Dick Johnson is Dead – Review

Rating: 12A
Cast: Dick Johnson, Kirsten Johnson
Directed by Kirsten Johnson
Written by Kirsten Johnson and Nels Bangerter
Length: 89mins

Released by Netflix in 2020, but drawing from a long and loving relationship between Kirsten Johnson and her father, Richard, ‘Dick Johnson is Dead’ proudly seeks to tackle the one area of life that is so often neglected – death. The first documentary we’ve ever reviewed on this site, the film still uses elements of fiction within the story that it tells, as the director, Kirsten herself, frequently utilises practical and special effects to create scenarios that ultimately end in her father’s untimely demise. Despite the morbid tone to the synopsis that accompanies this documentary, ‘Dick Johnson is Dead’ is perhaps one of the greatest celebrations of life brought to the screen this year.

In the years prior to Dick Johnson’s 86th birthday, his daughter directed a film that seems to work not only as a documentation of her father’s life as it becomes corrupted by alzheimers, but also an attempt to visually show the uncertainty and struggles that are brought on people when someone they love is diagnosed with the illness. As the story progresses, we begin to learn to a greater extent how much the disease has affected the Johnson’s lives, and this documentary almost feels as if it’s the result of understanding that your family will not always be there for you in the same way they once were. ‘Dick Johnson is Dead’ seeks to combat this issue with film itself. Being an acclaimed filmmaker, Kirsten Johnson clearly understands the power of the art form, and in her latest release, utilises the great potential that it has to mimic reality. She may not always have her father, but she will always be able to remember their time together through this film.

There are hundreds, if not thousands of films that are created in dedication to someone that was loved by others, or someone who did something great for someone else, but where ‘Dick Johnson is Dead’ truly shines is in the frequent change between reality and fantasy. To fantasise about something is often considered a positive instinct, but when you begin to make your fantasy a reality, and it comes in the form of acting out the death of someone who you fear you may soon lose, the whole idea comes across as slightly insensitive and cruel. To define the documentary in this way, however, would be to completely miss the point of the whole story. ‘Dick Johnson is Dead’ boasts such a bold title because it’s a celebration of life rather than a mockery of it. Dick Johnson lives as a charming and funny man, so why can’t he die in such a way? Furthermore, to look death in the face and laugh with the people you love takes the edge off of something that will one day happen to all of us, and in ‘Dick Johnson is Dead,’ both Kirsten and Dick choose to spend their time celebrating the life they have together, rather than worry about the one that they one day won’t. 

All in all, ‘Dick Johnson is Dead’ focuses on some fairly heavy topics. It’s not a film that will one day have a happy ending, and for many the story will hit close to home. But these aren’t reasons to avoid watching it, and are instead things that will only allow you to greater connect with and appreciate the storytelling that is going on here. I would recommend the documentary to anyone, and I believe it provides a fresh perspective on the entire film genre.

Marriage Story – Review

Rated: 15
Cast: Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Laura Dern, Alan Alda and Ray Liotta
Directed by Noah Baumbach
Written by Noah Baumbach
Length: 136 mins

A director known for his realistic dialogue and perceptive insights into true-to-life relationships, Noah Baumbach’s approach to a marriage that has led to divorce was also going to be interesting, but ‘Marriage Story’ is a truly brilliant work of cinema, and it is one which will stick with you for a long while after the credits close.

The performances within this film are incredible. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson portray their characters in the most immersive way, and their on-screen relationship can travel from hopeful to entirely hopeless within a matter of seconds, through the most minimalist of actions. The development of their characters is brilliantly enhanced by the films pacing also, with long periods of Charlie’s (Driver) experiences with the divorce being portrayed, only for then a similar length to show Nicole’s (Johansson) own ordeal. It is impossible to not attempt to choose a side within the divorce, but it is even more difficult to maintain that viewpoint throughout the entire narrative.

Furthermore, the supporting roles within ‘Marriage Story’ are not only excellently brought to screen, but also feel as if they are used for the exact amount of appropriate time. Laura Dern’s fast-talking and bold performance as Nicole’s divorce attorney may at first appear as slightly over-dramatic, but you soon come to associate the importance her character has on the relationship with the stress that Charlie and Nicole are put through – the perfect status as a supporting role. Similarly, Alan Alda and Ray Liotta perform as lawyers which Charlie consults on separate occasions, and whilst they do successfully serve a clear narrative purpose, they also are more symbolic in demonstrating the type of attitude that Charlie has towards Nicole, depending on the time in which he approaches them. Whilst Alda’s ‘Bert Spitz’ is relatively introverted and more comforting, Liotta’s ‘Jay’ is far more harsh and upfront with Charlie, and it’s interesting to watch Baumbach delicately place such characters within the narrative when appropriate.

Baumbach’s direction within ‘Marriage Story’ is both delicate and subtle, whilst also allowing for moments of sudden breaks within the diegesis. His ability to allow a scene to flow smoothly until one small moment – a cupboard door hitting a character or simply a word out of place – can change the entire direction of the scene, is exacted perfectly, and allows for a balance between immersion within the narrative and the audiences own personal interactions being applied to the story that is told.

Such change within scenes can definitely be credited in part to the film’s editing and score. With the music by Randy Newman, who is forever immortalised for his contributions to the world of ‘Toy Story,’ the film maintains a touching and personal story within the sound that is brilliantly applied to moments of the film which require it. As well as this, ‘Marriage Story’ was edited by Jennifer Lame, who has previously worked on films such as ‘Hereditary’ and ‘Manchester by the Sea,’ which both feature editing that excellently furthers the complexion of the narrative. Therefore it is no surprise that Lame’s ability to convey emotion with such talent is also applied to ‘Marriage Story’, and the result is a film which draws in the viewer and tells its story in the most complete way possible.

There isn’t a single moment within Baumbach’s latest release that feels unnecessary, and ‘Marriage Story’ tells such a human story that it’s hard not to continue thinking about it days after the film has finished. Go and watch it on Netflix, and if you have the opportunity to see it a cinema near you then even better, but either way, make sure you find some time to experience the most compelling film of this year.

The Good Liar – Review

Rated: 15
Cast: Sir Ian McKellen, Helen Mirren, Russel Tovey, Jim Carter
Directed by Bill Condon
Written by Jeffrey Hatcher and Nicholas Searle (Novel)
Length: 109Mins

‘The Good Liar’ is at first presented as a con film, with the morally corrupt Roy Courtnay (Ian McKellen) weaving his way into the life of seemingly-innocent Betty McLeish (Helen Mirren), a lonely widow who wishes for love. I will say this now, the many turns and twists of the film are well interwoven into the character arcs of these two, and therefore to truly analyse ‘The Good Liar’ would require giving away some details. Of course, I won’t do this, but rather urge you to see the film for yourself, whilst I attempt to best articulate my thoughts without giving away any of the secrets that the film invites you to unfold.

Though at first a film that seems to explore the loneliness that can come from growing old, we are shown from the trailer that Roy has more villainous reasons to grow close to Betty – to get his hands on the small fortune that she has saved throughout her life. The inauspicious reasons for their meeting is quickly addressed in the opening scenes, and from here the film is able to go on to explore various other themes, such as how the actions of our past can sometimes be what narrates our future. Both children of a generation that grew up in the conflict of World War 2, the connotations of a post-war lifestyle weigh heavily on Betty and Roy’s story. Though this is a film that can entertain all ages, it is clear that the director, Bill Condon, wishes to create a sense of empathy between an elderly viewer and the characters seen on screen, as the fallout from a conflict as great as WWII is entirely personal, and often the greatest comfort for those affected is to be shown that you aren’t alone. This is brilliantly personified by Mirren and McKellen – performers that may at times be unfairly constricted by being seen as figureheads for a certain era of cinema, but show in ‘The Good Liar’ that they can still take on the challenges of modern life, just as the viewer can in their own personal life.

Many have compared ‘The Good Liar’ to a jigsaw puzzle, and I agree with their comparison. The key elements of the story are slowly and surely placed throughout the film, and it isn’t until you take a moment to look back on what is being created, that you begin to interpret the story’s message. That is, of course, until the creators wipe the puzzle off the table in the closing scenes. Though I was drawn in by the final unravelling of the story, I did find that the actual build-up to it was often times slow and lacked significant creative ambition from the director. The music, cinematography and editing were at times basic, with the occasional flair of inspiration drawing audiences back into the story. However, I do understand that this is a film which is largely dependent on the success of the overarching story, as well as the performances of our films leads. Both of these elements were well-delivered, and did justice to the clever articulation of the conclusion.

My other criticism was one which was only partially satisfied within the final act, where was Helen Mirren? Such a prestigious actress as she is, I expected the tension between her and Ian McKellen to be electrifying, especially considering the treacherous surroundings of their relationship. However, throughout most of the film, the creators seemed have been inspired more by the presentation of the performers in ‘Chinatown,’ where the focus is very much on Jack Nicholson as the lead, and rarely strays from their own personal interaction with the events of the plot. Despite this, the scenes where both performers were together on screen felt fairly lacklustre. Save for the conclusion, many of the opportunities for tension within the script were rarely capitalised on, and ultimately left the film devoid of any great feeling of risk or thrill. This I would pinpoint on the actual lines themselves, rather than how they were delivered.

This brings me into my final point – the script. The concept of the film is brilliant, and the way that many of the more audacious events of the film are portrayed is exciting and intriguing, but the script itself really lacks anything unique. There were many opportunities for the relationship between our leads to be developed, but instead the film spends its time over-emphasising clues for later in the story, as well as spending excessive amounts of time ensuring that we understand the character traits of our two leads, when we are already invested because of the status that McKellen and Mirren have as performers within the industry.

To conclude, I do believe that ‘The Good Liar’ is still an important watch, as the elements of the story guide the viewer to an ending which is entirely unexpected. There are some great moments of excitement, but ultimately I don’t believe that Bill Condon contributes anything unique to the world of film in his most recent creation.

Judy – Review

Rated: 12A
Cast: Renée Zellweger, Jessie Buckley, Finn Wittrock, Michael Gambon, Rufus Sewell.
Directed by Rupert Goold.
Written by Tom Edge.
Length: 118Mins

Judy is a beautifully presented biopic giving us a glimpse into the life of Judy Garland, with the primary focus towards the end of her life during a series of sold-out concerts in London. We see her thrown back into a life that she doesn’t want, forced to tour to make money while faced with the threat of losing custody of her two youngest children. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this film. Captivating and entertaining while equally saddening and thought provoking.

Since it’s release the feature has received extremely high praise, specifically the phenomenal portrayal of Judy herself, played by the meticulous Renée Zellweger. Her performance is complex. To depict the lifetime of difficulties that Garland faced, while dealing with concern for her children, substance abuse and new relationships clearly requires immense skill. Not forgetting, of course, that Zellweger did not lip-sync in this movie, the vocals are all hers – a vast challenge in itself, never mind all of the character work. Honestly, if the rest of the movie fell short I would still recommend audiences to watch purely for Zellweger’s skill. As it happens, there’s so much more to take in and enjoy.

Most people know that Judy Garland had an extremely sad and difficult life. Even if you don’t know very much of Garland’s story you can still watch and enjoy this film, it reveals some of the challenges of being a child star in old Hollywood through flashbacks, whilst subtly implying some of the darker, even more devastating streams of abuse that she faced. There are lots of rumours surrounding Garlands experiences on set throughout her childhood that are truly heartbreaking and unfortunately, likely to be true. Goold did well to stick to the timeline of the story that he’s telling, while allowing Zellweger’s performance to show some scars of Judy’s past, as well as the great performance as ‘young Judy’ by Darci Shaw during the flashbacks.

Aside from Zellweger, the other stand out performance for me was Jessie Buckley. I was only introduced to Buckley when she starred in 2018’s ‘Wild Rose’ but she really is one to watch. There’s something about all of her performances – they are enchanting. You really get behind her storytelling and her portrayal of Rosalyn Wilder is no different. As an audience member you experience the journey of her characters almost starstruck naivety, through frustration and desperation which circles around to an empathetic but genuine friendship.

Due to the nature of this film, I believe that each audience member will find certain elements that resonate, which may be entirely different to the person watching next to them. The main thing that I took away from the film was a heavy heart. It made me consider how far Hollywood has come and how much further it has to go. This isn’t the sort of film to watch if you need a lift, obviously it deals with some serious topics, but Zellweger is sensational and if you’re emotionally prepared to for quite a heavy film (though dispersed with light moments) I would highly recommend this film.

Fred’s Top 5 Horror Films

With Halloween just around the corner, I thought that I’d take a look back on some of my favourite scary films. From the desolate arctic, to the abandoned streets of London, horror can be found everywhere, and within this list I’ve reflected back on what makes these films so thrilling.

5. 28 Days Later

First of all, it’s a Danny Boyle film, so what isn’t there to love? ’28 Days Later’ is arguably one of the greatest zombie films of all time, and with incredible performances from Cillian Murphy, Christopher Eccleston and Naomie Harris, to name a few, this story is perhaps the most thrilling descent into the apocalypse put to the big screen. The third act of this film is unbelievably intense, and only increased by the stylistic choice of pathetic fallacy, as the rain hammers down and the story begins to conclude. Personally, I love Boyle’s use of the soundtrack in this film, as songs such as Grandaddy’s ‘A.M 180’ accompanies the true ‘highs’ of the film, contrasted by an edited version of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s ‘East Hastings’ – one of the bleakest songs I know – embodying the hopelessness of our protagonists. ‘28 Days Later,’ is a contemporary classic of the horror genre, and is a must-see around Halloween time.

4. The Shining

I don’t think that any horror list would be complete without this film. Written by the twisted mind of Stephen King and put to screen by the complex imagination of Stanley Kubrick, ‘The Shining,’ is a true landmark in the horror genre. As with many of Kubrick’s works, fans have poured over the minute details of this film to read further into the story’s subtext, and from an allegory of the American Civil War to a modern twist on the Labyrinth of Greek mythology, there is so much conversation surrounding this film that any horror-buff, or film fan in general cannot miss it. Of course, Jack Nicholson receives his deserved praise for his performance in this film, but I think that perhaps the best acting comes from Shelley Duvall. Never have I seen terror portrayed in such a real and hysterical way as Duvall does in this film. Overall, there are so many elements of storytelling that come together brilliantly in ‘The Shining,’ that it should be seen not only by fans of the horror genre, but anyone at all interested in film.

3. The Thing (1982)

Honoured for his contributions to horror at 2019’s Cannes Film Festival, there’s a reason why John Carpenter is hailed as the ‘master of horror.’ Perhaps his most famous work, ‘The Thing’ features some of the most suspenseful scenes put to cinema. The story of a shape-shifting alien that assumes the appearance of any creatures around it, we watch as a team of researchers in Antarctica are plagued by this being. What makes this film truly special (and terrifying) is the brilliant visual effects used, that still hold up to this day. The entirely isolated setting adds to the hopelessness of the film, and it is through this fear that the audience is able to experience the same terror that is felt by the stories protagonists, as they remain entirely clueless as to who – or what – the creature has embodied.

2. Climax

Perhaps the most human film on this list, Gasper Noe’s 2018 release tells the story of a group of dancers in an isolated hall in France, who drink from a punch that has been spiked with LSD. From there, it is the slow descent into madness over the course of the night which portrays such a real horror. Noe uses long, unbroken takes that float from one characters nightmare to the next, all whilst the lighting flares and the music blasts from the speakers. Known for his cruel violence, the director makes no exception for ‘Climax,’ and leaves the viewer feeling sickened by what they have seen, made worse only by the knowledge that the story is based on true events

1. Hereditary

There are so many elements of Ari Aster’s filmmaking style that I love, all of which are showcased brilliantly in his feature debut, ‘Hereditary.’ I believe that the best way to experience this film is to go in knowing as little as possible about the story, and so I will only provide the description from iMDB; ‘a grieving family is haunted by tragic and disturbing occurrences.’

When looking into what makes this film special, I believe that Aster’s ability to draw out truly haunting performances from his cast is perhaps top of this list. Toni Collette gives an incredibly powerful performance, which can only really by appreciated by watching the film for yourself and becoming enthralled by her character. As well as this, the utilisation of cinematography for suspense and terror is another element that allows ‘Hereditary’ to sit at the top of this list. The art of framing and pacing in this film immerses the viewer brilliantly, whilst also highlighting the smaller, more minute details of the setting that ultimately accumulate into some of the most essential elements of the story. ‘Hereditary’ is not only my favourite horror film, but also the most terrifying that I have seen. It’s the first film that I would recommend to any fan of the genre, and the first that I would want to discuss with anyone who has a passion for horror.

Shoplifters – Review

Rated: 15 Cast: Lily Franky, Sakura Ando, Kirin Kiki, Jyo Kairi, Miyu Sasaki Written and Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda Length: 121 minutes

“Sometimes it’s better to choose your own family,” is the phrase uttered by Nobuyo Shibata, the father figure of the tight-knit family in “Shoplifters,” and it is perhaps the quote that truly summarises the message and direction of the film. Created by Hirokazu Koreeda, this 2018 release tells the story of a struggling family who take in a young girl named Yuri, after she is left out in the cold by her abusive parents.

“Shoplifters” presents a conflict in a way that encompasses the entire film. Though most explicit in the dialogue, the family’s uncertainty of whether they are morally right to take a young girl away from her parents and save her from harm is argued throughout not only the writing, but the cinematography and performances also. Thematically, the opening scenes of the film are dark and cold, as re-iterated by the characters themselves, as they wrap up to avoid the biting February months. It is here where we first encounter Yuri, the catalyst for later events in the story. This young girl is first seen on an isolated balcony, not fully visible to the father and son duo of Nobuyo and Shota. After they take her in and the story progresses, she begins to connect to this seemingly struggling but happy family. She is no longer Yuri, but sister and daughter to those around her. As the colour scheme of the film begins to lighten and more scenes are featured in daylight, the environment that the family find themselves in appears ever-comforting. The beauty found in such warmness can’t help but be experienced by the viewer also, and the family portrayed on-screen begins to feel more and more like one that you, yourself are a part of. We are shown that perhaps it is best if you choose your family.

I believe that the immersion of the film is where director Hirokazu Koreeda excels. The emphasis on the joy found in family and the connections that are made by Yuri, allow us to forget the values that support their situation. Not only is Yuri not one of Shibata’s own children, but the reason the family make it month-to-month is because of Nobuyo and Shota’s successful shoplifting. The opening scene of the film is a clear portrayal of how lucratively this father and son are able to steal from a large supermarket. In this scene however, Koreeda makes one of his most interesting stylistic choices. It becomes clear that when they shoplift, the events the audience observe are from the perspective of the young boy, Shota. The playful way that his father signals to him, the camera that rests just behind his shoulders and the delicate way that he drops his stolen goods into his rucksack all add to the idea that stealing is second nature to him. Further reasons for doubt are presented to the viewer when later, Shota tells Yuri that “school is only for children who can’t learn at home.” Furthermore, it appears to be without question that Yuri begins accompanying the father and son when they go shoplifting, and it is celebrated by the family when they are successful. Despite appearing as a loving home, we can’t help but wonder whether choosing your own family could be worse than believing in the ones we have.

I believe that an aspect which truly makes this film believable is the performances, and how these characters interact with one another. Many of the scenes take place in the family’s home, and despite being a small house for the six of them, the family shows their compassion between one another in the way that they seamlessly interact, despite their often being multiple conversations taking place, further emphasising the care that each character has for one another. As well as this, the performances by Shota (Jyo Kairi) and Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) are entirely immersive. Their characters articulate themselves in a way that seems far too old for their age, as if weighed down by the secrets that the family hides from those around them.

“Shoplifters” is a brilliant study into the morality of family and love, as well as the desperation that accompanies poverty. Hirokazu Koreeda clearly understood the message he wished to convey when creating this film, and the overall story can truly only be told by the film itself.