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A Month at the Movies... May 2020

2 Jun 2020

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Nona. If They Soak Me, I’ll Burn Them (2019; Camila José Donoso)
The third feature from Camila José Donoso, Nona. If They Soak Me, I’ll Burn Them is an admirable film with a unique vision that's well intentioned if not always successful. Creatively framed with excellent sound mixing and strong cinematography – complete with a brilliant title, it’s a film that I by all rights should have loved completely. Yet I could not get into it at all – lead Josefina Ramirez barely holds a messy, unengaging film together that doesn’t earn its killer final sequence. A disappointing start to the month. D+

The Thin Red Line (1998; Terrence Malick)
Terrence Malick’s return to filmmaking after a long absence is a marvel and stands as one of the best war epics ever made. Following the story of an army rifle company in the second world war; The Thin Red Line never lets up on its intensity, feeling more than just a standard war film, beautifully shot and incredibly emotional, showing the true cost of war and the horrors that it brings. It’s mystical and enigmatic from start to finish – with soldiers given the right touch of development needed thanks to stellar performances from a large ensemble cast that includes the likes of Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, George Clooney & Woody Harrelson to keep you invested, with each actor working as a team and never overshadowing the other when needed, putting egos that come with their status aside. The Criterion release is easily the best-looking Blu-Ray I’ve seen, and it was an utter treat to rewatch, even if it's a commanding watch at almost three hours long. A+

Extraction (2020; Sam Hargrave)
Sadly opting for style over substance, Sam Hargrave's Extraction is an underwhelming, paint-by-numbers action thriller that’s about as generic as it sounds. Even the one-take fight scene gimmicks falls flat (executed much better in Oldboy to name the best example of the form), and action just becomes repetitive after a while with samey villains and uncreative set-pieces as the audience just feels like it's being told to go from A to B and then to C in plotting that often feels lazy and derivative. It’s about as safe a film as any – barely made watchable thanks to a strong performance by lead Chris Hemsworth, who’s one of the most reliable action stars around, and deserves much better than this, as the Marvel Cinematic Universe has proved. D-

Ema (2019; Pablo Larrain)
Ema is a brilliant follow-up to Pablo Larrain’s Jackie that deals with the concept of a marriage falling apart after an adoption of a child goes awry. It’s a psychosexual drama where the cinematography is the star, leading to some truly creative and imaginative shots that pull you in to a unique world where the montages are unmatched. Mariana Di Girolamo’s performance as the lead deserved a lot more acclaim in this otherworldly experience that’s unlike anything else on screen right now. If you thought Marriage Story was intense, you’re so not ready for the whirlwind rollercoaster of Ema – where the insults of the couple falling apart are ramped up to eleven, and they come thick and fast throughout. B+

Akira (1988; Katsuhiro Otomo)
Akira isn’t just one of the greatest animated films, it’s one of the greatest science fiction movies *full stop*. The world building is brilliantly done, as important to making this film work as the characters itself, and the cyberpunkian dystopia that Akira brings to life is unmatched. Influenced by everything from Blade Runner to A Clockwork Orange and hugely influential in its own right, I was relieved to see that Akira turned out to be a really special watch that holds up just as well on a second viewing - it's a stylish, naturally brutal force to be reckoned with. A+

Southland Tales (2006; Richard Kelly)
Southland Tales is the all-too classic case of a promising director letting themselves get too carried away on their follow-up film. Far too self-indulgent, over-long and borderline insane at the best of times, the storyline failed to hold my investment at all, feeling almost feels offensively bad at times, wasting a rich cast that never truly earns a recent reappraisal - seriously, if you've heard that it's a misunderstood masterpiece, Southland Tales really, really isn't. The best thing that can be said about this film is that Rebekah Del Rio stars & sings in it, but that's it! The cast deserved so much better, with the script feeling far too messy and nonsensical. E

Ran (1985; Akira Kurosawa)
The best William Shakespeare adaption that I’ve seen so far, Akira Kurosawa’s vivid take on King Lear turns it into a Samurai film that’s epic in scope and features some of the best usage of colours on film that I’ve seen ever, something that I would have killed to have seen at the cinema because I don't think my television does it justice. Anchored firmly by a strong central performance of Tatsuya Nadakai and compelling command of large-scale battle scenes on horseback that are truly awe-inspiring to witness, Ran brings King Lear to life before our eyes in an unrivalled way that captures the sheer brilliance of imagination at the heart of the film. Yes, it's long, coming it at around three hours and requiring a commitment to watch, but is every bit worth the investment and even at the end of the month, it's a strong contender for my favourite first watch of lockdown thus so far. A+

Portrait of A Lady on Fire (2019; Celine Sciamma)
To nobody’s surprise if you’re a regular to this column, I rewatched this film again. I’ve already spoken about it in the previous two entries in addition to writing a full-length review of the film, so I'll keep this short, but Portrait of a Lady on Fire is still the best film of last year and an absolute masterclass from Sciamma that feels like an instant classic already. The wait for a physical copy release (in the form of a Criterion Blu-Ray due out later this year) is unbearable. A+

Throne of Blood (1957; Akira Kurosawa)
If Ran is an adaption of Shakespeare's King Lear, Throne of Blood is Macbeth, a tighter, black-and-white early era masterpiece from Akira Kurosawa. This film sees him team up with the legendary Toshirō Mifune, as good an actor as Kurosawa is a director for a descent into madness that is brilliantly told in a way like few other Macbeth adaptions before it. Instead; Throne of Blood traces its routes to Japanese folklore – avoiding the traditional trappings that come with the usual retelling of a Shakespeare adaption The lighting, mood and practical effects wizardry are unrivalled and Throne of Blood’s ending stands as an all-timer; where Mifune’s true brilliance really comes across. The film feels like the inverse of Ran, a smaller-scale drama set largely within the castle walls rather than without them, but is no less ambitious and majestic because of it. A+

Blue Valentine (2010; Derek Cianfrance)
This movie feels very much like an anti-romance film that subverts your expectations that you have going into a film of this genre, pulls your heart out and will make you cry by the end. You expect the couple to work out their differences by the end and any trouble that they go through in Blue Valentine will be rectified. But Derek Cianfrance plays against type to create a film of two halves – one half a flashback to a happier, much more optimistic time where the leads are younger; and the other to the bleak present day setting where nihilism and depression fits in. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams put in two of the best performances of their careers as this doomed couple; and Cianfrance establishes himself as a director to keep an eye out for with this follow-up to The Place Beyond the Pines. B+

Sanjuro (1962; Akira Kurosawa)
The second part of Kurosawa’s Samurai duology that followed on from Yojimbo sees the return of Toshirō Mifune. Here; the drama mixes comedy with some creative action set-pieces that allow for refined storytelling from Kurosawa. It’s smaller in scale than even Throne of Blood let alone Ran but goes out on a high, utilising the splatter of blood coming out of someone’s body in a way that has rarely been filmed so creatively. A

The Bélier Family (2014; Eric Lartigau)
It’s easy to see why this film was a hit in its native country, France. It’s a heart-warming, crowd-pleaser of a drama that follows Paula, a sixteen-year-old who is the only member of the Bélier family who isn’t deaf – and her struggles as she’s caught between her dream to go to a music school and looking after her family. Its characters are, aside from Paula, half-baked and under developed, with Louane Emera largely carrying the film that is unfortunately far too reliant on tropes, poorly timed comedic moments and lazy clichés to earn its big set-piece of an emotionally-charged finale that just feels cheap if well-meaning. C

Le Corbeau (1943; Henri-Georges Clouzot)
Filmed during wartime, Le Corbeau is a drama that explores a Doctor played by Pierre Fresnay who finds himself on the wrong end of a smear campaign from the mysterious writer known only as Le Corbeau, or The Raven. Exploring the spread of suspicion and hypocrisy through the small town that illustrates the dangers of mob rule, Le Corbeau keeps its narrative suspenseful and offers up an unsympathetic protagonist in its lead role. Set in the French countryside and making the most of its small-town feel to increase audiences' paranoia; the film plays with our expectations, leading to an open-ended conclusion. A

Willow (1988; Ron Howard)
This is just pure fun. Very much the fantasy version of Star Wars; Willow is a likeable film made with tons of heart and care. Val Kilmer is great as a knock-off Han Solo-type character (no surprise in a script from George Lucas), but the real star is Warwick Davis who completely carries the film from start to finish and is one of the main reasons why the drama is as immersive as it is. Unfortunately overlooked by many due to the fact the film shares the same high-fantasy genre to The Lord of the Rings, Willow, available on Disney+, clearly deserves another look if you dismissed it the first time out or like myself; simply never got around to checking it out until now. B+

My Blueberry Nights (2007; Wong Kar-Wai)
Wong Kar-Wai’s road-trip film is unlike all else in the genre; a cinematic marvel with unrivalled cinematography and a soundtrack that is an all-time great. Norah Jones plays Elizabeth; a woman who finds herself on an odyssey across America running into richly drawn set of supporting characters at various destinations, there’s the man who can’t get over his wife who has left him for another, and then there’s the wife herself, followed by a poker-player who is on the run from her father. Anchored by music from Cat Power (who also stars) and Otis Redding as well as Cassandra Wilson and Jones herself, My Blueberry Nights may not be Wong Kar-Wai at his best (if only because his best is Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love), but it’s still an underappreciated modern classic. The drama's supporting cast is as rich as they come; I could watch a whole movie about Natalie Portman and Rachel Weisz’s characters in this film, as their dynamic with Jones is never dull, even for a second. A

Water Lilies (2007; Celine Sciamma)
I only needed one more film to complete my journey into Celine Sciamma’s filmography and whilst Water Lilies might not quite be as refined as Portrait of a Lady on Fire, it’s still a powerful film about unrequited love that Marie has for the popular mean girl Floriane, exploring the bond between the two girls that develops over the course of Floraine’s time on the synchronised swimming team. Both Pauline Acquart & Adèle Haenel explore the uncertainty about teenage sexuality guided with a tender, authentic vision from Sciamma that offers a unique coming of age film that feels like a touch above the rest. B+

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005; George Lucas)
I wanted to revisit this one after watching The Clone Wars finale and I think with that series in mind, it hits a whole lot harder. The emotional relationship between Obi-Wan and Anakin has been increased in the series, and the secondary characters that the film blitzes through are more well-known leaving their fates more impactful than before. John Williams’ score amplifies even the shakiest of scenarios and the end of an era that comes with Order 66 is clearly felt. Regardless of its flaws it should be clear that Revenge of the Sith is by far and away the best of the prequels, even if it doesn’t quite rival the standards of the originals or for that matter; most of the legacy films apart from The Rise of Skywalker, which it is clearly better than. The world-building is Lucas’ biggest strength as the alien galaxy is completely immersive, and Lucas manages to largely keep the pacing tight as Anakin’s fall from grace and transformation into Darth Vader is fully shown in an incredibly tragic arc that would have hit a whole lot harder with more careful attention to dialogue, as some of the lines here are so laughably bad that even the actors themselves struggle to keep themselves together. C+

The Age of Innocence (1993; Martin Scorsese)
It’s always been a lazy criticism of Scorsese that he “only does mob dramas”. There's so much more to Scorsese than that, who has two Bob Dylan documentaries, Hugo, Silence, The Last Temptation of Christ, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Cape Feare, Shutter Island, The King of Comedy, After Hours and more to his name. I could go on. And one that falls very much into the “not a mob drama” category is what might be the best work of his career, The Age of Innocence, which follows Edith Wharton’s novel faithfully from beginning to end as a look into the high society of New York in the 1920s. It’s richly contextualised, including narration from Wharton herself with quotes lifted from the book it was inspired by, focusing on a man who thinks he’s in control when actually, he’s not, and that man is of course played by the brilliant Daniel Day-Lewis. With a cast that includes Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder putting in their career best performances, The Age of Innocence is a raw powerhouse of a film featuring some of Scorsese’s angriest characters, which is saying something. Arguably, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread would look hugely different without this film – it shares much more in common than just the casting of Day-Lewis. A+

A View to Kill (1985; John Glen)
This is both John Glen and Roger Moore in autopilot as Moore’s final outing for Bond. It feels very much like a franchise that’s going through the motions by this point, doubling down on all the Bond trademarks with a globe-trotting extravaganza of creative set-pieces being one of the main things that prevents this from feeling less of a chore to watch than it already is. Grace Jones and Christopher Walken do their best but it’s not one of Walken’s finest roles, and there’s only so much that Jones can do with the shoddy material here. Far from one of Bond’s finest hours, A View to Kill is a low point for Moore; whose brilliant The Spy Who Loved Me remains one of the series’ best instalments. E

The Living Daylights (1987; John Glen)
Unfortunately, despite the strong casting of Timothy Dalton who is one of the most underrated actors to play Bond and a back-to-basics approach that allows for a strong, down to Earth feel that was missing from the previous over-the-top instalment in the franchise, The Living Daylights lacks the thrills of the more polished Bonds thanks in no small part due to its forgettable villain and borderline nonsensical plot. The opening act in this film is finely crafted; but The Living Daylights quickly spirals out of control and goes out with a whimper rather than a bang. D

Day of Anger (1967; Tonino Valerii)
A spaghetti western classic with a legendary performance from Lee Van Cleef of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly fame, Day of Anger has all the hallmarks of the genre. Its mentor/apprentice dynamic works to provide growth to both lead characters, echoing Star Wars between the ambitious young student and the more experienced tutor, reminiscent of the dynamic between Luke and Obi-Wan. Tonino Valerii has a strong grasp of how to direct an action scene and there’s a creative duel sequence on horseback with guns rather than lances that really stands out as the high point of the film. Van Cleef's talent overshadows every other actor here, although Giuliano Gemma tries. As much as I enjoyed this film I did have a couple of gripes with it: the choices that Gemma's character, Scott Mary, makes in the final act needed a little more fleshing out prior to the inciting incidents as I never really brought them, and more attention could have been given to secondary characters. A

Gangs of New York (2002; Martin Scorsese)
Scorsese brings the scope of 1800s New York to life in a historical epic rife with gangland drama. It’s a film that I’m almost surprised I didn’t like more: I’m a massive Scorsese fan, but there’s something about Gangs of New York that didn’t quite click for me and that largely comes down to its epic runtime. Not everything needs to be three hours long and its pacing really affects this film. There are big climatic moments that certainly have the impact they need; but they are few and far between and the bits that aren’t quite as good drag out. The production values are impressive and almost unrivalled for films of the era with a rich Howard Shore score, and an all-time great Daniel Day-Lewis performance carries this thing. It’s the weakest of the Scorsese-directed movies that I’ve seen but still packs a powerful punch, and I’m interested to rewatch this thing as I feel I’d love it more on a rewatch. B-

The Aviator (2004; Martin Scorsese)
The Aviator is a meticulously crafted, thematically brilliant epic - Leonardo DiCaprio is excellent as Hughes and Scorsese's love of classic Hollywood really shows. One of the best films Scorsese has directed in the 21st century thus so far, and there’s no competition. Unlike Gangs of New York, the runtime isn’t really felt in this one, as I was invested in every minute. The sheer craziness of this film and the brilliantly directed set-pieces (the plane crash, and you’ll know which one it is as there’s multiple here, is brutal) separate it from your standard biopic fare as the full scope of Scorsese’s dreams are realised, brought to life in a frenzied, unpredictable way. It also happens to be an excellent selling pitch for the first film that Hughes directed – the audacious Hell's Angels, which I really want to watch now. A

The Half of It (2020; Alice Wu)
The Half of It is a joyfully adventurous coming of age movie with a couple of bops on its soundtrack (mainly from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and Sharon Van Etten) that make for excellent backing choices. It's a twist on the tired love triangle formula, keeping things fresh and exciting throughout, boasting good performances from talented leads that play awkward well. It's a hard film to hate and it's one of the more promising dramas to come out of the teen market that Netflix are going towards. Leah Lewis puts in the best performance of the film under Alice Wu's impressive direction, but I would have liked a little more depth for her love interest; played by Alexxis Lemire, who isn't quite as developed as the film's lead character almost falling into the trope of the maniac-pixie dream girl that so many films fall into. But The Half of It is a well-intentioned movie will have you invested in their relationship regardless; and it feels like something I could have quite happily sat down and watched for longer as I didn't want the film to end. I'd happily watch a sequel. B-

Dangerous Lies (2020; Michael Scott)
The most notable thing about Dangerous Lies is that the director is Michael Scott and there’s a character called Dwight in the film. It’s about as unoriginal an observation as Dangerous Lies is a film – the drama is the straight-to-Netflix version of Knives Out and Parasite, lacking the good performances, directing, screenwriting and just… everything that those two films had to offer. Camilla Mendes is not a convincing lead and the film is only made bearable thanks to the decent performances by Sasha Alexander, Jamie Chung & Cam Gigandet. It’s borderline unwatchable otherwise, and I had all but zoned out by the end. The Half of It is the kind of teen drama that Netflix should be making; not this cheap, lazy and derivative cash-grab of a film. E

The Rocketeer (1991; Joe Johnston)
It’s easy to see why director Joe Johnston was chosen to helm Captain America: The First Avenger on the back of The Rocketeer. His film is an action-packed superhero movie that rarely strays from the genre's formula. The film itself has relatively simple planning and story structure that utilises a lot of clichés; but there’s some fun moments here and the film revels in the sheer pulp fiction of it all that comes with its Indiana Jones-esque tone, complete with Nazis as the enemy. Making the most out of its World War 2 setting it casts Timothy Dalton as the villain in a surprisingly meta role, and Howard Hughes is a character in The Rocketeer that makes this first viewing only a few days after The Aviator a touch of sheer coincidence. It’s a shame that Dalton’s performance is the only one of note, as Billy Campbell isn’t as convincing as I would have hoped in the lead role; his chemistry with Jennifer Connolly pretty much non-existent leading both leads to fall flat on their faces in comparison with Dalton – but then, given that roles that the characters play; maybe that’s the point of it all? B-

A Russian Youth (2019; Alexandr Zolotukhin)
A rare World War One film from a Russian perspective that allows for a fresh feel, A Russian Youth doesn't glorify the struggles of the soldiers on the front lines and rather instead uses it to show the horrors and true chaos of war. War itself is messy, chaos and unpredictable, much like the film itself, which can be a bit hard to follow at times with its unclear narrative structure that constantly cuts away to a live orchestra that doesn't really fit the theme of the drama at all. It's hard to work out what A Russian Youth is truly trying to achieve, split into multiple sections that don't always work, but the ambition is there and it will be interesting to see what Zolotukhin does next. D+

Days of Heaven (1978; Terrence Malick)
Malick's direction is visually unparalleled in Days of Heaven which is arguably one of the best looking films I've ever seen. Its simple story of a man who accidentally kills a fellow employee and then goes on the run, fleeing into the wilderness with his girlfriend and his younger sister echoes the structure of Of Mice and Men, with its influences being felt in turn in wider modern filmmaking. The love-triangle that runs through the film skillfully builds its tension, with its premise being built on a lie, allowing for a final act where everything comes crashing down around the characters. Shot for only a few minutes each day to capture the unique light of sunset, Days of Heaven is big in scale and scope; a classic rise and fall story that showcases the loss of innocence and the collapse of paradise itself. On a rewatch, it only gets better. A+

Crazy World (2020; Nabwana I.G.G.)
An all-out bonkers assault on the senses that has to be seen to be believed, this passionately made zero-budget action film is currently streaming as part of the We Are One Festival on YouTube for free and it was an absolute joy to discover knowing absolutely nothing about it. At once a parody and a love letter to the action genre; Crazy World had me invested from start to finish with one of the most unique movie experiences that I've had all year. It may not be a perfect film, but you will almost certainly have a good time with it and you can't help but admire the love that Nabwana I.G.G. has for his craft. C+

Late Marriage (2001; Dover Kosashvili)
Another We Are One Festival film available to watch now, I really liked this one. It's a commentary on the traditions of marriage told in a angry and soulful way. Dover Kosashvili gets the most out of performances by Lior Ashkenazi and Ronit Elkabetz who anchor the script showing that the pair have clear, crisp chemistry between one another in this straightforward plot that feels reminiscent of The Big Sick, which was absolutely wonderful. The comedy is on point and the direction feels considerably emotional and investing throughout. B

Rudeboy: The Story of Trojan Records (2018; Nicholas Jack Davies)
Trojan Records are a hugely influential British record label and Nicholas Jack Davies more than does them justice in this documentary that has the best soundtrack in anything that you'll see this year. Dandy Livingstone's Rudy, A Message to You, Derrick Morgan's Tougher Than Tough (Rudie in Court), Desmond Dekker's Israelities keep the film energetic throughout as the deep dive into the history of Trojan Records is told, dating back to its origins in Jamaica before the leap to the UK. Keeping a strict chronological order right up to the arrival of The Clash on the music scene, Rudeboy: The Story of Trojan Records is lively throughout, mixing up the talking heads-type documentary feel to it with stellar recreations that give it a real sense of time, place and location. B+

The best first viewings of the month: The Age of Innocence, Ran, Throne of Blood & My Blueberry Nights

What did you watch last month? Let me know in the comments below.