Movie Reviews – 2019

A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBOURHOOD: a quietly moving retort to modern cynicism

If you’re an American reading this, have you ever heard of Tony Hart? Or maybe Peter Purvis? I’m guessing the answer is a resounding no. Well, that’s probably what British people would answer if you asked them who Fred Rogers was. It is also why A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood won’t make too great a ripple on these shores.

Tony Hart, by the way, was a legendary, kindly old artist who fronted a show for years with an animatronic lump of clay called Morph, while Peter Purvis is probably the most well known presenter of children’s TV educational series Blue Peter, a British institution for over 50 years. They are, in short, nice old men who children grew up watching and trusting in, along similar lines to Mr Rogers in the States, who with his show Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood for over three decades entertained more than one generation of children and became a beloved household name to families across the nation. Who else could have essayed such a role on the big screen than Tom Hanks?

The most notable aspect of Marielle Heller’s film, however, is that it is not a biography of Mr. Rogers. For that, you may want to check out the recent documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbour? from Morgan Neville which goes into detail about the man and his life, whereas A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is more about what Fred Rogers represented and the quiet power the man had to transform the lives of those he broadcasted to, and in the prism of this story, who he met. It’s a film about Mr. Rogers that isn’t *about* Mr. Rogers at all, and it’s the principal reason why the film ends up working so well.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is by degrees charming, heartbreaking, uplifting and, ultimately, a full rebuke of modern cynicism.

BOMBSHELL: the haunted, toothless response to a destructive political culture

Bombshell never lives up the explosive promise of its title.

While satire has caught up with the age of Donald Trump, what with Alec Baldwin’s razor sharp Saturday Night Live impersonations which have infuriated the humourless Bigly-in-chief, cinema has to date struggled with how to capture not just this most divisive of Presidents but also the culture he has fostered in American politics and mass media. Jay Roach’s Bombshell is one of the first significant efforts to explore what this means for a country Hollywood has struggled in since 2016, defined as it is by ostensibly liberal values – even if economically they are far more conservative than they would ever let on.

The doorway opened for screenwriter Charles Randolph, best known for penning Adam McKay’s The Big Short, to detail this fairly recent chapter of American political life following the death in mid-2017 of Roger Ailes, the long-standing CEO of Fox News, as controlled by the global conglomerate under Australian tycoon Rupert Murdoch. Ailes no longer being able to litigate allows Bombshell to tell the story, primarily, of Megyn Kelly, the Fox News host who with previously dismissed host Gretchen Carlson stood up to years of pervasive, institutionalised sexual harassment by Ailes within the Fox News system, triggering a lawsuit that saw Ailes reputation in tatters and cost him his position. Within just under a year, that failure apparently killed him.

Bombshell, therefore, could easily have exploded as such and entirely destroyed Roger Ailes and the broader, Trumpian culture of old, white male abuse in the public eye. So why does it end up so remarkably toothless?

JOJO RABBIT: weak satire almost saved by a surfeit of heart

At a time when being a Nazi for many does not seem like a terrible proposition, Jojo Rabbit should have been a film to tear at the satirical jugular of recent history’s worst fanatical movement.

Taika Waititi on paper was surely the right writer-director to make this happen too. He has taken a hilarious, incisive scalpel to the traditionally serious supernatural tropes of vampirism and lycanthropy in What We Do in the Shadows and parlayed that eccentricity into his colourful sojourn into the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Thor: Ragnarok, so you can imagine him looking at Nazism and understanding what he needed to take aim at for comedic purposes. The trailers suggest that to be the case; promoting Jojo Rabbit as a perky, plucky zany, ‘Allo ‘Allo-style comic adventure with Waititi hamming it up as an imaginary Adolf Hitler. Only… that’s not really what we get.

Jojo Rabbit is a surprisingly melancholy, somber affair, particularly after an opening first half an hour which establishes the life of young Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), a ten year old member of the Hitler Youth toward the end of World War Two who finds himself tormented by older boys who question his strength as a budding Nazi, especially given he’s doted on by his mother Rosie (an accented Scarlett Johansson). There are japes. There is dancing. There is a lightness of touch. Then he finds Jewish girl Elsa Korr (Thomasin McKenzie) being hidden at his home by his mother behind a wall and Waititi moves away from the Nazi lampooning into different, altogether more difficult tonal territory.

It’s that second act that causes Jojo Rabbit to collapse in on itself, losing its initial inertia as it attempts to use Jojo as a prism to explore difference, extremist thought, and naturally how, as Jojo’s friend Yorki (Archie Yates) puts it “definitely not a good time to be a Nazi”.

STAR WARS EPISODE IX: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER: the expected, soulless capstone of a four decade saga

CAUTION: contains some major spoilers so only read on if you’ve seen the film.

If you were looking for the perfect film to put a capstone on the 2010’s, Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker arguably would be it.

Even with the blockbuster heavyweight of Avengers: Endgame concluding the first ten years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, TROS—as we’ll call it for ease—was the most anticipated cinematic event of the year, given it doesn’t just serve as the third part of a trilogy but also the concluding chapter of a nine-part, four decade spanning saga within easily the biggest film franchise in movie history. This is about as epic as franchise filmmaking gets. Though Star Wars, the jewel in Disney’s all-dominating media crown, will of course continue into the 2020’s, this marks the end of the Skywalker Saga with which George Lucas changed the landscape of movie-making more than perhaps any director in the 20th century. The final conclusion to a story we thought had definitively ended twice before.

Going into The Rise of Skywalker, you may experience cautious optimism. Rian Johnson delivered a defiantly auteur-driven, insular examination of the core mystical and philosophical themes within Star Wars with 2017’s trilogy middle-part The Last Jedi, going in brave new directions from 2015’s vibrant trilogy opener The Force Awakens, in which JJ Abrams revived the franchise with a verve that spoke to Lucas’ original, Saturday adventure serial vision. With Abrams back at the helm, following the departure of original director Colin Trevorrow, there was every reason to believe TROS would recapture TFA’s spirit and top off Star Wars with a fulsome flourish. You may leave The Rise of Skywalker somewhat perplexed that that didn’t happen. That, in fact, Abrams has delivered the weakest Star Wars film since, quite possibly, fetid prequel Attack of the Clones.

For a myriad amount of reasons, The Rise of Skywalker feels like an argument, on screen, for why going into the next decade we need to rethink how we approach franchise filmmaking. It doesn’t just feel like a culmination of indulgent cinematic excess but a cautionary bulwark against it.

LE MANS ‘66: a thrilling, playful middle finger to corporate conservatism

Akin to most movies about sport, Le Mans ‘66 aka Ford vs Ferrari is not really about the field in question, motor racing. It is about men. James Mangold’s movie is almost obnoxiously masculine in an era where, and not without good reason, it is far from cache to be so. It is, quite deliberately, a throwback.

Mangold’s film, which tells the real-life story of the British driver who helped an American racing firm win the famed Le Mans race in 1966 for the Ford Motor Company, is a muscular slice of high octane drama. Following the sun-dappled haze of 1969 in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Mangold gives us a hot, bleached Los Angeles slick with oil and tarmac; a mid-60’s in the throes of a culture war. Ford, headed by Tracy Letts’ iron clad descendant Henry Ford II, are bastions of pure-blooded American conservatism, a Stateside corporate aristocracy who consider modern pop-culture icons such as James Bond “a degenerate”. Christian Bale’s British-born mechanic and driver, Ken Miles, is an unashamed team player. “He’s a beatnik” a Ford executive describes him as but, in truth, the family man Ken simply isn’t on brand.

Le Mans ’66 is, therefore, about masculine individuality. In some sense, David works for Goliath in this story, and the conflict isn’t really Ford vs Ferrari at all. That’s not the beating heart of Mangold’s film, and is only being sold as the title in the US because of the lack of modern associations with the name Le Mans. Framing the film as a conflict between the most famous American car company and legendary European racing firm in the world is an easy read, but the real battle is between individual American exceptionalism and a growing corporate hegemony in a post-war, pre-neoliberal space. Henry Ford represents a world people are still battling against in the Western hemisphere and, oddly enough, Mangold’s film doesn’t necessarily reflect a universe in which the little man can win.

If Le Mans’ 66 is a David v Goliath story, make no mistake… Goliath wins.

Blu-Ray Review: DIEGO MARADONA (2019)

When someone mentions the greatest footballer of all time, three names most likely come to mind. The oldest is Brazilian legend Pele. The newest would probably be Barcelona’s Argentine master Lionel Messi. In the middle, arguably, could be Argentina’s controversial and flamboyant striker Diego Maradona.

Just the name conjures up a whole wealth of iconic cultural images for anyone born before or around the early 1980’s; lifting the World Cup trophy in Mexico ’86, the same tournament as the infamous ‘Hand of God’ goal against England. But how much do we stop and consider the man behind the images himself? Maradona spent years in the tabloids, particularly for a powerful drug addiction which all but destroyed his playing career after his glory days, but do we know the man behind the myth? Asif Kapadia attempts to explore this question in his documentary, much anticipated after his striking debut Senna and the searing, emotional heights of Amy. There is a reason he doesn’t call his film simply Maradona, as we all know him. This is as much, if not more, about Diego too.

This question provides the lynchpin of a film which never hits the potent, powerful and affecting heights of Kapadia’s tragic previous two examinations, but nevertheless shines a light on a fascinating man at a fascinating point of sporting history.

DOCTOR SLEEP: a Kubrickian xerox with soul and dark beauty

If it’s accepted fact that Stephen King hated Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, one suspects Kubrick would have hated Mike Flanagan’s adaptation of Doctor Sleep.

Primarily because Flanagan (celebrated in the horror community in recent years for projects such as Hush, Oculus & The Haunting of Hill House) doesn’t just put King’s 2013 sequel on the big screen, he actively works to continue the story from Kubrick’s cinematic version, which King has always attested is less faithful to his 1977 novel than the Mick Garris-directed TV mini-series from the 1990’s.

It does feel like King is wishful thinking about a lot of this, though, if you’ve read The Shining. Kubrick added a few of his own touches and flourishes but he sticks close to the plot, and often lifts dialogue from the book. Flanagan does the same here but the singular difference is that Kubrick wasn’t actively aping a director before him. Kubrick was innovating with The Shining. Flanagan is xeroxing. Intentionally, without a doubt, but he’s xeroxing nonetheless as he works to thematically and visually connect Doctor Sleep to the iconic 1980 horror film.

This ultimately works both to the advantage and the detriment of Doctor Sleep as a movie in its own right.

Film Review: MAKING WAVES: THE ART OF CINEMATIC SOUND (2019)

When considering a movie, how often do you consider how it sounds? Not just the score, which many increasingly recognise as a crucial and celebrated component of a cinematic experience, but the aural aspect of how a film is put together. If your answer is “not much”, then Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound is an eye-opener.

Directed by Midge Costin, a former sound editor who worked on films throughout the 80’s and 90’s (heavily on Jerry Bruckheimer productions such as Days of Thunder and Armageddon), Making Waves shines a light on sound design, a process which has been key to the history and evolution of cinema since the pioneering work of Eadward Muybridge all the way back in the 1870’s captured the possibility of an image on screen. Costin’s documentary roughly chronologically tells the story of sound in film, as Muybridge gave way to Melies and the silent film era of the early 20th century, all of which struggled to sync manufactured sound to film. Theatres would use orchestras or even employees banging equipment to mimic sound alongside image. None of it came from the actual picture at first, movies often shot in locations filled with sound because only image was required.

Then along came Don Juan, with John Barrymore, adding sound to image and finally the first talkie, The Jazz Singer, more infamous now for a blacked up Al Jolson, but which for the first time had audiences hearing someone not just sing but talk on a motion picture screen. Making Waves takes that history and runs with it across the subsequent century.

GEMINI MAN: A 90’s sci-fi action thriller that fell through a time vortex

Somebody on Twitter suggested the tagline for Gemini Man should have been “where there’s a Will, there’s a Will” which not only made me laugh but also could aptly describe Ang Lee’s rather uncanny picture.

Gemini Man infamously resided in Hollywood’s so-called ‘development hell’ for two decades, with Darren Lemke’s idea snapped up by producer Jerry Bruckheimer as far back as 1997. It filtered through multiple directors over the years such as Curtis Hanson and Joe Carnahan, not to mention a galaxy of Hollywood megastars including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise, Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, even at one time, err, Chris O’Donnell. The list goes on. It even cycled through half a dozen writers – Billy Ray, Andrew Niccol, Brian Helgeland. Gemini Man, in other words, has been through the wringer across twenty years in which mainstream cinema has significantly changed, not being made principally because studios didn’t believe the technology to duplicate a younger version of their headline star was quite there.

Fast forward to the late 2010’s, a world of VR headsets, advanced home computer devices and CG technology which can paint a picture like Avengers: Endgame, in which a legion of superheroes go to war against a super-villain and his space army. If ever there was a time to make Gemini Man, it was now, yet who two decades ago would have imagined Ang Lee—principally a darling of thoughtful character-driven deconstruction—as the director to develop such a high concept as international assassin Will Smith doing battle with his younger, cloned self, all part of an insidious conspiracy within the Defence Intelligence Agency to develop the next generation of soldier hardware. This might have ended up in the hands of a Tony Scott or Roger Spottiswoode had it been made earlier.

The answer lies in the fact Gemini Man, for all it’s action thriller trappings, secretly wants to be a philosophical family drama. It just spends much of the running time trying to convince you otherwise.

EL CAMINO: Breaking Bad’s non-essential yet fitting coda

While billed as a Breaking Bad movie, El Camino falls between two stools. With a two hour running time and a solo Netflix slot, along with an element of theatrical release, Vince Gilligan’s film technically fits the bill of a motion picture but, ultimately, El Camino never misses a step in how it syncs up with its parent show.

Gilligan reputedly had the idea of how to continue the story of Jesse Pinkman, Aaron Paul’s hapless dropout turned meth-cooking, streetwise junkie, while shooting the final season of Breaking Bad back in 2013. He kept it under wraps until they approached the 10th anniversary of the series before electing to push ahead and make it happen, alongside production of still-airing prequel series Better Call Saul. Gilligan has consistently now played in his Breaking Bad universe for over a decade and while Better Call Saul is yet to reach an end point, El Camino very much draws a line under the post-Season 5 future of Breaking Bad. This is the coda you never imagined you needed.

Or perhaps you may have thought along the same lines as Gilligan, who always wanted to know what happened to Jesse after he escaped Neo-Nazi captivity thanks to his old mentor Walter White in series finale Felina, screaming away in torment at the wheel of the titular Camino to an uncertain, open-ended future. Walt’s fate had long been sealed as Breaking Bad’s complicated anti-hero protagonist but Jesse, often, served as the vulnerable, manipulated humanity at the heart of the series. To have him escape horrendous suffering and deep psychological trauma and not find out what became of him does, in retrospect, feel like a lost opportunity. El Camino very much takes advantage of that.

As a result, Gilligan gives us closure, maybe as much for himself as Jesse Pinkman.