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…

    The 100-Week Roundup XV

    I’ve fallen terribly behind with these 100-Week Roundups — I should be on to films from 2019 by now (because 100 weeks is c.23 months), but I still have 17 reviews from 2018 to go. I considered trying to cram more into each roundup, but that just takes longer to compile, so my aim is to post a more-than-average number of roundups in the next fortnight with the goal of at least completing 2018 before 2020 ends. We’ll see how that goes.

    For now, we’re in November 2018 and looking at…

  • The Other Side of the Wind (2018)
  • Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero (1998)
  • Paper Moon (1973)
  • Hitchcock/Truffaut (2015)


    The Other Side of the Wind
    (2018)

    2018 #226
    Orson Welles | 122 mins | digital (UHD) | 1.37:1 + 1.85:1 | France, Iran & USA / English | 15 / R

    The Other Side of the Wind

    One of my draft intros for The Other Side of the Wind was to talk about how it feels like “a 2018 film” because it’s different; innovative; unique — modern. But then to note that, of course, it was all shot in the 1970s, but never completed for financial and legal reasons. That’s only partially true, though, because while it does feel modern in some ways, it still looks and feels very ’70s; and while it’s no doubt experimental and avant-garde, it’s in a very ’70s way. And the look of the film stock is very ’70s. It’s a strange, undoubtedly compromised movie — but so are many of the films Orson Welles managed to complete while he was alive, thanks to studio interference, so it’s hardly a sore thumb in that regard.

    The film tells the story of the final days of Jake Hannaford (John Huston), a film director working on his comeback movie (you’ve gotta think there’s some autobiography in here, then, right?) It’s a portrait of the man’s final hours, supposedly assembled from dozens of sources that were shooting him at the time — Welles prefiguring the ‘found footage’ genre by a decade or two. But this isn’t a horror movie… well, not in the traditional sense: in my notes I described it as “a frantically-cut display of pompous self-declared intellectuals pontificating about something and nothing in a battle of pretentiousness. That perhaps explains why, at a time when Netflix movies routinely ‘break out’, the flash of interest the film’s release provoked has not resulted in any kind of sustained wide admiration.

    Whatever your thoughts on the final film (and it’s clearly one for cineastes and completists rather than general audiences), it seems remarkable that it took so long for anyone to be willing to fund the completion of a film by The Great Orson Welles. But that’s actually a story unto itself, told in the accompanying documentary A Final Cut for Orson: 40 Years in the Making (which is hidden in the film’s “Trailers & More” section, but is definitely worth seeking out if you’re interested). Among the revelations there are that Welles shot almost 100 hours of footage, spread across 1,083 film elements, all of which had to be fully inventoried. Matching it up was a problem that would have been insurmountable even ten years ago; it’s only possible now thanks to digital techniques and algorithms — and, of course, a big chunk of change from Netflix. Welles had only cut together about 45 minutes, with the rest completed based on the style of those parts, his notes and letters, and recordings of some of his direction that was retained on the sound reels.

    Was the effort worth it? It’s certainly a fascinating project to see brought to some kind of fruition. In the end, I’m not sure what it all signified. The story is pretty straightforward, but it’s jumbled in amongst a lot of hyperactive editing, as well as a bizarre film-within-a-film. There are things here which still feel ahead of their time even now, and things that were certainly ahead of their time when shot in the early ’70s (even if other people have done them since), which is always exciting. Combine that with Welles’s status and this is unquestionably a fascinating, must-see movie for cinephiles.

    3 out of 5

    Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero
    (1998)

    2018 #227
    Boyd Kirkland | 67 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | USA / English | PG

    Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero

    It’s now so ingrained in Bat-canon that it’s easy to forget, but Batman: The Animated Series actually invented Mr Freeze’s backstory about his dead wife, etc. It was so successful that the episode (Heart of Ice) won an Emmy, the character was brought back to life in the comics (complete with this new backstory), and just a few years later it was used in Batman & Robin (which, considering how much that film was happy to ignore about other characters, e.g. Bane, just goes to show… something).

    So, with The Animated Series responsible for such a major revival of the character, it kinda makes sense they’d choose him to star in their second animated feature — although another version of events is he was chosen to tie-in with Batman & Robin, but then SubZero was pushed back after the live-action film was a critical flop. That makes sense, because while Heart of Ice is fantastic and influential, none of Freeze’s other Animated Series appearances have a great deal to offer. TV episode Deep Freeze is sci-fi B-movie gubbins featuring Freeze as a cog in the plot rather than its driving force; and, after all the effort to humanise him, in Cold Comfort he’s just a villain doing villainous things with incredibly thin motivation.

    SubZero is, at least, a step above those. It doesn’t withstand comparison to its predecessor movie, the genuine classic Mask of the Phantasm — that had entertainment value for kids, but was also a thoughtful, mature story about what drives Bruce Wayne to be Batman. SubZero, on the other hand, is just an action-adventure ride. It’s not bad for what it is (there’s a pretty great car chase halfway through, and the explosive climax aboard an abandoned oil derrick going up in flames is rather good), but no more than that. At least it finally provides a neat end to Freeze’s story… even if it is kinda hurried in a last-minute news report.

    3 out of 5

    Paper Moon
    (1973)

    2018 #235
    Peter Bogdanovich | 98 mins | TV (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Paper Moon

    I do try to avoid this situation arising in a ‘review’, but I watched Paper Moon over two years ago and didn’t make any significant notes on it, so I’m afraid I can’t say much of my own opinion. What I can tell you is that I happened to spot it in the TV schedule and decided to watch it primarily to tick it off the IMDb Top 250, thinking it was a bit of an also-ran on that list (based on iCheckMovies, it’s not very widely regarded outside of IMDb; indeed, it’s not even on the Top 250 anymore). But that was serendipitous, because I wound up really enjoying it.

    Sticking with IMDb, here are some interesting points of trivia:

    “At 1 hour, 6 minutes, 58 seconds, Tatum O’Neal’s performance is the longest to ever win an Academy Award in a supporting acting category.” I guess category fraud isn’t a recent phenomena: O’Neal’s a lead — the lead, even — but I bet that supporting award was an easier win, especially as she was a child. Which also ties to this item: “some Hollywood insiders suspected that O’Neal’s performance was ‘manufactured’ by director Peter Bogdanovich. It was revealed that the director had gone to great lengths, sometimes requiring as many as 50 takes, to capture the ‘effortless’ natural quality for which Tatum was critically praised.” But I’ll add a big “hmm” to that point, because I think it’s very much a point of view thing. Every performance in a movie is “manufactured”, in the sense that multiple takes are done and the director and editor later make selections — is requiring 50 takes for a child actor to nail it any different than Kubrick or Fincher putting adult actors through 100 or more takes until they get what they want?

    On a more positive note, “Orson Welles, a close friend of Bogdanovich, did some uncredited consulting on the cinematography. It was Welles who suggested shooting black and white photography through a red filter, adding higher contrast to the images.” Good idea, Orson, because the film does look rather gorgeous.

    5 out of 5

    Hitchcock/Truffaut
    (2015)

    2018 #236
    Kent Jones | 77 mins | TV | 16:9 | France & USA / English, French & Japanese | 12 / PG-13

    Hitchcock/Truffaut

    In 1962, film directors Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut locked themselves away in Hollywood for a week to excavate the secrets behind the mise-en-scène in cinema. Based on the original recordings of this meeting — used to produce the mythical book Hitchcock/Truffaut — this film illustrates the greatest cinema lesson of all time… Hitchcock’s incredibly modern art is elucidated and explained by today’s leading filmmakers, who discuss how Truffaut’s book influenced their work. — adapted from IMDb

    This film version of Hitchcock/Truffaut is about so much at once. On balance, it’s mostly about analysing Hitchcock’s films; but it’s also about the interview itself; and the importance and impact of the book, both on the general critical perception of Hitchcock and how it influenced specific directors; but it’s also about how Hitchcock’s actual films have influenced those directors; and there’s also insights into directing from those directors; and also some bits on Truffaut’s films, and the differences between him and Hitchcock as filmmakers. Whew!

    It’s a funny film, really: it acknowledges the book’s influence, but doesn’t really dig into it; it analyses some of Hitch’s obsessions and films (most especially Vertigo and Psycho), but not comprehensively. Some have said it feels like a companion piece to the book; I’ve not read the book, but I can believe that — if the book were a movie, this would be a special feature on the DVD. Less kindly, you could call it a feature-length advert — certainly, I really want to get the book now. (I got it as a Christmas present not long after. I’ve not read it yet.)

    That said, here’s an iInteresting counterpoint from a Letterboxd review: “One of the things (just one) that makes the book so essential is that it’s a discussion of the craft of filmmaking from two (very different) filmmakers. In adding commentary from a wide variety of other directors, Jones highlights that element of the book while widening and updating its focus: it isn’t just a conversation between Hitchcock and Truffaut, but between those two men and David Fincher, and James Gray and Kyoshi Kurosawa and Arnaud Desplechin, etc. Rather than a mere supplement to the book, a video essay adding moving pictures to the book’s conversations, Jones’s film builds something new and on-going upon it.”

    I didn’t think Hitchcock/Truffaut (the film) was all it could be; and yet, thanks to the topics discussed and people interviewed, it’s still a must-see for any fan of Hitchcock, or just movies in general.

    4 out of 5

  • The IMDb New Filmmaker Award 2020

    Last night on AMPLIFY!, FilmBath presented the 9th annual IMDb New Filmmaker Award, in which a trio of industry judges choose the best short film by a new filmmaker (clue’s in the name). The winner gets £1,000 cash, £1,000 in gear hire for their next project, a natty trophy, and an IMDb pin badge (normally only given to IMDb employees). If you missed the evening, never fear: the whole 90-minute event is available to rewatch for free, worldwide, here.

    Why would you watch an awards show after it’s happened? Well, in this case, you get to hear the judges’ musings on what makes a good film — and when those judges are BAFTA-nominated director Coky Giedroyc (The Virgin Queen, How to Build a Girl), Oscar-nominated and BAFTA-winning producer Amanda Posey (An Education, Brooklyn), and the CEO of IMDb, Col Needham, those are opinions worth listening to. Even better, you get to watch the five nominated shorts in full, and they’re good a bunch.

    But don’t just take my word for it: take my, er, word for it, in the form of these reviews…

    If you do intend to watch the awards, fair warning: I’m going to ‘spoil’ who won.

    Under the Full Moon

    Taking the films in the order they were shown, first up is Under the Full Moon (2020, Ziyang Liu, UK, English, 9 mins, ★★★★☆), about a guy who has his phone pickpocketed and decides to confront the mugger. The most noteworthy aspect here is the whole short is achieved in a single unbroken eight-minute take. I love stuff done in single long takes; at this point it’s a bit of a cliché to enjoy such things — a real film nerd kind of obsession — but, sod it, it’s still cool. To do a thriller storyline like that — something which requires management of tension and suspense, and of information being revealed at the right time in the right way — is even more impressive. You might say, “well, that’s what theatre is — a drama performed in ‘one take’”, but theatre doesn’t have to factor in camerawork; making sure we’re seeing the right stuff at the right time, framed in the right ways. Under the Full Moon manages every different element almost perfectly, the only real flaw coming right near the end, when the camera fails to clearly capture a phone screen with an incoming call, so the director resorts to a subtitle to make sure we get this final ironic twist. And that’s the other thing: this isn’t just a technical stunt, or an exercise in escalating suspense, but a dramatic work with some neatly-drawn character parts and a sense of dramatic irony. Really strong work.

    The winner (told you I’d spoil it) was Flush Lou (2020, Madison Leonard, USA, English, 9 mins, ★★★★★), and I entirely agree. It’s a black comedy about the reaction of three women to the death of a man: his daughter (who narrates), his wife, and his mother. It’s got a quirkiness that could be inappropriate, but the tone is juggled just right that it remains hilarious rather than at all distasteful. It’s there in the performances, the shot choices, the editing — the piece really works as a whole to hit precisely the right note. It might call to mind the work of someone like Wes Anderson, but it’s far from a rip-off; it also reminded me of certain just-off-reality American-suburbia-skewering TV shows, like The Riches or Suburgatory (I’m sure there are some more mainstream examples that are eluding my reach right now). Also, it manages to pack eight chapters into its eight minutes, without ever feeling like that’s an unnecessary affectation; if anything, it helps clarify the structure, which is exactly the kind of thing chapters are good for. A huge success all round.

    Flush Lou

    At the other end of the seriousness spectrum was the winner of the audience vote, The Monkeys on Our Backs (2020, Hunter Williams, New Zealand, English, 8 mins, ★★★★★), a documentary about the mental health of farmers in New Zealand. I think we often have a very positive view of New Zealand — they seem like nice people; their government is doing awesomely well; they make great movies; they’re good at rugby; and so on. But the country has one of the highest suicide rates in the developed world, and mental health problems disproportionately affect those living and working in isolated rural communities. This is not only a succinct explanation of the problems, with real-life examples as well as expert opinions, but also talks about the solutions, what help is out there and how it’s working. Plus it’s a beautifully shot film (some outtakes in black & white at the beginning show the fundamental quality underlying the colour photography in the rest of the film), with lovely views of countryside life, as if to help remind you that the world is a wonderful place. A wholly different film to Flush Lou, but an equally deserving winner.

    The shortest of this year’s five is Players (2020, Ava Bounds, UK, English, 3 mins, ★★★★☆), but that’s not the most noteworthy thing about it. This is: it was made by a 14-year-old. But you’d never guess, because it has a competency and, more strikingly, a surrealism that belies someone much more experienced. Heck, the sound design most reminded me of David Lynch! And the comparison goes beyond the sound work, with an ending that calls to mind some of Lynch’s work where nature and technology clash. Subtitled “a clearly confused film”, I think that was somewhat how the judges felt about its mix of retro costumes and music, computer-generated vocals, and a sci-fi sting in the tail. It’s the kind of film that clearly doesn’t work for everyone — just another way it’s a natural successor to Lynch, then. A 14-year-old making a competition-worthy short film is incredible in itself, but that it also merits so many comparisons to David fucking Lynch? Remarkable.

    The Monkeys on Our Backs

    The final film was Home (2020, Hsieh Meng Han, UK, English, 10 mins, ★★★☆☆), in which a girl living with her mother in a single room in a dingy apartment block finds the communal toilet locked, but then hears music coming from a nearby ventilation grill. Climbing through, she finds herself in a brightly-lit world of opulence, with people in elegant clothes dancing to genteel music, and an array of luscious food on offer. She even makes a friend. But then uptight officiousness arrives in the form of a stuffy manager, who refuses to let her use the toilet. It’s like a modern socially-conscious take on Alice in Wonderland, though I’m not sure what point it was ultimately making — kindness is nice and everyone deserves to be allowed to use the toilet?

    If any of that tickles your fancy, don’t forget you can still watch the whole event, free, here.

    Disclosure: I’m working for AMPLIFY! as part of FilmBath. However, all opinions are my own, and I benefit in no way (financial or otherwise) from you following the links in this post or making purchases.

    Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020)

    2020 #193
    Eliza Hittman | 101 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / PG-13

    Never Rarely Sometimes Always

    Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is a teenage girl from rural Pennsylvania, and she’s pregnant. She’s young, her family clearly aren’t well off, she’s not in a relationship with the father — the film explains none of this to us explicitly, but it’s all clear. So is it any wonder that Autumn decides she wants an abortion? Her local sex health clinic’s attitude is to show her a video about why it’s evil. Her conservative parents obviously wouldn’t understand; especially, you think, her dad, who is at least verbally abusive. And so with the help of her cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder), they scrape together what little money they have, throw a simple lie in the parents’ direction, and set off for New York City, where Autumn can get the procedure without parental consent.

    Clearly, Never Rarely Sometimes Always is not impressed by the state of things in the US of A. It’s an indictment of what women have to endure to have control over their own bodies. The so-called “Land of the Free” isn’t so free for some people. All this is stuff many of us know, thanks to recent political movements and counter-campaigns to change women’s rights. But by showing us a ‘case study’, as it were, of one girl’s experience, writer-director Eliza Hittman makes the real-world effect of these political decisions so very tangible. (It’s interesting that the film is quite prominently a UK coproduction. One suspects that non-US influence and/or cash injection may’ve been necessary.)

    Lest you think the film is some kind of feminist polemic, it comments on all of this without ever saying much of it explicitly. It is, if anything, a witness statement; a factually-stated case from which we infer the unjustness of the system because we are capable of empathy. (The natural counterpoint being that, of course, if you showed it to certain groups they’d not feel the same level of care or compassion, but that’s their failing as human beings.) Despite the big issues at play, and these unavoidable conclusions, it’s a subtle and quiet film, with much left unsaid. The scene which gives the film its title is a series of questions posed to Autumn before she can have the abortion. Some are just yes/no answers; some she can’t even bring herself to respond. They’re not specific enough to tell us what exactly has happened in her life, but they indicate and hint at so much. And that’s ok — we don’t need to know the totality of her personal experience to empathise with what she’s going through now; just that she’s not coming from a loving, supportive place that might make it all a bit easier.

    Skylar and Autumn

    As Autumn, Flanigan is incredible; doubly so as it’s a debut performance (apparently she beat over 100 actresses for the role. Well done, casting director!) Like the film, she conveys so much with so little; so much bottled up emotion. Skylar is a great character, too: so supportive, but not incapable of feeling her own emotions. At one point, as the trip unexpectedly drags on over several days, it all gets a bit much and she has to go off by herself for a bit. That kind of behaviour helps accentuate the realness of events — even when you want to be supportive, sometimes you need a little break. No one’s perfect. Ryder has a couple of minor credits to her name, but both girls deserve to go on to much more on the strength of their work here.

    Some viewers will find the film’s style too slow, too wandering, aimless; but, for me, that further underlined the reality. All that time spent just getting from place to place, or just waiting around until it’s time — that’s life. Indeed, for me, it only heightened the film’s tension, which crushes in all the time, throughout. Or perhaps not tension, exactly, but worry; uncertainty; anxiety. What’s going to happen? What’s going to go wrong? How are they going to deal with this, that, and the other? Horribly, this is probably what it’s like to be a young woman a lot of the time, especially in America. That’s the film’s power: it takes a real-life experience lived by so many, and it doesn’t just show it to us, it makes us feel it.

    At one point, a professional tells Autumn that “whatever your decision is, is totally fine, as long as it’s yours.” It’s a moment of much-needed kindness, because, in Autumn’s experience, that is not how things are — but it is how they should be.

    5 out of 5

    Never Rarely Sometimes Always is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from today. It placed 2nd on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2020.

    Jojo Rabbit (2019)

    2019 #145
    Taika Waititi | 108 mins | cinema | 1.85:1 | USA, New Zealand & Czech Republic / English | 12A / PG-13

    Jojo Rabbit

    So much was said about Jojo Rabbit on its release (last October in the US; at the start of this year here in the UK) — and, indeed, before its release, thanks to it debuting on the festival circuit — that, coming to it now, it feels like there’s nothing fresh to add. Doubly so as it’s been through the usual cycle of backlash and backlash-to-the-backlash (rinsed and repeated several times over). That said, it does seem to have dropped out of the conversation and consciousness somewhat, which perhaps hints at its longer-term reception — in short, it’s no Parasite. (Maybe that’s an unfair comparison anyway, given Parasite is the kind of movie that’s already attracted “greatest of all time” status some places.)

    And so, faced with nothing fresh to say, I will instead just explain and/or justify my own full-marks star rating. “Justify” feels like the right word, because some people (some critics, in particular) really took against the film. Others, less vitriolic, thought it didn’t measure up to writer-director Taika Waititi’s high standard. I don’t think it’s as good as Hunt for the Wilderpeople or What We Do in the Shadows (both modern classics, more or less), but I did like it a lot. When it hit the mark with its humour, it was very, very funny; but it balances this with emotional and hard-hitting bits. The balance it strikes between the two is uncommon but well managed. On a micro level, some parts are outstanding (like the title sequence cut to the Beatles), but I also felt it was a little long in places.

    My friend Hitler

    Before it came out, some were worried about the wider reaction to a comedy where the ‘heroes’ were Nazis. But, of course, Nazis aren’t the heroes, and it’s not difficult to understand that. Indeed, I can see why some critics were saying that, despite expectations, it’s not actually a particularly hard-hitting movie, because it’s not really shocking (unless you’re easily shocked by an imaginary-friend Hitler being a comedic character; and considering that humorous screen depictions of Hitler date back to at least The Great Dictator, so it’s hardly a revolutionary idea).

    Despite some doubts, in the end I rounded my score up to a full 5 because, while it’s not perfect, it contains an awful lot that I enjoyed an awful lot. One to rewatch and reconsider, perhaps.

    5 out of 5

    Jojo Rabbit is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from today.

    The 100-Week Roundup XIV

    I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.

    While I’ve been busy with FilmBath and AMPLIFY!, a lot of review dates I intended to hit have flown by, which naturally brought to mind the Douglas Adams quote above. All those reviews that would’ve tied in to something now won’t, but they’ll find a home here someday.

    In the meantime, I’m far behind on my 100-week roundups, which is why I’ve put some energy into this little lot. They finish up my reviews from October 2018, as well as dipping a toe into the waters of November 2018. It’s a mixed bag in every sense: very different genres; very different styles; very different ratings…

    The films in question are…

  • It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2012)
  • The Lives of Others (2006)
  • Jennifer’s Body (2009)
  • Going for Golden Eye (2017)


    It’s Such a Beautiful Day
    (2012)

    2018 #218
    Don Hertzfeldt | 62 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | USA / English

    It's Such a Beautiful Day

    In 2014, when Time Out New York ranked It’s Such a Beautiful Day 16th on their list of the 100 Best Animated Movies Ever Made, critic Tom Huddleston described it as “one of the great outsider artworks of the modern era, at once sympathetic and shocking, beautiful and horrifying, angry and hilarious, uplifting and almost unbearably sad.” That’s a description I’m about to singularly fail to better.

    Animator Don Hertzfeldt enjoys a cult following — you might never have heard of him (though chances you heard about his Simpsons couch gag, if nothing else), but if you have, well, you have. After releasing numerous shorts, It’s Such a Beautiful Day was his first feature — and, indeed, it was first released as a trilogy of short films between 2006 and 2011. Hence my notes break down into three parts, which I shall now share unedited…

    Part 1, Everything Will Be OK. Okay, so, this is weird. Interesting depiction of some kind of mental collapse (I guess we’re meant to infer it’s a brain tumour). Odd everyday events — what does it mean? Maybe that’s the point — Bill [the central character] is pondering what it all means too, after all.

    Part 2, I Am So Proud of You, is like, “you thought that was weird? Get a load of this!” A lot of it seems to be weird — what some people would describe as “disturbed — just for the sake of it. But at other times, it’s almost casually profound. There’s something interesting about its relationship to time and the order of events, or at least the presentation of the order of events.

    Part 3, It’s Such a Beautiful Day. See above. It’s interesting that it was three short films, made over a period of six years, because it really does feel of a piece. Maybe it was just easier to fund/produce shorts rather than a feature, and this was always the end goal.

    Well, there you go. This is not an animated movie for everyone (if you think “animated movie” means “Disney musical”… hahaha), but it’s certainly something unique and special.

    4 out of 5

    The Lives of Others
    (2006)

    aka Das Leben der Anderen

    2018 #220
    Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck | 137 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | Germany / German | 15 / R

    The Lives of Others

    In 1984 East Berlin, an agent of the secret police, conducting surveillance on a writer and his lover, finds himself becoming increasingly absorbed by their lives.IMDb

    This German movie won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and BAFTA (as well as a host of other similar awards), and is currently ranked as the 59th best film of all time on IMDb. It lives up to its accolades. It’s tense and thrilling like a spy movie; emotionally and politically loaded like an art house drama.

    Of particular note is Ulrich Mühe, superb as the increasingly-conflicted Stasi agent. He conveys so much with so little — the character’s massive ideological change is all portrayed as inner conflict. I was wondering why we hadn’t seen a lot more of him since, but sadly he passed away the year after the film came out, aged just 54.

    As the film focuses so much on him, it might be easy to underrate the technical merits, especially because they’re unobtrusive; but it’s perfectly shot by Hagen Bogdanski, with crisp, cold, precise photography. As for writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, his followup was infamous Johnny Depp / Angelina Jolie vehicle The Tourst, a film so maligned it seems to have derailed his career. Shame.

    5 out of 5

    The Lives of Others placed 24th on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2018. It was viewed as part of What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2018.

    Jennifer’s Body
    (2009)

    2018 #222
    Karyn Kusama | 102 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Jennifer's Body

    Jennifer’s Body didn’t go down well on its original release, but the past few years have seen it develop a cult following, with people regularly recommending it on social media as an under-appreciated horror flick. I didn’t dislike it, but I’m not ready to join their ranks.

    You can see what they were going for, in some respects — it’s trying to be a very feminist horror movie, with the female friendship at the core and so on. And yet, despite the female writer and female director and female stars, chunks of it feel so very male fantasy. I mean, Megan Fox goes skinny dipping for no reason. We don’t see anything explicit, but I’d wager that has more to do with Fox’s contract than authorial intent. Later, there’s a lingering kiss between the two girls that looks like it’s trying its hardest to best the famous one from Cruel Intentions. And talking of references, the whole film sounds like it’s trying really, really hard to be Heathers, with an overload of slang ‘n’ shit. It’s a bit, well, try-hard.

    Megan Fox is surprisingly good though, and there are some neat bits of direction, like the intercut murder/virginity-losing scene. It’s just a shame the whole film doesn’t show that kind of consistency. It did grow on me as it went on (I’m not sure if it took me time to settle into its rhythm or if it just had a clunky start), though exactly how much is debatable: it ends up being a moderately entertaining comedy-horror, but one that’s never really scary and rarely that funny.

    3 out of 5

    Going for Golden Eye
    (2017)

    2018 #224
    Jim Miskell | 60 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | UK / English

    Going for Golden Eye

    According to IMDb trivia, this is “the first video game mockumentary”. Well, you’re not going to mistake it for a real documentary — the acting is uniformly amateurish, which is one of the film’s biggest hindrances (it certainly gets in the way of selling the documentary conceit).

    Making allowances for such amateur roots, the film does manage some decently amusing bits, although just as many that don’t land. Very little about it will surprise or delight, but more forgiving or nostalgic viewers may be tickled at times. Plus, you have to have a certain amount of admiration for zero-budget filmmakers who managed to produce and get distribution for their film. Even if there’s an occasional for-friends-and-family feel to parts of it, they’ve still completed something many wannabes only dream of.

    Outside of aforementioned relatives, this is only really going to appeal to people with nostalgia for playing GoldenEye on N64 back in the day. In a way, the best part of the whole film is the opening montage about how GoldenEye was unexpectedly great, bucking expectations of both movie tie-in games and first-person shooters. A genuine well-made documentary about the game — why it was so important; what made it so popular — would be interesting…

    2 out of 5