The Circle (2017)

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D: James Ponsoldt / 110m

Cast: Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, John Boyega, Karen Gillan, Patton Oswalt, Ellar Coltrane, Glenne Headly, Bill Paxton

Imagine a device that could accurately record and predict your every emotion before you experienced it. Would you find that a boon or a hindrance to your everyday life? Now hold that thought, because there’s a better question: would you find such a device a boon or a hindrance while watching The Circle? (Actually it would be both: If you feel it would be a boon then you’re advocating knowing you’re going to be bored for an hour and fifty minutes, and you can deal with that appropriately, like watching something else; and if you feel it would be a hindrance then you’re advocating knowing you’re going to be bored, and you can also deal with that appropriately, like watching something else.)

The Circle is a high-tech company that’s looking to integrate every possible form of social interaction, be it personal, professional, legal, financial, medical, morally proscribed or otherwise, into a catch-all application that’s designed to promote and provide transparency in all aspects of daily life. In essence, The Circle is attempting to create a world where there are no secrets or lies, and all to make everyone’s lives easier and better and more fruitful. What could possibly be wrong with that? (Actually, quite a bit, but for the movie itself, that’s another issue.) It’s left to newbie Mae Holland (Watson) to discover the truth behind The Circle’s motives, but not before she becomes the face of The Circle, and accrues the kind of worldwide popularity afforded to rock stars, footballers and self-promoting celebrity wannabes… and all because of a midnight kayak trip that goes wrong.

It’s at this point in The Circle that director James Ponsoldt, along with co-writer and creator of the original novel, Dave Eggers, throw in the towel and quietly resign the audience to a series of even more ineffectual scenes than have gone before. Mae gets her job at The Circle with the usual ease of someone in the movies who can field a barrage of probing questions by umming and ahhing and giving uninspired answers. Once ensconced in Customer Experience she quickly blends in with all the other vanilla members of staff, and makes no impact whatsoever. She meets but doesn’t recognise disillusioned programmer Ty Lafitte (Boyega), whose True You application is now being misused by the company, and believes everything that co-founder Eamon Bailey (Hanks) says at his regular company-wide meetings (which are no more than mini-Expo’s for the company’s latest innovations). All around her, the clues are there as to The Circle’s true motives, and though she’s not exactly drinking the company Kool-Aid, she is allowing herself to be drawn further and further into its “evil machinations”.

But then comes that fateful midnight kayak trip and everything changes. Mae, who is to civil disobedience what Stephen Hawking is to breakdancing, steals a kayak, ventures out into a shipping lane surrounded by fog, and ends up being rescued by the Coast Guard. Without this out of character moment (which is never satisfactorily explained), the movie would have stalled altogether and even more viewers would have lapsed into comas. Mae thinks the publicity – the whole thing was captured on dozens of the company’s SeeChange cameras – will mean the end of her career. But Bailey has other ideas and enlists Mae to promote the company’s latest idea, that of a life led through total transparency. Mae wears a tiny video camera, allows the feed to be shared online, and only gradually begins to understand that The Circle is as dastardly in its aims as everyone else has guessed from the beginning. It’s not until the use of a new app leads to a tragedy that affects Mae directly that she decides to turn the tables on Bailey and… well… let’s just say it’s meant to be ironic and a case of just desserts being served, but it’s so underwhelming you might not believe she’s actually done it.

As dystopian thrillers go, The Circle operates on a level that, much like the Circlers who work for the company, requires the viewer to go along with whatever the movie comes up with, and not to raise any objections. However, Ponsoldt and Eggers have crafted a script that defies the viewer to make any connection with Mae, or Bailey, or her parents (an underused Headly and Paxton), or anyone else for that matter, and which is dramatically inert for much of its running time. It’s a movie in which very little happens, and when it does, it doesn’t have the impact required to lift the movie out of its self-imposed doldrums. It’s a thriller where the director appears to have forgotten to include any thrills, and a message movie where the message is spelt out in big bold letters for anyone watching who might be hard of understanding. It’s a spectacularly misjudged movie, baffling in its intentions, and uncomfortably, unalterably dull.

As well as being unable to elevate the material above the merely mundane, Ponsoldt is also unable to draw out even the hint of a good performance from anyone. Watson gives yet another performance that makes it seem as if she’s still astonished at how she’s been able to sustain a career beyond Harry Potter, while Hanks adopts a friendly uncle persona that is the whole of his portrayal (after this and A Hologram for the King (2016), perhaps he should stay away from any more adaptations of Eggers’ work). Boyega is wasted as the “mysterious” Lafitte (Bailey doesn’t know where he is, even with all his SeeChange cameras; which is a shame as he can be spotted at The Circle’s HQ wandering around quite openly), and several subplots waste the involvement of the likes of Oswalt, Gillan and Coltrane. While the movie clunks along in neutral, with occasional detours into first gear, it also manages to undermine the not inconsiderable talents of its composer, Danny Elfman, its DoP, Matthew Libatique, and its production designer, Gerald Sullivan. And when that’s the best achievement that a movie can make, then it’s definitely time to move on and watch something else.

Rating: 4/10 – boring, dull, uninspired, leaden, bland – take your pick as all of those could (and do) apply to The Circle, the latest in a long line of thrillers that have chosen high tech businesses as their preferred boogeyman; just when you think it’s going to get interesting, it doesn’t, and just when you think Mae will wake up and smell the bullshit, she doesn’t, leaving the movie to promise much, but deliver very, very little in the way of viewing satisfaction.

The Dark Tower (2017)

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D: Nikolaj Arcel / 95m

Cast: Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor, Dennis Haysbert, Jackie Earle Haley, Claudia Kim, Fran Kranz, Abbey Lee, Katheryn Winnick

Problems, problems, problems…

It’s taken eleven years for an adaptation of Stephen King’s magnum opus, The Dark Tower, to reach our screens, and now that it’s here, it’s not even an adaptation of King’s work. Instead it’s an approximation of King’s tale, a clumsy reshaping of a story that had the potential to be one of the most impressive fantasy series ever made. You could argue that King has been spectacularly hard done by over the years when it comes to adaptations of his novels, what with the likes of Dreamcatcher (2003), Cell (2016), and über-awful The Mangler (1995) proving that King’s fertile imagination doesn’t always translate well to the screen. What’s also noticeable is that over the years the quality of adaptations has dwindled to the point where a movie or TV version of a King novel or short story evokes dispassion and/or protracted bouts of ennui rather than enthusiasm. Take for example 11.22.63 (2016), a TV mini-series based on one of King’s more well received recent novels. Who remembers it now?

The Dark Tower, though, should have been another matter altogether. It should have raised the bar for big screen fantasy movies. But instead of a movie to herald in a series replete with narrative complexity, flawed yet fascinating characters, high stakes adventure, a carefully constructed yet organic mythology, and pursuing elements of fate and predestination, we have a hodgepodge of ideas and a crude collage of scenes from the books as a whole, all stitched together with little or no concern as to how it all looks as a final product. Stories of post-production problems have been rife, with an early cut of the movie being greeted with the kind of dismay that leads to producers considering replacing their director. And that’s without reshoots designed to provide more backstory about the rivalry between Idris Elba’s vengeful gunslinger, Roland Deschain, and Matthew McConaughey’s evil predator in black, Walter Padick. It doesn’t take much to wonder why such a backstory wasn’t thought out and shot originally, but it does point to the terrible ineptitude that appears to have been prevalent throughout.

Problems, problems, problems…

Watching the movie itself, there is one immediate flaw that shows that director Arcel, his co-writers Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen, and the producers weren’t paying attention to the structure or the set up of King’s novels at all. That flaw is the decision to make Roland a supporting character. When the main character who drives an eight-volume saga is reduced to playing second fiddle to a pre-teen, then you know that something is terribly, dreadfully wrong. Whether or not this was an attempt to broaden the movie’s chances at the box office is hard to decipher, but when a movie gets something this fundamentally wrong, then there’s little hope for the rest of it. The quest for the Dark Tower is Roland’s quest, and to play down this really quite important aspect of King’s novels is to show no understanding of the story at all. And then there’s the ending…

Perhaps it was too much to ask that The Dark Tower would turn out to be all that it could be. After all, if movie makers of the calibre of JJ Abrams and Ron Howard couldn’t make it work, whether as a series of movies, or a mix of movies and TV series, then what confidence could anyone have in this particular incarnation? With its budget of $60 million, and a running time of ninety-five minutes, how do you build another world that exists alongside our own? The answer, as anyone who’s seen the movie knows, is easy: you don’t. Aside from some impressive desert vistas, and a couple of sequences set in Mid-World, the movie remains firmly rooted in New York, keeping its characters there for long periods and managing the expectations of fans by ignoring them altogether.

Problems, problems, problems…

With the makers unsure of just what exactly they want to do with the material at their disposal, the movie itself struggles to make any sense or provide any depth. This is a dreadfully flat, unnecessarily dry “adaptation” that skips over any attempts at character development, keeps exposition to a minimum, and favours action scenes that seem content to showcase the various ways that Roland can reload his guns instead of making them exciting to watch. As Roland, Elba has no choice but to ramp up the sincerity and make the gunslinger as taciturn as possible. That he gives a good performance is more of a tribute to his skill as an actor than any skill possessed by the writers, and even though he’s burdened by the kind of trite, clichéd dialogue that most actors would fail to overcome, Elba makes the best of moments such as when he’s called upon to recite the most long-winded, and excruciating, mantra in movie history (it begins with, “I do not shoot with my hand”). Opposite him is McConaughey, an actor who has surpassed everybody’s expectations (except possibly his own) in recent years, but here all he does is remind us that when he’s not working with a strong-minded director who’ll keep him in line, his performance will suffer. Here he gives us a caricature of a villain, and a pantomime one at that.

Taylor as Jake lacks presence, and the likes of Haley, Kim and Haysbert are given too little to do to make an impact. There’s too much jumping through portals, too many moments where the script trips itself up (bullets are supposed to be scarce in Mid-World but Roland never runs out), and too many references to characters and places in other King novels (prizes though for spotting a shop called Barlow and Straker’s). As it’s unlikely that The Dark Tower will be successful enough to warrant any further adventures that aren’t based on King’s original novels, all these references feel like gratuitous easter eggs rather than attempts to (subtly) build on the notion that there are worlds next to worlds, and there are more connections than even Roland or Jake are aware of. It’s another example of Arcel and co. lacking the insight into the material to make it work more effectively, making the movie a shoddy, ill-lit, tension-free exercise in damage limitation.

Rating: 4/10 – professionally made at least, but lacking energy and conviction, The Dark Tower is a dramatically sprawling yet visually restrained fantasy action movie that won’t interest fans of the novels, or win over viewers who have no connection to them at all; Arcel exerts very little control over the material, and what few glimpses there are of what could have been, only add to the disappointment and the horror of what’s been done with the source material – literally nothing.

10 Reasons to Remember Jerry Lewis (1926-2017)

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Jerry Lewis (16 March 1926 – 20 August 2017)

For many movie lovers, the quintessential Jerry Lewis performance involved a plethora of facial contortions, a unique range of vocal gymnastics, and a willingness to appear very, very, very silly. As a performer, Lewis was irrepressible, a mercurial performer who could delight and enthuse audiences in a way that nobody else could match or improve upon. In short, he was the very definition of unique.

He began his career at an early age, performing alongside his parents at venues in the Catskill Mountains in New York state. After World War II, Lewis met a singer named Dean Martin, and together they formed a double act that lasted until 1956. Their act began in night clubs, with Lewis’s clumsy busboy interrupting Martin’s singing. It was successful, and paved the way for radio shows, TV guest spots, and of course, movies. Lewis and Martin made sixteen pictures together, but as time went on, Lewis’s star waxed higher than Martin’s, and the movies began to focus more on Lewis’s comedy antics than they did on the pair as a team.

The duo’s break up worked for both of them, but for Lewis it brought him to a whole new level of stardom. He became a successful recording artist, appeared by himself on several TV shows, and began a second movie career as a leading actor, appearing in a variety of comedies that he often wrote or co-wrote himself, and which established even further his credentials as one of the best comic performers of the Fifties and Sixties. But his own particular brand of humour began to lose favour with audiences during the mid-Sixties, and the projects he initiated failed to reach the level of success he’d achieved over the previous twenty years. In the late Sixties, he taught movie directing at the University of Southern California; two of his pupils were Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. During the Seventies, Lewis was more active on the stage, and he didn’t return to making movies until the early Eighties.

His acting career over the last thirty-five years was sporadic, yet full of interesting choices, and he gained a further reputation as a dramatic supporting actor. One area in which he maintained a distinctive consistency was in his role as a humanitarian. Lewis hosted a series of fund-raising telethons for the Muscular Dystrophy Association during the Fifties, and again between 1966 and 2010. They were incredibly successful shows, and over the course of fifty years, Lewis helped raise over $2.6 billion in donations. And in France – still – he is regarded as a comic genius. Lewis was a versatile performer who did things his own way, and was frequently right for doing so. And besides, anyone who encouraged Christopher Walken to pursue a career in show business can’t be that bad.

1 – The Stooge (1951)

2 – Living It Up (1954)

3 – The Geisha Boy (1958)

4 – The Bellboy (1960)

5 – The Nutty Professor (1963)

6 – Who’s Minding the Store? (1963)

7 – The King of Comedy (1982)

8 – Arizona Dream (1993)

9 – Funny Bones (1995)

10 – Max Rose (2013)

A Brief Word About Re-releases

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Each year, we the movie-loving public look forward to seeing the latest blockbusters and focusing on what’s ahead in the coming year. We analyse trailers to the nth degree, guessing this and surmising that. Millions upon millions of words are used in an effort to promote, discuss and anticipate the latest high-profile releases, and come the end of the year, we do the same for those movies everyone feels will be awards contenders. But each year, there are other releases that are also worthy of our attention, movies that have already withstood the kind of extreme navel-gazing that the Internet thrives on. These are the re-releases, older movies that are maybe celebrating an anniversary, or have undergone a restoration. Whatever the reason, these re-releases are a chance for some audiences to revisit a movie on the big screen, or for others to see them on the big screen for the very first time. And either way, it’s definitely a good thing.

Here in the UK, we average around thirty to forty re-releases each year (most of which are sponsored and promoted by the British Film Institute). So far this year, we’ve been lucky enough to be able to see the following movies:

Trainspotting (1997), GoodFellas (1990), Ghost in the Shell (1995), Taxi Driver (1976), Multiple Maniacs (1971), Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1973), Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), Mulholland Dr. (2001), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Manhattan (1979), La Strada (1954), The Graduate (1967), Victim (1961), Howards End (1992), Le doulos (1962), and Titanic (1997).

And we still have these great movies to look forward to:

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) (in 3D), Belle de Jour (1967), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Young Frankenstein (1974), Blood Simple (1984), Hellraiser (1987), Sorcerer (1977), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Predator (1987), and The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992).

So, spare a thought for the sometimes unheralded and humble re-release, a movie that no one has to quibble about, and a movie that has earned its reputation already. Let’s keep them coming!

Everything, Everything (2017)

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D: Stella Meghie / 96m

Cast: Amandla Stenberg, Nick Robinson, Anika Noni Rose, Ana de la Reguera, Taylor Hickson, Danube Hermosillo, Sage Brocklebank

The latest romantic drama to involve teenagers, Everything, Everything is a movie that wants to tug at the heartstrings (and this may work with teenage girls, or those with a very low tolerance for this sort of thing), and put across the obvious message that true love is both everything (as the title suggests) and able to overcome any and all obstacles. There’s a definite market for this type of movie, and the bigger the obstacle, the more likely it is that teenage audiences will flock to see just how said obstacle is dealt with on the road to true, everlasting love. Often bearing little relation to the real world, these movies play out in a fantasy land that we can all recognise, but which remains just that: a fantasy land, with clearly observed roles and dilemmas and backdrops. And Everything, Everything subscribes to that idea and that fantasy world very closely.

Adapted from the novel of the same name by Nicola Yoon, the movie introduces us to Madeleine ‘Maddy’ Whittier (Stenberg), a seventeen year old who lives with her mother, Pauline (Rose), in their hermetically sealed home. Maddy can’t leave the house because she has Severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), a condition that means she has a compromised immune system that makes her extremely vulnerable to infectious diseases; any contact could potentially be fatal. Maddy seems to have adapted to being at home all the time, but she’s not totally alone. She has a nurse, Carla (de la Reguera), who visits every day, and Carla’s daughter, Rosa (Hermosillo), is allowed to come over as well. Otherwise, Maddy is on her own. Things change, however, with the arrival of new neighbours next door, including teenage son Olly (Robinson). It isn’t long before Olly takes an interest in Maddy, and she takes an interest in him. They text, they e-mail, he plays amusing games with a bundt cake. Soon, Maddy wants him to come over, and convinces Carla to allow it.

Olly’s visits give the now eighteen year old Maddy such a boost that she begins to consider what it might be like if she went outside. Before then, her mother finds out about Olly’s visits and puts more draconian measures in place to keep Maddy ‘safe’. But Maddy won’t be put off, and she devises a plan whereby she and Olly will go on a short break to Hawaii. Once there, their relationship develops from a fraternal one to a physical one, but there’s a consequence: Maddy falls ill and is hospitalised. Back home, her mother tells Maddy that there’s no future in her relationship with Olly, as he is bound to meet someone else who isn’t as restricted in her movements as she is. Seeing the logic in this, Maddy doesn’t encourage Olly any further and doesn’t respond to his entreaties to contact him. And then Maddy receives a call that changes everything…

In assembling Everything, Everything, writer J. Mills Goodloe and director Stella Meghie have retained as many of the novel’s fairy tale elements as they can, and in doing so have made a movie that operates at a remove from our own world and in a place that constantly makes the viewer question what they’re seeing. Maddy is the beleaguered princess, locked up like Rapunzel in a glass prison (we see her looking out of windows for most of the movie’s first half). Olly is the dashing prince, come to rescue the princess out of true love (though in a pick-up truck and not on a white charger). SCID translates as the curse that keeps the princess imprisoned, while there are no prizes for guessing which role Maddy’s mother occupies. The parallels are there for everyone to see, and the movie makes no real effort to hide them, but as a result, the movie becomes an easy one to anticipate as it progresses steadily along its time-worn path.

Watching as events unfold, the viewer will likely find themselves asking lots of awkward and annoying questions (annoying because of the frequency with which they’ll pop up). Questions such as, if she never leaves the house, why does Maddy have shoes? Or why does she have a hundred white tops? Or, just how much credit would an eighteen year old be given on her first credit card? And would it be enough to pay for flights to Hawaii, or an obviously 5-star hotel room, or cover their expenses while they’re there? More importantly, if Maddy’s condition makes her susceptible to any and all infectious diseases, how can she or her mother or Carla (or anyone for that matter) be sure they don’t have an infectious disease each time they arrive at the house (going through some kind of airlock at the front of the house just doesn’t seem to cover it). But over and above all these issues, one question will soon be paramount in the minds of viewers everywhere: why don’t Maddy and Olly ever just talk to each other on their phones instead of texting all the time?

Despite all these distractions, Everything, Everything is likeable enough, with a couple of minor fantasy sequences where Maddy and Olly’s text conversations are acted out in Maddy’s head using the backdrops of architectural models that she’s created as part of her home learning. The movie as a whole is brightly lensed by DoP Igor Jadue-Lillo, with the Hawaii sequences (actually shot in Mexico) displaying a crisp, immersive quality, and Meghie, while not called upon to do anything too spectacular, does draw out appealing performances from Stenberg and Robinson. The romantic aspects range from sappy to heartfelt, but manage to avoid any unnecessary gooey sentimentality, and the outcome is never in doubt. All in all, it’s a movie that knows what it’s doing, does it competently enough, and will attract fans who don’t need their movies to be any more complicated than girl-meets-boy, girl-loses-boy, girl-regains-boy.

Rating: 6/10 – another teen romance that brings very little that’s new to the table, Everything, Everything is still watchable, albeit in an undemanding, none too stressful way; sufferers with SCID will scoff at the way it’s portrayed, and the ease with which Maddy and Olly get to Hawaii should raise more than a few eyebrows, but again this is a romantic fantasy drama, and on that level, it’s effective enough for the receptive viewer.

Sharknado 5: Global Swarming (2017)

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D: Anthony C. Ferrante / 90m

Cast: Ian Ziering, Tara Reid, Cassandra Scerbo, Billy Barratt, Yanet Garcia, Porsha Williams, too many minor celebrities to mention…

The Sharknado series has long been a bastion of awfulness, a treasury of trash, and a castle keep of constant calamity. It’s fast becoming the movie franchise that cannot, will not, die, with a new instalment being released each year with alarming regularity of purpose and design. And so we have the latest farrago in a series of movies that just keeps on coming and coming and coming. Rest assured (if that’s the right word), Sharknado 5: Global Warming won’t be the last in the series (and you’ll know why if you manage to make it to the end), and though Jaws 19 directed by Max Spielberg won’t ever happen, it’s more than likely now that in 2032 we’ll be having Sharknado 19: The NeverEnding Story streamed directly onto the back of our eyeballs.

This far in there’s very little point in offering up a proper review, or trying to differentiate between this instalment and any of the others. They’re all genuinely bad movies, and the producers seem to have decided that they need to be made that way deliberately. Fans of the series will get as much or as little out of Sharknado 5 as they have all the rest, detractors will have their views confirmed yet again, and the casual viewer will probably wonder how on earth a movie this bad has managed to get made in the first place. In the beginning, it could have been argued that the first Sharknado was a modern-day variation/update on the kind of monster horrors from the Fifties and Sixties, but without the radiation fallout to start things off. Now though, it’s a cultural anomaly that just keeps on giving and giving, even though the majority of us don’t want it to.

Rating: 3/10 – with only its celebrity cameos giving it a lift, Sharknado 5: Global Swarming is the franchise’s nadir, an appalling waste of everyone’s time and money; with the producers seeming to think that the series needs to get sillier and more deliberately stupid with each entry, it’s a poor reflection on their latest instalment when the cleverest thing about it is its tagline: Make America Bait Again.

It Comes at Night (2017)

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D: Trey Edward Shults / 91m

Cast: Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo, Kelvin Harrison Jr, Riley Keough, Griffin Robert Faulkner

In recent years, low budget horror thrillers have had something of a resurgence, what with It Follows (2014), The Witch (2015), Split (2016), and Get Out (2017) all making an impact with audiences and critics alike. While there are still too many similar movies out there that lack the attention to detail or the originality of these particular examples, it’s heartening to see that some movie makers aren’t just content to rehash familiar stories and plots, and are willing to bringing something different to the table. In addition to the makers of the movies listed above, we now have to add the name of Trey Edward Shults. Making only his second feature, Shults has made a movie that is by turns eerie, unnerving and undeniably tense. It’s a post-apocalyptic thriller that slowly tightens the screws on its characters from the start, and makes no promises of a happy ending for any of them.

We discover things are bad right at the beginning, with Paul (Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Ejogo), and their teenage son, Travis (Harrison Jr), transporting an old man in a wheelbarrow to a clearing in the woods. The old man – who is Sarah’s father – is visibly ill. Paul shoots him, and he and Travis put the body in a shallow grave; they then burn it. The message is clear: anyone found to be contaminated by the disease that has ravaged the rest of the world, will be despatched in a similar fashion. They return to their home deep in the woods, where they barricade themselves inside. This is their life now, and Paul is determined to keep them from harm. That determination is put to the test the next night when they capture an intruder trying to break in. The man’s name is Will (Abbott), and he manages to convince Paul that he was only looking for food and water for himself and his wife, Kim (Keough), and young son Andrew (Faulkner). Satisfied that Will doesn’t have the disease, Paul agrees to travel with him to collect his wife and son.

With Will’s family in the house as well, Paul impresses on the newcomers the rules that have kept him and his family safe, in particular ensuring the only entrance door is kept secure at night. The two families begin to learn to trust each other, but there are odd moments where Travis wonders if the stories Will and Kim tell are entirely true. On an excursion into the woods, Travis’s dog, Stanley, runs off and doesn’t come back. That night, Travis wakes from a nightmare, and in turn, discovers that the entrance door is ajar. Having wakened his father and Will, they discover a badly wounded Stanley just inside the door. Tensions mount when Sarah suggests that a sleepwalking Andrew might have opened the door, while Will and Kim accuse Travis. Tensions mount even further when Travis learns that Andrew may be infected, and Paul decides to finds out for himself…

For much of It Comes at Night, the audience is only given enough to appreciate the immediate situation, and what it means for the two families concerned. There’s no extended scene where someone describes the outbreak of the disease and how it happened, or how quickly it spread, or how easily society fell apart in the wake of the spread. Instead, it’s enough to know that the world has become an entirely dangerous place, and that trust may have become the most precious commodity on the planet. It’s easy to see that Paul is doing his best to protect his family, and it’s clear that he’s given their situation a lot of thought, but it’s also obvious that he’s had to make other, more personal sacrifices along the way, and though much of the story’s focus is on Travis and how he perceives events happening around him, Edgerton’s quiet, brooding performance is the movie’s touchstone. He’s a man who’s dispensed with the idea of social niceties, and if killing means survival, then that’s what he’ll do. Edgerton brings all this to the character, and though he’s sometimes on the periphery of a scene, his presence is as accurate a monitor of the movie’s overall mood as you’d need.

And that mood is pretty intense for most of the movie as the audience waits for the inevitable disintegration of the uneasy combination of two families with differing agendas co-existing in the same claustrophobic property. A veritable maze of a place, the house is a distorting labyrinth that allows for various spy holes and hiding places, and which allows Travis to be the conduit through which the viewer gains a broader understanding of the dynamics of both families, as well as his own growing understanding of the fault lines developing between them. Travis has recurring nightmares relating to the disease, and it’s his fear that gives the audience a way into a scenario that could otherwise have been just a mood piece. There’s a grim inevitability to the way in which this new, insular “society” breaks down, and Shults makes good use of the dread that comes along with it. Will Paul be able to protect his family or will events determine otherwise? And are Travis’s nightmares a foretaste of what’s to come?

For most of the movie’s well-judged running time, Shults handles the character dynamics with confidence and a consistent use of sparse, realistic dialogue. He also ensures that the mottled colour scheme of the property and the surrounding woods adds a melancholy layer to proceedings that is both dispiriting and oppressive. This isn’t a movie that provides much in the way of humour, and though smiles are appropriate on a couple of occasions, what Shults does is to use these moments as a way of leavening the pervading sense of anxiety that he’s building, and to help soften some of the blows to come. Inevitably though, there are a couple of issues that hinder the movie from becoming a complete success. There’s an awkward moment involving Travis and Kim that could best be described as a “seduction scene”, but which isn’t developed any further, and the issue of who opened the entrance door is left unsolved, which feels like a clumsy misstep from a writer/director who for the most part, is in firm control of everything else. It’s a frustrating lapse, as well, because it leaves the viewer waiting to find out who did open it, and for some, it’s likely to occupy their thoughts for the last twenty-five minutes. Those issues aside, though, It Comes at Night is a movie that continues that recent run of effective horror thrillers with more than a dash of style.

Rating: 8/10 – a slowburn thriller with horror overtones, It Comes at Night is also a sombre, doleful survivalist drama that is well-paced, confidently handled by its writer/director, and features a terrific performance from Edgerton; with a palpable sense of impending doom to weigh the characters down, it’s a movie with nihilist leanings and very little intention of sending the viewer away in a happy mood, but in terms of what it wants to achieve, it has to be considered a definite success.

Overdrive (2017)

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D: Antonio Negret / 93m

Cast: Scott Eastwood, Freddie Thorp, Ana de Armas, Gaia Weiss, Simon Abkarian, Clemens Schick, Abraham Belaga, Kaaris

Every now and then – in the UK at least – a movie appears in cinemas that doesn’t seem to belong there. It will have the look and feel of a movie that should have gone direct to video, and it will have a number of second- or third-tier stars heading up the cast. It will be a generic, virtually simplistic genre piece whether it’s a horror movie, an action movie, or a comedy. And it will not attract glowing reviews or prove to be a box office success. In short, it will be the movie you go and see when you get to the cinema and the movie you really want to see has either already started, or sold out. Welcome to the world of the B-movie, the A-movie’s little brother (or second cousin if you want to be a little more dismissive). And on this occasion, welcome to the French Riviera, and a movie called Overdrive, a semi-glamorous action thriller with moments of humour that are often unintentional.

It’s a movie that borrows liberally and without embarrassment from a variety of other action movies, but in the main, viewers will spot references to the Transporter movies (which share this movie’s location), and The Fast and the Furious franchise. Is it as good as those other movies that it appropriates its DNA from? Well, that depends on the entry. Suffice it to say, it never looks in danger of overtaking even the worst of those movies (they know who they are), or giving audiences enough invention or “wow” moments to make it stand out from the crowd. A French/US co-production, the movie coasts along on a small wave of goodwill, and tells its simple tale in as convoluted a fashion as possible. One of the few things that is actually impressive about the movie? That it contains so many red herrings, false trails, and confusing twists and turns, and doesn’t trip itself up all of the time trying to keep them all up in the air.

It involves two half-brothers, Andrew and Garrett Foster (Eastwood, Thorp), who have travelled to the South of France in an effort to steal expensive, one of a kind cars and sell them on to big money collectors. They steal one such car, a 1937 Bugatti, only to learn that it’s owned by criminal bigwig Jacomo Morier (Abkarian). Facing certain death, the brothers manage to persuade Morier to make it up to him by their stealing another car, a 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO, from a “business” rival of Morier’s called Otto Klemp (Schick). Morier gives them a week to get him the car, a timescale that requires them to hire a crew of like-minded car thieves. Andrew’s girlfriend, Stephanie (de Armas), invites herself along for the ride, and just to ensure that Garrett isn’t left out, enlists the aid of her friend, Devin (Weiss), as well.

And so begins a less than complex game of bluff and double bluff that involves the step-brothers, their girlfriends, a group of anonymous drivers, two rival criminals and their gun-toting henchmen, a dozen or so classic cars, two Interpol agents on the Fosters’ trail, and Morier’s cousin, Laurent (Belaga), who may or may not be playing both sides (though it doesn’t really matter). It’s a standard heist movie, playing with misdirection as a recurring plot point, and making sure that everyone except Laurent looks well groomed and well dressed. In many ways, the look of the movie is its most important element, with Laurent Barès’ bright, sunshine-infused cinematography keeping things shiny and attractive, whether it’s the sheen glinting off the classic cars on display – they really are objects of mechanical beauty – or the sun-kissed hills and environs surrounding Marseille (where the movie takes place). Add a handful of car chases that zip and swing and gambol amid said surroundings and you have a pretty, if vacuous, movie that doesn’t have any huge ambitions, and just wants to be entertaining.

And despite all the silly plot twists and exaggerated storyline and depth-free characters and inane dialogue and desperate humour and join-the-dots direction, Overdrive is an enjoyable way to spend ninety-some minutes, partly because it really doesn’t try hard at all, and partly because it’s actually quite charming in a way that’s both undemanding and innocuous. This is the perfect movie to watch on a Saturday night with beer and pizza (if you’re a man), or Prosecco and pizza (if you’re a woman). It doesn’t require the viewer to think too much, it wears its heart on its sleeve in terms of the slightly underwhelming car chases (which are too concerned with ensuring no damage comes to the cars, especially the classic ones), and the soppy romantic interludes it foists on the characters and the audience at regular intervals. You could view it as a guilty pleasure, except that it’s not quite that bad. It’s not great, but it’s not entirely bad either.

As the step-brothers out of different mothers, Eastwood is the serious one looking to make a commitment to Stephanie and stop being a car thief, while Thorp is the happy-go-lucky thrill seeker who doesn’t need a plan (mostly). The pair have an easy-going chemistry that works well, which is more than can be said for their characters’ romantic entanglements. Eastwood and de Armas look like a couple who are still trying to work out if they like each other, while Thorp and Weiss behave like a couple who, weirdly, have never met. Abkarian and Schick are acceptable as rival villains, while Belaga is appropriately slimy as Laurent. Colombian-born Negret oversees things with the flair of someone who was included in a list of Latino Directors to Watch in 2007, and who has worked solidly in television ever since, while writers Michael Brandt and Derek Haas, who penned 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003), rehash old glories and invite viewers to play Spot the Homage nearly every eight-ten minutes. With the viewer distracted in such a way, it gives the movie a chance to make more of an impression than it has any right to.

Rating: 5/10 – already it seems we’re getting throwbacks to movies made in the late Nineties/early Noughties, and Overdrive is a prime example of a genre crying out for new ideas and then settling for the same old same old; breezy and forgettable, the movie roars through a series of minor skirmishes before settling into a predictable rhythm that culminates in a scene of vehicular slaughter that deserves a medal.

The Ghoul (2016)

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D: Gareth Tunley / 82m

Cast: Tom Meeten, Dan Renton Skinner, Rufus Jones, Alice Lowe, Niamh Cusack, Geoffrey McGivern, James Eyres, Paul Kaye

It’s very, very difficult to keep one step ahead of audiences today, what with narrative twists and turns coming at us thick and fast in what feels like every other movie (so much so that we’re looking out for them all the time), and with the Internet being a boundless source of spoilers and inappropriate info. Any movie that tries to hoodwink its audience, or lead them down the path marked ‘astray’, will inevitably stand or fall by the quality of its deception, and the way in which viewers are misled. Show them one thing and then show them something else that brings the first thing into question and you have a mystery. Show them one thing and then another and then another and keep everything vague and unknowable – until the end – and you have a head scratcher.

A head scratcher is what The Ghoul presents us with early on. Chris (Meeten), a police detective, arrives at a quiet suburban house that has become a crime scene. His partner, Jim (Skinner), tells a disturbing, impossible story: a burglar, surprised by the owners, shoots both of them… and neither of them dies, not until he flees the scene. Chris is a taciturn individual, wrapped up in himself and his thoughts, thoughts that make him look in the direction of the lettings agent, Michael Coulson (Jones), who has been helpful in the early stages of their investigation. When they try to talk to him, they find that on one wall of his flat is a collage of notes and pictures that indicate he’s seeing a psychotherapist, Dr Fisher (Cusack). Chris decides to go undercover and try and find out about Coulson through his seeing Fisher. A friend of his, a forensics officer, Kathleen (Lowe), helps with his fictional pathology, and soon Chris is seeing Dr Fisher as well. And through his visits, he meets Coulson, and the two strike up an initially uneasy friendship. Soon they are both seeing another therapist, Dr Morland (McGivern), and Coulson starts behaving strangely, accusing Morland of having an alternative and sinister reason for treating them both. And soon, Coulson’s paranoia begins to show itself in Chris’s behaviour as well…

Up to a point, fans of psychological thrillers and intriguing mysteries will be kept enthralled by Gareth Tunley’s debut feature as writer/director. There’s not much precedent in British detective fiction or movies for a detective to go undercover as a patient needing psychotherapy in order to find out if a potential witness is also complicit in a crime. But it’s not until much later that Tunley reveals the reason why Chris does this and why the few people around him – Jim, Kathleen – don’t have any objections to the idea, or think it’s a strange way of tracking down a man who can help them with their enquiries. The average viewer may well find this approach to be dramatically unsound, but Tunley is more interested in making the viewer question Chris’s state of mind rather than his investigative methods (though both are linked). But then there’s that point mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph, and once the movie reaches that moment, it takes a turn that encourages bafflement and bewilderment, and quite deliberately.

At a session with Dr Fisher, Chris reveals that he sometimes daydreams about being a detective. In his head he’s created characters from people he knows, such as Kathleen, who in reality (or so it seems) is a teacher and not a forensics officer. It’s at this point that the movie mutates from being a dour, unconventional police procedural into an unsettling excursion into the mind of a man who may not be a police detective at all, and who may just be someone in need of help in dealing with manic depression or hallucinatory episodes or an inability to distinguish fantasy from reality. Chris also says he knows his daydreams aren’t real – but are they? That’s the question the movie wants the viewer to be asking themselves, and as it moves further and further into a world that offers few concrete answers, the movie becomes less of a thriller and more of an ominous horror movie.

Thanks to a non-linear narrative, and Tunley’s decision to include several moments where time and memory become disjointed, Chris’s investigation begins to unravel and fall apart. And so does Chris. He becomes more and more insular, saying less and less and bowing his head as if trying to hide. Soon the viewer will have to decide which narrative strand is the real one: Chris as a police officer, or Chris as an ordinary man suffering from depression (who thinks he’s a police officer). There are clues as to which strand is the correct one, and the inclusion of visual motifs such as a Klein bottle, and an ouroboros, provide strong evidence for what’s happening over all, but Tunley does his best to keep everything blurred and out of focus, both for Chris and the viewer. That he doesn’t succeed entirely is due to the number of aforementioned clues, several of which spell things out quite clearly, and a need to shoehorn Chris into the events of the last ten minutes where his fate is revealed and the tension is amped up considerably.

Tunley invokes a stylish mix of visuals, with avant-garde imagery jostling side by side with gothic expressionism and a dash of magical realism. It’s a heady concoction, prone to lapsing into the kind of fractured, portentous imagery that wouldn’t look out of place in a found-footage movie (where the camera is in the hands of someone who’s running with it). There’s also a subdued Twilight Zone kind of vibe to the material, with Chris heading for the kind of uncomfortable denouement that will see him revealed as a pawn in a much larger game. The character is played in a brooding, melancholic, and abstract manner by Meeten, a performance that is largely internalised, but which still allows Chris’s pain to reveal itself. Meeten is like a forlorn, lonely ghost, one that seeks the company of the living but then doesn’t know how to connect with them. Meeten’s performance is a massive plus for the movie, and Tunley exploits his star’s morbidly depressed approach to Chris in a way that reveals often contradictory mannerisms that help support both notions surrounding the truth of his situation. He’s ably supported by the likes of Lowe and McGivern, and there’s a bitter poignancy to Chris’s scenes with Kathleen that works extremely well in grounding the character’s otherwise wayward emotions and feelings.

Rating: 8/10 – though not a movie for everyone, and one that could be accused of creating an artificial mood throughout, The Ghoul is nevertheless an intriguing if overly bleak treatise on the nature of mental illness as a doorway to a different reality; Tunley directs with a confidence that allows the narrative to play out in its own way and time (much like Chris’s fate), and to keep the viewer from becoming too comfortable – much like Chris himself, who thanks to Meeten, remains an unlikely, yet memorable movie creation.

Una (2016)

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D: Benedict Andrews / 90m

Cast: Rooney Mara, Ben Mendelsohn, Riz Ahmed, Ruby Stokes, Tara Fitzgerald, Natasha Little, Tobias Menzies

Very occasionally a movie comes along that makes you question why it was made, or maybe what message it was trying to get across. Such a movie makes the viewer question the validity or the purpose of its existence. Sometimes it’s because the movie is lacking in several important areas, such as acting, or being competently directed. At other times it could be down to the script, or the way the movie has been shot; it could even be all four reasons at once. If it’s an adaptation of an existing novel or play or television series, or something similar, then sometimes it’s all about whether or not the movie is faithful to the original, or whether the adaptation works on its own merits.  And sometimes it’s purely because the movie itself is just plain bad, on every level.

Una isn’t bad on every level, but it is a movie that makes the viewer question why they’re watching it, while they’re watching it. Adapted from the stage play, Blackbird by David Harrower, Una is about the titular character (Mara) and her ex-neighbour, Ray (Mendelsohn), who seduced her when she was thirteen. It’s about the consequences and the ramifications of that illicit, and illegal, relationship, and the ways that it has affected both characters in the fifteen years since. Una has remained single, and still lives in her childhood home with her mother (Fitzgerald). We learn little about her except that she has sex with men she doesn’t know in night clubs, and that her relationship with her mother is fragile, partly because her mother isn’t well, and partly because of what happened fifteen years ago. One day she skips work and heads to a large warehouse where she asks to see Ray. Ray, it turns out, is now called Pete, and is a manager at the warehouse. He steers Una into a break room, and clearly unnerved by her arrival, asks her what she wants.

What Una wants, we discover, is very simple: she wants to know why he left her all those years ago, when they were on the verge of eloping to Europe. The answer proves not to be as clear-cut as we, or Una, might expect, but before we learn what that answer is, Ray’s attendance at a meeting leads to uproar amongst the workforce, and Ray having to hide from everyone. He and Una stay one step ahead of everyone else, including Scott (Ahmed), one of Ray’s co-workers, and senior management honcho, Mark (Menzies). As Ray waits for everyone to leave, he and Una talk about their relationship, what it meant for both of them at the time, and what it means for them now. Ray served four years in jail, and has since gotten married, and found a stable way of living his life. Una has no such stability, only the same house she’s lived in her whole life, and in a neighbourhood where everyone knows her and knows what happened to her.

What follows should be absorbing and fascinating at the same time, as both Una and Ray reflect on events from their past, and the feelings they each had at the time. Inevitably, it takes their combined memories to provide the truth of what happened at the end for both of them; whether this will be enough for Una is a different matter. Suffice it to say, it isn’t, and the movie insists on making the same points in slightly different ways, until it heads off into the night with no clearer idea of where it’s going than Una has of what she’s going to do next. What she does do next depends entirely on the kindness of Scott, and leads to a contrived ending that takes the movie out of the realm of psychological drama and into the realm of unvarnished melodrama. But while the last third of the movie is unsatisfying and unrewarding, and relies on the good will of Harrower’s screenplay to move its characters from Point A to Point B, the cracks in said screenplay start appearing much earlier on.

Whatever the merits of the stage production (and it did win the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play in 2007), this new screen adaptation somehow manages to highlight a number of faults with the overall scenario that perhaps aren’t as noticeable under the proscenium arch. The reason for Una being at the warehouse, ostensibly to ask Ray why he left her, lacks conviction precisely because of the period of time that has elapsed. Harrower’s script never seeks to answer the question why this is still so important to her. Does she want to pick up where they left off? Does she still love Ray? Is her visit less about slaying the demons from her past, and more about breathing new life into them? These questions remain unexplored as the movie clatters along spewing out platitudes and clichés on both sides, with Ray bemoaning his time in prison, and Una blaming her father’s death on Ray’s predatory sexual behaviour. It also tries to show Una as being complicit in their affair, as if this is some kind of mitigating circumstance for what happened. The aim here may have been to make the issue more complex, but a paedophile is a paedophile, and what happened remains inexcusable.

Alas, very little of what is brought up is relatable or convincing, and with Una’s motives remaining obscure and possibly ill-considered throughout, the movie struggles to make us care what happened to her (which is concerning in itself). Mara gives a very good performance as the emotionally disturbed Una, but remains a figure we can’t relate to very well. Mendelsohn, however, is better served by the script, and makes Ray an untrustworthy character from the start. He lies to everyone, and probably about everything, and he’s good at it. Mendelsohn makes Ray self-serving and arrogant, and he rarely says anything important without thinking about it first. Ray may now be called Pete, and he may have a new life, but he’s still Ray, and with all that that entails. In bringing Una to the screen, theatre director Andrews makes his feature debut, but rarely seems comfortable in exploring the medium effectively. Within the warehouse, its crisp, clean lines and polished surfaces act as a stringent counterpoint to the raw emotions being mauled over in the break room (and a store cupboard and the ladies’ – of course), while the ending, which seems designed to leave the audience feeling appalled and shocked, plays out awkwardly and with scant regard for its backdrop.

Rating: 6/10 – a psychological drama that’s been given an arthouse makeover by its director, Una looks and feels austere, and lacks the passion to be truly effective as a movie about the lingering effects of child abuse; Mara and Mendelsohn make a good pairing but are unable to compensate for the wayward structure imposed on the material, and the script’s attempts at complexity inhibit the material even further, making it feel sterile rather than impassioned.

Operator (2016)

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D: Logan Kibens / 91m

Cast: Martin Starr, Mae Whitman, Nat Faxon, Cameron Esposito, Christine Lahti, Kris D. Lofton, Kate Cobb, Retta

One of modern society’s worst innovations is the automated answering service. You know the drill: you call a company or an organisation and you have to listen to a list of seemingly endless options before being connected to a real live human being. Or worse still, there isn’t a live human being at the end of it at all, as the automated system seeks to wrangle you into fitting your square problem into their round solution. And all the while reminding you that your call is important to the company or organisation that doesn’t want to speak to you in the first place. This technological misstep is at the heart of first-time writer/director/editor Logan Kibens’ Operator, but instead of challenging the system as it exists currently, Kibens is more interested in exploring the idea that an artificial creation can replace a human being on a relationship level.

The movie’s central protagonist is a computer programmer called Joe Larsen (Starr). The company Joe works for is in the doghouse over an automated answering service they’ve created for Welltrix, a medical health organisation. Feedback from customers points to the service, and in particular the choice of phrasing used by the “operator”, as being too clinical and lacking in warmth and sympathy. Charged with finding a voice that is more empathetic (and given a week to do so), Joe hits on the idea of using his wife’s. For Joe, his wife Emily (Whitman), is the perfect candidate: she works as a concierge at a hotel and has a calm, likeable manner that even the most annoyed or angry customer is assuaged by. Emily agrees to help out and she provides Joe and his colleagues with valuable insights into the sorts of things that people like to hear in difficult or challenging circumstances. But when the client likes what they hear and gives the go ahead for Joe’s company to roll out a full programme, Emily’s voice work and successful audition with an experimental theatre group, the Neo-Futurists, causes Joe to grow anxious about the future of their relationship.

His anxiety is exacerbated by his mother, Beth (Lahti), being diagnosed with Addison’s disease, and Emily’s success with the Neo-Futurists. Their individual workloads sees them spending less and less time together, and Joe’s reliance on Emily to ease his panic attacks and feelings of helplessness sees him connecting more and more with the answering system version of Emily than with Emily herself. Able to listen to soothing phrases such as “I’m with you” whenever he needs to, Joe begins to distance himself from Emily, and she in turn becomes unhappy with his growing need to speak and listen to a recorded version of her that, as she puts it, “isn’t her”. But Joe refuses to listen to his real wife and continues to fixate on what he reasons is the ideal version of her. And when Emily vents some of her frustration at the situation through her theatre work – even though she’d promised Joe she’d never use their life together as part of the show – Joe’s inability to understand her feelings and forgive her leads to their splitting up, and Joe becoming more and more fixated on her “replacement”.

Our interaction with others, whether personal, professional, occasional, or unexpected, is a fundamental part of our social awareness, and the way in which we communicate says a lot about our personalities and our view of the world. However, it’s unlikely that many people would obsess about an ersatz person in the way that Joe does, so what Kibens has to do in her script, and which is unfortunate in the way it is presented and in how it develops, is to give Joe a mental health issue right from the start. Joe doesn’t just have crippling anxiety attacks, he’s unable to connect with people in the same way that the original version of the answering service was. He lacks empathy, and talks about regular hopes and fears about relationships – and particularly as expressed by his boss, Gregg (Faxon) – in terms that a research psychologist would understand, but dismissively as well, as if the “data” he’s presenting is obvious. With this in place it’s hard to understand just how Joe and Emily got together in the first place, let alone got married.

By making Joe such an aloof figure – and as the movie progresses he becomes increasingly and disturbingly more insular and emotionally distant – the movie also finds itself struggling to keep him on the right side of sympathetic. That it doesn’t is due to the corner it paints itself into thanks to his obsession, which seems cruel and unnecessarily vindictive. Viewers won’t be surprised by how the movie resolves the breakdown of Joe and Emily’s marriage, as the manner of its resolution is signposted in great big neon letters quite early on, and when it happens it happens just as awkwardly as many other scenes play out. As Joe, Starr tries to play him as both a wide-eyed innocent and an inconsiderate, self-absorbed asshole, but never manages to connect the two successfully, although Joe’s dead-eye stare is impressive by itself. Like Whitman, he’s hampered by the vagaries of Kibens’ screenplay and its lack of dramatic focus, as when Joe’s obsession with the fake Emily is transposed into an addiction that sees him staggering along the street begging strangers to use their mobile phones.

There’s the germ of a good idea here, but Kibens’ lack of experience shows through all too often, and she’s unable to smooth over the cracks that pepper her screenplay. Starr and Whitman make for a nice couple, and their early scenes together have a lightness of touch that’s appropriate for what looks set to be a romantic comedy, but when things become darker, Kibens’ direction becomes less convincing. At this stage, the change in tone may put off some viewers, but with Kibens trying and failing to make clever statements about technology and our dependency on it, and its invasive nature, it becomes a moot point altogether. Add a tired storyline that centres around Gregg’s getting fit to impress an ex-girlfriend who’s now a lesbian, and the inclusion of Joe’s mother falling ill (which leads nowhere other than to explain why Joe is the way he is), and you have a movie that appears to have a lot going on, but which on closer inspection, doesn’t really amount to much.

Rating: 5/10 – a tighter and more focused script would have allowed Operator to make more cogent points about our dependency on modern technology, but Kibens doesn’t have as sure a handle on things as she needs; more confident in its humour than its drama, the movie is bolstered by a charming score by Sage Lewis, and Esposito’s turn as a Neo-Futurist with a severe haircut and bags of attitude, but even with these positives to help it along, it’s a movie that stutters too much in its execution to prove as rewarding as it should.

The Beguiled (2017)

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D: Sofia Coppola / 94m

Cast: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, Addison Riecke, Emma Howard

Remakes are ten-a-penny these days, with movie makers deciding that familiarity will attract more moviegoers than not, and if the original movie is one that is fairly well known and/or regarded (and even better, financially successful), then it makes it easier to justify revisiting said original. But it’s unlikely that anyone was clamouring for a remake of Don Siegel’s minor classic The Beguiled (1971), a movie that bombed on its initial release but which has gained a sterling reputation since then. However, on the advice of production designer Anne Rose, writer/director Sofia Coppola watched Siegel’s version and began thinking of ways in which she could update the movie for modern audiences. The result is a movie that is atmospheric, sophisticated, beautifully shot, and yet curiously distant in its evocation of female desires.

As with the 1971 version, Coppola has adapted the novel A Painted Devil by Thomas P. Cullinan. In it a Union Army corporal named John McBurney (Farrell) suffers a serious leg wound during battle and manages to get away from the fighting. He makes it to some nearby woods where he is discovered by a young girl, Amy (Laurence). She helps him up and takes him to the girls school where she resides along with the school’s owner (and teacher), Miss Martha Farnsworth (Kidman), another teacher, Miss Edwina Morrow (Dunst), a teenage girl called Alicia (Fanning), and three other young girls, Jane (Rice), Emily (Howard), and Marie (Riecke). McBurney’s arrival causes consternation and divided opinions amongst the staff and the pupils, with some of them insisting he be turned over to the Confederate Army as a prisoner of war, and others insisting that he be allowed to stay and at least recover from his wound. In the end, Miss Farnsworth decides that he can stay until his leg has healed.

McBurney’s presence gives rise to his being the recipient of overly attentive behaviour from the women and the children alike. Miss Farnsworth tends to his leg, while Miss Morrow hovers around offering assistance at every opportunity. Alicia too is in close attendance, and the rest of the girls all take an exaggerated interest in McBurney’s well-being. As his leg improves he begins to move around the school, and shows an interest in the garden, which he helps to maintain. He begins to spend more time with Miss Morrow, and eventually professes his love for her. They arrange to meet in her room late one night after everyone has gone to bed, but when McBurney fails to turn up, Miss Morrow goes to his room and finds it empty. And then she hears noises coming from another room…

Where the 1971 version traded on a more fervid atmosphere in order to tell its tale, this version remains an austere and measured accomplishment, with Coppola giving limited expression to any desires held by the female characters. While it’s a given that Miss Farnsworth and Miss Morrow would strive to remain aloof in relation to the presence of a wounded yet otherwise virile soldier, and for the perceived sake of the children in their care, thanks to the precise nature of Coppola’s screenplay, their being aloof hampers the effectiveness of the emotional outbursts that occur as the movie progresses. These outbursts are generally well handled by the cast, but in dramatic terms they don’t have the impact needed to make the viewer sympathise with the characters involved, and even though McBurney suffers more than an injured leg, what should be a moment of horror – both for McBurney’s discovery of what’s happened to him, and the ease with which his suffering is agreed upon and carried out – is let down by the restrained melodrama that precedes it.

This distancing between the viewer and the characters has a strange effect on the story and how it plays out. In many respects, and by making the directorial decisions that she’s made, Coppola has taken Cullinan’s novel and decided to explore it from a female perspective. And usually, this would be all well and good. But Coppola, rather than hold to the idea that repressed sexual tension should be the catalyst for the events that follow McBurney’s arrival at the school, instead makes it all to do with a failing of manners and etiquette on the soldier’s part. This may not be the most obvious reading of the story, and it may not have been Coppola’s main intention in telling the story, but nevertheless, what comes across is a tale of one man’s refusal to accept implicitly the hospitality he has been given, and the consequences of taking that refusal to “behave” too far. When McBurney is seeking to fit in, and to reward his convalescence by helping in the garden, he’s a favoured “guest”. Once his true motives are revealed, his benefactors become his gaolers and his transgressions must be paid for. It’s Old Testament retribution wrapped up in New Testament flummery, but determined by an arch, emotional rigidity of manner that suits Coppola’s arthouse style of movie making but which does a cruel disservice to the material.

The issue of passion in Coppola’s remains unaddressed by the director herself, and though she elicits good performances from all concerned, the somewhat stuffy dialogue and repressive mood often defeats the cast’s attempts to break free of their acting “chains”. Farrell gets a chance to rage out, but against the restrained nature of the residents of Martha Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies it’s like witnessing a sudden downpour on any otherwise brilliantly sunny day. The movie does, however, look wondrous, with exquisitely composed exterior shots (moss has rarely looked this beautiful) and tastefully lit interiors that hint of secrets hidden just out of frame. Against the backdrop of the US Civil War, there’s a pleasing sense of deliberate isolationism that may or may not be a reflection on modern US politics, and Coppola wisely exploits the notion of being careful of what you wish for, and on both sides of the gender divide. But all in all, there’s less here than meets the eye, and for that, one shouldn’t be too surprised.

Rating: 7/10 – though Coppola has deliberately dialled down the “hothouse” nature of Don Siegel’s original, The Beguiled lacks for enough passion to make the young ladies of the seminary, and their teachers’ emotional dilemmas, entirely believable; as a thriller it has its moments, and as a drama it’s riveting enough to get by, but technical achievements aside, it’s another movie where Coppola somehow manages to disengage herself from the material too often to provide viewers with a movie that retains an emotional through line.

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

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D: Matt Reeves / 140m

Cast: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Amiah Miller, Terry Notary, Ty Olsson, Michael Adamthwaite, Toby Kebbell, Gabriel Chavarria, Judy Greer

With so many franchise trilogies out there at the moment, and with so many of them failing to maintain a consistent level of quality across all three movies, what are the odds that a series based on a previous five-movie saga – which went from genre classic to tired afterthought – would prove to be the trilogy that bucked the trend and have the most impact? For such is the case thanks to War for the Planet of the Apes, the final entry in a trilogy that has been consistently impressive from start to finish, and which has raised the bar significantly in terms of motion capture performances.

The success of the series can be attributed to the seriousness, and the sense of purpose with which each entry has been approached. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) introduced us to a world where the potential of apes superseding humans was a tantalising prospect. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) took us deeper into that world and showed how intolerance and distrust on both sides could be exploited by personal agendas. And in War for the Planet of the Apes we see the inevitable consequences that arise from attempting to avoid a future that has been predestined ever since Will Rodman created ALZ 112. The whole trilogy has been a triumph of storytelling and characterisation, and thanks to the efforts of everyone involved, has ended on such a high note that if Chernin Entertainment and 20th Century Fox do decide to continue the saga (as seems to be the plan) then they will have a massive job on their hands to equal or improve upon what’s gone before.

Since the events of Dawn… Caesar (Serkis) and his tribe have retreated further into California’s Muir Woods, but their hope for a peaceful, undisturbed existence is short-lived. A paramilitary group called Alpha-Omega has tracked them down. The group launches an attack on the apes’ home, but are repelled. Caesar spares the lives of four men, and tells them to report back to their leader, Colonel McCullough (Harrelson), that he hasn’t started this war, and he just wants his tribe to be left alone. Later, the soldiers return at night, and this time the apes suffer greater casualties than before. Caesar, determined to put an end to these endless skirmishes once and for all, decides to find the colonel and kill him. He intends to go alone, but his chief advisor, orang-utan Maurice (Konoval), gorilla Luca (Adamthwaite), and chimpanzee Rocket (Notary), all follow after him. Caesar allows them to accompany him, and while the rest of the tribe journey in search of a new home, the quartet travel to the “border” where the colonel has his base. Along the way, they encounter the daughter of a soldier, Nova (Miller), who cannot speak; Maurice insists that she continue on with them. Further on they meet Bad Ape (Zahn), a chimpanzee who helps them locate McCullough’s compound.

By this stage of the movie, many viewers may feel that they know what will happen next, and how, but one of the strengths of Mark Bomback and Matt Reeves’ script is its willingness to take the material into much darker territory than anyone might expect. To this end, Caesar undergoes both a crisis of faith and an apotheosis, and the moral certainties and imperatives that govern the actions and motives of both Caesar and McCullough are thrown into sharp relief by the similarities they exhibit. Although nominally the movie’s villain, and despite his resemblance to Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now (1979), McCullough isn’t the cut-and-dried bad guy that he first appears to be. Driven by the same fears of species annihilation that occupy Caesar, McCullough has glimpsed humanity’s future and the sight has scared him badly. Operating out of fear and a desperate sense of protectionism, the colonel behaves in ways that are both understandable and reprehensible, and it’s this dichotomy that makes the character such a good adversary for Caesar.

For his part, Caesar is still trying to deal with the ramifications of his killing Koba (Kebbell), and what that might imply in terms of his ability to lead his tribe. This element of self-doubt, itself riffing off the precept that “ape shall not kill ape”, adds further depth to a character who has always challenged the assumption that the apes’ fate is pre-determined. As time has gone by and his goal of peaceful assimilation has been repeatedly derailed by human intransigence, Caesar has become all too aware that mutual annihilation may be the eventual outcome of the apes’ struggle with their human counterparts. He knows that killing McCullough is necessary but finds that it’s not as simple as he thought it would be, partly because of the nature of the colonel’s compound (where apes are used as slave labour), and partly because he can’t fully excuse some of his own behaviour (which he sees reflected in McCullough’s actions).

The movie also deals with issues of social exclusion, both ape and human, and has a political edge that adds further realism to what is essentially a fantasy-based parable of human folly on a grand scale. There are succinct parallels to modern-day events happening in the real world that make it seem as if Bomback and Reeves have a prophetic ability that the movie can capitalise on, while for those who want to explore the idea, there’s the possibility that the apes represent another tribe searching for a place to settle in peace. All this aside, War… is further strengthened by a tremendous central performance by Serkis as Caesar. It’s been mentioned elsewhere, but Serkis’s performance is so powerful and so emotionally layered that if he’s not nominated for any acting trophies come awards season, then maybe a boycott is in order. Without Serkis, there’s little doubt that the trilogy would not have been as impressive and as compelling as it is. We’ve watched the character evolve over the course of three increasingly remarkable movies, and Serkis’s equally remarkable achievement deserves appropriate recognition.

Rating: 9/10 – a superb example of how to end a trilogy by not deviating from the path originally set out in the first movie, and by not sanitising it in any way, War for the Planet of the Apes is intelligent, emotive and complex movie making that wears its confidence on its sleeve as a badge of merit; featuring breathtaking cinematography by Michael Seresin (who was for a long time the go-to DoP for Alan Parker), expertly choreographed action sequences, clever references to the original Planet of the Apes movies, and by turns, a charged, stirring and poignant score courtesy of Michael Giacchino, this is easily one of the best movies of 2017 – paws down.

The House (2017)

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D: Andrew Jay Cohen / 88m

Cast: Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler, Jason Mantzoukas, Ryan Simpkins, Nick Kroll, Allison Tolman, Rob Huebel, Cedric Yarbrough, Michaela Watkins, Jeremy Renner

Okay, let’s get this out of the way at the start: The House is not a great movie, and this isn’t going to be a review that attempts to rehabilitate it in the eyes of audiences who have been less than won over by its occasional charms. This is also not a review that will attempt to fly in the face of critical opinion. To repeat, The House is not a great movie. But it is a movie that does what a lot of other modern comedies do, and that is that it operates in a kind of alternative reality where the accepted rules are cast aside, and things happen randomly without any pause for credibility or even clarity. It’s an alternative reality that allows movie makers to ignore certain precepts and create scenarios that would have no credence in the real world, but which are ideal for the manufactured world they’re creating. In short, it’s an alternative reality that creates its own rules (and sometimes, as it goes along).

The clues are there right from the start. This is a movie about a married couple, Scott and Kate Johansen (Ferrell, Poehler), who have somehow managed to produce a child, Alex (Simpkins), who is brighter, smarter, and more aware of the world than they will ever be. Scott is another patented Ferrell man-child, someone who manages to hold down a company job while also being a complete idiot. Poehler is the eternally confused wife for whom everything is too complex, and who struggles to keep track of everything going on in her life. (How they ever managed to conceive a child, let alone raise her to be so independent and intelligent is a question the movie never asks, but it’s in keeping with the nature of the world they inhabit.) They live in the kind of nice, well appointed house that all middle-class American citizens inhabit (in the movies at least), and have a fairly good standing in their local neighbourhood. They’re nice, averagely average, and without a speck of original thinking between them.

When Alex’s college place is threatened by the loss of an expected scholarship, her parents descend immediately into meltdown territory. They can’t afford to pay for it themselves, so they do what every sensible, right-thinking couple would do: on the advice of their gambling addict friend, Frank (Mantzoukas), they open an underground casino in Frank’s house. It’s all entirely illegal, they have no clue what they’re doing, but the money comes rolling in from friends and neighbours who all seem completely okay with gambling and losing their hard-earned money in such a cavalier manner (there’s obviously a lot of money in suburbia – who knew? – as the same people turn up every night). As always happens in these kinds of scenarios, the casino is a huge success, and soon Frank has expanded the operation to include a pool, a massage room, and a strip club (hey, it’s a big house).

All this activity starts to attract the attention of dastardly councilman, Bob Schaeffer (Kroll), who recruits the only policeman in town, Officer Chandler (Huebel), to find out where everyone is going at night when they should be at town council meetings. Meanwhile, Scott and Kate have taken to acting cool and looking ridiculous as they confuse looking like casino owners with looking like pimps from the Eighties. And when Frank catches someone cheating at one of the tables, it leads to Scott chopping off one of the guy’s fingers, which allows the movie to invalidate the laws of blood loss by having Scott covered in enough plasma for two people while the unlucky gambler remains as rosy-cheeked as before. Cue the police? Cue Ferrell in orange prison attire? No, wait, he’s done that before, in Get Hard (2015). No, this being an alternative reality, the unlucky gambler is allowed to leave but not before promising reprisals from his criminal boss.

At this point, the movie is primed to put Scott and Kate through the wringer, and sure enough, Schaeffer confiscates the money they’ve made so far (none of which has gone to pay for Alex’s scholarship), and the unlucky gambler’s boss (Renner) turns up to kidnap Alex for ransom. There’s more, and it’s just as absurd and ridiculous as Scott being known as the Butcher for chopping a guy’s finger off (hey, there’s no such thing as bad publicity). But by now it’s all completely and utterly irrelevant. The script is prepared to lurch in any direction it sees fit in its efforts to wring laughs out of its low-concept premise, and just when you think the world all this takes place in can’t possibly take one more hit of absurdity without collapsing in on itself, it rallies round and adds yet more nonsensical moments to the mix. If you take a step back and look at it all objectively, you can’t help but admire the effort that’s been put into making a movie that has such an obvious disregard for plausibility, and which is saying, loudly, this is what it is, so either deal with it or go home.

With all that in mind, a movie can be as crazy and subversive and wacky and as deliberately dumb-ass as it wants to be, but if it’s a comedy then it has to be funny. No amount of alternative reality building can compensate for a comedy that doesn’t raise the requisite number of laughs, and though it has its moments, The House is just not that funny. Partly because Ferrell and Poehler are rehashing the same schtick we’ve seen them do too many times elsewhere, and partly because Cohen (making his debut as a director), doesn’t have the skill to make the most of those scenes where laughter should be automatic and not haplessly manufactured. The fantasy world that Cohen and co-writer Brendan O’Brien have created should have given them enough ideas to pepper the script with enough one-liners, comical confrontations and physical gags to make this a laugh riot. Alas, there are too many dead spots, the performances are middling to bland (except for Mantzoukas and Huebel, who rescue the scenes they’re in by sheer dint of effort), and any attempts at consistent characterisation are, predictably, undermined by the demands of the script (which change every few scenes).

Rating: 4/10 – for viewers prepared to go along with its absurdist reality, The House is still a doubtful prospect in terms of getting a good return on your investment; brash and loud and with a clumsy approach to its basic premise, it’s a movie that squanders a lot of opportunities to be better than it is, and which shows that even in an alternative reality, it’s structure that’s really the key ingredient.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

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D: Luc Besson / 137m

Cast: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu, Sam Spruell, Alain Chabat, John Goodman, Elizabeth Debicki, Rutger Hauer

There’s a phrase, “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts”, that needs an update. It should now read, “Beware of French movie directors making vanity projects”. A project that’s been on his mind to make since The Fifth Element (1997), Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets arrives trailing a cosmos-worth of hype and anticipation, but somehow manages to land with a massive, resounding thud. This is a movie that looks continuously busy, but at the same time it feels like it’s leaden and ponderous. It’s another loud barrage of a sci-fi movie driven by mounds of uninteresting exposition, and supported by empty visuals that look amazing but offer as much refreshment as an empty bottle of water. It’s a mess, and one that never lets up in its efforts to impress you with its meticulously detailed sets and costumes, and its tired characterisations. There’s a love story too, between two charismatic military operatives, Valerian (DeHaan) and Laureline (Delevingne), that offers occasional and all too brief periods of respite from the CGI onslaught, and which feels as organic as the pixelated backgrounds it plays in front of. And there’s a villain, one so obvious that they might as well stomp around yelling, “I’m the bad guy!” (in case the viewer isn’t sure).

There’s more, lots more, lots and lots and lots of it, with Besson aiming to include a veritable kitchen sink’s worth of alien species, high-tech weaponry, dazzling backdrops, vibrant colours, impressive make up designs, and specious action scenes. There’s a story in there too – somewhere – but it’s overwhelmed by the movie’s need to keep moving from one breakneck-paced scene to another. There are long stretches where the viewer might find themselves wondering if they’ve transitioned into watching the video game version of Valerian… and other stretches where they might also be wondering if Besson actually knows what’s supposed to happen next. Too often, things happen for no better reason than that Besson wants them to, and the pacing seems relentless, as the writer/director flings his lead characters into danger after danger, but without once actually putting them in danger.

The cast suffer almost as often and as much as the viewer. As the titular hero, DeHaan tackles the role with enthusiasm and a fair degree of commitment, but is hampered by Besson’s decision to make Valerian look and sound like a high school kid on his first day at an entry-level job. DeHaan is a talented actor but fantasy sci-fi is not his forte, and he rarely seems comfortable with all the running and leaping about and firing guns. Delevingne, meanwhile, appears to be far more in tune with Besson’s ambitions for the movie, and her knowing, unimpressed demeanour works well for the character, and acts as a subtle commentary on the movie as a whole. But too often, Laureline has to play second fiddle to Valerian, an unhappy circumstance that gives rise to the idea that in the 28th century, sexism still hasn’t been consigned to the dustbin of history.

There’s a great supporting cast, too, used to occasional good effect, but too often required to stand around waiting for the next clunking shift in the storyline to get them moving again. Owen’s character is an angry clown in a self-consciously big hat, Rihanna is a shapeshifting cabaret artist whose admittedly enjoyable stage routine still stops the movie dead in its tracks, Hawke (as Jolly the Pimp no less!) seems to be acting in another movie altogether, while Hauer gets off lightly with a Presidential address at the start of the movie that has all the hallmarks of being a favour to the director. Only Spruell as an harassed general seems to have grasped Besson’s intentions for his character, and as a result, his appearances are a godsend.

In case you’re wondering if there’s anything remotely good about Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, then rest assured there is, but unfortunately it’s all packed into the first fifteen to twenty minutes. Here we see the International Space Station grow in size as several countries from Earth send representatives in space vehicles that attach themselves to the station. As time goes by, alien life-forms also visit the station, and the same welcoming rituals are observed: a handshake, a bemused smile/grimace from the human in charge, and a succession of impressively realised aliens who seemed equally bemused by the idea of said handshake. As more and more ships arrive and attach themselves, the space station becomes – ta-da! – Alpha, the city of a thousand planets. It’s a terrific idea, well executed, and bodes well for the rest of the movie. Things look even better when the narrative shifts to the planet Mül, and we’re introduced to the race that live there, a peaceful, pearl-cultivating civilisation that becomes central to the plot later on (as expected), and which is apparently wiped out by events happening nearby in space. But with that prologue out of the way, we’re thrust thirty years on and forced to put up with the romantic aspirations of Valerian, and the machinations of a plot that serves as a second cousin retread of Besson’s earlier work on The Fifth Element (watch that movie now and you’ll see how inter-connected they are).

When a director announces that they’re finally going to make a long-cherished project, and one that they’ve delayed making due to the limitations of existing technology, it should be a cause for celebration. After all, it wouldn’t be wrong to believe that as they have such a passion for the project, that they’d make every effort to ensure the finished product was a vast cut above their other movies, the pinnacle of their career perhaps. But somewhere along the way, Besson has settled for making a movie that is plodding and uninspired. Scenes and characters come and go without making the slightest impact, and Besson makes the same basic error that so many other fantasy/sci-fi directors make: they mistake a distinct visual style for substance. This leaves Valerian… feeling like it’s only half the movie Besson envisaged, and with a generic genre score by the usually reliable Alexandre Desplat to add to the misery, this is a strong contender for Most Disappointing Movie of 2017.

Rating: 4/10 – technical wizardry aside, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is an unabashed dud, content to make as little effort as possible, and trading on its writer/director’s past glories; with its €197 million budget making it the most expensive European and independent movie ever made, it’s a shame that all that money has been used to such undemanding and underwhelming effect.

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

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D: Jon Watts / 133m

Cast: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr, Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau, Gwyneth Paltrow, Zendaya, Donald Glover, Jacob Batalon, Laura Harrier, Tony Revolori, Bokeem Woodbine, Michael Chernus, Logan Marshall-Green, Tyne Daly, Hannibal Buress, Jennifer Connelly

What must it have been like back at the tail end of 2014 and the start of 2015 if you were “in the know” at Sony Pictures and Marvel Studios, and were aware of what was about to happen to everyone’s favourite neighbourhood web-slinger? How exciting must that have been? If you were a fan of Spider-Man, just the anticipation that he might be coming to the Marvel Cinematic Universe was enough to send you into a giddy spell of mega proportions. And then to find out that not only was there going to be a new Spider-Man movie designed to bring him into the MCU, but that he was also going to make his first appearance in another movie within that Universe – well, it was like having Xmas every day (if you were a fan). And then to have that early appearance, in Captain America: Civil War (2016) no less, and for him to steal the movie – well, that was like having the best ice cream in the whole wide world, and with sprinkles on (but again, if you were a fan).

But what if you’re not a fan? What if the very idea of another Spider-Man reboot (the third in fifteen years) has all the attraction of a Liam Hemsworth movie? What if the idea of all that ice cream, with sprinkles on, holds no attraction at all? Well, if that’s the case then be assured: this is a Spider-Man movie that even non-fans can enjoy. And why? That’s the clever part. This is the first Spider-Man movie where the whole notion of “with great power comes great responsibility” is sidelined in favour of seeing Peter Parker struggle with the basics, and not some overwhelming sense of guilt over the death of his uncle, or his parents, or Mary Jane Watson (or even Norman Osborn). This is the first Spider-Man movie where the makers have done away with the more traditional origin story, and instead have got things started by accepting that we all know the story by now; so why bother? Why not just get on with it?

Which is exactly what happens, but cannily, not before a trip back to 2012 and the aftermath of the Battle of New York. There’s Chitauri technology all over the place, and salvage contractor Adrian Toombes (Keaton) has spotted a way of exploiting it in order to make a lot of money. But no sooner has he thought of it than he’s shut down by the US Department of Damage Control and forced to continue his plan to make weapons in secret. And before long, that plan is coming to fruition. Fast forward five years and high school student Peter Parker (Holland) still can’t believe he was involved in the airport scrap that took place in Berlin between Team Captain America and Team Iron Man. Still buzzing, Peter believes his involvement in that fight means he’s a member of the Avengers team, but Tony Stark (Downey Jr) has other ideas, and does his best to mentor Peter from a distance. But Peter is irrepressible (and naïve), and his determination to show Stark what he’s capable of inevitably backfires. When he inadvertently takes on some of the men that work for Toombes, it brings him to the attention of Toombes’ alter ego, The Vulture.

Peter decides it’s his mission to stop The Vulture from building and selling any more Chitauri-based weaponry, and one (future) classic scene where Peter and Toombes realise each other’s secret identities aside, the movie follows a predictable pattern before the inevitable superhero v supervillain showdown. But what makes the movie so charming and so enjoyable is both its backdrop and its setting: Peter’s first year in high school and all the trials and tribulations that follow in the wake of that teenage milestone. Already described as a superhero movie by way of John Hughes, Spider-Man’s first solo outing in the MCU paints a much more believable portrait of Peter Parker than we’ve seen in the previous five movies. By keeping Peter at the age he was when he developed his powers in the comics, Marvel have actually managed to breathe new life into the character and make him seem fresh and relevant, rather than  an angst-ridden science nerd with literally no friends. Here, Tom Holland’s incarnation is bright, overly enthusiastic, and immensely likeable (just like the movie). Holland perfectly captures the giddy sense of euphoria that comes from doing something so cool you want to shout from the rooftops about it – but know that you can’t. This is a Spider-Man who knows how to have fun (at last).

By focusing more on Peter’s attempts at fitting in, both in high school and in the wider world of superheroes, the script allows the audience to have a lot of fun at Peter’s expense. But then he is only fifteen, and he’s bound to make mistakes, whether from plain old exuberance or because he hasn’t built up his street smarts yet. Seeing him fail is more refreshing than expected, and a pivotal scene involving Stark and the loss of his Stark-created outfit highlights the true dilemma of being able to shoot webs and swing between tall buildings but not be able to talk to a girl. But again, it’s a happy dilemma because this is what the movie is all about: providing audiences with a surfeit of fun. Marvel know how to incorporate humour into their movies, but this may well be the first MCU movie that knows how to sustain that humour throughout, and round things off with the best end credits sting since Nick Fury first tried to recruit Tony Stark to some team he was trying to put together. This is a movie that is enjoyable and joyous at the same time, and proof that Marvel really do understand their characters better than anyone else (sorry Sony).

And for the first time since Loki we have a villain who has a credible motive for being the bad guy, and thanks to Keaton’s performance, he’s one we can have a degree of sympathy for. Toombes is about providing for and protecting his family, but though that’s an honourable sentiment, Keaton shows how that has become inexorably warped over the years, until his motives aren’t quite as clear-cut as when he began putting on the flying suit. Together, Holland and Keaton are terrific adversaries, and easily outshine the rest of the cast, who, to be fair, don’t stand out quite as well (though Batalon as Peter’s best friend, Ned, comes close). There’s the possibility of a romance for Peter with debate team captain, Liz (Harrier), that takes an unexpected turn, a series of action scenes that vary between broadly exciting and acceptable, competent direction from Watts that fares better away from said action scenes, a little too much moralising from Tony Stark, and a “get-to-know-your-suit” sequence which is possibly the movie’s true highlight. Smartly written – and by a team of six writers at that – this is the Spider-Man movie fans have been waiting for. Now, how about all you non-fans?

Rating: 8/10 – a giddy fun ride of a movie that can’t contain its own excitement about existing, Spider-Man: Homecoming adds another superhero to the MCU roster and does so with exuberance and no small amount of wit; you know Marvel have got a firm grip on things when the opening music cues reference the original Sixties animated series theme tune, and web-swinging in the suburbs brings its own measures of difficulty and danger.

The Wall (2017)

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D: Doug Liman / 89m

Cast: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, John Cena, Laith Nakli

We’re back in Black List territory again with The Wall, another screenplay that has gained a reputation of quality thanks to its inclusion on said list. A first-time script by playwright Dwain Worrell, the story has two US Army soldiers – Staff Sergeant Shane Matthews (Cena), who is a sniper, and his spotter, Sergeant Allen Isaac (Taylor-Johnson) – on overwatch at a stretch of pipeline deep in the Iraqi desert in 2007. The team of contractors working on the pipeline have all been killed. Isaac thinks it’s the work of a highly skilled sniper, while Matthews isn’t so convinced. After twenty-two hours of waiting and watching, Matthews decides that it’s safe to come out of hiding and take a closer look. Closer inspection of the bodies reveals Isaac is right, but the knowledge comes too late; Matthews is shot and wounded. Isaac rushes to help him, but in the process he too is wounded, and he’s forced to take cover behind a flimsy wall built of bricks and mortar.

With Matthews lying prone out in the open, Isaac tries to radio for help but his antenna is busted. Soon, he receives a message over the duo’s comms system. At first it seems that the pair will be rescued, but Isaac is horrified to learn that the messenger is in fact an Iraqi sniper called Juba (Nakli), and the man responsible for the deaths of the pipeline workers, and his and Matthews’ injuries. What follows is a game of cat-and-mouse as Isaac tries to work out where exactly Juba is hidden, and how he can get himself and Matthews out of there alive. While he does, Juba engages him in conversation and tries to get inside Isaac’s head using information he’s gleaned from listening in on the duo’s chatter while they were on overwatch. In time, Isaac works out Juba’s location, but there are two problems: one, he needs a sniper rifle of his own to try and eliminate the Iraqi, and the only one available to him is out in the open alongside Matthews; and two, he needs to do so before the arrival of a rescue team Juba has tricked into coming…

Like any thriller that attempts to present audiences with a tough, uncompromising villain, The Wall stands or falls on just how tough and uncompromising said villain truly is. And at first it seems that Juba will fit the bill quite nicely. Shooting Matthews in the gut, and Isaac in the knee (deliberately), displays a sadistic quality that bodes well for any tension going forward, but it’s not long before the needs of the script ensure that this aspect is either played down, forgotten, or ignored in favour of the less than scintillating exchanges between Juba and Isaac that pepper around an hour of the movie’s running time. These exchanges range from being intriguing (why does Juba want to know about the scope that Isaac uses?) to existential (why is Isaac still in country?) to crushingly banal (who is the real terrorist?). The answer to all these questions are forthcoming but as these conversations continue, you begin to realise that by setting up the wait for the rescue team, Worrell hasn’t worked out just how to keep the interim period compelling enough to keep audiences interested in each step of the cat-and-mouse game that’s playing out.

Inevitably there’s a terrible secret that Isaac has been hiding, but by the time we get to it, it doesn’t have the impact that Worrell and Liman are hoping for, partly because it’s yet another occasion where someone in a stressful situation has something terrible to reveal about themselves – and how many times have we witnessed that particular scenario? – and partly because by the time it is revealed we don’t really care because it’s an attempt to add depth to a character that didn’t need it in the first place. It’s enough for Isaac to be in peril from a hidden sniper; we don’t need to know if he’s suffering from guilt or PTSD or any lingering childhood traumas that might stop him from surviving this encounter. All we need to know is: is he going to be clever enough to find a way out of his predicament and take out Juba? For the most part the answer is yes, but there’s too much unnecessary banter getting in the way. Sometimes, movie makers can’t see that a simple set up such as this one doesn’t need to be anything more than what it is. What we want to see bravery and ingenuity and determination under pressure. What we don’t want to see is our lead character going through a crisis of confidence every ten minutes.

Messrs Liman and Worrell would probably claim that they’re just adding to the tension, but in reality they’re allowing it to ebb and flow (mostly ebb), whereas if they just concentrated on ratcheting up the tension continuously and making the situation as unbearable as possible for viewers to watch, then their movie would be improved tremendously. This is definitely not the case here, with long stretches where Isaac propels himself backwards and forwards along the wall to little effect, and moments where the screen goes dark while he takes a nap. And Liman and Worrell don’t seem to have realised the obvious flaw in their presentation of Juba’s skill as a sniper. When he ambushes Isaac he fires three shots; all three have specific targets: Isaac’s radio antenna, his water bottle, and his right knee. And yet, there are numerous point of view shots through Juba’s scope that shows he couldn’t possibly have achieved those hits thanks to how blurry the image is. And later, when Isaac is finally pushed into making his move, Juba’s accuracy deserts him. Tough? Maybe. Uncompromising? Sometimes. As deadly as his reputation would have it? Hmmm…

Despite huge problems with the narrative, The Wall does have its good points. Liman is a great visual stylist and he makes the most of the desert location. He also moves the camera around to good effect, and in conjunction with editor Julia Bloch, ensures the movie has a rhythm that offsets some of the slower sections and keeps everything flowing. He elicits a good performance from Taylor-Johnson who anchors the movie without quite making the viewer entirely sympathetic toward him (you never feel the urge to shout “Go on, get the sonofabitch!” or anything similar during his time behind the wall), and who at least makes Isaac’s unhappy emotional and physical state more credible than it may look. Cena doesn’t have a lot to do, but he’s becoming an actor for whom the perceived stigma of being a WWE Superstar no longer holds as much sway, and his is a solid portrayal. And Nakli uses his voice as a character all by itself and manages to display a convincing range of emotions without ever being seen. The movie as a whole is watchable despite its faults, but what it doesn’t do is draw you in completely and then leave you drained and breathless at the end.

Rating: 5/10 – lacking the consistency of tension that would have made it a more compelling and absorbing experience, The Wall never quite makes the most of its single setting and its minimal cast of characters; Liman manages to inject a degree of verve into proceedings, and the desert visuals are bleakly beautiful, but be warned, this is also a movie where the ending may leave you thinking, what the hell was the point of it all?

A Date for Mad Mary (2016)

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D: Darren Thornton / 79m

Cast: Seána Kerslake, Tara Lee, Charleigh Bailey, Denise McCormack, Siobhán Shanahan, Barbara Brennan

In recent years, Ireland has produced a slew of movies that have wowed audiences at film festivals around the world, won numerous awards, garnered heaps of critical praise, and shown that the country is capable of making smart, well-made, impressive movies on relatively small budgets but with bags of talent and ingenuity. In 2016 alone, Ireland brought us Sing Street, Love & Friendship, The Young Offenders, and South. And it also gave us A Date for Mad Mary, a movie about friendship, first love, and false assumptions. It’s a movie that takes a well established dramatic template – what happens when best friends stop being best friends – and fashions a winning narrative (itself based on the play 10 Dates with Mad Mary by Yasmine Akram), that proves to be a hugely enjoyable experience.

The Mad Mary of the title is Mary McArdle (Kerslake), recently released from a six month spell in prison. Her best friend is Charlene (Bailey), and all Mary can think about is seeing her as soon as she’s back in their home town of Drogheda. But Charlene is busy with her impending wedding (for which Mary is the maid of honour), and they don’t meet up until the next day. Charlene is a little reserved but blames it all on the preparations for the wedding. She asks Mary to make some of the arrangements, and then adds that she’s given away Mary’s plus one to someone else. Mary protests and Charlene relents, but this leaves Mary in a quandary: she doesn’t have a boyfriend, and doesn’t particularly want one, but as Charlene has inferred she won’t be able to find one, Mary is determined to find a man to go with her. While she sets about going on blind date after blind date, Mary meets Jess (Lee), an aspiring singer who also does wedding videos.

A chance encounter with Charlene leads to Mary telling her she has a man in her life, called John Carter. But he doesn’t exist, and Mary does her best to make him seem real, to the point of persuading a blind date to act as him when Charlene sees them together. Her plan backfires though, and Mary is back to square one. Meanwhile, she becomes friends with Jess, and starts spending time with her when Charlene keeps putting her off. Mary accompanies Jess on a weekend away at a wedding Jess is videoing, and the two become closer. Back in Drogheda, Mary’s behaviour begins to alienate both Jess and Charlene as she struggles to come to terms with her feelings for her old friend and her new one. Things go from bad to worse, and on the night before the wedding she and Charlene have a row that leads to Mary’s best friend telling her a few home truths, home truths that will either aid Mary in moving forward, or leave her powerless to overcome the behaviour that is holding her back.

A Date for Mad Mary is one of those movies that comes along and shows audiences just how easy it is to juggle comedy and drama at the same time, and with an apparent minimum of effort. Director Darren Thornton, along with his co-screenwriter and brother Colin, has done a marvellous job in adapting Akram’s one-woman play (which he also directed), and has opened it up with a keen eye that keeps the focus on Mary and her emotional journey. At the beginning Mary is akin to a tomboy, dressing in a way that de-emphasises her femininity, and wanting to go to clubs and drink a lot. She has a quick temper, and is even quicker to take offence. She can’t understand why Charlene doesn’t want to spend time with her, and can’t see that while she’s been in prison that Charlene no longer wants to indulge in drunken antics and foolish conduct. Mary believes that everything can and should continue as it did before she went to prison, but is missing what seems obvious: that Mary’s prison spell has been a wake-up call for Charlene.

Throughout these early sequences, with Mary being rebuffed by Charlene at every turn and only being included in the wedding preparations if it’s absolutely necessary (Charlene even writes Mary’s maid of honour speech for her), Mary begins to behave more and more like a jilted suitor, acting petulantly and showing her jealousy of Leona (Shanahan), Charlene’s bridesmaid (who does get to spend time with her). Switching her attention to Jess, Mary ends up on a journey of self-discovery, and in doing so, begins to understand that she has to make the same kind of changes that Charlene has. Again, this is a pretty standard template that Thornton has decided on, but it’s tackled with such understated verve that you can’t help but go along with it. Mary is someone we can all identify with, even if we’re nothing like her, because all she wants to do is belong, and being Charlene’s best friend is the only way she knows of achieving this. When Charlene rejects her, she has no way of dealing with the emotional fallout that overwhelms her. But Jess proves to be a welcome distraction…

It’s a measure of Thornton’s confidence in the material that the emerging relationship between Mary and Jess isn’t allowed to dominate the movie’s second half. Instead it plays out in much the way you’d expect but with a bittersweet poignancy that reflects both women’s sense of being alone (though for very different reasons). Mary’s friendship with Charlene remains front and centre, and thanks to both the material and some exemplary work from Kerslake and Bailey, their beleaguered relationship never feels forced or contrived. Kerslake is terrific as Mary, balancing a deep-rooted vulnerability behind a solidly defensive exterior and taking no prisoners when she feels the need to. It’s a role that requires Kerslake to soften gradually and open up more and more, and she achieves this with such acuity and precision that it seems like the most natural progression in the world, and better still, one that you’re not even aware of until it’s happened.

Rating: 8/10 – a comedy drama that is successful in both departments (and then some), A Date for Mad Mary makes a virtue of its familiar set up and provides viewers with enough genuine laughs (particularly one involving Mary’s mother and a sniper) and moments of pathos to keep anyone satisfied; assembled with obvious love, care and attention by Thornton and his very talented cast and crew, it’s a movie that sneaks up on you and makes you oh so thankful that you’ve seen it.

Dunkirk (2017)

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D: Christopher Nolan / 106m

Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Tom Glynn-Carney, Barry Keoghan, Aneurin Barnard, Harry Styles, Jack Lowden, James D’Arcy

NOTE: This review is based on an IMAX screening of the movie.

At one point during Christopher Nolan’s visually and sonically impressive ode to British heroism, Mark Rylance’s stoic Mr Dawson says, “Men my age dictate this war. Why should we be allowed to send our children to fight it?” It’s a rare moment of unexpected criticism (of the war) in a movie that celebrates the British determination to rescue victory from the jaws of defeat on the beaches at Dunquerke (through Operation Dynamo), and which does so in spectacular style. It’s one of a number of awkward moments where Nolan the writer appears to realise that he needs to be a commentator as well as an observer of events, and that he needs to add some much needed depth to proceedings. It’s also a moment that’s indicative of a greater problem with the movie as a whole: it doesn’t engage with the audience as much as it should do.

Nolan has gone on record to say that his idea for Dunkirk wasn’t to make a war movie but to make a suspense thriller, to take the three strands of land, sea and air and amalgamate them by the end of the movie into one combined incident. It’s typical of Nolan’s fondness for non-linear narratives, and he orchestrates the three different time frames – land: one week, sea: one day, air: one hour – with great skill and ingenuity, but amidst all the technical wizardry, the human element is left just as stranded as the Allied troops were back in 1940. Considering the scale of the evacuation, it’s hard to understand why Nolan decided to leave out such a crucial aspect. Thanks to the narrative decisions he’s made, the characters we do meet rarely make an impact, with patronym Tommy (Whitehead) suffering the most. Right from the start, where we see him fleeing from a barrage of gunfire and his comrades dropping like flies around him, and through all the travails he endures along the way, he’s a character we never fully identify or sympathise with. He’s a cypher in uniform, and Nolan never really introduces us to him.

The same goes for Hardy as RAF pilot Farrier. Once more hidden behind a mask that obscures his lower face, Hardy’s expression barely changes from scene to scene; he either looks determined or very determined. Alas, this isn’t enough to provide audiences with a character to identify with or relate to, and it’s only his heroic manner (which is shared by all but one other character) that allows us to appreciate him. Of all the characters we meet, only Rylance as the quietly resolute Mr Dawson and Branagh as Commander Bolton, overseer of the evacuation at Dunquerke itself, make much of an impact but that’s entirely due to their skill and experience as actors. It’s a shame that Nolan couldn’t have fleshed out his characters more; what’s the point of employing actors of the calibre of Murphy and Hardy when you’re not going to give them much to do?

For a movie maker of Nolan’s stature, this is an unfortunate approach, and it leaves the movie in danger of becoming just an empty spectacle. Nolan has put a lot of time and effort into ensuring his take on the evacuation is as realistically mounted as possible, with a minimal use of CGI and the majority of practical effects being done in camera, and shooting on the very same beaches at Dunquerke. Thankfully this verisimilitude pays off handsomely, with Nolan’s standing as one of the most technically and visually gifted directors of his generation confirmed for all to see. There’s no room for doubt: Dunkirk is a stunning visual experience. Nolan wanted to give audiences the most immersive movie experience possible (albeit in the IMAX format) and he’s succeeded magnificently. Whether it’s on the beach, on the water, or in the air, Nolan, along with DoP Hoyte Van Hoytema, ensures that the viewer is thrust into the thick of things, whether it’s amongst a group of soldiers hemmed in on a jetty while German Stukas strafe them, or Tommy and some of his fellow soldiers stuck below decks in a torpedoed ship, or the cockpit of Farrier’s Spitfire, all these scenes and many more have an immediacy and a visceral intensity that is breathtaking to watch. On these occasions, the movie truly is an immersive experience, and Nolan’s ambition is fully realised.

But if Dunkirk looks visually astonishing, then it’s surpassed by its sound design. Every rifle shot and bullet hit, every creak and warp of timber on the boats, every burst and spin of the fighter planes is delivered with such clarity and impact that it adds an extra layer to the immersive nature of the material, and in IMAX 6-track format it’s even more impressive. There are details in the mix that are remarkably subtle as well, such as the different engine sounds of the small ships as they approach Dunquerke, or the trudge of footsteps across the beach. This is attention to detail taken to an almost obsessive degree, and the movie is all the better for it, creating a soundscape that highlights and dominates events shown, and which in terms of fidelity, sets a new benchmark.

Ultimately though (and a little unfortunately), what Nolan has devised and created is a movie that offers an unparalleled viewing and listening experience but which has moments where it seems to be saying, “look at this, isn’t that spectacular?” You can almost imagine a reporter turning to a newsreel cameraman and asking, a la Die Hard (1988), “Tell me you got that.” Nolan can perhaps be forgiven for a little grandstanding, or a little showing off from time to time, but when these moments occur they have the effect of taking the viewer out of the movie and reminding them that what they’re watching isn’t always as immersive as planned. What’s also distracting at times is Hans Zimmer’s score for the movie, which uses Nolan’s own pocket watch as a musical template for much of the tension that’s generated, though it’s a motif that’s over-used. It’s a divisive score, hugely effective on some occasions, an unfortunate pall over proceedings at others, but at least Zimmer stops short of making it all too triumphant and imperialistic – and that adds to the overall effect tremendously.

Rating: 7/10 – aside from some questionable narrative decisions, and restrictions around getting to know the characters, Dunkirk is the year’s most ambitious, and most mature, summer blockbuster; an incredible technical achievement by Nolan, the movie is a visual and aural tour-de-force, a feat of movie making that’s unlikely to be equalled or bettered any time in the near future, and which may well be Nolan’s best movie so far… oh, hang on, no, that’s still The Dark Knight (2008).

10 Reasons to Remember Jeanne Moreau (1928-2017)

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Jeanne Moreau (23 January 1928 – 31 July 2017)

What to say about Jeanne Moreau? Quite simply, she was the most exquisitely gifted actress of her generation, another in a long line of French actresses for whom giving a bad performance seems an impossibility. She began her career in 1947 at the Comédie-Française, and worked steadily both in the theatre and in small roles on the big screen, making a name for herself and building a reputation for excellent work that she maintained all the way through to her final movie appearance in 2015 (and despite those early movie roles failing to bring her much success). It was the first of four collaborations with Louis Malle, Lift to the Scaffold (1958), that brought her to the attention of a wider, international audience. It proved to be the spark that lit the fuse on a tremendous run of movies throughout the Sixties, a period where her status as a forceful screen presence was cemented. She could be mysterious, sexy, aloof, fearless, carefree, and unassailably pragmatic – all these things and more. But above all she could always find the emotional core, and the honesty of a character, and use these to give a flawless, mesmerising performance.

She was in demand constantly throughout her career, and worked with some of the most accomplished directors the world over, including François Truffaut, Michelangelo Antonioni, Tony Richardson, Joseph Losey, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders, François Ozon, Manoel de Oliveira, and Orson Welles, who considered her “the greatest actress in the world”. Throughout her career it was always the case that directors sought her out rather than the other way round. She was a fervent collaborator, giving of her best when encouraged and supported by directors such as Luis Buñuel, who she regarded as the father she never had (she also married William Friedkin in 1977, though their marriage only lasted for two years). Away from acting she was also a singer, and released several albums over the years. But her true love was acting, and at that she was simply inspirational, which makes the fact that she was never nominated for an Oscar all the more inexplicable. A true original, she leaves behind a body of work that will continue to reward viewers for decades more to come.

1 – Lift to the Scaffold (1958)

2 – The Lovers (1958)

3 – Seven Days… Seven Nights (1960)

4 – Jules et Jim (1962)

5 – Diary of a Chambermaid (1964)

6 – Viva Maria! (1965)

7 – The Bride Wore Black (1968)

8 – Querelle (1982)

9 – The Old Lady Who Walked in the Sea (1991)

10 – Time to Leave (2005)

Person to Person (2017)

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D: Dustin Guy Defa / 84m

Cast: Abbi Jacobson, Michael Cera, Tavi Gevinson, Bene Coopersmith, George Sample III, Philip Baker Hall, Isiah Whitlock Jr, Mchaela Watkins, Olivia Luccardi, Ben Rosenfield, Buddy Duress

Ensemble movies have to play things very carefully. There are so many boxes to tick – quirky but relatable characters, humorous/dramatic scenarios as required, switching between them if necessary, maybe connecting each in an organic way, creating an interesting environment – all these things and more have to be taken into consideration before the cameras even start rolling. Pity the poor writer/director who takes on such a project and isn’t fully prepared from the word Go. And pity the poor viewer who settles down to watch such a project with a great deal of anticipation. Because not only do ensemble movies have to play things very carefully, they also have to be credible.

Person to Person is an ensemble movie where several of the tick boxes mentioned above remain resolutely unticked from start to finish. Partly because whatever writer/director Dustin Guy Defa’s message is, it’s obscured by the bland characters on display, the lack of any real humour or drama (even though a potential murder occupies the attention of two of the characters), and certain scenes that are so leadenly paced that ennui is likely to seep in before they come to an end. This is a movie to watch with one eye open, while the other takes a well-earned rest. It’s sluggish, gives us dramatic scenarios that don’t ring true, and introduces us to a slew of self-absorbed malcontents and socially awkward worriers.

First up is Bene (Coopersmith), a middle-aged jazz fan and collector who has his sights set on buying a rare red vinyl LP by Charlie Parker. At the same time, Bene’s best friend, Ray (Sample III), is staying with him after breaking up with his girlfriend, Janet, but he just sits on the sofa doing nothing. Bene encourages him to get up and go out, even if it’s just around the block. Meanwhile, there’s Wendy (Gevinson), a waif-like teen with a waspish, anti-everything stance that hides a desperate need to be liked, and more importantly, loved (but of course she doesn’t know how to commit to anyone or trust them). She spends time with her best friend, Melanie (Luccardi), but Melanie is more interested in talking about her boyfriend than listening to Wendy’s tirades about life, love and relationships. And then there’s newbie journalist Claire (Jacobson), working her first day and teamed up with her editor, Phil (Cera), to report on a potential murder. She’s nervous and unsure if this is the right job for her, while he’s doing his best to impress her into sleeping with him. The police investigation leads them to a watch repairer called Jimmy (Hall), and the victim’s wife (Watkins). And while all this is happening, Ray leaves Bene’s apartment and attempts to make things right between himself and Janet, but soon finds that he’s being tracked down by her brother, Buster (Whitlock Jr), who wants to break both his legs (in a particularly misguided moment, Ray uploaded naked pictures of Janet onto the Internet).

These are the stories that Defa has assembled for Person to Person, and though they all prove superficially engaging, by the time the movie struggles over the finishing line by having Phil thump his desk in self-pity and frustration, Bene attend a party with his girlfriend, Claire go home to her cat, Wendy standing alone on a sidewalk, Ray breaking down in front of Janet, and everyone else left in limbo, the only true resolution the movie offers is connected to the possible murder. It’s a narrative decision that feels awkward when you think about it, and feels even more awkward when you see it. Defa wants to show his audience the various problems that disparate people can face every day in New York (another character that isn’t best served by Defa’s screenplay). But the problem with that lies in the stories he wants to tell. Claire is ostensibly the most sympathetic character, but she’s also the most wishy-washy, apologetic character you’re ever likely to meet in an indie dramedy. Bene, at first, appears quite switched on and self-aware but then he frets about a new shirt he’s bought, and he does it all day long and to anyone who’ll listen.

These quirks (and others) are meant to endear the viewer to the characters, but therein lies another problem: the characters aren’t that likeable or too sympathetic. Watching them go through their day so totally wrapped up in themselves isn’t all that interesting, and Defa has trouble convincing us that we should care about them. They may all be misfits to one degree or another, but that doesn’t auomatically give them a free pass to our understanding and appreciation. Even the cast, which is very talented indeed, can’t elevate the material to any level where the viewer might become more involved or more intrigued or more interested. Only Hall, who’s been around too long to let a character get away from him, makes anything of his role, and he’s appropriately subdued. Elsewhere, the likes of Gevinson and Coopersmith are stuck portraying characters you’d cross the street to avoid, and Cera brings his usual schtick to a role that requires less schlep and more chutzpah (though the sight of Cera pretending to be a metalhead is funny all by itself).

Thankfully, the one good decision Defa has made is to keep it brief. At eighty-four minutes the movie is not a minute too long, but even then there are times when it feels longer, as when Claire has to attempt an interview with just about anyone. These are meant to be comic moments, but they lack the kind of humorous resonance that would instill laughter in an audience, and instead just look painfully awkward, both for the character and the actor or actress. That said, Defa has been fortunate in obtaining the services of DoP Ashley Connor, who gives the movie a polished look that makes it feel bright and airy, while also using close ups to good effect. But all in all, this is a movie that doesn’t even manage to get even halfway to being as good as it could be.

Rating: 4/10 – with too much room for improvement, Person to Person fails to engage and fails to impress, leaving the viewer with little to do but sit back and hope things improve (which they don’t); there’s the germ of a good idea buried somewhere deep inside Defa’s screenplay, but the execution does the material no favours, and the end result is entirely disappointing.

Monthly Roundup – July 2017

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The Hatton Garden Job (2017) / D: Ronnie Thompson / 93m

Cast: Matthew Goode, Phil Daniels, Larry Lamb, Clive Russell, David Calder, Joely Richardson, Stephen Moyer, Mark Harris, Jack Doolan

Rating: 6/10 – a group of aging ex-cons decide to rob an underground safe deposit facility in London’s Hatton Garden, but find that too many interested parties want in on the job, and the proceeds; based on the actual robbery that occurred in April 2015, The Hatton Garden Job is a light-hearted, and often lightweight version of actual events, but gets by thanks to some winning performances, a sense that it’s all too, too implausible, and a broad sense of humour that suits the material well enough despite its low budget origins.

The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017) / D: Niki Caro / 126m

Cast: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Brühl, Michael McElhatton, Timothy Radford, Val Maloku, Efrat Dor, Iddo Goldberg, Shira Haas

Rating: 4/10 – at the outbreak of World War II, the Warsaw Zoo, run by Antonina and Jan Zabinski (Chastain, Heldenbergh), is commandeered by the Nazis, but it becomes a hiding place for Jews, and an even more dangerous place without its animals; a true story undone by telling it across the whole course of the war, The Zookeeper’s Wife is a turgid, painfully dull movie that is only sporadically interesting and which wastes the talents of its cast by making their characters’ plight seem like its been lifted from an unsuccessful soap opera.

Day of the Mummy (2014) / D: Johnny Tabor / 77m

Cast: Danny Glover, William McNamara, Andrea Monier, Eric Young, Philip Marlatt, Michael Cortez, Brandon deSpain

Rating: 4/10 – an archaeological trip into the Egyptian desert in search of a lost tomb sees its members at the mercy of a mummy, while they try and find a sacred stone said to be worth millions; a found-footage movie that like most doesn’t know how to make the most of the format, Day of the Mummy stretches its audience’s patience at every turn, and literally reduces Glover’s role to the bottom left hand corner of the screen, something that could be construed as “video-phoning” in his performance.

Security (2017) / D: Alain Desrochers / 92m

Cast: Antonio Banderas, Ben Kingsley, Liam McIntyre, Gabriella Wright, Chad Lindberg, Cung Le, Katharine de la Rocha, Jiro Wang

Rating: 5/10 – ex-Army veteran Eddie (Banderas) takes a night security job at a mall, and on his first night, finds himself fighting off a band of mercenaries hired to kill the teenage girl who’s taken refuge there; another Die Hard rip-off (when will they stop coming?), Security does have committed performances from Banderas and Kingsley as hero and villain respectively, but lacks sufficient invention to make this anything other than a pale echo of similar and better movies.

Quincannon, Frontier Scout (1956) / D: Lesley Selander / 84m

aka Frontier Scout

Cast: Tony Martin, Peggie Castle, John Bromfield, John Smith, Ron Randell, John Doucette, Morris Ankrum, Peter Mamakos, Edmund Hashim

Rating: 6/10 – when the Army discovers someone is selling rifles to the Indians, it’s down to experienced scout Quincannon (Martin) to get to the bottom of it all; while there’s nothing new here, thanks to Selander’s astute direction, Quincannon, Frontier Scout zips along at a decent pace and delivers on its basic premise, but not even Selander can mitigate for a pretty awful performance from Martin, a singer who really should have ignored his agent on this one.

Cars 3 (2017) / D: Brian Fee / 102m

Cast: Owen Wilson, Cristela Alonzo, Chris Cooper, Nathan Fillion, Larry the Cable Guy, Armie Hammer, Ray Magliozzi, Tony Shalhoub, Bonnie Hunt

Rating: 6/10 – Lightning McQueen’s days on the race track are numbered, but only he doesn’t get it, until racing for a new team begins to show him that there’s more to life than being Number One; Pixar redeem themselves somewhat after the complete and utter disaster that was Cars 2, but this is still tepid stuff that struggles to make the impact it needs, leaving Cars 3 looking nostalgic for the first movie, and trading on that movie’s glories to make itself look good.

Girls Trip (2017) / D: Malcolm D. Lee / 122m

Cast: Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Tiffany Haddish, Mike Colter, Kate Walsh, Larenz Tate, Deborah Ayorinde

Rating: 6/10 – self-help guru Ryan (Hall) decides it’s time that she and her three best friends (Latifah, Smith, Haddish) should reconnect while in New Orleans for the annual Essence Festival, but having a good time proves more difficult than she, or they, could have ever imagined; yet another female-centric variation of The Hangover, Girls Trip wants to be raunchy and out there (the urination scene), but ends up instead as a warm and fuzzy ode to sisterhood that conforms to expectations, but is rescued by the committed performances of the “girls” themselves.

47 Meters Down (2017) / Johannes Roberts / 89m

Cast: Mandy Moore, Claire Holt, Matthew Modine, Chris Johnson, Yani Gellman, Santiago Segura

Rating: 6/10 – two sisters (Moore, Holt) on vacation in Mexico find themselves stranded in a shark cage at the titular depth, and they only have an hour to save themselves before their oxygen runs out; better than it sounds thanks to Roberts’ hand on the tiller, 47 Meters Down isn’t beyond making some silly mistakes (let’s have Modine’s captain recite the perils of nitrogen narcosis – twice), being too repetitive once on the sea bed, and building up tension only to allow it to dissipate to no great effect.

July Was Catch Up Month

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Another month, another batch of movies, and all ticked off my movie bucket list. I aimed for thirty-one and achieved twenty-nine, and found time for a bunch of others. As the Queen song asks, Was It All Worth It. And the answer is… yes, but with reservations. Catching up on movies that you’ve put off watching – sometimes for years – is all very well in terms of crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s, but when the majority prove that not watching them in the first place was a good decision, then maybe it’s not as good an idea as it seems. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed the experience, and I now have a few more favourites going forward that I didn’t have before – step forward Enough Said, Porco Rosso, and Murder on a Sunday Morning – but the urge to get back to more recent movies has grown almost overwhelming.

That said, I did go to the cinema quite regularly in July and saw most of the new releases (reviews to follow), but as usual some were bad, some were okay, and some were good/very good. But it’s still the less multiplex-friendly movies that attract my attention, and I can’t wait to get back to watching movies that may not be seen by the majority of people, but which can often offer greater rewards than you might think. And every now and then I’ll still sneak in an older movie (maybe even a few bucket list movies) into the mix. With so many movies out there, why restrict ourselves to ones released just in the last twelve months?

10 Reasons to Remember Sam Shepard (1943-2017)

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Sam Shepard (5 November 1943 – 27 July 2017)

If Sam Shepard had never gone into acting, he still would have left a lasting legacy in so many other areas. He was a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, an author, a screenwriter, an occasional drummer during the late Sixties with The Holy Modal Rounders, and a two-time movie director. And he co-wrote the Bob Dylan song, Brownsville Girl. Shepard was a true virtuoso, comfortable in a variety of disciplines and able to excel in pretty much all of them.

He made a name for himself in the Sixties, writing a series of plays that won him award after award and a degree of brand-name recognition. He had a way of depicting the emotional and psychological lives of “normal” people in a way that was sincere and affecting, and several of his plays were adapted into movies, often to critical acclaim. He continued to write plays and work in the theatre even though he could have settled into acting as a single career, but Shepard always seemed to be a restless man who was always looking to be creative. As an actor, Shepard was often a calm, purposeful presence in his movies, portraying men of honour and sincerity, and his quiet, stoic demeanour was always a plus. He appeared in supporting roles for the most part, but showed when he was given a leading role that he could carry a movie and often with an ease that some of his more experienced peers couldn’t match. But even though he had tremendous skill as an actor, an innate quality that was unique to him, he didn’t quite see it that way. Let’s leave the last word to Shepard (he’d probably have appreciated it): “I didn’t go out of my way to get into this movie stuff. I think of myself as a writer.”

1 – Days of Heaven (1978)

2 – Resurrection (1980)

3 – The Right Stuff (1983)

4 – Fool for Love (1985)

5 – Crimes of the Heart (1986)

6 – Thunderheart (1992)

7 – Don’t Come Knocking (2005)

8 – The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

9 – Brothers (2009)

10 – Blackthorn (2011)

Shock Waves (1977)

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aka Almost Human

D: Ken Wiederhorn / 85m

Cast: Peter Cushing, Brooke Adams, Luke Halpin, Fred Buch, Jack Davidson, D.J. Sidney, Don Stout, John Carradine

Horror movies in the Seventies went through a kind of sea change. By the middle of the decade, Hammer were on their last legs having exhausted their Dracula and Frankenstein franchises, and the big Hollywood studios had yet to embrace the genre as fully as they could have, content to leave it to low budget production companies such as Amicus and Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. In Europe, horror movies were more concerned with providing sleaze than monsters, and further afield there were sporadic releases that rarely made an impact beyond their own borders. Zombie movies were still few and far between despite the success of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), and movies where the protagonists were zombie Nazis were even rarer, with only The Frozen Dead (1966) predating the eerie chills of Shock Waves.

The movie begins in typical fashion, with a group of strangers on a chartered boat that’s seen better days, just like its crusty old captain, Ben (Carradine). The rest of his crew amounts to Keith (Halpin), who seems to be there just to steer the boat, and Dobbs (Stout), the booze-living galley hand. The passengers are a mixed bunch as well, consisting of middle-aged couple Norman and Beverly (Davidson, Sidney), and younger couple Chuck and Rose (Buch, Adams). Norman is already complaining about the age of the boat and the cost of the trip, but when the sky turns crimson and the boat’s instruments don’t respond, he really has something to complain about. An night-time encounter with a mysterious freighter leads to the boat needing repairs, but in the morning, Ben has disappeared. Believing he’s headed towards a nearby island, everyone gets in a dinghy and heads for shore. They find Ben but he’s dead. They also find a hotel, long abandoned – or so they think. Instead they find themselves challenged by a German-sounding stranger (Cushing).

The stranger insists they leave immediately, and tells them of a boat they can use to get off the island. In the meantime, Dobbs is killed, and his body discovered by Rose. Seeking answers, the group confront the stranger, who tells them of a secret experiment that the Nazis carried out during World War II, an experiment to create a ruthless super-soldier. The result was a soldier not living and not dead, and too difficult to control. When the war ended, the stranger, an SS Commander, was charged with disposing of the super-soldiers under his command, and so he sunk their ship. But now they have returned, and will continue to kill everyone they encounter. As far as getting off the island is concerned, avoiding the Death Corps will be difficult enough, but as fear and terror take hold, those who remain alive begin to fight amongst themselves…

If it’s a gore-soaked, ripped-out entrails kind of zombie movie that you’re after, then be warned: Shock Waves is not the movie for you. In fact, this is possibly the first and only post-1968 zombie movie where not even a single drop of blood is spilt. Instead, director Wiederhorn (making his first feature), and co-writer John Kent Harrison concentrate on creating an unnerving, atmospheric chiller-thriller that does its best to be macabre rather than gory, and which largely succeeds in its aim. There’s something to be said for any horror movie that eschews blood and gore in its efforts to make viewers feel unnerved and uncomfortable, and though the movie suffers due to genre-standard scenes where the characters run from place to place without actually getting anywhere, the scenes that involve the implacable zombie Nazis have a certain frisson about them. At one point they emerge from the surf, one by one, and stand as if waiting for a signal only they can hear; it’s genuinely creepy.

Wiederhorn is to be congratulated on being so constrained, and relying on menace and a febrile atmosphere to accentuate the occasional shocks. He’s helped by the choice of location, which isn’t an island at all, but several sites in Florida, including an area of swampland that the characters are forced to take flight and stumble through time and again as they try and escape, but though all that running about quite aimlessly seems to be just a way of padding out the running time, like all swampland, it has an unpleasant, threatening vibe that slowly makes itself felt the longer everyone crashes around it. Wiederhorn and DoP Reuben Trane do well to create such a hostile, potentially deadly environment… and that’s without the zombies. Also, there are times, notably at the beginning when the sky turns red, that the movie feels like it’s heading into full-on Twilight Zone territory, and these moments add to the growing sense of unease that the movie promotes in its opening half hour.

But while there’s plenty of effective atmosphere to be had, the movie is less successful when it comes to its motley crew of characters. Cushing and Carradine are old hands at this sort of thing and manage their roles accordingly, while Adams, in her first leading role, has little to do but pose or swim in a bikini. Ex-Flipper star Halpin fares better as the nominal hero, but everyone else is saddled with the usual horror stereotypes: the long-suffering wife, the outwardly macho/inwardly cowardly adult jock, the self-important malcontent, and the booze-fuelled worrier. Once Ben is killed off the script disposes of the rest of the characters in predictable fashion (and order), without once attempting to make them more relatable. This, however, shouldn’t be much of a surprise, as creating likeable characters never seems to be a priority in horror movies, and Shock Waves is no different. But what is notable about it is that in the context of when it was released, it dared to be different in its approach and with its “monsters”. Many more zombie Nazi movies have followed in the years since, and some can be considered better movies overall, but with apologies to The Frozen Dead, this is the grandaddy of them all, and still as diverting and sinister as it was forty years ago.

Rating: 6/10 – if you can put aside the genre conventions and occasional dumb-ass decision-making, Shock Waves is a grim, intense horror movie that makes good use of its “bad guys” and has a palpable sense of disquiet about it; still more of a curio than a cult movie, it’s better than it looks but is hamstrung by poor production values and some very choppy editing. (29/31)

Speak (2004)

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D: Jessica Sharzer / 89m

Cast: Kristen Stewart, Elizabeth Perkins, Steve Zahn, Michael Angarano, Allison Siko, Hallee Hirsh, D.B. Sweeney, Eric Lively, Robert John Burke, Leslie Lyles, Megan Pillar

It seems to be a truism that all actors and actresses only ever look forwards: to the next role, the next script, the next director in need of their talents. Ask them about past roles and a reluctance seems to set in. Oh, they’ll talk about the movies they made when they first started out, and they may even have fond memories of making some of them, but more often than not, it’s the next project that they’re really interested in. But audiences aren’t necessarily that focused, and fans even less so. They want the reassurance that said actor or actress will be making the same kind of movies that have made them famous. Familiarity breeds contentment, if you will. But what’s often interesting in an actor or actress’s career is the movies they made before they became truly famous, before they became a household name or achieved international recognition. Looking back can be just as advantageous as looking forward. After all, we know what they can do now, but what could they do back in the day?

Speak is a movie that Kristen Stewart made when she was just fourteen. It’s important to remember that, as the role of Melinda Sordino, a high school freshman who suffers a traumatic experience at a friend’s summer house party, requires her to portray a teenager you can actually identify with – and the reason she’s so good isn’t entirely because the character is well written. It’s as much a reflection on Stewart’s burgeoning talent as an actress as it is on the script by director Sharzer and co-writer Annie Young Frisbie (and itself an adaptation of the award-winning novel of the same name by Laurie Halse Anderson). Returning to school after the summer hiatus, Melinda finds herself ostracised by her friends, and treated like a pariah. The reason? At the party, Melinda called 911 but failed to tell the police why she was calling. However, the police traced her call and attended, prompting everyone to run for the hills (though why is never explained). Now, Melinda is regarded as a “squealer”.

With her best friend, Rachel (pronounced Rachelle) (Hirsh), ignoring her, and most of the other pupils whispering about her and giving her pointed looks, Melinda finds herself developing unexpected friendships with two fellow students, newbie Heather (Siko), and Melinda’s biology lab partner, Dave (Angarano). She also receives the help and support of her art teacher, Mr Freeman (Zahn), who encourages her to explore her feelings through an assignment he sets her. But still she struggles to deal with what happened to her at the party, something she’s told no one about, and something that stops her from trying to regain the friendships she used to have. As the school year progresses she begins to grow more confident in herself, and by its end has reached the conclusion that she needs to tell someone, anyone, about what happened to her. At first she wants to tell a stranger, but realises that there is only one person she should talk to. However, that person is Rachel, and what Melinda has to tell her may end their friendship for good.

Whatever your feelings about Kristen Stewart as an actress, it’s safe to say that the role of Bella in the Twilight saga was a game changer, and since that franchise ended in 2012, Stewart has made some eclectic choices and chosen a variety of roles and appeared in a variety of genres in order to escape being typecast as the somewhat dour heroine who rarely gets to smile. It was a straitjacket role, and there were times when Stewart seemed unable to give the role more than what was in the script. There are no such problems in Speak, a movie that looks at peer pressure in a compassionate, intelligent way, and how the devastating effects of a terrible experience can express themselves in ways that are positive and of benefit to the person concerned. Melinda’s ordeal is shown fairly early on, allowing the audience to sympathise with her and feel angry on her behalf. Of course, Melinda is still trying to deal with it all in her own way, and she seeks to withdraw from everyone while at the same time wishing everything could return to normal. Stewart highlights this dochotomy with an assurance that belies her age, and as Melinda’s emotions tug her this way and that, Stewart never loses sight of the different kinds of pain that she’s feeling, even as time goes on.

With Stewart giving such an impressive portrayal, it’s a shame that too much else stands out in poor relief. Melinda’s parents (Perkins, Sweeney) are too self-involved to even realise that their daughter is going through a bad time (even Melinda’s drawing lines on her lips in lieu of stitches is dismissed out of hand), and Burke’s racist history teacher bullies her in worse fashion than her friends (and gets away with it). And despite a good performance from Zahn, his freewheeling, rebellious art teacher feels contrived and/or stereotypical depending on the scene. But the main issue that may disappoint viewers is the idea that Melinda will spend much of the movie not speaking as a way of protesting what has, and is, happening to her. She even wonders how long it would take people to notice if she did. But in the end, she stays mute for two scenes and that is it for that idea. What could have made the movie more engrossing and challenging, instead is referenced on occasion and treated as a temporary affectation rather than a defined way of rebelling. At one point, Melinda is asked why a revolutionary is only as good as his or her analysis; she replies that you should know what you stand for, and not just what you’re against. This arrives too late to push the movie in a more dramatic direction, because even then Melinda’s avowal of this doesn’t mean that she’s any better equipped to deal with things or make a personal stand, just more determined to face up to them.

Having the action take place over a school year (with continual references to the holidays/special dates in order for the viewer to keep track of the time elapsing) means the movie is very episodic in nature, and as a result, it’s unable to maintain dramatic traction. Sharzer, whose sole feature credit this is so far, makes no effort to overcome this, leaving the viewer to wonder just what needs to happen to make Melinda start dealing with what happened to her. And too much of what does happen feels like it’s been lifted wholesale from other teen dramas, from the internal logic to the secondary characters to the way in which various subplots are left hanging as if waiting to be included in an extended director’s cut. It wouldn’t be fair to say that Speak is mostly shallow, but it doesn’t always reach the heights that Anderson’s novel attains, and its TV Movie of the Week veneer doesn’t help either. A bold choice, then, but one that lets down its source material, and in the process, its audience.

Rating: 6/10 – there’s a really great movie to be made from Anderson’s novel but sadly, Speak is only a middling effort that’s as good as it is thanks to Stewart’s perceptive, intuitive performance; engaging enough, and with a dry sense of humour that’s allowed to flourish from time to time, it’s a movie that has no trouble drawing in the viewer, but which then has to work extra hard to keep them interested, something that’s not quite so easily done. (28/31)

Enough Said (2013)

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D: Nicole Holofcener / 93m

Cast: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, James Gandolfini, Catherine Keener, Toni Collette, Ben Falcone, Tracey Fairaway, Tavi Gevinson, Eve Hewson, Michaela Watkins, Toby Huss, Kathleen Rose Perkins

The career of writer/director Nicole Holofcener has been an interesting and successful one, with plenty of plaudits for her movies, and healthy box office returns. She makes movies that rely on a sense of realism that you don’t see too often in other, similar-minded indie movies, and thanks to Holofcener having hired Catherine Keener for every feature that she’s made, she’s regarded as someone who makes chick flicks. Chick flicks that are intelligent and character-driven, but still… chick flicks. When the producers of Enough Said approached Holofcener with an offer to produce her next movie, they had one proviso: it had to be more mainstream than her previous movies. Holofcener rose to this somewhat insensitive challenge, and in doing so, made her most accessible, and most enjoyable movie to date.

The movie’s central character is a middle-aged, ten-year divorced masseuse called Eva (Louis-Dreyfus). She has a teenage daughter, Ellen (Fairaway), who’s about to leave home to go to college, and she’s not seeking a new partner or husband or significant other. At a party she attends with her friends, Sarah and Will (Collette, Falcone), she meets Marianne (Keener), a poet, and the two hit it off. Later on, Eva tells Sarah and Will there isn’t a single man there that she’s attracted to. Until she’s introduced to Albert (Gandolfini), that is. Within a day or two, Eva has been contacted by Marianne who wants a massage, and she learns from Sarah that Albert has asked for her number. Eva and Albert arrange to have dinner together, and the evening is a success. She begins a relationship with Albert, while at the same time she learns about Marianne’s failed marriage to a man who always pushed the onions in guacamole off to the side of the bowl before eating it. Marianne remains hyper-critical of her ex-husband, and tells Eva more and more about his “digusting habits”.

Soon, Eva begins to put two and two together, and realises that Albert is the ex-husband that Marianne disparages so much. But instead of revealing her connection to both of them – she and Marianne have become friends – Eva keeps quiet, but allows Marianne’s complaints about Albert to colour her judgment about him and their relationship. At a dinner party with Sarah and Will, Eva makes embarrassing comments about Albert’s weight, all of which lead to him asking her the question, why did it seem like he’d spent the evening with his ex-wife? Eva has no answer for her behaviour, and their relationship cools a little. It’s only when Eva finds herself at Marianne’s place and her daughter, Tess (Hewson) (who Eva has already met on a lunch date with Albert), reveals the truth about her relationship with Albert, that things come to a head. But will Albert be as forgiving of Eva as she needs him to be?

It isn’t long before Enough Said begins to exert a sincere and yet powerful fascination on the viewer, as the wit and perspicacity of Holofcener’s script begins to take hold and for once – for once – it becomes clear that this will be a movie where the characters are entirely recognisable, and where the dialogue they voice has the freshness and the vitality of everyday speech. This isn’t a movie where characters get to expound on how they feel at length, or say pithy, clever remarks that perfectly encapsulate their emotions or sum up their situation. Instead this is a movie where the central character allows their built-in neuroses and their lack of confidence in a new relationship to undermine the happiness they’re building up, and does so in a way that’s entirely regrettable but also entirely human. Holofcener based her script on some of her own experiences as a divorced, middle-aged mother of two, and with Enough Said she’s crafted a knowing, sympathetic tale that carries with it an emotional heft and a low-key, semi-jaundiced view of starting afresh when all you can focus on is the possibility of past mistakes repeating themselves.

When we first meet Eva she’s stuck in a rut of her own choosing. Ten years after her divorce she’s resigned herself, deliberately, to being a parent and a masseuse and a friend, all roles that involve being of service to others. Albert’s arrival in her life throws all that up in the air, and Holofcener’s script, aided by a shrewd performance from Louis-Dreyfus, highlights just how much his presence rattles her, even while it’s the best thing that’s happened to her in years. Eva’s confidence is further undermined by Marianne’s descriptions of Albert as the less-than-perfect husband, and with a little knowledge comes great doubt as Eva allows herself to be swept up in the possibility that her relationship with Albert will be an echo of his marriage to Marianne. It all leads to Eva sabotaging their affair and endangering the happiness she hasn’t had for so long. And Louis-Dreyfus makes it all so plausible, thanks to some detailed shading in her performance, and a willingness to risk making Eva appear unsympathetic.

The role of Albert was of course Gandolfini’s last screen portrayal, and it’s a pleasure to watch his performance, one that’s relaxed and where he’s clearly enjoying the opportunity to shrug off his bad guy image and play a gentler, more vulnerable kind of character. He and Louis-Dreyfus have an easy-going chemistry together, and though Holofcener’s script is full of naturalistic, convincing dialogue, it’s the moments where they’re improvising that provide some of the movie’s more memorable (and quotable) exchanges. Elsewhere, the bickering between Sarah and Will will be familiar to anyone who’s been in a long-term relationship, though Eva’s unofficial “adoption” of Chloe occasionally stretches Holofcener’s carefully crafted credibility. There are also minor themes relating to alienation between a parent and a child, peer pressure amongst teenagers, and undisguised snobbery, all of which have their moments and all of which add to the rich texture of Holofcener’s story. But it’s the relationship between Eva and Albert that works best of all, because it’s relatable, it’s sensitively handled, and it’s the kind of middle-aged romance that rarely turns up on our screens, and rarely with such vivid, impressive authority.

Rating: 9/10 – a beautifully written tale of love under unnecessary pressure, Enough Said is insightful, vital, immensely satisfying, and features two superb performances from Louis-Dreyfus and Gandolfini; that said, Holofcener is the real star here, and it’s a shame that there haven’t been any other producers banging on her door with the same enthusiasm since, especially as this movie is, so far at least, the very talented writer/director’s finest work to date. (27/31)

Short Term 12 (2013)

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D: Destin Daniel Cretton / 97m

Cast: Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr, Kaitlyn Dever, Rami Malek, Lakeith Stanfield, Kevin Balmore (as Kevin Hernandez), Stephanie Beatriz, Frantz Turner, Alex Calloway

Some movies catch you by surprise, literally as you’re watching them. Sometimes it’s like a switch going on inside your head, a moment when everything suddenly falls into place, or is lit up like the night sky at a fireworks party. Everything about what you’re seeing and hearing now makes perfect sense, and everything continues in that same vein, rewarding you more and more and more. Short Term 12 is one of those movies, a small-scale, low budget feature expanded by its writer/director, Destin Daniel Cretton, from his 2009 short movie of the same name. It begins simply enough at a group home for troubled teenagers, with new member of staff, Nate (Malek), being regaled on his first day at work with a story that involves a runaway teen, a support worker, and an unfortunate bowel problem. It’s a funny story, well told by the support worker himself, Mason (Gallagher Jr), but interrupted by an attempt at escaping by one of the children.

As the day progresses we’re introduced to the home’s facilitator, Jack (Turner), who advises another of the support workers, Grace (Larson) that a new girl, Jayden (Dever), will be coming to stay for a while. Grace already has plenty of children to look after at the home, from nearly eighteen year old and ready to leave Marcus (Stanfield), to the would-be escapee, Sammy (Calloway). Away from the home she and Mason are in a relationship, but Grace has recently discovered that she’s pregnant, something she hasn’t told him or anyone else. As she deals with that issue, Jayden’s arrival and her background cause Grace to assess her own past, something that she hasn’t done for some time (she and Jayden share similarities in behaviour and the emotional trauma they’ve experienced). She and Jayden start to get to know each other, but it’s not all plain sailing.

Grace eventually tells Mason that she’s pregnant, and though he’s initially shocked, he’s pleased as well, and at a party to honour Mason’s foster parents he asks Grace to marry him. She accepts, but the next day her happiness is deflated by news relating to her father. The news upsets her, but not as much as the news that the previous night, Jayden was collected by her father and won’t be returning. She berates her boss and nearly loses her job over it. Things become even worse when one of the children tries to commit suicide. With everything piling on top of her, Grace becomes withdrawn and uncommunicative with Mason, and tells him she can’t marry him or have his child. But hope comes in an unexpected form, as Grace makes one last effort to help Jayden, and by extension, herself as well.

A movie about the staff and children at a group care home that could have turned out to be mawkish, unconvincing, and trite, instead is sincere, moving, and pleasantly unsentimental. Based on writer/director Cretton’s own experiences working at a group facility for teenagers for two years, Short Term 12 (the name of the home) is a marvel of concise, effective storytelling, restrained yet emotive direction, and features a clutch of heartfelt, honest performances. It’s a movie that avoids the cliché trap with ease, and never once talks down to its audience or undermines its characters by making their issues and problems stereotypical or sensational. From Sammy’s borderline autism to the abuse Jayden is subject to, each child is given a background and a history that informs their behaviour and neutralises any notion that their actions aren’t credible. Cretton found most of the children through open casting calls (Stansfield is the only returnee from the 2009 version), and it’s a tribute to the casting team of Kerry Barden, Rich Delia and Paul Schnee that they were able to find so many children with little or no acting experience who were able to portray these characters in such a realistic manner.

But ultimately, and with no disrespect to Gallagher Jr or Dever, who both put in exemplary work, this is Larson’s movie, pure and simple. She is simply magnificent in her first leading role, imbuing Grace with a caring, resilient nature that’s slowly eroded by the overwhelming feelings that she tries so hard to avoid or ignore, feelings that are brought to the fore by becoming pregnant and meeting Jayden. Larson offers a performance that is never less than truthful, and which is fearless in presenting the emotional devastation that Grace experiences, and the pain that keeps her from enjoying any happiness beyond helping the children at the home. And as Larson explores the depths of Grace’s increasingly dissociative behaviour, she also ensures that the lifeline offered to her by helping Jayden isn’t taken up for purely selfish reasons but because Grace genuinely needs and wants to help others like her. Just the various degrees of subtlety that Larson employs is impressive enough, but she also transforms herself physically, turning in on herself as things get worse for Grace and her survivor’s guilt begins to gnaw at her. She’s aided by Cretton’s decision to frame her in close up for much of the movie, so that we get to see in detail the effect everything is having on her.

Making only his second feature, Cretton shows an assurance and a confidence in the material that some directors who’ve been making movies for far longer never achieve. In conjunction with DoP Brett Pawlak, Cretton uses a hand-held camera to tremendous effect, following his characters around as they peer into rooms and travel down hallways and gather together at break times to shoot the breeze and reestablish some sense of normalcy (if that’s at all possible) in the face of days where they’re run ragged by the demands of both the chidren and the system they’re stuck with. Cretton is clever enough not to criticise the system and its failings directly, either in relation to the staff or the children, but he does throw in some well aimed barbs that hit home with stunning accuracy. Also, he takes the issue of parental abuse and makes sure that there is no attempt to understand or condone such abuse, or to put it into a context that might offer an excuse for it. There are broader issues here that could have been addressed, but Cretton leaves them be in order to concentrate on the terrible trials endured on a daily basis by a still traumatised young woman and a devalued teenager. And it’s the best decision he could have made by far.

Rating: 8/10 – a small miracle of a movie that stumbles only once or twice in its search for emotional and social verisimilitude, Short Term 12 is impressive in a restrained, deliberate way, but it’s also one of the most emotionally honest movies seen in recent years; with an incredible performance by Larson, and the kind of intuitive screenplay that only comes along once in a while, this is a dazzlingly simple yet powerful movie that lingers in the mind long after you’ve seen it. (26/31)

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

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D: David Yates / 133m

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Colin Farrell, Dan Fogler, Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller, Alison Sudol, Carmen Ejogo, Ron Perlman, Jon Voight, Kevin Guthrie, Johnny Depp

There are some movies that come along and you immediately think: shameless cash-in. Or just: really? Some movies try to be smart and come at a franchise from a different angle, seeking to retain the original fanbase but at the same time giving them something newer, something related but not quite as familiar. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is one such movie, an attempt by J.K. Rowling and Warner Bros. to squeeze another series of movies out of the Potterverse, and justifying doing so by setting it in the 1920’s (1926 to be precise). Add the fact that what was once meant to be a trilogy will now be a quintet, and you should have a pretty good idea of the motivation in making this new series in the first place.

Which is understandable on a business/financial level, but not on an artistic or creative one. Warner Bros and J.K. Rowling are entitled to make whatever movies they like, but where the Harry Potter saga was clearly that: a saga with an over-arching plot and main storyline, Fantastic Beasts… looks and feels very much like a stand-alone movie that Rowling et al hoped would be successful enough to warrant further entries. Well, financially, it has been – $814,037,575 according to boxofficemojo – but on closer inspection, there are problems that no amount of magical skill can deal with. Partly because of Rowling’s script (her first), and partly because of Yates’ direction. Both lack the credibility needed to make the movie appear better than it is. Rowling knows her wizarding world but this time around she doesn’t have as compelling a story to tell as she did with Harry Potter.

One of the problems with Rowling’s approach is the character of Newt Scamander (Redmayne), a protege of a certain future headmaster of Hogwarts (“Now… what makes Albus Dumbledore… so fond of you?”). Newt is possibly the most under-developed character in the entire Potterverse. As played by Redmayne he’s a closed book that the viewer never gets to know or appreciate, and Rowling never attempts to make him anything other than a floppy-fringed creature collector with all the social skills of a man in a coma. Redmayne has no chance against this, and he ambles and mumbles his way through the movie giving a performance that he looks and feels uncomfortable with. Let’s hope that future installments give us the chance to get to know him better, otherwise he’s going to remain a pedantic nerd whose dialogue consists largely of exposition.

Then there’s the plot itself, which involves a multitude of characters, all of whom waltz around each other in inter-connected ways that don’t add up and which don’t further the nonsensical narrative in any convincing way. We’re alerted at the start to a wizard-gone-bad called Gellert Grindelwald (Depp). Forewarned of his evil nature we wait patiently for him to appear properly only to find that he’s not part of the storyline (at least not in the way we expect). Instead we’re prodded back and forth between Newt and MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States of America) agent Tina Goldstein (Waterston), or eavesdrop on the lives of the Barebone family, whose matriarch, the forever-adopting Mary Lou (Morton), is head of the New Salem Philanthropic Society, a group seeking to expose the wizarding world for no particular reason other than that’s the motive Rowling gives them for existing. There’s a sub-plot involving a young child that may or may not be the source of a devastating magical creature called an Obscurus (of which naturally, Newt has some experience), and there’s a No-Maj (US slang for Muggle), would-be baker Jacob Kowalski (Fogler), who gets involved thanks to an old-fashioned suitcase switch that only happens in the movies.

There’s more – way more – with Rowling trying to cram in enough incidents for the planned series as a whole, but mostly the movie revolves around Newt’s search for some of the beasts in the title, the ones who manage to escape the suitcase he keeps them in. All these things and again, way more, serve only to make the movie a piecemeal adventure that flits from scene to scene in its attempts to tell a coherent, and more importantly, interesting story. Too much happens for reasons beyond the skill of Rowling to explain, and while a handful of the performances rise above the constraints of the script – Fogler’s, Sudol as Tina’s Legilimens sister Queenie, Miller as the tortured Clarence Barebone – they aren’t enough to rescue the movie as a whole.

Which leads us to Yates, whose direction isn’t as bold or as confident as it was with Harry Potter parts five through eight (and who is attached to the rest of this series). Here, Yates is clearly a director for hire, and if he had any input into the tone or feel of the movie then it looks to have been dismissed with a wave of Rowling’s pen. The movie lacks for energy in its many action scenes, and any attempts at corralling the wayward script is lost in a welter of special effects, many of which aren’t that impressive (a common fault with movies set in the Potterverse). Yates’ skill as a director is missing here and scenes that should have an emotional impact pass by as blandly as the rest. Ultimately what’s missing is the sense of awe and wonder the audience should be experiencing at seeing these fantastic beasts, and from being allowed to explore this new/old (you decide) era in wizarding history. That the movie never achieves this is disappointing, and doesn’t bode well for the remaining four movies coming our way.

Rating: 5/10 – not the most auspicious of starts to a franchise, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is by-the-numbers moviemaking that doesn’t make the most of its fantasy trappings or its Twenties New York setting (it literally could have been set anywhere and it wouldn’t have made a difference to the story or the characters); Rowling shoehorns in as much as she can but can’t quite manage to make any of it as exciting or significant as she did with the boy wizard, all of which leaves the movie looking and sounding like a cynical exercise in milking further dividends from a previously successful franchise. (25/31)

Porco Rosso (1992)

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Original title: Kurenai no buta

D: Hayao Miyazaki / 93m

Cast: Shûichirô Moriyama, Tokiko Katô, Bunshi Katsura Vi, Tsunehiko Kamijô, Akemi Okamura, Akio Ôtsuka, Hiroko Seki, Reizô Nomoto, Osamu Saka, Yu Shimaka

Let’s get this out of the way first of all – thank God (or whichever deity you choose) for Hayao Miyazaki. In a world full of pretenders and puffed-up egos, the man is an unassailable genius. From Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986), all the way through to his swansong, The Wind Rises (2013), Miyazaki has been responsible for providing audiences around the world with a succession of beautifully crafted, emotionally resonant animated movies that have been a feast for the eyes and a balm to the heart. And Porco Rosso (literally ‘crimson pig’) sits firmly within the pantheon of Miyazaki’s career as a director (and just as firmly as Fio’s behind in Porco Rosso’s rebuilt plane).

The movie is another of Miyazaki’s grounded fantasies, with the title character (Moriyama) a veteran fighter pilot from World War I who now acts as an aerial bounty hunter, tracking down and putting out of business so-called air pirates operating above the Adriatic Sea. But Porco isn’t just a bounty hunter, he’s also an anthropomorphic pig, the victim of a curse that has no apparent cure. When Porco isn’t chasing down air pirates and saving groups of school children (a common occurrence it seems), he divides his time between the tiny island he uses as his base, and the Hotel Adriano, which is owned and run by the widow of one of his war-time co-pilots, Madame Gina (Katô) (she has feelings for Porco but he’s blissfully unaware of them). The hotel is also the meeting place for the leaders of the various air pirate gangs; they’ve arranged for a famous American flyer, Donald Curtis (Ōtsuka), to take on and defeat Porco when he next attempts to stop them from robbing a ship. The confrontation takes place as planned, but Porco’s plane – which has seen better days – lets him down and he’s forced to give Curtis the impression that he’s gone to a watery grave. In time, Porco returns to the European mainland, and travels to Milan in order to get his plane repaired.

Being careful to keep a low profile – Porco is a wanted pig in Italy – he arrives at the workshop of his old friend and mechanic, Piccolo (Katsura Vi). He’s surprised to learn that Piccolo’s sons have left to find work elsewhere, and his old friend only has his seventeen-year-old granddaughter, Fio (Okamura) to help him. Against his initial reservations he agrees to let Fio redesign his plane, but she proves to have some excellent ideas, all of which go to make Porco’s plane faster and more robust in the air. With the Italian secret police closing in on him, Porco makes to leave, only to find Fio determined to go with him as “a hostage”. They evade the secret police and arrive back at the Hotel Adriano only to be accosted by the air pirates who threaten to destroy Porco’s plane and kill him. But Fio intervenes and shames them into accepting a duel between Porco and Curtis instead. If Porco wins, Curtis must make good on the debts Porco owes Piccolo; if Curtis wins though, Fio will agree to marry him…

If Porco Rosso looks and feels as if Miyazaki has a stronger attachment to this project than usual, then the fact that it’s an adaptation of a three-part watercolour manga, The Age of the Flying Boat, by Miyazaki himself might offer a clue as to the reason why. Miyazaki’s distrust of modern technology is evident in both the movie’s setting and the way in which Porco keeps faith with his plane – and despite its obvious failings in the movie’s opening third. And when his plane is redesigned by Fio, the materials that are used are in keeping with the original construction (only the engine could be considered an “upgrade”). All this is in keeping with Miyazaki’s environmentalist beliefs as well as his reoccurring notions of family, here represented by Piccolo’s workforce all being female relatives of his whose skills are required because the menfolk are absent. It’s these deft touches that add depth to the material, much of which is an ode to an earlier, simpler age, and Miyazaki, working from his own script, ensures there’s an added sense of poignancy in relation to a future where everything will change.

In many ways, Porco Rosso is perhaps the closest Miyazaki has gotten to making a Western. Porco is the lone gunslinger, quicker on the draw than anyone else, while Curtis is the young upstart looking to make a name for himself by bringing down the more experienced gunfighter. The Hotel Adriano doubles for a saloon, the air pirates are rustlers and bandits who rob stagecoaches, and Fio is the plucky young girl a la Mattie Ross in True Grit (1969). Further references can be made, and it’s fun to spot them as the movie zips along merrily in such good-natured fashion that finding fault with it soon proves to be a task of Herculean proportions. It’s an infectiously enjoyable movie, funny in a variety of ways and always aiming to please, always looking for new and different ways to surprise the viewer and improve their viewing experience. That it succeeds, and with such ease, is a testament to Miyazaki’s innate ability to tell a good story, and his unwavering commitment to the movies he makes (or since his retirement in 2013, made).

This being a Studio Ghibli movie, the animation is suitably and predictably impressive, with sharp, clean lines; bright, vibrant colours; superb lighting effects; and wonderfully expressive characters. Some scenes have a painterly effect, as if you’re looking at a canvas in a museum of art, and there’s an incredible sense of space and movement that Miyazaki and his team pull off as it was the easiest thing in the world (which it probably isn’t). This is 2D animation at its best: richly detailed, painstakingly assembled, and often beautiful to watch or look at. With an amusing screenplay that doesn’t ignore or gloss over the inherent drama of Porco’s situation (particularly the dream-like sequence where he reveals how he came to be a pig), or aspects such as Madame Gina’s unrequited love for him, the movie flows as easily and as confidently as the waves depicted on screen.

Rating: 9/10 – an unabashed gem of a movie, Porco Rosso does what all truly great animated movies do: it makes you forget you’re watching an animated movie; full of memorable moments (too many to mention here at least), it’s a movie that contains palpable senses of mischief and wonder in its storytelling, and makes you wish that Miyazaki’s planned sequel, Porco Rosso: The Last Sortie, could have been made before he decided to retire from making features. (24/31)

The Face of Love (2013)

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D: Arie Posin / 92m

Cast: Annette Bening, Ed Harris, Robin Williams, Jess Weixler, Amy Brenneman

What if you had the chance to relive the love you once had but lost? What if Fate afforded you the opportunity to continue living the romantic life you’d taken for granted? And what if that romantic life, or a newer version of it at least, wasn’t intrinsically healthy, but you had to embrace it, or lose more of yourself than you could ever realise? What would you do? Would you still try for happiness under those circumstances, or would you take a step back, avoid committing yourself, let Life take you in another direction? Or would the mere contemplation of taking a different, more appropriate path, persuade you to try for that renewed happiness? And if you did commit yourself to revisiting a once treasured relationship, how would that decision make you feel, and what would be the emotional toll of such a decision?

These are all questions asked by The Face of Love, a romantic drama that centres around the grief experienced by Nikki Lostrom (Bening) after the death of her husband, Garret (Harris), after thirty years of marriage. Five years on from his unexpected death from drowning while on holiday in Mexico, Nikki is still grieving, still devoted to his memory, still living in the house he built for her, and still wishing he was alive. She has become resigned to being on her own; the only “man” in her life is an old friend of Garret’s called Roger (Williams) who uses her pool (Garret used to swim, and Roger’s using their pool is another way of retaining a connection with her late husband). A random trip to an art gallery she and Garret used to visit leads to a fateful discovery: a man (Harris) who looks exactly like Garret, sitting on a bench. Nikki is shocked, but mostly energised by the possibility that he might serve as a replacement for Garret, a döppelganger she can pretend is her dead husband come back to life.

She discovers the man’s name is Tom Young, and that he’s an art professor at a local college. An attempt to enrol in one of his classes backfires, partly because it’s already halfway through the semester, and partly because she becomes overwhelmed. But she engineers another “chance” meeting, and she hires Tom as a private art tutor. From there they begin a relationship, one that becomes more and more serious, and one that she hides from Roger, and her daughter, Summer (Weixler). She also hides the truth about Tom’s uncanny resemblance to Garret, knowing instinctively that no one else will understand the need she has to keep him in her life. As time goes on, Tom falls in love with Nikki, while her obsession with Garret threatens to undermine the love she feels for Tom. As she strives – and fails – to keep her relationship with Tom from developing into a full-blown obsession, Summer meets Tom accidentally and doesn’t react well to his presence, while a trip to Mexico doesn’t go as Nikki planned either…

When it comes to depicting grief, the movies tend to go for big, emotionally devastating scenes that are constructed with the express desire of wringing out the audience and leaving them feeling hollow inside – in a good way, of course. Pixar took this idea to the nth degree with the opening montage in Up (2009), a sequence so perfectly judged and executed that it can instil tears no matter how many times you see it. But Arie Posin’s second feature after the quirky, indie-flavoured The Chumscrubber (2005), isn’t interested in grand emotional gestures but quietly devastating ones instead. Nikki’s grief is compounded by her inability to deal with being a widow, and the gloomy knowledge that she is on her own again after thirty years. She works, she potters around at home, she does her best to support her daughter who has her own relationship issues, but still she lacks purpose. She trades on her memories to keep her going, and every day is the same: another day where she misses Garret fiercely.

Posin and co-screenwriter Matthew McDuffie are keen to show the dilemma that Nikki faces when she sees Tom for the first time. Her initial shock soon gives way to desire, a physical craving to have Garret’s double in her life, to give her back the purpose she lacks, and to allow herself to feel whole once more. Nikki experiences a number of complex, emotional reactions to the possibility of spending more time with “Garret”, and as her desire descends slowly into obsession (at one point it becomes clear she’d rather have Tom in her life than her own daughter), the viewer is forced to watch Nikki deny her own grief and clutch at the hope of a relationship she knows in her heart can’t last. She’s both aware of, and in denial of, the feelings that are trapping her in an ever increasing spiral of deceit. With all this emotional upheaval going on it’s a good job that Bening was chosen for the role, as she is nothing short of incredible, making Nikki both horrifying and sympathetic at the same time, a monstrous figure borne of overwhelming selfishness and unseemly desire.

It’s not too far off to say that Nikki is psychologically abusive, to herself and to Tom, and the script effectively explores the nature of that abuse and its effect on everyone concerned. Harris is solid and dependable as Tom, and more ebullient as the Garret we see in flashbacks. As he becomes more and more suspicious of Nikki’s need for him, we witness Tom’s own vulnerability from being alone, and the personal importance his romance with Nikki takes on. But while the central relationship builds on an achingly effective sense of co-dependency, elsewhere the narrative isn’t as confident or compelling. Secondary characters such as Williams’ romantically hopeful friend, and Weixler’s bright but narratively redundant daughter are given short shrift by the script and pop up only when said script remembers to include them (though not always in a way that advances the story or plot). Posin the director concentrates on Nikki almost to the exclusion of everything else, and while this does allow Bening to give another of her exemplary performances, it doesn’t help that many scenes look and feel contrived, and the narrative suffers any time Nikki avoids telling Tom the truth about why she’s seeing him. Posin never really finds a solution for these problems, and they end up harming the movie, making it seem unnecessarily superficial in places, and yet far more successful as a study in the mechanics of obsessive need. A detailed, somewhat complex movie then, but undermined by its clumsy structure and random attempts to broaden the narrative.

Rating: 7/10 – Bening is the main attraction here, riveting and plausible in equal measure, and giving The Face of Love such a boost it’s hard to envision the movie without her; narrative problems aside, this is still a movie that packs an emotional wallop in places, and which shows that romantic dramas aren’t exclusively the domain of twentysomethings or disaffected teenagers. (23/31)

The Card (1952)

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aka The Promoter

D: Ronald Neame / 91m

Cast: Alec Guinness, Glynis Johns, Valerie Hobson, Petula Clark, Edward Chapman, Veronica Turleigh, George Devine

How many times does it happen? Just when you think you’ve seen all but the most obscure entries in an actor or actress’s filmography, then up pops a movie that elicits a blank-faced response and mutterings along the line of, “No, I’ve seen it… I must have seen it”. The Card is such a movie, an outing for Alec Guinness that somehow slipped through the cracks of the last forty years. Oh, the shame! The horror! The – okay, that’s enough hysterical melodrama. There’s an upside to this kind of situation, though, a silver lining in the dark cloud of feature blindness, and that’s the joy at discovering there’s still a movie starring a favourite actor or actress that you haven’t seen, a movie to savour at a point when you thought there wouldn’t be any more movies to catch up on. Of all the movies in this month’s strand, this has provided the most pleasure in terms of its being “discovered”.

It’s an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Arnold Bennett, and tells the tale of an ambitious young man called Edward Henry Machin (Guinness), but known as Denry by his friends, family and work colleagues. Denry wants to get ahead in Life, and isn’t above a little cheating in order to further his ambitions. He forges his exam results to get into a better school, and when he’s a young man he uses a lost wallet to get his foot in the door at the office of Herbert Duncalf (Chapman), town clerk and solicitor. One day, Denry meets the Countess of Chell (Hobson), one of Duncalf’s clients. Denry is smitten by her, and determines to win her patronage however he can. Charged by Duncalf with sending out invitations to a grand municipal ball the Countess is hosting, Denry ensures he has an invitation himself. Needing a dress suit he provides an invitation to the tailor, and needing dance lessons, he provides an invitation to his instructor, Miss Ruth Earp (Johns). At the ball, Denry accepts a challenge to dance with the Countess. He does so, and this earns him a reputation as a “card” (in other words, a “character”).

His attendance at the ball enrages Duncalf who fires him, but not before Denry spots an opportunity to work for himself. He offers his services as a rent collector to one of Duncalf’s dissatisfied clients, and quickly realises he can make money for himself by advancing loans to tenants and reaping the benefits of a profitable interest rate. His success secures him another landlord’s list of tenants, one of whom turns out to be Miss Earp. Despite her efforts to avoid paying her rent arrears, and despite Denry’s every effort to get her to do so, they find themselves engaged. On a trip to Llandudno in Wales – accompanied by Nellie Cotterill (Clark), Miss Earp’s friend and chaperone – Denry becomes aware of just how avaricious his fiancée really is (he’s had enough clues by now) and they part company. Denry returns to his home town of Bursley and starts up the Five Towns Universal Thrift Club, which allows members to buy on credit from certain shops. Using this as a platform to enhance his social standing, Denry becomes a councillor, persuades the Countess to act as patroness of the Thrift Club, gets involved with Bursley’s ailing football club, and looks ahead to running for Mayor. But who will he choose as the woman to share it all with – Miss Earp, the Countess, or young Nellie?

This was Guinness’s first outing as a romantic lead, but Guinness being Guinness he’s not the most romantic lead you’ve ever seen. Adopting a dreamy, wistful, semi-surprised look for most of the movie, Guinness does his best to look beatific even when things aren’t going entirely Denry’s way. It’s a performance full of light touches and broad brush strokes, charm and unassuming wit, with Guinness looking eternally cheerful and eternally optimistic. It’s often a carefree, overly relaxed portrayal, with Guinness opting for nonchalance instead of keen involvement, and it matches the light, frivolous nature of the material. This is a comedy, through and through, and one that’s played at just the right level – bordering on farce – by all concerned. You can reckon on the cast imbuing the characters with exactly the right mannerisms and exactly the right motivations, whether it’s Johns’ mercenary dance teacher, Chapman’s unctuous public official, or Hobson’s stately yet approachable Countess. They offer the cinematic equivalent of comfort food, and he experience of watching the movie is all the better for it.

But even though it’s an outright comedy, there are still dramatic elements that add depth to the material, such as an underlying critique of social conventions that’s dropped onto centre stage at times just to remind the audience that there’s more to the movie than laughs aplenty (even if most of those elements are steamrollered into submission by the end). Also there are moments where Denry’s plans look as if they might all tumble around him, and the movie adopts a plaintive, melancholy tone before Denry extricates himself in such a way that he comes out ahead (and make no mistake, Eric Ambler’s screenplay is firmly behind Denry all the way). And then there are the romantic antics of Denry and Miss Earp, an adversarial relationship that somehow seems fortuitous and yet ineluctably doomed at the same time. Guinness and Johns spar with each other delightfully, and the conclusion to their Llandudno trip – “I only said Rockefeller” – is beautifully judged and executed.

What drama there is, though, is completely overwhelmed by the movie’s earnest desire to entertain its audience purely and thoroughly. This isn’t a movie that will have you mulling over its finer points for weeks afterwards, nor is it a movie where its parochial backdrop serves as anything more than just that, a backdrop for the rags to riches tale of Denry’s success as a social climber. It’s directed nimbly and with a keen eye by Neame for the absurdity of having a whey-faced cheat as its “hero”, and he and Guinness have created a loveable seducer to hang their story on. Buoyed by crisp cinematography by the ever-reliable Oswald Morris, and with a singsong, happy-go-lucky score by William Alwyn, this is marvellous entertainment that doesn’t need to be anything more than it is: a silly, giddy, unpretentious piece of fun.

Rating: 8/10 – Guinness is on fine form (as always), and though he’ll never convince as a romantic lead, he does convince as a conniver and an opportunist, and retains a likeability that’s hard to ignore; easy-going and happy to be nothing more than a bit of fluff to be enjoyed for what it is, The Card is a genuinely cheerful experience, and proof yet again that they don’t make ’em like that anymore. (22/31)

NOTE: Sadly, there isn’t a trailer available for The Card.

The Two Deaths of Quincas Wateryell (2010)

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Original title: Quincas Berro d’Água

D: Sérgio Machado / 101m

Cast: Paulo José, Mariana Ximenes, Marieta Severo, Vladimir Brichta, Flavio Bauraqui, Luis Miranda, Frank Menezes, Irandhir Santos

When you think about it, there are hundreds of thousands of English language movies to choose from, with thousands more being added each year. But there are even more foreign language movies, and picking one to watch can be daunting. Do you keep it safe by seeing foreign language movies that are awards winners, such as Toni Erdmann (2016), or do you opt for pot luck and take a corresponding chance? Taking the second option can be a reward in itself, and if you choose to see The Two Deaths of Quincas Wateryell, an adaptation of the novella, The Double Death of Quincas Water-Bray (1959) by Jorge Amado, then that choice will definitely be well made.

The plot concerns Quincas Wateryell (José), an old man whose friends have planned a surprise birthday party for him. But Quincas goes and does something unexpected: he misses the party and promptly dies (his first death). His body is found the next morning, and his family – his daughter Vanda (Ximenes), and son-in-law Leonardo (Brichta) – are contacted. While the news of her father’s death is obviously upsetting, there is another reason why the news is unwelcome: Quincas isn’t his real name, it’s Joaquim Soares da Cunha, and he disgraced his family by walking out on them to become a vagabond alcoholic. Having changed his name, only a handful of people are aware of his connection to Vanda, and she wants to keep it that way. Early preparations for the funeral are made, and some of Quincas’ friends – Curió (Menezes), Pé de Vento (Miranda), Pastinha (Bauraqui), and Cabo Martim (Santos) – hold a late night vigil over Quincas’ corpse.

The four men reminisce about the times they spent with Quincas, and they decide to give him what they regard as a proper send off: they take him for one last jaunt through town, going to the places they used to frequent, and treat it all as one big farewell party. Their intentions are simple, and the rest of the people who knew Quincas all join in, including his “girlfriend”, a club singer called Manuela (Severo). However, their having taken Quincas’ body is soon discovered, and the police become involved. It’s not long before they’re arrested and taken into custody, along with Quincas’ body. A hastily put together diversion allows the four friends (and Quincas) to escape from the police station, and they head for the docks where they plan to take him for one last boat trip. But a storm intervenes, and while the four friends, and Manuela, struggle to keep themselves afloat, Quincas’ final resting place suddenly seems more likely to be a watery one than one underground.

When Amado’s novella was first published, it was well received due to its indictment of Brazil’s class-ridden society, and The Two Deaths of Quincas Wateryell retains much of that original recrimination, though it becomes more of a comedic issue than a dramatic one. Vanda receives the news of her father’s death while in the company of two friends, and at first her shock is a natural reaction to such unexpected news. But it’s not long before she perceives her social standing as being under threat, and she takes steps to ensure her father, Joaquim, and Quincas, aren’t connected in any way. The same is true of her husband, Leonardo, who supports the fabrication that he ran off with the daughter of an Italian Comendatore and hasn’t been seen since. This stands him in good stead at work as well, with his colleagues taking more notice of him than before. Machado, working from his own script, starts off by making the couple unfeeling and duplicitous, but in a comedic light, as they’re unable to hide their conflicting emotions and their behaviour borders on being inappropriate. Even when Quincas’ relationship to them becomes more and more well known, they still can’t help themselves, and resort to misplaced pride to maintain their reputation in the local community.

What’s clever about Machado’s adaptation, though, is that he doesn’t continue with this attitude, and by the movie’s end, Vanda is a completely different person, wiser perhaps, and definitely changed, and free of the social insecurities she had before. How Machado achieves this is equally clever, and psychologically quite astute. He’s helped by a terrific performance by Ximenes, who provides each step of Vanda’s character arc with convincing details and honest emotional reactions. Less successful is Leonardo’s role in everything, as the longer the movie goes on, the less he’s involved, and he disappears from the final half an hour altogether. By then, of course, the focus is on getting Quincas to the boat trip, and Machado has to sacrifice tying up some of his script’s loose ends in favour of a dramatic denouement.

Along the way though, Machado achieves a lot of mileage out of Quincas’ “night out” with his friends. Taking a peek at the social underclass in Salvador da Bahia gives the director a chance to provide a colourful glimpse into a world of tradition and superstition, and which has a pronounced indifference to more conventional social practices (as evidenced by the religious ritual that Vanda dismisses as unnecessary because her family – not Quincas it’s important to note – are Catholics). It’s a lively, expressive environment, where people wear their hearts on their sleeves, and live with a passion for life that appears to be compromised amongst the people in Vanda and Leonardo’s social circle. The cast are all equally as expressive in their roles, with good performances throughout by Messrs Bauraqui, Miranda, Menezes, and Santos, but special mention must go to José, whose portrayal of Quincas is the bedrock of the movie, and an amazing feat in itself (at first you’ll be looking to see if he twitches or blinks or can be caught breathing; don’t bother, you won’t manage it). He also provides a witty, often poignant narration that’s delivered with sincerity and charm. Rounded off by immersive yet unshowy cinematography by Toca Seabra, it’s a movie that never flags for incident, and never undervalues its characters or their motives.

Rating: 8/10 – a vital and energetic comedy drama that tackles themes of social climbing, emotional disillusionment, and unwanted family legacies, The Two Deaths of Quincas Wateryell is a sturdy, engaging and ultimately winning movie that offers much for the casual viewer to enjoy; advertised more as a comedy, it has a depth to it that anchors much of the storyline, and shows that absurd moments involving a corpse don’t have to be purely a showcase for laughs. (21/31)

NOTE: There aren’t any English subtitles for the trailer below, but there shouldn’t be any problem understanding what’s going on.

Out of the Furnace (2013)

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D: Scott Cooper / 116m

Cast: Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe, Zoe Saldana, Tom Bower, Sam Shepard

There is a song by Sparks called Talent Is an Asset. It’s a turn of a phrase to remember when watching Out of the Furnace, the second feature by Scott Cooper, because without its very talented cast, the movie would not be as good as it is, and it wouldn’t be as persuasive. Cooper has taken a spec script by Brad Inglesby (who receives a co-writing credit) – and which originally had Leonardo DiCaprio and Ridley Scott attached to it – and made a movie that alternately baffles and convinces with its plotting. It’s a movie that takes over half its running time to get to the meat of the story, and which throws in a couple of sub-plots for good measure in order to pad out said running time.

It’s a tale that begins inauspiciously, in the small town of Braddock, with steel mill worker Russell Baze (Bale) discovering that his younger brother, Iraq War veteran Rodney (Affleck), is in serious debt to local bar owner and small town criminal John Petty (Dafoe). Without telling Rodney, Russell begins paying off his debt, but an unexpected and tragic accident sees Russell sent to prison. In the meantime, Rodney returns to Iraq for another tour of duty, their terminally ill father dies, and Russell’s girlfriend, Lena (Saldana), takes up with the town sheriff, Wesley Barnes (Whitaker) without even telling him. When he eventually gets out, he soon discovers that Rodney, who is now back home for good, is taking part in illegal bare knuckle fights in order to pay off his debt to Petty. Russell challenges him to work at the steel mill instead but Rodney refuses.

Rodney compels Petty to set up one last fight, one with a big enough payout that he can clear his debt and start his life afresh. Against his better judgment, Petty arranges a fight through one of his criminal contacts, a vicious drug dealer from the Ramapo Mountains called Harlan DeGroat (Harrelson). After the fight, evidence points to DeGroat having killed Rodney and Petty, but the police are hampered by the uncooperative nature of the Ramapo community, and DeGroat never being in the same place twice. Russell decides he has to take the law into his own hands, and he goes looking for DeGroat, but has the same luck as the police. And then he hits on an idea that will bring DeGroat to him…

Out of the Furnace has two clear ambitions: to be a tough, uncompromising drama, and to provide a snapshot of rural communities along the Eastern Seaboard of America, and their daily struggles to keep their heads above water. For the most part, Cooper succeeds in making the movie tough and uncompromising, and there are several scenes that exert a morbid fascination in terms of the characters and their acceptance of the way Life makes their situations worse than they need to be. Rodney can’t see a better way out of his financial situation, and so gets regularly beaten and bruised and bloodied. Russell comes out of prison and makes only a half-hearted attempt to reconnect with Lena (an attempt that is shot down in flames in moments). And Lena rues the decision she made in leaving Russell but is in a position where she can’t back out anymore. All this makes everyone’s life that much harder, and their various predicaments are what drive the movie forward. And then Russell finds himself in another corner, the one where he feels compelled to seek revenge for what’s happened to his brother.

Decisions and consequences, then, but ones that aren’t handled that well by Cooper, and ones that follow a very prescribed pattern. A scene showing DeGroat making and injecting heroin is interspersed with shots of a SWAT team advancing on the house where DeGroat is supposed to live. Not one viewer should be surprised when the SWAT raid reveals DeGroat isn’t home and that he’s somewhere else. This scene and others play out as if we’ve never seen them before, and while familiarity can be used to a director’s advantage, here they’re just stepping stones on a path too many of us have witnessed before. Cooper also connects the dots for the viewer at almost every turn, and there’s too much unnecessary exposition propping up these scenes to make them anywhere near effective. As for the backdrop of the town’s misfortune, aside from a brief mention that the mill is expected to close, the precarious nature of people’s lives and the decline of Braddock’s infrastructure is glimpsed but receives no further exploration.

With the story following a familiar through line, and Cooper finding it difficult to make the action as urgent as it needs to be, it’s left to the cast to rescue things. Bale gives a magnetic performance as Russell, a man with a strong moral code that brooks no compromise, and he’s matched by Affleck’s tightly-wound portrayal of Rodney, an Iraq War veteran whose seen too much and uses bare knuckle fighting to punish himself for being a part of it all (an aspect of his character which is barely explored but is a more effective reason for his fighting than paying off a debt). Whitaker, Saldana, and Dafoe offer strong support, taking largely underwritten characters and fleshing them out to good effect, but it’s Harrelson who steals the movie, making DeGroat one of the scariest, and yet charismatic villains of recent years. There’s something about Harrelson playing a psychopath that always seems just right, and here the actor gives an hypnotic performance that chills and repulses at the same time. In assembling such a great cast, Cooper has been lucky in that the material has been given a massive boost thanks to their overall commitment; but if they hadn’t agreed to take part…

Rating: 5/10 – an ambitious, rural-based thriller that isn’t as muscular or compelling as its writer/director intended, Out of the Furnace suffers from a muddled structure and too many scenes that exist in isolation of each other; saved by a clutch of very good performances, it remains a movie that should have made more of its deprived-area backdrop and even more of its generic revenge-based denouement. (20/31)

10 Reasons to Remember John Heard (1946-2017)

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John Heard (7 March 1946 – 21 July 2017)

John Heard was an actor who could have been a star – and briefly he was. Early on in his career, it looked as if A-list status was only a movie or two away. But it wasn’t to be, and though Heard continued to work steadily on both the big screen and on TV, he never achieved the level of fame or fortune that his skill as an actor warranted. He was sanguine about his lack of success, and in 2008 he had these very perceptive words to say about his career:

“I guess I went from being a young leading man to being just kind of a hack actor. When I came to Hollywood, I was pretty much a stage actor, and I expected everybody to be quiet. And they weren’t. They were doing their job, and you’re expected to do your job, and you’re sort of this ongoing co-existence. I was a little bit of an arrogant jerk. Now, it’s a little bit more like, ‘Okay, I realize you have to pat me down with powder every three seconds.’ And I stand there, and I’m a little more tolerant…. I think I had my time. I dropped the ball, as my father would say. I think I could have done more with my career than I did, and I sort of got sidetracked. But that’s OK, that’s all right, that’s the way it is. No sour grapes. I mean, I don’t have any regrets. Except that I could have played some bigger parts.”

Event though from the Eighties onwards he could be found quite low down on cast lists in often minor supporting roles, Heard could still infuse the characters he played with an honesty and a sincerity that often made them better roles than intended. Even in something as bad as Sharknado (2013), he was still worth watching, and he gave several other movies a boost just by being in them. Some careers don’t pan out in the way that actors expect or plan for, and even though Heard was capable of much better roles than he was given, and much better performances when given the chance, he was still an actor who could surprise an audience, as the Emmy nomination for his role as Detective Vin Makazian in The Sopranos (1999/2004) proved. However his career may be viewed now, one thing can be said with certainty: his was a talent that was never fully exploited, and that was, and continues to be, a detriment to us all.

1 – Head Over Heels (1979)

2 – Cutter’s Way (1981)

3 – Cat People (1982)

4 – The Trip to Bountiful (1985)

5 – Big (1988)

6 – Beaches (1988)

7 – Home Alone (1990)

8 – My Fellow Americans (1996)

9 – The Great Debaters (2007)

10 – Too Big to Fail (2011)

The Goob (2014)

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D: Guy Myhill / 84m

Cast: Liam Walpole, Sean Harris, Sienna Guillory, Marama Corlett, Oliver Kennedy, Hannah Spearritt, Paul Popplewell, Joe Copsey

Watching The Goob, it’s tempting to ask the question, just how many disaffected, aimless teenagers are there in the world? And following on from that question, it’s equally as tempting to ask: why is it that their mothers all seem to take up with violent, reprehensible boyfriends? Sometimes it seems that when it comes to teenagers navigating the ups and downs of trying to find their way in the world, the movies rely on too many clichés to get the story told. Cliché no 1: have the teenager sulk a lot and look miserable. Cliché no 2: make sure the teenager has very little dialogue, and that when he or she does speak, it’s in monosyllables. Cliché no 2a: and if they do speak, make sure they don’t articulate any feelings or emotions. Cliché no 3: make sure the teenager is shown walking or running or riding a bicycle or moped in a generally aimless direction (and more than once). Cliché no 4: give the teenager a chance at a meaningful relationship with a person of the opposite sex, but then ensure that something happens to ruin it. And cliché no 5: always, always, have the teenager do something that will alienate them even further.

Guy Myhill’s debut feature ticks all these boxes and more in its attempt to tell the story of Goob Taylor, a sixteen year old living in the wilds of rural Norfolk who we meet on a school bus heading home after his last day in full-time education. Home is a weather-worn diner run by his mother, Janet (Guillory), somewhere on a main road but only able to attract the custom of the local residents (which is strange, as aside from the odd building here and there, and a custom car race track, housing seems to be in very short supply). Janet and Goob have a strong, loving relationship, but recently she’s started seeing Gene (Harris), a local beet farmer and would-be race car champion who’s also a vindictive bully. Gene seems only interested in Janet for sex, while he treats Goob and his older brother, Rod (Copsey), with complete disdain. A joy ride in Gene’s race car ends in a crash that sees Rod ending up in hospital, but Goob barely suffering a scratch. This leads to Goob having to help Gene on his beet farm, holed up in a pit overnight to watch out for anyone trying to steal the crop.

The arrival of help in the form of Elliott (Kennedy), an upbeat, continually smiling young man a little older than Goob hints at a potential gay love interest, but Myhill avoids this by introducing instead a field worker called Eva (Corlett), whom Goob takes a shine to. As their relationship develops, it starts to provoke an envious response in Gene, who watches the pair from a distance, and with the intention of interfering. At a party where all the field workers are invited, Eva and one of Gene’s friends head off to play snooker but it’s not long before Gene interrupts their game in order to be alone with Eva and try his luck. When she rejects his advances he’s less than gentle in his response. Goob appears to rescue Eva and confront Gene, but whatever plan Goob has, Gene isn’t remotely aware of it, and their confrontation doesn’t go as Goob would like…

As well as the clichés listed above, there are several more that could be added. While the movie paints a melancholy tale of a life headed nowhere, literally and figuratively, this would be fine if there was any likelihood that Goob’s situation would be any different at the end of the movie from what it is at the beginning. Goob is not just stuck in the middle of nowhere, he’s stuck with no ambition and no willingness to improve his life in any meaningful way. His relationship with his mother constantly hints at being inappropriate – they play wrestle on her bed, she hugs him tightly and tells him he’ll still be her “boy” even when he’s forty-six – and she appears to gain more emotional support from him than the other way round. But while Myhill signposts this sort of thing with the appearance that it’s all relevant and will be explored later in the movie, this subplot and several others fall by the wayside with increasing frequency. The same is true of a scene where Goob discovers Gene having sex with Mary (Spearritt), a young girl who helps out in the diner. You’d be willing to bet that Goob will use this at some point to expose Gene in front of his mother, but it’s not even referred to. In The Goob, it’s surprising how many blind alleys there are lurking in the rural vastness of the Norfolk countryside.

With much of the plot lacking development, and less exploration of the characters’ states of mind than benefits the material, Myhill is rescued by Simon Tindall’s impressive cinematography, and sterling performances from Harris (convincing as always; now give this man a comedy, for God’s sake) and newcomer Walpole, whose glum demeanour and pouty stare adds to the sense of Goob’s isolation from those around him. But neither can detract from the pervading sense of familiarity that watching the movie provokes, nor the idea that Myhill has opted for style over substance in his efforts to tell Goob’s story – such as it is.

Rating: 5/10 – containing too many elements that don’t add up or are just ignored as the movie progresses, The Goob looks more persuasive than it is, and only occasionally proves as compelling as it should be; an occasion where less is just that, it’s a movie that looks good on the surface, but which tells its story without stopping to convince the audience how its main character feels about anything that’s happening to him or around him. (19/31)

RKO 281 (1999)

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D: Benjamin Ross / 87m

Cast: Liev Schreiber, James Cromwell, Melanie Griffith, John Malkovich, Brenda Blethyn, Roy Scheider, Liam Cunningham, David Suchet, Fiona Shaw, Anastasia Hille

In 1939, Orson Welles (Schreiber), the “boy wonder”, signed a movie contract with RKO Pictures. He was given unprecedented freedom to make whatever movie he wanted (though RKO hoped he would make a movie version of his infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast). After two attempts at making his first picture, Welles, along with old friend and writer Herman J. Mankiewicz (Malkovich) came up with the idea of making a loosely fictionalised version of the life of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst (Cromwell). Welles regarded Hearst as a hypocrite and a monster, a man richly deserving of being exposed in much the same way that Hearst’s newspapers had done to others. Welles considered he had nothing to lose by making such a movie, but before long it became something much more personal, and with a great deal of meaning for him. RKO 281Citizen Kane‘s production number – shows how the movie came to be made, some of the pitfalls along the way, and the pressure Hearst tried to exert in order to make the movie disappear without the public ever seeing it.

Like many an acknowledged classic, Citizen Kane didn’t just appear out of nowhere. In RKO 281, we see the genesis of both the myth and the legend, and the movie itself. After a year in Hollywood, and with nothing to show for his efforts, Welles was already being looked upon as a failure, a circumstance that didn’t bother him in the slightest, but which would spur him on to make a movie that is generally regarded as the best American movie ever made. Based in part on the documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane (1996), RKO 281 begins with Welles’ arrival in Hollywood, his fame preceeding him. Persuaded to come out there by RKO head George J. Schaefer (Scheider), Welles attends a dinner held by Hearst and is appalled by the man’s attitude and takes immediate offence. Soon he’s telling Mankiewicz that Hearst is the perfect subject for his first movie. But Mankiewicz isn’t so sure and tries to warn Welles of the trouble he’ll face if he goes ahead with his plan.

Soon, however, they have a screenplay, and though the two men have a falling out over Mankiewicz’s name being removed from the final script, the movie goes ahead and production begins in earnest. But Welles is soon behind, his quest for perfection causing delays and production overspends. The industry, still unaware of the content of Welles’ movie, predicts it will be a disaster. It’s only when news of its focus reaches the ears of Hearst that the possibility of its truly being a disaster becomes more likely. Determined to ensure that the movie, originally titled American, is never shown in cinemas, Hearst brings pressure to bear on the heads of the other studios, partly by playing the race card – that the heads were all Jewish wasn’t widely known or acknowledged – and partly by threatening to expose the immoral activities of their stars. While everyone else around him views Hearst as being entirely capable of destroying Welles’ career, and their own if he so wishes, it’s left to Welles to fight for his movie. Help, though, comes in an unexpected form…

The story behind the making of Citizen Kane is often as fascinating as the actual movie itself, and though RKO 281 uses The Battle Over Citizen Kane as its template for John Logan’s vigorous screenplay, there’s still a sense that this is a movie going over old ground, and without achieving the same effect. Logan certainly hits his mark as it were, and there are some priceless lines of dialogue – Mankiewicz on San Simeon, the massive estate where Hearst lived: “it’s the place God would have built if he had the money” – but once Hearst becomes aware of just how much of his life Welles has appropriated for Citizen Kane, the movie makes an unjustified attempt at becoming a thriller, with Welles’ career on the line versus Hearst’s reputation. And despite a passionate performance by Schreiber, and with the outcome already known in advance, the movie struggles to make Hearst’s threats as worrying as they must have been at the time, and he comes across as a petulant control freak. The same can be said for Welles also, and the movie makes the point several times over that the two men were very similar, but in doing this so often, it lessens the impact of what the movie is trying to say.

Before then, the movie focuses on the making of Citizen Kane, and here the movie is on firmer ground, replicating the ups and downs of the production with a great deal of enthusiasm, and recreating events such as the time that Welles had a massive hole dug in the studio floor to facilitate a particular low-level shot he wanted (apparently he never thought of raising the set instead). His relationship with the cinematographer, Gregg Toland (Cunningham) is also explored, but ultimately it’s his friendship with Mankiewicz that gets the most screen time, and the ways in which Welles exploited his friend’s talent. Both Schreiber and Malkovich relish the dialogue they’re given in their scenes together, and these scenes are some of the best in the movie, with both men sparking and feeding off each other to very good effect. Cromwell injects a little bit of pathos into his portrayal of Hearst, but it’s not enough to offset the idea that here is a man whose monomania – himself – has become a lifestyle choice. As the former silent actress Marion Davies, Griffith gives a sympathetic and sincere performance, while Scheider is equally good as the put-upon studio head who puts his career on the line to ensure Welles succeeds in getting his own off the ground.

The movie is attractively shot and lit by DoP Mike Southon, and there are some well chosen contemporary numbers on the soundtrack, but though the script is good enough to tell the story in a slightly lumbering fashion (there are very few highs and lows to help capture the intensity of the production itself), Ross’s direction is too pedestrian to elevate the material above that of solid and dependable. Too many scenes lack the energy to push the narrative forward with any real conviction, while others are repetitive in nature, as if the audience wouldn’t understand things the first time. And that’s without the scene near the end where the story contrives to have Welles and Hearst alone in an elevator – let the verbal sparring commence! It’s an unnecessary cinematic cliché that’s included in a movie about another movie that was anything but clichéd.

Rating: 7/10 – a mixed bag of a movie, with good performances overcoming several narrative slip-ups, RKO 281 is mostly intriguing if you don’t know the story, and fairly run of the mill if you do; still, it’s a movie that’s largely entertaining despite itself, and as a passive recreation of the making of one of the most influential features of all time, it’s effective without being too demanding. (18/31)

Bruiser (2000)

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D: George A. Romero / 95m

Cast: Jason Flemyng, Peter Stormare, Leslie Hope, Nina Garbiras, Andrew Tarbet, Tom Atkins, Jonathan Higgins, Jeff Monahan, Marie V. Cruz, Beatriz Pizano

Henry Creedlow (Flemyng) is one of Life’s true put-upons. Married to a woman, Janine (Garbiras), who no longer loves him, Henry fares no better at work, where he’s a mid-level executive for a magazine called Bruiser. The magazine’s owner is a sleazy mini-despot called Miles Styles (Stormare). Styles chides and insults and derides his staff, and acts as if they’re all inconsequential in comparison to himself. Henry is friends with Miles’ wife, Rosemary (Hope), who works as a photographer at the magazine; she’s unhappy because she knows that Miles is sleeping around at every opportunity. What neither of them knows though is that Miles is having an affair with Janine. At a party at Miles’s house, Henry sees his wife in a compromising situation with Miles and he confronts her about it afterwards. Janine is dismissive of his feelings and berates him for being “nothing” and “a nobody”. The next morning, Henry discovers something terrible: his face is covered by a white mask similar to the one Rosemary made, only he can’t remove it.

The mask has a strange effect on Henry. At first he hides from their maid, Katie (Pizano), until he sees her stealing money from his wallet. When he confronts her it’s a different story from the night before, and later, when he overhears Janine arranging to meet Miles, he follows her to the Bruiser offices. Rosemary is also there and she catches Miles and Janine in the act. After she leaves, and while Miles chases after her, Henry deals with Janine in his own way. The police become involved, and it’s not long before they’re looking for Henry, who is righting all the wrongs that have been done to him in the past. Finally, the only one who’s left is Miles. At a company party that Henry has arranged, he stalks his boss while the police come ever closer to catching him.

The movie that always slips past unnoticed whenever there’s any discussion of George A. Romero’s career, Bruiser was the last feature he made before returning exclusively to the world of zombies (with 2005’s Land of the Dead). It was also the first movie he made away from Pittsburgh. It’s certainly an odd movie, a French/Canadian/US co-production that’s a valiant attempt by Romero to do something out of the ordinary. That it doesn’t succeed entirely is perhaps not so surprising, as Romero’s ambition is stifled by budgetary constraints and an allegorical narrative that likely seems far more heavy-handed than he originally intended. Romero was well used to working with limited budgets – something which is sorely in evidence here – and Bruiser is one of those times when he was forced to work with some very strict, prescribed resources. But there are problems too with Romero’s script, and though he’s on top of the material, the plot takes several short cuts on its way to a less than satisfying conclusion.

The worm-has-turned scenario that Romero adopts lacks subtlety throughout, but as the movie progresses it becomes clear that Romero isn’t too concerned with how sophisticated his narrative is, or how it might be perceived. Henry’s aggrieved nature is the central focus here, and Romero signals this through a series of fantasy sequences where Henry imagines killing the people who upset him. These are the movie’s most extreme moments, designed to illustrate the depth of Henry’s pain at being ignored or belittled, and Romero stages them with gusto, hinting at the possibility that Henry has psychotic tendencies, a mental health problem that can’t be solved just by his being assertive or regaining his self-confidence. This gives the early scenes an edge as the viewer tries to work out just what it will be that will push Henry over the edge. And then comes that mask…

The mask is an amazing creation, and it proves eerie to look at no matter how many times we see it. But as an allegory, or a motif, for how Henry is regarded by his peers it’s a little too obvious, though still highly effective. Behind it, Flemyng is required to give a portrayal that’s mostly about body language – each time he angles his head he’s giving the viewer a very good idea of what he’s thinking or feeling – and his vocal performance, laced with a wicked, black humour, relays the various new emotions Henry is feeling with poise and precision. It’s a confident, nuanced performance, even when the script pushes things closer to melodrama than is required, and Flemyng, whose skill as an actor is often overlooked, keeps Henry from becoming just another revenge-happy psycho with a permanent axe to grind. Romero may occasionally let him down when it comes to some of the dialogue, but Flemyng avoids a few obvious bear traps and is consistently good throughout.

Less successful is Stormare’s over the top turn as Miles. Given free rein to chew the scenery and anything else in reach, Stormare is like a bull in a china shop, pushing the limits of his character’s hedonism in terms of words if not thankfully, deeds (the sight of him in what suspiciously look like spanks is another of the movie’s “highlights”). He’s like a pantomime villain, but one that you can’t take seriously, and Stormare at least is wise to this, and imbues Miles with a requisite lack of self-awareness. It’s a showy, breathless performance, but it does work well against Flemyng’s more measured portrayal. Sadly, Hope and Garbiras aren’t afforded quite so well rounded characters to play, with Hope stranded as Henry’s potential true love interest, and Garbiras stuck with being an admittedly very attractive, but dislikeable shrew.

As a thriller, the movie has its moments, and Romero still knows how to set up a compelling murder scene, but the setting for the movie’s conclusion, a Bacchanale party that features the band, The Misfits, gets away from him, and it’s undermined by some injudicious editing courtesy of Miume Jan Eramo. Better in terms of understanding what Romero is looking for is Adam Swica’s low-level camerawork which heightens Henry’s sense of displacement, and long-time collaborator Donald Rubinstein’s energetic, jazz-based score. In the end, Bruiser isn’t able to overcome many of the problems that hold it back from being an accomplished and entertaining diversion, but it’s also not as bad as its reputation might suggest.

Rating: 6/10 – a low-key yet mostly absorbing outing from a director who was never fully allowed to make the movies he wanted to make (and how he wanted to make them), Bruiser is a movie whose potential can be glimpsed throughout, even though it’s not been achieved fully; aided by a great performance from Flemyng, the movie does its best to provide a compelling narrative, but too many stumbles along the way make too much of a difference – unless you can forgive Romero for lacking the wherewithal to achieve greater things. (17/31)

Death in High Heels (1947)

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D: Lionel Tomlinson (as Tommy Tomlinson) / 48m

Cast: Don Stannard, Elsa Tee, Veronica Rose, Denise Anthony, Patricia Laffan, Diana Wong, Nora Gordon, Bill Hodge, Kenneth Warrington, Leslie Spurling

A cheap and cheerful murder mystery – told by the lead detective in flashback – Death in High Heels is a “quota quickie” designed by Hammer Films (who had been dormant as a production company since 1937) as a way of reviving the company name and helping to fill the gaps in cinema schedules. Made on a shoestring, its tale of murder in a Bond Street dress shop is a perfect example of the material that Hammer looked to release at the time, and though it seems unremarkable at first glance, acts as a snapshot of the period, and what could be done on a micro-budget.

As already mentioned, the movie is set (largely) in a dress shop and is narrated by Detective Charlesworth (Stannard) as he recounts a tale of murder, jealousy and ambition. The dress shop is called Christof’s, and it’s owned and run by a man named Frank Bevan (Warrington). He employs a staff of seven: two supervisors, Agnes Gregory (Rose) and Magda Doon (Laffan); a designer, Mr Cecil (Hodge); three dress models, Victoria (Tee), Aileen (Anthony), and Almond Blossom (Wong); and a cleaning lady, Mrs ‘Arris (Gordon). Eight very different people all together, but with seven of them all united about one thing: their dislike of Miss Gregory. Sharp-tongued and unfriendly, Miss Gregory has earned the enmity of everyone at one time or another. She has attached herself to Bevan though, and when Magda is put in line for a promotion ahead of her, Miss Gregory does her best to get the job instead. When Bevan changes his mind, and gives the job to Miss Gregory, Magda’s unexpected death (which follows soon after), leads to a murder investigation.

The cause of death is poisoning, and by an acid that was brought into the shop by Aileen and Victoria in order to clean a hat. Most of it was spilt on the floor and then cleared up by Mrs ‘Arris who was supposed to have left it in an envelope on a table. But the envelope disappears before Magda’s death, and no one will admit to taking it. Everyone is a suspect, but Charlesworth quickly deduces that Magda wasn’t the intended victim, it was Miss Gregory, the poison added to her lunch but eaten by her rival instead. As his investigation continues, Charlesworth learns that some of the staff have secrets that may or may not be reasons for trying to kill Miss Gregory, and as he sifts through a web of lies and deceit, two main suspects emerge… but did either one of them try to poison Miss Gregory?

The answer is nowhere near as obvious as you’d expect, though it’s not really the point of this fast-paced little thriller, which seeks instead to shine a light on post-War Britain and the social imperatives of the period. Bevan is the haughty self-made man who enjoys the prestige that goes with having titled clients and a shop in London’s exclusive Bond Street. Miss Gregory has ideas above her station as well, and behaves badly towards the others because she rides on Bevan’s coat-tails and presumes an intimacy with him that allows her to feel superior to everyone else. Aileen’s “young man” is “very grand” and it’s her ambition to be as grand as he is, even though she’s from a working class background, the same background as Mrs ‘Arris. Mr Cecil is something of an hysterical ninny, a man whose sense of self-worth is reinforced by his mother. Only Magda and Victoria seem comfortable in their own skin, as even Almond Blossom’s aloof nature seems to be a cover for an unfortunate prior experience with Bevan. All this is neatly laid out in the nineteen minutes before Magda’s death, and all this has a bearing on the nature of Charlesworth’s investigation.

Inevitably, the secrets the characters have been trying to hide are revealed, and just as inevitably they prove predictable and of no relevance to the murder. But Christianna Brand’s screenplay, adapted from her novel of the same name, makes good use of the distrust amongst the characters, and even if to contemporary eyes there doesn’t seem to be anything too striking about the inter-relationships and the society in microcosm approach to the staff and their foibles, nevertheless, someone watching this seventy years ago would have recognised much of the social dynamic on display. They would have felt comforted by it to some degree, and even now the movie has that ability to reassure the viewer as to its intentions. Familiar territory then, and all the better for it; and despite some awkward line readings, it holds the attention and balances its various storylines with ease.

Though the performances range from arch (Wong, Rose) to overtly theatrical (Laffan), there’s still the sense that everyone is familiar with the material and knows what to do. Stannard gives a carefree performance that is amusing and relaxed, while Tee is confident and direct, and in their brief scenes together, a good foil for his breezy attitude. Tomlinson, whose first feature this was, keeps the camera as agile as possible given the confines of the sets, and uses his previous experience as an editor to give the movie a sprightly feel that adds to the pleasant nature of the material as a whole. It’s not a movie that will rock anyone’s world (not that it was ever meant to), but as a calling card to the rest of the British movie industry that Hammer was back and here to stay, it has to be judged a success.

Rating: 6/10 – it’s too easy to be dismissive of a movie like Death in High Heels, and too easy to ignore its obvious virtues, but anyone willing to give the movie the benefit of the doubt will be pleasantly surprised by its jaunty nature and effective character building; the low budget and sparse production values do hinder things, and some unnecessary narrative leaps and bounds in the second half don’t help, but overall this is a solid, agreeable mystery that deserves a wider audience. (16/31)

NOTE: Unsurprisingly, there isn’t a trailer for Death in High Heels.

10 Reasons to Remember Martin Landau (1928-2017)

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Martin Landau (20 June 1928 – 15 July 2017)

Before he became an actor, Martin Landau was an editorial cartoonist for the New York Daily News, a job he held from the age of seventeen before the lure of the stage claimed his attention at the age of twenty-two. In 1955 he auditioned – along with five hundred others – for the Actors Studio. There were only two successful applicants, Landau, and a young actor named Steve McQueen. While there he was also best friends with another young actor, James Dean. Two years later he made his debut on Broadway, and two years after that he made an impact playing a ruthless villain in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.

However, despite further roles on stage and the big screen, Landau’s career really took off thanks to the small screen. Guest spots on shows such as Bonanza, The Outer Limits, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. led to a recurring, then permanent role on Mission: Impossible (1966-69). The role of Rollin Hand gave Landau the chance to employ a variety of accents and disguises, and it brought him international recognition. But he was never able to capitalise on the show’s success and transpose it into a better big screen career. TV continued to dominate, and during the Seventies he was best known for appearing in Space: 1999 (1975-77). It wasn’t until Francis Ford Coppola offered Landau a plum role in Tucker: The Man and His Dream that he began to experience the kind of career upsurge that he was long overdue for.

In the years that followed, Landau did some of his best work, and earned very high praise indeed from Woody Allen: “Of all the actors I’ve ever worked with, he gives expression to my dialogue exactly as I hear it. His colloquialisms, his idiom, his inflection is exactly correct. So of all the people who’ve ever read my lines, he makes them correct every time…” And in 1995 he won an Oscar for his role as an aging Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s excellent biopic Ed Wood. From then on, Landau continued to work as steadily as before, but often adding a much needed lustre to some of the movies and shows he appeared in. It could be argued that Landau had to wait until he was much older before he could give the performances that were tailor-made for him, but even if that were true, he still leaves behind a tremendous body of work – from the Fifties to the current decade – that we can enjoy for many more years to come.

1 – North by Northwest (1959)

2 – Cleopatra (1963)

3 – Decision at Midnight (1963)

4 – They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (1970)

5 – Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988)

6 – Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

7 – Max and Helen (1990)

8 – By Dawn’s Early Light (1990)

9 – Ed Wood (1994)

10 – Harrison Montgomery (2008)

10 Reasons to Remember George A. Romero (1940-2017)

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George A. Romero (4 February 1940 – 16 July 2017)

Although best known for his series of zombie movies, George A. Romero’s desire to make movies came about when he saw The Red Shoes (1948), a movie so far removed from the genre that made him famous that it’s intriguing to wonder just where his career would have taken him if he’d followed in the footsteps of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and not fallen in with the low budget horror arena where he spent pretty much all his career. He was also a huge fan of The Tales of Hoffmann (1951), a movie he would rent on 16mm from the very same rental company that Martin Scorsese used.

But a career creating those kind of artistic endeavours wasn’t to be. Romero started out by making TV commercials and industrial training movies in and around his home town of Pittsburgh. In 1968, he and some friends all contributed $10,000 so he could make his first feature. The result was an unqualified success, and Night of the Living Dead became a movie that would influence an entire sub-genre of horror. From then on Romero was pigeon-holed as a horror director, and though he made a number of movies that didn’t involve zombies or extreme gore effects (usually courtesy of Tom Savini), Romero was always grateful that his first feature allowed him to have a movie making career.

Romero would return to zombies five more times in his career, and though the law of diminishing returns had set in by number five, Diary of the Dead (2007), there was still enough of Romero’s patented social commentary to make the last three in the series interesting to watch at the very least. But Romero’s work away from marauding members of the undead, often provided examples of the best that he could do. Martin (1978) is a creepy, unsettling modern vampire tale, with a great performance from John Amplas, and Knightriders (1981) is a counter-culture movie that features probably Romero’s best assembled cast, and a knowing, mordaunt sense of humour. He was capable of so much more but spent too much time developing projects that inevitably never got off the ground, such as a TV version of Stephen King’s The Stand, or movies such as Resident Evil (2002) where he was slated to direct. An affable, knowledgeable, and likeable figure within the industry, Romero will be missed for all the subtexts he put in his movies and for the way he made zombies “cool”.

1 – Night of the Living Dead (1968)

2 – Season of the Witch (1972)

3 – The Crazies (1973)

4 – Martin (1978)

5 – Dawn of the Dead (1978)

6 – Knightriders (1981)

7 – Creepshow (1982)

8 – Day of the Dead (1985)

9 – The Dark Half (1993)

10 – Bruiser (2000)

Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire (1985)

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D: Alan Clarke / 89m

Cast: Phil Daniels, Alun Armstrong, Bruce Payne, Louise Gold, Eve Ferret, Richard Ridings, Don Henderson, Neil McCaul

There are some movies that seem to have been made expressly with the intent that they become cult items some time after their initial release. The world’s only vampire snooker musical, Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire is such a movie, a one-off that’s unlikely to ever be remade, rebooted, or given a sequel. It’s also very much a product of its time, a musical fable built around the real life rivalry between British snooker players Ray Reardon (the green baize vampire) and Jimmy White (Billy the Kid). Small in scale and very cheaply made, and dismissed by contemporary critics and audiences at the time, the movie has gained a certain caché over the last thirty-two years. Rarely seen these days, but available on DVD if you know where to look, the movie makes the most of its limited budget and if you’re in the right mood, offers a viewing experience that might just capture your interest.

The story is a simple one: Billy the Kid (Daniels) is an up and coming snooker prodigy. Just twenty years old, two years before he was discovered by T.O. (The One) (Payne), who now acts as his manager and promoter. Having made a name for himself, Billy is being touted as the next World Champion. He’s flash, he’s arrogant, he plays unsanctioned exhibition matches for money, and he’s as good as he says he is (maybe even better). His attitude earns him the ire of former nine times World Champion Maxwell Randall (Armstrong). A war of words erupts between them in the press, fuelled by manipulative journalist Miss Sullivan (Gold), and soon there’s talk of a challenge match.

T.O. brokers a deal with a loan shark called the Wednesday Man (Henderson) (T.O. is in his debt), and the match goes ahead with the added stipulation that whoever loses has to stop playing professional snooker. Randall shows off his prowess by winning the first frame with a maximum break of 147. He goes on to win the next seven frames, giving himself a seemingly unassailable lead of eight frames to nil, with the match being played over seventeen frames. During a break, Billy  – who’s in shock at how badly he’s faring – and T.O. discover something about the match that changes everything, and when play resumes, a lucky break gives Billy the opportunity to play his way back into the match. It all comes down to the final frame. Which player will be able to hold their nerve and win the match… and how will they do it?

Shot in what looks like the basement of an old abandoned cement factory, Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire is definitely one of the oddest movies you’re ever likely to see, but even with its low budget production values and its over-reliance on sports tropes – the talented newcomer with something to prove, the aging player who resents the newcomer’s apparent disrespect for him and the sport, the manager with financial problems who puts the newcomer’s career on the line, the journalist who foments discord as part of her own agenda, the shadowy figure (here the Wednesday Man) who pulls all the strings behind the scenes – the movie still has a charm that makes it an easy watch, and by the end you can see why it’s gained something of a cult following over the years, and despite being very rough around the edges.

A collaboration between two creative talents for whom this would not have been a predictable choice, the movie has a solemn, well-constructed screenplay by Trevor Preston, and highly stylised direction by Alan Clarke. Both men had backgrounds in more gritty and realistic TV dramas such as the excellent Out (1978 – Preston), and the controversial Scum (1977 – Clarke). Though the screenplay does play things “by the book” and follows a well established template, Preston strays far enough from the template on occasion to make the story more intriguing, such as providing Randall with a home where vampire-related paraphernalia gives rise to the idea that he really is a vampire, and it’s not just a nickname. Also, Preston doesn’t give Billy a girlfriend who’s there solely to tell him how good he is and cheer from the sidelines. And the inclusion of rival sets of fans for the players gives rise to a battle of the classes that should seem out of place, but isn’t at all.

For his part, Clarke keeps the characters hemmed in thanks to the claustrophobic nature of the various sets, and this gives the feel of their being in a pressure cooker environment, where every little slight and criticism is blown up out of all proportion, and emotions run more intensely than they would do otherwise. However, this does give the movie a very theatrical feel, with Randall’s living room looking like a stage set, and the setting for the match, with its spectators’ galleries on three sides, also giving the impression of watching a filmed play rather than a movie. Clarke thankfully compensates for this through the editing, and although the movie never shakes off this notion fully, Clarke’s staging and framing of the action helps smooth things over as well.

As a musical, the movie is on less firmer ground than it is as a sports tale, and though the inclusion of several well written songs (lyrics by Preston, music by George Fenton) gives the movie a boost from time to time, not all of them work as well as they should. The opening song, Green Stamps, will baffle anyone born after 1991, while Kid to Break‘s repetitive nature quickly undermines the intended potency of the song as a whole, which seems to have been written as the snooker equivalent of a football chant. Two songs do stand out though: the vituperative I Bite Back, with its chorus and vocal counterpoint from Eve Ferret (it’s also the one song that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Broadway or West End musical), and the exuberant Snooker (So Much More Than Just a Game), sung by the match’s flamboyant compere, Big Jack Jay (McCaul).

The performances are spirited and engaging, with Daniels wisely abandoning his usual cheeky chappie demeanour, and Armstrong hissing his lines with thinly restrained anger. Both actors are on good form, taking the bare bones of their characterisations and fleshing them out beyond Preston’s original intentions, and looking very comfortable and authentic at the snooker table. Payne, whose career has never really recovered from his being the bad guy in Passenger 57 (1992) (though he was very good indeed in it, better than Wesley Snipes), is the surprise here, giving gambling addict T.O. a much broader, more sympathetic reading than was probably on the page, and making him the most interesting character in the movie. One thing that should be noted though, is that none of the cast are particularly good singers, and their voices aren’t always up to the challenges of the songs, which is a pity as the ways in which they interpret them, are very good indeed.

Rating: 7/10 – much better than it looks (just ignore Clive Tickner’s murky photography), and sounds (Randall’s squeaky shoes are a distraction), Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire is quirky enough and original enough to warrant closer inspection and a better reputation; Clarke squeezes a lot out of Preston’s screenplay, the cast are all on fine form, the songs reflect and enable the narrative, and the whole daft nature of the material – which is taken very seriously indeed –  is exactly what makes it work as well as it does. (15/31)

NOTE: At the moment there’s no trailer available for Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire.

A Dangerous Method (2011)

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D: David Cronenberg / 99m

Cast: Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender, Vincent Cassel, Sarah Gadon

A movie examining the intellectual and professional battle between Carl Jung (Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Mortensen) may not be the most obvious choice for David Cronenberg to direct, but there’s long been a psycho-sexual element to his movies that fits in quite easily with Jung and Freud’s combative attitudes about notions of sexual repression (though even they may have balked at some of the ideas Cronenberg came up with during his Seventies output). What emerges though is a movie that concentrates as much on the machinations of the mind as it does on the pleasures of the flesh.

The movie opens in 1902, with the arrival of Sabina Spielrein (Knightley) at the Burghölzli, a psychiatric hospital in Zurich. Sabina displays extreme manic behaviour and contorts her body into uncomfortable positions as an expression of her illness. She is placed in the care of a young doctor, Carl Jung. He begins treating her using various techniques including dream interpretation (though mostly he just asks her how certain events in her childhood made her feel). Sabina responds to the treatment and soon she makes a breakthrough in understanding the root cause of her mania. Wishing to be a psychanalyst (the term Jung uses), Sabina begins to help Jung with his research. Soon, he begins corresponding with Freud, and before long they have a mentor/pupil relationship despite some of the differences in their approach to psychoanalysis (the term Freud uses).

When Freud recommends Jung treat one of his patients, Otto Gross (Cassel), the man’s indulgence of his sexual desires and his insistence that sexual repression is at odds with living a normal, healthy life, serves to make Jung confront his desire for Sabina. They embark on an affair, one that Jung’s wife, Emma (Gadon), tolerates, while Jung himself continues his professional and personal relationship with Freud. However, at the same time that their friendship begins to deteriorate over their different opinions about psychoanalysis, Jung is struck by guilt and seeks to end his affair with Sabina. She involves Freud on her behalf but while he sympathises with her (and more so because Jung has lied to him about the affair), he is unable to intervene. Soon, he and Jung end their relationship, and Sabina strikes out on her own as a psychoanalyst.

Adapted partly from the book, A Most Dangerous Method by John Kerr, and partly from screenwriter Christopher Hampton’s play, The Talking Cure, A Dangerous Method is a beautifully shot movie (by DoP Peter Suschitzky) that features a marvellous, deftly arranged score by Howard Shore (based on leitmotifs from Wagner’s Siegfried), and a richly detailed recreation of early 20th century Europe (some parts of which didn’t need to be de-modernised at all). It’s also a movie that outlines and explains in simple terms the differences between Freud and Jung’s different approaches to psychoanalysis, while at the same time doing so in a way that maintains the mystique that surrounded their differing approaches (and for many people, still does). It’s all down to Hampton’s intelligent, precise screenplay and Cronenberg’s effortless way of telling the story. There’s not a wasted scene or moment in the whole movie.

Cronenberg shows a sure hand throughout, and as the inter-relationships between Jung and Freud, and Jung and Sabina, and eventually Sabina and Freud, begin to grow more and more intense, he allows the viewer a glimpse inside the mind and the motivations of each character, whether it’s Jung’s fear of professional repudiation, or Freud’s unyielding pragmatism, or even the enjoyment Sabina derives from being humiliated. These are characters, real life people, that we can understand and, to a degree, sympathise with. They were all involved in the creation of a field of medicine that has since been of benefit to millions upon millions. That they had their own problems shouldn’t be a surprise, anf thanks to Hampton’s erudite and very adroit script, those problems are fleshed out with tremendous skill, and in Cronenberg’s hands, delivered with impeccable attention to professional and emotional detail. Jung may have been more willing to explore other avenues relating to the way in which our subconscious works, but even Freud’s rigid demeanour and intellect are presented credibly and with no small amount of rigour.

The director is aided by a trio of superb performances. Mortensen, playing older, gives Freud a shrewd gravitas, appearing always thoughtful, always seeking to understand the impulses that drive everyone around him (and especially Jung). It’s a role that requires the actor to appear ruminative for long stretches, passively observing and deducing, and Mortensen carries it off with his usual skill and ingenuity. He’s also the source of much of the movie’s dry, offhand humour. Mortensen is such a thoughtful, articulate actor that his presence acts almost as a guarantee of quality, and working with Cronenberg for the third time – after A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007) – he renews that acquaintance to incredibly good effect. As Jung, Fassbender gets the lion’s share of the narrative, and gives a detailed, insightful performance that shows the doubts and concerns that Jung had in terms of his work, and his marriage, and his relationship with Sabina. It’s a well rounded portrayal, not lacking in emotional precision, and gives the actor a chance to impress in a role that requires much of the character’s feelings to be expressed internally, as befits both the period and contemporary public expectations.

How different then for Keira Knightley, who right from the very beginning has to provide an hysteric performance, one that pushes her as an actress and one that pushes the audience’s acceptance of her as a dramatic actress (there’s no doubt that Knightley can act; it’s just that it gets easily forgotten when she’s also a celebrity). She brings a passion and a commitment to the role of Sabina that is powerful and uncomfortable to watch in her early scenes, and even though she gets “better”, the character’s mania remains there, just under the surface and ready to release itself at a moment’s notice. Here, Knightley’s angular features are used to strikingly good effect as Cronenberg keeps her looking as if every moment is a struggle to continue to be “normal”. She and Fassbender work well together, and their scenes are some of the most potent in the whole movie.

As a movie dealing with the birth of psychoanalysis as we know it today, the arguments for and against the theories of Jung and Freud are presented in a way that makes them both intriguing, and elusive, in terms of their true efficacy. Both men were convinced their own approaches were the correct ones, but the movie doesn’t side with either of them, leaving the viewer to make up their own minds as to which man is “right” and which man is “wrong”. Cronenberg orchestrates these discussions with admirable finesse, and if some scenes seem too clinical or distant from the heated passions they’re depicting, it’s in keeping with the notion that Jung and Freud, and even Sabina, were first and foremost observers, and that their own lives were just as worthy of inspection (or introspection) as anyone else’s. And perhaps even more so.

Rating: 8/10 – a vivid and captivating examination of the ways in which early forms of psychoanalysis drew on the experiences and sentiments of its practitioners, A Dangerous Method is absorbing and exhilarating in equal measure; with Cronenberg handling the material so sensitively and without over-simplifying things, it’s a movie that stands out for being about complex ideas as to what makes us tick, and isn’t just a vapid exploration of carnal desires. (14/31)

The Skin I Live In (2011)

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Original title: La piel que habito

D: Pedro Almodóvar / 120m

Cast: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes, Jan Cornet, Roberto Álamo, Eduard Fernández, José Luis Gómez, Blanca Suárez, Susi Sánchez, Bárbara Lennie

What happens when a multi-award winning and very well respected director gets it completely wrong? The answer is a movie called The Skin I Live In. Since making his first feature, the anarchic Folle… folle… fólleme Tim! (1978), Pedro Almodóvar has presided over Spanish moviemaking like a benevolent enfant terrible, promoting home grown talent while making his own idiosyncratic movies and gaining an international reputation for flamboyance, passion and high-camp melodrama. He’s a true original, and a writer/director who has always been unapologetic about the movies he’s made, and their content (anyone who’s seen the opening five minutes of Matador (1986) will know what I mean). But sometimes, even the most innovative and instinctive of directors will take on a project they really should have steered well away from, and The Skin I Live In is Almodóvar’s. In attempting to fuse his usual movie making style with a genre he’s never worked in before, the director of such modern classics as Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) and High Heels (1991) has made his most unconvincing and mundane movie to date.

The movie begins with an old-fashioned two-pronged mystery; who is the woman (Anaya) being kept in a locked room by renowned surgeon Dr Robert Ledgard (Banderas), and why? As with all good mystery thrillers, there are no answers that are immediately forthcoming, just a number of clues and a few clever hints. What is clear is that Ledgard has been researching and cultivating an artificial skin that is resistant to fire and insect bites. And soon it becomes clear that he has been using this artificial skin on the young woman (whose name we learn is Vera). And for a while, that’s the movie. There’s a housekeeper, Marilia (Paredes), but she doesn’t appear relevant to the storyline or the plot. Oh, wait, here comes her criminal son, Zeca (Álamo), who’s on the run and needs a place to hide. When he realises there’s an attractive young woman in the house, he has one thing on his mind: sex, and whether she’s willing or not. Fortunately, Ledgard returns home (a little late, to be fair) and Zeca is “taken care of”.

It’s at this point that the script, by Almodóvar and his brother Agustín, decides its time to reveal just what is going on, and why. Cue a late-night confession from Marilia, a flashback from Ledgard’s perspective, and then, more intriguingly, a lengthier flashback from Vera’s point of view. This passage reveals almost everything you could need to know about what’s happening, why it’s happening, and how it’s all happened in the first place. The why, somewhat inevitably, is borne out of revenge, with Ledgard targeting a young man, Vicente (Cornet), for a particular misdeed that has gone unpunished. This futher explains what’s happening, and how it has all come about, but with the flashbacks out of the way, the movie begins to unravel as it heads for a melodramatic but also muted ending. And that’s without a coda that would work better as the beginning of a whole other movie.

Almodóvar has been quoted as saying that The Skin I Live In is “a horror story without screams or frights”. That may sound clever, or even something of a challenge to achieve, but the problem is that while Almodóvar may be good at exploring the lives of those living on the margins of Spanish society (very good in fact), when it comes to horror it’s obvious he doesn’t have the grounding or the knowledge to put together the kind of terrifying experience required of genuinely good horror movies. Instead, Almodóvar plays with his Frankenstein-lite scenario in such a way that he leeches all the horror out of it and leaves the audience with a soap opera melodrama that occasionally acts as a psychological or psycho-sexual thriller. Almodóvar isn’t really interested in making a horror movie; instead he seems more interested in seeing if he can fit horror themes into one of his standard dysfunctional family tragedies.

The result is a movie that proves disjointed and erratic when it comes to the characters and their motivations (Ledgard does a lot of things that are baffling or poorly thought through by the script), and which seems happier in observing things from a distance – much as Ledgard does with Vera. This makes it harder for the audience to engage or sympathise with the characters, and scenes where this might be regarded as essential in terms of building or maintaining tension, remain flat and unremarkable. Almodóvar is better off having his characters express their emotions, no matter how histrionic they might be, but here he opts for a restrained approach that gives the movie a chilly, displaced feel. It’s another bad decision that affects the movie greatly, and leaves the cast adrift completely. Banderas (reuniting with Almodóvar after a twenty-one year gap) plays Ledgard as a man determined on revenge but who makes some very strange choices along the way, while Anaya has the awkward task of denying her character’s back story while at the same time, needing it to perform her role adequately.

Ultimately, it’s a movie that doesn’t work because its director doesn’t know what kind of movie it should be in order to work. With that in mind, Almodóvar’s attempts at making his audience squirm, end up doing so, but for all the wrong reasons. Dread is replaced by unwarranted black humour, terror never has enough time to establish itself, and outright horror is knocked down and killed by a reliance on turgid melodrama. The movie may look good – Antxón Gómez’s production design is perfect for expressing the clinical, sterile environment that Ledgard inhabits – and it may have a surprisingly romantic score courtesy of Alberto Iglesias, but these are plusses that are unable to make up for the wayward, tonally artless moments that Almodóvar peppers his script with. When a horror movie fails in asserting itself as a horror movie and never quite realises where and why it’s going wrong, therein lies the true horror.

Rating: 4/10 – despite occasional moments where Almodóvar reminds us of his auteur status, The Skin I Live In is a movie whose purpose and raison d’être is never compelling enough to warrant the viewer’s full investment of their time; with way too many scenes in its last half hour that provide bafflement instead of suspense, the movie is proof that some directors should stick to what they know, and know what they should stick to. (13/31)

Simon Killer (2012)

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D: Antonio Campos / 105m

Cast: Brady Corbet, Mati Diop, Constance Rousseau, Lila Salet, Solo, Michaël Abiteboul

There’s a particular sub-genre of dramas where the protagonist travels to another country in order to get away from some trauma or terrible circumstance that has affected them badly, or which they were responsible for. Such is the case with writer/director Antonio Campos’ third feature, Simon Killer. Here the protagonist is recent college graduate Simon (Corbet), who has come to Paris following the break up of his relationship with a girl called Michelle. At least, that’s what he tells people, and especially Victoria (Diop), a prostitute he begins a relationship with, and Marianne (Rousseau), another young woman he begins seeing when things with Victoria begin to go wrong. He tells them that Michelle was seeing another man, and he has come to Paris to do “nothing at all” in the wake of their break up. But there’s more to the story than Simon is willing to let on, and as the movie progresses, just how much of his story is true becomes more and more relevant.

What also becomes more and more relevant is why Simon’s story might not be true. There’s no one to back it up, and no other evidence to support his claims. As he wanders through the city he meets Marianne and her friend, Sophie (Salet). His French is passable, but is enough to keep him in their company for most of the evening. The next day, Simon is cajoled into visiting a sex club, where he meets Victoria. There’s a connection between them, so much so that Victoria tells him they can meet up outside of the club (though he’ll still have to pay to have sex with her). Following an altercation where Simon is assaulted, he turns to Victoria for help. She takes him home, and in the days that follow, they begin a relationship. Simon, however, soon runs out of money. At first he “borrows” money from Victoria, and then he comes up with the idea to blackmail some of her clients at the club.

Their first attempt doesn’t go as planned, so they target another client, René (Solo). And then one day, Simon runs into Marianne and he asks for her number. The second blackmail attempt is more successful than the first, but their first intended victim (Abiteboul) finds out where Victoria lives and he beats her up. Simon tends to her at first but soon turns his attention to Marianne. They start seeing each other, but with no money, Simon decides to blackmail René again, but when he calls him, repeatedly, each time there’s no answer. It’s only when Simon receives a call from René’s wife who tells him that René has gone missing, that he goes back to Victoria. When he tells her they need to leave Paris immediately, Victoria’s reaction isn’t what he was expecting. Unable to get her to understand the seriousness of their situation, Simon reacts in a way that has unforeseen consequences.

Much of Simon Killer is kept hidden and obscured from the viewer by Campos’ artistic decision to be as elliptical and as cryptic as possible. If you’re a fan of movies made as a kind of intelligence test – can you work out what’s going on and why, and explain it in twenty-five words or less? – then this is the movie for you. And while there is definitely a place for these kinds of movies, when the movie itself can’t or won’t explain itself then the test is more about endurance than intelligence. What is clear is that Simon is damaged, and likely in a way that means he should avoid having close physical and emotional relationships (Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley is an obvious progenitor). An arch manipulator – he uses being assaulted as a means of eliciting sympathy from both Victoria and Marianne – Simon is unconcerned with the feelings of others, and he’s always a little off when he talks about his own; he’s the poor, put-upon victim trying just to get by, and seemingly always at the mercy of others.

As the nominally sociopathic Simon, Corbet is in first-class form, his performance the glue that holds the movie together, and which stops it from becoming entirely forgettable. For make no mistake, Simon Killer is not a movie that satisfies or works, even within its own narrow framework. True, it is stylish and colourful to look at, thanks to the impressive work of DoP Joe Anderson, and it has a powerful soundtrack that balances techno rock with a discordant, unsettling score by Saunder Juriaans and Danny Bensi. But it’s also distant and vague in its mood, and bleak in its outlook, using the backdrop of La Pigalle to overstate the sleazy, absentee-morality of most of the characters, and the seedy milieu in which most of it takes place. It’s also a movie that reliably frustrates the viewer by sending its main character off into the streets of Paris with no fixed destination to aim for, and providing only the back of their head as a viewpoint (Campos also includes several shots that are presented at crotch level; whether this has any real meaning is debatable). Why indie moviemakers feel this is an acceptable way of padding out their movies remains a mystery that may never be solved.

Another mystery involves the nature of his Stateside relationship with Michelle, which is addressed around the halfway mark via an e-mail from said character, but in such a way that it opens up a whole other conundrum that isn’t addressed by Campos, and which only serves to throw confusion into the mix as to Simon’s behaviour and the motives for that behaviour. Sure, he’s a borderline narcissist and sociopath, but something must be driving him. Alas, Campos either knows but doesn’t want to tell us or give us any clues, or he doesn’t know and doesn’t think it’s important. Either way, we can only guess at the true nature of Simon’s mental and emotional malaise. But only if we want to, though, because again, it’s only Corbet’s terrific performance that keeps the viewer anywhere near interested. Campos may be interested in focusing on making the movie a chilly, atmospheric thriller with a decidedly villainous central character – an odious one, even – but it’s not enough to make the movie as compelling or as enthralling as he might believe.

Rating: 5/10 – technically ambitious yet emotionally sterile thanks to the approach to the material by its writer/director, Simon Killer is beset with issues relating to pacing, tone and clarity; a laudable effort then on some levels, but as a whole, this is a movie that frustrates more than it rewards, and which is undermined by a reluctance to let its audience fully engage with its central character (not that you’d necessarily want to). (12/31)

Jack Goes Boating (2010)

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D: Philip Seymour Hoffman / 91m

Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Ryan, John Ortiz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Tom McCarthy, Salvatore Inzerillo

When actors make the transition from appearing in front of the cameras to working behind them as directors, their first attempts at building a secondary career have a tendency to be remarkable debuts. Think Charles Laughton and The Night of the Hunter (1955), or Kevin Costner and Dances With Wolves (1990), or Sarah Polley and Away from Her (2006) (just to name a few). Well, you can add Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jack Goes Boating to the list. A movie that clearly shows that Hoffman could have had an equally lustrous career as a director as well as an actor (this was his only outing as a director), Jack Goes Boating sees him deftly handling comedy, drama, and romance in his screen version of the play by Robert Glaudini. It’s an unsurprising choice as Hoffman, along with Ortiz and Rubin-Vega, appeared in the original Off-Broadway production in 2007. The main cast’s familiarity with the material – similar to that with Fences (2016) – helps tremendously, but Hoffman is astute enough to transpose the action so that at no point does it feel stage-y or contrived.

The movie is terrifically understated from the start, with Hoffman’s shy, reticent Jack working as a limo driver for his uncle. He works with his best friend, Clyde (Ortiz), and the two have an easy going relationship that is affectionate and endearing. Clyde is married to Lucy (Rubin-Vega), but their relationship is on rocky ground, though they both help set up Jack with one of Lucy’s co-workers, Connie (Ryan). Connie is similar to Jack in that she’s shy and diffident; she also has some intimacy issues. Their first meeting goes well, and by the end of it they’re talking about doing something during the summer, such as boating. Neither of them have done anything like this before, and Jack is especially worried as he can’t swim. Clyde agrees to teach him, and in the process, Jack learns about positive visualisation, which helps him have the confidence to overcome his fears.

An incident involving Connie leads to Jack agreeing to make dinner for her, something nobody – aside from her mother – has ever done before. Clyde helps out again by giving Jack the name of a chef nicknamed The Cannoli (Inzerillo), who’ll show him how to cook a meal. But there’s more to The Cannoli than Jack is initially aware of, and as the night of the meal for Connie draws nearer, Jack learns more about his friends’ marriage than he was ever prepared for, while his own relationship with Connie grows stronger. On the night of the meal, the various stresses and strains affecting Clyde and Lucy come to the fore, and the evening descends into chaos, one that has repercussions for Clyde and Lucy, and has a profound effect on Jack and Connie…

What’s immediately apparent from Jack Goes Boating is the surety that Hoffman shows in guiding the material from its opening scenes where the script’s dry humour is given room to breathe, through the middle section where Jack and Connie’s romance takes centre stage, and then on into the final stretch where it becomes a stinging drama. Hoffman handles each stage of the movie with due care and attention to the characters and, more importantly, their inner lives. As a director, Hoffman is incredibly generous to his cast, giving them the room to explore their roles and instill them with small details that enhance both their performances and the movie at the same time. What this means for the viewer is a movie that delights and captivates in equal measure, and has the ability to leave said viewer wearing a happy grin for most of the movie. Hoffman and Ryan in particular do more with a look and a glance than some actors can do with a four-hour movie and two hundred pages of expository dialogue.

The romance between Jack and Connie is handled with a great deal of finesse, as the pair gingerly and carefully get to know each other, and try to overcome their lack of confidence in being part of a couple. Opening up to each other and trusting each other, the pair behave in a winsome manner that sees them warily circling around the idea of being together while at the same time, being eager to move forward as quickly as possible – as long as they’re both okay with that. In contrast, Clyde and Lucy are at the kind of loggerhead where intimacy is painful and recriminations for past misdeeds are just a breath away. Clyde grows to be jealous of his best friend’s good fortune in finding Connie, and his unhappiness threatens to ruin the meal. Lucy too is unhappy, and like Clyde, is dealing with her feelings in a way that’s detrimental to the possibility of their staying together. Lucy’s unhappiness also threatens to ruin the meal, and when things do begin to unravel, it’s Lucy whose anger finds its full expression in an excoriating attack on Clyde. As the warring couple, Ortiz and Rubin-Vega give outstanding performances, each imbuing their character with a potent mix of pained acceptance (that things are unalterably wrong between them), and a desperate need to wipe the slate clean (which they’ve tried and failed to achieve).

While there’s little here that’s new or hasn’t been covered before – Marty (1955) is an obvious forerunner – it’s the way in which Hoffman and his very talented cast handle the material that makes Jack Goes Boating so emotionally vivid and deceptively compelling. Jack and Connie are characters you can’t help but like, and you can’t help but root for them all the way through. And though they’re at odds with each other, Hoffman ensures that Clyde and Lucy deserve our sympathy as well. It’s all supplemented by a wonderfully expressive soundtrack that mixes an often poignant score by Grizzly Bear, and a handful of Fleet Foxes songs that contribute greatly to the movie’s overall tone and mood.

Rating: 9/10 – Hoffman’s death in 2014 robbed us of an inspired actor and director, and after viewing Jack Goes Boating, that sense of loss is more keenly felt than ever; beautifully observed and endlessly affecting, the movie is funny, romantic, tragic, and a terrific showcase for all concerned. (11/31)

Destiny (1921)

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Original title: Der müde Tod: ein deutsches volkslied in 6 versen

aka Behind the Wall

D: Fritz Lang / 94m

Cast: Lil Dagover, Walter Janssen, Bernhard Goetzke, Hans Sternberg, Karl Rückert, Max Adalbert, Wilhelm Diegelmann, Erich Pabst, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Károly Huszár

Fritz Lang fled Germany in 1933 following a meeting with Josef Goebbels where Lang was offered a position as the head of the German movie studio, UFA. Up until that point he had made sixteen movies – seventeen if you include the French version of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) – and he was the most successful German director of the Twenties and early Thirties, both critically and commercially. He made movies that were beautiful examples of the Expressionist movement, and he introduced many future staples of sci-fi cinema such as the countdown to lift-off (Ten, nine, etc.) which was first seen in Woman in the Moon (1929). Destiny was the second movie he made with his wife, the actress Thea von Harbou, and their collaboration helped Lang display a better understanding of women than he’d shown previously, making this movie more relatable for female audiences as a result.

A young couple (Dagover, Janssen) arrive at a village where Death (Goetze) is in the process of erecting a great wall around the land he has purchased. While they spend time in the tavern, the girl is distracted and her lover disappears. Later, while she weeps by the wall, she sees a ghostly procession of souls pass through the wall, and the last of them is her lover. She exhorts Death to release him to her but instead he leads her into a dark room and shows her three candles, all lit, but each at a different stage of burning. Death tells her that each candle represents a life. If the girl can save just one of these lives then Death will restore her lover to life. The girl agrees to Death’s wager, and finds herself in a Middle Eastern city during Ramadan. Now a princess, Zobeide, she has to secure the life of her lover, the Frank (Janssen), but she fails in the attempt and he is killed.

Next, the girl finds herself in Venice as a noblewoman, Monna. She too has to protect the life of her lover, Gianfrancesco (Janssen), from the murderous intentions of her fiancé, Girolamo (Klein-Rogge). In this she fails again, and next the girl finds herself in China as a magician’s assistant, Tiao Tsien. The magician has another assistant, Liang (Janssen), who is Tiao Tsien’s lover. When the Emperor of China (Huszár) tries to seduce her she rejects him, and attempts to flee the palace with Liang. But Liang is killed and the girl has to face Death knowing that she has failed his challenge. But Death gives her one last chance: if she can persuade someone from the village to trade their life for hers, then the lovers will be reunited. Of course, she accepts, but will she be able to persuade anyone to make such a sacrifice?

For a movie that contains three sections that might be regarded as fantasies, Destiny’s framing storyline exists in a dream all by itself. Taking place “in some time and some place”, Lang invites us to follow his two young lovers as they arrive in a picturesque little village, unaware of the fate that awaits them. Even the appearance of the mysterious hitchhiker can’t dampen their enjoyment of life and love. But Lang has other plans for them, and soon happiness is replaced by grief and the lovers’ dream-like reality becomes a nightmare. Lang was always fascinated by the idea of Death as a spectral, other-worldly figure, and the character appears in a number of his movies, but this was the first time Lang brought him to the screen. Goetze’s gaunt features and fixed stare are a disturbing, unnerving sight, and the actor imbues the character with an impassive, worrying stillness, as if he’s always waiting for that next victim of “God’s will” – and it could be anyone. Lang makes Death an implacable, emotionless adversary for Lil Dagover’s heartsick protagonist, and the contrast between their acting styles adds a fine juxtaposition to their relationship in the movie.

The opening section, with its idyllic setting and array of “colourful” village stereotypes, seems very like Lang attempting to wrong foot the audience. But Death’s presence is an augur that all isn’t as it seems, and the wall he erects around the land he’s purchased gives rise to that. But the young lovers remain unaware of the darker forces around them, until it’s too late, and Dagover is pleading for mercy for the life of her paramour. Happiness, Lang seems to be saying, is fleeting and can’t be relied upon. But if you want it badly enough, you’ll do whatever you can to keep hold of it. And so, Dagover’s chastened young woman must endure a series of travails that the audience can see will be doomed to failure, but which she must put her heart and soul into. There’s a phrase, Love Conquers All, but for most of the movie, Lang seems to be saying, Don’t you believe it. It’s this overtly pessimistic point of view that drives the movie forward, as each new scenario sees love thwarted at every turn, and Dagover’s determined character suffers more and more.

The three scenarios that the young woman becomes involved in all have an element of the fantastical about them, and depict a romantic idealism that reflects the feelings of the young lovers. Unavoidable fate and tragedy are the outcome of each tale, and Lang is resolute in denying the young woman any joy during these episodes. But the art direction – by Robert Herlth, Walter Röhrig, and Hermann Warm – along with Heinrich Umlauff’s striking costume designs – is a joy. Silent movies in 1921 were rarely charged with such expressive and impressive imagery, and it’s equally rare for a silent movie of the period to overcome the impression of appearing fake or overly theatrical (though Dagover does do histrionic with gleeful abandon from time to time). Lang was a master when it came to the visual styling of his movies, and Destiny doesn’t disappoint in this area. Allied to a script that deftly explores notions of love as an immutable force, and the will to endure for love, it features good performances from its cast, and strong, passionate direction from Lang.

Rating: 8/10 – a tight, purposeful script allows Lang to expand and build on the promise of his career up until that point, and he shows that there are no lessons wasted or ignored in his tale of love under threat; emotionally redolent and deceptively poignant in places, Destiny is a terrific example of a director finding his “groove” and having found it, never looking back. (10/31)

Murder on a Sunday Morning (2001)

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Original title: Un coupable idéal

D: Jean-Xavier de Lestrade / 111m

With Patrick McGuinness, Ann Finnell, James Williams, Michael Glover, Dwayne Darnell, Brenton Butler, Melissa Butler, James Stephens

On May 7th 2000, outside a Ramada Inn in Jacksonville, Florida, a vacationing couple, James and Mary Ann Stephens, were accosted by a black man with a gun. Within seconds he had shot Mary Ann Stephens in the face, killing her instantly. He ran off with her bag, which contained her purse (which had around $1200 inside it), and other items. The murder took place at approximately 7:30 in the morning. A description of the assailant was broadcast to police vehicles in the area, with the warning that he was likely to be armed and dangerous. Around two and a half hours later, fifteen-year-old Brenton Butler was stopped by two officers in a police cruiser; he was on his way to a local Blockbuster Video store to drop off a job application. He was taken to the Ramada Inn where James Stephens identified him as the man who had killed his wife. Butler was duly arrested, and during his questioning by the detectives assigned to the case, he signed a confession. The case went to trial later on in 2000.

An open and shut case, yes? Certainly the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Department thought so. Thanks to James Stephens and the certainty he showed in identifying Butler as the killer, the police looked no further than the teenager they had in custody. Not so surprising you might say. And you’d wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. But Murder on a Sunday Morning highlights the dreadful way in which the detectives on the case, James Williams and Dwayne Darnell, along with a colleague, Michael Glover, did nothing to properly investigate the case, but did all they could to coerce Butler into making a confession (which, in reality, he never did). As a miscarriage of justice, it’s frightening. As a cautionary tale about the perils of “swift justice” it’s also alarming. As a vindication of “the best legal system in the world” (a direct quote from the trial judge, Wendell Waddell III), it’s on shakier ground. This is a case that should never have gone to trial. The police knew they didn’t have a case, the State Attorney knew they didn’t have a case, but the trial went ahead anyway.

Thank heavens then, for Patrick McGuinness and Ann Finnell, two lawyers appointed by the Public Defenders Office to represent Butler at trial. It didn’t take them long to realise that the prosecution’s case was flimsy, and it didn’t take them long to work out a strategy for Butler’s defence that would be effective in exposing the police investigation for what it really was: non-existent. And thanks to Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s excellent documentary, we can see how McGuinness and Finnell took on the prosecution’s case and dismantled it piece by piece. de Lestrade and his French crew were there from the time McGuinness and Finnell were appointed, all the way through the pre-trial period as they made their own enquiries, and then at the trial itself, recording the key exchanges that highlighted the police’s laissez faire attitude and their unwillingness to mount a proper investigation.

The movie adopts a straightforward, linear approach that allows the viewer to become increasingly involved with the case and the trial, and with Butler’s family as they try to come to terms with the enormity of what’s happened to their son. The courtroom scenes are mesmerising. McGuinness is like a quietly spoken pitbull, prodding and poking at the detectives and getting them to admit to their own inadequacies as police officers. Away from the courtroom, the chain-smoking McGuinness reveals his disdain for the detectives, and points out that if he has no respect for a police officer then he won’t address him by his rank; McGuinness wants that officer to be annoyed, to become antagonistic perhaps, because then they’ll trip themselves up and make his job that much easier. He doesn’t have to worry, or put so much effort in. Williams and Darnell and Glover – they do all the work for him. Their complacency is his best weapon.

As well as its linear approach, the movie is free from any frills or unnecessary embellishments, and it’s this plain and simple way of addressing the material that makes Murder on a Sunday Morning such a compelling documentary. When the story is this good, you don’t need to make it overly dramatic or accentuate certain points to be effective, and de Lestrade is wise enough to let the story tell itself. As the depth and breadth of the police’s ineptitude is revealed, the viewer is likely to be shaking their head in disbelief and wondering how on earth Butler’s arrest and subsequent trial could have been allowed to happen in the first place. But de Lestrade and his team show you exactly how it happened, and why (hey, let’s make sure this murder doesn’t affect the number of tourists that visit each year), and they also ensure that nothing is either lost in translation or through Ragnar Van Leyden and Pascal Vernier’s rigorous editing. Each point that the defence raises in opposition to the prosecution’s case is recorded precisely and with as much impact as possible.

By the time the trial reaches its conclusion and the jury retires to consider its verdict, the movie has delivered a crushing blow to anyone who may have believed in law enforcement officers as fair-minded, dedicated, and professional (at least in the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Department). In exposing the failings of a murder investigation, and the officers who put more effort into railroading a fifteen-year-old into confessing to a crime he didn’t commit than they did looking for someone else who actually fitted the description James Stephens gave them originally, the movie proves compelling, gripping and powerful. And when the trial is over and the verdict is in, the movie has one more ace up its sleeve, a postscript that provides further evidence of the incompetence of the police.

Rating: 9/10 – sincere and expertly assembled, Murder on a Sunday Morning is absorbing, meticulous, moving, and profoundly shocking (count how many times Michael Glover lies under oath); the level of access that de Lestrade and his team had throughout the time that McGuinness and Finnell were involved is phenomenal, and even though this is a case that can be looked up on the Internet in seconds, it manages to keep you guessing as to what the verdict will be – and that’s no mean feat in today’s media-saturated society. (9/31)

One Eight Seven (1997)

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aka 187

D: Kevin Reynolds / 119m

Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, John Heard, Kelly Rowan, Clifton Collins Jr (as Clifton Gonzalez Gonzalez), Tony Plana, Karina Arroyave, Lobo Sebastian, Jack Kehler, Jonah Rooney, Demetrius Navarro, Richard Riehle

If you were a regular moviegoer in the mid- to late-Nineties then you’ll remember there was a spate of inspirational movies that revolved around teachers going into difficult schools and classrooms and making an impact on the lives of their – up ’til then at least – rowdy and supposedly unreachable pupils. In 1995 we had both Dangerous Minds with Michelle Pfeiffer, and Mr. Holland’s Opus with Richard Dreyfuss. 1997 also saw Good Will Hunting, with Robin Williams mentoring Matt Damon’s maths prodigy. And 1999 gave us Music of the Heart with Meryl Streep. All of these movies had one thing in common: they pitted a committed individual against both institutional and cultural apathy within the US education system. But in amongst all those valiant portrayals and feelgood endings, one movie took an opposite stance. (Can you guess which one?)

Trevor Garfield (Jackson) is a science teacher working at a Brooklyn high school. One of the students in his class stabs him repeatedly with a shiv after being given a failing grade. Fifteen months later, and Garfield is living in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles, and working as a substitute teacher. He gets a call to sub at John Quincy Adams High School for four days. Day one is something of a disaster. He starts off in the wrong classroom, and when he’s in the right one he finds himself having to deal with a disrespectful student called Benny Chacón (Sebastian). Benny is the leader of a local Chicano gang that go by the name K.O.S. (Kappin’ Off Suckers). When another teacher, Ellen Henry (Rowan), tells Garfield that Benny has threatened her in the past, Garfield is sympathetic but doesn’t have any answers for her.

Garfield’s time at the school is extended, and Benny disappears. Garfield and Ellen start seeing each other, and things seem to be settling down until Garfield’s watch is stolen during a class. Knowing that the new leader of K.O.S., César Sanchez (Collins Jr), is responsible, he reports it to the school principal (Plana). The principal appears more concerned with avoiding any potential law suits than investigating or backing up Garfield’s claim, and Garfield has to take matters into his own hands in order to get his watch back. This sets in motion a war of attrition between Garfield and Sanchez that is brought to a halt when Sanchez is attacked one night and one of his fingers is cut off. Knowing that Garfield is responsible but unable to prove it to the police, it’s only a matter of time before Sanchez decides to get even with Garfield. However their home invasion-cum-execution plan doesn’t go exactly the way they planned…

At the end of One Eight Seven, a caption advises the viewer that “a teacher wrote this movie”. If it’s meant to convey a truthfulness to the events depicted in the movie then it misses that particular mark by a wide, country mile. There’s little about this movie that makes any sense, and even less that appears credible. Narrative problems begin to make themselves known in the opening scenes, with Jackson’s earnest and more than a little worried Garfield talking to a superior, Walter (Riehle), about the death threat he’s received from a student. Walter behaves like an ass, and refuses to take the threat seriously. It’s an unlikely scene, and while it’s there to make a point that will  become more relevant later on, it’s astonishingly clumsy. And it’s the first moment where the movie takes the viewer by the hand and lays everything out for them as if their ability to grasp the criticism that the schools system is managed by incompetent administrators is beyond them.

From then on, Scott Yagemann’s screenplay does its best to tick all the boxes relating to school-based clichés, and even throws in the talented student who lacks confidence/is bullied or abused (or both) (Arroyave), and who Garfield takes under his wing (he also agrees to tutor her at his home unsupervised, something that no teacher in his or her right mind would contemplate; more cynically, it’s an excuse for Arroyave to be shown naked). Equally problematic is the relationship that develops between Garfield and Ellen. On the one hand it’s yet another mixed race semi-romance that won’t go anywhere (they’re only allowed to kiss in this movie), and on the other, Ellen is there solely as the Voice of Reason, the one character who will remind audiences that vigilantism is a bad thing, and all while the movie promotes the opposite.

Because at its core, One Eight Seven isn’t about the schools system being in crisis, or how teachers are increasingly under threats of violence from alienated pupils. Instead it’s a movie taking a very provocative and very conservative stance. It’s saying, if you’re a teacher and you can’t get through to certain pupils because they aren’t responding to your teaching methods, then it’s okay to maim or kill them (the movie does try to make it seem as if Garfield’s innocent of harming Benny and Sanchez, but it’s too obvious that he’s not). It’s hard to believe that this is a recommendation being made by a former teacher (Yagemann worked for over seven years in the Los Angeles public schools system), but even if you dismiss it as a form of artistic licence, it still leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, and one that director Kevin Reynolds seems unaware of. Though not exactly known for making “message movies”, Reynolds still seems way out of his depth here, and the movie lacks consistency, with many scenes failing to engage the viewer or advance the plot.

For the most part the performances are adequate, with Jackson building up to the kind of vocal pyrotechnics that are expected of him even more these days, and Heard underused as usual as a fellow teacher who takes a concealed firearm to work (this isn’t challenged either; is Yagemann saying this is normal, or even okay?). Rowan has little to do beyond acting as a bundle of nerves, Plana is only required to behave obsequiously in a couple of scenes, and Arroyave is the Dangerous Minds alumni with a bigger, yet cruelly underwritten role. Only Collins Jr, for whom this was a break-out role and a break-out movie, injects any real passion or commitment into his portrayal, and his is the one performance that offers anything more than what seems to have been in the script.

Rating: 4/10 – flawed, and taking a reactionary stance that it tries to be ambivalent about, One Eight Seven crosses a line early on and never looks back to see if it should have crossed it in the first place; uninspired and leaden for long stretches, it’s a movie with an unpalatable message, and no idea (or intention) of providing a balanced viewpoint that might allow the audience to entertain any doubts about the issues under discussion. (8/31)

Fading Gigolo (2013)

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D: John Turturro / 90m

Cast: John Turturro, Woody Allen, Vanessa Paradis, Liev Schreiber, Sharon Stone, Sofía Vergara, Tonya Pinkins, Bob Balaban

Question: when is a Woody Allen movie not quite a Woody Allen movie? Answer: when it’s written and directed by John Turturro… who’s had help from Woody Allen in assembling the script. A broad romantic comedy with a large helping of sympathy for its characters, Turturro’s fifth outing in the director’s chair is an engaging, likeable movie that has all the hallmarks of a Woody Allen movie, but then tweaks them in varied and surprising ways.

It begins with Turturro’s character, Fioravante, helping his friend, Murray (Allen), with the closure of his bookstore. Looking for a new business opportunity, Murray reveals that his dermatologist, Dr Parker (Stone), revealed to him during an appointment that she and a girlfriend of hers, Robbie (Vergara), are looking to engage in a ménage à trois. As Dr Parker is willing to pay for the experience, Murray suggests that Fioravante is the man they need, but he’s initially resistant to the idea. Eventually, Murray convinces his friend to take the “job” and contacts Dr Parker. She decides to meet Fioravante on her own to see if he will be suitable. He passes the test and soon, Dr Parker is recommending his services to some of her friends, while Murray is drumming up clients in his own fashion.

Fioravante’s success as an escort leads to an unexpected encounter. Through Murray, Fioravante meets the widow of a Hassidic Jew, Avigal (Paradis). They begin a tentative relationship that attracts the attention of Dovi, who works for Shomrim, a neighbourhood patrol. He has been in love with Avigal since they were teenagers, and he begins to follow her when she leaves the neighbourhood. While Fioravante and Avigal spend more and more time together, Dr Parker finally decides the time is right for the planned threesome to go ahead. But just at the point that Fioravante realises that he’s in love with Avigal, Dovi grabs Murray off the street and takes him to face a Rabbinic court. His involvement with Avigal is questioned, and it takes an unexpected intervention to resolve matters once and for all.

From the very beginning, Fading Gigolo is a genial, simple, romantic comedy drama that does what it does with equanimity, and which never tries to go beyond its basic remit. It’s this self-awareness that helps the movie immensely, and while the characters are largely stereotypical and written in broad brush strokes, Turturro’s direction encourages his talented cast to portray them with small, idiosyncratic details that help enhance the material as a whole. Turturro, both as director and actor, is generous with his cast, and his lack of selfishness in front of the camera is reflected in his largesse behind it.  Turturro also encourages his cast to underplay their emotions and provide more subtle character beats than would be expected (Stone in particular is good as a confident professional whose vulnerability is revealed during her first meeting with Fioravante). There’s a lot going on below the surface a lot of the time, and more is relayed to the viewer by the characters’ expressions than by the dialogue.

This allows the viewer to respond to the material to a much greater degree than might be expected. As a result, the movie gains increasing credibility as a romantic drama, and the cast respond accordingly. As it slips off its comedic mantle in favour of dealing properly with the emotional and relationship issues that have arisen, Turturro ensures each development is accorded the relevant amount of sincerity and pathos (except for Balaban’s appearance as Murray’s lawyer at the Rabbinic court, a turn that is resolutely out of place, and is the one major lapse in Turturro’s direction). The emerging friendship between Fioravante and Avigal is treated with a tenderness and a subtlety that mirrors the mutual uncertainty that both are feeling, and Paradis perfectly expresses the sadness and the hope that Avigal feels as both a widow and a woman. In comparison, Turturro keeps his performance reined in, barely moving, and keeping his dialogue to a minimum, and yet still expressing his character’s anxieties and sense of anticipation. The outcome of their relationship is never in doubt – such is the entirely foreseeable nature of the screenplay – but when it comes it, it’s a brief and affecting moment that in a very succinct fashion, highlights exactly why the outcome is what it is.

Allen’s participation is unusual in that he rarely appears in other people’s movies these days – the last time was in Alfonso Arau’s Picking Up the Pieces (2000), which also featured Stone – but what isn’t a surprise is that he plays yet another minor variation on the neurotic Jewish intellectual-cum-nebbish he’s been playing for over fifty years. He does infuse the role with a desperate, greedy quality we haven’t seen before, but otherwise it’s business as usual. Fortunately, Allen’s presence doesn’t overwhelm things, and his supporting role is integrated effectively into the main storyline. Again, there are many similarities between this movie and others that Allen has made over the years, enough perhaps to make him feel comfortable in taking on the part. But though his involvement in the script has been confirmed by Turturro, this isn’t a movie that anyone could say Allen directed. Turturro has his own style, and he approaches the characters in a very different way from the way that Allen does. And faced with such a predictable plot to begin with, that Turturro does overcome it is a sign of the actor’s confidence in being a director.

Rating: 7/10 – funny and dramatic in equal measure, Fading Gigolo never loses sight of what’s important and at the heart of its tale: how much we want to connect, and how much we’re willing to give of ourselves in order to make that connection; Turturro makes it all look relatively easy, and does so by remembering that every character (even Murray) is looking for love in some form or other, and that even if it’s provided by an escort, it can still be fulfilling and/or the right choice. (7/31)