Cleopatra (1963)


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D: Joseph L. Mankiewicz / 248m

Cast: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Rex Harrison, Pamela Brown, George Cole, Hume Cronyn, Cesare Danova, Kenneth Haigh, Andrew Keir, Martin Landau, Roddy McDowall, Robert Stephens, Francesca Annis, Isobel Cooley, Richard O’Sullivan

Cleopatra, the movie that nearly ruined Twentieth Century Fox, has been given the 4k restoration treatment, and was shown at London’s BFI IMAX cinema on 24 November 2015 as part of the BFI’s season of movies about Love. Watching the movie on such a huge screen – now the largest in Europe after the one in Spain burnt down – it’s even more incredible the amount of detail that can be seen in each frame, and how magnificently crazy the whole project must have been to make at the time. The grandeur, the size, the ambition – it all comes across in a movie where the massive budget is defiantly there on screen, and for all to see. In these days of overwhelming CGI, it’s sobering to realise that, some poorly processed inserts, some matte painting, and some modelwork aside, everything was built both to scale and to impress (and not to mention twice). And even after fifty-two years, whatever else you can say about Cleopatra, it’s still a movie that impresses.

It’s interesting to wonder what the movie would have been like under the stewardship of its original director, Rouben Mamoulian, and if the production had stuck to its proposed $2 million budget. Or if the original cast had stayed on board: Peter Finch as Caesar, Stephen Boyd as Mark Antony, and briefly, before Elizabeth Taylor was cast in the title role, Joan Collins. Alas, we’ll never know, but one thing we can be sure of is that we wouldn’t be talking about that version anywhere near as much as we talk about this one.

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The production was almost doomed from the start. Shooting began in London in 1960, but soon ran way over-budget thanks to the elaborate sets and costumes. After sixteen weeks, Mamoulian was fired; seven million dollars had yielded around ten minutes of footage – none of it usable. At the same time, Taylor, who was being paid an unprecedented $1 million, fell ill and had to have a tracheotomy (the scar can be seen in many of her scenes). Production was suspended while the studio worked out what to do next. They approached Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who agreed to write and direct; he had hopes of making the movie in two distinct parts, Caesar and Cleopatra, and Antony and Cleopatra. Each part would run three hours.

With the British weather hampering continued production, and Taylor’s recovery taking longer than expected – so much so that Finch and Boyd had to leave to honour prior commitments – the studio decided to relocate to Rome. Production resumed in 1961 with all the London sets being rebuilt (some would be built a third time), and Mankiewicz finding himself being pressured into providing a script that was being written each day for the next. As the production continued, it also continued to experience delays and problems due to the sheer size of the project. Filming in Rome was eventually completed in 1962, with the final leg of production taking place in Egypt.

Mankiwicz was unceremoniously fired by new studio head Darryl F. Zanuck during post-production, but he had to be re-hired when Zanuck realised that only Mankiewicz knew how all the footage fit together. Re-shoots were filmed in early 1963 – by Mankiewicz – but his early cut lasted six hours (in line with his idea of releasing two separate movies). Zanuck baulked at this, and decided to re-cut the movie himself. The result was the four hour version that was released in June 1963. The movie received mixed reviews, but was surprisingly a commercial success, becoming that year’s highest grossing earner at the box office. However, due to the spiralling costs of making the movie, over $31 million, it failed to make a profit, only breaking even in 1973.

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But what of the movie itself? Well, yes, it is bloated and arguably in need of some judicious editing, but it is a fascinating viewing experience, with so much to recommend it that it’s a shame it lacks an overall shape to hold all its various elements together. Mankiewicz was a writer who didn’t lack for a great turn of phrase – “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!” was one of his, for All About Eve (1950) – and he doesn’t disappoint here, but amid all the declamatory, theatrical-sounding dialogue, there’s too much that sounds rooted in modern day psychology. Antony has a great speech after the disaster of the Battle of Actium that is an actor’s dream, but you have to wonder if Antony himself would have been quite so self-analytical. And Taylor has some of the most florid speeches about love you’re ever likely to hear.

The casting is one reason why the movie works as well as it does. Taylor and Burton, who famously began an affair during filming, transfer that newly-found passion to the screen in such a way that there’s no doubt that Antony and Cleopatra are bound together forever (even if he does marry Octavian’s sister – for political reasons, of course). Taylor gives one of her best performances, and Burton matches her for intensity, even though Mankiewicz’s script has him marked out as a self-pitying drunk for much of the time. As Caesar, Harrison is autocratic and ambitious, though a tad reliant on adopting a pedantic uncle approach to the character in his early scenes with Cleopatra.

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The supporting players are a mixed bunch but they’re spearheaded by a magnificent turn by McDowall as Caesar’s successor Octavian. His speech about Mark Antony’s death is worth the price of admission alone, and he makes the final hour all the more thrilling purely because he doesn’t look intimidating or savvy enough to be a match for Antony and Cleopatra put together. Danova is an intimidating presence as Cleopatra’s loyal servant Apollodorus, Keir is a growling, battle-hardened Agrippa, Cronyn is quietly authoritative as Cleopatra’s advisor Sisogenes, and Landau is Antony’s patient, loyal lieutenant, Rufio. All add lustre to the acting talent at the head of the cast, and add different textures through their performances that help lift the movie out of some occasional doldrums.

So, is it a good movie? Overall, yes it is. It’s clearly got its faults – the Battle of Actium, fought on water, suffers from having very little money spent on it – and some of the spectacle is there just because it can be, but it does have depth, and Mankiewicz is adept at navigating the political nuances of the era, making them accessible to the layman when necessary. In the director’s chair, Mankiewicz, along with DoP Leon Shamroy, creates a visual world for his cast to act in front of that feels both real and organic, and he keeps things moving with a great deal of style and purpose, which, considering the production’s problems, is a fantastic achievement. It’s never going to top any Top 10 Movies of All Time lists but it doesn’t have to. It’s a tribute to the folly of epic moviemaking, to studio perseverance in the face of an apparent disaster, and a monument to what can be achieved on a practical level when a production’s back is against the wall. Simply put, it’s a triumph over adversity.

Rating: 8/10 – much, much better than many people will tell you, and with a reputation for being bloated and unwieldy that just isn’t the case, Cleopatra is an event movie in more ways than one, and manages to achieve much of what it aspires to; with efforts being made to find the rest of Mankiewicz’s six-hour cut, let’s hope a fuller appreciation of this unfairly maligned movie will be available soon.

Happy Birthday – Vincent Cassel


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Vincent Cassel (23 November 1966 -)

Vincent Cassel

Blue-eyed and ruggedly handsome, Vincent Cassel has made a reputation for himself as a tough, uncompromising actor who can exude menace at the drop of a chapeau. But as is the case with most “tough guy” actors, there’s much more to Cassel than his performances in, say, La Haine (1995) or the one-two punch that was Mesrine Part 1: Killer Instinct and Mesrine Part 2: Public Enemy #1 (both 2008) – although he has been quoted as saying, “My father [Jean-Pierre Cassel] is best known for his light comedies, and I’m best known for crazy bad guys with short tempers”. Here are five movies where Cassel shows that his career has a lot more to offer viewers than just anger and violence (with one exception).

Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001) – Character: Jean-François de Morangias


Christophe Gans’ bonkers martial arts/werewolf/historical drama sees Cassel give one of his most over the top performances as the villain of the piece, and yet it fits perfectly with the thrust of the movie, and allows him to play flamboyant, cunning, sly, mendacious, cruel, vicious, and even romantic (it’s true), against the fervid backdrop of superstitious, 18th Century rural France. A one of a kind performance and hugely enjoyable to watch (as is the movie).

Read My Lips (2001) – Character: Paul Angeli


In the same year as Brotherhood of the Wolf, Cassel made this arresting drama for Jacques Audiard, playing an ex-con who falls in with a deaf, put-upon office worker (played by Emmanuelle Devos) who’s looking for a way to improve the way she’s treated. The relationship that develops between them is an uneasy mix of mutual exploitation and dependency, and Cassel matches his co-star for vulnerability and pathos, as her need for revenge and his criminal background make for an uneasy combination.

A Dangerous Method (2011) – Character: Otto Gross


David Cronenberg’s look at the turbulent relationships involving Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud and Jung’s patient Sabina Spielrein (Michael Fassbender, Viggo Mortensen and Keira Knightley respectively), also gives Cassel the chance to impress as the unstable psychoanalyst Otto Gross. It’s a pivotal role and Cassel is on terrific form as the man who felt that sexual passion should be wholly embraced and never repressed.

As You Want Me (1997) – Character: Pasquale


Cassel does comedy as well as drama in this enjoyable if not entirely successful movie that still benefits from the actor’s usual commitment to a role. He plays a policeman in Rome, who, during a roundup, finds his old friend from school, Domenico (played by Enrico Lo Verso) is now called Desideria and is transgender. Romance rears its confused head and Cassel does a great job in convincing the viewer that he could fall for his old friend even though he has a fiancé (played by Monica Bellucci).

Secret Agents (2004) – Character: Georges Brisseau


A psychological thriller that sees Cassel reunited with Bellucci, this sees them as spies working together to foil an arms deal in Africa. Cassel’s character is cool and methodical, but when the mission begins to derail around him, and Bellucci’s character ends up in jail, it’s down to him to get her out. It’s formulaic stuff but with a Gallic spin that’s aided by one of Cassel’s most instinctive performances, as he tries to remain focused while dealing with being betrayed.

Honourable mentions: The Pupil (1996), Black Swan (2010).

I Smile Back (2015)


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I Smile Back

D: Adam Salky / 85m

Cast: Sarah Silverman, Josh Charles, Thomas Sadoski, Skylar Gaertner, Shayne Coleman, Mia Barron, Terry Kinney, Chris Sarandon

When we first meet Laney Brooks (Silverman), she’s in her bathroom, looking out the window at her husband Bruce (Charles) and their two young children, Eli (Gaertner) and Janey (Coleman), as they all shoot hoops. But she’s not actually seeing them. Her gaze is too distant, too removed from what’s going on outside. Instead she’s remembering recent events in her life: taking her kids to school, getting Chinese at a local restaurant, a dinner party with their friends Donny (Sadowski) and Susan (Barron), the unexpected arrival of a dog called Bingo… and then she snorts cocaine before taking a bath.

Faced with this kind of introduction to a character, some viewers may feel that they don’t want to spend any more time with them and will decide to go watch something else, something more light-hearted perhaps. But they would be missing out on one of the most impressive performances by an actress in the whole of 2015.

As I Smile Back progresses we come to realise that Laney has a heck of a lot more problems than just taking cocaine. She drinks to excess, pops pills like they’re sweets, and is cheating on Bruce with Donny. As well as struggling with being a wife, she struggles with being a mother, being overly fearful for Eli in particular, while proving unable to manage something as simple as bringing her school I.D. badge with her when she drops the kids off. She’s always a second or two behind everyone else, always a little distracted, always a little “vacant”.


It’s at around this point in Adam Salky’s take on the novel by Amy Koppelman (who also co-scripted with Paige Dylan) that the viewer begins to realise that Laney is suffering from depression and has mental health problems; the irresponsible behaviour is merely a sign of her inability to cope with every day life and its responsibilities. The average viewer will also realise that the movie can now only go in one of two ways: either Laney will hit rock bottom, get help, and get better, or she’ll spiral out of control until tragedy strikes. But Koppelman’s story takes a third way, one in which Laney has every opportunity to avoid ruining the rest of her life, but the question is: will she?

Thanks to the aforementioned impressive performance by Silverman, the answer to that question is not as simple as expected. There are some formulaic twists and turns to the story that most viewers will see coming, but on the whole, Laney is a character to root for, even when her self-destructive behaviour would have most people walking the other way. Silverman is incredibly good as a woman weighed down by the trauma of being abandoned by her father when she was nine, and whose inability to deal with the subsequent issues that have grown up around that event has led to the addictive behaviour that dictates her daily life. She has a loving husband, two great kids (though the movie hints that Eli may end up emulating his mother when he’s older), and an outwardly envious lifestyle. But for Laney, everything comes to an end; why not her marriage and all that goes with it?


After she drinks and takes too many drugs one night, Laney has a spell in rehab, and the movie starts to give her a chance, though there’s a noticeable distance now between her and Bruce that doesn’t bode well for the future. She talks about her father, and the fact that even though she knows where he lives, she hasn’t contacted him in thirty years (and vice versa). It becomes a challenge, to visit her father, and when she does Laney discovers that seeing him wasn’t such a great idea. From then on, things begin to spiral out of control again.

Let’s say it again: Silverman is magnificent as the self-torturing Laney. It’s the kind of dark, messy role that comediennes seem to be able to pull off without any problem at all, and Silverman gives a breathtakingly honest portrayal of a woman whose feelings are so raw, and yet who can’t connect with her emotions. And if you thought that this wouldn’t be an uncomfortable movie to watch because of Silverman’s presence, then there’s a scene involving a stuffed toy that shows just how committed the actress was to the role.


But, sadly, Silverman’s performance isn’t matched by Salky’s direction. The movie suffers from an icy tone that matches the wintry New York state locations, and Salky never fleshes out the characters around Laney, leaving Bruce to look and sound like a self-important grump with no amount of sympathy for Laney’s problems, while Sarandon as Laney’s father can only do limp regret in his brief scenes. The camera spends quite a lot of time observing Laney, and only gets in close when she’s really hurting or in trouble. Otherwise there’s a detachment going on that hampers the viewer from connecting with Laney, and stops any sympathy for her from becoming full-blown. It’s as if Salky has decided that, despite the obvious emotional traumas that Laney experiences, his movie is going to be more of an intellectual exercise, an examination of a character as they descend through their own personal hell. It’s not an approach that works, and detracts from the limited “enjoyment” the movie has to offer.

The script too has its faults, not least in the way that it avoids providing a convincing explanation for Laney’s mental illness/depression, and instead shows her popping pills, snorting coke, and gulping wine over and over, as if we won’t be aware of how addictive her behaviour is unless we keep seeing it. Eli’s problems are introduced but no attempt is made to resolve them, and her affair with Donny (which has so much dramatic potential) is dropped without a backward glance. Also, the scenes at the rehab centre are too short and too lacking in depth for them to be anything other than a bridge between two sets of aberrant behaviours, and the advice and comfort given by Laney’s psychiatrist (Kinney) is banal to the point of, well, extreme banality. But the final scene in the movie is thematically perfect, and ties in neatly with Laney’s problems, albeit to heartbreaking effect.

Rating: 7/10 – if it wasn’t for Silverman’s superb, and often harrowing, performance then I Smile Back wouldn’t be an attractive prospect, thanks to Salky’s distant feel for the material, and the repetitive nature of Laney’s behaviour built in to the script; but Silverman is superb, and her performance holds the movie together in a way that should be rewarded come Oscar time, but which will probably be ignored in favour of more mainstream, multiplex-friendly portayals – and that really is depressing.

Happy Birthday – Jamie Lee Curtis


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NOTE: This is a new strand on thedullwoodexperiment. Each day (hopefully) I’ll be celebrating an actor or actress’s birthday by listing five of their more interesting movie roles. These won’t necessarily be their most famous roles; instead it will be an attempt to highlight some movies that people might not be aware they’ve appeared in, or parts that have been overlooked.

Jamie Lee Curtis (22 November 1958 -)

Jamie Lee Curtis

The star of Halloween (1978) and its cleverly titled sequel, Halloween II (1981), has been making movies since she debuted in John Carpenter’s iconic slasher movie. Away from that particular franchise, she’s been married to Arnold Schwarzenegger in True Lies (1994), befriended a homeless Eddie Murphy in Trading Places (1983), swapped bodies with Lindsay Lohan in Freaky Friday (2003), and been seduced by John Cleese in A Fish Called Wanda (1988). She’s a versatile actress who has maintained her career without appearing in too many bad movies (though you might want to give Halloween: Resurrection (2002) a miss), and has a bright, engaging personality that no doubt has contributed to her popularity. Over the course of thirty-seven years she’s made movies in a variety of genres. Below are five of those movies, all of which are well worth checking out, both for her performances in them, and just by themselves.

Forever Young (1992) – Character: Claire Cooper


This romantic drama was a change of pace for both Mel Gibson and Curtis, with its mix of scientific experiment gone awry and requited long-lost love proving successful at the box office. Curtis is the nurse who helps Gibson’s Thirties US Army Air Corps pilot adjust to being adrift in time, and with the help of JJ Abrams’ script, takes a fairly conventional love interest role and makes more of it than expected.

The Tailor of Panama (2001) – Character: Louisa Pendel


John le Carré’s tale of a con man (played by Geoffrey Rush) who gets in too deep with a British spy (played by Pierce Brosnan) in Panama is a gripping thriller that gives Curtis one of her better dramatic roles as the con man’s wife who hasn’t got a clue just how dangerous things are getting around her. Curtis gives a low-key, sympathetic performance, and her scenes with Brosnan are some of the movie’s best.

Amazing Grace and Chuck (1987) – Character: Lynn Taylor


In this earnest slice of wish fulfilment, a young boy who refuses to play another game for his Little League baseball team until nuclear weapons are abolished, and whose decision is taken up by a professional basketball player, features Curtis as the basketball player’s agent. It’s a standard, almost formulaic role – at first she doesn’t agree with her client’s decision, then she sees the light – but again, Curtis adds lustre to a role that most actresses would have just walked through.

Mother’s Boys (1994) / Character: Judith ‘Jude’ Madigan


Here, Curtis gets to play the bad girl as the unhinged mother who abandons her family for three years, and doesn’t like it when her husband divorces her and starts a new relationship. Curtis’s mad mom isn’t averse to the odd attempt at murder, and the actress plays her character borderline crazy and appropriately nasty, making this the only occasion where she’s played the psycho rather than been chased by one (and she looks good as a blonde).

Blue Steel (1989) – Character: Megan Turner


Kathryn Bigelow’s third feature is a twisted obsessive stalker variant that pits Curtis’s rookie cop against Ron Silver’s sadistic killer, and gives Curtis one of her most effective and challenging early roles. Her character is certainly put through the wringer, but Curtis proves to be more than a match for the material, and this is perhaps one of her very best performances, despite how much of it is played at fever pitch.

Honourable mentions: Grandview, U.S.A. (1984), My Girl (1991)

Poster(s) of the Week – People Places Things (2015)


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Right now it seems that it’s small, independent movies that have the best advertising, with posters proving particularly innovative. Earlier this year there were several posters created to support the release of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, and now there’s a similarly effective collection available for People Places Things. Here are some of the posters available at the moment, starting with what might be regarded as the more traditional approach (on the left) and its Australian counterpart (on the right):


To be honest I don’t think either poster works that well. The first shows the main character, Will, with a space where his heart should be, but if you’ve seen the movie you’ll know that’s not one of Will’s major problems. But his relationship with his twin daughters is very relevant and its nice to see them feature so prominently.

However, it’s the range of posters created by the artist Gray Williams that give a better sense of the movie and what it’s about. Clever, witty and just all-round great to look at, they’re great examples of reflecting on a movie and its subject matter, and being entertaining all by themselves.




I’m not sure about that last one, though it’s certainly different, and the speech bubble with the title inside it is pretty awful, but the rest are definitely eye-catching. My favourite is the fifth poster because it perfectly represents Will’s situation in the movie (and yes, the kite is entirely symbolical). Feel free to let me know which one catches your eye, or even if none of them do.

People Places Things (2015)


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People Places Things

D: Jim Strouse / 87m

Cast: Jemaine Clement, Regina Hall, Stephanie Allynne, Jessica Williams, Aundrea Gadsby, Gia Gadsby, Michael Chernus

Will Henry (Clement) is a graphic novelist and teacher of same who, on the day of his twin girls’ fifth birthday, discovers that his wife, Charlie (Allynne), is having an affair. Charlie feels unfulfilled and wants a change to her life, but she appears confused as to exactly what she wants. Nevertheless she and Will split up and she takes their children with her. Fast forward a year and several things happen within the space of a few days: the twins celebrate their sixth birthday, Charlie announces she’s pregnant and getting married to her lover, Gary (Chernus), and one of his students, Kat (Williams), invites Will home to meet her mother, Diane (Hall).

Through all this, Will moves like a man in a bad dream, baffled by most of what’s happening around him, and unable to gain any traction. His meeting with Diane is undermined by her telling him she’s already seeing someone. He does get Charlie to agree to his having the twins more often, but this brings with it further problems. They converge one morning when their school is closed unexpectedly and the only place he can find to leave them while he teaches is at Kat’s. When Will goes to collect them, it’s late, Diane is there, and the kids are asleep. Diane refuses to let him wake them and take them home, so he stays the night, and their relationship starts to become more serious.

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Matters are further complicated when Charlie voices doubts about marrying Gary and she and Will kiss. Believing that Charlie wants to try again, Will reluctantly informs Diane that he can’t see her anymore. To his surprise, Charlie denies any confusion on her part and maintains that she’s marrying Gary. Will retreats to his apartment, but Kat intrudes on his despair, and using some artwork he’s shown her, gets him to think about what he really wants, and what he needs to do next.

If you only see one romantic comedy about a graphic artist having to decide which one of two women he should be involved with, then make sure its People Places Things. It’s a wonderfully smart, sharply scripted movie – by the director – and packs in more laughs than the likes of Vacation (2015) or Get Hard (2015) combined. And though they might not be huge belly laughs, they’re the kind that leave a residual smile on the viewer’s face long after the scene they’re in has ended. The script makes a virtue of awkward dialogue, making Will sound prickly and insulting without thinking, responding to some comments with such disdain that you can’t believe he doesn’t get slapped more often than the one time in the movie when he does.

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But it’s likely that Strouse’s acid-tinged script wouldn’t have been as effective if it weren’t for the casting of Clement as Will. His deadpan, slightly nasal delivery of his lines, along with several variations of open-mouthed dismay, makes Will a hugely enjoyable character to spend time with, as he stumbles his way through the various ups and downs of being a part-time father and apparent ex-husband (apparent because the script never makes it clear that he and Charlie have actually divorced). You can’t help but feel sorry for Will as he does his best to work out why everyone around him is doing their best to confuse him. (For fans of the UK TV show The IT Crowd, Clement’s performance may be a little off-putting as it’s very reminiscent of Richard Ayoade’s character, Maurice; he even wears trousers that are too short at one point.)

Strouse also scores strongly by making Charlie as confused as Will. Their scenes together are wonderfully plaintive, as each tries to state their own case for being miserable and wanting to be happy. Allynne makes Charlie’s struggle for happiness something to admire, and when she starts to have doubts about marrying Gary, the character’s sense of bewilderment is so beautifully played that you can’t help but feel sorry for her – even if it does screw things up for Will and Diane. As Diane, Hall is more direct and more certain about what she wants, and she challenges Will in ways that Charlie never did during their marriage. There’s a meeting of minds that Strouse makes deliberately fractious at first, and their dinner together is a mini-masterclass in how two people can be attracted to each other and still take umbrage at nearly everything each other says.

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With the cast having a field day with the script, Strouse is free to take his somewhat lightweight plotting – and that’s not a negative, by any means – and add some depth to the movie by relating Will’s plight to the way in which graphic novels are constructed, and how they can be more expressive in a single panel than people can be their whole lives. This allows us to see Will for the implacably lonely man that he is, and gives us a better insight into why he struggles to understand Charlie’s motivaions, and often his own. Strouse also makes the point about how so much can happen in the space between panels and how this is similar to the way in which so much in our own lives happens without us even realising it.

Strouse also uses tight close ups to focus our attention on the emotions of a scene, and with DoP Chris Teague he keeps the action weighted in the ordinary and mundane, with only the various graphic realisations offering any visual relief. These images are provided by the artist Gray Williams and are witty, incisive and clever, and also mirror Will’s feelings throughout. They add strong support to the sincerity of Strouse’s script and are amusing all by themselves. And there’s a distinctive and well-chosen soundtrack that also adds to the simplicity of Strouse’s tale.

Rating: 9/10 – completely charming and free from all the “cuteness” of many recent romantic comedies, People Places Things has enough heart and quirky humour for a dozen similar movies; deceptively ambitious and a pleasure to watch, Strouse’s third feature as a director – after Grace Is Gone (2007) and The Winning Season (2009) – is a sure-fire crowd-pleaser and easily one of the best movies of 2015.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 (2015)


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Mockingjay Part 2

D: Francis Lawrence / 137m

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Donald Sutherland, Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Willow Shields, Sam Claflin, Elizabeth Banks, Mahershala Ali, Jena Malone, Jeffrey Wright, Natalie Dormer, Evan Ross, Elden Henson, Wes Chatham, Michelle Forbes, Patina Miller, Stanley Tucci

Picking up after Peeta’s failed attempt to kill Katniss, the final instalment in The Hunger Games series begins with a problem for both the makers and the audience to consider: should the movie launch straight into the rebels’ expected attack on the Capitol, or should it hold back and spend some time reiterating the relationships between Katniss and Peeta and Gale, and begin to explore the similar machinations of President Snow and his potential successor, Alma Coin? The answer is the latter, and while this decision allows for further layers to be added to Katniss’s ever-present self-doubt (and sets up the ending), it also has the effect of reminding the viewer that we’ve been here before – and in each of the three previous movies.

One of the series’ strengths has always been the way in which Katniss appears to be a stranger to herself while everyone around her finds her actions entirely predictable. It’s an idea that continues here, with the Mockingjay being used at every turn, even when she acts independently. But it’s in danger of becoming as unwieldy a plot device as the idea that President Snow has a camera in every home in Panem (as well as in every shop, and on every street corner… you get the idea). We get it. And if the decision to split Mockingjay the novel into two parts was so that the final movie could be all about the rebels’ final push on the Capitol, then why are we still going over old ground?

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To be fair, it’s the price the movie makes for being faithful to Suzanne Collins’ source material. But what it also does is to make The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 longer than it needed to be, and curiously sapped of urgency once Katniss et al begin their progress toward the Capitol. There are too many scenes where characters stop to muse on their individual plights, and Peeta tries to sort out if his memories are real or lies constructed by his torturers in the Capitol. At first glance it’s all meaningful, and yet another indication of how careful the makers have been in grounding the action, but do you know what? It’s Part Four – we already care about these characters. All we want now is for Katniss to come face to face with President Snow, and for the promise of all those booby traps we’ve seen in the trailer to give us a thrilling, rousing, edge-of-the-seat kick-ass end to everything.

What we’re looking for is the kind of series’ ending we got with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011), but the action sequences, though expertly staged and choreographed – and which winnow out the surplus characters – just… don’t… bring it. It’s a strange awareness to have, to realise that the best action scenes have all appeared in the earlier movies, but there it is: even the underground fight against the Capitol Mutts suffers from over-familiarity as Katniss shows off the same bow skills we’ve seen before from Legolas and Hawkeye. And as mentioned before, there’s a distinct lack of urgency to it all, as the movie’s rhythm is maintained at such a steady pace that even when Katniss and her comrades are out-running a booby-trap at full pelt, you can sense the editing team of Alan Edward Bell and Mark Yoshikawa making sure it’s not shown at too full a pelt or their hard work elsewhere might be jeopardised.

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And yet, somehow – somehow – the movie overcomes these drawbacks and proves to be a fitting end to the saga. It’s still an intelligent, and intelligently made, movie, and the effort in maintaining the good work achieved in the previous movies is clear to see, with returning director Lawrence once again steering things to tremendous effect. He’s aided by a returning cast who all clearly want to be there, and who are committed to ending the series as best they can. And for the most part, they succeed. Lawrence doesn’t put a foot wrong as Katniss, miring her in doubt and misplaced guilt, and keeping her insecurities to the fore in a performance that becomes all the more impressive for having been sustained across four movies. Hutcherson impresses the most (four words I didn’t think I’d ever write), his PTSD Peeta being a difficult role to pull off, but he makes short work of it, and in doing so, makes Peeta the most sympathetic character in the whole series.

Completing the “romantic threesome” is Hemsworth as Gale. Four movies in and he’s still the series’ one weak link, an actor so stiff he could throw himself at the enemy instead of shooting them, and still score a death. (Now if Sam Claflin had played Gale, then the often tepid romance with Katniss might have been more compelling.) Sutherland continues to play Snow with effortless malice; without his silky venom to play against, the rebellion would have appeared less than necessary. As his rival for power, Moore strikes a more strident note as Coin, and as Coin’s true nature becomes more and more clear, the actress withstands the temptation to become the series’ answer to Cruella de Ville (the clue’s in the hair).

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Further down the cast list, Harrelson is sidelined early on; the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman has a few scenes that hint at a bigger, if obviously curtailed role; Claflin brings his trademark smirk to playing Finnick Odair, as well as a much needed sense of fun; Banks hangs around on the periphery of things as Effie; and Tucci is shoehorned in as Caesar Flickerman in a TV segment that goes against an earlier scene where Snow (very severely) chastises an underling. Everyone is present and correct, and director Lawrence coaxes good performances from everyone, making it incredibly easy for the audience to continue rooting for their favourite characters.

Whatever your feelings about The Hunger Games franchise – and there are plenty of nay-sayers out there – this has been one of the most surprisingly intelligent and well produced projects of the last ten years. Jennifer Lawrence has proved to be an inspired choice as Katniss Everdeen, and the world of the Districts has been so convincingly constructed that the plight of their inhabitants has been echoed by events taking place in the real world even now. And even though Suzanne Collins originally wrote her novels for the YA market, these are remarkably adult movies, with a strong sense of moral culpability and responsibility. A triumph then, and when all is said and done, one that few of us could have seen coming.

Rating: 8/10 – narrative hiccoughs aside, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 is still head and shoulders above any other dystopian YA sci-fi series out there, and is a great showcase for what can be achieved if the intention is not to soft pedal any serious themes inherent in the material; thrilling (just) and chock-full of great performances, this is a fitting swansong to a series that has surprised and entertained audiences for four years and this despite getting increasingly bleaker as it’s gone along.

Mini-Review: Tangerine (2015)


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D: Sean Baker / 88m

Cast: Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, Karren Karagulian, Mickey O’Hagan, James Ransone, Alla Tumanian, Luiza Nersisyan, Arsen Grigoryan, Ian Edwards, Scott Krinsky, Clu Gulager

Tangerine is the latest feature from Sean Baker, an independent movie maker whose previous outings have looked closely at the lives of people who appear disenfranchised or who are living in a sub-culture that most people have no idea about. Here, Baker focuses on two transgender friends, Sin-Dee (Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Taylor), and what happens when Sin-Dee, having spent some time in jail, learns that her boyfriend, Chester (Ransone), has been cheating on her with Dinah (O’Hagan) while she was inside.

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From this simple premise, Baker has crafted an equally simple tale that is by turns funny, sad, poignant, richly textured and incredibly bittersweet. Tangerine has a raw immediacy about it that compensates for some of the narrative’s more soap opera-like moments, and Baker is helped immeasurably by the performances of Rodriguez and Taylor. As Sin-Dee, Rodriguez is consumed by anger and a desire for revenge that fuels her journey throught the movie, and the actress is such a strong screen presence you can rarely take your eyes off her. As the aspiring singer Alexandra, Taylor is more reserved, almost a spectator, but she carries herself with such a strong sense of her own place in the scheme of things that she, like Rodriguez, becomes an equally strong screen presence.

Baker regular Karagulian – his character in Take Out (2004) is listed as “Chicken or beef” – features in a subplot involving an Armenian taxi driver, Razmik, who has a penchant for transgender prostitutes. At first it seems incidental to the main story, but Baker and co-scripter Chris Bergoch (seen briefly covered in another character’s vomit) link his story quite cleverly with Sin-Dee’s, and it all leads to the kind of embarrassing confrontation that is both funny and awful at the same time. This extended scene, which takes place in a branch of Donut Time, is the movie’s stand out sequence, and features an equally stand out turn from Ransone as the pimp who seems to be nicer than most but who shows glimpses of the shark beneath the pleasant exterior.

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With the characterisations firmly established and locked down by his talented cast, Baker is free to explore the somewhat murkier realm of transgender prostitution and the darker side of sexual obsession (Razmik is disgusted when a girl he picks up proves to have a vagina). Baker doesn’t go too deeply but shows just enough to remind viewers that this isn’t a healthy lifestyle, and that Sin-Dee and Alexandra are both doing their best to survive. It’s an obvious point to make, perhaps, but one that fits in well with the narrative.

Tangerine has attracted a lot of attention for its visuals, having been shot on a number of iPhone 5s’s. It’s a fascinating fact, and shows just how far technology has come, but in reality, if you didn’t know this before seeing the movie you wouldn’t even notice (which is the better point to make). The title is derived from the colour the sky turns at dusk in Hollywood (where the movie was shot), and some of the compositions are breathtaking to look at. Baker has a keen eye for where to place his camera(phone) during a scene, and some of his framing packs in a lot of unexpected detail. With a soundtrack that features several judiciously placed songs, the movie has a style that is effective and embracing, and there’s a beautifully judged ending to round things off.

Rating: 8/10 – not without its problems in terms of its main plot, which seems too thin at times to mount a whole movie on, Tangerine nevertheless succeeds by virtue of two wonderful central performances, and Baker’s firm control over the project as a whole; it’s also a movie that rewards on multiple viewings and has a tendency to wrong-foot the viewer to good effect, making it even more worthwhile to watch.

Trailers – The Huntsman (2016) & Zoolander 2 (2016)


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Ah, sequels… what would we do without them? Have less movies to watch probably, as movie makers the world over love giving us more of the same – even if it didn’t work out that well the first time. For me, both Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) and Zoolander (2001) were moderately entertaining movies that didn’t aim particularly high and didn’t reach their full potential. So it may not come as a surprise when I say that, based on these latest trailers, I’m not hugely excited about either sequel hitting our screens next year. With The Huntsman it already looks like it’s going to be a triumph of special effects over story and content, while Zoolander 2 has the feel of a long-in-development sequel that looks set to rehash what made the original outing a bit of a cult movie (I kept thinking of Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013) while I was watching it). Still, both movies have their fans, and they’ll probably do well enough to make the option of a third movie in both series a good possibility, but I’m thinking that these trips to the well should be the last. Let me know what you think.


Ride (2014)


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D: Helen Hunt / 93m

Cast: Helen Hunt, Brenton Thwaites, Luke Wilson, David Zayas, Elizabeth Jayne, Callum Keith Rennie, Robert Knepper, Leonor Varela

Helen Hunt’s first directorial outing, Then She Found Me (2007), looked at the relationship between a mother and her daughter. Hunt also co-wrote the movie, co-produced it, and starred as the mother. The movie has its flaws, but all in all it’s enjoyable enough, even if some of the relationships don’t ring entirely true. This time round, Hunt addresses the relationship between a mother and her son, and as before she co-produces, stars and writes (solo this time). The result is a similar movie in terms of the relationships, but one that also has its flaws.

Hunt plays Jackie, a literary editor whose twenty year old son, Angelo (Thwaites), is writing a novel as he prepares to go off to university. He’s having trouble with the ending, and Jackie isn’t helping. She’s critical when she should be supportive, and keeps undermining Angelo’s confidence. In effect, she treats him like a child who needs to stand on his own two feet but every time he tries she tells him he’s doing it wrong. Faced with this continual barrage, it’s no wonder that Jackie’s marriage to Angelo’s father ended years ago, and he now lives with his new family in Los Angeles, a continent away from Jackie and Angelo who live in New York.

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With his enrolment at university settled, Angelo takes a trip to see his father. Angelo loves surfing, and while he’s out in L.A. he spends most of his time at the beach. His love of surfing is so obvious that it’s unsurprising when Jackie learns he’s dropped out of university. Without a backward glance about her work commitments, or even if it’s the right thing to do, Jackie jumps on a plane and heads for L.A. And… here’s where the movie starts to become less about a mother and son relationship, and more about Jackie learning how to be less uptight and more relaxed.

This change in direction leads to the movie becoming disjointed and unfocused, with Jackie hijacking the driver who’s met her at the airport, Ramon (Zayas), to help her spy on Angelo and what he’s doing. It’s at odds with the direct, bulldozing approach that Hunt has established for Jackie, and while it’s meant to inject some humour into proceedings, it’s forced and not at all believable. Ramon becomes a bystander to Jackie’s odd behaviour and never once questions who Angelo is or why she’s following him. When she finally talks to him and he tells her he felt stifled by his life in New York and that surfing is what he wants to do, Jackie’s reaction is predictable: she accuses him of running away from being a writer and that he needs his education to succeed. And with no better argument, he criticises her in return for dismissing surfing when she’s never even tried it.

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By now the even occasionally astute viewer will be able to guess what happens next. Jackie decides to learn to surf, but crucially, Hunt leaves out any clear-cut reason for her doing this, and we’re treated to several scenes where she stumbles about in the surf falling over, unable to get on her board, and generally acting as if surfing was the easiest thing in the world to master. It’s an obvious case of schadenfreude, and Hunt milks it for all its worth, from the difficulty in getting into a wetsuit to paddling out to the breakwater. Eventually she accepts help in the form of a surfer called Ian (Wilson). And… here’s where Hunt’s script further downplays the mother-son relationship even further, as Jackie embarks on an affair with Ian, and Angelo’s story is reduced to a couple of scenes where he reveals a family secret to a girl (Jayne) he meets on the beach.

With Hunt splintering her story into several different directions at once, the movie becomes less interesting and less involving. There’s a big, angry confrontation between Jackie and Angelo that comes out of the blue and feels shoehorned in to give the movie some much-needed drama, while Jackie’s journey of discovery weighs things down to the point that the viewer could be forgiven for hoping that Jackie’s board will fatally clump her on the head when she gets thrown off. And the resolution, when it comes, is entirely dependent on Jackie repeating something Ian tells her earleir on, and which she takes to heart without even a second thought. We’re meant to think that because she has to learn how to surf, and she’s not immediately proficient at it, that this has a way of humbling her. But Hunt doesn’t connect the dots in this regard, and much of how the movie is concluded seems awkward and clumsy, as if Hunt didn’t have a clear idea on how to round things up.

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Hunt the director serves Hunt the star well, and there are glimpses in her performance that this could have been a different story entirely if Hunt the writer hadn’t felt the need to include so many surfing sequences (possibly in an effort to show how fit the actress is at fifty-two – though what appears to be one too many facelifts doesn’t help her case; her forehead is truly disturbing). With too many subplots thrown in at random as the movie unfolds, and with too many instances where Hunt’s script leaves a barrel big enough for two surfboards to plough through, Ride becomes an occasionally interesting viewing experience, and one that could have done with its script being tightened up considerably.

Rating: 5/10 – dead in the water for most of its running time, Ride‘s unfocused, repetitive script is its biggest downfall (how many times do we have see Jackie and Angelo text each other?); with a good cast given very little to do, and with Hunt unable to pep things up, it remains a movie that should be filed under Could Have Been So Much Better If…

For One Week Only: Women Directors – 5. Barbara Loden & the Seventies


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After a long period where female directors were working outside the mainstream and making experimental movies, the Sixties had started to see more women making movies that were accessible to a wider audience. This new generation of women directors wanted to tell stories that featured strong female characters, and as they garnered more and more recognition within the industry, so they also gained awareness with the general movie-going public. One movie, and its director, showed exactly what could be done on a small budget, and how powerful a story could be when told simply, and without resorting to accepted ideas about how a movie should look and feel.

Barbara Loden (1932-1980)

Barbara Loden

Loden began her career as a model and pin-up girl, but in the Fifties she decided to study acting and by the decade’s end she was appearing on Broadway. She was discovered by Elia Kazan who cast her in a minor role in the Montgomery Clift movie Wild River (1960). She followed it with Splendor in the Grass (1961) in which she played Warren Beatty’s wayward sister. Further movie roles failed to come along, and she did some work in television, but in 1964 she won a Tony award for her performance in Arthur Miller’s After the Fall (playing a fictionalised version of Marilyn Monroe). She continued with theatre roles, though in 1966 she was cast opposite Burt Lancaster in the movie version of The Swimmer. However, a dispute between the director Frank Perry and the producer Sam Spiegel over her scene with Lancaster – Loden apparently out-performed her more experienced co-star with ease – led to Perry being fired and several of the movie’s scenes being re-cast and re-shot. Loden’s role went to Janice Rule and it’s her performance that is seen in the finished movie.

In 1967 she married Kazan, and the following year appeared in the unsuccessful Fade-In (1968) with Burt Reynolds. At first she decided to go into semi-retirement, but out of the blue she wrote, directed and starred in a movie that was so innovative and so emotionally detailed (despite the main character’s disaffection with her life) that it took critics and audiences alike by surprise. The movie was Wanda (1970), and at that time it was one of the few American movies directed by a woman, independently or through a studio, to be released theatrically.

Loden’s tale of a coal miner’s wife who hooks up with a petty criminal was filmed in a cinéma vérité style that matched its melancholy subect matter; it’s so haunting at times that the viewer’s sympathy for Wanda is assured from the start. It’s an incredibly matter-of-fact movie, without a false note to it anywhere, and in all three capacities – writer/director/actress – Loden is supremely confident in what she’s doing, and the movie casts an hypnotic spell that’s hard to shake. You root for Wanda even though you know her life is heading in a downward spiral and the likelihood of her being saved is slim, but Loden’s pessimistic outlook allows for hope as well. It’s a fine line that Loden treads but she proves more than up to the task.

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Her efforts were rewarded when Wanda won the International Critics’ Prize at the 1970 Venice Film Festival. Rightly regarded as a masterpiece of independent movie making, Wanda cemented Loden’s place in cinema history, but instead of following it up, she withdrew altogether from making movies and returned to the semi-retirement she’d begun two years before (some say Kazan expressed doubts about Wanda that led Loden to question her ability). Eventually she made two short movies, The Frontier Experience and The Boy Who Liked Deer (both 1975), but they proved to be the final projects that Loden worked on. In 1978 she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and she died two years later.

Loden’s impact on the women directors who followed her can’t be stressed enough. Although she only made one movie, and even though it went virtually unseen for the best part of forty years before being restored for the 2010 Venice International Film Festival, it’s a touchstone movie that is as influential now as it was in 1970. Loden was an assured actress who could be glamorous and confident on screen, but her real talent lay behind the camera, dissecting the lives of ordinary people who are trying to find their place in Life. Whatever the reasons for her not making any more movies, ultimately they’re unimportant, because in Wanda she left us something very special indeed.

The Seventies

The new decade saw an increase in the presence of women directors across the globe. In America, Elaine May began her directing career with A New Leaf (1971), and after making two short movies, Joan Micklin Silver came to prominence with Hester Street (1975). They were followed by Barbara Kopple, a documentarian who won an Oscar for her first movie, Harlan County, USA (1976). In the UK, feminist filmmaker Jane Arden became the first British female director to gain a solo credit on the movie The Other Side of the Underneath (1972). Down Under, after spending most of the decade making shorts and a documentary, Gillian Armstrong broke into the mainstream with My Brilliant Career (1979) (it was also the first Australian movie to be directed by a woman in forty-six years).


In Europe, female directors seemed to be everywhere as the decade drew on. Even though she had begun her career in the Sixties it wasn’t until the release of The Night Porter (1974) that Liliana Cavani came to the attention of a wider audience. Her fellow Italian, Lina Wertmüller, also started her career in the Sixties, but also didn’t find fame and a wider audience until the release of The Seduction of Mimi (1971). Germany’s Margarethe von Trotta made two movies with Volker Schlondorff, including the hugely influential The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1975), before she made her first solo feature The Second Awakening of Christa Klages (1978). In France, Catherine Breillat began her often controversial directing career with A Real Young Girl (1976), and in neighbouring Belgium, Chantal Akerman secured her position as one of the most influential female directors working at the time with Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975).

In Africa, Senegalese movie maker Safi Faye became the first female Sub-Saharan director to have a movie commercially distributed. The movie was Letter from My Village (1975) and it gained her international recognition. In Angola, Sarah Maldoror’s examination of the Angolan struggle for liberation, Sambizanga (1972) was a powerful movie that showed the tragedies caused by war, and the despair those tragedies trigger.


As the decade drew to a close, the establishment of so many different women directors from all around the globe had the sense of “At last!” about it. It wouldn’t be long before female directors began to be heard from in South America and the Middle East as well, and they would bring even more ways of telling stories and entertaining audiences. In the Eighties the ratio of women directors to their male counterparts would still be minimal, percentage-wise at least, but they would definitely enjoy as much commercial and critical success as their male colleagues, a situation that had been long overdue. And as they headed into the Nineties, those barriers were lowered even further. Women directors were here, and they were here to stay.

A Royal Night Out (2015)


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A Royal Night Out

D: Julian Jarrold / 97m

Cast: Sarah Gadon, Bel Powley, Jack Reynor, Rupert Everett, Emily Watson, Jack Laskey, Jack Gordon, Roger Allam, Ruth Sheen

A Royal Night Out is based on real events: on V.E. Day, May 8 1945, Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret went out in a group that included their nanny, several friends, and a military detail as protection (one of whom was Group Captain Peter Townsend, who would later have a relationship with Margaret). They were charged by their father, King George VI, to be home by one a.m. – which they were. Nothing of any real significance happened, and the evening passed off without incident.

But in an attempt to overcome this disappointing outcome, A Royal Night Out chooses to paint an entirely different portrait of what happened that night, and in doing so, pushes the boundaries of credibility at every turn. It’s a movie that embraces the newspaper cry of “Print the Legend!”, and has no intention of worrying about just how far-fetched or unlikely it all is. And thanks to one of the most careless and poorly constructed screenplays of recent years – courtesy of Trevor De Silva and Kevin Hood – the movie limps from one unconvincing scene to another, and never once provides a moment’s plausibility.

From the moment that Gadon’s Elizabeth and Powley’s Margaret are introduced – responsible and carefree respectively – it’s clear that these characterisations aren’t going to change much as the movie progresses. Elizabeth is the thoughtful, considerate sister, always looking out for her younger, less mature sibling. Margaret is a pleasure-seeker, stifled by the conventions of royal life, and looking for a chance to express her more extrovert nature. Although there is some truth in both these approaches – Margaret definitely liked a good party – by reducing both young women to such paper-thin representations of their real counterparts, the movie avoids asking its audience to identify with them at all.

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What the movie does to compensate is to infuse the action with liberal dollops of comedy. Surprisingly, a lot of it works, even though it’s often corny, and relies on the idea that Elizabeth and Margaret are so far removed from “ordinary” folk that they’re unable to deal with the simplest of social interactions. The humour is also derived in part from a lazy interpretation of the social divide between the princesses and the people they meet. Margaret is far too trusting, while Elizabeth becomes acutely aware of how little she really knows about everyday people. It’s predictable stuff, and if it wasn’t for the jokes, the movie would be dangerously difficult to sit through.

As well as De Silva and Hood’s just-enough-done-to-get-by script, there’s Jarrold’s lacklustre direction to contend with. There are moments when it really seems as if he settled for the first take and had no interest in finding out if the actors had anything else to offer. Whole stretches of the movie play out at a sedated pace that deadens each scene it touches, and it makes the performances seem stilted and free from nuance. Jarrold, whose last theatrical feature was the similarly underwhelming Brideshead Revisited (2008), misses almost every opportunity to make the movie relevant to its time frame, and concentrates instead on various levels of slapstick and farce to push the narrative forward. It leaves the movie feeling disjointed and as unconcerned about itself as Margaret is when she goes off with a man she doesn’t know.

97-Girls Night Out-Photo Nick Wall.NEF

There are issues with the various relationships as well. Elizabeth meets AWOL airman Jack (Reynor) who helps her find Margaret after they’re separated. You can tell straight away that the script wants them to get together, but at the same time it wants to stay true to historical events, so what we’re left with is an attraction that can’t (and doesn’t) lead anywhere, and which is entirely redundant as a plot device. The same can be said for Jack’s AWOL status, a dramatic angle that is resolved with the neatness of a parcel tied up with string. (There really isn’t anything in the movie that the viewer won’t be able to guess the outcome of – and long before it happens.)

Elsewhere, Laskey and Gordon play their military detail roles as if they were auditioning for an X Factor comedy special, with Laskey mugging for all he’s worth, and Gordon’s Lieutenant Burridge behaving in such an inappropriate manner it’s ridiculous. Allam is introduced late on as a mix of low-rent pimp and black marketeer who Margaret calls Lord Stan, but it’s the fanciful way in which her royal status is exploited that raises a chuckle, as Stan uses her to get some of his working girls inside the Chelsea Barracks, and circulating amongst the guests at a party there. Again it’s this kind of non-threatening, breezy plotting that hampers the movie and stops it from having any kind of edge.

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The cast are left adrift to fend for themselves, with Watson coming off best by (ostensibly) directing herself, while the likes of Everett, Allam and Powley are stranded playing caricatures. Reynor can’t do anything with his establishment-baiting airman, and Gadon looks bewildered throughout, as if she can’t quite believe what she’s being asked to do (though, to be fair, her bewilderment could be down to the demands of the script).

Away from the uninspired direction and unimaginative script, A Royal Night Out struggles to rise above its TV movie look and feel, and some of the myriad night shots look like they were filmed during the day. And with the best will – or art direction – in the world, Hull is no substitute for London, leaving several scenes feeling incomplete in terms of the movie’s visual style. As a result, Christophe Beaucarne’s photography is choppy at best, though it suits the muddy compositions. And Luke Dunkley’s editing is so haphazard in its approach that a lot of scenes lack that all-important through line.

Rating: 4/10 – even though it’s an interpretation of what “might” have happened on the night of 8 May 1945, A Royal Night Out‘s script shows such a lack of imagination almost any other interpretation would be preferable; saved entirely by its sense of humour, and despite its being entirely nonsensical at times, the movie is one of those ideas that seemed like a good one at the time, but which should have been left well alone by all concerned.

For One Week Only: Women Directors – 4. Agnès Varda & the Sixties


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With the Fifties seeing a gradual rise in the number of female movie directors, the Sixties saw that slow expansion get bigger and bigger as more and more women took up the challenge of making movies that were at least as interesting or entertaining as their male counterparts (if they could be financially successful as well would be a great help too). Following in the footsteps of women such as Maya Deren, female experimental movie directors continued to flourish, but this independence didn’t seem to spread to more mainstream movie making. Only one female director of note emerged in the Sixties, and she forged a career for herself that is still going strong today.

Agnès Varda (1928-)

Agnes Varda

Although she’s regarded as a French movie director, Varda was actually born in Belgium. She moved to France in 1940 to live with her mother’s family, and studied art history and photography. Growing up she saw very few movies, but always viewed this as an advantage, so that when she came to make her first movie in 1957, La Pointe Courte, she did so with a naïvete that allowed her to do things she might otherwise have felt she couldn’t do.

Varda made a number of short movies before her next movie, Cléo from 5 to 7 (1961), made audiences and critics alike sit up and take notice. A sensitively handled drama about a woman (Corinne Marchand) who is waiting for the results of a biopsy, the movie deconstructs the way in which its heroine is seen by everyone around her, and how she deals with the possibility of her imminent mortality. If you’re new to the French New Wave of the early Sixties, then this is as good a movie to start out with, and shows Varda already has a distinct narrative style.

Cleo from 5 to 7

Her abilities as a director were further recognised with the release of her third feature, Le Bonheur (1965). A beautifully crafted rural drama, it’s about a young, happily married man who looks for even more “happiness” with another woman. Though the focus is on the young man, Varda doesn’t downplay the female characters, or make their roles of lesser importance. Instead she emphasises their strength and resilience, and reinforces the idea that neither of them is dependent on the young man’s attention. (1965 was also the year that Varda hired a young actor named Gérard Depardieu for a project called Christmas Carole; it was his first screen role, but alas the movie was never finished due to lack of funding.)

Les créatures (1966) followed, a puzzle box of a movie where the basic storyline of a mute woman’s husband who writes a novel that reflects the lives of the villagers, but in doing so, allows the distinction between fiction and reality to become irrevocably blurred, allowed Varda to play tricks on the viewer throughout. But she’s just being mischievous, and none more so than by casting Catherine Deneuve as the mute wife, using the actress’s physical presence to reinforce the character’s self-reliance and determination.

Les creatures

She contributed a section to the documentary Far from Vietnam (1967), along with the likes of Alain Resnais and Jean-Luc Godard, before making a fascinating though not entirely focused semi-documentary road trip through Los Angeles called Lions Love (1969). Varda had originally wanted Jim Morrison to appear in the movie but he declined (though he can still be seen as a member of the theatre audience in the opening scene). Interestingly enough, Varda attracted several well-known celebrities to appear as themselves, including fellow directors Peter Bogdanovich and Shirley Clarke. There’s no story as such, and what narrative there is is firmly non-linear, making this particular road trip/odyssey one that relies on its visual style to get its message across.

Varda was referred to as “the ancestor of the New Wave” when she was just thirty, but her literary influences and use of location shooting and non-professional actors marks her out as a member of the Left Bank cinema movement instead. She herself describes her style of movie making as cinécriture (writing on film), and she builds her finished product in the editing suite where she finds a movie’s motifs and its rhythm. She is a fiercely intelligent director whose international acclaim in the Sixties helped give other women directors a boost toward realising their own careers.

The 60’s

With the Sixties, female directors who had begun their careers in the Fifties continued to make challenging, independent movies outside the foundering Hollywood studio system. Shirley Clarke made her most well-known movies in the Sixties, The Connection (1962), about a group of junkies waiting in a room for their next fix to arrive, and Portrait of Jason (1967), a documentary about Aaron Payne (alias Jason Holliday) and his experiences of being black and gay in Sixties America. Both movies were well-received in critical circles but lacked for a wider audience. They were movies that held up a mirror to American society at the time, and are all the more powerful for the way they dissect the way said society actively marginalised some of its more vulnerable citizens.

The Canadian artist Joyce Wieland turned her hand to making movies in the Sixties. She made experimental, avant garde shorts on a variety of eclectic themes, and with titles such as Barbara’s Blindness (1965), Handtinting (1967), and Rat Life and Diet in North America (1968). She made her first feature movie in 1969, Reason Over Passion, a prosaic yet highly abstract voyage of discovery through the Canadian psyche as presided over by then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Wieland’s movies were distinctive by the way in which she manipulated the film stock to provide a connection to the artistic style she had developed elsewhere in her work, and to make it feel more organic.

Joyce Wieland

Outside of experimental movie making, female directors tackling more conventional narratives were very thin on the ground. Swedish actress Mai Zetterling made her first feature, Loving Couples, in 1964, and packed it full of controversial elements, from a lesbian kiss to two gay men getting “married” in a church, and a close up of a real birth. She made three more features in the latter half of the decade and each showed a confident hand at the tiller.

In the world of low-budget exploitation features, Stephanie Rothman went from being an executive producer for Roger Corman to co-directing Blood Bath (1966) with Jack Hill, and then flying solo with It’s a Bikini World (1967). She added a strong feminist perspective to her movies, and did her best to mitigate the crassness of the movies she worked on. She was aware of the necessity for female nudity in these low-budget movies but focused on the visual presentation to make these scenes less repulsive and more transgressive.

After making several shorts, Czech director Věra Chytilová won international acclaim for her movie Daisies (1966), a funny, liberating attack on the formal traditions of Czech movie making, and a fascinating glimpse into the minds of two wilful young girls whose attitude to Life is to tear it down and damn the consequences – along as they’re having a good time doing it. It’s an invigorating experience, and eschews the rigid formalism of other Czech movies of the time. Chytilová’s career would pick up again in the Seventies, but Daisies was a statement of intent if ever there was one.


And there was another statement of intent waiting just around the corner in 1970…

Back in Time (2015)


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Back in Time

D: Jason Aron / 95m

With: Bob Gale, Robert Zemeckis, Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Steven Spielberg, Frank Price, Donald Fullilove, Huey Lewis, Claudia Wells, James Tolkan, Alan Silvestri, Dean Cundey, Dan Harmon, Adam F. Goldberg, Jeffrey Weissman, Andrew Probert, Kevin Pike, Michael Scheffe

The enduring appeal of the Back to the Future trilogy is due to one inescapable fact: the scripts – by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis on Part I, and Gale alone on parts II and III – are some of the best screenplays ever written. Forget that these aren’t movies that explore in depth the meaning of life, or what it is to be human, or any other deep, meaningful topics. Remember instead that these movies, taken together, constitute one of the most enjoyable, most rewarding movie trilogies this side of the Toy Story series (and if you ignore animation altogether, then they win hands down – sorry anyone waving the Star Wars Original Trilogy at me; I have just one word for you: Ewoks).

Jason Aron’s likeable, though fumbled, documentary looks at the story behind the making of the first movie, and then widens its scope to look at how it’s affected the lives of some of its fans, people like Stephen Clark, who became the Executive Director of, the one-stop shop for anyone looking for information or merchandise relating to the series. Or Terry and Oliver Holler, who bought a DeLorean as a Bucket List idea when Oliver was diagnosed with cancer; now they travel around the US in their BttF-style DeLorean raising money for Michael J. Fox’s Parkinson’s charity. Or Greg and Jill Henderson, who through their company Arx Pax, have created a working hoverboard.


While these stories are interesting in and of themselves, and the people recounting them are engaging and refreshingly down-to-earth about their love for the movies and the work they do as a result of that love, it all comes at the expense of the movies themselves. If you’re a fan of Parts II and III, then this is not the movie for you if you’re looking for insights into the making of those movies, or any anecdotes relating to them. Part II gets a brief look, while Part III is practically ignored. The focus is squarely on Part I as the launching point for all the fan activity that followed in its wake.

So this leaves the movie feeling, initially, like it’s going to be about the making of all three movies. But it keeps veering away, jumping from personal recollections to detailed analyses of how several DeLoreans were transformed (by several different people) into copies of the cars used in the movies. There’s feedback from other entertainers/writers/directors, such as Dan Harmon, who created Community, and Adam F. Goldberg, the creator of The Goldbergs. And there are glimpses of conventions and public events, including the Secret Cinema presentation of Back to the Future from 2014. The movie covers a lot of ground, but in doing so, misses out on quite a lot also.


Part of the issue is, as mentioned above, the way in which Back in Time‘s structure reduces the amount of time we have to find out about one of the most respected and well-regarded cultural icons of the last thirty years. There are some great anecdotes about the making of the first movie, including Disney’s reaction to the script, and Gale is a great guide for the viewer, but without the contributions of Fox, Lloyd and Thompson in particular, this would be a rather dry examination of a wonderful movie (Zemeckis looks uncomfortable throughout, as if looking back on such a long-ago project detracts from the work he’s doing today).

There’s a flatness about the movie as well, a quality that makes it difficult for the viewer to become completely engaged with it. Whole stretches pass by in such a plain, matter-of-fact way that anyone watching from the comfort of their armchair might be inclined to skip ahead to the next section and see if it’s any more interesting. Aron also  keeps the shooting style pretty plain and simple, and the static talking head approach is rarely abandoned for anything different.

As for the cast and crew of Back to the Future, the absence of Thomas F. Wilson (any Tannen you care to mention), and Crispin Glover (George McFly in Part I) is disappointing even though it’s expected. Aside from voicing his characters on various video games over the years, Wilson hasn’t milked his association with the series in the way that, say, Wells and Fullilove have (just watch the movie to find out how), but it would have been interesting to hear what he recalls about making the movies*. Glover, of course, shot himself in the foot when negotiating his contract for Parts II and III, but again, his contribution to such a terrific movie would be great to hear about. (The same goes for Eric Stoltz, but that’s probably not going to happen either.)


With the movie not quite working at the level it needs to, and even though there are some priceless moments – Fox referring to Princess Diana as “smokin’ hot”; Greg Henderson saying if he could time travel he’d like to go back and “bitch slap” a couple of people – it’s perhaps fitting to end this review with an absolutely brilliant quote from Dan Harmon: “We actually use the same logic when we go to see movies as we do walking into a casino. We largely know we’re gonna get ripped off, but the chance is worth it. If it were any other industry, we would have long ago shut it down and sued everybody. Because if it was cans of tuna, the equivalent would be like every third can had a human finger in it. Movies are so bad now.” And amen to that.

Rating: 6/10 – imperfectly assembled and with too many distractions from the “main feature”, Back in Time is only occasionally successful in doing justice to the movie series it has such high regard for; a once only viewing experience that will only have viewers clamouring for more about the movies and not the fans – they should have been saved for another movie all their own.


*If you want to have some idea of how Thomas F. Wilson feels about his association with Back to the Future, check this out:

For One Week Only: Women Directors – 3. Maya Deren & the Fifties


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Women directors had been prevalent during the Silent Era, but with the advent of sound, many prominent careers foundered or were unable to continue. In Hollywood, only Dorothy Arzner maintained a career within the male-dominated heirarchy that viewed women directors as “box office poison”, and she did so by making moderately successful, conservative movies that weren’t transgressive in any way at all. In 1943, she made her last movie before making the switch to television. But while Hollywood showed no interest in encouraging would-be women directors to replace her, elsewhere, there were women who, like Ida Lupino at the end of the decade, weren’t letting Hollywood tell them how to make movies…

Maya Deren (1917-1961)

Maya Deren

An experimental movie maker, Deren made a series of short, avant garde experimental movies between 1943 and 1948 that remain some of the most impressive movies of their type ever made. Her first movie, Meshes in the Afternoon (1943) is a surreal tale of a woman whose dreams may or may not be happening in reality, and is technically astonishing for the scene where there are multiple Derens at a table (the movie was filmed using a 16mm Bolex camera). It’s dreamlike (naturally) and enigmatic, but fascinating to watch nevertheless.

She followed this with Witch’s Cradle (1944), a collection of images and static shots that wasn’t as well received, and in the same year she and her husband Alexander Hammid collaborated on a documentary short The Private Life of a Cat. She ended the year by making At Land, a haunting study of a woman’s trek through various foreign environments that she encounters; her sense of herself in these environments and her reaction to them makes for an intriguing study of isolationism and the need to belong.

In 1945 she made A Study in Choreography for Camera, a movie that packs so much about time and motion through the movement of a dancer in its four minutes that it’s almost dizzying how much Deren has managed to include in that time. It’s a movie that confronts ideas about space and time and motion that are so stimulating, it makes the viewer wonder why there aren’t more movies like it. Dance was also the main feature of her next project, Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946); its blend of dance and surrealism, allied to notions of freedom of expression, makes for some very eloquent and poetic imagery.

In 1946 her work was acknowledged with a Guggenheim Fellowship for “Creative Work in the Field of Motion Pictures”. She also won the Grand Prix Internationale for 16mm experimental film at the Cannes Film Festival (for Meshes in the Afternoon). Deren’s last movie in the Forties was Meditation on Violence (1948), a collaboration with martial arts expert Chao Li Chi that looks at the ideals of the Wu Tang philosophy. It’s a cloistered affair with the movie being rewound part way through, thus obscuring the message (unfortunately). It’s still an intriguing look at a way of living life in a particular fashion, and Chao is a mesmerising figure.

Meditation on Violence

The 50’s

At the same time that Ida Lupino made her last independent movie, The Bigamist (1953), a member of the New York avant garde modern dance movement called Shirley Clarke made her first short movie, Dance in the Sun. Clarke had wanted to be a choreographer, but she was unsuccessful at this, and on the advice of her psychiatrist, followed her interest in movies instead. She made several more shorts in the Fifties, including A Moment in Love (1957) and Bridges-Go-Round (1958). All were well-received, and Clarke continued to make her own kind of experimental movies in the Sixties.

Shirley Clarke

Maya Deren made two more short movies in the Fifties, Ensemble for Somnambulists (1951) and The Very Eye of Night (1958), two similar explorations of dance form and composition that also looked at ritual and expression as shown through movement. Deren stayed true to her beliefs about the nature of film, and her sudden death in 1961 was a tragedy in every sense of the word. She once said, “I make my pictures for what Hollywood spends on lipstick”; but what she achieved in such a short directorial career was nothing short of miraculous, and she remains a tremendous influence on experimental movie makers the world over.

1953 was also the year that saw Japanese actress Kinuyo Tanaka make her debut as a director with Love Letter. Only the second woman to have a career as a director – after Tazuko Sakane – Tanaka’s romantic drama was entered into the 1954 Cannes Film Festival. She made five further movies between 1955 and 1962, one of which, The Moon Has Risen (1955) was co-scripted by Yasujirô Ozu. Tanaka had a surety of touch behind the camera and her visual style was eloquent and disarming. She maintained her career as an actress, and won several awards later on, but her movies, though hard to find now, show a smart, capable movie maker who was comfortable behind the camera because of how comfortable she was in front of it.

Kinuyo Tanaka

In France, the career of Jacqueline Audry, which had begun with the short Le Feu de paille (1943), flourished in the Fifties, and she had particular success with a series of adaptations of novels by Colette, Gigi (1949), Minne (1950), and Mitsou (1956). Audry often tackled topics that were considered controversial, such as the relationship between a schoolmistress and one of her pupils in Olivia (1951), a movie that has come to be regarded as a “landmark of lesbian representation”. With the rise of the French New Wave her more traditional style was at odds with the prevailing trends in French cinema, and she only made three movies in the Sixties, but overall her career shows she was a woman who wasn’t afraid to challenge conventional notions of sexuality and female submissiveness (even if it meant her movies were often heavily censored).

Jacqueline Audry

Another actress who made the transition to directing was Norway’s Edith Carlmar. In 1949 she made what is regarded as the very first film noir directed by a woman, Døden er et kjærtegn. It was a success, and she followed it up with a drama about mental illness called Skadeskutt (1951). Another female director who wasn’t afraid to tackle serious issues that most mainstream (male) directors wouldn’t go near, Carlmar made a total of ten movies between 1949 and 1959, and each one was both a box office success and critically well-received, a remarkable achievement for the period, and one that makes her one of the most successful female movie directors of the last seventy years.

Edith Carlmar

Even though these women were forging careers for themselves, and were making sometimes controversial, challenging and experimental movies, they remained a minority in an international industry that still didn’t trust women to be successful or able to attract audiences in the first place. But this misogyny was about to face its first real, and proper, challenge, as the movement towards female empowerment that began to express itself in the Sixties encouraged women movie makers to become bolder and to demand more of an equal place in cinema.

Trailer – Finding Dory (2016)


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There are three types of Pixar sequel: the first is the assured, perfectly realised sequel that works on all levels and shows the company’s creativity isn’t hampered by there being a number in the title – like Toy Story 2 for example (or even Toy Story 3). Then there’s the sequel that occupies the middle ground, the sequel that is warmly received, enjoyable even, but which ultimately doesn’t add much to the lustre of its predecessor – like Monsters University for example. And then there’s the third type, the sequel that really shouldn’t have been made, and should have been filed away in John Lasseter’s head as “one trip to the well too far” – like Cars 2 (the only example, actually). Which category Finding Dory will fit into is yet to be seen, and the trailer doesn’t really give us a clue (maybe the next one will), but if it’s as good as Finding Nemo then Pixar will deserve every plaudit coming to them. Fingers crossed!

Trailer – Warcraft (2016)


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The gaming community has been longing to see a movie based on the World of Warcraft series, and next year they’ll get their wish. But watching this first trailer, two things spring to mind: just how much is this movie going to look like The Lord of the Rings, and just how much of it is going to be accessible to newbies who’ve never played WoW in their lives (or even heard of it). On the first point, it’s going to look a lot like The Lord of the Rings unless they sharpen up the CGI (the orcs don’t look that great yet), and on the second point, the storyline looks simple enough to follow from what’s shown in the trailer, but let’s hope it’s not too simple. Director Duncan Jones is a good choice, and he’s got a great cast helping him bring it all to life, but at this stage, it’s still too early to tell whether this will be more miss than hit, or vice versa.

Spectre (2015)


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D: Sam Mendes / 148m

Cast: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Monica Bellucci, Dave Bautista, Andrew Scott, Rory Kinnear, Jesper Christensen, Alessandro Cremona

And so, here we are again, back in familiar territory: after a run of three movies with a new actor playing James Bond, and with the material getting worse and worse, we arrive at a fourth movie that neither grips or excites, boasts a decent script or direction, and which labours through its extended running time like an asthmatic running a half-marathon. We could be talking about Die Another Day (2002), but instead we’re talking about Spectre, the latest in the oft-rebooted franchise, and possibly Daniel Craig’s last outing as Bond (he may do one more but nothing’s definite yet).

It’s been a relatively short nine years since Casino Royale exploded onto our screens in a welter of frenzied, punishing action sequences, and one of the best Bond scripts ever. It was everything you could ever hope for from a Bond movie, and then some, and for many fans it went straight to the top of their favourite Bond movie list. There were some psychological aspects to it in terms of Bond’s behaviour, the best Bond villain for an age, and as an “origin story” it worked much better than most. But most of all it was fun with a capital F.

And then there came the inevitable stumble with Quantum of Solace (2008). A straight-out revenge flick but with James Bond as the central character, it was basically a direct follow-up to Casino Royale that suffered from a weak villain and a mid-section that dragged as if the writers had lost focus on the story they were telling. But it did have some great action sequences, just as tough and brutal as before, and a great performance from Craig. (If you watch it back to back with Casino Royale as a four hour movie it plays a lot better than on its own.)

Spectre - scene2

Now at this stage, the producers brought on board Sam Mendes to helm the third outing for Craig, and he delivered the most successful Bond movie to date: Skyfall (2012). But while critics and fans heaped praise on the first Bond movie to make over a billion dollars at the box office, less easily swayed viewers could see the cracks starting to show as the writers tried to include a mystery relating to Bond’s past. And there were problems elsewhere, where the script showed signs of laziness (the train crash – how could Silva have “known” that he and Bond would meet at that particular place and time for the train to come crashing through the ceiling?).

That laziness has been extended to Spectre, with its tired action sequences (only the fight on the train between Bond and Mr Hinx has any energy or verve about it), eggshell thin characterisations (why does it seem as if Vesper Lynd is the only female character in the Bond franchise with any depth?), nonsensical reason for the villain’s actions (whatever happened to blackmailing the world’s leaders into not killing them with hijacked nukes?), and nods to previous entries in the franchise that only serve to remind audiences of the good old days when Bond just got on with the job and didn’t have to deal with questions about his lifestyle or any emotional scarring arising out of his childhood.

There’s also the absurd plot about linking all the world’s security systems under one (though it looks as if Waltz’s character is already doing that anyway), and then there’s Christoph Waltz’s ersatz-Blofeld scampering around like an escaped inmate from Bellevue, and providing none of the menace required to make his character a match for Bond’s determination and drive; in fact, he has more in common with Elliot Carver, Jonathan Pryce’s crazed media tycoon in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) (but that’s still not a recommendation). Waltz is a good actor, but he’s all too often an actor making his own decisions about playing a role, and without, it seems, much instruction from the director. Here he tries the playful über-villain too often for comfort, and for the head of an organisation that included Le Chiffre and Raoul Silva as mere agents, looks entirely like someone’s younger brother who finally gets to play with his bigger brother’s toys.

Spectre - scene

Once again, the female characters are there for decoration, with Seydoux going to sleep in a hotel room fully clothed and then waking up some time later in her slip, and Bellucci wasted as the wife of a man Bond kills in the opening sequence. Harris though, does get more to do as Miss Moneypenny (we even get a glimpse of her home life), but beyond that it’s business as usual, with no other female roles of note, and the focus firmly on the macho posturing that occurs elsewhere throughout (even Whishaw gets a moment out in the field where he encounters some danger). Fiennes is a grumpy-looking M (though he does get the movie’s best line), Scott is a slimy-looking C, and Bautista is all the more imposing for being dressed in bespoke tailoring throughout. The returning Christensen is a welcome sight but he’s only there to reiterate what he said in Quantum of Solace (though “we have people everywhere” now becomes “he’s everywhere”), and his one scene is over far too quickly.

Returning as well, of course, is Mendes, whose handling of Skyfall meant he was always going to be asked to return, but perhaps it would have been better to go with someone who could inject some much needed energy into proceedings. Mendes is good at the MI6 stuff, prowling the corridors of power and highlighting the power games surrounding the shake up of the security services that serves as the political backdrop for the movie, but “out in the field” he’s less confident, and on this evidence, less engaged. There are too many scenes that go by without making much of an impact, and too many scenes that could have been more judiciously pruned in the editing suite. Instead, Mendes does just enough to make Spectre a facsimile of Skyfall, but without the emotional ending (here Bond rides off into the sunset with Seydoux’s character, but you know she won’t be back for the next movie).

If Craig decides not to play Bond one more time then the producers will need to go back to square one and start afresh – again. If they do, then let’s hope this whole let’s-give-Bond-an-origin-story-he-doesn’t-need angle is dropped in favour of seeing him do what he does best: being a one-man wrecking crew with no time for niceties. In many ways, Ian Fleming’s creation is a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur”, but it’s what we’ve loved about him for over fifty years now, and in their efforts to give us a “new” Bond for contemporary times, the producers have lost sight of what makes him truly Bond: he doesn’t do introspection or guilt, and because of that he’s good at his job. (And if a reboot is in order, then let’s get Martin Campbell back in the director’s chair – he seems to know what he’s doing.)

Rating: 5/10 – not a complete stinker – it’s production values, along with Craig’s still committed performace see to that – but not the best Bond outing you’re likely to see either, and proof that the series, in this stretch at least, is heading downhill fast; when even the action sequences in Spectre feel tired and lacklustre, then it’s time for the producers to take a step back and work out where they really want to take Bond next, because right now, it doesn’t look as if they know.

The Liebster Award


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Liebster Award

Today, out of the blue, this happy blogger discovered he’d been nominated for the Liebster Award. Now, like a lot of you (probably), I’d never heard of the Liebster Award or the idea behind it, but once I’d done a little research, I discovered the following:

The Liebster Award is given to bloggers by other bloggers, it’s a bit like a chain letter, and it’s designed to promote new bloggers and their sites. It involves some work on the nominated blogger’s part (see below), but it’s a generally worthwhile attempt to broaden people’s horizons and get them to try other blogs they might not be aware of – which isn’t difficult as there’s thousands and thousands of us out there.

So a big THANK YOU to Jordan’s Movie Guide for nominating me (use the link to check out his site), and in the spirit of paying it forward etc., I’m more than happy to answer the questions he’s devised (it’s all part of the nomination).


Q1 The obvious: What is your favorite movie?

Answer: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – a movie that never fails to impress me and which I can watch over and over again and always find something new that I haven’t noticed before.

Q2 Tell me a little about your favorite movie-going experience. What did it entail?

Answer: That’s an easy one. I won a free ticket to see all six Star Wars movies in one day, with the UK premiere of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith as the final movie… and George Lucas showed up to introduce it.

Q3 Which upcoming movies are you most excited about?

Answer: Alas, none at the moment. For me, this year has been a disappointing one, so my expectations have dwindled with each letdown. If I had to show enthusiasm for anything it would be In the Heart of the Sea.

Q4 Where are you from?

Answer: I’m from Basildon in Essex in the UK, a town that unfortunately has a Basildon sign that looks too much like a misguided attempt to emulate the Hollywood sign.

Q5 What place in a movie would you like to visit given the chance?

Answer: Well it’s less a place than an environment: the waters off the Southern Australian coast, New Guinea, and the Indo-Pacific areas, as seen in Under the Sea 3D (2009) – simply incredible!

Q6 What’s your favorite movie hero?

Answer: Easy peasy – Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird.

Q7 What’s your favorite movie villain?

Answer: It’s a tie, between Hugo Weaving’s Agent Smith in The Matrix trilogy, and Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber in Die Hard.

Q8 What’s your favorite genre of movies?

Answer: Even though I’m disappointed by what I see pretty much 99% of the time, it still has to be horror, a genre I grew up with and which is still my first love forty years on.

Q9 Who’s your favorite actor of all time?

Answer: Trevor Howard – he made some bad movies in his time, but he never gave a bad performance, and you never caught him “acting”.

Q10 Who’s your favorite director of all time?

Answer: Given that my all-time favourite movie is 2001: A Space Odyssey, it has to be Stanley Kubrick, a director who can still make my jaw drop when I watch any of his movies (even for the umpteenth time).

So, with that out of the way, it’s my turn to come up with the questions for the ten bloggers I’ll be nominating below. If any of them take up the challenge, there’s just one caveat: that they leave out any details relating to Q7. So, here goes:

Q1 The obvious one: What was the last movie you saw at the cinema?

Q2 Which movie – if any – has the ability to make you cry? (And guys – be honest.)

Q3 Black and white, or colour?

Q4 What is your favourite non-Disney/non-Pixar animated movie?

Q5 What is the worst movie you’ve ever seen?

Q6 Which Martin Scorsese movie would you like to have been in?

Q7 If you absolutely had to wake up in bed next to an actor or actress of your choosing, who would it be?

Q8 Hot dog, or popcorn?

Q9 Do you think there should be Adults Only showings of kids’ movies?

Q10 Which movie is the one that always cheers you up when you’ve had a crappy day?

We’re in the final stretch now, and it just remains for me to list my nominees for the Liebster Award. Now the current rule is that nominees should have around 200 followers, but I think that’s too low a figure. I’m more comfortable with 500-1000, as I’d like to think my nominees aren’t complete novices, and at least know what they’re doing (no offence to you guys who aren’t hitting 200 yet). But even with that it’s not always easy to work out just how many followers a blog has, as not everyone lets on, so some of my nominations may not fit the criteria (even my own). And lastly I have to admit, llike Jordan, some of these blogs I found so I could make up the list, but they’re all worthy of your attention, and if I have any favourites… well, you’ll never know. And the nominees are:

Sunset Boulevard


Sobriety Test Movie Reviews

Critical Outcast

Thoughts on Film

Fast Film Reviews

Ross v Ross

The Furious D Show

Phil on Film

Battle Royale With Cheese

So, that’s that. The last couple of years have been a fun ride, and I hope to continue for as long as my eyes can focus and my capacity for hot dogs and giant chocolate buttons remains undiminished. And to the nominees, I hope you guys “pay it forward” as well, and have fun compiling your own questions and nominees.

No Escape (2015)


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No Escape

D: John Erick Dowdle / 103m

Cast: Owen Wilson, Lake Bell, Pierce Brosnan, Sterling Jerins, Claire Geare, Thanawut Kasro, Chatchawan Kamonsakpitak, Sahajak Boonthanakit

Set in an unnamed country in South-East Asia, No Escape is one of those survivalist fantasies that puts a lot of effort into stacking the odds against the hero (and his family as well, in this case), but then makes it incredibly easy for him to overcome those odds. Once the viewer realises this, other flaws in the plot become clearer and the initial tension that screenwriters John Erick Dowdle and his brother Drew go to some lengths to arrange, soon decreases the longer the movie plays out. By the end, there have been too many contrivances and coincidences for the tension to be maintained effectively.

Part of the problem here is that it doesn’t take long for the viewer to realise that, the set up notwithstanding – nationalists stage a coup in anger against US investment in the water industry (don’t worry, it almost makes sense) – the script has no intention of being too hard on its hard luck family. Yes, it makes things difficult for them, and yes they’re pursued throughout by one hard-line rebel who’s intent on killing all of them, but as more and more ambushes and deadly encounters are survived, any idea that they’re not going to make it to Vietnam and safety is soon abandoned. Even when they find themselves captured by the rebels, there’s always a delay in executing them that allows the family to be rescued or save themselves.

With any real peril sidelined by the movie’s need to keep its nuclear family free from harm, No Escape becomes even more predictable in its approach. Brosnan’s lively hedonist is revealed to have a darker past than he originally lets on, and once the coup is in full swing, any chance the family has of reaching the American Embassy is always going to be doomed to failure, while random strangers will pop up to help them as and when necessary.


But though it’s entirely predictable, and Wilson’s Jack and Bell’s Annie lack any appreciable depth – Annie doesn’t want to be in South-East Asia, while Jack is making the best of a bad business setback… and that’s it – the movie gets by on its early scenes where the seriousness of the coup begins to sink in, and the targetting of Americans for execution becomes altogether clear (even if the reasoning is a little too pat). The pace is brisk and efficient, and Dowdle uses hand-held photography to good effect (though as a result, some of the framing is off, though this may be deliberate – it’s hard to tell).

On the performance side, Wilson is okay as the determined Jack, but his portrayal reveals a facet of his acting that seems to have gone unnoticed all these years: he doesn’t have a great repertoire of expressions. What this means is that unless he really scrunches up his features, alarm or fear look much the same as surprise or wonder, and panic looks like he’s trying to fathom a difficult math problem. Bell is required to look fearful and upset for most of the movie, and even before the coup takes place, so there’s no hope of a character arc there, and some viewers may be alarmed at the ease with which she exhorts her terrified daughters to stay hidden while she goes off and does something that usually heightens the risk they’re in.

With Wilson and Bell having no choice but to play their roles as earnestly as possible, it’s left to Brosnan’s chirpy Brit to inject a bit of spice into proceedings, but his character, Hammond, is so perilously close to cliché that although he’s a welcome sight when he appears, it’s equally good to see the back of him (to be fair, this is less Brosnan’s fault and more Dowdle’s). As Jack and Annie’s two young girls, Jerins and Geare are both adorable, while the majority of the rebels are just ruthless, nasty thugs hell bent on killing all and sundry. Only Boonthanakit’s taxi driver, who models himself on Kenny Rogers, stands out from the rest of the locals, but sadly it’s in a way that hints at casual racism.

No Escape - scene2

Towards the end, the family’s escape route becomes clear, and they take their chances, but it’s here that the movie makes its biggest faux pas, as it tries to present the city they’ve arrived in as being half in the unnamed country that serves as the movie’s backdrop, and half in Vietnam. It’s a totally ridiculous moment, and completely ruins any verisimilitude that Dowdle has managed to create thus far, leaving the viewer to scratch his or her head and wonder WtF?

And one last issue: what kind of father tells his frightened daughter – when she’s being forced to point a gun at him – to shoot him and that it’s okay to do so? What kind of selfless, parental martyrdom is being expounded here? True, it’s intended to make an already tense situation all the more horrific (or potentially so), but it’s likely most viewers will be wondering, again, WtF?

For all its tense confrontations and attempts to make the rebels as thuggish and murderous as possible, No Escape is hampered too much by Dowdle’s uncomfortable mix of revolution and manhunt, and his mandate that no real harm shall come to the family. What this leaves the viewer with is a movie that looks like it’s going to be tough and uncompromising, but in reality only treats its secondary and minor characters as if they were expendable. Now if one of the children had died…

Rating: 5/10 – mostly efficient, but neutered by a squeamishness about hurting the family, No Escape at least stops short of making Wilson an action hero, but does ask him to play a character who seems to be wilfully putting his family in harms way; better in its opening half hour, and before Jack starts throwing his children off of a rooftop, the movie tries its best to be a hard-hitting thriller, but never hits the mark.

For One Week Only: Women Directors – 2. Ida Lupino


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The Golden Age of Hollywood, regarded as the years between 1928 and 1943, was also the period in which there was only one female director working in Hollywood, and that was Dorothy Arzner. Although she never made a movie that was a complete box office and/or critical success, Arzner was respected by her male peers, and worked with some of the biggest stars of the era. But she made her last feature in 1943, after which there were no female directors working in Hollywood. Until 1949 that is…

Ida Lupino (1918-1995)

Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, USA --- Hollywood, CA: Ida Lupino directs one of the scenes from her latest picture, "Mother of a Champion." She is shown peering through the movie camera. Undated photograph. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Ida Lupino’s importance as a female director can’t be downplayed. Although she only made eight movies (two of which she didn’t receive an on-screen credit for), Lupino’s rise from studio starlet to challenging actress – at Warner Bros. she was often suspended for refusing roles she was offered – to respected director came about by a strange combination of happenstance and good/bad luck.

During the occasions when she was suspended, Lupino would spend her free time observing other directors as they worked on set, and also how movies were edited. To her it seemed as if everyone else was “doing the interesting work” on a movie while she sat around bored between takes. She learnt the basics of directing throughout the Forties, but still didn’t attempt to get a directing job. When she left Warner Bros. in 1947, it was to become a freelance artist, and while she continued to work as an actress, she and her husband, Collier Young, formed a production company called The Filmakers.

In 1949, she and Paul Jarrico collaborated on a script for the company’s first production, a (for the time) searing drama about pregnancy out of wedlock and the psychological impact on the young mother when she gives up her baby. The movie was called Not Wanted and it was to be directed by Elmer Clifton. But when Clifton suffered a heart attack part way through filming, Lupino stepped in to finish the movie (Lupino refused a screen credit out of respect for Clifton). The result was a controversial movie that drew attention to the problem of unwed mothers, garnered a huge amount of public debate, and made people aware of Lupino’s role behind the camera.

Ida Lupino 2

In the same year, Lupino co-wrote, co-produced and directed Never Fear, another drama, but this time about an aspiring dancer who contracts polio. It was a modest movie, effective in its way, and enough for the Screen Directors Guild to offer her membership in 1950, which she accepted, becoming only the second female director in its ranks (after Dorothy Arzner). Her acceptance within the industry as a director was rapid though well-deserved, and Lupino continued to make challenging social dramas that cemented her reputation and were successful both commercially and critically.

Lupino’s attraction to “difficult” subject matters was confirmed with the release of Outrage (1950), about the rape of a young woman and the problems that arise because she doesn’t tell anyone what’s happened to her. It shows Lupino still learning her craft as a director, but also growing in confidence, and her decision to tackle such a topic is entirely laudable: it’s a movie that Hollywood would never have made at the time, and which was only possible because of Lupino’s independence from the studio system. (By coincidence, Akira Kurosawa tackled the same subject, but from a different angle, in the same year’s Rashômon.)


Lupino’s next movie seemed, at first glance, to be a step back from the powerful social dramas she’d already made, but Hard, Fast and Beautiful (1951) was a deceptively intriguing look at female jealousy and longing as experienced by the mother of a tennis prodigy. It features a great performance from Claire Trevor, and shows that Lupino was entirely capable of making the subtext of a movie more interesting than the main storyline. It was also Lupino’s first time directing a movie that was written by someone else.

Lupino’s next directorial stint was filling in for Nicholas Ray when he fell ill during the filming of film noir thriller On Dangerous Ground (1951), a movie Lupino had a role in. It’s a measure of Lupino’s regard within the industry at that time that she was asked to do this, and though it’s difficult when watching the movie to work out which scenes she shot specifically, that in itself is a tribute to Lupino’s skill as a director in that she was able to mimic Ray’s idiosyncratic style of directing.

The film noir approach of On Dangerous Ground may well have prompted Lupino to seek out a similar project for her next movie as a director. If so, the result was perhaps her most well-received movie yet, the tense and menacing The Hitch-Hiker (1953). With its claustrophobic car interiors and bleak desert vistas, Lupino’s strong visual style served as a compelling background to the psychological battle occurring between fishermen Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy, and psychotic William Talman (never better). It may be a short movie, a lean seventy-one minutes, but it’s one of the most compelling crime dramas of the Fifties, and Lupino’s grip on the material is so assured that her increasing skill behind the camera can no longer be questioned.

Hitch-Hiker, The

With audiences and critics alike impressed by The Hitch-Hiker, their response to Lupino’s next movie should have been even more emphatic, but despite being widely regarded now as her masterpiece, The Bigamist (1953) was coolly received. And yet it’s a movie that addresses its subject matter head on and is still as uncompromising in its approach even today. It was a first for Lupino in that she directed herself – as the object of the main character’s bigamous relationship – but her confidence as a director ensures that each character gets the screen exposure they need. The ending is particularly impressive, and has an emotional impact that is as unexpected as it is effective.

Sadly, Lupino’s short career as an independent producer/director came to an end after The Bigamist. Budgets had always been tight, and though Lupino was always well prepared and planned ahead on all her movies, the returns on her movies weren’t enough to keep The Filmakers going. Fortunately, in 1952, Lupino had been approached by Dick Powell who had started up a television production company called Four Star Productions; he wanted her to replace Joel McCrea and Rosalind Russell after they’d dropped out. Lupino began working in television in earnest, and it wasn’t until 1966 that Lupino made what would be her final movie as a director, The Trouble With Angels. A comedy about the students at an all-girls’ school who challenge the nuns that run it (including, ironically, Rosalind Russell), the movie received a mixed to negative reaction, but viewed today holds up remarkably well. Afterwards, Lupino continued acting and directing in television until her death, and along the way took supporting roles in horror movies such as The Devil’s Rain (1975) and The Food of the Gods (1976) (as many of her contemporaries did in the Seventies).

Trouble With Angels, The

Lupino’s importance in the history of women directors is due to the fact that she did it all by herself: she founded the production company to make the movies she wanted to make, she wrote (at first) the screenplays for those movies, and she tackled topics that her male peers would have run a mile from (or just not been allowed to make). If she couldn’t completely undermine the conservative values of the time, it was enough that she challenged them and held a mirror up to some of the more uncomfortable social issues of the day. She was a tough, determined director who didn’t short change her audience, and she achieved industry and public approval on her own terms, as well as long-lasting respect. And more importantly, she helped inspire a new generation of female movie makers, a generation that would tackle many of the same issues Lupino had, and with the same sense of propriety.

Ricki and the Flash (2015)


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Ricki and the Flash

D: Jonathan Demme / 101m

Cast: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Mamie Gummer, Rick Springfield, Sebastian Stan, Nick Westrate, Audra McDonald, Hailey Gates, Ben Platt

Let’s agree to disagree (perhaps): Meryl Streep can sing… sort of. She can carry a tune, certainly, but does she have the voice to be a rock singer? Well, as it turns out, it depends very much on the song (and particularly if it’s Bruce Springsteen’s My Love Will Not Let You Down, where she doesn’t). But thanks to Diablo Cody’s poorly constructed and focus-lite screenplay, maybe that’s the point, because Ricki, Meryl’s aging rock chick character, has been playing at the same bar for years, and has only managed to release one album in all the time she’s been a musician. She’s following her muse, and has sacrificed her family to pursue said muse, but it really seems as if Ricki hasn’t realised that her muse “left the building” ages ago.

On paper, Ricki and the Flash looks appealing and fun. The idea of La Streep strapping on a guitar and rocking out alongside Rick Springfield was no doubt more than enough to get the movie greenlit, and there’s plenty of songs included for Streep to wrap her larynx around, but while these scenes are fun to watch in a straightforward, head-on kind of way, the rest of the movie hangs around them like a groupie who’s only just realising they’re at the wrong gig. (And said groupie is likely to run for the exit as soon as Streep launches into an awkward, grating version of Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance.)

Ricki and the Flash - scene

What’s confounding about the movie is that it never seems to go anywhere. We’re supposed to believe that Ricki is a long-absent mother who no longer talks to her family – ex-husband Pete (Kline), sons Josh (Stan) and Adam (Westrate), and daughter Julie (Gummer, Streep’s real-life daughter) – and whose selfish behaviour informs her every decision. But she drops everything when Pete calls to tell her that Julie’s husband has left her and it might be a good idea for Ricki to come and visit. Once she arrives, Julie is antagonistic toward her, as is Adam, though Josh, who is about to get married, is more sympathetic. With the family dynamics now firmly established, Cody’s script resolves each issue in turn with incredible non-credible ease, and does so to ensure that Streep gets to rock out again (and again… and again).

Things wouldn’t have been so bad if the various “issues” weren’t of such a poor standard that even the most desperate of soap operas would pass on them. The dialogue is just as bad, and begs the question is this really a script created by the writer of Juno (2007)? There’s a scene between Ricki and Pete’s second wife, Maureen (McDonald), that contains so many clichés – on both sides – that the viewer could be forgiven for thinking the lines were improvised and the scene was a rehearsal that somehow made it into the final cut, except you’d be convinced they could have come up with dialogue that was a lot, lot better. It’s a childish tit-for-tat exchange that neither actress can do much with, and it sits like an ugly child in the middle of a pretty girls’ photoshoot.

But it’s not just Cody’s banal script that makes it all so frustrating, it’s also Demme’s disinterest, which emanates from the director’s chair in waves. He never so much as comes close to engaging with the material, and scenes go by that are tonally flat and lacking in flair. The material is already less than exhilarating, but Demme’s approach harms the movie further, leaving it feeling like a bland TV movie. It’s left to the cast to try and inject some energy into the proceedings, and Streep is certainly game when called upon to belt out another rock staple, but the likes of Kline, Gummer and Stan aren’t given enough to do to make much of an impression.

Julie (Mamie Gummer) and Ricki (Meryl Streep) in TriStar Pictures' RICKI AND THE FLASH.

In the end the script plumps for an eye-watering feelgood ending that wraps everything up nicely and without properly resolving any of the issues it’s tried to address earlier on, such as emotional abandonment, and robs itself of any dramatic resolution. It all ends with yet another excuse to put Streep behind the mike, and features a wedding party that seems to be made up entirely of professional dancers.

Rating: 4/10 – aimless, pointless, dreary, lifeless, meandering, ill-focused – all these are apt descriptions of Ricki and the Flash, a movie that never provides the viewer with a plausible reason for its existence; Streep somehow manages to hold it all together, but this is still a movie that wastes the talents of its cast, and suffers endlessly thanks to its wayward script and Demme’s absentee direction.

For One Week Only: Women Directors – 1. Dorothy Arzner


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Later than advertised (and now running from 5-11 November 2015), this edition of For One Week Only is going to focus on women directors.


Women have been directing movies since the very beginnings of cinema. In 1896, Frenchwoman Alice Guy made what is regarded as the first movie directed by a woman, La fée aux choux (The Cabbage Fairy). It’s not the most sophisticated of early silents, and only lasts a minute, but it does go some way to proving that it wasn’t entirely a man’s world at the end of the 19th century. Guy went on to have a prolific career as a director: between 1896 and 1920 she made a staggering 430 movies.

During the silent era there were many other “firsts” involving women directors, from Lois Weber’s being the highest-paid female director of the silent era – $5000 a week – to actresses such as Cleo Madison and Grace Cunard finding as much or more success behind the camera than they did in front of it. And the world’s first full-length animated feature, Die Geschichte des Prinzen Achmed (The Adventures of Prince Achmed), made in 1926, was directed by Germany’s Lotte Reiniger. But with the advent of the Talkies, women’s involvement in directing – in the US at least – began to lessen, although by coincidence, there was one woman who managed to buck the trend and carved out a career that included a significant number of achievements.

Dorothy Arzner (1897-1979)

Dorothy Arzner

It’s ironic looking back over Dorothy Arzner’s life and career that she had a connection to Hollywood from quite a young age. Her parents ran a café in Los Angeles that was frequented by such movie luminaries as Charles Chaplin, William S. Hart and Erich von Stroheim, and Dorothy worked there as a waitress. But her ambition lay in the medical profession and she enrolled in a pre-med programme after graduating from high school; during World War I she served as an ambulance driver.

Once hostilities had ceased, Arzner changed tack and got a job working for a newspaper. There she was introduced to William C. DeMille – Cecil’s brother – and landed a job as a stenographer at Famous Players-Lasky (the forerunner of Paramount Pictures). Having become very interested in working in the movies, Arzner began to amass as much knowledge as she could and she soon became a script writer, as well as an editor. Between 1919 and 1926 she worked on eight features as a screen writer, and eight features as an editor, including uncredited duties in both capacities on James Cruze’s Old Ironsides (1926). So good was her work that she was the first person of either gender to receive an on-screen credit as an editor.

Old Ironsides

Her ambition though was to become a director, and in 1927 she made her first feature, Fashions for Women, a drama about a cigarette girl played by Esther Ralston who falls in love with a count while finding success as a model. It was a rather innocuous start to her career as a director but did well enough for her to tackle two more movies that year, Ten Modern Commandments, a romantic comedy-drama that also featured Ralston, and Get Your Man, a romantic comedy set in Paris that starred Clara Bow. But it was Manhattan Cocktail (1928) that was to be the second of many “firsts” that Arzner would achieve in her career, as she became the first female to direct a sound feature (albeit a part-talkie).

Reuniting with Bow for The Wild Party (1929), Arzner found her star struggling with the demands of making her first talkie, and specifically the microphones that were being used. In order to accommodate and reassure her star, Arzner came up with what was, for then, a unique solution: she devised the industry’s first boom mike so that Bow could move around unhampered by having to be near a microphone.

Wild Party, The

As her career continued into the Thirties, Arzner made a number of moderately successful pre-Code movies, and worked with a variety of Paramount stars, such as Claudette Colbert, Pat O’Brien, Ginger Rogers, Fredric March, Ruth Chatterton, Paul Lukas, Sylvia Sidney, and a young Cary Grant. But as Paramount’s fortunes suffered due to the Depression, and the company insisted on pay cuts across the board, Arzner became a freelance director and was quickly snapped up by RKO to direct Christopher Strong (1933). The movie starred Katharine Hepburn and the two didn’t get along, so much so that Hepburn complained about Arzner to the studio; wisely, RKO backed their director.

Despite the animosity between the two women the movie was a critical, if not financial, success, and Arzner moved on to Nana (1934), a vanity project for Anna Sten, a Russian actress being promoted by Samuel Goldwyn. Alas the movie was a flop, and it wasn’t until 1936 that Arzner made another picture, the well-received and critically lauded Craig’s Wife, starring Rosalind Russell. Also that year, Arzner was the first woman to be enrolled into the recently formed Screen Directors Guild; for many years afterward she would remain the only woman in the Guild until Ida Lupino joined in 1950.

Craig's Wife

1937 saw Arzner work with and establish a close friendship with Joan Crawford, firstly providing uncredited direction on The Last of Mrs Cheyney, and then directing the star in that same year’s rags-to-riches tale The Bride Wore Red. Both movies were successful with audiences, but Arzner was unable to secure another picture until 1940 and the romantic drama Dance, Girl, Dance. Though it was a critical and commercial failure at the time, the movie underwent a re-evaluation in the 1970’s and is now regarded as one of Arzner’s more intriguing and important movies and as an early example of female empowerment. Three years later, Arzner made her last feature, the wartime drama First Comes Courage, an exercise in propaganda that featured the clearly Scandinavian Merle Oberon as a resistance fighter torn between Nazi Carl Esmond and Brit Brian Aherne.

Arzner turned her attention to the war effort after that, and made several training movies for the Women’s Army Corps. After the war she decided to work in television, making documentaries and commercials until the 1950’s when she became a filmmaking teacher. She first taught at the Pasadena Playhouse before moving to UCLA in the Sixties (one of her pupils was Francis Ford Coppola). She stayed there until her death in 1979.

Even though Dorothy Arzner was the most well-known female director working in Hollywood during its so-called Golden Age, the late Twenties through to the early Forties, she was also the only female director working in Hollywood during that time. She made movies that featured strong female heroines, and she found ways of including some of her feminist beliefs in the movies she made, slyly and with style. She also had a unique visual approach to the material she directed, and if you watch her movies today there’s a freshness about them that separates them from the otherwise formulaic movies being made at the time.

Arzner fought her way up from the bottom, and refused to be intimidated by the phallocentric system she worked in. She occupied a unenviable position in Hollywood, both as a woman and as a lesbian, but did so without compromising those values she felt strongly about. That she chose to give up directing movies after World War II is a cause for disappointment; it would have been interesting to see what she made of the role of women in the post-War era. But perhaps she’d had enough of being the only woman in such a male-dominated industry. After all, she did have this to say: “When I went to work in a studio, I took my pride and made a nice little ball of it and threw it right out the window.”

Dorothy Arzner 2

SuperBob (2015)


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D: Jon Drever / 82m

Cast: Brett Goldstein, Natalia Tena, Catherine Tate, Laura Haddock, Ruth Sheen, David Harewood, Ricky Grover, Christian Contreras, Martin McDougall

First brought to life in a three-minute short in 2009, SuperBob has been expanded to feature length movie proportions, and where some shorts should always remain as they are, here the team of writer/director Drever and writer/star Goldstein have spent the intervening years wisely avoiding the pitfalls of “going large”, and have crafted a low budget British superhero movie that is really a sweet-natured romantic comedy.

Bob (Goldstein) is a postman whose dull, ordinary life is changed forever when he’s struck by a meteorite in the middle of a park in Peckham. Quickly claimed by the British Ministry of Defence as their primary asset in emergency situations, and regarded by the jealous Americans as an uncontrollable weapon, Bob is given into the care of MoD bigwig Theresa (Tate), who manages his missions and oversees his private life as well. He has his own (completely unnecessary) security guard, Barry (Grover), and a cleaner, Dorris (Tena) who is from Colombia.

Six years on from being struck by the meteorite, Theresa decides it’s about time that the public see that Bob is actually pretty normal. She hires a documentary film crew to interview Bob and follow him around. Through this device we discover that Bob is a lonely, socially awkward man who has the support (of most) of his local community, but who is yearning to be loved. He is about to go on a date with local librarian June (Haddock) when Theresa hijacks him for a publicity shoot with US Senator Jackson (McDougall). Torn between wanting to go on his date and his sense of duty to the MoD, Bob’s hesitation is made harder to resolve by Dorris’s telling him he should say No more often.

Right about now viewers will probably be expecting SuperBob to become the tale of an affable, easily-swayed superhero who learns to stand up for himself and becomes his own man. And you’d be right. But it’s the way in which he achieves all this that makes the movie so charming and enjoyable. For instead of having Bob flex his muscles and take on hordes of special ops soldiers as they try to bring him back in line, Bob’s search for true love and someone “to shine his shoes with” (an unusual but lovely line retained from the short), takes centre stage.

SuperBob - scene

There’ll be no prizes for guessing just who it is that Bob realises he’s in love with, nor given that he’s inadvertently called her a whore earlier in the movie, that they’ll still end up together. But even though SuperBob follows the dictates of romantic comedies with enthusiasm, it does so with a freshness and a charm (yes, it’s that word again – it’s hard to avoid) that paints a wide grin on the viewer’s face and dares them to wipe it off. There’s a scene at the care home where Bob’s mother, Pat (Sheen), resides that is so simply and yet so effectively done that its very simplicity is to be applauded. Make no mistake, this may be a superhero movie on the surface, but underneath that enticing facade, this is a movie that is one of the most effortlessly romantic comedies of this or any other recent year.

It’s also deceptively and continuously funny, with Bob’s shy, awkward personality proving a winner in the Wildly Inappropriate Public Speaking category (his idea of congratulating a couple celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary is both cringeworthy and hilarious at the same time). And like all the best socially awkward people, Bob often gets things completely and utterly wrong, like the local gospel choir he joins each week; he’s so pleased when their rehearsal ends early, his crestfallen face when he hears them start up again – though entirely predictable – is still a cause for sadness and mirth in equal measure. It’s at moments like these, when Bob’s naturally optimistic disposition is dented that Goldstein is at his most effective, his smiling features slackening for a few seconds, his disappointment registering for just a moment until he regains a grip on that positive attitude. (And this is without mentioning some great visual gags.)

Drever orchestrates it all with a simplicity that matches the needs of the script, and he is very adept at ringing out the pathos of Bob’s situation without resorting to overstating it. He’s helped by a terrific performance by Goldstein that is best exemplified by the moment when Bob finds himself ordered away from the scene of a bad traffic accident (Theresa insists he only goes on MoD-sanctioned missions). It’s the movie’s most dramatic scene, and could have felt out-of-place, but Drever uses it to show the frustration that we would all feel in such circumstances, and the devastating effect it has on Bob.

SuperBob - scene2

Tate provides solid support in the role of overbearing beauracrat Theresa, relishing her tough-as-nails personality and commitment to keeping Bob as a British asset. Tena is abrasive and vulnerable as Dorris, while Haddock goes from playfully besotted to hopelessly obsessive in the space of a few minutes. Sheen portrays Bob’s embarrassing mother with a twinkle in her eye, and Harewood pops up throughout as a newscaster following the story of Bob’s (UN sanctioned) day off. And there’s a great little cameo from the comedian Joe Wilkinson who is probably the person least impressed by Bob’s powers.

The movie does have its flaws, but most of them are entirely forgivable, such as a few of Bob’s means-well utterances that are too contrived to work properly. The idea that Bob is being followed around by a documentary film crew soon becomes hit and miss due to the needs of the script, and the whole subplot involving US fears that Bob is uncontrollable seems shoehorned in to add some drama to the proceedings, but it’s not really needed. And the tight budget means that the visuals don’t always look as sharp as they need to. But again, these are minor problems in a movie that has so much going on that works, that it seems churlish to mention them.

Rating: 8/10 – an unabashed gem of a movie, SuperBob is a delight from start to finish, and features a great romantic thread that anchors the movie and its characters with formidable ease; a superhero movie with a tremendous difference then, and one that can be highly recommended as a refreshing antidote to the bloated offerings available elsewhere.

The Last Witch Hunter (2015)


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Last Witch Hunter, The

D: Breck Eisner / 106m

Cast: Vin Diesel, Rose Leslie, Elijah Wood, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Michael Caine, Julie Engelbrecht, Joseph Gilgun, Isaach De Bankolé, Rena Owen

The fantasy-horror movie has been less than entertaining in recent years, what with Van Helsing (2004), the Underworld series (2003-2012), and I, Frankenstein (2014) showing just how it shouldn’t be done. And yet despite these weary efforts we now have The Last Witch Hunter, a movie that remains as jumbled and ineffectual as its genre predecessors. It’s a project that began life as a featured screenplay in the 2010 Blacklist, and was originally set to be directed by Timur Bekmambetov back in 2012. But those plans fell through, and with the project being championed by Vin Diesel (an avid fan of fantasy role playing games), it made it into production once its star was free after the interrupted filming of Furious 7 (2015).

If the movie proves anything, it’s that scripts on the Blacklist aren’t always filmed as written – the original script by Cory Goodman was rewritten by Dante Harper and Melissa Walack before Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless finally ended up with the on-screen credit. Well, gentlemen, don’t be so proud, because if Goodman’s original script was really that good, then let’s make it clear: you guys went and ruined it.

It’s a movie that remains frustratingly remote from its audience throughout, and which fails to make its witchcraft-plunging-the-world-into-darkness storyline and plot even halfway exciting or dramatic. It’s a lot more serious than most, and not as po-faced as some of its competitors, but aside from one terrific joke involving a selfie, this is dour stuff that takes the end of the world as we know it and manages to make it about as threatening as flipping a pancake. And no matter how much Diesel glowers and frets, and no matter how much Ólafsson speaks of the world swallowed up by doom, we all know that whatever happens, Leslie is probably going to be the best bet for helping Kaulder – Diesel’s character – as he fights to discover who tried to kill his mentor and friend Father Dolan (Caine). (Oh, and we can be fairly certain that one character will prove to be less than they appear.)

Last Witch Hunter, The - scene

Fantasy movies have a tough time now, what with the likes of Game of Thrones showing just how it can, and should, be done, and Diesel’s pet project suffers in much the same way as others of its ilk have done: in trying to set their bizarre plots and outlandish characters against the recognisable backdrop of modern times, they then go and wilfully ignore that backdrop in favour of elaborate special effects sequences where anything goes, and where any carefully established grounding in the here and now is catapulted right out of the narrative. If you’re going to have a showdown between good and evil, don’t hide it away in dingy basements or abandoned churches, where the viewer can ogle the impressive art direction or set design, but have it right out in the open: make magic a shocking, but real part of our daily existence (part of the fun of Ghost Busters (1984) is that everyone in New York sees the Stay-Puft Man).

And then there’s the plot itself, which sees Diesel’s barbarian warrior and his pals take on the Witch Queen (Engelbrecht) in pre-medieval times, only for them to fall one by one until it’s left to Kaulder to save the day. But in doing so she curses him to immortality – and provides a handy way for her to be resurrected in the future. And therein lies the movie’s first problem: Kaulder isn’t the last witch hunter, he’s the only witch hunter. But put that aside and then we have another problem: why is it that it always takes so long for the villain of the piece to be able to make a comeback? Here it’s eight hundred years, during which time Kaulder has played policeman in the witch community, and everything is predictably hunky dory (it all has something to do with the Witch Queen’s heart, which apparently, can still beat long after she’s dead – obviously).

Last Witch Hunter, The - scene2

Tasked to “Remember your death” by Father Dolan in the form of a handy clue made while he was being killed, Kaulder can’t just cast his mind back and remember it for himself. Instead he has to enlist the aid of a witch, the conveniently to hand Chloe (Leslie) who has to concoct a potion that will allow him to re-experience that fateful moment. Only that just leads to the next problem: he didn’t die, so why all this rigmarole? Could it be that old screenwriter’s fallback, padding? Or is it just a poorly conceived idea that nobody could fix during shooting (or wanted to)? There’s lots more that doesn’t add up or make sense, and it all goes to reinforce the idea that when it comes to fantasy, as long as the movie looks good – and The Last Witch Hunter does look good – then the story and the dialogue can be as ridiculous as it wants.

With a sequel already in pre-production, and despite a lukewarm reception at the box office, it’s clear that this is an attempt by Diesel to kick-start another franchise he can head up. But while he may be committed to telling further tales as Kaulder, he might just find, based on this “opener”, that not everyone will be as willing to follow him on that particular journey as they are when he gets behind a muscle car and trades macho stares with Dwayne Johnson.

Rating: 5/10 – genre conventions abound in this absurdly watchable yet majorly disappointing piece of fantasy, that at least sees its star smile more in one movie than he’s done in five (and a bit) Fast & Furious outings; derivative and lacking in real purpose, The Last Witch Hunter has neither the style nor the wit to help itself stand out from an already dispiriting crowd.

Monthly Roundup – October 2015


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It’s been a pretty quiet month, so only a few movies make the roundup.

The First Great Train Robbery (1979) / D: Michael Crichton / 110m

Cast: Sean Connery, Donald Sutherland, Lesley-Anne Down, Alan Webb, Malcolm Terris, Robert Lang, Michael Elphick, Wayne Sleep, Pamela Salem, Gabrielle Lloyd

Rating: 7/10 – in Victorian England, master criminal Pierce (Connery) recruits a motley gang of criminals (including Sutherland’s dandy pickpocket) to pull off an audacious heist: the robbery of gold bullion from a moving train; Crichton adapts his own novel with wit and style, and even though he finds himself hampered by budgetary restrictions, still manages to make The First Great Train Robbery an enjoyable, if predictable, diversion.

First Great Train Robbery, The

The Scarlet Clue (1945) / D: Phil Rosen / 65m

Cast: Sidney Toler, Mantan Moreland, Ben Carter, Benson Fong, Virginia Brissac, Robert Homans, Jack Norton, I. Stanford Jolley, Janet Shaw

Rating: 5/10 – murder and espionage are the order of the day for Charlie Chan (Toler) as he investigates criminal goings-on in a building that houses both a radio station and a science laboratory (which are, of course, connected); not one of the Oriental detective’s better outings but still possessed of an admirable energy, The Scarlet Clue has a meandering script but it’s offset by good performances (though Toler does look tired) and better-than-average injections of humour.

Scarlet Clue, The

Gutshot Straight (2014) / D: Justin Steele / 89m

aka: Gutshot

Cast: George Eads, AnnaLynne McCord, Stephen Lang, Ted Levine, Steven Seagal, Vinnie Jones, Tia Carrere, Fiona Dourif

Rating: 4/10 – when Las Vegas-based gambler Jack (Eads) meets fellow gambler Duffy (Lang) he finds himself entangled in a web of murder and deceit centred around Duffy’s wife, May (McCord); boasting a half-decent performance by Seagal, this vanity project for Eads signposts its clunky plot developments with all the finesse of a punch to the face, and never finds a way of overcoming its star’s shortcomings as an actor.

Gutshot Straight

Oh! the Horror! – Old 37 (2015) and Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (2015)


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Old 37

Old 37 (2015) / D: Alan Smithee / 80m

Cast: Kane Hodder, Bill Moseley, Caitlin Harris, Olivia Alexander, Brandi Cyrus, Margaret Keane Williams, Robert Bogue, Sascha Knopf, Jake Robinson, Devon Spence, Kenneth Simmons, Catherine Blades

Anyone who read my review of The Vatican Tapes (2015) will, hopefully, remember my comment that “watching contemporary horror movies is a pastime perfectly suited for the unabashed masochist”. Having now watched Old 37 in the same week, I feel I ought to count myself as one of those armchair hopefuls, and the trauma of having seen two dreadful horror movies just days apart is prompting me to rethink seeing any more of them in the foreseeable future.

By now you’ll have guessed that Old 37 is pretty bad, but that description is just skimming the surface of how awful it all is. One very big clue is the name of the credited director, Alan Smithee, the pseudonym directors use when they no longer want their names attached to the movies they’ve made (directors who’ve done this include Dennis Hopper, Arthur Hiller, Rick Rosenthal and Stuart Rosenberg, and it’s the regular name used by Michael Mann when his movies are edited for TV). Here, the unhappy director in question is Christian Winters, and it doesn’t take long for the viewer to realise he made exactly the right choice.

From its opening in 1977 with bogus paramedic Jimmy (Simmons) being watched by his two young sons, Darryl and Jon Roy, as he kills the female victim of a road accident and then licks the blood from one of her wounds, to its modern day setting and close look at the life of teen Amy and her “friends”, who like nothing more than getting themselves involved in road accidents where someone dies and they refuse to take any responsibility, Old 37 takes so many left turns and diversions in its attempt to tell a coherent story that most viewers will probably give up trying to follow the “narrative” quite early on. The script, by Paul Travers and Joe Landes (and based on a dream Travers had), is frankly, a hodgepodge of scenes that barely connect with each other, and which at times can have no other reason for being there other than to pad out the otherwise meagre running time.

Old 37 - scene

It’s too ludicrous in too many places, from the subplot involving Amy’s breast enlargement, where she appears to have the operation and leave the hospital on the same day (and in a tight-fitting top), to the adult Jon Roy (Hodder) wearing a mask over his lower face to hide a disfigurement, one that, when revealed, makes him look more goofy than horrific. One of the characters is burnt alive but makes a comeback later on, Amy’s mother proves to have an “inappropriate” boyfriend, the idea of “Old 37” is abandoned in favour of a revenge plot, and any attempts at credibility are suffocated at birth. The acting is atrocious, with special mention going to Moseley, who can’t inject menace into any of the threats Darryl makes, and Alexander as the acid-tongued Brooke, a role that grates from the moment the actress tries for bitchy but ends up as merely petulant.

Rating: 2/10 – with so many unforced errors in the script, and what remains proving the result of very poor judgment on the writers’ part, Old 37 is horrific for all the wrong reasons, and isn’t helped by some very poor performances; a waste of everyone’s time, and best avoided by anyone who’s even halfway considering watching this – no, really, avoid it.

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (2015) / D: Christopher Landon / 93m

Cast: Tye Sheridan, Logan Miller, Joey Morgan, Sarah Dumont, Halston Sage, David Koechner, Cloris Leachman, Lukas Gage, Niki Koss

With Old 37 reinforcing the idea that low budget horror movies should be avoided at all costs (but not all of them, of course), it’s with a great deal of relief that Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse shows just how good a low budget horror movie can be. The difference? Well, actually, there are several. Here, the story – simple as it is – makes sense most of the time, and what narrative inconsistencies there are, aren’t so bad that they hurt the movie or bring the viewer up short. The performances are solid, and there’s a great sense of camaraderie between Sheridan, Miller and Morgan (and Dumont as well) that gives the movie an emotional core that isn’t always found in such movies. And Landon doesn’t allow the absurdity of the storyline to overwhelm the dramatic elements, keeping the more fanciful or gross out moments sufficiently in check (the trampoline sequence is a great case in point).

By mixing absurdist humour with lashings of latex and well-integrated CGI gore, the script – by Carrie Evans, Emi Mochizuki, and Landon – strikes a delicate balance between the two, as well as including a handful of heartfelt moments to offset the seriousness of the group’s predicament. It’s this “human focus” that aids the movie tremendously, and keeps the viewer rooting for the scouts and their stripper – sorry, cocktail waitress – comrade. There’s also the ongoing fate of their scout leader, played by Koechner, a dogged, determined man for whom the real downside of being a zombie is that he has even less respect than when he was alive/human.

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse - scene

While the quartet try to find the whereabouts of a secret party that Ben’s not-so secret crush (Sage) has gone to, the zombie hordes increase and in amongst the head blasting and the physical humour there are some nice visual flourishes, like the signpost that says Haddonfield is forty miles away, or the zombie whose T-shirt says YOLO. It’s little moments like these that add to the innate fun of the situation, and if you’re not amused by the idea of zombie cats (see above), then this really isn’t the movie for you.

The movie treads this fine line because between comedy and horror with relative ease (though some one-liners fall flat), and as the stakes increase for our merit badge warriors, the movie sees fit to put them increasingly in harms way, and to the point where you begin to suspect that one of them might not make it through either intact or alive. And when Augie (Morgan) reveals he’s put together a homemade bomb (“What are you, the Taliban?”), it’s at a point in the movie where a sacrifice wouldn’t be unexpected, and where the idea of only two of them getting out alive begins to hold some caché. Landon is good at this kind of narrative uncertainty, and gets the most out of both the script and the cast in these moments (though not forgetting that these kids are virgins, and when do virgins ever die in horror movies, 2000’s Cherry Falls aside, that is).

For sheer unadulterated, occasionally sophomoric humour, the movie is a clever twist on an old formula, and it gives its teen cast more than enough chances to shine, and each of them does. Sheridan is on winning form as the nerdy looking Ben, and Miller is suitably abrasive as the self-centred, selfie-obsessed Carter. But it’s Morgan as the dedicated scout Augie who steals the show, his often wide-eyed and wondering features perfectly suited for the outlandish exploits he and his fellow scouts find themselves involved in. And praise too for Dumont, who despite being garbed in cut-down shorts and bust-enhancing top, sidesteps any accusations of sexism by making her character, Denise, easily more ballsy than any of her male comrades.

Rating: 7/10 – a hugely enjoyable horror comedy that delivers pretty much throughout, Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse has enough charm and low budget panache to meet the needs of genre fans everywhere; packed with moments to make you smile and go “Wow!” (and often at the same time), this is one horror treat that deserves cult status and to be a big hit on home video.

Preview: For One Week Only 2 – 8 November 2015


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In the October issue of UK movie magazine Sight & Sound, the feature article was entitled, The Female Gaze: 100 Overlooked Films Directed by Women. In the article’s introduction, Isabel Stevens asks the question, “Other than decrying the status quo and highlighting and critiquing new films by female directors, what can a film magazine do?” The answer is to shed light on a variety of movies made by women directors and to reinforce the notion that they were and are just as capable as their male counterparts of making intelligent, thought-provoking, and entertaining movies on a wide variety of subjects.

Lois Weber

In recognition of this, and over the coming week, thedullwoodexperiment will be looking at some of the movies on the Sight & Sound list, and celebrating the contribution that women directors have made since those groundbreaking days of 1896. In the meantime you may want to look at the reviews of the movies directed by women that are already on the site, women such as:

Sima UraleMargot BenacerrafAllison BurnettEllie KannerJennifer KentAmma AsanteKimberly PeirceLaura PoitrasStacie PassonCarol MorleySam Taylor-JohnsonMadonnaJennifer LeeAna Lily AmirpourRebecca JohnsonSusan SeidelmanLois WeberLake Bell, Courteney Cox, Lynn Shelton, Megan Griffiths, Karen Leigh Hopkins, Sara St. Onge, Gillian Robespierre, Jane Anderson, Gren Wells, Jen & Sylvia Soska, Clio Barnard, Susanne Bier, Laura Lau, Caryn Waechter, Annette K. Olesen, Maggie Carey, Vivian Qu, Karen Moncrieff, Angelina Jolie, Marjane Satrapi, Haifaa Al-Mansour, Shira Piven, Jocelyn Towne, Crystal Moselle, and Lauren Montgomery.

Angelina Jolie

thedullwoodexperiment – Two Years On


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Today thedullwoodexperiment is two years old.


It still comes as a surprise to me that I get to do this (most) every day, and that I get the visits and feedback that I do, just by writing about what I love most: the movies. Even when a movie is a real stinker, it’s still an enjoyable feeling to be able to put my thoughts about such debacles out there, and alongside the movies that really work.

I’ve got several ideas and plans for Year Three, including the return of Poster of the Week (though in a slightly different format), the return of Zatoichi (my apologies for not having continued the series as originally planned), further installments of For One Week Only, and several other ideas that will remain under wraps for now. Reviews will continue to be the focus, but I aim to increase the amount of non-review posts as well.

As always I’m open to suggestions about which movies should be reviewed or included, and if anyone wants to see something specific under the For One Week Only banner, feel free to let me know. Any and all feedback will be gratefully received. Now, what can I watch next…?

Trailer – Don Verdean (2015)


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Good (really good) comedies are thin on the ground these days, and although the latest from Jared Hess – Napoleon Dynamite (2004), Nacho Libre (2006) – does look a little rough around the edges, there’s enough potential seen in the trailer to warrant a good degree of anticipation. The movie’s tale of religious oneupmanship and archaeological fraud is certainly ripe for laughs, and the presence of Rockwell in the title role bodes well, but this will be down to Hess and whether or not his script (co-written by his wife Jerusha) is as finely crafted as Napoleon Dynamite was, and if it can steer clear of being more farce than parody. If so, then with a bit of (divine?) luck it could be a breath of fresh air in an otherwise currently stale genre.

The Vatican Tapes (2015)


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Vatican Tapes, The

D: Mark Neveldine / 91m

Olivia Taylor Dudley, Michael Peña, Dougray Scott, Peter Andersson, John Patrick Amedori, Kathleen Robinson, Djimon Hounsou, Michael Paré, Cas Anvar, Alex Sparrow

Watching contemporary horror movies is a pastime perfectly suited for the unabashed masochist, someone who will continuously, regularly put themselves through all kinds of cinematic detritus in the hope of finding that rare beast: the above average horror movie. It’s a calling, a passion if you like, and there are plenty of people who will settle down to watch ultra-low budget efforts such as Silverhide (2015) or franchise dregs like Hellraiser: Revelations (2011) in the certain knowledge that they’ll be wasting their time and afterwards, will be wondering why on earth they watched said travesty in the first place – what was I thinking?

While such perseverance might be commended (or just marvelled at), the fact is that ultra-low budget horror movies are generally rubbish, and franchise entries are a dreadful infringement on our time and patience. But there’s a third kind of horror movie that endures today despite its commitment to shocking dialogue and nonsensical plotting, to vague characterisations and unconvincing acting. It’s the kind of horror movie that paints itself in respectability by having well-known actors in key roles, and by splashing a little more cash than usual. These movies also manage to find their way to our cinema screens – they actually open – and they work as stand alone movies that may or may not develop into franchises. But – and this is the most important point to be made about these movies – they’re still rubbish, they’re just made by people who really should know better.

And after that cycnical preamble, we come to The Vatican Tapes, a movie so blind to its many irritating, mind-bending faults that it becomes a struggle to get through after the first few minutes, and where any efforts to improve on its tortured storyline and disastrous plotting have apparently been strangled at the preconception stage. It’s a movie that can’t decide whether it’s an exorcism tale, all about the rise of the Antichrist, or religious paranoia (though it tries to be all three at once). It’s the kind of movie experience that makes you want to do what one character does, and drive broken lightbulbs into your eyes so that you don’t have to watch any more.

Vatican Tapes, The - scene1

Going into a movie like this, there’s often the idea that because of the cast (who must know a good project when they see one, they’re all experienced actors, after all), the finished product will have an edge over the more bog-standard, predictable horror movies out there. And surely the producers wouldn’t have been able to attract such a cast with a dodgy script and a director with no clear idea of what he’s doing? Surely they wouldn’t have been able to do that, right? Wrong! Most actors go where the money or the work is, and sometimes all they can do is take the money, make the movie, and then pray that no one ever sees it.

Here we have Messrs Peña, Scott, Andersson and Hounsou all looking uncomfortable, embarrassed, and itching to get through their scenes as quickly as possible. Not one of them manages to attain any degree of credibility in their roles, and not one of them feels like they were cast in the right role. Of the four, Peña looks the most awkward, playing a priest, Father Lozano, who’s always in the wrong place at the right time, and who is the first to suspect that normally sweet-natured Angela (Dudley) is possessed by a demon. As the tortuous story continues, Peña hovers at the edge of group scenes with the air of a man hoping he could just take one more step to the left or right and then he’d be out of shot altogether. And Scott’s performance as a hard-nosed Army veteran and father of the possessed is staggeringly bad, with the scene where he describes his relationship with Angela’s mother rendered laughable thanks to the absurdity of the dialogue created by Michael C. Martin and Christopher Borelli, and Scott’s hamfisted attempt at sincerity.

The story itself doesn’t make any sense, and varies in intention from scene to scene. Angela becomes possessed but is it through cutting her finger, or the subsequent attack by a crow on a bus, or while she stays in a coma for forty days (one of the more spurious connections with Jesus the movie makes on Angela’s behalf)? Ultimately it doesn’t matter because once the exorcism – conducted by Vatican honcho Cardinal Bruun (Andersson) and abetted by Lozano – gets under way, the focus switches from casting out a pesky demon to battling for Angela’s soul against an incarnation of the Antichrist who just so happens to have possessed Bruun when he was twelve.

Vatican Tapes, The - scene2

By now, the absurdity of the story will have become so apparent, all the hapless viewer can do is continue watching just to see if the movie can become even more absurd – which it manages with ease (the Antichrist as media darling, anyone?). It doesn’t help that the movie’s director, Mark Neveldine, has less than a firm grasp on the “dramatics” of the story, and instead concentrates on the visuals. However he doesn’t bring anything new to proceedings, leaving the movie looking like an homage to all the other recent horror movies that have traded on bleached out vistas and a jagged editing style overlaid with an effects heavy soundtrack that deadens the atmosphere and soon becomes annoying. And it remains resolutely scare-free.

In a less conservative era, comedians would tell jokes that began “My wife’s so fat…” A modern day equivalent in this instance might begin with “This movie’s so bad…” and end with “it makes Nicolas Cage’s recent career choices look like worthy Oscar winners.” Or, “this movie’s so bad… it’s the only thing that can take my mind off of how fat my wife is.” It’s simply a terrible movie and unless you’re one of those unabashed masochists mentioned at the top of the review, should be avoided at all costs.

Rating: 2/10 – dire doesn’t even begin to describe just how ridiculously awful The Vatican Tapes is; it’s yet another horror movie made by people who have no clue what they’re doing and who just don’t seem to care if the audience likes it or not.

Lost for Life (2013) – Another Look


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Lost for Life

On 7 August 2014 I posted a review of the documentary, Lost for Life. It was a movie that I’d discovered by accident, but it looked interesting, and the subject matter – a look at five teen killers and whether they should be forgiven for their homicidal actions – was certainly compelling. I watched the movie and found it both horrific and uplifting in equal measure.

Over time, Lost for Life has become thedullwoodexperiment‘s most viewed post. It’s also the post I’ve had the most feedback about. A lot of that feedback has concerned Jacob Ind (see picture below), whose story makes up the second part of the movie. Along with his brother Charles, Jacob was regularly abused by his mother and stepfather, both physically and emotionally, and he had nursed ideas of killing them for two or three years before they were murdered. His defenders state that his actions were the result of the abuse he’d suffered, but what helps to muddy the waters for anyone paying even the slightest attention to Jacob’s case, is his decision to persuade a classmate, Gabrial Adams to kill his parents for him (and for $2,000 Jacob didn’t have). A loner, Adams botched the job, and Jacob took over from him, successfully shooting and killing Pamela and Kermode Jordan.

In my review, I said that there was “something not quite right about his responses and the moments when he closes his eyes – which happen quite a lot – it’s as if he’s reliving the memories of killing his mother and stepfather”. Having watched the movie again, I still have that same feeling, that Jacob is so divorced from the concepts of personal responsibility and guilt that it’s all a puzzle to him – and one he has no interest in trying to decipher. Looking further into all the surrounding arguments I found a quote made by Jacob after the killings: “I thought that when they were gone, my whole world was going to be better. I thought all the weight was going to be off my shoulders, all the misery would be gone. But it wasn’t, and I said, ‘Man, I screwed up.'” Reading this, it’s not hard to think that Jacob’s only regret is that he didn’t get away with it.

Jacob Ind

The person I most felt sorry for was Josiah Ivy (see picture below), an abused teenager whose level of disconnection from those around him prompted him to kill two strangers “just to see what it felt like”. Josiah suffered abuse as a child, but where Jacob Ind looks unfazed and unconcerned by his crime, Josiah looks adrift in his own mind, a victim of mental ill health who’ll never quite manage to acclimatise to society (even if by some miracle he’s ever allowed out). Josiah, like Jacob and co-murderers Brian Lee Draper and Torey Adamczik, has an awareness of the magnitude of what he’s done, but it seems so overwhelming to him he doesn’t know how to properly express himself.

Josiah Ivy

Of course, the question of individual responsibility is one the movie tackles throughout, and whether or not the teen killers in question were cognisant of what they were doing at the time. Some commentators argue that teenage minds aren’t as sharply defined in their thinking as an adult’s, but to me that’s a specious argument; everyone learns from an early age that it’s wrong to kill someone, but it’s an awareness that means nothing when placed up against a greater driver: that person’s level of self-interest. Aside from the final story involving ex-gang member Sean Taylor, whose random firing of a gun led to the death of a rival gang member, these are all stories of teens who deliberately set out to kill someone: random strangers, a friend, family members. You could argue that the victims were “convenient”, such was their murderers’ feelings about them at the time, and such was the brutality levelled at them. The question isn’t whether or not we should feel sorry for them – clearly the answer is No – nor is it whether they should be given a second chance as adults. The real question is how can we stop these types of killings from happening again.

Murder in any form is abhorrent, but what Joshua Rofé’s thought-provoking movie also does is to make the viewer doubt whether or not murder is ever so clear-cut. By focusing on three such horrific cases – Taylor’s story acts as a necessary rebuttal to the idea that rehabilitation is a waste of time – the movie broaches the possibility that murder can be understood and forgiven, even murders as heinous as the ones recorded here. This is true, but it’s down to the individual to decide, and is a brave choice to make with such an emotive issue. This is why the participation of Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins and Sharletta Evans is so important: without them (and Taylor) the movie would be unremittingly bleak, and wouldn’t fairly reflect the ways in which the human spirit can overcome the darkness that often blights people’s lives (it’s all about personal empowerment, but that’s a whole different movie).

At this moment in time, Draper, Adamczik, Ind and Ivy are all still in prison, and all still living out their very steep sentences. Ind’s accomplice, Gabrial Adams committed suicide in prison in March 2014, while the families of the victims still struggle to come to terms with what happened to their loved ones, and why. But again, the why is the easy bit: it’s because Draper, Adamczik, Ind and Ivy all wanted to do what they did. For the underlying reasons that drove them to murder, well, those are things we’re never likely to know for definite – but it would be fascinating if we did.

Brian Lee Draper

10 Reasons to Remember Maureen O’Hara (1920-2015)


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One of the very few actresses who could hold their own in a scene with John Wayne (she also once said she made him sexy), Irish-born Maureen O’Hara had an earthy sexuality about her that the camera captured every time, and who made a succession of high quality movies from the very start of her career. She was fearless, often doing her own stunts, and she projected a mental and emotional toughness that audiences in the Forties were quick to respond to. She was affectionately known as Big Red (for the colour of her hair), and worked with directors as diverse as John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Carol Reed, Jean Renoir and Henry Hathaway, and co-starred alongside the likes of Rex Harrison, James Stewart and Henry Fonda. But she’ll always be remembered for her performances opposite Wayne, and the larger than life personality she presented both in public and in private.

Maureen O'Hara1

1) The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)

2) How Green Was My Valley (1941)

3) The Black Swan (1942)

4) Sentimental Journey (1946)

5) Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

6) Rio Grande (1950)

7) The Quiet Man (1952)

8) Our Man in Havana (1959)

9) The Parent Trap (1961)

10) McLintock! (1963)

Maureen O'Hara2

Vacation (2015)


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D: Jonathan M. Goldstein, John Francis Daley / 99m

Cast: Ed Helms, Christina Applegate, Skyler Gisondo, Steele Stebbins, Chris Hemsworth, Leslie Mann, Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Charlie Day, Catherine Missal, Ron Livingston, Norman Reedus, Keegan-Michael Key, Regina Hall

Q: When is a movie a remake, a sequel and a reboot all put together?

A: When it’s Vacation!

With movie franchises being extended or rebooted at every turn, it was only a matter of time before we started to see an influx of movies made from comedies out of the Eighties (there’s a Police Academy reboot in the works, and Kevin Smith is still keen to make another Fletch movie). But while we anxiously await the arrival of a further Lemon Popsicle or Porky’s installment, we have this latest attempt at producing a contemporary version of a much-loved comedy favourite.

The set up is clever enough: now grown up, Rusty Griswold (Helms) has a family of his own: wife Debbie (Applegate), teenage son James (Gisondo), and pre-teen son Kevin (Stebbins). Each year he takes them all to the same cabin in the woods that everyone except Rusty is tired of. But when he overhears Debbie complaining about it to one of their friends he realises he needs to come up with a different destination this year. Remembering the trip he took to Walley World with his dad Clark (Chase), mom Ellen (D”Angelo) and sister Audrey (Mann) when he was a kid, Rusty decides the best way to get his family to be more excited about going away is to plan a road trip to the theme park that he recalls so fondly.

It’s at this point that the movie casts a knowing wink at the audience, and does its best to sound cleverer than it actually is. In response to James’s statement that he’s “never heard of the original vacation”, Rusty replies confidently, “Doesn’t matter. The new vacation will stand on its own”. It’s a bold though far from oversold moment, and one that will have fans of the original saying to themselves, “Really?” And that particular word will be one that viewers will come back to time and again as the Griswold family road trip unfolds from Chicago to Santa Monica with all the grim inevitability of an influenza outbreak in an old folks’ home.

Vacation - scene

With the original framework firmly in place, Vacation relies on a mix of modern day gross out humour, old fashioned puerility, and laboured jokes to provide the comedy while asking its cast to take a back seat and not do anything too funny. It’s a strange circumstance, but watch the movie closely and you’ll find that Helms, Applegate et al aren’t that funny in themselves (or as their characters), and that the script by Goldstein and Daley has the Griswolds acting largely as observers of their own road trip. On the few occasions when one of them is directly involved in a comedic situation, such as Rusty helping Stone Crandall (Hemsworth), his sister’s overly endowed husband, to round up some cows, the initial joke of his killing one is outdone by the one that follows, when one of the other cows chows down on the remains (yes folks, it’s a movie first, cannibal cows).

Elsewhere we’re treated to a paedophile trucker, a side trip to Debbie’s old alma mater, the Griswolds bathing in raw sewage, a rental car called the Prancer that comes with a remote control that includes buttons labelled with a rocket and a swastika (wisely, Rusty never presses that button), Stone showing off his “six pack”, a love interest for James, a white water rafting trip that goes wrong thanks to just-jilted guide Chad (Day), and the sight of Kevin trying to suffocate his older brother with a cellophane bag – twice (though, admittedly, the timing of this makes it a whole lot funnier than it sounds). There are various subplots: Rusty and Debbie’s attempts to put the spark back into their marriage by having sex wherever and whenever they can; Kevin’s bullying of James; Rusty’s run-ins with rival airline pilot Ethan (Livingston); and the whole notion of a family trying to bond over a trip only one of them wants to make (again).

If you’re easily amused, and don’t mind how uneven the movie is, then Vacation will seem like a great movie to sit down with a few beers and watch on a Saturday night, but the reality is that it’s hard to tell if writers/directors Goldstein and Daley were either in a rush with the script, or felt constrained by having to follow the original in terms of the movie’s structure. Whatever the case, the movie coasts along without making too much of an impact, and mixes gross out humour with long stretches of quiet amiability, and some very awkward moments that can’t help but feel out of place e.g. Rusty’s uncertain knowledge of sexual matters leads to James wanting to give the girl he likes a rim job (he thinks it’s kissing with your lips closed).

Vacation - scene2

The cast cope well enough, and it’s good to see Chase back as the Griswold patriarch, but equally it won’t be long before you’re wondering what’s happened to his eyelids. There are some cameos dotted here and there, and a certain singer appears in the closing credits, but there’s no standout character or performance. What this movie really needed was someone like Cousin Eddie to come along and really stir things up.

Rating: 5/10 – not as amusing as the original movie it tries to emulate, Vacation suffers from trying too hard to be funny, and not having the conviction to be as subversive as its predecessor (watch it again to see how dark it is); beautifully shot however, and with a great soundtrack that features Seal’s Kiss from a Rose, this is technically well made but not a movie you’ll want to watch more than once.

Ruben Guthrie (2015)


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Ruben Guthrie

D: Brendan Cowell / 93m

Cast: Patrick Brammall, Alex Dimitriades, Abbey Lee, Harriet Dyer, Jack Thompson, Robyn Nevin, Jeremy Sims, Brenton Thwaites, Aaron Bertram

Four-time advertising award winner Ruben Guthrie (Brammall) has it all: the high-paid job that he’s phenomenally good at, the luxurious home with a pool, a beautiful model girlfriend, Zoya (Lee), and a drink problem to match it all. At a party to celebrate his latest awards win, his boozy, extrovert behaviour proves to be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back for Zoya when Ruben finds himself up on his roof and jumping into his pool – and breaking his arm in the process. It’s time for Ruben to face up to his drinking problem and get some help.

So far, Brendan Cowell’s adaptation of his own stage play seems perfectly straightforward, and most viewers will believe they know exactly how the rest of the story will play out. But Cowell’s a shrewd writer who knows his story too well, and Ruben’s journey takes several unexpected turns along the way. He goes to his first AA meeting and instead of being ashamed or embarrassed, he reverts to his usual laddish behaviour and insults everyone. This leads to Zoya giving him an ultimatum: stay sober for a year while she’s gone, and if he can stay sober, to come find her. He somehow manages not to drink, revealing that he has a degree of self-control he either wasn’t aware of, or knew he had but has chosen not to use. At work though, his usual intuitive command of what makes for the best advertising is shown to have deserted him, so much so that his boss is thinking of replacing him with a talented/super chirpy youngster (Thwaites).

And in an effort to kick a character even more when he’s down, Cowell adds further fuel to the flame of Ruben’s reversal of fortune by having his parents (Thompson, Nevin) split up, and his gay best friend Damian (Dimitriades), who’s a bit of a sponger, move in on a temporary/permanent basis. But Ruben proves to be a forbearing soul, and with the aid of fellow alcoholic and mentor, Virginia (Dyer), he weathers the storm of these setbacks, and begins to find a way through them that makes him both stronger and more determined than ever to win Zoya back.

Well, determined might not be the right word, because he succumbs to the emotional fragility and neediness that Virginia exhibits around him and they become a couple. Now, in Australia, this could well be construed as acceptable behaviour on Ruben’s part, but when Zoya’s face adorns a whole wall in Ruben’s home as a permanent reminder of their five years together, you might expect him to be a little more circumspect. But nobody, not even Virginia (who might like to know where she stands in all this) mentions it, and Ruben himself seems to be oblivious to the double standard he’s following. It’s here that the movie finds itself in deeper, darker territory for a while, as Ruben’s sobriety leads him to make all sorts of decisions that he wouldn’t have made as a functioning alcoholic.

Ruben Guthrie - scene

Of course, further complications ensue when his father becomes ill, his parents’ relationship becomes even more confusing, he has a major falling out with Damian, and just when you think that things can’t possibly get any worse for him, Zoya turns up out of the blue, and he finds his mother pushing him to resume drinking… because when he’s sober it makes him less of a(n Aussie) man. By now the movie is hell-bent on being a dark comedy, as Ruben’s world continues to implode with the force of a thousand beer bottles crashing to the floor. And then Cowell dispenses with the last shred of Ruben’s self-confidence, and with his main character curling up on the floor, he delivers one last kick to the head.

This is a sincere movie that isn’t just about alcohol addiction and its effects on the addict and the people who love him or her, but a (some times) powerful depiction of all sorts of forms of addiction, from booze to drugs to sex to relationships and back again. It’s also a very funny examination of the pitfalls of modern day living, and the culture of expectation and acceptance of social drinking. It’s often said that everyone drinks in Australia, and that they’re the greatest nation in the world for coming up with ways to justify getting rotten, but while this is a proud boast Down Under, Cowell is canny enough to hold up a mirror to modern Australian society and expose the “rotten” underpinning that stops it from collapsing in on itself. That Ruben bucks the trend for so long is both impressive and unusual.

With Cowell providing such a clever script, and creating a visual style for the movie that confronts and reflects the consequences of Ruben’s decision to quit drinking, it does seem a shame when he develops butterfingers and drops the ball, however momentarily. The aforementioned scene where Ruben’s mother tempts him to return to “the dark side” by having a drink is by turns clumsy, awkward, horrifying, and unnecessary, a way that the movie can explain the social pleasures and pressures of drinking, and advance the plot towards the final third. The role of Damian in proceedings is never clear: he’s not Ruben’s conscience, and nor is he the kind of arch manipulator that a more superficial script might have painted him, but he is surplus to requirements in terms of the dynamics of Ruben’s relationships, and how Ruben sees himself in terms of others around him.

Ruben Guthrie - scene2

The cast are uniformly good, with Brammall keeping a firm grip on some of the script’s more vague motivational moments, and his performance as Guthrie is both staid and delirious, as the script requires. Dimitriades keeps Damian from becoming a completely stereotypical role, while Lee is allowed to be more than just a pretty face. But it’s Dyer as the addict’s addict – she’s firmly addicted to Ruben, amongst other things – that draws the most attention, and hopefully the movie will lead to bigger and brighter things for the actress. As expected the movie’s patriarch and matriarch dance lightly but with maximum effect to the tune of Cowell’s musical trenchwork, and Thompson and Nevin appear to steal their scenes with others with so little effort it’s almost embarrassing.

All in all, Cowell’s ode to Australia’s national pastime of hitting the turps is a lively, enjoyable movie that makes several relevant points about addiction, and is clever enough to know when to be funny, when to be serious, and when to mix the two elements to their best advantage. It’s a movie that’s a little rough around the edges, and some scenes go on beyond their necessary lifespan, but these are small beer in comparison to the good work found elsewhere. And if Ruben’s next adventure, should it happen, sees him pitch up in Prague in search of Zoya, then Cowell’s acknowledgment that “those motherf*ckers can drink” may well be the challenge that our hero needs.

Rating: 7/10 – hiding a warm, gooey centre amongst the emotional drama and the often ludicrous humour, Ruben Guthrie is a movie about need and addiction that doesn’t downplay the seriousness of the subject matter, but which also manages to find the absurdity in a lifestyle that is ultimately as hollow as an empty beer bottle; Cowell has made a good first feature, and while it has its faults, his commitment – and that of his star’s – isn’t one of them.

The Wave (2015)


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Wave, The

Original title: Bølgen

D: Roar Uthaug / 104m

Cast: Kristoffer Joner, Ane Dahl Torp, Jonas Hoff Oftebro, Edith Haagenrud-Sande, Fridtjov Såheim, Arthur Berning, Laila Goody, Eili Harboe, Thomas Bo Larsen

Geiranger in Norway is both the name of a fjord and the name of the small tourist village that nestles between the mountains at the fjord’s head. The area has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and features some of the most spectacular scenery in the world; as a result it’s the must-visit destination of hundreds of thousands of tourists each year. But there’s a problem, and that’s the nearby Åkerneset mountain, because at some point it will erode to the extent that a significant portion of it will collapse into the fjord and send a devastating eighty metre tsunami towards Geiranger. Simply put: the village will be flattened.

Against this background, the magnificently named Roar Uthaug and screenwriters Harald Rosenløw-Eeg and John Kåre Raake have fashioned that most unlikely of movies: a Norwegian disaster movie. But unlikely is as unlikely does, and The Wave is grounded by the fact that this type of event has happened elsewhere in Norway in the past (and the movie opens with a recap of these tragedies). Where movies like San Andreas (2015) try to impress with the size of the devastation on display, The Wave keeps it simple, and is so much better for it.

Focusing on geologist/mountain whisperer Kristian (Joner) and his family – wife/hotel receptionist Idun (Torp), teenage son/skateboarder Sondre (Oftebro), and cute young moppet Julia (Haagenrud-Sande) – the movie opens with Kristian on the verge of leaving Geiranger and the geologist’s facility where he works, and moving to the “big city”. But in classic movie fashion he senses that all is not well on Åkerneset, and instead of taking himself and his kids to the airport, he abandons them at the facility’s car park in order to go check out his hunch – which of course proves to be deadly accurate. But also in classic movie fashion, his colleagues, led by doubtful Arvid (Såheim), in a performance guaranteed to make viewers think of Charles Hallahan’s similarly unimpressed/stupid geologist in Dante’s Peak (1997), say they’ll keep an eye on things and that Kristian shouldn’t worry.

Stuck in Geiranger until the next day, Kristian drops Sondre off at the hotel where Idun works, while he and Julia spend one last night in their old home. Sondre heads off to skateboard in the basement levels with his earbuds in, and without telling anyone. With the mountain making the kind of noises that practically scream “Evacuate right now!”, Arvid and colleague Jacob (Berning) rapel down into a crevice in order to check their recording equipment, and find themselves right smack in the middle of the mountain’s decision to give up keeping it together. Before anyone can say “What was that noise?”, an eighty metre high tsunami is heading for Geiranger, and the clock is ticking: if everyone wants to get to safety, they’ve only got ten minutes to get there.

Wave, The - scene

At this point the special effects kick in, and very good they are too (the tsunami’s merciless, unstoppable rush toward the hotel is one of 2015’s most indelible images). With ten minutes proving too little time for everyone to save themselves, Kristian himself barely survives, while Julia at least is kept safe with a neighbour. Idun and Sondre find themselves holed up in the hotel’s bomb shelter with guest Phillip (Larsen) as the water level rises. What follows is the kind of race-against-time search and rescue mission these kind of movies thrive on, with Idun and Sondre facing more threats to their survival than would seem logically possible, and Kristian conveniently being in the right place at the right time to discover their whereabouts.

Hackneyed scripting aside, there’s tension aplenty in this “second half”, and the cast gamely play it straight, which adds to the edge-of-the-seat atmosphere that Uthaug creates (even if the viewer is certain it’ll all turn out okay in the end). One of the strengths of this scenario is that the family is one you can actually root for; for once they’re a family who clearly like each other and aren’t dysfunctional (it’s certainly more credible than Dwayne Johnson’s macho need to save his daughter in that other disaster movie). It’s also here that Uthaug uses his budget wisely, mixing vast swathes of destruction with more intimate location work and achieving a convincing fit with both. And there’s a decision made involving Phillip that hints at the script maybe having a darker edge in an earlier draft.

The Wave has been a massive hit in Norway, with almost a fifth of the country’s population having seen it on the big screen. Despite the subject matter – hey, let’s show what could happen when one of our mountains collapses – and its real life consequences, and not forgetting that the movie was actually shot in Geiranger, by keeping the heroics to a minimum, and dialling back on any potential histrionics, Uthaug and his cast and crew have made an effective, exciting thriller that surpasses expectations.

Rating: 8/10 – comprised of three distinct acts – “I think we should run”, “I hate it when I’m right”, and “I’d say I told you so but I have to go save my family first” – The Wave has a great deal of heart amid all the death and destruction, and never lets its more predictable elements get in the way of telling a good story; surprisingly gritty, and with a great deal of charm, it’s no wonder the movie’s been chosen as Norway’s Best Foreign Language Film entry at next year’s Oscars.

10 Quotes by 10 Movie Directors (oh, and one more by Danny Boyle)


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Yesterday was Danny Boyle’s birthday. The director is 59 years old, and over the course of his career has been quoted on a variety of matters to do with movie making, both in general and specifically. He once said: “I learned that what I’m better at is making stuff lower down the radar. Actually, ideally not on the radar at all.” It’s a great quote and one that shows the man doesn’t take himself too seriously. Here then are ten more great quotes by ten more directors, all of whom don’t take themselves – or the industry – too seriously either.

David Lean – “I wouldn’t take the advice of a lot of so-called critics on how to shoot a close-up of a teapot.”

David Lean

William Wyler – “It’s a miserable life in Hollywood. You’re up at five or six o’clock in the morning to be ready to start shooting at nine. The working hours aren’t arranged to suit the artists and the directors; they’re for the convenience of the technicians. If you go to a party at night, you’ll never find anyone there who’s shooting a picture; they’re all home in bed.”

David Fincher – “People always ask why I don’t make independent movies. I do make independent movies – I just make them at Sony and Paramount.”

Clint Eastwood – “When I was doing The Bridges of Madison County (1995), I said to myself, “This romantic stuff is really tough. I can’t wait to get back to shooting and killing.”

Clint Eastwood

Milos Forman – “It all begins in the script. If what’s happening is interesting, it doesn’t matter where you shoot from, people will be interested to watch. If you write something boring, you can film from mosquitoes’ underpants and it will still be boring.”

Steven Soderbergh – (on his retirement) “Cinema, as I define it and as something that inspired me, is under assault by the studios and, from what I can tell, with the full support of the audience.”

Woody Allen – “[The French] think I’m an intellectual because I wear these glasses, and they think I’m an artist because my films lose money.”

Woody Allen2

Federico Fellini – “Even if I set out to make a film about a fillet of sole, it would be about me.”

Martin Scorsese – “I’m not a Hollywood director. I’m an in-spite-of-Hollywood director.”

Paul Thomas Anderson – “Well I’d really love to work with Robert De Niro, because he’s still the most talented actor out there. Maybe he makes some bad choices, which can be frustrating. On the one hand, you want to say, ‘What the fuck’s going on?’ On the other, you can’t get mad at him for wanting to work, because most actors would be murderers if they weren’t working.”

Paul Thomas Anderson

Desierto (2015)


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NOTE: At present, there is no poster for Desierto, but when there is one it will appear here.

D: Jonás Cuarón / 94m

Cast: Gael García Bernal, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Alondra Hidalgo, Diego Cataño, Marco Pérez, Lew Temple

In Jonás Cuarón’s second feature Desierto, we’re quickly introduced to a group of Mexicans who are being smuggled across the border into the US. They’re in the back of a truck, and amongst them is Moises, played by Gael García Bernal. When the truck breaks down on the edge of a vast salt flat, Moises is the only one who can pronounce the truck beyond repair. Faced with the problem of how to get these “illegals” to their expected destination, two of the “guides” decide to go the rest of the way on foot. This involves trekking across some rugged countryside, but one of the guides is in more of a hurry than the other, and soon there are two groups making the journey, the ones who can keep up with the main guide’s fast pace, and the few laggers who are encouraged by the other.

The distance that develops between them comes in handy when the first group are targeted by loony self-styled border guard and all-round racist psycho Sam, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan. One by one he picks them off with his sniper’s rifle, and leaves them dead in a clearing, men and women. It’s all the same to Sam, and is one area where he does believe in equal opportunity. Watching this massacre transpire, Moises and the rest of the second group, which includes Adela, played by Alondra Hidalgo, soon flee the scene, but not without tipping off Sam as to their presence. Helped by his close companion and canine buddy Tracker – who he’s apparently trained to sniff out and savage illegal immigrants – Sam hunts down the remaining illegals until only Moises remains to stand against him. Which of course he does.

Desierto - scene

Wearing its confused heart on its sleeve from the outset, Desierto wants to be a taut, hard-edged thriller: brutal, unapologetic and bad-ass. But therein lies Desierto‘s problem, because at its core it’s really a wannabe bad-ass movie that lacks conviction, and steals as much as it can from as many other variations on Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoesdack’s The Most Dangerous Game (1932) as it can. Now, a little plagiarism (or homage, as Hollywood likes to call it) can go a long way, but when that plagiarism is used to so little effect, then it makes for such a dispiriting experience that the viewer could be forgiven for taking out their own sniper rifle and blasting away at the screen just to get a buzz on. As a thriller it’s a non-starter, thanks to Cuarón’s flat, uninspired direction, and the lack of investment made by the script in any of the characters (the responsibility of Cuarón again and co-scribe Mateo Garcia).

Moises, Adela, even Sam – all are relieved of any kind of back story. We don’t know why any of the Mexicans are travelling across the border in the first place, and without this information, without knowing what their hopes or dreams or ambitions are once they reach the US, it’s nigh on impossible to care about them. Even as you watch the massacre, you’ll be more aware of how the camera has been placed than whether or not the the life of the person being shot and killed is worth your sympathy (yes, it’s a cleverly staged and “executed” massacre, and also rather well edited – so that’s okay then).

And equally we know nothing about Sam, a man of whom you could say he’s a cartridge short of a full magazine, or to border control what Bill Clinton was to same sex marriages. He’s a cipher, a boogeyman for the Mexicans to run from (and over the course of the movie that’s all they do), as he moans and complains to his acrobatic dog about the Hell he’s living in. It makes you want to yell at him, “Well if it’s that bad, sell all your guns and move to Florida!” Instead he continues to act like an avenging angel, but one with no clear conception of why he’s behaving the way he does, and so becomes a character who’s too far-fetched even to boo or hiss.

Desierto - scene2

Cuarón began writing the script around 2006, and then took time off from it to help his father make a little movie called Gravity (2013). He’s on record as saying that the problem of illegal immigrants (and not just those crossing the US-Mexico border) was always intended to be a part of the story, but watching the movie it seems clear that somewhere along the way that particular subtext got lost in translation, and in such a way that it never really appears at all. And Cuarón has also stated that he didn’t invest in any back stories because he didn’t feel they were necessary, and that viewers could – and should – have the choice to make up their own minds about things like motivation and personal choice. It seems very much as though Cuarón had several ideas for the movie, and what it was about, but somehow forgot to follow through on any of them.

In the end, and despite some stunning cinematography by Damian Garcia, Desierto is muddled and insubstantial. The performances are average, with only Morgan trying to do anything to salvage the mess he’s found himself in, and there’s an air of “that’ll do” about scenes that doesn’t help either. Fans of this kind of movie will be dismayed, while casual viewers may well wonder how on earth Desierto managed to win the FIPRESCI Prize for Special Presentations at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.

Rating: 4/10 – it looks good, and there’s a germ of a good idea here, but Desierto is a misfire that never recovers from its writer/director’s indecision as to what kind of a movie it should be; file under “I coulda been a contender”.

NOTE: At present, there is no trailer for Desierto, but when there is one it will appear here.

IMDb – Happy 25th Birthday


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IMDb logo

As someone who visits the IMDb site pretty much every day, and finds it an almost invaluable resource (my only bugbear is movie running times – I’ve found them to be maddeningly inaccurate over the years), I just wanted to add my congratulations to founder and CEO Col Needham and his team for the sterling work they’ve been doing over the last twenty-five years.

In terms of how much I’ve relied on them for thedullwoodexperiment, I can’t thank them enough, and I’m looking forward to delving into the site for another twenty-five years to come. And as a movie buff, I’ve learnt a lot that I wouldn’t have found out otherwise. Here are five examples that come under the heading, Well I Didn’t Know That Until Now:

1) John Travolta was offered Tom Hanks’ role in The Green Mile (1999).

2) John Carpenter was disappointed with The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and would have loved to direct it himself so he could make it “much more frightening and gripping”.

3) The bridge explosion in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) had to be filmed twice as there was a mistake first time around: the command to set off the explosion was misheard and no cameras were rolling.

4) Some Like It Hot (1959) was originally banned in Kansas as being “too disturbing for Kansans”.

5) In The Big Lebowski (1998), Julianne Moore wore a prosthetic butt for her nude scene as Maude.

Crimson Peak (2015)


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Crimson Peak

D: Guillermo del Toro / 119m

Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver, Burn Gorman, Leslie Hope, Doug Jones, Jonathan Hyde, Bruce Gray

When Edith Cushing (Wasikowska) is a young child her mother dies unexpectedly. After the funeral, Edith is visited by the ghost of her mother who warns her to “beware of Crimson Peak”. Fourteen years later, Edith is trying to establish herself as a writer. She has written a novel about ghosts but her intended publisher wants her to include a romance (though she feels this is unnecessary). Her father (Beaver), a self-made industrialist, is supportive of her efforts, and lets her type up her manuscript at his offices. There she meets Sir Thomas Sharpe, a visiting aristocrat from England, who is looking for financial backing for an invention of his that will aid in the mining of red clay at his home in Northumberland. But while Edith finds herself attracted to Thomas, her father takes a dislike to him and refuses to back him.

When a secret about Thomas is discovered it leads to the death of Edith’s father. Heartbroken, she turns to Thomas and his sister, Lady Lucille (Chastain) for support, and soon agrees to marry him. Together, they travel to England and the Sharpe family home, a towering gothic edifice called Allerdale Hall. The house is falling apart, and stands atop a clay mine that it is slowly sinking into. As she settles into her new life, Edith comes to discover that the house harbours secrets that neither Thomas nor Lucille want her to know about. Meanwhile, back in New York, Edith’s childhood friend Dr Alan McMichael (Hunnam), already suspicious of the way in which her father died, begins his own investigation.

Plagued by ghostly visions, Edith begins to unravel the secrets of Allerdale Hall, secrets that lead her to believe that Thomas’s mother was murdered there, and that there is some connection with his recent trips to places such as Edinburgh and Milan. The discovery of luggage engraved with the initials E.S. provides a further clue that links to the visions she has. At the same time she begins to fall ill, while McMichael learns the same secret that led to her father’s death and believing Edith to be in danger, he decides to leave for England.

Crimson Peak - scene

A project that del Toro has been looking to film since 2006, Crimson Peak arrives with a great deal of anticipation and hype preceeding it, and with the enviable status of being the only movie of its kind – a gothic romance with distinct horror overtones – to be released in 2015. It’s a movie that splits its narrative in two, and in the process ends up making the first part more effective than the second, which has the unfortunate effect of leaving viewers with the impression that del Toro and co-screenwriter Matthew Robbins had a firmer grasp of what they were trying to achieve with the scenes set in New York than they did with the ones at Allerdale Hall.

This leads to the movie lacking a sense of true development once we’re ensconced in the Sharpe ancestral family home. It should be the other way round but while del Toro and Robbins expand on the mystery behind Thomas and Lucille’s motives, it soon becomes apparent that the ghostly visions Edith experiences are less of a threat to her and more of a series of clues as to what has happened at the Hall in the past. With this in mind, it’s puzzling that del Toro has decided to make these apparitions as scary as possible, and in particular the spectral wraith that is Edith’s mother (played by the erstwhile Doug Jones), a depiction that seems at odds with her role as a guardian in death of her daughter’s safety – did she have to be so frightening?

But while the recreation of pre-1900 New York is achieved with considerable success, it’s not until we reach Allerdale Hall that del Toro reveals the true focus of the movie: making that towering creation feel like a living, breathing character in its own right. The Hall is a triumph of production and set design, and is endlessly fascinating in its construction, with darkness leeching from the walls and corridors that look like they’ve been carved out of the vertebrae and rib cages of dead whales. Everywhere you look there’s another interesting detail to take in, some new quirk of the architecture to observe, but so good is this attention to detail that it overwhelms the story, leaving Edith’s plight of secondary importance. And with a subterranean level thrown in for good measure, the house and its “personality” become far more interesting than the pallid-by-comparison storyline involving Edith and the conspiring Sharpes (though you might wonder where all the leaves that tumble continuously through the roof are coming from, as the house is shown to sit proudly alone at the top of a hill).

As a gothic romance, the movie is on better ground, with Thomas’s pursuit of Edith feeling more than expedient from the beginning, and as he becomes less and less sure of the path that he and Lucille have embarked upon, it becomes obvious that his true feelings will cause his doom. Hiddleston relays the torment and indecision that Thomas endures with a great deal of yearning for a chance to be free of his family burden, and makes the character more sympathetic than his initial actions would warrant. As the wounded and betrayed Edith, Wasikowska ensures her would-be author isn’t shown as too soft or easily dominated, but is still asked to rein in Edith’s assertiveness in moments where the script requires it. She and Hiddleston do well in making their characters’ relationship more credible than most, but despite their good work there’s just not enough passion on display to make their feelings for each other too convincing.

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The same can’t be said for Chastain, an actress who it seems can turn her hand to any character in any genre. As the taciturn and tightly controlled Lucille she’s a riveting presence in any scene she’s in, even when she’s in the background. By the movie’s end she’s asked to abandon all the subtleties she’s imbued her performance with in favour of a more traditional approach required by the material. Before this, Chastain is quietly chilling, her manipulative, simmering-with-anger personality more compelling in its intensity than any of the house’s blood-slicked apparitions. (In comparison, Hunnam is the movie’s anodyne hero, and one who almost operates as an historical forerunner of Hallorann from Kubrick’s The Shining.)

By the time the mystery has been revealed and the machinations of the plot (loosely) explained and sewn up, the movie has descended into the kind of bloody, violent showdown that audiences will be expecting, but it isn’t the best showdown you’re ever likely to see, and it lacks vitality. Partly this is due to the pacing, and partly due to the editing, which never picks up the pace, and never seems likely to add any kind of punch to proceedings. It all leads to an oddly melancholy ending that befits a gothic romance, but not the thriller this movie has become. With so much effort having gone into the look and feel of the movie, viewers may well feel let down by this half-hearted denouement, and they’d be right to, but the movie retains a strange fascination even at the end, and one that lingers long after the closing credits.

Rating: 7/10 – not as chilling or impressive on the plot or storyline front as it is when it comes to how the movie looks, Crimson Peak falls short on delivering the chills and thrills it promises to provide; del Toro has made better movies, and will probably make better ones in the future, but for now this will have to serve as a reminder, however disappointing, that there’s no one else out there who can make this kind of movie and with this kind of ardour.

Mini-Review: Chronic (2015)


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D: Michel Franco / 92m

Cast: Tim Roth, Robin Bartlett, Michael Cristofer, Sarah Sutherland, Rachel Pickup, Angela Bullock, Nailea Norvind, David Dastmalchian, Maribeth Monroe

David (Roth) is a male nurse who provides palliative care for terminally ill or seriously disabled people living in their own homes. When his latest patient, Sarah (Pickup), dies, her family are surprised to see him at the funeral, and when Sarah’s neice (Monroe) tries to ask David some questions about Sarah’s final weeks, he is uncooperative and avoids talking to her. At home, he checks the social media page of a young woman named Nadia (Sutherland), focusing on the pictures she’s posted.

Later, David is given another patient to look after, an architect called John (Cristofer), who’s had a stroke. As John recovers, he and David become friends of sorts, even to the point where David turns a blind eye to John watching porn on his laptop. But when one of John’s family walks in on David giving him a bed bath, the situation is misread, and David finds himself being told by his boss that he can’t continue as John’s carer – or indeed anyone’s – because he’s about to be sued for sexual misconduct. While he waits for another job to come up, David tracks down the young woman from the social media page, who it turns out is his daughter.

They haven’t seen each other in a while due to a family tragedy that David blames himself for, and which caused him to have a breakdown. As he gets to know Nadia again, and begins to mend his relationship with her mother, Laura (Norvind), David is offered a job looking after a woman called Marta (Bartlett) who has cancer. All is going well until one day she asks David to help her commit suicide…

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A measured, sometimes agonisingly slow drama about one man’s attempt to redeem himself by caring for others, Chronic is always going to be a tough sell for potential viewers, mostly because of the subject matter, and partly because it’s paced so deliberately and so precisely. It’s like a chamber piece made for the big screen, with a restrained, honest performance from Roth that is so internalised it makes David seem removed from everything – and everyone – around him. And while he does keep his distance (except when it comes to his patients), the legacy of that tragedy has left very deep and lasting scars that he can deal with only by focusing his energies on people he can help; he’s trying to make amends in the only way he knows how.

It’s a fairly straightforward tale made up of long static shots where the action is kept firmly within the boundaries of the frame, and where David’s attempts to reconnect with his daughter offer the only evidence that he’s not entirely subsumed by the lives of his patients (when he learns John is an architect he does his homework on the matter, even going so far as to visit one of the houses John built). This way of identifying with his patients could have been presented as creepy or unhealthy, but it’s yet another way that David is trying to find a place for himself in the world he’s been absent from.

Franco directs his own script with a clear idea of what he wants to achieve, but makes the mistake of distancing not only David from others, but the audience from David, leaving the viewer to decide for themselves if David’s plight is affecting enough for them to bother. And there’s a final scene that’s likely to alienate viewers who’ve made it that far. With the decision to skip having a musical score or songs to act as emotional cues for the audience, the movie relies on its talented cast to highlight the various ambiguities of each character’s relationship with David, while its ideas of what it’s like to care about others when it’s difficult to care about oneself, are handled with care and sensitivity.

Rating: 8/10 – not for all tastes, not least because of Franco’s slow-burn, reflective approach to the narrative, Chronic is a showcase for Roth’s acting abilities, and the ways in which personal pain creates barriers between people; too plainly rendered for many, it’s a movie that is uncompromising in terms of the narrative, but rewards upon closer inspection.

Carol (2015)


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D: Todd Haynes / 118m

Cast: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler, Sarah Paulson, Jake Lacy, Nik Pajic, John Magaro, Cory Michael Smith, Carrie Brownstein

Therese (pronounced Ter-rez) Belivet (Mara) is young, has a devoted boyfriend, Richard (Lacy), works in a department store, but is unsure of her future. One day a female customer in the store engages her in conversation, and even though the customer makes mention of being married with a young child, it’s clear to Therese that there’s a mutual attraction. When the woman leaves her gloves behind, Therese goes to the effort of finding the woman’s address and sending them to her. This act of kindness leads to the woman, whose name is Carol Aird (Blanchett), inviting Therese to lunch. They meet, and a friendship begins, one that starts to cause problems between Therese and Richard, as she begins to lose interest in a planned trip to Europe with him, and spends more time with Carol.

Unbeknownst to Therese, Carol and her husband, Harge (Chandler) have separated due to his awareness that his wife has had an affair with her best friend, Abby (Paulson). Willing to overlook this “indiscretion” if she stays with him, Harge warns her that if she doesn’t then he’ll seek sole custody of their little girl, Rindy. With Xmas approaching, he takes Rindy to his parents for the holiday period; Carol decides to invite Therese to come stay with her. Although nothing happens, Harge returns home unexpectedly and sees them together. Fearing that Carol is embarking on another lesbian relationship, he files for divorce and sole custody of Rindy. Unable to see her child until the custody hearing, which will take two or three months to happen, Carol invites Therese on a road trip, where they can spend some time together, and where Harge can’t find them.

They stay in a succession of motel rooms, at first staying in separate rooms. At one particular motel they stay in the Presidential suite; the next morning, Therese gets to talking with a travelling salesman called Tommy (Smith). Although he tries to sell them something from his sales kit, he has no joy, though Therese wishes him well in the future. At the next motel, she and Carol finally make love. But a telegram Carol receives the next morning reveals Harge’s awareness of where she is, and the fact that she and Therese are now lovers. Unable to risk the now serious possibility of losing the custody hearing, Carol decides she has to return home to face Harge, and sends Abby in her place to see Therese gets home safely. But for both women, returning to their old lives proves unsatisfactory…

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There’s a moment in Todd Haynes’ beautifully crafted Carol, an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, when it looks certain that the title character and Therese will make love for the first time. It’s a moment that the movie is clearly heading toward, and it’s a moment that audiences will be expecting, but Haynes, along with screenwriter Patricia Nagy, holds off from that first time and maintains the sense of anticipation that both characters (and viewers) must be feeling. For the audience, it’s also a moment – among many others – that shows just how much control Haynes has over both the material and its emotional centre, and how finely calibrated it all is, for Carol is without a doubt, one of 2015’s finest movies.

Of course, with previous projects such as Far from Heaven (2002) and the TV version of Mildred Pierce (2011), Haynes has already shown an affinity for what used to be termed “women’s pictures”, but here his immersion in a time – the 1950’s – when lesbianism was still something to be kept hidden, and where male attitudes towards the issue were still highly aggressive, feels also like a snapshot of an era where female empowerment was beginning to gain the upper hand, despite the so-called Lavender Scare that was prevalent at the time. Through Carol’s determination not to be defined by her sexuality, we get to see an example of what, in historical terms, was a turning of the tide, and also a love story that is simply that: a love story.

This simplicity is at the heart of Haynes’ confident handling of the story, and it shows in every scene, with every look and every gesture, and in the way that he brings Carol and Therese together within the frame – these moments where they’re “close but not touching” are so charged with pent-up emotion and increasing desire that the idea that they might be kept apart by Harge’s machinations becomes intolerable. These scenes are so expertly handled, with repressed longing so forcefully expressed, that the viewer is swept along with the characters’ desire to live freely and without sanction. Haynes makes great use of the era’s sense of propriety, using it as a touchstone against which Carol and Therese’s affair can be measured in both intensity and necessity. Therese quizzes Richard about same sex relationships but he has no point of reference, and has no understanding of why they occur; he loves her unequivocally but can’t see that two women – or two men for that matter – might feel the same way about each other as he does about Therese. It’s another of those moments where the audience can see just how difficult it was to live a life outside the (perceived) norm.

With the historical and social background of the story firmly in place, and with Nagy’s script making it clear that lesbians were expected to pretend to be happy in heterosexual relationships or face the social consequences, the movie paints an honest portrait of two women, both of whom gain increased confidence in themselves through their relationship, who come together at a point in both their lives where they’re looking for a way to find future happiness. That they find it in each other, if only briefly, and with such passion, gives value to the idea that any relationship is worth pursuing or fighting for. And even though Carol leaves Therese to fight for custody of her child, it’s not the end of their affair, but rather an interruption (albeit for Therese an unexpected one), and even though the younger woman is upset by it, her feelings remain, and though the movie tries for an air of ambiguity in its final scene, viewers won’t be fooled at where Carol and Therese’s relationship is likely to find itself.

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The difference in ages might feel like it should be an issue but it’s left unexplored, and with good reason: it doesn’t matter. Love is love, and though an argument could be made that Therese is looking for a guide or a mentor first and foremost, it’s not the role Carol adopts in their relationship. As the “older woman”, Blanchett gives yet another astonishing, awards-worthy performance, striking the right balance between heartfelt longing for an honest life and acknowledging the difficulties that longing entails. Her brittle, striking features show the pain of Carol’s situation without too much need of more overt playing, but in those moments when overt emotion is required, Carol’s fears and hopes are etched indelibly on those striking features. It’s a magnificent performance, sincere, heartbreaking at times, and riveting.

She’s matched by Mara, whose portrayal of the unmoored, ingenuous Therese is so finely tuned that watching her blossom, however slowly, into a stronger, more confident young woman is like watching a flower grow out of the shadows to its full height. There are moments where the camera focuses on her smooth, unlined features and the only expression is there in the eyes, but Mara uses this approach to such good effect that the viewer is never in doubt as to what Therese is thinking or feeling. And as the movie progresses, Mara subtly shifts the weight of Therese’s longing for love so that it becomes a part of her, and not the whole, leaving her a character as strong in her own right as Carol is in hers.

With two such commanding performances, it would be a shame if the supporting cast were overshadowed, but Chandler, in what is superficially the “villain” role, brings out Harge’s pain and sense of loss over Carol with such force that his actions are less stereotypical than expected and driven more by his own deep love for her. In the same way that society says Carol can’t have Therese (in public at least), it also says that Harge can’t have Carol because of her “sexual impropriety”. Both characters are in danger of losing what they want most, and both are suffering as a result. Chandler is unexpectedly moving in the role, and his scenes with Blanchett are so emotionally charged it’s like an intense version of force majeure. Meanwhile, Paulson comes late to matters as Abby, but gives a brief but potent performance as Carol’s longtime friend, confidant and ex-lover, filling in the gaps of Therese’s knowledge about Carol, and providing further context for Carol’s emotional and sexual desires.

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It’s all beautifully filmed by Edward Lachman, with lots of bright primary colours mixed in with rich earthy tones, making the period seem so alive as to be almost intoxicating, and acting as a dynamic background to the impassioned nature of Carol and Therese’s relationship. There’s some equally impressive attention to historical detail, and Haynes makes the era come alive as a result; this is a fully realised world, even if it does appear at first to be bathed in nostalgia (the scenes in the department store appear right out of a Fifities child’s fantasy of what such a store should look like), but in many ways it was a simpler time, and the script reflects this with aplomb. And the whole thing is embraced by a smoothly nonchalant yet spirited score by Carter Burwell that complements the on-screen proceedings with well orchestrated brio.

Rating: 9/10 – a firm contender for Movie of the Year, Carol is a masterpiece of mood and repressed emotional yearning, with two outstanding performances, and a director on the absolute top of his form; a model of period movie making, and rewarding in every department you can possibly think of, this is a movie that should go to the top of everyone’s must-see list.

The Witch (2015)


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Witch, The

D: Robert Eggers / 92m

Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson, Bathsheba Garnett, Sarah Stephens

New England, 1630. Expelled from their newly settled community for religious differences, Puritans William (Ineson) and Katherine (Dickie) take themselves and their family – eldest daughter Thomasin (Taylor-Joy), eldest son Caleb (Scrimshaw), twins Mercy (Grainger) and Jonas (Dawson), and their newborn son Samuel – off into the wilderness where they make their new home. They build a dwelling, establish crops for food, and have goats for milk. All seems to be going well until one day when, in Thomasin’s care, Samuel disappears.

Katherine is devastated, and prays continuously. William and Caleb go into the surrounding forest to hunt for game, but have a strange encounter involving a rabbit that has an effect on Caleb. When they return, they find Katherine angry at their having gone, and Thomasin unable to control the unruly twins. Later, Mercy’s antagonistic nature annoys Thomasin so much that she threatens her younger sister by saying she – Thomasin – is a witch and will do terrible things to Mercy if she doesn’t do what she’s told; Mercy believes her completely.

Soon after, Caleb and Thomasin are in the forest when they become separated. Caleb meets a young woman (Stephens), while Thomasin searches in vain for him. She is found by William, but it isn’t until later that night that Caleb returns, naked and feverish. Katherine blames Thomasin for this, and Mercy reveals what Thomasin said to her about being a witch. Both Katherine and William believe Mercy at first, and confront Thomasin over it, but she manages to convince her father that she isn’t a witch, and that it is Mercy and Jonas who are in thrall to the Devil, and that they speak to him through one of their goats, Black Phillip.

Matters become worse when Katherine becomes afflicted by madness, and Thomasin and the twins are locked in the goat pen while William struggles to make sense of what’s happening. But the supernatural events that surround them begin to increase, and circumstances lead to Thomasin being the only person who can find of keeping herself at least from further harm.

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The Witch is one of those movies that comes along every once in a while, gains some media attention and gets some critical mass behind it, so that by the time it reaches a wider audience it’s seen as something to be admired and sought out at the earliest opportunity. And so it is proving here, with Robert Eggers’ debut feature having picked up a lot of traction from film festivals around the globe throughout 2015 (including Romania’s Dracula Film Festival). Usually, the hype that attaches itself to such a movie proves to be undeserved – or is at least just that: hype – but for once, here is a movie that lives up to its promise.

Based on folk tales, fairy tales and legends from the New England area, all of which Eggers grew up with, The Witch is a fabulous collision between faith and evil, loneliness and paranoia, that is being marketed as a horror movie, but which is a whole lot more. While there are very definite supernatural elements, and we see the witch of the title very early on, this isn’t just a horror movie, this is a powerful drama that sees one family fall apart under conditions of deprivation – the crops fail, the goats give blood instead of milk – loss, paranoia, mistrust, lies, pride, and arrogance. The true horror is seeing this otherwise contented family undone by the loss of a child and the subsequent emotions that develop, and which each member is unable to deal with. By placing them in the middle of a forest, with no close neighbours to help, and leaving them to deal with the isolation that all that brings, Eggers exposes the fragility of faith and the inherent strains brought about by personal sacrifice.

The supernatural elements are well handled, and for once there’s no attempt at allegory or making it seem as if it’s all coincidence, or that there’s a more rational explanation for everything. Here, there is a witch, and we see her clearly, and there’s no room for doubt that she is responsible for setting in motion the events that lead to the family’s downfall. Without any possible ambiguity to muddy things, the straightforward horror of the situation is allowed to take hold, and as mutual suspicion leads to paranoia and then to madness and death, the movie is pitiless in its observational nature, leaving the viewer to watch a series of scenes in the movie’s last twenty minutes that signpost an outcome that is inevitable, even if the way in which it all happens isn’t.

Eggers’ confidence in the material, which is often very dark and uncomfortable – the scene where Caleb revels in a kind of sexual ecstacy is a good case in point – is aided by a trio of superb performances from Taylor-Joy, Ineson, and Dickie. The casting of Ineson and Dickie is particularly important: their accents and English speech would have been the norm at that time, and they both have a clear grasp of the religious and moral underpinning that their characters rely so heavily on. But as all that certainty begins to crumble, both actors retain an honesty in their performances that make their eventual fates all the more affecting. Taylor-Joy is similarly impressive in a role that, if  the movie had been set somehow in modern times, would have reduced her to little more than the screaming virgin who gets chased through the woods. But Thomasin proves to be more than that, and there’s a scene where she confronts William over his behaviour that is compelling for the way in which the hypocrisy of William’s religious stance is exposed as a cruel sham (and which gives both actors the chance to highlight the true cause of the family’s problems).

The soundtrack is a big part of the movie’s effectiveness, with dissonant noises and choral sounds reaching their own kind of fever pitch, and serving to illustrate the weird nature of the events taking place, as well as being eerie in their own right. The score by Mark Korven is also highly evocative, and has an unsettling nature to it that is occasionally unnerving when allied to the visuals. Those visuals are expertly composed by Jarin Blaschke, and the dour, oppressive feel of the Canadian location where the movie was made, is evident in almost every exterior shot. And Louise Ford’s careful, measured editing style adds further lustre to a movie that, otherwise, could have lapsed into wilful obscurity in terms of the narrative and its intensions.

Rating: 8/10 – an unnerving examination of one family’s disintegration due to a lack of true faith in themselves, The Witch is a horror movie that works on several levels and has an embarrassment of riches, not least in its casting; Eggers’ confidence in the material and the way it holds together is compelling, and the whole thing is drenched in the kind of suffocating atmosphere that lingers long after the movie has ended.

The Martian (2015)


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Martian, The

D: Ridley Scott / 144m

Cast: Matt Damon, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Michael Peña, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Benedict Wong, Mackenzie Davis, Donald Glover

On Mars to explore the terrain and collect samples, the crew of the spaceship Hermes, headed by Commander Melissa Lewis (Chastain), have established a habitat station (the Hab) that allows them to check their samples before sending the results back to NASA. It’s also a living space for them. When a fierce storm approaches more quickly than expected, and some of the team are caught outside, botanist Mark Watney (Damon) is struck by debris and catapulted out of sight. With little option but to abandon the habitat centre and return to the Hermes, Lewis makes the decision to leave Mars even though she wants to find Watney. When NASA learns what’s happened, its director, Teddy Sanders (Daniels), holds a press conference that details the mission’s current status, and Watney’s unfortunate death.

But Sanders’ declaration proves to be wrong. Watney is still alive, though when he wakes after the storm has passed, he has a piece of antenna sticking out of his torso. He makes it back to the habitat station where he removes the antenna and staples shut the wound. He then starts to work out how long he can survive on the rations left in the Hab, but quickly realises that he doesn’t anywhere near enough to sustain him until a rescue mission can reach him. Drawing on his knowledge as a botanist, Watney decides to use the Hab’s resources (including his and the crew’s waste), and the Martian soil to grow potatoes. Meanwhile, back at NASA, mission director Vincent Kapoor (Ejiofor) is alerted to the fact that there is unexpected movement occurring on Mars, and soon it becomes apparent to everyone that Watney is alive.

Watney travels to where the Pathfinder probe lies abandoned and manages to get it to transmit images back to Earth. He and NASA come up with a means of communicating with each other (even if it is a bit slow due to the distance between them), and soon Watney is able to establish a more stable comms link. With NASA determined to rescue Watney, they finally decide to tell his crewmates that he’s alive. They’re all pleased but angry as well for being left out of the loop. But disaster strikes, when an airlock decompression at the Hab destroys the potato crop, leaving Watney with only enough rations for around 200 days, and a rocket supply drop arranged by NASA malfunctions and blows up before it even leaves Earth’s atmosphere. With time running out, NASA must find a way of getting to Watney before his food runs out, and he has to find a way of making his food last as long as possible.

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An adaptation of the bestseller by Andy Weir, The Martian is something of a return to form for Ridley Scott, with the septuagenarian director making his most accessible and expertly constructed movie for some time. This is largely due to Drew Goddard’s assured, though not entirely flawless screenplay, which juggles successfully not only the hard science that keeps Watney alive (and making it relatable to the average viewer), but a myriad cast of characters, all of whom had the potential to become stereotypes. But Scott keeps all this in check and presents us with a sci-fi thriller that feels fresher than most recent outings (despite some obvious antecedents), and which features an impressive central performance from Matt Damon that helps ground the movie immeasurably.

So good, in fact, is Damon as the embattled astronaut of the title, that sometimes the events happening on Earth come as a bit of an intrusion. Yes, it’s good to see the effort being put in to rescue one man (even though you could argue that the cost of doing so would be too prohibitive for even the most caring of space agencies to consider), but these scenes too often feel like second cousins to those in Apollo 13 (1995), and Ejiofor’s character also feels like a close relative to his character from 2012 (2009). With this element of the narrative ticking several expected boxes, even down to the plucky, rule-bending astrodynamicist (Glover) who comes up with a plan to save Watney that no one else has thought of, it’s thanks to Goddard’s understanding of the necessity for these scenes, and Scott’s accomplished direction, they’re intrusion becomes less worrisome, and as Watney’s continued survival comes closer and closer to connecting with his rescue, the viewer can root for both camps.

But with so much happening back on Earth (and with such a large ensemble cast to cater to), the script doesn’t put Watney in as much jeopardy as Weir’s novel does. Part of the fun of reading the novel was that Weir consistently came up with ways to put Watney in danger, and he consistently made it seem as if Mars itself was conspiring to make Watney pay for being there. But here the suspense is lessened in favour of Watney’s unflagging determination to survive, which is admirable in itself, but there needs to be more in the way of peril, even if we can all guess the outcome. Harking back to Apollo 13, it was the way in which problems continued to mount on that mission that heightened the drama, and the way in which each problem was overcome that made it all the more engrossing and exciting. Here, Watney’s methodical, never-say-die attitude ensures that each setback is dealt with matter-of-factly and in double-quick time (and usually by virtue of a montage). By taking some of the natural tension of the situation away, the gravity of Watney’s dilemma is lessened when it should have had us on the edge of our seats.

But Damon holds it all together, making Watney a pleasure to spend time with, and be sympathetic of. The little dance and shouts of joy he makes when he discovers he can talk to NASA is a small moment of inspiration, especially when he looks round to check if anyone has seen him. And Damon is equally good at expressing the character’s somewhat arrogant sense of humour and keeping the viewer on his side, even with lines such as “They say once you grow crops somewhere, you have officially colonised it. So technically, I colonised Mars. In your face, Neil Armstrong!” There are few actors audiences would want to spend an entire movie with, alone, but Damon is one of them, and he keeps the viewer focused on what is essentially one man’s battle for survival against (almost) impossible odds.

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He’s supported by a great ensemble cast headed up by the ever reliable Ejiofor, with Wiig playing serious for once, and Daniels giving Sanders a sardonic air that fits well with his job as director of NASA. Chastain and Peña grab most of the limelight from Mara, Stan and Hennie as Watney’s fellow astronauts, and The Martian marks one of the few occasions when Sean Bean’s character in a movie doesn’t get killed (he’s also part of a great joke involving The Lord of the Rings). As you’d expect from a movie directed by Ridley Scott, it all looks incredible, with Jordan standing in for Mars, Arthur Max’s expressive production design, and very impressive cinematography from Dariusz Wolski (Scott’s go-to DoP for his last few movies). And on the music front, anyone expecting to hear David Bowie’s Life on Mars? at some point will find that Scott has gone for Starman instead, and there’s the completely unexpected use of ABBA’s Dancing Queen, which should feel out of place but is surprisingly apt for the point at which it’s used.

Rating: 8/10 – good sci-fi these days is rare (as anyone who’s seen Prometheus (2012) should know – sorry, Ridley), but The Martian is that rare beast, and is intelligent enough overall to overcome a few narrative concerns; with Damon in commanding form, and the drama of the situation sufficiently gripping, being stranded on another planet has never seemed so tempting.

The Walk (2015)


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Walk, The

D: Robert Zemeckis / 123m

Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon, James Badge Dale, Clément Sibony, César Domboy, Steve Valentine, Ben Schwartz, Benedict Samuel

1973. Philippe Petit (Gordon-Levitt) is a street entertainer in Paris, France, who includes some wire work in his act, usually strung between two trees and without the benefit of having a permit. One day he accepts a gobstopper from a young girl in his audience, but when he bites into it, it causes a painful problem that he goes straight to the dentist with. While in the waiting-room he sees a magazine article on New York’s Twin Towers. Straightaway, Petit knows what he has to do: he has to learn the intricacies of high wire work, and from the acknowledged master, Papa Rudy (Kingsley), in order that he can fulfil his dream of walking between the Twin Towers on just a length of cable. Rudy agrees to teach him. Aided by his girlfriend, Annie (Le Bon), and mutual friend, Jean-Louis (Sibony), Petit determines to travel to New York and carry out his dream.

Once there, Petit enlists the aid of further “accomplices”, such as J.P. (Dale) and Barry Greenhouse (Valentine), who works in the South Tower. Several visits to the site are made in an effort to discover the best time for stringing the cable between the two buildings, and more importantly, when Petit should make the crossing. Petit, though, steps on a nail and injures his right foot, but won’t hear of cancelling or postponing the high wire walk (which has been set for 6 August 1974, and is called The Coup). Aided by Jean-Francois (aka Jeff) (Domboy) and two others recruited by J.P., Petit forges ahead with his plan and they manage to sneak all the relevant equipment into both buildings. But on the night of the 5th, with Petit planning to commence his walk across “the Void” at 6am, the presence of a night guard, and some unexpected problems with the cable and the lines used to stop it from wobbling, throw the endeavour off schedule. Eventually, with Jeff to help him, and Jean-Louis on the other tower, and with Annie, J.P. and Barry watching from the street, Petit takes his first steps out onto the wire…

Walk, The - scene

James Marsh’s documentary on Philippe Petit, Man on Wire (2008), won the Best Documentary Feature Oscar in 2009, as well as a whole raft of other awards from around the world. The one criticism that can be levelled against what is otherwise a very good examination of Petit’s particular brand of “artistic madness”, is that there’s no footage of Petit walking between the Twin Towers. In the hands of Robert Zemeckis, The Walk seeks to remedy this by putting the audience up there with Petit, and by showing just how dangerous it was. However, the key phrase here is “seeks to remedy”, as by and large, Zemeckis takes his cue from Petit himself and dismisses any attempt to instil any fear or heart-pounding terror into the walk itself. While it may well be true that Petit was confident of his abilities, and that the walk – or walks: he traversed the wire several times – was easier than he’d expected, but once he’s out there, the tension that Zemeckis and co-screenwriter Christopher Browne have so successfully created in the movie’s third act (of four) swiftly evaporates.

The movie takes an odd approach to the material, and feels schizophrenic as a result, with a first half that concentrates, in a very old-fashioned Hollywood way, on Petit as a young man just starting out as a street performer, before becoming inspired to walk between the towers. It has the look and feel of a regular biography, with key moments ticked off against a list, and with any potential spontaneity halted before it’s given a chance to start (there’s even a scene where Petit and Annie are getting to know each other by romantic candlelight). And if truth be told, these scenes aren’t even that interesting, delaying as they do the central focus of the movie, namely that walk. Petit shows off his arrogance, Annie melts under his charm too quickly, and things happen with a convenience and disregard for clarity that it’s easier just to go along with it all and wait for the movie to pick up by itself.

Which it does once Petit and friends start “casing the joint” and begin installing the equipment they need. This stretch of the movie contains the most tension and is easily the most compelling, as obstacles need to be overcome and the Coup becomes in danger of being cancelled indefinitely. As the fiercely determined Petit, Gordon-Levitt holds it all together, and if his accent slips from time to time, it’s not the end of the world. He channels Petit’s passion for high wire work with aplomb, even if the character – as written – isn’t as socially aloof or as difficult to work with as Man on Wire revealed. Gordon-Levitt also proves to be a proficient high wire walker, having spent time learning how to do it for real. It’s this level of commitment that helps the movie overcome the weakness inherent in the narrative, the one that doesn’t allow the other characters to be as fleshed out as Petit.

Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) and Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in TriStar Pictures' THE WALK.

While people like Le Bon, Valentine, and Dale left to stand on the sidewalk and stare at proceedings through binoculars, it’s left to Gordon-Levitt and Domboy to ratchet up the tension, especially Domboy, whose character Jeff, is terrified of heights. Kingsley floats in and out of the narrative and acts purely as a mine of information or encouraging mentor. But while the main performances, however truncated by the need to fit as much in as possible, are comfortably undemanding of the cast, don’t let them die.

Another issue is the unconvincing CGI work carried out once Petit and Jeff are on the roof of the South Tower. The backdrops are impressively detailed, but it’s not enough to allow them to look any better. They stand out against their surroundings, and unfortunately, it’s distracting, as well as a shock to see that an innovator like Zemeckis can’t overcome the lighting issues that have caused this effect. And even more unfortunately, when the camera swings or pans its way over and around Petit’s head when he’s on the wire, there’s no real sense of depth to the image, no sense that this is a very long way down (or somewhere very high up). Petit’s own storytelling image, the emphasis he puts on the danger, and the awkward position it puts him in with the authorities is nicely handled but it’s all too little, too late. And the decision to have Petit holding forth on his exploits from the top of the Statue of Liberty may have semed like a good idea at the time, but in actuality it’s off-putting and makes for dramatically turgid viewing.

The movie does benefit from a classy, contemporary score by the ever reliable Alan Silvestri, while the movie – on the ground, at least – offers some superb visuals courtesy of Dariusz Wolski. If the movie tries to include too much of Petit’s history for its own good, then the end result is a little uneven, and still very ragged in places, but overall the movie does have its charms, and some viewers may yet find themselves overcome by some of the aerial shots

Rating: 6/10 – too uneven and too much like a soap opera in the first half, The Walk treads the Hollywood line once too often to create a movie no one will be able to remember even when they’re buying it; a disappointment then (even in IMAX 3D), and not as gripping as it should have been, it’s still a much more attractive proposition than most movies that are out at the moment.

BFI London Film Festival 2015


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This year’s BFI London Film Festival began on 7 October 2015 with a gala screening of Suffragette. The festival, which boasts 240 films from 72 countries in 16 cinemas over 12 days, is a must-visit for this particular blogger, and each year I aim to cram as many movies into five days as I possibly can. This year, I was able to see two extra movies, the surprising and brutal Bone Tomahawk, and Black Mass, which sees Johnny Depp remind everyone he can still act/put in a good performance/be hypnotic for all the right reasons. With those movies already under my belt – and having proved so good as well – my optimism for the other movies I’ve chosen to see is running high.

As an appetiser for those five days (and to give everyone an idea of some of the movies that are likely to be reviewed in the near future), here are the movies I’ve pinned my hopes on, and which will hopefully prove to be as gripping and/or entertaining, or as absorbing and/or rewarding as they look likely to be. (A special thanks to the various reviewers on the BFI website, whose capsule reviews I’ve taken the liberty of adapting for this post.)

Wednesday 14 October

The Witch – In 17th-century New England, a devout Christian family are banished from their plantation. They relocate to a humble farm situated on the edge of a dense forest to live a life of self-sufficiency. With the elements taking their toll and food growing scarce, the family are thrown into despair when their youngest child inexplicably goes missing. As they hunt desperately for the lost child, tensions and paranoia breeds within the family and the growing belief that a supernatural force is at work slowly leads them to turn on each other.

Witch, The

Chronic – An uncompromising study of grief and isolation, which focuses on David, a full time care-giver for the terminally ill. Seemingly altruistic and entirely devoted to his work, it becomes clear that David’s dedication to his patients comes at the expense of his own personal life and with each new client his attachment to them veers increasingly toward the unhealthy. Starring Tim Roth.


Desierto – Whilst attempting to cross the border from Mexico into the United States, a group of illegal immigrants find themselves stranded when their truck breaks down, leaving them no choice but to make the rest of the journey by foot. But upon entering US territory, the gang become the unsuspecting target of a gun toting racist who has taken the concept of border control into his own hands, and is determined to pick them off one by one. The second feature from Jonás Cuarón.


The Ones Below – Kate and Justin are a successful, wealthy couple expecting the birth of their first child. One day they notice that the vacant apartment below theirs has new occupants, Jon and Theresa, a married couple also expecting a new addition to the family. Kate and Theresa strike up a tentative friendship, but while Kate experiences fears and doubts concerning her pregnancy, Theresa is filled with the unquestioning joys of impending motherhood, as though it were her life’s vocation. When Kate and Justin have their new neighbours over for dinner, an already awkward night is shattered by a tragic accident which has a chilling impact on all their lives.

Ones Below, The

Thursday 15 October

Carol – Therese (Rooney Mara) is an aspiring photographer, working in a Manhattan department store where she first encounters Carol (Cate Blanchett), an alluring older woman whose marriage is breaking down. Ambushed by their sudden attraction, the two women gravitate toward each other despite the threat their connection poses to both Therese’s relationship with her steady beau and Carol’s custody of her beloved young daughter. The latest from Todd Haynes.


Truman – A character study of two old friends – Julián and Tomás – who are reunited, just as Julián is entering the final stages of cancer. Tomás flies over from Canada to Madrid to visit the ailing actor and his pet dog Truman, to whom Julián is devoted. Over four intense days, as the focus of conversation constantly reverts to the notion of mortality, the friends look back on their lives – their loves, successes and failures – and speculate on what the future holds.


Green Room – When an unsigned punk band, The Ain’t Rights, book an impromtu gig at a seedy dive bar frequented by neo-Nazis, they are expecting a tough night. But when they accidentally become witness to a murder, the band find themselves trapped in the venue’s green room, hunted down by a gang of thuggish mercenaries (fronted by a truly unsettling Patrick Stewart) determined to ensure they keep their mouths shut.

Green Room

Friday 16 October

The End of the Tour – A low-key two-hander by James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now), which documents the five days that Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky (played by Jesse Eisenberg) spent with acclaimed writer David Foster Wallace in 1996, following a national tour to promote his novel Infinite Jest. Based on the many hours of taped conversations that Lipsky recorded, Ponsoldt’s film creates an intimate portrait of the man and his art, anchored by an intuitive performance from Jason Segel as Wallace.

End of the Tour, The

Rediscovered Laurel and Hardy: The Battle of the Century (1927) – The long, thought-to-be-lost Laurel and Hardy silent comedy, The Battle of the Century has been rediscovered via the ‘Mostly Lost’ film Workshop at the Library of Congress Film department. It comes courtesy of a collector – an eagle-eyed film accompanist – and has been restored by Serge Bromberg. The eponymous battle starts in the ring then turns into a battle royale of staggering scale… with pies! Only half of the film had been available to watch – including a section of the pie fight – until now. Also showing: You’re Darn Tootin’ (1928), Double Whoopee (1929), and Big Business (1929).

Battle of the Century, The

Saturday 17 October

Schneider vs. Bax – Nobody wants to work on their birthday. Neither does Schneider (Tom Dewispelaere), a suburban father whose glamorous wife is planning a dinner party to celebrate. Nevertheless, he takes the job and travels to the countryside where he must shoot and kill one Ramon Bax, a novelist who lives alone in the reed fields of the Netherlands. It should be a piece of cake for a slick and experienced professional killer like Schneider, but much like Bax, nothing in this oddball thriller is easy to execute: the writer’s neurotic daughter turns up unexpectedly, while the assassin accidentally picks up an unwanted passenger along the way.

Tom Dewispelaere

Ruben Guthrie – ‘Let’s get smashed!’ The battle cry of our eponymous, party animal ad-man proves inadvertently prophetic after a drunken rooftop dive from his swanky Sydney pad. Adding insult to near-fatal injury, Ruben’s long-suffering Czech model fiancée Zoya walks out, issuing an ultimatum: quit alcohol for a whole year and she’ll return. Maybe. Sceptical at first, it’s only when Ruben genuinely attempts to sober up that he realises just how much his job, his lifestyle and an entire society isn’t just underpinned by boozy excess, but actively enables it.

Ruben Guthrie

Sunday 18 October

Sunset Song – It’s the early 20th-century in rural Scotland and Chris Guthrie is a young woman with plans. Excelling at her schooling and in possession of a burgeoning independent streak, she seems destined for a job in teaching. But family life has its own pull and her religious father exerts a formidable force on his brood, as well as on her mother whose body he treats as both refuge and battleground. As the constellation of her family shifts around her and romance comes calling, Chris grows into womanhood just as the First World War begins to devastate a generation. The latest from Terence Davies.

Sunset Song

Sherlock Holmes (1916) – News that a long sought-after Sherlock Holmes film had been found caused a sensation amongst fans of the great detective. It was based on the popular play by William Gillette and links film representations back to this key stage work in the Holmesian canon. Gillette made a unique contribution to our image of how Holmes looks and to the development of the character of Moriarty. Gillette’s performance is the key thing to watch out for here. And for Chaplin fans, there is a chance to see the character of Billy in action, which he played on stage back in 1903. Beautifully restored and tinted by Rob Byrne of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

Sherlock Holmes

The Wave – Kristoffer Joner plays Kristian Eikfjord, a first-rate geologist who is about to leave the remote town of Geiranger, Norway to take a top job with an oil company in the big city. Leaving his wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp) to join them later, Kristian sets off with the kids, but some unexplained power outages in the nearby mountains are playing on his mind. If his suspicions of an impending landfall are correct, the town will have only ten minutes to evacuate before an 80ft tsunami engulfs it.

Wave, The

Bone Tomahawk (2015)


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Bone Tomahawk

D: S. Craig Zahler / 132m

Cast: Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, Richard Jenkins, Lili Simmons, David Arquette, Kathryn Morris, Fred Melamed, Sean Young, Sid Haig, Evan Jonigkeit

The quiet town of Bright Hope finds itself host to thief and murderer Purvis (Arquette). With his behaviour proving suspicious to town deputy, Chicory (Jenkins), Purvis’s attempt to resist arrest by the sheriff, Franklin Hunt (Russell) leads to his being shot in the leg and put in jail. Later the same night, while being tended by the town’s medic, Samantha O”Dwyer (Simmons), and guarded by young deputy Nick (Jonigkeit), the jail is attacked and the trio are abducted.

When this is discovered the next morning, Hunt seeks advice from a local Indian scout as to who could have done such a thing, as a peculiarly shaped arrow was found at the scene. The scout is quick to tell Hunt that it’s the work of troglodytes, a flesh-eating “clan” that live in the nearby hills; he also tells Hunt he won’t go with him as any attempt to rescue the missing will be guaranteed to fail, and anyone who goes will die. Hunt has no choice but to go, as does Samantha’s husband, Arthur (Wilson), even though he recently broke his right leg and it’s still in a splint. John Brooder (Fox), the man who introduced the O’Dwyer’s to each other, feels obliged to go, and despite Hunt’s objections, Chicory insists on going as well.

The four set out alone into the nearby hills. They encounter a couple of Mexicans who prove to be scouts for a larger group of bandits. When the bandits attack one night, Brooder is injured, and O’Dwyer’s broken leg is further damaged. With no choice but to reset his leg, and leave him to recover – and if able to, follow them later – Hunt, Brooder and Chicory continue on. As they get nearer to the hills where the troglodytes are supposed to live, the trio begin to hear strange unearthly noises. Hunt is convinced these are warnings; the discovery of human and animal skulls near to a gulley serves as a further caution. When they’re ambushed by a group of troglodytes, Brooder suffers a more serious injury, while Hunt’s left arm is hit by an arrow, and Chicory recieves a nasty head wound. With Brooder too injured to continue, Hunt and Chicory make their way nearer to the cave that appears to be the troglodytes home. But they’re ambushed again and this time they’re captured and taken to the troglodytes’ cave. Meanwhile, O’Dwyer regains consciousness, and sets out to follow the others and  rescue his wife…

Bone Tomahawk - scene

A strange, mercurial hybrid of Western and Horror, Bone Tomahawk is a movie that consistently outdoes its low budget in terms of originality, unexpected twists and turns in the narrative, and a recurring sense of humour that often threatens to undermine the seriousness of the drama, but which actually works as an escape valve for the tension that first-time director Zahler seems able to pull together at will. At times, this isn’t a movie for the faint-hearted or the squeamish – Nick’s fate is particularly gruesome – but in amongst the sometimes extreme violence and the matter-of-fact tone that accompanies it, Zahler manages to explore themes of masculinity, comradeship, loss, self-sacrifice, and most surprisingly of all, manifest destiny.

From the outset, this is a Western that isn’t interested in telling a typical Western story, and although it bears a (very) basic resemblance to John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), it soon abandons any pretense at wanting to emulate that classic movie by taking a no-nonsense approach to the times, and the events that unfold. It also steers away from traditional Western motifs by having its quartet of lawful avengers put at a disadvantage right from the start, with O’Dwyer’s broken leg proving exactly the type of hindrance that’s likely to get them all killed. When they’re forced to leave him behind, not only does the size of their task increase, but also the likelihood of their ending up as buffet for the troglodytes increases too; they soldier on because they want to for each other, not because they have to for the abductees, which was how they set out.

By changing this kind of stance along the way, and by making their opponents so animalistic as to be unreasonable, Zahler avoids any sentimentality that might occur in a regular Western, and isn’t afraid to put his characters through the wringer, so much so that there are times when the viewer isn’t sure if any of the quartet will survive, or if they do, how intact they’ll be. With a rugged, inhospitable looking backdrop to the action (expertly rendered by DoP Benji Bakshi), the main characters’ confidence is slowly eroded by their surroundings and the troglodytes’ uncompromising ferocity, and this is where Zahler’s ability to ratchet up the tension is most prevalent – how are they going to get out of this alive? It’s an interesting question, as by the movie’s end it’s not about the survival of the fittest, but survival at any cost.

With so many weighty themes to incorporate, and with the violence and escalating tension proving so effective, it’s left to Jenkins’ daft, lovably clueless deputy to provide some much needed humour. There’s a lovely moment when he insists a travelling flea circus was operated by real live fleas, and he continually misunderstands things that have been said or done. Jenkins strikes just the right note of encroaching senility mixed with amiable foolishness and is a joy to watch as a result. Elsewhere, Russell’s flinty portrayal of Hunt will remind viewers of his turn as Wyatt Earp in Tombstone (1993), and his whiskers should by rights be given a movie of their own. It’s good to see him play a character who makes so many mistakes, and if he maintains a degree of unshakeable tenacity throughout, then the movie is all the better for it (even if it’s cruelly undermined by the troglodyte leader’s treatment of him).

Bone Tomahawk - scene2

As the equally tenacious O’Dwyer, Wilson is headstrong, determined and completely focused on the task ahead, even though O’Dwyer will suffer for it. As his captive wife, Simmons is appealing and vulnerable, and more resigned to her fate than anyone would surmise. Both give credible performances and are matched by Fox’s belligerent martinet Brooder, a man as out of place in the quartet as he is oddly appealing. With Arquette and Morris (as Hunt’s wife) offering strong support, the movie benefits from having assembled a fine cast who are all committed to telling the tale at hand, and their are fine turns from the likes of Haig and Melamed in minor roles that add to the richness of the characters.

With a low budget fixed in place, Zahler is forced to resort to some necessary sleight of hand in telling his story. The troglodytes’ cave is reduced to one static location that features little in the way of set dressing, and there’s a sense that the exterior scenes were all shot in the same place but from different angles to hide the repetition. There’s also a problem with the pace, as some scenes – notably those where Hunt et al travel to the hills – are flat and in need of tightening up. Otherwise, Zahler’s debut is a taut, gripping endeavour that breathes new life into a (mostly) moribund genre, and is a great way of announcing there’s a new director in town who’s definitely worth watching out for.

Rating: 8/10 – a surprise on so many levels, Bone Tomahawk is an uncompromising,  unapologetic movie that revels in its ability to subvert the Western genre, and gives us a tribe of inbred cannibals that easily surpasses the cartoon equivalents in the Wrong Turn series; with a great cast clearly relishing their roles, and assured writing and direction from Zahler, this is meaty stuff indeed, and a rare treat.

Mini-Review: Knock Knock (2015)


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Knock Knock

D: Eli Roth / 100m

Cast: Keanu Reeves, Lorenza Izzo, Ana de Armas, Aaron Burns, Ignacia Allamand, Colleen Camp

Architect and committed family man Evan Webber (Reeves) is forced to stay home for the weekend due to work commitments, while his artist wife, Karen (Allamand), and their two children go to the beach. On the first night he’s hard at work when he hears a knock at the front door. Not expecting anyone, he’s surprised to find two young women – Bel (de Armas) and Genesis (Izzo) – trying to find the location of a party they’re going to, and who are soaked through thanks to the rain. He lets them in to wait for another taxi, and gives them robes to wear while their clothes are put in the drier. He’s hospitable and friendly, but as the two women begin to flirt with him, Evan becomes uncomfortable. When the taxi finally arrives and he tries to give the girls back their clothes, he finds them in the bathroom, naked, and wanting very much to have sex with him.

Evan succumbs to their advances and they end up having a threesome. The next morning, he wakes to find Genesis and Bel have no intention of leaving. When they vandalise one of his wife’s sculptures, he threatens to call the police, but they call his bluff by saying they’d have an interesting story to tell the police, what with their being underage. Evan is shocked, and backs down, and the young women continue to disregard his pleas not to interfere or damage anything. Eventually he gets so mad he starts to call the police to report a break-in, and the women agree to leave. He drops them off where they’re supposed to live, and back home, cleans up all the mess they’ve created. Later that night, Evan is working again when he hears a noise. He goes to investigate and is knocked unconscious by Genesis. When he comes to he finds himself tied to the bed, and that both Genesis and Bel are determined to make him suffer for his actions of the night before.

Knock Knock - scene

“Knock knock.

Who’s there?

A pretty awful movie by Eli Roth.

Sorry, we’re out.”

A remake of Death Game (1977), which starred one of this movie’s producers, Sondra Locke, and cast member Colleen Camp, Knock Knock has all the tension and edge-of-your-seat suspense of an episode of The Simpsons. It’s stupid, ridiculous, annoying, derivative, farcical, erratic, ludicrous, woeful, preposterous, idiotic, and just plain dumb. It’s a psychological thriller that forgets all about the “logical” and plumps for the “psycho” side of things with a passion that will leave most viewers shaking their heads in disbelief. This is a home invasion movie where you can’t feel sympathy for Reeves’ character, or the barmy antics of Genesis and Bel, or even the unlucky Louis (Burns), Karen’s assistant, who proves that an asthmatic can still play piggy-in-the-middle long after they should have collapsed fighting for their breath.

The script, co-written by Roth, Nicolás López and Guillermo Amoedo, is a lumpen mess that judders from one unconvincing scene to another, and resolutely avoids giving Evan the chance to gain the upper hand, keeping him the shouting, sweating victim throughout, while making Bel and Genesis the equivalent of avenging angels (though why they do what they do is obscured by their commitment to behaving like five year olds on a sugar high). Reeves is also lumbered with some of the most awful dialogue written in recent years, and it shows up his deficiencies as an actor (it doesn’t help that for most of the movie’s second half, and one rant aside, his general reaction to what’s happening to him is to repeat the F-word). And Roth, whose caché as a director is becoming increasingly devalued, directs each scene as if it’s completely independent of the ones before and after it, and shows no interest in making it exciting or dramatic for the viewer.

Rating: 3/10 – a wince-inducing thriller that remains a huge waste of time, and confirms Evan’s question part way through of “What’s the point?” with every subsequent scene; more knock-off than remake, Knock Knock plays around with a decent clutch of ideas but ultimately hasn’t got a clue what to do with any of them.

Trailer – Hail, Caesar! (2016)


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You’ve got to hand it to the Coen Brothers, they sure know how to make a period movie shine. Watching the trailer for their latest movie is like opening a window onto an older but seemingly more vibrant time, with the colour design and the lighting making the whole thing look lit up from within. Even if the story isn’t up to much – and who am I kidding? – Hail, Caesar! looks certain to be one of 2016’s most beautifully lensed movies (thanks to the estimable Roger Deakins), uproariously funny, and with its affectionate recreation of Hollywood in the 1950’s, looks certain to be in the running for an Oscar or two come 2017. And if you think the cast highlighted in the trailer is pretty good, that’s without Dolph Lundgren, David Krumholtz, Clancy Brown, Christopher Lambert, Fred Melamed, and Robert Picardo being included as well.

Paper Towns (2015)


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Paper Towns

D: Jake Schreier / 109m

Cast: Nat Wolff, Cara Delevingne, Austin Abrams, Justice Smith, Halston Sage, Jaz Sinclair, Cara Buono

Ever since Margo Roth Spiegelman (Delevingne) moved in across the street from Quentin “Q” Jacobsen (Wolff) when they were kids, Quentin has looked on her as his one true love. But even though they grew up together as friends, and spent a great deal of time together, they’ve drifted apart and no longer even acknowledge each other in high school. All that changes however when, one night, Margo comes in through Q’s bedroom window and asks to borrow a car. She tells him that she has nine things she needs to do that night (some of which are illegal), and she needs his help. Reluctant at first, Q agrees to help her, and they take his mother’s car and head to the nearest Costco.

There they pick up various supplies including duct tape, a lot of Saran wrap, and a raw catfish. Margo explains that she’s out to get revenge on her boyfriend and her close friends; her boyfriend has been cheating on her with one of her friends, and at least one more friend knew it was happening and didn’t say anything. As the night progresses, and they play prank after prank, it becomes more and more like the times they spent together as kids, and Q finds his attraction for Margo rekindled. The next day though there’s no sign of Margo; a few more days pass before it becomes clear that Margo has disappeared.

Q is certain that Margo has left for a reason and that she wants to be found. He bribes her younger sister to look for clues in her bedroom. A Walt Whitman quote leads Q to finding a note with an address on it. With his friends Radar (Smith) and Ben (Abrams), he goes there and finds an abandoned store but they don’t find another clue. The next day, Q is approached by Lacey (Sage), one of Margo’s friends who is concerned about what’s happened to her. When the boys go back to the abandoned store she follows them there, and the four of them discover an atlas with a page torn out, a page that indicates Margo has gone to a small town in upstate New York called Agloe.

Q decides to throw caution to the wind and travel to Agloe. His friends, and Lacey, all agree to go with him, but only as long as they can get back in time for the upcoming prom. Radar’s girlfriend, Angela (Sinclair), comes along with them. Along the way they have a near-miss with a cow that sees their car spin off the road. Stranded for the night, Ben and Lacey develop a fondness for each other, while Radar and Angela pre-empt the plans they have for after the prom. The next day, with the car repaired, they finally make it to Agloe, but what they find there isn’t exactly what Q expected…

Paper Towns - scene

A teen romance where the romance is potentially illusory, and a teen drama where the drama is assembled through the filter of a mystery, Paper Towns is a heartfelt ode to teenage longing and seizing the moment. It features several moments where it seems the narrative is being forced along by contrivance and crude coincidence, but the movie has the presence of mind to excuse itself by a trick of the very same narrative. This is to do with the clues Margo has left behind, and the way in which Q responds to them, but as they are the crux of the matter – even more so than Q and Margo’s relationship – it’s hard to imagine the movie working out in any other way, faithful as it is to the structure and tone of John Green’s novel.

However, what is difficult to pin down successfully in the novel is also difficult to pin down in the movie. Q’s commitment/devotion/attachment to Margo is never quite believable, despite Wolff’s compelling performance, and hinges on that one night of prankdom that in itself seems unlikely. Some viewers might not be too concerned by Margo’s appearance in Q’s room after so long, but it’s hard to believe that after so long “apart” that she would rekindle their friendship, and then make it so memorable for Q before disappearing. And Q’s disappointment only lasts until it becomes clear that Margo has run away, but instead of feeling taken advantage of, he becomes certain she wants him to find her. All of which begs the question, is Q just lovesick, or a stalker in training?

Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter’s adaptation does its best to portray Q’s search for Margo as the grand romantic gesture it appears to be, but the script never manages to make his obsession credible or based on anything but an intellectual challenge (can he find her from the clues she’s left behind?). As a result, and again despite Wolff’s engaging portrayal, Q comes across as a loyal puppy dog willing to do whatever he believes his mistress wants him to do. So wedded to the idea of his being with Margo does Q become that a more appropriate liaison with Lacey is quickly nipped in the bud by pairing her off with Ben, a relationship that would be more credible in a Revenge of the Nerds movie.

In the end the movie’s central concept is that we – or more particularly Q – should live for the moment, and create our own dreams instead of following someone else’s, and while this is a tenet that’s worth taking to heart, here it follows in the footsteps of too many other teen dramas to be either relevant or anything other than jaded. But thanks to its gifted cast, and a sense of fun that is more appealing than the drama that occupies centre stage, the movie is by no means a chore to watch, and features warm, soothing cinematography by David Lanzenberg, and a charming score by Son Lux. Schreier’s direction is unobtrusive for the most part, and with the help of Wolff and Delevingne he imbues the scenes between Q and Margo with a sense of unspoken yet mutual affection that is entirely touching.

Rating: 7/10 – in many respects a missed opportunity, Paper Towns has a superficial fascination that draws in the viewer but will leave them feeling less than fully satisfied by the movie’s end; competently made but missing that vital spark needed to make the material sing, it has another delightful performance from Wolff, and gives Delevingne the chance to shine in what is the movie’s most important, and unexpectedly fascinating, supporting role.


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