I went to a cinema this afternoon. It was the first time in many months, I think since October, to be exact. The film I went to see was Taxi Driver, the seminal 1970s Scorsese masterpiece, but I have opted not to review it on this occasion. I don’t think the world needs another affirmation that Taxi Driver is great, but I did want to document my experience somehow. Maybe I’ll offer some thoughts on the film as I go, but mostly, I want to tell you about my experiences returning to a place I love dearly and how I have had to change.
This will also be a far more personal entry as far as this website goes. I know there will be some of you that come here for reviews, and that’s all, and that’s fine. I wouldn’t want you all to read something thinking it was going to be a review. If this is you, feel free to give this one a miss. I promise I won’t mind. However, those of you who read every post on here will remember me posting about my struggles recently, and that’s important to bear in mind, as this… I’m not even sure what to call it – ramble, I suppose. Anyway, this ramble will touch on the subject of that ‘Health Statement’. Here’s a brief recap: my eyesight is bad. Visually-impaired levels of bad, in fact. I’m not sure why. I’m awaiting results, but that’s the bottom line. I don’t know whether it’s temporary or permanent, but I am partially sighted.
This became more obvious after I sat down to watch the film today, as it dawned on me that I couldn’t see the movie properly from my usual seat. You see, I am a tall man. As a consequence of this, I make a better door than a window, and so, I usually sit on the back row. That way, I’m not blocking anyone’s view. It became painfully clear during the adverts preceding the film that my days of sitting in the back row are over. Luckily, the screen wasn’t very busy, so I moved right to the front, where I could see the film much better. The screen was also at a comfortable height, so I didn’t have to do much looking up, which was good, and it meant I could still enjoy the film, even if the more minor details were still somewhat blurred.
Film is, of course, a visual medium. I know there are ways and means for visually-impaired people to still enjoy movies to a certain extent, like audio description, but the thought of not being able to see a film at all terrifies me. I’ve had to give up my driving licence in the last month because of my eyes, and I loved driving, but without a doubt, the scariest thing for me when it comes to potentially losing my eyesight is losing the ability to enjoy films. Maybe as I adjust to my vision being reduced, I can adapt, as long as I don’t lose my sight completely. I suppose I will have to, along with adapting to a lot of other changes.
When it comes to this website, however, it’s a different kettle of fish entirely. The act of critiquing a movie is very different to the act of enjoying a movie. You can enjoy a film with half a bottle of vodka floating in your stomach, and some people can even unironically enjoy Mamma Mia! But to watch a movie to critique is a much more involved experience. Being able to see a film is essential to critique it, at least in my opinion, as a lot of a film’s identity revolves around how it looks.
To use Taxi Driver as an example of this, the film benefits from having this filthy aesthetic, portraying a grime-covered New York landscape, crawling with the dregs of society, portraying the city in a way that only Scorsese seems to. I can still appreciate this now because I sat closer to the screen and had a clearer view. If my eyesight were to go anymore, I doubt I’d connect as much with that feeling. In losing this connection, you also lose a layer of the films’ context, and thus, as a critic, you are compromised. Could I, theoretically, enjoy Taxi Driver or Blade Runner (another film intrinsically linked to its visuals) without the benefit of its visuals? Probably. Could I critique them? No.
Today was somewhat of a ‘dry run’ for returning to watching films in the cinema after months of home viewing, and truth be told, there were positives and negatives. Speaking positively, it was wonderful to be back in a cinema in general, and my eyes weren’t too severely irritated by the screen (as they have been at home). However, on the negative side, it drove home just how much of my eyesight I have lost and the difficulties this brings with writing about them. Sure, I can see what’s going on, but the more minor details are blurry, and writing about it on my laptop gives me a headache after looking at it for too long. In other words, it reinforced just how difficult doing something I love might become.
I really, REALLY don’t want you all to get the wrong impression that I’m hosting a pity party for myself here. After all, some kids have never had the chance to see a movie, whereas I still can for the most part. Today reinforced just how difficult it might be in the near future to carry on these reviews, but I’ll find a way. I’ll do video reviews if that ends up being easier on my eyes. I’ve even had a kind offer from a friend to transcribe these videos so I can still post written reviews.
It is hard to face up to a problem like losing your sight. It’s kept me awake for weeks now, thinking of all of the things I might not be able to enjoy. I’ve cried a lot too. Out of frustration and out of fear. I fear becoming a burden on those around me. I fear not being able to enjoy doing what I love, and I fear losing the ability to express that through writing, which is the best way I display my feelings, as the past thousand words will attest.
I will continue to review for as long as I can. Even if it’s in a different format to what I am used to. I’m certainly not relishing the thought of filming myself as I’m much more eloquent in the written word than the spoken one. If it becomes too difficult, though, I’ll have to walk away. I can’t settle for writing anything I don’t feel is up to my standard. Not that I think I’m the best critic or the best writer. I know I have standards, and I won’t write and release anything I deem to be of lesser worth.
Anyway, this was supposed to be about the cinema. It was an emotional experience being back, made even more emotional by the circumstances. I would have liked to have seen it busier, I must admit. There was only our party of four and one other person in our screen, and the lobby was deserted too. That might have something to do with it being midday on a weekday, though. I can only hope the crowds return (safely) soon, so the industry can get back on its feet. I think many people have missed the experience, and I know the people who work there would have worked hard to get back.
I’m sorry if this got a little heavy for you all. I thank you for sticking with me if you’ve reached the end. I’ll be back at the cinema again tomorrow in my new favourite spot down the front. I hope you can all join me there soon.
I would like to dedicate this review to Mr Peter Judson. This review was requested by his son on the occasion of his 85th Birthday. Best wishes go out to Peter!
I can’t speak for everyone (at least not yet, give it a few years), but I imagine that not everyone is an expert on the events of WWII. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that some people may think that D-Day was more or less the end of the war. Of course, I could be wrong, but we hear so little about the period between D-Day and VE Day that this assumption doesn’t seem outside the realms of possibility. After all, these two events were some of the most triumphant of the entire conflict, so of course, they’re the ones that will be romanticised.
In actuality, though, D-Day occurred roughly a whole year before VE Day and fifteen months before the final end of the war. Although the events of the 6th June (D-Day) represented a devastating blow against the German forces, they still fought on for nearly another year, so the question remains? What happened during that time? Well, this film hopes to fill in some gaps.
Battle of the Bulge portrays the titular struggle (also known as the Ardennes Counteroffensive), which took place in December of 1944, and January of ’45. The German army used some of their newly created artillery as a warmongering German colonel seeks an improbable victory. In contrast, American forces holding the area are put on the back foot by the surprise attack.
While on the surface, this film might seem similar to the last movie I reviewed, The Guns of Navarone, I was struck by how different the films are tonally. They share a few issues (and we’ll get to them). Still, for the most part, despite both being about WWII and being produced in the 1960s, there aren’t a lot of similarities between the films.
Firstly, GoN was a film that was firmly (& surprisingly) anti-war. While this film certainly doesn’t think war is a roll in the tulips, it has a far more romanticised view. It’s a much fonder look back at the war than Navarone is, falling back on some of the broad stereotypes I applauded the other film for lacking. As such, it’s much worse off for it, in my opinion.
It feels like a film I’ve seen play on repeat for years on terrestrial TV channels. A bland, paint-by-numbers war film reminiscing about the last war where we were unequivocally on the good side. It exists to make us feel good about ourselves, but the problem is that it’s something we’ve already seen a hundred times.
To me, the best kind of war film is one that reflects a new perspective on events we may already know about. We know the Nazis were terrible, and we know that giving them a good old kicking was a good idea, so we don’t need reminding of it every five minutes. I felt so utterly disconnected from this film because it conveyed the same message as so many other films, and it just ended up boring me.
Don’t get me wrong; as a production of its time, it’s very well made. I get the feeling that it was a film the studio was particularly invested in, as it clearly shows on screen. A few pretty interesting battle scenes still look great in upscaled HD, so it was clearly a production that many people cared about. It just didn’t have enough identity of its own to set it apart. All of the exciting parts of the film take place towards the end. The first hour or so of the film is entirely inconsequential.
Like Navarone before it, it’s much too long in the tooth. I think this is a wider-scale issue in many films of its era. It was of the time where films had intermissions, and by then, I needed it. It’s funny because I complained about these films’ lengths, and yet I sat down to watch Zack Snyder’s Justice League in one sitting, and that’s four hours long. Somehow that film felt better paced than this, which is ninety minutes shorter.
Although it’s a perfectly fine film which I’m sure is looked upon fondly by those who remember it, it is most certainly a product of its time. Some older movies tend to age worse than others, and I’d say this is one of them. Not only is it too long, but its characterisations are also bland too. There was nothing to differentiate each character from one another. The Nazis are made to look bad by being cartoon Nazis. Fair enough, they were unimaginably evil, but there’s no nuance here. They took the easy route, and it showed.
In summary, then, it’s a perfectly serviceable film technically, which I don’t think has aged as well as some of its contemporaries. The kind of war film that was made en-masse in the 50s and 60s. Well-acted, but lacking in character, and well-shot but lacking in vision. I can appreciate it being enjoyed by a particular audience, but it didn’t do much for me.
I would like to dedicate this review to Mr Peter Walsh Judson. This review was requested by his son on the occasion of his 85th Birthday. Best wishes go out to Peter!
At this point, I’ve seen so many films about World War II that I feel like I could enter Mastermind using the war as my specialist subject. The last film about the war I looked at was Downfall, and look at the German side during the dying days (pun not intended) of the conflict. Now, I am looking at a classic big-screen representation of the famous Second World War, 1961’s Guns of Navarone.
I knew of this film by reputation before being sent in the post by my friend and supporter Ian, and truth be told, my interest in wartime narratives has waned somewhat over the years. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not as if there aren’t several incredible stories surrounding those six years. However, I feel somewhat overfamiliar with the timeframe especially given just how many films and TV shows still seem enamoured with this particular era.
I was also put off by the age of the film. Let me explain; I am not usually one to write off a film simply because of when it was made; however, there is a pattern for movies of a certain vintage to overstay their welcome. The best example of this is perhaps Gone With the Wind, maybe this speaks more to the declining attention span of the cinema-going public, but there have been many examples of ‘classic’ films where I have thought they could have done with being at least ten minutes shorter, if not more. Well, this film isn’t as egregious as others. It is still a reasonably long watch that feels a bit bloated around the middle.
Guns of Navarone tells the story of a mission to destroy the titular guns on the (fictional) Greek island of Navarone for the British Army to launch a rescue mission on a neighbouring island. The elite team assembled for this task is lead by the dynamic Captain Mallory (Gregory Peck), who recruits a mishmash of men for this dangerous task.
If there’s one thing going for this film from the off, it’s star power. Not only does it star Hollywood icon Gregory Peck, but it also features David Niven, Richard Harris, and popular former television actor Stanley Baker. It’s a star-studded cast if ever there was one, and you can’t accuse anyone of phoning in their performances either. David Niven and Gregory Peck are the show-stealers for me, with a special mention to Anthony Quinn.
The film is also surprisingly anti-war for its time. An issue I find with many classic war films is their jingoistic nature—the easy stereotypes of the rugged British heroes against the goose-stepping blabbering Germans. There was seemingly little room for nuance in such films, which is why it’s so refreshing to see said nuance on display here. The British soldiers aren’t portrayed as entirely noble heroes, but rather, they are flawed humans thrust into an impossible situation, and they’re all the more interesting for it.
A prime example of this is during the film’s final act, David Niven’s character (Cpl John Anthony Miller) gives a pair of rousing speeches questioning their mission and the war itself. They’re a daring pair of monologues that stand out by a mile when compared to their contemporaries. There’s little sign of blind heroism in their sentiment, just resigned necessity.
Like many films of its age, however, it does seem to go on for longer than necessary. Clocking in at just over two-and-a-half hours, it isn’t the longest film of all time. Still, there is a noticeable lag in excitement and intrigue in the middle of the film, which is a shame, as everything leading up to that – and indeed following it – was suspenseful and intense. The problem is it lingering too long in a specific place or on a certain point, breaking the films flow intermittently to show us what’s going on in the area our heroes left twenty minutes ago. It isn’t a deal-breaker by any means, but it does obstruct the natural flow of the film.
As I say, though, there are some moments of great suspense and excitement to be found scattered throughout its runtime, even managing to find a way to make ships passing at sea feel intense. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, it later finds time to wring suspense out of a descending lift. These moments are incredibly well-crafted and conceived, and they make the most of the simplest things. The film has time for explosions and gun battles later, but it’s these small moments of tension that stick with me the most.
After it gets over the slight hump in the middle of the narrative, it descends quickly into an exhilarating final stretch filled with twists, turns, and the requisite explosions that come together to make this film the classic that it is. While these things still hold up well today, it is the character-driven acting and intense yet straightforward scenes that make this film stand out for me.
In conclusion, then, this is a film that manages to avoid most of the pitfalls I have come to associate with older movies, especially older war movies. While it does drag a little in the middle, its bold anti-war subtexts, astonishingly good direction and stellar acting make it stand out amongst the rest of its ilk. Many may come away remembering the triumph of its finale. Still, I came away pleasantly surprised at how balanced the film is. How well-written and acted its characters are, and above all, taken in by its attention to detail in moments that would have passed by many other filmmakers—an excellent example of classic moviemaking.
Long-time readers of my work will remember my fondness for the film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. I liked it so much; I made it my film of the year for 2018. I also discovered an admiration for its lead actress, Frances McDormand, whose towering role in the movie was one of the primary reasons I enjoyed it so much. Imagine my delight then when I saw her new film receive so much praise and attention in the run-up to Oscar season.
I would be lying if I told you that the inclusion of McDormand didn’t help pique my interest in this film. After reading a bit about it in the run-up to release, I confess I didn’t think there was much to the narrative to indicate the movie would be anything special. The inclusion of McDormand as the lead actress is what caught my attention most about this film. I had also heard a lot about the director, Chloe Zhao, who is much acclaimed in independent American cinema circles. I haven’t seen any of her previous work personally, but her reputation was strong enough to add to the films overall draw.
Nomadland is the story of Fern (McDormand), a widow who lost her job and house in the fallout of the late 2000seconomic recession. She now lives a nomadic life in her van as part of a community of “vandwellers” who travel the country taking seasonal work and leading simple lives in their vans or motorhomes.
Despite its critical acclaim and award success, Nomadland has received a somewhat mixed response from audiences. Many refer to its slow pace and lack of overall narrative as reasons for not enjoying it. I can sympathise with this viewpoint to a certain extent; The film certainly isn’t a pulse-pounding, action-packed thriller; instead, it is a languid drama detailing the lives and adventures of a set of people with an alternative way of living. You can judge whether you would like this movie by how you react to hearing the phrase “languid drama “if you are in the market for a more entertaining crowd-pleaser, this probably isn’t for you. If such a thing does interest you, though, you will find a lot to like.
I find myself in the middle of these two arguments. On the one hand, I found it a relatively slow experience, focusing more on its subject matter and characters than on any one overarching story. As tends to be the case with many character focus dramas, there are stories woven into it, but none receive the full attention of a fully-fledged narrative. Merely they are experiences on the journey of the characters.
On the other hand, however, focusing more on the characters than on a story allows you to look at a broader palette of life from a different perspective. I discovered in my small amount of research that I do for each of my reviews that this film used very few professional actors. Instead, many of the characters were actual members of the nomad community, portraying broad versions of themselves. To what extent the stories they tell are actually their own is unknown to me, but they do a remarkable job of making the film feel remarkably authentic. It is a risk, of course, to put non-actors in roles of such prominence, but these non-performers are so natural in front of the camera, but it is hard to believe they do not do it for a living.
The key moments of character interactions are what gives this movie its depth. In particular, the interactions between McDormand’s character Fern and her friend Linda (Linda May) are some of the film’s most heartfelt. Along with further interactions with van dwelling guru Bob (Bob Wells), which shows a layer of grief that is seemingly present in all of the communities lives.
All of this having been said, and while I enjoyed the characters and their interactions immensely, I do feel like something is missing in this film. It is a film I can admire more than I can enjoy. I admire its vision, its focus on characters and their relationships, but there are parts of the movie where I am left feeling cold and uninvolved. I feel like the film as a whole is missing a central narrative that the characters can revolve around. There are many plot threads throughout the film, but none can claim to be the “main story”, as I said. There is the backdrop of the economic recession, and there are reflections on grief and loss and new beginnings; the film tries to be all of these things but settles on none.
While I admit the film left me cold in places, I did warm to the characters at points throughout the film. There is something about knowing that these characters are portrayed by authentic nomads that makes them all the more interesting, and that knowledge makes them more believable. While I wouldn’t recommend filling out your cast with non-actors as a general rule, in a film like this dealing with an alternative side of society, the extra shot of authenticity is what can make or break the movie.
Frances McDormand is excellent in her role, as always. Her character is in many ways the polar opposite of Mildred, her character from Three Billboards, But she still distinctive an expert on the plate. It feels like there is a lot of subtext to her character, she is not overly outgoing or headstrong, but her actions indicate a much stronger personality below the surface.
I can understand why this film was chosen for Best Picture. It has all the hallmarks of the kind of picture the Academy likes. It is beautifully shot and acted, and even though there is a lack of prominent overarching narratives, it has many artistic merits. I can also understand why the film would not appeal to a broad audience. It is a niche film, as indeed many films like it are. It is slow and lacking in excitement, but that shouldn’t take away its achievements as a piece of art and as an exploration of a subculture.
While I don’t think it’s a film I shall be visiting any time soon, there was a lot I liked about Nomadland. The acting and characters were Stella, as was its presentation. For what it lacked in the story department, it makes up for inauthenticity. I enjoyed it more than Mank, But I think it lacked a certain spark to make it stand out as something special. I believe in the grand scheme of things, this is the best picture with her that would have eventually, and it must be said sadly, been lost to time if it weren’t for the historical significance of its wins. It’s enjoyable enough for its characters, but I would understand if it doesn’t appeal to you.
As most of you will recall, I spoke in my last review about having health problems, specifically speaking, my eyesight. Well unfortunately, the prognosis isn’t good.
At an opticians appointment last week, my eyesight registered as 3 out of 12 for visual acuity, for those who don’t know, between three and six out of twelve constitutes visual impairment. I am writing this statement using big fonts on my iPad to reduce the strain on my eyes, but it isn’t something I can keep up for long.
I am currently awaiting an urgent referral to the hospital to fully explore what is wrong with my eyesight. Hopefully I will get a diagnosis, if I am partially sighted, this is something I will have to learn to live with. Luckily I still have enough vision left to be able to watch and enjoy movies. This having been said, I don’t wish to use what I have left of my eyesight straining at a word processor to complete reviews multiple times a week. I don’t know at this stage if my vision will get worse, and if it does, I don’t want to know that I have used the last of my time being able to properly see movies has been used in any other way except fully enjoying and appreciating them.
I currently have a backlog of films that I wish to review. This includes Nomadland, and some films sent to me by my friend and supporter Ian. I will be completing these reviews in my normal fashion, making use of larger fonts and voice recognition technology when necessary to help me finish work I have already promised. I don’t wish to stop reviewing completely, I just think that for the sake of my own health, both physical and mental, it is best that I don’t rely on written reviews.
Therefore, after I have completed the reviews I have promised, I will be trialling video reviews instead of the usual written ones. These will be uploaded to my website as usual, onto my Facebook page, my Patreon page, and to YouTube. I hope that these video reviews will be an acceptable replacement for my usual content, and that you, my readers, enjoy them as much as my usual output.
I hope to have the Nomadland review done soon, I admit the last week or so has been a struggle for me, which goes some way to explaining why this review hasn’t yet surfaced when I have promised it. I hope these changes end up being enjoyable for all, and I hope they help me to adjust to any differences I might experience in the coming months, and indeed years.
As always, I appreciate your continued support and readership. I hope I can continue to produce content that you enjoy, even if it is in a different format.
The end is nearly in sight now (I hope) and as I write this, cinemas are due to reopen in two weeks here in the UK. I can only hope the lineup at the local cinema is worth waiting for…
April saw the delayed Academy Awards being handed out in Hollywood. It was a mixed night, all told. Steps forward were made by having several female nominees in the Directing category, as well as a plethora of deserving POC nominees. Special congratulations go out to Chloe Zhao and Frances McDormand for their respective wins for Nomadland (which I’ll be reviewing soon, keep your eyes peeled!) As disappointing as it was to not end the night with a posthumous Oscar for Chadwick Boseman, Anthony Hopkins is a more than worthy recipient for Best Actor. I only hope I can see The Father soon…
Film of the Month – Promising Young Woman (2021) – Directed by Emerald Fennell
It was a tough choice between Sound of Metal and this film, but Emerald Fennell’s incredible film takes the prize of best film I’ve reviewed this month. She also deservedly walked away with a Best Original Screenplay Oscar last week, and rightly so.
As those who read my Sound of Metal review will be aware, I am experiencing some health issues at the moment, namely troubles with my eyesight (I’m typing this using a big font on my phone) which has slowed me down recently. I will be trying my best to pick myself back up soon though. I have a few very special reviews planned for this month, and I can only hope my output increases soon, and that you all enjoy reading it.
Hopefully see you at cinemas soon!
It is usually the aim of a filmmaker to make a film that emotionally connects to their audience on some level. Naturally, not all movies achieve this; a fair few fall short, in fact. However, some really take you by surprise. I first read about this film in a popular magazine last year, and I thought it sounded interesting. A basic, but solid premise, with a great leading actor in Riz Ahmed, I thought it had the potential to be interesting, but I didn’t think it would be much more than that. I was surprised to see it featured so heavily in the Oscar nominations, as it didn’t seem like a typical ‘Academy’ film (that’s what happens when you judge a book by its cover, kids). But given the past year we’ve had, it shouldn’t have been too much of a shock.
The reason this film so profoundly affected me is purely circumstantial and personal. Still, at least it shows the movie was doing its job. I connected with the main character and his struggles because they were difficulties I could recognise. To let you know precisely why, I should tell you the story of my last few weeks, and why this film touched me so much.
I have worn glasses since I was a young man. Ever since my teenage years, these glasses have been getting progressively stronger as my eyesight grows weaker (that’s sort of how glasses work). In the last few years, my vision has really taken a turn for the worst. A few years ago, I found out I had astigmatism. This condition causes your eyes to be oval-shaped rather than round, which I should have known for years, apparently but didn’t. Then, just a few weeks ago, my opticians informed me that my eyesight was still getting worse. Not only that but my field of vision is restricted, and my optic discs are tilted. What this means in the long run, I don’t know yet. I am still awaiting more scans, but suffice to say, my eyesight is severely diminished. I may yet be able to get some better glasses to improve my vision, but I have been told there is a good chance I might lose my driving licence because of my vision, and who knows? Maybe it’ll get worse.
I’m saying all of this now because I am aware that I have been quiet on this site over the past few weeks. It’s because I’ve been dealing with these issues. I can still see movies well enough to review them, so that isn’t so much of a worry. Writing these is a bit of a challenge because of the small text, but I’m still finding my way around it, and hopefully, I might improve soon. The other reason is that it is actually relevant to the context of this film, Sound of Metal. It deals with the fallout from losing one of your senses – in his case, it’s his hearing rather than his vision – and how it can affect your life and work.
I started to see parallels early on between his story and my own. Ruben (Ahmed) is a heavy metal drummer. His ears are integral to his life’s passion. At first, he starts to hide this problem from his bandmate and girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) and carries on but compromises his hearing even more. I sympathised with this plight so much on a personal level. When these things happen, you just wish for them to go away, for them to be problems that sort themselves out. I was preparing to start learning to drive buses when I found out my field of vision was restricted, so that’s had to be put to one side. Not only that but I’m a movie critic, I need to see to watch films. Films are my biggest passion; music is Ruben’s. This is why I connected with this film immediately, the shared experience.
It’s not as if you need to have these experiences to sympathise with his plight either. I’d like to think the thought of going deaf or blind would scare most people. I know that I’m scared right now, and I recognise that struggle in Ruben too. He’s angry, of course; he’s just lost his hearing. Not only that, but it directly affects what he loves. He can’t drum anymore because he can’t hear. We can all relate to that, we can all appreciate that fear of having what we love stripped from us, and this film is a heart-breaking portrayal of that very thing.
It achieves this through a wonderful mix of great acting and directing, but most importantly, incredible sound design. Sound design is one of those things that you don’t notice (or care about) unless it’s really good or really bad. That’s a shame in many ways because many people work incredibly hard on every part of a film, but it’s true. But when you use something like that to tell the story, the effects can be magical.
How this film uses its sound is a stroke of genius; at pivotal parts of the movie, the sound switches to how Ruben hears the world. It fades out and becomes distant, buzzing as his hearing fades, and then just becomes silent later on. It helps create a sense of isolation around Ruben as we share the experience of what it’s like to not hear the world around you. When the perspective changes and the sound return, it’s jarring to us and really does a great job of juxtaposing the world Ruben is now a part of and the hearing world.
It’s not only a tale of lost passions and senses, however. It’s also a story of acceptance, of adapting to new challenges. Ruben is taken in by a deaf community to adapt to life. The film switches from tragic to life-affirming, as he learns how to live life without hearing. We also get a great sense of community in these scenes and some fantastic character building. It also has an incredibly poignant final act, in which he learns that sometimes the thing you want doesn’t always work out how you planned and that sometimes you don’t realise what you need when you’re focused on what you want. It may sound corny and cliched, but the film finds a way to make it work.
In conclusion, Sound of Metal makes the most of its basic plot by making it an intriguing and highly emotional study of a man whose world is turned upside down by circumstances he couldn’t foresee. This remarkably familiar set-up is made fresh again by the approach of its filmmaker and his team. Putting together a whole new perspective on the world by playing with the audience’s senses through ingenious sound design, capped off by the story’s very personal feel, captivating performances, and brilliant writing. Sound of Metal is an experience that’s sure to move you.
Well, this is a difficult film to review. I might as well state for the reader right now that this review will not have the same tone as my usual work. The light-hearted tone I adopt for most of my reviews is inappropriate, if not a little offensive, to use with this subject material in mind. I’d also like to put a content warning here that this review covers a film whose main narrative hinges on sexual assault and rape. If you don’t wish to read any further, I understand. If you want to continue reading, I’ll be approaching the subject with the respect and dignity it deserves. I may just be writing about a film here, but to many people, including some close to me, this subject is a stark reality. I’ll be including some phone numbers to victim support hotlines at the end of this review, too, just in case a reader or someone they know needs it.
Firstly, let me start by saying that I generally don’t like it when a film uses sexual assault as a plot point, especially in horror films. It’s cheap, lazy, and very rarely done tastefully – not that such a thing can be ‘tasteful’. It’s typically not done in service of the larger narrative, but done to make us empathise with a female character; but if the only way you can think about building sympathy for a female protagonist is to depict them being assaulted, I would suggest that you NOT write female characters, or don’t write at all.
All this being said, however, it can be done; it’s just rarely done right. I think the problem with them using this trope in horror films is, in general, horror tends to portray its female characters as sexual objects, to begin with. This is starting to change in modern times, admittedly. Still, looking back at “classic” horror films, what are the main characteristics of any female character? One who isn’t played by Jamie Lee Curtis? They’re there to have sex, maybe flash some skin, and get murdered. Throw sexual assault into that mix, and all you’re subliminally saying about your female characters is that they’re sexual objects, there to either be killed or to be felt sorry for because they were assaulted. This is the root of this trope’s laziness, and particular films compound this feeling too. Films, like I Spit on Your Grave, are just nasty pieces of work.
All of the above is a qualifier for the rest of the review because (spoilers) it’s going to be a very positive one. Still, I feel this is a conversation I needed to start with to preface the review. Even though this film successfully uses assault in its narrative, it doesn’t mean I’m comfortable with it. Actually, it feels like that’s the point of the movie. It’s supposed to make us uncomfortable, as that’s how we get its message. It isn’t a message that everyone wants to, or can stand to, hear, but it is just as necessary, maybe even more so. It made me feel uncomfortable, but it didn’t make me want to turn it off. It compelled me to carry on watching, despite my discomfort, because I thought there was a lesson to be learned here, that this film needed – nay – deserved to be heard. Far be it for me, a white man, to call this film out for being ‘uncomfortable’ when the reality is that this is some women’s lives. In fact, it reads like a checklist of every piece of harassment, large and small, a woman goes through in their lives. I don’t assume to talk for all women there, but most women will watch this and recognise something from their experiences, I’m sure.
What also makes this film such a gut punch in the emotions is its timeliness. We’re a few years into the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements, but they still feel like the zeitgeist. They’re still more important with each passing month. Of course, it’s always been an issue, but only now do we seem to be finally confronting it like this. What also makes this particular take refreshing is that it is a woman’s story. Directed and written by a woman and produced by a few notable ones too. It feels refreshing and sad that this story is probably a lot closer to the truth than many attempts written by male writers. It has a feeling of authenticity to it which, if anything, just adds to the discomfort and the tension.
The cast is what really makes this movie, though. Carey Mulligan is the film’s star, and a star she certainly is. Her commanding performance is magnetic, insidious, and intense. She manages to be both empathetic and unlikeable in equal measure. Her quest for revenge is unnerving to watch, yet still so satisfying also. Her complex nature is perfectly complemented by her co-stars too. It would have been easy to make all the male characters sleazeballs preying on young women, but that’s rarely the case. Yes, they are creeps to a certain extent, but they have more going on beneath the surface, making them all the more interesting.
The apex of this characterisation is Ryan, played by the wonderful Bo Burnham, who is a perfect love interest for Mulligan’s character. He seems like the antithesis of all the other guys Cassie (Mulligan’s character) meets. He’s sweet and unthreatening, but like everyone else, he has his complexities. Which is what ultimately won me over most about the movie. The characters are so well thought-out and played that it lifts it above the usual revenge thriller by making almost everyone three-dimensional. There’s no lazy writing on display here, and it is so refreshing.
Again, I can understand if this isn’t your thing or if the uncomfortable atmosphere is too much for you. I felt uncomfortable too, but the way this film makes me uncomfortable is worlds away from how I Spit on Your Grave does it. There’s a reason why this wants to make you uncomfortable. It wants you to feel how its protagonist, and by extension, women, feel when they’re set upon and vulnerable. It serves a purpose, it has a lesson to teach, and more to the point, it’s in service of the narrative; it doesn’t happen to make you empathise with its main character. It happens because that’s reality, and that’s the saddest thing of all.
In conclusion, then, this film is a phenomenal punch to the gut. Incredibly acted, written and directed, it left me absolutely gobsmacked after its perfectly bittersweet ending. I was literally speechless, and it’s been a long time since a film has done that. I just hope people who watch it take away the right lessons and see it as I see it, an uncomfortable truth. One we have to confront no matter how much it scares us.
If you, or anyone else you know, is affected by any of the issues talked about in this review, help can always been found, below are a series of numbers for helplines there to help sexual assault victims.
Victim Support – 0808 168 9111
The National Association for People Abused in Childhood (NAPAC) – 0808 801 0331
Hourglass – 0808 808 8141
One in Four – 0800 121 7114
These phone numbers are for UK-based charities and services, please check Google for any services local to you.
Politics. Religion. Pineapple on pizza. These are all topics many people don’t feel comfortable talking about in mixed company. Amongst the vast swathes of points that could fall under the subject of ‘politics’ (most things in life come down to it in one way or another) that causes awkward silence if brought up in mixed company and furious vitriol if brought up online, is capital punishment.
Naturally – the act of state-sponsored executions is a divisive topic, one you’ll be glad to hear I won’t be delving into in too much depth, but which serves as a key talking point in this film. I wouldn’t even say that the movie itself took any particular stance on the matter. One or two scenes could be seen as the director/writer sympathising with the anti-capital punishment cause, but I would hardly say that this was a concrete stance. It is all reasonably even-handed on the morality of the death penalty.
The film documents the life and times of the titular Pierrepoint, Albert Pierrepoint, that is. It dramatises the events in his life, which lead to him being regarded as Britain’s most notorious hangman, responsible for the executions of over 600 people throughout his career, including several Nazi war criminals. It also shows the effects such a job takes on a person’s private life and mental health, covering the period up until his retirement in the 1950s.
Like most biopics, I got the feeling that Pierrepoint was being somewhat economical with the truth (that’s the most diplomatic way I can put ‘more fiction than fact’), and while this may be a deal-breaker for some, it is not so for me. I’m here to be told an entertaining story; I don’t mind if you shift some things around in the real-life story to make things more interesting. That being said, however, it was still noticeable to me, and after a little bit of light research, I found my hunch to be true. Although the scene I thought was most likely to be a fabrication was indeed true, so real-life can sometimes be just as unbelievable as fiction.
Speaking of the narrative, I enjoyed how the story spans over a few decades, encompassing several different sensibilities and a shift in public feeling. As previously mentioned, there are a few scenes documenting the execution of Nazi war criminals. Still, I wouldn’t describe the film as a ‘war film’ as WW2 isn’t happening throughout the whole narrative, and when it is, it is just in the background, alluded to briefly, rather than lingered on. As someone who has spent a lot more time than is necessary watching films about World War 2, I appreciate this. It helped me get a better feeling of the time immediately before and after the war, and such offered up some new perspectives.
The cast is top-notch, too, lead by the consistently underrated Timothy Spall and featuring the equally underappreciated Eddie Marsan. It makes the most of what it has with very few key characters, focusing on a select few’s struggles and lives rather than cast its net too wide. It allows the story to focus primarily on important characters and relationships, rarely over-complicating itself with side-plots. This narrowed focus also helps the film’s pacing, clocking in at just over ninety minutes. The film doesn’t waste any of those minutes and doesn’t outstay its welcome—an increasingly rare commodity in modern cinema.
Timothy Spall is on top form in this film. Imbuing him with quiet dignity and yet still showing enough expression to make clear his inner conflict that for the most part mainly bubbles under the surface, hiding behind carefully concealed expressions, or betrayed by a look in his eye. Although the character is not predominantly an outwardly expressive man, you can read a lot about his feelings just by his facial expressions and tone of delivery. All of which is a credit to Spall, who has quietly built a reputation over the decades as one of Britain’s most reliable actors.
Eddie Marsan is also a notable addition to the cast. Many people are likely to recognise his face more than his name, but he has become more familiar to me over the last few years. While the arc of his character in the film is its most predictable aspect, it is still well-performed. His nature is timid, some might say even pathetic. He is the figure of the downtrodden, heart-broken man in love, and the end of his story is incredibly poignant, leading to Albert finally confronting what his job means in his own mind. This is the part of the film that I mentioned earlier which seemed unbelievable but was actually, broadly speaking, true. It ultimately tips the movie’s balance from being a dry re-telling of an interesting life to an emotionally resonant tale of a man whose job requires him to occupy an almost impossible moral quandary.
As the film wears on, it starts to delve deeper into capital punishment’s morality, presenting us with facsimiles of protesters from the time. It does do an excellent job of showing both sides in a sympathetic light, however. We are led to believe that those who oppose hangings are not simply rabble-rousing do-gooders but that they might be right. In the same way, however, it does not show Albert as being a bad man because of his job. Instead, it shows us, and tells us, the many complexities he believes his position to have. In other words, it isn’t a film that patronises its audience. It may have its own feeling on the topic, but it doesn’t want to lead your interpretation. It is merely presenting you with both sides to inform your own thinking.
Although it is well-acted and scripted, I wouldn’t say the film was anything special in the technical department. It certainly has nice settings and is shot competently, but its aesthetic is relatively dry and dull. It pushes no boundaries and is perfectly acceptable in terms of telling the story it wants to tell. It starts to accompany the emotional resonance well towards the end, but for the most part, there is minimal visual flair in how it is shot. Although I suppose, if that’s the films most significant problem, then it really doesn’t have all that much to worry about.
In conclusion, Pierrepoint is an interesting story, well-told, and acted with a surprising amount of emotional heft. It uses a controversial subject matter, but it doesn’t feel like it is pushing a specific agenda, and it is all the better for it, as it leaves the big moral questions in the hands of its viewers. Despite not being the most exciting thing to look at, it still provides an engaging 90 minutes of entertainment, driven by a strong central performance. It’s a surprisingly impactful watch that has sadly gone under-the-radar for many for quite some time, and I can only hope it is reassessed by many soon, as I think it will take many by surprise.