Review Roundup

As foretold in my most recent progress report, June is off to a slow start here at 100 Films. Or a non-start, really, as I’ve yet to watch any films this month and this is my first post since the 1st. Hopefully it won’t stay that way all month (I’ve got my Blindspot and WDYMYHS tasks to get on with, if nothing else).

For the time being, here a handful of reviews of things I watched over a year ago but have only just written up:

  • O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
  • Allied (2016)
  • American Made (2017)


    O Brother, Where Art Thou?
    (2000)

    2018 #106
    Joel Coen | 103 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK, France & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    O Brother, Where Art Thou?

    The eighth movie from the Coen brothers (eighth, and yet they still weren’t being allowed a shared directing credit! No wonder that stupid DGA rule pisses people off) is one of their movies that I found less objectionable. Oh, sure, most of their stuff that I’ve reviewed I’ve given four stars (as well as a couple of threes), but that’s more out of admiration than affection — for whatever reason, their style, so popular with many cineastes, just doesn’t quite work for me; even when I like one of their films there’s often still something about it I find faintly irritating.

    Anyway, for this one they decided to adapt Homer’s Odyssey, but set in the American Deep South during the Great Depression. Apparently neither of the brothers had ever actually read The Odyssey, instead knowing it through cultural osmosis and film adaptations, which is perhaps why the film bears strikingly minimal resemblance to its supposed source text. Rather, this is a story about songs, hitchhiking, and casual animal cruelty, in which the KKK is defeated by the power of old-timey music. Hurrah!

    It’s mostly fairly amusing. If it was all meant to signify something, I don’t know what — it just seemed a pretty fun romp. I thought some of the music was okay. (Other people liked the latter more. Considerably more: the “soundtrack became an unlikely blockbuster, even surpassing the success of the film. By early 2001, it had sold five million copies, spawned a documentary film, three follow-up albums (O Sister and O Sister 2), two concert tours, and won Country Music Awards for Album of the Year and Single of the Year. It also won five Grammys, including Album of the Year, and hit #1 on the Billboard album charts the week of March 15 2002, 63 weeks after its release and over a year after the release of the film.” Jesus…)

    Anyway, that’s why it gets 4 stars. I liked it. Didn’t love it. Laughed a bit. Not a lot. Some of the music was alright. Not all of it. Naturally it’s well made (Roger Deakins!) without being exceptionally anything. Harsher critics might say that amounts to a 3, but I’m a nice guy.

    4 out of 5

    Allied
    (2016)

    2018 #116
    Robert Zemeckis | 119 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA, UK & China / English & French | 15 / R

    Allied

    Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard star as a pair of intelligence agents who fall in love in Mr. & Mrs. Smith: WW2 Edition. Settling down together in England, all is lovely for them… until one comes under suspicion of working for the enemy…

    Overall Allied is a very decent spy thriller, let down somewhat by a middle section that’s lacking in the requisite tension and a twee monologue coda. But the first 40 minutes, set in Morocco and depicting the mission where the lovers first meet, are pretty great; there’s plenty of neat little tradecraft touches scattered throughout; and there are some pretty visuals too. There are also some moments that are marred by more CGI than should be necessary for a WW2 drama, but hey-ho, it’s a Robert Zemeckis film.

    That said, Brad Pitt’s performance is a bit… off. He never really seems connected with the material. Perhaps he was trying to play old-fashioned stoic, but too often it comes across as bored. It also constantly looked like he’d been digitally de-aged, but maybe that’s because I was watching a 720p stream; or maybe he had been, though goodness knows why they’d bother.

    Anyway, these are niggles, so how much they bother you will affect your personal enjoyment. I still liked the film a lot nonetheless.

    4 out of 5

    American Made
    (2017)

    2018 #124
    Doug Liman | 109 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA & Japan / English & Spanish | 15 / R

    American Made

    Described by director Doug Liman as “a fun lie based on a true story,” American Made is the obviously-not-that-truthful-then ‘true story’ of Barry Seal, a pilot who was recruited by the CIA to do some spying and ended up becoming a major cocaine smuggler in the ’80s.

    Starring ever-charismatic Tom Cruise as Seal, the film turns a potentially serious bit of history (as I understand it, the events underpinning this tale fed into the infamous Iran-Contra affair) into an entertaining romp. Indeed, the seriousness of the ending is a bit of a tonal jerk after all the lightness that came before, which I guess is the downside of having to stick to the facts.

    Still, it’s such a fun watch on the whole — a sliver long, perhaps, even though it’s comfortably under two hours, but it does have a lot of story to get through. Parts of that come via some spectacular montages, which convey chunks of story succinctly and are enjoyable in their own right. Liman doesn’t get a whole lot of attention nowadays, I think, but it seems he’s still got it where it counts.

    4 out of 5

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  • Hail, Caesar! (2016)

    2017 #23
    Joel & Ethan Coen | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK, USA & Japan / English | 12 / PG-13

    Hail, Caesar!

    The Coen brothers’ ode to the golden age of Hollywood provoked mixed reactions from their faithful fans (i.e. all film critics and most moviegoers) — some say it’s just a lightweight romp, others that there’s more meat on its bones.

    Well, maybe there are indeed hidden depths here, but I think I’d prefer it as just a zany caper centred on Josh Brolin’s character, surrounded by the game all-star supporting cast, rather than having lengthy asides where a room of kinda-recognisable supporting actors discuss economics and communist philosophies and that kind of thing. Is that shallow of me? Maybe. But the movie is so entertaining when it’s riffing off classic Hollywood staples and making light work of many an amusing scenario, it’s tough not to want it to be no more than that.

    Fundamentally I enjoyed it (those handful of political longueurs aside), but I’m not entirely sure what to make of it as a whole. I can believe there’s a deeper reading there if one looks to interpret it, but I’m not sure I’m bothered — I’m satisfied with it being merely a comical tribute-to-old-Hollywood caper, thanks.

    4 out of 5

    Hail, Caesar! was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

    Raising Arizona (1987)

    2016 #164
    Joel Coen | 94 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Raising Arizona

    Once upon a time I did a Media Studies A level, and (for reasons I can’t remember) our teacher showed us the pre-titles sequence of Raising Arizona because it was noteworthy for being the longest pre-titles sequence ever. As it happened our teacher was wrong, because The World Is Not Enough had already exceeded it a couple of years earlier.* And now it’s completely meaningless because most blockbusters don’t bother to show any credits until the end of the film, technically rendering the entire movie as the pre-titles “sequence”.

    My point here is twofold. One: I miss the structure of all films having title sequences somewhere near the start. Two: before now all I could have told you about Raising Arizona is that “it has the longest pre-titles ever (except it doesn’t)”. Well, that and it stars Nic Cage and was directed by the Coen brothers. But now I’ve watched it and, three months after the fact, …that’s still almost all I can tell you. I also remember there was a kinda-cool semi-fantastical thing going on with, like, a demon biker or something. Oh, and it’s quite funny. Not very funny, but quite.

    I have an awkward relationship with the Coen brothers. I always feel like I should be enjoying their movies more than I actually do, and I think some of their stuff is downright overrated. Unfortunately, Raising Arizona has done little to change this situation.

    3 out of 5

    * For what it’s worth, the length of TWINE’s pre-titles wasn’t intended. It was originally supposed to be just the stuff in Spain, with the MI6 explosion and subsequent Thames boat chase coming after the titles, but it was decided that didn’t make for a strong enough opening and it was recut. It runs about 17 minutes vs Raising Arizona’s 11. ^

    Bridge of Spies (2015)

    2016 #60
    Steven Spielberg | 141 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA, Germany & India / English, German & Russian | 12 / PG-13

    Oscar statue
    2016 Academy Awards
    6 nominations — 1 win

    Winner: Best Supporting Actor.
    Nominated: Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Score, Best Sound Mixing, Best Production Design.



    Steven Spielberg’s true-story Cold War drama stars Tom Hanks as insurance lawyer James B. Donovan, who is tapped to defend captured Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). After Donovan insists on doing his job properly, he manages to spare Abel the death penalty — which comes in handy when the Soviets capture spy-plane pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) and a prisoner exchange is suggested, which the Russians want Donovan to negotiate.

    The most striking aspect of Bridge of Spies is how much it’s a mature, equanimous work. It would be easy to take a tale like this, fraught with issues of patriotism and the threat of foreign agents operating on domestic soil (which therefore screams “topical relevance!”), and give in to the same histrionics that some of the supporting characters demonstrate. Indeed, a director like Spielberg — oft criticised for the vein of sentimentality that is ever-present, and sometimes dominating, in his movies — might be expected to err in that direction, even if it was only slightly. The film itself manages to maintain the same calm demeanour as its two headline performances, however.

    Don’t misconstrue that as meaning it’s a boring watch, however. Far from it. Despite its fairly lengthy running time, Bridge of Spies actually rattles through events, at times to a surprising degree: Abel’s trial is practically glossed over. In some respects this is an intelligent decision — the verdict is a foregone conclusion, and there’s far more going on than the trial of one spy — but it is a little jarring to have it so abruptly skipped past. The same effect occurs when Donovan appeals to the Supreme Court, a process so rushed its inclusion feels merited only by it being an event that happened so has to be there, rather than because it was a part of the story that interested Spielberg or screenwriters Matt Charman and Ethan & Joel Coen.

    If we’re talking storytelling oddities, another is the manner in which Powers’ backstory is integrated. As Donovan continues to defend Abel, the film suddenly becomes subjected to scattered interjections, in which we see pilots being selected and then trained to fly secret reconnaissance missions in a new kind of plane. Any viewer who has read the blurb will know where this is going, but it’s so disconnected to the rest of the narrative that it felt misplaced, at least to me. The same is true when we suddenly meet Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), an American student in Berlin who’s mistaken for a spy and arrested by the East. It turns out we need to know about him because Donovan attempts to use his negotiations to get a two-for-one deal, exchanging Abel for both Powers and Pryor. Knowing the stories of the men Donovan will be negotiating for is not a bad point, but I can’t help but feel there was a smoother way to integrate them into the film’s overall narrative.

    These clunks aside, Bridge of Spies is certainly a quality film. Spielberg’s direction is restrained, with familiar directorial flourishes severely limited (one very Spielbergian moment in the film’s coda sticks out precisely because of its Spielbergianness after 130 minutes of that not happening). That’s not to say his work is characterless, merely unobtrusive. The same is certainly true of Rylance’s Oscar-winning performance as the Soviet spy, so much so that some have asserted he was doing nothing at all and didn’t deserve any awards for it. Well, anyone at all familiar with Rylance’s oeuvre knows that can’t be true. His Abel is unquestionably understated, a calm and quiet man who only hints at emotions under the surface rather than declaiming them. A lesser film would’ve made a point of this — would’ve had Hanks’ lawyer struggling to understand and relate to his client’s low-key nature — but, instead, Donovan is a man who can identify with this mode of being, at least to an extent. There’s a reason they talk a couple of times about the ‘stoikiy muzhik’.

    If the first part of the narrative belongs to Rylance, Hanks is in charge for the second, when Donovan finds himself in a wintery Berlin as the wall is being constructed, flitting between East and West as the go-between for a Russian spy posing as a diplomat, a German lawyer, and the CIA, who could care less about retrieving a lowly student when a pilot who might spill secrets is at stake. Also without being showy, Hanks is able to navigate a story that may be about secret international diplomacy, but which requires comedy without blatant mugging, and clever legal negotiation without grandstanding. Throughout the film, he creates in Donovan an upstanding, honourable, kind-hearted, and admirable human being, without the movie needing to make a song and dance about showing us how wonderful he is.

    I may, on reflection, or re-watching, consider Bridge of Spies an even better film than I do now. Hanks and Rylance both offer nuanced performances, while Spielberg’s mastery of technique allows the whole film to be equally as subtle, even as it remains gripping and entertaining. However, the storytelling quirks are a mixed success, the pace they sometimes lend offset by the almost non sequitur style of the captured Americans’ backstories. Nonetheless, this is a classy but still enjoyable dramatic thriller, which takes a seat among Spielberg’s better works.

    4 out of 5

    Bridge of Spies is released on DVD, Blu-ray, and the rest, in the UK today.

    Burn After Reading (2008)

    2010 #42
    Joel & Ethan Coen | 96 mins | Blu-ray | 15 / R

    Ah, the Coen Brothers! Those indie-mainstream praise-magnets that I’ve never particularly got on with. But then, perhaps I was just too young and under-read (or, rather, under-viewed) to get The Man Who Wasn’t There when I watched it; and I did like Fargo, even if I awarded it ‘only’ four stars; and I had a similar perspective on No Country for Old Men, though leaving if off my end-of-year top ten list when some have claimed it’s the only worthy Best Picture winner of the last decade may be seen as filmic blasphemy. (On the other hand, those claimants are wrong. Not very wrong, maybe, but still wrong.) Nonetheless, the rest of the pair’s ’80s and ’90s output (bar, for no particular reason, Raising Arizona) sits in my DVD collection waiting to be got round to… but first, this: their star-studded follow-up to No Country that seemed to disappoint so many. Probably because it was a comedy.

    Turns out Burn After Reading is another film I don’t have much to say about. I liked it. It’s nothing like No Country for Old Men, other than being occasionally obtuse, but that’s the Coen’s style. Still, I’m sure No Country is the better — or Better — film, but in the same way I prefer eating a bacon cheeseburger to a pile of vegetables, I think I enjoyed watching Burn After Reading more. Or maybe eating a Chinese would be a better analogy — in the same way you’re hungry again not long after, Burn After Reading is kind of unsatisfying.

    You see, as two minor characters observe at the end, we’ve learnt nothing. There’s been a sporadically complex set of coincidences and accidents, some good laughs and some surprises too, but the end result is… what? But maybe that’s the point. For the characters in the film, it’s a confusing mess of a situation they find themselves embroiled in — no one has the full picture, and most don’t properly comprehend the bit they do see. For the viewer, it’s a fun bit of nothing. Things have changed by the end, certainly — most notably, several people are dead — but the events that got us there are pretty quickly forgotten.

    Perhaps this is the Coens’ response to No Country for Old Men — not intellectually or artistically, but as people and filmmakers: a break from the existential seriousness of their Best Picture winner with a romp-ish bit-of-nothing, which entertains well enough for the 90-something minutes it occupies our vision but is all but forgotten before the credits have finished rolling.

    3 out of 5

    Fargo (1996)

    Fargo2007 #23
    Joel Coen | 94 mins | DVD | 18 / R

    Fargo is the latest film to have been inducted into the United States National Film Registry, donchaknow. It’s also 105th on the IMDb Top 250 [it’s now 153rd], and the 21st film from the 1990s. So it’s pretty much a modern classic then.

    It is indeed very good; the only thing holding me off giving it 5 is a lack of that Something which leads me to rate so highly after one viewing. Maybe it will go up in time.

    4 out of 5