Film review – The Great Hack (Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer, 2019)

Unless you’re 100% informed about Cambridge Analytica, you really need to watch this film. It covers a lot of what is already known to those who followed the Facebook-Cambridge-Analytica scandal at the time, as covered in The Guardian by Carole Cadwalladr in her whistle-blowing article “The Great British Brexit Robbery”.

Cadwalladr is interviewed here, along with Cambridge Analytica’s ex-director Brittany Kaiser and ex-employee of Cambridge Analytica Christopher Wylie. Kaiser does her best to paint a sympathetic picture of herself, though I struggled to forget that she was at the heart of everything that happened (thanks to the reminders in the film). As a source, Wylie’s credibility is questioned, though he features lightly. It is an example of how well the film does at keeping the viewpoint as balanced as possible.

Importantly, the film doesn’t end trying to imply that the earth-shattering revelations brought about by the Cambridge Analytica scandal have been resolved. The implications of this scandal and the continued work that seems to be going on at so many of the large technology companies feels like it’s getting worse by the day.

It’s a slightly disjointed film that, at times, doesn’t know what it wants to do with the subject matter. It may have been better-served as a four-part series, focusing on each of the subjects for an hour. The story of the New York media professor David Carroll and his hunt for his own personal information is probably the most interesting but isn’t mentioned for a long portion of the film.

I’d also like to see more prodding of current or ex-Facebook employees, who are clearly implicated in the accusations but continue to avoid the spotlight.

Regardless of its shortcomings, this is an important film to watch. It’s also one you might need to see quickly in case it unexpectedly disappears from Netflix. It might well be the most disturbing horror film of the year.


Watching the AFI 100 Years with the Unspooled podcast in the UK? Here’s where to watch all the films.

In 1998, in the run-up to the end of the millennium, the American Film Institute (AFI) published a list of their top 100 films of all time. It counted down the best of English-language American cinema (including those heavily-funded by American production companies), with Citizen Kane topping the list.

In 2007, an updated poll was published, with the Orson Welles masterpiece again topping the bill.

In 2018, a new podcast called ‘Unspooled’ was started by Paul Scheer and Amy Nicholson on the Earwolf network. The brilliant podcast involves Paul and Amy doing a deep dive on each of the films, often bringing along special guests and always offering a personal take on what they’ve seen. It’s a perfect way to educate yourself on critically-acclaimed films. I myself have recently discovered The Marx Brothers thanks to the podcast covering Duck Soup, and looked at The Wizard of Oz with completely fresh eyes.

It’s available to download from all good podcast distributors by searching for “Unspooled”

Where can I watch the Top 100 films?

If, like me, you’re in the UK, it’s useful to know what films are available on each of the three most popular streaming platforms: Netflix, Amazon Prime and Sky Cinema/NOW.

So, here’s a table of what is in the list and where you can watch the films as of 26th December 2018. Note: some films may be purchased from Amazon to stream or from Sky Box Office; the table only notes those included for free in your package.

Rank 10th anniversary list (2007) Netflix Amazon Prime Sky Cinema
1 Citizen Kane No No No
2 The Godfather No No Yes
3 Casablanca No No Yes
4 Raging Bull No No Yes
5 Singin’ in the Rain No No Yes
6 Gone with the Wind No Yes Yes
7 Lawrence of Arabia No No Yes
8 Schindler’s List Yes No Yes
9 Vertigo No No Yes
10 The Wizard of Oz No Yes No
11 City Lights No No No
12 The Searchers No No No
13 Star Wars No No No
14 Psycho No No Yes
15 2001: A Space Odyssey No No Yes
16 Sunset Boulevard No No Yes
17 The Graduate No No Yes
18 The General No Yes Yes
19 On the Waterfront No No No
20 It’s a Wonderful Life No No Yes
21 Chinatown No No Yes
22 Some Like It Hot Yes No Yes
23 The Grapes of Wrath No No No
24 E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial No Yes Yes
25 To Kill a Mockingbird No No Yes
26 Mr. Smith Goes to Washington No No No
27 High Noon No No Yes
28 All About Eve No No Yes
29 Double Indemnity No No Yes
30 Apocalypse Now No No Yes
31 The Maltese Falcon No No Yes
32 The Godfather Part II No No Yes
33 One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest No No Yes
34 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs No No Yes
35 Annie Hall Yes No Yes
36 The Bridge on the River Kwai No No Yes
37 The Best Years of Our Lives No No No
38 The Treasure of the Sierra Madre No No No
39 Dr. Strangelove Yes No No
40 The Sound of Music No No Yes
41 King Kong No No No
42 Bonnie and Clyde No No No
43 Midnight Cowboy No No Yes
44 The Philadelphia Story No No Yes
45 Shane No No Yes
46 It Happened One Night No No No
47 A Streetcar Named Desire No Yes Yes
48 Rear Window No No Yes
49 Intolerance No No No
50 The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring Yes Yes No
51 West Side Story No No Yes
52 Taxi Driver Yes No Yes
53 The Deer Hunter No Yes Yes
54 MASH No No No
55 North by Northwest No No Yes
56 Jaws No No Yes
57 Rocky No No Yes
58 The Gold Rush No No No
59 Nashville Yes No Yes
60 Duck Soup No No No
61 Sullivan’s Travels No No No
62 American Graffiti No No Yes
63 Cabaret No No Yes
64 Network Yes No Yes
65 The African Queen No No No
66 Raiders of the Lost Ark No No Yes
67 Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? No No Yes
68 Unforgiven No Yes Yes
69 Tootsie No No Yes
70 A Clockwork Orange No No Yes
71 Saving Private Ryan No No Yes
72 The Shawshank Redemption No Yes No
73 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid No No Yes
74 The Silence of the Lambs No No Yes
75 In the Heat of the Night No No Yes
76 Forrest Gump No No Yes
77 All the President’s Men Yes Yes Yes
78 Modern Times No No No
79 The Wild Bunch No No Yes
80 The Apartment No No Yes
81 Spartacus No No Yes
82 Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans No No No
83 Titanic No No Yes
84 Easy Rider No No Yes
85 A Night at the Opera No No No
86 Platoon Yes No Yes
87 12 Angry Men No No No
88 Bringing Up Baby No No No
89 The Sixth Sense No No Yes
90 Swing Time No No No
91 Sophie’s Choice No No No
92 Goodfellas No Yes Yes
93 The French Connection No No Yes
94 Pulp Fiction No Yes Yes
95 The Last Picture Show No Yes Yes
96 Do the Right Thing No No Yes
97 Blade Runner No No Yes
98 Yankee Doodle Dandy No No No
99 Toy Story No No Yes
100 Ben-Hur No No Yes

The conclusion? If you want to watch all the films on a subscription-package, your best option for maximum coverage is Sky Cinema. This is a pain because it’s the only one I don’t actually have! With 70 of the top 100, buying a couple of months of Now TV Cinema to clear the ones you’re keen to see would really make an impact. Netflix has just 10 of the films and Amazon has 13. 26 films are not available on any streaming platform, so you’ll need to fork out extra to enjoy those on DVD or Blu-ray.

Note – the list above is subject to change without notice, so please be aware that this is only up-to-date as of 26th December 2018.

Film review – Shirkers (Sandi Tan, 2017)

‘Shirkers’ is a quite remarkable documentary film. Written and directed by Sandi Tan, it tells the story of a potentially groundbreaking film created in 1992 by a group of three teenage girls in Singapore, the reels of which went missing shortly after filming wrapped, disappearing along with the enigmatic director.

Tan was one of the three young aspiring filmmakers behind the film. Her interviews with fellow creators Jasmine Ng and Sophie Siddique, both interviewed here and clearly heartbroken over their loss, reveal a truly enthralling mystery surrounding the film.

The director, Georges Cardona, is a name unfamiliar to most. It is unlikely that he was the man that inspired James Spader’s character in ‘Sex, Lies and Videotapes’, but Cardona wouldn’t let that get in the way of a good story. The picture painted of him here is one of a man full of lies. It’s a man desperate to succeed himself and not let anyone else around him get anywhere without him. There’s also a hint of inappropriate behaviour here – why was a married 40-something-year-old man going on a road trip across the USA with an 18-year-old girl?

As it all unfolds, it’s obvious how frustrating it is for all those involved. This was an exciting passion project that was already picking up a bit of buzz around the industry, which never saw the light of day. Had it been released, it could have had a huge impact on the Singapore film industry and the lives of those behind it.

Sadly, all we can see is the soundless footage and a remorseful memory of three young friends that lost a part of their youth, along with their friendship itself (in a recent interview with Vulture, Tan stated that the Sundance premiere was the first time her, Jasmine and Sophie were all in the same room together in over twenty years).

‘Shirkers’ is a must-see for any young aspiring filmmakers. Actually, it’s a must-see for everyone at all interested in films.

Why Netflix’s new Mowgli film is a waste of time and money

Andy Serkis’s take on ‘The Jungle Book’ is a waste of time and money. There, I’ve said it. It’s not awful. It’s not offensive. It’s just not brilliant. And as such, it’s not necessary.

This is a much darker take than more familiar adaptations, in keeping to the original Rudyard Kipling stories. This leaves it in no-man’s-land, not suitable enough for children but too boring to be enjoyable for adults.

We’re treading familiar ground here. It’s the tale of Mowgli (the impressive Rohan Chand), who is taken on by a pack of wolves after becoming orphaned in a horrific opening scene involving Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch). There’s some character development as he learns how to live in the jungle with his animal friends, including black panther Bagheera (Christian Bale) and sloth bear Baloo (Andy Serkis, sounding like he’s about to offer you the latest Bet 365 betting odds). Cate Blanchett features sporadically and inconsequentially as Kaa, the Indian rock python.

What really doesn’t work is the facial motion capture. It makes the animals look odd and is a distraction from the story. I’m not an expert. All I know is that it doesn’t work.

The interesting part of the film comes when Mowgli arrives in the local village and starts to learn to become more human, which is something explored much less in other adaptations. It’s not amazing, but it does at least do something fresh with the material, and it results in a fresh climax to the story (particularly when Mowgli discovers a distastefully familiar menagerie).

It’s just a film that doesn’t make any sense in terms of why it was released. If the budget was anything like Disney’s live action adaptation, it was $175m. It’s a big loss to take for any studio, even one of the size of Warner Bros.

Watching this on Netflix is watching something designed for a big cinematic experience in a manner that feels like a compromise. If no previous film adaptation existed, it would maybe feel effective. As it stands, it’s just a poor business decision to plough on to complete this project in the knowledge you’ll finish second – both in speed of release and final quality.

The only singing vultures present here will be the critics.

A failure in almost every sense.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs v The Future of Independent Cinema in the UK

‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ is the latest feature film from the frequently-brilliant Coen Brothers, continuing their display of love towards the American Western genre. It is also their first for streaming platform Netflix, in a move that is becoming more and more common in the modern age of cinema.

The move to streaming platforms may feel progressive, but it isn’t great news for independent cinemas in the UK.

The film – more hit than miss

Watching ‘Buster Scruggs’, it’s easy to feel like you’re watching a Netflix series that has been mashed into a single film, perhaps to allow it to be considered as an Oscar contender. If this is the case, it’s a shame, though it is understandable.

It is, as is often the case with vignette films, a little hit and miss. The opening titular short is a high point, with a hilariously-positive character singing his way through a killing spree. Tim Blake Nelson is a joy to watch and his interactions with the locals is shot to perfection (pun not initially intended). Both ‘Near Algodones’ and ‘The Gal That Got Rattled’ are memorable and very much work in their own right, making me long for more of an expanded narrative.

‘Meal Ticket’ has really stuck with me and I kept thinking about it many days after I saw it, with Harry Melling starring as a limbless performing artist working alongside Liam Neeson. It unravels at a depressingly effective rate, with the final scene leaving me on the edge of my seat for all the wrong reasons. A perfect example of short film-making.

Whilst the ‘All Gold Canyon’ short is largely forgettable, it isn’t bad. It’s really a shame that the final vignette, ‘The Mortal Remains’, is such a disappointing way to finish the feature. It is neither emotionally effective nor steeped in humour, and it doesn’t really have much to say. It’s a missed opportunity to perhaps tie the previous five shorts together, at least with a thematic link. Instead it confirms the suspicions that these were six independently-realised pieces of art that function in their own right.

The Coen Brothers may deny it but it doesn’t run like a movie. The overarching theme is ‘American Western as a genre’ rather than there being a connecting emotional theme or associated character. Thankfully, it is a genre that the film-makers know how to handle and the results are more hit than miss.

The shift from ‘cinema as art’ to ‘cinema as disposable commodity’

Having recently become a father, Netflix is very convenient for me, but I’d never opt to experience a film at home if there’s an option to see it at the cinema. You can’t quite appreciate the magic of the cinema when watching on a small screen at home.

My main criticism, therefore, is that it was released in an exclusive deal with Curzon cinemas in the UK. As it happens, my location means I have close access to three brilliant independent cinemas: QUAD in Derby, Phoenix in Leicester and Broadway in Nottingham. Sadly, not one of these is part of the Curzon group; my nearest Curzon is 64 miles away in Sheffield. This led to Jake Harvey (Phoenix, Leicester), Caroline Hennigan (Broadway Cinema, Nottingham), Adam J Marsh (Quad Cinema, Derby) and the owners of twelve other independent cinemas to write an open letter to Netflix to reconsider their policy.

I sit on a film discussion group panel and I know that a good number of the members do not subscribe to any online streaming service. My mother, who previously attended a Coen Brothers discussion course with me, has no means of watching ‘Buster Scruggs’ unless it’s on at a cinema. By making this exclusive to Curzon, they have excluded a large demographic of their potential audience.

‘Buster Scruggs’ follows excellent Netflix exclusives like Annihilation, Okja and Roma, all critically acclaimed and well-received by cinephiles. They even funded the completion of a posthumous release from director Orson Welles. The quality is undeniable. The problem isn’t in the quality. It’s in the lack of support to  the truly independent cinemas that have supported non-mainstream releases for so long.

As it turns out, ‘Buster Scruggs’ is the first Coen Brothers film in over a decade I haven’t watched at the cinema. For me, this is a great shame and it’s saddening to think this is where some great directors are taking their latest pictures.

Overall, this is a mostly great film that some fans of the Coen Brothers will enjoy on the big screen, depending on a combination of a geographical lottery and your willingness to drive. For the rest of us, we’ll have to settle for the small screen and an increasing temptation to skip the bad segments, facilitating the shift from ‘cinema as art’ to ‘cinema as disposable commodity’.

Film review – The Polka King (Maya Forbes, 2018)

Let me get this straight, right from the start. The Polka King is not a good film. It popped up on my Netflix feed as a recommended watch and I thought I’d give it a go. It didn’t look taxing and I’d had a long day. I had low expectations but still managed to be disappointed.

I now find myself in the embarrassing situation where I’ve never seen The Ten Commandments, Gone With The Wind, The Maltese Falcon, Boyhood, Crash, The Last of the Mohicans, The English Patient, Lawrence of Arabia, On The Waterfront, Unforgiven and Dr Zhivago but I have seen The Polka King.

For that, I should be entirely ashamed.


Jack Black plays Jan Lewan, a real-life polka music band leader from Austria trying to make a living in the USA. He was imprisoned in 2004 for running a Ponzi scheme (or pyramid scheme). That’s pretty much the story. There are some highs and lows.

Importantly, there are very few laughs. In fact, I didn’t laugh once. It is set up like a comedy. Everyone involved is a comedic actor (the supporting cast includes Jenny Slate, Jason Schwartzman and Jacki Weaver). The pacing of the script felt like it wanted to be a comedy.

Yet, as Black phoned in his performance and went through the motions of delivering on a part he was only vaguely interested in, I couldn’t help but cast my mind back to some of the great comedy releases from Red Hour Productions that include Tropic Thunder, Zoolander, Tenacious D in the Pick Of Destiny and DodgeBall, and wonder whether Ben Stiller simply wasn’t available to oversee this production.

There are some great Netflix Originals out there to be watched and enjoyed. This just isn’t one of them.