The 100-Week Roundup XIII

Horror, comedy, romance, and singing Nazis in this week’s roundup…

  • TiMER (2009)
  • Suspiria (1977)
  • Matinee (1993)
  • The Producers (1967)


    TiMER
    (2009)

    2018 #210
    Jac Schaeffer | 100 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English & Spanish | 15 / R

    TiMER

    The debut feature of writer-director Jac Schaeffer (who hasn’t helmed a feature since, but is now the showrunner of Marvel’s WandaVision) is a sci-fi romcom that doesn’t sell out its high concept to make its romance work. Said concept is that you can buy an implant that will count down to the day when you meet your soulmate. So, there’s the usual romcom “will they/won’t they” shenanigans, but with this added SF complication.

    As a sci-fi fan, I thought the concept was very well done indeed. At it’s core it’s quite a simple idea — I mean, such a device is hardly something that would change the entire world, but it would certainly affect our attitude to relationships and dating. The writing has thought through those effects, the way it would modify people’s reactions and behaviour and so on, and applied all of that to its story in a natural way; that is to say, it influences what happens, rather than the plot being little more than an exercise in exploring the permutations of the concept. Couple that with a solid romcom element, and you have a likeable little film.

    4 out of 5

    Suspiria
    (1977)

    2018 #211
    Dario Argento | 98 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Italy / English | 18

    Suspiria

    Perhaps horror maestro Dario Argento’s best-known movie, Suspiria is the story of American ballet dancer Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), who travels to Germany to train at a prestigious dance academy, where she instead uncovers many creepy goings-on.

    There’s a bit more to the story than that, but, really, Suspiria is more about its unnerving atmosphere, creepy scares, and strikingly brutal murders than emphasising a traditional narrative. According to the film’s Wikipedia page, “film scholar L. Andrew Cooper notes ‘aesthetic experience is arguably the ultimate source of ‘meaning’ in all of Argento’s films’,” and that was certainly my main takeaway here — as I wrote in my year-end summary, it’s a masterpiece of uneasy atmosphere, with striking colours and music.

    There’s a lot more that could be written about Suspiria (and, of course, has been written in the 43 since its release), but if you were expecting deep-dive insight in a roundup column, you’re in the wrong place.

    5 out of 5

    Suspiria placed 16th on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2018. It was viewed as part of Blindspot 2018.

    Matinee
    (1993)

    2018 #213
    Joe Dante | 99 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Matinee

    I confess I’d not even heard of Matinee before Arrow put out a Blu-ray a few years back, but it seems to be something of a cult favourite — it’s laden with high-scoring reviews on Letterboxd nowadays. It’s about a producer of horror B-movies (modelled on William Castle) who attempts to promote his latest piece of monstrous schlock, Mant, to a military-base town during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Thematically, it’s a tribute to and evocation of the magic of the movies, which probably explains its popularity on a movie-logging website. That’s definitely its strongest aspect, with John Goodman getting to deliver some nice speeches about the wonder of going to the pictures. Shame today’s cinema managers and employees don’t seem to share his romanticism for the experience…

    Other than that, I thought it was a bit something and nothing. The movie-within-a-movie is a lot of fun, and setting a good chunk of the film during its premiere screening is a neat bit of structure, but overall the antics get a bit daft.

    There’s a bit of unintended mirroring in the inclusion of a school drill for the atomic bomb about to drop, with safety precautions that would be fundamentally useless were it to actually happen — it calls to mind how today US schools do drills for school shooting situations, again with virtually useless advice (or so I’ve heard). You could possibly draw out some commentary on the changing nature of threats to US citizens (it used to be from without, now it’s from within), but Matinee was made in 1993, so the chances of it being intentional are nil.

    3 out of 5

    The Producers
    (1967)

    2018 #216
    Mel Brooks | 86 mins | DVD | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    The Producers

    Writer-director Mel Brooks is best known for his fourth-wall-breaking movie parodies like Young Frankenstein, Spaceballs, and Robin Hood: Men in Tights, but his debut feature is a different kettle of fish. It takes place in (broadly speaking) the real world, where failing Broadway producer Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) and accountant Leopold Bloom (Gene Wilder) come up with a moneymaking scam that involves putting on a show so terrible that it closes on opening night.

    Cue a mix of black humour (the play they settle upon is called Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden) and slapstick, with scenes and moments indicating the direction Brooks’ style would later take (like an aside about another character being delivered direct to camera, or someone answering a comforting “there, there” with “where, where?”).

    Although originally opening to mixed reviews, the film was a box office hit, earnt Oscar nominations (Best Supporting Actor for Wilder) and wins (Best Screenplay for Brooks), and was eventually adapted into an actual Broadway musical (you couldn’t make this up) which was then (re)made as another film (you really couldn’t make this up) and as recently as 2016 was used as the basis for a spoof of Trump (sadly, he’s not made up either). That, I think, speaks to the enduring hilarity of the original.

    4 out of 5

  • Bait (2019)

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

    Bait

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

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

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

    Beautiful black and white

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

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

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

    This is a local pub for local people

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

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

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

    5 out of 5

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

    Safety Last! (1923)

    2020 #172
    Fred Newmeyer & Sam Taylor | 74 mins | Blu-ray | 1.37:1 | USA / silent | U

    Safety Last!

    I’ve seen films by Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, so it’s overdue that I acquaint myself with the so-called “Third Genius” of silent comedy, Harold Lloyd. I would say that, of those three, Lloyd is considered a distant third place today: Chaplin is a name that transcends cinema to be known in the general consciousness; Keaton has accrued fame down the years for his still-impressive stunts; but Lloyd, I feel, has faded from consciousness a bit. If everyone’s heard of Chaplin, and a lot of people have heard of Keaton, I feel like only those in the know even consider Lloyd. But that wasn’t always the case. In fact, some would assert that, in their day, Lloyd was the most successful of them all — per Wikipedia, he made $15.7 million to Chaplin’s $10.5 million. (Nothing is ever as straightforward as all that, of course. Here’s a good article at Silentology all about the history of popularity of the silent comedians, which ultimately makes it quite clear that (a) Chaplin was the biggest; (b) Lloyd and Keaton were the runners-up; and (c) the pack of other comedians was far behind that trio.)

    The dwindling of his reputation seems to be at least partly his own fault: according to revered film historian Kevin Brownlow (paraphrased in this article), “Lloyd was so nervous about how audiences would react to his later movies that he withheld the films from distribution, so that only some very early pictures (made before his talent blossomed around 1920) were widely available for viewing. An effort to reintroduce his work after his death in the early ’70s was also botched, adding narrations and showy music scores to movies that don’t need extra gimmicks.” Nowadays, silents are re-released with more respect to their original presentations, but, for whatever reason, I think Lloyd still awaits the reappraisal that the other two have enjoyed and/or never even needed. Indeed, if we look at their current availability on disc in the UK, Chaplin has several extensive Blu-ray sets to his name; Masters of Cinema have made a fine fist of getting Keaton onto Blu-ray, with four box sets so far; and Lloyd… has a total of two films. And one of those (this one) is only out today. (I’ve focused on the UK because that’s where I am, but it’s not a whole lot better in his native US, where a total of four of his films are on Blu-ray.)

    What a way to make a living

    My opinion on the three is still forming — as I said, this is the first Lloyd film I’ve seen, so it wouldn’t be fair to base an entire comparison off it. But I have now seen the majority of Chaplin’s most-acclaimed features, and a couple of Keaton’s too, so a view is beginning to coalesce. And that is that, either I’m always in the wrong mood when I watch a Chaplin film, or I just completely prefer Keaton, and now Lloyd too. Aside from The Great Dictator, I’ve found every Chaplin I’ve seen to be a bit of a slog. That’s not to say I dislike them — I can see admirable stuff aplenty, and greatly enjoyed some of the exceptionally amusing sequences — but they always feel very long to me. That’s not a sensation I’ve yet experienced during a Keaton film, nor with Safety Last. But who knows, maybe Safety Last is Harold Lloyd’s Great Dictator in terms of how my opinion pans out. Only time, and more films, can tell.

    But, for now, Safety Last is why we’re here. It’s the story of a small-town boy (Lloyd) who travels to the city to find employment, planning to have his girl (Mildred Davis) follow him out just as soon as he makes his fortune. His letters home inform her of his increasing success, but in reality he works a lowly job at a department store, rushed off his feet to serve the baying mass of consumers. The ensuing century has conferred on that a degree of timelessness: working hard to appease others but getting nowhere yourself. It’s not the American Dream, but, for many low-level workers, it’s the American Reality. Replace working on the fabric counter of a department store with filling packages at an Amazon warehouse and, really, how much has changed?

    This is the milieu the film plays in for the first 50-or-so minutes, more or less. There are digressions outside the workplace, the best being a fateful morning commute that sees Lloyd accidentally bundled into a van heading further and further in the wrong direction, leading to an array of tricks and stunts to head back to work on time. Keaton may be the more famed daredevil, but here Lloyd appears every bit his equal.

    Climbing a building? Sounds like an impossible mission...

    And never more so than in the film’s final act. A series of events leads us to the point where Lloyd has to climb the sky-scraping outside of the department store building in order to earn the big payday he’s been needing. What follows is a 20-minute climb; a phenomenal extended sequence that is both funny and tense. It was shot on location, on fake buildings built atop real buildings — not as dangerous as fully doing it for real, but not exactly health-and-safety conscious (if Lloyd had fallen, he would’ve dropped only a storey or so onto a mattress; but if he bounced off that…) It has the same kind of thrill that Tom Cruise employs today when he climbs skyscrapers or dangles off the side of planes, only with more humour. You might think that would undercut the tension, but, if anything, it exacerbates it. You can push things closer to the edge when being funny, and, boy, does Lloyd get close to the edge…

    The first two-thirds of the film are a very solid 4-out-of-5 farce, but the final act mixes laughs with thrills in a perfectly executed, constantly escalating sequence that is a 6-out-of-5-level climax.

    5 out of 5

    The Criterion Collection edition of Safety Last! is released in the UK today.

    The 100-Week Roundup XII

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

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

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

    This week’s films are…

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


    Network
    (1976)

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

    Network

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

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

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

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

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

    5 out of 5

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

    Ran
    (1985)

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

    Ran

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

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

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

    5 out of 5

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

    Prevenge
    (2016)

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

    Prevenge

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

    Bridget Jones’s Baby
    (2016)

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

    Bridget Jones's Baby

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

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

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

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

    3 out of 5

  • Memories of Murder (2003)

    aka Salinui chueok

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

    Memories of Murder

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

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

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

    Investigators

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

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

    5 out of 5

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

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

    Before Midnight (2013)

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

    Before Midnight

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

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

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

    Jesse and Celine

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

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

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

    5 out of 5

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

    The 100-Week Roundup XI

    This week: an underrated crime thriller based on the same true-life story as a Hitchcock classic; an investigation of the trauma left by conflict in a film I’ve nicknamed “Gulf War Rashomon”; and a test of this “just post my notes already” roundup format with one of my favourite films I watched in 2018.

    They are…

  • Compulsion (1959)
  • Heathers (1988)
  • Courage Under Fire (1996)


    Compulsion
    (1959)

    2018 #194
    Richard Fleischer | 99 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12

    Compulsion

    Based on a novel that was based on the Leopold and Loeb case (which has also been the inspiration for various other films, most notably Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope), Compulsion is the story of two students who think their intellectual superiority will allow them to get away with the perfect murder.

    Playing the students, Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman are both fantastic. They’re two different types of well-to-do prodigies: Dillman charming and cocksure; Stockwell both awkward and supremely confident of his own exceptionalness. Their performances keep things compelling, even as the events unfolding are a foregone conclusion. You should and will hate them — even if they weren’t murderers, they’d be insufferable pricks (they sound like any number of modern-day politicians, don’t they?); that they’re cold-blooded killers just makes them worse. But even though you’ll never root for them, they’re still addictively watchable. Also, bearing in mind when the film was made, there’s a strong undercurrent of their homosexuality. It disappears as the film goes on, becoming more concerned with the case than the relationship between the two guys, but it’s discernibly there at the start.

    And then Orson Welles turns up. Despite getting top billing, he has more of a third act cameo that turns into the film’s most grandstanding moment: his closing speech at the trial; a real tour de force against capital punishment. Apparently it was issued on vinyl, it’s that good. The three stars got and get all the recognition (they shared Best Actor at Cannes that year), but there are also fine supporting performances from Martin Milner and Diane Varsi as a couple of fellow students who get caught up in the case in different ways; and E.G. Marshall is very good as DA Horn, the man who eventually catches the guys and therefore becomes Welles’ courtroom nemesis. He’s particularly understated during Welles’ big speech, gradually shifting from annoyance and hatred to agreement, ultimately rising to his feet at the end as if in a silent standing ovation.

    Stillman, Stockwell and Welles

    Aside from that obvious Big Scene, there are several other memorable ones: Dillman calmly talking to his teddy bear while Stockwell frantically searches for misplaced glasses, for example; or the cat-and-mouse scenes where the DA interviews the lads separately. Much of it is fantastically shot, too. There’s an occasional showy bit (like focusing on glasses on a nightstand as it gets dark outside, then showing the culprit and investigator reflected one in each lens), but also a general level of quality that often helps emphasise the darkness in the lads’ souls.

    I don’t think Compulsion is widely discussed anymore (it has fewer ratings on IMDb than Love on a Leash!), but I thought it was a brilliant film; one that can withstand comparison to more-acclaimed versions of the same story. It’s definitely underrated today.

    5 out of 5

    Heathers
    (1988)

    2018 #196
    Michael Lehmann | 103 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Heathers

    Heathers was one of my favourite films I watched in 2018 (it placed 5th on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018), but I didn’t make any notes on it at the time, and (obviously) it’s now two years since I watched it. Oh dear.

    So, in the spirit of the point of these roundups (to clear old unreviewed films, regardless of how much or little I have to say about them), we’ll have to make do with repeating my brief summary from the aforementioned “best of” list. Though I’ll also add that I watched this on Arrow’s then-new Blu-ray edition, which comes from a 4K restoration and looks absolutely fantastic.

    The darkness that’s barely concealed beneath the pleasant veneer of American high schools is exposed in this pitch-black comedy, which mixes violent teen wish fulfilment with a certain degree of societal satire to boundary-pushing effect. It’s not as transgressively shocking 30 years on as it might’ve been back in the ’80s, but it’s still so very.

    5 out of 5

    Courage Under Fire
    (1996)

    2018 #197
    Edward Zwick | 108 mins | TV (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Courage Under Fire

    It’s “Gulf War Rashomon” when a traumatised tank commander (Denzel Washington) encounters conflicting accounts of what happened while he investigates whether a helicopter pilot (Meg Ryan) deserves to be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, which would make her the first woman to receive it. As higher-ups put pressure on him to just push the honour through, he remains committed to uncovering the truth…

    The mystery of what really went on is not as clever or engrossing as the film thinks it is, but it still works as a meditation on how we acknowledge wartime heroism and the place of truth in doing so. It’s also a consideration of how many people are affected, in different ways, by the sacrifices of war.

    There are some decent performances along the way: Washington is always good value, and a before-he-was-famous Matt Damon demonstrates his commitment to the profession by losing a ton of weight between filming the flashback and “present day” scenes (endangering his health in the process) to portray a medical specialist indelibly affected by what went on ‘over there’. Apparently Mark Kermode said the casting of Meg Ryan as a chopper pilot was “the benchmark for a casting decision so ludicrous that it takes the viewer out of the film,” but I suspect that says more about how she was regarded at the time (best known for romcoms) than her actual performance (she’s no standout, but she’s fine).

    3 out of 5

  • Love on a Leash (2011)

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

    Love on a Leash

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

    Love on a Leash Letterboxd ratings

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

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

    Pizza-faced cinder block and Alvin Flang

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

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

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

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

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

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

    5 out of 5

    Searching (2018)

    2019 #51
    Aneesh Chaganty | 102 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | USA & Russia / English |
    12 / PG-13

    Searching

    When his 16-year-old daughter Margot goes missing, David Kim (John Cho) does the most logical thing in this day and age: he turns to her computer and social media to try to work out where she’s gone. What Searching does to really sell this concept is place us inside the tech: everything we see takes place on the screen of computers, be it searching the internet, chasing leads via video chat, or compiling evidence in spreadsheets.

    It’s a conceit that is clearly innovative, but also feels like it has the potential to grow old fast. After all, it’s inherently limiting, and if the filmmakers tried to coast on the novelty factor, you’d probably grow bored within the first half-hour. Fortunately, Searching has more to offer. Indeed, long before you’ve had a chance to become fed up with the unique storytelling method, you’re absorbed in the narrative.

    It works on two fronts. There’s a degree of commentary on modern society and parent/child relationships, as David begins to discover all the things Margot has been hiding from him, realising he didn’t know his daughter as well as he thought he did. In some respects this is nothing new — we’ve had decades of films and TV dramas where parents discover their perfect little darling isn’t who they thought — but here it’s cannily updated for the social media era.

    Searching the web

    Secondly, it’s an engrossing mystery. Director Aneesh Chaganty uses the visual concept perfectly to help craft a storyline with compelling characters that keeps us thoroughly engaged. Pleasingly, the film never breaks its own rules, instead finding new ways to use the limitations to tell the story. The only possible misstep comes in the final act, when some developments begin to succumb to Movie Logic and get a bit grandiose for the previously-grounded film. But the array of twists here actually had me on the edge of my seat, and, really, what more do you want from a thriller than that?

    Searching is the kind of film you come to thanks to its USP, your interest piqued by seeing how they can tell a story under such limitations; but what makes you stay, and want to come back, is how well it tells that story. It’s not unconventional for the sake of it, but a new and very timely way of viewing a narrative.

    5 out of 5

    Searching is available on Netflix in the UK from today.

    It placed 6th on my list of The 15 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2019.

    The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)

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

    The Last Black Man in San Francisco

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

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

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

    On the outside looking in

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

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

    Who tells your story?

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

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

    5 out of 5

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