Last Night in Soho

Last Night in Soho (2021)
Directed by Edgar Wright. Screenplay by Krysty Wilson-Cairns & Edgar Wright.

I’m going to fess up at the start that I’m a big fan of Edgar Wright’s work all the way back to Spaced (1999-2001). While I really like Scott Pilgrim Versus the World (2010), Hot Fuzz (2007) and Shaun of the Dead (2004) from the Cornetto Trilogy remain two of my mainstay “comfort” films and Baby Driver (2017) is also a firm favourite. I think World’s End (2013) remains the only disappointment for me, but I’m well overdue to rewatch it!

A lot of people don’t like his “smash cut” style using very quick image clips, accompanied by foley sound &/or music, finding it annoying or distracting. Admittedly, it does take a certain amount of concentration, but in many ways it overtook the classical montage as an effective means of enhancing story and moving the audience down particular narrative pathways without taking loads of in-film time.

In Last Night in Soho however, I think Wright and his team have moved beyond the smash cut into something far more complicated and cinematic. There’s a film technique called the Texas (or Cowboy) Switch, (another trick Wright has used in previous films) and in first act this is pushed to the limit with quite astonishing results. The sound and visual design are stunning throughout but scenes in the first act are aurally and visually superb, beautifully choreographed, performed and shot.

The cast are uniformly excellent, and include 60s icons Rita Tushingham, Terrence Stamp and the late Diana Rigg in her last film role. Younger talent include Anya Taylor-Joy as the drop-dead gorgeous Sandie, Matt Smith as the deliciously lecherous Jack and Michael Ajao as John, but for me it’s Thomasin McKenzie who provides the glue that holds the film together. Her portrayal of fashion design student Ellie is heartbreakingly vulnerable and feisty in equal measure.

As with most of my reviews, I’m not going to give any spoilers but Last Night in Soho explores some quite serious horror themes, undiluted by humour as in Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz but (as usual in Wright’s films) underpinned by a killer soundtrack. It is by no means a perfect film (I found the second act struggled to maintain momentum) but this is the work of a mature filmmaker. Here, Wright has moved way beyond the quirky smash cut and quick one-liner and made a really interesting horror movie, tinged with pathos and mystery.

Like all of Wright’s films, it’s cleverly made, has a great script and pays homage to both London and the 1960s – and it’s well worth seeing!

The Green Knight

The Green Knight (2021)
Directed & written for the screen by David Lowery

I’ve read a number of very disparaging comments about this movie but I really don’t get it. I have to question how familiar they are with Arthurian legends in general, let alone the epic tale of Gawain. The only conclusion I can draw is all these stories are shrouded in a mediaeval mysticism that could seem nonsensical or over the top to 21st century viewers. And this version of the Arthurian legend is visually sumptuous. Gloriously lit and shot by DoP (and frequent Lowery collaborator), Andrew Droz Palermo, this retelling plays deeply into the fantasy elements of the famous 14th century story.

Watching, I was reminded a few times of Terry Gilliam but more (particularly given the source) of John Boorman’s insanely flawed Excalibur (1981), which remains with Zardoz (1974) some of my not-so-guilty cinematic pleasures. While both Boorman especially and Gilliam to some extent veer into self indulgence, I don’t feel Lowery’s fallen into the same trap.

The casting is excellent and performances uniformly superb. Dev Patel has just the right balance of physicality, pride and foolishness to bring Gawain to life on his perilous journey to fulfill his bargain with the Green Knight, and he is ably supported by a great ensemble.

My only complaint is that this only had a very limited cinematic release here in Tasmania and I had to watch it at home via Amazon Prime on my big(ish) television. Nevertheless, it’s a glorious retelling of an epic story and, in my opinion, worth watching on any screen.

Lamb – No Spoilers

Lamb (2021)

Directed by Valdimar Jòhannsson
Written by Valdimar Jòhannsson and Sjón

Like many people, I try and avoid movie trailers these days. They’re often made by PR companies without input from the director and can include potential plot/action spoilers. It’s disappointingly common to go into a showing having already seen the best bits! So, on a wet and miserable Saturday afternoon, I caught up with a friend at our local (the State Cinema in North Hobart) and watched Lamb, directed by Valdimar Jòhannsson. All either of us knew about this was Noomi Rapace was top billed, it’s an Icelandic film, and A24 were distributing. And that was enough information for us to have a thoroughly enjoyable cinema experience!

From the opening scene, I found Lamb a wonderfully atmospheric film, sumptuously shot and one of the most original pieces I’ve seen for ages. That said, there’s a timeless, dark undercurrent as the story plays out, suggesting nordic mythology and folk horror. Rapace is excellent as Maria, who with her husband Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Gudnason) farms sheep on an idyllic but very isolated farm. There is an air of magic realism that runs throughout and scant exposition that leaves much up the individual viewer. But these supernatural touches are elegantly juxtaposed by situations and conversations which are very relatable and believable, especially when Ingvar’s brother, Pètur (Björn Hlynur Haraldssen) visits. Also, having spent a lot of time living in relatively remote rural areas, I could relate to the very realistic depictions of farm life, from helping deliver animals to the ubiquitous thermos of hot coffee out in the paddocks.

The minimalist script by Jòhannsson and celebrated Icelandic writer Sjón (former member of The Sugarcubes and Bjork collaborator), marries perfectly with the superb sound design (Björn Viktorsson), unobtrusive original score (Poraninn Gudnason) and the carefully framed cinematography (Eli Arenson) offering touches of John Ford and Hitchcock in scope and intent. This lack of exposition combined with a delicate balance between the natural and supernatural audiovisual elements leaves adequate space where we, as active audience members, can draw our own conclusions.

With its minimal dialogue and haunting visuals, this film is a wonderful lesson in “show, don’t tell” storytelling and while it isn’t a horror movie in the mainstream “splatterfest” mode, I know it won’t be for everyone, no film ever is. For my part, I found it uplifting, genuinely creepy, unbearably sad – and I can’t stop thinking about it.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League

Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)

Directed by Zack Snyder

I grew up through the Silver and Bronze ages of comic books and loved team-up stories. Although Thor was my favourite, I ate up The Fantastic Four, The Avengers, Justice League and any comics that involved multiple characters in convoluted story arcs. At that age I didn’t really care or fully understand who published what, I was just there for a rollicking good tale that could take me away from my small country town life for a little while.

In many ways, that’s what I’ve continued to look for in what can only be described as, this golden age of superhero films. Unfortunately, DC’s cinematic offerings have fallen way short of the mark, with the exception of most of Wonder Woman (2017) and elements of Aquaman (2018). Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and Justice League (2017) are distinctly below par, particularly when compared to Marvel’s unbelievably coherent productions and the tour de force that was Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Endgame (2019).

Rather than focus solely on what’s wrong, I’d like to stress that Zack Snyder’s version of Justice League is infinitely superior to Joss Weedon’s theatrical cut from 2017. As many critics have noted, the Snyder cut is far more coherent but sadly, still a mess! While I really appreciated the extended version of Cyborg’s story, I wonder if it would be better served by a short series or a standalone origin story film. Similarly, The Flash (despite being part of the Arrow small screen universe), here seemed somewhat overblown. But upon reflection I wonder if it was the grating dialogue Ezra Miller had to say, which cheapened the character for me.

Above all, what lacks here is true character and narrative development. Instead, I see wasted opportunities. For instance, there is no building on the character branding and fan goodwill established through the Wonder Woman (2017) and Aquaman (2018) origin films. Instead, these two characters seem to get lost in the maze of the “it seemed like a good idea at the time” ad hoc storytelling and set pieces. There appears to be no cohesive narrative and even in this superior version, character motivations seem at best, muddled.

To my eyes and ears there are many problems with this film, not least of which are the (at times) incredibly intrusive score, the dreary colour palette (something of a DC trademark these days) and the overblown seriousness of absolutely everything! Also, this film runs in at just over 4 hours long, requiring a dedicated time investment and making it off-putting for many more casual viewers. But this is what the fans wanted, and to his credit, Snyder has responded.

Overblown and still pretty boring, but at least it sometimes almost makes sense now.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League and the theatrical cut are both currently available to stream on Amazon Prime in Australia.

Beyond the Door

Well, it’s October and in the run-up to Halloween I’ve been watching a lot of horror movies, albeit fairly obscure titles. I love cheesy horror films and it’s been a welcome distraction from the near constant pain in my hands and fingers. So the next few blog posts will all be reviews of some of the best worst movies I’ve been watching lately.

Beyond the Door Poster

Beyond the Door (1974)

Directed by Ovidio G. Assonitis and Roberto Piazzoli.

This Italian/US made supernatural chiller leans heavily on Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Exorcist (1973). So much so, the original cut was subject to a lawsuit from Warner Bros against the producers for copyright violation, which was settled some years later.

It stars Richard Johnson, Gabriele Lavia and most notably, Juliet Mills who was looking for more adult, dramatic roles to take her away from the Mary Poppins image cultivated by her popular starring role in Nanny and the Professor (1970-71). Mills plays Jessica, wife of Lavia’s Robert and mother to two particularly obnoxious children. Johnson plays Dimitri, Jessica’s former lover who sold his soul to the Devil in order to survive an otherwise fatal car crash. Jessica finds herself unexpectedly pregnant, and of course, from here all kinds of shenanigans ensue.

The look and feel of this film is really very good, with exteriors shot in southern California and interiors in Rome. Make-up artist Otello Sisi does an excellent job, as do special effects artists Donn Davison and Wally Gentleman, who famously made the spaceship models for Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Unfortunately, the writing really lets this down, and the actors do the best they can with a story that doesn’t really have that much to say and a script that hasn’t aged well.

Worth watching and quite a lot of fun- but not a patch on the films that influenced it. Beyond the Door is available to watch on YouTube via the excellent channel New Castle After Dark.

Automata

Automata Poster

Automata (2014)

Directed by Gabe Ibanez. Written by Igor Legarreta, Javier Sanchez Donate and Gabe Ibanez.

On paper, this film should be really, really good. It has a strong cast, the cinematography is equal to many contemporary films, and the overall production design is really excellent, albeit a little too reminiscent at times of some other, better known films. The narrative premise (again, nothing new) is solid and offers the promise of a deeper interrogation of questions of value, the nature of life and so on.

So why doesn’t work?

By the end of the first act I found myself wondering why I was watching yet another dystopian sci-fi, with a jaded but essentially goodhearted male anti-hero at its core. Antonio Banderas is in the hot seat this time, just trying to do the right thing by everyone – the company he works for, his heavily pregnant wife and increasingly, a sex robot named Cleo and her group of fellow robots trying to escape human interference across an irradiated wasteland. Yeah, I know, I don’t get it either.

This sombre piece uses a faded colour palette, and often overbearing score, the age-old cinematic tropes around femininity and motherhood and some very clunky dialogue to hammer home its message of human frailty in the face of self-aware machines. All in all it’s incredibly heavy-handed and should have been much more fun.

Automata is available to watch in Australia on Netflix, but I’d suggest revisiting Blade Runner (1982) or Mad Max (1979) for better quality dystopian sci-fi.

The Wandering Earth

The Wandering Earth Poster

The Wandering Earth (2019)

Directed by Frant Gwo.

This 2019 Chinese science-fiction film is loosely based on a novella of the same name from 2000 by Liu Cixin. Made for a relatively modest US$50 million, this made US$700 million world wide, making it the third highest grossing Chinese production of all time.

Narratively, it’s messy with too many side plots, but essentially, the sun is dying and in an audacious move, a newly formed world government decides to turn the earth into a spaceship, using multiple propulsion engines around the planet. The remaining inhabitants are sheltered deep underground in specially built bunkers, only returning to the now frozen surface to carry out maintenance activities. Leading the earth on its 2500 year voyage is a massive rotating space station, complete with a HAL-like computer, all eerily reminiscent of 2001: a Space Odyssey (1968). As the station and Earth pass by Jupiter things start to come unstuck and shenanigans ensue.

Directed by Frant Gwo, this is a big movie with big ideas and big themes. Everything about this film is over the top, with spectacular special effects, bombastic performances and frenetic pacing throughout. At times, it was really hard to keep up with the action and in many respects, it reminded me of an anime or manga.

Unfortunately, this was only ever released in the west on the streaming platform Netflix and I think it could have gained much from a cinematic release outside of China. Also, the science is frankly preposterous, and that did take me out of the action at times. Nevertheless, I had fun with this film and for all its flaws, found it quite enjoyable.

The Wandering Earth is available in Australia on Netflix in the original Mandarin with English subtitles, English closed caption or dubbed.

Out of Blue

 

Patricia Clarkson in Out of Blue (2018)

Out of Blue (2018) Written and directed by Carol Morley.

To the best of my knowledge, this existential neo noir never got a full cinema release in Australia, but I heard a very positive review by British critic Mark Kermode and had been listening to the excellent Clint Mansell soundtrack since it was released to streaming services. It seems to have divided audiences and critics, with some finding it boring and pointless, while others (like me) find it a satisfyingly open-ended examination of memory, belonging and our place in the universe that happens to be woven around a straightforward crime narrative.

I watched this last night and now (the following morning) I just want to watch it again! Like so many films that defy standard conventions, I think there’s a lot of subtext to be found on repeat viewing and this is one of those movies that’s really got under my skin.

British filmmaker Carol Morley loosely based her screenplay on the 1997 novel ‘Night Train’ by Martin Amis (a book I haven’t read) and from all accounts, turned the narrative on its head in order to bring this singularly thoughtful film to the screen.

At its core is the excellent performance of Patricia Clarkson as the troubled detective Mike Hoolihan. The stillness that Clarkson brings to this role provides a solid central point that makes it work so well for me. The fine cinematography by Conrad W. Hall and production design by Jane Levick bring tremendous atmosphere to the movie and the continued use of a red and blue colour palette work beautifully.

I can see that some viewers would be confused by what appears to be a standard crime thriller turning into a visual essay on metaphysics but I like films that challenge as well as entertain. Despite some critics finding this confusing or messy, I really enjoyed it. If you’re in the mood for something a little more abstract in narrative cinema, seek this out.

Out of Blue is available on YouTube Movies or Google Play to rent or buy.

The Dawns Here Are Quiet – Iso-Posts #8

I’ve been very overtired and surprisingly busy the last couple of days and, rather than ramble on a daily basis, decided to wait until I could form coherent sentences again. There’s been sadness too, with friends in hospital and another sadly dying – I can only presume from COVID-19 complications. Such is life.

It makes this Soviet-era movie all the more relevant, though the title is perfect – the dawns here in Hobart really are very quiet at the moment, and it’s a pleasant change from the usual early morning traffic noise! Hope you’re all well ❤

A zori zdes tikhie (1972)

The Dawns Here Are Quiet (1972)

Written and directed by Stanislav Rostotsky. Based on the novel by Boris Vasilyev.

This is a movie that I’ve been meaning to watch for ages but for one reason or another, just didn’t get to until it popped up on MUBI a few weeks ago. Despite being in self-isolation for weeks, I’ve actually found it hard to settle into a long movie. My concentration starts wandering after a mere 90 minutes and internet drop-outs have been causing more headaches than I could reasonably deal with. Here, the running time of 158 minutes was an issue and I decided to take the filmmaker’s advice and watch it in two parts over a couple of days.

As Russia’s nominee for what was then Best Foreign Language Film at the 1973 Academy Awards, this really is quite a remarkable work. Set in WWII, the story concerns a group of young women who are training to be an anti-aircraft unit, stationed at a remote outpost in Karelia near the Finnish border. Their leader (and the only significant male character in the film) Vaskov helps them adjust to their new lives and the first half of the film deals with them getting to know and appreciate each other as fellow soldiers and as friends. While I know it’s important character building, I did feel this section dragged a little for me. But his cameraderie comes into full play in the second half of the film, when one of the girls sneaks off to a nearby village to visit her mother and spots two German paratroopers. From there it becomes quite a well-paced drama, very Russian and at times, very dour.

Rostotsky was a protege of Sergei Eisenstein and here, it shows. The framing (particularly of the outdoor scenes) is glorious and mention must be made of the cinematography by Vyacheslav Shumsky. Also, great use is made of colour, with the day-to-day life of WWII being in drab (but at times atmospheric) black and white and the girls’ dream-like memories presented in full colour.

Some of the narrative rationale is a little on the nose in 2020, most notably that many of the girls’ dreams center around traditional heteronormative themes (they’re nothing without a good man who’ll look after them) and at times descends into a patriotic sentimentality that falls flat for me. But considering this was made in 1972 under Soviet control and the original book in the late 60s, I imagine it would’ve been considered quite radical at that time.

Filmically however, this is really worth watching if only for the beautifully framed shots around the lake. I understand the original theatrical release is just over three hours long but this cut has 30 minutes removed from its run time and is available on DVD. It was also remade as a feature film in 2015 and then extended to a four-part television series in 2016. This is currently playing on Amazon Prime AU but I haven’t seen this version so can’t comment. The unedited original movie is available on YouTube, Part 1 and Part 2 both with English subtitles.

Look it up and let me know what you think.

 

Never Surrender: A Galaxy Quest Documentary – The Iso-Posts #6

Never Surrender: A Galaxy Quest Documentary (2019)

A movie review today because, let’s face it, I’ve been watching an awful lot of movies lately!

Never Surrender: A Galaxy Quest Documentary (2019)

Directed by Jack Bennett

I find it difficult to believe that it’s 21 years since Galaxy Quest (1999) was released. Although I was living in the bush at the time and going to the cinema was approximately a 280 km round trip (almost 174 miles), I do remember watching this on video and being instantly taken back to my childhood and youth.

The whole movie was a love letter to people like me, who were the nerdy sci-fi aficionados, who literally grew up with Lost In Space (1965-1968) and Star Trek (1966-1969) as the Friday night prime time viewing options and went on to love shows like Doctor Who, Blake’s 7, and later Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) and my personal favourite, Babylon 5 (1993-1998). Rather than talk down to the fans, Galaxy Quest celebrated them – and this documentary in turn celebrates the film and the profound effect it still has on audiences everywhere.

Many of the cast were interviewed for this and it was particularly lovely when they spoke about the late, great Alan Rickman. Other highlights for me were the interview with Sam Rockwell, who was a relative unknown when he played Guy Fleegman and interviews with Brent Spiner and Wil Wheaton who were in Star Trek: TNG. It’s a very positive watch, which is a good thing right now in my opinion, and makes no apologies for any shortcomings one might find in the movie – also fine in my book!

I watched this delightful documentary last night. Because of the current situation with COVID-19, it’s gone straight to streaming rather than the promised cinema release. Here in Australia, it’s available on Amazon Prime.

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