Holy Monthly Review of May 2020, Batman!

Altogether, I watched 39 feature films this month… but that includes my Rewatchathon tally, so it’s no record breaker. Further down you can find out how that total divides up between new viewing and rewatches, but it’s pertinent here because four of those films were Batman-related. That might not sound like many, but it’s 10.3% of my viewing this month. Couple it with some unwatched Bat-purchases (see the “failures” section), and recent headlines about Justice League (the Snyder cut) and Batwoman (resigning), and it feels like the Caped Crusader has been around a lot of late — hence the post title. Makes a change from something coronavirus related, eh?


#96a DC Showcase: Jonah Hex (2010)
#97 Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010)
#98 Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)
#99 August 32nd on Earth (1998), aka Un 32 août sur terre
#100 Joker (2019)
#101 The Head Hunter (2018)
#102 Black Angel (1946)
#103 Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed (2004)
#104 Ugetsu Monogatari (1953)
#105 Scooby-Doo! & Batman: The Brave and the Bold (2018)
#106 Top Secret! (1984)
#107 American Animals (2018)
#108 Belladonna of Sadness (1973), aka Kanashimi no Belladonna
#109 Zero Charisma (2013)
#110 Marriage Story (2019)
#111 Zombieland: Double Tap (2019)
#112 Stuber (2019)
#113 Misbehaviour (2020)
#114 Phase IV (1974)
#115 A Bug’s Life (1998)
#116 127 Hours (2010)
#117 Hotel Artemis (2018)
#118 The Goonies (1985)
#119 Maelström (2000)
#120 Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
#121 The Sky’s the Limit (1943)
#122 Philomena (2013)
#123 Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears (2020)
#124 Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (2017)
#125 My Favourite Wife (1940)
#126 The Looking Glass War (1970)
#127 Fisherman’s Friends (2019)
Joker

Marriage Story

Philomena

The Looking Glass War

.


  • I watched 31 new feature films in May.
  • That makes it just my fifth ever month with over 30 films. It ties with October 2015 as my fourth highest month.
  • It flies past the May average (previously 14.8, now 16.1) and the rolling average of the last 12 months (previously 14.75, now 15.3), as well as the average for 2020 to date (previously 24.0, now 25.4).
  • This month’s other milestones include passing my eponymous goal of 100 films, which feels less of an achievement since the last time I failed it was eight years ago. However, it’s the earliest I’ve ever achieved it: I got there on 5th May, beating 2018’s 10th May.
  • I also passed my updated goal of 120 new films. Again, that’s the earliest I’ve got so far: I was there on 22nd May, beating 2018’s 29th May.
  • So it should come as no surprise that #127 is the furthest I’ve ever reached by the end of May. Next closest is, again, 2018, when I’d got to #124.
  • One thing I failed to do this month was watch a new film on the 23rd, one of the three remaining dates on which I’ve never watched a film in this blog’s lifetime (a thing I’ve been specifically working to iron out since July 2017). The other two are 5th January and 22nd December, which makes this May date feel like a real oddity. I mean, in early January I’m often so caught up in my review-of-the-year posts that I don’t watch many films; and December 22nd is a date I’m often doing Christmas stuff (family get-togethers, etc). 13 years is a long time for them both to go empty, considering 99.2% of the rest of the year has filled up over that time, but at least there are clear reasons that reoccur every year. Why May 23rd, though… I’ve not got the foggiest.
  • Attentive readers may’ve spotted two early Denis Villeneuve films amongst this month’s viewing. I’ve had copies of all of his early (i.e. pre-Prisoners) work for a number of years now, and I thought I’d finally get round to them in the run-up to Dune. Expect some more next month.
  • This month’s Blindspot film: Kenji Mizoguchi’s acclaimed fantasy drama Ugetsu Monogatari.
  • In a total about-turn from my last record-setting “failures” tally, I watched none of the ones I listed last month.



The 60th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
The more films you watch, the higher the chance more of them will be great, and so I have a few strong contenders to choose from this month. On balance, I give the gong to Belladonna of Sadness for being quite unlike anything else I can remember seeing. But any of the films whose poster I’ve pictured above (except Joker, which I have mixed feelings about) were in the running and are certainly on the long-list to make my year-end top ten.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
My most disappointing viewing experience this month was definitely My Favourite Wife, a screwball comedy starring Cary Grant that has its moments but overall made me appreciate how much skill was involved in the truly great screwball comedies — it has none of their pace or spark.

Best Joker of the Month
Look, I know Joaquin Phoenix won the Oscar ‘n’ all, but rewatching Batman ’89 reminded me just how good Jack Nicholson was in the role. I’m not saying he’s the greatest Joker ever (there’s strong competition), but I think people forget that he gave as effective and iconic an interpretation of the part as anyone else has.

Best Double-Bill of the Month
I realise this is kinda just praising my own film-choosing skills, but c’mon, Phase IV and A Bug’s Life is an amusing “talking ants” double-bill by anyone’s standards (right?)

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
For the second month in a row, and the third time this year, a film review has topped the table of new posts (that might sound like a silly observation on a film blog, but my TV columns usually do very well for hits. Indeed, taking all posts into account, 19 of May’s top 20 most-viewed posts were TV ones). The victor this month was, somewhat surprisingly, The Head Hunter — hardly a major film, nor a new release (though it was fairly new to the UK, so maybe that’s what helped). Meanwhile, the headline of this month’s TV column was Quiz, which only began airing in the US last night, so maybe that will make like Bodyguard and be a big draw next month.



It’s been about a year, so today I’ve given the directors page header image its annual(ish) update. For those who don’t know, it displays the 20 directors with the most number of films I’ve reviewed. For the past few years there’s been a tie for the last few spots, but this year it happened to work out to exactly 20, thanks in part to this month’s viewing. (Honestly, that’s a coincidence — I didn’t choose the films I watched to break the tie.)

So, what changes? Well, Stanley Kubrick, Richard Linklater, and M. Night Shyamalan all exit. David Lynch secured a place thanks to Dune (which I (re)watched last month) and the short film What Did Jack Do? (which I watched in January), while Danny Boyle did so via 127 Hours and Frankenstein (I reviewed the latter as TV rather than a film, but I’ve put it under his name on the directors page nonetheless, as I have done with some miniseries by other directors). Finally, nudging his way into the 20th spot via Intolerable Cruelty is Joel Coen, representing the Coen Brothers just as he did in credit form before they were allowed to both be named.


My Rewatchathon goal is 50 films a year, which averages out at just over four films a month — so this month I watched a double quotient’s worth, in the process passing the halfway mark a month early.

#19 The Green Hornet 3D (2011)
#20 Flash Gordon (1980)
#21 Mission: Impossible (1996)
#22 Batman (1989)
#23 Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943)
#24 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
#25 The Saint (1997)
#26 The Spider Woman (1944)

As usual, the above links are to my original review (where available). Rewatch thoughts follow…

I happened to see an interview with the creative team behind a new Green Hornet comic book, and that was enough to make me decide to rewatch the film that evening. What can I say, I’m fickle and easily swayed sometimes — though, in fairness to myself, I bought it in 3D a little while back, so a rewatch has been on my mind. It looked pretty good. More thoughts on Letterboxd.

Flash Gordon was similarly provoked: I was so excited for that gorgeous 4K box set StudioCanal announced, I had to watch my current copy. It’s such deliciously campy, gaudy fun — I love it.

I last rewatched all the Mission: Impossible films in the first half of 2018, in the run up to the theatrical release of Fallout. That’s two years ago — a long time for some people, but by my timescales it feels like I’ve just watched them. But they’re fab films, and I’ve had the 4K box set waiting for a little while now (which features massive improvements to the PQ of the first two films), so… and, indeed, this one looks fantastic in 4K. The stuff in Prague, in particular, is gorgeously shot. And so many split diopter shots, some for absolutely no good reason! De Palma and/or DP Stephen H. Burum were just having fun here.

I posted a long-ish comment about Batman on Letterboxd, but I’m also intending to give it the ‘Guide To’ treatment, so more then.

I enjoyed Sherlock Holmes Faces Death slightly less than I remembered. I think that’s because, on a first viewing, it’s easily one of the series’ best to that point, whereas with hindsight there are better to come. Still, I don’t wish to damn it with faint criticism: if it’s not among the series’ very finest, it’s still a solid Holmes adventure. More on Letterboxd. And speaking of the series’ very finest, a contender for that crown is The Spider Woman. Again, more new thoughts on Letterboxd.

As for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, I still think the miniseries has the edge, but the film is a really fantastic adaptation too. Shame we never got the mooted sequels. (Incidentally, the new adaptation of Rebecca I mentioned in the intro to my original review is finally due out this year, just seven years later.)

Finally, the Val Kilmer-starring reboot of The Saint. I watched this Back In The Day and remember more or less enjoying it, but I also couldn’t recall anything specific about it. That’s probably because it’s actually rubbish. It clearly wants to be GoldenEye or Mission: Impossible, but doesn’t have the skills or ingenuity to get there. It has a kind of charm if you’re nostalgic for ’90s post-Cold War action-thrillers, but that’s all. When your cool leader character’s car is provided by Volvo, you know you’re onto a loser.


For the second month in a row, cinemas remain completely closed. Perhaps the most-discussed “home premiere” title was Scoob!… but that didn’t get a UK release, so I definitely didn’t see it. In fact, I can’t think of a single other home premiere title this month — either they’ve dried up already, or what came out wasn’t significant enough to catch my attention. I did plump for a few discount rentals thanks to Amazon Prime, though, including The Last Black Man in San Francisco, The Peanut Butter Falcon, and The Rhythm Section. They should all pop up in next month’s viewing.

My disc purchasing continues unabated, of course. As mentioned in the intro, I picked up a couple of Batman titles on offer: last year’s animations Hush and Batman vs Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and the set of Burton/Schumacher movies in 4K — I already rewatched Batman, and have Returns, Forever, and & Robin to come in the near future. Other sale pickups included more films to rewatch in 4K: A Few Good Men, Gladiator, Hellboy, and It’s a Wonderful Life; plus one I’ve never seen, American Gangster; and a couple in good ol’ 1080p, Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt, and The Seven-Ups, which was recommended to me a good while ago.

But most of this month’s buying was new releases, albeit many of them catalogue titles: Second Sight’s limited editions of The Man with the X-Ray Eyes and Revenge; 101 Films’ Black Label edition of Screamers; Masters of Cinema’s release of Johnnie To’s Throw Down; Arrow’s new Krzysztof Kieślowski box set, Cinema of Conflict; and 88 Films’ new edition of Mystery Men, one of my favourite films. In terms of new-new titles, there was Mark Cousins’ new 14-hour documentary, Women Make Film, and 1917 in 4K.

The streamers were as busy with new additions as ever in May. Among Netflix’s was The Soloist, which I guess wouldn’t attract too many people’s attention, but it grabs mine because it’s on one of my ‘50 Unseen’ lists but has never seemed to be available anywhere. I’ll have to make an effort to see it before it disappears again. Also of particular note was Monos, which I remember attracting a lot of attention on Letterboxd at one point; original movie The Lovebirds, which sounds like it might make for a diverting-enough 90 minutes; and The First Purge, primarily because it means Netflix now have all The Purge movies except for the one I need to see next, The Purge: Election Year. Grr. They also gained a few titles that I’ve owned on Blu-ray for years without getting round to rewatching, like Miami Vice, Vertigo, and Waterworld, for shame.

Over on Amazon, their most recent original is The Vast of Night, which I feel like I would’ve skimmed past if I hadn’t happened to see the review on Vodzilla that piqued my interest by describing it as an “affectionate and mischievous homage to 1950s sci-fi” and “Twilight Zone-esque”. (That said, in the past couple of days it’s also popped up repeatedly on Letterboxd and other blogs, so I guess I would’ve spotted it one way or another.) In the UK we also got My Spy — I believe Amazon have the worldwide rights, but here it snuck into cinemas before lockdown so they’ve already put it up to stream, whereas I don’t think it’s been released everywhere else yet (not in the US, at least).

Catalogue additions included In the Name of the Father, which I don’t recall seeing available to stream before, but it’s on the IMDb Top 250 (at time of writing it’s 188th) so I should make the effort while I can; and even more things I own on DVD or Blu-ray but have never got round to watching, including 30 Days of Night, Cloud Atlas, Green Zone, Midnight in Paris, Monster’s Ball, and Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing. Also The Limey, which finally got a Blu-ray release recently but, sadly, Lionsgate fudged it up by not including the DVD’s special features (the commentary is legendarily great). It’s available in 4K, but sadly not on Prime (which is 1080p only) or disc. Regular readers may recall I ranked it in my top ten in 2016, so I’m miffed about all this mishandling. Similarly, they added The Hateful Eight this month, which is presumably why we’ve never received Netflix’s extended miniseries cut here in the UK — they just don’t have the rights. Frustrating.

Netflix and Amazon may spoil us for choice (the ones I’ve listed are only a small selection of things I noted throughout the month), but it’s a different picture at Sky Cinema / Now TV. They may add at least one premiere every day, but few of their offerings caught my eye this month — just French submarine thriller The Wolf’s Call; ‘gator horror Crawl, which I’ve heard good things about; and Dora and the Lost City of Gold, which someone said is surprisingly good. I still doubt I’ll make time for it next month, but you never know.


Parasite finally makes it to UK disc today — I saw it back in February while it was still in cinemas (remember those?), so maybe I’ll finally review it soon.

As for likely new viewing… oh, who knows? It might be another record-challenging month, or it might not, or maybe we’ll all die because they lifted lockdown too early. Onward’s out on Monday, and The Lighthouse the week after (more belated UK disc releases), so hopefully I’ll at least get to watch those first.

Oh, and there’s the small matter of 100 Films #2000…

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

2016 #100
Miloš Forman | 134 mins | download (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 18 / R

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's NestBy many accounts this is the greatest film I’d never seen (hence it being this year’s pick for #100). How are you meant to go about approaching something like that? Probably by not thinking about it too much. I mean, something will always be “the greatest you’ve never seen”, even if you dedicate yourself to watching great movies and the “greatest you’ve never seen” is something pretty low on the list… at which point I guess it stops mattering.

Anyway, this acclaimed drama — one of only three films to win the “Big Five” Oscars — follows Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), a prisoner who’s claiming to be mentally ill in order to avoid hard labour, as he’s sent to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation. His ward is run by the firm hand of Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), who subtly controls and oppresses the other inmates (who include early appearances by Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, and Brad Dourif). With his antiauthoritarian nature, McMurphy sets out to usurp her control… with ultimately disastrous consequences.

Cuckoo’s Nest is very ’70s in its bleakness; also in being about someone sticking it to The Man, and The Man winning. We often conflate such qualities with realism — “it’s not all happy, it must be more like real life” — but I wonder if Cuckoo’s Nest is actually too on the nose as an indictment of the system. McMurphy is a highly disruptive influence, which in reality would surely be a problem, but he’s seen to bring the other inmates a joy they previously hadn’t known. His actions give one, Billy Bibbit, confidence and cure him of his stutter — until Ratched reasserts control, his stutter returns, and… worse happens.

Wretched RatchedHollywood is notorious for adapting novels by grafting on happier endings, but here they did the opposite, removing even the glimmers of justice that the novel offers. In the book (according to Wikipedia), when McMurphy strangles Ratched he also exposes her breasts, humiliating her in front of the inmates; when she returns to work, her voice — her main instrument of control — is gone, and many of the inmates have either chosen to leave or have been transferred away. Conversely, in the film there is no humiliation, and we explicitly see that she still has her voice and that all the men are still there. Of course, McMurphy’s ultimate end isn’t cheery in either version. It’s almost like the anti-Shawshank in its hope-less ending. While the cynical part of me thinks this is more realistic, I do like a bit of optimism, a bit of victory, a bit of justice for the real perpetrators.

Even aside from the ending, I don’t think the film is as focused as it could or should be. I’m not asking to be handheld through it all, but at times it meanders. The best qualities lie in the acting. Nicholson and Fletcher won the Oscars, and both are very good — Nicholson with his familiar crooked charm, Fletcher despicable as the everyday megalomaniac — but for me the best performance is Brad Dourif, making his screen debut as the stuttering, sweet, ultimately tragic Billy Bibbit. He was nominated for an Oscar, but lost to George Burns in Only sane one hereThe Sunshine Boys (anyone remember that? No, didn’t think so); though he did win the BAFTA, once again proving that we have all the taste.

I’m not quite on board with all the praise Cuckoo’s Nest has received — I think it might be improved by a streamlining of purpose. Either way, it is not an enjoyable movie, though it is perhaps a significant one.

4 out of 5

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

The Witches of Eastwick (1987)

2016 #47
George Miller | 113 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

The first US feature from the director of Mad Max is an unusual affair. Three now-single women (Cher, Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer) accidentally summon a man (Jack Nicholson) who lures them into a life of debauchery, while helping hone their latent magic powers.

Undoubtedly a comedy, Eastwick is less laugh-out-loud, more wryly amused by small-town tittle-tattle. Nicholson was made for devilish characters like this, but the rest of the film isn’t as focused. A presumed point about female empowerment gets lost in the mix, and it doesn’t know how to end, resorting to an effects-driven climax.

Still, it’s largely fun.

3 out of 5

For more quick reviews like this, look here.

The Shining (1980)

2014 #80
Stanley Kubrick | 120 mins* | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

The ShiningFêted director Stanley Kubrick turned his hand to horror for this Stephen King adaptation. Poorly received on release (it was nominated for two Razzies: Worst Actress and Worst Director) and reviled by King (he attempted his own version as a miniseries in 1997. It didn’t go down well), it has since been reassessed as a classic. I’ve never read the novel, so have no opinion on the film’s level of faithfulness or (assuming it isn’t true to the book) whether that’s a good thing or not. As a movie in its own right, however, The Shining is bloody scary.

The plot sees Jack Nicholson, his wife and young son travelling to a remote hotel to be its caretakers while it’s closed over the winter. As the weeks pass by, strange things begin to happen. Nicholson begins to go a little stir crazy… or is it something worse? As the hotel becomes cut off by a snowstorm, everything goes to pot…

It’s somewhat hard to summarise The Shining because, in a way, nothing much happens. There are some mysteries, but few (if any) answers. That prompts plenty of wild theories — there’s now a whole film about them, even — but whether any of those are right or not… well, you know what wild theories are normally like, right? Really, story is not the order of the day. Kubrick seems to have set out to make a horror movie in the truest sense: a movie to instill fear. And that it does. And then some.

But you're not called JohnnyGradually, inexorably, the film builds a sense of dread; a fear so deep-seated that it feels almost primal. There are few jumps or gory moments, the easy stomping ground of lesser films. There’s just… unease. It’s a feeling that’s tricky to put into words, because it’s not exactly “scary”; even “terrifying” feels too lightweight. There are undoubtedly sequences of suspense, where we fear what’s coming or what will happen to the characters (everyone knows the “Here’s Johnny!” bit, for instance), but that’s not where the film’s impact really lies.

I guess some find it slow and aimless. There are certainly fans of King and his original that are just as unimpressed as the author by the way it supposedly shortchanges Nicholson’s character. There may be some validity to both of those arguments. Nonetheless, I found Kubrick’s realisation to be probably the most excruciatingly and exquisitely unsettling film I’ve ever seen.

5 out of 5

The Shining placed 3rd on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2014, which can be read in full here.

It was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2014 project, which you can read more about here.


* The Shining was initially released at 146 minutes. After a week, Kubrick cut two minutes off the end. Following a poor reception, he cut even more for the European release (some say 31 minutes, but that doesn’t add up). He maintained the shortest version was his preferred cut, though it’s not the one released in most territories… except the UK. ^

A Few Good Men (1992)

2009 #38
Rob Reiner | 138 mins | download | 15 / R

A Few Good MenSometimes you have to wonder where it all went wrong. I can only imagine how good things looked for Rob Reiner at the start of the ’90s, when he’d had an almost-interrupted near-decade-long run of acclaimed movies in the director’s chair: This is Spinal Tap, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, Misery, and finally this. ‘Finally’ being the operative word however, as it all seems to have gone down hill from there, to the extent that I actually felt the need to look him up on IMDb to check if he was still working/alive. (He’s both, having recently directed The Bucket List, a bit of a hit if I recall correctly.) Reiner is a recognisable name, and if he’d stopped making films after A Few Good Men perhaps he’d find himself bandied about on lists of Great Directors (at least in certain circles/magazines), but the fact I had to check what he’s been up to (and had forgotten how many acclaimed films he’d made in the first place) shows what a 15-year run of nothingy films can do for your reputation. Even the career of Spinal Tap themselves seems to be in better condition.

All that said, A Few Good Men isn’t really Reiner’s show. It’s not that he does a bad job — far from it — but courtroom dramas primarily depend on two things, even more so than most films: the quality of the writing and the quality of the performances. When you have scene after scene in which a handful of people battle with words alone, often in one-on-one confrontations, then those two elements are virtually all you’ve got. Of course camerawork, editing, music and the rest still have their part to play, but without the underpinning of good writing and good performances the technical attributes are merely fighting to cover for significant shortcomings. Fortunately, A Few Good Men has those underpinnings.

In this case the screenplay is by Aaron Sorkin, adapting from his own play, who would go on to create and write a great deal of The West Wing (which, incidentally, was inspired by leftover ideas from a later Sorkin/Reiner collaboration, The American President). The seeds of that show’s influential style are in evidence here, although the sheer pace and famous ‘Walk and Talk’ scenes aren’t yet part of the formula. As in The West Wing, Sorkin’s writing is both intelligent and witty, a hallmark of high-quality writing that’s able to rise above the shackles of “it’s not real drama unless it’s all grimly serious”. His characters and their personal story arcs may be straight from the stock pile — Tom Cruise is the hot-shot young lawyer who’s actually trying to live up to his daddy (and comes through in the end); Demi Moore is the goody-two-shoes woman trying to make it in a man’s world (who learns to work with her colleagues); and so on — but the plotting of the central case remains undiminished, and Sorkin thankfully avoids such obvious subplots as a romance between Cruise and Moore’s initially-mismatched-but-ultimately-mutually-respectful good guys. Nonetheless, the occasional lapses into extreme, often patriotic, sentiment that would later mar the odd episode of The West Wing are also on show here, most notably at the climax, though they fail to do any serious damage.

It’s in the all-important court scenes that Sorkin’s writing really shines. Dialogue flies back and forth like bullets, full of protocol and technical jargon — like in The West Wing — that we either understand or, when we don’t, get enough of the gist to follow the key plot points — like in The West Wing. The biggie is the final confrontation between Lt. Kaffee and Col. Jessep, an interview that’s the courtroom equivalent of a high noon showdown. It’s true that Tom Cruise plays Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson plays Jack Nicholson, just as they almost always do, but it makes for a grand act-off. It’s fair to say that Nicholson comes out the victor, gifted with material that guides him from cocksure commanding officer to angry thug in just a few minutes, but it’s the bravado of Cruise’s questioning — undercut with uncertainty and genuine surprise when he pulls it off — that pushes Jessep there.

There are plenty of other good performances — typically competent work from Kevin Pollak doing the best friend thing and Kevin Bacon doing the friend-turned-rival thing, while Kiefer Sutherland’s ‘head bully’ role is memorable and Demi Moore holds her own better than the rest of her career might suggest — but this is undoubtedly a showcase for Nicholson and Cruise, and through them Sorkin’s writing. Not to mention that there are some nice directorial flourishes from Reiner. I wonder what happened to him?

4 out of 5

A Few Good Men is showing on Five tonight at 10pm.