Father Soldier Son

Directors: Catrin Einhorn, Leslye Davis


A famous quote, often attributed to François Truffaut, holds that there is no such thing as a true anti-war film because cinema cannot help but make the depiction of combat look glorious. It’s a sound statement, even if the validity is still up for debate (Truffaut didn’t live to see Klimov’s Come and See), and there’s an addendum that could be made at least where mainstream American movies are concerned: in Hollywood, there are no anti-army films. While anti-militarism was more pronounced in American cinema back in the days of Vietnam, Stanley Kubrick, and Oliver Stone, it has steadily declined with the emergence of the military-entertainment complex and post-9/11 jingoism. While you do still get films that attempt to critically engage with the harmful effects of modern warfare and American foreign policy, there’s more hesitancy where depictions of the US military organisation and its troops are concerned (and that’s without considering movies that were made in direct collaboration with the US army like Transformers and some MCU titles, which is a whole other discussion). In a country that equates militarism with national security, the army has worked hard to advertise itself to the public as a noble institution that upholds liberty and democracy around the world. It is such a pervasive idea today that few feel compelled to challenge it, even in a documentary that looks specifically into the harrowing fallout of one man’s military service.

The film is about Sgt. First Class Brian Eisch and chronicles a decade of his life, starting in 2010 with his service in Afghanistan and ending in 2020. In the time between, Brian is severely wounded and returns home to his sons Isaac and Joey. When we first meet him, Brian is a happy-go-lucky guy; he loves being a soldier, he loves spending time with his kids, and he loves fishing, camping, and hunting. When a gunshot to the leg puts him out of action for good, Brian’s response is to stay positive and tough it out while his leg heals. The film then cuts to three years later where we meet a different man. He’s more irritable and dejected than before. He’s put on weight and lost a lot of his independence. He lives in constant pain and worries that his reliance on others has turned him into a burden (a “used-to-could” as he puts it). At this point, he has finally agreed that the only forward is to have his leg amputated. As Brian adapts to his new circumstances, life moves on. His sons grow up, he gets married, he learns to use a prosthetic leg, and all along the way comes tragedy and joy and everything else life has to throw at him.

The film, as directed by Catrin Einhorn and Leslye Davis (both of them journalists for The New York Times), is resolutely passive in its approach. It is a fly-on-the-wall documentary where we are invited to observe and follow this military family over the course of a decade without ever stopping to consider the roles that the filmmakers play. They never draw any attention to their presence in the Eischs’ lives nor do we ever hear their voices. They take no stances, pass no judgements, and push no agendas. In a story that has more going on in it than the individual, personal struggles of a single family dealing with hardship, what we’re supposed to understand as objectivity and neutrality comes across as thematically shallow apoliticism. Father Soldier Son is a modern thesis on intergenerational patterns of masculine behaviour and expectations, it is an exposé on the direct and indirect costs of the war in Afghanistan for its troops, and it is an account of the kinds of social pressures, economic barriers, and dearth of realistic alternatives that lead so many young people to join the army. In focusing so fixedly on the symptoms of these protruding issues without attempting to examine their roots, the film betrays an unwillingness on its part to actually engage with the story it has set out to tell.

My issues with this film, I’d like to stress, are not indicatory of a lack of empathy for Brian and his family, whose struggles and tribulations are conveyed clearly and effectively. As is often the case in documentaries, the story that unfolds is so astonishing and tragic that it could only have happened in real life to real people; if you were to present this same story in the form of a dramatic screenplay, it would be dismissed as too fantastic. From the very first moment when you see Sgt. Eisch step off a plane after six months in a warzone and embrace his two boys, as moving a scene as any that can possibly be committed to film, all you want is for them get through whatever happens over the next 90 minutes intact. The movie inspires tremendous sympathy for Brian as he faces the many challenges of adapting to life without his leg, openly addresses the anxiety of losing part of himself and becoming the kind of person he hoped to never become, and suffers a level of pain and heartbreak that no human being should have to experience. The tragedy of his story is compounded even further by a character with an unfortunately narrow idea of how to hold himself and live his life, socially and emotionally, as a man.

As we see Brian’s sons get older, we watch as he imparts onto them the same toxic ideals of masculinity that have guided him through his own life. When the then twelve-year-old Joey takes up wrestling to be more like his dad and big brother, it’s clear that he’s just too sweet and gentle a boy to be an effective fighter. After a series of defeats, Brian presses onto his tearful son that the solution is to toughen up and get angrier. Later we see Joey talking innocently about his desire to join the army as soon as he’s old enough so he can shoot the bad guys that hurt his father. Isaac has a different future in mind; he wants to be the first in his family to go to college, only Brian is so confident it won’t happen that he bets him $400 on it. He wants Isaac to join the army like he did and, when he’s eventually proven to be correct about his son, that’s exactly what happens. Brian is so committed to the masculine virtues of toughness, forcefulness and emotional hardness that his loyalty to the institution that cost him his leg never wavers. These are all sides of Brian that the filmmakers saw fit to include in their final cut, but they are left uninterrogated.

I’m not sure if it comes down to a lack of curiosity or if Einhorn and Davis were deliberate in their desire not to step on anybody’s toes, but their presentation of Brian’s experience feels deficient. There’s no attempt to address the army’s responsibility for Brian’s injury and little is made of the larger context of the war and the politics behind it. Brian remarks in once scene that the square he used to patrol was eventually taken over by the enemy and briefly wonders whether what he did in Afghanistan was worth it, but the film leaves that question unexplored. Towards the end when Isaac enlists and enters basic training, the feeling of dreadful, cyclical inevitability it inspires goes unacknowledged. The film is so determined not to take a stance that it refuses to express so much as ambivalence on any themes that might be deemed provocative or unpatriotic. That the film did such a good job of conveying this family’s misfortunes and inspiring such empathy makes me feel all the more disappointed that they refused to pronounce their story with the greater significance it deserved. Father Soldier Son is a sanitised tragedy; one where a soldier’s grievous injury and the harrowing effect it has on his family life are presented on Netflix with such euphemistic terms as ‘sacrifice’ and ‘redemption’, lest anybody think that there are deeper, more pressing questions to be raised by such a story.

★★

Greyhound

Cast: Tom Hanks, Stephen Graham, Rob Morgan, Elisabeth Shue

Director: Aaron Schneider

Writer: Tom Hanks


Throughout his long, varied career there is a particular kind of character that Tom Hanks has been consistently drawn to, especially as he’s gotten older. Whether he’s being taken hostage by Somali pirates in Captain Phillips, negotiating a trade between the two great powers of the Cold War in Bridge of Spies, or landing a passenger plane in the middle of the Hudson River in Sully, Hanks’ later career has seen him returning time and time again to the role of the stoic, hyper-competent professional performing his duty in extraordinary circumstances. These characters all embody what is perhaps the single most prevalent theme in the star’s entire filmography, the virtue of everyday heroism. So long as Hanks’ protagonists can keep their heads, focus on the tasks at hand, and trust in their abilities and judgement and whatever greater forces may be guiding them, they’ll make it out on the other side all right. It’s a persona he has been building since as early as Apollo 13 and Saving Private Ryan and it is one that has spilled over into real life as many have come to regard him as ‘America’s Dad’. When he relayed the news of his COVID-19 diagnosis to the world earlier this year, enough people were impressed by the warmth and composure he continued to exude that they were compelled to start paying attention to the virus and prepare for its impending arrival.

In Greyhound, Hanks assumes a role that was literally written just for him (it helps to be the screenwriter). Ernest Krause is a career navy man who, just as the USA is entering the Second World War in 1942, has been entrusted with his first command over a vessel. The USS Keeling, or ‘Greyhound’, is the destroyer that has been tasked with safeguarding a convoy of 37 Allied ships across the Atlantic Ocean. As well as navigating the turbulent waters, Krause and his crew must remain on guard for the German U-boats that are intent on stopping them from reaching their destination. Without the protection of the air force, it is up to the Greyhound and the three other Allied escorts accompanying her to counter any ambushes they meet and protect the cargo and crewmen under their watch. Krause, despite his seniority, has never before commanded a ship, never mind a convoy, nor has he been right in the thick of combat. In many ways he’s just as green as the many young recruits under his charge. While he harbours his own doubts about his ability to see the convoy safely to Europe, Krause understands his objective and what’s at stake, he knows the ship and and its protocols, and he has a crew awaiting his instructions. The rest is up to a higher power.

The movie’s bread and butter is the minutiae of naval warfare; in a trim 90-minute runtime, Hanks and Schneider dedicate themselves towards depicting the hands-on reality of life on an Allied warship as faithfully as possible. While the idea sounds dull on paper, the film wrings some real tension out of its depiction of a well-practised bureaucratic machine in constant motion. Nobody has the time to relax or catch their breath on the Greyhound, there are radars and engines to be monitored, observations to be recorded, manoeuvres to be calculated, updates to be relayed, and orders to be relayed back. When Krause has an instruction for one of his men, it gets passed on from soldier to soldier like a game of Chinese telephone until it reaches the man who needs to hear it. When he needs to hear updates from the radar in real time, they’re passed over the radio to a middleman who has to immediately repeat them verbatim before he’s even heard the full report. Every second matters when there’s a U-boat on your tail, which means there is absolutely no time for pauses. The film never lets up from the moment Krause takes the deck, and it is genuinely quite exciting to watch each of the cogs of this well-oiled machine turning in place to keep this lumbering vessel moving.

The film is so intensely focused on showcasing this, in fact, that little room is allowed for the characters to make any kind of impression on the viewer. It’s one thing when you have an accomplished movie star like Hanks or veteran character actors like Stephen Graham and Rob Morgan in the roles; there are a lot of blanks you can fill in for yourself through inference. The majority of the cast however is made of young, fit, white men who all more or less play the same character. Even when granted singular moments to do something besides repeating an order, they still blend so interchangeably into one another that they barely even register as individuals, never mind characters. Krause has what is by far the biggest presence in the film, and even he hardly amounts to more than a one-note take on the archetype that Hanks often plays. There are one or two flashbacks with Elisabeth Shue as his wife and the recurring motif of a gift she gives that try to convince us of a life that exists beyond the nuts and bolts of the ship, but if anything they detract more from the film than they add. A movie without these scenes that simply restricted itself to the events on the ship would at least have kept things tighter and might even have allowed for some of the minor roles to be fleshed out a little.

There is still something to be said for a straightforward, well-executed naval war film that sustains its tension for the entire duration. More the pity then that Greyhound was unable to open in theatres as originally planned. Watching the battle scenes on your TV or on a computer screen, one can only imagine how much differently the spectacle would have played on the big screen. The immense scale of the 350-ft. Destroyer and the enormous breadth of the Atlantic Ocean, the thunderous sounds of waves crashing against the hull of the ship and the deafening booms of torpedo explosions, the nail-biting suspense that occurs when the Greyhound shoots its target and waits to see if they made a hit; it just doesn’t strike you in the same way when the performance of its picture and sound are subject to your broadband speed and the quality of your headphones. None of this is to be held against the film of course, Schneider and his team couldn’t ever have predicted the turn that 2020 would take, it’s just unfortunate. Greyhound is by its own merits a solid and gripping, if otherwise thin and unengaging, film held together by a keen attention to detail that lends authenticity without giving way to tedium and by Hanks’ natural and ever welcome screen presence.

★★★

Hamilton

Cast: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Phillipa Soo, Leslie Odom Jr., Renée Elise Goldsberry, Christopher Jackson, Daveed Diggs, Okieriete Onaodowan, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Jonathan Groff

Director: Thomas Kail

Writer: Lin-Manuel Miranda


One of the main themes of Hamilton is that of legacy and how you do not get to control how your story gets told or who gets to tell it. This applies as much to the show’s creator Lin-Manuel Miranda as it does to its subject Alexander Hamilton. Now that the show is out there for anyone (with a Disney+ subscription) to see, it falls onto the viewing public to interpret and judge the work on their own terms (such is the contract that every artist makes with the audience). All art is subject to the context in which it was originally created, the circumstances in which it is experienced, and the mentality of the individual consumer. Miranda understands this, of course, and the text of his work affirms it. Hamilton doesn’t get to decide how he is remembered any more than Miranda does how his remembrance of the man’s life is received. The point is relevant here because the hit hip-hop/rap musical is being shown in a different form to a different world than when it took Broadway by storm in 2015. A show that was originally conceived and designed for the stage is today being viewed in a filmed form on TV and computer screens and the optimism of the Obama Era has been replaced with the cynicism and disillusionment of Trump, Brexit and COVID-19. Things have changed, but the sun comes up and the world still spins.

Hamilton was filmed in July 2016 in the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York when the production still had its original cast and had yet to expand to other cities and countries. Back then the show was playing to an America that hadn’t seen the result of that year’s election or the fallout since. Four years later it is opening to a world in which the systemic murder of black people is being met with furious protest and the statues of men who owned and traded in slaves are being opposed and removed. A play that ultimately reassures the viewer of the promise of the American experiment now finds itself playing to an audience that is less certain of the nobility and virtue of their history and has less faith in the systems and hierarchies that have enabled men like Trump to rise to power. A show that recasts the USA’s founding fathers as people of colour, thereby making a statement on who gets to tell the story of the country’s origins, plays differently when the audience is more conscious of their legacy as slave-owners. A musical that ties together such a variety of historically black genres as hip-hop, R&B, and jazz feels somewhat sanitised by the realisation that it has been repackaged for a predominantly rich and white theatre audience. But then, these are ideas that the musical itself contends and grapples with.

As a work of musical theatre, to say that Hamilton lives up to the hype would be an understatement. After having listened to the album a couple hundred times, I got to see the West End production in 2018 and was wowed by the marvellous staging, the dazzling choreography and the wonderful performances (especially Giles Terera as Aaron Burr, Rachel John as Angelica Schuyler and Michael Jibson as King George). As director of both the original show and its filmed rendition, Thomas Kail’s task was to convey that spectacle in a form that could be showcased on the screen. Since Hamilton is a theatrical work first and foremost and the point of this movie is to provide the experience of watching the show to those who couldn’t see it themselves for financial or geographical reasons, it’s probably not fair to critique it as a work of cinema. Never the less, the reality is that unlike in the theatre where you can see all the action unfold before your eyes, deliberate choices had to be made here over which aspects to focus on in a given moment. While it is fundamentally the same performance as you would see on stage with the same live audience reactions and all the same songs (give or take a couple of “fucks” that were censored to secure a PG-13 rating), it is a different experience.

The result is both better and worse than what you would get from being in the room where it happened. Filmed over the course of two live performances, Kail was naturally limited in how much material he could film and the variety of ways in which he could film it. Cameras could not be placed anywhere or perform any movements that would be disruptive to the performance. The film is therefore mostly made up of eye-level medium shots from diagonal angles with occasional close-ups, wide shots, low-angle shots and overhead shots at key moments. The cuts between shots occur at a regular pace, as they would in a real film, allowing the viewer little time to look around and take in the bigger picture as they would in the theatre. The close-ups allow the audience to appreciate details that would be imperceptible from the theatre-goer’s seat like the wistful look of longing and regret on Angelica’s (Renée Elise Goldsberry) face during her show-stopping turn in ‘Satisfied’, but while the camera is fixed on her you miss out on much of the sparkling choreography on display as the actors around her act out the previous routine in reverse. There is a give and take that had to be negotiated by Kail and his team in the editing room; for all that the show gains in subtle nuances, some of the spectacle had to be sacrificed (and vice versa).

There are moments, usually in the quieter, less crowded scenes, where the film captures it just right. In the reprise of ‘The Story of Tonight’ (omitted from the album) where Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda) learns that fellow soldier Laurens (Anthony Ramos) has died (spoilers), Hamilton listens to his wife Eliza (Phillipa Soo) read the letter while Laurens, bathed in a ghostly blue light, stands in the foreground and sings of the promise that died with him (“Tomorrow there’ll be more of us”). Another example are the scenes with King George (a spit-tacular Jonathan Groff), whose performances provide perhaps the best example of what there is to be gained from a showing of Hamilton that you cannot get from simply listening to the album. The menacing glare, the primadonna walk, the spittle that erupts from his cartoonish screams; these things cannot be heard, they can only be seen. Since he’s usually on stage by himself, Kail cannot really go wrong with these scenes. All he has to do is point the camera and let Groff do the work. It’s during the busier scenes when there are more characters and interactions on the stage that he seems at a loss about who or what to frame. At times he’ll employ rapid cuts of a scene from different angles in an attempt to capture the many intricacies, but this can have a disorientating effect where the viewer loses track of the physical space within the scene.

Five paragraphs in, it suddenly occurs to me that I haven’t done the thing where I explain what the film is actually about and who’s in it. Hamilton is about the life and times of the “ten dollar founding father” Alexander Hamilton. Told from the perspective of Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), the “damn fool that shot him”, the show chronicles Hamilton’s life from the moment he set foot on the harbour in New York to pursue a career in law and join the revolution to his dying moment in a duel with the Vice President of the country he helped build. In that time he rises above his station as a “bastard orphan immigrant” to become right hand man to George Washington (Christopher Jackson), woos and marries the trusting and kind Eliza, becomes the country’s first Secretary of the Treasury, suffers and endures personal tragedy and professional scandal and builds a legacy that lives on to this day. The story is split into two acts with an intermission in between; the first set during the Revolutionary War against the British and the second in the years of the Washington and Adams presidencies. In placing its focus on two protagonists in Hamilton and Burr, we are treated to a story of jealousy between a cautious, entitled dignitary and a reckless, ambitious upstart, a philosophical conflict between an idealist and a pragmatist, and a cautionary tale of two men who both feared dying without leaving something behind.

As I said at the start, legacy is a major theme in Hamilton and the play is in many ways a comment on how we romanticise and mythologise our history. In the USA the founding fathers tend to be remembered as a coalition of nobles, heroes and scholars who opposed tyranny and together created a nation founded on the ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The play however understands that these men were far from perfect and that the country they built failed to live up to its own ideals as soon as it came to existence. For all their talk of freedom, the United States is still a country that was founded by slave-owners. Hamilton himself, for all his ideals, was a petty and combative man who was unfaithful to his wife and wrecked his marriage in order to preserve his reputation. There are for sure criticisms to be made from a historiographical perspective. Hamilton, for instance, was far from the abolitionist that the play portrays him to be and his political beliefs were much more authoritarian than the show can bring itself to admit. Meanwhile the play is happy to call Jefferson (Daveed Diggs) and Madison (Okieriete Onaodowan) out for owning slaves but never does so to Washington, the one founding father it cannot bring itself to demythologise. Furthermore, while slavery is brought up as a blemish on the country’s record, nothing is made of the genocide of the indigenous Americans.

While the play’s relationship to history is a spot of contention that requires far greater insight and expertise than I can offer to adequately cover, its effect as a work of drama is not to be denied. You care about what happens in the story, not because of the politics and history, but because of the characters and the actors who play them. In ‘Dear Theodosia’, which takes place after America’s victory against the British, we see Hamilton and Burr, both of them orphans, sitting side by side to celebrate the births of their children. It’s a song about the future of the nation they both plan to help build, but it’s founded on their own personal hopes and fears. Miranda, while not exactly the best singer in the troupe, is a force of nature in the title role; although the character is destined to be played by better actors and singers for years to come, it’s hard to imagine anybody matching Miranda for sheer passion and utter sincerity. Odom Jr. is a wildly charismatic performer who can convey anything from effortless charm to wounded pride to sly cunning in just the way that he smiles or composes himself. He is one of the performers who benefits the most from being filmed. Their portrayals may well be idealised, but they also work.

Frankly, you’d be hard-pressed to find a weak link in the entire ensemble. Soo, as the indomitable Eliza, brings such tenderness and anguish to the role that her arc as a neglected figure who takes control of her own destiny is perhaps the most moving in the entire show. The part that always gets me any time I listen to the album is when she forgives Hamilton for his misgivings. Even though that moment has the chorus sing what is quite possibly the most useless lyric in the history of musical theatre, her affectionate delivery of “It’s quiet uptown” still gets me choked up. Accompanying her is Goldsberry as Angelica, a character who remains composed at all times even when she’s anxiously falling apart inside, and Diggs as Lafayette and Jefferson, oozing of irresistible charm in every scene he’s in. And then there’s Jackson as Washington, the firm father figure that the orphaned Hamilton needs whose eventual retirement in ‘One Last Time’ is a bittersweet moment of parting and abandonment for Hamilton, a man who lost every guardian in his life before he came of age. Jackson holds himself high, exuding the dignity and gravitas of a great leader and authority figure. While the play is guilty of idolising Washington to the detriment of its own message, it’s hard not to get swept up in the myth of the man the way that Hamilton does.

It’s sometimes odd to consider how one’s relationship to a given work of art can change over time. Two years ago I would not have hesitated in giving Hamilton total, uncritical praise. Today I still consider it an all-time favourite and I was as swept away by the filmed recording as I ever was by the album, but my feelings have grown more complex as I’ve matured and seen the world around me change in such drastic ways. I’ve come to regard the reassurance and complacency of the Obama Era, under which this play came to fruition, as naiveté and ignorance just as I’ve grown more aware of the play’s limitations and shortcomings. And yet I still don’t find myself in conflict with the text of the show and what it ultimately stands for. Hamilton is the story of a country trying to reconcile its own bloody history with the ideals upon which it was founded. It’s a play which understands fully well that the present we live in isn’t perfect, but it still believes that a better future is possible. This musical, with its impossibly intricate rhymes and lyrics (seriously, just look at something like “the gossip in New York City is insidious” or “ingenuitive and fluent in French”) and fresh sounds, is a singular work of art that deserves to be scrutinised, analysed and debated. The film doesn’t capture everything that’s great about it, but it does capture enough and even reveals a few things you might not have noticed otherwise.

★★★★

On the Record

Directors: Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering

Writers: Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering, Sara Newens


There was a lot of background knowledge that I didn’t have going into this film. I didn’t know that Oprah Winfrey was an executive producer until she withdrew her support, citing “creative differences”, just before its premiere at Sundance. I didn’t know that Ava DuVernay had critiqued the film for inconsistencies and a lack of context with regards to matters of race (while the majority of the subjects are black women, the directors are white). And, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t even really know who Russell Simmons was. All I knew was that On the Record was a #MeToo themed documentary following in the examples set by Leaving Neverland, Surviving R Kelly and Untouchable. I therefore didn’t watch it with an eye towards questioning Drew Dixon’s credibility (not that she ever gave me any reason to), nor was I on the lookout for shortcomings in its discussions of race or of hip-hop culture. Even if I had been, there is only so much scrutiny that I as a white Brit with a casual relationship with rap and hip-hop (mainly Public Enemy and Hamilton) could dependably apply. There are certain questions that I simply would not think to ask and biases that I may not have fully trained myself to be sensitive of.

The film is primarily about Drew Dixon, a former artists and repertoire executive for Def Jam Recordings. There she worked with the likes of Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston and produced a Grammy-winning record in Method Man and Mary J. Blige’s ‘I’ll Be There for You/You’re All I Need to Get By’. One of her main collaborators at Def Jam was Russell Simmons, the co-founder of the label. In the documentary Dixon recounts in detail how Simmons made repeated, unwanted sexual advances towards her the whole time they worked together and how it culminated in him luring Dixon into his apartment and raping her. Deciding not to pursue any kind of action against him for reasons she discusses at length, she later found her continued employment under Simmons to be unbearable and left the label to work for Arista records under L.A. Reid. There she received further advances from a powerful man who refused to take no for an answer. As Dixon tells it, Reid was so intent on sabotaging her career following her rebuffs that he rejected such up-and-coming discoveries brought in by Dixon as Kanye West and John Legend. So intolerable was the position forced upon her that Dixon finally resolved to quit her job and leave the industry she loved so dearly.

While On the Record plays as a straightforward, sobering account of a survivor’s deeply harrowing experience working under two powerful, abusive men, there’s more to the story than a single woman’s trauma. To understand the full extent of the crimes inflicted on Dixon and the impact they’ve had on her life, her tale must be contextualised within the history, culture and industry of hip-hop music, the experience of being a professional black woman in 1980s-1990s America, and the issues of intersectionality within the #MeToo Movement. Thus we don’t only hear from Dixon and fellow survivors Sil Lai Abrams and Jenny Lumet, we’re also treated to talking head interviews with other black women who hold prominent positions in academia and the media. These include Kimberlé Crenshaw, an Ivy League law professor and leading scholar of critical race theory, Bim Adewunmi, a radio producer and former columnist of The Guardian, and Tarana Burke, the social activist who started the #MeToo Movement a decade before it went viral in light of the Harvey Weinstein exposé. Their commentary serves to broaden the scope of Dixon’s story, enabling the viewer to not only appreciate the severity of the problem on a personal and emotional level to her as an individual but also its magnitude on a social and political level.

While these interviews do serve their purpose, there is some sense that they’re doing a lot of the heavy lifting for the film as it has been written and produced by Dick and Ziering. Sometimes an idea is raised by one of the interviewees that the movie never really attempts to follow through on. One point that the film makes early on is how #MeToo, a movement that was launched by an African-American woman in 2006, didn’t take off until a decade later when white women started to speak out about their own experiences of abuse. This later prompts a discussion between Dixon, Lumet and Abrams about light-skin privilege (all three are light-skinned black women, as are the majority of Simmons’ accusers) and how they feel it is has shaped the way the media has reacted to their stories. Yet the film doesn’t take the time to expand on the subject and put it into a greater context, it simply leaves it there and moves on. However, when the point is made about the prevalence and tolerance of misogynistic lyrics in popular hip-hop songs, the film seizes the opportunity to showcase how common this trend is in the canon of contemporary, popular music (including and especially with white rock and roll artists), demonstrating how much further these issues go than one man or group. The impression is that the film is more certain of itself when tackling matters of sexism and misogyny, but is less so when race enters the mix.

And the issue on the table is as inescapably about race as it is about gender. One point the film does take strides to emphasise is the history of black women being vilified and disbelieved when speaking out against public figures, most famously in the case of Anita Hill whose alleged abuser remains a Supreme Court Justice to this day. Dixon also acknowledges an ambivalence on her part about whether it was right for her to speak out against a mogul who had done so much to elevate and popularise black artists in the music industry. The erasure of black, female voices in particular is a subject of great concern throughout. When Dixon left her career, with her went a dream that shall never be fulfilled and a musical future forever lost. How different would the shape and scope of hip-hop in America be if Dixon and the dozens of others who were driven away from their passions and pursuits had remained? What great works and unique voices have been denied to us thanks to the selfish and destructive desires of a powerful, tyrannical few? The film is an urgent reminder that #MeToo isn’t an individualistic phenomenon perpetrated by a few bad apples; it is a systemic issue that is as deliberate as it is cruel and getting lost in all the devastation are the voices of countless women of colour crying out to be heard. Heard and believed.

Of course, in watching Dixon tell her story, we are also witnessing a woman who suffered a terrible ordeal and is still many years later struggling to overcome her trauma. Since the film is framed so largely around Dixon herself and the decision to share her story with the world, the personal toll Simmons’ crime took on her comes across more strongly than the wider contextualisation. There’s one scene in particular that hits especially hard. In recounting the night of Simmons’ assault, she recalls that he originally led her into his bedroom because there was some demo he wanted her to listen to, an offer she couldn’t possibly have resisted. In the subsequent years she has long since wondered whose CD it was; it isn’t until the very moment she reads her own words in the New York Times article that she finally realises it had never existed in the first place, that Simmons had obviously made it up to entice her into that dreaded room. It’s a blow that drives home all the harder how this was a gross injustice that should never have happened and I cannot imagine how any empathetic being could listen to her recollection of that moment and be unmoved. While I’d have liked to see her story told in a film that was more expansive and comprehensive in its ambitions, what On the Record presents remains a vital story that is well worth hearing.

★★★★

The King of Staten Island

Cast: Pete Davidson, Marisa Tomei, Bill Burr, Bel Powley, Maude Apatow, Steve Buscemi

Director: Judd Apatow

Writers: Judd Apatow, Pete Davidson, Dave Sirus


There are two main constants to Judd Apatow’s filmography: stories of immature adults struggling to grow up and showcases for rising comedians playing semi-fictionalised versions of themselves. As a director and a producer he has helped the likes of Steve Carell, Seth Rogen, Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer, and Kumail Nanjiani distinguish themselves and become household names. For The King of Staten Island, Apatow has turned to Pete Davidson, the breakout Saturday Night Live cast member. A twentysomething stoner comedian who lives in his mother’s basement, Davidson is the living embodiment of the kinds of characters that the Funny People director has always been drawn to. Had he been born fifteen years earlier, Davidson could have played James Franco’s role in Freaks and Geeks. As a comic he has garnered attention, praise and controversy for the carefree way in which he forthrightly discusses such sensitive topics from his own life as drug abuse, mental health, and the death of his father. In making this film, Apatow has enabled Davidson to channel his voice into a comedic/dramatic form; one that allows them to not only find the humour in his life story but also the pathos and depth. In true Apatow fashion, it also goes about it for about half an hour too long and features plenty of sex, swearing and stoner jokes along the way.

Davidson plays Scott (named after his dad), a wayward dude living in a perpetual state of arrested development. His firefighter father died on the job when he was just seven and, now in his mid-twenties, he’s still struggling to deal with it. Unlike the real Davidson who learned to channel his grief into his comedy, Scott doesn’t have any kind of outlet, at least not any healthy ones. He lives in Staten Island with his mum Margie (Marisa Tomei), a New York working-class widow caring for a boy who spends his days going out to do crazy, stupid shit. Margie is like Aunt May in the MCU if those movies ever bothered to actually acknowledge Uncle Ben. While his little sister Claire (Maude Apatow) is bound for college and a bright future, Scott is content to spend the rest of his life getting baked with his friends and humouring this vague idea of opening a tattoo restaurant (you know, so you can get a tattoo while you eat!) He’s got a pretty good thing going with a local girl called Kelsey (Bel Powley), who’s known Scott since elementary school and clearly thinks he’s worth a damn, but is only prepared to hook up with her in secret. He’s apathetic about pretty much everything in his life, but that changes when his mum starts dating Ray (a marvellously moustached Bill Burr), another fireman. That, Scott decides, will not do at all.

The movie pretty much lives or dies depending on how compelling you find Davidson, both as a performer and a character. While the question remains whether he can carry a whole film playing somebody other than himself, there is a frankness and honesty to his performance here that make for a formidable screen presence. He can be equal parts charming and exasperating and it’s all rooted in the insecurity and disorientation that comes with losing a parent at a young age. The memory of Scott’s father looms over everything (there is a shrine to the old man in their living room corner and the date of his death is one of the more prominent of the several dozen tattoos decorating Scott’s body) and it is as much an old, untended wound as it is an emotional crutch; oftentimes he’ll invoke it as an excuse when attempting to justify his fecklessness. Scott is in many, many ways an unlikeable character; he acts out for no good reason, he has no drive or ambition, he is often horrid to his friends and family, and yet you cannot stop caring for him any more than the other characters can. There’s a scene where his irate sister laments, “All anybody does is worry about you” and it rings true. As pathetic and listless as he can be, you can see the vulnerability beneath it all and root for him because of it.

What might be jarring for fans of Apatow’s work is how unfunny this movie often is. This isn’t to say that the film is a comedy bomb, it still scores laughs with the same old style of semi-improvised banter and the occasional whacky set-piece (Scott joins a fight club in one scene and is thrown into a swimming pool in another); rather, it is to say that Apatow and Davidson had other, more pertinent things on their minds while writing the screenplay together. The film is about growing up, as Apatow’s films have tended to be, but by framing it around a pensive story that is so deeply personal to the man it’s based on, it cannot help but be more sober in its telling than The 40-Year-Old Virgin or Knocked Up. Honestly I could even have done with less of the comedy, so invested was I in Scott’s tumultuous journey to adulthood. As Scott deals with his mother bringing a man into her life who isn’t his father, is made to take on responsibilities he doesn’t feel prepared to handle, and faces the prospect of an empty, forlorn future, the movie taps into a tragedy of protracted adolescence that Apatow’s films seldom address directly. Scott, due to a loss he still hasn’t fully processed and possibly because of an unspecified mental illness (Davidson has borderline personality disorder in real life), has grown up out of sync with the world around him and is in serious danger of being left behind if he cannot figure things out soon.

The film is pretty aimless in its first half, not unlike Scott himself, and there are some scenes and sub-plots that I felt could have been cut out entirely (including a heist scene that doesn’t add anything or go anywhere). It’s in the second half that the film really snaps into focus, detailing the conflict between Scott and Ray, a man who has some growing up of his own to do. The film has Scott hang out at the fire station with Ray and his buddies, including veteran fireman Papa (Steve Buscemi, himself a former firefighter), a one-time colleague of his father. While there are a couple of laughs to be had in watching Scott trade jabs and be hazed by these guys, these scenes are more about him reconciling the memory of his dad with the sides of him that he never got to know, coming to terms with the profession that claimed his life, and deciding what kind of future it is he wants to make for himself going forward. While these scenes don’t really lend themselves to the kind of laugh-out-loud comedy you might get from watching Steve Carell’s chest being waxed, they do allow for a greater sense of authenticity and honesty, something that Apatow has always aspired to in his work. There may perhaps be too many of the director’s fingerprints on this story as it has been reshaped to fit the model he has habitually used for years, but when a filmmaker finds a format that works for them and works well, that is hardly a sin.

★★★★

The Lovebirds

Cast: Kumail Nanjiani, Issa Rae, Paul Sparks, Anna Camp, Kyle Bomheimer

Director: Michael Showalter

Writers: Aaron Abrams, Brendan Gall


The Lovebirds is the kind of movie I struggle the most to write about. Not because it’s a terrible film though, because it isn’t. I almost wish it were; had this movie been able to inspire as strong an emotional reaction within me as hatred, then I could channel that blistering energy into the writing of a cathartic takedown. I cannot do that with mild amusement or indifference. It’s hard to stimulate any thoughts or insights on a film when the impression it leaves is no more lasting than the ice cubes in your drink. I might as well write about what I had for lunch yesterday (a cheese and prosciutto toastie with pesto) for all the enthusiasm I can muster. The consumption was not at all unpleasant and left me momentarily nourished, but those are the full extent of my feelings on the subject. The film is like a white noise machine with pictures; it hasn’t been designed for any level of engagement beyond mental distraction. I could have left it on in the background while going through my emails, writing on the walls in my own blood, or playing Pokémon (my three favourite quarantine past-times) and little would have been lost in the experience. Again, none of this means that The Lovebirds is terrible; it just means that writing 800+ words about it is going to take some effort.

I suppose the beginning is as good a place to start as any. The movie opens with lovebirds Leilani (Issa Rae) and Jibran (Kumail Nanjiani) the morning after what was clearly a dream first date. The two are totally smitten and keep looking for excuses to stay together so they can continue making lovey-dovey eyes at each other and giggle their way through some adorkable flirting. The movie then cuts to four years later when the honeymoon phase has long since ended. Leilani and Jibran are caught up in a heated argument about The Amazing Race which brings out some bitter points of contention between them. Her constant need for drama and spontaneity drive him up the wall while his inability to push himself and get anything worthwhile done grinds her gears. Jibran also makes a point about how he, as a documentary filmmaker, doesn’t watch reality shows, compelling Leilani to say, “Documentaries are just reality shows that no one watches”. Such should have been reason enough for Jibran to dump her there and then and never look back; nobody needs that kind of toxicity in their life. In any case, while they don’t exactly break up, they both know that they’ve reached an impasse and that it’s only a matter of time. “Are we done?” he asks her. “I think we’ve been done for a while” she answers. Before this realisation has a chance to sink in with either of them though, Jibran hits a cyclist with his car.

From there, what started off as a bad day only proceeds to get worse and worse. A moustached cop (Paul Sparks) arrives on the scene and commandeers their car to chase down the fleeing cyclist. Moustache, as nicknamed by Jibran and Leilani (spelt the American way of course, something that I am physically, mentally and emotionally unprepared to do), runs him down and repeatedly drives back and forth over his corpse for good measure while his passengers watch in stunned silence. This is one of the few instances of the movie committing to a gag derived from the tension and unlikelihood of the moment as opposed to foregrounding the leads over it with their superfluous jokes and commentary. The moustached cop (who in hindsight may not actually have been a cop) disappears as quickly as he appeared and Jibran and Leilani are left standing next to a dead man who was killed by their car. When some pedestrians appear and assume the worst (one calls the police and takes pains to make clear that it’s not because they’re people of colour but because they’ve actually committed a crime), the two go on the run and set out to clear their names. What follows are hijinks that’ll lead them to a sadistic rich couple, a dingy frat house, and a ritualistic cult orgy straight out of Eyes Wide Shut.

The film is notable for reuniting Nanjiani with director Michael Showalter, who together struck gold with 2017’s The Big Sick, one of the most charming, inspired and touching rom-coms in recent memory. This movie is as forgettable and banal as that one was fresh and delightful. That it brings Issa Rae, a unique and radiant voice in African-American comedy, into the mix should have made for something special. She and Nanjiani do have chemistry and their commitment compensates for some of the script’s shortcomings, but their roles are just too thin to allow for more than generic platitudes and occasionally amusing banter. Some exchanges are good for a laugh, such as when discussing the logistics of organising an orgy or when Jibran tries a locked door right after watching Leilani have a go, leading her to snap “Did you think that was one of those men-only doors?” Other times, they needed to understand that their constant, bickering asides were detracting more from the bit than they were adding and just shut up so that the scene could play out. When the movie lands on a set-piece, it doesn’t appear to trust that the comedy of the moment will be enough to carry the audience through. It instead relies on Nanjiani and Rae to either make observational one-liners or frantically talk over one another the whole way through, even when the moment doesn’t call for it and would have been stronger without.

The movie offers little in the way of personality. Its setting is New Orleans, one of the most vibrant and culturally rich cities in all of the United States, but the film’s depiction is so inactive and shapeless that it barely even registered with me. A place teeming with such life and soul that it was a character unto itself in HBO’s Treme has no business being as drab and inert as it is here. The movie does have the distinction of featuring a mixed-race, non-white couple as its leads and every now and then it does actually make something of the fact. One such moment is when Jibran and Leilani watch in paralysed fear as a passing police patrol drives slowly by, regarding them with suspicion the whole time and convincing them that they’re about to be caught out. It soon moves on and they are relieved to see that they weren’t on to them after all; they were just regular racist officers. A film with this setup that played more on the realities of being a person of colour in America, a sort of comical version of Queen & Slim, might have made for a more interesting and noteworthy, if not necessarily better, movie. As is, The Lovebirds has, in lieu of the pandemic that thwarted its intended cinema release, made its home on Netflix where it is destined to sit comfortably side by side with all the other benign, disposable comedies.

★★

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Cast: Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder, Théodore Pellerin, Ryan Eggold, Sharon Van Etten

Director: Eliza Hittman

Writer: Eliza Hittman


Never Rarely Sometimes Always is the story of a girl suffering the intolerable pain and loneliness of being trapped in the wrong time and place. That is how the film introduces her to us on the outset, opening on a high school pageant where the theme seems to be the Golden Oldies. Teens dressed up in leather jackets and petticoats sing and bop along to the hits of the 50s and 60s, celebrating without irony the sugarcoated nostalgia of what was anything but a simple and innocent time in American history. This is all done in contrast with Autumn (newcomer Sidney Flanigan), who takes the stage by herself to sing the upbeat Exciters’ hit ‘He’s Got the Power’ as a mournful ballad with her acoustic guitar. The tender melancholy she brings to the words “He makes me do things I don’t wanna do” is met with jeers and heckles, but she plays on anyway. In these opening moments Hittman, directing her third feature, demonstrates an aptitude for efficient and visually grounded storytelling that will reverberate throughout the entire film. What we have here is a striking portrait of a young, sorrowful girl standing alone in a vulnerable place who nevertheless has the inner strength to channel her misery and rage and carry on.

Sidney is pregnant and the film chronicles the great lengths she has to go to get an abortion. She starts by visiting the local health clinic in her Pennsylvania town but they prove to be just as antiquated and out of touch as the students and teachers that put together the fifties pop concert. They give her a sonogram that is later revealed to be inaccurate, show her a misinformed pro-life video about abortion, and refer to the foetus as her “beautiful baby” the whole way through. Critically, the clinic also cannot allow the underage Sidney to get the procedure without parental authorisation. Autumn decides she’ll need to go to New York instead, where they don’t have such a policy, but she needs money in order to do so. Upon telling her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) about her trouble, her confidante responds by stealing some cash from the store where they both work (and where there won’t be any love lost between them and their perv of a manager should they be caught) and volunteers to join her. Together they travel to the harsh, imposing city to find that there are further complications and obstacles they must overcome before Sidney can terminate her pregnancy. It would be easy and appropriate to read Never Rarely Sometimes Always as a timely and persuasive essay on the harms and harshness of restricted access to safe abortions in the way that I, Daniel Blake was for the conscious cruelty of the UK Benefits system, but there’s a lot more going on here.

Everywhere the girls go, they are met with the sexual aggression and unwanted advances of men. Autumn’s stepfather casually drops misogynistic terms in their family conversations and is implied to be an abuser, their boss habitually holds their hands as they pass over the cash at the end of their shifts to kiss them, and a dodgy boy on the bus taps Skylar on the shoulder in order to get her attention. For those in the audience who may not initially understand the big deal with that last example, Hittman opts to shoot this seemingly innocent gesture in close-up, holding on it for long enough that the inference becomes unmistakable. Through this use of framing, we understand implicitly the wanton disregard for Skylar’s privacy and personal space and the arrogant expression of male entitlement and privilege on display in this simple, uninvited tap of the shoulder. The dodgy boy is called Jasper (Théodore Pellerin) and the threat he poses is a banal one; he’s more of a nuisance than a danger, but that doesn’t make his imposition any less unwanted. The film’s main struggle is for female autonomy and that applies just as much to the right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy as it does the right to simply go on a bus without having to deal with some random stranger looking to make a pass.

There is a remarkable mundanity to the film’s story; there are no dramatic twists or emotional outbursts, there’s just honest, empathetic storytelling. The movie doesn’t need to exaggerate Autumn’s struggle or raise the stakes in order for it to feel as devastating as it does. Her troubles are of a kind that women all over the world suffer on a daily basis and, by shooting them up close through the shaky, involved lens of a handheld camera, Hittman keeps things intimate, personal and true to life. The film is patient in its approach as well. For much of the runtime Autumn suffers her trials and tribulations in almost total silence; she says very little about how she’s feeling and her demeanour is an unassuming, passive one. That is until the film reaches the scene that gives it its title. Here Autumn goes through a Q&A with a Planned Parenthood councillor where the options given for each question are “Never”, “Rarely”, “Sometimes” and “Always”. In this scene, shot in a single, unbroken take fixed squarely on Autumn’s face, we see her stoic exterior crumble. Faced with kindness and compassion and allowed the chance to give voice to unspoken traumas and abuses in a safe space, she allows herself to be vulnerable for these few fleeting minutes and gradually breaks into tears. It is an utterly heartbreaking scene that is as effective for its simplicity as it is for its authenticity.

As miserable as the film can be though, the feeling that prevails when all is said and done is hope. While Autumn has to travel far and navigate a harsh world of patriarchal mistreatment and exploitative transactions to get what she needs, she doesn’t have to do it alone. Skylar is holding her hand every step of the way and the bond they share is a clear and powerful one, especially for all that goes unsaid between them. When Autumn confides in her cousin about her problem, Skylar’s love and loyalty are so assured that she doesn’t even need to be asked for help before she’s stealing cash from the register and offering to accompany her. Towards the end when Skylar performs a doleful act of sacrifice in order to get what they need to get home, Autumn acknowledges her benevolence with a small, silent gesture that speaks volumes between them. Their bond is the heart of the whole story and it is the film’s testament to how vital female relationships are to withstand the hardships and cruelties of patriarchy. Though it’s a dark and desolate world that these young women live in and the film gives no reason to believe that it’ll get better or easier for them when the credits roll, there’s still some solace to be found in knowing that whatever happens, they’ll still be able to count on each other.

★★★★★

Trolls World Tour

Cast: (voiced by) Anna Kendrick, Justin Timberlake, Rachel Bloom, James Corden, Ron Funches, Kelly Clarkson, Anderson Paak, Sam Rockwell, George Clinton, Mary J. Blige

Director: Walt Dohrn

Writers: Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger, Elizabeth Tippet, Maya Forbes, Wallace Wolodarsky


We live in strange times. While most of the major studios have uniformly decided to push back the blockbusters and other flicks that had been slated for the spring and summer until this pandemic eventually passes, Universal has gone ahead with the release of the sequel to their 2016 animated musical hit onto digital platforms. Thus it has come to pass that a movie about singing, cartoon trolls may well determine the future of cinema. Whether the film finds success on its own merits or simply on the basis that there are no other new films to compete against it in its effort to attract bored, cooped-up families in need of distraction, Trolls World Tour looks set to become a turning point in deciding what shape the cinematic experience will take in a post-COVID-19 world. Universal is already talking about continuing their use of VOD platforms as a point of distribution for new titles even after theatres reopen and, with Disney having already launched a streaming service exclusively for their own content, it may not be long before the other major studios follow suit. With exhibitors already struggling to compete in a world where most audience members will pay maybe half a dozen visits to the cinema in a given year, the loss of their exclusive screening rights could prove disastrous. However the likelihood and ramifications of such an outcome go far beyond the scope of this review (not to mention the expertise of its writer) so on to the family-friendly jukebox musical about dolls from the eighties.

Following a film that offered garishly bright colours, ineffably surreal designs, an irrepressibly catchy song, and very little else (which, don’t get me wrong, may very well be your jam), Trolls World Tour takes what bright-eyed kids and high-as-kites adults enjoyed about the first and expands on them. More trolls! More music! More psychedelically bizarre imagery! Also, recognising that the Trolls vs. Bergens conflict from the previous film is done and that to revive it would be as lazy as it would be derivative, World Tour takes the mythology of the Troll-Verse in a new direction. This time it’s all about the Infinity Strings (they probably have a different name for them in the film). These are the multi-coloured music strings which each represent a different genre of music and collectively are the source of all things musical. The six genres now make up the six separate Troll kingdoms: Pop, Rock, Funk, Techno, Classical, and Country. These realms all find themselves in crisis as Queen Barb of the Rock Trolls launches a guitar-screeching crusade to collect the six strings and harness their power to make rock and roll the one true genre. When Poppy, Queen of the Pop Trolls, catches wind of this nefarious plot, she sets out to befriend the rocker queen and instil upon her the cheerful and vibrant virtues of pop music. As she learns more about the other kingdoms and their shared histories though, she soon finds herself out of her depth.

Poppy sets out on this journey along with her unrequited admirer Branch and together they travel through the different Troll kingdoms where they’re exposed to unfamiliar genres. As they enter the land of country, the upbeat, ready to party trolls are met with a melancholic country ballad sung by Kelly Clarkson. Over in the land of funk they discover a realm of groovy beats presided over by George Clinton and Mary J. Blige. Meanwhile Barb, voiced by Crazy Ex-Girlfriend star and creator Rachel Bloom, charges full speed ahead on her blitzkrieg while singing such rock classics as ‘Barracuda’ and ‘Crazy Train’ (indeed, Ozzy Osbourne even voices her father). On one level, this is a pretty neat way for the film to introduce some its younger viewers to songs and genres that may not yet be on their radar. On another, it’s a rather interesting way of exploring what’s by this point a very well-worn theme in children’s stories about harmony, diversity and acceptance. Barb, who (like most teens who’ve just discovered Led Zeppelin) firmly believes that rock is the only music worth a damn, and Poppy, who believes every bit as strongly that all trolls are fundamentally the same, are both made to learn that uniformity is not unity. Bringing people together means more than recognising their similarities, it’s also about accepting and embracing their differences.

On the musical side of things, the film makes a creditable effort to incorporate a wide range of genres and influences and to treat them with due respect. Under the supervision of Justin Timberlake, who as well as reprising the role of Branch is credited as an Executive Music Producer, we’re treated to a history lesson told in the jazzy soul style of psychedelic funk, Sam Rockwell singing a cover of Patsy Cline’s ‘I Fall to Pieces’, and K-Pop girl group who are allowed to perform in their native language. There’s even an acknowledgement made of pop music’s legacy of cultural appropriation and domination. Still it feels like the movie could and should have gone even further; while many of the covers are well produced, they still sound more like karaoke imitations than they do certified tributes. If the film lent itself more to stylisation and experimentation the way that Moulin Rouge did (or Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a show that never made two songs sound the same if it could help it), those covers could have risen beyond their states of serviceable needle drops to be spectacular showcases. While it does help to have genuinely good singers like Anna Kendrick, Justin Timberlake and Rachel Bloom on hand for the vocals, an over-reliance on these three and a reluctance to really push the level of musical variety as far as it can go means that the film is left wanting for a more distinctive personality.

Similarly the movie’s visual style takes on an efficiently bright and colourful but otherwise mild state. There are fleeting moments of inspired surrealism such as when a four-legged troll splits into two to reveal he is actually two smaller trolls in disguise or when a baby troll bares its razor-sharp teeth, which spin viciously in its mouth like a sink’s garbage disposal, but they are few and far in between. Mostly the film sticks to a visual palette of bubble-gum and glitter and sight gags that we saw in the first film like a troll pooping out a birthday cake and the antics of the little squeaky worm that the James Corden troll carries around. That’ll be enough for the film’s core demographic, but the mileage for the outliers will vary depending on how much interest they have in exploring a world that has been designed from the ground up as a stage for pop songs and celebrity cameos. Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with such a premise, especially not when broad appeal and dutiful distraction are the desired qualities of your archetypal family in quarantine. There is however ample room for such films to be cleverer and more creative than Trolls World Tour is. But then again I can also think of worse movies for the family to watch together, especially when there’s little else for them to do.

★★★

Misbehaviour

Cast: Keira Knightley, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Jessie Buckley, Keeley Hawes, Phyllis Logan, Lesley Manville, Rhys Ifans, Greg Kinnear

Director: Philippa Lowthorpe

Writers: Gaby Chiappe, Rebecca Frayn


When a contemporary, liberal-minded, down-with-the-patriarchy comedy gives itself a title like Misbehaviour, it follows that the film in question ought to be a cheeky and unruly one that pulls no punches and makes no apologies. I wouldn’t be surprised if that indeed was the movie that Lowthorpe and co. set out to make in their depiction of the much-protested 1970 Miss World pageant. A steadily declining industry that has been thoroughly criticised for being inherently sexist, beauty pageants make for an ideal target for the #MeToo and Time’s Up mood compelling many of the films being made today. The antiquated criterions, the blatant objectification, the perverse chauvinism; even with more recent attempts to prize progressive qualities in their candidates beyond a specific standard of physical beauty and to promote and support altruistic causes, the beauty pageant is becoming more and more of an outdated trend. While Misbehaviour does make its point about the demeaning nature of these shows in a world in which women are already devalued save by those qualities that are useful and/or pleasing to men, it does so in such a tame and feel-good way that it never really delivers on the bite promised by its boisterous title. There’s good cheer and easy comfort of the Made in Dagenham and Pride variety to be had, but there’s also the wasted potential of a feminist film that wasn’t willing to get its hands dirty.

The 1970 pageant, which saw the crowning of the competition’s first black Miss World, is depicted from the perspectives of those who took part in it and those who opposed it. The film’s sympathies lie most closely with three in particular. There’s Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley), a middle-class, divorced mother with an Oxford degree attempting to change the conservative, male-dominated world of academia from within, Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley), a working-class radical feminist trying to topple the patriarchy one defiant rally and defaced billboard at a time, and Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the Grenadian beauty queen competing for her country in their debut year who believes that a victory would allow her to serve as a force for positive change for young girls who look like her. Of these three though we only ever learn about the inner life of Sally, who has no patience left for the casual sexism of her male university peers or for the appeals by her mother Evelyn (Phyllis Logan) to relinquish her ambitions so that she might settle instead for wifehood and motherhood. Upon finding each other in their shared pursuit of women’s liberation, Sally and Jo team up to demonstrate against the supreme embodiment of all that is regressive and anti-feminist, the upcoming Miss World pageant.

Organising the so-called ‘cattle show’ are the husband and wife team Eric (Rhys Ifans) and Julia Morley (Keeley Hawes), both of them steadfast believers in the virtues of the show even if they aren’t equally as convincing about it. Together they secure Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear, who inadvertently gives off more of a Joe Biden than a Bob Hope vibe (which is hilarious if you’ve seen Confirmation)) as their host, much to the displeasure of his wife Dolores (Lesley Manville) who has painful memories of his last gig with the pageant. The prevailing mood however for this glitzy and glamorous event is one of excitement, including amongst the contestants. One hopeful competing with Miss Grenada for the coveted crown is Pearl Janssen (Loreece Harrison), or Miss Africa South, an eleventh hour addition as a second South African contestant alongside the white-skinned Miss South Africa to ward off any anti-Apartheid press. As with Jennifer, this competition could well have the potential to make life better for Pearl and for those in her home country like her. That is if the all-white, female protestors in London, who even in their gendered oppression benefit from privileges that are denied to the two black beauty queens, don’t bring it all crashing down around them.

There’s potential there for some resonant dramatic conflict of a kind that too few mainstream feminist films are ever willing to touch upon about the struggle for intersectionality in feminism. There exists this tension in liberal circles whereby white feminists, in an attempt to build their cause around what they believe to be a single, unilateral female experience, will often fail to account for the struggles of women of colour, queer women, trans women, disabled women and many others whose experiences differ from what is perceived as ‘universal’. This is a tension that Misbehaviour highlights in ways both intentional and unintentional. In a late scene, the best in the whole film, Sally has a chance encounter with Jennifer and shares a brief exchange with her that demonstrates some definite awareness on the film’s part of the ingrained complexity at the heart of this dissonance. 1970 was the first year that Grenada was ever allowed to compete at Miss World, and so to reject an oppressive institution that has hardly yet granted them the luxury of validation isn’t as easy a matter as for those who grew up seeing themselves in those sashes and tiaras. For a feminist film to understand and acknowledge the ways in which women from different walks of life can experience variant levels of oppression and privilege and can have conflicting interests is rather profound. That one scene however is the single instance of the film daring to discuss it.

As a film that wants to deliver a straightforward message and leave its audience feeling uplifted, Misbehaviour is more interested in showcasing the more overt ways in which women are affected by sexism and misogyny. The scholars who consistently talk over Sally during their seminars, the judges who find nothing inappropriate about openly ogling young women in swimsuits, the Hollywood showman who makes sleazy jokes about women’s feelings (“I consider feeling women all the time”, he says); all are objectionable acts that are (one hopes) easy for a modern viewer to recognise and condemn. There’s fun to be had in rooting for the women in their crusade, especially when played by stars as winning as Knightley and Buckley, but little introspection. There’s a greater, more pressing story to be told, but it belongs to a character whose treatment in this film barely scratches the surface. Whether it’s the result of this film being ultimately shaped by the creative voices of three white, British women or of a deliberate desire to share the narrative between multiple women united by a common grievance, the film is more comfortable showcasing the more apparent conflict at play than it is the deeper, more ambiguous struggle taking place, especially when it allows for a clearer resolution with a sense of progression and triumph. The film has much to enjoy, but it plays things too safely to be regarded as anything daring or defiant.

★★★

The Hunt

Cast: Betty Gilpin, Ike Barinholtz, Amy Madigan, Emma Roberts, Ethan Suplee, Hilary Swank

Director: Craig Zobel

Writers: Nick Cuse, Damon Lindelof


Originally slated for a September 2019 release, The Hunt was pushed back by six months following a tweetstorm kicked up by the President of the United States, who (having not yet seen it) denounced the movie as “a liberal fantasy” designed “to enflame and cause chaos”. In accordance with the maxim that there is no such thing as bad publicity, this debacle was a major win for Blumhouse Productions. The film’s basic premise is that liberal elites are hunting alt-right degenerates for sport and, for a movie that has been so clearly engineered to inspire controversy, the outrage of the “ratfucker in chief” himself is the greatest endorsement they could possibly have asked for. Having since secured a March 2020 release, the marketing went on to play aggressively onto the heated discourse, declaring that “the most talked-about movie of the year is one nobody’s seen yet!” What’s more, it’s a movie in which “everyone is fair game”; not just the redneck, right-wing trolls and bigots but also the entitled, liberal snowflakes and cucks. The Hunt is a new satire for the modern age of fake news and cancellation culture that turns the red vs. blue, left vs. right, MAGA vs. PC culture rhetoric and polarisation that has come to dominate the political landscape into the frenzied bloodbath it very often feels like. Only, it does so with little apparent understanding of how satire works or appreciation of why this ideological gulf even exists.

So, before we go into the film, let’s take a step back and ask ourselves what satire actually is. Satire, as I understand it anyway, is the use of irony and exaggeration to humorously expose and criticise social and political ideas and customs. One famous example of what is often considered to be a landmark work of satire is Jonathan Swift’s 1729 essay ‘A Modest Proposal’, in which he suggested that the impoverished Irish poor ease their economic problems by selling their children as food to the rich. It should go without saying that Swift did not intend for this to be understood literally as a solution to poverty. The idea was to assume the voice of those who regarded the poor with such cruelty and heartlessness and to cast a light onto Britain’s inhumane policy towards the Irish. By expressing these views with such blatant hyperbole, Swift thus illustrated not just how awful such ideas were but also how ridiculous. It is therefore not at all unusual for satire to provoke such outrage as this film has received; in fact, I’d go so far as to suggest that it isn’t satire unless it inspires anger, shame and/or discomfort. However if that outrage isn’t directed against a specific target with a clarity of purpose, the joke loses all meaning and defeats its own intent.

So what is The Hunt attempting to satirise? Well, for starters, it is empirically not the “liberal fantasy” that Trump assumed it to be. While those who hail from the red states are mostly portrayed as the narrow-minded, gun-toting, bigoted hicks that many people assume them all to be, the other side is shown to be no better. Led by a prim and smug bosslady in Athena Stone (Hilary Swank), the liberals are all depicted as these rich, self-righteous, hypocritical elitists who are equally guilty of the ignorance and intolerance that they vilify in their conservative prey. The idea of showing these partisans to be two sides of the same defaced coin is to demonstrate the absurdity and futility of the ‘us vs. them’ mentality spurring them on. By literalising the sheer enmity of these equally ludicrous and contrary ideologues in a messy, irrepressible battle royale, we are to understand that their incompatible division and mutual dehumanisation is as stupid as it is sickening and self-destructive. While there is admittedly a fitting irony in this movie being denounced sight unseen by the uninhibited biases of the world’s most prominent right-wing troll, and thereby seemingly proving the film’s hypothesis to be true, The Hunt is ultimately not nearly as incisive or provocative as it self-satisfyingly thinks it is.

As far as cheap thrills go, this film has much more to offer. It kicks things off with a bang and from scene to scene it stays on course with its anarchic ferocity and jarring misdirection. Twelve drugged-out, working-class right-wingers awaken in the middle of field and barely have time to even register the metallic gags that have been clamped to their faces when they suddenly find themselves under fire. Amongst these unnamed ‘degenerates’ are a blonde beauty queen in yoga pants (Emma Roberts), a trucker with leading man good looks (This is Us star Justin Hartley), a bearded, round-bellied Second Amendment diehard (Wayne Duvall), a hardcore Staten Island dudebro (Ike Barinholtz), and a nationalistic red pill conspiracy theorist (Ethan Suplee). The movie quickly and efficiently establishes a clear ‘nobody is safe’ approach as it fixes on a given character and follows them for long enough to give the impression of a potential hero or protagonist only for them to be quickly, brutally and unceremoniously killed off. The film eventually settles on its main character with the emergence of Crystal (GLOW star Betty Gilpin, excellent), a southern retailer who served in the army but otherwise has no apparent political ideology. With her tight lips and controlled temperament, she has the ability to remain cool whilst all around her is on fire and the skills necessary to survive whatever sick game she has been roped into.

Penned by Damon Lindelof and the son of his Lost co-creator Nick Cuse, the main problem with The Hunt is that it is a political movie with no political ideas of its own. In its attempt to expose the generalisations and judgements that lead to the kind of tribalism it is trying to lampoon, all it does it end up leaning into those same exact stereotypes. The deplorables seethe of dogmatism and rant inanely about the deep state and establishment while the elites smugly pat each other’s backs for being so righteous and pettily cancel each other for politically incorrect slights. Those who identify as either conservative or liberal will not recognise themselves in these characters and those who are already inclined to typify their political opponents along the lines of ignorant caricatures will feel vindicated. If the aim of satire is to expose silliness and shame those guilty of perpetuating it into changing their minds, then The Hunt is a satirical failure. Instead of digging into the ideas that it is trying to parody, taking apart the kinds of behaviours and attitudes that have brought about this bitter division, and stressing the dangers of basing our opinions of complex issues on simplistic and ill-informed ideas, it merely makes its diagnosis of the problem and scores some easy laughs out of it.

Still Craig Zobel, who collaborated with Lindelof on The Leftovers and directed its single greatest episode, doesn’t let the film’s political misguidedness or the lack of a substantial budget keep him from doing his job. The combat scenes are often thrilling and amusing, the best one of all being the climatic knife fight that feels of the same vein as The Bride’s household clash with Cottonmouth in the opening scene of Kill Bill. Credit for making the film as watchable as it is must also go to Gilpin, who plays against type as a sociopathic warrior woman with a southern drawl and sells it with the same level of intensity that Javier Bardem brought to No Country for Old Men. What astonishes me is that Lindelof, who last year made one of the decade’s most politically sophisticated thrillers in HBO’s Watchmen could have turned in something so starkly ill-conceived. The movie doesn’t make any case for rationality, understanding or compassion, it simply announces with self-satisfied confidence that both sides are the problem and leaves it there. The film cannot even be called centrist in its ambitions; Crystal, the one character we are supposed to like, seems not only indifferent to the political fragmentation compelling this barbarity, she seems totally oblivious to it. The Hunt is little more than a nihilistic film, if an entertaining one, and only those looking for an excuse to be outraged will find anything even remotely offensive about it.

★★★