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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

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?

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

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

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.


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.


Some kind of genius
Frank Zappa was a rock star. He was also a self-absorbed libertarian, performance artist, and avant-garde composer who nonetheless filled his more populist music with cheap sexual references like an immature fourteen year-old boy. Above all else he was someone who always knew what he wanted to do with his life, and lived it without fear. This documentary, assembled in large part from Zappa's own film archive, is therefore intriguing even if you don't appreciate his output: with many celebrities, the life-story is got lucky, got rich, never did anything interesting again, but no-one could say this of Frank. Watching this (and hearing his rather odd creations) I marvelled that he ever made it out of obscurity: perhaps he didn't simply because others found him interesting. And yes, he really did call his daughter Moon Unit.

The North Water

Stuff happens
Based on a novel by Ian McGuire, 'The North Water' is set mostly in the icy wastes of Greenland, following the crew of 19th century whaling ship. It features Colin Farrell, unusually playing a monster, and Tom Courtney, Stephen Graham and Peter Mullan are also in the cast. Unrusprisingly, it's well acted, the production values are generally high, and there are moments of truly gripping horror. But overall I found the narrative uncompelling. Jack o'Connell's character is the central one, but while he experiences a lot, what's absent is his sense of personal journey, that would turn "stuff happens" into a truly satisfying story. I wonder if something has been lost from the source.

Four Hours at the Capitol

The Republic teeters
If, in a country of several hundred million, a few thousand fiercely dispute the legitimacy of the government, you might think the country isn't actually doing too badly. But a few thousand people, if sufficiently determined, can do a whole lot of damage. But orderly government is usually possible because the dissenters understand the futility of trying to force their way. But Donald Trump, an incumbent President who lost his re-election, proceded to tell his followers the election had been stolen and moreover, that they could do something about it. Eventually, some of them violently stormed the U. S. legislature. This documentary shows what happened. On one hand, it shows just a little of the context: we see Trump's last speach to the rioters, but not how he tried to persistently de-ligitimise the election result. We also get a lot of interviews with the rioters themselves, who are allowed to self-justify at excessive length. But we do also get a lot of film of the event, which shows clearly the true horror of what unfolded. However much the protesters claim to have simply been exerting their rights, it's clear that their actions, whatever their individual motivations, amounted in total to a full-on attack on the U. S. government. In the end, order was restored, but Trump was never held to account. And the worrying thing is that tyrants have throughout history seized power through the incitement of the mob. It's hard to avoid concluding that the modern Republican party has not decided to take the side of tyranny over democracy, which does not bode at all well for the future.

Un amour impossible

Strangely anaesthetised
In Catherine Corsini's drama 'An Impossible Love', a woman's life is shaped by her affair with an extremely selfish man. Later, he abuses their child. There should be a lot of good material here: about how society normalises male selfishness, and how we can blind ourselves to the unbearable truth and semi-consciously assist an abuser. However, the male character is so outrageous that any subtlety is lost, while the female protagonist cannot truly be blamed except for the stupidity of being in love - morally, she's unimpeachable. The result is a film that says rather less than it might have done. Meanwhile, the economic consequences of being abandoned as a single parent are basically ignored; overall, the film is surprisingly painless given its dark subject matter.

House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths

Am amazing case, a padded documentary
The self-hangings of eleven family members in Buratti, Delhi was a horrific and bizarre event: it seems that one family member had convinced the others that a dead ancestor was speaking through him, and that they would be divinely rescued as the final stage of the ritual that in fact took their lives. We'll never know to what extent the perpetrator was self-deluding or a cynical manipulator who took himself beyond his comfort level; what is clear is that everyone appeared normal to the outside world, even as they came to believe in a fatally absurd vision. The story would make for a great hour-long documentary; but there's not really enough here to justify three whole episodes, so we get a lot of shots of talking heads who are keen to speak but who have little that's necessary to add ("I saw them take the bodies out the building!" "I rescued the family dog!"). It's worth watching if you can bear the padding.

(D)evil's Throat: Djavolskoto Garlo

Interesting elements but transparently manipulative
Bulgarian crime drama 'The Devil's Throat' ticks many of the expected boxes: a lengthy twelve episodes a dramatic setting, a female savant-detective, a serial killer on the loose, a tricksy plot linking politics and crime, and a generous sountrack comprising not-particularly congruous western pop music. My guess is that the writers have definitely seen 'The Killing', among other precedents. The plot takes good advantage of the setting, a one-horse town where the male protagonist, the local detective, is the son of the local prosecutor and mayor-elect: although there are many red herrings on the way, its final resolution makes a fair degree of sense. Ultimately, what separates it from the best of the genre is that you can never quite escape the sense that everything is set up and manipulated. These days, long running series such as these are very much in vogue; but perhaps there is a taughter tale in here it would have been better to have told.

The Mother

Plausible but straightforward
In barest outline, the plot of 'The Mother' (woman sleeps with daughter's boyfriend) reminds one of 'The Graduate'. But this is a very different film, not a "comedy" about a sexual predator (there's a lot I could say about The Graduate's sexual politics, but that's off topic), but a more heartfelt story about mixed-up people, about things that happen and relationships that fall short of love. It's not implausable, but it is a little obvious, and isn't helped by some routine direction and scoring that telegraph what is happening a bit too clearly. Ultimately, one views the delusions of its characters more from the outside than from the in.


Gripping entertainment
Murder on a nuclear submarine is a form of locked room mystery that even Agatha Christie never came up with. The new BBC drama, 'Vigil', was made with the involvement of several of the people involved in 'Line of Duty' (including actor Marin Compston in a small role) and it's been produced with all the slick professionalsim you'd expect, keeping the viewer on the edge of their seat with the aid of a slightly overcooked storyline. Also as with 'Line of Duty', it's told in a compressed, efficient form: six thrilling episodes instead of an overlong epic. My only gripe is there isn't that much of a deeper point to the story: post cold-war, the Russian menace just isn't that compelling as the underlying driver of the plot. But unless you stop and think about it, it's such gripping entertainment that you don't really notice.


Bleak, but lacking narrative and context
We might all dream of growing old in a warm house, surrounded by loving families. But old, poor, unloved men have to go somewhere; and can be found the world over in sheds, allotment, or garages. The line between lovable eccentric and social failure may be a thin one. And 'Garage People' takes a tale of such folk with the added edge of being set in a town in the Russian arctic, a slowly dying industrial outpost (although oddly, the participants never appear that cold). The problem with this collection of oddball stories is that it's mostly just sad; indeed, several of the participatns are reported to have died since its filming, from old age, alocholism, or pollution. What we never learn is whether the people we see are social outcasts or typical of the world they inhabit; their lives without are shown mostly without context. A little more narrative would not have gone amiss.

A Killing in Tiger Bay

A travesty of justice
When Lynette White was murdered in Cardiff, there was some evidence pointing toawrds a white man as a killer; and many years later the suspect was found, and ultimately pled guilty in court. But in the meantime, the police arrested five random black men, concocted a story about a ritual killing, bullied a confession out of one of the accused, and ignored the evidence that another had thirteen abilis. Three of the five were convicted before being freed on appeal two years later; even those freed spent two years on remand. Watching this series about this sorry episode, what's shocking is not just that the justice system got it wrong, but the sheer preposterousness of the allegations. The centrality of racism to the story seems incontravertible; otherwise it makes no sense whatsoever, and the end of the programme makes it clear that the men have all had their lives badly damaged by what they went through. If you watch lots of police dramas where it seems impossible for the good cops to get a conviction, watch this and understand why protection for the accused is absolutely necessary.

Last Man Standing: Suge Knight and the Murders of Biggie & Tupac

An end to a road
Tupac Shakur was a politically-aware rapper, the son of a Black Panther. But he was murdered after falling into a misogynistic gang culture that consumed him in the final years of his life. A former friend and rival, Biggie Smalls, was murdered soon after in revenge. Nick Broomfield made a film about this; now he has revisited the subject, taking advantage of the fact that with record (and gang) boss Suge Knight now in prison, people are more willing to talk. The younger Broomfield tended to place himself at the centre of his own movies: he does this less now, and the result is (generally) better films. This one is basically a sad story of people with too much money thinking they can do anything they want, set against a backdrop of a community blighted by racism and poverty. There's also a side story about police corruption; this is (to me) less interesting, not because police corruption is good, but because I'm not convinced the end would have been any different without it. Many of those who lived the life, and survived, now come across as thoughtful and perceptive: but they participated in a culture so toxic that even its king pins could not emerge alive, a culture that itself was a reaction against a less severe, but broader, toxicity in American society that Tupac was originally protesting against.


Out of sight, out of mind
The worst of all the mistakes of the COVID pandemic was surely the decision, taken in the UK and elsewhere, to discharge sufferers directly from hospital into unprotected care homes. That's the kind interpretation: the worse one is that, either consciously or subconsciously, the powers that be decided to write off the lives of the victims, their new co-residents, and the care workers, in the vain hope that this might isolate the problem. Jack Thorne's excellent drama 'Help' captures what it must have been like to live through this epidemic of death. A strong cast and some telling writing make for harrowing viewing; the care home owner is a particularly interesting role, although the focus is very much on Jodie Comer's and Stephen Graham's characters. What we don't see is the story from the point of view of the most vulnerable themselves; instead, Graham plays a younger man with a different (but less immediately lethal) weakness. But it's powerful stuff, and the best drama I've yet seen about the coronavirus crisis.

The Man Putin Couldn't Kill

Law and lawlessness
Dictatorial strongmen like Valdimir Putin like to paint themselves as champions of law and order. Actually, their regimes are frequently charcterised more than anything else by general lawlessness. Putin has had opponents murdered even in Great Britain; last year, his goons tried to poison one Alexei Navalny, YouTuber turned poliitcian, in the Siberian city of Tomsk. It's a shocking story, and brave of Navalny to return to Russia, and predicatable imprisonment, even after the attempt on his life. Unusually for a Russian politician (and despite false accusations from Putin), he appears not to have a massive financial emprie of his own; but the film glosses over his past association with neo-Nazis a little too quickly for comfort. Nonetheless, it's hard to avoid concluding it would be good for Russia if he were to somehow replace Putin; but also hard to see that Putin would allow him to stay alive if he were seriously threatening to do so.


When your Best isn't Good Enough
I have seen 'Force Majeure' described as a comedy; but if so, it's an exceptionally black one, for it focuses on a dark question: what if our best isn't good enough, and our conscious efforts count for little when set against our instincts? None of the characters in this film are bad people; but whether they can make each other happy remains unresolved even at the movie's ambiguous ending. It's cleverly plotted, and makes skilful use of its secondary characters. But the final message is bleak: perhaps the most we can do is acknowlege that in a deep way, we're all really alone.


Deserves its classic status
Watching Brian de Palma's celebrated horror 'Carrie' one can't but help noting that it's dated, by its special effects (actually, not a problem), by it's film making techniques more generally, and also by the director's judgement of what passed for mainsteam-acceptable titilation in the 1970s. But there's also a lot going on in the (Stephen King-penned) plot: its poor eponymous heroine is caught between puberty, bullying classmates, a tyranical, evangelical mother and her own growing powers of telekenesis, which, it's ultimately suggested, are the results of demonic posession (or maybe even possession by Jesus!). In fact, the plot and pacing of the film are excellently managed, preparing the audience for the moment when all hell (quite literally) breaks loose. Carrie's own helplessness in the face of both her own power, and the cruelty of others, is well-conveyed. By the standards of modern excess, this movie is not exactly shocking; but the air of menace is pervasive throughout. I'm not a huge fan of the horror genre in general; but it's not hard to understand this film's classic status.

Before the Flood

A solid call to action
It may seem a depressing sign of the times that one of the ways the United Nations hopes to combat climate change is to ask Leonardo di Caprio to travel the world observing (and, in a small way, causing it!). But his film about his experiences is a solid affair, covering the material with a balance of gloom and hope. Some of his interviewees are a bit off: bitcoin advocate and self-promoter Elon Musk, and Greg Mankiw, an economist who is a consistent supporter of the climate-change denying Republican party. On the other hand, he also speaks with Piers Sellars, a climate scientist with a terminal illness, who I found the most inspiring of interviewees. The film was made in 2016, but perhaps the most telling point comes where he asks then President Barack Obama: what if someone is elected after you who denies that this is happening? What indeed....

El Agente Topo

Better than its premise
This is a curious movie: an old man goes undercover in a care home to investigate allegations of abuse, but at the same time, the makers of this film negotiated with the home to make a documentary movie about them. Was the care home likely to agree to the latter if they were really so terrible? And there's little drama in the agent's undercover reporting, as a TV crew is following him around as he does it. In this sense, the film never escapes the feeling of being set up, and unsurprisingly, we don't uncover any great wrongdoing. What we do see are some sad, sweet, and very human stories about the last phase of life. It's not a bad film per se; but it might have worked better as a straightforward fly-on-the-wall style documentary.

Le temps est assassin

Glamorous but silly
French television seems very keen on glamourous murder-dramas set in its beautiful south (or at least, they're the sort of dramas that are often shown in the UK). If you've got, flaunt it, I guess, although it makes me smile to recall the 1980s BBC soap opera 'Howard's Way' that tried to project glamour while set on the English south coast. But while 'Time is a Killer' may be glamorous, it's hard to call it good, with a preposterous plot that ultimately turns upon a woman who has been kept imprisoned for 20 years just happening to work out how to escape literally moments before the cavalry comes to rescue her. Forget the murders, and it's just lifestyle porn. Even the presence is the cast of two veterans of the excellent 'Spiral' can't save it; watch that for a (very unglamorous) look at how murder stories should really be told.

La paranza dei bambini

The view fron the ground up
Roberto Saviano, author of 'Gomorrah', the definitive book on the Neapolitan mafia, and contributor to previous films and television series, is one of the writers of Claudio Giovennesi's film 'Piranhas'. The film's distinguishing feature it that it focuses not on the godfathers at the top of the organisation, but on the kids who get sucked into the mafia life. It's believable and doesn't glamourise the world at all, but as a movie, it lacks a certain drama, perhaps because of how what goes wrong feels both inevitable and accidental at the same time. I'd still recommend watching it, but the ending underwhelms. Maybe you need a touch of the grand operatic style that characterised 'The Godfather', and indeed the television series of 'Gomorrah', to truly pack that dramatic punch.

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