The 100-Week Roundup

Regular readers may be aware that for a while now I’ve been struggling with what to do about my increasingly ludicrous review backlog. It continues to grow and grow — it’s now reached a whopping 215 unreviewed films! (And to think I started that page because I was 10 reviews behind…) Realistically, there’s no way I’m ever going to catch that up just by posting normal reviews, especially given the rate I get them out nowadays. But since this blog began I’ve reviewed every new film I watched — I don’t want to break that streak.

So, I’ve come up with something of a solution — and kept it broadly within the theming of the blog, to boot.

The 100-Week Roundup will cover films I still haven’t reviewed 100 weeks after watching them. Most of the time that’ll be in the form of quick thoughts, perhaps even copy-and-pasting the notes I made while viewing, rather than ‘proper’ reviews. Today’s are a bit more review-like, but relatively light on worthwhile analytical content, which I think is another reason films might end up here. Also, the posts won’t be slavishly precise in their 100-week-ness. Instead, I’ll ensure there are at least a couple of films covered in each roundup (it wouldn’t be a “roundup” otherwise). Mainly, the point is to give me a cutoff to get a review done — if I want to avoid a film being swept up into a roundup, I’ve got 100 weeks to review it. (Lest we forget, 100 weeks is almost two years. A more-than-generous allowance.)

I think it’s going to start slow (this first edition covers everything I haven’t reviewed from April 2018, which totals just two films), but in years to come I wouldn’t be surprised if these roundups become more frequent and/or busier. But, for now, those two from almost two years ago…


Das Boot
The Director’s Cut
(1981/1997)

2018 #69
Wolfgang Petersen | 208 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | Germany & USA / German & English | 15 / R

Das Boot: The Director's Cut

Writer-director Wolfgang Petersen’s story of a German submarine in World War 2 may have an intimate and confined setting, but in every other sense it is an epic — not least in length: The Director’s Cut version runs almost three-and-a-half hours. However, the pace is excellently managed. The length is mainly used for tension — quietly waiting to see if the enemy will get them this time. It’s also spent getting to know some of the crew, and the style of life aboard the sub. It means the film paints an all-round picture of both life and combat in that situation. The only time I felt it dragged was in an extended sequence towards the end. I guess the long, slow shots of nothing happening are meant to evoke time passing and an increasing sense of hopelessness, but I didn’t feel that, I just felt bored. Still, while I can conceive of cutting maybe 10 or 20 minutes and the film being just as effective, being a full hour shorter — as the theatrical cut is — must’ve lost a lot of great stuff.

It’s incredibly shot by DP Jost Vacano. The sets are tiny, which feels realistic and claustrophobic, but nonetheless they pull off long takes with complex camera moves. Remarkable. Even more striking is the sound design. It has one of the most powerful and convincing surround sound mixes I’ve experienced, really placing you in the boat as it creaks and drips all around you. The music by composer Klaus Doldinger is also often effective. It does sound kinda dated at times — ’80s electronica — but mostly I liked it.

Versions
Das Boot exists in quite a few different cuts, although The Director’s Cut is the only one currently available on Blu-ray in the UK. If you’re interested in all the different versions, it’s quite a minefield — there are two different TV miniseries versions (a three-part BBC one and a six-part German one), in addition to what’s been released as “The Original Uncut Version”, as well as both of the movie edits. There’s a lengthy comparison of The Director’s Cut and the German TV version here, which lists 75 minutes of major differences and a further 8 minutes of just tightening up. Plus, the TV version also has Lt. Werner’s thoughts in voiceover, which are entirely missing from The Director’s Cut. That means this version “has a lack of information and atmosphere”, according to the author of the comparison.

Das salute

As to the creation of The Director’s Cut, the Blu-ray contains a whole featurette about it called The Perfect Boat. In it, Petersen explains that he thought the TV version was too long, but that there was a good version to be had between it and the theatrical cut. It was first mooted as early as 1990, but it was when DVD began to emerge that things got moving — Columbia (the studio, not the country) was aware of the format’s potential even from its earliest days, and so it was with an eye on that market that they agreed to fund the new cut. Not only was it all re-edited, but as for that soundtrack I was so praiseful of, the audio was basically entirely re-recorded to make it more effective as a modern movie. The only thing they kept was the original dialogue… which had all been dubbed anyway, because the on-set sound was unusable.

In the end, the new cut was such a thorough re-envisioning that it took three times as long as anticipated, and led to a glitzy premiere and theatrical re-release. Petersen thinks the main difference between the theatrical and director’s cuts is the latter is more rich and has more gravitas because we spend more time with the individual characters.

5 out of 5

Das Boot: The Director’s Cut was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2018 project.

It placed 22nd on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

Identity
(2003)

2018 #78
James Mangold | 90 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

Identity

I bought Identity probably 15 or so years ago in one of those 3-for-£20 or 5-for-£30 sales that used to be all the rage at the height of DVD’s popularity, and no doubt contributed massively both to the format’s success and even regular folk having “DVD collections” (as opposed to just owning a handful of favourite films). As with dozens (ok, I’ll be honest: hundreds) of other titles that I purchased in a more-or-less similar fashion, it’s sat on a shelf gathering dust for all this time, its significance as a piece of art diminishing to the point I all but forgot I owned it.

But I did finally watch it, not spurred by anything other than the whim of thinking, “yeah, I ought to finally watch that,” which just happens for me with random old DVDs now and then. But, like so many other older films that I own on DVD, I found it was available to stream in HD, so I watched it that way instead. The number of DVDs I’ve ended up doing that with, or could if I wanted… all that wasted money… it doesn’t bear thinking about.

Whodunnit?

Anyway, the film itself. On a dark and stormy night, a series of chance encounters strand ten disparate strangers at an isolated motel, where they realise they’re being murdered one by one. So far, so slasher movie. And, indeed, that’s more or less how it progresses. But there’s a twist or two in the final act that attempts to make it more than that. Without spoiling anything, I felt like it was an interesting concept for a thriller, but at the same time that it didn’t really work. There’s an aspect to the twist that is a cliché so damnable it’s rarely actually used (unlike most other clichés, which pop up all the time), and so the film attempts a last-minute explanation of why it’s better than that, but, I dunno, I feel like a cliché is a cliché.

So maybe Identity is best considered as just a straight B-movie-ish slasher, and just overlook the final act’s attempts at being more interesting as just trying to be different. In fact, more interesting to me was the fact it was mostly shot on an enormous soundstage set, which is kinda cool given the scope of the location.

3 out of 5

Ad Astra (2019)

2020 #10
James Gray | 123 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA & China / English | 12 / PG-13

Ad Astra

This review contains spoilers (though most of them are in the trailer).

Rad Astra”, “Bad Astra”, “Sad Astra”, “Dad Astra”, “Mad Astra”, “Glad Astra”, “Brad Astra”, “Fad Astra”… the puns came thick and fast when Ad Astra hit cinemas back in September (and, as you may see in some of those links, ever since). I’d love to contribute to the game, but I’m four months late so I think all the puns have been had Astra.*

Resisting the urge to describe the film’s plot using some of those aforementioned puns (considering I already gave into that urge for the email notifications and social media posts promoting this review), I’ll instead do it in an equally pithy fashion: this is “Apocalypse Now in space”. Kinda. After unexplained energy waves from Neptune have disastrous consequences on Earth, astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is informed that his believed-dead father may actually still be alive and be the one causing these waves, and NASA Starfleet his bosses want him to send a message into space in the hope his dad’s out there and it reaches him. But with Earth facilities damaged by the aforementioned energy waves, Roy must travel to Mars, via the Moon, to even send the message. Hence where Apocalypse Now comes into it: it’s about a man travelling ‘up river’ in search of a superior-gone-rogue.

Apocalypse Now is one of my favourite movies. Sci-fi is one of my favourite genres. “Apocalypse Now in space” sounds like a pitch aimed at me. Ad Astra doesn’t score a direct hit, but it gets pretty close. One thing is it’s not just an emulation of the previous film’s plot (which itself is, of course, rejigged from Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness), but also adopts its meditative style. Roy is a man with emotional problems, struggling with the state of his relationship on Earth (with Liv Tyler) and with the comfort the isolation of space brings him. Is it comfort, or is it just escape? And is that healthy? These are the things the film has on its mind.

In space, no one can hear you ponder your own sense of isolation

While it does have something to say about them, I feel like it thinks it’s deeper than it actually is. The final act, in particular, gets a little muddled. Why did his father make the decisions he made? Thematically, what does Roy gain by learning the truth about his father? On a simplistic level, he sees what isolation taken to extremes does to you; but he and his father seem to have fundamentally different attitudes to disconnection anyway. I appreciate that the film dodged the easy blockbuster-y versions of things (it would’ve been a bit pat if his dad was either desperate to be rescued or outright insane and tried to stop the mission), but I’m not convinced what it did instead wholly hung together. Still, as third acts go, “not completely ruining the film” is better than some.

But it does seem like Ad Astra is at least a partially compromised movie. Co-writer/director James Gray has said that he had to make some changes to the ending to get a studio to finance it, and if you watch the trailers again after the film it’s clear that stuff was cut, including much of Liv Tyler’s character. How big an effect that had it’s impossible to say (unless someone inside the production speaks up), but it certainly implies some reworking in post-production. Another thing that makes me wonder this is the film’s use of religion. At times it seems fairly foregrounded — not in a heavy “this movie is about religion” way, but there are lots of references to it, people saying prayers for the dead, that kind of thing — but then the film doesn’t really seem to do anything with that. No one’s actions are different because they’ve found God, nor is caused to find God by the events of the movie, nor rejects God because of them, nor thinks they are God… Religion seems to be this underlying theme (it might be too kind to call it that, even) which ultimately disappears from the narrative just when it should, perhaps, be becoming more prominent.

On the flip side, perhaps it was meant to be this subtle. Ad Astra is certainly trying to say something about our place in the universe (are we alone? If we are, what does that mean? How does the vastness of space, the emptiness, the isolation, the distance from home, affect the mind?), and maybe that’s all implicitly tied to religion and our belief (or otherwise) in an all-powerful creator who made us in his image (and, by extension, no other ‘intelligent’ life). Or maybe the studio got cold feet about tackling religion and made Gray cut that, too.

Moon pirates!

Nonetheless, there’s still a lot more good than bad in Ad Astra. Its depiction of the future is interesting; a plausible extension of the present, where space travel has been at least partially commercialised, the Moon more like a concrete shopping mall than a place of genuine wonder. That groundedness extends to the ‘action’ scenes. I mean, you wouldn’t expect a movie that I’ve described as “meditative” to feature “a chase/shoot-out with moon pirates” — that sounds like the pulpiest thing imaginable — but it’s here, and it’s achieved with what feels like a large degree of plausibility and realism. Personally, I like the way the film mixes together contemplativeness with such spikes of adrenaline — again, it’s quite like Apocalypse Now. There’s also the bold choice not to present sound in space. This isn’t the first film to make that choice, certainly, but it remains a noteworthy decision, and it has a more tangible impact than you might expect. Indeed, that seemingly-simple choice goes a long way towards that feeling of reality, though it is just one of several connected choices that ground the film’s vision of the future and make it plausible.

Ad Astra is certainly a journey into darkness — of space; of mind. Whether it gets to the heart of it, I’m not convinced. But it’s still a trip worth taking.

4 out of 5

Ad Astra is released on DVD, Blu-ray, and 4K Blu-ray in the UK this week.

* I’m so proud of that gag I’ve already used it on three different social media posts, and now I’ve worked it in here for posterity. ^

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)

2019 #75
Drew Goddard | 142 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Bad Times at the El Royale

If you thought Tarantino copycats died out after the mid-’90s boom in Reservoir Dogs / Pulp Fiction wannabes, well, you’re sweetly naive — those still crop up from time to time, a quarter of a century too late. But the better emulators have evolved along with their inspiration, as writer-director Drew Goddard demonstrates in Bad Times at the El Royale, a film which feels like an imitation of latter-day Tarantino flicks. At least Goddard has the good sense to dodge the carbon-copy style of those Reservoir Dogs mimics by shifting genre, taking some of what QT brought to war movies in Inglourious Basterds and Westerns in The Hateful Eight and applying it to a neo-noir mystery-thriller. He even preempts Tarantino’s own oeuvre by including a Charles Manson-esque cult leader, thereby prefiguring Manson’s role in QT’s own Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Also like Once Upon a Time, El Royale sets its scene in 1969; and, like The Hateful Eight, its setting is an isolated establishment. That’s the eponymous hotel, a destination straddling the California/Nevada state line, which in its heyday attracted celebrities and what we’d now call “influencers”, but has faded since it lost its gambling licence and the wealthy patrons dried up. Now, over the course of one day and night, a variety of customers arrive, strangers, each with secrets, all of which will out in the twists of fate that ensue. All of that plays out in chaptered sections, divided with title cards, that mix in flashbacks and juggle the timeline of the present section as necessary — all of which are familiar Tarantino flourishes, of course.

One thing it shouldn’t’ve copied from Tarantino is the running time: just like many of his recent works, it’s longer than it needs to be. That’s not because the material is bad per se, but because the pacing isn’t tight enough. It seemed to drag its heels for no reason (again, I felt the Tarantino comparison), whereas a tighter pace might’ve contributed some tension, which I rarely felt despite the scenario screaming out for it.

Heavy rain at the El Royale

Well, as the saying goes: if you’re going to steal, steal from the best. Heck, Tarantino has certainly borrowed plenty from his own wide-ranging influences. If you are going to imitate another filmmaker, this is the way to do it: by bringing your own characters and settings and plots and twists to the table. That might sound obvious, but so many of those wannabes are slavish in their borderline-plagiarism. Goddard doesn’t sink to that level overall, though there were some parts I felt were only a couple of steps above it. For example, the whole “the hotel is on the state line” bit seemed quirky for the sake of being quirky, imitating a bit that a filmmaker like Tarantino would use but without quite knowing how to use it (it plays a big role in the opening sequence, after which there’s one slight gag with it before it’s never mentioned again).

But such lapses were outweighed by the good. For one, there’s some very nice photography by Seamus McGarvey. It looks like it was shot on 35mm (I checked and it was, which proves Nolan & co are right when they say it does make a difference), which didn’t always translate too well to the 1080p stream I watched, but I suspect might look all the more stunning in 4K. Visual aside, much of what’s good stems from the characters, especially the strong performances by actors like Cynthia Erivo, Jeff Bridges, and Lewis Pullman. It was those, and in particular how each role comes together in the final act to define the whole character, that definitely elevated the quality of the film for me. And while those three are the highlights, there are also good turns from the likes of Jon Hamm, Dakota Johnson, Chris Hemsworth, and Cailee Spaeny. I’d say more, but so much of the meat of these characters comes from how they present themselves vs what the truth is revealed to be — the less you know, the more there is to uncover.

Rewatch you again soon

That said, I wonder if this is a film that will play better on a rewatch. There are several surprise plot developments I wouldn’t wish to spoil for a first-time viewer, for sure, and I do feel like that’s a worthy filmmaking tool (I don’t agree with that research that ‘proved’ audiences enjoy something more if they know the story beforehand — you don’t appreciate it more, you just appreciate different stuff, same as with a rewatch). But I feel like some of that plotting did distract focus from other bits of the film that were working well. Put another way, in my memory the niggles have damped down and I primarily recall the good stuff, so my enjoyment has gone up with hindsight. I’ll have to pick up the 4K disc at some point and give it another go.

For the time being, while I did like it overall, I judged it to be the kind of 4-star effort that could’ve easily become a 5-star top-ten-of-the-year film if it had just polished up everything that I felt didn’t work.

4 out of 5

Bad Times at the El Royale is available on Sky Cinema from today.

The Happytime Murders (2018)

2019 #9
Brian Henson | 91 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA & China / English | 15 / R

The Happytime Murders

The Muppets meets Who Framed Roger Rabbit meets an R rating in this black comedy murder mystery from director Brian “son of Jim” Henson. Set in a world where Muppet-esque (but not actual Muppets, because IP rights) puppets co-exist alongside humans, disgraced puppet cop turned private investigator Phil Phillips (performed by Bill Barretta, which, let’s be honest, is a better name for a comedy private eye than the one they’ve actually used) stumbles onto a spate of connected puppet murders, and must reluctantly team up with his former partner, human detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), to crack the case.

The mystery that drives the plot isn’t too bad, including a neat twist/reveal that’s perhaps guessable but not terribly so. It does hew closely to the tropes and clichés of the noir genre, which is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, as it’s not a straight crime movie I don’t think it’s a problem for it to recycle all those things when it has fresh comedy to hang off them, or if it’s somehow riffing off familiar elements but with the puppet stuff, but often it isn’t that clever.

Women and puppets in blue

Nonetheless, there are some legitimately funny bits along the way, often found among the riffs on the puppet thing (for example: one of the victims is drowned, and before bagging the body they ring him out). Unfortunately it isn’t funny as often as it should be, too often relying on worn or lacklustre humour. I mean, it tries to run with the old playground favourite “idiots say what?” as a running gag. It also leans on puppets being lewd and crude as the extent of the gag, which simply isn’t that funny in itself, partly because it isn’t as original as the film seems to think it is (cf. Team America, Avenue Q).

While The Happytime Murders isn’t close to the echelons of quality where you’d find Roger Rabbit or the best of the Muppets, it’s also not a total washout. From behind-the-scenes stuff I’ve read it sounds like a lot of effort was expended on filming it, making sure the puppets could interact with the humans and so on, and those technical aspects are first rate. It’s just a shame the same level of innovation wasn’t poured into screenplay. I didn’t hate it, but it doesn’t live up to its potential either.

3 out of 5

The Happytime Murders is available on Netflix UK from today.

Murder Mystery (2019)

2019 #96
Kyle Newacheck | 97 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.00:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Murder Mystery

Murder Mystery is a murder mystery in which there is a murder under mysterious circumstances, and it falls to vacationing NY cop Nick Spitz (Adam Sandler) and his murder-mystery-loving wife Audrey (Jennifer Aniston) to solve these mysterious murders.

I’m no great fan of Sandler, and he’s probably the least funny person in this film, but I also didn’t find him outright objectionable. His character — an underachieving middle-aged beat cop who pretends to be a detective to his long-suffering wife — seems like the kind of guy who’d think he’s funnier than he is, so Sandler’s attempts at humour mostly come off as in-character. Put another way, it works in spite of itself. Of the two leads, Aniston is definitely the one doing the most work for the film, both in terms of actually being amusing and giving it some kind of emotional character arc.

Detectives or suspects?

The actual mystery plot is no great shakes — there are two glaring clues early on that give most of the game away, especially if you’re well-versed in watching murder mysteries and spotting such hints. That’s somewhat beside the point, though, because there’s enough fun to be had along the way to make up for it, and there are still some reasonable red herrings. The fact the cast is staffed by an array of experienced mostly-British thesps, many of whom have no doubt appeared in their share of ‘real’ murder mysteries — the likes of Luke Evans, Gemma Arterton, Adeel Akhtar, David Walliams, and Terence Stamp — definitely helps keep proceedings afloat.

There are a few of action-y scenes — a shoot-out, some hijinks on a hotel ledge, a decent car chase for the finale — that keep the momentum up too. Plus it mostly looks suitably luxuriant and exotic (the odd bout of iffy green screen aside), matching its high-class backdrop and French Riviera setting. Altogether, it makes for a suitably easy-watching 90-minutes in front of Netflix.

3 out of 5

Murder Mystery is available on Netflix everywhere now.

Holmes & Watson (2018)

2019 #38
Etan Cohen | 90 mins | download (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Holmes & Watson

From the moment it was announced, I knew two things about Holmes & Watson: that it would not be up my street, and that I’d definitely see it. Basically, Will Ferrell is not to my taste — I thought Anchorman was OK at best; I didn’t like The Other Guys despite it having a premise I loved; I remember enjoying Wedding Crashers specifically apart from his one scene; and, cementing my opinion shortly before Holmes & Watson’s release, I finally saw Step Brothers, Ferrell and John C. Reilly’s previous major co-starring turn, and didn’t care for it. (I also haven’t got round to reviewing it, but when I do it won’t be positive.) Despite my personal antipathy, most of those films are highly regarded, at least in certain circles; so when Holmes & Watson finally debuted trailers that no one liked, then garnered reviews that damned it as one of the worst movies released for years, I abandoned all hope of enjoyment. But it’s still a Sherlock Holmes movie, and so I’ve still felt compelled to watch it.

As you could no doubt infer from the title and aforementioned leads, the film sees Will Ferrell take up the mantle of the Great Detective, Sherlock Holmes, with John C. Reilly as his trusty sidekick and biographer, Dr John Watson. The plot, such as it is, sees the pair investigating a threat to assassinate Queen Victoria by Holmes’ nemesis, Professor Moriarty (Ralph Fiennes). Really, it’s just an excuse for Ferrell and Reilly to lark about in a series of Holmesian sketches. Full of truly terrible accents, reheated gags, and comedy bits that go on far too long, it would be tedious if presented as individual skits in a sketch show, but strung together as a movie… ugh.

Incompetence on both sides of the camera

The incompetence isn’t just present in front of the camera either. It’s hard to believe this was a professionally-produced, studio-released movie given the lack of technical skills on display, including atrocious dubbing, sloppy editing, and even shots that are out of focus. It’s so poor that Netflix, who seem to purchase any scraps the major studios decide to throw their way, turned down the chance to buy it (so they do have some standards!)

Amazingly, it’s not completely terrible. In supporting roles, Fiennes, Rebecca Hall, and Kelly Macdonald improve it just by showing up. There’s one bit that riffs off the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes movies, which might’ve felt original-ish if those weren’t already nine years old. There’s a bit of dialogue where it’s suggested America is forward-thinking about female equality, which isn’t the intended joke but is a laugh nonetheless. And as it’s the only laugh in the whole sorry 90 minutes, I guess we should take what we can get.

If they’d deliberately set out to make a film that was ostensibly a comedy but contained no actual humour, I’m not sure they could’ve achieved it any more thoroughly than this. It’s so terrible that it’s almost a remarkable achievement of just how badly it’s possible to fail.

1 out of 5

Holmes & Watson is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK this week.

It featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw For the First Time in 2019.

It Comes at Night (2017)

2018 #55
Trey Edward Shults | 88 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

It Comes at Night

Described by Kim Newman in his Empire review as “existing between a Sundance and a FrightFest film”, which is a neat way of putting “arthouse horror”, It Comes at Night went down very poorly with many viewers, seemingly because it was mis-sold by its trailers. As someone who went in pretty much cold, however, I thought it was very good.

Sometime after some kind of contagion has wiped out civilisation, we’re introduced to a family — Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) — who’ve sequestered themselves in a secure house deep in the woods. But their existence is disrupted by the arrival of a couple (Christopher Abbott and Riley Keough) and their young son seeking refuge. Although Paul is deeply distrustful, he agrees to take them in. But is there some one, or some thing, else waiting for them in the woods?

Well, I should be careful there, lest I slip into doing what the trailers did. I watched one after the movie, and it certainly wasn’t a great representation of the film. So was it wrong to advertise it as a horror movie? Yes and no. I mean, it’s not your typical horror flick, but it is moody and creepy and tense, and scary because of it. I’m tempted to compare it to something like The VVitch, though their styles do diverge as they go on (I could say how, exactly, but it might be construed as a spoiler). It partly depends how you define genre. You could argue It Comes at Night is actually a psychological thriller with a dash of sci-fi (thanks to its post-apocalyptic setting) — and it definitely is those things — but, functionally, it’s a horror movie. It’s built to unnerve and scare you. It’s only really once those immediate terrors are out of the way — i.e. when the film ends — that what it leaves you to chew over is its commentary on paranoia and trust.

Distrust

In the case of the latter, and the way it executes its sci-fi-ish setting, it all feels very realistic and plausible. That realism is underscored by the pace, structure, and characterisation. The combination of the writing and an array of good performances mean all the characters come across as believable, supportable people — there are no clear heroes and villains here. And even things that look like clues to solving some mystery turn out to be, if not red herrings, then functional dead ends.

It’s a very well-made film on the whole. The cinematography by Drew Daniels looks incredible. Well, some of the daytime stuff just has a grainy, handheld, documentary-ish feel, which is appropriate and well done if fundamentally unremarkable; but everything in the house after dark — seemingly lit only by handheld lanterns and torches — looks fantastic. And all that darkness is suitably scary, of course. Plus film grammar nerds are going to love something subtle the visuals do later on, if they even notice it — it’s that low-key that it might pass you by, but it’s really effective. (Writer-director Trey Edward Shults discusses what it is, and why they did it, in this interview. I had so much of that article copied into my notes for this review that I decided I may as well just share the whole thing.) I also liked the score by Brian McOmber. Sometimes it feels a mite familiar from other movies of this style, but it remains highly effective — not overblown, but atmospheric, without being a mere background hum.

The best way to see It Comes at Night is as cold as possible — perhaps off the back of a positive, accurate review, say. A lot of the low viewer scores and negative comments do seem to stem from being mis-sold by the trailers, and I hope that, divorced from that, the film will be able to latterly find an appreciative audience; one not interested in gore and jump scares, but in tension, paranoia, and the psychology of fear.

4 out of 5

You Were Never Really Here (2017)

2019 #45
Lynne Ramsay | 90 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, France & USA / English | 15 / R

You Were Never Really Here

Writer-director Lynne Ramsay tackled serious dramatic subjects in her previous features (none of which I’ve seen, I’m ashamed to say, so I apologise if my “this is a change of direction” intro is off base), but here shifts into genre mode to adapt Jonathan Ames’ noir-ish crime-thriller novella, albeit while retaining a good deal of the arthouse idiosyncrasy you’d expect.

The film follows Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a middle-aged-or-so guy who lives with is elderly ailing mother (Judith Roberts), and seems even more tired of life than she is, plagued by memories of things he’s witnessed. That history has given Joe a (as Liam Neeson would put it) very particular set of skills, which nowadays he puts to use for private clients, via multiple middle men, primarily (or wholly — the film doesn’t clarify) to rescue abducted children. But when he’s hired to rescue a US senator’s wayward teenage daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov), things end up going sideways in unforeseen ways.

Joe’s weapon of choice is a hammer. He uses it to take out multiple Very Bad Men in this film. But if the combination of “genre: thriller” and “using a hammer to take out bad men” makes you think You Were Never Really Here is about to unleash a low-budget action-fest upon your eyeballs, I refer you back to the writer-director being Lynne Ramsay and my mention of “arthouse idiosyncrasies”. I thought I’d mention this point upfront because I’ve seen others be disappointed by the lack of overt action in the film. Ramsay has instead chosen to keep most of the violence offscreen — we sometimes see the build-up or the aftermath, or both, or maybe neither, but only rarely the act itself. It’s not that kind of movie. And that’s not a problem, so long as you’re not expecting those kind of kicks.

Much to think about alone

Instead, the film becomes more of a character portrait, interrogating who Joe is and why. What kind of man does a job like that? What events in his life brought him here? What toll does it take on him? Or is there no toll because the damage has already been done? Explicitly writing these questions, which the film does seek to consider, causes me to question the worth of a serious-minded exploration of such a character’s psyche. It makes me wonder: are there real-life people like Joe? Does anyone actually do this job in the real world? Is the universe Joe moves in — a netherworld, parallel to our own but hiding from everyday view — a true one, or just the stuff that fills genre fiction? And if the answer to “is this real?” is a “no” — if these characters, situations, and environments are all just genre fodder — is there value in getting psychologically real about it?

Some would say “no”, because we don’t necessarily come to this kind of genre fiction for realism, even when it’s given a dark or gritty spin. I mean, take a slight genre sidestep into something like Paul Greengrass’ Bourne movies, for an example: they’re shot with a documentary-esque style, but no one thinks they’re plausible portraits of real life espionage activities. Stories like You Were Never Really Here have a greater reality claim than that, but I still question their actual adherence to our real world. But surely these extreme spins on reality are invented, at least in part, to justify simultaneously inventing heroes to put into them, who can then sort it all out by wielding some weaponry and special skills that we might not accept in a totally true-to-life story-world.

Much to think about together

Maybe I’m over-theorising this now. But You Were Never Really Here is the kind of movie that leaves gaps to invite you to think about it, to fill in your interpretations and personal notions. It’s a film with a lot of quiet space — literally, in the sense of its often minimal dialogue and, shorn of action scenes, little of the thudding and thumping you’d expect in the sound department; but also figuratively, with long scenes that make room for you to think about what you’re witnessing; scenes that don’t hand-feed you every piece of information, so you put it together yourself. (If you want an example: no one ever tells you where Joe got his skills, but flashbacks give you visual clues to put it together.) Maybe the film isn’t trying to say “guys like this exist outside of genre pieces, and they’re like this” — maybe it’s saying “if guys like this existed outside of genre pieces, what would they really be like?”

In the source novel, the title is explained via Joe’s methods: he uses fake identities, surgical gloves, and hides from cameras, all so that he was “never really there”. In the film he’s more low-tech and somewhat less scrupulous, meaning the same explanation doesn’t quite wash. I thought perhaps Ramsay meant it to have a new, arty meaning. Maybe it doesn’t — maybe it’s just the title of the book, so it stayed. Or maybe everything I’ve written is right, and people like Joe were never really here, in the real world… but if they were, they’d probably be like this.

4 out of 5

The UK network TV premiere of You Were Never Really Here is on Film4 tonight at 9pm.

Serenity (2019)

2019 #27
Steven Knight | 106 mins | download (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Serenity

Sorry, Browncoats — this has nothing to do with Joss Whedon’s sci-fi classic. But if you’re instead worried this might supplant that in the general consciousness, never fear: despite coming with the pedigree of a cast headlined by Oscar winners Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway (plus Jason Clarke, Djimon Hounsou, and Diane Lane), and a quality writer-director in Steven Knight (the man behind Locke and Peaky Blinders), this Serenity is a dud of epic proportions. I mean, the fact that, even with those names involved, it’s being dumped in the UK as a Sky Cinema Original should tell you something…

On the remote tropical paradise of Plymouth Island, Baker Dill (McConaughey) is a fisherman mostly taking tourists out on his boat, but eager to catch that one tuna that eludes him (a tuna isn’t quite as romantic a nemesis as a white whale, but I guess we’ll have to go with it). One day, his ex (Hathaway) turns up on the island with a proposition: she’ll pay him $10 million to drop her abusive husband (Clarke) in the ocean for the sharks. She has extra leverage in that hubby is beginning to get abusive towards the son Baker left behind, but who he still cares about. If that wasn’t enough of a moral quandary, there’s more to Plymouth Island than meets the eye, including a fishing equipment company rep who’s desperate to meet with Baker, but keeps just missing him…

An indecent proposal?

Serenity pitches itself as an island noir, and on the surface it ticks many of the right boxes, especially once Hathaway turns up, looking every inch the part of a classic femme fatale. You can tell she’s hamming it up a little too, playing into the role (with McConaughey, it’s harder to be sure…) It’s also beautifully lensed by DP Jess Hall, capturing both attractive sunny climes and a more overtly noir-ish vibe once a dramatic storm rolls in. But concurrent to that it’s clear some other mystery is going on, and here things get a bit more awkward, the film fumbling not to give too much away too soon. Personally, I think it fails — I guessed the twist pretty early, which I’m pretty sure was not intended, but if you don’t then it’s not cleverly built up to, it’s just muddled.

Once the twist is confirmed — and I say “confirmed” rather than “revealed” because, even though I guessed it, it seemed so loopy that I thought I must be wrong — the whole affair takes on a different light. But it’s not a well thought-through one. It’s the kind of twist that changes your perspective on everything you’ve seen, which is usually a neat development, but here it raises way more questions than it answers. To go into them would be spoilery… so, spoilers follow throughout the next paragraph.

So, we’re supposed to believe this kid has programmed a fishing game starring his dad — not wholly implausible. But it’s one where his dad frequently gets his kit off and shags around for money? I guess we could excuse this as the kid’s been playing too much stuff like Grand Theft Auto and thinks that’s what happens in games, if we’re being kind. But one day he decides to rewrite this game to make it about his dad committing murder, which the character in the game then objects to, and the game turns its own existing rules into an NPC to fight back? What, did this kid accidentally just program a full blown AI? Or several AIs? Or are we going with a Toy Story-esque notion where video game characters are actually sentient? And then somehow his dad actually doing it in-game encourages the kid to murder his real-life stepdad, which we learn thanks to some cheap news voiceover?

So far so noir

Serenity is such a ridiculous mess of a movie that it almost swings back round to being entertaining in its audacity. For me, though, it would need to be better constructed to pull that about-turn off. If it had fully considered the twist and its implications, thought it all through and played by all the necessary rules, some of the people who are laughing at it would still be laughing at it just for the basic concept, but I’d admire it at the very least for committing to its bit. Because it doesn’t, the only reason to consider watching is to marvel at its bizarre eccentricity.

2 out of 5

Serenity will be available on Sky Cinema from midnight tonight, with a limited UK theatrical release from tomorrow.

Unsane (2018)

2018 #219
Steven Soderbergh | 98 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.56:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Unsane

Probably the best-known thing about Unsane is that Steven Soderbergh shot it on an iPhone. Well, he’s not the first person to shoot a feature on a phone, nor will he be the last, but I guess he must’ve been the most high-profile. It’s a shame that’s all people seemed to talk about, though, because the content of the film is worth a look too.

It’s a psychological horror-thriller starring Claire Foy as Sawyer, a young professional woman struggling with a past trauma, who tries to simply get an appointment with a counsellor but ends up accidentally committing herself to a mental hospital. Although initially only in for a 24-hour assessment, her attempts to get out are only seen as further proof she has problems, and her ‘voluntary’ stay is extended against her will.

This early part of the film plays more like a drama than a horror movie, in that it’s fairly grounded in plausible reality — it doesn’t seem to be some nefarious scheme that gets Foy incarcerated, but rather bureaucracy and misunderstanding. Later the film takes a swing into outright horror territory, and I’ll discuss that in a moment, but it’s the first act that is most genuinely frightening. Events move inexorably forward in such a way that you can imagine yourself in Sawyer’s shoes, imagine yourself making the same unwitting mistakes that she does, imagine what you might try in that situation to get out of it, and imagine how you’d fail just as badly as she does. The film doesn’t gloss over any “if only she’d done this it would’ve been fine” moments — she tries everything rational, and it still goes wrong.

Hello, Domino's?

But, as I said, later things change a bit: Sawyer claims that one of the men working at the hospital is actually her stalker. Obviously this just contributes to the staff thinking she’s deranged, because of course a mental health institution wouldn’t employ a convicted stalker, but it makes us wonder: is it the stress of the situation getting to Sawyer, making her see things? It would certainly be ironic — the place that’s meant to ‘make’ her sane actually driving her insane. Or maybe the staff are right, and Sawyer is an unreliable narrator?

From there the film only becomes further immersed in genre-ness. It loses that “what would you do?” aspect, but I was engaged enough by then to just go with the story; others have found the tonal shift jarring, however. It definitely keeps you guessing — even after a mid-way reveal, you’re still unsure what further twists it may or may not pull. But it’s a funny old movie, in a way, because the shift from believable real-life horrors to inhabiting a more overt Horror mode means it sits at a hitherto unimagined crossroads between schlocky madhouse B-thriller and arthouse psychological drama. Well, I guess that’s the kind of thing we should expect from Soderbergh by now: a genre movie reimagined with auteurist sensibilities. Even when it takes the shape of a B-movie thrill-ride, there remains some psychological truth to the trauma Sawyer’s suffered and how it affects her. It’s also casually damning of things like the US healthcare/insurance infrastructure, which is, of course, a real-life problem. It’s always nice to sneak a valid real-world point into what is essentially a thrills-and-chills flick.

Just say no

The sense of unease is further emphasised by the shooting style, because it looks… odd. Odd how? It’s hard to say, exactly. It’s partly the aspect ratio, which for some reason is 1.56:1. I’m perfectly used to watching films in 4:3 or 1.66:1, so pillarboxing doesn’t bother me, but it being a nonstandard shape is surprisingly disconcerting. It also seems that Soderbergh hasn’t just used the iPhone camera as-is, but has attached at least one different lens. I suppose some might argue that’s cheating, but it’s normal to add lenses to the basic camera in other modes of filmmaking, so why not? I’m no expert on lenses so can’t quantify what he’s done exactly, but there’s a sort of wide-angle, sometimes even fish-eye, effect that is, again, strange. Combine all that with an even-less-definable quality that seems to wash over the whole image, like it’s lacking resolution or definition or something, and I’m not sure if the film’s visual style is down to the limitations of the tech or if it’s a deliberate emphasis of them. Whatever the reason, it kinda makes me hope no one ever chooses to shoot a film on an iPhone again, because while it can be done, the results aren’t great.

And yet those results really do fit the mood of this film. I kinda hope no one copies that tech choice ever again, but, nonetheless, Soderbergh’s made it work for the story he’s telling. That story — with its ups and downs, its whiplash tonal changes, its very imaginable horrors and its only-in-a-movie ones — means the fact Unsane was shot on an iPhone is probably the least interesting thing about it.

4 out of 5

Unsane is available on Sky Cinema as of yesterday.

Steven Soderbergh’s next film, High Flying Bird, was also shot on an iPhone. It’s released on Netflix on 8th February.