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QuickView: Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie (2023)

“Actors don’t become actors because they are brimming with self confidence. An actor’s burning ambition is to spend as much time as possible pretending to be somebody else.”

Michael J. Fox

I rarely read autobiographies — in part because I don’t believe that being famous automatically gives one a greater insight into the human condition — but one that has stayed with me is Michael J. Fox’s 2002 memoir Lucky Man, written a few years after he went public with his young onset Parkinson’s diagnosis. Twenty years later, Davis Guggenheim’s documentary is a very similar experience, allowing Fox to narrate his life story with the same incurable optimism whilst also showing more vulnerability — there is footage of him falling during physiotherapy, covering bruises with makeup (“Gravity is real, even if you only fall from my height”), whilst interview segments show him struggling at times to speak clearly as he balances the timing of his medication. Whilst Fox narrates, Guggenheim illustrates his rise to fame using thematically relevant scenes from Fox’s work — it is more effective than one might expect, particularly with his breakout sitcom Family Ties. Conversely, with hindsight it is fascinating to see Fox visibly masking his symptoms in footage from Spin City. His positive tone is mirrored by a light and upbeat score that avoids saccharine sentimentalism. Though Still may hew closely to the stereotypical rise and fall documentary, there is a depth evident the multifaceted title which refers simultaneously to Fox’s inability to remain still as an energetic child, his concealment of his Parkinson’s tremors for seven years, how he has been forced to be still and present in his life, and the fact he is still here. Perhaps most moving is an unguarded moment in which Fox admits the strain he feels in needing to present a positive image as an advocate for those with Parkinson’s, to which his physiotherapist suggests he should not always be holding himself to that public role, “It’s okay not to be Michael J. Fox sometimes”. Still may not cover new ground as a documentary, but its autobiographical nature makes it more personal, elevated by Fox’s grace and good humour.


Disclosure: I know personally at least one person involved in the making of this film.

QuickView: Don’t Worry Darling (2022)

Don't Worry Darling

“All they ask of us is to stay here. Where it’s safe.”


After the excellent Booksmart, I had high hopes for Olivia Wilde’s sophomore directorial outing. Sadly, despite its panache, Don’t Worry Darling proves to be a shallow and often repetitive thriller that believes itself to be smarter than it is. The setup is a suitably surreal take on 1960s American suburbia where, like The Stepford Wives, something is palpably wrong. The leads’ idyllic relationship, with excellent performances from Florence Pugh and Harry Styles, is the film’s strength, Wilde’s direction providing eroticism through touch rather than nudity. As Alice becomes increasingly unsettled, the sound mix buzzes around uncomfortably like an insect, reflecting her mental state. Reflections are also a neat visual flourish, with several occasions where mirrors act impossibly. Third act twists are dangerous as they risk alienating an audience and Don’t Worry Darling manages the double sin of being entirely obvious with half of its conceit and entirely out of leftfield with the other. The result is an unsatisfying and disjointed reveal that leaves too little time to explore its ramifications. Chris Pine’s antagonist is overtly based on Jordan Peterson, particularly his obsession with order and chaos, and natural heirarchies, yet the film is content to make this allusion without attempting to debunk or even engage with his ideas. This is the film’s ultimate failure, which is that it never delves beneath the surface in any of its ideas, from cult programming to traditional gender roles to the broader concepts like satisfaction with our reality. There is far more to be gleaned from films with lesser ambitions like The Master or Martha Marcy Mae Marlene.


Disclosure: I know personally at least one person involved in the making of this film.

QuickView: Locked Down (2021)

“It’s lockdown: nobody knows what day it is, let alone the date.”


With an impressively swift turnaround, released just nine months after the UK went into COVID-19 lockdown, Locked Down could have been an excellently observed comedy about the shared experiences of the preceding year but is undone by a weak script and an unnecessary and contrived “heist”. The focus on a recently separated couple provides an added layer of hostility to an already strained environment, with Doug Liman making some creative visual choices like deliberately poor framing to reflect off-centre webcams and leaning into video freezes and lag. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance as the furloughed and depressed Paxton is the film’s highlight, coping poorly with the breakup yet witty and theatrical as he orates poetry to his neighbours. The script’s observations are more blunt than profound (“people like me who have spent some time in real prison are thriving in this new reality”) and its privileged tone can become unpleasant at times. As its focus shifts to opportunistic theft, Locked Down‘s relatability and competence plummet further.


QuickView: How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (2019)

How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World quad poster

“It’s you and me, bud. Always.”


I don’t think I have felt so bittersweet about ending a trilogy since The Lord of the Rings concluded 15 years ago but, fittingly, at its heart the final film is about letting go. Unlike Pixar’s recent string of sequels, Dreamworks Animation is driven more by storytelling than cashing in on nostalgia (writer/director Dean DeBlois conceived the second and third films together), although there are wonderful flourishes that refer back to original film through dialogue, through actions, and through the score. Building these characters over the course of a decade allows for emotion to be conveyed subtly, like a silent gaze from Astrid as she realises how her adherence to values of traditional masculinity unintentionally hurts Hiccup. Viking society continues to provide an excellent backdrop against which to explore modern notions of masculinity (as in the underrated Norsemen TV series), particularly as Hiccup shoulders new burdens as chief. Although the discovery of a female “Light Fury” is the inciting incident that takes the whole village of Berk on the move, the changing relationship between Hiccup and Toothless is the real focus. The swashbuckling action is impressive and keeps the energy high but it rarely feels as compelling as spending time with the characters from Berk, leaving the dragon-poaching subplot often feeling like a distraction (or, more likely, a concession to viewers new to the franchise). These movies have always excelled in presenting majestic vistas and here the exceptional eye for detail is kicked up a notch, in a few places the realism of the environments even making the stylised characters seem a little out of place. Overall this is a delightfully satisfying conclusion that, although lacking the freshness of its predecessors, still retains their magic.


Disclosure: I know personally at least one person involved in the making of this film.

QuickView: Solo (2018)

“Stick to the plan. Do NOT improvise.”


Beckett’s order may as well have been Disney’s diktat. No one was asking for a Han Solo origin story and, with the beloved character already so well fleshed out by the original trilogy, it is hard to see this as much more than a cash grab. When directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were ousted from the project, it seemed the writing was on the wall. Ron Howard stepped in and opted to reshoot three quarters of the film, the requisite for a solo credit. Although the result is actually better than I had feared — with a competently told and occasionally rousing heist tale — like JJ Abrams, Howard plays entirely safe within Star Wars universe. Solo moves at pace so that, as with Rogue One, little time is spent fleshing out the characters, and the only performances that stand out are Woody Harrelson’s Beckett and Donald Glover’s young Lando (an origin story that would have been far more appealing). The film’s strongest element may be John Powell’s score, which plays liberally with a theme by John Williams. Ultimately Solo‘s bland result is another strong argument for seeking out new stories to tell in this expansive universe rather than rehashing the past ad infinitum.


Disclosure: I know personally at least one person involved in the making of this film.

The Bourne Identity (2002)

director: Doug Liman
starring: Matt Damon, Franka Potente, Chris Cooper, Clive Owen
running time: 121 mins
rating: 12

“How could I forget about you? You’re the only person I know.”

Jason Bourne

When most Hollywood action films are now sold almost on special effects alone, it is delightfully refreshing to find an espionage thriller that is able to blend in just as much intelligence.

Found floating in the Mediterranean Sea by fisherman, Jason Bourne [Matt Damon] is suffering from severe amnesia with no way to explain the two bullets in his back, or the bank number embedded in his hip. On land he discovers his identity from a passport in the security box being held under that number. Only then does he find the box also contains a gun and several more passports, each under a different name. With the CIA hunting him down, Bourne must discover the truth behind his identity, aided by Maria [Franka Potente] who becomes unwillingly caught up in the chase.

The most striking thing about The Bourne Identity is its superb pacing. Varying between tender moments of reprise and tense sequences as Bourne flees his pursuors, Liman manages to maintain a fugutive sensation throughout, never being able to rest for quite long enough. The tension is also maintained through Bourne’s lack of knowledge of his own abilities, which manifest themselves suddenly. The first such occurrance is when approached by Swiss policemen, his perfectly precise reflex attack lasting only moments before both are on the ground. One of the film’s best moments is when Bourne eerily reveals to Maria while in a diner that he can recite the licence plate number of every car parked outside, but doesn’t know why.

The action is always swift and sharp, rapid outbursts of gunfire or shouts breaking through what is generally a very quiet film. When it does appear, however, it is of very high quality, like Bourne’s climb down the embassy wall, and most notably in the gripping car chase through Paris, one of the best for a long while as we see his hardwired skills surface again (and how often do we get to see what a superspy can do with a Mini Cooper!?). A prime example of the film’s intelligent manipulation of the audince’s tension appears at the end of this chase, having evaded their pursuors, where rather than a quick quip, the pair quietly sit in the car regaining their composure and realising they have to clean it of fingerprints and dump it.

Damon at first appears a little young for the role, but his acting is of a high quality throughout. He is not only able to carry himself ably through the action sequences (which are nothing too stretching or original) but also reveals more depth to his character, portraying bpth his frustration (Maria inquires about his taste in music and he cannot answer) and a tortured side that does not like the history he is discovering about his identity and would rather start afresh. Potente skillfully changes what could be a standard “spy’s girl” role into something far more interesting through her lively charisma. Clive Owen’s creepy and mostly silent hitman was perhaps underused, and Julia Stiles’ small role as an inexperienced dispatcher was often unconvincing (arguably due to her lines rather than performance).

Liman’s greatest move is in letting the characters drive the story, and the developing relationship between Jason and Maria is given as much screen time as the exhilerating stunts. Nothing about the film appears overly contrived, and the sets and locations lack the usual Hollywood flavour. Paris is painted as rather grim and sterile, while the wintery European countryside is beautiful but bland. Most impressively, the CIA office is a realistic basement office filled with standard computers, rather than the ludicrous technophile palaces we are usually offered.

While it may lack, as a result, the hi-tech style and panache of the James Bond franchise, The Bourne Identity wins out through its compelling intelligence in script, content and appearance. While Hollywood is cluttered with gadget-driven espionage films these days, imaginative cerebral thrillers like this rise rarely. And since author Robert Ludlum also wrote two sequels to the novel this is based upon, perhaps this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Jason Bourne…


"A film is a petrified fountain of thought."

(CC) BY-NC 2003-2023 Priyan Meewella

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