American Animals (2018)

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Bart Layton | 117 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

American Animals

I don’t want this to turn into a rant about IMDb — there’s a time and a place for those, certainly, but what’s meant to be a short review of one film is not one of them — but the way they’ve devalued the documentary in recent years is not also depressing but also inaccurate. Because anything that has the genre Documentary is now marked as “(documentary)” on someone’s filmography, and therefore IMDb, and/or its contributors, are reluctant to use it about anything that isn’t 100% a documentary. Something like, say, American Animals.

To be clear: American Animals is unquestionably a documentary. It tells a true story, about some students who plan to rob a library of its rare books. It features interviews with the real people involved, both the students and others. But it’s mostly told via reenactments starring actors, several of them fairly recognisable faces. The real people appear as talking heads scattered throughout, particularly at key moments. So, it’s also unquestionably a hybrid of documentary and fiction. On the surface, it can look a lot like any fictionalised adaptation of a true story; but it’s hidebound to be more accurate than those often are, because it’s also got all these interviews. IMDb isn’t built for nuance such as this.

Prior planning prevents piss-poor performance... possibly

The film’s director, Bart Layton, previously made widely-praised definitely-a-documentary The Imposter. In my review of that, I described his style as “flashy” and “over-eager”, wondering if “perhaps he better belongs in fiction filmmaking? Perhaps that’s where he wants to go in future”. Here, I guess he’s moving to bridge that divide; but the blurred line means that, when the film says “here’s the real [person X]”, you kind of question it. Especially as, if a crime was committed, how come they’re interviewing the criminals?

That latter thought contributes to a genuine tension and suspense throughout the film. How far will this plot go? Do they even actually attempt it? One of the guys keeps saying, “I expected there to be something to stop us”, and you think maybe something will stop them… but the fact this film exists, and there’s all the chat about how the boys let their parents down and whatever, shows something happened. (No spoilers!) Yet it’s also surprisingly funny, like a bit where we’re shown the “Ocean’s Eleven version” of the robbery, complete with Elvis song on the soundtrack.

Some have criticised these kinds of flights of fancy, or the whole hybrid form, for inviting us to sympathise with these guys rather than condemn their actions. I think there’s room for both. The film seeks to explore what led these pretty normal guys to do such a thing, and (to an extent) how it has affected them since. I think you can both disapprove of what they did and seek to sympathise with them — to understand how it happened is not to condone it.

4 out of 5

American Animals was #107 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2020.
It is streaming on All 4 until 10th February.

Archive 5, Vol.1

Part of the impetus behind this new era of 100 Films was to solve ‘problems’ like my repeated failure to post reviews. Hopefully my plan for regular groups of capsule-sized reviews will solve that going forward. But this has been an issue for a while, and that’s led to a huge backlog of unreviewed films from 2019 to 2021 — it totals a ridiculous 449 feature films (counting shorts too, it goes over 500). Rather than abandon those to the mists of time, I present a new weekly (more or less — let’s not overcommit myself) series: Archive 5.

Essentially, it’s the same format as new viewing: each post is a collection of short reviews; but here they’re five titles plucked at random from my archive of unreviewed films (and I’ve used a random number generator, so it’s genuinely unmethodical). If I can keep this up weekly, it will take me just under two years to clear the backlog — which means I could still be reviewing stuff from 2019 in 2023. Hahaha… haha… ha… ugh.

With that in mind, there’s no need for further ado. This week’s Archive 5 are…

  • Never Too Young to Die (1986)
  • Bachelor Knight (1947)
  • Little Women (2019)
  • Aniara (2018)
  • Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

    (I Care a Lot was originally intended to be part of this post, but then the review turned out a little long, so I spun it off by itself. That’s the kind of thing I’ll probably keep doing, too.)


    Never Too Young to Die

    (1986)

    Gil Bettman | 97 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

    Never Too Young to Die

    If you dropped A View to a Kill, Rocky Horror, WarGames, and Mad Max 2 into a blender, the end result might be Never Too Young to Die. And if that sounds like a ludicrous, unpalatable mash-up… yep, that’s Never Too Young to Die.

    This direct-to-video action-adventure stars a pre-Full House John Stamos as Lance Stargrove, a teenage gymnast whose dad is a secret agent (played by George Lazenby — aged 47 at the time, but looking at least 20 years older). When daddy is killed, Lance teams up with his partner (singer turned actress Vanity) to go after the culprit: gang leader and wannabe terrorist Velvet Von Ragnar (Gene Simmons (yes, from Kiss), chewing scenery as if he’s not been fed for months).

    If you’ve never heard of this film… well, neither had I, until a Cracked article suggesting comical substitutes for Covid-delayed blockbusters. But what really convinced me to watch it is that it has The Greatest Trailer Ever Made. If you set out to make a spoof ’80s trailer, I’m not convinced you’d be able to beat that. Unfortunately, neither can the film as a whole. It’s fun at times (the boob-biting final fight, or a scene where Stamos tries to distract himself from Vanity’s sexuality by… eating multiple apples), but it’s not quite camp or daft enough to really earn a place as a cult classic.

    I’ll say this for it, though: rewatching that trailer has made me really want to watch the film again…

    3 out of 5

    Never Too Young to Die was #70 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2020.


    Bachelor Knight

    (1947)

    aka The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer

    Irving Reis | 91 mins | digital (SD) | 4:3 | USA / English | U

    Bachelor Knight

    If you ever need to name an obscure Oscar winner for some reason, you could do worse than Bachelor Knight — or, to give it its even-dumber-sounding original title, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer. Yes, this won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (the other nominees aren’t the greatest field you’ve ever seen, but altogether they’re either better-remembered or were considered good enough to nominate for other gongs that evening, so quite how this took the prize, I don’t know).

    The plot also stretches credibility: after high schooler Susan (Shirley Temple) becomes infatuated with artist Richard Nugent (Cary Grant), she sneaks into his place to model for him, much to the disapproval of her older sister Margaret (Myrna Loy), who also happens to be a judge; and when Nugent ends up in her court room, she sentences him to date Susan until her infatuation inevitably wears itself out. I know things are different in the US, and also in the past, but did/do judges there really have the power to hand out any crazy made-up sentences they like?

    On the bright side, the film moves sprightly through its plot. Perhaps that’s because it takes a whole 40 minutes to get through the basic setup, even while running at a pace, means there’s less screen time left to dwell on all that follows. Not that some individual bits don’t go on a tad, like a picnic sequence; but others work very well, like a scene in a nightclub that is a nicely-written bit of escalating farce.

    It’s not the best work of anyone involved, but Bachelor Knight belies its iffy title (both of them) to be a likeable-enough 90 minutes of screwball comedy.

    3 out of 5

    Bachelor Knight was #70 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2021.


    Little Women

    (2019)

    Greta Gerwig | 135 mins | cinema | 1.85:1 | USA / English | U / PG

    Little Women

    Writer-director Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel was greeted in some quarters by questions of if it was necessary: it’s the sixth big-screen version of Alcott’s book, and came just two years after a major new BBC adaptation. Well, I don’t know if it was ‘necessary’ or not, but Gerwig’s version is definitely a very good film.

    A key point that marks it out from other adaptations is that Gerwig has restructured the story: instead of playing out in a straightforward chronological fashion, it flashes back and forth in the sisters’ lives, starting with them as young women in 1868, with Jo in New York and Amy in Paris, before mixing in events from their childhood, seven years earlier, when the four sisters lived together in Massachusetts. This might seem like a rejig for the sake of differentiation, but Gerwig uses it to create interesting juxtapositions or to reframe plot points. For one example (spoilers follow, if you’re not familiar with the story), I felt it made Laurie and Amy’s relationship less creepy. Told chronologically, they first meet when he’s a young man and she’s a child, and he only moves his affection to her after Jo’s rejected him and Amy’s grown up. In Gerwig’s version, we first meet them together in Paris, and they seem more destined for each other, with a genuine spark between them as individuals, rather than a nagging sense of “if I can’t have one sister, this other will do”. It’s only later we learn the full backstory of Laurie and Jo — and, for that matter, of Jo and Amy — which, yeah, is obviously still a bit creepy, when you think about it.

    Whichever way you cut it, Gerwig seems to really get to the heart of the meaning in the story and characters, as well as giving it a lightly feminist polish (misogynists would probably consider it Terribly Feminist and Evilly Revisionist, if they watched it, which I don’t imagine they would). A star-studded cast ensure the whole thing is well acted, and it’s beautifully shot by cinematographer Yorick Le Saux. Questions about ‘necessariness’ are particularly irrelevant when the work is this good.

    5 out of 5

    Little Women was #4 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2020.


    Aniara

    (2018)

    Pella Kågerman & Hugo Lilja | 106 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | Sweden & Denmark / Swedish & English | 18 / R

    Aniara

    A sci-fi movie based on, somewhat oddly, a 1950s Swedish poem, Aniara is about a spaceship transporting migrators from Earth to Mars that accidentally veers off course and heads irretrievably into deep space. Rather than the kind of action-adventure this might provoke if it were a Hollywood production, Aniara follows how the passengers and crew attempt to cope with their new lives.

    It’s a premise interesting enough that you feel it could fuel a TV series — how this mass of people, forced together by accident and terrible circumstance, comes to function (or not) as a society. Or maybe the remake of Battlestar Galactica already nailed that kinda thing. Either way, here it’s condensed into about 100 minutes; and because it has such a long-term view of what it wants to pack in, there are some surprisingly large time jumps (by the half-hour mark we’ve already reached Year 3). It takes some odd detours when it does that (society completely breaks down into weirdo cults… then a probe that might allow them to return home is discovered, at which point everything goes back to normal), but overall it has a pretty clear thesis about humanity and how we cope with things — “not well”, fundamentally.

    The final act kind of rushes a similar point, skipping ahead (several times) to how things are even worse without really tracking the descent. Maybe that’s why I liked the idea of a series version so much: to fill in all those blanks. But I don’t want to take this criticism too much to heart. If anything, the fact I wanted more detail is a compliment. It’s not the film bungling developments and me searching for justification, but rather that I’d be interested in seeing the themes and characters explored in even more detail. As it stands, Aniara is an epic-scale story told well in a somewhat condensed fashion.

    5 out of 5

    Aniara was #65 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2020. It placed 21st on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2020.


    Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

    (1966)

    Mike Nichols | 131 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12

    Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

    When a middle-aged college professor (Richard Burton) and his wife (Elizabeth Taylor) have his new young colleague (George Segal) and wife (Sandy Dennis) around for drinks one evening, the occasion soon degenerates into a verbal slanging match between the elder couple, the younger inescapably caught in the middle.

    And as the film takes place in almost-real-time, in just a couple of locations, it feels like we’re trapped with them. With a running time north of two hours, the film’s drunken sardonicism almost becomes an endurance test, particularly when it goes on a bit too long in the middle. But it’s carried through by some magnificent performances. Everyone talks about Taylor — just 33 at the time, she wasn’t sure she could play the part of a bitter 52-year-old, but she’s excellent — or they talk about Taylor and Burton — similarly, he wasn’t sure he could play a beaten-down failure of a man, having been used to taking dashing heroic roles — but Sandy Dennis is great too, and deserved her Oscar. Of the four actors, its George Segal who draws the short straw, not really getting the material to truly stand toe-to-toe with the other three (he still got an Oscar nom, though).

    Director Mike Nichols insisted the film be shot in black & white, which helps it to pull off Taylor’s ageing makeup, but was also intended to stop it seeming too ‘literal’ and instead give an abstract quality. That fits the material, because the characters, events, and revelations are all pretty odd; the way it plays out pretty strange. Plus, the pitch-black darkness of the night fits the film’s themes. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler does a superb (indeed, Oscar-winning) job, the photography looking more striking than you might expect, or even need, for such an actor-focused character piece.

    A whole featurette on the film’s disc release discusses how it was “too shocking for its time”, mainly because of the language used (the fact the film was made relatively unedited set a ball rolling that, just a couple of years later, saw the Production Code replaced by the modern MPAA classification system). While such concerns are no longer really relevant (once-controversial terms like “screw” and “goddamn” are hardly “fuck”, are they?), that the film is still powerful shows it was never truly about what was said, but who said it and how they said it. I don’t mean to say that it would still be offensive today, but rather that it still packs an emotive punch.

    5 out of 5

    Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was #22 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2021.


  • The 100-Week Roundup XXXII

    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 pair are the final films from May 2019

  • The Saint (2017)
  • Hairspray (1988)


    The Saint
    (2017)

    2019 #92
    Ernie Barbarash | 91 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12

    The Saint

    Leslie Charteris’s “modern-day Robin Hood” Simon Templar, aka the Saint, was adapted into a successful film series in the ’30s and ’40s, and an enduringly popular TV series in the ’60s, so it makes sense that, every now and then, someone tries to revive the property. This latest effort began life as a TV pilot in 2013, which was rejected. Reshoots to extend it into a feature were shot in 2015, but it was only released in 2017, as a ‘tribute’ to Roger Moore (star of the ’60s series, of course, and who makes a cameo here) shortly after his death. I guess that was the only way it could find distribution. You might think the fact it failed on its own merits, twice over, before having to rely on a beloved star’s death to get any kind of release, augurs badly for the film’s quality… and you’d be right.

    Adam Rayner plays the newest incarnation of the eponymous antihero, here tasked with recovering both stolen Nigerian aid money and the thief’s teenage daughter, who was kidnapped as leverage by a mysterious crime organisation. Cue lots of tech-based heist hijinks (gotta make sure we know this is a modern adaptation) and made-on-a-budget action sequences. The overall impression is of something that would’ve been a minor success as a syndicated TV series in about 1995, which obviously means it seem badly dated by today’s standards. The content of the reshoots is a little too obvious: a tacked-on prologue and epilogue, which come in the form of long scenes in limited locations with a small cast. That said, the whole production is so cheap that these additions don’t stick out too much. That’s not a compliment.

    It’s been a very long time now since we’ve had a decent version of The Saint (I rewatched the ’90s Val Kilmer film recently and it’s not some forgotten gem). As such a storied franchise, I’m sure someone will try again — indeed, we might not have to wait long at all, as it’s been reported that Dexter Fletcher is working on a new film that will star Chris Pine. I live in hope.

    2 out of 5

    The Saint featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw For the First Time in 2019.

    Hairspray
    (1988)

    2019 #94
    John Waters | 88 mins | DVD | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Hairspray

    John Waters is not the kind of filmmaker whose movies you’d expect to see being adapted as a big Broadway musical. But then, Hairspray is not your typical John Waters movie, leaving behind the transgressive, gross-out elements that make films such as Pink Flamingos infamous and unpalatable to this day, replacing them with the sweet story of an overweight high-schooler who wants to be a dancer on her local TV dance show, with a self helping of racial equality — it’s set in 1962 and the show’s black dancers are still segregated.

    Although the end result is resolutely PG material, the film still feels a world away from the slick big-budget studio production values of the stage-musical-based remake — a bit of the grungy, independent, low-budget roots of Waters’s other films has survived into the vibe of this film. In a way, the nice thing about that is that the two screen versions cater to different demographics. So many remakes are aimed at fundamentally the same audience, but in shiny new packaging to attract the imbeciles who refuse to watch any films made before whatever year they’ve arbitrarily selected. Conversely, the two Hairsprays are distinctly different interpretations of the same base material, with a shared socially-conscious vision, but different aesthetic and artistic goals. Both are valid; both are good. My personal preference errs towards the remake, but I appreciate the qualities of the original, too.

    4 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup XXXI

    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 a trio of films I watched back in May 2019

  • Widows (2018)
  • Cosmopolis (2012)
  • The Kennel Murder Case (1933)


    Widows
    (2018)

    2019 #88
    Steve McQueen | 130 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English & Spanish | 15 / R

    Widows

    The story of four women with nothing in common, except a debt left behind by their dead husbands’ criminal activities. Set in contemporary Chicago, amid a time of turmoil, tensions build when Veronica (Viola Davis), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Belle (Cynthia Erivo) take their fate into their own hands and conspire to forge a future on their own terms.IMDb

    Best known for powerful socially/politically-conscious work like Hunger, 12 Years a Slave, and the Small Axe series, director Steve McQueen here delivers something closer to a genre movie — although, with its storyline of gangsters’ women empowering themselves, and a racially diverse cast, it still feels at least somewhat radical. As a thriller, it’s not exactly taught with tension, but it’s not too slack either — the pace is considered but not slow, allowing enough room for everything (and there’s a lot) without feeling rushed.

    4 out of 5

    Cosmopolis
    (2012)

    2019 #89
    David Cronenberg | 101 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | Canada & France / English | 15 / R

    Cosmopolis

    Riding across Manhattan in a stretch limo in order to get a haircut, a 28-year-old billionaire asset manager’s day devolves into an odyssey with a cast of characters that start to tear his world apart.IMDb

    David Cronenberg may be most famous as a horror director, but the only thing horrific about Cosmopolis is having to sit through it. It has the visual, aural, writing, and performance quality of an overambitious semi-pro early-’00s webseries, from the distractingly ugly green-screened limo windows to the “undergrad philosopher”-sounding screenplay and stiff performances. I presume this literally monotonous lack of realism must have been intentional, but doing something deliberately doesn’t inherently make it good. Cronenberg reportedly wrote the screenplay in just six days, apparently by copy-pasting the book into screenplay format and separating the dialogue from narration. That would go some way to explaining why it’s all so unnatural and impenetrable.

    1 out of 5

    Cosmopolis featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2019.

    The Kennel Murder Case
    (1933)

    2019 #91
    Michael Curtiz | 73 mins | digital (SD) | 4:3 | USA / English

    The Kennel Murder Case

    Before he starred in The Thin Man, one of the definitive detective movies, William Powell played private eye Philo Vance in a series of movies — three at Paramount across 1929 and 1930, later returning for this one at Warners. Here, Vance investigates a locked-room mystery: wealthy collector Archer Coe is dead and all signs point to suicide, but Vance had run into him the day before at the Kennel Club, where Coe was looking forward to his dog winning the next day’s competition.

    While the ensuing story unfolds a solid mystery, it lacks the charm and wit of the Thin Man films. Powell’s character is a facilitator of the plot rather than an entertaining main character; a blank slate who wanders around solving things. That lack of verve or individuality (which you do find in, say, the Falcon and Saint films, which this is on a par with in most other respects) is what really holds it back. Mind you, it has its moments: for example, much of Michael Curtiz’s direction is perfunctory studio-programmer stuff, but there’s the occasional striking shot (the discovery of a body though a keyhole) or sequence (the recap of how the murders went down, with a roving first-person view to hide the killer’s identity).

    3 out of 5

  • Nomadland (2020)

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

    Nomadland

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

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

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

    A story of people

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

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

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

    Pioneer spirit

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

    5 out of 5

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

    It placed 8th on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2021.

    The 100-Week Roundup XXIX

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

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

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

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


    Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
    (2010)

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

    Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

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

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

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

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

    5 out of 5

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

    Click
    (2006)

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

    Click

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

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

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

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

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

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

    2 out of 5

    Mortal Engines
    (2018)

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

    Mortal Engines

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

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

    The Help
    (2011)

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

    The Help

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

  • 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

  • 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 XXII

    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 three more feature films and one short from February 2019

  • Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
  • Leave No Trace (2018)
  • Inception: The Cobol Job (2010)
  • Fences (2016)


    Hacksaw Ridge
    (2016)

    2019 #17
    Mel Gibson | 139 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | Australia & USA / English | 15 / R

    Hacksaw Ridge

    Hacksaw Ridge tells the true story of Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield), an American who believed that World War II was justified — so he joined the army to serve his country — but also that killing was wrong — so he refused to carry a weapon. Serving as a combat medic, Doss ended up at the bloody Battle of Okinawa, where he saved the lives of 75 men without firing a shot, and became the first conscientious objector to earn the Medal of Honor.

    It’s an extraordinary true story — the kind of thing that would seem ludicrous if someone made it up — so it earns its place on the screen. Unfortunately, I don’t think the best way to tell it was by letting Mel Gibson carve it from a block of cheese. When the film’s not wasting time on clichéd bootcamp stuff, it’s earnestly indulging in its subject matter to an eye-rolling degree. Indulgence is also the name of the game when it comes to the war, too: for a movie about a guy who wouldn’t kill, it certainly revels in its gory depictions of combat. Handled the right way, such grotesquery could have supported the point that Desmond is right, but Gibson seems to be enjoying the slaughter too much.

    And yet for all of Gibson’s amping it up, some of the real-life stories are even more incredible than what’s in the film — there are stories in IMDb’s Trivia section (here and here, for example) that stretch credulity so far it was decided to leave them out because audiences would never believe it. Considering how OTT the stuff left in is, it seems a shame to have left out something that could be backed up as a true account.

    3 out of 5

    Leave No Trace
    (2018)

    2019 #18
    Debra Granik | 109 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA & Canada / English | 12 / PG

    Leave No Trace

    Traumatised military veteran Will (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), have lived in isolation for years in a public park outside Portland, Oregon, only occasionally venturing in to the city for food and supplies. But when they’re spotted by a jogger, they’re arrested and put into social services. Tom finally gets a sense of what it might be like to integrate with society, but Will clashes with his new surroundings, and soon they set off on a harrowing journey back to the wild. — adapted from IMDb

    I don’t like summarising too much of a film’s storyline at the start of a review, but Leave No Trace is one of those films where the character work is more important than the shifts of the plot. It’s a double portrait: that of a damaged man who can’t cope with society, and his loving daughter who he’s taken on the same path, for good or ill. Will’s lifestyle and parenting methods are entirely at odds with what’s seen as acceptable by society (hence the arrest and being placed in care), but does that make him wrong? The pair’s life in the woods is a “back to nature” approach, detached from technology and the hum of modernity, which many profess to strive for — he’s just actually gone and lived it. But Tom, as just a young teenager, has had this life thrust upon her — it’s what her dad wants, but she’s never known anything else to have the choice.

    So the film rests on the two lead performances. Ben Foster is reliably superb as a father doing his best for his daughter — and, actually, not doing a bad job — but struggling with his own issues and traumas. But the star is Thomasin McKenzie, in what’s proven (rightly) to be a breakout role (she quickly followed this with another leading role in Jojo Rabbit, and will next be seen in new movies from Edgar Wright, M. Night Shyamalan, and Jane Campion). She was just 17 when the film was shot, but is entirely convincing as a 13-year-old, and yet the character also seems old for her age. It’s a weird dichotomy, that. It never crossed my mind that the actress was any older than the character — it’s not just that she looks young, it’s a quality in the performance — and yet she also conveys that sense of being “wise beyond her years”. As if that wasn’t enough, the film’s emotional crux lies with her, delivered in a single emotional gut-punch of a line that’s liable to make you choke up just remembering it.

    4 out of 5

    Inception: The Cobol Job
    (2010)

    2019 #20a
    Ian Kirby | 15 mins | Blu-ray | 16:9 | USA / English | 12

    Inception: The Cobol Job

    Remember motion comics? They were a brief fad where comic books were adapted into movies/series by simply adding movement and sound to the original artwork. (I say “brief fad”, they may still make them for all I know, but there was a rash of them about ten years ago that seems to have abated.) That’s what this animated prequel to Christopher Nolan’s Inception is: a moving version of the one-shot comic (originally published online, but also included in print with some releases of the movie), written by Jordan Goldberg with art by Long Vo, Joe Ng, and Crystal Reid of Udon.

    As motion comics go, the animation here isn’t bad. It’s still clearly derived from a comic book rather than being born into animated form, but it’s got a decent amount of movement and dynamism. But its main fault is not having any voice actors. There’s music (taken from Hans Zimmer’s score for the feature) and sound effects, which complement the atmosphere and help connect it to the film proper, but having to read speech and thought bubbles really keeps it in “motion comic” rather than “animated short” territory. Were the producers at Warner really so cheap that they couldn’t’ve afforded a couple of voice actors for an afternoon’s work?

    As for the story, it’s a nice little prequel to Inception, more-or-less tonally in-keeping with Nolan’s work. It sets up the backstory behind the film’s opening heist and some of its subplots… though, kinda ironically, The Cobol Job also begins in media res, so you could do a prequel to the prequel to explain how they got there. Stories within stories within stories? How very Inception.

    3 out of 5

    Fences
    (2016)

    2019 #21
    Denzel Washington | 139 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA & Canada / English | 12 / PG-13

    Fences

    Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) is a working-class African-American in 1950s Pittsburgh, doing his best to provide for his family: wife Rose (Viola Davis), teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo), his son from a previous relationship (Russell Hornsby), and Troy’s mentally impaired brother, Gabe (Mykelti Williamson). But this seemingly-happy dynamic is tried when Troy’s secrets are forced to come to light, and his bitterness at the hand life dealt him threatens his family’s dreams. — adapted from IMDb

    Fences is adapted from a 1985 play by August Wilson, which was revived on Broadway in 2010, and many of the lead cast members from that award-winning production transfer to this film version, not least star (and now director, too) Denzel Washington. Perhaps that’s why the end result is so very stagey.

    It’s not just the limited locations or talky screenplay that give that away — there’s no reason you can’t make a film that’s set in limited locations or heavily based around dialogue, so it goes beyond that. The stage roots show through partly in that so much important stuff is kept offscreen and we’re only told about it through dialogue — I don’t think you’d tell this story this way if it originated for the screen, or indeed as a novel. Then there’s the way the actors move around, the way they come and go from the ‘stage’, the way scenes are blocked — it feels like it’s been lifted off a stage set, plonked on an equivalent real location, then filmed. Then there’s the style of the dialogue — it has a certain kind of familiar theatricality, which I can’t quite define but I always know when I hear it.

    All of which serves as a distraction from whatever Fences is meant to be about. And, frankly, it goes on a bit, with many scenes feeling in need of a massive tighten. It’s not that it’s bad, but it feels very worthy; very self consciously important. Perhaps for some people it is.

    3 out of 5

  • 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