonso Cuarón’s memories of growing up in the Colonia Roma neighbourhood of Mexico City, Roma is the story of what happens to a middle-class family’s housemaid, Cleo (played by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio), over the course of ten months in 1970 and 1971. It’s also one of the best-reviewed films of the year, winner of BAFTA’s Best Film award (amongst others), and a frontrunner for the same at tonight’s Oscars. No pressure, then.

Roma has already attracted a reputation for being slow and difficult to engage with for ordinary viewers — the very definition of an arthouse movie; and it’s in black and white with subtitles, just to compound the stereotype. There’s no doubting it has a measured pace, and the viewer needs to be prepared for that. It sets its stall with the opening credits, which fade in and out slowly over a static shot of paved flooring being washed by soapy water that flows across it like waves on a shore — and that’s all we see, for several minutes. From there, much of the move unfurls in wide shots, with slow pans or no movement at all, inviting the viewer to search the frame for details and significance. Note that it’s not nominated for Best Editing…

Cleo the maid

At first it’s difficult to see the point of all this, which is where accusations of it being boring stem from. Nothing seems to be happening, just people going about their lives and jobs; a “slice of life” narrative taken to the extreme. What’s missing from that view is context, and as the film goes on we get that — looking back at earlier scenes with the knowledge of what happens later, it’s more possible to see what Cuarón was going for. For example, there are two scenes side-by-side which are barely notable in themselves and certainly have no immediate connection — the father of the family going away on a business trip, and Cleo going to the cinema with the guy she’s been seeing — but when you know what happens later, these scenes are clearly back-to-back for a reason, with a clear connection. One might say juxtaposed, but they’re less being contrasted, more mirrored. There’s quite a lot of that kind of subtle, often exclusively visual mirroring throughout the film — it’s no coincidence that opening shot looks like waves.

This is a film that rewards perseverance, then. It doesn’t work for everyone, but for some the way it slowly inducts us into this family’s life builds to great emotional payoffs come the events of the final act. After a whole lot of very little, it suddenly gets very dramatic and heart-wrenching. You’d have to be pretty cold not to feel anything for the characters given some of the things that transpire, but how much of a connection is developed between them and the viewer is, I think, very much a matter of personal experience. Based on online comments, some find the finale emotionally cathartic, and end up sobbing their heart out; others find Cleo’s silence to be distancing, making her true character and feelings inaccessible, and by turn neutering the film. I find myself sympathetic to both points of view. The film, and the characters, are certainly understated, but I don’t think they’re wholly shut off. Put another way, I wasn’t in tears by the end, but I felt I understood something of these people and their reactions to what had occurred.

Departures

One thing I wasn’t prepared for by anything else I’ve read about the film (which, admittedly, wasn’t much) was how much… slightly odd stuff there was. Not full-blown Lynchian weirdness, just things you don’t really expect to see. A surprising focus on dog shit, for example. A martial arts display with some very, er, jiggly full frontal male nudity. A Norwegian New Year’s Eve song performed in front of a blazing forest fire. Walls of pet dog’s heads mounted like hunting trophies in a macabre display of affection, but with the sheer disturbingness of that seeming to go uncommented on. Cuarón has said 90% of the movie comes from his own childhood memories, so I guess he had an interesting time of it…

At the very least, Roma is a technical masterpiece. Shot by Cuarón himself (because Chivo was unavailable), it looks thoroughly gorgeous — crisp, textured, always perfectly lit, be that by the nighttime glow of a city or misty morning air, with some shots that look like molten silver caressing the screen. Cuarón is the frontrunner for the cinematography Oscar, marking the first time it will have gone to a director lensing his own film (assuming he does win, of course), and it seems to be very much deserved (in fairness, I’ve not yet seen any of the other nominees to compare).

But while everyone talks about the photography, very few people seem to mention the immersive sound design, and I think that’s just as worthy of attention. Roma is also nominated tonight for Sound Mixing and Sound Editing, categories that are often dominated by blockbuster-type films due to their energetic soundscapes — its competitors include the likes of Black Panther, Bohemian Rhapsody, First Man, and (somewhat ironically) A Quiet Place. I doubt Roma will overcome their bombast, but in its own way it’s just as effective, generating a world around you with its enveloping audio. I guess this is partly the problem of it going direct to Netflix, though — most people who see the film will listen to it through TV speakers, or, at best, a stereo sound bar. However, it’s proof that surround sound isn’t just for action movies, and that it’s worth having a system in your home, if you can.

Journeys

On the whole, Roma exudes the feel of a quality piece of Art, with a capital ‘A’ — it’s beautiful to look at, slow and heavy and opaque in its storytelling, with (perhaps) some deep message about human experience that’s left for the viewer to discern. Is it the best picture of 2018? Well, I mean, if you like that kind of thing… Should it win tonight? That depends what you think the Oscars should be rewarding, I guess. It’s not an unworthy champion in an artistic sense, but is something else — something artistic in a different way, and also more accessible — even more deserving of being crowned The Best? That’s always the tug-of-war when it comes to Best Picture, I suppose. It’s certainly not my favourite movie from last year (and I wouldn’t necessarily expect it to make 2019’s list either), but I still admire much of it.

5 out of 5

The 91st Academy Awards are handed out this evening. In the UK, they’re on Sky Cinema Oscars from 12:30am, with highlights on Sky One tomorrow at 9pm.

Hereditary (2018)

2019 #19
Ari Aster | 127 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.00:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Hereditary

Unless I’m forgetting something, I think Hereditary was the most-discussed, most must-see horror movie of 2018, so if, like me, you’re only watching it now, you’re late to the party. Still, as with most horror films, the less you know the better for its effectiveness (not to mention there are so significant unexpected developments in the story, which even the marketing managed to hide for a change), so I’ll keep this review spoiler-free.

The film centres around a family living in a remote-looking part of Utah: mother Annie (Toni Collette), her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), her 16-year-old son Peter (Alex Wolff), and 13-year-old daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). After Annie’s sometimes-estranged mother dies, various family members begin to see and experience odd things, and… well, like I said, the less you know the better. Hereditary is the kind of horror movie that relies on the mood it builds up to unnerve you, so if you have too much of a head-start on the plot it’s like crippling the film’s ability to suck you in.

I do think it’s perhaps important to understand what kind of movie this is, though, because many of the negative reactions I’ve read seem to stem from misaligned expectations. Hereditary plays almost more like a family drama than a horror movie for a good while, albeit one with some scary moments and a general air of unease; of something about to go very wrong. You’ve likely heard how good Collette is in the film, how many people wanted her to get an Oscar nom, and this is really why. The storyline gives her a plausible character in a state of extreme emotional strain, and she plays this conflicted, broken woman with just the right balance of subtlety and explosive emotion. Credit, too, to the rest of the lead cast, who are more understated, but in a way that brings necessary balance. They may be less showy, but their contribution is vital. First-time writer-director Ari Aster has been hailed as a great new voice in horror filmmaking, but I’d wager if he went on to do straight dramas we’d be just as fortunate.

Toni Collette

As things go on, naturally the background creepiness increasingly edges into the foreground. There are even jump scares that got me, and I can’t remember the last time a horror movie managed to get me with a jump scare — and one of them was purely auditory. This movie made me begin to hate my surround sound system. If you watch with out one, you are losing some of the impact, frankly. But even worse than the jumps are the things you see coming, or gradually come to notice are there; the stuff you see but then have to wait for what’s going to happen. There are situations and images here that will haunt your memories after viewing. It’s this overall unsettling atmosphere that will keep you on the edge of your seat for much of the runtime; more like, say, The Shining than a blood-and-guts fairground ghost ride.

If there’s one place it missteps, it’s perhaps the final act. Some people have accused it of a tonal shift here, or even of being “goofy”. I agree that it spirals quite quickly from “family drama with a bit of the supernatural” to bringing everything to a head, and many of the most outright “horror” bits are in this final act, but it still kept me uncomfortably on edge. (I know I said I’d keep this spoiler free, but, fair warning, I’m going to allude to the ending now. Jump to the final paragraph to avoid all that.) The only time that tension dissipated was in the very last scene, which I don’t think was the intention — it’s not meant to come as a relief, but by finally answering some questions and putting some things out in the light, it kind of lets you come to terms with them. It’s also a little, for want of a better word, daft; or, as that other person said, goofy. Most of Hereditary is truly unsettling, even when it’s not being outright scary, so it’s kind of a shame it didn’t have a final moment that maintained that unease.

Milly Shapiro

I say it “answers some questions”, but it’s not an exposition-fest that explains everything that’s been going on. That may well lead you to start interrogating the plot afterwards to fill in some of the gaps, and I’m not sure it all hangs together. I’m all for films that leave audiences to use their imagination and intelligent thought to fill in holes themselves (and by “holes” I don’t mean “plot holes”, just things the film hasn’t explicitly explained), but when you start trying to plug gaps and find it doesn’t add up, maybe the film should’ve explained something more. Or maybe it’s a movie about the unknowable and so, of course, we can’t know it all. An individual’s own taste will vary on how much this matters: some people won’t spend any time turning the story over after the film ends, in which case it’s conclusive enough as it is; others can write it off as, as I said, the unknowableness of the supernatural; others still might find the apparent gaps undermine the whole experience. I sit somewhere between the latter two stools, because I don’t think you notice the gaps until you begin to think back over the logic of what must’ve occurred, and I don’t think the lingering questions retrospectively undermine the potency of the movie-watching experience, but it is a shame it doesn’t seem to all add up.

It’s these questions that were going to hold me back from giving Hereditary full marks, but I’m not sure that’s fair. Sometimes the journey is more important than the destination. Even then Hereditary’s destination isn’t bad, it’s just not perfect. And the journey to get there… As a horror movie, it’s one of the most genuinely unsettling I’ve seen for some time, with imagery that makes my hair stand on end just remembering it. It’s all the more effective for the way it grounds itself in real-life tragedy, with a powerhouse performance from Collette that, yes, if it were in a straightforward indie drama would surely be a frontrunner this awards season.

5 out of 5

Hereditary is available on Amazon Prime Video in the UK from today.

Zatoichi Challenged (1967)

aka Zatôichi chikemurikaidô

2019 #10
Kenji Misumi | 87 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Zatoichi Challenged

The seventeenth film in the Zatoichi series is rated the second best according to IMDb users. As with so many opinions, that’s not one shared by Letterboxd users (who’ve placed it 15th), and it’s not shared by me, either. While I wouldn’t call it bad (every Zatoichi film has things to commend it, even the de facto worst), it’s definitely towards the lower end of my ranking.

The basic plot is a semi-rehash of one of the series’ crowning glories, Fight, Zatoichi, Fight, with Ichi (Shintaro Katsu) agreeing to reunite a young boy with this father after the child’s mother dies. They first fall in with a group of travelling performers, which seems to be an excuse to squeeze in an incongruous ’60s pop song and a bit of a love interest for Ichi. After wasting half-an-hour on that, Ichi and the kid rock up in the town where the dad, Shokichi (Takao Ito), is being held captive by a gang of… pottery makers. It’s slightly more exciting than it sounds, because their scheme is all about making plates and jugs featuring erotic imagery, which was illegal at the time, and Shokichi is a skilled artist. Now, of course, Ichi must free him to unite him with his son. Along the way, Ichi strikes up a respectful acquaintance with a travelling ronin, Tajuro Akazuka (Jûshirô Konoe), which you know isn’t going to end well because, well, that’s how these films always go.

Zatoichi and son... just not his son

There’s nothing particularly wrong with being a formulaic Zatoichi film — many of them are, and I enjoy them just the same — but here it all feels rather slow and uneventful. The stuff with the travelling performers is a dead end, a total aside from the main story; and that plot, such as it is, just never catches light. The final 25 minutes are fairly action-packed at least, both in terms of fighting and with the plot finally getting somewhere; but it also makes you realise how much time has been wasted going nowhere — the villains are little more than introduced before it’s time for Ichi to cut them down. It doesn’t help anything that the kid’s annoying. He comes to care for Ichi, but Ichi doesn’t really seem to care for him that much, meaning their relationship lacks the emotional resonance found in Fight, Zatoichi, Fight.

The one part of the film that does work is Akazuka. As I alluded to before, it’s a story arc that’s played out in many Zatoichi films before (and I’m sure it’ll come up again), but Zatoichi Challenged executes it as well as any. At first it just seems like Akazuka is a wanderer who Ichi happens to keep bumping into, including a memorable encounter where Akazuka attempts to overpay for a massage, but honourable Ichi refuses his charity. Eventually, of course, it turns out he has a secret mission which is at odds with Ichi’s own goals and values, and so, inevitably, they must duel. Their climactic confrontation is by far the best bit of the film. It’s a battle of words at first, as Ichi pleads with Akazuka to be reasonable and have mercy. He won’t, of course, and so a sword fight ensues. It doesn’t pan out how you might expect. The whole sequence is beautifully shot through falling snow by cinematographer Chikashi Makiura (quite why it’s suddenly snowing I’ve no idea, but it looks good). It’s an absolutely fantastic sequence; one of the series’ very best duels.

Snow fight

The finale aside, perhaps the most interesting thing about Zatoichi Challenged (certainly the most uncommon) is that it was remade in America, forming the basis for 1989 actioner Blind Fury, starring Rutger Hauer and directed by Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games, The Bone Collector, Salt, et al). I’ve not seen it, but other reviewers describe it as “a total turd that captures none of the charm and humanity of Zatoichi” (Lard Biscuit Enterprises), noting that it “begs the viewer to overlook too much that is idiotic [about a blind swordsman], whereas the original convinces the viewer it isn’t idiotic at all” (Weird Wild Realm). Suffice to say… I’ll still watch it someday.

Quite why this Zatoichi film in particular was tapped for a US remake, goodness only knows. It’s a kinda boring Ichi adventure on the whole, with a thin, recycled plot and a first half-hour that’s almost a total aside from the actual story. It’s saved by the climax, one of the best sequences in any Zatoichi film, which single-handedly makes the movie worth a watch.

3 out of 5

High Flying Bird (2019)

2019 #14
Steven Soderbergh | 90 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15

High Flying Bird

Steven Soderbergh’s ‘retirement’ continues with another shot-on-iPhone movie (following last year’s psychological thriller Unsane), this time going direct to Netflix. Whereas Unsane made a virtue of its iPhone cinematography to heighten a disquieting, untrustworthy atmosphere, High Flying Bird forges ahead with no such baked-in excuse for its visual quality. However, similarly to Unsane, the fact it was shot on an iPhone is almost incidental, noteworthy mainly just because it’s unusual. But more on that later.

The movie is about Ray (André Holland), a basketball agent struggling to keep his players in check during a lockout… and already you’ve lost me, movie: I had to look up what a lockout is. I’m not much of a sports person, and I’m pretty sure we don’t have lockouts in British sports. Basically, best I can tell, it’s some kind of disagreement between the players (through their union) and the team owners, which results in games not being played when they should be, and people not being paid because nothing’s happening. So, it’s a bad thing, and it’s putting Ray in a bad situation — so he sets about trying to launch an “intriguing and controversial business opportunity”, to quote an IMDb plot summary.

Something like that, anyway. Frankly, it took less than two minutes for High Flying Bird to leave me feeling lost and confused, as it dives into an “inside baseball” (as the saying goes) depiction of basketball right from the off. It felt like watching a French movie without subtitles, except here the language isn’t French, it’s basketball. In fairness, I did eventually get a handle on what the overall plot was, but mostly with hindsight and not ’til quite far in — my analogy still stands for what the viewing experience was like until that point.

Lost and confused

For fans of basketball, or at least those with some kind of knowledge of the workings of the business side of American sport, it might all be more palatable. I think there’s some good stuff in the plot and characters, but I can only say “think” because I made such a lousy fist of following what was meant to be going on half the time. The story culminates in a final twist/reveal about Ray’s actual plan. Fortunately, by that point I’d worked out (more or less) what events had happened, so I followed it — indeed, I got there ahead of it. Well, that’s because before viewing I read a comment which implied this was a heist movie (like Soderbergh’s previous work on the Oceans films or Logan Lucky), so I’d already been on the lookout for what the real con was. Nonetheless, I’m torn between whether the reveal was quite clever, or the film thinks it’s cleverer than it actually is. If I hadn’t had that heads up, maybe I would’ve been as mind-blowingly impressed as Ray’s boss seems to be when Ray reveals the real plan to him. Or maybe I wouldn’t’ve, who can say.

Unsane suggested you couldn’t make a good-looking film on an iPhone. High Flying Bird says, actually, you can. It doesn’t all look great (especially when, for example, the shot literally wobbles from something as simple as someone putting a drinks bottle down on a table), but there are some beautiful shots in here too. Unsane almost had to make a virtue of its odd look, the weirdass visuals chiming with the story of a possibly unstable mind. High Flying Bird has no such excuses, and most of the time it doesn’t need them; though some parts do still look like a first-effort student film, which is very odd coming from a director as experienced as Soderbergh (this is the 56-year-old’s 29th feature, not to mention his 39 episodes of TV).

Looking to the future

While researching the film’s production I came across this interesting article at The Ringer, which uses High Flying Bird as a jumping off point to examine the history, increase, and future of using iPhones for professional projects. It basically contends that phone-shot films are the future for everything, and makes that sound reasonable. It’s reminiscent of the emergence of digital photography for movies: it was a big story back when Soderbergh shot Che with digital cameras (Criterion’s Blu-ray release has a half-hour documentary dedicated to it), but it was only a couple of years later that became standard for all major movies, and a few years after that it’s now noteworthy when something is actually shot on film. It seems inconceivable that one day they’ll be shooting an Avengers movie on a phone, but then it once seemed inconceivable you’d shoot a movie that big on digital video…

It’s quite hard for me to give a concise opinion of High Flying Bird. I struggled through much of it, which made for an unpleasant viewing experience. But I acknowledge some of that lies with me knowing less about basketball than the film does. But then again, is it the film’s responsibility to explain to me the things I don’t know? I did get a handle on events by the end, and if I watched the film again I expect I’d follow it better, but I also don’t feel there’s much luring me back for a second viewing.

3 out of 5

High Flying Bird is available on Netflix now.

Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

2018 #42
Spike Jonze | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA, Germany & Australia / English | PG / PG

Where the Wild Things Are

Lonely and over-imaginative child Max (Max Records) runs away from home one night, finds a small boat at the edge of a pond, which becomes an ocean as he sails across it, and winds up on a remote island. There he encounters a group of maladjusted and mostly unlikeable large monster-like creatures, the Wild Things, and ends up having to deal with their tumultuous interpersonal relationships. But it’s a fun kids’ movie, honest!

Except it isn’t. Not really. Despite being adapted from a kids’ picture book, and resolutely rated PG, it didn’t strike me as a kids’ movie at all. It’s glum, depressing, and surely only understandable when filtered through an adult perspective. By which I mean, the film depicts a child’s imaginary adventure, and if you take it as just that it’s no fun whatsoever. Give it an adult reading and I think the adventure actually reveals Max’s subconscious, with the monsters being an externalisation of his personal issues… I guess. I mean, I’m not sure what personifying his issues achieves, or what the film is saying with them.

If I felt it came to some kind of interesting point by the ending, maybe I’d be more on board with it. But Max basically decides he’s had enough of the monsters (he certainly doesn’t seem to solve all their problems) and heads home. I guess he’s realised his home life isn’t so bad after all, but… well, is that it? In the course of one night (which he’s imagined is a longer stretch of time, but still, one night), the kid’s had a complete change of personality and heart? I don’t buy it.

Mournful monsters

Apparently director Spike Jonze has said he intended “to make a movie about childhood” rather than a literal children’s movie, so it would seem my interpretation isn’t too wide of the mark. I’m not sure he told the Warner Bros executives that, though, because they were reportedly so unhappy when they saw Jonze’s initial final cut that they considered reshooting the entire movie — which, with its $75 million price tag, wouldn’t’ve been a small ask. In the end they pushed the release back almost 18 months, giving Jonze more time and money to make a movie that satisfied both himself and the studio; though even after that they still spent 70% of the promotional budget targeting adult viewers, advising parents to “exercise their own discretion”.

Maybe it was that compromise that kicked the meaning out of the film. Maybe it was never there. Maybe I missed something. On the bright side, technical merits are strong: Lance Acord’s cinematography is beautifully golden, and the monster effects (a mix of Jim Henson-made suits and CGI, which replaced animatronic heads that weighed too much) look perfect. But that’s not enough to save a thin and tedious story.

2 out of 5

The Ragtag Review Roundup

My review backlog has got a bit silly: there are currently 128 unposted reviews on it, dating back to stuff I watched in January 2018. I was hoping to really get stuck into that as 2019 began, but I’ve been busier than expected. Anyway, I’ll keep trying — and here’s a start, with a real mixed back of films that have basically nothing in common.

In today’s roundup:

  • American Psycho (2000)
  • Logan Lucky (2017)
  • A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
  • The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)


    American Psycho
    (2000)

    2018 #66
    Mary Harron | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & Canada / English | 18 / R

    American Psycho

    The film that made Christian Bale’s name sees him play Patrick Bateman, a high-flying New York banker with psychopathic tendencies — well, that just sounds like all those Wall Street types, right? Except hopefully they’re not actually engaging in literal killing sprees, unlike Bateman.

    While the murdering stuff may look like the draw, American Psycho is more interesting as an examination of the corporate mentality. It manages to be remarkably insightful, satirical, and terrifying all at once. Take the scene where they compare business cards, for instance: it’s ridiculous how much interest and importance these guys are placing in little cardboard rectangles with their name and number on, and yet you can believe such business-wankers would care about it. The anger Bateman feels when other people’s cards are considered classier than his is palpable.

    It’s a great performance by Bale across the board — so well judged, despite being barmy. It’s also interesting to observe the links between this and his version of Bruce Wayne, which is a wholly appropriately connection. I mean, who’s more of an American psycho than a guy who spends his days pretending to be a playboy businessman and his nights dressing up as a bat to beat up bad guys? I’m sure someone must’ve already developed a theory / amusing trailer mashup connecting the two films…

    The only thing that really let the film down for me was its final act. No detailed spoilers, but while I thought the rest of the film was engagingly made, the ultimate lack of resolution felt empty. To me, it seemed like it didn’t know how to end.

    4 out of 5

    Logan Lucky
    (2017)

    2018 #65
    Steven Soderbergh | 119 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Logan Lucky

    Two brothers, whose family has a historical proclivity for bad luck, decide to rob one of the US’s largest sporting venues, the Charlotte Motor Speedway, during one of its quieter events. But when the situation changes, they end up having to pull the job off during the biggest race of the year.

    Director Steven Soderbergh’s return to the heist genre a decade after Ocean’s Thirteen is something to be noted; and while Logan Lucky is a very different kind of heist movie (there’s none of that trilogy’s Hollywood glamour to be found here), it’s a more successfully entertaining movie than either of the Ocean’s sequels.

    Like them, it’s not terribly serious, instead ticking along as generally quite good fun — though there’s a scene with Take Me Home, Country Roads that’s quite affecting. Between this and Kingsman 2, I’m left to wonder how that wound up becoming just about the most emotional song ever recorded…

    Anyway, the showpiece heist is clever, in its own way, and rolls around sooner than I expected — it’s funny to read some people criticise how long it takes to get to, because I assumed it would be Act Three. Instead, the film constructs a post-heist third act that was the only time it really got too slow for me, though it does eventually reveal a purpose that was kinda worth the wait. That said, the whole thing might benefit from being a little bit tighter and shorter — ten minutes trimmed across the pre- and post-heist acts might make it zing just that bit more.

    4 out of 5

    A Nightmare on Elm Street
    (1984)

    2018 #71
    Wes Craven | 87 mins | TV (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 18 / R

    A Nightmare on Elm Street

    It may be regarded as a horror classic, but I have to admit that I found A Nightmare on Elm Street to be a crushing disappointment. To me, it seemed to be a pretty poor movie (all weak: the acting, the dialogue, the music, the timescale events supposedly occur in) with some fantastic imagery. Director Wes Craven was a master, of course, and he manages to construct some truly great shots and moments amid a dirge of mediocrity. There’s a lot of nonsensical stuff too. I guess “dream logic” is meant to excuse it, but… eh.

    I do really like that poster, though.

    3 out of 5

    The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
    (1948)

    2018 #6
    John Huston | 121 mins | TV (HD) | 4:3 | USA / English | PG

    The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

    Set in the mid ’20s, two American drifters in Mexico (Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt) team up with an old and experienced prospector (Walter Huston, director John Huston’s father) to hunt for gold in them thar hills. Along the way they have to contend with rival prospectors, violent bandits, and — most dangerous of all — their own suspicions and greed.

    The Treasure of the Sierra Madre blends genres like there’s no tomorrow: it’s been described as a plain drama, an adventure movie, a neo-western, it’s included on film noir lists… Of course, depending which angle you look at it, it’s all of the above. It’s both an exciting adventure movie and a character-centric exploration of the effects of greed. In depicting that, Bogart’s performance is excellent, though Huston Sr threatens to steal the show. Poor Tim Holt is overshadowed by them both, even though he gives a likeable turn.

    5 out of 5

  • Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)

    2019 #11
    Dan Gilroy | 112 mins | streaming (UHD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Velvet Buzzsaw

    The team behind neo-noir modern classic Nightcrawler (writer-director Dan Gilroy, stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo, cinematographer Robert Elswit, among others) reunite for this direct-to-Netflix genre mash-up — it’s part art-world satire, part mystery-thriller, part horror. The Verge described it as “Robert Altman’s Final Destination”, and that so succinctly articulates what the film reminded me of that I decided to just lift it. Well, just pilfering someone else’s work is in-keeping with the film’s themes, at least.

    Set in the world of high art, it stars Gyllenhaal as all-powerful critic Morf Vandewalt, whose reviews can make or break sales worth millions of dollars, plus the careers that go along with that. One person his tastes always align with is prominent dealer Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), whose assistant Josephina (Zawe Ashton) is falling out of favour due to relationship woes. But when her reclusive neighbour dies, she finds his apartment full of striking and original artwork, which she promptly steals. Mort is bowled over by their quality, Rhodora muscles in on the sales, and soon the deceased artist is a sensation. But there’s more to his disturbing work than meets the eye, and soon people start dying…

    So far so Final Destination, but not very Robert Altman, I know. The latter comes more in the execution than the subject matter, in particular that this is really an ensemble piece — the marketing pitched Gyllenhaal as the lead, I guess because he’s the biggest and most marketable name, but Ashton’s role is at least as large and central, if not more so, for example. Plus, as well as those two and Russo that I’ve already mentioned, there are significant roles for Toni Collette (as an art buyer for a museum), John Malkovich (as an uninspired elder-statesman artist), Natalia Dyer (as an intern struggling to break in), Billy Magnussen (as a handyman who wants to be an artist), Tom Sturridge (as a rival dealer), and Daveed Diggs (as an up-and-coming artist everyone wants to sign). Before the thriller and horror elements come into play, this spread of characters makes the film seems much more like a portrait of the art world from multiple different perspectives.

    Critique is so limiting and emotionally draining

    Gilroy has specifically cited Altman’s Hollywood satire The Player as an influence on how he approached things. By complete coincidence, I watched The Player just a few days before this, and so that similarity was very clear to me. That said, Gilroy’s lack of experience relative to Altman perhaps shows through. Where The Player was very pointed and effective in its satire, Velvet Buzzsaw takes more of a vague, scattershot view of the contemporary art scene. Gilroy does have a specific theme in mind — specifically, the disjunct between art and commerce, and their negative effects on each other — which manifests in various ways (it’s part of the film’s horrors as well as its satire), but that seems slightly disconnected from the Altman-esque “different perspectives” approach. Having so many key characters does lend a slightly different feel from what you might expect, but it doesn’t lead to the same kind of forensic dissection that Altman was capable of.

    It’s just one aspect of the film that seems somewhat muddled. It’s not fatally flawed, but there are things about it here and there that just don’t seem to add up. It’s almost as if scenes had been arbitrarily removed; not ones that particularly affect the plot, but maybe ones that affect the details. For example, at one point Mort exclaims that he’s been seeing strange things recently, but the only evidence we’ve seen of that came with the thing that prompted his exclamation. These kind of vague, not-quite-right bits pop up now and then. You’d almost wonder if it had something to do with the film’s horror side, like it was trying to be disquieting, but it doesn’t correlate or connect up to the actual horror bits.

    About to connect with the film's horror bits

    And yet, despite that, it’s so good in places. In particular, it looks gorgeous, especially in UHD. That’s how Elswit has shot it, of course, but also some of the striking visual ideas Gilroy throws into the mix. His screenplay definitely has its moments also. One of Mort’s first reactions to the startling work Josephina has unearthed is that “critique is so limiting and emotionally draining,” which is just begging to be quoted in reviews. That line was in the trailer, so it’s already threatened to take on a life of its own outside the film, but it’s certainly not the only meme-in-waiting that’s thrown up. “The admiration I had for your work has completely evaporated” is another choice example. Heck, about half the rest of the dialogue is as well, never mind some reaction shots.

    Sometimes, star ratings really aren’t nuanced enough to represent one’s reaction to a film. There are bits of Velvet Buzzsaw I adored — performances, scenes, individual lines, the cinematography — at a level normally found in a five-star film. But there are other things it fumbles, like the way the story sometimes jumps as if scenes have been deleted, or the way it doesn’t seem to have an answer for some of its mysteries, or the way the trailer spoilt pretty much everything (not a fault of the film itself, I know, but still a grievance). Some of those err down towards a three-star experience. It’s quite frustrating in that respect. Overall, there’s enough I liked that I’m going to give it a four, albeit a cautious one.

    4 out of 5

    Velvet Buzzsaw is available on Netflix now.

    Zatoichi the Outlaw (1967)

    aka Zatôichi rôyaburi

    2018 #257
    Satsuo Yamamoto | 95 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15

    Zatoichi the Outlaw

    The sixteenth Zatoichi movie begins by boldly declaring it’s “the first feature by Katsu Productions”, the production company of series star Shintaro Katsu. While the change isn’t radical — this is still the Zatoichi we know and love — there does seem to be a different style and tone about this particular instalment.

    It all starts as a pretty regular tale: wandering into a new town, Ichi finds himself accidentally drawn into a feud between two neighbouring gangs, one run by the usual unscrupulous and vicious boss, the other by a kind-hearted and socially conscious chap. But even more moral than him is a ronin, Shusui Ohara (Mizuho Suzuki), who’s renounced violence and is preaching to the local farmers about the evils of the yakuza way of life. He challenges Ichi’s sword-based moral code, which is fertile ground for the series — Ichi is often questioning his own actions, after all. Ohara suggests there might be another way, but Ichi isn’t convinced — sometimes violence is necessary to help, he believes, and that goodly boss proves that the yakuza way can work for the people.

    Anyway, at the risk of spoiling things, that plot comes to a head in the usual fashion… but before the halfway mark. Via a montage (something I’m not sure we’ve seen in a Zatoichi film before, and it’s not the only one in this movie either), it’s a year later, and Ichi’s somewhere else in the world living a different life, only to receive news of trouble back in that earlier town. Naturally, he heads back to sort it out. It’s an effectively wrong-footing structure: the film wraps up more-or-less the usual Zatoichi movie within its first 40 minutes, then jumps ahead to show the long-term fallout of Ichi’s actions. It’s not the first time the series has touched on the fallout of all Ichi’s good intentions, but it’s the first time it’s been done so explicitly and succinctly.

    Hot stuff

    It’s not just structurally different to the norm, though. This is a particularly brutal film, with dismembered limbs, attempted rape, torturous beatings, punishment by hot wax, women being forced into prostitution, multiple suicides, a graphic beheading…! There’s a crudeness to situations and dialogue too, with Ohara giving a lecture about how the yakuza are “shits and farts”, and an extended (and unwelcome) comedy interlude when Ichi lives with a bunch of bawdy and lascivious fellow masseurs. This is one of the few Zatoichi films rated by the BBFC (due to it being released in a DVD box set in the early ’00s — Criterion don’t seem to have bothered to get them certified for their recent set, which is perhaps why it isn’t available from major retailers anymore), and I don’t know what the other films would be classified as, but this easily earns its 15.

    This is also the most political movie in the series, something you’ll see regularly noted in reviews because it’s rather hard to miss — after all, Ohara is effectively trying to unionise the farmers against the bosses. Director Satsuo Yamamoto was a left-wing political activist, known for his films that engaged with such subjects, and also real-life protests that had seen him fired from Toho in their “red purge” of 1948. Hat-tip to Weird Wild Realm for that detail; that review also includes more analysis of this film’s politics and the way they impact — or don’t — Ichi and the viewer. By which I mean, the film makes a point of contrasting the perspectives of Ichi and Ohara, and the way events unfold suggest the ronin’s ideals of pacifism and reform may well be correct… but that wouldn’t do future Ichi adventures any good, so of course he maintains his violent ways.

    Violent delights have violent ends

    And of course we still enjoy it. Indeed, the final fight is a stunner — well, they almost always are, but this is certainly another for those burgeoning ranks. Initially taking place in torrential rain, it’s a muddy and bloody scramble, including a great shot of Ichi unrelentingly coming for his foe, even as he’s pelted with rocks, blood dripping down his face (see this post’s header image). And that’s not even the end, because the peasants pick up an injured Ichi and, in a dramatically-scored sequence, carry him down backroads to intercept the caravan transporting the captured Ohara, who Ichi rescues in another flurry of swordplay. Even as the film seems to preach against violence, it revels in it. Parse that how you will.

    There were a lot of bits I didn’t like along the way in Zatoichi the Outlaw (that comedy interlude is a real mood-killer), and I can see why some fans think it gets too dark for a Zatoichi movie (it’s not just the events themselves, but the bleak atmosphere they create), but I admired its commitment to being a bit different. In a long-running series, films that challenge the norm are to be welcomed.

    4 out of 5

    Glass (2019)

    2019 #7
    M. Night Shyamalan | 129 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / PG-13

    Glass

    About 18 years ago, I first watched Unbreakable on DVD. It was the new film from M. Night Shyamalan — a name no one knew a year or two earlier, but the huge success of The Sixth Sense had somehow catapulted him to the top of the zeitgeist, where he was talked about as the new Hitchcock or Spielberg. Maybe no one could spell or pronounce it (I remember a lot of “Shamalamadingdong”s), but for some reason this wasn’t just “The New Film from the Guy Who Directed The Sixth Sense“, it was “The New Film from M. Night Shyamalan”. Anyway, it had met a mixed reception, but for some people it worked, and I joined their ranks. From there, it seems to have developed something of a cult following — it has many ardent fans, but others still don’t get it.

    In interviews, Shyamalan mentioned that Unbreakable’s plot had originally been just the first act of the film, until he decided to expand it to the whole movie, and so he had ideas that acts two and three might become two further movies and form a trilogy. There began a long wait for the film’s fans, ever hoping that one day Shyamalan — whose reputation went steadily and increasingly downhill with every film he made from that point — would come back round and continue what he’d started. I can’t speak for everyone, obviously, but I’d begun to give up hope: in December 2016, I added Unbreakable to my 100 Favourites series, and in that post I wrote, “16 years on, I guess hopes of a continuation are long dead.”

    Six-and-a-half weeks later, Split was released. You probably know the rest.

    Mr Glass, the Horde, and the Overseer

    …but in case you don’t: Split was a stealth sequel to Unbreakable, only revealed in its very last scene when Bruce Willis suddenly appeared and name-checked Samuel L. Jackson’s character. I say “only” revealed — I found out on Twitter, the first day after the film went on general release. Damn you, internet! But anyway, the point is: suddenly the hope was back alive. And it was confirmed to be so shortly afterwards, when Shyamalan announced that a sequel to Unbreakable and Split had been officially greenlit.

    Now, I’ve devoted a massive chunk of this review to that history lesson for one reason: to make it clear just how much I was anticipating this movie. I’m certainly not alone in that; but if you’re not someone who saw Unbreakable almost two decades ago and have been hoping for a sequel ever since, I hope the last few paragraphs gave you some perspective of how those of us who did feel about Glass finally being here. This is my most anticipated superhero movie in a year that also includes an Avengers that will tackle the fallout from a humungous cliffhanger, a new X-Men (a series I also love), a new Spider-Man (which I think looks great), and more (the most superhero movies in one year ever, apparently). So, for some of us, this has a lot of expectation to live up to.

    And I think expectations — whether they come from the previous films, the trailers, critics’ reviews, or what have you — are going to have a big effect on people’s reaction to Glass. Expecting a Marvel-style superhero throw-down? It was never going to be that, you fool. Don’t like movies where most confrontations come through dialogue? Okay, but did you actually watch Unbreakable and Split? (Those are both criticisms I feel I’ve seen in other reviews I’ve read.) Want to see Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson face off again in a film that’s fundamentally Unbreakable 2? That’s not an unreasonable hope, but Glass is as much a sequel to Split as it is to Unbreakable, perhaps even more so. Certainly in tone, Glass has more in common with the slightly-pulpy, almost-B-movie style of Split than it does with the quiet, characterful mode Unbreakable operated in. That first film was a Drama, all about believable people coping with their personal issues, whereas the two follow-ups are much more genre movies. That said, they’re still genre movies that have been filtered through the unique mindset of this particular writer-director — don’t expect a great deal of easy satisfaction here.

    Confounded?

    Do expect twists. Of course there are twists — it’s a Shyamalan movie! Indeed, it’s almost the most Shyamalany of Shyamalan movies, because Glass has more than one surprise reveal to pull out during its final stretch. Some are almost obvious, especially if you’re aware of fan theories from the previous films. Some are entertaining, the kind of rug-pulls you’d expect in the last act of a movie whose villain is a genius. Some are… more startling. Some people will appreciate the boldness; others will feel it undermines what came before, or what they wanted to see here. I don’t think anything is an outright “that doesn’t make sense” betrayal of the world Shyamalan has created in this trilogy, but some people will be displeased about the directions he chooses to go.

    Talking of which, one of the big complaints I’ve read (and, fair warning, kinda-spoilers follow for the rest of this paragraph) is that the middle of the film wastes time trying to convince us these characters’ powers aren’t real, when we’ve already seen that they are. I think that’s a somewhat unfair criticism; one that comes from not properly investing in what we’re watching. Dr Staple is trying to convince the characters of reality, that they can’t have powers; and, as I saw it, the point of those scenes is to make us doubt it too. Yes, we’ve seen them do extraordinary things, but as Dr Staple lays out, can those things not just be explained by science and/or personal delusion? They’ve shown special skills, but are they really superhuman abilities? Several characters are swayed by her argument… so was I, to a point… except then I remembered the critics who’d said this was “a waste of time”, and therefore I guessed Shyamalan couldn’t be building to a reveal that these characters didn’t have powers after all, because if he were then it wouldn’t be a waste of time. So thanks for that, whichever Negative Nelly’s review I read that spoiled it.

    Is Dr Staple stable?

    As Dr Staple, Sarah Paulson is the main new addition to the cast for this finale. Her character’s a bit of a blank slate — we don’t really get to know her, why she’s doing this job, why she believes their powers can’t be real (other than the sheer implausibility of it, anyway). She exists to challenge the leads and their beliefs, not really to be a character herself. Or is that blankness just a facade, and that’s its point? I’ll say no more both out of an awareness of spoilers and because I’m not sure myself. It’ll be interesting to rewatch the film and see what, if anything, else presents itself about her on a closer rewatch.

    Despite having the title role, Samuel L. Jackson is mainly reserved for the third act, but when he comes to life he revels in the part so much that I didn’t mind having to wait. James McAvoy gets to show off like he did in Split, only this time with an even greater number of distinct personalities. Some people think he’s overacting; I think it’s impressive. Split was more of a showcase for his skill, because here he has to share screen time with so much else that’s going on, but Shyamalan helps him out by actually giving different alters their own separate character arcs. In places that’s done quite subtly, so I think some might miss just how much McAvoy has to do.

    While McAvoy gets to negotiate multiple arcs, the last of the three headliners, Bruce Willis, barely has one. Some have said he phones in his performance here, but I think that’s unfair. Shyamalan hasn’t actually given him that much to work with, which is a shame — some people will feel like they’ve waited almost two decades to get more of David Dunn and been shortchanged. Well, David was always a quiet, introspective character anyway, so in some respects it’s fitting. In the two or three scenes where he was allowed to really do something, I felt like Willis had recaptured the part.

    (Anya Taylor-)Joy to the world

    It’s not just those four who have a significant role to play, either. For me, Anya Taylor-Joy actually has one of the film’s best parts, and gives one of its best performances. Here, again, is where Glass is at least as much a sequel to Split as to Unbreakable, in the way it devotes time to the development of her character and to her relationship with McAvoy’s. Also returning is Spencer Treat Clark as Joseph, David’s son. I wasn’t sure if this was a case of managing to lure back a child actor who’d drifted off, or if the guy had continued to work since. Well, having IMDb’d him, it turns out he’s been working virtually nonstop since Unbreakable, but it just happens I haven’t seen anything he’s been in (well, except he was in one episode of Mad Men, apparently). His is a somewhat less complex supporting role, but he’s particularly good at conveying Joseph’s thoughts in a few key dialogue-less moments.

    But the biggest returnee of all is behind the camera: writer-director M. Night Shyamalan. (Who is also in front of the camera, actually, with a cameo that exists largely to reconcile his cameos in the two previous films. It’s an amusing bit of fan service.) Shyamalan has, I think, always been a good director. He shows a good eye for strong and rich visuals, be they simple face-on close-ups or more innovative shot choices, but without being needlessly flashy. The film incorporates flashbacks using deleted scenes from Unbreakable, which at least one reviewer took to prove Shyamalan has deteriorated as a director in the past 20 years, but I thought they integrated seamlessly. His weakness has always been more as a writer, and your mileage will vary on how much that’s a problem here — as I discussed earlier, it’s quite a talky film, with the characters confined to a limited set of locations, and that likely won’t please some viewers. There’s also some thuddingly terrible dialogue (you may’ve read about the “showdown” line), but he’s been responsible for worse.

    Mastermind

    Reading other reviews and audience reactions, it’s clear that Glass is going to be divisive to some degree. In some ways to seems to deliberately confound expectations, which will frustrate some viewers even as it delights others. It’s not interested in being a typical comic book movie, or even really in deconstructing the genre, another thing I think some viewers were expecting it to do. Instead, comic books are a launchpad for its own mythology, and Shyamalan’s own ideas about what’s important from them. In that respect it’s very much his movie, and I think that’s a good thing. It’s not a stone-cold classic like Unbreakable — it lacks the subtle feel for real-life human emotion that makes that film so powerful — but I enjoyed it a lot. I’d certainly rather have something that tries to be fresh, to do something different, to push at boundaries, than an attempt at empty repetition for the sake of easy results.

    4 out of 5

    Glass is in cinemas now.