paul2001sw-1

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The Aftermath
(2019)

An unengaging encounter
Germany, 1945 must have been a terrible place. A hungry. Defeated population, some of them slowly coming to terms with the crimes on their collective conscience, others still in denial; and occupying armies, themselves no doubt brutalised by the recent war. It should be a great setting for a movie; but 'The Aftermath' is not that film, choosing to show us instead a romantic story remiscient of 'Brief Encounter', though without that film's intensity. Perhaps the budget was a limiting factor; it's cheaper to recreate an upper class residence, than it is to depict a city in chaos. The lead actors overstate their stoicism and emotional recitience; it's a familiar portrait of our ruling classes, but it feels very strange in this setting. If this was a Jane Austen adaptation you'd consider it a dull one.

The VVitch: A New-England Folktale
(2015)

Authentic, but also muddled
Many historically set films simply give a hero a modern perspective, contrasting them with all the weirdos who hold the inexplicably common views of their time. So it's to the credit of 'The Witch' that it tries to genuinely convey the mindset of its protagonists, early European settlers of the Americas. In places, the mood is well-conveyed, in spite of a very low-key, almost undramatic, approach. But the plot is murky and, while all such films inevitably have a "is this really happening?" theme, I found the ending completely at odds with what had come before, although maybe that was because it had already lost my attention.

American Masters: Fats Domino and the Birth of Rock 'n' Roll
(2016)
Episode 4, Season 30

A story without drama
In the racially segregated America of the early 1950s, new trends is black popular music were picked up by white performers and audiences; and youth culture, as we now know it, was born. Fats Domino was a talented artist and one of the first to popularise this new music. But the Fats Domino story, as told in this documentary, just isn't that interesting. He made music, it was good, it became popular. He had of course to deal with racism, but this is only a minor theme of this documentary. He seems to have been a nice guy and he went on to enjoy a long career, although his own style never really evolved. We get a chance to enjoy his music, and to see him perform; but there's not that much insight to accompany the nostalgia.

Les frères Sisters
(2018)

The wildest west
'The Sisters Brothers' is a terrible name for a story; but not a bad film. Jacques Audriad gives us an unromantic portrait of a wild west that is wild in the worst of all ways. It's a four-hander, with the titular brothers (whose surname is actually 'Sisters'!) accompanied by two other primary characters: the brothers are initially the least appealing, but we gradually come to see them as human as well. The Western is of course a genre with many of its own conventions, and the film indulges some of these; but mainly it's a bleak tale of poverty, desperation and violence. It's much more honest than most Westerns; but it takes a long time before we come to care very deeply about its protagonists.

Andy Warhol's America
(2022)

Warhol's world
Some artists die in obscurity, and are only famous later. Some artists manage to become known while alive; it's a more lucrative route. Often, this requires vigorous self-promotion. But with Andy Warhol there's a sense that almost goes beyond this: that Warhol became famous, and rich, precisely because he was seen as representing the zeitgeist; and to some extent, his representation of the zeitgeist was his art. Warhol's oeuvre could and would never have been produced as a hobby, or even obsession, by someone who no-one hard heard of; and the question "is it any good?" can't really be answered independently of the context, and culture, in which is was produced. This makes his life story also inerently interesting as a reflection his times, even though his was hardly the story of an everyman. In some ways, Warhol's work anticipated what digital technology would make commonplace and easy; it seems surprising to think he produced much of it through mechanical techniques. There is a definite sense in which we still live in Warhol's world, whether or not we would wish to.

Jakten på en mördare
(2020)

We only get him go so wrong
In Sweden, the horrific muder of a young girl in the 1980s took almost 20 years to solve. Other murders (just one of which proved to be linked) and departmental politics obstructred progress; but one thing that 'The Hunt of a Killer', a dramatisation of the police investigation, shows is just how difficult it can be to find the evidence needed to close a case. It's an unmelodramatic reconstruction, and in many ways a depressing one: the killer was a lone actor and societal misfit, whose behaviour was alarming in many respects but which went unchecked while his darkest deeds remained hidden. As at a least a semi-normal person, it's horrifying to see what human beings are capable of if allowed to go far enough wrong.

Blade Runner 2049
(2017)

Not enough "there" there
It's been a long time since I watched seminal 1980s science fiction movie 'Blade Runner'; 'Blade Runner 2049' is a certainly very delayed sequel, although there's still a role for original star Harrison Ford. But from what I remember, the new film is rather different in character, a moody and thoughtful reflection on the meaning of life, albeit in a futuristic setting. Unfortunately, there both seems to be too much going on (there are humans, two generations of bio-engineered replicants, and virtual humans as well) and not enough: for all the film's superficial intelligence, it's never really clear exactly what it is trying to tell us. In common with many other futuristic movies, but believably enough, one application of all the technology on disply is to provide sexual experience for middle-aged men; my problem is not this vision per se, but that the film only seems interested in what said middle-aged men think about this, and we get no insight into what women might feel at their consequential redundancy (or what they themselves might desire, but do not seem to be served with). The movie is long, and for me it dragged: there just isn't enough substance to justify its length.

L'immortale
(2019)

Good but unnecessary
Few drama series are so strong that they can afford to kill of their leading characters without losing their essence; but 'The Wire' managed it, and so did Italian drama series 'Gomorra', which dispatched Ciro di Marzo at the end of series three. 'L'Immortale' is a spin-off movie, centred on Ciro; needless to say, there's a major but necessary plot twist right at the film's start, with the action soon displaced to Latvia, away from Naples where a Ciro-free series four unfolded. The mood is familliar but the pace is slower than in 'Gomorra', which already had a story where Ciro was working in eastern Europe which was covered in just one episode. It also seems to be that actor Marco d'Amore, so riveting under the direction of others, seems slighly mono-dimensionsal now he's directing himself. And the full complexity of the Neapolitan mafia politics in the original is echoed here only in a simplified form. I still enjoyed the movie, but in some senses Ciro had to die: his narrative arc was already complete. I haven't seen series five yet; should he reappear in Naples, it will be interesting to see what kind of place they find for him in the story.

A Very British Scandal
(2021)

Public and private
Margaret, sometime Duchess of Argyll, was a rich, beautiful, and utterly entitled woman; her marriage to the Duke, a spendthrift drunk, was a disaster. We know about it because their divorce became a matter of media scandal and was even brought into the enquiry that followed the Profumo affair. The way our society shamed (and continues to shame) women for their sexuality is appalling; nonetheless, it is hard to avoid concluding that someone who beleives in their absolute right to do as they please is ultimately going to face consequences (even if, in a decent world, these would have been entirely private). As Duke and Duchess, Paul Bettany and Clare Foy are both really good in this reconstuction of events; although the theme of the story is essentially that it's a matter of public interest that something of no legitimate public interest was treated as if this was not the case. Amazingly, wholly no-fault divorce is only going to become a reality in British law in 2022.

Taken: Hunting the Sex Traffickers
(2021)

A good account of police work; and a sad picture of our society
I tend to think that in a decent world, prostitution would be well-paid and legal. Sadly, the actual sex industry is rife with exploitation. This series follows a police investigation into a medium-level criminal gang bringing women from Brazil to work in the UK. It's not literally a tale of "modern slavery" (in that we see no signs that the women are forced to work), but it's clear that some people grow rich from the limited choices available to others. The sheer amount of effort required to put together a case for conviction is on display; as usual in such programmes, so many of those questioned have been trained to univerally answer "no comment" that you almost end up liking those who respond with half-truths instead. The main suspect is ultimately convicted; but the wider societal problems remain utterly unsolved.

Les gardiennes
(2017)

Slow and solemn
Xavier Beauvois's film 'The Guardians' tells the story of a rural French family left behind during the First World War while the young menfolk are off fighting at the front. It's a quiet and observational movie, watching the rhythms of the agricultural calendar while human life is in some senses on hold. Unfortunately, the conceit is rather overdone: in six years, we see almost no signs of joy or even simple boisterousness, as if the war shifted everyone into a permanent state of dignified melancholy. The result is a overly slow and solemn story.

Seberg
(2019)

A missed opportunity
The problem with this film most definitely is not the performance of Kristen Stewart, who does a good job in bringing Jean Seberg to life. Seberg was another generation of movie star, harassed by the FBI on account of her sympathy for left-wing political causes, who ultimately committed suicide. But the film combines its portrayal of her struggle with the story of an entirely fictional, liberal-leaning FBI agent who wrestles with his conscience while surveilling her. It's not clear what his story is supposed to add to hers. In addition, the film presents Seberg in a positive light throughout, which fails to illuminate what ultimately drove her to end her life. It feels like there should be an interesting movie in here somewhere; but unfortunately, this isn't it.

Partisan
(2020)

Ethics and aesthetics
An idyllic organic farming comune turns out to be a fascistic blood-and-soil cult in this intelligent Swedish thriller. For sure, the plot is a little fantastical, but the motivation and character of the villains makes sense, unlike many "trouble in paradise" stories where there's little real explanation for the darkness below the surface. Here, the ethics and the aesthetics tie together nicely; and at just five episodes, the grim story moves along lightly. The final fight is unusally convincing.

Get Out
(2017)

Cool and Clever
'Look Who's Coming to Dinner' meets 'Resomary's Baby' in Jordan Peele's intelligent thriller. A young black man visits his girlfriend's rich, racist-adjacent parents and gets progressively freaked out. Something isn't right here, but exactly what's wrong is hard to put your finger on. After the big reveal, one fears the film will descend into mundane action, but the script unleashes some neat late tricks to keep things interesting. What the family wants doesn't really make sense, but this is a clever movie that makes you think about the links between culture and race, but also works as old-fashioned horror.

Close to Me
(2021)

Imagine 'Momento' but with no plot twists
A woman wakes up with amnesisa having fallen down the stairs. Could her defensive, inadequate, control-freak of a husband have had anything to do with it? Unsurprisingly, in 'Close to Me', the answer turns out to be "yes". But it's a strange sort of drama, in which the truth is clearly suspected before it is revealed to either character or viewer. Amnesia opens many opportunities to tell intriguing (albeit preposterous stories): just think of 'Momento'. But there are no real twists here, just one long painful reveal.

Songs for While I'm Away
(2020)

Pulls its punches
Phil Lynott was a black Irish rock star at a time when this was a decidedly unlikely thing to be, who sadly died young after developing an addication to drugs. At the start of this documentary, his family express their wish for a film that celebrates his life, rather than glamourising his death. And 'Songs for While I'm Away' does that, albeit at the price of becoming something of a hagiography. We're told about Lynott's talent, charisma and (away from the stage) shyness. But just about everything that went wrong (the breakup of his various band lineups and relationships, and his eventual dependency on heroin) is glossed over. Things happened, we're told, with an air of inevitability; but how they did so is not covered in any detail. The result is an imbalanced portrait, which makes it hard to understand exactly why he was one of those who didn't make it in the end. A bit more frankness would not have gone amiss.

De Kuthoer
(2019)

The power of the platform
It's very easy to interact with people you don't know on the internet; and it's very easy to be very mean to people you don't know. But might it also not be easy to take revenge on them? This is the central idea of Dutch comedy-thriller 'The Columnist', which keeps a mostly straight face even as its plot turns farcical. The central character is well-constructed, and there is a serious point about the toxic nature of social media. 'The Columnist' never quite reaches the peak of 'Black Mirror', but it's nicely paced and might just make you think twice about the difference between how you behave online and in real life.

Freddie Mercury - The Final Act
(2021)

Freddie amazes, again
Queen were a massive pop band with a long string of catchy, distinctive hits, fronted by the extraordinary Freddie Mercury, who sadly died of AIDS. This documentary tells the story of his final years, and of the concert staged to honour his death. In small doses, I love a bit of Queen, but sometimes it seems that the surviving band members do nothing else in their lives these days but milk the nostalgia. Moreover, it seems that Freddie did his dying away from his working; although messars May and Taylor speak sensitively and sympathetically about their bandmate, it's also clear they had minor roles in his "final act." So I liked this documentary, but there's not a lot here that anyone interested won't have been before.

The Outlaws
(2021)

Overly gentle
'The Outlaws', Stephen Merchant's new comedy drama, ought to be great fun, an amiable story about a misfitting bunch of losers in modern multicultural Britain, that pokes fun at political correctness while keeping its heart in the right place. The fact that there's a certain obviousness to it shouldn't preclude the laughs; a lot of comedy both plays to and against stereotypes. But somehow it's all too gentle: nothing here would offend anyone, but also it never really feels like there's anything at stake, for the characters or the viewer. Perhaps it would have been better in feature film format; instead, the point is quickly conveyed and then everyone hangs around for six episodes underlining it. Christopher Walkern features in an otherwise British cast.

Gisaengchung
(2019)

A very funny film about corruption of the soul
Being a Korean language film was not the only reason Bong Joon-ho's 'Parasite' was an unlikely multiple Oscar winner; it's also unusually dark. A vicious black comedy, it tells the story of an impoverished family who think they've found a meal-ticket for life when they manage to displace the servants of a gullable rich one; but it turns out they're not the only desparate people in town. Everyone can enjoy its ingenious plot and wonderful sense of aesthetic; but at heart, this is a serious film about how both wealth and poverty corrupt the soul. As such, it has no heroes; and its victims are either not innocent, or, if they are, have no right to be. There's no question it deserved it's awards.

Paris Police 1900
(2021)

Stately
A police drama set in the days of the Dreyfuss affair, when anti-semites falsely charged a Jewish officer with treason, and beginning with the death of the French President in fellatio, might appear to be highly promising. But 'Paris Police 1900' is most disappointing: the Guardian called it 'stately', I would simply call it dull. I'm not certain why it doesn't quite work, but the lack of a single perspective from which the story is told makes it harder to follow what is going on, or care. Each policeman seems to have their own agenda, but it can be difficult to work out what these are; it's almost as if everyone is a minor character, but there's no-one to lead the story. And while the sets nicely reconstruct the Paris of 120 years ago, I didn't really get a sense of what, outside of the twists of the plot, would have felt normal to any of the numerous protagonists. Sadly it falls well short of a historic version of 'Spiral'.

The 80s - Music's Greatest Decade?
(2021)

Shallow
I'm not a huge fan of eighties music; but that's not the main reason I'm not a huge fan of Dylan Jones's series, arguing the contrary. The problem with the series is less its thesis, but more its lack of substance; a fairly banal documentary is followed by three programs of video clips, supported by inane captions that do nothing to illuminate. It's a nostalgia trip, filtered through the simple mindset that everything was great. There are surely countless interesting stories putting particular musical trends into their social and musicological contexts; instead we get a fairly vacuous celebration of pop culture. Count me out.

24 Hours in Police Custody
(2014)

Compelling
In its later series, '24 Hours in Police Custody' doesn't exactly do what is says on the tin, showing us instead police investigations as they unfold over months or even years. It's true crime, at its most honest and also most horrific; I like to believe in the basic good of human nature, but these episodes tell some pretty grim stories, and also show quite how hard it can be to secure a conviction. There have been sadly far too many terrible miscarriages of justice: here the police are the heroes, patiently assembling the evidence, treating the accused (on-camera at least) with respect, and not always succeeding in spite of their efforts. Even when they win, the words "happy ending" would be misplaced. I'm a little scared at the thought that if I was ever a suspect, I might end up being shown on television; but the series is a compelling insight into life at the very bottom of society.

Pawn Sacrifice
(2014)

Chess sacrificed
Bobby Fisher was a chess wizard, cold war icon, and crank. When he won the world championship, dethroning Spassky, one of a long line of Russian champions, it was a major global event, but one that took place in a mood of mutual paranoia. 'Pawn Sacrifice' tells the story of Fisher's ascent. What the recent 'The Queen's Gambit' did well was in its presentation of the chess, and conveying what it might be like to be playing the game; unfortunately, this film doesn't match it. Indeed, if it was fiction, the chess would be a McGuffin, and any competitive endeavour might do just as well. Perhaps in consequence Fisher, as played by Tobey McGuire, comes across less as tortured genius and more as a petulant brat. Fisher's story is truly amazing; but watching this, I yearned for documentary.

Widows
(2018)

A well-crafted homage
There's a whole genre of stylised films in which characters sit around talking smart and macho to one another: think about the ouvres of David Mamet or Quentin Tarantino, or, less sucessfully, Ridley Scott's rightly derided 'The Counsellor'. It was the latter film that most obviosuly came to my mind when watching Steve McQueen's 'Widows': McQueen is a very clever film-maker, but there are some resemblences nonetheless, most notably in his movie's string of semi-connected scenes of philophising crooks, though his plot is more coherent and there are some credible (though cliched) action scenes in the mix as well. If every film was like this, it would soon grow tiresome; McQueen does it well, but there's nothing here quite as disturbing as peak Mamet or as fresh as young Tarantino. Rather, it's feels like a well-crafted homage to a slightly weary Hollwood trope.

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