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By the book
'Wisting' is a detective series that certainly doesn't shy from the tired conventions of the genre. Weary middle-aged man as protagonist? Check. His family bafflingly involved in his investigations? Check. Creepy colleagues among the suspects? Check. Unlikely serial killers on the loose in beautiful, remote locations? You get the idea. One thing uplifts some entries in this genre is an interesting lead investigator, but Wisting himself is a fundamentally boring everyman, with none of the character of Inspectors Morse or Montalbano. The result is a fairly formulaic and unremarkable programme. There have been some great Scandinavian crime dramas in recent years; but this one is by the book.
Saul fia (2015)
Man and animal
How can you live with a death sentence hanging over your head, and when any course of positive act is only liken to hasten its execution. Saul, the eponomymous protagonist of Laszlo Nemeth's holocaust movie, responds by trying everything to bury a dead child who may not even be his actual son in accordance with the tradtion of his people, even if that means, as someone accuses him, "betraying the living for the dead". It's possible to think of Saul (brilliantly played by Geza Rohrig) as insane; but in a world where no-one has a real grasp on living, perhaps it's not so crazy to use your final moments to fashion a narrative that makes some kind of internal sense. Whereas many films about the holocaust (like 'Schindler's List', for example) tell the story obliquely, 'Son of Saul' is set fully in the horror of the death camps, which are portrayed as a hideous combination of '24' (i.e. with continual action and terror) and Hieronymous Bosch. Instinctively, one feels that (most days, at least) the life (and death) camps cannot have been so chaotically wild, if only to preserve the sanity of the guards; but instinctively also one cannot comprehend the murder of as many as six million. As with many films on this subject, what it really brings home is the fine dividing line between animal and the social construct of man.
Lady Macbeth (2016)
'Lady Macbeth' is the tale of a woman lumbered with a monstrous husband and father-in-law who, driven in part by lust, sets out to do whatever it takes to get what she wants. Unlike her Shakesperian namesake, it's not her character who ends up consumed with guilt. The film features no background music, sparse dialogue and some of the key scenes occur off-camera or the action is filmed in a stationary and unmelodramatic way; meanwhile, the sex-drive is presented as absolutely elemental. The result is deliberately stilted (the opening minutes reminded of Joanna Hogg's work), yet for all that, suprisingly emotionally compelling.
El hombre de las mil caras (2016)
A true story, but also compelling as fiction
The intertwined stories of corrupt Spanish politician Luis Roldan, and the arms dealer Francsico Paesa who first helped then robbed him, are truly amazing, and their complicated twists are smartly depicted in this fictionalised account of their lives. I don't know enough about the truth to know where liberties have been taken; but the story is accurate enough so that the real life news broadcasts have been spliced in make perfect sense. But the story works well as fiction in its own right, as we see first Roldan, and then Paesa and his co-conspirators, pass from smug assurance to increasing paranoia and fear as their misdeeds threaten to catch up with them. If you're not Spanish, it's both fascinating and entertaining. If you are, it might rouse you more to anger.
Reasons to believe
The revolution will be televised. I'm quite a sucker for films about cults, but the remarkable thing is how many of them were caught on film. But the Peoples Temple was the cult-uber-ales, which ended in the murder-suicide of almost a thousand of its members; and even this is mostly on the record, including live action footage taken as Jones's followers shot and killed a U.S. representative. The documentary thus almost makes itself, although it's well put together, with interviews carried out with some survivors of the massacre. None of these now see any good whatsoever in the Temple (unlike some other cults who still retain some support amonst their ex-members); and they explain their past decisions as a mixture of beguilment and coerction. Founder Jim Jones had a certain charisma, albeit a creepy one; but the take home message is that people see what they need to (or, in the words of Bruce Springsteen, "at the end of every long hard day people find some reason to believe"). The scale of the tragedy makes the story compelling; you'd like to think it couldn't happen again, but you'd probably be wrong.
Dolor y gloria (2019)
Visually striking, but essentially undramatic
Starting with the opening credits, Pedro Almodóvar's 'Dolor y Gloria' is startlingly shot: every scene feels like an artwork, immaculately constructed and visually striking. Visuals are often an Almodóvar strongpoint, but he's surpassed himself here, albeit that it's not so clear what the point is: we learn that the principal protagonist likes to like in a house with arresting décor; that's a little more interesting for us, the viewer, than if he lived somewhere dull, but doesn't tell us that much about his personality. The movie's structure resembles 'Julieta', another recent Almodóvar film, with more coherence, but the same constuction whereby the plot's potentially most dramatic moments are only presented in a retrospective view, which lessens their impact. I've seen plenty of less interesting, and less well put together, films; yet for all Almodóvar's talent, I still don't care so very strongly about the characters.
Il sindaco del Rione Sanità (2019)
On one hand, the scenes from the start of 'The Godfather', presenting a mafia chief as the head of a community, are a glamorisation of the brutal reality of organised crime. On the other, the depiction of a quasi-familial relationship is maybe not completely appropriate - not all families are happy, after all, and there is some truth in the notion that the mafia (both in the U.S., and in its native Italy) stepped into a vacancy in authority. 'Il Sindaco del Rione Sanita' tells the tale or an organised crime boss in one of Naples' most infamous neighbourhoods, and in a sense, it's built entirely on Godfather-style clichés; watch 'Gomorrah' to see a less sentimental portrait of the way that gangsters actually act. But it's not so much glamourized as stylised, with an interesting script and strong performances apparent behind the somewhat hackneyed concept of the honourable criminal. I enjoyed it, even if I didn't quite entirely believe it.
Point Break (1991)
Essentially dumb, but also kind of fun
Kathryn's Bigelow's comedic thriller about an FBI agent who infiltrates a gang of surfers-cum-bank robbers has become something of a cult classic. At times it feels like a parody of a certain kind of moronic American mythology; more often, however, it feels like a celebration of it. Perhaps it's best just to take it without judgement and enjoy the deliberately cartoonish vibe, the plotting is lively and well-paced, and there are odd moments where it is genuinely funny, although rather fewer where it is genuinely thrilling. It's really not my kind of movie; but it works as what is is.
I liked Alexander Payne's movies 'Election' and 'Sideways'; less so 'About Schmidt' and 'The Descendents', partly because they focused on the supposed concerns of exceptionally wealthy individuals. It's not that the rich cannot be sympathetic: but it takes more work to establish them as such, and he wouldn't have been the first director whose personal worldview has shifted as he himself has become more famous. 'Nebraska' is definitely a return to form, and not coincidentally, it's a move where he focuses on more ordinary folks, and state he grew up in. Not completely ordinary, however, as the film has echoes of the Cohen brothers 'Fargo': it's much less arch, but there's still a sense in which life out on the American plains is depicted exaggerated but deadpan. Yet at it's heart it's a human story, of a man dealing with his ageing, difficult (and maybe even senile) father, eventually resolved in a simple understanding of his Dad's need for respect. That this respect might not be something he has actually earned adds, rather than detracts, from the moral of the story. The movie is beautifully shot in a surprisingly warm black-and-white, even as it features flat and wintry landscapes: the screen feels as if it always on the brink of bursting into colour. It doesn't do so; but there's real emotional warmth in its closure
Une chance de trop (2015)
More ludicrous than serious
You get the idea about what kind of series 'No Second Chance' is going to be almost from the start: a woman is shot, her husband murdered, and his daughter kidnapped; yet almost at once the former is out of hospital trying to track down the latter, frequently in open defiance of the police. For good measure, everyone around her seems to be a suspect. It makes sense neither logically nor psychologically, and in consequence I found it hard to get involved with the story, which ultimately is proven to involve at least five perpetrators of at least semi-independent misdeeds. I quite liked the detective who reminded me of Mitterand; but for a serious French policier, watch 'Spiral' instead.
Amanda Knox (2016)
The press is guilty, but it's harder to say who else is
Amanda Knox was an American student in Italy whose flatmate was murdered. On being questioned, Knox lied to the police. She was subsequnetly convicted of murder amid lurid press coverage. However, the DNA evidence was weak and (on the basis of this movie) the chief prosecutor was something of a fantastist, with a worrying tendency to infer beyond the evidence. Knox appealed; the American press took up her case, ridiculing Italian justice and making a defence of the investigation, ironically, a point of patriotism for some Italians. In the end, Knox was exonnerated, and if this documentary is to be believed, this was the correct verdict. The film features a self-incriminating interview with muck-raking journalist Nick Pisa, a man who seems utterly unwilling to accept that his job carries any level of moral responsibility. Otherwise, it's basically a very sad story, made worse by the years it took to reach the legal conclusion.
Rogue One (2016)
Another Star Wars movie (yawn!) - but another Peter Cushing movie too!
"Rogue One" is officially a "Star Wars Story", which means we get many familiar elements: a rollicking (and explosion-filled) adventure in outer space, almost human androids, switches to pull, chasms to leap and weapons to destroy, and dehumanised stormtroopers to kill (the fact that stormtroopers are hidden behind protective uniforms including face masks makes them more frightening adversaries, but also removes any moral complexity associated with their annihilation). The original Star Wars movie was partially filmed in the North African desert, and a desert environment has also featured in some subsequent movies in the series; in this one, a substantial section seems more inspired by the experience of American troops attempting to police Baghdad. The film contains various other nods to previous films in the series, without recapitulating their plots as shamelessly as 'The Force Awakens' did; as an immediate prequel to the 1979 film, it also uses digital technology to resuscitate now dead actors to reprise their roles, including Peter Cushing (brilliantly) and Carrie Fischer (less successfully) - perhaps the fact that Cushing's character has aspects of the undead in the original makes it easier to bring him back to life. The ending is nicely judged in theory but marred by the failure to lift the digital Fisher out of the uncanny valley.
The film features a feisty female heroine, praised by many for providing gender-balance to the previously masculine Star Wars world, but she's a bit too perfect for my liking. One of the things that made the original work for me that none of the naïve Luke, the money-grabbing Han nor the sarcastic Leia are obvious role-models. We also get one character who channels the force to become a martial-arts superhero; I much preferred the subtler demonstration of the force's power shown by Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original film (and indeed, the theme of the force is much stronger, to my reckoning, when presented as the power of self-control and focus than when it appears to confer mystical powers).
'Rogue One' is considered by many to be their favourite 'Star Wars' movie since the original trilogy; for me, the shtick has grown a bit tired (I loved 'A New Hope' on release, but I was seven years old at the time!). Still, the film mercifully lacks the over-busy aesthetic (and tedious dialogue) of George Lucas's later films in favour of something closer to the mood and spirit of the original; it works as entertainment, even if I suspect this fictional universe doesn't really have much new to show us beyond what has already been done.
Stylish but not much behind the visuals
'Giri/Haji' is a stylish crime series set in London and Japan inspired by a comic book. The visuals are rich, occasionally pointlessly showy (split screens recall the orginal 'Thomas Crowne Affair' but with little real purpose) and sometimes inexplicably magical (a stylised dance routine in the final episode is surprisingly affecting). Overall, however, I found it hard to care too much about the protagonists in this tale of Yakuza war. I don't quite know why I wasn't more engaged; perhaps the fault lies the lead character who doesn't give much away about what's going on inside. It's still one of the more distinctive dramas of the year; maybe it's a feature of the comic form that there's often less behind the surface that in visible on top.
The Name of the Rose (2019)
A solid adaptation, but dull in places and misses some of the point
Umberto Eco's 'The Name of the Rose' is possibly the most intelligent detective story ever written; but with it's highly complex, learned plot is a hard tale to film. This adaptation, as with the earlier film, nicely recreates the appearance and overall feel of the spectacular monastery that Eco describes so well. But it's stately in place, and struggles to convey the individual characters of each of the monks with the depth of the novel, which somewhat confuses the the storytelling; when the perpetrator of a series of murders is finally unamsked, the moment lacks the sense of revealed inevitability that made the conclusion of the book so satisfying.
Overall, it's an honourable effort, but I have two gripes. The story is a tale set in a man's world: the only signficant female character is an innocent victim of a cynical (male) inquisitor for whom it's highly convenient to find someone to denounce as a witch. In this version, however, she's replaced by a pair of kick-ass female wanderers, who seem to serve no purpose except to provide some incongruous gender-balanacing. More seriously, the central moment of the tale should be the girl's execution. Our narrator, a young novice who has fallen in love, is in awe of his master, a wise, humane, almost humanist older monk who serves as the story's hero. But when the novice asks the master to save his beloved, he simply shrugs and, knowing full well the unquestionability of inqusition, remarks sadly "she is burnt flesh." The girl is duly killed, the inquisitor leaves, but the murders continue, and our protagonists continue in their pursuit of the real killer. But the conclusion of their ultimately triumphant mission occurs amid a mood of melancholy: stripped of their illusions, they have been reminded full-well of what it takes to live in the world. This mood-shift is to me the crux of the entire tale; but in both the earlier movie, and in this story, the screenwriters have abandoned it, presumably as too bleak, and in so-doing, crticially weaken the power of the story. It's a shame: life isn't always a story of self-determination and happy endings; and that's one of Eco's lessons that is lost in this telling.
El silencio de otros (2018)
When a violent conflict has riven a country, should we seek to impose a winners' justice; or should we simply forgive and forget? In South Africa after Apartheid, a compromise was attempted: a "Truth and Reconcilliation Commission" offered amnesty to those accused of crimes, but only in exchange for full and public confession. In Spain, when those associated with Franco's dictatorship stepped back from power, they simply granted themselves full immunity for anything they may have done: the persistence, revealed in this film, of efforts to protect this law suggests they may have not stepped so far from power at all. Indeed, it's disappointing to see how strongly the contemporary centre-right party, which in theory has little to do with its Falangist predecessor, defends the rights of torturers and murderers, whereas the lives of their victims (and their relatives) continue to be consumed by what has happened to them. In general, I'm not a great belieiver in "justice" as an entity that can be delivered, but 'The Silence of Others' makes a strong case that, at the very least, the crimes of the regime should be counted and accounted for.
Cold Case Hammarskjöld (2019)
Artifice and journalism
Dag Hammarskjöld was a U.N. Secretary General who died in a plane crash in Africa, many believing that sinister forces were involved. In this documentary, a pair of investigators set to uncover his story, and they find some evidence for mercenary involvement, possibly backed by the South African and U.S. governments. But the first half of the story has a familiar feel, and the investigators make a lot of themselves in their film, even though they are not really so interesting as individuals. Indeed, the director/narrator effectively admits as such, before extending his story to cover where he ended up: with evidence of even more horrific, and much more recent crimes, including the deliberate spread of the H.I.V. virus with the aim of eliminating black Africans. This wider tale may simply be the product of fantasists; but it smacks of enough truth to be gravely concerning, and the story of its uncovering has a few twists of its own. Indeed, behind the pretense, there really is an interesting film in here about the practice of journalism, the long hours it entails, and the rare moment of insight when the evidence trail finally comes together.
The Great Hack (2019)
Data science, social cynicism
Modern data analytics can be a powerful aid to marketing. What's scary is that the information that so-called "data scientists" use is often taken from us without our permission, to be sold to the highest bidder, including unsavoury participants in elections. 'The Great Hack' tells the story of Cambridge Analytica, one firm operating in this space, that was eventually ruined after its practices were exposed, but not before it had worked for Trump and the Brexit campaign. It's founders still consider themselves victims; but only because they see nothing wrong in turning elections from battles of ideas into games of manipulation. The most shocking story revealed here is one of the less well-known: the company's utterly cynical efforts to deter young Trinidadians from voting. It's very hard to feel any sympathy for the firm; and even its whistleblowers, who feature in the documentary, come across more as rats jumping the sinking ship than genuine idealists. The solution proposed by one of them, that we should be able to monetise our own data ourselves, completely misses the point if the data is used to undermine societal institutions. Cambridge Analytica may have collapsed, but the politicians it supported still damage our body politic. The film is over-long but it carries an important message: that if we, as a society, do not take control soon, we risk losing our ability to do so altogether.
Non uccidere (2015)
A slow burner in a very northern Italy
'Non Uccidere' is a rather solemn Italian detective series, set in a Turin that always feels cold, a drama that feels closer in style and substance to a Scandi-noir than to 'Inspector Montalbano'. It's well plotted, with a young-ish female detective at its centre who is stubborn but talented, quietly-spoken but unyielding to anyone. There's also a background story, not resolved even after 12 episodes, about her mother's involvement in a murder many years before. There are few moments of light relief here, or even action sequences, and it can seem slow - but I liked the fact that its heroine is neither a classical female sterotype nor an extreme opposite. I'd recommend watching it, but it might have been even better if its makers had had just a little more sense of urgency as they put it together.
Spinning Man (2018)
Contrived and shallow
In 'Spinning Man', Guy Pearce plays a professor who becomes a murder suspect, primarily because he can't answer a straight question. The film's conclusion - and it's impossible to review it without spoiling the plot, because the plot is so damn dumb - is that his dissembling answers weren't in fact a sign of guilt, but rather resulted from the fact that he's somehow convinced himself he committed the crime, even though he hasn't! I remember 'Murder One', a television series which developed suspense through the device of a suspect who didn't know if he'd killed someone, so I suppose it's only one step further to feature a character who wrongly believes in their own guilt. On top of the plot, the dialogue is flat and director Simon Kaijser also extracts lame performances from all the cast, which also includes Pierce Brosnan. There really isn't much here to enjoy.
Half of a Yellow Sun (2013)
An odd way to tell a tale
Adapted from Chimamanda Adichie's novel, Ben Bandele's film 'Half a Yellow Sun' tells the story of two Nigerian sisters whose lives are torn apart first by their marriages, and then by the Biafran War. Background on the latter is provided by the insertion of old news-film; this is necessary because the characters themselves seem quite univolved in the war, save as victims, and the film doesn't give us an understanding of exactly why the dispute broke out beyond a generic appeal to the legacy of racism left over from Empire. The lead characters have potential - a pair of strong, beautiful, hyper-priveleged and somewhat arrogant females, but the film never quite gives them the depth of critical treatment they need to become wholly interesting. As a consequence, the movie sort of rolled past me, without engaging, and I'm someone who has actively browsed the internet to learn more about the conflict. Maybe the book would have offered me more insight.
The Shape of Water (2017)
Comic book fable
Giulleromo del Toro's 'The Shape of Water' is a beautiful visual enterprise, set in a surreally exaggerated, but immaculately imagined and rendered alternative version of 1950s America. It's also a poetic love story. But behind the beautiful cosmetic detail, there's no real story beyond a straightforward account of good versus evil and love versus hate; there's simply no way to identify with the characters, attractive or repulsive, in the way one relates to normal, flawed human beings. There are rare movies (I can think of 'Edward Scissorhands' or 'Delicatessen') which tell a profound human story within a stylised fantasy universe. Without that, what we're left with feels very much like a comic book: it may be beautifully drawn, but there's no depth to what's portrayed.
Inside Lehman Brothers (2018)
The story of the Lehmann Brothers collapse has been often told, usually focusing on the high-level market manipulations the company used to hide its true financial position. This documentary talks instead to a number of staff, most of whom were involved in making the deals - subprime mortagages - that lost the company its money. What the film adds to the well-known tale is the grim story that when some staff tried to call out the firm's dodgy practices, they were removed and threatened by those trying to keep the scam going. I'd like to have seen a little more financial accounting in the film, but sense of institutional impnity is shocking enough. Those who made the threats appear, like those who ran the firm, to have escaped without punishment.
On the President's Orders (2019)
War on the poor
Drugs ruin many people's lives. Making them illegal turns the supply chain criminal and arguably multiplies the damage. In the Phillipines, an endemic of drug-fuelled crime by been addressed by the President effectively deciding to eliminate (through the use of armed police) anyone involved in the drug trade in any way, including low-end users. It's horrific, and while this documentary follows a supposed attempt to improve police practice, the officers' commitment to desisting from murder always seems wafer thin and a brief period of relative calm is ended with a resumption of a quite literal war on drugs. The shocking disregard for human life matches the stupidity of the policy; footage of an actual (possibly police-delivered) killing adds to the sense of immediacy. In a just world, President Duterte would be the one facing justice; but even he does not deserve the fate he hands out to those whose real crime is simply to be poor.
Lavish but strangely juvenile
Sarah Walters's novel 'Fingersmith', a tale of power, perversion, pornography and passion in Victorian England, gets a lavish Korean makeover in Park Choon-Wok's movie 'The Handmaiden'. It's certainly visually and thematically rich and provocative as it slides between frequently explicit romance, comedy and horror: if in part it aims to shock, it certainly does so in style. However, I struggled to like any of the characters, all of whom seem as selfish and ruthless as each other, and felt no especial sympathy for the female leads simply because they happen to fall in love/list for each other. The film should perhaps be seen as a paean to desire, in all its oddness and intensity. But for all the artistry, I never quite escaped the feeling of a tale told by schoolchildren, snickering behind the bikesheds.
In 'The Adulterer', a prosecutor's wife has an affair with a defence lawyer, who just happens to be representing a man her husband is currently prosecuting. The setup sounds cheesy, and is certainly contrived. The best thing about this drama is a credible portrayal of life within a family the foundation of whose wealth is organised crime, albeit on a relatively small scale (think corrupt family business rather than full-blown mafia). It's weakness is the one-dimensionality of many of its characters, particularly the smug prosecutor and his almost-perfect wife. Although some details of plot were nicely developed, I didn't really care how the romantic aspects of the drama worked out, or feel any of the sexual passion supposedly driving the story.