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(list no longer kept up-to-date....sorry)
Rick and Morty: Ricksy Business (2014)
S1: Consistently well-structured and entertaining
It was the same factor that both brought this show to my attention, and made me put off watching it - the fans. Endless memes and quotes from the show made me aware of it, and highlighted the common ground I had with it (Community's creator, the freedom of Adult Swim) so I had the strong feeling I'd like it. The viewer and critical response was also very good, but at the same time a lot of viewers seemed to be pretty fanboy-ish about it, in a protective way that always makes me wonder why the show needs such defense. The mockery of this fan itself becoming a meme with the "you have to have a very high IQ to understand R&M" copy/paste text.
All that to one side, I came into the show not knowing what to expect and without much attention to the hype. The first episode is a bit jarring as we jump right into an established scenario and characters; I wasn't sure how the bits fitted together, why Rick suddenly involved Morty etc in his work but hadn't before then, or how big sections of this world worked. I also didn't really care for how Rick or Morty spoke - the former burping and drooling too much without any reason, the latter mostly just squealing or delivering similar stuttering dialogue. Quickly though a lot of that went away. Partly I accepted the creation for what it was rather than worrying about the small details, and at the same time the energy and humor in the delivery of the pilot worked well.
This continued into the rest of the season and almost all of the episodes were strong in their construction, comedy, and concept. It is not as smart as the meme would suggest, but it is very well done as a piece of entertainment, and is committed to the endless world it spreads out in comparatively little screen time. Voicework is consistently good, and Roiland's delivery grew on me quite quickly. Other reliables in the cast include Clarke, Parnell, and other solid guest stars. The animation feels like its own creation, and while it feels familiar, the scope and detail of it shows the quality - most importantly when it needs to deliver a vison of this world, it is there on the screen to see.
A very strong first season; I'm glad I didn't let the hype or the extreme nature of some of the fans, put me off from watching.
Hap and Leonard: Monsoon Mambo (2018)
S3: Two-Bear Mambo: Good humored and events-driven even if it doesn't balance all its parts totally well
I continue to enjoy this show and this third season gave me more of what I was expecting. The punchy nature of it in terms of length and pace plays well, and there is much to like in the rough-and-tumble way that it carries itself. This season follows the characters from last one, with the character of Florida going missing and drawing Hap and Leonard into a small town known for being racist and closed off. The flashforwards to a badly beaten Hap and Leonard tell us that it will not go well, and indeed it doesn't.
As a mystery the season has some nice twists and turns to it, but mostly it is event driven with a lot happening in a short time (as it has to). It is not perfect writing, but it has a pulpy and tough edge to it that I enjoyed, and the plot engaged while the events satisfied. Some elements of it don't work particularly well, and seem more like convenient writing than anything else, but mostly the pace carries that. The mix of tone is odd this time. On one hand you do get the fun of a bar fight, but you also get real dark damage and loss - I'm not sure the show manages to transition well between those two extremes. The latter adds weight to the drama, but it is the banter and fun aspects that make the show work. That said, the two leads do a lot to make you like and care about them, so they are just about holding these things in one place.
The starry supporting cast are good throughout, and the production values do well to convey the heat and oppression of the place - although the budget restrictions at times do show. As this season finished it was not clear if there would be a fourth season - for some reason there is no buzz around the show, and ratings aren't great I guess. I hope it gets to return as, despite its weaknesses, it has a lot I enjoy.
Homeland: Paean to the People (2018)
S7: Solid season throughout
It is true that one of the main characters dropping out at the end of last season did suggest a bit loss, however the season was decent enough that I continue to come back to Homeland. It is pretty impressive in a couple of ways. Firstly it is good to be reminded how the show started - a bit of a gimmick in the narrative perhaps, and a main character with limited stuff you could do with him. It used this and moved past this well. It is also impressive that Carrie's mental challenges did not get old. At times it does feel like it is looking for a reason to be on, but mostly it produces good television.
This is the case with the seventh season; in that it is good television, albeit not appointment television (a phrase that reveals my age a bit). The timely nature of it adds some value to the plotting; a president on the defensive, a foreign power trying to influence and undermine, an increasing political polarization etc. The show has always felt like it is managing to be a small step ahead of headlines and it does it again here. With this as the base, it turns in a fairly decent plot which mostly works. Some threads feel like tidying up from previous seasons, but mostly it fits together and moves forward as a whole. The ending of the season is a bit muted but it works.
The thing that this season does better is to blend in Carrie as a person. In the past the show has done this badly (like the sudden change of pace at the end of S4) or integrated it into the plot as a plot device. In this case though it feels like it stands on its own, and merges into the season rather than feeling like the season happens to this aspect of her life. This makes Carrie a difficult character again this season, but this is part of her appeal and Danes works that well.
All told, it is another solid season which holds together well; although truth be told I'm fine with the idea that S8 is the chance to bring it all to a close.
Lacks conviction and becomes silly rather than tragic and funny
On paper there is a lot to get excited about with Mindhorn. The cast is deep with talent that comes with a lot to like - particularly the links to a style of humor that is Mighty Boosh, and Alan Partridge. On top of this the location of Isle of Mann, and the 'faded x-list celebrity" held out hope that the tragic and cringey element of the comedy would be well formed. It isn't to be though, and the film never really gets into that space even though it is clearly trying to do so.
There are moments where this works, and it can be occasionally very funny, but mostly it only half-hits, misfires, or gets too silly. The setup takes too long, the final 30 minutes are far too silly in the detail. It does still manage to be quite funny, but I couldn't shake the feeling of it being inconsistent, and lacking a clear conviction for what it was trying to do. I guess part of my reservation was that I was looking for it to be something it wasn't, because I wanted more of that tragic cringe comedy which would have had Mindhorn be more like Partridge - and the bits I enjoyed the most were the bits that pained me the most.
The cast work hard to make it all work, and even when the written elements don't really work, the cast are still good. I am surprised by how many big names and recognizable faces they got involved in this, and then at the same time it also then feels like a missed opportunity that they couldn't make the film as a whole rise to that level.
Atomic Blonde (2017)
Solid action but otherwise fairly superficial stuff
This film produces quite a few scenes of action which are impacting, well-shot, and memorable. Outside of these though the film is less convincing as it delivers a plot that is less than engaging and offers twists that are neither compelling nor surprising. The plot lends itself towards a superficial film, and this is where the film is strongest. All hues and style, we get plenty of design in every scene. This makes it all look and sound good, but adds to the feeling that it has no core or depth.
The actions scenes I mention do flow well, although that they are happening within a superficial film means they have less in the way of impact and stakes. Still enjoyable for what they do though. The cast mostly add quality by their presence - with people like Jones, Marsan, Goodman, McAvoy, Boutella etc all on board. The film is all Theron's though, and she pitches herself in the right place to support the slickness but also deliver the action.
In the end Atomic Blonde is distracting and quite entertaining for its action and style. There isn't much there beyond that though, which is a shame and made the film one that mostly didn't have the impact that its best moments did.
American Made (2017)
Inconsistent in what it does but still manages to be broadly entertaining
Pilot Barry Seal is recruited by the CIA to run a covert operation flying into South America; quickly he gets in deeper and deeper, with money flowing in all directions but significant risk with it.
Considering this is a Tom Cruise film, I was surprised how quickly it came and went from the cinemas in the UK. Based on a true story, the film rattles through the plot with a Goodfellas air but an inconsistent control of what it is trying to do and how it is trying to do it. It is a caper to be sure, and it has a broad humor to it; but at the same time it does have consequences and real drama behind it. It tries to do both of these things but it doesn't manage it. As a result the dirty, greasy heat of the drama knocks the swagger out of the fun, while the broad sense of caper it tries to deliver makes it feel disconnected from the stakes and realism of the drama. While both sort of work, neither really work that well.
Cruise is equally in two places. On one hand I thought he played it really well and convinced in his performance, but at the same time he never stopped being Tom Cruise with his winning smile and slick ways; it broke me out of the character too much and too often. The supporting cast has plenty of talent in there too, but the fast pace and slightly superficial story-telling means nobody ever has time to bed in and make something of their characters outside of Cruise. Production values are high and do well to give the film a sense of time and place with design and delivery.
Overall though, it is a fairly forgettable film that tries hard but doesn't convince. You can see the goals of Goodfellas and Wolf of Wall Street, but it doesn't get close and generally undercuts itself with inconsistency in what it is doing.
Wash Club (2016)
Polished and nippy, if not quite as inciteful as it could have been
This short film is based on a true story of a journalism student who hears a story of a man who walked into a launderette to find a bunch of students putting each other through tumble dryers for kicks. He decides to make this the subject of his uni assignment, and sets out to find members of this club. In doing so, he finds himself becoming the instigator for such a gathering. Being written by the individual who was the center of the true story, there is interesting ground here in terms of urban myths, the power of buzz, and that horrible feeling that one gets when lies or pranks get out of control.
All of these elements are sort of in here, but the film focuses a bit too much on the practical telling of the story. As such we follow the main character as he investigates an urban myth. This is stylishly done and there is a feeling of him accidentally starting something, and this continues until its natural end. I liked where it went in terms of the main character losing control and realizing his place in something terrible - something that he maybe helped make more than a myth (but then also maybe not). This element comes too late in the film though; I liked that it did this rather than be jokey or anything else it could have done, but I wanted more of it and not just a footnote. For me this is the story, because it says a lot and links to that feeling we all have had when a prank or lie gets too big and we can't stop what it did even though we got away clean ourselves.
Slickly made short film, but there is a lot in the final scenes that needed to be across the rest of the film in some form.
T2 Trainspotting (2017)
Has enough style and energy to get over its weaknesses, and has a lot that will work for people of a certain age
The return of Trainspotting to the screen such a weird bit of timing. The cast are almost all moved on to very successful careers in cinema and television, with a range of big and personal projects between them. Likewise the film sits in a period in the mid-90's where cinema seemed so vibrant with ideas and new directors (most of whom are now the new establishment); so returning to a place with that establishment didn't think it would work - particularly seeing so many big name actors trying to convince as broken shells. It felt like it would be an exercise in looking back, rather than being a new film in and of itself.
I thought this would be a negative, but actually this is what the film does, but it is a strength not a weakness. The film reconnects with the characters, who are all in their different places, some having moved more than others. Regardless though, they are all looking back. Some of them look back with fondness when their violence was at its peak, others feel regret for what little they have to show for life - some putting that on themselves, others putting it into blame on others for closing off options. This sense of hitting a certain age and looking back is universal I think, and it works well here. The base plot is not as good, but this element of nostalgia (fond and regretful) mixes across the film well and carries it through.
It also allows the film to do what it does in terms of style. It references the original film a lot, but thanks to this theme, it doesn't feel like it is trying to replicate it or ride on its coattails, but rather it is a touchpoint for the characters, the cast, the crew, and the viewer. Doing this strengthens that theme. Of course, it also repeats the energy of the original film, with the director/cinematographer very much pushing the style and design. This doesn't work quite as well when sometimes there is not quite the substance to carry it off.
How it would work for younger viewers, or those who have never seen the first film, I don't know. But for me it had the style and energy it needed to keep it all moving, but what worked most was that it took that feeling of a backwards looking film, and made that a strength that ran through the 4th wall from the characters out to the production and to the viewer. It is not a match for the original film but it works very well as a companion piece.
Cute but grounded
A young couple do a staycation for their honeymoon, with a tent in their front room, and a ban on internet, phones etc. It gets harder before it works. Despite that description, I think there is never any doubt that the couple will work it out - although this knowledge (or assumption) doesn't work against the film at all.
The tone is mostly cute. Yes there are limits and hardships but they are presented without a feeling of despair or pressure, so they do not take the film away from being romantic and cute in its delivery. That said, at the same time the film manages to have that grounded realism which help it. The characters and their situation does feel real to them, and the tension between the two characters does feel like it is a real thing between two people limited on resources and experiencing individual tensions from it. The two actors make it work well, and they get the tone right - likeable and light, but with that edge throughout.
Slow West (2015)
Engaging in its tone, pace, and brevity
Like the title suggests, the film has a slow pace as it moves on its quest through the western landscape. The plot sees an idealistic young man seeking out his love who fled to America to escape a crime. The young man is joined by an older, more cynical man - unaware that he has joined him to use the young man to lead him to the girl and her father in order to collect the bounty on their heads. It unfolds in an episodic manner within this overall sweep.
The result is a film that is engaging in the most part, has plenty of good western tropes, and is short enough not to make the slow pace hard to take. That said, it also is meandering, doesn't amount to too much, and seems more interested in the episodic oddity of itself than it does making something cohesive. I think it will depend on the individual how that works; for me personally I felt the strengths of that outweighed the weaker aspects. The tone carried it for me, although I didn't think the ending worked particularly well as part of the total package. It is beautifully filmed, which is one of the western aspects it uses. Within the landscape the cast are generally good, but it is the work from Smit-McPhee and Fassbender that makes the majority of it work. When you are with them as a viewer, the film is enjoyable and carries itself.
Not a film that really hits its mark, Slow West still offers a nicely engaging slow pace which plays out with good tone and pace, even if it doesn't feel like it comes together as a whole.
Places, Thank You Places (2018)
Very funny in a cringe-inducing way (SPOILERS)
This short comedy follows an understudy who is working in a restaurant job when suddenly his number comes up - the lead is sick and he is going to be tonight's star in a promising off-Broadway show. As the day goes ahead, the man lets the potential fame go more and more to his head.
As a comedy, this is not really one where you're be laughing all the way, with punchline after punchline. Instead it is more of a cringe-inducing comedy which has a good bed of amusement to it. We follow the main actor as he quickly becomes more and more of an asshole. The film foretells this nicely by having the guy's naïve energy be annoying when recommending shows - like he is really a big part of the scene or something. This comes over as harmless enough, but it connects well to who he is when it is scaled up - essentially it is the same person but magnified by supposed fame. In doing this the film works its character well, I guess writer and actor Richardson has maybe met a few on his way.
The script is funny in a painful way, and Richardson delivers it really well throughout. The pace makes the most of the script, and it is a very professional production - with plenty of familiar faces in the cast, even though you'll probably be hitting IMDb to be able to always place them. The film runs to over 20 minutes (which is long for an online short film) but it fills that time easily and never outstays its welcome.
Men Don't Whisper (2017)
Nicely pained comedy that plays with cliché and stereotype
Two gay men are feeling emasculated for not displaying adequate 'decisiveness' at a sales conference and as a result decide to have sex with two of the girls at the conference.
There is a lot at play here which makes the film's basic premise work well. Mostly the film plays with stereotype and cliché. The gay men, the conference motivational speaker, the two girls, all of these fit the expected types and play out as such. Within this the writing takes the 'pretending to be a different sexuality' idea from several big budget comedies, and plays it out crudely for the gay couple. The resulting scenes are played for laughs but are awkward, pained, and end with a downbeat conclusion which put it more in the real world while still being a comedy.
The Search Party vibe is strong here in terms of the delivery and tone of the piece; it is very modern New York in how it folds into itself and how the characters are all essentially terrible people in their own ways. Of course part of this might be me projecting since the writer/director/lead and one of the other cast are from that show. The cast do very well with the material though, getting the delivery right throughout, and bringing the cringe and comedy out of the piece. At the same time it does still allow for serious points in there, about the nature of stereotypes, what it is to be a man, and other ideas. In the end it is about the comedy, but it is well informed and delivered within that.
Look at Me Only (2016)
Nice little modern fable (SPOILERS)
A man and woman sits in a pet café in Japan. The man is distracted by a woman at another table, and the guinea pig which is in front of him, while his girlfriend is trying to talk to him, and becoming increasingly irate about him not paying attention.
This short is a modern relationship fable about mindfulness, and being present in the moment. It is a relevant and emotive topic because it captures the reality of life, and shows the consequence of it. The reaction of the girlfriend is amplified to try and make her seem unreasonable - and some elements of the film she is being; this allows us to 'side' with the man, even though he is looking at other girls, daydreaming about a new fresh relationship. As the film progresses we see a nice twist where we understand the situation better. (SPOILERS). The pet is actually the man's phone, and his playing with it is now understandable. The opening scenes of the film now make more sense, as we see the phone essentially eating memories so that they are images not real things.
The impact of the girlfriend is now clear, and the film ends on a hopeful note for them, even though the tale is mostly cautionary. Since the message is quite simple, the way it plays it out is important and well done to keep it interesting. The animation (soft stop-motion) is engaging in how different it is but yet still retaining some of the Japanese elements in terms of style. It flows well and has some good transitions. In the end, the message is simple but the clever structure and meaning within the delivery makes it more engaging and more likely to hit home.
La La Land (2016)
Pleasant enough but ultimately superficial and a little smug
Blockbuster season and awards season - two periods of the year where it is easy to get caught up in the hype but not always easy to find really good films. In the awards time of year it is particularly hard since everyone is talking up films as much as possible, and lots of 'proper' films come out around then in order to qualify. Last year was no different and La La Land was one of the films that we were all told was a big contender and would surely merit its place surrounded by the great films that had gone before it. Years of disappointment has told me not to get caught up in the hype but just catch things later when they are cheaper and have lost their promotion. With La La Land, that time was now, but the distance has actually only hurt it.
More on that in a minute. Generally speaking, La La Land is perfectly fine. It is a pleasant film that has charm and good grace mostly. It wallows in an image of Hollywood that doesn't exist, and fills its delivery with nostalgia and simplification; it is easy to see why it was so popular with those successfully in the industry, and those all hoping that their big break is just around the corner. As a story there is not much too it. The delivery isn't as charming as it needed to be; the musical numbers after that first great one are mostly only okay - they try hard, but they are only okay. The characters are thin, although they benefit from good performances - mostly from Stone, who I really enjoyed. It is nothing special, but it works in a sort of cheerful fantasy way.
One year on though, and the #MeToo movement and associated revelations cast a different light on a young woman in Hollywood trying to get ahead. La La Land was a bit smug and fantastical before this, but after it has an air of denial to it too - unintended of course and not the film's fault, but it is there nonetheless, and the cheerful "have a dream and get your break" theme stands out badly. Like I say though, not the film's fault - but even without that problem, the film is at best just pleasant to watch but not more.
Jean-Claude Van Johnson (2016)
S1: Silly at times, but mostly makes the comedy, action, references, and in-jokes work well
Jean-Claude van Damme is living an empty life of luxury, his best career days behind him now, and little in his life. A chance encounter with an old love, Vanessa, triggers him to reboot his career. However it is not his van Damme days that he wants back into, but his shadow career of van Johnson, where he used European-set DTV titles as a way to get inside enemy regimes and act as a secret agent who nobody would ever suspect.
I think probably everyone has seen the film JCVD, where the actor plays straight in a surprisingly brutal film which not only stripped him down as a person, but broke the 4th wall to give him on-screen time to reflect on his life and who he has been. It was a great moment and for the actor the film was a brave but rewarding choice. The TV show sort of extends that idea of putting van Damme into playing himself but not really playing himself; of joking about his career but celebrating it at the same time; of mocking his films but delivering what we all like about them. It is in no way as serious as JCVD, but it rides on from it. In doing so it is a real odd mix, and it is never totally clear that it knows how to balance all the things it is trying to do.
At times it is very silly, others it asks us to buy into the characters, and then at the same time it is funny. The same is true of the plot, which jumps all over the place and rarely totally works. The multiple personalities, the time-travel, the spy thriller, the personal reflection - all of it has a part, even if it never gels. That said, it is still an enjoyable season. It is well put together so that enough works to cover the weaknesses; the action and comedy all work, and the cast bring a lot to the screen. JCVD himself is great - he gets the scene, whatever it is. His comedic timing is good and he is still a very good physical presence - even when the scene is daft, he goes with it and makes it work. Kat Foster is more than just a pretty face; she has good chemistry with van Damme, and convinces as a character. Arias is a weird find but fun casting - hard to recognize him when compared to his other work. In support there are several familiar faces that add weight to the show and also do good turns - Rashad, Rota, Schiff, come to mind, but also a collection of goons and other such roles.
Overall it is a fun season that mostly plays for laughs and gets them. The general standard is amusement with fun action, but tries to have a narrative that works (even if it gets silly too often). Not sure where the ending really leaves them to go except to get more silly, but on the basis of this season I would like to watch more if they can reign that back and play to what they did well here.
High Maintenance: Steve (2018)
S2: Great character driven stuff, although I wish it took its time and did more
The second season of this Vimeo original continues in the same way as the first season came out. In the same way as it ever has, we follow the guy delivering drugs on his bicycle, through a range of characters, some of whom reoccur and connect across stories. Mostly we have two characters per episode, so we have around 15 minutes with each, which is comparable to some of the original webseries. This season we have a range of the quirky characters who are shaped by the vitality of the city around them in the same way as rural life promotes a slower pace.
In this season there is much to like, and the writing continues to be good when it comes to creating characters, making connections, and producing something which is not so much 'funny' but engaging, amusing, moving, and all other things which real people are. This in a nutshell is what I like about the show, is that it finds the people in the quirks. That said, I do wish it did it more because this season continues that trend from the first, which is that it is not quite as heartfelt as the best of the Vimeo episodes. There are moments of real humanity and pathos, but not enough, and some characters either just play to the quirk, or they don't have the space to fully engage and deliver - mostly the latter.
Despite this feeling though, I still very much enjoyed each episode. The pace and content varied, and some were better than others but overall it engaged and pleased me throughout. The focus on alternative lifestyles of all ilk's is not new to the show (indeed it has been its core value since the start) and here it continued, and as before it both didn't bother me at all, but yet also stood out in my line of vision as a thing it was doing. The writing helps it be a non-issue, but at the same time there are deliberate choices being made along the way here. In some small way it breaks it out of feeling grounded, but mostly it has sufficient strength in other ways to cover this.
Another great collection of episodes from this show, but for the third I do hope they try to deliver more than tastes of the characters they bring in - which is really the only gripe I have about it.
Have Heart (2017)
Oddly clever in concept even if it is deliberately difficult at times in terms of content
There is a simple message within this film, and not one that is unique by any means. That message is one of a generation lost into social media obsession, of spending more time in the virtual than the real, and maybe not being able to separate themselves from one to live in the other. Type a random number into Vimeo and probably you'll hit another film doing just this. With Have Heart there is a difference thanks to the creativity behind it. It's main character is a few second-long gif of an animated bird failing to fly/ This gif then goes viral but the bird himself is not wholly aware of what is happening, and has a crisis as his life appears to implode around him.
The film was animated in the creator's free-time, and done without the specific planning and story-boarding that is normal in animation. This allows the film to flow in a weird way that is engaging in how unstructured it is, but the downside being that it does feel disjointed and unfocused at points - a percentage of any honest viewer base will contain many who dropped out long before the film ended. For me it was odd enough to stick with, and I enjoyed it despite its deliberate difficultness. The final shot bugged me a little bit; in one way it is a neat little closer, but then at the same time it feels so obvious that it clashes badly with what had gone before. I'm still not sure if I liked that or not.
Despite this though, it is worth a look albeit a difficult and overlong film which asks patience from the viewer but is generally worth it for the creativity within.
The Hanging (2016)
A casual browse of the internet will bring you across videos and pictures of young people, who mostly seem to be Russian, posing atop high buildings with the casual air of being on the poolside. It is a trend that is as stupid as it is empty, and The Hanging did nothing to change my view of that.
Kirill is supposedly called 'The Russian Spiderman', although he could be called many shorter names too. The film follows him as he and his friends vandalize the locks of a building to get access to the roof so they can mess around and take pictures for the internet. This seems to be the main driver for doing it, and while life is on the line, it is no different than anyone else taking pictures of their food, or endless trying to capture the perfect 'spontaneous' moment so that they can get online affirmation of their worth.
The documentary tries to do something to give it more gravitas, and it allows Kirill to speak and talk through his passion. Unfortunately it gives him an open floor, which results in him speaking like all of us when we are young - finding depth and meaning in the pointless, considering themselves edgy and different when really the rebellion and risk-taking in some form is just a perfectly ordinary stage - just the majority of people come out of it at some point. The film may have been more interesting if it had not been so enamored with its subject, and had pushed back on him a bit to stimulate more conversation. As it is though, there is nothing to this film aside teenage-style angst, and the buzz of a filmmaker being close to someone they consider cool.
First Match (2010)
Solid sporting story which is engagingly downbeat (SPOILERS)
Everyone loves a sporting film which has an underdog story and a big win with probably the last shot; when it is done well it is hard not to be carried along by such a film. First Match has a similar setup but takes a different approach. (SPOILERS). The plot sees a teenage girl being the only one on her otherwise male wrestling team. She is good but as the film goes on we understand that it is something she is doing to connect to her distant father. The big match of the film does have him in attendance but it is waved off when the girl gets her period and blood-pause is called. The father leaves and this is where the film ends.
The direction is robust and responsible through, which is what gives the short its strong foundation. It doesn't have 'big' moments or overdo it for the spectacle, instead it is a small gym with few people and low stakes. Within this we have a very good subdued performance from Bakker, who holds a lot in, which is convincing for who she would really be. This is most effective in the interaction with her father, where she is more outward and positive - hopeful in her reaching out. The final shots of the film are telling in their impact and how sullen and silent she is. Her father clearly has pressure on him, maybe risking a job by being away even for a short time, but the impact on his daughter is clear and harsh.
This short has recently been made into a feature for Netflix and I will check it out to see if it can retain these strengths over a longer running time, but in the meantime this short has stood up well over the past 8 years, and is driven by a well observed restraint from director and actor.
S4: Has some great moments, but also plenty of disjointed ones - still very good though
The fourth season had a lot to deliver considering it followed the very strong third season. It doesn't hit that standard in a way that is consistent, but here and there we have elements of the show that really stand out and are very impressive. In terms of plotting, the fourth season doesn't really have a nice neat thread running through it; and I think this does sort of limit it in terms of its overall impact. The characters feel fragmented across their various stories, and the season doesn't find a way to pull them together in a satisfying way.
Although this does have an impact, it doesn't all mean a negative. All parts of the show work in their own way, although for some of them it is just that they are funny and odd. On this level it is fine, works well, and is generally done with creativity. In terms of character development, there are threads and episodes that do this well - Princess Caroline for one, but BoJack's mother is the focus of the strongest episode. This one came out of a thread that seemed to be going nowhere but then suddenly produced such a clever and 'human' episode that really does stand with the best of this show.
Animation and voicework continue to be of a high standard, but it is the writing that makes it so good. This fourth season may have weaknesses in cohesion and consistency, but it is funny and engaging throughout, and throws up some very strong episodes/threads along the way.
Blue Ruin (2013)
Engagingly tense and spare
Like everyone else probably has already said, there is something of the Coen Brothers about this film, but not in terms of humor or oddity, but rather in its stripped down violence that worked so well in Blood Simple. The plot here sees a homeless man learning that the man who murdered his parents has been released from jail. He sets out for revenge, but the attempt goes badly, putting his estranged sister and family at risk.
Starting out mostly in wordless scenes, the film draws us in with Dwight revealing a lot of his life and what led him there, all with little touches and moment. We don't fully understand the ins and outs of it all, but the gist is clear and it is engaging. The steady pace of the start continues throughout, and it works well to produce tension and build-up within scenes, but also across the film as a whole. The stripped down feel to the writing, soundtrack, and production all add to that sense of tension - it doesn't feel forced for flamboyance or excessive (although the closing scenes maybe do a bit, to their slight detriment). There isn't a 'side' really, although of course we follow Dwight as our way in - but it is the spiral and lack of choice that draws the film along just like it does to him.
Blair is the star here and he holds the film together. He is convincing in his simplicity, and delivers an engaging character whether he is on the beach at the start, making bad decisions, or dealing with a mess he has no way out of. The supporting cast are all good (and benefit from a lack of 'faces'), but it is Blair's film throughout. Writer/director Saulnier has a deft touch for tension, with good camera movement when it matters (tracking what isn't visible for example), as well as allowing nothing to happen at times when so much is at stake.
Blue Ruin was a surprise find at a time when I knew nothing about it but the running time fitting my evening. It turned out to be a gripping but sparsely populated film, which played to its strengths from start to finish.
S9: Enjoyable season whether part of the mini-series or a standalone episode
The ninth season of Adventure Time contains the same mini-series approach that the previous two seasons used to good effect. Here Elements is the best part of the short season, as it does produce a sense of cohesion in the storytelling, with each episode connecting to the next in a way that the full season doesn't do (and previous 30+ episode seasons couldn't reasonably have been expected to do). I didn't think this miniseries was as strong as Islands, but it had the same strengths in that it did enhance the characters and the wider sense of place and world. It was also creative in its world and the way it twisted everything we knew.
The standalone episodes were mostly of a high standard too, and none felt like filler. Some were weirdly amusing, abstract (obviously so), and then produced a strong finale that came out of nowhere but still worked as an impact. The shortness of the season was not a problem for me, and I have found the shorter episode runs to be easier to engage with that those that ran for loads of episodes scattered all over the place. The animation remains of a very high standard, with plenty of creativity, and the voice cast equally keep their performances high, and make the material work.
The tenth season will be the final one, and I hope it can carry the same quality it had in this season through to the end.
Across Still Water (2014)
Engaging, responsible, and well-constructed
A man called John who is going blind gradually is the subject of this short documentary. We spend time night fishing with him, before we fully understand what is happening to him. In some ways John is facing what is coming head-on, but then in others he seems to be trying to avoid embracing it as inevitable. The film plays this out, with family pushing John to get ready, a blind man telling home truths, and John trying to carry on as normal.
The darkness of the night fishing is a good visual device, but it is not the only thing that the film uses to get us thinking. The sound work on the streets of the daytime is good - in particular there is a short sequence of just street shots where the sound was busy and a little disorientating in how present it was; I liked this as contrast but also the understanding that lack of sight within this would be brutal. The visual frankness of the film is matched with the people and content; it is not sentimental but rather it is direct and honest.
This makes it a hard watch as we accept what is coming, but at the same time enjoy the moment in time that Across Still Water lets us see. It is a simple but effective documentary which is engaging, responsible, and well-constructed in what it does.
The Death of Stalin (2017)
Cruel, chilling, absurd, and funny
Taking his lead from the farcical absurdity which he has always done so well, director Iannucci turns to Soviet politics and the days after the death of Stalin. In doing so he produces a film that seems like a bit of a hard sell; truth be told it took me a minute to be motivated to watch it on the basis that it didn't "sound" good. From the opening scenes though, the tone is clear and strong. The uneasy actions of the inner circle are played out in a "relaxed" meal, while at the same time an entire orchestra frantically try to save their own lives by simply complying with a request from Stalin. These opening scenes are funny and absurd but yet they have a genuine menace and fear to them.
It is hard to describe but neither of these aspects undercut the other. The film manages to work as it plays out a massacre but yet has wonderfully funny dialogue and performances. This combination is deftly balanced and I wish I even had the skill to explain it, far less do it. The cruelty of the clamber for power, and the ruthless callousness of those who have it is chilling even as you laugh, but it is the laughter that is more impressive. The absurd but witty dialogue, combined with plenty of genuinely funny comedic touches in the small details (the accents, the pyjamas, the phrasing), all make the film very funny and had laughs where I least expected it at times. The cast are well served with the material, and are very good at making the most of it. Buscemi, Tambor, Beale, McLoughlin, Palin, Whitehouse, Friend, Isaacs, and really all the cast get the tone of the film just right. The comedic timing is spot on for all, but so too are the performances of men scheming and manipulating all the time while knowing the firing squad may be just around the corner.
Well worth watching. It has moments as funny as Thick of It etc, but yet has a darkness that makes it much more satisfying and engaging to watch.
Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
A little too polished, but very entertaining and fun
This was the second Marvel film I watched this week (Homecoming being the other), and it reinforced what the franchise does well - which is to entertain. Not all the films achieve this, but Thor Ragnarok certainly does. It takes its lead very much from the stylish and retro fun of Guardians of the Galaxy, but it has an awkward humor that is very much its own. This is really its main selling point, as the film displays great comic timing throughout, with plenty of very good moments drawing good laughs and fun.
At times the film feels a bit too engineered and designed. It is such a change from the previous Thor films (which didn't embrace this silliness quite as much) that it does stand out for its difference, but yet at the same time the accessible entertainment value makes it fit very well beside the more recent Marvel films, in particular the comedy tone of Guardians of the Galaxy. This carries it well, and it does own it surprisingly well; it helps that the cast all get it throughout, there is no feeling of everyone working in one direction while a different direction was trying to be found. The silly tone works, while not detracting from the general plot, which is a frame at best, but yet works.
The times it tries to have weight don't really manage to stand up, but otherwise there is a lot to like in a film that is entertaining, slick, well timed, and with everyone aligned to what it is trying to do.