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Greener Grass (2019)
Think of this as absurdist and experimental, not satirical
Like most people, I went in with no preconceptions and of course wanting to be entertained. Within the first scene, I started sensing that, despite the garishly 50s production design, stilted dialogue and vapid forced jollity of the characters, this actually wasn't a satire, as such, of suburbia, or capitalism, or whatever. Satire is usually biting and this is not. When Jill simply gives Lisa her baby as though it is a new item of clothing, it feels like a joke gone too far for its setting, rather than what I believe is an early sign that this is 'Theatre of the Absurd' territory. That's a very difficult genre to pull off in film and even theatre audiences familiar with, say, Ionesco or Genet would need to have this genre framed very clearly at the start and giving away the baby does not really do that. Later, Jill's son jumps into a swimming pool and turns into a dog, which would have been a better way of achieving this, but it comes too late in the film to frame the story and orientate the audience correctly.
So, after the opening scene, we are in uncharted territory and a story we are expecting to make some kind of sense, instead meanders through a series of set-pieces, gags etc, that actually do not really seem to be intended to be either funny or serious. They all drag the pace and have the same tone, and soon the film truly slows time.
So, as per my title, the best way to enjoy this is not as something as easily recognisable as satire. Absurdism is incredibly difficult to do without confusing the audience and the most effective use of it I have seen is when elements of it are used in a basically naturalistic setting - I'm thinking Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch and Harold Pinter in theatre. Otherwise it is wildly ambitious and you need to have a genius director on top of their game to have a chance of success. If you have an avant garde taste, this might be for you, but my 3 rating is based on what the majority of people will think, at a guess.
Head Count (2018)
More like 'minutes till it's over' count
Good direction, good acting, but there was only enough story here for half an hour to 45 minutes. This must be why it is so slow and repetitive, almost every line is delivered after a long pause which is meant to convey some kind of simmering tension in the group? I guess? But it makes it just monotonous. And what tension there is is barely explored and revolves mainly around Evan hooking up with Max's ex. The fact that she is Max's ex is only revealed about 2/3s into the film - a long road to a very standard plot point, which has zero to do with the main plot anyway. Towards the beginning, as Evan and Zoe share an awkward hot tub, Evan asks her to fill him in on the "group dynamic." I was already screaming "None! There is no group dynamic!" They spend vast amounts of time drinking and doing drugs, but none of them ever seem drunk, on drugs or hungover. It's like the director tried to sanitise student behaviour in the weirdest way possible.
There is hardly any investment in the mythology behind "Hisji" - (not apparently, anything to do with local legend, but something Evan randomly gets off the internet) so there is no section where they try to reckon with it, figure out how to defeat it. This means all of the characters are totally passive - constantly reacting to whatever is thrown at them. I actually like the idea of the Hisji, but the script was woefully underdeveloped and in the end it was just a very long short film.
Just on the first episode. Technically bad writing. Waller-Bridge is so invested in what she imagines to be witty or juicy asides to the camera, it becomes clear that none of the characters or situations mean anything to Fleabag. The stakes are therefore as low as they can be, so what happens to her just isn't riveting. The situations themselves are contrived and serve only the one-liners, which crop up every 10 seconds, not the other way round. The narrative is so disjointed it is impossible to say what the first episode is actually about. For example, she steals an expensive statuette, but she must know that she will not get away with it, so - to what end? The sly look to camera at the end of the episode of course, but neither that, or much else, makes sense.
Fleabag comes across as smug and unbearable, convinced every one of her flaws is cool or adorable in some way and that every word she utters is a rare zinger. She's not a loveable rogue, she's a deeply unpleasant bore.
A lot of stale, hackneyed gags - "don't stop me leaving, no, don't," etc. Ugh.
She seems to feel a need to portray all her Male lovers as wimps, so again, there is nothing for her to contend with, sucking all of the dramatic tension out of everything. The most tense and therefore successful sequence is between her and her sister, which hints at a troubled back story. But it's the only one and, for example, it does not belong in the same comedy style as the guy she goes on a date with who would be better off in a League of Gentleman episode.
Another nail in the coffin for British comedy, no wonder BBC 3 was taken off air. Just awful.
The Handmaid's Tale (2017)
Incredibly shallow writing given how it pitches itself
These are just my thoughts on the first episode, because I'm pretty sure I won't bother with the rest of the series.
I'll get right to the point. It's clear that this series wants you to feel Offred's pain every step of the way. What gets in the way of this is the total lack of political context and therefore the believability of its created world. In an attempt to avoid the dreaded exposition dump, the writer explains - well - nothing. We just do a pole vault over the major causative factor of this 'dystopian future' - what happened to get us to this apparent coup? What was the clash of values? What were the early warning signs of political trouble? In a way that is eerily reminiscent of Lady Macbeth, nothing is adequately explained, just a long and tedious procession of people abusing the protagonist. As such it just hits the same or similar notes over and over again. Imagine a pianist only using three of the keys.
Therefore its difficult to feel anything for Offred, because the world as created just seems downright silly and so it neither draws us in, nor thrills us.
It also uses a confusing flash-forward structure - it starts with Offred on the run with her kid, which she then re-explains in the dystopian future in a way which is dramatically redundant. Signs like this indicate to me a sloppy approach from conception to execution.
And to think this is what replaced Homeland on C4...
Domestic Policy (2016)
More like propaganda than comedy
It's highly ironic that a comedy that purports to demonstrate the mindset of propaganda, seems, itself, to operate as modern feminist propaganda.
Therefore, this is not a comedy, not because it is not funny, but because comedy does not appear to really be its aim. It seems simply rooted in the more modern idea (more modern than 1919) that women's body insecurity is the result of a patriarchal desire to oppress them. Whatever my thoughts are on that particular theory, my main objection is that it is, at least in appearance, as I said, propaganda for this specific idea, hiding as comedy, and also apparently using the comedy genre to avoid questions around big holes, such as - in this 'top secret' meeting - who are these men discussing this?
As such the writing is as childish, biased and hollow as any party political broadcast. It's quite shocking to me that the BFI would fund stuff like this, I wish they would instead back more things such as Under The Shadow, which was exceptional.
Lady Macbeth (2016)
Nonsensical, vacuous and masturbatory
There is a scene where Katherine's new husband tells her to strip and face the wall while he masturbates to her form. This seems to be the perfect image to describe how the filmmakers approached this project.
As ever, no blame can be apportioned to the actors. Florence Pugh does indeed have a strong presence and the others are good also. Beautiful cinematography, direction and so on.
But the writer makes a series of badly thought-through and badly realised choices.
It starts with the way Alexander and his father, Boris treat Katherine with such mindless cruelty, but with no indication as to why - whether from their own history, or from the culture of the area or the period. It seems like a hastily constructed plot device to give an explanation for Katherine's later actions and so it proves.
It seems they do occasionally take a break from being bastards, in Alexander's case to attend to a colliery explosion. The father departs for reasons I can't remember, but it seems equally convenient and equally disconnected from anything that might resemble a believable world beyond Katherine's interior life. I say interior life - she simply sleeps during the day.
Then comes one of the most baffling scenes I've seen in a long time. She stumbles across her husband's employees in the commission of what must be a gang rape of the maid, one that is clearly intended to inflict considerable additional humiliation - they are in the process of weighing her naked, as though she were a 'sow'.
An instant connection sparks between her and the man who appears to be the instigator when she asks what she would weigh. He then picks her up mockingly in a fashion I find totally unbelievable, because for him to treat her like this in such a class-structured society would undoubtedly have had serious consequences for him.
This is then taken further when he enters her room later and what looks like an imminent rape, becomes sex. There is then simply a lot of sex - with no character development for either of them and no indication of how their relationship transforms them.
At this point, I could not believe it was only roughly half an hour into the film. It was clearly a drama, but there was no psychological complexity of any kind.
The father returns first and of course continues his berating of her - still no clue given as to why he is that harsh - a character seemingly tasked with only one thing to do over and over again. She starts to fight back, subtly at first, but this suddenly turns into his murder out of the blue. There's a big gap in her transition from abused daughter-in-law to murderer, but it's glossed over.
The husband then returns and reveals he knows all about her 'whoring'. Things don't end well for him as you can imagine and the lovers stage what looks like a robbery/murder out in the woods.
Again, out of the blue a woman appears, with a child she claims is Katherine's husband's illegitimate offspring. The child of course is murdered - but this time in the most laughably incompetent way.
None of this seems to attract much attention - remember, according to her husband news of her 'whoring' had reached him on the other side of the county - but then the death of his father, his own strange disappearance and the subsequent death of the illegitimate boy does not bring a lot more attention, not to mention legal heat, joining all three of those dots? Ridiculous.
It's rounded off with Katherine's lover trying to come clean. It backfires in that he is hauled away, but Katherine is able to talk her way of trouble. Jump cut to the cart taking him in shackles with the maid.
In the entire film there was a total lack of character development and simply implausible choice after implausible choice in a series of scenes that seemed not to last more than a minute, but with multiple beautiful, languid but self-indulgent shots.
The film presents itself as a stylish window into the raw passion of humanity but it is actually humanity it totally lacks, focused as it is around a character who is either a born or created monster - by the end we don't care which. Don't be suckered in by the trailer. This is not Wuthering Heights 2.0.
The Atlas of False Desires (2016)
High Concept, but clear message
This film puts forward an intriguing premise - what if the reigns of the awesome power of social media were handed over to people who want to do good?
The other question it begs is - what if the only way to stop the destruction of the planet were to use social media, rather than rational debate or intellectual/scientific investigation?
It is, in equal measure, an inspirational and depressing film. There is a kind of deliciously dark irony to social media being converted from the current Petri dish of fake news, anonymous trolling, pictures of food and perception manipulation to becoming an invisible force for good.
It is, ultimately, a film very relevant to now, and one that attempts - and in my view succeeds - in getting to the heart of the matter.
An impressive achievement.
I'm not a big sci-fi fan, but I love concept-led films.
The opening is simply a fascinating commentary on how we experience sound. It's simply mesmeric. What then proceeds is a plot that gradually coalesces around one woman's obsession with finding the 'prinzhorn frequency' - or the frequency of the human mind.
If this sounds quite dark, there is light relief, for example, in her part in a talented, but ultimately ill-judged techno band which forms part of her quest. All of the comedy is done well, though I wondered how much of it was necessary. What was fascinating, to me at least, was the concept itself, and this woman's obsession with it. I would love to see this as a full, if pared down, feature.
Truly outstanding, cast, writing, directing - and ultimately storytelling.
How to Be Human (2017)
Darker than expected
Going into this, I had heard a lot of commentary about the film's themes and around refugees. Regardless of how politically aware or empathetic on a given cause you are, most people in their heart of hearts would probably admit that films that highlight social plight are rarely done well, but are rarely criticised, because of their worthy intent.
I was therefore pleasantly surprised by the very clear dramatic juxtaposition of the title and the main story being about a girl being taught to appear - and even be - less human, (particularly when the protagonists make off with a family's car/home) in order to survive. It reminded me of Brecht, but without being didactic, or employing any kind of Verfremdung device.
If there is a message, it seemed to be that being 'too' human could get you killed. You look after you and yours, and if someone gets in your way, they are going down. Maybe this isn't what the writer intended, but to me this is a much more intelligent, somewhat subversive and more adult theme than the 'we all should be more empathetic' message I was expecting.
Some niggles - I was not keen on the Mad Max haircuts and it was frustrating not to know what had happened to create this post-apocalyptic world or get a fuller feeling around the sisters back story. But at heart there was a very clear theme, which I would be interested to see explored more fully as an intelligent sci-fi feature.
I was ready to hate this, but...
This seemed to be the kind of pretentious, heavily referencing, derivative, black and white rubbish that critics crave here in the U.K., within the first 30 mins. Particularly the drug dealer, who seemed largely played for laughs in this otherwise sombre film. His demise was ridiculous, yet predictable and put it at the Tarantino end of the spectrum.
Aware of the title, I thought it would simply be the 'girl' murdering various - entirely male - miscreants, with little story as context, just the offscreen politics, which would largely dictate whether you would enjoy this type of thing.
Things started to change, however, when Sheila Vand came on screen. She has an undeniable magnetic presence. Some people just have it. She reminded me of Mia Wasikowksa in Stoker, though was less well served by the writer. The trajectory then takes a refreshing turn towards the intimate connection between her and Arash, an unexpected love interest. It then reminded me of Let The Right One In and even had much of the same powerful sense of innocence - as a thing that is never entirely 'lost'.
Amirpour then deftly adds in a crucial complication for this new relationship, though she leaves it open whether this complication will be...fatal. She knows dramatic irony, especially by making Arash a peddler of the very thing that indirectly ends his Father's life.
Much of it is overlong, languid and too clearly resembles Jarmusch or French or Italian art-house. I wish she had gone the Lynchian route, really invested in the subconscious angle.
It's a memorable film though, if not a completely satisfying one, with a very strong central performance.
The Lost City of Z (2016)
Massive let down
It's a really good example of how a terrible script can completely destroy a movie. There are too many things which make no sense to list, but the key issues are:
For a film that seems so keen to virtue-signal about white ignorance and racism, it does nothing to explain to us Fawcett's theories about the people of Z. Who were they? How did their civilisation operate? Why did they disappear? Surely these explorers would have built up far more of a picture from the surrounding tribes, artefacts, and previous finds. There is a tiny smattering of these things, but in 2h21ms nowhere near enough to build up a mythology. Therefore it's difficult to see why this obsesses Fawcett. You literally get more detail from the quests in the Indiana Jones movies.
Instead it focuses relentlessly on the most tedious and dangerous aspects of the trips, their suffering, or switches back to London with almost every old man of course a stiff- upper-lip racist and sexist cliché. Imagine a more insidious General Melchett from Blackadder Goes Forth and you won't be far off.
There is an extremely cringey attempt to insert a modern feminist perspective. At one stage, Nina wants to go on the expedition. Her reasoning? She found an important document relating to it. This apparently makes her equal to Fawcett's many years of soldiering and survival skills. It's clumsy and anachronistic. The trip could very well kill them both and so would leave their children orphaned. Surely a more logical argument would be whether he has to go at all. He is, after all, a father, and has responsibilities at home.
The First World War section adds absolutely nothing and captures none of the horror of the battlefield. It's all just tally-ho chaps, almost Hallmark channel-like. Just awful.
Sienna Miller, Robert Pattinson and especially Charlie Hunnam wring what they can from such a sparsely-written script and should be commended for that, which is why this isn't a 1.
Don't be fooled by the title - it's not about a lost city or even a lost man. It's a lazy and pretentious destruction of what could have been a thrilling find.
Hidden Figures (2016)
Very heavy handed with its message, yet lacks weight
There is a subplot in the film where Katherine disappears for 40 minutes every day from her desk at NASA to use a bathroom in a different building, because in segregation-America, there are no facilities for her in her building. When this comes to light, her Boss finds that Katherine has also been forced to use a different coffee jug from her white colleagues. There is then a moment where he removes the label from Katherine's jug used to indicate her race and glares round at her ashamed coworkers. I thought 'at last - some subtlety and intelligence of dramatic touch. Everyone knows what he means removing the label and glaring at them - no more segregation in the building.' Unfortunately, the next scene, this same Boss smashes the segregationist sign off the women's toilets with a double-handed lump hammer. I feel this is an apt metaphor for how the film treats its message.
This is a common problem for films which have a message, whether its about racism or sexism embedded in every day interactions, or the blight of poverty or whatever - they often underestimate the awareness, compassion and intelligence of the audience. I'm reminded here in the UK of films such as Made In Dagenham or Suffragette.
Obviously, unless you suffered racial prejudice in a segregated country, you can never know what that was like. But then - how do you bring in as wide an audience as possible? A much better approach to this story would have been to focus on the theme. The theme here, surely, is overcoming daunting odds. Everyone, to differing degrees, can relate to it. So it's strange that I cannot remember any of the characters going through any truly dark moments of self-doubt, or doubt that a more equal society will come forth. For the most part of the film, it seems, a sassy remark and a cheeky smile is enough to turn round the main characters' fortunes in each and every scene - yet it must have been far harder for the real women this story is based on.
Levity vs Poignancy. It's a difficult balance for the writers, who do at least a good job of injecting humour throughout. Yet much of this humour seems artificial and Mr Melfi would have done better if he had trusted both the story and the audience much more.
Full marks, however, for discovering this piece of history. I am always intrigued by finds such as this. For example, I would love to see a biopic of Noor Inayat Khan. I hope when they do this, though, they really take more time over the script than is evident in Hidden Figures.
The power of the film builds
This film is a great example of how exceptional writing can rivet an audience.
It's based on a play, I understand. For anyone as unfamiliar as myself, the easiest way to describe it is as being very reminiscent of Death Of A Salesman. It follows in that long line of stories about Patriarchs crushed under the weight of their own psychological implosion, King Lear, the Old Testament's Nebuchadnezzar and so on.
The quality of the writing is such that, by focussing on the psychology of one man and his own life, and its impact on his family, it makes you think about your own life and certainly your relationship with your father. It's called Fences, I interpreted this as the psychological fences people erect to protect themselves, fences which tragically keep those closest to you out.
There was a little unevenness, the beginning seemed on the long side, but when the story steps up a gear, it seemed a little underdeveloped. But this is really a small issue. The writing pulls you in masterfully and exceptional actors work their magic with it. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis deliver master classes in power and nuance.
I'm surprised that the IMDb description has it as being concerned with race relations. As far as I could see it had little to do with it and was instead concerned with the emotional faultlines of a family in a totally universally relateable way.
Really worth it, go see it.
Les innocentes (2016)
A compelling story undermined by bad writing
I attended this as part of the BFI season. Festivals always give films extra love, I've noticed, and this is certainly a worthy story, about the fallout of war, in particular told through the story of the aftermath of mass rapes at a convent in Poland.
That this packs almost no emotional punch is down almost solely to the writing. In this genre, rounded characters who develop and use of moral dilemma are key and both were noticeably absent here. What we are left with is simply a historical reenactment.
Mathilde is the French Red Cross worker who comes to the aid of the nuns to help them give birth to the babies that are the product of the rapes. Her bind is to keep this - and therefore the nature of her aid to the nuns - secret. This is where I feel moral dilemma as a device could have been used more, because her work at the red cross is equally as important and humanitarian and this begins to suffer - but the writing never lets you in on the series of personal revelations Mathilde would have gone through toward the realisation that helping the nuns takes precedence for her. You therefore get no sense of a character arc and this is embodied by the curiously vacant performance of Lou de Lâage. However, its really the script which does not help her.
The nuns themselves are not really characters, but two different sets of qualities. The older ones are stoic and taciturn and the younger ones are justifiably innocent and scared. You never get to understand who they are and there is a strange lack of religious context. There is the questioning of faith and God's will, of course. But the world of the Bible, its characters and lessons are their whole universe. How do they view what happened to them? Through the prism of Mary Magdalene? Through Jesus? Through the Book of Job? Their philophising seems to come from an authorial, rather than a character, voice. For a film which evokes this world much more clearly, I really recommend Doubt.
There is some very sloppy direction. Early on Mathilde is told off during an operation because of a lack of attentiveness. The doctor yanks down his mask to speak to her. How come he can do this? Is the mask not necessary after all? Why wear it in the first place? Failures of detail here really take me out of a scene.
The acting is generally very good and there is some beautiful cinematography. But the writing is lazy and in places so is the direction. For me, this was a missed opportunity to tell a compelling story.
Under the Shadow (2016)
Restores your faith in film
Congratulations to everyone in the making of this film. Every element simply comes together and builds to some of the most shocking horror moments I've ever seen. The audience jumped out of their seats and then started laughing nervously in places.
I'm going to be quite brief and suggest that not every story element quite came together. Pargol, the creepy neighbour, seems to know a lot about the supernatural Djinn that has infected the apartment block, so why, after initially scoffing at her beliefs, Shideh does not use her knowledge to combat them, does not make sense to me.
The bombing raids were a bit overpowering and pulled focus from the main plot. Everyone just seemed too blasé and I don't understand why Shideh does not just get the hell out of Tehran well before the djinn show up. If this aspect had been replaced with say, a culture of suspicion and neighbours shopping each other to the authorities over trivial things, it would have been more effective and kept the political subtext or background Babak Anvari was keen on.
The focus on Shideh's journey is when the film is at its best. Initially there is the suggestion she is indeed a somewhat neglectful mother, and she transitions to a complete focus on her daughter.
The acting, direction and writing is superb. I really thoroughly recommend this horror.
Lights Out (2016)
Lots to admire, lots of missed opportunities
This is a film about how the mental illness of a parent affects a whole family, told as a horror. That's how they should have gone into this. A ghost effectively jumping out and saying 'boo' will only take you so far.
The 'boos' are very effective, don't get me wrong. But they start big and right away. I thought that was strange. And there were lots of things that didn't make sense - having seen the ghost, they all seemed quite happy to, you know, go back to bed. I couldn't understand how the ghost could find Teresa Palmer at her flat. Lots of set ups not paid off - the boyfriend being kind of a douche, but then okay. Probably the most unsatisfying was the back story of the mother and the ghost, nothing was fully explained.
Teresa Palmer is incredible in this - there are moments when she looks absolutely petrified and puts you right in the scene. A lovely understated performance from Maria Bello and the kid was great.
Well worth it if you like well executed jumps and bumps.
Hail, Caesar! (2016)
Declawed and way too pleased with itself
The trailer makes the movie look spectacular - and the set-pieces on various film sets are indeed hilarious and masterful. The acting - wow - Scarlett Johannsen and Alden Ehrenreich especially are revelations as is George Clooney playing way against type, not for the first time for the Coens.
But the story - where to begin? It's a promising set up. Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, a Hollywood studio's fixer that prevents the stars terrible life choices landing said studio in the reputational mire. But with a lucrative job offer to go to Lockheed Martin, we feel that Mannix will be okay regardless, so the stakes are really low for him, meaning we just don't care when Clooney is kidnapped by a Communist cell, it's just another day in his whacky life that he can jump ship from any time
At the beginning of the film, with Mannix embarking on his first fix that we see - stopping a starlet creating images the studio owns the copyright to - we initially feel in somewhat darker LA Confidential territory. I think if they had continued with this tone and really added impossible pressure on pressure to Mannix it could have really given something for him to divulge in those confessional scenes and been a huge - and hilarious - winner.
It's a crying shame that this amount of imagination and recreation of a Hollywood heyday isn't more compelling, funny and more illustrative of why we will always need Movies and Movie Stars.
The Revenant (2015)
Over the top
4/5 for cinematography, 1/5 for story.
There are too many plot holes to list them individually, but in general they follow the "looks- great-but-makes-no-sense" type flaw. It starts with the attack on the camp by the local tribe. Leo and his son are a little way off but run to the rescue, for some reason through water, even though it's much slower and louder than running across the land to the side of the stream. The attacking tribe seem to have no sense of strategy and risk killing their own as much as the trappers. The trappers for their part seem very slow to realise they need to hit the deck when arrows start killing every other man. You get the idea about the drama that follows, lots of scenes wading needlessly in freezing water, which would have made them hypothermic, lots of sheltering under sparse trees even though there are much thicker clumps of trees nearby, lots of camp fires which would have alerted the hostile tribe to their location, lots of things making no sense at all - it's like no one has any survival instinct.
On this point, two big plot holes really spoil the movie. Leo would have definitely died of those bear wounds. No question. His back is shredded, not to mention his throat, and he would have passed out from blood loss. The freezing cold would then have finished him off. The leader of the expedition trying to stitch him up just looks ridiculous.
Second plot hole - why Tom Hardy, left to guard the near-death Leo, does not just kill him as he is concerned he is a burden in a hostile area. He seems to need to him to acquiesce, okay so he has some kind of conscience, but then is interrupted by Leo's son, and kills him instead. He then could just have tied up loose ends, killed Leo and claimed to his returning companion the son ran off from grief, but no, he leaves Leo alive, which he obviously needs to do otherwise there is no rest of the film.
It's too OTT to be described as grim and the cinematography is too gorgeous for it to be boring, but in a way that's what underlines what a really badly thought-through story it is.
Missable if plot-holes bother you. Birdman was genius, if you haven't seen it, watch that instead.
Sicario reminded me that it is still possible to be thrilled at the cinema. There is brooding, understated acting galore and dramatic set-pieces that don't feel like "set-pieces" ie they just naturally come from the story.
As a result, the flaws within the story don't undermine the film as much as they should. Emily Blunt plays Kate Mercer, a kidnap rescue SWAT specialist brought into a cross-agency narco-operation. In theory, it's her skills that need to be brought to bear on the op, but actually they don't need her, even as a patsy. She is used as bait at one stage, but this is an in-the-moment improvisation that doesn't really explain why she was brought in in the first place.
Her sole purpose seems to be being screwed over by her own team leaders and to find out what the real dark purpose of the operation is. In fact, she ends as she begins - screwed over, which is unsatisfying from a story point of view. From the point of view of the operation it succeeds exactly as it was meant to - thanks to the relentless Alejandro (Beneficio del Toro).
Still, it does grip throughout. It feels authentic. The direction and acting is superb and it is so refreshing to see films made about real issues affecting us now.
Promising set up, but after 15 minutes story takes a nose-dive
Every technical aspect, direction, soundtrack, performances gets a gold star. But the story just gets sillier with each second, culminating in a preachy ending which seems to want to shoehorn depth into a film which has been lacking it for the most part.
The easiest comparison here is with House Party, but where the comedy in that film was outlandish, it was at least believable and organic. Malcolm as the hero is given many a test, but whereas a typical Hero will meet these tests in a way that really says something specifically about him, the waves really part suspiciously quickly for Malcolm. He gets jumped by his high school bullies and he gets them to back down by pointing a gun at them. Implausibly, they are not packing. He is made to sell the MDMA he found in his backpack - like a drug king pin would trust someone who he had never met, and surprise surprise this is Malcolm's opportunity to screw the screwer.
It ends up a clichéd, lazy exercise that, apart from some early set-pieces, manages to be neither funny nor dramatic.
Apatow The Maestro
Having read some negative reviews, I was expecting Judd Apatow, one of my favourite directors, to lose his touch. But it's vintage Apatow and an excellent showcase for Amy Schumer.
The comedy set pieces are very funny, the drama is real and hits home, but doesn't jar the tone of the film: the comedy and drama are two sides of the same story. The ending does not feel forced, although some of the sex scenes do.
Great performance from Bill Hader and kudos to Tilda Swinton, I didn't even recognise her. Ezra Miller was a little wasted.
Fantastic film, go and see it.
Mistress America (2015)
It's about America (I think)
If someone were to represent Britain as a woman, no doubt she would be 50 years older than Greta Gerwig and constantly looking back to a long gone heyday, yet haunted by dark secrets from the past.
But this is Mistress America, a comical personification of the American Dream, with some (but not too much) American reality thrown in. She chases the money, markets herself, engages in risky financial enterprises with bad follow through and finally reaps the inevitable lack of reward. In this, Baumbach seems to be suggesting America will have a similar fate, yet he is happy to watch the flame while it burns. The world is turning and Mavericks are dying out. Tracy (Lola Kirke) charts this demise with honesty and affection in the same way Baumbach is writing about America here.
It's in this allegorical approach the film shows most promise and offers more evidence of a change of style from Baumbach. But there is his safety zone, the middle class comedy of manners, the exuberant, wittily written dialogue. All very watchable, but what it amounts to in this love letter to America, it's hard to say. And Baumbach continues his habit of copping out at the end - neither Tracy nor Brooke really change, even when they apparently forgive each other. The last lines in the film are especially odd, I won't divulge them, but if you understand the angle of my review that Brooke is really America, you'll see what I mean.
However, I hope Baumbach continues his progression and hopefully returns to the excellence of Margot At The Wedding territory.
Ted 2 (2015)
Mila Kunis was missed
After watching Ted 2, I watched the first one again same night as it happened to be on TV.
I realised that what makes the first one a classic is that it's about a boy becoming a man, without his innocence and identity dying altogether. It's a classic theme everyone can relate to.
This is what holds Ted 2 back. Because Mila Kunis isn't in it, it loses that progression, so John Bennett is back to square one. So in place of the theme on growing up, we are eventually introduced to a different kind of theme, that of Ted's rights as a human being. There are parallels made with the emancipation proclamation, but they don't really make the most of this idea and in any case, it's a political, rather than a personal, theme that doesn't do enough for John Bennett's journey. The Ted films work best when it is really about John - with Ted being a symbol of his innocence.
So Ted 2 isn't touching in the same way that Ted is, (and I know it seems weird to talk about something as bad taste as Ted as being touching, but it is about a boy and his teddy bear) but that said Ted 2 does have some great comedic set pieces. I was crying with laughter in places and I kind of love it just for that.
While We're Young (2014)
The Next Stage In Noah Baumbach's Evolution
This is in many ways very familiar Baumbach territory: NY, middle class, neurotic. On the surface, he's a more charming and light-hearted Neil LaBute, but underneath there is the instinct to rudely strip the protagonist of his delusions, if only so he can go on a journey of redemption.
What makes this different from Baumbach's other films is that there is a strong desire to say something political, it's almost as though Josh's (Stiller's) character is just a vehicle for this. The subject of Josh's documentary is the American Penal system and what this says about power in America. Later, Josh rails against Jamie (Driver) as though he is emblematic of the younger generation's relationship to morality. I thought Baumbach - thru Josh - was really going to "say" something - something that needs to be said, but then, strangely, (and very quickly) Josh seems to make peace with this new world of technology and immorality and kind of - cop out. The ending was frustrating, because I felt that Josh was right.
This isn't as complex and rewarding as Margot At The Wedding, which seemed almost Franzenesque, but it does deliver, it's a step forward and I feel Baumbach could be one of the most important voices of his generation, if he is willing to accept that burden.
Inherent Vice (2014)
Maybe too faithful to Pynchon
I've never read Inherent Vice but I have read The Crying of Lot 49, so I was prepared to be baffled for much of the time. It didn't help that a lot of the dialogue is mumbled or slurred, deluging you with detail, or that in many scenes Anderson seems to have gone with the kind of deliberate kookiness to be found in many Coen Brothers films.
That said, what Anderson brings out feels like a genuine weirdness from the '70s, and a Pynchonian connectedness between the seemingly contrary or random; a kind of head-on collision between conservative America and counter-culture which seems to define this decade.
I was baffled and bored for much of the first 2 hours, but, like a Pynchon book, something told me to persevere and I was glad I did. There is a riveting scene and haunting performance from Katherine Waterston which starts to bring all of the plot strands together and what feels like a very glib exercise up to that point becomes real and gains dimension. From that point on, I was glad I stuck it out, even though I was gasping for a beer.
The performances are hit and miss, Joaquín Phoenix is very good, and there are other good performances, but it's Katherine Waterston who runs away with the film (an achievement in a film that runs away with itself). Pynchon is very tricky to adapt and Hollywood mainstream is not its natural home, but I'm really glad Anderson did so, and this film has stayed with me.