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Watched: 22 December

An engaging, low-budget drama about two Korean brothers – and more generally about racism experienced by Korean people in Los Angeles – that is set against the backdrop of the 1992 LA riots. It’s crisply shot in black-and-white, and the look of the film had me recalling several notable indies that were actually made in the early 1990s, so it seems to me like a good stylistic choice. The script is occasionally a little bit on-the-nose, particularly when writer/director Justin Chon is seeking to establish and then resolve conflicts between his characters, but even when the film is at its most heavy-handed at least Chon is trying to say something about Los Angeles and racism in America. Worth a look. (***½)

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Watched: 20 December

A shame, really, that Thomas Alfredson ran out of something (Time? Money?) while making The Snowman – you can tell that some scenes in this police procedural are missing, presumably having never been shot, and ultimately the film fails badly because of its resulting incoherence. It’s not abysmal, though, despite what some people would have you believe; for one thing there’s some stunning cinematography to enjoy here, on a par with anything in Alfredson’s last two films. But Michael Fassbender struggles to do much with his character, a cliche of a detective who is fighting various inner demons, while with the exception of JK Simmons the supporting players (Val Kilmer, Chloe Sevigny, Toby Jones et al) are all horribly miscast. (*½)

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Watched: 20 December

Among other things, this film highlights Robert Altman’s adaptability and diverse approach to filmmaking during the late 1960s and early 1970s; That Cold Day In The Park – a Vancouver-set mix of melodrama, suspense and clashing cultures – sits in his filmography between 1968’s Countdown (a low-key sci-fi drama) and the risky 1970 Vietnam War allegory M*A*S*H – and it’s hard to imagine three more different films being made by anyone else in such a short space of time. Sandy Dennis stars here, playing Frances, a woman from an ‘old money’ family who takes pity on a young hippie (Michael Burns) after spotting him shivering in the park overlooked by her large apartment. She invites him in and he becomes a mute house guest, returning occasionally and surreptitiously to his own friends and lover, but mostly staying put and enjoying the luxury that has temporarily come his way. There’s increasing sexual tension between the pair, with Frances intrigued by the man’s countercultural leanings, though throughout she seems to be a character in limbo: unable to take action and satisfy her own desires, and very much shaped by her own conservative, upper class family and social circle. The pace is slow, with some scenes lasting a minute or two longer than is really necessary, but this does allow the director and actors plenty of time to emphasise the awkwardness that exists between the two main characters before the cringe-inducing and surprising denouement. Dennis and Burns are very good. (***½)

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Watched: 19 December

Some have found uproarious comedy and many laughs here, which is great, because overall 2017 has been a very lean year for funny films. The four protagonists – on holiday in New Orleans – are all likeable enough, and the film certainly benefits from a couple of standout performances, but I just didn’t click with it – Girls Trip hits all the same beats as countless other supposedly raunchy and offensive comedies, and it shoehorns in its quota of cameo appearances with a disappointing predictability. I didn’t see much originality in relation to the comic set pieces either, but I guess it just isn’t for me and I’ll move on accordingly. (**)

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Watched: 18 December

A light-hearted, Paris-set comedy by writers/directors/stars Fiona Gordon and Dominique Abel that thankfully doesn’t outstay it’s welcome. The humour here is pitched somewhere between Tati and Mr Bean, though doubtless the filmmakers would prefer the comparison to the former; I’m afraid that for me it fell short, and I found its kookiness more than a little irritating. Still… it contains one of Emmanuelle Riva’s last performances and it’s hardly the kind of film you can be too offended by. It’s just not my bag. (*½)

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Watched: 18 December

A bleak, gripping early-70s crime thriller that has enjoyed cult status for a number of years, though it does appear to be finding a wider audience at long last due to recent US and UK DVD/Blu-Ray releases by Eureka and Criterion; if you are a fan of the American New Wave generally then it’s well worth seeking out. Robert Mitchum delivers one of the best performances of his career as Eddie ‘Fingers’ Coyle, a Boston delivery driver and low-level gangster who supplies guns to those higher up the food chain, principally a trio of bank robbers he has been working with for years. Events that have transpired prior to the start of the story mean that Eddie has turned informer to the ATF in order to receive a reduced jail term, and some of the tension here comes from his playing of both sides, though it seems inevitable throughout the film that it will all catch up with him eventually. This is augmented by some superbly orchestrated and nail-biting robbery and gun-dealing sequences, each of which is masterfully handled by director Peter Yates, who is perhaps best known for Bullitt and the late-1970s coming-of-age comedy Breaking Away – though for my money this is his best film. There’s an excellent supporting performance by Peter Boyle, too, and a fine jazz-funk score by Dave Grusin. Should be seen by more people. (****½)

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Watched: 17 December

(Some spoilers below.)
I have mixed feelings about this latest Star Wars film, though as per usual I do wonder whether any negative thoughts I have with regard to Rian Johnson’s franchise entry have partly been caused by unrealistic expectations (I’ve said this umpteen times before on this blog, but a cinema could show a steaming pile of dung on screen for two hours and I’d happily sit there if they ran a John Williams score and an opening crawl at the start, which is my way of saying I like Star Wars very much indeed). In short, I enjoyed the usual space battle derring-do, as well as the slow, incessant chase that played out across the entire movie (a storyline used to better effect and more concisely in the remake of Battlestar Galactica). I also liked the moments of sly humour contained within, from Luke tossing away his lightsaber and brushing imaginary dust off his shoulder to the snivelling antics of Hux and his officers in the face of their Sith companions, plus it was nice to once again spend time with the older characters, even if lots of them seem to hang around offscreen doing next to nothing for two and a half hours (eg C-3PO, R2-D2, Chewbacca and all of the stormtroopers).

However, it’s a shame that Johnson didn’t seem to know what to do with a couple of the newer faces, either. John Boyega’s Finn and Daisy Ridley’s Rey are kept apart for most of the film, which means The Last Jedi misses much of the dynamic that was such an integral, successful part of The Force Awakens, and the extended sequence in which Finn is off at a casino for well-to-do aliens with new character Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) reminded me of the very worst excesses of George Lucas’ prequel trilogy, though I do wonder whether kids will be entertained more by that bit (which is, of course, the point). Elsewhere, Johnson cannot seem to find an answer to the now-established question ‘what’s the point of Captain Phasma?’, and in his hands BB-8 becomes just another droid, as opposed to the comic strong point that JJ Abrams created.

Sadly, the film loses much of its momentum every time that Rey or Adam Driver’s complicated emo villain Kylo Ren disappear from the screen, and though the pair get to enjoy a battle side-by-side as we move into the final act it’s a shame that Rey subsequently becomes such a passive figure during the main finale, when it should have been her turn to shine. Like many other viewers I’m not sure what to make of the late Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia suddenly being able to fly through space, either; even in a series that asks its audience to believe in a concept such as the Force, and all the other things that can be achieved by learning to make use of it… that did seem a little incongruous. I’m hardly angry about it, though, and I do fear for those out there who get so riled up by such things that they commission petitions for the movie to be remade or argue the toss with the director on social media for several weeks on end. Anyway, The Last Jedi is just about entertaining enough overall, and notable for some memorable riffs on old images (the twin suns appearing as Luke dies, the re-shown Princess Leia hologram, the big spacecraft crash) as well as a couple of newly-minted moments designed to elicit collective gasps. Johnson manages to provide a fresh take on old themes, too, and asks questions of these heroes and their causes in much the same way Gareth Edwards tried with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story; both films attempt to dispense with the simplicity of ‘good versus evil’, recognising that it was still a lot of fun in the late 1970s but doesn’t play quite as well today. That seems like a good idea to me, but oddly enough I can’t quite shake the feeling that I’m happy Abrams – a director more at home with simpler tales in which heroes are heroic and villians are villainous – is about to take over the reins again. (***)