Captain America: Civil War (d. Russo, Anthony and Joe) – Accountability

While this film does struggles with the weight of trying being everything to everyone (therefore leaving nothing for itself), it is a blockbuster ride that will definitely entertain with some great action and solid acting… in spite of it being way too long, only getting to grips with itself, both story-wise and film-wise, when it gets to the second half.

 

There is so much written on the internet in the past couple of weeks about Captain America: Civil War there is a hope this review says something marginally different. A sequel to Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man and goodness knows what other properties that have come out of the house of Marvel since 2008, this films dons a lot of hats to many in the audience, let alone being the beginning of Black Panther and the newly rebooted Spider-Man: Homecoming. That’s a lot of story to get through to get to this thirteenth instalment of this mega franchise is a culmination of themes and character arcs that have grown through the films, seeking to change characters destinies, and explore the limits of accountability and recrimination. While this film does struggles with the weight of trying being everything to everyone (therefore leaving nothing for itself), it is a blockbuster ride that will definitely entertain with some great action and solid acting… in spite of it being way too long, only getting to grips with itself, both story-wise and film-wise, when it gets to the second half.

After the disappointing Age of Ultron, we come back to the Avengers in the face of the latest disaster involving the death of aid workers. In reaction to this and Ultron, the U.N. have developed a document called Sokovia Accords, which establishes an UN panel to oversee the conduct of the Avengers Initiative, which has been self-governing with Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) leading the charge since the destruction of intelligence agency S.H.I.E.L.D. in Winter Soldier. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), knowing the cost of his actions in previous Iron Man films and Ultron, comes to support the accords as a means to clear his conscience, whilst Rodgers sees this as bureaucracy that will cost lives, and possibly make them puppets for government regimes. Meanwhile, James Buchanan ‘Bucky’ Barnes/Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) has returned on the international stage, with unclear intentions, and with personal and literal explosions.

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It is a good film, but when you leave it, you think of it as ‘eh, that was okay’ or ‘eh, that was good’. To illicit a strong reaction whether negative or positive is difficult as the film is a solid piece of film-making by the Russos, good entertainment. On the other hand, it feels like a sense of fatigue has taken over for a large part of the film, not seeking to surprise or shock, resting in a complacency to tick genre boxes. It’s not difficult to see that they had to be ticked off to ensure most of the audience gets their bang from their buck, seeing as the film had to juggle so many pieces that it is lucky they didn’t drop the ball that much (Paul Bettany’s and Elizabeth Olsen’s arc is quite honestly dreadful), but made the film functional and move smoothly without too much deep questioning. The introduction to Prince T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) was engaging and exciting to witness (in spite of him being over-powered and bland as he went along), whilst the new Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) is fantastic and refreshing to see in this younger iteration, his purpose of the film comes off as clumsy, he makes a worthwhile impression. However, with all these characters vying for attention, it is hard to find enjoyment for some deeply rooted characterisation, but depending on crumbs.

When the film, after the rather spectacular group fight between the Iron Man and Captain America factions (Ant-Man, played by Paul Rudd, comes out the best and most human hero on screen), pairs down its exorbitant cast to the plot’s core characters, the film starts to become very interesting, that it becomes more emotive and personable with the best acting by Downey Jr and Evans in their roles since they’d been cast in them. And makes you wish that this had been the film all along, tying stakes to very personal issues. If the film had been from the airport onwards, this would be one of the best comic book films rather than just a distinctly average one, as most of this film (and any iteration of The Avengers films), it comes across as pleasant fan service, being a collection of moments between the characters than about their characters. never truly challenging when their main goal is to bring the collective dreams of geeks to the big screen.

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The film makes it hard to disagree that Marvel’s films are becoming like a television series, both in writing and in production, but then you realise that Marvel is doing what they do best, making comics. Something changes, but nothing changes, we are expected to infer to previous films, but also to deduce from the film itself, but nothing is ever whole or of itself. It’s a comic book issue film, with great snippets and cool touches, but really this film should be a graphic novel, beginning, middle and end. The focus in story and resolution in many Phase 2 films such as Iron Man 3, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Ant-Man seems to be missing, and so is any distinctive visualisation, which makes sense when dealing with so many characters with contrasting tonality depressingly. Most of the action sequences are over-edited at the beginning, that it is a relief to find the main set-piece has personality, clear narrative flow and has great character dynamism, nearly overcoming the fact it at times looked pale and clinical whilst avoiding a Man of Steel-style blow-out. It has the Marvel nice blend of action, comedy and drama, but then there is a slight disappointment that they did not confront the meaning of the Accords head-on with both sides of the debate in action, or in other words, take a risk to anger/surprise your audience once in awhile Marvel.

It is great to watch a film that decides to engage in a prescient debate, and such a debate is not a binary white hat vs black hat, but that Stark and Rogers reside in the grey, both wrong and right. Much of this debate is about the sovereignty of borders in the face of threats that hold no allegiance, the lengths we should go to safeguard the populace from danger, and even the theoretical idea that with a great good, a great evil has to be there to be a ballast. It is a shame that for such an entertaining film, it lacks a finality in finding a conclusion (or fuelling #TeamCap and #TeamIronMan to continue the next couple of years), or at least go deeper between knife swings and light blasts, and consequently robs the debate of any sense of conclusion… except a litany of sequels that will undoubtedly continue the cycle. Long live Marvel?

It was alright I guess. Ant-Man was the best thing in it. I’m stoked for Ant-Man and the Wasp.

RATING: THREE STARS

Sunrise: A Song For Two Humans (d. Murnau, 1927) – An Appreciation of Silent Cinema

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Deciding to take a different tack as talking about blockbusters can be a bit boring for a cinephile to talk about constantly (see my reviews for Batman V Superman and Captain America: Civil War to see what I mean). So, I have decided to introduce a new strand of reviews, analysis’ and all else of cinephilia to appreciate or to analyse the classics, the off-beat gems or just plain strange things in cinema history. Whether it be a scene, score or an entire film, this is where I find my love of film renewed, enlightened, threatened and above all else, why it is more than just entertainment. This strand is called ‘An Appreciation.’

This time, we are going to talk about Sunrise: A Song For Two Humans (1927), an Oscar Winning silent classic that does deserve your attention. Warning, there is going to be spoilers for an eighty-nine year old film. Bear with me.

To open, we are going back a long time ago, before Star WarsThe Godfather, Dr No, Ben-Hur, even before Some Like It Hot, Mr Smith Goes to Washington and Citizen Kane. We are going to learn and appreciate the world of silent cinema, particularly a film like Sunrise, a film that people believe marked the zenith of the form, and the beginning of the end of it.

Most people who follow this blog probably only have experienced silent films in a very small number of ways. The film The Artist (2011) did inspire some to seek them out, but then only exists as a nostalgic pastiche rather than what the form can do. Good film though. From there,  they see jokes from sketch shows playfully mocking the format and from there it gets more sparse: clips of Charlie Chaplin, a couple of Laurel and Hardy sketches, that one Keystone Cop disaster in the river, and if really pushing the boat out, a vague fugue about works of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd from a half-remembered documentary. And you might remember the plot of Singin’ In The Rain (1952) in between classic musical moments (and please do!).

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These black and white films seem to exist in a strange bubble, that at first seems bewildering and at times very archaic to the modern audience, which can be terrifying or boring, sometimes even both. Once upon a time before I reached this point of my development, I used to be frustrated that I could not understand the words underneath the silence, that I had to try and lip-read to get a full picture. However I gradually learnt to ignore this, because what they would say might not be necessarily what they want/need to say. What they use to communicate is their looks, their actions, their charisma, and to find the secret of silent cinema is to forget even trying to find one in the process. You will understand why in a moment, and when you don’t an intertitle will appear to give you at least something.

Once getting over the fact that the silent film is literally not silent, accompanied by a soundtrack (whether that be an orchestral riff on Beethoven, or a stereotypical honky-tonk piano), you come to find that the style of silent films is very strange to get used to. Their expressions are exaggerated, their plots seem overly melodramatic, camera work seemed to both stranger and sometimes static, that their characters seem to live in different frame-rates moment to moment, and their stories seem to be drawn out and extenuated, far away from the punchy visual grammar we experience today.

I will not give you a history lesson for today. However, what silent films are, or what they seem to be, are reflections of different worlds to explore, to dream about, to have dreams of pleasure or suspense, all within a 4 by 3 aspect ratio (in laymen’s terms not in widescreen). Their motives compared to films of today, they are more blatant, but paradoxically more innocent. Pure emotion is their intent on the most part. Propaganda is powerful, but so is violence, love, peace, truth and about all else, fantasy. Without trying to hide under the guise of dialogue, stripped bear to the smallest details they can fit into inter-titles, they rely on the visual in totality, on the image being paraded from mom’n’pop nickelodeons at first, to the biggest cinema palaces around the globe. While in the 1900s to the late 1920s people watched films, most people from the 1930s to today watch and listen to films. By being limited to only one sense, silent cinema engaged in completely different tactics to capture its prey.

Sunrise seems an unlikely candidate to be canonised as one of the greatest films ever made, and possibly the best silent film ever created. The story can be summed up thus: a depressed farmer, under the spell of a seductress from the city, is convinced to murder his homely wife and abandon his baby. He would invite her on a love boat ride for the two of them, and then push her into a lake to drown, and sell up to live with her under the city lights. However, as he starts to go through with the plan (and his wife does start picking up on the clues), he stops and finds out he still loves his wife, but his wife escapes into the city at the first possible opportunity. In the hustle and bustle of the city, they learn to love each other again and retain youth, and affirm their love. The third act, tragedy nearly strikes as an unexpected storm nearly makes the original plan come to fruition, but in the end love conquers all (except the city woman, 1920s films aren’t always forward thinking).

There is not much plot, a basic morality play that might be about the evils of the city corrupting the country, but is it that simple? Do we take a story at face value? Sure, there are silents that definitely rely on plot, like D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), the still heavily controversial Civil War epic where the main character is a clansman. The film creates uneasy feelings, both now and then, about being sympathetic to characters with morally abhorrent views, but does that remove the technical mastery that Griffith achieved? (And produced a follow-up in the high-budget epic Intolerance, his attempt to undo the damage he did with Nation, showing four stories of the impact of intolerance through the centuries).

We, modern Western cinema audiences, are conditioned to keeping story in the highest regards, but sometimes just having a story might impede what film can do. Sunrise forgoes giving its characters actual names: Man (George O’Brien), Woman (Janet Gaynor), Woman From The City (Margaret Livingston), The Maid, The Obtrusive Gentleman… rather they seem to exist within a realm that is both fable-like, but real all the same. They are known for what they do, what they are, but then the labels are not for reduction or to criticise, but rather that the film is laying the groundwork for a more symbolic game, and the main clue is in the title: Sunrise.

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F.W. Murnau, in his Hollywood début from a very successful German career, brings two styles, realism and expressionism, and synthesises them into the epitome of the era. We see people living in a world that is augmented with sets made off-kilter, impressive use of chiaroscuro, with hyper-constructed sets and complex composite shots that are so intriguing, that they still surprise and amaze today. The artificiality works because it is grounded by the emotions of the characters on screen, that we are given a sight into the wonder of the city before the Great Depression, of joy, chaos and glitz, but that needs the humility of the protagonists, that while they’re not sophisticated they’re not pretentious. Like what Pamela Hutchinson states in a piece in the Guardian about the film, it is hard to explain why it works without it looking ‘ridiculous written down’, but I need to iterate that the film destroys a typical story of illicit lovers to murder a third party in the first forty minutes, giving the audience no clue where the story is actually going to go next, before turning into an allegory of eternal love between a married couple. They walk through a city of new experiences, but only find that their experiences rejuvenate them, and remind them of what they loved about each other. And a pig gets drunk on champagne.

The actors, and by extension, the characters themselves, live from moment to moment. We don’t expect soliloquies, for human emotion can be as complex and as simple as it wants. If you want a master-class of character dimension, you do not need people to read treatises about what they feel or what they want to do, but just watch them building emotions that erupts and changes just like normal people. Gaynor (who won the first Best Actress Oscar for this film and others in that year) is particularly a stand-out, as we see the tumults and waves of emotions as she slowly realises her husband’s true intentions, and from O’Brien the growing rediscovery of his love and guilt culminating in being in the audience of a city wedding as he explodes into tears of sadness. The actors subtle (and not so subtle) looks even punctures the film’s grammar, from the whispering influence of the city girl over the man (pictured) to a walking shot that transitions from the couple, in their bliss walking through the city into fields. They hold each other as if they’re in a dream, that their love becomes so enrapturing they seal it in a kiss… only to be revealed that they are still in the city. And that they in the middle of a down-town intersection, and their kiss is a very lengthy interruption traffic to the annoyance of the many drivers.

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Sunrise made it on the BFI Top Films of All Time List at the position of number five. It deserves to be there, it deserves attention. However, this funny, romantic, thrilling, haunting… it is a lot of things, but it isn’t a dry academic piece nor is it a dated bore. It can be heavily blunt in its imagery and its message, but sometimes a message so universal, love, means that this is sometimes needed. It is moving, inspiring, it is hard to actually capture in words how such an emotionally benevolent film can exist. If you have to watch one silent film, you can make it a Chaplin film like Modern Times, but consider Sunrise: A Song For Two Humans when you want to gamble on something, particularly something that is rewarding and reminds you what it means to be alive.

RATING: Five Stars.

The Huntsman: Winter’s War (d. Nicolas-Troyan, 2016) – Willing to Sacrifice

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For a franchise based upon the Snow White mythos, to completely cut her character out feels like an mechanical choice rather than an organic transition. Here we are in 2016, a franchise not born out of a need to see the further exploits of Snow White, but inexplicable in its existence, particularly by the muted critical (I liked the first one oddly) and commercial reaction to the first one. Presenting itself, with the help of uncredited narration by Liam Neeson, as a needless prequel and sequel in one, is it possible that it is so that it can fulfil our Maleficent itch? Or rather the Frozen itch? The Lord Of The Rings itch, or the Labyrinth itch? Aside from that, goodness knows what else in this rather bland massage of familiar elements and tropes with a dash of Chanel advertising. If The Huntsman: Winter’s War wasn’t so dull and boring this might have been comparable to the more entertaining Oblivion (Tom Cruise film, not the Elder Scrolls video game) as a fantasy version of Oblivion‘s sci-fi genre ‘greatest hits collection’, instead it is just a damp squip of ill-thought plotting/characterisation, generic CGI and all round cynical claptrap.

Choosing not to even try and explain why Kirsten Stewart doesn’t make an appearance aside from a Crispen Glover-esque subterfuge, and Liam Neeson’s uncredited narration plastering holes, we are greeted with a before and after journey into the creation/reivention of Eric, The Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth). Eric, hunky eye-bait with a powerful Thor-lite axe-chop, is revealed to have been stolen from his family as a child to become a part of an army of soldi… Huntsmen… for the evil Ice Queen Freya (Emily Blunt), who rules her kingdom with her ice sorcery and her mission to obliterate ‘love’ as a concept after the death of her child, of course in the most literal way possible. Eric finds his own love in Sara (Jessica Chastain), a master of archery and a better fighter than Eric, only to be taken away by a Queen that’s just a metaphor too far even for a fairy tale. Now, Eric is set on a dull mission to retrieve the magic mirror, which powered Freya’s sister’s Evil Queen Ravenna’s (Charlize Theron) brutal reign before Snow White’s rule, and threatened to destroy the world as they know it.

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Snow White and the Huntsman was not a masterpiece, but compared to this it was a spirited and inventively visual, as The Huntsman: Winter War is the cinematic equivalent to Hemsworth’s Hollywood diet of boiled chicken and steamed veg. Much of the plot and dialogue is so on the nose, it is not even fun to speculate the plot-holes when the whole film’s construction is just as cynical as anything Theron’s character could ever say about the proceedings. It has all you need in a fantasy story: comic relief by two dwarfs played by Nick Frost and Rob Brydon, punching below their weight; faux-witty repartee between the lovers; double-crosses and switcheroos; sneering domination of Freya who is quick to torture her minions… For such an under-demanding (and not demanded) sequel, it could have been a little bit more loose with the elements, a bit more camp, maybe a bit of subtext or even something more visually spectacular than an average episode of Game of Thrones, but with the success of Maleficent and Frozen, the only goal it feels to have is to con a young female target audience.

There is a part of the film that does have promise, and that’s in its actors. While trying to destroy them with stale dialogue and character journeys so bland that the young boy of The Princess Bride would mock, the actors have an ability to make the most of their roles, to alleviate some of the boredom. Chris Hemsworth seems very limited in the role that removes the mystery of his character from the first one and shoves his Thor persona instead, but he is an easy presence and there is no mystery as to why he is in today’s blockbusters. Meanwhile Chastain does make for a very believable, conflicted warrioress who can work toe to toe with Hemsworth, and Charlize Theron brings back her A-Game as the campy Ravenna, who steals the show from Emily Blunt’s sadly stereotypical frigid ‘bitch queen’, with her hollow origin perpetuating cliché lines of thought, than implant some complexity to her situation.

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It is kind of odd to think that it would have been better for the film to have been stopped in pre-production and re-planned to the strength of its cast and crew. Many of the set-pieces did hold promise (particularly the designs of the goblins, more simian than your traditional orc) but that overall feeling of being a let-down is unmovable, that the film was committee driven than had a directorial view point. Even more extremely and expensively, the film would be served better to be treated like Woody Allen’s September, having it be reshot/reinvented as the elements of a great film were there, instead we got this run-of-the-mill potboiler.

Yawn.

RATING: Two Stars.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (d. Snyder, 2016) – Wake Me Up Tomorrow

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is the superhero action equivalent of this failure, a disappointing opus that feels longer than it’s two and a half hour run-time, without the necessary development nor investment into strong singular themes, a gripping evolving narrative, engaging acting or even make the editing coherent to even follow what’s going on. They had the golden opportunity to do something special, but instead it’s just another boring bash-up between two Comic Book titans to set up another film franchise.

 

In the mid-2000s, there was a series of parody films that would try to satirise current pop culture (Epic MovieMeet The Spartans et al), but they were aggressively unfunny. What made them disastrous (notwithstanding the poor acting or the lack of engaging plot) but that their jokes and humour were derived from pointing out something from pop culture, proceed to tell the audience what the item is, and then hope that the audience laugh for recognising the object (Pirates of the Caribbean and celebrities such as Kardashians were notable examples). They, time and again failed to interrogate, investigate or invest into their jokes or characters, leaving audiences bored and disinterested at best, or aggressive and wronged at worst. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is the superhero action equivalent of this failure, a disappointing opus that feels longer than it’s two and a half hour run-time, without the necessary development nor investment into strong singular themes, a gripping evolving narrative, engaging acting or even make the editing coherent to even follow what’s going on. They had the golden opportunity to do something special, but instead it’s just another boring bash-up between two Comic Book titans to set up another film franchise.

The story of Batman v Superman is about the ramifications of Clark Kent/Superman’s (Henry Cavill) existence and how mankind should treat him: Is he God? Is he Satan? Where does his motivations lie? Who has his loyalty? And one who doesn’t want to test the limits of this is Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck),  a witness to the destruction witnessed in the third act of Man of Steel, and knows the destructive and emotional impact of the Last Son of Krypton. He allows his paranoia and Lex Luthor’s (Jesse Eisenberg) machinations to fuel his hatred for Superman, whilst Superman comes to see the true cost of his actions, culminating in this match-up of these cultural icons. And then there’s Luthor’s Doomsday waiting on the sidelines, Lois Lane’s (Amy Adams) mission to uncover a mysterious plot against Superman, and Wonder Woman/Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) wants…

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To finish the last paragraph would go into spoiler territory, but really, it’s because there is no need to further prove how convoluted the film is. Plotlines are mainly tangential and overly abundant, resulting in a complete rejection of everything is going on by the audience losing their sense of disbelief. The film feels like Zack Snyder cobbled together a collection of drafts by Chris Terrio and David Goyer, shuffled some page and started from there, without an investment into decent character arcs or anything particularly astute in the proceedings. It is incredibly cruel to say this, but then that it is the only way to justify having multiple dream sequences (yes, multiple) in the first act, the expense needing to hire Laurence Fishburne and the entire The Daily Planet to barely even see what Clark Kent and Lois Lane’s relationship is like, and multiple nonsensical character motivations. The film confuted the core tenants of Superman and Batman, making them into grumpy nihilists rather a reflection of our reality or even an idealised one. It’s Nolan in tone, replacing intelligence with gunfire and brutalism.

Time and time again, Snyder has proven that his film-making technique is based more on the composition of the shots (the enactment of Bruce’s parent’s death was quite inventive admittedly), than on the composition of the main story suffers from scenes jump incoherently from one character’s story to the other. For Snyder, there is no time for brevity, levity or any sense of gravity of the characters actions. It is trying to be it’s own film, a franchise starter and a Hollywood blockbuster, but his true calling seems to be a comic-book artist.  However, even when excusing the narrative failings, for such a bombastic action film it remains dull and boring, not at least best exhibited in the bland design that went into Doomsday. While a film can survive an over-abundant story, over-abundant and repetitive action sequences made this dreary and pointless.

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We have had countless years of Batman/Superman stories in the comics and animated films, and yet for this newly invented story, this one remains one of the most inert conflicts that a film could be anchored, leaving the battle between Batman and Superman is highly reductionistic. With simplistic emotions only at their disposal, and their intelligence relative to when it is needed in the plot, that when there is an opportunity to investigate the moral lines that exist between them and the world, it is taken away and replaced with a cheesy quip and an explosion for good measure. I stated in the introduction, what is meant by comparing Friedberg/Seltzer’s output to Snyder’s is that Snyder uses news anchors, senators (Holly Hunter was wasted) and Neil DeGrasse to present thematic points, and hopes that the audience will connect to these icons from past iterations, in lieu of investing in a real dramatic conflict. Jesse Eisenberg’s Luthor unpredictably perplexing character can espouse theological debates, but that’s telling us what to think, not see what we should actually feel, especially when the reason for Luthor hating Superman is both non-existent and pretentious.

If there is a positive to be said about this mess is that Ben Affleck and Jeffrey Irons will be a great Batman and a great Alfred when Affleck starts production of his own solo fare, and that there is promise in Gal Gadot’s Captain America-aping Wonder Woman. However, if this film is a reflection of DC’s future, this is not a future that audiences will not want to particularly invest in. Undercooked in every way, maturity is not development, darkness is not refinement, and fun is persona non grata.

RATING: ONE AND A HALF STARS.

Addendum: Daredevil Season Two (Netflix only) sets Daredevil to go against The Punisher to determine the limits of vigilante justice, and where the moral line of retribution exists. Not only is it a better conflict, it’s just a far better use of your time.

Hail, Caesar (d. Coens, Ethan and Joel) – Belief in Entertainment (Or, ‘A Tale of the Christ’)

The subtitle of the film within the film ‘Hail, Caesar’, an overwrought Quo Vadis style Biblical Epic (among many different films within this film not limited to the drawing room drama, the aqua musical, the singing cowboy western… ), is ‘A Tale Of The Christ’, a familiar subtitle to Ben-Hur… and the key to unlocking what this film is trying to achieve. Whilst the film lacks a drive within its plot, leaving much of it characters involved in a revolving door of extended cameos, pastiches and tableaux, Hail, Caesar is rather about one man’s faith in making films being put to the test. It is the cinematic form as God, and Josh Brolin’s Eddie Mannix is our Christ-figure. It’s not your typical comedy, and would have worked better with a stronger narrative core, but it is another essential Coen venture and a very interesting one at that.

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The subtitle of the film within the film ‘Hail, Caesar’, an overwrought Quo Vadis style Biblical Epic (among many different films within this film not limited to the drawing room drama, the aqua musical, the singing cowboy western… ), is ‘A Tale Of The Christ’, a familiar subtitle to Ben-Hur… and the key to unlocking what this film is trying to achieve. Whilst the film lacks a drive within its plot, leaving much of it characters involved in a revolving door of extended cameos, pastiches and tableaux, Hail, Caesar is rather about one man’s faith in making films being put to the test. It is the cinematic form as God, and Josh Brolin’s Eddie Mannix is our Christ-figure. It’s not your typical comedy, and would have worked better with a stronger narrative core, but it is another essential Coen venture and a very interesting one at that.

Much of the plot, or shall we say the façade of a story, follows a few days of Eddie Mannix’s life as a fixer within the Hollywood production system in the early 1950s. In these couple of days, he has to deal with a particularly scandalous pregnancy of one of their biggest stars (Scarlett Johansson), dealing with a director (Ralph Fiennes) who cannot stand being forced to cast an one-note cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenrich) in his genteel relationship drama, and the biggest coup of them all: trying to hustle some cash to free the kidnapped Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), lead of ‘Hail, Caesar’, by a cabal of communists called ‘The Future’. And has to hide this from twin sisters Thora and Thessaly Thacker, warring gossip columnists who want to tear down Mannix’s perfect world by showing the true dark side of this Hollywood. Meanwhile, Mannix deals with the biggest question of them all, trade the uncertainty and fickle nature of Capitol Pictures for the boring, life-time financial security of an aerospace engineering firm Lockheed? And what has singing sailor/tap-dancing Gene Kelly throwback Burt Turney (Channing Tatum) got to do with all of this?

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For many this film may be an unfunny turn-off, unnaturally ostentatious but it is justifiably so, for this is the Coen’s love letter to cinema and the many deceased genres that have occupied history, far away from the world of superheroes and franchises. It is a celebration (and a playful mockery) of the artifice and the slickness of Hollywood, that the mere idea of entertainment and its associated industries are important and enlivening to the human soul, and maybe even as worthy a pursuit than any STEM career path. It is the pure form of cinema, that engages with the soul and gives relief to the masses. Even then what threatens this Hollywood is completely farcical, as we are introduced to threatening cabal of communists, we realised they’re a bunch of wimpish, disgruntled writers (a fantasy version of the Hollywood Ten) who scheme and plot… while eating nice finger sandwiches in a nice sea-side Malibu mansion. For the Coens, the act of over-thinking cinema also makes you also a target of parody,  as a group lacking an understanding the true implications of following Lenin and Stalin in a jab at a haughty, self-serious intelligentsia (one of whom would obviously call their dog the playful name of Engels), but have also forgotten that there is a power to sheer enjoyment.

Films at that time period were made in a factory-like process, that they were produced by the dozens and thrown out to the cinemas, but the film is not necessarily looking at the art of one as important, but empathising that film is the art of thousands. Cinema is a religion, and Mannix is the studio’s Christ figure, as he tries to lead these amoral and idiotic stars/creatives to a nirvana. Cinema is an ideal, to be entertained by a myth that releases you from the present day realities of life, and unveil a truth in ourselves in spite of silly antics and rituals we dress normal life up with. The film is not an exactly true tale even when it uses aspects of real Hollywood stories, they’re toned down and made farcical/trivial for the audiences of today, such as the pregnancy in real life for the actress of Loretta Young was the result of a rape committed by Clark Gable, rather than a mistake by a swimming musical star with her own volition. The real Eddie Mannix was a brute and morally bankrupt where as here he is a loving family man and devoted Catholic, to the point he annoys his local priest with his endless need for confession. Film writes history, and can rewrite history, a double edged sword that Hollywood knows too well.

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Getting into the technical and acting details, the film is another A-Grade Coen flick, with some traditional rich, deep photography by their long-time cinematographer Roger Deakins, whilst the troupe of actors that have been gathered together are simply delightful,  if at times appear to be more children than functioning adults. As Mannix, Josh Brolin gives an involving performance as the only adult in the room, a shepherd to a dozy sheep who has to restore to cajole, slap and stomp through Capitol Pictures, whilst George Clooney and Channing Tatum are MVPs of playing with their stars’ egos (Tatum’s musical sequence a particularly hilarious conundrum). In the case of Whitlock, it is a particular highlight to see him struggle to understand their wider place within the world, especially as he struggles through to understand communist ideology, when the communists keep on giving him other subsections to learn. Like the film itself, each actor knows their place within the story, and they shine when they need to, even when the story seems incomprehensibly vague, as the point of the film is set aside to follow a tangent in itself.

Who steals the show however? Alden Ehrenreich, that while we see him as a dopey cowboy at the beginning, he represents the true joy of cinema, or rather the pure innocent magic of cinema. While he is welcomed to be made fun of as a proto-typical Republican-esque actor figure, his character and this film have an enduring hope in the medium, even if it is on the wayside. TV was the enemy, now it is video games and binge-watching (and then, whatever is coming up). In the film, Mannix sets up a false date for Doyle to trying to con the two Thacker sisters, being paired up with Carlotta Valdez (Verónica Osorio), a Carmen Miranda type, to generate publicity for his new motion picture. As they get to know each other, showing off their talents in rope swinging (him) and dancing (her), a spark of humanity that exists starts to form, maybe even romance that escapes the artifice, and façades that the film industry presents seems to even make what isn’t real into a straight forward reality. Hail, Caesar doesn’t have a clear plot, and sometimes it isn’t as funny as it should be, but it’s heart is in the right place… it’s in the love for cinema.

RATING: THREE AND A HALF STARS.

10 Cloverfield Lane (d. Trachtenberg, 2016) – Survivor

Shrouded in mystery, the release and promotion of 10 Cloverfield Lane only began two months ago, even when the film started shooting in 2014 with some notable Hollywood actors such as John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. The surprise was so effective that whilst I followed Dan Trachtenberg (the director) for a number of years on twitter, that there was never any sign that he was involved in the creation of this film and I can’t recall any mysterious behind-the-scenes photos. In light of this, one can find it questionable to even try to ruin the mystery of the film in a review, but for a début such as this, it is not only an accomplishment but rather it is one of the better thrillers released in the last couple of years.

10 cloverfield

Shrouded in mystery, the release and promotion of 10 Cloverfield Lane only began two months ago, even when the film started shooting in 2014 with some notable Hollywood actors such as John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. The surprise was so effective that whilst I followed Dan Trachtenberg (the director) for a number of years on twitter, that there was never any sign that he was involved in the creation of this film and I can’t recall any mysterious behind-the-scenes photos. In light of this, one can find it questionable to even try to ruin the mystery of the film in a review, but for a début such as this, it is not only an accomplishment but rather it is one of the better thrillers released in the last couple of years.

Not a direct sequel but rather, in JJ Abrams’ words, a ‘blood relative’ to Cloverfield, they have recreated Cloverfield into an anthology franchise of strange tales to astound. Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is running away from a relationship gone sour, and ends up in a car crash in rural Louisiana. She wakes up being trapped in a bunker built by Howard (John Goodman), who had supposedly saved her both from the car crash, and in his words, the outside world, which just has been subject to an attack and possibly contaminated. Along with Emmett (John Gallagher Jr), the trio learn to live with each other in this well-stocked fallout shelter, but the question still hangs in the air if anything truly happened in the outside world, and if the real danger is actually inside the bunker itself.

10 cloverfield lane 1

Unbelievably tense, the film plays out the uncomfortable shifting nature of paranoia within a tight enclosed space, where simple looks and words feel like a provocation. Power plays and unclear motivations fester into hidden (and not so hidden) hostility, as the question of what is right and wrong becomes blurry when you are forced into an abnormal situation. The film is about control, where the limits are and how it can ferment into abuse, extending into real world gender politics and questions how we should face atrocities, real or imagined.

Much of the film’s plot seems to be been-there done-that storytelling, with a set-up that we’ve seen before in many isolationist horror films, for example, the character of Michelle could fit both into the damsel and the tough action woman archetypes (google the Trinity syndrome). On the other hand, Damien Chazelle’s (director and writer of the fantastic Whiplash) rewrite of John Campbell’s and Matt Stuecken’s original script gives Winstead a platform to create a three-dimensional character with a complex arc, portraying a real, cowardly woman, as Winstead utilises her skill to bring a fresh new heroine of the sci-fi genre, to become an even more resourceful woman that navigates this threatening environment with us. Her journey (read this great spoilerfilled essay for more detail on this) from supposed victim to a full realisation of life outside of fear and abuse is heartening and exhilarating.

Countering her is John Goodman’s edgy doomsday survivalist, that could have been a cartoon bad guy comes across as a tormented guy. While everything is not right in his head, Goodman brings a gravitas that makes Howard terrifying, melancholic and blackly funny. What is interesting especially about his role is that his mere presence feels like violence, that feels like threat that it makes you think the film is more brutal than it actually is. This performance is complex enough to even be deemed Oscar worthy by many, including this reviewer, as while Howard doesn’t have an arc of his own, Goodman invests into his unstable personality to make his villain this engaging as many other Goodman characters throughout his career. Whilst John Gallagher Jr. may not get as many plaudits compared to the other two cast members, he brings a humorous touch and easy-going attitude, that make him more fish out of water to the whole proceedings.

10CloverfieldLane 2

Whilst the bombastic third act does seem to be off-putting compared to the rising boil of the first two acts, the first two acts are a master class of uncertainty. Trachtenberg intriguing use of long takes is mainly explores this world, using his actors to do much of the work of building fear into the audience, and coupled having shots follow the characters around the bunker being secretive, amping up the fear of discovery. Even then, when the plot calls for Michelle to enter the air-ducts, we feel the tension almost compounding, the director knows how to use space to his advantage, sometimes to claustrophobic ends but also to extenuate their isolation. Time is shrunk and extended (helped by Bear McCreary’s masterful Bernard Hermann-esque score), as we are also put into the position that we know as much as the characters, that at any moment everything can irrevocably change.

An intense psychological thriller driven by three great performances, that if it weren’t for the inherent bias against genre films (or strange quasi-sequel) from industry awards there would be a call for John Goodman and to a lesser extent Mary Elizabeth Winstead to win awards later in the year. However, these performances would be naught if Dan Trachtenberg did not expertly create a tense, tight film that not only has theatrical intelligence, but emotional and thematic intelligence as well.

RATING: FOUR STARS

OSCAR BEST PICTURE REVIEW ROUND-UP – Eight Films, Eight Mini Reviews

This post and the way it is structured is mainly for four reasons:

  • Writing a thousand words on each film is time-consuming and requires a lot of energy (never mind editing a review of The Martian, The Revenant and rejigging Mad Max: Fury Road‘s top ten appearance), so why not do it for eight films at the same time?
  • Do you want to read eight thousand words or just a nice meaty blog of nearly three thousand words about all of them?
  • A lot of people don’t actually know what has been nominated for Best Picture for the year for 2015 by the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences Awards, or The Academy Awards or by their nickname, ‘The Oscars’. So, this is a lesson of them, because they really don’t follow the Oscars until the day they’re announced. Straw-poll has shown me that most people know of The Revenant, but many have seen The Martian and Mad Max: Fury Road and didn’t know it was even nominated, and that’s if they know something about it. So, here you go.
  • I wanted to write something a bit irrelevant, but entertaining.

So, in descending order, here’s my ranked list of Best Picture Nominees:

8. Bridge of Spies (d. Spielberg, 2015) – Tom Hanks vs. USA vs. Russia vs. East Germany vs. The Cold War

Brooklyn lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) meets with his client Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Soviet agent arrested in the U.S. in DreamWorks Pictures/Fox 2000 PIctures' dramatic thriller BRIDGE OF SPIES, directed by Steven Spielberg.

What’s it about?
Tom Hanks is James B. Donovan, an American insurance lawyer chosen to represent Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) in a case that will push the limit of the Constitution during the height of the Cold War, and what happens when an American is captured on Russian soil. Tom Hanks is being Tom Hanks, he has to fight against bureaucracy and international intrigue to face these hapless foes who are too idiotic and belligerent for Good International Values.

What did you think of it?
Steven Spielberg does his best imitation of Clint Eastwood, but lacks the urgency or even the agency to create a compelling thrilling narrative. The performances are fine, if a bit basic, and too quiet, but the looks and feel is peerless, and some winning lines from the Coen Brothers’ re-tooling of Matt Charman’s screenplay. What stops this film from being an absolute winner is that Tom Hanks is given a character that is so devoid of his own personality, it uses Tom Hanks’ instead. We don’t need to know anything about James B. Donovan’s love of the law, or why he put himself at risk, because HE’S TOM HANKS. He’s good, he’s righteous, he only just overworks a bit, but he’s America’s hope! TOM… I mean, JAMES B. DONOVAN!

What Milan Oscar Does It Deserve:
Best Tom Hanks for Tom Hanks of 2015. In normal Tom Hanks rankings, it wouldn’t be top Hanks.

Does it deserve the Best Picture Oscar?
No. It deserves Tom Hanks, the best Tom Hanks you can get this year.

Rating: THREE STARS

7. Spotlight (d. McCarthy, 2015) – Good People Finally Do Something

spotlight

What’s it about:
Spotlight, a team of investigative journalists (Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy Adams) and their editor (John Slattery), are drawn to a new case when the new editor of the newspaper Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), the lone Jewish guy in the midst of Irish Catholics, decides to aim Spotlight onto the Catholic Church and their history of long-term child abuse.

What did you think of it?
For a film about searching and discovery, the film introduces many different elements of plot through the lives of its characters, not of the victims of this system, it feels like it fails to create an emotive argument but rather presents a clinical, non-expressionistic directed one. It focuses on it’s core-strength: the work of journalism. It is interesting to see the pieces being picked up and being built into a solid investigation, with some fine performances that has hints of complexity and understanding. However, it lacks an emotional (anger or sadness, or both) dimension in its documentary counterparts, making it feel hollow in turn. No deep compassion is provoked towards the victims in the documentary. It feels too safe for such an incendiary topic.

What Milan Oscar It Deserves:
Best Ensemble Doing A Pretty Good Job for the cast of Spotlight.

Does it deserve the Best Picture Oscar?
Half/half. Half of me doesn’t agree with an Oscar as it is a rather pat film. Half of me does because the topic is important and needs to be recognised and hopefully engender justice. The second part is problematic in that I feel, it may be sort of wrong to reward a film for its subject matter, and I wouldn’t want to reward lacklustre craft. Can we bring back Unique and Artistic Production from the first Academy Awards? We give that to Mad Max: Fury Road and then the other, Best Picture, could go to the one with the socio-political connotations, and make a social impact on people who may not take film as seriously as film people do?

Rating: THREE STARS

6. The Martian (d. Scott, 2015) – It takes a village…
(FYI: Lengthier Review Here)

martian

What’s it about?
An astronaut, Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is stranded on Mars after a storm causes the crew to depart without him. With dwindling supplies, he has to do create possibilities for survival. More easily said than done, as once you start to ponder the mechanics of the plot and the weight of the situation, it becomes almost impossible to comprehend how Watney will be able to survive this situation.

What did you think of it?
The Martian is a great adventure, that while it doesn’t have the existential depth or epic grandeur of preceding space films (Ridley Scott’s direction and design is minimalist, weirdly anonymous at times), but Drew Goddard’s screenplay is the real winner with numerous laugh out moments, some choice character development, and Matt Damon’s performance as a spirited botanist. Gravity made us fear space and aware of our fragility (and what really matters) in the vast expanse; Interstellar gave us a future to aspire to when all hope is lost, and The Martian opens us to what we can start doing now and how we can work together. For a blockbuster, it is the most optimistic and almost entirely superhero-free film of 2015, and it doesn’t treat its audience like idiots as it talks through very realistic science, if a bit too self-congratulatory.

What Milan Oscar does it deserve?
Matt Damon wins Disco. Actually, no, The Tom Hanks Award for Best Tom Hanks for Matt Damon. Sorry Tom Hanks, 2016 has three Tom Hanks and he will definitely win then. Top Hanks to Damon.

Does it deserve the Best Picture Oscar?
For the film itself? No, it is entertaining, but certainly doesn’t reinvent the wheel. However, as a genre film at the Oscars, no sci-fi film has won the big prize, and it wouldn’t be unwelcome in my mind. Mad Max: Fury Road is the better contender in this regard.

Rating: THREE AND A HALF STARS

5. The Revenant (d. Iñárritu, 2015) – Ghosts That Haunt Us

the revenant

What’s it about?
A simple tale of fur-trapper Hugh Glass (Leonardio DiCaprio) in the 1800s, attacked by a big female grizzly, left for dead by his crew (and one of them killing his son in doing so, played by Tom Hardy), digs himself out of a shallow grave to trek over a month, hot on their trail to get some revenge. You know, a light-hearted caper.

What did you think of it?
The Revenant, the meaning of which refers to ‘a person who has returned, especially supposedly from the dead’, is really about trying to find something meaningful outside of survival. Iñárritu is not totally successful in creating a mythic masterpiece with blunt imagery and on the nose proclamations, but he does succeed in making an intense film about the deadly ramifications of manifest destiny, about a world that becomes too attached to the existential trivialities of commerce, instead of the spiritual routes of love, community and family. DiCaprio gives an outstanding performance, and Hardy is even better, as they epitomise the struggle to find heaven on earth.
(Lengthier review coming soon)

What Milan Oscar does it deserve?
How Much Pretentiousness Can You Shove Into Two And A Half Hours, And Oddly Not Destroy The Film?

Does it deserve the Best Picture Oscar?
Did I mention I wanted an award for Unique and Artistic Production brought back? Because it’s the exact opposite of Spotlight, where there was so much effort and artistic achievement that it’s kind of harsh to say it doesn’t deserve Best Picture. Most Picture maybe?

Rating: FOUR STARS

4. Brooklyn (d. Crowley, 2015) – Home Truths, Foreign Feelings

brooklyn

What’s it about?
A young Irish girl Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan)* decides to make a huge life-changing decision; to move from rural Ireland to the big hustle and bustle of Brooklyn, New York City. There, she finds a job, friends and even a nice, smouldering man Tony (Emory Cohen), but tragedy strikes at home. She returns to find sometimes there is nothing like home comforts, and even another handsome gentleman Jim (Domnhall Gleeson).

What did you think of it?
Brooklyn is a heartfelt film that feels incredibly timeless, with richly designed contrasts between the worlds of the city and the country. It’s a love story of many types, but it doesn’t let its protagonist forget about her own identity as a woman. Exploring the complexities that come with the immigrant experience, it is helped by a well-crafted lead performance by Ronan and a turn from Emory Cohen that promises that he will hit stardom shortly. It isn’t a film that will challenge sensibilities, touch the darkness of that era like Mad Men, and is very unlikely to offend. It’s geniality is it’s charm, with a measured tone and an easy-going nature. A superb dramatic tale.

What Milan Oscars Does It Deserve?
Best Romance, no doubt. Tony/Eilis 4eva. Or Most Swoon, probably the best one and most hilarious to say out loud. Try it, The Award for Most Swoon goes to…

Does it deserve the Best Picture Oscar?

Yes. It may be quiet, and the story isn’t topical or epic, but quiet isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s the kind of film that sneaks up on you, like a memory from a distant past, and gives you a nice comfortable feeling.

*Eilis pronounced AY-Lish, Saoirse pronounced SUR-sha. I’m not an expert at Irish names, but I just watched Song of the Sea and I’m kinda finding it fun to learn more obscure ones. I even wish I could just name all my characters in my creative work with them, but then Ireland is a literary land so that’s completely understandable.

Rating: FOUR AND A HALF STARS

3. The Big Short (d. McKay, 2015) – The Ascent of Money (and Idiocy)

the big short

(Can someone get me a canvas of that image? It’s wallpaper worthy and looks like a modern masterpiece.)

What’s it about?
A bunch of white men in suits (Christian Bale, Steve Carell et al.) find out a bunch of bankers in suits have gambled with billions of dollars on sub-prime (bad) mortgages. This is the story of how these bunch of people profited off their stupidity in the 2008 recession, but didn’t realise what it truly means by winning their bet: the downfall of the banks and the beginning of a worldwide economy collapse.

What did you think of it?
A brilliant and successful diatribe, that succeeds in explaining complex economic concepts by throwing every film trick in the books (not limited to breaking the fourth wall, flashback, imagination and celebrity cameos), and making for an exhilarating experience with some richly composed editing, directing and some great performances by Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling. The film has a playful blend of anger, laughter and unremitting horror as we come face to face with the system that has destroyed lives, and the film is not afraid to make sure you knew that. And then some.

What Milan Oscar Does It Deserve?
The Righteous Anger Award. It really does feel good to be this type of angry.

Does it deserve the Best Picture Oscar?
Sure, it’s subject matter is still unresolved and this film acts as a black spot for the politicians and bankers who still run amok in this country… AND… it is also a singular unique piece of work that makes the complex simple and criticises a culture that tries to hide in subterfuge, with director Adam McKay using every trick of the film-making trade at his disposal. Adam McKay may have made Anchorman 2 to fund this (I really enjoyed Anchorman 2, but many see this deal as a one-for-them-one-for-me, particularly as many deemed it lacklustre), but I think we’ve definitely come out ahead with a film like The Big Short.

Rating: FOUR AND A HALF STARS

2. Room (d. Abrahamson, 2015) – The Boxes We Place Ourselves In – (The Room and Room are different things)

room

What’s it about?

Ma (Brie Larson) and Jack (Jacob Tremblay) live in a ten-by-ten room somewhere in America. Ma, kidnapped when she was only a teenager, decides at the point of Jack’s fifth birthday to finally find a way for them to escape ‘Room’. However, the one question that Ma and Jack haven’t asked yet is what happens after ‘Room’, but they will learn the outside world is just as tough as the inside world, and that they will have to rely on each other to power each other.

What did you think of it?

Heartbreakingly brilliant. Lenny Abrahamson creates both a world that is big and small, using the film camera to create a space that has history both physical as well as mental, creating energy even related to the objects around them. With precise editing and camera movements, the filmmakers use the small space to their advantage in the first half of the film, to create a mini-universe, and then in the second half of the film, the isolation within vast space and the alien nature of the world as we know it. This would be for naught if it weren’t for the mighty talents of Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, bringing a complex human emotional energy to the screenplay, even when the difficulty of changing the emotional states of the character from one moment to the other.

What Milan Oscar Does It Deserve?

Why isn’t this nominated for the real Oscar for Production Design? Anyway, Best Line of the Year (direct message me if you want the line, because it is a spoiler that might rob the film of a bit of its power) because it is the only one that managed to make me cry.

Does it deserve the Best Picture Oscar?

Yes. Undoubtedly moving and powerful.

Rating: FIVE STARS

1. Mad Max: Fury Road (d. Miller, 2015) – Kinetic Introspection

mad max

What’s it about?

Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) uses her position to engineer a ‘prison break’ for the concubines (The Five Wives) of warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) to find freedom and hope away from the citadel. In response, Joe sends his armies of War Boys (including the dying Nux, played by Nicholas Hoult) to hunt them down, kill Furiosa and get his wives back…
…and Max (Tom Hardy) is along for the ride.

What did you think of it?

Using a cornucopia of film tricks from the 1920s to impressive and real stunt work (and CGI), this film is an instant classic of cinema, the future of action cinema, as well as a throwback to cinema where violence had cost (1980s) and a cinema where we could feel the risks (1920s). It is indescribable in how ingenious the film is, and how it does away with wasteful dialogue and story for lean narrative stakes and maximum theatrical bravado, with excellent acting that only require cold stares and deliciously satiable lines (‘Witness Me’, ‘Hope is a mistake’, ‘You will ride eternal, shiny and chrome’) that feel as lived in as the Mad Max universe. It is an added bonus that there are so many themes that could be unpacked from the story, but the one that sticks out is that it is the hyper-masculine vs the feminine. While Max is undoubtedly a main character, this fight is one where the creators of war and destruction are in a fight with the very future of humanity, and the future is represented by his ward. There is so much to unpack, so much the film interrogates, it would take a while to cover all different aspects of the modern society it criticises and comments on, but yet doesn’t lose the through-line: compassion overcomes war.

What Milan Oscar Does It Deserve?

Now Put Your Hands Up Award for All The Single Ladies.

Does it deserve the Best Picture Oscar?

At this point, you’d probably say he is going to say yes. And you’d be right. It’s iconoclastic, it is inclusive, it is a singular film-making par excellence, and it is the most focused pop-culture item in years.

Rating: FIVE STARS

That’s all for now… oh wait…

For those who do not want to watch the usual Oscar films, something with a bit more of a challenge, I sincerely recommend that you view Theeb. I will leave you to discover that little Jordanian/British gem, nominated for Best Foreign Language Film and recently won the Bafta for Best Debut by a British writer, producer or director. Documentary? While not my choice for the prize, The Look of Silence has landed on Netflix and it is required viewing.