Film Review | Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

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I’ve got a bad feeling about this.

The Force Awakens is about Star Wars as a feeling. It’s a loving recreation of everything that once captured the imagination, dusting off the old iconography in an attempt to evoke those same emotions again. The Force Awakens is about hearing the stir of a John Williams score, watching a battered X-Wing take on the Death Star, seeing Han Solo and Chewbacca on the Millennium Falcon. “We’re home”, says The Force Awakens, nostalgia writ large.

The Last Jedi, meanwhile, is about Star Wars as a set of ideas. It interrogates what Star Wars is, taking it apart before putting it back together again – while, yes, subverting expectations along the way. It was a visually striking, thematically engaging attempt to grapple not just with what you love about Star Wars, but why it’s worth loving it – and how anyone can be the hero. “This isn’t going to go the way you think”, says The Last Jedi, willing to try and steer Star Wars somewhere new, ending on perhaps one of the most romantic images of the saga.

The Rise of Skywalker, then, is about Star Wars as a set of internet comments and forum posts. It’s a hollow, anodyne film, constructed by committee and lacking any real vision. In fact, it’s scarcely a film at all; rather, it’s an inexplicable act of cowardice, a conscious attempt to avoid any creative decisions that might be considered brave or interesting – or, in fact, any creative decisions at all, so frequently are choices made then quickly walked back. Quite why this proved the case is difficult to ascertain; it’s not like the quality of these films particularly correlates with their profitability, after all.

If the much-maligned Star Wars prequels had any cinematic merit or cultural weight – and they do – it is for their eccentricities, the sheer idiosyncratic oddity of a trilogy of films so entirely shaped by and beholden to the vision of one man. They’re not “good” films, no. But they all are worthwhile in ways that The Rise of Skywalker could never be: the prequels, at least, have an identity, have a personality. With its frantic recitation of Wookiepedia trivia and producer mandated plot points, The Rise of Skywalker is an exercise in artifice. It’s hard to imagine a more soulless, glum piece of work – made all the worse by how it positions itself as the ultimate conclusion to and final word on a series that, even at its nadir, could at least lay claim to its own set of distinctive quirks. At one point, Star Wars was a risky venture from a bold young filmmaker; now, it’s just one of several managed assets, another intellectual property mined by a monopolistic mega-corporation for maximum profit.

There will be spoilers in the following review; it’s difficult to avoid a detailed discussion of the plot of The Rise of Skywalker, if only because – somehow – JJ Abrams has managed to create a film that is almost entirely exposition, while still needing more exposition. Given that the plot is more or less all the film has to offer, efforts have been taken to obscure any big revelations from herein on – that said, if you’d rather not know about Jar Jar’s cameo, probably best to stop here.

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What’s most striking about The Rise of Skywalker is how deeply, deeply cynical it is. As already noted here and elsewhere, it feels like it was written by reddit comments, micromanaged long past the point any individual artistic notion might survive. At times, this is simply patronising and awkward. For example, the film ends with Maz Kanata, for some inexplicable reason, giving Chewbacca a medal. Diegetically inexplicable, anyway: if you’re in the know, it clearly references a longrunning meme about the original Star Wars, where both Luke Skywalker and Han Solo receive medals from Princess Leia at the end, but Chewbacca doesn’t. In The Rise of Skywalker, this is presented entirely devoid of any context, a symptom of a wider obsession with solving plotholes that don’t really exist and providing an answer to every question everyone ever posed about Star Wars online. It’s genuinely quite difficult to tell how the scene would play to someone without that depth of immersion in the paratext – and it’s not the only scene like that. The Rise of Skywalker has very little trust in its audience, offering not exciting new ideas, but instead only the dim pleasure of recognition.

That would be one thing if, say, an over signified cameo from Denis Lawson was the extent of the film’s cynicism – if it began and ended with a jaundiced litany of corporate artefacts, getting all the toys briefly out of the box before putting them right back where they belonged, it’d be a lot more palatable. No, The Rise of Skywalker is instead altogether more feeble, making lamentable concessions to the worst type of fan by sidelining Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tico. After being introduced in The Last Jedi, Tran received intense racist abuse, essentially for the crime of being an Asian woman in Star Wars. Tran is in The Rise of Skywalker, yes, but only nominally – her role is limited mainly to brief chunks of exposition, and a scene at the beginning, heartbreaking for what it represents, where Rose says that she’d rather not take part in this film’s adventure, actually, because she’s got some star charts to read instead.

There is a lot in The Rise of Skywalker that reads like giving up, an attempt to iron out any distinctive wrinkles Rian Johnson might’ve left behind him. If this attitude was limited to plot details, that’d be one thing – disappointing for some, perhaps, but on the whole basically forgivable, simply a by-product of serial storytelling with multiple authors. That it extended also to an open attempt, on behalf of the most powerful entertainment monolith around, to appease a group of internet racists? That is genuinely quite pathetic, and all involved should be deeply embarrassed.

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Also disappointing is the sheer paucity of imagination. Abrams’ previous effort, The Force Awakens, was oft accused of hewing too closely to the structure of the original Star Wars. It wasn’t an unreasonable criticism, though the film perhaps deserved a degree more leeway; it at least tried to recontextualise those familiar plot beats, to fashion something that, if not entirely new, at least offered a different spin on things.

The Rise of Skywalker makes no such effort. It feels like the very worst of fanfiction – or, actually, the very worst of licensed tie-in fiction – entirely unable to step out of the shadow of what came before. There’s no effort to widen the scope of what Star Wars can be, to move beyond fetishistic reverence for Lucas’ original films (or, at least, the ones that a very narrow stratum of vocal fandom approve of anyway). For all that everyone relentless mocked the campaign to remake The Last Jedi, clearly they needn’t have bothered: here is The Rise of Skywalker, ready to retcon and refute anything anyone ever complained about in the YouTube comments section. In fact, the whole film seems paralysed by a lack of confidence, hedging against every choice it makes – The Rise of Skywalker ends up as though caught in a loop, repeating itself over and over again, taking two steps back with each one forward to make sure nothing really changes.

Ostensibly, this is about tying up loose ends. That is basically nonsense. Setting aside the fact that The Last Jedi actually closes in a far neater position than The Force Awakens did – the latter ended on a cliffhanger with the three leads separated, after all – The Rise of Skywalker manages to create more questions than it actually answers. Part of this is down to its hectic pace and convoluted plotting; it’s difficult to succinctly explain, for example, quite how sloppily it’s revealed that Leia once trained to be a Jedi and had a lightsabre of her own, kept hidden for someone who might later prove worthy. Suffice to say, it’s an awkward beat, easy to forget, and ultimately only a contrivance to give Rey another lightsabre. Questions about how Palpatine survived Return of the Jedi, how he found the time to raise a family, somehow still everything about Snoke – there’s plenty that, strictly speaking, doesn’t make sense, even by the already loose standards Star Wars is held to. Whether Abrams et al thought they’d delivered a watertight script, or, less charitably, if the film was written with one eye on later Disney+ releases filling in the gaps remains to be seen.

But it’s not just an issue of pacing. Rather, the problem comes because the film seems to be built around ‘moments’, around set-pieces strung together as a MacGuffin quest not a million miles away from a video game. The Rise of Skywalker feels perfunctory, like a contractual obligation – the point at which stories from a galaxy far far away might finally have been exhausted.

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Admittedly, yes, the film started from a difficult position. While it’s been debated exactly how much the trilogy was planned ahead of time, and how much leeway individual directors were given, one thing seems basically clear enough: the plan, originally, was for each episode to focus on a different member of the original trio. Episode VII was about Han Solo; Episode VIII was about Luke Skywalker; Episode XI was meant to be about Leia Organa, but for Carrie Fisher’s tragic, untimely death.

Carrie Fisher’s role here – insofar as this slightly ghoulish, digital resurrection can be dubbed a “role” – is… awkward at best. It was always going to be, of course. A script clearly written backwards from the dialogue they had available was never going to feel especially naturalistic: it most closely resembles, as others have pointed out, that one episode of Community where they stitch together a Star Wars knockoff from a few unfinished clips of a crime drama. There’s something quite sad about the whole affair, really. Every moment Carrie Fisher, or the approximation of her they built, is on screen serves only as a reminder of who we lost; that she gets top billing at the end is nice, for a moment, until it quickly isn’t. It’s hard to earnestly suggest this was an adequate solution; sacrilege though it might’ve been, there’s perhaps an argument to be made that Leia should’ve been recast, that Meryl Streep or Stevie Nicks should’ve fulfilled the role and let the trilogy end as originally planned. (Or even, perhaps, the movie should’ve started with Leia’s funeral – and Palpatine’s apparent return from the dead been more closely tied to this, questions of life and death proving the motivation for Kylo Ren as it once was the motivation for his grandfather in Revenge of the Sith.)

Even outside of that, though, The Rise of Skywalker faced a troubled production. Colin Trevorrow was let go from the project early on; the script was rewritten many times by many different writers. (It’d be interesting to know exactly when Palpatine’s return was decided on – it seems like it’s got Jack Thorne’s fingerprints all over it, given the similarities to his stageplay Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, though admittedly could just as easily have been Abrams’ idea.) In the end, Abrams came to the film late, and had less time to work on this than he did on The Force Awakens. More likely than not, the film would’ve benefitted if held to December 2020; as ever, though, commitment to shareholders supersedes commitment to making good art, and the deadline was met.

That, perhaps, might explain why even the things Abrams is usually good at falter here – in contrast to the often-vibrant direction of The Force Awakens, The Rise of Skywalker offers a decidedly more muted world. For whatever reason, Abrams’ visual stylings aren’t up to his usual standards; grand space battles struggle to cohere, new planets fail to make an impact, and the final battle with the Emperor quickly devolves into a CGI mess. There’s a sense that a lot of shortcuts were taken across The Rise of Skywalker, and the film suffers for it.

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What’s more aggravating, though, is that this lack of ambition extends too to the characters. For all that The Force Awakens relied a little too heavily on nostalgia, it was, to its credit, conscious about not letting the legacy characters overshadow its new heroes too heavily.

Here… less so. That pervasive, fawning adoration for the original trilogy often undercuts the characters themselves – when C3PO has a more coherent emotional arc than leads Finn or Poe, something has gone quite wrong. It’s frankly fascinating that John Boyega seems to think Finn was better served by The Rise of Skywalker than The Last Jedi – certainly, the promise the character held in The Force Awakens is squandered here, despite briefly touching on his origins as an imperial defector once again. It’s much the same for Poe, too, whose plotline here serves only as a suffocating attempt to make sure everyone in the audience knows he definitely did have a girlfriend at one point.

That said, the character most let down by The Rise of Skywalker is Rey. Or, rather, Rey Palpatine. Surely the most compelling idea in The Last Jedi was that Rey was simply Rey; special because anyone can be, not because of who her family was. There was something quite profound to the idea that a hero could come from anywhere: there’s nothing profound about this. As Lindsey Romain has pointed out, “making Rey a Palpatine is more in service to the plot hole crowd than to the character herself” – somewhere along the line, Abrams et al lost interest in their main character, instead much more focused on imitating the Star Wars we’ve already seen before. Indeed, even if nothing else, The Last Jedi at least proved a decisive break from repeating the beats of George Lucas’ work – surely no one would earnestly argue that The Rise of Skywalker compares to The Empire Strikes Back? As it is, this final act in the story is confused at best, and incoherent at worst – not a million miles away from, say, Return of the Jedi seeing Yoda explain to Luke that, actually, his father Anakin Skywalker was still alive, and Darth Vader had in fact been lying. Admittedly, the final line, where Rey chooses to become Rey Skywalker, is nice: if The Last Jedi says anyone can be the hero, then The Rise of Skywalker is saying anyone can be a Skywalker, anyone can pick up that legacy, even if they weren’t born to it. Yes, it’s a weak echo of Steven Moffat’s Extremis, but then quite a lot of The Rise of Skywalker seems to be an effort to remind people that Moffat is quite a good writer anyway.

Kylo Ren fares somewhat better – though this, largely, is down to Adam Driver’s own skill, elevating the rough material he’s given. Where he’s even given material at all, that is: for the last twenty minutes of the film, Driver actually has no dialogue at all, instead creating the Ben Solo character from small gestures and irreverent expressions alone. In the end, it doesn’t quite live up to the potential Kylo Ren represented in 2015, hewing a little too closely to the story of Darth Vader’s own redemption. Although, even on that level, it doesn’t quite work – more a Damascene conversion than anything borne of real conflict. That angsty, toxic masculinity washes away: The Force Awakens’ modern villain now instead a more familiar archetype. As with much of this film, there’s a sense that another, more interesting interpretation was lying just out of reach.

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Is there anything worthwhile to The Rise of Skywalker?

In fairness, some things do shine through. The ruins of the Death Star are a neat location; a fight on an ocean moon forms a clever parallel to the iconic duel on Mustafar. Rey gets a yellow lightsaber; that’s pretty cool. Particularly striking, albeit brief, is a shot of a star destroyer falling on Jakku, not far from the wreckage of another – the one Rey called home in The Force Awakens, itself a remnant of the original trilogy. Admittedly it makes little sense, but that doesn’t matter, instead neatly underscoring the cyclical, generational nature of it all. Still at the end, it’s like poetry: it rhymes. No doubt on repeated viewings, more details would reveal themselves; a certain shot, a particular inflection, a piece of design, all increasingly worth of appreciation. Much as it struggles under the weight of ‘Star Wars’ the idea, The Rise of Skywalker will likely ultimately benefit from the fact that it will always have someone willing to revisit it, willing to find something worth celebrating.

On first watch, though, the film eventually becomes entirely unmoored from questions of “quality” – it’s just pure, unrepentant nonsense. There’s some enjoyment to be had from that, certainly; this film is no doubt going to be a fixture of internet memes much like the prequels. It is, in a way, the Riverdale of Star Wars movies (although Riverdale at least has a degree of self-awareness that this lacks). By the time of the Reylo kiss, all that’s really left is to admire the film for so unwittingly stumbling into a surely endless discourse cycle that’s unlikely to leave anyone happy. With regards to the kiss itself, it’s an odd artefact; in isolation, it feels strange, somehow both inevitable and not anywhere near as electrifying as it could’ve been. Taken alongside the rest of the film, though, and it’s clearly another concession to internet fandom – albeit without realising that it’s an appeal to an entirely different group, a compromise surely neither will be pleased with.

That, in the end, is The Rise of Skywalker: a cloying, even sycophantic corporate product, so desperate to be liked it never really stops to tell a story. Yes, some people will enjoy it, and honestly, genuinely: good for them. Surely one of the best defences of the prequel films – setting aside everything that might be said about their auteurist idiosyncrasies – is that the children who grew up with them really did love them, and many still do. For what are, in essence, family films, it’s hard to really begrudge anyone that. Much the same is true of The Rise of Skywalker, whatever faults it might have. At the end of the day, it’s just a movie.

What is altogether more troubling, though, as a note to end on, is this.

Disney, at this stage, isn’t so much a corporation as it is a cultural monolith. It has a monopoly on the zeitgeist. If any film franchise is too big to fail, it’s Star Wars: their quality and content ultimately has very little correlation to their profitability. Yes, dedicated fans will squabble online, but they’ll still watch it no matter what – and so will the other hundred percent of the audience. Disney didn’t need to make these concessions; Disney didn’t need to almost entirely excise Kelly Marie Tran as a gesture towards a group of vocal racists. Obviously, Disney is not and has never been a bastion of progressive values, and expecting otherwise from any company is naïve at best, but this feels rather different.

So. If a company that wields as much influence as Disney feels the need to bow down to what is, essentially, the latest iteration of Gamergate… what does that mean next?

Related:

Film Review | Motherless Brooklyn (2019)

Film Review | The Two Popes (2019)

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Film Review | Motherless Brooklyn (2019)

motherless brooklyn film review edward norton gugu mbatha raw alec baldwin willem dafoe

As Lionel Essrog, Norton offers a characteristically precise performance – every tic and spasm of the 1950s gumshoe’s Tourette’s syndrome meticulously recreated, in many ways the pinnacle of the careful affect Norton is known for as an actor. But to focus on the precision of the performance obscures its sensitivity. What might at first be written off as an ostentatious display of overly attentive histrionics, justified only by itself to itself, belies something much more tentative and tender. There’s a lightness to Norton’s work here, something gentle not lost in his formal dedication to the psychical neuroses; Lionel is rendered with vulnerability and treated in turn with empathy. There’s a depth beyond the superficially impressive imitation of the rhythms of Tourette’s – a crumpled, weary interiority suggestive of a man always slightly out of step with his surroundings.

Another new review from me! Something I was conscious of particularly with this one was how I wrote about acting, specifically; actually engaging with the details of performances is something I find difficult to articulate, so I’m trying to work on that a little harder. Fairly pleased with what I wrote in the end, actually, so that’s nice!

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Film Review | The Two Popes (2019)

the two popes jonathan pryce anthony hopkins benedict francis netflix review anthony mccarten fernando meirelles

In its weakest moments, The Two Popes treats Benedict as an aberration, an interruption that needed to be corrected by Francis – at times, the affection felt towards the current Bishop of Rome risks tending towards the hagiographic.

And yet The Two Popes clearly aspires to a more complicated narrative. Central to this story are the sexual abuse cases that came to light towards the end of Benedict’s papacy. It’s a fraught subject, and The Two Popes is necessarily precise in approach – the careful levity of McCarten’s script is easy to appreciate, conscious in how it threads the needle between this and its otherwise gentle humour, never quite polemic or farce.

I am really, really pleased with this review. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to bring myself to write something properly, for a myriad of boring reasons, but here I really managed to break that writer’s block. Lots of half-completed drafts cluttering up my desktop at the moment, but this, thankfully, is not one of them.

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Film Review | The Nightingale (2019)

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Kent lingers on the violence, lingers on assault, lingers on the casual, visceral nature of this world; the camera holds its gaze far longer than one can bear, deliberately unsettling audiences and challenging them not to look away. Indeed, The Nightingale is designed for the cinema experience – being able to look away from the laptop screen and check Twitter defeats the point of Kent’s unrelenting direction, however necessary it might sometimes feel.

Here’s my review of The Nightingale, accompanying my recent interview with its two lead actors.

It’s an interesting film, The Nightingale – as I remark in the review, it’s a movie that’s far easier to respect than to like. There’s a lot about it that’s hugely, hugely impressive: not just Jennifer Kent’s direction, but also the performances of Aisling Francoisi and Sam Claflin. (And indeed of Baykali Ganambarr – I’m a little annoyed with myself I didn’t find the space to mention to his performance in the review itself, it’s quite a notable omission.)

I wasn’t especially fond of it when I first watched it; my appreciation of it has grown since then, though, the more I’ve thought about it. It’s definitely a film that benefits from deeper thought and consideration – certainly, had I reviewed it closer to when I watched the film, I’d have likely written about it more critically than I ultimately did. Admittedly I’m not super pleased with the review itself: I think perhaps I could’ve done a stronger piece of writing about the film than I actually did, particularly in the second half of the review.

Still, though. Pretty pleased with that segment I quoted above. Good set of sentences, that.

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Film Review | Brexit: The Uncivil War (2019)

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Everyone knows who won. But not everyone knows how.

Perhaps somewhat ironically, Brexit: The Uncivil War is a film caught between two contrary instincts, unable to quite work out what it wants to be or what it wants to do.

On one level, Brexit is trying to be a character study, an attempt to shine a light on Dominic Cummings – a man most of the film’s audience is unlikely to be aware of. At the same time, though, the film also wants to be a process story ahead of anything else, delving into the idiosyncrasies of a political campaign of near unprecedented significance. It wouldn’t be impossible to be both, of course, but ultimately Brexit is neither – there’s a certain tension borne of this, as the film struggles to find an identity, leaving a rapidly forming sense that none of the major figures involved were quite on the same page throughout.

Screenwriter James Graham, clearly, is most interested in Dominic Cummings – not a huge surprise, given Cummings is apparently the sort of brash genius that so often fascinates writers. Whether Cummings genuinely falls prey to every cliché-ridden convention of the brusque political operative, speaking only in self-consciously lofty references and aphorisms is another question: it’s difficult to tell whether this an accurate account of Cummings’ real-life eccentricities or an artifice on Graham’s part. If the latter, it’s worthy of quite the eye-roll; if the former, then it’s easier to understand why Graham was quite so fascinated by Cummings, but does rather leave the impression that Graham bought into Cummings’ own hype, which is… another problem, to say the least.

That said, though, Graham isn’t helped by Cumberbatch’s visible lack of interest in Cummings. If 2018 held the best performance of Cumberbatch’s career in Patrick Melrose, then Brexit: The Uncivil War is unfortunately a sure example of one of his weakest. In Patrick Melrose, Cumberbatch carved out a space within his established milieu of isolated eccentrics, injecting it with a bracing vulnerability that elevated the performance far above the rest of his filmography. In Brexit: The Uncivil War, Cumberbatch does almost entirely the opposite – he’s sleepwalking through the film, coasting on a reputation for playing irreverent geniuses earned on Sherlock. (There’s reasonable critique to make, on that grounds, that Cumberbatch brings too much baggage to the role – simply by putting him on screen in this role, there’s an implicit suggestion that Cummings is a Sherlock-esque figure.) Cummings, here, is a caricature of ‘a Benedict Cumberbatch role’ – so of course the character study fails. It doesn’t matter what Graham was trying to achieve if Cumberbatch doesn’t show up.

Absent its star, Brexit renders Cummings a cipher around which the Leave campaign as a whole can be – not ‘interrogated’, that suggests a far robust and uncompromising look at events than the film offered – viewed. In that sense, Brexit does reasonably well, finding flair in the mundanities of the campaign trail from focus groups to slogans. It isn’t quite as good as, say, the average episode of The West Wing, but it works – an extended look at the subtleties that set “take control” apart from “take back control” makes for one of the film’s better sequences, for example. Similarly effective is Brexit: The Uncivil War’s look at how the Leave campaign relied on developing social media targeting – which is to say, it works, but it’s nowhere near as good an articulation of the concept as when it formed the fourth act plot twist of an episode of The Good Fight.

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Again, though, it doesn’t quite land – a result, most likely, of the fact that the process story was never meant to be the main focus of the script, merely inadvertently accentuated by the vagaries of Cumberbatch’s performance. In turn, it leaves Brexit: The Uncivil War as a drama divided, a film at war with itself – it’s no surprise that film doesn’t have the impact it could’ve. (Director Toby Haynes, who might have been able to stitch the two instincts together, instead offers a third – the equivalent of “well, let’s just be a bit like Norway”. Haynes tries to emphasise the absurdity of it all, presumably angling to satirise right-wing pomposity – but instead directs with a certain baroque pretension, another element that fails to cohere.)

In the end, this adaptation prompts much the same question as the real-life source material: why bother?

Not even three years on from the vote, accusations that Brexit: The Uncivil War has come too soon hold an obvious weight. 2019 is too early for Brexit to have been historicised; indeed, it’s still a palpable part of the present, if the events of this week are any indicator. In the time between Brexit’s Channel 4 debut and this review being written, Theresa May’s prospective deal suffered an unprecedented defeat in parliament; what will happen in the time between writing and publishing the review remains to be seen, let alone in the time between publishing the review and Brexit’s nominal 29th March scheduling.

That isn’t to say, though, that Brexit shouldn’t have bothered because they don’t know how it’ll end. Rather, while the broader ramifications of the event are still ongoing – and while the campaign at the heart of the film is still subject to ongoing criminal investigation – there’s argument to be made that a fictionalised narrative is irresponsible filmmaking. By virtue of being the first major attempt to tackle Brexit on film, Brexit: The Uncivil War is also going to be – for a time, at least – the definitive account of that campaign. What James Graham and company emphasise – and, more crucially, what they omit – is going to have a greater hand in shaping public understanding of the Brexit campaign than any news report or documentary. Looking beyond their depiction of Cummings, there’s little sense that there was any awareness of this responsibility behind the scenes. Arron Banks and Nigel Farage are blustering and foolish, not insidious and dangerous; Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are trepidant and cautious, not self-serving and morally negligent; the Leave campaign’s illegal overspending is little more than a footnote. Maybe waiting a few more years would’ve stopped them getting it wrong, maybe it wouldn’t, but the mistakes would likely have mattered a little bit less.

Ultimately, if Brexit: The Uncivil War was meant to hold a mirror up to society, it is instead a far better reflection of James Graham’s interest – and Benedict Cumberbatch’s apparent disinterest – in one man, rather than offering any meaningful commentary on the state of a nation.

5/10

Related:

Who is America? Who cares?

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Film Review | Agatha Christie’s Crooked House (2017)

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What’s notable about Crooked House amongst Christie’s oeuvre, however, is that the story has never been adapted for the screen – until now. This means that all the hallmarks and idiosyncrasies that define Christie’s work, the ones that we’ve become so familiar with, here feel slightly different. The stately home, the eccentric family, the mystery and intrigue – it all feels slightly subverted here, in fresh and unexpected ways. Indeed, the way the case unfolds is difficult to anticipate, keeping the audience in suspense to the last possible moment.

Here is a film review. A film review written by me, no less! Admittedly that’s probably exactly what you’ve come to expect on this here website of mine, but hey, sometimes it’s good to be specific.

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Film Review | Easy Living (2017)

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It’s the story of Sherry, a door-to-door makeup saleswoman, and the lack of control she has over her life. Sherry is a self-destructive character, one spiraling from extreme to extreme; it’s made immediately clear that she occupies a liminal space within her own life, at a remove from those around her. Caroline Dhavernas gives a note-perfect performance throughout; she embodies the messy, fractured character, managing to strike the exact balance between off-putting and engaging. A lot about the character is left implicit, and this is carried through Dhavernas’ work; it’s perhaps inaccurate to say Sherry has any real interiority, but that’s likely an inevitable consequence of this non-traditional character study.

My review of Easy Living for Flickering Myth. It’s an interesting film; one that’s difficult to like, but easy to appreciate.

I haven’t gone back and re-read this review, but I suspect there’s more than a little element of “I got to see this film for free, and I’m interviewing the lead actress in an hour so there’s a solid chance that the writers and directors and so on will see this review, so I should probably be polite and look for the positives” going on – certainly that’s how I remember feeling while writing it. It does end with a rape scene, which I suspect I didn’t critique enough, which I do regret. So, bear that in mind if you’re going to go and watch it.

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Film Review | Anomalisa (2015)

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I think you’re extraordinary. I don’t know why yet. It’s just obvious to me that you are.

This is something of a difficult movie to review, I think; in some senses, it’s a difficult one to watch. And I don’t (just) mean how awkward it feels to see stopmotion sex.

Charlie Kaufman has something of a reputation of being, to put it bluntly, a genius. This is the first film of his that I’ve ever watched, so my expectations were high; particularly so, given that the praise for this movie was just through the roof. I mean, take a look at the soundbites on the film’s poster – it isn’t just “perfect”, it’s “a rare sliver of transcendence”. It’s a “rare and haunting marvel” that, apparently, changed someone’s life. So, you know, that’s an astonishingly high bar to set.

Particularly I was drawn to the line that says “the most human film of the year”; not least because that was the only tagline I was aware of before I saw the movie, but there’s something about that which is just so… enticing, to me. I’m quite interested in drama (obviously) and I want to get into writing myself someday, so there’s something about “the most human film of the year” which sounds to me to be a ridiculously high piece of praise to level at something.

Watching the film, though? Hmm. I’m struggling to properly put a pin in what I actually thought of it.

It did feel quite real, right from the off, beginning with the banalities of plane rides and hotels. (It’s possible this resonated with me moreso because I was watching the movie on a plane, having recently left a hotel.) I think in some ways this sequence was made more effective because it was done in stopmotion; it’s the juxtaposition between the very “true” feeling dialogue and the obvious-yet-uncanny-valley-esque puppets that really highlights the more human side of this movie, I think. It draws it into much sharper focus, and I think the film benefits from this throughout; Anomalisa is tied quite closely to its stopmotion format, really availing of the medium in such a way that it wouldn’t work otherwise.

The stopmotion, incidentally, is fantastic. I have some experience with that medium myself, having made a few shorts over the years – but we’re talking weeks’ worth of work, to produce fairly simplistic videos of a minute and a half tops. Anomalisa is so advanced as to be nearly incomparable to what I did, though, and it’s frankly a work of art in itself. A stunning accomplishment, really, which would have taken a hell of a lot of effort; it paid off, in any case, because Anomalisa came out looking absolutely gorgeous.

I just don’t know that Anomalisa was actually as smart as it thought it was, or as smart as it wanted to be.

Anomalisa is about loneliness, to some extent; David Thewlis’ character, Matthew Stone, clearly feels quite isolated and spends the runtime of the movie desperately searching for some meaningful human connection. When he does find it, it’s so fleeting as to barely last at all. In a lot of ways, the depiction of loneliness here is quite well done – the dialogue is fantastic, the feeling permeates the movie, and there’s an aspect of it that seems quite true throughout. Stone repeats with Lisa what he did with the other woman; the irony is that she isn’t an “anomaly Lisa”, she’s just the latest in a long string of women he does that with. He’s sad and lonely and a little pathetic, and he can’t connect with people, because he gets so caught up with the romantic ideals and doesn’t consider the person behind the idealised fiction version. It’s a well-presented story, and in many regards it’s quite clever.

It’s not that clever, though. Because Anomalisa doesn’t really say anything about loneliness, and I don’t feel it presents anything particularly new or all that interesting. The high concept, essentially, is “let’s tell a story about a lonely middle-aged man who has an affair… except it’s stop motion!” and then that’s just sort of the extent of it. There’s a rather out of place, yet wholly predictable, dream sequence; it adds little, feeling largely superfluous, and you can sort of guess what’s going to happen in it from the first time you see the stop motion models. Towards the end of the movie, we’ve even got Stone saying “sometimes there is no meaning, and at times that’s a meaning in and of itself”; this feels rather like a cop-out, to be honest, as if the movie itself is rejecting the idea it needs to have some level of substance. It’s taken the simplest representation of loneliness you can have, and presented it in an interesting way – that’s not enough to make the heart of the movie feel anything other than quite superficial.

I’m quite frustrated, really, that I feel this way. Primarily because I actually did, generally speaking, enjoy most of it; it was reasonably clever, and entertaining enough, despite feeling terribly lacking in a few key areas. More than that, though, I want to understand why everyone else loves it so much, and what they took away from it that I didn’t. While I’m not exactly disinclined to go against the critical consensus, I do feel like “yeah it’s just not that great” isn’t really a strong enough argument in the face of such significant praise. There was a distinct feeling that I’d missed something about the movie; I did some more reading, and I did pick up on some more nuanced ambiguities before. The Japanese sex doll, for example, wasn’t quite as gratuitous as I thought and did open up some questions as to whether or not Stone’s night with Lisa was hallucinatory; I was also able to clarify a few points regarding the voice work and the impact of it.

Ultimately, though, none of what I’ve read actually made me feel any the wiser. Anomalisa feels like a movie that needs a rewatch to fully appreciate it, but there was little about it that made me think it deserved an immediate rewatch; I suspect I’d only be watching it to keep searching for some deeper meaning that I’m just not going to find. If you’ve got any clever comments on it, or you can link me to a great essay about the movie, I would love to hear from you; I get the sense that I’m going to be trying to make Anomalisa into something it’s not for quite some time.

I’m going to eschew a rating for this movie, in part because I still don’t feel that I “get” it, but also… well, sometimes there is no rating, and at times that’s a rating in and of itself.

(See? Such a cop-out.)

Note from Alex of 2018: I’m inclined to tell you to disregard most of the above, though I’ve not actually rewatched Anomalisa since writing this. It’s going to be near the top of my list, though, because I still think I’ve missed something.

Related:

I’ll add this bit in later.

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Film Review | Inequality for All (2013)

inequality for all robert reich jason kornbluth documentary film review clinton sanders trump economy left wing

We make the rules of the economy – and we have the power to change those rules.

This is a documentary by Robert Reich – more on whom later – about inequality in the United States. Having lived in London for my entire life, that was a little bit outside my general knowledge base, but I can’t say that particularly mattered. One of the best things about this documentary was how accessible it was; I was watching it as part of an Economics class, so obviously that helped, but I do think that this particular documentary is likely to be quite easy to get into even without a background in those sorts of details. It’s a very coherent, very cogent piece – it’s structured around Reich, who’s now a professor of economics, giving explanations of different concepts, and then cutting away to first hand footage and testimonials that are relevant to the idea and further expound upon it. There’s also segments from lectures that Reich gives at the University of California, which are in and of themselves quite informative, as well as being quite well presented – a particularly notable segment breaking down the economics of an iPhone comes to mind.

Inequality for All takes quite a left-wing perspective – understandable, I imagine, given that Reich is a former democrat, and in recent years a vocal supporter of Bernie Sanders. In terms of the general message, the stance is quite clear; Reich feels that inequality is one of the biggest problems facing the US today, and has been trying to deal with it for nearly 30 years now. Some of the facts are quite galling, actually – the US is close to being the most wealth unequal country in the world, for example, with the poorest 47% of Americans having no wealth at all. (You can read more on the film’s website, if you’re interested.) He makes a strong and quite well substantiated case that the concept of “trickle-down economics”, with a focus on the super-rich rather than the working and middle classes, is fundamentally flawed; an interview with one such super-rich individual highlights the fact that, since he mostly saves money and actually spends little, that’s essentially a withdrawal of money from the economy. It’s far better, in a broader sense, to have a flourishing working and middle class, given that they will spend money and thus help the economy to grow.

Having said that, I don’t think that this movie does particularly lambast or deal an unfair hand to more right wing economic views. It’s very clear than Reich disagrees with them, as does the director; an IMDb review cites him as saying “there always doesn’t have to be two sides to a story”, essentially taking the stance that all the facts within the movie are presented accurately, and that’s enough in and of itself. Equally, though, the movie takes time to deal with those it criticises (the aforementioned super-rich), as well as presenting the story of some Republican voters who have been hurt by those right wing economic policies – individuals who remain Republic voters, that is. While I imagine they wouldn’t agree with Reich’s ideology, there’s no sense that they’ve been treated unfairly, or that they’re being criticised. Indeed, you see something of a debate between they and he, with footage of a talk Reich gave in their community.

To an extent, it also doubles as a profile on Robert Reich, who’s a very interesting person himself. As Bill Clinton’s former Secretary of Labour, he’s been involved in politics at a pretty high level for quite a long time; even before that, though, he’d began working for the government during the Carter administration. We get a lot of insight into what drives Reich as a person, and why he does dedicate his life to trying to “fight the bullies, to protect the powerless, to make sure that the people without a voice have a voice”. He presents himself quite well – certainly he looks to be a very good lecturer and teacher – and it’s also abundantly clear he’s got a brilliant sense of humour. Reich is under five foot tall, and there’s plenty of jokes surrounding that; there’s a clip from his inaugural speech when appointed Secretary of Labour, for example, where he opens the speech with something along the lines of “All modesty aside, somehow I always knew I’d be on Bill Clinton’s short list for Secretary of Labour”. He also presented an economics based television programme with a tall Republican friend of his called “The Long and Short of it”. I found it quite funny, in any case, but I’m easily amused.

Ultimately, Inequality for All is one of the most informative, and indeed most engaging, documentaries that I’ve watched in a long time. True, I’m drawing from a limited sample size there, but this is undoubtedly a very good piece of media; I think if you live in America, or you’re interested in politics & economics, this should be required viewing.

9/10

Related:

Film Review: Money Monster (2016)

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Film Review | Everything is Copy (2015)

everything is copy nora ephron scripted and unscripted jacob bernstein documentary review hbo tom hanks meg ryan nora ephron

Most of us live our lives devoid of cinematic moments.

Something of a departure from the norm for me here, given that this is a documentary, rather than a piece of fiction. (I say that, of course, but I’m working on reviews of another documentary and a biography at the minute, so perhaps this is just the new norm.)

This movie caught my attention not because I knew who Nora Ephron was – though I soon realised that I was actually reasonably familiar with her work – but rather because the documentary was one about a journalist and screenwriter. With the former ostensibly being my current “job”, and the latter my destined dream job, it seemed like this was a documentary that would be, at the very least, quite interesting to me.

Given that little preamble, I suppose I should point out now that you’re not necessarily going to be getting advice on how to become a writer, but rather a lot of insight into the life of this particular writer, and how she approached her work. The title, Everything is Copy, refers to the mantra of Ephron’s mother, who was a writer herself; it also comes to reflect, however, the manner in which much of Ephron’s best work was that which was personal to her. Indeed, the whole documentary is quite an intimate and personal affair, with close friends and family members musing on Ephron’s life and their relationship with her, following her death from leukaemia in 2012. That the movie is directed and presented by her son, Jacob Bernstein, only adds to the intimacy with which her life was viewed.

It becomes quite clear that Nora Ephron had quite an interesting life rather early on in the movie, as it tracks her career across its different stages, from her first job at the New York Post (which she got after writing a satirical piece criticising the paper which impressed the editor) to her final theatre play, which starred Tom Hanks as a journalist himself. In a way, it’s quite circular; perhaps another manner in which everything is copy. Between these two events, though, Ephron had a long and distinguished career, with a host of articles, books, and movies to her name – including one of my favourite romcoms, You’ve Got Mail. (It’s really great.)

A series of different guests, with actors such as Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, and Meg Ryan, to other collaborators such as Mike Nicholls, alongside Ephron’s sisters Delia, Amy, and Hallie, really help to flesh out the picture of Ephron that we get. It’s very clear how much of an impact she had on their lives; they were all clearly quite upset, in the way that one is when you’ve lost someone special.

What also became very clear, though, was how talented Ephron was as a writer. Across the film there are a series of excerpts from Ephron’s writing across the years, with Meg Ryan, Lena Dunham, and Reese Witherspoon all providing readings, and even Ephron herself in archive footage; it’s immediately evident how incisive and insightful Ephron could be, with a very strong voice, as well as being quite funny generally.

Ultimately, Everything is Copy is quite an engaging documentary, and I’d really recommend giving it a look if you’re interested in writing, or indeed the life of Nora Ephron. It’s a respectful yet fair historiography, which shines a light on the trials and tribulations of a genuinely fascinating – and genuinely talented – woman.

7/10

Related:

Film Review: Inequality is for All (2013)

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