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I'm not paid to write about film - I do it because I love it. Favourites include Bong Joon-ho, Danny Boyle, the Coen Brothers, Nicolas Winding Refn, Steven Spielberg, Guillermo del Toro, Taika Waititi and Edgar Wright. All reviews and articles are original works owned by me. They represent one man's opinion, and I'm more than happy to engage in civilised debate if you disagree.
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Fresh Thoughts on Film
Archived Thoughts on Film
Bo Burnham’s EIGHTH GRADE was one of the surprise highlights of last decade. Achingly truthful, deceptively insightful and connected to its teenage characters, it was the best coming-of-age movie in a decade of great coming-of-age movies like THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN, MID90S and BOOKSMART to name but three. Elsie Fisher is transcendent as Kayla, her performance that really couldn’t be more grounded and exposed. It’s telling that a YouTube star makes the platform an essential aspect to the storytelling in his feature debut, that the latest generation see social media as their whole identity. The cross-cutting audio of confidently delivered vlogs with silent domestic/social scenes wracked with nerves is an effective trick to employ, and one of the few occasions where the screens are put away as Kayla and her father (Josh Hamilton) connect at their most emotionally vulnerable moment really packs a wallop. SSP
MID90s absolutely feels authentic, of a particular place and time. Any skater, or wannabe skater will see some truth here. You really grow to care for these kids, despite the often stupid decisions they make. They’re boys letting off stream and using skating as a rebellious outlet – of course they’ll jump off things face-first and go to booze at underage parties. You find yourself looking out for the Jonah Hill stand-in character, his directorial debut being at least party autobiographical, and I’m sure there’s something of who he was at that age in every one of these teen skaters trying to belong. Judging by his effortlessly natural performance here, Sunny Suljic has a bright future ahead of him. Speaking of futures, I don’t know what is more surprising, that Katherine Waterston is old enough to play a mum or that Lucas Hedges is now old enough to play an older brother. SSP
DC now have their DEADPOOL. That’s the headline, that’s the tone of BIRDS OF PREY (AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN) but it’s more than that on its own terms as well. For all the sweary shenanigans and breaking of limbs, this has real heart to it.
Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) is done with her abusive relationship with Mister J. But just as she gets out in the world to make a name for herself she crosses the wrong gangster (Ewan McGregor) and gets a target on her back. Now Harley and an eclectic collective of formidable women must protect a teen runaway (Ella Jay Basco) from Black Mask’s thugs.
First off, the action is killer – Cathy Yang needs an action franchise. My favourite sequence is Harley’s one-woman assault on the police precinct with her grenade launcher loaded with non-lethal (but colourful, and painful) ammunition. She then demonstrates more deadly tricks with her metal baseball bat than Baseball Bat Man in THE RAID 2, and he was called Baseball Bat Man! All the other Birds of Prey get the chance to kick ass too, and the sight of the team working together to take on wave after wave of bro goons is a sight to behold.
Robbie gets to inhabit Harley in the way she wasn’t given the room to in SUICIDE SQUAD. There she was window dressing, now she’s an interesting character. Why do so many people forget Harley isn’t stupid? She’s got a PHD! The film opens with a cartoon of her life story so far, and her being underestimated is a big part of that. She’s intelligent but a bit mad and with a really goofy sense of humour. She wants to finally follow her own path, do what she does because she wants to do it, from going down to a grimy deli for her favourite egg sandwich hangover cure to buying a hyena for company in her apartment.
Elsewhere Mary Elizabeth Winstead often steals the show as the deadpan vengeful killer Huntress, who you can really see squirm with discomfort whenever she’s not allowed to resolve a situation with her crossbow. The rest of Harley’s makeshift team do their best to make an impact but aren’t given as strong an arc as their loony leader, existing in her orbit and responding to her questionable actions. Jurnee Smollett-Bell impressively belts out a song and Rosie Perez gets to be more dynamic than a middle-aged female cop usually gets to be, but you’d hope for a few more layers for them all if they get another go around.
Ewan McGregor seems to be doing a Sam Rockwell impression as Roman Sionis/Black Mask, and while his accent occasionally wobbles, he really sells his character’s layers of monstrosity. He goes from spoiled rich kid not getting his way one scene to sadistic face-peeler the next and you really can’t wait for someone to take nasty revenge on him.
Every thrilling film worth its salt should have a funhouse finale. There have been some great ones over the years – ENTER THE DRAGON, THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN, THE GUEST and now BOP joins that group. There’s just something about an environment designed for kids to have fun turning deadly.
If I had one biggish criticism it’s that the team don’t really come together until the final act. The first two thirds of the movie is Harley taking a long time to tell a simple story, before the others on the periphery make their way front and centre. I know they want to get across the unique way Harley’s mind works, but the constant back-and-forth, side-to-side editing of the tale does niggle after a spell.
Birds of Prey is a colourful comic book caper full of playful asides and ultraviolence – it’s basically everything Suicide Squad wasn’t. The surface-level stuff nearly always lands and despite the plotting being a bit blurry and some characters not given enough interesting things to do, there’s more than enough here to make you hope Harley and the Birds of Prey get another outing soon. You do not want to waste these vibrant characters a single movie, because it seems like they’re just getting started. SSP
We never did decide on a name for this decade that didn’t sound completely stupid did we? Thank goodness for the insight and escapism that cinema offers because the world has been heading for disaster at an alarming rate as the last ten years have flown by.
Just like every other amateur or professional film critic, I’ve put a lot of thought into not just the best and worst films of the last ten years, but the ones that will stay with me, that changed me on some profound level, that I’ll revisit and get something new out of every single time.
Before the main event, let’s briefly look back at the best from the year just gone, which all told was pretty good one at the movies.
The Best of 2019:
10. I LOST MY BODY Review in brief here.
9. THE TWO POPES Review in brief here.
8. THE NIGHTINGALE Review in brief here.
7. TELL ME WHO I AM Review in brief here.
6. THE FAREWELL Full review here.
5. JOJO RABBIT Full review here.
4. WILD ROSE Full review here.
3. PARASITE Full review here.
2. AVENGERS: ENDGAME Full review here.
1. FOR SAMA Review in brief here.
The Very Best of 2010-19 (in alphabetical order):
AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019) Marvel’s decade-long gamble paid off in spectacular and resonant fashion.
BABY DRIVER (2017) Full review here.
BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017) Full review here.
DRIVE (2011) Divisive auteur Nicolas Winding Refn’s most mainstream movie is a cool, ultraviolet neo-noir with a gentle soul, timeless themes and a killer soundtrack.
EX MACHINA (2015) Full review here.
FOR SAMA (2019) Not just the documentary of the decade but an essential preservation of a nightmarish time and place where, somehow, families willed themselves to survive.
A GHOST STORY (2017) Full review here.
THE HUNT (2012) Full review here.
THE ILLUSIONIST (2010) More emotive and certainly more unique than anything CG-animated this decade, Sylvian Chomet’s little gem based on an unmade Jacques Tati script is simple, beautiful soul food.
NINA FOREVER (2016) Full review here.
OUR LITTLE SISTER (2015) Hirokazu Koreeda well and truly broke through in the West in the 2010s. SHOPLIFTERS got him an Oscar nomination, but Our Little Sister is the purest and most grounded of stories about sisterhood in all its forms.
PARASITE (2019) Bong Joon-ho finally gets belated mainstream recognition for one of the finest films he’s ever crafted – a bold, furious and funny class satire.
PRIVATE LIFE (2018) Full review here.
THE RIDER (2018) Review in brief here.
ROOM (2015) Full review here.
SEARCHING (2018) Full review here.
SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE (2018) Full review here.
WE ARE THE BEST! (2013) Full review here.
WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN (2011) Releasing two films in the same decade is prolific by Lynne Ramsay’s standards and Kevin is a challenging, harrowing and immaculately performed drama.
13TH (2013) Full review here.
Here’s to another decade of groundbreaking, entertaining, thought-provoking films from around the world. And maybe to a world that becomes a little less crappy. Cheers! SSP
I fell in love with the genre-hopping, tonally-tromboning work of South Korean firebrand Bong Joon-ho at university and ended up writing my dissertation on how his films represent fractured families and Korean culture. I’ve been waiting for PARASITE for what seems like an age and I’m ecstatic to report it pretty much bowled me over.
The Kims, a family of grifters manipulate their way into working for the affluent Park family and cling to the higher quality of life this brings them. But how far will the deception go, who is in control and what secrets are both families hiding?
Bong loves his dysfunctional family units, and here we get two for the price of one. The Kims are scroungers of everything from wireless signals (how they are introduced to us) to food and easy payouts (making up pizza boxes: “One out of four is defective”, prompting Ki-taek to glance accusingly at his three family members). But they always have each other’s backs and a plan to get rich without trying. The Parks are privileged, pretentious and protected against the harder parts of life, but they still love each other (“Let’s call it love”) are kind to those that grow close to them and can be trusting to a fault.
What the Kims have over their marks are their wiles. They’re calculating, street-smart and able to improvise should the plan go awry, which it inevitably will sooner or later. They may live in a basement where the only phone signal is from the elevated toilet and their only regular caller is a drunk who sees their window as a toilet, but they’re survivors and are doing OK considering the two traditional breadwinners find themselves out of work.
The stage is set – two families, polar opposites of one another share the same life for a time and through manipulation and deception try to retain the lifestyle they have grown accustomed to. It’s all about control – who thinks they’re in control, who knows they’re actually in control and who really is in control? This is a dark and twisty tale that will feature peaches, soap and faulty lighting as plot points.
The players – some big names in Korea and talented performers – should have received more individual recognition on the awards circuit. Song Kang-ho is one of the most versatile leading men in international film – charismatic, nuanced and frequently hilarious, he’d walk away with the film with a less talented ensemble, but Park So-dam, Jang Hye-jin and Lee Sun-kyun all get their moments to dazzle.
The pacing is generally measured and the build of tension steady, but after a couple of almighty twists and rug-pulls the final act really kicks into high gear. It’s here especially that Bong brings some real class-based fury at inequality to proceedings. For a while you think the Kims will be punished for their wrongdoing, that the film is holding them up as a moral example but even then Bong keeps asking pertinent questions and keeps any easy answer out of reach. But no-one gets off lightly here – no level of manipulation or power-play is left out of the debate – the Kims and the Parks may have their reasons for being who they are and doing what they do, but it all comes back to a fundamentally broken society one way or another.
All of Bong’s films are funny, but a combination of slapstick, situational bizarreness and pretty grotesque imagery (the sight of an overflowing toilet hasn’t been used to such comic effect since TRAINSPOTTING) makes this the closest thing he’s made to an outright comedy, as dark as it gets in the final act.
It’s a great-looking film, classically framed and capturing whole family units in wide or medium shot. Contrasting lighting and hues juxtapose the two worlds of this story – a hellish literal underworld of the lower classes and a pristine, heavenly upper level – works really well for the story’s thematic substance.
Black as pitch, but hilarious, socio-politically cutting but with a heart and conscience. I’ve seldom laughed so much at a film this year, even though I felt a little bit bad about some of those chuckles. Director Bong has now made films called THE HOST and Parasite, both hugely entertaining societal satires with a good glug of genre influences from elsewhere. What could be next? Symbiote? Whatever it is will surely be another deliriously entertaining eye-opener and inescapably “him”. SSP
I didn’t know what to expect from ATLANTICS. You’re drawn in with a social realist take but what stays with you is the magical realism that comes into this Senegalese story’s second half. Construction worker Souleiman (Traore) protests against unpaid wages while his girlfriend Ada (Mame Bineta Sane) is about to be married off to someone else by her parents. Before long Souleiman and his fellow labourers have left for Europe by boat for work and Ada has some momentous life decisions to make. Strange crimes are committed in the city and a detective (Amadou Mbow) is on the case. The atmosphere throughout is pervasive, the performances are great across the board, the plot goes to some unexpected places and Mati Diop really impresses in the director’s chair. Well worth your time seeking out (it’s on Netflix) if this passed you by last year. SSP
There have been plenty of reviews by men that open with “I haven’t read the book but…” and I’m unfortunately going to have to add to that pile. It’s not deliberate ignorance, it’s just a classic I’ve just never gotten round to reading. Whatever your knowledge of Louisa May Alcott’s story beforehand, I can guarantee in the assured hands of writer-director Greta Gerwig and a ridiculously talented cast, LITTLE WOMEN will pull you in to the lives of the March sisters. By the way, Gerwig should have received a Best Director nomination, duh.
Aspiring writer Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) submits some short stories to publishers and looks back on growing up with her three sisters Meg (Emma Watson), Beth (Eliza Scanlen) and Amy (Florence Pugh) during the American Civil War, a story that may well inspire her own master work.
The story’s framing device of Jo writing, editing and selling Little Women to a publisher is clever, and meta without being smug. It asks us to consider the writing process and an author’s intentions, while highlighting the veritable mountain women had to climb to be taken seriously and maintain their independence in this period.
The storytelling structure that hops back and forth over the years and introduces new memories tied to distinct objects and locations, takes some getting used to. When you’ve got your eye in, though, and you’re completely engrossed it’s a powerful technique. It also helps a great deal to keep track of where we are when Jo gets a haircut.
The March Sisters reminded me very much of the Brontës – the latter artistically-minded siblings getting name-checked at one point by Amy as one of the few women declared geniuses by their contemporaries. They’re all extremely gifted in a particular discipline, as different as they are similar to one another and though loyal to and protective of each other they of course have vicious fallouts – they both petty and monumental – and difficult times aplenty to work through together.
When you’ve got a central foursome this talented it’s really tough to pick out one performance that particularly stands out. Pugh’s Amy is vocal, passionate and gets a great monologue about a woman’s in-built disadvantage in the world even if she marries well. Scanlan’s Beth is always the calming voice in the family, quiet and wise beyond her years (if pushed, she’s my favourite). Watson’s Meg is maternal and keen to settle down but doesn’t want to miss out on too much life either. Ronan’s Jo seems the most independent and headstrong sister but can only put a brave face on her situation for so long, floored by negative criticism of her work and with a late heartbreaking confession that “I’m so lonely” being one of the moments of 2019 film, as is all the tender time she spends with an ailing Beth.
You completely buy why all the March sisters would have fallen head-over-heels for Laurie. He’s got plenty of unlikeable traits, sure, but in Timothée Chalamet’s hands he’s charm and good hair personified. Of course the romantic subplots are a secondary concern to the Marches’ unbreakable relationships with each other, and their happily ever after with the various men (James Norton and Louis Garrel join Chalamet) who aren’t good enough for them is left pleasingly ambiguous.
If the flawless performances, genuine emotions and gorgeous cinematography don’t get you, then Alexandre Desplat’s (having a great few years following THE SHAPE OF WATER) heartstring-strumming score will surely finish you off.
Greta Gerwig is one of the best actor’s directors working today. The way she sees these timeless characters, how she built her cast’s relationships and encouraged her actors to bring something of themselves to the role, to become a real family over the course of the shoot, is absolutely essential to this new take on a well-trod story connecting. Little Women is an absolute joy – wittily funny, truthful and insightful about family, creativity and becoming a fully-rounded person. SSP