What's Another What's Another Year??
It's that time of the year again, and as 2018 draws to a close, rather than do one of those tedious 'best-of-the-year' lists (it feels like a 'worst-of-the-year' would be easier, which is odd, as this year's crop has been far from poor), I thought I would do a quick round-up of some of the new movies I saw which didn't get a full Post review due to lack of space. So here we go.
Annihilation: Somewhat arty horror-SF movie which most of the world only got to see via Netflix after the original distributor got cold feet. Natalie Portman is part of a team of scientists who enter a quarantined zone where the laws of physics seem to be breaking down; chaos and mutation await them. Coolly cerebral, visually lavish; may seem a bit pretentious to some, though.
Ant-Man and the Wasp: Another Marvel superhero film, in the whimsical mode this time. Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) is recruited by his mentor and her daughter to help retrieve a lost loved one from the quantum micro-world; lots of things end up the wrong size. Not one of the studio's more substantial films but filled with imagination, fun and energy; great entertainment.
The Apparition: Hard-to-categorise French drama as a traumatised war reporter is recruited by the Vatican to authenticate (or not) a young girl's alleged visions of the Virgin Mary. Is it going to be a drama? A low-key fantasy? Some sort of thriller? The movie starts well but becomes so impenetrable it's hard to tell even at the end. Some good stuff going on, but hard work to watch.
Bad Times at the El Royale: Very accomplished Tarantino pastiche from writer-director-nearly everything Drew Goddard. A disparate group of strangers gather at a run-down motel on the California-Nevada border; many secrets come to light. Good performances from a strong ensemble cast, and Goddard is clearly enjoying himself. Possibly a bit too long and much more about style than substance, but lots of fun to be had here.
Beast: Excellent British thriller – or is it a psychological horror movie? – set on the island of Jersey. Troubled young woman (Jessie Buckley) starts a passionate relationship with a drifter, against her family's wishes. He may be the prime suspect in a string of murders, but does she even care? Superb performances and direction result in an engrossing, often slightly uncomfortable-to-watch film, with the resolution coming as a genuine surprise.
Christopher Robin: Ominous-looking mixture of live-action and CGI revisiting a classic children's story; I was anticipating another atrocity like Peter Rabbit but this is about 247 times better. Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) grows up to be an unhappy wage slave; Winnie-the-Pooh comes to visit and remind him what life is all about. By no means perfect but still funny and charming in the right places.
Deadpool 2: Yet another Marvel superhero movie, made somewhat distinctive by profanity, graphic violence, and relentless knowing in-jokes. Basically more of the same as the first one, though lacking the impact of novelty, and showing signs of starting to flail about for ideas. Persists in trying to have its cake and eat it by including conventionally dramatic scenes amongst all the meta stuff. Ryan Reynolds carries it agreeably; fun enough to be worth watching if you like that sort of thing.
The Divine Order: Swiss-German movie from 2017 about the lead-up to the vote which resulted in women becoming enfranchised (in 1971). An interesting story, well-told, with a solid script and some good performances. Takes care to work as a character-based drama first and historical agitprop second. Hard to dislike; well worth watching.
Early Man: Slightly sub-par Nick Park animation (which means it's merely just a pretty good movie, rather than utterly brilliant). A tribe from the Stone Age take on their Bronze Age rivals in a football match to determine their fate. Sports movie clichés aplenty, all wrapped up in some rather broad slapstick and a load of terrible puns. Could have done with being much wittier, but watchable. Not to be confused with...
First Man: Neil Armstrong biopic from some of the makers of La La Land is a complete change of pace, being relentlessly low-key and naturalistic. Good performances from Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy. A quality piece of work: some may take issue with the emotional arc they give to Armstrong; you would have to be a real piece of work to get annoyed about the non-appearance of the US flag, though.
First Reformed: typically provocative and challenging drama from Paul Schrader, with an excellent performance from Ethan Hawke as a troubled priest who becomes obsessed with the damage being done to the environment by the big businesses bankrolling his church. Starts off bleak; ends up positively Stygian, with some very surreal detours along the way. Worth a look if you like your food a bit on the chewy side.
Free Solo: Excellent documentary focusing on climber Alex Honnold's almost-superhuman ascent of the 3200-foot cliff El Capitan without rope or safety gear. The climbing sequences are astonishing, the portrait of Honnold as a man whose brain is wired up just a bit differently is fascinating. Few fictional films are as thrilling or engaging as this one; one of the best of the year.
Game Night: Surprisingly witty, utterly preposterous black comedy-thriller with Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams. A bunch of affluent games-lovers think they're taking part in a sort of murder mystery role-play; actually it is in deadly earnest. Some very funny, very silly scenes, but the thriller element is played dead straight which results in an odd uncertainty of tone. Still a big step up from most contemporary comedies.
Hunter Killer: GERARD! BUTLER! is surprisingly restrained as a submarine commander trying to stop a war in this slightly silly thriller. Another movie seemingly in full denial of real-world politics (the US navy has to rescue the sympathetic Russian president from an attempted coup). Competently made but a bit dull and unengaging; the material demands a more tongue-in-cheek approach, if you ask me.
In Between: A French-Israeli movie from 2016 about the lives of three young Palestinian women sharing a flat in Tel Aviv. On one level this is, obviously, another angry and somewhat predictable film about the rights (or lack of them) of women in traditional societies, but the storytelling is assured and the performances affecting. A confident and surprisingly accessible movie.
Johnny English Strikes Again: Rather laboured and childish third outing for Rowan Atkinson's inept spy. Resolutely avoids anything resembling genuine satire in favour of the broadest of slapstick comedy. Sort of mildly amusing (Atkinson is too naturally gifted a clown not to be funny at least some of the time) but you can't help thinking he's capable of so much better.
Journey's End: Well-acted and sincere adaptation of a once-celebrated play about life in the trenches of the First World War. There's inevitably a sense in which you know roughly where this is going and how it's going to get there – this is another case of a movie having to compete with things it actually inspired – but the emphasis on character and great performances by the ensemble make it well worth checking out.
King of Thieves: The cast is the main reason to watch this based-on-truth tale of a gang of past-it bank robbers, with predictably accomplished performances from Michael Caine, Jim Broadbent, Tom Courtenay, Ray Winstone and others. Starts off as a blokey comedy-thriller heist film before turning into something darker. Obviously made on a low budget and the tonal shift could have been smoother, but very watchable.
Mortal Engines: Lavish fantasy film from Peter Jackson's company – in a post-apocalyptic world, cities have become mobile and wander the landscape preying on each other. Terrific production designs, but the actual story is considerably less interesting (and bonkers) than the premise would suggest. Bland is also the best way to describe the young cast, good looking though they are. Whole movie is easy on the eye, at least.
The Old Man & the Gun: Another true-life tale of bank-robbing pensioners, this time starring Robert Redford as incorrigible crook Forrest Tucker and Casey Affleck as the guy who starts off trying to catch him and ends up envying his joie de vivre. Very much a character piece – warm and likeable, with an immensely charismatic performance from Redford in what's apparently his final acting role. A fine movie.
The Other Side of the Wind: Orson Welles' long-in-the-works movie finally emerges courtesy of Netflix and proves to be a predictably playful concoction – the plot concerns a legendary director (John Huston) struggling to get finance so he can finish his film, also entitled The Other Side of the Wind. The self-referentiality of the film, whether intentional or not, is mind-boggling, before we even consider it as a spoof of art-house movies or a portrait of early-70s Hollywood backbiting. Rough around the edges but never boring.
Shoplifters: Award-winning Japanese drama about a family making a living through various forms of petty theft. Their benevolent accidental kidnap of a mistreated young girl leads to big problems, however. Thoughtfully non-judgemental drama about the nature of family and the need to belong, with some great performances.
A Simple Favour: Polished and exceedingly well-cast thriller with Anna Kendrick as a perky single mum seduced by the dangerous glamour of Blake Lively, who then mysteriously disappears. Rather like a version of Gone Girl played for laughs; may in fact be an extremely black comedy. The plot is slightly absurd but at least the film acknowledges as much.
Skyscraper: Utterly by-the-numbers disaster thriller with genial Dwayne Johnson trying to rescue his wife and kids from both the world's tallest building, which is on fire, and some criminal mercenaries, who are not. Slickly proficient, but it all feels very calculated and rather bland. The only oddity is that Johnson's character has a prosthetic lower limb, which is crowbarred into the script as often as possible; still, the premise of the movie has legs even if Johnson doesn't.
Sweet Country: Low-budget Australian drama from 2017 which managed to swing a UK cinema release because it has Sam Neill and Bryan Brown in the cast. In the 1920s, an indigenous farm worker kills a racist white boss in self-defence and goes on the run; a posse sets off in pursuit. Almost sounds like a western adventure, but the treatment is much more restrained and the mood generally bleak. There are some striking moments and strong performances, but this isn't the kind of film you watch to enjoy in the conventional sense of the word. An impressive piece of art, though.
That Good Night: Rather clunky adaptation of a stage play; John Hurt (his final performance) plays a curmudgeonly screenwriter who discovers he is terminally ill. A mixture of laborious character study and discussion of the ethics of euthanasia; has nothing especially interesting to say either way. Strong performances from Hurt, Sofia Helin and Charles Dance keep it watchable, though.
Three Identical Strangers: Another of those stranger-than-fiction documentaries. The story of how, in 1981, long-lost triplets were reunited in New York, and what came after. Starts off as a heart-warming and lively human interest story before turning into something not entirely unlike an episode of The X Files. An extraordinary story, well told, but the film's attempts to ponder big philosophical questions are a bit of a weak link.
Tomb Raider: Alicia Vikander does a laudable job of keeping it real in an otherwise undistinguished action-adventure reboot. Lost dad; desert island; dangling; running; jumping. The big question is why anyone other than hardcore gamers should still care about Lara Croft – despite Vikander's committed performance, the film still doesn't really come up with a convincing answer.
Unsane: Another slick genre movie from Steven Soderbergh (apparently he made this one on his phone). Former stalkee Claire Foy finds herself incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital – is she hallucinating, or is her tormentor really closing in? Really good performance from Foy, and usual breezy stylishness from Soderbergh, but the film is based on such an absurdly implausible premise that it's hard to take completely seriously.
Widows: Thriller with aspirations from Steve McQueen, based on an old British TV show. When a group of robbers are killed on the job, their widows undertake another heist in order to clear their debts. Well-written and well-played, but the film's interest in being a drama about race and other social issues means the actual heist plotline kind of gets lost. (This has been a bumper year for films about robberies, as you can tell.)
The Wife: Glenn Close plays the wife of a celebrated writer (Jonathan Pryce) who is awarded the Nobel prize, but has her own contribution to his career received enough credit? In some ways this is a broad-brush let's-kick-the-patriarchy movie, but there are enough ambiguities to make it interesting. Well-made, with two very strong performances at the top.
You Were Never Really Here: Acclaimed director Lynne Ramsay's fourth film is an art-house version of a Luc Besson thriller, featuring an intensely brooding performance from Joaquin Phoenix, an almost overwhelming atmosphere of despair and defeat, and a superb soundtrack from Jonny Greenwood. Not easy to watch by any means, but a superbly crafted and deeply serious film about violence and its effects on people.