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A few reviews

TM2YC

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^ I actually felt much more moved by and engaged with the realistic depiction of the Tanuki.  The way they were drawn silently observing the humans was so beautiful and sad.  It was easier to project my emotions on them when they didn't speak. The other two styles were too silly to elicit sympathy.  If the goal was to raise environmental issues, then I think going with that realistic and/or harrowing 'Watership Down' route would've been more effective.

<hr style="border: 1px solid white;" />

Nice to see Netflix releasing a couple of b&w 35mm films recently...

Malcolm & Marie (2021)
Respect to director/writer/producer Sam Levinson for quickly putting this drama together during strict lockdown conditions and on stunning black & white 35mm.  John David Washington and Zendaya play the only two characters, a film director and his partner, arriving back from a premiere and having a 2-hour argument that rolls back and forth between them like waves.  Zendaya's performance is powerful and subtle but I remain unconvinced that Washington can act.  He can't even eat a bowl of mac & cheese in a convincing way but he gets better (or stops trying too hard) as the film goes on and as their characters become worn down.  The script might be a bit overwritten too.  It raises subjects like "the male gaze" and racial bias within the film industry but I wasn't sure if the script was self-aware, or not.  For example, Washington's director character was raging against a white film critic attributing every positive and negative thing in his movie to his blackness, while simultaneously attributing every positive and negative thing in her review to her whiteness.  Plus Zendaya is constantly shot from behind, including slowly stripping down, spends most of the movie in see-through underwear and one of the first shots of her is with her pants down on the toilet but the Levinson's camera is relatively uninterested in showing Washington's male body in a similar way.  There was one line that seemed to acknowledge/highlight that hypocrisy but I'm not sure?  'Malcolm & Marie' is captivating, thought-provoking and technically impressive but not perfect.


The 40-Year-Old Version (2020)
Radha Blank writes, directs, produces, composes the music/lyrics and stars in this beautifully honest semi-autobiographical film about a frustrated playwright on the edge of 40, trying to break into hip-hop, while teaching, trying to get her latest play produced and not dealing with her mother's death.  Radha handles the drama and self-deprecating comedy so well and she really knows how and when to deploy an expert 4th-wall break, plus she has a talent for sharp rhymes.  Peter Kim is wonderful and totally believable as her ever dependable best friend.  Oswin Benjamin's performance as a music producer who Radha teams up with is fascinating, low key to the point that the slightest movement speaks volumes.  I suppose I'd liken the film's bittersweet quality to Taika Waititi's films but more grounded.  The 35mm black & white cinematography looks gorgeous but like a documentary at the same time.  Stick around for the end credits for more laughs.

 

mnkykungfu

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TM2YC said:
^ I actually felt much more moved by and engaged with the realistic depiction of the Tanuki.  The way they were drawn silently observing the humans was so beautiful and sad.  It was easier to project my emotions on them when they didn't speak. The other two styles were too silly to elicit sympathy.  If the goal was to raise environmental issues, then I think going with that realistic and/or harrowing 'Watership Down' route would've been more effective.

I'm totally with you and love Watership Down, but we weren't the target audience for that film. The Japanese people I've spoken to remember that film for two things: the yokai parade (which is like a who's who of Japanese spirits) and the cute racoon-dog characters doing human things. I hadn't heard or seen anything about the realistic-bits before watching and was totally shocked when watching. Even when you go to the Ghibli museum, all the film cels, the merch, the posters, etc, all neglect that aspect. I don't think it was ever an option in a country that emphasizes cuteness to the degree that even your local post office will have a plushy mascot. Just different sensibilities.
Malcolm & Marie (2021)
I've seen/heard many of your thoughts echoed in every review of this. Consensus seems to be that it raises a lot of smart issues, but doesn't deal with them in a particularly satisfactory or cohesive way. And everyone keeps mentioning Zendaya's "outfit" but I haven't heard anyone mention the age difference. It's "only" 12 years, but 36 vs 24 seems like a particularly significant time to have a 12 year difference within a couple, and I don't get how that's not even a thing? Like, they treat it as if they're in somewhat equal life stages... I mean, having dated many younger women, I have little room to criticize, but it just seems like it should be a major factor in things? Not least of all because Zendaya looks so young, and typically plays teenagers and underage girls. The visual difference is striking to me, like, not quite as bad as The Professional, but... it's like an elephant in the room.
 

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Nomadland. I really like this director’s previous movie, The Rider, and this was highly touted so I was anxious to see it. I knew only of the director and that Frances McDormand starred. I knew nothing of the plot. It opens with the closure of a gypsum mine. This is personal to me, because as a young Environmental Studies major in Colorado in the early 90s, I did my senior thesis on a gypsum mining closure in Kremmling, Colorado. Suffice to say, the results for that town were very different than the results endured by Fern, our main character (McDormand). Director Zhao has been accused of wearing her influences on her sleeve. I thought she established her own voice here though there’s still a definite echo of Malick. Not necessarily a bad thing. There’s a strong theme of living life; having experiences rather than just surviving. All the while these characters seem sad. The movie does an excellent job—especially with McDormand’s performance as Fern—of portraying those that live this lifestyle as unclear how much is necessity and how much is choice. I suspect it’s both. I’ve lived the van life myself, though I always knew it was temporary. There is a freedom in it. All in all, in a strange year for movies, I think this is worthy of the praise. McDormand should be a shoe in for at least a nomination. The film itself should get a nom as well, though I’m not sure it would in a normal year. Still, highly recommended.
 

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Rocky IV (1985)
'Rocky IV' finds director/writer Sylvester Stallone finally holding nothing back, no attempt at subtlety, pitting Rocky not as a small-time contender but as America's towering lone champion against Soviet aggression.  He's playing with potent political imagery from both countries, stars and stripes, hammers and sickles and posing Apollo's fallen body in Rocky's arms as the body of Jesus taken down from the cross.  Rocky going off to do cross-fit in the snow with no boxing equipment or sparring partners is nonsensical but it's supposed to be symbolic of his gritty sportsmanship, as opposed to the Soviet's "soulless" scientific training methods.  This time there are so many montages it approaches self-parody and what the f**k were they thinking with the robot butler!   Vince DiCola's synth soundtrack is decent enough but you feel cheated when Bill Conti's well established themes are mostly absent (the only Rocky film he didn't score).  Dolph Lundgren has little dialogue but manages to make a threatening presence anyway with his stern facial expressions.  I didn't expect the James Brown cameo.  This might be the silliest film in the 'Rocky' franchise but again it's undeniably fun.


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Rocky V (1990)
'Rocky V' definitely has the reputation for being by far the worst one but I thought it was a partial return to form.  Director John G. Avildsen is back for the first time (Sylvester Stallone still writes) and you can see the difference in the way Rocky is portrayed.  He's once again the same verbose, slow-witted every-man.  I don't know if this was simply Avildsen's input, or just Stallone being freed up to concentrate only on his performance and writing of his character.  The plot quickly engineers an excuse for Rocky to lose his fortune and end back up where he started, to "find himself" again.  It's done a little too literally at times, same streets, same house, same jobs and same clothes.  Stallone's real life 14-year old son Sage plays Rocky's son and does a fine job.  The film goes wrong when it shows Rocky continuously ignoring his son, in favour of a personal ego trip to train up hot new fighter Tommy.  I could see it working with a different script but as presented, you're not given enough explanation for why the kind, humble, family man would behave like that.  The film cheats by avoiding having other characters telling him he's behaving badly by just using shots of them looking disapproving cut into a montages.  Bill Conti thankfully returns to score the movie but with a new hip-hop flavour.  Richard Gant is clearly supposed to be like boxing promoter Don King but I couldn't shake the thought that he was much more like Jackie Chiles from 'Seinfeld'.  The father and son walk up to the Philadelphia Museum of Art ending is beautifully poetic.  'Rocky V' has flaws but it gets more right, than it gets wrong.  Plus if this movie hadn't reset the Rocky character back to his roots, we wouldn't have got the excellent 'Creed' sequels (or the well reviewed 'Rocky Balboa').

 

mnkykungfu

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TM2YC said:
Rocky IV (1985)
what the f**k were they thinking with the robot butler!

Bwa ha ha...this movie is so gloriously '80s, I love it! Yes, it is the silliest, most over-the-top one... and some people's favorite for the reason. You nailed it.
TM2YC said:
Rocky V (1990)
I thought it was a partial return to form
I'm so glad you see all the positives in this. The negatives have been documented quite thoroughly and so I won't dwell on them, but you're absolutely right that this is a necessary and welcome course-correct from Rocky IV. I mean, where are you going to go from Rocky single-handedly winning the Cold War? This film returns him to his roots and his character and makes him choose between his family and "some stuff in the basement I' still gotta work out". I love how insightful it was about the boxing industry as a whole too, something the films hadn't really gone into much before, about the manipulation of boxers and their careers. I still highly recommend Last Survivor's "80's Remix" of this, which tightens up many of the issues you noted as negatives, as well as fixing some continuity problems and dumping the hip hop soundtrack that many people thought was incongruous.

You've got Rocky Balboa up next, which is my 3rd favorite in the series (after I and II)! It does that rare thing for sequels, which is to actually improve the film that preceded it by continuing the themes and adding depth. It somewhat pays off the seeds planted here with his son; hope you enjoy it.
 

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mnkykungfu said:
TM2YC said:
Rocky V (1990)

I still highly recommend Last Survivor's "80's Remix" of this, which tightens up many of the issues you noted as negatives, as well as fixing some continuity problems and dumping the hip hop soundtrack that many people thought was incongruous.

I liked the score but then I came at having already watched the two Creed films which also blend Conti's themes with hip-hop beats. So it fitted right in for me.
mnkykungfu said:
You've got Rocky Balboa up next, which is my 3rd favorite in the series (after I and II)! It does that rare thing for sequels, which is to actually improve the film that preceded it by continuing the themes and adding depth. It somewhat pays off the seeds planted here with his son; hope you enjoy it.

Hmmmm, yes and no...

Rocky Balboa (2006)
I've seen a lot of opinions saying this was possibly the best of the sequels but it was a mixed bag for me. That it's the only Rocky/Creed film out of 9 (counting the forth-coming 'Creed III') without a 5-letter name title followed by Roman-numerals is mildly irritating for a start.  More importantly it's not got that classic realistic film look of the first 5, it's got a heavily processed digital look and lots of unnecessary handheld camera work. The final fight is a bit lacklustre and is obviously filmed on a green-screen at a time when CG compositing was clearly not up to the task. Some of the subplots and supporting characters get short shrift (Rocky's son, Mason Dixon and Steps) like some of their scenes were cut. With all that said, Sylvester Stallone writes, directs and acts the Rocky character with the compassionate authority of an alter ego he's grown old with. I'd have happily spent the whole film with Rocky wondering around his old neighbourhood chatting to people, hanging out at his restaurant and observing him mumbling to Adrian's grave. Rocky's mourning of his beloved feels totally authentic and it's great to see that 'Creed' faithfully carried on this storyline.


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I've watched 'Creed' a few times but I hadn't written a review before, so I watched it again as it was included on Amazon Prime with all the other 'Rocky' films...

Creed (2015)
I really liked 'Creed' when it came out, even though I'd not seen the previous five Rocky sequels. The cultural omnipresence of the franchise was enough to understand most of what it was referencing. It plays even stronger when I've just watched those earlier films. Director/writer Ryan Coogler is careful to respect what went before and pickup where Sylvester Stallone's 'Rocky Balboa' left his character 9-years before, stylistically, tonally and emotionally. New composer Ludwig Göransson also masterfully uses Bill Conti's themes to full effect. He doesn't replace them in favour of his own music but he doesn't overplay them either, it's just right. Coogler and Cinematographer Maryse Alberti's camerawork has a classic 1970s feel, smooth camera moves, long takes and unfussy editing. Rocky slowly and arduously walking up the steps at the end is just as powerful as when he ran up them as a younger man in the first movie. I hadn't recognised the extra significance of the scene where Rocky is wistfully looking at a photo of his son before. It's a picture of Stallone's own son Sage (from 'Rocky V') who sadly died 3-years before 'Creed' was filmed. I think 'Creed' is the one film in the franchise that truly equals the first.


Watching them all together it feels like Rocky I-IV is one story (the rise) and Rocky V-Creed II is another (the fall and rise again).  As @"mnkykungfu" says, Rocky V plays better in context of the films after it, like it and 'Rocky Balboa' are Creed prequels.

Including my old reviews of 'Rocky' and 'Creed II' that's the whole franchise watched and rewatched.  Here's my ranked Letterboxd list:

https://letterboxd.com/tm2yc/list/rocky-creed-ranked/
 

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TM2YC said:
Watching them all together it feels like Rocky I-IV is one story (the rise) and Rocky V-Creed II is another (the fall and rise again).  As @"mnkykungfu" says, Rocky V plays better in context of the films after it, like it and 'Rocky Balboa' are Creed prequels.

Including my old reviews of 'Rocky' and 'Creed II' that's the whole franchise watched and rewatched.  Here's my ranked Letterboxd list:

https://letterboxd.com/tm2yc/list/rocky-creed-ranked/

Weird, but the Rocky franchise is next on my list to watch next week (just for fun; I won't be reviewing them). I may have seen a couple in passing, but I don't recall them that well if I did.
 

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Hamilton (2020)
Sometimes people hype something so much that you feel forced into watching it, just so you'll know what they're all banging on about but yeah, 'Hamilton' is as good (and better) as everybody says it is... or was, because this is a Disney+ recording of the original cast back in 2016. The movie itself is a fairly perfunctory stage recording, with little done to make it feel filmic but that's okay. 'Mindhunter's Jonathan Groff is hilarious as the mad King George III. Christopher Jackson is very impressive as George Washington and I loved the way Daveed Diggs plays Thomas Jefferson like he was Prince. The real star is of course writer Lin-Manuel Miranda in the title role, creating deliriously intricate lyrics and revolutionary hip-hop inspired vocal rhythms. He delivers the most exciting and entertaining lecture on US politics and history you're ever likely to hear. I had the subtitles switched on throughout, so I didn't miss anything.


Emma. (2020)
I was really looking forward to this newest adaptation of Jane Austen's novel but it didn't quite deliver on the promise. As first-time director Autumn de Wilde is a photographer, it should be no surprise that every frame looks exquisitely composed, arranged and lit. No doubt aided by Christopher Blauvelt, cinematographer of such beautiful looking films as 'Meek's Cutoff' and 'Mid90s'. The cast is a total delight, particularly Johnny Flynn and Miranda Hart. Despite those charms it feels frothy and somewhat shallow at first, not helped by the constant grating whimsy of Isobel Waller-Bridge and David Schweitzer's "comedy" score. The second half does eventually deliver some strong emotions and a winning resolution. It's fine.


I Care a Lot (2020)
Rosamund Pike
plays a con-artist who has a scam where by she makes herself the legal state "guardian" of a rich elderly victim, puts them in a home and then sells their property and spends their money. Apparently this kind of scam has been done, there is a New Yorker article about it and a 2018 documentary 'The Guardians' but for an incredulous scheme like this one, 'I Care a Lot' needed to present more answers and exposition on how it's done, or more importantly how it isn't easily stopped. Unfortunately this lack of story-telling rigour plagues more than the initial setup, as the situation gets out of control you keep thinking "why doesn't the character simply do this? and why didn't a character do that?". The amount of plot holes, contrivances and unanswered and avoided questions drags the film down by the end. However, if you can stop yourself thinking about them, this is almost a Hitchcock-ian "cat and mouse" thriller. I was physicaly on the edge of my seat at times. The confrontation between Pike's con-artist and Chris Messina's slick mob lawyer is one of the most tension-packed scenes all year.

 

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Rambo aka John Rambo (2008)
I watched the 9-minute extended cut of 'Rambo' 2008, renamed 'John Rambo' on-screen, a title which has better symmetry with Sylvester Stallone's 2006 'Rocky Balboa'. This attempt to revive one of his two iconic characters later in life is less successful. The supporting characters are irritatingly dumb and one dimensional. The absurd levels of splatter gore are fun but the end is a masssive anti-climactic. After doing some action-hero style rapid shooting and sudden arrow attacks earlier in the film, for the final battle Rambo simply sits in a gun emplacment mowing hundreds of henchmen down like grass. Then has the main baddie literally run into his waiting knife, to avoid having to do anything cool or exciting. However, co-writer Stallone still has a handle on what makes his protagonist tick, giving himself minimal dialogue, which is maybe why everyone else talks too much. Overall it's a modestly diverting action flick.


Tokyo-Ga (1985)
Wim Wenders
takes us on a trip to Tokyo to see if the vision of the city he knows from the films of Yasujiro Ozu is still recognisable 20-years after the director's death. It's a very different travelogue approach to discussing the work of a film-maker. Wenders is unseen but he discusses his feelings for what he recorded and what he thinks about Ozu. He tracks down impossibly modest actor Chishu Ryu (who was in 15 Ozu classics) and cameraman/cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta, eliciting heartfelt recollections from both. Atsuta shows Wenders Ozu's very cool specially made clockwork stopwatch, which measures time in seconds and in 35mm/16mm film-stock used! Most of the documentary is focused on observing the people of Tokyo and their activities. A vast golf stadium, a Pachinko parlour, Harajuko dandies twisting in the park and a fascinating day in a wax food workshop. The doc concludes by simply replaying the end of Ozu's 'Tokyo Story', which somehow wraps up the themes of Wenders's film too.


 

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My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999)
Possibly one of my least favourite Studio Ghibli films. Isao Takahata puts a series of short newspaper comic-strips to film, without really adapting it to the new medium (although I'm not familiar with the Hisaichi Ishii source). There is no plot, just countless lightly humerous vignettes about the titluar family. There are running gags that develop and themes about family tension and acceptance which emerge slowly. In lieu of an actual ending, the family do a sing-along of 'Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)' which sum up the themes at least. The material could make a nice series of short animated sitcom episodes but nearly 2-hours straight tested my patience. Plus I disliked the animation style, it's supposed to be naive and like the quickly drawn comics, or you could call it "deliberately bad".




The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)
I didn't care for the rough sketch style employed in Isao Takahata's previous film 'My Neighbors the Yamadas' but for his last film 'The Tale of the Princess Kaguya', he combines the simplicity of that style with a graceful beauty akin to the flashbacks from 'Only Yesterday'. The harsh digital lines of MNtY are replaced by delicate charcoal marks and beautiful water colour backgrounds. I could almost smell the charcoal (which can be made from bamboo), reminding me of times I've used it as a drawing material. It's based on an old fairytale 'The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter' about a man who finds a baby girl inside a stalk of Bamboo and raises her as a princess. A magical story of the 'Snow White' and 'Rapunzel' variety. I was totally entranced by every second of the movie, probably even better than 'Grave of the Fireflies'.

 

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The Vast of Night (2019)
The ingenious Sci-Fi film 'The Vast of Night' was self-financed, produced, written, edited and directed by Andrew Patterson (aka James Montague aka Junius Tully). So here's hoping he's going to be the new auteur king of no-budget genre film-making like George A. Romero, or John Carpenter (who also liked pseudonyms). The plot is kept simple and so is the location, a small town, one night and two main characters. While the rest of the town watch their high school basketball game, switchboard operator Fay and disc jockey Everett become increasingly fascinated by mysterious sounds on the radio waves and odd ocurances related by callers to Everett's station. They're like a brief adhoc 1950s teenage Mulder and Scully. The verity of film-making techniques is dazzling, there are huge one-take Steadicam-style sequences (actually a go-kart) sweeping from one location in the town to another but also scenes that play out in one close-up shot, or sequences with no close-ups, or others that are rapidly edited. There is a fetishism for all the 1950s tech, the switch board plugs, the reel-to-reel tape recorders and the old-fashioned headsets. There is some fun dialogue where Fay is telling Everett about stuff she's read in science magazines describing "far fetched" future technology like TVs small enough that you can carry them in your pocket, that are also phones! There are references to the works of Orson Welles, who I'm a big fan of and other 1950s Sci-Fi films/TV. The one thing I really disliked was the colour grade, there are no blacks, just grey and upwards, for a film set entirely a night. It looks really awful and I don't think it's a setting on my TV, or a bad Amazon stream because other reviews have commented on it. I hope this gets a blu-ray release one day, so I can meddle with the grade to my satisfaction.






Saint Frances (2020)
Kelly O'Sullivan
(who also wrote the film) stars as directionless 34-year old Bridget who professes her dislike of kids but simultaneously contemplates an abortion and getting a job nannying for a difficult 6-year old. 'Saint Frances' takes a big swerve round every negative cliche and character expectation which this premise could put in it's way. O'Sullivan's script/performance and Alex Thompson's direction deal with the weighty issues and dead-pan comedy with equal precision. There were moments like Bridget saying "Ever?" to a friend, a nurse asking her "You wanna know if it's twins?" and her finding a self-help book called 'Resting Rich Face', which made me laugh so much I almost had to pause the movie. Full enjoyment might depend on your particular political persuasion but this was 100% my jam, expressing things I hope and believe with intelligence and wit. One of the funniest and most fearless films of the year. I confess I'd never heard of Kelly O'Sullivan before but hopefully she's got more scripts in her brain like this very personal masterpiece.

NSFW trailer:


A fascinating interview:

 

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Les Misérables (2019)
2019's 'Les Misérables' (sharing the title, locations and some trace DNA with the 1862 novel) is a heart-pounding crime thriller. It mostly follows three cops patrolling a racially and culturally diverse Paris suburb in the wake of the symbolically unifying 2018 French World Cup victory. For one of the cops, it's his first day and he's shocked by the other twos aggressiveness towards the population but is hesitant to speak up. A search for a lost circus lion cub gets complicated when one of the three cops is filmed injuring a kid, leading to a hunt through the various crime factions and religious groups of the city. It feels like a tough fly-on-the-wall documentary but always looks like a beautifully shot film experience. It's based on director/writer Ladj Ly's own 2017 short film of the same name, with a lot of the same cast. I look forward to seeing the next film from Ladj Ly because this first one is a terrific thriller.


Les Misérables (2017)
It's surprising how many of the same plot elements are squeezed into this 15-minute short, as in the 100-minute 2019 remake. Understandably it doesn't have the same level of drama, character depth, or complexity and is also a little more cynical and bleak. Some scenes are line-for-line, shot-for-shot, so much so that you could probaby recut the feature back into the short film.




The Whistlers (2019)
Romanian crime caper 'The Whistlers' is so deadly dead-pan that I wasn't even sure it was supposed to be a comedy until the bit where the film location scout turns up. The premise about a cop learning a whistling language is inherently absurd (although played straight) and the shuffled non-linear structure and chapter titles are quite Tarantino. Like with QT's films, Director Corneliu Porumboiu includes playful homages to film genres such as the Western and Film-Noir.

 
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X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019)
This was on a streaming service at no extra cost so I thought I might as well see out the final film in Fox's wobbly X-Men series. It's not terrible but it's not good either. There are some fundamentally flawed decisions: reworking the formerly noble Professor Xavier as alcoholic and incompetent, hinging the emotional centre of the film on the death of a character being played by somebody who clearly doesn't give a f**k any more and putting an increasing amount of the narrative weight onto Sophie Turner. She's not a bad actress but she can't carry a film with this much drama. The dialogue by writer/director/producer Simon Kinberg is so basic, stating what everybody is thinking in the most literal and cliched way. Some of the cast really try to make it live though. Michael Fassbender should have got some kind of award for the amount of attitude and humour he visibly strained to put in to the line "we've had our differences" in a scene where they discuss their differences. Nicholas Hoult is still trying his best and there is something charming and endearing about the way Kodi Smit-McPhee plays Nightcrawler (with few scenes and lines), which makes me kinda wish he had his own movie. The bit where Xavier is forcefully made to walk out of his wheelchair was genuinely disturbing, Magneto gets to do some cool stuff and the final train battle was well executed, with all the X-Men getting to use their unique powers. 'Dark Phoenix' is far from the worst of the X-Men films but it's a flat note to go out on.




Boys State (2020)
This AppleTV+ documentary follows a Texas "Boys State" summer program where hundreds of 16-18 year olds split into two arbitrary parties, run for office and elect a mock government. The elements of the real US political system play out. Following and pandering to the perceived beliefs of the electorate (even if you secretly hold opposite views) is shown to work but thankfully leading the electorate and declaring your true principles can work too. Negative and misleading social media campaigning is shown to be easy and powerful but positivity can be a strong strategy too. Several of the kids comment on the strong Republican lean of the selected Texas kids but most of the real US electorate lean Democratic (since 2004), so the doc might have been even more instructive if they'd filmed in a state/program that was reflective of that national trend. I'm also curious to see how one of the companion "Girls State" programs would play out. Program members like René Otero and Steven Garza are impressive young men and I wouldn't be a bit surprised if they ended up in public office for real in future.

 

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Judy and Punch (2019)
An Australian reimagining of the tropes of a traditional 'Punch and Judy' show by Director Mirrah Foulkes. The setting is a sort of Shakespearean superstition-ridden English town, where the titular puppeteers ply their trade. Punch's alcoholism, vanity and abusive violence lead to his wife Judy seeking revenge. It's got a very Terry Gilliam vibe e.g. lots of weirdness, visual imagination, macabre humour and some stuff that doesn't totally work. Having a main character in an Elizabethan period piece quote the most famous line from Ridley Scott's 2000 film 'Gladiator' was a very odd choice but an amusing one.




I'm No Longer Here (2020)
The 2020 Mexican entry for the Oscars employs a dual-linear structure to show the life of Ulises, a Monterrey slum kid before and after he is exiled to New York, following escalating extreme gang violence. In Mexico he's the leader of a fairly harmless, strikingly flamboyant, street gang family who share a unique style of their own and listen to "Cumbia rebajada" (A form of Latin music super-slowed down so it sounds kinda like dub). In America he's nobody, without anyone who understands the music he adores, the way he dresses, without his country, his friends and his language. I was totally captivated by the film until the last section, when it meanders around, leaps forward in time and ends vaguely. Even so, it's a wonderful window into a culture and music I'd never heard of.


A "Cumbia rebajada" track:

 

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Timeshift - Battle for the Himalayas: The Fight to Film Everest (2015)
A fascinating 60-minute BBC documentary reviewing the various attempts to climb Mount Everest (and surrounding peaks) and the difficulties of filming it using the camera technologies of the time. The archive footage is amazing beginning with the 1924 expedition and covering the role of film in national propaganda, such as Nazi attempts on the Himalayan summits and the effect that the decline of the British Empire had on their attempts at climbing Everest. It's just a shame that it was cropped down to 16:9 when presumably all of the archive footage was shot 4:3, although in HD it still looks very good.


Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché (2021)
Celeste Bell
co-writes and co-directs this very personal portrait of her mother Marianne aka Poly Styrene, frontwoman of Punk band X-Ray Spex. Sometimes when there is a music doc and it's not really about the music it can be frustrating but not here. Celeste's film is a beautifully dreamlike and melancholy exploration of Styrene's creativity, spiritual searching and mental health problems, plus it's how Celeste has struggled to come to terms with her mother's death and legacy.


No Manifesto: A Film About Manic Street Preachers (2015)

In theory the story of Welsh band Manic Street Preachers should be the most exciting thing ever but this documentary is a bit dour. It seems to be mostly constructed of snatched interviews with them between recording sessions, or after gigs when they look exhausted and/or cheesed off. Maybe it was finding them at an awkward spot in their lives just after coming back from their poorly recieved 7th album (which I actually love) and a solo-projects career break (which I also rated). There is still some storming performance footage to enjoy.

 

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The Vast of Night (2019)
I keep forgetting what the title of this movie was, so thanks for the reminder. I really loved this movie, I need to rewatch it sometime. I don't recall the colors being a problem, but I've also come to realize that there's a lot of bad color grades that people talk about that I don't mind. Would still be interested in seeing what you're able to do with the colors, if it does end up getting a bluray release. Also I'm just now realizing that this review is from a week ago, I don't know how I missed it before.
Judy and Punch (2019)
Hadn't heard of this one, but it sounds very interesting, I'm definitely going to have to check it out.
 

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Oldboy (2013)
I'd heard Spike Lee's remake of 'Oldboy' was really terrible, so my expectations going in were low enough that I found it adequate. An efficient exploitation film, not much more. Josh Brolin's grim and shattered lead performance is worthy of a better film. The great Michael Imperioli is chronically underused, Elizabeth Olsen is as bland as usual and Samuel L. Jackson is surprisingly unmemorable but Sharlto Copley is absolutely terrible. Truly bizarre mannerisms and accent. Lee's approach to the controversial elements of the story are shot as sleazy as possible and have an unpleasant sexist edge. Apparently the studio gutted the movie, slashing 36-minutes from Lee and Brolin's preferred cut, which explains the underdevelopment of the relationships and actors like Rami Malek appearing for just enough seconds for you to think "Wait, was that Rami Malek?".




The Dissident (2020)
Bryan Fogel's
follow up to his acclaimed documentary 'Icarus' is about the brutal murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul. Almost everybody already assumed it was on the orders of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman but Fogel assembles an overwhelming weight of evidence, including transcripts of Jamal being murdered, police footage of the crime scene investigation and CCTV of the hit squad (of close advisors, friends and bodyguards to the Crown Prince) arriving and then disposing of the evidence. The film also looks into the willingness of other nations to pretend there was any doubt, so they could keep doing business with the Saudi regime, it asks terrifying questions about cyber warfare and explores the attempts of other Saudi journalists to get their voices heard (and stay alive). The latter distracted a bit from the main narrative. I listened to an interview with Fogel on BBC radio the other day, where he expressed regret that his film ends with the image of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos (the richest man in the world and victim of a well publicised Saudi cyber attack personally carried out by the Crown Prince) seeming to defiantly stand 100% behind Khashoggi's fiancee but who has subsequently declined to put 'The Dissident' on Amazon Prime, just before investing in Saudi Arabia (Netflix didn't want to touch it either). Hopefully an Oscar, or a Bafta award will make it less easy to ignore.


 

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Friedkin Uncut (2018)
Being 85 and not having made a feature-film in 10-years, this retrospective documentary might be William Friedkin's last testament, if so, he's going out spitting some fire. Director Francesco Zippel mostly captures him at home holding forth on his career, film-making ethos and opinions on the rest of the industry, fueled by mugs of "Rich hot steaming delicious flavour-full black coffee". There are also clips from his movies and interviews with collaborators and super fans. Friedkin outwardly appears to be a mild mannered, small-c conservative old gentlemen, in high-wasted beige slacks, with a calm monotone voice. The flurry of f-bombs and tales of him having stunt cars driven the wrong way into traffic for real, printing couterfeit money for real, going on patrol with homicide cops and cuffing murderors for real, or taking his trousers off while directing nude scenes to make the actors feel less awkward, convince you otherwise... the man is a maniac! He doesn't hold back on his views, when voicing his dislike of film festivals he says "I don't want a bunch of schmucks who call themselves judges, sitting in a f*cking room saying "Oh 'La Dolce Vita' is not as good as 'Batman v Superman'"?!? ....(long pause)....f*ck them and the horse they rode in on!". If you remember the hilarious clip of Friedkin being interviewed by Nicolas Winding Refn, then it's 100 more minutes of that kind of sass. If I had to criticise, I'd have liked the doc to talk with Friedkin about all his films (like in the superior Brian De Palma doc), failures included, not just a selection of his finest works. 'Friedkin Uncut' ends with him saying "F*CK THEM ALL!" with a big grin on his face, somebody off camera joking "Mic drop" and then smash-cutting to credits and Iggy Pop's cover of the 'The Wild One'. It leaves you wanting to go off and watch more of Frendkin's work.





Rampage (1987)
Once I knew that William Friedkin's little seen 'Rampage' was out of print and hard to come by, I got obsessed with finding a copy. I read there was one DVD released in Poland but I was aware there were two cuts and I didn't know which it was. Happily I did find VHS transfers of both cuts, an open-matte version of the first 1987 European cut and a widescreen copy of the 1992 US recut. Apparently the film got stuck in limbo when the American distributor went bankrupt and in the 5-year gap Friedkin decided to do some further editing for the US market.

Michael Biehn plays the prosecutor in a serial killer case (based on the real "Vampire of Sacramento"). He's a devout Christian, opposed to the death penalty but is tasked by the DA with securing a guilty verdict and avoiding an "innocent by reason of insanity" defence. There is a fine line between being ambiguous and being indecisive. 'Rampage' is closer to the latter, vaguely making some points but not really coming to any conclusions. The film looks like a TV movie, although the poor quality of the transfers probably don't do it any favours. I was looking forward to seeing Biehn in something other than 'Aliens' and 'The Terminator' and seeing another role for Deborah Van Valkenburgh (from 'The Warriors') but sadly neither give very memorable performances. Roy Applegate is the only highlight as the emotionally shattered grieving father. Even a score by the late maestro Ennio Morricone fails to make an impression. I think Friedkin himself was right when he said "this was among the lowest points in my career".

I choose to watch the first cut of the film. When factoring in PAL speed up, it's still about 5-minutes longer than the recut. From what I can gather by a rough comparison, the 1992 cut removes the opening credits in favour of a sudden start, alters the ending so the killer doesn't commit suicide and is found innocent by reason of insanity, removes one or two scenes showing Biehn and Van Valkenburgh's strained marriage and adds a new early scene of the killer buying the gun (easily) a fortnight before the murders. The different ending is inconclusive like the original one but in a different way. The new gun shop scene is more significant because it shows the killer had planned his crime for a specific date, calmly ordering the weapon ahead of the 2-week waiting period, so he'll have it on the chosen day.

 

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Room 666 (1982)
At the 1982 Cannes Film Festival, Director Wim Wenders invited several other Directors to sit alone in a hotel room with a TV on in the background and speak for the length of a single 16mm reel on the topic he'd written on a piece of paper, basically "Is cinema dead?". Each one approaches the subject differently, from Jean-Luc Godard's predictable negativity, to Steven Spielberg's optimism and Werner Herzog feeling the need to take his shoes off and use a cushion to improvise a fade to black. It's interesting to hear all these people speak on any subject but their thoughts seem completely irrelevant and disconnected four decades later, where the division between film and TV is blurred to the point of non-existence (in good and bad ways). The question itself is difficult to relate to when years like 1980, 1981 and 1982 produced some of the greatest films ever.




Superior Firepower: The Making of 'Aliens' (2003)
I've watched it before and I'll watch it again because this 3-hour documentary on the filming of 1986's 'Aliens' is very entertaining. It's directed by the Spielberg of DVD making-of bonus features, Charles de Lauzirika. The production was beset by troubles like forgetting to employ Sigourney Weaver until after the film was basically green-lit (so she got a big pay day!), an "ambitious" schedule, a tight budget, the clash of cultures between the rigidly unionised British crew and the improvisational American production team, a demanding director, sexism towards the producer, replacing one of the main actors mid way, a rebellion over firing the uncooperative DP and finally asking James Horner to start scoring an entire film 6-weeks from release when it wasn't even finished... but you go in knowing all these problems somehow resulted in perfection. It's kind of sad that James Cameron has become such a CGI/3D nut because 'Superior Firepower' paints a portrait of him as a total master of practical, in-camera FX magic tricks. There is no way any other director, before or since, could of made 'Aliens'. In the behind the scenes footage you can see his anger and frustration because people aren't instantly understanding what he wants, or saying something is impossible when he knows it's easy, or them doing anything that is not 100% like the way he would do it, if there was more than one of him to go around. He seems to have chilled out a lot since then, thank heavens.

 

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Field of Dreams (1989)
I knew this was a Baseball movie but since I don't know the first thing about the sport I wasn't rushing to see it. You actually don't need to know any of the rules, it's more of a magical fantasy about nostalgia, forgiveness and redemption. I enjoyed the matter-of-fact way it treated the fantastical premise. It's like 'It's a Wonderful Life' meets 'Quantum Leap'. Right from the start I thought the true meaning of "If you build it, he will come" was obvious, so I didn't realise it was supposed to be a last-act plot-twist for the audience, as well as a personal revelation for Kevin Costner's main character. The supporting cast is first-class including James Earl Jones, Ray Liotta and Burt Lancaster but Amy Madigan was my highlight as Costner's gutsy wife. The scene where she's raging against censorship of books was my favourite but it's got a fire that perhaps felt out of step with this otherwise warm and fuzzy movie. It's based on a book, so maybe it's a scene that was left over from a more firebrand version of the story? But it's a minor complaint to say a scene was too good. James Horner produces another beautiful score.

I was fascinated by the subtle dissolves through the waving cornfield because I can't understand how it was possible without CGI? You can't do a motion-control shot because all the corn will be in a different position every time regardless of having a consistent camera speed/position. They don't look like green screen FX composites. Could they have done it with back projection, then executed a perfect cross-fade into the same back projection plate in post production? Or did they just film it 50 times and find a shot that was close enough?

 
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