I watch a lot of movies: good, bad, indifferent; all genres; English and non-English speaking; and, occasionally, I write a few comments about those I enjoyed. Here are six mini-reviews, in no particular order. The percentage/numerical ratings in the title fields are from the review-aggregation website, Rotten Tomatoes (where I look for 60% or higher), and the internet movie database, IMDb (where I look for 6.0 or higher). Movies for Movie Buffs: Index lists all my reviews so far posted.
85. Help, Drama, Director Marc Munden, 2021 UK, 100%/7.8
The Channel 4 TV drama, Help, was one of the hardest films I have ever watched. Set in a care home in Merseyside during the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic in early-2020, the movie is as much a documentary as it is a fictitious story and could equally well have been directed by the socially-critical director, Ken Loach, instead of director Marc Munden. Sarah (Jodie Comer) starts work as a junior carer in Bright Sky Homes, a residential home that caters mostly for elderly people but includes a middle-aged man, Tony (Stephen Graham), who suffers from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease and who frequently attempts to leave the home to return to his mother’s house having forgotten she is no longer alive.
Sarah turns out to be a natural carer, relating cheerfully and patiently to the mental and physical needs of the residents and she forms a special bond with Tony. All seems to be under control in the home until the SARS-Cov-2 virus strikes and the country becomes engulfed in the resulting Covid-19 pandemic. Sarah, the other carers, and her manager Steve (Ian Hart), become concerned as so-called bed blockers, mostly elderly people, are moved out of the hospitals and into the care home with little regard for the effect the frail and mostly sick newcomers will have on the residents. We now know that Covid guidance to UK care-home staff was considerably delayed; Covid test kits for residents, staff and visitors were in short supply; initially, patients untested for Covid-19 were moved into the care homes with devastating effect; and safety clothing such as face masks, protective gloves and aprons were in short supply as most PPE kits were directed to the hospitals. As a result, and despite the best efforts of the carers, residents became infected and many died without even the comfort of a family member by their side. The third act in the movie where Sarah is on her own on night shift at the home is heart-rending. I defy anyone to not be emotionally disturbed by this scene which, incidentally, is a 26-minute single-take camera shot.
As I said, this is a hard film to watch. Jodie Comer, Stephen Graham, and Ian Hart play their parts with breath-taking competence and emotional involvement and the film comes with a warning—This programme contains strong language and scenes some viewers may find distressing. In the closing credits, the following statistics are displayed.
Of the 48, 213 Covid deaths registered between mid-March and mid-June 2020, 40% were care home residents. (The Nuffield Trust)
The government supplied NHS Trusts with approximately 80% of their estimated PPE need between mid-March and mid-June 2020. It supplied the adult social care sector with approximately 10% of its estimated need of PPE. (The National Audit Office)
The residents of the care homes had little chance of survival until the then Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock, was shamed into affording care home residents the same level of protection as those under the care of the NHS. If you had someone in the care home system during the first half of 2020 who died of Covid-19, you may want not to watch this film. The governmental incompetence factual background to the story is real, the performances of the three protagonists powerful, and the message highly disturbing and distressing.
Note. Marc Munden’s 2021 film, Help, is not to be confused with another 2021 movie, also called Help, which is a psychological drama directed by Blake Ridder.
86. How I Ended This Summer, Drama, Director Alexei Popogrebski, 2010 Russia, 79%/7.0
How I Ended This Summer is a stark no-frills drama between two men stationed at an isolated polar weather station in the far-eastern province of Chukotka in Russia. Bordered by the East Siberian Sea and the Bering Sea, the land temperature rarely rises above 5°C in the summer and is well below 0°C in the winter. Sergei Gulybin (Sergei Puskepalis) is a seasoned somewhat gruff and forbidding geophysicist whose duty is to collect weather-and-sea-related data every four hours and radio the figures back to a base meteorology centre. He has been joined for the summer months by a young meteorology intern, “Pasha” Danilov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), and they take it in turns to take the measurements and record them—Pasha on a computer, Sergei in a notepad— ready for the next scheduled radio link.
The first act sets the scene for the relationship between the two men. Clearly, Pasha is intimidated by the older man’s condescending mannerisms and reluctance to form a friendship whereas Sergei is resentful of the intrusion and jealous of Pasha’s skills on a computer. The stage is set for a major clash between the two men and it is triggered by an event that happens when Sergei leaves Pasha to look after the station in order to go off in a small boat for two days to catch sea trout to supplement their uninspiring food supply.
While Sergei is away, Pasha receives some news that he is instructed to write down on a radiogram and give to Sergei. ‘Listen, Danilov,’ advises the radio operator back at base, ‘give him this radiogram and then leave him be. Do you understand?’ Yes, Pasha understands and, rightly, becomes very apprehensive about handing over the radiogram on Sergei’s return.
What follows is a tense drama set against the backdrop of the barren but beautiful landscape of Chukotka, superbly captured by the film’s cinematographer, Pavel Kostomarov, and accompanied by appropriate music written by composer Dmitry Katkhanov. And look out for the polar bear!
87. The Artist and the Model (El Artista y la Modelo), Drama, Director Fernando Trueba, 2012 Spain, 70%/6.7
Set towards the end of WW2 in a southern French town, this French-speaking Spanish drama could only be made in Europe. The movie features an elderly dour and taciturn sculptor, Marc Cros (Jean Rochefort, 82 years old at the time of filming), who is looking for inspiration for one last sculpture to become his swansong and, possibly, a masterpiece. His wife, Léa (Claudia Cardinale, the acclaimed Italian actress much lauded in the 1960s and ’70s and still with a sexy sparkle in her eyes accompanied by a wicked smile) encounters a waif-like girl in the town and offers her a meal and a bed for the night and, if her husband approves, a job as a model. The girl, Mercè (Aida Folch) accepts and by 00:16, is naked on the pedestal. She is rarely seen clothed for the rest of the film but her nakedness is non-sexual. She’s a model posing for an artist, not a temptress seeking seduction although there is a moment towards the end of the film when, momentarily, Marc sees her as more than a model.
The story of the creation of the sculpture is told in a simple fashion with many references to the difficulty of representing the natural beauty of nature, including the female figure in its prime, and a remarkable explanation of the Child Being Taught To Walk, a sketch made by Rembrandt circa 1656.
Aida Folch is exceptional as Mercè the model, all the time sneaking questionable glances at the sculptor as he progresses from sketches to small clay models to the final full-size statue and, surprisingly, hastily covering herself up when he accidentally awakens her while she is sleeping naked and uncovered in her studio bed.
Towards the end of the movie when Mercè is about to depart, Marc offers an alternative version of the Genesis story told in the Bible with a reversal of Adam and Eve’s roles and a different explanation for why God expelled them from the Garden of Eden. Although I’m an atheist, I found this version to be intriguing and more suited to those who see nature through artistic eyes.
The Artist and the Model is rated 12A. Female nudity is shown for artistic reasons only and the movie is suited for all age groups as long as you’ve no hang-ups or prudish reactions to the unclothed female body. Enjoy the film for what it is—an arthouse movie that tells the story of how a sculptor goes about immortalising the body of his muse.
88. The Outpost, War/Drama/Action, Director Rod Lurie, 2020 USA, 92%/6.8
Based on a 2012 non-fiction book written by CNN author Jake Tapper, the 2020 movie, The Outpost, recounts the October 2009 Battle of Kamdesh when an estimated 300 Taliban fighters attacked an American outpost known as Combat Outpost Keating, located close to the Pakistan border in north-eastern Afghanistan and staffed by 53 American soldiers, 8 of whom lost their lives and a further 27 wounded, and a smattering of Afghan National Army personnel and other support staff. The outpost was situated next to a river overlooked on all sides by high ground and, basically, was an indefensible fishbowl. Its purpose, however, was to prevent supplies coming from nearby Pakistan from reaching the Taliban fighters secreted in the hills.
Normally, I shun war movies that focus on ‘how the Americans won the war’ but this movie is different in that both the author, Jake Tapper, and several of the survivors acted as advisers to the director and scriptwriters and, in three survivor cases, acted in the movie.
The movie has been praised for its authentic depictions of the day-to-day life and dialogue of soldiers who are in a vulnerable location and know that, one day, a determined attack will take place. The last 45 minutes of the movie show the attack followed by 10 minutes of credits including interviews with survivors and a long list of awards and decorations. The battle scenes are frenetic with hand-held camera operators either running backward in front of an actor or by the side of or behind bringing a truly terrifying reality to the frantic efforts to distribute more ammunition or find a safe spot from which to fire at the enemy or save the life of a fallen comrade or doing whatever it takes to survive the battle. At the end of it all, it is revealed that the outpost was abandoned two days after the battle and, subsequently, bombed out of existence by American B-1 bombers based in Qatar.
The Outpost is an excellent war movie featuring a stellar cast of actors some of whom are related to older celebrities such as Scott Eastwood (Clint Eastwood), Milo Gibson (Mel Gibson), James Jagger (Mick Jagger), Will Attenborough (Richard Attenborough) and Scott Alda Coffey (Alan Alda). Be warned however: it would appear that the soldiers’ favourite word is the F-word in its many forms. There are 403 instances of this expletive equating to an average of 2.6/minute, excluding the extra time for the credits. That’s nowhere near the record, however. That honour goes to the 2014 movie, Swearnet: The Movie, which averages 8.35/minutes (one instance every 7 seconds!)
If, like me, you sometimes wonder how close to the truth is a movie ‘based on a true story’, you might like to take a look at the History Versus Hollywood website’s assessment. With the exception of two of the main characters, The Outpost is very close to what really happened in Kamdesh back in 2009.
89. Don’t Look Up, Comedy/Drama, Director Adam McKay, 2021 USA, 55%/7.3
Climate change is on our radar screens these days. Is it real? Should we care? What can we personally do to stop the species-extinction 1.5°C rise in global temperature? And what are the world’s governments doing to reduce fossil fuel consumption and restore the planet’s carbon balance?
On the surface, Don’t Look Up is not about climate change, or is it? The movie, starring an ensemble cast too long to list in this short summary, portrays a scenario wherein an astronomy PhD student, Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), discovers a rather large comet, twice the size of the mass-extinction dinosaur-killer Chicxulub impactor 66 million years ago, heading towards Earth in what both she and her professor, Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), realise is another ‘extinction-level event’ and only a few months away.
What should they do? After a disastrous meeting with the US president Janie Orleans (Meryl Streep) and her sycophantic Chief-of-Staff son, Jason Orleans (Jonah Hill), our intrepid duo go to the press only to be told that a much bigger story is breaking—Janie Orlean’s alleged involvement in a sex scandal with her nominee for the US Supreme Court. How about talk shows? Ah yes. They appear as guests on The Daily Rip where hosts, Brie Evantee (Cate Blanchett) and Jack Bremmer (Tyler Bremmer) treat the subject indifferently and with many interjections of lightweight humour and banter and who are more inclined to give airtime to the catastrophic breakup between pop princess Riley Bina (Ariana Grande) and her boyfriend, DJ Chello (Scott Mescudi). It’s all about ratings, you understand?
Eventually, the US president does appear to take the upcoming extinction of all living species seriously—the midterm Senate and House of Representatives elections are imminent; she needs something to deflect attention away from the sex scandal—and she enlists the help of Big Tech in the form of Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance), the billionaire founder and CEO of BASH, a high-tech mobile communications company not unlike Apple Inc. Isherwell seems to be modelled as a pastiche of Steve Jobs, Tim Cook, and Mark Zuckerberg and, although socially awkward and with a nervous laugh and high-pitched voice, he is convinced of his god-like superiority over everyone he meets. He plans a nuclear attack to break up the comet before it impacts the Earth but short-sighted greed prevails and I’ll leave you to follow what happens subsequently.
Don’t Look Up is a satirical comedy about climate change metaphorically represented by the incoming comet. The movie contains many serious undertones regarding social media’s obsession with ratings to the detriment of content, nepotism and cronyism in government, meaningless rhetoric from official PR people and grandstanding politicians, Big Tech and corporate greed, the generation of misinformation, the formation of conspiracy theories, and science versus politics. Some critics have opined that the message in the movie is too heavy-handed. I don’t agree. I enjoyed the movie, especially the many small comedic incidents and dialogue, and the satirical content could equally well be targeted at the reactions of some to the current Covid-19 pandemic: the efficacy of rapidly-developed vaccines, conspiracy theories that the pandemic is not real, misinformation contributing to the rise of the anti-vaxxers, the never-ending war between those who want to get the economy moving again and those who say we’re all going to die if we don’t establish global herd immunity and eradicate the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Watch Don’t Look Up for the humour, the acting, the story and, above all, the underlying message about the impact of climate change if we continue to ignore the consequences and don’t act quick enough.
90. CODA, Comedy/Drama/Music, Director Sian Heder, 2021 USA, 96%/8.1
How should I start my comments on this film? Should I talk about my own hearing impairment and how it drew me into the story? Or should I summarise the story and then explain my enjoyment and empathy? Let’s try the latter.
11th-grade teenager Rose Rossi, a truly outstanding performance by actress Emilia Jones, is the only hearing person in her family. Her mother, Jackie (Marlee Matlin), father, Frank (Troy Kotsur), and older brother, Leo (Daniel Durant) are all profoundly deaf (as are the three actors in real life) and converse using a dynamic mix of American Sign Language, ASL, and very expressive body language. So, let’s get one thing clear first—you cannot fully immerse and enjoy this film unless you are adept at following subtitles or, alternatively, familiar with ASL. But please, make the effort to read the subtitles. The reward is fantastic for this is an incredible movie.
Back to the story. The Rossi family are fishing folk. The movie is set in the small coastal town of Gloucester in Massachusetts and Rose goes out on the boat with her father and brother both to help bring in the catch and to be the mandatory hearing person on board. At school, she elects to join the choir simply because a boy she is attracted to has done so.
It turns out that she has a beautiful singing voice and her music teacher, Bernardo Villalobos (an amusing and heart-warming performance by actor Eugenio Debrez) recommends she applies for a place at a prestigious music college after she graduates and offers to coach her for the entrance examination. Her original post-graduation plan was to stay with her family and continue to be their ears and voice both in normal life and on the boat. Now she is torn between her familial role and the opportunity to follow a musical career.
I’ll say no more other than to reiterate that this is a terrific movie. The critics loved it. I loved it. It has humour (look for what happens at 09:26: it cracked me up), pathos, traditional family interactions, romance (not only for Rose; watch her parents!), drama, and music. It also has a moment, crucial to the story, when, suddenly, all the sound is cut and you experience the world as deaf people experience it. (Those who watched the BBC’s 2021 Strictly Come Dancing program which was won by the deaf contestant, Rose Ayling-Ellis, will have also experienced a moment of silence such as this.)
I am not profoundly deaf but without my hearing aids, you would have to be within a metre of my ears for me to make sense of what you are saying. With the aids, I am mostly okay on a one-to-one basis or in a small social group of four or less and with minimal background noise. Anything else and I’m lost but in normal social intercourse I have no need to learn sign language. But what came across to me in this film was just how expressive sign language can be, particularly when the discussion becomes heated. The three deaf actors, Matlin, Kotsur, and Durrant, are natural users of sign language. Emilia Jones spent nine months preparing for this movie—working on a fishing boat, training her singing voice, and learning how to sign in ASL—and as her family’s deaf world/hearing world go-between, she is truly outstanding. She has already won awards for her singing and as a breakthrough performer and, I’m sure, there are more accolades to come.
CODA is an immensely satisfying movie. I enjoyed every minute. Rated 12A, it’s a movie for all the family to enjoy and is currently available on video streaming services.