10 Reasons to Remember Bibi Andersson (1935-2019)

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Bibi Andersson (11 November 1935 – 14 April 2019)

An actress who will always be remembered for her work with director Ingmar Bergman (she made ten movies and three television features with him), Bibi Andersson was an inspiration to Bergman and many of the directors she worked with on other projects, from Mai Zetterling to John Huston to Robert Altman. She had always wanted to be an actress, and began pursuing her dream at an early age; while at school and aged only thirteen, she met Bergman who cast her in a soap commercial. Far from being a collaboration (those were to come much later), Andersson nevertheless impressed Bergman enough to be given roles in several of his Fifties movies, and in particular, two features from 1957 that came to be regarded as bona fide classics of both Swedish and international cinema. She was often the young, pretty, effervescent ingenue, and her bright personality shone through.

In the Sixties she began to take on more complex, and demanding roles, exploring facets of female behaviour that marked her out as a talented actress who wasn’t solely dependent on her mentor to give fine portrayals and acclaimed performances. Her career became more and more impressive for its ever-broadening range, and for some unexpected choices, such as her first English language movie, Duel at Diablo (1966). In that same year she gave perhaps the best performance of her entire career, as the overly talkative, insecure nurse who looks after Liv Ullmann’s mute patient in Persona. In some ways, though, this was the peak of her career, and though she continued to work steadily through the late Sixties and into the Seventies, by the end of that decade she was working primarily in theatre and television. The Eighties saw her continue to split her time between the movies, theatre and television, until in 1990, she began directing plays as well, and resumed her working relationship with Bergman on a number of stage productions. During this time Andersson also became involved as a supervisor on the Road to Sarajevo humanitarian project. She made her last big screen appearance in 2009, the same year that she suffered a devastating stroke that left her unable to speak. An actress who kept getting better and better, Andersson leaves behind a tremendous, award-winning body of work spanning five decades, and a legacy that should continue to inspire young, committed actresses even today.

1 – The Seventh Seal (1957)

2 – Wild Strawberries (1957)

3 – So Close to Life (1958)

4 – The Mistress (1962)

5 – Persona (1966)

6 – The Passion of Anna (1969)

7 – The Touch (1971)

8 – I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (1977)

9 – An Enemy of the People (1978)

10 – A Hill on the Dark Side of the Moon (1983)

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Fantasia (1940)

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D: James Algar, Samuel Armstrong, Ford Beebe Jr, Norman Ferguson, David Hand, Jim Handley, T. Hee, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield, Ben Sharpsteen / 125m

With: Deems Taylor (narrator), Leopold Stokowski

Viewing Fantasia nearly eighty years after its release, it’s astonishing to think just how much of a gamble this was for Disney. Borne out of a desire to boost the popularity of Mickey Mouse, Disney began work in 1936 on a deluxe cartoon short featuring Mickey called The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, but as the budget increased beyond its original expectations, Walt Disney realised that on its own, the short wouldn’t be profitable. In 1938, the decision was made to create a feature length movie that would include not only The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, but seven other animated sequences based on well known pieces of classical music. With conductor Leopold Stokowski already on board as the movie’s musical director, Disney forged ahead with the kind of project that had never been done before – and until its belated sequel, Fantasia 2000 (1999), wouldn’t be attempted again. And this was only Disney’s third full-length animated feature. There’s no modern corollary for this; only the House of Mouse has made anything remotely like Fantasia, and perhaps it’s because there’s a very obvious reason: it’s that good.

It’s a perfect combination of music and visuals, each segment given its own unique style and presentation, and the animation is so beautifully in tune with the music that it’s easy to be drawn into the narratives and to be carried along by the emotions invoked by the music. Whether it’s a sense of wonder at the depiction of Earth’s beginnings as portrayed via Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky, or the fun to be had from the animal ballets of Amilcare Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours, or even the menacing apparition of the devil Chernabog in Modest Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, the combination of sound and vision is hugely impressive. It’s a movie where the range of the animators’ imagination is such that the viewer is taken to places they could never have expected, and shown sights that remain indelible once seen. Conceptually bold, and daring, the movie is a panoply of colour and sound that is transformative and vibrant, the music soaring and dipping in time with the imagery, at once urgent and demanding of our attention, at other times, subtle and intriguing, and on yet other occasions, sensitive and emotive, all of it providing a wellspring of extraordinary moments.

That it continues to hold up as well as it does – it is, after all, a masterpiece – should be no surprise. Disney was so confident in its ability to enthrall and amaze that he planned to re-release the movie every so often with a new segment replacing one of the originals each time. But poor box office returns (the movie didn’t turn a profit until its 1969 re-release), and the US entering World War II put paid to Disney’s plan. But even though a sequel was eventually made, Fantasia should be appreciated for being one of a kind, a movie no one else could have made except Disney, and one that continues to astound today, even with all the advances made in CG animation. It’s also quite obviously not a children’s movie – though they might enjoy Mickey’s antics and the dancing hippos – and this is another reason why it’s such an ambitious movie: it knows there’s an audience out there for it, and it trusts that people will find it and appreciate it. Again, whether it’s the abstract visual concepts employed for the opening Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach, or the centaurian revels depicted in the mythical Greco-Roman world created for Ludwig van Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, Fantasia remains a fascinating, delightful, wonderful, and hugely effective exercise in exploring the boundaries of then-contemporary animation – and revealing the beauty of what’s been discovered beyond those boundaries.

Rating: 9/10 – the use of music is sublime, and so is the animation that accompanies it, and it’s this perfect melding of the two art forms that make Fantasia such an amazing and entertaining movie experience; breathtaking in its scope and ambition, it’s a movie that has never been bettered, and which stands even now as a testament to the visionary talents of its creator.

Dances With Wolves (1990) – The Special Edition

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D: Kevin Costner / 234m

Cast: Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, Graham Greene, Rodney A. Grant, Floyd ‘Red Crow’ Westerman, Tantoo Cardinal, Robert Pastorelli, Charles Rocket, Maury Chaykin

After being wounded during a Civil War battle and receiving a citation for bravery, First Lieutenant John J. Dunbar (Costner) is offered his choice of posting in the Union Army. He chooses to be sent to the western frontier, and shortly after arrives at Fort Hays. There, he’s assigned to a remote outpost, Fort Sedgewick, but when he reaches it he finds it deserted. Electing to stay there anyway, Dunbar settles in despite the threat of marauding Indians in the area, and begins rebuiding and restocking the fort. Time passes and no other troops come to support him, but Dunbar is happy with the solitude, although his Sioux neighbours begin to take an interest in him. Deciding it would be a good idea to make contact with them, Dunbar sets off towards their camp. Along the way he encounters Stands With a Fist (McConnell), a white woman adopted when she was a child by the tribe’s medicine man, Kicking Bird (Greene). As he gets to learn more about them, Dunbar comes to understand and appreciate their way of life – so much so that when the Army finally arrives at Fort Sedgewick he sides with the Sioux against them…

Made at a time when the Western was in a moribund state, and clocking in at just over three hours on its original release, Dances With Wolves was the kind of production that had “risky” stamped all over it. It was Costner’s first time as a director and star, much of the dialogue was in Lakota Sioux which meant subtitles, and the pace – the opening sequence aside – was nothing if not languid. That it struck a chord with both critics and audiences alike was something of a miracle, and one that prompted the producers to release a Special Edition cut in cinemas in 1991. There will always be those who believe extended cuts are unnecessary, and often they’ll be right, but here the decision to add fifty-two minutes to an already hefty run-time isn’t as gratuitous or ill-advised as it is elsewhere. What the special edition does is to allow the audience to spend more time with the Lakota Sioux, and to discover more about their way of life, and why it proves so attractive to Dunbar. The movie, so attuned to the racial politics of the time, explores the Lakota Sioux community in much greater detail in this version, and the extra footage provides greater depth to many of the individual Lakota characters. Such immersion makes Dunbar’s decision to live with them all the more credible, and it creates a greater bond between the audience and the characters as well.

With its raison d’être thus established, the special edition needs no further defence for its existence, and so the movie can be enjoyed for its breathtaking South Dakota scenery, its elegiac feel, knowing sense of humour, gripping action sequences, and perhaps best of all, a beautifully textured and emotionally resonant score by John Barry. In assembling all this, and making it both visually arresting (thanks to DoP Dean Semler) and dramatically insightful, Costner has made a movie – and a Western at that – that manages to transcend its simple storyline and become a moving exploration of one man’s search for a meaningful place in the world. Dunbar’s journey is an heroic voyage of self-discovery, and Costner’s assured direction (working from a script by Michael Blake based on his novel), ensures that we go with him on his journey, our own curiosity piqued by where it might lead him. His relationship with Stands With a Fist, at once comical and earnest, awkward and tender, is enchanting and yet tinged with a sadness due to the nature of her placement with the tribe, and McDonnell’s feisty, layered performance is a joy to watch. The movie has come under fire for being yet another example of the white man as saviour trope, but this is to completely misread the narrative: what makes this distinctly different, and for its time quite innovative, is that it’s not Dunbar who saves the Lakota Sioux, but the Lakota Sioux who save Dunbar.

Rating: 9/10 – a triumph in every sense of the word, Dances With Wolves is a perfect example of a movie that takes its time in telling its story, and by doing so, proves more powerful and impressive than expected; entertaining and insightful, it’s also a movie that bears repeated viewings, as even in its extended form, there’s much that can be missed in a single viewing, and that’s without the pleasure of being reacquainted with such a great story and a great cast of characters.

Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985)

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D: Héctor Babenco / 121m

Cast: William Hurt, Raúl Juliá, Sonia Braga, José Lewgoy, Milton Gonçalves, Míriam Pires, Nuno Leal Maia, Fernando Torres, Patricio Bisso

During the time of the Brazilian military government, two men with very different backgrounds find themselves sharing a prison cell. Valentin Arregui (Juliá) is a leftist revolutionary who has been imprisoned and tortured because of his political activities. Luis Molina (Hurt) is a transgender woman who has been jailed for having sex with an underage boy. Luis passes the time by recounting scenes from a wartime romantic thriller, her favourite movie, and this helps to soothe Valentin’s despair at being imprisoned. An unlikely friendship begins to develop between them, and Luis, whose political beliefs are quite shallow, becomes more politically engaged. As time passes, Luis’s cinematic stories are phrased in such a way that Valentin’s lover, Marta (Braga), becomes a featured character as the mysterious Spider Woman, while at the same time, Luis’s feelings toward Valentin become more and more romantic, a development that Valentin doesn’t discourage. When Luis is unexpectedly granted parole, he agrees to pass on a message to Valentin’s revolutionary comrades. Having arranged a meeting with them, Luis finds that needing the love of a good man carries with it more risks than he could ever have expected…

Laced with a deceptive poignancy that only reveals itself fully towards the end, Kiss of the Spider Woman is a bittersweet tale of love and fantasy in the unlikeliest of surroundings. Adapted from the novel by Manuel Puig, it’s a movie that at first glance looks unprepossessing and likely to prove just as emotionally and politically shallow as Luis appears to be. But it’s actually a movie that grows in stature as it develops, stripping away its lead characters’ mannered pretensions and revealing them as flawed, struggling individuals searching – both in their own ways – for a way to maintain a meaningful connection with someone, anyone, in a place designed to take away a person’s humanity. As their friendship develops, and they find a meaningful connection with other, the beauty of this relationship is revealed in its small moments of intimacy and concern. Luis may appear at first to be a stereotypical drag queen with hysterical tendencies, but as the movie unfolds and we get to know him better, he’s revealed to be playing a role, one that’s expected of him, but which also  allows him to survive. Hurt is magnificent in the role, playing against his perceived type at the time, and slowly reveaing the various layers, many of them deeply hidden, that make up Luis’s character and motivate him.

But though Hurt gives the more bravura performance, Juliá matches him for intelligence and intensity, portraying Valentin as a revolutionary whose didacticism speaks of a man whose confidence in his own political credibility isn’t as convincing as he would have Luis – and the viewer – believe. As he becomes seduced by Luis’s fondness for romantic clichés (because they provide an escape he has no hope of finding otherwise), Valentin reveals a personal set of hopes and fears that govern his behaviour even more than his revolutionary fervour. In overturning Luis’ and Valentin’s stereotypical failings, Leonard Schrader’s exemplary script, along with Héctor Babenco’s flawless direction, creates an atmosphere governed by recognisable emotional longings and the need of each character to survive their incarceration by any means necessary. That they find love as a result makes the movie all the more poignant, and all the more affecting. That tragedy inevitably follows shouldn’t come as a surprise, but even then there are personal triumphs for both characters, and the movie ends on a grace note that feels entirely, and beautifully, in keeping with the sacrifices both men have made along the way.

Rating: 9/10 – over thirty years since its release and Kiss of the Spider Woman is still a one of a kind movie, bold in its depiction of romantic attraction, and astonishing for the breathtaking way in which it weaves threads of vibrant fantasy throughout the otherwise melancholy nature of much of its narrative; bolstered by Rodolfo Sánchez’s impeccable cinematography and Mauro Alice’s meticulous editing, it’s a movie that offers surprises throughout, and which remains as impactful now as it was back in 1985.

The Three Musketeers (1973)

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D: Richard Lester / 105m

Cast: Michael York, Oliver Reed, Richard Chamberlain, Frank Finlay, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Geraldine Chaplin, Charlton Heston, Faye Dunaway, Christopher Lee, Simon Ward, Raquel Welch, Spike Milligan, Roy Kinnear

Fresh from the countryside, D’Artagnan (York) hopes to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a King’s musketeer. His initial efforts are less than promising: he’s knocked out and robbed by the Comte de Rochefort (Lee), an agent of Cardinal Richelieu (Heston), he manages to insult three of the very musketeers he wants to join, and he ends up duelling against all three of them in turn until the Cardinal’s men arrive to arrest them. The other musketeers – Athos (Reed), Aramis (Chamberlain), and Porthos (Finlay) – take the fight to the Cardinal’s men, and with D’Artagnan’s aid, defeat them. This leads to D’Artagnan being taken under their wing just as the Cardinal hatches a plot to embarrass the King (Cassel) and Queen (Chaplin). With the Queen having given her former lover, the Duke of Buckingham (Ward), a necklace as a keepsake – and one that the King gave her – D’Artagnan and his new companions elect to travel to England to retrieve the necklace before it’s to be worn at a ball. But matters are complicated when Milady de Winter (Dunaway), another of the Cardinal’s agents, steals two of the necklace’s diamonds…

Originally intended by Lester as a vehicle for the Beatles, The Three Musketeers was also originally meant to be a three-hour epic (including intermission), but when it became clear that it wouldn’t make its release date in that format, the decision was made to split the project into two movies (The Four Musketeers followed in 1974). The sequel/second half is a more sombre affair, some of it necessarily so, but this first movie is a blast, a riotous panoply of silly humour, even sillier sight gags, and some of the best swordfights ever committed to the big screen. Energetic, vibrant, and poking fun at everything it can with an insistence and a panache that even the hardest of hearts would be hard-pressed to deny, the movie is the quintessential romp, an action adventure movie with a surfeit of heart and a knowing sense of its own absurdity. Everyone involved is so obviously having fun, you want to join them and buckle your swash in the same exciting fashion as they do, leaping and spinning and pivoting, and killing the Cardinal’s men with flair and passion. If you take nothing else away from Lester’s movie, you have to applaud the swordfights – choreographed by master swordsman William Hobbs – and the breathtaking energy that infuses them all. Whatever else happens – and George Macdonald Fraser’s screenplay adheres closely to Dumas’ novel – it’s the action that elevates the material and ensures its entertainment value.

Lester and his talented cast may be looking to make sure everyone stays happy and smiling throughout, but he also makes the peril facing the Queen (and unsuspecting King) sufficiently serious to ensure that the movie’s comedy credentials aren’t the only thing on display. Richelieu’s dastardly plot, and the machinations of Milady de Winter (a spirited Dunaway), drive the narrative forward with a telling urgency, and though this slows down the action, the committed performances keep the audience from noticing the movie’s need to focus on the plot for a while. The relationship between the three musketeers and D’Artagnan is also given room to evolve, and even though Fraser comes close at times to making it seem perfunctory, York et al invest their characters with a great deal of heart and sincerity. As well as comedy and drama, there’s romance too in the form of D’Artagnan’s attraction for Constance (Welch), the Queen’s dressmaker who somehow makes a virtue out of being clumsy (full marks too for Miriam Brickman, the uncredited casting director who paired Welch with Spike Milligan; he’s her screen husband). With all the elements working extremely well together, and propped up by an exciting story told in exciting fashion, Lester’s one-time Beatles project reveals itself as a fun time to be had by all.

Rating: 9/10 – easily the best version of Dumas’ classic tale, The Three Musketeers is endearingly odd in places (or maybe oddly endearing), deliberately silly in others, and an absolute pleasure to watch – whatever is going on; a rip-roaring piece of unbridled entertainment, it’s funny and fresh, pays more attention to period detail than you might expect, and has absolutely no more ambition than to provide its audience with as good a time as possible, something in which it succeeds with consummate ease.

Groundhog Day (1993)

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D: Harold Ramis / 101m

Cast: Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell, Chris Elliott, Stephen Tobolowsky, Brian Doyle-Murray, Marita Geraghty, Angela Paton

Although I have an All-Time Top 10 Movies list – one that has been carved in stone for a very long time now – and I’ve never been able to put together a Top 100, or even a Top 50, there are two movies that would sit comfortably at No 11 and No 12 on those lists – if they ever existed. No 11 will be reviewed later this month. This is No 12. It’s a wonderfully written movie, one that screenwriter Danny Rubin spent around three years working on before the movie was made. For me, the only comedy movie more quotable than Groundhog Day is Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979). In that spirit, this “review” will be in the form of ten quotes that sum up the movie’s sweet-natured yet anarchic spirit. Something of a cheat, I hear you say? Perhaps, but when writing is this good, why not celebrate it? After all, “anything different is good.”

Psychiatrist: That’s an unusual problem, Mr. Connors. Uh, most of my work is with couples, families. I have an alcoholic now.

Phil: Ned, I would love to stay here and talk with you… but I’m not going to.

Rita: I like to see a man of advancing years throwing caution to the wind. It’s inspiring in a way.

Phil: You know, people like blood sausage, too. People are morons.

Phil: (Holding Phil the Groundhog behind the wheel) Don’t drive angry. Don’t drive angry!

Phil: This is one time where television really fails to capture the true excitement of a large squirrel predicting the weather.

Ned: Ned… Ryerson. “Needlenose Ned”? “Ned the Head”? C’mon, buddy. Case Western High. Ned Ryerson: I did the whistling belly-button trick at the high school talent show? Bing! Ned Ryerson: got the shingles real bad senior year, almost didn’t graduate? Bing, again. Ned Ryerson: I dated your sister Mary Pat a couple times until you told me not to anymore? Well?

Phil: (Driving down the railroad tracks toward an approaching train) I’m betting he’s going to swerve first.

Rita: You’re not a god. You can take my word for it; this is twelve years of Catholic school talking.

Phil: Do you ever have déjà vu, Mrs. Lancaster?
Mrs. Lancaster: I don’t think so, but I could check with the kitchen.

Rating: 9/10 – still the best time loop movie ever made, and one of the finest comedies period, Groundhog Day features terrific performances (Murray is superb as the jaundiced weatherman on a very steep learning curve), Ramis’s spirited direction, and again, Rubin’s wonderful screenplay; when a contemporary critic boldly states that “‘Groundhog’ will never be designated a national film treasure by the Library of Congress” – and that’s exactly what happens – then you know that it’s a movie that isn’t just another fluffy, high concept romantic comedy.

Manon des Sources (1986)

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aka Manon of the Spring

D: Claude Berri / 113m

Cast: Yves Montand, Daniel Auteuil, Emmanuelle Béart, Hippolyte Girardot, Margarita Lozano, Yvonne Gamy, Ticky Holgado

Now a young woman, Manon (Béart), the daughter of Jean Cadoret aka Jean de Florette, lives with a couple of elderly squatters, and tends to a herd of goats. Ugolin Soubeyran (Auteuil) has a successful business growing carnations on a nearby farm. Along with his uncle, César (Montand), Ugolin has purchased the land Manon’s father owned, and they have restored the spring they blocked so long ago, and which contributed to his death. Ugolin becomes attracted to Manon, but she rebuffs him; however, his attraction becomes an obsession. At the same time, she becomes interested in Bernard (Girardot), a schoolteacher who has recently arrived in the village. When Manon overhears two of the villagers talking about the spring, she realises that everyone knew and no one did anything to stop the Soubeyrans. When providence reveals to her the source of the village’s water supply, she blocks it up in the same way that her father’s spring was stopped. Soon the villagers are panicked and ready to listen when Manon publicly accuses the Soubeyrans of their crimes, but this leads to greater and still greater tragedy…

Shot back-to-back with its predecessor Jean de Florette (1986), Manon des Sources both extends and completes that movie’s narrative arc while telling its own story at the same time. It retains many of the first movie’s attributes and stylistic flourishes – Provence still looks absolutely gorgeous thanks to Bruno Nuytten’s exquisite cinematography – and co-writer (along with Gérard Brach) and director Claude Berri continues to ensure that the characters and not the plot remain the central focus of the movie. Manon is something of a wild child, able to live off the land and not entirely comfortable around others. She says very little throughout the movie, but when she does, her words count for something and are layered with meaning. She’s fiercely independent, and beautiful too – it’s no wonder Ugolin becomes infatuated with her. Urged by his uncle to marry (and thereby keep the family name alive), Ugolin’s feelings for Manon take the story to a very dark place indeed, but it’s a measure of Auteuil’s haunting and finely detailed performance that it’s easy to feel sympathy for Ugolin, even though he’s jointly responsible for the death of Manon’s father. As he sinks further and further into despair at being rejected, Auteuil shows Ugolin’s feelings of grief and sadness and above all, loneliness, as they overwhelm him, and prove too much to bear.

Our feelings about Ugolin also extend to César, as Pagnol’s tale widens in scope to include a revelation that puts everything into cold, heart-rending perspective. César’s pride and arrogance and greed do indeed go before a fall, but it’s one that is so spectacular that, as with Ugolin, the impact of his villainous behaviour is erased by the enormity of the retribution that engulfs him. Watching Montand as he shows César slowly coming to terms with the full import of what he’s done, and where his machinations have got him, is a masterclass in screen acting. Over both movies, César has almost been a secondary character, pulling strings and sitting back while his plans come to fruition, but here Berri reveals him to be the driving force of the narrative across all four hours, a man whose pathological need to maintain his family’s influence has ensured his downfall. The irony can’t be missed, but Montand handles it with subtlety and aplomb, just as Berri has handled the material throughout. By remaining faithful to Marcel Pagnol’s two-volume novel The Water of the Hills, Berri and his cast have ensured every nuance and moment of significance has been replicated with care and sincerity. The result is a movie that is every bit as good as its predecessor, but which does so on its own terms – and rightly so.

Rating: 9/10 – a fitting conclusion to the story begun in Jean de Florette, Manon des Sources takes its villains and makes them tragic figures doomed by the short-sightedness of their egos, while also introducing a heroine whose resourcefulness mirrors their own machinations (and there’s irony there too); as the second part of a duology, there’s a lot of pressure on it to succeed, but Berri et al have done a tremendous job in making this just as impressive (if not more so) than its precursor, and one of the finest examples of French heritage cinema that’s ever been made.

Jean de Florette (1986)

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D: Claude Berri / 120m

Cast: Yves Montand, Gérard Depardieu, Daniel Auteuil, Elisabeth Depardieu, Margarita Lozano, Ernestine Mazurowna

Returning home after military service in World War I, Ugolin Soubeyran (Auteuil) uses the land he has to grow carnations. When his first crop fetches a good price at market, his uncle César (Montand) decides Ugolin’s project needs to be expanded, and they make an attempt at buying the neighbouring land. However, their attempt is unsuccessful, and when the owner dies, the land passes to his nephew, Jean Cadoret (Depardieu). Jean arrives with his wife, Aimée (Depardieu) and young daughter Manon (Mazurowna), and with a plan to make the land profitable by breeding rabbits and feeding them on cucurbit. But César and Ugolin have stopped up a spring that would provide plenty of water to Jean’s land, and he is forced to rely on another one that is some distance away, as well as rainfall to fill a cistern. But the rain doesn’t come, and further problems cause Jean’s endeavour to begin to fail. He’s prompted to sell by the Soubeyrans but remains stubborn in his determination to succeed. Deciding to dig a well, Jean, whose health has been deteriorating from all the physical labour, suffers a devastating injury when his use of dynamite has an unexpected outcome…

The first thing to mention about Jean de Florette (and the movie’s trump card if you like) is Bruno Nuytten’s stunning cinematography. This is a beautifully shot movie, with the Provence locations standing out as a vibrant, immersive background to a tale of greed and treachery, and one family’s efforts to ruin another family out of concern for their failing influence in the local community (Ugolin is the last of the Soubeyrans and not exactly husband material). César and Ugolin are villains in both the grand and parochial sense, using their reputation to hoodwink both Jean and their own friends into believing their actions are borne out of honest philanthropy, when the opposite is true. It’s their machinations that drive the narrative towards a deliberately unhappy ending (though it helps to know there’s a sequel to help put things right), and though their scheming is calculated, and their motives quite callous, nevertheless they’re still characters with a tremendous depth to them, from César’s arrogance borne out of pride in the family name, to Ugolin desperately seeking affirmation from his uncle at every turn. Both are driven by desires they’re unable to articulate, and both are trapped by the expectations associated with the family name.

Montand and Auteuil are magnificent as the treacherous Soubeyrans, and they’re matched by Depardieu as the tax collector and “unfortunately, by God’s will… a hunchback” Jean de Florette (Florette is his mother’s name, and what the locals call him). Always positive, his determination to succeed seeing him through setbacks that would crush the will of other men, Jean is a tragic figure writ large against the Provence countryside. It’s heartbreaking to see him try and fail over and over again, but Depardieu avoids any pity for Jean’s refusal to give in, and makes his efforts courageous in the face of certain defeat. You know it’s going to end badly for Jean but thanks to Berri’s assured direction, and a faithful adaptation of Marcel Pagnol’s novel (by Berri and Gérard Brach), the viewer can’t help but hope that one of Jean’s schemes to succeed will come to fruition and save the day. With the villagers looking on (with some amusement), and the Soubeyrans waiting to capitalise on his inevitable misfortune, Jean’s predicament anchors the second half of the movie and allows a number of seemingly minor plot points to be revealed that will have a lasting impact on the events depicted in Manon des Sources (1986). You could argue that Jean de Florette is just a two hour teaser for its sequel, but it has its own self-contained story, and it has an emotional quality that the sequel doesn’t replicate – because it too has its own self-contained story. Either way, this is a true classic of French cinema, and one of the most beautiful movies ever made.

Rating: 9/10 – with its rich, lustrous cinematography (the Vaucluse department of Provence has never looked so vivid), Jean de Florette is a triumph of storytelling, acting, direction, production design – everything in fact, that goes to make it one of the most sublime movie experiences ever released; heartfelt and sincere, stirring and emotive, it’s a feast for the senses in all respects, and as authentic a representation of post-World War I Provence as you’re ever likely to find.

Amadeus (1984)

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D: Miloš Forman / 160m

Cast: F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce, Elizabeth Berridge, Roy Dotrice, Simon Callow, Christine Ebersole, Jeffrey Jones, Charles Kay

At the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II (Jones), the lead composer is Antonio Salieri (Abraham). He is well regarded by his peers, and has the favour of the Emperor, but when Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Hulce) arrives to perform at the request of his employer, Salieri is forced to acknowledge Mozart’s superior ability. Mozart’s gift for music prompts the Emperor to commission an opera from him, and this in turn prompts the onset of a violent jealousy in Salieri that leads him to try and undermine Mozart’s position within the court. With his own compositions falling out of favour with the Emperor, Salieri finds himself even more determined to ruin Mozart’s reputation. He hires a young woman to work as Mozart’s maid and spy on him. When she alerts Salieri to a new work that Mozart is working on, he finds that it’s an opera based on The Marriage of Figaro, which the Emperor has forbidden. Salieri reveals this to the Emperor, but Mozart manages to avoid censure, an outcome that pushes Salieri into using the recent death of Mozart’s father (Dotrice) as a means of finally regaining his original position at the Emperor’s court…

A movie about obsession, jealousy, and the uncomfortable realisation of one’s own mediocrity in the face of undeniable genius, Amadeus is a breathtaking spectacle, a transformative piece that takes an unsubstantiated rumour from the lives of Mozart and Salieri, and spins a web of intrigue and deception around Mozart’s untimely death. Adapted by Peter Shaffer from his original stage play, and brought to mesmerising life by Miloš Forman, it’s a movie that brims with unbridled passions, from Mozart’s immersive approach to his music, to the stylistic excesses of the Emperor’s court. Mozart himself is presented as an enfant terrible in adult form, giggling uncontrollably as much from nervousness as exhilaration, and challenging the conservative musical conventions that have provided Salieri and his ilk with their success. As if his grandiose behaviour wasn’t enough, he’s also – actually – incredibly gifted, something that Salieri cannot fathom: how can God have done this, how could He have given such a gift to Mozart and left Salieri with the same passion but without the means to express it as effectively. Salieri’s battle with God over this becomes its own obsession, and informs his actions throughout.

Shaffer builds the one-sided rivalry between Salieri and Mozart and uses it to explore the nature of thwarted ambition. Salieri’s need to be seen to be superior to Mozart consumes him, and while Mozart’s own lifestyle consumes him at the same time, Shaffer highlights the desperation that drives Salieri on to a darker place than even he could have predicted. Abraham is quite simply superb as the tortured composer, a man aware of his limitations but compelled by those same limitations to contemplate murder for personal gain. Hulce is just as good as the potty-mouthed genius who transcribed whole pieces of music without the need for any corrections; as his physical health deteriorates, Hulce shows us a Mozart whose commitment to his music over-rides his own sense of self-preservation. Both performances are powerful, emotive, and finely judged, and form the backbone of a movie that never falters in its appreciation of the one thing both characters agree on: the sublime nature of Mozart’s music. Inevitably, the soundtrack is filled with astutely chosen examples of Mozart’s work (even his playing of Salieri’s march is really an excerpt from Mozart’s own work The Marriage of Figaro), and it’s all played out against a backdrop of naturally lit interiors and ravishing production design, all of it enhanced by Miroslav Ondrícek’s detailed cinematography.

Rating: 9/10 – from Salieri’s first anguished cry of “Mozart!” to his absolving mediocrities everywhere, Amadeus is an ambitiously mounted movie that succeeds in breathing potent life into a minor footnote in classical music history; devastating in places, but with a streak of scandalous humour to offset the darker nature of the movie’s second half, this is hugely impressive on so many levels, and possibly Forman’s finest work.

Double Indemnity (1944)

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D: Billy Wilder / 107m

Cast: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, Porter Hall, Jean Heather, Tom Powers, Byron Barr, Richard Gaines, Fortunio Bonanova, John Philliber

When insurance salesman Walter Neff (MacMurray) meets Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck), there’s an immediate attraction on his part, and one that doesn’t go away even when she hints at murdering her husband for a sizeable insurance payout. At first, Neff wants no part of any plan she might have, but when she comes to see him at his apartment, his attraction towards her proves too much to overcome. Knowing the tricks of the trade, Neff comes up with the idea of having Phyllis’s husband appear to fall from a moving train and be killed; this will invoke a “double indemnity” clause in the insurance policy which will mean twice the payout. Together, Neff and Phyllis carry out the murder, but the nature of her husband’s death causes Neff’s boss, Barton Keyes (Robinson), to question its provenance. Matters become complicated further when Phyllis’s step-daughter, Lola (Heather), tells Neff that she suspects Phyllis of murdering her mother in order to marry her father. And when it’s revealed that Dietrichson had his own suspicions, and changed his will so that Phyllis couldn’t inherit any of his money, Neff begins to realise that he cannot trust her at all…

Like all the best films noir, Double Indemnity tells a twisted story of lust and greed and casual immorality, and it does so without apology or due consideration for the feelings of its audience. With its weak-willed “hero” and sleazy femme fatale working at opposite ends of the moral spectrum while at the same time being in tandem with each other, the movie playfully and deliberately explores the darker side of human aspirations, and paints a vivid portrait of what happens when someone reaches too far for something they shouldn’t have. Told in flashback in a similar style to the one used later by Wilder in Sunset Blvd. (1950), its story unfolds perhaps a little too slowly as it sets up the relationship between Neff and Phyllis. But as we get to know them, and what motivates them, it’s no surprise that their affair is as quick to unravel as the murderous plot they’ve committed to. When duplicity is this exciting, everything else seems so dull and trivial, and by making Phyllis glamorous in an obviously phoney way, it speaks volumes for Neff’s own state of mind and moral malleability. It’s psychodrama at its darkest and most nuanced.

Both MacMurray and Stanwyck are playing against the type they were known for, but it’s Wilder’s belief in them that holds firm, and as a result, both actors give career best performances. As the balance of power shifts between them, and both characters act more and more out of self-preservation, Wilder tightens the screws on both of them, but MacMurray and Stanwyck are more than equal to the task, circling each other and just waiting for the slightest mistake to be made and taken advantage of. Complemented by Robinson’s turn as the investigator whose moral compass is as clearly defined as Phyllis’s is fatally corroded, the movie is a cat and mouse game with Los Angeles as a glamorous, enticing backdrop (much like Phyllis herself), and John F. Seitz’s luminous black and white cinematography, with its sharp angles and “venetian blind” lighting. Paving the way for dozens of pale imitations in the years that followed, the movie stands as a prime example of remaining true to the spirit of a story while adapting it for the big screen. James M. Cain’s novella is given a brusque workover by Raymond Chandler, but survives the encounter to provide audiences with a tough, chilly, emotionally austere thriller that is also both tawdry and exciting.

Rating: 9/10 – a movie that features a number of “firsts”, from its point of view being provided by a criminal, to the characters’ emotions being expressed through the lighting in a scene, Double Indemnity is a bona fide classic that still holds up today; increasingly tense because of its main characters’ inevitable downfall and how it plays out, and with a cruel sense of irony to spur it on, this is a terrific movie from a director, and a cast and crew, that were at the height of their powers.

Short Cuts (1993)

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D: Robert Altman / 188m

Cast: Andie MacDowell, Bruce Davison, Jack Lemmon, Julianne Moore, Matthew Modine, Anne Archer, Fred Ward, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Chris Penn, Lili Taylor, Robert Downey Jr, Madeleine Stowe, Tim Robbins, Lily Tomlin, Tom Waits, Frances McDormand, Peter Gallagher, Annie Ross, Lori Singer, Lyle Lovett, Buck Henry, Huey Lewis, Michael Beach, Charles Rocket

When the pre-teen son of television commentator Howard Finnigan (Davison) and his wife Anne (MacDowell) is knocked down by a car driven by waitress Doreen Pigott (Tomlin), he refuses to let her drive him home afterwards. Later, he falls unconscious and is taken to hospital. It’s the day before his eighth birthday. Doreen is harassed at the diner where she works by Stuart (Ward), an out-of-work salesman, and his buddies Gordon (Henry) and Vern (Lewis) before they head off on a fishing trip. Gene Shepard (Robbins), a cop whose wife, Sherri (Stowe), doesn’t know he’s having an affair, abandons the family dog because of its excessive barking. Ralph Wyman (Modine), a doctor, and his wife, Marian (Moore), are a couple in crisis who stay together out of convenience instead of love, while the Finnigans’ next door neighbours have a pool cleaner, Jerry Kaiser (Penn), whose wife, Lois (Leigh), works as a phone sex operator…

These are just some of the stories that intertwine and intermingle with each other in Robert Altman’s majestic adaptation of nine short stories and one poem written by Raymond Carver. Possibly the finest ensemble piece ever made, Short Cuts examines the lives of twenty-two separate characters, and does so with a precision and an understanding of the underlying desperation that each of them is feeling; it’s like watching a group therapy session where everyone is jockeying for the most attention. Altman achieves the impossible here: he makes every one of those twenty-two characters appear credible and relatable, and he does so by stripping away the masks they hide behind in order to reveal the fallible, scrabbling egos that fuel their shallow pretensions and selfish conceits. It’s holding up a mirror to society time, an indelible foray into the casual brutality of everyday lives, with verbal, physical, and emotional attacks being meted out, seemingly at every opportunity, in order for these characters to feel superior to the people closest to them: the people they purport to love. At times it’s terrifying to see the depths of despair that some characters are experiencing, while others go about their lives blithely and with an equally terrifying lack of self-awareness. How do these people survive from day to day?

The answer is: any way they can, and Altman, along with co-screenwriter Frank Barhydt, artfully highlights the ways that they achieve this, whether it’s through forbearance, a reliance on alcohol, or by simply ignoring what’s happening around them. All this – and at over three hours – could seem like spending time with a group of people you’d happily cross the street to avoid, but the movie has such a bone dry, and darkly scabrous sense of humour that you can’t help but find amusement in even the most horrendous moments (and sometimes to laugh is just about the best and only option the viewer has). With Los Angeles providing the perfect backdrop for all this psychic turmoil, and pitch perfect performances from all concerned, the movie is evenly structured among the characters for maximum effect, and Geraldine Peroni’s editing ensures the action occurs with fluidity and a pace to match. Aside from The Player (1992), Altman has never been this good, his direction proving incisive and perceptive in equal measure, and his mastery of the various storylines is an object lesson in how to make each disparate element of a movie as important as all the rest. It’s an impressive achievement, one that rewards the audience at every turn, and better still, with each repeat viewing.

Rating: 9/10 – a bold, multi-layered odyssey through the hellish environs of middle-class America, Short Cuts is abrasive, awash with attitude, fiendishly funny, and starkly revealing of the deceptions that ordinary people employ to give their lives meaning; a one-of-a-kind movie that goes to some very dark places indeed, it still has a degree of hope running throughout the various storylines – even if it is chafed and frayed to snapping point.

Big Wednesday (1978)

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D: John Milius / 120m

Cast: Jan-Michael Vincent, William Katt, Gary Busey, Patti D’Arbanville, Lee Purcell, Sam Melville, Darrell Fetty, Gerry Lopez

Malibu, 1962. Three friends – Matt Johnson (Vincent), Jack Barlow (Katt), and Leroy Smith (Busey) – are the best surfers at the beach, and live carefree lives with little responsibility other than to their surfing. On the verge of adulthood, they party a lot, get drunk, and focus on having as much fun as possible, but inevitably things become more serious for them. Matt’s girlfriend, Peggy (Purcell), announces she’s pregnant, and the shop where they were able to get free boards is forced to close.  In 1965, the draft comes calling, and though Matt and Leroy manage to avoid going to Vietnam, Jack does, along with another friend, Waxer (Fetty). Three years later, much has changed for all three friends, and the way of life they were used to has all but vanished, with new surfing heroes challenging for the positions they all held, and their personal lives affected by their inability to adapt to changing times. It’s not until 1971, and the appearance of the greatest swell of all, the fabled Big Wednesday, that the three friends get together for one last ride amongst the waves…

A labour of love for its director (whose own experiences formed the basis of the script, co-written with fellow surfer Dennis Aaberg), Big Wednesday is a coming-of-age tale that slowly, and almost remorselessly, develops into a melancholy examination of the passing of an era. It’s no coincidence that Milius begins his movie in the early Sixties, a time of enormous promise in the US with Kennedy’s presidency in full swing and advances being made in relation to civil rights, and the movie reflects the mood of the country in the actions and the behaviour of its central trio; they’re young, they’re brimming with confidence, and (as far as they’re concerned) they’re invincible. The folly of youth is depicted with a bracing honesty, Milius acknowledging through his characters his own innocent naïveté, and as the friendship between Matt, Jack and Leroy fractures and sends them on their separate paths, the movie offers a wistful commentary on the perils of expecting things to always remain the same. The spectre of the Vietnam War hovers over the friends’ journey into adulthood, altering them in different ways (as it did the country), and swiftly neutering the confidence and vitality they had just a few short years before. Milius details all this with a compassion that reflects the confusion that many were feeling during the late Sixties and early Seventies.

It’s this sense of an era changing direction, and not necessarily for the better, that drives the narrative and through the battered camaraderie of its central trio, allows the viewer to understand just how and why surfing was so important an avenue of escape for so many young men and women. But the surfing is just the backdrop to the much more important of the friendships forged in the swells and on the beaches, a sub-culture that has its own aristocracy (Matt, Jack and Leroy), but which is doomed to be superseded by a new, younger generation (as represented by real life surfer Gerry Lopez). With an elegiac feel to its final section that allows for an emotional intensity as the three friends reunite to say goodbye to their younger selves. It’s probably Milius’ most personal movie to date, and his passion and commitment is evident in every scene. With instinctive and intuitive performances from Vincent, Katt and Busey (all three never better than they are here), and breathtaking surfing imagery courtesy of Bruce Surtees, the movie has a telling sense of the era it’s depicting, and Milius laces it with enough nostalgia to make viewers – even the casual ones – wish they’d been a part of it at the time.

Rating: 8/10 – with its themes of loyalty and youthful hopes dashed by hard lessons learned and the inevitable burdens of responsibility, Big Wednesday is a movie with more going on under the waves than most, and which, thanks to Milius’ distilling of his own past into the material, resonates with affection for, and understanding of, its unsuspecting characters; ambitious in its scope (though not as mythic as Milius was probably aiming for), and deftly handled by its usually bullish director, this is a cult classic that deserves its hard-won status (it was a flop on its original release), and which represents a high point in the world of fictional surfing movies.

Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)

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D: George Armitage / 107m

Cast: John Cusack, Minnie Driver, Alan Arkin, Dan Aykroyd, Joan Cusack, Hank Azaria, K. Todd Freeman, Jeremy Piven, Mitchell Ryan, Michael Cudlitz, Benny Urquidez

Martin Q. Blank (Cusack) is a hitman with a problem: he’s feeling miserable, and he’s unhappy with his work. He’s at odds with his boss, Grocer (Aykroyd), over plans to unionise the hitman “business”, and is made more unhappy when a contract goes wrong. Persuaded by the combined efforts of his therapist, Dr Oatman (Arkin), and his secretary Marcella (Cusack), Martin agrees to attend his high school’s tenth anniversary reunion – and while he’s there he can carry out another contract. Back in his home town of Grosse Pointe, Blank catches up with his old friend, Paul (Piven), and his old girlfriend, Debi Newberry (Driver). Though he walked out on her on the night of the prom, and hasn’t been back since, Martin and Debi soon reconnect, and attend the reunion together. But Martin is being stalked by another hitman, Felix LaPoubelle (Urquidez), and when Martin is forced to kill him in one of the school corridors, the aftermath is witnessed by Debi, who runs off. And matters are made even worse when Martin discovers that the target he’s there to kill is none other than Debi’s father, Bart (Ryan)…

If you had to sum up the appeal of Grosse Pointe Blank, then its dialogue would be a great place to start. This short monologue by Martin to his shrink Dr Oatman about the reunion is a perfect example of just how finely tuned much of this movie is, and also how it doesn’t take itself very seriously (a good idea in a comedy about a hitman developing a conscience): “They all have husbands and wives and children and houses and dogs, and, you know, they’ve all made themselves a part of something and they can talk about what they do. What am I gonna say? “I killed the president of Paraguay with a fork. How’ve you been?” It’s carefully crafted moments like this one – fluid, satirical, and very funny – that ensure the movie has a lightness of touch and doesn’t look and sound like it’s trying too hard. Instead it maintains an even, modest tone throughout, and focuses more on the characters than the action. In Martin Blank, the screenwriters (including Cusack himself) have created a sympathetic hitman whose “moral flexibility” belies a natural charm and wit that make the character more rounded and less stereotypical than usual, so much so that when he does have to kill someone – the corridor fight with LaPoubelle is a highlight – the intensity he displays is borne out of necessity rather than a fundamental flaw in his personality. The only real flaw is that he’s believed himself incapable of living a normal life for all these years.

Cusack is terrific in the role, deftly handling the various elements thrown into the mix – drama, comedy, romance, action – and displaying a versatility across genres that had been hinted at before this, but never fully exploited. The cast as a whole are on good form, from Cusack’s sister Joan as Blank’s faithful yet caustic secretary, to Piven’s lovelorn best friend, and Arkin as the therapist who remains unconvinced when Blank reassures him he’s not a target. Even Driver and Aykroyd, acquired tastes unless in the right surroundings, are likeable, and Armitage makes sure that everyone gets enough exposure to warrant them all making an impact. He also directs with a visual flair that’s unexpected, and in conjunction with DoP Jamie Anderson, keeps the movie from settling into a standard action comedy format. It’s a movie that’s full of surprises, touching in places but never too far from another quip or pithy observation, and though it ultimately treads an overly familiar romantic path, there are enough detours along the way to make it feel fresher than most. The action is well handled and expertly choreographed (a little ragged, but in a good way), and there’s a terrific soundtrack from Joe Strummer. All in all, it’s a movie that wants its audience to have a good time, and which achieves that ambition with skill and aplomb, and without having to employ the time honoured process known as shakabuku.

Rating: 8/10 – with various shades of light and dark that allow for differing perspectives on what it means to be a hitman, and a wicked sense of humour that Cusack et al exploit at every given opportunity, Grosse Pointe Blank is an absolute delight from start to finish; still as entertaining now as it was back on first release, it’s a movie that may have dated in terms of the costumes and the hairstyles, but beneath all the horseplay there are universal themes in play to help anchor the frothy, carefree nature of the main storyline, and ensure that the movie resonates with audiences in more ways than one.

A Brief Word About thedullwoodexperiment (Part XVII)

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As April 2019 hoves into view, and brings with it the promise of a month filled with so-so mainstream releases – Avengers: Endgame excepted (fingers crossed) – and no doubt a slew of minor releases across VoD and a variety of streaming platforms, thedullwoodexperiment is going to take a different tack and spend time looking back at some of the movies that – if I was ever able to compile such a list – would be included in my Top 100 Movies of All Time. All the movies reviewed in April will be huge favourites of mine, and ones that I consider to be all-time classics, the best of the best, movies that stand repeated viewings… you get the idea. I’ve been thinking about doing this for a few months now, but the delay has been down to working out just which movies to review. That it’s been much harder than I ever imagined was truly a surprise, but after much agonising and the compiling of several different lists, thirty movies have been chosen, and now’s the time to plough through them.

This will mean that a number of movies released either this year or last year, and which I was due to review, will now have to wait, but that’s the price that needs to be paid for this kind of retrospective. The movies that shape our tastes and opinions and increase our love for cinema are, to me, very important, and though you’ll find my Top 10 Movies of All Time elsewhere on this site, I don’t think it’s possible to stop at ten and not think about the ones that almost made it. So, from tomorrow, thedullwoodexperiment will be heading off at a different tangent, and unveiling some of the movies that mean a lot to me, and which have had a lasting impact. There’ll be something from pretty much every genre you can think of, but not one movie will be from this particular decade. I hope that some of these titles will be other people’s favourites as well, and if they are, that people will share their love and appreciation for them by posting comments.

And just in case you were wondering, no, the images here are not from movies that will be reviewed at some point in the coming month. These are two movies that are very much favourites of mine, but which just missed out on being included. Maybe they will give you an idea of what’s in store. Or then again…

10 Reasons to Remember Agnès Varda (1928-2019)

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Agnès Varda (30 May 1928 – 29 March 2019)

Often regarded as both grandmother and mother of the French New Wave, Agnès Varda originally intended to become a museum curator. Instead she decided to focus on photography, and soon established a successful career as the official photographer at the Théâtre National Populaire in Villeurbanne. She was always fascinated by images, both still and moving, and their composition, a fascination that prompted her to make her first movie without any experience or training whatsoever. It was a bold move, and one that was an immediate critical success, it’s blend of documentary and fictional elements helping Varda to explore the lives of ordinary people, a facet of her movie making style that she would return to many times throughout her career. However, lauded as it was, La Pointe Courte failed to achieve any financial success, and though Varda remained at the Théâtre National Populaire with her reputation intact, she made only short documentaries in the seven years between her first movie and her second.

If anything though, that second movie, Cléo from 5 to 7, ostensibly about a woman facing up to the fact of her own mortality as she awaits the results of a biopsy, was the movie that cemented Varda’s  reputation as a movie maker, with its deeper understanding of the objectification of women, an issue that Varda would also return to in her career. This led to her being regarded as a feminist auteur, but Varda always insisted that she made her movies not with any defined political or feminist agenda, but under her own terms and just “not… like a man”. She continued to make the movies that interested her first and foremost, and eventually, in 1977, founded her own production company, Cine-Tamaris, to ensure that she had control over how her movies were shot and edited. Varda worked mostly in the documentary genre, where she maintained her appreciation for the trials and problems of ordinary people while continuing to experiment with form and format. She made inventive and often challenging movies that offered different and differing perpsectives on a variety of subjects, from the Black Panthers to her husband Jacques Demy, to murals found in Los Angeles and the North Vietnamese Army during the time of the Vietnam war.

Varda’s idiosyncratic approach to her movies was always the best thing about them, and this usually meant that her projects offered unexpected surprises, whether she was celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Cinémathèque Française, or her eightieth birthday by revisiting places from her youth. In the last decade she began to be recognised for her impressive body of work, and she received, amongst others, a lifetime achievement award from the Cannes Film Festival, as well becoming the first female director to be given both an honorary Palme d’or and an Academy Honorary Award. And in 2018 she became the oldest person to be nominated for an Oscar for Faces Places (beating fellow nominee James Ivory by eight days). But perhaps it’s her response to the nomination that sums up Varda best: “There is nothing to be proud of, but happy. Happy because we make films to love. We make films so that you love the film.”

1 – La Pointe Courte (1955)

2 – Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962)

3 – Le Bonheur (1965)

4 – One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977)

5 – Vagabond (1985)

6 – Jane B. for Agnès V. (1988)

7 – Jacquot de Nantes (1991)

8 – The Gleaners and I (2000)

9 – The Beaches of Agnès (2008)

10 – Faces Places (2017)

Maine (2018)

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D: Matthew Brown / 86m

Cast: Laia Costa, Thomas Mann

Bluebird (Costa) is a young Spanish woman who has come to America to distance herself from her marriage, and to walk the entire length of the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. On the trail she meets Lake (Mann), and they travel on together, getting to know each other (albeit slowly) and developing an odd kind of friendship. Along the way they meet other hikers who mistake them for a couple, but Bluebird is always quick to dispel this impression. This frustrates and annoys Lake who has developed a crush on Bluebird, and although she is friendly and conspiratorial toward him, she’s also distant and often unresponsive. As the hike continues, Lake tries to forge a closer, stronger relationship with her, but Bluebird remains emotionally reserved, and their uneasy friendship begins to unravel. But when an unexpected turn of events makes it seem as if they’re about to become closer still, the lure of a nearby town prompts Bluebird to abandon her hike without completing it. It also means the probable end of her relationship with Lake, something that he doesn’t know how to deal with. As they head into town in the back of a pick-up truck, the fate of their friendship seems entirely decided…

Opening with a wordless ten-minute sequence that places its main character firmly in the movie’s physical setting, Maine is a low-budget indie offering with a surfeit of ambition that is only fitfully exploited. On the surface, it’s about Bluebird and her search for some kind of meaning to her life – the reason she’s left Spain and her husband is never revealed – but as Matthew Brown’s debut feature (he also wrote the script) unfolds with slow, painful deliberation, whether this is really the case becomes open to question. Much of this is down to Bluebird’s wayward behaviour and the inconsistency that punctuates the time we spend with her. And though it’s always possible that said wayward behaviour could be indicative of a mind that is struggling to make sense of the thoughts inside it, because Brown chooses to make Bluebird’s motivations more ephemeral than concrete, the viewer has no choice but to interpret matters on their own and hope for the best. For many this will mean a frustrating, disappointing viewing experience that tests their patience, and much like Bluebird herself, will mean whether or not they see things through until the end. Though Brown may be aiming for ambiguity, when it’s all there is, it’s not as satisfying as it might sound.

This being essentially a two-hander – other hikers and later, a handful of townspeople, drift in and out of the narrative – much depends on the performances of Costa and Mann. Costa made a big impact in Victoria (2015), and since then has made consistently interesting choices, but here she’s saddled with a character whose arc goes nowhere (though that may be a deliberate choice – who knows?). As a result she gives a spirited yet mannered portrayal that hints at Bluebird being bi-polar, while Mann can only respond by looking confused, upset or defeated by her often callous attitude towards Lake. Their relationship flits between friendly and adversarial, optimistic and regressive, but with all these disparate elements in play it’s hard to know which are sincere and which are diversionary tactics employed by Brown to give the semblance of greater depth to the characters and the material overall. In the end, and despite everyone’s best efforts, Maine remains the kind of movie where getting to know and understand the main protagonists feels as if more effort is required than is necessary, and Brown’s directorial choices serve only to highlight how distant Bluebird and Lake remain from an audience that can’t really connect with them.

Rating: 5/10 – an unsuccessful foray into “trail movie” territory that hints at long-buried emotional traumas in both its main characters, but which refuses to explore them except superficially, Maine undermines audience expectations at every turn by remaining oblique and often dramatically inert; blessed though by Donald R. Monroe’s movement of the camera, and a succession of perfectly framed shots of the Appalachian Trail itself, this will no doubt have its supporters, but this is one time where the Emperor really has forgotten to dress himself before going out in public.

Miss Baek (2018)

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Original title: Misseubaek

D: Lee Ji-won / 98m

Cast: Han Ji-min, Kim Si-a, Lee Hee-joon, Kwon So-hyun, Baek Soo-jang, Jun Suk-ho, Jo Min-joon

Haunted by her past – abused by her mother as a child, sent to prison for attempted murder when she was a teenager – Baek Sang-ah (Han) works a number of jobs including that of a masseuse, and is in a relationship with a police detective, Jang-seop (Lee), that she’s largely indifferent about. But when she sees a small child on the streets, one that isn’t wearing a coat (it’s winter), looks as if she’s been mistreated, and is as reticent as Baek was as a child, it awakens feelings in Baek that she’s unprepared for.  She takes the child, Ji-eun (Kim), to have some food but their time together is cut short by the arrival of Joo (Kwon), the partner of the girl’s father (Baek). Reluctantly, she parts company with Ji-eun, but later sees her again, this time with fresher injuries. Determined to ensure that Ji-eun is protected, she tries to have the father and partner arrested, but little is done, and Ji-eun continues to suffer. When she escapes from her home, Ji-eun is found by Baek who decides that the little girl isn’t going back. But Joo has plans of her own…

A sombre, uncompromising thriller that has a number of uncomfortable moments where Ji-eun is subjected to the kind of physical abuse that will make you wince and want to look away, Lee Ji-won’s feature debut is typical of middle-tier South Korean movie making in that it features a somewhat fractured narrative, oddly truncated scenes, characters whose behaviour and motivations can often change in the course of said scenes, and a fuzzy approach to morality that allows for acceptable violent retribution one moment but not the next. Apparently based on a true story, but with the details changed, Miss Baek is nobody’s idea of “entertainment”, determined as it is to show the darker side of humanity, but it isn’t short on hope for its main characters, or providing chances for personal redemption. Having been so far unable to forgive her mother for abusing and then abandoning her as a young child, Baek has carried her anger with her and used it to maintain a safe distance from everyone around her, including Jang-seop. But as she and Ji-eun spend more and more time together, her perspective on her own childhood begins to change, and Baek comes to realise that her actions now are directly related to her past. And yes, it is as simple as not wanting Ji-eun to continue suffering the kind of abuse she herself suffered.

This straightforward motivation propels much of the movie’s second half, as Baek takes matters into her own hands, while Jang-seop struggles to keep up in terms of making sure Baek isn’t arrested for kidnapping, and investigating what’s really going on in Ji-eun’s home. It’s a good job he’s on board as Lee’s script portrays the rest of the police force as either lazy, incompetent, or both, their attitude towards the abuse of a child being of the “it means lots of paperwork” variety. Whether this is an indication of prevailing sensibilities in South Korea or is just dramatic license, it still feels like a clumsy narrative device to keep the plot going, and there are too many other moments where Lee prods the story back into life when it’s on the verge of stalling. This makes for an uneven movie that never feels certain if it’s a crime thriller with a bordering on cartoonish main villain, or a sincere statement about the evils of child abuse, or an exercise in personal redemption as emotional therapy. It’s actually all three, but they don’t always gel together, and despite solid performances from Han and Kim, the connection between Baek and Ji-eun feels under-explored. That said, many of their scenes together are genuinely affecting, and Han does sorrowful with aplomb. Again, it’s a tough movie to watch at times, and deliberately so, but it’s not so disturbing that it can’t provide a happy ending (of sorts) to help viewers go away feeling more settled.

Rating: 7/10 – despite some obvious flaws in the narrative, and a penchant for melodrama that mars the movie’s final third, Miss Baek is an otherwise confidently handled debut from Lee, and one that doesn’t hold back from showing the physical and emotional consequences of child abuse; gritty and realistic, and shot in an abrasive, defiant manner by DoP Kang Guk-hyun, this is the kind of movie that if it were to be remade by Hollywood, would be robbed entirely of the harshness that makes it as effective as it is.

The Belly of the Whale (2018)

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D: Morgan Bushe / 86m

Cast: Pat Shortt, Lewis MacDougall, Michael Smiley, Lauren Kinsella, Art Parkinson, Peter Coonan, Cian Gallagher, Ronan Graham, Ernie Gallagher, Áine Ní Mhuirí

In a small rural town in Ireland, there’s a caravan park called Moody’s that has been closed ever since the death of its owner a few years before. After a stint in Scotland with an aunt and uncle, the owner’s son, Joey (MacDougall), has returned to re-open the site and restore it to its former glory. He’s fifteen. Also arriving in town at the same time is Ronald Tanner (Shortt), desperately in need of money to fund his ailing wife’s medical treatments, and hoping to sell a thousand Chinese made toys to local businessman and political wannabe Gits Hegarty (Smiley). When Hegarty cruelly turns him down, Ronald parks his van at the caravan site overnight while he tries to work out what to do next. However, Joey’s curiosity about what’s inside the van gets the better of him and a badly disposed of cigar leads to the van, and Ronald’s stock of toys, going up in flames. Joey determines to help Ronald in any way he can to make amends, and when they become aware of payments Hegarty makes to a couple of local criminals, they decide to steal the next payment for themselves…

Morgan Bushe’s feature debut, co-written with Greg Flanagan, owes almost its entire existence to the work of the Coen brothers. It’s that kind of movie: an homage that pillages the Coens oeuvre freely and willingly, but alas, without adopting the control over the material that helps to make the brothers’ work so successful. It’s a bleak, misery-driven piece that has trouble expressing itself as the grimly humorous movie it wants to be, and it piles so many setbacks and obstacles onto the shoulders of its ostensible heroes that by rights they should be crushed flat before they even begin to think about robbing Hegarty. Literally nothing goes right for either one of them, from Joey alienating his best friend, Lanks (Parkinson), to Ronald succumbing to the alcoholism he’s kept at bay for so long. As misfits go they’re pretty spectacular in their ability to dig themselves a bigger and bigger hole that they can’t get out of, and it’s obvious that their get-rich-quick scheme is doomed to (relative) failure, but with Bushe determined to put them through the wringer time and time again, any real sense of self-awareness – or self-preservation – is abandoned before it’s even considered.

This all keeps the main storyline unfolding with the grim inevitability of a traffic accident that could have been avoided if both drivers had noticed the lights were on red, and though Shortt and MacDougall have their moments, their efforts are overwhelmed by the unremitting obduracy of the movie’s tone, and a mood that swings between cheerless and downbeat as if they were the only two choices available to Bushe, and which suited the narrative. Only Smiley manages to rise above the gloomy nature of the material, and he does so by being openly malign and horrible in a way that suggests he views Hegarty as the kind of moustache-twirling villain who can’t help overplaying his hand at every turn (and not as the arch manipulator that Bushe may have intended). Shot in a deliberately downbeat visual style by DoP Arthur Mulhern that further promotes the oppressive atmosphere that’s cultivated and encouraged throughout, even the sub-plots feature stories that are bleak and disturbing. With all this, it’s hard to believe that there could be any light at the end of the tunnel, there is redemption and hope on offer in the movie’s final scenes, but inevitably, these pale rays of sunshine come too late to save Bushe’s debut from giving the viewer a series case of the miseries.

Rating: 5/10 – a dark and melancholy movie that wallows in the doldrums of its own making, The  Belly of the Whale is as far from a laugh riot as you can get without it being Angela’s Ashes (1999); with only occasional flashes of inspiration, and the odd, unexpected visual flourish to help things along, this “black comedy” may only appeal to viewers who will see Joey and Ronald’s individual predicaments as situations that make them feel better about their own lives.

Chico & Rita (2010)

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D: Fernando Trueba, Javier Mariscal / 90m

Cast: Limara Meneses, Eman Xor Oña, Mario Guerra, Lenny Mandel

In 1948, in Havana, budding pianist Chico (Oña) and his best friend, Ramon (Guerra), are enjoying a night on the town with a couple of American tourists when he encounters Rita (Meneses), a singer with the most beautiful voice Chico has ever heard. For Chico it’s love at first sight, and he pursues her, but it’s not until he proves his mettle as a pianist that Rita begins to consider him as boyfriend material. Once she does, their relationship blossoms until an unfortunate incident drives a wedge between them – and on the eve of a talent competition that they’ve a good chance of winning. Chico has written a special song for the competition that’s dedicated to Rita, and Ramon persuades her to still take part. They win, and part of the prize is a month’s residency at the Hotel Nacional. But Rita’s talent and beautiful looks attract the attention of an American businessman, Ron (Mandel), who wants to take her to New York and make her a star. However, Chico’s jealousy drives a further wedge between them, and Rita goes to New York with Ron. Realising his mistake too soon, Chico too heads for New York, but a reconciliation isn’t as easy as he hopes…

A vibrant and vividly portrayed romance set against a colourful backdrop of artistic and cultural change, Chico & Rita is a hugely enjoyable celebration of love and music that thrums with a passion and a vigour that could only have been achieved through its unique combination of animation and the jazz stylings of the period. It’s rare to see an animated movie that uses music to such good effect in electing to tell its simple story of love and heartbreak, and the pain that both characters are able to feel and express through their love of music. Their love affair is a thing of beauty and regret, of ill-advised decisions and wasted opportunities, of battered ambitions and tender expressions – in short, it’s a love story that resonates with every glance and gesture no matter what the emotion behind it. There’s not a false note (no pun intended) in the way that Chico and Rita’s relationship plays out, and the script – by Trueba and Ignacio Martínez de Pisón – keeps the viewer guessing all the way through as to whether or not they’ll have the happy ending they deserve. Beautifully observed, and rendered with a great deal of charm, this is a love story that would be hard to replicate with real people.

Chico & Rita is also a movie where the backdrop is just as lovingly and beautifully rendered as the main storyline, with co-director Mariscal using his skills as a designer and artist to create a visually arresting depiction of late Forties/early Fifties Havana, and the bright lights of Fifties New York and Las Vegas. This is another area where the movie has a vibrant, energetic feel to it, and the characters take their place amidst the noise and the commotion and the excitement of their surroundings so naturally that their whole environment feels completely realistic (even though the animation is highly stylised). It’s a tremendously life-affirming movie as well, bold and daring, and willing to take risks such as in a handful of scenes that are unapologetically sensuous and erotic, but still in keeping with the mood and tone of the movie and its approach to Chico and Rita’s tempestuous realtionship. Along the way there are astute explorations of the casual racism of the period – Rita achieves fame in Hollywood but loses out on respect because of her origins – and the flourishing jazz fusion that occurred when Cuban musicians met American musicians. It’s all of a piece, though, wonderfully thought out and assembled, and one of the most impressive animated movies of the current decade.

Rating: 9/10 – with a killer soundtrack that features the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Thelonius Monk alongside compositions and arrangements by Bebo Valdés, Chico & Rita is a vivid piece of movie making that tells its agonising tale of tragic love with gusto and huge, great heaps of charm; simply irresistible, whether you’re a fan of animation or not (or even Cuban music), and often breathtaking in the way that it dissects a simple love affair with precision and skill.

Fisherman’s Friends (2019)

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D: Chris Foggin / 112m

Cast: Daniel Mays, James Purefoy, Tuppence Middleton, David Hayman, Dave Johns, Sam Swainsbury, Maggie Steed, Vahid Gold, Christian Brassington, Meadow Nobrega, Noel Clarke

For city boy and music executive Danny Anderson (Mays), the thought of leaving London for the quieter environs of Cornwall, even for a friend’s stag do, goes against the grain. But when a planned sailing weekend fails to happen, Danny, his engaged friend, Henry (Brassington), colleague Driss (Gold), and boss Troy (Clarke), all find themselves having to be rescued when their paddle boarding excursion goes wrong. Afterwards, they find that their rescuers are part of a group of local fishermen well known for singing sea shanties. Danny is immediately impressed by them, and finds himself tasked by Troy to sign the fishermen to a record deal. Unaware that he’s being pranked – Troy has no intention of taking them on – Danny manages to persuade the men to make a demo recording that he can send to the record labels. Staying at the home of de facto group leader Jim (Purefoy), who is distrustful of “outsiders”, and finding himself growing more and more attracted to Jim’s daughter, Alwyn (Middleton), as well as the way of life there, Danny begins to understand why life in Port Isaac has more to offer than he could have ever expected…

Based on the true story of the Fisherman’s Friends, a group of Cornish fishermen whose distinctive renderings of traditional sea shanties has brought them fame (if not fortune), and even a spot on the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury, Chris Foggin’s eponymous movie features the kind of heartfelt and sincerely handled narrative that is guaranteed to raise a smile and a tear, and sometimes even in the same scene. What makes it work so well isn’t the focus on the music – though there’s plenty of that, including a rousing rendition of What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor? – but the sense of community that the fishermen are a part of. Shot in Port Isaac, and with the town looking like an honest picture postcard version of itself, the movie doesn’t take long to woo the unsuspecting viewer with its various charms, not least the relaxed way of life on display, and the inhabitants’ positive atttudes about pretty much everything. A buoyant, ebullient sense of mischief also runs throughout the movie, with the men’s camaraderie allowing for a handful of comedic moments where pretensions are dismantled before they can take root… all of which is in stark contrast to the less amusing “humour” evinced by Troy and his sycophants. (Troy is the ostensible bad guy in the movie – but it doesn’t need one.)

With its knowing approach to the material, and a script that takes the time to add moments of poignancy to the mix, the movie is a celebration both of the sea shanties that the men sing and the tradition that keeps them from being forgotten. Again, the music is secondary to the feelings it evokes, and through the perfectly gauged performances, this appreciation is explored through a number of fine renditions that prove infectious and affecting. Mays is particularly good as the (entirely apt) fish out of water, succumbing to the love of a good woman, and the simple pleasures of Cornish life, while Purefoy makes more out of Jim’s sour demeanour than could have been expected; there are depths to his portrayal that aren’t necessarily in the script. With a number of minor sub-plots to round out the material, the movie isn’t afraid to explore more meaningful areas, such as absentee fathers, the perceived betrayal of a community, and the serious nature of what the men do away from singing. It’s ultimately light-hearted and often as whimsical as these things are usually, but Foggin ensures that it’s sprightly and entertaining in equal measure, and no one aspect of the narrative overwhelms all the others. A distinct and effective crowd pleaser, its message couldn’t be clearer: that heritage and tradition still have a vital role to play in modern day communities.

Rating: 8/10 – rousing, rambunctious, and hugely likeable, Fisherman’s Friends tells its story simply and with a great deal of subdued, yet appropriate style; beautiful Cornish locations and sterling cinematography by Simon Tindall add extra layers of charm to the material, and though it treads a very familiar path – Danny makes as many mistakes as he gets things right on the way to a hit record – this doesn’t detract from the sheer enjoyment to be found in such an unassuming movie.

The Quake (2018)

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Original title: Skjelvet

D: John Andreas Andersen / 108m

Cast: Kristoffer Joner, Ane Dahl Torp, Edith Haagenrud-Sande, Kathrine Thorborg Johansen, Jonas Hoff Oftebro, Stig R. Amdam, Catrin Sagen, Per Frisch, Hanna Skogstad

Three years after saving hundreds of lives in the tsunami disaster that struck his home town of Geiranger, geologist Kristian Elkjord (Joner) is separated from his wife and family. While he still lives in Geiranger, they have moved to the capital, Oslo. The death of a colleague, Konrad (Frisch), in what is regarded as a rare seismic shift while working in a road tunnel, prompts Kristian to investigate further. Making contact with his former boss, Johannes (Amdam), Kristian’s suspicions that the seismic shift that killed Konrad could be an indicator of a bigger problem to come, is refuted. But when Kristian discovers that Konrad has been researching the possibility of another devastating earthquake similar to the one that struck Oslo in 1904, his suspicions appear to be well founded. With the help of Konrad’s daughter, Marit (Johansen), Kristian does his best to alert his family – wife Idun (Torp), teenage son Sondre (Oftebro), and young daughter Julia (Haagenrud-Sande) – but with all three of them in various parts of the city, getting to them in time and keeping them safe becomes even more perilous when Kristian’s fears become reality…

An unexpected but welcome sequel to The Wave (2015), The Quake is pretty much the same movie but on a grander, more devastating scale. There’s the usual long build up before the titular disaster happens, and there are the usual scenes where the hero tries to convince everyone around him that he’s not crazy or alarmist or both, and there are the standard, minor precursors to the main event to help build up the tension. It’s formulaic, and for the most part entirely predictable, but thanks to an astute script – courtesy of returning writers John Kåre Raake and Harald Rosenløw-Eeg – and Andersen’s confident handling of the material, this is that rare sequel that is as as good as the original. Having the same cast back to play the Elkjord family helps too, and the decision to have Kristian estranged from them due to his suffering from debilitating survivor’s guilt, gives many of the movie’s earliest scenes more of an emotional impact. So much so, that when it comes time for Kristian to take on the mantle of rescuer, the increasing peril everyone finds themselves in is all the more effective for the viewer in that there’s no guarantee they’ll all survive.

As with the scenario in The Wave, Raake and Rosenløw-Eeg have taken a real event in Norway’s history – the 1904 earthquake referred to hit 5.4 on the Richter Scale – and then explored the current research which advocates the strong possibility of another earthquake on the same scale happening at some unguessable point in the future. This plausibility adds to the credibility of the movie, and makes the actual earthquake depicted feel as if it could actually happen (there’s a restraint too in the amount of devastation that’s caused that also feels right). Joner and Torp reprise their roles with the same integrity and commitment they brought to The Wave, and there’s strong support from the rest of the cast, though Amdam is stuck playing the kind of blinkered character you hope will end up being taken out by a collapsing building. The cinematography is suitably bleak with a subdued colour palette and often gloomy lighting, but this is in keeping with the pessimistic nature of the material. The special effects are impressive without going over the top, and the various obstacles and problems that Kristian has to overcome to keep his family safe are well crafted and well thought out. The last thirty minutes are as tense and as nerve-wracking as anything else you’re likely to see in the disaster movie genre this year, but it does make you wonder, what next for the unfortunate Elkjords?

Rating: 8/10 – with a slow start that concentrates on its characters and promoting the inevitable danger they’ll face later on, The Quake offers a number of edge-of-the-seat moments in amongst all the mayhem, and it does so with a great deal of shrewdness and self-assurance; with a surfeit of suspense, and a handful of visceral shocks, this is an object lesson to how to make a disaster movie feel realistic, and how not to lose sight of the characters once it all goes spectacularly wrong.

Gotti (2018)

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D: Kevin Connolly / 109m

Cast: John Travolta, Spencer Lofranco, Kelly Preston, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Stacy Keach, William DeMeo, Leo Rossi, Chris Kerson, Chris Mulkey

Where to begin…

It’s not just that Gotti is a bad movie – and it really, truly is – it’s that watching it you begin to wonder if anyone working on it had any idea of how misguided and inept it all was, from the opening scene that sees Travolta as Gotti breaking the fourth wall and beginning to tell his story from beyond the grave, to the final scene, where Travolta as Gotti again speaks to camera and brags that you’ll never see anyone like him ever again. These scenes are bad enough, what with their eulogising of Gotti and his flamboyant look, but they’re overwhelmed by the sheer awfulness of what unfolds between them. This is a movie that doesn’t so much shy away from being impartial, as get into an Indy 500 car and race off into the distance at top speed in order to do so, and it’s not long before you realise that the script – by cast member Leo Rossi and Lem Dobbs – has been constructed to lionise Gotti and his life of crime. In other, more capable hands, the contemporary footage of Gotti supporters praising him in the wake of his death in 2002, would have been used to make an ironic statement about his public persona; instead they’re used for exactly what they are: idolaters remembering (for them) a great man.

In terms of a wider ineptitude, Gotti struggles to get anything right. Having decided to impose a non-linear narrative on itself, the movie plays like a rough cut where scenes have been jumbled together and still need to be assembled in an effective, relatable order. It’s a lucky coincidence if one scene follows another and there’s a connection between them, and many are short, leaden and lacking in relevance. Gotti‘s editor, Jim Flynn, fumbles reaction shots, drains scenes of any energy or flow, and makes what should have been one of the movie’s standout set pieces, the execution of Gambino Crime Family boss Paul Castellano, into an exercise in how not to depict a shootout. It’s a mess of randomly stitched together shots that leaves the viewer with no way of knowing who is shooting who, or how many times, or where from (and that’s without the CG blood spurts). In fairness, Flynn’s job may have been made more difficult thanks to a lack of coverage provided by the movie’s director, but even if that is the case then it serves only as confirmation that Connolly, whose previous outing, Dear Eleanor (2016), is well worth seeking out, is here either out of his depth or hasn’t learnt very much during the course of his twenty year plus directing career.

It would be some consolation if the performances offered a respite from the dreary depictions of backroom betrayals, the travails of John Gotti Jr (Lofranco) – here made out to be something of a paragon of virtue for turning his back on his criminal lifestyle – and several random killings that are meant to mean something but never do. However, Travolta aside (this became a personal project designed to give a boost to his ailing career), it appears that the rest of the cast decided that because of the script’s propensity for volumes of exposition, and its lack of a coherent story, as well as its wafer thin characterisations, that a minimum amount of effort should be expended. Travolta tries too hard, and grinds his teeth a lot in that way that he has when he wants his character to be taken seriously, and Connolly does nothing to rein him in or modulate the performance. (Spare a thought though for Lofranco, taking on the role of Gotti Jr and having to create the character from scratch; as far as the script is concerned he’s a blank page.) In the end, the script gives Gotti an elegiac send-off, providing further evidence that this is far from the gritty exposé viewers might be expecting, and instead something that could easily pass as a celebration of a smartly dressed murderer – and without the judgement.

Rating: 3/10 – a terrible movie about a terrible man, Gotti sinks to new levels of silliness, stupidity and inadequacy, and works best as an object lesson in how not to put together a true crime biography; fully deserving of whatever criticism can be levelled against it, it’s a movie that feels like a patchwork quilt of bad intentions and low ideas, and which routinely undermines itself at every turn, leaving it looking and sounding like the trainwreck of all trainwrecks.

What Men Want (2019) and the Demise of the Mainstream Comedy

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D: Adam Shankman / 117m

Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Aldis Hodge, Josh Brener, Erykah Badu, Tracy Morgan, Richard Roundtree, Wendy McLendon Covey, Phoebe Robinson, Tamala Jones, Brian Bosworth, Jason Jones, Chris Witaske, Max Greenfield, Shane Paul McGhie, Auston Jon Moore, Kellan Lutz

On paper it had all the potential for being a classic screwball comedy built around a contemporary mindset, but in what seems to be a continuing trend, What Men Want is yet another movie that makes you wonder if Hollywood even knows how to make a comedy any more. Telling the story of a lone female sports agent (Henson) at a prestigious agency who is forever battling against the “boys’ club” that determines who makes partner, this remake of the Mel Gibson-starrer What Women Want (2000) – you see what they did there? – runs for nearly two hours and for long stretches forgets that it’s meant to make its audience laugh. They say that comedy is more of a challenge than tragedy or straight up drama, and in many ways “they” are right, but with all the talent and facilities available to producers in Hollywood, why is it that when it comes time to make us chuckle and smile, or even give out a big belly laugh, the movies that can do this are so few and far between? When was the last time a mainstream comedy really did deliver the goods and proved itself to be consistently funny? Was it The Spy Who Dumped Me? Or maybe Night School? Or what about The Happytime Murders (yes, what about it?).

There are too many comedies being churned out that follow the same safe formula: the lead character has to embark on a journey of self-discovery and become a better person. Along the way they’ll find themselves in all sorts of awkward situations, and decide that lying to everyone is the best way to get out of trouble, until later on when they realise the need to apologise and are unanimously forgiven. This is what happens in What Men Want, and Henson’s character, Ali (her father (Roundtree) is a boxing coach, just to make the metaphor stick all the more) uses her “gift” to get ahead at work while trampling over friends and colleagues and the obligatory love interest (Hodge) because that’s all she knows. Cue a multitude of platitudes and homilies about treating people with respect and being a team player and being true to yourself. But in amongst all the life lessons and the free psychoanalysis for anyone who behaves in a similar fashion in real life (the movie knows you’re out there), the script by Tina Gordon, Peter Huyck and Alex Gregory often resorts to padding out its scenes with unnecessary dialogue and extended “business” that add little or nothing to the overall narrative.

And even less of this nonsense is actually, deliberately, intentionally funny. The movie simply tries too hard. It’s almost relentless in its efforts to be humorous, and only succeeds on any kind of regular basis when the material tries to be off-the-cuff, or it feels as if a line of dialogue has been improvised. It’s as if the structure and Ali’s character arc were deemed too important to tamper with and this left the comedy out in the cold and struggling to find a proper place for itself. And for a movie where a woman can hear men’s thoughts, and the immense potential of that idea, much of what is heard is uninspired and predictable. It doesn’t help either that Shankman directs with all the pizzazz and verve of a man who heard the word “anonymous” and took it as his own personal mantra, or that the supporting characters – usually the reliable comedic backbone of any self-respecting comedy – lack the purpose and the inappropriate eccentricity we’re used to (Badu’s weed-supplying psychic comes close but her appearance is the most interesting thing about her). In the end, watching What Men Want is a dispiriting, frustrating experience that succeeds only in reaffirming the notion that Hollywood is wedded to formula and doesn’t want a divorce.

Rating: 5/10 – dull in parts, and over-stretched in others, with a surfeit of scenes that sit there hoping to be funny just by being there, What Men Want is yet another mainstream comedy that should have been abandoned in the planning stages; no one should have to struggle through a movie that doesn’t know how to be amusing, or that requires its more than capable cast of playing it broad when subtlety would be so much more effective, but this is what Hollywood is serving up these days… and that kind of Kool Aid really isn’t funny…

Finding Steve McQueen (2018)

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D: Mark Steven Johnson / 92m

Cast: Travis Fimmel, Rachael Taylor, William Fichtner, Forest Whitaker, Louis Lombardi, Rhys Coiro, Jake Weary, Lily Rabe, John Finn

1980. John Baker (Fimmel) meets his girlfriend, Molly Murphy (Taylor) at a diner, where he proceeds to tell her that he’s not the man she thinks he is. Baker reveals that his real name is Harry Barber, and that in 1972, along with four other men, he robbed the United California Bank of around $12 million. The robbery was carried out in the belief that then President Richard Nixon had stashed $30 million in illegal campaign funds within the bank’s vault. After the robbery, the five men went their separate ways, Harry and his younger brother, Tommy (Weary), having been paid their “share” already. But it wasn’t long before the FBI, and lead agent Howard Lambert (Whitaker), had tracked down and arrested everyone except Harry, who promptly went on the run. Ending up in a small town, and finding a job as a bartender, Harry met Molly, and they began seeing each other. While Harry settled into small town life, he was still being sought by the FBI, but eight years later his relationship with Molly has become too important for him not to tell her the truth…

If you like your movies – whether based on a true story or not – whimsical and slightly silly, or with a surfeit of gosh-darn wholesomeness that overrides the drama of the biggest bank robbery in U.S. history, then Finding Steve McQueen will be the movie for you. It’s a movie that takes several disparate elements and mixes them all together to tell a light-hearted (and lightweight) story that opts for charm as its main characteristic, while adding dollops of goofy humour to its romantic sub-plot. Though inspired by a true story, Ken Hixon and Keith Sharon’s screenplay uses the robbery as a branching off point for a pointed exploration of Nixon’s fall from grace, an idealised appreciation for the movies of Steve McQueen, and a gently meandering romance between Harry and Molly that feels like it should be quirkier and more affecting. There’s also the FBI investigation, an avuncular affair that sees Whitaker play Lambert with a sad twinkle in his eye, and which sees the intervention of real life figure Mark Felt (Finn) in order to keep Lambert finding out (from him at least) that, yes, the President might be involved – somehow. These are worthy attempts at boosting the minimal impact the movie has as a whole, and though they’re not entirely successful, that charm that Johnson and his cast and crew have aimed for, is undeniable.

It would be easy to dismiss Finding Steve McQueen as a piece of cinematic fluff, or the movie equivalent of a meringue, but the fact that it is an enjoyable, and undemanding diversion is it’s main strength. With a slew of performances that display an awareness of the thinness of the material, and which have adjusted themselves accordingly, Fimmel et al give the more maudlin or outright saccharine-drenched moments a likeability that’s hard to ignore, and they make more of the humour than is likely was ever in the script to begin with. Fichtner is great as the Nixon-hating mastermind behind the robbery, Weary gives an affecting turn as Harry’s withdrawn, simple-minded brother, and Rabe is endearing as the rookie FBI agent whose eyes light up when she receives even the merest word of praise. Again, it’s a movie that shouldn’t work as well as it does, and kudos should go to Johnson (making only his sixth feature in twenty years) for finding a way to make each element feel more connected to the others than they should do, and for finding the through line in the narrative that keeps it all from becoming vapid and irredeemably innocuous. But then any movie that has one of its bank robbers attempt to eacape capture on a motorised lawnmower can’t be all bad…

Rating: 6/10 – with a script that could have been sharper, more focused, or less determined to make a Seventies cultural reference every two minutes or so (or all three), Finding Steve McQueen is a curious beast in that it somehow makes you forget just how bland it is once you take away the performances and Johnson’s direction; pleasant and undemanding – and those are good things – it’s a movie that serves as a reminder that sometimes less can really mean less, and still be entertaining.

10 Reasons to Remember John Carl Buechler (1952-2019)

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John Carl Buechler (18 June 1952 – 18 March 2019)

If you’re a fan of ultra-low to no-budget horror movies – particularly from the Eighties and Nineties – then you’ll be aware of the work of John Carl Buechler, actor, writer, producer, director, and above all, special effects maestro. It was in this arena that Buechler (pronounced Beekler) found his true calling, having got into the movie business providing special prosthetic effects for Dr. Heckyl and Mr. Hype (1980). He stayed with special effects make up, and began to make a name for himself as someone who could be relied upon to give a creature feature something of a boost thanks to his ability to come up with practical effects that often belied the paucity of a movie’s budget. He made his directing debut in 1984, contributing the segment Demons of the Dead to The Dungeonmaster, but it was his next outing as a director that cemented his reputation – for good and for bad. The movie was Troll (1986), widely regarded as one of the worst movies ever made (and now something of a cult classic – how tastes change). Despite its reputation at the time, Buechler remained as busy as ever, and in 1988 alone he made varying contributions to nine different movies, including Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (which he also directed), A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, and Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers.

Buechler worked almost exclusively in the fantasy and/or horror genres, and had long stints with Charles Band’s Empire Pictures and Roger Corman’s New World Pictures (Corman regarded him as “the best in the business”), but occasionally he would land a gig on a mainstream movie, even providing uncredited animatronic effects on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). He formed his own company, Magical Media Industries Inc, and through the Nineties worked more as a designer than a special effects technician, though still on movies with perilously small budgets and minimal resources. Though most of his output since the late Nineties has been available only through home video releases (and some deservedly so, such as the movies he worked on for Donald F. Glut), Buechler maintained his standing within the industry and was an inspiration for many up and coming young special effects artists. He was an affable figure, well respected, and in his own way exceptionally talented. Outside of the world of low budget horror, Buechler may not be particularly well known, but for anyone who has ever watched the likes of Crawlspace (1986) or Scanner Cop (1994) and wondered just who was responsible for their surprisingly impressive special effects, then the very skilled John Carl Buechler is the answer.

1 – Ghoulies (1984)

2 – Troll (1986)

3 – From Beyond (1986)

4 – Cellar Dweller (1988)

5 – Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988)

6 – Re-Animator 2 (1989)

7 – Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991)

8 – Carnosaur (1993)

9 – Curse of the Forty-Niner (2002)

10 – Hatchet (2006)

White Boy Rick (2018)

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D: Yann Demange / 111m

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Richie Merritt, Bel Powley, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Brian Tyree Henry, Rory Cochrane, RJ Cyler, Jonathan Majors, Eddie Marsan, Taylour Paige, Bruce Dern, Piper Laurie

Detroit, 1984. Richard Wershe (McConaughey) and his fourteen year old son, Rick (Merritt), are a staple at gun shows. Richard purchases guns that he then re-sells on the street, but when he modifies a couple of rifles, Rick has the idea to sell them to a local drug dealer, Johnny ‘Lil Man’ Curry (Majors). Later, he’s approached by two FBI agents, Snyder (Leigh) and Byrd (Cochrane); they make it known that one of the modified rifles was used to kill a man.Using this as a means to persuade him, Snyder and Byrd get Rick to start making drug buys as a way of infiltrating Lil Man’s operation. Once on the inside, Rick does his best to keep things from his father, while learning the tricks of the trade – tricks that come in handy when Lil Man and his crew are arrested and Rick decides that he needs a way to make money for himself, his father and sister, Dawn (Powley), and his infant son. Soon he’s in a similar position to the one that Lil Man had, but inevitably there are consequences…

A story that would stretch credulity if it hadn’t really happened, Rick Wershe’s involvement with the FBI and his subsequent life of crime should be a movie slam dunk, the equivalent of a football striker faced with an open goal (to mix sports metaphors). And while White Boy Rick benefits from two detailed and persuasive performances from McConaughey and Merritt (making his movie debut), the screenplay by Andy Weiss and Logan and Noah Miller lacks cohesion and a clear through line – though it does try its best. Rick’s story has to vie with several others, and it’s this approach that stops the movie from being as compelling as it should be. Alongside Rick’s fall from grace, the narrative momentum stops from time to time to catch up with Dawn’s on-going drug addiction and Rick’s efforts to help her (the script never quite grasps the irony of a drug dealer trying to get someone off of drugs), and Rick’s continuing liking for Lil Man’s wife, Cathy (Paige), whom he gets into bed with in more ways than one. These and other secondary storylines hamper the flow of the movie, and with its jumping from year to successive year between 1984 and 1987, the episodic nature of the material means that the cast have to work extra hard to keep it all afloat.

In the end, some of the background details have more resonance and relevance than expected, as with the deprived lower middle class neighbourhood that the Wershes live in offering a powerful reason for Rick’s turning to drug dealing as a way out. Looking out for his family is another, and taking advantage of what he’s learnt through working for the FBI allows Rick to be successful in his chosen field (more irony that the script doesn’t explore). But Rick is also a mixture of brains and naïveté, enjoying the rewards of drug dealing while ignoring the object lesson given by Lil Man’s arrest and incarceration: the FBI will always get you in the end (and even if you’ve been an informant for them). Merritt is completely convincing as Rick, cocky and unfazed by anything and everything at fourteen, more mature and focused but still easily outwitted at seventeen, and with that sense of invincibility that every teenager has. He’s matched by McConaughey, his beaten down father still hanging onto dreams of success, even if they’re modest dreams, and always looking to be the best role model for his children that he can be. Make no mistake, both father and son are flawed characters, with a penchant for moral compromise when it can benefit them both, but the bond between them gives the movie an emotional component that is missing elsewhere. Now, if the movie had focused on their relationship to the exclusion of everything else…

Rating: 6/10 – good performances all round and solid direction from Demange aren’t enough to stop the viewer from realising that White Boy Rick is not exactly involving, and that even though the majority of it is true, it’s not always as interesting as its screenplay tries to make out; with a smattering of laughs, and moments of sudden violence to leaven the evenness of the material, this is a movie that tries hard in some places, unconvincingly in others, and which often feels the strain of the effort it’s making.

Triple Frontier (2019)

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D: J.C. Chandor / 125m

Cast: Ben Affleck, Oscar Isaac, Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Hedlund, Pedro Pascal, Adria Arjona, Sheila Vand, Reynaldo Gallegos, Maddy Wary, Juan Camilo Castillo

While working as a private military advisor combating a drug cartel in Colombia, Santiago “Pope” Garcia (Isaac) learns that the head of the cartel, Lorea (Gallegos), keeps all his money at a safe house in the middle of the jungle. Instead of passing on this information to the authorities, Pope returns to the US to recruit four friends, all ex-Special Forces, for a mission to grab the money for themselves. Each of his friends has a reason for going: Tom “Redfly” Davis (Affleck) is a realtor with financial problems; William “Ironhead” Miller (Hunnam) is a motivational speaker who misses being a part of the military; his brother, Ben (Hedlund), is an MMA fighter who’ll follow wherever Ironhead goes; and Francisco “Catfish” Morales (Pascal) is a pilot whose licence has been withdrawn. They reconnoitre Lorea’s jungle hideout, and determine to raid the place on a Sunday morning when his family and most of his men will be at church. Although Ironhead is wounded, the raid is a success, and they get away with around $250 million in cash. Now all they have to do is stay alive long enough to make it back home…

Triple Frontier‘s production history is in some ways more interesting than the finished movie. Originally set to star Tom Hanks and Johnny Depp, and with Kathryn Bigelow directing, delays since 2010 meant that it wasn’t until 2015 that Chandor came aboard and added his own input to Mark Boal’s original screenplay. With Channing Tatum and Tom Hardy having replaced Hanks and Depp at that stage, Mahershala Ali was added to the cast before all three dropped out, and Affleck et al signed on (Affleck even quit the project himself for a while before shooting began). With all this in mind, it’s interesting to re-imagine the movie with those actors in the main roles – and realise that the right choices were made in the end. For though Triple Frontier is ultimately an uneven movie that puts itself in danger of losing its audience’s interest in the final third, its the strength of its final casting that makes the movie so effective. With impressive performances from all concerned – Affleck is particularly good as the morally ambiguous Redfly – the movie plays well when it’s concerned with issues of camaraderie and masculinity (both supportive and toxic), and in showing the levels of trust these men have in each other, even when things are going wrong and blaming each other is a natural response.

The relationships the five men have form the core of the movie, and give it an emotional resonance that most action thrillers never attempt let alone achieve. And Chandor ensures that it’s not all about the money, but more about how all of them except Pope miss being a part of the action. These are men who’ve lost their sense of purpose, their identities now they’re back in the real world, and when the movie focuses on this, it does so perceptively and persuasively. But this is also an action thriller, and for the first two thirds a very accomplished one, with Chandor staging an opening attack on a cartel building with verve and skill, and the raid on Lorea’s house like a chess match with rifles instead of pieces. But then comes the getaway, and though there’s already the sense that it won’t be as smooth and well planned as hoped for, where Chandor and Boal take Redfly and the others leads to a number of surprisingly flat scenes that lack energy and pace, and which feel like the dictionary definition of padding. As a result, a moment of tragedy lacks the impact it should have, and the movie struggles through to an ending that doesn’t carry the dramatic weight that’s expected. Still, it’s a good movie, for the most part, and Chandor continues to show why he’s one of the best directors working today, but this has to be regarded as something of a disappointment.

Rating: 7/10 – as a three-act narrative with both prologue and epilogue, Triple Frontier is only effective up until the end of the second act, when different forces come into play and the focus shifts from being about five men regaining their sense of purpose in the world, and becomes a generic tale of survival against low odds; with ambitions beyond the standard heist movie, it’s a shame then that those ambitions weren’t as well thought out and worked through as they needed to be.

Blindspotting (2018)

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D: Carlos López Estrada / 95m

Cast: Daveed Diggs, Rafael Casal, Janina Gavankar, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Ethan Embry, Tisha Campbell Martin, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Kevin Carroll, Nyambi Nyambi, Jon Chaffin, Wayne Knight

Nearing the end of a year’s probation following a prison sentence for aggravated assault, Collin Hoskins (Diggs) is doing his best to avoid any trouble. With three days to go he’s living at a halfway house, and working with his best friend, Miles (Casal), at a removals firm called Commander Moving. One night while he’s driving back to the halfway house, he witnesses a white police officer (Embry) shoot an unarmed black man. Unwilling to jeopardise his probation, Collin elects not to come forward, but he does begin to experience nightmares about the shooting, nightmares that make him question if he’s done the right thing. Matters are further complicated by Collin’s ex-girlfriend, Val (Gavankar), working at the removal company, and Miles’ often irrational behaviour, such as buying a gun when he doesn’t need one, and giving in to violent outbursts. As Collin nears the end of his probation, two incidents involving Miles threaten his impending freedom, and he’s forced to wonder if remaining friends with Miles is going to allow him to move on with his life…

Nine years in the making, Blindspotting is the brainchild of Messrs Diggs and Casal, and a movie that aims to show what life is really like in today’s Oakland community, with all its racial variety and simmering intolerance. It’s a heady mix of comedy and drama, with a lot to say about racism, prejudice, and the title term, a phrase that means always seeing what your mind tells you is there instead of looking more closely. It’s an apt phrase for much of what causes pain and suffering in the world, our inability to see beyond what we want to see, and it’s brought out beautifully in a split screen exchange between Collin and Val that explains their whole relationship in a nutshell. The movie is full of perceptive moments like this one, with Diggs and Casal’s script being far more nuanced than anyone might have expected, and along with prejudice and the skewed perception people can have about us, it also examines notions of racial identity (and identification), as well as Oakland’s sense of its own identity now that the area is becoming more and more gentrified. Collin is wondering how he’s going to fit in once his probation is over, but as he’s reminded, he’s now known forever as a convicted felon – and how do you adjust to that?

Miles, on the other hand, knows where he fits in, but maintaining his place is his particular burden, as he too feels threatened by the changes in the community. Loudmouthed and brash, and prone to inappropriate behaviour, Miles is a relic of the past, a dinosaur unwilling to accept that his ways are fast becoming unacceptable, and threatened by the possibility that he’ll lose everything he’s achieved (and particularly his family). As Collin begins to question his future role, Miles is forced to examine his, and for both men it’s not a comfortable situation to be in. How they deal with all this is the crux of a movie that grows in confidence and charm the longer it goes on, and the script is peppered with small gems of observation, and moments of quiet introspection that perfectly complement the more dramatic scenes, such as Collin jogging through a graveyard where the dead all stand by their headstones. With so many disparate elements at work, and all needing their own moments to be effective, it’s a relief to see that Estrada (making his feature debut) never loses sight of what a scene is saying, or how best to get that message across. Directing with an honesty and a focus that boosts the material, Estrada takes Diggs and Casal’s screenplay and invests it with a sincerity and a sense of purpose that makes the narrative feel all the more impressively handled. And with both Diggs and Casal giving excellent performances, this is one occasion where being an indie movie with a voice is easily it’s best recommendation.

Rating: 9/10 – without a bum note anywhere to be had, and without resorting to cynicism or a jaded attitude, Blindspotting proves itself to be one of the most astute movies of 2018; hopefully it won’t be the last time that Diggs and Casal put together a script, but if they do, let’s hope that we don’t have to wait another nine years for it, and that it proves as hilarious, thought-provoking, sensitive, intense, and enjoyable as this is.

Miss Bala (2019)

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D: Catherine Hardwicke / 104m

Cast: Gina Rodriguez, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Matt Lauria, Cristina Rodlo, Ricardo Abarca, Damián Alcázar, Aislinn Derbez, Anthony Mackie

Gloria Fuentes (Rodriguez) is a make up artist living and working in Los Angeles. She takes a trip to Tijuana in Mexico to see her best friend, Suzu (Rodlo). Suzu is planning to enter the Miss Baja California beauty contest, and that night she and Gloria go to a club where Suzu aims to impress one of the contest’s supporters, Chief of Police Saucedo (Alcázar). However, armed gunmen attempt to kill Saucedo and in the ensuing confusion, Gloria and Suzu are separated. The next morning, and still unable to find Suzu, Gloria seeks help from a policeman. But instead of taking her to the nearest police station, he hands her over to Lino (Cordova), the leader of Las Estrellas, the drug cartel responsible for the attack on Chief Saucedo. Lino tells Gloria he will help her find Suzu, but what this means in reality is that she will have to work for Las Estrellas first. Seizing an opportunity to escape them, Gloria winds up in the hands of the DEA and agent Brian Reich (Lauria), who blackmails her into going back and being a mole in Lino’s organisation…

Comparisons between remakes and their original predecessors is often invidious: the remake rarely makes the same impact, or has the same energy, or succeeds in the same fashion as the original did, and this is doubly so when the remake is an English language version of a foreign language movie. Such is the case with Miss Bala, a re-working of the 2011 movie of the same name that was Mexico’s submission for that year’s Oscars. There’s undoubted talent involved here – director Hardwicke has Lords of Dogtown (2005) and Twilight (2008) on her resumé, Rodriguez is best known for TV’s Jane the Virgin, and DoP Patrick Murguia lensed the under-rated The Frozen Ground (2013) – but there’s not much they can do to offset Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer’s smoothed over screenplay and its Hollywoodised approach to the basic storyline. Where the original Miss Bala had an ending that was deliberately ambiguous and suited what had gone before, here the ending is contrived and seems designed to pave the way for a TV series. It’s one of many disappointments that will frustrate viewers who have seen Gerardo Naranjo’s version and been impressed by its gritty, psychologically raw attitude. But even if you haven’t, it’s still unlikely that you’ll be singing the movie’s praises.

Part of the problem here is that Gloria is never treated badly enough for the audience to believe that she’s in any real danger. This robs the movie of any tension it may have been able to generate, and it makes Rodriguez’ job that much harder as she tries to sell the idea that Gloria is in real danger. Rodriguez does well to turn an ingenue into a bad ass by the movie’s end, but it’s a triumph that’s against the odds because everything comes so easily to the character, whether it’s learning how to shoot an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, lying convincingly to Lino (who is nowhere near as suspicious of her as he should be), or switching tracking devices in and out of mobile phones at the drop of a hat. There’s an awkward, one-sided romance between Gloria and Lino that seeks to explain the leniency with which he treats her, but it’s at odds with what else we know about the character, and just feels like a misguided attempt to provide the “bad guy” with “layers”. A handful of action scenes are dealt with in a way that could be described as “standard operating procedure” – all low angles, rapid-fire cutting, and the volume cranked up – and they offer some respite from the dreary nature of the overall plot, but they’re not enough to rescue yet another unnecessary English language remake of a much better foreign language original.

Rating: 5/10 – Rodriguez is pretty much the whole deal here, holding Miss Bala together through the sheer strength of her performance, and doing her best to make the viewer forget how homogenised and culturally indifferent it all is; with its sanitised version of a drug cartel not helping to fuel the drama, nor the idea that the DEA are more immoral and/or corrupt than said drug cartel, this isn’t a movie that has a foot in the real world, or anything to say that would make sense, or even be memorable.

The Wandering Earth (2019)

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Original title: Liu Lang Di Qiu

D: Frant Gwo / 125m

Cast: Wu Jing, Qu Chuxiao, Zhao Jinmai, Li Guangjie, Ng Man-tat, Michael Kai Sui, Qu Jingjing, Zhang Yichi, Yang Haoyu, Arkady Sharogradsky, Lei Jiayin

In the future, the sun has become a threat to Earth, on the verge of becoming a red giant. All of Earth’s nations have combined to form the United Earth Government (UEG), and in an effort to save the planet, the UEG has devised a plan to use thousands upon thousands of fusion powered thrusters to push the Earth out of its orbit and away from the Sun, with the intention of reaching the Alpha Centauri star system. Planning to use Jupiter’s gravity as a way to sling shot the Earth out of the solar system, an unexpected spike in Jupiter’s gravitational pull causes Earth to be drawn onto a collision course with it. With the future of the planet, and mankind, seemingly doomed, it’s down to a group of disparate individuals, including cocky astronaut’s son, Liu Qi (Qu Chuxiao) and his adopted sister, Han Duoduo (Zhao), to come up with a way of averting disaster that will restore Earth to its original course, and see them reunited with their father, Liu Peiqiang (Wu), who is based on the space station that is overseeing Earth’s journey…

Some facts about The Wandering Earth: it is China’s second highest grossing movie of all time; it’s already one of the top twenty highest grossing science fiction movies of all time; and right now it’s 2019’s highest grossing movie at the international box office, pulling in over $692 million. Based on the novella of the same name by Locus and Hugo award-winning author Liu Cixin, it’s an absolutely bonkers, over the top sci-fi movie that borrows freely from a host of other sci-fi movies, and never once lets its story get in the way of an(other) overblown special effects sequence. It’s a riot of destruction that soon becomes tedious, but it’s also fascinating to watch, just to see Chinese movie makers competing with Hollywood in terms of Armageddon (1998)/The Day After Tomorrow (2004) -style thrills and spills. As the stakes are raised every ten minutes or so, and seemingly insurmountable obstacles are routinely overcome, Gwo’s movie (which deviates from Liu’s original story, and is the work of eight(!) screenwriters) becomes as much a test of endurance for the characters as it is for the audience. It’s an exhausting exercise in extreme crisis management that batters the viewer more than it impresses, and which, thanks to a lack of character development across the board, makes it hard for anyone watching this to relate to anyone when Liu Qi et al spend most of their time dodging falling masonry.

And no matter how many scientific advisors were on board to guide Gwo and his production team, the narrative, sadly, makes no sense whatsoever. Whatever the merits of Liu’s original novella, it’s unlikely he could have written anything quite so unexpectedly daft as this, with Earth trailing across the heavens like an eyeball shot out of its socket, and a massive, revolving, circular space station that can be driven as easily as a Nissan Micra. It’s not much better on Earth, with surface temperatures in the minus eighties, but still we’ve managed to build an infrastructure across half the globe that appears to be better maintained and run than anything we have now… and that’s without the underground cities… To be fair, Gwo is focused on sci-fi as spectacle, and on that level he’s succeeded admirably, alongside production designer Gao Ang and DoP Michael Liu, who help make Earth’s misfortune that much more credible, even though it’s entirely incredible. But again, this is a romp, albeit a serious one with the usual comic overtones so beloved of Chinese movie makers, but a romp nevertheless, and one that perhaps knows how absurd it all is but which just doesn’t care enough to change its approach or attitude. The performances and direction never aspire to being anything more than perfunctory, and the dialogue ranges from ridiculous to specious (and sometimes in the same sentence), but over all this just goes to show that China is just as capable of making a hollow special effects-laden sci-fi thriller as dear old Hollywood is.

Rating: 5/10 – though it is visually impressive (if more than a little repetitive), and chock full of cliffhanger moments to keep the viewer interested (and fitfully entertained), the sad truth is that The Wandering Earth is not as accomplished as its financial success would seem to indicate; with too many familiar sci-fi elements on display (and not always used to good effect), this is a popcorn movie best seen on the biggest screen possible and with as few expectations as possible.

The Kindergarten Teacher (2018)

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D: Sara Colangelo / 96m

Cast: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Parker Sevak, Gael García Bernal, Michael Chernus, Anna Baryshnikov, Rosa Salazar, Daisy Tahan, Sam Jules, Ajay Naidu, Samrat Chakrabarti

Lisa Spinelli (Gyllenhaal) has been a kindergarten teacher for twenty years. She has a family of her own – husband Grant (Chernus), and two teenage children, Josh (Jules) and Lainie (Tahan) – but seems more at ease with the children in her class. In her spare time she attends a weekly poetry class run by Simon (Bernal), but though she tries her best, her poems are regarded as derivative and uninspired. One day, one of her pupils, Jimmy (Sevak), recites a poem that Lisa notes down. Believing it to be both beautiful and profound, she uses it as her own at her next poetry class, where it is well received by everyone. Enjoying this new recognition, Lisa takes more of an interest in Jimmy and tries to ensure she doesn’t miss any more spontaneous poems he might come up with. Certain that he’s a child prodigy, Lisa encourages Jimmy to let her know when he has a new verse. Soon, she is attempting to insert herself more and more into his life in order to foster his talent, but it leads to her making some very unwise decisions…

A remake of the 2014 Israeli movie of the same name, The Kindergarten Teacher is that rare remake that is just as good, if not better, than the original. Featuring a bravura performance from Gyllenhaal, the movie tackles its theme of intellectual obsession with a rigour and a complexity that ensures the material retains a number of layers for the viewer to explore even as more and more of Lisa’s motives are revealed. At first, she seems to be exploiting Jimmy’s talent for her own benefit, getting praise at her poetry class, and in time, receiving Simon’s lustful attentions. But as the story unfolds, and we learn more about her, we discover that Lisa is unhappy, with her life which seems to be stuck in a rut, with her marriage which has become stale, and with her children who are striking out on their own and lack any apparent need for intellectual stimulation, something that appals her deeply. Unable to take control of anything other than her standing in the poetry class (and only by deception), Lisa does her best to be the overseer of Jimmy’s talent, and by doing so, to find a new purpose in her life. And as she does so, she becomes more and more willing to take the kind of risks that will cause her downfall – and yet still be grateful to do so.

Of course, there are moral and ethical dilemmas to be addressed here, and Colangelo, who also wrote the screenplay, covers these issues astutely, and displays a keen awareness of Lisa’s emotional needs, and the maternal instincts that have been dulled by her children’s growing independence. In Jimmy she can see a redemptive opportunity, and by nurturing his talent and making sure it’s not squandered as he gets older, Lisa is able to validate her own sense of self-worth. Gyllenhaal is magnificent as Lisa, giving the kind of assured, dazzlingly authoritative performance that we haven’t seen from her in ages, and she dominates the movie from start to finish, expressing Lisa’s hopes and fears and initial lack of personal direction with a fierce intelligence that makes the character entirely credible throughout, and which makes a last reel admission all the more heartbreaking for its wrenching honesty. There are good supporting performances from Sevak and Chernus (though Bernal is under-utilised), and Colangelo makes good use of an often unsettling score courtesy of Asher Goldschmidt. Some viewers may be expecting a tragic ending to such a tale of obsession, and while there is one, it’s far more tragic for what it implies than what actually occurs, something that adds a chilling grace note to what’s gone before.

Rating: 8/10 – with a powerhouse performance from Gyllenhaal, and a storyline that embraces the emotional turmoil of someone who’s desperate to restore some meaning to their life – however they can – The Kindergarten Teacher is compelling and thought-provoking at the same time; as much about one woman’s skewed maternal instincts as it is about the path she takes to redeem herself in her own eyes, this is a movie that slowly and quietly grabs hold of the viewer and doesn’t let go until the final, haunting shot.

The Kid Who Would Be King (2019)

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D: Joe Cornish / 120m

Cast: Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Denise Gough, Dean Chaumoo, Tom Taylor, Rhianna Dorris, Angus Imrie, Rebecca Ferguson, Patrick Stewart, Genevieve O’Reilly

Alexander “Alex” Elliot (Serkis) and his best friend, Bedders (Chaumoo), are twelve year olds with a common problem: they’re being bullied by two older pupils, Lance (Taylor) and Kaye (Dorris), at their school. When Alex finds himself chased by them after school one day, he takes refuge in a nearby building site. There he discovers a sword lodged in a stone pedestal. Alex removes it, and takes it with him: later, he and Bedders learn that the sword is the legendary Excalibur. The next day, a strange new pupil calling himself Mertin (Imrie) arrives at the school and seems very interested in Alex. That night, Alex is attacked by a skeletal creature at his home, and is only saved by Mertin’s intervention. Revealed to be the ancient sorcerer Merlin, “Mertin” explains to Alex that his finding the sword wasn’t an accident, and that King Arthur’s malevolent half-sister, Morgana (Ferguson), long imprisoned within the earth, has grown strong enough to be on the verge of regaining her full powers; it’s down to Alex as Arthur’s true heir, to defeat her and save Britain once again from being plunged into irrevocable darkness…

The release of Joe Cornish’s first movie, Attack the Block (2011), seems like an Arthurian age ago now, and though he’s been busy with other projects in the meantime – most notably the script for Ant-Man (2015), and being in the running to direct Star Trek Beyond (2016) – the wait for his second feature has created a palpable sense of anticipation. Alas, the movie he’s devoted most of his time and energy to, isn’t as rewarding as his first. On the surface it’s a fun children’s movie, a modern day medieval romp replete with swords and chases on horseback, a wicked sorceress, and the fate of the world as we know it in the balance. There are further elements included: bullying, an absentee father for Alex, and the burdens of leadership, and though Cornish throws them all into the mix with the best of intentions, his modern fantasy never fizzes with the necessary invention needed to make it entirely successful. It’s a shame, as The Kid Who Would Be King is a terrific idea in theory, but in practice it stumbles too often, and there are too many narrative lulls that hamper the flow of the material. A trip to Tintagel is a strong case in point, an extended section of the movie that feels like it should be important to the overall story, but which, ultimately, only provides the solution to a minor plot point.

Little about Cornish’s movie feels like it’s working in the way that he envisioned when he set out to make it. Too much feels perfunctory or blandly rendered, and it always feels like it’s having to work harder and harder as it progresses to maintain the audience’s attention. Cornish throws in the odd visual flourish – Morgana’s skeletal army is an asset, the Lady of the Bath, erm, Lake is another – but this is also a movie that betrays its modest studio budget by looking drab for most of the running time, and by allowing the work of its normally reliable DoP Dick Pope to look like it’s been deliberately underlit as a conscious directorial choice. And unfair as this may seem, the young cast aren’t very interesting to watch, their lack of experience leading to some uncomfortable moments when things need to get emotional. Only Imrie is able to inject any energy into his performance, and he does so by somehow managing to play his role both completely straight and with his tongue lodged firmly in his cheek at the same time; when he’s not on screen he’s sorely missed. As a family movie it’s not without a certain degree of likeability, and Cornish adds some solid humour to leaven the serious fantasy aspects, but it’s likely that only children will submit to its charms, while adults may well find it something of a struggle to sit through.

Rating: 5/10 – already likely to lose the studios that bankrolled it around $50 million, The Kid Who Would Be King has a solid basic premise, and Cornish should have been able to use it as the springboard for a truly entertaining magical adventure, but instead it feels listless and inassertive; one to watch when The Goonies (1985) – or even Holes (2003) – isn’t available, this is the first major disappointment of 2019.

Monsters and Men (2018)

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D: Reinaldo Marcus Green / 96m

Cast: John David Washington, Anthony Ramos, Kelvin Harrison Jr, Chanté Adams, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Nicole Beharie, Rob Morgan, Cara Buono

Manuel “Manny” Ortega (Ramos) is a young man with a family who is trying to make a living in the Bed-Stuy area of New York. He skirts along the edges of the local criminal community, although in  a very minor capacity. While out one night he witnesses six police officers attempting to detain an unarmed black man called Big D. As he films the incident on his mobile phone, the man is shot and killed by one of the officers. In the days that follow, Manny wavers between posting the incident online or keeping quiet. When his home is broken into, Manny suspects the police have done it, and so he uploads the footage. For local police officer Dennis Williams (Washington), his knowledge of the officer involved and the clearcut nature of the killing, causes him to have mixed feelings about the growing outcry at the death of Big D, and his own position as a black police officer. For promising teenage baseball player Zyrick Norris (Harrison Jr), the shooting prompts him into joining a local activist group headed by Zoe (Adams), while putting his professional future on the line…

The debut feature of noted short movie maker Reinaldo Marcus Green, Monsters and Men takes an all too familiar scenario, that of a potentially unlawful killing by police, and instead of focusing on the rights or wrongs of the act itself, examines the wider effects of such an incident on a handful of connected individuals. It’s a deceptively bold approach, and one that allows Green to give his movie a simple yet dramatically daring structure, one that doesn’t provide the viewer with any resolutions or permanent outcomes. Instead, each of the three main characters is left at a pivotal moment in their life, their futures undecided but influenced by the actions that have brought them to these moments. Manny has just started a new job and is in the process of putting his criminal past behind him; releasing the footage will bring him a notoriety he can’t afford. But he’s also proud, and he won’t be intimidated by the attentions of the police, so he posts the footage online, only to find that doing the right thing can come at a price. It’s a bittersweet victory, but one that, surprisingly, still offers hope for Manny and his family.

Dennis is a career police officer, aware that some of his fellow officers aren’t afraid to cross the line, but unwilling to do the same. This brings him into conflict with his friends and colleagues, and facing potential problems from Internal Affairs, but like Manny he has his own personal moral code, and he won’t submit to compromise, even if deep down, he knows he should. Perhaps the most interesting of the three is Zyrick, a teenager on the verge of a lucrative baseball career who discovers a willingness to be politicised when marches and protests are organised in the wake of Big D’s death. Zyrick has the fervour and the commitment of a neophyte, and it’s his nascent moral code that drives the movie’s final third, and finds the character making a choice between baseball and activism that is both powerful and galvanising. The three leads all give tremendous performances, their varied characters providing the viewer with different inroads to different aspects of the story, and their inner conflicts convincingly expressed and portrayed. Along the way, Green avoids any obvious preaching, and keeps things pleasingly realistic, an achievement that highlights just how intelligently handled it all is, and just how good Green is as a writer/director.

Rating: 9/10 – with a growing sense of urgency that’s allowed to unfold at a steady, yet engrossing pace, and photography to match it from DoP Patrick Scola, Monsters and Men is a gritty reminder that some racial tensions may never be resolved; persuasive and effective thanks to the decision to present differing, complex moral attitudes – and not judging any of them – this is a movie that creates its own narrative template, and is a terrific example of purposeful firebrand movie making.

All the Devil’s Men (2018)

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D: Matthew Hope / 99m

Cast: Milo Gibson, Sylvia Hoeks, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Joseph Millson, Elliot Cowan, William Fichtner

Following a successful assassination attempt in Morocco, covert US operative Jack Collins (Gibson) just wants to go home and be with his wife and their first child (whom he hasn’t seen yet). But before that can happen he’s drafted into a CIA mission to track down and eliminate a rogue soldier turned arms dealer called Terry McKnight (Cowan), who is planning to acquire a Russian nuclear warhead on behalf of a suspected terrorist organisation. Intelligence has placed McKnight in London, and Collins, along with old friend and mentor, Bennett (Fichtner), and CIA hotshot Samuelson (Akinnagbe), head there to intercept McKnight’s deal with the Russians. They make contact with an old friend of Collins’ called Deighton (Millson), who is a known associate of McKnight’s, but though he is initially cooperative, he soon betrays them. It transpires that Deighton is helping McKnight to facilitate the warhead deal, and keeping him safe in the meantime. With Collins’ handler, Leigh (Hoeks), insisting that McKnight must be stopped at all costs (and having personal reasons for being in charge), Collins must find a way of first eliminating Deighton before he can get to McKnight, and then finally get home…

Eight years ago, writer/director Matthew Hope made the edgy and well received The Veteran. It featured Toby Kebbell as a soldier returning from Afghanistan and discovering a conspiracy between the intelligence services and a gang of local drug dealers. Kebbell spent much of the movie popping up in various out of the way London locations and putting a messy stop to it all. Now, in All the Devil’s Men we have Milo Gibson doing much the same thing, but to far less rewarding effect. Saddled with playing a character suffering from an unexplored and ill-defined form of PTSD, Gibson spends a lot of screen time staring at, or taking, little red pills (but called gold pills by everyone else for some reason), and grimacing in pain from time to time. This and Collins’ need to return home to his family is the entire extent of his character development, and though you’d expect his PTSD to come into play during any showdown between Collins and McKnight at the movie’s close, Hope lets the idea lapse in favour of an over-the-top, gung-ho, ultra-macho shootout. It’s not the only time Hope sets things up for a later payoff only to renege on the deal and leave the viewer wondering why a plot point was included in the first place.

Perhaps the problem lies in the paper-thin transparency of the plot, which attempts to create thrills out of a nebulous geo-political intrigue, and then populates it with characters who remain woefully one dimensional and lumbered witn the kind of dialogue that serves only to highlight that Hope has no idea just how real life covert operatives etc would talk (Samuelson describes himself as a “shadow warrior”, while McKnight continually spouts aphorisms about the nature of conflict). There are the requisite number of action scenes but these largely consist of everyone running around shooting at each other in those aforementioned out of the way London locations, while Hope tries his best with limited resources to make them as exciting as possible. Sadly, he doesn’t always succeed, and the scenes in between the shootouts are of the “let’s set up the next action scene” variety and not terribly interesting. It’s clear that the movie has ambition, but its reliance on action thriller clichés and lack of investment in the characters – there’s literally no one to root for – are problems it’s unable to overcome, and Gibson, whose career trajectory has so far been on a steady upward curve, is ill-used and under-served by the material and his character. All in all, it’s a movie that somehow got made, but waaaay before it was ready.

Rating: 4/10 – despite attempts at being atmospheric and brooding, and opening with a tense, well executed sequence set in Morocco, All the Devil’s Men betrays its generic, meaningless title, and offers little from then on for the viewer to connect with; a massive backward step for Hope, and one that the likes of Hoeks and Fichtner might conveniently erase from their resumés, this lacks pace and energy, and any sense that a coherent, fully developed movie was ever on the cards.

The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young (2014)

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D: Annika Iltis, Timothy James Kane / 89m

With: Lazarus Lake, Brett Maune, Jared Campbell, John Fegyveresi, Wouter Hamelinck, “Frozen” Ed Furtaw, Julian Jamison, Nick Hollon, Raw Dog

It’s billed as one of the most challenging ultramarathons in America, if not the world. Founded by Lazarus Lake (real name Gary Cantrell) and Raw Dog (real name Karl Henn), the Barkley Marathon was inspired by a remark made by Lake in relation to the 1977 escape of James Earl Ray from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Tennessee. Ray, who assassinated Martin Luther King, was on the run for fifty-five hours but only covered eight miles in that time. Lake thought he could do at least a hundred miles – and so, in 1986, the Barkley Marathon had its inaugural run. It’s a punishing race against time: the competitors have to complete five “loops”, a circular route through the Tennessee mountains that begins and ends at a yellow car park gate where the entrants’ assemble. The first three loops are referred to as the Fun Run, while the remaining two loops are more challenging. Each loop is twenty miles in distance, all five have to be completed within sixty hours, and there’s a maximum of forty runners. As of 2018, around 55% of the races have ended without anyone completing the course…

Though the Barkley Marathon is an endurance test for those who compete in it – and many runners come back year after year, pushing themselves to do better than last time – what The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young does best is to focus in on the little details associated with the race and how its managed. From the entrance fee of $1.60, to Lake’s never having completed the marathon himself, to the collection of pages from books with titles such as The Human Zoo (found near to Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary – part of the loop goes under it), it’s the paraphernalia attached to the race that makes it all the more appealing. It’s also a marathon that isn’t widely advertised, or easy to apply for. Many of the competitiors hear about it through word of mouth. With all this adding a degree of mystery and intrigue to the event, what emerges is a sense that the Barkley Marathon isn’t about its being famous or recognised across the globe (though it is), or even the challenge of taking part, but instead it’s about its existence and what it means to Lake and everyone who does take part. In many ways the race is a symbol, a metaphor for self-awareness, and how each entrant learns something more about themselves.

It’s not immediately obvious, but when each runner is given a number, the one to avoid is Number 1. Lake explains it all casually, and with a tinge of regret that he has to do it, but Number 1 is given to the runner who is expected to call it quits during the first loop. At first this seems unnecessarily cruel, to single out the weakest competitor (it’s even explained to them before they begin), but when it happens, that person somehow finds it easier to acknowledge that this isn’t for them. The message is clear: there’s no harm in trying, and there’s no shame in quitting, no matter how far you get; it’s about discovering and recognising the extent of your own strengths, and being comfortable with that. As the runners drop out, and the impact it’s having on them physically is shown, it’s hard not to admire these people for their perseverance and determination (and you may find yourself questioning your own limits as well). By focusing on the runners and the reasons they take part, Iltis and Kane have made their documentary about the human will to overcome – not the course and its numerous hazards, but each individual’s perception of their own limits. It all makes for an engaging, appealing movie that has a streak of mordaunt humour running through it, and a solid appreciation for the absurdities connected with a race that’s begun by the lighting of a cigarette.

Rating: 8/10 – with Lake acting as a casual but friendly commentator on the history and the background of the race, and the willingness of the runners to reveal their motives for taking part, The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young is a low-key yet quietly compelling documentary that both surprises and delights; when a movie, fictional or otherwise, has you rooting for the runner who’s going to come in third, then you know it’s got its priorities right, and is doing justice to the material.

Happy Anniversary (2018)

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D: Jared Stern / 78m

Cast: Noël Wells, Ben Schwartz, Rahul Kohli, Joe Pantoliano, Annie Potts, Kristin Bauer van Straten, David Walton, Leonardo Nam, Kate Berlant, Sanchita Malik, Isidora Goreshter

Mollie (Wells) and Sam (Schwartz) have been together for three years. On the morning of their third anniversary, Sam treats Mollie to a special breakfast in bed, which soon leads to their starting to make love, and then Mollie’s blurted admission that she’s not happy. What follows is an argument where the couple pick out each other’s faults, and generally explain why they shouldn’t be together. This continues as Sam drops off Mollie at her parents’ home, where she reveals that she’ll be staying there while she sorts out her feelings. Sam is in the process of starting up an online clothing business, and he and his business partner, Ed (Kohli), are due to make a pitch that day to a supplier, Willa (van Straten). While they prepare, Mollie spends time with her parents, and tries to decide if her relationship with Sam is worth saving, while also encountering an old flame, Arik (Walton), who helps put things into perspective. Later, though, an emergency involving their dog brings them together again. But it proves to be temporary – thanks to a message Mollie receives from Arik, and which Sam sees…

You could argue that the romantic comedy is something of a spent force as far as genres go these days. Sure they still get made, and some even show up in cinemas, but when was the last time you saw a truly satisfying romantic comedy? And particularly one that was actually about how romance can endure, and not the standard boy-meets-girl scenario? That’s where Happy Anniversary comes in, the debut feature of screenwriter Jared Stern – Mr. Popper’s Penguins (2011), The LEGO Batman Movie (2017) – a bright, appealing look at how we determine if we’re happy in a relationship, and what things convince us that we are (or we’re not, or we might be). When Mollie announces that she’s not happy, Sam calls time on her “bullshit” and accuses her of never being happy unless she’s feeling unhappy. And though this leads to the kind of recriminations we’ve all seen before, Stern is canny enough to make those recriminations more relatable because they’re exactly the kind of things that most of us have probably brought up at times in our own relationships. Mollie wants Sam to be the same romantic guy he was when they first got together, and Sam wants Mollie to acknowledge that she doesn’t know what she wants (sound familiar?).

As Stern explores the couple’s feelings about love and romance, the movie addresses further relationship issues such as getting married and having children, but thankfully not in a way that sounds pedantic or contrived, and Stern’s screenplay finds time for subtle, pithy moments such as when Mollie’s mother (Potts) tells her that marrying her father wasn’t a mistake, but not leaving him was. The movie makes the obvious point that relationships are difficult (possibly the hardest work you never get paid for), and that knowing the person you’re with is Mr or Miss Right isn’t always easy to work out, but it does all this with an easy charm, and a lightweight, comedic approach that will keep viewers smiling throughout even if there aren’t any real belly laughs to be had. Wells and Schwartz make for an appealing couple, and they share a slightly off-kilter chemistry that benefits their characters’ predicament, while there’s solid support from Kohli as the friend who does his best to help but can only do so as inappropriately as possible. There’s a bright, sunny feel to the movie thanks to DoP Nicholas Wiesnet’s use of space and light, and editor David Egan knows just when to focus on Sam or Mollie to get the most emotion out of a scene, while Stern provides us with the requisite happy ending – though one that’s tinged, for once, with a remaining sense of unresolved issues that feels in keeping with Sam and Mollie’s journey.

Rating: 7/10 – though much of Happy Anniversary follows established romantic comedy tropes, and its tone is breezily upbeat while it explores the downside of having “second thoughts”, it’s nevertheless an engaging, enjoyable movie that avoids any hint of cynicism and roots for its main characters throughout; a minor gem that has just enough dramatic heft to make it look and sound like more than just an average rom-com, it’s quietly perceptive, and just as quietly effective.

Vox Lux (2018)

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D: Brady Corbet / 114m

Cast: Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Raffey Cassidy, Stacy Martin, Jennifer Ehle, Christopher Abbott, Logan Riley Bruner, Maria Dizzia, Willem Dafoe

In 1999, teenager Celeste Montgomery (Cassidy) is seriously wounded in a school shooting that leaves the rest of her classmates dead. Along with her sister, Ellie (Martin), she writes a song about the experience that is first played at a memorial service for the victims, and which draws the attention of an influential manager (Law). He takes the sisters under his wing, and gets them signed to a record company. Using their song as the launchpad for an album, their manager takes them to Stockholm, where they record new songs, while experiencing the kind of lifestyle that is both attractive and dangerous. In 2017, Celeste (Portman) is on the verge of releasing her sixth album – and making something of a comeback – when terrorists kill a number of tourists at a beach resort in Croatia, and wear masks that are similar to ones used in a music video Celeste made when her career was just starting. Faced with probing questions from the press about any possible links to the terrorists, Celeste also has to cope with the needs of her teenage daughter, Albertine (Cassidy), and her now fractured relationship with Ellie…

With The Childhood of a Leader (2015), actor turned director Brady Corbet established himself in one fell swoop as a movie maker to watch out for. With Vox Lux, Corbet has chosen to explore a familiar narrative – the perils of achieving stardom at a young age and how that same stardom can be both empowering and corruptive – but in an unfamiliar, avant-garde way that frequently stretches the narrative out of shape (and sometimes out of context as well), and presents viewers with two versions of the same character: the naïve, impressionable Celeste, and the jaundiced, disillusioned Celeste. Corbet allows the former version to be likeable and appealing and someone you can sympathise with, an ingenue whisked away from her parents and her small town life and exposed to the “real world” at a bewildering speed, and despite the best intentions of her manager, to the harsh truths of that world. But the latter version is the opposite, jaded and bored and prone to flying off the handle because she’s the one with the talent – Ellie has been all but forgotten in 2017 – and she’s the one carrying everyone else. She wants to connect with her daughter, but has never developed the skills to do so. All she knows is her career.

By showing Celeste at the beginning of her career, and then where she is now, Corbet makes some damning comments about the nature of fame and celebrity, but though the movie is visually fresh and exciting, his narrative isn’t, and Portman’s Celeste is prone to saying things like, “The business model relies on the consumer’s unshakable stupidity” as if this is a) profound, or b) something we didn’t know already. It’s the flaw in Corbet’s screenplay: none of what he’s showing or telling us is new; there are no great revelations here, merely reiterations of ideas that we’ve heard many times before. This makes the movie visually arresting – Corbet isn’t one to shy away from experimenting with an excess of style – but less than intriguing, and though Portman and Cassidy are terrific as Celeste, the character doesn’t get under the viewer’s skin in a way that would allow an emotional response to what she’s going through. Corbet puts Celeste in the midst of tragedy time and again, but how all this actually affects her remains something of an unexplored mystery, and by the end, and an extended sequence that sees Portman strutting her stuff on stage to a buoyant electropop song medley, whatever message Corbet has been trying to get across is lost amongst all the bright lights and the glamour. Or maybe that is the message…

Rating: 6/10 – with narration from Willem Dafoe that feels like it should be attached to an adaptation of a classic novel, and inventive approaches to both its tone and content, Vox Lux is a mixed bag that has the ability to frustrate and reward at the same time; not as compelling a tale of burdensome fame and fortune as it wants to be, but fascinating nevertheless for Corbet’s confidence behind the camera, this is one movie whose merits are likely to be debated for some time to come.

The Aftermath (2019)

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D: James Kent / 108m

Cast: Keira Knightley, Alexander Skarsgård, Jason Clarke, Martin Compston, Kate Phillips, Flora Thiemann, Jannik Schümann, Fionn O’Shea, Alexander Scheer

In the winter of 1946, Rachael Morgan (Knightley) comes to Hamburg to be with her husband, Lewis (Clarke), who is a colonel in the British Forces. They are to live in a requisitioned house on the outskirts of the city, the home of an architect, Stephen Lubert (Skarsgård) and his teenage daughter, Freda (Thiemann). Though Lewis has a great deal of respect for Lubert – and for the ordinary German people – Rachael is less than friendly. She has a reason: their son, Michael, was killed in a bombing raid when he was eleven. But as Lewis spends more and more time trying to track down the members of a group of fanatical Nazis called the 88’s, Rachael becomes more and more reliant on Lubert’s company, and while Lewis is away for a few days, she and Lubert become much closer. The pair make plans to leave Hamburg together, and when Lewis returns Rachael determines to tell him their marriage is over. But danger lurks in the wings: Freda has unwittingly aided a member of the 88’s, Albert (Schümann), in targeting Lewis for assassination…

Put Keira Knightley in a period costume, and she shines. It’s as much a cinematic given as Tom Cruise doing a dangerous stunt (though without the broken ankle). With a gift for interpreting closeted emotions and their eventual impassioned expression, Knightley is always the best thing about the movies she makes, and The Aftermath is no exception. Based on the novel by Rhidian Brook, the movie takes full advantage of Knightley’s skills as an actress, and provides viewers with a central character whose sense of morality, and her sense of loyalty, is challenged by the (somewhat staid) attentions of a man she sets out to hate, but who, in time honoured romantic fashion, she later falls in love with. That this happens at all is predictable enough, and there are many clues to tick off along the way, from the less than convincing reunion between Rachael and Lewis at the train station, to Lewis’s inability to talk about the death of their son, to the meaningful stares Rachael and Lubert exchange whenever anyone isn’t looking. With Lewis playing the absent, work-focused husband, it’s left to Rachael to occupy her time by having an affair and hoping for a better life. It’s the crux of a movie that feels as familiar, and therefore as empty, as many before it.

And so, it’s left to Knightley to rescue the movie from its self-imposed doldrums and minor soap opera theatrics. In many ways the movie doesn’t deserve her, because she seems to be the only one who’s trying. There’s a scene where Rachael breaks down and talks about her son that is truly heartbreaking for the depth of the despair and the grief that Knightley expresses. And that scene sticks out like a sore thumb because there’s no other scene to match it for its emotion, and its power, and its impact. Likewise, Skarsgård and Clarke are left in her wake, playing monotone versions of characters we’ve seen a hundred times over, and unable to make them look or sound like anything other than broad stereotypes. With the narrative offering nothing new, and Kent maintaining a steady but too respectful pace, the movie fails to excite, and remains a placid affair about a – well, placid affair. The wintry locations at least add some visual flair to proceedings, and the recreation of bomb-ravaged Hamburg is effectively realised, but these aspects aren’t enough when the main storyline should be passionate and convincing, instead of moderate and benign. Thank heaven then for Knightley, and a performance that elevates the material whenever she’s on screen.

Rating: 6/10 – a movie that means well, but which starts off slowly and stays that way (and despite an attempt at adding thriller elements towards the end), The Aftermath is rescued from terminal dullness by the force and intensity of Keira Knightley’s performance; a period romantic drama that at least gets the “period” right, this is a cautious, overly restrained tale that allows the odd flourish to shine through from time to time, but which in the end, doesn’t offer enough in the way of rewards to make it more than occasionally memorable.

The Rider (2017)

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D: Chloé Zhao / 99m

Cast: Brady Jandreau, Tim Jandreau, Lilly Jandreau, Lane Scott, Cat Clifford, Alan Reddy, Derrick Janis

Following an accident at a bull riding event, Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) has a metal plate in his head and recurring moments when the motor function in his right hand seizes up. Living with his father, Wayne (Tim Jandreau), and younger sister, Lilly (Jandreau), who has autism, Brady knows he has to take it easy, and that a return to the rodeo circuit isn’t going to happen any time soon, but being a cowboy is the only thing he knows how to do. His friends all seem to think his return to bull riding is a foregone conclusion, and Brady hopes they’re right, but as time goes on, and his motor seizures don’t improve, he takes to breaking in wild horses instead. Inevitably, Brady starts to ride again, but this proves to be a problem as well, and he collapses while out on a horse he’s bought after breaking it in. Still wanting to live the life he wants to lead, and on his terms (and despite medical advice and his father’s counsel), Brady decides to enter the next rodeo event, and return to doing the one thing he’s good at…

In her follow up to Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015), writer/director Chloé Zhao returns to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota (and some of the same non-professional actors she used before), and again uses real life incidents – Jandreau suffered the head injury depicted in the movie – as the basis for a story that examines and explores what it’s like to have your livelihood taken away from you when your personal situation is already pretty bleak. Brady and his family live on the edge of poverty, with his father wasting much of his wages on gambling and alcohol, and along with many others on the reservation, opportunities that would enable Brady to start again are slim to non-existent. Having nothing else that can motivate him as much, Brady clings on to the idea that he can continue to be a cowboy, but he’s somehow forgotten that being a cowboy isn’t just about staying on a bull for eight seconds, it’s a way of life – and he’s already living it. Zhao highlights Brady’s pride and resilience, and his determination to resume the life he’s used to, but she also shows how this isn’t as good for him as he thinks. Sometimes, Zhao makes clear, letting go of our dreams is better for us than trying to live them.

Once again, Zhao uses the backdrop of the South Dakota Badlands to reflect the mood and tone of the material, its sprawling vistas and huge skies providing a sense of freedom that can’t be achieved through the characters’ daily lives. And once again the movie is beautifully photographed by DoP Joshua James Richards, his trenchant eye for intimate compositions amidst the rolling hills and grassy plains offering an elegiac feel to the narrative, and underlining the mythology of the cowboy. There’s sadness and pessimism here, and disillusionment too, but there’s also hope, and in the unlikeliest of places, such as the brain-damaged form of Brady’s friend, Lane (Scott), and the relationships Brady is able to form with horses. As with Songs…, Zhao focuses on the good things in her main characters’ life, the things that truly matter, but which we often don’t recognise, or worse, take for granted. She’s rewarded (again) by a number of terrific performances from her non-professional cast; the realism they bring adds to the sincerity and honesty of Brady’s story. Though necessarily downbeat because of the declining social structure of reservation life, this is ultimately an intelligent, thought-provoking, and above all, moving, portrait of an important turning point in a young man’s life.

Rating: 9/10 – directed with confidence and skill by Zhao, and offering a pensive yet richly detailed examination of a way of life that still holds meaning for many living in the American Midwest, The Rider is a beautifully realised movie about loss and hope that is simply breathtaking; simply told but with a scope that puts it in a league all its own, Zhao’s sophomore feature is an immersive, exceptional movie that, like its predecessor, shines a light on a corner of America that rarely recieves such illuminating attention.

Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015)

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D: Chloé Zhao / 90m

Cast: John Reddy, Jashaun St. John, Irene Bedard, Taysha Fuller, Eléonore Hendricks, Travis Lone Hill, George Dull Knife, Cat Clifford, Kevin Hunter, Justin Reddy, Alan Reddy, Derrick Janis, Dakota Brown

Johnny Winters (Reddy) and his younger sister, Jashaun (St. John), live with their mother, Lisa (Bedard), on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Although he’s in high school and on the verge of graduating, Johnny sells illegal alcohol to other residents on the reservation in order to help support his immediate family (his father, Carl, has had many wives and children in the past, and now lives with another of his families). But even though he’s doing what he can to care for Jashaun and his mother, Johnny is planning to move to Los Angeles with his girlfriend, Aurelia (Fuller), when she begins college there. When his father dies in a house fire, Johnny begins to find that his life isn’t quite as clear cut as he’d like: he runs afoul of the organised bootleggers on the reservation, Jashaun discovers his plan to move to L.A., Aurelia appears reluctant to tell her family about their being together, while his older brother, Cody (Justin Reddy), who’s in prison, pushes him to leave with or without her…

A perceptive and convincing look at the trials and obstacles that can obstruct young Native Americans from finding their place in the world – either on a reservation or away from one – Songs My Brothers Taught Me is a melancholy, and largely pessimistic debut feature from writer/director Zhao, and one that paints a sad portrait of life in general at Pine Ridge. Zhao, who spent four years making the movie, and who got to know the residents of Pine Ridge (many of whom appear in the movie  as fictionalised versions of themselves), focuses on the age-old question: why stay in a place that offers so little? Johnny wants a better life for himself, but has no clear idea of how he’s going to achieve this. Going to L.A. with Aurelia seems like the perfect choice, but Johnny hasn’t thought about where he’ll live, or what he’ll do for money. And his relationship with Aurelia doesn’t feel as if it’s strong enough to survive away from the reservation. Distributing alcohol gives him something to do, as well as an income, but the cruel dependency it has created amongst his fellow Lakota tribespeople only adds to his determination to leave.

Zhao tackles all this on a micro-budget, but imbues her telling narrative with a brooding atmosphere that’s punctuated by the presence of far-off lightning storms, and in one startling moment, a line of fire crossing the Badlands that feels apocalyptic. It’s all beautifully shot by DoP Joshua James Richards, and the landscape acts as a potent backdrop to the narrative: austere and harsh in places, yet still offering both a respite and a promise of escape from the hardship and the adversity that hampers so many lives. The performances of Reddy and St. John are remarkable, with much of their combined story drawn from events in their real lives (the scene where Jashaun retrieves items from her father’s burnt-out house takes place on the site of her own childhood home, which burnt down during production). There’s an honesty about their portrayals that shines through as a result, and however rough and ready they may be at times when required to “act”, that self-same honesty makes those times all the more credible and affecting. Zhao’s debut is also remarkable for its intelligence and its commitment to telling its story with tenderness, sincerity, and a non-judgmental approach that gives the material an almost documentary feel to it. At times both poetic and heartbreaking, this is a movie that is quiet yet stirring, and reticent yet intensely emotional.

Rating: 8/10 – with its exploration of the problems affecting the Lakota people at Pine Ridge, and its portrait of a community in cultural and social crisis, Songs My Brothers Taught Me allows moments of hope to shine through amongst all the pessimism (which can’t be avoided); lyrical in places, and offering breathtaking views of the South Dakota Badlands, Zhao’s debut is important too, as it shines a light on a corner of America that rarely recieves such illuminating attention.

Songbird (2018)

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aka Alright Now

D: Jamie Adams / 95m

Cast: Cobie Smulders, Richard Elis, Jessica Hynes, Noel Clarke, Emily Atack, Laura Patch, Holli Dempsey, Mandeep Dhillon, Griffin Dunne

Twenty years after they were first successful, rock band The Filthy Dukes are reduced to playing working men’s clubs in small British towns. Their lead singer, Joanne Skye (Smulders), is still living the rock n’ roll life, partying hard and trading on past glories whenever she can. When her manager-cum-boyfriend, Larry (Clarke), calls it quits on their relationship, and the rest of the band call it quits too in the same evening, Joanne ends up in a pub where she meets Pete (Elis) – but it’s not the best first encounter. Afterwards, Joanne meets up with old friend, Sara (Hynes), and under the influence of copious amounts of alcohol, they decide to enrol in a marine biology course at the local university. The next day they decide to go through with their enrolment, and at the university Joanne discovers that Pete is the admissions officer. Blagging their way onto the course, they also get a dorm room, and find themselves surrounded by young women half their age. For Joanne, it’s a chance to continue being a rock chick, but a growing attachment to Pete has her re-thinking her priorities…

Sometimes, a movie maker makes enough of an impression to ensure that his other work is tracked down or taken advantage of when it surfaces. Such a movie maker is Jamie Adams, whose Black Mountain Poets (2015) showed promise even though it was uneven and inconsistent in its approach. Songbird is the second of two movies made by Adams and released in 2018, and at first it looks as if it’s going to be a spoof of a pretentious Nineties indie band, with excerpts from a dreadfully arch music video for a Filthy Dukes song that was number one for fourteen weeks(!). Alas, it’s not to be, as instead, Adams decides to concentrate on Joanne and her bullish, hyperactive behaviour. She’s a verbal bull in a china shop, a slave to the persona she created twenty years before, and perilously close to having no self-awareness at all. She’s also really, really, really difficult to connect with as a character. Thanks to Adams’ further decision to have Joanne behave like the most annoying person in a room full of annoying over-achievers, most of the movie’s first half is a chore to sit through as she displays the kind of childish, free-form expressions (both verbal and physical) that denote either someone suffering from arrested development or incipient mental health problems.

All this is – of course – meant to be funny, but thanks to Adams’ leaden direction and a script that feels largely improvised (and which, like Black Mountain Poets, Adams appears happy to go along with, no matter how laboured it is), the movie struggles through long periods of dramatic and comedic inertia before it finally begins to tease out the semblance of a crafted storyline, instead of the fractured narrative it’s adopted up until then. The jittery romance between Joanne and Pete comes to the fore, and the movie almost sighs with relief at having something more defined to focus on, and the performances improve as well, with Smulders and Elis at last able to flex their acting skills in the service of something more meaningful and emotive. It’s a long time coming, and some viewers may well have hit the Stop button, or decided to head for the pub (or anywhere) long before this, but the movie’s last half hour shows just how good it could have been if Adams had been more rigorous in his approach to the material. It’s still fairly rough around the edges, and it does seem as if everyone suddenly woke up to the fact that more effort needed to be made, but it’s the one section of the movie that succeeds by actually having something to say – and knowing, at last, how to say it.

Rating: 4/10 – shot in five days (and it shows), Songbird has a dire first hour that acts as a challenge to the viewer to keep watching, and a final half hour that rescues the movie from obtaining a much lower rating; ill-advised and sluggish, with occasional flashes of inspiration that are quickly snuffed out by the next woeful occurrence, it’s to be hoped that Adams’ next endeavour has more structure and attention to both characters and plot than this does.

A Private War (2018)

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D: Matthew Heineman / 110m

Cast: Rosamund Pike, Jamie Dornan, Tom Hollander, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Faye Marsay, Stanley Tucci, Greg Wise, Corey Johnson, Jesuthasan Antonythasan, Raad Rawi

Marie Colvin (Pike) is a journalist and war correspondent working for the Sunday Times. She goes where most other journalists wouldn’t even think of going, but her work is highly personal and highly praised. However, in 2001, while in Sri Lanka, her return journey from a meeting with the Tamil Tigers is ambushed and Marie is wounded in the attack, losing the sight in her left eye. Back home she adopts an eye patch, and after a period of recovery, throws herself back into the fray by visiting Afghanistan and Iraq, and despite suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. She also meets freelance photographer Paul Conroy (Dornan), and they form a dedicated partnership, as they document the effects war has on the people of these countries, and the atrocities they have had to endure. But continued exposure to civil wars and the suffering of others has made Marie erratic and unpredictable, and her editor, Sean Ryan (Hollander), is concerned about her continuing to travel to war zones. But then, in 2012, comes news of the humanitarian crisis in Syria, and what’s happening in the city of Homs, and Marie determines to see for herself how bad it is…

Adapted from the article Marie Colvin’s Private War by Marie Brenner, which was published in Vanity Fair in 2012, A Private War begins (and ends) with a quote from Colvin: “You’re never going to get to where you’re going if you acknowledge fear.” It’s an appropriate message, as the movie shows just how fearless Colvin was when she was in the middle of a war zone, or if her life were in immediate danger. Her fierce determination and selfless behaviour allowed no time to be afraid; that was for when she was at home, and dealing with the nightmarish images that she’d seen over the years, and which continued to haunt her. At one point, Conroy states what may well have been the truth: that Colvin was addicted to her work, and that being waaaay past the front line in any given conflict was what she lived for. Brave or foolish, the movie doesn’t judge. Instead, Arash Amel’s psychologically complex screenplay, and Matthew Heineman’s tightly controlled direction highlight the ambiguity of emotion that prompts someone to only truly feel alive when they’re in the midst of death. And the ways in which Colvin rejects any concern for her safety shows just how addicted she became.

To show all this, the movie doesn’t attempt to lionise its heroine, or sugar coat the fact that Colvin could be abrasive and demanding. She also had a drink problem, but Amel’s script acknowledges this and then moves on; it doesn’t define her, her passion for the truth of an issue does. All of this is brought out by an incredible career-best performance from Pike. Tough, vulnerable, overwhelmed, arrogant, devastated, removed, passionate – Pike is all these things and more as Colvin, and she shows an understanding of the journalist’s mindset that adds an emotional resonance to the material. When Colvin’s story reaches Homs, the movie manages to be both hopeful and triumphant even though the outcome is inevitable, and Pike plays the part as if Colvin is invincible. This makes the ending all the more heart-rending, but in keeping with the serious tone adopted throughout, any melodrama is avoided, and Heineman’s matter-of-fact approach to the material wins out. Given the intensity and power of Pike’s performance, the rest of the cast don’t fare quite as well, and secondary characters such as Colvin’s best friend, Rita (Amuka-Bird), and late arrival lover, Tony (Tucci), pop up now and then to little effect, while some of the London-based scenes border on perfunctory, but otherwise this is a gripping exploration of one woman’s need to make a difference when no one else could – or would.

Rating: 8/10 – an intelligent, fascinating movie about an altogether different form of addiction, A Private War is sobering and thoughtful, and not afraid to reflect the horrors we inflict on each other in the name of religion or ethnicity or just plain hatred; visceral and uncomfortable in places, and as determined not to apologise for this as Colvin would have been, the movie acts as a reminder that heroism comes in many different forms.

Ben Is Back (2018)

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D: Peter Hedges / 103m

Cast: Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B. Vance, Kathryn Newton, Rachel Bay Jones, David Zaldivar, Alexandra Park, Michael Esper, Tim Guinee, Myra Lucretia Taylor

Arriving home on Xmas Eve, Holly Burns-Beeby (Roberts) is surprised to find her teenage son, Ben (Hedges), waiting on the doorstep. She’s surprised because Ben is supposed to be in rehab and not allowed home yet. Nearly three months clean, Ben tells Holly – and his younger sister, Ivy (Newton) – that his sponsor thought it would be a good idea to spend Xmas at home. Ivy isn’t convinced, and nor his her stepfather, Neal (Vance), when he comes home. A deal is struck: Ben can stay for twenty-four hours, but he has to abide to Holly’s rules, which mainly involve being in her sight at all times, and no shutting of doors in the house. Ben soon chafes against these rules, and a trip to the mall to get his much younger step-siblings presents results in his needing to attend a meeting. There, and with Holly present, Ben reveals some of the pain he’s caused his family (and himself), and meets a young woman, Cara (Park), who he used to deal to. Back at the mall, it’s then that Holly disovers Ben has drugs on him, and her faith in him takes the first of several blows that occur throughout the rest of the night…

An austere and sobering movie, Ben Is Back is writer/director Peter Hedges’ fourth feature, and a far cry from the magical realism of his last movie, The Odd Life of Timothy Green (2012). But it’s also unapologetically blunt about the way it treats drug addiction, and the way in which Holly clings to the desperate hope that her son will conquer his demons. Early on we learn that there have been previous Xmases where having a drug addict in the family hasn’t worked out so well, and it’s easy to understand Neal and Ivy’s concerns; you know from Ben’s unexpected arrival that there’s going to be trouble ahead. But Holly doesn’t (want to) see it. She has to believe everything will be alright. She misses her son too much, and though she has to police him, for her it’s a small price to pay. And no matter how many times in the course of the ensuing twenty-four hours her confidence in him is proven to be unfounded, still her love for her son, her firstborn, keeps her going; she just will not give up on him. Roberts is simply mesmerising as Holly, every hopeful smile tinged with a sadness borne of previous experience (never has Roberts mega-watt smile been used to such moving effect).

Roberts is matched by Hedges fils, the young actor’s performance a mix of guilt and self-loathing that anchors the character as a lost soul who knows his future better than his mother would like. Time and time again he warns her not to trust an addict, and time and again she refuses to believe him because he’s her son; Hedges takes this naïvete and uses it to make the pain Ben is feeling all the more acute. The movie becomes a two-hander as Ben’s recent past comes back to haunt him and he and Holly deal with the consequences of a home invasion that is the one aspect of the plot that Hedges père fumbles. With the pair trying to track down the whereabouts of a drug dealer (Esper), and eventually being separated, Ben has to try and stay focused enough to reward his mother’s faith in him, while all Holly can do is hope that her belief in him is enough to influence his actions. Hedges keeps the viewer guessing as to the outcome, and is confident enough in his screenplay to offer an ending that combines pessimism and continued hope to poignant effect, but it’s the way in which he paints a bleak yet compelling portrait of Ben’s struggles and Holly’s obstinate positivity, and how they clatter against each other, that rewards the most.

Rating: 8/10 – the secondary characters are given short shrift, and there are a couple of moments of uneasy foreshadowing, but on the whole Ben Is Back is a gripping, salutary lesson in how a family dynamic can be twisted out of shape thanks to one member becoming an outsider; there are no easy answers on offer, and Hedges keeps the tone downbeat and sombre throughout, making this a movie that wears its tattered heart on its sleeve, and which makes much more of an emotional impact than is bargained for.

On the Basis of Sex (2018)

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D: Mimi Leder / 120m

Cast: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Sam Waterston, Kathy Bates, Cailee Spaeny, Jack Reynor, Stephen Root, Chris Mulkey, Gary Werntz, Francis X. McCarthy, Ben Carlson

It’s the 1950’s, and recently married Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Jones) has no intention of being a housewife. Instead, and like her husband, Martin (Hammer), she wants to be a lawyer. She attends Harvard Law School but finds herself treated poorly because of her gender. When Martin gets a job at a legal firm in New York, Ruth tries to transfer to another university, but is refused due to existing though male-centric rules. Ruth transfers anyway and comes top of her class, but when it comes to working for a law firm, no one wants to employ her because she’s a woman; in the end she takes a position as a law professor at Rutgers Law School. When Martin tells her about a tax law case his firm is dealing with, she realises that the issue – that of a male caregiver (Mulkey) being denied tax deductions because of his marital status – is a clear infringement of gender equality. Ruth takes on the case, and with the aid of the ACLU, takes it all the way to the Supreme Court…

Ah, the humble biopic… Somewhere in Hollywood, there must be a template for screenwriters to use when assembling a biography, one that they should follow almost to the letter. There will be moments of adversity, a general struggle to be recognised or achieve fame/fortune/a place in history/all three that is overcome by sheer perseverance (and a surplus of self-belief), and a number of setbacks for the main character that help them develop more as a person. All these, and more, are present and correct in On the Basis of Sex, the second of two movies released in 2018 about Associate Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (the other is a documentary, RBG). As with many movies that are “based on a true story” or “true events”, there are liberties taken with Ginsburg’s life and career, and those liberties go to ensure that the screenplay adheres to the biography template. What this means as a whole is that the movie is sleekly efficient at exploring the basics of Ginsburg’s early life and career, but horrendously awkward at making any of it look and sound like it ever happened to real people. It all looks perfectly fine and sincere, but underneath all that sincerity, the movie is as hollow as an Easter egg.

It’s a movie built almost entirely on the idea that what really happened needs to be improved on dramatically, otherwise why would anyone watch it? So Ginsburg suffers gender-based discrimination over and over again before she gets a chance to upset the legal apple cart and show her true mettle in front of a trio of male Supreme Court justices, and the audience gets to watch a series of encounters where she caves under the sexist rhetoric of pretty much every other male in the movie that’s not her husband. Of course, she comes good in the end, but the wait just isn’t worth it. Even the good work of Jones and Hammer isn’t enough to offset the predictable nature of Daniel Stiepleman’s by-the-numbers screenplay, or Leder’s equally perfunctory direction. Whether this approach to Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life, and her efforts to ensure legal parity for everyone truly works, will depend largely on the viewer’s acceptance of this approach, and how prepared they are to overlook the arch theatrics on display, as well as the number of dramatic clichés trotted out in order to make the movie feel as anodyne as every other big screen biography. Like RBG, the movie makes use of the famous quote by Sarah Moore Grimké: “I ask for no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.” Perhaps a better version would be to ask our movie makers to have more faith in their real life characters and not to assume that their idea of what should have happened is an improvement on the real thing.

Rating: 6/10 – tiresome, and with little to say that isn’t obvious or bordering on condscension, On the Basis of Sex wastes an opportunity to tell a fascinating story with verve and vigour, leaving the viewer to wade through a series of loosely connected scenes that tell a familiar story of triumph over adversity; given the importance of Ginsburg’s efforts, and the impact that they’ve had, it’s a shame that this fictionalised version of her life and early career doesn’t live up to the momentous nature of what she achieved.

The Witch in the Window (2018)

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aka The Vermont House

D: Andy Mitton / 77m

Cast: Alex Draper, Charlie Tacker, Arija Bareikis, Carol Stanzione, Greg Naughton

For Simon (Draper) and his twelve year old son, Finn (Tacker), the chance to spend six weeks together while Simon flips an old house in Vermont, gives them a chance to have some father-son time, and to give Finn a time out from being with his mother, Beverly (Bareikis), who is struggling to cope with his antagonistic behaviour. Finn is acting out because his parents are estranged, but he harbours a hope that they’ll get back together again. When he sees the house that Simon is renovating, he learns that his father isn’t thinking of selling it, but thinks instead it will make for a good family home for the three of them. However, the house has a history, one that involves a tragedy, and the subsequent, lonely death of the previous owner, Lydia (Stanzione). As the pair work on the house, they begin to experience strange phenomena, occurrences that they attribute to the possibility of Lydia’s ghostly presence (though they’re not entirely serious). And then one day, their assumptions are brought into sharp focus when both of them see Lydia sitting in the very same chair that she died in…

These days it seems that there’s around twenty new horror movies released on an unsuspecting (and likely uninterested) general public every week, and sorting through all the slasher knock-offs, paranormal investigations of haunted houses/abandoned prisons/derelict mental hospitals, and straight up gore fests, in order to find something a little bit different and a little more rewarding, can be a downright chore. But when a horror movie does come along that shows a lot more thought has gone into it than would ever be expected, it’s something to cheer about. Such is the case with The Witch in the Window, the third feature from writer/director Andy Mitton, and a great example of a simple ghost story told well and with a great deal of care. Despite its short running time, Mitton invests first and foremost in the characters, and ensures that the relationship between Simon and Finn is believable and honest, so that when it comes time to put them in danger, the viewer is genuinely worried for them. There’s a credibility too to the conversations they have, and the way that they interact with each other, and both Draper and Tacker give good performances, displaying an easy camaraderie as actors and imbuing their characters’ relationship with an attractive sincerity.

As well as spending time building the father-son dynamic to good effect, Mitton also weaves Lydia’s story into the narrative, and provides the movie with a sense of foreboding that never dissipates. Viewers will derive a degree of fun from spotting Lydia in the background of various scenes, her ghostly presence not always obvious, but unnerving nevertheless. There are more obvious scares involving her, and Mitton isn’t always above using her to make viewers jump (some tricks of the horror movie trade seem as unavoidable as last minute resurrections in a slasher movie), but it’s in the movie’s later stages that Lydia is used in different, and more disturbing ways. She’s also a character with a purpose, one that drives the narrative to an unexpectedly poignant denouement, and one that allows Mitton to explore further the issue of how parents can – or can’t – protect their children from all that’s bad in the world. With Justin Kane’s cinematography providing carefully framed moments of dread, and Mitton providing a score that is seemingly at odds with the tone of the movie but which proves oddly in sync with it, the movie works well on a variety of levels and shows that Mitton is a movie maker with a great deal of talent.

Rating: 8/10 – sometimes the simpler the story and the simpler the approach the better the movie, and that’s definitely the case with The Witch in the Window, a chiller that wants to do more than just scare its audience; thoughtful and intelligently handled, and with moments of quiet audacity, this is short but sweetly horrifying, and offers an unexpectedly moving depiction of parental sacrifice.

Happy Birthday, Toby Simpson (2017)

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aka Breaking Free

D: Patrick Makin / 78m

Cast: Alexander Perkins, Edyta Budnik, Zara Day, Gary Heasman, Josh Wood

It should be a good day for Toby Simpson (Perkins), but his birthday is lining up to be anything but. His stewardess girlfriend, Hannah (Day), is either accusing him of seeing someone else or demanding he finish work early so he can take her to the airport; the train he normally takes to work is cancelled and the replacement coach service makes him late, something his boss at Sun Soaps, Terry (Heasman), goads him about; Terry refuses to let him go early, and so he’s forced to head home on the replacment coach – which will make him late in meeting Hannah. On the return journey he gets talking to festival goer Renata (Budnik); when the coach reaches its destination, Toby discovers that he’s lost his keys, his phone and his wallet. Realising that they’ve been stolen by someone on the coach who was wearing a purple hat, and that they’re heading to the festival, Renata persuades Toby to let her help him retrieve his belongings. Once inside the festival grounds however, the possibility of finding the thief amongst thousands of music lovers becomes less and less likely. But Renata is determined that Toby shouldn’t give up…

The debut of writer/director Patrick Makin, Happy Birthday, Toby Simpson is a light-hearted and easy-going romantic comedy that in time-honoured fashion, takes its put-upon central character on a journey of self-discovery and personal redemption. It does all this amiably and with a great deal of subdued charm, and though there’s nothing new in its boy-gets-treated-badly-by-everyone, boy-meets-girl-who-believes-in-him, boy-regains-self-respect scenario, by offering viewers a pleasant enough diversion from more standard fare, it’s far more successful than might be expected. Toby is a classic under-achiever, unable to stand up for himself, and when he tries to be more assertive he ends up worse off than he was before. Makin and Perkins make Toby a sympathetic character from the start, and even when he’s flailing around trying to justify his weak-willed behaviour (or excuse it), the sense of quiet desperation he’s projecting remains sincere and awkwardly appealing. It makes the inevitable romance with Renata all the more credible, even though their relationship is a movie staple. Thanks to the quality of Makin’s script, and of Perkins’ performance, Toby’s journey of self-discovery is amusing and warm-hearted, and because there are no detours into melodrama or more serious territory, it retains that subdued charm that helps it along so much.

Shot during the set up of Wiltshire’s End of the Road festival (and careful not to show any of the artists who played there in order to avoid any copyright problems), Makin’s debut is a good example of what can be achieved on a very small budget but with plenty of forward planning. Utilising a number of visual techniques to make it look as if Toby and Renata are actually “there”, the movie uses some of the energy from the festival as a way of adding a sense of urgency to the plot device of Toby trying to retrieve his personal effects, and the short amount of time that he and Renata have together. As the couple thrown together by the movies’ idea of fate, Perkins and Budnik have an easy chemistry that makes their characters’ growing relationship convincing, while their portrayals adhere to the idea that sometimes the shortest but most intense connections are the ones that stay with us, or influence us, the most. The romantic elements are handled with confidence and a clear sense of affection on Makin’s side, while the humour stems from the characters rather than the circumstances they find themselves in. With a great indie soundtrack working well to support the action (An Horse’s Trains and Tracks is a particular standout), those lucky enough to see this won’t be disappointed.

Rating: 8/10 – though its basic storyline is as old as the hills, and has been done a million times over, there’s still much to enjoy about Happy Birthday, Toby Simpson, not the least of which is the performances of its two leads, and the happy-wise approach adopted by its writer/director; sometimes keeping it simple is the best formula for success, and by doing this, the movie overcomes its lack of originality by having characters you can care about, and by being unrepentently good-natured throughout.

10 Reasons to Remember Stanley Donen (1924-2019)

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Stanley Donen (13 April 1924 – 23 February 2019)

Though Stanley Donen decided at a young age to be an atheist, his Jewish heritage often led to his being bullied by anti-Semites when he was a child. To escape this unwanted attention he went to the movies, and though he liked Westerns, comedies and thrillers, it was Flying Down to Rio (1935) that had the most effect on him. He took dance lessons soon after, and though he had a brief flirtation with studying psychology, he moved from his home town of Columbia, South Carolina to New York City in 1940 to pursue a career as a dancer. He soon secured a role in the original stage production of Pal Joey; the star was a talented dancer and actor called Gene Kelly. It wasn’t long before Kelly asked Donen to be his assistant choreographer, and when both men wound up in Hollywood in the early Forties, Donen worked as a choreographer, often on the movies Kelly was making. It was during this period that Donen came up with two dance sequences that helped cement Kelly’s reputation, and Donen’s own: the dance routine in Cover Girl (1944) where Kelly’s reflection jumps out of a mirror and dances with him, and perhaps one of the most famous dance routines of all, when Kelly dances with the cartoon mouse, Jerry, in Anchors Aweigh (1945).

Donen continued to perfect his knowledge of music and sound and photography, and in 1949 he was given the chance to co-direct a movie with Kelly. The result was an instant classic, On the Town. The movie was innovative in its use of location photography in a musical, and for the way in which its New York, New York sequence was edited. The movie won that year’s Best Picture award at the Oscars, and Donen’s reputation (as a director now) was secured. The Fifties saw Donen work on a number of high profile musicals, and in 1952 he reunited with Kelly for another instant classic, Singin’ in the Rain (though it didn’t receive the best notices at the time). Further success with Seven Brides for Seven Brothers actually placed Donen on a better footing within Hollywood than Kelly, and though they worked again on It’s Always Fair Weather, their relationship deteriorated, and working together was described by Donen as a “one hundred percent nightmare”. The movie was the last production he worked on exclusively under his contract with MGM, and in 1957 he became an independent director and producer, and formed Grandon Productions along with Cary Grant.

The Sixties saw Donen working and living in the UK, and switching from musicals, which were waning in terms of public popularity, to comedies and romantic comedy thrillers. Donen continued to be successful, both with audiences and critics, and he found working away from Hollywood to be something of a relief, so much so that his work during this period, particularly on Two for the Road, showed a director displaying supreme confidence in the materiel he was working with. He returned to Hollywood in 1970, but that decade saw him release just three movies, none of which were successful, and as time went on he worked less and less, until he made his last theatrical movie in 1984, Blame It on Rio. Donen’s career as a director spanned fifty years in total, but it will be the musicals he made in the Fifties and the comedies he made in the Sixties that he will be remembered for chiefly. His contributions to the movie musical form were invaluable in terms of what musicals could achieve by breaking away from the stagebound environment that had been the norm until On the Town. Innovative, ground-breaking, breathtaking – his work during the Fifties was all this and more, but it was the way in which he “re-invented” his career in the Sixties that was just as remarkable. If he fell out of favour later in his career, he wouldn’t be the first. But what he gave us will always endure, because what he gave us was a new way of looking at musicals that continues to inspire movie makers today – and the world over.

1 – On the Town (1949)

2 – Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

3 – Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)

4 – It’s Always Fair Weather (1955)

5 – The Pajama Game (1957)

6 – Funny Face (1957)

7 – Charade (1963)

8 – Arabesque (1966)

9 – Two for the Road (1967)

10 – Bedazzled (1967)

Paddleton (2019)

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D: Alex Lehmann / 89m

Cast: Mark Duplass, Ray Romano, Kadeem Hardison, Dendrie Taylor

For Michael (Duplass), the news is very bad indeed: he has terminal cancer. For his neighbour Andy (Romano), the news is also very bad indeed: he will lose his only friend in the world. The two live at the same apartment building, and have developed a close bond, spending their evenings and weekends together, watching kung fu movies and eating pizza, and playing a game of their own invention called Paddleton. When Michael decides that he doesn’t want to reach the stage in his illness where he’ll be connected to tubes and wires and spending more time in hospital than not, he tells Andy that he wants to kill himself before he reaches that point. Having arranged through his oncologist to pick up medication that will allow him to do this, Michael and Andy set off on a road trip to collect it. Along the way, Michael becomes aware of just how much his impending demise is affecting Andy, and encounters with a pharmacist (Hardison) and a motel owner (Taylor) reinforce the sense of loss that Andy is beginning to feel. When they return home, it remains to be seen if Michael will carry out his plan, and if he does, whether Andy will help him…

Made under the banner of the Duplass brothers’ production company, Paddleton rolls out its stall in the very first scene. With Michael calmly receiving the news that he has a mass and it should be checked out by an oncologist, it’s left to Andy to react in the way that you’d expect most people to react: he gets flustered, questions what Michael has been told, and looks for a more positive response from the doctor they’re speaking to. There’s comedy and pathos here alongside the obvious drama of the situation, and these three elements are the mainstay of a movie that takes a subtle, nuanced approach to the idea of euthanasia, while also exploring the strength of a friendship that has never been tested by something so serious – and life changing – before now. It’s a measure of the way in which the script (by Lehmann and Duplass) tackles these issues that the movie remains affecting and emotional all the way through, and without coming across as melodramatic or insincere, or worst of all, patronising. With the friendship between its two central characters having been so carefully plotted and constructed, Paddleton is a bromance that has unexpected depth and honesty.

This is thanks to both the screenplay, and the combined efforts of Duplass and Romano. Duplass is a quiet, solid presence, imbuing Michael with a sombre nobility, and entirely convincing as a man who wants to die on his own terms. Romano is something of a revelation, taking Andy’s many insecurities and inhibitions and making the character a fully rounded individual whose lack of social skills hides a greater capacity for love and affection than even he may be aware of. Romano’s performance is affecting and full of little touches that illustrate just how much he’s already grieving even though Michael hasn’t gone through with his plan yet. And yet there are small moments of hope dotted here and there for both characters, and though the movie has no intention of proving itself untrue to both the characters or the narrative, it’s these small moments that add detail and poignant circumspection to a story that is both heartfelt and intelligently handled. Lehmann builds on the promise shown in Blue Jay and Asperger’s Are Us (both 2016), and ensures that the more dramatic elements don’t overshadow the comedy – which is both bittersweet and meaningful – and vice versa. The end result is a movie that tells its simple story with a great deal of subdued yet effective panache, and without short changing either its characters or its audience.

Rating: 8/10 – low-key but brimming with confidence in the material and the downbeat nature of its themes, Paddleton is the kind of low budget indie movie that comes along every now and again and reminds us that there are still valid stories to be told about the human condition; touching without being sentimental, and bold in not pandering to any unnecessary romanticism about Michael’s decision, this is a well crafted and beautifully acted movie that shows just how complex and rewarding brotherly love can be.

RBG (2018)

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D: Julie Cohen, Betsy West / 98m

With: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Arthur R. Miller, Nina Totenberg, Clara Spera, James Steven Ginsburg, Jane C. Ginsburg, Gloria Steinem, Shana Knizhnik, Irin Carmon, Sharron Frontiero, Stephen Wiesenfeld, Lilly Ledbetter, Orrin Hatch

Born in Brooklyn, New York, Ruth Bader earned a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University; it was there that she met her husband-to-be, Martin Ginsburg. Stints at Harvard Law School and Columbia University led to her becoming a law professor. It was during this period of her life that RBG (as she has come to be known) encountered various and wide-ranging examples of gender inequality. Recognising the unfairness of the situation, in 1972 Ginsburg co-founded the Womens Rights Project at the ACLU; over the next four years she argued six gender discrimination cases before the US Supreme Court – and won five of them. In 1980 she was appointed to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and stayed there until she was appointed to the Supreme Court as an Associate Justice in 1993; she has remained in the post ever since. Because of her work as a legal advocate, litigator, and judge, Ginsburg has become something of a cultural icon in the last couple of decades, and an inspiration to young women around the globe…

A documentary about an octogenarian Supreme Court justice whose fame as a trailblazer for gender equality within the framework of the US legal system has been overshadowed in recent years due to a meme that referred to her as The Notorious R.B.G., Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s affectionate yet sobering movie is a tribute to Ginsburg’s tenacity over six decades. As RBG explores the legal, political, and social upheaval that Ginsburg was involved in during the Seventies and Eighties, it becomes abundantly clear just how much of an impact she had, and just how much has changed thanks to her efforts. That she remained as focused and determined as she did, while having a successful marriage and raising two children (James and Jane), and earning the respect and admiration of her male peers as well, is an amazing feat that reinforces just how well regarded she has become, and why it’s so well deserved (and how many associate judges of the US Supreme Court can say they’ve appeared, albeit very briefly, in both Deadpool 2 (2018) and The LEGO Movie 2 (2019)?). And she remains entirely self-effacing, a fact that makes watching RBG all the more interesting and enjoyable.

What the movie does so well, aside from ticking off most of her considerable achievements over the years, is to find out who the woman behind the meme really is, and thanks to an astute combination of archive material and modern day interviews, Cohen and West have assembled a documentary that does just that. Ginsburg emerges as a quiet, introspective woman with a good sense of humour, a stronger sense of natural justice, and fiercely independent in her thinking. She appears relaxed on screen, and in many ways curious about being the subject of a biographical movie, further traits that make her endearing to those who’ve never heard of her before, and which reinforce her stature as a right-thinking liberal for those who have. Her marriage to Martin is given a lot of emphasis, and while there’s an argument that she wouldn’t have been as successful in her career if he hadn’t been her bedrock (which she acknowledges), it’s this decades spanning love affair that provides the emotional core of a movie that might have otherwise been much drier. That said, it’s a heartfelt mix of serious historical reportage and sometimes surprisingly goofy humour, and provides viewers with an insight into the mind of someone who truly did have an impact on the way two generations of American women are now able to live their lives.

Rating: 8/10 – a stirring and enjoyable documentary that highlights the incalculable influence that one individual can have when they are determined enough, RBG is a sincere, intelligent, and captivating movie that serves as a reminder that it wasn’t just racial equality that was being fought for during the Sixties and Seventies; there might not be too much in the way of criticism of Ginsburg, but then this isn’t a fawning hagiography either, settling as it does for serving up large swathes of her life, and leaving the viewer to judge her more controversial actions – such as her pre-election criticism of Donald Trump – on their own merits.

A Brief Word About The Oscars 2020

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Yes, you read that right: 2020.

With all the ballyhoo and bones of contention surrounding this year’s Oscars ceremony – does anyone really care that it’s a hostless affair? – it’s tempting to wish it was all over and done with already. The Oscars have messed up badly this year, so it seems more appropriate to forget this year’s annual round of privileged back-slapping, and do something a little different. In that vein, here are some predictions for next year’s ceremony. Too far ahead, you say? Perhaps, but then that’s part of the fun of these things: these predictions are unlikely to be anywhere near as divisive at this stage as any movie that actually gets a nomination. And so, the nominees for Best Picture are…

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Cats, The Goldfinch, The Irishman, Little Women, Motherless Brooklyn, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Yesterday.

If just one of those movies gets on the actual list next year, I’ll be happy. If there’s two or more then this post will have been brought to you by the mysterious Dr. Schreck. And to anyone who still intends to watch the ceremony this coming Sunday, don’t let my cynicism about it all stop you from having a great time (not that I think it really would). Good luck though!