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M.O.

Terse, perceptive, and sometimes even witty film reviews from a critic without portfolio.

Collated under Film Reviews is a library of every review I’ve posted to date, ordered alphabetically. Alternatively, for those who like to live life on the edge, you can scroll below to read each in the all-but random order I posted them. I trust you’ll file yourselves accordingly.

The Lavender Hill Mob

Heist comedy that’s so innocent and simple that it’s almost escapist, while also functioning as a time-limited portal to London in 1951. Inevitably then, the social etiquette on display feels quaint, but instead of dating the picture, its old-fashionedness proves  key to its most moving scene, with philia between the two proponents  — Pendlebury and Holland — cemented by the pair feeling close enough to introduce themselves on first name terms (“Al” and “Dutch”). Other highlights include a well-choreographed escapade on the Eiffel Tower, and a poignant denouement that succinctly inverts the opening. Plus it’s technically a mob movie.

B+

BlackKkKlansman

Point off for Spike Lee affixing a non-fiction broadcast as a coda that shouts his film’s already explicit message at the audience. The racial politics of the 1970s are as woefully relevant in 2018 as ever. Received, processed, acknowledged, and concurred with. If Lee felt the need to spell it out with a coda, what was the point of the film? Only an ignoramus could miss its explicitly post-Trump parable – just take these excerpts of dialogue: ‘America would never elect somebody like David Duke as president’ // ‘For America to achieve its greatness again…’. And of course, chants of ‘America First’. As it happens, increasingly convoluted plotting and a ‘70s rock melange of a score were steadily distancing the subject matter’s vitality anyway. Ultimately superficial, Steve McQueen has done this better.

B

Review Roundup: June 7-13/21

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND

A first contact movie that never mentions the word alien, Spielberg’s earliest sci-fi establishes the blueprint he would later gear for sentimentalism in ET, and outright terror in War of the Worlds. This falls somewhere between those two poles, opening with a devolved space-invasion checklist in which characters are rightly relegated to a succession of strange occurrences we already know the answers to. Act two moves back into the kind of formula you expect from Spielberg — storytelling grounded firmly in the eyes of children, beats string-blasted by John Williams. Something more straightforward. So you’re not expecting a curve-ball when the final half-hour slips into a carefully induced reverie that can only be described as Spielberg doing 2001. This beguiling, near-wordless symphony-with-pictures will leave you pondering I’m not sure what. Pondering something.

A-

DIRTY HARRY

Serial killer on the loose in San Francisco, only one grizzled cop for the job.

Unusually for an action movie, carrying my attention throughout wasn’t the action — which was assured — but the eye-catching photography constantly permeating the picture. Shots artfully framed, awesome panoramas of the San Francisco cityscape, sharp contrasts, and — it has to be said — the image of Clint Eastwood, its leading man. One such example tracks his character, maverick inspector Harry Callaghan, walking down the road having just foiled a downtown bank robbery with some spectacular marksmanship. Don Siegel arranges this scene of devastation with a burst fire-hydrant, an upturned car, and flustered shoppers in broad daylight, all around Eastwood, whose insouciant strut juxtaposes it all like a giant middle-finger.

It works both ways though. The sequence that implies due process is putting serial killers back out on the street, after Callaghan has tortured his main suspect, wrangles with this viewer. Such messaging has been described as fascist — I think it’s sincere but too clumsy for me to take seriously, a case of scriptwriter and future NRA-guru John Milius conflating his medium with his politics. If there were due process in action movies, they wouldn’t be action movies, and if real-life law enforcement behaved like they do in action movies, we wouldn’t want them to. Leave the logic of genre-cinema to genre-cinema.

A-

O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?

Pleasant but insubstantial, the Coens’ songful rendering of the Deep South shimmers with Hollywood artificiality, and, well, not much else. Perhaps my lack of familiarity Homer’s Odyssey, on which this is to some extent based, would be worth an extra point. But I am familiar enough with the Coens’ work to know this is amiable by their standards.

B

SAVING MR. BANKS

I love Mary Poppins. Frankly I’m suspicious of anyone who doesn’t. Songs, performances, storytelling, pretty much everything except the “Jolly Holiday” segment. So with those cards on the table, there’s more than usual riding on this based-on-true-story, ‘based’ being the operative word. Structurally, a flashback thread documenting P.L. Travers’ childhood in Australia is incorporated into her present-day negotiations with Walt Disney, who wants to secure the rights to make a film based on her Mary Poppins books. (Disney is played by Tom Hanks, a casting choice so perfect it’s almost surprising the role hadn’t come along for him sooner; Travers by Emma Thompson in her iron mode.)

Those flashbacks, which delve deep into the traumatic tales bubbling under Travers’ work, adopt a heighted tone that’s almost suggestive of the magic realism of the 1964 film. However, the line between magic and unreality is crossed by Colin Farrell’s theatrics as Mr Banks, the father whom she failed to save. This being a drama about the making of Mary Poppins, there are irresistible moments, but even to enjoy them I had to tune out Thomas Newman’s twinkly, woefully overbearing score, which cakes everything with an ersatz sweetness.

All of that is on the film’s own terms. In context, its narrative is almost entirely constructed — infused with real detail yes, but impossible to draw any conclusions from given the way they are strung together. P.L. Travers would doubtless recognise a galling double-irony: she fought obstinately to prevent her work from being Disneyfied — here, 27 years after her passing, her own life-story befalls that same fate.  

B

Review Roundup: May 31-June 6

AMERICAN PSYCHO

Slick slasher that darts spryly between black comedy and horror, all the way defined by Christian Bale’s sardonic, imperious exhibition of Wall Street monstrosity.  As those uncomplicated arguments were convincing, an ambiguous twist-ending in the then-age of Fight Clubs and Shyamalans was rendered unnecessary, even if enforced by the screenplay’s source material. Conversely, as a political allegory – Reagan was a serial killer, stockbrokers’ only emotions are greed and disgust – the translation of its sentiment on-screen initially felt like a reach. But the longer those words have been sitting on the page?

A-

A BEAUTIFUL MIND

Another ‘bout-a-genius-drama from the turn of the millennium provides the most salient observation regarding this John Nash biopic – Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting. Simply put, Russell Crowe isn’t Robin Williams. I know, who is? But without a performance of the latter’s calibre, the beauty of this title’s troubled mind is never realised as stated. Crowe’s stilted delivery and underwhelming body-language convey inertia rather than brilliance. Not bad, but not enough to lift competency into creditability. Elsewhere, a familiar biopic pitfall saddles the very end, where the narrative blitzes through 30-years of Nash’s life in what amounts to a Wikipedia-scanned hagiography. But the film’s strongest act, straddling the middle third, makes more of an impression than the finale’s faults. Here Nash’s descent into mental illness grabs the viewer too, and alongside imparting the sheer fortitude of will he required to function with it, is successfully dramatic. Which is pretty important for a drama.

B+

COCO

Ostensibly this archetypal Pixar effort is about music, though it eventually transpires that music is a Trojan horse for Pixar’s official motto ‘Nothing’s more important than family’. Which is fine. But for a movie that talks so much about music, I was hoping it would be more musical than it is. You see, the computer animation in the smattering of guitar-playing scenes is wonderful, I mean really wonderful. Advances in the medium will never cease to amaze – even 2020’s otherwise underwhelming Onward arrested me with its digital paintwork on occasion, and this has far more soul going for it. So it’s a shame those soulful moments aren’t served by the Disney production-line pop and predictable, arbitrary plot demands that we get. Señor Mouse, más America Latina por favor.

B+

SCARFACE (1983)

The first scene sets the tone. Cuban mobster Tony Montana, played by Al Pacino, is being interrogated by US border officials, having arrived in Miami as part of the 1980 Cuban exodus. The camera is circling him: director Brian De Palma’s utilisation of long, creeping single takes – key to many of the film’s best scenes – accentuates Pacino’s dominance. It’s the look in his eye, his restlessness of movement, the calculated apprehension in his voice. Those facets are what make Scarface, and what keeps at bay its less auspicious production decisions. Guiltiest is composer Giorgo Moroder, whose jungle rhythms and luscious synths mark the score out as an ‘80s artefact which simultaneously dates the entire production with it. Nor is the narrative anything to write home about, proceeding as an unadventurous rise-and-fall that hues closely to gangster-movie cliché. Its staying power then will rest on how much Pacino and De Palma repay repeated viewing, which for now is a hedged judgement.

A-

THE TRUMAN SHOW

One of the stranger fragments of Orwellian paraphernalia you’re likely to see. Less a Jim Carrey-comedy – he’s (relatively) restrained here – more a slice of existential sci-fi. My solitary laugh came when I spotted Philip Glass playing piano in the background of one scene having just recognised his music, and that was an Easter egg rather than a joke. As sci-fi, however, it’s more than functional; 100-minutes in a technicolour police state clinched with the culmination of narrative, score, imagery, and Ed Harris momentarily becoming God.       

B+

The Truman Show

One of the stranger fragments of Orwellian paraphernalia you’re likely to see. Less a Jim Carrey-comedy – he’s (relatively) restrained here – more a slice of existential sci-fi. My solitary laugh came when I spotted Philip Glass playing piano in the background of one scene having just recognised his music, and that was an Easter egg rather than a joke. As sci-fi, however, it’s more than functional; 100-minutes in a technicolour police state clinched with the culmination of narrative, score, imagery, and Ed Harris momentarily becoming God.       

B+

Scarface (1983)

The first scene sets the tone. Cuban mobster Tony Montana, played by Al Pacino, is being interrogated by US border officials, having arrived in Miami as part of the 1980 Cuban exodus. The camera is circling him: director Brian De Palma’s utilisation of long, creeping single takes – key to many of the film’s best scenes – accentuates Pacino’s dominance. It’s the look in his eye, his restlessness of movement, the calculated apprehension in his voice. Those facets are what make Scarface, and what keeps at bay its less auspicious production decisions. Guiltiest is composer Giorgo Moroder, whose jungle rhythms and luscious synths mark the score out as an ‘80s artefact which simultaneously dates the entire production with it. Nor is the narrative anything to write home about, proceeding as an unadventurous rise-and-fall that hues closely to gangster-movie cliché. Its staying power then will rest on how much Pacino and De Palma repay repeated viewing, which for now is a hedged judgement.

A-

Coco

Ostensibly this archetypal Pixar effort is about music, though it eventually transpires that music is a Trojan horse for Pixar’s official motto ‘Nothing’s more important than family’. Which is fine. But for a movie that talks so much about music, I was hoping it would be more musical than it is. You see, the computer animation in the smattering of guitar-playing scenes is wonderful, I mean really wonderful. Advances in the medium will never cease to amaze – even 2020’s otherwise underwhelming Onward arrested me with its digital paintwork on occasion, and this has far more soul going for it. So it’s a shame those soulful moments aren’t served by the Disney production-line pop and predictable, arbitrary plot demands that we get. Señor Mouse, más America Latina por favor.

B+

A Beautiful Mind

Another ‘bout-a-genius-drama from the turn of the millennium provides the most salient observation regarding this John Nash biopic – Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting. Simply put, Russell Crowe isn’t Robin Williams. I know, who is? But without a performance of the latter’s calibre, the beauty of this title’s troubled mind is never realised as stated. Crowe’s stilted delivery and underwhelming body-language convey inertia rather than brilliance. Not bad, but not enough to lift competency into creditability. Elsewhere, a familiar biopic pitfall saddles the very end, where the narrative blitzes through 30-years of Nash’s life in what amounts to a Wikipedia-scanned hagiography. But the film’s strongest act, straddling the middle third, makes more of an impression than the finale’s faults. Here Nash’s descent into mental illness grabs the viewer too, and alongside imparting the sheer fortitude of will he required to function with it, is successfully dramatic. Which is pretty important for a drama.

B+

American Psycho

Slick slasher that darts spryly between black comedy and horror, all the way defined by Christian Bale’s sardonic, imperious exhibition of Wall Street monstrosity.  As those uncomplicated arguments were convincing, an ambiguous twist-ending in the then-age of Fight Clubs and Shyamalans was rendered unnecessary, even if enforced by the screenplay’s source material. Conversely, as a political allegory – Reagan was a serial killer, stockbrokers’ only emotions are greed and disgust – the translation of its sentiment on-screen initially felt like a reach. But the longer those words have been sitting on the page?

A-

The Wolverine – review

This is where James Mangold begins to implement the ideas that would bear full fruit in Logan. Look at the difference in the way Wolverine is directed compared to Bryan Singer’s films. For the first time the action scenes capture the feral, time-bomb ferocity a character of the name should demand. Action scenes delimited by their PG-13 rating, but a necessary advancement. Jackman’s performance too is a step in the right direction, carrying himself with coiled fatigue, a wounded animal weary of carrying on, never far from lashing out. Place him in the middle of a Japanese family power-struggle, under a moody Marco Beltrami score, and you have a samurai exploration with enough intrigue pulsing under the surface to keep you interested. Until it craps the bed with mecha-suit tomfoolery in act three. That might be even more delimiting than the rating.

B