Reviews

Review – Don’t Worry Darling

I want to take you back to a simpler time; 2019. It was an amazing year for films and sent two stars into the stratosphere of success. One of them was actor turned first time director Olivia Wilde, who directed Booksmart, one of my favourite coming of age comedies. The other was Florence Pugh. Having previously impressed in Outlaw King, The Little Drummer Girl and Lady Macbeth, she spent 2019 releasing three films in which she delivered yet more incredible performances. After the streak of Fighting With My Family, Midsommar and Little Women (for which she became Academy Award nominee Florence Pugh), how could you not be ecstatic about what she was going to do next?

As it turns out, what came next was a collaboration between the two, a collaboration I was obviously immediately excited for. The form it was going to take was a thriller called Don’t Worry Darling, based on an existing screenplay that Wilde’s Booksmart co-writer Katie Silberman was to tinker with to better fit their sensibilities. So sure, we’re leaving the zone of comedy that Wilde proved so profficient in, but I was cautiously optimistic. I just had to sit put and wait for my trust in these two creative forces to be rewarded. So I did. I waited. And waited. And tried to ignore the stuff that started to come out. Rumours of rifts on set. Of affairs with pop star co-leads. The rumours grew faster and more furious, from (alleged) shouting matches to (alleged) spitting contests, putting more and more cracks in my faith. It was as if I was being taunted by Hollywood, the title itself staring back at me and daring me to still believe. Don’t worry, darling. Everything will turn out all right.

And so now Don’t Worry Darling is here. It actually exists, you can actually go see it in the cinema. But I haven’t told you what it is yet, or if it’s any good. So let’s do that. Our story is one that feels very familiar. Alice is a housewife living in a picture perfect fifties suburbia, being a docile housewife to Jack. In the morning, Jack goes off to work at “the Victory Project”, while Alice stays at home cooking, cleaning and chatting with the other housewives. Everyone is pretty happy with their lot, but told not to question what the men do at work. We, as the audience, have alarm bells ringing at this immediately. Alice takes a little longer to twig that actually, maybe, everything in Victory isn’t virtually perfect.

But that brings me to my first big issue with Darling, which is the structure. The first five minutes paint a very content picture of domesticity, until Alice realises that something here isn’t right. We spend THE REST OF THE MOVIE in this state of not-rightness, which gets exhausting at the length the film insists on. As the audience, we’re expecting this world to not be as it seems. Once Alice is also onboard, we’re ready to discover what is going down, but we are given almost no hints towards the true purpose of Victory until the very moment where the rug is rudely pulled out from under us. I have plenty to say about what is hidden under that rug, but we’ll save that for a little bit later. The point is, there needs to be a sense of escalation and its absence makes the majority of the film feel aimless. We’re just sitting here, waiting, hoping that soon Alice will find the thing that reboots the momentum of this film into something tastily watchable.

Speaking of tasty and watchable, it’s a very hot cast that Wilde has gathered here! But can they act? Hmm. Well. Tricky question that. I’m going to start by saying that for the most part, the cast are all doing solid work here. Throughout the film there are moments or casting choices that feel a little like missteps, but those are generally justified retroactively by things that are being hidden from us. For example, Nick Kroll feels like a bit of a rogue choice to play a charming fifties househusband, and his performance confirms that feeling. There are some moments where he shouts that are the wrong side of funny (God, we’re really skating around spoilers here) and then there are some moments where the charm he’s meant to ooze is just… Not quite there? It’s not a bad performance per se, just one that needs the justification that the end is going to deliver. Similarly hard done by the twist are basically all the female performers. Whether it’s Gemma Chan or Kate Berlant, the wives of Victory feel slightly too hollow. And again, from the outset, it’s clear that something isn’t right. We can tell that they are not as they should be, but it doesn’t justify these women occupying the role of hollow Fabergé eggs. Unlike the men of this world though, the twist doesn’t quite redeem their performances. You can feel these talented actors pushing at the seams to let their talent flow freely, but not quite reaching it. Ironically, the men are all justified by the awful end, the women are left in the lurch.

Still, there are three main performances I want to focus on. First, and probably most notable, is Harry Styles. You are probably familiar with Harry Styles, probably not as an actor though. There is a reason for this, which is that he isn’t a great actor. Is he as bad as I expected? No. That viral clip of him shouting really is as bad as his performance gets, the rest of the time IT IS FINE! And yet, he is the draw for the film. To be honest, I have very little to add to the discourse on him. Plenty of better actors could have done great with this role, but he is fine and is bringing people in. I think Styles especially struggles though when compared to the good performers around him, because they are so particularly talented. Chris Pine (a very underrated Chris) is great in the role of the leader of Victory. The role itself is not that interesting, but he does what he can with it, being charismatic and just a little dangerous. He has a tasty little dinner scene, you’ll know it when you see it, it’s a treat of OTT slimebag acting. You all know who I think the best actor in this film is though, it’s obviously Florence Pugh. She is my wife, I love her and those close to me are willing to forgive me if I someday drop everything to follow her around the globe. She is a damn great actor and while she’s so much better when the material is good (see Little Women), she can still elevate pretty crappy material. That’s what this situation is. As Alice, Pugh is always completely believable and empathetic, even when the narrative is not, and she is the thing about Darling that I can most enthusiastically praise. Pugh never does no wrong, we love her! All of us! No exceptions, total adoration!

I’m gonna dip into spoilers soon but before we do, some loose technical praise! My big problems with this film are structural and narrative based, so there’s actually a lot else that I do like. The look of the film has to be convincing to sell the later subversion and it is! Matthew Libatique does the cinematography and you get that sense of beautiful chaos that he lends to Darren Aronofsky’s films, but more composed than usual (apart from the moments where it isn’t composed, obviously). I’m also a big fan of the score from John Powell. There are a lot of tortured voices polluting and permeating the soundscape and that works for me. Music that sounds weird is my thing, sue me. Honestly, whenever I praise specific technical elements, I find myself a bit at a loss for who to praise. Do I praise production design, costume design or cinematography for this specific look? As someone who has never made a film, it’s tough to know, but I think I can just say across the board, good job! If you worked on this film, a film made during the heat of the COVID-19 pandemic, you did a great job just to successfully make the film. The fact that it looks or sounds good is a miracle. Well done, sincerely.

This is the spoiler paragraph. If you don’t want spoilers, just skip it! But this film has been out almost a month, and I just have to talk about the insane and frustrating ending. Essentially, it turns out that the thing that’s going on is that we’re not in the real world, but a virtual world in which all the women are subservient captives and the men get to keep living their outside lives. It’s an incel thing, they’re upset that they don’t get enough attention from the women in their lives, so they kidnap them and put them into a world where they have no choice but to love them. Again, I knew that there would be something up, but the moment where this got revealed caused me to audibly mutter “oh no”. It makes no sense, compared to a version of this story where it’s all in Alice’s head, or one where we are in a real cult-like setting out in the desert. All the unexplained bits in this scenario are I guess glitches in the computer? That answer isn’t satisfying, but something has to try and fill the logic hole. It’s never explained, because the twist comes too late in the film to get any accompanying explanation aside from a handful of throwaway lines, which include my favourite line from the whole film, “when a man dies in here, he also dies in the real world”. Mainly, I think I hate this as a twist because it feels unnecessary. Why add that digital aspect unless you want to cheaply update this kind of narrative for the 21st century? Oh! It’s exactly because it’s a cheap and easy way to make your story feel relevant, because the villain is a podcast host. I hate it, but I’m almost tired of hating it now. Almost.

So it isn’t very good! I find the Don’t Worry Darling experience frustrating because it’s not without merit, but it is so essentially hobbled. The core of what this film is is broken. That means that no matter how pretty it looks, no matter how delightfully dense the soundscape is, even no matter how great Florence Pugh is, the film sinks. Once that twist hits, I defy you to start defending this mess. And yet it’s not even the worst film I’ve seen this year! Not even close! Not even the worst film of the month! I just think that it’s broken in interesting ways, which I’ve enjoyed discussing with friends and coworkers. So if you’re still tempted, sure! Go see it! You will have loads of things to talk about, which you might not get from a better movie like Mrs Harris Goes to Paris. But also, you should watch Mrs Harris Goes to Paris while you’re at the cinema. A tasty double bill, as a treat. Something sweet to wash away the taste of disappointment that Don’t Worry Darling still leaves me with.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

Thank you all for bearing with me, as I crawl out of my accidental hiatus. I’ve just been very busy and not able to control my time quite as well as before, plus I’m doing more hours than ever at my work. I still enjoy writing but I struggle to both make the time and to get myself excited enough to write about anything. As such, some projects have fallen to the side. There was the second Twin Peaks: The Return post, a post about Kurt Vonnegut in film and something about Robert Eggers’ films, all of which may one day manifest themselves fully. But really, I will just continue to write the stuff that I’m passionate about. I’d like to do more pitching and paid writing, though again that’s about seizing the moment and writing the right thing at the right time. Thank you again for all still reading these. When someone sends me a message or says to me in person that they like my writing, it makes my day. It’s the motivation that keeps me writing and I’m genuinely fine about very few people reading my words, because what matters is when one of those people (one of you guys) enjoys my silly little ramblings.

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Features

Oscars 2022 Predictions

Oscar week is here and if you’re anything like me, it snuck up on you! This year I was really hoping to do a big old write up of all sorts of categories, but I am running up against quite a few deadlines and still trying to do the obligations that no one expects from me but me. So here we are! Six big categories to run through, my amateur opinion to run through them with. As ever, I am not responsible for you using my advice in any sweepstakes you may be involved in, especially because my own predictions have changed since I submitted my predictions at my work sweepstakes. But this is all a bit of fun, awards are pointless and nothing matters, especially because Belfast will win and ruin any good will I had for the ceremony. So hell to it, let’s predict wildly! And while we’re at it, let’s lament those potential better winners! Oscars!

Best Supporting Actress

Will Win: Kirsten Dunst for The Power of the Dog

Should Win: Jessie Buckley for The Lost Daughter

Setting the trend early, the Best Supporting Actress category is filled with some incredibly worthy nominees and some that, while not necessarily bad, feel puzzling. Chief of these examples is Judi Dench for Belfast. Dench is a filler vote, someone for voters to choose because they know who she is and not because she actually gave one of the five best supporting performances of the year. There was room for so many other incredible nominees to break through, but instead Dench’s wobbly accent and Cats-PTSD inducing monologue made it. She’s a great actor, but that doesn’t mean all of her performances deserve recognition. I also don’t feel strongly about Aunjanue Ellis in King Richard, though that may be because the film itself leaves me so cold. She has one great monologue in a kitchen, it will be the clip they show at the ceremony, I don’t want to besmirch a performance from a film I barely remember.

Now we get to three amazing performances from three actors who I think may stand a chance at taking the trophy. Ariana DeBose seems to be the bookies favourite at the moment, for her joyous performance as Anita in West Side Story. She was a totally new actor to me when I saw the film, but her and (the cruelly snubbed) Mike Faist have been my strongest impressions since seeing West. DeBose completely lit up the screen and has frankly earnt her place here for the “America” number alone. Something in my gut though says that Kirsten Dunst will pip her to the post, for The Power of the Dog. I feel like I am way overestimating the winning power of the Dog (classic me, betting on losing dogs), but this feels like the right time for Dunst. After decades in the industry, she has finally secured her first Oscar nomination and it’s for a great role. What should be the cliched “housewife turns to substance abuse” type role is lent a delicate fading of hope by Dunst, in what is my favourite turn from her since Fargo. Speaking of Fargo, the season four star Jessie Buckley is my favourite performer of the bunch for her work in The Lost Daughter. I think Buckley is one of the greatest working actors today and she finally gets Oscar recognition for a character who has to be understandable to the audience despite also making irrational and unlikable decisions. Despite being unlikable though, there is something in Buckley that draws us deep into the character and her work lends the film an anchor from which Colman can work in the present day sections. Her win here seems unlikely, but I can live with that because Buckley will almost certainly be back again to pick up that trophy some other year.

Best Supporting Actor

Will Win: Troy Kotsur for CODA

Should Win: Kodi Smit-McPhee for The Power of the Dog

This is a weird category, in that I think that every actor in the category is a really great actor, but not all are giving particularly great performances in their nominated films. Case in point, Ciarán Hinds for Belfast. Hinds is an actor who has had a wide and brilliant career, even giving good performances in delightful trash like Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. However, he is in Belfast. We’ll talk more about the film itself later, but his role is kind of thankless, just off to the side. I guess he’s one of the best things in the film, but that is low praise. Similarly, Being the Ricardos is a bad movie, yet the brilliant J.K. Simmons is in it. He got nominated because his character appears one note and yet opens up to show another side. But also, he’s incredibly watchable, because he’s an actor who can string bronze out of hay. Again, he is one of the best parts of a film that is not good.

The other three actors however are all very worthy nominees for the roles they’ve played. Two of those three are from The Power of the Dog. Jesse Plemons has never given a performance I didn’t like and this is no exception. He’s a great counter balance to Cumberbatch’s lead, offering a genuine loveliness. One line delivery from him properly warmed my heart, in ways you wouldn’t expect from a film like this. Also not being what is expected is Kodi Smit-McPhee, an actor who has never wowed me but has a knack for choosing films I like (one day Dawn of the Planet of the Apes will get the acclaim it deserves). In Power, his character is a coiled spring, slowly unravelling until he pops. It’s a treat to watch and his performance is my favourite one of this category. For a while, Smit-McPhee was the frontrunner but at the last minute, it seems like Troy Kotsur will take it for CODA. This is no crime. CODA is not a film I am crazy on, but Kotsur is absolutely brilliant. His brutish presence hides a softness and while it’s hardly a big secret, it’s one that made me smile to see appear. He is funny and gross and has the biggest emotional moments of the whole film. If CODA deserves recognition for anything, it’s for Troy Kotsur.

Best Actress

Will Win: Nicole Kidman for Being the Ricardos

Should Win: Olivia Colman for The Lost Daughter

I am not exactly enamoured with this field of nominees. Again, it’s a selection of very talented actors but absent of any career best roles. I will get it out of the way now, I haven’t seen The Eyes of Tammy Faye, so have no idea if Jessica Chastain is any good in it. She wears a lot of prosthetics, plays a real person and has been playing the awards season game well. I have a manager who thinks she’ll take the prize but I’m doubtful personally. I’m also going to be controversial, I don’t think Kristen Stewart is that great in Spencer. It hurts me to say that because the film has not seen the love it deserves, but I found Stewart’s performance (the sole Oscar nomination for the film) alienating in all the wrong ways. She has also not been getting much recognition this season, so I don’t think a win is on the cards, but her performance of Diana is one that will attract many voters regardless. Penelope Cruz is deserving of her place here though, for great work in Parallel Mothers. The film is a rollercoaster of melodramatic emotions and without someone to latch onto, many audiences would feel lost. Cruz is exactly that figure though, someone who the audience can latch onto with ease. There is something about her in Spanish speaking roles where she suddenly is an amazing actress (especially her collaborations with Almodovar), which is a trend Parallel Mothers thankfully falls into.

It is a toss up about who my favourite actress of the race is, between Cruz and Olivia Colman in The Lost Daughter, but I think I settle on Colman. She plays the same character as Jessie Buckley (talked about a little earlier up the page), yet does so in a way that feels totally unique. I think it’s a credit to the two actors to say that they make the same character feel totally separate and of course, Colman brings her best with her interpretation. She bubbles under the surface, being hard to read and yet paradoxically never too hard to understand. She’s not as great as in The Favourite, but she’s still the best of this bunch. Unfortunately though, I have a gut feeling that Nicole Kidman will win for Being the Ricardos. I can’t put into words why I think she’ll win, but I just feel it. That’s a special shame because her performance is terrible and exactly the kind of performance I hate. She plays an existing (and beloved) figure, looks unrecognisable and has multiple showy monologues. It hits you over the head with capital a Acting and I never believed it for a second. Yet I still feel like it’s where the Academy will lean. Let that show you how low my estimations of that strange little group are.

Best Actor

Will Win: Will Smith for King Richard

Should Win: Benedict Cumberbatch for The Power of the Dog

In most years, the Best Actress category is the one with the performances I like the best whereas Best Actor is just men being gruff and playing historical figures. In a move of progressiveness though, this year the Best Actress category is uninteresting and Best Actor is full of some genuine gold. Not among that genuine gold is Javier Bardem for Being the Ricardos. Again, I don’t like this film and its reliance on big Acting, that abandons subtlety or grace for long monologues about old actors. I’m happy Bardem is getting a chance to play roles other than weird bad guys, but this is not the direction I want him to move in. We’ll brush over this briefly, I have not seen The Tragedy of Macbeth yet. I’ll try and see it before the actual ceremony but it has me intrigued. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to have captured the attention of the Academy, as Denzel Washington is one of very few nominations for the film. I wish him luck, but he’s another actor who is here so often that a loss won’t be a big blow.

Big three time. Isn’t Andrew Garfield great? Just, in everything. He’s done stuff I liked more than Tick Tick Boom but this remains an impressive display of his talent. It is literally all singing, all dancing and so while it’s showy, what it shows is that Garfield is very talented indeed. He’d be a great outsider winner. That almost certainly won’t happen though, as one of these two gentlemen will take it. Current favourite is Will Smith for King Richard. I don’t like this film and I’m also not crazy on Smith as an actor (apologies to anyone offended). This is certainly some of his best work, but from me that’s low praise. But, he’s overdue an Oscar, maybe this is his year, before I Am Legend 2 or Bright 2 obliterates the actors existing good will. I’d personally go with the early frontrunner Benedict Cumberbatch for The Power of the Dog. He’s an actor who I’ve liked before but never been that crazy on, yet in this role I was totally absorbed by him. His character has this rough exterior and it fades through the film, allowing you to glimpse through at the layers crafted underneath. I have no doubts that another watch would reveal even more to this great performance, but I’ll just appreciate it this much for now.

Best Director

Will Win: Jane Campion for The Power of the Dog

Should Win: Ryûsuke Hamaguchi for Drive My Car

I wouldn’t always talk about Best Director in my Oscar predictions, but this year I feel like there’s actually decent reason to discuss this category as well as Best Picture. As ever, I should clarify that as an observer it’s always hard to break down what makes a great director, but I’ll do my best to justify why these directors do or don’t stand a chance in the running. We’ll start with everyone’s favourite menace to society Kenneth Branagh, nominated for Belfast. He is nominated alongside four complete titans in the field and for a film that feels almost accidentally made. The only reason he could win is because it does feel very much like a personal film from him, but I wouldn’t write that acceptance speech if I were Ken. Similarly, a win for Steven Spielberg seems unlikely, despite him being Steven Spielberg. Don’t get me wrong, West Side Story is a cracking little film, but it has been very underseen and is Spielberg being the usual brilliant Spielberg. He’s great, but that’s no surprise. Similarly low in the odds for running is Paul Thomas Anderson for Licorice Pizza. It’s a film that has been really well loved by many and one that demonstrates the trademark attention to detail that PTA brings to all of his films. However, it feels like a lot of the hype has died down, we’ll see how well it does at the actual ceremony.

All but guaranteed to walk away with Best Director is Jane Campion for The Power of the Dog. There’s a lot of cynical reasons for this. Her name has been front and centre for the marketing of the film, it’s a way of celebrating a Netflix film without letting it win Best Picture and it looks progressive having a woman win Best Director two years in a row. There is also an uncynical reason for Campion winning and that is that she has crafted a brilliant film. She has wrangled in top tier editing, cinematography and performances, all in a film that feels incredibly controlled. It’s hard as an outsider to know what else to credit directors for other than that. However, Campion is not my choice. Instead, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi is my choice for the miraculous Drive My Car. Like Campion’s film, control is the word. This film is three hours long, yet somehow feels perfectly balanced. The longer a film is, the more it has to justify every minute and yet justify Hamaguchi does. I would not cut a single scene. I love Drive My Car and am backing it in every race this year, but this is one category where its loss would not feel a tragedy. Four titans (and one Branagh) enter the thunderdome, only one can leave.

Best Picture

Will Win: Belfast

Should Win: Drive My Car

It is the one everyone scrolls down to read every year, because it’s the only one that matters! Unfortunately, it’s not exactly a selection to set my soul on fire. There’s some good stuff, sure, but we have to shovel our way through the shit before we get to it, and even then we may discover yet more shit. Speaking of, Don’t Look Up! I don’t like this film and I don’t really know anyone who does. Yet, it seems to have some swell of support behind it. If it won, it would be pretty much the funniest possible outcome, causing an immense shitstorm through all sections of the internet. I am almost rooting for it. Not as bad but more unlikely a winner, King Richard is nominated for Best Picture. How? Moving on. CODA is being touted by many as the current favourite, but I am prepared to once again underestimate this film and its odds. It does nothing for me aside from a few nice scenes and some great performances, yet many like it. There’s a chance of victory, I’d rather something else win though, a win would seriously damage the films legacy when much greater films are in contention.

We now start to move more towards worthy nominees, but ones that also don’t stand a chance. Case in point, West Side Story. It’s gorgeous, an entertaining watch and a take on material that has previously won Oscars. However, it stands no chance. Dune also stands no chance. It’s a brilliant blockbuster made with genuine craft, yet it is big space nonsense. Maybe when Dune: Part Two comes out it will pull a Return of the King and get enough awards for the whole franchise, but this first entry will have to be happy with some technical awards through the night. Licorice Pizza is also a really well made and really likable movie, but it is rocking around with too many controversies in its boat to be a slam dunk of a choice. I liked it quite a lot when I first saw it, but I haven’t thought about the film much since, probably a bad omen. Elsewhere, we find Nightmare Alley, an excellent film made by an Oscar winner that no one saw and that most people who did see thought was too dark or too long. I, however, loved it. It’s big and indulgent, sure, but it’s a true craftsman getting to indulge so I was happy to be there. It also has no chance. So it goes.

Big three time! For most of this season, The Power of the Dog has been the Best Picture frontrunner, and why shouldn’t it be? It has big themes, it looks amazing and it just gives more and more to you as you continue to think about it. There are two reasons I don’t think it’ll get Best Picture though. First, its heat has faded. Awards season is all about riding the rollercoaster for as long as you can, but it seems like Power hasn’t quite got there. Second, it’s a Netflix film. That still feels like a big bridge for the Academy to cross, I don’t think we’re quite there yet. No, I think we’re at Belfast. I hate Belfast. The last three months have allowed a bad impression to only further sour, letting this poorly made film fester under the spotlight of my brain. But it’s in black and white, it plays songs people know and it has “crowd pleaser” written all over it in big gold font. With the way Best Picture is voted on, it is exactly the middle of the road kind of rubbish that could Green Book its way to a win. Exactly the kind of win that would shut out a worthy competitor like Drive My Car. It is the film in this race I am most in love with by a large margin, a patient ode to the transformative power of love, grief and art. The fact it could even be nominated here is honestly enough of a win for me, because it stands no chance of winning. But man, if it won, I would almost certainly throw my back out again celebrating, like I did with Parasite. It seems like my spine may be safe though, sadly.

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Reviews

Review – Heart Failure

I should get some disclosure out of the way upfront. Heart Failure is a short film made by Will Wightman, a dear friend of mine. We went to sixth form together, I visited him a few times at Uni and he has asked me to write this piece about his short film to try and spread the word about it. I also helped fund Heart Failure during its Kickstarter campaign, for which I am thanked in the credits. These things are important for me to get out of the way at the start because I believe in some form of integrity. If I don’t have a large readership and I barely have talent, I might as well have integrity. If I thought Heart Failure was not worth your time, I would not be writing this review about it. Fortunately, it is my absolute pleasure to indulge Will’s request because having seen his previous short films, I am delighted to say that this one is his best yet, a true delight from start to finish.

Also it’s a musical. Filmed during COVID-19. Made by students.

The story of Heart Failure may sound familiar to you. A guy (Frank) and a girl (Lizzie) meet in a club, have a one night stand and then fail to do that bit at the end where they don’t see each other again. They begin dating but Frank has to face up to having caught feelings after getting a “we need to talk” text from Lizzie. This is a short film, so we’re not exactly going for 2001: A Space Odyssey here, we can’t chart the evolution of mankind in ten minutes. What we can chart is the evolution of one man, having to go through a situation that a lot of young men go through, depicted in all its drunken highs and downbeat lows. Oh, and also it’s a musical. That was filmed during the COVID-19 lockdown that the UK had in 2021. Made by students. This is the time to realise how impressive everything about this film is.

The thing I love most about Heart Failure is it has this incredible propulsive energy, with each scene flowing together all buttery smooth like. Will has been a huge fan of Edgar Wright for as long as I’ve known him and you feel that through his editing style. It bounces and moves and it’s hard to know how else to describe it other than it is put together in a way that makes the ten minutes absolutely fly by. Helping the film go down easy is the music that fuels this musical, written by Will W and his partner in crime Will Marchant. The two have a history in assorted teenage bands but somehow this information feels like I’m underpreparing you for what to expect from their EDM musical. It’s not a genre of music I know much about, I’ll admit, but their take on it is very catchy. The songs have been going through my head ever since I saw the film and I’m very ready for them to start streaming online soon.

I should take a moment now and make sure I give massive credit to all of the cast and crew who helped make Heart Failure the triumph it is. I keep referring to Will because it’s easy, he’s the director and my mate, but he has surrounded himself with people who are just as (if not even more) talented than he is. I’ve already mentioned Will Marchant, also doing duty as the director of photography and giving Will W someone to go insane with. While the two of them do their thing behind the scenes, their cast work magic in front of the camera. Leon Newman leads as Frank and is fab, Izzie Fryman leaves a real impression with her fleeting performance as Lizzie, but my favourite of the cast is Harry Hancock as Ali. They have the smallest role of the three but get to play deliciously into and against genre convention, making the very most of every second they’re onscreen. These five had help from countless others, but to name a few there’s Cleo Yeomans as producer, Georgia Cunningham as 1st assistant director and Adam Pemberton as 1st assistant camera. It’s hard as a viewer to place who behind the scenes is responsible for what part of the final product, so I just wanted to throw out a couple of names as a way of saying “everyone here clearly did a great job because the film just works”.

I found myself struck by the immense passion Heart Failure is filled with.

As one final note, I found myself struck by the immense passion Heart Failure is filled with. I mentioned it at the start, but I visited Will a few times while he was studying in Falmouth and watching his film, you feel this overpowering adoration for the town. The production didn’t have the budget to create sets or even borrow someone else’s set, so it’s all filmed in and around Falmouth. A couple of shots of the horizon particularly capture the magic of this magical town and it certainly separates this film from Will’s previous Cambridge set ones. The humour of those films remain but with the change in location, there comes too a slight change in tone. I know this isn’t deliberate because despite my recommendation he still hasn’t seen it, but there’s a hint of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to the plot, in which we’re encouraged to celebrate poor and cyclical decision making in the face of love. It’s not heavy or even unfamiliar feeling, just a new wrinkle of emotional complexity being added and feeling right at home.

Like I’ve said, take my opinion with a pinch of salt but I love this film. The fact it exists is a minor miracle and therefore the fact that it’s this good does force me to consider the fact that Will Wightman may have sold his soul to whatever the filmmaking equivalent of the devil is. I cannot recommend enough checking it out. It’s only ten minutes, it’s a hell of a lot of fun and Will would seriously appreciate the support. If you are interested, the film is embedded below, give it a look!

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End of Year Favourites, top 7

Top 7 – My Favourite Films of 2021

It’s the big one! The list that I spend my entire year building up to, so that people can look at it and validate all of the hours of my life I have spent watching films to get great taste. And while 2021 has proven to be another not great year in general, I think there’s been a lot of incredible films to distract us from all the everything. So incredible in fact, that even excellent films like Dune, Spencer and Judas and the Black Messiah have failed to crack the honourable mentions. As per usual, my rules are simple. It needs to have been released in the UK during 2021, it must be a feature film and this whole list is entirely subjective. You can find my full ranking of all the 2021 releases I saw here on my Letterboxd, which will allow you to judge me more thoroughly and understand which films didn’t make the cut because I didn’t see them. I’m also going to link to any posts I’ve written about any of the films mentioned, in case you want to know more about them. With all of this said, into the honourable mentions!

Honourable Mentions

Pig – Nic Cage has done many incredible things throughout his career, but with Pig he does something he’s never done before: he made me cry. In a career spanning decades, Pig has immediately marked itself out as a special film for Cage.

Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time – If you are not into Evangelion then this film will not convince you in any way, but those (like me) who are completely on board with the whole nonsense of this franchise, you are in for a treat that goes as big visually as it does emotionally.

Sound of Metal – I don’t know whether to celebrate Sound of Metal for its unbelievably brilliant lead performance, its emotional reckoning with the unavoidable or the way it gave the Deaf community the stage many of us never knew it needed. I don’t have to choose though, all three are worthy reasons.

Censor – As we will get to a couple of times more on this list, I seem to love horror films that everyone else falls out of love with because of something weird in the third act. Censor is that perfectly, a film I am so deeply in love with that its idiosyncrasy only enhances it.

Last Night in Soho – My most controversial choice I’d imagine, I saw Last Night in Soho twice in cinemas and had a blast both times. It might be Wright’s weakest fiction film, but it’s also a lot of fun and an experience I have kept thinking about since release.

Invisible Life – You have not heard of this film. After playing festivals in 2019 under a longer name, Invisible Life has had to wait until 2021 for a UK release, which even then was in very few cinemas. Please, I urge you to check it out, it’s a sensational Brazilian melodrama that will pull you in so slowly that you won’t realise how deep you’re in until you start crying.

Promising Young Woman – I almost put Promising Young Woman higher up the list, but I haven’t seen it since release and feel like it could do with a second watch to confirm some feelings. As it stands though, note perfect casting and some tricky emotional wire walking have had me thinking non-stop all year.

With these very honourable mentions done, into the full ranked list!

7. The French Dispatch

There is a criticism surrounding The French Dispatch that it is too much of Wes Anderson’s style and artifice. After my first watch, I kind of got that. This is an anthology film that is so full of different visual quirks and character moments that you may not have time to actually form any emotional attachments. But then there was the second watch. Again, I was a really big fan of the film the first time, as I say in my review. That second viewing though, man. It opens this entire film up into something approaching one of Anderson’s best. The jokes are funnier, the visuals are even more impressive and finally, that emotional core so many believed to be absent opens up. In the second story, much maligned by detractors, I found myself welling up at the denouement. It is the culmination of this collection of stories about beautiful things taken away before their time is over but being forced to face that truth and enjoy the melancholy nostalgia of the past. Genuinely, I cannot recommend enough watching this film twice, at least. Your appreciation will soar and you too will realise that The French Dispatch is one of the best films of 2021 and one of the best in a filmography that is hardly full of duds.

6. Drive My Car

I’ll get it out the way now, Drive My Car is three hours long. That in itself is probably going to put most people off but believe me when I say that every minute in all three of those hours is essential. Drive My Car is the second excellent film adaptation of a Murakami short story in the last few years, but much different from the simmering tension of Burning. It is the story of a theatre director and actor who, after facing a personal loss, is attempting to adapt Uncle Vanya using a cast all speaking different languages. While putting on this production, he is required to have a driver driving his car and during these drives the two listen to tapes that contain the voice of a ghost on them. I’m aware this doesn’t sound thrilling so far, but believe me when I say it works because it is so hard to put your finger on what the film is. After seeing it, I said to one of my colleagues that I was surprised how sexy it was, which garnered the response “actually I thought it was really sad.” This conversation is testament to the brilliant fluidity that powers Drive My Car, a film that manages to be three hours long yet still leave room for interpretation. Set aside that time, put your phone away and settle in for this film which will quietly and slowly draw you in very deep.

5. Malignant

I watched Malignant at home and spent, as an educated guess, half of it slapping my bed with complete giddy joy. Most of this list is full of cerebral films that make me seem very smart (though I am letting weird ones slip through more than ever this year), but there is something about really powerful genre films that allows them to circumvent my consciousness and hit the middle of the monkey brain. A lot of the time it happens with really fun bad movies, but Malignant is a top-tier seat slapper the likes of which I haven’t experienced in a big budget movie this past decade. The story is barely important, something about a woman who had a surgery when she was younger and is now experiencing hallucinations of murders seemingly as they are committed. What is important, is that the story is a means of servicing some wild twists, very silly performances and a healthy portion of absolutely gonzo set pieces. Everything I love about bad genre movies is here, but done genuinely well and with deliberate intent. The fact that I’ve only seen this the once and by myself is frankly the only thing that holds Malignant this far back on the list. It is some of the most fun I’ve had with any film this year, you should have it too.

4. Never Gonna Snow Again

It’s finally here. I finally get to talk about Never Gonna Snow Again again. Back when I was covering the virtual London Film Festival in 2020, this film snuck up on me and became my favourite of the festival. The problem was, I didn’t know when I’d see it again. Being my most extensive stint at a festival to date, I realised that while some of the higher profile films already have distribution, a lot of smaller but still excellent films can fly under the radar and remain in film purgatory. Fortunately, Never Gonna Snow Again was picked up by Picture House Entertainment (who, full disclosure, are my employers) and it came out. For real. For finally. Having gotten what I’ve asked for though, I now have the difficult task of explaining this film to you. It’s a fairy tale about a masseuse in an upper class suburb, who may or may not have magical powers, but it’s also not that. It’s a comedy, a tragedy, a modern day myth about the destructive nature of late capitalism. It feels special in its uniqueness and has gone cruelly under appreciated before and since its release. So please, seek out Never Gonna Snow Again, a film that has to be seen to be felt to be believed.

3. Bo Burnham: Inside

I don’t care if you don’t think it’s a film, Bo Burnham: Inside is a feature film in my eyes and an excellent one at that. It’s also part of a very specific time in my life, where despite my degree being over I was still in a weird emotional limbo and feeling very stranded in the midst of a pandemic that remains a huge part of our lives. For as long as he’s been performing, Bo Burnham has been great at verbalising these tricky emotions that make up modern life, but he brought his A-game for his finest project to date. At first, Inside appears to be more of the same, a series of fun songs about modern life that contain a hint of darkness, but then it grows into something bigger. It gets a lot darker as the film develops, with Burnham visibly starting to crumble, yet I think even this is an attempt to mislead the audience. Inside is definitely a look into the emotional reality of living during the pandemic, but it’s also very specifically about being a creative person and how you separate your own life from your art. This thin line that divides reality and performance is one of my very favourite themes to see explored and at every turn, Inside tackles it. I think it is very special and to be incredibly honest, it became a part of me. Of course it made the list.

2. Petite Maman

Cėline Sciamma almost made the top spot on my best of the year list for a second year in a row, but take that only as a comment on how much I loved the top film this year and not even a shadow of a suggestion that Petite Maman isn’t as close to perfection as a feature film has gotten since Paddington 2. It’s a film about a young girl who, in the wake of her grandmothers death, returns to the home her mother grew up in and makes a new friend while adventuring in the woods. Importantly, it is also a film that is 72 minutes long. When was the last time you saw 1. a film that short or 2. a film that short that still manages to feel so full of affection? More than that makes Petite Maman special though, everything else about it is special too. The sparse but powerful use of music is special, the way editing is used to time travel is special and the two lead performances are incredibly special. Sciamma has yet again made a film that feels like an already timeless classic. She is too powerful. Arguably, she may need to be stopped. Until we stop her though, may we continue to get more knockout masterpieces like Petite Maman.

1. Titane

I’m tempted to just leave my thoughts on Titane as 😈. Words can only do so well at conveying how delicious the cinematic chaos hidden inside this film is, why not finally succumb to emojis? I also am tempted to leave it there because I don’t want to be the one who spoils Titane for you, a film so full of treats to unwrap, some of which may contain razor blades. In an inverse of the way I love Petite Maman because of its simple perfection, I adore Titane because of its chaotic mess. There is A LOT going on with this film. We’re talking serial killers, we’re talking the performativity of gender roles and we’re talking human relations with machines. Those all happen in the first fifteen minutes. If you didn’t know by now, Titane is a hell of a ride. The film uses the language of extreme cinema to speak to an innate truth about the extraordinary human capacity for love. It’s not that the extremity is all smoke and mirrors per se, more that it is a necessary leap of faith to get audiences to release their inhibitions. I do not doubt that this film will not be for everyone. A few years ago, it wouldn’t have been for me. But now it is. It really is. Titane is a lot of things to a small(ish) group of people and I am proud to consider myself in that number. You might be too. Take a bite and find out. 😈

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Reviews

Review – Petite Maman

Do you remember late February/early March of 2020? It feels like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it? For a lot of people, or at least certainly for me, it feels like the last normal days before the chaos we still live through hit like a freight train. I bring this up not to bring the mood down (though sorry for that side effect), but to remind you that one of the last great things to happen was the release of Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire. It was a gorgeous and overwhelming film which dropped me dead on my first viewing and has continued to do lasting damage ever since. It was also the last film I saw in a cinema before the pandemic forced them all to close, so it quickly secured a strong place in my heart. In that period since, while most of us were slowly collapsing inside, Sciamma made her newest film. It is Petite Maman and its appearance in cinemas is akin to installing a fireplace in every screen it plays.

Part of the magic of Petite Maman is that it uses science fiction tropes in gentle and effortless ways.

The story is simple. After her grandmother’s death, a young girl joins her mother in clearing out the grandmother’s house. While here, the young girl goes on an adventure. She discovers things in the house, little creations in the woods outside and then discovers a new friend. I think for the purpose of my review, I’m going to keep the identity of this friend secret. Petite Maman is a very short film and so while it wouldn’t exactly be a spoiler to reveal the identity, I want to give you as much to discover as possible. What I will say though is that part of the magic of Petite Maman is that it uses science fiction tropes in gentle and effortless ways. Don’t get me wrong, I love full blown sci-fi, but I am also in love with seeing the genre applied to low-key situations. Chances are, most people won’t even consider this film to have sci-fi elements, but that’s just one example of how many things are going on under the deceptively light surface.

Poster for Petite Maman (2021)

There are very few actors in Petite Maman. Sure, part of that is the smallness of the story, but there is also the fact that this film was filmed during the pandemic. That such a moving picture can come from such a terrible time feels special on its own, but the lack of cast list means the few actors who are here need to pull their weight. Pull they do. Nina Meurisse is wonderful as the mother, but the impact of the film ultimately comes down to the stellar work of Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz, who play the two young girls. Often, child actors are complimented on their performances because there’s a maturity to their performance that is uncommon for young actors. With the Sanz sisters, it is the exact opposite. They perfectly embody that eight year old spirit of being still too small for the world, but assuming a familiarity that imbues them with a confidence. It is one of those things that is hard to verbalise but on screen, easy to love. In a year when there’s been a lot of great child performances, these are easily the best.

I love the gorgeous simplicity of everything about Petite Maman. It extends into every aspect of the filmmaking and creates an absolutely effortless feeling film. The fleeting runtime I’ve already mentioned, but it’s present in the score too. Like the other of Sciamma’s films that I’ve seen, there is very little music used, but it is saved for moments that can create the maximum impact. In particular, a moment where the girls put on a pair of headphones is gorgeous, featuring solely non-diegetic sound to create an otherworldly level of emotional catharsis. I don’t talk about this a lot because in many films it’s hard to notice, but I also adore the editing of Petite Maman. There’s a famous moment in Lawrence of Arabia where Lawrence blows out a match and it cuts to the desert, often referred to as one of the greatest cuts in cinematic history. I think Petite Maman has a moment that comes close. It has many brilliant moments where Sciamma chooses to cut a moment short or let it hang, but there’s one in particular that I am perpetually failing to forget.

I think Petite Maman is a minor miracle of a film.

In honour of its 72 minute runtime, I’m going to keep my thoughts on Petite Maman short and end here. I think it’s a minor miracle of a film, an aching act of perfection that I’m desperate to return to. You owe it to yourself to check it out. I’m in love with it, a film which I think could be the finest of the year. If it isn’t at the top of the pile come the end of December, that only speaks to the brilliance of cinema in general this year, as Petite Maman deserves to be (and should be) remembered for years to come.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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Features

A Beginner’s Guide to Trash

Hi everyone. My name is Henry Jordan and I love trash. I love trash food, I love trash music and I especially love trash films. I love trash films so much that I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on them (and if you’re interested in a more academic spin on the article you’re about to read, let me know and I can send you a copy). But I often have difficulty explaining that love to other people. Which is where this post comes in. With this being a new dawn for my blog, it feels right that I should get in a post as early as I can about the joys of trash and where trash virgins (not to be confused with trash virgins, if you catch my drift) can get their first fix.

I’ve tried to explain before what it is that makes trash films so great, but it’s very difficult without the help of a therapist, able to psychoanalyse why my brain is as broken as it is. So instead, I want to introduce you to five key films that show you different aspects of the badfilm experience. If any of these take your fancy, there’s a whole world of trash behind them that I’m trying to open the door for. They each come with a follow-up recommendation and I’m more than happy to supply any additional recs to those still curious for more. But essentially, if you’ve ever wondered what the deal is with bad films/trash films/however we want to define them, these are the ones I think you should start with. So gather round with your friends and your intoxicant of choice. Let’s dive down into this nightmare together.

The Room

If you’ve seen any film on this list, it’s probably The Room. However, this being a beginner’s guide, I still feel like we absolutely have to touch on The Room. It is the insane brainchild of Tommy Wiseau, a film which he directed, wrote, produced and starred in. The plot is… Well, like so many of the films we’re going to cover, the plot is inessential, but let me give it a shot anyway. There’s a man named Johnny, who has a girlfriend named Lisa. Lisa is cheating on Johnny with his best friend Mark, which creates tension and drama between them all. Around this is a boy named Denny who keeps popping into the titular apartment, Lisa keeps meeting up with her mother (who definitely has breast cancer) and there’s a whole host of other characters who do nothing and have no purpose. They all come in and out of this room in San Francisco (why San Francisco we do not know), until the film is over. This is The Room.

But a simple description of plot can’t do justice to The Room. Only watching it can, because only when watching it do you realise how poorly all its elements fit together. Johnny comes home to Lisa, complains about his job and then they have sex. It’s quite a long sex scene and a very uncomfortable one, but it’s one we will see again so buckle in for that. Then Mark (who again, is Johnny’s best friend, please remember this) comes round to also sleep with Lisa. This sex scene is less awkward to watch but still not great. Another sex scene comes ten minutes later and then the whole thing really goes off the rails. Random characters come and go (sometimes changing actor with no fanfare), Johnny does important chores like buying flowers and in case you forgot where this film is set, there’s occasionally a filler shot of an iconic San Francisco landmark. This continues for the entire 99 minute runtime with absolutely no reprive.

This nonsense string of events, tied together by apparently only the delusion of the screenwriter-cum-lead actor, is made even more excruciatingly brilliant by Wiseau. His performance is dire, every line sounding like it barely managed to escape his mouth, though not without being tainted by his very thick accent. You might think that other actors would do better but no, they’re also hampered by Wiseau’s awful dialogue and terrible direction, direction that is legendarily terrible. The infamous moniker of “the Citizen Kane of bad movies” is not unnearned, as every single time I rewatch The Room I spot a new terrible detail that rocks my world. The most notable one was that on viewing number five, I realised that the rainy window prop used for one of the sex scenes is actually a stand-alone part of the room, not even connected to the wall. It’s the reason why group viewings are so valuable to your experience of The Room, because a new pair of eyes can often reveal a mystery that you hadn’t even considered.

The Room embodies the kind of badfilm that exists because of single minded lunatics, one of the most fruitful genres there is. As such, it’s hard to find only one film to recommend here, but I’m going to go with Ben and Arthur. It has been called The Room for the homosexual community and that feels fairly spot on. Again, it is terrible dialogue, used to fill scenes that feel completely unrelated to each other, before leading to an entirely unearned conclusion of extravagant melodrama. Though once quite hard to find, I believe Ben and Arthur is currently kicking around somewhere on YouTube, so give it a look if you’ve already enjoyed the many pleasures The Room has to offer.

Miami Connection

If you’re planning on experimenting with badfilm, films that sit very comfortably within genres are one of the safest bets you can have. More specifically, horror and action seem to deliver reliably, because even their failures end up becoming endearing. While there are plenty of bad horror films I could recommend, I’m sticking to action today and recommending Miami Connection, one of my most treasured discoveries. It is the timeless tale of a rock band who must use their taekwondo skills and friendship to stop a gang of drug dealers and ninjas from bringing their stupid cocaine into Orlando. You know, one of those tales.

In the same way that The Room is frontloaded with a lot of sex scenes, Miami Connection is frontloaded with a lot of musical numbers. Fortunately, the songs are all absolute bangers and you will be streaming them as soon as the film rolls credits. To give you an accurate idea of how rad the band are, all I have to do is tell you their name; the one, the only, Dragon Sound. Though the lyrics are dorkily charming (such as those in their song “Friends“, about being friends for eternity, loyalty, honesty), the vocals and guitar playing genuinely rock. I love them so much that I bought a Dragon Sound shirt, which has been recognised twice in public to my intense delight. If you don’t find yourself humming at least a few of the songs days after a viewing, something has gone wrong.

The other thing that takes up the majority of the runtime in Miami Connection is fight scenes. Sometimes those fights are with guns, sometimes with swords, but mainly with awesome taekwondo skills. And if you’re thinking “hang on, but how do the main characters all know taekwondo?” then fear not, we have training montages, in which our band (who are also housemates and orphans and seem to share one tank top between them all, don’t ask) slow mo punch each other in the face. It is truly giggle worthy stuff that is essential to the film because it also paves the way for our finale, an action spectacle that ramps up the melodrama in totally unexpected ways. Even in the world of cheesy action movies, there are very few things like it, especially its closing message.

Speaking of the world of cheesy action movies, there are so many other choices for recommendation, but I know where my heart goes. My heart goes to Wakaliwood, the Ugandan action studio that makes and distributes its action movies from a slum on the outskirts of Kampala. Their films are low budget but high passion and even better, their best film Who Killed Captain Alex? is available for free on YouTube. If you enjoy it, buy merch from them and support their work, because this is that lovely little area where independent filmmaking and badfilm obsession cross over. It’s where the magic happens.

Showgirls

I don’t think Showgirls has a genre, but if had I to categorise it, it would be in the genre of Hollywood excess. It’s one of those films that cost a lot of money, made very little of it back and was a completely intoxicating trainwreck to watch happen. Lots of debate has been had in the 25 years since release regarding whether the film is secretly a masterpiece or is actively dangerous, including at the cinema I work at. One of my managers is very insistent that Showgirls is in fact a masterpiece, an insistence that is not shared by the other members of staff. I do not believe that Showgirls is a misunderstood masterpiece (as its place on this list proves, sorry Lorcan), but I remain captivated by it regardless. It took up a huge section of my dissertation, as I attempted to muddle my way through how the film works and after 3000 words I still didn’t get to the bottom of it.

So why does Showgirls compel me so? Let’s start with the plot. A woman named Nomi Malone (do you get it? No Me, I’m Alone) travels to Las Vegas to make her name as a showgirl. Though she starts off in the sleazy strip clubs on the outskirts of the strip, she soon dances her way up to the big leagues as an erotic dancer. The path to fame is littered with sex and scandal and more sex. I mean holy shit, there is so much nudity in this film. The original advertising played hard on this, clearly trying to bring in the horny men in their hordes, a tactic which backfired quite dramatically on the film. That fact becomes more hysterical the more you watch the film, as the nudity loses any eroticism and the films excesses become more and more absurd. The best big budget disasters are exactly this, films that collapse under their own excess. The fun of Showgirls in particular is just that the excess is an excess of the flesh (and you’d better believe there’s a late capitalist reading of that, see my dissertation for proof).

As with so many of the the films on this list, Showgirls is also brilliant because its dialogue is terrible. Instead of wasting all my time writing out my thoughts, I could have just put down three paragraphs of Showgirls quotes and you’d have understood. In that spirit, I’ll give you a couple of my favourites: “It must be weird, not having anybody cum on you”, “She looks better than a ten-inch dick and you know it!” or “I used to love Doggy Chow” to choose but three. These lines are delivered with admirably straight faces by the actors, whose playing it straight is one of the things that makes Showgirls compulsively watchable instead of nightmarish. David Lynch’s favourite boy Kyle MacLachlan is a sleazy guy with interesting pool habits, Gina Gershon is a screen-chewing starlet and as Nomi, Elizabeth Berkley is commendably committed. Berkley in particular suffered from cruel reviews on initial release and in supporting Showgirls so voraciously, I feel like I’m sticking a middle finger to the misogyny that nearly ruined her life. I’m also laughing at the film, but people are complex, we’re capable of both at once.

The trick with big budget disasters is picking ones that are terrible in interesting ways. A film like Pan is blandly bad, where Catwoman is so insane it works. A lot of it comes down to personal taste, so I’ll instead look a little lower budget for excess and recommend you the Patrick Swayze action film Road House. In Road House, Swayze is a bouncer for dodgy bars, brought into a particularly dodgy bar to clean the place up. He succeeds, by puching people in the face a lot. Then at one point, there’s some guy who turns up who wants to take over the entire town. Something about monster trucks, there’s a helicopter, an entire town becomes thirsty for blood. It’s action packed and homo-erotic and no, maybe not the same vibe as Showgirls, but it is a film as addicted to the same excess, making it also legendarily bad.

Vampire’s Kiss

Nicolas Cage is such an incredible actor that his films become something of a genre unto themselves. His films are sometimes genuinely brilliant or sometimes painfully boring, but he is always irrefutably watchable. Again, narrowing down options has been my only difficulty. Face-Off is prime Cage but too much of a good film to include, whereas Cage is brilliant in Deadfall until he is prematurely killed off and the film takes a dive. In the end though, it had to be Vampire’s Kiss. If you, like me, spent a lot of the early 2010s watching Nic Cage freakout compilations, a lot of Vampire’s Kiss is going to be very familiar to you, as it’s where so much of the best stuff comes from. This is Cage, in his prime, going all out on a concept that requires total dedication. You bet your sweet ass that Cage puts his all into it.

The setup is simple. While clubbing, Nic Cage’s character picks up a woman who he later believes to have been a vampire. He finds bite marks on his neck and therefore assumes that he is now becoming a vampire. We’ve all been there. It’s left ambiguous whether this is actually the case but regardless, he must deal with his “transformation” while still doing his job at the marketing house he runs. Cue Cage freakouts. Though the audience are left uncertain if Cage really has been bitten by a vampire, Cage believes it fully. He chases women through his building, hides from sunlight and even buys himself a pair of fake teeth to fit the part. It is the purely illogical, taken to its logical extremes.

As I’m hopefully getting across, this film is only as brilliant as it is because of Nic Cage. There are some truly vintage moments in here, even excluding all the ones that are such brilliant acting gestures that words couldn’t communicate them. As I list these scenes off to you, please bear in mind that these are all real scenes that really exist from a real movie. In one moment, Nic Cage screams the alphabet to his therapist (yes, the whole thing). In another, he attempts to crush himself under the weight of his own sofa. In one climactic moment, Cage is walking down the street with a piece of wood and begging passers by to kill him. Cage has done so much brilliant work in the field of the subtle over the years, but when he wants to go full insane, no one does it better.

To recommend another film, the only place I can turn is another Nic Cage film and this time we’re going to The Wicker Man. Please don’t confuse it with the original and actually great Wicker Man from the seventies, this is a terrible remake with Cage singlehandedly saving the entire film from obscurity. It is the origin of the iconic “No, not the bees” clip, as well as a film in which Nic Cage spends much of the third act running around in a bear costume punching women in the face. It is as stupid and brilliant as you could hope for from Nic Cage, it’s your next port of call for when you want to get back in the Cage.

Fateful Findings

And finally, we end on another single minded maniac. The one, the only; Neil Breen. Breen is, like Cage, a genre unto himself, although his roles are more numerous than Cage. You see, Breen is an independent filmmaker who stars in, directs, writes, produces and does so much more for his films. He does so much work on his films that he makes up fake company names for makeup or catering companies, to hide yet more work he has done. So far he has made five films and all of them are exactly the same flavour of completely batshit filmmaking, plot and acting, blended together to make the weirdest smoothie you’ll ever drink. Of all his films though, Fateful Findings may just be the crowning achievement.

For all the films I’ve covered, I’ve attempted to explain the plot to you. I am going to struggle doing that with Fateful Findings, as there is simultaneously no plot and too much plot. Let me try and explain it, stop me if it sounds like I’m having a breakdown. Breen plays a writer, who as a child discovers a magical rock in the woods with his crush (“it’s a magical day” we are told). Breen gets hit by a car, taken to hospital but it turns out he’s fine. His wife is addicted to pills and is stealing his painkillers because she is addicted to pills. She is addicted to pills. Please, it’s important. There’s also another couple, where the husband is an alcoholic and the wife is a former porn star, probably. They have a daughter who tries to hit on Neil, but then the childhood crush comes back and then “NO MORE BOOKS” and then the wife dies and then “I’m gonna shoot this damn car full of holes” and then “I can’t believe you comitted suicide” and then government secrets and then “I resign as president of the bank” and then it’s a happy ending, what a magical day. Got it? Good.

Even after all my time watching bad films, there is nothing like the films of Neil Breen. Sure, other films have bad acting or bad dialogue or awkward editing, but not like this. This is a whole other level of bad and it makes Breen’s films so consistently refreshing. Be warned though, there are times where the experience of watching his films can feel like the experience of reading the plot summary I gave. It’s a lot to take in and you may feel like your brain is trying to escape through your ears. All of Breen’s films are like this, whether it’s Fateful Findings or I Am Here… Now (a film in which space Jesus Neil Breen comes down to heal humanity) or Twisted Pair (Neil Breen plays mutant twins who are battling each other and it has nothing to do with testicular trauma). Though they can be hard to find, Breen’s films are worth tracking down, to experience one of the greatest artistic voices badfilm has ever given us.

In honour of Breen, let’s go back in time for the final recommendation, to another auteur whose terrible films are truly legendary. Badfilm fans already know it, it’s Ed Wood, specifically his masterpiece Plan 9 From Outer Space. Both Breen and Wood heavily use stock footage to pad their runtimes, but that’s not the only similarity between our two auteurs. Breen uses plenty of terrible digital effects, but it’s not hard to imagine that a version of him in the fifties would have used practical effects and sets in a similarly poor way to Wood. Wood also makes films where the plot is total incoherent nonsense and will cause your brain to break beyond belief. I had an experience with Plan 9 where I watched it while a flatmate was listening to the song “Somewhere Beyond the Sea” and I started laughing so hard that my flat had to come check I was alright. It’s transcendentally terrible. When you’ve enjoyed the work of the modern master, go back and honour one of the greats.

I had way too many films to pick for this list. Once you start digging through trash, you’ll be amazed how deep it goes, whether you’re in the straight to VHS era in the eighties or the “there’s no way this was in multiplexes” era of the past decade. I didn’t even mention some of my favourites, like Cyborg Cop (and its magnificent sequel), Hard Ticket to Hawaii and the entire Andy Sidaris catalogue, Ma, Troma’s War, Samurai Cop and Troll 2, to name only the best examples I’ve found over the last five years. There’s a whole terrible world out there and if you ever need a guide, I am always here to be your Virgil for this trash inferno. I love recommending trash to people and not just because it gives some purpose to the hours of my life that would otherwise be judged to have been wasted on this finite time we have on Earth. Recommending is fun, you’re having an existential crisis, shut up. Just come dumpster diving with me, lets find some trash and have a terrible time together.

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Review – The French Dispatch

I’m finishing my London Film Festival coverage with a film that everyone can finally see this very weekend, which is really exciting news. It’s fun seeing films early and feeling special, but films this great deserved to be shared and The French Dispatch is one such great film. As everything about its aesthetic should tell you, The French Dispatch is the newest film from Wes Anderson, the beloved mind behind Fantastic Mr Fox and The Grand Budapest Hotel, among other wonderful and charming films. His newest outing is an anthology tale, consisting of tales from the final edition of The French Dispatch, a France-based journal that is part of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun.

We’re gifted with three tales, although there’s five or six parts if you really want to be picky about it. There’s an introduction to the city in which The French Dispatch is based (deliciously called Ennui-sur-Blasé), a city which has slowly found itself gentrified and liberated from its grimy history. The three stories find plenty of grime to roll in though. First is the story of an incarcerated painter, whose work inspires a fellow inmate. Second is the tale of student protests and the romantic connections that spring up in the heat of revolution. Finally, we find the tale of a chef who aids the police chief he works for in searching for a missing child. All of these tales, themselves presented in the wider fabric of the film, are told by their (fictional) authors, though for Anderson fans this shouldn’t feel unfamiliar. Similar to how the core of The Grand Budapest Hotel was hidden under a few layers of matryoshka dolls. French Dispatch is a series of dolls, with a handful of layers each. Though it sometimes means you may struggle to fully invest in more than a few characters, it creates what I can only describe as a picnic feel. You get to sample a whole host of different ideas from Anderson, all interesting in their own ways, and all of course beautifully presented.

It’s a bloody good cast doing bloody good work.

Being an anthology, there’s a lot of actors needed to bring the stories to life and holy hell, what a cast. It says a lot about how stacked your cast list is when actors like Saoirse Ronan, Christoph Waltz and Edward Norton don’t even get main billing (find them and many others hidden in that little list near the bottom of the poster). This all means I’m going to have to do that thing I do quite a lot and say that all the cast are brilliant. You know that they’re brilliant though, so many of these actors are ones you already love from other films and they’re great here too. I’d struggle to say that many are giving career best performances, but that’s far more an indication of their quality of roles than their weakness here. It’s a bloody good cast doing bloody good work.

Poster for The French Dispatch (2021)

But I should spotlight a few of them, and spotlight I will. Going loosely in order of appearance, my first fave is Tilda Swinton. I adore Swinton in everything she does and she’s a brilliant comedic presence when given Anderson’s dialogue. Here, as the journalist J. K. L. Berensen, she gets to exercise her best comedic muscles, by putting on a silly accent and acting pompous. It’s not ground breaking, but seeing her on screen again always made me smile. I also really enjoy Timothée Chalamet as Zeffirelli, a student activist who is amusingly pretentious. He captures all the over-arrogance of young people involved in politics, playing a straight man to a silly world. I hope it encourages him to do more comedies, he works well in these worlds. Finally, I’m also a big fan of Jeffrey Wright as Roebuck Wright, the author of the third story. There’s a way that he manners his voice, which navigates between the deadpan and the comic, and which I remain totally entranced by. The way he speaks has been one of the things that has most stuck with me after viewing the film and I can’t explain why it works, only that it very much does.

Wes Anderson being Wes Anderson though, there’s a style that you’re here to watch and once again, it seems the man has bested himself. Any one single frame would let you know immediately who the man is steering this ship and likewise, any one of those frames would warrant hanging on a wall. His stunningly symmetrical shots are back, so is the twee score courtesy of returning collaborator Alexandre Desplat and many of your other favourite trademarks. But there’s also a sense of exploration. By now, even those of us who didn’t spend four years studying film know what a Wes Anderson film looks like, so it’s time to play with the formula a bit. We’ve got shots that move or spin in new ways, random animated sequences and some really stunning freeze frames that I fell in love with the first second they showed up and continued to love as they reoccurred. It is, quite simply, another Wes Anderson film. If you’re already on board with his aesthetic and acoustic tastes, you’re going to be very happy indeed.

These are the stories of a world that has already passed. I found myself genuinely quite sad at the end of every story, each signalling a goodbye of its own to someone or something.

When we discuss Wes Anderson though, it often comes down to these discussions of his style to such an extent that a lot of reviewers (and I’ve been guilty of this too) forget to talk about the emotional response. Anderson’s films connect and are beloved because we fall in love with their characters, be it M Gustave in The Grand Budapest Hotel or our titular fox and his family in Fantastic Mr Fox. It’s probably this area though where The French Dispatch is at its weakest. As I said earlier, the anthology nature of the film means we don’t spend much time with any character, and therefore can only ever make minimal connections with them. Fortunately, it’s not a totally cold film, as you end up (and bear with me on this) feeling this melancholy love for the French Dispatch itself. It’s a magazine that is ending, and a type of magazine that hasn’t much time left in our world. Inherently then, these are the stories of a world that has already passed. I found myself genuinely quite sad at the end of every story, each signalling a goodbye of its own to someone or something. Again, it’s very hard to put into words, because it just works. That lingering emotional impact allows itself to be tainted with hope (with the final line being “what next?”) but it’s melancholy nonetheless. A damn fine melancholy it is though that Anderson has crafted.

Like I said then, it’s another Wes Anderson film. If you like his other stuff, it would be very strange if you didn’t like this. It’s beautiful, it’s held up by a cast all giving 100% and its emotional aftertaste has lingered on me like a cigarette kiss. I thought it was wonderful and on Friday, it’s yours to enjoy too. Treasure it and all its whimsy. (But probably also go see Dune, which I haven’t seen yet but will also presumably highly recommend.)

Timothée Chalamet as Zeffirelli in The French Dispatch (2021)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
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Review – Last Night in Soho

I love Edgar Wright. Like most other film fans my age, watching his films while growing up really changed the way I thought about the medium as well as simply inspiring me. In particular, Hot Fuzz remains one of my favourite films, a film that aside from being hilarious and action-packed and fast paced, was also a film that showed me what films can do. I was ten at the time, so I mainly mean it showed me how violent films can be, but it was still a formative moment. All of this preamble is important because it’s me saying upfront that I love Edgar Wright’s filmmaking style and explains why, despite being willing to follow him anywhere, the news that his next fiction film would be a straight horror film worried me somewhat. That new film is Last Night in Soho and as you may expect, my worrying was misplaced.

The setup of Last Night is fab. A young woman named Eloise moves to London from the countryside in order to attend a fashion design university. She, like countless students before her, finds that the sheen of London rubs off quite quickly and she soon becomes disenfranchised with a city that is nothing like she expected. Searching for escapism, she finds just that in visions of London from the sixties. In these visions Eloise is an aspiring dancer named Sandie, navigating the exciting world of London during its seedy heyday. While attempting to work out if these visions are glimpses into the past or dreamlike hallucinations though, things suddenly get worse and that’s all I’m going to tell you. Edgar Wright left a note to be read at the press screening (of all the films, the only time a director did that, thank you for the effort Edgar) in which he asked reviewers not to divulge many of the plot details and out of respect for Wright, I’m doing exactly that. The second half gets twisty and scary and very fun, but that’s for you to discover, not for me to spoil.

I’m a real fan of the cast here, it’s one of those cast lists in which not a single performer gives a weak performance. In the lead role of Eloise is Thomasin McKenzie, who has been great since Leave No Trace and continues filling out a filmography that is already very impressive. Having seen her in a few things, she wouldn’t be an obvious choice as the lead in a horror film, but she works really well and that’s why I’m not a casting director. The much showier role of the two leads is Sandie, played by Anya Taylor-Joy. Again, she’s a young actress who seems to have barely put a foot wrong (and even whatever weird dance The New Mutants was barely feels like her fault) and she absolutely tears into her role. She has to embody the spirit of glamour, a glamour so complete that it feels almost artificial, which as a beautiful woman is the feeling Taylor-Joy casts on much of the internet regularly. Fortunately, she’s not just a pretty face and really gets to have some fun with the places that Sandie goes to. Even in the quieter moments, just the way she moves and stares towards people and places feels inherently cinematic. She seems born to be a movie star and this is yet another perfect fit for her.

Poster for Last Night in Soho (2021)

Surrounding these two women are plenty of well-established and well loved British actors, chewing scenery or adding intrigue where appropriate. I’m going to sound incredibly vague when talking about the roles these actors play, because I don’t want to spoil the ways they all feed into the wider plot, so apologies if the descriptions don’t sound particularly in depth. Matt Smith is a handsome man in a suit, who Sandie encounters in the sixties. I’ve loved him since Doctor Who and it feels like he hasn’t had a worthwhile role since. Until now, that is, so thank you Edgar. Veteran British actor Terrence Stamp meanwhile is over in the present day, playing a mysterious white haired man who seems to have been quite the charmer back in his day. Most of his time is spent looming suspiciously, so when he does get dialogue Stamp makes it count. Finally, in her final performance, is Diana Rigg as Eloise’s landlord. There initially doesn’t seem to be a great deal to her role, but keep watching and she may just surprise you. She is hiding something and it’s a secret well worth discovering.

Wright is still working very clearly in genre filmmaking, specifically horror. It’s not the kind of horror that’s going to ruin your night with a lack of sleep, rather the special kind of cheesy horror.

I mentioned it already earlier, but this is tonally quite different to Wright’s previous fiction films (I’m being specific and pedantic because obviously The Sparks Brothers is different). Characters still make jokes and I found myself laughing a lot, but the filmmaking itself isn’t used for comedy. In earlier Wright films, editing would be used to cut to things at the perfect moment or to contrast two different things, making comedy happen even when no one was being funny. While that is gone, Wright is still working very clearly in genre filmmaking, specifically horror. It’s not the kind of horror that’s going to ruin your night with a lack of sleep, rather the same special kind of cheesy horror that Malignant was (side note, if you haven’t seen Malignant, very much get on that). The word I kept coming back to was fun, in that even when I was getting spooked or when I was nervous or any other stage of scared, I would find myself grinning. It is a great film to spend time inside, especially with a packed audience. I am going to make sure I see it plenty while it’s in cinemas, because it’s a film that deserves to be soundtracked by screams and giggles.

Wright is taking the opportunity while trying something new to also play around with the visual side.

Last Night is also a film soundtracked by actual songs though, which is classic Wright. Like his good buddy Quentin Tarantino, Wright has an immaculate ear for picking either little known songs to put into his films or finding the perfect moment for a more well known song. That streak continues untouched here, be it the titular song, Sandie’s rendition of “Downtown” or any number of songs I didn’t recognise but loved the use of. It’s also Wright’s best looking film yet, evoking the period setting with what looks like ease. In particular, Eloise’s room has a neon light outside which allows for multiple references to a very particular shot in Vertigo that I have gone on record about as being one of my favourite shots from any film ever. These beautiful visuals do feel hard worked for, like Wright is taking the opportunity while trying something new to also play around with the visual side and it’s an incredibly promising experiment. I’m not sure what he plans to make next, but if it continues this trajectory it will be jaw-droppingly stunning.

So surprise surprise, 22 year old film student loves Edgar Wright film. In fairness, Last Night is proving more divisive than most of Wright’s films, but it’s so completely up my street that it’s embarrassing. It’s a tale of fractured identity, messing around with time, all while being a very fun exercise in generic play. Quite simply, it’s a really grand time at the cinema and when it releases at the end of the month, it’ll be perfect for a late night Halloween watch. I’ll be right back there in the cinema with you, to enjoy the ride once again and soak in the fumes of yet another night in Soho.

Anya Taylor-Joy as Sandie and Matt Smith as Jack in Last Night in Soho (2021)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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Review – The Souvenir Part II

It’s not often that independent movies get sequels. Honestly, it’s not often that independent movies need sequels. But then again, it’s not often that movies of any scale are The Souvenir. In 2019, The Souvenir was a film that really bowled me off my feet, telling the story of a young film student named Julie and her relationship with an enigmatic yet charming man named Anthony, whose sudden disappearance at the end of the film leaves a profound mark on her life. The film can certainly stand alone but with this dramatic moment occurring in the final few scenes of The Souvenir, it is clear that there’s much still to process. In order to process that then, here is The Souvenir Part II, distinctly named so as to make it clear that this is the second half of The Souvenir and not an unnecessary expansion.

Now that most of the people who didn’t see The Souvenir are gone, it’s time to stop playing coy and talk about the end of the first film a little. Julie is still shaken by Anthony’s death and spends much of the first half of Part II talking to people Anthony knew and asking them for answers. However, Julie is also still trying to get on with her life, including graduating film school. The second half of the film then is still concerned with Anthony in some aspects, as Julie creates a final piece that borrows liberally from her relationship with her now deceased partner. This is where the brilliantly meta elements of the film really start to get folded in, as The Souvenir was originally based on a relationship that writer/director Joanna Hogg had when she was a young woman, that she (Joanna) made into a film called The Souvenir, a film which features Julie making a film out of her relationship, called The Souvenir. Confused? Don’t worry about it, there’s not too much to grasp, it all makes sense on screen even if I can’t lay it down coherently.

I believe in [Julie] completely, in every scene.

Once again, Honor Swinton Byrne plays Julie and plays her delightfully. Julie is the kind of character I should hate. She is intensely privileged, is quite unaware of the world around her and is generally a character whose gentle nature allows herself to be moved around by the machinations of the world. And yet, in Byrne’s hands that gentleness is Julie’s strength. She never feels annoying because of her wealthy lifestyle or naivety because she feels real. I believe in her completely, in every scene. The supporting cast are also terrific. Some are returning actors, like Tilda Swinton and Ariane Labed, the former in a smaller role but the latter soaring in an expanded role. My favourite returning actor though is Richard Ayoade. He essentially had a cameo in the last film, but he gets a good handful of scenes this time around and wrings all of them for both comedy and genuine pathos. It’s his best role since Paddington 2, I don’t mean that to sound like a joke. New cast members are also good, but I just remain so transfixed by Julie that it’s hard to talk about other characters in a fair way.

Poster for The Souvenir Part II (2021)

As with the first part, Part II remains a film about memory, something extra tangible due to its place as a sequel. If you have seen the first film already, I seriously recommend not re-watching it before seeing the sequel, because that maleability to your memory of the previous events is exactly what Part II works so well because of. Sets feel familiar yet uncomfortably empty, gazes are held into vacant spaces, conversations are had seeking answers to questions we may never have raised. Complicating the films relationship with memory is the new lens Hogg has also added; the camera lens. As the beautiful poster above puts it visually, Julie is the filter through which we view the film and through which she creates her own film. We’re getting into pretentious, twisty turny territory now, I appreciate, but it’s exactly this kind of thematic weaving that I love. It also means that just like the first installment, it’s an incredible feeling when scenes or shots resurface in my mind. Much as the experience of watching the film is brilliant, it lends itself very well to musing over and you know me, I love a good muse.

Hogg is totally capable of play within an emotional field, slowness is just her field of choice.

These aspects are all delivered to us through a film whose tone is once again totally dreamy. It’s quite a slow film, occasionally interspersed with some lovely little musical moments, but otherwise it is a long series of scenes where characters talk or sit quietly. I can’t emphasise this enough though, if you’re on board with the characters then you want to spend time with them, to luxuriate in their world. This softness also means that any breaks in the pattern feel genuinely shocking. There’s a scene where an item of crockery is broken and the gasp heard in the screening room was almost hilariously loud. Again, it is testament to how well the film works that it can make you legitimately jump because of the emotional connection you built with a pot. In the final act though, there is a scene which ditches this and goes for a feeling that is comparable to the finale of Twin Peaks season two. To say more would ruin it but suffice to say, Hogg is totally capable of play within an emotional field, slowness is just her field of choice.

In a way, these reviews from London Film Festival are all going to end up being really boring. Guess what, I loved The Souvenir Part II! Filtering the memories of the memories through the camera and into my soul, Joanna Hogg delivers a knockout film that even in a time when I’m inundated with brilliant films is proving to stick. Don’t watch it if you haven’t seen the first, but if you haven’t seen the first then there’s still plenty of time to watch it and let linger. I think Part II is getting a UK release in January and until I can see it again, I’m very excited to let Joanna’s film about Julie’s film percolate a while and create a delicious crema in my brain.

Honor Swinton Byrne as Julie in The Souvenir Part II (2021)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
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Review – Red Rocket

Red Rocket is the newest film from director, writer and editor (among other things) Sean Baker, after his delightful The Florida Project back in 2017. While both films are set in the trash underbelly of America though, Red Rocket is very different in tone due to ditching a loveable main character in favour of one of the worst people I have ever seen depicted in a film. This character is Mikey, a former porn star who returns to Texas to live with his ex-wife (herself also a former porn star) due to his career in Los Angeles imploding. This return is both unannounced and unwelcome, but he returns regardless into the town he once called home.

Once settled onto his mother-in-law’s sofa, it is fair to say that Mikey isn’t exactly being a model citizen. After a brilliant montage in which he spends his numerous job interviews explaining the seventeen year hole on his CV (“Google me”, he encourages his potential employers, with a twinkle in his eye), Mikey falls back into his old job dealing weed and sets about befriending any of the locals who are vulnerable enough to believe his lies. These all lead Mikey to the Donut Hole, a donut shop where Mikey meets a girl named Strawberry, who turns 18 in three weeks. In her, he sees potential. He sees a dream. He sees his possible re-entry into the very industry that sent him sprawling back to Texas. And so, he is willing to do whatever terrible thing it takes to make his return happen, careening through Baker’s brilliant script without a single compassionate gesture or thought for others. The only question is, when will the crash happen?

Red Rocket is a hangout movie starring the worst person you’ve ever met.

The script is one that largely isn’t plot motivated, which the lack of details in my description hopefully clued you in to. For a large amount of the runtime, Red Rocket feels like a hangout movie starring the worst person you’ve ever met. Fortunately, thanks to Baker’s script, it’s an incredibly funny hangout. Whether in the awkwardness of Mikey attempting to weave another lie or an extended monologue about Mikey’s resemblance to Paul Walker in The Fast and The Furious (which I obviously cackled at very loudly), Red Rocket is predominantly a comedy and a really funny one at that. The comedic elements become essential as the film moves forward, as Mikey commits worse and worse acts. I spent most of the third act in an agonisingly anxious state, which was thankfully remedied somewhat by the humour. Never remedied enough to make the audience forget what Mikey was doing, but enough to keep us on-board long enough to get to a terrific needle drop moment in the finale.

As with Sean Baker’s other films, the cast in here is largely filled with non-professional actors, although lead actor Simon Rex is a notable exception. You see, what you may not know is that in the real world, Rex is (or was) an actual porn star, an actor “gifted” in ways that your typical Hollywood star is not expected to be. Whether Rex used his experience of this industry to help fuel the dirtbag character of Mikey is unclear, but what is clear is that he is a totally magnetic presence on screen. I always find it difficult to work out with actors I’m not familiar with if they’re great at embodying their character or they simply aren’t working with any expectations on my part, but I know Rex is great because even as his character was doing worse and worse things to the people around him, I couldn’t stop watching. He brilliantly embodies the kind of person you would never want to meet but can’t help gawking at on screen. I hope he has cause to make space in his awards cabinet this awards season, adding some prestigious awards next to his no doubt beloved AVN trophies.

Red Rocket (2021) Poster

While a large amount of the watchability of Red Rocket can certainly be attributed to Rex’s swinging performance, I’m also a huge fan of the cinematography of the film. Baker has turned to new collaborator Drew Daniels for this aspect of the film, whose previous work on the sumptuous Waves has clearly helped pave the way here. While the beautiful (and I do mean genuinely beautiful) look at the trashy side of America is carried over from The Florida Project, in which characters are cast in long shots against boldly coloured and brilliantly unremarkable buildings, it’s a new sense of kineticism here I love, which was something Daniels did so well with Waves. In this case specifically, I’m talking about zooms. I know that sounds like such a specific thing to bring up, but it adds so much personality to Red Rocket. Zooms are used as punchline, as crunching realisation, as visual metaphor for the perpetual motion machine that is Mikey. They are like raisins in the cookie of the film, scattered throughout and a soft treat among the crunch.

Baker also has more treats up his sleeve for the audience, those sleeves being in the outfit of the job of editor. It’s always great to see a director who can genuinely consider themselves as auteur from spinning so many plates on a project and it’s even greater when said plate spinning works brilliantly. Editing style is typically broken down between inter- and intra-scene editing, both of which Baker excels at. The intra-scene editing is slow, the film consisting of longer than average takes, but Baker knows when to hold on a moment and when to make it fleeting enough that the next shot feels like an exciting leap forward. Likewise, the inter-scene editing is brilliant, reminding me of a slightly flashier version of the editing style in Greta Gerwig’s films. Baker will often use editing to blend the same action across two different temporal planes, showing inhalation on a cigarette in one location before cutting to show exhalation on a different cigarette on a different place. This creates a disorienting effect that works perfectly for the film, scrambling your sense of time and place. We don’t know where or when we are, only that we are riding wildly on Mikey’s coattails. Of all the brilliant things to single out in this film, I think the editing may be the most brilliant.

[Mikey] is a scumbag, through and through, but a compelling scumbag for sure. I loved following him.

I think a lot of people will hate Red Rocket. Not much happens for a large part of the film and a lot of the things that do happen are Mikey committing criminal offences of various levels of seriousness. I, however, do not care if a protagonist is likable or not, I care for the ride and what a ride Sean Baker has given us. Setting the film in 2016 gives us more than enough clues of the kind of world we’re entering into, through a shockingly effective evocation of the period (2016 period piece is a concept that makes me feel prematurely 50 though) and by the end we need no more clues as to who it is we’re spending time with. Mikey is a scumbag, through and through, but a compelling scumbag for sure. I loved following him, though I didn’t feel sorry to say bye bye bye when, after a long time coming, Mikey’s time finally came.

Simon Rex as Mikey in Red Rocket (2021)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
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