The Report & Marriage Story – Film Reviews

The Report

Films on the retrospective history of the Iraq War are coming, and The Report is one that makes sure it picks the right side.  Adam Driver plays real person Daniel Jones, an FBI office dork working for Californian senator Dianna Feinstein (Annette Bening), performing an exhaustive investigation of the CIA’s torture of suspected terrorists in that awful post 9/11 era (still pretty bad now).  The narrative consists of a lot of reading by Jones, cut to the torture happening, then Jones taking the information back to Feinstein where they have a conflict on whether it is pertinent to publish the discoveries.

This is one of Amazon Prime’s attempts at credibility for their original titles, a drama with recognisable actors and a fair enough budget.  Unfortunately, at times the film does have the feel of a TV movie (something that Netflix is moving away from), with a terrible title sequence font and some fluff lines, Driver literally says ‘I’ll start at the beginning,’ early on in the runtime.  The direction is competent enough, and screenwriter by trade Scott Z. Burns does whatever he can to make the paperwork reading and keyboard tapping more intriguing to watch, such as including explicit torture scenes.  These moments are effective in that you are disgusted by what is happening, however they make the film unremarkable and formulaic.  It takes you out of Jones’ headspace, because we can see the torture, but he cannot, leaving the film empty of character.  One of the strengths of the 2015 film Spotlight is that director Tom McCarthy never shows any of the abuse, yet the emotion is still there, because of the scope, and weight of how the journalists cope with hearing the stories.  More ambiguously The Report is most powerful in the proceedings before the torture methods were sanctioned, where phony psychologists are pitching their ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ in a cosy meeting room in Washington.

It advances at a polite pace, and never stagnates, though it is probably twenty minutes too long, and the outcome is clear after it moves past a welcome Tim Blake Nelson cameo as a whistleblower.  At first, the impression is that Driver is playing this in a low-key manner, he’s pragmatic and calm.  Then the film becomes less about him and more about the work, so he eventually shows a great deal of frustration and anger.  This is fine, there does not always have to be a three-dimensional protagonist, it can be about the work, and effectively that’s the film: it’s about the events, not the people surrounding it.  It is placid grey colour tones and a one-sided historical presentation, which is usually a bad thing, but here it stands as worthy because it is the correct side.  Even though the film is forgettable, it is a necessary telling of a story in a mature, intellectual, fact-based way that serves as a catalog to recognise mistakes made by the US government.

Available on Amazon Prime NOW. 

Marriage Story

Noah Baumbach’s second feature with Netflix, and one plagued by Twitter discourse and awards buzz is one of the best films of the year.  It is based on Baumbach’s own divorce with actor Jennifer Jason Leigh, with some of the truth in the story being relevant, and some of it not.  Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson take on the respective roles, as trendy artist couple Charlie and Nicole, separated and going through a divorce.  The film acts as part procedural, showing the effects of the technicalities of the law, whilst also handling the delicate problem of arguments and communication in long term relationships.

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The entire film is not as formal as that description and is ultimately a full-fledged weepy.  There has always been a sweetness to Baumbach’s work, that soft-boy cuteness that you would see in an Éric Rohmer (Ma Nuit Chez Maud, Le Rayon Vert) or a Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine, Ruby Sparks) film.  In the past Baumbach has a sharp New York City wittiness alongside this sweetness, which can leave it slightly too biting, but with Marriage Story he dives headfirst into the heart and soul of the characters.  The film is definitely still witty, and extremely funny, it’s just more endearing and moving than some of his other work because he has embraced the romance.  It’s an upsetting film, with an agonizing climax, full of dramatic moments to go with scenes of levity and honesty.  You are allowed the melodramatic if you are true to reality and have space for the more absurd aspects of life, like one moment where Adam Driver has a gruesome accident with his arm.

The script is incredible, highlighted in a scene where Johannson meets divorce lawyer Laura Dern for the first time, and monologues about the problems of her relationship, seemingly in a stream of consciousness, though all preciously written by Baumbach.  It is important to note that after this scene, about a third of the way through, the film switches almost completely to the perspective of Driver, and this a strength of the movie rather than a weakness.  Baumbach is not pretending to totally understand Johansson’s character, perhaps being true to his own experience, instead he is focusing on Driver’s inability to leave his ego behind and accept his wife’s vacancies about him.  It creates an accurate depiction of a long-term relationship, the barrier that will never be broken down, that you need to let go of trying to have all the answers.

Both main performances are great, and you really forget that Johansson is an avenger and Driver is Darth Vader’s biggest fanboy or whatever.  They are acting!  Johansson in particular really pulls you onto her side, and though Driver gets to shine towards the end, she is perhaps more well-rounded in the film.  Then you have Laura Dern and Ray Liotta as the sleazy lawyers, used as pawns by Baumbach mostly, but are highly entertaining, not to mention Alan Alda stepping in for some much-needed transparency to the American divorce system.  The result is a film of expert moving parts: a tight – meaningful screenplay, poignant direction, and grounded character acting, whilst having some space to explore into less serious details.

Available on Netflix NOW, and some cinemas across the UK (probably other countries too). 

 

AFTER HOURS & being stressed out

Martin Scorsese’s new movie is coming out on Netflix, could you believe it?  The master of all masters relying on vomit-inducing exploitative true crime friends wanking twitter meme creating cinema killing Netflix to get backing to make what he wants to.  Uncanny and welcome to those dealing with French cinemas unpredictable schedules, and so myself, AND I’M SURE many others delve headfirst into one of life’s contradictions, watching an auteurs vision on your laptop, begrudgingly, as you stew in popular streaming hatred.  Can’t wait.  It has prompted a little look back on said director’s filmography, combing through the hits to find the ones that have been missed by my selective, compulsive brain.  After Hours, 1985, a cult hit known for being the Tim Burton debut that never was, taken on by a man who had won the Palme D’or with Taxi Driver and solidified bankable critically loved status with Raging Bull (he didn’t quite receive GOD-LIKE status until after 1990’s Goodfellas I should think).  At the time, the hacks probably saw it as a strange choice, however that could be the awful spin that Marty has of being a gangster man, I mean the guys made a musical.  In the 80s it could have been an obvious turn for a man with his hands in production companies’ deep pockets, back in the day when skillful filmmakers got access to trouser storage (WHERE ARE YOU DAVID FINCHER?).  Anyway, instead of contemplating on the OBVIOUSLY trampled on ground that is Scorsese’s career, why don’t I egotistically relate an odd movie from the 80’s to stressing out about logistical paperwork and phone sims, as a kind of self-therapy, repulsively introspective way of showing that I can only write about myself.

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The film is about a guy who meets a girl in a coffee shop, by her interrupting his reading to tell him how much she loves the book.  It’s an incel’s fantasy.  She covertly gives him her number, he calls her when he’s home, she invites him round, he accepts, and then a nightmare of a late-night ensues for the guy, Paul (Griffin Dunne), as he effectively bombs around Soho, NYC, trying to get his end away.  Actually, it’s more like he’s doing the exact opposite, but when the opportunity arises to get his end away, he certainly attempts to seize the opportunity.  After a while, he familiarly gets the feeling of just wanting to get home, because he gets stuck in a logistical misunderstanding dungeon whereby everyone in the neighbourhood hates him and the subway fare has suddenly increased.  Dunne is an everyman for sure, part of that beautiful era where leading men were 5 foot 7 twitchy dorks, crossing over from the seventies into a decade of muscle tight Stallone’s.  He can’t believe his luck that an attractive girl wants to hang out with him, until he discovers the catch, and tries to swiftly get away from her.  Kafkaesque would be an understatement and the horror of the uncomfortable situations are where the films protein is, yet it’s the latter stages when it becomes overwhelming where I found myself relating the most.  In the final third, Paul screams to the skies ‘I JUST WANT TO LIVE!’ and sat in my apartment I had a flashback break of trying to find a working printer in an underfunded French university, or filling out a grant form, or arguing with an American landlord over the phone, or panicking that I’m getting charged by the second for my English phone sim whilst living in a different country.

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It’s not an anxiety issue or a mental problem, it’s the stuff that gets in the way of life and it is annoying.  Paul is dealing with suicides, burglars and pseudo Femme Fatales, I’m dealing with slow replies to urgent e-mails.  I think the term is subtext, and I AM absolutely convinced that After Hours is about being stressed about life, and menial irritating tasks that add nothing of value to comfort or satisfaction.  Paul has a boring job, he’s a word processor (RIP), and the one chance he has to do something exciting is crushed by dull problems, such as losing his keys or GETTING HIS HAIR SHAVED INTO A MOHAWK IN A TERRIFYING PUNK CLUB.  The razor blade to the skull is when it bubbles to a far greater worry, a far greater fear that definitely wasn’t in the zeitgeist back then like it is now.  Scorsese makes timeless, eternal works of art of course.  I’m talking about climate change, the planet is screwed with no-one making meaningful policy changes to stop it, thinking about a future of swimming to a job you don’t like rather than walking to it.  It’s compound stress on top of all the other pointless shit, and it’s about the only thing worth getting worried about.  The longevity of the human race and the legacy of what you leave behind trumps the fear of death, and what you’re going to do with a media degree when you hate journalism and working for other people.  It’s kind of a twisted relief, and with some complexity, the paperwork takes your mind off the graduating, then the graduating takes your mind off the paperwork, and then the polar bears going extinct takes your mind off the inevitable half of century in the workforce and then dementia at the end of it.  At least we have films by great directors about grimy city settings, and sub-cultures you’re not a part of, swilling at the bottom of a glass, created by artists that can develop these worlds in their minds and restrict access to those clad in a suit and tie.  After Hours is a film of its time, because I think New York City isn’t a constant crime-ridden Halloween anymore?  I don’t know.  The film can be attributed to representing those lovely first world problems, lovely privileged and BORED day to day issues that make living unbearable and the relentless end to it much more inviting.  Also, the lighting is gorgeous and it’s shot better than any film that has come out post 2000.

Five Inspiring First Watches of July

A few words on a few things that have inspired me in July…

 

Face PlacesAgnes Varda

Came out in… 2017

Watched on… Netflix

The first of two Agnes Varda films on this list, and truly a beautiful movie.  I will talk of my affection for Agnes later in this piece, for now, let’s focus on the film.  It is a categorically French documentary, blending soft reality techniques with staged narrative-driven set pieces, guiding us through small-town France meeting the people that actually live in this world.  Agnes and co-creator JR paste large photos on walls, building an adorable relationship, touching on aging, fame, art and the oh so sweet simple life that I am eternally jealous of.  The film is on Netflix, a French stroke of genius, that is incredibly watchable and universal right there waiting for everyone.

 

The Elephant Man

Came out in… 1980

Watched on… Mubi

I have had a level of trepidation about watching The Elephant Man for a while, mostly out of fear, and films don’t scare me easily, but David Lynch does.  He is one of my favourite filmmakers, because of his attitude to the process and the allure of his personality rather than his actual output, so why was The Elephant Man so intimidating to me?  Perhaps due to the image of the disfigured man, that everyone has seen, or the inevitable dull melodrama that a story like this brings.  I was wrong on the second point, and in the end this film might be Lynch’s greatest achievement as an artist, pragmatically at least.  He took the predictable tale of an abused misfit taken in, cared for, and transformed, and made it into a magical experience that is as strange as it is uplifting.  Legendary film critic Pauline Kael praised the film because Lynch created something marvellous from a zilch script, and of course I agree, however I would not recommend watching this at 10am on a Tuesday, it was a teary morning.

Midsommar

New release in cinemas

I wrote a full review of this here, so I’ll keep it brief.  The film is a fishless aquarium, with a breathing ecosystem waiting for it.  Sign me up.  Take your well-rounded characters and structured plot and throw it away, give me the green plant wrapping around the throat of the unsuspecting audience.

The Edge

New release

Rented on… Amazon, also available on YouTube, iTunes and Google Play

It’s very hard to write this without being incredibly biased.  This documentary is about the 2009-2013 England cricket team, a side that was the best in the world for a short time, a side that gave a lot of their life away to get there.  If you are a cricket fan, you will enjoy the film, because it highlights what makes the game special.  I love cricket, and I love that particular era of English cricket even more, so obviously I was gripped throughout.  However, there is space for the non-cricket fan, with the film focusing on the mental toll that the sport takes on a player, showing what it takes to achieve greatness.  Director Barney Douglas does a good job of presenting the mind games and struggles that many of that team went through by going away from archive footage to shoot staged scenes with the actual players.  The film leaves a lot out, and it’s tight in its execution, working for the uninitiated as well as the fanatic.

Varda by Agnes

New release in cinemas

Also available to rent on the BFI Player

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Started with Agnes, and now finishing with her, as she ends her career by creating a retrospective of her own work.  The film is basically the legendary director talking to crowds about her output over the years, and the process, whilst she plays around a little.  What is instantly striking is her genius as a filmmaker, someone who was always messing with the form, trying a new thing with each film.  She is an artist who makes me happy and now that she is gone, this film will stay as a reminder for how wonderful she and her work was.  The sweetest parts of the film are when she talks of her late husband, another French filmmaking hero, Jacques Demy, a man who after decades is still the most important thing to her.  Her friendships and collaborations are also striking, showing that human interaction and love will never be beaten by a camera lens or the relentless passing of time.

 

 

 

 

 

Midsommar – Film Review

American director Ari Aster has followed up quickly to his debut feature Hereditary, a cultural and monetary success, making a profit of almost eight times its budget.  The film performed particularly well in the UK, generating around seven million, after being marketed as the scariest movie since The Exorcist (1973).  Of course, like the seventies classic, Hereditary’s scares were not its greatest attribute, yet the film was cruel, despairing and different to most mainstream horrors.  The film played to big, multiplex audiences and was somehow successful with them, so Aster got bankrolled to try it again.  With Midsommar, the world and Boris Johnson riddled Britain may not connect as tightly.

The film stars Florence Pugh as Dani, who begins the film worrying about her troubled sister whilst worrying about her boyfriend dumping her.  That boyfriend is Christian (Jack Reynor), a grad student struggling to find a thesis subject.  He is planning a trip with his friends to Sweden, to visit fellow student Pelle’s (Vilhelm Blomgren) isolate home community during a summer festival that only happens every ninety years, but Christian has not told Dani about the trip.  Due to a traumatic event early on in the film, Christian is forced to bring Dani along and they head to Halsingland, Sweden.  The trip is part academic, with one of Christian’s friends Josh (William Jackson Harper) doing his own Ph.D. on the commune.  It is soon apparent the strange activities of the community, and Dani begins to relive her trauma, whilst the others study the celebration.

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The film opens bleakly, and before the trip to Europe, which is an interesting choice and it says something about what Aster was striving for.  It is common for a genre filmmaker to throw you right into the action, disregard what comes before, and after, to show the thrills of the main event without any baggage.  Aster decides to structure his films slightly different, by having relationship drama first, then a long moody build-up, then the main event, then catastrophic end.  His formula can be criticised because it feels almost like he has a deep set up, just to have an exclamation point resolution: sorrow, intrigue, flowers, MIDSOMMAR!   Aster has described Midsommar as a break – up movie, rather than a cult chiller, and perhaps the director could be running away from his own genre with this statement.  Aster does not have to be so pretentious in his estimations of his own work, sure there’s an impending break – up in there, but that’s not the film.  The film really isn’t anything, it’s a lot of good ideas expertly presented, that paints an intriguing surface.

It would be unfair to say that there is nothing beneath that surface, and in the time the film will be judged on its ideas of death and community, instead of break-ups and trauma.  The relationship between Dani and Christian is clearly flawed, and they are obviously a poor fit together, with the film being unambiguous in this.  Christian is impossibly absent of any actual care for Dani and his abrasiveness has made him a Twitter meme, which is surely not what Aster was aiming for if he wanted the pulling the apart of the two characters to be taken seriously.  That is the strength of the film, and why it is ultimately worthy amongst summer 2019’s abysmal cinema.  Midsommar throws away any attachments to message or plot about two-thirds of the way through, and honestly this was a breath of fresh air.  If you take the film as a total visual experience, which is a culmination of a collection of emotion transgressed through humour, stunning imagery, and shocking sights, you will be satisfied.  There is a sense of the levity to Midsommar and it has funny shots, and lines.  It would be wrong to label this film as a comedy, and it’s there to let the audience know that Aster’s aware it’s a bit bonkers too.  At least I hope he does.  The scariest part of the movie is when Christian effectively steals Josh’s thesis subject, and it’s a shame Aster didn’t explore it more.  And what do the cult believe?  That humans and nature are one presumably, life is a cycle of reliving through the environment around you.  Some subtly finally occurs in the climax, bizarrely and contradictory to what is happening in the frame, where questions are being asked on how far Dani has been enchanted by the cult, and how much control she has of her actions.  One thing that is picked at by Aster is the idea that Dani’s situation, and to a lesser extent Christian’s, is dictated by events out of their control that is epitomised by the peculiar routines and traditions of the community.

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The performances in Midsommar line up with the direction.  Pugh is given the most to do, and apart from some over-zealous screaming she is convincing and brings strong ecstatic energy during a dancing competition scene, which is the highlight of the film.  She manages to be uplifting and curious, amongst the community that is instantly seen to be dangerous, remained worried whilst also being courteous, where the American boys are mocking.  Reynor is playing a one-sided character and only gets to do something different when his back is against the wall towards the end of the film.  Will Poulter is the non-academic snide member of the group, there for the comedy and to push Christian further into egotism.  The rest of the characters are fairly shallow, which ultimately isn’t a total flaw because of Asters show don’t tell eyes.  It’s hard to understand whether he is actually ‘telling’ something or only ‘showing’, however the film has a good balance between giving the actors space to breath and letting them get lost in the impressive cinematography.  And Aster uses the Swedish characters as pawns to hold the shot composition together, as much as they are there to frighten.

Midsommar has already made a million in the UK, showing some steam, but it may still prove to be a flop.  The film will struggle to utilise the word of mouth power that Hereditary got, considering the film has zero attempts to pander to a wide audience.  Aster has this weird higher standard to which critics hold him to, possibly due to his quick success or the way his films are marketed as cultural events, and the remarkability of his movie’s technical achievements are forgotten.  Without him, there would be no salvage in the mainstream from franchise, conglomerate studio shite, and so he deserves a little appreciation.

 

Is it worth the price of a cinema ticket?

Yes.  Two and a half hours flew by, and it’s enjoyable whether you have the stomach for it or not.

 

 

 

To What Extent is Netflix Challenging the Validity of Conventional Film Criticism in Assessing the Value of Contemporary Cinema? (Essay)

Foreword:  This is a fully sourced, 3161-word essay on Netflix, that I wrote for a University assessment.  It received a first class grade, and I think that it handles the topic pretty well.  The main obstacle holding the essay back is the lack of meaningful academic research on the subject of Netflix and film, as most of the investigations on the platform revolve around TV.  Nevertheless, it is a burgeoning debate, and an interesting one if you follow the world of cinema, and having failed to sell this thing to any kind of publication, it will die a slow death on here where perhaps another student can find something within it.

Essay

The value of cinema is weighed on by two successes: financial and critical.  These two successes can intertwine, and occasionally what is popular is also deemed as artistically valid.  However, in an increasingly media saturated world where a wealth of content is at our fingertips, the artistic accomplishment of a piece of work could be irrelevant.  The voice of the film critic is perhaps dying, when we live in a society that no longer requires human gatekeepers for entertainment media, news media, or common opinion.  Netflix is the catalyst for this saturation and the instantaneous access of an unfathomable choice of movies to watch in the comfort of your own home, with it not only being a back catalogue of existing titles, but in recent years Netflix’s own original efforts, and own distribution method (McDonald and Smith-Rowsey, 2016).  This idea of choice is questionable, and to truly understand Netflix’s model, you have to try and decipher their techniques, which is not an entirely easy task, and Ramon Labato says in his book ‘Netflix Nations: The Geography of Digital Distribution’: “While Netflix is an established global brand with 20 years of history, there is still very little agreement about what Netflix is or how it should be understood by the public, scholars, or media regulators,” (Laboto, 2019).  What is clear is Netflix’s popularity and dominance, as they have 137.1 million users as of 2018, their net profit in 2018 was $403 million, and they take up 51% of the market share for streaming services (Iqbal, 2019).   Their ‘Netflix originals’ have broken through to the mainstream, with their 2018 release Bird Box becoming an example of a ‘chat around the water cooler’ kind of popular culture (Bird Box, 2018).  And yet the film received a middling reaction from critics, and appears to add nothing of significance to its genre, so its success is confusing, though it is almost impossible to gauge its actual scientific success, because there are zero box office figures when it comes to video on demand.  On the other end of the spectrum is the film Roma, not a Netflix original but distributed by them, and except for a short, select cinema release, is only available to view on the platform (Roma, 2018).  The film has been hailed by some critics as a masterpiece, was nominated for ten academy awards, winning three, and therefore its critical success is obvious, and outweighs its success in becoming a discussion point in the mainstream like Bird Box.  This is the starting point in wondering whether the values we put on contemporary cinema are changing.

To begin to understand Netflix’s impact on cinema, there must be a look at how the platform works.  As of April 2019 (it changes every month), there are 3,658 movies on Netflix in the United Kingdom (Cook, 2019).  On the homepage (of the desktop version) you can see a total of 228 films if you scroll to the very end of each section (Netflix.com).  This shows the disparity in what is instantly viewable when you first log onto the Netflix, compared to the amount of films that are on the platform.  Netflix’s system of recommendation is what dictates some of what is visible on the homepage, and so what a user is most likely to choose is algorithmic.  This creates the idea that there is a ‘myth of choice’ on the platform, that all of these titles are diluted down to a select few, through the analysation of the audience.  In ‘The Netflix Effect’ Sarah Arnold discusses the ‘data-fication’ of users, whereby viewing figures can be measured more accurately than ever before, which can lead to a predictable audience (McDonald and Smith-Rowsey, 2016).  She notes that Netflix subscribers can be reduced to “characteristics, attributes, and a narrow set of identities,” meaning that Netflix is putting a quick judgement on what a user would like to see, and the algorithm can work after one movie viewing, or one positive rating by the user.  Consequently a Netflix subscriber is more often than not going to be watching similar things, or at least what Netflix is recommending to them, which produces a strange relationship between consumer and seller.  Netflix has become a new gatekeeper for content intake by the masses, by partly cutting out the middle man, the middle man being the critic or the box office numbers.  On a rudimentary level they have almost negated word of mouth, and moulded the word of Netflix.  From this ‘data-fication’ of audiences Netflix can understand mainstream behaviours and wants as a whole, and thus re-create what the masses want.  Of course this is not a completely new phenomenon in the movie business, because since the dawn of cinema Hollywood have been producing genres that are contemporaneously trendy, from film noir to westerns to buddy cop movies to violent male driven indies to superhero movies.  An interesting add-on about Netflix is that they are aiming for the easy monetary win, but also a lot of their ‘Original’ titles and back catalogue are low budget, niche affairs, however the audience’s discovery of these films is on themselves.  Subsequently there is a separate category on Netflix of forgotten films that has spawned a new kind of film journalism, where countless ‘Top ten Netflix movies you have haven’t seen’ features are published every week (agoodmovietowatch, 2019).  And this is an example of media synergy, Netflix being a perfect tool for it, where internet brands can go hand in hand to help one another financially (Dong, 2019).  The movie news and reviews website ‘Film School Rejects’ has a partnership with Netflix, where they constantly promote Netflix films, and are therefore granted access to interviews/preview information on what Netflix is working on (Filmschoolrejects.com).  If popular contemporary cinema is becoming more centred on video on demand, then it is important to note how online media synergy can elevate certain platforms, and movies, through social media and online journalism.

Inevitably Twitter and sites like ‘Film School Rejects’ could be key in how a Netflix films gains serious traction in the day to day mainstream, never mind the covert algorithms of recommended sections and carefully crafted homepages.  The symbiotic online relationship that culture websites have with Netflix is fuel for pushing exactly what Netflix wants at the top of the pile, whereas the time and space between a cinema release and a Tweet can halt the process of promotion.  If you take a look at social media, aside from partnerships with film websites, Bird Box utilised tools like Twitter very well.  The film has a definite hook in its plot, a hook movie producers get excited about, where the characters cannot be harmed by the dangers of the world (the ‘creatures’) if they don’t look at them, and the main protagonists use blindfolds for this.  Consequently it created the ‘Bird Box challenge’, which entailed doing tasks whilst blindfolded, recording it, and uploading the video to social media.  It quickly became a meme, gaining millions of views from all corners of the world, and Netflix had to tweet warning people not to injure themselves doing it, also stating that they didn’t know how it started.  There is a naivety to saying that the challenge originated itself, as Netflix and the filmmakers would have been acutely aware of the motif, and hook they were creating with the blindfolds (Shoard, 2019).  It’s a gimmick and a starting point for audiences when they are discussing the film with their family and friends.  Furthermore this overnight internet trend highlights the power Netflix has in putting something at the centre of the cultural zeitgeist, because Netflix is so interconnected with the online world. Within a few clicks a user could go from a short article fluffing Bird Box, or a 30 second challenge video, to watching the film, which could partly explain the astronomical numbers that Bird Box pulled in.  According to a claim made by Netflix and later verified by TV measurement company Nielsen, 26 million accounts viewed the film (minimum 70% through the runtime) in the first seven days of its release in the US, and 45 million worldwide, but the second statistic has not been independently verified (Loughrey, 2019).  It is their second best reach for a Netflix original, after Sci-Fi series Stranger Things.  Although Netflix are able to share their data on a success, they are less inclined to share viewing numbers on something less successful.  Their only figure for Roma is that 50% of accounts in Mexico viewed the film, which means nearly 4 million, making it the second most viewed film in the country, behind Bird Box (Barnes, 2019).  The lack of information on Roma’s numbers as a whole is an indication of its lack of an audience outside of Mexico (its success in Mexico is unsurprising considering the visionary behind it, Alfonso Cuaron, is a national treasure there).  And of course the basic answer to the question as to why Bird Box is so popular globally, compared to Roma, is that Bird Box is a generic accessible thriller with a recognised star (Sandra Bullock), and Roma is a black and white, small plot film not in the English language.  However the more pressing questions are how Bird Box got so much attention, and how are the values of contemporary cinema changing when a film as applauded as Roma is only available on small screens, where it loses a sense of place in history.

That sense of place is one of the key issues with films distributed on Netflix, and the odd ownership that they have over something that has been classed of artistic importance.  Roma got a small, almost privileged theatrical release, where you had to live nearby a particular arthouse cinema to have any chance of seeing it on the big screen.  Other than that it is only watchable on whatever screen and internet set-up audiences have at their home, streaming the film through Netflix, there is no DVD, Blu-ray, or any trace of physical copy available.  Therefore, Netflix effectively owns a string of computer codes when it comes to the film, which means its place in history is fragile.  The film is loved almost universally by critics, having a 96% Rotten Tomatoes rating, a statistic collated from 357 adjudicated professional reviews (Rotten Tomatoes, 2019).  Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian gave it five stars, and described it as ‘a densely realised, intimate drama developing in what feels like real time.’ (Bradshaw, 2018).  Editor of Little White Lies magazine David Jenkins said in his review that ‘It stands as testament to the awe-striking complexity of humankind.’ (Jenkins, 2018).  In all of the Roma reviews there is a recurring theme that the film is totally cinematic – Cuaron’s use of widescreen, the endless depth of field and the extraordinary sound design built for Dolby speakers being examples of this.  Yet only a lucky few got to see it in cinemas, with Netflix taking away the opportunity to get the full experience of the film, and Bradshaw notes that Netflix has been accused of ‘supressing the big-screen identity of its own product.’  Netflix users are relying on their bandwidth to watch the film in full resolution, and the strength of their in-built laptop speakers to enjoy the scope of the narrative.  Ergo Netflix are diluting a filmmaker’s message down, with simple technicalities of their platform.  It was not only the critics that loved the film, awards ceremonies did too.  The most prestigious of them all, the Oscars (Academy Awards) gave Roma ten nominations, and three wins: Best Director for Cuaron, Best Cinematography for Cuaron, and Best Foreign Language Film (The Irish Times, 2019).  Even though Netflix proudly champions Roma’s critical success, plaudits of this kind are almost irrelevant to them because the film hardly broke into the mainstream.  If you compare this to the critical response to Bird Box, it becomes obvious that for Netflix it doesn’t really matter what the critics say.  Amy Nicholson of The Guardian gave the film two stars and called it a ‘disappointingly clunky waste of a star-studded cast,’ and it has a 63% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, collated from 147 critics (Nicholson, 2018) (Rotten Tomatoes, 2019).  This cold response from critics does not match the film’s success on Netflix, and interestingly the audience score on Rotten Tomatoes is 59%, from 6,354 user ratings.  It is a tiny sample of the amount of people that watched the film, and completely unreliable, but it gives the impression that the regular Netflix subscriber was not thrilled by the movie.  Furthermore, it is possibly showing that what is valuable is completely changing when it comes to Netflix products, with something not necessarily having to be good for it to be successful.  It is less and less about the art, and more about how you can package and market it in an online world.

The value of a critic is not entirely going away.  In Roland Barthes essay ‘Writers, Intellectuals, Teachers’ he is assessing the danger of cultural evaluation, when it creates a split between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, or the privileged and the desperate, the educated and the unaware (Barthes, 1971).  He says: ‘Cultural Criticism, that is, must be impatient, it cannot be carried on without desire,’ which concludes his point in the essay that criticism cannot be given up on, despite it creating a gap between classes of people, it must continue to serve.  The void between those that respect and follow a critic’s view, and those that are ignorant to it is larger than ever, with the latter sitting in the mainstream with Netflix.  Therefore critical response is not invalid, but perhaps blunt to the power in numbers that Netflix has and their only real scrutiny has come from the old guard of cinema.  Legendary director Steven Spielberg shot out at Netflix, saying in an ITV News interview: ‘I don’t believe films that are just given token qualifications in a couple of theatres for less than a week should qualify for the Academy Award nomination,’ (ITV News, 2018).  He believes that Netflix releases should not have the same value as theatrical ones, and whether they are good films or not they have committed themselves to the television format.  This superior thinking again shows the gap between films ruling classes – the cinephile and the mainstream audiences.  Netflix responded to Spielberg say that they ‘love cinema,’ and what is important to note is that Netflix loves diverse cinema (Pulver, 2019).  It is easier for Spielberg to get his family blockbuster movies into cinemas, and less easier for other directors, such as Cuaron.  He questioned after his Golden Globes win, how many theatres he could get a film like Roma into (no recognised stars, not in the English language etc), and its paradoxical to think that Netflix are simultaneously lessening value of films whilst also allowing chance for films with more artistic value to obtain a bigger audience (Variety, 2019).  And arguably the greatest director of his generation Martin Scorsese has also made a film for Netflix coming out in 2019, but it’s not only these recognised artists getting a chance on Netflix, minority voices are getting backed on the platform as well.  Bird Box is directed by a woman, Susanne Bier, and female directors are still sparse in Hollywood.  It has films from Gareth Evans and Duncan Jones as well, other directors who have struggled to get their films financed (Netflix.com).  This quantity, variety and scope of Netflix releases means that major critical organisations cannot ignore them.  In the editorial of the May 2019 issue of Sight and Sound, Nick James writes how the Cannes Film Festival and others can keep their purity by dismissing Netflix films, but Sight and Sound cannot, because of the quality and interest in the works on the platform (James, 2019).  He writes how they must be selective of what they review, because of the sheer amount of film releases available to cover, meaning that Netflix is taken over cinema so much that the critics cannot keep up with them.  Respected magazines like Sight and Sound have to put value on video on demand movies because of the inevitable strength of them, and so critics in this sense give films a value they would be missing if they were un-reviewed.  Ultimately though there is little evidence to show they will sway a Netflix films impact on popular culture.

In conclusion Netflix is changing cinema in many ways, and one of them is the disregard of praise or criticism in taking away or giving value to contemporary cinema.  It all comes down to what is deemed as valuable, is it artistic accomplishment, transgressive meaning, culture changing or monetary success.  Some would argue that the days when a film is of artistic quality and mainstream popularity is long gone, and that contemporary films are worse than ever.  Netflix is not fully to blame for this view, their power to be successful with a poor product because of interconnect-ability online is slightly separate.  The climax to the first stage of the decade dominating Marvel cinematic universe Avengers: Endgame broke all box office records easily, and is deeply engrained into the systems of society (Boxofficemojo.com, 2019).  It is an expertly made film, but has its criticisms, such as being a silly distraction to real world realities, having abhorrent moralities around grief, and it ensures Disney’s complete monopolisation of the movie business (Brody, 2019).  A film journalist has to prepare for some flak from the fans if they publish a negative review of the film, even questioning its issues causes them to receive tweets about how they do not know how to have fun (Shoard, 2019).  And this is what is at the heart of popular culture, the centre of what people see and talk about, the validity of the product is clear when it is shaping the world around us.  And in the end, critics struggle to place value in the world other than in their niche group of readers, who can speak of the greatness of Roma without really being heard, living in their own analytic entity.  D. N. Rodowick sums this up perfectly in the preface to the second edition his book ‘The Crisis of Political Modernism,’ he says: ‘reading (critically) is a performative act, and an active construction of meaning, that not only challenges the preferred meanings of contemporary media, but also helps us recognise, and sometimes create, the utopian anticipation of forms of subjectivity, and way of thinking and desiring, that are occluded in contemporary society,’ (Rodowick, 2019).  This was written in 1994, but applied to this essay, it realises the value of film criticism, or any criticism, is situated around form and content, the messages between the photo print, no matter where it comes from.  Netflix may be a new machine to show the large audiences controlled, autonomous products, that they will unknowingly ingest, but criticism remains the same in revealing the products weight in the world.

 

Bibliography

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Mid90s – Film Review

There are many reasons why smaller, independent movies are not marketed well, the two main ones being budget, and the obscurity of the film. This has not been a problem for Mid90s, all thanks to its writer and director Jonah Hill. The stardom of Hill has meant that he has been able to chat to the likes of Jimmy Fallon on late night American TV (and subsequent widespread YouTube audience) about his directorial debut, to really push the narrative of an actor learning from the masterful directors he has worked with. However this does not mean that his film isn’t a weird indie, it is, and it is actually quite mental.

The film stars Sunny Suljic as Stevie, a young teenager struggling to find his image under constant physical abuse from his older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges). He starts to hang out with a group of skaters, who are a small group of friends all with their own individual personalities, and issues. With these guys, Stevie gets a fast track through puberty, and he learns some truths about life.

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Jonah Hill is throwing everything in here, every kind of shot, cut, character motivation and music choice.  There is no single road that the film goes down, and it makes the film quite messy rather than artistic. For a majority of the runtime, it feels like a music video, and the soundtrack for the film must have forty tracks on it because the tune changes every scene.  It’s not a good music video either, I was expecting a rhythm between the action and the song choice, more connectivity with the beats and the skateboarding. After watching Minding the Gap a couple of weeks ago, where the skateboarding moments are stunning, Mid90s doesn’t come close to the melody that documentary has. It’s not all bad, some of the frantic cutting with the cycle of mixed songs works, particularly in a party scene where the edit is synchronised with the music. Most of it is jarring, and the biggest surprise of Mid90s is that it’s a scratchy independent movie, with rough edges and obvious signs that it is a first time director.  This is in complete contrast with Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut A Star is Born, which is a polished affair from a popular actor turned director, and honestly it’s difficult to decide which is the least obnoxious.  And that’s the thing, Mid90s is an unpleasant movie, without real drama or ideas to warrant its unpleasantness.

There are a few problematic moments in the film. We discover very early on that Stevie self-harms, in any way that he can, and this is where the film falls down.  There is no problem in having this is in cinema, but Hill is resting on it to guide the film and Stevie’s character, and it was too much after he had already established the abuse he receives from his brother.  A lot of the film is too much, where Hill is almost writing to one-up himself with each scene, putting his characters through pointless recurring pain. Another problematic moment is during an intimate scene between an older girl and Stevie, and it’s not because of the content but because of the choices Hill made.  He chose to cast a child who looks young for his age, and he chose to cast an attractive actress, and he chose to shoot a close-up of them kissing.  The ‘what if the roles were reversed’ argument is stupid, and there is a defence for Hill on that, because of the obvious sexual maturity differences in an older guy grooming a younger girl compared to an older girl grooming a younger guy.  It’s the idea of this stereotypically beautiful woman wanting to have sexual contact with a younger boy because he’s innocent that makes it uncomfortable, and it would have been acceptable if Hill hadn’t moulded the scene to be so overtly sexual.  The scene comes across as sleazy, and perverse, instead of the intended intention of showing a natural part of growing up.

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There is an interesting film in there somewhere – one of the skater’s Ray (Na-kel Smith) is a lovely character with something to say, but as soon as he says something Hill seems to forget about it and go back to his child getting drunk or being abused.  Much of the promotion in this film has included the bond between Hill and Suljic, but Hill sure does put him through some trauma.  Katherine Waterson as Stevie and Ian’s mother is the best part of the movie, and she is an extraordinary actor when used correctly.  Her character’s mystery of whether her kids’ problems are her fault is actually presented in a nuanced fashion, dissimilar to everything else in the film.  My instant reaction Mid90s was probably harsh because I’d much rather be in a world where filmmakers are making trickier things like this over safer efforts, there is just a lack of execution.  Hill has taken on the teachings of the great directors he’s worked for (Scorsese, Coen Brothers, Bennett Miller, etc), but perhaps he could have left out a few lessons.  The film is not funny, exciting, emotional or profound like it thinks it is, and although some of the coming of age stuff is fine, it’s not good enough to carry the other themes.  Mid90s is irritating, brash and unpoetic, which earns Hill respect for trying, but leads to a movie that is hard to enjoy.
Is it worth the price of a cinema ticket?
No.  It’s rubbish.  I’m not even sure you can sell this to the skateboarder either, Hill sort of loses it as a motif about half-way through. Watch Minding the Gap instead, which is a far greater investigation into masculinity, race, abuse, and friendship with skateboarding at the centre.

Us – Is Being Less Scary, and More Funny, a Bad Thing?

The short answer is no, of course not, and the short take on Us is that it is great – an accomplished piece of work and a crowd pleaser. Jordan Peele has proven himself to be a skilled director, but the man just can’t help but be funny. He’s got joke blood running through his veins, that is transforming into his screenplays, except that Us is certainly funnier than Get Out, so it must be a conscious decision on some level. The real question is how detrimental is this to the drama, or the emotional engagement of the film.

Lupita Nyong’o stars as Adelaide Wilson, a member of constantly bickering but functional family, and someone burdened with childhood drama. She’s married to Gabe, the walking talking version of a dad joke, and is the mother of two idiosyncratic children. Whilst returning to the location where her trauma took place, she begins to relive her troubles, until her worst nightmare comes true when a doppelganger family appears to torment them.

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The film on a base level is terrific. It is a well-made, well-performed addition to the horror cannon and thoroughly entertaining. From the outset Peele replicates the energy from Get Out with fluid and rhythmic filmmaking, there is even a moment where Adelaide shows her son how to get in beat with a song, and as an audience you match that too. The film takes its time to get to the crux of the story, but it is not a slow build, thanks to some clever writing and interesting shot choices – Peele is putting things into place for later, such as Adelaide switching on the lights to cut to the room being flipped around. And when the plot gets going, we have spent enough time with the main family to care when their lives are in danger. The relationship dynamic between Adelaide and Gabe is a strange one, however possibly explainable. Gabe is wonderfully played by Winston Duke, and making his third only big-screen appearance he is the perfect nerdy dad. He’s cringe-worthy to his children, annoying to his wife, but likeable and endearing. His character as a whole though is basically a joke and around for much of the humour, even poking fun at Adelaide when she explains her trauma to him. They seem like a mismatched couple, because Adelaide is cool and reserved, while Gabe is a massive dork, and I know – opposite’s attract right? I was just thinking why on earth she would go for this guy. An answer could be that her lack of social skills goes well with is outgoing, loser attitude, but I think it’s valid to wonder if the intensity of the film is blunter because of their lack of a connection.
What the film manages to do is dodge the Gabe character being pointless, by making him genuinely hilarious. I’ve tried to tackle comedy before, and it’s tough, because how do you describe funny? Duke’s timing works, Peele’s a comic genius, and above all else people that are likeable and silly are funny. There you go. He’s not the only source of humour though, there are plenty of physical and musical gags as well, and these moments got the whole cinema laughing, so much so that there was an overlap to where they were still giggling when something more horror-fuelled was going on. Is that a bad thing? If you would have asked me that question after I saw Three Billboards in Ebbing, Missouri, I would have said yes, totally the jokes take away from the emotion of that film. However with Us I didn’t feel that way at all, and I know why, it’s because of how funny the comedy is, and the competence of the directing. I don’t want to dog on Three Billboards too much, I’ve done that several times before, but the directing in that film is dull, and Peele’s directing in Us is precise and interesting. Even something as simple as the family walking to the beach was shot with style, choosing to take the camera in a god’s eye view position. The film is lit superbly, with the night time horror scenes not being so dark that we couldn’t get a good look at the action, and the editing really astounded me – the climactic fight was remarkable in the way that it was cut together. So my take is that when you have such expert film-making on the go, you can blend humour, and horror, and drama altogether, you’ve earned the right to do so. And when you have an actor at the top of the game like Elizabeth Moss in there as well, you’re really onto a winner.

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I think that overall the film is an entertaining thriller that has contradicted some of my criticism that you can’t put comedy and character drama together. The film doesn’t have any real scares, and it’s exciting rather than spooky, also Peele was skimping a bit on the gore. It’s gruesome enough but a couple of times he shied away from the violence, and it didn’t add anything, which made my sick side wish that I got to see the throat being cut open. I don’t come from a position where I can accurately pick apart the films underlying race themes, or its attempt to present the United States as a whole. What I can say is that the way it presented trauma through the Adelaide character worked for me, thanks to a pretty amazing performance from Lupita Nyong’o. She is a screen grabbing actor, almost ethereal and mystifying, in both of the roles she is playing in this film. Peele hasn’t created a ground-breaking movie that perhaps he did with Get Out, because everything is a little vague and the plot runs away with itself at the end. Get Out was more purposeful and despite my enjoyment of Us, some of the horrors were lost at the expense of humour, but the impression I got is that Peele was going for that. Instead of something profound he’s gone for something more genre specific, and punched himself into horror history.