The Holiday watchlist, Part 6: Award heavyweights

There were 3 films that weren’t yet released in this part of the world when I did my run of movie-watching at the end of the year. I had been desperate to catch them because they feature some of my favorite directors and actors, and the 3 of them have collectively been nominated for 21 Oscars (including Best Picture). The deed is now done courtesy the extended break for Chinese New Year and it was well worth the wait!

Darkest Hour: This is the latest effort from 46-year-old British director Joe Wright, who is well known for his literary adaptations Pride & Prejudice (2005), Atonement (2007) and Anna Karenina (2012)…all of which incidentally featured his lucky charm Keira Knightely. His last effort, the expensive fantasy epic Pan was a bomb and so it’s great to see him back at what he does best, another period piece set in the real world, this one focused on Winston Churchill during the early years of the Second World War. The film has been nominated for 6 Oscars, including Best Picture, Cinematography, Costume Design, Production Design and most critically for Best Actor and Best Makeup; Gary Oldman has been transformed into Churchill and it will be very surprising if the film does not win Best Makeup. Likewise, Mr. Oldman should probably be considered a joint front-runner with Daniel Day-Lewis for the Best Actor statuette. The performances of the two British actors are a study of contrasts, dictated by the characters they play. While Day-Lewis delivers an understated performance as the repressed head of a fashion house in Phantom Thread, Oldman is all fire and bluster as the man who almost single-handed, it seems, turned the tide of the war in favour of the Allies. The filmmakers have taken liberties with some of the facts, but all such considerations seem secondary, as the viewer is held in the grip of Oldman’s powerhouse acting. The film plays like a political thriller, with Churchill racing to create an evacuation plan for British forces trapped in Dunkirk, receiving no help from the then-neutral Americans, while trying to stave off attempts by members of his own party to overthrow him. Interestingly, Chris Nolan’s Dunkirk which tells of the famous evacuation from the viewpoint of the rescuers and the rescued, is nominated for Best Picture, along with Darkest Hour. Having recently watched John Lithgow as the older, post-war Churchill in Netflix’s The Crown, there was a strong sense of familiarity with the character while watching Darkest Hour. This film beautifully brings to life one of history’s most significant (though not particularly well-liked) figures.

The Post: Like Joe Wright, Steven Spielberg is also coming off the disappointment of his last venture, the fantasy film The BFG, which had a lukewarm critical reception and lost money at the box-office, a rare occurrence for history’s most successful filmmaker. Before The BFG, his previous three films, all based on historical events, received Best Picture Nominations – War Horse, Lincoln and Bridge of Spies. Spielberg has gone back to that formula with his latest effort The Post, which tells the story of the ‘Pentagon Papers’ case in the early 70’s. The film has received 2 Oscar nominations, for Best Picture and for Best Actress (Meryl Streep’s 21st nomination!). This is the first time that Meryl Streep has worked with another of Hollywood’s biggest acting icons – Tom Hanks, or with Spielberg for that matter. Set during the most powerful days of the Nixon presidency (before Watergate), The Post is built around two themes which are relevant in today’s political and social climate – freedom of the press and equality for women. Streep plays Katherine Graham, the publisher of The Washington Post, a woman who has inherited the newspaper from her husband following his suicide, who has to deal with her own self-doubts and with being talked down to by her predominantly male stakeholders – the board of directors, investment bankers and lawyers. Hanks plays her editor-in-chief, Ben Bradlee, the man whose desire to publish a set of leaked government papers puts the newspaper on a collision path with the US government and puts Ms. Graham on a collision path with her advisors. The film falls into the category of ‘journalistic thriller’, much like All the President’s Men (1976), The Insider (1999), Zodiac (2007) and the recent award-winner Spotlight (2015), with the protagonists fighting the clock and the establishment to get their story out. It paints a romanticized picture of the glory days of newspaper journalism and I was filled with admiration for this fast-diminishing breed of professionals who had to fight the odds day after day to do their jobs. I felt that in this film, Spielberg has dialed down his melodramatic touches and I thought this was particularly evident in the final scene; following the Supreme Court hearing, as The Post’s flashier rival, The New York Times is busy courting reporters in the front of the building, Katherine Graham descends the steps from the side and doesn’t seem to realize that she is walking past dozens of women who gaze silently at her, in admiration of her courage and resolve in challenging the (male) establishment. I kept waiting to see tears or some other obvious form of recognition, but the silence and the expressions on the faces of the women was much more powerful.

The Shape of Water: Unlike Joe Wright and Steven Spielberg who have received their biggest accolades when telling stories based on real people or real events, Mexican auteur Guillermo del Toro is at his best when building worlds in which elaborate mechanical constructions co-exist with fantastical creatures. In his breakout movie Cronos (1993), an ancient clockwork mechanism is used to entomb an insect whose secretions can prolong life. His Hellboy films feature various devices which are used to control supernatural creatures. In Pacific Rim, mankind creates giant robots called “Jaegers”, to combat extra-dimensional monsters which are laying siege to our cities. And so we come to his latest film, The Shape of Water which is perhaps his most ‘human’ film. He initially conceptualized it as a sequel to 1950’s classic The Creature from the Black Lagoon, as he wondered what would have happened if the ‘Gill-man’ had been able to romantically link up with the female lead. This eventually led to the story of the relationship between a bizarre ‘fish-man’ who has been pulled out of the Amazon river by the American military and the mute cleaning lady who works at the scientific facility where they are experimenting on him. Set during the 60’s at the height of the Cold War, del Toro’s trademark machines built to contain and control the ‘fish-man’ are relegated to the background, with the focus on the memorable characters who populate this love story. Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, the young janitor whose expresses her passion and love for life with her eyes and hands. Her best friend at work is Zelda (Octavia Spencer), a sassy, no-nonsense woman with a heart of gold. Elisa lives in a room above an old movie theatre and she is close friends with the tenant next door, an ageing artist Giles (Richard Jenkins), who struggles to sell his work to advertising firms while dealing with his own loneliness and closet homosexuality. At work, there is the new head of security, Strickland (Michael Shannon), a sadistic, misogynist who takes great pleasure in strutting around, torturing the fish-man and projecting his authority in front of the scientists and cleaning ladies. In a small but pivotal role, Michael Stuhlbarg plays the lead scientist who wants to learn from the creature without harming it. And of course, there is the creature, played by Doug Jones. Just as Andy Serkis has become “Mr. Motion Capture”, Doug Jones is the go-to actor who is willing to work under layers of makeup; he played Abe Sapiens in the Hellboy films, the Faun in Pan’s Labyrinth and the alien Saru in Star Trek: Discovery. To understand why this film has received 13 Oscar nominations, you only have to watch the opening scene which is ‘pure cinema’. This is when one realizes the brilliance and vision of the director. There are many other delightful touches in the film and it’s really an extraordinary example of storytelling and characterization. It’s entirely possible that on Oscar night, it may lose out in many of the 13 categories to other nominees, but I do believe that this is a film where Guillermo del Toro has created something that is greater than the sum of its parts and I hope he will take home an Oscar for at least one of his 3 nominations – as scriptwriter, producer or director.


Phantom Thread: Exquisitely crafted story of love as a power play

About half an hour into Phantom Thread, Daniel Day-Lewis’ character Reynolds Woodcock speeds through the British country roads in his maroon Bristol 405 sports car; the camera is mounted on the rear of the car and gives a glorious view of the landscape whizzing by. On one hand, this sudden change of pace from Woodcock’s stately and ordered life as shown in the first half hour comes as a surprise…I thought to myself, “the old boy’s not so stodgy after all”. On the other hand, this camera view of the road in front with everything else a blur, accentuates Woodcock’s tunnel vision of life…no one else matters,  only him and his craft.

And speaking of craft, Phantom Thread is full of it, both in its behind the scenes look at life inside a luxury fashion house in the 50’s and in the way the film is put together by 8-time Oscar-nominated American auteur Paul Thomas Anderson. Both are full of meticulous detail, exquisitely crafted, in a way that reminded me of another American auteur Martin Scorsese.

Reynolds Woodcock and his sister Cyril run the reputed Woodcock fashion house like a well-oiled machine. Reynolds is the face of the business, an outwardly charming creative genius who is a god to his rich and royal customers; Cyril is the operational head, who manages the business and the house. They are served by a dozen or so experienced, quietly competent and highly reliable seamstresses. Behind the scenes, Reynolds is still a child, haunted by an obsessive love for his deceased mother and like so many outwardly successful people, racked by insecurity and a desire for control. Cyril is the person who is really in control, the gatekeeper who “manages” Reynolds, including helping him to get rid of lovers and muses who have become clinging and tiresome. And into this finely balanced set-up arrives young Alma Elson (played by Luxembourgish actress Vicky Krieps), a waitress at a countryside restaurant who catches Reynolds’ eye and becomes his newest companion. Unlike the previous women, Alma has a steely resolve hidden inside the unsophisticated country girl exterior and quickly engages in a power play with Cyril on who exercises more control over Reynolds.

And so, Phantom Thread ends up being a film about Love and Power. Both women would swear that they do what they do out of love for Reynolds. The sister does so by pandering to his whims (and thereby making him dependent on her) while the lover seeks to break him free of his self-created social cage, but ironically wants him to be free only so that he can focus entirely on her (and eventually goes to unconscionable lengths to win the battle and establish control over him). And a willing player in this game is Reynolds Woodcock, a prisoner of his own inflexibility, a child lost inside a man, who subconsciously seeks a female authority-figure to replace the mother that he pines for. I was reminded of Day-Lewis’ character Newton Archer, from Scorsese’s Age of Innocence, another man who was caught in a power play between two women, outwardly in control of his life, but ultimately outwitted by his seemingly simple-minded wife.

The music, composed by Radiohead guitarist and keyboardist Jonny Greenwood (for which he has received an Oscar nomination), is refreshing and distinctive; although recorded with a 60-piece orchestra, it stays simple and light, in keeping with the rarified, high society setting of the film. The film has also been nominated for Best Film (Megan Ellison, daughter of Oracle founder Larry, receives her 4th Oscar nomination as co-producer), Best Director for Paul Thomas Anderson (his 8th nomination across directing, screenwriting and producing), Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis’ 6th nomination – he has won thrice so far), Best Supporting Actress for Leslie Manville playing the stern, poker-faced sister and Best Costume Design. I think it would also have been nominated for Best Cinematography, but since the camera work was done by the director himself, uncredited, I suspect it didn’t comply with the Academy’s nomination rules. I am genuinely surprised it hasn’t been nominated for Best Production Design.

I had an interesting experience while watching this film in the theatre. Towards the start of the movie, I was distracted and irritated (as I always am) by the sound of someone noisily eating popcorn behind me; I turned around pointedly in the hope that this person would get the hint (the sounds soon stopped). Soon afterwards, in the film, Reynolds Woodcock gets supremely agitated with Alma’s loud eating and drinking at the breakfast table. She soon learns to eat her breakfast quietly so as not to disturb the great man’s early morning creative process, but later on she is back to her old ways and the noises of her eating visibly grates on Reynolds’ ears. In a film that is quite dark and serious, these sequences are played out with a degree of dry wit that had me (and the audience) chuckling in sympathy with Reynolds, giving me personally, a feeling of comfort that I was not the only person to suffer in this way!

This is not a film for all tastes, but if you have the patience to watch an engrossing, beautifully crafted film, with multiple layers of meaning and emotion, then do not miss this.

The Holiday watchlist, Part 5: True stories

And so, we come to last of my holiday movies. These three films are based on true stories and are entertaining as well as informative. The saying that “truth is stranger than fiction” certainly applies to all three events depicted in these movies!

Battle of the Sexes: From the directors of the delightful 2006 film Little Miss Sunshine, comes this depiction of the events leading up to the historic 1973 exhibition match between women’s world #1 Billie Jean King and retired Grand Slam champion Bobby Riggs (who was 55 years old at the time). This match took place against the backdrop of efforts by Ms. King and other top women’s players to secure equal prize money from the tennis establishment of the time. In fact, the top ladies had only recently broken away from the Lawn Tennis Association and set up the WTA (which runs women’s tennis to this day) and had secured their first sponsor, Virginia Slims cigarettes. Just as the new women’s tour was taking root, ex-champ and serial gambler Bobby Riggs threw a spanner in the works by claiming that even at his advanced age, he could beat the #1 women’s player. If he succeeded, it would weaken the position of the players’ expectation of equal pay and equal recognition. This high-stakes story is told with a light and entertaining touch by directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. And the biggest credit should go to the two leads – Emma Stone and Steve Carrell. I have talked about Carrell’s acting chops in an earlier post about the movie Last Flag Flying, in which he plays an introverted ex-Marine doctor. He plays a completely different type character here – flamboyant, attention-seeking, super-confident. And Emma Stone brings real earnestness and heart to the character of Billie Jean King, who at that time was also discovering her own sexuality, dealing with her husband’s discovery of her extra-marital affair and also fighting the establishment! This should have been a crowd-pleasing holiday movie that could have sold a lot of tickets and I am amazed that it could not find an audience. Definitely worth watching – hugely entertaining and also educational. I loved Alan Cumming as iconic tennis fashion designer Ted Tinling.

The Disaster Artist: From the sublime to the ridiculous. I don’t know how to describe this movie, but it is a must-watch for movie aficionados and it’s no wonder that it’s getting such high marks from critics and Hollywood insiders because of course, they all love movies about the industry. This is a movie about the making of a 2003 independent movie called The Room, which frequently appears in the list of the worst movies ever made! The Room was produced, written and directed by an enigmatic man named Tommy Wiseau, who also played the lead in the movie. The Disaster Artist is brilliantly directed by actor James Franco, who also does a amazing job playing Wiseau, a narcissistic man who had no self-awareness of how bad an actor, writer and director he was. It’s like watching a slow-motion train wreck; you know it’s not going to end well, but still cannot turn your eyes away. It’s truly remarkable that someone as un-talented and self-deluded as this man could find the money, people and equipment to make a movie. I guess it’s a commentary on the desperation of all the wanna-be artists who flock to Hollywood, looking for a break. Worth watching, although not entertaining in the conventional sense. Keep an eye out for Zac Efron and Josh Hutcherson playing the supporting actors in the movie.

All the Money in the World: And finally, we come to the movie that’s been making all the headlines for the wrong reasons, which is that 80-year-old director Ridley Scott reshot all the scenes involving disgraced actor Kevin Spacey, replacing him with veteran thespian Christopher Plummer (who has come a long way since he played Capt. Von Trapp in The Sound of Music 52 years ago). It’s amazing that he did so in a matter of days just weeks prior to the release date and still managed to get the movie out on the scheduled date. This is not one of Scott’s iconic ‘genre-breakers’ like Alien, Blade Runner or Gladiator. Instead, it’s a by-the-numbers thriller, but one that’s been superbly mounted and masterfully crafted by a veteran director who can probably put together a movie like this with one eye closed! It’s fast paced, gripping and features powerful acting performances from its two main leads – Mr. Plummer who plays the richest man in the world, oil billionaire J. Paul Getty and Michelle Williams, who plays his ex-daughter-in-law Gail. And the movie, of course, is about the infamous kidnapping of J. Paul Getty’s 16-year-old grandson John Paul Getty III in Rome in 1973; J. Paul Getty refused to pay the ransom and it was left to the boy’s mother (who had no money of her own) to use all her wits to find a way to get her son back. While watching the movie, one can only marvel at the heartlessness and stinginess of this man who just could not bring himself to pay (until at last he found that he could get a tax deduction for part of the ransom money!!!). Also, a great performance from French actor Romain Duris who I have only seen cast as soft-spoken young men in romantic comedies, but here convincingly plays one of the Italian kidnappers.

And so, it’s back to work this week and an end to a fun week of movie-bingeing. Keep an eye out for the many of these movies to make big news in the coming weeks and based on their awards performance, some of them could get wider releases in the theatres.

The Holiday watchlist, Part 3: Guilt and Obsession

Continuing with my holiday movie watching spree, we enter into heavier territory now with some emotionally intense movies, some of which are in serious contention for year-end awards.

I have read articles which refer to a form of OCD called ‘Responsibility OCD’, in which a person suffering from guilt due to a past mistake or shortcoming (real or perceived), tries to assuage this guilt by obsessively trying to protect their loved ones or go above and beyond their call of duty. The characters in the films listed below seem to have that in common to some degree.

After the Storm: This is the 5th film from writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda that I’m watching and the one I liked the least, along with 2008’s Still Walking; is it a coincidence that both star Hiroshi Abe? As always, Kore-eda’s films show real people and real emotions, but I guess I just didn’t like Abe’s character, a downbeat, dishonest divorced dad who is trying hard to get back into the good books of his ex-wife and impress his son. What appears to be love for his family is actually a combination of guilt and selfishness, a desire to overcome his own low self-esteem. A disappointing experience for me (not the fault of the director, just that I didn’t like the characters or the story), especially after how much I loved his previous 3 films, especially 2015’s Our Little Sister, which I wrote about previously. Even so, Kore-eda was nominated in the Un Certain Regard competition at Cannes for this film.

Wind River: Actor turned screenwriter Taylor Sheridan is hot property now, having written the screenplay for the highly acclaimed Sicario (2015) and Hell or High Water (for which he received an Oscar nomination last year). He has gone behind the camera to direct his latest script Wind River and what a piece of dynamite it is! Starring Avengers colleagues Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen, the film explores themes of guilt and alienation delivered in the form of a perfectly crafted, tightly wound murder mystery. Olsen plays the FBI rookie who is called in to solve a murder at a Native American reservation and Renner is the local wildlife expert who found the body and assists her on the case. Like the rest of Sheridan’s films this too is a Western in terms of DNA, even though it is set in the bleak winter of present day Wyoming. The pacing of the film never flags, at the same time the characters get time and space to express their feelings and fears (just like in Sicario). Jeremy Renner is perfectly cast as a man driven to excel at his job, trying to live with his own guilt related to the death of his daughter three years earlier. Sheridan won Best Director in the Un Certain Regard competition at Cannes this year. I cannot recommend this film highly enough and I can see myself watching it over and over again.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: Like Wind River, this film too deals with themes of guilt and alienation. Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, one half of the duo who have put Irish cinema on the world map, this is a welcome return to form after the relative disappointment of his last effort Seven Psychopaths and reminds me of the tone of his first movie In Bruges. Frances McDormand plays a grieving mother who rents three billboards outside her small town to call attention to the lack of police action in solving the rape and murder of her daughter a year earlier. The film explores the darkest places of guilt, bitterness and self-reproach, but does so with a perfect blend of melodrama, action and black comedy. McDonagh brings out fantastic performances from the cast which includes Woody Harrelson (in one of his best roles in recent years), Sam Rockwell, Peter Dinklage (Tyrion from Game of Thrones), John Hawkes and Lucas Hedges. Frances McDormand got her 6th Golden Globe acting nomination as the mother obsessed with finding justice, forever remorseful of her own negligence in her daughter’s death; I would love to see her win at the Globes and I hope she will get her 5th Oscar acting nom as well. Sam Rockwell gets his first ever Golden Globe nomination as well. Highly recommended, even if the ending isn’t entirely satisfactory.

Good Time: This is yet another release from the fast emerging indie distributor A24 which was behind last year’s Best Film Oscar winner Moonlight and is distributing several award contenders this year like Lady Bird, The Florida Project, The Killing of a Sacred Deer and The Disaster Artist. Directed by fast-emerging New York based indie film makers Josh and Benny Safdie, the movie stars Robert Pattinson as a young man whose attempt to rob a bank along with his mentally challenged younger brother (played by co-director Ben Safdie), triggers a chain of events which gets him deeper and deeper into trouble with the law. I didn’t care much for the Safdie’s guerrilla style of film-making or the jarring electronic score from experimental musician Daniel Lopatin (under his recording alias of Oneohtrix Point Never), but there is no denying the intensity that Pattinson brings to this role as a man whose guilt drives him to do whatever it takes to safeguard his younger brother. The 31-year-old British heartthrob has put together an eclectic and high quality body of work in the past 5 years, working hard to deglamorize and distance himself from his ‘pretty boy’ Twilight persona. The Safdie brothers were nominated for the Palm d’Or at Cannes for this gritty crime thriller.

Last Flag Flying: After winning multiple awards for Boyhood three years ago, writer-director Richard Linklater directed the little seen 80’s set comedy Everybody Wants Some!!. He returns to higher profile material with this film which is a “sort of” sequel to the celebrated 1973 film The Last Detail for which Jack Nicholson received an Oscar nomination. Both films are based on novels by Darryl Ponicsan and feature a train trip taken by 3 Marines as a key setting. The conversations on these trips form the essence of the films – exploration of beliefs, fears, the meaning of patriotism and friendship. Three old Vietnam War vets are reunited after a gap of several decades due to a tragedy and have to take a trip together during which they reminisce about their wild young days, about the mistakes they made while in combat in Vietnam and the remorse that each of them lives with. The acting by Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne and Steve Carell is outstanding and so, so real. I don’t think Steve Carell gets enough credit for how good an actor he is. There is one sequence in the train where the three men (accompanied by a junior officer) are laughing and joking about their time in Vietnam; anyone who has been to a reunion party with old college friends will relate to these scenes. The film may be a bit too ‘light’ to win any awards, but it is definitely worth watching and particularly interesting if you’ve seen the first film, as there are some parallel situations between the two movies.

In my next post, I will cover two coming-of-age films which have made a big splash in the past few weeks on the awards circuit – Lady Bird and Call Me By Your Name.

The Holiday watchlist, Part 2: Netflix’s movies with a message

Continuing on with my year-end movies list, this post is about Netflix’s two big budget films of 2017. In both cases, the directors are trying to say something personal, wrapped up in a piece of larger-than-life, big-budget entertainment. So even if you didn’t get or care about the message, you could still enjoy your popcorn for a couple of hours. Other than that, there’s not much that the 2 films have in common!

Okja competed for the Palm d’Or at Cannes in May 2017; it caused some ripples because it was not a theatrical release and a part of the Cannes establishment didn’t think it should have been featured at the festival. Nevertheless, the movie carried the sort of message that really appeals to the liberal and progressive environment at Cannes and it got a standing ovation at the end of its premiere, eventually racking up an average Metacritic score of 75/100 from 36 movie critics.

In some ways, Okja is a mirror of Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s 2006 international breakout film The Host. In The Host, a huge mutated fish-creature emerges from the Han river and carries off a little girl to its lair; the rest of the film deals with her father’s attempts to rescue his daughter. In Okja, a little girl forms a strong bond with a huge genetically modified pig-creature which is being raised on her grandfather’s farm. The international corporation which owns the ‘super-pig’ takes it away once it’s fully grown and the rest of the film deals with the girl’s attempts to rescue the creature, which she has named Okja.

Unfortunately, all the characters in the film are irritating in some way (even the little girl on some occasions) and it’s not easy to really enjoy a movie when there’s no one in it that you like. Having said that, the over-the-top acting from renowned actors like Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal and Paul Dano combined with various darkly comic set-pieces do keep the film chugging along. Even if you want to enjoy the film as mindless entertainment, it’s difficult not to think about its themes of mass-consumerism and modern society’s hypocrisy of compassion…we talk about protecting the environment and taking care of all living beings but turn a blind eye to the untold suffering of billions of forcefully domesticated animals who are put through a brutal mass production pipeline to satisfy our cravings. In that sense, the director has done a masterful job of getting his message across via a well-crafted piece of entertainment. Brad Pitt is an Executive Producer on this, by the way.

Bright was released by Netflix just a few days ago and makes no pretense of being an awards contender, having averaged a very poor Metacritic score of 29/100 from 26 critics. The film is directed by David Ayer, who for most of his career has scripted or directed films about cops, crime and corruption in Los Angeles. His films are generally hit-or-miss, with the first Fast and the Furious, Training Day (Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke) and End of Watch (Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña) all enjoying both critical and commercial success. He has diversified his oeuvre in the past few years, directing the World War II tank movie Fury (which I loved), the much maligned Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Sabotage (which I also loved) and the disappointing DC Comics team-up film Suicide Squad.

Bright attempts to tell the story of race politics through the allegory of ‘species politics’, much in the same way as Alien Nation did in 1988 and District 9 in 2009. Set in an alternate present, humans co-exist with Elves, Orcs, Fairies and Centaurs. Elves are at the top of the social food chain, driving Lamborghinis and wearing high fashion while the Orcs are the gangsters and thugs…respectively playing the roles of WASPS, African-Americans and Hispanics from a standard David Ayer story line. Will Smith is an LAPD cop who is paired up with the city’s first ever Orc cop and has to overcome his own prejudice as well as that of his fellow police officers against Orcs, while trying to uncover a big conspiracy. The movie actually starts off well, driven by strong performances from Will Smith and Joel Edgerton (as the Orc cop Jakoby), but the third act is an incomprehensible mess and towards the end I was just waiting for the movie to end. Okja uses elements of scifi/ fantasy to lull the viewer into reflecting on the real world, but Bright misses that opportunity. Still, it’s worth watching, but you’ll find yourself fast-forwarding through the last half hour or so.

My next couple of posts get into heavier territory, covering several movies that explore the human condition, covering the entire spectrum from black comedy to documentary/ guerrilla style film-making.

The Holiday watchlist, Part 1: The entertainers

It’s that wonderful time of the year when I put in a concerted effort to watch all the year-end blockbusters and award contenders and also catch up on any notable indie films I may have missed out on from earlier in the year. In the past month, I’ve managed to watch about a dozen movies. They seem to fall into about 4 categories – pure ‘popcorn’ entertainment, action movies with a ‘message’, movies about the human condition (guilt is a common theme this year) and one set which I classified as ‘educational’, because I learnt something about history or society through watching them (with varying degrees of entertainment value).

Today I will cover the 2 straight up entertainers I’ve seen in the past month.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi – This movie has been subject of much more controversy than should be necessary for a piece of pure popcorn entertainment. When The Force Awakens came out 2 years ago, critics and audiences both enjoyed it, but they also noted that the film rehashes several story beats from the 1977 Star Wars; too safe, too much comfort food. Now with The Last Jedi, critics appreciate the creative risks taken by director Rian Johnson, but fans are incensed that he is messing with their beloved recipe. Which leads to the question: what is the vision for any beloved long-running series of books, TV shows or movies? Fans expect their beloved characters to stay consistent (or at the very least, evolve gradually over time), but want to see them in new settings, facing new challenges. Something about this basic equation has not worked with The Last Jedi. I did feel impatient with Rey chasing a whiny Luke around that island and felt the plot get very thin with the codebreaker on Canto Bight. That middle part of the narrative was choppy and uneven. But equally, there was plenty to enjoy – the opening bombing sequence featuring the heroic Paige Tico, Vice Admiral Holdo’s stunning act of bravery, the visually inventive battle on the planet Crait, the porgs, the beautiful crystal vulptices, the repeated humiliations of General Hux, the reunion of Luke and Leia, etc. Overall, I came out of the theatre happy, but now all the online criticism has amplified the faults of the film and seems to have spoilt my memory of the experience. I definitely need to watch it again to ‘reset’ how I feel. In the long run, I think audiences will forgive Disney for this film. After all, in six months’ time, we’ll have some light-hearted fun in the spin-off movie Solo: A Star Wars Story which has been put together by the ever-dependable Ron Howard. And I am pretty sure JJ Abrams will wrap up the final trilogy nicely with Episode IX in Dec 2019.

Murder on the Orient Express – I enjoyed this movie sufficiently enough to watch it a second time with my kids a few weeks later. I haven’t read Agatha Christie’s book so cannot comment on how faithful an adaptation it is. I have seen the celebrated 1974 version which was very engaging, but I had actually forgotten the plot and the outcome, so I was fully engrossed while watching Kenneth Branagh’s version. I believe that the new version can be rated one notch better, mainly because of that element of twinkly-eyed mischief which seems to permeate the film and the character of Poirot himself. The production design and Haris Zambarloukos’ lush cinematography both do a superb job of evoking the romanticism of that era. And every single member of the ensemble cast is pitch perfect – from the big names like Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penelope Cruz and Dame Judi Dench to the dependable character actors like Willem Defoe, Derek Jacobi, Olivia Coleman and Josh Gad to relative unknowns like Tom Bateman (Bouc, the director of the train), Leslie Odom Jr. (Dr. Arbuthnot) and Marwan Kenzari (the conductor Michel). Of course, in this era of political correctness and fair representation, people may ask if there were no talented Belgian actors available to play Hercule Poirot, but Branagh inhabits the character with such flair, that it is difficult to imagine anyone else playing the role now. I am very much looking forward to having him return as director and star in A Death on the Nile. And hopefully with a star-studded supporting cast.

In my next post I will cover the two Netflix ‘movies with a message’, Okja and Bright.

Godless: Steven Soderbergh’s Western mini-series is both epic and intimate

Hosted by

In the past 5-7 years, scripted shows like Game of Thrones, House of Cards, True Detective, Narcos, Downton Abbey and The Crown as well as mini-series like John Adams, The Night Manager and The Night Of have all brought richly detailed, large scale, cinema-quality entertainment to TV.

Netflix and HBO in particular have been very successful at attracting the best of Hollywood talent to write, produce, direct and star in these drama and fantasy epics that have pushed the boundaries of what was considered possible and acceptable on TV, in terms of graphic violence and sex as well as production values.

One of those big names who turned his attention to scripted TV is Steven Soderbergh. From 2014 onwards, the Oscar-winning director has executive produced half a dozen TV projects, including the award-winning 2013 TV movie Behind the Candelabra (about the later years of entertainer Liberace) and the 2-season show The Knick.

This week I finished watching his latest TV project, the 7-episode mini-series Godless, a Western set in the 1880s, starring Jack O’Connell, Michelle Dockery and Jeff Daniels. After being indifferent to Westerns for many years (I didn’t really get all the fuss about Dances with Wolves and Unforgiven, because I didn’t understand the genre that they were deconstructing), I watched The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in 2008 and fell in love with the genre. I embarked on a journey of ‘self-education’, ended up watching most of the classic westerns and now keep an active eye out for new entries into the genre (there haven’t been that many).

Godless is the story of Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell from Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken) and Frank Griffin (comedian turned character actor Jeff Daniels); Roy was adopted into Frank’s group of outlaws as an orphaned boy and has now grown into a young man who doesn’t vibe with the group’s modus operandi of robbing and raping. Frank is by turns cruel and caring, a learned, enigmatic man with a magnetic personality who wears a preacher’s collar while committing the most violent of crimes. He is a father figure to Roy and the rest of this 30-member ‘family’ of violent and psychotic men.

At the other end of the spectrum is La Belle, an isolated mining town populated almost entirely by women. An accident in their silver mine two years earlier wiped out the entire male population of the town, with the exception of the undertaker, the bartender, sheriff Bill McNue and his young deputy Whitey Winn. The women have slowly learned to make do on their own, but in addition to their emotional distress, they are now in dire straits financially as the mine is unused and no longer bringing income to the town. Sheriff McNue’s sister Mary Agnes is one of a group of women who decides to take charge of the town’s destiny.

Living on a ranch close by is the beautiful widow Alice Fletcher (Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery), along with her teenage son and mother-in-law. Also a few miles from La Belle, is Blackdom, a poor farming community of African American Civil War veterans, who have settled there with their families.

All these lives are violently thrown together when Roy Goode decides he has had enough of Frank Griffith’s life of crime and parts ways with him. Frank considers this a betrayal, even more so considering that Roy intercepts the gang’s latest robbery and takes off with the loot! Roy is now on the run from Frank and his men, gets injured in a shootout with them and eventually arrives at Alice Fletcher’s ranch seeking shelter.

The basic framework of the story is derivative. To begin with, there is a significant parallel with Shane – Roy Goode becomes a father figure to Alice Fletcher’s son while recuperating at the ranch. And the story of how a town holds out against attacking outlaws has been told in various classics including High Noon, Rio Bravo and Gunfight at the OK Corral. However, the freshness in Godless comes from having a large part of the story set in a town without men; this creates a unique dynamic, particularly for a Western.

The show is directed by Scott Frank, who made his name as a screenwriter on movies as diverse as the Spielberg sci-fi classic Minority Report, Barry Sonnenfeld’s black comedy Get Shorty, Steven Soderbergh’s crime-comedy Out of Sight (for which he received an Oscar nomination) and the X-Men franchise spinoffs The Wolverine and Logan. There is a dark sensibility running through all his work and that is given full rein in this show; in fact, the title Godless is a reference to a statement made by Frank Griffith that there cannot possibly be a God in this land of cruelty, sorrow and despair.

I loved that the show took its time in exploring the backstories and personalities of the key characters, weaving its way through flashbacks and subplots. Some reviewers found that these diversions slowed down the pace too much, but I really enjoyed seeing all these slices of frontier life and it helped me invest emotionally in the fate of the various characters, including even Frank Griffin (such a fine performance by Jeff Daniels, who surely has come a long way since acting opposite Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber!).

The production values, cinematography and visual effects are all top notch – movie quality – as we have now come to expect from a Netflix production. Also, de rigueur for these top tier shows now, is the striking combination of graphics and theme music that comprise the opening title sequence. Totaling 7 ½ hours of viewing, this is perfect for a weekend binge watch!