2 Films You Might have Missed in 2020

After a year in which the headless chickens at Warner Bros declared, yawn, that cinema was dead, again, it’s easy to have missed the fact that a number of films were in fact released in the year just gone, albeit in a somewhat truncated manner. Two of which are very much worth the effort of chasing down.

Bacurau won the Jury prize at Cannes in 2019 and is the third feature from Brazil’s Kleber Mendonça Filho, which he co-directs with his long time art director Juliano Dornelles. Set in a dystopian near future, Bacurau is a mythical town in the Brazilian outback whose inhabitants are being slowly closed in on. 

Their water supply has been cut off, their town is inexplicably disappearing from Google maps, or whatever its futuristic equivalent is, and there are a group of tourists whose safari trip seems to revolve around taking out the town’s inhabitants, as if they all existed in some sort of actualised video game.

At Home, In the Company of Strangers.

Bacurau begins in malevolent sci-fi mode before morphing into spaghetti western territory via Mad Max. As such, it’s a companion piece to At Home In the Company of StrangersNikita Mikhalkov’s impressive debut, from1974. It shares that film’s refusal to be bound by any genre straight jacket, and is wilfully open to any number of interpretations. So that its political resonances are suggested rather than declaimed. The result is an impressively atmospheric trip into a heart of darkness that says little about the future and much, alas, about the present of the country in which it is set.

The Vast of Night is a much less substantial affair, but is well worth a look nonetheless. The feature debut of Andrew Patterson, who also wrote and produced it under the pseudonym James Montague, the film was actual shot in 2016. But it was picked up by Amazon last year after turning many a head at Edinburgh and Toronto, and was duly released in the summer of 2020. 

It’s an unabashed homage to 1950’s sci-fi B movies and is presented as an apparent episode of a would-be Twilight Zone series. What elevates the film is the infectious confidence with which it is directed. 

And there’s absolutely no way we can persuade you to consider a sequel…?

I’m sure if I sat sown and thought about it for 20 minutes, I could probably work out quite how he manages to match-cut that tracking shot that seems to glide all the way into the basketball game and then effortlessly back out again and into the night. But I’d rather just luxuriate in its brash exuberance. Part of the joy of seeing magic is knowing that it’s only a trick but being for the life of you incapable of working out exactly how it was that the trick was done.

Clearly made for thruppence ha’penny, thanks to its bravura direction The Vast of Night looks like a million dollars and more, and is the most impressive calling card since Donny Darko, if that’s not too hubristic an appellation to lay on it. And both films, by the by, come in at a crisp 90 minutes. Would that some of their more seasoned, ahem, superiors would follow their lead.

You can see the trailer for Bacurau below. 

And for The Vast of Night below.

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I May Destroy You, the new HBO/BBC series

I May Destroy You

In the MacTaggart lecture she gave at the 2018 Edinburgh TV Festival, Michaela Coel, the star of Channel 4’s sunny sitcom Chewing Gum, told a stunned audience that she’d been sexually assaulted. She’d been out on the tear trying to avoid a writing deadline, and the following morning she began getting sinister flachbacks. It’s just such a night that her dazzlingly impressive 12 part dramedy series I May Destroy You circles around.

Coel plays Arabella, a thirty something doyenne of the Twitterati who is expected to build upon the success of her surprise best seller Chronicles of a Fed-up Millennial by delivering its sequel to her agent and publisher. 

And, faced with a 9am deadline she does what any respectable writer would, and heads out on the town. The following morning, as the haze of the night before begins to slowly clear, she starts to get flashbacks of being raped.

Over the rest of the series, she and her closest two friends, aspirant actress, Terry and their gay partner in crime, Kwame, slowly piece together the events of the night. 

But the ‘event’ of that night is as much the backdrop as it is the focus for the stories that the series follows. As the characters experiment with drugs and sex, work and play in search of what they assume will be revealed as their true identities in a world where identities, certainties and all manner of lines have been seen to disappear ‘neath perpetually shifting sands.

What’s so exhilarating about the series is the way in which Coel steers, and frequently veers between comedy, pathos, ironic detachment, genuine pain and back again. And often, all in the course of the same, single scene.

We flashback to Arabella’s Italian boyfriend, and the trip she and Terry make to Ostia, on the outskirts of Rome. To her childhood, and her estranged and idealised father. And to an event at school that is looked back upon in a very differnt light. And all the while, everything is slowly but surely helping to create a picture of exactly what it was that happened that night.

The writing is flawless, both structurally and dialogue-wise, it’s impeccably put together and all the performances are note perfect. Most impressively, not to say unusually of all, Coel manages to deliver on the season’s finale, which I’ll obviously not spoil by saying anything about here.

I May Destroy you is that rare thing. A series that comfortably lives up to and delivers on all of the entirely justifiable hype.

You can see the trailer to I May Destroy You here.

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HBO’s ‘The Plot Against America’

The Plot Against America.

What you think about the HBO adaptation of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America will depend on whether or not the name David Simon means anything to you.

If you’ve never heard of him, then you will very probably find the six part mini-series perfectly diverting. Roth’s novel imagines a dystopian, counterfactual past in which FDR does not win his third term in 1940, and is instead defeated by the celebrity du jour and would-be fascist Charles Lindbergh.

John Turturro and Winona Ryder are introduced to the erstwhile first lady.

Lindbergh helped set up The America First Committee to promote American isolationism and keep them out of the Second World War. Championing white supremacy and blaming the Jews for trying to involve America in a European fracas, he not only refused to condemn the Nazis, he’d travelled to Germany in 1938 where he was awarded, and proudly accepted, the Service Cross of the German Eagle from Hermann Göring.

So it’s not hard to see what drew Simon to the source material. But, disappointingly, the series fails ultimately to take flight. And it fails on two counts. 

The gang’s all there, The Wire.

First, as every schoolboy knows, the best books make the worst films. And what works so well in the novel is the way in which Roth gets inside the young Philip’s head to give us a child’s-eye view of the world he finds himself in. So that the political backdrop is precisely that, a backdrop.

The book’s one failing, without wishing to give anything away, is that rather than move towards a dramatic crescendo, plot wise, it just sort of fizzles out. 

Treme.

Necessarily, in order to visualise the book, the programme makers decided to flesh out the political sub-plots in lieu of being able to dramatise what is essentially an inner monologue. But all that does is to highlight how literary the novel is, and how impossible it was always going to be to try to adapt it for the screen.

Second, and very surprisingly, it is, dialogue-wise, incredibly clunky. Everybody says exactly that they are thinking, and characters are forever spouting exposition and telling us, in case we missed it, what to think.

One episode begins with the father asking his friend why the local police aren’t protecting the Jews from the neighbourhood vigilantes. To which he replies: 

“Not many Jews on the Newark Police Force.”

“But that shouldn’t be the point”, the father says earnestly, emphasising the word shouldn’t, in case we’d missed it’s import. And so on.

What’s so especially disappointing about this is that this is the programme maker and the team who brought us The Wire. Rarely had dialogue been less on the nose.

There isn’t space here to look in more detail at what Simon has done since then. Suffice it to say, his output subsequently has looked increasingly conservative, and The Wire is looking more and more like something of an anomaly. 

Show Me A Hero.

After The Wire and Treme, skipping delicately over Generation Kill, the conservatism of Show Me A Hero, reviewed earlier here, came across as refreshing. But The Deuce, not withstanding its subject matter, was every bit as conventional. And now this.

All of which is a shame. Because the show is actually pretty good at imagining what it must be like for members of a minority community to live their normal lives, as the country they think of as their own turns inexplicably against them.

This Plot Against America isn’t a bad show. The dialogue is no more clunky than in the vast majority of shows you’re likely to sit through. And it looks every bit as ravishing as you’d expect of a modern day period piece. But I do hope we’re not going to have to re-evaluate Simon’s output. The medium needs its heroes.

You can see the trailer for The Plot Against America here

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“When All is Ruin Once Again”; impressionistic, elusive and impressive.

The filmic essay is a very particular breed. Part of this the golden age of television that we’re all luxuriating in has been the plethora of extraordinary documentaries that the small screen now has to offer. Most conspicuously with BBC4’s Storyville strand, reviewed by me earlier here. But the filmic essay is something else entirely.

Adam Curtis, reviewed by me earlier here, is the best example currently of someone producing this very specific type of documentary. There are plenty of individuals who attack a subject and pursue a particular polemic in a consciously objective manner. But an essay is an active attempt to try to understand something. 

Adam Curtis’ very personal meditation on Afghanistan.

It’s open and questioning where more conventional documentaries are crusading and confrontational. And When All is Ruin Once Again is a confident and original addition to its ranks.

The film is set in Gort, on the border of Clare and Galway in the west of Ireland, and is framed by the opening of a section of the motorway between Gort and Crusheen, in 2010. But its completion is promptly aborted as what was then the recession took hold. And it wasn’t until 2017 that it eventually came to be completed. 

The husband and wife team of Keith Walsh and Jill Beardsworth moved to Gort in 2010 and made the film over the following seven years. Documenting the changes that the country, and especially the West has undergone, as we moved effectively from the 19thcentury into the 21stover a period of little more than twenty years. And few things encapsulate that change as pertinently as the transformation rendered by the construction of a motorway.

But the film refrains from lazily contrasting a noble if austere past sullied by the enforced transition to a crass, materialistic future. In which an Irish identity has been sacrificed on the altar of globalization. What you get instead is a thoughtful and gentle portrait of one generation quietly making way for the necessary arrival of the next.

For the most part, the film avoids the sort of hectoring you might have feared given the subject matter. It does take one misstep. It ends with a voice over issuing a bog standard warning of the imminent environmental catastrophe that unchecked global warming presents. Which is a shame. Because that’s exactly that kind of tedious didacticism that the rest of the film so impressively avoids. 

Apart from which, When All is Ruin Once Again is a refreshingly subtle and quietly personal portrait of a world in transition. Which is neither good nor bad. It simply is, and ever thus will it be.

You can and should see it on the RTE Player. And you can see the trailer for When All is Ruin Once Again below (though I should point out, a tad disappointingly if inevitably, it’s a pretty misleading trailer. The actual film is, happily, much less didactic than the trailer implies.)

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“Atlas Shrugged”: Who is Ayn Rand?

Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

In a word, arguably the most influential American writer of the last hundred years. In the latter half of the twentieth century, Ayn Rand was at once the most reviled public intellectual by any of the actual intellectuals in America. And the only one of them to have had any genuine impact on the American psyche and the public at large.

Born in Saint Petersburg in 1905, she was a childhood friend of Nabokov’s younger sister Olga. And after becoming one of the first women to graduate from a Russian university, she emigrated to the States, gravitating to Hollywood. There she found work as an extra on a Cecil B. DeMille picture, and she then spent the next decade or so working as a Hollywood hack and writing minor plays and unremarkable novels.

That all changed with the publication of her two monumentally successful novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. The former was published in 1943, and although largely ignored by critics it sold millions and was quickly adapted into a Hollywood film and a Broadway play. 

With the financial security that that afforded her, she moved to New York where she was able to further develop her so say philosophy of Objectivism. This she was going to more fully explore in a non-fiction book called The Moral Basis of Individualism. But she put that to one side to work instead on a follow-up novel to The Fountainhead; Atlas Shrugged.

Published in 1957, Atlas Shrugged was, she explained, “a demonstration of a new moral philosophy: the morality of self-interest”. But to her deep disappointment it was critically panned, not withstanding the fact that it was an even bigger commercial hit than The Fountainhead – between them, they’ve so far sold over 30 million copies.

But she spent the rest of her life largely ignored, producing non-fiction books that nobody read and expounding upon her philosophy of Objectivism to deaf ears. So how is that she came to be so influential?

Her impact came in two waves. In the period in which she was writing Atlas Shrugged, in the 1950s, she attracted a small but fiercely loyal group of acolytes. One of whom just happened to be a certain Alan Greenspan

Author Ayn Rand, in August 1957 on Park Avenue.

So when, three decades later, Greenspan became Chairman of the Federal Reserve, a post he held between 1987 and 2006, Rand’s hitherto ignored philosophy of Objectivism suddenly seemed wondrously prescient. Its rabid anti-communism and purblind deification of the individual went hand in glove with the Reganomics that is seemed to have so impressively anticipated.

But it was rise of big tech in the late 90s and early oughts that really saw her come into vogue. Elon Musk, Peter Thiel (PayPal), Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia), Travis Kalanick (Uber) and, apparently, Steve Jobs were and are all fanatical and very vocal fans. And a cursory glance at Atlas Shrugged quickly reveals why. 

Rand’s would-be Great American Novel is essentially an incredibly bloated romance novel. Personally, I love romance novels, the best ones of which are all almost exactly 195 pages long. Atlas Shrugged is just 50 pages shy of War And Peace

Essentially, its world is populated by a handful of exceptional and blindingly brilliant individuals who are personally and single-handedly responsible for propping up and fuelling the economy. And whose visionary plans society, the government and the great unwashed are perpetually trying to foil. 

Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities.

Free from conventional morality and unfettered by the shackles of organized religion, these sexually promiscuous, physically imposing latter-day Greek gods (they’re almost all gods, interestingly) were likewise chronicled by Tom Wolfe in his The Bonfire of the Vanities, an actual, bona fide Great American Novel. But his ‘Masters of the Universe’ were unceremoniously felled by the layers of irony he hacked them down with. 

Irony, alas, seems to have eluded  Rand entirely. Instead, what we get are reams and reams of monochrome prose consisting of occasional bursts of romance, which she’s actually pretty good at, amidst pages and pages of her tedious and puerile cod philosophy.

All of which is monumentally dull, not to say wearisome if what you are looking for is interesting, grown-up ideas and a good read. But it’s just what the doctor ordered if instead you’re a borderline sociopath with a Napoleon complex. Hence her vogue in the oh so male world of big tech.

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