Nomadland (2020)

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

Nomadland

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

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

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

A story of people

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

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

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

Pioneer spirit

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

5 out of 5

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

The 100-Week Roundup XXIX

The 100-Week Roundup covers films I still haven’t reviewed 100 weeks after watching them. Sometimes these are short ‘proper’ reviews; sometimes they’re only quick thoughts, or even just the notes I made while viewing.

I’m cheating slightly in this roundup, because these are the final reviews from April 2019, a period that means I should also be reviewing Captain Marvel and Resident Evil: Apocalypse. The former I don’t have many notes on, so I’d like to make time for a rewatch and do it properly. The latter, well, as I’m in the middle of watching the whole RE series, I’ll either round it up with some of the other sequels or give it a standalone post. It wouldn’t have been the first time I included a mid-franchise instalment in a roundup, but it always feels a bit ‘ugly’ to do that.

Anyway, enough about what isn’t here — here’s what is…

  • Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)
  • Click (2006)
  • Mortal Engines (2018)
  • The Help (2011)


    Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
    (2010)

    2019 #63
    Edgar Wright | 112 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA, UK, Canada & Japan / English | 12 / PG-13

    Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

    Well, this is embarrassing: a film I ranked in my top five of the year, but I don’t have any notes to write up a full review — just like Heathers back in Roundup XI. Oh dear, again.

    In Scott Pilgrim’s case, it’s just about to be re-released in a restored/jazzed-up version (first in Dolby Cinemas, then on 4K disc), so I’ll surely rewatch it that way and hopefully try this again properly, maybe later this year. For now, in the spirit of these roundups (i.e. to clear old unreviewed films), here’s the paragraph I wrote when it ranked 4th on my list of The 15 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2019

    If I’m honest, I was prepared to dislike Scott Pilgrim — I mean, there’s a reason it took me almost a decade to get round to it. It always looked Too Cool; kind of too hipster-ish, though I guess in a geeky way. (Well, “hipster” and “geek” have been more closely linked than ever this decade, haven’t they?) I remember distinctly when it went down a storm at Comic-Con and so everyone believed it was The Next Big Thing, only for it to flop hard at the box office (providing a much-needed course correction on everyone’s view of the power of Comic-Con).

    But here’s the thing: it’s directed by Edgar Wright, and I should have trusted that. And so the film is everything you’d expect from the director of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz and Baby Driver — deep-cut references (this time to video games), piles of humour, but also a dose of genuine emotion. Best of all is how it’s ceaselessly, fearlessly, creatively inventive with its cinematic tricks. No other film on this list is so overtly Directed, but in a good way.

    5 out of 5

    Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was viewed as part of Blindspot 2019.

    Click
    (2006)

    2019 #64
    Frank Coraci | 107 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Click

    I am not, by an stretch of the imagination, an Adam Sandler aficionado. Besides this, the only films of his I’ve seen are Murder Mystery (which I watched in spite of him because I like murder mysteries), and Punch-Drunk Love and Uncut Gems, neither of which are “Adam Sandler films” in the widely-understood sense (and I didn’t much like either of them anyway). Indeed, the only reason I watched Click is because it’s on “most-watched movies ever”-type lists and I wanted to check it off.

    Sandler plays a workaholic family man, who’s missing out on time with his wife (Kate Beckinsale) and two kids while he strives for a promotion at work. But then he comes across a magic remote control that works on the world: he can mute arguments, rewind to the good bits, fast-forward to when he gets his promotion… He thinks it’s great — until, of course, it isn’t.

    From the very start, it’s clear Click isn’t running high on originality, with “gags” about having lots of remote controls and about a dog humping a soft toy. The former was surely already old-hat observational comedy by 2006, while the latter has always been on about the same level as fart gags. As Sandler watches the dog’s actions, he comments that it’s something his young kids shouldn’t “know about” for 10 years for the boy and 30 years for the girl. Within the first few minutes, Click has managed to be overfamiliar, underdeveloped, crude, and socially regressive, all at the same time. And then it throws some racism in for good measure, with a foreign prince whose name the characters mispronounce as things like “Ha-booby” and “Hubba-bubba”. This is all before the ten-minute mark. Never mind a magic remote control — you might be contented reaching for the real one.

    The film’s a Fantasy because it’s about a magic remote control, but the wish fulfilment definitely extends beyond that. I mean, Kate Beckinsale as Adam Sandler’s wife? Pull the other one. Plus, all the young attractive women in his office seem to fancy him, too. Someone’s ego was getting stroked here.

    The comedy continues in its thoroughly predictable vein until things inevitably start to go wrong, at which point they really pile on the tortuous misery. It’s such a sharp and drastic change in the second half that it’s liable to give you tonal whiplash. Plus, the film already felt like it was running too long, and this new avenue just piles on the minutes. They should’ve cut at least quarter-of-an-hour out of the whole thing. When it eventually drags itself to the end, that’s a terrible cliché too.

    Click does have its moments, although not too many of them, and they’re of the “this is adequate to lounge in front of” variety rather than anything fresh or invigorating. Fortunately, you don’t need a magic life-control to skip it.

    2 out of 5

    Mortal Engines
    (2018)

    2019 #69
    Christian Rivers | 128 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.39:1 | USA & New Zealand / English | 12 / PG-13

    Mortal Engines

    Based on the first book in a series of beloved young adult novels by Philip Reeve, Mortal Engines is set in a post-apocalyptic future where towns and cities have been transformed into gigantic vehicles that roam the world consuming each other for scarce resources. On London, a young fugitive out for revenge, Hester (Hera Hilmar), ends up thrown in with an outcast (Robert Sheehan) as they uncover a world-changing conspiracy.

    Billed as being “from the filmmakers of The Lord of the Rings”, Mortal Engines is one of many would-be PG-13 fantasy franchises that have sprung up in the couple of decades since Rings and Harry Potter’s dual-pronged success at the end of 2001. And, like so many of them, it failed to find a theatrical audience and so stalled out after just one film. Fortunately, when Reeve wrote the original novel it wasn’t intended as a series, so while there was clearly opportunity for sequels, this nonetheless tells a contained story.

    In practice, “from the makers of Lord of the Rings” means it was adapted by that trilogy’s screenwriting team (Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson), was filmed in New Zealand with Weta on design and effects work, and is the feature directorial debut of Christian Rivers, who previously served various art, effects, and second-unit roles on Jackson’s films as far back as Braindead. All of which means you can be assured the film looks fantastic — the production design, and the epic visuals that show it off, are consistently magnificent. Equally, the story has some bold and original ideas that are equally as exciting. So it’s a massive shame about the sometimes awkward dialogue and narrative choices, as well as the variable quality of the acting, and at least one subplot that was obviously butchered in post (what we see on screen is jumpy and clearly incomplete). By falling short in such fundamentals, it lets down the imagination on display elsewhere.

    Nonetheless, there’s enough to appreciate it in Mortal Engines that I enjoyed it a lot. Perhaps it’s a shame we won’t get to see the other books adapted, but at least the fact it works as a standalone movie means that, unlike some other failed franchises, it can still be watched and enjoyed as is. Maybe it’ll find an audience belatedly and, like other aborted film adaptations before it (A Series of Unfortunate Events; His Dark Materials), we’ll be treated to a TV do-over later this decade.

    4 out of 5

    The Help
    (2011)

    2019 #70
    Tate Taylor | 137 mins | TV (HD) | 16:9 | USA, India & UAE / English | 12 / PG-13

    The Help

    Jackson, Mississippi, the 1960s: society girl Skeeter (Emma Stone) returns from college determined to become a writer, so she decides to interview the black women who have spent their lives taking care of southern white families, to capture their view of the hardships they go through on a daily basis, starting with her best friend’s housekeeper (Viola Davis). Initially controversial in both white and black communities, as more maids come forward to tell their stories, everyone in town finds themselves unwittingly and unwillingly caught up in the changing times. — adapted from IMDb

    For some reason I thought The Help was based on a true story, but it’s actually just adapted from a novel. That makes accusations of it being a “white saviour” narrative worse, because it loses any defence of “well, this is what really happened” — it’s a creative choice. Instead, what if the maids had decided they needed to tell their own story, but had to use a sympathetic white woman as a front to get it published? Same general point, but it gives more agency to the black women in controlling their own story.

    Anyway, while there is plenty wrong here (too much focus on the white characters; aimless subplots, like a romantic one; the overt air of Worthiness), it’s still watchable and engaging, there are some very good performances, and it’s not as if the message isn’t an important one — and, sadly, still relevant.

    4 out of 5

  • King Kong (1933)

    The 100 Films Guide to…

    King Kong

    A Monster of Creation’s Dawn
    Breaks Loose in Our World Today!

    Country: USA
    Language: English
    Runtime: 100 minutes
    BBFC: A (1933) | PG (1985)

    Original Release: 2nd March 1933 (New York City, USA)
    UK Release: 17th April 1933 (London)
    Budget: $672,254.75
    Worldwide Gross: $5.3 million

    Stars
    Fay Wray (Doctor X, Mystery of the Wax Museum)
    Robert Armstrong (The Most Dangerous Game, Mighty Joe Young)
    Bruce Cabot (Fallen Angel, Diamonds Are Forever)

    Directors
    Merian C. Cooper (The Four Feathers, The Last Days of Pompeii)
    Ernest B. Schoedsack (The Most Dangerous Game, Mighty Joe Young)

    Screenwriters
    James Creelman (The Most Dangerous Game, The Last Days of Pompeii)
    Ruth Rose (She, Mighty Joe Young)

    From an idea by
    Merian C. Cooper (Roar of the Dragon, Mighty Joe Young)
    Edgar Wallace (The Squeaker, The Hound of the Baskervilles)


    The Story
    Adventurous filmmaker Carl Denham and crew travel to an uncharted tropical island in search of the subject for his next picture. There, they encounter a gigantic ape — Kong — who takes a shine to the movie’s pretty young star…

    Our Hero
    Ann Darrow is a down-on-her-luck gal in New York City, when successful movie producer Carl Denham plucks her to star in his next movie — which involves going on a long boat voyage to a mysterious uncharted island, where she’ll make a big new friend…

    Our Villain
    People might point to Kong — he is a giant monster who kidnaps the heroine and kills a bunch of people, after all — but I think we all know the real villain is Carl Denham, the risk-taking heath-and-safety-averse movie producer turned theatrical impresario, whose exploitative whims ultimately lead to death and destruction.

    Best Supporting Character
    He may be a stop-motion puppet made of metal and rubber and fur, but animator Willis O’Brien injects so much life and personality into Kong that he is, unquestionably, the real star of the show.

    Memorable Quote
    “It wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.” — Carl Denham

    Memorable Scene
    King Kong is full of great moments, but the most famous has to be the climax: having wreaked havoc across New York City, Kong scales the Empire State Building with Ann in hand, deposits her at the top, and fights for his life as a fleet of biplanes swarm around. It’s not going to end well…

    Truly Special Effect
    I’ve already mentioned Willis O’Brien’s animation of Kong, but his skill goes far beyond that: there are all manner of beasties on Kong’s island, brought thrillingly to life by O’Brien and his team. These stop-motion effects are obviously of their time, but the way they’re integrated with the live action is frequently impressive, and any technical limitations certainly didn’t lead them to skimp on the action — you might think Kong would only appear sparingly, but the big guy gets tonnes of screen time.

    Making of
    King Kong was made before the enforcement of the Production Code, but its 1938 re-release was after. To comply, multiple scenes were removed (perhaps most famously, one where Kong peels off Ann’s clothes). They weren’t restored until the ’70s. But one scene was deleted even earlier: the so-called “spider pit” sequence, in which the sailors Kong tips off a log are attacked and killed by a bunch of creatures. When included in a preview screening, audience members were so disturbed that they either left or were so focused on what they’d just seen it disrupted the rest of the film. Consequently, the sequence was removed before the film’s general release, and is probably lost forever. But it remains a kind of Holy Grail of deleted scenes, and so during production of the 2005 remake, Peter Jackson and Weta set about recreating the original spider pit scene, just as a fun side project. The end result (included on subsequent Blu-ray releases of the ’33 film) is nice ‘n’ all, but what’s really incredible is the half-hour making-of devoted to its creation. The amount of time, effort, and skill that Jackson & co put into creating such a short sequence — something they themselves describe as “just a bit of fun” — is phenomenal.

    Next time…
    King Kong was such a hit that a sequel was raced out the same year. Produced on a vastly reduced budget and in just six months to get it into theatres for Christmas, The Son of Kong was not a success. But the iconicity of Kong has ensured he’s survived long-term. In the ’60s, he was licensed to Japanese studio Toho so they could pit him against their own giant monster in King Kong vs. Godzilla, and in 1967 they produced a Kong-only followup, King Kong Escapes. In 1976, a big Hollywood remake of the original updated events to a contemporary setting. Although it wasn’t a success, sequel King Kong Lives eventually followed ten years later. There was another remake in 1998: a direct-to-video animated musical titled The Mighty Kong (no, really). Also in the late ’90s, a small-time horror director from New Zealand nearly produced another remake, but the project didn’t come together. One billion-dollar-grossing, Oscar-winning, genre-defining, medium-revolutionising fantasy trilogy later, Peter Jackson was finally allowed to realise his dream, helming an epic reimagining that this time retained the original film’s 1930s setting. Various other animated films, TV series, comic books, games, theme park rides, and the like have featured Kong down the decades. Most recently, he’s once again been inducted into a shared universe with Godzilla, getting a wholly rebooted origin in Kong: Skull Island before facing off against the giant lizard in Godzilla vs. Kong. Given the latter’s current box office success, more films will surely follow.

    Verdict

    Beauty and the Beast is reimagined as a monster movie in this iconic classic. Obviously some of it has aged (not just the effects, but some broadly racist attitudes around Pacific islanders and the ship’s Chinese cook), although its pre-Code roots allow it some unexpected liberties (from gruesome deaths to an unmistakable sexuality around Fay Wray — all within PG levels, but still). Take all that in your stride, and King Kong absolutely holds up as an adrenaline-fuelled spectacle.

    Eighth Grade (2018)

    2019 #148
    Bo Burnham | 94 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Eighth Grade

    I confess to never having heard of Bo Burnham before the buzz generated by this, his debut film as writer-director. According to his Wikipedia page, he started out as a YouTuber, turned that into a standup career, and from there has been a musician, actor, screenwriter, and poet — plus, with this, film director. It’s the kind of trajectory that challenges your perception of what being a YouTuber is good for. Of course, other “content creators” have jumped beyond the confines of the video streaming site before, but generally to eye-rolling effect for any of us old enough to be outside the sway of popular youth culture. But Burnham bucks that trend too, because in Eighth Grade he’s produced a mini masterpiece of distilling the teenage experience.

    The film introduces us to the life of Kayla (a star-making performance by Elsie Fisher), a 13-year-old girl so shy and insecure that she doesn’t seem to have any friends at school, but who still spends most of her time engaged in typical modern teenage activities: glued to her phone scrolling through social media, and posting her own content that no one anyone actually views. (At this point we’ve all been there, right?) The videos she posts online are perky and optimistic, presenting a front of having her life together. In reality, Kayla’s middle school experience has been miserably lonely, and as it comes to an end she hopes for a better time in high school. (If the American high school movies we’ve all seen are anything to go by, her chances can’t be good…)

    In some respects, Eighth Grade is wholly focused on showing us the present day. The specifics of what it depicts are very much “modern American teenager”, with pool parties, active shooter drills, living through social media, their eyes glued to phones, etc; even the plot-prompting transition from middle to high school isn’t necessarily relevant to those of us outside the US education system. But if you look past the modern milieu to the fundamental feelings underneath, they’re universal and speak across the generations. This is the most truthful movie about what it’s actually like to be a teenager I think I’ve ever seen. It really captures the uncomfortableness of being a not-popular teen, both for good (well done Burnham & co, you conveyed your point) or ill (it can be as squirm-inducing as living the real thing). And if you watch it and think “eh, I don’t remember my teenage years being like this”, I’m afraid to inform you that you were quite possibly one of those kids making life a bit awkward for the rest of us. Sorry.

    Kayla

    Much like bullies, indie movies often revel in taking nice people and kicking them down, because, hey, life’s shit and that’s probably what’s gonna happen. Without spoiling where the story goes, it makes a welcome change to see a film where realism isn’t abandoned (Kayla’s life doesn’t become plain-sailing) but in which the nice, sweet, quiet character nonetheless sees their life improve, rather than believe things are gonna get better only to have their expectations crushed. Well, there’s a certain degree in which the optimistic hopefulness of being a tween is contrasted with the crushing reality of being a teenager, but there’s a positive message along the lines of “these things shall pass” that I think remains good advice to many people struggling with a particular time in their life.

    Talking of specific times in one’s life (this is a tenuous transition, I admit), the certifications handed to Eighth Grade (at least in the UK and US) are a bit daft. To clarify for the benefit of those of us on the outside, the US’s 8th grade is for 13- to 14-year-olds; the equivalent of Year 9 in England (other UK and Anglosphere countries may vary). So it’s somewhat amusing that a film explicitly titled Eighth Grade is officially limited to over-15s in the UK and over-17s in the US (I know R is a little looser than that, but you get what I mean). You feel that the certifiers are, not for the first time, somewhat out of step when it comes to the realities of kids’ life experiences. I doubt that’s a major problem (I’m sure plenty of people don’t stick rigidly to the ratings), but it is, perhaps, a stark reminder that things like the boundaries of film certificates require constant review and revision if they want to remain relevant.

    Something that I think will remain relevant is Eighth Grade. As I said, it already transcends its depiction of current teenage lifestyles, so it stands to reason that, as time goes on, while it will cease to accurately reflect the specifics of young people’s lives, it will continue to encapsulate how it feels to be that age.

    5 out of 5

    Eighth Grade placed 9th on my list of the Best Films I Saw in 2019.

    The 100-Week Roundup XXVI

    The 100-Week Roundup covers films I still haven’t reviewed 100 weeks after watching them. Sometimes these are short ‘proper’ reviews; sometimes they’re only quick thoughts, or even just the notes I made while viewing.

    This week’s selection, the final two films from March 2019, includes a pair of awards-worthy short animations — the first won an Oscar, the second was nominated for one. I was going to include more films in this week’s roundup (effectively bundle two weeks into one), but it felt like a disservice to this pair.

  • Paperman (2012)
  • Waltz with Bashir (2008)


    Paperman
    (2012)

    2019 #48a
    John Kahrs | 7 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 1.85:1 | USA / silent | U / G

    Paperman

    This Disney short was originally released alongside Wreck-It Ralph (and can now be found on that film’s Blu-ray; as well as on Disney+, I presume) and, as I recall, attracted a lot of praise at the time, primarily for its visual style. That was an innovation in creating 2D-looking animation via a 3D system — so it seems a bit daft that I watched it in 3D. I have to wonder if the added visual dimension highlights the underlying 3D animation, because it’s quite obviously been created in 3D with a 2D style over the top.

    That said, it look gorgeous, however you cut it. There’s an inherent beauty in how it’s executed, while the chosen black-and-white style emphasises the apparent setting (’40s New York) and also gives it a timeless quality. The 2D/3D combination works well, giving it the fluidity and dynamism of CG animation, but with a certain roughness — a hand-made-ness — that comes from 2D cel animation. Of course, that’s artificial, injected via design choices (like scruffy outlines on the characters), but it feels authentic.

    As for the actual story, it’s a charming little romantic number involving paper aeroplanes… until those sheets of folded paper become sentient and omniscient, at which point it lost me with its silliness. But as an exercise in style: lovely.

    4 out of 5

    Waltz with Bashir
    (2008)

    aka Vals Im Bashir

    2019 #49
    Ari Folman | 87 mins | TV | 16:9 | Israel, France, Germany, USA, Finland, Switzerland, Belgium & Australia / Hebrew, Arabic, German & English | 18 / R

    Waltz with Bashir

    One night at a bar, an old friend tells director Ari Folman about a recurring nightmare in which he is chased by vicious dogs. They conclude that there’s a connection to their Israeli Army service in the first Lebanon War of 1982. Ari can’t remember that period of his life, so he meets and interviews old friends and veterans, hoping to discover the truth about that time and reconstruct his own memories of the conflict. — adapted from IMDb

    This search for the truth has led Waltz with Bashir to be labelled an “animated documentary”, which sounds like an odd idea, almost oxymoronic — you can tell a true story with animation, of course, but can you document something? Well, yes. Rather than talking heads, what animation allows is the visualisation of the narrators’ memories and dreams alike, and means we can flow between them, too. On a practical level, it allows the film to stage scenes that would be impossible in live-action without a huge budget, meaning it doesn’t have to compromise on the stories it tells. More thematically, having a shared style between ‘reality’ and ‘dream’, plus the distancing effect of it being drawn, not ‘real’ — of being unequivocally created, not just filmed — helps to underscore larger points about the reliability (or otherwise) of memory. The dreams are connected to the memories; are the memories a kind of dream?

    Given the time period being remembered, of course the film is about war and how that affects the mind of its participants, but it’s also memory in general, I think. You’d think such extreme, unique experiences would be unforgettable, and yet the workings of the mind and memory aren’t that straightforward. One strand I found particularly fascinating was the way people are haunted by the suffering of animals in the conflict, perhaps more so than by the human-related atrocities they saw. Is this just a coincidence of the people Folman spoken to? Is it a particular interest of Folman himself? Or is it a genuine phenomenon? I don’t know the answer, but (outside of, say, War Horse) I don’t remember it being such a clear thread in a war-related film or documentary before.

    I’ve seen people say they couldn’t connect with Waltz with Bashir because they didn’t know the history of the period well enough. Conversely, I felt that was part of why the film was so effective: not really knowing what was going on or what was being referred to, I was discovering it as the character did. Some parts along the way could perhaps have used further clarity or explanation for those of us entirely unfamiliar with the conflict, but there’s enough information disclosed to be going on with. I found the film’s ending to be powerful beyond words, and part of what makes it so shocking and impactful is not knowing about it, of learning about it for the first time with the characters.

    5 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup XXV

    Another week goes by, and once again I’ve only managed to put together one of these belated roundups. Hopefully new-new reviews will re-emerge sometime soon…

    In the meantime, The 100-Week Roundup covers films I still haven’t reviewed 100 weeks after watching them. Sometimes these are short ‘proper’ reviews; sometimes they’re only quick thoughts, or even just the notes I made while viewing.

    This week’s selection rattles through five more March 2019

  • The Italian Job (1969)
  • Downsizing (2017)
  • Brigsby Bear (2017)
  • Starship Troopers (1997)
  • Escape from New York (1981)


    The Italian Job
    (1969)

    2019 #40
    Peter Collinson | 95 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English & Italian | PG / G

    The Italian Job

    The Italian Job is one of those things that I think is in the consciousness of every Brit. Tricolour Minis racing around city streets, up and down stairs and through sewer tunnels… the literal cliffhanger ending… “you’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!”… Cultural osmosis imparts these things to all us Brits, whether we’ve seen the film or not — and, at the grand old age of 32, I had not. But it was 50 back in 2019, so when better than then? Which is why I watched it then; and, because I’m tardy, am reviewing it now.

    The awareness of the film I’d acquired down the years doesn’t quite prepare you for the actual thing, mind — the first half-hour is as much a frisky, cheeky sex romp as it is heist caper. Although, as you can infer from the classifications above, it doesn’t get too risqué. Of course, the real fun comes later, when Michael Caine and his crew of crooks execute an audacious gold robbery in Turin, causing a city-wide traffic jam that they can nip around in their Minis. This climactic chase doesn’t make much sense logically (they drive onto a roof only to drive back off it? They hide by parking in a car lot where there were precisely three spaces among similar-looking cars?), but it’s a lot of anarchic entertainment nonetheless. A bit like the whole movie, really: genuine crime isn’t like this, but this is a lot more fun.

    4 out of 5

    Downsizing
    (2017)

    2019 #41
    Alexander Payne | 130 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA & Norway / English, Norwegian & Spanish | 15 / R

    Downsizing

    In the future, searching for a way to solve overpopulation and global warming, a scientist invents “downsizing”, a process to shrink people to a height of five inches. People start to voluntarily be ‘downsized’, in part because being small has economic benefits. Financially-struggling couple Paul (Matt Damon) and Audrey (Kristen Wiig) decide to trade their ordinary lives for the extravagant lifestyle promised by New Mexico’s impeccable downsized community, Leisureland. But not all problems are so easily fixed, and a chance encounter with a shady entrepreneur (Christoph Waltz) and a famous Vietnamese political activist (Hong Chau) sets Paul on a path where he must choose between a sheltered life or making an impact in his own small way. — adapted from IMDb

    There are promising ideas and concepts at the heart of Downsizing — under an appropriately-minded director, this concept should’ve been a goldmine. Unfortunately, Alexander Payne doesn’t seem to be the right person for the job. It feels like he’s playing at being more of a Spike Jonze type, and not succeeding.

    The problems begin at a screenplay level. It feels like a very “and then this” narrative: things keep happening, one after another, with little to tie it all together. The final act eventually links back round to the prologue, to give a sense of the film all being a whole, but the real meat of the story — what happens to Paul in the middle — is just a series of events. Sometimes, it entirely abandons important stuff from earlier on so as to strike out on new tangents.

    That contributes to a feeling of tonal and thematic whiplash. The film ping-pongs around various themes and threads, seemingly indecisive about what it wants to comment on. Consequently, it offers nothing but the most superficial observations on topic. On top of that, it swings from broad comedy to introspective drama at whim.

    On the bright side, the visuals are pretty effective, managing to plausibly make the small world feel small even within itself. It’s just a shame the core of the movie can’t match up to the effects.

    2 out of 5

    Brigsby Bear
    (2017)

    2019 #43
    Dave McCary | 93 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & China / English | 15 / PG-13

    Brigsby Bear

    Room meets Be Kind Rewind in this quirky comedy-drama. James (Kyle Mooney) is a young man who has lived all his life in an underground bunker with his parents (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams)… except they’re not really his parents: he was kidnapped as a baby and has been held captive for decades. After being freed, James learns that the TV show he was obsessed with in the bunker, Brigsby Bear Adventures, isn’t real either — it was made by his captors just for him. Unable to let Brigsby go, James sets out to finish the story by making a Brigsby Bear movie himself.

    There’s a sense in which some of Brigsby Bear is stuff we’ve seen before — the “group of friends set out to make an overambitious (home) movie” conceit has been trotted out by indie movies like Son of Rambow and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, as well as the aforementioned Be Kind Rewind. Director Dave McCary and screenwriters Kyle Mooney & Kevin Costello give that basic material a quirky new sheen, but the real joy lies in the film’s insistent good-heartedness. It’s refreshing (if arguably unrealistic), and the joy its characters find in the shared creative experience is suitably infectious. Indeed, it reaches a point where the ending is surprisingly emotional. The raft of comparisons may suggest this isn’t the most original confection, but I loved it nonetheless.

    5 out of 5

    Brigsby Bear placed 15th on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2019.

    Starship Troopers
    (1997)

    2019 #46
    Paul Verhoeven | 130 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

    Starship Troopers

    Dismissed by many critics on its original release as cheesy sci-fi, Starship Troopers has been somewhat reclaimed in the decades since, both turned into a surprisingly enduring franchise (multiple sequels, animated series, etc) and praised as an anti-fascist satire. As I understand it, the original novel by Robert A. Heinlein is straight-up right-wing claptrap, but director Paul Verhoeven — who grew up under Nazi occupation — saw its inherent ridiculousness, and so intended to reshape it as a deconstruction of, well, itself.

    In that regard, for me, it’s a mixed success. The satire itself is a little thin. War is bad? Yep. The people in power use propaganda to keep you on their side? No shit. Put anyone in a Nazi-like uniform and we can infer they’re actually bad? Obvs. So why did many critics seem to miss it on the film’s original release? Perhaps because everything that surrounds it is cheesy third-rate stuff. When the character drama has all the depth and quality of a daytime soap, it’s easy to presume the similarly-daft in-universe commercials are also meant to be taken straight; that any humorousness was unintentional.

    And so, somewhat ironically, I thought Starship Troopers worked best as a straightforward sci-fi action/war movie. It’s a bit Full Metal Starship: first half is all pre-war/boot camp stuff, then the second half takes the characters out into the actual conflict. All the combat sequences are pretty thrilling on a visceral level, and the special effects mostly hold up to this day. Plus, it’s all bolstered by a great militaristic score from composer Basil Poledouris.

    After a couple of decades hearing “Starship Troopers is good, actually”, I found myself almost hewing closer to the original critical assessment. Perhaps it raises that old question of authorial intent: if it was meant to be satire, should we treat it as satire, even if it doesn’t actually look like satire?

    4 out of 5

    Starship Troopers was viewed as part of Blindspot 2019.

    Escape from New York
    (1981)

    2019 #47
    John Carpenter | 99 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 2.35:1 | USA & UK / English | 15 / R

    Escape from New York

    It’s a wonder that Escape from New York never wound up on my Blindspot list — it’s exactly the kind of film I always expected would be on there. Well, I guess the way I choose those films often errs towards “cinephile classics” rather than the kind of films I read discussed as classics in the kind of genre magazines I grew up reading. I’m sure it would have made it in eventually, if I hadn’t just straight up watched it first.

    I mention that upfront because it indicates something about how much I expected Escape from New York to be My Kind of Thing; and so there is every possibility my expectations for it were set too high. Frankly, it wasn’t as much pulpy fun as I expected it to be. It’s surprisingly slow, and very nihilistic — this isn’t a fun ride through a cool dystopia, more a glum portrait of everything having gone to shit, but in the body of an action movie.

    That said, I’m by no means arguing this is a bad movie. There is stuff here that’s good and that works, and is cool in the way it should be (it’s a pulpy premise that gets a pulpy treatment — I think “cool” is a perfectly valid thing for it to aim for). Kurt Russell does his best Clint Eastwood impression (literally) as anti-hero Snake Plissken, which is quite fun, and there’s some great music on the soundtrack, especially the main theme. Considering the lowly budget, the ruined streets of future New York are well realised too, supplemented by a tiny amount of location footage (the first film to be shot on Liberty Island!) and a stunning model of the blacked-out city.

    Despite all of that, overall it doesn’t come together and achieve the heights I expected of it. In some respects, my score below is generous — it’s a downgrade from the 5 I hoped I’d be giving the film, rather than an upgrade from a neutral 3, if that makes sense. Definitely one I need to revisit with realigned expectations.

    4 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup XXIV

    The 100-Week Roundup covers films I still haven’t reviewed 100 weeks after watching them. Sometimes these are short ‘proper’ reviews; sometimes they’re only quick thoughts, or even just the notes I made while viewing.

    This week’s selection includes three films from March 2019

  • Bruce Almighty (2003)
  • Isle of Dogs (2018)
  • Life Is Beautiful (1997)


    Bruce Almighty
    (2003)

    2019 #31
    Tom Shadyac | 97 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Bruce Almighty

    Television reporter Bruce Nolan (Jim Carrey) doesn’t think the world is treating him fairly, but when he angrily rages against God, he actually gets a response. God (Morgan Freeman) decides to take a holiday, leaving Bruce in charge with His divine powers. As Burce puts his omnipotent powers to the test, he comes to realise that with great power comes… yeah. — liberally adapted from IMDb

    I mean, in fairness to Bruce, Spider-Man only came out the year before — maybe he just hadn’t seen it yet.

    Anyway, Bruce Almighty is almost entirely fuelled by Carrey’s antics — if you enjoy his zany style, you’ll lap it up; if you hate it, there are no redeeming qualities that haven’t been done better in other broadly-similarly-themed films (see Groundhog Day, for example). I say “almost entirely” because there are brief asides where Morgan Freeman or Steve Carrell get to steal a scene. Indeed, Freeman earned the film’s only out-loud laugh from me when he casually throws in one of Carrey’s best-known catchphrases.

    Personally, I’m in between on comedy-mode Carrey, and so that’s where I landed on Bruce Almighty. He doesn’t push his schtick so far that it becomes irritating to me, as in the Ace Ventura films (I quite liked them as a kid but feel I’d hate them now), but nor is it inspired enough to really transcend being just what it is.

    3 out of 5

    Isle of Dogs
    (2018)

    2019 #32
    Wes Anderson | 97 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & Germany / English & Japanese | PG / PG-13

    Isle of Dogs

    Wes Anderson has a weird proclivity for killing dogs in his movies, so it seems almost like some kind of atonement that he’d turn around and make a movie whose title is a homophone for “I love dogs”.

    This animated adventure is set in a near-future Japan, where a canine flu is spreading through the city of Megasaki. To stop it, the mayor orders all dogs be banished to Trash Island — starting with Spots, the pet of his orphaned 12-year-old nephew, Atari. So Atari steals a plane and flies to Trash Island, where he teams up with five stray dogs to search for his exiled pal.

    Isle of Dogs attracted a certain amount of criticism when it was released for its treatment of the Japanese characters and, especially, language; primarily, that the Japanese dialogue is not subtitled, thereby ‘othering’ those characters because we’re prevented from engaging with them. When watching the film, my first thought was those complaints were being a bit daft: the dogs speak English, the humans speak Japanese, and we’re clearly being placed with the dogs — the humans are ‘other’ because they’re human, not because they’re Japanese. But then the film keeps jumping through hoops to get around this, for example with translators on TV to re-speak the Japanese in English; or an American exchange student to speak for another group with English dialogue. This is where it does tip into being problematic; where it can feel like a Western director playing around with another culture.

    All of which said, I still very much enjoyed the film. As a fellow Anglophone admirer of Japanese culture, that aspect broadly worked for me. Setting aside the controversy, it’s still amusing, in Anderson’s normal mode, with a suitably exciting and action-packed quest narrative.

    5 out of 5

    Life Is Beautiful
    (1997)

    aka La vita è bella

    2019 #33
    Roberto Benigni | 116 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | Italy / Italian, English & German | PG / PG-13

    Life is Beautiful

    In 1930s Italy, a carefree Jewish librarian named Guido starts a fairytale life by courting and marrying a woman from a nearby city. They have a son and live happily together until the occupation of Italy by German forces, when they’re separated and sent to concentration camps. Determined to shelter his son from the horrors of his surroundings, Guido pretends that their time in the camp is merely a game. — adapted from IMDb

    Every summary of Life is Beautiful concentrates on the “they end up in the Holocaust” bit — which is fair enough, it’s rather a major thing. But this is really a film of two halves. The first is a broad, sketch-like comedy, in which Guido (played by cowriter-director Roberto Benigni) bumbles around, woos his wife, and starts a lovely life. It’s the kind of comedy in which there’s a single sequence where a bunch of sketches all pay off at once, in a series of coincidences that’s somewhere between artful and ludicrous. The second half is a kind of concentration camp comedy, which is just as unwieldy as that sounds. The almost farcical humour of the first half attempts to linger on, but it buts awkwardly against the unspeakable horrors that occur.

    Eventually it comes to an ending that I was similarly divided about. It’s clearly designed to be hyper-emotional, and it pulls at some very obvious strings to get there quickly, which seems to work for many viewers, but I didn’t feel it. Why? Well, it’s based in the relationship between father and son, and I don’t think the rest of the film really is. The first half of the film is all about investing us in the relationship between Guido and his wife — we follow their relationship from the very beginning, and the film charms us and connects us to their coupling. But then the second half virtually tosses that aside to make the important relationship the one between Guido and his son. We get two or three quick scenes that incidentally suggest a good father/son bond, then it’s off to the camp, which is a whole other kettle of fish. We’re not given the time to properly buy into this father/son relationship. That’s not to say I don’t believe it, just that we’re only learning about it at the same time as we’re supposed to be affected by its endurance. Doing both at once doesn’t work, in my opinion. Now, if the first half (or even just the first act) had been about Guido and his son’s wonderful relationship before the occupation, it would have established that well and connected us to it; then, if the rest of the film unfolded as-is, I think it would have made for a much more powerful ending, because it would have had the full weight of their entire relationship behind it. Instead, as well as being a film of two halves, Life is Beautiful ends up a film of two relationships, one in each half.

    Despite the film winning awards at Cannes and the Oscars, and being in the top 10% of IMDb’s Top 250, etc, this “two halves” thing — the awkward balancing act between comedy and tragedy — has been noted by critics ever since its initial release. It makes for a wavering viewing experience. It’s kind of inappropriate, but kind of isn’t; it kind of celebrates the ingenuity of the human spirit, but kind of belittles the real tragedy in the process; it’s kind of a success, but kind of a well-meaning misguided effort. It’s this sense that the film’s heart is in the right place that sees my score err upwards.

    4 out of 5

    Life is Beautiful was viewed as part of What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2019.

  • Rope (1948)

    2019 #24
    Alfred Hitchcock | 81 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Rope

    Nowadays fake single takes are all over the place — some of them even last whole movies. But, as with so much cinematic trickery, it’s not actually a new idea. I don’t know if Alfred Hitchcock was the first director to attempt to trick the viewer into thinking they were watching one long take, when in fact it’s several shots stitched together via hidden cuts, but his effort is certainly one of the most famous. As an exercise in style, it’s a mixed success. Hitch is presumably inventing techniques that other filmmakers would polish and perfect in later attempts at the same stunt, but these first attempts don’t always come off perfectly. For example, every ‘hidden’ cut comes via an unmotivated camera move into the back of someone’s jacket — it may hide the cut in a literal sense, but there’s no doubting what’s going on. The entire movie is staged in actual long takes — just ten in total, most of them running seven to ten minutes. That means there are just nine cuts in the entire film, but several times (four, to be precise) Hitch just gives in and resorts to a regular cut. Sometimes you have to put the needs of the story before your showing off, I guess.

    But, in other ways, the film is a great technical success. The camera moves elegantly around the apartment, employing moveable walls and stagehands shifting props while out of shot to get the moves Hitch was after. A large window at the back of the set shows a cityscape, which in other films would’ve just been a photo blowup, but here is made more convincing and alive with smoke and lights. Similarly, the passing of time is subtly emphasised because, through that window, we can see the sunlight gradually transition from daytime to evening. All of this helps sell the fact that the film takes place in real-time… sort of. Although it only runs 80 minutes, scientific analysis (yes, some scientists analyse this kind of thing) has shown the events cover about 100 minutes. Certain action is sped-up to close that gap — for example, the sun sets too quickly. Apparently this is so effective that the analysis concluded audience members feel like they’ve watched a 100-minute movie, even though it’s only 80… which, er, I don’t think was meant to sound like a criticism…

    Look, a rope!

    Ostensibly based on Patrick Hamilton’s play of the same name, which in turn was inspired by the Leopold and Loeb case (also the inspiration for Compulsion, amongst various other works of fiction), this adaptation changes the setting, almost all of the character names, and some of their personality traits too. Wherever they come from, the film offers an interesting array of characters. The most obvious are the two murderers — smug, cocky Brandon and worrisome Phillip — along with James Stewart, who portrays a gradual realisation that something is amis, culminating in devastation at what was really a silly thought exercise being writ into reality. Apparently Stewart thought he was miscast, but I think he’s very good, conveying much with just looks and expressions, and making you believe his moral about-turn at the end.

    Other parts have, perhaps, dated: the film attracted some controversy for its homosexual overtones, but to modern eyes there’s very little to emphasise such an interpretation. Perhaps some social cues that once indicated homosexuality have fallen by the wayside in the past seven decades; or perhaps, because there’s no need to bury such things anymore, what was once ‘weird’ is now just normal behaviour. Nonetheless, much of the screenplay remains quite fun, including various nods and winks to the situation, and one slightly meta scene where two female characters talk about male movie stars they adore in front of Jimmy Stewart. But there are also sequences of familiarly Hitchcockian suspense, one great bit coming when all the characters are distracted chatting but we’re watching the maid who, while she slowly clears stuff away, is on course to discover the hidden body…

    As the end credits roll, the actor who plays David — the victim, who dies in the first shot of the movie; really, no more than a prop — Is listed first, and then every other character is defined in relation to him. It’s almost like they film’s very credits are underlining the message of the film: that no one’s inferior, including David; like they’re giving him some kind of dignity in death by making him the focus of the final element of the film. It’s another neat little trick in a film that’s full of them.

    5 out of 5

    Rope was viewed as part of Blindspot 2019.

    The 100-Week Roundup XXI

    I’m sure regular readers — who hungrily consume every word I publish with a near-religious commitment, right? — are well aware of the purpose of these 100-week roundups; but for the sake of newcomers discovering them for the first time, perhaps stumbling here wearily via an IMDb link, I feel it’s overdue that I come up with some kind of generic introduction to stick on each one. Maybe something like this:

    The 100-Week Roundup covers films I still haven’t reviewed 100 weeks after watching them. Sometimes these are short ‘proper’ reviews; sometimes they’re only quick thoughts, or even just the notes I made while viewing. This week’s collection includes the final film leftover from January 2019 and the first few to be rounded up from that February

  • The Player (1992)
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2018)
  • First Reformed (2017)
  • Gods and Monsters (1998)


    The Player
    (1992)

    2019 #8
    Robert Altman | 124 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    The Player

    Robert Altman’s satirical look at the world of Hollywood filmmaking stars Tim Robbins as a studio executive who rejects tens of thousands of prospective screenplays a year. When he begins to receive threatening postcards from an anonymous rejected writer, at the same time as his job seems under threat from a new employee, he’s led down a rabbit hole of suspicion and paranoia that may ruin more than just his career…

    You don’t get movies that are much more “insider Hollywood” than The Player, concerned as it is with the workings of the studio system, and packed to the rafters with cameos, both famous (big-name actors) and not (several of the guys who pitch in the film are real screenwriters). Such a focus would seemed primed to make a film inaccessible — witty and clever to those in the know, but leaving the rest of us shut out. That’s not the case here. While there’s no doubting the truthfulness (at least, in a satirical sense) of Altman’s depiction of Hollywood’s inner workings, he’s taking general aim at the entire world of it. Plus, there’s always the mystery/thriller storyline to keep us hooked.

    And in its insightfulness, the film is ahead of its time. As observed by Sam Wasson in his essay for the film’s Criterion release — written in 2016, but only more accurate five years further on — “today, when it’s the IP and not the script, or the director, or even the actor, that gets the movie made, when films are green-lit before they are written, and studios, I keep hearing, hire weaker directors because they’re easier to control, I think of that meeting, midway into The Player… when [Robbins] muses aloud to a roomful of colleagues, ‘I was just thinking what an interesting concept it is to eliminate the writer from the artistic process. If we can just get rid of these actors and directors, maybe we’ve got something here.’” I guess someone was taking notes…

    5 out of 5

    The Player was viewed as part of Blindspot 2019.

    The Guernsey Literary and
    Potato Peel Pie Society

    (2018)

    2019 #12
    Mike Newell | 123 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK, France & USA / English | 12

    The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

    In the aftermath of World War II, a writer (Lily James) forms an unexpected bond with the residents of Guernsey when she decides to write about the book club they formed during the island’s Nazi occupation. — adapted from IMDb

    Here we have a film that seemed to come in for a fair bit of flack in critical circles, and I can’t help but wonder if it a large part of it is simply down to the title. As I wrote in the February 2019 Arbies, it’s self-consciously whimsical, but “I can kind of see what they were going for… but they took it too far and now it’s a more horrible mouthful than the pie itself.”

    In fairness to the film’s detractors, that wasn’t their only nitpick. Another is that, although she’s ostensibly the protagonist and therefore a proactive character, James’s role is basically to keep asking the other characters what happened in the past until they explain the plot to her. That’s not an entirely inaccurate assessment of how the story unfolds. Virtually the only dramatic tension comes from the fact the other characters, all of whom know what went on, won’t reveal it until they (or, rather, the plot) decide it’s time to. Then again, stuff like having an active protagonist is one of those rules of drama that I sometimes feel is a rule just because it’s a rule — if your story is engrossing and entertaining anyway, why not have the ‘hero’ be little more than a narrator to guide us through what went on? Anyway, I’m not sure Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was built to support such technical debates.

    Naturally, there’s a romance storyline too. That’s all very twee, of course, but the flashbacks to life under occupation give the film more grit than some gave it credit for. This isn’t a hard-hitting war movie, but nor is it simply an airy-fairy romance in pretty locations with an overdose of the sugary quirkiness that the title implies. Taken as a whole, it’s a perfectly decent melodrama-ish movie, that delivers on both a “chick flick”-ish romantic level and as some kind of recognition for the efforts of ordinary people during the war.

    4 out of 5

    First Reformed
    (2017)

    2019 #13
    Paul Schrader | 113 mins | digital (HD) | 1.37:1 | USA, UK & Australia / English | 15 / R

    First Reformed

    The pastor (Ethan Hawke) of a small church in upstate New York is asked for help by a pregnant parishioner (Amanda Seyfried) whose husband is a radical environmentalist. When the situation takes a tragic turn, the pastor must cope with mounting despair brought on by tragedy, worldly concerns, and his tormented past. — adapted from IMDb

    My first note about First Reformed is: I’m glad I didn’t watch the trailer first — it gives away almost all the salient details of the climax. So there’s a warning to you, too. (Naturally, the above plot description is written to not give too much away.)

    Continuing in that non-spoiler-y vein, then, all I can share from my notes about the ending is that it definitely seems designed to provoke debate — about the rights and wrongs of what does and doesn’t happen; about the choices made; about the way it chooses to conclude. The problem (or, some might feel, advantage) of being vague about this is that there’s no meaningful way to engage with said debate. Oh well.

    Before we get to the contentious conclusion, First Reformed appears to be a quiet little drama about personal despair and grief. It sort of morphs into something very different — almost a polemic about climax change. I say “sort of” because it also retains its smaller character-specific focus by using such big world-affecting things as a metaphor or mirror for individual dejection and hope. The character in question is Ethan Hawke’s pastor, and it’s very much a character study of him (Amanda Seyfried, a big name given co-billing on posters, etc, doesn’t have a huge amount to do — even when her character is involved in several exceptionally emotional situations, she remains very calm). With the whole film on his shoulders, Hawke is excellent, navigating us through his character’s rather internal conflicts with an assured performance.

    It was a good enough turn to put him in the awards conversation, as I remember, but not to secure any major nominations. The film did get an Oscar nod for its screenplay, written by director Paul Schrader, but it lost to Green Book. The less said about that the better, maybe.

    4 out of 5

    Gods and Monsters
    (1998)

    2019 #16
    Bill Condon | 105 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | USA & UK / English | 15 / R

    Gods and Monsters

    James Whale (played here by Ian McKellen) was the director of such acclaimed classics of the 1930s as Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, and Show Boat. By 1957, he was long since retired, and when he suffers a stroke it causes him to reflect on his memories — of his earlier life in England; of his movie career; and of his time in the trenches during World War I. He recounts these experiences to his new gardener, Clay (Brendan Fraser), a strapping ex-Marine who Whale persuades to model for him. Their friendship grows, even as Clay is wary of Whale’s homosexuality, and Whale’s health deteriorates.

    Viewed now, there are definitely parallels between this and another film starring Ian McKellen and directed by Bill Condon, Mr. Holmes. Both concern a dying old man (McKellen), cared for by a characterful housekeeper (here, Lynn Redgrave), who connects with a younger male while reflecting on former glories. No offence meant to Condon, but if he were a more noted director then I guess more people would have discussed the similarities between the two works, for good or ill (are they mirrored explorations of a similar theme, or just self plagiarism?) Of the two, Gods and Monsters is probably the more effective, benefitting from being based on a real person and true events in its exploration of who this person was.

    4 out of 5

  • The Best of 2020

    And so, we reach the end of 2020.

    I don’t know about you, but this feels like a, “what, already?!” moment to me. Putting my year-in-review posts together used to seem to take ages, but this year it feels like I’ve barely begun and now it’s over. But that’s enough about my subjective perception of time — let’s talk about movies in 2020, like Tenet, which is partly about… um, never mind.

    This final year-in-review post does what it says on the tin: it’s a list of my favourite films that I saw in 2020 (normally my least-favourites would be here too, but I did those already). A note for newcomers and/or reminder to the forgetful: rather than just 2020 releases, I select my list from all 264 movies I saw for the first time during 2020. That’s partly because there are tonnes of new releases that I never see in time — which is also why this post contains a list of 50 significant films I missed.

    Compiling this year’s lists has taken a lot of thinking, rearranging, cutting, reflecting, re-adding, re-rearranging, and a certain amount of “oh, that’ll do, what does it matter anyway” to actually get them out the door. Here’s what I ended up with…



    The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2020

    Since 2016, I’ve replaced the usual “top ten” with a “top 10%”. As I watched 264 films in 2020, that means this year’s list has 26 films. (If you think that’s too many, feel free to scroll down and start from wherever you like.)

    Although all the movies I watched for the first time in 2020 are eligible, I did watch 57 films that had their UK release in 2020, so I’ve noted the ‘2020 rank’ of the eight that made it in. (I also saw a couple of 2020-UK-release films at FilmBath Festival in 2019. As they were already ranked as 2019, I’ve not factored them in here.)

    26 Klaus

    The animation is absolutely gorgeous in this Oscar-nominated BAFTA-winning Netflix original about a disaffected postman who helps originate the legend of Santa.

    25 The Looking Glass War
    The mundanity of real-life espionage; conflicted morals; the futility of the whole thing — this John le Carré adaptation is full of all the things that made his work so great.

    24 Dial M for Murder

    As intelligent and tense a thriller as you’d expect from Hitchcock; so good it even manages to make you overlook its obvious stage-bound roots. Superb in 3D, too.

    23 The Invisible Man
    2020 #8 This #MeToo-era reimagining of the HG Wells / Universal Horror classic could hardly be more timely. But even leaving that aside, it’s a chilling exercise in ratcheting tension.

    From its astounding opening to its hard-hitting final act, Last Black Man is an astonishing cinematic experience about the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. [Full review.]

    21 Aniara
    A space ship full of colonists is sent irretrievably off course in this Scandi sci-fi that’s driven by big ideas about human behaviour in extremis.

    20 Paris When It Sizzles

    William Holden and Audrey Hepburn are clearly having a whale of a time in this marvellously cine-literate ’60s romp about a struggling screenwriter.

    19 Philomena
    Judi Dench is extraordinary and Steve Coogan is a revelation in this intensely affecting drama about a wronged woman searching for her son who was taken decades earlier.

    18 Fanny and Alexander

    Ingmar Bergman described this as “the sum total of [his] life as a filmmaker”. Blending familial drama with a dash of magical realism and the supernatural, it’s a masterful work.

    17 Belladonna of Sadness
    Delicate watercolour artwork and medieval folklore smash against a storyline fuelled by rape and a penis-shaped devil in this astonishing animation full of psychedelic imagery and experimental music. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

    2020 #7 It’s “Agatha Christie meets the Coen brothers in a nudist camp” as the eponymous handyman searches for his missing hammer in a world full of wobbly bits, where anyone might’ve taken it. [Full review.]

    15 Tenet
    2020 #6 If you let go of the need to fully understand the mechanics of the film’s time-reversal conceit, Christopher Nolan’s latest is an audacious and exciting spy thriller. It’s a shame real-world arguments have come to overshadow what is actually a suitably thrilling spectacle.

    14 Soul

    2020 #5 Pixar have often been praised for making films for grown-ups. That’s not something I’d wholly agree with, until now. Not as cutesy as the rest of their output (largely), Soul asks big questions about what makes us who we are. All wrapped up in a buddy-quest storyline, of course.

    13 Knives Out
    Rian Johnson’s tribute to whodunnits a la Agatha Christie pulls off something that genre can’t always manage: rewatchability. It barely matters who actually dunnit when it’s this much fun spending time with the outrageous suspects and Daniel Craig’s implausibly-accented detective.

    12 The Old Dark House

    As amusing as a droll comedy and as atmospheric as a creepy old-school horror, James “director of Frankenstein” Whale’s genre classic is just a lot of fun.

    If this anime were live-action, it would be an action-adventure blockbuster. It’s got it all: thrills, humour, emotion, wonder… That makes it so accessible, it would be a perfect starting point for any Westerner new to anime. [Full review.]

    Taron Egerton stars as Elton John for this unusual biopic of the singer. Part traditional musician biopic, part jukebox musical, director Dexter Fletcher remixes John’s music into some imaginatively staged sequences, while Egerton and his supporting cast (in particular Jamie Bell) give thoughtful, nuanced performances. The cumulative effect is a movie that is highly enjoyable but not without depth. [Full review.]

    9
    The Lady Vanishes

    Alfred Hitchcock is probably most renowned for his Hollywood movies (Pyscho, Vertigo, Rear Window, etc), but we shouldn’t forget his British output — these are the films that got him Hollywood’s attention, after all. The director’s second appearance on this year’s list is one of the last films he made before that jump across the pond. It’s a mystery thriller about an old lady who somehow disappears from a moving train, and a couple of youngsters who try to find out how and why. It’s witty, it’s clever, and it’s exciting — all the things for which Hitch is best known.

    8
    Judgment at Nuremberg

    This fictionalised account of the military tribunals that took place following the Second World War sets its sights not on the trials of major Nazi leaders, but on the subsequent trials that assessed the guilt of people further down the chain — here, four judges and prosecutors who helped facilitate the Nazi’s crimes. For such weighty material, this is an appropriately weighty film — a long, complex, methodical, harrowing account. Boldly directed by Stanley Kramer, and with an incredible cast all giving first-rate performances, this remains a powerful, brilliant film.

    7
    Tim’s Vermeer

    Computer graphics pioneer and inventor Tim Jenison is an art enthusiast, fascinated by the work of Dutch master Johannes Vermeer, in whose work his engineer’s brain sees a near-impossible photographic accuracy. So, he sets out to prove and expound upon existing theories that Vermeer painted with the aid of some kind of optical device. What unfolds is an astonishing story of obsession, dedication, and art historiography, which challenges your idea of where the line lies between art and technology.

    2020 #4 Sam Mendes’s single-take(-kinda) World War One adventure ended up losing many of the big prizes to Parasite last awards season (FYI, they both count as 2020 films here due to UK release dates in January and February, respectively). But that doesn’t mean it’s any less of an extraordinary experience. I love a long single take (fake or not), and I love stories that unfold in real-time, and I feel World War One has been under-represented on screen — so when Mendes takes all of those things and executes them brilliantly (having Roger Deakins on cinematography helps), you get a film that’s right up my street. [Full review.]

    If 1917 uses all the skills of modern tech to craft an almost old-fashioned epic, Bait is practically the polar opposite: old-school techniques (a wind-up camera; hand-developed 16mm film; post-sync sound) to tell a very modern story (broadly, about the economic plight of Cornish fishermen). It could be pretentiously arthouse or an insufferable polemic, but it’s neither. Instead, the story is told with genuine heart, drama, and humour, and the handmade aesthetic adds an appreciable, beautiful texture. [Full review.]

    4
    Parasite

    2020 #3 If you use Letterboxd, the latest film from acclaimed South Korean director Bong Joon Ho comes with a heavy millstone round its neck: according to that site’s users, it’s the greatest film ever made. Like Citizen Kane before it, such a label can be a distraction, and makes some people want to push back against it (is that why I’ve only ranked it at #4? You decide). “Best film ever” or not, the first non-English-language film to win the Best Picture Oscar is a timely deconstruction of class systems — just who are the eponymous parasites, actually? Even aside from big societal questions, it’s a thrilling piece of filmmaking; tense, exciting, and surprising.

    2020 #2 Can a filmed stage production be the year’s best film? Um… Well, that’s a major reason why Hamilton is in 3rd place for my 2020 viewing and 2nd place for 2020 releases: it’s not really a film, right? Well, it’s definitely some kind of historical record — not of the life of Alexander Hamilton, but of a theatre production that took the world by storm. Here we get to witness the original Broadway cast in the show’s original staging, allowing us all the chance to witness a genuine cultural phenomenon first-hand. But this is not merely a couple of cameras plonked into the audience for the sake of posterity: director Thomas Kail users multiple cinematic techniques to make a film that truly feels like a film. Yes, it’s still theatrical, but it feels like this is how this story is meant to be (cf. something like Dogville: also very theatrical; also definitely a film). Theatres will reopen and we’ll be able to see Hamilton in the flesh again; and someday they’ll inevitably make a ‘real’ movie adaptation; and even still, this film will stand as a legitimate, magnificent experience in its own right. [Full review.]

    2020 #1 Writer-director Eliza Hittman’s story of a Pennsylvanian teenager forced to travel to New York for an abortion is told with documentary-like subtlety and understatement, but the result is incredibly moving and powerful. Without ever explicitly stating it, the film is an eloquent condemnation of US systems that force poor and struggling individuals to jump through hoops to access care that those of us in the rest of the developed world might consider basic rights. It’s a potent reminder that, for all its claims of being a highly-developed world-leader, for many of its citizens the US is as regressive, prejudiced, and unequal as the ‘Third World’ countries it so often seeks to demonise. [Full review.]

    1
    Do the Right Thing

    If there’s one feature that links many films on this year’s list, it’s timeliness: films that connect with some of the big sociopolitical issues of our day. Do the Right Thing was made over 30 years ago, but in its subject matter — a stiflingly hot day in a Brooklyn neighbourhood causes tensions to boil over into white-on-black violence — it could scarcely be more 2020. But this is not about “which film best encapsulates the year”, and so Spike Lee’s film tops my list because of all its other qualities, too. It’s a portrait of a place; a day-in-the-life hangout movie, where we follow myriad characters as they go about their business; 90-or-so minutes in which we get to understand the neighbourhood, to know its inhabitants… before the powder keg explodes and everything changes. Except, as we now know, nothing’s really changed at all.


    As usual, I’d just like to highlight a few other films.

    First, the cinematic masterpiece that is Love on a Leash. If you’re unfamiliar with this feat of cinematic excellence, may I recommend my review. It’s not exactly #27, because at various points while curating my list I had it in the top ten, the top twenty, in 26th place… but, eventually, not in the list at all. As I discussed in my review, it’s a film that’s hard to categorise: it’s simultaneously a one-star disaster and a five-star artistic experience. It’s an object lesson in why criticism of art can never be objective, because it’s unquestionable that it’s terribly made in every respect, and yet it’s nonstop entertaining, even thought-provoking, and certainly unique. (Of course, some people would say it’s objectively bad. Those people are wrong.)

    I’m someone who believes “best” and “favourite” can be different things: in 2020, I saw some movies I would acknowledge as great but that didn’t make the Top 26 because they didn’t really entertain me; equally, some films got in that are indeed great but I may never rewatch, whereas I left out simpler fare that I’m sure I’ll revisit. In a ranking of the “best” films I saw this year, no way does Love on a Leash get close; but in terms of my “favourite” films, it might’ve been pretty damn high. My final Top 26 falls somewhere between those two stools, but does carry the “best of” name, and so it felt insulting to any other film in the list (or, indeed, to those that tried but failed to squeeze in) to rank Love on a Leash above them. So here it is instead: first among my “honourable mentions”, with two solid paragraphs dedicated to it — more than any film in the actual list. So who’s the real winner, eh?

    Next, let’s recap the 12 films that won Favourite Film of the Month at the Arbies, some of which have already been mentioned and some of which haven’t. In chronological order, with links to the relevant awards, they were Laputa: Castle in the Sky, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Lady Vanishes, Aniara, Belladonna of Sadness, Paris When It Sizzles, Hamilton, Bad Boys for Life, Fanny and Alexander, Tim’s Vermeer, An American Werewolf in London, and Klaus.

    Finally, I always list every film that earned a 5-star rating this year. It’s especially pertinent this year, given how few reviews I’ve actually posted; although, as I noted in my stats post, it’s possible some of these ratings will be revised when I come to write a full review. But, for now, the 39 films with full marks are 1917, All About Eve, All Quiet on the Western Front, An American Werewolf in London, Anand, Aniara, Bait, Belladonna of Sadness, Dial M for Murder, Do the Right Thing, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Fanny and Alexander, The French Connection, Hamilton, Harakiri, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, In the Mood for Love, The Invisible Guest, Judgment at Nuremberg, Knives Out, Lady Bird, The Lady Vanishes, Laputa: Castle in the Sky, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Little Women, The Looking Glass War, Love on a Leash, The Lunchbox, A Man for All Seasons, Man on Wire, Marriage Story, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Parasite, Paris When It Sizzles, Philomena, Rocketman, Safety Last!, Soul, and Tim’s Vermeer. Plus, this year I also gave five stars to Mission: Impossible – Fallout in 3D, and (earmarked for the ‘Guide To’ treatment at some point) Tim Burton’s Batman and Monty Python’s Life of Brian. There were also several short films that merited the accolade, namely Flush Lou, The Last Video Store, The Monkeys on Our Backs, and The Starey Bampire.


    It may have felt like 2020 was a year bereft of movies, as blockbuster after blockbuster got kicked into 2021, but plenty of stuff still came out — both major releases that took the streaming plunge, and smaller titles that probably wouldn’t’ve seen huge theatrical box office anyway; not to mention stuff that’s going to count as 2020 due to festival screenings but won’t really be released anywhere until 2021; and, of course, all the streamers’ own original movies.

    Even though I did watch 57 movies that had a UK release in 2020, there were a considerable number I missed. So, as always, here’s an alphabetical list of 50 films from 2020 that I’ve not yet seen. (I normally use IMDb’s dating to decide what’s eligible for inclusion, but I’ve allowed a handful that are listed as 2019 only because of festival screenings.) These have been chosen for a variety of reasons, from box office success to critical acclaim via simple notoriety. There are many more I want to see that I could have included, but I always attempt to feature a spread of styles and genres, successes and failures.

    Another Round
    Da 5 Bloods
    The Hunt
    The New Mutants
    Promising Young Woman
    WolfWalkers
    Bill & Ted Face the Music
    The Eight Hundred
    I'm Thinking of Ending Things
    Nomadland
    Rebecca
    Wonder Woman 1984
    An American Pickle
    Ammonite
    Another Round
    Artemis Fowl
    Bill & Ted Face the Music
    The Call of the Wild
    Da 5 Bloods
    David Byrne’s American Utopia
    The Devil All the Time
    Dolittle
    The Eight Hundred
    The Father
    The Gentlemen
    The Half of It
    Happiest Season
    Hillbilly Elegy
    Host
    The Hunt
    I’m Thinking of Ending Things
    Kajillionaire
    The King of Staten Island
    Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
    Mank
    The Midnight Sky
    Military Wives
    Minari
    Miss Juneteenth
    Mulan
    My Spy
    The New Mutants
    News of the World
    Nomadland
    One Night in Miami…
    Onward
    Peninsula
    Possessor
    Promising Young Woman
    Rebecca
    Saint Maud
    Scoob!
    The Secret Garden
    Shirley
    The Social Dilemma
    Sonic the Hedgehog
    Supernova
    The Trial of the Chicago 7
    True History of the Kelly Gang
    The Witches
    WolfWalkers
    Wonder Woman 1984


    And that is 2020 over and done with — hurrah!

    Ignoring for a moment all the news that’s currently telling us how 2021 will be just as bad, if not worse, one thing to look forward to is that it’s my 15th year writing this blog. 15 years! I feel old… The actual date of the blog’s 15th birthday is at the end of February 2022, so I’ve got a little time yet to prepare some kind of celebration.

    In the meantime, let’s watch some more films…