Sully

Soon after “the Miracle on the Hudson” you knew they’d make a film about it. The problem was that the actual action wasn’t long enough for an aeroplane disaster movie. They take off, birds, strike, and within minutes they’re landing on the Hudson. It’s impressive but it’s not a ninety minute movie. Eastwood’s movie overcomes this central dilemma by making the aftermath the central focus. Sully, played in straightforward Hanks mode, is accused of making the wrong decision. The insurance company have simulations to prove it. From here it’s a courtroom drama with plane disaster flashbacks. The film makes itself.

It is, of course, well done – Hanks and Eastwood are a guarantee of a certain level of quality, and throw in the real human drama and this will have been one of the punts movie execs can predict to the dollar what it will return. So, in terms of a Sunday afternoon movie that diverts, I’ve no complaints. It is the attempt to make it something more that rather grates. There is a Schindler’s List style epilogue where we see the survivors and real Sully. There is also a schmaltzy “New York came together” type monologue. That stuff just sounds hollow now, in the Trump days, a naive message of unity that collapses on its first inspection. Feel good is going to have to work a lot harder now.

Kubo and the Two Strings

This movie had “hipster fave” written all over it. Stop motion animation against all that CGI nonsense is like roasting your own coffee beans versus buying instant. So, I was obviously prepared to hate it. But it’s absolutely charming. It has its own style and a light touch throughout. Unlike hipsters it doesn’t take itself seriously, and yet manages to be moving and thought provoking. And the images are beautiful. It mixes different influences from Japanese art to Greek mythology and Disney animation, effortlessly and without needing to highlight them for you. The sidekicks are wry and amusing without being annoying – every other animation might want to take note of this in particular.

Nearly all films carry a meta-message. Even when they don’t. Taken is really about fear of foreigners and male white supremacy. It just looks like an action flick. Jaws is about three aspects of masculinity. The Thing is about having tendrils spin out from your face. What Kubo is about is the power of storytelling. The plot concerns this literally as Kubo spins stories from his two strings, but also in the medium. “Look” all that stop motion implores you, “we are constructing narrative here with our bare hands and narrative is powerful”. This is both a timeless message and one with particular currency.

But, then maybe I’m just a hipster.

Sing Street

John Carney’s story of New Romantic coming of age in 80s Dublin is a sweet, charming treasure. The film follows Conor as the recession causes the break up of his parents marriage and his transfer from a private Jesuit school to the rough Catholic local one. Here the misfits form a band, primarily to impress the cool and aloof Raphina, by telling her she will star in their video.

This is all fairly conventional plotwise, but the film differs from some of its contemporaries (such as the Commitments and Good Vibrations) by choosing the early days of music video as the focus, more than the music itself. I recall hiring a VHS video camera to shoot a birthday video for someone’s 21st, and filming was still a novelty back then. People would stop and ask what you were doing, with this cumbersome, but professional looking piece of kit. Early music video was quite punk in its ethic, and as this film reminds us, so was the New Romantic movement. There was a just do it, DIY ethos to both components of teh music industry then which Sing Street captures perfectly. It also avoids falling into the “oh, isn’t it a craic” cliches of Dublin.

It is worth seeing for the wisdom of Conor’s older brother, Brendan. For instance “No woman can truly love a man who listens to Phil Collins”. It may not have the most original plot, and it can veer towards the Disney Rebel Radio type school rebellion at times, but it’s a delightful film.

Anthropoid

This is a worthy war film, recounting the story of the assassination plot on SS General Reinhard Heydrich, the main architect behind the Final Solution, the “Butcher of Prague”. It’s realistic, firmly plotted and well acted, with all the ingredients of an old-fashioned war movie – the noble hero, love in the time of conflict, the coward and pretty straight up Nazis we can all hate (well, I say, all, but no doubt some magazines will run nice features on how well they dress).

What is really at the core of the film however are the moral dilemmas inherent in taking action. Assuming it is right to assassinate Heydrich, is it still worth it when you know someone else will take his place? What is the actual impact of this action? This is complicated when the effect on the lives of those who help the plotters is considered, and those of their families. And then is it still moral to continue when the Nazis threaten to execute 30,000 innocent people?

The film explores these dilemmas carefully, but without detracting from the main action. In so many movies the noble self sacrifice is foregrounded, but this is relatively easy to make. What fascist regimes rely on is the preventative measure of executing others. This is a very efficient technique – with one action it prevents further insurrection, makes cooperation unlikely, and increases mistrust. It shifts the moral dilemma from the oppressor to the resistance, and they are the sort of people who are likely to be bothered by a conscience. That’s why they’re not part of the oppressor’s machinery to start with.

Trump? I didn’t say Trump. Why would you even raise that?

The Blackcoat’s Daughter

Kat and Rose are stranded at a boarding school for girls over a snowy weekend in Canada, meanwhile the disturbed Joan has escaped from an asylum, and is offered a lift by a strange couple. These three perspectives intersect, wind back and circle around until they meet at one point. This atmospheric horror has divided audiences – there are some who relish it’s slow build, brooding menace while others find it slow, and derivative and want to yell “Get on with the demonic possession!” I’m in the former group, the spiralling eddies of the plot line add to the disjuncture of the characters and the audience. All three leads are played superbly, with Kiernan Shipka’s Kat a central ball of creepiness and dissolution. But it is the soundtrack, ominous and daunting, straight from the Berberian Sound Studio that is the real star.

There is one major structural flaw, that I can’t really state without giving away the entire ending. But you’ll feel it too when you see it. But that is a small complaint against a horror that brings real menace, several “what the fuck is going on” scenes and an occasional “oh my God” moment. It has a lot in common in tone with the Witch, (as well as obvious nods to The Exorcist and Session 9), but adds in real fear also. The best horror of the year – there I said it.

The Monster

This is a lean, uncomplicated creature feature, sort of Cujo in the rain. It centres on the relationship between alcoholic, neglectful mother Kathy and her tired, disappointed teenager daughter, Lizzy. Through flashbacks we see the poor state of this relationship, which has led to the current, rainy night car journey for Lizzy to be deposited with her father. On the way there they hit a wolf. But, you know, it’s not a wolf.

This is not a masterpiece of film-making, but it does the little things right. The central relationship between Kathy and Lizzy is played with the right level of fear, anger and despair without horror film histrionics. The flashbacks create characters we care about sufficiently. The plot isn’t greedy, in fact it’s been on a strict diet – there is no conspiracy theory to explain the Monster, no big discovery, it just is. The events offer the chance for redemption. It can be read as an allegory about emerging from the confusion of adolescence, but it never forgets it’s a horror film.

I watched Refn’s The Neon Demon in the same sitting. I should like that film more, it is more beautifully crafted and cinematic, but I would opt for Bryan Bertino’s simple creature horror over Refn’s glossy fashion horror. Why do we like films? Partly they resonate with memories of the formative movies that shaped our tastes. While The Monster doesn’t deliberately reference to 70s/80s horror the way Stranger Things does, it has some of that VHS charm of films like Q: the Winged Serpent, or The Howling. Neon Demon may be better cinema, but The Monster is better me cinema.

Independence Day Resurgence

What a strange mess this film is. It really has no idea what it wants to be, and should be a film studies lesson in knowing what you want from your outcome. I can’t be bothered to detail the fractured plot, but it has multiple threads which seemingly are unaware of an overall narrative. That is not necessarily a bad thing in an art-house movie, but in a blockbuster it feels like they just threw money at 20 different storylines and then decided which ones they’d stick together.

It lacks any narrative arc, tension, characterization but most of all identity. It isn’t sure if it wants to be Star Trek, Deep Impact, Godzilla or even Independence Day. This is fine if you have an alternative, but if your hope is that you can stitch elements of these together and realize something individual then that is akin to grabbing the shredded film scripts from bins and proposing it as Citizen Kane.

Occasionally there are films that cost so much money, and lack any obvious plan, that their mere existence is offensive. If you’re going to make an incoherent mess of a sequel then at least go down fighting – Independence Day 2 could have been a tangential sequel like Cloverfield Lane, or if they’re going to mix in storylines then just crowdsource contributions. At least be experimental, instead of just crap and ill-defined. Imagine being involved in something that costs this much, involves so many people and expertise, and then has not a single redeeming quality.

Ice Guardians

This post enables me to combine two of my blogs in one – ice hockey and cinema. If ever I complete the triumvirate with educational technology in one post, it is probably like completing the Tower of Hanoi and signals end of days.

We went to a Cardiff screening of this, thanks to one of the film’s experts being Cardiff’s very own Victoria Silverwood. That in itself was an odd experience, combining all the usual faces of the Ice Arena Wales at the cinema. There was that dislocation of seeing familiar faces in the ‘wrong’ setting.

The documentary sets out to present the case for the “enforcer” in ice hockey, by examining the arguments for and against them. For those not into ice hockey, an enforcer is a tough guy whose role is, ostensibly, to fight. There has been a general move away from the enforcer, and violence in hockey in general, since its heyday in the 70s and 80s. The NHL, nervous of lawsuits and bad headlines, have introduced rules which make the role of the enforcer one that is increasingly difficult for teams to justify or realize.

On this front it looks like part of a wider pattern, as we move to more concussion awareness, and generally away from violence as entertainment. While the film is generally pro-enforcer, it explores the more subtle arguments around this. The case often put forward for an enforcer is that their presence is sufficient to stop worse injuries occurring. It goes like this – if you know the big tough guy will beat on you for taking out their star player with a cheap shot against the boards, then you’re less likely to do it. This argument has a lot of merit, ice hockey is inherently a dangerous sport, with people moving at 30 mph, on blades, carrying a club, surrounding by a wall.

The sensitivity around concussion has also added strength to the anti-enforcer argument. The film states that the main concussion clinic found that in hockey, 5% of concussions arise from fighting, the other 95% from collisions on ice and against boards. Obviously if you are part of that 5% it’s a big deal, but dealing with the other 95% is probably more of a priority.

I am somewhat ambiguous about the enforcer role – unlike some fans I don’t go to hockey to see fights, and I really don’t like a staged fight. It reduces a sport to the spectacle of WWE wrestling. But there’s no doubting that having that guy on your team helps, and sometimes a big hit can change a game. I wouldn’t want to watch teams like the Flyers Broad Street Bullies in the 70s who effectively just beat every team and skilled players out of the game.

Many enforcers, finding themselves strangers in their own land, are coming over the UK to ply their trade. We have the excellent Patrick Bordeleau (who took part in an engaging Q & A afterwards), there is McGrattan at Nottingham and Rosehill at Glasgow. We’re lucky to have these players, and at the moment, I think we have the balance about right. It will be interesting to see if there is an arms race over the next few years to pack a team with tough guys, or whether the blend of skill and toughness stays the same.

In terms of the film, I liked the intention, and execution, to explore a complex issue in a nuanced manner, without polemic. Documentaries seem to have become the purview of conspiracy theorists, so seeing a subject explored with a mix of academic insight, experience and appreciation of the wider issues was refreshing. I’d recommend it for all ice hockey fans, but in our relationship to the enforcer, it also speaks to wider cultural mores.

Captain Fantastic

This tale of alternative parenting meets the real world follows on from the previous review. Two heartwarming movies in a row, it’s almost as if the world isn’t a dumpster fire. Matt Ross’s movie has Viggo Mortensen as the father raising his children away from civilisation. They read Jared Diamond, practice self defence and celebrate the birthday of Noam Chomsky. The death of their mother forces them onto a road trip however, and thus an inevitable clash of values with conventional society.

The script is intelligent and sharp, and carefully nuanced. While it could be seen as a straightforward capitalist vs alternative society struggle, the film is keen to portray neither side as wholly evil or virtuous. Mortensen brings the right mix of dictator, and sympathetic father to the role, but it is the children who own the film. They are all charming, believable and marvellous.

It is a movie that all parents will identify with ultimately, the struggles are smaller, less ideological, but we have all fought that battle between the ideals we had of parenting prior to the arrival of children, and the hard reality that follows. To what extent do you tell the truth, impart your own beliefs, bend to the wishes of the wider family and society? We might not give our children the freshly cut heart of a slain animal to eat, but hey, we wrestle with the social subtexts of the Disney channel.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Comedies often seem to fall into two categories: gross out ones (for whom penis/testicle sucking is the apotheosis of humour) and non-comedies (for whom a knowing wry curl of the lip is the equivalent of the guffaw). Wilderpeople is nearer the latter category, but has genuine laughs – imagine Wes Anderson but with added comedy. Directed by Taika Waititi, who is part of the NZ Flight of the Conchords team and directed the excellent What We Do In the Shadows, it continues the same vein of good natured idiots fumbling through an equally dumb world. In this case it is the young Ricky, who goes on the run with his “uncle”, the grizzled Sam Neill, in the NZ bush.

The scenery provides a verdant backdrop to the bumbling manhunt, led by the inept Rachel House with her mindless “no child left behind” motto. There is an inevitable Goodnight Mr Tom narrative, as the curmudgeonly Neill comes to accept the unrelenting optimism of his young charge. But although it plays the heartwarming card to good effect, it’s never schmaltzy or sentimental. A decent comedy has been a rare find in 2016, and you think we’d need them now more than ever.