SIX OF THE BEST #24 – FILMS TO HELP YOU KEEP CALM AND FEEL BETTER!
As everyone knows we’re all being impacted by the medical pandemic and COVID-19 virus in some way. Essentially, these are troubled times for everyone and my sympathies go out to anyone who has the virus, lost someone to it or knows someone who has it. Similarly, if you are vulnerable and isolated, I wish you all the best. If we can, as a species, all keep calm, work together and NOT panic, I think we can work through this. That is my hope, anyway.
The United Kingdom is slowly moving toward, like many other European countries, some kind of lockdown scenario. Indeed, cinemas have shut down, so that means we will be watching a lot of movies indoors. Obviously, there may be a clamouring to watch apocalyptic or dystopian visions of society. However, I would advise watching some feel good or feel better films too. So, here are Six of the Best Films to Help you Keep Calm and Feel Better! Please note that some of these films have darker themes and events, but the narratives represent hope and light, finding resilient and positive characters overcoming the odds.
“This is a tale about an unprejudiced heart, and how it changed our valley forever.”
E. T. THE EXTRA TERRESTRIAL (1982)
“You could be happy here, I could take care of you. I wouldn’t let anybody hurt you. We could grow up together, E.T.”
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946)
“What is it you want, Mary? What do you want? You want the moon? Just say the word and I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down. Hey. That’s a pretty good idea. I’ll give you the moon, Mary.“
“I was crippled for the rest of my life. I got better. He made me better. Hell, you made me better.”
THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994)
“I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really. Get busy living, or get busy dying.”
“Hey, I know a joke! A squirrel walks up to a tree and says, “I forgot to store acorns for the winter and now I am dead.” Ha! It is funny because the squirrel gets dead.”
THE NETFLIX PROCLAMATION – FILM REVIEW CATCH-UP MARCH 2020
With COVID-19 threatening the world’s population, it is a time to remain calm and, if required, stay indoors out of the way of potential infection. As long as the Internet holds then there are thousands of films and TV shows to watch online to keep us all occupied. Obviously, one must also take a deep breath and pray that aside from the illness affecting the world, society manages to keep it’s social, financial and medical structures in place too.
Clearly, we need distractions at this difficult time. Films may not be the solution, but they can offer diversion at least. Thankfully, I love staying in and watching movies as it is a major hobby of mine. Indeed, I have been busy lately catching up on some of the latest releases Netflix has to offer. Thus, I present some quick reviews of films currently on the streaming platform, all with the usual marks out of eleven.
***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***
A PRIVATE WAR (2019)
Rosamund Pike is absolutely enthralling as the brave war correspondent, Marie Colvin. Putting her life and sanity on the line to report the terrors of conflict in Sri Lanka, Libya and Syria, to name a few, Colvin was both fearless and crazy in equal measures, but remains an incredibly powerful voice. This fine biopic feels haphazard and structurally chaotic but is certainly an impressive tribute to an iconic journalist. (Mark: 8 out of 11)
Nicole Kidman gives another excellent performance in this gritty neo-noir-cop-procedural drama. The clever structure — which tracks back and forth between Kidman’s burnt out character in the present and her violent past going undercover in a crime gang — arguably works against the emotional power of the film. However, director Karyn Kusama and Kidman make a formidable team in delivering a moody, bruising and bitter revenge thriller. (Mark: 8 out of 11)
EARTHQUAKE BIRD (2019)
I really loved director Wash Washmoreland’s previous film, Colette (2018), because it was such a vibrant. colourful and sparkling biopic of a fascinating character. I was thus surprised to see he had followed it up with an under-cooked thriller like Earthquake Bird (2019). Alicia Vikander portrays a dour ex-patriot in Japan who gets drawn into a love triangle involving the effervescent, Riley Keough, and photographer, Naoki Kobayashi. The film felt, like Vikander’s protagonist, depressed; ultimately drifting toward a tepid denouement. (Mark: 6 out of 11)
Rosamund Pike again! Here she is cast alongside Daniel Bruhl as they portray two Germans who joined a Palestinian military group that hijacked an Air France Flight in 1976. While the politics of the Israelis versus the Palestinians is explored to some extent, I felt more could have been done during the hostage situation to examine such complex issues. Instead, we get something more generic from director Jose Padiha, who inexplicably uses dance troupe montage to convey nebulous emotion and meaning. (Mark: 6 out of 11)
I LOST MY BODY (2019) – (Contains spoilers)
Both original and generic in terms of story, this romantic drama contains some of the most wonderful animation concepts I have seen in a long time. Brilliantly rendered and directed by Jeremy Chaupin, the narrative has two major strands. A severed hand – yes, a hand – seeks to unite with its body. Simultaneously, flashbacks reveal young Naoufel attempting to romance the girl he loves, Gabrielle. I really wanted to enjoy this more as the filmmaking is stunning. But, the final act of the film was too poetic, and it left me feeling cold and confused. (Mark: 7 out of 11)
THE KING (2019)
David Michod has been a filmmaker worth keeping tabs on since the release of brutal Australian crime film, Animal Kingdom (2010). After the big budget military satire War Machine (2017), failed, in my view, to hit the target, Michod has gone with another big production in The King(2019). Adapting Shakespeare’s Henry V trilogy (co-writer with Joel Edgerton) is no easy task and they deliver a film full of bravura cinematic moments. Timothee Chalamet is impressive in the lead role as the reluctant, but strong-of-heart young Prince Hal/King Henry. Lastly, Sean Harris, Robert Pattinson, Edgerton (as Falstaff) and Thomasin Mackenzie provide excellent acting support in a stirring period epic. (Mark: 8 out of 11)
THE LAUNDROMAT (2019)
Filmmakers Scott Z. Burns and Steven Soderbergh are usually so reliable in their cinematic endeavours. However, a star-studded cast including: Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman, Sharon Stone, Antonio Banderas, Matthias Schoenaerts and Jeffrey Wright cannot save this misguided comedy-drama about the Panama Papers scandal. I’m sure there is a great film in such financial crimes, but this was not it. (Mark: 5.5 out of 11)
MID 90s (2019)
Jonah Hill adds director to his already very successful acting, writing and producing curriculum vitae. Mid 90s (2019) owes much to the low-budget, improvisational and gritty style of filmmakers like Harmony Korine and Larry Clark, however, Hill’s approach is less extreme. The loose and episodic rites-of-passage narrative centres on Los Angeles based skater gangs and specifically Stevie (Sunny Suljic). He longs to grow up too fast and his experiences reminded me of an American version of Shane Meadow’s This is England (2006). While it’s a solid work of cinema, full of heart and believable performances, it’s ultimately quite underwhelming from an emotional perspective. (Mark: 7 out of 11)
THE TWO POPES (2019)
Fernando Merielles directs this adaptation of Anthony McCarten’s play featuring two giants of the acting world in Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce. The two heavyweight actors portray the real-life Pope Benedict XVI (Hopkins) and future Pope Francis, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Pryce). The duo conflict, debate and laugh about serious matters related to the history of the Catholic Church; plus, some not-so serious matters such as pizza and football. Having sat through Paulo Sorrentino’s uber-pretentious TV series The New Pope (2020) recently, I was not in the mood for more theological drama. However, the two leads are excellent, especially Pryce; and while the film is very dialogue driven, the flashbacks of Argentine history from Cardinal Bergoglio’s early years were powerfully evoked. (Mark: 8 out of 11).
Writers: Damon Lindelhof, Nick Cuse, Lila Byock, Christal Henry, Carly Wray, Cord Jefferson, Stacy Kuffour-Osei, Claire Kiechel, Jeff Jensen
Directors: Nicole Kassell, Stephen Williams, Andrij Parekh, Steph Green, David Semel, Frederick E. O. Toye
Cast: Regina King, Jeremy Irons, Don Johnson, Jean Smart, Tim Blake Nelson, Louis Gossett Jr., Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Hong Chau, Andrew Howard, Tom Mison, Frances Fisher, Jacob Ming-Trent, Sara Vickers, Dylan Schombing, and James Wolk.
Maybe I am imagining it, but I think we are now entering a different kind of TV narrative storytelling. Perhaps it has always been there? However, I am sure I can now see through the ‘Matrix’ of the internet’s all-powerful influence. My point is that we are moving away from traditional television storytelling which is solely interested in telling an emotionally whole and linear narrative. Is television that has a predictable soul and a beginning, middle and end — in THAT order — disappearing? Or am I just choosing to ignore the saturation of standard dramas involving cops, criminals and medics to watch more complex TV stuff?
Recent television shows such as Legion (2017), Westworld (2016), Dark (2017) and now Watchmen (2019) take stylish, cinematic and transgressive structural and thematic approaches to narrative. One could accuse them of being postmodern fakery or postmodern genius; or both. There does appear to be a movement toward over-complicated-clickbait-viral-trailer-led-ADHD-TV which fragments and shatters its’ story lines. The creators want us to experience their productions not in the traditional beginning, middle and end standard, but rather through shifting timelines, unreliable narrators and a blurred sense of what is right and wrong.
Damon Lindelhof, who is a brilliant writer and very experienced TV creative, does tend toward the pretentious and over-complex in his work. Having said that his recent production The Leftovers (2014 – 2017) contained some absolutely sensational thematic explorations of the apocalypse, damaged humanity and religious fervour. For his latest project HBO has given him a truckload of money to emulate and remix Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s seminal 1980’s comic book Watchmen. The original itself was a subversive tome of genius which subverted the mythology of comic book and superhero storytelling.
The main action is set in 2019 Tulsa, but also spans decades of alternative U.S. history and locations on Earth and not on Earth. If you don’t know the original source material or have not seen Zach Snyder’s valiant adaptation Watchmen (2009), you will be very confused initially and throughout. Because Lindelhof’s approach to this alt-world version of masked cops, criminals and vigilantes is via a chopping meta-storytelling structure. The various plots events and character histories are delivered via flashbacks, flash-forwards, narcotic visions, hallucinogenic dreams, splintered timelines and even a TV show within this television show. It’s a very stylish smorgasbord, splashed with crazy characters, witty hard-boiled dialogue, wild science fiction twists, lashings of violence, pockets of substance, cinematic visuals, high class production values and a cast to die for.
Yes, but Paul, what’s it actually about? How about love, hate, racism, superheroes, corruption, giant squids, cloning, rogue scientists, good versus evil, vigilantism, revenge, megalomania, transcendent beings, war, violence, rogue politicians, superheroes, masked identities, nuclear threat; and that the United States continues to be sown with the seeds of intolerance, blood and death. Watch the Watchmen (2019), take your time and piece the crazy jigsaw together for yourself. If not, and you prefer to play it safe, there’s always Law and Order for those who want something less mind-blowing.
Release Date: September 25th 2019 – December 11th 2019
UK Release: Comedy Central
Another year passes and another year of South Park! It has now incredibly reached its twenty-third season and the energy, humour, satire and desire to surprise and shock is still very much there in the latest ten episodes. However, I think that in Trey Parker’s desire to reinvent and reinvigorate the format, he seems to have taken a few missteps along the way. Because, while containing some sublime moments of comedy and wonderfully grotesque episodes, the latest season does not consistently reach the heights of previous ones. One could argue this is the weakest season in a long time.
Don’t get me wrong, I am just a humble worker drone and totally respect Trey Parker’s satirical genius. Yet, having worked on South Park for over thirty years Parker has arguably moved the furniture around too much in Season 23. I can understand why he has re-jigged the format, but for me, concentrating mostly on Randy Marsh’s Tegridy Farm enterprise in the first six episodes, many characters we love like Butters, Kyle, Kenny, Mr Garrison, Wendy, and even Cartman are sidelined to mere supporting roles. Of course, they do feature, but not as much as I would have preferred. I guess Parker just wanted a change and in recent seasons this has garnered many fantastic episodes. In Season 23 though, the over reliance and prolonged attempts at stoner and weed humour just did not make me laugh. Plus, Towelie as a comedy character has never worked and I wish he had over-dosed permanently, never to return.
There are some fine comedic moments throughout, and the themes are as strong as ever. Parker takes many satirical swipes at all manner of sociological, political, gender, health, economical and media targets. Through some excellent writing he successfully lampoons: media censorship, China, the anti-vaccine movement, plant-based food, transgenderism in sport, the PC or ‘woke/snowflake’ generation, drug abuse, streaming services, Christmas greed, addiction, drunk drivers, immigration detention centres, and, very briefly, the Trump administration. Ultimately, the season features several very good episodes, but arguably only Band in China and Turd Burglars hit the heights of classic South Park episodes of past seasons. Nonetheless, Trey Parker on autopilot is still one of the greatest writers and comedic voices around. If only he had a little less ‘Tegridy’, this season could have been another classic.
Produced by: Scott Z. Burns, Jennifer Fox, Danny Gabai, Eddy Moretti, Kerry Orent, Steven Soderburgh, Michael Sugar
Cast: Adam Driver, Annette Bening, Ted Levine, Michael C. Hall, Tim Blake Nelson, Maura Tierney, John Hamm, Douglas Hodge etc.
**CONTAINS REAL EVENT SPOILERS**
The Report (2019) is in the vein of recent films such as, Kill The Messenger (2014), The Post (2017), and Oscar winner, Spotlight (2015). It is based on true events and forensically documents a period of U.S. history which is both illuminating and engrossing. Adam Driver is cast as U.S. Senate staffer, Daniel J. Jones and given the task by Senator Feinstein (Annette Bening) to lead a team to investigate the 2005 destruction of interrogation videotapes. He begins the work in 2009 and is faced with six million pages of CIA materials to work through. It soon, unsurprisingly, becomes an obsessive and ordered job for Jones and it takes him years to ultimately finish the report.
I won’t give anymore away about the narrative events, but first and foremost this is a film about torture and admin. Writer and director, Scott Z. Burns cleverly structures the story between Jones’ researching the CIA materials and the actions of the Counter-Terrorist Centre staff led by the likes of Maura Tierney and George Fumusa’s characters. As the story proceeds, and details of extreme torture of terrorist subjects is revealed, Burns takes us further up the CIA food chain. Here we get a very damning critique of the horrifying lengths CIA operatives went to in order to secure information from suspects.
The Report (2019) is an engrossing film which I thought was going to go down the conspiracy thriller route or even the obsessive character breakdown study. There are elements of this, but essentially it is an extensively researched drama set in enclosed offices, in meetings, in Senate hearings, at desks and computer screens; all with flashes of interspersing violence. I’m not acutely educated in regard to American foreign policy and politics in general, but a potentially dry subject is made so engrossing by a fine script and brilliant cast. Adam Driver essentially goes to Washington, proving once again that he is one of the best actors around at the moment. Above all else though, the film stands as an impressive visual document and precis of the original seven thousand-page report by Daniel J. Jones.
ALL 4 TV REVIEWS – A VERY BRITISH COUP (1988) & SECRET STATE (2012)
With a General Election coming up I thought I’d look at a couple of political TV dramas, both of which can be seen on Channel Four’s streaming service All 4. Interestingly enough, they are also both based on Chris Mullin’s book, A Very British Coup (1982).
I don’t propose to be an expert on these things, but I hate politics. It’s a necessary evil as someone has to run society, I guess. What with another General Election on December 12th, 2019, it’s not difficult to feel saturated with all things political and with the cluster-fuck of BREXIT!
In the U.K. we have several political parties, but the two main ones are Labour and the Conservatives. They fight and bitch with each other and switch places every four years or so and end up undoing the work the previous party had done. I realise it is a bloody tough thing to run a country, but just wonder whether this the best system we have?
I mean why can’t we join together and work as a collective rather than in constant conflict. Can we not put aside our differences to work toward a common goal? The current system pits us AGAINST each other – left versus right and up versus down and black versus white and green versus blue! Divide and rule seems to be the favoured system to maintain the status quo! Could this change or am I just dreaming!?
A VERY BRITISH COUP (1988) – CHANNEL FOUR
Directed by: Mick Jackson
Adapted by Alan Plater – based on the novel by Chris Mullin
Cast: Ray McAnally, Keith Allen, Alan MacNaughton etc.
Mullins novel imagines a staunch working class and socialist MP, Harry Perkins, rising to the position of Prime Minister and immediately trying to change the political landscape of the ruling upper classes. His biggest desire is to nationalise industry and proceed with nuclear disarmament. This creates, a perceived a security threat, and Perkins finds himself targeted by the Secret Service, including MI5, MI6 and the C.I.A. Moreover, the scandal-lusting media also attempts to bring him down.
Shot on nostalgia-brimmed 16mm film, this is a high quality political drama. Ray McAnally is absolutely brilliant as the strong-willed man of principal attempting to make the system more honest and open. There are echoes of the current Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn in his socialist policies, so one can see how Perkins would be a threat. With the financial, media, and government factions all fighting each other, it’s a fascinating exploration of political machinations. Sadly, I don’t think much has changed in Westminster or the world either.
Mark: 9 out of 11
SECRET STATE (2012) – CHANNEL 4
Directed by: Ed Fraiman
Adapted by: Robert Jones – based on the novel by Chris Mullin
Cast: Gabriel Byrne, Charles Dance, Ruth Negga, Douglas Hodge etc.
If I hadn’t looked it up online, I would never have known this was another adaptation of Chris Mullin’s book. This modern update leaves behind the classic left-wing and right-wing politics of the original adaptation and moves into the more murky world of corporate, industrial and military political intrigue. Gabriel Byrne is uniformly excellent as Deputy Prime Minister Tom Dawkins, suddenly thrust into the PM’s place following a tragic series of events. With a devastating chemical disaster ongoing, potential war with Iran, the Secret Service and political rivals plotting against him, Dawkins is threatened from all sides.
What unfolds is a meaty conspiracy drama which, while lacking the political depth of the original TV programme, more than makes up with quality cast and suspense. While lacking a truly compelling ending, the drama benefits from some excellent performances, notably Douglas Hodge as the washed up, alcoholic ex-spy. It was interesting too that the writers deemed it unnecessary to define what political party Dawkins was from, such was the more ambiguous nature of the political landscape in the pre-Corbyn and post-Blair era.
Written by: Stephen Zaillian – based on the book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt
Produced by: Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal, Gaston Pavlovich, Randall Emmett, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Gerald Chamales, Irwin Winkler
Cast: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Anna Paquin, Bobby Cannevale, Stephen Graham, Kathrine Narducci, Jesse Plemons, Jack Huston, Ray Romano, Stephanie Kurtzuba and many more.
Cinematography: Rodrigo Prieto
******MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ******
“I heard you paint houses…”
As well as watching new films that have yet to be released, one of the pleasures of film festivals can be when the filmmakers, writers, crew and actors themselves attend and introduce their work. Having said that, I’m not usually one for big and lengthy introductions and back-slapping celebration. I’m also not one for star-gazing and celebrity-spotting hysteria. They are just human beings; let them get about their business in peace.
But, when the cinematic geniuses that are: Martin Scorsese, Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino and Harvey Keitel took to the stage for the premiere ofTHE IRISHMAN (2019), even I was star struck! Add the brilliant actors Stephen Graham, Anna Paquin and Jack Huston to the mix and I can confirm I was in the presence of all-round film greatness.
Scorsese is the best genre filmmaker still living today. But what of THE IRISHMAN (2019)? Is it yet another cinematic masterpiece to add to an incredible list of classics that Scorsese has directed? On first watch I would say both yes and no. I sit on a fence because the film is SO long, detailed and intense, I need another sitting to really nail an absolute opinion. It’s very, very good – BUT is it a great? I remember first watchingGoodfellas (1990) and feeling dazed by the end of it. It is now one of my favourite films of all time.
First impressions are that, once again, Scorsese has delivered yet another impeccable film in the gangster movie genre. Film is a collaborative endeavour though and he has surrounded himself with an army of major talents in the production and acting departments.Robert De Niro, who himself, optioned the book on which the film is based, takes the lead as Frank Sheeran. In support are the aforementioned Al Pacino, Harvey Keitel, Stephen Graham, Anna Paquin, Jack Huston and the out-of-retirement Joe Pesci. All work from a superlative screenplay adaptation from uber-writer Steven Zaillian
The story is structured, in many ways, like another gangster classic, Once Upon a Time in America (1984). An elderly character looks back on key aspects on their life; the highs, the lows, the deals, the crimes, the relationships and the bloody carnage. Frank Sheeran, as delivered by De Niro and Scorsese, is another complex presentation of masculinity. He was a trained soldier who did his duty in World War II against the Nazis. Then, on return to America, he found himself driving trucks. With a family to support he finds he cannot turn down the chance to “paint houses” and carry out important work for the mob family run by Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). I must say that Pesci is a revelation as the quiet shot caller, in the shadows, giving orders out of the spotlight. His mob boss is the total opposite from the psychopaths he’s played before.
Talking of great performances, Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa steals the whole film. It is incredible to think this is the first Scorsese film he has been in. It was definitely worth the wait. De Niro himself is also impressive. His role as narrator and story conduit guides us through many exhilarating scenes involving gangland deals, explosive action and violent hits. Moreover, we are also compellingly embroiled in Hoffa’s Teamster Union business conflicts, as well as, some of the most iconic historical moments from U.S. politics and history.
Scorsese’s approach to style is less frenetic when compared to his other gangster films or the rapid velocity of say, The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). There are fireworks and gunfights of course, plus explosive arguments between the angry and powerful men which inhabited this era. The heated debates between Hoffa (Pacino) and Tony Provenzano (Stephen Graham) are especially memorable. Plus, I liked that Hoffa’s character had very specific demands in regard to time-keeping and punctuality. It’s beautifully filmed but the pace is not as say, rock and roll, as his other films. In one long tense sequence toward the end of the film, Scorsese uses silence rather than trademark rock music to enhance the visuals.
Overall, themes of death, murder, loyalty, friendship, politics and regret dominate the story narrative. From the nursing home where Frank Sheeran begins his epic tale, to the multitude of hits and shootouts we experience, the Grim Reaper follows these characters like a constant shadow. I wasn’t sure how I was meant to feel about Frank Sheeran by the end. He is a complex character who, as a trained killer, is difficult to empathise with. But his, the bosses and Hoffa’s stories are compelling nonetheless. However, the last part of the film raises a lot of emotionally painful questions with equally difficult answers.
Lastly, certain things about the film, such as the “de-aging” CGI and lengthy running time, detracted from my initial enjoyment. However, Netflix have an absolute monster of a gangster film here, with Scorsese once again delivering a very special cinematic offering. The irony is that it will only have a limited theatre release. THE IRISHMAN (2019), therefore, deserves to be painted and seen on the biggest screen you can find.