The Old Man & the Gun (2018)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , ,

D: David Lowery / 93m

Cast: Robert Redford, Sissy Spacek, Casey Affleck, Danny Glover, Tom Waits, Tika Sumpter, David Carradine, Isiah Whitlock Jr, John David Washington, Elisabeth Moss, Robert Longstreet

In 1981, and in his Seventies, career criminal Forrest Tucker (Redford) is still doing what he’s best at: robbing banks. As the founder of The Over the Hill Gang, Tucker, along with his associates, Teddy (Glover) and Waller (Waits), takes a low key, gentlemanly approach to robbing a bank. He smiles a lot, he pretends to have a gun, and no one ever gets hurt. Of course, the police don’t see it in quite the same light, and a detective, John Hunt (Affleck), becomes determined to catch Tucker and put him away. But this is easier planned than done, as Tucker stays one step ahead of everyone while he also romances a widow called Jewel (Spacek). As Hunt learns more and more about Tucker, and vice versa, a mutual respect develops between the pair. But even knowing Hunt is on his trail, and the promise of an easy retirement with Jewel is within his grasp, Tucker can’t help but keep on robbing banks. It’s not until the police finally track him down, and he’s forced to go it alone, that Tucker has to decide on what kind of future he really wants…

If Forrest Tucker hadn’t been a real life character (he passed away in 2004), and if he hadn’t really escaped from prison around sixteen times (including once, in 1979, from San Quentin), and made an estimated four million dollars from his robberies over the years, then the movies would have had to have made him up. And if a casting director had been charged with finding the perfect actor for the role, then they would have had only one choice: Robert Redford. Widely acknowledged as Redford’s swansong performance, Tucker is a fitting role for an actor who has encompassed all the qualities that David Lowery’s screenplay – itself based on a 2003 article by David Grann – imbues the character with. He’s charming, he has a relaxed manner, he appears unhurried and thoughtful, and he has that smile, that signifier that if you stick with him, everything will be okay, and most of all, a lot of fun. Redford could almost be playing himself, or an older, wiser version of the Sundance Kid, such is the modern day Western vibe that infuses the movie. And he doesn’t even have to do too much to be effective; it’s possibly the most relaxed he’s ever been, and it shows. It’s a performance that feels effortless.

But this being a David Lowery movie, it’s not just about Tucker and his almost carefree attitude to life and other people’s money. It’s also about time – what we do with it, how it affects us, whether the past informs our present, and whether the future should be something to be concerned about – and how our memories can influence how we look at time. Tucker has nothing but fond memories of his life, even though he’s spent most of it locked up, while Jewel feels regret for not having been more selfish with her time when she was married. It’s not difficult to work out which one of them feels that they’ve really been in prison, and just as easy to work out which one is the more fulfilled. But while it would be easy to look at this as another, off-kilter version of the Follow Your Dream experience, the movie is a lot subtler than that, and has a much more solid and dramatic foundation. That Lowery has chosen to layer his movie with a poignant meditation on getting old doesn’t detract from the enjoyment to be had from it, and the discerning viewer will find much that resonates along the way.

Rating: 9/10 – a movie that remains wistful and pleasantly languid for much of its running time, The Old Man & the Gun is still chock full of dramatic moments that highlight the underlying seriousness of Tucker’s “work”; with terrific performances from all concerned, and enchanting cinematography from Joe Anderson, this may end up being regarded solely as a fitting tribute to Redford and his career, but it has so much more to offer, and is so much more rewarding.

Advertisements

Beautiful Boy (2018)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , ,

D: Felix van Groeningen / 120m

Cast: Steve Carell, Timothée Chalamet, Maura Tierney, Amy Ryan, Kaitlyn Dever, LisaGay Hamilton, Andre Royo, Christian Convery, Oakley Bull, Timothy Hutton

After his teenage son, Nic (Chalamet), goes missing for a couple of days, freelance writer David Sheff (Carell) discovers that Nic has a drug habit. David arranges treatment for Nic at a rehab clinic and the teenager makes significant progress, however it’s not long before he goes missing again and his habit becomes an addiction. With the support of his father, and his stepmother, Karen (Tierney), Nic makes a full recovery and goes off to college to focus on writing. Nic relapses, though, and soon he’s back to taking drugs, particularly crystal meth, while insisting that he has everything under control. When an overdose puts Nic in the hospital, David and his ex-wife, Nic’s mother, Vicki (Ryan), decide that he should live with her while he attends rehab sessions. Again, Nic makes significant progress, and is sober for over a year before anxieties about relapsing cause the very thing he’s afraid of to happen. Reconnecting with an old girlfriend, Lauren (Dever), Nic’s addiction spirals even further out of control, which leaves David with a tough decision to make: whether to continue trying to help his son, or admit that he can’t help him at all…

From the synopsis above, it’s easy to guess just how much Beautiful Boy is going to be a movie based around a succession of terrible lows and tantalising highs, and though it’s based on a true story, this is exactly how the movie plays out: Nic takes drugs, Nic gets better, Nic relapses, and so on. Unfortunately, while the quality of the central performances isn’t in doubt – Carell and Chalamet are superb – and van Groeningen’s direction ensures the viewer remains interested throughout, the repetitive nature of the material leads to an emotional distancing that becomes more pronounced as the movie progresses. Though the effects of Nic’s drug addiction clearly take their toll on him and everyone around him, once he’s relapsed the first time (and so early on), you know that it’s going to happen again, and again. The script – by van Groeningen and Luke Davies – does its best to offset this by focusing on David’s efforts to understand his son’s addiction, though strangely, it’s on a more physiological and intellectual level; when Nic explains how drugs make him feel, David doesn’t get it at all. So, while Nic experiences feelings and sensations that make drug addiction, to him, more desirable, David remains somewhat aloof. Even after he’s taken cocaine himself, David is unchanged, and any effect the drug may have had isn’t revealed.

With both father and son unable to connect anymore in a meaningful way, the movie seeks to remind its audience of the tragedy that’s occurring by resorting to flashbacks that show the bond David and Nic shared when he was much younger. These are placed at key points in the narrative and serve as leavening moments against the grim nature of Nic’s addiction. But these too lose their impact through over-use, and by the time Nic reaches rock bottom, the idea of one more poignant remembrance is one too many. But though the structure and the content of the movie hampers its effectiveness, it’s the performances that stand out. Carell has rarely been better, using David’s anger and shame at not being able to help his son, to paint a portrait of a man coming up against the hard fact of his own limitations. As Nic, Chalamet continues to impress, imbuing the character with a desperate, anguished fatalism that is heart-wrenching to watch. The father/son relationship is the heart of the movie, and van Groeningen pays close attention to it, letting it dominate the movie accordingly, while leaving Tierney and Ryan with little to do as a result. At least it doesn’t seek to be profound, or to provide any glib answers to the issues it explores, and that at least is something to be thankful for.

Rating: 7/10 – adapted from books written by both David and Nic, and which allow for a powerful yet emotionally subdued movie, Beautiful Boy is bolstered by two stand out performances, and its refusal to compromise on the dispiriting nature of its storyline; while it doesn’t work as well as it should, and it might not be everyone’s idea of a “good time”, there’s still more than enough on offer to keep the average, or even casual viewer hoping that, by the movie’s end, Nic finds some semblance of peace.

Assassination Nation (2018)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , ,

D: Sam Levinson / 108m

Cast: Odessa Young, Suki Waterhouse, Hari Nef, Abra, Maude Apatow, Anika Noni Rose, Joel McHale, Colman Domingo, Bella Thorne, Bill Skarsgård, Cody Christian, Danny Ramirez, Kathryn Erbe, Jennifer Morrison

In modern day Salem, Massachusetts, Lily Colson (Young) is a high school senior whose main interests are art, challenging the views of the adults around her, and hanging out with her best friends, Em (Abra), Sarah (Waterhouse), and Bex (Nef). She has a boyfriend, Mark (Skarsgård), but also appears to have a relationship with someone called “Daddy”. One day, a mysterious hacker known only as Er0sta4tus begins a campaign of releasing photographs and texts that expose the secrets of a number of well-known townspeople, including the mayor and Lily’s school principal (Domingo). Damage is done in both instances, but it’s when a massive data dump exposes the secrets of half the town that things spiral out of control. Mark finds out about “Daddy”, and Lily is cruelly victimised as a result. A week later, matters worsen for Lily and her friends when a group of vigilantes assert that she is responsible for the data dump. With all four at Em’s house, they find themselves under attack, and unable to count on being rescued by the police…

A triumph of style over substance, Assassination Nation is an angry movie that raves against the intolerance it perceives to be prevalent in the US today, but in the same way that a certain elected proponent of the “fear” factor paints a self-serving, one-sided version of the truth, so too does writer/director Sam Levinson. With the movie lacking in introspection, and unable to provide the necessary causality to make its second half anywhere near convincing, it’s a frustrating experience that starts off well (an early montage of coming attractions that include violence, transphobia, fragile  male egos, and giant frogs is a particular highlight), but which soon abandons any attempts at satire, or subtlety, as it morphs from an impassioned critique of small town hypocrisy into a below par, gender-focused variation of The Purge. Levinson has some pretty big targets in his sights, but doesn’t quite know how to approach them, riffing on the perils of social media and toxic masculinity, but from a cautious distance that only feels truly immersive when he’s subjecting Lily to all sorts of physical humiliation. These moments are also gleefully exploitative, and wouldn’t feel out of place if they’d been lifted from the likes of Day of the Woman (1978).

There’s the temptation to believe that Levinson has set out to shock and upset his audience deliberately, although if that is the case, the why remains a mystery. The one truly upsetting thing about the movie is its lack of narrative clarity. It doesn’t help either that the characters remain singularly one-dimensional from start to finish, with several individuals’ motivations proving murky at best, or risible at worst. It’s fortunate then that the look of the movie is all the more arresting and confidently handled. Thanks to DoP Marcell Rév, Assassination Nation is one of the bolder and more vivid movies released this year, and the visual flair on display is often breathtaking in its audacity. Utilising split screen techniques, filters, odd camera angles, fluid camera work, and tight framing where it’s most effective, Rév makes the movie soar beyond the pedestrian nature of the narrative. It also has a terrific, and eclectic soundtrack that mixes classical, avant-garde, pop, and alternative rap to superb effect. Against this, the performances range from the committed and convincing (Nef), to the perfunctory and underwhelming (Waterhouse, Christian), and in the case of Young, hampered by poor writing and direction.

Rating: 5/10 – a vibrant, visually startling movie that’s also a mess of half-thought out ideas and narrative cul-de-sacs, Assassination Nation wants to get in its viewer’s face and scream about the unfairness of bigotry and hypocrisy, but in the end it’s too unfocused to get its message across except in the clumsiest of fashions; it also has a tough time justifying its “girls can be tough too” approach when their own revenge spree smacks so much of being an obvious male fantasy brought to life.

The Sweet Life (2016)

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

D: Rob Spera / 90m

Cast: Chris Messina, Abigail Spencer, Maggie Siff, Tyson Ritter, J.D. Evermore, Karan Soni, Glenn Plummer, Nick Searcy, Josh Pence, Jayne Brook

After another day of poor returns, depressed ice cream salesman Kenny Pantalio (Messina) contemplates throwing himself off a bridge and ending it all. But he’s interrupted by Lolita Nowicki (Spencer), a young woman with her own suicidal tendencies. When they discover they have the same therapist, it leads to them wandering through night-time Chicago until outside a swanky restaurant, Kenny is mistaken for a valet parker, and is given the keys to a Mercedes. Lolita convinces him to take the car, and that they should travel together to the Golden Gate Bridge where they can both commit suicide. As their journey takes them across country, Kenny and Lolita find themselves in a number of weird situations, from trying to rob a convenience store on the promise of their having a gun, to Kenny’s stealing a car that has a surprising cargo on the back seat, to a side trip to meet someone from Kenny’s past. Through trial and error they arrive in San Francisco, where Lolita’s own past catches up with her, and her relationship with Kenny prompts a sudden decision…

Despite the best of intentions, and the best efforts of its screenplay – by Jared Rappaport – its director, and its two leads, The Sweet Life lacks the necessary credulity to allow the viewer to connect with the characters and the plot. From the moment that Lolita interrupts Kenny’s suicidal reverie, the movie goes off in several different directions all at once, and it tries to become a drama, a comedy, and yes, a romance, and often, all at the same time. This scatter gun effect works well at certain moments, but falls flat at others, leaving the movie feeling haphazard and poorly constructed. Even if you accept the unlikely “meet-cute” that brings Kenny and Loilta together, the contrived nature of their subsequent relationship remains a recurring problem. The idea is that they will support each other during their road trip, but this rarely happens, as each is as selfish and inwardly focused as the other, and even when they do put aside their differences to come to each other’s rescue, it’s always because the script needs them to, not because it makes their journey that much richer or profound. That said, their journey does avoid easy sentimentality, and there are trenchant moments that work surprisingly well.

What Rappaport’s script also avoids is any in-depth explorations of Kenny and Lolita’s reasons for wanting to commit suicide. There are hints and clues, but none that are fleshed out enough to make sense, or allow the viewer to feel sorry for them. Kenny is depressed, and as it transpires, for a variety of reasons; Lolita is the same. But their intention to jump from the Golden Gate Bridge always feels like a stretch, the road trip a way of giving them time to realise that their lives aren’t as bleak as they think, and for the movie to make a number of telling comments about the nature of happiness. If you were watching the movie, and didn’t know why they were heading to San Francisco, you could quite easily believe this was merely another modern rom-com where opposites attract. And on many levels, when the script isn’t addressing this issue directly, the movie is much better for it. Messina portrays Kenny with an increasingly endearing manner that proves likeable by the movie’s end, but Spencer has the very hard task of making Lolita look and sound like someone who would exist in the real world. In the end, Spera’s direction proves too wayward to help matters, and the outcome is both dramatically and emotionally spurious, something that undermines those moments earlier in the movie that do work.

Rating: 5/10 – with little in the way of depth, and little in the way of examining the serious side of suicidal tendencies, The Sweet Life is a rom-com with dramatic pretensions it’s unable to pull off; a frustrating experience, it’s a low-key, genial movie that offers odd moments of poignancy, but never gels into anything more substantial.

The Guilty (2018)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , ,

Original title: Den skyldige

D: Gustav Möller / 85m

Cast: Jakob Cedergren, Jessica Dinnage, Omar Shargawi, Johan Olsen, Jacob Lohmann, Katinka Evers-Jahnsen, Jeanette Lindbæk

Asger Holm (Cedergren) is a police officer working as a call handler for the Danish emergency response services. He’s doing this while he waits for the outcome of a court appearance that will determine if he remains a police officer. It’s his last shift before his court date, and with around half an hour to go he’s having to deal with the usual amount of time wasters and people who want an emergency response there and then. But one call brings Asger out of his self-imposed funk: a young woman called Iben (Dinnage) tells him she has been kidnapped and is in a vehicle, but she doesn’t know where she’s being taken. Asger knows roughly the area she’s in, and once he gets Iben to reveal the colour and kind of vehicle she’s in, he calls the appropriate police force to look for   her. But as Asger’s shift ends and he decides to stay on, he becomes more and more involved in finding Iben and reuniting her with her two children, who are still at home. But his efforts have unexpected consequences…

With all the action taking place wihin the confines of the Emergency East call centre, and for much of the movie within the further confines of an office where only Asger is situated, The Guilty relies heavily on both its plot, and Cedergren’s performance. Luckily, the plot is a gripping, edge-of-your-seat race against time scenario that sees Asger make a number of mistakes – some avoidable, some not – that both highlight and complicate the urgency of the situation, and which rely on the drip feed of information that some viewers will be able to piece together before Asger does. It’s a scenario that requires Asger to be a very good listener, but with his own issues weighing heavily on him, this proves difficult for him to achieve, and as he gets in deeper and deeper – even to the point of involving one of his police colleagues, Rashid (Shargawi) – his feelings of guilt over the incident that has brought him to the call centre begin to overwhelm him, and his efforts to do the right thing become more and more desperate. As Iben’s situation worsens, so too does Asger’s, and as he strives to save her, it becomes obvious that he’s trying to redeem himself at the same time.

This duality of purpose becomes more and more explicit as the movie progresses, and thanks to a sterling performance from Cedergren, Asger’s taciturn, dismissive demeanour gives way to a maelstrom of unexpected emotions that ultimately prove to be both the source of his undoing and his redemption. Asger isn’t the most sympathetic of characters, and Cedergren makes no attempt to soften him or make him more agreeable, but the narrative is still looking for that positive outcome, and if only Asger can swing it, then that’s okay. Möller and editor Carla Luff instill the movie with a sinewy, muscular rhythm that deflects from just how many times the camera placidly, but effectively observes Asger in close up, and the restrained camera work by DoP Jasper J. Spanning is suitably claustrophobic, making good use of the limited space Asger occupies and further highlighting the urgency of the situation. With good supporting performances from his voice cast, Möller teases out the truth in stages, and confounds audience expectations on a couple of occasions while playing to the gallery at others. It’s a compelling thriller, commendably staged and cleverly executed, and one that balances the demands of its main plot with that of Asger’s own situation with style and a surfeit of brooding self-confidence.

Rating: 8/10 – Denmark’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at next year’s Academy Awards, The Guilty is a riveting, tightly constructed thriller that doesn’t short change the viewer, or betray its own internal logic in the final third as so many thrillers do; quietly devastating in places, its relatively short running time means not a moment is wasted, and there’s depth lurking beneath the simplicity of the main set up.

A Brief Word About the Avengers: Endgame Trailer

Tags

, , ,

Like a lot of folks around the globe, I was looking forward to the release of the first trailer for what until now, has been known simply as Avengers 4. With so much about the movie shrouded in mystery, many people were probably hoping that the trailer would provide them with clues as to what will happen now that Thanos has wiped out half the universe (as well as finally getting a confirmed title). To say the first trailer – a definite teaser, if ever there was one – gives very little away is an understatement (though it won’t stop a tonne of exhaustive deconstructions and detailed theorising about what’s in the trailer from hitting the Internet in the next few days). But that’s easily the best thing about it.

For once, we have a trailer for a huge, upcoming blockbuster movie that doesn’t give anything away, and which won’t spoil anything for fans when the movie is released in April 2019.

How cool is that? And how cool is it that Disney and Marvel have taken this approach? In this day and age of media saturation and information overload, when everybody wants everything now (and pretty much spoon-fed to them), how refreshing is it that we still don’t know anything about the content and the storyline of Avengers: Endgame? Full marks to the Russo brothers then if it was their idea, and for keeping us all deliberately in the dark for a while longer. Let’s hope the next trailer keeps us just as much in the dark as this one has. And let’s hope that other studios and production companies and distributors learn a valuable lesson from this: that less is always better than more, and that audiences don’t always want to know the ins and outs of a movie months before they get a chance to see it (okay, that’s unlikely to happen, but we can all wish, can’t we?).

Oh! the Horror! – The Possession of Hannah Grace (2018) and The Harrowing (2018)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Possession of Hannah Grace (2018) / D: Diederik Van Rooijen / 86m

Cast: Shay Mitchell, Grey Damon, Kirby Johnson, Nick Thune, Louis Herthum, Stana Katic, Maximillian McNamara, Jacob Ming-Trent

Megan Reed (Mitchell) is an ex-cop still suffering the lingering effects of PTSD from a shooting that saw her partner killed. Getting back on her feet, she takes a job working the night shift at the Boston Metro Hospital morgue. Working alone in her part of the building, her main responsibility is to see in any “new arrivals” and get them processed into the system. Her first night on the job passes by without incident, but on the second night something more out of the ordinary happens: the body of a young woman (Johnson), the victim of a deranged killer who has hacked her body and tried to burn it, is brought in. Alerted to the fact that the killer is still at large, Megan sets about trying to process the body, but her equipment fails at every turn. Later, while seeing in another body, a man (Herthum) slips into the morgue, and hides away. Later still, Megan becomes aware of his presence, and finds him trying to haul the young woman’s body into the incinerator. She overpowers him, and it’s then that he tells her that the young woman, Hannah Grace, isn’t dead…

A modest little horror flick from Sony/Screen Gems, The Possession of Hannah Grace has slipped into cinemas recently, and though there’s always the temptation to think that if it’s in cinemas then it must be better than the usual horror fare released these days, in this case that wouldn’t be entirely appropriate. Originally entitled Cadaver, this has good production values for its budget, a good central performance from Mitchell, and a handful of creepy moments that are as much to do with its setting as it’s title character. However, the story holds about as much water as a paper bag, and the details of Hannah’s possession can best be described as “flaky to the max” (and that’s being generous). This flakiness is the excuse for the supporting characters to be picked off one by one, but on each occasion, the contrivance is obvious and perfunctory. Van Rooijen keeps the scares simple if predictable, but is unable to rein in the preposterousness that runs rampant through the screenplay. The end result is a movie that falls short of being as gripping, or frightening, as its setting should have made it, and which relies too heavily on its title character’s ability to make weird clacking noises when she (inevitably) moves around.

Rating: 4/10 – another frustrating horror movie experience foisted on our cinema screens, The Possession of Hannah Grace is unlikely to bother anyone who’s seen any of the four million other possession movies released in the last few years, or indeed, anyone coming to the genre for the first time either; dull in stretches, with a back story for its heroine that is as unnecessary as these things usually are, it does at least have an ending, and thankfully, not one that sets up a sequel.

 

The Harrowing (2018) / D: Jon Keeyes / 111m

Cast: Matthew Tompkins, Arnold Vosloo, Arianne Martin, Michael Ironside, Damon Carney, Hayden Tweedie, Michael Crabtree, Susana Gibb, Morgana Shaw, James Cable

Ryan Calhoun (Tompkins) is a vice cop working a sting operation with his partner, Jack (Carney), and newbie, Greenbaum (Cable). While he’s out getting coffee, something goes wrong in the apartment they’re monitoring, and when Ryan gets there, he finds the prostitute who’s been working with them, her trick, and Jack all dead, horribly mutilated, and apparently killed by Greenbaum. Greenbaum attacks Ryan, who shoots him dead, but not before Greenbaum has mentioned something to do with demons. Although he’s removed from the case by his superior, Lieut, Logan (Ironside), Ryan does his own investigating, and discovers that Greenbaum was a patient at a psychiatric facility before joining the force. Electing to go undercover at the facility, which is run by Dr Franklin Whitney (Vosloo), Ryan looks for answers as to why Greenbaum would have committed such a terrible act. Soon he learns that Greenbaum wasn’t the only patient who believed in demons, and that both himself and the other patients are in danger from something truly diabolical…

Beginning with a prologue that proves entirely superfluous to what follows, The Harrowing is a less than sure-footed attempt at blending a variety of genres, from the humble police procedural to the psychological thriller, and with a heavy coating of supernatural drama ladled on top. There’s the hint of a neat little mystery here, but it’s buried under a welter of kaleidoscopic lighting effects, more cutaways than could ever be necessary, and a fragmented screenplay that has a defined ending in mind but which doesn’t know quite how to get there without tripping itself up along the way (and more than once). There’s certainly ambition on display here as well, but writer/director Keeyes has opted for visual and aural excess over subtlety in telling his story, and the result is a shouty mess that lacks the coherence needed to keep the viewer intrigued or motivated to keep watching. Things aren’t helped by a truly awful performance from Tompkins, and a number of very questionable directorial decisions made by Keeyes as he tries to create a nightmare fusion of reality and fantasy, but succeeds only in creating a nightmare that the viewer is forced to navigate. By the end, it’s hard to care how it all turns out, and when it does, it does so abruptly – which is some consolation at least given the extended running time.

Rating: 3/10 – when veterans of this sort of thing like Vosloo and Ironside look as if they’d rather be elsewhere, then you know there’s a problem, though for The Harrowing it’s just one of many; another example of low budget equals low return, Keeyes has been doing this sort of thing for a while now, something that begs the question, isn’t it time to try another genre altogether?

The Carer (2016)

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

D: János Edelényi / 88m

Cast: Brian Cox, Coco König, Emilia Fox, Anna Chancellor, Karl Johnson, Andrew Havill, Selina Cadell, Emily Bevan, Roger Moore

Sir Michael Gifford (Cox) is a British acting legend, equally at home in movies and on television, but mostly on the stage. Now retired and suffering from the early onset of Parkinson’s disease, Sir Michael is being urged to accept having a full-time carer by his daughter, Sophia (Fox), and his housekeeper (and ex-lover) Milly (Chancellor). Resistant to the idea, Sir Michael finds that the introduction of Dorottya (König), a Hungarian care worker who has applied to study drama in the UK, isn’t quite the imposition he expects it to be. With her love of, and ability to quote, Shakespeare, Sir Michael finds Dorottya’s sympathetic approach and youthful enthusiasm something of a tonic – though he reserves his usual dyspeptic disposition for everyone else. However, when he’s put forward for a Lifetime Achievement Award, it causes friction between him and Sophia (who thinks he’s too infirm to attend), and Sophia and Dorottya (who thinks it would be good for him). Sir Michael decides he’s going to go, whether his daughter agrees or not, but before he does he has to recconnect with Dorottya, who has been sacked by Sophia…

In a similar vein to Venus (2006), The Carer is about a crusty, cantankerous old thespian who finds an unexpected kinship with a much younger carer, and in doing so, learns a number of valuable life lessons. And… that’s it. There are Shakespeare quotes a-plenty (with King Lear getting the lion’s share for obvious, though, undercooked thematic reasons), occasional nods to the indignities of getting old (adult nappies), regrets and recriminations flying thick and fast from all sides, and a tendency to soft-pedal any really serious issues through the use of ill-focused humour. Nothing about the movie is surprising or unexpected. It ticks along in time-honoured fashion, hitting each required beat with almost metronomic regularity, and relying on its talented albeit under-served (and undeserved) cast to rescue it from the doldrums of its own making. At no point do you feel that this could be happening in real life, or that you might meet any of the characters while walking down the street. With the action largely taking place at Sir Michael’s baronial hall of a home, a grim sense of claustrophobia soon settles in as Sir Michael takes profanity flecked inconstancy to new levels of banality; he’s the least disagreeable misanthrope you’re ever likely to encounter.

More problematical is the character of Dorottya. The Carer is a Hungarian/British co-production, with a Hungarian director, and dozens of Hungarian crew members, and so the inclusion of König as the title character is, like much else, unsurprising. But Dorottya doesn’t ring true on any level. She’s so one-dimensional you half expect her to disappear when she turns sideways. With the barest of motivations for what she does, and not even the required knowledge that medicaton and alcohol don’t mix, Dorottya is a lumpen plot device designed to allow Sir Michael to play to one last appreciative audience before popping his theatrical clogs. Making her feature debut, König does her best but hasn’t got a hope of imbuing the character with any meaningful traits or mannerisms, thanks to a script that makes very little effort to add depth or texture at any stage of the proceedings. There are misguided attempts at pathos, scattered instances of poorly judged poignancy, and an acceptance speech from Sir Michael that is part ramble, part soliloquy, and all contrived; it’s the musings of an actor who really can’t improvise. Cox is fine despite all this, and it’s fun to see him in his younger days through movies and posters, but if this was a role that was written with him in mind, he shouldn’t feel so flattered.

Rating: 4/10 – visually as bland and uninviting as the storyline proves to be, The Carer strives for emotional resonance and comes up short every time; acceptable only on a very basic level, and even then with reservations, this is a misguided and unconvincing movie that wastes the time and efforts of its cast, and never appears to be aspiring to anything other than being merely perfunctory.

Green Book (2018)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , ,

D: Peter Farrelly / 130m

Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini, Sebastian Maniscalco, Dimiter D. Marinov, Mike Hatton, P.J. Byrne, Joe Cortese, Brian Stepanek

In 1962, in New York City, club bouncer Tony Villalonga (Mortensen) (known as Tony Lip) finds himself temporarily out of work. Though a number of opportunities are open to him, he becomes intrigued when he’s approached through a friend to be a driver for a doctor on a trip down south. At the interview, Tony meets Dr Don Shirley (Ali), and is surprised to learn that Don isn’t a medical doctor, but a doctor of music (amongst other things). The trip down south is a two-month concert tour that will eventually head into the Deep South, and Don needs someone who can keep him out of trouble during the tour. The two men agree terms, and aim to be back in New York City on Xmas Eve. Setting out, their differences in attitude causes friction between them: Tony is uncultured and lacking in certain social graces, while Don is refined and sophisticated. As the trip continues however, Tony and Don begin to develop a mutual respect and understanding, at the same time as the Deep South’s racist agenda begins to threaten the tour’s completion…

If you were black in the early Sixties, and wanted to travel in relative safety through the South, then a good investment would have been a copy of The Negro Motorist Green Book by Victor Hugo Green, a book which listed hotels and restaurants that would accept black people. Tony is given a copy at the start of the tour, and though he has own racist tics, he’s bemused by the idea of such a book. He’s an Italian-American who’s lived his whole life in New York City; his interaction with the kind of institutional racism practiced in the South has been next to zero. For Don, it’s the very fact that this kind of racism is prevalent that he carries out these tours; it’s about not taking the easy option and staying in the North and (literally) playing it safe. But while Green Book has a clearly defined backdrop that encompasses contemporary racism and the social politics of the period, it’s not specifically about those issues. Instead it’s about the blossoming friendship between two men from two very different cultural and social backgrounds who find a common ground through their experiences travelling together. Each learns from the other, and each is a better man for it.

Now, so far it’s another standard tale of friendship achieved between polar opposites, but it’s played out in such a way that both men are made better versions of themselves and without the need for either of them to lose or change any aspect of their character or personality. Instead, they improve themselves, and willingly, seeing their own lives through the ideas and thoughts of each other. This approach takes place over time, and the script – co-written by Villalonga’s real-life son, Nick (who also has a role as one of Tony’s relatives), Farrelly, and Brian Hayes Currie – doesn’t rush things out of any sense of dramatic necessity, relying instead on the subtleties and nuances on the page, and two magnificent performances from Mortensen and Ali. Both actors are on superb form, teasing out small but important revelations about their characters, and relishing the opportunity to work with such strong material. Farrelly, whose output in this decade has been less than compelling – The Three Stooges (2012), anyone? – here hits a home run, getting it tonally and thematically right, and without recourse to unnecessary melodramatics or forced sentimentality. There’s humour amidst the drama, of course (“I knew you had a gun”), but again Farrelly balances it all with skill and intelligence. This is the kind of road trip that you’ll want to go on on a second and maybe a third time, and if you do, you’ll still be as entertained as you were on the first.

Rating: 9/10 – at times, Green Book appears effortless in its attempts to tell a simple story without the need for artifice or contrivance, and it’s this simplicity of style and content – along with a generous helping of cinematic heart and soul – that makes it such a wonderful experience; again, this isn’t about the time period or the geographical area it’s set in, or any combination of the two, it’s about two men with different outlooks and predispositions who become lifelong friends in the unlikeliest of circumstances, and against some pretty long odds.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , ,

D: Desiree Akhavan / 92m

Cast: Chloë Grace Moretz, John Gallagher Jr, Jennifer Ehle, Sasha Lane, Forrest Goodluck, Emily Skeggs, Owen Campbell, Melanie Ehrlich, Christopher Dylan White, Quinn Shephard, Kerry Butler

For Cameron Post (Moretz) and her best friend, Coley Taylor (Shephard), being discovered having sex in the back seat of one of their boyfriends’ cars on prom night was not how the evening was meant to turn out. Although not their first sexual experience together, they’ve kept their relationship a secret from everyone, and Cameron, though certain that she’s a lesbian, is still coming to terms with how it will affect her life. However, being discovered leads her aunt (Butler), who is a devout Christian (and who has been raising Cameron since the deaths of her parents), to enrol Cameron in a gay conversion therapy centre called God’s Promise. Run by brother and sister, Reverend Rick (Gallagher Jr) and Dr Lydia Marsh (Ehle), the centre views homosexuality as a sin, and its programme is designed to help young people who are “confused” by their sexuality into making the right changes and embracing heterosexuality. Cameron soon makes friends – mainly with fellow lesbian Jane (Lane) and two spirit Adam Red Eagle (Goodluck) – but she also finds her own certainty about being a lesbian brought into question…

Imbued with a healthy dose of skepticism about the whole notion of gay conversion therapy, The Miseducation of Cameron Post is not the strident call to have these institutions banned that you might think it would be. Instead, it’s a much more subtle piece, adapted from Emily M. Danforth’s novel, and thanks to its historical setting – the movie takes place in 1993 – the movie is able to explore the issues it raises – freedom of sexual expression, religious fundamentalism, nature vs nurture, even free will – with a lightness of tone that seems at odds with the seriousness of its subject matter, but which enables it to get its points across more effectively. This isn’t a movie that wants to pound its viewers over the head with damning rhetoric. Rather, it explores Cameron’s experiences at home and at the centre in a way that gets its message across without it feeling forced or contrived. Cameron poses her challenges to the centre’s programme in a wry, humorous way that makes clear her confusion – not about her sexuality, but whether or not Reverend Rick or Dr Lydia even know what they’re doing (tragically, they don’t). There’s no war of attrition, no acting out or playing up, just an awareness that God’s Promise is not an answer to anything, and so, perhaps not worth the effort to take it seriously.

In adapting Danforth’s novel, director Akhavan and her co-scripter, Cecilia Frugiuele, paint the adults as either blinkered or over-reaching, and the young people as doing what teenagers do best (or worst, depending on your point of view), and that’s working out what kind of people they’re going to be. Anchored by Moretz’s best performance in years, and with strong supporting turns from Lane, Goodluck and Skeggs, Akhavan draws out each character’s strengths and insecurities in such a way that they don’t feel like stereotypes, and the emotional upheaval that they’re experiencing feels genuine. It’s often a delicate balancing act, but Akhavan is more than up to the task, and this is a terrific follow up to her first feature, Appropriate Behaviour (2014). Bristling with confidence in the material, and the approach she’s taken, Akhavan finds nuance and perception in the smallest of details, and without feelig the need to hold the viewer’s hand throughout. The title claims that Cameron has been miseducated, but by the end of the movie, when Cameron, Jane and Adam decide to take matters into their own hands, you could argue that this has been a misstep rather than a miseducation. Either way, it’s a well observed piece that doesn’t skirt the issues it raises, or treat them lightly.

Rating: 8/10 – a movie that doesn’t labour the points it’s trying to make, and which avoids both sentimentality and the need for polemics, The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a sly dog of a movie that sneaks up on the viewer and makes a quiet, yet effective impact; whatever your feelings about religion and homosexuality, and the way the two butt heads so often, this is a movie that stresses humanity over dogma, and finds beauty in the struggle for personal acceptance.

Sour Grapes (2016)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , ,

D: Jerry Rothwell, Reuben Atlas / 85m

With: Laurent Ponsot, Jay McInerney, Jef Levy, Maureen Downey, Rajat Parr, Arthur Sarkissian, Corie Brown, Don Cornwell, David Fredston, Bill Koch, Brad Goldstein, Jim Wynne, Jerome Mooney, Vincent Verdiramo, Jason Hernandez

In the US in the early 2000’s, a young Indonesian wine collector named Rudy Kurniawan began making a name for himself. Apparently blessed with an incredible palate, and supported by a wealthy family background (he once boasted his annual allowance was a million dollars), Kurniawan bought huge amounts of fine and rare wines, and became a friend to several serious wine collectors, such as TV director Jef Levy, and retired businessman Bill Koch. His knowledge and appreciation of wine brought him a degree of fame that stood him in good stead when he began selling his own wines in the middle of the decade. Through the auction firm, Acker, Merral & Condit, in 2006 alone, wines from Kurniawan’s personal collection sold for over $35 million. But in 2008, he attracted the attention of Laurent Ponsot, the head of Domaine Ponsot, a burgundy producer who spotted that a number of wines that Kurniawan was selling were fakes. Ponsot travelled to the US and had the sale stopped, and while he decided to meet Kurniawan to assess his culpability, it was Bill Koch who began an investigation into Kurniawan’s background…

The old saying, You can fool some of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time, could be an appropriate tagline for Sour Grapes, touching as it does on the gullibility of many of the people Kurniawan defrauded thanks to his superior knowledge of wine. Kurniawan’s ability to name-drop famous rare wines – and state that he’d drunk some of them – never failed to impress, even when he mentioned a number of vintages that one of his “marks” had failed to buy in twenty-five years. Another saying springs to mind as well: If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably isn’t. But all this happened in the wake of the boom years of the Nineties, when money was no object, and wine collectors thought nothing of paying tens of thousands of dollars for a single bottle. With such a culture of excess, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Kurniawan fared as well as he did, and the movie paints a compelling portrait of the symbiosis that was fostered: each side used each other for their own ends and personal gains.

As well as providing a great deal of subdued social commentary, Rothwell and Atlas have gone about telling Kurniawan’s fraudulent behaviour in a way that mimics a detective story. With his origins and his background shrouded in secrecy, the directing duo tease out clues at various stages and there are moments that wouldn’t feel out of place in a true crime show. Featuring interviews with the likes of Brad Goldstein, who mounted an investigation at Koch’s request, and Brown, who was the first journalist to question Kurniawan’s conspicuous wealth, the movie hits its stride once Ponsot becomes involved. A genial Frenchman with a wry sense of humour, Ponsot is the man who cries foul publicly, and then befriends Kurniawan in order to see if he’s another victim or the man responsible. It’s a moment where life outwits fiction, and in doing so, the movie veers off into a weird alternate reality that culminates in Levy declaring Kurniawan incapable of any wrongdoing. Rothwell and Atlas make sure to present as many different points of view as possible, and even acknowledge doubts that were expressed as to Kurniawan being a lone counterfeiter, but this is a fairly straightforward case that’s told in a fairly straightforward manner using a mix of interviews, contemporary footage (in which Kurniawan features a lot), and restagings of key events that emphasise just how different things were only a decade ago.

Rating: 7/10 – an absorbing movie for the most part, Sour Grapes still has to work hard to find the victims in what Kurniawan did, and more importantly, his motivation for doing it; an excellent case of Buyer Beware, there’s a measure of humour to be found when we discover that Kurniawan did most of his counterfeiting in the kitchen of his home in Arcadia, California, and a sense of amazement when the potential source, and scale, of his wealth is revealed late on.

The Lovers & the Despot (2016)

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

D: Robert Cannan, Ross Adam / 98m

With: Choi Eun-hee, Shin Jeong-kyun, Shin Myung-yim, Michael Yi, Pierre Rissient, Lee Jang-ho, David Straub, Jang Jin-sun, Nishida Tetsuo, Derek Malcolm

During the 1950’s and 1960’s Shin Sang-ok was regarded as the Prince of South Korean Cinema. With over one hundred producing credits and seventy directing credits to his name, he created his own studio and production company, Shin Films, and married actress Choi Eun-hee, who starred in many of his movies (though they divorced in 1976). In 1978, while in Hong Kong, Choi was kidnapped and taken to North Korea on the orders of that country’s leader, Kim Jong-il. Shin travelled to Hong Kong to find her, and he too was kidnapped. But where Choi had been welcomed from the start by Kim, Shin spent five years in detention camps, partly because he tried to escape, and partly because his abductors misunderstood their instructions from Kim. When Choi and Shin were finally reunited in 1983, Kim revealed his plan for both of them: he wanted to make movies for North Korea that would establish the country internationally. Choi and Shin went along with Kim’s wishes, but planned to flee to the West at the earliest opportunity. Aware that their abductions were viewed with suspicion, the pair had to find a way of proving their story was true…

One from the file marked So Unlikely It Must Be True, The Lovers & the Despot is a fascinating, yet flawed documentary that often feels like it’s skimming the surface of its incredible story. Despite the involvement of Choi – Shin passed away in 2006 – and the recollections of many who were peripheral to events between 1978 and 1986 (when the pair fled their keepers while in Vienna), there’s much that depends on Choi’s own reminiscences, and a series of secret recordings they made in the presence of Kim himself. This was their way of proving their story, and the movie quotes from them at length, while avoiding the obvious flaw in taking them at face value: as more than one person mentions, no one up until then had heard Kim Jong-il’s voice. With this in mind, the due diligence of directors Cannan and Adam could be called into question in the same way that the veracity of Choi and Shin’s tale was. And to make matters even more intriguing, there’s a tremendous ambiguity in Shin’s dialogue, and the way in which he panders to Kim’s needs while appearing to satisfy his own. But though the movie acknowledges the doubts as to whether or not Choi and Shin were kidnapped, it never questions Choi’s testimony, or the veracity of the recordings.

In telling this remarkable story, Cannan and Adam have opted for a combination of archival materials, dramatic reconstructions, interviews, and movie clips (including a brief glimpse of Shin’s Pulgasari (1985), a Godzilla knock off that was his last North Korean production). The result is a documentary that doesn’t flow as smoothly as it should, and at times feels disjointed, as if there are scenes that have been omitted, but which would have provided some much needed glue. Shin, whose career in South Korea was suffering in the Seventies, remains an enigma, and there’s still that nagging feeling that he was happy in North Korea, and only fled to the West because it was Choi’s wish (they remarried during their “captivity”). Choi herself is a sympathetic presence, ostensibly open but still reluctant to explore fully her time in North Korea, or provide any revealing details. This all makes the movie a frustrating experience, its inability to be more rigorous hampering it at every turn. Whatever the truth, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever know what happened in 1978 for certain, and sadly, this examination of one of the more extraordinary abduction stories out there isn’t as convincing as it would like to be.

Rating: 6/10 – with too much in The Lovers & the Despot being open to interpretation, and with Cannan and Adam opting to take too many things at face value, this is a movie that never gels in a rewarding way, or feels definitive; there’s the potential for an even more fascinating story to be revealed, but for now, this will have to do.

A Brief Word About Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018)

Tags

, , ,

A funny thing happened while I was watching Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

It happened when Newt Scamander was getting ready to leave London for Paris. Surprised by an unexpected visit from Jacob and Queenie, the scene plays out with Jacob under an enchantment cast by Queenie to keep him in love with her (as if she doesn’t know he loves her already). As J.K. Rowling – writer and stretcher of the series from three movies to five – reintroduces these benign secondary characters, an eerie sense of familiarity made itself known. I realised I didn’t need to be reintroduced to them, to have their relationship explained to me in the wake of the events of the first movie. To paraphrase the Bard, “I knew them, Horatio.”

In fact, I knew all the characters, and all the situations they were about to find themselves in. I knew their back stories without having to be told them, I knew the inter-relationships and the things that had brought them together, and why. I knew all this as if by osmosis, as if it had all dropped fully formed into my mind from the moment i saw Grindelwald apparently trapped in a cell he couldn’t escape from. Cinematic shorthand? Watching too many movies for my own good? Possibly (on both counts). But this led me to an idea I don’t remember ever having before while watching a first sequel: did I really need to have seen Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them before seeing this installment? And I had to answer, No.

So, the question remains: is it necessary to watch the first movie before this one? I think not, which makes Newt Scamander’s first outing something of an anomaly: a movie that is superfluous to the ones that follow in its wake. Now how often can you say that?

Hit So Hard (2011)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , ,

D: P. David Ebersole / 103m

With: Patty Schemel, Eric Erlandson, Courtney Love Cobain, Melissa Auf der Maur, Terry Schemel, Larry Schemel, Nina Gordon, Roddy Bottum, Joe Mama-Nitzberg, Gina Schock, Alice de Buhr, Chris Whitemyer

Patty Schemel began playing drums at the age of eleven. Along with her brother, Larry, she formed her first band, The Milkbones, when she was fifteen. In the late Eighties, Patty played drums in a succession of bands, most of whom were fleeting and/or unsuccessful. Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain considered Patty as the replacement for the band’s original drummer; instead she became the drummer for Courtney Love’s Hole when their original drummer left. Between 1992 and 1998, Patty became an intrinsic member of the band, co-writing songs with Love and lead guitarist Eric Erlandson, and becoming recognised as one of the best female drummers around. However, substance abuse took its toll on Patty’s talent, and by the time Hole came to record their third album, her drug addiction contributed to her being replaced on the album by a session drummer brought in by the producer, and with Love and Erlandson’s agreement. In the wake of this, Patty devloped an addiction to crack cocaine and was homeless for a year. It was only through reaching out to Love that she was able to find her way back to being clean and sober…

Subtitled The Life and Near Death Story of Patty Schemel, Hit So Hard is a frank and – given the excesses on display – sobering account of how lucky Patty was to survive a period when drugs were as prevalent in her life as the music that inspired her. What is perhaps most surprising about Patty’s story is that her drug addiction wasn’t a reaction to the lingering effects of an unhappy childhood, or the fallout from a doomed love affair, or any of the myriad other reasons that some addicts confess to when they reach rock bottom. Instead, Patty was a victim of the drug culture that was tacitly condoned within the music industry, and which claimed the lives of people like Kurt Cobain. She and Cobain were good friends, and the movie reflects on their relationship (she lived with Cobain and Love for a time), while his death acts as a foreshadowing of Patty’s own potential for self-destruction. Even the death of Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff two months later – a blow that might have precipitated a further emotional downward spiral – is dealt with more readily than expected. Losing her role within Hole pushed Patty over the edge, but it was one she was already pre-disposed to fall from.

Though drug addiction and its consequences play a large part in Patty’s story, it’s the music that holds centre stage, from her early beginnings in bands such as Sybil and Doll Squad, to the heady days with Hole, and even now, playing with a variety of bands and teaching drumming. Interviews with some of Patty’s contemporaries show the high regard she has within the industry, and even now the other members of Hole acknowledge that the treatment she received on that third album wasn’t right; regret is the rightful order of the day. Through it all, Patty is an honest, engaging presence, certain and concise, and unafraid to confront her own failings. Having found a cache of Hi8 video footage she herself shot while on a world tour to support Hole’s second album, Patty has used this as the basis for the movie, and Ebersole has confidently weaved this and other archival footage into the non-linear narrative of Patty’s life, placing key moments at seemingly odd juxtapositions to other moments that are important (how she came out to her mother, Terry, happens much later in the movie than you might expect). Yet, as a whole, it works, and the reminiscences of Erlandson and Love offer valuable confirmations of Patty’s own recollections. What could have been another rock and roll tragedy is instead a tale of personal triumph, and one that eclipses the fame and fortune she had for six brief but incredible years.

Rating: 8/10 – what could easily have been presented – and promoted – as a cautionary tale, Hit So Hard (ironically a song title from that disastrous third album) avoids being a standard rock biopic, and tells its story simply and in a straightforward manner; there’s plenty of heartache and tragedy on display (and on many levels), but Patty Schemel’s level-headed approach to her own life and career makes hearing her story all the more rewarding and, yes, entertaining.

A Syrian Love Story (2015)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , ,

D: Sean McAllister / 76m

For Amer and Raghda, love began in a Syrian prison in 1989. They had both been arrested for protesting against the Syrian regime, but on their release they married and soon had four children, all sons: Shadi, Fadi, Kaka, and Bob. In 2009, Raghda was imprisoned again for writing a book that was critical of the Syrian government. When she was released, the Arab Spring protests that began sweeping the country made the family’s situation untenable, and they fled to Lebanon, and the now notorious Yarmouk Camp. There, the French Embassy granted them political refugee status, and they moved to Albi in France. But life in France brought with it a new set of problems: as the family adjusted to being in a foreign country, the relationship between Amer and Raghda began to fracture. With both unable to reconnect with each other following Raghda’s incarceration, the stresses and strains of living “peacefully” began to drive a wedge between them that made life difficult for Amer and Raghda and their children. While their country sank further and further into ruin thanks to the still continuing Syrian Civil War, Amer and Raghda fought their own war of attrition, one that threatened to tear them asunder as irrevocably as their homeland was being torn asunder…

Shot over a five year period from 2009 onward, A Syrian Love Story is a heartbreakingly raw examination of a relationship in freefall. Director Sean McAllister, having gained the trust of Amer and Raghda and their children, has assembled a movie that is often unbearably painful to watch. With his camera often positioned uncomfortably close to the “action”, McAllister captures the depth of feeling and distressed emotions of both parents. In the beginning, Amer is a loving father and devoted husband – his affection for his youngest son, Bob, is lovely to see – dedicated to looking after his family in Raghda’s absence, and it’s his solid presence that anchors the movie until her return. Up until then, all we’ve seen of Raghda is photographs that show a lively, vibrant woman with a ready smile. But the Raghda we finally meet is a pale shadow of her former self, silent, withdrawn, and seemingly unhappy with being away from her home country; whatever trauma she suffered while in prison is still with her. Faced with this change in his wife, Amer proves unable to cope, and as their marriage begins to crumble, we’re witness to moments that are so uncompromisingly raw and honest, they’re by turns difficult to watch and unavoidably compelling.

That it never feels exploitative is due in large part to the relationship McAllister has built up with the family. At times he’s brought into the conversations (and the rows), and asked what he thinks. McAllister cannily avoids being pinned down by either side in the marital divide, but over time he does provide support for the children, allowing them an outlet for their own feelings of confusion and anger and loss. These moments are some of the most affecting in the whole movie, as the effects of leaving Syria and their parents’ break up are expressed calmly and rationally, while their expressions point to the turmoil going on inside them. Particular attention is paid to Bob, for whom the whole experience at times seems to be having the greatest impact, as when he expresses his desire to return to Syria and take a knife with him to kill President Bashar al-Assad (he’s only five or six when he says this). Death and murder, always there in the background, intrude more towards the end as Shadi points out all his friends who have died, pointing them out from photographs showing much happier times. It’s a poignant moment, and a potent one too – one of many in the movie – a reminder of what they’ve escaped from, and how important it was that they did.

Rating: 9/10 – an unflinchingly honest and emotionally devastating documentary, A Syrian Love Story juxtaposes the breakdown of a marriage with the struggle to find a foothold in a foreign land; ably balancing the personal with the political as well, this is illuminating, superbly assembled, and an invaluable glimpse into the effects of a refugee crisis that, sadly, shows no sign of abating.

Buena Vista Social Club (1999)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , ,

D: Wim Wenders / 105m

With: Ry Cooder, Rubén González, Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer, Omara Portuondo, Eliades Ochoa, Orlando “Cachaito” López, Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabal, Joachim Cooder

Ry Cooder had always wanted to make an album featuring the hugely talented musicians who’d been making Cuban music back in the Fifties and Sixties. Finding himself heading to Havana, Cuba, Cooder was surprised to find as well that most of those musicians were still alive, and better yet, still performing the songs that had made them famous (albeit in Cuba alone). Bringing many of them together for the first time in decades, Cooder began recording his album, and was amazed at the quality of their playing after so long. Along with making an album, Cooder had an idea that they should all play together at a handful of concerts. And so, in April 1988, the Buena Vista Social Club played two nights in Amsterdam, and then in July, a single night at New York’s famed Carnegie Hall. Wim Wenders’ movie shows how Cooder assembled this amazing group, the group’s commitment to the music, and the pleasure they gained from playing live to non-Cuban audiences, and all while managing to retain (with apparent ease) a keen sense of their identity as Cubans.

The movie that made the rest of the world sit up and take notice of Cuban music, Buena Vista Social Club is a pure blast of joy from beginning to end. Seeing performers like Segundo (in his early Nineties at the time of the movie’s release) still playing to such a high standard, still enjoying the music they’re playing, and still able to find new ways of interpreting the songs they’ve all known for a lifetime, is both inspiring and moving in equal measure. Their enthusiasm is infectious. When Ry Cooder made the decision to head down to Cuba with his son, Joachim, to make an album of Cuban music featuring the very musicians who’d made danzón (the official musical genre and dance of Cuba) so popular in their own country, he couldn’t have known just how much of an impact the resulting album, and this movie about the making of said album, would have worldwide. The music itself is beautiful, full of emotion and played with a delicacy and finesse that pushes it toward being simply sublime. The live performance sections of the movie are as joyous as you could possibly hope for.

Wenders (who’s made more than a few documentaries over the years) highlights the relish shown by the singers and musicians who bring this music to life, capturing through performances and often surprisingly candid interviews, a sense of the music’s importance in their lives, and it’s importance in Cuban culture in general. It’s a celebration of their lives and the musical heritage that has inspired them, and which continues to do so after fifty, sixty, seventy or more years of living and breathing danzón – and achieving the natural high that keeps them going, keeps them reaching for improvement and mastery over the songs they know so well and love so much. There’s pride there too, in each other, and in their country, a pride that finds meaningful expression in songs such as Chan Chan and Candela. In the end, it’s unsurprising that the music of the Buena Vista Social Club crosses so many international and cultural boundaries; these are songs from the heart, sung and played by artists whose only ambition is to pass on as much of the joy and fervour they themselves feel. Wenders rightly focuses on the Cubans – Cooder barely gets a look-in by comparison – and in doing so, he makes us all wish we had that same attachment to music that the likes of González and Ochoa and Portuondo have.

Rating: 9/10 – an uplifting and inspiring documentary, Buena Vista Social Club is difficult to ignore, or overlook thanks to the sheer exuberance of the music, and the passionate interpretations of the songs by such a talented group of musicians; Cooder’s initial idea proved to be a godsend, and even now, it remains a marvelous, delightful examination of a marvelous, delightful, musically magical moment in time.

Almost Heaven (2017)

Tags

, , , , , , ,

D: Carol Salter / 72m

In today’s China, if you’re a teenager and you’re looking for a job, chances are that you’ll have to travel hundreds of miles away from home to find one. Such are the demands of China’s modern industrial approach to funeral homes, that even seventeen year old girls like Ying Ling will be hired as morticians, and taught the traditions surrounding the handling of the dead, while also acknowledging the commercialisation of the whole funeral process. For any young girl it would be a daunting prospect, but even more so when you’ve never been away from your family before, and getting back to see them is problematical. For Ying, alone and living in a sparsely decorated and furnished room (her bed is a thin mattress on the floor covered by a large blanket) within the confines of the Ming Yang Mountain Funeral Home, her occasional calls home are both wistful and disappointing – wistful for the sad reactions they prompt in Ying, and disappointing for the lack of support that Ying seems to be receiving from her family. It’s no wonder that she feels isolated, and it’s no wonder she’s unsure if being a mortician is something she wants to continue with as a career.

The funeral home is an austere, brilliantly lit yet empty building split up into several different areas, some of which are accessible to grieving families. For Western audiences, seeing relatives watch as their loved ones are washed and cleaned is a little unnerving at first, but Salter’s unflinching cinematography soon draws in the viewer and makes them (eventually) a willing participant. It’s fascinating, and it’s strange, but these traditions and rituals are ultimately about what’s best for the deceased, and their transition to the next life. As Ying learns more and more, so too does the viewer, and Carol Salter’s intuitive yet restrained direction allows those unfamiliar with Chinese funeral practices a greater appreciation and understanding of why these rituals are so important. Ying has her own reservations at first, and isn’t always paying attention, but the mistakes she makes are minor, albeit enough to make her question her long-term future; she has her own hopes and dreams away from Ming Yang, even if it’s only to have a small shop that sells milk tea. Salter catches Ying in various moments of repose and contemplation, and each time she looks melancholy and unsure of what to do.

The stifling nature of Ying’s circumstances are exacerbated by the eventual departure of the young boy her own age who decides to leave and return home once he learns his grandparents aren’t well. Ying’s troubled features as she accompanies him to the airport tell you everything you need to know, both about her hesitant attraction for him, and the sense of loss she’s already feeling. Later, when they engage in a video chat, so much is left unspoken on both sides that it becomes painful to watch. Salter documents all this and creates a continual juxtaposition between Ying’s need to explore and live a more satisfying life, and the continual reminders of our inevitable mortality. Ying never really settles in her job, and appears to be unhappy for the most part, but whether this is a reflection of the work she doesn’t really want to do, or of her own issues, the movie doesn’t take the time to explore or reflect upon. Much is gained by the subtle inferences that Salter threads throughout the material, and there’s a great deal of poignancy to be found in the way that grief-fuelled outbursts are offset by the natural Chinese tendency for stoicism. And that’s without the occasional reminder that this is a business after all: “She will only be cremated after you have made the payment…”

Rating: 8/10 – an elegant, beautifully rendered meditation on the nature of death amidst life, Almost Heaven is also a quiet, intimate documentary that addresses how life causes us to reflect on death; though for many this will be the antithesis of a must-see movie – for the subject matter alone – this is nevertheless a powerful and insightful foray into a world that would otherwise remain a mystery to many of us.

For One Week Only: Documentaries

Tags

, , ,

Regular visitors to thedullwoodexperiment may have noticed an increase in the number of documentaries that have been reviewed in recent weeks. This hasn’t been deliberate, just the way things have worked out in terms of the movies I’ve watched, and which ones have interested me enough to write about them. I’ve always liked documentaries, and learning about other people and their lives, their struggles, their hopes and dreams, sometimes their failures, or learning about subjects that previously I haven’t had a clue about. And like their fictional movie counterparts, documentaries can be just as entertaining.

And so, to kickstart the much delayed return of For One Week Only, all the reviews posted between now and Sunday 2 December will be of documentaries. Right now I only know which one is going to be the first; there’s so much choice out there, it’s not going to be as straightforward as I would like it to be (choice is not always the would-be reviewer’s best friend). So this will be as much a journey of discovery – if I can use such a grandiose term – for me as it will (hopefully) be for any visitors to the site. All I can hope for is that the movies I do choose, connect with you out there as much as they do with me.

Under an Arctic Sky (2017)

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

D: Chris Burkard / 40m

With: Chris Burkard, Sam Hammer, Steve Hawk, Sigurdur Jonsson, Heidar Logi, Elli Thor Magnusson, Ingo Olsen, Justin Quintal, Mark Renneker, Timmy Reyes

For six highly regarded surfers, the chance to test their skill on a surfboard in the challenging waters of Northwest Iceland is a challenge that’s willingly accepted. Their timing might seem a little off though, as they arrive in Reykjavik during the Icelandic winter, and in conditions that none of them have encountered before – let alone surfed in. Journeying along the coast to connect with the ship that will take them to their planned destination of Isafjordur, they take an impromptu detour to surf some waves, and get the measure of the experience ahead of them. Once on board ship though, the advance of a storm that will come to be regarded as the worst in twenty-five years, forces the ship’s captain to turn back. But the surfers know that once the storm has passed, in its wake will follow some of the most breathtaking swells imaginable, and the opportunity to surf in a stretch of Icelandic waters that is almost virgin surfing territory. Aided by a group of their Icelandic counterparts, the six surfers decide to travel by road through the storm to reach Isafjordur, and those majestic waves…

Although only a compact forty minutes in length, Under an Arctic Sky is an engrossing, fascinating account of how surfing can truly be thought of as radical. A romantic’s idea of surfing might not stretch to its taking place in the depths of a bitter Icelandic winter, and at a location so isolated and inhospitable that the Icelanders themselves haven’t settled there, but there is a romanticism here that lends itself to the whole crazy endeavour. There’s a genuine spirit and sense of camaraderie between the men, all friends and mutual admirers, and their decision to surf the icy cold waters of Iceland’s remote Hornstrandir Nature Reserve. They’re also modern day adventurers, literally charting new territory in terms of surfing, and literally doing what no other surfers have done before. It’s inspiring, it’s incredible to witness, and it leaves you thinking that they’re all as mad as a box of frogs – but in a good way. Each time they take to the water, you wonder how they can stand the cold, especially as they’re warned at one point that hypothermia can set in in under ten minutes. Brave, foolish, mad, heroic? All of them? You decide.

But the key strength of the movie is Ben Weiland’s incredibly impressive cinematography. This is a documentary that features an embarrassment of visual riches, from shots of the snow-covered Icelandic mountains to the steel-blue waters that nudge against the Icelandic coast, and in the movie’s most powerful and uplifting sequence, the final, post-storm bout of free surfing, where Justin Quintal is framed against a backdrop of luminescent waves, while the sky above him ripples with the eerie glow of the Northern Lights; it’s simply awe-inspiring (and if you can, see the movie on the biggest screen possible – the image above doesn’t do the effect any justice). Directed with clear-eyed passion and verve, the movie leads up to this one moment, and the wait is worth it. Inevitably, the run time means we don’t get to know the likes of Quintal and Hammer too well, but this is a small price to pay when the rewards are so beautifully presented. Even the scenes set during the storm have a magnificent, rugged, terrifying beauty to them. In the end – and like all the best documentaries about a pastime that most of us take a pass on – it leaves you wanting to grab a board and hope that you don’t get raked over before you’ve even begun.

Rating: 8/10 – even if you’re not a fan of surfing, Under an Arctic Sky remains a compelling look at how the search for greater challenges can lead to the most sublime of experiences; guaranteed to impress purely thanks to its visuals, this is also a movie about a group of men who treat each other with unstinting respect and affection, and whose passion for their chosen sport is acknowledged with an equal amount of respect, and admiration.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2018)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , ,

D: Mike Newell / 124m

Cast: Lily James, Michiel Huisman, Glen Powell, Matthew Goode, Jessica Brown Findlay, Katherine Parkinson, Penelope Wilton, Tom Courtenay, Kit Connor, Bronagh Gallagher, Bernice Stegers, Clive Merrison

In 1946, author Juliet Ashton (James) is in the middle of promoting her latest book, when two things happen simultaneously: The Times Literary Supplement asks her to write a series of articles on the benefits of literature, and she receives a letter from a Guernsey man named Dawcey Adams (Huisman) who is part of a literary society on the island. Intrigued by the idea of a literary society formed during the war, Juliet opts to visit Guernsey and meet Adams and the other members. Just before she sails from London, her American beau, Mark (Powell), proposes to her and she accepts. On Guernsey, Juliet meets all but one of the members of the literary society, and is told that the absent member, Elizabeth McKenna (Findlay), is away on the continent. When she mentions writing an article about the group, one of them, Amelia Maugery (Wilton), refuses to agree to the idea. Sensing there are things that she’s not being told, Juliet remains on the island and soon finds herself beginning to piece together the mystery surrounding Elizabeth’s absence…

Based on the novel of the same name (and how could it be anything different?) by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a lightweight slice of rose-tinted nostalgia filtered through the lens of modern movie-making techniques, and with even less substance than the culinary creation in its title (which sounds like a stodge-fest of epic proportions). It’s by-the-numbers movie making with no surprises, an ending you can guess all the way from the rings of Saturn, and as many softly poignant moments designed to raise a tear that can be squeezed into a two-hour run time. It’s cosy, and reassuring in its approach, and it requires almost no effort at all in watching it. In short, it’s a perfectly enjoyable confection that’s written and directed and performed with a keen understanding that it has to be made in a certain way, and that way is to provide audiences with the cinematic equivalent of comfort food. So lightweight is it that the mystery of Elizabeth’s absence isn’t even the most dramatic aspect of the movie – and that’s bcause there’s nothing dramatic about any of it, no matter how hard the script tries, and no matter how hard its director tries also.

Thankfully, all this doesn’t mean that the movie is a bad one, just predictable and bland and almost a perfect tick box exercise in terms of it being a romantic drama with a wartime background. It does feature a clutch of good performances, with James suitably bullish and radiant at the same time, Courtenay delivering yet another example of his recent run of lovable old codgers, Goode effortlessly suave and supportive as Juliet’s publisher, and Powell as the boyfriend who you know is going to be dumped near the end to ensure that true love prevails as it should. Only Huisman looks out of place (and there’s a distinct awkwardness and lack of chemistry between him and James), while Parkinson and Wilton deliver pitch-perfect portrayals of a gin-making (and swigging) spinster, and a still grieving mother respectively. It’s handsomely mounted (though sadly, none of it was actually shot on Guernsey), with impressive production design and period detail, and equally impressive effects shots detailing some of the destruction suffered by London during the Blitz. But still, there’s that traditional romantic storyline that anchors the movie and keeps it from straying too far into original territory. And if there’s one thing that the movie knows above all else, it’s that familiarity – when done correctly – is all you need.

Rating: 7/10 – a movie that can be criticised easily for what it doesn’t do, The Guersey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a modest movie with modest ambitions, and likely to have a modest effect on its audience; a good-natured bit of celluloid fluff, it’s perfect viewing for a wet and windy Sunday afternoon, or when all you need is something that doesn’t require too much effort in order to enjoy it fully.

How It Ends (2018)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , ,

D: David M. Rosenthal / 113m

Cast: Theo James, Forest Whitaker, Grace Dove, Kat Graham, Kerry Bishé, Nicole Ari Parker, Mark O’Brien

Will (James) and Sam (Graham) are a young couple living in Seattle who have recently discovered they are going to have a baby. Will flies to Chicago to ask Sam’s father, Tom (Whitaker), for his blessing to marry her, but the evening goes badly due to Tom’s domineering nature. The next morning, as he prepares to fly back to Seattle, Will is talking to Sam on the phone when something mysterious happens and the line is lost. Heading back to her parents’ home, Will finds Tom ready and packed to travel across country to Seattle to find Sam. With all flights grounded, Will goes with him. Their trip is fraught with all sorts of dangers, particularly when an encounter with a police cruiser leaves their car banged up and Tom with a couple of broken ribs. Reaching a small town, they meet Ricki (Dove), a car mechanic with plans to head west. Tom convinces her to come with them, and as they head towards Seattle, the mystery of what happened on the West Coast becomes ever more puzzling. With the US heading into a post-apocalyptic future, the trio have to overcome a number of threats and obstacles in order to find Sam and ensure she’s safe…

The script for How It Ends – by Brooks McLaren – was on the 2010 Black List of highly regarded yet unproduced screenplays. Now that it has been made, it would be interesting to make a comparison between the original Black List script and the final version used here, because this is yet another occasion where the initial hype is very far from justified. For one thing, the characters are paper thin, and barely fleshed out beyond their screenwriting 101 archetypes. Will is a lawyer but his occupation hardly matters as he has no personality or recognisable character traits to make him stand out in any meaningful way. Tom is the classic overbearing father, convinced no one is good enough for his “little girl” and initially dismissive of Will’s presence and minimal capabilities (during the encounter with the police cruiser, he can’t even use a gun properly). Of course, the pair will bond over time, and mutual respect will be formed, but here it happens almost as an afterthought, as if McLaren had forgotten about it, and then realised he needed to tick that particular narrative box before it was too late. The secondary characters are even less interesting, there to help move things along as and when necessary, though Ricki does add a little flavour to proceedings (though this is largely due to Dove’s performance, which looks out of place because she’s actually trying).

The narrative relies on too many moments of convenience – Tom talks their way through a military roadblock, Will convinces a town sheriff to let them through a barricade – and it creates danger at nearly every turn, with almost everyone they meet on the road out to rob them or kill them or both on nearly every occasion. This wouldn’t be so bad if director David M. Rosenthal was able to make these sequences tense or suspenseful, but there’s much that goes wrong in the editing of these sequences, so much so that they lack any appreciable impact, leaving them to slot into a movie that proceeds along a steady, measured pace for much of its running time. The mysterious occurrence on the West Coast goes unexplained for the most part (though there is a conspiracy theory trotted out near the end that is meant to sound plausible but isn’t), and its effects vary from late scene to late scene, until the movie climaxes with a final image that will literally have viewers saying, “This is how it ends…?” But by then, it will have failed to matter long before, making this an apocalyptic event that could have done us all a favour.

Rating: 4/10 – with nods to the breakdown of civilisation that is always expected to occur in these occasions (but within a day or two – and country wide?), How It Ends strives for relevance where it doesn’t need to, and aims for resonance where it doesn’t have to, making this a turgid trip through a less than convincing post-apocalypse Twilight Zone; with no one to connect to, and a series of repetitive encounters with people who have conveniently “turned bad” at the drop of a hat, the movie struggles with a number of ideas it doesn’t know what to do with, and instead of trying, it settles for being banal and dramatically commonplace.

To the Bone (2017)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , ,

D: Marti Noxon / 107m

Cast: Lily Collins, Carrie Preston, Lili Taylor, Keanu Reeves, Alex Sharp, Liana Liberato, Retta, Leslie Bibb, Maya Eshet, Alanna Ubach

Ellen (Collins) is a twenty year old college dropout suffering with anorexia. Returning to her father and stepmother’s home after a failed stint at an in-patient programme, she finds herself put forward for yet another treatment regime, this time run by unconventional therapist Dr Beckham (Reeves). At the urging of her stepmother, Susan (Preston), and younger sister, Kelly (Liberato), Ellen agrees to take part, and goes to stay at a home run by Beckham where sufferers from eating disorders can receive treatment and learn to remind themselves that “life is worth living”. There Ellen meets a variety of fellow anorexics (and bulimics), including Lucas (Sharp), a young, British-born ballet dancer whose career has been cut short by a knee injury and his subsequent anorexia. The pair develop a friendship that sees Lucas act as Ellen’s personal advocate, encouraging her to eat more and to see the world in a more positive light. But Ellen’s demons – largely in the form of something she did that prompted another girl to take her own life – aren’t so easily overcome, and her initial progress is soon derailed by events that she has no defence against…

Early on in To the Bone, Ellen and her sister are sitting talking quietly, an unidentified city spread out before them. Kelly is voicing her concern about Ellen’s condition when Ellen replies, “I’ve got it under control. Nothing bad’s gonna happen.” To which Kelly answers, “How many people do you think are down there? Like 2 million? I bet a bunch of them who are about to die just said the exact same thing.” It’s a poignant moment, and one that highlights the problem on both sides of the eating disorder divide: the sufferers think they’re in control of what they’re doing, while their loved ones wish it were true. And there’s no middle ground. It’s moments like these, where hope and despair collide and cancel each other out, that makes Noxon’s debut as a feature writer/director all the more affecting. A movie that for the most part offers little in the way of concrete answers, To the Bone is instead a powerful and unflinching examination of both the physical effects of anorexia, and the psychological damage that accompanies it. Based around Noxon’s own experiences, the movie steers clear of being yet another “disease of the week” TV-style outing, and instead focuses on what can be done to make someone with an eating disorder value their life again.

Despite some odd moments of fractured humour, mainly expressed through Lucas’s flamboyant behaviour, this isn’t a movie designed to entertain or make the viewer feel good. Which is a good thing, as this would have trivialised the serious nature of the subject matter, and undermined the good work of all concerned. Collins gives an exemplary performance, expressing Ellen’s anger and sense of hopelessness at her situation, and doing so with a clarity and a precision that allows Ellen’s rough-hued antagonism to have a credible emotional and psychological footing. There’s good support from Taylor as Ellen’s mother, unable to deal with her daughter’s suffering because of her own problems, Preston as Ellen’s stepmother, a woman out of her depth but willing to make  mistakes if it helps matters (though usually it doesn’t), and Liberato as the younger sister who misses the version of Ellen that she’s meant to be. If there’s one thorn in the narrative ointment, it’s related to Reeves’ character, a therapist whose benign manner and intuitive insights are jettisoned during a misjudged scene in which Beckham tells Ellen that the answer to her problems is to “grow a pair”. It’s a moment that sits uncomfortably within the rest of the material, but fortunately it’s a rare mis-step in a movie that is otherwise moving and empathetic.

Rating: 8/10 – confidently handled by Noxon, and compellingly structured, To the Bone benefits from an excellent central performance from Collins, and the decision to be non-judgmental of its characters; a journey worth taking then, sincere and unapologetic in its examination of a difficult and important subject, and worthy without preaching or being condescending.

An Interview With God (2018)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , ,

D: Perry Lang / 97m

Cast: David Strathairn, Brenton Thwaites, Yael Grobglas, Charlbi Dean Kriek, Hill Harper, Bobby Di Cicco

Paul Asher (Thwaites) is a talented young journalist whose coverage of the war in Afghanistan has brought him a measure of acclaim and a good position at the newspaper he works for. He writes religious, faith-based articles, but while his career is going well, his marriage to Sarah (Grobglas) is failing, and his own faith is crumbling in the wake of his experiences in Afghanistan. Not knowing how to resolve any of the issues he’s facing, he finds some distraction in an interview with a man claiming to be God (Strathairn). Paul arranges to meet the man on three consecutive days for thirty minutes at a time. On the first day, the man blithely avoids answering Paul’s direct questions, and poses plenty of his own that Paul finds himself responding to. Later, at home, Sarah’s absence leads him to the realisation that she has left him. Meeting the man again the next day, the interview becomes more adversarial, with “God” insisting that he is there to help Paul, but with Paul refusing to believe him. Confused and scared by the effect the interviews are having on him, Paul struggles to come to terms with the very real possibility that this man really is God…

In An Interview With God, the Almighty is a middle-aged man in a bland suit who dispenses axioms with all the dexterity of someone used to bamboozling the people he meets. In the more than capable hands of David Strathairn, he also conforms to the idea that God is unknowable, even when God Himself is telling you all you need to know about Him – or isn’t. This is at the heart of the initial mystery of whether the man really is the One True God, or whether he’s just a con artist looking to exploit Paul’s emotional problems for unknown reasons. But this being a Christian movie first and foremost, it doesn’t take long for the mystery to be jettisoned and God’s identity to be confirmed (it happens during the first interview). What follows is a jittery, dramatically unstable examination of faith and how its loss can have a profoundly negative effect on our lives, and particularly in relation to personal trauma. However, Paul’s experiences in Afghanistan are never explored in a way that would allow us to have any insights into what ails him, and his failing marriage hinges more on Sarah’s feelings than his own. He may be in pain, but – and here’s the irony – we have to take it on faith that he is.

The script – by Ken Aguado – does its best to explore notions of salvation and free will, but skims over questions such as why do bad things happen to good people (the answer? They just do). With God answering Paul’s questions often with another question, their conversations soon feel like empty existential banter tricked out to sound illuminating and profound. Also, such is the amount of cod-philosophical repetition in these scenes, it’s hard to decide if Aguado and director Perry Lang were aware that this approach was stifling the material, and making it feel stilted. In the end, the movie opts for a literal answer to the question of God’s identity when a more ambivalent one would have suited the material better. As the embattled Paul, Thwaites acquits himself well but is hampered by his character lacking sufficient depth for us to care about him except superficially, while Strathairn opts to play God as a kind of exasperated guidance counselor. Both actors are good in their roles, but mostly this is against the odds, as their characters remain ciphers throughout. With artifice increasingly the order of the day, and faith sometimes treated as an abstract concept, the movie ends on a feelgood note that it hasn’t quite earned, or is deserving of.

Rating: 5/10 – the tagline asks, What Would You Ask? but this is as profound as An Interview With God ever gets, thanks to a wayward, not fully realised screenplay, and some awkwardly staged scenes between Paul and his boss (Harper) (and Paul and Sarah… and Paul and God…); in the end it proves nothing except that God continues to work in mysterious ways – if you believe in that sort of thing – and none more so than in allowing this movie to be made as it is.

Three Identical Strangers (2018)

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

D: Tim Wardle / 96m

With: Robert Shafran, David Kellman, Lawrence Knight, Natasha Josefowitz, Elyse Schein, Paula Bernstein

In 1980, Bobby Shafran arrived for his first day at a new college, only to be greeted by the other students as if they already knew him. Puzzled at receiving such a friendly welcome, things got even stranger still when his roommate insisted Bobby come with him to see someone he would definitely want to meet. An hour or so later, Bobby met Edward ‘Eddy’ Galland; he looked exactly like Bobby. They discovered they shared the same birthday – 12 July 1961 – had both been adopted as a baby, and both had a younger sister who had also been adopted. Their story made the local newspapers, and in turn caught the attention of David Kellman, who saw their photo and realised they looked exactly like him. He too was born on 12 July 1961, he too had been adopted, and he too had a younger sister who had also been adopted. This amazing coincidence became a national story, and the triplets became overnight celebrities, eventually opening their own restaurant in New York. But questions surrounding their adoptions and the agency that arranged them, led to a disqueting truth: that their separation at birth and subsequent placements were all part of an undisclosed scientific study into nature vs nurture in twins…

One of those stories that would be dismissed out of hand as fanciful if it were made as a fiction movie, the story of Bobby, Eddy and David is by turns exhilarating, uplifting, maddening, tragic, and ultimately (and despite all the odds, and what has gone before) life-affirming, albeit in a sad and distressing manner. It’s a measure of the skill with which Tim Wardle has assembled the triplets’ story that the viewer can experience all these emotions and feelings, and still feel that the trio were much better off for having the chance to know each other and discover the truth behind their adoptions. As the initial exhilaration and joy of their finding each other hints at a happy ever after outcome – the early success of their restaurant venture, cameoing with Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), each getting married and starting families – the spectre of their adoptions begins to take on a greater weight in their story. Like the best endeavours of a fictional detective story, the movie begins to delve deeper into the adoption agency and its involvement in the nature vs nurture study that kept the brothers apart for the first nineteen years of their lives.

As the truth emerges, outrage is layered with irony. The brainchild of psychiatrist, Dr Peter B. Neubauer, the study was sanctioned by the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services. Neubauer fled Nazi Germany in 1941; that he began a study that is eerily similar to the experiments the Nazis carried out on twins leaves a nasty, depressing pall over the movie that never quite goes away (and in many respects it shouldn’t). But though the material does emphasise the tragedy of the brothers’ separation, Wardle also allows several moments of easy joy and happiness, such as each of their wives revealing that they married “the handsome one”, and the sheer exuberance displayed in their television appearances. Alongside these moments, the recollections of their adoptive families sit comfortably in the framework of showing that each brother was loved for themselves, and no matter what the provenance of their adoptions. The movie mixes recreations of certain events with interviews with many of those who were there (including Wright, whose investigation into the twins study revealed the truth), and lots of archival material, to make this all a visually engaging, as well as intellectually and emotionally stimulating movie that really goes to prove that reality is stranger than fiction.

Rating: 9/10 – told with compassion and sensitivity, Three Identical Strangers is something of a revelation: intense, frighteningly credible (though you don’t want it to be), and continually fascinating in a I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening kind of way; a tragic story that still appears to be having a lingering effect on Bobby and David (though that shouldn’t be a surprise), this is a riveting, candid documentary that casts a vivid spotlight on a very shady endeavour, and does so with great skill and integrity.

Almost Adults (2016)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , ,

D: Sarah Rotella / 90m

Cast: Natasha Negovanlis, Elise Bauman, Justin Gerhard, Winny Clarke, Mark Matechuk, Pujaa Pandey, David John Phillips

Cassie (Negovanlis) and Mackenzie (Bauman) are best friends on the verge of leaving college and heading out into the wider world. Cassie has recently split up from her boyfriend, Matthew (Matechuk), while Mackenzie is coming to terms with being a lesbian. While Cassie tells Mackenzie about her love life, Mackenzie feels awkward about coming out to Cassie; she’s told their mutual gay friend, Levi (Gerhard), and recently her parents, but is unsure how Cassie will react. Persuaded  by Levi to look for a girlfriend on Tumblr, Mackenzie continues to avoid telling Cassie she’s a lesbian, while a couple of chance encounters with Matthew lead Cassie to wonder if she is over him. Inevitably, Cassie finds out about Mackenzie’s “secret”, and her disappointment causes a rift between them. As they navigate the new dynamic of their friendship, with each finding fault with the other for their attitudes and behaviours, both Cassie and Mackenzie try to come to terms with all the new feelings and emotions they’re experiencing. Mackenzie begins a relationship with Elliot (Clarke), while Cassie focuses on getting the job she wants. As they focus on their own needs, though, their friendship suffers even more…

In any movie where one character keeps something a secret from their family/friends/workmates (delete as appropriate), the reason for their doing so often remains unanswered at best, or spuriously explained at worst. Almost Adults opts for the second approach and never makes Mackenzie’s reasoning convincing. Fortunately, this narrative misstep doesn’t hurt the movie too much, but it does mean that the animosity that develops between Cassie and Mackenzie feels unnecessarily contrived; in real life, Mackenzie’s reticence probably wouldn’t make such a difference. But where Adrianna DiLonardo’s subtly observant screenplay scores more highly is in its depiction not of two characters falling out because of a poorly motivated secret, but because they are finally learning how to be responsible adults. Their friendship – when we first meet them – is the kind that has them swearing to be in each other’s lives forever, the kind of promise that teenagers make out of a desperate need to be needed. DiLonardo soon waves off this affectation, and has Cassie and Mackenzie behave like the insecure and selfish young adults they really are. When faced with the demands of moving on to the next stage in their lives – and their friendship – life soon finds them unprepared and trying their utmost to control everything around them, including each other.

Although the movie falls under the LGBTQ+ banner thanks to its inclusion of openly gay characters, it’s not a movie about being gay. Rather it’s a movie about finding your place in the world, and at a pivotal moment in most people’s lives, when growing up becomes a mandatory requirement. Look what can happen if you don’t, the movie seems to be saying, and though it does include its fair share of coming-of-age clichés, it’s not weighted in favour of either character, and it does its best not to make easy judgments. Making her feature debut, Rotella handles the material with a lightness of touch that helps the movie through some of its rougher patches, and she has a knack for positioning the camera at odd yet effective vantage points. As the warring BFF’s, Negovanlis and Bauman have an easy chemistry that makes their characters’ falling out all the more dramatic, while Gerhard steals nearly all his scenes as the mandatory wise gay friend. The movie balances comedy and drama (with a smattering of romance) to good effect, and proves appealing throughout. It’s not ground-breaking stuff, or particularly original, but what it does it does with a quiet confidence and skill, and in a way that impresses more than it disappoints.

Rating: 7/10 – by not taking the obvious route in telling its story of a friendship undone by poor choices and a crippling lack of self-awareness on both sides, Almost Adults avoids looking and feeling like every other LGBTQ+ movie you might have seen recently; enjoyable though not exactly profound, and with two praiseworthy central performances, it’s a lovely, self-effacing diversion, and well worth anyone’s time and attention.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

D: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen / 133m

Cast: Tyne Daly, James Franco, Brendan Gleeson, Bill Heck, Grainger Hines, Zoe Kazan, Harry Melling, Liam Neeson, Tim Blake Nelson, Jonjo O’Neill, Chelcie Ross, Saul Rubinek, Tom Waits

Six tales from the Old West: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, in which the titular singing outlaw (Nelson) rides into a small town and finds himself threatened with being shot at almost every turn; Near Algodones, in which a would-be bank robber (Franco) underestimates the difficulty of robbing his latest target, and winds up on the verge of being lynched; Meal Ticket, in which a grizzled impresario (Neeson) travels from town to town in a wagon that converts into a small stage that allows an armless and legless young orator called Harrison (Melling) to perform; All Gold Canyon, in which an aging gold prospector (Waits) discovers a valley that may just provide him with the strike he’s being hoping for; The Gal Who Got Rattled, in which a young woman (Kazan) travelling to Oregon by wagon train with her brother, finds herself alone and at the financial mercy of an unscrupulous trail hand; and The Mortal Remains, in which a group of travellers on a stage coach discover that their destination may not be exactly the one they’re expecting…

The Coen brothers have apparently been writing Western short stories for years, and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs showcases some of those stories, plus one based on a story by Jack London (All Gold Canyon), in a handy compendium sized movie that offers a variety of pleasures for the interested viewer. Each tale or segment is different from the others both in terms of content and approach, though the Coens’ trademark humour can be found in all of them, and each is self-contained and thematically restrained. With no overlaps or need to wonder if a character from one story will pop up in another one, the various tales are linked only by a framing device that depicts each story as part of a volume entitled The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Other Tales of the American Frontier. With this conceit established, the Coens proceed to have a lot of fun with their opening story, with Scruggs breaking the fourth wall and taking part in a series of shootouts that are ingeniously and very cleverly staged (the confrontation between Scruggs and Clancy Brown’s poker player is simply genius). There’s more physical humour to be found in Near Algodones, and though it is funny to watch, it’s the slightest of the six tales on offer.

The tone changes completely with Meal Ticket, and the story ends on a dark note that is a little uncomfortable, as commerce and altruism make for uneasy bedfellows (kudos too to the special effects work that makes Harrison’s limbless nature so convincing). Another switch is provided by All Gold Canyon, practically a solo performance by Waits and supported by some of the most stunning natural scenery seen in any movie this year. It speaks towards determinism and self-will, and like its predecessor, provides a wry commentary on the hardships of frontier life. Perhaps the most fully realised and affecting of all the stories is The Gal Who Got Rattled, which skillfully blends comedy and romance into its narrative, and which features a terrific performance from Kazan as an innocent abroad whose naïvete eventually gets the better of her (be warned: there are illustrations that accompany the stories in the framing device, and this one hints strongly at the story’s outcome). And lastly, The Mortal Remains sees the Coens ending the movie with a tale that strictly speaking isn’t related to the Old West or the frontier, but will be familiar to anyone who enjoys tales of the macabre or supernatural. All in all, the Coens have taken a chance in combining so many disparate stories within one movie, but such is their control over the material, and their confidence in their abilities as writers and directors, that as a result, it’s a movie that works exceptionally well throughout, and has much to offer – even for those who don’t like Westerns.

Rating: 8/10 – a compendium of stories that each hold their own, and which offer different narrative rewards, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is an affectionate tribute to the Old West from a couple of writers/directors who clearly have a fascination for the period and its hardships; very funny in places, and with a dramatic flair to match, the movie sees the Coens back on form after the perceived stumble of Hail, Caesar! (2016), and showing that there’s still life in the Old West if you know where to look.

10 Reasons to Remember William Goldman (1931-2018)

Tags

, , , , , ,

William Goldman (12 August 1931 – 16 November 2018)

The man who famously said, “Nobody knows anything” – and he was right – William Goldman was a gifted storyteller (not that he would have agreed with that opinion). A screenwriter with as many unpublished scripts as ones brought to the screen, Goldman started out as a novelist, publishing his first novel, The Temple of Gold, in 1956. Further novels followed until a brush with Hollywood brought him to the attention of producer Elliot Kastner. With an agreement that Goldman would write a script based on Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer character, and Kastner would produce it, the resulting movie, Harper (1966), was a hit and Goldman’s place in the Hollywood firmament was seemingly assured, especially as his next script, for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), won him his first Oscar.

But over the next decade, and despite Goldman being in demand and winning another Oscar – for All the President’s Men (1976) – he began to discover that getting a script made into a movie wasn’t that easy. Several projects fell by the wayside, and he found himself less and less in demand, a strange circumstance for a screenwriter with two Oscars on his mantle. The Eighties were a particularly rough period for Goldman, more so after the publication of his first memoir, Adventures in the Screen Trade (1983), which contained that quote, and which was openly critical of the Hollywood machine. It wasn’t until he teamed up with Rob Reiner for an adaptation of his novel, The Princess Bride (one of only two screenplays that he could look at “without humiliation”), that Goldman found himself back in demand. He worked steadily through the Nineties, often as a script consultant, and maintained an enviable reputation.

Looking back over Goldman’s career, there are some tantalising what ifs, screenplays that were never used, from adaptations of Papillon and The Right Stuff, to a musical remake of Grand Hotel (1932), to adaptations of some of his other novels, and perhaps, most intriguing of all considering how the actual movie turned out, Mission: Impossible II (2000). And let’s not forget, these are the scripts that didn’t get produced. With such an impressive body of work, it’s no wonder that Goldman remained a highly regarded writer whose work – concise, cohesive, intelligent, entertaining – was often a guarantor of a good movie (you could argue that the bad ones were the fault of the studios or the directors etc.). But Goldman himself was always self-critical, stating once that he didn’t like his work, which is a shame as there are plenty of people who, if he were still with us, would disagree with him wholeheartedly.

1 – Harper (1966)

2 – Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

3 – The Stepford Wives (1975)

4 – Marathon Man (1976)

5 – All the President’s Men (1976)

6 – Magic (1978)

7 – The Princess Bride (1987)

8 – Misery (1990)

9 – Chaplin (1992)

10 – The Ghost and the Darkness (1996)

Chuck Norris Vs Communism (2015)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , ,

D: Ilinca Calugareanu / 80m

Cast: Ana Maria Moldovan, Dan Chiorean, Valentin Oncu, Cristian Stanca

Romania, the Eighties. The Ceausescu regime is in full swing. Television has been severely restricted (one two-hour programme per day), and its content heavily censored. Capitalism in any form is prohibited. But there is an underground movement that’s beginning to find a foothold amongst the Romanian people. It’s centred on “video evenings”, where citizens gather to watch pirate VHS tapes of Western movies. From very humble beginnings, these video evenings became more and more popular, and more and more people defied the authorities, including Irina Nistor (Moldovan), a translator for Romanian Television who was asked to dub the Western movies that were being distributed. Working for an enigmatic figure called Mr Zamfir (Chiorean), Irina eventually dubbed around three thousand movies, and his clandestine business went on to include high-ranking party officials as customers, a fact that kept his enterprise going until 1992. Becoming less of an underground “secret” and more of an accepted part of society, the effect of these video evenings was to give Romanians a greater idea of the Western world, as well as a keener sense of what was missing from their own lives…

The movie that prompted Tom Hanks to post on his Facebook account, “See this documentary! The power of film! To change the world”, Chuck Norris Vs Communism is a captivating examination of a period of (fairly) recent history that sounds exactly like something out of the movies. Ilinca Calugareanu’s illuminating docu-drama – key scenes and events are recreated alongside the reminiscences of people who were a part of it all – has a wistful, fantasy-lite approach that makes the reality of what happened seem all the more incredible. From Zamfir bribing border guards in order to get the original VHS tapes into the country, to Nistor’s clandestine work away from the scrutiny of her bosses, and the number of household raids that mysteriously saw no one arrested for what would have certainly been regarded as treasonous activity, the movie relates all of these instances with a fascinated disbelief that it could all have happened so quickly and so easily. The question arises repeatedly: how could the authorities not have known what was going on? After all, Nistor’s voice was incredibly well known; the only voice that was more familiar to the Romanians was that of Ceausescu himself. The answer is revealed (after a fashion) late on, but when it is, it’s an appropriately ironic and simple one.

More engaging than the recreation of stealth viewings and unhindered piracy activities, though, are the recollections of the Romanians who took part in those video evenings. The affection and the sense of nostalgia for those times, which were otherwise bleak and uncompromising, shines through and gives the movie an incredible sense of poignancy. Through the movies of Chuck Norris (of course), and Sylvester Stallone, as well as a range that included the likes of Doctor Zhivago (1965) and Once Upon a Time in America (1984), the quality of the movies was as nothing to the overall enjoyment that seeing them brought to the Romanian people. The movie reveals a tremendous sense of people coming together out of a common interest, and excited both by what they’re doing and by the fact that it’s in defiance of a Communist dictator who wasn’t exactly known for his forgiving nature. Recollections around certain movies are in abundance, and Calugareanu makes sure there are plenty of illustrative clips to go round. But it’s Nistor who receives the most attention, her distinctive vocal talents a source of endless speculation and fascination (though to be fair she didn’t actually dub the movies she worked on: instead she added a Romanian translation after each line was spoken). Loved and feted while remaining an anonymous mystery figure, her fans were horrified by the later appearance of a male voice on their bootleg tapes. And well they might have been: it was perhaps one subversive step too far.

Rating: 9/10 – an absorbing and continually fascinating look at a period and a country where screenings of Western movies were forbidden, Chuck Norris Vs Communism is an absolute gem of a documentary; Tom Hanks was right in his enthusiasm, as this is witty, funny, engaging, charming stuff that has a mischievous streak a mile wide and that doesn’t once try to be ponderous or focus too much on notions of cultural imperialism.

A Brief Word About Dumbo (2019) and Its New Poster

Tags

, , , , ,

Earlier this year, Disney released a first trailer for their new live action version of Dumbo (2019), directed by Tim Burton. Alongside it they released a first poster for the movie which looked like this:

Adopting the whole “less is more” approach, this poster remains a striking, beautifully composed and – more importantly – simple design that is evocative, boldly colourful and exactly what a teaser poster should be: a small, but potent glimpse of what’s to come. Now we have a second trailer and a second poster, and what a difference between the two. Somewhere along the way, the good folks at Disney have decided that evocative, boldly colourful and simple, isn’t good enough. And so, we have this:

This is the image that Disney want us to see from now on – that first poster will disappear into the archives with all the speed of a flying baby elephant. Cluttered, overwrought, visually distracting, and just plain clumsy in its design, it lacks the imagination of the first poster, and its simplicity. It may be small potatoes in the grand scheme of things – it is just a poster after all – but doesn’t it seem as if the person who signs off on these posters hasn’t got the slightest clue as to what’s effective and what isn’t? Posters can, and have been, regarded as art. But it seems that it’s a lost art, or at best, one that isn’t as valued as it used to be. Which, considering some of the classic posters that Disney themselves have given us over the years, is all the more surprising, and something of a shame.

Whitney (2018)

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

D: Kevin Macdonald / 120m

With: Cissy Houston, Bobby Brown, Michael Houston, Gary Houston, Mary Jones, John Houston III,  Donna Houston, Debra Martin Chase, Nicole David, Rickey Minor, Kevin Costner

Born into a family with a musical background – her mother, Cissy, was a backing singer for the likes of Aretha Franklin and Elvis Presley, before embarking on a successful solo career – Whitney Houston was blessed with the gift of an amazing singing voice. As a youngster she sang in her local church, and at the age of nineteen she was signed to Arista Records; three years later she released her first album: it went to number one on the Billboard 200. Further success followed, and she became the only female artist to have seven consecutive number one singles in the US. 1992 was a banner year for Whitney, with her starring role in The Bodyguard, and her marriage to rapper Bobby Brown. She had a daughter, Bobbi Kristina, and continued success with albums and movies. But towards the end of the Nineties, it became clear that Whitney was struggling with a drug addiction that was interfering with her work, and affecting her voice. Public appearances showed a woman who seemed adrift from herself and unable to find her way back, and in 2012, aged just forty-eight, she died in tragic circumstances…

Watching Whitney, the latest documentary from Kevin Macdonald – Touching the Void (2003), Marley (2012) – you’re almost waiting for that moment, the one where the acclaimed singer took the wrong path, the point where it all started to go horribly, terribly wrong. But as the movie progresses, and several moments appear as if they could be the one, Macdonald reveals a sadder truth: the somber tragedy of Houston’s later life and career was caused by a number of problems that the singer never faced up to or properly dealt with. That’s not to say that Houston was the author of her own downfall, but instead she was someone who was taken advantage of in different ways – by her family, her friends, her various collaborators, her husband – and because these problems were both incremental and consistent, she found herself unable to deal with them. Escape through drugs was her only, perceived, option. As this becomes clearer and more obvious through the testimonies of the people who were with her during the Nineties, another, even sadder truth emerges: no one did anything to help her. Through all the highs and lows of Houston’s life, and despite all the attention she had, and all the success, her loneliness is made undeniably apparent.

Much has been made of the movie’s “revelation” that Houston was molested by her first cousin, Dee Dee Warwick, when she was a child, but Macdonald wisely acknowledges it and the anecdotal nature of its provenance, and doesn’t allow it to take up too much of the running time. He’s too intent on examining her life and career from the arms-length distance of an observer, allowing those who knew her to provide bias or clarity or their own self-interest as appropriate – except for Brown, who is challenged when he asserts that drugs had nothing to do with Houston’s life, or what eventually happened to her. But though the tragedy of Houston’s life is revealed in broad, unhappy swathes that are sometimes hard to watch (a comeback show in Australia is particularly hard to bear), this is still a celebration of a musical talent that touched the lives of millions around the world. Using archival footage, Macdonald shows the impact Houston had, and how deserving she was of the success she achieved. Her talent may have been a blessing and a curse, but what is certain from this sensitive and deftly assembled documentary, is that her talent is what truly defined her, and that’s something that a tragic end can’t erase.

Rating: 8/10 – an absorbing, entertaining, and thoughtful movie, Whitney makes no judgments about the singer’s life and career, or the choices she made, but it does highlight the various ways in which she lost control of her own destiny; a heartfelt mixture of joy and sadness, with powerful reminders of her prodigious talent, it’s a movie that also reinforces the notion that success and fame aren’t always precursors to happiness.

Peterloo (2018)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , ,

D: Mike Leigh / 154m

Cast: Rory Kinnear, Maxine Peake, Pearce Quigley, Karl Johnson, Neil Bell, Philip Jackson, John-Paul Hurley, Tom Gill, Vincent Franklin, Jeff Rawle, Philip Whitchurch, Martin Savage, Roger Sloman, Sam Troughton, Alastair Mackenzie, Tim McInnerny, Dorothy Duffy, Victoria Moseley

In the wake of Napoléon Bonaparte’s defeat on the Continent in 1815, the working classes in the north of England turn their attention to protesting against the lack of fair political representation, and asking for extended voting rights (one vote per household). Getting wind of this, and viewing it as impending sedition, the British Government – as represented by the Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth (Johnson) – decides to do all it can to ensure that this new movement is unsuccessful, and preferably crushed before it can begin. While local radicals from the Manchester Observer, including its founder, Joseph Johnson (Gill), organise a great assembly to take place at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester on 9 August 1819, with a speech to be delivered by the great reformist orator Henry Hunt (Kinnear), government spies and local magistrates plot to have Hunt arrested and the crowd dispersed by force if necessary. With a crowd of around 60,000 people attending, the local militia’s attempts to break up the gathering lead to a terrible tragedy…

Beginning on the battlefield in 1815, Mike Leigh’s latest movie features several firsts for the director in terms of action and bloodshed, but Peterloo is also his most fiercely political movie to date. In telling the story of one of Britain’s worst tragedies, Leigh takes us on a vital history lesson, ranging from the semi-rural mill towns of Lancashire and their inhabitants’ clamour for fair political representation, to the richly decorated rooms of the Establishment and their unwillingness to ease the yoke of political oppression, to the austere courtrooms of the local magistrates and their callous disregard for the lives of the working class. In meeting rooms and at outdoor venues, Leigh explores and illuminates the political and social climate of the period, and through the use of lengthy speeches and extended conversations, brings to life a time when liberty was a luxury afforded only to the ruling elite, and the working classes were so beaten down they were constantly in danger of dying from starvation and disease. Leigh brings all this to life, and gives powerful voice to both the ideals of the radicals and their supporters, and the arrogance of the Establishment. By the time the massacre gets under way, the audience knows exactly what is being fought for (albeit peacefully), and why it matters. And why the elite are so determined to impede any progress.

If all this sounds irredeemably dry and didactic, then nothing could be further from the truth. Like Eric Rohmer, whose movies often consist of just two people talking at length but which are still fascinating to watch, Leigh has the same ability to draw in the viewer and make the expression of ideas as compelling as the action that inevitably follows in their wake (though if anything, the massacre itself isn’t as well realised as the rest of the movie, and carries a strangely muted impact, as if Leigh didn’t want to go too far in depicting the violence). There are real emotions on display, however, from the peacock-ish pride of Henry Hunt, to the cautious reticence of Peake’s unconvinced wife and mother, to the fervour and enthusiasm of the leaders of the nascent Manchester Female Reform Society, to the priggish belligerence of the Prince Consort (McInnerny). In this, the cast are uniformly excellent, with special mention going to Bell as radical reformer Samuel Bamford, and Franklin as the vituperative, apoplectic Magistrate Rev Etlhelson. With expressive, beautifully composed cinematography by Dick Pope that further brings the period to life, along with Suzie Davies’ highly impressive production design, this is a gripping account of a despicable act of state-organised domestic terrorism.

Rating: 9/10 – not for all tastes, but a compelling and revealing look at a key moment in 19th century British history nevertheless, Peterloo sees Mike Leigh working at the height of his considerable story-telling powers; absorbing, intelligently handled, and brimming with vitality, this does border on being unashamedly polemical at times, but when the quality of the material is this good, it’s something that can be easily forgiven.

I Think We’re Alone Now (2018)

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

D: Reed Morano / 99m

Cast: Peter Dinklage, Elle Fanning, Paul Giamatti, Charlotte Gainsbourg

In a small US coastal town, Del (Dinklage) is apparently the only survivor of a worldwide catastrophic event that has seen everyone else killed off. Something of a loner before this happened, Del has adjusted quickly to being alone, and divides his time between his job at the library, and systematically cleaning homes and disposing of bodies. He’s content, until one day he sees fireworks going off across the bay. The next day he encounters a young woman, Grace (Fanning), who has suffered a head injury in a car accident. His surprise at finding someone else alive is muted by his wanting to be alone; he tries to get Grace to move on, but she appears to be just as alone as he is. An uneasy relationship begins to develop between them, and Grace helps with the house cleanings and body disposals. Days pass in this way, with the pair coming to terms with each other’s quirks and foibles, including Del’s collecting photographs of the people who lived in the houses he’s cleaned. But it’s Grace’s story that intrudes more decisively – with the arrival of Patrick (Giamatti) and Violet (Gainsbourg)…

The second feature of cinematographer/director Reed Morano, I Think We’re Alone Now is a slow, meditative, yet absorbing examination of what it’s like to be alone, and what it’s like to want to be alone. In a muted, largely contained performance from Dinklage, Del comes across as the de facto embodiment of survivor’s guilt, taking on the responsibility of looking after the dead and their homes and belongings, as if by doing so he can atone for being alive when they’re not. No explanation is given for the apocalyptic event that has caused people to drop dead wherever they are (though not in the street apparently), and no explanation is given as to why Del hasn’t died as well. This adds to the melancholy feel of Del’s predicament, one that he’s embraced but which also feels like a guilty fait accompli. The arrival of Grace has a profound effect on him: how can he continue to feel the same way when she’s obviously happy to be alive, and this is how he should really be feeling? It’s not a question that Del – or Mike Makowsky’s screenplay – is able to answer with any authority, and before there’s any likelihood of the issue being addressed, along come Patrick and Violet to take the story in a different direction altogether.

To be fair, this narrative switch has been signposted a couple of times already by then, but when it does happen, the movie ceases to be about loneliness and becomes something else entirely. Examining what that involves would be to spoil things (mostly), but it can be noted that the movie ceases to be as effective or as absorbing as it’s been with just Del and Grace as our guides to this eerie new world (it also feels like something of a cheat, as if two competing narrative strands had been glued together for the sake of a dramatic final third). This also leaves the careful construction of the relationship between Del and Grace in limbo, and offers Del a chance to play the unlikely hero. Unconvincing as this may be, Morano, who directs in a formal yet expressive manner that adds a layer of hazy unreality to the overall mise en scene, provides moments of serene beauty but is unable to rectify the larger problems with the script. It’s a shame as Dinklage and Fanning make for a great “odd couple”, and there’s a decent enough central idea on display. But more work needed to be done on the movie as a whole, making this compelling and frustrating at the same time.

Rating: 6/10 – with its post-apocalypse background serving as the anchor for its tale of melancholy self-negation, I Think We’re Alone Now strives for resonance but falls short thanks to the vagaries of its script; good performances from all concerned are sadly not enough to prop up the movie, but Morano does more than enough to cement her growing reputation as a director to watch.

Hurricane (2018)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , ,

aka Hurricane: Squadron 303

D: David Blair / 108m

Cast: Iwan Rheon, Milo Gibson, Stefanie Martini, Marcin Dorociński, Krystof Hádek, Christopher Jaciow, Slawomir Doliniec, Radoslaw Kaim, Adrian Zaremba, Hugh Alexander, Nicholas Farrell, Rosie Gray

Having seen their country overrun by the Nazis, a number of Polish fighter pilots, including Jan Zumbach (Rheon) and Witold Urbanowicz (Dorociński), find their way to England where they join the Royal Air Force. It’s 1940, and Britain is suffering heavy casualties in the air, and is fast running out of both planes and pilots. With the RAF top brass unwilling to let them fly their best planes because of doubts about their skills and experience, it takes a while for the Poles to find a role in the War. Eventually, they form 303 Squadron, based at RAF Northolt aerodrome, and take to the skies during the Battle of Britain. Their courage and determination brings them aerial glory, and despite some resentment among some of the British pilots, the Poles soon find themselves highly regarded. Jan begins a relationship with a WAAF called Phyllis (Martini), but as the war continues and inevitably, his comrades are killed, Jan begins to experience an ambivalence about the war that sees him become angrier and more reckless…

Of the many stories to come out of World War II, the story of the Polish fighter pilots who served in the RAF is one of the more remarkable. In the first six weeks of combat, they claimed an unprecedented hundred and twenty six kills, and by the end of the war, 303 Squadron had the highest ratio of enemy aircraft destroyed to their own lost. With such a notable history, it’s a shame then that Hurricane resorts to lazy soap opera dramatics in telling the Poles’ story. The tone is set when we see Jan steal a plane in France in order to reach England: instead of being a perilous endeavour that could go wrong at any moment, it’s treated as something of a practical joke on Jan’s part. Good-natured banter ensues between the Poles while they wait to be put to good use, and only when the RAF top brass assign lucky Canadian John Kent (Gibson) to oversee their training. Rule-breaking and insubordination are the order of the day from then on, alongside skirmishes with British pilots who are brought in to be unpleasantly racist, something that’s heightened by Phyllis dumping her usual man (Alexander) in favour of Jan. It’s history perhaps, but played out in a distant, modern fashion that doesn’t suit the period.

While the movie does get darker as the war continues – and the Polish body count rises – we see flashbacks to the fates of Jan and Witold’s spouses at the hands of the Nazis. This sobering of the narrative is necessary but feels underwhelming; there’s always another soap opera moment waiting just around the corner, such as when Jan seeks to repay the hospitality of a working class family, only to find their home has been destroyed in a bombing raid (the inference is clear but Jan never actually checks to see if they’re dead or alive). Elsewhere, there’s a member of the squadron suffering from cowardice, plenty of stiff upper lip moments, and the strange sight of a book on Rudimentary Polish that’s the size of War and Peace. Thankfully the aerial dogfights rescue the movie from its self-inflicted doldrums, though the anonymity of the pilots in these sequences (despite as many cockpit close ups as possible), lessens the impact when one of them is killed. The cast are proficient without being asked to do too much, and TV veteran Blair does his best to cope with the few demands of Robert Ryan and Alistair Galbraith’s patchy screenplay. All in all, it’s a great story, but here it’s also one that never seems like it’s being encouraged to truly “take off”.

Rating: 5/10 – lacklustre, though enjoyable in a basic, just-go-with-the-flow kind of way, Hurricane is the kind of movie that doesn’t even tell you its title is the make of plane its main characters are flying; without the requisite energy needed to make it as compelling as it should have been, the movie founders under a weight of good intentions and unrealised ambitions, something that can’t be said of its Polish pilots in real life – dzięki Bogu.

Brothers’ Nest (2018)

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

D: Clayton Jacobson / 93m

Cast: Shane Jacobson, Clayton Jacobson, Kim Gyngell, Lynette Curran, Sarah Snook

Brothers Terry (Shane Jacobson) and Jeff (Clayton Jacobson) arrive at their childhood home early one morning, and set about preparing to kill their stepfather, Rodger (Gyngell), and make it look like suicide. Jeff has come up with the plan pretty much all by himself: the idea is to stop Rodger inheriting the family home and then selling it when their mother (Curran) passes away (she has cancer and only a few months left to live). Looking at it as a way of ensuring they keep what they regard as theirs, and to honour their biological father who killed himself when he discovered Rodger was having an affair with their mother, the pair work through Jeff’s plan down to the minutest detail. As time passes, the brothers reminisce about their childhood, and the impact Rodger has had on their lives. They also learn things about each other that makes Terry begin to question if what they’re doing is necessary, Finally, and as expected, Rodger arrives at the house, but Jeff’s meticulously devised plan begins to unravel from the moment that Rodger doesn’t enter the house straight away, forcing the brothers to improvise…

A pitch black comedy that starts off slowly before ramping up the tension and making at least two scenes very uncomfortable to watch, Brothers’ Nest is an assured, finely tuned movie that has a lot going on “under the hood”. Reuniting the Jacobson brothers for the first time since the sublime Kenny (2006) (though Clayton had a much smaller role), the movie spends much of its first half in exploring each brother’s reasons for being there, and the complicated family and emotional ties that have led them to contemplating murder as a way of solving problems they can barely articulate (at one point Jeff insists on their being honest with each other, but it’s an idea neither is able to commit to). It’s tempting to speculate that the Jacobsons – working from a script by Jaime Browne – have drawn from their own relationship in order to portray Terry and Jeff, but if that were so then you’d be seriously worried for them: both brothers have enough unresolved issues to keep a team of therapists busy for years. Clayton teases out a number of subtle character moments that point to things going wrong even if they go right, and these are based on equally subtle undercurrents that inform the characters’ motives and the quality of the performances.

It’s when things do start to go wrong that the movie kicks into a higher gear and becomes a dark, uncompromising thriller, with the brothers forced down a path that brooks no return or chance of redemption. The humour, which so far has been a mixture of unsettling and morbid, becomes blacker still, but it’s all in service to the desperate efforts of Terry and Jeff to rescue their plan, and when that’s no longer possible, for one of them to save himself at any cost. The movie does lose its way in the final twenty minutes, when the confines of the house are overtaken by events that take place outside, but there’s a messy desperation to these events that seems appropriate even as the material, and its credibility, is stretched a little too thinly. Throughout it all, Clayton uses low level camera angles and subdued lighting to emphasise the off-kilter nature of the brothers’ plan, while sound designer/supervisor Emma Bortignon provides cues and effects that add to the discomfort the movie promotes throughout. With tremendous performances from both Shane and Clayton, the movie works best when focusing on Terry and Jeff’s fractured relationship, but when it takes a (much, much) darker turn, it still manages to keep them at the centre, while exploring their fragile bond even further – even when it proves increasingly uncomfortable to do so.

Rating: 8/10 – despite a last act detour into violent melodrama that’s tonally at odds with what’s gone before, the bulk of Brothers’ Nest is a quietly disturbing look at fratricidal dysfunction set against a simmering backdrop of unresolved family betrayals; tense and tautly executed, let’s hope it’s not another twelve years before the Jacobsons work together again.

Burn Burn Burn (2015)

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

D: Chanya Button / 105m

Cast: Laura Carmichael, Chloe Pirrie, Jack Farthing, Joe Dempsie, Alice Lowe, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Sally Phillips, Melanie Walters, Jane Asher, Nigel Planer, Matthew Kelly, Alison Steadman

Following the death of their friend, Dan (Farthing), best friends Seph (Carmichael) and Alex (Pirrie) find themselves tasked with spreading his ashes at four different locations. To help make sense of his choices, Dan has made several short videos that the pair have to watch when they arrive at each destination. At first, though, they aren’t keen on the idea, and decide not to do it. But when their grief and anger and confusion over Dan’s death from cancer causes both of them to lose their jobs (and Alex discovers her girlfriend is seeing someone else), they head out on the road to carry out his final wishes. Along the way, Seph begins to doubt whether she and her boyfriend, James (Dempsie) should be together, a detour to visit Alex’s mother (Walters) leads to the exposure of uncomfortable truths for Alex, and Seph’s behaviour threatens to cause a rift between them that’s exacerbated by some scathing comments by Dan on his videos. It all leaves Seph and Alex wondering if agreeing to Dan’s wishes was the right thing to do…

A charming mix of drama and comedy that often hides a melancholy centre, Burn Burn Burn is a deceptively sincere meditation on the nature of regret and the emotional toll it can take. Dan regrets the life he’ll no longer live and what he perceives as the mistakes he’s made with his mother (Asher). Seph regrets the choices she’s made both professionally (she works as a nanny for a therapist who consults from home) and personally (her relationship with James). And Alex has regrets over a childhood incident that causes her to push people away. It’s no wonder that they all became friends: how could they not when they’re such kindred spirits? The beauty of Charlie Covell’s nimble screenplay is that Dan uses his regrets as a way of challenging Seph and Alex to examine and overcome their own problems, and as the journey progresses from location to location, so Seph and Alex confront and overcome the things that are holding them back. There’s a welcome lack of empty sentimentality, and none of the cloying mawkishness that might ordinarily come with a movie such as this, and Button, making her first feature, keeps a tight control over the emotional dilemmas and resolutions that the screenplay delivers with aplomb.

The movie also offers up several surprising scenes that seem out of place at first, but which on closer inspection, relate closely to the characters and their predicaments. Alex makes a startling confession while tied to a cross (she’s standing in for an AWOL am-dram Jesus), while an overnight stay at a commune headed by counter-culture philosopher Adam (Rhind-Tutt) sees the pair part of a group gazing at the stars and determining what’s important in life. Moments such as these add appreciable depth and no small amount of artless candour to the narrative, and help make the characters’ problems relatable. As the troubled pair, Carmichael and Pirrie both provide astute, sympathetic, and likeable performances, and there’s fine work from Farthing that roots around in the despair of dying too young with a frankness that’s often unsettling to watch. The rest of the cast looks like a who’s who of acceptable British cameo providers, and Lowe aside (who’s once again asked to play the same character she normally plays, just in a medieval costume), they acquit themselves well, offering deft touches and character beats that flesh out their roles. Their portrayals are all in service to a movie that eschews the usual quirky road trip analogies, and which centres instead on telling its heartfelt story with quiet verve and incisiveness.

Rating: 8/10 – a winning blend of honest drama and good-natured comedy, Burn Burn Burn is a modest yet effective first outing from Button that is a pleasant and rewarding alternative to the huge number of similar movies that are out there; brimming with confidence, and unafraid to tackle some difficult topics head on, it’s bolstered by a moving score and soundtrack courtesy of Marc Canham and the indie band Candy Says, and leaves you wanting to know just how Seph and Alex get on once their trip is over.

Widows (2018)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , ,

D: Steve McQueen / 130m

Cast: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Carrie Coon, Garret Dillahunt, Lukas Haas, Kevin J. O’Connor, Jacki Weaver, Matt Walsh, Adepero Oduye, Robert Duvall, Liam Neeson

In the wake of her husband’s death in a heist gone wrong, Veronica Rawlings (Davis) finds herself in a whole lot of trouble. Her husband, Harry (Neeson), along with three of his friends – all career criminals – stole two million dollars from gang boss Jamal Manning (Henry), and though his money is gone, he expects Veronica to pay him back within a month. With no money of her own, and only a notebook Harry left her that gives details of his previous heists – and the one he had planned next – Veronica decides her only option is to contact the wives of the other men in Harry’s gang, and persuade them to help her carry out his next robbery, which will net them a cool five million. Two of the women, Linda Perelli (Rodriguez) and Alice Gunner (Debicki), agree to help, but the fourth, Amanda (Coon), isn’t interested. Needing four of them to carry out the heist, Linda recruits her babysitter, Belle (Erivo). They move forward with the plan, but are unaware that they’re being watched…

An adaptation of Lynda La Plante’s novel, Steve McQueen’s latest movie is an odd beast indeed, quite formal in its approach, but with occasional directorial flourishes to remind the viewer that this isn’t just a heist movie, it’s a serious heist movie, unlike, say, Ocean’s Eight (2018). Here, lives are at stake, and the cost of failure is unthinkable. It’s a dour, earnest movie that explores notions of sexism, political expediency (care of a subplot surrounding a ward campaign involving Farrell’s reformist alderman versus Henry’s aspiring gang boss), proto-feminism, spousal betrayal, and personal legacies. The script, by McQueen and author Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl, Sharp Objects), is adroitly constructed, but though the pair have worked hard to bring the characters to life and present them against a credible backdrop (well, as credible as these kinds of movies can manage), there’s not much here that will either come as a surprise, or which doesn’t follow in an expected order. Even if you’re not familiar with La Plante’s novel, or the original British TV series, the few twists and turns in the narrative won’t have much of an impact, and getting through the movie almost becomes a tick box exercise.

That’s not to say, however, that the movie is bad, or disappointing, just oddly straightforward and dramatically sincere without ever rising above the expectations of the genre. Perhaps this kind of story has been told too many times before for McQueen to provide us with anything fresh or new. And there’s the small matter of Davis’ and Debicki’s characters having more screen time than Rodriguez’ and Erivo’s. This lop-sided approach to the main quartet seems a little counter-intuitive in a movie that seems to be promoting female solidarity, and often, some character beats are cut short in order to move on to the next phase of the heist and its planning. On the agnate side, the likes of Duvall, Kaluuya and Dillahunt are saddled with perfunctory, under-developed secondary roles, while Farrell does his best to make sense of a character whose ambivalent motives rarely make sense. Thankfully, Davis and Debicki are on hand to provide two excellent performances. That Davis is so good is a given, but it’s Debicki who shines the most, imbuing Alice with a steely survivor’s determination to make life better for herself that is both complex and credible; whenever she’s on screen, she holds the audience’s attention in a vice-like grip. That the rest of the movie doesn’t manage to do this, is again, something of a surprise, but in playing out as expected, it doesn’t disappoint entirely. Instead it’s a respectable effort that isn’t as memorable as we all might have hoped.

Rating: 7/10 – despite all the effort and all the talent involved, Widows lacks the kind of verve needed to make the thriller elements thrill, and the dramatic elements resonate; McQueen directs as if his brief was to be a pair of safe hands, and though it’s technically well put together, somewhere along the way, any idea of elevating the material doesn’t appear to have been acted on.

Everything Beautiful Is Far Away (2017)

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

D: Pete Ohs, Andrea Sisson / 91m

Cast: Julia Garner, Joseph Cross, C.S. Lee, Jillian Mayer

Trekking across a nameless desert with no destination in mind, or any particular idea of where he is in relation to anywhere else, Lernert (Cross) is alone except for a robot head he carries with him, called Susan (Mayer). Lernert has a plan to provide Susan with a new body, but the occasional items he finds on his journey are largely unsuitable. One day he discovers a young woman (Garner) who has eaten a poisonous root vegetable. Saving her life, he attempts to connect with her, but she prefers to continue her own travels by herself. Later, the tables are turned when Lernert suffers an injury that renders him unconscious, and the woman, whose name is Rola, tends to his wound. While he’s unconscious she finds an illustrated book that Lernert is writing called The Quest for the Key. The story mentions a crystal lake, which Rola finds too coincidental: she is searching for a semi-mythical crystal lake located somewhere in the desert. When Lernert comes to, he tells her he doesn’t know anything about it, but they agree to look for it together. And when they find a power source that allows Susan to be “woken up”, she reveals that she knows how to gude them there…

If you’re a fan of slow moving, leisurely paced, yet absorbing sci-fi movies set in an uncertain future, then Everything Beautiful Is Far Away will be exactly what you’re looking for. Winner of the US Fiction Cinematography Award at the 2017 Los Angeles Film Festival, the movie looks and feels like an elegiac meditation on the will (and the need) to believe in something greater than oneself – the crystal lake as a symbol of hope, and possibly, redemption – and the importance of the journey towards it. Lernert appears to have a purpose in wandering the desert, but it’s mainly to stay alive and avoid any signs of civilisation (at one point a city can be glimpsed in the distance, but the ominous cloud hanging over it acts as a warning: don’t go there). Whatever has happened, Lernert is doing his best to get away from it. Likewise Rola, though her goal is clearer and more defined: there’s a crystal lake and even though there’s no proof it exists, she’s determined to find it. Part wishful thinking, part survivalist mantra, Rola’s search for the lake brooks no discussion. With nothing better to do to occupy his time, what else should Lernert do but accompany her?

Most movies of this nature would soon have its lead characters becoming romantically attached, but screenwriter and co-director Ohs has other ideas, and keeps Rola and Lernert at arms length from each other. Instead they become friends, and this is much more realistic and in keeping with the movie’s modest aims and ambitions. Ohs slowly builds up their relationship, and their increasing reliance on each other, and as their journey continues, they also learn from each other. Ohs and Sisson ensure these developments play out naturally and with little to no artifice, and their efforts are rewarded by note perfect performances from Garner and Cross. There’s subtlety and nuance to both their roles, and though we learn nothing of their characters’ back stories (or what catastrophe has befallen the world), we’re more than happy to follow them on their search for the lake. The co-directors also keep things interesting visually, emphasising the bleakness and the beauty of the desert landscapes Rola and Lernert are traversing, while also including themes relating to our reliance on technology, and why our belief systems are so important to us. It’s perhaps a polarising movie – you’ll either love it or hate it – but there’s no denying that it’s unexpectedly compelling, and a refreshing change from more mainstream fare.

Rating: 8/10 – a singular movie that takes chances with its narrative, though they’re rewarding ones over all, Everything Beautiful Is Far Away is affecting and beautifully rendered; the sci-fi elements are downplayed in favour of a more traditional dramatic approach, Alan Palomo provides a musical backdrop that is oddly reflective of Lernert and Rola’s unusual journey, and the cinematography – by Ohs and Christian Sorensen Hansen – is well deserving of its festival award.

The Joke Thief (2018)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , ,

D: Frank D’Angelo / 81m

Cast: Frank D’Angelo, Sugith Varughese, Daniel Baldwin, Jason Blicker, Tony Nardi, Alyson Court, Art Hindle, Mike Marino, John Ashton

Simon McCabe (D’Angelo) has wanted one thing his whole life: to be a comedian. But although he’s had a number of opportunities, he’s never been able to make the most of them. Now, with one last opportunity having landed in his lap – a spot on a show at the Comedy Basement which is being filmed for cable TV – Simon has to decide if he really wants his dream to come true. It’s a decision he appears ill-equipped to make, as over the years his lack of success has soured him, both professionally and personally. Having turned his back on the family business, a car dealership founded by his father (Hindle), Simon avoids responsibility and treats others, including his brother (Blicker), with disdain. What doesn’t help is that Simon has a reputation as a “joke thief”, someone who uses other people’s material in his act. While on his way to the Comedy Basement, Simon finds himself opening up to his Uber driver, Jerry (Varughese), and reflecting on various moments from his life that have led him to where he is now…

A melancholy, bittersweet, but ultimately rambling movie that dosn’t make as much sense as its writer/producer/director/star was probably aiming for, The Joke Thief relies too heavily on stand up performances from the likes of Marino to pad out an already slight storyline that revolves around Simon’s last shot at personal redemption. It also paints Simon as a misanthrope, and despite a last minute change of heart and soul – thanks to the clumsy intervention of Jerry the Uber driver, who tells Simon to have faith – he’s not a character you can warm to. Yes, he is funny, albeit in an offhand, determinedly rebellious kind of way, but D’Angelo’s script can’t decide if his being a joke thief is a bad thing or not. Baldwin’s host and Comedy Basement owner doesn’t like him, and only lets him have a slot as a favour to a fellow comedian (Nardi). But his other fellow comedians are courteous and encouraging toward him, which makes his reputation something that is certainly remarked upon but which remains unexplored. With all the flashbacks that D’Angelo inserts into the narrative, we never get a clue as to why Simon doesn’t write his own material, or why he’s chosen to plagiarise others.

In the end, D’Angelo makes an awkward fist of things, from Simon’s regret at not being with his father when he died, to being there for his mother’s last breath only for her to berate him for being sad and unhappy, and his regular dismissal of, and attempts at exploiting, his brother’s affection for him. There’s also Simon’s treatment of women, which is also exploitative and wildly inappropriate, and such is D’Angelo’s skewed approach to the character, he actually rewards his behaviour with the prospect of a long-term relationship (one that appears to be his first). But it’s the character of Jerry the Uber driver that belies any sense that D’Angelo has worked out in advance what his movie is about. Jerry is the balm for Simon’s misery, someone who doesn’t get his jokes but who knows he’s a good man and a good comedian anyway. Jerry has faith, and amazingly, during the course of a short trip, convinces Simon to have faith as well and believe in himself (ah, if only Life were so simple to work out). Apparently, D’Angelo only spends a couple of days writing his scripts, and sadly, it shows. Somewhere in this movie is a mordaunt meditation on the rehabilitation that can be achieved through humour, but here it’s a blunt message that doesn’t convince, and which comes at the expense of any sympathy for the main character.

Rating: 4/10 – surrounding himself with comedians who really do know how to be funny, D’Angelo struggles to make Simon anywhere near as good, and this disparity hurts The Joke Thief tremendously; with modest performances all round, but in service to material that doesn’t lend itself to providing viewers with anything too memorable, it’s a movie that frustrates more than it impresses.

Overlord (2018)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , ,

D: Julius Avery / 109m

Cast: Jovan Adepo, Wyatt Russell, Pilou Asbæk, Mathilde Ollivier, John Magaro, Iain De Caestecker, Jacob Anderson, Dominic Applewhite, Gianny Taufer, Bokeem Woodbine

The night of 5 June 1944: a squad of paratroopers have been tasked with destroying a radio mast located in the tower of a church in a small Normandy village. When their plane is shot down before they can reach the drop zone, the survivors band together in order to complete their mission. Under the command of Corporal Ford (Russell), a demolitions expert, Privates Boyce (Adepo), Tibbet (Magaro), and Chase (De Caestecker), reach the outskirts of the village, where they encounter Chloe (Ollivier). Distrustful of them at first, Chloe agrees to help them once she realises what their mission is. But there’s a problem: the church has become part of a Nazi compound, and is heavily guarded. It soon becomes clear that there’s something strange going on in the compound, something that has seen the Nazis – under the command of Wafner (Asbæk) – abduct many of the villagers, who haven’t been seen again. A visit by Wafner to Chloe’s home, and Boyce unexpectedly finding himself inside the compound, ensures the mission becomes about more than just blowing up a radio mast…

Though the above synopsis is light on detail – and deliberately so – what you can gauge from the trailer for Overlord is that this is pretty much a big budget version of all those Outpost movies we’ve been “treated” to over the last ten years; it also bears a strong resemblance to Frankenstein’s Army (2013). Whatever the inspiration for its making, though, the key question is: is it any better than those movies? Fortunately, the answer is yes. However, the script – by Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith – doesn’t push the basic storyline in any new directions, and runs out of dramatic steam once Boyce gets in and out of the compound with remarkable ease. From then on, the material plays out in entirely familiar fashion, and regular viewers of this kind of thing will be able to predict each narrative development with a minimum of effort. The characters are broadly drawn too, with Boyce at first showing fear at every turn before displaying true bravery (as we know he will), Ford the taciturn brute, Tibbet the mouthy sharpshooter, Chloe the plucky heroine, and Wafner the smarmy villain who gets a taste of his own medicine (literally). Sometimes these stereotypes can be reassuring, but here they stop the audience from engaging with anyone. Instead, they and the viewer, are stuck with going through the appropriate (e)motions.

The movie is loud and violent and glaringly obtuse at times, though punctuated by odd moments of quiet where the script attempts to provide some depth to the characters, even though it’s already too late. Avery, who provided his first feature, Son of a Gun (2014), with a rough around the edges energy that suited the material, here finds himself constrained by the demands of both the material and the requirements of making a more mainstream movie. The cast do what they can, but there’s no challenge to any of the roles, and Asbæk opts to portray Wafner as a pantomime villain almost from the off. Along the way, there’s some good practical effects work (though none of it is as shocking as might be hoped for), and one scene where a paratrooper – and then everyone else – gets a nasty “wake up” call, is splendidly staged and proves to be the movie’s highlight. But all in all it’s the movie’s lack of inventiveness that stops it from being as successful as its makers would have hoped, and which robs of it any appreciable thrills and spills.

Rating: 6/10 – despite being better than its low budget rivals, Overlord still falls into the same traps as those movies, and proves to be a modest diversion at best; once again we’re confronted with a mainstream horror movie that falls way short of its aims, and which serves as a reminder that money can’t buy everything.

They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (2018)

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

D: Morgan Neville / 98m

With: Orson Welles, John Huston, Gary Graver, Peter Bogdanovich, Oja Kodar, Rich Little, Danny Huston, Cybill Shepherd, Beatrice Welles

In 1970, Orson Welles began shooting a movie that he had been thinking about as far back as 1961, about an aging movie director making his latest feature against a backdrop of the changing social, political, and sexual mores of the period. The Other Side of the Wind was intended to be an experimental movie for the most part, with scenes from the movie the director is making woven into the larger story – a movie within a movie. But as with many of Welles’ later projects, money proved to be a problem, from the lack of consistent funding to his own tax problems (which required him to take breaks from production while he took various other jobs to raise money). There were also casting problems: Rich Little was replaced by Peter Bogdanovich after filming nearly all his scenes, and John Huston was only brought on as the fictional director in early 1974. Forced to contend with an intermittent shooting schedule, Welles’ didn’t complete principal photography until 1976. But his problems didn’t end there. The editing process proved difficult as well, and by 1979, Welles had only forty minutes of finished footage out of a planned two hour movie. Would it ever get released…?

The first thing to say about They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (a quote made by Welles to Bogdanovich), is that it’s all about the production of The Other Side of the Wind, and the remaining years before Welles died with the project uncompleted. It’s not about what happened to the movie after Welles’s death in 1985, and how it came to be released in 2018. If you’re interested in that aspect of the movie’s history, then this isn’t the documentary for you. What it is, however, is a fascinating look at Welles himself and his approach to movie making during a period when he was still fighting to get projects made on his own terms, and had learnt how to circumnavigate many of the issues and problems that were put in his way (there’s a great example of Welles’ skill as a director from Chimes at Midnight (1965), where a punch is thrown – and we learn the reaction shot was filmed two years later; and the two shots are seamless). What the documentary makes clear is that Welles knew what he was doing in his head, but it also makes the point through contemporary interview footage that Welles wasn’t always able to articulate what was in his head. Watching this, you might be hard pressed to work out just what The Other Side of the Wind is all about.

One of the key strengths of Morgan Neville’s admirable documentary is its cast of characters, the people who worked with Welles on the project, some of whom have vastly different recollections of what happened, how, and why. Little’s departure from the movie is a case in point, with the man himself somewhat reticent on the matter, while Oja Kodar’s influence (she co-wrote the movie with Welles and appeared in it) is regarded as either essential, restrictive of Welles’ talent, or isn’t understood at all. These differences in memory prove strangely illuminating. As Welles himself would always state, “everything is a lie” (and he does so at the beginning of the documentary), so whether one person is right or wrong soon becomes irrelevant. What Neville teases out is the mystery of a movie that, until recently, no one has seen in its finished form. As a companion piece to The Other Side of the Wind, this is required viewing, an apéritif if you will, before the main course, and a terrific reminder of Welles’ skill as a movie maker, something Neville does through the equally skilful use of clips from Welles’s career and revealing clips of the man himself.

Rating: 8/10 – thanks to lively contributions from those who were there, and a wealth of archive footage shot at the time, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead is an enthralling look at a movie maker who was still willing to take risks, and the perils of independent movie making; best watched before seeing The Other Side of the WInd, this isn’t just for cinéastes or fans of Welles, but anyone with an interest in how movies can get made despite any number of adversities.

The White Orchid (2018)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , ,

D: Steve Anderson / 88m

Cast: Olivia Thirlby, John Carroll Lynch, Janina Gavankar, Nichelle Nichols, Brendan Sexton III, Rachael Taylor, Jennifer Beals

A freelance investigator for Social Services, Claire Decker (Thirlby) is conscientious and very thorough when it comes to finding relatives of people who have died, seemingly, alone. But when her boss (Beals) gives her a new challenge, it’s not Claire’s usual type of case. The headless, mutilated corpse of a woman has been found on the beach of nearby Morro Bay, and though she appeared to be well-known in the area, the police have discovered that her name and I.D. were fake. Tasked with finding out who the murdered woman really was, Claire spends time at the woman’s home, and finds clues that the police have overlooked, clues that she keeps from the local police chief (Lynch). When Claire talks to some of the woman’s neighbours, she meets Teresa (Nichols), a blind lady who was asked to look after a suitcase the woman left with her before she died. The contents add to the mystery of the woman’s death, but by now Claire has worked out that the woman’s real name was Jessica, and that her murder is somehow linked to a hotel in San Francisco called the Hotel Rex…

Like many thrillers, The White Orchid sets out its central mystery as soon as its central character has been established as one type of person, and then has that same character behave increasingly in ways that don’t seem to match the character’s established personality. All this is in pursuit of the truth, of course, but it does make you wonder why it is that the movies do this. Are we meant to find a flawed heroine more interesting? Will determined and resourceful ever be enough? And what is it about Claire Decker that makes her want to dress up like the murder victim (as she inevitably does; it’s signposted so obviously) and put herself in harm’s way, especially as she knows there’s a potentially dangerous man lurking around who knows what she’s doing and has found out? These are all good questions, but sadly, not ones that writer/director Steve Anderson is interested in answering. Claire’s motivations remain murky throughout, and there’s something of a character swerve late on in her investigation that comes out of the blue, and which has the awkward effect of making the viewer review everything they’ve seen so far (though clues are there).

Of course, with Claire playing dress up in the dead woman’s clothes and wigs, there’s a psycho-sexual aspect to it all, and Thirlby is required to wear the kind of underwear that looks nice but which women don’t sit around in in real life. These voyeuristic moments aside, the mystery develops at a steady pace, teasing out the truth while failing to put Claire in any danger whatsoever. This leaves the movie tension-free, and largely unsure of where it’s going, content to plod along happily until a showdown between Claire and the killer that falls flat bcause of how contrived it all is. Much of the movie’s running time is taken up by scenes that hamper the flow of the narrative, from Claire discussing the case with her roommate (Gavankar), to one of Claire’s neighbours (Sexton III) expressing his worries over his daughter’s safety because a man with a gun was looking for our largely unconcerned heroine. With Anderson’s screenplay unsure if it wants to be a solid mystery thriller, or an exploration of the sexual awakening of a woman with no apparent social life (but a liking for the neck of a particular blonde), the movie is only fitfully intriguing, and rarely gets out of second gear.

Rating: 5/10 – acceptable as a way of filling time until something better comes along, The White Orchid is a laboured attempt at a modern day film noir, but without the skill and ingenuity needed to bring its over-burdened narrative to life; Thirlby and the rest of the cast acquit themselves well enough playing staple characters of the genre, and there’s some good location work along the California coast, but ultimately this is forgettable stuff that jars more than it gels.

Slaughterhouse Rulez (2018)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , ,

D: Crispian Mills / 104m

Cast: Asa Butterfield, Finn Cole, Simon Pegg, Michael Sheen, Hermione Corfield, Nick Frost, Max Raphael, Kit Connor, Isabella Laughland, Tom Rhys Harries, Louis Strong, Margot Robbie

Slaughterhouse is a traditional English boarding school, with the sons and daughters of the rich and famous and the establishment primed to follow in their parents’ footsteps. When a rare placement comes the way of Don Wallace (Cole), a teenager from a single parent, working class background, he doesn’t really want to go, but does so to please his mother. Once there, he’s placed in a room with Willoughby Blake (Butterfield), whose disaffection with the school leads him to carry out small acts of subversion. But the cruelties and occasional moments of relief from life at Slaughterhouse soon take a back seat to the consequences of a nearby fracking operation that has opened up a sinkhole. On a weekend when most of the pupils have gone home, the headmaster (Sheen), one of the teachers (Pegg), Don and Willoughby, along with a number of other pupils, find themselves fighting off attacks by a “frack” of subterranean monsters that have emerged from the sinkhole. It’s time to put personal differences aside and keep each other alive…

You know that feeling when you’re around five to ten minutes into a movie and you just know that you’re going to be disappointed – because you are already? That’s the feeling viewers of the first feature from Stolen Picture, a production company set up by stars Pegg and Frost, will have once they’ve started watching this ill-advised and poorly assembled comedy horror. It’s not just that Slaughterhouse Rulez isn’t that funny, or very effective in terms of its horror elements, it doesn’t work because it’s another movie that tries waaaaay too hard to be funny, scary, and exciting all at the same time, while not being able to strike a proper balance between all three. The script – by Mills and Henry Fitzherbert – adopts a kitchen sink approach to the comedy, with physical pratfalls, visual gags, terrible puns or references (you can guess the line that inevitably accompanies the apparent demise of the headmaster’s dog, Mr Chips), and lots of frightened yelling, screaming and running in fear. Like much else in the movie, it’s these efforts, and the extended effort that goes into them, that make you wonder if everyone’s trying too hard because they know the material isn’t strong enough to support itself.

So, the comedy is broad and buffoon-like, with the adult characters suffering the most, from Pegg’s lovelorn teacher, to Frost’s stoner anti-fracking campaigner, to Sheen’s priggish headmaster. These are caricature performances that have been done to death in dozens of other British (so-called) comedies, and they’re still not funny even now. The horror relies on gory special effects, and rapid fire editing to hide the deficiencies of the animatronics and prosthetics, while the monsters themselves look like they wouldn’t even pass muster in a Doctor Who episode. It’s also a movie that  fails to exploit the issue of fracking and approaches it in a simplistic, “fracking is bad” fashion that makes the whole thing a plot contrivance instead of anything more rigorous. Potshots at boarding school life are numerous but offer nothing new, and the characters are as passively stereotypical as you’d expect. Tasked with breathing life into a movie that begins tired and winds up positively comatose by the end, the cast can only struggle to make their characters’ plight convincing; though they’re hampered by Mills’ pedestrian and uninspired direction. A disappointing movie, then, and one that would have benefited from taking more risks with the material than it does.

Rating: 4/10 – not the auspicious debut for their production company that Pegg and Frost would have wished for, Slaughterhouse Rulez lacks energy and purpose, and doesn’t even charm on a pizza-and-beer-on-a-Saturday-night basis; as it goes through the motions, the same will be true of viewers wondering how they can escape this mess with their sanity intact.

President Evil (2018)

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

D: Richard Lowry / 81m

Cast: Jose Rosete, Sitara Attaie, Korbin Miles, Lys Perez, Amber Moone, Jacob Jorgensen, Kyle Sing, Ryan Quinn Adams, Vinn Sander, Christian Hutcherson, Kevin Alain, Johanna Rae

Well, it is Halloween, after all…

On the night of the 1980 US presidential election, young David Barron dons a Ronald Reagan mask and brutally murders his ex-porn star mother, Scorchy McDaniels (Rae). Thirty-eight years later, and on the eve of the mid-term elections, David (Adams) escapes from the Lar-A-Mago sanitarium where he’s spent the intervening years. Returning to his home town of Libertybelle, David takes to wearing a Donald Trump mask and hanging out at his childhood home. Meanwhile, Dr Lutin (Sing), his doctor, heads there in the hope of finding David – though he has an ulterior motive for doing so. In the same neighbourhood, best friends Lana (Attaie), Blanca (Perez), and Medjine (Boone) are preparing to have a pre-election party ahead of their participation in an anti-Republican rally on the day. Along with Blanca’s younger brother, Pepe (Jorgensen), and their transgender friend, Gabriel (Sander), the party gets off to a good start, but it isn’t long before David is picking them off one by one, while the town sheriff (Rosete) does his best to come to their aid before it’s entirely too late…

The pitch must have been a fairly simple one: hey, why don’t we make a spoof of the original Halloween where instead of a Captain Kirk mask, the killer wears a Donald Trump mask instead? And the response must have been equally simple: great idea, go make it. But in the tradition of simple ideas made on a restricted budget, President Evil is an uneven, occasionally inspired, occasionally woeful movie with a ton of good intentions that don’t always pay off. It begins with an opening credits sequence that replicates the style of Halloween’s own opening credits, but replaces the jack o’ lantern with a Trump mask. Then there’s an updated recreation of the young Michael Myers’ murder of his sister that is shot entirely from David’s point of view and ends with him being unmasked outside his home. So far, so reassuringly competent homage, though with the kind of comedic elements that reveal the makers’ broader intentions for their story. Nods and winks in the direction of John Carpenter’s seminal movie follow, as well as Easter eggs that reference some of his other movies, while the script also adds further homages from the likes of Psycho (1960) and Young Frankenstein (1974).

The comedy is a mixed bag all by itself, and ranges from deft visual flourishes (David’s Trump mask hides someone who looks like Trump), to irritating bouts of frat humour (best summed up by Miles’ popping up at odd moments as characters as varied as a perverted priest and a Jared Kushner look-a-like), and further Mel Brooks’ appropriations (“Be a Smarty and Join the Republican Party”). Like Halloween, there’s a minimum of blood and gore, but there’s a singular lack of tension throughout, and the killings are often poorly staged and framed. The performances are broadly acceptable for this sort of thing, though Attaie does make for an appealing heroine, and Lowry seems more confident when bending the knee to Carpenter’s original than he does with the newer material; it’s as if the obvious difference between them was a given he had no control over. But if there’s one aspect that the script – by Lowry and Gregory P. Wolk – does get right, it’s in depicting the anger and distrust of ethnic minorities in current day America towards the xenophobic attitudes of the predominantly white, privileged political system. The movie is strident in its approach, but is also unapologetic about being so, and on that level – and like the best of horror movies – proves to be a telling reflection of a section of US society’s real fears.

Rating: 5/10 – though there’s much that doesn’t work, and much else that should have been jettisoned at the earliest opportunity, there’s still much to enjoy in President Evil, not the least of which is the way it lampoons Donald Trump and his ill-advised ramblings; to call this a post-millennial horror comedy for post-millennials who believe they might be the last generation able to appreciate something like this, may be stretching things, but when it’s en point, there’s nothing “Fake” about it.

The Happy Prince (2018)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , ,

D: Rupert Everett / 106m

Cast: Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Emily Watson, Colin Morgan, Edwin Thomas, Tom Wilkinson, Béatrice Dalle, Anna Chancellor, Julian Wadham, John Standing, Ronald Pickup

Oscar Wilde (Everett) has served his time in Reading Gaol and is living in France, supported by the kind attentions of one of his few remaining friends, Robbie Ross (Thomas). Suffering from ill health as a result of his stay in prison, Wilde is a shadow of his former self, wracked by torment and disillusionment, and his passion for writing exhausted. Against the better judgment and advice of his friends, including Reggie Turner (Firth), and his estranged wife, Constance (Watson), Wilde is reunited with the source of his downfall, Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas (Morgan). They live together, though the relationship is strained, and Douglas’s selfish behaviour begins to drive an irreversible wedge between them. When their families each threaten to remove their financial support for the pair, the relationship founders completely, and Wilde becomes a lonely figure wandering from café to café spending what little money he has on alcohol. With his health deteriorating even further, Wilde becomes incapacitated, and is forced to see out the remainder of his days in a dingy Paris hotel room…

When actors or directors announce that their next movie will be a long cherished passion project, it’s often time to nod sagely and mutter, “that’ll be nice”. Rupert Everett had been trying to get a movie made about the final three years in the life of Oscar Wilde for over five years, and he’s finally succeeded. You can imagine the pitch to potential investors, though: a movie about an alcoholic writer in the decrepitude of his final years, and without any chance of a happy ending. Full marks then to Everett for his perseverance, because despite the downbeat nature of the material, and the sadness of seeing a once great man reduced to abject penury, The Happy Prince is a fascinating and poignant examination of the last three years of Wilde’s life, and how those years took a further, irrevocable toll on him after two years in prison. It’s a largely melancholy, subdued account, but there are moments of joy and laughter and hope in amongst the heartbreak and despair, as Wilde reflects on his success and his subsequent downfall. Unafraid to show Wilde at his worst, and with the worst happening to him, Everett presents an unflinching portrait of the artist as an old man robbed of all his powers.

The movie has all the hallmarks of a grim tragedy, from Wilde, Turner and Ross being pursued in Italy by English thugs looking to intimidate and bully a great man brought low, to the inevitability of Douglas’ rejection of Wilde when money becomes an issue. Everett is magnificent in a role that he’s often unrecognisable in, the quality of the make up obliterating the actor/director’s angular features; he’s like a poster child for rampant, self-inflicted dissolution. What Everett captures perfectly is the sense of a man who knows his life is effectively over, but who clings to it, desperately, and however he can, even if it’s inappropriate (his drinking etc.). Everett, who also wrote the script, is a confident, detailed director, and he has a good eye for composition that some more practiced directors would be envious of. He’s an unselfish actor too, allowing the likes of Morgan and Thomas to shine in roles that might otherwise have appeared to be in subservience to the orbit of Everett’s own. That the movie isn’t as heavy going as it looks is another testament to the skill with which Everett assembles the various elements of Wilde’s post-prison experiences, and the way he weaves the story of the Happy Prince through the narrative, and has it reflect the state of Wilde’s own life depending on where the story has gotten to. For a first-time writer/director, Everett has revealed himself to be someone who should be encouraged to get behind the camera again as quickly as possible.

Rating: 8/10 – though the movie examines the tragedy of Wilde’s final years, The Happy Prince isn’t the depressing, maudlin experience that some viewers might be expecting, and instead is a quietly powerful expression of the will to survive in the bleakest of circumstances and surroundings; with effective supporting turns from the likes of Firth, Watson and Wilkinson, and appropriately gloomy cinematography by John Conroy, this is yet another potent reminder of Wilde the man, and his legacy.

Galveston (2018)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , ,

D: Mélanie Laurent / 93m

Cast: Ben Foster, Elle Fanning, Beau Bridges, C.K. McFarland, Robert Aramayo, Adepero Oduye, María Valverde, Lili Reinhart

An enforcer for a local crime boss (Bridges), Roy Cady (Foster) finds out he has a lung condition but he refuses to have treatment for it. On the same day he’s given a job to scare a local lawyer into staying silent on a case that his boss is involved with; he’s also advised not to take a gun. Roy ignores this instruction, which proves fortuitous as it’s a set up that’s meant to see him killed and framed for the lawyer’s murder. Fleeing with Rocky (Fanning), a young girl he finds at the scene, Roy deliberates on what to do next, but before he can decide, Rocky persuades him to take her home so she can pick up some things. Circumstances mean that Rocky returns with her three year old sister, Tiffany, and the trio end up staying at a motel. There, Roy tries to work out the importance of some paperwork he found at the lawyer’s house, while a bond develops between him, Rocky, and her sister. He’s also approached by another resident at the motel, Tray (Aramayo), about taking part in a robbery at a local pharmacy, but it’s when the truth emerges about Rocky’s home visit that their lives are put in even further jeopardy…

For the first twenty minutes of Galveston, it’s business as usual as Foster’s brooding, moody mob enforcer acts in a brooding, moody manner in a movie that looks as if it’s going to be brooding and moody all the way through. But once Roy has been forced to rely on his violent proclivities, and he flees the lawyer’s home with Rocky in tow, the movie takes a left turn away from the kind of modern noir it looks and feels like, and becomes a different beast altogether. That noir feeling hangs around in the background waiting to be employed again, but not before the storyline morphs into a relationship drama that sees Roy become a de facto father figure to Rocky and Tiffany, and while he also explores – albeit hesitantly – his impending mortality. As Roy learns to be responsible for someone other than himself, the movie settles down into a melancholy groove that sees Rocky reveal a tragic past, and fate catch up with both of them. That this all takes up most of the movie’s running time, and the various plot strands are all tied up with almost indecent haste in the final twenty minutes, makes for a thriller that avoids being a thriller as much as it possibly can.

Part of this is undoubtedly due to the movie’s structure, and a script that was originally written by Nic Pizzolatto (who also wrote the novel from which this is adapted), but which received “contributions” from Laurent that led to Pizzolatto leaving the project (he’s credited under the pseudonym Jim Hammett). Whatever Laurent’s “contributions” were, the end result is a movie that underwhelms during its extended middle section, and which often strives for relevance in terms of its characters and the situation they find themselves in. Though Foster is as convincing as ever, this is still a role he could play in his sleep, that of the taciturn loner gradually brought out of his shell. But this time around his performance is in service to a story that doesn’t develop his character fully enough to make audiences care enough about his belated attempts at redemption. Likewise, Fanning is stranded in a role that gives Rocky little to do except make terrible decisions without ever learning from them. Laurent’s direction is uneven too, with individual scenes carrying much more weight than others (or the movie as a whole), and while the whole thing benefits from Arnaud Potier’s striking cinematography, the movie remains a frustrating exercise that never quite catches fire in the way it promises.

Rating: 6/10 – Foster and Fanning are a great pairing, but with both of them shackled by a script that doesn’t examine their characters’ relationship too closely, or exploit its potential, Galveston fails to impress in the manner that Laurent may have been hoping for; one to approach with caution then, but with sufficient bursts of the movie it could have been to make it an occasionally interesting experience.

Juliet, Naked (2018)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , ,

D: Jesse Peretz / 97m

Cast: Rose Byrne, Ethan Hawke, Chris O’Dowd, Azhy Robertson, Lily Brazier, Ayoola Smart, Phil Davis

For Duncan Thomson (O’Dowd), there is only one recording artist of any merit: Tucker Crowe (Hawke), a singer-songwriter who twenty years before walked away from a promising career as a musician after making a highly regarded first album called Juliet. Duncan has set up a blog site dedicated to Crowe and his short-lived career, and this takes up most of his spare time. Which doesn’t leave much room for his partner, Annie (Byrne). Having been together for fifteen years, Annie is beginning to realise that Duncan isn’t going to change, and things such as having children, or cutting back on the time he spends in Crowe-land, aren’t going to happen. When Duncan receives a CD that contains demo versions of the tracks on Juliet, the fact that she listens to it first causes a row between them. This leads to Annie posting a disparaging review of the demo versions on Duncan’s blog, which in turn leads to Annie receiving a response from Tucker himself. They begin corresponding (a fact that Annie keeps to herself), and soon find they’re able to be really honest with each other about their lives. And then Tucker reveals that he’s coming to London…

An adaptation of the novel by Nick Hornby, Juliet, Naked is one of the most easy-going romantic comedies of recent years. Treading a delicate path between meandering introspection and trifling whimsy, it’s a movie that could be the very cinematic definition of flimsy, so thin is its storyline and narrative arc. It’s also a movie that will have you wondering out loud about the characters and their pasts, and how they’ve come to be leading their lives now, from Tucker’s slacker muso and proto-dad, to Annie’s emotionally doused museum manager. Both Tucker and Annie seem to be treading water, waiting for someone or something to come along and free them from the traps they’ve fallen into. Tucker has allowed his talent to fray to nothing through fear of responsibility, while Annie has gone the opposite route and allowed responsibility to wither her creativity. They’re practically perfect for each other, albeit in an anodyne, nondescript fashion that makes their inevitable romance as cautious as they both are with everything else. Only Duncan remains true to himself throughout, even if he is thoroughly self-absorbed and operating entirely out of self-interest. Selfish he may be, but at least he’s doing what he really wants.

Thankfully, and despite the often vapid nature of the whole venture, the movie is rescued from being overwhelmingly twee by a trio of performances that elevate the material and make the characters more than the slavishly opaque stereotypes that the script – by Evgenia Peretz, Jim Taylor and Tamara Jenkins – seems determined to make them. Byrne makes Annie gentle yet resilient, put upon perhaps but not entirely a victim, and willing to take a stand when she needs to. Hawke plays Tucker as a man adrift from his own life but also willing to make amends for the mistakes he’s made; it’s a carefully crafted portrayal that Hawke pulls off with ease. O’Dowd appears to have the hardest task of all, that of making Duncan more than the arrogant, annoying arse that he clearly is, but there’s no small amount of pathos in his performance, and Duncan emerges as more rounded than expected. Elsewhere, Tucker’s family issues occupy a good deal of the running time, and though they feel very much like the movie’s token dramatic thread, they at least offset the predictable nature of the romantic elements. Peretz directs with an emphasis on keeping things light and airy, and succeeds in making both the romance and the comedy as agreeable as possible, but in the end, at the expense of achieving anything new or different.

Rating: 7/10 – so thin it’s almost diaphanous, Juliet, Naked is a tribute to the efforts of its cast and director in making a movie that borders constantly on being insubstantial without actually crossing that line; engaging enough to be enjoyable without being anywhere near memorable, it’s a light-hearted tale told with a sprinkling of playfulness that makes it all the more tolerable, and on this occasion, that’s entirely okay.

A Brief Word About The Haunting of Hill House (2018)

Tags

, , , , , , , ,

Although thedullwoodexperiment is primarily (and until now exclusively) about movies, there’s a 10-part TV series showing on Netflix at the moment that should be required viewing for anyone with even a passing interest in horror movies or the horror genre in general. That series is – you guessed it – The Haunting of Hill House. An expansion of the novel by Shirley Jackson, the series tells the story of the Crain family, and their experiences both living in Hill House in the early Nineties, and twenty-six years later when the influence of the house begins to make itself felt again. The story of the Crains is told in non-linear fashion with many scenes told from various perspectives and meshing between the past and the present. It features a terrific cast that includes Carla Gugino, Henry Thomas, Timothy Hutton, Michiel Huisman, Elizabeth Reaser, Kate Siegel, Oliver Jackson-Cohen and Victoria Pedretti as the Crain family, and is the brainchild of Mike Flanagan, the director of Oculus (2013), Before I Wake (2016), and Gerald’s Game (2017).

The series is quite simply one of the best things on TV at the moment: gripping, compelling, scary, finely written and directed (Flanagan directs all ten episodes), and replete with the kind of fluid camerawork that allows for increasing moments of dread in every episode. As the camera spins around the characters, or prowls the corridors and rooms of Hill House, each movement prompts the question, just what fresh horror is going to be revealed next? The series is also one of the finest examinations of the devastating effects that grief and loss can have on individuals that’s come along in a very long while. Alongside themes of mental illness, paranoia, and addiction, this is only occasionally played for laughs, and instead focuses on keeping audiences on the edge of their seats and hiding behind the nearest available cushion. With ghosts and apparitions likely to appear at any time and in any circumstance, watching the show becomes something of a challenge to get through if you’re easily spooked. But it’s definitely worth it. If you haven’t seen it yet, then give it a try – you won’t regret it.

McDick (2017)

Tags

, , , , , , , ,

aka Big Guns

D: Chris McDonnell / 81m

Cast: Chris McDonnell, Amanda Conlon, Peter Breitmayer, Sanjay Malhotra, Mo Collins, Danny Trejo, Brandon Motherway

To his colleagues on the Force, McDick (McDonnell) is the worst cop ever. Lazy, and then lazier still, and with no sense of civic responsibility, or any awareness of how inappropriate his behaviour is, McDick is the non-thinking idiot’s policeman. When his partner is killed in an apparent domestic disturbance call, McDick’s boss, Captain Donkowski (Breitmayer), uses it as an opportunity to have him kicked off the Force. Setting up as a privaye eye, McDick proves to be just as bad as a private investigator as he was as a cop. But soon he finds himself the target of various assassination attempts, all of them organised by local crime boss, Molten Lava (Collins). With the help of his secretary, Melanie (Conlon), his son Douglas (Motherway), and dubiously legit lawyer, Oscar (Trejo), McDick sets out to discover just what are Molten Lava’s motives for wanting him dead. Things don’t work out as well as he’d hoped though, as he soon finds himself framed for murder, still being targeted on Molten Lava’s behalf, and desperately needing a plan that will keep him safe and in the clear…

They say that comedy is a serious business, and that it’s the most difficult genre to pull off. The first feature of writer/director Chris McDonnell, McDick is not entirely successful in its comedic aims, but there’s more than enough humour that does work as to make watching the movie a mostly enjoyable experience even if it’s pleasantly goofy one minute, and then a little too eager the next. Much of the movie depends on McDonnell’s ability to make McDick an insufferable yet sympathetic asshole, someone you can’t help but root for, even though if you saw him coming down the street, you’d cross to the other side to avoid him. McDick is a classic movie idiot, lacking in self-awareness, wildly inappropriate around just about everybody, stupid as a matter of course, and – just in case you haven’t got it by now – as dumb as a box of spanners. Thankfully, McDonnell makes his lead character’s behaviour more appealing than appalling, and McDick’s laissez-faire attitude soon gives way to a more serious determination to be more productive, even proactive, but it’s tempered by the kind of irresponsibility that he just can’t help. McDick himself is funny, and McDonnell plays it mostly deadpan, often leaving the audience to work out whether he’s being serious or not, and this ambiguity helps matters tremendously.

However, McDick the character isn’t as well served by McDick the plot as he is by his creator. Too much of what happens does so at the whim of the script – by McDonnell and his brother, Michael – and not entirely in a logical fashion. A sub-plot involving Malhotra’s wannabe crime boss, Munpoon, slows down the movie and doesn’t go anywhere, odd moments such as Donkowski having a display wall of stuffed and mounted animal testicles take the viewer out of the movie’s cautious attempts at reality, and casting constraints mean that McDick can get into Lava’s home whenever he likes, and one unfortunate goon aside, he’s never challenged. Ultimately, the script takes too many opportunities to take a sideways step away from the main, muddled narrative (hands up if Lava’s reasons for wanting McDick dead ever make sense). But while the narrative is uneven and rarely convincing on its own terms, McDonnell does have a keen eye for static compositions, and on several occasions, DoP Scott Beardslee shows an equally keen understanding of the effectiveness of space and distance within the frame. A shame then that McDonnell couldn’t have beefed up his script to be more structured and less haphazard.

Rating: 5/10 – when it’s funny, McDick is really funny, and much of the movie’s humour stems from McDonnell’s performance in the title role; though it doesn’t always make sense, and is somewhat flatly directed by its star, the movie is definitely one that potential viewers should approach with caution, but if they’re willing to just go with it, they might find themselves having a good time (mostly).

Undercover Grandpa (2017)

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

D: Erik Canuel / 94m

Cast: Dylan Everett, James Caan, Greta Onieogou, Jesse Bostick, Jessica Walter, Paul Braunstein, Louis Gossett Jr, Kenneth Welsh, Paul Sorvino, Lawrence Dane

Jake Bouchard (Everett) is a typical teenager: he’s easily embarrassed and/or annoyed by his parents, he has one really close friend, Wendell (Bostick), he does well enough at school, he wants to go out with Angie (Onieogou), the cool girl he’s known since they were four – oh, and he has a grandfather (Caan) who’s ex-military and so paranoid he sees enemy agents at every turn. On the very night Jake has finally arranged a date with Angie, his grandfather comes to dinner and he has to meet up with her later. Before that can happen, though, Angie disappears after letting Jake know that her car has broken down. Jake discovers that his grandfather is pretty good at finding clues that point to who might have abducted her, but just as they’re getting somewhere, they themselves are intercepted by a secret intelligence agency that grandpa Lou used to work for. Having been told to stay “retired” by his former boss (Walter), Lou elects instead to enlist the help of four of his old comrades in arms – the Devil’s Scum – to help him and Jake find Angie and the people who abducted her…

When a movie has a title like Undercover Grandpa, it’s likely that the average viewer won’t be expecting much from it at all, and may be watching it because a) they’re a big James Caan fan, b) they’re intrigued by the cross-generational approach of the material, c) they have an hour and a half to kill, or d) all of the above. This is definitely one of those movies that you didn’t know had been made until you came across it buried deep within a streaming service, or back in the good old days of the video store, when it might even have been a featured new release (for a week). It also fits into the “Whatever happened to…” niche that a lot of actors fall into as they get older and the really good roles start drying up. For James Caan this is one of those movies, another in a long, recent line of low-budget, barely seen movies that have kept him (at least) continually employed. But it is a throwaway movie, once seen, barely remembered, and only memorable as the movie where Kenneth Welch’s character is seen traversing a river bed in an old diving suit and navigating with a Zimmer frame. (That really is it, and despite the script’s good intentions.)

Is it sad to see Caan reduced to such shenanigans at the ripe old age of seventy-seven? Well, it is and it isn’t. It is because Caan clearly isn’t as mobile as he used to be (his stuntman is possibly in this movie more than he is), and it isn’t because it does appear that Caan is having fun. It’s not his best performance by a tollgate mile, and there are times when some of the dialogue defeats him entirely, but even when beset by low production values and a less than impressive script, Caan is still a good enough reason to give a movie a chance. But a chance is all you’ll need to identify this movie’s shortcomings, what with its pantomime villain (Braunstein), teen-oriented tweeness, stolid by-the-numbers approach, and it’s elderly, sub-par A-Team dynamic. The jokes are as old as the combined ages of the Devil’s Scum, Canuel’s direction shows why he’s more often employed in television, and the whole thing is as tired as the aging cast look. That movies like this one get made every year by the bucket load is a given, but the bigger question is, why do stars of the calibre of Caan agree to make them?

Rating: 4/10 – on a superficial, leave-your-brain-at-the-door kind of level, Undercover Grandpa offers few surprises but does provide the unsuspecting viewer with a degree of innocuous pleasure; one to watch then if you’re in the mood for something completely undemanding, but otherwise a movie with a likeable basic concept but very little else.

Madeline’s Madeline (2018)

Tags

, , , , , , , ,

D: Josephine Decker / 93m

Cast: Helena Howard, Molly Parker, Miranda July, Okwui Okpokwasili, Sunita Mani, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Curtiss Cook

Sixteen year old Madeline (Howard) is part of an experimental theatre group run by Evangeline (Parker). The group is working on a new production that will explore aspects of mental illness, but first, Evangeline wants them to take on animal roles and become the animals they choose. Madeline chooses to be a cat and a sea turtle, and she impresses Evangeline so much with her efforts and her commitment that Madeline soo receives more of Evangeline’s attention, and a bigger role within the production. While things are going well within the group though, at home it’s a different matter. Madeline lives with her mother, Regina (July), and they have a somewhat adversarial relationship, due mainly to the fact that Madeline has mental health issues that require her to take medication on a regular basis. When the lure of the group, and Evangeline’s attention, proves too powerful for Madeline to ignore, she becomes immersed in the production and begins to use her own experiences as a basis for her performance, something that causes a rift between Evangeline and the rest of the group (because she encourages it), and sees Madeline making a number of unwise decisions…

From the very beginning of Madeline’s Madeline (a reference to the immersive quality of her performance, where Madeline effectively plays herself), first-time writer/director Josephine Decker seeks to show the audience just how Madeline experiences the world around her. When she’s not taking her medication this means the world is a confusing, fractured series of blurred images and out-of-sync audio. It’s no wonder Madeline looks so overwhelmed all the time; it must be a continual struggle for her to assimilate what’s going on and/or why. At first, she’s shy but desperate to impress, quiet but not lacking in confidence in her acting abilities. Except she isn’t acting. Decker makes it clear: Madeline doesn’t know how to act, all she can do is inhabit a character – whether human or animal – and be herself as that character. There’s no role to create, just Madeline being Madeline. As she becomes more and more accepted, by Evangeline and by the group, the blurred lines between performance and reality fall away to reveal a young woman whose sense of self is so overwhelming that she cannot behave in any other way. And yet her mental illness is the very thing that allows her to stand out. But is it appropriate for Evangeline to exploit this?

Watching the movie you could be forgiven for thinking that it takes a side on the issue, but Decker is clever enough to make it a more difficult proposition to consider. By making Madeline wholly complicit in her own exploitation – and encouraging it – the issue becomes a question of just who is exploiting who. This ambiguous approach helps maintain a grim fascination as the story plays out and Madeline’s behaviour, particularly at a party at Evangeline’s home, becomes ever more worrying and unsettling. Howard, making her acting debut, is simply superb as Madeline, bright, intelligent, fearless, and giving such an assured, indelible performance that she dominates the whole movie, and leaves veterans such as Parker and July trailing in her wake. That said, Parker is also on exceptionally good form as Evangeline, her mother hen nature hiding a naturally cruel streak that brooks no contradiction because she knows what’s best for the group. July swings between Regina’s anguish and pride at Madeline’s behaviour, while there are telling moments from members of the group that mark them out as not just the followers they appear to be. In assembling such a provocative story, Decker has made an experimental movie about an experimental theatre group that is endlessly inventive and evocative, and which takes the viewer into the mind of its very erratic title character – which proves to be a place that’s hard to forget.

Rating: 8/10 – not a movie for all tastes, Madeline’s Madeline is a tremendous achievement by Decker, and features an equally tremendous performance from Howard; with wit and skill and an abundance of imagination, this is that rare movie that takes you to a world you think you know, and presents it in such a remarkable manner that you can’t help but be impressed by both its verve and the underlying simplicity of its approach.