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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.