Review Roundup: June 7-13/21


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.



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.



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.



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.  


Review Roundup: May 31-June 6


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?



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.



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.



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.



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.