In the second installment
of our year-end review,
guide us through
a (half-) year
at the multiplex.
The surprise of 2021. A gaggle of hitmen and their target descend on an isolated police station to wreak havoc over the course of a single night. We expected another of the by-the-numbers B-action romps that Gerard Butler churns out on a bi-monthly basis (Law Abiding Citizen Has Fallen in a Den of Thieves). But this is a smart, fun, single-location siege film in the mould of Peckinpah, Hill or Carpenter.
While not in the same league as Assault on Precinct 13, it’s refreshing to see a mid-budget film retain its cult sensibilities in the modern landscape – props to the enjoyable inconsistency of Joe Carnahan, whose patchy filmography usually entertains, occasionally amazes (Narc and The Grey), and, most importantly, seldom bores. JE & FW
Look over here, Brexit Club! Johannes Dane-bloke can also get the beers in – lads lads lads! This affecting work is a fantastic embodiment of the duality of the grog – as Homer Simpson famously toasts, “Here’s to alcohol: The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems”. That’s exactly the note this draught hits as teacher Mads Mikkelsen and his three faculty chums conclude that being just a bit tipsy the entire waking day might be for the best – but of course, the hangover awaits. By turns as uplifting, amusing and depressing as a day-long pub crawl, Another Round is blessed with a dizzying, joyful, lingering, melancholy ending, the best final five minutes of a film that I’ve seen in a long time. JE
Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings
(Destin Daniel Cretton)
This one had plenty going for it. First off, it’s nice to see a Marvel film that can be enjoyed without an intimate acquaintance with the other thousand hours of MCU dreck. Secondly, no matter the delivery system and regardless of the superficial packaging, a kung-fu flick with a big, big budget is absolutely welcome. Thirdly, any fat payday coming in for Tony Leung gets ten of my hard-earned. I could even stomach the now obligatory Awkwafina.
But what really made this film shine was the reappearance of Ben Kingsley as Trevor Slattery, the deadpan thespian from Iron Man Three. Amazingly, he even gets to repeat one of his own lines from Sexy Beast, an incredibly niche homage that perhaps 0.01% of the film’s audience will pick up on but that had me grinning in my seat. JE
(M. Night Shyamalan)
For all the flak Shyamalan gets, there is no other auteur still allowed to make original, mid-budget B-movies on his own terms and whose results are more often than not silly but enjoyable and astoundingly profitable. Old managed 90 million from a production budget of 18, while The Visit, Glass and Split cost a combined 34 million and took more than 600 million. M. Night didn’t prove to be Spielberg or Hitchcock but at his best – or possibly at our kindest – he recalls the seriousness and patience and technical elan of Clayton, Tourneur and perhaps even Carpenter.
Schlock is the name of the game here, complete with skeleton limbs and Rufus Sewell doing his usual arch dandy routine – a CG-rendered Vincent Price would have served a similar purpose – and as with any credible horror-thriller there’s time, too, to raise philosophical concerns around ageing and our societal repulsion of it. As ever with Shyamalan, no complaints for a Saturday night. FW
Judas and the Black Messiah
Chicago, 1968. Stool pigeon William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) vs revolutionary leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) – who will win the Battle of the Sad Eyes? Of course, both are dependably excellent, as is Jesse Plemons as doughy, exploitative FBI agent Roy Mitchell. All three wring every drop of pathos from this gripping real-life tragedy. JE
Sound of Metal
Another contender for saddest eyes in cinema, Riz Ahmed plays a heavy metal drummer coming to terms with hearing loss. Released in the UK around the same time as Nomadland, both films deploy the same arthouse tricks (extensive found-location shooting and non-actors in supporting roles) but The Place Beyond the Pines scripter Darius Marder succeeds where Chloe Zhao’s risible Andrea Arnold clone didn’t. Metal is a meditative rumination on relationships, health, human migration and acceptance, and one of the year’s triumphs (no matter whether the year is 2019, 2020 or 2021!) JE
I can only imagine it was hubris, overweening pride, that led the indisputably great Clint Eastwood to completely ruin what could have been an interesting modern Western by casting himself not only punching cowpokes, batting back amorous senoritas and breaking in palominos, but also, you know, reacting, expressing, moving, ‘acting’ in any way, really, aged – come on! – 90. He is, with no exaggeration, at least 30 years too old for this role. Co-star Eduardo Minet is wooden and unconvincing, and even the usually excellent Dwight Yoakam doesn’t know what he’s doing here and would clearly rather be somewhere else.
Strewn with stilted dialogue and plot holes large enough to drive a stairlift through, this is a jaw-dropping mess and a misfire on nearly every level. And yet… it is still strangely enjoyable, in a Troy McClure, matinee, rainy day kind of way. And Clint’s age and frailty in of itself give the film a rare elegiac quality that is so lacking in Hollywood – you genuinely know for a fact that he is far too old for this shit, but here he is, still desperate to rope, throw and, indeed, brand ‘em, all in the name of entertainment. I sincerely hope he has one or two more gigs left in him, behind or in front of the camera – for this to be his epitaph would be a genuine tragedy. JE
We’ve seen the royals as prigs, victims, bullies and fools, but rarely do we see them as ghouls. Pablo Larrain’s visually gorgeous Spencer has so many nods to Kubrick’s The Shining and Barry Lyndon that you expect Philip Stone to wander into frame at any moment. Serving the almost-mute Firm are a group of below-stairs forelock-tuggers led by the smarmy, solicitous Major Gregory (Tim Spall as Delbert Grady, right down to the tuxedo and pronounced enunciation), hardy handmaid Maggie (Sally Hawkins), and chef Darren (Sean Harris, possibly a bit uncomfortable not assaying a twitchy psychopath).
K-Stew is fantastic as Diana, immersing herself in a tricky role without resorting to head-tilting cliches. Larrain, who directed the little-seen, excellently creepy Tony Manero and the similarly themed famous-lady-in-peril Jackie, occasionally lets artiness get in the way of the minor detail of a “plot”, but this was still an absorbing visual delight. JE
The French Dispatch
Though it’s disappointing that Wes Anderson continues to show little intention to progress as a filmmaker while, for instance, peer and former collaborator Noah Baumbach goes from strength (While We’re Young) to strength (Marriage Story), Anderson’s films since the highwater mark of The Royal Tenenbaums certainly aren’t bad and are mostly very good (if, you know, intolerable).
Though it’s disappointing that Bill Murray – who for 15 years showed such beautiful range across Stripes, Little Shop of Horrors, Quick Change (!!!), What About Bob?, Groundhog Day, Ed Wood, Kingpin – has now spent his entire fifties and sixties thanklessly sad-sacking for Anderson, it should be noted that no-one else is putting Murray to better use, not even old friends like Mitch Glazer and Sofia.
So, then, ultimately, I am turned off by the profligacy.
I reserve the right to come away from the latest Wes Anderson release a little bit irritated by the decadence. That while I welcome anything that keeps Adrien Brody’s lights on, or provides such marvelous time spent with Jeffrey Wright and Tilda Swinton (both brilliant), surely retaining the services of Willem Dafoe, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan and, for pity’s sake, Elisabeth Moss as set dressing, surely casting those talents and doing nothing with them, is a first-world, fast-fashion, late-capitalism, navelgazing-over-pronouns-while-the-climate-burns obscenity. Too much, now. FW
A horror about an African-American bogeyman avenger that kills only mean old whites is pretty bold, especially considering the source material was written by a Caucasian Liverpudlian and set on a Midlands council estate, and the original film was brought to the screen by a London Jew. How’s that for cultural appropriation?
A neat device moves the conceit away from a single Candyman to instead present a series of wronged Candymen created throughout history. But lazy swipes at the prickly issue of gentrification and the half-hearted look at the fascinating true history of Chicago’s Cabrini-Green are good opportunities wasted. And then there’s the strange, retrograde decision to change the protagonist to a man, when Virginia Madsen’s strong female lead was so successful in Bernard Rose’s 1992 original. I couldn’t help but wonder what this film would’ve looked like under, say, the Hughes Brothers or Mario Van Peebles.
(One last thing) – what is this novel Hollywood vogue of naming the sequel after the original film? Candyman, Scream, (The) Fast and (The) Furious, (The) Suicide Squad – totally unnecessary and confusing. Are they hoping to trick people into thinking they are buying tickets for usually better earlier films? JE
The casting of Bob Odenkirk and a campy Russian villain suggested this was to be a send-up of the lucrative old bloke action canon, the current veterans league of Washington (66), Neeson (69) and Stallone (75!) recalling how iconic tough guys Lee van Cleef and Charles Bronson plodded through the 1980s. But in execution, Nobody seems to want to join their ranks.
It has some great set-pieces, and who doesn’t love Bob – he put his heart into this to the extent that it genuinely stopped soon after the filming. But is anyone else just a little tired of ‘gun-fu’? Much like the decades-late ascendance of ‘EDM’, wherein Americans took properly decent global dance music culture and made it as shit as possible for everyone, 35 years on from A Better Tomorrow the Yanks have finally caught up to Hong Kong’s righteous concept of ‘heroic bloodshed’ and are now driving it into the fucking ground with endless John Wick-alikes. Nobody was doubtlessly entertaining, but even after a final act warehouse last stand featuring, yes, Bob, Christopher Lloyd and the RZA, I was still left wanting a bit more. JE
Writer-director and Blumhouse favourite Landon mixed Groundhog Day with Friday the 13th to moderate success with 2017’s Happy Death Day, and here bolts slasher movie to the ‘80s body swap comedy. Where next, Chris? Slasher-meets-Nollywood? Slasher-meets-The Western? Slasher-meets-Merchant-Ivory?
On the strength of Freaky we’ll be back for all of them, because this is more slick fun. Vince Vaughn plays a teenage girl trapped in a hulking serial killer’s body with surprising subtlety, and much less high camp than expected. Alan Ruck cameos well, and all told the picture comes across as both a warm homage to the Hughes/Deutch/Columbus teen films of yore (right down to the scene-stealing, smart-mouthed best friends) and a funny comedy in its own right. JE & FW
The Last Duel
Ridley Scott blamed “Millennials!” for the poor box office on this one, without realising most millennials, such as myself, are now nearing 40 and have the same limited understanding of Tik Tok and drill that ol’ Ridley does. I’d wager The Last Duel didn’t do well for the same reason that Kingdom of Heaven, Robin Hood and Exodus: Gods and Kings all tanked – maybe, Ridley, just maybe, people don’t like epics as much as you do.
The film’s multi-perspective narrative, while done better in everything from Rashomon to Living in Oblivion, is still a neat device, and keeps us on our toes. The central trio of Jodie Comer, Matt Damon and Adam Driver do a great job of subtly changing their performances as each perspective is called to the stand. Poor sad Batfleck is, thank God, for once having tons of fun as a medieval playboy. And the long-promised duel itself is a thrilling, bruising treat that had me wincing in the dark of the cinema. JE
(Reinaldo Marcus Green)
Will Smith, because of his innate Will Smithness, has been Will Smith in so many films now, you can be forgiven for forgetting that he does have chops in the acting department when the role is right. Regrettably, since Six Degrees of Separation in 1993, the role has been right about twice, so here it’s no surprise to detect genuine relief in the man as he finds the nuanced layers of this part and digs in.
Big Willie plays the divisive father of Serena and Venus Williams, and while this film, produced by the sisters, is certainly sugar-coated (there is only one passing mention of the children from his first marriage who he abandoned to a life of poverty and hardship), at least not all the rough edges have been sanded down.
What to make of a man who turned his own daughters into trophy-winning tennis automatrixes for the sake of his own glorification? This film errs on the side of a fist-pumping celebration of triumph over adversity, and is all the more entertaining for it. Smith does a good job of showing us glimpses of Williams’s bloody-minded and overbearing sides, in between the usual feel-good sport montages. An interesting tale, worth telling and told well. JE
Rocky IV: Rocky vs. Drago
– The Ultimate Director’s Cut
Prioritising a pint in the Bricklayers before the screening at the Prince Charles, homeboy and I knew we’d miss the entire 10 minutes of adverts, knew we’d miss probably the entire 10 minutes of trailers, and knew we might possibly even miss the start of the movie. We eventually turned up at least five minutes into the film proper – and it was still just the (now extended!) recap from Rocky III. FW
Oh, the irony – Reminiscence is the most forgettable film of the year. Paycheck but with even less charm. Not just sub-Nolan (authored by his brother’s wife) but sub-sub-Nolan (that means worse than Transcendence!) po-faced, plodding, pseudo-intellectual claptrap, poorly acted, poorly directed, poorly written, poorly produced. Awful. JE
Anthony Hopkins here showing Clint Eastwood the sort of roles an ageing actor should be playing. Hopkins puts in an unusually restrained performance, far from the pantomime dame theatrics he often musters so tiresomely for the Hannibal film series.
This employs some great sleight of hand in design and casting, especially with the at-times interchangeable roles of the two Olivias, Colman and Williams. You don’t have to have dementia to get those two mixed up, but it helps!
Like many filmed plays – Polanski’s 2011 version of Carnage springs to mind – at times it suffers from being too stationary, but the claustrophobia eventually pays dividends when all sorts of strange people start popping up, including the wonderfully creepy Mark Gatiss, in full League of Gentlemen mode. Touching and insightful. JE
The Croods: A New Age
Possibly the funniest film we saw at the cinema this year.
..maybe second-funniest. JE & FW
Read Part 1 of our year in review for Luke Littleboy‘s analysis of No Time to Die and Ghostbusters: Afterlife.
And in Part 3, Fletcher Walton delves into the detail of our film of the year.