Battle at Big Rock (2019) Review

Watch this as soon as you can…

You have no reason not to watch Battle at Big Rock: it is only eight minutes long and free online. This short film is a satisfying pay-off to the exciting cliff-hanger of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. It imagines how something as normal as a camping trip, a perfectly normal way to spend the summer, can no longer be the same again now the woods are inhabited by dinosaurs (following their release into the wild at the end of the second film). Yet, this film is also more original than most franchise films b taking the form of a short film. It is not necessarily a big risk on Universal’s part, but it is nice to see fresh ideas being brought to the table. Despite not having the usual running time, this film packs in a lot of interesting ideas, character growth and fully-realised, glorious CGI mayhem. 

Of course the cliff-hanger at the end of Fallen Kingdom would lead to a lot of CGI chaos and thrilling action. The CGI is a roaring success. The dinosaurs look as great and as real as ever, which is impressive considering the considerably smaller budget offered to Trevorrow. The action is as thrilling as a sequence from a big budget action film. Trevorrow also makes the superb choice to direct most of the dinosaur vs. dinosaur action through a window, as a family watch in horror. This excellent choice of perspective and camera angles makes a relatively small scale fight between two or three dinosaurs feel like a “battle”. For this family, the stakes could not be higher. The same goes for us. The film may be short, but it offers a lot of excitement, and serves as an exciting follow up to the end of the last film.

Yet, it works as a thriller that can stand alone in its own right. Battle at Big Rock stars Andre Holland, Natalie Martinez, Melody Hurd and Pierson Salvador as a newly introduced blended family. Quickly, they sell the family dynamic. You can that they care about each other, but you can also see the tensions resulting from this “blending” of two families.  They are likeable and our sympathies align with them immediately. Even though we only met them two minutes ago, you do not want them to be eaten by dinosaurs. Further, you really believe their bravery in the face of adversity. This is helped by the use of the triceratops family, which serve as a clever parallel to the human one. The parent triceratops fight the T-Rex first. Their teamwork and fiery defence of their children hint towards Dennis (Andre Holland) and Mariana’s (Natalie Martinez’) own desire to fight later in the film. In only eight minutes, you really get to know the family dynamic, and you are utterly convinced that the parents love their children enough to die defending them.

This is not necessary though, for Kadasha (Melody Hurd) saves the day with a crossbow. Battle at Big Rock proves a tightly structured film, for Kadasha’s actions is not a deus ex machina used to quickly resolve the plot in eight  minutes. It is established earlier that Kadasha has used it before, for Dennis and Mariana get angry at her for it. Kadasha’s use of the crossbow then serves as a moment of education for her parents: they can be proud of her skill and trust her to be mature enough to use such a dangerous weapon. (Well, they should be able to trust her with a crossbow after she saved their lives with it.) For such a short film to be successful, tight structuring is a must. This film provides that.

All good short films must feel like satisfying films in their own right. They must include character development, rising and falling action, and align the audience with the characters. In many ways, it is much harder to do these things without a two hour running time. Yet, Battle at Big Rock succeeds. A worthy follow up to the last film, a promising appetiser for the next one, and a standalone film in its own right, Trevorrow’s short film offers likeable characters, succinct character development and exciting action galore.

Hustlers (2019) Review

Watch this as soon as you can…

Hearing Jennifer Lopez is starring a film has never been a signpost for cinematic quality. Perhaps that will change after the release of her new film, Hustlers, for which she also has a production credit. It is perfectly paced and the editing is impeccably timed, which, along with memorable performances, brings a well-written screenplay to life.

The editing is superb and the pacing is expertly controlled. This film has the swift whistle stop tour journey through corruption, crime and corruption you would expect from a Scorsese movie. Sometimes the cuts come quick and fast, depicting money exchanges and bank transactions. Sometimes the cuts are much longer, with shots tracking the main characters as they stride through their corrupt worlds. Hustlers oscillates between fast and slow effortlessly and it always feels organic. The pacing is masterful. Are we sure Scorsese was not involved?

The dialogue is also Scorsese-level good. It is sharp, scathing and insightful. Immensely quotable too. Some highlights include “this whole country is a strip club” and “hurt people hurt people”. Lorene Scafaria’s screenplay really has something to say and it compels you to listen. Telling the story of a group of strippers who begin amassing huge amounts of wealth by drugging stock traders and CEOS who visit their club, the screenplay and dialogue really capture the moral ambiguities of this true story. Yes, they are stealing, but the people they are stealing from are hardly saints: “they stole from everybody” and caused the 2008 Financial Crash, yet “not one went to jail”,  Jennifer Lopez’ Ramona. The film never fully endorses the stripper’s behaviour as Robin Hood like either, with Constance Wu’s Destiny claiming she should “still feel sorry” for those she has stolen from. It is a morally complex situation in which nobody is one hundred per cent right nor one hundred per cent wrong, and the screenplay is more than up to the task of capturing these ambiguities.

A film is more than just a screenplay, though, and Hustlers would not be such a grand success without such impressive performances. Jennifer Lopez oozes with experience, wisdom and confidence in her performance as Ramona. This is the best performance she has ever given as she portrays Ramona as a convincingly powerful leader. Constance Wu does a wonderful job as the foil to Ramona, Destiny. Pure and innocent, and less world weary, Destiny is everything Ramona is not. The two make for an excellent pairing. Even cameo performances from Cardi B and Lizzo surprise and dazzle, and live up to the high calibre of acting from the rest of the cast. The performances really bring an already brilliant screenplay to life.

If you enjoyed The Wolf of Wall Street, then you will enjoy this film. Everything from the world-weary but surgical dialogue, to the skilfully controlled pacing to a surprisingly outstanding cast suggests that this is a Scorsese film. It is not, by the way. Lorene Scarfaria wrote and directed it. Scarfaria really has something to say with this movie and it deserves to be heard.

Tall Girl (2019) Review

Do not watch this…

Another Netflix original that does not deserve the time of day. Its bones and muscles are made of cliches and easy to predict plot points, making this a teen comedy that does not stand out, particularly in comparison to hits such as Booksmart, which takes the genre forward. The characters are not likeable, and its politics is troubling, and very far behind the times. If Booksmart was two steps forward, Tall Girl is four step back.

This film’s politics is incredibly hard to stomach. Early in the film, Jodi (Ava Michelle) narrates that “you think your life is hard? I’m a high school junior wearing size 13 Nikes. Men’s size 13 Nikes. Beat that.” Yes, being above average height can be isolating and make you stand out in negative ways. Seriously though? Is this as tough as it gets in life? What an ignorant statement. LGBT and African-Americans clearly have it a lot worse in America. Jodi’s friend is even an African American young girl. The film could have taken the opportunity to put Jodi’s insecurities and sense of victimisation into perspective, and to criticise her privileges as a white, affluent woman. It does not. Tall people are not actively discriminated against and do not suffer violence at the hands of other groups. Perhaps this could be forgiven, and portrayed as the immature view of a young girl. The film does not do this. Outrageously, Tall Girl suggests that being tall is somehow as bad as it gets.

You cannot even defend this film by arguing that the lead is likeable. Ava Michelle offers a stiff performance. Jodi only seems to have one facial expression. Further, her character is portrayed as a hypocrite, and this is never counted on. Jodi hates being unable to get the boys, and feeling alienated, as a result of her height. Yet, she judges a guy her age for the equivalent issue: being short. If the film challenged her hypocrisy, and perhaps tried to link height to how we stereotype both genders, then it might have had something meaningful to say. It does not. Her hypocrisy makes her hard to sympathise with.

This film’s one goal is to raise awareness about height discrimination and it fails. only decides to go out with this guy her age after Stig, the one she chases throughout the film, turns out to be a jerk. The short guy is only good enough as a last resort. (This revelation that Stig does not actually care about Jodi is hardly a surprising twist that audiences will not see coming.) Of course, women should be able to choose who attracts them, and who does not. She should not just go with the short guy because he is the only one interested- this is insulting to her. The fact she waits until she has no other options is also an insult to him. This film sets its sights on tackling height discrimination, but wastes its opportunity by portraying being a “tall girl” as the only legitimate form of height discrimination

Its politics are behind the times, but so is the generic make up of the film. There are more cliches than jokes that do not land. Slow motion and bright lighting is used to introduce the protagonist’s love interest. Lead character is so obsessed with one guy that she cannot see the one who truly loves her right under nose. Slow motion pan shot of the bully/antagonist as they walk past. Homecoming is the big event coming up. Seen this all before? Get ready to see it all again.

If only this film was released earlier in the year, before Booksmart. It might feel a lot less dated. Filled with cliches and a politics of victimisation from decades ago, this film does not work in the current cultural and political climate. The lack of likeable characters or strong performances does not help. Skip this film. Do yourself a favour.

The Souvenir (2019) Review

Wait until you can stream it…

Going to art galleries is not for everyone. They are quiet and require a lot of attention and a lot of patience. Joanna Hogg’s latest film, The Souvenir, is (aptly) named after a painting. One cannot help but liken it to the experience of walking through an art gallery. If you have the patience, there is a lot to enjoy, namely the performances and the skilled cinematography.

Ultimately, The Souvenir’s pacing will decide whether you enjoy this film or not. It does not move as quickly as the snap of a camera taking a photograph; rather, it goes as slowly as someone getting their portrait painted. There is no score. Do not expect the memorable theme accompanying Downton Abbey, another British film, released this month, about the upper class. (Although, there are some well-chosen songs in The Souvenir’s  eclectic soundtrack, which ranges from classical music to songs by The Pretenders.) Many of the takes are long and static. Tom Burke’s performance is defined as much by his two words per minute vocal delivery as well as the character’s supercilious nature. This is a film for the patient. If you want a hectic, exciting movie, this is not for you. If you are patient, then there is a lot to enjoy.

The cinematography is meticulous and carefully thought out. Every shot feels carefully chosen so that the film is constantly suggesting ideas to its audience, even when very little is happening on screen. A few examples, from early in the film, depict Julie and Anthony being constantly separated by barriers, whether that be a bed, or a wall. There is always something separating them, as if to suggest that their relationship will struggle to gel together properly.

All of the shots in this film are taken at a distance. There are shots from behind so that we can only see the characters’ backs, shots of their reflections, and shots taken from far away and at an incline. This suggests the privileged bubble these characters occupy. Julie lives in a world completely alien and far-removed from the world she wants to make a film about. Knightsbridge, London is on the opposite end of the class scale from Sunderland. This disconnect between artist and subject is reflected in the considered cinematography.

Honor Swinton Byrne gives a subtle performance as Julie. She is soft and shy. Delicate. She captures her character’s vulnerability and quiet but grand ambition perfectly. This contrasts heavily with the parasitic, arrogant and unlikeable Anthony. Tom Burke does a brilliant job of presenting Anthony as a sinister, toxic inverse of the “Hugh Grant” type. The sharp contrast makes Julie more relatable and likeable. Yes, she is incredibly privileged, but at least she did not turn out like Anthony. Further, their toxic relationship is a struggle which most audiences can relate. Swinton Byrne’s understated and convincing performance rewards the audience for their patience.

This is the portrait of an artist, a filmmaker. It is rather fitting that the film’s title comes from a portrait, then. At times, the film itself feels like a portrait. Honor Swinton Byrne provides a convincing performance, realistically captured by well-crafted direction and cinematography. If you are patient enough, the complete picture is worth the wait.

It: Chapter Two (2019) Review

Watch this as soon as you can…

The first It is overrated. Funnily enough, It: Chapter Two seems like will suffer from the opposite problem, going by the critical consensus. Of course, this film has its flaws. The second act and its over use of the flashback are great hindrances slowing this movie down so that it is nearly three hours in length. Yet, the film still feels like an improvement. The threat is greater and the cast is better. This is underrated second part that gives you more reason to love the franchise as a whole.

The premise of the second part is great, but exploited. The second film is about the Losers’ Club remembering their past. It is a quest narrative, but they are uncovering artefacts from their past. Dealing with their repressed childhood trauma and horrifying memories, according to Mike, is key to defeat Pennywise permanently. Interesting take on the quest narrative. Instead of horcruxes, the group are hunting for memories. However, this premise is also the film’s main downfall. Such a set up requires flashbacks, but Muschietti includes too many that are too long and not always relevant enough. Yes, some of the flashbacks are integral to character development, but many of them feel like they have been done for the sake of nostalgia. Do we really need to see the child version of the Losers’ Club re-enter their old den? We already know the setting’s significance to them. This film is nearly three hours, which is not a problem in itself, but it feels like most of this runtime is dedicated to reusing scenes from the first film, or flashbacks. This film could have done with a more ruthless editor, or Muschietti should not be so reliant on nostalgia. The first It milked society’s fond remembrance for the 1980s, whilst the second one milks nostalgia for the first It. The third act of this film feels like a complete re-tread of the third act from the original too. It: Chapter Two keeps going back almost as a constant reminder that this is the second half of that really popular horror movie from 2017.

Further, the use of the flashback technique is overused. There are other ways to engage with the past using cinematic techniques: a look from an actor, or a piece of music from the past. We do not need an entirely new scene every time a character remembers something. The fact every character has to undergo this process of finding an artefact and remembering their childhood self makes for a really repetitive second act. It plays out like a series of vignettes about each character rather than a cohesive narrative. There are exceptions. Will engages with the past not through flashback, but through a child who reminds him of his dead brother. He becomes obsessed with saving this child because he thinks it will make up for failing to save his brother right at the beginning of the first chapter. This is one of the most interesting parts of the second act by virtue of breaking from the formula of flashback followed by flashback followed by flashback.

However, this film is a huge improvement on the original because Pennywise feels like a much greater threat this time. The second It depicts more death in its opening act than the first It does throughout its entire movie. Perhaps Muschietti should have re-structured the source material so that some of these deaths were in the first one instead. There is a twist towards the end which fits with the theme about failing to grasp with the past properly, whilst also demonstrating Pennywise cannot be killed so easily this time around. Further, the monsters he turns into this time around show off some great character design and impressively rendered CGI. One of the highlights is the granny monster that attacks Beverly. The eyes. The throat in the mouth. Bravo to the designers behind this messed up creature. The stakes are much higher in this film, and that makes it much more gripping.

The second chapter of this adaptation also benefits highly from being about the adult versions of the Losers’ Club. The first one was about children, and it would need a dark, twisted and bold director to depict multiple child deaths, which is likely why Pennywise does not kill many people in the first one. Muschietti is not that director. Killing adults is something Muschietti is a lot more comfortable with, allowing this film to have greater stakes. Further, the fact the characters are adults now allows for a stellar cast. The casting director has done a fantastic job. This chapter boasts performances from the likes of Bill Hader, Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy. All of actors have impeccable timing, balancing the humour they find together as a group and their outright terror in response to Pennywise. Also, they are all utterly convincing as their characters. They look and act like the child actors from the first film, making it seem like Muschietti actually waited 27 years to film this second part with the same actors. Of course, he did not. The casting director found a remarkable cast to make up for that, though.

This film is a huge improvement on the first movie. A rare sequel that surpasses the original. Whilst the premise of characters remembering the past, and the use of flashbacks, are overused it is almost excessive, It: Chapter Two improves upon the original film by giving us a more threatening Pennywise and a star-studded ensemble cast to make up for it. It is ironic. For a film about the past, and a film where the past is used to exploit our nostalgia for the first part, its best moments come when it finally moves onto the present.

Retrospective Reviews: It (2017)

Wait until you can stream it…

It: Chapter Two is released today. There are a lot of people who are excited about the release of this movie. Who knows why. Its predecessor does have its moments, but it is ultimately overrated. Andy Muschietti is back for the second instalment, so we are likely in for more of the same: a film reliant on character chemistry and ineffective at scaring. If you want an impressive horror movie, go watch Get Out or Hereditary.

The Losers’ Club is the biggest draw in this 2017 horror film. The young cast are as impressive and likeable as the cast of Stranger Things (in particular Lieberher, Lillis, and Wolfhard). You cannot help but relate to them, and the film’s greatest moments come from their attempts to safely manoeuvre through their teenage years, and various forms of abuse. It is refreshing to see so many child actors capable of carrying a movie without an adult lead (even Stranger Things has two adult leads). For older viewers, the backdrop of the 1980s summer, golden in hue, will also provide a lot of nostalgia. These characters are why the second part is still on the watchlist for this blog.

However, unlike Stranger Things, these kids are not up against a particularly frightening antagonist. Pennywise, the villainous child-murdering clown, looks nothing like the actor playing him, Bill Skarsgård. The only thing Skarsgård can really bring to the performance, due to how Pennywise looks being so heavily influenced by makeup and CGI, is his voice. His voice is not sinister nor scary. It is too faint and unimpressive. In his defence, the smile is creepy. He has found the perfect smile to unnerve even the bravest of viewers. The excessive use of CGI proves a hindrance, though. Pennywise is constantly morphing into uninspired and not particularly frightening monstrous shapes. The creepiest thing about him, the smile, is perpetually lost in a landfill of CGI nonsense. Nothing is left to the imagination. Sometimes what is implied is scarier and more subtle than anything that can be depicted visually. The scene where the younger brother is eaten at the  start would have been more effective if done off screen. A few screams and bloody tears paired with a close up of someone looking on in pure horror can go along way- and it is  cheaper too. This film allows for no such subtlety.  If you want scary, unsettling visuals and gore, go see Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark instead. Further, Pennywise’s run is  ridiculous. No wonder Reddit made it a meme. Pennywise is not an effective antagonist.

This is not helped by the uneven tone of the film. Wolfhard’s Richie is constantly making jokes and starting banter with the other characters. Are they not supposed to be fearing for their lives? Maybe not. The fact only one child dies at the hands of this child-murdering clown (he had one job and he blew it) further undermines the supposedly eerie and terrifying tone of the film. The climactic showdown between the Losers’ Club and Pennywise is extremely uplifting and inspiring as the characters face their fears and excommunicate Pennywise from their neighbourhood, without any casualties, no less. In isolation and without context, this scene is great and evokes a sense of pride in the strength of these kids. Yet, this film is setting up a sequel, the Chapter Two that was released today. How are we expected to take Pennywise seriously as a threat to a group of adults if a group of kids were able to beat him with ease? Unless the filmmakers are able to account for this, Pennywise will not be a threatening villain in the sequel either.

It: Chapter Two is still on the watchlist. It will be reviewed when the opportunity to see it arises. However, excitement to see this second instalment is low. It will be nice to meet with the Losers’ Club again, but Andy Muschietti needs to have worked out how to actually scare people if the second film is to be a success.

Retrospective Reviews: L.A. Confidential (1997)

Watch this as soon as you can…

L.A. Confidential has a curious place in the film canon. It is considered a masterpiece and a highlight of 90s cinema, but it still feels underrated and overshadowed. The 90s is easily one of cinema’s greatest decades, with many of the best films of all time coming out in one ten year period. It is easy to see why this one might be overshadowed when it came between movies such as Pulp Fiction and Fight Club. Time to give this classic the attention it deserves.

You have to applaud the filmmakers’ work with regards to adaptation. The film is an adaptation of the third of James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet. This novel is a long one with too many plotlines to fit into 120 minutes of film. A television series would be needed to include every plot line. The novel is also truly cruel and horrifying in places, such as Dr Frankenstein. Whilst Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson may get away with including these elements in an adaptation today, it would have been a much tougher sell in 1997. So, for fans of the original novel, this may seem like an over-simplification of Ellroy’s work. Its inevitable hollywoodisation. Yet, L.A. Confidential is dark and complex in its own right. The screenplay is effectively recreates the corrupt world of 1950s L.A., with all the sex, drugs, death and bribery you would expect. Further, this film is a difficult watch that demands constant attention. A lot is going on, and if you are not watching carefully, you will end up behind the three main characters as they investigate the multiple homicide incident at Night Owl diner. A re-watch is a must to truly process all the information and detail in this film. As Hollywood adaptations go, this film manages to preserve its source material’s complexity and rich sinfulness and darkness.

The film also messes with your expectations in some fantastic plot twists. The film’s disregard for cliche is best summarised in a humorous scene where Danny DeVito’s cocky and to-the-point narrator speculates on whether some minor characters will play a key role in the plot or not, only for them to be gunned down in the same scene. To paraphrase the narrator, he says “I suppose not”. This dark comic humour can be found throughout, but this scene also demonstrates the film’s relationship with cliche plotlines. Do not go into this film expecting anything. Characters who survive in the novel die in this film. The film poster leads you to believe Kevin Spacey is playing the lead protagonist, for he is the one dominating and in the fore. Not true. Spacey’s character is gunned down just over halfway through. It is a shame, for Spacey’s timing in this film is impeccable as he walks a fine line between moral and immoral, between condemnable and amusing. He is easily the best of the three leads, but Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe also deliver fine performances. Spacey’s shocking exit from the film makes for a well-timed and sudden jolt in the plot, though.  The twists and turns of this film are unexpected and shocking, but they feel like a natural part of the film’s unravelling plotline. The best kind of twist.

This film is more than a skeleton; its well-crafted plot serves as a foundation for excellent work from other contributors. Whilst the score may not be as good as the one in the background of Chinatown by Roman Polanski, Jerry Goldsmith’s score perfectly captures the feel of the noir genre, with all the glamour and darkness you would expect. The work of production designer Jeannine Claudia Oppewall also helps to create the mood and atmosphere of the era- this is some truly stunning and sublime production work. The cinematography of Dante Spinotti makes sure it can be fully appreciated, along with the gritty underbelly of the criminal world. There is an authenticity to this film. The 1950s L.A. depicted here feels real.

You will likely see this film on many “greatest films” lists, but never right at the top. Pulp Fiction is probably the best 90s film. Chinatown is probably the best neo-noir. As a result, you may have never given L.A. Confidential a chance. With excellent performances, a complex and intricate plot, and an dazzlingly authentic recreation of 1950s L.A., you need to rectify that.

Retrospective Reviews: The King of Comedy (1983)

Watch this as soon as you can…

Joker has just had its premier in Venice, and critics are loving it. Many have compared it to a Scorsese masterpiece starring Robert De Niro (there are too many films that fit this description). The King of Comedy. It is a 1982 satirical black comedy that is often unfairly overshadowed by Scorsese’s other, much more famous work. To compare any film positively to The King of Comedy is high praise indeed.

Despite its title, this film is, rather ironically, not the funniest film you will ever see. Some of the jokes land. Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), who has been kidnapped by stan Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), is being forced to read off cue cards at gunpoint, in order to force the television network producers into letting Pupkin on the air. Some of them are upside down, and some of them are blank. This is mildly amusing, and you cannot help but chuckle at the error. Ironically, this film is at its funniest when Pupkin’s set is played in full for the viewer. After struggling to get work, you would expect it to be truly awful. It is some pretty solid stand up that is surprisingly funny. He is constantly restricted by a studio system refusing to give him a chance. Perhaps if they did, this entire situation could have been avoided. Other than isolated instances, however, this film is not laugh out loud funny.

It is much more of a satire, and a biting one at that; in its sights is how television has changed our sense of reality. Television creates situations where Pupkin, an extremely isolated individual, has managed to delude himself into thinking Jerry Langford, a comedy star, is his friend. Pupkin has a warped view of human relationships and cannot get the very clear hints that he is unwanted and not respected in the slightest. For Pupkin, the television is his reality. This is reflected by the impressive use of different filmmaking styles and editing. Scorsese often cuts to scenes “from the television”, filmed in the style of 70s chat shows, and edits them so that they are mixed with Pupkin’s fantasies and daydreams, which are then mixed with scenes taking place in our reality. By the end, you do not know what to believe. Does Pupkin’s stunt really earn him a film and book deal, or is it all in his head? You genuinely cannot tell, and that is the point.

Further, television has also created a corrosive culture of fame. Pupkin is convinced that he can only define himself as successful, and that all his problems will go away, once he becomes a star. Langford is an effective foil in the sense that he proves this is not the case. Langford is deeply unhappy with the constant harassment from crazy fans, and spends the final act of the film “tied up” and unable to do the job that put him in this situation. Minor characters and side plots are used effectively in this film to suggest Pupkin is not an isolated case. In a blink and you miss it moment, someone who looks exactly like Pupkin briefly walks up to Langford in the street. Pupkin is tailing Langford at this point, and does not recognise himself. This is a subtle moment of pure brilliance which only a Scorsese film can provide. Another fan, this time an older lady, walks up to Langford to shower him in praise, only to wish he dies when she does not get her own way. Of course, Pupkin is the most extreme case, for he ends up kidnapping Langford, but this film makes it clear it is a wider societal problem. This film is aiming a mirror at the culture of fame and celebrity worship, and it is lucid reflection. You will not like what you see.

This film is incredibly, and rewardingly, subtle in its satire. One of the greatest shots in the film opens with Pupkin in the centre, his back to us. He is facing a wall sized photograph of a studio audience. It looks like he is really standing in front of them at the beginning. The camera pulls backwards to reveal this is just a photograph on a wall, and that Pupkin is at the end of a long corridor, which creates the effect of boxing, framing, him in his own illusions. It suggests that Pupkin is trapped in his own delusions, or perhaps trapped inside the false reality of a television “box”. It is a subtle way to make a satirical point using only cinematography. Another example of subtlety comes much later in the film. Jerry, with a gun pointed at his head, is forced to call the producers of his show. He cannot get through to them because they believe it is a hoax call. Not only is this funny, but it goes to show how many deluded fans must call that office on a day to day basis, to the extent that the real Langford cannot get through. It is another subtle instance of reality and fantasy blurring. The satire is not obvious, and rewards the most attentive.

This film may not be a laugh out loud comedy, but it is a dark, fascinating, and very satirical look at our culture. The satire is subtle, and the points are made using clever techniques. (What else can one expect from a Scorsese film?) If Joker is even half as good as this underrated classic from Martin Scorsese, then we are in for something special.

Transit (2019) Review

Wait until you can stream it…

Christian Petzold has created a film with a lot to say, even if it does feel very quiet and muted. Transit, a German-French language thriller, requires patience. If you have that, then this is a thought provoking film with considered political commentary on the current state of the refugee crisis in Europe.

The most notable aspect about this film is the lack of a score. Music is used sparingly, and there is an eerie silence running throughout. This makes for some really effective and impactful juxtapositions. When music is used, it means something. When Georg (Franz Rogowski) fixes the radio and organ music starts playing, after many scenes of near silence, we share in his glee. The leitmotif of gentle piano music, which only seems to play when Marie (Paula Beer) appears, serves to make her stand out, and suggest her importance to Georg. One really chilling scene in the hotel, involving the heart-breaking screams as a refugee family as they are separated by the police, would not be as impactful and notable if the rest of the film were not so eerily quiet. Sound and music are used effectively and sparingly in Petzold’s work. However, this does have a negative impact on the viewing experience, for it slows the pace of the film down. This film uses quite long takes anyway, but it is the music that really slows everything down. Given the title, it is ironic that this film is filled with a sense of inertia and a sense that time is standing still. Music often heightens the tension and rev up the thrills. The lack of it in this movie will test your patience as everything appears to move so slowly. Filled with long takes and a lack of a score, this is a film for the most patient.

This clearly aligns with Franz Rogowski’s performance. Rogowski is just as muted as the score. He portrays Georg as tired and exhausted. There is a lack of energy to his character, and he appears worn out. Given the premise of the film- Georg is fleeing Paris for a different country, and takes on the identity of a dead writer called Weidel to do it- you would think there would be a sense of urgency and nail biting fear of being caught. His performance creates the opposite effect, but is nevertheless highly suggestive. It is open to interpretation: is he weary and giving up? Does he feel isolated from himself, now that he is officially someone else? Does he feel powerless in the face of a suited bureaucracy who will decide his fate? Rogowski’s performance is muted, but it is no less effective for what Petzold is trying to do.

The latter interpretation about bureaucracy is the most plausible reading, for this film is oozing with political commentary. This film was adapted from a 1940s novel by Anna Seghers, which is about an escapee from a Nazi concentration camp trying to flee France. Dressing this old novel with a modern setting, filled with cars and suits, immediately suggests parallels between then and now. Georg’s main conflicts in this film come from interviews with bureaucrats attempting to catch him out. This is all too real for refugees today. The plight of refugees, and their struggle caused by constant suspicion and a sense of dislocation, appears to be as much of a problem now as it was back then. The sense of inertia proves even more significant then, for it highlights how refugees are constantly left waiting for approval, and left in stasis at the borders between countries. Why Georg is fleeing is also given a contemporary update. The fact the Nazis are never mentioned by name allows for the suggestion that fascism has not gone away. Naming the fascism underlying this film would place it in the 1940s; by refusing to name it, Petzold suggests fascism also comes with the update to the present day. Unfortunately, it is not stuck in the 1940s past. This film may be adapted from a book from the 1940s, but it has the present day political landscape within its crosshairs.

Sometimes this movie may have long periods of silence and a growing sense of inertia. Even in this absence, however, Transit has much to say. The political commentary in this film is thoughtful and everything about this film contributes to its message. Yes, this may try and frustrate one’s patience at times, but it ultimately proves a rewarding experience.

Retrospective Reviews: Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Watch this as soon as you can…

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (T2) is surely one of the greatest sequels of all time. Everything great about the original is plugged into an amplifier and made even better. The special effects are more cutting-edge than before, and still hold up nearly thirty years later. Its storyline has a much wider scope. Yet, the depth of exploration of its very human characters gets deeper. This film is a science-fiction landmark and should be watched as soon as you can.

At the time, this was one of the most expensive movies ever made, and you can really tell by the visuals. The budget of the first movie was multiplied by twelve to around $100 million dollars. This allows for an even more menacing Terminator than the original, the T-1000 (Patrick), created from liquid metal. Somehow, this villain feels even more unstoppable. The incredible and unbearably tense score helps, but this is mainly due to the astonishing special effects that still hold up nearly thirty years later. This menacing machine feels less tangible and more slithery- how can you stop a machine you can barely hurt? The action sequences, involving motorbike jumps and helicopter crashes on the highway, feel like they are really happening too. Cameron is known for state of the art visual effects, and this film is another splendid showcase of his talents. This is a film with a wider scope: the action sequences are more explosive, the locations range further across America, and the stakes have never been higher. Fortunately, the visual effects are able to keep up.

Cameron’s sequel would not be as memorable if it did not improve on the story of the original. It may initially seem like a rerun of , for, akin to the first movie, two naked humanoids are sent back in time to battle for the fate of John Connor, the future leader of the resistance in the war against the machines. One has been sent to protect him. One has been sent to end his life before he can grow to become the leader he eventually becomes. The opening premise is the same, but there is a shock twist this time: the T-800 model terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is the one protecting Connor. The scene revealing this twist is a magnificent and satisfying payoff for a growing tension as both Terminators spend the opening act looking for John Connor. Who will find John Connor first? And who has been sent to kill him? The casting of Schwarzenegger, who played the villainous terminator last time, and the smaller, less threatening Patrick, dressed as a cop, serves as a smart red herring. The original did not have such a memorable twist so early on. Already, this sequel’s narrative is shaping up to be an improvement.

Following this twist comes the film’s greatest addition to the formula of the original film: the father-son dynamic between John Connor (Edward Furlong) and the T-800. Before, John was not even conceived in the womb; Sarah Connor (Hamilton) was the one in need of protection from the rugged but handsome Kyle. This set up leads into a cliche and predictable romance, even if well-written. To include a father-son dynamic between machine and human was a genius idea. It proves to be the emotional core of the film. It is unique and abnormal, yet touch and utterly convincing. Both characters learn from each other, and you can really feel the growing love between them. It is gentle, tender and moving. It is not just randomly added, for it has significance in relation to Cameron’s original sci-fi film. The substitute “father” looks exactly the same as the robot who killed the real father, and tried to kill the mother. Sarah has a much more difficult time trusting and believing the integrity of the T-800, which allows for fascinating character conflict. By the end, this is reconciled, but it is too late. Just as the parent child dynamic is finally in harmony, it is snatched away. The ending likely left many men blaming hay-fever for the water in their eye, but it is the perfect ending to this father-son relationship. It really is the film’s greatest asset, serving as its emotional core, allowing for interesting conflicts, and setting up a superb, tear-jerking ending.

Despite a wider scope for action and visuals, the focus on character has been enhanced. This film builds upon the original whilst also introducing new dynamics and relationships. The villain may be a thrilling and exciting threat that keeps you hooked throughout, but it is the core relationship between father and son that separates this science-fiction film from the myriad of others released before and after. The word “masterpiece” is often overused, so used sparingly on this blog. Surely a film as visually stunning and moving as T2 deserves such a label.

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