Guy Ritchie has an innate grasp on pacing and energy – for all my misgivings about his geezery obsessions, the finale’s kinetic one-upmanship was undeniable. But his filmmaking is not. Guy’s screenplay has an odious, unpleasant streak, and the rogues’ gallery of characters he asks us to root for are unrepentantly so. That renders his Long Good Friday-tale a miscarriage from the start. I can’t get behind a film with no heart, not when it expects us to treat it like it does.
Offering up my own brand of terse, perceptive, sometimes even witty, film criticism into the cacophony of tastemaking voices. I hope mine cuts through the murky mass of Rotten Tomato-swamped movie media that you the viewer have to navigate, and proves to be entertaining, insightful, and ultimately useful to whomever stumbles across it. Here’s a sampler of what you can expect.
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. All-but random because what I choose to watch isn’t beholden to anything beyond what’s currently out (which is some) and what I haven’t seen (which is lots). I trust you’ll file yourselves accordingly. Enjoy the show.
A remarkable story, told beautifully – by the actual veterans in the post-movie coda. Cheap CGI blood squirts, cheap CGI-induced stereoscopy, clumsy B-movie action editing, grossly xenophobic depictions of foreign combatants. Mel Gibson appears to be directing The Expendables.
The romantic subplot straddling the middle act is weak, and a couple of mawkish, if necessary, closing scenes had me screaming at the screen for it get out while it was still ahead. That’s because the combination of sharp dialogue and sharper delivery had already won me over. Matt Damon knows how to play a dick – his character’s uber-genius becomes a foil for the screenplay’s key debate, realised with eminent facility by Stellan Skarsgard and Robin Williams. Their performances are nuanced enough that, even if the stools they represent aren’t exactly subtle, the arguments they provoke are. How we judge failure, how we judge success, what right to do we have to self-determination. Momentous questions that wouldn’t mean jack without a heavyweight’s punch. All scenes between Damon and Williams, and Skarsgard and Williams, are gold. What’s the common denominator?
“The fourth best film to watch while in-flight”. OK, much as I wish I could leave things there, that’s a slightly unfair description – particularly when the films that beat it were Bridesmaids, The Hangover and Meet the Parents. But the Gatwick Airport “survey” gets closer than you’d think. Overlong, perilously sentimental, narrated to within an inch of its life, few films are built to hold the viewer’s hand as systemically as this does. Its status as an evergreen IMDb favourite is, then, entirely natural. But if that’s all it were, I would have had no hesitation to end the review at Gatport’s inadvertently piercing critique. Arresting composition in the prison caught the eye – and made up for some iffy editing – but as usual it was the performances that kept me onside. You’d be surprised at how much you can stomach when you buy into the people on screen. Even this schmaltz buffet couldn’t subdue the twinkle in Morgan Freeman’s eye.
My initial disappointment at the mediocrity of the performances, and of the script, was tempered by attention to the camerawork and to occasional shifts in the marginal degrees of OK-ness – some parts slightly more than OK, some parts more than slightly less. That passable, impotent, rather underwhelming pattern held until the end of Act Two, which came with a literal bang. From the moment plucky messenger Lance Corporal Schofield got knocked out by a lone rifleman, the entire production collapsed into a succession of farces that left me deeply irritated. It started with director Sam Mendes staging a Skyfall-esque action sequence (which also included a blindsiding art shot and an off-brand Saving Private Ryan knife fight) that bore no relation to the war film he’d spent an hour trying to realize. “Respite” then arrived with an infuriating petite Mère interlude (which also included the most pointless Chekhov’s Gun I’ve ever seen; a ploy that will now be known as Samuel’s Milk). The entire scene, needless to say, should’ve been rejected out of hand. Now in full swing, Sam continued to build with a remarkably ungraceful river-petal piece of phony symbolism – a call-back that was somehow more hackneyed than the story it was alluding to. Could he deliver a fitting finale? The movie-manufactured race against time that anchors the climax isn’t its most cumbersome device, given the music choice that spins going ‘over the top’ as a triumphant moment – there’s a vaguely offensive notion if I ever saw one. Caps the day’s work with a two-dimensional walk-on from Benedict Cumberbatch, confused guff about last men standing, cliché bingo in the parting shot, and a nauseatingly pretentious coda. Impotence and mediocrity look a damn sight better when prospects take a turn for the worse. We should be grateful for what we’ve got.
Watching a film as amateurish as this makes you appreciate much of the quality-control we take for granted, even in stinkers. Like the difference between watching actors say lines and characters conversing. Suddenly all the world really does look like a stage. Child actors, bless them, it’s a tough gig. But the performance of the lead here is am-dram at best. To be fair to her, so are most of the cast, child or not. Their inability to get anywhere near the orbit of attainment is amplified by a script to whom plotting is an as-yet undiscovered country.
US treatment of those “suspected” Latin Americans it detains and deports is a hot-button public debate, yet ground-level awareness of its full scale is, I suspect, sorely lacking. That gives it immense cinematic potential. It is wholly unrealised here. Amateurism isn’t grounds for any offence in itself. But most offensive films are better made than this.
Threatened to subsist on the odd decent joke – smouldering intensity got me – and I briefly got onboard with its first act adventureering. But threaten is all it did. The usual shortcomings apply, but then the popcorn package is a simple formula half-baked often. Pace, lacking. Wit, sparing. Content, manifestly insufficient. Throw in your vacuum-packed action-effects-set piece finale, hastily arranged “meaning” scenes, and a villain who has to be there for, villain commitments? Voila, 21st century blockbuster we have a made. Just not a particularly good one. To offer a more practical conclusion, I can report that kids were pleasantly diverted in my screening. It’s also, cc J.J. Abrams, not the worst megabux movie currently in cinemas. So there’s that.
Taika Waititi’s-World-War-whimsy is initially guilty of trivialising the appalling nature of its subject matter – sending up Nazism as a joke was always going to be hard to pull off for 90 minutes. For a long time it looked like that’s all Jojo Rabbit would be, a damp satire with no focus and no bite. Even as comedic pretence started giving way to Berlin-wall-relationship drama, I found myself resolutely unmoved. And then I was.
Two thirds of the way in, under a classic Michael Giacchino score and a superb performance by Thomasin Mackenzie, this slapstick mess lifted itself when I least expected, for the simple reason I felt affected. Amidst constant reminders of its deficiencies – often within the same scene – the love story that comes to define the film accrues a strange poignancy. It’s not that Waititi lacks talent – he has a clear sense of poetry, beautiful details like the shoelaces are impossible to ignore. Nor does he lack brains – his direction occasionally comes close to capturing the hyper-reality of wartime-German life. But unlike, say, the Coen Brothers, he lacks discipline. This is a short film, 108 minutes including credits, yet it’s still baggy, every winning moment potentially undercut by an avoidable indulgence. All of which gives the impression Taika’s editorial slack has prevented a good film from being a great one. I think, however, the opposite is true. Given how poorly it was tracking, how pointless and underwhelming it had seemed, the fact its final act emerged with genuine dignity means this is a positive verdict, not a disappointed one.
The first warning sign this ostensible murder-mystery wasn’t going to succeed as you’d hoped (if not necessarily expected) came early. I like Daniel Craig – an actor with commendable presence if not commendable range. But the moment he opens his mouth to produce a dubious Southern accent that’s going to pervade the entire film, you know the direction is lacking the authoritative guile any project with higher aspirations demands. Which brings me to its crippling handicap. Rian Johnson had already served up a massive franchise turd with Star Wars: The Last Jedi – a film so insipidly directed and excruciatingly written you couldn’t believe he’d been given the gig. But I’m always inclined to give the benefit of doubt – corporate tentpoles have so many guidelines, so many mitigating factors, that judging a filmmaker solely on those terms would be doing them a disservice. On to save the day comes Knives Out – a low budget, star-studded genre piece with an independent sensibility. A chance then for the auteur to really show us their creative prowess. You think?
What initially promises to be an arch genre deconstruction dissipates into melodrama of the soppiest disposition, something no amount of lampshading can obfuscate. Johnson has no discernible flare – instead of cranking scenes up they flatten out. His style is televisual. And I wish I could say the same about his writing. Lesser artistes crowbar their ideas into frame in the most obvious syntax because they simply don’t have the capacity to do so any differently. Jarring attempts to sound contemporary (netflix! influencers!) are clumsy, secondary-school debating seminars about political issues (I’ve had more stirring conferences in beer-gardens) are wince-inducing, and beating your audience around the head with a woefully on-the-nose coda is completely inexcusable. To clarify, his politics are not my problem. A TV director and sub-TV writer making movies, let’s start there.