2022 | Weeks 7–8

It’s been a hectic time, both at work and in my personal life, these past few weeks. I’ve managed to carve out a small amount of time for some film watching (though not as much as I’d like), but little for film reviewing — hence why there’s not been an Archive 5 for a fortnight, and why this update comes over two weeks after the period it covers.

But better late than never, and the only way to get back on track is to get on, so…

  • Shot in the Dark (1933)
  • The Brits Are Coming (2018), aka The Con Is On
  • Ode to Joy (2019)
  • The Courier (2020)
  • The Misfits (2021)


    Shot in the Dark

    (1933)

    George Pearson | 52 mins | digital (SD) | 4:3 | UK / English

    Shot in the Dark

    The works of Agatha Christie and G.K. Chesterton are casually evoked in this ‘quota quickie’ murder mystery, adapted from a novel by H. Fowler Mear, a screenwriter whose Wikipedia entry describes him as “competent but uninspired”. (FYI, the film is often listed as A Shot in the Dark online, I presume due to confusion with a couple of slightly later films that go by that title. As the title card makes plain, there’s no A here.)

    When a wealthy old man dies of a gunshot, it’s ruled a suicide; but when the family gather to listen to the will he recorded, the deceased claims he must have been murdered. Before he can make any further accusations from beyond the grave, the record goes missing. Fortunately, the local vicar (O.B. Clarence) happens to be passing at the time, and sticks his nose in — to find both the record and the murderer.

    There’s nothing particularly special about the mystery that unfolds. As a detective, the vicar is a cut-price Father Brown knockoff; a weak caricature of the Sherlock Holmes type: every time he interviews someone, he seems to already know everything they’re going to tell him, if not more. It’s quite fun that almost everyone confesses to the murder at one time or another, only to turn out to not actually be responsible, but I have trouble crediting that as a deliberate gag — it’s not emphasised enough for that to be the case. When the actual culprit is eventually revealed, how and why the crime was committed isn’t properly explained. This is the kind of film that doesn’t see the value in wasting valuable screen time on things like “motive” and “plausible opportunity” and “plot twists” when it can offer dark & stormy nights and people storing poison next to medicine and secret passageways. Indeed, when they find a secret room, it turns out to have its own secret room — that’s the kind of work we’re dealing with here.

    All in all, it’s not <i<bad for a quick little murder mystery, but it’s not strictly good either. It scrapes a 3 by the skin of its teeth.

    3 out of 5

    Shot in the Dark is the 16th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.


    The Brits Are Coming

    (2018)

    aka The Con Is On

    James Haslam | 91 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

    The Brits Are Coming

    Uma Thurman and Tim Roth star as a couple of British crooks who accidentally gamble away a pile of cash belonging to a crime lord (Maggie Q), so flee to LA to steal the expensive new engagement ring of his ex (Alice Eve).

    As a crime-comedy caper, you feel like this must have read funny — how else to explain such a starry cast in such a cheap-feeling production? Assuming that’s the case, something definitely got lost between page and screen: almost everything about The Brits Are Coming seems as if it should work, and yet almost none of it does. The occasional moment lands, amid a barrage of F-words so unnecessary you wonder if the film was in some kind of competition to use as many as possible. You sense the cast might’ve been having fun, at least, though supporting appearances from the likes of Stephen Fry and Crispin Glover do little to elevate the material.

    1 out of 5


    Ode to Joy

    (2019)

    Jason Winer | 97 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / R

    Ode to Joy

    Charlie (Martin Freeman) has cataplexy, a rare neurological condition that means if he feels a strong emotion — in his case, happiness — he passes out. Unfortunately for Charlie, he seems to be a bit of a softy: even just seeing someone with their baby or cute dog on the street is liable to make him wobbly. So Charlie lives an uneventful life, working in a library (what better place for calm?) and never doing anything particularly interesting. Certainly never dating. But then one day he defuses a situation involving Francesca (Morena Baccarin), who takes a shine to him; and of course he’s interested in her, because, duh, it’s Morena Baccarin. Can Charlie manage to be happy… but not too happy?

    If it all sounds a tad far-fetched, you should know that it’s inspired by a true story (there’s even a writing credit acknowledging the journalist behind the original piece). Nonetheless, the fictionalised version could easily have turned the premise into something ridiculous, but a solid screenplay and great cast ensure it stays balanced on just the right comedy-drama line. Freeman is perfect casting for “man who would like to be happy but must keep himself miserable”, playing to strengths he’s displayed ever since his breakthrough role in The Office. As his love interest, Baccarin could probably have got away with just looking pretty, but there’s more zest to her character than that. Among the supporting cast, The Big Bang Theory alum Melissa Rauch is particularly hilarious as Francesca’s ‘boring’ friend who Charlie ends up dating instead. She’s the closest thing the film has to an outright “comedy character”, but the screenplay and Rauch’s performance manage to round her out.

    Ode to Joy could’ve coasted on easy (if probably repetitive) gags derived from Charlie’s condition, or it could’ve more-or-less ignored it as simply a hook for a bog-standard romcom. Instead, it’s something a bit more thoughtful, exploring what it really means to be “happy”, as well as where and how we find happiness. Not to mention that age-old question, what’s the point in living if you don’t feel alive?

    4 out of 5


    The Courier

    (2020)

    Dominic Cooke | 112 mins | digital (UHD) | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English & Russian | 12 / PG-13

    The Courier

    A fascinating true story that I wasn’t the slightest bit aware of, The Courier stars Benedict Cumberbatch as nondescript businessman Greville Wynne, who was recruited during the Cold War by MI6 and the CIA to travel to Russia and collect information offered by an asset in Soviet military intelligence, Colonel Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), at that time the highest-ranked Soviet to leak intelligence to the West. Definitely sounds like spy novel stuff, but, as I said, it’s all true (well, except for the bits tweaked for dramatic licence, obv).

    As regular readers will no doubt have inferred from my reviews of James Bond, John le Carré adaptations, and other similar fare, I love a bit of Cold War espionage. Normally that’s of the fictional variety — I guess most of the true stories aren’t quite as exciting, or remain too classified — but there’s nothing quite like knowing the events you’re witnessing actually took place. That said, the events depicted here fall under the latter category, as they’re officially still classified. Screenwriter Tom O’Connor reportedly pieced the narrative together from various sources, which I imagine helps make this as close to the truth as we’re likely to get, for now at least.

    Either way, it’s a suitably thrilling tale, powered by two superb lead performances from Cumberbatch — initially reluctant and floundering, but increasingly self-assured and moralistic — and Ninidze — controlled and honourable, but with an emotional undercurrent. Strong supporting turns, too, from the likes of Jessie Buckley and Rachel Brosnahan, don’t let us forget the very human cost of the spy games, especially if things should turn sour…

    By the end, you definitely feel that the actions of Wynne and Penkovsky should be better known. Perhaps the need for keeping official secrets has stymied that — although (without wishing to spoil what happens) some events did make news at the time, and this isn’t the first drama or documentary to cover the case — but The Courier stands as a valiant effort to bring their tale to a wider audience.

    4 out of 5


    The Misfits

    (2021)

    Renny Harlin | 95 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA, UAE & Finland / English | 15 / R

    The Misfits

    If you thought Michael Bay’s 6 Underground was bad, The Misfits is here to show you what a properly poor “former crooks do good deeds from the shadows” action movie looks like.

    The eponymous ‘Misfits’ are a small group of international Robin Hoods, preying on the rich and selfish for the benefit of the poor and helpless. Their latest job is to steal the gold reserves of a terrorist organisation, which are kept safe in a prison owned by Warner Schultz (Tim Roth, slumming it again), so they recruit his nemesis: thief and multi-time Schultz prison escapee Richard Pace (Pierce Brosnan, only half succeeding to reconjure the roguish charm he deployed decades ago in similarly-themed films like The Thomas Crown Affair).

    Despite the involvement of a couple of big-ish names in front of the camera and a former blockbuster director behind it (Renny Harlin, whose credits included Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger before a couple of flops relegated him to rental-shelf-filler fare), The Misfits looks like it was made for £3.50 and a favour from the Abu Dhabi tourist board (the city appears glamorous and expensive, unlike anything else about the film).

    The screenplay feels like it was generated by an AI fed on every low-rent heist movie from the last 30 years. It’s not just clichés, but the way it drifts along with a “this is the sort of thing that happens in this sort of movie” logic, not particularly caring if it makes objective sense. The construction is sloppy, too. For example, a ton of time is devoted upfront to introducing the ‘Misfits’, only for most of them to be 2D one-trick pies (a thief, a fighter, an explosives expert, etc) who are supporting characters in what is really Brosnan’s film. I thought it was going to be a case of bait-and-switch marketing — make the famous actor prominent on the poster, only for his role to be little more than an extended cameo when the film is really about these other guys — but no, he’s genuinely the lead, it’s just the film is weirdly built. And that’s before we get onto the centrepiece heist itself, where the inevitable twists and reveals are either too clearly telegraphed, or simply pulled out of thin air (the gold isn’t there, it’s here! Except it’s not here, it’s there! But it’s not there, it’s here!)

    If you are exceptionally forgiving, The Misfits has vague merit as entertainment, but it’s a very hollow kind of fun. If you’re in the mood for the particular joys of a heist movie, and you can’t think of or get hold of another one at that minute, it would probably scratch the itch.

    2 out of 5

    The Misfits is the 18th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.

  • Archive 5, Vol.2

    I have a backlog of 442 unreviewed feature films from my 2018 to 2021 viewing. This is where I give those films their day, five at a time, selected by a random number generator.

    Today: musical comedies from ’41 and ’51; murder mysteries from ’33 and ’73; and an animated film that changed the Oscars.

    This week’s Archive 5 are…

  • Royal Wedding (1951)
  • A Study in Scarlet (1933)
  • Chicken Run (2000)
  • The Last of Sheila (1973)
  • Road to Zanzibar (1941)


    Royal Wedding

    (1951)

    aka Wedding Bells

    Stanley Donen | 93 mins | digital (SD) | 4:3 | USA / English | U

    Royal Wedding

    Cynically, I assumed this US production was designed as a cash-in to a news event, most likely the wedding of Princess Elizabeth (i.e. the Queen) and Philip. Although those are indeed the eponymous nuptials, they actually took place several years earlier, in 1947; and in the UK, for its initial release the film was retitled Wedding Bells so audiences wouldn’t think it was a documentary about the real event. So much for my modern cynicism.

    The actual plot is semi-biographical, inspired by the real-life dance partnership of the film’s star, Fred Astaire, and his sister Adele, and who she went on to marry. Here the sister is played by Jane Powell (almost 30 years Astaire’s younger) as the duo take their successful Broadway show across the ocean to London in time for the royal wedding. Such window dressing aside, the plot that unfurls is run-of-the-mill, with both siblings finding themselves in romantic entanglements, and the songs are unmemorable too. The object of Astaire’s affection is played by Sarah Churchill, daughter of Winston Churchill, which adds a bit of fun trivia, at least.

    There is one noteworthy highlight: a set piece in which Astaire dances up the walls and across the ceiling of his hotel room, an effect that’s achieved seamlessly — there’s no wobble or what have you to give away the trickery, and Astaire’s choreography helps hide the behind-the-scenes technique too. There are one or two other neat bits if you’re a fan of dance-y musicals, but, on the whole, this is a thoroughly middle-of-the-road Astaire musical — not bad, just no more than adequate.

    3 out of 5

    Royal Wedding was #180 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2021.


    A Study in Scarlet

    (1933)

    Edwin L. Marin | 72 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | USA / English | U

    A Study in Scarlet

    For some reason, cinema has a long history of taking the titles of original Sherlock Holmes stories but then producing an entirely new plot underneath. A Study in Scarlet — the very first of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes works — seems to be a particularly afflicted tale. It features the first meeting of Holmes and his roommate / sidekick / chronicler, Dr Watson, but I think there are two adaptations that actually show this — and, ironically, neither of them are actually called A Study in Scarlet (one is the debut episode of Sherlock, A Study in Pink, and the other is the first episode of the Russian series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, which is called Acquaintance). According to IMDb, “the Conan Doyle estate quoted the producers a price for the rights to the title and a considerably higher price to use the original story” — perhaps they did that all the time, hence my observed phenomena.

    Obviously, this ‘poverty row’ effort is one such example of title/story mismatch: this so-called adaptation stars Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson… and that’s where similarities to the novel end. The pair don’t even live at 221b Baker Street — for no apparent reason, it’s been changed to 221a. Did the filmmakers just misremember one of the most famous addresses in literature? Having only paid for the rights to the title, the producers hired director Robert Florey (the Marx Brothers’ The Cocoanuts; Murders in the Rue Morgue) to write a new story, and actor Reginald Owen — who stars as Holmes — wrote the dialogue. Owen hoped this would be the first in a series of Holmes films starring himself. It wasn’t.

    Physically, Owen isn’t anyone’s ideal image of Holmes, but his actual performance is adequate. Much the same can be said of the whole film: it’s an entertaining-enough 70-minute crime romp, with enough incident to create a brisk pace, and a use of the rhyme Ten Little Indians that makes you wonder if Agatha Christie saw this movie before she published And Then There Were None six years later (or is it just a coincidence? The audio commentators spend a good deal of time chewing it over). Given second billing behind Owen is bona fide Chinese-American movie star Anna May Wong, even though she has relatively little screen time. She makes her mark, though, with a role that doesn’t simply conform to racial stereotypes (possibly an unintended side effect of her late casting rather than genuine progressivism by the filmmakers, but sometimes you gotta take what you can get).

    This particular Study in Scarlet is a long way from being a definitive Sherlock Holmes movie, but for fans of ’30s detective flicks, it’s nonetheless a likeable little adventure.

    3 out of 5

    A Study in Scarlet was #206 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2021.


    Chicken Run

    (2000)

    Peter Lord & Nick Park | 84 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | UK, USA & France / English | U / G

    Chicken Run

    I’ve always enjoyed Aardman’s work. I grew up watching the Wallace & Gromit shorts on TV, and have seen all of their feature output — except their first. I’m not sure why it’s taken me 20 years to get round to Chicken Run. I guess when it was originally released I had grown out of “kid’s movies” but not yet grown back into them; but since then, to be honest, something about it never particularly appealed to me. It certainly has its fans: it’s still the highest grossing stop motion film ever; there was a push to get it an Oscar Best Picture nomination, the failure of which led to the creation of a category it could’ve won, Best Animated Feature (trust the Academy to shut the door after the horse had bolted); and when Netflix recently announced a sequel, there was much pleasure on social media.

    So, finally getting round to it, would I discover what I’d been missing all along? Unfortunately, no. I thought it was fine. In no way did I dislike it, but nor did it charm me in the way of my favourite Aardman productions. It’s rather dark for U-rated film — it doesn’t mince its words or imagery about the fact the chickens are being killed — and that contributes to some particularly effective sequences, like when our heroes end up inside the pie machine, or a suitably exciting climactic action sequence. There are some reliably decent gags along the way, too.

    I’m sure I’ll watch the sequel. Maybe I’ll like it more. But, I confess, the fact they’ve now announced a new Wallace & Gromit movie for the year after does have me even more excited.

    3 out of 5

    Chicken Run was #148 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2020.


    The Last of Sheila

    (1973)

    Herbert Ross | 120 mins | digital (SD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15* / PG

    The Last of Sheila

    I’d never even heard of this before Rian Johnson mentioned it as an inspiration for Knives Out 2. Co-written by Anthony Perkins (yes, Norman Bates from Psycho) and Stephen Sondheim (yes, the famous musical composer), The Last of Sheila is a murder mystery firmly in the Agatha Christie mould — despite the writers’ pedigree, there are no significant horror elements (even the deaths are, at worst, on the PG/12 borderline) and certainly no song-and-dance numbers (excepting a magnificently inappropriate song over the end credits, sung by Bette Midler). Apparently Perkins and Sondheim used to host elaborate scavenger hunts for their friends in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and they adapted them into a screenplay at the suggestion of a guest, Herbert Ross, who produced and directed the film (seems only fair).

    Further inspiration came from their professional lives and acquaintances, because the potential victims and suspects are all actresses, agents, and the like, gathered for a Mediterranean cruise aboard a producer’s yacht. He proposes they play a game about secrets and gossip — but clearly one of the secrets in play is too big, because someone winds up murdered. A well-constructed mystery is unfurled throughout the film, although its execution is a little variable: a fun, very Christie-esque first half gives way to long talky scenes in the second, as characters stand around and explain the plot to each other. But when that plot is as good as this — with some nice surprises, plus motives dark enough to give it a little edge — it feels churlish to object too strongly.

    4 out of 5

    The Last of Sheila was #186 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2021.

    * IMDb says it was given a 15 on video, but the BBFC say it hasn’t been rated since 1973, when it got an AA. The BBFC site is crap nowadays; IMDb will accept any old junk users submit. You decide. ^


    Road to Zanzibar

    (1941)

    Victor Schertzinger | 87 mins | DVD | 1.33:1 | USA / English | PG

    Road to Zanzibar

    The second in what became the Road To… series — though it was never intended as such. What ended up becoming Road to Zanzibar was initially an original feature, first offered to Fred MacMurray (this before his roles in the likes of Double Indemnity and The Apartment) and George Burns (an actor I’m not particularly familiar with). After they rejected it, apparently someone at Paramount remembered Road to Singapore had done relatively well, and that Bob Hope and Bing Crosby seemed like a good pairing, and so they were offered it.

    As I wrote in my last review of a Road To film (which was over 11 years ago?! Jesus…), if you’ve seen one Road To film then you’ve a fair idea what to expect from any other — essentially, a suitably daft bit of fluff and fun. This one’s a bit thin — on plot, on gags, on everything — but it skates by on the charm of Bob and Bing, joined, as ever, by Dorothy Lamour. The only serious problem is the same as Singapore: dated depictions of African stereotypes. It kind of gets away with it by being a spoof of “African adventure”-type movies, but maybe that’s me being kind with hindsight. Either way, the bit where the tribe’s African dialogue is subtitled with contemporary American vernacular is one of the film’s more amusing gags.

    3 out of 5

    Road to Zanzibar was #110 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2019.


  • American Animals (2018)

    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.

    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 Man Who Reviewed Some Films

    There are a lot of films about a man who did something — already on this blog I’ve written about men who invented Christmas, sued God, and, um, laughed. But I noticed I have many other reviews pending about such apparently-noteworthy fellas, so I’ve rounded most of them up into this one handy location.

    Some of these men knew stuff; some shot somebody; one just had a nap… but they’re all men who had a movie named after them. They are:

  • The Man Who Knew Infinity (2015)
  • The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
  • The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
  • The Man Who Sleeps (1974)


    The Man Who Knew Infinity
    (2015)

    2019 #65
    Matthew Brown | 109 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    The Man Who Knew Infinity

    Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel) is a man of boundless intelligence that even the poverty of his home in India cannot crush. His skill for mathematics attracts the attention of noted British professor G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons), who invites him to develop his computations at Trinity College, Cambridge. Ramanujan finds that his largely-intuitive mathematical theories clash with stringent academic requirements, just as his cultural values are challenged by the prejudices of 1910s Britain. With Ramanujan’s health in decline, the two men join in a mutual struggle that would define him as one of India’s greatest scholars. — adapted from IMDb

    Writer-director Matthew Brown takes this interesting true story and turns it into an ironically by-the-numbers biopic. Even with reliable actors like Patel and Irons headlining, there are some surprisingly stuff performances, and the film struggles to truly convey the genius or importance of the maths involved. Instead, it’s just lots of characters saying “OMG look at this stuff he thought up” and other characters saying “nah mate, it’s wrong” (except in the vernacular of 1910s Cambridge, of course). Alongside that, it doesn’t have many places to go with the story or characters, so it comes to feel repetitive as it goes round and round over the same points. Even the start of World War I has no genuine impact on events, factoring into the film only because that’s when these events actually happened, so Brown seems to feel it must be mentioned. Indeed, a lot of the film feels beholden to fact in this way, though I’m sure it must be doing the usual biopic thing of bending the truth.

    3 out of 5

    The Man Who Knew Too Much
    (1956)

    2019 #84
    Alfred Hitchcock | 120 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    The Man Who Knew Too Much

    Dr. Ben McKenna (James Stewart), his wife Jo (Doris Day), and their eight-year-old son Hank are on vacation in Morocco when they witness the public murder of a mysterious man who, before he dies, manages to reveal to Ben details of an assassination about to take place in London. The plotters kidnap Hank to keep the McKennas silent, so Ben and Jo return to London to take matters into their own hands. — adapted from IMDb

    Famously, this is the time Hitchcock remade himself: he’d previously filmed The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1934 while he was still working in Britain. Later, he’d compare the two by calling the original “the work of a talented amateur” while the remake “was made by a professional”, although he reportedly preferred the earlier version precisely because it wasn’t so polished.

    Undoubtedly, the 1956 Man Who Knew Too Much is not top-tier Hitchcock, but that doesn’t mean it’s without joys. Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day are perfectly cast as an ‘everyman’ American couple who accidentally get embroiled in international espionage, and Hitch could make such thrills work with his eyes closed. He’s also on top form during a sequence in the Albert Hall, a stunning set piece that lasts 12 minutes without a single word of dialogue, in which Hitch has the balls to just keep going through an entire piece of music, allowing the tension to almost build itself as he cuts around the room; even when Stewart finally turns up, we still don’t need exposition — we know exactly what’s happening.

    Although a key part of the film’s conclusion, it’s not the actual finale, which is a shame because the following plan to rescue Hank is a bit daft. And, when you think about it, the villains’ plot doesn’t make a whole lot of sense either. It’s stuff like that which gets in the way of The Man Who Knew Too Much being among Hitch’s very best work, but it remains a fine suspense thriller.

    4 out of 5

    The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
    (1962)

    2020 #66
    John Ford | 118 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | U

    The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

    When US Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) returns to the town of Shinbone to attend the funeral of his friend Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), a young reporter persuades him to tell the story of why he’s there. Flashback to a quarter-century-or-so earlier, when Ransom, a newly-qualified lawyer (still played, unconvincingly, by 53-year-old Stewart), arrived in Shinbone with a plan to bring law to the West. After Ransom receives a beating from local heavy Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), he recuperates at the Ericsons’ restaurant, where he takes a job in their kitchen to repay their kindness. He develops an affection for their daughter, Hallie (Vera Miles), who’s also being wooed by young rancher Doniphon (still Wayne, also in his early 50s — it seems there was a good deal of movie star vanity in this casting). With local law enforcement refusing to do anything about Valance’s violent oppressive tactics, Ransom eventually takes it upon himself to face the villain down…

    Despite the violent promise of the title, Liberty Valance is very much a dramatic western rather than an action-packed one. Just shooting Valance isn’t the characters’ first recourse; indeed, the film on the whole is interested in the clash between the moral values of the old West and incoming modernity, and how the old ways can persist even as new ones come into force. That older Ransom is a senator is not incidental: a major part of the plot concerns Shinbone (or, rather, wherever it is) applying for statehood, and Ransom and Valance both standing to be a representative.

    All of which is fine, but unfortunately the dramatic focus seems to have resulted in the film being rather slow-going at times. The main plot is fine, but the telling could’ve been tighter — there’s a lot of stuff about Ransom washing dishes and teaching everyone to read and write. It establishes his place in town, sure, but it takes forever getting there. At the other end, Valance is actually shot a full 25 minutes before the end. There’s story to wrap up and twists to reveal, but it takes its sweet time doing it. None of which is distracting as the age-related issue I already referred to. I was genuinely puzzled why everyone kept talking about how young Ransom was, when Stewart patently isn’t, until I realised it was an example of good ol’ Hollywood vanity, where someone thought a star in his 50s could get away with playing a guy in his 20s.

    Despite that, however, Stewart and Wayne remain powerful screen presences, and the commentary on the changing face of the West — indeed, of the country as a whole — is indicative of a direction the genre continues to explore to this day (it’s what the whole of Deadwood is about, at its core).

    4 out of 5

    The Man Who Sleeps
    (1974)

    aka Un homme qui dort

    2020 #203
    Bernard Queysanne | 78 mins | digital (SD) | 4:3 | France & Tunisia / French

    The Man Who Sleeps

    When I watched this, it was ranked as one of the greatest films of all time by Letterboxd users. I did not feel the same — rather than Un homme qui dort, I found it more like Un homme qui t’endort. (That’s a joke I’m so pleased with, I’ve now used it four times.)

    At first it plays like a stereotype of French art house cinema: shot in black & white, it’s about a disaffected student, told with introspective voiceover narration, which philosophises at the level of a pretentious undergraduate, and nothing actually happens. But then I began to feel that, actually, it does a pretty good job of capturing how I’ve felt often in my life; especially back when I too was a pretentious undergraduate. But that feeling didn’t last much more than quarter-of-an-hour — and as the film is an hour and a quarter, that became a problem. As I slogged on through it, the interminable narration became repetitive; the musings less relatable. Just because warped minds exist doesn’t mean it’s worth our while to spend 78 minutes in their thoughts.

    The Man Who Sleeps is the kind of film that thinks it’s profound, but is actually pretentious. That may gel with the worldview of its undergrad subject, but, just as you wouldn’t want to listen to a real-life undergrad’s philosophising for over an hour, I don’t want to endure the same from a fictional one either. I guess it’s apt that a film titled “the man who sleeps” would be a good cure for insomnia.

    2 out of 5

    The Man Who Sleeps featured on my list of The Worst Films I Saw in 2020.

  • The 100-Week Roundup XXIII

    Regular readers will remember that I started 2021 on the back foot with these 100-week roundups, being about a month behind. Well, after some effort the past few weeks, I’m pleased to report I’ve now caught up — which, if you think about it, only means I’ve caught up to being just 100 weeks behind. Hurrah?

    Anyway, as always, this roundup covers films I still hadn’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 from February and the first from March 2019

  • Sherlock Gnomes (2018)
  • Swimming with Men (2018)


    Sherlock Gnomes
    (2018)

    2019 #22
    John Stevenson | 86 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | U / PG

    Sherlock Gnomes

    As if the idea of making a children’s animated movie based on Romeo & Juliet but starring garden gnomes and the music of Elton John wasn’t barmy enough, here we have a sequel that riffs off another classic of English literature, Sherlock Holmes.

    The plot naturally takes the form of a whodunnit, with Gnomeo (voiced by James McAvoy) and Juliet (Emily Blunt) recruiting Sherlock Gnomes (Johnny Depp, for some reason) and his assistant, Dr Gnome Watson (what creative renaming), to investigate the disappearance of their garden ornament friends. Don’t worry too much about the plot, though: I guessed the twist in the very first scene. (Fortunately, there is another twist beyond that.) Instead, treat it as a bright and breezy kids’ adventure. It’s not particularly clever or funny, but much of it is perfectly fine, with the occasional bit that’s quite good, like a Flushed Away-esque sewer scene or a hound of the Baskervilles gag, plus some creative use of animation to render things like Sherlock’s visions or Romeo’s escape plan.

    The Elton John songs are even more incongruously shoehorned in than they were last time — I know he’s a producer, or it’s made by his company or whatever, but, other than that, they have absolutely no reason to be here. Worst of all is a new number, written by Elton and regular collaborator Bernie Taupin but sung by Mary J. Blige. At least it makes the rest of the John back catalogue on the soundtrack seem less objectionable.

    3 out of 5

    Swimming with Men
    (2018)

    2019 #29
    Oliver Parker | 97 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 12

    Swimming with Men

    Here’s a sort of aquatic riff on The Full Monty, as a man suffering a midlife crisis (Rob Brydon) joins an all-male amateur synchronised swimming team, mostly made up of other mostly-middle-aged British character actors: Rupert Graves, Jim Carter, Daniel Mays, Adeel Akhtar, and Thomas Turgoose. It seems like your typical Britcom setup, but it’s actually based on a true story — the Swedish team it’s about play themselves in the film — which has been filmed several other times now: in Sweden as The Swimsuit Issue; in France as Sink or Swim; plus a documentary about the real team, Men Who Swim. I haven’t seen any of those to compare, but the British variant holds up pretty well by itself, with enough gentle amusement and heartwarming camaraderie to make for a pleasant watch.

    3 out of 5

  • 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 XVIII

    Here we are, then: the final reviews from December 2018, which are also therefore the final reviews from 2018 (er, aside from that one I’m keeping for another time).

    Also worthy of note: buried in the middle of this selection is the 2,000th feature film review I’ve published on this blog. It was way back in August 2019, 16 months ago, that I reached 2,000 films listed for review, so it’s taken me quite a while to catch up.

    So, reviews number 1999, 2000, and 2001 are…

  • Torment (1944)
  • Music in Darkness (1948)
  • Hachi: A Dog’s Tale (2009)


    Torment
    (1944)

    aka Hets

    2018 #249
    Alf Sjöberg | 97 mins | DVD | 4:3 | Sweden / Swedish | 12

    Torment

    Torment won a prize at Cannes and was nominated at Venice, but it’s most noteworthy for being the first film in the career of Ingmar Bergman: he was the screenwriter, and also served as assistant director — in which capacity he directed the film’s very final scene, meaning this film technically contains his first work as a director.

    Initially it seems like just a classroom drama — students vs a demanding teacher — but it takes a very different turn once one of the boys becomes involved with a girl of ill repute. She’s being tormented by a sadistic stalker — guess who that might turn out to be.

    With its realistic location photography and attitudes about schoolboys (disrespectful of schoolmasters; smoking; talking about getting girls pregnant; expressing opinions like “all women are tramps, and if they’re not they want to be”; and a lead female character who demonstrates they might be right), Torment feels more like a film from the ’60s film than the ’40s. But perhaps that’s just because it took Puritan America a while to catch up.

    The film is also critical of the strictures and pressures of the education system, which is still an accurate observation over seven decades later. In particular, a speech by a doctor about how schoolboys are overworked, and so they’re justified in trying to dodge some of that work, could be repeated word for word in a modern setting. There’s another scene where a kindly teacher berates a harsh one about his methods that, hopefully, we’ve moved slightly past, although I imagine every school still has teachers that are thought of as bastard taskmasters.

    Outside of its social views, the film does seem more of its time in its shot choices and production style, though not in a bad way — there’s some very effective stuff, like a bit of misdirection into a dream sequence, or its use of shadows. There’s one moment on a staircase that’s worthy of a horror movie — it’s almost a jump scare — and a chilling sequence follows which, again, feels like it’s from a different genre entirely.

    I liked a lot of Torment, not least the way it went beyond a tragic plot twist to explore the fallout in a fairly realistic manner — the lack of justice, the lack of revenge — but, unfortunately, the ending didn’t quite land for me. There’s a kind of justice for one character, but another ends up seemingly positive and optimistic, getting over events a mite too quickly. That said, it’s a quality production overall. It’s a shame it seems destined to relegation as a minor work (it’s not even in Criterion’s “comprehensive” Bergman box set), because I think it merits a wider rediscovery.

    4 out of 5

    Music in Darkness
    (1948)

    aka Musik i mörker / Night is My Future

    2018 #255
    Ingmar Bergman | 84 mins | DVD | 4:3 | Sweden / Swedish | PG

    Music in Darkness

    This is an early film by Ingmar Bergman — his fourth as director, from an era when someone’s fourth movie was an early one rather than their second or third studio blockbuster. That said, what Music in Darkness most feels like is a Hollywood romantic drama of the era, albeit with a couple of artistic flourishes and a flash of nudity, just so you know it’s definitely European.

    The film begins when master pianist Bengt Vyldeke suffers an accident that leaves him blind. Not a terrible inciting incident on paper, but on screen it’s so implausible it’s like a spoof: he’s injured while trying to save a puppy on a military shooting range. Where did that puppy come from?! Then there’s a kinda-experimental dream sequence, before we’re finally off to the races with a fairly standard romantic melodrama.

    Bengt may‘ve saved the life of a puppy, but he turns out to be a bit of a git. At first it seems his grumpiness stems from despair at his new situation, but then he begins to soften as he spends time with Ingrid, a maid who’s helping him. Sweet-natured, romantically-minded Ingrid is played by the ‘loose woman’ from Torment, Mai Zetterling; a remarkably different kind of role. So far, all so standard. But maybe Bengt saw Torment before he was blinded, because he starts calling Ingrid a wench and a last-resort marriage prospect behind her back. Yeah, maybe he’s not such a reformed character after all.

    Anyway, more tribulations follow, but eventually they overcome what was separating them to get together — hooray, and all that. But that’s not the end: next, there’s some minor palaver over getting married, the organising of the wedding, etc… but then that’s solved and they leave together, newlyweds… the end. All of which seems thoroughly extraneous — the story ends when they (suddenly, out of nowhere, without either really saying anything to the other) finally get together, not after some faffing about with wedding planning.

    Perhaps this is the European sensibility again, lacking the strict formal awareness of a Hollywood studio production. I don’t make that comparison as a criticism, incidentally. Like many a solid studio programmer, Music in Darkness is perfectly fine for what it is; but little about it truly stands out, either.

    3 out of 5

    Hachi: A Dog’s Tale
    (2009)

    2018 #259
    Lasse Hallström | 89 mins | TV (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA & UK / English & Japanese | U / G

    Hachi: A Dog's Tale

    Inspired by the true story of Hachikō, a dog in 1920s Japan who every day would wait at the train station for his owner to return — and continued to do so for almost ten years after the owner died. The tale was made into a Japanese film in 1987, which clearly caught the attention of someone in Hollywood, with this remake relocating the action to modern-day USA.

    This is really a film for people who like dogs. Without the pooch, it would be a terribly twee Hallmark TV movie — any scene where Hachi is absent is excruciating. In other words, if you don’t care for dogs, give it a miss. For the rest of us, fortunately, the pup’s is in most of it. The story takes us on an emotional rollercoaster, its impact only emphasised by the fact it’s (fundamentally) a true story. Of course, the dog dies — he wouldn’t have stopped waiting at the train station if he didn’t, would he, because he’s a very good boy.

    Yeah, if you hadn’t already guessed, this is an unabashed tearjerker for any dog lover.

    4 out of 5

  • A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)

    2020 #195
    Marielle Heller | 109 mins | digital (UHD) | 1.85:1 + 1.33:1 | USA & China / English | PG / PG

    A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

    Thanks to the ubiquity of their films and television programmes, American culture permeates the world. Even if something isn’t directly exported, there are enough references to it in other media that we all get to know it by osmosis. (If you think I’m exaggerating, here’s one example: there are many documented cases of people trying to “plead the fifth” when being interviewed by law enforcement in countries where the fifth amendment to their constitution has nothing to do with criminal procedure.) So, it’s all the more unusual that Mr Rogers is apparently an influential part of American childhoods, but he wasn’t (as far as I’m aware) widely known outside of the US until a couple of years ago. That was thanks to the acclaim garnered by documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? As these things often go, that was followed by a biopic — which is this.

    However, rather than try to tell Mr Rogers’ whole life story, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (a reference to the fictional land in his TV series, which is presumably why the US spelling was retained even for the UK release (except on DVD covers, etc)) focuses on one man’s encounter with Rogers. That man is Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a cynical journalist with familial problems aplenty. He’s assigned to write a puff piece on Rogers — a couple of hundred words for a magazine issue about “heroes”. The pair seem an ill fit, but that’s the point — it’s basically a punishment from his long-suffering, usually-indulgent editor. Lloyd is initially reluctant, then sceptical — surely the whole “Mr Rogers” thing is a persona; an act? But as he spends more time with the man, it begins to change his view on the world too.

    Okay, it probably takes a while for the film to get to that point, exactly, but I’m not spoiling anything — you know that’s where it’s going. “I met this guy whose world view was so much more positive and optimistic than mine… and it didn’t affect me at all, I’m still a grumpy bastard.” That’s not a story Hollywood’s going to tell, is it? Heck, that’s not even a story. So, yeah, of course Mr Rogers’ fundamentally decent and kindly nature is going to have an impact on Lloyd.

    A beautiful lunch in the neighbourhood

    Despite Mr Rogers being the focal point, then, the film is really more about Lloyd’s personal journey. But that journey is instigated and facilitated by Mr Rogers, so his “supporting character” part is vital. And who better to portray the very embodiment of decency than Tom Hanks? Rogers’ widow has said that Hanks was the perfect actor to play her husband; for his part, he’s said taking the role was “terrifying” due to the cultural significance. Hanks is as accomplished in the role as you’d expect, and it deservedly earnt his sixth acting Oscar nomination (his first in almost 20 years, and long overdue, I think).

    If it all sounds a bit predictable, director Marielle Heller dodges that with some indie-movie-esque flourishes. There’s a touch of Wes Anderson to how she uses Mr Rogers’ TV show, switching into Academy ratio to demarcate us entering a different ‘world’ — not just literally clips from the show, but bookend narration, dream sequences, location transitions, and so on. IMDb lists the 1.33:1 ratio as just being used for “TV scenes”, but I think that undersells its use and effectiveness, which is more comparable to (say) how Anderson used three different ratios in The Grand Budapest Hotel.

    Its those kind of inescapable but well-considered flourishes — plus the believable transition in Lloyd’s character, which is more grounded in reality than the “slightly unlikeable guy becomes super positive” cliché — that elevate A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood out of the predictable or twee, and into being a genuinely heartwarming kinda film.

    4 out of 5

    A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from today.

    Memories of Murder (2003)

    aka Salinui chueok

    2019 #15
    Bong Joon Ho | 131 mins | download (HD) | 1.85:1 | South Korea / Korean | 15

    Memories of Murder

    South Korean director Bong Joon Ho has gradually risen in prominence over the past few years, culminating in Parasite’s history-making success at this year’s Oscars (yes, that was only earlier this year). Memories of Murder wasn’t his debut work, but it was what initially garnered him some attention outside Korea. It’s been surprisingly hard to come by for a while now, but a new 4K restoration is released in the UK via Curzon today (it’s coming to US cinemas for a limited run in October, and new Blu-ray releases (including one from Criterion) will follow).

    In 1986, two women are raped and murdered in provincial South Korea. The local detective, Park Doo-man (Bong regular Song Kang-ho), has never dealt with a case of this magnitude and relies on old-fashioned methods — his main one being to have his partner, Cho (Kim Roi-ha), beat confessions out of suspects. After a modern-minded big-city ‘tec, Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung), volunteers to help, the old and the new clash. As more crimes are committed, more clues are gathered, and more suspects are apprehended, but then cleared. Can the police ever get close to their man?

    Loosely based on the true story of Korea’s first serial murders, and taking a procedural approach to the crime thriller genre, Memories of Murder invites comparison to David Fincher’s Zodiac for its methodical, realistic narrative style and plot that follows obsessed investigators chasing unsolved murders in the past. Zodiac is one of my favourite films (it placed 3rd in 100 Favourites II), so it’s a tall order to be pitched against it. Fortunately, Memories of Murder is strong enough to withstand the comparison.

    Investigators

    A lot of praise that applies to Zodiac could be copy-and-pasted here. In addition to the facets I’ve already mentioned, there are several fine performances (not least from Song, who’s clearly become a Bong regular for a reason); several striking set piece crimes and/or discoveries without indulging in glorification of real crimes; and a commentary on the methods and obsessions of investigators that goes beyond ‘doing the job’. It does none of this in the same way as Fincher would a couple of years later, but it’s a different perspective within the same genre headspace.

    Memories of Murder is already a well-regarded film (on top of a 91% Tomatometer score, it’s on the IMDb Top 250 and in the top 100 of Letterboxd’s version ) but, having been out of widespread circulation for a few years, and with renewed interest in Bong’s back catalogue, it’s ripe for wider (re)discovery.

    5 out of 5

    Memories of Murder is available to rent on Curzon Home Cinema from today.

    It placed 5th on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2019, after being viewed as part of What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2019.