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The Life of P

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2023: A Year in Film

Continuing from last year, I am again composing a top ten list of films (a week later than intended). Some readers will know that I have reduced my day job to four days a week, which has given me more time to watch and review films this year. That led to a considerable increase with 114 new QuickViews this year, of which 64 were new releases in the UK (that is the qualifying criterion for this list, although QuickViews identify films by year of first release worldwide). There are a few omissions, most notably Killers of the Flower Moon, but at almost three and a half hours long it is clear that Scorcese no longer cares whether people see his films in the cinema rather than streaming — and if he doesn’t care, why should I? Other potential contenders which I have yet to see include Fallen Leaves, R.M.N., and Godzilla Minus One. Last year compiling the list was straightforward: it consisted of all the films I had rated 9 or 10, with a single 8 in the #10 spot. 2023 has seen a noticeable decline in quality at the top end, in part due to various releases being delayed to 2024 as a result of the strikes in Hollywood. However, the overall average has remained at 6.8, suggesting a general tendency toward the middle. The year’s worst was body switching catastrophe Family Switch, followed closely by Rebel Moon, Luther: Fallen Son, Mindcage and Ghosted. That gives Netflix an ignominious three spots in the bottom five as its content quality continues to flounder in favour of quantity.

On to the good stuff. I will link each of the Top 10 to their respective QuickView, but with some additional comments. This year’s list is again dominated by writer-directors, that level of control tending to allow the most auteur creativity. If I were to identify a single theme running through most of this year’s list, it would ambiguity, in both truth and relationships.

10. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed

Although I was aware of Nan Goldin as a photographer, I was not familiar with her work going into this documentary. Whilst documentaries about artists can provide important background to understand the individual, it is rare that they provide a fresh lens through which to view their art. Laura Poitras achieves this by exploring Goldin’s childhood and her embrace of the LGBT community and sex workers in response to it, all which informed her photographic series The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. By contrast the coverage of her protest activism against the Sackler family becomes repetitive even though it was the film’s primary selling point. This is a documentary for the art lover, not the protester.

9. The Creator

I enjoyed Gareth Edwards’ latest sci-fi excursion more than most, primarily for its world-building. It is always a delight to experience a well-realised new sci-fi world and Edwards’ eye for grounded visual detail is always sublime. Stories about AI uprisings are nothing new but — by comparison with Zack Snyder’s mere sci-fi pastiche of other works in Rebel Moon — Edwards provides novel context through humanity’s politically divided approach, the looming physical presence of the West’s orbital strike platform a colonial threat of violence to enforce their view on eradication of AI. The Creator was undermined by its clumsy, exposition-laden script, but its world will stay with me.

8. Return to Seoul

Having just reviewed it, I don’t have a great deal to add about Davy Chou’s film about an adoptee’s search for identity in the country of her birth. Notably this was Park Ji-min’s first acting role — in some ways that may have benefited the performance in Freddie’s disconnection with the culture and people of Korea. The result is raw and effective without the artificiality that can come from an overly considered performance that seeks to evoke a specific reaction from the viewer.

7. How To Have Sex

This is truly a breakout year for Molly Manning Walker with her excellent directorial debut alongside being the cinematographer on the well-received Scrapper. Her own film is really how not to have sex — a coming-of-age, loss-of-virginity story that stands apart through its female perspective. It allows the viewer to understand why Tara’s insecurity manifests in passivity, and how that leads to bad outcomes. How To Have Sex should be a breakout role for Mia McKenna Bruce too, her performance wordlessly communicating vulnerability and shame.

6. Oppenheimer

“Barbenheimer” was the year’s biggest (and most unexpected) mainstream cinematic event — the kind of viral concept that could only arise organically, much as marketers spent the rest of the year trying to find the next one (I don’t think many people did “Saw Patrol”). I enjoyed Barbie but found Oppenheimer to be cinematically superior, though it was not without issues — primarily its structure, which made its last hour feel repetitive and overlong. However, it also demonstrated the kind of creative flourishes that make Nolan’s work stand apart, like the disconcerting drumming roar that seemed to envelop Oppenheimer’s concerns about The Manhatten Project, a sound that is only later revealed to be the stamping of feet as Americans celebrate the successful test. Oppenheimer is suitably haunting about the danger of destructive invention, even if I wish it had been more direct in dismantling American propaganda about the need for the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

5. Anatomy of a Fall

Some of the best French films of late reveal an obsession with the idea of uncertainty over past events, demonstrated by The Accusation, The Night of the 12th, and now Anatomy of a Fall. Justine Triet’s script is the most meticulous of the three: it is half investigation, half courtroom drama, unfolding largely from the perspective of the accused, but without providing the audience with a definitive sense of her innocence or guilt. It directly addresses the unreliability of witness evidence through the changing story of her son. As our understanding of memory advances, this is becoming an increasing issue within the legal system in general.

4. Tár

Todd Field’s third feature-length film — his first in 15 years after a string of unrealised projects — is a magnificent examination of power and its abuse. I still find its “cancel culture” labelling to be reductive, since it tackles identity as well as the conflict between power and public perception. Cate Blanchet is on top form as the embattled conductor Lydia Tár (a very different performance to Bradley Cooper’s portrayal of Leonard Bernstein). Field also deliberately distances his film from the #MeToo movement by making both perpetrator and victim women, though Lydia is undoubtedly coded with sterotypically masculine characteristics.

3. Close

Lukas Dhont’s second feature might be the year’s most heartbreaking. Newcomers Eden Dambrine and Gustav De Waele are as impressive as Frankie Corio in last year’s #1, with no awkwardness to their warm and tactile friendship. It is peers rather than parents who disrupt their relationship and I defy viewers not to be moved by Dambrine’s wide-eyed looks of guilt. Its rural vistas are beautiful, but it is the simplicity and focus of Close — free of extraneous sublots — that renders what is on screen so memorable.

2. Spider-Man: Across The Spider-verse

As the relentless superhero movie juggernaut of the past 15 years continues to collapse, Across The Spider-verse serves as a reminder to studios that audiences are still excited by artistic creativity and human storytelling. Into The Spider-verse featured a loose animation style that deliberately broke rules, like animating Miles with half the number of keyframes than his spider-brethren, creating a barely perceptible sluggishness until he comes into his own in the climax. Across The Spider-verse expands this playfully with the anarchic Spider-Punk, who appears to be cut out from print and with stilted animation on every third frame leaving him deliberately out of sync with the rest of the characters. I mention this as just one example of the attention to detail that is crammed into this joyous work of art which might not be registered consciously but which elevate its impact. Across The Spider-verse was not just the best animated or superhero movie of the year, but one of the year’s very best films.

1. Past Lives

Like last year, the standout by some margin is a debut from a female writer-director. Celine Song’s Past Lives is an inversion of Return to Seoul, a woman who was similarly plucked out of Korea as a child but finds her past catching up with her in New York rather than travelling back to Korea. If Aftersun captured the sense of a fading memory, Past Lives captures the longing for a moment which never occurred. I said at the time that “Unrequited love is a common theme for cinema but rare is the greater agony of requited love left unrealised”, a haunting, heady concoction that I have not tasted so potently distilled in the two decades since In The Mood For Love.

2022: A Year in Film (Part 2)

Continuing from part 1, this concludes the Top 10 films of the year.

5. The Northman

When an artistic director known for creating tightly constrained, evocative films on a small scale suddenly finds themselves in possession of a Hollywood budget, it can often spell disaster. It was with some trepidation, then, that I approached Robert Eggers’ viking epic with a budget estimated to be almost ten times that of The Lighthouse — a film that essentially featured two actors and one location. Eggers’ overriding attention to detail on this new scale must have been a monumental undertaking, drawing from both Norse history and their ritual practices. Continuing to collaborate with cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, the pair capture the wild fury of the untamed landscape against which small villages seem an almost futile refuge. It may have been relentlessly grim, but The Northman was the most gripping cinema of the year.

4. The Banshees of Inisherin

Having rated Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri 10/10, there was a weight of expectation on Martin McDonaugh’s follow-up, The Banshees of Inisherin. Happily, reuiniting with In Bruges leads Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson made things feel immediately convivial and familiar, that is until a rift opens between the lifelong friends they play. It seems strange to have such a humourous, exaggerated tale unfold on an island that seems weighed down by despair, but perhaps no more than setting a tale of guilt and violence in a picturesque fairytale town like Bruges. Having demonstrated that Seven Psychopaths was an isolated misstep in an otherwise faultless filmography, McDonaugh has cemented his position amongst the best directors working today.

3. The Worst Person in the World

A late contender (I saw it only a few days ago after shortlisting films I had missed in order to cross them off before the end of the year), this Norwegian romantic comedy drama left me with the most fully-formed impression and understanding of a character from any film this year. Renate Reinsve deserves the recognition she is receiving for bringing Julie to life as more than an archetype. She is deeply flawed but the title is more about self-perception and how our subjective reality can influence behaviour: we will most often attempt to act like the person we believe ourselves to be. Joachim Trier and Eskil Vogt’s script shares my view that the most effective way to allow people to become better versions of themselves is to show them that that is the way we see them.

2. Everything Everywhere All At Once

A sign of how weak a year it has been for Marvel is that a film called The Multiverse of Madness wasn’t even the best multiverse movie of the year. Clunkily-named directing duo “Daniels” unleashed a frenzy of creativity that coalesced into a sublime action comedy drama filled with talent but ultimately resting on Michelle Yeoh, who slides between genres with ease. Daniels have improved leaps and bounds from their debut Swiss Army Man, which was certainly original but mired in puerile humour that undercut any risk of emotional impact. Yes, their world-building is still utterly absurd, but the very grounded relationships between parents and children imbue the proceedings with genuine emotional stakes. It remains a film best experienced for the first time with as little foreknowledge as possible, but it is such a whirlwind that it almost demands further viewing.

1. Aftersun

When I started reviewing films on a 10-point scale, I viewed 9 as the benchmark for the best handful of films each year with 10 reserved for those that affected me profoundly in a personal way, that rare and magical experience that cinema can offer outside of mere objective competency. My expectation was that there might be one film a year that received a 10. In fact, it has been three years since the last one. What I find most astonishing about Aftersun is not that it is a debut from both its director and one of its lead actors, but an intangible quality it has achieved in capturing the ephemeral sense of memory within the fundamentally transient medium of film. It does this in obvious ways like the use of camcorder footage being recorded and watched, but through subtler means too ⁠— the way the camera lingers to suggest curiosity or regret, and the void between scenes as time seems compressed into short windows of recollection. There is a darkness that hangs over much of Aftersun that eventually speaks to a particularly personal concern, but the film had ensnared me long before. And in the months since, it has only embedded itself further as a holiday that I too now recall, a memory that never occurred. That is a new experience, and worthy of a 10.

2022: A Year in Film (Part 1)

For the first time (as far as I can recall), I am composing a top ten list as this is the first year in which I feel that have seen almost all the films likely to compete for a spot. I have seen and reviewed a total of 82 new films this year, of which 49 were released in the UK this year (that being the qualification criterion, although QuickViews identify films by the year of first release worldwide). The notable omissions are She Said and Smile; I am also due to see an advance screening of The Whale tomorrow, though it would not qualify since its general release is not until February 2023. Ratings for 2022 ranged between 2 and 10, although the average score was a respectable 6.8, bearing in mind that generally I am selecting films I expect to enjoy. The year’s worst was Moonfall, though it only narrowly beat Russell Crowe’s Poker Face to that ignominious victory.

On to the good stuff. I will link each of the Top 10 to their respective QuickView, but with some additional comments. This post will cover the honourable mentions and #10-6, with the top 5 to follow tomorrow.

Honourable mentions

This year’s best animation was Guillermo del Toro’s stop-motion Pinnochio, which outstripped Pixar’s middling offerings of late. There were a number of pleasantly surprising actions films, including a colourful and creative adaptation of the Japense novel Bullet Train, a reimagining of Prey that transported the sci-fi franchise back 300 years to a Comanche Tribe, and the heartfelt and poignant Top Gun: Maverick. There were also several horror standouts with X (which introduced me to Jenna Ortega before her excellent incarnation of Wednesday) and the high concept Hatching from Finland, which just missed out on a top 10 spot.

10. Living

My opinion of Living has only improved in the months since its release, through discussing it with others and through the way Nighy’s quiet performance retains such potence. I still consider Ikiru to be the superior film, but I may have been unfair to Kazuo Ishiguro in describing his adaptation as “slavishly faithful” since he has injected something of his own style into the material as well. Its message about living life meaningfully also has a personal significance to me this year (and indeed to this post), as I have transitioned to a four-day working week. That change is what has afforded me greater time in the second half of the year to spend in darkened cinemas and writing these reviews.

9. The Batman

Not a single Marvel film made the top ten list as Phase 4 of the MCU continued to underwhelm, but a DC comicbook movie outshone them all. The Batman fell outside of the divisive “Snyderverse” and before James Gunn took the reins in a shake up of DC’s cinematic future, which allowed Matt Reeves to carve out his own style for the Dark Knight unburdened by wider franchise concerns. Admittedly to my eye much of that style came from The Crow, but the result was the most compelling incarnation of Gotham since Tim Burton’s take on the city. Robert Pattinson has already ably proved his acting credentials but I was still pleasantly surprised by his turn in the cowl. Whatever DC’s future plans, I hope this world will not be sacrificed.

8. Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

Rian Johnson reportedly hates the “Knives Out” tagline being attached to Glass Onion as he wants them to be seen as standalone mysteries like Agatha Christie’s novels. I described Knives Out as feeling theatrical with its constrained setting and by contrast the island resort of Glass Onion feels cinematic in scope, though as a mystery it is equally tightly controlled. It stands well above the other whodunits released this year, largely as Johnson continues to play with the form rather than simply replicating it. And let us not forget it also provided the Christmas gift of a delightfully idiotic Ben Shapiro twitter rant complaining that a mystery film “misdirected” him in the first half!

7. Belfast

I was almost a year late to Belfast, Kenneth Branagh’s ode to his youth. With a US release in 2021, it already scooped a writing Oscar at the start of the year for Branagh, whose well-observed family drama within a coming-of-age tale is understated yet compelling. As an unabashed crowdpleaser, it treats the Troubles (to this day a masterpiece of British understatement) as a backdrop rather than its focus, which could certainly be viewed as an overly nostalgic take on a dark period in Northern Ireland’s history. However it does accurately reflect the naive childhood perspective that it seeks to portray.

6. RRR

The year’s biggest Bollywood release is a rousing revolutionary fantasy which delivers its message against colonialism but has been deservedly scrutinised in its reinforcement of an oppressive caste framework. It is nevertheless one of the most creative action films of the year, and one of the most entertaining. It also reminds me that — whilst I enjoy and advocate for world cinema — I do have a tendency to overlook cinema from the South Asian subcontinent despite my own heritage. It is something I intend to rectify next year, particularly as streaming services make many of those films more accessible than ever. Readers are encouraged to hold me to account (or provide recommendations in a less aggressive manner!).

The Night Before Last in Soho

The night before last in Soho, just round the corner from Haymarket and Café de Paris which feature prominently in the film, director Edgar Wright attended a Q&A following a screening of Last Night in Soho. It is the first such event I have been able to attend in over two years, so I’m glad to be able to share it with you.

The Story

Last Night in Soho originated from an idea voiced in the film by Eloise’s landlady when asked whether anyone has died in a room: “This is London. Someone has died in every room in every building and on every street corner in the city.” Wright doesn’t seem entirely convinced by the existence of ghosts, but he is drawn to the idea of psychic residue imbuing the walls of most of this city in which millions of souls have lived and died.

The plot for Last Night in Soho has existed for around a decade, during which time a researcher has been collecting stories from Soho residents. These tales of coercive manipulation of the young and naïve were “harrowing reading”, and what Wright found particularly depressing was how similar the experiences were. The world may have moved on, but these issues remain far from fixed, as highlighted in the past few years by the #MeToo movement and the litany of allegations against Kevin Spacey in the London arts scene.

The Shoot

When he talks about filmmaking, Wright unassumingly reveals an encyclopedic knowledge of film history that is Tarantino-esque in the ability to draw from from the work of past directors. Mark Kermode has described his movies as “haunted by the ghosts of other films” which seems particularly fitting for Last Night in Soho, its views of London pulled not just from history but from our collective cinematic memory of the era. Wright also mentions his love of the Reelstreets website, an Internet rabbit-hole with a searchable collection of locations that appeared in films alongside how they look now.

Filming on location in the centre of London requires immense preparation, with three months’ notice needed to close most Soho streets, and even longer for the incredible shot that transports Haymarket back to the 1960s. “London can’t be tamed,” Wright comments, “you have to flood the shot with your own stuff”. That included not just period cars but wholesale recreation of 1960s storefront and venue facades. The resulting moment as Eloise first steps into the 1960s, combined with a surge of vibrant colour from the film’s initially desaturated palette and a soundscape that suddenly expands into Dolby Atmos surround, is intoxicating.

Image via Focus Features

Wright has worked with the same editor, Paul Machliss, since Spaced. With Baby Driver he had Machliss on set during filming because of how precisely timed the cuts needed to be in order to match the music. He has continued that approach in Last Night in Soho and explains that he didn’t want anyone but Machliss to see the rough cuts during shooting. The biggest new name in the crew is Chung-hoon Chung, who has been Park Chan-Wook’s cinematographer since Oldboy (Wright complains about now having to refer to it as “the first Oldboy“, in reference to the ignominious Hollywood remake). This provided a South Korean eye on London, which in turn helps to sell Eloise’s view of the city as a newcomer.

The Memories

During the course of filming, Wright spent a lot of time with Diana Rigg and he continued to visit her up until her death last year. You can hear the emotion in his voice as he describes how grateful he is to have known her, and she seems to feature in his favourite anecdotes. He shares her prepared response to brush off questions about her past that she didn’t want to answer, “Oh, I don’t remember the 60s, darling. I was too busy shooting The Avengers!”

Café de Paris is meticulously recreated as a set on a soundstage because of the complex camerawork required for those scenes. It was strange to walk past the venue later that evening, frozen in time since its closure during the pandemic, yet brought magically to life on film. It was when Wright took Rigg to visit the set that her guard slipped, recalling a memory:

“I remember walking down those stairs with a lot of rheumy-eyed men looking me up and down like a piece of meat.”

Diana Rigg
Image via Focus Features

This perhaps best encapsulates the danger of which Wright warns in even his own nostalgia. “The further you get away from it, you can choose to romanticise it, just remembering the music and fashion.” He explains that he used to imagine himself as a “cultural time traveler” taking in gigs and experiences from the past. But you can’t be selective about the past in that way, and in that sense he sees Last Night in Soho as “a cautionary tale to time travellers”.

The Music

It will be of little surprise that the director of the musically meticulous Baby Driver had most of the 1960s soundtrack selected long before filming. He knew that he wanted it to reflect the women of the time, performers like Cilla Black (who is portrayed in the film), describing their songs as “streaked with tears”.

However, one late addition is arguably the film’s best. When Anya Taylor-Johnson was cast, Wright didn’t know she could sing. On discovering this, an audition scene at the Rialto was added. He knew immediately that “Downtown” would be the perfect song for Sandie, with Taylor-Johnson’s a capella delivery pure and fragile. It also gifted us with a fully orchestrated downtempo version of Downtown that perhaps captures the film’s tone better than any narrative trailer could. Now that you’ve read this, it is well worth five minutes of your time.

Like Clockwork

Malcolm McDowell Q&A

When I first saw Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, I was immediately enthralled by this subversive gem so ahead of its time in 1971 that it still feels modern today. The opportunity to see it return to the big screen was an easy draw, particularly as it turned out Malcolm McDowell would be in town to discuss the film. I wrote after my first viewing that, “The dark satire relies on making McDowell’s electric performance relatable which is no small feat.” I was fascinated to hear more about how Alex DeLarge came about.

DeLarger than life

As a young Shakespearean stage actor, McDowell claims not to have felt intimidated by Kubrick despite his reputation and success. Rather, he saw the project as a collaboration. That is quite something for an actor who has only just entered the world of film with If…., an allegorical story about revolution at an English private school. That first feature, perhaps because of its anarchic sensibilities, led directly to his selection for A Clockwork Orange. Kubrick’s widow recently recalled that the director had screened the film at home, repeating McDowell’s first scene five times, before turning to her and saying, “we’ve found our Alex.”

“Stanley wasn’t interested in the actor’s problem at all,” McDowell explains of the struggle to find a way to perform Alex. That became liberating, giving him the confidence to improvise — particularly with physicality, such as Alex’s exaggerated chewing whilst confined to a hospital bed, which emerged largely as a reaction to Kubrick’s evident boredom with the scene’s dialogue. The actor summarises his brief as being to “play a rapist murderer who people like”. The fact Alex has some culture in his love for Beethoven helped but ultimately McDowell imbued him with a love for life, something that one has to admire on some level. Yet that is what drew such ire from many audiences, the New York Times calling Kubrick a fascist for making Alex likeable.

Alex DeLarge

Although the film makers played for humour, it didn’t take shape until they started filming. By modern standards the black comedy is self-evident, but McDowell recalls a New York audience watching in complete silence, whilst London offered only the occasional laugh — such was its uniqueness at the time. The home invasion sequence in particular could not have been done naturalistically, McDowell considers, “It would kill the film.” They spent five days shooting nothing, trying to work out how to create it. Kubrick eventually asked whether McDowell could dance, in response to which he launched into a spirited rendition of Singing in the Rain, replete with timed kicks. Kubrick was crying with laughter and, as McDowell tells it, immediately jumped into his car and drove home to purchase the rights to the song; it took them a further seven days to film the scene

Asked whether it was difficult to shoot the Ludovico technique, in which Alex is forced to watch a deluge of horrific footage with his eyes clamped open with ophthalmic forceps, McDowell responds enigmatically, “But I am Alex. If Alex is feeling pain then so was Malcolm,” before admitting candidly, “It was fucking horrible.” His eyes were anaesthetised for the shoot, meaning that he did not realise he had badly scratched his corneas until it wore off as he was driving home, in the worst pain he has ever felt. And then there were the reshoots…

The Ludovico Technique

Myth conceived notions

It is easy to forget that the film existed before punk, with a look that perhaps began to usher it in. The fashion was as improvisational as the acting, using cricket whites that McDowell had in his car, a protector that Kubrick suggested he wear on the outside as a codpiece, and a bowler as “a fuck you to the city”. The fake eyelashes began as a gag gift McDowell purchased for Kubrick, but after some experimentation they found the asymmetrical look of a single eye was suitably sinister.

McDowell recalls Anthony Burgess’ reason for writing the book, whilst noting in the same breath that the man was a pathological liar, making it impossible to know what was true. The story is that a Welsh doctor had told Burgess he had only nine months to live. Wanting to provide for his wife, Burgess rushed to write five books in that time. As publication approached and he was still alive, he realised he could not release them all simultaneously under his own name, so used pseudonyms instead. At the time he also worked as a newspaper literary critic and, as the books were not in his own name, they landed on his desk. He gave himself glowing reviews, before being fired once found out.

Addressing the mythology around the film’s limited availability in the UK until after Kubrick’s death, McDowell explains that A Clockwork Orange was never actually banned. A year after its release, as a result of several crimes allegedly copying elements of the movie, Kubrick and his family began receiving threats. Kubrick decided to withdraw the film from the UK market, a decision respected by the distributor until after his death. Invariably the lack of availability meant that people wanted it more.

He describes Kubrick as having paranoid tendencies, recalling visiting him at home to find the man sat by a stereo, intently listening to something through headphones. He silenced McDowell, who waited expectantly, imagining that he was probably listening to Beethoven for inspiration. Eventually Kubrick removed the cans and shook his head, “Another near miss at Heathrow.” He had been listening to air traffic control.

Malcolm McDowell Q&A

By the time the film was withdrawn, McDowell had moved to the USA, though he was disappointed that its cultural impact would not be experienced in the UK. American students embraced A Clockwork Orange for its style as well as the statement hidden beneath about freedom of choice. Although McDowell feels Burgess made things difficult for the audience by using an immoral man who makes bad choices, his own anti-establishment feelings ring out loudly in response to the film’s alternative of State control, “We know what happens when the State gets involved in anything. It’s a complete fuck up.” Here, its particular cruelty lay in stripping Alex of his pleasures, not just the antisocial ones but his love of music.

In closing, McDowell praises Kubrick’s genius as a film maker and waxed lyrical about 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film I consider overrated despite its visual majesty. McDowell highlights its propulsion of science fiction beyond contemporary cardboard sets, describing it as the best cinematic experience one can have on the big screen. In fact, I do not disagree at all with his final assessment: “I don’t know what it’s about. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s 45 minutes before anyone speaks. But it’s genius.”

Granting Forgiveness

Richard E. Grant is, in conversation, as affably charming as you might expect, garrulously spilling forth anecdotes but always to praise others rather than himself. He was visibly excited yet humbly grateful at his Academy Award nomination earlier in the day, for the performance that had just been screened in Can You Ever Forgive Me? He describes the project’s success, for which he has already received twenty-odd awards, as the culmination of many pieces falling into place. He was drawn to it by scriptwriter Jeff Whitty (who wrote Avenue Q) and director Marielle Heller (for Diary of a Teenage Girl). His only concern was whether this would be a vehicle for Melissa McCarthy’s comedy, fears that were allayed over a two-hour planning lunch with her (there was otherwise no rehearsal before filming began).

Richard E. Grant being interviewed after a screening of Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Grant realised McCarthy had not seen Withnail and I when she complimented with some surprise his ability to act drunk. Whilst he acknowledges comparison between the performances is inevitable “when you play two alcoholics in period coats”, he is glad that the roles were thirty years apart and was not consciously channelling anything of Withnail. That may come as a slightly surprise given that he plays Portland-born Jack Hock as English, but this was a directorial choice rather than his own (in fact an earlier, failed incarnation of the project had Chris O’Dowd cast in the role).

Having come off what he described as the “Testostoworld” (coming soon to theatres) of Logan‘s massive, male-dominated set, he loved the intimacy of a small picture with rarely more than three people conversing in a scene and predominantly female crew. That is not to say he dislikes working on big movies: he is enthusiastic about appearing in Star Wars at the end of the year, although he perhaps misread the room a little when looking for excitement at JJ Abrams directing.

Richard E. Grant

When asked what convinces him to take on a role, Grant prefaces his response by noting with self-deprecation that he appeared in Spice World: The Movie. Like the plethora of British talent to appear in the film, he was instructed to take the role by a family member, as his daughter wanted to meet the Spice Girls. I wonder how many others are, like him, finding on the flip-side that it now opens doors with younger talent like Lena Dunham who wrote him into Girls because of that movie.

He reminisced about acting alongside Daniel Day-Lewis in The Age of Innocence, joking that he prostrated himself in thanks that the legendary actor had turned down the role of Withnail, thus providing Grant with a career. After the first day, however, Day-Lewis blanked him on set, and it took Michelle Pfeiffer to explain that the method actor would continue this throughout shooting since their characters disliked one another. He finally broke character on Grant’s final day of shooting to envelop him in a hug and tell him it had been an honour working together. Which understandably, after weeks of being ignored, simply felt surreal.

I could not say unequivocally whether Jack Hock is Grant’s best performance, but when a long-serving character actor finally receives that elusive recognition, it is hard not to root for him to win.

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?!

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"Civilization now depends on self-deception. Perhaps it always has."

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