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The Life of P

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QuickViews 2018 (part 6)

The final QuickViews compilation (before the feature moves to the new QuickViews page) touches on almost every genre, following an intensely varied December.

69. I, Tonya (2017)8/10

Tonya Harding is infamous in America as an Olympian figure skater whose rivalry with Nancy Kerrigan ended with the latter having her knee shattered in an attack. The film seeks to present Tonya’s side of the story, with a focus on the sport’s emphasis on image over athleticism (Tonya was the first woman to land a triple-axel in competition but was brash and from a poor background). Considerable focus is placed on the effect of domestic violence, at the hands of her mother (an exception supporting turn by Allison Janney) and then her partner. The film’s breezy tone makes for a more enjoyable experience, though arguably weakens its presentation of Tonya’s loneliness, yearning for affection. Given that the truth remains elusive, the film plays with its own unreliable perspective — “I never did this,” Tonya tells the camera, whilst cocking a shotgun and chasing her husband. The result, then, is conjecture but with substance.

70. Hacksaw Ridge (2016)8/10

The smarts of MIT and the glitz of Vegas sounds like a fun ride as a college professor takes a group of gifted students under his tutelage to count cards and win big at Blackjack. Despite claims to be based on a true story, this is heavily fictionalised. Rather than improving the story, however, the sloppy script is happy to rely on cliché and a predictable twist. The leads do a decent job of humanising their roles, but the supporting characters are never more than sketches. The film’s starkest failure is that its Vegas setting feels sluggish and swiftly becomes tedious rather than electric and alluring, robbing the film of even surface entertainment.

71. 21 (2008)4/10

The smarts of MIT and the glitz of Vegas sounds like a fun ride as a college professor takes a group of gifted students under his tutelage to count cards and win big at Blackjack. Despite claims to be based on a true story, this is heavily fictionalised. Rather than improving the story, however, the sloppy script is happy to rely on cliché and a predictable twist. The leads do a decent job of humanising their roles, but the supporting characters are never more than sketches. The film’s starkest failure is that its Vegas setting feels sluggish and swiftly becomes tedious rather than electric and alluring, robbing the film of even surface entertainment.

72. Mac and Me (1988)2/10

Full disclosure: I did not actually subject myself to this travesty in pure form, only through Mystery Science Theater 3000, which made it considerably more bearable. The underlying film, however, is hot garbage and unusually I am going to include spoilers because you should not watch this. There is absolutely no creativity to this low-effort rip-off of E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, with a stranded alien (MAC = Mysterious Alien Creature. How smart!) befriending a young boy (this time in a wheelchair for added emotional impact!) whilst being hunted down by the Government. This is less a film and more an exercise in excruciating product placement, with a dance number in McDonald’s and a climactic rescue demonstrating Coca Cola’s well-known restorative health properties (for aliens at least). It is fascinating that this was ever made, but it is that special kind of corporate awful which prevents it from falling into “so bad it’s good” territory. Except maybe the ending ceremony when the aliens become US citizens because my irony detector was off the charts.

73. All The President’s Men (1976)7/10

Whilst considered a classic by many, the film’s greatest strength is also its weakness. Where Hollywood typically glamourises any profession it portrays, there is courageous verisimilitude here in presenting the relentless drudgery of newspaper reporting: endless calls for quotes, hours of waiting to speak to a source, wrangling names and numbers and details, poring over notes scrawled on whatever paper is to hand. The film is often taut — through Hoffman and Redford’s excellent performances, some great camerawork, and the knowledge of how events ended — but its latter half certainly drags. The Watergate Scandal broke slowly, not all in one go, and after we see the first chink lift in the White House’s armour, to be presented with the same process repeated multiple times makes for poor storytelling. This, coupled with a lacklustre conclusion in which the dominoes eventually topple off-screen, means the film’s edge dulls as its scandal fades.

74. Pawn Sacrifice (2014)6/10

It is infinitely harder to translate a cerebral face-off to film than a physical one. The advantage to Bobby Fischer as a subject is that man’s personality and paranoia provide energy in between bouts. He is contradictory in nature, by turns self-assured and cowardly, single-minded and constantly distracted. Zwick’s film largely glosses over his worst traits, whilst not trusting the viewer enough to slow the pace sufficiently to allow games to breathe (the camera is instead as distracted as Fischer). Often it is through the eyes of Liev Schrieber as his rival Spassky that we find more nuanced understanding of Fischer. This is a film that will mean far more to those who lived through — or are at least familiar with — the Cold War, else the idea of geopolitical ramifications (on which the film frequently relies for its stakes) being attached to a game of chess seems a quaint curiosity. Merely relying on newsreels and mentions of White House attention fails to communicate how this became perceived as a battle of ideology.

75. Train to Busan (2016)8/10

The most entertaining zombie film in years, this South Korean survival horror is reminiscent of 28 Days Later, owing in part to their shared “fast” zombies (a word that neither uses) but more to their bleak outlook on human morality in survival situations. Virtually the entire film takes place on board a moving train, whilst the country collapses all around. With half the carriages swiftly infected, the constrained space keeps the danger immediate and provides us with a few creative and original set pieces. Train to Busan is ultimately a film about selfishness and sacrifice. Unusually, our protagonist begins as one of the selfish (to an extent; he cares about his family but no one else) but to protect his daughter effectively he must learn to cooperate.

76. Nocturnal Animals (2016)8/10

Tom Ford’s sophomore film is a haunting, contemplative concoction that trusts its viewers to keep pace. Although to a lesser extent that A Single Man, Ford’s designer eye remains clear in the way he frames and controls each shot. Amy Adams brings melancholy introspection to an unhappily married woman revisiting the past after her ex-husband sends a manuscript of his novel, dedicated to her. Excising his demons through a strange form of disempowered revenge fantasy, half the film is spent within this fiction, which opens with a harrowing sequence on a lonely highway at night. Although the second half is less visceral, it becomes a more intellectual study of strength and weakness. Through Susan’s memories and Edward’s fiction we see both ex-partners working through the mistakes of a failed relationship, which might finally allow for a reconciliation.

77. Atonement (2007)8/10

Keira Knightley always seems most comfortable in a period piece. Although centred around a romance in the 1930s, Atonement is more a story about perspective, misunderstanding and consequences. We see a pivotal scene at a fountain from two perspectives, allowing us to appreciate how it was misconstrued by a child. Joe Wright’s camerawork allows the audience inside characters’ heads, used most notably in a sprawling six-minute long take on the Dunkirk beach. The film’s conclusion feels slightly rushed but still maintains the book’s tragic reveal, an ending that will undoubtedly be off-putting to some but should be little surprise for an adaptation of an Ian McEwan novel.

78. Paddington (2014)7/10

Ben Whishaw voices the marmalade-loving bear from darkest Peru with an adorable charm and naiveté that Colin Firth (previously considered for the role) would have struggled to bring. Paddington is a timely immigrant story about how we all benefit from embracing our differences. Much of this rests on Hugh Bonneville as Mr Brown, as he moves from initial mistrust to concern for his family to ultimate acceptance. The film is structured as a caper story culminating in an escape sequence with enjoyable nods for adult viewers to franchises like Indiana Jones and Mission Impossible. Of particular note is the surprising calypso soundtrack (the music of Notting Hill immigrants when Michael Bond wrote his books), with a band appearing around London to mirror Paddington’s mood.

79. Tomb Raider (2018)5/10

When Oscar-winner Alicia Vikander was cast as the iconic Lara Craft, many hoped that Tomb Raider might finally crack the elusive high-quality videogame-to-film adaptation. Sadly, those hoping for more than a generic action movie will be disappointed by the results. Although it broadly follows the story beats of the 2013 videogame reboot, the script presents this as an uninspired origin story in which our orphaned heroine bizarrely spends the first half hour moping around London as a bike courier, presumably in an effort to make the heiress more relatable. Meanwhile it omits many of the scenes that demonstrate Lara’s transformation into a survivor. Vikander does what she can with the material, but apparently “this kind of Croft” is bland and largely passive until she returns to London in the film’s final few minutes. It is telling that even Walton Goggins struggles to make his villain in any way memorable. Ultimately the film is strongest in its fan-service moments, which is rarely a mark of quality.

80. Get Out (2017)9/10

Jordan Peele’s directorial debut wants to get under your skin in every sense. As is often the case with high concept horror, the less you know going in the better. Thematically, though, this is about the racial paranoia of being a minority in a white space — Chris reads into every cue, is made uncomfortable by the most casual of remarks, but is constantly second-guessing his own reading of the situation. It is an astute depiction of how exhausting such social interactions can be. The film’s opening scene is a statement of intent, with a black man walking through an affluent suburb, trying to avoid confrontation and clearly terrified of being shot. Like his comedy writing with Keegan-Michael Key, Peele is intent on confronting contemporary racial issues directly in order to provoke discomfort and conversation. In that, Get Out is a resounding success.

81. War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)8/10

Concluding Caesar’s trilogy, we find the embittered chimp no longer confident in his intelligence and questioning his decisions as he succumbs to a desire for revenge. The titular “war” is something of a misnomer, though the antagonists are soldiers. Woody Harrelson’s Colonel is driven by a specific sense of purpose which sadly, because it is delivered through monologue, never receives real examination. This series has always questioned the extent to which humanity is defined by its intelligence and what it would take for mankind to recognise and respect that intelligence in another species. The final film goes one step further and poses the question at what point one loses that humanity, although there are few answers offered. It is easy to forget that half the characters are animated, such is the quality of the emotion conveyed through motion capture, led by Andy Serkis with a clearly demanding physical performance. Despite the extent to which it is employed, this is CGI used right, in service of the story.

82. Roma (2018)9/10

Roma is an overt passion project for Alfonso Cuarón: a semi-autobiographical film shot entirely in black-and-white with virtually all dialogue in Spanish and Mixtec. Yet, not only is this an indulgence he has earned, but the results are often breathtaking. The story follows a tumultuous year for the live-in housekeeper to a middle-class family, against the backdrop of Mexico in the early 1970s. The underlying themes include love and lies, abandonment and guilt, and finding a sense of place. Doubtless more will emerge from rewatching. The monochrome cinematography is utterly beautiful, from sun-bleached rooftops to forests to rolling countryside to breaking waves to the chrome accents on period cars. Cuarón is a master of his craft turning his lens introspectively.

QuickViews 2018 (part 5)

The penultimate installment for the year takes us to the moon and back (is that a spoiler for First Man?).

57. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017) – 6/10

Writer/director Noah Baumbach has an exceptional ear for conversational dialogue, the way it actually occurs rather than witty repartee stylised for the screen. The fractious relationships of the Meyerowitz family are evident in the way they talk at cross-purposes — sometimes engaged in entirely different conversations — or respond to what they want to hear rather than what was actually said. As fascinating as this is, the characters lack real depth despite the high-profile cast, and the film drifts weightlessly through its disjointed scenes with little to say.

58. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016) – 6/10

Lonely Island’s take on the music mockumentary is really just a thin plot to string together the band’s signature style of lyrically ridiculous pop, and the songs are undoubtedly the highlights of the film. The scenes in between rely largely on the big names who agreed to provide cameos or talking heads, but the wow factor declines as the movie drags on. Spinal Tap remains the pinnacle of this style of filmmaking because what happens off-stage is so well-observed. Here, the by-the-numbers rise and fall, with band members falling out and reconciling, cannot quite sustain an entire movie. As with most pop stars: the key to enjoyment is just listening to the music and ignoring the rest of their antics.

59. To All The Boys I Loved Before (2018)7/10

A derivative but quietly charming high school drama, its unlikely initial premise swiftly falls into a familiar “fake relationship” plot but — despite the lack of surprises — the charismatic leads evoke a genuine desire for them to acknowledge their feelings. The melodrama of high school students may not have changed much in the past few decades, but this is still a fresh update for the modern generation.

60. Newness (2017) – 6/10

After a cynical opening look at the hookup culture facilitated by dating apps, the film follows a new couple who want a more meaningful connection despite meeting after they change their statuses in exasperation to “DTF”. Concerned about boredom in the absence of new experiences, the couple start to experiment, flirting with others and then taking it further. The setup is ripe for an intriguing exploration of polyamory in the modern world and the film’s middle act seems to be leaning in that direction. Sadly, the desire for a more conventional conclusion requires it to abandon this more interesting avenue. Ironically, then, there little new here. The most compelling ideas come from the older man Gabi meets, whose transactional view of relationships is unromantic and yet more realistic than anything else on display.

61. Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011) – 7/10

Infuriating punctuation aside, this romantic comedy strives for greater quality and depth than its peers, even as it relies on familiar tropes. It is largely successful through acting talent and valuing thoughtful drama over laughs. Steve Carrell is allowed to make the newly single Cal sympathetic rather than a sad sack caricature. Where the comedy surfaces, it is typically wry rather than laugh-out-loud, with the best lines tending to have darker overtones. It is noteworthy that the central couple are a middle aged husband and wife who share remarkably little screen time. As is often the case with even the smarter rom coms, the movie struggles to find a conclusion and falls back on awkwardly saccharine displays, despite undermining the “grand gesture”.

62. Compliance (2012) – 8/10

After referencing the Milgram experiment (albeit without the more nuanced modern conclusion), we spend almost the entire film within the confines of a fast food restaurant on the day a caller claims to be police officer and convinces the staff to detain, strip-search and mistreat one of the employees. The facts are unbelievable yet this is both a true story and not an isolated incident. Writer/director Zobel shoots in a clinical style that minimises titillation, being more interested in the human interactions and how individuals could be led to act this way. It is Ann Dowd’s performance as the overstretched manager that sells this, as we can see her critical thinking and resolve gradually evaporate. Ultimately the film is an indictment of humans’ desire to cede responsibility to others.

63. First Snow (2006) – 6/10

A slow burn noir thriller as a confident salesman’s life is thrown into disarray after a fortune teller claims to have foreseen his imminent death. There is a pervasive sense of loneliness and isolation, accompanied by rising paranoia, with Guy Pearce delivering a performance reminiscent of Memento early in his career. Whilst the film serves as an interesting musing on destiny and control, it meanders more than it speaks.

64. Bad Moms (2016) – 7/10

I had expected Bad Moms to follow the Bridesmaids blueprint of a female-fronted movie setting out to prove the women can be as gross as the men. In fact, it is an escapist romp with more in common with This is 40. A stressed, underappreciated working mother ditches her conventional responsibilities and discovers a more relaxed approach, whilst set for a collision with the controlling president of the PTA. The comedy is fine; the drama is underwhelming. Surprisingly, however, hidden within are some genuine messages about parenting. It does not aid the storytelling that fathers barely feature at all and the PTA meetings are a sea of female faces. Although it is a shame not to see that particular trend bucked, it would be disingenuous to complain when this was only ever intended to be a rarer film about motherhood.

65. First Man (2018)7/10

First Man should not be mistaken for a film about the Apollo programme; as its name suggests the biopic is focused solely on the contribution of Neil Armstrong, sidelining everyone else. The claustrophobic nature of spaceflight is realistically presented through tight shots that leave us gazing into Ryan Gosling’s eyes with a regularity that eventually becomes tedious (although some viewers may disagree with this assessment). This is combined with an interesting decision to shoot the moon landing with IMAX cameras. If seen in that format the larger screen is entirely unused outside of that 15 minute sequence. Although impressive, IMAX viewing for this alone is far from essential. Gosling’s portrayal is deliberately understated whilst Claire Foy delivers the film’s strongest emotional performance as Armstrong’s wife. The most surprising aspect is an effective exploration of traditional masculinity and the burden placed on men who are left unable to share their emotional pain, with resulting impact on their families. Ultimately First Man is overlong but satisfying.

66. Tau (2018)5/10

Despite pretensions toward cererbral sci-fi in the vein of Ex Machina, this is really a derivative trapped woman thriller that is elevated only by some impressive production design. The conceit is that Julie’s captor is using an AI-controlled house to imprison her, allowing her to develop a relationship with the AI rather than directly with her captor. Although Tau raises a few interesting ideas about controlling AI and limiting its access to information, it fails to capitalise on these. That the science fiction is more about aesthetic than intellect is clearest from the way deletion of memories is used as a method of “punishing” the AI but inexplicably manifests as inflicting pain.

67. They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)6/10

Peter Jackson’s respectful World War I documentary is clearly a labour of love, dedicated to his own grandfather. For the audience, however, the reason to see this is the painstakingly recoloured footage which brings the front to life in a slightly ghostly fashion. It is a marvellous achievement in restoration of archival footage and to be applauded. However, this technical achievement is somewhat overshadowed by the verisimilitude with which filmmakers (and even game makers) have recreated the trenches in recent years, meaning that these are images we have seen before in sharper focus. Jackson eschews narration in favour of the amalgamated stories of over a hundred veterans sharing their memories in an anonymous fashion. Again these are familiar stories: boys lying about their age, excited to enlist; the bleakness of trench life; the horror shells and gas and barbed wire. Of greater note is the fondness for the German soldiers that readily comes through. They Shall Not Grow Old is a fine documentary then, but presents us with nothing new beyond a fresh coat of paint on contemporaneous footage.

68. Almost Famous (2000)8/10

Set in the early 1970s, toward the end of classic rock and roll’s heyday, this is less a story about music than William, a naive likeable youngster finding himself whilst touring with his favourite band, writing for Rolling Stone magazine, and trying to resist the allure of the trappings of fame. It touches on industry issues like rivalry between band members and the encroaching capitalist record companies, but ultimately Cameron Crowe’s script brisk and witty script is more interested in the individuals, both within the band and outside. Crossing the divide for William is the magnetic Penny Lane (apparently based on a real individual) who is romantically involved with one of the musicians, but takes William under her wing. Her espoused wisdom is catchy and yet ultimately impossible: “If you never take it seriously, you never get hurt. You never get hurt, you always have fun.”

QuickViews 2018 (part 4)

The latest instalment takes us over the half-century mark via several recent documentaries and two films about to be released.

44. Long Nights Short Mornings (2016)7/10
A perfect insomnia film, I wonder whether this series of late night encounters would be as effective if watched in the harsh light of day. James is drifting directionless through life and women in New York, unwilling to commit. He is a dislikeable but relatable protagonist, his saving grace being a level of self-awareness and repentance. Although he seemingly has no trouble attracting women, this is not some Casanova male fantasy – this is a man hopelessly enslaved by his id and we see the loneliness in his eyes. The film’s inspiration is clear in a shot that glances over a copy of Charles Bukowski’s “Women”. I have previously described my favourite genre of film as connection/disconnection and these fleeting vignettes are almost connection porn, often insubstantial and leaving a desire for something more meaningful. Yet, within this, there are profound moments that affect James and the viewer.

45. The Death of Stalin (2017)8/10
Mining the aftermath of Stalin’s death for comedy may seem an unusual choice, but the interpersonal relationships within the resulting political power vacuum are perfect for an Armando Iannucci farce. The film begins slowly, its pace gradually ramping with the characters’ paranoia, coming to a head at Stalin’s funeral. Steve Buscemi’s quietly scheming Khrushchev stands out, along with the wonderful excess of Jason Isaac’s Field Marshall Zhukov. Like Veep, it lacks the bite of Iannucci’s television masterpiece The Thick of It but this is intelligently absurd cinematic comedy.

46. The Shallows (2016)6/10
The Shallows is a slight, but surprisingly effective, thriller right until its inability to find a satisfying conclusion. The setup is straightforward: a young woman becomes trapped by a shark whilst surfing off a remote beach in Mexico. Blake Lively is an unlikely choice for such an individually focused survival film but she offers a strong performance with believable peril and pain, whilst grappling with the emotional issues that drew her out to honour her mother’s memory. It is a shame, then, that the film’s final minutes leave the audience incredulous rather than impressed.

47. The Fast and the Furious (2001)6/10
Growing up with scant interest in cars, this series of criminal vehicular excess passed me by. Although the story of a cop infiltrating a street racing gang is laughable and I still struggle to care about the cars, in the right frame of mind it is easy to enjoy the slick, high-octane action designed to provide an artificial testosterone kick. It is just a shame the women are given so little do whilst the guys growl, fight and drive. With the whole franchise appearing on Netflix I briefly considered ReelTime reviews but, based on the first entry, there is not enough content to justify it.

48. World of Darkness (2017)7/10
A solid documentary exploring the vampire-themed role-playing system developed by White Wolf in the 1990s. The filmmakers look at the social impact it had on the outsiders to whom its gothic-punk sensibilities appealed, as well as the corporate triumphs and tribulations that would eventually lead to a failed merger, an abandoned videogame and an IP left in limbo. Most interesting, perhaps, is the analysis of the widespread, lasting influence this niche game has had upon mainstream popular culture from film and television to fashion and the club scene. It will appeal primarily to those with some knowledge of White Wolf, or at least role-playing games in general.

49. Blow Out (1981)9/10
I went into Blow Out cold, other than knowing it was one of Quentin Tarantino’s three “desert island films” (Rio Bravo and Taxi Driver, if you’re interested) and the reason he wanted Travolta in Pulp Fiction. It makes sense, as Brian De Palma’s bleak neo-noir thriller is obsessed with the process of filmmaking, and the way that separate recordings of visuals and audio can, in concert, take on new meaning. Its story only works in the analogue era. The use of colour in darkness rivals Wong Kar Wei, along with carefully some beautifully controlled overhead shots. Meanwhile, more emotional range is required from Travolta than most of his career, which is essential for the film’s crowning achievement – turning an opening joke into a closing gut punch.

50. Tickled (2016) – 8/10
A bizarrely compelling documentary that starts out with a New Zealand journalist researching a light piece on the strange sport of “competitive endurance tickling”, but swiftly descends into a murky world of affluence and threatening behaviour. Ultimately a story about some people’s desire to control others (or ruin their lives) it accidentally paints a strong argument against the concept of inheriting “family money”.

51. The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest (2009)6/10
Although a satisfying conclusion to the Millenium trilogy in terms of resolution and tying up loose ends, the closing film is easily the weakest instalment. This is due largely to the fact that, with Lisbet Salander first recovering in hospital from injuries sustained in the last film and then imprisoned awaiting trial, the series’ most interesting player is essentially out of action for the bulk of the film. There is still an effective slow burn journalistic thriller and some enjoyable courtroom drama, but the novel’s pacing does not translate well to a film and again Salander and Blomkvist share virtually no screen time.

52. Icarus (2017)8/10
Bryan Fogel’s Oscar-winning documentary begins with an investigation into doping in cycling until he is put in touch with Grigory Rodchenkov, head of Russia’s anti-doping laboratory. It then swiftly expands as Rodchenkov reveals details of Russian athletics’ state-sponsored doping programme and decides to go public with this information in the USA. Despite some weak structure and Fogel’s need to include himself in the story, the scandal itself is incredible enough to drive the film. Rodchenkov is a fascinating subject as he struggles with his decision, and drawing a parallel with Orwellian doublethink (complete with passages of 1984 narrated by Rodchenkov) is a nice touch.

53. Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)9/10
I have no excuse for my tardiness in catching the latest stop-motion animation from Laika, the studio who produced Coraline. The decision to focus solely on this overlooked art form allows them to develop new technology that drives the medium forward from one film to the next. The scale of some of the puppetry here is incredible, though size can be deceptive on-screen. Strong art direction coupled with stunning lighting separates the film visually from the average family animation, though it is likely to appeal more to older children. The meta-narrative about Eastern storytelling through origami figurines is a nice touch for the beauty of what they physically produced, even if it only remains in ephemeral film.

54. The Party (2017)6/10
A lean, wry comedy in that skewers middle class morality as a group of friends gather to celebrate Janet’s rise to a Ministerial position. Conversations gradually unravel from subtle sniping until the guests are at one another’s throats. Staged across just three rooms of the house and a patio, this theatrical to a fault rather than cinematic. Although there is intrigue as to the secrets each person hides, the superbly talented cast cannot overcome the lack of depth to their equally dislikeable characters. Decidedly less successful than the similarly contained Carnage, it is still an amusing diversion that does not outstay its welcome at just 71 minutes.

55. BlacKkKlansman (2018)8/10
With his early films Spike Lee cemented his reputation as a defining black voice in cinema but lately he has struggled to find relevance. His latest joint is both timely and relevant, by turns hilarious and then horrifying in the familiarity of racism it portrays. Peppering in slogans being used by the alt-right today would feel trite if it were not so blisteringly accurate. Lee’s intention is to encourage more people to vote, though it is not a message delivered expressly. The film’s lighter tone and typical Hollywood gloss on the story of a black police officer infiltrating the KKK will no doubt draw some ire from those who expect the subject of racial struggle to be handled with greater gravitas, but it allows Lee to entertain his audience whilst highlighting the serious risks posed by the recent resurgence of these right-wing ideas, all the more starkly when it follows a moment of levity.

56. The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018)8/10
Cameron Post is the kind of emotional but understated role that I have been hoping for Chloë Grace Moretz to take. That she signed on to this low budget but beautifully crafted passion project makes clear how keen she was too. Gay conversion therapy remains a dirty secret of Christianity, with Western societies tacitly condoning this form of emotional abuse. This film approaches it solely from perspective of those subjected to treatment; it can be sympathetic to other characters but does not seek to explore their reasoning. Whilst a protagonist without agency is often problematic, in Cameron’s case it makes sense because that is fundamental to those experiencing this treatment. Through Moretz’s nuanced performance we see the transition from incredulity at what she hears, to wanting the process to help her, to realising she has far more understanding and agency than she had allowed herself to believe. Whilst a marketing push is likely to target a queer audience, this deserves mainstream recognition.

Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman

Legendary director Spike Lee burst onto the scene in the late 1980s and early 1990s with a flurry of powerful movies about the black American experience. Although he has continued to be a prolific filmmaker, I think it is fair to say that he has struggled to maintain the same relevance as his career progressed. Irrelevance is a charge that absolutely cannot be levelled at his latest joint, BlacKkKlansman, which is timely, necessary, hilarious, and horrifying in its familiarity. When Jordan Peele pitched Lee a film about a black man joining the Ku Klux Klan, like me his immediate thought was Dave Chapelle’s Clayton Bigsby sketch.  Truth being ever stranger than fiction, BlacKkKlansman is actually based on the true story of Ron Stallworth, a black police officer who infiltrated the KKK in Colorado Springs in the late 1970s. To mark the UK release of the film, Lee gave a Q&A following the screening, and his comments provide an interesting lens through which to view his latest work.

The film opens with a vitriolic hate-filled rant over footage from Gone With the Wind and DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, a classic of American cinema that is deeply and openly racist, and caused a resurgence in the KKK upon its release in 1915, at a time when the organisation was virtually dead. The inclusion of the former may seem strange but it was a personal choice for Lee, who excitedly saw the film as a child but hated it because of its depictions of black people. The latter is a more profound question for Lee, who as a film student (he and Ang Lee were in the same class at NYU so he refers them as “The Lees”) learned techniques developed by Griffith but found no discussion at all of the film’s inherent racism: they were not interested in teaching the artist, only the art. The question of separation of art and the artist is as relevant in the current #MeToo landscape as ever, and Lee acknowledges that the answer will be personal. For his part, he does not think the separation should be made but clarified this does mean he is an advocate for censoring or avoiding problematic art, “I’ve never said the film  shouldn’t be seen; I’m just saying we should talk about it.”

The Birth of a Nation is not simply a backdrop to this movie, but permeates it creatively. In a central scene, Lee adopts the cross-cut technique pioneered by Griffith, this time to parallel white power and black power meetings. This direct comparison demonstrates the false equivalency between neo-Nazi movements and Black Lives Matter or Antifa.  Celebrating hatred and responding to its effects are nothing alike. Similarly, we see the rhetoric adopted by the black power movement to mirror their oppressors, but that rhetoric is a far cry from the action taken by the latter. Lee wished to make this a “contemporary period film”, evoking 70s cinema as much as the period itself. Shooting on 35mm film rather than digital certainly assisted atmospherically and, whilst watching, I felt a distinct Serpico vibe.

Lee’s politics are obvious but, sitting in a London theatre, he highlighted the global relevance of this film. This kind of intolerance is not an American phenomenon, but is represented in the rise of the right across around the world, “led by ‘Agent Orange’ — I won’t say his name”. He nodded to Brexit, Le Pen and others. His focus, though, is obviously the USA and he sees historic cinema as fundamental to American history. He is not a fan of Westerns, “their vilification of Native Americans was criminal”. Ultimately he does not mince words at all when he states, “the foundation of the United States of America was genocide and slavery.” It is the sort of thing that I say flippantly, but it is no less true.

A trademark dolly-zoom transitions from the close of Stallworth’s story to the present day, with footage from the Charlottesville rally a year ago, whilst BlacKkKlansman was in pre-production, bringing home sickeningly just how close this all remains. In discussing this Lee asked whether we could use another word instead of “violence” which he felt was inappropriate. The phrase he suggested? “Red, white and blue, apple pie, homegrown American terrorism.” Intentionally incendiary, that is of course what it is when a person drives a car into a crowd of civilians.

The takeaway from this film, Lee answers straightforwardly, is that “people need to register to vote” especially with the upcoming American midterm elections*. When asked whether he felt artists had an obligation to address politics in their work, Lee’s response reflected the fact that in the current climate politics — particularly the politics of intolerance and oppression — are inescapable: “If you’re an artist and you choose not to put politics in your art, that is a political choice.”

*As an aside, the end of the Q&A was derailed by a white American woman more interested in bragging about her ex-pat organisation (which I will not advertise) and exposing her ignorance of racism in the Midwest than asking any kind of question. It was utterly tone deaf and particularly disappointing to see in this context. Meanwhile if her organisation is, as she claimed, capable of “swinging elections” in the US, would the last election not have been worth swinging?!

QuickViews 2018 (Part 3)

Another instalment of this year’s single-paragraph reviews gets off to a good start but hits a clutch of decidedly (and numerically) average films, improved by a full Takashi Miike trilogy at the end.

32. How to Talk to Girls at Parties (2017)7/10
Neil Gaiman’s short story about adolescent insecurity, with a literal approach to the alien nature of the opposite sex, does not obviously lend itself to a feature-length film. Mitchell’s film draws out every theme available in the story, straddling disparate genres as he presents the 1970s punk scene, a coming-of-age tale about individuality, alien tourism, and a sweet love story. Elle Fanning (still 17 at the time of filming) delivers wonderfully as an alien driven to rebel and experience the world. However, the film’s erratic nature will prove highly divisive. Whether you enjoy the experience will be clear from the titular house party early in the film: either you can embrace its weirdness or it will send you running for the comfort of something saner and more coherent.

33. Deadpool 2 (2018)7/10
Like the Guardians of the Galaxy sequel, Deadpool retains his confident swagger but has lost some of his disruptive freshness. The humour remains edgy and wonderfully delivered, and the film maintains its ability to surprise, despite straining with the attempt to tell a larger story. Domino is a fantastic addition and her “lucky” superpower allows for the most creative action sequences. In some ways the film serves as an argument against Disney’s acquisition of Fox, so that Deadpool can take equal potshots at DC and the MCU from the sidelines. Deadpool 2 also makes far better use of a post-credits sequence than Marvel has managed of late.

34. The Mermaid (2016)7/10
This Chinese blockbuster is a contemporary ecological fairytale about a mermaid who is sent to kill the rich property developer threatening her species’ home but finds herself falling for him. With Stephen Chow at the helm, it is gloriously silly and filled with fun creative flourishes. Sure, the story is ridiculous and its message about ecology and wealth (although apt for modern China) has the subtlety of a sledgehammer, but ultimately it is the characters that make this an enjoyable ride. Yun Lin sells the title role particularly well. The Mermaid doesn’t stand up next to Chow’s masterpiece, Kung Fu Hustle, but it is still a worthwhile addition.

35. The Red Turtle (2016)5/10
Studio Ghibli’s first non-Japanese production is undoubtedly beautiful with lush handdrawn backgrounds, any frame of which could be hung. The wordless tale presents a shipwrecked man coming to terms with his plight and then follows him through the key stages of his life. Despite a certain lyricism, the content is too sleight to fill even its 80-minute running time. Adults may find enough to muse (it will almost certainly bore children) but I did not feel I had acquired any new insights by the end. Stripping away the repetition and filler, its beauty and haunting style could have been conveyed equally well in a short film with a fraction of its running time.

36. Alien³ (Assembly Cut) (2003)5/10
David Fincher may now command respect but he had to battle studio interference in his first film, stepping into an already embattled project with script rewrites whilst sets were already in construction. The 2003 Assembly Cut restores half an hour of character scenes demonstrating Fincher’s desire for a deeper film with parallel threads of isolation beyond the prison planet itself, through divisions of gender, criminality, intelligence, religion, and sanity. This outing is more akin to the atmospheric original, limiting the xenomorph’s screen time than Cameron’s gung-ho sequel (albeit undermined by some shoddy CGI). The last act is a confused mess of an action sequence in a network of identical tunnels in which it is impossible to tell where any characters are in relation to one another. In extended form the film is not as bad as its reputation, but still worlds away from its predecessors.

37. The Jungle Book (2016)7/10
Although commonly labelled live-action, that is not entirely accurate since Neel Sethi is the only actor who appears onscreen, with CGI filling the space around him. A wobbly opening scene concerned me but generally the CGI is excellent, with breathtaking vibrant jungle vistas when the camera pulls back to capture characters in silhouette. The A-list voice talent can be a little distracting, although Bill Murray is an inspired choice for Baloo. Similarly, retaining just a few of the Disney songs is a stranger choice than excising them entirely. Sethi’s Mowgli is believably curious, isolated and angry, Favreau drawing out an impressive performance against empty green screens. It is not a classic, but the original was not Disney at its height either and this stands comfortably alongside it.

38. The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016)5/10
André Øvredal’s follow-up to his excellent Norwegian cult hit Troll Hunter is good by Western horror standards but underwhelming if you are not a particular fan of the genre. It does many things right early on, building tension in the enclosed confines of a morgue and spending time fleshing out its characters. Unfortunately it then falls back on routine jump scares as it races to an unsatisfying conclusion. An hour of good setup is wasted on an ineffective climax. That’s what Jane Doe said.

39. Warcraft (2016)5/10
Warcraft seemed like a fitting way to kick off my mini-break around the E3 gaming convention. Where it succeeds is in bringing Blizzard’s chunky character design to life. The Orcs in particular are stunningly rendered, their actors unrecognisable yet able to convey a range of emotion. Sadly the script attempts far too much in convoluted plotting, at the expense of worldbuilding and character moments. Many gamers may be familiar with Azeroth but newcomers will see nothing more than a generic fantasy world. Whilst the $160 million budget allows a real sense of scale to the battles, the stakes are only ever as high as our investment in the characters, and there is scant opportunity for this to develop. This is a particular shame as some of those quieter moments are the film’s best.

40. Mute (2018)5/10
It is was unsurprising that, after the lukewarm reception of Warcraft, Duncan Jones chose to return to smaller scale sci-fi. The relative freedom of Netflix funding was squandered on the tale of a mute bartender searching for his missing girlfriend in near-future Berlin. Near-silent protagonists taking on criminal elements invariably means style over substance, though both Drive and Baby Driver have shown it can be successful. Although the cyberpunk visuals are impressive, they are little more than a painted backdrop for uninteresting characters in a messy story that veers into uncomfortable territory due to poor handling of its darker subject matter. The setting invites an unflattering comparison with Blade Runner, seeking to evoke its atmosphere without any world building (the best attempts being the nods to Mute existing in the universe as Jones’ debut Moon).

41. Shinjuku Triad Society (1995)6/10
Prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike rose to prominence in the latter half of the nineties with the loosely connected Black Society Trilogy, as he graduated from the straight-to-video market. Shinjuku Triad Society bears the hallmarks of his later work, with its outcast anti-heroes and perverse, often violent, sexuality. Whilst his portrayal of sexual violence is problematic, it is not without intent but is reflective of his characters, even if the perspective is overly detached. His approach starkly challenges the orthodox Japanese sense of masculinity that imbues, for example, Takeshi Kitano’s anti-heroes.

42. Rainy Dog (1997)8/10
Takashi Miike continues to explore cultural intersectionality with a Japanese hitman stranded in Taiwan and forced to work for a local crime boss. The near-constant rain creates an oppressive mood, and his connection with a local sex worker, Lily, built entirely on their shared desire to escape Taiwan begins to seem reasonable. His predicament makes him no friendlier to the son left in his care, who follows him like puppy despite his horror at his father’s work. Yet this is not played for sentimentality as the story veers more toward a fable, subverting cliché with Lily being the one to develop an attachment to the boy.

43. Ley Lines (1999)7/10
Concluding the trilogy, we return to Shinjuku. Childhood friends, bonded over their outcast status due to mixed Chinese/Japanese heritage, grow into restless adolescents and run away to Tokyo in search of a better life. In typical style, Takashi Miike takes a standard coming of age setup and veers into much darker territory. After a Chinese sex worker steals their money, the boys are drawn into the criminal underworld to support themselves, leading to betrayal and violence. Like Rainy Dog, by its conclusion this feels more like a meditative fable, particularly with the overt parallel of a loan shark with a penchant for Shanghai folk tales.

QuickViews 2018 (Part 2)

Continuing the single-paragraph reviews of films I have watched for the first time this year, we hit a rare perfect 10. Because I wanted eleven films, and not at all due to a numbering error, here are #21-31.

21. Elle (2016)9/10
Although sold as a thriller about a woman seeking revenge on her rapist, this is actually a much broader film about an older woman’s sexuality, how she uses it and how it affects her interpersonal relationships. As an offbeat thriller it is refreshingly unpredictable and suspenseful, but the film relies upon Isabelle Huppert, whose performance is enthralling throughout.

22. The Interview (1998)8/10
A taut Australian crime thriller set almost entirely within the confines of a police station as two overzealous officers try to extract a confession, while the audience questions whether they are watching an innocent man bullied or a devious criminal toying with his captors. Hugo Weaving plays both sides of the role to chilling effect. Often reminiscent of The Usual Suspects, the budgetary restrictions on the scope arguably serve to aid the atmosphere, together with a sombre score.

23. Elysium (2013)6/10
Like District 9, South African director Neil Blomkamp’s sophomore feature tackles social inequality through science fiction. A bigger budget adds star power in the form of Matt Damon and a ludicrously-accented Jodie Foster, while the film’s messages are delivered with even less subtlety than before. Blomkamp’s trademark effects work delivers up highly realistic technology from exosuits to near-future weaponry, making the dizzying shaky-cam action a particular shame. With a plot that rarely surprises, and a completely overwrought ending, this is ultimately a film that sells itself more on visuals than anything else.

24. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)10/10
Based on the talent involved, I expected to like this but I had no idea just how much. Starting with a mother seeking justice for her murdered daughter by calling out the local police department, this is really a journey through multiple characters dealing with grief and exploring the effect of tragedy upon our relationships, emerging as anger, love and fear. Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell are stellar in portraying richly nuanced characters, and are accompanied by an excellent supporting cast. Many scenes are soaked with such powerful emotion, whilst avoiding sentimentality through use of raw drama and dark humour, that watching the film is a cathartic experience. Of particular note, it is rare and refreshing that we see a female character whose grief is expressed through violent, misplaced rage. Martin McDonagh proved his talent with In Bruges but has seriously upped his game.

25. Lady Bird (2017)8/10
An alternative coming-of-age film, the focus is Catholic high school girl Christine (who has adopted the name “Lady Bird”) and her turbulent relationship with her mother. This is an unusually well-realised mother/daughter relationship, in which they both know they love one another, yet their strong-willed personalities frequently grate. Saoirse Ronan deftly avoids portraying Lady Bird as quirky for its own sake, instead making it a believable element of her awkward teenage self-expression, whilst still anxious about the perception of her wealthier peers. Religion largely takes a back seat to the more human elements of the story, in what struck me as a female counterpoint to Richard Linklater’s films about male adolescence.

26. Now You See Me 2 (2016)3/10
The level of smartness of this sequel is evident from the fact they failed to call it Now You Don’t. Where the original was a surprise success with stylish sleight of hand distracting from its lack of substance, this movie fails to cover its tracks at all. The freshness is gone, but so too is the tension. The tricks are now overblown and ridiculous, to the point that each time one is revealed it induces a groan rather than amazement. There is no magic here.

27. The Girl Who Played With Fire (2009)7/10
Troubled hacker Lisbeth Salander becomes more nuanced in this sequel but the story suffers from separating her from journalist Mikael Blomkvist. Although they are following leads on a related series of murders, we lose the chemistry that made the original so memorable. Noomi Rapace’s performance still enthrals whenever she is on screen, but the more routine aspects of Blomkvist’s investigation are less compelling. Although still a good undiluted thriller, The Girl Who Played With Fire is inferior to its predecessor and is more reliant on the final instalment of the trilogy than being an effective standalone film.

28. Lolita (1962)7/10
The tagline was “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” and the answer is that they didn’t. With slightly altered ages we still follow middle-aged college professor Humbert as he becomes infatuated with a 14-year-old “nymphet”, played wonderfully by Sue Lyon. Yet, despite Nabokov receiving a screenwriting credit, we lose the lyrical language that elevated his novel, along with any real access to Humbert’s mind. The movie may still have been scandalous but it has lost any edge over time. To Kubrick’s credit, he does still allow the viewer to find a paedophile sympathetic (and later simply pathetic) while spending almost two and a half hours in his company.

29. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)9/10
With ten years spent building up characters, this is an event movie unlike any to date. Much like the first Avengers movie, I came away impressed firstly that it did not buckle under its own weight. In particular, the introduction of the Guardians of the Galaxy to the rest of the MCU cast works expertly, aided by James Gunn apparently writing their dialogue. Despite threadbare development to date, Thanos becomes a villain with whom one can sympathise, convinced his actions are necessary even as certain acts pain him. Although the number of fight sequences is exhausting, there is sufficient creativity and some memorable tag team moments. Infinity War stands up to a second viewing but whether its stature lasts will depend on how satisfactorily certain choices are explained by the final instalment next year. In assuming a working knowledge of the majority of the heroes, their backstories and their interpersonal relationships, Infinity War does not really work as a standalone film but it mounts a compelling argument that, for monolithic franchises, this may no longer be an appropriate test.

30. Gold (2016)7/10
Matthew McConaughey immerses himself deeply in the character of modern-day gold prospector Kenny Wells. Based on the 1993 Bre-X mining scandal, in which the discovery of a massive Indonesian gold deposit turns out to be a fraud, there are overtones of The Wolf of Wall Street to this fictionalised account, albeit with a protagonist at once less charming but more sympathetic. Gold serves as a film as much about ambition as avarice, as we analyse Kenny’s motivations and trustworthiness.

31. OtherLife (2017)8/10
A challenging Australian indie sci-fi, this is a taut thriller in the vein of Ex Machina. Ren is a scientist/programmer developing a breakthrough biotechnology that allows for time compressed virtual experiences (“As far as the brain is concerned, reality and fantasy are chemically identical”). She is driven by the desire to cure her comatose brother, whilst her business partner is concerned by financial viability and a potential Government contract for virtual incarceration. Jessica De Gouw is fantastic in a typically male role, coupled with excellent cinematography that greatly elevates the production. Although much of the plot unfolds predictably, and despite a meandering last act, the overall result is impactful and thought provoking.

The Myth Factory

NO SPOILERS FOR AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR CONTAINED BELOW

Human beings are storytelling creatures, as we are oft told.  Usually this is about the narratives through which we interpret the events in our lives, but on a larger scale stories tell us from where we came and allow us to conceptualise our place in an increasingly large universe. Over time our most sacred stories transitioned from oral folklore and mythology into codified religion and, in doing so, they gradually lost their mutability to become dogmatic truths. As a species, we lost something in this shift.

In 2009, Disney made a surprising acquisition of Marvel for $4.29 billion. Now, with billions of dollars in revenue from the monumentally successful Marvel Cinematic Universe, it makes perfect financial sense. But in 2009, we were only two films into what Marvel termed “Phase One” of the MCU following the breakout success of Iron Man. The only other release, The Incredible Hulk, had a lukewarm reception. It can be viewed as a shrewd commercial gamble but I think that misunderstands their intention. Disney’s real motivation only became clear to me several years later when, in 2012, it purchased Lucasfilm, ostensibly paying $4.06 billion for a single franchise, Star Wars. Unlike Marvel at the time of the acquisition, everyone knew that the Star Wars label was essentially a licence to print money, so few questioned the business decision. Most of the scrutiny came from fans concerned about the consequences for a fictional universe dear to their hearts. At the time I pointed out those fears were misplaced given the expert curation of the MCU following the Marvel acquisition and George Lucas’ own inability to manage his creation. Disney’s stewardship has been more uneven in respect of Star Wars (quite aside from mixed reactions to the films, the dearth of videogames following an exclusive licensing deal with EA is a travesty), but the acquisition builds to the same goal.

For several hundred years, the most retold stories outside of religion were fairytales, be they the Germanic tales we associate with the Brothers Grimm, the Middle Eastern tales collected in One Thousand and One Nights or the countless folk tales from Africa, China and beyond. These continued the oral tradition of being retold and altered, with each storyteller imparting something of themselves. These are the stories upon which The House of Mouse truly built its empire, moving from amusing cartoons to stories with deep societal roots which then became synonymous with childhood. Although I may dislike the “Disneyfiction” of darker tales, such retelling is perfectly in keeping with their folk story origins.

In the 20th century, comicbooks were a major disruptive force. With DC and Marvel at the forefront, we saw the creation of a new mythology of alien gods and human heroes. This mythic nature may be clearest with Marvel’s literal translation of the Norse pantheon into the Asgardian race, but is equally true of super-powered mutants and those caught in their wake. These were also mutable characters who could change with the times, routinely killed off and resurrected to reflect the values and needs of each decade. The core elements of the characters remained the same, but they provided a lens through which to perceive rapidly changing times. It is no accident that their rise occurred alongside increasing secularisation, because for many these were allegorical stories that served a similar purpose as religious teachings in calibrating our moral compass through lessons like Spider-man’s familiar, “with great power comes great responsibility”. And if you question the cultural impact that comics had before the rise of their colossal movie franchises, consider 2007’s mainstream US press coverage and backlash to the “unpatriotic” decision to kill Captain America in a post-9/11 story arc.

Amazing Fantasy #15, Aug. 1962

These mythological intentions are even clearer with Star Wars. George Lucas has overtly espoused his appreciation for John Campbell’s seminal work The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he examines what he terms the “monomyth”, a single overarching story that humans in unconnected societies have been telling one another around the world and across the ages, a story that appears fundamental to what it means to be human. He identifies all the points of commonality and maps out “the hero’s journey”, which Lucas slavishly used as a template to craft Luke Skywalker’s adventure. The extent to which the resulting story resonated with its audience can scarcely be described.

This, then, is what Disney has been acquiring beyond its original foothold in fairytale and folklore: the sources of modern mythology, control over the central stories that we tell (and retell) outside of religion. We see now the culmination of the MCU’s ten-year story in Avengers: Infinity War, drawing together characters it has spent a decade establishing. Even within that timescale we can see societal shifts emerge and become incorporated, such as Black Panther upending the perceived wisdom that a black blockbuster could be a financial success, whilst also posing searching questions about racial identity and responsibility or Civil War’s (underdeveloped) questions about identity registration and the nature of a society’s sense of security.

Many are baffled by the success of the Marvel and Star Wars films. This may be because they seem childish when compared to more serious fare or because it is easy to view them in the same way as forgettable action flicks. They are fantasies and they are silly. For several years my advice has been to approach these films specifically with the concept of mythology in mind. When we read the stories of the Norse gods, we don’t decry the ridiculousness of Loki’s children including a large wolf, a gigantic snake and an eight-legged horse, or that Odin keeps the severed head of wise Mimir alive by using some herbs and singing. These sorts of stories are not bound by that kind of cold logic. Rather, it is the shape of the story, and individual interactions, from which we learn  a few truths about the world, what it means to be human and, perhaps, ourselves.

QuickViews 2018 (Part 1)

Although I have no intention of repeating last year’s film-based Resolution, I did enjoy producing single-paragraph reviews for the new films I watched, given that I generally lack the time to write full-length reviews of late. I have continued to write these, and will collect and publish them in groups as I did with last year’s Resolution Films. Here are the first 20 of 2018.

1. Molly’s Game (2017)8/10
Aaron Sorkin is one of a rare breed of screenwriters whose name can be the biggest draw in a film. Fans will be pleased by his signature style of sharp, rapid dialogue, applied here to the based-on-true events story of a woman who ran a high-stakes underground poker game, expertly using the tempo of language to build and relieve tension. Sorkin’s directorial debut, his approach is assured but not particularly noteworthy, with some unnecessarily convoluted time jumping. Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba both excel.

2. This is 40 (2012)7/10
Judd Apatow spearheaded a comedic oeuvre that was once shocking and is now rather hackneyed. This is 40 finds freshness by accepting that the creators and audience alike have aged. When it focuses on the struggle to accept middle age and the strain it places on a marriage (together with the impact on children) there is something heartfelt to the comedy. When it reverts to ogling Megan Fox it becomes painful. Fortunately there is more of the former than the latter.

3. AlphaGo (2017)8/10
An accessible documentary film charting the astounding victory for DeepMind’s AlphaGo AI against then top Go player Lee Sedol. It is not technical enough to teach the viewer about top-level Go strategy or the nuance of AlphaGo’s neural networks but is more about the human challenge both in designing and facing off against such a machine, as well as humanity’s place as it designs superior machines. The best contributions are from a sanguine Fan Hui, previously beaten by AlphaGo.

4. Candy (2006)8/10
A tragic love story, Candy feels like a more grounded companion piece to Requiem for a Dream. It uses a similar act structure to present a junkie couple’s decline, but without the stylised excess. It ultimately may be less soul-destroying but Heath Ledger and Abbie Cornish provide such good, raw and guileless performances that one aches for them despite the familiar journey.

5. Mindhorn (2016)6/10
A lightly amusing British comedy about a washed up actor reprising the role of the maverick TV detective he played in his heydey to help the police solve a murder on the Isle of Man. Offbeat without fully committing to its weirder excesses (given that it comes from Julian Barratt of The Mighty Boosh), this is essentially a lesser Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa without the strengths of the character or the history.

6. Phantom Thread (2017)8/10
Its first half is a portrait of a fastidious man against a period backdrop of couture dressmaking with Paul Thomas Anderson’s usual verisimilitude, but this is not a film about fashion. Daniel Day Lewis’ (allegedly final) performance is excellent, and the sound design deftly demonstrates how the external world grates upon him, but the character is less accessible than Tom Ford’s A Single Man. Patience is required until the second half which demonstrates the film’s real focus, exploring how a relationship works with such an obsessive fussy individual – distance, emotional manipulation and codependency. It is a film that lingers.

7. Midnight Run (1988)7/10
I was inspired to watch this off the back of the Rick & Morty episode Mortynight Run. An accountant on the run is chased by bounty hunters, the FBI and the mafia. The majority of the film is an odd couple road trip as De Niro’s Jack Walsh catches his target but has to haul him back to LA. The middle section devolves into a repetitive series of run-ins with a rival bounty hunter and mafia goons while the FBI are one step behind. Fortunately it closes more satisfyingly with a proper character arc in its conclusion.

8. Focus (2015)6/10
Another failed Will Smith vehicle, Focus opens as a slick caper movie with a group of con artists led by Smith and joined by Margot Robbie as a newcomer, both at their charming best. After the opening act, the remainder of the film switches gears to a longer con that lacks any real substance and does not fare nearly as well. It does succeed in keeping its audience guessing and does not quite overstay its welcome. Ultimately Focus is a briefly entertaining diversion if not much more.

9. The Breakfast Club (1985)7/10
Its cult status is questionable through modern eyes, but John Hughes defined an era of teen movies that did not rely primarily on sex jokes. Five disparate high school stereotypes discover common ground during a Saturday detention, but the film leans into its stereotypes as much as it challenges them, and the offbeat interspersed sequences of racing through corridors and dancing on desks seem present only to placate those without the attention span for the more emotional dialogue.

10. Black Panther (2018)9/10
A triumphant take on the superhero movie that offers not just a new aesthetic (like Doctor Strange) but is steeped in black culture throughout. It bridges the divide between African and Black American culture but also pits them against one another, considering colonialism and interventionism from the perspective of the technologically advanced but isolated African nation of Wakanda, whilst recognising black anger that atrocities past and present are allowed to happen. It also does not shy away from ritualised displays of strength and violence, but they parallel the respect and empathy felt by T’Challa for his adversaries. Such nuance is unusual for a superhero, particularly one that is meanwhile challenging conventional Hollywood wisdom that a blockbuster with an overwhelmingly black cast would not be profitable.

11. Machete (2010)5/10
Although its rise from a spoof trailer in Grindhouse to an actual franchise is impressive, the creativity here is less so. Robert Rodriguez serves up the expected sex and violence of exploitation cinema, but this is less a modernised homage like Planet Terror than derivatively aping the genre’s style. There is fun to be had at the over-the-top ridiculousness of it all — “We didn’t cross the border; the border crossed us!” — but there is little of substance here that Rodriguez has not achieved better before in his Mariachi trilogy.

12. The Shape of Water (2017)9/10
What if Guillermo del Toro made a Jean-Pierre Jeunet film? There is a surprisingly whimsical tone as we are introduced to the life of mute Elisa and the idiosyncracies of her few friends. This merges with del Toro’s signature eye for detail in fantasy creatures when she discovers the amphibian man imprisoned at the lab in which she works (it is a big year for the underappreciated Doug Jones between this role and Saru, the best character in Star Trek: Discovery). The bond between the two forms the core of the film, surrounded by a series of strong supporting performances. Drawing together disparate aspects of drama, fantasy, a heist, romance and espionage, this is a stunning, unusual piece of filmmaking that is more than the sum of its parts and lingers long afterward.

13. White Girl (2016)7/10
Leah moves to New York the summer before starting college and falls hard for a local drug dealer. The film relies on their instant infatuation feeling real and, for the most part, it does. Leah is difficult to connect with because she is entirely unaware of her own privilege and drifts through life impulsively with the expectation that things will work out, which, presumably, they always have. She continues this way even as the decisions become more extreme. As a view on privilege this is perhaps successful, and her eyes are gradually opened to it, although it is difficult to say what she has learned. It also has a powerful point to make about promiscuity not vitiating the need for consent.

14. Moneyball (2011)7/10
Billy Beane, General Manager of Oakland Athletic, bucks tradition by adopting statistical analysis to identify undervalued players to fill his team’s roster on a limited budget. Despite being based on a true story, we are given relatively little insight into the statistical philosophy behind “Moneyball”. There is plenty here to enjoy for those uninterested in baseball, but it is clearly designed to resonate more with fans of the game, with significant time dedicated to reliving Oakland Athletic’s winning streak. The film then meanders, uncertain how to conclude, and feels overlong as a result.

15. RocknRolla (2008)5/10
RocknRolla feels more like a tribute to (or parody of) old school Guy Ritchie films than a genuine Guy Ritchie film. It features the trademark rapidfire banter, convoluted plot and East End gangster action, but they fail to form a cohesive whole, seeming more like a response to his critics. There are some standout kinetically shot action sequences and a few fun edits, but this does little to restore Ritchie’s directorial credibility. The film cockily touts its own sequel but there is little wonder that it has never emerged.

15. Dazed and Confused (1993)8/10
Following a group of high school students on the last day of school in the summer of 1976, I found this initially uncomfortable viewing because of the seemingly uncritical view of socially condoned violence. In fact this is more verisimilitude as Linklater accurately captures the aimless desires and insecurities of adolescence at a specific point in time.

16. Blue Velvet (1986)8/10
David Lynch describes himself as an intuitive director rather than an intelligent one. This style is perhaps clearest in Blue Velvet which is fundamentally a series of scenes plucked from a dream, loosely threaded together under the guise of a mystery. Everything serves atmosphere rather than character or narrative, giving power to its subversive tone. Lynch and Tim Burton share the same disquiet view of American suburbia as a veneer over a darker underbelly. This is represented here as our two pristine suburban investigators collide with seedy characters drawn from film noir.

17. Annihilation (2018)7/10
Another thoughtful science fiction story from Alex Garland, Annihilation has much in common with Monsters, featuring a group of humans journeying through the “shimmer”, an area abandoned following an extraterrestrial impact. Garland’s unwillingness to compromise is to be praised, particularly with a female team of scientists filling most of cast, but unfortunately he fails to produce characters of more than sketches. Nevertheless, the narrative has a surprisingly effective payoff and the film offers something to muse regarding the beauty and fragility of DNA.

18. Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017)6/10
A bloated sequel that tries to recapture its anarchic satire of the Bond franchise’s excesses with muted success and decidedly less charisma from its leads, I actually enjoyed this far more than I feared from its critical reception. Arguably the story’s chief sin is swiftly to sideline its female cast, leaving once again a field of exclusively male agents. It makes the film’s direct references to equality and loyalty feel somewhat crass. Seeing the British Kingsmen working alongside their US counterparts, The Statesmen, is perhaps tailored to me (pun intended) but the creative design throughout both the Statesman HQ and the villain’s lair is wonderful. Whilst nothing matches the first film’s church brawl, there is still substantial creativity to the action set pieces.

19. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2018)5/10
After some interesting initial worldbuilding with hints of Avatar, this bloated space opera swiftly buckles due to its shallow story and disengaging lead characters. Although it all looks fantastic, and there are some exciting sequences, ultimately its running time is far too long to support a largely predictable story, and many scenes feel present purely to show off special effects. There might be a little more artistry than other generic effects-heavy blockbusters, but it is a far cry from Luc Besson’s past foray into space opera with The Fifth Element.

20. Ready Player One (2018)6/10
On one hand, Ready Player One is a better adaptation than it has any right to be; on the other, it is unsurprising that a book I described as “80s nostalgia-flavoured candy floss” has produced a film with little substance or residual impact. The virtual world of the Oasis is impressively realised in a sharply vibrant way. By contrast the real world is shot with an intentionally muted, softer look that makes it actively less engaging. The greater struggle, though, is that there is little logical coherence to ground those parts of the story. Similarly, both 80s and modern pop/gaming culture references are thrown at the screen haphazardly in the hope that name recognition is enough. Even Wreck-It Ralph engaged with the characters it picked. The initial world-building and the first challenge are engaging, but my interest largely fell away until the film’s closing. I’m glad I saw this spectacle in a cinema; I doubt I ever need to see it again.

“Careful Man, There’s A Beverage Here!”

Pairing wine with food is considered a fine art that has led to the dedicated job of the sommelier. Often people wonder why only wine? My curiosity was broader: why only food? As someone who approaches both his audiovisual entertainment and his beverages with an appropriate level of gravitas, this has led to a loose system of pairing drinks with whatever I decide to watch (and occasionally vice versa). To satiate several people’s curiosity, here’s a handy guide to what you’re drinking.


Archer: “All I’ve had today is, like, six gummy bears and some scotch.”
Arrested Development: anything that uses up the rest of the vodka. “It’s vodka. It goes bad once it’s opened.”
Back to the Future: Pepsi Perfect
Battlestar Galactica: Bushmills, mostly for that squared off bottle
Big Lebowski, The: a Caucasian (White Russian)
Breakfast at Tiffany’s: champagne, but not before breakfast
Crank: all the energy drinks
Film Noir (any): rye whiskey or Laphroaig
Four Rooms: “When you’re drinking champagne, you’re drinking champagne. When you’re drinking Cristal, you say you’re drinking Cristal.” Okay, well you’re not drinking Cristal.
Game of Thrones: red wine, port or mead
Godfather, The: a Godfather (Amaretto and Scotch)
Good Will Hunting/Gone Baby Gone: Samuel Adams Boston Lager
In Bruges: Belgian beer, easy on the horse tranquillisers
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia: “Stuff it down with brown. That’s the best way to deal with things.” Accompanied by rum ham.
James Bond (Daniel Craig era): Vesper Martini
James Bond (other): Vodka Martini (but stirred, not shaken; you’re not an animal)
Jessica Jones: your convenience store’s cheapest whiskey
Justified: any Kentucky bourbon, ideally one produced by Buffalo Trace
Lost in Translation: “For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.” Yamazaki or other Suntory whiskey


Léon: a glass of milk
Mad Men: Old Fashioned
Manhattan: Manhattan. Did you really have to ask?
Onegin: a single gin
Parks & Recreation: “There’s no wrong way to order a Lagavulin.”
Pirates of the Caribbean: Kraken black spiced rum
Rick and Morty: “Can you make me a Dumb Grandson Peptalk? It’s one part lame advice about stuff you know nothing about and a loooot of vodka.”
Rules of Attraction, The: Jack Daniels, straight from the bottle
Sideways: Pinot Noir. “I am not drinking any fucking Merlot.”
Suits: Macallan
Treme: Hurricane; don’t forget to torch the cocktail umbrella
Withnail & I: Literally anything you can find. But maybe skip the lighter fluid.

Let me know what I’ve missed…

Resolution Review: The New 52

With the resolution complete, paying closer attention has taught me some interesting things about my filmwatching habits and choices. Firstly, in numbers:

  • Resolution films watched: 52/52
  • Lowest rating: 3/10
  • Highest rating: 10/10
  • Average rating of Resolution films: 7.2/10
  • New films watched this year: 122
  • Average rating of all new films: 6.8/10
  • Current length of watchlist: 378

One thing I realised halfway through the year is that, even if I met my target, I was still unlikely to reduce the size of my watchlist by the end of the year. In fact it has grown a little to 379. Even so, without this resolution it would easily have broken 400. The average rating I gave to films on my watchlist was a fairly high 7.2, which makes sense for a list of films that looked good enough to pique my interest. I was pleasantly surprised by the spread of 3 to 10, although virtually everything on the list was 5 or higher. The average for all new films was only slightly lower at 6.8 but then I rarely watch anything that I expect will be bad.

The resolution caused a few changes to my film-watching habits. The most noticeable was that I was making more time in the evenings to watch a film, which, after all, does not require much more of a time commitment than to binge a few episodes of a TV drama. The biggest change, and one I actually found difficult, was prioritising new films – 122 new films (this includes films released in 2017 and older films that were not already on my watchlist) is considerably higher than I have managed in previous years – but this came at the expense of the ability to rewatch films. On one hand, increasing new experiences is good. However, two thirds of the way through the year I found I was really struggling without the opportunity to watch the “comfort films” that I typically watch once a year. I eventually caved to watch Lost in Translation. The experience reminded me just how important some of these films are to me and, in turn, why I will always need to own certain films rather than relying solely on streaming services with a fluctuating selection. I am certainly looking forward to the increased freedom next year.

Typically 9/10 is the highest I would score a movie on first watching it, with the ability to move to a 10 if it holds up on rewatching. The one exception this year was Cinema Paradiso, already a classic in its own right and targeted at those who love cinema. There were a number of 9s from the watchlist: Whiplash, Rear Window, Paterson, Hell or High Water, The Handmaiden, A Clockwork Orange, Eye in the Sky, Black Hawk Down, Patton and The Pianist, spanning 1954-2016. It shows a surprising bias towards well-made war films, which is not a genre for which I have a particular affinity. There were a handful of additional 9s, two of which were on the list but released this year: Carol, Logan, Blade Runner 2049 and a short film called Testing. Two of the lowest rated movies were on the list, making them particularly disappointing: The Neon Demon and Hick. They were joined by two off-list films: the disappointingly unfunny and unnecessary sequel Ted 2, and risible 1970s low-budget horror Three on a Meathook.

Halfway through the year I also upgraded my living room setup to support 4K and HDR (now that the standards have crystallised). The biggest change was the TV itself. I have been eyeing OLED TVs for some time because of their near-perfect black reproduction (each pixel can be switched on or off independently and there is no backlight to bleed through). LG is producing stellar large flat panels, and (after a little consideration) I decided to go all in on a monolithic 65″ model OLED65C7V. I am unlikely to replace many films with 4K versions, given the relatively modest improvement, but it will be a consideration for future purchases where available. As with the PS3 last generation, the Xbox One S is now my default blu-ray player since it supports 4K and is likely to get software updates to address any changes to the format.

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"Lack of imagination is an occupational hazard for an apex predator."

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