Films

Ramblings about Films – whether it’s new, reviews or something else.

R is for Rope (1948)

Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger) attempt to prove they’ve committed the perfect crime by hosting a dinner party after strangling their former classmate to death.

I’ve currently only watched like three Hitchcock films but this is definitely my favourite. It has so many tropes I love like the plot just being contained to one location and disaster gays because yep, this film from the 1940s is one of the gayest things I’ve ever seen. Honestly, I went into Rope knowing nothing about it and 10 minutes in I had to pause it and google “Rope Hitchcock gay” as I wasn’t sure if I was reading too much into it from a modern perspective but nope, turns out it was understood to be pretty gay in the 40s too.

This comes from the relationship between Brandon and Phillip, two friends and flatmates. Dall and Granger have great chemistry and their relationship is fascinating. While Phillip slowly starts to unravel as the guilt and tension gets to him, Brandon relishes in their crime and the fact their dinner guests are unaware that the missing guest is currently dead and in a chest in the middle of the living room they’re all sitting in.

Rope is so gripping as you spend most of the film in the murders shoes and not wanting them to get caught because they are both very likable. Brandon’s effortlessly charming, though he can make a biting comment now and then, and Phillip is sweet and as he gets stressed about their situation, so do you.

It’s Rupert (James Stewart), their former school housemaster, who poses the biggest threat to the murderers. A lot of the theories about morality that Brandon buys into he learnt from Rupert and as he knew them both when they were younger, Rupert is likely to be the one to figure out when something’s not quite right.

Filmmaking-wise Rope is just great. It’s just set in their New York apartment and so much of the action takes place in the living room, with the chest with a body inside a presence in the room that as the viewer, you’re always aware of. Rope is comprised of a lot of long takes, each are often five minutes long or more, and it’s so interesting when you realise what’s happening. It makes the film feel like everything’s happening in real time and therefore the tension builds organically. The way the camera and actors move around the set is like a dance and a lot of the cuts are “hidden” so it zooms into the back of someone’s jacket before moving out again or something similar.

While obviously Dall, Granger, and Stewart are the main focus of Rope (though Stewart doesn’t actually appear on screen until almost 30 minutes into this 80-minute film) the supporting cast are a good too and the characters feel and act as they would at a slightly awkward dinner party. I loved Janet (Joan Chandler), Phillip and Brandon’s friend and the girlfriend of the missing party guest. She has a wry sense of humour and isn’t afraid to call out Brandon’s sly comments.

Rope is just a really interesting film. It’s a tense film with a great cast and the homoerotic subtext between Brandon and Phillip just adds extra layers to it all. 5/5.

Q is for Quincy (2018)

Documentary about the life and career of music legend Quincy Jones.

This documentary is a bit of a mixed to negative bag. For me personally, Quincy Jones was a person I was aware of but definitely didn’t know a lot about. So, Quincy is a good overview of all the musicians he’s been involved with, his work through the decades and his personal life, however it never really delves deep into any of it so if you were a Quincy Jones fan who knew a lot about him already, I doubt you’d get anything from this doc.

The documentary goes between the present and Quincy Jones’ whirlwind work schedule even though he’s in his mid-80s and the past, starting at his childhood to how he got into music and made a career out of it. The segments in the past are narrated by Jones, making them feel less genuine in a way and also pretty unoriginal. You never really get an insight into his creative process and how working with various other artists might’ve made it different. Instead, it is just a man, telling his life story and the various anecdotes about the musical legends he worked with like Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles are nice to hear it all feels like a rehash of his Wikipedia page.

The moments where something surprising does happen, like the two times Jones has a medical emergency and ends up in hospital, are glossed over pretty quickly. While he is told he needs to do more exercise and work and travel less, what you see on screen doesn’t make you think he took the doctors warnings that seriously.

Quincy is co-directed by his daughter, actress Rashida Jones, and the whole production does feel very much like an outcome of nepotism. One of the first scenes is of Rashida Jones trying to learn how to use the camera and it feels a bit awkward. She’s often with her father, asking him pretty leading questions so it feels staged and like she gets the answers she was aiming for.

As a documentary it’s pretty standard and while it does give a decent overview of Quincy Jones’ career, if you knew his major career milestones like becoming a film composer, working with Michael Jackson on “Thriller”, becoming a producer and “discovering” Oprah Winfrey, then you don’t need to watch Quincy. It’s like the greatest hits of his life and features a load of famous people singing Jones’ praises. It feels a bit shallow and maybe it’s because the documentary was made by his daughter that there aren’t any huge surprises or much depth. She may not want to probe deeper into her father’s life out of respect for him and Quincy Jones has the power to just make the documentary what he wants. 2/5.

P is for Psycho (1960)

Secretary Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) steals $40,000 from her employer, goes on the run, and checks into a remote motel run by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), a young man with a domineering mother.

Due to pop culture osmosis, I knew the general gist of Psycho and a lot of the twists before watching it. That doesn’t mean it didn’t surprise me though and I was thoroughly gripped throughout. Seeing how those famous pop culture moments unfolded was probably just as thrilling as if I knew nothing at all about it.

As soon as the opening titles appear accompanied by that iconic score by Bernard Herrmann I was enthralled. The fact that it starts with that unsettling and creepy music puts you on edge from the very beginning. The music, along with it being a Hitchcock film, makes you unsure who to trust long before anything really bad or suspicious happens. When Marion is leaving town with the money and encounters a police officer, the way he’s framed and the fact she can’t see his eyes because of his sunglasses makes it feel like he’s always watching her. His presence makes her act more nervous and guilty and that makes his presence felt even more.

Anthony Perkins is just brilliant as Norman Bates. He’s young and good-looking, and he has that boy next door kind of charm to him so when he does become serious it feels more unnerving. He does a great job of juggling the various shades of Norman’s personality and Psycho is one of those films that wouldn’t have worked so well with someone else in the role.

It’s kind of fascinating watching Psycho now, sixty years after it was made because it’s clear that it’s the inspiration of so many other films and the filmmaking feels ahead of its time. The silent by imposing police officer reminded me of the T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day and so many of the scares have been riffed on in other films and shows but seeing the original now just demonstrates how great it actually is.

I’m very pleased I’ve finally watched Psycho. It’s a classic that lives up to its reputation; it’s creepy, foreboding and just fantastic filmmaking. 5/5.

O is for One for the Money (2012)

Stephanie Plum (Katherine Heigl) is down on her luck when she gets a job at her cousin’s bail-bond business. Her first assignment is to bring in wanted local cop and guy from her past Joseph Morelli (Jason O’Mara), but as she chases him, she finds herself attempting to unravel the crime he’s accused of.

Based on a book series, One for the Money attempts to combine a chick flick with an action film to mixed results. It is perhaps more of the former than the later but thanks to Heigl’s easy charm and decent chemistry with O’Mara, their characters’ game of cat and mouse is an entertaining one.

There’s everything you’d expect from a film about a character who’s almost a wannabe detective. Stephanie goes around asking questions, makes friends with the local prostitutes including Lula (Sherri Shepherd) who helps her out and is funny, and has help from hot and experienced bounty hunter Ranger (Daniel Sunjata). It’s always nice to see a character who is fed up with their mother trying to find them a husband and who feels a bit aimless, actually find something she’s good at and enjoys.

One for the Money does lack a bit of threat and excitement though. While it does appear that Stephanie is being targeted due to her line of questioning, there’s no chases or particularly tense moments. The times where Stephanie is threatened by a big dude are resolved very quickly, not really allowing you to feel that she is truly in danger.

With a 90-minute runtime, One for the Money is a fun, breezy kind of film. Heigl is pretty great as Stephanie, though her voice over narration in the likes of noir thrillers doesn’t always work. However, Debbie Reynolds as Stephanie’s grandmother is a hoot and steals every scene she’s in. 3/5.

N is for Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020)

Seventeen-year-old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is pregnant and can’t get an abortion in rural Pennsylvania where she’s from without parental consent. In order to get the procedure, she and her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) travel to New York and end up staying there days and nights longer than they anticipated.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always is one of those quiet, almost contemplative films that says so much with so little. The relationship between Autumn and Skylar is great. They are quite different, Autumn is more reserved while Skylar is a bit more confident, but there’s so many moments where they communicate with just a look or a gesture. As the audience too, you don’t need the characters to say things like “I feel like this because X happened” because you can tell the history of these characters through how they act. Autumn and Skylar don’t actually talk to one another much, at least not about big important things, but you can still see how they care for one another and how supportive Skylar is of Autumn’s decision through their actions.

This is a sign of a great script, great directing, and great performances from these two young actors. Flanigan especially is incredible. She can convey so much with just a look and her fear, frustration and sometimes desperation is clear to see. Likewise, when it looks like she will be able to have an abortion, her relief is almost palpable. There’s a scene in the clinic where a counsellor is asking Autumn a series of questions and it’s pretty much one long take focused on Autumn’s face as we hear the councillors voice off screen and Flanigan’s performance is just stunning. It’s not just what she says and the answers she gives, it’s what she doesn’t say in the pauses and hesitation as she is forced to relive her experiences and realise that some of what’s happened to her was not OK.

So often in teen shows or movies the teenage characters are played by actors who are in their mid-twenties and look far older than what their characters are supposed to be. In Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Flanigan and Ryder do look like a couple of seventeen-year-olds who are out of their depth. This is probably a combination of their natural looks but also the making up and costumes as Skylar especially sometimes looks like she’s trying to be older than she is.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always is such an important and timely film. It shows the lengths women, including teenagers, go to in order to get the healthcare they need and to make the choices that are right for them. It does all this without being overtly political or preachy which is to its benefit. Some will say that Never Rarely Sometimes Always is political purely by the nature of its subject matter but women’s healthcare and the right to choose what happens to their bodies shouldn’t be political. 5/5.

M is for Matchstick Men (2003)

Phobia-addled and compulsive con artist Roy (Nicolas Cage and his protégé Frank (Sam Rockwell) are on the verge of pulling off a lucrative con when Roy’s teenage daughter Angela (Alison Lohman) shows up on his doorstep.

Matchstick Men is one of those films I’d heard of but knew nothing about the actual plot. I’d heard of it in the sense I’d seen it be mentioned as an underappreciated Nicolas Cage movie, and having now watched it I kind of agree. It’s really a hidden gem of a film when it comes to Cage and Rockwell and their performances.

But the real standout is Lohman. Gosh, she’s incredible and really holds her own up against Cage who she shares just about every one of her scenes. The relationship between Angela and Roy is so sweet and awkward as he is completely out of his depth talking to a teenage girl. He suddenly has someone else in his home, making a mess when he has everything clean and orderly, and it is clearly a struggle for him. They both have their issues with trust and letting each other in, but it’s clear from pretty much the outset that they care about one another.

While Matchstick Men is a sort of heist film and features a few different cons as well as the long con Frank and Roy are working on, it’s more about the relationships between the characters. The cons, while interesting and at times fun, take a backseat so the characters become what you’re invested in more than the con.

Like any good film with a con, Matchstick Men surprised me. It’s funny and weird at times thanks to Cage’s eccentric but never over the top performance, but it’s also sweet and kind of sad too. All the characters are looking for some sort of connection while also trying to keep their heads above water.

So yes, I join the ranks of calling Matchstick Men an underappreciated film. Whether you’re a Nicolas Cage fan, a Sam Rockwell fan, or a Ridley Scott fan because that’s who directed this odd but great film, there’s probably going to be something for you to enjoy here. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Mauritania: The Desert and the Drum by Mbarek Ould Beyrouk

Trigger warning for rape and loss of a child.

Translated by Rachael McGill.

Everything changes for Rayhana when foreigners with strange machines arrive to mine for metal near her Bedouin camp. One of them is the enigmatic Yahya. Her association with him leads Rayhana to abandon all that she has ever known and flee alone to the city. But when her tribe discover she has stolen their sacred drum, they pursue her to exact their revenge.

I feel like I’ve learnt a lot during my Read the World Project and had a lot of firsts and The Desert and the Drum is another one as it’s the first novel ever to be translated into English from Mauritania. It’s a pretty short and easily readable story with a character that you can’t help but empathise with.

Rayhana is a part of a nomadic tribe that’s big on tradition and honour. As her mother is the tribe leader’s sister, she feels she has a place of importance and honour and will do anything to protect it, even if that means hurting her daughter. While the Bedouin camp is completely different to what I have experience, the whole “keeping up appearances” thing is so universal it was sad to see the way Rayhana was treated by those who supposedly cared about her just to save face.

The chapters tend to alternate between the present when Rayhana is running away, meeting new people, and going into the city for the first time, and the past where she was a part of the tribe, taken advantage of by Yahya and then shunned by her mother. From these chapters in the past, you get to understand more of why Rayhana hates he mother so much but the reasons why she wants to hurt the tribe by stealing their sacred drum are more blurred. I think it’s because she sees her mother as a product of the tribe’s rules and culture so feels everyone is to blame and should suffer but I’m not sure. Are the traditions wrong when only one person is slighted but the others are content with what’s around them?

The Desert and the Drum does end quite abruptly and gives neither the reader nor Rayhana any sort of closure. It’s a bit of a sad story really, and though Rayhana does find help from some people (mostly women) she never truly feels safe as she’s so naïve by how things work in a town or city and some of the men she meets appear to have ulterior motives.

L is for Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)

The story of the battle of Iwo Jima between the United States and Imperial Japan during World War II, as told from the perspective of the Japanese who fought it.

There’s a couple of things about Letters from Iwo Jima that I didn’t realise before watching it. The first is that it’s a companion film to Flags of Our Fathers (which I haven’t seen) and that film tells the American side of this true story. The second is that 99% of the dialogue is in Japanese, with the only time English is spoken is if it’s an American character, or there’s a Japanese soldier who knows the language. It makes sense that a true story about Japanese soldiers should have all the characters speaking their own language but I’m so used to American films where everyone speaks English but with an accent, that it was a pleasant surprise. Often even when it’d make sense for characters to speak their own language, like when there’s no English-speaking characters around, they still don’t so the fact that the story of Letters from Iwo Jima is told in Japanese made everything seem more authentic. Maybe what made me presume this film would be in English was because it’s directed by Clint Eastwood?

Onto the film proper. As mentioned, I knew very little about the film going into it, and I knew even less about the real events. So, learning about this small island and the brave men who defended it was really interesting and thanks to so many of the actor’s performances I found myself pulled into their story pretty quickly.

I suppose there were two main characters General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) and Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) a soldier. Following these two men who were either ends of the military hierarchy meant that you got to see all aspects of the battle and its preparation. Kuribayashi has to deal with other generals who think his plan of digging tunnels in the mountains is pointless, or who would rather make their men commit suicide than retreat as were his orders. Watanabe plays those doomed hero characters so well. Saigo is just an ordinary man, a baker, who was conscripted and does what he can to survive.

There’s also Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara) who was interesting as he was an Olympic gold medallist showjumper who is in between the other two in terms of hierarchy. There’s a scene where he reads a letter from a mother to her American son who’s a soldier, translating it from English to Japanese for his men to hear, and that letter along with the score made me tear up. It’s such a simple but impactful scene. That scene, along with a couple of others, show how on both sides of a conflict there can be cruel people but there can also be kind people.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film like Letters from Iwo Jima in terms of how it used colour. It is a colour film, but the colours are so washed out that so much of it looks to be in shades of grey, especially in scenes set during the night. The colours are so muted that when there’s a bright yellow flash from a grenade or the splatter of red blood, they’re even more startling. The few flashback scenes that set away from Iwo Jima, have more colour to them but it’s still muted compared to what you generally see on screen nowadays.

Letters from Iwo Jima is an impressive war film, showing the bravery of the soldiers without being overtly jingoistic. The score by Kyle Eastwood and Michael Stevens is often soft and heart-breaking, contrasting with the horrors of war on screen but it makes those images even more impactful. Went into Letters from Iwo Jima knowing nothing and finished it being thoroughly impressed by all involved. 5/5.

K is for King Leopold’s Ghost (2006)

Documentary about the history of the Congo and how the greedy and incredibly ruthless King Leopold II of Belgium turned a vast country into his private estate from 1885-1908. How he plundered the land and caused countless victims; and how his lasting impact is still felt in the country as international powers and corporations fight to take and profit from the Congo’s many resources.

I knew little of the history of the Congo before watching King Leopold’s Ghost, all I really knew was that King Leopold II wasn’t a good person but what his crimes actually were, I had no idea. I presumed it was to do with slavery and taking the country’s resources (like most European nations did with countries in Africa) but the extent to which he took over the country and had the people enslaved – while running a PR campaign saying he was doing no such thing – was incredible. What’s also shocking is that King Leopold II never even went to the Congo but still caused so much damage that had a knock-on effect for decades.

King Leopold’s Ghost is a really interesting but hard-hitting documentary that doesn’t shy away from the horrors of colonial rule. It’s narrated by Don Cheadle which was an excellent choice as you can often hear the barely contained anger and disgust over what he’s explaining. It includes photos, videos, interviews with historians, and extracts from various people’s diaries and letters including King Leopold II, explorer Henry Morton Stanley, and writer Joseph Conrad.

I liked how King Leopold’s Ghost incorporated what other nations were doing at the same time as what was happening in the Congo. I find it difficult to understand how close certain historic events were to one another so this added extra context. For example, by the time King Leopold was getting involved in the Congo and stealing the land off its people and forcing them to work for him, Britain had stopped being involved with the slave trade. While Britain obviously has its own terrible colonial history, I found it interesting that it had moved away from the slave trade while Belgium was only just getting started.

One of the stats that really shocked me, is that it was estimated that in 40 years from the start of King Leopold’s influence in the Congo, half the population had died – which was 10 million people. And that’s just an estimate. Records of the hangings and killings weren’t kept by the Belgium people who were working out there and some weren’t even really aware of what they were out there for. King Leopold and Belgium’s atrocities have been covered up so that it’s only fairly recently that both Belgians and the Congolese have been taught about these things in schools. In school textbooks in the 1940s-1960s, King Leopold and his involvement in the Congo is framed as a good thing and he helped the people.

King Leopold’s Ghost goes from the nineteenth century to the early 2000s and shows how even when the Congo is supposed to be independent and has elected someone the people want, the Belgian and American secret services will protect their interests, to the detriment of the Congolese.

It’s disappointing but not surprising that still today so many other countries and international corporations have a vested interest in the Congo due to all of its resources. Uranium, ivory, gold, diamonds, coffee, and more are valuable commodities but few Congolese people actual benefit from the sale of it.

King Leopold’s Ghost is a really interesting and comprehensive guide to the history of the Congo and how what King Leopold put in place in the late 1800s, is still having a negative affect on the country and its people today. It’s a great documentary if you have little to know knowledge of the country and its history as it explains everything clearly and draws the links between various people, countries and events without being condescending to the audience. 5/5.

J is for Jenny’s Wedding (2015)

Jenny’s (Katherine Heigl) parents and siblings are always trying to set her up but little do they know she’s already met the right person – her “roommate” Kitty (Alexis Bledel). When Jenny finally feels ready to come out to her family as she and Jenny want to get married, it shakes everything her traditional parents know.

Jenny’s Wedding is one of those films that’s technically about gay characters but is more about their family and how (straight) audiences would relate to the family’s confusion and hurt at being lied to and their general misunderstanding when it comes to their daughter and her relationship. That’s not to say Jenny’s Wedding is bad, just that going into it you’ve got to know it’s not a lesbian romcom and is more a family drama with a dash of gay on the side.

Heigl and Bledel don’t really have any chemistry and not enough time is spent on them to really believe in their relationship, or even believe that they’re more than the roommates they’ve been saying they were for the past five years. Katherine Heigl though did give a great performance whenever she was with her family. She really sells the hurt and fear she had about coming out and how once she feels in a place to be truthful, because of her mother’s (Linda Emond) fear of being judged by her friends and neighbours, is forced to continue lying to keep her happy. How she’s pushed to almost breaking point by her parents continuing to act like everything’s the same while also ignoring huge part of her life and identity is tough to watch.

There’s a side plot with Jenny’s sister Anne (Grace Gunner) who by seeing how happy Jenny is with Kitty, comes to reassess her own marriage and happiness. That was a sweet moment and how Anne and Jenny worked through some of their sibling issues once everything was in the open was good too.

While the overall plot is a bit cliché, the dialogue between various feels authentic and the cast all give good performances. As long as you know it won’t be a romcom and is in fact quite sad and painful at times, Jenny’s Wedding is a decent watch. 3/5.