As usual in these slack days of lockdown, I had lots of time for movies this month. The ones I watched in the first couple of weeks of May 2021 are listed here: May midpoint movie roundup. The rest are here, and for the most part were on Amazon or Prime Video or whatever the heck it’s called.
The Wall (2017) is my pick of the month. It’s directed by Doug Liman (American Made, Edge of Tomorrow, The Bourne Identity etc. etc.) and written by a guy called Dwain Worrell whose only other work was writing on the rather lacklustre Iron Fist Netflix show, but there’s nothing lacklustre about this film which only has two stars if you don’t count a voiceover from Laith Nakli (also an unknown quantity in chez magpie). Those stars are ex-wrestler John Cena (Bumblebee) who gets shot by a sniper quite early on in the film (oh yeah SPOILERS! sorry) and the hugely impressive Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass, Avengers: Age of Ultron) who does all the heavy lifting in this film in much the same way as James Franco did in 127 Hours.
Rather than being pinned down by a rock, US soldier Isaac (Taylor-Johnson) is pinned down by an Afghan sniper. He takes cover behind a rickety ruined wall and tries to figure out how to get out of this sticky predicament. His buddy Matthews (Cena) is presumed KIA, his radio is broken, he has no water and has a nasty gunshot wound in his leg. Juba the crafty sniper (Nakli) talks to Isaac over his earpiece winding him up and promising to kill him or wait while he bleeds to death. The writing is tight, Taylor-Johnson is brilliant and the director makes sure there are no unnecessary drops in the tension.
The Mitchells vs. The Machines (2021) was one of only two movies on Netflix in this batch (the other being The Meg – see later). It is a great animation about a dysfunctional family who find themselves battling robots and trying to save humanity from extinction. The script and voice-acting are great and I particularly liked the mix of animation styles which reminded me a lot of Spider-Man: Into the Spidey-Verse.
Lost in London (2017) is a very clever film recorded in one take and performed live to be streamed on the night into select cinemas. Woody Harrelson stars in this comedy based on a real misadventure in London that got him locked up in a jail overnight. It has to be applauded for the technical logistics, organization and rehearsals that went into pulling this off.
Some of the acting isn’t great but Woody manages to keep all the plates spinning long enough, with some help from Owen Wilson, to get us into the prison cell where a little bit of magic happens. Willie Nelson appears in the cell as a dream-summoned mentor, the clock on the wall is switched out to show that it’s now morning and Woody is off to see one of the Harry Potter films being recorded. It’s a neat trick and a final flourish in a film perhaps more notable for its real-time execution (pulling off what Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) pretended to do) than the story.
Unlikely Hero (2009) a.k.a. Paper Man is the first of two films in this ramble to feature childhood imaginary friends. In this one Ryan Reynolds plays Captain Excellent the imaginary friend of Richard Dunn (Jeff Daniels) a struggling writer who needs to overcome writer’s block if he is ever to start (never mind finish) his second novel. Emma Stone plays the teenager Abby who Dunn asks to baby sit his non-existent child.
Dunn and Abby form a platonic bond much to her moody friend Christopher’s (Kieran Culkin) chagrin. Christopher is painfully in love with Abby, but she seems to only have eyes for this stranger in town. The film treads a careful tightrope to ensure the relationship does not come across as creepy, until it perhaps slips off just before the end. It’s an interesting film written with a nice twist Siggy and I only figured out five minutes before the reveal, directed by Kieran and Michelle Mulroney perhaps better known for Power Rangers. Stone probably has the best performance and you should not expect to see Reynolds all that much despite his prominence in the promotional material.
Franklyn (2008) is a clever film written and directed by Gerald McMorrow (nope, me neither) and starring a very moody Eva Green, a broken-hearted Sam Riley (Control), a mostly masked Ryan Phillippe (Cruel Intentions) and a concerned Bernard Hill (The Lord of the Rings) among other vaguely familiar faces. The fantastical aspects of the film (based in an imaginary place called Meanwhile City) are somewhat like Sucker Punch in that they are used sparingly with most of the action taking place in present day London and culminating on a very familiar street for me as the company I work for used to have an office there.
Given a bigger budget the film could have been a real knock out but it suffers from some not particularly impressive CG backdrops and building extensions, and some of McMorrow’s direction could do with a little more finesse. That said, the story is really good with three interconnected lines coming together very satisfactorily at the end. I won’t give too much away here but this is the other film involving the childhood imaginary friend and I’m glad I watched it after I published my new novella Richiumu as it has some similar elements to the masked man’s existence which I might have been influenced to write differently.
Godzilla: King of Monsters (2019) feels like a very very long trailer for the film everyone wanted to see even more than Batman v Superman – Godzilla vs. Kong (which I will inevitably be writing about once it goes a bit cheaper). Why Kong doesn’t actually turn up in this film is actually as much a mystery as how Godzilla can stand up in the ocean – I mean what is he standing on? Has he got extra buoyant feet? Or is he helicoptering his tail under the water?
It’s as good a film as Skull Island in that it is full of ludicrous lines, movie physics and exposition no-one really needs balanced with an enormous amount of eye-candy in the form of some balls-out creature design and a massive amount of destruction and frickin’ lasers! No-one throws a shoe, but the kitchen sink certainly is sent into orbit by the creators. The film is a bit like listening to a Crowded House greatest hits album, you know more of these Titans than you realise. A seriously pumped Godzilla, runs into a roster of humungous creatures including Mothra, Rodan, and the three-headed alien King of Monsters Ghidorah. The human players are pretty much a side show but I guess I should mention that Stranger Things‘ Millie Bobby Brown is in it. She’s probably the best actor in the cast which also includes Kyle Chandler as her dad. Although that’s not really saying much.
Manchester by the Sea (2016) also stars Kyle Chandler (as Joe) for a while until he dies and leaves his brother Lee (Oscar-winning Casey Affleck) to look after his son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). The problem is that Lee has very little interest in looking after him or being in Manchester, or indeed living a normal life surrounded by people he might need to expend emotional energy on. Michelle Williams plays Randi his ex-wife who has remarried. Randi and Lee suffered a terrible loss in a house fire which Lee blames himself for causing and has never recovered from emotionally.
Siggy and I thought this was going to be a nice romantic film but it is a pretty harrowing tale about a depressed guy who has withdrawn from life. As you’d expect, having to look after Patrick does mean that Lee reluctantly has to rediscover his emotions, but there is no heart-warming reuniting with Randi. There is an outstanding scene where Randi tries to reconnect with Lee and he simply can’t do it and rejects her offer of friendship. The film benefits from more emotional realism than the average Hollywood movie and that’s probably why writer/director Kenneth Lonergan (Gangs of New York) also won an Oscar for best original screenplay.
Dog Eat Dog (2016) on the other hand is one of those films where the trailer promises a whole lot more that the movie delivers. It’s a shame because it has all the right elements to be a great gritty crime film, an experienced director Paul Schrader (best known for writing Taxi Driver and Raging Bull) and three decent actors – Nicolas Cage, Willem Dafoe and relative newcomer Christopher Matthew Cook, and a good story.
The three play a crew of ex-cons looking for a big score who are hired by a mobster to kidnap the baby of a rival. Dafoe’s character Mad Dog is somewhat reminiscent of De Niro’s character Johnny Boy in Mean Streets i.e. a total liability, but Cage’s character, the leader of the crew Troy, doesn’t seem to recognise how much of a loose cannon he is, and Cook’s character Diesel struggles to control a coked-up Mad Dog when the brown sticky stuff inevitably hits the fan. There’s some great lines and a few cool moments but for some reason the whole thing seems like a disjointed patchwork of scenes that doesn’t add up to a particularly coherent whole.
Pokémon Detective Pikachu (2019) was an effects-heavy sci-fi action mystery very much reliant on a very strong script and brilliant voice-over performance from Ryan Reynolds in the titular role. There’s no problems here with Pikachu being as super-cute as you would expect and with so many Pokémon characters to choose from it felt a bit of a shame that more weren’t featured during 1hr 44min running time.
Bill Nighy fills the slot for the bad guy pretending to be a good guy, Justice Smith (a new face for me) plays the young man who teams up with Pikachu to find out what happened to his missing father, and Kathryn Newton (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) plays the feisty news reporter intent on getting a scoop. It’s a shame that the human characters have less dimensions that the computer generated ones, that some plot holes are cavernous and that it scores around 9/10 on the predict-o-meter.
Starfish (2019) is a debut science fiction film by director/writer A. T. White in the ’empty world’ mode. Virginia Gardner is excellent as Aubrey a grieving woman who finds herself alone the day of an alien inter-dimensional apocalypse. Left a series of mixtapes to find in the deserted town, she explores the nature of the calamity and the meaning of the signal buried in the songs.
The pacing is pretty darned slow, but there’s enough artfulness in the visuals to stop you getting too bored. You’re left wondering if this is Aubrey’s afterlife or a nightmare inspired by guilt and grief, rather than a fiddly science fiction story. Given a bigger budget, I would expect A. T. White to go on to do great things in the future.
The Meg (2018) is a nonsense film in the same kind of spirit as Godzilla: King of Monsters in which scientists accidentally release a prehistoric giant shark into waters offshore China. Jason Statham does his usual work as the plucky hero and there’s a whole bunch of shark fodder in the cast. There’s a few nods to Jaws along the way, some lousy lines and a whole lot of movie physics.
The film doesn’t take itself as seriously as Godzilla though, and so most of the ludicrous popcorn moments are easily forgiven in the spirit of fish-based fun. My favourite moment is when the meg bites into the side of a giant underwater tube made of some kind of reinforced glass and leaves a massive bite mark on its surface, and then a bloke at a computer reports “all systems are okay, no signs of damage”. Hold on, rewind…